AUTHOR'S NOTE: I am so sorry. Seriously, you guys, I am sorry. I'm sure y'all have figured out by now that when I said this chapter might be awhile, I didn't mean THIS long. I moved into a new apartment complex, and hey, the internet was broken. It was great. In fact, it is STILL broken, and I'm typing this at the library. Thank you for your patience, and your encouragement while I was out of commission :).
I had approximately ten seconds to decide whether or not to kill my brother.
"Hmm," I said.
"Hmm?" Maria echoed archly. "What do you mean, 'hmm'?"
What I meant was that I was looking at Edward with his copper-penny hair and his eyes right up to mine, terrifyingly direct. Guilt coming head-on like a train collision, twisted metal, wheels straight off the track. I had seen his eyes like this before; I had seen him looking at death before. He always looked exactly like this, unafraid and slightly rebellious, as if death were something that he could play chicken with and win. When you counted your life in centuries, death was something you got used to, a familiarity represented by dozens and different faces. Edward probably hadn't expected the next face to be mine. I could tell that he was listening hard to my thoughts, trying to puzzle me out the way he always had.
Most people got to be brothers for about fifteen years, that tiny box of time before their paths separated out into the world. Edward and I had been brothers for seventy-four years.
I wondered if he wanted to die. He had said once or twice that if Bella died, that was it for him—and in a normal family, that kind of comment would have merited a suicide watch, but we all understood. We were all halves of people, Siamese-twin interlocked with people we loved—we understood. The blankness that there would be and why he would feel that death was better. But I wondered if he still felt that way. Because I'd been there, I had been to rock bottom—I had been as low as you could be, and it kept surprising me—the will to live. Maybe more of a simple unwillingness to die. We had enough human left in us for that. You couldn't help but want it, want to keep living on the off chance that things might get better. Our instincts were still hopeful.
"Hmm," I said to Maria. "No."
She went white—the skin of her face sucking back against her bones so that she looked sharp, gouged-out. "Excuse me?"
There it was, the shove of her will, the weaponized magnetism that made you want to forget yourself and stare at her, kneel in front of her. I didn't know how possibly to fight it, but the stakes were crazy—impossibly high. Edward on the floor in front of me staring down death like he could just make it flinch. Me about to kill him. There was a word for it—fratricide? I didn't remember.
I felt her trying to grind into me like a person files a metal bar, slamming her anger and pique at me like an audible scream. I felt I should be knocked off my feet. I felt that she pounded a hammer and chisel against my skull, trying to break in. Could happen. Wasn't going to happen. What was that dumb idea again, close my eyes? Look away from her?
I turned my head and felt the pressure decrease dramatically, like bench-pressing too much weight and suddenly your spotter realizes it and grabs the bar. The release in your chest. Why hadn't I tried this before?
"No," I repeated clearly. "I'm not going to kill him. He's my brother, and I'm kind of attached."
She realized instantly what I was doing—I wondered if she'd known it herself, that it was in her eyes, that she needed mine. If she hadn't known then she was learning quickly—she took two long steps across the room and grabbed my chin, dragging my face to her. I reacted automatically and effectively—I closed my eyes.
A real scream this time, slicing into us as a weapon, with the pitch and tone of a temper tantrum. She threw me back into the wall and followed me as I it with a long and angry stalking step. "Raj!" she yelled as she closed on me. "Vida!"
I don't know what she expected, they kind of had their hands full. Behind her, I saw Jacob explode into motion, and Edward a few seconds behind him, a little sluggish with surprise. Good, because I was going to need all the help I could get. Somehow, I had to fight off a spitting-mad Maria for long enough to get out of here—and I had to do it without looking her in the eyes.
I rolled out of the way before she hit and she left dents in the wall with her hands, smashing them in like handprints, pivoting as she hit so that I had to slit my eyes and glance away, guessing where to lash out with my feet so that I kicked her legs out from under her, collapsing her in a tangle of white fabric. Reached for her and missed, well I couldn't be lucky all the time, and she scrambled to her knees and pressed one palm flat against my throat, crushing down hard enough to try to snap through my windpipe. My eyes came open and she caught them, stopping me for a second like a mouse staring in the eyes of a snake.
"I hate you," she was saying quietly, furiously. The change in her was shocking, the sudden flipside of her Southern belle personality, power and petulance. How hand she become this? She'd been given this power and it was too much for anyone, it had eaten her so rotten inside that she couldn't stand a single blow. "I hate you, I hate you, I hate you."
Something hit her from the side, breaking her grip from my neck—a gold comet contrail—Edward. I saw Vida on the other side of the room, struggling to free herself from a half-smashed wall, and Edward was taking Maria's tackle that smashed both of them through the window and rolled the out onto the red-tiled roof. Why? Of all people, why did it mean that he'd done that for me?
Of course, it could have been that he just didn't want to fight Vida anymore, and I couldn't blame him for that—she came out of the wall absolutely livid, with walldust streaking her black hair like age, looking for something to take apart. I ran past Jacob and Raj on my way to her—Jacob looked like he was doing okay, teeth locked in Raj's shoulder, and as I passed Raj went suddenly straight and silent—listening.
"They're coming," he said.
It was strange but I had no time to sit and wonder about it—I collided with Vida in the middle of the room and made sure to hit her low, where she couldn't get her hands on me. We hit the wall and she let me push her further into the boards, then shoved me stumbling back with pain snapping like sunbursts where she touched. I hit the windowsill and another hand grabbed me, gripping the back of my shirt and dragging me halfway out the window. Maria—but where was Edward? I got a quick glance around the roof as I levered myself back inside, flipping her into the room with me—no Edward. She couldn't have—
No time to think about it—she was reaching for my throat again, looking for parts of me to break. "You don't say no to me," she hissed, getting a handful of my hair as I ducked around her. "I own you. I am—I'm—"
I grabbed her wrist and tore her grip from me, losing a handful of my hair in he hand that I was forcing away, straight-armed. "I'll tell you what you are." I hooked my foot behind her and shoved her down, folding on top of her as she collapsed. "You're a selfish, spoiled brat. You're a silly little girl who was given something to big for her, and never did learn how to handle it. You are nobody." I drove her arm straight through the wall, breaking the electrical socket where it hit and snapping wires, tangling them against her. "And you don't own me."
She didn't react—didn't look like she knew how, looked at me with big eyes and for the first time, they looked a little lost. That was the way she went out of the world—lost and puzzled, surprised to see the flame jump up her dress sleeve from the torn wires and cover her. Her hair curling, burnt at the touch of the fire and her white white skin spreading black like spilled ink. She went up in flames.
It would have been good to sit there with her ashes for a while—maybe not mourning, but at least trying to deal with the lack of her. Maria had made me, and parts of me were up in flames too, right along with her. I wondered if they were parts that I would miss. I wanted to think about it. Unfortunately, quiet reflective moments were a little rare just now.
Vida's touch was very soft on my back, like a lover. Then again, she didn't need force—I felt her under my skin at once, like she'd dug her nails into me up to the first knuckle. I never thought I'd say this, but maybe she had been playing around before. She'd hurt me but it hadn't felt like this, like fire except fire eventually burned out—like having blood and cells and bones on fire, burning black and racing up your veins, couldn't move couldn't breathe and my sight was going black at the edges, dark bruise purple spreading to black. Was she trying to kill me, could she kill me? I tried to move my hand but I couldn't. My vision tunneled to a pin of light and then swallowed up black. People with too much power—power in all the wrong hands. I couldn't move, I couldn't see, and she was going to kill me.
I heard a blunt thunk, stone on stone, and suddenly Vida's hands were away from my back, like the release of an electrical current—diverted. I was instantly boneless, crumpling to the floor and catching myself on my forearms, rolling over even though it burned to move, because I recognized the voice I heard.
"Seriously," Alice said. "Get away from my husband."
"Oh God, this is the reason you wouldn't sleep with me?" Vida was saying as I struggled to get to my hands and knees, shouldn't have been moving at all, but seeing Alice was motivation enough. She looked so beautiful and so angry, standing across from Vida like she had a knife in each hand. "You turned me down for Tinker Bell here?"
"What do you mean, sleep with you?" Alice yelled. "Did you try to seduce my husband? You bitch!" She disappeared from where she stood and tore into Vida, grabbing her hair and snapping her sideways, catfight times a thousand. Vida lashed back and they disappeared in a dervish of arms and angry eyes and black hair. Carlisle sliced behind them in a streak of diamond-dust gold, and it made me think Edward.
Alice could take care of herself—even as I looked over, she was grabbing Vida's wrists, she knew what was coming. She always knew. Edward. I forced myself the last few inches to my feet, and got myself painfully out on to the windowsill, down onto the shingles.
If she had killed him, where would he be? Or—the pieces of him? Yikes, I couldn't think that. But where would he be if he wasn't here, and why would he not come back?
I looked down and Edward was there—just standing there looking up at me where I stood on the roof. The moon was so bright off his face that it blanked his expression out, turned it to a flat glare of white. I couldn't tell if he was angry or if he was like me—tired and tense and in a lot of pain. We held our strange balcony scene, neither of us moving.
"Hey," I said lamely. "Where were you?"
"She—threw me," he said, with his voice as flat as his face, giving me nothing. "She's got a good arm."
I shuffled my feet on the roof, sending broken tiles and dust sliding off the edge of it. "Do you—are you coming up?" Do you still want to kill me? "Alice and Carlisle are here."
"I heard them," he said. Still didn't move. "So I guess you didn't kill me."
"Yeah. I guess I didn't."
Silence juggled between us, awkwardness here but more dangerous, a pivot of a moment. One of us had to move. So before I could think logically about it, I made myself kneel on the roof and reach my hand down to him.
I was at a different angle when I kneeled, and now I could see that the expression on his face was fear.
I had to admit, I was relieved to see both my sons climb back in the window alive.
Of course I was glad that they hadn't been in the room while we wrapped things up, but honestly, who knew if they were in more danger just from each other. Neither of them appeared to be missing any limbs, though, so I tried to keep it casual.
Both so exhausted that it took them a full second to respond, their heads lifting and their eyes lighting hope when they saw me. Good. That was what a father should be. Alice broke from my side and went straight to Jasper, walking like she was magnetically pulled. He starting moving when she saw her, and they crashed together, not even kissing, just—clinging. Survivors on a life raft.
Edward wasn't looking at them, he was looking at me, and instantly I was glad I had come. He looked confused and he looked upset, and he looked half dead—if I had seen someone who looked like him in my emergency room, I would have rushed them straight through to surgery. These boys had been around so long that sometimes I forgot that their lives had ended at seventeen and twenty. That they would be seventeen and twenty forever, that even though they were smart and strong, there were parts of them that would never get any older. They were trapped here in a year of their lives, never knowing how to deal with some things exactly right. Like love. Like loss.
Edward's eyes went automatically to Raj, where he sat slumped against the wall, head in his hands. "What's he doing here?"
"Great question." Jacob said from the door, having finally found the jeans he needed in Raj's room. They were a little short, but he was still an impressive figure, teenager with the body of a thirty-year-old wrestler. It was almost a photo opportunity: Monster in Short Jeans. "I was just fighting him, right? And suddenly he just—stops. Like someone pulled out a plug. It was totally weird."
"Was it when I killed Maria?" Jasper asked, ironic and pitying.
"Yeah, I guess it was." Jacob was limping as he walked across the room—it looked like a broken leg, but I couldn't tell from here. "I definitely noticed, it smelled terrible."
"Sorry, I'll remember the air freshener next time." Jasper moved toward Raj, but he didn't let go of Alice's hand—I wouldn't be surprised if he never let go again. He went into a crouch beside Raj, arm stretched out to Alice behind him. "Feel better?"
"She's gone," Raj said hollowly.
"I know. That's kind of what I meant."
"I feel—" Raj said uncertainly, voice muffled through his hands. "I don't know. I feel nauseous."
"It's like withdrawal," he said understandingly, slapping Raj on the shoulder. "It'll pass. In the meantime, I suggest you get out of here."
"—is in a thousand tiny pieces. She will not be coming with you. I'm giving you the benefit of the doubt, buddy, because I've been here, but I still don't trust you. Get out. Run a few hundred miles. Find out what life's like without her."
Raj was used to obeying orders—he got unsteadily to his feet and sleep-walked to the door, eyes straight ahead and unfocused. I silently wished him luck as he left—he seemed like a good guy. Jasper had come out of this situation and he'd turned out fine. Maybe we would see Raj again someday.
Jasper's eyes shifted uneasily toward Edward, and I wondered what emotions he was picking up. I hoped for forgiveness, but was it too much to ask? I'd seen the death of bonded partners before—the bond was too strong not to cause serious backlash when broken. Alice still had her body positioned between them, wary and defensive—what future was she seeing now? My children all had gifts, supernatural ways to gauge. I usually just had to ask.
"Edward," I said quietly. "What are you thinking?"
"I should be able to forgive him," Edward said thickly, anger and shame. He looked at Jasper for the first time without glaring homicide, and I thought, progress. "I should be able to forgive you."
"Edward, this is hardly your fault," Jasper responded instantly—tried to step forward but Alice wouldn't let him. "It's only fair—"
"What, an eye for an eye?" Edward smiled humorlessly. "We're better than that. We should be better than that."
He turned suddenly away, a jarring quick movement. "Edward," I said sharply, using my father-voice to pull him up short. "Where are you going?"
"When I was a kid," he spoke in that same wry tone, laughter and hatred, "my dad used to send me to my room when I acted up—he would say, come back when you can behave. So I'm leaving. I'll come back when I can behave."
"Edward, you don't have to—!" Jasper protested at once.
"I don't want to kill you, Jasper," Edward cut him off. "I don't want to kill you, all right?"
No real way to argue with that. Two beats of silence, and then he said quietly. "All right."
Edward walked quickly toward the door, but again couldn't get there—Jacob appeared in front of him with his arms crossed over his chest. Looking like a thirty-year-old wrestler. "Um," Edward said stiltedly. "Excuse me."
"You think you're going out there by yourself?" Jacob said archly, immovably.
"That would be the plan."
"Oh yeah? You think I'm going to let you go brood somewhere, you of all people, suicide-watch boy?"
Edward didn't appear to have an answer for this—in fact, he may have been the first time in my life when I'd seen him genuinely speechless. He stared up at Jacob with his mouth slightly agape—I had to admit, I was gaping a little myself. When had these two gone from I-challenge-you-to-a-duel to hug-it-out?
"Um," Edward said helplessly.
"Well, I'm not. Do you know how pissed Bella would be if I let you die?"
"Jacob, Bella is—"
"I know she's dead, I'm not stupid," Jacob said implacably. "But unlike you, I happen to believe in an afterlife, and I don't want to go into it hiding from the wrath of Bella Swan."
"Meaning—what?" Edward asked, struggling to get a handle on this.
"Meaning I'm coming with you."
Skepticism replaced confusion in an instant, Edward's eyebrows shooting up. "No offense, Jacob, but I'm thinking farthest corners of the Earth, and your leg is broken."
Jacob stomped experimentally with his foot, checking the progress on the freakish-fast werewolf healing. "Bone's already setting. I can run."
Edward flashed a grin, pieces of the way he used to be. "But can you keep up?" Exhaustion in the banter and the smile, but at least he was trying. It was a good sign.
"Bloodsucker, I could beat you running on one leg," Jacob replied easily.
"Tough talk. Let's see you prove it."
Jacob broke into a grin of his own, white carnivorous teeth flashing. "Race you to Brazil."
They turned again, Jacob crouching to shift and ruin yet another pair of jeans, but I said, "Edward." He looked at me, and I saw that some of the fear was gone. It was a good decision—a wise decision, even, and I was proud of him, but I'd miss him. "You've got ten years, kiddo, then I'm coming after you." He nodded shortly, understanding. Ten years was too long, but he needed it. "Jacob, you take care of him. Don't let him do anything stupid."
"Will do," Jacob grinned.
"And Jacob? Don't you do anything stupid either."
"That," Jacob said cheerfully. "I can't promise." He went from man to wolf with the startling ferocity of something that was always meant to be four-legged, tiger-eyed and bigger than he had been human. The grin stayed intact, a goofy lopsided smile. He switched his tail at Edward and they started to run.
"Well," I said briskly. "I guess that's that. We should be getting home."
"What?" Jasper reacted immediately, sounding a little stunned.
"I said, we should be getting home."
"But don't you think—I should leave too?" he asked, brittle-voiced.
"I absolutely do not think that," I said calmly. This was what I was here for. When Alice had asked me to come south, I had never thought they would need me physically. I had faith in my boys' ability to come to their senses. But mentally—emotionally—I had known I very well might find them in a thousand pieces and needing to be glued back together.
"Carlisle," Jasper said heavily—I could see Alice starting to hold his hand tighter, like she was afraid he might bolt. "It's like Edward said. You are better than this. The family you've made is better than me. I don't match."
"And why is that?"
"I'm not good." He said it with the tone of someone who believes it absolute truth, who has thought very hard and come to this conclusion. His eyes were dark honey red. "Look at me. I'm not good."
This was the danger of having children. In the span of a normal life, there were a certain amount of heartbreaks and devastations allotted to a person, a certain amount of times you had to feel completely gutted, destroyed. But when you had people that you loved—you just couldn't help but feel their heartbreaks too. "Oh, my son," I said. "Do you think it was meant to be easy? There is no good or bad. There's just normal."
"It's—different for me," Jasper said painfully, as if he spoke the words through ground glass. "It's harder."
"We can do hard things," I said simply.
Alice squeezed his hand, moving up alongside him. "You're not alone, stupid." This got a flicker of a smile from him, his happiness, as always, rooted in her. "So, what do you say we go home?"
He still looked torn—as always, the highest contrast out of all my children, the one with the most darkness, the most likely to slip up and the most likely to regret it. Black and white. "It might take awhile," he said.
"Sweetheart," Alice told him, "we've got forever."
She leapt out onto the roof and pulled him after her, the sun just spilling out over the long desert horizon, sending reds and yellows out from it like it meant to set the world on fire. We turned our faces from it and jumped off the roof, and we ran north.