AN: I don't know how yall made it through this when the DocsManager butchered my formatting, but ten people gave reviews and slogged it out like champs. I'm not sure this will update as if its a new chapter, and if it does I apologize in advance; I'm still working on the CYOA fic and its a pain in the butt (it will only really work well if its all finished, as opposed to a chronological story, which can be published in regular chaps. Its maddening-logistically, I shoulda known, but there ya go). Take care-
The girl is so slender; she has felt the muscles growing on her bones like an unwelcome cancer for years, but her frame is no longer changing, and she is thin. She is unlike the rest of them; she feels cold, for example, but she hears them thinking it's psychological. She dreads the winter-bare feet in wet snow—while they wait for the summer to end, panting through the whole season.
"You look like dogs," she snaps, when she sees them sprawled out and sagging, wilted in the sun. But it's not summer now, and although she cannot bring herself to shiver in front of them—block it out, she hisses at herself as the ice burns the bottom of her foot—she knows they can still tell. She gets cold. They don't.
Maybe it's to make you a better tracker, Sam thinks at her. Maybe your senses are heightened in different ways—
Jesus Christ, mutters Embry. She's just cold. She's skinny, so she gets cold.
Stop thinking about me and think about her. The girl is skinny, even as a wolf, the tough pads never enough to brace against the cold. My foot, she hisses to herself again, willing them not to hear her, willing herself to hide the hatred of the wolf in the rejection of the language that implies it. My foot. Paul laughs, a wicked hyena sound rattling through the woods around them. Sam shuts him up.
Then she feels it, and with a mix of resentment and relief she realizes something just before the terror hits. He's right…She is more sensitive…This snow is slightly melted, the temperature fractionally different. Not warm—no, condensed. The burn is harder in the center of the track.
It's been here, she says. It's hiding its scent some way, but these tracks are fresh.
Don't be stupid, snaps Jared, impatient. He doesn't care about this vampire—this one in particular is no more or less equal than the rest they hunt, so he doesn't understand why he left Kim in his warm bed to chase this particular vampire when they know for a fact that Bella Swan—
Don't be stupid, growls the last voice, and no one moves for a minute. Sam is the first to nudge Leah's flank and get them walking. Jacob is not close; he's several yards to the left, but they didn't know that before he spoke.
His human voice, even in their minds, doesn't sound human any more. Leah winces when she feels Jake hear this, and then feels nothing. No stinging retort, no shuffling laughter. Because he doesn't care.
But Leah does. Leah cares for them both right now, because she knows what it is to love someone so much you would do anything to protect them. To be a fool. To choose to suffer.
She bends her head low and then whips it up so fast the whole pack is shocked still. Embry, she whispers even in her mind, she's above you.
And so she is. It has long red hair—it looks like a Christmas ornament, Seth thinks, the green and the red, the pack collectively is almost smiling, and then it lands on Embry's back.
He's ready for her. She lowers her head to his neck with such speed Quil almost doesn't make it in time, but he does. She knocks him against a boulder. Lights out.
But she's distracted. Embry gets her leg.
Leah, Sam, Seth—they're not as organized as they should be, because they're frightened by Quil's stillness. Lights out. Leah loses her footing and the vampire dislocates both of her shoulders when it throws her by her front legs—arms. Seth takes a brutal gash over his eyes and can't see. Jared grabs one of her arms but loses an ear to the other. She is tougher, stronger, and more ruthless than any vampire they have ever faced.
Embry doesn't let go of her leg.
Sam is about to rush her again with Paul when he sees Jacob in human form behind her. He wonders if he is hallucinating, but Leah sees it too from a distance. Jacob's skin is smeared with black dirt and his face is hidden underneath a sheet of matted hair, but his eyes are shining underneath as he moves silently towards the vampire. He swiftly wraps his arms around her and then—she's gone. He's thrown her against the rocks, a wretched, loose ripping sound filling the world, and then gone. Leah's nose fills up with the vampire's scent—she's coughing, that wicked sweet stink makes her choke, faster than any of the guys, and then it's gone.
Jacob runs after her in in the dark. Embry isn't holding her leg any more.
"Tell me you didn't!" This is from Paul. "Please, for the love of god and all things holy, tell me—" He is panting, and the shock of Jacob's appearance apparently frightened him in to human form.
"Its poison!" Sam is furious—at all of them, at Jacob for behaving like a vigilante, at Quil's silence, at Jared's ear. At their surprise, their arrogance, at the unforeseen price they are paying. He is marching towards Embry with a fierce expression, clearly having changed back to be heard.
Oh my god Embry— Leah's thought is cut off by sheer terror. Embry is starting to froth at the mouth. Just a little. He isn't thinking words—a white noise is rushing out of his mind like the static from a television screen left on late at night. Lights out. But his eyes are open and staring. A crooked kind of grin chokes his face.
"Jacob!" Sam is screaming his name, staggering in human form... now Leah understands. Jake is big enough to carry one of them back alone with no help; Jared and Paul have phased and are slinging Quil's body over Paul's broad back, positioning him in a fireman's hold. There is almost nothing to do besides wait—and then Jacob reappears, grabs Embry as if he were a tiny doll, a broken, rabid ragdoll—and then he is gone again.
Leah knows that Jacob will take care of Embry, and then he will go. While the trail is hot. Leah knows she may never see him again.
I had a son, he thinks, staring at the ceiling. He hasn't found the will yet today to transfer out of bed and into his chair; he is dwelling, he is self-indulgent and silly and old. I had a wife, he thinks. I had legs. It has never been anything besides discipline that gets Billy Black out of bed, now that his life is largely defined by absences. The rest of the day may be alright, present its own reasons for being. Many days he sleeps with the same kind of peace he used to see in his son. It ain't so bad.
But the first moments awake are not good ones, and he has found it harder and harder to drag himself up and over. Just discipline, in the end. Get up. Get up. Get up. Get up.
Give today a chance.
So he does, maybe—he thinks out loud, still sleepy—maybe today he will come home. Maybe today there will be a miracle cure and Billy himself will run through the woods after his son, screaming to dead gods from the sea to save him, to help him find his boy.
Maybe today the phone will ring.
And then, just as strange as the idea that today may be a day to go to talk to Sarah, put some fresh flowers down and finally fess up that he couldn't do it, he wasn't parent enough without her and he lost him—the phone does ring.
Billy's too slow. He cusses himself when he drops his shirt twice, and it takes him a second to remember to unlock his wheels; he skips the answering machine and goes right out the front door. He skids on the gravel till he makes it to the main road and he can feel wind on his face as he picks up speed, but he doesn't care. Something more than discipline is in effect today. If he could feel them still, he'd feel it in his guts.
His heart breaks when he realizes the man coming to him isn't Jake. It's Embry, his quiet friend, little Embry Call, panting and sweating—No. Embry is sobbing.
"It's so bad Billy," he gasps. He has run very far, to be so winded. "He's hurt so bad, so bad—"
"Bring him home," Billy says and Embry staggers.
"He's got some woman, somebody with him—"
"Bring him home," Billy says. But Embry says it over and over—somebody, some body—and Billy realizes she's dead. "Leave her. Bring him home."
"He won't," sobs Embry again.
"Then take me to him," Billy says, and Embry picks him up out of the chair as if he weighed no more than wind, and they run.
This will be what heaven is like, Billy thinks, and he forgets. He only knows the passage of air on his face. He hasn't gone this fast since he and Sarah were young, since—and then there's his son. What's left of his son.
Jacob is throwing heaps of dirt over his shoulder with his bare hands, but he is bleeding so much that they are wet when they land. A dead woman lies next to him; huge brown eyes stare out of her dark face, frozen. She doesn't weep, but the two wolves do.
"Help him," Billy says, and Sam is the first to leap in the pit with Jake. The woman is deep in the earth after an hour.
Jacobs's heartbeat is slow. It is slow, slower than the fade of the winter, slower than grief. Billy holds his son's filthy, blood stained hand, and it takes a minute to realize Jake is staring at him and squeezing. Billy leans close.
"Bella," Jake whispers, and squeezes again.
Embry screams in rage. Sam threatens to dig up the dead woman and bring her to Charlie's daughter, blind with hate, but Billy remembers, and understands.
It's the same hand where she was bitten. And lived.
"Get the pack," Billy says. The two men stare at him. "Help him," says Billy again. "Bring him home."
They do as they're told.
The first time he sees her, he follows her. It was mostly guilt-as was so often the case with Edward—that got his feet moving. She was so far beyond the boundaries of La Push that he thought he was mistaken, but then the familiarity of her smell—stench, he shuddered—became clear. One of the homebound LaPush wolves, excepting, of course, the infamous Jacob Black, damn his name to hell, was crossing the tundra. For no obvious reason.
He tracked her for three days. Telling himself it was rude, he avoided her thoughts, but he couldn't help but wonder if their tenor was what attracted him in the first place—deep grief, resolve, and then, the luminescence of imagination, shimmering across the ice like a veil. She was a dreamer. When they crossed the border back in to Washington she spoke to him, the rustle of her fur as she lazily disappeared into the underbrush nowhere near as loud as the sentence she sent his mind: "That's the last time you follow me, vamp. Don't expect to do it again and live." She'd known he was there; she'd let him come along to learn how he tracked. To better understand the predatory nature of vampires.
"I'm not like the others," he yelled, ruffled. "They're not going to watch you gallop around for days before they kill you." She never replied.
From then on, he sought opportunities to follow her. They were the only ones fast enough to play such a game and keep it interesting.
She prefers the buttes in New Mexico, where the land and light are the same colors as her. Red Earth. White light. The only place she could be a chameleon: the desert. Perhaps Mars. With James gone, part of her longed for a separate life—an unwelcome second guess. Vampires didn't need to breathe….what if she started her whole life over in some dark corner of the US, traveled the usual channels, and became a perfect astronaut? At the last minute, she could crawl out of her suit and sail through the void, counting stars until the gravity of some brutal planet tore her body apart and the atmosphere ripped her with flames. No. James would have gawked at the idea of reassimilation, of suicide. Grief was for humans, he would say. Vampires fight until death. Hunting is life.
So she took this option; she considered it a private weakness, but then, it had the same face as loyalty. If only he had loved her. If only she hadn't been another instrument in the tracker's arsenal, she could feel utterly free in mimicking his mission…But he hadn't loved her. She didn't understand why she still loved him.
Was it love anymore? Or did it have another name…the only thing that welled as deeply inside of her was the intrinsic need for blood. The constant hunger, the fever that inevitably lead to the hunt.
And so these parallel guides landed her here: the desert. But not the red one she preferred; instead, she scaled the sparkling white sands surrounding Phoenix.
Victoria had removed all of her clothing; she was virtually indistinguishable from the quartz deposit she laid flat against. Searing temperatures raised her body almost uncomfortably but she stayed still. A diamond iguana.
She pressed herself tightly against the rock, equal pressure between her body and the quartz, except for the hollow of her throat. On a slender chain, the wolf's tooth nestled in the cave there. More than any other precaution she knew this was the key to her safety.
She could have killed them all—except that last wretch. The whelp had chased her for a day and a half on her rotten, half gone leg; if she hadn't gotten lucky with that gulch in Idaho—not to mention the hunting party—she'd no doubt she'd be dead. But she had, and she'd lived, and after she'd rested and fed, she'd noticed the tooth lodged in what was left of her ankle.
Something told her to keep it—the same something that guided her to the gulch, that told her how to evade the Cullens, or when feeding grounds became too risky—so she did. And for a while, it remained mysterious, but then she noticed: the Cullens got sloppier. They were never quite as quick.
She'd gotten so close—the girl was reckless. But they'd realized, and redoubled. She was never alone now. But then, neither was Victoria. They were constantly under surveillance, watched; it had its similarities to love. The same part of her that longed to escape James wondered if this was the true motive for her. She dismissed it.
She waited until sundown and then until midnight and then an hour past. The girl would be getting off work soon. The rich smell of her blood under the filth of her uniform prickled in Victoria's memory…so close.
She stood in the dark, sand pelting against her, and climbed a water tower so she could do some surveillance of her own. Two miles away on the flat desert stretch, Victoria watched the windows in the diner dim. There were no Cullens hovering about; when she was sure, she slithered down from her perch and covered the distance in less than three minutes.
Something held her back when she reached the parking lot and she swore. What could it have been? None of the wretched Cullen clan were present…but she stayed with her gut and flattened her body on the strip of dune closest to the lot, glad there was no moonlight to give her away.
When Bella finally got in her truck and drove away, Victoria saw her sentinel. The blonde rolled out from under the truck as Bella drove away and stood in the dust cloud her blustery vehicle left. She was also naked. "Surely you didn't sign up for this job." Victoria stretched, backing away. Something told her she wouldn't be chased; the blonde was rarely Bella's guard and Victoria suspected she didn't particularly relish the duty.
"It's not a church pot-luck," the blonde hissed back, swinging her arms around as if she were up to bat. "Family isn't something you sign up for. It's just something you do." The late twentieth century affectation suited her, even if the polish in her speech from some earlier time hadn't worn off. All of her consonants were too hard.
"She's not your family." Victoria spoke in a normal voice. Forty yards were between them; if it came to a chase she had a decent shot, because she knew the surrounding desert so well, but she didn't run.
"Why do you still care, after all this time?" The blonde didn't. She could have been shopping for shoes with an elderly aunt or giving her grandmother a ride to the grocery store; instead she was babysitting her brother's troublesome ex soul mate. It was confusing to Victoria. She found that even though she understood, she could not empathize. It yanked on the thread tying her to James. "Edward says he didn't even love you."
"Edwards ideas about love and mine don't overlap very much," replied Victoria. The blonde shrugged.
"He's a bore, but he can read minds. You should move on."
Victoria laughed. "You don't care for anything, do you? You don't love anything?" She felt her hair, heavy with rocks and dirt, stir in the wind as she shook it out. "It doesn't matter, in the end, whether he loved me." Her hair whirled around her, tangling and whirring. "I love him."
"And he's dead. This hobby sucks."
"So I should do what?" Victoria began to back away, into the desert. The fact that Edward had known that James didn't love her was momentarily humiliating, and it underlined this—this everything, this empty routine, the fact that this vampire in front of her was tied just as tightly by these threads. Of course she loved. And it bound her here, to the night. Maybe love was worthless. An empty duty. She hardened herself. "I should suddenly give a shit about human trifles, like shoes and real estate and Saint Tropez?" Victoria laughed. "No. Never."
"Why not give a shit about someone else?" The blonde watched her back into the desert indifferently. Her gut had proved right again; she would not be followed. "Why not give a shit about yourself?"
"I was wrong," Victoria spoke again, finally having to raise her voice. "It's not that you don't love—you're being here tonight of course that you do. But you've never lost what you've loved." Another foot in to the dark. The blonde's hair now was also free of stones and dirt, rising like a shroud around her shoulders in the wind. "We don't change. We aren't made to move on."
"I've never tasted human blood," the blonde said. Victoria was stunned, stilled; at first she thought she'd heard wrong, but the other vampire continued. "We're made all kinds of ways. You should love someone else."
"Save it for your brother," growled Victoria. She suddenly hated the blonde. She hated her assurance, her family, her freedom. She hated her for being more than she dared to understand. The distance between them widened quickly, but the blonde had still heard her.
"I'm working on him!" She yelled after Victoria. "You're more alike than you know!" The words followed her through the clear night all the way past the lights of the city, and the limits of the state.
"Tell me why he comes here," she demanded. She was in wolf form, as always. Edward deliberately poked around in some of her more superficial imagery to see if she could tell. She couldn't. He sighed, and then caught himself—had he actually wanted her to be able to tell? She stank. And she hated him. He sighed again.
"I can't read his mind, and it's rude, besides." She slapped him with the human version of herself flipping him the bird. He rolled his eyes.
The small clearing between them was a grave. They both knew it and they both knew Jacob's mother's ashes were in an urn on Billy Black's mantle, waiting. They did not know who was buried here.
"There 's nothing you could give me that would make such behavior permissible," Edward snapped at her as she sent him more images, some of theme cruelly goading—tiny children, shanks of lamb, Bella Swan. He turned to leave.
She sent him a final image: a dead Bella Swan, bloody a horror movie extra. By the time he's turned to attack, she's already across the border in La Push.
She kept waiting for it to change, but it didn't…There it was again: her own face, and not. Like the human face she saw in James's mind she hadn't quite known as her own; all of the bones were in the right place—the small mouth, flat forehead, small, upturned nose, so much smallness…but in her human face her eyes had been wide with terror and dark brown, the same color as Bella Swan's (why she loved her so, Jasper would tease, his nose crinkling)…and in this vision they were red. The violent, humiliating red of slaughter.
If you saw the past instead of the future, Jasper whispered to her, then your whole family wouldn't exist. We wouldn't exist. He doesn't finish. The past would drive her vampire self mad, the way the future had tortured her human self. The change drew a veil between her lives, reducing the past to silky ash. Or velvet dark, in her case. A merciful, impenetrable dark.
But then—the future could still torment even a vampire, as it turned out. Jasper could not calm her—it's not just us, she wept, she wept bitterly—and she did not have to tell him the horrors that marched before her eyes. He could feel them, like an ocean of anxious fire consuming her bones, snaking behind her fingers, a ruined Medusa. She was tortured again. All her worlds began to fall into one another, the time between now and never and always caving and crumbling as she helplessly watched. Headaches. Nonsense. Jasper held her and tried not to become afraid.
There was only a thread of the hope. A void, like her previous past—an Unseeing. Something so odd she didn't recognize it in the blackness. And she may not have, if not for Edward.
He's following her again, she tells Carlisle, she tells Esme. Jasper already knows; he feels Edward's prickled interest (and other things, she finds out later, of course, things so strange Jasper didn't want to know, to share them with words) creeping out of the long woods behind their house. They are about to take flight. How can they stay? All the towers are crumbling. Jasper holds her close; Esme clucks but does not understand because, of course, she has only had two worlds. She has never been invaded by the future. They must take flight. They must take advantage of the Unseeing.
And it is secret, of course. The private void—it is secret to Alice, and then, as she follows the blank spot through the woods, consumed with the absence of Edward, Jasper feels her knowing it. What they must do.
The void, the missing place in the center of all found things, is mercy, once again.
There are the things floating through the static as they struggle to map the roof. The madness is happening again, she is sure of it, and afraid, but Jasper calls to her, reassures her, soothes her dead serotonin reuptake channels somehow. The obsession is what he needs to let go of now, he tells her. It's not going to be clear, love. War changes everything. If he were someone else, she would feel patronized, tricked (Edward, so fascinated by soldiers and too young for war, Edward whom she hadn't seen in weeks) but it was Jasper, who had been in many wars, had been more soldier than grown man, than vampire even, before her. It's my turn, he says, and the white sparkle of his naked chest cuts through the other whiteness—the answer, but the fear, that blind spot—that constantly invades her mind—it's my turn to soothe you.
For a split second she sees Edward talking to Bella—in a van. Somewhere in the city—they're here! They came! His face is so still, her beloved, ridiculous brother—but she has stood up too quickly, she has done it again…they are coming.
The roof burns their bare hands as she and Jasper scrabble in the blinding noon sun to get away from the grey cloaks swelling out of the window turrets. So hot—She wonders if her skin will peel and blister, and then knows she has gone mad, she is insane, because of course she can feel nothing—Jasper throws a psychic gavel of calm and focus at her so hard, her eyes close. They still run. They are faster than the grey cloaks—concentrate, Alice, she hisses at herself. When will they be? How do we get away?
And she slithers down the dark side of the wall, Jasper leaping down and crushing the centuries old cobblestones where he lands like a pulp beneath a child's careless feet. They rush in to the crowd; Alice knows there are more hunters here, and she fears—she fears, she fears! That is the seed, the madness, that horrible, human fear—they will find them before the plan can be dropped off, hidden; Jasper of course would not leave her.
Uh oh…the past opens. How rude, she hisses, but she can't stop what she sees any more.
Our only fight and it's in front of children, she hissed at him. Wait—this hasn't happened yet?
The blonde girl had stared at them, her arms wire thin and wrapped tight around the children with her squatting in the bracken. They hadn't yet trusted them enough to come out; only enough to eat the food they brought. Raw and savage. Alice had been repulsed.
I'm not fighting you, Jasper had drawled.
It was the accent, and, of course, the chemical manipulation, but the accent really—the little boy with the same slow drop in his speech was the first to really trust them.
It had taken longer than it should have, but the fear-the wretched humanity of fear….As Jasper pointed out, no other child could have been so brave, no matter what they gave them- food, and promised them a life with the Hunter, no matter that none of them was near puberty yet, no matter—the girl, she had mastered her fear eventually. And now Alice marveled at her, felt her feet sinking into the ancient stones as if they were sand, pounding as she ran, and felt fear. She felt human.
"You may die," she'd told the girl. "I cannot see how this will end." She hadn't hidden her own accent; Edwards's accent, the time was right but the inflection was wrong. She was Southern once also.
"I am not afraid to die," snorted the girl. She'd laid a thin hand on the head of the smallest boy. "I am afraid my pack will die. I am afraid of being human, of starving. I am not afraid to die in a fight." Jasper nodded; he felt the conviction—the righteous indignation and pride—rolling off of her body.
Alice swept her white arm back.
"Then we have to talk about a plan." But the plan had holes—wide, static filled fields, galaxies of unknowns. The plan was skeletal at best, a string of phantoms…the plan depended on the blind spot. It's how the rest of us live every day, Jasper whispered to her, stroking her forehead. It's more complex and pretty scary, sure, but it's a good plan. Depending on the best people. It'll be alright.
And now they were running. One of the holes had opened wide and was swallowing them.
Please, Alice prayed—fear made humans pray!—Please, please, please let them find the map. Please please please allow them to rig the explosives up where we marked them—please let one of them read. Please let one of them speak English.
Caius's face looked out at her and she dodged—too late, she realized it had been a vision. They grew closer. Jasper circled back.
Please please please—
It was more than one hand. Three latched on to her legs and one arm; they stood stock still for a millisecond before Jasper attacked. It provided her with just enough time to see that they'd made it—they'd run right past the drop point. Jasper's hands were full of white limbs. He'd gotten the map in place.
The hole yawned in front of her again.
White limbs—more and more—she was still, but not. She was flying, but she couldn't see far enough for both of them. There were more and more of the grey moths, fluttering, nibbling, pulling harder. The holes—it was a series of holes. There was more time than the future and past and present could hold in this place, more nothing than Alice could bear. Madness. She'd been mad as a human.
It was a cemetery full of open graves. White limbs and static in the graves.
Aro's stinking face. Bella Swan, screaming in agony. Red. More holes. More absences. But now, it seemed the loss was not merciful. The void was suffering, not escape.
Jasper screamed and it shredded through the haze of her mind—the trilogy that struck her catatonic. He was whimpering—the white arms pulled him towards the void. Further.
Please, she prayed again. Please, please please, let me die first. Please let us die before...please-
The static swallowed her whole.
"I told you never to follow me again," she snarls, her voice stinging his mind. The wolf rumbles in her voice—the wolf, itself, reminds him, for some odd reason, of Sam. Her former lover, the alpha. He knows this will sting her, and congratulates himself smugly when he finds he can keep it to himself.
"I don't follow dogs around, " he snaps instead. "I merely wanted a word. A civil one."
"Then talk to someone else," she says, her slender body slipping through the trees. But she isn't headed towards La Push. She's going back to the grave—Jacob's haunted private family tomb.
"Then forget civil," Edward taunts her by running alongside her, moving his head closer to hers, as if she couldn't hear him. He knows she can register the subtle insult, and of course she reacts predictably, snapping her menacing jaws as he dances away.
"Perhaps you don't see the irony in a vampire asking for a civil word," she hisses at him. Edward watches her from a distance, still regulating his jaunt through her thoughts. He was a fool to attempt to speak with her; he doesn't understand himself, really, to know why he tries.
"I do," he says quietly from the trees. She waits a moment, and then begins her trek to the grave once more. "Wait, please—" he lands softly on the ground behind her. There are no birds in the trees. Everything is afraid of us, he thinks, and in his moment of distraction he hasn't noticed her watching him.
"You do, don't you," she thinks at him. "But you're too selfish to think that I might not care to let you talk to me. That I might not be interested—has that happened to you in the past decade? That someone found you uninteresting?" She hasn't moved very far; her soft, padded feet make soft crunching noises as think sticks crackle underneath them. "When was the last time someone told you no?"
"People tell me no all the time, " Edward says, stung. He stands upright but doesn't follow her.
"Vampires aren't people," she retorts, and he is furious when he realizes that she is, of course, correct. He was thinking of his own family; with humans, if his face doesn't work, his wallet always has.
"The wolves tell us no," he shouts after her; he is startled again when he realizes he is shouting because his is angry. He can barely remember this kind of anger…defensive. For once.
"Sam doesn't," she yells back at him, and then she makes a mistake. He knows she thinks he can't hear her mind, because he shouted—she thinks she's out of range. And she continues along that line—Sam can't say no, can risk nothing because he can't foresee consequences, because he's weak, because he isn't meant to be alpha—and Edward suddenly realizes the depth of her ability to filter her thoughts around him. And then he realizes the depth of her thoughts.
The wolves are strategically redesigning their lives to an offensive position. To keep more children from becoming wolves. Because somehow, vampires turn them in to wolves.
Edward realizes he's still following her, and he hates himself, but he doesn't stop. She hates being a wolf. She hates the long series of traps she sees in front of her—the reservation, her long, brown limbs, her silver fur, her womanhood.
She wonders why more vampires don't do the things she wishes she could, with their memory and eternal life and void of family ties—she thinks that with guilt—why don't more them live underwater, or explore Antarctica, or work with rescue teams to save people trapped in rubble, or cure cancer, or—
"Why do you follow me?" She's reared on him, her lips curled back. The clearing behind her wafts wildflowers and grief and the smell of Jacob Black—that's who, he realizes. He was wrong. Her wolf voice…it reminds Edward of Jacob Black. Not Sam.
She knows he could hear her. The gig is up. The filter is firmly reattached, but now, Edward can see her embarrassment and fury through it—she knows he heard everything.
There are only three feet between them. The smell is overwhelming.
"I don't know," he says, truthfully, and runs away.
"You're a pervert," Emmett says, chuckling. "Duh. Who didn't know that?"
"You're vile," Edward snarls, but Jasper is watching him. Emmett is too self-absorbed to notice; he is distracted temporarily by the smell of something that clambors above them, and then he remembers only the laughter. Jasper pushes his curiosity with a wave of adrenaline and he scampers off into the woods.
"You pity her," Jasper says to Edward. His voice is empty of emotion, oddly; he is afraid of Edward's bizarre habits regarding Leah the same way a reckless scout would endanger his platoon's mission. Edward is taken aback. He wants Jasper to understand but he cannot, of course, explain. Or lie. His brother would know.
"Somewhat," Edward admits. "Her lot in life has been unkind."
"It's not the same as yours," Jasper speaks again. Firm. He isn't moving, however; he seems to be waiting for something.
"What do you want me to say?" Edward and Jasper were almost the same age when they died. They are chivalrous, reactionary, and more prone to murder than the rest of their family, but the stark interruptions on the slick sheen over Jasper's skin delineate every difference between then. Edward desperately wants Jasper to respect him; he knows his older brother feels like-wise.
"I want you to tell me what these other things are….when you're near her." Jas crosses his arms. "I can't tell—I can't understand them." His face is twisted.
"Curiosity, and pity, yes."
"Of course I am—she stinks, she's cruel, she's—"
"She's nothing like Bella Swan." Edward stares back at Jasper, speechless at his words. "It's not the same, Edward, I'm not saying it is—I remember the way you felt about her." Jasper uncrosses his arms and takes a deep breath. An unnecessary breath. "It began as curiosity. A high level of curiosity, and you followed her too—"
"It's nothing alike," Edward growls, "It was everything I could do not to kill Bella, tear her to pieces—"
"It's exactly alike!" Jasper's scars do not refract light; he is unnaturally dim for a vampire. "You believed Bella to be your mate simply because you couldn't hear her—"
"I loved her." Edward's grief is all he can feel now. Endless.
"That is the difference," Jasper says quietly. "But the rest…even the initial revulsion, the fascination…"
"With Bella, it was more like a cat playing with a mouse."
"Never," Jasper dismisses him. "You're too hard on yourself. You're glamorizing it."
"I am not," Edward whispers.
"You can't help it," Jasper speaks evenly over the grief. "Edward—I know, more than anyone but you, how you feel about both of these women. I know…how you feel about Bella."
They look at each other for a minute. Edward has missed Jasper, who couldn't be around him for extended periods of time when he'd left his human love; the weight of Edward's horrible grief crippled him. "I can never—I can't even continue the thought," Edward speaks softly. He's noticed Jasper's jaw clenching. "She's a passing intrigue in what promises to be a long life of mediocrity," he continues, lifting his head. "If you could read her mind, her imagination, you'd understand why I bother…she's a refreshing distraction." Jasper still doesn't speak. "Surely, Jas, you understand—humans are exhausting, their ridiculous blithering superficialities—"
"Just like vampires," Jas interrupts, a thin arched eyebrow reminding Edward of the rest of their world. Edward sighs. "If you could choose a mate, Edward, you would never pick one of your own kind."
"Not true," Edward firms his jaw. "If Bella had been—without my doing—"
"I don't think so," shrugs his older brother. "Not without some absurd tragedy having caused it." He stares at Edward. "It's one of the things you like best about the wolf. She hates you." Edward scoffs. "But that wouldn't ring so true if she didn't hate herself also." Edward stops and stares at him. "The depth of her feelings of injustice, and duty, and self-loathing…not to mention her wretchedly broken heart—a result of her supernatural nature—"
"Shut up, Jasper," Edward snarls, but it's too late—Jasper is too loud to ignore, even with his mouth closed.
"She's practically your twin." They stare at each other for a moment, and Edward flinches as he watches Jasper reprocess his emotions…and Leah's. Without being able to stop himself, he bristles protectively, and then wilts when he realizes it. Jasper nods, and it infuriates him.
"You've followed us." Jasper's mind answers him; Jasper is only slightly slower than Edward, but in battle-play their matches are evened by experience. The platoon leader creeping after the wayward scout. "You have no right—"
"You read her mind." Suddenly, Jasper's wickedly deformed face is next to his. "You do it against her wishes."
"Which is worse?" Edward spits back. "I can only see what she thinks, and she knows it, she shields me—what you do is so invasive—"
"I couldn't bear it," Jasper is gone just as soon, the threat of his close presence overwhelmed by the vulnerability of turning his back. He isn't speaking. Jasper couldn't watch Edward become fascinated by another mortal creature, couldn't bare being tortured by his hopelessness, by Alice's desperate attempts to save Edward—
"Don't touch her!" Edward forcibly turns his brother towards him. "Don't ever—"
"I can't. It would start a war." Leah's death was the first solution he'd considered, but Edward can tell that strategically, Jasper has eliminated that possibility.
"Why are we talking about this then?" Edward can't help it; a snarl slips into his speech. "Why can't I enjoy this one, ridiculous, guaranteed temporary amusement? Why can't my suffering be privately endured, why can't my passions be my own—"
"Because you live in in a family full of the damned," Jasper spits. "As if it were ever only about you—as if visions of your future didn't intrude on Alice's daydreams and the fact that you feel like a wretch didn't follow me like a shadow." Jasper may as well have slapped Edward; his selfishness shames him. "You know damn well why," his brother finishes. They are still for a minute. "At any rate," Jasper continues, "that's settled and done. I'm talking to you about it because…."
He drifts. His silence invites Edward in.
"This could be an opportunity, brother," he hears. Puzzlement. "This could be—"
"You're insane," sputters Edward. He's ashamed of having defended his interest, and he instantly retreats. "I expect that kind of absurdity from Emmett—"
"This is your chance to be brave, Edward." Jasper faces him squarely. Not a sound, not one living animal in the deep dark woods besides them. "You wanted to be a soldier, but you missed your chance. You don't have the stomach for killing, unless its to protect, and even then you gave it up. You thought loving a human girl-child was the best you could do?" He takes a step closer, knowing his words are cruel. "There's no risk in loving the weak, Edward." Edward is livid, he turns to run, and Jasper rounds on him. "Do you want to do something brave, something great? Then help heal that girl, Edward."
The two men stare at each other.
"It may never be love—that's not what I meant. It may be that one day the two of you will be companions."
"No—listen. Why not?" Jasper tentatively places his hand on Edward's shoulder. "I've been watching this for a long time, Edward. Something…genuine and deep is happening there."
"I've thought, all this time, that my grief had made me mad," Edward snarls. "And here we are—brother, I owe you such an apology. I'm sorry my feelings have driven you insane."
"You're behaving like a child." Jasper snaps back in to military mode. "The facts aren't convenient, Edward. They don't care about what you wish was true." Jasper is hard on himself; he knows it may be his own mind that keeps him killing and ashamed; he doesn't spare Edward's ego. "They say we don't change, Edward—they say we can never love again, that our nature is defined—you have the opportunity to be different." Desperation is in Jasper's voice now—some of it for himself, much of it for them both. Strangely, Edward sees some of it for the girl. "You can prove that we can change."
Vampires can be still together for indefinite periods of time, and the two resemble graves for the rest of the hour, reading minds and emotions, back and forth wordlessly arguing. Edward is furious with himself; he decides to never follow her again, to never again speak to her silent silver back and feel the whip-crack of her retort. He says a private farewell to her expansive—beautiful, really, he thinks, and shudders—imagination. Jasper feels him decide.
"Coward," he says. Edward chooses to shrug, even though he feels like lunging at Jasper. He contemplates it, but is interrupted by his brother's next words. "She's the only thing that eclipses your grief over the human girl."
"She's a human girl," Edward snaps, and then remembers his choice, and shrugs. He puts his sadness back on like a coat; somehow, knowing he's chosen it makes it heavier, and he sighs. Damn Jasper. Damn Leah.
"She's super hot." Emmett has reappeared, bored and missing Rose. He can't believe that they're still talking about that werewolf chick. Rose will laugh her ass off about it, he can't wait to tell her even though the fact that she's rooting for Edward to hook up with a dog freaks him out. "She's the hottest human-ish chick I've ever seen."
"Edward's never seen her human form," Jasper says nonchalantly, knowing this is like dropping a nuclear bomb as he steps carefully out of the way. Emmett can't help himself; he thrashes Edward's back with fists like boulders.
"Dude! You have a crush on a dog? Like a for-real dog? You are kinky-"
"I've seen her," Edward hisses. "I've seen what she looks like—"
"In her own mind," Jasper finishes. One eyebrow is high on his forehead again, and he thinks the rest so only Edward can hear his taunts. "And what, pray tell, does a girl who hates herself think about the way she looks? Your brains are really not as impressive as I thought, isn't that sort of the thing covered in Psych 101—"
"She's wicked hot," Emmett's mind is full of long distance shots of Leah around town; even at a distance, it's evident. She is beautiful. Edward sniffs.
"It doesn't matter." Emmett tries to shove him again, and he dodges. "I'll be spending a lot of less time in the woods."
"That's a bummer," Emmett says unexpectedly, and he isn't only disappointed that the jokes will dry up. Edward is shaken when he realizes that Emmett, his blithely affectionate, blustering brother has noticed something very simple neither Edward or Jasper has: Edward is happier after he follows Leah through the woods.
"Coward," Jasper hisses in his mind.
They head for home.
It had been at least two years since he'd seen Leah, smelled her; when her lithe form came out of the trees screaming at him to get away from the Swan place it was her mind's voice, of course, that slapped across his dead neurons in a wave of bitter recognition. She hated him. As he drifted down the street, staring through the dark towards the cloud of exhausted and frightened thoughts pouring out of the wolves, his mind left Bella for just a moment.
Why does she hate me so much more, now? I did what she asked.
He is almost embarrassed when he remembers her trembling body on the lawn, naked under the black sheet of her hair. But why be embarrassed. It's just a human girl. Like a painting. Like a broken Boticelli, Venus from an ocean of endless pines, riding a wave of fury.
His thoughts shyly return to Bella and Jacob's echoes; he isn't aware of making the decision to avoid Leah, but he keeps further from the house than he'd originally intended, and doesn't go back when he hears her speaking to Bella through the window.
He goes into the woods. Alone.
After the battle, after Jasper relieves his horrible duty outside of the cabin where Bella Swan and Jacob Black are falling in love, he wonders if he should kill the boy. Well. The man, now.
For some reason, the aimless drift in the woods guides him slowly to the ground so mysteriously guarded by the wolves; wildflowers, but less grief is in the air. Still no living creature besides himself—he chuckles bitterly. Nevermind. Everything here is dead.
It would kill her, he thinks, and he also thinks she deserves only the best and most beautiful life—a full human life, with children and true love and all the things beautiful young women all over the world deserve. But her—but her especially. For her, he will, of course, kill his own kind. He will behave like the lapdog he once accused Jacob Black of being. As he thinks these things he is consumed by sadness, so deep, so crushing, that he doesn't move for so long the birds return.
"I didn't know they put up a tombstone." Leah's forgotten voice cuts into his mind. "You look a little evil to be an angel, but hey, whatever they can afford." She stands on the edge of the clearing. "Times are tough."
The hate is not there. He doesn't move, but he listens; she is shielding him, but he reaches out and plucks at the few threads there. Her voice is older now, with an undertone of softness. The kind of change that can only happen with time.
"Thanks for saving my life," she says quietly, and he realizes sharply that he can still taste her blood. If he thinks about it. If he doesn't pay attention, and wanders back to the moment. He slides his tongue across his teeth, shakes it off.
"Of course," he murmurs. He wants to be left alone; she doesn't leave. They are both still for a long time, but the birds do not return again.
"Why are you still here?" He asks her bluntly. Painfully honest. The truth is alright, with them.
"Me?" She laughs a little bit, with only a shade of bitterness. "Why are you here?" The grave belongs to neither of them, but she is a wolf on tribal land. He doesn't belong here. His feet feel immovable.
There's no answer he can give her. This is where I will start the fire that twill burn the forest down. Inside this grave is a secret, and I will dig it up, reveal its horror to Bella, and she will love me again. I will stay here and be still until I finally harden to rock. Until my dead heart forgets.
"You kept me company." She says suddenly. Edward is shocked out of his self-pity.
"Years ago. When I was still hurting." In spite of years of practiced control, her wolf body prances a little nervously. "When…when we met, it was still so soon after…"
"Oh," Edward says, genuinely surprised.
"I know," she says, and she means that she knows what is happening to him. How it feels, this hopelessness. He wants to rebuff her, but she's right.
"That was company?" Incredulity creeps into his voice.
"As much as I could stand, back then." She dances in on her silver feet, feeling awkward and bare as he watches her intently. "I could handle you partly, at least, I think, because…because you'd tried to do the right thing with Bella." She grows more nervous. "You were hurt then. But it's not the same—"
"-No," he cuts her off. "It's not." They are quiet and still again.
"Why are you still alive," he whispers finally. He knows she knows—how did you survive this—why did you choose to survive this, to stay alive? Why bear the unbearable?
"I had—have—a mission," she says firmly. And she opens her mind to him. Suddenly. As if she'd been waiting for him to ask. Her thoughts and plans rush out at him like electricity across the clearing; they startle him into movement. He sways, on his feet.
"Why did you show me that?" He can't keep up with her, he is still sorting her ambitions from the concern someone will find them here, from worry over how he doesn't smell so bad since—"I saw you naked," he says out loud, and laughs.
"Grief, stage two," Leah watches him warily. "Madness." He laughs again. She's funny.
"You don't smell bad any more either," he realizes out loud. It cuts his laughter short. "I mean, as bad-" He tries, and it's true, the acrid undertone is still there…
"I know what you mean," she says, impatient. Her nose, he finds, is more sensitive, so the smell is still worse for her, but another smell intrudes on his memory. So high on her long thigh, the soft skin under his mouth—he is suddenly and horrifically embarrassed. My god, she's right. He has gone mad.
"I'm so sorry," he speaks in clipped, embarrassed chirps. "I've never been that close to a woman before in that-in that condition—I should have covered you immediately—"
"It's okay, Edward," she sighs. It appears she expected him to freak out , she calls him old-fashioned. "I'm glad you focused on my not dying, frankly, instead of me not naked."
Naked. He realizes his mouth is hanging open, and snaps it shut. This time, she laughs. It's over when he speaks again.
"I'm sorry about your family." He says. He is reacting to her thoughts—he can't focus, can't keep anything strait. "I'm sorry my family has done this to your family." She's not laughing now. "We didn't know-
"We don't understand it yet," she interrupts. A bit of the hate is back, but she's working through it. She wants something else much more than she hates him now. Ah—the imprints. It's so strange, the unfettered access to her mind-he can't keep up. Her thoughts race around him in a swarm. "It won't only be you, in the future," she continues on a previous thread, throwing him again. "We thought we were heading them off at the pass, giving the kids a chance…." She trails off, then spins to face him.
"Help me," she says in her dark mind's voice.
He resists when he feels the undertone of Jacob Black's wolf tucked inside the sound, and then he is unable to concentrate again. She's come closer to him. Her nose pushes against his leg, startling, wet and cold. So different, he absently notes, from her human body. "Help me," she says. No longer dancing on her four feet. Completely still, completely intent on something…something so tenuous, so brittle, so far away. Something magnificent. Something she can only do with the right ally. Him.
And then, just like that, he knows she will save him. This is how it is, between them. This is how it will be.
She has a hand on her hip, in perfect imitation of the slim brown body in front of her. The other children are gathered around them; one small blonde boy chews his lip absently while the rest wait. "Chicken," she says slowly, but she's not taunting her opponent. She plays with the word, rolling it for longer than necessary. "Do you mean afraid?"
"Whatever you wanna call it," he sasses back, and his head waggles dangerously on his neck. One of his friends tugs his frayed shorts but neither of them leave. They all stare at the center of the circle as if a pair of cobras were facing off.
"I'm not the one who may die," she says quietly, and suddenly the group is no longer tense with the fusion of one childhood with another; a church like silence descends on the small crowd. One of the taller children looks around. No grown-ups.
"I won't die," he says quietly back. It is not in his nature to be quiet, and the gravity of the dare is evident when he also stands up straight. "I won't die, I'll be a super-wolf, and we'll be blood brothers."
"I'm a girl," she says, similarly standing taller. Her bones are lengthening. The food here has been good to her. "But I understand."
The ritual is brief. Out comes her silver knife, one hand over another. He heals almost instantly, but she drips on the dirt for a while. They all hold their breath while they wait to see if he stops. He doesn't.
"Now you can stay," he says, grinning. With the arbitrary measurements of children, an eternity has passed, and he is safe. "Now you can marry me and we can have super wolf babies." The crowd is giggling, rushing to get back to easier moments, to move past the danger.
"Gross," she says, and gives chase. The children all look the same by the end of the day, dirty feet and big smiles.
"I can't race you," he says slowly. The wrinkles in his face are deepest where he smiles, and he does so often still. "I'll just sit in the sun with you, if that's okay." His heavy hand rests incongruously on the head of some kind of beast; slick brown fur covers a dense body shaped roughly like a large dog's. Or an ape's. Or a woman's. He doesn't seem to notice that his companion is asleep, panting, and he quietly murmurs on. They are both clearly ancient, and have had these kinds of quiet exchanges many times before.
"I love you all the time, but I have to say, there's something special about tomorrow. Its always nice to have you back."
The animal is not asleep, as it turns out. A heavy tail bangs against the wooden floor of the cabin's porch.
"I love you too," he says, and closes his eyes, smile still in place.