A/N – Here goes! Thanks for sticking with me, and… I'm sorry. I'm so, so sorry.
I don't remember regaining consciousness after the scoundrel de Lotbinière attacked me. When I open my eyes, I am in my empty study, night has fallen, and the book is open in my hand to a diagram: a drawing of the monster's body with a dotted line across the neck and an X over the heart. Didn't Nicolette use wooden stakes to support some of the herbs she grew on the kitchen windowsill?
When I open my eyes again, I am in my room. I feel as though I am finally awakening from a long, heavy sleep, the room swimming into its normal shape from a murky blackness. It is night. One wooden stake, its base still dark from the earth, lies conspicuously on my nightstand. The other is in my hand. Two vampires, two quick deaths, then the cottage in Meaux and the child with my wife's bright eyes and my dark hair. The little girl with flowers tucked behind her ears, Cosette reading to her before the fire—it will come when the vampires are gone.
They're already dead, Courfeyrac reassures me, pressing a knife into my hand. It's not murder if there's nothing left of the people they were.
Catherine is in the room, but I don't remember seeing her enter. She is in nothing but that borrowed shift again, pinned between me and the wall, her head thrown back and her hands laced behind my neck. She mustn't suspect, I tell myself. The words form again and again in my head, chanting in rhythm with the thrusts of my hips. She mustn't suspect. This is the last time. She mustn't suspect. It's over tonight.
I pull out of her and take off my nightshirt, using it to clean up. Catherine says something and I feel her arms wrap around my bare waist. My gaze is on the nightstand, on the stakes waiting to condemn her to the death she rejected, to avenge the infant and my marriage, my aunt and my grandfather and even that old bookseller. She turns around and her gaze follows mine. She is upset; she hurries out of the room.
It's not murder if there's nothing left of the people they were, Courfeyrac says again. He is the specter today, one green eye and a skull smashed by buckshot, curls matted together with blood. His clothes are impeccable beneath the brown stains. His smile is the same as it always was, but his eye glints with malice rather than mischief. Nothing left of the people they were, nothing but an echo clinging to you and trying to drag you to hell where they belong.
He is right. He is always right.
Catherine knows that I have the weapons. I can't wait any longer.
"For Cosette," I whisper as I take up a stake and the knife. "For Meaux."
The hall seems longer than I remembered, with more doors than I can identify. The first one I open is the nursery, where I see two shapes on the spare cot. One is a gaunt woman, her hands folded around a tiny white bonnet as she sleeps; the other is a man, an arm around his companion and his face hidden beneath unkempt black curls. I cannot find an explanation for this image—part of me believes that I have slipped back in time and am observing myself with Catherine as she was when she first came to us—so I close the door, quietly and firmly.
There is no one in the next room. I recognize an empty bed stripped of its linens. This is where my aunt died. There is something small and dark in the middle of the mattress. I approach cautiously, half-expecting it to be a rat, a familiar to one of the vampires, but recognize it at last as a fistful of wildflowers. The mat on the floor where Catherine usually sleeps is empty.
It is in the next room that I find one of the creatures, his thin, elderly frame stretched out atop the bed in a perfect recreation of human sleep. He does not move when I approach, his hollow eyes only blinking open for an instant before I drive the wooden stake into his heart. The look of horror and recognition drains away with the blood of his victims that coats the white sheets.
It is easy to slash through the throat at first, but the spinal column at the back of his neck requires a lot of unsteady hacking. If I leave the head attached to the body, the monster will rise again and all of this would have been pointless. When the head is severed, I leave it on the other pillow.
I am covered in innocents' blood. I reach down to wipe my hands clean on my nightshirt only to remember that I had discarded it in my room.
When I retrieve the second stake something happens, and I feel myself drift out of my own body. I see myself through Courfeyrac's eyes, the friendless boy who left his comfortable home behind to find truth, and I wonder how my life would have played out had I never seen that old man dead on the floor of his cottage and learned that he loved me. Could I have remained under this roof and inherited my grandfather's world? What would have become of Cosette had she never been cursed with a husband like me? Had I not been at that barricade, would any of them have died?
I watch myself wipe my hands on the nightshirt again, staining it red like the bedsheets in the old man's room, then drop it. Just hold on till the end of the night, Courfeyrac insists. We're only making it right.
I find Catherine asleep in the spare room. It was here that I first heard her speak, back when she looked like a wraith and had the hoarse voice of a nightmare. I know now that it had not been Nicolette's cooking, regular baths, and our easily-accessible pantry that brought so much life into the body of this intruder in a matter of months. I remember the way she had howled at the sight of me despite the open window, and the way the young gentleman in the street had stared accusingly up at this house. I wonder what became of that dandy, and where he had gone with the knowledge that an unearthly creature was loose on the Rue des Filles-du-Calvaire. I envy him his normal existence, and for a wild instant I wish that he had thrown a lifeline through that open window on that chilly morning and pulled me to safety.
Catherine has thrown the blankets to the floor and is curled into a ball in the center of the mattress. I put one knee on the bed and try to push her onto her back, but without even opening her eyes she swats me away and mutters, "Not tonight, 'Parnasse."
I drop my weapons onto the mattress near her head and plant one hand onto each shoulder, forcing her to lie flat. Her gray eyes snap open in the darkness, surprised at my aggression, and I feel fear lurch in my stomach lest she retaliate. She blinks until her eyes adjust. The moment she recognizes me the fear drains away the way the life drained out of her foul creation less than an hour before. "Monsieur Marius," she says, memories of our indiscretions coloring her voice. "To what do I owe—" but one of her hands was tracing my body and comes to a warm, sticky smear of blood. She tries to get up, but now I am sitting over her, my thighs pinning her to her deathbed. "Whose blood is this, Monsieur Marius?" she asks, the wildness in her voice revealing her to be inhuman. She struggles vainly beneath me. "Monsieur Marius?"
I gather her frail wrists in one hand and crush them into the mattress. She begins to kick her legs into the air, but I bend forward and she cannot reach me. She strains, rocking side to side, but I won't be moved.
"Whose blood is that?" she asks again, panicked.
"You should know," I answer, my voice uneven. "They were your victims, after all."
"My- what do you mean? My victims?"
She's trying so hard, Courfeyrac mutters. Don't let her fool you.
"I won't," I promise. "It's too late."
Now Catherine is performing that trick again where she forces human tears out of her eyes. "Marius, please," she whispers. "We didn't want to hurt you. I just thought- it was my idea, I'm so sorry- we saw you two in the park and he called your wife beautiful and I had this idea, I thought we could be like you-" she breaks off. "Did you kill Montparnasse?"
Impatient, I seize the bleeding knife in my free hand and hold it to her throat.
"Is that his knife?" she sobs. "Oh God, Monsieur Marius, I'm so sorry! We wanted the money, that's all! We didn't know how far gone you were! Please, let me go! Let me go and I'll leave now, I won't take a single thing with me, just let me go! I'm not like them, I only thought of it because I was angry, because why should you have so much when you used to be just like us? You could have loved my sister and we would all be allowed into your world, that's all, and I thought 'Parnasse and I could join you, could be—"
"I'll never be a monster like you," I spit, pushing the knife against her throat until it pierces her flesh. Catherine's expression melts into one of terror and she screams, finally understanding that her spell over me is broken, that I won't be convinced to let her free.
The scream takes me by surprise: I force the knife into her throat, ending it much more quickly than I meant to. I hear a door slam open on the hall and realize that I will be discovered, that my time is limited.
My arms are drenched in blood as I saw at her neck, gracelessly hacking until I make it through to the ruined pillow. I reach for the stake, still holding her down though I know she can't fight back-not yet, not till her wounds heal-but my fingers are slippery and it rolls to the floor. I leap to my feet to retrieve it but it's too late; the door flies open to reveal my wife. She screams at the sight of me, then again at the vampire's blood-soaked remains; she backs away and slumps against the wall in the hallway, sliding down to the floor as she covers her mouth with both hands, screams crowding each other on their way out of her throat, choking on her own horror. I hadn't meant for her to see this part. It was going to be cleaned away when I came for her in the morning, ready to whisk her away to our cottage in Meaux.
Now de Lotbinière appears in the doorway, blocking my wife's view. I turn around, the stake in my hand again, and start toward the bed. I hear him shout, "Fuck! Azelma!" and then he has me by the wrist. He pins me to a bedpost and punches me across the jaw, shouting words I can't understand. He punches me again in the stomach and I can't help but double over as the air leaves my body. For a moment I think I will work my way free to finish the job, but he hits my face again and I see that the stake is no longer in my hand. I try to push him off but he rakes his fingers through my hair and drags me away from the bed. He begins slamming my head into the floor and the room is spinning, but I see Cosette's bare feet come into view and pull him away from me.
I am too weak and sore to push myself to my feet again. The stake, stained with my bloody handprint, lies tantalizingly close to the bed where the half-killed vampire waits for me to finish the job. I try to push myself up but my arms won't support me, and I collapse to the floor again. Behind the ringing in my ears I hear Cosette's voice in a relentless stream. I turn my head enough to see her in de Lotbinière's arms, and I cannot tell which is comforting the other. He kisses her forehead but the brightness is gone from his eyes. Neither of them is looking at the bed.
Gathering the last of my strength, I stretch out one bare arm until my fingers are brushing the wood of the stake. My touch makes it roll a little further, hopelessly far from me, and I give in to unconsciousness.
Courfeyrac is silent for the weeks leading up to my trial, and without him I don't know what to say. I try to explain to the prison guard about Meaux, about the vampire who won't die until the stake is finally plunged into her heart, but he won't look at me. In court, I see laughter and concern in equal measures. Cosette's face remains buried in de Lotbinière's shoulder, and though he stares coldly at me, his eyes are as dead as Catherine's were the night I cut off her head. When I try to tell them why I did it, I see only disbelief.
I don't know why I expected them to let me out. Even Courfeyrac left me in the end. I don't know how much time passed before a group of guards hauls me up off the stone floor and throws me into the back of a cart. Bleary, I ask where we were going only to be met with a sharp laugh and the words, "Meaux, where do you think?"
If Courfeyrac were here, he would be the voice that warns me not to believe them. Courfeyrac is dead. I have to believe in Meaux.
I am at the back of the cart, my shackled feet dangling above the road. A group of homeless children forms from somewhere and chase us through the street, chanting about the galleys and the guillotine. I lift my head to look at them, and suddenly I feel a hot spurt of fear flush through my veins.
A boy at the front of the little group has her fishy eyes. He smirks at me when I look at him, and I feel my stomach turn.
I try to get the attention of the driver, of my fellow prisoners, of anyone, but they won't heed me. Many of the prisoners are raving too loudly for my cries to even be heard, while others sit dejected like men already dead. I shout and shout about the creature who has sworn revenge, the creature I almost killed, the stake that rolled just beyond my reach—they don't listen. The urchin's face smears and I see her where he once stood, her pink dress bright in the midday sun.
She follows the cart all the way to the Place de la Concorde, laughing at my fruitless screams, before she disappears into the crowd and leaves me to my fate.