A/N: This chapter does contain some graphic descriptions of child abuse. You have been warned.

Alice

It was already sunny when I woke up, which meant I was late. I thought I had set the alarm last night, but with everything that had happened, I guess I forgot. I squinted at the clock, which read 6:32 in flashing green letters. What was going on? Even if I had missed the alarm, someone should have woken me up for school.

Jasper. As soon as the thought entered my mind, I was up and running to his room. How could I have fallen asleep when he needed me? Okay, if I was being honest, I had cried myself to sleep, wanting desperately to go down there and help, but being forced to remain upstairs.

His room was empty, the bed made with his usual military precision. That didn't surprise me; he always fixed the bed as soon as he got out of it, even though Mom and Dad don't care. No, what bothered me was that Frank was missing. The bird always sat right next to the pillow, just the way Jasper had put him his first night here. Even when he was sleeping in Emmett's room, he took Frank with him.

At that thought, I nearly giggled at my own foolishness. Of course Jasper wouldn't want to sleep in his own room after what he had gone through last night. He would be in with Emmett. I hurried down the hall, taking care not to be too loud, just in case he was still asleep.

Emmett's room was empty also. Not only that, there was no sign that the air mattress had ever been set up. My mind spun in worried circles, trying to figure out where else he could be. Maybe he had fallen asleep in the living room; maybe he was in the kitchen eating breakfast; maybe he was down in Rosalie's garage. No reason to panic yet, Alice, not until you've checked all over for him.

I raced from room to room, finding no sign of Jasper anywhere. Where was he? Had Mom and Dad taken him to the hospital last night? Had Social Services come to get him? The last thought made my blood run cold. They wouldn't, would they? My parents loved Jasper; they would never give him away just because he had a few problems. After all, they hadn't given up on the rest of us, so they wouldn't give up on Jasper, either. Right?

Right?

"Alice! Baby, what's wrong?" Mom came rushing into the room, sounding terrified. "Why are you crying?"

For the first time, I registered the tears pouring down my face. "Jasper! Where is he? Mom, you didn't make Social Services take him back, did you?" My voice came out far more accusing than I meant for it to.

She seemed surprised that I would even ask. "Of course not. Your father took Jasper to the doctor this morning. Why would you think we would ask them to take him back?"

I had no reason to disbelieve her, since she had never lied to me before, but I found it impossible to let go of my theory without actually being able to see and touch him. "Jasper doesn't go to the doctor on Thursdays. He goes on Tuesday and Friday."

She held out her arms, and I rushed into them. "Felix wanted to see him as soon as we could get him in. Alice, we would never want to give Jasper back. We love him, and I know you love him."

I felt bad for ever doubting her. "I just . . . he was gone, and I couldn't find Frank, either, so I thought you had let him keep Frank when you sent him away."

"Frank?"

"Yeah, the kiwi." I wondered if Jasper would be embarrassed to have them find out he had named it. I didn't think there was anything wrong with that, but sometimes boys got upset about the strangest things.

Mom laughed, even though I could tell she was trying to contain it. "Your brother spilled coffee on that thing this morning, which, by the way, is why I keep telling you not to bring food and drinks up into your rooms. I put it in the washer so it didn't smell like a Folgers factory for Jasper tonight. Plus, Frank was kind of sticky. I think Jasper's been down in the garage helping Rosalie, then going upstairs and touching him without washing his hands first."

"But he's coming home as soon as he's done with Felix, right? He doesn't have to go the hospital, or an institution, or anything?" I didn't even want to think about that, but my biological parents had been able to do it to me, and I had no doubt that Mom and Dad would do it to Jasper if he really needed it.

"As far as I know, they should be home for lunch." She turned to me, her dark eyes troubled. "Alice, baby, I know you love Jasper, and you want him to be able to stay forever. I want that, too, and he's certainly welcome here for as long as he needs, but you need to start thinking about the fact that he might be leaving soon. Once he's eighteen, we can't force him to stay. If he leaves, that doesn't mean he wants to leave you, but he might need a break from the rest of us."

I wished I could make her understand Jasper the way I did. He wasn't going to leave, not even for a few days. It wasn't that he was entirely sure of us, but you know how the old saying goes: Better the devil you know than the one you don't. Jasper would stay, if for no other reason than that he was too afraid to leave.

Plus, he loved us. Maybe not in the way most people loved their families, but he did. Slowly but surely, he was making a place for himself in the family. I mean, if Rose liked him, he must be something special. She took him almost everywhere with her, so he wouldn't be kept cooped up in the house all the time. She was a good sister, even if she and Edward seemed to hate each other.

Emmett probably would have liked Jasper no matter what. He somehow managed to see the best in everyone, a quality I wished I shared. I was a social butterfly, but I didn't usually let people get as close to me as I was to them. I hadn't even told Jasper anything about my past or what had happened to me. Of course, he hadn't told me anything, either, so I thought we were about even.

"Alice? Do you understand me? I don't want you to pressure Jasper about this. He's having a hard enough time as it is."

More than anything, I wanted to take the sadness from her eyes. It was going to be bad enough when Edward and I (and Emmett, if he ever got his act together) went on to college, but to lose Jasper, whom she had barely gotten to meet, would be devastating.

"Of course I understand you. But he's staying, I know it." I sounded as confident as I felt, and I sensed her eyebrows raising. We never really talked about it, but when my feelings were this strong, I was never wrong. Ever.

"I hope so." She let the subject drop from there.

I wasn't sure if I should ask my next question, but I did anyway. "Uh . . . how come everyone else is at school and I'm not?"

She sighed and gestured for me to help her unload the dishwasher. "You seemed so upset last night, and I thought maybe it would be better if you got some extra sleep and stayed home today. Plus, I didn't know what Felix would say, and I wanted at least one of my babies home with me if the news was bad."

I didn't think I would ever get tired of being referred to as her baby, or Daddy's little girl, or the princess. I had come so close to never having any of those things that I was willing to hang on and be a child a little longer than my brothers and sisters.

"It was good news, though, and they're coming home soon. Call Dad and tell him to pick up lunch. Then we can cut up the cake and have some, since no one got any last night." I made my voice cheerful and happy, reminding her that even though things could have been terrible, they were really okay.

Mom smiled, a smile that said she saw through me, but was willing to let me think I had won. "All right, where do you want lunch from?"

"The deli? That way everyone can find exactly what they want." Even after all these years, I still had a little trouble voicing a strong opinion sometimes. I should probably ask Rosalie for some lessons in asserting myself.

"That sounds lovely. I'll give your father a call." I waited while she dialed, nearly bouncing with excitement. Maybe Jasper wouldn't be done yet, but maybe he would. If he was done, maybe I could convince Mom to put him on the phone for a minute. Everyone kept saying he was all right, but I was dying to hear his voice.

"Carlisle, how's Jasper? . . . Oh, really? . . . He is?" I would have given anything for her to be on the house phone instead of her cell, so I could pick it up and listen in on the extension. Jasper was what? Or were they talking about someone else? No, that was silly, it had to be Jasper. "That's great. Listen, the ladies of the house are hungry, can you and Jasper stop at the deli and pick up something for us to eat? . . . No, it's just the four of us. Rose is in class. . . . Great, you know what we like. . . . No, she's right here, hang on a minute." She held out the phone to me. "Jasper wants to talk to you."

I barely restrained a squeal. Not only did I want to talk to Jasper, he wanted to talk to me back. It was like we were slowly getting into sync. "Hello?"

"Hey, Alice." His voice sounded just like it normally did, soft but steady. I don't know why I expected it to be different. "Um, listen, are you going to be home all day?" Before I could answer, he interrupted himself. "No, that's stupid; of course you're going to be home. Can you and I talk when I get there? Just you and me, before everyone else gets home?"

I knew it wasn't my imagination that made me think he sounded nervous. My stomach sank like a rock. After all, nothing good ever came from the words 'can we talk?' Most likely, he was trying to think of the easiest possible way to let me down. "Sure." I could hear the tears threatening in my voice.

Apparently he could too, because his tone switched to a worried one. "What's wrong?"

"Nothing." I couldn't tell him over the phone, especially with Mom listening in on my end and Dad listening in on his. "I'll see you in a little bit, all right?"

"All right." He sounded noticeably happier. Was it because I had agreed to talk to him, or was he just glad that I hadn't freaked out and made a scene?

I gave the phone back to Mom, blinking back tears. She put an arm around me as she said her goodbyes, squeezing my shoulders. As soon as she hung up, she was looking at me. "What's wrong? What did he say?"

The tears started then. "He . . . he wants to talk!" I put my head against her shoulder. "He said we need to do it in private."

"Why is that a bad thing?"

Honestly, had a boy ever broken up with her? Probably not. Mom was just about perfect. She was probably the one who broke all the hearts. "Because he's going to break up with me! He wants it to be just us in case I throw a huge fit."

"Oh. Alice, honey, I don't think he wants to break up with you. He probably just wants to apologize for last night and maybe give you the present he picked out."

I wiped my eyes. "He shouldn't have to apologize; it's not his fault. It just happened, and as long as he's all right, that's all that matters."

She brushed my hair back. "I know that, and you know that, but Jasper doesn't. He's used to being blamed for things that aren't even his fault, and from his point of view, this looks very much he caused all the problems. It would probably mean a lot to him if he heard you say that. Alice, he loves you, even if he can't say it yet."

Her words made me feel only marginally better. Even if he loved me, and I wasn't quite sure that was true, there was no guarantee he would want to stay with me. Jasper has a real problem with relationships, whether they were friendly or sexual (not that we were having sex! Or even thinking about it!) He says that he's tired of being disappointed, but I personally think they scare him. He's lost everyone he's ever bonded to, and he's scared of losing us, too. It would be typical Jasper logic to break up with me because he loved me so much.

But I couldn't say that to Mom. She was doing her best to comfort me, and I had to give her the credit she deserved. "I guess. Anyway, I'm going to work on my homework a little, can you call me when they get here?"

"Of course." She gave me another hug and kiss, which I gladly accepted before retreating to my room to think things over again. I flopped on the bed, picking up my favorite stuffed cat, Sherbet, and pouting. Mom had given me Sherbet the day they picked me up from the hospital, though he was looking a little worse for wear these days. He had been the first present I had received in my new life, and the comfort he had given me over the years was the main reason I had gotten Frank for Jasper. He would die before saying it out loud, but I was pretty sure that Frank was providing him the solace he was too stubborn to ask the rest of us for.

"All right, Sherbet, let's figure out what's going on." That was the other reason I wanted to be upstairs alone. I thought best when I was talking, and I didn't want to look like a freak in front of Mom. "Issue A: I think Jasper wants to break up with me. What do I do?"

Sherbet didn't respond, of course. I might be willing to talk to him, but that didn't mean I expected him to speak back. "I don't want to let him go. Even if it's what he wants, I can't. I know how selfish that sounds, but, just once, I want it to be about me and what I want, instead of about everyone else. Can't I have that? I always put everyone else first, and this time I want it to be about my needs."

I tucked the cat into my arms, just so I wouldn't have to look into its empty face. Oddly, now that I knew what it felt like to have Jasper hold me in his arms, a stuffed cat wasn't providing the same comfort it used to. "He needs me, too. I know he thinks he can take care of himself, and I know he's been doing it for a long time, but he needs someone to talk to him, and rub his back at night, and remind him that people really are okay. I can do that for him, if he'd let me. But I can't do that if he keeps pushing me away."

"So, issue A solved. We aren't breaking up, and, no, he doesn't get a say in the matter. On to issue B, then. What's wrong with him, and how do I fix it? Or do I fix it? I mean, he has Mom and Dad, and he has Felix, so maybe I'm not supposed to try and fix him. Shouldn't someone just love him for who he is, right now?"

Or maybe not. After all, who Jasper was right now wasn't going to get him very far in this world. For his own sake, he needed to get better, or at least develop some more useful social skills. If I didn't try and help him out, would I be holding him back? Not for the first time, I wished that I had a big book of all things Jasper, something that would tell me exactly what to do for him and when. Since that didn't seem likely to happen, I was just going to have to muddle through it as best I could. I didn't want to ask Mom or Dad, because I already knew what they would say. They would tell me to leave Jasper to them, that they would help him. Only they didn't seem to be doing much good.

I leaned against the headboard, my thoughts chasing themselves in circles. It was times like this that I wondered if Jasper really wouldn't be better off with someone else, someone who had a handle on life. What could I possibly offer him, except for my love?

That's all you need to offer him. The thought was small, but it cut through my confusion like a knife. I couldn't change him. The only one who had any hope of changing Jasper was Jasper, despite anything we could try. But he was too afraid to even be who he was right now, much less try and change. That was all right, though. I could love enough for two, until he could learn to love himself.

As if my thoughts had summoned them, I heard the car coming up the driveway. I stood at the window, unable to breathe until I saw first Dad and then Jasper get out, each holding an assortment of food. He was here, and that was all that mattered for the moment.

I raced down the stairs before Mom even had a chance to call me, eager to check on my boyfriend (I didn't think I would ever get tired of saying that) and make sure he was truly all right. He looked tired, his eyes more circled then I had seen them in weeks, and he was limping pretty badly, but when he saw me, his smile could have lit up a room. "Alice."

I pointed at him and grinned back. "Jasper." It was our standard greeting. Despite seeing a speech therapist weekly (this would be in addition to a psychologist twice a week and a physical therapist on Wednesdays), he still had trouble with words. I was starting to suspect that it was just that he had a quiet, shy demeanor, rather than that he couldn't find the words. That was fine with me; I could do enough talking for the both of us.

Because he already had his arms full, I didn't jump into them like I usually would have. Instead I kept close to his side as he put the food down and carefully poured drinks. Mom came up behind him and gave him a hug, which I noticed he didn't really shy away from. He didn't look very happy to be touched, but he was at least tolerating it.

"How are you feeling, sweetheart?"

I should have been the one asking that question, and I couldn't help but feel a little resentful. Jasper just smiled at her, though, and whispered, "Better. Felix said I might be kind of tired for a day or two."

That seemed to be all he had to say, so the four of us sat down to eat. Dad ate a few bites, then looked nervously at Jasper. "Jasper, is it all right if we talk about what you and Felix discussed?"

Jasper nodded, but refused to look up. Even without seeing his eyes, I could almost feel the shame rolling off of him. He wouldn't refuse, though. I'm not sure why, but he seems to think that Mom and Dad own him now, and that they're allowed to do and say whatever they want.

Dad raised his hand slightly, like he wanted to lay it on Jasper's back, but then he thought better of it and put it back down. "After talking with Jasper, Felix is standing by what he said last night. He thinks that Jasper had a flashback, and he's adding a Post Traumatic Stress Disorder diagnosis to his file."

Mom put a hand to her mouth, tears forming in her eyes. It was one thing to know in your heart that there was something terribly wrong with the child you've been handed, but another thing entirely to have a third party confirm it.

It seemed that I was going to have to save this conversation. Jasper was studying the table, pushing a potato chip around with one finger and generally blocking us out. "What does that mean?"

Dad started to explain. "Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is when something terrible happens to someone—war, rape, abuse of any sort—and it causes—"

I cut him off. "I know what it is. It's when something happens and you survive, but you don't really get over it. Things remind you of what happens and you can't handle it. Like Vietnam vets who come back and freak out when they hear a car backfire. What I meant was, what does it mean for Jasper?"

Dad shrugged. "Well, there's the comfort of being able to put a name to the feelings and symptoms he's been having. It also gives Felix a direction to go in when they're working together. Other than that, not a whole lot. You have to remember, this is a new diagnosis, but the symptoms aren't new; Jasper's been having them all along. Really, not much has changed."

Except for the fact that Jasper now had a fourth (or was it fifth? Or sixth?) health diagnosis added to his file. I had seen my own file, and it hurt to see the words put down in black and white. Hysterical Amnesia. Psychosis. Repressed Memory.

An uncomfortable silence fell over the table and Dad cleared his throat nervously. "The good news is, Jasper doesn't have to stay at the hospital. Felix thinks that it's better for him to stay here, in a stable home, than to be taken away from the people he trusts."

There were more questions to ask, a million of them, but I made myself stop there. It bothered me that we were sitting here discussing Jasper like he wasn't even in the room, or he couldn't understand what was being said.

"That's what matters. Come on, Jasper, we're going upstairs." Much as I didn't want to hear what he felt he had to tell me, I needed to get it over with.

"I'm still eating." Apparently he wasn't terribly eager to have this conversation, either.

"No, you're mashing your chips into dust and picking the last bite of your sandwich to pieces. Now either eat it or let's go."

There wasn't much he could say to that, considering it was the truth. He picked his plate up to take it to the sink, but Mom intercepted him and took it out of his hands. "Go on, sweetheart, I'll clean up."

His hand was cold and shaking a bit in mine as we went upstairs. I knew without asking that he would rather go to my room than his own, so I sat on the bed and watched him pace. A part of me wanted to give him a little nudge to get him started, like I always had in the past, but I forced myself to keep still. He needed to do this at his own pace.

After nearly five minutes, though, he wasn't any closer to being able to speak. I finally took pity on him and held out my arms. "Come here."

He was in them in an instant, his face against my neck. Surprisingly enough, he really liked being held like that. If I had to guess, I would have thought he would hate to be put in such a vulnerable position, but he seemed to crave the contact. He mumbled something against the skin of my neck, his hot breath making me shiver.

"What?"

"I said, I'm sorry about last night. I wanted you to have a perfect birthday." His eyes, a stormy grey, met mine.

Mom had been right; he did think that this was his fault. I lightly rubbed his neck. "It's all right. It's not the worst party we've had in this family."

He snorted.

"No, really. For Edward's eleventh birthday, Mom was in the hospital. It was terrible. Then, when Rosalie turned fifteen, she was in a mental hospital. They called it a 'Residential Treatment Center,' but it was a hospital."

I could tell I was getting through to him by the way he cocked his head at me. "Really?"

"Would I lie? Ask anyone else if you don't believe me."

He straightened up so we were sitting side by side, his shoulder pressed against mine. "But those weren't your birthdays. Your birthday was supposed to be right and I wrecked it."

Before I could protest, he stood up and moved away, choosing to perch on my desk chair. He looked down for a minute, then up, then down again. Instinct told me that what he was about to say was important, so I waited. Finally, he spoke, his voice low and defeated. "If you wanted to break up with me, I would understand why."

My heart plummeted into my shoes. I knew it; he wanted to break up with me. Just like I had told Mom, nothing good ever came from the words Can we talk? "But . . . I thought you wanted to be with me. I thought we were going to go bowling on Saturday." Tears pooled in my eyes and started rolling down my cheeks. I wanted to be strong and act like his betrayal wasn't affecting me at all, but I couldn't. My emotions ran too close to the surface for me to hide them well.

He rushed to reassure me. "I do! I want to be with you, but . . . well; I'm not good for you. I'm fucked up, Alice, and it's not fair for you to be sitting here playing nursemaid to me when you could be having a normal relationship with a normal guy."

This was, of course, the opportunity I had been waiting for. I could tell him about James, and my biological parents, and all the reasons that I was just as messed up, if not more so, than he was. It was the worst sort of hypocrisy to expect him to reveal all of his secrets while I hung onto mine. But the words choked in my throat.

Jasper must have taken my silence as affirmation, because he looked down at the carpet. He hunched his shoulders and sighed softly. "I didn't get to give you your present last night. Do you still want it?"

He was giving me a peace offering, but I wouldn't take it. If I wanted Jasper, I was going to have to fight for him. "I don't want to give you up. I don't want a normal guy, or any guy but you." I drew myself to my full height, which was admittedly an entire foot shorter than his, and glared. "Whether you like it or not."

A silence fell as our eyes battled each other. I wasn't about to give in to him and his worries, and he wasn't about to let me provide any comfort. After a few minutes, he started to get visibly agitated. Sick as it was, I knew he would back down, because he had no other resources. The woman got angry with him, he fought weakly back, and then he gave in, in the hopes that he wouldn't get hurt. All I had to do was hang on.

Unfortunately, Jasper had done a lot of changing in the two months he had been with us. Rose had done a good job in building him a backbone, and he seemed to delight in showing it off. "All right, you want to keep me? You sit right there, and I'll show you exactly what you're fighting so hard to keep." He jumped off the desk and stormed out of the room.

It was like he had taken all the air in the room with him. I slumped back, trying to control my shaking. Where was he, and what was he doing? Should I get Mom and Dad, or should I just wait, like he had told me to? Something was happening here, something huge.

My heart pounded as I listened for any noises that might indicate what Jasper was doing. Great job, Alice; not only did you drive him away, you managed to piss him off, too. You're batting a thousand tonight.

I told my inner voice to shut up. This was Jasper, and he wouldn't hurt me, no matter how upset he might be. Hurt himself, maybe, but not me.

I didn't have to wait very long before Jasper reappeared. Oddly, he had changed into a T-shirt I knew had to be Emmett's. I knew it was because Jasper didn't own any short-sleeved shirts of his own, but I couldn't figure out why he had changed at all. The skin on his arms was pale from lack of exposure, and I could see a few scattered scars here and there. Jasper crossed his arms over his chest. "Do you still want to know what you're fighting for?"

"Yes." I put my chin up and stared him in the eyes. Whatever he was planning, I could handle it. I wasn't going to be that fragile child any more.

He leaned against the wall. "Do you want to know what happened to me last night? The truth? Do you want to know exactly what I told Felix?"

Stay calm. If you show fear, he'll never really trust you. "Yes."

He pulled up the sleeve of his shirt to reveal a shiny scar on his upper arm. The skin was waxy-looking and rippled, so I knew it was a burn mark. Rose had a similar one from a campfire accident, though hers was nowhere near as large. This must have been a good three inches wide, and covered most of his bicep. He pointed at it. "Any guesses about where it came from? You know, before I tell you?"

I kept my voice steady and my eyes on his. "It came from Maria."

The fight seemed to go out of him at my whispered words. "Yeah, it came from Maria." He sat down next to me again, seeming to be lost in his own thoughts.

I pushed his sleeve up and ran a finger over the mark, feeling the odd texture where his skin had been permanently damaged. "When you got burned yesterday, it reminded you of what she had done." The pieces were falling into their horrible, horrible, places.

He nodded tightly. "Felix thought that I should try and talk to someone in the family about it. He says I should try and trust you guys."

"You should! Anything you want to tell me, I'll listen." I had to make him understand that I loved him, and I wanted to know more about what made him who he was.

Jasper reached out and patted Sherbet, probably pretending that he wasn't wishing for Frank. I would have gotten the bird for him, but Frank was most likely still rolling around in the dryer. When he looked at me, his eyes had a sheen to them that hadn't been there before. "I don't want to make you sad."

Despite it all, he was still trying to protect me. "You won't. You can tell me whatever you want."

"Want has nothing to do with it." He took a deep breath. "Before you say you want to be with me, I want you to hear this. Keep in mind that this isn't the worst thing I could tell you, but it's up there."

I put my head on his shoulder, knowing that this was hard enough for him without having to look me in the eyes. My hand found his, and I curled my fingers against his palm.

He looked at the floor, the ceiling, the walls, anywhere but at me. When he finally spoke, his voice was steady, the calm in it belying his words and making them seem even worse. "I was in trouble. Not just with her, but at school this time. Sam and I got into a fistfight, and I came home with a black eye. Maria got called out of work, because I was suspended, and she just sat there and looked at me the whole time the principal was explaining what had happened. Didn't talk, didn't yell, just looked at me." He broke off there and blinked a few times. "I think the principal knew. Maybe not that she would hurt me, but that I was afraid of her. He knew, but he didn't do anything about it."

Anger flared in my chest when he said that. People complained about the social workers, complain that they never seem to make it to the kids in trouble, that they don't do their jobs, that they interfere where they aren't needed. I understood it, and even agreed with it on some level, but they were never going to know which kids were in trouble if no one called to report it. That principal was under both a moral and legal obligation to contact Social Services if he thought abuse was occurring, and he had failed in that duty. Yes, Jasper's social worker had also failed him, but how many people saw a bruise, or a cut, or a look of fear, and did nothing?

Jasper continued on, unaware of the battle within me. "So, she took me home, but didn't let me get out of the car once we got there. She just sat there and said, 'Well, Jasper, what am I going to do with you? I punish you, and I try with you, and you go right back to what you were doing before. It's like you don't even remember what you did wrong.' That wasn't true, of course. I remember, but sometimes my temper just gets the better of me. Sam said . . . you know, it doesn't matter what Sam said. It was stupid, the entire thing.

"Finally she snapped her fingers and told me that she was just going to have to help me remember that I was bad, that was all. She promised that this time I wouldn't forget what I had done. She wasn't angry, which meant I was in deep shit. When she was angry, she hit. When she was calm, she got creative."

Despite my brave words earlier, I was starting to wish he wouldn't continue at all. I knew what he told me was going to change things, not only between us, but in my own mind. But I wouldn't beg him to stop. I had asked for this, and I would see it through to the end.

"She had left the littler kids with a neighbor, so it was just us in the house. I was just kind of standing there in the kitchen, and she slapped the back of my head and said, 'All right, you asked for it. Take your shirt off and sit on the counter.' I did it. Once she got like that, her mind was made up and you couldn't do anything to change it. It was better to just sit tight and let her get it out. She pulled out this old bottle of alcohol, something really nasty and strong, and poured a glass of it. Then she gave it to me and said 'Drink this, because it's all you're getting.' I didn't really want to, but I was more afraid of making her mad, so I did it."

His nose scrunched at the memory. "It was horrible, and I couldn't stop coughing and gagging, but I kept it down. Then I saw that she had a razor in her hand. She put it up against my arm and very calmly said, 'Jasper, you better not move. You start fighting me or flinching, and I may just slip and cut an artery. You want to bleed to death on my floor?' I didn't, so I just sat there and let her cut me. Didn't fight, didn't scream, just sat. So really, Alice, that's what you're getting. The guy who couldn't even say no when it meant saving his own skin. If I can't even defend myself, there's no way I could defend you."

That was total bullshit, but I didn't dare open my mouth to tell him that. I didn't want to give him any excuse to stop. Hopefully, he would never be put into another situation like that, where he needed to defend me against such a terrible threat, but if he was, I knew he would prove quite capable. Things were just different when you were defending someone you cared about, as opposed to your own self.

My determination must have shown in my eyes, because he didn't stop. "I thought she had just cut me a few times, but then she got a paper towel and wiped away all the blood and I saw she hadn't. She had fucking branded me. Big capital letters on my arm: BAD. Three letters that anyone could see. Then she smiled at me and told me to go upstairs and rest for a while, then get started on dinner. Oh, and by the way, if I told anyone, even Peter, she would make damn sure she cut my dick off the next time."

Under normal circumstances, even the most oblique reference to the male genitalia would have had me stammering and blushing. However, I was so deeply in shock over what he had just said that I barely even noticed. I had been expecting to hear She hit me or She locked me in the basement, or even She didn't feed me. The calm, accepting way he said She branded me pointed to an entirely new level of depravity.

When I looked over at Jasper, I saw that he had gone dead white. As hard as this was for me to hear, it must have been even harder for him to say. Had he even told Felix? I stroked his palm again, and he gave me a shaky smile. "I need a drink."

What he really needed was a minute to collect his thoughts, but I let it slide. "I'll get you a Coke."

Dad was sitting at the kitchen table, reading over the paper. "What are the two of you doing up there?"

He didn't sound suspicious, just curious, but I felt my hackles rise. This was between Jasper and me, and I didn't want anything to ruin it. "Just talking."

His eyebrow rose. "About what?"

"Stuff." Only the most important stuff that had ever been discussed between us.

"Oh." The look he gave me told me that he knew exactly what we were talking about, but he made no move to get up. "Good for him." The last words seemed to be spoken mostly to himself.

Jasper was still there, but pacing back and forth like a caged tiger. He wanted to run, I could see it in his eyes, but I could also see the weary realization that he had nowhere to run to. This was his very last shot, and he needed to make the most of it.

He took the Coke and drank deeply, nearly draining the bottle. "Thanks."

"No problem." I waited patiently, but he didn't say anything else. He seemed to have lost the thread of his story. I was torn between letting it go, and being grateful for what he had told me, and pressing him to finish. Even as my mind still wavered, my mouth made the choice. "So, what happened then?"

"That was it. She cut me, and I took it. That's the story." He was obviously bewildered that I was so confused.

"Nice try. You said that she cut you, which is true. But that mark on your arm is a burn, not a cut. What happened after she cut you?" I tried to keep my voice calm but firm.

"Oh." I could almost see his mind whirring as he tried to think of a way out of this. "Well, that came later."

I rolled my eyes. "It certainly didn't come before." As I had hoped, he gave me a weak smile and came to sit by my side again. I ran my fingers up and down his spine through his shirt, something else he liked. See, I was fine with touching, as long as it was over the clothes. Luckily, Jasper hadn't pushed for more.

Jasper leaned against me and didn't speak. He didn't relax, like he usually did, though, so I knew he was still thinking. "You sure you want to hear the rest?"

I couldn't find my voice, so I nodded instead. He huffed and nodded. "It didn't Maria too long to figure out that she had fucked up big time. A bruise could come from a fall, a cut from a scuffle, but no one has an accident and ends up with the word 'BAD' on their arm. That's abuse, plain and simple. So, unless she wanted the social worker to see it the next time he showed up, she had to figure something out. So she decided to fix it."

Oh, hell, no. No, no, no, no. I could already tell where this was going, and I didn't want any part of it. But my voice was still stuck, and he kept right on going. "This time she decided to use the basement, where the washer and dryer were. She already had the iron on the board, all plugged in and waiting." He shifted so he was leaning against me, his chin on top of my head.

"You already know where this is going, so I'll spare you the details. Let's just say that, twenty minutes later, there was no more brand, and I had a nice painful burn on my arm. It was all right, though."

I jerked my head up, causing his teeth to snap together in a painful-sounding way. "What! That bitch burned the hell out of your arm, and you think it was all right?"

He shrugged carelessly. "Well, no, not the abusive part. But what would you rather have stuck on your body for all eternity: a burn scar that you can claim came from anywhere, or a fucking neon sign to tell people how screwed up you really are?"

The correct response to that was neither. There shouldn't be a single mark on his skin, not even a scar from tripping and falling as a child. The thought of his suffering even the slightest discomfort was almost physically painful for me. "You aren't screwed up, and even if you were, I would think you were the most wonderful person in the entire world."

He leaned back against the bed, giving me his patented crooked smile, and shook his head. "You could find the good in anyone."

I wasn't quite sure what to say to that, so I just smiled instead. I wanted to tell him that I loved him, because I did, but now wasn't the right time. Instead I kept running my fingers up and down his back. He leaned against me, quiet and content, his eyes half closed. These were the moments that intrigued me most, the moments when he wasn't thinking at all, just being with me. "Did you tell Felix all of this?"

"Hmmm?" The murmur suggested he had been on the verge of sleep, but he woke quickly. "No. I mean, yes, but not detailed like I did you. I only told him about her burning me. You're the only one who knows the true story. I didn't even tell Peter. I don't really think that I fooled Felix, but he didn't say anything."

He probably hadn't. Felix was uncommonly astute about when a kid was trying to lie to him, but he was also really good at knowing when to push and when to back off and be satisfied with what he had already gotten. It was what made him the only therapist Dad would consider sending any of us to.

But who cared about Felix? What mattered right now was that Jasper trusted me more than he trusted anyone else on this planet. He had told me something that no one else knew, except for him and Maria, whom I was very strongly hoping was suffering immensely right now. It wasn't exactly screaming his love for me from the rooftops, but it might as well have been. Jasper didn't make huge scenes, he communicated with the tiniest gestures, and if you weren't watching, you missed it. Without thinking, I kissed his temple. He made a soft noise in his throat, almost a purr, then quieted again.

It should have been perfect. Just Jasper and me, cuddling on the bed as we both recovered from what he had revealed. For once, there was no family bothering us or offering advice or not very subtly trying to remind Jasper to keep his hands to himself.

But a small voice kept nagging me, ruining the moment. Sweet, isn't he, the way he trusts you? The way he tells you things that he would never admit to anyone else? He thinks you're perfect, Alice, just like a goddess. Would he still think you were perfect if he knew about James? If he knew that some other man had touched you first? He was honest with you, but can you be honest with him?

As much as I wanted to tell that voice to shut up, I knew it was right. Jasper deserved the truth before this went any further. He needed a chance to run, the same chance he had just given me.

"Jasper?"

My voice trembled, and it was enough to get his head to pop up. "What? What's wrong?"

"There's something I need to tell you. You've been honest with me, and I've not been honest back. If you want to break it off afterward, that's your choice, but please let me get the whole story out."

He leaned back against the headboard, his eyes intent on mine. He didn't make false claims, like nothing I could say would matter, or he would love me until the stars fell from the sky; he just nodded, and I loved him even more for it. "Go on."

I took a deep breath and began. "When I was four years old, I had this neighbor, James. . . ."