I am reading in the woods alone, reclining with my back against an Alaskan larch, when Edward steps through the trees. He nods, and I nod, and he shoots one furtive glance over his shoulder before lightly jumping to one of the moss-covered branches above me. He settles down with one of his notebooks and a fountain pen, and I wonder, with only a small amount of annoyance, why in all the wide and echoing expanse of Alaska, he has chosen to come here and invade my personal space. If it had only been one instance, I would have thought nothing of it, but Edward has been like my shadow ever since the three of us returned to our family. He is always there, it seems, lurking behind me with a strange mix of guilty emotions that I can't quite place.
But Edward is a man of secrets, unlike the rest of us, and though I can sense that my presence is calming to him, I don't understand why. "You've been awfully quiet the past few days," I say casually, trying to draw him out.
He makes a face. "Tanya."
I almost laugh. Bold, persistent Tanya had latched onto Edward the moment he arrived, and has been attempting to seduce him ever since, with a slow, determined inseparability that reminds me of a slug inching up a wall. That's explainable, I think, turning back to my book. But the emotions radiating from you are not. I know you don't want your problems to be a burden on anyone, but having you follow me around like a magpie, collecting my feelings of peace and happiness like trinkets for your nest is just as bad. So tell me, and get it over with: what happened out there, with Rémy?
He is quiet for a long time, then sighs, folding his notebook closed. "Do you believe in Carlisle's heaven?"
I consider this for a moment, but instead of the worn leather cover of Carlisle's bible and the straight lines of a cross, I think of Alice. I think of forgiveness, of seeing the best in someone, of unconditional, unchanging, overpowering love. "I believe in something," I say honestly. "Goodness, maybe. Redemption."
"Have you ever killed anyone out of mercy?"
I turn my head up to where Edward sits, perched above me with his notebook on his lap. For once, he looks very young, and I can feel the insecure fear leaking out of him just as vividly as the droplets of rain on my face. I look down again, brush the moisture from the page, and close my book against the spattering of rain.
"Maria usually turned men, not women," I say, remembering. "Peter's Charlotte was a rare exception, and there were a few others scattered here and there too. This one girl, she was maybe fifteen when Maria claimed her, and she was unnaturally sweet for our kind, a real little beauty. Maria couldn't take it. She was so cruel to that girl that it makes my stomach turn to think of it now. The kind of mental and physical tortures that no one could withstand, let alone a fifteen year old girl. She begged me for mercy, and so I snuck into the newborn holding area one night and killed her as gently as I could, put an end to it, and blamed it on inner-coven fighting the next morning."
I look up at Edward again, my expression stern. "There are many sins that I'm ashamed of, but that's not one of them."
He stares down at me with a hesitant smile, and after a moment, he nods. I can see in his eyes that he has more to say, but his expression changes slightly and his gaze moves toward the edge of the clearing. The warm scent of sunshine breezes through the air, and a very familiar aura of love and happiness seems to drown out my entire world with light. No matter how many times I feel her presence, the warmth of it is always a gift somehow, always something more than what I dared to hope for. Alice walks through the trees as gracefully as a doe, and shades her eyes from the rain to look at the two of us. A smile warms my face.
"Tanya's looking for you," she says merrily to Edward, before making her way over to me. She's wearing a new dress that makes her look like a sprig of lavender among the green, and I put down my book, longing to see if that shimmery fabric feels as soft as it looks.
Edward grimaces. "I know she's looking for me."
I take Alice's little hands and pull her into my lap. Both of us look up at Edward in humor. "I could charge up Tanya's lust a bit for you, if you want," I offer. "Really get her going." Alice laughs.
Edward narrows his eyes. "I see. Fine thanks I get for helping you two out with Maria." He leaps down from the branch with a light thump and brushes the bits of moss from his pants, but I can feel that he isn't as insulted as he looks. He is trying, in his moody Edward way, to give Alice and me some semblance of privacy. "I can take care of Tanya myself, thank you. Maybe someday, through careful and studious reiteration, she'll actually begin to understand the meaning of the word 'no'."
"Hmm, I wouldn't count on it," Alice says sagely. I smile into her hair.
Edward glares at her. "Thanks a lot, Alice. That's very helpful. I suppose I'll just resign myself to an eternity alone with the league of happy couples." He turns to leave, but looks at me backwards over his shoulder. He nods, once, and it is enough to convey the thanks he feels for my words about mercy. You're welcome, I think. But I wonder, as he disappears through the trees away from us, how many other secrets Edward is holding in his heart, beneath the layers of sarcasm and stormy aloofness. He's a complicated one, my brother, and somehow I get the feeling that his whims are capable of causing far more trouble than I ever have.
Alice picks my book up from the wet ferns and turns it in her hands to see the title. She glances at me with a raised eyebrow. "Nietzsche?"
I grin. "If I'm going to enroll at the university this fall, I need to be well-versed on the classics of philosophy."
"Between Dickens novels, you mean?" she teases, but I can feel her pride at my determination and courage. She always wanted me to go to school. The laughter drains from me as suddenly as it appeared, and I hold her closer to me, my Alice who believes in me the way no one else does and loves me the way no one else ever will. With her head resting against my silent heart, she can feel my desperation, and like many times over the past few days, she turns her amber eyes on me with compassion. "I'm here, Jazz," she says softly. " I'm not going anywhere."
I brush my thumb over her cheek and let it rest in the hollow below her ear. "Sometimes I think the humans have it easy," I say after a moment. "They run around in a constant state of stress over things like money, and jobs, and finding a date for Saturday night, and who said what to who... but it's all temporary, isn't it? One sting of pain mixed in with a heap blissful ignorance over a string of a few decades, and then it's done. Wherever they go afterwards, to Heaven like Carlisle says, or just into non-existence, it's over. They have no concept of the things we carry — the thoughts and memories and real, true horrors that can haunt us for an eternity."
"That's enough philosophy for you, Mister," Alice says, but I can see the love and understanding in her eyes as she kisses me gently on the lips.
"It was terrible being apart from you, that's all," I murmur against her. "Being apart, and not knowing. I'm going to carry that with me for a long time."
A voice floats out to us, musical and slightly raised: Esme calling us into a family meeting. Because I know Alice wants to be a part of things, and because I'm slowly learning that it's okay for me to be a part of them too, I stand up with her still in my arms, and set her gently on her feet. When I take her hand, she squeezes my palm once, and in her rain-streaked dress with droplets of moisture in her shining black hair, she has never looked more beautiful to me. 'Terrible' is actually a grotesque understatement for the blank-minded horror I felt when I was apart from her. Apart and helpless to do anything but watch from a distance as my love may or may not have been killed. No philosopher could even begin to extrapolate the intensity of such a nightmare.
"Me too," Alice says quietly. "Being apart, and not knowing… that was the worst."
"Except you always know, don't you? My little seer." I smile down at her. "And what does the future hold for us?"
Her aura slips away for a moment, just a breath, and then she is back here with me, her eyes shining with soft emotion. "Happiness, certainly. There will be a lot of that over the years." Her gaze moves to where Edward had disappeared earlier. "And surprises, too. Surprises that come with hardships but somehow end up right in the end. There may be times when we feel pain or fear, but it's our suffering that makes these moments — these peaceful times, seem so special. The future holds a lot for us, Jazz. How can it not, when we're together?"
I watch her eyes flicker with some far away concern. "What is it?"
"I just wonder sometimes. About her, I mean," she says, and the image of Maria presses between us like a tenacious ghost. "I wonder."
I sigh. I wonder too, and I probably always will. Even for all that she has done to me, there is no one more pitiable and bent on self-sabotage than Maria. Whatever the future holds for her, I don't want to know; I can't imagine in any way shape or form that it will be a happy reflection of mine. Maria doesn't have the love of a good heart to guide her, nor the stability of a family. She has nothing, and it makes me sad — beyond sad, to realize that she never will. "Maria's like a cat, darlin'. She always lands on her feet. She may not learn the lessons she needs to learn, or come to the conclusions that she needs to, but she's a survivor. Whatever life there is left, she'll own it."
"You don't think she'll change, then?" Alice asks in a small voice. "Not even after everything that happened?"
I look south beyond the tree line, in the direction of Mexico and Monterrey — where Maria was either holding trial with the Volturi, running for her life, or somehow managing to do neither: unexpected, volatile Maria, effortlessly escaping accountability once more. "No," I say steadily, and I sigh again. I draw Alice closer to me, fitting her tight against my body, and letting go of the past for good. "But I wish her well, just the same."
At the top of the marble staircase, a grand, silent piece of sweeping, unnecessary architecture, I come to halt and stare.
It is night now, and stars shine through the glass atrium as watchful and expectant as a sky full of blinking white eyes. Cobwebs float from the unlit chandelier to each darkened corner, visible only when I turn my head; strands of sticky neglect that swing back and forth in the breeze from the open door. Moonlight slides across the dance floor below, casting strange-shaped shadows through the ornate silhouette of the chandelier — hooks and rings and long lines that reach all the way into the corners. Though it is empty and silent, this room rings with echoes of the past: sycophantic laughter and raised voices, the clink of fine crystal, the flutter of piano and dragging of strings.
I head down the stairs one at a time, and send a splash of gasoline sailing with each footstep. The liquid slides across the smooth steps and spills over the sides, hitting the ballroom floor with wet slaps that sound like gunshots.
At the bottom of the stairs, the silence closes in on me. I have never heard it this quiet before, without the voices and the music and the battle cries and the shouting. Now there is only the warm chirp of cicadas and the slow dripping of gasoline from the can in my hand. I spin around beneath the chandelier in one last waltz, my hands reaching out for the partner I no longer have. The click of my heels against the marble and the swishing sound of my skirt form a beat of their own, a new symphony of what it is to love, to lose, and to be alone.
I trail a line of gasoline behind me out the door and into the balmy summer night, where I soak the fiery clumps of azaleas and hedgerows, the long trails of ivy that run up the colonnades and Spanish arches. I toss the empty can to the cobblestone courtyard with a clatter, and pick up the new one waiting for me beside the wrought-iron gate. I follow the well-traveled trail to the woods beyond the mansion, to the ring of live oaks where I had the newborns burned at the turning of their first year. Here, there is no moonlight to guide me, only a swallowing darkness that pushes in on me from all sides. The star-eyes above brighten.
The last of the gasoline is tossed to the center of the ring, splashing on the fresh pieces of wood and kindling: the busted pieces of the solid oak bed from my room, the many dresses and silks I once draped myself in, the chaise lounge from the ballroom, the priceless pieces of antique furniture I once scattered around the mansion with pride, all interspersed with the personal bank papers and records of all the newborns that I had turned, used, and killed.
I twirl the matchbook in my hands once.
It is darkly thrilling, this moment: the point of no return. I savor it with a long inhalation of damp, heated air, the taste of gasoline stinging my lips like a kiss. Then I strike a match in the curve of my hand, and throw it. I walk around the outside and light another, and another, another, another, until the bonfire rises with a whoosh of sound, glowing hot orange-red, spitting sparks and hissing as the furniture cracks and falls apart under the pressure. The heat prickles against my face, and I raise a hand to shield my eyes when the first of the oaks catches fire and sends down a rain of embers.
I step away from the wet line of gasoline leading back the mansion, and make my way to the hot grass beside the woods, on the edge of the hill that faces the entire vista of Monterrey. I stand there silently, unmoving, and watch as my life goes up in a blaze.
When the fire rushes past me in a long line toward the mansion, I glance down at the watch on my wrist. Sunrise is only minutes away. The starting of a new day. The starting of a new life. I wait until the sky begins to lighten with pink and violet, and then gently, as if it's made of spun-glass and not heavy gold, I slide the wristwatch off my hand. I hold it there for a moment, ticking in my palm like a pulse, and then turn it over. In the flickering firelight, the inscription leaps out at me again, burning into me in a way that the flames never, ever could:
Gabriel, my only love. Through death and time, forever.
Not Second, but Gabriel. Not my only soldier, but my only love. Not never, but now, always, and forever — whatever forever means to those of our kind. The words are mine, and yet not mine, I am a part of them and yet I am a thousand lifetimes away. I trace over the carved letters with my fingertip once before pressing my lips together, and closing my hand around the heavy gold until I can feel it crack against the marble of my palm. I arch my arm back, take a deep breath, and send the watch whistling into the blaze. The gold spins, shining in the darkness, until it disappears somewhere in the heat and light, the world of smoke and flames. And I imagine, though I can't see, that those words are melting now, sliding down sideways to seep into the ashy ground, no longer a trinket worn around a wrist, but a part of the earth itself, infused with the very air I take in through my lungs — breath after ragged breath.
"Ma'am, are you alright?"
I whip around sharply, startled; I hadn't even noticed anyone approaching. The scent of gasoline and smoke hangs around me like a cage, too thick to notice the smell of a warm-blooded human riding up behind me — a young man on a hulking horse which stops and twitches nervously, both at both my presence and the dangerous heat of fire. The man's eyes widen when I turn my face up to him, and imagine what I must look like to him: ash-covered but resplendent, polished and reeking of guilt and grief. The horse stomps and snorts, and the man blinks once, and reigns the animal to a standstill. "I saw the fire from the hill— do you need me to into town for help?"
"No," I blurt out, more sharply than I intended. "Don't leave me." And in the crazed, grieving moment of panic that follows, I can't help but wonder who I'm shouting after: the man who left me in the middle of the dance floor, the man I murdered out of fear and love, or the man who slips down from his horse and stands before me now. "Stay with me," I say desperately. "Don't leave."
Like I'm a skittish horse myself, a wild thing that must be tamed, he holds up his hands and nods, approaching me on slow, silent feet. He is thickly muscled, but tall and well-proportioned, almost graceful in the way he moves. His hair is cut short around his ears, and day-old stubble grows over his jaw and around his mouth. His eyes are Spanish-black and direct, honest, staring at me with a gleam of suspicion mixed in all the awe. There is a rifle attached to his back, and he swings it off in a calm, familiar motion, setting it on the grass where it glimmers in the firelight.
"Are you a soldier?" I ask him.
"No ma'am. I'm a hunter."
"Are you any good?"
He cocks his eyebrow at the strangeness of my question, but nods with the quiet assurance of a man who knows himself well. "The best."
I pull my cold, trembling lips into a smile — a hard, brittle smile that makes me feel as though my face is cracking. "I'd like to see that." I glance once at crumbling mansion again when the second story windows burst apart in a rain of glass, fire churning inside like a hungry red-orange beast. The blaze is rising higher now, above the flat line of the roof, in perfect synchronization with the sun sliding over the eastern hills. This is all I am, I think numbly, my head fuzzy with smoke and the memory of a man I'd give anything to forget. This is all I will ever be. I laugh then, and toss back my hair, and no one will ever know what it cost me to turn away from it all, to burn it, to burn him — Gabriel, my only love, with a casual, flirtatious extending of my hand. "Give me a ride then, my dear Hunter, and you can tell me all about your talents."
Red streaks across the sky like blood, and I walk across the ash-layered grass with that same awful smile fixed on my face; the one that says both everything and nothing. Mesmerized, he takes my icy fingers and wraps them in his big warm hand. These are my soldiers, I think, staring at his weathered, unfamiliar face. The men I raise and coax and favor, the men I promise a better life. They will have the riches of the world. They will have all the prey they desire. They will win a war for me, and after I whisper sweet nothings in their ears and dressed them up in finery, I will send them all to die with this same sparkling smile.
"Where to?" he asks.
In all the wide world there is nothing left for me. Nothing but ambition. Hard things, glittering things: things of stone and blood and hatred. I am a creature newborn of the flames, a meaner darker woman than I ever was before. All the meager good in me has died here, melting into the earth with that wristwatch — a sort of reverse alchemy that turns gold into the base metal of iron, and the elixir of life into the far richer drink of death.
"It doesn't matter," I say, and I don't look back. "Anywhere. Everywhere. Before the end I'll own it all."
A/N: I want to thank everyone for all the kind reviews, especially the people who have stuck with me since Law of Gravity. I wrote this last scene of Maria's before I wrote anything else, and I wrote it while listening to the song "A Clock is Ticking" by Snow Patrol. Give it a listen if you can; it's a haunting, beautiful song.
I have no future plans for stories, at least not in the fanfiction world, so there will be no sequels this time. The characters are where they are: Maria at her self-sabotaging best, and Jasper and Alice happily together with their family. I am content with that; I hope you are too.
Thank you again for reading along. It's been much more fun than I expected. You are all rockstar-readers. :)