Author's Note: You'll find a banner for this story on the profile page. I've also linked to an online version of "The Haunted Man and the Ghost's Bargain." It's kind of long . . . Dickens was, like, the original pennyliner . . . but if you wonder where this idea came from, look no further. Don't worry, Dickens' works are on public domain. The title comes from "The Hollow Men" by T.S. Eliot, and there's a link for that as well.

Disclaimer: All publicly recognizable characters, settings, etc. are the property of their respective owners. The original characters and plot are the property of the author. The author is in no way associated with the owners, creators, or producers of any media franchise. No copyright infringement is intended.


The Hope of Empty Men


"O, holy night . . . the stars are brightly shining . . ."

"Come on, now, Emmett, you're the only one tall enough!"

"It is the night of our dear Savior's birth . . ."

"Mom, why'd you have to bring home this twenty-foot tree, anyway? Who's going to see it besides us?"

I am so not in the mood for this.

"Long lay the world in sin and error pining . . ."

"Someone go find where Jasper's run off to. If Edward stops banging that piano and helps anchor this thing, we can start decorating. Jasper'll want to help."

Oh, hell, no.

I forcibly nestled my body deeper into the armchair, as though I could anchor myself against the holiday fervor going on downstairs. I had thought I was safe with Alice up in Alaska, but no; she had probably left orders that I be compelled to participate. But they wouldn't think to look for me in Carlisle's study. If I were lucky, they'd assume I'd gone hunting.

"He's upstairs in Dad's study."

Damn you, Edward.

"Too late!" he called mockingly.

"Carlisle, go get him. Please? And hang this up while you're at it." Esme's voice floated up the staircase and through the study door, which I'd left cracked to avoid having anyone suspect that I was holed up in here. "I really hope Alice remembers to bring that wreath."

I heaved a huge, frustrated sigh as I realized that the game was up. Carlisle's footsteps were coming closer, and I could hear the whisper of one of Esme's garlands trailing behind him on the carpet. He reached the door, hesitated . . . then gave it a gentle rap.

"It's your room," I said shortly, digging my heels into the rug. "Why are you knocking?"

The door creaked open and Carlisle ambled in, garland in tow. "You know that I always give you kids privacy if you need it," he replied, easing himself around my chair toward the fireplace. As I watched, he took out a handful of those stick-on hooks and began to drape the huge mass of greenery across the mantel.

"I just wanted to sit by the fire alone," I explained, not wanting to move. He probably wasn't too thrilled that I was in his personal space, and normally, I wouldn't have invaded it. I just figured it was the one room I could hide in. "Sorry," I added, and started to rise out of the chair.

"Son, you are always welcome here," Carlisle said, adding another hook, "but the whole family is downstairs, and we're about to start trimming the tree." He grinned. "Once they finish anchoring it to the wall, that is. Your mother went a little overboard."

"As usual," I added, just loud enough for him to hear. Carlisle gave me a reproachful look, but I wasn't in the mood to apologize again, either. "I'd rather not come downstairs, if you don't mind. I'm about sick of Christmas by now. Why do we have to make it such a big thing every year?"

Carlisle gave me one of his patient smiles. "Christmas is a magical time, son," he replied gently. "It is a time for family, and for togetherness. It is also a time when we can remember the origins of this wonderful holiday — what started it all, and why we are here, as well as our hope for the future." He reached out and gently brushed his fingers against my face. "'Tis the reason for the season."

I jerked my head away impatiently. "Look, they've pretty much proved that Christ wasn't born anywhere near Christmas, and that most of the other legends are bogus," I retorted. "Aside from which, what the hell does it matter to us? We're going to Hell no matter how many garlands you put up or how many hours we sit meditating on the 'reason for the season.'"

Carlisle's smile never faltered, but his eyes betrayed the hurt he was feeling as he toyed absently with the remaining hooks. I sort of felt bad for attacking him like that, but it was hard to listen to his Little House on the Prairie-style outpouring when the stark reality was that we were all royally screwed. If any of our kind could possibly hope for something more when this half-life of torture had ended, it would be Carlisle; the rest of us were out of luck. Even Alice — sweet, innocent little Alice, the light and joy of my existence — had taken human lives. It didn't matter that she hadn't meant to, or that she'd grieved for months following each lapse. Whatever hope of Heaven a vampire might have is surely contingent on an unspoiled track record.

But even Carlisle wasn't guaranteed a happy afterlife, and he used his borrowed time here on Earth to eternally punish himself for what he had become, as though it were somehow his fault to begin with. He claims to love working as a doctor, and I'm not saying he's lying to me . . . I just think maybe he's told himself he likes it so often that he forgets being around blood every day is its own form of torture.

"Aside from which," I continued, "think about what the humans have done to Christmas. Everyone out spending more than they can afford on gifts that'll be out of style or broken before New Year's. People drinking too much and then driving on slippery roads so you get called into the ER at three in the morning. Cheap ornaments made by Chinese kids slaving away in sweatshops so they can sell at Wal-Mart for pennies. Where's Christ in all this?"

Carlisle sighed. "Jasper, I agree with you that Christmas has been made into a shallow, insipid commercial endeavor by some. But — "

"Try 'most,'" I interrupted.

He smiled indulgently. "All right, then, most. But son, most vampires drink from humans, yet we have chosen a better way. Most humans have forgotten how wonderful Christmas can be; can we not choose to be different?"

He made sense, as usual, but that didn't put me in a better mood. "Why even bother?" I asked crossly. "We'll have plenty of Christmases to get through. I'm surprised you're still into this, even."

My father's face softened, and this time his smile was one of genuine happiness. "Christmas has always been my favorite holiday," he admitted. "This is the time every year when I go back over my life and remember all the things I have seen or experienced. It keeps everything fresh." He gave me a knowing look. "You are young yet, son, but wait until you have lived three hundred and seventy years. You will find you need a whole month to sort it out, also."

"Why would I even want to remember?" I muttered rebelliously. "Any happy memories I have started when I met Alice, and it hasn't been so long since then that I have trouble keeping track of them."

"It isn't only the happy memories that I call to mind, Jasper," Carlisle said reproachfully. "It is all of them. Good, bad, or mundane, they have all made me what I am today. I could not lose one and expect everything else to remain the same."

I didn't answer him. You can't argue with a fool.

"You will come downstairs and help us?" Carlisle asked, a pleading note creeping into his normally self-assured tone. "The tree is a family event, after all."

Well, how was I supposed to refuse when he looked at me that way? Like a starving puppy eyeing a particularly delicious and forbidden treat? "I'll think about it," I murmured.

I could feel Carlisle's eyes boring into me, but I just stared into the fire until he finally sighed — hopefully for the last time — and reached out to tousle my hair. The gesture made me feel even more guilty; why couldn't he snap back at me? What was the fun in playing Scrooge if my father didn't even react?

For several long moments after he left, I sat perfectly still in front of the fireplace, mesmerized by the crackling logs and the interplay of colors in the flames. As a child, I had loved to watch fire, the light yellow on the outside giving way to bright orange, then blue, and finally white, which I knew to be the hottest. The first time I had seen fire after being changed, I had frozen like a statue, my eyes locked firmly on the gorgeous sight. More colors than I ever imagined to exist were there: lavenders, and reds, and blues — even bits of green. Most of our kind were terrified of fire, because of what it could do to us. My terror was tempered with reverence — like Lot's wife, I could never turn my back on the flames for long.

Of course, my own horror wasn't that of a child who has heard about the Bogeyman but never actually seen him — I had felt fire, felt it singe my hair and whisper against my skin as Maria held the torch inches from my body, and I had good reason to fear it. One of her favorite punishments was to have two or three of the others hold me down while she fashioned a torch and held the burning end out towards me. She would drag the game out for hours sometimes, occasionally allowing the fire to singe my hair or light the ends of my clothes. I was never certain that she would let me go; often, she would delay calling for water until my skin was seconds from turning to ash. I had endured other tortures under my former leader, but the recollection of that torch mere inches from my face still turned my knees to jelly. I closed my eyes as the memory surfaced despite my best efforts, crowding out any pleasure I might otherwise have enjoyed while watching the glowing embers in Carlisle's fireplace. As I so often did, I gave up resisting for a time and just let it take me.

When I opened my eyes again, the stranger was standing beside the fireplace as though he had been there all along, and it took a moment for my brain to catch up with my eyes and register the oddity. When it did, I hissed and leapt sideways, crouching next to Carlisle's desk with the chair between us. "Who the hell are you?" I spat. Actually, I used slightly more colorful language. I was a soldier once, after all. As I waited for an answer, I was frantically trying to calculate just how easily I could rip the stranger to pieces. As a vampire with preternatural senses, only one of my own kind could possibly hope to take me by surprise, and even that was a rarity. But somehow, this unknown visitor had done so. He had to be one of us. As such, he might be difficult to kill.

"Whom do I remind you of?" The stranger's voice was low, and deep. Somehow hearing it made me feel less anxious, and my tightened muscles relaxed slightly. It was as though I had known him once before . . . and found him harmless.

"I can't even see your face," I hedged. "What do you want?"

"I have come that I may share my story with you," he answered, "in the hopes that perhaps you might benefit from my experience, which has been hard won through many a trial." The unknown man stepped forward, and in the firelight I saw his features clearly for the first time. I felt fear stealing over me suddenly, for looking at him was like looking at an old, faded photograph of myself . . . in full dress uniform from my days in the Confederate States Army. This stranger's double-breasted jacket and piped wool pants were newly issued, the gleaming buttons embossed with the letters T-E-X-A-S ringing the Lone Star. The wool was so crisp that I could even pick out the individual fibers as the firelight played over them.

I chanced a look at his face and shuddered, for now the resemblance was unmistakable. His features were the same, but he was . . . not merely pale, but actually transparent. He looked like me, but talked like one of Dickens' characters.

Or like Carlisle.

"Are you my ghost?" I wondered aloud, not thinking how ridiculous it sounded until the words were already out of my mouth. "How can I even have a ghost if I'm one of the undead? Isn't a ghost someone's soul that got lost? I don't have a soul."

He stared at me in a way that was very unnerving; it was as though I had said something both funny and sad at once. "Often those things that are feared lost are closer than you think," he intoned gravely. "You simply do not know where to look."

I sighed. It really was like talking to Carlisle. "All right, then. You said you had a story to tell me. Go ahead." I must be crazy.

"Very well. But I warn you that mine is not a pleasant tale to hear," the shade began, with a smile that held no trace of laughter. "I have wandered a broken pathway from the start. To my parents, I was but an unwelcome burden upon their already taxed resources. Any gentleness or natural curiosity about my world was soundly effaced in my early years."

"Well," I said uncomfortably, "it was that way for a lot of people, after all."

"Barely out of childhood was I," he continued, "when our world was suddenly shattered by war, a war that ripped young and old alike from their families for a Cause we were prepared — nay, anxious — to give our lives for. Sons, husbands, brothers, lovers — all called to the fray. I was no exception. Leaving my home was no sacrifice; I even employed deceit in order to depart that much earlier.

"Even as a young human, I possessed an almost animal magnetism that allowed me to influence those with whom I interacted. I used this to my full advantage, and soon ranked high above my peers. For the first time, I felt as though I had worth."

"That's how I felt when I was made a major," I offered.

He continued as though he hadn't heard. "Yet barely had I tasted this power, this worth, when I was ripped from that life by a new leader — one who violated me, transformed me from human to monster. She condemned me to a half-life; a barren, hellish existence. My body was hers. She used it hard, and let others use it in the same manner." The shadow's voice was a monotone, as though the horror of his tale affected him not at all. "It was subsequently my burden to curse others to this eternal damnation, to kill them if they proved less than useful, and to kill still more for food — not merely when my body called for it, but all the time. My victims number in the thousands, and often their screams echo in my ears over a century later."

"I hear them, too, on occasion," I said, low.

"And after — "

"Look, why do you torture me?" I interrupted angrily, pressing my hands to my ears in a gesture more symbolic than effective. "What is the point in your telling me this?"

My blurred image smiled again, an eerie expression. "You find my memories unpleasant?"

"Of course I do!"

"Much like your own?"

"Yes," I hissed. "I do, and that's why I'd rather not reminisce any more, if you don't mind. Now go away!"

"Ah, but we come at last to the purpose of my visit."

"About goddamn time," I retorted. "What do you want from me?"

He came so close that I felt as though I were looking at my faded reflection in a window. "I want nothing from you. My gift to you is this: I am cognizant of the fact that you wrestle nightly with these memories, these demons that bleed you drier than any vampire ever has or could." The other Jasper leaned in so his face nearly touched mine. "Allow me to set you free."

"You could . . . you'd make it so I forget all the bad stuff?" I asked skeptically.


"But . . . how?"

He shook his head. "That is beyond explanation."

"Well . . . would I forget everything? Like my wife, or my bro — "

"Only," the shade interrupted, "the wrongs that have been done you. Nothing else."

I stared at him for a long moment, pondering. It seemed like the obvious choice — who wouldn't want to forget all the wrongs they'd ever had to suffer? Rosalie would give anything for such a chance. Esme, as well. And what about Alice?

"What's the catch?" I managed, my voice strained.

"Only this. What I shall give you, you must give to others, wherever you go."

I rolled my eyes. "I'm not going to just keep it for myself, obviously," I snapped. Turning, that I might ponder without him watching me, I thought of Alice again, and that terrible time we went through when she learned the truth about her past. She had been so depressed, so desolate, that I would have given my life — or whatever this is — to ease her suffering. If this were legitimate, I could make her forget all that. I could go downstairs to my mother, and in an instant she'd be healed of all her sorrows: her abusive first husband, the baby boy she'd lost, her eternal inability to conceive. And what about Bella? I, of all of us, knew just how she had suffered when Edward left her. She hadn't entirely recovered by the time we all returned, and sometimes the sheer raw grief made me yearn to effect the vampire equivalent of throwing up. And Rosalie —

"My time grows short," the Other said, interrupting my musings. "Have you decided?"

I whirled around to face him. "Yes!" I cried.

"That is your decision?"

"Yes!" I hissed again. Then, more quietly, "Yes. Do it."

"Very well." I frowned, for suddenly it seemed that my shade was growing brighter, brighter than even the white flames closest to the logs. I couldn't make out his features anymore; it was like looking into the sun. His voice seemed too big for him, filling the room like an echo bouncing off cave walls. "Remember," I heard. Then, "Wherever you go . . . go . . . go . . . go . . ."

My head snapped up, and once again, I was staring straight into the fire. It took me a moment to realize I was back in Carlisle's armchair.

Or . . . had I ever actually left?

I sighed, feeling much like I had as a human whenever I'd dream of something I wanted — as a child, to be locked in a roomful of sweets, or as an adult, some military award or recognition — and wake up to the bitter realization that my mind had been playing me for a fool. My odd visitor couldn't have been a dream dream, but I figured he'd been a particularly vivid daydream, at least. I should have known it was too good to be true. Certainly nothing else had gone right today.

Having nothing better to do, and having practically promised Carlisle I would, I wandered downstairs to where everyone had lately been fussing over the Christmas decorations. Only Mom and Dad were left; Carlisle was rummaging through a carton that I was pretty sure held the crystal Nativity scene, while Esme prepared a place for it on one of her side tables.

"What the heck is this supposed to be?" Carlisle asked, sounding exasperated. He was holding up a piece of crystal, but I couldn't have told him what it was; it looked like a cube to me.

Esme turned around. "That's one of the Wise Men," she explained.

"How can you tell? It's a square!" Dad retorted, chucking it at her playfully.

"Hey, show a little respect!" Esme laughed, catching the little figure easily and setting it on the table. I stepped hesitantly into the room, wondering what task I'd be assigned and hoping I wouldn't have to tell the crystal cubes apart.

Carlisle turned when he heard me come in, and looked as though he were about to smile and welcome me . . . until a very peculiar expression crossed his face. Instead of pleased, he suddenly seemed . . . irritated. "Jasper. So you finally decided to help."

I stopped in my tracks, not believing what I'd just heard. Dad had never spoken to me like that.

"Like you've been helping?" Esme's snarl took both of us by surprise, and Carlisle swiveled around to face her.

"What was that, again?"

"You pick on Jasper for not helping, but what have you done? What do you ever do to help me?" she asked snidely. "How would you feel if you had no time to do what made you happy, because you were too busy keeping someone else's home perfect for them? And as to Jasper, you're the one who said he could stay here in the first place. I didn't pick any of these brats to raise, that's for certain."

"I beg your forgiveness." Carlisle didn't sound as though he were begging at all. "You had a choice, however. You might have — "

"I had no choices!" Esme hissed back at him. "You certainly didn't ask before you condemned me to this . . . this purgatory!"

"If our arrangement truly places such a burden upon you," Carlisle replied with forced dignity, "then perhaps you ought to seek better company elsewhere. I assure you, the weight is no less onerous on my part."

"Of course." Esme's tone was patronizing. "I forget, sometimes, just how quickly you settled for me after a mere two hundred and sixty years as a sought-after bachelor."

"If I may . . ."

I backed away from them into the hallway, trying to keep from being noticed. I felt a very odd mixture of emotions, as though something in me wanted to feel horror at what had just transpired, but couldn't. I had never heard my parents argue this way. I couldn't remember them arguing at all. Ever. The sheer abruptness of it all was the most puzzling thing. And what Esme had said about me, and about my siblings . . .

But I didn't feel horrified, or worried, or even particularly upset by what I had just witnessed. They could argue until Doomsday for all I gave a rat's ass. And strangest of all was the fact that I felt as though I ought to be angry with Esme . . . but couldn't remember why.

I shuffled aimlessly down the hall, pausing outside the den, where Emmett and Rosalie were playing with Emmett's new Wii. It was a novel experience to see Rose joining in, considering how she'd always nagged Emmett about the mindless, gore-soaked games he enjoyed. But the one they were playing looked mild enough; I recognized several Mario characters holding tennis rackets. Tennis was harmless.

I took a couple of steps into the room, but they seemed unaware of my presence, only continuing to swing blindly at the air in front of the sensor for half a moment. Suddenly, Rosalie snorted, tossing her remote into the corner of the room hard enough to shatter the attachment. "I'm sick of this stupid candy-ass drivel," she snapped at Emmett. "Can't we play that game with the hookers and the cars?"

"That's for PlayStation," Emmett told her, enunciating as though she were deaf or stupid, or both. "Which, as you might recall, you smashed in the middle of a hissy fit over that very game because you said it encouraged rape."

"If some snotty little whore is out on the street dressed like that, she deserves to take it any way the guy wants to give it," Rosalie shot back.

"Well, you would know, wouldn't you?" Emmett's grin was more of a leer than anything else.

Rosalie haughtily tossed her hair. "You're such a disgusting pig," she said. "Thank God I can't have your children."

Not wanting to stick around for any more, I fled back out into the hallway. I wasn't nearly as surprised by Rose and Emmett fighting as I was over Mom and Dad, but still, what was with everyone today? I needed to get out of here. These people were ticking me off.

I was so hell-bent on escaping that I bumped right into Bella, who was just coming downstairs with Renesmee in her arms. "Hey, Jazz," she said amiably enough . . . and then.

Edward came around the corner with a smile on his face for his two girls, but it faded the moment he saw me. There was an uncomfortable silence for about ten seconds, and then Edward came out with, "Isn't Renesmee a little old to be carried everywhere? You're going to spoil her."

Nessie's happy smile at seeing her father disappeared, and she looked horribly hurt. Bella, her cheerfulness gone, gave a derisive snort of laughter. "Talk about locking the barn door after the horses have fled. And what do you care, anyway? You never take care of her! You didn't even want her in the first place!"

"Of course I didn't want her! She was killing you!" Edward hissed. "Sucking the life out of you to feed herself, just like she's done to all of us ever since!"

Nessie still looked hurt, but now she was angry as well. "I didn't ask to be born!" she cried. "And I know where babies come from, Daddy, so I know Momma didn't have me all by herself." Quick as a flash, Edward reached out and slapped Renesmee full force across her face.

The sound echoed throughout the hall, and then there was silence. Not a shocked silence, like I might have expected, but more like one that was simply waiting for whatever happened next. And what broke it was Bella screaming that Edward better never hit her, and Edward roaring back that if she didn't like it here with him, she was welcome to go find someone else.

Nessie's lower lip trembled, and her eyes filled with tears. She looked back and forth between her father and mother, but they were so caught up in their fight that they didn't take any further notice of her. In fact, it was only a moment before Bella set her down hard on the last step so she could follow Edward when he stormed out to the living room.

Nessie looked up at me with her eyes brimming over, as though imploring me to help her. "Daddy hurt me," she whispered, touching one pale, chubby hand to her cheek. "Why?"

I was going to pick her up and cuddle her. I know I was. I wanted to, and my brain was already telling my muscles what to do. What else was there to do? But . . . whose voice was it, then, that told Nessie to stop her sniveling and get out of the way? Whose arms lay limp and still at their sides instead of reaching out to offer comfort to a crying child? And for the love of Christ, whose foot viciously kicked that precious little girl aside as they fled towards the front door?

I think I knew, and yet at that moment, I wasn't thinking at all; I just knew I had to get out. I reached the door and flung it wide open.

There stood Alice, with the Other beside her.

"You!" I spat venomously, lunging forward and reaching for his neck. "You bastard! Take it back! Take it back right now! What did you do to me?!" But my hands clutched at empty air; it was a ghost, just as I'd suspected. My touch had no more effect on him than if he'd been a mirage.

And the horrible thing grinned at me, its face like a leering skull in the darkest dungeon. "What has been done is all your own doing. You made the choice."

"I'm unmaking it!" I screamed, pulling Alice away from the monster. Just by opening the door, I was certain I'd infected her. The gift — curse — had worked, after all. But this monster would have to kill me to get to my mate. Desperate, I cried, "Please, I beg you!"

"Jazz?" I heard Alice whisper beside me. I turned my attention to her, momentarily forgetting the Other. "Alice, sweetheart," I crooned, cradling her face. "Thank God. Did he hurt you?"

She smiled and shook her head. "I saw," she explained knowingly. "I came straight home, and when I got here, I met him outside." She nodded over my shoulder toward the stranger. "I thought it was you."

"If he hurt you," I growled fiercely, "I'll — "

"I told you, he didn't. He offered me a gift, Jasper, and I took it." Alice's eyes were luminous.

"God," I moaned. "Oh, no, Alice, no . . ."

"It's all right," she assured me. "My gift is to return their memories. To reverse what's been done."

"You . . . you can fix this? You can change what's happened?" I asked, incredulous.

Alice smiled benignly. "Of course I can. Come. Let's go inside." She tugged gently at my belt.

"Wait!" I cried. I turned back to the shade. "I don't understand. You said I would forget every wrong ever done me, and pass the gift to others wherever I went."

"That is so."

"But . . . everyone I saw just went crazy! How can that be?" I wondered. "They had no bad memories! I had no bad memories! Yet we turned . . . evil or something." I turned back to Alice. "Edward slapped Renesmee, and I — I kicked her. That sweet baby." My chest felt tight, as though my unbeating heart were breaking in two. "My God, I'm a monster."

"Jazz, don't you understand?" Alice asked gently. "Part of learning to love comes from being shown love, yes . . . but only part. You also have to know what it is to be hurt, so that you can feel compassion for others. And if you lose all your memories, it doesn't make the hurt go away; it's just that you don't get to forgive, and you don't know any better than to hurt someone else."

"But if you forgive someone, don't you have to forget what they did?" I asked, bewildered. The shade chuckled then, a horrible sound. "What's so goddamned funny?" I snapped at him.

"Many things," he answered, sounding amused. "Among them, this it might benefit you to remember: The stupid neither forgive nor forget; the naïve forgive and forget; and the wise forgive but do not forget." He smiled. "Thomas Szasz."

"See, Jazz? You thought if you forgot all the bad things that were done to you, you'd be happy." Alice looked at me mournfully. "But happiness doesn't mean that you have nothing to feel sad about. It means that you forgave the people involved and learned how to be a better person from them."

I closed my eyes and leaned forward so that my forehead rested against hers, breathing in her sweet scent. "God, I've been such an idiot," I berated myself. "You should have seen them, Alice . . . so much hate . . ."

"It'll be okay," she whispered again, her little hands coming up to touch my shoulders. "I promise."

"She'll be able to take it back?" I turned, meaning to address the specter, but he was gone. My head felt like it was going in several directions at once as I tried to find him. "Where the hell did he go? Oh, for Christ's sake . . ."

"Don't worry, Jazz," Alice purred into my ear. I turned to face her.

"What do you mean, 'Don't worry'?" I cried. "How are we going to fix this with him gone?"

She laughed — a low, sensuous sound that instantly had me wanting her, right there in the snow. "It's done, Jasper. It's over."

"But — "

"Jasper?" It was Esme's voice, calling to us from the doorway. I turned to look at her warily, but she didn't sound angry anymore, only concerned. "What are you doing outside?" she asked anxiously. "Come — Oh, Alice, you're home. My goodness, I didn't even hear your car." Esme tripped lightly across the snow and embraced my mate, and I relaxed. I didn't know how it had happened, but somehow, everything was all right again; Esme was proof of that. We could sort out the details later . . . or maybe just be grateful to have escaped intact. "Well, come inside, both of you. We have to finish decorating!" She glanced at me, a little apprehensive. "Of course, if you're not up to it, Jasper, then — "

"No, that's all right," I interrupted, giving both of them a happy smile. "I'd love to help."

Mom's face lit up with such pleasure that I felt even guiltier for having been such a Scrooge. She had always loved Christmas so much. "Remember, no skimping on the back when you decorate the tree," she warned. "We have that rotating base now." As Alice and I followed her towards the house, Mom called back to us, "And let's not forget the trains this year! We haven't set them up in ages."

"See?" Alice prodded, snuggling close under my arm. "There are wonderful things to remember, too." She leaned back so she could see my face and smiled. "Let's never forget anything."

"After this, I don't plan on forgetting a single thing ever again," I told her. "Including that hundred dollars Emmett still owes me from last Super Bowl." And to me, Alice's laughter ringing out across the yard was the most beautiful music I had ever heard in my life.

We had barely reached the front door, however, when Alice stopped dead in her tracks and spat out a word I'd never have expected to hear from her. I halted, too, my muscles tensing, ready for a fight. "What is it?" I asked tersely. If that thing had come back . . .

Alice turned to me, her face the very picture of chagrin. "Oh, Jazz," she breathed.


"I forgot the wreath."

The End