End & Epilogue:
Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end.
But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.
When the next night rolled over, the whole mountain sat extinguished. Edward searched up and down the slopes, tunneling deep into the caverns. But there was nothing. Not a single fleeting thought. The mountain was silent.
Edward turned and loped down the path, passing through the orange groves. It was the high harvest and while many of the bees, flies, and birds fled at his approach, most were too drunk on their ripe feast to scatter away. Edward ran through the valley, past the ruins of the mill, over the train tracks that lined the lower bluffs. He ran until he reached the pass on the other side, and then there was only a short melee with the thick branches of the wood, and the greenery gave way to the short meadow, and he was back.
Alvarado sat on the front porch, a black scarf wrapped around his neck, a heavy gold chain hanging off to the side.
"Tranquilo?" Alvarado asked, leaning forward against the porch rail.
"As death," Edward answered.
Alvarado gave him a grim smile in reply, before looking away—out in the direction from which Edward had come. "It's better that way. I'm glad none of the coven came back."
"You're sure about that?"
"We love to think we know it all—we see it all. But one can see so far that they fail to see what's close. That's true for all of us."
He was talking about Ines as much as he was talking about Maria. He was doubting himself. Fearing his own weaknesses, Alvarado had set aside his empire-like plans for now. He and Isabel were going to travel. She said Alvarado needed to touch what he could see, seeing it wasn't enough. They were going to visit the southern jungles, meander to the horn of Africa, swim across the sea, sail wherever the tides took them.
Edward nodded. "Are you sure about disbanding the coven, because—"
"I am." Alvarado's tone brooked no argument.
"You're looking better," Edward said, because he could feel the sadness and anger beginning to build in Alvarado's thoughts. Better to distract him.
Alvarado snorted. "For having been force-fed a small pond of water buffalo blood, I'm right as rain." He fiddled with his scarf, straightening out the fringes and looking almost as petulant as Millie. His eyes were noticeably lighter.
They both looked up as Carlisle stepped through the front door. "The best medicine is often sour," Carlisle said.
Alvarado didn't miss a beat. "And advice is often bitter," he said with an acerbic overemphasis.
"But life is so very sweet," Carlisle said.
"Er, enough with the flavors?" Edward said.
"But I was just getting to the delights of salty," Alvarado said with a grin.
Edward was about to push past Carlisle into the house, but Carlisle caught his shoulder and looked him in the eyes. A minute please?
Edward shook his head. He'd been avoiding this conversation, mostly because he didn't want to hurt Carlisle, and one fact was clear: he was going to end up hurting Carlisle.
Please, Carlisle's thoughts begged.
Edward was about to protest again, when Jasper's thoughts came into his mind. Get it the fuck over with, was all that Jasper said. He was upstairs in the library but he had heard the entire exchange. He had been cordial to Carlisle—mostly by avoiding him—but still, he was right.
Edward turned to Carlisle and finally nodded.
As they walked away, Alvarado's thoughts chimed in his head. There is sweet, there is sour, but don't forget that it's not so cleanly divided. What's creamy like rot can be worse than the lightness of the sharp and bittersweet.
They ended up following a creek that widened before the mountain dipped, after which it fell ladder-like in a series of falls. The soft roar of the falling water was enough to cover the sound of their voices.
Carlisle sat down on the only dry rock in the cove. He crossed his ankles and looked up at the sky. He was struggling with what to say, thoughts mixing like eggs and flour and salt—indecipherable to either himself or Edward.
So Edward waited. Carlisle looked... charming, Edward decided, which is to say that he looked handsome and ancient all at once. He wasn't wearing his usual straight trousers and plain tailored shirt, but instead, Isabel had dressed him, and he was wearing a double-breasted jacket with gold edging and twenty small clasps connecting the front panels. Carlisle leaned forward, and Edward thought he looked like a young king.
"I..." Carlisle began before pausing. "I am sorry."
"I should never have brought you here."
Edward stared at Carlisle, seeing the regret in his eyes—the dwindling of hope. If Carlisle'd never brought Edward, they wouldn't have been captured. Edward's eyes wouldn't have turned red. He would never have met Jasper. They could have been happy in the north, away from the insanity of the south.
There was no real way to answer Carlisle, and despite all of it, Edward didn't feel the same regret, so he said, "I'm sorry, too."
I shouldn't want you. Carlisle wasn't looking at Edward when he admitted it.
"Was it why you changed me?"
Carlisle's mind froze with the memories: Edward's smile and his green eyes. A tear sliding down his cheek. Edward's mother squeezing Carlisle's hand, grasping his cool grip like a buoy, pointing at her son, and saying, 'You will save my son.'
"No and yes," Carlisle said.
"It's fine," Edward said. "It's really fine. I'm not mad at you."
Carlisle stood and walked to Edward. His hand came up, gripping Edward's shoulder.
Edward started to back away.
But Carlisle didn't let go. Instead, he wrapped both of his arms around Edward, pulling him close. He spoke low in Edward's ear. "I know. I may not understand why you want... him." He wouldn't say Jasper's name. "But I know. You don't have to tell me."
Edward relented in his attempt to get away. He let Carlisle hold him. Empty chest to empty chest. Carlisle's cheek a soft weight upon his shoulder. It was, as Edward had said before, fine. Now, they were uncomfortable friends. Someday, though, it would be comfortable. Edward knew that, and it was good to let the grief and insanity wash away in the quiet rumble of the water rushing downstream.
When Edward pulled away, he asked, "What are you doing next?"
"What do you mean?" Carlisle said, not looking at him.
"Where will you go?"
"North. Not here. It will be the same. I'll work in another hospital."
Edward was about to argue with him—Carlisle couldn't keep doing the same thing over and over again; it wasn't making him happy—when a familiar and all too typical presence came up behind them.
Millie was looking displeased, but she was atypically serious as she announced, "I'm coming with you."
"Millie..." Carlisle began.
"No! We never finished my book," Millie said. "And you said we would. You promised, and I promised."
"Millie, I can never repay you for your help, but..."
"But I'm coming with you," she finished for him. "You want to be sullen and grumpy and lonely, but that's really super stupendously stupid. I'm coming, too." She looked thoughtful about it before the idea popped into her head and she exclaimed, "I am going to be a nurse!"
"Um, Millie..." Carlisle groaned, clamping his hand over his eyes.
"Oh wait. No." Millie changed her mind. "That wouldn't work. I don't like needles."
"The blood wouldn't be the biggest problem?" Edward said, trying to smother his amusement.
Millie grinned. "I couldn't work in brothel, either." She curtsied with a wink.
"This won't work," Carlisle said in disbelief.
"We'll have so much fun!" Millie went on. "I'll find you cows or goats or turkeys, and you can stab people, and in the evenings we can go dancing or if people are dumb, and Victorian," she spit out the word with distaste, "we can read the whole library!" She touched her chin to her thumb thoughtfully. "Jasper thought New York had the biggest, but I think that's not true. I think we should go to London."
It was funny, because Millie was prattling on and Carlisle had his hands on his hips, looking exasperated, but inside of Carlisle's head, there was a different set of thoughts taking place. He would enjoy reading with Millie. She'd read Taming the Shrew with him yesterday evening, and even though Carlisle had needed to explain every tenth word to her, once she had understood, she had laughed and laughed and laughed. People would probably wonder if she was his niece or worse yet, daughter.
"Millie, we're not going to London. It's almost as bad as the south."
"Isabel says it's nice, but how about the northern parts? Do you speak Viking? I'd like a Viking." Millie's hands were clenched in fists—she was so caught up in her planning.
"It's Norse. Not Viking."
"You can be a berserker!"
"I'm a doctor."
"Oh, yeah, big dumb difference. Both doctors and berserkers have knives and kill people."
"Not knives. Scalpels. I wield a scalpel. Do you listen to anything I say?"
Millie considered this with some depth. "I listen most of the time, but sometimes, you sound like a newspaper."
"Newspapers are important," Carlisle said.
"They do have comic strips," Millie allowed.
Edward slipped away. Neither of them noticed.
When Edward and Jasper were alone—really and truly alone—without a mind in the world knowing where they'd wandered, Edward finally relaxed.
They'd found a cabin in the Dakotas, one a few miles off the train track and a good distance from a small town. It was a place where they could go unnoticed. He and Jasper built a patio in the back, ordered some tools, and started constructing their own furniture, making a home from boards they'd split themselves.
By the time winter came, Jasper's eyes had paled to almost gold—the tinge of red was from when he'd slipped up twice. They'd managed to build a large fireplace and a wall of maple book shelves. Edward had dragged in a weepy pine tree and set it up in the middle of the living room, and Jasper had thrown corn kernels into a heavy pot of oil, catching the white puffs as they came out of the pot, stringing them on the spot, so that they had a garland for the tree.
By next Christmas, Peter and Charlotte would come to visit and Edward would have a piano, but for now, the two of them were sprawled on the rug. Jasper had a paper spread out across the floor, and Edward had one arm over his shoulder and the other combing through his hair.
"War's coming to an end," Jasper said, flipping the page.
"It's about time," Edward said.
"Says the boy who wanted to forge his birth date to get in on the action."
"Says the boy who did forge his birth date to get in on the action."
Jasper grinned. "Different times. Didn't need to forge. No one cared if I could read."
"Do you miss it?" Edward asked.
"You're not just asking about the war..."
"You know what I mean," Edward said and lowered his hand, running it down Jasper's side.
"Do I miss living in a shit cave with a manipulative spinster and a pack of animals?" Jasper teased, but then he frowned. "Well, then again, there was no one complaining if I partook of delicious..."
Edward elbowed him. Jasper flicked his arm in return.
"Come here," Edward said, and somehow their twisting ended up with them curled even tighter together, ankles locked and hands tight across Jasper's belly.
"You're an idiot if you think I'd rather be anywhere else," Jasper said.
His tone was warm, his body was cool, and the soft ripples that ebbed and flowed through the air floated like a song as they swept into Edward. Jasper's thoughts were the lyrics, but his talent provided the melody, and Edward wanted to tell him that it was the most beautiful song in the entire world. Instead, he leaned in close, close enough to lick the bottom slope of Jasper's ear, and then he whispered, "I'm happy, too."
The rest, the little details, the I-love-you's and the way Jasper stopped hunting humans without being asked—those were words that needn't be said. The explanations were understood. What was part of the past had been burnt off with the smoke. It was simple: the past had winked out in its own darkness. The morning was Jasper, golden beneath a cloudless sky, as happy as a song.
And now I get to mark this crazy story complete. For those of you who hung in there, thank you for your faith in me over the past year and a half (good Lord that was long), and these insane (but rather entertaining) characters. I will miss Millie and this story, but all good things must come to an end.
Thank you's to Sam, Katinki, and ElleCC who helped me so much with this story, fixing my errors, encouraging me, and kicking my butt when I got whiny. And thank you to the readers, the loud and silent alike. The mere fact that you followed along has been fuel to my mad mind.