Victoria and James are dancing; the music is so loud, she can feel the bass beat thumping in her belly like an invisible hand pounding on her torso. Around them, humans are writhing and sweating to the music in the dark, smoky room, and the air is filled with their scent. When the scent is this thick, she swears she could almost feed off it. She can taste it in her mouth, and it only needs a touch of substance to be fortifying. She loves to visit the rave clubs in the cities they pass through, and although James isn't quite as enthusiastic a dancer as she is, he goes with her when she wants. It's a place to go to have fun, catch some music, maybe even scare or impress some humans before an easy feeding.
She's dressed in a midriff-baring halter and a skirt that sits low around her hips, and James comes in dancing behind her, swaying as she does. He snakes an arm around her waist from behind her and pulls her back close to him, his hand splayed wide on her belly. She can feel the metal of his belt buckle against her back as they move together sensuously with the music. He lets his hand slide up her torso and under her halter so that his thumb is just touching the underside of her breast. In response, she pushes her ass back into his hips a little harder, and he bends his head down and kisses her bare shoulder.
"You're such a slut," he breathes into her ear.
She raises her arms above her head, moving her hands with the music. "Good thing you like sluts," she says, without stopping.
He chuckles as he lets his other hand slide along her arm, raised above her head. He captures both her hands in his one and spins her around. He kisses her, deep, hard and quick. "I'm going to go pick up some money. Stay here."
"As long as the music plays," she agrees. He disappears among the dancers; even though he's not tall or noticeably muscular, some quality in his face makes people eager to get out of his way, and the crowd parts easily for him.
She continues dancing by herself, getting lost in the music, eyes closed, her long red hair brushing her back. Every now and then she can feel a human try to dance with her, to get close, but she ignores them. One obstinate loser refuses to get the hint, and when he tries to put an arm around her, she grabs his hand and bends it back painfully. He falls to his knees as she holds onto his hand and then glares into his eyes, aware that he'll see how red they are and not even caring. "Touch me again and die!" she hisses, and he believes her. He scrambles away when she releases him, and she goes back to the music, closing her eyes, letting her hips and shoulders express the rhythms inside her.
Hours go by. James hasn't come back from wherever he's gone off to, and the crowd at the rave is starting to thin out. Victoria has been sitting out the last couple of songs on a stool by the wall when she suddenly catches an unfamiliar scent. She is instantly on alert; strange vampires are a large unknown, and some of them have unimaginably powerful psychic gifts. Her eyes scan the crowd and she sees him; he is standing by the bar, a decoy glass in his hand. He is incredibly handsome, in a dark European way, olive skin with southern Mediterranean looks. He is dressed in a crisp white shirt and khakis, and he looks refined and elegant. She can see several women at the bar eyeing him, but he is oblivious to it. His eyes meet hers, and he raises his glass in salute.
She smiles at that and, curious, slides off the stool to go talk to him. She figures James will be back any minute now and can back her up if need be. The strange vampire watches as she crosses the dance floor, weaving in and out of the dancers with feline grace. She feels his eyes on her and purposely adds a bit more swing to her hips, and his smile widens, acknowledging her sway.
She stops in front of him, one hand on her hip. "I'm sorry," she says. "Have we unknowingly trespassed on your territory?"
"My territory?" he asks, his eyebrows rising. "No, I am just passing through." He has the slightest trace of a French accent.
"As are we," she says. She turns to watch the dancers on the floor, and it lets him examine her. He appreciates what he sees; her clothes reveal her considerable charms, as they said in the century of his birth. Her hair is her crowning glory, though. It is full and curly and the color of blood oranges.
"We?" he asks.
"James and I," she answers as his eyes scan the room. "He's not here now."
"How careless of him. I suppose I should be grateful," he says, smiling at her. His white teeth flash in contrast to his dark skin.
Against her better judgment, she finds him intriguing. "I suppose you should." She smiles back.
He sets his drink on the bar. "Would you care to dance?"
"Love to," she says and lets him grab her hand and lead her onto the dance floor.
He's a surprisingly good dancer. He's all smooth and sinewy, and he moves his hips in a very loose way. Not many vampires can dance to modern tunes with grace, but he is lithe and elegant. James is all tightly coiled energy, and when he dances, it seems as if in any moment, that he will suddenly explode from his skin.
"What's your name?" she asks, putting her mouth close to his ear. He's clean-shaven and sexy, and he smells like sunshine and oranges.
"Laurent," he says. "Yours?"
"Victoria," she answers into his ear, and he pulls her close and sways with her, nearly bending her over backward. She lets herself be bent, her knees separated by one of his. He's clean shaven, and his hands are strong and well-manicured; someone obviously took care before turning him.
He pulls her back up to standing, but doesn't release her, holding her tight to him as they move to the music.
"Where are you headed?" he asks, his breath cool on her ear. It gives her a shiver that races down her back.
"From here?" she asks. "I don't really know." He spins them together suddenly, and her hair flies out behind her. "What about you?"
"I was heading toward Alaska. I heard some rumors about a coven up there and wanted to check them out." He pulls her close again; his dancing is sure and confident. He is a forceful leader and she likes that in a man.
"Yes. It's said they don't drink from humans." He whirls her around quickly, but she pulls them to a stop.
She is standing on the dance floor, her hands on her hips. "Well, how do they live?" She is almost angry; it flies in the face of all common sense.
"They drink from animals," he explains.
She shudders. "Can we even do that?"
He nods. "I've heard of it being done."
"That's just…gross," she says, shaking her head and grimacing. She lets herself be pulled back into his arms.
"I hear it makes their eyes golden," he whispers in her ear, swaying.
"And I suppose they start growing fur?" she asks, obviously not believing him.
He throws his back and laughs. His laughter is clear and musical, and a few of the thinning crowd on the dance floor glance their way.
"So did you meet them?"
"No, I got called away before I found their settlement." He shrugs. "Eventually…"
The music changes into something bass-heavy and throbbing and they both concentrate on dancing. Victoria is definitely intrigued by him, and although she feels James is her mate, that doesn't mean that she and James have a closed relationship. They have often brought a human to bed to play with before feeding, and James is not possessive. Sometimes she wishes he was. It would make her feel more essential to him, more secure. But an open door swings both ways, and truth be told, she despises restraints of any kind, so yes, the relationship works.
The music changes again, something with a slower, more sensuous beat, and Victoria raises her hands above her head, letting her hips express the music. She backs up against Laurent, who moves with her, enjoying the feeling of their bodies brushing together. That's when she spies James across the room, leaning against a wall, watching them. Knowing he is watching her with another man is kind of a turn-on for her, and she pushes backwards into Laurent's hips as he wraps his arms around her. She and James eye each other from across the room, and by the stillness of his face, she knows he's enjoying her wantonness, also.
She feels Laurent stiffen. "Is that James?" he whispers in her ear, letting his hands slide away from her.
She nods. "Come, let me introduce you." She grabs his hand and leads him across the dance floor to where James is standing. She rises on her toes to kiss James and he grabs her head to kiss her deeply and sloppily, but positioning her head so he can watch Laurent as he does.
Laurent is unfazed by his show of possessiveness. He waits out their kiss, assessing James. He is fairly nondescript, with sandy brown hair and a strong jaw line. His eyes are set back deep in his head, and they're narrow, as if he is always suspicious. There is an aura about him that screams danger and tension, and belies his average appearance. It's as if he were a loaded handgun and the slightest pressure would be enough to trigger him.
Victoria murmurs, "I've brought someone for you to meet. This is Laurent."
The two men nod at each other. "Victoria, I must thank you for the dance." Laurent says. Turning to James, he adds, "You're a lucky man."
James slips an arm around Victoria's waist. "Are you from around here?" he asks.
"No, just passing through. Headed north, actually."
"I've been in Florida. The hunting there is still easy−all of those hurricanes."
"How goes the re-building effort?" he asks.
Laurent shrugs. "Slow. It's always the poor who get the shaft."
"We were down there, not long after Frances hit," Victoria says, turning to James. "You were hunting that FEMA guy."
Laurent raises his eyebrows politely. "James is a tracker," Victoria says proudly, letting a finger slide down the front of James shirt. "He can find anyone."
"I've heard of that." Laurent nods, assessing him. "The Volturi have one."
James suddenly looks at Laurent with interest. "He's not as good as James, I bet," Victoria says. "He hasn't lost a target yet."
Laurent's not going to disagree with her. "I'm sure."
"No, really," she adds.
"Pick someone," James says, gesturing magnanimously around the bar. "Anyone you like."
Laurent eyes the club; it has been emptying steadily, and there are not that many people to choose from. Finally, he settles on a group picking up their jackets and preparing to leave. He has overheard them speaking German, and figures foreigners might be more of a challenge. "The blond woman, over there."
"She'll be at your feet by sunrise tomorrow," James promises, settling on a stool, pulling Victoria close to him.
Laurent is surprised. "You're not going after her now?" Tracking a human by smell is not that hard when the scent is fresh and they are on foot. Laurent doesn't know how James expects to track if the blonde gets in a car.
"We'll give her a head start. Makes it a challenge," James says, laying his head against Victoria's breast.
Laurent hides his skepticism. "I'll be interested to see how you do."
James glances around the club, now nearly empty. The one window near the ceiling is starting to grow light with approaching dawn. "Why don't you come with us? I have a room over at the Ivy." He flashes a key card pulled out of his pocket.
"Oh, that's great," Victoria says. "I'd love a soak."
"Then you shall have one," James promises, kissing her shoulder.
It sounds like a good way to spend what promises to be a sunny day. "Lead on," Laurent says.
They walk to the hotel; it's not that far away. Their room is on one of the top floors, and when James opens the door, Laurent sees it is indeed a luxury suite. There is a huge sitting room, with doors to what Laurent guesses are bedrooms, and a galley kitchen off to one side.
There is a jacket thrown over the back of a chair and a briefcase stashed by a desk, and Laurent wonders where the actual inhabitant of this room is. He hopes James hasn't done anything stupid in front of the security cameras. It has become harder and harder to operate on the sly with technological advances, and Laurent knows, with a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach, that someday soon, the nature of vampires will be discovered. The backlash when that happens is something Laurent hopes to avoid. It's been a little bit of that, but mostly a vague search for something Laurent hasn't even conceptualized in his mind that has prompted the interest in seeing what the coven in Alaska might offer. He only knows that the life of a nomad is no longer enough.
"First dibs on the tub," Victoria declares, opening the bathroom door. There is a great step-down tub, with marble and gold fixtures. She pulls off her halter top as she walks into the bathroom, shaking her hair free of it.
Laurent takes a seat on the sofa, as the sound of running water begins. He watches James as he paces around the room, moving like a bull in a corral.
James picks up a glass figurine on one of the credenzas. The room is full of these decorator's pieces. "What do you know of the Volturi?" he asks, glancing out of the side of his eye.
Laurent leans back and lets an arm rest on the back of the sofa. "They are powerful and ruthless. Make no mistake; they take their role as self-appointed police very seriously."
James almost sneers as he puts the figurine down. "Yet they hide in Italy, like the pope." He shakes his head. "How can they expect to keep tabs on the entire vampire world?"
"They do, and they do it well. Believe me, you do not want to catch their attention."
James sniffs. "Greasy wops." He suddenly realizes whom he is speaking with. "Uh, present company excepted of course."
Laurent mentally rolls his eyes. "Not necessary. I am French-born." He crosses his legs. "I believe I am called a 'frog,' yes?"
James laughs, unfazed by having his prejudices caught out. His questions about the Volturi still nag at him. "What else do you know of them?"
Laurent purses his lips. "There are, by title, three leaders, but it is really Aro who holds the power. He is three thousand years old and a powerful telepath. It is also whispered he is more than a little crazy."
"Telepathy, huh?" James asks dismissively.
"Yes, but that is just him," Laurent says, warming to his subject. "He keeps himself surrounded by a powerful guard who have all kind of mental gifts. Unimaginable pain with just a thought, the ability to blind all perception, or to bind relationships. They are invincible. Others have tried."
"Hmmm," James murmurs, pondering this new information.
"James," Victoria calls from the bathroom. Her voice is low and husky, making James smile.
"Have you ever met them?" James asks.
"Just a few members of the Guard," Laurent replies. "I was there when they came to enforce their law about an immortal child. They killed the child and the maker on the spot."
"I have killed as well," James says. "It does not pay to betray me."
Laurent doesn't bat an eye at the barely veiled threat. "Well, I will have to remember that."
James studies him a moment, and then decides to laugh. "Do that," he says, chuckling as he steps into the bathroom.
Laurent picks up the television remote and starts flipping through the channels.
Perhaps an hour has gone by when Victoria emerges from the bathroom, her wet hair around her shoulders. She has a hotel towel wrapped around her.
She combs her fingers through her hair, standing in front of Laurent. "That was…marvelous."
Laurent smiles but says nothing, watching her.
"James and I were thinking that perhaps we should travel together for a while. We can offer you some protection, and you have information we would like."
Laurent is not surprised; he'd caught snippets of their conversation in the bathroom. Victoria is a beautiful woman, and he finds her appealing. He's interested to see how powerful James is, so he is amenable to the idea, for a while at least. He's been in and out of these kind of temporary alliances many times.
Laurent nods. "I'd like that as well."
Victoria smiles. "Good." She drops the towel on the floor, leaving her standing there, completely naked. She is all cream and rose, soft rounded hips rising to a narrow waist and full breasts tipped with small, tight nipples. "Let's seal the deal, then."
Behind her, James enters from the bathroom, naked as well, and sporting a hard erection. Laurent expected as much; it is common among nomadic vampires to pledge trust with sex. Laurent starts to unbutton his shirt.
It's near midnight when James returns to the hotel room. He has the body of a female slung over his shoulder when he sidles into the room. He drops her on the floor, and from behind a duct tape gag, Laurent hears the muffled "woof" as she hits the ground. Her wrists and ankles have been duct-taped as well, so she has no chance of breaking her fall. She's been crying, and her eye makeup is running down her face. It's the blonde from the club.
James is smiling proudly, his hands on his hips
"Nicely done," acknowledges Laurent. "Where did you find her?"
"Fargo," James says.
That's easily an hour away, even by vampire standards. Laurent's eyes narrow. "How?"
James shrugs. "It's a gift. It's almost too easy."
Victoria emerges from a bedroom and gives James a kiss on the cheek. "I told you he was the best."
"Is there a scent that you follow?" Laurent asks, genuinely curious.
"Not exclusively. It's part bloodhound, part detective and part psychic."
"He once tracked a salesman across the country after a week's head start," Victoria says, ignoring the muffled cries of the woman on the floor, who looks pleadingly at them above her gag.
James ignores the cries as well, but Laurent bends down to catch the eyes of the kidnap victim. He stares into her eyes, and she stares back at him, her breath settling into a rhythm. "Be still, ma chérie," he whispers gently. "It will be over soon."
Her terrified eyes look back at him, but he holds her gaze, and she slowly begins to nod. Laurent stands up and sees James and Victoria looking at him rather incredulously. If he'd whispered French poetry to a cockroach, they couldn't be more surprised.
Laurent shrugs off their stares. He's not sure what instinct made him give reassurance to the blonde; it's been a strange few months for him, full of unexpressed longing and restless dissatisfaction. He covers up his brief moment of compassion with gruffness. "These hotels often have security cameras," he grouses.
James has his arm around Victoria. "Disabled them." He dismisses Laurent's concern, and Laurent doesn't know if he is that thorough or just arrogant.
"Let's eat," Victoria says. The three of them bend down and, like lions over the carcass of a gazelle, begin their meal.
They travel north by foot, gradually turning west. It is spring, and the woods are beginning to fill with careless hikers and climbers. Hunting is easy, and they travel slowly, sticking mostly to the woods, crossing back and forth across the Canadian border several times as the terrain and their preferences dictate.
It is a moonless night, and they're sitting around a campfire. In the dark, the trees around them rustle together, telling secrets to each other. Laurent starts to tell them what he knows of the coven in Alaska that shuns human blood. "That's just…bizarre," Victoria says, her red curls shaking.
James throws another piece of dead wood on the hungry fire, and the sparks fly up like fireflies. It is the single point of light for miles, other than the stars, which glitter sharply and silently above. "We're given these gifts for a reason. Why would they go against nature like that?"
"I hear the leader, at least, is quite old," Laurent says. He is stretched out on the ground, leaning against a fallen tree trunk.
"Have you ever fed on animals?" Victoria asks.
"Yes. I tried lion once, traveling through Africa," Laurent smiles at the memory. "They certainly have more fight in them than humans."
Victoria shifts her position to her side, lying on the ground. "I don't know if I could ever get past the smell. How does it taste?"
"Dark. Smoky. But not quite…enough."
"Enough?" James asks. The fire crackles, like teenage girls popping bubble gum.
"You can drink and drink and drink, but you're still thirsty, still burning."
"Then what's the point?"
Laurent sits up and puts his arms around his knees. "Well, it keeps you going, I suppose." He gazes at the fire, and the flames are reflected in his red eyes. "They stay in the same area for years, decades even."
"They pass themselves off as human," James says disdainfully.
"That's what I've heard," Laurent agrees.
"They put down roots, like they were trees." James starts pacing around the fire. "Like sheep."
"There are at least five of them," Laurent says, picking up a twig and tossing it in the fire.
"We are not human−we are better than human." James' pacing gets faster. The firelight throws his shadow against the trees surrounding them, lengthening it, so that it looks as if a giant is passing.
"I would imagine there's a lot of wildlife in Alaska."
"I just don't understand. Why deny their own nature?" James sounds angry.
"We should ask them."
James stops his pacing. "We should." He stares at Laurent for a moment. "Yes, we should."
Laurent sits back. "Well, if we are going to go, we should shoot up north and then west to avoid the Olympic peninsula."
Victoria sits up. "Why avoid it?"
"There are stories of beings there. Beings who attack vampires."
Victoria glances at James and then back at Laurent, disbelieving. "You're kidding. What kind of beings?"
"Werewolves. Giant-sized. I've heard this from several sources."
James squats by the fire. "Werewolves? For real?"
Laurent smiles. "Why not? Did you think vampires were real?"
James laughs, harsh and ugly. "Well, now that I have to see. Olympia, huh?"
James cannot be talked out of his desire to see giant werewolves, so they head south and west. Laurent is disturbed by a lot of James' behavior. He is needlessly cruel to his victims and is often reckless and unnecessarily risky. They run across the scent of two vampires travelling southeast and detour for a while so James can track them. James disappears for a while once he's found them, while Laurent and Victoria wait for him. When James returns, he is torn and ragged, but triumphant. He doesn't talk to Laurent about what might have happened, but James and Victoria's lovemaking that night is unusually boisterous and aggressive.
They are nearing the coast, traveling through a national park. Everything is mossy, green and wet, even when it's not outright raining. The trees are huge, reaching into the sky like skyscrapers, and even the ferns are massive. They'd hunted just outside of Seattle, where the population was still dense, and now are closing in on some of the smaller settlements along the shore. They haven't seen any sign of giant wolves, although they did find a huge paw print, as big as a dinner plate, in a dried mud puddle.
They have just about given up on finding any of the promised werewolves and have headed north, still deep in the woods, when they hear some unusual sounds.
"What is that, do you think?" Victoria asks.
They come to a stop, and are still, listening. The wind carries the faintest of sounds to them. There is the sound of a faint crack, which from this distance must mean a tremendous sound at its source, and then the sound of…cheers? They look at each other dumbfounded.
James leads them to the crest of a ridge and shimmies up the tallest tree. He's clinging to the top, which sways with the wind under his weight. He studies the horizons for a while, before joining Laurent and Victoria at the bottom.
"Vampires," he says. "Eight of them."
"Eight?" Laurent asks, surprised by the number. He's never heard of such a big group outside of the Volturi.
"They're playing baseball," James says.
"Baseball? Really?" Victoria asks incredulously. They have never run across such a thing, vampires playing organized games. It tugs at her, the memory of baseball. She has vague human memories of playing baseball, with children, with other girls. She can remember the gold and maroon of a uniform and the excitement of running to home plate. "This I have to see."
James put his hands in his pockets. "They have golden eyes."
Laurent's head snaps up. James is aware of Laurent's interest in vampires that live in one place, drinking animals, but can't see the attraction. He has been trying, unsuccessfully, to understand Laurent's curiosity about another life style. James loves everything about his vampire nature; he loves the strength and speed, and the delight in tracking the hunted. He loves being the most dangerous predator in the world.
What he doesn't see is that Laurent has been travelling for a hundred and thirty years, and it has become mind-numbingly monotonous. Laurent can feel the years stretch behind him like a huge chain he must carry; he can feel the weight of endless days settling on his shoulders, and when he looks ahead, all he can is more of the same. Laurent has come to realize that all the speed in the world won't help you out-run boredom, and strength is an empty companion. Laurent is hopeful that a different life style will bring some relief to the monotony of existence. James, being newer, has yet to understand the despair of immortality.
"Let's go ask if we can join the game," James suggests.
"Yes, lets," agrees Victoria.
"There are eight of them," Laurent cautions.
"They drink from animals," James says off-handedly. "How dangerous can they be?"
Victoria snickers as they head off in the direction of the field where the sounds of the game have come from.
The sounds of the game have become more subdued as they approach. They pause for a moment before emerging from the brush onto the field. "You do the talking," James mutters to Laurent. "You're the curious one…"
Laurent nods and they step out onto the field.
The strange vampires gather around each other as Laurent and the others approach. They are all dressed in suburbanite clothes: designer jeans, tailored shirts, tee-shirts with team logos printed on them. Victoria has to hide a smile; she thinks they are the only vampires she has seen who look 'cute.' The description is derogatory in her mind.
Laurent is impressed by their easy-going elegance and confidence. They make him, Victoria and James seem like backwater hicks. Where he sees them pulling together as a family, James hangs back, assessing them and seeing the lack of military cohesion. James thinks the big vampire looks as if he could handle himself, and the smaller blond male has the scars of many battles on him. They would probably be the most challenging in a single fight. The other males and females he dismisses out of hand
Laurent takes a step ahead of the others. "We thought we heard a game." He smiles with a closed mouth; a show of teeth means aggression. "I'm Laurent, these are James and Victoria."
The oldest vampire, a blond male, steps forward and makes introductions. Laurent reads the body language of the group and is puzzled by how they are centering themselves around a brunette female in the middle of the group. He's sure James notices it as well.
"Do you have room for a few more players?" Laurent asks.
There is tension in the glances the coven members exchange with each other. Laurent is suddenly aware that they are hiding something, as he makes chitchat with the one called Carlisle about hunting ranges. It's when Carlisle mentions that they have a permanent house in the area, and they know the coven in Alaska, that Laurent lets his surprise show. "Permanent? How do you manage that?"
Surprisingly, Carlisle invites them back to his home to discuss the matter. Laurent is intrigued enough that he says yes, although he can see James and Victoria exchange dubious glances. James thinks they'll be subjected to some kind of evangelizing on the benefits of animal blood, and Victoria has come to her own conclusions about how interesting these seemingly very tame vampires are. She thinks they seem more like yuppies than vampires, and almost has to stifle back a yawn, having lost interest when it was announced the baseball game was over.
And then a breeze blows human scent towards them. James catches it immediately and whips his head around in surprise towards the brunette female they've all been huddled around.
Immediately, one of the males springs forward, snarling and crouching, thrusting the brunette behind him protectively. "What's this?" Laurent asks, surprised by the sudden tension and aggressiveness between James and the youngest-looking vampire.
Carlisle takes a step toward the two vampires seemingly locked in a stand-off with each other. "She's with us," he says firmly.
It's then that Laurent catches the human scent and assumes that this is a food fight. "You brought a snack?" he asks incredulously, ready to adjust his assumptions about vegetarian vampires again.
The young male snarls ever more fiercely, while the other golden-eyed vampires cluster around the human female. "I said she's with us," Carlisle says, his eyes turning hard and steely.
Laurent realizes that they are protecting her, and by the way she is huddling behind them, the female actually trusts this group of vampires to shield her. "But she's human." He couldn't be more surprised to find a young fawn being suckled by a pride of lions.
James and Laurent exchange a quick look, and then thankfully, James straightens from his crouch. But Laurent can tell that although James has stepped back, he is fixating on the brunette. His eyes stare at her while he memorizes her scent, and he seems almost amused at the obvious attempts of the young vampire to hide her from view. James has a single-mindedness and it reminds Laurent of a pointer when it finds a bird in the bush; it's that kind of intense fixation and quivering anticipation.
Still the tension is so thick, it is palpable. Obviously, this human means something more than a meal to them, and in particular, to the young male. Laurent shakes away the conclusion that there is some kind of a relationship. It wouldn't be possible, he thinks.
Laurent attempts to defuse the situation with promises of no hunting within the area, aware that even as the words come out of his mouth, James is thinking otherwise. The brunette is hustled off the playing field by three companions while Carlisle invites everyone back to their house.
Carlisle leads the group running toward their home, with the females and the scarred blond vampire bringing up the rear. They have only travelled for a few minutes when James makes some excuse about going back to their campsite to pick up a few items before rejoining them−an obvious lie, but the other vampires have no reason to stop him, so he and Victoria veer off. James gives him a look over his shoulder, and Laurent knows that he will be expected to report any useful information he might gather. Laurent has seen James with this kind of intensity before, and his heart sinks as he realizes that James is now irrevocably tracking the human girl. He runs along with the others, in single file through the woods, inwardly shaking his head and feeling angry at James for spoiling what might have been a very interesting and informative experience.
"How long have you lived in this area?" Laurent asks Carlisle as they glide effortlessly through the forest.
"Two and a half years, this time," Carlisle says. "It's not the first time we've lived in this section of the country."
"I've heard rumors there are werewolves in the area," Laurent comments, expecting laughter and skepticism.
"Yes, the Quileutes."
Laurent is so surprised he almost stops running. "You've seen them?"
Carlisle looks back over his shoulder and is amused by Laurent's obvious astonishment. "Yes, they are actually shape-shifters, from the native population indigenous to this area."
"I heard they attack vampires," Laurent says cautiously.
"We have a treaty with them," Carlisle says, further astounding Laurent. "I do suggest you avoid the area to the west of us, as they are quite willing to attack nomads found in their territory."
"A treaty?" Every time Carlisle answers a question, it only engenders five more in Laurent's mind.
"Yes, we have a treaty with them. They allow it because we pose no threat to the people under their protection."
"So it's true then, you don't drink from humans?"
Carlisle smiles at him over his shoulder. "Yes, it is."
"In fact, Carlisle is a doctor," says Esme, the female with hair the color of caramel running behind Laurent.
"What kind of doctor?" he asks curiously.
"Medical," Esme says. "You know. Broken bones, accidents, illnesses. That kind of human thing."
Laurent is so taken aback he can't say anything for a moment. "He treats humans, yet doesn't drink from them?" He looks at her over his shoulder, unbelieving.
She nods, smiling
Laurent is now seriously confused. It's impossible, he thinks to himself. He is quiet the rest of the way back to the house.
The afternoon has become one series of shocks after the other. They emerge from the forest to a large modern house situated in a meadow with six large cedars standing like sentinels around it. Once inside, Esme offers him a seat while Carlisle and the two others run upstairs to confer in hushed tones.
"It's the diet, yes?" Laurent asks Esme. "The eye color?"
"That's right," Esme says, being the gracious hostess. "It fades to black when we are hungry, just as yours do, but after feeding, returns to the gold you see."
"Have you ever…?" Laurent wonders.
"Fed on humans?" Esme finishes for him. She rises abruptly out of her seat and looks out the window. "Yes," she whispers. She is still for a moment, but then turns and smiles at him. "But it was a long time ago when I was newborn."
"Don't you miss it?"
"In some ways, every day. In others, not at all." She gestures around her. "This house, this family," she stresses, watching him to make sure he understands, "is built on love and compassion, not only for each other but for all things. I wouldn't trade it for the world."
"I must admit, I'd heard rumors, but didn't believe them. I didn't think it was possible."
"Well, it's possible, but it's not easy." Esme smiles ruefully. "There's another family in Denali, in Alaska, that practices the same way."
"I'd heard of them. In Denali, you say?"
A car pulls up as Laurent is speaking; the three vampires, one of them carrying the human girl, burst through the door as everyone gathers in the living room.
The young bronze-haired vampire looks accusingly at Laurent as he puts an arm possessively around the girl. "He's tracking us."
"I was afraid of that." Laurent is unhappy at the way things have turned out. There is a depth to this group of vampires he has not seen elsewhere. Their lifestyle is almost incomprehensible to him, and yet he wants to know more. The ties they have to one another are intriguing. They stand around him, seven individuals, yet so clearly a group. He hesitates to think of it as human-like, since he has seen the sins humans inflict on each other, but there is some bond between all of them that is almost palpable.
A memory rises unbidden, one of his human life that he hasn't thought of in a long time. It's hazy and vague, as almost all his human memories are, but he's rolling in the straw with his brothers on the family farm near Limoges. It has been a haying day and the men are tired but cheerful, and he's laughing at the frog his brother caught when his father picks him up and sets him on his shoulders as they walk back to the house for supper. The sun is setting behind them, and the calls of the affectionate and teasing goodbyes as the workers take leave of each other ring across the fields like bells.
Laurent tries to warn these golden-eyed vampires about James, but they're not listening to him and are trying to put off the inevitable. How can they protect a human against the juggernaut that is James on the hunt? He supposes he could advise them to turn her, but that would make James absolutely furious, so he figuratively keeps his head down and says nothing about that option. He looks again at the human girl, trying to see what makes her so valuable. She does smell good, very good in fact, but for what purpose other than food could she possibly be so valuable? "Are you sure it's worth it?" he asks, unable to keep his tongue still any longer.
The angry, inarticulate roar from the young vampire is Laurent's answer. When Carlisle asks him what he plans on doing, Laurent has his answer ready. He knows better than to go against James. But he dislikes the odds of taking on a coven of seven vampires even more. Laurent is nothing if not expedient, and he knows when he's in a no-win situation. Time to vacate the area, he thinks to himself.
Carlisle bids him go in peace, and it makes Laurent pause. He turns and looks over his shoulder, wondering if Carlisle is kidding or if it's the prelude to some trick, but there is nothing but good wishes written across Carlisle's face.
It's been an unsettling experience, meeting these strange golden-eyed ones. It's like catching a brief flicker of something tantalizing, yet not quite within reach. Whatever it is, it rings a chord within him and makes his breath catch in his throat with unexpressed emotions. There's more there among this group of vampires than can be explained by just a dietary change, something subtle and all-encompassing. It seems something worth trying to attain, yet he fears that over a century of habits will not let go easily.
He knows he will have to meet up with James or Victoria and report on what he has seen, not that he thinks it will help James much. But unless he says his proper good-byes, it is likely James will take to tracking him, and that's not a pleasant prospect. Laurent heads off into the woods and the darkness, hoping to find a way out of them.
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