I would have died immediately if Jasper had been in his right mind and had both hands. But he was short a weapon, and his onslaught was clumsy and desperate. His attitude and his stance and his strategy shifted chaotically as he lunged and struck, and while it made him unpredictable, it sacrificed all of his follow-through.
It was only April; I had almost two months left of newborn strength. Jasper seemed stronger than Emmett - I remembered that drinking human blood conferred an improvement there - but I was stronger still, and I could commit to my attacks.
I could, at least, until Jasper started talking again.
"Did you even love him?" he said, launching a kick to my head that turned into a mere acrobatic maneuver halfway through its journey when he changed his mind. I rolled away, kipped up, and then realized what he was talking about and found myself so stunned by the question that I couldn't dodge as he landed a solid punch to my sternum with his attached hand.
I flew through the air; he was waiting when I landed and stomped on my knee, breaking my leg in half. I screamed and scrabbled for the lost leg, and Jasper chose to forego continuing to divide me from myself, instead saying, "Because if you did love him... you'd be like me, now, wouldn't you?"
"You're -" I shouldn't be talking to him, I should be focusing on surviving. I picked up my leg, spat on it, and fused it back to my knee, then sprang to my feet and ran again.
"Alice didn't see it... too many wolves," he said, sprinting after me. "But we heard about it... you know, before they killed her because of you... Edward is dead, or did you somehow not know? Did you abandon him?"
"No!" I shrieked.
"But you seem to be doing so well, Bella," Jasper snarled. "Of course, I can't tell, not really, but I'd think, if you loved him, that you'd be in more or less my boat... or you'd be barely awake, like Marcus... or you'd be focused on revenge, like Irina... but no, you're fine, you're in the middle of Tennessee... hiking."
"I'm not fine!" He caught up to me again, pushed himself into the air and aimed a foot squarely at the middle of my back. I had enough forward momentum that it didn't actually injure me, but it threw off my gait and I went tumbling forward down the slope I'd been following.
Jasper stood at the top of the hill, watching me recover my feet. "I can't tell," he said, shrugging, "like I said." Then he was after me again. I spun to connect a fist with his face as he approached. I missed his head, but caught the shoulder of his good arm. It came off. He didn't make any effort to retrieve it, just kept advancing; he was on me again in an instant, compensating for his rebalanced body well enough to land a kick at my throat.
My neck cracked but didn't sever, and he stopped, again, to taunt me while I gurgled and healed. The knitting wound was slower than the others - I'd had to reattach an arm and a leg in the last minute; I wasn't made entirely of venom. "Now," Jasper said, "I know he loved you. And you felt something for him... I think... before I lost you. But did you love him? Really? Or are you immune to that too, dear sister?" He darted towards me to do more damage, when my neck was half healed, but I pushed at him with both hands and one foot and he went hurtling through the air. He skidded when he landed, not bothering to get his bearings again until my neck was glued whole and I was up and running again.
If Jasper ever got the presence of mind to pick up his lost appendages and seriously attack me without pause, I was dead. I needed to do something clever. He'd been reacting very strongly to Alice's name; it might throw him off enough that I could reason with him. "Alice wouldn't want me dead!" I yelled.
He stopped in his tracks, and I glanced over my shoulder to gauge his reaction. The lost, forlorn look again. "She loved you," he said. And then his face twisted with hate. "And you betrayed her. She loved you." He gave chase again; I kept running, with enough of a start that I guessed he'd catch me again in four minutes.
Damn my ambition. I hadn't been born accidentally immune to Jasper, I'd chosen it -
Could I turn it off? I could feel it, now - it had responded to my volition when I'd added the immunity, and when I'd been dying - maybe - if I just wanted a little hole in it, he'd be able to feel my presence the way he was used to. He was raving enough that I might be able to convince him that it was a case of mistaken identity.
I didn't know how to make it make sense for Jasper to feel me, but maybe it didn't need to make sense. Or maybe it didn't need to make a specific kind of sense.
He had been able to feel my emotions before, after all... I visualized my shield getting thinner, letting my emotions seep through. I didn't actually know what Jasper's range was, but he was catching up anyway; if it was working, he'd notice when he crossed it. I thought I could feel the press of my shield getting lighter or changing temperature or something - it wasn't quite like feeling a normal object, I didn't know how to map all the sensations onto metaphors (or functions) yet.
"What..." Jasper stopped again. "You're... but you look like... wait -"
He was not only confused about who I was, he was also willing to quit attacking me for that reason? That was better than I'd hoped. If I could pass off the entire conversation... I ran through it again in my head. I hadn't definitively given away my identity, he'd said all the names first... although I'd need one hell of a story to cover my appearance and gold eyes and a few of the things I'd said. If he really wasn't sure, though, I might be able to get out with no complete story at all, and leave him to fill in the blanks with the next most believable thing.
"Wait," Jasper said desperately. "I'm sorry, you're not her - you only look like - she's dead, you look like someone I used to know, but she's dead too, I've been seeing things, I'm sorry. Peter and Charlotte will - they've been helping -"
He had lost his conviction that I was myself. Being rumored deceased was helpful. "What are you even talking about?" I yelled. "Jesus! I was just going to ask if I could go through your territory! And then you called me "Bella" and you took my damn arm off! The hell is your problem? And you've been eating people? Is that seriously normal? I mean, yeah, they smell awesome, but I thought my creator was pulling my leg that vampires actually went around killing them." Had to cover the confusion about the red eyes. The red in his eyes was at least a different sort than newborn red, although it was still a foolish mistake I was pretending to have made. "But, you know, not pulling my leg completely off like you. Thanks for the tip about us not really being immortal, though, I thought that word meant we can't die, I'll be more careful about talking to strangers now." That should explain why I'd asked "how" about Alice's death.
"I'm sorry!" he yelled. "You look like someone I knew, but she's dead -"
"Are you going to attack me again if I stop and talk to you?" I demanded.
"No, I won't, I won't," he said, and I slowed.
"You look a lot like her," he murmured. "A lot. But maybe you don't. I've been seeing things, things that aren't there... Maybe you don't really look like her."
"This... Bella person?" I said, stopping a safe distance away. "Your sister? Man, I don't know about her, but I know I don't look one bit like you."
He nodded. "Uh, look - I'm with a coven - you can talk to them about the territory thing - they're in -"
"No offense, man, but I don't think I want to hang around," I said. Or leave more reliable records of my face, in Peter and Charlotte's minds. It was a stroke of bewildering luck that Jasper had been hallucinating enough to think I was really someone else. It was not going to hold with his friends. "Just tell me which way is out of here and go get your hands back on and take a chill pill."
"Did... did you lose someone? It doesn't make sense unless..."
"You're not my freakin' therapist," I said. "It's not your business that my boyfriend is - not your business." Act, act, act, live, live, live -
"I'm sorry. Uh - go - that way - Nashville's the only major city my coven claims, just stay out of the area and you'll never see me again - I'm sorry -"
"Toodles," I said, in the most uncharacteristic farewell I could think of, and I bolted.
I got out of the Nashville area without meeting Peter or Charlotte, and continued north once I had safely detoured. I thanked my lucky stars that my identifying jewelry had been tucked into my shirt, and I didn't dare take it out again until I'd crossed the state line.
Jasper's accusations had shaken me, and when I was out of his coven's range and had coaxed my shield back to its normal strength, I tried to consider them. Of course if Jasper couldn't sense an emotion from me, that didn't necessarily mean it wasn't there... but did he have a point, however poorly derived? Could I be immune to the full force of the mate bond? It was the sort of thing I found myself impervious to. I felt like I'd been more powerfully connected to Edward than I'd imagined possible, but I didn't have a true basis for comparison. Edward would have, if he could read my mind, but he couldn't.
And... I was holding up better than Jasper. He was hallucinating, he'd lapsed his vegetarianism, his mood and demeanor swung wildly all over the map from moment to moment. I was functioning better than Marcus. He was practically a zombie, after centuries without Didyme. And I was less obsessed with revenge than Irina. While I did want the Volturi dead, I'd already wanted that before they'd killed Edward.
In short, I was coping. I thought about Edward every single day, and hadn't managed to scale back my allotted four hours daily of dwelling on him and Elspeth, but I was having a life without him.
But the answer that Jasper had thought of - that I just didn't really love Edward, that I was somehow protected from that too - didn't feel right. I'd had to drag myself around by telling myself he'd have wanted me to live; I'd acquired more momentum over the months since, but the basic motivation was still the same, if I looked at it.
Maybe there was some other explanation for why I was - effectively - managing. Irina's behavior was the least bizarre of the three examples - and she, unlike Jasper or Marcus, wasn't a witch. Jasper had apparently felt Alice die. I allowed myself a shudder at how awful that must have been. Marcus saw relationships - had he watched his wink out? Would that be a more affecting experience than mine, where I'd only had to hear myself widowed?
And there was Elspeth.
For all that I thought it was idiotic for anyone to count having children as a kind of immortality on a par with the regular kind of immortality...
It wasn't nothing. Elspeth was alive, might well live forever if she hadn't inherited my hubris, and she was Edward's daughter. Half him. Even if I couldn't see her, at least not until every threat were somehow extinguished in spite of the fact that the Volturi had at least two new witches and two packs of werewolves... she existed.
I was cold. But I knew why I was cold, I knew what I was missing, and that warmth hadn't gone out of the world, she was only far away.
Elspeth deserved to have a mother, a mother who wasn't a gibbering mess or an apathetic lump of misery, even if she couldn't be raised by that mother. Even if she had to think I was dead for the rest of her eternity.
I kept walking.
I was passing through Michigan when I found her.
I heard her voice first. I knew it was her before I even processed the word she'd spoken. There was no mistaking it, even though I'd heard only the syllables she'd deigned to utter when she was days old.
I froze in my tracks. Michigan? There were no family houses I knew about in Michigan. They'd bought a new one, then. Moving around more to cover for Elspeth's growth. How big would she be now? I should run, I should jump into Lake Huron and swim to Ontario, I can't be here, they can't know -
But what if she said something else? What if she spoke again, and I missed it?
The word she'd said was "puppy". That was... odd. Vampires, at least full ones, couldn't be around animals without the animals going out of their minds trying to get away; that was fine when we were going to eat the creatures anyway, but it would be a suspicious pattern of behavior to inspire in pets. Why would she be around a puppy?
Was my daughter unsupervised? Were they leaving her by herself, that she'd found a dog that wasn't barking its head off about the presence of vampires?
I listened more carefully. There were at least two people with her - heartbeats, at human speed. I'd entrusted my daughter to my in-laws and they were leaving her with a babysitter? Why were they not with her, in one combination or another, every minute of the day? What were they doing that was so important that they'd hand off my baby to someone else? One of the humans was an adult - a woman, it sounded like - the other a child.
Elspeth said something again: "Can I walk the puppy in the forest?" It wasn't really a forest, just a cluster of trees in a park, barely thick enough to obscure vision. If I ran six steps forward to its edge I might be able to glimpse her. I barely, barely stayed put.
"All right, Elsie," said the woman, and my daughter laughed with glee, and my heart would have stopped if it had been running. More footsteps, a dog's and a little girl's...
She was coming closer. I should run. If she saw me, if she smelled me, if she had any inkling that I was here, she could tell anyone about it, could tell my neglectful erstwhile siblings and parents-in-law about how she'd run into me. After she got home from her day with the babysitter.
But my body was obedient to what I really wanted, and I wanted to see my child again. She walked closer still.
Then the footsteps stopped. I heard her sniffing the air. The dog was sniffing, too, and started to whine.
"Mama?" said Elspeth.
Every thought of running away evaporated.
I could not, could not leave. Not now. Not anymore.
"Mama?" said Elspeth again, and she was getting closer. She was having to fight the dog to do it; I could tell by listening that she was stronger than it was, but it was very determined not to approach nearer. "Silly puppy," she said, and I thought I heard her hook the leash over a branch to make the animal stay while she investigated.
She pushed branches aside, and I couldn't breathe, and I couldn't move, and then she came into view.
"Mama!" she exclaimed. She looked like a tall five-year-old, maybe a skinny six-year-old. Her hair - that hair, exactly the shade, bronzed and brilliant - fell in waves to her knees. Her eyes were still that same brown that her father had loved so much. Someone had put her in a spring green outfit with daisies on it. She was the most beautiful thing in the universe.
I didn't think the human would have been able to hear her speaking to me. She rushed forward, jumped into my arms as they folded around her automatically, and planted her hand on my face.
Memories flooded past. Everything. Every instant of her childhood stolen from me, I could have it all back. I'd never be able to put her down, never be able to tell her to keep me a secret and send her back to the babysitter and the other child with the dog. I was going to have to steal her away; there was nothing else I was strong enough to do.
"Elspeth," I whispered, interrupting her. There were too many lost minutes for me to make them all up standing in a park some insufficient handful of miles away from her ostensible caretakers.
"What, Mama?" she replied, leaving her hot hand on my face but halting the flow of shared memory.
"Can you show me what happened right before you came to the park, please?"
She beamed at me and did exactly that.
The woman and her little son were the Cullens' next door neighbors at their current residence. They had a dachshund, which Elspeth found fascinating, but which the regular vampires had to pretend to be allergic to. The neighbor lady had offered to bring Elspeth along on the dog's walk, and Elspeth had begged to go, and they'd seen no harm in it: she was smart enough to keep her extraordinary qualities to herself, and to stay quiet about the oddities of her relatives.
The human was starting to wonder at how long Elspeth had "walked the puppy in the forest". "Elsie?" she called. "It's almost time for our picnic!"
"Mama, come to the picnic?" asked Elspeth eagerly.
"Elspeth, I can't. I need to take you away from here." I was hugging her close to me, and she was snuggling up, and she was so warm, so warm -
"Away to the place you went?" Was that seriously how they'd explained my supposed death to her? That I'd "gone away"?
"Yes," I said, saving the complex explanation for later. "Are you ready to go?"
"The puppy is stuck."
"The neighbor will find the puppy and get it unstuck." Finally, my feet at last were willing to move, now that she was in my arms. The human was meandering towards the cluster of trees. If I bolted, now, and got into the water as soon as I could to disrupt my trail, and it took the human even a couple of minutes to give up looking and contact one of the Cullens, then I had a shot at evading detection. Unless... "Elspeth, did you ever meet a vampire man named Demetri?"
She shook her head, and showed me every male vampire she'd ever met, including Edward, but remembering him didn't hurt as much as it would have without her right there. Edward, Carlisle, Emmett, Ilario, Eleazar, David, that was all - apparently if a contingent of Volturi had visited the family they'd been all women. Demetri hadn't met her. We couldn't be tracked.
I clutched at Elspeth and I ran.
I needed to cut off our trail. But Elspeth needed to breathe, which made sustained, discreet underwater travel challenging. No one who would be looking for me was a tracker. Without any witches to help them, the family was limited to scent and traditional detective work to follow me.
After even a few minutes for the trail to cool, scent alone wouldn't be enough to identify me specifically, although they'd know a vampire was involved. The distinguishing features of a person's scent evaporated much quickly, so they'd only be able to tell my species, not recognize my person. I could confuse my trail to the point of untrackability in a sufficiently crowded area. But the crowds could be questioned later, and might remember us. Water would really be best if we could manage it. My backpack was fortunately waterproof; I'd considered that an important feature when I'd bought it, considering my penchant for aquatic food.
"Elspeth, sweetie, do you happen to know how long you can hold your breath?" I asked.
"A whole minute!" she bragged, sending me the relevant memory.
I didn't pull any oxygen out of the air I inhaled. If we both held our breaths, and I carried her in one arm and dove underwater, we could stay underwater for two minutes at a time if I gave her my air. That wasn't enough time to get out of visual range from a speedboat if someone on it spotted us and knew which direction to go, but it was enough time to get far enough away to confuse anyone who thought we were human. I could pop up in unpredictable locations and be unfollowable. All they'd be able to tell, if they were questioned later, would be that we'd been in the lake.
I'd avoid spending too long in the water - I just needed to break my trail, and then there would be thousands of miles of coastline on which I could have emerged. By the time they found the specific beach we'd come out on the scent would be long gone.
I clung to uninhabited areas so I could run instead of walking until I got to the edge of the water. "We're going to swim across this lake," I told Elspeth, after confirming that there was no one along the stretch of coast I'd found. I explained how we were going to stay underwater, made sure she knew to poke me if she needed air early, and dove in.
I managed to stay out of the paths of boats for the entire trip across the lake. The swim took four hours, but Elspeth was very patient about it, and looked fascinated by the fish we passed. We climbed out on a beach in Ontario, and it was already after dark. "I'm hungry, Mama," Elspeth informed me.
"Okay, Elspeth, I'll get you something to eat," I promised. "I need to figure out where we are first."
"I never got to hunt with you before, I'm excited," she announced.
"You've been hunting?" I asked, blinking.
She showed me. They'd been feeding her animal blood. Or rather, taking her along on hunting trips and letting her get it for herself, which she'd become capable of months previously. I was annoyed that my dietary regimen had been thrown out the window once I was out of the picture, but on the other hand, wild animals were free and human food wasn't. I didn't have access to deep pockets full of ancient fortune anymore. It was probably better, all things considered, if she hunted for food.
I ran along a highway, slowing to a walk whenever I heard a car coming, until I arrived in a town. I found a convenience store that was open, read an atlas with one hand to avoid having to put Elspeth down, and identfied an area that was unlikely to be inhabited where she could hunt.
"You have to put me down so I can chase stuff," she pointed out when we'd arrived.
I didn't want to let her go. But she did need to eat, and if she was accustomed to bringing down her own food... I set her on her feet. She ran lightly ahead of me, and I jogged behind, just keeping her in sight.
Elspeth drained two raccoons and a small deer, then announced she was done. She had good table manners, which was a relief, because replacing her clothes every time she ate would have gotten very expensive and I only had a few hundred dollars left from snow shoveling.
She didn't protest at all when I scooped her up again. She fell asleep in my arms as I ran, heading nowhere in particular except away from the lake.
It occurred to me to feel bad for Carlisle and Esme and Emmett and Rosalie. They wouldn't know what had happened to Elspeth. I also worried vaguely about the neighbor who'd taken her to the park being suspected of having something to do with it. But there was no way to let it be known that she was okay, that the neighbor was innocent, without making my survival an even more obvious hypothesis than it already was. I had to stay "dead". If she just vanished without a trace, any nomadic vampire accustomed to helping him or herself to interesting live curios could have been the culprit. If she kept in touch with her grandparents and aunt and uncle, on the other hand, that sharply narrowed the field of suspects.
Maybe when she was older, there would be some workaround. She could claim to have escaped a captor or something, once grown, without being young enough that they'd insist on her coming to live with them again. Elspeth's adulthood was only a few years away. They could fret over it for that long. My parents had to think that I was dead for longer, possibly forever.
In the meantime, I had my daughter, and I could keep her, and she was warm in my arms.