No ACAP or Lullaby updates this week; I was working on this instead. I can't quite call it a crossover because...well, it's not. I do have to credit Peter S. Beagle's The Last Unicorn though, and if you know it, you'll understand why. The original Midnight Carnival belongs to him, and to his creation Mommy Fortuna. I've also borrowed a bit from his text in one scene, because he's just that good, but I've placed asterisks around the quoted (and sometimes paraphrased) material. Content warning: graphic violence and a rape scene.
I've taken some liberties with vampire abilities and such, as you'll see, but tried to keep everything as close to canon as possible in that respect. Um, okay, I lied. Close to canon with vampires, but not with werewolves. Jacob lovers might want to stay away.
All standard disclaimers apply.
Confusion. Pain. Intense pain. Why pain? Was Jane here? Kate? But Kate wouldn't hurt him, would she? Or had he done something to incur her wrath?
He tried to remember, but couldn't. Couldn't even begin to know what his mind had forgotten. Why was he here? Where was here, anyway? What had happened to him?
A dry, chuckling laugh, like bones rattling together, burst through the pain in his head. It cut - sliced through the confusion and seized his heart in a terrifying grip, as if pinning it in an iron cage, forcing it out of his chest, right through his ribcage. He writhed, crying out finally as the agony grew too great.
Another laugh. "Our ancestors were wrong, it seems. Cold iron cannot hold you, but I've found something that can."
Burning. Pain. Someone had ripped his living entrails from his body, he was sure of it. Left them there in front of him, pulsing and bloody. The hard voice, low and gunmetal grey, had reached inside his ribs and grasped his heart, forced him to watch as the living organ was thrown into a fire. He couldn't see, but that was what it felt like. Drills ripped and tore, screwing into each inch of his body - the tender soles of his feet, the sensitive knobs of spine and curve of palm.
Tears. Through the burning pain and agony, he smelled the distinct salt of human tears. They couldn't possibly be his; he hadn't cried for eighty years or more. Had he? Maybe it was all a dream, everything he remembered...or thought he did. He twisted and turned, unable to lie still, feeling the bite and press of pain in every inch of his body. Someone was ripping off his skin, turning it inside out. They would wear him as a coat, as a second skin, a shield of impenetrable armor.
But was that even possible? Impenetrable skin. Funny. Where had he come up with that? Because he certainly didn't feel impenetrable at the moment as pain lanced through him, whatever was inside slowly leaking out.
Inside? He knew what was inside, didn't he? In his own body? What was in all bodies, of course; why should he be any different? Flesh and blood, cartilage and bone, soft floppy organs - so fragile, so delicate.
He wouldn't survive this. No one could possibly survive this.
Past the harsh, labored sound of his own breath, he heard someone crying. Not himself. He was too far gone to cry; he could barely make himself breathe. His throat couldn't handle any more screaming.
This wasn't screaming, though. It was a soft sound, scared and tense. Hurting. Almost hysterical, but quiet. Not shrieking.
"Oh, how sweet," the gunmetal voice said, chuckling again like steel. "Victoria, see here. The baby's crying for our newest acquisition."
"Don't fret, pretty girl," a female voice said, floating to him from the frothy haze of red and grey that was all he could see. "His kind have no souls. He's just a dumb animal stupid enough to get caught in our trap; he isn't worth your tears. Save them for something better."
"Please," a third voice begged. "Please, please stop." This voice had been crying; he could hear the tears, round and liquid and sweet, as she spoke. "Don't hurt him. Please stop!"
"And what entertainment will you give us instead, pretty one?" Gunmetal. Black powder, steel. Flint. Fire. A glimmer of suggestion, something that shivered down his spine and made him feel both dirty and afraid, just hearing it.
The soft, teary voice caught, and he heard an audible swallow. "You'll do it anyway," she whispered.
"But it's no fun when you don't play along," the cold female voice said. "Less fun, anyway."
A quiet, desperate whimper from the crying voice made Edward writhe. Hearing her pain hurt him almost as much as whatever else was being done to his body. "Please," she said. "Just...please."
"A game, then," the male voice said. "A game, and we'll stop our fun with the new acquisition for now." He paused, then repeated his last two words. "For now," he said again, and the intent was clear.
"I've got a good game," the cold female voice said. "Let's call it 'Naughty Runaway.'" She giggled, the sound abysmally cheerful and out of place. "We'll even give you a head start. Isn't that nice of us?"
No answer from the soft-voiced girl.
"All right, pretty baby," the man said, eagerness infusing his tone. "I'm releasing the acquisition now. Victoria will count to twenty, and then we're coming to find you."
"One." The female didn't waste any time. "Two. Three."
A shuddering half-breath tore from the soft-voiced girl's throat, and then he heard the rustling crunch of fallen leaves below rushing feet.
The pain abruptly vanished, and he slumped to an unfamiliar wooden surface. Dark and silence swam up to meet him, unfamiliar and unwelcome. Before he surrendered to unconsciousness, he heard another bone-rattling laugh from the man. "Silly girl," he almost cooed. "So trusting, even now."
Two more sets of footsteps rushed away, but he was past caring at this point. He closed his eyes and knew nothing more.
Cold. Ache. Hard floor. Thirst - aching thirst.
He opened blurry eyes and saw bars. Unfamiliar bars.
Slowly he stretched out an arm, raising a hand in front of his eyes. Focusing carefully, he managed to make out the knob of a knuckle, then the pale matte gleam of a fingernail. He blinked several times, slow and cautious, as his sight returned. There was dirt and blood jammed deep under his short nails, and the smell made him ache with a thirst more dire than any he could remember. In desperation he raised his fingers to his mouth, licking and biting, grimacing at the grit of dirt as the miniscule amount of blood melted on his tongue. It was human, but he didn't care.
Holding back a groan, he dropped his now-clean hand from his mouth and propped himself up slowly against it, leaning heavily on his joints as his muscles quivered. He didn't remember ever feeling so weak, so helpless. He stuck his other hand in his mouth and took his first good look around.
Bars, as he earlier suspected. He growled a little, still burning with thirst. The small amount of blood under his fingernails had done virtually nothing to sate his hunger, but he didn't know when - or even if - he would be able to obtain more. He was in a cage, a barred cage. Beyond the bars, he saw a grimy, withered clearing - a field of dead grass, nothing more. Power lines stretched above them, but he saw no buildings, no roads. There was an RV nearby, old and run-down, painted black. A number of other wheeled cages, all the same size and shape, were circled together in the clearing.
He didn't bother to look at what the cages might hold. He didn't know who had put him in here, or how they'd managed it, but he wasn't sticking around to find out. No substance in the world could hold him - not iron or its modern cousin steel, not silver, not gold, not even the highest-grade titanium alloys.
It couldn't hold him because...because...
His memory slowly bled back into his mind, and he sat up stiffly.
Edward. Edward Cullen. That was his name. And no substance in the world could hold him, because he was a vampire. Strong. Swift. Deadly. Immortal.
And at the moment very, very thirsty.
Edward reached out to grab the bars and rip them apart, but the moment he touched the metal a searing pain ripped through his body, like the strongest fire, the most potent jolt of electricity. He howled and snatched his hands back, tucking them under himself and rocking as the pain ebbed agonizingly slowly.
"Ah ah ah," a voice scolded. "Mustn't touch."
It was the cold female voice from earlier, from his feverish dream of pain. So it hadn't been a dream, then. It had really happened, and this woman had witnessed it all. Edward jerked his head up, instantly focusing on the form of a redheaded woman.
She was neither old nor young - perhaps in her mid-thirties - and her eyes were poison-green, like the stuff of Disney nightmares. Full, almost overblown lips curved in a cruel smile. Without that smile her face might have been pleasant enough, but the light in her eyes was unnatural and cold. It belied the warm color of her long, curly hair.
She had several long, fresh wounds across her left cheek and down her pale throat. Another set curved along her upper arm, just missing the tender veins at the soft inside of her elbow.
"Yes," she said, watching the direction of his eyes. "You took some blood with your claws, but you never got close with your teeth. I hope you enjoyed it." She sauntered closer, no fear in her eyes or her scent, and stopped just on the other side of the bars. "It's the last you'll be getting for quite a while." He could smell the freshly opened skin, though she had obviously washed and treated the wounds. Thirst blinded him, and without thinking he lunged for her.
Pain overtook him again, and he slumped against the bars, writhing, groaning with the intensity of the fire running through his body. How had he managed to endure this, and how long had they tortured him? He didn't know. Finally he wrenched his body away, falling heavily on the wooden floor of his cage. He gasped several times, panting, gulping the air reflexively though his body did not really need it. What he needed was blood - red, pure, energizing blood - and he could not reach it. It was right there, within arms' length, but the bars would not let him pass.
The woman laughed. It was the giggle of a little girl, light and carefree, and it did not belong in her demon mouth. "Oh, this is too fun!" she said, clasping her hands together. "Too, too fun!"
"Bitch," Edward growled, turning his head toward her. He gave her his most fearsome grimace, the look that had more than once caused full gangs of armed men to flee, terrified, from him.
But the woman didn't even flinch. "Oh, silly boy," she said, chuckling a little. "Mustn't speak like that in front of James, now. He wouldn't be too happy if he heard you, and you don't want to make James angry."
She paced slowly in front of his cage, studying him. "You're really remarkably handsome, you know. Quite a happy addition to the Carnival."
A short, sharp cry from the RV abruptly sounded, and was just as abruptly cut short. The woman turned her head and sighed in irritation, folding her arms over her chest and shifting her weight onto one hip. "James!" she shouted, her voice high and piercing. "Leave the girl alone for five minutes and come here! The new one is awake!"
After a moment, the RV door banged open. Edward couldn't see inside from this angle, but he distinctly heard the sound of a girl crying.
"Hush, you!" a male voice snapped. Edward remembered this voice, too. It was the voice of gunmetal, the cold grey masculine voice. Its owner appeared, stooping through the doorway and leaping with catlike grace to the ground.
He was a lithe man around the redhead's age, and he had blond hair pulled back in a trashy ponytail. His brown eyes were surprisingly soft - like the eyes of the pincushion guy from the horror movies, Edward thought. Deceptive. Everything else belied those soft eyes. The way he moved like a predator, each subtle flick of wrist or turn of head. He strode purposefully to the cage, and the hard set of his jaw made Edward tense. He was not afraid - he didn't know how to be afraid. Not of a human, which this man certainly was. He wore wounds matching the woman's. Clearly Edward had managed a few good thrashes before he succumbed. Though how these two had captured him - captured, and now held him - he did not know. He was a vampire. This just wasn't possible.
"Well, so you're awake," the man said. "Let's observe the niceties, shall we?" He grinned, his smile sarcastic and unkind. "James and Victoria. No last names necessary. We run the Midnight Carnival, of which you are now the latest attraction."
Edward growled low in his throat. The man did not smell nearly as appetizing as the woman, but he'd gladly drain them both dry despite his resolve to only hunt animals. These two were animals, in his mind. He could see it in their eyes, and he heard it in the sobbing cries of the girl he had yet to see. Surely no one would miss them?
"No how-do-you-do?" James sighed and shook his head. "Pity. I had hoped we'd be able to be civil, at least."
"How civil is it," Edward managed to bite out between clenched teeth, "to ambush someone and lock him in a cage?"
James shrugged the argument off. "All part of our line of work. Don't pretend you haven't done worse, vampire."
The last word was nearly spat at Edward, and he glared back. How these two knew what he was, he didn't know. It wasn't like he actually had fangs or anything, after all.
"Don't look so surprised," Victoria said coolly. "We know the signs. We knew what you were the first time we laid eyes on you."
"Here's how this works," James said, rubbing his hands together. "Each day we welcome visitors to the carnival. Tours start every hour on the hour, from one in the afternoon until eight at night. We spend five days at each location, then move on. At midnight on the last day we have a very...special...tour."
"The simpletons we cater to want an experience that's more than what they see on reality TV," Victoria said. "So we give it to them."
"We're going to keep you unfed for a few more days," James continued. "Just until you break. Once we're sure you'll cooperate, you can drink a little. The faster you learn to give in, the faster you get fed. You can show us your willingness by hamming it up for the crowd. Hiss or growl, show them your fangs - whatever it is you people do."
"We don't have fangs," Edward said, his voice deadly and quiet.
"Pity. Would you be averse to wearing some fake ones?"
Edward growled again.
"It was only a suggestion. It's a rare man taken for what he truly is. Vampire you may be, but we'll have to figure a way to prove it to our crowds," James said.
Victoria snickered. "You could give him the girl. That would be a show, all right."
The bored smile faded from James' face and he grabbed her arm. "That girl," he bit out, "is mine! Got it? Mine!"
"Don't get grabby." She shoved him away. "Not in front of our new pet, anyway."
Late afternoon sun filtered through the trees ringing their clearing. It was warm and gold, and the smell of baking grass was rich and sweet. Edward hated it. He longed for the drip of endless rain on fir trees, for mud and rocks and misting breath from humans and forest creatures alike. At least he was shadowed in his cage, so no telltale glints of sun could catch him. There was no telling what these two would do if they saw him in the light.
They turned away from him. "Customers come tomorrow," James called back. "Be on your best behavior, vampire. Or else."
He watched through narrow eyes as they returned to the RV and closed the door behind them. Though muffled by metal and fiberglass, he distinctly heard the sound of a resounding slap on soft human skin. The unseen girl, who had quieted sometime during his confrontation with James and Victoria, whimpered again.
"Shut up, cunt!" James yelled, and Edward flinched as he heard the sound of beating, of slaps and kicks encountering flesh. After a while she did stop crying, though he doubted it was voluntary. Whether her voice had failed or she had passed out, though, he didn't know and wouldn't want to guess. Poor child. He had no idea how old she was, but no matter the answer, she didn't deserve this sort of treatment. No one did. He bet she'd far rather be locked in a cage out here than subjected to whatever torture her captors devised in that RV.
Trying to take his mind off her predicament, Edward decided to peer into the other cages. It was hard with the slant of the light, and he wasn't at all sure what he saw. Animals of some sort, but he couldn't tell what kind. The thirst had begun to significantly weaken and impair him, and he decided it must be interfering with his eyesight, too.
But Edward could see clearly into the cage directly across the small circle from him, and what he saw raised the hair on the back of his neck.
It was a werewolf. Not a wolf, but a real werewolf. It was the size of a bear, its claws longer than Edward's fingers and so sharp that they had raked long gouges in the wooden floor of its cage. It barely had room to move around, and its eyes were dangerously dark and glinting. They reflected no light, which was one of the ways Edward could tell it was a true werewolf and not just some poor animal these sick humans had fed steroids or something.
The wolf saw him, and knew him. Edward reached out with his mind and found...nothing. Absolutely nothing. He frowned and tried again. Nothing from the RV or the animals in the other cages, either.
Had he merely imagined his ability to read minds, Edward wondered? But, no. It was clear in his memory. He was Edward Cullen, son of Carlisle and Esme Cullen, brother to Emmett, Rosalie, Alice, and Jasper. He had been turned into a vampire in 1918, and had therefore lived undead nearly a century.
And he could read minds. He knew it as surely as he knew his own name and the fact that he and his family abstained from drinking human blood. It was a part of himself, just as his sight or hearing would be. If he were blind, he would not imagine sight during a pain-fueled hallucination. Just so, he had not imagined his clairvoyance.
So what was going on?
And more importantly, how the hell was he going to get out of here?
The voice was timid, small, and Edward whirled around to find that night had fallen while he mused, and the biggest, sweetest eyes he'd ever seen were looking straight at him.
She was on the other side of his barred wagon, between him and the forest, and she glanced cautiously at the RV before turning her eyes back to him. They were rimmed in lovely, thick lashes, but full of anxiety as they watched him.
"Are you all right?" she asked, her voice still hesitant.
Edward let out a breath. She was barely peeping over the lower edge of his cage and he could see very little except her eyes and the sweeping curve of her pale forehead. Her dark hair shone softly in wan glimmers of moonlight.
"I should be asking you that question," he breathed. "Are you the voice I remember? The one asking them to stop?"
A rosy blush lit her skin and she ducked even further under his cage.
"Please don't hide," Edward said. He didn't really know how to be soothing, only frightening, but he nonetheless tried. "No one's ever done anything like that for me before. Thank you."
She straightened a little, and more of her face appeared. She had lovely cheekbones, but one was marred by a terrible dark bruise. "I couldn't let them anymore," she whispered.
Edward considered her. She was a funny little thing - so strange, caring about the welfare of a vampire. "Do you know what I am, little one?" he asked her curiously.
She finally moved, grasping the bars of his cage in her hand and rising to her feet. He could see now that she'd been kneeling next to his cage. The fact that she could touch the bars without pain did not entirely surprise him.
Edward sat as close as he dared without touching the dreaded bars. Even like this, he was still quite a bit taller than she was. Her breastbone was floor-height to his cage. He tried not to think of her delectable fingers curled around the bars and only of the pain those bars inflicted.
She nodded shyly, answering his question, and tucked her lower lip between her teeth. It was split and swollen, and Edward almost growled. She smelled better than either of the two animals currently snoring in the RV, and he almost couldn't stand it. He was so thirsty... He tried to swallow unobtrusively, but clearly the action did not go unnoticed. The girl widened her pretty eyes and bit a little harder on her lip, but her heart did not start beating any faster as she slowly unclasped her fingers from one bar and extended her skinny arm into his cage.
Edward leaped away from the offered limb, hissing. "Are you insane?" he whisper-yelled. "I'd drain you dry in an instant!"
She swallowed and pulled her arm back, holding it against her chest and trembling a little. "But you're thirsty," she whispered. "Does it hurt?"
"Like hellfire," Edward bit out through his teeth. "But I won't kill you to stop it."
She let out a breath. "You're a strange sort of vampire."
Edward laughed humorlessly. "I know. Believe me, I know."
She was glancing around the shadowy, silent clearing, her lip still between her teeth. Edward had the sudden, strong desire to lick it. Not bite, just lick. Where had that come from, he wondered? He'd never thought anything like that before.
Now she moved carefully and quietly to the cage next to him, and she withdrew a dirty metal feeding bowl. Scrabbling on the ground, she found a sharp rock.
Edward didn't have to read her mind to know where this was going. He opened his mouth to stop her, but it was too late.
She exposed the soft white underside of her arm and tore a jagged slice through the perfect ivory skin. Blood poured swiftly from her flesh, dripping with a dull, metallic sound into the food bowl.
"Are you crazy?" Edward groaned, curling into a ball in the middle of his cage. It was all he could do not to throw himself at the bars when the first smell of hot, fresh blood hit his nostrils. He quivered with the exertion of keeping himself still until he heard the gentle clink of the bowl being set near his head.
Even before her hand could withdraw, the dirty bowl was in his hands and he was sucking, swallowing, helpless in the throes of dire thirst. He drank all there was, licking the bowl over and over again until he was pretty sure not even a molecule remained. Edward still wasn't sated, but at least the worst of the fire was gone for now. He didn't think a meal had ever tasted so sweet, so mouthwatering.
But the girl. He raised his head, suddenly mortified that she had seen him lose control at the sight and scent of blood.
She had thankfully wrapped her arm in a piece of old cloth and was applying pressure to stop the bleeding. Through suddenly keener eyesight, Edward was able to study her more fully.
She was small compared to James and Victoria, though they were neither bodybuilders nor obese. He didn't think she was smaller than his tiny sister Alice, but he'd have to see them side by side to know for sure. Her long dark hair looked softer than silk, and it fell enticingly over her shoulders as she bent her head, watching her arm.
She was too thin, too wan, to safely feed him like that, and Edward bit back irritation at both of them. Why on Earth had this young girl first intervened to stop his torture and then willingly fed him blood she could not spare? It made no sense at all.
"You can have the rag when I'm done," she said quietly, still looking at her arm and not at him. "I don't know if it'll do any good, but you're welcome to it. I'm sorry I couldn't give you more. I stopped when I started feeling dizzy. Fainting wouldn't do either of us any good, I thought."
"Foolish girl," Edward said, and to his surprise the words came out soft, not harsh. "Why are you doing this?"
She looked up at him, surprise written across her beautiful face. "You're a person, aren't you? They don't have any right to keep you chained in there like a dog."
From the other side of the circle, the werewolf growled low and menacing.
The girl shivered when she heard that noise, and she pressed closer to Edward's cage.
"I'm not human," he tried to argue. The ridiculousness of the situation wasn't lost on him - this girl was huddling closer to a vampire for protection. She clearly had absolutely no self-preservation instinct at all.
"I know that," she said quietly. "Does that mean you deserve torture?"
"Some people would say so."
"Well, some people are wrong."
Edward opened his mouth to argue, but he had no words. She seemed like such a shy little thing, but her last statement was firmly sincere. She really believed it.
"I think the bleeding's stopped." She pulled the rag away from her skin, grimacing, and wiped most of the drying blood off her arm. "Do you want it?" she asked, holding the sodden piece of fabric toward him.
"I apparently have no pride at the moment," Edward said, sighing as he took the rag. He suspected it had not been anywhere near clean when the girl placed it on her skin, but it wasn't like he could catch a disease from it or anything. Resigned, he stuffed a corner of rag in his mouth and started sucking. Her blood tasted nearly as good even now, drying and tainted by the dirty fabric. He didn't think it was just his intense thirst saying that, either. She smelled amazing. Absolutely delectable. He knew for a fact that, were the bars not standing between them, he would immediately tackle her to the ground and latch his teeth around the pulsing artery in her throat, drinking her dry. After that he'd lick and lick the wound on her arm until there was no trace of blood left. Then he'd...
No, he thought furiously. Stop. She's saved you twice now. He sucked and swallowed the mix of blood and venom until that section of rag was fully clean, then moved on to a new mouthful.
"You really must be thirsty," the girl said faintly. "I can try to give you a little more..."
"No!" Edward said, ripping the cloth from his mouth and snapping his eyes to hers. "You shouldn't have even given me this much. You're too pale, too thin." He narrowed his eyes. "When did you eat last?"
She shrugged noncommittally. "I keep hydrated. Isn't that all that matters, for blood?"
"No, it's not. Some of your body's vital nutrients are stored in your blood. In your state, it's dangerous to deplete those natural stores."
"You sure know a lot," she murmured, picking up a water bottle and taking a swallow, then dousing her arm. Mosquitoes had come out to dance and buzz in the warm night, and they were trying to congregate on and around her. She scowled and swatted at them with her good arm.
"Come closer to me," Edward said against his better judgment. "Even insects know better than to mess with a vampire."
She willingly stepped right up next to the cage, twining her fingers around a bar again. The mosquitoes buzzed sullenly, but did not come near either of them. "So you're saying James and Victoria are dumber than mosquitoes?"
"Maybe," Edward said tightly. "Maybe not. It all depends."
He sighed and put the rag back in his mouth, unable to help himself with the smell of blood so near. "They managed to make a cage I can't get out of," he mumbled around the cloth.
"It's fire," Bella said quietly. "I don't know how they did it, but there's an electrical current running through the core of each bar that replicates real fire. Will knowing it's replicated help you break free?"
"No," Edward said, knowing the truth without touching the bars again. "That pain was too real to be psychosomatic."
"What's - "
She did not say anything else, and Edward wondered if he had hurt her feelings by cutting her off so abruptly. "I went to medical school," he offered, trying to keep his voice gentle. He really wasn't used to talking with anyone outside his family, especially without the use of his sixth sense. Not knowing what this girl was thinking really was difficult for him.
"Why would a vampire go to medical school?" Edward leaned back, the rag still in his mouth. "It's...complicated. My family, we consider ourselves vegetarians. Under normal circumstances, we don't drink human blood."
"Because we think it's wrong. Because we want to live normal lives - as normal as we possibly can."
"And go to medical school?"
"Some of us." Edward felt the hint of a smile touch one corner of his mouth. He hadn't forgotten their dire situation, but he was actually enjoying talking to this girl. She was so quiet and unprepossessing, and he really didn't mind her questions. She already knew what he was, so it wasn't like he was actually breaking any of his laws, anyway. "What about you?" he asked curiously. "Why are you here?"
She hesitated before answering, and her bottom lip went between her teeth again. It was an adorable habit that he was quickly realizing happened whenever she was nervous. "James is my uncle."
"What?" Edward jumped to his feet, stopping only just in time before he rammed himself into the bars again. "That...that bag of shit is your uncle?"
The girl had tensed when he moved so quickly, but she had not run away. She nodded, her face full of weariness, and leaned the side of her head against the bars, looking away into the forest. "My mom left when I was little, and when my dad died a few years ago no one could find her. So I got stuck with Uncle James."
"But he...he..." Edward was speechless. He hadn't forgotten what James had said to her during his pain-filled haze, and he knew precisely what the monster had meant.
The girl shrugged listlessly. "It's not all that unusual, you know. Most abused people are hurt by someone they know, not some random stranger."
"That doesn't make it any better," Edward snarled, glaring at the RV. How could the man do that to his niece? His niece? "How old are you, child?"
She shifted against the bars, her beautiful dark eyes coming to rest on him. "I'm not a child," she said quietly, without malice. "My name is Bella, and I'm older than I look."
"How old?" he pressed.
"Seventeen." She hesitated. "Almost. In just over a year I'll be able to get out of here legally and be on my own."
"Be serious, Bella," Edward said, tasting her name in his mouth for the first time. It was lovely - small and lilting and sweet. It fit her perfectly. "You'll be dead before that happens."
She lowered her head. "I can dream," she said defensively.
Edward exhaled and tugged a hand through his hair in frustration. "What do you do here, Bella?" He had to change the subject quickly. Young girls should dream about many things, but freedom from pain wasn't one of them. That should go without saying.
She shrugged. "Whatever James wants. Victoria, too, but James gets the final word. Mostly I clean the cages, and take care of his...needs." A shudder went through her and Edward felt rage again.
"Isn't that Victoria's job?" he demanded. "It looked like they were..." He trailed off, not finding a delicate way to put it. He wasn't even sure there was a delicate way to put it.
"They are," Bella confirmed, a pink blush gracing her cheeks. It was adorable, and Edward melted. That someone used so abominably could still blush discussing relationship status floored him. "But she doesn't - I mean, she won't put up with some of the things he likes to, um, do, and..." She trailed off and gestured a little helplessly, her cheeks getting pinker and the glassy sheen of tears appearing in her eyes.
And they were back again at the same subject Edward wanted desperately to get away from. He knocked his head against the heel of one hand, telling himself he was a stupid, unfeeling cad for making her talk about things that obviously upset her.
She sniffed, a soft, quiet sound.
Oh, shit. Edward opened his eyes and whirled toward where she stood, the side of her head still pressed against the bars of his cage.
"Please don't cry," he murmured, almost begging. He didn't know how to deal with a crying girl. Very carefully, he slid his hand between two of the murderously painful bars. Hoping she wasn't a good conductor for whatever electrical current flowed through them, Edward hesitantly touched his finger to the wetness on her cheek.
She jumped a little and he jerked his hand away, pulling it back inside his cage. Her eyes were wide and wondering.
"Did you feel that?" she asked, her voice a whispering breath.
Edward had. It was like electricity, but nothing like the painful bite of the bars. Instead it was...lovely. Warmth buzzed along his nerves, tickling pleasantly, feathering through his body. He could only stare.
"I wonder if it would do it again," she murmured to herself as much as to him, and she slowly reached her hand into his cage.
A loud, snarling growl from across the circle of cages made both Edward and Bella jerk. The werewolf was pacing in his too-small cage, snarling and snapping, making as if to lunge toward them. It barked and yipped, not howling but making enough of a racket that Edward heard a muttered curse from inside the RV.
"They'll find me!" Bella whimpered. "They'll know I disobeyed!"
"Go," Edward urged. "Go on - go!"
She did, crawling under the cage next to him and curling up in a small ragged little ball.
An instant later a shirtless James came stomping out of the RV. "What the hell is going on out here?" he demanded, training a flashlight first on the werewolf, then on Edward.
"I insulted it," Edward said nonchalantly, hiding Bella's blood-soaked rag in his fist.
"Why the hell would anyone insult a werewolf, even a vampire stupid enough to get caught in a trap?"
"We're nocturnal," Edward said dryly. "What else are we supposed to do all night? Knit doilies?"
James muttered a curse. "Just keep it the fuck down! Got it? The more you piss me off, the less willing I am to rob a blood bank for you."
Edward didn't bother to extoll the merits of animal blood. Likely the man wouldn't remember in the morning anyway. He waited until he heard the sound of two humans snoring before he peered into the shadows under the next cage. "Bella?" he called softly.
Rustling noises, and then she appeared. She sighed in relief as she dusted off her knees. "I was afraid he'd make me go in there with him," she said, shuddering a little.
Edward frowned. "Where do you sleep?" She was human; she had to sleep. But if she didn't sleep in the RV with James and Victoria, then where?
"Here." She pulled a tattered blanket out from under the cage.
"Good god, you can't be serious! Not like that!"
Bella shrugged. Her bottom lip went between her teeth again and she shifted nervously. "It's not cold," she offered.
"That's because it's August in..." Edward paused. "Where are we, anyway?"
Edward made a face.
Bella smiled. "I know, but places like this have lots of small towns. It's the small towns and rural routes James and Victoria need. They never go close to any real cities. People might start asking questions best left unasked."
"Like how they came across a real werewolf?"
Bella shuddered and sidled closer to his cage. "I don't want to talk about that," she said quietly. On the other side of the circle, the wolf rumbled angrily.
"All right," Edward agreed. He wouldn't dream of asking Bella to do something that hurt. Not after she'd done so much for him. Not now that he was getting to know her. If she didn't want to talk about the wolf, he wouldn't make her. "But, little one, there are rattlesnakes around here. Poisonous spiders, too. It's not safe to be out on the ground like that. Plus, you'll get cold no matter how warm the night is."
She shrugged noncommittally, and Edward sighed. "Come here," he said finally. "Come sleep under me, at least. I can't protect you from the cold, but I keep all the creepy crawlies away."
"You work on spiders, too? Not just mosquitoes?" She sounded tired, and Edward thought the blood loss might be catching up with her. She was just too small and malnourished to give blood like that. They'd have to find another way to feed him until he could figure a way out. There was no way he was letting her do that ever again, no matter how wonderful she tasted.
And when he broke out of here, he vowed, he was taking Bella with him. Where they would go, he didn't know, but he wasn't leaving her here a moment longer than necessary.
The following afternoon found Edward still in his cage, his mind and body fighting another wave of thirst as he caught the scent of a small group of people waiting for a tour around the Midnight Carnival. He sucked on the bloodied rag whenever James and Victoria were otherwise occupied, though nearly all of the blood had been ingested by now. It still smelled like Bella, and the scent of it calmed him marginally...
...but only marginally. When morning broke, Victoria had stumbled out of the RV to feed the various occupants of the cages - all excepting Edward, of course. She'd grabbed Bella by the hair and dragged her from under Edward's cage, and he'd had to bite back furious words as the bigger, older woman shoved and kicked Bella toward the RV, saying James wanted her. He'd tried to close his ears to the sounds that emanated from that awful place after Bella shut the door, but his vampire ears were excellent and he unfortunately had absolutely no doubts about what had happened.
And he hadn't seen her since. That was the most disturbing part to him, and Edward paced his small prison like the caged beast he was, frightened and furious at the same time. He'd pried up a section of wood flooring, only to find metal underneath that made him writhe in pain when he touched it. Clearly the whole cage was made of this evil material, and he could touch none of it. Prying at the bars with bits of wood didn't work, either. He might be strong, but the wood wasn't.
Now Edward watched, half outraged and half curious, as the proprietors of the Midnight Carnival gathered their little flock of big-eyed country folk and started leading them around the sad circle of cages.
Something rustled behind him, and Edward turned to see Bella standing once again between his cage and the forest. The bruise on her cheek looked even worse in the daylight, and Edward growled a little when he saw it. She cocked her head to the side as if wondering what he was thinking, but said nothing.
"Are you all right?" he asked cautiously.
She shrugged. "I really don't want to talk about it."
Well, then he wouldn't push. But he wouldn't forget, either. Not something like this. James would pay dearly, both for locking Edward up in a cage like an animal and for daring to lay a hand on Bella. No one deserved to be so brutally used, but she was so beautiful both inside and out. And so frightfully young, too.
She cleared her throat, looking anxious again. "Look into the cages," she urged. "Tell me what you see."
Edward would do just about anything to make her happy after that horrific morning. He obediently turned his head, squinting and scowling at the first cage around which the grubby group was clustered.
* "Here's the dragon," Victoria told the sightseers, her voice just a touch too mocking to be pleasant. "Breathes fire now and then - usually at people who poke it, little boy. Its inside is an inferno, but its skin is so cold it burns." *
Edward peered past the huddle of nervous, giggling humans into the cage. He snorted. "What's she doing with a pet iguana sitting in a cage?"
True enough, a green lizard basked happily enough in its sunny spot, though Edward wondered how they kept it alive in the winter. Summer in Missouri might well keep the tropical lizard content enough, but soon the weather would be turning.
"You don't see the illusion at all, do you?"
"Is that what it is?" Edward shook his head. "I should have guessed. A nickel's worth of talent and a handful of salesmanship won't fool vampire eyes." He paused, gazing at the girl. "Or yours."
She cracked a wan smile with very little warmth to it. "No," she agreed, "I was never able to see the illusions. Often I wish I could. It would make this life a little easier, I think."
"No, little one," Edward said, wanting to be more forceful but not wanting her to be caught talking with him. She had not specifically said she was forbidden to speak with him, but Edward could guess James wouldn't like it. Certainly he would be furious if he caught the cut on her arm and put two and two together. "It won't make things easier to be like the rest of them." He gestured with his chin toward the group moving on to the next cage. "Be thankful for the gift of true sight, and don't give up."
She was silent for a time, and Edward heard James take up the narration, moving the group along to the next cage. * "Gatekeeper of the underworld. Three heads and a healthy coat of vipers, as you can see. Last seen aboveground in the time of Hercules, who dragged him up under one arm. But we lured him to light again with promises of a better life. Cerberus. Look at those six cheated red eyes. You may look into them again one day." *
"Who's the illusionist?" Edward asked, grimacing at the sight of the tired old dog lying quietly in the cage - just a normal dog, with one head and no coat of vipers.
"Victoria." Bella's eyes were on the people staring into the cage, but she did not really look like she wanted to join them. She wanted something, that was clear enough, but Edward couldn't figure out what. Maybe it was something as simple as the way one mother clasped her little boy's hand. There was no way to know without asking, and Edward was about to do so when Bella spoke again.
* "She cannot truly make things, nor truly change them. Her shabby skill lies in disguise. She can't turn cream into butter, but she can give a lamb the semblance of a lion, to eyes that want to see a lion there. Eyes that would take a real dragon for a lizard, if they ever saw one. Or a vampire for a human being." *
"Do I really look so strange?" Edward asked softly.
"Not to most. But I think, even if we hadn't met this way, that I would know...something. Maybe not what to call you. Not right away. But that you were not human, certainly."
"Your eyes are lovely. I liked the color better before you fed, though. I'm sorry if that upsets you."
Edward laughed humorlessly. "Don't apologize, little one. I can't see myself, but I like the other color better, too. Our eyes are gold when we hunt animals and red when we hunt humans. Believe me, I am not proud that I could not resist your blood."
"I gave it willingly," Bella said, and her hand started forward as if to touch him, but she pulled it back against her own body before it could pass through the bars.
"Doesn't matter. I was raised to have better willpower."
"But you were so thirsty. I could see it in your face."
"And I am beyond grateful for your help," Edward assured her. "But it doesn't change the fact that I strayed from my accustomed diet."
A low growl ripped across the circle of cages, and Bella flinched. She ducked away, toward the RV, and Edward knew two very important things from her little cringing steps. One, she had been hurt this morning - badly enough that she still felt it. Two, she was afraid of this werewolf. Not just the species in general, though it was certainly in her best interest to fear them. But this particular wolf; something had happened to make her afraid of him.
"The werewolf," James was telling the group as the wolf bared his sharp teeth and growled hatefully at the cowering crowd. "Captured under...interesting circumstances, which will be revealed to men over eighteen only, at our special midnight show in a few days. If interested, ask for more information on your way out. Taller than a grizzly bear if he stood on his hind legs. Just look at the damage his claws have done!"
"I thought werewolves only changed during the full moon," someone muttered.
"And where would we be, holding a poor fellow captive who was only good for business three nights out of a month?" Victoria laughed. "No, that part's the fairy tale. He controls the transformation at will, though we've only once seen his human form. He's too angry with us to show himself without the fluff. Huh, Fluffy?" she said, egging on the wolf. He snapped at her, lunging toward the bars. Edward didn't bother to hide a smile as the crowd darted away from the strings of sticky saliva that fell from his mouth. Werewolf slobber wouldn't hurt anyone. What came from his mouth, however...
In all the rest of the carnival, the cages held sad, tired animals that must have had illusions on them, though Edward could not see them. Only he and the werewolf were real. He supposed that ought to make him feel some sort of kinship with the beast, but the way it frightened Bella made him unable. Her fear placed the wolf squarely in James' camp, for Edward.
"See here," James said suddenly, breaking through Edward's musings. "Looks like nothing more than a lovely young man, doesn't he? But look at those eyes and tell me you don't cringe a little. Can you guess what he is?"
Nobody said a word.
"If anybody has a cut or scrape, I advise you step away. We have him secure for now, but he's a wily, cunning creature. Dracula's cousin, known around the world by many names. The Cold One. The Scourge of the Ganges. Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, you are looking at the backside of death, the misstep God never intended. Vampire."
Edward thought this was probably the moment where he should hiss or growl, show his nonexistent fangs or something. So he purposefully did nothing - just sat quietly on the floor of his cage, staring down at his hands.
The crowd shifted restlessly, and he heard several murmurs questioning James' words. But the blond man did not look alarmed. He calmly produced a pocket knife, flipped it open, and sliced his finger.
"Hungry?" he asked, shoving his hand toward the bars.
Edward swallowed back venom pooling in his throat and refused to look at the offer of blood. He could smell it, and he was still ravenously hungry. Bella's blood had tasted exquisite, but after the torture James and Victoria put him through he needed to glut himself on blood to really sate the thirst. The half pint or so she'd offered had not been near enough to stop the burn in his throat. But he forced himself to remain still, and raised limpid eyes to James' face for a moment before dropping his head once more.
It was a disappointing ending to the tour, and James was furious. As soon as the crowds slipped away, he grabbed Victoria by the arm. "Did you feed him?" he demanded.
"Of course not," she said, pulling free and sneering slightly at him. "You know perfectly well who it was. I told you to just give her to him to begin with."
James cursed and stalked into the RV with a swift, purposeful stride. Edward dropped his head further into his hands and tried to drown out the sounds from inside the vehicle. This beating was truly his fault. He had not played along with James' scheme, and now Bella's delicate body was paying the price.
"Aw, does the monster feel sorry for the pretty girl who fed him?" Victoria said, making baby faces at him through the cage. "How sweet. You know, if it were up to me you could drain her dry this minute. She's been nothing but a hassle since James acquired her. I didn't really want to share my man, but he won't give her up. And I'll admit that she's fun to play with. But I'd still give her to you in a heartbeat. Watching you suck her blood would be just as amusing as watching James suck her nipples."
The offhand way she spoke of violating Bella filled Edward with rage again, and he lunged at the bars, unable to stop himself. His body connected, and they creaked alarmingly. But he was in no condition to follow up the attack and he lay prone on the floor of his cage, biting back groans of pain.
"Not cold iron," she said, "the stories aren't true. It's fire that's your nemesis. Intriguing. Very intriguing." She regarded him for another long moment before shaking her head a little and tossing a cruel smile his way. "Farewell, monster. I'm off to join the fun." And she disappeared into the RV, slamming the door behind her.
Edward lowered his head to his hands again, convinced the taunting was over. But not two minutes later the RV door swung wide and Bella fell to the ground, shoved by James. He exited behind her, pulled her up by the hair, and dragged her into the middle of the circle of cages.
"Cunt!" he hissed, throwing her on the ground. She was whimpering, making small noises in her throat and trying to slide away from him, but he forced her to her back and straddled her legs, holding her still. "Vic - get her hands!" he ordered, and Victoria moved quickly, grabbing Bella's hands and stretching them up above her head. She knelt on the girl's palms, her sharp knees digging, compressing the skin and delicate carpal bones.
"This is what happens when you misbehave," she said, tisking and shaking her head mockingly as Bella cried.
James shoved the girl's loose shirt up, exposing her torso. She wore no bra, and her small breasts were already bruised from earlier rough treatment. He unbuttoned her ragged jeans and yanked them from her body, followed by the thin scrap of her underwear. Only when she was bare-skinned, save for the cotton shirt wedged under her chin, did James turn his head and acknowledge Edward.
"See that?" he said, tracing the jagged, red line of Bella's self-inflicted wound with a hard, unclean hand. "She fed you, didn't she? Didn't she?" he repeated, grasping her face in his hand. She didn't answer, and James slapped her already bruised cheek hard. "Think she's pretty, do you? Think she's sweet? Well, as double punishment, you can watch as she gets hers."
Bella whimpered again and Edward couldn't hold back the growl that erupted from his throat. "Stay away from her," he seethed. "Don't touch her!"
James and Victoria both laughed, and Victoria leaned over Bella's immobile arms to tweak one raw, red nipple. "What are you going to do to stop us, vampire boy?" she mocked. "Break your cage? Come to her rescue? I'd like to see you try."
Bella's entire torso was heaving with frantic, terrified breaths, and she refused to turn her head to look at him. Edward rammed his body against the bars, knowing it was useless but unable to help himself. Rage consumed him, and he saw red. He howled in pain as the first touch of the fiery bars bled through him, but he couldn't drown the sound of Bella's cries or James' laughter from his ears. The blond man had found a stick in the grass, and he stood over her prone form, Victoria still kneeling on her outstretched palms.
"Linguistics is a fascinating science," James said, toying with the stick in his hand. "Do you know where the phrase 'rule of thumb' comes from? Back in the old days when men were men and women behaved themselves, common law stated that a man was permitted to beat the females in his family provided he never used a switch wider than his thumb." He held the stick up, measuring it against his digits. "Seems legal enough to me, doesn't it?" And with that, he brought the stick down hard against Bella's unprotected flesh.
The thud was sickening, and Edward didn't know how much longer he could listen to this without going mad. Bella was crying in earnest now as James hit her again and again. He smelled the moment her sweet blood began to flow, and he struggled against the twin desires to help her and drink her dry. He was capable of neither at the moment, though he rushed the bars again without being able to stop himself. The cage groaned but held, and he crumpled to his knees on the hard wooden floor. He didn't want to watch, but forced himself to anyway. Something in him needed to know exactly what that monster did to her, for the purpose of revenge.
The rough, dry bark on the stick cut deeply into her skin, trickles of blood running into the dry grass. James hit everywhere - her breasts, her ribs, the soft concavity of her stomach. He beat her thin thighs, then wedged her legs apart, standing between them, and brought the stick down on the most tender, delicate part of her body. She was shaking and sobbing, trying to twist away, but she was weak from malnourishment and she could not get her hands away from Victoria.
"Fucking whore," James panted, pausing to wipe sweat from his face. He pressed the stick between her legs, hard up against her body. "I'll teach you not to disobey! How would you like me to fuck you with this, huh? With this long, sharp, knobby branch?" He rubbed the stick up and down, making her screech and yell.
"No, please!" she begged, her voice nearly gone. Edward could hear how rough and painful her throat must feel, though that was probably the least of her worries. "Please!" she pleaded, twisting her body in odd positions, trying to get away from the foreign object placed so unnaturally close to her entrance.
James finally dropped the stick, but he didn't stop. He knelt between her spread legs and unzipped his pants. "Bet you wish you were me right now, don't you, vampire?" he said, chuckling. Victoria put her hands on the sides of Bella's head, forcing her agonized face to turn toward Edward. He growled and leaped for the bars again as James thrust forward, forcing himself inside the girl's battered body. James grunted, she screamed, and it all swirled into a haze of bloody rage in Edward's head as he fought through the pain, trying desperately to reach Bella, to make this madness stop.
But he was no match for the electrified metal, and he shuddered on the floor again, Bella's screams ringing in his ears. He thought the only thing keeping him sane was the fact that he could not see into any minds except his own. The thought of being privy to her pain or the sick, twisted thoughts of her tormentors was beyond the pale. Edward panted, unable to work up the energy for another lunge at the bars. He slumped to the floor, defeated, wishing he could close his ears to the horrible scene before him.
"Yeah..." James grunted as he moved steadily within the girl, ignoring her tearful protests. "You wish you were me right now...unh...I know you do." He reached out and pinched one nipple between his fingers hard enough that Bella cried out, then leaned down and licked the fresh line of blood that welled from the spot he abused. "Mmmm..." he sighed, leering at the caged vampire. "Yeah, you wish you were right here instead of me. She's so sweet..." he grunted, moving faster and harder within her, slapping his body violently against hers with each thrust. "So young and tight...fuck, baby...yeah, you know what I like..."
The last words were clearly not meant for Edward. If he could retch and vomit he would, he thought, as he saw Victoria's hands clamp firmly around Bella's pale throat. The girl writhed and twisted, her body desperate for air, but Victoria was bigger and stronger, and there were two of them holding her down. James came messily, grunting and swearing, and only then did they release her. She coughed weakly and gasped for air but otherwise did not move as James stood and kicked at her bruised leg. His penis was coated in a thin, wet sheen of blood and semen.
"But you'll never get the chance, bloodsucker," the man said, his voice almost pleasant as he tucked himself away. "She's mine, and I choose to keep her. Such a pretty little thing." He glanced down at Bella's unmoving body and spat next to it. "Fun's over - get her inside before the next tour group starts arriving. And you, vampire, you'd best learn to behave yourself. Without your little blood bag here to feed you, you'll be singing a different tune soon."
Edward continued to growl, a low, dangerous note just below a human's normal register, as Victoria forced Bella to her feet and hauled her toward the hated RV. Fresh blood trickled down a pale, bruised leg, and Edward stopped breathing, closing his nose to the precious scent of it. His exertions had left him even thirstier than he had already been, and smelling the intoxicating sent of Bella's blood did not help.
James was chuckling as he went about checking the cages, making sure all his animals were secure. Edward vowed that he wouldn't be laughing long. Just as soon as he figured a way out of this cage, he was getting revenge.
Edward did not see Bella for four days, and each night that she did not take her place under his cage to sleep he grew that much more tense. Had this last brutal beating been the final straw? Was she lying in that RV, too sick or wounded to move? Or worse - had she died? He didn't know, and the questions were worse than any answers could be, he thought. Poor girl. He felt immeasurably guilty for being the cause of her suffering, even though he had not meant it at all. But what could he do now? How could he make it up to her?
He tried to set his mind to devising a way out of his cage, but his thirst intensified with each slow day that trickled by. James and Victoria loved watching him deteriorate, and it was getting to the point where Edward couldn't hide it anymore. His senses were dulling and his wits beginning to fray as his body dehydrated, hunger turning him into a wraith. He could not die from thirst, but he could feel the toll it took on him. Normally a few days without blood was utterly normal - he could easily go a week or more without even feeling thirsty. But after being tortured and then made to watch Bella's torture, throwing himself against the bars again and again, inflicting more damage on his already-hurt body, he needed a chance to drink deeply and replenish his reserves of energy. He had very little left.
Sometimes he fell into a kind of half-asleep stupor, unseeing, unhearing. All he knew was the tortured beat of the hot sun across a muggy sky, and the twin aches as his body yearned for two things. Blood. Bella. Bella. Blood. He needed nourishment, and he needed her to be okay just as badly.
Blood. Bella. Bella. Blood.
On the fourth night she came to him, after midnight, deep into the recesses of the darkest hours. The sound of the RV door opening roused Edward from his stupor, and he stared with rising hope as a small figure climbed carefully down and began its slow, limping progress toward his cage. Before it had gone three steps he knew for a fact that it was Bella, despite the awful state of his senses. He could smell her, and even after such a short time he knew that smell. It was lodged deep within himself, in a place where it could never be erased.
"Oh, little one," he managed to choke out as she neared him.
"Are you all right?" she asked carefully. "Did they do anything to you?"
"You're kidding, right?" He closed his nose to her mouthwatering scent as she limped closer. She reached out to steady herself with the bars of his cage, and he drew back, pain wracking his body as he did so. "Don't!" he snapped quickly, making her draw her hand back. "Don't get near me!"
"But..." Her voice quivered, and her bottom lip went between her teeth again. The gesture melted him, as always.
"Bella, please," he managed to say, laying himself down on the floor of his cell. "Don't get anywhere close enough for me to touch you. I'm not...safe...to be around right now."
"I can - "
"No," he said, though it pained his body to refuse her. He could only have one of the things he could not do without - only one. Blood, or Bella. He could not have both. And so he had to make a choice. "No, little one. It would take five of you, or more, to sate me now. Besides, after your ordeal, you haven't anything to spare. I thank you for your thoughtfulness, but please, keep your distance."
Her big dark eyes were swimming with tears, and Edward watched as the first few fell from her lashes and stained her cheeks. "We have to get you out of here," she whimpered.
"Believe me, that's my goal, too." Edward tried to relax his tense body, but the monster in him knew there was a beating human heart nearby and it wasn't giving up easily even with the knowledge that those damned bars stood between them. "I tried my hardest when they...when he..." Edward swallowed, unable to find a careful way to say it. "I tried," he finally finished lamely. "It didn't work. I can't break free."
Bella turned her head to look behind her, across the circle where the werewolf did not sleep. "James hides his keys below the werewolf cage at night," she whispered, shivering faintly. "I'm afraid to go over there, and he knows it."
"Who does - James, or the wolf?"
"Both." Her voice was soft, tight with fear.
"Why are you so afraid, little one?" Edward asked cautiously. He wished he could assure her that nothing bad would happen, but the wolf did not seem affected by the bars as Edward was. He was able to touch them with impunity; it seemed that something else held him captive. Not knowing what it was, Edward was unable to reassure her that the wolf posed no threat.
Bella was quiet for a long minute, her eyes downcast. She was far enough from his cage that the mosquitoes and other night bugs buzzed happily around her, but Edward was unwilling to lure her closer. He wasn't safe to be around right now, and he knew it.
Finally she spoke. "They used me as bait," she said quietly. "I didn't know until too late what was going on. They tied me to a tree in the middle of a forest and James...did things..." She wiped her hands across her face, but tears continued to fall. "I guess they suspected one was in the area, but they didn't tell me. I was n-naked, and James wiped my s-scent around in a clear trail. Told me later only two things could lure a werewolf - lust and blood. Victoria said if the first hadn't worked, they'd have tried the second."
Edward growled angrily. Her embarrassment and the way she spoke made it fairly clear what had happened, even with her evasive words. Her captors had tied her up naked, and James had forced her body to arousal, though her mind had clearly been unwilling. Then he'd used her natural lubrication to scent-mark the area.
An older, more mature werewolf would have been able to resist the trap. It might even have helped Bella - rescued her. But a young, volatile wolf would have been driven mad by the lure of an available, aroused woman, and that was clearly what had happened. Where James and Victoria got their information, Edward didn't know, but they had this much right at least. Young werewolves were quick to fury and lust, and rationality played no role in their lives whatsoever.
"Did he hurt you?" Edward asked quietly, both needing and fearing the answer.
Bella shuddered, but said nothing.
"Please, little one, I want to help you. You've helped me so much."
She took a deep breath. "At least he was in human form," she said. "When I saw him in wolf form, running for me, I thought he'd tear me to pieces." She shuddered again. "Even in human form he almost did. James actually took me to a hospital that time - the only time he's ever done that. He claimed it was a bear attack."
"And James and Victoria were waiting to spring some sort of trap?"
She nodded. "James says werewolves need momentum to fuel their strength. He shot him full of elephant tranquilizers, then shoved him in a cage almost too small for him to move. James says he can't get out." She made a small noise, not quite a whimper. "I don't know if I believe him. When I look at those eyes..."
"Oh, little one." Edward dropped his head. So much had happened to the poor girl, and he was desperate to get them out - get them both out. But the situation looked near impossible.
She took another breath and sidled just a little bit closer to his cage. Edward hissed a low warning, and she stopped. "If I could do it," she murmured, biting her lip and looking not at all sure of herself, "if I could make myself go over there and get the keys...would it be safe?"
Edward hated to do it, but he shook his head. "I can't guarantee safety against a werewolf," he said.
"Not...not him," she said, swallowing audibly. "You." She hesitated, chewing on her lip still more. "If I was able to let you out...would it be safe?" Another tear found its way down her cheek. "I want to help you, but I don't want to die."
Edward stared at her for a long minute, memorizing her pale, scared face - her big watery eyes, and the gleam of moonlight on her soft hair. She was leaning to the side, putting most of her weight on one leg. Something hurt - she'd been favoring one leg all night. This girl had fed him her own blood, which she could not afford to share. She had been kind to him - treated him like a person and not an animal or a monster. She was brutally mistreated by her captors, and nobody in the world seemed to care for her.
Except him. Edward did. How it had happened he didn't know, but sometime during the four days he spent worrying about her, something had changed. She was no longer just the kind child who had fed him when he was hungry and kept him company when he was alone. She was Bella. His Bella. And no matter how hungry he was, he could not hurt her. He just couldn't.
"You are safe from me, little one," he said quietly. "Come here."
She did, stepping up to his cage without fear. Her eyes were big and dark, and she watched as he slowly extended a hand. Without a moment's hesitation, she placed her hand in his. Slowly, giving her time to pull away if she wished, he lowered his head and raised their clasped hands. Her breath stopped as he brushed his lips across her knuckles in a soft kiss.
"I could not harm you," he murmured, releasing her hand and forcing the monster inside back down. "Your life is more precious to me than my own."
There was a glimmer of a tear in her eye, but it did not fall. "I'll try," she said.
"Don't do something you're not comfortable with." Worry suddenly filled Edward, and he glanced at the dark eyes of the werewolf that did not reflect any light. It was watching them closely.
"I want to try." Bella turned, limping slowly but resolutely toward the werewolf's cage. Edward felt his anxiety rise with each tortured step, and he wished desperately that their roles could be reversed, that he could be the one facing a feared foe rather than she.
She dropped to her knees to scrabble under the cage. The werewolf suddenly stood, his hackles rising and a low, deadly growl emanating from his lips. Bella froze for an instant but then continued her search, and a minute later Edward heard the small, distinct clink of metal. Success!
She slowly pulled herself out from under the cage, beaming. It was the first real smile Edward had ever seen on her lovely face, and he was so caught up in its beauty that he didn't notice until too late that she had put her hand on the wolf's cage to help lever her abused body to its feet.
In that one instant, all hell broke loose.
The werewolf snapped at her hand. Bella jerked it away and screamed as she fell back to her knees, the ring of keys falling from her hand. Curses erupted from the RV, and a light flicked on inside. Edward heard the awful sound of a rifle being readied, just before the door banged open and James burst into the clearing.
"You!" he yelled. "Pretty as you are, I've had it with your nonsense!" He cocked the gun, aiming at Bella's kneeling form.
She screamed again, throwing her hands up in front of her face in an instinctual motion though it would do no good against a rifle. Edward watched in horror as James' finger squeezed the trigger, but just at that instant Victoria pushed her way out of the RV. She jostled his shoulder and the shot went wide, missing Bella and instead hitting the werewolf.
An awful, furious howl rose from the wolf's mouth, and he lunged at the bars of his cage. Whether or not he would otherwise have been able to break free, Edward couldn't say. But his rage gave him an added boost, and he shattered the bars as he dove through them, his deadly snout open and aimed right at James.
The werewolf bowled Bella over in its hurry, and that movement seemed to knock her free of her fear. She grabbed the keys up from the ground and ran, limping, to Edward's cage.
"Hurry!" Edward urged as she fumbled with the keys, trying to find the correct one. "The wolf has tasted blood now, and he won't stop until he's killed whatever he can find!"
Bella whimpered, and on the third try the lock snapped open. She swung the door wide, and Edward leaped out of the hated cage.
Almost instantly the rush of others' thoughts came flying back to him. Something about the cage must have blocked it. He took in the sight in front of him in an instant. James was wrestling with the werewolf, but there was really no competition. He would be dead in under a minute. Victoria was cowering next to the RV. She would undoubtedly be next.
Edward rushed to the cage next to him and hesitantly touched the bars. As he'd suspected, only his cage was strangely electrified. This one was merely metal, and he broke the lock, swinging the door open.
"What are you doing?" Bella hissed, hurrying behind him. "Go - get out of here!"
"I have to give them a fair chance," Edward said, throwing open the next cage. "Trapped like this, they're sitting ducks."
She sobbed and dropped to her knees, and Edward grit his teeth, forcing himself to step away from her and free the rest of the caged creatures. Only then did he allow himself to glance back at the werewolf.
James' body was on the ground, and the werewolf's ruddy fur was dripping red with blood. The scent called to Edward's agonizing thirst, but even the monster within him knew better than to challenge a werewolf for its kill. As much as he had wanted to be the one to make James pay, he had more important things to think about now.
He scooped Bella up in his arms, trying to ignore the mouthwatering scent of her blood, and began slowly walking out of the circle of wagons. A female shriek caught their ears and Bella whimpered, hiding her head in his shoulder. He felt warm tears against his cold throat and wished he could comfort her, but now was not the time.
"Run," she begged. "Please, run!"
"No," Edward said, though his insides were begging him to do the same. "Never run from anything immortal. It attracts their attention. We will walk slowly until we are far enough away that he likely won't follow. Then we run."
"Hush. I promised you had nothing to fear, and I meant it. I will keep you safe, little one."
"But aren't you thirsty?"
He grit his teeth. "Please don't talk about it," he said. "Don't even think about it. Sing a song in your head, if you can, or recite the times table. Anything to keep your thoughts away from that."
There was one last agonized shriek from behind them, and a sick, satisfied animal howl. "And that."
Edward walked for what seemed like forever, while the dim light from the RV faded behind them and the dark forest closed in. Bella's weight was nothing in his arms, but he was having a great deal of difficulty ignoring the loud beat of her heart and the scent of blood so close - so bewitchingly close...
He shook his head and swallowed back venom. No. He'd promised, and he would not break that promise. He would not hurt her. Not now. Not ever.
Finally he deemed that they had walked far enough, and he paused. Carefully he set Bella on her feet. "We will run now," he said.
"I don't know if I - "
"Ssh. I know you're hurt." He brought her hand to his lips again, unable to help himself. Her skin was warm silk against his mouth. "I will carry you still, but it will be better if you ride on my back. Can you climb on that rock over there?"
She scrambled up on a knee-high rock, and Edward helped her drape herself across his back, her legs encircling his waist and her arms clasped around his shoulders. "Hold on tight," he urged. "Don't worry - you can't hurt me."
"Your skin is so cold," she murmured, her breath brushing warm against the back of his neck. It made delicious shivers run the length of his spine.
"I'm sorry for that, truly I am. I will get you somewhere warm as soon as I can," he promised, and with that, he set off, pushing his tired, hungry body to vampire speed, knowing the werewolf could easily overtake them if it chose to follow.
Thankfully, he caught no thoughts or sounds or scents that made him suspicious, and after a while he decided they were not being followed. Either the werewolf hadn't noticed them walk away, or it didn't care. Edward was grateful. He would gladly die protecting Bella from the wolf, but he didn't think he could best it. Not right now. Not in his condition.
Finally he dropped into a jog, then a walk. Bella's head nodded against his back, and he knew he had to get her somewhere safe soon. She needed rest and food and warmth, and likely medical care as well.
But before anything else, he needed to hunt. There was no way he'd be safe in civilization if he didn't.
"Mm." She mumbled sleepily, nestling closer against him.
Edward chuckled, allowing a smile to play across his face. Poor girl was so tired she'd managed to doze on the back of a racing vampire. Silly, sweet, adorable girl. She was afraid of a werewolf's snarl - as she rightly should be - but she snuggled up against a ravenous vampire as if he were a giant teddy bear.
Slowly he knelt and helped Bella slide from his back. She watched him sleepily as he removed his shirt, then wrapped it around her as extra protection from the cold forest floor.
"I'm sorry I have to leave you for a while," he said, feeling the ache already even though she was still standing before him. "I need to hunt before we do anything else. The werewolf isn't following, and I think you'll be safe here."
She pressed her sleepy self closer to him. "Please don't leave me," she whispered, biting her lip again.
"Only while I hunt, little one. You think I would leave you willingly?" He raised a hand and touched her hair. It slid through his fingers like water. "I will be back as soon as I can. A few hours, no more."
"I promise." He rubbed her back through their shirts. "Then we'll find you somewhere warm and safe to rest."
"Safe..." she said, rolling the word around in her mouth, testing the feel of it. "Sounds...nice."
"After everything you've been through, believe me, you deserve it. Now try to sleep a little. I'll be back as soon as I can."
Bella curled up in a patch of ferns and obediently closed her eyes. Edward hesitated for a moment, loath to leave her, though he knew it was necessary. He took one long last look at her beautiful, delicate features before darting deeper into the forest, following his nose.
A/N: This will be a two-shot, and the second half is already written! Thoughtful reviews means it posts faster!