Disclaimer: Twilight belongs to Stephenie Meyer; no infringement is intended.

Author's Note: This is an AU story, a first for me.

I wish to send special thanks to Marrabelle for her unwavering support and encouragement.

The landscape rushed past me. To my fellow passengers, the images were merely a blur of greens and browns. To my acute senses, however, each tree, plant, and flower was clearly visible. I choose not to look. Leaning my head back against the seat, I closed my eyes, seeking a few moments without visual stimulation. My mind, still tender, craved isolation.

Seclusion was not possible here, on this train, where I was surrounded by humans and the morass of sounds and smells they constantly emitted. But in the temporary darkness behind my lowered lids, I found a respite from complete sensory overload. Remembering Carlisle's words, I tried to act upon them:

Take deep, slow breaths son; focus only on your breathing. Count each inhalation and exhalation, and keep your thoughts on nothing else…

Of course, when he had told me that, his steady, loving hands had anchored me. He had held me in his arms, one hand pressed against my chest and the other upon my cheek, his thumbs rubbing small, firm circles over my skin. He had shielded me from the onslaught, somehow keeping me from breaking apart completely, shattering into a million irreconcilable pieces…

The memories of that day, and those leading irrevocably up to it, did not help me to obtain the calm I sought, so I pushed them from my mind. I concentrated only upon breathing—that once instinctual act which now required a conscious effort. Once I began and established a rhythm, it usually came with ease, but during that terrible time, I had forgotten to maintain the ruse more than once. It was the first sign that something was wrong, but neither Carlisle nor I had realized it until it was nearly too late.

Inhale, exhale; inhale, exhale… For the moment, there was nothing more: Nothing to see, to hear, to smell, or to feel. It was nearly impossible for my thoughts to remain static for long, though, so I permitted myself to envision my destination. Painting a vivid picture in my mind kept the other stimuli out. I saw the small, clapboard house nestled in the clearing. Above it I could view the sky: sometimes clear, often cloudy, or dark and glittering with stars. Past the treeline, I would see land stretching and rolling, open and wild and completely uninhabited. My nearest neighbors would be miles away, and the closest town would be an hour's ride. There was little chance I would encounter any humans unless I sought them out—which I had absolutely no intention of doing.

The only challenge now was to get there with my sanity, such as it was, intact. My fellow passengers had not made this goal easy during the first few hours of the trip. They were naturally drawn to me, a fact that had served me well in my short-lived professional endeavors. Most of my patients had trusted me immediately, willingly accepting my diagnoses and treatment plans. And when I used my gift, they interpreted my pain as unbridled compassion, and this endeared me to them further. Those first few months working alongside Carlisle had been deeply rewarding, which made the suffering bearable. But in time, it had become too much, and it had very nearly broken me.

I managed to rebuff the other passengers' smiles and polite gestures by shoving my hat down further over my untamable hair and pretending to sleep. Still, I knew they were looking at me, thinking about me, and those traveling alone likely considered taking the empty seat facing me. Fortunately no one acted upon those whims, providing me with a very small measure of physical solitude. For now, it was enough.

"Sir." A male voice interrupted my mental reprieve.

Begrudgingly, I opened my eyes to look up at the conductor. He was a stout man in his middle fifties. His bearing, gait, and the pattern of calluses on his hands instantly told me that he had worked on trains for much of his life.

"Yes?" I replied politely.

"May I see your baggage receipt, please?"

I knew that he would pass it to one of the porters, who were currently sorting the cases and trunks in preparation for our next stop. I pulled the ticket from my jacket pocket and handed it to him. I was not careful enough, though, and for a moment his fingertips brushed mine.

Pain…a twinge in the foot… no, the large toe… It was not unbearable, but it was uncomfortable. Immediately I recognized the problem as I moved my own toe within my boot. His body was working toward a full-blown attack of gout.

The conductor took the receipt and smiled pleasantly at me, but I could see the slight shift in his expression as he began to walk away. The motion hurt him.

"Wait," I said, reaching out to touch his arm, careful to come into contact only with his sleeve.

"Yes sir?" he inquired.

"Try to find some strawberries or cherries when we stop in Boise," I suggested quietly.

"Pardon me?" My words clearly confused him.

"For your foot," I clarified softly. "It will help."

He still appeared quizzical. "Are you a doctor, sir?"

"No," I lied, "but my father is. Trust me on this."

Again my innate charm and attractiveness quickly convinced him, and he gave me a nod of thanks before hobbling away.

I had always disliked prevarication, although it was often an integral part of my existence. When it served a distinct and positive purpose, I bristled less and sometimes even chuckled at a particularly clever tale that Carlisle or I created extemporaneously. However, the dishonesty that necessarily surrounded my father's and my lives was sometimes wearing.

Hiding my gift was more a lie of omission than an outright untruth, but even so, even early on, it had grated on me. I understood the value of the pretense, of course, but keeping it hidden had, at times, proven difficult and emotionally exhausting. That, compounded with the effects of using it, had ultimately led me here.

I closed my eyes again and counted my breaths until the train stopped in Boise. There, I sent a telegram to Carlisle to assure him that I had made the longest part of the journey successfully. He had wanted desperately to accompany me, but I had discouraged him on several counts. The guilt he felt over my condition was difficult for me to handle. No matter how placid he kept his expression, compunction simmered in his eyes, gnawing at me incessantly. I needed to be away from that, away from the memories that caused him such pain—the images of me quavering in the dark room, moaning incomprehensibly and wringing my hands relentlessly until I fractured three of my own fingers…

Then there was Esme. She was doing well in adjusting to her new lifestyle, but she was not ready to be alone for several weeks. She and Carlisle insisted that she would be fine, but I refused to hear it. My breakdown had been difficult for her, too, and she needed her husband's solace almost as much as he needed hers.

In the end, we had agreed that I would wire Carlisle from each stop so that he and Esme would know that I was all right. In retrospect, I would not say that this had proven an easy task, but it had been necessary. After I had felt a heart defect in the first telegraph operator, I had fastidiously avoided even the briefest physical contact with the others. Aside from the conductor, I had not touched anyone during the latter part of the trip. While many humans were healthy and suffered no particular afflictions, I did not wish to risk the anguish I might find if someone were injured or ill. And even those in good health often felt hungry or had full bladders, neither of which were particularly pleasant sensations for me. I worried that even these mundane discomforts would affect me. I knew I was not fully recovered; I could not endure the thought of a relapse.

After sending the telegraph, I returned to reboard the train. I waited as a slender woman began to climb up the steps into the car. She carried a large satchel in one hand and a smaller bag brimming with books in the other. Like most well-bred ladies, her hair was pinned up beneath a small straw hat. However, a few sable tendrils had come loose, falling softly down her back. Against the cornflower blue of her cotton dress, the strands were stunning.

Suddenly I found her toppling backwards with a small, surprised cry. A split-second glance down showed that her foot had caught on the stair, her ankle twisting as she fell. In an instant I had steadied her with one hand at her waist and the other upon her arm.

"Oh!" she gasped, dropping the satchel as she reached for my hand reflexively. "I'm sorry."

"Are you all right?" I asked automatically, barely aware that her warm, delicate palm was now resting in my cool hand.

A blush spread over her fair cheeks, and she ducked her head. "Yes. Thank you."

"Are you certain?" I prodded gently. From the angle at which her foot had caught, it seemed likely that she had sprained her ankle.

She nodded, her cheeks even rosier now. I let my gaze flick down to the small hand I now held. I could feel the warmth and softness of her skin, the blood pulsing in the tiny veins beneath my fingers. But I felt no pain. She was not injured.

I lifted her satchel and waited until she had climbed the steps before handing it to her. I wondered if she would be seated in my car but then dashed the thought from my mind. Her scent, floral with a hint of honey, lingered. I walked the length of the train, breathing in the clean air before returning to the car.

Once inside, I allowed myself to glance at the other seats. The young woman was nowhere in sight; she must have selected another car. I returned to my seat and closed my eyes again, ready for the long trip to end so that the countless days of blissful solitude could begin.

To be continued...