A/N: Once again, I'm venturing into New Moon AU. I distinctly remember telling all of Twitter to smack me if I tried this again after MQSTB. Apparently nobody hit hard enough. Between sixteen and seventeen chapters, of which fourteen are already written, with weekly updates. Quick notes, and I swear none of the other A/Ns will be this long:
1. I haven't been too careful about timelines of early phases, etc. SM contradicted herself so much between Being Jacob Black, New Moon, Eclipse, and then the Illustrated Guide, that I literally could not pick a timeline and despite audreyii-fic's best efforts to the contrary, my head threatened to explode. So, I tried. But there's a good chance I got something wrong about specific months preceding this story if it wasn't covered in Twilight the book.
2. Yet again, I'm totally ignoring whatever Breaking Dawn showed of the characters. Everybody was out of character for that book. Forget it, because I did. (Trust me, you'll probably be happier.)
3. Warnings for this fic: occasional language, graphic violence, explicit sex, prescription drug abuse, and underage drinking.
4. My army of helpers this time around include cretin, grrlinterrupted, HoochieMomma, Naranwien, and BellaFlan, who variously beta, pre-read, and keep me from losing my shit.
5. Twilight and all its recognizable situations belong to Stephenie Meyer.
The music that underwrote this chapter is Future of Forestry's "Protection."
I could hear the voices calling my name as the sun rose behind the clouds, but it was too much effort to respond. Instead, I curled into a tighter ball, trying to shut out the world, trying to picture Edward's face and force it to say different words, words of comfort rather than the actual goodbyes and reassurances he had spoken before he kissed my head and walked away.
Nothing helped. I couldn't erase the recollection. It had burned itself into my brain and there was no helping the scarring that would form. I had long since run out of tears, but the dry sobs refused to stop ripping up from my chest and out of my throat. Everything hurt.
The shouts grew closer, and then moved farther away, again and again. At last, I managed to blink my gritty eyes open and slowly, shakily stand. I couldn't go to them. I couldn't go back home. I couldn't face… anyone. I had to go after Edward.
"Bella, I don't want you to come with me."
Surely, surely he had been wrong, or lying, or just plain delusional. There wasn't any way that a love as strong as mine couldn't be returned by its recipient. It just wasn't possible for that great a disparity of feeling to exist.
I had to believe it wasn't. So instead of staying curled up in a ball, I resumed my search, stumbling deeper into the gloom of the evergreens' shade until I was so deep in the forest that no sunlight could penetrate its cover.
I lost track of time, direction, and even whether it was day or night as I continued to plod forward. Long after the compulsion to move faded, my inability to think of another course of action made me put one foot in front of the other. At one point, the sole of my tennis shoe, already worn down by over a year's use, separated from the rest of the shoe and flapped off. I paused and looked back, dully trying to process the image. Shoe sole, off. My foot, in contact with the pine needles through a thin layer of fabric. There was something I should do about that…
My brain couldn't come up with a solution to the problem. I kept on walking, leaving the sole behind. After a while, my foot started to hurt, but I couldn't think what to do about that either, so I kept going. Following Edward had become the sole objective of my existence. Without forward motion, I had nothing.
Walk, Bella. Walk.
The mental refrain sounded over and over again, one syllable per footstep. Walk, Bel-la, walk. The laces on my other shoe snapped eventually, but I merely stepped out of it and kept going.
My surroundings grew darker. I walked with my hands in front of me to keep from hitting my face on any trees, but it didn't stop me from falling on a regular basis. I got up each time and doggedly continued in as straight a path as I could manage.
Eventually, my legs wouldn't support me anymore. When I fell and couldn't rise again, I kept crawling on my hands and knees, ignoring the barely perceived stinging in my palms and legs; the ground water soaked into my jeans. The forest grew lighter around me. Finally, my elbows couldn't hold me up any longer. I collapsed into a heap next to a massive pine tree, huddled against its trunk, incapable of thought or action.
Slowly, the roaring in my ears faded, allowing the subdued forest noises to seep into my awareness. Birds chirped overhead. I could hear a dull whirring sound in the far distance—helicopter?—and scurrying in the dead pine needles where mice and other small creatures went about their business. Somewhere even farther away than the helicopter, a chainsaw whined. Loggers, probably.
I was going to die. That was okay. I didn't want to live without Edward anyway. No, it was more that I was sure I couldn't live without Edward. The truest of true loves, ripped away—"It will be as if I'd never existed"—and with it, my heart. Nobody could live without a heart, right? So I was already dead. My body just didn't realize it yet. I would wait here until it did.
My feet didn't hurt anymore. Neither did my hands. Everything was damp because of the constantly misting rain, but now that I wasn't moving that didn't bother me. An odd peace settled over me as I awaited my end.
"Hello," said a woman's voice, soft as a whisper, high-pitched as a baby's.
Dully, I opened my eyes to behold…
Something was wrong with my eyes. They wouldn't focus. Everything was blurry and doubled. I peered through the mist and saw a flash of deep red. A pale, pale figure.
The familiar sweet, alluring scent drifted into my nostrils. Vampire. Maybe a friend of the Cullens?
The dim flash of hope the notion gave me helped me move. I opened my mouth, but no sound emerged. My throat and tongue were too dry. I tried to swallow. After a few tries, I could croak out, "H-hello?"
"Why are you out here all alone?" She knelt in front of me, and finally I recognized the lovely face only inches from mine. Victoria had returned for me.
She tilted her head like a dog confronting a dilemma. Sweeping my gaze over her, I saw that she had done away with clothes since our last meeting and was now entirely naked. Of course, when even her hair was impervious to harm, I supposed clothing was nothing but an affectation. "Is it a trap? Are you the bait? Or are you the virgin, set out on the cliff to appease the monster?"
It didn't seem worth the effort to talk to her, so I closed my eyes again. Either she was going to kill me—redundant, at this point—or she would turn me, in which case I could hunt Edward in far more effective fashion. Either way, I saw no reason to fight.
Casually, she reached out and scraped one fingernail down my face, from temple to chin. I heard myself screaming, but it was a reflex, like my knee jerking when the doctor hit it with a hammer. I didn't actually feel any pain. She did it again, drawing a parallel line. I re-opened my eyes to see her suck on her fingertip.
"I see why they kept you as a pet," she murmured. "Should times grow hard they would have the sweetest blood within their reach… It's quite kind of them to make finding you so easy." She threw up her head and scented the wind, delicate nostrils flaring. "Did you bring your pet, little one?"
"Don't have a pet," I choked, pressing my palm to my bloody cheek.
She shrugged, her bony shoulder still amazingly graceful with its nonchalant motion. "A stray, then. It seems a pity that your mate won't witness this. Are you certain he isn't somewhere about?"
I would have laughed, but it was too much trouble, so instead I just stared some more.
Victoria sighed. "Very well then. This… won't be quick." She rose, lifting me by my jacket, and held me up so that my toes barely brushed the ground. "Where to start? Neck? No, too cliché. Breast? No, too many clothes. Wrist, perhaps? It looks as though James already beat me to it."
I hung limp in her grip, waiting for her to decide.
"I think your face," she said with a grin. I braced myself for the pain—
And fell to the ground once more as a black streak tore between the tree trunks and knocked Victoria sideways.
Snarls and hisses ripped through the air while the black blur and the white wisp twisted and turned and spun around each other, far faster than my paltry human sight could follow. They moved right, and then left, taking out tree trunks as they went. I watched, unable to summon the wherewithal to flee, as the trees splintered and crashed to the ground only a few feet away from me.
A yelp sounded, like a kicked dog. For a second, the two combatants rolled apart. Squinting, I finally could understand what the black thing was: a huge wolf, crouched and growling at Victoria. It backed up toward me. I couldn't understand. What wild creature would look at me and decide I was worth a fight with a vampire? Could it be that desperate for its next meal? I knew from Edward that most animals avoided vampires instinctively. Including humans.
The wolf got so close that one of its rear paws stood inches from my head. I looked up to behold something even weirder than what I'd previously witnessed: around the wolf's leg was a black cord, holding what looked like a pair of cutoffs against its fur. It gave a series of sharp yips in Victoria's direction. Victoria bared her teeth in response and yowled like an angry cat. I saw then that she held one of her hands in the other—the wolf must have severed it.
The wolf's shoulder had been hurt. Big drops of blood dripped to the ground from the wound, but it gave no sign of pain. Instead it gathered itself and lunged for Victoria again. She darted out of the way, and I saw the white streak—up, then over the animal—and then she was gone, a trace of musical laughter floating in the breeze of her departure.
With a thud, the wolf fell into a limp pile of limbs and fur. I gazed at it, trying to figure out what was going on as it whimpered and tried to lick its shoulder. It was no use, though; Victoria had wounded it again, on its other side: four long parallel gashes from its ear down to its leg. The animal closed its eyes and appeared to pass out, or maybe die.
As soon as its eyes closed, my life turned on its head once again. Because the wolf seemed to shrink into itself like a whirlpool, fur retracting and limbs dwindling and ears reducing and reshaping themselves… into human form.
The wolf… was a man.
A bloody, disgusting mess of a naked man, huge lacerations running the length of his neck and torso, the flesh on either side of the incisions quivering like jelly. I crawled closer, despite myself, swallowing back vomit. There was no way he wasn't dead.
Except his chest rose and fell. Proof of life, however temporary.
My nose chose that inopportune moment to begin working again. The coppery scent of blood—my own and his—hit my nostrils and I threw up bile. There was nothing else left. Choking on the acid burn in my throat and mouth, I managed to drag myself to the man's side. When I got a closer look at the wounds, I started dry heaving. The pain of the muscles in my face stretching under my own injuries seared, but I ignored it and leaned closer. The smell reached saturation point, and suddenly faded from my awareness again. I couldn't see past all the blood and rain in my eyes, though, so I slowly, with shaking hands, took my shirt off and wiped the length of them from top to bottom. Instantly, blood flooded out again, but in the half-second before it hid the flesh beneath I saw the edges knitting themselves back together, like time-lapse photography sped up before my eyes.
Okay. Okay. Clearly wolf-man was a quick healer. Maybe it came with the fur, maybe not, but at least I knew he wouldn't die here, most likely, as long as I could keep him from losing too much blood before the wounds recovered. He'd fought off Victoria, so that seemed like a good enough reason to keep him alive if I could. It wasn't his fault I didn't care whether Victoria succeeded or not. A brief flare of fury shot up through the darkness in my heart. He'd stolen my chance for death. After a second, I shook my head at myself; he couldn't have known what I wanted.
I tilted my head, trying to figure out the best way to help his body fix itself. Maybe if I could just hold the edges together, as though my hands were stitches, it would help the hurt places seal themselves together? I decided it was worth a shot. Placing my hands on either side of the biggest cut, I pushed the skin inward and counted slowly to sixty. When the minute had passed, I lifted my hands again and inspected the wound, wiping it off again with my shirt. Definitely it was shallower now. Ignoring the bright stains seeping into my skin, I repeated the process, this time counting to three hundred. When I looked again, the small area on which I had concentrated was almost completely woven back again. The other gashes looked only slightly better, but they were definitely improving too. I decided to focus my efforts on the same wound, since it was the worst, and moved down, holding another hands' length of skin together again. It took about thirty minutes, but finally only a thick pink line remained on the surface. I had no idea what was going on underneath, but at least he looked better. I moved on to the second-worst injury, shivering with cold and damp and trying not to sob hysterically at the sight of the dark crimson rings beneath my fingernails.
Time seemed to vanish as I half-reclined over the huge man's body, holding him together, literally. The rain kept falling; the light filtering through the trees appeared constant. My existence was measured by the rise and fall of the wolf-man's chest beneath my mangled palms. My arms shook convulsively and went numb again, but I managed to continue to perform my self-appointed tasks.
Finally, I peered at his stomach, and saw that I had reached the end of the last cut. Just one more section, on the other shoulder…
I couldn't do it.
The world looked dark, and sideways. I realized this was because my head was pressed to the man's body. I had collapsed across him. He groaned as my face came into contact with the lines so recently healed—clearly it wasn't all better underneath. Blood oozed from my face, mixing with his and seeping back under my skin. I wanted to help—I knew I should help—but everything faded away even as I watched.
( * * * )
When I woke up again, my ear was on fire. The man's voice rumbled beneath me—he was talking in his sleep.
"No—don't want—Paul, told you… told you stay… Jared, up to…"
I was so tired still, I could barely stir, but I forced myself to half-rise and look at his face. Clearly he was running a fever. I hoped he didn't have some sort of infection in the shoulder wound. I didn't want to talk, but he sounded really upset, which was probably a bad thing. "Hey. Hey. It's okay."
His eyelids fluttered. Inconsequentially, I noticed that his lashes were so long they lay on the skin below his eyes. Finally he cracked them open and peered at me.
I repeated, "It's okay. You're gonna be all right." It probably wasn't true—undoubtedly Victoria would come back to finish the job—but who cared? That sort of comfort wouldn't hurt him.
Moving in slow motion, he lifted one thick finger and traced the skin next to the gashes on my face. I winced but couldn't find the energy to move away.
"Emily?" he murmured. A smile pulled up the corner of his mouth. "Missed you… so much."
I swallowed against the misery as my chest cracked open. He was in love with this Emily. The reality shone through even when he was in so much agony. I closed my eyes against the adoration glowing on his face. After a minute of internal debate—break the illusion, possibly break his spirit, or let him keep dreaming for a little while longer—I chose what I would have wanted under the same circumstances, and whispered, "I missed you too. Go to sleep. Get better."
When I dared to open my eyes again, he was asleep, this time more peacefully. Now that I could move, it felt weird to be draped over his unclothed form. I rolled myself to the ground next to him, and curled up with my back against his side, head beneath his arm. The warmth radiating from his body relaxed my muscles enough to allow me to follow him into oblivion.
( * * * )
My face burned, but this time from the marks Victoria made. The pain woke me up again.
The first thing I noticed was that the rain had stopped. Instead of overcast gray light, actual sunshine penetrated the green overhead. A few dappled patches danced back and forth over my outstretched hand.
The second thing I noticed was that the wolf-man was gone.
I sat up too quickly and winced as the scabs on my face tore open. Fresh blood oozed out. The renewed stench made me go lightheaded, and I almost lay back down again before the urgent need to find the only other human (looking) being around got me to my feet. I took a step and flinched at the anguish in the soles of my feet, but I couldn't let that stop me, even if I couldn't make myself stand up straight.
"Hello?" I called in a cracked undertone. "Hello? Are you still around?"
The underbrush rustled to my right. Still hunched over, I cautiously rotated to look, and the man stepped out of the shadows, this time with the cutoffs on. The lines from his wounds looked bright red in the minimal sunlight, and he moved haltingly, but at least he was still breathing.
Now that the task of keeping him alive had obviously been dealt with, I found myself without any desire to stand. Sinking to my knees, I remarked stupidly, "You're awake."
He gave no sign of impatience with my inanity, merely offered a brief nod. "I am. And I think that the reason I'm awake so fast is thanks to you."
"Oh, you know…" I said vaguely. "It seemed like a waste to let you die. There can't be that many wolf-people out there. Let alone wolf-people… who fight vampires…" I could tell, with the portion of my mind still functioning, that my words were idiotic, but I couldn't seem to stop saying them. I noted his brown skin with distant surprise. "Are you Quileute? Makah?"
"Oh. That's nice."
His brows pulled together in a sharp line of concern. "Your cuts are bleeding. What the hell did she do to you?" As he spoke, he strode across the little clearing and crouched beside me.
I shrugged. "She didn't bite me, but she used her fingernail. Just to taste, I think."
He nodded again, tilting his head as he examined my face. "They look infected. Is there any chance she poisoned them?"
I shook my head. "Probably not. They only have venom in their mouths… their eyes… places where humans have water…" Talking about it made the new hole in my chest throb and ache. I closed my eyes and wrapped my arms around myself, trying to hold the pieces together.
"What is it?" he asked, voice sharp with worry. "Are you hurt somewhere else?"
Yes. I'm dying. I'm surprised I didn't die in my sleep. "No."
"You're lying." The words were flat with conviction.
Opening my eyes, I met his gaze. "I'm not. She only hurt my face."
He leaned closer, balancing on one fist. I saw his nostrils flare. "All right," he conceded begrudgingly. "I guess you're telling the truth."
I nodded. The motion made the scratches on my face open wider. "No point in lying." I would have sunk down to press my forehead against the ground, but he caught my arm before I could go completely prone. "What?"
"You can't stay here."
"It's okay." I kept almost collapsing, and then being jerked half-upright by his grip. "Now that you're okay I can… I can go…"
"Go where?" he demanded. His hand tightened on my upper arm; he gave me a little shake. "Where are you going? Are you meeting more vampires?"
I laughed at the notion, but somewhere in the middle it turned into a sob. "No. No, they wouldn't let me find them. They're gone forever. He said—he said it'll be as if he never existed. That means never, right?" I would have thought I had no tears left, but I felt them running hot down my cheeks, stinging the open wounds and dripping from my chin.
"The Cullens are gone forever?"
I jerked up my face to look at him, dumbfounded both by his knowledge of their family and the incredulous happiness in his voice. "That's what… that's what Edward said…" Speaking the name made the hole in my chest open wider. Good thing my heart was already gone or it would have disappeared at this.
"We need to get you back to your father. He's the one who asked Old Quil to send me out here."
Charlie. Poor Charlie, he wouldn't know yet how much he had lost with Edward's departure. If everything that made me worthwhile had disappeared with the Cullens, then Charlie's daughter was gone. He wouldn't recognize me when I returned. If I returned. "I can't walk. My feet are too torn up."
"I'll carry you." After a second's palpable hesitation, he slipped his arms beneath me and lifted, cradling me like a baby. To him I didn't seem to weigh much more than an infant.
"I'm sorry," I whispered, leaning my head against his chest as I had the night before. "I should have just let Jasper kill me when he tried."
"No you shouldn't have," he growled.
"Okay." It didn't seem worth it to argue. "What's your name?"
Nice to meet you was the correct response, but the circumstances made it laughable. I settled for, "I'm Bella Swan."
"Thank you for holding me together last night, Bella."
I wanted to say, "You're welcome," but instead I passed out again.