My phone call to Tanya was over in a minute. She and her sisters apparently had some male company tonight, so she wasn't particularly in the mood for talking. As Alice had predicted, they were always welcoming when we were in a tight spot.
I had set about the task of stacking my books into the packing boxes kindly left in my study, when there was a quiet knock at the door.
"Come in," I called, wondering which one of my family members had suddenly developed some manners. The kids usually only knocked when they thought Esme was in here and they might see more than they bargained for.
No one graced me with their presence. I was just about to go over and open it when Jasper stepped into the room. He closed the door behind him, but remained hovering with one hand extended towards the exit. I was just about to ask him why he was back so soon, when he spoke first.
"Carlisle, I ..." His voice was barely above a whisper, and his gaze was locked on his escape route. "I know ... I know an apology is inadequate, but it's all I can give you. I am sorry. I should have resisted … should have ..."
If it was any of my other children, I would already be embracing him, but I knew Jasper might subconsciously misinterpret that action as an attack. I closed the gap between us, intending to put my hand on his shoulder, but he shifted back out of reach. I had to rely on my words.
"I know. I know how hard you fight to resist, Jasper. I know what it is to have every cell in your body urging you to give in. You have done nothing to require my forgiveness."
His crushing shame did not lighten at my words. Instead, it grew worse. I had to take a step backwards, so strong was the weight of the feeling.
I tried to maintain control of my thoughts, but his feeling had caught me unprepared. When Jasper made one feel a certain way, the mind tended to provide the memories that matched the emotion. My darkest moments of shame rose in my mind, and I recalled the moment when I first realized what I was. What I had become. The grief over my lost human self. The hatred of my new vampire body. Destroying it was the only option.
I forced myself to take a slow breath, and focused on Jasper. He needed me now. What good did it do him if I took on his shame and made it my own?
He'd turned away from the door, running his hands back and forth over his face. He was trying desperately to stop projecting. My own feelings shifted at the realization, and I did all I could to concentrate on the love I felt for him.
It had an immediate effect. His arms fell by his sides, and he lifted his head so he was standing tall. My joy at seeing him relax generated more emotion for him to feed off, and I saw him take a deep, slow breath.
He surprised me when he spoke. "Will you come with me?"
He met my gaze, and I struggled not to cringe at the sight of his blood red eyes. It was difficult not to picture the one who had given that blood.
"Of course," I said. "If that's what you want."
He nodded once.
He must have felt my curiosity as to what was behind his change of mind, but he didn't elaborate.
"It won't take long. I know … I know you have a lot to do."
"It can take as long as you need. I'll meet you outside after I've spoken to Esme."
He nodded, and went over to exit through the window.
Esme and Alice were sitting together on the couch. Our daughter now looked much calmer.
"Alice told me," Esme said, standing up and coming to my side as I entered the lounge. "Be safe."
I leaned down to kiss her goodbye. The kiss then turned into a hug, and the hug turned into a cuddle. It was only the thought that Jasper was standing outside waiting that made me pull away.
My gaze shifted to Alice.
"How are you feeling, sweetheart?"
"Better, now that I can see." She didn't elaborate as to what she could see, but instead released another growl. "I don't suppose you'd punch her for me?"
"I'll give her my best disapproving stare. How about that?"
She smiled. "Better than nothing."
Jasper was silent as we moved through the forest, and I didn't try and engage him in conversation. In all truth, I didn't know what to say. My attempt to offer some comfort earlier had only increased his shame, and I would not risk hurting him again. All I could do was try and keep my feelings calm. Jasper didn't need any more anxiety right now.
His pace slowed when we first detected Maria's scent, and he switched to a jog, and then to a walk, and finally stopped altogether. I looked away, giving him what privacy I could as he gathered his strength. There was a time when Jasper would never have shown any vulnerability in my presence, whether I was looking in his direction or not. We had come a long way.
"Sorry," he mumbled, when he'd reached the desired frame of mind. "Just needed a moment."
"Take as many moments as you need," I said quietly.
He led the way, returning to a moderate walk. About a mile down the track, we found Maria sitting under a tree, skipping stones into the river. She jumped up and turned to face us, her red eyes narrowed, her posture tense. She wasn't happy to see me. I didn't need Jasper's gift to know that.
I remained back from Jasper, close enough to provide support if needed, but leaving no doubt this was his ball game.
Still, her glare was focused on me.
"What are you doing here?"
My defensive instincts kicked in, and I let my arms hang ready by my sides.
"I asked him to come," Jasper insisted.
"Why? You can't think for yourself? You want him looking over your shoulder?"
The accusation was ridiculous. Maria had spent years teaching Jasper not to think for himself. It took serious effort to avoid starting an argument with her, but I'd promised myself I wouldn't interfere unless it was absolutely necessary.
I looked to Jasper, and found he was standing straight, not a hint of the uncertainty I had seen so often in the last two days.
As he spoke, he projected calm. "Maria, this is my life now. I have no wish to return to feeding on humans. Your demonstration only reinforced my views about that. I am a member of his coven, and Alice is my mate. This is where I choose to be, this is where I want to be. And ..." He faltered slightly, but then regained his confidence. "And I want you to keep your distance from me in the future."
Maria's expression became thoughtful. It was not what I expected. I didn't shift my eyes away from her, watching for any sign of anger, any sign of attack. But the thoughtfulness only became resignation.
"It's been a long time since I've seen you so sure of yourself."
Jasper said nothing.
She frowned for a moment, and then her face relaxed. After several seconds of silence had passed, she came closer to Jasper, raising her arms to embrace him. He remained still, letting her touch him, but not making any move to return the sentiment.
She rested her head against his chest and her expression became wistful. It was a while before she drew back.
"I understand. Visit if you ever feel the call of home. You know where to find me."
"Yes, I do."
She reached up to kiss him, aiming for his cheek. And then, she was gone. I couldn't believe it had been that simple.
Jasper stood still, listening as she grew further and further away. When we could no longer hear her, he walked towards the river. He crouched down and cupped water in his hands, splashing it into his face. He rubbed at his cheek, gently at first, but then becoming increasingly forceful.
Just as I took a step towards him, concerned he was going to hurt himself, he jumped up and dived into the deeper part of the river, disappearing under the surface with a splash that sent sleeping birds scattering.
He was submerged for a good minute, before he surfaced a few feet down the bank.
I approached slowly, having a fair idea what all that was about. Unfortunately, he couldn't wash away Maria any more than he could wash away the venom in his veins.
"It can't have been easy, saying goodbye," I said quietly. There was water weed on his shoulder, and I wanted to pick it off, but I refrained. "You did well."
He looked away, brushing his hair out of his eyes.
"Thank you for coming with me," he said in a formal tone, looking at a nearby tree.
"Anytime," I said easily.
I felt his shame, once again, but he was keeping it under control now. He continued to look at the tree. "I ... I wanted you to hear that, so there is no doubt ... I am committed, I am loyal, and I won't endanger the coven again. I do not take your forgiveness for granted."
I was both surprised and dismayed by his words. "Is that why you asked me to come? You thought your loyalty was in question?"
"It should be," he mumbled.
My eyes grew wide. I took a step forward, but he mirrored me, stepping back. No matter. He would know what I was feeling, regardless. "Jasper … we are family, and family support each other, through good times and bad. That is why I am here with you now. I know you struggle with the vegetarian diet, and it's only natural for you to wonder whether it's right for you. Everyone has, at times. I'm sure Maria has done all she could to make you question yourself in the last two days. What matters are the choices you ultimately make. With that in mind, your loyalty to this family has never been in question."
I didn't think someone as lean as Jasper could possibly hold any more shame, but he proved me wrong. I struggled to keep the memories away.
"I seem to have a knack for making you feel worse," I lamented, running a hand through my hair. "Please help me know what to say."
The request seemed to perplex Jasper. I was grateful for the break from the shame. Perhaps I'd already found the answer. Distract him.
His response was a quiet mumble, but he was looking at me now. "That you even feel the need to make me feel better after what I've done ... you should be angry."
I had heard the same words before. From Edward. And I knew the reasoning behind it.
"You are angry with yourself, so it follows in your mind that I should feel the same. But I do not see you the way you see yourself. You will have to accept that we differ on that point."
I sent him some affection to demonstrate what I meant. He closed his eyes, and I braced myself for more shame, but it didn't come this time. Only acceptance. It was a weary, resigned type of acceptance, but acceptance all the same. It sparked a rush of happiness on my side.
"It isn't a bad thing, you know," I said lightly. "To have someone on your side." That was an understatement of my feelings towards him, but I didn't want to embarrass him.
"I know. Just wish I wasn't the reason we have to uproot and move. It's hard to be certain that I'm right to stay with you when I cause so much trouble."
"You are certain about Alice, right?"
His expression lightened as he nodded. "She is everything to me."
"And she is certain you and she are part of our family?"
He nodded again. "She's always been certain of that."
"Perhaps you can settle for being certain by proxy."
He considered this. Instead of providing relief, his eyes filled with sadness.
"If I put more trust in her, this would never have happened." He roughly ran his fingers over his dripping shirt, sending water scattering. He sat down on a log as he did so, to prevent himself from losing balance.
I suddenly understood with more clarity why he had dived into the river. "You don't want her smelling Maria's scent?"
He shook his head, squeezing his eyes shut with the pain of the thought. I sat beside him, being careful to keep my feelings calm. After a minute, he began to talk.
"I haven't been fair. Should have told Maria to go away earlier. Should have refused to see her. Alice has every right to be upset with me."
"She's not upset with you," I said gently. "She's upset with Maria."
"We ... we argued earlier. Before ... it happened. Been too ashamed to even apologize yet. I've never felt jealousy from Alice before. Even in the early days, when I told her about Maria. She was understanding. Never jealous. Didn't imagine she would be now." He shook his head. "I was so stupid. It was supposed to be time together, and I found Maria's trail and wanted to follow it. Didn't think. Thought the jealousy meant she ... she wasn't as certain of me as I am of her." His distress was growing as he shared his thoughts. "Ever since you told me Maria was here, I've been trying to figure out how I could handle this without hurting Alice. I failed."
I wanted to tell him he'd done his best, and doing your best was never a failure. But I knew how he would react to that, and I was appreciating this conversation too much to be careless with his emotions. It was a privilege to have him talk so freely with me.
"It's painful to see one's mate hurting. It must be worse to feel it, as you do."
He nodded slowly.
I touched his shoulder, sending him some empathy. "Son, Maria is gone. Alice is at home waiting for you. She loves you. Let's go home and you can tell her what you need to before we say goodbye to this place."
He nodded, and sent me some gratitude. I wasn't entirely sure what this was for, but that really wasn't important. I could see some strength had come into his body now, and his head was held a little higher.
For Jasper, no matter how many terrible days he had experienced in his life, was not one to be defeated. He had an admirable ability to rise up from the metaphorical ashes, no matter how dark things might seem for a time. I knew this was a reason he had survived the vampire wars in the South, and why he would continue to fight his own instincts to resist human blood.
I returned Jasper to Alice largely dry, as he had run full speed back to the car. As it turned out, I doubt she would have noticed had he smelled of Maria or not. She jumped up and wrapped both arms and legs around him as he stepped out of the car, kissing him frantically. I left them alone to clear up the fears and insecurity that had plagued their relationship over the last day, knowing they would soon reaffirm their absolute and unchanging commitment to each other.
I found Esme out in her greenhouse, saying her own goodbye to her unfinished project. I slipped my arm around her waist, kissing her forehead.
"We'll keep the house," I said. "We can move back one day and you can finish it."
She reached across and entwined my fingers in hers, not having anything to say on the subject.
"How's Jasper?" she asked. "I trust we've seen the last of Maria?"
I nodded. "He's going to be all right." The confidence in my voice surprised me.
We didn't see Jasper or Alice over the next hour, as we loaded up the cars. Rosalie made a remark about some family members shirking work, and I suggested to her that they had their own work to do, of far more importance than packing cars. Emmett volunteered he and Rose for some private work in their room, an idea which Esme shut down quickly.
We'd just seen off Rose and Emmett with one full vehicle, when Alice appeared, glowing with happiness.
"It's going to be fine," she declared. "We don't need to take everything now. They'll be an opportunity to come back and get the rest."
"I do want to take this," Esme said, picking up a statue I recognized from her greenhouse. She buckled it into the remaining space in the backseat of my car. "Alice, you and Jasper can go with Edward."
I picked up the house keys from the hook by the door, knowing it was time.
"I'll go and lock up."
Esme had already done her last walk around and said her final goodbyes to the place that had been our home, for a short but happy time. She nodded, glad to leave that task to me. I had finished locking the back door, and was just about to lock up the front, when Jasper came down the stairs, a single bag over one shoulder.
I smiled at the thought I'd nearly locked him in.
"You travel light," I observed.
"By necessity. I could never go anywhere with Alice if I didn't."
"Ah, very true."
He stopped beside me, not going through as I held the door open. He felt hesitant.
I waited, remaining calm. My patience paid off.
"I don't know what would have happened with Maria without your guidance. I want to thank you."
I thought of all the things I could have done better, all the decisions I would have made differently in hindsight. But what example would I give Jasper by giving voice to such self-judgment?
"You're welcome," I said simply. I passed the key from my right hand to my left, intending to place my now free hand on his shoulder, but I stopped myself. He may have accepted that I was not going to be angry over his slip, but he may not be ready for affectionate gestures.
Jasper's gaze fell on my hand.
"Edward said the best way to thank you would be to let you embrace me. So, uh, go ahead."
He braced himself as if I was going to bite him. I couldn't help but laugh. I considered suggesting embraces should be mutual affairs and letting him off the hook, but I couldn't resist the rare opportunity. So I did what I had been wanting to do since I knew of his pain in the forest. I put the keys in my pocket and drew him forward into my arms, and used the touch to share my love freely.
He was tense at first, but quickly relaxed under the influence of my feelings. I spared him after a short time, but left my hand on his shoulder.
"I am proud to call you my son."
He didn't say anything, but I felt how moved he was by my words.
"And, I want you to know, if you had decided to leave us all behind and return South with Maria, I would still consider you my family—my son—no matter what lifestyle you chose to live. That love is unconditional."
He nodded, and sent me some appreciation. "There was no danger of that. I haven't looked back since the day I left the South. I'm no longer who I was when I was by her side. Her visit has made me more sure of that than ever."
"Your true nature was there all along, I'm sure. Just neglected."
He thought on this for a short time, and then nodded.
"As much as I hate the way I lived, as much as I wish I had more self-control ... I do like who I am now far more than who I was with Maria."
It was the most flattering self-assessment I had ever heard Jasper make of himself. And the fact that he said this now, when he was still feeling so terrible over the events of the recent past, made it all the more hopeful.
Perhaps, in a century or two, he might see himself half as well I saw him. The idea added happiness to my hope, and the feeling brought a fleeting smile to Jasper's face in turn.
We always had time to work on his self-control. But now, Maria was where she belonged. In his past.