I was going to ask her to describe what she'd seen when there was a large bang, robbing me of the opportunity. What happened then was pure instinct.

I jumped up and pushed Bella down to the floor, the sofa blocking the sight of her from the door. I wasn't sure how it would help, but I needed to do something. Even though it was useless, my body dropped down into a crouch, and I could feel a phantom rumble in my chest. The door had been flung open, part of it splintering off and spinning on the floor in the kitchen. For a moment, no one appeared, but then I saw the same sight as Bella.

Vampire, indeed.

Chapter 26

I froze in place, as did Bella, surprisingly; I felt like our early history was full of her not doing as she was told and instead foolishly walking right toward danger. The Bella who stole away from me at the airport and then sought out a vampire intent on killing her was so at odds with Edward's meek Bella. She truly had always been the Bella I knew now.

My headstrong girl remained unmoving on the floor, clutching painfully at one of my legs. I couldn't chance looking down at her; I had to keep my eyes on the vampire at all times. She stood pale and stoic across the room, a circle of debris from the door settled at her feet. I looked into her eyes and tried to decipher why she was here and why she'd made such a forceful entrance if she was just going to stand there. I couldn't think fast enough, and I cursed my limited mental capacity.

I eyed both the open doorway and the windows letting in light behind the fiery cloud of her red hair. Both were viable exits—or would have been if I'd still been a vampire. There was no way I could get us out of the room without her halting our path or outright killing us. The only resource I had now was my long experience of fighting vampires and knowing exactly how they operated in situations with their prey. Even that knowledge provided little comfort, as I was well aware of just how vast my disadvantage was. The barely visible tells a vampire gave would be too minute for my vision, not to mention I might not even see her move across the room until it was too late.

I knew I couldn't get us out of the cabin, and I certainly couldn't fight her. All I could do was try to reason with her.

It would be like a mouse trying to talk sense to a snake.

I felt Bella pull herself up ever so slightly so that she could see over the back of the couch.

"Victoria," she whispered, and her hands were still attached firmly to the fabric of my jeans.

I saw Victoria's eyes dart quickly to Bella at the mention of her name, and a violent sneer immediately marred her face, the first expression I saw her make. Until that point, if I hadn't known the ugliness that lived inside her, I would have labeled her beautiful, especially as I looked at her as a human. Before I could process what she might be feeling in the moment, the look disappeared and she threw her head back in laughter.

It was the high, delightful laugh of a little girl in hysterics, and it did nothing but force a chill down my back. This was much worse than I'd even thought. Laughing was a terrible sign. An angry vampire I could handle. A hungry vampire I could handle—well, not so much handle as understand. There was most likely nothing we could do in this situation, but with either of those cases, it at least wouldn't be drawn out. If she was angry and wanted to kill us for sport, it would most likely be swift; vampire vengeance was hard to restrain. If she was here for a meal and had found us by chance—highly unlikely—she would also feed quickly.

After my somewhat brief conversation with Bella where she'd questioned breaking the necks of deer before drinking from them, we never really revisited the properties of blood. Humans were amazing creatures, despite my occasional disdain for them as a vampire and obvious view of them as a food source. If we'd ever brought it up again, or if she'd expressed an interest in a natural diet as a vampire, there would have been so many things I would have told her, so many stories about flavor and technique. I would have told her that almost all mature vampires are civilized in their eating. There were those who enjoyed the hunt—those with a hint of sadism, like James. Yes, there were indeed those vampires who enjoyed slaying over feeding, as for them those would most likely be two separate occasions. However, most vampires hunted discretely and quickly before their meals even realized what was happening. You didn't scare the flock when you thinned it.

That was a luxury newborn vampires didn't have and needed to learn over time. When I'd been a newborn, I'd always been excited by the quick thrum of an elevated pulse and the sweet, pungent aroma human bodies would put off when they were frightened. Everything about a scared human would call to a young vampire, but their disappointment was quick after they took the first draw of blood. There was a great deal of truth to the human phrases of "blood curdling" or "my blood froze in my veins." I would have told Bella that, when in a fear response, the human victim's blood would rush to their extremities in preparation for fight or flight, but it would also slow its flow in the best place for feeding. Despite the tempting draw of a pounding heart, the human body would release a coagulant, preparing for major injury and blood loss. It was a remarkable defense mechanism—if you weren't the one who wanted to drink that blood. It was always best to strike quickly and have a meal you could enjoy for longer.

I didn't think this was Victoria's goal in the slightest.

I would never get to tell Bella any of this—even if it would never be of use to her. Eyeing Victoria with her head tossed back, throwing glimmering spots all over the sunlit walls, I knew I wasn't dealing with an angry or hungry vampire. We were going to be the victims of a demented vampire. With that knowledge, there was no way to predict what she would do or just how long she would draw things out.

For the first time, I glanced down at Bella, though her eyes hadn't left Victoria. We weren't going to walk away from this, and I would never be able to save her, I thought with devastation. We'd had such little time together. It wasn't fair. I had to fight the angry tears that pricked at my eyes and made my nose sting. It wasn't fair that I'd had to live so long and do such depraved things only to spend what amounted to the blink of an eye in true happiness. Was that my punishment, my penance?

Why must she too suffer for my crimes?

I promised myself I would do anything I could to prompt Victoria into making Bella's death a swift one. She could play with me however much she wanted. Thinking back upon the sins that had for so long been a mark upon my very flesh, I knew it was possible I had a great deal of cruelty owed to me. I would bear it all if Bella could be spared it. I swallowed when I wondered, if it came down to it, would I be able to kill Bella myself. I knew I was physically capable, but could I actually be responsible for ending her life? What a ridiculous thought. Just by her knowing me, I was already responsible.

Victoria's shrill, echoing laughter seemed without end; we were merely witnesses to her madness. With it playing as a deranged soundtrack, I ran my right hand over the back of Bella's soft neck. It would only take the right placement of my hands and she would be free of the threat of any of Victoria's twisted plans. I could do it. I could spare her. I nearly choked on the thought. Oh, God. I'd never needed to pray for such strength.

I couldn't recall ever praying for anything.

I would do it before I let Victoria have her.

I shifted my body in the slightest and put my other hand under her chin. I took in a shaky breath and decided to give myself a mental countdown before doing it, each second a favorite memory of Bella.

Please, Victoria, give me at least that long.

I didn't even get to the first number before Victoria went silent and her eyes narrowed at the pair of us.

"My, my," she said in her china doll voice, "but this is rich." She enunciated each word with force.

"Please, why don't you tell us what you find so amusing?"

For a moment, I wondered when I'd starting talking aloud, but that clear, strong voice belonged to Bella. She grasped the hand I had under her chin—one of the hands I'd planned on snapping her neck with—and she pulled herself up to stand. She kept one of her arms around me, and even though I could see she was trembling, she stood nonetheless, and her voice was unwavering.

In the battle of Bella the mouse versus Bella the cat, she'd shown her true colors. My Pop-Tart was Bella the cat through and through.

"I wish I could really say," Victoria answered her, her foot kicking a piece of the broken door and sending it hurtling into the opposite wall where it stuck with a frightening noise, jutting out of the wooden baseboard.

She'd confirmed my fears that she was well on her way to crazy. She took the slightest step toward us and smiled in triumph when I imagined she heard both of our hearts speed up.

"Such a brave front you both put on. Tsk, tsk, though. Your human bodies just make liars out of the pair of you." She eyed us both, though her body remained perfectly still. "That's what's so funny—well, among many things—your human bodies. I don't think my eyes are deceiving me. How could they?" She spoke so deliberately, not rushing a second of our encounter.

I reached with my right hand to grasp Bella's right hand in mine. I wanted to keep as much of her body behind mine as I could. "What exactly do you mean?" I asked, wanting to keep Victoria talking.

A thought flittered across my mind: Alice. For the love of all that is holy, please let her have seen this. Please, let someone be on their way. I knew it was impossible. No one knew where Alice was, and by last account, Edward was all the way in South America. Carlisle and Esme were making their way back north, and Rosalie and Emmett were still in New York City. Even on the slimmest hope, I needed to keep her talking as long as possible.

"You're the one called Jasper," she said, taking an unhurried step forward. It took all of my strength not to take a step back, but like most predators, I didn't want to alert her chase instinct. "You know, I might have simply thought you were a relative, a brother who hadn't undergone the change. Your coven is full of such abominations that anything could have been a possibility."

"What's to say that isn't the case?" I asked, but it unfortunately prompted another step forward from her. There weren't nearly enough feet between us.

"So she said." Victoria indicated Bella and took another step forward as Bella's left hand dug into my side. "I heard her call you Jasper, and I heard your insipid conversations, though your drivel was at least enlightening, though not entertaining."

Just how long had she been outside the cabin?

"By some terrible reason, you used to be a vampire—a marked vampire no less—and now you're nothing but a pitiable blood bag. What happened to you?" she asked with genuine curiosity. "Who would be so cruel to you and then choose not to put you out of your misery?" she asked with the same type of repugnance with which I'd spoken when I'd first discovered I was a human.

"I woke up this way." I wanted her as far off the trail of Bella as possible.

"So you fell asleep?" Her red eyes opened and closed like nightmarish doll.

"It was a covert attack," Bella spoke up, her voice still strong. I squeezed her hand, and I could feel the strength run between us. She dropped her left hand from me and switched hands so that we were holding them between us, standing side by side. Another squeeze. Despite how desperately I wanted to shelter her, I knew I could offer her no real protection. Though powerless as humans, we stood before our death as equals, my mate and me.

"He woke disoriented and weak, as you can see," Bella continued, and she almost spoke with the same disdain as Victoria, as if she herself weren't human.

Victoria took yet another step closer, as if she needed the proximity to examine me. "And the rest of them?" she asked cautiously.

"Still vampires and circling the area to find the culprit," Bella said smartly. Though I knew Victoria wouldn't have crossed any of their scent trails that were recent, it was wise of Bella to indicate they might be close. I had to hope Victoria hadn't been watching us long enough to know they were all gone.

Victoria's eyes narrowed in either suspicion or concern. Either our plan was working or we were taunting the dragon.

"By our estimation, it was a new member of the Volturi—clearly their most powerful yet," I said, trying to do anything to threaten her. Any vampire, especially one who'd been in the company of a sadistic hunter like James for so long, would most likely be bothered by the mention of the Volturi. James hadn't struck me as the kind of vampire that always followed the rules.

"You mentioned seeing Jasper's marks, so you must realize how much value the Volturi placed on his head," Bella said, and I could have kissed her for her brilliance.

I immediately spoke up. "They've wanted me for over a century. I have yet to figure out why they would want me like this, but they obviously wanted me still alive," I told her, folding into Bella's plan nicely. We needed Victoria to think of me as Volturi property. Even crazy, no vampire would want step on the toes of the Volturi.

"We're just waiting for them to come back and claim him," Bella said, sealing the deal.

"Curious," Victoria said with a purse of her lips, "and disgusting. Your sins must have definitely been egregious. That's not all that's interesting, though. All of this has somewhat dashed my hopes." She pouted and came even closer.

"Wh-what were those?" Bella asked, and for the first time, her voice wavered. Now all that stood between us and Victoria was the sofa.

"You," she spat. "You are the reason my James is dead—you and that ridiculous, mind-reading excuse for a vampire. Laurent told me all about your sick relationship. What kind of vampire would stoop so low as to fuck his food?" she asked, her voice full of vitriol.

I heard Bella suck in a breath before Victoria continued. "I guess you would know," she said as her gaze landed on me. "Though, now I suppose it isn't as stomach-churning since you're both equally feeble."

My fist clenched at her assumptions and the crass way she was speaking about Bella.

"The two of you connived to lure James and then destroy him." She sobbed the last words and then let out a great roar, grabbing the couch and hurling it behind her. It slammed against the kitchen wall and smashed the upper cabinets. As shards of dishes rained on the ground, it was a wonder it hadn't gone all the way through the wall.

There was no longer anything between us, and I knew by the pace of my own heart that Bella was most likely beginning to panic as well. Victoria slowly sank into a crouch, and the air tingled with both fear and hatred.

There wasn't time. I knew I wouldn't have the time to yank Bella to me and break her neck before Victoria could snatch her away. I'd thrown away my opportunity. In my selfish desire to say a silent goodbye to her, I'd ruined Bella's chance of having a quick and painless death.

"I'm so sorry," I said chokingly aloud.

"I don't want your apologies," Victoria screamed, her voice hurting my ears. She mistakenly thought I'd been speaking to her. "What I want is for this feeling to go away! It burns inside of me." She clutched her fists at her breasts. "You did this to me—to him. You killed him, and every day that knowledge claws at my chest." She scratched her nails into her shirt, and her eyes were wide in desperation and grief.

I'd never seen a vampire so unhinged, but then again, I'd remarkably never seen a vampire after having lost their mate, though I suspected James had never thought of Victoria in that way. I almost felt sorry for her, having thought I'd once lost my mate. Like her, I'd falsely thought Alice was it for me.

"I need it to go away," she quietly said. The low volume of her voice was immeasurably more threatening than her screaming had been. "I need you to take it away. He's in me. I feel him." Her eyes were crazed. "His venom runs through me. He's always told me what to do, and that's what he's still doing now. He wanted you to die, and that's what needs to happen." She looked at Bella with a look of utter possessiveness. "I'm sorry you didn't get to do it, baby." She was no longer talking to us.

"I didn't kill him," Bella asserted. I wished she'd stayed quiet. We were past the time of wanting to keep Victoria talking. All the time for the calvary to arrive was gone. Now we just wanted it to end as quickly as possible.

"No!" Victoria hissed. "Your mate did—that coward who can't even rely on his own thoughts that he has to steal them from others!"

"Edward?" Bella asked.

I love you, but shut up! I tried to tell her telepathically.

"Don't say his name!" Victoria bellowed.

In an instant, she was in front of us and had ripped our hands apart. She held Bella up by her neck, letting her feet dangle a few inches off the floor. Bella's hands flew up to Victoria's in an effort to support some of her own weight and to try to keep from being strangled. Her face was turning purple from the lack of oxygen and Victoria's obviously bruising grasp on her throat. Choking and gurgling noises were coming from Bella's mouth as she kicked fruitlessly at Victoria's legs.

"Stop it," Victoria chastised in an even whisper, and she threw Bella down on the floor with an effort strong enough to chance permanent damage.

I watched as she lay motionless, and then I felt a terrible pang of guilt as I saw Bella push herself up slightly. For a moment, I'd hoped she'd hit her head and that she was in fact dead. It would have been a great mercy.

"I want the mind reader to know what it feels like to lose a mate, though I almost feel sorry for him to be saddled with not only a human for a mate but an unfaithful one at that." Victoria stared murderously down at Bella, and I could do nothing but stand and watch.

"I'm glad you're human," she said, turning her attention to me. "It means there's one less of your revolting coven to sully the likes of our kind. You're all disgusting!" She was screaming by the end. "Eating animals, mating with humans . . ." she muttered. "Sickening!"

"He's not my mate!" Bella protested, though her voice was a little rough from having had her throat grabbed so forcefully. "Jasper is."

I sent her a warning look.

"I won't hide that from anyone," Bella firmly told me, coughing. "Not now." Not at the end, she meant.

Victoria laughed again, but this time it was a low chuckle. She yanked Bella up to a standing position, almost causing her to fall over. I reached out to steady her, but Victoria smacked me away, and I gasped at the sharp sting to my hand. I clutched it to my chest, and my eyes watered. It was obviously broken. I took short, panting breaths through my nose and tried to swallow down the pain. I felt like I was going to throw up.

"What would you know of mates?" Victoria asked Bella, poking her hard in the chest and leaving a bright red mark in her finger's wake.

"I know," I said weakly. I coughed and tried to toughen up my voice before speaking again. I wouldn't look any weaker than I needed to. I dropped my cradled hand, and it throbbed at my side where I let it hang. "I knew. I felt the mating pull to her when I was a vampire. She isn't his mate. She's mine."

Bella was right. Despite what retribution it might bring our way, I would not deny us. I refused to die with a lie about us on my lips. I loved her, and I would own every bit of that emotion in my last seconds. We wouldn't get our forever, but I would be damned if I forsook our right now.

Victoria's body froze and her eyes stared at me unblinkingly. I'd never wished for Edward's gift so badly in my life. Inch by inch, her body came back to life, and she slowly brought her hands to our throats.

This is it! This is it! Oh, God, this is it! My mind was panicked. I wanted to be brave and face my death without fear, as I had over and over again as a vampire, but even after months of trying, I couldn't control my human reactions. The will to live was too great, and every cell in my being protested the thought of death. Fear swelled inside of me and crashed against my thoughts.

Instead of snapping our necks, she pushed us away from her, though she didn't let go. She was leading us out of the room.

"Walk!" she roared, and we both complied out of terror.

We stumbled as we made our way to the hallway, and Victoria's grasp tightened in response. "Pathetic," she muttered. She yanked our heads to get us to walk into the master bedroom and had to let go so we could both walk through the door.

I chanced a glance over my shoulder and saw her staring at the bed. I panicked even more when I tried to think of where her thoughts were going. Her eyes closed for a moment, and I saw her nose flare, sniffing the air.

"So much evidence," she said with unrestrained malice. "Does he know you aren't his mate?" she asked Bella. "The mind reader," she clarified.

"Yes," Bella answered her confidently.

Victoria nodded and a look of sadness briefly washed over her face. "And yet he killed him anyway?" she asked, her voice small, her hands again clawing at her chest.

I wasn't sure if what I was about to say would be a final act of bravery or stupidity. "Edward didn't kill James. I did. He tried to kill my mate, but I killed him first." I felt the echo of Mine rush through my body. I wouldn't deny that either.

Her chin rose and her hands stilled. "I know, baby. I know." Again, she wasn't really speaking to us. She looked wildly around the room before her sight settled on the bed again. She tore off the covers and ripped off the sheets, the mattress falling to one side with her efforts. In the first example of her restraint, she carefully opened the door to the bathroom and threw the sheets inside.

She moved so quickly I didn't even see her, but I felt her as she grasped my neck again and tossed us both into the small room. I crashed into the outside of the bathtub and took down the shower curtain with my flailing arms while Bella landed with a smack to her ribs against the toilet. We both fell into a heap of limbs together on the floor.

"Maybe this is the answer, James. I thought this the whole time that I was supposed to kill her. It's him. He's supposed to do it."

Was she talking aboutJames or about Edward? I couldn't be sure if she was exclusively addressing her dead mate at this point or not. Whomever she was speaking to, it was obvious she'd finally crossed the last line in her sanity.

She crouched in front of us, and I wrapped my arm with the broken hand around Bella, wincing when it made contact with her shoulder. Softly, Victoria ran her hand down Bella's face. "This is so much better," she told her. "You'll just love it, I'm sure." Her voice was back to its delicate and girlish cadence. It unnerved me completely.

"Oh, and you'll love it, too," she said, looking at me, her red eyes reflecting my stricken face.

"So many times I imagined what it would be like to kill you. What would his face look like after you were gone? Would he want to claw out his own heart like I do?" she asked Bella almost sympathetically. "He would live forever alone and tortured, and I would gain the peace of mind that I wasn't the only one. It saddens me that that won't happen now."

For a moment, I felt a slight flicker of hope.

"I'm sorry I won't get to see you die," she continued. "This will be better, though. Yes. Yes. Yes." Her eyes closed as if she were imagining whatever it was she had planned. "You see," she said, her eyes snapping open, "even if you say you're not his mate, it will still hurt the mind reader. I don't care that he didn't kill James; he did taunt him by his possessiveness toward you. How could James ignore such a call to the hunt?"

"I'm not sure James—" Bella's words were hushed by Victoria's finger pressed against her lips.

"You don't get to say his name," she warned. "The mind reader played his part. And you," she said to me, "you'll also get to play his—at least the part he was going to play. I can't care about the Volturi—not with this pain in my chest. I'll gladly risk their ire; if anything, they can just ruin you again. Without James, I don't want to live either."

At least now it sounded like she was going to kill us both. I never thought I would be cheering the sound of my own death, especially knowing how terrified I was of it at the moment.

"And you," she looked back at Bella, removing her finger, "your death will be all the more sweeter knowing it will be at his hands."

"Whose hands?" I asked before I could stop myself. James was gone.

She began to giggle, again the sound of a tickled little girl. "Oh, that's the richness, Jasper." She paused to regain her composure before looking at me seriously. "Yours, of course," she said with a look of sheer giddiness on her face.

Her maddened eyes seemed to burn in front of me and then with a quick breath beside my face, the burn lit up my whole body.




Author Note: As always, thank you for your patience and for reading.

I'd love if you'd share in your review what you're reading right now or what you've been reading lately.

Fic Recs:

"By Way of Sorrows" by jaxington: Bella Cullen has spent the last ninety-five years giving everything to protect her family and mourning the loss of her long dead human husband. A trip to Alaska to meet Tanya's latest romantic interest changes everything. The vampire she meets there has his face, his hair, and his body, but not his memories. It's a strange new world. (AU, E/B, WIP)

"Hedone Ranch" by JenJadeEyes: Stressed out, Bella seizes an opportunity to get away. After being mistaken for her movie-star boss at a "spa", she finds out her boss has been using her name to keep big secrets. When is a spa not a spa? When it's a brothel. See what Bella discovers about herself during her stay. (AH, Complete, NSFW)

"Out of Sight, Out of Mind" by Simiril: What do you do when the love of your life has no memory of you? Two years after they left her, Bella is back in the Cullens' lives. The only problem is that she doesn't remember them. A Bella and Edward love story. (AU, E/B, complete)

"Sold, Sight Unseen" by quothme: The odds of him dialing her phone number are 3,720 to 1. Yet he does. Their chance conversation leads to something more. Something silly, then serious and a little scary. But in a good way. (AU, complete)