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Death and the Maiden

Summary:
"As long as Alice stays precious to Maria, there's a chance she might survive. Fear of Maria keeps James at bay, and it's enough to make me smother the very reason for my existence, drowning her in blood every time Maria asks me to…" JPOV, Pre-Twilight Vamp AU.


Notes:
Submitted for the ‘To Kill a Cullen’ Contest Please check out the other entries here : http://www(dot)fanfiction(dot)net/community/To_Kill_a_Cullen_Contest_Community/76759/ Seriously, dead Cullens = good stuff! Be sure to check out "Transfiguration," by my amazing beta Reagan O'Connor!! BTW, review notifications are my favorite-est emails ever :-p A note on the story format: We see most things in the moment, from Jasper's point of view. Asterisks appear when we jump forward in time, and italicized passages are flashbacks. Time picks up where it left off when the flashback is over.


1. One shot

Rating 0/5   Word Count 8578   Review this Chapter

"The new ones will do well by us?"

Semantically, it is a question, and the pitch is shaped to demand an answer. But the tone identifies her voice as the source of all answers, including the one she is asking of me now.

"They will do well by us."

I repeat her words simply, reverently. As soon they pass my lips, I know how true they are. The newborns seethe with hot, fresh blood; I feel like I'm burning when their ragged emotions batter me. I burn because my blood has been tepid for so long, and I know the same will happen to our tired, aged enemies.

Maria turns her head to look at me full on, and her eyes search my face for a different, silent answer. She smiles because yes, I have vowed to do well by her. Confidence pulses and pools around her body, rolling outward in waves that reanimate my stale blood.

Maria is the eye of the storm in which I live, a refuge from tearing gales of fear and desperation. Her calm and exhalation seem to feed on the feelings that batter me. The violence in our blood sings to her, and the siren mouths breathlessly up at me from the mirror of her emotions. I know that we are glorious when I'm with her. It's ridiculous to think of forgetting such a natural, self-evident truth, almost as ridiculous as the number of times I think I've forgotten it before.

She is lying on her stomach with a pencil in her mouth, pouting at a half-completed scrimmage map. Her battle plans look vaguely like my younger sister's diary, laced with loopy O's and X's of carnage. Her fingers drum lightly on one cheekbone for awhile, and then she sits up with a flourish of exuberant X's.

The movement knots her weightless silk skirt around her thighs. My breath notes a lazy upward movement of her fingers, and then she raises her eyebrow at me, a gesture that's as delicate as it is caustic. Work tonight, then. She'll want to brief me on plans for the Acapulco invasion, maybe let me in on Peter's latest reconnaissance.

"I've ordered Peter to come back early. We won't lose this battle to his half-assed sneaking around."

This is news to me. She didn't seem unhappy with his last report, which usually means that it was flawless. I know better than to say anything, but my confusion clearly delights her. She lets her legs hang loose, making lazy arcs with each instep, then grins as she hits me with a wave of triumphant glee.

"Peter won't be back 'till Tuesday, but… James is getting back tomorrow morning. Go prepare Lewis to run tomorrow's training sessions, then set up restraining cell number one. You're to report there at 0500, and bring four guards with you. Pick out the best we have-- good fighters, not too over-exuberant. Make sure they've seen a turning before, and remind them of what happens if they misbehave."

Maria settles back onto her stomach and crosses her ankles in the air. She dismisses me by staring into the middle distance, her emotions seething with the tugs and kicks of dreams.

The compound is partitioned into several electrified pens, each holding an age cohort of fighters. I'll need older newborns for guard duty, and I approach the pen with the lowest enclosing current. It's still strong enough to short-circuit and sever one of our limbs, and there's another fence like it around the boundary of Maria's land. Maria tells me every code because she knows my tepid blood would make me useless as a draftee. She knows I couldn't live without the heady balm of her presence, and she gives me my freedom to make sure I know it too.

I pick out three men who are a month shy of the year mark, selecting them for the grim, slow-witted kind of bloodlust that pinches at my insides instead of burning them. I spend a long time scanning their cohort for a fourth, but every one of them seems all wrong, too jittery to be trusted or too close to the burnout that'll doom the lot of them soon. Soft petals of flame will make their blood sing again, rewind their immortal lives and deliver the death that began when we bit them.

My mind numbs at the thought of the flames, and I let them lick me hollow until they give me an idea.

I lead my three guards through the fence, then across the compound toward a younger litter. They are six months old, and their blood has cooled a little. Not guard duty cool, for the most part, but there are always exceptions.

I scan the gaggle of newborns for the lust that burns like frostbite. It's easier to pick out than her weightless flames of hair, which rustle as she senses that I'm watching her.

Victoria's eyes linger on the texture of my skin, and she sees neither pain nor tough disfiguration. She sees only the river of blood that courses through my too-long history, and she wants more than anything to taste every drop of it.

Newborns' cravings tend to fill them with delusions, but Victoria is too in love with the world to hide from how it is. She's precociously aware of her fragility, and the depth of her lust helps her fight her petty cravings. She somehow knows what will happen to her if she doesn't prove exceptional, and she fights the specter of destruction with all the heat of her youth.

Her litter mates' emotions are wearyingly chaotic, but she soothes me almost as much as Maria does. She is aware of the way I relax around her, and although she doesn't quite understand it, she's desperate to use it to her advantage somehow.

Flames of pride are filling her now, pride quite unmixed with unease. She knows that soldiers rise alone as surely as they die en masse, and she fills the empty place in my guard without a flicker of a question in her mind.

I've dallied enough that Maria is already waiting for us. Her eyes look almost orange in the harsh, oblique sunlight that glows around her black cutout profile.

A car crawls up to the gate like a small, grey insect. Maria ignores it, thereby signaling me to let it through the barrier. The man who steps out is unassuming for a vampire, and as his eyes flit around the sprawling encampment. Flickers of distaste well up from his quiet mind. The flickers are subtle, but he makes no effort to conceal them.

Maria's responding scorn is equally understated, and she cocks her head upward to address him. The movement throws light on the emeralds in her hair, and their sparkle brings out the threatening color of her eyes.

"You're as pleased with yourself as I expected you to be, but her scent is weakening by the second. Did you forget what you were supposed to be doing?"

His smile leaves his eyes as frozen as his feelings.

"You know I'm not one to forget what I'm doing."

He takes a measured breath of the burning air, and then exhales as if it's chafing him. The odor is making us both quite tense, but it's more like a corpse than a fresh meal. Maria's hired him to kill vampires before, but I can't imagine his skills being needed to get rid of a human. Then again, her accusation made it sound like this wasn't an assassination at all.

She's always thought killing was a waste of his ability, and she hates being denied access to the full range of what someone can do. But James has always said no to other kinds of work, and when he opens the back of his car, there's a girl who looks just as dead as she smells.

There are bruises blooming across her bony face and arms, and a crescent-shaped cut where her throat meets her collarbone. It's deep enough to account for the blood that lightly spatters her, but it's not a killing wound. Then again, it's not hard to believe that she could bleed to death from a paper cut. Her limbs are impossibly thin, and her pallor looks too deep to have come upon her in death.

Maria's red eyes glaze over with innocent concern, and her voice sweetens commensurately.

"It's harder than it looks to bring them through undamaged. Don't you think I've done it often enough to know when it's gone wrong?"

Her fury burns hotter as James maintains his mild expression, and I wonder if she can sense how frighteningly real his apathy is. He leans over lazily, presses one ear to his victim's chest, and betrays no relief as he straightens up again. There's a hiccup in the distaste that never left the back of his mind.

"She hasn't been 'undamaged' in a very long time. All the same, I'd have left the honors to you, if not for a minor complication. She was the favorite of an old vampire working at the asylum, and when he glimpsed me coming for her-- I daresay she was the one who glimpsed it, seeing that I don't leave footprints-- he naturally assumed I intended to destroy her, and he decided to make her a bit more durable. Not that it would have made any difference, had I been-- rather, had I wished to end her life. A touching gesture, all the same."

It's been a while since I've had to strain to hear anything, but now that I concentrate, I can make out the throb of her heartbeat. The noise should have carried across the compound quite easily, but it can barely seem to make it through her ribcage.

Maria's fury hiccups and subsides a little, and I can tell that she hears the heartbeat too, but her expression doesn't change as she steps in front of James and slowly, fluidly mimics his gesture. Her fingertips probe at the neck for confirmation, and she slowly straightens up to caress the sallow cheek.

"Very touching, indeed." Her fingertips graze the girl's neck once more, lingering at the break in the still-papery skin. "Not many get to die from a tender, protective kiss. It's a shame nothing can protect her from the end that's coming now, or comfort her when it gets here. Nothing can protect you either, you know, when she doesn't survive this."

Without looking up from her meditative performance, Maria lifts her free hand to snap her fingers once. The two burliest guards seize James's upper arms, and his disgust piques at their contact. I sense a prickle of fear at last, but then realize that it's coming from the guards, not from him.

"Call off your men, Maria." His voice is barely louder than the girl's labored heartbeat. "Our business won't be finished until Alice wakes up, and if there's anything you should know about me, it's that I… dislike unfinished business."

Every whisper fills the guards with a hotter shiver of terror, but they'd never loosen their grip with Maria watching. Real panic grips them as soon as she parts her lips, and before she even begins to draw breath.

"If there's anything you should know about me, it's that displeasing me is the quickest way to finish up your business for good."

***

Two weeks later, their business is still unfinished. I've never seen a changing take more than four days.

I nod to Victoria as I enter the cell. Her frostbitten will feels hollow to me now; it's nothing but a void that sucks at the passion of others, seeking out vitality only to destroy it. I can barely remember why it used to comfort me, but then again, I can barely remember my name when I come here. The heartbeat fills my inhumanly spacious mind; it is the embodiment of tenacity, and I spend every spare moment trying to lose myself in its energy.

I clutch at her splintery cot and seek the rhythm with my ear. Her throat and breath smell like slightly scorched lavender; it's an ambrosia that burns with lingering traces of blood. I can smell the spot on her neck where the blood nearly surfaces, and when I'm sure I'm in control, I let my fingertips seek out her pulse. Her skin is so delicate that I can feel the way the venom has changed the consistency of her blood. It flows heavily, almost like mercury, without a hint of piquant stickiness.

I can tell that the venom is burning her, but only by the abrasive way that the liquid assaults her tissue. There are no waves of pain, no emotions I can touch or recognize. But I can feel a presence within her, a shape too far away for my senses to resolve more clearly. Her heartbeat is the only thing that comes close to me, and so I seek out her essence with my fingertips and ears.

I know the rhythm so well that it consumes me before I touch her. This morning I could hear it from fifty feet away, but I have no idea whether it's getting stronger or whether my obsession is just distending every beat. The sound shakes a bit when I enter the cell, changing again when I bend over her, and I still don't know whether to trust my wavering ears. I prod her skinny wrist, and there it is again, a slight modulation in the beat frequency.

I redouble my focus, holding absolutely still, and begin to sense a series of tiny shudders. They are fainter than her reactions to my touch, and they vary in a way that's as rich and purposeful as a radio transmission. I stop breathing, giving up her scent in order to hold completely still.

Five minutes later, I'm sure I'm listening to a kind of Morse code encryption of who she is, what she's feeling, but I'm just as sure that I've never heard this code before in my life. It's as if I were trying to communicate with someone who shares my gift, but since no one before us has ever felt what we feel, we have no language to turn to. We fumble like cavemen who have nothing in common but universal grammar, getting more lost and anxious by the minute.

I'd like to think she's greeting me with relief or recognition, but it's more likely that she's scared of me. It's anyone's guess whether this cell is bleaker than the asylum bed she left.

After twenty exhausting minutes, I'm no closer to unpicking the emotional Morse code. The beating has never consumed me so completely, and nothing else exists until I spring into a snarling crouch. It takes me a second to realize that I'm snarling at the door, which creaks a million times more loudly than my brain feels calibrated to tolerate.

James is staring pensively down at Alice, and I try to curl my body more protectively around hers. Amusement tugs at his thin-lipped chilliness; he knows the story of how I came to be immortal, and he thinks it should have purged all traces of my chivalry.

The reflex is still in me; chivalry's what I turn to when a woman makes me feel like I don't know what to do with myself. I didn't bow to Maria because I thought she looked vulnerable, she just confused the hell out of me enough that I needed a code to tell me how to act around her. But no confusion crossed my mind just now; there wasn't time for anything to cross my mind before I sprung. I don't understand what kind of instinct made me do it, but if there's one thing I learned the day I stopped being human, it's that instinct means a hell of a lot more than chivalry does.

"Did Victoria let you in here?"

I try to keep the question from coming out as a hiss, and only half succeed. More amusement bubbles up in James's mind. I'll never have Maria's talent for dealing with mercenaries, but it doesn't matter… he'll never tell Maria about the face I lose today. I'm positive she's forbidden him to come anywhere near Alice.

"Indeed she did. It seems you've been projecting a lot of… excitement today. Is the seer improving?"

He's looking at her dubiously, making it clear that he sees no reason to get excited. Even after two weeks, he feels no concern for her safety or his own. For a second, I wonder why he bothered to come at all, but then I notice the morbid curiosity in his eyes. I have to protect her from that look somehow, so I grit my teeth and try my best to draw his eyes upward. I may not be any good at verbal intimidation, but at least I've got a few inches on him.

"Maria will let you know when there's a change."

I toy with the idea of telling her about James's visit, but his blankly smug expression reminds me why I can't.

She's sitting before the mirror when I enter uninvited. Four yellow lamps beam celestially at its corners, and the air behind her is dirty with motes. Her fingers are twisting hair away from her orange-stained eyes, forming new, more sinister hollows to bear the weight of her emeralds. Their sparkle dares me to speak, and it should be too much, but I must speak, and so I draw in a minimum of dusty air.


"Peter told me what you're sending him to do, and…" I hesitate for only a fraction of a second, not long enough for a human to notice I've stopped speaking. But in that compressed eternity, both she and I know that I'm here to tell her no. That killing is wrong; that our life is wrong. But that eternity belongs to her and not to me, and she forces me to break it by choking me from the inside. "… and I think you should send James instead. We can't afford a slip-up, and we should use the best we have… James won't make a break for it, if we send him out to kill for us again."


Now for the part that I couldn't say up front. "Every day… several times a day… I see him loitering near her cell. He wants her dead, Maria, and you could lose her if you don't send James away from here."


"So what you're telling me is that the newborns leave you with a lot of free time on your hands. Their blood must be weak… maybe I should send you to Acapulco early. We could use a new battalion that thinks of the city as home."


"These newborns are some of the fiercest I've ever seen. They keep me very busy… Victoria is the one who told me about James."


It's not a complete lie… Victoria tells me freely about James's comings and goings. She knows I can't order her to stop letting him in.


Maria swivels to face me, flicking light from her moving emeralds. "It's intoxicating, mmm? A perfect little box of truth, sealed up completely, right under our noses. When you look at her, it's like a million possible futures start jumping and crashing together, dancing around like crazy because you can't know which one is in her pretty little head. We'll never know, not until she wakes up. In the meantime, you had better get your answers from me."

I can't give her an excuse to send me away… not when James is hanging around and Victoria's under his thumb. James is more perceptive than Maria, but he's in no position to tell her what he sees, and so we have a stalemate.

One that will break if I can't reign in my feelings.

When James is almost out the door, I'm hit with a crazy impulse to restrain him. I want him as far away from Alice as possible, but I don't want my fear of James to stop telling me what she needs from me.

My tension changes when James is gone, but it doesn't go away. Before, I was suspended like a magnet between him and Alice, my body imprisoned in the force field that draws him toward her. Now the force pulls at only her body and mine, and it seems more alive than either of us.

I thought I was drawn to her because she was so alien, so far removed from the bleak life I know. I still don't know what she is; I only know that it's anything but alien.

Her heart irregularities are stronger than they were, and they no longer sound like Morse code. I'm full of a nameless feeling that I've never sensed or felt. Somehow, the rhythm tells me that she's full of the feeling too. It's one pattern among many, and as I tease them apart, I realize that I don't have words for any of her feelings. I don't need words for them because I know them; I know her.

Somehow, I've spent fifty years drowning in the violence of other people's feelings, and yet I've never bothered to look past the showy, communicative ones. Wherever Alice is, she's beyond the grasping coarseness of anger, fear, lust, disappointment, and yet there's still so much left for her to feel.

Her eyes and body are more motionless than mine, her skin a shade paler than my own, and yet I'm overwhelmed by the force of her aliveness. Her heartbeat is so determined, so glad to feel what she's feeling.

Her gladness is easy for me to understand, for it conjures a reciprocal stirring in my heart, but her aliveness is much slipperier. It's been a lifetime since my heart last beat like hers, and I still have no words for what the wet throbbing means. Is her heart fighting to transform her; will it go to sleep peacefully once it delivers her into my world? Or is it tying her to the edges of human life, fighting against the venom for every minute of her slumber?

Nothing I know about immortality can justify the first idea. Tenacity like hers turns into bloodlust after death, and bloodlust would smother her from the inside out. Despite the nameless emotions we share, she belongs to a world that I cannot comprehend. I must leave her now, attend the newborns, distantly protect her from Maria and Victoria and James.

To pull away, I must pit all my inhuman strength against the first and strongest of my nameless new emotions. It's tying me to a creature from another world, fighting against the heartbeat that keeps her away from this one, and I must pull away to protect her from what I am. I buck and strain at what connects us, but the my effort ripples outward, and I feel them glance shrilly off the boundary of this world.

The ripples are tugging at the heartbeat itself, and it thumps too violently now. I panic and try to stifle it with my hand, wondering too late if I can bruise her changing skin. But her skin is no longer changing, and the thumping is so strong that I'm sure James is listening.

I hear Victoria sprint away, and the footfalls come back in triplicate. One pair thumps brazenly, their triumph haloed with love. Thuds alongside are louder and steadier, ferrying a mass from point A to point B. The quietest patters follow behind, sharp with equal parts glee and fury.

I freeze when I sense who it is in the doorway. Not tall enough to block the flow of seeping, bleeding sunset. She knows her silence is scarier than anything she might say, anger grinding up against the worst shade of pity.


She moves her lithe body between me and the cot, hips barely swaying to the sensual beat of her malice.


When Maria's shiny hair is laid flat across Alice's breast, there's a rustle like satin on burlap. The pampered beats get calmer and deeper, but only enough for me to notice. To her it is a beat of weak indifference.


She tries to give me the look that James will give me later, when his entrance will begin to tell me how to love this creature. Her eyebrows form a curve of exquisite incredulity, but it doesn't touch her eyes. I'm chilled by her twisting, writhing dance of feeling, afraid it'll be enough for her to send me away from here. But then she pushes past me without a single word, closing me off from the last glow of the sunset.

Maria's ugly twist of feeling was enough to blind me then; only now can I think back and touch the delicate hurts underneath. Human eyes might have picked them out too, in the set of her hair-clenched fingers or the tight, ugly puckers at the base of her scalp.

Alice's eyes are opening now, opening onto a life that's sure to be messier than her old one.

The extended convalescence sapped the blood from her veins and irises. Her eyes are a vacuum of hunger and want, devouring me so completely that I don't hear the door open. Her gaze is a raw abyss of feeling, wilder by far than what bled into her heartbeat. She stares into my eyes with some kind of recognition, but I'm not quite sure who or what she's recognizing.

The door breaks my concentration the next time it opens. Something unwieldy is trying to cross the threshold. I mean to seek out the source of the noise, but my eyes stop short before they make it to the door. After freeing myself from her all-consuming eyes, I can look for the first time upon her animated face and body. She is half curled up with her hands clutching her knees, as motionless as befits our kind, and her ethereal limbs are coursing with Alice.

My eyes follow the tense curve of her neck, the featherlike pucker of her collarbone. It's as if I were seeing breathlessness for the first time, matching colors and lines to something I've only ever felt. It's not precisely breathlessness, because the things that Alice feels have no names. The thing she's feeling now is no exception to that rule… its only literal name could be heartlessness, but dead metaphor has made the word beyond inappropriate. Breathlessness is close, in shape and texture and scent.

But then her trembling arms clench tightly around her knees, too tightly for her to keep up her shuddering, gasping breaths. I want to shield her, though I don't know why until I take a breath myself.

The man in Victoria's arms is bigger than I am. Even unconscious, he looks far more dangerous than Alice, and her panic acknowledges nothing about the key difference between them.

He smells absolutely delicious. I can barely swallow the venom that's pooling in my mouth, but even my resistance is better than any newborn's. She should have attacked him the instant she smelled him, broken down the door to claim the source of his scent.

Maria traces a finger along the soft inner edge of his jaw. Blood leaks beneath her nail, and it takes every ounce of my self control to keep still. Alice starts shaking, whimpering as if she's burning. She's feeling every twinge of the pain her change just spared her, and I can't stand to sense anything so familiar in her mind.

I hold my breath to steady my cravings, projecting a wave of calm that's as much for me as it is for her. She slumps away from the man as if I'm smothering her with chloroform, and then twitches as I release her. The tension in her body redoubles, and I hate myself for violating her like that. But Maria looks expectant now, and there is nothing for me to do but take control again, willing irrational calm to replace irrational fear.

Alice's eyes glaze over under the weight of my ministrations. When she looks less aware than she did when her heart was beating, she lies down beside the man and curls her face into his neck.

When her fathomless eyes are plugged with red, her movements become jerky, and she is no longer just Alice. I can make out shards of Alice here and there, in the set of her wrists and the angle of her chin, but most of her is lost to the anonymous newborn frenzy.

She doesn't recognize me, but her eyes seem vaguely aware of my shape. They pick out other shapes as they flit around the room, but at some point I realize that they're not the shapes I see. She is far away from here, trapped in a crueler time and place.

Maria is one step ahead of me, murmuring leading questions as she dabs the blood from Alice's face. Alice's responses are garbled, but they make it pretty clear that she's somewhere in Acapulco, and that she's definitely not the scariest newborn there.

***

It was only for a moment that I knew Alice with my eyes, the moment that came between losing myself in her and losing her to Maria. Ever since that moment ended, I've been trying to find her again.

Most of the time, she can't tell the difference between the future and the present. When she remembers who I am, her eyes start brimming with the gladness or hurt of the last thing she remembers me doing. Likely as not, I haven't done the thing yet, and I desperately wish I could make it stop being real. The hurt is much more constant than the gladness.

Her visions are most bewildering when she's drowning in blood, drowning because I'm holding her face in it. Every time, I promise I'll never do that to her again. When her eyes are plugged with red, she stumbles through Maria's future. Maria cherishes her for it, and she's too lost to do anything else. But little flashes of Alice always make it through the franticness, and that's why I can't stop hurting her.

She'll be safe as long as she's lost enough to keep Maria happy. I'll do anything to keep her safe, even if it means never finding her again.

James is still lurking. He sees Maria's tactics getting messier and grander. The victories remind him that she has a funny edge now, an edge woven from loose ends that upset natural orderings.

His blandness should numb me, and maybe it does. Maybe it burns because I've forgotten how to want the touch of blandness.

Victoria strains with want for that blandness, harder and harder with each passing day. She admires my skin still, but the want is less moist and sticky in her eyes. It isn't even sticky when she turns to look at James. Her lust is maturing, making her an agent of his will to bloodless killing.

Her newborn frenzy grows dimmer every day, but it isn't gone yet. She still craves blood more than killing, more than him. He knows it as well as I do; I can see it in the set of his hands on the front edges of her hipbones. He restrains her as he pulls her close to him, and tastes the waxing frigidity that's bubbling up from her wildness.

James might help her escape in another year or two, when she's more-or-less untainted by the sourness of youth. But until then, Victoria's life and satiety are in Maria's hands, and I pray that's enough to keep James away from Alice.

Maria is the only force that's keeping Alice alive, and that's enough to make me torture Alice when I'm ordered to.

She sends me to the cell on my own sometimes, with a human in my arms like a ram for the oracle of Delphi. I feel hurt clench at her every time she does it, giving orders with her back to me as she sits on the edge of her bed. Her thumb presses absently through the silk of the duvet cover, adding to a lineup of tiny half-moon scars. Each scar is crowned with a gentle tuft of feathers; Maria's lush bedding has lain undisturbed for weeks, and the holes line up perfectly with wounds in the blanket.

Alice was so confused the first time I came alone, and I sent a wave of calm her way out of habit. But her confusion was oddly purposeful-- she was having one of her better days. She looked down at her knees, then up at me again, and slowly shook her head. Her motions were almost imperceptibly slight, but they seemed to echo loudly through the blackness of her eyes.

My offering crashed and bruised like he was burning my hands instead of my throat. I'd been about to hurt her out of nothing more than habit, and I silently begged her to forgive me. She forgave me with the lightest, saddest half smile I've ever seen in my life, and it lingered for a second after her eyes stopped seeing me.

She looked as dazed as ever, but somehow I knew this vision wasn't like the others. I'd never seen her look that much at peace, even before her heart stopped beating. Wherever she'd gone, it was a better place than this one.

Consciousness came back to her eyes soon, acknowledging the reality of now. Her smile had more substance than before, and soon her wispy arms were clinging to my neck. My fingertips lingered on the curving grooves of her ribcage… she was hungry, but she was Alice! She wriggled beneath my touch with a shy new hopefulness that I didn't understand, but I'd never known words for anything Alice felt, and I didn't expect to start now.

That was the first time she ever saw the Cullens. They come to her when she's nearly lucid, which usually means that she's very, very thirsty. She looks angelic afterward, and that glint of shy hopefulness gets brighter every time. She'd blush scarlet if she could.

It's easy to see where the hopefulness comes from; if my own human family came to me from the future instead of the past, I think my eyes would shine like that too. But it's hard to say where the shyness comes from, and asking her about it makes it get so bad that she won't even look at me until I have to leave. She must feel sorry for me, embarrassed that she'll get out of here alone. She's the source of all my happiness, but I have nothing to do with the happiness awaiting her, and there's nothing that can or should be done about it.

Starving her is an easier cruelty than making her eat. It took me a while to realize that I starve myself in sympathy, feeding only when thirst would get me into trouble. Even before I noticed the changes in my habits, I could tell that loud feelings were beating less at my nerves. With fury and despair cooled to a manageable roar, I notice more of the nameless feelings that Alice was the first to show me.

It seems that human blood alters both our gifts in kind, making loud stimuli louder and more incapacitating. Considering the way feeding pumps up my vampiric strength, I can't believe I've been so blind to its effect on my senses.

***

I am walking toward the cell through a pale yellow dawn, oblique but unfiltered by the touch of clouds or trees. Its color is as sweet as the painful hope that stirs in me.

Maria and I have been at the front for days now, and Alice is surely thirsty enough for the hopeful visions to reach her. I'll be happy if she sees anything good, even if it's just the perfect Cullens in their perfect house with those perfect golden eyes that I haven't been able to explain to her. But it ended so differently last time… instead of describing a scene so alien she has to draw it to make me understand, she just opened her glowing eyes and took my hand in both of hers.

I asked her what she'd seen, and she didn't say a word… just traced strange patterns into my palm. Her fingers felt like sticks of willow charcoal, and once again she was drawing something that can't be put into words, at least into the vocabulary of my one-note life.

I tried so hard to understand what she was telling me, searching her eyes for a shadow of a hint. I willed myself to be as receptive as I'd been the day her heart stopped beating, and she looked just as hungrily back at me.

Her touch burned a masterpiece into my hand, more intricate than anything she'd ever drawn directly, but I still had no idea what it meant when she finished. I kept looking for clues in her eyes, and the hunger of my gaze seemed to give her some kind of answer, enough to make her move her hands from my palm to my face.

She leaned upward then, and her lips whispered silently into mine. They felt just as brittle as her willow-charcoal fingers, but infinitely softer. The touch of her lips seemed to come in more colors than the illustrative touch of her fingers did, and as I remembered the pattern she'd burned into my palm, I began to recognize it in the shape of her kiss. But this time, the pattern was in color… so bright, so blindingly bright, and it made sense as surely as it hadn't made sense before.

She used her tongue to mark the inner edges of my lips, and I felt the pattern stir with more colors than ever. It was the difference between my old emotional palate and the broader one she'd shown me before she knew me. The beauty of the colors made me gasp into her mouth, and our sighs christened the silent flowering of our love.

Every movement seemed to push at the deliberate weight of her shyness. I wondered how many times she'd seen something like this before, and been so afraid to tell me that she couldn't even look at me. Now, at long last, she was fighting to possess me, fighting against a tightness that was feeding upon her struggle.

I pulled away from the kiss as deliberately as I could, trying to drink in every scent that sweetened the air around her. I needed something from her eyes this time. Our kiss had been a piece of the forever lodged in her mind, and I wanted to unfold it in the open air between us.

My head spun with scale of what lay between my hands. They cradled her silky head, mere inches apart. We sat perfectly still until daybreak, and it felt like I'd never known anything so vast.

I left for the front then, and the fight was long and hard. Harder than anyone expected, I'd wager. Maria didn't seem happy with the way things went, but my mind was full of forever, and nothing else would stick there. Nothing until Maria decided to return to base early, leaving me to clean and burn the mess left on the field. It meant six extra hours keeping me from my forever.

Now, I'm surprised I remember not to run, not to break the morning calm, but I can see the edge of her building now, I'm close enough to reach out and taste her feelings, and… Jesus, what's going on? Oh, my Alice…

I should kill Victoria for the way she's gripping me. Dimly, I can tell that she's not trying to stop me, only dragging me back as she steers me toward the cell.

"Control yourself!" she hisses, low and inhumanly fast. "Maria ordered me to stop you. I'll be watching for her, but you'll need to do your part."

She isn't curled up in her usual defensive posture. I wish she were… I wish she'd do anything but lie there limp and hurting. The gashes are still fresh; they tear her stomach and face and breasts; they are deep and deliberate and they reek of venom. Maria's venom.

"I was wrong," she whispers dully as my hands measure her wounds. I wish she'd wince when I touch them. "It was so clear… it came to me so many times, and then last night it changed. She was so angry… but that's not what matters--"

A dry sob saves me the trouble of cutting her off. I feel for unscathed handholds on each of her shoulders, and then shake her as gently as I can. She feels like a broken glass doll, with wounds that nearly sever odd planes of her small body.

"Not what matters?" I choke back my snarl because the noise might break her. Maria nearly shattered Alice in anger, and in so doing, she completely shattered the stalemate that's been keeping Alice alive. Visions that shatter and change aren't a military advantage, just an attempt at insubordination. An uncertain future is nothing but an enemy, a thing to be battered by Maria's own vision.

For once, I have all too many words for what I'm feeling. Naturally, the words are too bleak for her ears. I can only palm her cheek, avoiding deep gashes that break her lips and jawline. She opens her mouth to speak, and the gashes widen cruelly.

"I was wrong, Jazz. It's not certain… none of it. These past weeks… I was so nervous to tell you… I thought we had forever, I saw that we had forever. The Cullens were going to teach us how to live without killing humans… we'd be so free and happy… we'd know so much love--"

Her fingers are at my throat now, tearing at my shirt. I can only gape stupidly… She saw me with the Cullens? They cleansed me of my bloodlust… for her? With her?

Her mouth is on mine now, broken and hurting and painfully urgent. She sobs into my mouth, parting her lips in agonized desire. Her venom mingles with Maria's on my tongue, both coursing from the depths of her hurt.

I pull her carefully off of me, forcing her to lie down.

"We will know that love. I'm going to get us out of here and make you safe."

"You don't know that… no one can know that. I want to make love to you now, before anything else can happen."

"You need to heal first. I've already hurt you more than I can stand."

"I don't care. I want you. I need you."

"We need to get out of here…now."

I shudder as apathy overtakes her again, but I'm already outside, seizing Victoria with the force of my pent-up anger.

"Do you want me to help you run away?"

"You know I've never wanted anything else."

"Will you protect her?"

"I'll do anything to serve the one who gives me life."

Her soprano is strangely and disarmingly sweet. I've never trusted its sweetness before, and I'm loath to start now. But she did let me in to see Alice… she's a good fighter, and might've stopped me if she'd tried. Probably not, but Maria's a hair kinder to failures than to traitors. She did leave Alice alive, and if it weren't for James, Alice might live at her mercy awhile longer. Then again, if it weren't for James, I'd have run away with Alice the instant she woke up. Regardless, there's no time to lose… the other guards will come as well… will they be enough to fight off James, if Victoria won't do it?

I take Alice into my arms as gently as I can, trying to make my grasp more confident than my voice. I can't tell if I've succeeded from the tenor of her slump… she's completely at peace, projecting calm at me in a strange reversal of the way I smother her.

Her limpness makes me angrier than I've ever been in my life, angry enough to run for days. I fly in a more or less random direction. Victoria's red hair marks it like a wind vane.

***

Naturally, none of it did any good. Alice died the instant the stalemate died. I'm sure she saw it coming-- hell, I saw it coming, and it didn't stop me from lying to her, lying to myself, denying her the last slip of forever we might've had left.

She smelled like scorched lavender as she burned. It was close to what she smelled like when her heart was still beating.

I was wrong, of course, to think Victoria could hand me the impossible. Power sings to Victoria the way it sings to Maria-- not as lucidly, but enough to overcome me the second we cleared the perimeter. I could glower all I wanted down from the limit of my height, but I was only inflating a stripped, emptied frame, bleeding power through too many half-healed punctures. I was at the mercy of the wildness of her limbs and hair, a broken runaway clutching my broken love.

She controlled the guards, once Maria couldn't claim them for me. I'd broken us away, and now I was hollower than a threat. I couldn't even fight them without letting go of Alice.

Victoria's look nudged them into a diamond around me, an arrow that would deliver us into a nearby clump of trees. But then her look changed, and they fell back. The wind was blowing away from the grove, and Victoria considered it like the statue of a hunter, her hair a pulsing, deadly comet tail.

Easy hunts have never appealed to James. They have too much in common with newborn lust. Hunting and killing are inseparable for him, and if Victoria had tried to deliver the one without the other, he'd have left her in disgust.

He nearly did that anyway, when he found us in the tree clump.

James never lets a target live; never has and never will again. His clean line of victims stretches unbroken into the distance, but even that forever isn't certain. Alice saw that he might die someday, torn apart by the Cullens and their love of a human target. Maybe that will happen, and maybe it won't, but I'm alone now, friendless, and my fighter's arms were burdened.

I ran toward the trees, and Victoria smiled. She knew James would be angry, but she'd destroyed our forever to cement her own, and she wouldn't begrudge us a taste of it first.

Alice stirs against me as I run. She stretches luxuriantly, heedless of our speed. She's rising from the bliss of our lovemaking to greet the strange new intensity of the world-- out of order, but order is a senseless luxury. Forever has no ordering; everything explodes out of the now.


She reels as I decelerate. I catch her face between my hands and try to steady her with my eyes. Her dizziness doesn't go away, but the physical unsteadiness gives way to something else, a steadiness so profound that the world stops mattering.


James is utterly defeated. He drops away along with the world. The moment becomes decoupled, eternal, and we recapture our forever.


The clump of trees is ringed and hollow. It probably sprung up around a single burned trunk. The inadequate circle of children has a gap in its green canopy.


I sit on the edge of the central stump, and she glitters up at me. Her dark, angry wounds don't glitter, but her eyes light up as my scars come to life. It's the first and last time we'll ever see each other in the sunlight.


When my lips seek hers, her tongue paints the kiss with colors that it didn't know before. I shiver as her fingers find their way under my shirt, whispering suggestions of cross-hatched shadows. Her fingers tremble as if any square inch of me might explode, and they palely seek the gasp of every explosion.


Certain patches of skin explode with colors under her touch, colors brighter and more urgent than the ones our lips are stirring. Her eyes burn with shock as I gasp into her mouth, and then her tensing nails set off new fireworks within me.


Sometimes, she finds skin that's much less sensitive. She traces a crescent that's glittering in the sun, and I recognize the new colors her tongue is brushing against my lip. My hands shake as I pull my shirt over my head. My cruelest scars catch the light now, teasing apart more colors that are so new to her, that her kiss is drawing from my raw, remembered pain.


I want her to know the colors too; I want them heal her small, broken body. I neatly tear the fabric at her throat, then work it open to the hem at her knees.


She shrinks away from my worshipful eyes, and I send her the faintest brush of calm. Once I feel it take root and spread delightedly, I follow it up with a brush of my fingertips, trailing them along the outer curve of her breast until an angry fissure stops them. I carefully kiss the fissure closed.


I continue up the length of the gash, pausing to taste the flanking perfection. Her fingernails clutch at me, and one hand tugs my hair. The color of this pain is exquisite, and I tentatively compress my lips around her wound, trying to alter her agony by claiming it for myself.


There is anything but agony as I kiss the hollow beneath her hipbone, tasting the burn of the gash that begins there. I trail my fingers downward, and as I recapture her eyes with mine, I feel like she's leading me into her visions at last. I am following the line of her deepest, cruelest injury, but our contact soothes and melts the reality of the hurt.


Her chin arches upward, and light shatters off her skin at startling new angles. One patch glitters more brightly than the rest. It is the mark left by the last man who couldn't save her from James, who gave her love and comfort when he could not give her life.