The Amaranthine Mirage
Jasper has mercilessly been ripped from Alice's loving arms by Maria. Can the Cullens get to him in time? Or will they be too late to stop the beast he will become? sequel to visions of you!
3. chapter three
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Someone once said, "You never know what you've got until it's gone". I had never fully understood this phrase due mostly to the fact that what I'd lost had been a life of pain and confusion. As I sat on the porch of our hotel room just after we'd returned staring out at the moon those words took on a whole new meaning. Never had I imagined my life with the Cullens would suddenly disappear. How could I? They were everything to me. It was unfathomable. Now that it had actually occurred, I was at a loss. I'd always known how precious a gift Alice was. It was for that reason that I strove so desperately to protect her. There were days when she would chastise me for it, uttering that I was an "overprotective fool" and should "take a break before I give myself a headache." With Alice suddenly ripped away, I realized she was even more valuable than I'd given her credit for.
I hardly recognized myself. My eyes were crimson and hard, lacking any emotion other than a slight sadness. My jaw was almost constantly set and the dimpled smile that Alice cherished so much didn't dare grace my features. There was no longer a lock on the cage door of the monster I really was. He was free to come out whenever he saw fit. I felt relieved and it sickened me. The battle within was so faint now, I could barely notice it. I was slowly becoming desensitized to killing. Soon it would be okay. Sure, I would still feel wrong about it due in part to my gift but given time I would become immune to that too.
Something about all this was different than before, however. Despite the slow disappearance of my humanity, it seemed that a few of Alice's holds remained. Would those fade with time as well? A sudden gust of wind to my right and I was no longer alone. I didn't have to glance askance to know it was Nadia. My gaze remained on the stars in the sky as she settled in the adjacent chair to mine. Silence was held between us for a good length of time. Very few humans were wandering the streets below. The sound of shattering glass echoed through the night air followed by the screech of a cat and a woman yelling in Italian. It brought a deep sigh through my tight lips as I felt the anger and frustration wave over me. I closed my eyes and rubbed my forehead in agitation. Slowly, I stretched my gift below and settled calm upon them. The fighting ceased and soon the couple causing the scene disappeared back down another alley.
"Did you do that," Nadia inquired with genuine curiosity.
I gave a stoic nod of my head but didn't remove myself from the position of stress I was in.
"I can see why Maria values you so highly," Nadia continued. "I wondered why she went through such lengths to get you."
Still, I said nothing though I did move to lean forward, resting my elbows on my knees and clasping my hands together.
"You know, you shouldn't let it get to you. Death is a natural part of life…"
"It's not the death that disturbs me," I cut her off, my voice lackluster and deep.
"I'm afraid I don't understand."
I stared at my hands for a moment deliberating my words. Finally they came and the dead look in my eyes deepened, "It's what they feel when they die."
Nadia's brow furrowed in confusion.
I didn't look up from the floor. "I feel everything my victim does as they're dying; every pain, every fear, every single tidbit of emotion."
"Pain isn't an emotion," Nadia stated matter-of-factly.
My eyes shifted up to her in the space of a beat and my voice sharpened. "Have you ever lost someone, Nadia? Someone you loved very much? Is it possible that you've ever been in pain, such terrible pain that you become emotionally distressed? Pain is not an emotion but agony is. When someone grieves over the loss of a loved one they feel an agony, a ripping of the heart." My words were becoming laced with ice. "When they're physically hurt, experiencing excruciating anguish, there is an emotional side that they experience. I may be a lot of things but I'm not cruel. To take joy in causing such a thing is sick and I can't help but regret every single life stolen because of my need to survive!"
"How did you survive before the Cullens?"
"That's just it," I spoke much softer now, looking away from her once again. "I didn't. Just before I wandered into that diner and ran across Alice, I had…I'd tried to commit suicide." Nadia seemed only mildly disturbed by this. "Of course it had failed as it always would. There is only one way to truly ever die for us and at the time and I had no one who would do that for me. Even the Volturi refused. Like Maria before them, they considered my gift too valuable to destroy and I didn't want to kill more humans simply to die myself. It's like there are two parts of me always fighting for dominance. Before Alice, the monster always won. Now that she's gone I fear it will be that way once again."
Nadia was stunned into silence. Sympathy mixed in the air with Palo's curiosity from inside the room. They couldn't understand. No one could ever truly understand. Edward had come the closest to comprehending my troubles and it was for that reason we were so close. I didn't have to justify my actions to him; he understood without question. Maria simply wrote off such things as weakness and decided punishment was the best form of erasing the problem. This practice only made it worse. "Well, you won't have to worry about such things for much longer," Nadia sighed setting a hand atop my arm in an attempt to console me.
"What do you mean," I queried, eying her hand with slight apprehension; Alice was the only person I normally allowed to touch me.
"Maria has ordered me to erase your memory of the Cullens. You won't have to be filled with the anguish of loss any longer."
A sudden fear swept throughout me. Forget the Cullens? It couldn't be done! Though my instincts told me to run, to escape and never look back, I found myself staying put. I could trust Nadia. She wouldn't hurt me. There was no need to run. "You can do that," I asked with genuine interest though I'd rather her erase my memory of Maria.
Nadia gave a soft nod, "Yes, I can. It won't hurt and you won't remember anything afterwards. It will be as if the Cullens never existed."
"Plenty of practice," she smiled.
In a blur, she moved her chair so she was sitting directly in front of me. Everything within me was screaming run but I found myself not moving. She didn't say a word. She simply touched a finger to my temple and suddenly the whole world faded around me and I was lost in a memory.
"Jasper, you know it wasn't your fault," Edward tried to calm me.
Carlisle was upstairs with Bella stitching her wounds while Edward and Alice tried to calm me down. The three of us were on the back porch in the fresh evening air to clear my nose of Bella's scent. Alice and I were on the glider, me in a position of stress with my head in my hands and she beside me, running a hand smoothly between my shoulders. I'd done it again only this time the consequences would have been much worse if I'd succeeded: Edward would have lost Bella. "You can't think like that, Jazz," Edward spoke from where he leaned casually against the rail. "We all had a hard time dealing with the temptation."
"You didn't actually attempt to kill her," I muttered. It had been a decent fifty years. I should be over this by now!
"It was my fault for letting her come," he tried to take the blame.
"And mine for even throwing the party," Alice continued. "Jazz, I should have been watching more carefully."
"You can't blame yourselves," I sighed in exasperation. "No one is at fault but me."
"Well, I did practically throw Bella into all that glass." Edward shrugged as if this made the entire thing his fault.
"But that was only to protect her from me." I hung my head in shame.
Alice's fingers twisted in the curls at the base of my neck. The horror of what I'd nearly done was almost too much. It would have been the equivalent of Edward trying to take Alice from me and yet there he was, as cool as can be, not even a hint of revenge or anger set in his aura. If anything he was only upset with himself. As time dragged on they eventually managed to talk me down. Alice leaned her head against my shoulder and hugged my arm as Edward departed to take Bella home. Through the slight mist in the trees I noted a group of fireflies dancing through the darkness. They seemed to side with Alice, performing pirouettes of hope that never faded. Perhaps Edward was right. It really wasn't entirely my fault.
The memory changed.
I hadn't seen Alice in the longest time. She'd run off to Forks alone to check up on Charlie before jet setting to Italy with Bella. I'd be lying if I said I hadn't been worried. The airport was packed with humans but I'd hunted the previous day so temptation was bearable. All I could think about was the inky black tresses I was scanning the crowd for. "Don't worry," Esme soothed, setting a hand lightly on my shoulder. "She'll be here."
Emmett chuckled from where he sat with Rosalie. He didn't understand how I'd survived the long separation. The answer was simple: patience… and a lot of pacing. Suddenly my head snapped up as I felt a signature of emotions I'd been without for far too long. Edward, Bella and Alice were making their way casually towards us but in that moment I couldn't see anyone but the little pixie at the center. With a bright smile she skipped up to me, dropped her bags and muttered so only I could hear, "Hey stranger."
"Hey yourself," I muttered just as quietly. To anyone observing it would appear as if we weren't speaking at all but simply staring into each other's eyes. I doubted if even our family could hear. "If you ever do that to me again I'll have you court marshaled."
"Don't you have to be in the military for that process to work?" Alice smiled playfully up at me with a devilish sparkle in her eye.
I glanced away for the space of a second before meeting her gaze again. "Then I'll make you clean the bathroom with a toothbrush."
Alice scrunched her nose ever so slightly. "Still wouldn't do you any good. I'd find a way to make it fun."
"Fine then," I smirked, "how about I cancel your credit cards? Would you promise to never run off on your own again?"
Alice's face appeared shocked and she narrowed her eyes infinitesimally but her emotions were still playful. "Have it your way," she smiled, dropping the façade, "but only because I missed you so much."
"Did you now?"
Alice gave a nod. "Just ask Bella. I couldn't shut up about you the whole flight."
"Darlin', it's a miracle if you stop talking for more than a minute."
"Touché; it must have been awfully quiet without me around."
"It was miserable. Don't ever leave me alone with Emmett again. It's frightening."
A bright smile crossed her face as her eyes sparkled. "You missed me."
My gift encompassed her emotions with peace, contentment and how much I cared for her as my eyes softened. This only made her smile all the more. I barely noticed Bella staring at the two of us before she looked away bashfully as though intruding upon something private. I gave a dimpled half smile. My world was once again righted with Alice in my arms. If I could help it, she'd never be out of my sight again.
From that point the memories began flashing by much faster. Alice practically attacking me when we finally made it home, Emmett and I in a tussle after he opened his mouth in a teasing manner about it one too many times, the vote to accept Bella as part of the family, Edward and I on a hunting trip; Alice, Alice and more Alice. Stolen moments, silent conversations, Nadia scanned through them all. Terror consumed me as I realized I was about to forget them forever. As my memory reached the long and passionate kiss that had been my farewell to Alice, Nadia suddenly pulled back as anxiety consumed her.
A dizzy haze consumed me for a moment and I realized that I was breathing heavily from the intrusion. "What's wrong," I queried at her conflicted emotions.
"I can't," she sighed in exasperation speaking at a volume only I could hear. "I just can't... there's too much love… too much hope… it's too beautiful to destroy…"
She was sobbing tearlessly now. I laid a gentle hand atop hers and gazed into her crimson eyes as I quelled her emotions with my gift. "Then don't," I whispered a silent plea.
"But Maria," she began.
I held up my opposite hand and she quieted. "Let me worry about that."
"I'll handle it," I spoke a little sterner. "What Maria forgets is just how strong I am when I've had human blood. I have my own form of manipulation. You won't be harmed. I promise."
Nadia gave a soft nod and relaxed back in her chair as the sliding door opened. "What's going on out here," Palo demanded. "It's much too quiet."
"I'm tryin' to recall how I got here," I lied with ease, meeting the mongrels gaze. "There's a huge black hole and I can't seem to get past it. Do you remember what happened yesterday?"
Palo gave a satisfied smile and shook his head. "Sorry to hear that but I have no idea. Maybe it will come back in time."
Without another word spoken, the beast slid the door shut and retreated back inside the room rather heartlessly. My mind ran back over the memories that had just been revealed to me at random. A slight chagrin presented itself in my emotions at some of the memories that had come forth; they had been intimate moments that weren't meant for anyone else to see. "You really love her don't you," Nadia breathed after a time.
I gave a nod of my head, my eyes still far off.
"I wish there was a way to help you," she sighed looking down at her hands in shame.
"So do I," I mumbled in honesty.
Thoughts mulled over my mind. At least I could still keep Alice in my memory. It would be only too easy to convince everyone else that Nadia had done her job. I just wished I didn't have to. "Actually there is one thing you can do," I breathed as a snap idea struck me like a bolt of lightning.
"What is that?" Nadia's eyes were full of confusion as she met my gaze with glowing red eyes.
"You can seek out Alice and my family for me."
Nadia stared at me for a moment.
"Don't look at me like that," I demanded giving a slight shake of my head. "You do it all the time to check on the Volturi and other problems for Maria."
Nadia sighed in defeat. "Jasper, I've been to the Volturi. I know their signature."
"Are you saying you can't or that you won't?"
"I'm saying I can't." Gently, her hand cupped the smooth contours of my marble cheek. "Without something that directly links back to the individual, I can't get a lock on them. I'm sorry."
I was about to bow my head in defeat when a light bulb seemed to click on in my ever ticking mind. Swiftly, I pulled up the cuff of my jeans and removed my wedding band from the dagger holder. "Will this suffice?"
Nadia stared at the simple gold piece for a moment before taking it in her hand as if judging that it was real. "This is your wedding ring?"
"Then its connection to her should be relatively strong." Nadia seemed to be weighing several factors in her mind. I watched her intently, awaiting an answer. She sighed, "Would you like to see?"
At first, I was taken aback by her question but after a moment I realized I hadn't been imagining it. "What do you mean?"
"Would you like to see your Alice?"
I merely ogled at Nadia for eight seconds before I found my voice. "You're not pullin' my leg are you?"
"I'm not sure I understand that phrase."
"It's not a habit of mine to make jokes, though I do laugh at them."
"If there is any way at all that I can see Alice again, I'll take it." My voice wavered only slightly and the tiniest bit of hope gurgled in my chest. To even see Alice would have an impact on me like nothing else.
Nadia's head moved up and down once. "But you must understand that I can only see what is current. You may not like what is projected. It's been over a month…"
"We've been separated this long before," I spoke rather curtly without meaning to come off as such.
She nodded again. "Very well then; this might make you feel a little sick."
Nadia closed her eyes and clutched the ring delicately in her hand. With a gentle touch, her finger set itself on my temple once more and the world slowly melted away.
Suddenly I was in my old bedroom back in Forks, or so I thought. It seemed that bits and pieces were all I could glimpse at first but slowly the picture began painting itself as though an invisible artist was brushing strokes from somewhere unseen. A long window created a whole side of the room looking out at the beautiful scenery behind the house. The dark wood dresser that matched the four poster bed stood exactly as I'd left it with my cologne, comb and a few trinkets that had sentimental value to me still sitting atop its finish. The wood flooring was lackluster as though it hadn't been polished in ages and had a light film of smut layering its surface. My bookshelf was dusty giving me the impression that Alice refused to touch it. She knew how particular I was about everything being in order. The lavender shade of the walls matched the bedspread she had picked out. I recalled the day we'd bought it. I'd told her to pick whatever she wanted, that I'd be okay as long as she gave me a few spaces all to myself. The door to the closet was left half cracked leaving its large interior mostly closed to my vision. The little bit I did glimpse concerned me. It was disorganized and helter-skelter, a state that Alice would never let it fall into on a normal day. She prided herself in keeping her wardrobe pristine.
The image continued to color in as I watched in amazement. Was this really what it looked like at this instant? The bedside clock face became visible showing three forty-three P.M. Last time I'd checked the time where I was it had been half past midnight. With a time difference of nine hours it was conceivable that I was viewing a live feed, so to speak, of my home in the state of Washington. "She's been like that for three days," Edward's voice misted to my ears. Been like what? I couldn't see anyone to speak of. Almost as if the painter could hear my thoughts, Alice slowly materialized like a mirage on the horizon of an empty desert. She was curled up in my reading chair just near the bookshelf. Her make-up hadn't been reapplied in days, her pixie hair was more windswept than usual and her eyes looked dead. Clutched in the vice of her hands was my jacket, her favorite one. It probably still smelled like me due to how often I wore it. She stared at its fabric as though it was a dead animal she couldn't let go. "Three days?" Bella's voice followed this. Where were they?
My question was answered shortly thereafter as their forms, too, faded into view. They were walking slowly across the room towards Alice's frail looking form. Edward nodded. The couple stopped just in front of my wife. I couldn't believe what I was seeing. "Alice?" Bella's voice wavered slightly. Alice showed no sign that she'd heard. "Alice you've got to snap out of this, okay?" Bella laid a hand gently on her friends shoulder.
"I can't save him," Alice whispered almost inaudibly. "Even if we find him, it's too late."
Bella sighed and sat on the armrest, draping her arms consolingly around the vampire before her.
"It's not too late," Edward countered. "I saw the vision, Alice. He refuses to let you go. If I know Jasper, he'll soldier through until we get there."
"He's going to keep killing until there's nothing left of his soul to regain." Alice hugged my jacket closer to herself, sobbing tearlessly.
Bella hugged her all the tighter. Alice leaned against Bella and I couldn't help but be appreciative of the human's involvement in our family. "His eyes were full of so much hurt," she sobbed. "I can't take this any longer. We have to find him!"
Edward sat on the edge of the bed and folded his hands. A thrill of hope ran through me at the prospect that I wasn't forgotten but my heart ached at seeing Alice so broken. "We will," Edward spoke slowly, enunciating each syllable. "We know he's in Europe somewhere, we just have to figure out where. In the meantime, you need to pull yourself together. Jasper wouldn't want you to stop living in his absence."
"I can't." She gave a tiny shake of her head. "I just can't…"
"Try Alice," Edward begged softly. "Pretend he's on a long hunting trip if you must. You can't find him if you sit in this chair for the rest of eternity."
Her shoulders racked with sobs but after a few moments she took a deep breath and nodded her head. It was the same nod she'd given when she'd tried to give up shopping for a week. This was harder for her on the inside than she was making it seem. Alice held fast to Bella's arm clearly appreciative of the humans support. Edward sighed, probably at her thoughts, and looked down at his hands. "I'll give you some time. I know what you saw was a shock, even more so for you than me." His eyes shifted up to her. "We will find him, Alice, even if we have to scour the whole of Europe country by country."
"What if he doesn't want to come home," she queried trying to hide her fear but I recognized it in her eyes.
"Alice, are you kidding me?" Bella replied, rubbing the vampires shoulder consolingly. "Jasper looks at you as though you're his whole world. He cares about you more than anything. He wouldn't give you up. It's impossible."
"Thanks Bella." Alice managed a weak smile, her eyes wandering up to meet the brown hues of the compassionate human. All my doubts about Bella were erased in that moment and I appreciated her more than I ever had before. Edward sighed and his brow furrowed in thought. "Edward?" Bella's orbs landed on him inquisitively.
"They killed human's for plane tickets which is why we couldn't track them but nothing has come up on the news about bodies being found. It's been over a month. Something isn't adding up."
"What do you mean?" Alice seemed to have reigned herself in enough, ready to crack this thing wide open and bring me home.
"She has help."
"Well we know that," Alice sighed. "We saw that Indian vampire and Victoria."
"There's a fourth member of her team," Edward breathed, "one we haven't met yet."
"How can you be sure," Bella questioned in confusion.
"According to Alice's vision, Victoria was busy getting the car. If Maria was still with Jasper at the theater than someone had to get the plane tickets and dispose of the bodies. The vision she had of them on the plane was garbled. Maria kept changing her mind about where they were going, her words were slurred. When they landed, a werewolf met them at the gate, blocking Jasper's future entirely. I'm almost certain that only three plane tickets were attained which means…"
"… The fourth contact is still here somewhere," Alice whispered out in wonder.
Edward nodded once, Bella's mouth was slightly agape. "We have to tell Carlisle," Alice demanded suddenly ghosting to her feet. She left a kiss on Edward's cheek, "Thank you!" In a blur she departed the room and everything faded to black.
It felt as though I'd crash landed on an alien planet where there was no gravity or oxygen when Nadia finally let go and the world around me came back. I rested my head in my hand in an attempt to make the world stop spinning. My mind was ticking so fast I almost couldn't keep up with its pace. Relief minimally spread over me now that I knew for certain they weren't giving up the search. I just had to ensure I was worth finding when they finally pieced it all together. Nadia was merely staring at me in shock. There was a fourth player in this game but who were they? Why had they stayed behind? "I have to get out of here," I mumbled almost incoherently.
"How?" Nadia shrugged. "If you try to leave, Maria will just kill you and then your Alice will have nothing to rescue."
"I'm stronger than I have been. Victoria and Palo underestimate me."
"What aren't you telling me?"
Nadia's brow knit together and she stared at me as though I was crazy.
"You're tryin' to cover somethin' up," my accent became stronger as my anger fueled my words, "and I want to know what it is."
"I'm not trying to…"
"Don't give me that bull!" My voice didn't travel above a whisper but it was still icy in its hissing. "I happen to have a knack for knowin' when someone is lyin' to me and you're doing so right now."
Nadia sighed and looked away.
"You know exactly what's goin' on, don't you? Why am I here, Nadia? Why was my entire world ripped away from me?"
The crimson orbs set in her delicate face flitted to the door as if ensuring no one was there. They rested on me once more as a slight shame encompassed her aura. "Yes, I do."
"Tell me," I demanded.
"I don't know if I…"
"Tell me or you're about to fall into the worst state of depression ever known to man." Normally I wouldn't dare threaten a woman but this was a crisis in the works. I had to get to the bottom of this so I could go home.
"You wouldn't." Nadia voiced seemingly affronted.
"I don't think you or anyone else on this team fully understands who they're dealin' with. The scariest thing about me is that I would. I've done worse things in the past to get the job done. If I were you I wouldn't test my patience."
Nadia gave a nod of her head as she contemplated my words. Other vampires often underestimated my capabilities and wound up between a rock and a hard place, many of them losing their lives in the process. I hated to be cruel to Nadia after she had done something so kind for me but this was business. A lot of people could die if I didn't find a way to stop it. "The other contact is named Braxton Harris…" She began but I cut her off.
"Braxton Harris? As in the Braxton Harris? That two timin', yellow bellied Yankee scum, Braxton Harris?"
"I don't know what any of that means, but yes, I think." Nadia's eyebrows joined together as she stared at me like I was an insane man, which, given the circumstances, was highly probable.
Braxton Harris, a southern deserter who joined the Union Army before I'd even thought of joining the war. He'd managed to survive it until 1864 when Maria decided she wanted more military help after finding great success with me. That was probably the biggest mistake of her career. The two of us couldn't stand each other and arguments broke out frequently. I was technically the second in command back then but he didn't see it that way. He refused to listen to an "abolitionist dog" and questioned my authority on countless occasions. It didn't help my position any that Maria had once allowed him to punish me for not following orders to a T. His ability was even more horrid than mine. He could get sense people's worst fears and then get into their heads to make them live it. If he was still hanging around Forks, my family was in for a lot of trouble without me there to help. "What else do you know?" I pressed, "Tell me everything."
"Maria said something about making it bigger this time. She said she had to have you or the plan would never work. That was when she began devising a plan to get you away from the Cullens. She knew that you would never leave them of your own accord. When you left Washington with Alice at your side, she knew she would have to try something different. Alice was like a vicious lioness over your protection and Maria was concerned about being followed. It was too big of a risk and so she returned to Forks. She tracked Bella's scent to your home and knew the human spent considerable time there. She thought if she ensnared the human she could lure you to her. This plan was slightly flawed when your brother showed up…"
"How do you know about all of this? You weren't there."
"I was watching from here," She smiled in satisfaction. "Anyway… she took your brother too sensing that the bond between you must be strong. She had difficulty controlling the human. It was as though her gift didn't work. She did, however, manage to manipulate her through simple suggestion. Not as powerful as connecting to the mind but on a human it's very effective." I nodded in understanding as she continued. "Bella let slip that Alice couldn't see past the wolves. Maria decided to strike a deal with them. They lure you away from the safety of the Cullens and she would leave town. Unfortunately, the exchange didn't go the way she'd hoped. The fine print of the treaty didn't allow the wolves to hand you over. They were trying to find a way to get around it when the Cullens stole you back. Maria was furious at the failure of this plan. That was when Victoria suggested threatening your family…"
"Victoria suggested it?" Things were beginning to make much better sense now but I didn't like the picture any of this was building to.
Nadia gave a single nod. "Yes. She told Maria to convince the wolves that since you were threatening the safety of Forks but keeping her around, you were, in some twisted way, breaking the treaty. The wolves decided she was right, with a little help from her gift of course. They have a lot more dignity than one might originally think. At first, they objected in whole to the idea but Maria won in the end."
"She always does," I murmured somewhat somberly.
"Braxton retrieved the plane tickets for Maria while Victoria secured a car. He delivered them to Victoria before going his own way."
"Do really believe Maria just let him go?"
"Yes… why not? He did his job."
"Listen, darlin', if there's one thing I know about Maria it's that she doesn't take prisoners and she doesn't let someone with valuable information just leave. When we were at it the last time she had Peter and I destroy all the newborns after a year. None of them were allowed to live. He's up to something."
"She let you go," Nadia observed.
"No, I ran away and disappeared. If I don't want to be found, it's impossible to track me. She gave up looking and eventually the wars ceased and she didn't need me any longer."
"I see," she nodded looking away. "And then you met Alice?"
The sea sick feeling had faded into the background. I hadn't been paying it much attention at any rate. There had to be a way to get to Alice. Maybe I could find a way to give her a hint. There were still quite a few puzzle pieces missing. Why was Maria going through all this trouble in the first place? And why on earth was she conducting it in the Volturi's backyard? She was smarter than that. Unless… unless she wanted them to notice something. "Nadia, I need you to tell me exactly what Maria is up to."
"You'll find out in due time, mi amor," A voice rang out from the door.
I jumped slightly and held my head in my hands as I tried to pull myself back together.
"Lo siento," Maria apologized. "I didn't mean to startle you."
Nadia clasped her hands together on her lap and I knew at once that she was hiding my ring. I decided to distract Maria. "Why am I here? I don't remember coming here but I don't remember where I've been either."
Maria seemed to smile in satisfaction as she blurred to my side and smoothed my hair in a consoling manner. "You hit your head rather hard. It must have damaged your memory. Give it time to heal."
I nodded as she planted a soft kiss on my cheek. I resisted the urge to cringe knowing that, had things worked, I wouldn't be repulsed by the action. Nadia was staring at the floor looking guilty as though she'd done what she'd been asked. It was enough to fool my former commander. "I'll let you two remain here while I finish some plans. I have something for you when you're done brooding, Jasper."
Though I was curious, I didn't look it. Instead I nodded once as I would have back when it all started. Would I be able to play along without losing myself? "From this point on, you will follow every order to a T," Maria whispered in my mind. "No exceptions…"
I blinked in confusion for a moment as the idea latched on to my mind unable to be removed by anyone but Maria. I'd barely noticed what she'd ordered, a side effect after being subject to such treatment for near a hundred years. My mind would simply follow through and I'd never be any the wiser. Alice had better hurry or her worst fear could very well be realized. After too much rearranging, I may not want to come home. The thought frightened me.
Maria retreated back inside and began conferring with Victoria and Palo in hushed tones. What did it all mean? I'd found the majority of the puzzle pieces but it seemed Maria was still holding the Ace in her hand. Nadia couldn't tell me anything more with Maria and Victoria so close by. Their hearing was much more acute than Palo's. Once she was sure the coast was clear, Nadia held my ring out to me and placed it gently in the palm of my hand. With care, she closed my hand around it and held my grip for a moment looking me straight in the eyes speaking so low I almost didn't hear her. "Don't forget her, Jasper. I did not understand why you couldn't let her go but now I can see. She brings you to life. What you share with your Alice is one of the rarest types of love ever to be found on this earth. Whatever you have to do, don't lose it."
"I won't," I whispered, "I can promise you that." Despite the emptiness I felt inside after the events of the day, there was something inside me that burned with hope. They wouldn't give up, I knew that now. If it took another century to find me, they would keep looking. I'd seen it in Alice's eyes; desperation, love and longing. Maria had been right not to take me with Alice close at my side. She was indeed an angered lioness at this moment and Maria would have lost her head had she tried to attack me with my wife beside me. That was Maria's biggest flaw. She couldn't understand love, true love, the kind that's unconditional and lasts forever, even beyond death. Did she really believe she could just whisk me away and Alice would just move on? The next few weeks, months, years and possibly decades would be the most difficult I would ever have to face. Even with hope to cling to, I would still be hurt every time I took a life. It would make me think of Alice and how she'd worked so hard to help me change. I would still become at least half of the monster I once was but in the end, it would all be okay. Alice would find me. Alice always found me. If she had rescued me from this once before, I had faith that she could do it again. All I had to do was wait.