A girl who is both death and the maiden
She is no bigger than a child, with round eyes. He finds her wandering around nowhere, Mississippi, and lures her back home, like a starving kitten. He expects nothing of her, truly, except another body for Maria’s campaign.
Maria is suspicious of the tiny, bewildered girl, who has no memories of her humanity, of her change or the burning. The only thing she has, other than eyes that pierce right down to whatever remains of his soul, is a ragged hospital gown with ‘Mary-Alice’ written on it in smeared ink.
Whether or not it was her name when she was alive, it is her name now.
No one expects her to survive training, but somehow she makes it right through to a battle, darting and spinning through the fighters. Her dress is shredded to ribbons, and there is a ragged bite to her arm, but she lives to watch the victory pyre stoked and burning.
It is only then that he learns about her gift; Maria is delighted, of course. Mary-Alice is vague about how it works; she describes it as the ability to make the right choice - knowing where it is safe to run in a battle, knowing how to move to avoid destruction. But no matter how she tries, she cannot see those choices for anyone else. No matter how Maria coerces, threatens, demands, Mary-Alice’s gift is for Mary-Alice only.
But it serves her well, as she becomes deliciously lethal, spinning, twirling and then tearing her victim apart. It is made sweeter by the fact that she looks so sweet and innocent, with her beautiful eyes and doll-like build, clad in dresses that never quite fit right, barefoot and gnawing on her bottom lip.
He is lost before it even begins.
She becomes a balm for his misery, her dreamy countenance and innocence. In his room, she will perch on the window sill, twisting bits of paper through her fingers, into roses and small birds, butterflies and boats. She offers him some comfort in the wake of the loss of Peter.
He thinks about confiding in her, in a moment of weakness, that he let Peter and Charlotte leave instead of tearing them apart. That Peter was a pillar of strength he never truly acknowledged until it was gone. But looking at tiny Mary-Alice, with her oddly reflective eyes and childlike demeanour, he couldn’t confess. He couldn’t condemn her to Maria’s retribution if the truth came out, and Mary-Alice knew anything about it.
Maria had a talent for knowing the truth from a lie, and he never wanted Mary-Alice in her firing line.
And that is how they continue. A girl with her head in the clouds and a disturbing talent for battle, and a hollowed-out soldier with a death wish.
He barely remembers how it begins; he has to trace the nights and days back through his mind to figure it out. His constant shadow, Mary-Alice, and more battles. Maria has long since cast him from her bed, and he has no time or energy to block his gift long enough to bed one of the newborns.
So, when the battle against Paolo’s goes far too well (it is a slaughter, over in seconds, because Paolo is obsessed with the idea of a strong, aged army rather than the proven strength and viciousness of newborns and, well, Maria had made it clear that she would not tolerate anyone questioning her boundaries) and they are all full of adrenaline; an animalistic wildness that swallows up Maria’s army. They stoke the victory pyre, burn the remains, and there is a great and terrible joy that dawn.
He kisses her once, deeply. She nearly falls off the railings she is perched on, at the sudden intrusiveness of his kiss. Only his hand resting against the small of her back stops her from tumbling into the dirt. She blinks curiously at him when he pulls away, studying him carefully.
But before anything else can happen, some of the newborns are fighting, and it is enough to draw his attention to break it up. She watches him go, irritation obvious in his every movement. He is low on patience, the wildness still thrumming through all of them, and when the newborns challenge him, riled up and wanting to fight, he simply destroys both of them, and strides away.
It is little loss. The news of Paolo’s spectacular defeat will spread, and no other armies have approached in months. The end of the summer is approaching; the one-year mark upon them. They may not even dull this pyre, leave it to burn the ones that are no longer useful. Maria dislikes relighting the fires.
If nothing else, it cautions the rest of them not to defy the Major, no matter how thick the venom runs.
She pads into his room late in the afternoon, cloth pulled tightly over the windows; Maria has always been insistent of the debilitating effect the sun has on the strength of their skin, on their long-term health. It is why the younger ones are kept in the barns or in the basement, where they cannot do anything foolish.
“Darlin’,” he calls to her, his voice low and alluring, from where he sits on the old daybed, a book carelessly tossed aside. Fresh blood thrums inside of him, and she has always been beautiful, graceful, untouchable.
Her eyes are so red, the colour looks flat and dull, as if all light has fled from the blood. She perches carefully on the daybed beside him, in her filthy dress, her funny short hair brushing her cheeks, and that look of curiosity in her eyes.
He’s going to hate himself for this later, he knows. He’ll add it to the list of despicable things that he’s done; he needs this more than ever. The touch of someone familiar (perhaps even trusts), the distraction, the satisfaction, when all he can offer is corruption.
He still does it, and it isn’t slow and kind. His hand is behind her head, pulling her into another terrible kiss, as the other slides under the dress. And as soon as he knows she won’t pull away, he drops his hand from her head, and begins to peel back her clothing, urgency and desire building too fast for him to control himself.
After all, he lured this girl out of the woods and into a war. Why shouldn’t he finish the job, and deflower and debase her, as well?
He expected Mary-Alice to cower from him after that first encounter; one that left the bedframe twisted and mangled, and him more agitated than ever. But Mary-Alice had said nothing against him; he had long noticed that the girl kept her own confidences. She still shadowed him, still sought him out and folded her paper creations, and fought like a demon possessed, and he could almost forgive himself for the bites he carelessly left upon her body.
He doesn’t forgive himself for helping himself to her again and again; somehow, the touches become less demanding and more adoring; the kisses deeper and slower, the nights shorter. She smiles at him more, twists her fingers in his hair, and even talks to him.
They talk about anything and everything – books, history, music, war. Her laugh is like soft bells, and he savours it.
He’s not in love with her, no. She is just a balm for his misery.
There is only Maria to worry about. She will not tolerate their bond, this small sanctuary from their realities. Anything that could threaten their loyalty to her is unacceptable, and he has no doubts that Maria would toss Mary-Alice on the fires before she ever let him out of her grasp.
But when he confides this to Mary-Alice, she blinks at him and smiles slyly – a foreign expression, but one that intrigues him. It takes practically no effort to set up Maria to walk in on them – or rather, to see the Major slaking his lust with one of his inferiors on her knees. He orders and snaps at her, and Mary-Alice nods and ducks and obeys without flinching, and he hates the look of satisfaction on Maria’s face as he dismisses the diminutive creature with a wave of his hand and not so much as a glance.
He loathes himself, this ridiculous charade, and everything about this hellish life.
It is a day in late fall, when the winds are blowing south, and Maria has intelligence that the Louisiana coven is on the move. They are crafty, manipulative, a worthy foe they’ve beaten back many times but never truly defeated.
If they had, there wouldn’t even be a Louisiana coven. Live or die – those are the only prizes in war.
She appears like a ghost, her mouth twisted down and her eyes dark.
“The answer is ‘yes’,” she says to him in a low voice. “Do not even question it.”
He looks up from where he is repairing his boots; Maria has been testing them, sending Mary-Alice back to the barracks in the barn, as fit her position; to make sure that he does not see the girl as anything special. That his loyalty to Maria is not wavering.
To see her here and now is a risk.
“What are you doing up here?” he asks, his voice streaked with irritation, out of concern.
“When it happens, you will know, and the answer is ‘yes’. It’s the only way you’ll live,” she says sharply.
“Get out of here,” he grunts at her. “Maria ordered you out.”
“I can take care of myself,” she enunciates. “Swear you’ll say yes.”
“Go!” he yells, and she vanishes, like a ghost.
It’s the last thing he ever says to her.
When Peter reappears three days later, on the very edge of Maria’s land, he couldn’t be more stunned. He had always held little hope that he and Charlotte would survive without crossing another coven, being dragged into another army, without finding death on foreign territory. But he had to give them that chance. That sliver of hope. Even just to die together, on their own terms.
Peter looks well, with bright eyes and new clothes, and speaks with an eagerness and urgency. Maria’s territory stretches from Monterrey to Laredo to Corpus Christi, and he’s left Charlotte just outside Laredo, so he hasn’t got long.
They came back for him. For the one that nearly destroyed both of them.
Peter promises him no fighting, no terror; just nomadic peace. Freedom from Maria’s tyranny, from the constant struggle for territory. The wars are unique to the south; north is the paradise they all hoped for – no battles, no fighting, less sun. A virtual vampiric Eden.
“Will you come with us?” Peter asks, looking almost hopeful.
The closest thing he has to a brother has just travelled back down into hell to retrieve him, dragged his mate with him, to certain death if they are unlucky.
“The answer is ‘yes’. Do not even question it.”
Mary-Alice’s words come back to him instantly, as if she is standing behind him, and he doesn’t understand how she knew this was going to happen. How lost he is to make the decision. Why he believes her, and when did he started trusting her completely?
“I can take care of myself. Swear you’ll say yes.”
“Okay,” he tells Peter, and his fate is sealed. “Okay. Let’s go.”
And they run.
In the years that pass, and everything that happens to him, he carries Mary-Alice with him; an invisible shadow. Another mark against him, abandoning her to that hell without a second thought.
Once, he tried to imagine how she was there; but the side of him that is cold and unrelenting, all about strategy, firmly tells him that she would be dead. Maria had a fierce temper, had destroyed others for looking at her wrong at a bad time; if she had a clue that Mary-Alice knew an inkling about his disappearance… and even then, it took only a second to slip in battle.
He hoped her death had been quick, something she never saw coming.
He’s sorrier than anyone will ever know that he didn’t take her with him, that she will never know the peace of the north, and the kindness of the Cullens. He’s sorry he ever found her that night long ago, and thought taking her back to Monterrey was a good idea.
The sorrow sits upon him like a mantle, and pushes him forwards.
Mary-Alice died for his freedom, for his survival, and he will never dishonour such a gift with his weakness, to ever give in to temptation.
This was never his life to waste.