Seven. Strange things do happen. They happen all the time.
He’s never been one to struggle with words.
It has taken time to piece himself together in that way - so much of his previous life was relying on instinctual cues, on the side of their nature that is so foreign and inhuman - a growl or hiss; the tilt of a head, and the shift in the centre of gravity. It was the language he was raised back up with; words were secondary, for more complex tasks.
It took time to remember that the Cullens, they used words first, last, and always. And he’s not a big talker, but when he does speak - discussions about philosophy with Carlisle, technology with Rosalie, times gone by with Esme - he doesn’t struggle with finding the words.
And when it comes to judging the legitimacy of the Cullens’ act, school report cards are always a good jumping-off point (after which, Emmett absconds with them for some unspoken purpose that will either be hilarious or humiliating). ‘Isolated’, ‘solitary’, ‘anti-social’ are his common descriptors. And in the early days, Jasper always got the dreaded letter from the administration, demanding intervention and human therapy and parental consultations. But time moves on, and so did he, and now those reports use words like ‘verbose’, ‘articulate’, and ‘eloquent’ to balance out everything else. And that feels like some kind of achievement when he tries so hard to be invisible every time he sets foot on another campus.
So, faced with her - his personal ghost of regret, his sacrificial offering to the gaping maw of the Southern Wars - he’s not entirely sure why he doesn’t know what to say.
Is it because there are so many - too many - questions he needs to ask, questions that are practical and justified and full of information that the Cullens and the wolves deserve to know, and questions that he needs to swallow down until they are alone in the dark and can be asked in voices too hushed to be overheard?
Or is it because there really isn’t anything to say. She’s alive, and she’s here to help.
(Not a ghost or a sacrifice after all; an avenging angel, his very own Soteria.)
Somehow he manages to find his words - “Mary-Alice,” he says, her name warm and satisfying in his mouth, a name he hasn’t spoken in so long - and it’s mostly practicalities because the wolves are angry, angry at her red eyes and foreign scent smothered down by Bella’s erstwhile sweater, angry at the blood on her clothes. They prowl closer, rumbling and growling, and there is human loathing and animal rage in their eyes but he can’t say the dark, resentful looks Mary-Alice is throwing in their direction are any less threatening.
“Please,” Carlisle is the first one to intervene. “We’re all here for the same goal. We are on the same side.”
Edward winces at whatever thoughts the wolves throw out. “They… aren’t happy.”
One of the wolves snaps in Mary-Alice’s direction, and she hisses back. Bella gasps from behind him, an instinctual reaction. Edward’s gaze snaps back to check on the human girl, and he is on edge.
“An amnesty,” Carlisle pleads again. “Mary-Alice will abstain from feeding from humans whilst she is here; she will abide by the Treaty. She is here to help.”
He feels a flutter of… not quite caution, but reservation, when Carlisle says that; that the doctor perhaps is not certain of Mary-Alice’s motivations but will keep his worries close for now because, simply, he is Carlisle and he believes in the goodness of people.
The wolves are settling, and Mary-Alice has moved no closer, and Jasper is sending out gentle strands of agreeability, of peace. He has no doubt that Mary-Alice will vanish like smoke the very second she thinks the wolves are a genuine threat.
“We need her,” Edward says to something unspoken. “She has the same training as my brother; Mary-Alice has tilted the scales in our favour. Another trained soldier is the difference between all of us walking away or none of us. Are you willing to take that chance? Are you willing to risk Forks? The Reservation?”
“Mary-Alice,” Carlisle jumps in, turning towards the girl, still lingering in the shadows. “We have a treaty with the traditional owners of this land, that we will keep within a boundary line, and that we do not harm or feed from any humans. They keep within their side of the boundary line, and leave us be.”
“The wolves request you … renounce the hunting and consumption of human blood henceforth,” Edward dutifully repeats, but with a doubtful look on his face.
Mary-Alice snorts, and leans against the tree, wordlessly.
“A compromise, then. Mary-Alice agrees to abstain from the hunting and consumption of human blood and maintain our treaty with you until such time that Victoria and the newborns are taken care of. Then, if Mary-Alice wishes to remain or return to the area, we will renegotiate,” Carlisle interjects, his hands outstretched in a pleading gesture, hoping the wolves will see reason, hoping there is some kind of agreement that can be made. This is their Hail Mary, and they cannot, cannot let this opportunity slip through their fingers.
Edward looks to the wolves for a moment before Sam evidently concedes.
Mary-Alice’s eyes bore into Carlisle’s for a moment, Edward getting a strange expression on his face.
“Yes. I agree to maintain your treaty for the time being,” she says, blinking her bright red eyes slowly. She’s fed recently, Jasper realises. It buys her time, then, and he hopes the wolves don’t realise what that luminous scarlet colour indicates.
She steps out of the shadows, her gaze flicking over the gathering, over each wolf and each Cullen without so much as a wisp of emotion or twitch of her face.
Rosalie’s glare is hard enough to strip flesh from bone, and Esme smiles the very same smile she once offered to him, the benevolence and kindness floating off her in waves. Bella is tucked firmly between Esme and Emmett, her gaze fixed beyond Mary-Alice, occasionally flicking up to the look at the newcomer. That is when the tang of her fear hits him - she is is completely and utterly terrified of the diminutive newcomer. The last time he felt this note of fear from Bella was when they were approaching the ballet studio where James was holding her.
He doesn’t understand why she would scare Bella so badly; she cannot see the scars scattered on her skin, and the blood on her clothing is dried and well-hidden beneath a layer of grime and wear. She isn’t smiling or behaving aggressively; perhaps it’s the red eyes that has triggered Bella, so unfamiliar with the typical and mundane vampire?
He cannot figure it out.
Esme says something to her, and Mary-Alice murmurs one-word responses, her eyes unfocusing for a split-second - just like the old days. Another choice for her to make, another flip of her coin. It’s almost reassuring seeing that look on her face, reminds him of easier times. The odd little gift guided her to him - to their aid - safely, despite Maria, despite the wolves, despite Victoria.
Then things change sharply.
Edward jerks around hissing, in the middle of a conversation with the wolves and Carlisle, his eyes wide and startled. Emmett and Rosalie tense in sync, and Esme tucks Bella behind her, the human girl’s hands clasped between both of hers. He angles himself closer to Mary-Alice, and he’s ready to put his brother through a tree if he turns this into a fight.
Edward doesn’t lunge.
He is completely and utterly flabbergasted, his mouth opening and closing as he tries to comprehend and find the words for whatever he has plucked out of Mary-Alice’s head. Emmett starts to snigger at how graceless their most uptight brother currently looks, whilst the wolves rumble at the sudden change in atmosphere, at whatever has Edward reacting in such a way.
“She’s gifted,” Edward finally manages, and Mary-Alice blinks lazily at him.
“How else would I have survived?” Only a whisper of a southern accent remains, and the faintest hint of amusement brushes up against him, like a mercurial feline.
Edward is all puffed up, and halfway between incredulousness and outrage, before he turns on him. “Did you know?”
(It’s a good thing that they have photographic memories because he wants to bask in the memory of Edward’s ridiculousness later, when he has time to truly appreciate it. And it probably wouldn’t have been appropriate to request Emmett to film it on his phone. His brother looks like an indignant hen, and if Bella still follows Edward with hearts in her eyes after this, well, love truly is blind.)
“That Mary-Alice is gifted? Of course.” As he says the words, he can taste guilt in the air – just the faintest strand, along with slight smugness, perhaps even slightly impish. And then there is worry, and utterly nothing.
“She can see the future.” The words are like barbs, coming out of Edward’s mouth, and Mary-Alice looks away.
There is dead silence, and again, he is lost for words, as so many things come sharply into focus and he understands.
Her skill in battle, and quiet, consistent survival.
“The answer is ‘yes’. Do not even question it.”
Her survival of the Southern Wars.
Her appearance at the eleventh hour.
He turns to her, and it takes her a moment before she can meet his gaze again, the truth there for all to see.
And he understands.
What would Maria have done for a soldier who could see the future?
What would any of the Southern Warlords have done?
What would the Volturi do?
Mary-Alice provides very few details to an admittedly-eager Carlisle, beyond some waspish muttering about not being able to see around the wolves.
“Every moment, there are millions of variables that affect the future,” she shrugs her thin shoulders. “Very few things are set in stone.”
“Can you see the outcome of Victoria’s campaign?” Esme asks, so hopefully.
“No.” Her answer is flat and final, and she narrows her eyes as one of the wolves - Seth Clearwater, he thinks - shifts closer.
“Well then, we still need to train,” Carlisle says finally. “Jasper?”
Somehow, he pulls himself together enough to begin directing the lesson on newborns and their defence. Mary-Alice offers no particular insights, and there is something reassuring in the fact that his old techniques remain worthy enough. She perches on a boulder, her head tilted slightly as he has his family members go through the motions.
Her expression flickers as she watches the Cullens train; wisps of frustration, disdain, and determination brush past him before being called back, but she says nothing. He watches the way her gaze keeps sliding back to Esme, and he wonders what she’s seeing, thinking, that makes Esme important.
“No one hits you.”
Everyone freezes when she speaks, and they automatically look over at Rosalie, who has Carlisle in the dirt in front of her, but Mary-Alice’s gaze is still boring into Esme.
Esme offers an embarrassed smile and looks at Edward, who looks ready to murder Mary-Alice on the spot.
“They’re trying to protect me,” Esme explains. “My husband, when I was human…”
“Oh, I don’t care,” Mary-Alice says crisply. “Newborns won’t either. They’ll hit you, and bite you and rip you into pieces for the fire - if you don’t know how to take that hit.” She looks imperiously at Edward. “Hit her.”
Esme looks startled, Edward’s rage is pouring off him, Carlisle looks stern, and even Emmett’s good mood has dampened with her sharp little words.
But after that, her eyes pass over Esme without a second thought.
Finally, the demonstrations have run their course; Emmett’s shirt is shredded, Esme is fussing over a crack across Carlisle’s nose, and the wolves seem to have learnt something, as he corrected form and warned them away from innocent actions that leave them vulnerable.
Keep moving, don’t turn your back, don’t let them get their arms around you. The old lessons.
But the Cullens are new to this; newborns are one thing. Victoria is another, a creature of a different breed, old enough to know how to fight. And whilst he is optimistic that it will be him that faces down the redhead, he needs to be realistic. They need to know what she will be.
“Mary-Alice, would you care to demonstrate?”
She slides off the boulder as he explains that Mary-Alice will be a closer approximation to Victoria’s potential skill level, when he really just wants to … not test her, because she has lived so long in the Southern Wars, she is undoubtedly skilled. But he wants them all to see; both her and her maddening skill, and the viciousness and the violence that is coming their way.
She pauses opposite him for a split-second, and then they both move. Fingers graze clothing and flesh, hair whips against faces, teeth snap. They duck and twist and twirl, locked into an unwinnable game of tag. The directness of her attack is unexpected; she usually held back, waiting for the slip, the moment of no-return.
But so much time has passed, and now she is fatal; a divine heart-attack who would rend flesh from bone and head from body before she has even finished her sweet little pirouette.
At a human pace, the fight would have been tedious; at vampire-speed, it is a tangle of near-misses and precise choreography. And just as suddenly it ends: her hands clamped just below his jaw in an inescapable grip; her knee pinned by his foot, his teeth a hairs-width from her throat. They are in checkmate; in a battle situation, the winner would be declared by sheer momentum.
He taps out, and she pulls back instantly, standing up before he can offer her his hand. The hem of her old dress has torn and is hanging loose; he feels bad for ruining her dress.
Bella is bone white, the wolves are still, and the rest of the Cullens have nothing to say.
The wolves finally depart, less jovial and energetic than when they arrived, the reality of the situation weighing them down, and he feels guilty for burdening them with this — he’s not the only one, either.
Mary-Alice stands separately from the Cullens, playing with a rancid pom-pom attached to her hoodie, staring into space. Before he can approach her, Emmett bounds over with the easy friendliness that Jasper recognises from his own early meetings with the man - Emmett hasn’t forgotten what she said to Esme, but he has already filed it away as being cruel to be kind. Any friend of his family wouldn’t be intentionally hurtful.
“So…” Emmett begins, clasping her on the shoulder, but he never finishes the sentence because Mary-Alice twists out from under his hand, snarling and falling into a crouch.
It is like a chemical reaction - Emmett jerks backwards quickly, hands held up, certainly no stranger to hurt, defensive women; Rosalie growls low at the threat to her mate but her emotions give away her recognition of Mary-Alice’s reaction on an instinctual level; Bella flinches backwards into Edward, who curls his body around his lady love with a snarl.
Carlisle and Esme freeze, wondering where to intervene first - which point do they, can they, neutralise first?
And he is not close enough to grab her, to restrain her or protect her or defend Emmett.
She backs up, her eyes hard, but her body relaxing somewhat. But her gaze is steadily fixed on Emmett, a warning and a precaution. His sheer size is a deterrent to most, but to a solider, to a woman (to the wounded), he is a nearly unconquerable threat.
“I should know better than doing that to a soldier,” Emmett says, clearly unoffended by Mary-Alice’s reaction. “You should have seen Jas when he first got here; it was hilarious.”
He wants to roll his eyes, because they are some of Emmett’s favourite stories. Back in his earliest days with the family, when he would slink from room to room and spend all his time making sure that no one could come up behind him or catch him unaware, Emmett would prank him in the dumbest ways - a whoopee cushion hidden in his preferred chair had sent him through a window; a feather flicked across the room to land on his shoulder had him perched on top of the couch like an aggravated cat. Carlisle had tried his hardest to dissuade Emmett’s practical jokes, but in the end they had been good for him - a way for Emmett to ‘play’, to extend brotherhood, and to reinforce to Jasper he was harmless. And it had helped him get used to all the little unexpected stimulants that a household of six produced.
A ghost of a smile flicks across Mary-Alice’s face for a moment, but he is struck by her reaction, by her ferocity and anger. She’s on edge, hyperaware, and, he realises suddenly, surrounded by a coven she knows nothing about. Not only surrounded, but offered to help with no trade, no guarantee of her own well-being.
(He’s not stupid, he knows any member of the family will let Mary-Alice burn if it comes down to her or them. She knows it too. That makes him feel… shame? Regret? Something to decipher at another time, just push its twisting, nagging little tendrils away for later.)
“Let’s go home,” Esme interrupts his internal musings. “Bella here is freezing and exhausted. And we can make some proper introductions.”
Edward has taken off his parka and wrapped it around Bella, who does not look well. Mary-Alice watches them with her head cocked to the side, as if she is studying some kind of new life form. The way Bella smiles up at Edward and sinks into the friction-warmed coat; the way Edward brushes her hair out of her eyes and takes her hand.
She studies them both hard as if they are going to offer her the secrets to the universe.
“Let’s go,” Rosalie says moodily, and he is suddenly aware that as hard as Mary-Alice has been studying Bella and Edward, Rosalie has been watching him.
The trek back home is taken at human pace, for Bella, and is mostly silent. Carlisle and Esme try to make conversation with Mary-Alice, but her answers are monosyllabic and disinterested, as she keeps both eyes on the path of the forest, of the trees and stars above. Her nose twitches every so often, and he wonders what scent is catching her - of animal blood and decay from their hunts; from well-worn paths of the Cullens themselves, of the few friends that have passed through; and then Laurent, James, and Victoria herself.
They break through the forest to the back garden of the house, with the glass windows, to Bella’s muttered, “Thank god”, causing Carlisle and Emmett to chuckle. But Mary-Alice pauses, taking in the house, Rosalie’s garage, the pristine and precise little garden beds boasting whatever flower or plant Esme can coax from the ground. The extra-wide paths between the beds, Esme’s only defence against Emmett and crushed pansies.
She sniffs the air again, and follows them dutifully into the house, through the back door.
Edward is quick to whisk Bella off upstairs, most likely for a hot shower and sleep, but Esme is a consummate hostess and brings everyone through the kitchen and dining room, to the living room.
“Please, sit,” she asks Mary-Alice, but the girl is startled, as she stands in the entrance, her eyes wide. Her emotions are held close, but he can feel tinges of awe, of curiosity, and appreciation as she looks around. Family photos on the walls, the collection of couches and chairs around an etched glass coffee table. A porcelain bowl of roses that are drooping slightly.
She turns her head slowly, to the gilded mirror over a console table, and stares at her own reflection for a moment, before refocusing on the Cullens, who are patiently waiting for her.
“I don’t need to sit,” she says, in that same flat tone she’s been using. And for a second, he mistakes it as disdain for their human quirks, but he sees her rubbing her hands on her dress and wonders if it might have something to do with the mud and blood she’s covered in. In the light of the room, she resembles a veritable Victorian-era urchin, covered in dirt and detritus.
“Of course,” Carlisle says benevolently, and Jasper hopes he recognises Mary-Alice’s rudeness as discomfort and not disdain. “Now, with your gift, I assume you know everyone in the family?”
The impish feeling brushes up against him again, and he thinks that means Mary-Alice might like Carlisle, but nothing in her expression changes.
What happened to the girl he could read like a well-thumbed book? He’d never really noticed how she kept her emotions so, so close back in the day, because those big eyes had told him everything he had needed to know.
(Or had he looked into her eyes and mistaken his own reflection, his own wants and desires, for hers?)
“Carlisle-Esme-Edward-Rosalie-Emmett-Isabella,” Mary-Alice recites dutifully, her attention still on the room, her gaze skimming over photos and ornaments. “And the Major.”
“Yes,” Carlisle says, though he’s surprised at the fact Mary-Alice referred to Jasper as ‘the Major’. “Your gift is very powerful.”
She shrugs at that, a surprisingly human gesture she has adopted that he finds he likes. “It has its uses.”
“Maria said you were dead.”
It’s Rosalie that says that, in a stony voice that matches Mary-Alice’s.
“Maria thinks I was destroyed,” she sounds bored now, her focus fully on the Cullens. “She has no reason to think otherwise.”
“But if she comes here…” there is a threat in Rose’s voice, and beneath that a bubble of fear and the lazy soup of rage and righteousness.
“I’ll see her coming.”
“You should have killed her.” Rose has never forgiven Maria for those children, for the implications about her preferred brother. On Rosalie’s eternal and infinite shit-list, Maria of Monterrey sits below only Royce King et al. For every single scar on his arms, for every child strung up in Calgary, his sister has a personal vendetta against the great lady of the Southern Wars.
Mary-Alice’s conflict at that statement tastes bitter, like unripe limes, and it is a feeling he recognises so intimately he flinches. Her eyes flick over to him but she doesn’t move an inch. The emotion is pulled back and she shakes her head. That isn’t an argument, a debate, a breakdown that they’ll be having today, it seems.
“I got away clean, I assure you,” she says in a more even tone. “I wouldn’t have left if I couldn’t have.”
Tensions are high, and he gives up trying to pretend that it isn’t forcing itself between each of his cells, as if he isn’t full to the eyeballs of worry and stress and caution and all those taunt, grey emotions. Calm rolls over the room, just to give himself a moment, and Esme visible relaxes.
“We’re very grateful for your offer to help,” she smiles widely, clasping her hands in her lap. “Can we offer you a shower? Some new clothing?”
Mary-Alice is still stiff and tightly controlled, her body turned towards to the backdoor.
“No. I want to go outside.” Her words are still flat, and she nods at them, marching back the way she came, and now she’s pissed off Rosalie more, Esme is horrified she’s offended their saviour, Carlisle has the same expression he had the day Emmett decided to modified paint-ball guns in the library, and Emmett just looks like he’s waiting for the commercial break to end.
“She’s not going to leave?” Esme sounds panicked and appears to be split between the embarrassment of insulting her, and the loss of another fighter, and that is entirely endearing to him. The sun will rise, the tide will ebb, and Esme will still be a warm aura of pure, genuine kindness and affection - even to filthy, dead-eyed nomads.
“I’ll get her,” he says, sending out reassurance.
He doubts that the offer of a bath is something that would offend one of his veterans to the point of leaving.
But he supposes he doesn’t know her well enough anymore to know exactly what she’d do.
He follows her out to the garden, back towards the boundary.
“Esme didn’t mean to offend you,” he offers at her retreating back.
Mary-Alice looks back at him and turns to face him. “She didn’t. I was making the girl nervous.”
Of course, Mary-Alice would be aware of the human in the house; the scent of Bella’s blood, the thump of her heart, whatever she and Edward were talking about upstairs - it’s background noise for him and the rest of the family, but Mary-Alice would be entirely aware of it. Probably tempted by it - especially with his calm flooding her system, smothering any defences she had against the untouchable human upstairs…
“Bella will leave in the morning, and you can come back to the house,” he offers. “Edward will take her home.”
Mary-Alice nodded and looked down at herself. “I should probably apologise for her sweater?” she asks, like it’s a question. “Couldn’t let Victoria see me coming. Or those wolves.”
“It was a solid plan,” he agrees, and this conversation is stupid, feels stiff, like a badly written play. He remembers what it was like when he got out, and he had Peter and Charlotte for those early days. He remembers how foreign everything felt, how completely unprepared for existence he was; like constantly being on the precipice of hyperventilating or slaughter.
And here she is, alone.
“Thank you,” he says suddenly. “For coming here.”
She stares up at him, and the blood in her eyes seems to swirl, a living mass that he used to know how to decipher. “Of course,” she murmurs, but seems to hold something back. “Your … the Cullens seem good.”
“They are the very best of people,” he agrees, taking a step closer.
“I’m very glad you found them, Major,” she says. “I was worried.”
I was worried. That, that means she thought of him after he left her behind, when he was in the north, and she was still fighting endless battles, and for her own life.
The words hang right there for him to use.
I’m sorry I left you.
I’m sorry I didn’t go back for you.
I never stopped thinking about you.
“Do you need to hunt?” The words that come to him sound wrong and jarring but she doesn’t flinch or react.
“No, I’m fine,” she says. “I’ll stay close until Isabella leaves.”
And then she is gone, leaving him with nothing more than the scent of salt and flowers, and a million things he still wants to ask her.
There are still a few hours before Bella can be expected to return home, and she is nestled on the couch in Edward’s room, sleeping soundly - especially now that Edward has reassured her that Mary-Alice isn’t in the house.
He prowls the house for a while, after convincing Esme that Mary-Alice was not offended by her offer, but aware of her ill-effect on Bella. Esme had been relieved, and he had left her fussing over clothing, trying to find something that will fit their guest; he suspects something will be hand-altered and waiting for Mary-Alice by dawn.
Everyone has settled into small tasks, and he finds himself going over battle plans, over the variables and the unknowns in his head until he gives up and decides to direct this restlessness somewhere useful.
Emmett finds Jasper nestled behind the computer bank on the third floor, charting weather conditions and other details that will affect them and the wolves. (The battlefields of Monterrey are different to the forests of Forks; will Mary-Alice be quick enough to adapt to the topography?)
Emmett wants something, the anticipation bouncing off him reminding Jasper of popping corn as he examines tide charts (By sea is still the most direct route from Seattle, it’s how he’d infiltrate. Victoria’s smart enough to have thought of that.)
“So, you and the Merry Murderess?” Emmett says, with the subtlety of a freight train.
“Mary-Alice?” he corrects absently, frowning as he realises there is predicted to be a drop in temperature that could prove damaging to the wolves. “She’ll come back to the house after Bella leaves.”
“She’s fucking terrifying, dude,” Emmett looks positively devious. “Carlisle has no idea what to do with her.”
“She’s here to help,” he says, looking up from marking up maps. “She won’t hurt anyone.”
“Rose doesn’t think so,” Emmett sinks into a chair, and spins init thoughtfully. “Rosie thinks she’s trouble.” A very polite way of saying Rose hated her. No one who truly knew Emmett could deny he wasn’t the very best of diplomats.
“Rose thought I was trouble. And Bella. And she’s still not that convinced about Edward,” he points out.
Emmett grins; even Rose’s less than positive traits are adorable quirks in the eyes of her husband. “She’ll come round on Eddie one day, I’m sure of it,” he chortles before attempting to be serious. “Rose wants to know that if Little Red becomes … ‘difficult’ that you can deal with it.”
His gaze narrows at Emmett. “Tell Rosalie…” he begins, and Emmett holds up his hands.
“I trust you, dude. I’m just passing on a message,” Emmett looks up at the ceiling, trying his level best to be casual. “Soooo… you and Bite-Size had a ‘thing’ back in the day, right?”
His pen skids through the map and down into the wood of the desk and he scowls at Emmett, who looks positively gleeful.
“Hey, hey! I’m just saying you were right, bro,” Emmett holds his hands up peaceably but has moved from devious to diabolical. “You do have a type.”
He throws his pen at his brother, but Emmett ducks and vanishes back downstairs, the pen sticking out of the drywall like a dart, leaking ink.
Almost the second Bella’s ancient truck pulls down their driveway, Mary-Alice reappears. She smells like river water, and looks somewhat cleaner, wet strands of hair sticking to her face. It’s a goodwill gesture that Esme recognises, and appreciates - like a small child with a fistful of ripped-up dandelions for a doting mother.
(If Esme could clasp her in a hug and absorb her into the family on the spot, could smooth her hair and fawn over another beautiful, talented, intelligent daughter right that second, she would. He remembers it well.)
She accepts Esme’s second offer of a shower, and disappears into the master bathroom, looking slightly bewildered, clutching a clean towel and the dress Esme has hurriedly altered.
It’s then he realises that washing back in Maria’s army was a drum of cold water, or finding an old lake or river to get the grime off. The running water in the Monterrey house was finicky at best, ice-cold, and often ran brown. Clothing was replaced when it was available and necessary - you didn’t get a new dress or new pants because of a bit of blood or a tear in the fabric. You got ‘em when your old ones weren’t salvageable anymore.
Flickers of uncertainty and curiosity occasionally filter down, but eventually, she returns, the dress not quite the right size, but she looks beautiful, with her hair drying in uneven little curls around her face.
“Thank you,” she says solemnly, clutching the filthy bundle of her own clothing. “Where should I…?”
“I’ll take that,” Esme swoops in to take the dirty clothing, and Jasper will bet the old motorcycle Rose promised to fix up for him that Esme’s going to attempt to wash and mend that mess of clothing for Mary-Alice, rather than dump them in the garbage where they belong. That there will be joy in bleaching, scrubbing, and gentle stitching a polyester cat ear back in place, because they are the only possessions Mary-Alice owns in the world. That’s just Esme.
(A few decades with Emmett, and he’s fully convinced there’s nothing Esme can’t save with a bottle of bleach and a needle and thread if she puts her mind to it.)
The family gathers in the dining room once Edward arrives, and she perches on the glossy wood table, cross-legged, as she considers the maps with a furrowed face.
“Two days,” she finally says, putting down the maps, and looking at them. “Thirty-six hours, approximately. It’s hard to get a fix on the precise time. But they’re coming.”
“You don’t think you should have started with that?” Edward yells, and whatever she thinks is obviously rude, because Edward hisses at her, and storms out to angrily pace or kill a throw pillow.
“We’ve gotten an early warning. That’s good,” Carlisle says finally. Having the wolves keep watch, run guard, has weighed on all of them, but it was the most efficient way that the wolves felt comfortable with. It was a battle he wanted to win, to monitor ingress points on a rotating schedule, but Carlisle had given in. If nothing else, it gave the wolves a sense of control over some aspect of this ridiculous, chaotic situation.
“They arrive here, by the water,” Mary-Alice points at the map. “The number continues to fluctuate, I cannot get a firm count.”
“An estimate?” he asks, examining the map more carefully now that he knows the direction they’ll be coming from.
“Forty at worst; any less than fifteen and the future changes - she won’t attack with less than that,” Mary-Alice replies factually. “But they’re too volatile; too much in-fighting.”
Forty. Forty is bad. Forty newborns are like an atomic bomb on a town like Forks…
“So, that’s like five each?” Emmett laughs, “And a few spares for the wolves?”
“Six each,” Mary-Alice unfurls and slips from the table. “Edward agrees with Isabella that he won’t fight with us. He’ll be guarding her - the bait.”
Something expensive breaks in another room and the little impish curl of emotion appears - did Edward know any of that? Already worked out the details? Or something that might have been the wisp of an idea, a hunk of unmoulded clay?
There’s the ghost of a smirk on her face as everyone begins to argue and debate the merits of setting Bella up, like a twitching worm on a lure, but it’s gone in a second and he just has more damn questions.
Thirty-six hours doesn’t last long, especially before battle. The house is a maelstrom of emotions, of worry and anticipation, and no one talking about it. Just practicalities and plans.
It doesn’t take long for thirty-six to fold into twenty-four.
Then to twelve.
They line up in the field, six across. The wolves are ready, tucked out of sight for now (the element of surprise always was one of his favourites), and Bella is waiting with Edward and Jacob, having dribbled blood along the path to her little clearing, temptation and lure; no one will get to her, but it will force them in that direction, to certain death. Little Seth Clearwater has gone with them, too, and he can’t be annoyed at the loss of another fighter because he’s not so fucking heartless that he wants a goddamn fourteen-year-old on an active battleground. No one is pleased with the decision to take out Edward and Jacob both, but it is done now - let the chips fall where they may.
The air is crisp, and the night is cloudy. He can taste the emotions of his family right now - fear, determination, reluctance, and eagerness. Little wispy brushes of resolve brush up against him, and he looks in her direction, standing several feet from Rosalie, bouncing on the balls of her feet, every limb coiled with energy.
She turns her head to look at him, and the thin moonlight glints off her bloody eyes. She tilts her head at him, and nods once. Soldier to soldier.
The scent comes on the wind, and their day of reckoning is upon them.