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Shadow to Light

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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.

Until now.

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.

--

Chapter Text

Two. Amongst the monsters I am well-hidden 

Who is she?       

She doesn’t know. Except for the name scrawled across the back of her shift when she awoke, she knows nothing. And that will probably never change. She will always be the girl from nowhere.

There is something liberating in that. Other newborns speak with grief and regret, rage and misery about their paths, about what they were forced to give up. She has nothing. Just unending darkness. She can be precisely whomever she wants to be. Build herself out of nothing. 

And so she does, curating and constructing whom she needs to be. It is easier than it should be, with her gift. It warns her, guides her, shapes her anew. The innocent girl, the maiden, is the safest option. She must keep her words and questions from bubbling up, and just watch. That is the best way to be, with the likes of Maria in charge.

Of course, the innocence is not as much of an act as she would like. She knows nothing about vampires, nothing about social cues or expectations. She fumbles through the best she can, and is lucky that her gift is willing to guide her through the training and the battles. Without it, she would have died a long time ago.

And the truth is, she wants to please the Major. The one she saw in her visions before he found her, the one she is allowed to call ‘Jasper’. She saw him with an easy smile and eyes reflecting love, and then met a cold, distant and calculating man, who lead her back to Monterrey like a lamb to slaughter.

In her heart of hearts, she recognizes the brokenness she sees in him. So she will fight, and she will win, and her prize will be that smile on his face.

--

It takes the Major and Maria only a few months to deduce that she is gifted, and she fumbles through a vague explanation, because fortune-telling is dangerous. Her stomach twists and swoops when her sight shows her that the truth would be a prison, inescapable unless the vampire kings appear to dole out their petty ‘justice’, and then she would exchange the rotting mansion of Monterrey for a gilded prison in Volterra.

Either way, it is not the time for honesty. 

‘The power to make the right decision’ is a good enough explanation for Maria and the Major. Her name is struck off the ‘destroy’ list, and for now, she feels a little safer.

And she learns. Oh, does she learn. They train hard to become warriors, and her speed and grace work in her favour. It takes her a little while to learn how to use her gift in battle, but once she works it out, she proves that she’s invaluable on the battlefield. Good enough to keep.

The easiest and hardest of her lessons is learning not to feel. Or, rather, not to register her feelings. To detach completely, let the pain-pleasure-fear-grief-rage wash over her without resistance. Older soldiers than her die in battle, overwhelmed by the fear and horror, the violence and the bloodlust.

It takes some time, to reshape herself in this way, to distance herself from what she sees and feels. The time will come when she will have to face this horror, but it won’t be anytime soon. 

(A newborn sinks his teeth into her arm, and she glares back at him, not even flinching as his venom sinks into her, and he is dismantled and destroyed before he can even unhook his jaw from her flesh.)

It’s not a life she would have chosen, but it’s the one that she has. 

 --

The problem she has is that she can never escape what she already knows.

And she knows that her Jasper is hidden beneath the Major. Whether or not that future is lost to them, she still seeks him out, just to remind herself. Just to give herself a flicker of hope for something better than the endless machinations of war.

One of the older soldiers, a middle-aged man with incredible strength, seems to take pity on her; or, at least, on the image she projects to them all. He sits with her one afternoon, and shows her how to fold paper into amusing shapes. A good way to relearn gentleness, he explains, when her fingers tear through the paper before she even folds it. They lose perspective of their strength after the change, and she never knew humanity at all. 

The lessons stop the day that man puts his hands on her, and she starts folding them by herself the day he doesn’t come back from battle. From pages torn from old Bibles and newspapers, she twists them into flowers, animals and shapes. Her favourite perch is the window sill in the Major’s quarters, as he reads and analyses books and documents, maps and messages, and they end up covering the window ledge, spilled onto the rickety writing desk.

The day he picks up a little paper fish and offers a flash of a smile at it, that is when she knows it is going to be okay. 

That it will be tough and ugly and hard-won, but they will be okay. 

Eventually.

--

She’s never been kissed before.

 Aside from some rowdy newborns in the barracks who don’t listen to ‘no’, but she always wriggles free of them quickly enough, and a few of the older ones – like Peter – put a stop to anyone who tries to corner her for more than she is willing to give.

And she’s seen others kiss, and her visions tell her that maybe, in the future, she’ll be kissed quite often. She thinks about it like she thinks about battle plans – academically, analysing and planning. It is something distant, that will happen to a different version of her.

When the Major’s kiss finally comes, it is hard and unexpected; a last minute decision with no chance of reaching her gift in time, she almost falls into the dirt – if he weren’t holding her in place. It is her first kiss, and it is… shocking. Rough and demanding, it makes her feel stripped bare in front of everyone.

She doesn’t know what would have happened next, if the newborns weren’t fighting; she’s curious, and not unwilling, but still a little relieved that he has been distracted long enough for her to catch her breath, and think about it.

Later, she goes to him, knowing exactly will happen – her visions taunt her, tell her that this is the first step. From here, there is possibility, and that is exactly what she’s been working for. The flicker of hope, the chance for something. She’s still not entirely sure, in that she came into this life knowing exactly nothing, and it was only one of the other newborns in the barracks during those early months that caught on and gave her a quick and crude lesson in human biology. And, of course, there is no privacy, so she has witnesses more live demonstrations than she cares to.

But it has never been her, and she likens her nerves to ants skittering along her flesh. She feels like a sacrificial lamb, to pay with this shard of herself for a still nebulous future. But then, how badly does she want that future? 

In the end, she lets him take what he wants, closing her eyes and curling up in the corner of her mind; she feels like she’s watching it happen to someone else, the way he strips her, pushes her backwards onto the mattress. His emotions flit across her skin, but she doesn’t let them seep in, lets them dissolve where they fall.

He retreated from Maria because of the foul oil slick that were her emotions, eating away at his sanity. She refuses to let him slip through her fingers. He is the King and she is the Queen; she can orchestrate the chessboard to the very best of her ability, but if he falls, it is all over for both of them.   

-- 

For a while, things are a new normal, and she likes it – she feels almost like herself, if she had any clue who that was. 

He takes her to his bed with startling regularity; a few of her dresses end up hanging from the hooks next to his shirts. Sometimes he kisses her, and she forgets herself, and kisses him back. Then she curses herself out later, because now is not the time to fall in love with him.

They talk about things – he does more talking, because he knows more and he reads, and she hasn’t gotten this far by not listening when her betters speak. He likes her input, though, which is a nice change. She laughs at something he says to her, once, and she catches him staring at her with wide eyes and a look of surprise. 

But it doesn’t last – it can’t, not in this lifetime.

He confides in her his fears if Maria catches them like this. She does not tolerate emotional entanglements like this; their only loyalty should be to her and her warfare. Anything else is too dangerous for her. And the Major fears that it will be Mary-Alice that pays Maria’s toll.

The plan flits into her head like a puff of fresh air – how else can they justify their physical relationship without drawing suspicion? It’s no different than what goes on in barracks during the day, and even Maria has company in her quarters… 

It’s also a show of trust, that she gets on her knees as he unbuckles his belt; the movement is slower than normal, and he stares down at her with a furrowed brow. He reaches out to her, and his fingers graze the scar by her right eye, and she gives him a smile and a wink.

But it is a mistake, for her, at least. It is far more intimate than she ever assumed, and she is hyperaware of his shallow breaths, of his hand at the back of her head. Too much, too soon. This is the first time she’s been in control, been the aggressor, and she’s intensely aware that they aren’t really anything to each other yet.

When Maria storms in on them, she sees nothing unusual. The Major burning off some of his energy with his little shadow; might as well put her to some sort of use. At least, that’s what he says when Maria asks, after she has been dismissed from the room.

It’s been a long time since she felt this insignificant, this lost. It’s the very first time that she’s wanted to run into her Jasper’s arms, and have him realign her universe.

But it only lasts a second, before she steels herself again. The cracks cannot show; weakness here is a target.  

She loathes this charade.

--

When it comes to the final choice, the Major does as she told him, and leaves with Peter. She thanks whatever higher power there is for letting him finally get away. Possibilities, for him, appear in her mind like flowers blooming in a garden.

 It isn’t until dusk of the following day when Maria realises his absence is not a hunting trip, or reconnaissance.

She has been ordered to draw out the maps again, as territory borders ebb and flow. Her hand is steady as the pen swirls over the chalk outlines; her copies are always flawless, except she cannot read nor write, so Marie must fill in place-names herself. Sometimes she wonders if she is more prized for her cartography than her battle prowess, and that amuses her.

Maria’s rage when she realises the Major is gone will never be forgotten by any of them. It is a tsunami of violence, of ripped-up bodies and bites and yelling. It is the complete cave-in of the War Room, when Maria throws Rosa through a load-bearing wall.

That is what saves her, in the end. That when the ceiling comes down, she is there with the maps, wide-eyed and clutching her arm, cracked and oozing venom. Two floors of furniture, of wood and brick and plaster, all spill down on top of her. And when the wreckage settles, that is when the floor itself cracks and tumbles down into the basement.  

By the time she fishes herself out, Maria’s tantrum has ended and there are only eight of them left – Rosa is feeding limbs to the pyre with a blank look on her face, the rest have scattered to lick their wounds and regroup.

She makes her way to the shed; to feed and encourage her ruined arm to heal a little faster. But Maria has already swept through the little wooden hut.

Not to feed, no. Just to create more collateral damage.

Human blood and bone and viscera are splattered and pooling; soaking her bare feet, dripping on her face and dress. Limbs are tossed everywhere, heads ripped from torsos, with faces staring and twisted in terror. Lumps of flesh, some with hair, litter the room. Nothing is salvageable.

They’ll have to burn it, of course. The stench will be unbearable. Those are the only thoughts she has when she sees the chaos, and then she wonders if she’s finally lost her soul. If that was always the price of cutting the Major free.

When she absently dips her hand into some cooling blood and licks it off, she realises that its far too late to worry about the state of her soul.

It’s long gone. 

--

Maria never mentions her tantrum, never mentions the smell of wood smoke in the air, or the brand new shed that stands in its place. She nods her approval at the finished maps, and moves into the left wing of the mansion rather than bothering with repairs. It seems fitting that the Major’s absence would leave such a visceral scar on their home.  

The others think that she caught up with the Major and destroyed him, whispering between themselves. She knows better.

She sees him with Peter and Charlotte. He still looks haunted, but he is better-clothed and well-fed. He spends endless hours in libraries, devouring books with more intent than he ever took human blood. She hears his laugh in her visions, and it is the closest she can imagine to being stabbed because it is second-hand. She is not there to hear it, doesn’t know what caused it.

But there are other things to consider, of course. Maria is watching everyone closely – without the Major, she has no way of controlling enough newborns to keep her full territory, and the Major’s betrayal has left her suspicious of all of them. She is her usual, wide-eyed, silent self; battling, drawing the maps, hunting. That is what is safe. She defers, without question, to Maria.

Days turn into weeks, and one day she walks in on Maria cleaning out the Major’s quarters. Well, throwing his things into a bonfire on the lawn is a more apt description. She watches the books and clothing tumble onto the flames, and something silver catches her eye.

She sifts through the ashes of the fire later, when Maria is distracted, and finds the Major’s slightly charred dog tags.

She’s no longer prone to fits of romanticism, but it seems like a sign.

 --

The Major finds the Cullens on a miserable day, in Maine.

She remembers the Cullens, vaguely; a vision that came before she was awake and aware. She recognizes the older couple, and the red-headed boy, but not the other two. Not that it matters; they are all golden-eyed, and the Major can, of course, take care of himself.

Except, she doesn’t think he would. He has long since left Peter and Charlotte, plagued by his gift. He is much diminished, enough that she has seriously considered going after him – except that would end exceptionally badly. She is working the long-con, is the metaphoric cuckoo in the nest, and to play her cards too early will lead to … difficulties.

And truly, she’s not ready, not yet. This is the only home she’s ever known, as despicable as it is.

But the Major, he needs a saviour. And there is Carlisle Cullen, just as he was in that lost vision, ready to offer compassion and sanctuary to the hollowed-out soldier. It will, of course, take time for the Major to trust him, trust the family and join them. Her visions flicker and settle, clear and strong – it will happen. His eyes will be golden, he will have brothers and a sister, a family, and a future. 

For now, though, he has a touchstone and a place to rest before he hits rock-bottom, and she, Mary-Alice, will always owe Carlisle Cullen a debt for saving the Major when she could not. 

--

Time marches onwards. There are battles and hunts; Maria sacrifices Corpus Christi and Laredo for her beloved Monterrey, but Monterrey proves far too difficult to hold with such small numbers. That’s how they lose Rosa; the Louisiana coven catches her on a hunt, and break her into little pieces, and then string her up outside the Monterrey mansion like a grotesque marionette before they allow her to burn. 

Mary-Alice almost catches herself mourning. Rosa was… she simply was. A fixture in their little party. A constant, steady presence. Gone.

Maria looks old when she gives them the order to pull out of Monterrey and regroup outside San Fernando; she has been scouting, preparing for this possibility, but it is still gut-wrenching. Especially when Maria burns their mansion to the ground without ceremony. Never one to leave behind any sort of advantage.

The ashes of their Monterrey home stick to them as they run; seven now – Maria destroyed the newborns barely a week ago, unwilling to resettle with them in tow. They are a bedraggled group, a piecemeal collection of humanity, if such a thing is left within them.

She looks forward a lot, in those days; seeks the Major out in time and space to remind her that the entire world has not been burnt away with the old house. She sees the Major settle into the Cullen family, sees him hunting animals, and slowly remembering who Jasper is. There is still a solemnness to his gaze, a distance he keeps between himself and the Cullens, but he is safe and cared for. Happy, perhaps. One day, maybe – hopefully – she can be there with him and finally find out what ‘happy’ feels like.

And for now, that is enough.

 

Chapter Text

It’s the thing that ruins you.

He finds this new life – his third – more foreign than anything else he has known.

There are houses and cars, books and beds, and they can have anything they want.  

Except for human blood.

But that is the price he pays to be able to read his days away, to wear clean clothing, have a family, and peace of mind.

His throat still itches and burns, and he still turns his head at the strong thrum of human heartbeats. He has slipped. 

But he is getting better.

--

He never assumed that he would find a coven; none would never accept him after all that he has done, and he would never join, after all that he has seen and felt. He leaves Charlotte and Peter behind with the knowledge - and acceptance - that he is to be alone.

Stumbling into the path of the Cullens was unexpected, but granted him something he never knew he wanted. Company, family, kinship. Carlisle’s kindness and patience will never be forgotten – the simple compassion of a chance has changed his entire life.

He is still working to be worthy of it.

It wasn’t always so easy, when he looked like the worst kind of nomad. When the paranoia hovered around him like a cloud, and the horror of years gone by trailed alongside him. It took him the best part of twenty years to find the pride in himself to accept Carlisle’s invitation to join their family permanently, when before he thought it showed weakness.

They are all good people, but he doesn’t know if he would have stayed if it weren’t for Esme and Emmett. Carlisle offered the chance, but it was Esme and Emmett convinced him that he wanted it.

Esme was kind, gentle, and all the things good matriarchs are supposed to be, but with a wicked sense of humour. She hadn’t once flinched from welcoming the belligerent, dirty nomad into her pristine home, had always looked, and treated, him like he was a respectable gentleman.

Emmett carried the sort of good humour held by people with happy lives, people who played the cards they were dealt without looking for a better hand. Never did Emmett shy away from a conversation, a game, an activity; not once did Emmett treat him with anything besides easy trust and camaraderie, even when he was sour and suspicious. 

They are the very best of people.

Better than he deserves, truly.

--

Carlisle and Edward are both problem-solvers, men of both science and faith. They like to problem solve, to repair, and to redeem. No matter how many times he tries to deter them, they are fixated on his patchwork past, on the suffering and misery he carries within himself. He bore wounds that they were convinced they could heal.

He is vague in his few recollections to them, concealing the worst of his stories. Edward is too ideological, and took too long to warm up to him as it was – and he sees it in his head, anyway. He wants to protect them, but he also wants to protect himself from their judgement, their condemnation. But still, they pull at threads.

They are both convinced he lost his mate in the wars, no matter how many times he corrects them. For a short time, Carlisle is certain that the lost mate was a male, and that he is ashamed to tell them such a thing. His amusement at that theory dissuades them, until Edward enlists Eleazer’s insight, and its times like that Jasper could really do with a drink.

It is Eleazer who poses the theory that Maria was his mate. That makes him laugh, loud and genuine, at the idea of the sharp-edged harpy who built her empire on the broken finding a place in his heart. Never ever. Maria – and her emotions – were a disgusting, rotten thing. It was Maria who taught him to feel nothing, to wield his gift like sword and shield both, or risk losing his goddamned mind.

But they push and push; Edward is always posed to rifle through his thoughts and memories, Carlisle’s gentle worry hums around him, Eleazer’s crisp and clinical concern fills the room. Sometimes, when the hushed discussions about him wear thin, he wants to yell that he’s not fucking capable of loving someone else. He has given all that he is to being a Cullen, and even then, he’s more of a ghost or an antisocial pet, than a brother and son figure.

That having a mate, let alone a lover or a wife, would be a goddamned nightmare – just another person to let down, leave behind, and disappoint.

There is something depressing about the idea that they are trying to find his lost love, when he’s never had a love to lose.

--

He doesn’t slip often, thanks to the little voice the reminds him that this life was bought and paid for by another.

But when he does, the victims are all the same. He tries not to notice.

Girls with big eyes and dark hair. Girls whose bones snap like twigs when he grabs them, who would have no chance against an attacker, human or immortal. Girls whose skin is shadowed with bruises left by his hands.

It is Emmett that quietly voices the words he refuses to think.

He is always so careful with their bodies, afterwards, even with his failure hanging heavy in the air. Emmett has helped him clean up a few times, and watches him as he gathers them up gently – straightening torn clothing, replacing a missing shoe, smoothing their hair back from their face.

“They’re always the same, dude,” is his pseudo-brother’s comment, as they walk away from another invisible gravesite, fresh blood under his nails and lighting his eyes. “Who was she?”

That is a question he will never answer – out of shame, out of regret, out of penance. Her memory is, somehow, sacred to him – the most private thing he can think of.

I can take care of myself. He still hears her stubborn words, see the flash of her red eyes. How far gone was he, that he couldn’t even forge his own escape? That he didn’t even think of dragging her with him until he was six states away, and trying not to breakdown where Peter or Charlotte would hear?

“Maybe I just have a type.”

--

High school half a dozen times is five times to many.

He tolerates it once a decade, to keep up to date for the purposes of college. College he likes; it is liberating to learn, to argue and analyse and debate. He can lock himself away in his study, and read for as long as he likes, and Carlisle considers that productive. He never would have had this opportunity in his human life. The amount of education that the Cullens actually encourage him to accumulate is a dream he didn’t know he had. 

But high school, that is a hellish soup of emotions and misery. It is watching students and teachers ricochet off each other, shove up against needless boundaries, and just wear each other raw. Invisibility is impossible, and he rarely lasts long before getting a reputation amongst faculty as a smart-ass and a bad seed.

‘A necessary evil,’ Carlisle calls it when they move, and Jasper has to join them at school. He doesn’t complain… much; he goes and pretends to be sixteen-seventeen-eighteen. He pretends he understands the pop-culture references, the current events, the trivial details that make the charade convincing. Edward used his gift to guide him; Rosalie wore her haughtiness like armour, and Emmett’s cheery nature meant that they could all fumble their way through. But he does not have those luxuries. 

Just trial and error.

He’ll get it right eventually.

--

The fact Maria will come for him is as inevitable as the tide, as the sunrise, as Edward and Rosalie’s fights. She is like a bloodhound, a parasite that sinks in and refuses to leave.

He’s surprised she’s taken this long, though. He thought she would have come after him a long time ago, have put a price on his head. And that is just Maria – the Deep South is lousy with enemies that would gladly seen him and his family burn.

They are lucky in the fact she finds him in Calgary, where their house is outside of the city, and helpfully remote. They are luckier still that Maria is unaware of Edward’s gift, and he hears enough when she ventures close to discern that they are in danger. They wait for her in the forest, outside their home, as the birds slowly go silent and the trees still.

If there is one thing he is confident of, it is that Maria will never get close enough to touch a single hair on Esme nor Rosalie’s heads. That Edward has heard his thoughts, Carlisle has offered his counsel, and Emmett is not nearly as foolish as he pretends to be. They know Maria is dangerous, and not to be underestimated. They will not falter.

 As she steps into the little clearing, the sight of her is almost too much. The familiar tumble of red-brown hair; the old-fashioned and innocuous dress; the bright red eyes that pierce him down to the bone. She smells of the pyres, the sweet and cloying smoke; of old blood and the sand of the south. It is a smell that hurts him, drags him back down to the worst of his regrets, to his most breakable point.

“Hello Major,” she purrs, and he has to steel himself against shuddering at her voice.

His most secret self is not sure that he will survive this, if it comes to violence.

--

Carlisle has spoken with him about violence and vengeance before, earnestly encouraging him to turn away from thoughts of revenge. Forgiveness and redemption are things that Carlisle believes in fervently, things that must come from within. That his own struggles to grieve and find peace will be hindered if he actively chooses to destroy Maria. She lives, unless she lifts a hand against the Cullens - that is Carlisle’s expectation.

And he wants to live up to that ideal, badly.

Most of the conversation moves past him, as if he is underwater, or watching from a great distance. He does not falter, does not provoke, even as she prowls the invisible boundary, as she blatantly evaluates the size, strength and the value of the Cullens.

He knows that she can see it in his eyes, that he will not leave, and that threats or blackmail will only end in violence. And she will not deign to fight him – in her heart of hearts, a fair fight between them would be too close to call; and since she has never fought fair, why should she expect him to? He is the one flanked by his family.

She is bitter and vindictive, and contemplates leaving a few scars to decorate the little females so closely guarded, to remind him of his refusal, Edward tells him later. She wants to surround him with the limbs of those that he prizes, to break him down again and have him beg to return.

He underestimated her, of how well she knew him, of how much she saw. Of how easily she can twist things up in knots, and sink her teeth into the most fragile point. And as she shakes her head, and turns to leaves, she pauses and smirks a little.

“That girl you were always fondling,” she tosses carelessly over her shoulder. “She was destroyed, you know. The Louisiana coven got her a few years back. They didn’t kill her right away, either. Screamed your name for three days before they finally burnt her. Heard her all the way down in Laredo.”

Mary.

Mary.

It’s like the world slows down for a moment, the cold of the air actually seeping under his skin. He remembers the cruelty of the Louisiana coven. Of mutilated prisoners, and the stories of torture. Of ‘experiments’ with venom and flame. Of stripping the bodies down, burning the heads, but salvaging fingers, toes, noses, ears – any body part that could be kept for their own soldiers’ battle injuries.    

Life in Maria’s army was horror and suffering, and something that will haunt him forever.

The Louisiana coven were always much, much worse.

He comes back to himself as Maria takes off, and intensely aware as the Cullens’ force his gift to come to life – and he knows, with a sinking feeling, that Maria’s words were not meant to be a trigger only for him. The girl you were always fondling. She has played her hand well – reveal the monster to the Cullens, strike rage into the hearts of the females they protect, fracture the trust they hold in him.  

He stands there in the snow, staring at the place Maria stood, trying to find the words to explain that aren’t goddamned lies. 

After all, no one knew how old she was.

She remembered nothing, with all the innocence of a damn child.

She was small, a little slip of a thing.

That’s why her clothes never fit; they took them from their kills, and few of them ever killed children.

He didn’t… he shouldn’t… but he did.

He had hurt her, and often.

“Jasper?”

He looks to see Carlisle staring at him, the anger having given way to compassion and frustration, the older man resting his hand on his shoulder.

“Who was ‘she’, Jasper?”

“No one.” The words are bitter. “I’m sorry she came here.

Maria’s true parting gift turns out to be the slaughter of a local campsite; a dozen middle schoolers and their teachers strung like marionettes, mutilated beyond identification. And even as Esme weeps over the newspaper, as Emmett tries to make sense of such pointless slaughter, and Rosalie burns with equal parts of fear and rage, all he can think is that it isn’t the worst thing Maria has ever done.

Edward doesn’t look him in the eye for a week.

--

Isabella Swan is a disaster of the worst kind. He doesn’t know what the fuck Edward was thinking, truly. Of course, he never found a singer, only knows what Maria told him. But Edward is old enough to know the rules, to understand the rules. They aren’t goddamned difficult: she knows; therefore, she has the choice between death or transformation. There are no loopholes or codicils. Just an unforgiving choice.

It’s more than anyone else in the family ever got. He thinks that’s why Rosalie dislikes the girl so intensely; not because Bella wants to be a vampire, but because there is the possibility of choice. They change so slowly, so minutely, that even the idea of death and nothingness is as intriguing as it is horrifying because it is, simply, unknown.

He really needs to stop studying philosophy.

After the accident with the van, he is determined to kill Isabella Swan. She should have died when the van struck her. And what was she anyway, really? A blank slate, an unacceptable risk. Utterly unremarkable. He wouldn’t have even bothered keeping her if he’d found her in Monterrey.

That thought sends a bolt of white-hot rage through Edward, which is curious. He denies he cares, but he does, deeply and unwillingly.

He recognizes that feeling with dread and grief, and tries to push it aside. It is only Carlisle’s polite but firm order, directed to the entire family because Rosalie is not above convincing Emmett to do her dirty-work, that Isabella Swan will not be harmed. 

After that, when he sees Isabella Swan, he thinks of that spark of feeling that Edward so desperately tried to smother. The dread and longing, the misery and hope. He is unwillingly reminded of worn out cotton dresses, and the scent of salt and dried flowers, round eyes and a laugh like bells. He remembers her bewilderment, the way she closed her eyes when he touched her, and whose emotions slid away before he could decipher them.

He thinks of her death, slow and agonizing, of how bad the pain would have been for her to scream for help that would never arrive. Did she really scream his name, or was that Maria rubbing salt in the wound? Maria always lied, tangled up the truth to get her own way.

He wishes… a lot of things, impossible things, that are best left alone. The life he has now, with the Cullens, is her legacy, that is what he should remind himself of. That no matter how badly he hurt her, how wretched a life she had, she still offered him sanctuary.

In the end, he spares Isabella’s life for two reasons - because Carlisle’s word is his new and unbreakable law, despite the danger they are courting.

And because he remembers what it feels like, that sick and terrible swoop of fantastic disaster. He just hopes, for all their sakes, Edward makes better choices than he ever did.

--

If nothing else, Isabella Swan keeps things interesting, even if it is entirely unintentional.

James’ hunt was hardly her fault, especially if his bragging on the video camera had been the truth. That all over the country are girls who caught his eye, broken and bloodless in the wake of his little games. And Bella Swan pays the toll with a pound of flesh – broken bones, bruised flesh, and a silvery scar on her hand.

She couldn’t be blamed, either, for the accident that sent Edward fleeing, dragging them all away from her. After all, it was hard to adjust to having a human in their home, their safe-place. It was hard to remember to maintain the façade around her, because human flesh is weak. An exuberant Emmett; Bella standing innocently; a glass coffee table, and blood.

He still remembers grazing her skin as his fingers closed around her shirt, Edward’s snarl, and Emmett’s horror.

Emmett had blamed himself for a long time.

But leaving was just plain foolishness; he had predicted that once Edward had found and vanquished Victoria, they would go slinking back to Forks with their tails between their legs. It was an inevitability; he was as tied to Bella as Esme was to Carlisle. But instead, a tangle of second-hand stories and a vengeful Quileute boy sent them all to the depths of Volterra, to bow and scrape and swear that Bella would be turned or killed before her twentieth birthday. A negotiation less dictated by his skill, and more by Aro’s fascination with Carlisle.

Vampires, and werewolves, and death threats – Bella was tangled up in a nightmare.

And somehow, Victoria was still out there, still full of rage and vengeance, with her eyes on Bella Swan.

It takes him far too long to notice the pattern of disappearances in Seattle. He reads the paper, watches the television, hears an off-hand comment from Bella, and still, he doesn’t see the pattern. He is getting old and out of practice. He should have caught it when there were only three or four of them; a round-trip to Seattle with Emmett, and no one any wiser.

But when he finally pieces it all together, realises what he is seeing, he is terrified for them all.

This army is larger than any Maria attempted to wield in the South. Larger than can be contained in one city. More newborns than he has ever managed to use his gift on, and he hasn’t had to use it in a combat situation in decades.

And they are coming to Forks. For Bella, and for the Cullens.

They are six vampires - five untrained; a human girl, and perhaps a handful of teenage boys turned feral dogs. Against the vengeance of a vampire, and her savage newborn army that grows by the day. They cannot win, it is impossible.

He can see the Cullens ripped to ribbons; Esme’s cry of pain as she falls. Rosalie’s outraged shriek. The acceptance in Carlisle’s eyes as he is overrun, and Emmett’s bewildered panic. He sees Edward fall and not get up, and Bella a broken jumble of bone and flesh that tells of a long, miserable death.

He sees a dozen Quileute boys never going home again, and Forks overrun with vicious and unexplainable slaughter. 

He sees a path straight to a Volturi pyre for all of them, and he doesn’t know if he can fix it.

--

Her feet barely skim the ground, green foliage whipping past as she runs. There is dirt on her feet from Mexico, blood on her collar from Colorado, mud on her dress from Wyoming. It feels good to run, and not just towards a fight.

It feels better to run away from something, and the best to run towards something.

She doesn’t think anything has ever looked as good to her as the intense green of the North, has ever felt as good as rain washing away ashes and dirt from her cheeks.

She is a jumble of emotions she wants to shed before she gets too close – anticipation, fear and dread, and something she doesn’t recognize, that makes her chest feel tight but empty, that makes her want to sob and laugh at the same time. 

She has to save the Major and his family, of course.

But this time, she gets to save herself in the process. 

Chapter Text

Four. Who looks for a leaf in the forest?

Why does she stay?

It is something she asks herself more and more often these days. Everything is different and she doesn’t like it.

San Fernando is a new kind of hell she didn’t expect. It’s a harder life than before, even after they run the few stragglers out of their new territory. They set up camp in an abandoned farm, and for a while, she hopes things will go back to some sort of normality. Something recognizable, at the very least.

But no. This is a new kind of life, a warped version of what she has always known. They hunt on the fringes, rather than the massive herd lands of Monterrey; there aren’t enough of them to scout successfully, let alone make the journey for intelligence on the Louisiana coven.

It is the first time she can recall wishing for sleep. She feels drained – used up, wrung out, and rock bottom.

Once again, she is tasked with the cartography, but no longer with inks and paper. No, just black chalk on the wall of the rotten farmhouse for now. The lines have to be redrawn every day, as the chalk fades and smudges.

She gets a punch to the head when she asks when there will paper and pens again. She’s lucky, though: Ana gets her arm ripped clean off for complaining about the lack of clothing.

Ana gets the arm back two days later, but without half the fingers. 

--

A week after they arrive, Maria orders a pit dug in the barn, good and deep, and then has Juan lash together pieces of rotten fencing with rope. Nothing good can come from that, she knows, and makes sure she is always busy with the maps. She tries to convince herself it is just a fire pit, one that will be easily concealed, but she knows it isn’t. Maria likes her pyres.

The screaming starts on the fourth day, before dawn, and she goes out to investigate with Ariana.

The pit is no bigger than a washroom, and twice as deep as she is tall. A scattering of hay along the bottom adds a nice smell to the air – for now. A dozen humans are lined up, stripped of their clothing and shoes, their misery evident.

Maria watches as Juan and Mateo get them all down into the pit, and she finds herself counting every bone cracking as the humans’ fight and struggle, and ultimately fall. Mateo curses; at least one human has hit the bottom and died. Maria’s lips purse, but she says nothing.

She has the same problem a lot – sometimes it’s hard to know what will kill a human. They crumble like leaves against most things. The head, chest and spine are particularly fragile.

Mateo feeds from the body before it cools, and the screams reach fever-pitch. It is so loud that she retreats back into the farmhouse, and goes back to her drawing. She never realised how many maps Maria used, until she had to redraw them each and every day.

The next day, as the sun sinks down, she creeps back out to look into the pit. The old fencing works as a sort-of cover for it, to muffle the screams and hide them away from sight. And protect them from the sun; humans do not do well in continued heat. She remembers that.

The smell is foul when she pushes aside the cover, but she doesn’t leave. She crouches on the side of the pit, and stares down at ten terrified faces. They beg, they threaten, they pray. Mateo’s meal still lies in the corner, bloodless and beginning to stink. She notes the bones jutting awkwardly from joints, the film of sweat and dirt that covers each of them. 

“Please, little one!” an older man pleads with her, cradling a young girl at his side. Her eyes are wide and glassy, her lips stained with old blood. “Please, have mercy!”

Perhaps it has taken her this long to finally piece together that she really was one of them once. Or perhaps she is disgusted by that revelation, seeing them broken and dirty and desperate.

She grants them only the smallest mercies, things Maria approves – fresh hay, for the smell and the damp; a metal bucket of dirty water from the pump in the yard that they fall onto with rapt desperation; and she takes away the body of Mateo’s kill. 

That goes to the pit at the edge of the property, where bodies will be burnt and buried. 

By the end of the week, there are two more identical pits; Maria likes them better than the sheds.

Within a month Maria has realised that whilst ten can exist comfortably, in a pinch, between fifteen and twenty can be crammed into those dirt holes – but they have to make sure legs or collarbones are broken, to make sure there will be no attempts at escape. 

One particularly mouthy man irritates Maria enough that she simply orders his pit filled in, burying the man and his companions alive. It is a terrible waste of so many things, and it is unlike Maria to be quite so petty towards the ‘cattle’, but none of them say a word.

It doesn’t matter where she goes – the house, the barn, the furthest boundary, she can hear their screaming and their praying, even with the wooden covers. They spin through emotions – terror, fury, desperation, grief, hopelessness – and their voices crack and break.

When the sun is high in the sky, and Maria forbids them from venturing out into the daylight, the pits fall silent, and she imagines them succumbing to the heat, to their own despair, to days without food or clean, plentiful water.

Somehow, it is worse when the pits are quiet. 

--

It is only a month or two after their arrival, Maria begins to rebuild the army. She is cautious in her selection of soldiers. The first few are harmless – Reina is the vainest creature on the planet, and Felipe is strong but as dumb as a brick. They are both obedient, respectful, and learn their roles quickly.

It is Derrick she does not like. He looks innocuous, baby-faced, but there’s something foul about him. His sly smirks and calculating gazes do not put anyone else on edge, but she stays away as best she can. The newborns are kept in the cellar, but she is finally granted a reprieve from the ‘barracks’, and shares a tiny room with Ariana in the farmhouse proper. 

For a little while, she thinks that is enough to protect her from a nebulous threat she doesn’t entirely comprehend.

He finally corners her in the barn, after training. It happens so quickly, and he is so strong, then he has her pinned, his arm around her throat. She cannot move, and she isn’t stupid – so much as a murmur, and he will take her head clean off. 

There is nothing she can do.

The things he whispers in her ear are vile, but she is silent, trying to still her unnecessary breathing.

Fear creates predatory behaviour.  The Major taught her that.

But it doesn’t help her now; it doesn’t stop him in his assault, his arm still tight and unrelenting. He goads her, clearly eager for her to provoke him into beheading her.

This is not how she dies.

She is rage wrapped in ice and stone. Instead of crawling into a corner of her mind, she tries to drag a vision upon herself so she can figure out what she does next.

But she doesn’t know, so she cannot make that choice, and when he finally releases her, she runs. She runs and runs, until she can see the ocean and there is sand underneath her bare feet. It is there that her rage burns out, and she just feels hollowed out and dirty.

She can still smell that bastard on her. That is easily fixed; the heavy, salt water of the Gulf of Mexico wash away his scent, and leaves her hair gritty and her dress stiff. But the feeling of him pressed up against her, of his arm around her throat, the scent of his hot breath, his mocking words…

By dawn, she is back at the farm, and Maria looks suspicious at her absence, the smell of the ocean lingering about her, but she says nothing. What is there to say? It is best forgotten, another lesson learned. Don’t be caught alone, don’t be caught unaware. This is a brand new world, and nothing from Monterrey will help her now. 

Seniority and respect are no longer suitable armour for this war.

It takes only a few days, until the next training session. She thinks she has reforged herself, left it all behind, until she sees him. The smirk on his face, the knowing. And the rage blooms fierce and hot, once again. She doesn’t even make the choice – she tears his head from his body, and he is burning before anyone realises what has been done.

This isn’t her safe place anymore. And in the blaze of righteous anger, she wants to burn it down, and salt the earth so that nothing can ever rise from its ashes.

-- 

She finds herself slipping, into a darkness that feels bottomless. She cares less and less about the humans in the pit, leaves their care to Mateo and Ariana.

She spends less time watching the Major with the Cullens, pushing down the glimpses that come to the surface. That isn’t her life, isn’t even her world. Two nights ago, she dismembered, burnt, and buried twelve human bodies. That isn’t the life that the Cullens know. Dr Cullen is a doctor who heals humans.

She rips them into wet, meaty pieces, and piles them into the fire. She doesn’t know their names, doesn’t know what – or who – they left behind. And now? Now, she’s stopped wondering.

She’s stopped caring.

She spends more time at the ocean, away from the farm. It’s so quiet at night, and she likes to watch the tide ebb and flow.

She isn’t depressed, not like the Major. She savours the fight now, the battle. The victory, when she shreds another soldier, when she flings lost limbs onto the pyre; the burn of venom under her skin is welcome because it means she is still the best.

She’s falling deeper and deeper into the dark, and there’s no one there to pull her back up.

--

Why doesn’t she kill Maria?

That question is one she has contemplated more than once. Why she doesn’t just walk up behind her, and tear her head off. It would be so easy. Maria barely even sees her anymore; to their fearless leader, she is nothing more than a piece of set-dressing, like the rotten furniture. There is a grim sort of respect between them, born from years of fighting the same war; of surviving as soldiers, vampires, and women. 

Even after all these years, she remembers nothing from her human life, not what it was like to live and die as a mortal girl, and then rise again. Not what it felt like to love and hate and fear and grieve. Not even what the burning felt like.

She has no memories of a mother’s love or a father’s protection, and never does that show more than in her reluctance to end Maria once and for all. After all, the woman kept her, allowed her to learn and live, even when she did and said foolish, ignorant things.

Maria is a viper, a predator, a malevolent harpy of the highest regard. She does not even like the woman, truthfully; it is fear and hate and respect knotted together when she thinks of her. She loathes her for what she planned to do to the Major.

But they’ve been together now for at least sixty-odd years. The longest she has known anyone other than herself. The one thing that bows but never breaks. In this terrible world, only three things are always perfectly certain: the sun will rise, humans will die, and Maria will still be there, as vile and constant as ever.

Maria is no mother nor sister or even a friend. She is, repulsively enough, the centre of her god-damned world, and she cannot even bring herself to see what lies beyond, should she kill her. 

And that is why she doesn’t kill Maria.

--

They catch the Louisianan spy just before dawn; Paulina is small and spry, but no match for them. She is the one that pins Paulina in the sand, more used to the shifting grains on the beach than the others, holds the struggling girl down until Mateo and Felipe hurl her up and drag her off to face Maria.

Maria plays the role of lady of the manor well, and takes Paulina to the barn. And for the first time, it is not just Mateo that joins them. No, this time she is waved in as well.

The chair, the chains: they are all props in a play, to fool Paulina into underestimating them. 

She is little more than an assistant; as Maria and Mateo break Paulina’s fingers and toes at each knuckle, as they bite into the meat of her joints. As they cut away her fine clothes and Maria uses Paulina’s own teeth to carve into her skin.

She perches on a ledge, little more than an observer at the way venom spills from Paulina’s mouth from the gaping wounds left behind by her canines; her face has cracked in parallel lines up past her nose. Maria cheerfully suggests they carve her up into every little piece for crossing into enemy territory – eyes and teeth, ears and lungs. Paulina is shaking, but looks away from Maria, from Mateo.

“You know, Emile taught me every single thing I know about pain,” Maria murmurs. “For me, it was an ugly necessity, but for Emile… it was an art form.”

Paulina spat a mouthful of venom onto the ground, sneering at them. “Spare me the poetry. Emile might have taught you to carve up a body, but we all know the truth. The Major taught you pain. First when he turned away from you, second when he abandoned you. He ruined you. Once he left, you were nothing.” 

Maria snarls, and punches the girl so hard, her head cracks a pillar, but Paulina is laughing. 

“He left you both. How does that feel, that he could bare neither of you a second longer, so he left you behind? That he risked death before the company of either of you?”

For a split second, she is shocked that whatever she and the Major had was such public knowledge that the Louisiana coven knew about it.

But that fades quickly; old intelligence from another life. Paulina’s words rattle around in her head – “…that he could bare neither of you a second longer, so he left you behind…” She’s asked herself that more than once, when the ocean washes over her toes. Why didn’t he even think about taking her with him? She would have stayed behind to protect him, to guarantee his safety, but… it is still raw, so many years later, that she has been fighting for a person that only exists in her head. And that no matter how long she plays along and plans and promises, that it could all just be for some fairy-tale she dreamed up out of nowhere. 

She is almost surprised how much it still aches.

She picks up the tooth Mateo discarded, and with one swipe, splits Paulina’s face opened from temple to chin, the girl howling in pain. The wound is deep; cut right down to whatever passes as bone in their petrified bodies, and for a sickening moment, she considers putting the few lessons on anatomy she has gleaned from Dr Cullen to the test; to carve the girl into textbook pieces and find out how they work, exactly.

Her stomach twists, and another vision presses angrily against her temples, and she comes back from herself, from that hurt and pain and rage, and almost wishes she could be sick at how pleasing the idea of Paulina’s eyeballs cut from her head was to her.

The tooth falls from her hand, and she turns away. She has never truly had the stomach for this part. 

Maria and Mateo are watching her, waiting for her cues, but she is done with Paulina - done with pain; she is a killer, trained to deliver the deathblow, not to torture or linger over suffering.

“They speak of you, you know.” Paulina’s voice is defiant, but she doesn’t bother looking back at the prisoner. Whether she sings like a bird, pledges her unwavering loyalty to Maria, delivers slaves and gold and power, she is dead. Paulina will die, and whatever hell Emile has rained down on Maria will continue, triple-fold.

“The whispers name you as a bloody-eyed child, though we know better. But those stories will find the Volturi’s ear one day. And they will come and they will kill you all.” 

She doesn’t look back as she leaves, but she doesn’t have to; her mind shows her everything. The determined, martyred look on Paulina’s face at her disappearing back. The way Maria smiles so warmly, as she reaches into her pockets. The whites of Paulina’s eyes as Maria holds up the lighter against the gaping wound in her cheek. 

The screaming brings her back to reality, and she turns and walks away, to where she can sink her feet into the sand and watch the steady ebb and flow of the water, and not think of the swirling cuts on Paulina’s body calling to the flame, of the fire jumping for the raw wounds inside her mouth.

Or the way that Paulina’s face had split open under her own hand, just like human flesh.

--

Time passes, battles are fought, bodies are burnt. Just like clockwork. And she feels nothing. She is nothing; it is almost as if she is watching from outside of her body most nights. That she is waiting for time to erode away her stone flesh until she is just dust.

She has spent so many decades smothering herself down, locking herself away, that’s she’s not entirely sure there’s anything of herself left. Just this hollow, living-dead girl eternally waiting for something that might never come. 

The visions of the Major with the Cullen coven used to be comforting. A hope for the future, that the life she leads now isn’t all that fate has in store for her. Her visions nurtured that flicker of possibility, that one day she would be free and happy and herself. Not this cold, strange killer. This girl who doesn’t laugh or smile or even speak often.

The visions of herself being anywhere-but-here faded slowly, but they were always only as certain as she was. She could join the Major and the Cullens. They would accept her. They would.

But why? What does she have to offer? There is nothing redeemable about her anymore.

How many has she killed during her entire life? Not just the used-up newborns, but everyone – the humans for their blood; enemy soldiers for their territory; witnesses. The ones who struggled through training and just… annoyed her. Paulina. The knowledge of it all doesn’t leave her sad or shamed or depressed, like the Major – just cold, and calculating, like Maria examining her maps.

There is only one thing left in her; the almost childlike trust that her visions will tell her what to do - what is right, what is good, what will save her. It is the only thing that keeps her going, most days. That when she started this, she held all the cards and the utter conviction that she could do this – master the board, play the longest con, win the game.

But she is running out of moves, out of time, out of sanity.

Out of heart.

She stops looking for the Major and his coven. Instead, she looks to her own future, and whispers prayers to a god she doesn’t believe in.

Something has to happen.  

Please.

--

Her story ends the way so many do: burning on the battlefields of Mexico.

Or at least, that is how Maria, and all of the southern warmongers, will remember it.  

It’s a bad, bad battle; Paulina’s death is still fresh in Emile’s mind. And some upstart from the west has joined the battle; Maria had scoffed when they brought news of Valeria’s rise in Hermosillo. She had dismissed the threat, saying that Valeria would go after Baja California, and die for her arrogance. No one bothered the covens of Tijuana without paying with their life.

But Valeria has challenged Maria, and now there are three armies on the battlefield, and it is the goddamn apocalypse. There is fire, and snarling and yelling, and so much smoke. She takes off the head of one of Valeria’s commanders, the arms off a newborn, and has one of Emile’s coven members in her sight when a vision flares around her.

Maria stalking the battlefield, ash clinging to the lace of her skirt, Reina trailing after her. They find Leon’s head, and Maria grimaces, finishing the job. In one pit, Mateo’s leg is found, with the scar mottling his thigh; another reveals a clump of burnt flesh with a tangle of Ariana’s hair still clinging to it.

Something shiny in the ashes catches Maria’s eye; a dented and tarnished coin on a piece of filthy string.  

The letters on the dog tag are long since worn away, but she knows what they once said. She knows who wore those tags.

And then she is alone, and running. Her feet kick up dirt and mud, her short hair whips at her face. She left the Major’s tags behind, the one thing that she ever kept for herself, in that pile of ashes. A difficult parting, but perhaps it is the ferryman’s toll, to pass through the land of the dead safely.

She keeps running and running and running.

This moment is hers, and is it finally here. She can leave, get away safely. There will be no righteous fury, justified retribution, or final stand. She will simply go quietly, and leave behind enough evidence for a peaceful assumption. 

The Major’s dog tag slips through her fingers, and lands in the ashes silently; as soon as it falls, she is running, running, running.

Away from San Fernando, from Monterrey and Mexico, from Texas and the South.

It always felt so impossible, to untangle herself from the strings that kept her at Maria’s side, in the south, and simply leave. 

But once she starts to run, the dirt of Mexico under her feet, it feels like she will never ever stop. 

Chapter Text

Five.   Borrow a new knight from another board

It’s bad. 

It’s really, really bad.

Having to explain it all to his family was one of the hardest things he has ever had to do. Even worse than having to confess to another ‘slip’. At least that is sort-of fixable – for them, at least. 

But to stand in the living room, and look at them all, and tell them an army is coming – for them all …

He hates himself.

He hates himself, he hates Victoria, he hates Edward and Bella and everything that lead to this very moment, as he watches Esme flinch, and Rosalie scowl. As he feels five different strands of fear, resignation, anger, and worry flavour the room. 

They are not cut out for this. How does he explain that? That what comes next has no time for manicures or mercy; for earnest speeches and surrender? That it is kill or be killed, and it is fast. That he can go out there, and he can destroy Victoria’s army, or he can go out there and keep the Cullens alive.

He cannot do both.

The miserable silence is broken, finally, by Esme. 

She squares her shoulders and stands up, setting aside the mending she was doing – infinitely tiny stitches on one of Carlisle’s shirts that will be virtually invisible to the human eye. Delicate, precise work that goes unnoticed in how flawless it is.

How many garments has Esme repaired for them all, without them really noticing?

How many times has Esme stitched something up so that no one thinks about the ruin that came before?

She looks him in the eye, and there is a steel in her gaze that he has not seen before. It is the antithesis of her carefully styled hair, the linen dress, even the delicate gold jewelry that she wears; of whom Esme is to all of them. Truly, when considered, it is Esme who is their humanity, their grace and love and hope.

Their fierce determination to do what is right.

“What do we do, Jasper?” Her voice rings out firm and certain in the silence of the room, and they all look at him.

“We fight.” His voice is dubious, his lack of confidence in their ability to learn in days what took him decades evident in every word. Evident in the emotions swirling around the room.

He shakes his head. No. This does not - cannot - end like this. Protecting Bella Swan - an innocent if he ever met one - is not the hill the Cullens will die on.

He looks at them all again.

No matter what their beginnings were, they are built for this. They are capable of this. They just have never needed to before.

“I will teach you.”

It is not as simple as just teaching them to fight. It is simply one step towards some sort of plan.

There are so many variables consider. The first and most urgent is finding out precisely when Victoria will attack.

It takes some arranging, honestly. He leaves Carlisle, Esme, and Edward to play diplomats to the wolves, who are more responsive than he expected. They’re still difficult and frustrating, their emotions like overlapping sandpaper, but not as actively disagreeable as he anticipated. 

Jacob Black will fight for Bella, that is certain, and the rest of the pack would not abandon him to a vampire battle. And, as the alpha said so frankly, “any reason to sink their teeth into leeches is a good one”. (He understands, in a broad sense, why they are enemies, why the wolves hate them. But they were both human once, before the monster came bursting out, and he thinks that the wolf pack could be… valuable one day. Amiable. Maybe.)

And all the while they must keep up their human appearances – he, Edward, and Bella prepare to graduate from Forks High, suffering through endless festivities that will be more meaningless than usual if he cannot keep them safe. It is made even more difficult when Chief Swan awkwardly corners Esme and invites the family to the modest graduation party he is holding for Bella.

There is a very special level of hell reserved for sitting around Bella’s backyard, nursing a can of sour-smelling soda, and being expected to make conversation with other Forks High graduates and their parents. The Quileute boys stick uncomfortably close to both him and Edward, like the wet-dog-scented bodyguard he never wanted. Chief Swan is little more than a cloud of curiosity and distrust during their brief conversation about his college options.

It takes longer than it should to remember exactly which colleges he is pretending to apply to.

Esme is in her element though, flitting around to talk to everyone; the little cakes she so carefully created are a success – her platter is cleared quickly, and her smile is bright. Little lies come to her easily, about getting her ‘youngest two’ through senior year, and Emmett and Rosalie’s ‘adventures in college’. Carlisle shadows her, genial and clearly respected, but it amuses him that as at ease as Carlisle is with humans, and their blood, he is still a little of the awkward academic he would have been in any other life. 

The party dwindles after nine; there are more than a dozen parties happening in Forks, and many of them more exciting than Bella Swan’s backyard, but some people linger on, until almost midnight. Somehow, they managed to be the last ones left, to help with clean up, and he is vaguely envious of Rosalie and Emmett being able to escape this special brand of torture. Of empty cans that still dribble beer, and paper plates smeared with sugary frosting or yellowing grease. The smell is something like rot and mould and… and…

The smell is little more than a whisper on the wind, and it is more good luck than planning that prevents Charlie Swan from seeing all four of the Cullens snap to attention as the unfamiliar scent of salt and venom floats towards them. It is faint, lingering: whomever it belongs to is in the region, but not close enough to be an immediate risk to Forks.

But someone is on the move. Investigating.

Spying.

“Jacob is looking into it,” Edward murmurs, as the remaining Quileute boys duck towards the forest with hard expressions on their face that make them seem much older. Evidently, they have decided the spy is a bigger risk to Bella than leaving her behind with the Cullens. 

The party is well and truly over.

The message comes from the wolves the next morning, via Edward, who is still frantic with worry over Bella.

“Three others have been scented in the area,” he says grimly. “Victoria, the one who was scented at Bella’s, and a third.”

Scouts, obviously. It is the most basic element of warfare – knowledge is power, especially in battle. If he considers it, he is surprised that he hasn’t scented more newborns in the area. Carlisle has been keeping meticulous note of the newspapers from the entire peninsula, both horrified and relieved that the slaughter is, for now, being contained to Seattle. But even a city of Seattle’s size can only sustain an army of newborns so long. 

The careful list on his desk, of missing people, grows every few days - even when a body is found, and the name is crossed out, there are too many. Too many dead, but far more missing.

No one is voicing the question they all have: where were the Volturi?

Instead, they keep busy. There must always be a front line.

And so, they must prepare. 

Teaching Emmett and Edward decades of strategy is no easy task, and he is not a particularly patient or easy teacher.

Edward is the quicker study, simply because he can pluck Jasper’s thoughts from his head, but Emmett is the better student. Emmett listens, Emmett falls down and stands up, and learns. Edward hears, but never learns. Emmett’s gift does not allow shortcuts, and Edward has always pushed away the things that make them Other from humanity. 

The dining room becomes the war room, with maps, scavenged board-game markers, and notes. He traces replacement maps freehand as needed, and is mildly irritated when they aren’t as precise as the ones he used all those decades ago.

Teaching Esme and Rosalie is different. He has never doubted Rosalie’s lethality; not in stilettos, not in school, and not even then she has that look that she only gives Emmett. Rosalie is a predator in body and mind; human or vampire. She is a quick study at strategy, and is both eager and resistant to moving on to physical training.

He feels the same.

Esme is slower to grasp his lessons; the perpetual mother figure and matriarch, she never had the rage and feral passion of the early days, according to the stories Jasper has heard. No, one Miss Esme Platt was raised back up as a lady who might suffer the odd ‘lapse in judgement’, but was certainly no monster or villain. As Rosalie traces paths of no return on the maps, Esme is marking known properties of local families, to make sure they are safe-guarded.

Carlisle is filled in on the lessons by him and Edward, alternatively; between monitoring the newspapers, work at the hospital, and a sudden request of a consult in Neah Bay and surrounds, he is too pressed for time to hunch over the dining room table, and play the hastily-assembled strategy puzzles Jasper has created to teach him something.

They are all on alert when Neah Bay’s urgent consult involves two dead hikers. They hold their breath, Bella carefully ensconced in the centre of the house as they wait for what feels like the inevitable, but Carlisle returns with the certainty that it was no rogue or newborn.

Accidents do happen, after all.

“Again.”

Finally, physical training begins. Far away from Esme’s pristine gardens, where no one will hear the echo of stone flesh, or the extensive profane vocabulary they have all mastered over the years. It is terrifying to be back in the ring as a trainer, as the leader, like a slippery slope right back into bloody hell. At least this time, he has a manifesto, a flag, a cause to fight for. That is what he clings to, in the back of his mind. They do not die like this.

“Again.”

It is curious, how little they get to use their physicality. Everything in their lives forces them to temper their strength and speed - school, the house and furnishings, humans, even human clothing. Now, to let it loose and stretch themselves and their abilities… it feels wrong and wonderful.

“Again.”

Edward is frustrated, agitated, by how repetitive training is. There’s only so many times the youngest of the family can land in the dirt and lose the match, before he is irritated, certain of his skill. Always worrying away at Bella, at how safe she is on the reservation whilst they prepare. His dismissiveness is little more than anticipation coiled tight, for a desire for it to be over, and  that Jasper understands.

“Again.”

Emmett is positively gleeful to finally get a win on a brother who cannot be pranked in any way. The ability and consent to throw a punch with all his power behind it (he still misses Jasper, but fells an unfortunate and rather spectacular tree), to push harder-faster-stronger. And somehow, as Emmett lines up again, he can see in that wildness, that freedom, control settling in his brother’s limbs. Perhaps he should have done this long ago. 

“Again.”

Carlisle and Esme are both too timid, too generous, in their approach. They temper their speed and response in case of a peaceful surrender, in case of reason and order. Nothing will provoke them, nothing will make them quick to anger (not like Emmett, who is easily provoked; or Edward, who saw red when he thought vividly of all the ways everything could go wrong for Bella.)

“Again.”

It is a punch thrown to make a point (mostly frustration), that has Esme toeing the line, and Carlisle trying harder, and he can’t say he’s ever been prouder than when Esme puts Emmett in the dirt on his back. When Carlisle has Edward pinned against a boulder. When they are dirt-covered, black eyed, and a hell of a lot more certain.

(What really needs to be said about Rosalie, truly? Their merry murderess has always been a quick learner, and is top of the class. She takes the others down swiftly - though he doesn’t mention that she and Emmett pull their punches for each other. She doesn’t back down up against him, either, and it is her that wipes the dirt from her face, gets back onto her feet, and demands a rematch.)

“Again.”

Every single time any of them express confidence or hope that they can make this work, that they can make it through, something goes terribly wrong. Another slaughter in Seattle (this time, a late-night poetry slam); the wrong scent on the wind; Bella’s house reeking of a stranger; news of border scuffles from the wolves (they have managed to catch and destroy two intruders, but it doesn’t help, not really); Tanya’s polite and regretful refusal to get involved (damn Irina and Laurent to the pits of hell.)  

This time, it is Bella that brings bad news. Or rather, Edward brings Bella, rigid with tension and pale from lack of sleep. She hadn’t wanted to worry them, not on the night of a planned hunt, and with the wolves running patrols.

The story comes out in pieces - a missing sweater; a hand-print on the outside of a second-story window; the sound of footfalls late at night, with Charlie Swan’s snores still echoing. All things that could’ve - should have - been mentioned before now, and he is angry.

Somehow in the face of his anger and her own fear, Bella manages to spit out the previous night’s events - arriving home to strands of red hair precisely arranged across both Bella and her father’s pillows, and broken windows in the kitchen. Charlie Swan was blaming idiot kids.

“I woke up last night,” she manages, twisting the hem of her sweater between her hands. “Um, it would have been after midnight and I went down to get some water, and I saw her.”

“Who?” His words are quick, biting, and he feels Bella’s emotions flinch, as she moves closer to Edward.

“A girl, she looked like a kid. She was just standing in the street, looking at the house. I didn’t recognise her.” 

“That’s good,” Esme is encouraging, but her fear leaks through.

“She was standing underneath the street light and her eyes were red,” the words are practically whispered. “Really red, I’m sure of it.”

They hiss and sigh and swear, and everything has just gotten much worse. Immortal fucking children.

Carlisle begins to explain to Bella why vampiric children are so dangerous, and why she must be mistaken (no child could possibly have restrained themselves in such a way, could have survived long enough to grasp the tentative strands of control), but Jasper tastes his own fear and resignation. Can feel the tension and terror in the room, fizzing against his gift. Everything feels very distant as he turns over everything in his mind.

Victoria has raised an army that even Maria would not have dared to attempt. This isn’t vengeance, or a war, it’s meant to be a goddamn annihilation. Of Bella, of the Cullens, of Forks.

This is not the hill the Cullens will die on. I will not allow it.  

The night they meet to train with the wolves is cool but clear, as they make their way towards the clearing. Bella is shivering under endless layers of clothing, and her emotions are sluggish – despite insisting upon being present, she is exhausted and would be better off tucked up in bed. But she had insisted, and Edward is … odd about the requests of Bella’s he grants. 

(And whilst he had appeared unimpressed at her inclusion, the possibility of an immortal child stalking the streets of Forks… at least here they can see her. Protect her.)

Emmett’s attention is captured by animals darting just outside their path; but they have hunted, and Carlisle has requested they refrain from hunting near either the wolves or Bella. It was important to appear as human as possible in front of the wolves; or rather, distance themselves from the more … controversial aspects of their nature. 

The wolves… he is still surprised at their sheer size, at their presence. He is not old enough to have ever met werewolves before now, but they are nothing like what he has heard described. There is something perfectly natural - and simultaneously unnatural - about them. Their eyes, he decides. They are too human, too knowing. Despite all that he knows from Bella and Edward about the wolves and their behaviour, about the rage and passion and violence, these animals are no beasts; they are, of course, intelligent and in control. To assume anything less would be a mistake. 

His mind is running through the possibilities as they gather, as Edward translates for the wolves; what would Maria, Emile, any of the Southern clans do for something like the Quiluete shapeshifters? A strong, righteous army; coordinated beyond anything vampires could manage? They are in danger as much as they are a danger. 

But he needs to set those thoughts aside. They are something to worry over later, with Carlisle’s counsel; but if he is willing to lead these wolf-boys into their own fight, use them for the Cullens’ purpose - however righteous - he would be remiss not to offer the same in kind.

He is going through the motions, gesturing to the joints and vulnerabilities of the vampiric body on Edward, but something is amiss. Everybody is listening, and he keeps talking, a few ugly details slipping into his descriptions (how to tear, where to rip, what to burn, to grind into the dirt, to incapacitate). He warns them against looking too hard at their faces (Seattle is close, and there are so very many missing; a babysitter, a cousin, an old neighbour…).

But even now, marvelling at the size and muscle of the wolves, at the insightful questions and comments from his family and the Quiluetes, he wishes fiercely he had been able to track down Peter and Charlotte. Just one soldier, one body, who knows what is coming would be his version of divine intervention, of religious conviction. Of certainty he cannot have as the wolf he suspects is little Seth Clearwater cannot contain the energy any longer, and shakes, shifting and wriggling. 

A child. Children, most of them. He wants to sit down in the mud, and put his head in his hands and yell and swear, and tell them the goddamned truth. That the best of them are Emmett and Rosalie, maybe Jacob and Sam, and that he gave up leading people into battle before their goddamned grandparents were born. That this isn’t his goddamned responsibility

But he doesn’t. He nods at Edward’s wary look, and moves forward to demonstrate, to call Emmett up and show them something, anything, that might prepare them for what is to come.

The scent on the air isn’t unfamiliar.

For a moment, he isn’t in the middle of the forest in dreary Washington. For a moment, he can feel the hot winds of Mexico, can almost see the red dirt and sand stretching out before him; the shadow over him is the dilapidated old manse Maria was so proud of.  

And he smells salt and flowers, and the unnecessary breath in his lungs vanishes.

“A girl, she looked like a kid.”  

“She was standing underneath the street light and her eyes were red.”

Divine intervention is neither divine nor a true intervention.

It is so much better than that.

He is staring, and it is like his body has shut down – his limbs are locked in place, and his gaze is fixed upon her, waiting for reality to correct itself.

She slips from the shadows, as if she has been formed from them just in that moment. Her dark hair curls against her cheeks, contrasting dramatically against the red glow of her eyes and her pale skin. She wears a filthy hoodie, one intended for a child with ragged cat ears on the hood, a torn plaid dress, and leggings so shredded they resemble spider web.

And what looks like Bella’s blue sweater, as a cape scented against the wolves. 

For a moment, her emotions swallow him up – suspicion, fear, disgust, uncertainty, shame, anticipation. It is like a spill of oil, suffocating his gift with them, and then they are gone. Just the strange sensation that he always associated with her and her uncanny ability to hide her emotions, that is like the vibrations of an insect, or something he can only describe as ‘fuzzy’, like Rosalie’s sweaters.

She isn’t Peter or Charlotte; both of whom he always greets with hugs, with grins and jokes and the sort of camaraderie that Emmett, for one, finds fascinating. She is the impossible. She is supposed to be very much dead, and yet she appears at the eleventh hour, looking every bit as beautiful, and maybe a little more terrible, than he remembers.

“Hello, Major. I heard you might need some help.”

Her voice is high and sweet, her face utterly serious, and he has the overwhelming urge to laugh right now, which he blames on spending too much time with Emmett. Laugh because she is alive, and because she is here, and he has no idea what to say to her, even after all these years.

She’s fucking alive.  

“Mary-Alice.” His voice sounds more certain than he feels, and he suddenly wonders why he ever thought to believe Maria.

Maria always lies.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

You had to look inside me to see the scar

What does freedom feel like?

It feels like everything and nothing. It makes her feel very small but very powerful.

It makes the empty space where her human memories are supposed to be seem impossibly vast.

It feels like she has been remade - no better or worse, just different - and with every step away from Mexico, she fits another piece of this new self into place.

So she keeps running.

She tries not to peek, pushes the visions that aren’t directly involved in her current safety to the back of her mind.

Now is not the time.

Not to time to look and see the Major and his family, to plan her escape to their peace.

Not the time to try and figure out where he is, and how she is supposed to get there. To decipher names and places and topography into some kind of map.

Now is not the time to look forward and see if she even makes it there; if there is anything waiting for her after this.

Now is not the time to think or consider or worry.

It is time to keep moving, keep watching, keep ready.

Just keep moving.

That was the very first rule the Major ever taught her about battle. Stillness meant death. If you were moving, you might lose a limb - but that could be fixed later. But to pause, to stop, to wait…

She moves faster.

How long does she run, really?

It feels like nothing, but it feels like everything. There’s sand, and rock, and road, and mud. There’s sun she hides from, there’s long cloudy nights that smell wrong.

The first time she stops running in the middle of a forest, right next to a river. The forest is so green, it feels like it is burning itself into her eyes. The smell of damp and rotting leaves almost wraps itself around her, and she can hear the rustle of birds and small prey around her. The early morning light has a different kind of brightness than it ever was in Mexico, filtering through the trees.

It’s enough to distract her, to make her forget the dust on her dress is also ash; that there is no chain around her neck weighing her down.

Enough for her not to notice the family camping on the other side of the river, until it’s too late. Wide eyes, clean clothes, and pounding hearts.

They want to help her, and they do.

She takes the little girl’s sweater, because it fits her and somehow there’s no blood on it.

And then she keeps running.

She finds herself in the city. A city? Its name isn’t important. It wasn’t chosen for any reason beyond her proximity to it. It’s a city with no overwhelmingly singular vampiric scent, so no covens have claimed it as territory. It is teeming with humans and animals - mostly reeking vermin - that will help erase her path through the streets. It’s been a long time since she’s come across a gifted tracker, but she can’t be too careful. Not now, when she by herself without anyone at her back, without any claims or power or allies.

The city is the easiest place she’s ever been, really. When they took people for the armies, the local priest would pray for their safe return, and then - after a time - their peaceful deaths. People knew not to linger too long on the streets after dark; spirituality, religion, and long-forgotten truths congealed into an unspoken fear of what lay beyond their neat little human worlds. They thought a little cross or a yelled prayer might spare them.

Here, there is no fear, no caution. There is no time or interest or awareness. Just people, constantly moving. She kills a man who spits at her and tells her to go home to her mother, and leaves his body amongst the garbage, with his throat torn away.

She likes the people.

Not to hunt. Well, not only to hunt. They make it easy, with all the dark alleys and forgotten corners, with the stillness of late night. But she likes watching them. At the way they react to the people around them, familiar or foreign; at the way they move and hurry and stumble; at the ridiculous mess of clothing - new, old, elaborate, plain. They carry food and flowers and small animals, and they just… are. Constantly in motion, from the click of high-heeled shoes on the sidewalk, to the thump of their hearts.

But then, she hates the stench of so many human bodies together, of waste and garbage and damp. She hates the constant prickling hum of neon signs, and the filth of their transport, and the rotting remains of human food. Sometimes all the things she hates about it feels like it is choking her, holding her down, and she misses the sand, the ocean, the solitude.

She stays anyway.

Days and nights jumble together, and she doesn’t keep track of them. For that time, she simply is.

She learns how to steal. Clothes usually, though she gives up on shoes quickly, and she refuses to be parted with her hooded sweater. Sometimes small, forgotten things - a lost button, some change, a bit of ribbon. Little things, things she can keep and claim. Little bits of treasure she finds in the gutter, when the rest of the world is asleep.

It takes time, until she realises she’s waiting, again. Waiting for… something. Anything. A direction, a purpose, a plan. Her visions remain reluctant and unhelpful, showing her nothing more useful than a particularly beautiful dress being strung up on a clothes line, a broken bracelet in a gutter, a drunk slumped down the side of a dumpster - links in a chain of days, nothing even slightly helpful.

She steals more clothes, she kills more drunks, she watches and waits. She ignores the few glimpses of Maria her visions shove at her. She doesn’t want to know. She can’t know - it’s not like she can ever go home again.

It’s not like she even has a home beyond the reeking alleys and backstreets of whichever city she’s in. ‘Home’ is an out-of-commission subway tunnel, or a forgotten warehouse. ‘Home’ is the night sky, when she can creep across the city, and find something new to see. ‘Home’ is being utterly alone for the very first time she can remember, and… it’s really not home at all. Those are just the times she doesn’t have to hold her breath tight, hold her very self tight, and slip through a human world that feels more like a bear trap than any sort of freedom.

This is what being lost is, and she doesn’t care for it at all.

Sometimes she lets herself think. She finds herself a place for the day, and sometimes she’ll let herself be weak, let her mind run wild.

She wonders what it will be like, seeing the Major again.

On one hand, he’s been gone for a long time, lived a lifetime without her and Maria. Maybe he’s different. Maybe he’ll be confused, when she shows up. That in her story, he was the sun, the lost treasure map, the King on the chess board. But in his, she’s like the grains of sand that she’d shed on her runs back from the beach; the button that gets lost in the street, or just another newborn, another soldier.

Maybe he won’t want her with his family. A refugee that will be sent on her way.

She doesn’t like those thoughts; she shoves them in the back of her mind where she doesn’t linger, and smothers down the panic, the hopelessness that wells up when the little voice in her head whispers “what if…”

Instead, she thinks about if he’s the same. If being ‘Jasper’ has swallowed up everything the Major was. It’s hard for her to quantify, that difference. For her, his title is symbolic of every nuance, the very essence of him to her - the harsh words that were the difference between life and death; the way he’d take her hands in his before he’d lean down to kiss her on their days alone; the time he took to explain things, his hands gesturing as he spoke.

If she were a different kind of girl, she’d think maybe all those little things about him that she’s collected and tucked behind her dead old heart might mean something. But for now, they are touchstones of her hope for something a little better than what’s behind her.

She is curled in the metal rafters of an old warehouse, watching clouds pass over the night sky through a hole in the roof. A new treasure - a strand of blood-red beads - is twisted around her fingers. It is just another night - there is absolutely nothing special about the day, the week, the month…

Red hair. Vengeance, rage, loss written over a face. Running south, like a bullet.

Sand on bare feet, the tilt of a familiar chin, a blood-red smirk.

Maria, complete with a new scar down her face. Newborns she cannot recognise, quiet, solemn Reina at Maria’s side.

And then green, so much green that it feels like it is a living, breathing mass. A sign that she cannot quite read, but she saw a human map once, with each of the states labelled with two letters. She knows W-A - it’s right up the top, further than she’s ever gone.

An army - feral, raging newborns with no training and one direction.

The Major. The Major, caught unaware, furious and terrified. The Cullens, vulnerable but determined.

And then death.

The vision clears as instantly as it began, just in time for the string between her fingers to break, and send a small rain of red beads down to the concrete below.

But she is already moving before the last bead hits the ground.

Move faster, Mary-Alice!

It’s not easy to get as far north as the Major and his family are. There might not be war, there might not be battles, but there are territories and threats and risks.

And she is confusing to them. She is small enough that they think she is - was -  young (perhaps even too young, but they are cautious enough not to outright accuse her of the highest of crimes). But then, they glimpse her scars, and they are defensive. They want her gone.

But they don’t know exactly how dangerous she is. After all, she’s a small girl in an ill-fitting dress. They think they can scare her. They think they can threaten her.

Some of them let her pass by. Others need to be taught a lesson. But she makes it north.

Of course she makes it north. She made it through the wars, she made it through the South, through Mexico and Monterrey and out the other side. Nothing has ever stopped her going exactly where she needs to be, and she’ll be damned if she falters before the finish line.

She makes it to the city, and then she is stuck. She cannot read, so the sign in her vision is nothing more than hieroglyphics in her irritated mind. In stolen, dirty clothing, she isn’t a welcome patron of bookshops or libraries, plus it is not yet… wise to venture into close human quarters.

So she wanders, waiting for a trigger, for a vision, for a goddamn compass to point her in the right direction. She walks the night streets, finding the solitary and the homeless to keep her sated and balanced. She traces the symbols in fogged and greasy glass to try and decipher it, to try and know something.

Six long nights - and longer days - she is there before she writes it on a bus-station window, her lines fluid and clear now that she has drawn them so many times.

“Going to Forks, love?”

She looks over at the man bundled up in clothing, clutching a paper cup of some reeking fluid. He’s got a bag bundled next to him, and his cheeks are bright red and unshaven. Reeking and unremarkable, his interruption might have saved his life.

“Forks?” she asks, her voice sweet but curious.

“Up north.” He coughs wetly, and Alice wonders if he’s ill. She’s seen humans die of illness back up in Mexico, and it is fascinating and terrible to watch. “Not much up there, it’s a small town.”

She looks at what she’s written, and looks back at him. “What does it say?” her voice is girlish and bewildered, when she wants to shake this man until he answers every question she has.

“The City of Forks,” the man recites obediently. “Part of their sign. Worked up there, few years back.” Then he studies her. “Can’t you read it? You wrote it.”

“No, I can’t read.” She frowns and nods. “North.” She turns to leave.

“Honey, where are your shoes?” he calls after her, but she doesn’t turn back as she walks forward into the darkness, with a purpose. She’s already out of the city when she thinks maybe she should have thanked him, but figures leaving him alive was probably thanks enough.

She gets halfway through a massive forest when she stops. She freezes and sniffs the air like a common dog, before she scampers up into the canopy of trees. Oh, she doesn’t like that smell at all. She’s dealt with the pyres, with dismemberment and dying humans, with the reek of the city, and the stench of humanity, but never has she smelt anything like that. It is foul, and it is dangerous.

And it makes getting further north very, very irritating - she kicks down a tree in a temper when she realises her visions are blocked by whatever emits the stench, forcing her to search for the path around the darkness.

But she makes it (she goes too far north at first, and startles a pair of hikers into grievous harm, and well, waste not want not). She makes it to the sign, in the middle of a grim, rainy night, and this must be how the pious feel in front of an altar.

She cannot stay (“Always keep moving, Mary-Alice”) because the stench that has chased her through the forests still trails her, and she’s no fool.

But she made it.

She made it.

The days that follow are a jumble. She finds haven in an old cave near a river; good for covering her presence, her scent. Away from the people of Forks, away from whatever is blocking her visions, and away from the Major.

It takes no time, then, to find the redhead in her visions, to find her paths and follow them back closer to the town. To find the house the redhead stalks. Watches her steal clothing, press her pale hands against the windows, and crouch in a tree, watching and waiting.

(Why the same house? What is so interesting about the girl and the man?)

She watches and waits, and then steals a sweater for herself, to cover up the scent of her presence in case the redhead gets curious. She follows the man between his work and his home in the early evenings. She can’t follow the girl, because her visions disappear, but she always reappears at dusk, the stench clinging to her clothes and her hair.

She trails after the redhead - the woman is fast, but she is faster. The woman occasionally brings companions with her - newborns, she realises, with apprehension. Old enough to know their power, to wield their strength, but young enough to cause devastation.

She follows and listens and watches and tries to piece the entire piece together; there’s a human girl involved, and the Cullens, and the redhead - Victoria - feels the need to raze the Cullens and the town to the ground in some kind of retribution.

Huh. It’s an original dilemma, and Alice thought she’d seen them all. She trails Victoria and whichever newborn she brings with her, watches from the crooks of tree branches with Isabella’s sweater wrapped around her shoulders. She kills more than one wandering newborn, grimly aware of what would transpire if they make it into the small town.

She finds smouldering remains of others, and wonders if she’ll cross paths with the Cullens. No one else in this town would be able to destroy a newborn, even if she hasn’t seen any visions of them finding Victoria’s rogues.

(She’s not even a little bit ready to acknowledge Maria’s role in this. That Maria is almost the architect of this disaster, and she wonders if the old harpy knows, knows that it is the Major and the Cullens, and this is her farewell gift. It’s no question whose side Alice herself would take, but she is repulsed by the idea this is Maria’s fault, of Maria’s design.)

It is a muddle of calm and anticipation; of fear and curiosity. A veritable balancing act of watching Victoria, of watching Isabella Swan, and remaining unseen.

She wonders why she’s waiting. She’s here to help the Major, but she hasn’t even sought him out. She’s not naive enough to pretend she’s trying to make up for her past, by watching over the humans. She’s not stuck in a girlish stupor, so close and yet so far to her intended target. The best she can come up with is that, when it comes down to it, she is an old soldier, trained and tested. And no soldier goes into battle without knowing the field, without knowing the players, the pieces, and the price.

In the few days she lingers around the peninsula, around Forks, the stench creeps a little bit closer to her hideout, wiping away any and all of her foresight. She has no choice, no map, no path. She has no idea what the next right move is. She cannot make a leap of faith, convince herself that whatever divine power gifted her the visions will see her to the Major’s side no matter what.

She has made waiting an art form, and she is goddamned tired of it.

Victoria beats her to making the first move. A convenient motorcycle accident has provided her with blood, but it is at the throat of the victim when the vision hits.

Every single one of the windows, smashed in.

Two bedroom doors splintered down the middle.

The man sprawled out on the floor, his eyes wide in horror and face white, with his throat ripped through to the bone of his spine.

Blood splattered on the wallpaper, smeared with fingers that cut into the wall like a knife.

And Isabella, dead. The most dead anyone could possibly ever be. She has seen human death in a hundred different ways, and this… this takes her back to the humans in the shed, the day that Maria found the Major gone.

It is inconvenient, but no other word quite describes Victoria so well. She growls, forgetting to pocket the dead man’s watch as she hurriedly cleans up, leaving a convincing, if bloody, accident scene. It is already late, no one will find it until morning, when the animals have taken their fill.

She runs, Isabella’s sweater billowing out behind her, as she dives through the forest; she can see her path to the town, to the house, clearly for now - whatever is blocking her visions has vanished for now, thankfully. Perhaps Victoria was evading it as well? A thought for another time she decides as she slips between the houses and closer toward Isabella’s residence.

Victoria’s scent is everywhere, and she feels the growl rumbling in her chest as she slips down the street, sniffing and watching for any of the newborns. The night is as still as a human town gets. There is no blood on the air, no lights on inside the houses, just Victoria’s trail.

She sees the plastic garbage bags taped over some of the windows at the Swan house, crackling in the breeze, and she is watching the house when she spies Victoria, perched on the roof. There is a monstrous smile on the woman’s face, as her plan takes shape, and Alice wonders were the Cullens are. Isabella has been so well guarded, away from the house. Why is she alone now?

She steps into the pool of light the feeble street lamp gives off, and growls low, in warning. Victoria’s gaze meets hers, and for a second, they are locked together. As vampires, who know the push and pull of instincts and senses that humans cannot comprehend; as women who have been disappointed by the stacked deck their second life has dealt them, and as old predators who have their eyes on the same pound of flesh.

She tilts her head so that the scar above her right eye catches the light; an unspoken warning, her medal of honour. Victoria’s face is twisted in a vicious scowl; the vision is fading. Isabella will live the night.

Victoria takes off with a throaty snarl, one that rouses a few of the neighbours, but she is already distracted again. By the pale face staring at her from an unbroken window of the Swan house, eyes round in fear. She doesn’t meet the girl’s gaze, just stares at Victoria’s abandoned perch.

Victoria and Isabella both know she’s here now, which means the newborns will know, and the Cullens will be told soon enough - by morning, at least.

This is it.

What she came for.

What she waited for.

And she turns away from the Swan house, walking into the darkness.

Whatever - or whoever - creates the foul smell around the forest rises up as she moves closer towards the Cullen’s land. Her visions have gone dark again, and she’s working with the sheer conviction that the time is now - to reveal herself and what she knows. To plan and prepare.

She is intensely aware she will have to feed again if they wait much longer; that the Cullens do not hunt the locals, and that Victoria is most likely enraged that she was interrupted at the Swan house. Things will happen quickly now; she knows the tension in the air, in the set of Isabella’s shoulders. The heaviness of the air before a battle.

It’s been a while, and whilst she doesn’t miss it in a way that makes her want to seek it out again, she can’t say she doesn’t relish the anticipation of a fight.

The scent of the Cullens and the Major feels like it has seeped into the soil, as she slips through. She slows her pace, and creeps forward, ready to skitter off into the darkness if the situation changes, if whatever has blocked her visions comes swooping down at her.

She finds a perch, and sees them all, with her own eyes, in that moment. The Cullens.

Carlisle, Esme, Rosalie, Emmett, and Edward. (They are no different from her visions. Clean clothes, golden eyes, kind faces.)

Drawn-looking Isabella.

The Major.

And ten of the largest wolves she has ever seen in her long life.

Unnaturally large wolves, that appear to be listening to the Major and to Edward Cullen.

Huh.

It does not take a great intellect to make the connection, to Isabella’s protection, the darkness of her visions, and the reeking trails through the forest. Supernatural wolves.

The Major always manages to surprise her.

As she moves closer, she takes a deep breath, lets her own thoughts and worries slide off her, like water over stone. The Major never did well with … an excess of emotion, and she’s not going to contribute to more stress now, not before battle. She can be that girl, that soldier, again and carry that stillness that protected them both all those years ago. The time for feelings will come eventually. Just not today.

And she can see the tension, the burden he carries, in the way he stands, in the way his jaw is set and the pinched look on his face. Something akin to regret; if it was anyone else, she would guess fear. But not the Major; for him, it is regret, regret at the deaths to come. It is the way of war, after all.

A breeze twists through, dragging her scent towards the clearing and the wolves begin to rumble. There’s a massive tree behind her that she can shinny up quickly enough, but she doesn’t like the indignity of introducing herself from the bower of a spruce. She sees the Major straighten, an air of bewilderment about him, as he half turns towards her.

The look on his face is … unfamiliar. It is incredulity, confusion, and something she cannot name. He opens his mouth to say something, but stops and just stares at her.

“Hello, Major. I heard you might need some help.” She stops at the edge of the clearing, staring up at him, waiting, and not willing to get even an inch closer to the wolves.

She wants to believe there is something almost warm in his eyes when he dips his head in greeting, and if her world was upside down since she started running, his voice tips it upright again as he speaks to her.

“Mary-Alice.”

(She wants to laugh, to sit down in the mud and laugh like a mad girl. How far has she run, how hard has she fought and tricked and waited, just to hear him say her name one more? But she can’t, not yet. Soon. And for once, soon is enough.)

Chapter Text

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.

Silence.

“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.

“Get out.”

“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.”

There’s silence.

“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.

Six.

Three.

One.

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.