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Nightglow

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A playlist of the tracks listed as chapter titles can be found here


 

But oh my dear, I am getting tired of being Alice in Wonderland. Does it sound ungrateful? It is. Only I do get tired.

- Alice Pleasance Hargreaves

 

War loses a great deal of its romance after a soldier has seen his first battle. I have a more vivid recollection of the first than the last one I was in.

- John Singleton Mosby

 

Chapter 1: You're Not Here

My story started when my eyes met theirs. I'd known all along that this was a new chapter in my life, but before that instant there had been no moment of clarity to make it real. My story could just as well have started in Phoenix with my decision to move to Forks and let my mother's whims take her where she wanted to go. It could have started when I got off the plane and embraced Charlie again, realizing that weirdly enough I was home. It could have even started with my first day at a new school where all eyes were on me. Except of course it couldn't have. My eyes met theirs across the lunchroom and that was the moment.

The small girl with the spiky black hair from the next table over had turned in her chair and had stared back at me for a long moment with a blank questioning look on her face before suddenly becoming animated again and breaking out in a friendly smile. This caught the attention of the tall boy with the honey blond hair that she was sitting next to and he turned a pained face towards me with vague curiosity as well. They were both too perfect; it was eerie, like something out of a commercial.

At just that moment a girl I didn't know stopped by my lunch table. She said hi to the girl from my Spanish class whose name I couldn't remember and who was my sole point of familiarity in a sea of unfamiliar faces. That girl standing there between my table and theirs is a little detail that I wouldn't have remembered with any clarity, except that adrenaline and white hot panic flooded through me in that instant and the whole scene is etched into my mind in such vivid detail.

At the time I didn't know what had changed, just that something was suddenly extremely wrong. The boy who was staring at me had shifted his head slightly, like he'd just got a whiff of perfume off of the girl who had walked by, but he never broke eye contact with me. He didn't move beyond that little tilt of his head or give himself away, but his eyes were now staring at me with this horrible black intensity that I couldn't shake off. I was the hare, frozen as I gazed into the snarling mouth of the hound.

He was going to kill me. That was the only thing I could think. I couldn't have articulated what had changed in his eyes, just that it terrified me on some deep primal level that I recognized and trusted with total certainty. He didn't want to scare me or hurt me or fuck me, he wanted to kill me.

I was dimly aware of the pixie like girl beside him. My eyes flicked across her face and I saw panic starting to spread across her pretty features. She knew! Quickly her features smoothed out into cheerful nonchalance, like a stone mask sliding into place over her face, but her eyes never left mine. They were just as black, but softer. I imagined that they held pity for me.

I was alone in the room with these two. There were plenty of people around, but I saw only them and they saw only me. The boy hadn't moved an inch but just the same my instincts told me I'd never make it to the door in time. I had a fork clutched in my right hand ready to swing but I might as well have been holding an apple for all the good I thought it would do me.

Maybe she would pull him off of me in time. Maybe I could push the nameless girl seated beside me into his path and buy a few moments to run.

I was going to die.

It was my first day at a new school and I was going to be killed in the lunchroom for no goddamn reason whatsoever and I didn't understand anything.

A lanky boy at their table kicked the leg of the chair of my would-be aggressor and like that the spell was broken. The man dropped his head in shame and the tiny girl looked away in guilty relief. The boyish one with the messy metallic bronze hair leaned in with a few sharp whispers to the two of them. I look around but no one else seemed to have even noticed. The really big guy and the blond bombshell at their table didn't so much as twitch

"Who are they?" I asked the table around me in a choked whisper.

 

It had only been a moment ago that I'd made up my mind to go talk to the little sprite of a girl and introduce myself. It was a split second decision. There was just something about her. Maybe she seemed cool. Maybe Forks wasn't Phoenix and I wanted to pick my own friends for once instead of letting chance smush me together with people I didn't really connect with. Maybe I'd caught sight of her and hoped there might be that connection.

I had planned to take five deep breaths, walk over to her and introduce myself as Bella, tell her that her ruffled brown gothy sorta dress was impossibly cute, and then hope I didn't get too tongue tied after that to think on my feet or at least to make a non-awkward escape.

Honestly I probably would have chickened out if I'd been given the chance to consider it further, but she looked over at me as soon as I'd made up my mind and then that whole freaky thing happened.

 

"Those are the Cullens," the girl next to me jarred me out of my thoughts, "they moved here a couple of years ago, but seriously, don't even bother."

The girl across the table leaned into the conversation, she was tall and quiet with a gentle smile, "What Jessica means is that those five stick to themselves. They're Doctor Cullen's kids. Well, technically, three of them are Cullens and two of them are Hales. All of them are nice enough but pretty standoffish."

"Oh whatever," Jessica snapped, "they act like they're too good for everyone, throwing money around and always having to get their way. Take Edward Cullen for instance, he doesn't date since he can't find a girl prettier than he is. Well, he can take his stupid perfect face and stuff it!" I got the impression from her sudden outburst that she was personally invested in this subject.

I looked over at the five strangers at the other table again. The thin lanky one with the bronze hair was looking over at us like he'd overheard Jessica's rant. Actually, given her volume, maybe he had. He had a slight crooked smile and the same pale good looks as all his siblings; it was easy to tell they were related. He really was pretty, in a boyish way, and in a year or two he might even end up being devastatingly handsome once he had a chance to grow into it.

"That's the one you were talking about, right?" I said to Jessica, nodding towards the boy. Did my voice sound weird? My heart was still racing.

He turned his attention on me and our eyes met. Any other day and I'd have looked away in a blush, but my head was still swimming from whatever the hell had just happened and my knees had started to shake from all the adrenaline in my system. It seemed to me he was looking at me with something akin to disdain or frustration. The more I stared at his perfect features the less perfect they seemed. He had big ugly dark circles under his eyes and his pale skin was alarmingly white, like, if I saw that tone on a person in distress I'd think they were about to vomit or pass out, but even thinking about it logically like that he still seemed weirdly gorgeous.

The tiny girl near him got up and she really was petite. Alarmingly thin with cheerful features and short raven black hair that was spiked out like she'd spent the last hour with a stylist in order to perfect her look in time for lunch.

She dumped her full tray of food in the trash, unopened soda and all, and stacked her tray with a flourish. I hadn't been prepared for how graceful she was. The whole thing looked choreographed. It was unreal. Then she turned and—there is no way to say this without it sounding like hyperbole instead of a literal statement of fact—she goddamn waltzed to the door. One two three. One two three. Spin. Before dashing away she turned, made sure I was looking at her, and fluttered her fingers in a subtle wave.

Then she was gone. No one else was staring at the door in shock, so I assume the student body had long ago decided to ignore the Cullens acting weird as shit.

I didn't dare take another look at the man who had glared at me. Wishing I could go hide out in the bathroom or something I forced myself to tune back into the conversation and try to salvage the rest of the lunch period.

Jessica was in her element, "…and the big one is Emmett. Next to him is…" I couldn't focus on this right now and she was apparently going over it for my benefit since the two guys nearest to us at the table were still tuned out and talking about their plans to go climbing or hiking or something. The far end of the table beyond them was laughing about something and had been practically ignoring us anyway after my novelty value had worn off.

"Dude, wait, stop," I begged her, putting up my hands in mock surrender, "no more new names please. I haven't remembered basically anyone's name so far today and listing off more people I haven't met yet isn't going to help that."

The girl across the table held out her hand and shook mine. Her movements were crisp and measured.

"Hi, Angela Weber, we met a few minutes ago when you sat down," her tone was teasing but held no hint of maliciousness. "And don't worry about it, I was going to remind you what my name was anyway. I know it's all a lot to take in on your first day."

"Well, pleasure to meet you. I'm Bella Swan, girl of the hour and hopefully not a feature article in the school paper next week," I replied, then I turned to the girl beside me and grabbed her hand, "and you must be Jessica. You might not 'out-pretty' Mr. Pretty Boy over there, but your tan is a hell of a lot better." I pumped her arm in comical fashion and she honestly laughed. It was the first time she'd seemed to be enjoying herself unaffectedly since I'd met her earlier in the day.

Eventually the two boys rejoined our conversation and introduced themselves again. I forgot one of their names again almost right away, but the other one, a handsome darker skinned boy named Tyler, tried to invite me to some kind of beach party this weekend on the La Push reservation.

We didn't talk about the Cullens. I tried to make a point not to look over there again, but when the four of them all got up to leave as a group I couldn't help myself. The big one with the muscular physique turned out to be massive once he actually stood up, like a good foot taller than me. The blond supermodel girl turned out to be supermodel tall as well. Those two didn't really seem like teenagers even. I'd have bought it if I'd been told they were in college. I was staring again, I couldn't help it.

I chanced a look at the man who had terrified me. Thankfully he was looking away. He carried himself like a fighter, loose and coiled at turns. He didn't look particularly happy. He was so smooth—confident and collected in his motions; they all were. Had they been trained to be so graceful? I wondered where their background lay between the admitted extremes of having attended some kind of finishing school or having survived a cult. There was something else too. Boys and girls alike, their faces were all unsettlingly attractive, but they all had different hair colors, and no two noses or jaw lines were quite the same shape. How could they look so uniform but different all at once?

Angela got my attention and let me know it was time for us to go too. She shared Biology II with me next hour. Once we were away from the table and from Jessica we fell into a comfortable silence while walking next to each other. I looked over at her and smiled. She laughed quietly in response. I couldn't help but think we'd both been trying our hardest at lunch.

Honestly, I'd be glad if she turned out to be shy like me. I could hold my own well enough in a group but reaching out to people or opening up to them were not things I did. We grabbed our coats and headed out across the quad to the next building.

My last school was nothing like this. Forks was tiny compared to the endless suburban sprawl of Phoenix, and this school seemed like a diminutive collection of brick huts compared to the impassive majesty of my previous educational gristmill. The matching numbered buildings here were cute to look at, but the buildings themselves were cold and damp. I had thought it would be just another school, but nothing felt familiar at all.

I was used to being invisible and uninteresting, but I was big news here. I guess Forks itself was bland and uneventful on a level far beyond what I was used to. I'd had a quiet High School career; I was too busy being a real fucking adult and dealing with grocery shopping and making sure all the bills got paid. I was so seriously dull that my two best friends were my scatterbrained mother, Renée, and my childhood friend, Jacob Black, who lived right near Forks anyway. I'd never really been a teen before. I'd never had a chance.

We got to the Biology classroom right before the bell rang and Angela went over to her table to talk to her lab partner. I went to the teacher and introduced myself as Bella and had him sign my sheet from the office that I'd been given at the start of the day. Mr. Banner simply gave me a textbook and told me to find a seat.

I'd been doing pretty well with avoiding big introductions today. Only the Trigonometry teacher so far had made a big fuss about calling me Isabella and making me introduce myself to the class. As if me being a blushing stuttering mess at the front of the room was any decent way to let people know who I was.

I turned around to find that all the desks were full. Except for the one with Edward Cullen staring straight ahead like a goddamn Greek statue.

"You've got to be kidding me," I muttered under my breath, and his black eyes flicked towards me. This should be interesting at least. Maybe he could tell me what the hell had happened during lunch.

I pulled out my stool next to him at the big lab table and he stiffened suddenly. The stool dragged on the floor with a horrible grating sound. I flushed at the commotion and gingerly sat down.

I turned to introduce myself and pulled up short. His once noble features were contorted with ugly white hot rage. Tendons taut, his eyes tiny furious abysses of hate, full lips pulled back in a ghoulish scowl. Comical horrifying rage. Because of-fucking-course that's how my day was going to play out.

Chapter Text

I scooted my chair as far away from him as the desk would accommodate, my stool dragging with another awful sound, and he leaned away from me like I was an Ebola victim with blood streaming from my eyes. I wasn’t even really aware of how scared I was, but I knew my breathing had picked up. This was ridiculous.

We both were frozen there staring. A few seconds stretched into half a minute and he was just as livid. I was starting to think he was just going to jump me right here and now. That he was working up the nerve.

I did the only thing I could think of. I kicked the leg of his stool, like I’d seen him do earlier with his brother.

“Hey! Eyes forward! Keep it together.” My voice was quiet and sharp. The class was starting to quiet down, but hopefully it had been lost in the murmur.

At least that snapped him out of it and he looked down at his book. His face settled into a neutral mask. His black pupils were still visibly contracted, but otherwise he seemed to return to normal. He faced forward, the perfect student. Except he still leaned away from me and his forearms were tense enough from gripping the seat of his chair that I was sure he had to be in pain from it.

He was a steel trap held in place by delicate tensions and I wondered what light touch of mine would make him snap. Up close he wasn’t so slight after all. He was much bigger than me and there was nowhere I could run. Saying I felt ill and going to the nurse’s office would be suicide. Well, maybe not literally, but I didn’t want him to follow me and give me a crash course on his inexplicable anger.

The safest place I could be was right here in a room full of people. Like a rabbit caught out in the open, I just had to sit still and hope he moved on.

He was barely breathing. I forced myself to do the same. I faced straight ahead and ignored him. The material that Mr. Banner was going on about was all stuff I’d covered already at my old school. I doodled aimlessly in my notebook and tried to find some distraction that would help me pass this hour. Mercifully enough, time passed.

I ended the hour with a page full of anxious dark scribbles and no idea what the topic of the lecture had been. As soon as the bell rang he was gone. His stool wobbled with the force of his departure and he didn’t so much open the door as shoulder his way through it with a loud bang. Students began to rise from their seats around me and the cold numbness of his presence began to give way to hot shame and anger.

My salvation came in the form of a cute boy who walked up to me and aggressively sought my attention before the brooding could really set in. I’d never been so happy to be arguably quasi flirted with.

“Hi, I’m Mike. You’re Isabella, right?”

“Bella actually, but yeah.” His face lit up in a friendly smile. He had styled blond hair and an upturned button nose.

“Cool, I saw you in English but I didn’t have a chance to say hi earlier. So, uh, did you piss in Edward’s Cheerios or what?”

“Yes. Yes I did,” I was so tempted to describe in detail exactly how I had accomplished such a feat but I was already starting to blush and I didn’t want to start stuttering too, “Man, fuck, I don’t know. He just kinda freaked on me as soon as I sat down. Is he always so weird?”

Mike looked oddly pleased with my response, “Weird, yes! Vaguely homicidal, not so much. I was ready to jump in when you kicked his chair, but whatever you said worked I guess.”

If I thought I was blushing before, now I was beet red.

“If it helps,” he continued, “I don’t think anyone else really noticed that much. I only saw it because I was looking for a chance to introduce myself before class. I’d keep my distance from him and his whole family if I were you. Anyway, I have gym next hour. Which way are you headed?”

It turns out we shared a gym class and he walked me there chattering away at me. It was kind of nice actually. He was easy to get along with and had this sorta boyish charm. He was apparently from California and he commiserated with me about our shared exile to this gloomy green hell that was Washington state. He knew everyone just about and pointed people out to me as we walked.

Gym was tolerable just because I got to sit out. Coach Clapp got me a uniform for the next day, signed my slip from the office, and went over the rules of volleyball with me. I was dreading this the most. I’d managed to get out of gym at my old school but it seemed totally mandatory here and I’d have to endure it for the next year and a half. Words can’t describe how much I’m dreading this.

I’m a serious klutz, like maybe there is something seriously wrong with me. I have zero coordination. I mean, it’s like a bad joke; anytime I try to do sports or anything I basically get dizzy and fall over. Sudden movements or even running can cause it and then I just lose it, like the whole room feels like it spins round and I’m wrong way up on the ceiling or something and my feet slip out from under me. Plus, I’m so out of shape it takes pretty much nothing before I start to get nauseous from the exertion. It only lasts for a tiny bit of time when it does happen and in my everyday life I’m fine as long as I move slowly and remember to sleep on my stomach.

To make things worse I’ve suffered some breaks over the years, both arms and my left leg, plus several concussions. It’s fucking awful. I’ve just learned better now. Plus all three healed spots hurt sometimes in the cold, which is something I just started relearning yesterday since it almost never got chilly enough during the day in Arizona. Basically with this and my pale skin I’m kind of a freak and it’s not going to take long before people here figure it out too.

I sat there watching the four volleyball games that were running and I started to get mad again. I already had my own shit to deal with. I was in a new town that I didn’t really want to live in. I had to deal with Charlie, my father, and I was just so awkward around him. We didn’t have anything to talk about. I wasn’t even sure I liked him, much less loved him. I had a noisy clunker of a truck, which I cherished in a way since it seemed safe and indestructible, but I wasn’t sure how well it would run given time and once it broke down I’d either have to dip into my college fund or beg Jake to help me fix it. My mother was probably having panic attacks from being separated from me; she didn’t know how to live in an odd sort of way and I wasn’t sure her new husband really knew how much care she took. I’d never been good with people and this felt like my last chance to get my head on straight and actually be my age for a bit before being a teenager passed me by completely.

Basically I’d already had enough of being dealt crap hand after crap hand and I didn’t need any help from some psycho pretty boys who felt the need to glare at me till I wanted to piss my pants. Where did Edward get off being angry at me? For what? Just existing! For having the temerity to sit next to him? And that other boy at lunch? What was his deal? Man, seriously fuck them both.

That was it. If I ran into Edward I was giving him a piece of my mind. I wasn’t going to put up with this. I wasn’t the kind to gossip or anything, and if it had just been one or the other of them I could have shrugged it away, but both of them making me feel like this was a little too real to shake off. I wasn’t going to live with being harassed or whatever, if I was going to try and make it here.

I was freed by the final bell and left the gym early since I could just throw on my coat instead of having to change. Now I just had to swing by the office and drop off the slip with my teacher’s signatures and then I was done.

I walked slowly to the office, glad to put this day behind me. The rain had finally let up but it was still cold and windy. The sky and the sidewalk were the same terrible wet gray. Up ahead the horizon was broken by a pale body.

I saw her in the distance standing with her back to me. Her spikey hair still looked immaculately tousled and her poofy brown dress with the corseted waist stood out amongst the growing number of dark dull raincoats as students began to file out of their buildings. She had the barest of little black jackets draped over her frail shoulders but she didn’t seem affected by the elements in the least. She was more like an apparition than a girl was my fleeting thought. She was standing in place on the sidewalk rocking back and forth on her heels, completely oblivious to the world.

With a start she turned and saw me. Or she turned because she knew I was there. The face on the littlest Cullen was a mix between dazed and delighted. I don’t know what I thought at that moment. I was beyond thinking at this point. But quickly her expression resolved and she skipped over to my side with surprising speed.

“Hi, I’m Alice!” she said, and pulled me into a friendly hug.

I’m not a touchy feely person, my mom is, but I never have been. I put my arms around the girl and hugged her dearly. I was overwhelmed, weirded out, and deeply in need of a hug.

She let me sag against her, surprisingly sturdy for her small stature. Her arms wrapped around me securely and she didn’t pull away.

“This is fucked,” I whispered.

“Sorry,” she replied softly. She didn’t pull away.

I freed myself from her arms after a lingering moment. I should have been blushing but I didn’t have it in me anymore. If anything I felt a tiny bit better.

I took her hand and shook it once, business like. Her grip was firm and her skin was deathly cold, which was no surprise given how underdressed she was.

“So, let’s start over like real people who don’t know each other and aren’t acting psychotic. I’m Bella Swan, which I’m guessing you already know. Are you Alice Cullen or Alice Hale?”

“Alice Cullen,” she said with a big smile. “You were going to say hi to me at lunch today, right?”

“Yeah, I was, before everything went weird.”

She had the good graces to look embarrassed.

“Shoot, I was hoping you hadn’t noticed that, though I guess I knew you had. Look, Jazz can be really intense sometimes and he’s got some stuff he’s working through. I promise it doesn’t have anything to do with your dad being the chief of police though!”

I was a little taken aback, “I hadn’t even considered that possibility.”

“Oh, I figured maybe that’s what you thought it was because the two of them don’t get along and stuff. Honestly he’s just not good around people and the lunch crowd is always tough on him. Hey, this topic sucks, can we talk about what you were going to say to me in the lunchroom instead?”

She looped her arm in mine and looked up at me. I found myself staring into the big dark eyes of Alice Cullen. Somehow she was even more arresting up close. Trying to compliment her dress suddenly felt way too awkward to contemplate.

“I was going to say hi and then probably freak out and run away.”

“Good thing I’ve got you captive then” She tightened her arm around mine and giggled. Her voice was summer windchimes and her laughter was honey. I realized we were walking and I had no idea where we were headed.

“I should really be mad at you and your whole family,” I sighed, all the conviction having drained from my voice, “I was kind of hoping to run into Edward but I’m glad it’s you instead. You’re as goddamn weird as any of them so far, but way more pleasant.”

“You were going to confront him, weren’t you? Well, I guess fate had other plans.” The first part was a statement with a question mark tacked on at the end. The second part sounded infuriatingly smug. I suddenly doubted there was anything coincidental about our meeting.

She looked at me with sympathy. Her cute little face was weirdly expressive.

“Hey, it’s ok,” she said, “I’m on your side.”

That was the thing that broke me finally. That was it.

“He looked like he wanted to kill me,” I whispered, the words escaping on their own “They both did. I have Biology tomorrow and I…” My throat tightened up and I wondered if I was going to start crying.

She reached over and patted my shoulder with her free hand. “Bella, Bella, Bella, it’s going to be ok, you’ll see. I promise it will all work out. Jazz is so very sorry and I’m going to make him apologize to you tomorrow. I can’t make any promises for Edward but if you tell me what happened I’ll see if I can fix it.”

The corners of my eyes stung with pinched tears. I was not going to end up literally crying on my first day of school. Even I had limits goddamn it!

“I don’t know what happened. I sat down and suddenly he was Incredible Hulk levels of angry at me. In Mr. Banner’s class no less. I seriously don’t need this.”

“Hey, I’m so sorry to hear my brother spazzed out on you.”

“Don’t worry about it,” I muttered.

“I wish I had an explanation I could give you but that’s really not like him at all, he’s usually uber composed. We, uh, all noticed you at lunch, but he didn’t say anything strongly about you one way or another except that you seemed kind of inscrutable.”

“Edward thinks I’m mysterious? There’s a laugh. I think I’m pretty obvious. I guess you guys don’t know many kids living the single parent working class lifestyle. I mean, exhibit A is my beast of a truck. Heh, yeah, you all seem a little too whitebread for that.”

Alice laughed at that, “Yeah, maybe something along those lines. Oh, hey, I know, why don’t you switch seats?”

“Edward doesn’t like me and I have to switch seats, how is that fair?”

She grinned up at me, “Well, for one thing Edward has an endless capacity to subject himself to needlessly miserable situations, so he’d never think to move from his seat regardless of whatever is up with him. Secondly, even if he wanted to, I can’t think of anyone in that class who’d want to do him a favor anyway. I mean he’d basically have to drop the class to get out of his spot. You on the other hand can probably have whatever you want right now, and if you don’t want to face him day after day for the rest of the semester, you really don’t have to.”

I had to admit that it made a certain sense, and it was better than letting my pride lock me in that seat for the rest of the year. Problem was I didn’t know that many people yet.

“How about Mike?” I asked.

She closed her eyes for a moment and thought about it.

I briefly looked around, shaking off the fog of Alice’s presence, and noticed that we were nearer to the school library than the parking lot. Huh. Turning back to her, I took the chance to study her face.

My first impression of delicate features held, but I noticed she also had high cheekbones and a fairly sharp chin. With her short cropped hair and the shape of her face, she could probably look pretty androgynous if she wanted. She also had the same weird dark circles under her eyes that I’d noticed on Edward. Maybe the Cullens didn’t sleep so well. She opened her eyes to reply and I looked away hoping she hadn’t noticed.

“Mike’s a good choice if you want the two of them to both fixate on you and have an increasingly hostile rivalry for your attention. So I’m going to say heck no. Maybe trade with a girl?”

“Ok, what about Angela then?”

She did her thing where she closed her eyes to think about it, and this time we stopped walking for a few seconds while she considered it. Whatever she was thinking it was the opposite of a snap judgement; it reminded me of watching Billy play chess against Charlie and trouncing him time and again. Not planning moves ahead so much as a slow deep intuition of how the game would go? Really I had no idea what was going through her head. I’d never won against Billy either.

I realized that the students walking around about were starting to thin out. When she opened her eyes again they shone with an inky excitement.

“She’s perfect! How have I never thought of this before. There’s no way you could know of course, but she’s like the only person Edward is even halfway fond of at this school. This opens up lots of possibilities. She’s super nice, she’ll switch with you for sure!”

The girl was bounding with energy now and I had a hard time keeping up as she bounced along beside me. I wasn’t sure what to make of this conversation, or well, anything at this point.

We pulled up short in front of a building and suddenly this little wisp of a girl had her arms around my neck again pulling me into an overly familiar embrace. I hugged her back somewhat earnestly, still not entirely sure how I felt about her presence.

“Well Bella,” she started, “we are out of time and at our final stop. Thanks for taking a circuit of the school with me. My family isn’t going to cause any problems for you or your dad, trust me. We’ll stay totally out of your way.”

“Hey look, you don’t have to…” I started to say. I was facing the outside door to the front office, which was where I’d been planning to go in the first place. A girl was just leaving the building and the door hadn’t quit swung shut yet. I felt a firm hand on my lower back.

“Beauty before age,” she giggled with melodious mischief as she forcibly pushed me through the closing office door.

Of course Edward was standing there. Why would he be anywhere else. Why would my day get to be over or anything.

He was standing at the desk bickering with the receptionist about his schedule. He was starting to lose his cool as well as the argument.

“I don’t care! I’ll take Biology as a summer course if I have to. For the last time, I’m not talking to the guidance counselor about this; I just want this handled here and now!”

Edward, the totally unflappable Edward according to Alice, was dangerously close to shouting at the poor lady. I got the impression this conversation had been going in circles for a few minutes at least. I stood to the side out of the way of the door.

Alice came in and he turned towards her, instantly aware of her presence. A cool breeze from outside followed her in and it was actually kind of nice in the stuffy office.

Edward stopped in his turn and then pivoted to look at me. I thought I’d seen all the Cullen emotions so far but this was a look of abject horror at my presence.

“F-forget about it Shelly. I’ll live with it then,” he stuttered out. He kept staring at me and I let the ambiguity of the statement sink in.

Thankfully, Alice pounced on him and began to drag him away. It seemed innocent and playful enough, in keeping with her pixie nature, but I noticed the rug was bunching up at her feet and Edward was taking jerky steps like she was using some real force somehow.

“We’re all waiting for you in the car,” she chimed at him. “Just let it go for today. Em is probably getting fidgety and picking apart the leather seats or something by now.”

She winked at me as she bodily pulled him through the door. He seemed more shocked than resistant at this point. With her spiny hair illuminated by the harsh neon lights and their comical difference in heights, Alice looked like some wondrous goblin child come out of the woods to abduct the fair hero and drag him off to his doom. Together they tumbled out the door and were gone.

I was alone with the receptionist in the warm brown nothing space of the office. I unslung my burnt orange backpack and fished out the paper I needed.

“How did your first day go, dear?” she asked conversationally when I handed it to her.

I wanted to leave with some sweet white lie but when I opened my mouth nothing tumbled from my lips. I was at a complete loss for words. She noticed my muddled aphasia and let the silence settle instead of filling the void with her own words.

In the end all I could do was shrug helplessly and exit the office with a low lingering gallows laugh.

Chapter Text

Charlie wasn’t home yet. I sat in the cab of my truck parked out in front of his house with the heat cranked up. I’d probably been sitting here for an hour already. I just wanted to stay for a little longer, wrapped up in the smell of aged upholstery and the lingering scent of the Black’s garage. The smell was earthy and petrol in all the right ways and when I opened the glove box it smelled like loose leaf tobacco and peppermint candies, which is probably what had been in there.

It was only my second day driving this beast since I took it for a test spin last night. I loved it! It was the best thing about Forks so far. When Charlie had told me on the drive back from the airport that he’d bought a car off of Billy Black I was totally expecting the worst. I was imagining some cobbled together monstrosity that Jake had only barely managed to get running in their garage out back. Instead I got an aging red Chevy that could have come from the set of Mayberry. It had been Billy’s and he’d obviously taken care of it, but what with the wheelchair and all now, it made sense that he’d be ready to let it go.

Charlie had done good. It was a thoughtful gift even. The truck had some obvious rust spots and I had my suspicions about how highway worthy it was, but the sheer bulk of it made me feel safe and a little bit powerful. Charlie had mentioned that the Blacks were coming over this weekend for a barbecue, weather permitting, so at least I’d get a chance to bug Jacob about its history.

It would be good to see them again. A relief even. Charlie and my mom had divorced when I was really little and I’d spent a couple of weeks with him here in Forks each summer. That sounds good in theory, a chance to get to know each other or whatever, but honestly a good chunk of that time was spent just hanging around La Push while Charlie and Billy fished.

When I was younger that meant being babysat by Sarah Black and playing with Rebecca, Rachel, and Jacob. The girls and I never really clicked, but Jake and I spent hours watching an old VHS copy of Labyrinth on repeat or poking around in tide pools at First Beach or loitered at the general store and generally just acting like a couple of bored kids with minimal supervision.

People talk a lot of shit about La Push just because it’s the rez, I mean sure there’s poverty there, but there’s poverty here in Forks too, everyone’s struggling, and the thing is some of my absolute best memories are of that place. I never felt like an outsider there. I don’t even have any good memories of Forks.

Sarah died in a car crash about five years ago and it devastated the family. She was a proud and gentle woman, stern instead of warm, but very kind. She’s the first person I’ve really known who died. Since then I’ve barely seen the twins and they’ve both found ways to get out already. I hope that works and lets them leave the pain behind.

I don’t know if it has anything to do with Sarah’s death, but for the last three years we’ve been vacationing in California during those two weeks instead. Charlie and I would do typical touristy shit for a week—Disney Land was nice—whatever it took to keep us too busy to be awkward, and then we’d meet up with Billy and Jake and go camping for the other week.

We did Wolf Creek and then Blackrock Reservoir the first two years, but Charlie knew Billy was having trouble managing his diabetes, so we did a much more forgiving stint at Lake Tahoe this summer. I’m not all that outdoorsy and fishing sucks but I’ll always jump at a chance to hang with Jake so it’s an alright way to spend a week.

Then, just a month after I’d returned home to Phoenix, I got a call that Billy had been hospitalized with acute peripheral neuropathy. It’s funny how medical jargon gets lodged in your head as something crisp and memorable when someone you love is affected. I’m glad he got treatment when he did, Jake basically had to fight him to get him to set foot in the hospital and he still ended up with nerve damage, but it could have been so much worse…

I was interrupted from my reverie by the sound of Charlie’s police cruiser pulling onto the brick drive. Taking my time, I killed the engine and went out to join him on the porch where he was fumbling with his keys.

“Hey dad, how was your day?”

“Oh, just fine,” he said, letting us in, “Your first day of school go alright?”

I shrugged. I’ll never be a great liar but I’m not above some simple evasions. “It wasn’t what I was expecting. Forks really is a small town, isn’t it?”

He stepped out of his boots and tousled my hair.

“Yeah, Bells, I guess it is.”

I turned away and struggled out of my dampish coat. It felt really cramped in the entryway right now. The whole house was cramped really. It was an old Victorian building, nestled up against the forest at the edge of town, which had become gently dilapidated with age and rain. The paint was old. The rooms were small. The things we owned were old. There was no place I could sit downstairs where I could be out of sight of Charlie if he was at the dining room table. There was one goddamn bathroom and I was dreading its unquantified potential for embarrassment. The house was located in Forks and I desperately missed Phoenix at that moment more than I had since I landed.

My parents had bought the house as a starter home a year before I came along. It was meant to be a stepping stone towards a future and a family together. Now Charlie just seemed mired in it.

I watched him hang up his gun belt and amble to the kitchen where he stopped to study a newspaper he’d left lying on the counter. Charlie looks a little like a younger more angular MacGyver with a dark tidy cop mustache. So, I guess, offbrand MacGyver wearing a stupid fake mustache then. I’m being mean. He’s probably not bad looking for someone his age; I’m not sure why he never found anyone after my mom.

I put down my backpack on the couch and found myself at a loss for what to do. I was completely drained.

Charlie called out from across the small house, “Hey Bella, you hungry? It’s a little early still but I could make us something.”

“Yeah dad, that’d be really great! What’ve you got?” I realized I was starving. Ravenous even. Goddamn what a day.

I heard him rooting around in the fridge. “How do eggs and bacon sound? Or else, I think I’ve got a can of chili in the cupboard, so I could make us some chili cheese omelets?”

I went and grabbed a magazine and slumped down at the square oak table. “It sounds like eggs are on the menu. Can you swing an egg salad sandwich by chance?”

He stepped into the dining room to talk to me. “Sorry honey, no bread. Or mayonnaise. I really need to do some shopping. We could go to Pacific Pizza again and then pick up some groceries next door afterwards?”

“Oh, please no, I really don’t want to go out. Bacon and eggs would be fine I guess.”

I tried to halfheartedly browse through the magazine while Charlie went and got to work in the kitchen but I gave up after a few moments when I realized I’d grabbed a police tactical gear catalog by mistake. I’m not sure Charlie ever actually orders this stuff, but we get them all the time anyway as junk mail. I kept turning pages without really looking at any of it.

“So, tell me more about your day. Did you make any friends?” Charlie called out from the next room after an uncomfortable stretch of silence.

“Um, yeah, some of the girls seemed pretty cool. I have classes with two girls named Angela and Jessica, and Alice introduced herself after school.”

Charlie plopped the bacon into the pan with a sizzle and stood there in a white apron scratching his neck with the unused spatula.

“That would be Angela Webber then. Her father is a minister here in town. And Alice Cullen, she’s a sweet girl, well mannered; you could certainly do worse around here. Sharp too—I don’t think she has many friends.”

“Huh, how do you know her? She mentioned that you and her brother don’t get along. Oh, hey, make mine sunny side up if you would.”

Charlie paused to start in on the eggs before he answered. “It was big news when Dr. Cullen transferred here two years ago. He’s really good, a world class surgeon, but his wife likes the simple life so that’s how they ended up in Forks. All of them just showed up one day, bought an old house in the woods for Mrs. Cullen to fix up, and started investing money into local businesses downtown and such. Your school’s new computer lab is thanks to a donation from them.

“All well and good, right. But between the new money moving into town and a household with three adopted teenagers and two foster kids, people started to talk. All sorts of rumors were flying about them at first, really vicious nasty stuff, and I got tapped to look into our new neighbors.”

Through the doorway I saw him shrug to himself at that part. He was really getting into the story. It was kind of funny to hear him talk so much all at once. Charlie was notoriously laconic. There was something there too when he talked about the doctor, a real sense of admiration maybe.

“Dr. Cullen was polite about me poking around their business but his kids didn’t take it so well and tempers flared on both sides. Things were said that probably shouldn’t be repeated; it got pretty tense for a while. Eventually I reached an understanding with them, the town more or less decided they were harmless, and now I just visit them once a month on the first Saturday as a sort of unofficial welfare check.”

I had to admit, I was intrigued. “Shouldn’t they have a social worker or something for that?” I asked.

“Probably,” he replied over the crackle of the bacon, “I’m not too worried about it. They’re good folks. Just watch your step around them is all, especially the boys.”

“Wait, I thought you just said they were harmless?”

He grinned at me and started plating up the eggs. “I said the town decided they were harmless. I still visit them once a month to keep them in line, don’t I? They don’t talk about it, probably don’t even realize they let on about it, but all of those kids have trauma in their pasts. They’re used to ignoring the rules and they’ve grown accustomed to having whatever they want. Just about the only things they can’t get around here are respect and admiration. It’s a bad combination is what I mean.

“That said, I kind of like them, even if they’re not the most comfortable people to hang around with. Who knows, maybe you’d even be a good influence on Alice?”

I was tempted to ask him, didn’t that also mean she’d be a bad influence on me, but at that point the smoke detector went off and I was distracted opening the dining room windows to air out the charred bacon smog that was drifting from the kitchen.

We ate in relative silence and Charlie read the paper. It’s hard to get Charlie talking and he tends to return to solitary pursuits out of habit. Living with him is a bit like living alone, which isn’t always a good thing.

The eggs were cooked a little too long so the yolk wasn’t as runny as I’d like. The bacon was a little more soft and fatty than I’d make it. I always ate my eggs sunny side up with basil and paprika in addition to sea salt and fresh black pepper. Renée liked to shop at health food stores run by aging hippies where she frittered our money away on health fad superfoods, but at least we always had fresh spices.

I got up and searched but he only had an ancient jar of basil and a matching plastic salt and pepper set like you’d find in a cheap diner. He’d probably have laughed if I’d asked about the paprika. I was super hungry and what I found did well enough.

When we’d both nearly finished I cleared my throat and got him to look up from his paper. I hated breaking the silence and I wasn’t sure where to start.

“So… I noticed a FOOD MONEY jar in the cupboard just now. I could swing by the Thriftway after school tomorrow? I did all the shopping and cooking for mom too and it’ll be way cheaper than going out to eat all the time like you do.”

He gave me a look. I don’t know. It was something along the lines of maybe concern or pity. I didn’t understand it and it made me angry.

“Bells, if that’s what you want to do, I’m fine with that.”

“What does that mean?” I snapped. I should have reigned myself in but my filter was totally fucking shot. “I’m just trying to do my part around here. I really don’t get you.”

He folded the paper and put it gently aside.

“What that means is that you and I are probably a little too similar. I want you to focus on school and not worry so much about everyone else. I want you to feel like you can make some friends and hang out with them in the afternoons, not like you have to rush home and make us dinner.”

“Yeah, well I like cooking! You sure can’t cook. Plus, maybe I’m right to worry. You knew I was coming and you still don’t have any food in this place. Do you know how crazy that makes me? When we first moved out of Grandma’s place and got the house in Phoenix that was like my biggest worry, that mom would forget to buy groceries or not have the money. I’ve never been more ashamed than when we had to go get our dinners at the André House.”

He got a somber penitent look on his face. “Honey, I’m sorry. I’m not used to keeping much food in the house and I just forgot. I don’t spend a lot of time here and I eat near the station most nights. I promise you, I’m not your mom and it’s never going to be like that here. I’m going to make sure you always have what you need.”

“If that’s how you live then why do you even still have this place? Shouldn’t you live in an apartment downtown or something instead of staying here and wallowing in the past?”

That made him square his jaw. “You think I kept the house because of Renée?”

“Well yeah. It’s obvious you never got over her. You’ve kept everything exactly how she left it! You even have your wedding picture up over the fireplace like you’re proud of it!”

I knew at once that I’d gone too far. He looked like I’d just shot him in the gut. I expected him to get loud and shout at me but he got quite instead. His low voice never wavered at all and he leaned against the table letting it support all his weight.

“Isabella Marie Swan, don’t you ever talk to me like that. Ever. Of course I’m proud of it. That was one of the happiest days of my life. And even though it didn’t work out I’d do it all again because it meant having you in my life. My wonderful daughter.

“Now, excuse the language, but I don’t give a piss what Renée is doing with her life. I wish her well and I hope she’s happy, but it’s been a long time since I’ve loved her like that. I don’t think it could have worked no matter what we tried. Honey, I kept the house for you.

“However much she moves around, you’ll always have a home here. I didn’t want you sleeping on a couch in my apartment every summer. I wanted you to have a room of your own, and a place that felt the same when you came back to it, and a little damn stability in your life. I know I don’t spend much time here what with how much I work, but this is my home, and it’s your home too.”

 

I lay on my bed like a corpse and listened to the wind whistle through every corner of the house. It was a mournful disquieting sound. I’d cried myself to sleep last night with ease, but it was early still today and I’d had no such luck so far. Mostly I had shot red eyes and the start of a headache.

I looked over at the little cactus on my shelf. I hadn’t bothered redecorating the bedroom yet aside from placing him there. I’d been so excited when I learned you could take plants on a plane, and I’d dug up that little guy in my backyard in Phoenix and stowed him carefully in my backpack for the trip. He’d survived it wrapped in plastic so he wouldn’t move around or get damaged and he seemed none the worse for wear.

He was my little ray of sunshine. I loved that little cactus and I’d doomed him to a slow cold miserable death. He wouldn’t grow with how little light there was here and eventually the damp would probably cause root rot and then he would jellify and die. I don’t know if I just didn’t think the transplant through, or if somewhere in my heart I wanted that to happen.

Sleep crept upon me like a silent beast and I dreamt.

 

I dreamt that I was in the woods running for my life. It was the familiar forest behind my house but made strange by fog and shadow. A mangy black dog with crimson eyes was fast on my heels. He was a scarred up old war-hound and no matter how I scrambled I couldn’t shake my fate. Cruel branches reached out to scratch my bare arms and sharp rocks bit my toes beneath mouldering carpets of fallen leaves. I was torn at in a hundred little places and my flowing blood just urged the creature on.

Eventually I reached a beautiful clearing of wildflowers, made eerie by the mist, and that is where the black dog brought me down. He took my right leg off at the knee with a lunge. I fell amongst blood soaked daisies and the dog crouched low on my chest. His breath smelled like corpses and dust and his eyes held only death. In the distance I heard Alice giggle.

Chapter Text

The next day was worse. I somehow overslept despite sleeping like crap and having a dream where I actually died. I guess it was just blackness and void after that point.

I forced myself to abandon the warmth of my sheets and rolled out of bed with a groan. When I looked out my bedroom window I saw that the dim dawn sky was the same clouded gray I’d endured for the last few days. I mean, it wasn’t raining yet, but that was damning with faint praise since I’d yet to see the sun at all since I’d set foot in Forks.

I had to rush out the door with some cold pop tarts and when I got to school the parking lot was practically full. At least running late meant I didn’t have to feel self conscious about how noisy the ancient engine on my truck was since most students were already in the school buildings and waiting for their classes to start.

While walking through the parking lot I noticed a gleaming red convertible I hadn’t seen yesterday. I didn’t recognize the logo, but then again I know absolutely nothing about cars. I was willing to guess it belonged to the Cullens and was also obscenely expensive. It was pretty obviously the nicest car in the lot. Once again, I had to mentally thank them for my not being the most conspicuous student at Forks High. If they really were hiding things like Charlie had sorta implied, then they were doing a crap job at blending in. Christ, Charlie… yeah, wasn’t going to worry about that just yet.

I skipped going to the gym building where they had the student lockers and just walked quickly across campus to building three. Trying to move any faster than that would have sent me tumbling. I was still unzipping my coat when the bell rang but I threw it on a peg and rushed to an empty seat before Mr. Mason could take roll.

AP English is totally the shit! I took it as my first class so I’d have a reason to get out of bed, a plan which had just barely worked today. By chance I happened to end up seated next to Mike and as soon as the pledge of allegiance had ended he started in making snarky little comments to me about the lecture and our classmates and everything. I’ll hand it to the boy, he has his witty banter down and he’s good at dodging the teacher’s attention.

When he wasn’t trying to chatter at me he was leaning over in the other direction and talking with Eric, a boy that I’d been introduced to twice yesterday and whose name I hadn’t remembered either time. Mike was good enough to help me with that at least. The best that could be said about Eric is he seemed like he actually had a solid grasp on the reading and he was willing to indulge Mike far more than I could muster at the moment.

Some other time I might have found this all amusing, but we were covering Wuthering Heights and I was eager to see if the teacher could tell me anything that I didn’t already know about the book. It had been a favorite of mine a few years ago and I’d kinda dived deep into Gothic literature after that and read everything I could get my hands on. I remember having to tell my mom that my interest in Gothic literature didn’t mean we needed to go to Hot Topic and update my wardrobe in darker colors.

Ten minutes later and Mike was trying to quietly laugh with me about what a monster Heathcliff is and I couldn’t take it. I asked him to cut it out as gently as I could and he looked at me like I’d kicked a puppy and that the puppy that had been kicked was him. I’m sure when he turned to talk to Eric again it’d be about me this time. Whatever.

I was tired and jumpy all morning, the Trig teacher continued to be kind of a dick to me, and I wasn’t sure which I was looking forward to less, confronting Edward or having to live through Alice’s promised apology. I’d find out soon enough I suppose.

I was totally tongue tied during Spanish class and Jessica went off on her own once the bell rang, but not before extracting a promise from me that I’d sit with her again at lunch. I decided to stop by my truck and drop off some books since I was by myself for the moment. Of course, no sooner had I closed the door to my truck’s cab and started back through the parking lot than I spotted Alice getting something out of the back of the red sports car. What a coincidence.

“Hey Alice! Imagine my surprise at running into you like this,” I deadpanned.

She closed the trunk and turned around with her hands on her hips. “Bella, nobody likes a smartass.” To say that she looked like a model would be an understatement.

She was wearing a shirt that looked like someone had melted a union jack flag to the point of lyrical abstraction and poured it over her chest until she was encased in a skin tight swirl of red, navy, and white paint. I could see the outline of a sports bra through it so I knew it wasn’t actually just painted on. I had to admit, she was not quite as flat chested as I’d thought she’d be for someone so petite. Definitely on the boyish side, but there was something there. The shirt had a stiff starched white collar that sat on her neck completely detached from the rest of the fabric. Her eyes were surrounded by a predatory blood-pink swirl of makeup that covered over the dark circles.

She came up to me swiftly, confidently, until we were almost touching. A coat dangled uselessly in her hands, “It is good to see you though!” she said gently, “So, uh, can I borrow you for five minutes or should I start diagramming out a better ambush for you after gym?”

I laughed and went with her willingly, “So you admit it then! How did you know I was going to be out here today?”

She gave me a big toothy grin, “Would you believe me if I said I took the time to think through every possibility because I’ve pretty much got nothing better to do? There aren’t even that many places you could be right now.”

I wanted to tell her that still didn’t explain how she’d guessed right, but the words died on my lips because he was standing in the distance ahead of us. Suddenly my mouth was dry.

She’d led us at a brisk pace to the secluded picnic benches on the south side of the cafeteria. He was leaning easily against a table, tall and bold, like he hadn’t a care in the world. It was the sort of beautiful artifice I’d begun to associate with the Cullens.

His hair glowed wan yellow in the desolate light. He wore a particularly cocky smile and a sharp black pea coat with two rows of shiny brass buttons. This is what I’d agreed to, wasn’t it?

Alice put her arm around my waist and led me closer when she sensed my hesitation. “I hope this is alright. I thought this would be better than us just showing up and catching you off guard.”  In truth I was a little scared I think.

We stopped a conversational distance away. Up close like this his eyes seemed almost amber instead of the black I’d noticed yesterday in the cafeteria. He had a squarish jaw and a long straight nose, sort of classically handsome in a way that seemed honest and open. Just one of those faces. I felt myself relaxing, wanting to trust him.

“You’re still tense, aren’t you,” he commented as we drew close, his voice dusky and smooth, “Well, how about that? Trust me, there’s no cause for alarm. May I?” he asked, indicating I should give him my hand.

What in the fuck was I doing!? I offered my right hand and he took it firmly in his own and pushed back the ratty sleeve of my hand-me-down coat. The rest of my fear left me at his touch and I felt perfectly calm as if the wind had stilled and the sun come out. I felt Alice’s hand at my waist, ready to steady me if I keeled over.

He took a knee in front of me, a glowering vision of beauty, and brought my knuckles to his lips in a chaste kiss—it felt respectful. He held my fingers lightly and took his time like a suave motherfucker. His lips lingered on my skin, polite and unignorable. The kiss was dry, cold, and unbelievably bracing. I felt the hair on the back of my neck stand up and I’m sure I was completely red.

He lowered my hand but didn’t release it. Looking up at me and attempting to smile he said, “Isabella, I am truly sorry that I frightened you. Please, would you accept my apology and let us start again as friends?”

I shook my head, mute.

Alice was laughing now, leaning against me as she struggled to catch her breath enough to speak, “Wow, that was way too much. You told me you had this. That was your plan?”

He looked over at her with a piercing glance of irritation, “You could have stopped me.”

“Nah, we agreed it wouldn’t be sincere if I meddled and told you what to say. Just, I’m glad Edward isn’t here today is all I’m saying. You get to be the one to handle him throwing a fit about this when he gets back.”

I was intensely aware of his fingers on my bare skin. His skin was super soft and it reminded me a little bit of the sensuous feel of deerskin leather. Looking back, Alice’s touch had been every bit as smooth and frozen. Having his fingers wrapped around me was like having my hand submerged in cool water: slightly unpleasant and distinctly unnatural. With a start I pulled my hand back. I so hoped no one saw any of this.

I really wanted to ask them both about Edward. I was curious about why he was out of school, but it came as something of a relief for me as well. First things first though.

I tugged at the shoulder of his jacket insistently, “Please, would you stand up already Jazz, I can’t talk to you like this.”

He stood up in a fluid motion and looked at me with the weirdest expression on his face. I wasn’t sure what it was for a second and then he burst out laughing too, gentle honest laughter that matched Alice’s mischievous peals of sound.

“Only Alice calls me Jazz,” he managed after a moment, “I’m sorry.” Finally, once he had himself under control, he looked at me appraisingly, “So… you don’t know my name, do you?”

I was forced to shake my head again. Could I be any more awkward?

“Oops, that’s my fault,” Alice chimed in.

“Well then, Jasper Whitlock Hale at your service. And you prefer Bella, correct?” I nodded and he continued, “I suppose you could call me Jazz if you like, though I promise you that people will look at you funny.”

“Um, yeah, nice to meet you. I’ve never had someone do that to me before. Kiss my hand I mean”

He smiled and rubbed the back of his neck beneath his long hair, “I’d imagine. Even when I was a boy it was practically obsolete around here, except down in Mexico. So, what do you say to that apology? Can we start over?”

I wanted to just say yes. There was something magnetic about him. What stopped me was how eerily calm I’d become. Normally I’d have wanted this to be over with, I couldn’t stand confrontation, but now I was calm enough to think. Calm enough to be bold.

“Jasper,” I said his name, testing it out in my mouth, “what are you really apologizing for?”

“For giving you a scare yesterday,” he replied, not understanding my question.

“No, I mean you looked like you… well, like you wanted to kill me. What was going through your head?”

Alice took my left hand and squeezed it gently, “Bella, this is a bad conversation. Just let it go.” Jasper looked over at her with a questioningly arched eyebrow and she shrugged, “You two can do this if you want. Bella’s not going to run away screaming or anything.”

“I had a compulsive violent fantasy yesterday,” he said. “It’s something of a problem for me. As you can see, I’m perfectly fine now.” His face had hardened a little, taking on a sterner edge. He clearly didn’t want to be talking about this either.

“What was it? Tell me and you’re forgiven. What was going through your head just then?” I asked, my voice barely a whisper. Alice’s hand in mine was a cold and welcome reassurance.

“If you insist I suppose. I, well, it’s, hard to describe with just words. May I touch you by way of showing? It will probably scare you a little but I promise I’m not about to hurt you.”

His voice was cool and compassionate, tinged with the hint of some accent I couldn’t quite place. Alice let go and took a step back to give us room. I guess she knew where this was heading.

I was perfectly calm. Beneath the calm I was perfectly terrified. Everything was perfect.

“Yes,” yes yes.

He moved shockingly fast. Before I knew it he’d darted around me and grabbed me in a choke hold from behind. There was no pressure on my throat, but it was still a choke hold and it was real as shit. The spell of calm was broken and all of the anxiety I’d felt walking over here came crashing back in a dark gust. What had I just agreed to?

“It would have taken a bit to shake off Edward and Alice. They’d be poised to jump in and stop me. Then Rosalie and Emmett would try too, but too late.” His voice was right beside me, his lips almost touching my ear. It was exciting and alarming. His breath blew chill against me.

“First I’d go for the girl who’d walked by my table, Whitney, do her quick, mechanically. Then I’d have come for you when you stood up to run. I was counting on you hesitating.”

He put his left hand on my shoulder and spun me so I was facing the picnic table. The motion was effortless for him as if I were a rag doll. The steel bar of his arm never loosened. It was locked firm beneath my chin but I still felt no real pressure there.

“I’m sensitive to smells, set off by them. That’s my excuse for her. I don’t have one for you. I just liked the look of you. With Alice’s desire the fuel to my fire. Ser uña y carne.”

Wait, I knew that. I’d learned that in Spanish at my old school. It meant fingernails and flesh. In other words, an inseparable friendship. Me and Alice then? His accent was impeccable with the slightest hint of a drawl.

His arm shifted and he was pushing against the bottom of my chin. Carefully he pushed my head back, baring my neck. Positioning me.

Despite the animal menace of his words I could tell he was going slow, taking pains not to hurt me. I hoped. I was going to feel real silly if he just fucking killed me.

“Bella darlin’, sweet little Bella. I wanted to bash your head against that table until your skull splintered and your brains spilled out. I wanted to see the wreckage of you, pink and luscious in the light. I wanted to feel you twitch and spasm against me. It’d be so goddamn easy.”

I heard Alice’s voice a few feet away, “Jasper! Don’t you dare!” She sounded concerned.

His hand on my shoulder bent me forward with an irresistible force. His body was pressed tight to mine on the right side and his face was buried in my neck. The edge of the wet wooden picnic table shot up to meet me. Dizzying. Terrifying. Helpless.

I didn’t feel the impact. Scratch that. There was no impact. His arm at my neck had shifted to my collar where he was holding me up now. His hand that had been at my shoulder was tangled in the dark locks of my hair pulling me back and controlling my head. My forehead was lined up perfectly at the tops of my eyebrows with the edge of the table. I could feel the press of the cold damp wood.

His body felt solid and taut on top of me. So close. His hand entwined within my hair was pulled tight and my scalp stung ever so beautifully. How did this get so bizarrely intimate? He gave the curve of my neck a gentle kiss and then straightened me up again. I shivered deep in my core.

“I’m sorry if that ends up bruising your shoulder but I…” he started to say something. I took two steps away from him, dazed, and tripped over my own goddamn feet.

I closed my eyes. It’d be ok for me to just sit here in the mud, right.

I felt myself being lifted and soon I was sitting at the bench. I still didn’t want to open my eyes. Not until I stopped feeling dizzy. At least I was starting to feel calm again.

Alice was nearby, “Hey, so I take back what I said earlier. The hand-kiss wasn’t too much after all. That just now, that was too much.”

“I figured if you and her are going to be the best of friends she should have some idea who I really am,” he replied evenly, “what I’m capable of.”

“You’re not that guy anymore Jazz. Not for a long time now.”

I finally found my voice, “You’ve hurt people before. When was the last time?” Even to me, I sounded weak and shaky.

I opened my eyes and he had that pained expression again, his open face was clouded over with it. “Eight years ago I injured someone. Very badly. That was the last time so far.”

I considered it. “You must have been, what, maybe ten at the time. People can change you know. Are you in therapy at least? Should I be worried about you pulling a Columbine or something?”

He shook his head ruefully. “Carlisle has helped me more than he knows, ever since he took me in. You don’t have to worry. I’m just like anyone. Just a person. I’m… harmless”

Alice had her arms around him from behind. He nearly couldn’t say the last word. The way it rolled off his tongue it was imbued with such terrible yearning.

I sat there catching my breath a moment. “I’ve got to say, you’ve got some seriously impressive control. I’m not sure many people could have stopped my head like that.” Good job Bella, act like this is all totally normal.

He smiled at me, trying to take the complement. His smile was tight and he looked pensive rather than pleased.

“I thank you for saying that. I’m not sure it’s entirely warranted, but I’m glad you believe it nonetheless. Your faith in me makes me strive to keep it.”

I pushed myself off the bench. My feet held steady. My shoulder ached. Hell, he really was strong.

“Well, this has been truly bizarre,” I started. “If I ever need my head split open I know who to ask I guess. Apology fucking accepted. I’m going to go inside though. I’m starving and my hands are totally freezing. Catch you weirdos later I guess.”

Alice danced out from behind Jasper looking really worried. “Bella, are you ok?” She had such a pretty little voice.

“See, not running away screaming,” I said. I did my best to smile.

I turned and put one foot in front of the other. One step at a time. The door was just around the corner of the building.

I could do this. My panic built with every step away from them I took. All the horror I should have been feeling finally settling over my heart. I was shaking now. I told myself it was only the cold. I just needed a better coat.

I looked back and my vision swam. He was a tall black silhouette and she was a violent splash of color. Eyes forward again. Keep going.

I put my hand to my neck where I’d felt his icy kiss. It felt like the spot was burning but it was just my imagination. What had I gotten myself into? Did I even want to escape?

Just a few more steps. I wasn’t going to run. Not a peep.

Chapter Text

“Bella, are you ok? Earth to Bella.”

I snapped to. Jessica was in my space, her curly hair threatening to drag in my food. Her blue eyes were wide with concern.

“Oh, hey,” I said.

She pursed her lips, “You were staring off into the distance and you haven’t touched your lunch yet.”

I can’t predict Jessica; often she seems friendly in a really forced fake way, but at that moment she looked at me with honest care and kindness. If I’d asked her to take me to the nurse just then there would have been no hesitation or sass.

I felt a light touch on my shoulder and turned to find Angela sitting on my other side.“You look really flushed. Is everything alright? What were you doing outside for so long anyway?”

I looked down at my tray. Food. Hesitantly I grabbed a spoon and started eating, my mouth moving mechanically. I looked up again and forgot what it was that I was chewing.

I felt gooey inside. My fleeting panic had taken on a softer edge, a kind of white fuzzy anxiety that was filling my head and making it hard to think. My chills had turned into a too hot feeling that wouldn’t go away.

Logically I should be feeling angry at Jasper, or I should feel used, or scared of him. I should be feeling disappointed in Alice too. I should be thinking of ways to avoid both of them. Except all that stuff was being steamrolled over in my head as I kept replaying the events comprising the time between closing the door of my truck and opening the door to the cafeteria. None of that was how I felt at all.

“Bella?”

Oh, Angela again. I guess I hadn’t responded. I looked over at her.

Angela always looked so composed while I’d been basically falling apart at the seams ever since I’d hugged my mom goodbye at the airport. She was tan where I was pasty, vibrant where I was pallid, tall and willowy where I was short and ungainly. She was everything I wasn’t; a perverse part of me wanted to take her by the shoulders and shake her until she lost her temper or squeaked with fear or apologized to me for it. No. Stop it. Alice had said she was really nice though, and nice would be, well, really nice right now.

“I’m sorry,” I said finally, “Yeah. Alice wanted to introduce me to Jasper. I… we got to talking and it’s colder than it looks outside.”

Angela laughed a little at that, “I see, well that solves one mystery at least.”

“Oh, what’s that?”

“Why Alice and Jasper have been staring at you for the last five minutes.”

What. I looked over at their table, same one they’d claimed yesterday, and the both of them looked away simultaneously and began intensely studying their untouched trays of food. The big guy behind them, Emmett I was assuming, laughed at them and waved at me. I waved back timidly.

I turned back to Angela and rubbed my eyes, thinking maybe this was a dream and I could wake up in the forest clearing and take my chances with the killer dog instead.

Angela was clearly very interested in this exchange, “So, like, Jasper talked to you then?”

“Well yeah, he isn’t exactly shy you know. Sort of old fashioned I guess. We had a misunderstanding yesterday and today he got down on one knee and kissed my hand to apologize. It was bizarre but super charming. So yeah… dude knows how to make an impression.” I thought again of my forehead pressed against that cold damp wood.

Angela’s eyes were wide behind her cat-eye lenses. What had I said?

“No, Bella, I wouldn’t know that. I’m not one of the nine students he has talked to this year. That’s the actual number, including you now, and six of those were his class partners. We’ve got a list of the names put up in the journalism room as a joke: The Hail Hale Hoi Polloi.”

I took a moment to break that down into its parts in my head. The homonyms didn’t help.

“Oh! That’s an awful name!”

She actually got through that dumb gag without stuttering. I imagined her sitting bored in a computer lab in front of a monitor, trying to balance a pencil on her nose, looking at the list and saying it over and over again until it flowed. So the shy girl could whip it out like a party trick.

I watched her and I could tell she was working up the nerve to ask me something else. I kept waiting for Jess to jump in but she let Angela have the floor instead and waited, poised, all ears and eagerness. Shit, it’d been dumb to brag. I’d thought we’d be able to laugh about it together or something but I’d singled myself out.

“You certainly are popular with the Cullens,” Angela said, doing her best to be kind about it, “Did Jasper actually really touch you? You aren’t misremembering it or maybe just assuming he did?”

I thought back to his body pressed against mine, welp no backing down now, “Oh no, I’m totally sure. Like I said, not shy at all.”

An unfamiliar girl’s voice intruded from behind me, “I’m not calling you a liar Isabella, but you’re a fucking liar. Jasper doesn’t touch anyone. Ever.”

I turned around to find Lauren and Mike standing there. Lauren was kind of like a social butterfly except awful. So a social moth maybe. Mike had pointed her out earlier and made hissing cat sounds after telling me her name.

I looked over at Jessica for backup and she shrugged.

“I don’t doubt your story,” Jess said, trying to let me down easy, “but it’s true Bella. We had all assumed that he’s just a huge germaphobe or something. He avoids ANY contact outside of his family. I mean all the Cullens act like they’re too good for everyone, with Alice being the mildest case, but he and Rosalie practically have a competition going to see who can be the bigger misanthrope.”

I was crestfallen, “But Jasper and Alice have both been so nice to me. I don’t get it.” Was that true? Had he been nice?

I glanced over at the Cullen’s table and Alice looked furious. Before that moment I wouldn’t have said that cute tiny girl could ever be scary, but she was practically growling and gnashing her teeth. Jasper had his hand on her shoulder keeping her from getting up. I was on my own here.

Lauren got a triumphant look on her face, a truly ugly gloating smirk.

“I don’t think she knows,” she said.

Everything that was flushed and aching inside of me turned to rainwater and ash. I wanted get up and run away. I wanted to go over to the Cullen’s table and grab Jasper’s hand and hold it high in triumph. I wanted Alice to save me. I wanted to be suddenly struck deaf in a flash of light. Whatever happened, I didn’t want to hear what this bitch was about to say. Instead I sat there in horror and listened.

“Just so you know, they’re fucking each other. It’s totally disgusting and everyone knows about it. Rosalie and Emmett are together too,” her voice was haughty and caustic and I didn’t want to hear it, not this, “I don’t care that they say they’re adopted. They don’t look adopted. I think Dr. Cullen is hiding some perverted incest shit or child abuse or something and people are just letting him get away with it. Doesn’t it just make you sick?”

“Hey, that’s enough Lauren!” Mike cut in, “Bella can’t help it if those two are trying to mess with her.”

I felt sick. It wasn’t disgust though. I felt betrayed, like I’d gotten dizzy again and my legs were crumpling under me. I thought of the two of them laughing together a little bit ago, the way their voices had entwined so beautifully around me. I felt like a joke. Why hadn’t Alice told me? I looked to Jessica again, hoping she could say something to take the sting out of this.

“Sorry Bella, the Texan and the shorty really are a couple. If I’d thought you’d end up crushing on the guy I would have warned you, but most people find him extremely unpleasant despite his looks, so I mean, what are the odds.”

Crushing on him. No no no, I wasn’t. That wasn’t what this was.

“Texan?” I was grasping at anything that could deflect the path of this car crash of a conversation.

“Yeah,” she said, “I grew up in Texas when I was younger so I should know. That accent of his that he’s worked so hard to smooth out is a good ol’ Texas drawl. Which is sort of good news if you think about it since it means he probably really is adopted and it isn’t like actual incest,” she faltered, “see, silver linings.”

Lauren was giving her the stink eye and that was as close to standing up for me that Jessica was willing to risk. She quickly found an excuse to talk to Mike who seemed mostly oblivious to her presence.

I’m not sure what would have happened if I’d kept sitting there. I wondered if Alice could choke a bitch and bash some heads the way Jasper had demonstrated. I almost wasn’t above throwing a punch myself. I’d love to give Lauren a bloody nose. No, that’s a lie. Blood makes me faint and I’ve never thrown a punch in my life. Bullies have always walked all over me.

My rescue came from an unexpected avenue. Angela grabbed my forearm and announced that we were going to be late for Biology. It was a transparent lie; we still had six minutes before the bell rang. As soon as we stood up to leave Jasper got up too and escorted Alice out with his hands on her shoulders. She looked fighting mad still and it’s a wonder they could be so graceful together while essentially stomping out of the room in a huff. Then Angela physically dragged my numb ass out of the cafeteria and into the gloomy outdoors.

 

“Are you crying Bella?”

Angela waited patiently with me out in the rain while I composed myself before we ventured into the lab. We still had a few minutes at least.

“That’s silly. Who cries on their second day of school. What kind of loser would do that.”

I let out a sad little gasp and wiped my face with my hands. For once I was glad to be in the rain.

“Hey, it’s ok. Lauren is awful. I promise I’m not going to tell anyone. This is about the Cullens isn’t it?” she asked.

I sniffled back the last of it and just nodded.

“Which one was it, if it’s not rude of me to ask?”

I looked at her blankly, still pretty overwhelmed, “Sorry. I don’t understand.”

She looked at me with quiet affection, “Oh, never mind. Hey, I’m here if you want to talk about it. We don’t have to though.”

It was probably thirty seconds before I had the presence to speak.

“Just bear with me. This should be no big deal. I already knew they’re weird, so what’s a little incest too. Right? But it’s like the earth just shifted and I’m not standing where I thought I was. Hanging out with my new friend and her brother is not the same as playing third wheel to two people who grew up together. Why didn’t she tell me?

“And, I mean, this is so fucking stupid. I don’t even know her really. So why should I care? It doesn’t change anything who she’s screwing. We can still be friends. Just, I thought I could matter is all. I just thought that sounded really nice.”

Angela just listened silently and let me metaphorically puke out the little pieces of my heart that I couldn’t put together in my head.

“Sorry. I don’t know what to tell you,” she said finally, “but I can be here if you need someone. You’re probably missing your friends from you old school right about now.”

I laughed bitterly at that, “I’m sure I have plenty of acquaintances that are wondering why I never came back from winter break, but no. Nobody actually misses me, and really the feeling is mutual.”

“Yeah, I get that,” she looked down at the ground, “I was going to ask you if Alice is even worth it, but I can see how maybe she would be. She’s exciting. All the Cullens are.”

She paused thoughtfully for a moment and then brightened up again like nothing had happened. The change was a little eerie, more so because it seemed sincere.

“Hey, speaking of the Cullens, I have something I want to show you before class starts that might make a difference. If you’re feeling better now you should come inside with me. Edward’s skipping again apparently, since he wasn’t at lunch, so you can sit with me and June today.”

I nodded gratefully. I did my best to leave my feelings out in the rain too.

 

We were the first people in the classroom. Mr. Banner was at his desk, with headphones on, trying to get organized before his next hour. She led me over to her table and had me pull over my stool from where I’d sat with Edward the day before. I was glad to not have to sit in that spot again even if it would have been alone today.

From her backpack she pulled out a big expensive looking digital camera with a Canon logo on the flash. She looked around conspiratorially to make sure it was still just the two of us. Oh hell yes! I was ready to get my Nancy Drew on.

She turned on the camera and started loading up pictures. The ones she flipped past all looked like pretty boring stuff from around the school mostly. Then she got to some older ones that were completely blurry and out of focus.

“Alright, what are we looking at here?” I asked.

“We’re looking at pictures of the Cullen family I took. I’m the main photographer for the school newspaper so I tend to just take pictures whenever I see an opportunity. This camera is on loan from the school. Emmett was balancing Rosalie on his shoulder and showing off so I snapped a quick set of shots. All of them are wildly out of focus. That blurry white smudge in the center is Emmett.”

“So I see. I’ll admit that’s strange, but what are you getting at?”

“Bella, do any of my other photos look out of focus like that?”

I watched her click through a few more past it and the next few were all outdoor shots of kids goofing around on the football field during gym on a slightly overcast day. She had good compositions, well centered, and a few were underlit or had motion blur, but there were no more so far that were blurry beyond recognition.

“Wait, stop,” I pointed out, “that one’s blurry too. What’s the story there?”

She chuckled, “I wasn’t sure at first but I have a theory. It’s from the same day and looking back on it, I’m pretty sure Rosalie was in frame in the background.”

“So, the Cullens can’t be photographed? That’s beyond creepy. Doesn’t that scare you?”

She grimaced a little, “Yeah. I had nightmares about it for a week after I found out. Really silly stuff about being stuck at school after hours with my camera and the whole lot of them like cornering me in the gym or something. In my dreams I’d fall down clutching the camera to my breast like a baby and I’d recite the Lord’s prayer over and over again because as long as I was praying they couldn’t kill me. They’d just stand there and I always woke up before anything happened and I felt super dumb about it.”

“Well, holy shit. That’s intense. I had a nightmare about them last night too. Something about being stalked by a big black dog.”

“Nightmares’ll happen,” she nodded, “at this point, I’ve had enough time to let the idea sink in and it’s just what it is. Bella, I’m so glad I told you! I knew you’d believe me. You’re the only other person who watches them the way I do.”

A pair of students walked in the door and she discreetly shut off the camera and put it back in her courier bag.

“Thanks for trusting me,” I replied, “and for pulling me out of that lunchroom too. I was sort of getting stuck in my head I guess. So, what else have you noticed about the Cullens?”

“Just you wait, it gets even better. You want to see something really freaky? Get like a little makeup compact and try looking at them through the mirror tomorrow during lunch. It’ll look like there’s a ripple in the glass and you won’t be able to keep them in frame at all. Just don’t do it when Edward is around.”

I stared at her in agitation at his name, “Angela, you can’t leave me hanging like that. Did Edward threaten you or something?”

“Huh? No, Edward is fine, he just has a sixth sense about this kind of stuff is what I meant. He’d catch you trying it for sure. So, let me back up,” she had a conspiratorial smile now, “about a year ago, way before I took the pictures you saw here, I might have really wanted a picture of Edward Cullen for my very own. Well, I figured I could abuse the dignity and trust of my position on the paper and just take some photos of him on the sly.”

As weird as this conversation was, I had to laugh at that, “Oh no, you didn’t!”

“Oh, but I did! The problem was any time I managed to spot him and get my camera out he would mysteriously vanish, or would step behind something right as I pushed the shutter button, or he would overcome his habitual unfriendliness and go talk to someone big who would completely block my view. I finally had to admit I’d been outfoxed and move on.”

She looked more amused looking back on it than I think I would have been.

“Still, it’s a good thing you didn’t get that picture, right?”

“I mean, probably. Jessica started crushing on him after that and got shot down hard. Like tears and ice cream and movies about ponies hard. Not that you heard that from me. Basically, I never stood a chance. Plus it’s probably not a great idea letting the creepy kids know you are privy to their creepy secrets, and he’d have totally known.

“As it is, I don’t know. I’ve been doing my best to stay pleasant and neutral around them all since I found out and I don’t think they suspect me. Not that I ever talk to any of them. I’m good at not thinking about unpleasant things or else I’d be cracking up about it. Speaking of, does this change anything for you?”

“No, I’ve been asking myself that for the last minute and it doesn’t. At least, I don’t think so? It should, shouldn’t it? Honestly, I’m more shook up by the whole sorta-incest thing which was apparently common knowledge. I mean, I already consider them to be slightly dangerous people, so them being magical robot ghosts from the future or whatever they are doesn’t change that much. Um, that is, it’s safe to assume they’re something weird, right?”

Angela clapped her hands, “Hey that’s a good point! What the heck are they? I bet if we put our heads together we can crack this.”

Something about the way she said that reminded me inexorably of Velma from Scooby-Doo. It was a fitting counterpoint to my own Nancy Drew. Jinkies indeed!

The class was starting to fill up so we did our best to keep it down. She pulled out a white gel pen and a fancy notebook full of deep tan paper. I snickered appreciatively but she defended them as important and vital tools for any notes truly worth taking.

The class bell rang and June never showed up so the two of us sat hunched over the paper whispering back and forth like we were in middle school again and we were trying to chart out who was dating who. Instead our paper looked more like this:

      The Cullens – cold skin (super soft!), very pale with dark circles around their eyes,
      can’t be photographed or looked at in a mirror. All of them are super hot.
      Are they related?? What color are their eyes???

      Good speed, strength and hearing. Prone to cryptic comments.
      Live remote and don’t make friends, but Charlie has been to their house.
      Maybe violent mood swings. Rarely eat? Sensitive to smells?

      Ghosts
      Vampires
      Zombies
      Mummies
      Other Undead? Ghouls? Revenants?
      Robots
      Superheroes/Mutants
      Government Conspiracy
      Lizard People in Disguise
      Fae Folk
      Angels
      Highlander Style Immortals (these are getting increasingly unlikely!)
      Eldritch Horrors
      Demons
      Elves
      Werewolves (super unlikely)
      Big Foots? (hah)
      Other Urban Legends??
      Fairy Tales??? Native Oral Myths (talk to Jake)

We had fun putting stuff down on the paper and kind of quietly giggling to ourselves. It seemed like Mr. Banner was having an off day with his lecture and he ended up giving us the last five minutes of class as study hall to get ahead on homework. Now we were faced with the task of evaluating this mess. None of it seemed real but it also didn’t feel like as much of a game as it should have been.

“That cold skin thing you were talking about just totally throws me,” Angela mused. “If someone said so, I would completely believe they are ghosts, like some mind bending The Sixth Sense sort of nonsense with a shitty twist ending.”

I shook my head in protest, “No, no way. I can attest that they are very firm and very physical. Plus they leave the school grounds at night and Charlie has seen them in their own home. So they can’t be anything spectral. I do get what you mean about the whole ghostly vibe thing.”

“Ok, what about vampires then?” she said, and kind of snorted at the thought. I had to admit it was a little hard to take seriously.

“Well, they are pale enough and kind of creep everyone out,” I started, “but why would they be in High School then? Like, why bother? Ghosts getting stuck and haunting a place makes sense. Also they’re awake during the day and outside and stuff. Also so far no fangs or mysterious disappearances. Hmm, it’d go a ways to explaining why they’re so volatile at least.”

Angela adopted a kind of preachy know-it-all tone, “And that’s just North American vampire legends. In Europe they’d be ruddy and bloated looking and kill people’s livestock. Either way it doesn’t fit. What about zombies, have either of them coveted your grey matter?”

I burst out laughing and kids around the room looked at me.

“Oh God, case fucking closed. I kid you not but Jasper actually did say something like that to me. He thought my brains would be ‘luscious.’ Don’t make me explain how that topic came up, but it all makes sense now! They don’t want to be my friends; they want to bite me for my big luscious shut-in noggin.”

Angela smirked at that, “If that’s the case I’m in a lot of danger too. Lauren should be safe though. Still, if getting bit means being a brainless supermodel with tons of cash and a smug sense of superiority, then sign me up and chomp away!”

I managed to reign in my laughter but I knew I still had a silly smile on my face, “But seriously, don’t zombies originally have to do with Haitian Vodou and stuff? Like you were getting at with vampire myths, the actual origins for a lot of this stuff are pretty obscure and way outside my knowledge of cheesy monster movies. I don’t even know how to evaluate some of these.”

Angela nodded and chewed on the end of her pen, “Good point. Cold skin strongly suggests undead, but it could also be cold blooded which is why I let you put lizard people on the list, and even if it’s a joke entry it connects with actual myths.”

“Like Lamia in that poem by John Keats!” I burst out. I loved Keats’ stuff and my normal chances of bringing him up in conversation were practically nil.

She raised her eyebrows, “I’ll have to trust you on that one. The whole mirror and photography angle seems more promising at first, like there aren’t that many things that traditionally can’t be photographed, with ghosts and vampires at the top of the list, but there are oddball things like kitsune and Bigfoot that play into those myths as well.

“If you think about it though, if the supernatural is real it’d make sense that any monster worth their salt would develop ways to hide like that. I mean otherwise we’d hear all about it on the evening news. Which puts us nearly back to square one.”

The bell rang and everyone around us began to gather their things. I grabbed my bag with a twinge of disappointment. It had finally felt like we were getting somewhere.

“So where does that leave us?” I asked over the sudden bustle of students.

“I don’t think we have enough to go on yet, but we can keep working at it. I’m not sure I totally believe any of this, but it’s too tantalizing to leave alone. I’ll hit the public library after school and maybe brush up on my mythology. Care to join me?”

“Can’t. I really need to get groceries today. But some other time, for sure.”

“Cool. I’d like that,” she pushed up her cateye glasses and fixed me with a thoughtful stare, “Hey, Bella, be careful with your new friends, alright?”

“Who me? I’m always careful.”

 

I tripped twice during volleyball and I stayed down after the second time. I was getting scared I was going to hit my head or twist my ankle doing this. I’d had enough sprains in the past that my left ankle was a bit weak. Coach Clapp grumbled about it but let me sit out the rest of the hour. I was almost dreading getting home and seeing how many bruises I’d acquired today.

Alice was waiting for me outside of the girl’s locker room. She was leaning against the brick wall and whistling a tune I’d never heard before.

Her face lit up with joy when she saw me and she detached herself from the wall as softly and gracefully as sand blowing in ribbons across the highway.

“Hey you! How was gym?”

My mind flashed back to the ugly face she’d had at lunch, perfect lips curled back in a snarl. Alice was the most vivacious person I’d ever met. I couldn’t reconcile that with the idea of her being a dead thing. Or something worse. There was no way any of the stuff I’d talked about with Angela was real. I felt a shiver run down my spine as she drew near.

She laughed and the sound of it was so pure and unearthly, “I’ll take it from the way you’re frowning it was pretty bad then. Good thing I’m here to cheer you up.”

I started to open my mouth to tell her about it but she darted forward, a quick strike like a kitten battering a mouse to death, and wrapped me in a gripping airless hug. One of her arms dug into the spot on my shoulder where Jasper had pushed me and I yelped out in painful surprise.

“Oh fuck! That hurts! Get off.” I did my best to duck out of her arms and she was quick to break contact as soon as she heard me complain.

“I’m sorry! I’m so so sorry. I never mess up like this normally, I swear. I just get ahead of myself around you.” She had a perfectly contrite face, full of confidence that I’d forgive her without fault. It was starting to piss me off.

“Gym was bad. Today has been bad. I’ve been pushed once and I tripped myself three times. I’m sore everywhere and you keep trying to drape yourself all over me and it’s not normal.”

My voice wasn’t loud but it was dripping with stubborn teenage disdain. It was a voice I’d used on Charlie before when I’d wanted him to lose his shit and send me to my room.

Her big eyes were wide in amber shock and beneath her wild makeup she looked a little vulnerable, “I can back it off. Sorry, I keep feeling like we’re already friends. Sorry you tripped so much in gym. Is that normal?”

“No it’s not normal. I’m a fucking clutz who wobbles like a drunken sailor if I move too fast! Nothing about anything is normal.” Shame flooded through me at the admission and I let it feed into my irritation instead of trying to deal with it.

“It’s been a mixed day for me too,” she admitted, “but it’s over now. Let me take you shopping. We can unwind a little and I’ll buy you a better coat.”

“I hate clothes shopping,” I hissed at her. I realized I was working myself into a tizzy but I just didn’t care. She’d buy me a coat? The nerve of that girl. “You don’t know anything about me at all. Of course you don’t. We’re not real friends. I don’t feel like I even know who you are.”

She frowned at me. Her frown was as devastating as her smile. “Where is this coming from? This is not how I saw this conversation going at all.”

A pair of girls walked past us and saw us standing in each other’s space at the beginnings of a blowout fight. The blond girl started laughing at us and elbowed her friend to look our way. Fuck. I didn’t care how this looked, we were doing this.

“This is coming from right here and now. Maybe this is the conversation I’ve decided you deserve.”

She stepped back, wary of how this was going. A part of me had expected that growling snarl, but instead she just looked sad.

“It’s been a very long time since I’ve had a friend. You wouldn’t believe. You’re right of course, I don’t know you from Eve and I’ve been acting like I do, but I don’t know the right way to go about this so I thought I could just power through and it would all work out right.”

The two girls watching us had turned into four and I was suddenly not so sure I wanted a crowd. I turned and began walking away out into the rain.

Alice never missed a beat. She caught up to me almost right away despite her shorter stride and then she turned around and started walking backwards in front of me so she could keep talking. She was quick and surefooted and still wearing that preposterous riotous shirt, which was going to be soaked through in short order.

“Bella, talk to me. I’m sorry I’m a bit of an awkward human. I’ve been doing the best I know how. I get that I’m excitable and intense to deal with.” Walking like this was effortless for her. She was having no trouble with the pace.

“You forgot pushy and overbearing,” I said. Now I was going for low blows.

She grinned at me impudently, “You’ve started to meet my family. Can you blame me?”

“Yeah, I’m sure fucking your step-brother makes it really hard to recognize boundaries after all.”

“That’s not fair,” she said. Her hands balled up into tiny fists.

“Yeah, well it’s not fair that I got ambushed at lunch. I trusted you and I just… Why didn’t you tell me?” All of my mixed up confusion echoed in my voice when I said it.

“Is that what this is about? I was furious when I saw what was about to go down. You have no idea the things I wanted to do to that skank. Jasper had to keep me from going back in afterward. If you’d asked me at the start of the day, I’d have told you I was positive Lauren wouldn’t even speak to you at lunch.”

I scowled, “Not helping, Alice.”

“I was going to tell you! I had a plan. I was going to tell you during lunch tomorrow since you’d somehow avoided hearing that bit of gossip from Jessica so far. We’d get a table to ourselves and I’d spill it and give you a chance to react.”

“First off, stop trying to plan your way into being my friend. You’re way too calculating. Second, none of that does me any good now. I just wish I’d known that’s how things were.”

Her little pixie face was screwed up into a frustrated pout. I’m sure she wasn’t used to being challenged.

“What? Was I supposed to lead with it? ‘Hi, I’m Alice Cullen, I have no friends outside of my family, I creep everyone out, and I’m in love with my step-brother!’ That’d have gone over really well. I wanted you to like me!”

“Well I’m Bella Swan, I also have no friends, everyone at my last school thought I was clumsy and boring and a freak, and I’m terrified you’ll realize I’m not worth your attention and lose interest. So fuck off back to your boyfriend and let’s not even try.”

We stormed past the convertible. Her siblings were all there except Edward. Jasper was in the back seat watching us. Perfect. Just exactly the perfect of audience for what was turning into a really mortifying argument.

The rain had picked up and Alice was soaked to the bone. The cute little spikes of her hair were drooping down and a pink sports bra was outlined in stark transparency through her scrap of a shirt. The dyes on the shirt had started to streak and bleed alarmingly. She should have been shivering and hugging herself for warmth. Instead she looked like she didn’t even feel it. My mind wandered back to a list of pale white words like “Revenant.”

I got into the cab of my truck but she grabbed the edge of the door before I could swing it closed again.

“Bella, please. I’m putting myself out here in a big way but you can never have a future that you won’t take some risks for. Take a chance on me. I’m not trying to control everything, I swear. You get to decide where this goes and you can walk away now and cut that thread if you want. Or you can invite me into your truck and we can go buy me some new clothes because I’ve ruined these ones.”

She gave me her most winning smile. I had an unbidden image of her pulling off the sopping wet shirt as I handed her a fluffy sweater. My hands at her throat undoing her stupid little collar. Her back is to me and her skin is flawless alabaster, long smooth arms raised over her head, the pale expanse of her flesh interrupted only by a bright pink band of cloth. Nope, nope, nope. What the hell, Bella?

Alice had her head cocked to the side like she was sizing me up. She closed her eyes and considered the situation.

“I have to go grocery shopping,” I hurried to tell her. “You wouldn’t want to come along, you’d be bored silly.”

She pushed the door open a little more. Her demeanor had changed now. There was something almost predatory about her now. She was smiling a little smile and we both knew she had me. That had been an implied invitation.

“Live a little. Do it later. Let me in. We’ll go out, have some fun, and get me out of these wet clothes. We can even go grocery shopping at the end if you insist; that’d be a fascinating novelty for me.”

I shook my head, my mouth was dry, “I can’t, Charlie’s waiting on me. I pissed him off enough yesterday and I said I’d get groceries and cook tonight. The man can barely make eggs. I have to go home.” Why was this so hard. Why did her offer sound so good.

She looked exasperated at this excuse, “Your dad doesn’t need a housekeeper Bella. He is a grown ass man who can take care of himself. You don’t have to be Cinderella, cooking and cleaning and doing his taxes. Every month for two years he has come over to my house and for an evening I’ve stood in for you as a proxy without having any clue who you were. He practically doted on me. That man desperately misses his daughter. So, let go and be a teenager for once. Bibbity bobbity boo little girl, let me work some magic on you.”

 I couldn’t do this. I realized I was terrified of letting her into the cab with me. It never even crossed my mind that she could hurt me. In fact I knew that she wouldn’t. That’s not what I was scared of. I was scared of letting Charlie down. What would he think of me if I didn’t come home tonight because I was with Alice. And what if I did go with her and it was magical, but what if that magic only lasted the evening like in Cinderella. Tomorrow I’d just be Bella again, crying in the cinders of my useless teenage years.

She was straining upwards into the cab now. She was so close to me. Lithe and wet and fearsome. I just had to turn my head and her face would be right there next to mine. I just had to choose it.

I turned the key in the ignition.

“I’ll see you in school tomorrow Alice.”

I jammed my foot down on the gas and charged the truck forward through the empty parking space in front of me. Alice lost her grip on the door and the frame and went tumbling out backwards onto the asphalt.

I spared a look back and she’d landed perched on all fours. She stood up with ease and waved at me gaily as I sped away in a panicked retreat.  

I squirmed and sweated and smoldered with shame.

 

Chapter Text

I figured I should be safe enough here at least, I was in a Thriftway after all.

Grocery shopping had always been my thing back in Phoenix, starting from a very young age, and it felt good to be doing something familiar. The sound of the rain disappeared when I entered the store and I could almost imagine that the outside world didn’t exist beyond its yellow walls.

I just sort of wandered and ended up in the freezer section. I was dimly aware that I should go get a cart and start over by the produce but my head was a mess. The cold humming of the freezers was soothing and I stood there in a daze reading all the ice cream flavors over and over again. Ice cream was a great idea.

I looked at my options through the cold glass, weighing each flavor in my memory.

I’d dropped a girl out of a moving vehicle. She’d taken it like a champ and could probably fall out a third story window and stick the landing. Probably. Still, totally not cool.

I didn’t know what I wanted. I felt restless and unsatisfied with my options.

I’d been hit on by a girl. Like, really hit on. I’d been blindsided by it. I don’t know what I’d been expecting from her but that wasn’t it. I’d been hit on by a girl who had a boyfriend. A girl with very soft skin. Who kept finding excuses to touch me. And he’d seen the whole damn thing. Except I’m not gay, so how awkward is that. I’m just not. It’s not something I’ve ever had to question about myself. I didn’t need to even think about it.

 Cherry Garcia sounded good but I stopped short, hesitating. Once you’ve made your choice and opened the freezer door the whole thing fogs over with frost and you’ll never know what you missed. I mean, Cherry Garcia was almost what I wanted, but not exactly. I took my hand off the handle and left it closed.

I was totally flummoxed by a girl. We both wanted the same thing I think but I was a mess and messing it up, and beneath her frantic pixie glitterati exterior she was awkward and inexperienced too. Why couldn’t our connection be as easy as it had been with Angela. Why was there this weird intensity to our interactions. What was I so scared of.

A girl. Alice. I couldn’t stop thinking about Alice. Just don’t think about it.

I spotted a tub of Edy’s Spumoni on the bottom shelf. Man, I hadn’t had that in forever. It had been my Grandma’s favorite and she used to give me little bites. Spumoni is great; it’s like a non-vanilla version of Neapolitan.

There was only one left so I grabbed it right away, as well as a bottle of raspberry dessert topping off the impulse shelf at the end of the aisle. Gleefully, I went back to the front to get a cart. My head was still a mess, but ice cream! I guess this was going to be a quick trip so it didn’t melt but that was fine. I wasn’t going to risk letting go.

I started in on the produce but I didn’t want to be shopping anyway. Goddamn I was so fucking horny. I was miserable with it and my body was betraying me like a bitch. Jasper had started it at lunch and then Alice had brought it back in a really unwelcome way with how she kept talking about her wet body. I wanted to be at home taking a very long hot shower right now, except no I didn’t.

Never had I been so glad to be out shopping. I needed to keep busy. I was desperately thigh clenchingly horny and I could not trust my fingers to be idle right now if I were safely alone. Not that I was ashamed of that kind of thing, but I’d spent my day getting beguilingly harassed by two of the most beautiful people I’d ever seen and this was all fucked up enough already without running the risk of them intruding on my fantasies too. I did not need to be opening up that can of worms and chowing down with a fork.

Most of what I got was routine stuff. I had a few staple dishes that I made unless I was feeling creative and right now familiar things were in short supply. I picked up some good steaks at the deli. That’d be a perfect meal to try and patch things up with Charlie. I wondered how Alice takes her steak. Pretty rare probably; she’s probably got all the good taste that money can buy. It’s weird to think she sees grocery shopping as a novelty. I bet they get everything delivered to them or something stupid like that.

With a sudden burst of inspiration I went back through the aisles and got some stuff to do some baking with. I wish I knew what sorts of sweets Alice likes. Confections aren’t my strong suit but I was going to take a chance!

I stopped by the video section too and chanced across a cheesy old movie I’d seen before called Robot Monster, as well as the much newer Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind which I’d wanted to see when it came out last spring. When I was younger Charlie and I had used to watch a bunch of really corny monster movies together. It was a good time and I’m not sure when we’d stopped doing that kind of thing. I missed it

Somehow, while I was waiting in line, I got this image in my head of being at home sitting on my couch with Alice and Jasper on either side of me. I was holding the tub of spumoni while we watched something truly stupid like The Giant Gila Monster. Alice had taken the bottle of topping and put a big raspberry swirl over the top of the whole thing so every spoonful was connected by that shared thread of tart-sweet flavor. Jasper favored the pistachio side while Alice kept going back for the cherry. I stuck mostly with the chocolate but they kept taking turns and feeding me little bites of theirs. There was something about that image that I just couldn’t shake. It was full of that kind of cozy camaraderie that I’d only ever had in fantasies. I’d never have that.

The drive home I barely remember. Putting away the groceries took no time. Marinating the steaks also took no time. Cold raw flesh beneath my fingertips. My baking project was a bit of effort but not enough. The recipe I knew called for amaretto, but Sue Clearwater favored the stuff so I’d figured Charlie would have a bottle in the liquor cabinet, and he did. I ended up sticking my hands in the bowl and mixing it with my fingers, kneading and stirring the flour into the egg-sugar-booze mixture until my hands were a sweet mess.

Dinner was prepped to cook. My surprise for Alice tomorrow was stowed away. I was running out of stuff to do. I was getting antsy. Charlie still wasn’t home. He was running really late tonight and my willpower just isn’t that great. The thought of trying to do homework while I was like this was a joke.

I went up to my room. I’d had two suitcases and a backpack as the sum total of my Earthly belongings worth keeping from Phoenix. I’d kept a few of my favorite T-shirts for instance, but I had no idea when was I ever going to be able to wear them in a city full of cold drafty buildings. Renée still had the rest of my stuff but I didn’t care if I ever saw any of it again.

Another twenty minutes saw me finish the last of my unpacking. Twenty more had me taking down all the little girl crap I had up on my bulletin board from God knows when. Well, everything except for the hand turkey I’d made in second grade. I loved that goddamn hand turkey. I didn’t have any posters or anything to put up again yet but it was a start.

I was getting kind of desperate for something to do. Other than the obvious, I mean. I went and put the potatoes into the oven to bake. I wanted Charlie to get home so I could start the rest of dinner and keep busy.

Going online was a risk but I fired up my decrepit computer anyway. I needed distraction. I made a predictable beeline for smut once our pitiful dial up modem finished bzzztzzschch-ing. This was a mistake, why had I thought I’d do anything else. I checked the recently posted list of sex stories but there was nothing worth reading, nothing that hit my kinks, and I didn’t have the patience to pick a category of stories and wade through the jumbled up backlogs. Goddamn it. I did a control find for “Alice” while scanning the story titles before I remembered what a fucking stupid idea this all was and closed the window.

New tactic. I checked, and sure enough I had three e-mails from my mom where she progressively freaked out more and more about not having heard from me in a full day. She and I could hang out and talk for hours about everything and anything, but more and more these days I just wanted to get away. I guess I had.

I started to write a quick message to her but everything beyond the basics kept being about Alice. I wasn’t ready to talk about that. Where did I even stand with that girl? Finally I sent something simple: I told her that I’d arrived safe, that I was making friends, and that I was excited for the future. Also that she had to pick up the dry cleaning this week since, for obvious reasons, it wasn’t my job to do that anymore. It was all a bit vague, but I’d been expecting that I’d have to lie through my teeth about my life in Forks to her. To my surprise, what I’d written was all more or less true.

E-mail sent. I petulantly flipped the power switch off on the back of my tower without shutting anything down. Fuck this piece of shit computer. I started stripping. If Charlie wasn’t home yet he’d better not come home in the next half hour. I darted naked down the hall to the bathroom with a change of clothes in my arms, gooseflesh covering my legs.

Safe in the bathroom I twirled around in front of the mirror and admired my bruises while the water heated up. Sure enough, there was an irregular shaped red splotch on my back that would probably end up turning a luxurious deep purple. I had some spots on my arms too from my falls, but just little ones. I’d had enough accidents in my life that I’d come to admire scars and injuries as beautiful in a way. Every scar is proof of a life lived; there’s nothing to be ashamed about in that.

I clasped my hands in front of me and leaned forward pushing my breasts together. I wished my boobs were bigger and my stomach was flatter. I wished I was just a little taller and at least a little pretty. My nipples stood out, small and dark and hard, while pale blue veins wended their way beneath the creamy skin of my chest. Maybe I was a little sexy in a way.

I pulled the curtain aside and stepped under the hot water. I closed my eyes. Instantly I was back on the couch with Alice and Jasper. The ice cream tub sat empty on the coffee table and the credits were rolling. Without a word Jasper pushed me down on the couch, his amber eyes staring into mine and a cocky smirk forming on his too perfect lips. He called me “Darlin’ Bella” again and I wanted to kiss him but he wouldn’t let me up.

Alice was at my shoulder, delicate nimble hands pulling down the zipper of my hoodie. She pushed it off of me and leaned down to bite my shoulder hard. Her mouth was a painful wonderful pressure that didn’t break the skin. Her breath was warm and panting.

Jasper was the one on top of me so this was ok. She could be here too as long as he was the one getting me off. I was just going to let this ride and not worry about it for now.

She stepped back and pulled off her shirt. There was no sports bra this time. She was perfect; pure white and flawless, like a cute department store mannequin that someone had forgotten to dress. She growled pure sex at me and I wanted this so much.

I strained upward to kiss Jasper and Alice slapped me across the face. It split my lip and I tasted blood. Aaahh yes! In my fantasies I liked blood and it didn’t make me faint.

Jasper plucked up the liquid rubies that were beading on my lips and with his thumb he drew a languid lazy swirl in crimson on Alice’s breast. Given free rein to struggle forward I chased that violent swirl with my mouth. She tasted like copper and lust. My tongue followed the coiling line and flicked the sensitive nub of flesh it sought at its center and I was rewarded with a warm moan from her like a summer breeze through the trees on a slick sleepless night.

Jasper pulled my head back by a fistful of my hair to see on my face what a wanton slut I’d revealed myself to be. He laughed at the helpless mess I’d become and ran his fingers up along the inner thigh of my jeans. His hands were hot and needful. Somewhere back in the shower my actual hand went between my legs. In the distance of my mind I heard Alice giggle.

 

I heard the front door thunk closed and Charlie announced himself. I was just drying off in my room and getting dressed again in sweatpants and a comfy gray cardigan.

Well, it was official, I could never look either of them in the eyes ever again. But hey, I felt super relaxed at least.

I poked my head out the bedroom door and yelled, “Hey, Dad, I’ll be down in a minute.”

When I got to the kitchen he was looking through the freshly stocked fridge with admiration. I politely elbowed him out of the way and grabbed the marinating steaks.

“Welcome home,” I said, “I’ve got potatoes baking in the oven already and they’ll be done in a minute. Does a medium-rare steak work for you?”

“That sounds great Bell. You didn’t have to go to all this trouble.”

He turned to shuffle towards the living room so he could get off his feet for a bit.

“Hey, Dad.”

He stopped and looked back. He looked tired today. I thought of our fight yesterday.

“What’s up kiddo?”

“I was thinking about what you said last night,” I started, “Alice basically gave me the same story again today. I’m gonna do the cooking and most of the shopping because it’s familiar and I like doing it, but you get to do the dishes afterward. And we each do our own laundry. Also tomorrow you’re on your own because I’m going to try to go out with Alice and…” It all came out in a rush of words until I trailed off, tripping through them in my self-conscious way, but he was nodding.

“That sounds like a deal to me. I’m glad that’s what you decided on and I’m glad you and Alice are getting along.”

I put the steak down and went over and put my arms around him, careful not to get marinade from my fingers onto his shirt. I’ve never been a touchy feely person.

“Yeah, well, I want to focus on school and maybe make some friends this time around. What I mean is, I think that you’re right.”

“Well of course I am,” he laughed, and it was that goofy honest self-assured laugh that I loved him for.

It had been a long time since I’d hugged my dad. I don’t remember hugging him at the airport when I got off the plane. I don’t remember when the last time was. After a moment he ruffled my hair and he went back to the television and I went back to the kitchen. He and I are a lot alike. There wasn’t anything more that needed saying.

 

I probably overcooked my own steak a little to medium well. Even though I know the red juice that comes out of a rare steak is just a protein called myoglobin and not blood it still makes me a little uneasy to see it pooling on a plate. It doesn’t smell like blood though, which is the real thing that sets me off.

Charlie and I actually talked a little during dinner. He got me to go over what I was studying in school and I rambled a little about Wuthering Heights and how it didn’t matter if the ghosts in it were real so long as the characters thought they were, all of which he took in stride. For my part I brought up the whole step-siblings sleeping together rumor I’d heard about the Cullens and he dismissed it with a wave of his hand. Or rather he confirmed it, but clarified that it wasn’t exactly as bad as it sounded.

According to him, he’d seen all their adoption documents and papers of that kind, supplied by the good Doctor Cullen, who was apparently just as distractingly handsome as the rest of his family. Charlie was uncharacteristically talkative about the Cullens, especially when it came to the doctor who he clearly admired.

Basically, the story was that the doctor and his wife both suffered from a very rare disease called Waardenburg-Shah syndrome which is a genetic pigmentation disorder resulting in hearing loss, pale skin, distinctive facial features, and unusual colored eyes. The partial hearing loss was taken care of with cochlear implants of course. It also came co-morbid with an intestinal disorder and circulation issues resulting in a specialized diet and cold extremities.

They’d met because his wife, Esme, had sought him out for help with her condition and they’d fallen in love. They didn’t want to risk having kids of their own so being the kind hearted people that they were they adopted three unrelated young children with the same condition from three different orphanages, because they were in the perfect position to know how to take care of their very specific needs and issues. Then, about four years ago, they took in a pair of newly orphaned twins from New York State, Rosalie and Jasper Hale, who also had the same genetic disorder.

Charlie didn’t have to say it, but we both knew it was all a crock of shit. Those teens weren’t a bunch of very sick kids. On the other hand it did hit most of the right notes for anyone curious about them and I certainly didn’t know enough about rare genetic disorders to say if the symptoms they described passed muster. I hadn’t heard Rosalie speak yet, but I was going to bet she had some kind of distinctive New York accent, if they had picked that over them being from Texas for Jasper’s sake. Charlie shrugged at the end of his story, as if to say, “What can I do in the face of well organized bullshit like that?”

More to the point, Alice and Jasper had supposedly met in their early teens and weren’t raised together and were absolutely for sure not related. Assuming the Cullens weren’t all lying through their teeth, faking documents, and hiding the truth in their big isolated house out in the woods. Yep. I felt so much better about the situation. Whatever.

After dinner I suggested we watch Robot Monster, which Charlie readily agreed to it if I promised I’d do my homework afterwards. I was feeling pretty good after a shower and a steak and I ended up telling him about Eternal Sunshine in case he was interested. He just sat there um-humming and drinking a Rainier beer. I realized I sorta wanted to watch more movies with him again. I talked right over the opening credits of Robot Monster so I didn’t realize the terrible mistake I’d made in picking it.

Robot Monster is often unfairly included as a candidate in the running for the worst movie ever made, but I’ve always thought it was just kind of a charming no-budget B movie. The villain is a gorilla in a space helmet named Ro-Man who quietly commits the genocide of the entire human race offscreen in the first five minutes using ray bombs or something. Ro-Man’s costume is clearly just stuff the director was able to find at like a novelty shop or something. After that, Ro-Man is tasked by his superior to personally kill the remaining eight surviving humans who are all located within a mile of his base for literally no reason.

Ro-Man is bumbling pathetic monster that I’ve always had a great deal of sympathy for. He’s comical and awkward and I guess I see a little of myself there. He’s almost endearing in a way, right up to the point where he strangles a little girl to death. But that’s how it goes with monsters.

The arc of the movie is that he falls in love with a human girl and starts to question his dedication to his race and his mission. I like plots like that—stories about loving unwisely. I’m reminded for some reason of the uplifting 2003 rom-com Oldboy, “Even though I'm no more than a monster - don't I, too, have the right to live?” I always thought that quote was a question of love.

My ears perked up at the ten minute mark of the film and I realized I was in for fifty more minutes of absolutely awkward. I’d totally forgotten, but the girl that Ro-Man falls in love with is named Alice. Alice, I can’t get away from Alice. I’m suffocating in Alice.

If I’d identified with him a little before, well now I was all out rooting for him to get the girl. I did not give two fucks about Roy, the vaguely rapey 1950’s everyman that she ends up marrying so she can get laid before she dies. I knew what I wanted was impossible since I knew how the story goes and it’s just death for everyone when his Ro-Man superior finds out about his betrayal of their code.

There’s something clumsy and poignant about a spacesuit headed gorilla philosophizing, “At what point on the graph do ‘must’ and ‘cannot’ meet? Yet, I must. But I cannot.” I feel like I kind of get that. Plus he captures her, takes her back to his cave, starts to strip her, and then ties her up. I mean, that’s not for everyone, but for a certain kind of a girl that’s one hell of a date.

Also, that’s kind of silly though too, because if monsters and stuff were real, why would they be interested in human women anyway? That’s kind of egotistical of us as a species. At least my dad really seemed to like the movie; he’d forgotten enough that it was mostly new to him.

When the movie was over and it was all revealed to be just a dream or something I went upstairs and did my homework with the song of Alice’s name still ringing in my head, destroying all else like a world melting ray bomb genocide.

 

During the film there’s a random scene where two lizards bite each other and start spinning in a seemingly endless death roll. They play that fucking clip twice actually. That night I dreamt of giant coiled serpent limbs.

I was falling, slipping, sliding down those loose cold planes into scaly darkness and uncertain doom. I could feel their power as the walls of flesh came sliding into contact with one another, grinding and gliding. Different loops of the great serpent body continually threatened to constrict around me with slow deadly pressure as I fumbled around to find new openings that I could slip through down to further depths.

I fell through a labyrinthine array of twists and turns, the whole thing strangely illuminated, and she shimmered with all the splendorous hues that I’d seen in photographs of interstellar clouds. The snake was cosmic and vast and luminescent.

She was dazzling! Along her spine ran a thick vermillion line that twisted and curled, and at her sides she was dappled in silver and stripped with deep blues and greens. At times the ghost-lights made her seem pearlescent with her scales overlaid on one another like big crescent moons. She was sensuously soft and smooth against my exposed skin. I craned my neck in vain for any sight of her vast distant face.

I landed in a dark place full of rocks and ash. There was a wail like the heavens being rent asunder. Red flames raced along the scales of the titanic beast, consuming it completely in its miles and miles of flesh, and it screamed in its serpent tongue. Everywhere above me was an inferno and I heard a rending screeching sound like a skyscraper’s skeleton being compressed down into a much smaller and more compact shape.

I huddled in fear, curled up in a ball against the growing dark, as the flames faded and the screaming dimmed. I felt a touch on my bare shoulder and I looked up. Alice was standing there where once the serpent had been. She was thin and ragged but achingly beautiful. Somehow I had known it was her all along. Her naked body was streaked with soot and her dark hair was flecked with gray ash. I wanted to touch her but I was afraid. Her feral black eyes regarded me possessively and her bloodless lips mouthed a word I couldn’t quite understand.

Chapter Text

Jasper caught me at school the next morning. That is to say I fell while getting out of my truck and he literally caught me before my head could hit the pavement.

What happened is that the world spun as I was stepping down, my foot slipped, and I lost my grip. It was actually a little similar to the fall that Alice had taken the night before, except I don’t have catlike reflexes. I was just going to hit the ground and crack my head open like a chump.

Jasper was just getting out the back seat of the red convertible parked kitty-corner from me and I watched him run over to me sideways and tilting fast. I heard Alice’s voice yelling for him to catch me; she sounded a million miles away. He swung low and in a blur of burgundy cloth he had his arms around me before gravity could take its toll on my skull.

“Lamia,” I said illucidly once I was firmly in his arms. The word just popped into my head like something from a dream.

“Jesus Christ Bella! I’m taking you to the nurse. There is something seriously wrong with you,” he rebutted. That was fair.

I squeezed my eyes shut and shook my head, “Please don’t; this’ll pass in a minute. Just get me vertical.”

It was no effort for him to pick me up and put me on my feet. I might as well have been a hollow papier-mâché girl for all the strain I caused him. I hung my head forward and tried to get my legs back.

“What happened Bella? Talk me through this. You just crumpled there.” The Texan was coming out in his voice with his worry; he was paradoxically drawing out his words in a low dusty way as his concern heightened. His arms around me were similar to the last time he’d held me but this time he was bearing my weight and protecting me.

“I just got a little dizzy is all. You don’t have to worry about it.” I was intensely embarrassed about this conversation and I wanted it to be over.

“Now, I'd've been pretty distraught watching you bleed all over the parking lot so don’t lie to me. Can you tell me why you’re feeling vertigo right now?”

“It’s not vertigo!” I didn’t want anything to be wrong.

“Darlin’, I know what vertigo feels like and right now your world is spinning pretty bad and you’re starting to get nauseous.”

I stood up straighter in his arms and leaned back against him. I spared him a quick sideways glance. He was wearing some kind of seriously vintage poncho with black and red stripes, blocks of orange diamond patterns, and a soft tattered fringe. It smelled earthy and ancient. Around his neck was a curious sculpted metal collar with a cross hanging off of it that had been polished to a brilliant almost-white shine. Why couldn’t they just wear clothes instead of statement pieces?

I waited a moment until the spinning started to subside, “I’m not lying you asshole. This just happens to me sometimes, I’m used to it. Look, nothing twisted and I’m doing better already, it never lasts more than a minute. Sorry I scared you.”

A new voice called out, “Everything alright Bella?”

I looked up and Emmett was a couple feet away looking happy and relaxed with a friendly smile on his broad face. I realized he was ready to step in and slug Jasper if need be. Alice was standing in his shadow being unaccountably shy and not facing me directly. Rosalie was a couple yards away, looking back at the two of them impatiently. I think she was wearing a white mink coat like a movie star. Jesus fuck.

“Yeah,” I stumbled for words, “Jasper was just making sure I didn’t die on my way across the parking lot. I’ll be fine in a moment.”

Emmett nodded, “Well Jasper, you heard the lady. Make sure she makes it to her classroom alive. You staying with them Alice?”

She shook her head, “Bella, I’m glad you’re safe. I’ll see you later maybe. Jasper, I trust you. Be gentle with her, alright.” I wanted her to look at me but she walked away with Emmett.

It occurred to me what this must seem like and I blushed hard. I’d noticed before that his poncho smelled earthy, but being this close to him for so long I picked up on a subtle fragrance beneath that; I guessed it had to be a cologne or something. It was a faint scent like smokey autumn leaves and a bottle of cloves left open on a spice rack. Whatever it was, it was bewitching; ok, so maybe this was kind of what it seemed like.

“She’s not mad is she?” I asked as I watched her lithe form disappear around a car.

“What? You mean jealous?” he snickered, “That’s charming that you think you could make her jealous, but no. If she were jealous you’d have a hundred and fifty pounds of snarling girlflesh all up in your space and you’d know it.”

I turned that number over in my mind, “Wait, she’s not even five foot, that can’t be right.”

“She’s got a little more muscle on her than it looks like,” he said gently, “anyway she’s just trying to give you a little space, which is not something she’s at all good at. You did yell at her about it last night and then dump her on her ass in the rain after all.”

 “Oh God, I did, didn’t I? I’m sorry about that whole thing, I didn’t mean to make her think–I mean, me with girls, I uh, don’t do that kind of stuff.”

“Playing coy about it doesn’t suit you, but it’s not your fault so don’t apologize. I’ll admit I don’t like watching my,” there was a beat, “my girlfriend demean herself like that, throwing herself at you. She might not be a jealous creature, but I’m a possessive hypocrite, and I’d prefer it if you could be her bosom companion without also screwing her. The question of your proclivities aside, I’m glad to hear you don’t intend to.”

Alright, shit, well that was the end of that conversation. No way was I touching anything in that statement. I started to twist out of his arms but they tightened around me a little painfully.

“Stay where you are; don’t pull away,” his voice was sharp and confident. It was like a military command. Without consciously choosing to, I followed the order and his grip loosened.

He reached out and closed the door to my truck. There was a light drizzle in the gray morning air but it was a nicer day than we’d been having. He brought his hand to my chin and turned my head to look across the parking lot.

“It’ll be worth it if you stay. That’s Lauren walking over there by Jessica Stanley. I despise that little cunt and I can think of no better chance than now to make sport of her. Feeling up for some petty revenge?”

I shivered at the words and felt a hot pulse of hatred for Lauren, his sudden intensity picking at the scabbed over shame I still had from my humiliation in the lunchroom.

“What do I need to do?” I asked. I licked my lips and took a deep breath in. It was awful but I was aching to get back at her.

“Relax into my arms and wave to Jessica in a moment here. I need you to put on a big smile. And chin up. Look proud of me if you can.”

I did as he said, trying my best to feel like I belonged where I was with this man’s arms holding me snug. I was clearly outclassed by him, but maybe for a moment I could pretend he was mine. I waved to Jess and saw her eyes go wide when she spotted me. Lauren looked too and her jaw tightened in a scowl.

The whole time Jasper was whispering in my ear in dulcet seducing tones, “When you look back on this remember that this is all you. I’ll not cheapen your revenge by forcing a smile from you. Lauren is trash and she’ll never have anything on you. Her mind is a shallow cesspit and her looks won’t take her far. You’re a beautiful woman Miss Swan and High School is but a blink of the eye. You’ll get out of Forks, go to college, and forget all this. She’ll relive these days forever as her high point. I’d only ever look at her to spite her, but you my dear have my full attention.”

He brushed my hair aside and kissed my neck again at the same point as yesterday; his lips were a burst of ice against my pulse point. I felt his face move to the side and from the shiver that went up Lauren’s spine I’m sure he’d locked eyes with her.

I couldn’t help it, I was beaming. To borrow a phrase, I was the cat that ate the motherfucking canary.

“Hey Bella,” Jasper started with quiet panache, “what’s the last thing that goes through the mind of a suicide jumper?” I could hear his smug grin.

“I don’t know. What?” Lauren was staring me down now. She was seething and Jessica was clearly uncomfortable with the situation but flashed me a thumbs up when she saw me looking.

“Their spine.”

Without meaning to I burst out laughing. Oh God damn it, I knew that one. It would have popped into my head instantly if the circumstances weren’t so chaotic.

Billy Black owns at black comedy hands down, just as if it were actually named after him. He has probably told me every offensive Indian joke there is to tell. Jacob takes after him and we’ve spent a few rainy afternoons as immature teens going back and forth trading snippets of dead baby humor for Helen Keller jokes. Basically, I loved morbid punchlines and Jasper had hit on one of my favorites, a joke I’d thought about a lot several years ago when I was feeling really depressed and alone in Phoenix. Plus Jasper had the most delicious deadpan delivery for it too and I loved him a little for that.

Lauren’s face blanched when she saw me laughing and she walked away fast. There’s no way she could have actually heard what he’d said and she was assuming the worst. Jessica shot me a curious glance but decided to leave well enough alone for now and follow Lauren towards campus.

“That should just about take care of Lauren,” Jasper said mercilessly.

I was smiling like a fool, “You think so? Just because it looked like I was laughing at her? That was fun, I’ll admit, but she’s going to find a way to make me regret it, I’m sure.”

“Nah, she won’t touch you. She’s jealous of you and attracted to me, but I terrify her even more than I turn her on. Plus I’ve pretty well marked you in a sense. I hope you’re alright with that. Lauren, other bullies, potential suitors: all of them are going to have to weigh the pleasure of knowing you versus the threat of meeting me.”

“If it keeps me from being harassed I’ll take it.”

 There was a moment of silence and I was once again very conscious of his arms around me. I wanted to imagine his warm embrace or some rot like that, but I was wearing a coat and there was so much fabric between us that I only had a faint ghostly impression of his body. He was solid and well muscled, I could tell that much. My intuition told me that every inch of him would be ice cold.

Likewise, any warmth of character I was feeling from him was just self delusion. He’d revealed himself to me enough that I couldn’t pretend I was finding out the real Jasper with this friendly banter. The real Jasper was the sullen boy who didn’t talk to anyone and who daydreamed about vivisecting his classmates. Charlie was a big proponent of the advice, “When people show you who they are, believe them.” Just the same, I didn’t want to break free of this illusion just yet.

“Hey, can I ask you something?” I started after the quiet had settled on us, “Why me? I mean, why are you ok with touching me if you won’t give anyone else the time of day. It’s just because of Alice, isn’t it?”

To my surprise he leaned in and buried his face in my hair. I heard him inhale deeply and sigh.

“You’re obscenely warm and you smell delicious. I shouldn’t say that, so pretend I didn’t. I’m being horrible right now and I know it. I know exactly how you’re feeling, that fluttery little hope that keeps springing up in your breast. The falling elation from our victory over that bitch. The awkwardness of the situation. The little spikes of irritation at me, all of which I deserve. But no fear. Why aren’t you afraid of me?”

“What do you mean?” I asked, confused by the turn this conversation was taking.

“I mean, you have that same little start of fear that everyone does when I come close, like someone walked over your grave, but then, instead of listening to that instinct, you relax and get nearer to me instead. You should have a slow mounting sense of panic from being this close to me. Talking to me should feel like walking down an alley alone at night. Instead you’re happy to be here. Are you just not taking this seriously?”

“You just saved me from getting hurt. And we’re in a public place. And Alice would be devastated if anything happened to me. I don’t doubt that you could hurt me, I think we proved that already, but I guess I just don’t believe that you would.”

He let go and then pushed me against the door of my truck. There was no force to it, just a gentle bump as I drifted into place and then a hard thud as his hands hit the frame on either side of me and he leaned in. He towered over me and his face looked grim in the morning light. I wasn’t just imagining it, his eyes were black again now, pupils huge and crowding out the amber coloring at the edges. He mimed looking to the left and the right.

“You aren’t paying attention Bella. Class has almost started and we are quite alone right now. I’ve been breathing you in for as long as I can stand. I mean that. You know how I am about scents. There isn’t another soul around. Even my own brother didn’t want to leave me with you,” his cold hand stroked my cheek, a stinging caress, “you aren’t safe with me. This is what I looked like when you first saw me, right? Surely you know what this means.”

It wasn’t the instant adrenaline of death at first sight like our meeting in the lunchroom, but he looked pretty ready to put me through the car window that I was backed up against. He looked like an animal that had been pretending to be a boy. I remembered the black dog of my dreams.

My heart had started pounding and a cold sweat dripped down my neck. He snarled at me and I felt myself getting wet. He was magnificent.

He was bluffing. He had to be bluffing. This was just like at the picnic table. Right?

I closed my eyes, I was losing my nerve, “Alice trusts you.” My voice was a little shaky. It went without saying that I trusted him too.

He started laughing. It wasn’t the animal laugh of triumph I expected but the laughter of a teenage boy. He tapped me on the shoulder.

“Open your eyes,” he said. He sounded out of breath and when I opened them he was panting and his eyes were still black.

“See, you’re fucking fearless as shit. I don’t get it. That was my tearing people up face, and anyone else in your shoes would, for real, be getting tore up. Are you really that in love with death?”

“I don’t know. You tell me,” I studied his face, I should have been repulsed by him but he was still just as perfect to my eyes, “How real was that?”

“That was as real as I hope you ever see. The very edge of my control. It’s a good thing you didn’t run, things would have gotten dicey.” He paused to take some deep breaths and I realized he’d positioned himself upwind from me. He mumbled something else, and, as I processed the words, it dawned on me that he was embarrassed. He’d said, “Sorry about the lack of warning this time, but I’m glad you liked it anyway.”

It was a relief to discover he was imperfect. Of course, I had no real idea what kind of thing Jasper was or what he was capable of and yet here we were, pushing at limits I didn’t understand. We were both acting really stupid. It was horrifying to discover he was imperfect.

Then it sunk in that he knew I’d enjoyed that. It was true that my panties were feeling a bit squishy and my pussy was a little tender spot of glowing warmth. Oh fuck me, he could probably smell it on me! Could he? Fuck my life forever.

Our eyes met in an awkward acknowledgment and the tall young man leaned over and put his hands on his knees breathing hard, “Hey, umm, could you think of something soothing for me instead of freaking out? I need to come down from this.”

He stood up again and came over and leaned against the truck next to me with his hand casually pressed against mine. It wasn’t really all that different from how he’d been standing to menace me, but it was totally different too. He looked at ease, if fairly excited still. He had this silly grin on his face that was almost charming. It was the youngest I’d seen him look.

I thought of sitting on Fist Beach with Jacob when I was thirteen, during the last summer that I’d spent in Forks. It was a perfect sunny day with a mild wind and we’d had a lunch of cucumber sandwiches and potato chips that Billy had sent us out with. We’d swum for a bit and laughed and played, but then as the afternoon had lengthened we had napped on a beach towel together, our bodies touching unselfconsciously. We’d stayed out until dark, and I remember sitting with him listing to the waves as the twilight deepened and thinking it was one of the best days of my life. I hadn’t been wrong.

“Whatever you’re thinking about, it’s lovely,” Jasper said. He looked better now, more human. His eyes were clearly amber again. Yeah, apparently that was a thing. He was still dressed like a jackass though.

“So, you like me because I’m not afraid of you? Or at least, not casually afraid of you all the time? Because, fuck, you sir are terrifying. Like, do you feel people’s fear then or something?”

“Yeah, I feel everything around me. I like your reactions to me; both the no fear thing and the terrifying thing. Also the other thing,” he laughed at that part, the fucking prick. “People are hard to deal with and they tire me out so I try to have as little to do with them as possible. You’re nice to be around; you’re subtle for some reason. I only get your emotions when I concentrated on you instead of all the time. Plus, whenever Alice is around I can feel her excitement to get to know you and it’s rubbing off a little if I’m being honest.”

“Should you be telling me this?”

“No. You shouldn’t know anything. I’m basically failing every duty I have when it comes to you. You already know about my family’s circulation issues, against my objections, but Alice said there was no way you wouldn’t find out and I relented. That does means you’re safe for me to touch I suppose, a privilege I’ve been abusing so far.”

“Circulation issues? Well, now who’s being coy,” I laughed a little, this felt easy and safe despite him pretty much admitting to having the equivalent of psychic powers and me being basically sure he wasn’t human. “Actually, given the whole Alice thing, what do you think of me anyway?”

He took a few steps and sat down across from me, his back against the tire of a stranger’s car. I took a seat myself, pretty sure that the tire of my truck was smearing mud on the back of my coat. I didn’t care that I was probably late for class already. And I needed a new coat anyway.

He pushed his hair out of his face and leaned back contemplatively, “Don’t take this the wrong way but I almost wish you didn’t exist. If you’d never been born it would make both my life and Edward’s life a lot easier. He’s in Alaska right now in case you were wondering, staying with some cousins of ours and getting his head sorted out about almost killing you.

“But Alice seems to think you’re going to be some kind of amazing friend. I don’t know, her life is pretty perfect already so I don’t really see it, but I learned long ago better than to bet against her. I guess I’m curious about you and I figure we should get along until graduation at least. If you’re going to be important to her then you’ll be important to me too, there’s just no way around it.”

I sighed, “I think I’m a little intimidated of her. Of you both really. I mean just look at you. Plus you have to admit you’ve got a terrible reputation around here.” He liked that part.

“Fine then,” he said, “I must be crazy or something but I’m going to do you a huge favor and give up my advantage. Want to hear a secret? I’m way more scared of you than you are of me.”

I think I actually scoffed at that. “There is no way that is true. No way. Thanks for trying to make me feel better but you’re going to have to do better than that.”

“No, I swear. Alright, so I could snap you like a twig, right? So what! You can break the heart of the only person in this whole world that I give a damn about anymore. There is nothing I wouldn’t do to make that girl happy and she is trying to put a chunk of her happiness in your hands where I can’t do a thing with it. Nothing I could do to you comes anywhere close to that.”

“What about your family?”

“Not the same. Not even in the same category. I’ve been in love five times so far I think and Alice is the bright morning star to my long night. She shines fiercer than all the others and always will. The only one who ever came close was the first one, my Machi, who acted as my evening star I suppose.”

I threw a rock at him across the short distance between us. It missed him and hit the tire behind him with a soft thump. “Come on Jazz, don’t be so fucking cryptic. You’re already doing a terrible job of not telling me things, so why start now?”

 He had the most amazingly patronizing look on his face. “Really now, Isabella. You’re going with Jazz?”

“Why not?” I shrugged, “You said I could.”

“And you intend to make sure I regret it?”

“Something like that,” I was feeling cocky now for some reason, as if him saying he’d given me the upper hand actually meant anything, “come on, spill it. Who is this Machi girl and how jealous should I be? You’re practically begging me to ask you about it.”

He snorted at that one, but his face smoothed out to its regular charming default.

“Machi is a title, not a name. It means a shaman, more or less. And I’m not sure I’d call her a girl exactly either, although again that’s close enough to the truth. My Machi was someone I met in another life. I guess I do want to talk about her a bit. She’s been on my mind recently for some reason.”

He lifted the sleeve of his poncho as if the red and black pattern should mean something to me, “I’m wearing her clothes today. I must be desperate to talk about her. She left them to me when she died so they’re my clothes I guess really, and I don’t mean that in the same way as I own that gaudy designer crap that Alice buys everyone. These are mine and a part of me. There used to be more to the necklace too, a dangling part called a sequil, but I lost it.”

I couldn’t help razzing him about it, “And here I thought you were going for some kind of Clint Eastwood, Man with No Name thing.” I was teasing him but really I was on edge for him to say what he was thinking. Hopefully he understood. Actually, with his power he probably did.

“Very cute, but no. She was of the Mapuche people of Chile and the poncho is traditional; it would have been worn by great men of her tribe. The necklace is feminine. She was somewhere inbetween the two, which is something I didn’t understand at the time. If I’d thought of her that way there’s no way I’d have let her share camp with us, but I just saw her as a strange young man who’d traveled far and could heal our wounded.

“Today you’d probably call her transgender, though given her unique social role to her people even that is maybe not the whole truth. I thought I knew, but I never really understood her. It’s only now that I feel like I’ve come full circle and begun to know her again.”

“And you loved her?”

“Very much so. To the people around me she was simply Machi, a name. But to me she was my Machi, a term of endearment. And I was Cadejo to her, a creature from folklore, even though back then I was just a runaway farm boy with bloody aspirations. She tried to explain it, with me translating for her, and the men took her nickname for me to mean The Black Dog. That’s what they called me with awe in their voices. Nowadays I wonder if she meant it the other way around, as a white dog, a spirit of protection. I suppose that’s what I was to her.”

“Did you grow up in a gang or something? How did she die? Why are you telling me all this? What was her name? I feel like I have the pieces but I don’t understand anything.”

He stood up and dusted himself off. “Come on, we should get you to class. I have some permission slips in the car so you won’t get in trouble. We could say you were at a dental appointment? Think you can handle that.”

He held out his hand to me but I refused to budge. “Please Jazz.”

He looked into my pleading brown eyes and I saw him soften a little, “Christ, you really are going to make me regret that, aren’t you. There’s not much more I can freely tell you. She died a violent pointless death that I couldn’t save her from. I couldn’t save anyone. And I’m telling you because you remind me of her. In another life you’d probably have made a good shaman. Who knows why I’m telling you, but I’ve already told Alice this story too many times and I wanted it to be fresh again. I wanted it to hurt again.”

He took my hand and pulled me up and I was flooded with a feeling. It was love and sadness intertwined, both feelings beyond all measure like a dirge of remembrance playing in my heart.

“Fuck,” I whispered, “what was that?”

“That was Nahuel, my Machi. A name she told only to me, and that I now tell to you.”

“You can do that?” I was floored. It’s a real trip feeling someone else’s emotions.

“Yeah. Here’s Alice too if you’re curious.”

The aching in my chest quieted and was replaced by fireworks, big booming explosions that shook me and blinded me and took up all the space. It was a beautiful love, scary and mesmerizing too, and in a way I understood it. My own feelings towards that girl were harmless firecrackers still, but they sent a thrill down my spine and echoed in my chest just the same, only on a much smaller scale. After a few seconds his concentration broke and he let the feeling go.

I nodded, “Yeah, that felt like Alice.” He had pulled me into a standing position and my hand was in his but we still hadn’t moved anywhere. I shivered in the cold. “So, not to be a jerk about it or anything,” I added, “but have you been making me feel things while I’ve been around you?”

He looked away with a small smile. I’d totally caught him! “I calmed you down repeatedly yesterday and momentarily helped you hate Lauren today. That’s it. Like I said before, you’re very hard to focus on for some reason, so I’ve been meddling less than I normally would.”

I looked him over, his handsome face framed by his silver collar. His velvety skin freezing my hand again. His deep amber eyes pulling me in. Did I trust this guy? Finally I shrugged.

“I guess that’s your nature. It doesn’t work when I’m away from you, right? I remember panicking as I walked into the cafeteria yesterday. As much as you can, let me know when you’re changing things, alright?”

“Fair enough. I’ll do my best or at least tell you afterwards. That’s the deal I have with my family and it works well enough. Distrust is a creeping vine of an emotion and I’d hate to nurture it in you. In return, will you get your head checked out please? I think you have an inner ear problem of some kind and I really can’t be catching you all the time.”

I stuck my tongue out at him, “Jerk,” but really I was happy. He was awful, infuriating, smug, scary, and rude. I felt really warm and content on that cool morning and with the way he was appraising me, I could tell he knew it too. He was looking at me, like really looking at me, and I wondered if he’d truly seen me before now.

“Fine, I’ll make an appointment next week or something. Happy?”

“Yes, and you are too.”

“Just going to keep on reading my emotions then?” I sassed him. I wasn’t even sure I cared that much.

“You’re a fascinating girl so far; I’d be denying myself a rare pleasure if I left you alone and stopped peeking. I know Alice might have said that we’d stay out of your way, but with you putting yourself in our path time and again, I can hardly help it, now can I?”

We started walking towards the school. I guess that was it. It had been nice and in a way I felt a little disappointed that I’d have to return to the real world.

“Say, when you were falling, you said the word ‘lamia.’ That mean anything to you?”

I shook my head, feeling a little shy. We were walking hand in hand, he’d never stopped touching me and I found I didn’t care about the burn of it anymore.

“Just something from a dream I guess. It was rattling around in my subconscious and the tumble I took knocked it loose or something,” I chuckled at that, “I’ve been having nightmares about the two of you actually.”

“You’ve been having nightmares about me and Alice? That’s maybe the first sensible thing you’ve said.”

We were at the door to building three. This was it. He looked like he wanted to say something else when his cell phone rang. It was an obnoxious ringtone that said “Hello Moto” in a creepy voice and then turned into dance music. He was clearly startled and pulled the slim silver device out of a pocket.

He dropped my hand and turned away from me to answer it. I caught little bits of his side of the conversation, like “she’s right here,” and “what do you take me for?”

Finally he turned back to me and said, “It’s Emmett. He wants to talk to you. He’s looking for proof of life and all that.”

I took the phone from him and held it to my ear, “Hey Emmett. What’s up?”

“Oh nothing much,” he had a deep soothing voice, “I just happened to need a drink of water and I happened to walk by your classroom but you weren’t in it. I thought I’d check and see if Jasper had finished burying your body yet.”

“I’m fine, but thanks. We’re still on campus; we just got distracted talking is all. How’d you know which class is mine?”

He laughed, “Alice has been scrambling to find out everything she can about you. Couldn’t help overhearing a bit of it. That girl can’t control the volume of her voice sometimes. Anyway tell Jasper he’s a shit and he was supposed to deliver you to your classroom alive. Still, if he’s only going to do one out of two, you skipping class and being alive is better than the other way around.”

That was pretty fucking morbid but I found myself laughing. I put my hand over the mouthpiece and turned to Jasper, “Emmett says you suck.”

“Tell him I’ll fight him any time,” he replied with a playful smirk, “actually, this is an awkward time to ask this but we got interrupted. When you said Lamia, where you thinking about the poem by Keats?”

I nodded my assent.

“That’s a conversation I’d love to have” he said wistfully, “no one appreciates poetry these days. Look, here’s a line I never thought I’d say, much less to a high school girl, and I mean this in the least sexy way possible, but do you want to just get out of here and go get some coffee or something?”

I thought about acting shocked and self righteous about the suggestion of just ditching class. Then I remembered that I was trying to be a teenager for a change and not a middle aged librarian. I thought of Jasper’s previous offer to give me some kind of sketch ass school form that would cover my absence. Charlie would never have to know.

I was having fun. I didn’t want this to end. This felt like an important moment in my life.

I took my hand off the speaker and addressed Emmett, “Jazz and I are going to walk up the road to The In Place and get some coffee and breakfast. It’s only like a block away. You can call again if I’m not at lunch, but it should be fine. I mean, Alice trusts him after all, and so do I.”

I handed the phone back to Jasper and let him finish the conversation with his brother. I felt confident in my choice. He took my hand again like the smooth bastard he was, but the mere fact that he did so gave him away. We walked hand in hand talking about poetry and monsters.

That’s how, on my third day of school, I skipped class for the first time in my life to have coffee with Jasper Hale.

Chapter Text

Love never dies, but lives, immortal Lord:
If Love impersonate was ever dead,
Pale Isabella kiss’d it, and low moan’d.
Twas love; cold,—dead indeed, but not dethroned.”

I interrupted him at that point, “I think I get the theme of the poem already, right, so poor simple Isabella dies a pitiful death for love. Got it. This is turning out to be a very long poem; the subtitle on it promised me a basil plant and that hasn’t even showed up yet.”

“For the last time, please don’t interrupt,” Jasper scowled, “we’re finally at the good part, and there are only like a dozen stanzas left. How can you say Keats is your favorite poet if you’ve never heard the poem you share a name with? It’s criminal is what it is.”

I took a deep chug of coffee and rolled my eyes, “I only said that I’d like to hear it some time. I was being polite. How was I supposed to know you’ve got the damn thing memorized! No reasonable person would ever assume that.”

“Whatever, I’m going to keep going,” he cleared his throat and started again in his beautiful diction, “In anxious secrecy they took it home…

 

I don’t know what I’d expected from my morning, but this was not it. To his credit, Jasper was playing the perfect gentleman and he was very sincere about wanting to discuss poetry. He’d held the door for me, pulled my chair out for me, and ordered for the both of us. And when I say for the both of us, I mean for me since he apparently wasn’t eating.

He’d got us each a coffee and also a shared plate of bacon and toast to snack on while we talked. When I’d finished my first cup of coffee he’d traded my empty one for his full one without a word, presumably for the waitresses’ benefit since he could feel me eyeing him suspiciously about it.

So far the big downside was having to endure words from his lips directed to the fictional character of Isabella, with such gems as, “Believe how I love thee, believe how near my soul is to its doom.” He straight up knew the indescribable levels of embarrassment I’d suffered during those stanzas and I’m sure he’d enjoyed it.

On the upside, we were both aggressively avoiding topics like the past, our friends and families, or what the hell we were doing here together. It was in this fashion that I found out that his taste in books was massively dull.

His favorite author was Henry James, who I was only aware of because he’d written a Gothic novella called The Turn of the Screw that I’d been told I should read. He also mentioned E. M. Forster, who I’d never heard of, and Evelyn Waugh whose book Brideshead Revisited I’d started reading on the plane ride over here and had found exceedingly dry so far, if darkly humorous. I’d asked him if he’d read anything published in the last twenty years and he confessed a fondness for historical naval novels by Patrick O'Brian. I’d asked him if he ever read anything exciting and he admitted to liking Algernon Blackwood. That was about where I gave up.

His taste in poetry was phenomenal though! We both shared a favorite in John Keats, but he rattled off W. H. Auden, Edwin Arlington Robinson, William Blake and Walt Whitman without a moment’s hesitation, all of which I approved of. Clean favored and imperially slim to be sure! Digging deeper I found much of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, a bit of Ben Jonson and Alexander Pope and then names and names beyond that, to the point that I lost track. I’d hoped to hear him mention Edna St. Vincent Millay, who is a personal favorite of mine, but slowly it dawned on me that he hadn’t mentioned a single female author. I don’t think he’s ever knowingly ready anything written by a woman in his life.

Beyond that he enjoyed history, military history, model making, fencing, dancing, and sharpshooting. I couldn’t decide if he was tedious or fascinating, but I knew I was hooked. He also professed an interest in folklore and cryptozoology; the only television show he really watched was The X-Files. Go figure.

I don’t know what he got from my side of the conversation. I was just saying whatever came to mind with the hope that I didn’t sound completely boring. I was tongue tied in a logorrheic sense. In that regard, poetry was the perfect topic to keep returning to since at least there I wasn’t at a complete disadvantage to him.

After the embarrassing interlude of him reciting Isabella while I buried my face in my arms, he dug in and got me to tell him all about the dreams I’d been having. I told him how he’d appeared to me as a horrifying dog who had ripped me open and eaten my heart out of my chest while I watched helpless and paralyzed. He took that bit of foresight as confirmation that I really would have made a good shaman.

As far as the Alice dream went, he pointed out that it was a fairly literal interpretation of the transformation and rebirth scene from the poem Lamia, where the monstrous snake woman gains her human form through a transmutation of flames and agony into flesh.

This was as close as we got to talking about anything real. There was a hesitance here and I nervously ate the last of the bacon while he searched for the words he wanted to say. Slowly, patiently, he led me through the themes of the poem. The monstrous Lamia was lovestruck and did not wish to consume her human lover, but instead simply to live in peace and seclusion with her beloved. She was a beautiful spirit of temptation to the human and while some scholars have dismissed her as a mere monster in human guise, others see her as a powerful woman who wisely concealed her past. It was only when the human pushed their relationship too far that tragedy struck; her betrothed ignored her advice and invited to their wedding a man who knew her true nature as a serpent and who revealed her for what she was. Instead of any justice being done, the Lamia was forced to vanish into thin air and her human lover died on the spot of a broken heart.

He was really fucking hammering it in. Words I wanted to say included, “Fuck you, I’m not a lesbian,” “Stop insinuating I’m trying to steal your girl,” “I know how to do literary analysis too,” and “Why is this so on the nose!? In what other situation than mine could this moral possibly be applicable?”

What I actually said was:
O sister, mother, wife,
Sweet Lethe is my life.
I am never, never, never coming home!”

“Yes. That’s generally the idea,” he replied, “just don’t figure anything out and you’ll be fine. Although, I’ll confess, I don’t know that poem just now.”

My heart thrilled as finally, after nearly three hours of sparring with each other, I’d come out on top. “I know you don’t know it.” I bared my teeth at him like he’d done to me in the parking lot. Poor bastard, he’d never read Plath.

 

We walked back to the school and he got a permission slip for me from the trunk of his car. It was pre-signed by the building administrator and had signatures from all my teachers except for one which was different.

I pointed to the last signature, “Who is K. Gordon?”

“Kim is the art teacher and that form belongs to Alice,” Jasper said, “she has nearly the same classes as you, just at different times. Even if it isn’t totally a match for you, Shelly in the office will still accept it. She will also resent you for the rest of your school career and be a passive aggressive bitch about it, but that’s probably better than getting detention and picking up trash as part of ‘Spartan Service’ to be paid back to the school for skipping.”

“Where in the world would you even get a thing like this, much less a stack of them?”

“Brand new computer labs don’t grow on trees you know, but they’re a hell of a buffer against truancy proceedings if you’re like us and miss school a lot—as an added bonus we’re given quite some leeway with the dress code as well. It’s not an unexcused absence if it’s pre-authorized after all, and the school library is due to be remodeled next year, but of course our dear father Carlisle wouldn’t be interested in donating for that if for some reason we weren’t still students here.”

“I’ll admit, that’s clever and ruthless.” He began to walk away and on an impulse I reached over and ran my fingers through the back of his hair. Despite me being the warm blooded of the two of us he shivered.

“You shouldn’t do things like that,” but there was no force to his words

My anxieties were starting to spike now that we were back on campus, “Are we alright? Like, I had a fun time and I’m glad I did this, but is Alice really going to be fine with us cutting school together unexpectedly? It’s not like anything happened but I’m feeling kind of guilty.”

“I’ll talk to her at lunch,” he said, sounding cool and reassuring, “she cares that I’m hers completely and that you are also hers. Beyond that she’s amazingly tolerant.”

“But I’m not hers,” I protested, “I barely know her.”

“So you’ve said. Good, walk away then,” he answered a little coldly, “or else stop pussyfooting around, accept things for what they are and apologize already. Should I have done some Freudian dream analysis too while we were talking about Lamia?”

I ignored his little jab, “I had a gift I was going to give her and everything but I panicked this morning and left it on my kitchen counter. I mean, I know I’m going to apologize I guess but I haven’t decided how or when. I don’t know where to start with her. Does that make sense?”

“I usually start at the ass and work my hands up her sides, but she’s a sensitive girl all over. I’m sure you can manage something.”

All the blood rushed to my cheeks and I gave him a friendly punch to the shoulder, “You’re awful, you know that.” It was weird how quickly we’d grown close. Was I really that bitterly lonely? “You’re not voodooing me right now or anything, right?”

“I promise I’m not. We’re about to part ways anyway so you’d surely detect it. That does remind me though, would you do me the favor of thinking about Alice for a moment? You don’t have to say anything or explain anything, just picture her face for me.”

I couldn’t quite get over the whole reading emotions thing and I knew what he was really asking of me. Then again, he’d shown me his, so to speak, so it was only fair that I drop trou, mentally speaking, and show him mine. He put his hand on my collar at the base of my neck and I flinched from the sudden contact; touch was needed for precision work, he’d told me over toast.

I’d only seen her for a moment this morning but she’d been wearing a wispy tank top and diaphanous skirt combo that was completely inappropriate for forty degree weather. I liked that about her, her inappropriateness. She was always smiling like the whole world was a pleasant joke and I watched her happy lips with a warm, bright, intoxicating feeling coursing through me. I was awestruck at her grace. Her every movement seemed like an exotic dance set to music I couldn’t hear. I’d dreamed of having a friend like her, someone boisterous, confident, bossy and childish. She was the promise of something too perfect, someone too dear, and that more than anything scared me. The world seemed insubstantial when she was around and the seat of my stomach was aching and heavy with cherry bombs waiting to explode.

“Good, I think I got most of that,” said Jasper, breaking my concentration. “I’ll make sure relay the message to Alice.”

What!? Oh, I was going to kill him. He laughed and darted away like a mangy dog who’d just grabbed a turkey leg off the table. His poncho streamed behind him and he was lovely and wild.

 

Jessica wouldn’t stop looking at me during Spanish class from the next desk over. It was beginning to unnerve me. I tried playing back the events of the last day or so in my head and I had to admit it didn’t look good.

I’d come in to class late after turning in the form at the office and getting scowled at by the secretary. The old bat had called me Isabella and insinuated that Charlie would disapprove of the crowd I’d fallen in with. I’d bluffed that she could call Carlisle about it if she had a problem with me and that at least shut her up. If that happened, with my luck, he’d probably call Charlie himself, but this lady didn’t need to know that.

Jessica was clearly chomping at the bit to interrogate me but I had till the end of class to get my head on straight. The teacher, Mrs. Goff, had a policy that anyone could talk as much as they wanted in class as long as they did it in flawless Spanish, otherwise they could cállate la boca while she was lecturing. Luckily for me, neither of us were at that level yet.

I absorbed myself in the lecture, feeling a bit more inspired to learn Spanish after having had Jasper demonstrate his mastery for me earlier. Plus I had no clue what I could possibly say to explain anything. Keeping an eye on the clock, I packed my bag a minute early and I was up and out of my chair as soon as the bell rang. I’d learned this trick from Edward. You can physically outrun social problems right?

Jessica caught up to me in the hallway and grabbed hold of the black top handle of the backpack, practically yanking me backwards

“Tell me everything!” her eyes were big and she looked like she wanted to jump up and down with excitement, “Oh my God! What is going on with you and Jasper?”

Once it was clear I wasn’t going to escape I bargained my way down to at least being seated at the lunch table before I choked to death on my own hubris at thinking I could avoid this conversation.

Mike, Eric and Angela were at lunch with us today, as well as a few random hanger-ons that were Jessica’s acquaintances, while Lauren was notable absent from the room. Off sulking somewhere I hoped. When I glanced at the Cullen’s table Alice and Jasper were leaning in close and talking quietly while holding hands. They looked like a couple; they were so beautiful together. How had I ever missed that.

“So, spill already!” demanded Jess once I’d gotten my food and sat down. At least she seemed enthusiastic about it.

“Uh, we’re friends now? Jasper is pretty cool I guess.”

She shot me a condescending look, “Bella, I saw you this morning. Lauren has been spreading it around all day that you’re a gigantic bitch of a homewrecker. Personally though I’m impressed, I never would have guessed you had it in you, so good job.”

I groaned, “What exactly have people been saying?” I looked at the pizza in front of me with a total lack of appetite.

“Well, you were obviously crushing on him at lunch yesterday, then after school some girls saw you fighting with Alice about him. This morning you’re in his arms and laughing in Lauren’s face. The two of you sneak off campus for some intimate time together while your dad is at work, now he’s over there doing damage control with Alice. I mean, how is it supposed to look?”

“I can’t believe you moved that fast,” fussed Mike, “or that you have such terrible taste.” He laughed a self deprecating laugh of defeat before frowning and turning away.

I let out a strangled laugh of my own and put my head down on the table.

“Is it true Bella?” this from Angela, she sounded concerned and was hopefully reserving her judgment.

I sat up and looked at the curious faces around me. I was blushing and sweating. Fuck. “It’s n-not a big d-deal. We just hung out and got breakfast. I-I’d never do that to Alice. I t-tripped in the parking lot and he caught me. He’s insufferable really. I…”

I felt the press of a body against my back, someone leaning over me from behind who had no concern for personal space. Had Jasper really come to save me from having an embarrassment aneurysm?

“Here are the notes for the classes you skipped.” I glanced down at the pale hand placing papers on the table in front of me. The “I” in Trigonometry was dotted with a cute little heart and composed in a leisurely flowing scrawl. The scent that flooded my world was of warm sandalwood and the faintest sting of cinnamon. I was wearing a more summery style blouse because I’d overestimated how much better the weather was going to be today and I could feel the soft press of breasts against my back. Even through the cloth I could feel the silken chill of them; they were cold just like I’d thought they’d be.

“Thanks for giving Jasper a chance,” the voice continued, happy and sweet like vanilla frosting swirled with blood orange, “he wants to do his senior project about the English Romantic Movement but poetry isn’t my thing. Hopefully you two made some progress today.”

It was a good thing that I’d already reached peak flustered, because I was insanely aware of every place her body touched me as she leaned forward over my shoulder. I realized she was subtly pointing to something on the paper. At the bottom of the notes she had written a message and circled it, it said, “Sorry about stepping in unasked but you were about to blow this. Right now say the words ‘This kind of attention is why I didn’t want to do this. You so owe me for this,’ and then cover this note with your arm so no one sees it.”

I did my best. I think I ended up leaning forward over the papers and saying, “Everyone is talking about me now, that’s why I didn’t want to do it. You both seriously owe me for this!” I didn’t mean to ad lib so much but I’m not an actor and I was totally flustered.

She mussed up my hair as she withdrew, her strong fingers kneading my scalp, I realized I wanted more than just that tiny taste.

“Oh let people talk,” she said in her cheery sing song, “you wouldn’t believe the stuff they say about my family already. It’s certainly not worth us fighting over. Let’s never fight, you and I! I can make it up to you today after school. We’ll hang out and go shopping maybe? Find me and let me know, alright.”

I wasn’t sure how much of this was playacting to squelch the rumors or what but I turned to respond and found she’d already retreated to her own table with surprising speed. She beamed at me, obviously amused by the whole mess, while Jasper nodded in my direction when I caught his eye. Emmett behind them was laughing at my stupid plight. I was beginning to like that guy.

I turned back to my lunch table and Mike, Eric, and most everyone else had lost interest. Alice’s display had been a success. Angela was looking at me with a raised eyebrow but was holding her tongue for the moment. Jessica was just about the only person who wasn’t satisfied with Alice’s little skit about all three of us being very boring people who were in no way engaged in hijinks. Deep chocolate curls of hair ringed her pretty pouting face.

She waited as the conversation moved on, biding her time. When Mike started talking to Angela about Government homework she leaned in for the kill. She got unnervingly close and hissed in my ear, “What the hell was that? I saw you this morning! That boy was all over you and you were so happy to throw it back in Lauren’s face; I don’t buy it at all. Give me one good reason to play along.”

Lauren was the most popular girl in school but possibly also the most reviled depending on who you asked. Jessica on the other hand was the captain of the girl’s volleyball team and vice-president of student council. She was more academic and less privileged than Lauren, but everyone knew her and begrudgingly liked her; she would make or break this for me. In a weird twist the truth seemed like the best answer for a change.

I cupped her head and leaned in close so only she could hear, “Jasper thinks I’m trying to steal Alice, which is preposterous, and he’s been counter flirting or something. I don’t really get it and it’s this whole weird thing but I guess we’re all on good terms. That’s the truth. He kissed me twice on the neck and once on the hand, and if you want me to tell you anything more ever again you wont fuck me over on this.”

When I pulled back she had this big smile, “I love it!” she said and made the international zipper lips hand motion. “Cross my heart and hope to die. I wasn’t sure about you at first, but you and I are going to be such fabulous friends Bella, just you wait.”

 

Angela’s lab partner was there today so I got to meet June finally. She was a somewhat friendly and deeply bored girl with too many highlights in her hair. She didn’t strike me as all that bright. The three of us made plans that I’d be her new partner once Edward was back, while Angela would sit with him instead. Once I’d told her that I’d studied most of this stuff at my former school she was pretty whatever about the switch. Angela seemed particularly pleased with the arrangement and informed me once class was over that June never finished her stuff for group projects so I’d better be ready to carry the whole thing myself. I was used to covering for others so nothing new there.

We didn’t get a chance to talk about supernatural bullshit at all. I passed her a note with the word “Predators” written big and underlined several times, as well as a quickly jotted explanation that they could be heard on the phone and their eyes changed from gold to black when they were about to strike. I think that’s all I’d learned today from Jasper at least. He’d told me about his special powers in confidence and I didn’t want to break that trust. She proposed tentatively that we should go to the library together on Friday, but after the whole Lamia speech I was honestly getting cold feet about digging much deeper and told her I’d think about it.

Gym sucked. Gym always sucks. I got distracted wondering if I really had an inner ear problem and got hit in the tit with a volleyball. Irony is alive and well. I sat out the last part of the class and skipped out a few minutes early but the teacher really didn’t care.

The art room wasn’t hard to find, it was just a building over. Based on the list earlier this had to be her last class. I arranged myself outside the door similar to how Alice had been leaning yesterday and tried to think of something to whistle. I hoped she’d find the reversal of situations cute. Of course I then remembered that I sucked at whistling.

“Hey Bella!” Alice was peeking her spiky haired head out the door. Oh come on, I wasn’t ready yet! I’d seriously only been here like thirty seconds.

“I’m just putting my stuff away,” she continued, “you can come inside to wait if you want.”

Even so, I couldn’t help but smile, “Sure, I’d love to. It figures, I should have known you were artistic. What kind of stuff are you working on?”

She did a little twirl as we walked over to the table where her things were still spread out. There were a few other students in the room but it felt pretty relaxed and open for a classroom, it was probably a nice space to be in on a rainy day.

“I do charcoal sketches mostly. I’ve dabbled in other stuff but I always come back to charcoal. I’m really not that talented but I do try to keep in practice.”

“Like I believe that. You and Jasper are like inhumanly perfect on every level. Jasper told me about his hobbies today; I wouldn’t find time for all that junk even if I had a hundred years. It’s hideously unfair.” I motioned at the sketch pad still sitting on the table. “Can I take a look?”

She was obviously pleased at my interest but shot me a canny look, “Sure, here’s what I was working on last week.” she flipped to a page with a crowded lunchroom scene. The style was very sketchy in black and gray but she’d recognizably done the faces of at least a dozen kids; I could even pick out the crowd that sat at my table. The focal point of the piece was her family where Emmett was causing a scene, much to Edward’s outrage, and Rosalie was bent over with laughter. Given her ice queen demeanor, I suppose that was a moment worth recording.

“Your style is pretty quick and rough,” I said, “but this is good. I don’t really know art, but it feels focused and dynamic. It’s kind of the same style you see for courtroom sketches.”

“Thanks,” she beamed, “the teacher isn’t usually a fan. She says my technique is good but that my work is too sterile. She wants me to try to be more evocative and not worry about the representational part so much.”

“So what were you working on today?” I prompted.

She smiled a shy smile and shook her head, “I shouldn’t show you. You’ll think I’m a real weirdo if I let you see.”

Something about the way she said that made me laugh, she was seriously too cute. Just being here and picking her up from her class felt sort of special, like I really was beginning to be part of her life.

“Alice, I already think you’re a weirdo,” I said with obvious affection in my voice, “you’re the weirdest girl I’ve ever met.”

I realized what I really wanted to say and took a deep breath, suddenly nervous, “Hey, so I’m super sorry I blew up at you yesterday. Can we just like move past it? Like, I’ll trust you’re sincere about wanting to know me, and you’ll trust that I’ve got a fair enough idea of who and what you are and that you don’t have to try and pretend to be normal all the time. No running and screaming from me, I promise.”

She looked at me skeptically but handed over the sketchbook, “I know you won’t run away but I usually don’t have a clue what’s going through that head of yours. I’m starting to think you’re pretty weird yourself. So, yeah, start with the last one if you’re going to go through them. Keep that image in mind as what I see when I think of you. From the very first moment I saw you I haven't been able to shake that image.”

I flipped to a blank section of the book and worked my way backwards until I found her most recent sketch.

“Is that me?” I asked even though I knew full well it was.

I was seated outside somewhere with lots of trees in the background and Alice’s slender pale arm was around my shoulder. I had an arm around her waist as well and I was pulling her to me affectionately. We were both smiling and our heads were tilted towards each other so that our crowns met and our hair ran together. I’m pretty sure I’ve never looked that happy in reality.

I wasn’t sure what this meant or how to process it but it was an incredibly intimate vision. I understood why she’d been hesitant to share it. Without saying anything more or waiting for her response I flipped to the next previous one.

This one was of Jazz and me in the restaurant. It was eerie how accurately she’d captured the scene, right down to the food on the table, though I’m sure Jasper had given her the details she needed at lunch. In the picture I was blushing furiously while Jasper gave me a sultry glower.

The next was a portrait of my face. She was overly generous about my looks I thought, but it was a good representation. She could really crank these out it seemed. I turned the page again and my blood ran cold.

“Is that me?” I asked, this time hoping it wasn’t.

In the picture I had a blank look in my eyes and my jaw hung open slightly. My decapitated body was a few feet away and the top of my spine was showing. My left arm was totally missing. Alice had an engineer’s boot on my chest and she was pulling with all her might at my right arm, trying to detach it as well. She had a cute little look of concentration on her face. It was a strangely bloodless scene for how brutally violent it was.

I started flipping faster. A gym scene. A coastal landscape. An imagined scene of Angela and Edward sitting in Biology together. My dismembered body parts stacked in a pile while Alice posed next to me flashing a victory sign and holding my severed head up by the hair. I squeezed my eyes shut tight and focused on my breathing.

She put her hand on my shoulder in a motion that was supposed to be comforting, “It’s not just Jasper, I get urges too when I’m around you too long. I try to channel my whims in safer directions like art and dance. Is it… is it alright that I showed you?”

I took a moment and just breathed. If it were anyone else but Alice I’d be freaking out pretty hard right now. It was pretty clear that she didn’t actually intend to murder me, but I still had to fight down the fear of it. I picked up a faint version of the same scent I’d detected at lunch, the dry spicy smell that was Alice. There was something sensuous about it that made my chest ache.

Fuck it. Just, fuck it. I could freak out and shit but we’d just be here again tomorrow after I’d brooded all night about it. I knew I didn’t have it in me to walk away. Or, I could make the best of the afternoon and just live with the fact that my new best friend had vivid fantasies about ripping me to pieces and playing with my corpse. In the long run I seemed determined to make the wrong choice anyway so fuck it. Please, please, please, let me get what I want

I pulled the smaller girl to me as tight as I could and buried my face in her hair. I didn’t know who was still in the room or if this was ok to do but I stone cold just did not give a damn. Her scent flooded my senses and I felt weak-kneed and a little woozy as her warm dry cinnamon perfume filled the hollow spaces in me. After a moment of hesitation I felt her arms circle my waist, her flesh cool and grounding.

“I liked the first picture I saw,” I told her, “but the others were a bit of a boner killer if I’m being honest. Why dismemberment?”

“No real reason, I just find it pleasing. It’s like pulling the wings off a butterfly or pinching off a lizard’s tail. Kind of oddly satisfying I guess.”

There was an obvious follow up question hanging in the air, but I wasn’t sure that I had the courage to ask it. I let her go. I wasn’t sure I really wanted to know.

I watched Alice finish packing up with elegant swift motions. She was nearly done when out of the blue she stopped moving and got a sort of thousand yard stare. She raised her free hand and held up her pointer finger. I was about to ask her what was up when she dropped her bag with a shudder and leaned against the art table. Her tin pencil case tumbled out of the bag and the lid popped off on impact. Charcoal pencils scattered everywhere. Only one student looked over at her, the rest of the lingering class ignored it.

Her eyes had rolled back in her head and I could see the whites sharp and clear like death. She was swaying lightly back and forth and then she tilted forward with a little gasp. I stumbled forward and caught her as she tilted towards the ground. Oof, hell, she really was heavy for such a little thing.

It was over quick, easily less than thirty seconds. After that she started laughing and stood up straight, seemingly totally fine.

I blinked, “Well, that was sudden. Was that a seizure?” I thought back to her standing on the sidewalk in the rain the other day, she’d been swaying in place before she snapped to and came over to meet me. I’d never known anyone who got seizures. Funny enough, given all that I suspected of her being, it was an oddly humanizing detail.

“Sorry to startle you,” she said cheerily, picking up her pencils with unerring rapidity, “I get seizures without warning sometimes. I can’t speak while it’s happening but I can hold up a finger as a signal that it’s about to hit me.” She paused and then added, “I’m epileptic.”

“If you’re going to have epileptic fits then I’m totally driving us,” I quipped, trying to keep the mood light.

She slung her bag over one shoulder and grabbed my arm with the other, “Sure! Let’s go!”

She said that, but instead of us going she stayed rooted in place as I stepped forward. I turned to face her, feeling a little confused, and she looked me over, searching me face.

“I didn’t mean to say that,” she admitted finally, a hint of chagrin in her voice, “I do get seizures but they’re something weird and I’m not epileptic. I’m so used to lying and I don’t know how to...” she trailed off with a grimace.

I squeezed her arm gently, “It’s ok, you don’t have to explain it.”

She shook her head fiercely. “No, it’s not ok. There is so much I can’t explain, but I want to promise you something,” her tawny eyes stared into my brown ones and I shivered, “Bella, I will always tell you the truth.”

I nodded my acceptance, feeling a blush creep onto my cheeks

I tried again, “Well anyway, I say we head to my truck and pick up where we left off yesterday.”

She started laughing, girlish little peals of enjoyment, “You’re doing that on purpose now, right? I mean you aren’t really that tragically dense?”

My memory flashed back to her perched with her face next to mine, all fluid menace and cold promise. I flushed harder and shook my head, “I meant that you should ride with me and we’d go look for a coat. You know, do the plans you’d suggested. The ones about shopping I mean.”

“Sure, lets do that,” she pulled me forward and after a moment of over exuberance on her part we found a walking pace I could live with.

We stopped by her car and she poked her head through the front window, leaning over Emmett to talk to Jasper. The plan was that we’d head to Newton’s Olympic Outfitters on foot from my house and Jasper would meet us there with a car in an hour or so and we’d all hang out after that.

Rosalie rolled her eyes and dramatically ignored me. Jasper handed Alice a hoodie and they kissed briefly before she slithered her way back out of the car window and bounced over to me.

When their lips met I’d expected to feel a tinge of jealousy, a feeling that would make me want to turn away, but instead I found it didn’t bother me to watch them now. They were really cute together, especially with how he quietly doted on her. That was probably a good sign, that things were going back to normal and we could all be friends without me having weird guilt ridden fantasies about them. Sure, I thought they were extremely stupid attractive still, but if I really was crushing I’d have felt something just now, right?

Alice opened the passenger side door to my truck, grabbed the outer edge of the roof and swung into the cab with a childish laugh. I tried to get her to put on her seat belt but she just waved me off disdainfully.

“It smells good in here, I love the smell of leather,” she said after we’d closed the doors and I’d started the noisy engine. Her nostrils flared and she inhaled deeply, “Sort of weird too though. How long have you had this truck?”

“Just a couple days,” I answered, trying to concentrate on driving and resist the urge to stare at the petite girl sitting next to me with a backpack and hoodie bundled awkwardly in her lap. She was still wearing very little and she was all pale limbs and perfection. “I got it from Billy Black, if you know who that is.”

She nodded, “That explains it. Must be the lingering stench of Leah Clearwater.”

“Leah’s a friend of mine,” I objected, “don’t say weird things about her.”

She put her hands up in apology, “Sorry, just not a fan of her is all. I don’t really know any of the Quileute that well to be honest, so I probably shouldn’t talk.”

“They’re good folk mostly, I like them. I’ll admit, Leah is kind of an asshole sometimes, but that’s part of her charm, I promise.”

Alice set to work fiddling with the radio and she managed to get KVIX to tune in with a soft jazz tune. There in the car, with the heat on and the smell of leather and Alice, with the rumble of the engine and the cold unreality of the day, it was all just too dreamy. I didn’t want that moment to end.

Eventually the radio announcer came back on. Eventually we got to my house and piled out onto the curb. Eventually life resumed and I had to consign that moment to my memory where I kept all my most precious things.

There was no police cruiser in sight, which was a good sign. I went ahead to unlock the door while Alice gathered her things. As I passed the old tree in the front yard I startled a red-winged blackbird who was on a low branch. He was a glossy little bundle of inky black feathers and he sported sharp crimson epaulettes on each shoulder. He flew off with a warbling chirp.

I turned around to point it out to Alice but the bird had fixated on the small girl immediately and was doing a swooping run at her head. They’re aggressive little fuckers and I guess something about her had set him off. Jake and I had been driven off of a forest path once by one of them during nesting season, but it was strange for one to be so violent during the middle of winter.

It swooped her again and I saw its wing clip the back of her head. I’d had that happen before, it was really startling and disorienting. She gritted her teeth and dropped the stuff she was carrying. When it came around again she reached out and grabbed out of the air with a single motion as quick as a snake.

She cradled the quivering bundle of feathers to her chest and cooed at it, “Hey little fellow, no need to bother with me.” Her smile was ghastly and perfect.

With her other hand she reached up and tore its head off with a wet pop. A stray dab of blood fell and stained into the breast of her cream colored shirt. She threw the body overhand style into the nearby woods and stood there licking the little bit of red off her fingers.

“Sorry about that,” she grinned. Blood, there was blood. She saw my face blanch and started to get closer out of concern. I felt tunnel vision set in. Then the smell hit me.

“Bella?”

I shook my head to try and clear it but the whole world spun and I dropped to the earth like a murdered blackbird.

Chapter Text

I opened my eyes, expecting to see skeletal tree branches above and to feel the hard jostle in my bones from a fall. Instead I found myself on my front porch being cradled by Alice. She was holding me so gently, like I might shatter at her touch.

Her goldenrod-yellow eyes were wide and she was talking quickly, with something like panic creeping into her voice. How could she stand to be so beautiful. I could live in her perfect face. The world felt muted. Had I really passed out? It felt like only a moment to me.

Back when my mom and I still lived with my Grandma we'd take day trips to get away sometimes when the two of them got to fighting too much. One time we went to the Salton Sea, which is a big salt lake out in the middle of fuck-all California desert. I must have been about six I think. Grandma always talked a big game about how nice the Salton Sea had been when she was younger, so of course my fool of a mother took us. From the car it looked gorgeous when we got there, blue waters and white beaches. Except the whole place was silent and deserted and the town we went through to get there was like some American Chernobyl.

Every year the Salton Sea increases in salinity; it's roughly one and a half times as salty as the ocean. Everything there dies. I remember stepping out of the car onto that white beach and stooping down to run my fingers through the sand and ending up with a handful of bones. The beach was tiny delicate fish bones, just endless staggering drifts of vertebrae. There was no sand at all. Once I looked closer there were birds mixed in too. I've never seen so many dead birds in my life. And the smell, that lingering all pervading smell of death.

I wanted to run my fingers through the endless white beaches of Alice's skin. I wanted to float in the cold lap of her waves. I wanted to drown in her sublime majesty. The only thing bothering me was that smell.

I groaned as the smell of blood came back to me, coppery and stinging. Alice was snapping her fingers, trying to get me to focus.

"Hey, stay with me Bella. Please, you've got to talk to me. I don't know what to say to make you better. It's all the same outcome no matter what I say and I don't understand. I'll go away if I have to, if that's what you want and you'll feel better. I didn't mean to scare you and I'm sorry. I forget that you people actually like animals! Oh jeeze, you're probably like an aviphile or something and you hate me now. Please don't hate me Bella."

"Blood," I croaked out, "It's the smell of the blood. It's making me sick."

She shook her head, bewildered, "It just smells like normal blood to me. Oh you poor thing, you're trembling and sweating. You're really going to be sick in a moment aren't you? And all over my shoes too. Is that intentional? Do you mean to aim for my shoes? Bella, there's blood soaked right through my shirt! And it was on my fingers when I caught you, so your shirt too! We don't have much time before someone drives by and sees us. They are going to notice your distress. We need to change that and get through that door like now."

I glanced over with deepening alarm at the little spots of blood on the sleeve and shoulder of my blouse. She let go of me and wiped the last of the blood from her fingers onto my side with a little apologetic shrug. Oh hell, I did not want someone calling the station and then having my dad coming home and me having to explain this. I forced myself to concentrate and swallowed the saliva pooling in the back of my throat as my stomach tried to leap up and betray me. I got the keys out without fumbling them and held them up in my hand, taking the moment to put my index finger over Alice's lips to try to get her to stop babbling.

"Please, stop talking and just get inside. Most of it is on you so maybe I'll be able to pull it together once you're away from me. There's not even really that much of it," I gave her a weak smile and looked around for a good place to puke my guts out. Some bushes would be super welcome right now. I'd try to be quick.

"That's a really reasonable plan," she agreed with a cute little grimace, "it's simple and easy and absolutely not going to work. We're going through that door together, I promise, no matter what. All it takes is figuring how!"

I had nothing. I held my breath as best I could. Was it that she refused to leave me behind or was it something else? I put it out of my head and started thinking up contingencies while she worried about the present. I was mapping out an imagined conversation with Charlie where I faked an injury and Alice pretend the blood was mine. Yeah, I'm a terrible liar. We were so boned.

I sat up against the side of the porch railing while she unlocked the front door. She stood there for a moment just looking through the open door all spaced out, which was actually a good sign for her I guess. I sure hoped she had something.

Without warning she was running for the backpack and hoodie she'd dropped. "We've got like ninety two seconds before a car comes! You're either going to hate me for this or love me, but put up your arms."

She could really book it; she was effortlessly moving faster than I could sprint. She pivoted on a dime, doing a little swoop, and grabbing the items at the same time as she turned around. With a shrug of my own I lifted my arms.

She stopped on the steps in front of me and tossed the backpack through the door. Then she was all over me, lunging at me with the smell of blood and her inhumanly precise movements. Her attack was feather soft and her fingers were cool and nimble against my stomach. Soft, too soft. I moved with her, helping her, and was rewarded as my blouse went over my head and then was balled up and thrown into the house.

I looked into her face, expecting black hungry eyes as she took in the view of my body, and was surprised instead to see she had them wedged firmly shut. How unexpectedly courteous of her. She held the bottom of the black hoodie open over my head, not bothering with the zipper, and gave me a moment to line up before she pulled it down over my torso.

My head found its way through the neck hole in time to see her shimmie out of her shirt too; she had her back to me and she managed it in a single wriggling motion.

"Be a dear and get the clasp for me, would you? At my age you'd think I'd be good at it, but I always have Jasper do it and every second counts right now."

She didn't get beyond the word clasp before my hands were moving without thought. Such a simple little motion to tug the hooks from their nesting place, to untether the earth and have the whole firmament tilt sideways. A tangled ball of shirt and bra streaked over my head and through the door.

She turned around and faced me, leaning over slightly to be nearer, then she put her red right hand behind her back and fanned my face with her lithe left hand. It was at once silly and breathtaking.

Alice Cullen stood shirtless in my yard flapping her hand swiftly in front of my face to get me some fresh air. She had a determined look on her face and not a single shred of dignity. Even supernatural grace and beauty can't compete with some bent over tit shaking arm flappin'.

And even so, she was beautiful. Of course she was. She was a little too slender with visible ribs and her skin was inhumanly flawless like she was only half finished. Every inch of her flesh was a milky void except for a keloided silver scar that ran in a crescent shape over the front of her left shoulder near the joint. Her nipples had a gentle swell to them and were the same soft gray color as her mouth was at the edges of her lipstick.

Her breasts were perfect little teardrops and her hips blossomed outward ever so slightly before they met her skirt hem. I'd considered before that with her height she might be a late bloomer still at seventeen, but it was clear now that she was fully formed and quite simply petite.

She was manna from heaven. She was the forbidden fruit of the tree of life. She was the rightful heir to Lilith. To look upon her was to crumble into salt. She was the snake itself and I wanted nothing more than lead her in. She was pure and perfect and even now there is nothing about her I would ever wish to change.

"There, you're starting to have some color again," she said cheerily, "I knew some fresh air and a little adrenaline would do you good. Your heart is beating a mile a minute right now. Can you stand up yet? Twenty eight. We're almost out of time."

I nodded mutely and she pulled me to my feet with a hard jerk. She put her clean arm around my waist, still keeping the other hand hidden from me for now.

"Grab your bag and put your arms around my neck. I'm going to lead, just follow my steps. Fourteen."

I did as she said and then she was off like a shot. She was supporting most of my weight as she sashayed me across the porch mumbling our countdown. My feet left the floor for a moment or two to avoid tripping on the doormat, but she didn't squeeze too hard or move too fast and my stomach held. With a twirl she set me down gently across the threshold inside the house and then held out both of her hands for me to take.

"Seven. Bella, may I come in?" she was all sweetness and poise, like she had all the time in the world. She was still completely unconcerned with being out on my porch bare chested.

I took her delicate hands in mine, clean and unclean alike, twin expressions of the same girl, "Alice, nothing would make me happier, please come see my home."

"Zero."

I saw a car start to come into view on the little jog in the road to the east of the house. It looked like the white church minivan that Pastor Webber used, which is to say it was probably driven by Angela's father, who was absolutely the last person I wanted to catch me waltzing around outside with a naked bloodied girl. There was no question that he wouldn't understand. I hadn't done anything wrong exactly I think, but even so I felt the guilt that comes with slipping free.

I pulled Alice into the house and slammed the door behind us. He hadn't been looking at us and I was sure he hadn't seen. We both paused for a long moment, I was feeling giddy with relief and she looked radiant with happiness to be there, and then we both fell against the door laughing uproariously in a tangled heap. We were in on the joke together.

I was laughing hard enough to end up gasping, rolling over onto my side and hitting the floor with my fist. I completely forgot to be self conscious about her nudity and ended up with my head in her lap as she finally covered her mouth with both hands and tried to get the giggles out.

After like a minute I sat up and stretched my back only to have her hug me from behind and pull me against her. I looked down at the black hoodie I was wearing. I had a giant white skull on my chest.

"Say, Alice," I started.

"Why yes, Bella," she smirked, apparently already seeing where I was going with this.

"I appear to be wearing a Misfits hoodie. I'm shocked. I thought you only bought couture."

"Firstly, I only brought that along in case we ended up close like this. I didn't want you getting cold. Didn't imagine it would be quite so handy. Secondly, you can just shut right up, the Misfits are friggin fantastic!"

 

I finally ended up puking when we tried to clean the shirts. Alice had seemed really confident that she could get the stains out, and we chose the bathroom upstairs because it promised to have the best ventilation by running the fan. I was pushing myself to be there but I figured it would be fine. The whole blood thing was just a vasovagal response. I'd spent too long fighting it to be ruled by my fears. Alice flat out told me it was a mistake and that she'd take care of things. I thought I could handle it. I was wrong.

I rushed over to the toilet, very conscious that I didn't want to ruin the hoodie she'd lent me. Once I'd gotten a look at it I'd noticed that she'd gone to the trouble of ironing on some cute cartoon skull shoulder patches and she'd adorned it with cool pins and buttons on the right breast; I got the impression that there were very few stable pieces in her wardrobe and this one was probably special no matter how she played it off.

My first shot hit the rim of the toilet and by extension Alice's skirt and leg. She was there beside me instantly, pulling my hair back in time for me not to make a complete mess of myself. She stroked the back of my neck, her cool fingers feeling soothing for once, as I gagged and then puked again.

"Easy there Bella, you don't have to prove how tough you are. If you want to run with us you're already hard-boiled enough in my book. Now, be a good girl and stay put while I go get you some water. That's what you do when someone vomits, right?"

Alice was back in a moment with a glass of water and some Motrin that I'd thought about getting but hadn't asked for. I was extremely grateful for the chance to rinse.

She led me by my hand to my bedroom and laid me down on the bed. I was struck suddenly by what a long week it had been so far. She held her hand against my troubled brow and I relaxed under her chill caress.

I tried my best to apologize for everything, for the whole situation, but Alice interrupted me before I could manage to say more than two words and told me to just rest for a moment while she took care of the laundry. It was nice, being taken care of a little.

During her absence I wanted to ruminate on the bird and her look of glee at its death, I wanted to convince myself to be wary of her, but, as much as her killing it disturbed me on some level, the impression of her gentle hands in my hair, the delicate way she'd held it up for me, kept intruding instead as the stronger image. I was more impressed with her tenderness than her savagery apparently. Or maybe I was just shying away from the parts I didn't want to see.

She came back wearing only a pale pink pair of striped panties and carrying a familiar Tupperware box.

"I found this in the kitchen," she said, "It had a note on it 'For Alice: DO NOT EAT ME' so I'm assuming these are mine?" She had a huge happy grin, "They smell like cyanide! Didn't want Charlie bumbling into your little plan to off me, eh?"

"Alice! Pants!" I scolded sharply. Momentarily putting aside her distressing lack of dressing, I sat up in bed and put my arms around my knees, "And, yes, I went with that most generic of dastardly plans of putting cyanide in toasted almond shortbread cookies."

She looked at me with smiling disbelief, "All joking aside, these are really mine? I can have one?"

I laughed at her hesitance, not sure where this was coming from, "Yes, for real, you really can. I'd meant to bring them to school as a sort of apology except I'm a huge fucking wuss and didn't do it. Please, dig in."

I watched her scarf down a cookie in absolute delight, chomping at the almond topped confection with gusto.

"How is it?" I asked her after she finished.

"It tastes awful but I'm really happy right now! I shouldn't, but I'm going to have another. That's alright, right?"

I nodded, a little confused, and she deftly plucked out another cookie and ate it with similar relish. I reached over and helped myself to one too. I thought this batch had turned out really tasty.

Her eyes were practically glowing now, "No one has ever made me cookies before. Not ever ever ever. You have no idea what this means to me."

I smiled and shook my head, "Surely, your mother has..."

She cut me off gracefully, "Esme doesn't cook, and it really wouldn't be the same coming from her. It wouldn't mean the same thing. Having someone make cookies just for me has kind of been a secret wish of mine for a long time now, just a normal sort of thing that other people get to have and I don't."

"Aww, well that's sweet and a little sad. I'm glad I did it then," I cleared my throat, "now, not to be a rude hostess or anything, but would you put on some damn pants already?!"

She hooked both thumbs into the waistband of her panties and rocked her hips forward with an infuriating smirk, "What's the matter? Am I distracting you?"

"No you're just..." wait, oh fuck. I jammed the last bite of cookie in my mouth, choked a bit, and started coughing around it. I'd been about to say that she was just tempting the shit out of me. Which was true. But no. That wasn't a thing I wanted to say. Or a thing that I wanted to mean.

"...Sorry. I was going to say you're just really bizarre," I finished lamely, "if you're trying to seduce me you need to step up your game because it's not working." Goddamn it, why did I say that?

She looked off to the side for a moment and held up her pointer finger. There was no outward sign this time that anything was happening, nothing dramatic, she just appeared to be zoning out like she sometimes does. After a moment she turned back again and did her best to pick up the thread of the conversation.

"It's simple, my clothes are soaking in the wash, so technically you've managed to get me out of my wet clothes, which is totally in keeping with our plans for today. And I mean, you unclasped my bra so you really did help me. Now, as much fun as you are to mercilessly tease, I just remembered that we are on a timeline here and I'd hate to keep Jasper waiting. We have plenty of time yet, but I do need a shower, otherwise he'll smell the blood and vomit on me and that's just not a classy way to show up at all."

My eyes widened and then I turned away abruptly as I realized her cute maneuver with her thumbs was a prelude to actually pulling her panties down. I wanted to see so bad and I was terrified of wanting to see. I studied a blank space on the wall by the rocking chair. I decided with a sudden passion that I hated that dumb rocking chair and I basically never sat in it. I was putting it out on the curb first chance I got. Something soft and dainty fluttered through the air and onto my lap. It was pale pink and I shivered where it touched my skin.

I couldn't help it, I turned to look at her but she already had her back to me. She and her cute apple-shaped tush were walking out of my bedroom door carrying the portable boombox from my bookshelf.

"You should come sit with me in the bathroom," she called to me from the hallway, "we can talk and listen to music. You can probably tell, but nudity doesn't mean much to me. It's ok if you want to hide in your room instead though, I get it."

What could I do. I grabbed a favorite album of mine and followed her. Facing her black eyed stare would be easier than this. Watching her kill another animal would be easier. Watching her draw me dead would be easier. Of all the scary things she could do, standing in front of me naked and wet seemed certain to kill me.

She was already safely in the shower when I entered the bathroom behind her. To my relief I couldn't make out much through the heavy shower curtain; she was a pale blur in the water and she mostly stood out by being a lighter shade than the wall behind her. It's not like I was even studying her or anything. For lack of a better option I pulled the rug over to the sink and sat facing the shower with my back to the cabinet behind me.

"Did you let the water warm up at all," I asked, "because we have an older water heater and it takes a bit."

"Didn't have to," her voice carried over the sound of the water, clear and strong, "my body temperature is about 38 degrees Fahrenheit, so anything at that level or warmer feels good. I get sluggish in really hot places and have to pant like a dog to expel heat, which is about as unsexy as it sounds, but otherwise I'm basically immune. What did you bring for us to listen to?"

I put the CD into the player and started it on shuffle mode, "It's Muse's newest album, Absolution. I guess I thought it would be fitting somehow. Umm, not to be tacky, but shouldn't you be like a corpse or something. I'm pretty sure nothing has a body temperature that low, not even reptiles."

"Yes, if the world were a sane place I'd be a corpse right now."

There was a pause as the music started. It wasn't an awkward silence exactly, but neither of us quite knew where to begin.

I broke the silence first as the marching sounds from the intro track started to peak, "So, this is embarrassing to say, but I'm not good with nudity. I don't use public showers and I'm always careful when I change. I'm maybe a bit of a prude if we're being honest and we are way past my limits here. That doesn't even begin to include all the creepy shit from you by the way, which I still reserve the right to freak out about without warning. So, yeah, it doesn't feel real that I'm actually sitting here talking to you right now, but I'll try not to be weird about everything. Just, warn me before you get out of the shower, please."

I saw her nod through the curtain, "I know how you feel. I might seem like I can do anything with ease but I have limits too. And I get scared too. I'm not looking forward to pushing past my limits in a moment here."

She paused thoughtfully and the lyrics of the song filtered through the silence: And she had a name / Yeah she had a name

"I've never come over to a friend's house after school before," she continued finally. "There are tons of things you take for granted that are just totally outside my world. I don't want to hide from you though. I mean there are some things I really can't tell you, and some things I selfishly don't want to tell you yet, but yeah, I'm standing here naked before you. Ask me what you really want to know."

My breath caught in my throat but I forced the question out, "You're not human, are you? Like, not at all. I already know, but I want to hear you say it."

Through the curtain she stopped what she was doing and held herself very stiffly. I think we both knew that the question was coming, but there was still something shocking about it. Matt Bellamy's voice from the CD player serenaded me with snippets of Stockholm Syndrome as we both waited breathlessly: And we'll fall / And we'll burn / No one will recall / No one will recall

I watched the bar of soap in her hand crumble into chunks as she prepared her answer, "Jasper would say that's an interesting philosophical question in the vein of the Theseus's ship paradox."

She faltered for a moment and then held her head up before forcing herself to continue, "I'd say I'm the least human thing that you've ever met. No one of my family is human, but they all at least have some idea what it's like. As for me, I am only what I am. I mean, don't take that the wrong way because I like who I am and I have no problem with it, but I have to work really hard to fit in."

"Did you all… were you once human?"

She sighed in frustration and ducked under the shower head before answering, "I really don't know how much to tell you. You don't know what I am, right? It's selfish, but I sort of just want to be your friend, the amazingly cute and awesome girl Alice, for a bit instead of jumping right to being Alice, the cute abomination with frightening powers. Even among my kind that's how people see me. I'm sure you have guesses, but you don't know, right?"

My heart went out to her. Did I know? I did but then again I didn't. It was like a magic eye picture and I was standing there cross eyed holding it the wrong distance from my face so the 3D image ended up scrambled. It would take so very little to fix that and let the image finally pop. As I considered the question, fragments of the music intruded on my awareness: And we'll love / And we'll hate / And we'll die / All to no avail / All to no avail

I chose my words carefully, "There's a short list of possibilities, but no, I'm taking pains not to ask anything I think would seal the deal. Jasper warned me about it pretty explicitly, albeit in a very roundabout way. Would I be right in assuming that there are risks that come with knowing? Right now I'm just hanging out with Alice, the charming girl that I really want to get to know better."

She seemed pleased with that, "I'm still a little shocked he told you so much, like about his power and everything. That boy has taken a real shine to you. It's a bit refreshing to be honest, especially with how gloomy he can be sometimes. Ok, so, yes, technically we were all human once but I tend to think there isn't much that's human left. Like we're looting the remains of who we used to be rather than having simply changed a bit. And me, I have no memories of my human life at all; there's just nothing left of it."

I laughed inappropriately at that, "I'm sorry, are we secretly speaking Spanish or something? I think you just tried to tell me that I'm actually living inside a telenovela and you have complete amnesia, which is not a thing that really happens to people."

I heard her snort with laughter over the sound of falling water, "It's a little ridiculous when you put it like that, but it's true. I just woke up one day buried in a coal bin, naked, in the basement of an abandoned house. I don't even know what city it was in since I had all the intelligence of a feral beast at that point and I fled into the woods. Then I spent the next two years running north along the Appalachian mountains like some kind of evil forest nymph until I got lucky enough to make a friend and learn about such awesome things as forming complete sentences and wearing clothes."

"That's fucked up," I said, a little too surprised to think of something witty.

She was running body wash down her legs with the grace of a gymnast, "Yeah, it really is. Someday I'm going to figure out who left me in that basement, and if they're still alive I will wreak great vengeance upon them for what they took. I will make them know."

The way she said that sent shivers down my spine.

"I can't even cry about it!" she continued with a bitter laugh. "I don't have tear ducts anymore. How's that for a punchline. I'll never know what it means to actually cry since I don't have any memories of ever doing it. If it wasn't for Jazz I wouldn't even be confident that I had the same emotions as humans do. There are lots of physical things like blushing and shivering that I'll never know, and some social things too that I'll only get to experience if I make a human friend. And like, not to overshare, but I'll never have a period. I just feel a little incomplete at times I guess."

"I'm so sorry," I told her, "I'll be honest, I don't know how to process this yet. I'm not looking forward to being alone tonight and trying to sort through this. Knowing you're not human, and hearing you actually describe it are very different things. If it helps I think you're really perfect. I know it's lame, but that's the word that comes to mind when I see you."

I fumbled into silence, realizing I'd said yet another thing I hadn't totally meant to. She was content to let my words linger. The music in the background overwhelmed our conversation again and I let the verse play out: Lips are turning blue / A kiss that can't renew / I only dream of you / My beautiful

"This does remind me," I segued once I was ready, "there was something I wanted to ask. So, speaking of Jasper, do all of your kind have super powers and what exactly is yours? Also, can I just refer to you all as superheroes or something, since saying 'your kind' feels really weird and a bit pretentious."

Alice turned the other way and started doing her back as she kept up her end of our banter, "I really like this brown sugar body wash; you have a really sweet smell to start with and this goes well with it. I've noticed it at school. But yeah, no, we're more like supervillains probably. It's complicated, but I guess we sort of took over Forks, right? Our villainous intentions aren't anything much worse than hiding out in comfort and not obeying traffic laws, but paying off the city council is still kind of messed up. The Quileute are super pissed off about it too."

"Yeah, I'll bet they are," I deadpanned.

"They call us cold ones by the way, which is probably as good as anything that isn't our common name. Historically we've called ourselves Érin Enkidu-ka, which means the people of Enkidu, but it's kind of a mouthful and no one except my kind is going to know what you mean by that.

"Most cold ones move around frequently so it's unusual for us to go full Jame's Bond villain and set up bases like the Cullen clan does. You have to see our house sometime! Also we have more hypothetical graduates of Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters than is normal too. I think the statistic is supposed to be that five percent of us end up with talents or something, but we're three for seven! Just between you and me though, Jasper and I broke the curve on that one."

I chuckled at the way she leaned toward the shower curtain candidly as if she were anywhere close to whispering her words over the noise from the shower head. It was hard to believe, but I was finally relaxing a little. I'd have wagered that having a naked girl discuss her life as an amnesiac monster would be a slightly stressful and unpleasant time, but she was so cavalier about the whole thing that it was reassuring instead. This was just her life and it was how things were. The song playing, Sing for Absolution, was gentle enough to help the mood: The truth burns deep inside / And will never die

The room was beginning to get warm and moist with the fan off, so I took off my socks while trying to figure out how to get around her evasiveness, "I'd say, given your countdown earlier, that you either have mind reading or remote viewing, since those are the simplest explanations for how you knew when the car would arrive. You could also have something more exotic like fortune telling or luck manipulation, but I'm not sold on either of those. As for the third member of the Olympic Peninsula Avengers, that leaves Rosalie with ice bitch powers probably? Am I in the ballpark?"

She started laughing hard, deep throated peals of surprise, and dropped the shampoo bottle, bending to pick it up, "Emmett is going to lose it when I tell him you said that. That's awesome. No comment on powers though. It's not my place to talk about anyone else and I'm keeping mine under wraps for at least a little bit more if that's alright. If I can ask though, why are you ruling out prognostication and reality bending?"

I shrugged and kicked a rolled up sock across the floor, "I don't understand how the universe could function if that kind of stuff was possible. It'd be a pretty big kick in the balls to the rules of cause and effect. Also, if you could do stuff like that I'd think you wouldn't make so many goofy mistakes, like the whole thing with the bird."

"To be fair about the bird," she interjected, "that sucker was after me. If I hadn't done something we'd have had a really miserable walk to the store when we left the house again. I just pulled the head off too far down is all or there wouldn't have been hardly any blood. Plus! Even on a day with no wind like today I can't believe you could smell that. For a human that's kind of insane."

I was starting to get hot in her hoodie and lowered the zipper most of the way, "Maybe I couldn't really smell it. I don't know. I keep thinking I can smell it now too, but we probably got it all. If there really was some hiding in the bathroom, I'd get nauseous again probably."

She leaned out slightly from behind the curtain and grabbed the towel off the rack. I caught a glimpse of her pale torso beaded with water before she withdrew again and left only her head and shoulder sticking out. She dabbed her eyes with the towel before opening them and catching my gaze, "Is that something I can ask about? I'll admit that having a fear of blood seems totally alien to me."

I shifted uncomfortably under her scrutiny, "It's not something I talk about much, but sure. I want you to imagine little Bella for a second, I was a really clumsy kid, even before I began getting vertigo or whatever is going on with my head. I was as fearless as I was ungainly and cuts and scrapes were no big deal back then. I was doing ballet lessons and sometimes after class one of the mothers would take a group of us to the park."

She had let out a little squeal of joy at the idea of tiny ballerina Bella. I looked over at her, with her wet black hair plastered close around her elfin face, and she seemed to realize herself and withdrew back into the shower so she could do her conditioner and finish up.

"Don't get your hopes up," I let my eye roll carry through into my voice, "I was a terrible dancer and I was always in the back on the class. I only did it for like two years, starting when I was nine, and there's no way you're getting to see those photos. Anyway, so we'd go to the park sometimes afterwards, and there was this big spider-rope pyramid thing at the playground. It was all held up by a thick central pole and one day I had the appallingly wonderful inspiration to slide down it like a fire fighter."

"Needless to say, the whole thing went better than expected. I hit the back of my head on the very first cross-rope as I started to slide down, lost my grip, fell and hit some lower ropes, and then finally landed on my left arm in the sand. I was in too much shock to feel the pain yet but the arm was totally broken. What really fucked with me was that I'd hit the front of my head at some point and I had this big nasty scalp wound that I didn't know about. My face felt sticky and uncomfortable so I put my hand there and it came away bloody. Then blood started running into my eyes and nostrils. Head wounds bleed like a sonofabitch. I thought I was going to die and I just started bawling."

"And that's how you ended up being hemophobic?" she asked.

I looked up and she was leaning out of the shower again looking at me intently. I reached behind me and pulled the hood over my face, wishing I could just disappear. I did my best to keep talking clearly and not start mumbling the rest of it.

"Sort of, but that wasn't the trigger exactly. I only remember bits of it all. My mom was at a job interview and no one could get a hold of her. I was in a car being driven to the hospital and I kept apologizing through my tears because I was getting blood on things. I was in the hospital room alone with the nurse because the mother in charge of watching us was managing the rest of the kids and I just wanted someone there to hold my hand. The nurse gave me a tetanus booster I think and I watched the needle go in. I'd never had a problem watching blood be drawn or stuff in the past and I was curious about it. For some reason it got to me and I fainted and ever since then I've been super sensitive to both blood and needles."

"At least you seem fine talking about it?"

I played with the strings that closed the hood and snorted in disdain, "I used to faint in health class when we'd talk about the circulatory system. Just the thought of all that blood moving around in the body made me light headed and panicky. I've been trying to desensitize myself since high school started and now I can talk about it or see it in movies just fine, but seeing a drop of the actual thing or catching a whiff of it and it is instant light-headed city for me."

I heard her turn off the water and pull back the curtain. I resisted the urge to look up as she toweled off.

She had a thoughtful tone, "Weirdly enough I think I kind of get it. I mean, it's not the same for me, but I get what you mean, that instant reaction. What about your periods? Are those a problem?"

"Everyone wants to know that. Congrats on having the balls to actually ask. Short answer is it isn't the same and I don't have a problem with it. I know I'm not injured or in danger and it smells different, so it has never been a thing. As far as the whole phobia issue goes I keep thinking I should get a box of medical lancets and just jab myself every day til I stop fainting. I know I'm not quite ready for that yet, but I get so utterly tired of being weak. I read a bunch of Gothic novels, you know, and I seriously don't need to be that fucking fainting waif of a heroine forever. I won't be. I refuse! Does that even make sense?"

I heard her cross the room and she put her hand on my face beneath my hoodie defenses to stroke my cheek, "I already think you're brave and strong. I've wanted to be your friend right from the first moment I saw you and it's such a relief to start to see the reasons why I'd want that. Reasons why this can work. I like it. If you ever do try your lancet plan, let me know. Helping you with that might actually be good for Jasper and me. And hey, chin up girly! It's my turn next!"

"That feels… nice?" I said and looked up at her. I don't know why I'd expected her to have a towel wrapped around her, but the towel was in a crumpled heap on the closed toilet lid and she was leaning over me very naked. Her skin was warm from the shower and it felt kind of amazing to be touched by her. She was panting slightly, probably from the heat.

"It's kind of a nice effect, right?" she smiled gently and deliberately blew a hot breath across my cheek, "It won't last long before the scalding water wears off and my body temperature wins out, I'm like a magically cooled walking-morgue, but it's neat to touch you without seeing you tense up for once."

I rubbed my cheek against her hand like a cat, "I still can't get over how velvety your skin feels. It must be pretty hard for you, trying to hide out as a human and knowing that just a single touch will give you away."

She giggled, "Every month I have to soak for two hours in a tub of virgin's blood, but it's worth it and it keeps me nice and supple."

My eyes must have widened in shock and she looked very delighted with herself and shot me an impish little smile, "I'm just joking around, I promise. We're all quite naturally enchanting to humans and curious skin is part of the package, no blood baths needed. Oh, come on!" she stomped her foot cutely to disarm me, "Elizabeth Báthory is always funny!"

"Whatever you say, you weird. You smell magnificent too," I sighed, turning my face towards her wrist, "with that body wash on you literally smell like sugar and spice right now. It's absurd. It's like a really stupid joke and I'm the punchline."

She was leaning over me fresh out of the shower. Her makeup had washed off and the dark circles around her eyes were even more prominent so that she looked almost skeletal. Her lips were a deathly shade of blue-gray and the places on her that should be warm and pink were similarly dulled. I couldn't see clearly due to the angle but she appeared to have no body hair anywhere either. She looked unhealthy and alien. I found the look extremely fetching on her.

"Ooooh, I know what you remind me of. You look like a drowning victim," I blurted out.

She winked and straightened up, "Thanks, right back at you, I like the bra-showing-Tank-Girl kinda thing you have going on. Now hurry up and hop in the shower. I need to put my face back on before we go out. It's fine if I use your make-up right?"

I stood up in a hurry too once I realized that the hoodie wasn't covering much of anything anymore. I'd forgotten I wasn't wearing a shirt beneath it! That just put me right in Alice's face and I turned around as I felt my cheeks start to smolder.

I ended up facing the mirror with her leaning against the sink edge right up next to me. In the mirror she was a null-space near me where the room bent in grotesquely to obscure her presence. It was sort of like a carnival effect except my reflection was left untouched by it. She put her hand on my bared shoulder and I watched the room bleed over my image in that spot. It was a little too much and I had to look away.

"You don't seem totally surprised. Did you already know somehow? It's hard putting on make-up when you can't see yourself, but you get used to it," she said cheerily, "now, I promise not to watch while you undress, which is more than you can say for yourself miss hungry-eyes, but I'm not going to miss my turn to grill you a little, so, quickly now."

Wordlessly I obeyed and took a step across the room and started to shed my clothes. I wasn't thinking clearly; I didn't want to start thinking clearly.

I'd just finished stepping out of my jeans when I felt her hand on my back.

"You've got a giant bruise here! I hate to say it, but we probably need to talk about this."

I quickly shimmied out of my panties, not giving any fucks about what she could or could not see, and dashed for the safety of the shower.

"There's nothing to talk about!" I said petulantly and turned on the water. I jumped backwards as it came out too hot and quickly adjusted it down to a human temperature.

"Its fine," I added after a moment, "I'm into bruises. Oh God, that probably sounds terrible doesn't it."

"I'm not judging you Bella, but I'm worried about what's going on with you and Jazz."

"There's nothing going on! I didn't even know he was flirting at first! You should have told me if you didn't like it," I wasn't sure what I needed to say. I needed this to be fine even if it wasn't. I looked down at the shower mat. "I'm really sorry, ok."

I glanced over at her through the curtain but I could barely see her again. She was leaning at the sink watching me soak under the falling water. I couldn't make out her face and I wished I knew what she was feeling.

"I guess I could have told you to stop letting my boyfriend pretend to kill you, but honestly he's a terrible flirt and flirting's not what I'm worried about. You two had a cute little scene together when you first met and I just about went crazy with worry. Then, when I left you two alone in the parking lot, you both did it again, which was pretty much what I expected to happen. Once is a fluke, but twice is a pattern, and if he could take you out to breakfast but not talk about it, then I guess I have to."

"We didn't do anything sexual. I swear! I'm really not that kind of girl."

"Don't freak out; I know you aren't. Instead, you're the kind of girl who wears her bruises with pride, agrees to be manhandled by a charming stranger, and then gets turned on in her fear." I could just imagine the expression Alice had on her face, and her smile would be razor sharp right now.

"I didn't know it was going to be like that! That first time was a surprise. Then in the parking lot he didn't warn me before we started playing so I… fuck. Yeah, we probably should talk about this."

I hated that she was right. I hated that she knew. That there was no room left to hide. She gave me a moment to sort out my thoughts and I could just hear the music over the noise of the shower head: To be endlessly cold within / And dreaming I'm alive

"I get that this is embarrassing, but this is important. You might be shocked to hear this, but I don't care if you want to do kinky fear play stuff with Jasper. I'm really hard to surprise so it's not something he and I do together often. But, given the physical differences between you two, and given my species' admitted control issues, I want there to be someone with you if you two are going to do anything like that. Preferably me. But if that's too awkward it can be anyone from the family. Rosalie would roll her eyes about it but otherwise she'd be an excellent choice to safeguard you."

I shuddered, "Sunlight is supposed to be a great disinfectant, right? Honestly, I'm probably done. I don't think I can handle doing anything more, not intentionally, now that I'm aware of it. Plus how messed up would it be if you were watching. Not going to happen."

The music countermanded me: I'm breaking out / Last chance to lose control

"Maybe I'm wasting my breath here but I don't think so. You're not a very safe person Bella; I've had pause to wonder if you have a death wish or something but for now I'm chalking it up to you being a teenager. Given that I'm not exactly safe for you either it's probably hypocritical of me, just, I don't want it to be a problem, I don't want you to get hurt, and I especially don't want that on Jasper's conscience.

I could practically hear the aha! moment from her. She was so emotive, it was distractingly adorable, "I'm making up a safeword for you just in case. Give me a moment to think. Hmmmmm, sure, ok, your safeword from now on is cygne. Say it with me, sin~ya."

"I'm never going to remember that," I complained, more feeling like I should drag my feet than out of actual resistance. "We won't do anything more, so I don't need a safeword. I'm not the kind of girl who does things that need a safeword."

"Shhhh, it's ok. It really is. It's ok to want things that are messed up, ya know, just be responsible about it and everything is all okay. I showed you my sketchbook, right? I know how messed up some of that was but I'd never really do it to you. It's nothing but an ugly fantasy. I saw the recognition in your eyes, so don't shut me out here. I want to keep you safe. We can pick a different word if you want; that one's just French for swan and I think it's pretty."

I leaned against the shower wall, exhausted. I didn't even know what was going on with me anymore. Alice wasn't the one I was trying to lie to, "No, it's fine. I, erm, I fantasized about you hitting me in the face last night. Hard. I like stuff like that. Or at least, I think I do. I never really have. Tried it, I mean. You and I aren't so different in what we fantasize about, it's just maybe a large matter of degree, maybe? You're right. Still, I'm not totally ready to talk about this and it's double weird because it's Jasper. Does that make sense?"

I saw her nod sympathetically through the curtain before she spoke again. I realized what the music was saying at the moment and groaned silently in frustration: And I want you now / I want you now / I'll feel my heart implode

"I know it's hard, but what you're doing is really dangerous and I want you to live a long long time. You're my best friend Bella and you're so worth it. I don't know what I'd do if… I guess you don't have to talk to me, but talk to him about it sometime when you're ready. BEFORE you do it again. And trust me, he'll be getting an earful from me tonight, so don't think this is all on you, because he damn well should know better.

"Sorry I had to do this whole awkward thing, but if I found out you had a choking fetish or something else extreme we'd probably be having the same conversation given how reckless you've been acting."

I inhaled sharply and sucked in some water. I started coughing violently. I imagined her arching an eyebrow at me.

"Really Bella?" She asked me in disbelief.

"Yeah," I admitted sheepishly.

A new song started with the words: I think I'm drowning / Asphyxiated

"Thank you Muse, topical as ever. Oh jeez Bella, what am I going to do with you. Come on, say your safeword and we can end this little talk and move on to discussing puppies or something."

"Cygne," I let it roll off my tongue, "so, puppies then?"

"Good girl. You should use that word tonight sometime, just for practice. Um, yeah, so, have you had any pets in the past?"

She turned away from me and began putting on her makeup. I belated realized that I hadn't even begun actually washing myself and grabbed for the body wash. The music still seemed to be taunting me: You're something beautiful / A contradiction / I wanna play the game / I want the friction

"I hope my make-up selection is good enough," I covered, "I don't tend to wear much. And yes, I had a golden retriever when I lived with my Grandma. I used to lie all over him while watching cartoons. He was a really patient old dog and I loved him with all my heart. It's funny to say this, but his name was Jasper too, so I already have a fondness for the name. I hadn't thought about him for a long time before I moved here."

"Life's funny like that," I imagined she was smiling, "I'm totally jealous. Animals hate me, dogs in particular. I've never been able to pet a dog. There aren't a lot of creatures that can stand us, mostly unpleasant things. Crows and hyenas are naturally indifferent. Horses can be trained to endure us after they're broken. But dogs love humans too much to ever tolerate our presence. I guess that's what I really wanted to say about that bird, that I hate animals because they hate me, and I don't have any happy memories of them to water down my wrath. I wish it wasn't like that, but it is. Closest I can get to them is watching the Discovery Channel."

I stretched, trying to get body wash down the middle of my back. It irritated me to no end that I could never reach. In the silence of my motion the music serenaded us: You will suck the life out of me

"I'd have never guessed discussing puppies with you would be so depressing. Maybe we can figure something out someday? A puppy replacement of some kind? Hyenas are cool. I wasn't planning on any pets anyway if that helps, not with college on the way before too long."

I could just make out that Alice was carefully applying lipstick while watching me, "Glossing over what a downer I'm being, what have you been reading lately? I know you talked about poetry with Jazz, but I'm more of a fiction girl myself. Not that it stops him from reading stuff to me."

I poured on some shampoo and started lathering my hair, "I'm almost done re-reading Wuthering Heights, which is maybe my favorite book of all time. It's definitely been on my mind a bunch with you two around. When I heard that you were dating despite being step-siblings I might have typecast you as Catherine, and Jazz as Heathcliff. I'd stay Isabella of course, totally shut out but yearning to matter."

This seemed to amuse her, "That's cute, and, dare I say it, clever, but not a very good read on the text."

"How so?" I challenged her.

"Ok," Alice seemed game, "accepting your casting choices for now and assuming that Jasper is the cruel Byronic hero and I'm the selfish aristocrat, it still wouldn't be the same situation since Jasper and I are together in all our pseudo-incestuous glory. This would have to be some alternate universe Wuthering Heights where the central conflict has been averted, and in such a situation I'm sure that innocent Isabella and haughty Catherine could become as close as sisters if they so desired, with no worries about marriage and Heathcliff to come between them. That's not to say you aren't probably as guilty as Isabella of romanticizing us and glossing over the fact that we're not very good people, but otherwise in this case, Isabella, a name is just a name."

"And Alice by any other name would still smell like sandalwood and cinnamon."

"Is that really what I smell like to you? That's delightful!" she clapped her hands. "I wasn't sure what you'd meant about that sugar and spice comment just now but I didn't want to say anything. The way we cold ones smell to each other is a little less clear and poetic; our noses are too good. My last human friend just told me I smelled Oriental, but he didn't have a very sophisticated sense of smell and couldn't explain what he meant."

"Is this the same friend who helped you recover after your amnesia. Did you want to talk about him?"

She started spraying her hair with a can of something and worked on her spikes, "His name was Sidney and he was incredibly dear to me. I think talking about him is probably beyond me right now; I can only push myself so far in one go and his memory is a pretty hard limit for me." She sounded forlorn, her melancholy just barely audible.

"It's fine, you don't have to force yourself. Alright, out of curiosity, what do I smell like to you?"

"You're kind of a unique scent too you know, you stand out from the crowd. You're kind of like ripe blackberries floating in fountain ink. Most humans smell simple and sweet, but you have a dark tanginess that I like. It might be related to the way Jasper's power can't easily focus on you. Soooo, what is your favorite play and why is it Romeo and Juliet?"

I'd finished putting conditioner in and now I was rubbing body wash over my chest again, luxuriating in the sweltering room and the languid music of her voice, "When I was a freshman you'd have been right, but I discovered Keat's The Eve of St. Agnes as a sophomore and that was a brutal enough deconstruction to make me reconsider. Now my favorite Shakespeare is a tie between A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Taming of the Shrew. But that's still not my favorite play..."

She sent a mock curtsy my way, "A tie between a play about transformations and polyamory, and a play about good old fashioned power exchange. You continue to surprise. I'm quite fond of Twelfth Night myself. Come on, spill, so what is it?

I grabbed my hips and squeezed, soap bubbles oozing through my spread fingers, "I'm in love with Cyrano de Bergerac. Everything about it! I've read four translations so far and I really want to see it live. Cyrano is such a great character, he's this unbeatable swordsman bound too tightly by his honor, and the whole thing is funny and witty and sad, but I adore the thought that even when everything is revealed and all the masks fall away, that true love can still flourish and overcome."

Alice had stepped towards the curtain the separated us and when she spoke she was practically purring, "You have to read it in French! It's the only way, trust me. It's marvelous in French. The way you feel about Cyrano is the way I feel about The Count of Monte Cristo. I want to be the Count. I've built myself up from nothing, I've educated myself and I've gathered a fortune, now I just need to uncover the conspiracy that cast me into the darkness of amnesia and then take my revenge! I learned French to read it in its original, but if you're not ready to try a new language yet I can recommend a good translation that came out about a decade ago."

I loved how excited she sounded about it, "I thought for some reason you'd be crazy about Alice in Wonderland. I've never read Monte Cristo, but I liked the black and white version starring Robert Donat. I'm a bit of a movie buff sometimes I guess." I stepped under the water and let the conditioner ease away down the drain.

"I liked it too. I've seen most of the adaptations and that one's not bad. I have a complicated relationship with Alice. I was named after it for one thing, or rather Sidney helped me pick the name out of a selection of available book titles and Alice was the one that stuck out to me. Would you believe I was very nearly Anne? As a story though, Alice messes me up."

"Oh right, I guess if you have memory loss then Alice wouldn't be your real name. Huh. So what about Alice in Wonderland gets you in particular? I never had a strong reaction to it."

"Well for one thing Alice doesn't have any control over the changes that happen to her, and people keep getting confused and calling her Mary until even she's not sure who she really is. I know who I am. Plus there's the horrible part with the Walrus and the Carpenter preying on those helpless innocent clams like a couple of monsters. Or there's the part where a bird confuses Alice for a serpent, but that's kind of a theme for you and me, now isn't it."

My heart was pumping hard and I wanted to do something inappropriate like pull the curtain aside and take her hands in mine. I turned toward her with the curtain between us, realizing we'd both closed the distance so we were almost face to face.

"No matter what, no matter if you ever find out your old name, you'll always be Alice to me, my pretty lamia."

"Flatterer," she spat the word at me with a smile in her heart.

I took a deep breath and turned off the shower head. I felt loose, liquid, totally relaxed. I pulled the curtain aside, feeling almost outside of my body, and Alice was there with a towel already held up for me. She smiled in pleasure, a genuinely happy expression. I let her eyes travel down over the imperfect globes of my breasts, down my fleshy human hips, down my bruised legs and scabbed knees. She wrapping me up securely in the towel and her gaze. Her eyes were black as she looked at me, like I'd imagined earlier, but otherwise she seemed completely at ease. Her skin against mine was cool again where it brushed but I was burning up.

She took another towel off the rack and re-positioned me so she could dry my hair. Her voice was husky and quiet as she bent her lips to my ear.

"You have no idea how beautiful you are. Really you don't. Have you ever read the poem Christabel? Jasper's read it to me a few times and I've been thinking of it today. There's a part about us in it I think:

When lo! I saw a bright green snake
Coiled around its wings and neck.
Green as the herbs on which it couched,
Close by the dove's its head it crouched;
And with the dove it heaves and stirs,
Swelling its neck as she swelled hers!"

I could feel her pressed into me from behind with only a towel between us; I could feel the rise and fall of her breast in perfect unity with mine. I'd never felt this close to someone before in my life and I just wanted to stay perfectly still in her coils.

I think I wanted to turn around and kiss her. I imagined doing it, bending my head down and catching her chin. I think maybe she expected that's what I was going to do. She tensed up in anticipation and her fingers at my scalp slowed to the point of being a charade. I don't know why I didn't, but just like with bringing the cookies to school I chickened out. Is a kiss from me another thing she would have been ecstatic to receive?

We went back to my bedroom to get dressed. She'd danced away from me and refused to let on that anything had almost happened. She flopped on my bed and started to roll around in my sheets, which only served to remind me how goddamn naked she still was.

"This is too too luxurious! Your scent is all over the bed. I can't get enough of it."

I glanced over at her in amusement and froze. I had a totally clear view of pretty little pussy from behind. Her legs were spread slightly and she had her face pressed into my pillow inhaling deeply. Her pussy was spread a little and it looked wet and mysterious, like a hungry soft mouth with lovely plump lips that could completely devour me. I'd never seen someone else's in the flesh like this. I wanted… oh fuck me.

I turned away and went over to my closet to find something to wear. What the hell was wrong with me. There was something about Alice or something. Fuck. I wasn't into girls. I never had been, and this was something new. It would go away if I just ignored it. I was going to fucking mess this up.

"Wear the forest green tank top with the flowy gray skirt," Alice called over to me without looking, "you'll be wearing the hoodie over it so the top doesn't really matter but it'll be easy for trying on coats at the store and it looks good on you."

I sighed, "How do you know what's in my closet?"

"I peeked. I have my outfit picked from your clothes too. I just need to detach myself from your bed to go get it. Help me up?"

I dropped the towel and started pulling on the clothes she'd told me to wear, "I really can't right now. I don't think I can touch you at the moment. Sorry. It's not you. I'm just. I don't know."

I felt safer standing in the closet. Oh God, how much more literal and transparent could I possibly be. I grabbed a nice pair of panties and put them on. The black kind with red lace edging that I'd got at Victoria's Secret at Renée's urging but had never had a real reason to wear before. They didn't match my bra but that was fine.

"I have something to admit," said Alice from my bed where she was probably wrapped up in all my blankets, "I'm going to throw up in just a few minutes and I don't want you in the bathroom when I do. I was thinking earlier that we'd get to the store in time for me to do it there in secret, but I'm happier to do it here in safety I think."

"Huh, wut? Sorry Alice, not where I thought you were going with that."

"It's the cookies I ate," she explained, "I can't digest them at all, or most human food really, and they're going to come back up. Don't blame yourself. I knew it would happen even while I was eating them, but that's the cost of a little happiness in the present sometimes. I'm alright with it. Just talk to me until it happens please."

I realized I was clenching my teeth, "What do you have in mind?"

"Anything is fine, just as long as I'm distracted. And get me down that royal blue Easter dress too. It looks to be about my size. From an Easter long ago? Do you have a white sun hat to go with it? I know it's out of season, but I'm in a fresh-look kind of mood today."

I grabbed the hanger and tossed the dress her way across the room. She caught the dismal throw with ease. I didn't bother pretending to look away while I watched her step back into her panties and then into the dress. She didn't bother with a bra and the light material hugged her in a way that was not particularly chaste.

"Fine," I said, "how about we talk about you flirting with me yesterday and what in the hell that was. Like, is today more flirting or are you really just a touchy feely nudist? No bullshit, were you really going to sleep with me?"

Alice inspected the back of her wrist like it was a watch, "Oh wow, would you look at how much I really don't want to have that conversation. Can we leave it at it being a one time offer and that I'm not intentionally trying to lead you on now? I'll admit I'm misbehaving a little, it's kind of my nature, but I think I've shown remarkable restraint. Oh! I just remembered it's still my turn to ask questions anyway!"

I shook my head and sat in the wooden chair at my desk, "I already had to endure an endless and terrible conversation about something I didn't want to talk about. Come on, fair is fair."

She patted the edge of the bed, urging me to come sit on the floor in front of her, "Fine, but I want to ask a few questions first. I can see you're upset with me and I can guess why. Come over here, I'll do your hair."

I sat down again in front of her and she grabbed a brush off my nightstand, "Sure, ask away, but if I think you're dodging the question I'll call you on it."

Her hands were nimble and gentle in my hair, "Fair enough. I notice the books you have here are mostly kids books. Did you leave behind the rest in Arizona?"

I leaned back and ran my hand up and down her bare ankle affectionately, "Not really. I was a regular at the library and the books I did have were mostly thrift store editions. I decided it wasn't worth the trouble and left nearly everything back home. Mom says she'll send me the rest, but it wont happen. The books here are the books I begged Charlie to get me when I was younger."

She tugged out a tangled bit of hair with her fingers, "Good. So, I see some Nancy Drew on the shelf. Who is your favorite character?"

I was fine with playing along I guess, "I love George, she's bold and headstrong and always ready to rush into an adventure. I'm not super feminine and I'm clumsy, so she always resonated with me for those reasons too."

Alice continued in a smug tone, "Correct answer! At least coming from you that is. Now, I see some Wizard of Oz books too. Who was your favorite character, and why was it Ozma?"

I laughed, "Slow your roll Cullen. You're one presumptive little girl. Not that you're wrong this time. I guess I just like the whole idea of her and her friendship with Dorthy. She grew up under a transformation spell as a boy before finding out she was really a girl, so she's sort of both a hero and a princess, and she and Dorthy are inseparable friends. They get to rule Oz together as princesses, having adventures and staying young forever. It's really sweet."

"Do I remind you of her?"

I hadn't considered that, but now that she mentioned it the resemblance to Ozma's illustrations was uncanny. "Yes you do. Very much so. Keep doing whatever you're doing with my hair, it feels nice."

"Don't worry, I'm not done yet. I think I'm going to put it in a twisted braid updo. We'll have a nice contrast thing going on between our looks. Next, name a movie that you'd consider a guilty pleasure."

"Uh, Strictly Ballroom? I discovered it after watching that modern Romeo + Juliet movie. Like I said, I'm not much for dancing but it's such a fun love story. He just wants to dance his own dance Alice!" I laughed at my own joke and felt like a dork.

The girl behind me snickered, "Not what I was looking for, but I'll gladly take it."

I felt her finish the left braid and I tilted my head to give her access to the right side. She scratched me behind the ear before starting the second braid. It had been a long time since I'd had this.

"Hey, wait a minute! You have to name one too," I told her. "What's your guilty pleasure?"

"The Sound of Music," she said, failing to hide her embarrassment behind a laugh.

"I can just imagine you singing along to that. You do, don't you?"

"Look, it's a classic film. There's nothing wrong with liking it."

"Oh, come on."

"Well yeah, of course I sing along. I know all the choreography too."

"Haha, I fucking knew it! Alright, so, where are you going with this?"

"One more question," she said, "last one, I promise. Now, I see Brideshead Revisited sitting over there with a bookmark in it. And, may I say, what a beastly ill omen of a book for you to be reading right now. How far are you in it and what made you pick it up in the first place?"

"This feels like a dumb magic trick, like that one where you start by asking the person to think of a country starting with "D" and concluding at the end that they're thinking of an orange, but I'll play along. I'm maybe forty five pages in and my English teacher gave it to me as a parting gift when she learned I was moving away. She said she thought I'd get a lot out of it. It's not what I normally read but I like it so far."

Alice gave my shoulders a tender squeeze, "I think it's a dreadful book and you're going to feel devastated by the time you finish it. If you don't mind me spoiling a little, it's a book about getting within spitting distance of happiness and having it all crumble away to nothing due to the choices someone else has made for you out of their flawed sense of morality. It's one of Jasper's favorites. Either way, it's sumptuously written and hard to fully dislike."

I sniggered and made an exaggerated jacking off motion, "Spare me the dissertation and just get on with it."

"Right," she continued, "if I'm not mistaken, you should have just got to the part where Sebastian says he's not ashamed of his friendship with the narrator, he says 'I'm ashamed of myself. I'm not going to have you get mixed up with my family. They're so madly charming. All my life they've been taking things away from me. If they once got hold of you with their charms, they'd make you their friend not mine, and I won't let them.' That's generally how I feel about you Bella.

"My family isn't as charming, and my house isn't as picturesque, but they're all bad enough in their lovability, Esme in particular, and I just want you to be mine. I know I said at length how I wasn't, but honestly I'm only human–even if I am a monster. I'm lonely and I want to have a female in my life who isn't my mother or my sister. I make a rather cut-rate Sebastian I'm afraid, not whimsical enough by half, but hopefully you'll think I'm more wonderful than I really am."

"You're losing me here Alice. You want to keep me away from all of them, even Jasper?"

"No, what's mine is his. I'm not worried about Jasper. I guess I'm being abstruse. That first day I was very worried about Edward and you hitting it off to be honest. Not in like the immediate sense of course, because in the immediate sense he totally wanted you dead. I mean a month or two from now when the shock of us has worn off for you, the way it has for everyone else. I was worried I'd end up as a background character in your life if I waited and I'm not convinced I'm out of the woods yet as far as that goes."

I wanted to interrupt but she shushed me and carried on with her rambling half-directed thoughts. I allowed myself to be silenced and enjoyed the tugging as the second braid was finished.

"That wasn't my real point though, I've gotten off topic. My point was that Brideshead is a book about burgeoning adolescent homosexuality at the turn of the century under the guise of an intimate friendship, and your teacher gave it to you because she thinks you're a super closeted gay and that you're just one piece of classic literature away from having a lesbian epiphany."

I stretched forward for her as she twisted the two braids together at the back of my head.

"Are you quite finished?" I asked, playfully indignant. "Or are you going to snarkily imply that Harriet the Spy is somehow queer too? Also, let me just add, are you actually for real? Like, are you literally an alien from outer space or something, because you've read every book we've talked about so far and you just quoted a random paragraph from memory. I get the impression that our tastes probably overlap a bit, but you'd need to have read an insane amount to account for it. Like, head-scratching, logistics defying amounts. Wait, don't answer that or we'll be here all afternoon! Anyway, so fuck it, lets say you're right and I'm a big old homo and all the shit I like is secretly gay as hell. What's your fucking point?"

She finished her work on my hair and took her hands off my head. I wiggled backwards to try and bridge the distance between us and stay in contact. My cheek rested against her cold knee and I breathed a sigh of relief.

Her voice was small and wobbly, "Flirting with you yesterday was desperate and manipulative of me. I was scared and grabbing for any purchase I could find. I probably couldn't make a worse mistake than sleeping with you. I'd have liked it and I'd have meant it, but that maybe just makes it worse. It'd be a mistake for any number of reasons, but the biggest one is this: do you want to sleep with me?"

Whatever I thought, whatever I felt, there could only be one answer. Today hadn't changed anything.

"No."

"Well, there you have it. That's reason enough. If you ever decide that the answer is yes, come talk to me and I'll tell you all the other reasons why it's a super terrible idea that I definitely shouldn't do. Trust me on this, everything will be simpler this way and no one gets their heart broken when you graduate. And that's fine. Jasper is too stone-hearted to really let you in and I'm going to do the right thing and keep you safe. Now, be a doll and wait here while I go puke up your cookies."

 

I should have waited longer. The retching sounds had stopped and I couldn't stand the knowledge that she was in there suffering alone. Not when she'd helped me through the very same thing earlier.

I opened the door a crack and saw her standing at the sink. She was dabbing at her mouth with a spot of toilet paper and it came away dark with bile. The toilet bowl had something foul looking in it, something black and thick that looked like coffee grounds.

The smell was back. I could imagine I smelled blood again, or something like it, and my stomach rolled. It couldn't be real, we'd got all of it. It was just in my head again.

"I'll be a moment still Bella, I need to put my lipstick back on. Will your dad mind if I use his Listerine?"

"Help yourself. Do you need any water?" I tried not to let my voice betray me but I was feeling light headed suddenly.

"I'm fine. Just wait for me downstairs will you," the toilet paper wavered in her hand but her voice stayed strong. She wasn't angry with me, there was some other emotion burning behind the cold mask of her face.

The mirror in front of her was a kaleidoscopic horror show representation of my bathroom. The image of her absence took up most of its surface and it bent in upon itself recursively. I dimly realized that the CD player was still going: Wash the blood off your hands / This time she won't understand

I was straight. We'd got all the blood. I wasn't going to figure out what they were.

I gagged and turned away.

 

Chapter Text

When Alice reappeared she was carrying the rocking chair from my bedroom nimbly down the stairs. She had to carefully maneuver to clear the low ceiling, but as usual she made it look all too easy; she looked both casual and put together, her delicate elfin features ready for mischief. The girl I’d spent the last hour with had been pushed back to the margins of her makeup, the deathly circles under her eyes safely tamped down beneath pale concealer.

“We’re junking this, right?” she asked.

I answered with mock outrage,“So? Is that how it’s going to be? Not even pretending that you can’t read my mind?”

She waved off my accusation with a dismissive little flick of her wrist, holding up the entire weight of the chair with her other hand, “Maybe my super power is granting wishes, have you thought of that? Maybe that guy in the van was wishing right at that moment that he’d see a topless girl? Face it, I’m basically your friggin’ fairy godmother over here, makin’ all your dreams come true.”

I let her squeeze past me to place the chair by the front door. I felt a little off balance but I wasn’t totally adverse to her antics, “You think you’re really clever, don’t you.”

“Oh please, Bella! I’m adorable! Plus, I have so many good ideas for your room! Just you wait.”

“I’m not so sure about that,” I started, “but look, about just now in the bathroom...”

The too-loud metallic ringing of the telephone in the kitchen startled me out of finishing my thought.

“Hold that for just a moment,” Alice cut in smoothly, “you should get the phone first.”

The phone couldn’t have interrupted me more thoroughly if she’d planned it. It rang again right as I tried to tell her it could wait, and, as if she hadn’t heard me, she added, “It might be important? Maybe it’s your dad trying to catch you before you head out?”

There was something that felt off about her cheerfulness. It had been that way since she’d come downstairs. Whatever was up, she’d hit on the right thing to say to get me to answer the phone. Her tight smile relaxed a smidge when she saw me turn towards the kitchen.

I grabbed the black handset off the wall and tangled my fingers through the phone cord. As unenthusiasticly as I could muster, I answered it, “Hello?”

“Bella! Oh man, it’s good to hear you. I wasn’t sure when your school let out so I wanted to give you a chance to get home first.” The voice was young and masculine—just last year it had been full of cracks and squeaks but now it had grown into a warm deep timbre.

I couldn’t help it, I broke out into a huge smile. Fucking A it was good to hear from him too.

“Mine gets out a quarter after three,” I replied, my smile creeping into my voice, “I’m guessing the tribal school keeps you later. Shit, Jake, I’m sorry I haven’t called yet.”

“Hey, don’t worry about it. I wanted to give you a chance to settle in before I started bugging you again. So how you liking being back in Forks? Going crazy from the lack of sun yet?”

I chuckled and cradled the receiver closer, “You would not believe the week I’ve been having. Would not believe. Man, I haven’t been sleeping. And the rain is driving me crazy. There’s so much bizarre green everywhere! I don’t know, I never thought I’d miss the desert this much.”

“Those green things are called plants, Bella, and you’ll get used to them. It’s gonna be nice and sunny this weekend for the barbecue, so we have that to look forward to.”

“Yeah, we should definitely hang out then! Come over early and we’ll watch a movie or something before the celebration. What do you want for your belated b-day gift by the way? It seems stupid that I’d miss it by a week like this but that’s just how things ended up with the move school-wise.”

“It’s fine, it’s no big deal to put it off a weekend like this. But really, I don’t need much. You got a master cylinder for a 1986 Volkswagen Rabbit sitting around by chance?”

I snorted, “You know I don’t have a clue what that would even look like. Come on, what do you really want? I’m making you a cake no matter what, but I want to get you something too.”

He paused to think about it, “Just get me something cool the next time you go thrift shopping. Maybe something stupid that I can put up on the wall of the garage? Oh, hey, I nearly forgot, how do you like the truck anyway? The thing’s a beast, right!”

It wasn’t that Alice had moved exactly, but somehow I felt her eyes on me as I talked. The invisible bubble that Jake and I shared was popped. I looked up and she was standing perfectly still in the kitchen doorway with her head cocked, considering me carefully. She gave me a gentle smile when she saw that I’d noticed her.

It was crazy how fast I could get pulled into Jake’s world. He drove away the clinging shadows in my life so effortlessly. Every time we reconnected it was like there hadn’t been any time in between.

He was a good two years younger than me and he hadn’t hit his height yet. We went to different schools and came from different cultures. I was a homebody booknerd while he enjoyed working on cars and reading comics—on paper we had nothing in common and it didn’t make sense that we’d be friends. Given the age difference it was maybe even a little unusual. Goddamn though, I loved that kid. He’d always been there to shoot the shit with me when things were miserable, and we just clicked in that undefinable way. It didn’t matter what we talked about or if the other person gave a damn about listening to me rave about books that had been maybe-scandalous two hundred years ago. Or him talk about skateboards. Holy shit do I not care about skateboarding, or skate videos, or playing Tony Hawk, but I’ve listened to that stuff for hours anyway. Just talking and being that lifeline. Talking at all was enough.

“I love the truck! It runs great. Way better than I could have asked for. Listen, Jake, I’ve actually got a friend over right now. I am dying to catch up though, so can I call you later tonight or something?”

“You have a friend over? You made a friend? No really, who are you and what have you done with the real Bella?”

I laughed, “It’s not that unbelievable. I almost had friends back in Phoenix. Statistically I was bound to attract some kind of stalker eventually. Um, it’s Alice Cullen. We’re going to go clothes shopping I guess?”

“That sounds totally reasonable, Pod-Person Bella, as it is a well known fact how much you love clothes shopping and how you would willingly go out and engage in such activities with your normal human friend Alice,” he threw in a kinda robotic voice at the end there, imitating the kind of schlocky sci-fi stuff I liked.

I bit my lip and stiffled a laugh at that. If only he knew. Oh shit! Actually, him not knowing was going to suck. It was going to be this huge awkward topic to try and dodge, and, when it came to accidentally over-selling my lies, I put the ham in sham.

Could I get away with telling him somehow? There’s no way he’d ever believe me. I glanced over at Alice and she must have seen my hesitation because she mimed for me to cover the mouthpiece on the phone.

“So, I should probably let you go,” he continued, his easy infectious laughter still lingering in my ear.

I hurried to stop him, “Hold on a second, okay. Alice is trying to get my attention.”

I covered the mouthpiece with my free hand and turned to Alice who had ghosted closer to me across the hideous green linoleum floor.

“Who’s Jake?” she asked as neutrally as possible. She looked unusually serious, like she was working out a puzzle of some kind.

“Jacob Black, Billy’s son. He’s the one who did all the work on my truck,” I shrugged. “He’s my best friend maybe. We’ve sort of known each other since he was born.”

“I see,” she mulled it over, “that’s somewhat convenient actually. You two are close, huh. Would you say he’s someone you could confide in?”

She was acting strange; I didn’t like it. I was struck by a protective feeling towards Jake.

“We’re real close. I could probably tell him anything. Hey, what’s the matter? Are you jealous? We’re just good friends and all that. It’d be too weird if we dated I think. You shouldn’t worry about it.”

She looked at me with a blank uncomprehending expression, “I wasn’t worried about it. I want to talk to him, I think. Do you mind?”

Before I could say much of anything she’d glided forward and pressed herself tight against my side. Was this really okay? I offered up the handset and she rested her forearm on my shoulder as she scootched in so that the phone was positioned between our faces where I could listen.

“Hi! This is Alice. I’m going to be taking Bella out this evening,” suddenly she was all pep and sugar when she spoke, her cold calculations submerged within her honeyed voice.

“Uh, hey. I’m Jake. And yeah, I know who you are. So, that’s great I guess? What’s up?”

“Nothing much. I just wanted to correct you is all. I’m not Bella’s normal human friend Alice. I’m Bella’s cold one friend Alice Cullen! It’s an easy mistake to make, so don’t worry about it.”

That got a laugh out of Jake but I could have throttled her. What was she playing at?

He whistled through the receiver, “I’ll admit, I’m impressed! I didn’t think you all knew the stories we told about your family. They’re not something I put much stock in; hopefully you’re not too offended by a bit of local color like that. Now, what can I do for you, miss Cullen?”

She smiled innocently and I tried to get in a more comfortable position for us both to huddle around the phone. There was a lot of Alice pressed against me and I found I didn’t half mind it.

“Actually I just wanted to remind you that you’re bound by treaty to not tell outsiders about me and my family. Bound on pain of death,” she said in a sing-song, “and that includes Bella. Or really, specifically, I’m concerned about Bella. I don’t want you two taking a companionable walk along the beach and having the whole sad story coming out.”

Jake came back hard in my defense, “Is that a threat?”

Alice shook her head, something only I could see, “No, it’s a reminder that you have a duty. We both keep each other’s secrets. That’s the agreement! You weren’t there to sign it, and neither was I, but we’re both still going to keep it.”

“What secrets? The tribe doesn’t have any secrets? Look, sure I know about the treaty, it’s ancient news, but the only way any of it matters is if what you’re saying isn’t total crap.”

Alice turned a little so she was almost facing me and I felt her free hand slip under the bottom of my hoodie and shirt. Cold fingers gently raked across my bare tummy at just the right speed to be totally intolerable.

Through my distraction I faintly heard her say, “I’ve got my claws on your best friend though. Maybe you should give it some thought?”

I grabbed for her wrist, giggles forced from my lips, “Get out of there, you! Come on, that tickles!”

She evaded me and my eyes widened as a frigid little digit intruded on the sanctity of my belly button. “Oh! None of that now! Your hand is freezing.”

She let me pull her hand out before it became too much for me, before my knees buckled and I started to lose it laughing. I grabbed wildly for support and ended up grabbing her arm and having her put the phone to my ear.

Jake sounded worried, “What was that Bells? What did you just say?”

I held onto the phone and pulled away from her, “It was nothing, Alice was just being a little shit is all.”

“You said her skin was cold?”

I let out a sigh and looked over at Alice for help. She held up her hands as if to signal her innocence

Guess it was up to me, “She was tickling me to get a rise out of you, and yeah, her touch could generally be described as blighted and icy. She knows it gets to me enough on its own, so she’d have to be an absolute monster to add in tickling as well. Three days! I’ve only known her three days, Jake! This is the kind of week I’m having.”

He sounded a little incredulous, “There’s so much about what you just… You know what, no, never mind. I guess you really did make a friend. Huh, so, how about that?”

“Yeah? I guess I did. It’s kind of great actually. Well, it was awful at first but then it started being great? Alice is a blast, and being around her kind of makes me look forward to this next year of school in a weird way. Like, the idea that I might actually have a future of some kind is still pretty novel, ya know, given everything with my mom.”

“About that, Bella, can I talk to you alone for just a second? Like for real alone.”

I looked up to try to locate Alice and heard the closet door out in the hallway slam. Alice walked into the kitchen doorway looking smug and wearing a white sun hat of mine from long ago that she’d found God knows where. She curtseyed at me in her cute spring outfit, “I’ll be out in the yard, so say whatever you need to. Things are going to work out Bella, I just know it. Now, don’t leave me waiting too long, ok?”

I turned my attention back to Jake, “You’re in luck, she’s just stepping outside now. I’m sure you have questions.”

“Not really, it all makes some kind of terrible sense in a way. If anyone was going to stumble into something stupid like this, it’d be you. I, just, if this is some kind of joke, then now’s the time to point and laugh at me, because I’m starting to buy into it a little. You’re not a good enough actor to pull this off, so I’m leaning towards you thinking this is real.”

“You mean about her being a cold one? Nah, we’re both being serious. I’ve seen enough weird shit so far that I’m positive it’s true. She doesn’t have a reflection; you can’t fake that kind of thing.”

“She’s outside, right? You’re sure she actually left the house? As long as she did you should be safe for now.”

I peeked out the window and she was kicking apart the rocking chair on the curb with childlike enthusiasm. She turned and waved at me with a little hop as soon as I looked for her.

“Yeah, I can see her out on the lawn. But, I’m telling you, I’m safe with her no matter what. Between her and her brother, I’ve spent like four and a half hours alone with them today. If they were going to drag me off into the woods I think they’d have just done it already without all the preamble. Honestly, they seem kinda lonely and isolated if anything. And their people skills seriously suck! Man, what am I even doing?”

Jake sounded serious and a little upset, “I’m sorry, but this is kind of like if you told me you’d made friends with a Frankenstein. I’d tell you that’s nice but it’s a real dumb idea in general to take it shopping. Or like, let it tickle you. That girl could probably tear you in half with her bare hands if the legends are true.”

“Come on, Jake, we’ve been over this. It’d be a Frankenstein’s monster, not a Frankenstein. And you all must have made the treaty because they were safe enough to be around, right? Please, just be with me on this. I need someone I can talk to about this, because it’s exciting but it’s also fucking overwhelming. I know with all my heart too that I don’t want to stop. I can trust in you to watch out for me, right?”

He was torn, “You’re killing me Bells. What I should do is call your dad and try to convince him or something. Wait, he fawns over Alice doesn’t he? Fuck. I’m not even sure how I’d convince anyone since I almost don’t believe it myself. I should try and stop you. I could at least tell you everything. I mean everything. I don’t give a fuck about the treaty. I think you’ve actually already heard the stories when you were younger, but I guess they didn’t mean much back then.”

“Sorry, I really don’t remember. Just leave it alone for now and be there for me, like you always are. I’m going out shopping with Alice. I don’t want to know what a cold one is. Her boyfriend Jasper is going to drive us. We haven’t really talked about it, but we might end up hitting up Port Angeles if there’s nothing local worth getting. I’ll be home by nine and Charlie already knows I’m going.”

“Call me every hour,” he demanded, “please, just to make sure you’re alive and safe. There’s not much I can do, I can’t even legally drive to come rescue you if you go that far out, not that it would stop me, but I can do this at least. At least for tonight. This whole thing is fucked and it’s a lot to take in at once. I’m going to trust you Bells, so please, for your sake, I hope you know what you’re doing.”

My heart soared, “Thank you Jake! When I get home I’m telling you everything about my week. And I’ll call you every hour until then, I promise. I mean, the three of us are just going shopping, what could even go wrong?”

I heard him groan and slam his head against the wall on the other end, “Why would you even say that!”

 

Alice was waiting for me when I stepped outside. She was standing beneath the tree where she’d killed the bird, creeping shadows muting her cheery outfit. She looked beautiful and ethereal; somehow the gloomy weather suited her. I couldn’t imagine her living in the sunlight and heat back in Arizona.

She was on the defensive right away, her voice sharp, “As the son of the hereditary chief, Jacob was always doomed to know about us. That’s why I told him. Or really, he already knew, he just didn’t believe, so I got his hackles up for you. I did what I needed to do, I think,” she paused and some of her confidence faltered, “tell me, did I do the right thing?”

“Yeah, everything’s fine so long as I provide hourly proof of life. Can I borrow your cell phone for the evening?”

She smiled, reassured, and handed it over, “A small price to pay, all things considered. That could have gone much worse, believe me. Now, shall we?”

She hooked her arm through mine and we started off towards the sporting goods store.

The wind had lurched back to life and it haltingly pushed us on our way but otherwise it was a remarkably quiet afternoon. Alice filled the silence by rambling about herself, which was a nice change from our game of questions.

The major thing I found out was that she was addicted to the show America's Next Top Model, a fact that was almost alarming in its normalcy at first. She was excited that each cycle had been better than the last, and that the most recent one was a tour de force of trash TV. In particular she was jazzed that the contestant who won the last one, Eva, was the shortest of the girls competing. Apparently 6’7” is short for a model, which is still a little taller than I am.

As I listened to her rattle off facts about the show I realized three things: first, that she knew a hell of a lot about the reality of the fashion industry versus its portrayal on the show. She talked about the first cycle as being the most revealing and critical of the unglamourous, grueling life of a low grade model, as well as the petty meanness and sadism that could be found in some of the industry’s primadonnas. Frankly, she was talking like someone who had lived through fashion week, which she joked was really more like fashion month, instead of someone who’d just read about it or seen it on TV.

Second, I realized that she was, in a round about way, hinting we should watch the next cycle together when it started airing again in the spring. Or maybe, like, start watching an older cycle right now on tape? Like I said, she was not being direct, but her, me, and America’s Next Top Model were certainly some kind of plan in her head.

More alarming than the thought that I might very well end up watching a reality show about fashion was the fact that there were no animals to be seen anywhere. That absence had been part of why it had felt so quiet at first. Even in the winter the birds still talk to each other, except for today apparently. Squirrels perch on branches, rabbits hide in plain sight, dogs watch through neighborhood windows, and nature moves. Or, it should.

Now that I’d noticed it, I was able to watch as far down the block a pair of rabbits raised their little bunny noses high into the air, froze for just an instant, and then took off running frantically southward across the empty field and through the RV park towards the relative safety of the woods. The wind was at our back; all of nature was terrified of the thing that I was walking with.

Alice noticed my concern and took my hand in hers, “You spaced out there. Everything all right?”

I ran the ball of my thumb back and forth between her joint and knuckle. Her hand felt dainty and fragile in mine, even if I knew it wasn’t true. I was grateful for the contact; it was only Alice after all.

“Everything’s fine,” I answered, “I’m just still getting used to things, I guess. Say, by the way, have you ever worked as a model or something? Your whole family gives off super model vibes. I get that it’s a weird question, but fashion seems to be, well, a passion for you.”

She squeezed my hand and gave me a soft-sad, vulnerable smile, “I’d be lying if I said I had no connections to the industry, but no, never as a model. I’ll never be a model.”

I was instantly sorry I’d asked. Oh shit. How fucking oblivious could I be? I’d been listening but I hadn’t been paying attention.

She collected her thoughts and tried to explain it, and, as she did, the usual lark-song of her voice warbled with a note of bitterness, “I’m not really photogenic, and, even if that wasn’t true, there’s just no such thing as a four foot ten model. I dress them all in clothing that I love, and I even taught Jazz how to strut a catwalk as a spot of fun, but no matter what I wear, or what I design, it’s not much better than playing pretend. I mean, what’s the point of fashion for a life lived always out of the limelight?”

“Ouch,” I winced, “You’re probably the most elegant person I’ve ever met. You’re already way beyond my level; I can’t imagine you ever feeling like you don’t measure up. It probably sounds lame, but what you do matters to me! And I’m sure it matters to Jazz! So, it’s not pointless.”

Her fingers intertwined with mine, digits sliding softly tip to tip. She shook off her sadness like water gliding off of scales, the outside world forgotten again by a girl that the world forgot.

“Want to hear a secret?” she grinned up at me, “Sometimes I get jealous of Rosalie. If I had her looks and her stature and I was human, I’d storm the fashion world, I just know it. It’d be an awful bloodbath of poise and grace.”

I tried to answer thoughtfully, determined not to put my foot in my mouth again, “She might just be the most beautiful woman in the world, even I can see that, but if you looked like that I don’t think I could ever approach you. You’re perfect how you are right now. What I mean is you’re just right for me, and I wouldn’t trade you in for any other Alice.”

I watched the small dark forms of field mice scamper across the road ahead of us, fleeing in the other direction.

“Good, that makes me happy,” she beamed, “besides, Rosalie’s got it the worst of any of us as far as that sort of stuff goes.”

“How do you mean?”

“Well, everyone’s got a person or two they wouldn’t mind being, but as vain as she is, and as proud of her looks, she’d give that all up in a heartbeat if she could just have a child of her own. She’d trade places with just about anyone. Her and Emmett have talked about adopting, but they’d run into the same kind of issues I’m having cozying up with you, and eighteen years is a long time to beat the odds. If it ended in tragedy she’d probably shatter and never recover. In truth, that heartbeat that she’s waiting for will never come again. That’s the tragedy of Rosalie.”

The wind felt colder. The dry field next to us felt more barren. There was nothing to say to that and we walked the rest of the way in silence. I wished, not for the first time, that Alice’s hand on mine could warm that uneasy chill.

 

Alice stopped us in the parking lot in front of Pacific Pizza, a squat unassuming building a stone’s throw from Newton’s Outfitters.

She did an exaggerated finger-gun motion at the restaurant's row of windows, “I know Jasper is in there waiting for us. Sooo, I’ve been looking for a chance to to mention it, but Jazz and I don’t keep secrets from each other. We tell each other everything worth telling, which is generally very little in a sleepy town like this.”

I flushed thinking about the things she might mention about this afternoon. “Everything, huh?”

“Yes, but! I’m going to break the news about how much you know very slowly to him. Like, over the whole next week I think. So, try not show off? Ok? I want to ease him into it so he doesn’t freak out or decide he’s failing to properly protect the family.”

I nodded, “Thanks, I guess I can appreciate that.”

“As a species we’re not that good with rapid change, we always need the slow movement towards a tipping point first. The bigger the change the longer the lead time before a sudden shift.”

“Huh,” the more I heard about them the less human their minds seemed, “in that case, what was happening with you before I showed up?”

She gave me a sly smile, “You’re a clever one, aren’t you? For now, I think Jazz could use some cheering up. Did you happen to notice the necklace he was wearing earlier?”

“You mean the one his Machi gave him?”

She looked genuinely surprised, “He told you about that? Well, that saves me explaining at least. That person, they were very important to him. I can see him sitting inside and it looks like he changed his clothes but he’s still wearing that necklace.”

I squinted but I couldn’t spot him through the dark windows, “He’s brooding is what you mean. Probably sitting in front of an uneaten plate of breadsticks and picking at them”

“Right,” she chirped, “so, what I want to do is something to honor their memory but also to bring him back to the present. It’ll be easy, just go around the building from the north and then mimic what I do when you bump into us at the south corner. It’ll be fun!”

I looked at her skeptically, “Wait, why do I need to go around the building for that?”

Instead of answering she stared at the building with a dazed look on her face. I felt her hand in mine go slack. I let go and rubbed my fingers for warmth. After nearly a minute I snapped my fingers in front of her face, “Alice, why do I need to go around?”

She came back with a start, like it had only been a second of distraction, her smiling confidence covering over the missing gap, “Well, so you’re moving against the wind when you approach, silly. He relies on his talent too much to track people by their emotions, but you’ll slip by undetected. Plus, I’ll provide cover for the noise you’ll make. You’ll totally take him by surprise!”

“I’m officially confused, so how is this a good thing?”

She deftly took my purse from me and if it hadn’t snagged for a second I almost wouldn’t have noticed the movement, “Ambush games are kind of a cold one thing. He might be impressed if you can pull it off. Now, no more questions. Go around, surprise him, then copy what I was doing. He’s about to notice me so I need you to get moving now for any of this to work.”

She dropped my hand and blew me a playful kiss as I ducked behind a white car and shuffled along, crouched over, towards the corner of the building where she’d pointed. The trip around the perimeter was enough time to realize how stupid I looked doing this, and that I had no idea if I was moving too fast or too slow to make this half-baked plan of hers work out. Alice was always one step ahead, but sometimes I felt a little left behind.

As promised, they were dead ahead of me on the sidewalk as I rounded the south corner of the pizzeria. I felt like an exaggerated cartoon character as I crept forward, but it was working. Alice did a little curtsy towards Jasper and playfully kicked at a stray rock from the planter in front of the building. Jasper’s broad back was to me and he was wearing some kind of fitted shirt in a soft gray or lavender color with faint pinstripes, a conspicuous lack of a jacket, and black suspenders.

Before that moment I’d have said that the hypothetical wearing of suspenders would be a hardline deal breaker for me, but damn it, he actually kind of made them look good. Faced with this reality, could I cope? Was I actually still attracted to a man despite the presence of suspenders? Oh God, what was I becoming?

I must have scuffed my shoe against the ground or something during my distracted and farcical musings because he started to turn his head towards me, only for Alice’s nimble fingers to appear on his cheek and turn his face back towards her, probably for a kiss. That reflexive ghost of a movement was enough to send my heart drumming out a staccato pitter-patter of excitement, of anticipation. This time would be different. I was hunting him. I was going to get him. I had him in my sights and I just had to control myself until I was close enough.

They assumed a position facing each other that I couldn’t see as I inched along the side of the building. I heard her say, “Mari mari futa Jasper,” which was easy enough to remember.

My heart almost hurt with the tension. Patience. Patience. How could he not hear it stammering away like gunfire? I was bungling this but he didn’t turn around.

He answered her, “Mari Mari kure Alice,” his tongue fitting roughly around words that were definitely not Spanish. A Chilean greeting then? That would fit with what I’d been told.

It was about this point that I stumbled on a rock and lunged forward in desperation. So close.

To paint the scene here, It was a completely clean sidewalk and there was only one small rock on it, the one Alice had kicked towards me. The odds against it were astronomical. I just had time for two thoughts. One, was, that somehow, in some inexplicable way, she had set me up. The second was the delayed recognition that sneaking up on Jasper might be a terrible dangerous idea.

I don’t know what I expected, for him to take a swipe at me most likely, but when my fingers brushed impotently against the loose fabric of his shirt bunched up from his belt at the small of his back he jumped like a cat. What I mean is that he didn’t hop slightly away from me like you’d expect. Instead, he leap up and slightly forward with a choked off cry of fear. His landing was rough and jittery, not graceful like most of his movements, but after that he used his momentum to pitch forward and place his left hand on the sidewalk and whip his body around to face me—a move that by all rights should have ripped his palm to shit. He ended up in a defensive crouch with one hand on the pavement and the other raised to defend himself. To go with the startled cat simile, if he had fur, his tail would be all poofed out right now.

I finished stumbling after him and caught myself on the side of the building without stepping on my skirt and making things worse. As soon as he saw it was me he stood up and made some dusting off motions at his waist, as if his dignity were still intact. I have to admit, my still pounding heart thrilled at it. Both at having turned the tables on him, a small taste of power, of fear, and also at the small hint of a smile of admiration that played across his face. Next time, I’d do better next time, but this was still a win.

Alice meanwhile was sitting on the sidewalk laughing her ass off. I glanced at the restaurant windows to my left and saw the curious faces of some of the girls in my class watching us. No one I knew, thankfully, but I was sure this whole scene would make its way to Jessica and Lauren before the end of the day.

Without a word Jasper stepped up into my space and took my hands in his, intertwining our fingers and holding our hands up together level with my heart. What? I could just about die from embarrassment. Alice laughed even harder when she saw my expression.

Oh right, the greeting! I took the initiative and mimicked the words I’d heard from Alice, “Mari mari futa Jasper.”

He pulled back slightly in surprise, and if he had any color at all I’d have said he went white at my words.

“Mari mari lamnien Bella. The word you should be using is lamnien; to the Mapuche all people are brothers and sisters, and that’s what that word means. My Machi taught me this greeting; generally, I try not to forget the things she brought into my life.”

Alice had stood and she cut in and took my hands from his with a dancer’s grace, replacing his fingers with her own.

We exchanged greetings using the word lamnien, which seemed to put Jasper at ease. I was tempted to use “kure” for her instead, but it seemed like it might be a word like girlfriend or betrothed, and even as a joke I wasn’t sure I wanted to throw that around with her now that I knew better.

“Well it’s a nice greeting, but, a little intimate I’d say.”

“It is, isn’t it?” Alice chimed. “But it’s more than that. In Chile, amongst the Mapuche, to be greeted like this is to be acknowledged as a person. As a family, we’re often shunned or ignored in Forks, we’re the un-people in the room, so it’s soothing to do this and know that you see us Bella.”

Once again Alice had killed the conversation in the most lovely way possible. The was an awkward lull where none of us knew what to say. Beyond that, this was the first time that all three of us had really hung out and there was a strange intensity in the air as we figured out where to start. I took a chance to examine Jasper’s outfit from the front: in addition to the odd shirt and the suspenders, the look was completed by steely gray slacks and a black studded leather belt. Instead of a tie he’d opted for that same silver collar from before.

“That’s a good look on you,” I said, wincing at my own earnestness.

Alice gave me a toothy grin, “It’s Vivienne Westwood from her autumn & winter collection for this year. It hasn’t been the best year for men’s wear, but my buyer found me some good stuff.”

“You’re really serious about this stuff, aren’t you?” I asked.

Jasper ran his hand through her spiked up hair affectionately, “I’m afraid she is, but we all love her for it. As much as we might complain, she certainly brings some much needed color into our lives. And I don’t just mean about the clothes. With that in mind, I think we promised to get you a coat.”

She darted forward and looped her arm through mine while the more languid Jasper took up the a cautious distance on the other side of me.

Alice looked me in the eyes and said very seriously, “Don’t worry Bella, it might just be retail shopping, but you’re still in good hands.”

 

Shopping with Alice was shockingly fun! Back home with my mom I’d learned to dread buying clothes. She was agonizingly slow, made terrible suggestions for what I should try on, and never helped me make up my mind. Her idea of who I was always overwhelmed reality. We got along in other ways, but I dreaded going shopping.

I never felt like I looked good. I’m skinny-fat, small chested, and even now after puberty I still hadn’t picked up the art of buying things that actually hang right on me. When I got old enough I started just buying the same things year after year and opting for T-shirts and other things that could just safely be too big on me. Clothing I could hide in.

Everything Alice brought me I loved. It was all the right size, in colors I liked, and when I put on a coat she’d spin me around and tell me what she liked about it. It all looked like me. She didn’t measure me or anything, she simply stated I was about a size two and then went at it.

Her lack of focus and her over-enthusiasm dragged the process out a bit, but at the same time the tedious uncertain parts were mysteriously missing. There was no shifting through whole racks of stuff that all looked the same to me, instead she kind of danced around the small clothing area, pulling things from the overstuffed fixtures that she knew I’d respond favorably to. The more things I tried on the more definite her selections became.

Jasper generally hung back, but if something looked nice on me he’d tell me so. It was a little hard to take and I kept protesting, but his straightforwardness was also sort of refreshing.

We all quickly settled on a bright red rain jacket for me that was pretty plain except for a thick white bar running horizontally across the front and back. I thought Alice was going to fight me on it, but instead she looked pleased and said it was the one. It was on sale for about thirty dollars, which I could live with.

Alice scampered out of sight to go try her magic with the winter coats. Not that I needed one all that badly since there are only a few days a year here where it gets super nasty out. She was aggravatingly insistent aboutgetting me one, even going so far as to conjure up far fetched hypotheticals, like asking me what I would do if I went camping in the mountains without a coat and got snowed in and developed hypothermia. What then, indeed? It was patently absurd, but still she was doing me a favor in a way so I was inclined to humor her.

Jasper stepped up next to me and patted me on the back hard, “Since we’ve got a moment in private, I suppose I should congratulate you. I didn’t think you had the guts, but no hard feelings from me about it. I didn’t really want you to do it and it makes things a little awkward, I’ll admit, but I’d like to think I can be a mature adult here and just say welcome to the family.”

I looked over at him, he was standing much stiffer than normal and he looked like he didn’t know where to put the hand he’d just touched me with. Eventually he pushed a golden lock of hair out of his face and stuck a thumb through his suspenders. I wanted to reach out and swat his hand away.

“Jazz, what in fuck’s name are you talking about?” I snapped.

“I’m just trying to be upfront is all. Don’t know if she told you this, but she’d never actually been with a woman before. I can see the appeal of you, so I can’t entirely fault her choice.”

I let out a hard breath of surprise, “I know you were worried about something happening, but you’ve got the wrong idea. Nothing happened.”

His eyes narrowed, “I don’t think I’m being too hasty here. You both show up late, in new outfits, freshly showered, wearing each other’s clothes even. And, to top it off, you’ve both got the fading scent of arousal clinging about your legs.”

“Wait, what? Both of us? No, no, no, I get how this looks, but...”

He smiled beautifully, and he was equal parts inspiring and menacing, “But nothing. I wasn’t a newborn yesterday. I just said I’m fine with it, so don’t try to bullshit me.”

I’m sure my jaw had a stubborn cast to it because after a few beats he sighed and pinched his nose. For being something of a man’s man he could be surprisingly prissy in his less guarded moments.

“Fine,” he said, “I’ll concede the point if you say you two weren’t making the beast with two backs, but I’m sure something happened and that it wasn’t all that innocent. For one thing, you’reboth radiating an intimacy that wasn’t there an hour ago. I’m the emotions guy, remember? And besides that, you haven’t stopped smiling like a dork since you showed up.”

“Come on Jazz, I’m all smiles all the time. You know me,” I lied through my teeth, to comical effect.

Some of the tension, the possessiveness, left his gaze and he cracked up a little, “Normally one only smiles like that after getting laid, but I’ll allow that you might be something of a late bloomer.”

That prick. Well, I mean, he wasn’t totally off base with most what he’d said… “Ok, so if I’m smiling, maybe it’s ‘cause I trounced you! How did that fear taste earlier! In your face!” My deflection was painfully obvious, but bless his heart he actually let it drop. It wasn’t a disagreement I’d been expecting to have and I was glad to avoid digging myself in deeper, but still, if that was really his response to suspected infidelity on Alice’s part, he was actually kind of a classy guy about it. It really had been something more than nothing after all.

He laughed and, without thinking, he ran his hand over the braided side of my head in a motion I’d seen him do to Alice. Nearby I saw a chubby middle aged woman unconsciously veer off course while looking at the racks, going the long way around us without realizing there was anything she was avoiding.

As for me, I kept glancing at those fucking suspenders of his. Something about them, and how they were paired with his ornate sliver collar, well he almost looked like someone who’d stepped out of an old photo or something. A man lost halfway between the wilderness and the modern world. I wondered what color his eyes had once been. I hoped they’d been blue.

He sounded wistful, “Its been a long time since I was caught off guard; I was wondering where you were but I didn’t think you’d dare to try it. I’ll have to get you back for that. And, next time, you should do it without Alice cheating for you. What was the problem, you couldn’t make it the last five feet on your own without giving yourself away?” he sneered slightly but his eyes were still playful. “Still, it was, it was really nice. You’re surprising, it’s one of your good points.”

I grinned and fidgeted with a random sweatshirt on the rack next to me, “You said you could see my appeal. Does that mean I can start fishing for compliments?”

He seemed to weigh what to say to my teasing, “That depends. I meant it in a good way when I said it, about seeing your appeal, but if I’m being honest there’s a rather more unfavorable take on things that comes to mind. Do you want the pleasant version or the cruel one first? They’re both the truth.”

“Cruel,” I said very quietly, supremely embarrassed at actually admitting it. I wouldn’t get much out of the pleasant one, while a safe dose of cruelty might be something I could cling to and perversely feel better about my worthlessness.

“Ok, so, I’m sure I mentioned our cousins in Alaska, the Denali sisters. People with our medical condition need to be careful about who we associate with but they’re basically a bunch of nymphos, that’s their whole thing, so they’ve got this whole list of criteria that they look for in a potential lover.”

My shoulders drooped, “Oh, that doesn’t sound good.”

He patted me on the back again, softer this time, “Cheer up, you’re an excellent candidate. You’re lonely and isolated; I know because Alice tried to find anyone in school who could tell her about you from before you stopped visiting Forks and no one knows you. You’re also hesitant to confide in others or bother them with your problems; for instance, I know you didn’t tell Charlie about our first meeting in the lunchroom since I haven’t got a phone call from him telling me to stay away from his daughter or he’ll fucking shoot me.”

“I can’t imagine Charlie ever saying something like that. Maybe, just maybe, as a joke, I guess.”

“Yeah, well, he already did tell me that a while back, those exact words, but I think he’s softened towards me since then. Anyway, next on the list, you have a disregard for your personal welfare and a willingness to ignore red flags. You’re here with us, so ‘nuff said about those things.”

“Har har,” I pretended to laugh. He kind of had a point though. Like, even that little quip about Charlie was a red flag if I thought about it, but I just couldn’t muster the concern for some reason.

He put his hand on my neck casually and I felt a surge of sympathy that was clearly his, as opposed to him trying to alter my own emotions. I guess that lack of alarm really was mine then and not a manipulation. Fuck, his power was a headache to deal with in some ways.

“Finally,” he continued, “they suggest that finding someone just emerging from a long depression is the best. Those people have just enough energy and motivation to be stupid while staying manageable and they often display a gulping sad lust for life. How’s life been since you decided to get away from Arizona?

“Tanya, one of the three sisters, has a rather overbearing interest in my proclivities and presumes rather too much, but her exact words were, ‘Jasper, you should try looking for someone only slightly broken so they don’t get needy and boring too fast, the best bets are lonely bookworms and the crying artistic types, but not one so wilting that it’s a chore to talk to him.’ Now, I know Alice wouldn’t ever think this way, but you have to admit from a certain perspective you’re the perfect pick for a friend.”

I brushed his hand off and the sympathetic feelings vanished mercifully, “A perfect victim you mean, don’t you. So what? I’m just a gentle sheep bumbling around with the wolves? A lamb for the slaughter, if you can even be bothered?” My words burned with all the venom I could muster.

He looked horrified at my outburst, like genuinely unnerved. I was getting used to our back and forths and it was alarming to see him falter, especially for no reason like this. He slunk back, bumping into the clothing rack behind him and nearly topping it over. If his hand had come away wet with blood from touching me he could not have looked more agitated. It was starting to freak me out a little in turn. Jasper was a cool customer and this wasn’t like him at all.

“No, you’re different. Not like the rest. I only mistook you for prey before we really met.” He sounded a bit desperate, like he’d walked himself off a cliff in the dark and he was trying to find something rushing by to grab onto. I don’t know who he was trying to convince. I certainly wasn’t buying it.

“No Jazz, I’m just a regular stupid human girl. I’m not especially remarkable and there are plenty of other girls out there like me. Even in my own life I don’t think I’m main character material, I’m more like a stock character that you’d find anywhere.”

He looked at me with pleading golden eyes, “Shit, I’m such an asshole, aren’t I? I just wanted to congratulate you about Alice. Warn you that we’re monsters. You’re… you deserve the courtesy. Bella, we’re manipulating you. Given what we are, I don’t think we can help it. Just… I want you to see through us? I don’t want you to think we’re taking advantage of you. What good am I if I can’t at least protect you from myself?”

I hit him on the shoulder with my purse, hard enough to jostle him but with no real malice to it, “Damn it Jazz, you really are an idiot. I know you’re both too good for me. I get it, I’m completely at your mercy here and this whole thing is super unbalanced. You’re both probably using weird mind powers on me and I’m a babe in the woods. There, that’s the ugly truth and it’s making you uncomfortable. But fuck, I don’t care. I just want to have a nice time today and pretend we’re all great friends and shit.”

For some reason he smiled and stood up straighter again after me giving him a hard time. I guess it reassured him somehow that things weren’t that bad. Maybe it was how casual I was acting around him. I’m sure it’s not something he’s used to from strangers.

Alice came out of nowhere from behind me, “Hmm, so, your appeal… Bella is very pretty and very nice. She’s smart and brave and she smells so good.”

She actually rubbed her cheek against mine, cold flesh sliding against my own. Her words were almost a purr.

“How long have you been there,” I asked quietly.

“Long enough. You two weren’t exactly being discreet. Do you believe in fate, Bella? Because, sometimes I toy around with the notion,” her words were rapid-fire, totally unconcerned about the two of us being complete morons in front of her.

I breathed in Alice and calmed down, somehow my fingers found hers again, “I got my palm read once and learned that I was fated to pay thirty five dollars at the end of it. Does that count?”

She wrinkled her nose but otherwise didn’t acknowledge my sass, “Well, about fate. So, even if there is another girl out there who is fun and not scared of us and who has a complementary talent, she’s somewhere else in the world and you’re here. Isn’t that good enough? Not everything has to have a big reason, sometimes things just are. We met, I like you, and that’s how things are. Some other hypothetical girl out there doesn’t have any of that and couldn’t step into your place.”

I glanced over at Jasper, seized by a sudden odd urge to finally go grab him by his dumb fucking suspenders. I almost did without thinking, but I couldn’t quite work out in my head what to do to follow that up and if I did it we’d just end up standing awkwardly face to face with nowhere to go. Alice gave me a very strange look. Trying to be nonchalant I asked him, “So, what about you?”

“I think I promised I’d say something nice too,” he took a big white winter coat from Alice’s grasp and held it out for me to step into, “so, here it is. Your appeal is that you are too damn stubborn to think of being scared of being vulnerable. Life has given you a lickin’ I’d imagine, but you just keep right on going and your smile always reaches your eyes. I certainly can’t match you there.”

“You really don’t know how to do low intensity, do you?” I let him help me into the coat and he tenderly pulled it around my shoulders.

Alice stepped forward and zipped me up with deliberate slowness. Both of her hands ran up my front and in that moment the whole world dimmed down. Newton’s Outfitters disappeared into blackness. The clothing racks and shelves near us got gray and hazy. The only things that were crisp and clear to me were the two of them and Alice’s hands pressing their way up my torso.

She grinned at me, her elfin features bright with enjoyment, “When he was first courting me he said that he envied my unsulliable innocence. I think what he really meant was that he thought I was super cute and he very much wanted to kiss me. Jazz is a simple man at heart, but he just can’t spit it out sometimes, so don’t let his demeanor fool you. Now, how do you like it so far?”

“It’s perfect, Alice. I really think I might want it.”

I should have gone to a mirror or something, but Alice had taken a long time picking this coat, and that meant it was probably everything I could ever want in a coat. I was starting to understand what Jasper meant about it being silly to bet against her. Besides, as long as I didn’t move she’d keep touching me, and I could really use it right now. I felt safe and warm, sandwiched between them. The coat was perfect, I didn’t even have to look.

 

The coat wasn’t perfect. Or rather, it was too perfect. It was poofy and down stuffed, it was Calvin Klein brand, and it was also two hundred fucking dollars. Alice didn’t understand the problem when I told her I couldn’t buy it even though I loved it. Then she didn’t understand why she couldn’t just buy it for me instead. She pulled a crumpled handful of hundreds out of the bottom of her backpack and tried to thrust them in my direction.

I tried to spit something out about being raised poor. About how many hours I’d worked after school for minimum wage cleaning rooms at a shitty hotel back in Phoenix to try and save a little money for college. Something about how deeply uncomfortable I was with the thought of money entering into this relationship in any way. Money coming between us and spoiling something good.

I don’t think a word of it got across to her. She was literally from some alien reality where money didn’t mean anything special and had nothing to do with things like getting enough to eat or having protection from the elements. She started saying something about Jasper’s outfit, about the cost of it in comparison to the coat, when there was a sudden spark of recognition in Jasper’s amber eyes. He put his hand over her mouth and muffled her before she could blurt out something that’d make me feel truly shitty. Then he told her he’d explain later and he delicately took the coat off me and apologized for the both of them, all somber and serious like with a barely contained ghost of a smirk at the situation.

She was so upset about letting the coat go, way more than I was to be honest; she kept just saying it was perfect. I felt bad. I might have caved a little and told her she could buy me things after all, as long as they were less than fifteen dollars. I’d wanted to say ten, but I was pushing myself a little. Oh, how quickly I’d come to regret that.

Once that was settled she waved her hand dismissively and said to the both of us, “That was the only winter coat worth seeing here. I didn’t realize cost was a factor. The next best one that she’ll actually buy is in Port Townsend and after that there’s one in Sequim.”

I wasn’t all that familiar with those cities but I knew they were past Port Angeles, “Eh, what the hell, I’m game! Sorry if this is a dumb question, but can we make a trip like that in time?”

Alice showed me all her pearly whites and I was struck by what an awful lot of teeth she had, “The good news is there’s a Goodwill in Port Townsend and that’s where we’re going. It’s only an hour away so we can make it easily. The bad news is you aren’t going to be happy with my driving and Jasper will have to hold your hand.”

Something about her expression made me want to look for an emergency exit, but instead I let myself be marched up to the front so I could pay for the lovely little crimson rain jacket.

 

We called Jake from the car and put him on speaker phone. A retelling of my triumphant jump-scare victory over Jasper was quickly overshadowed by car talk between Jacob and Alice about what she was driving. I’d thought the car was like rental-car quality nice, stylish but nondescript, but I hadn’t really paid attention. Everything about it was extra smooth and modern looking, sure, but from the interior of it I wouldn’t have guessed it a car worth getting excited over.

Apparently it was something called an Aston Martin Vanquish that they’d borrowed from Edward because he was out of town. Apparently it was hot shit according to Jake. Alice did her best to field his exuberant questions, only occasional deferring to Rose, who wasn’t here, as the one who would know.

Jasper had opted to sit with me in the back seat, which was a curious choice. The section of empty space between us felt momentous. Apparently he was a motorcycle guy and he was as left out of the car talk as I was. I found myself wondering just how far away Port Townsend was. Then, when we hit Fork’s city limits, everything crystallized into a moment of horrible realization.

The speedometer crept up to 120mph, Alice laughed at something Jake had said, and Jasper took my hand and asked if I wanted him to keep me calm. We were in a high end vehicle. 120mph and we’d be there in an hour. Well crap.

“Hey Alice,” I cut in, “I realize you’re insane and everything, but you’re not actually going to drive this fast the whole way, right? Because, I can’t decide which is worse, dying in a fiery wreck or getting pulled over by someone that Charlie knows.”

“Relax,” she said, clearly thrilled to be cutting loose on the highway, “I’m not going to get pulled over. I’ve got cop-sense!”

Jasper leaned in as if to comfort me and said under his breath, “Just so you know, she wrapped her Dodge Viper around a tree last month. That’s why why we had to borrow a car today. But don’t worry, I’ll catch you if we crash. She really is a good driver though.”

From the front seat, “I heard that! Bella, for your information I only crashed because I wanted see how fast I could push the Viper and it just so happened that an indecisive old man was crossing the road at the same time. I ended up in a situation where my only options were which tree I was going to crash into. Even I can’t pull a miracle out of my butt at two hundred miles an hour but at least I didn’t hit him! Compared to that, this is nothing! We’re practically crawling along!”

From Jake, “You walked away from a crash like that? That’s hardcore. Jesus, you all are some hardy goddamn abominations.”

Jasper had a shit eating grin, “That’s what my mama always told me and my brothers, but that was a long time ago. Still, dealing with the dumb cattle here in Forks aint so different than it was back then.”

I tried to sink into the leather seating and let this whole thing pass over me like a nightmare.

“Those dumb ho'kwats are my friends, well some of them. So, bring it Bela Lugosi!” Jake yelled over the speaker, sounding delighted “You two are so on!”

I wanted to cheer for Jake but we were barreling down twisty ravines cut between solid walls of forest on either side. A single deer in the road could total our car at these speeds. Had it rained today? Were the roads slick? I couldn’t remember. My mouth felt bone dry.

Alice’s competitive streak was showing, “Good, if I get pulled over I’ll let you drive any car we own that Rosalie won’t kill me for borrowing, but if we get there without incident I get to buy Bella a ‘welcome to Forks’ gift!”

“Deal,” I croaked on Jake’s behalf, happy to give her the incentive to get us there alive.

“How you holding up, Bells?” Jake’s voice reached me, a hint of real concern behind his jovial demeanor.

“Never better. I’ve never puked inside a luxury vehicle before, so I’m looking forward to that. You should be here Jake. I don’t think I’ve ever gone on a road trip for flimsier reasons and that sort of thing feels like it’d be up your alley.”

Alice glanced back at me with concern and I wanted to seriously yell and scream at her to keep her eyes forward. I tried to think back to driver’s ed. At these speeds, even with perfect reaction time and top of the line breaks, our stopping distance was probably about two football fields. I don’t care what kind of supernatural tricks she had up her sleeve, physics is still an unrelenting bitch and it would kill us with a cold twist of its numbers.

Alice’s tone was more subdued as she returned her attention to the road, “Hey, we’ll call you again in about an hour Jacob. Bella looks kind of stressed. I think she could use some soothing music and a chance to relax right now.”

Mercifully, we said our goodbyes. Once the call had ended I turned to Jasper, “Do you actually need that seat belt you’re wearing right now?” Alice hadn’t bothered with hers again.

He shook his head softly, still waiting on a go-ahead from me.

“Good, then get over here and put me in my happy place or something. I guess once again I didn’t ask enough questions before agreeing to this, but that’s on me.”

“How do you want me?” he asked, actually being attentive. I was ready and prepared for him to start talking mad shit again since that seemed to be his style when he wasn’t being all quiet and withdrawn, but for now he was just acting helpful and considerate. It was disarming and I though again of how easy it would be to get taken in by his honest face. You could easily mistake him for a decent person. Good thing he didn’t try that with me.

I pulled him close to me when he unbuckled and forced him scoot over and put his arm around my shoulder. It took an attempt or two to get comfortable, since the car had awkward bucket seats. I just about ended up sitting in his lap when everything was said and done, but as I explained it, it was going to be impossible for him to keep me relaxed for a whole hour if he was sitting there stiff as a board instead of relaxing with me too.

Alice plugged an iPod into the dash and “I Wanna Be Sedated” boomed out of the speakers. Jasper eased the zipper open a little and slipped his hand down the neck of my hoodie to my collar bone so we’d have skin to skin contact beneath my tank top. Suddenly I was fine. I was better than fine. I was blissed out, like that feeling after getting a good shoulder rub by a friend, where you just lay there in relief and think about how getting up or going to sleep are both equally delightful ideas. It was like that, but I was totally awake and aware. I felt a steady anxious pressure that had been growing all day lift off of my shoulders and trickle down my spine. Jasper felt sooo good next to me.

I glanced over to him and I’m sure I had some kind of dopey look of happiness on my face. He did his best to stay impassive and coolly face forward, but his eyes flicked towards me more than once and that made me very happy.

None of us were in the mood to talk much, I was too relaxed, while Jasper and Alice were both concentrating wholly on their tasks. Alice told me a little about each song as it came on, her voice easy and casual as she introduced me to her aesthetic, but otherwise she was very focused. I got to hear a few Misfits songs and Alice really got into “Hunting Humans,” to the point that she kept time on the steering wheel, while I liked “Where Eagles Dare” more.

Jasper was more into The Aquabats when they came on. I could feel his fingers twitching along my collar in time to "Martian Girl!" and all I could do was instinctively cuddle into him. He smelled like an autumn night, and if I moved a little I could shift his hand so it went deeper. There was a little drip drop of lust behind the relaxation and I seized onto the feeling. I fed off of it.

I could feel a soft twinge of guilt as he started rubbing tiny circles into my chest above my left breast. I was too content for the guilt to be mine. The muscle there was tight, so it felt great. The next song was “Seneca Falls” by someone… I was starting to lose track of what Alice was saying. I just wanted more. I wanted her to put on something sexy with some heavy bass. I wanted Jazz to get over himself and make me feel good already.

I didn’t hear the title of the next one, probably something like “Dig Me In” based on the chorus. All that mattered is I felt the smooth steady circles start to dip under the edge of my bra. We were feeding off each other now. His face was still impassive when I risked a glance over. Had he always been so fucking handsome?

“Got a safeword now,” I muttered

What was that? Oh shit, I’d had a whole thing I wanted to say. There’s no way he’d understand what I meant. Oh well. Didn’t care.

His hand froze in its gentle intrusion. My bra felt desperately too tight. The heat was too high. I wanted to get out of my clothes but that wouldn’t be polite.

“I gave Bella a safeword,” Alice saved from a very long distance away, “it’s cygne. Isn’t that cute!”

“Yeah, that’s great. Why are you telling me,” he growled. He was starting to lose his focus on his power. I could feel his surprise, his guilt tipping over into shame. Motion and distance were starting to come back. So were words.

“It’s good. It’s so that you know when I want you to stop,” I said almost into his ear, “and when it’s safe to keep going.” I could hear how breathy my voice was, the odd lazy intonation. Should I feel weird about this? I didn’t owe Alice anything, she and I weren’t going out, so this was ok? Was I forgetting something? I couldn’t get my head clear. I just wanted him to stop being a tease and go for the nipple already.

“Fine,” he sighed, his voice dripping with cold resignation. Yearning. Heat. Under the surface I could feel his restrain snapping. He was transmitting everything without filter now. If he was losing it, was he transmitting to Alice too?

He let go of the mental hold he had over me as he roughly pinched my nipple. I was hit with a moment of beautiful cold clarity. Suddenly I was drenched in lust, rocketing through the lengthening light of the evening at insane speeds, and I felt totally alive. A cold chill seized my breast and I loved it.

He flicked me and then rubbed the hurt away. I moaned into his shoulder, keeping quiet, still pretending for some reason. Alice hit something new on the iPod without introducing it and, to my surprise, Jasper started serenading me.

I was at the supermarket / Watching people cut in line / I started thinking about human nature / What would you do if there was no more food?

His voice was perfect, deep and rich, and if flooded me with its somber absolution. The song was practically made for him, with its hazy meandering tempo. I just focused on the feeling of it, the barely restrained force as he pushed my bra out of place and grabbed my whole breast in his hand. I wondered what Alice was doing in the font seat. I heard a soft whimper from her. Please let her still be watching the road!

He found his rhythm as he teased me, soft and fierce, focused intensity that wasn’t going to let me escape from the cage of his embrace. One hand on my tit, the other running up over my thigh through my skirt. It hurt and then it felt good and then he’d squeeze again and it’d be too much. Every movement pushed me further, wound me tighter until I couldn’t breathe. I gave up staring out the windshield and looked him dead in the eyes. The black pits of his eyes were burning for me.

“You’re so beautiful,” I whispered. He kept singing right to me and I nearly came when he hit the chorus.

Chemical bomb, chemical bomb / Eyes melt, skin explodes, everybody dead / It won't be long, it won't be long / People gonna run around losing their heads / A river of blood, who's gonna live?

I think Alice pulled over at some point; the kinetic thud of an emergency drift to the side of the road and then the low rumble of the engine, Jasper’s voice, and the soft moans of two girls intertwining together in the space between.

The second time he got to the chorus I really did cum I think. He twisted the nipple and his fingers dug into my thigh and that was it. It was this warm gasping sensation starting in my chest that spread through my whole body, pulsing so fast I couldn’t breathe except in shallow moans. It was more drawn out, more diffuse than what I was used to thinking of as an orgasm, but I was so high on the pleasure it couldn’t have been anything else.

I pulled his stupid fucking suspender strap out of the way and bit him hard on the shoulder, feeling the fabric rip on his goddamn shitty expensive shirt. I had to do it, otherwise I was going to yell out and I didn’t want Alice to hear that. She couldn’t know about this.

In the front seat she was cooing, “Yes, yes yes. Come on, cum for me Bella, please!” The frame was creaking as she twisted in the seat and tried urgently to find the right position.

I don’t know why, but in that moment, just after the crest, I wanted so badly to touch her. I needed to be touching her. I reached forward and grabbed a fistful of her hair, a handful of spikes just barely long enough for me to get my fingers through. I pulled as hard as I could, not worried about damaging her.

“I’m here, ok. I’m right here. So do it. Ok, just do it. Please, Alice. Please, right now.”

I was rewarded with a long drawn out cry of pleasure. It was small and cute and maddeningly sexy, just like her. I now knew something I’d never guessed that I wanted to know, the sound of Alice Cullent’s orgasm. She flopped a bare leg across the console and accidentally kicked the iPod cord out of alignment. I saw her bunched up dress spilling out slightly over the side of the driver’s seat.

I let go of her hair and she looked back to grin at me. There was something conspiratorial to her smile. Jasper gave my breast a squeeze beneath the hoodie and I realized what she was seeing. I did my best to smile back as I stared into the starless void of her pretty little eyes. I don’t know why, but I was so relieved that she’d been here for me through this.

On his own, acapella, Jasper sang the lines, “The Earth is tired of human kind / And I think this world / Is gonna wash up in Hell,” and then he let the song die.

 

We rode the rest of the way in relative silence. Alice turned the music back on, but she didn’t attempt to tell me what was playing. Jasper sat there about as stiff as he’d been when we’d started, except with the caveat that he was also literally sporting an erection now that was pressing into my hip through his thin slacks. At least he didn’t pull away and he kept his arm around me.

He put me under again, relaxing me totally, when Alice pulled away from the shoulder, and I didn’t try to fight it. There was a nervous anxiety beneath the sensation now that he couldn’t filter out, presumably from the thoughts buzzing around in his head. I didn’t even know where to start to untangle this all.

He’d set my bra straight afterward and his hand was resting on the outside of my hoodie instead. He was more or less still touching my breast just because of the position and he didn’t shy away from it, but the sexual element had drained away. What had changed was that my right hand was in his free hand as I sat nearly on top of him. He cupped my fingers in his, the closest he’d come to being sweet with me, and it felt like a cold spot of hope that everything might still be alright.

Chapter Text

“Just stay with us, Jasper. I don’t think I could stand it if you ran away right now,” I was holding on to the loose lavender cloth at the elbow of his shirt, looking up at him with my best doe eyed expression.

Alice shrugged and looked up at him hopefully from his other side, “You’re a good tracker, Jazz, but that scent is at least a week old. There’s no guarantee you’d even find anything and Bella is totally safe as long as she’s with us. Let’s take care of it later and just have fun instead!”

Almost as soon as we’d got out of the car Jasper had scented faint traces of another cold one in the area and he’d wanted to run off on some kind of patrol. He didn’t say as much exactly, evasive as always, but it was clear what he meant. I was glad that Alice didn’t like it any more than I did and that neither of us were having it.

At the moment we were standing on Water Street, in sight of the bay, waiting for the owners of a local record shop, Quimper Sound, to show up and let us in. The store had closed an hour ago, but Alice had called the owners when we got near town and they’d agreed to open up for a bit so we could look around and Alice could pick up a special order she’d placed with them sometime last month.

I thought the situation was bizarre and a little skeevy, but Alice tried to explain that her showing up was a boon for a small independent shop like this; she was a repeat super-customer and they knew she’d make it very worth their while. I wanted to protest, but for once we were doing something that had nothing to do with me. It was just a little side trip before Goodwill.

Port Townsend had a beautiful old downtown with plenty of brick storefronts and some trendy looking restaurants. Across from us on the corner sat an elaborate old Victorian building that was all tall windows and elegant arches. The whole street overlooked the water with the far shore fading off into the deepening twilight. I couldn’t help but feel a little cheated by Forks yet again in comparison; maybe I just didn’t have the right sort of appreciation for its wholesome Americana.

Jasper glanced between the two of us, trying to see which of us he thought was more likely to budge. Turning in my direction he gave his every effort towards towering over me, all six plus feet of him, before he leaned down to my height and put his hand on the top of my head to add insult to to the injury of it.

He made me look directly in his face, eye to eye, “Bella, I just spent an hour in a very enclosed space with you. I’ve pushed my powers to their absolute limit to keep you happy. I’m all pent up and my reserves of self control are getting questionable; just look at my eyes. You can see it, can’t you? What do you say? Let me off my leash to go hunting for a bit?” He smiled a cocky sort of smile, the perfect facade of easygoing charm, but there was something subtly desperate about his tone.

His eyes had grown noticeably dull since this morning. They were the color of an old amber glass bottle now and about as lifeless. Experimentally I reached up and touched one of the dark circles under his eyes, running my finger across his face over to a high cheekbone and then gently smearing down the gaunt and softly contoured space below, stopping just short of the hard curve of his lips. Alice stepped in straight away with a little foam pad to fix the concealing makeup I’d smudged. It seemed that even the Cullen men had to paint on their human faces.

“Bear with it a little longer, love,” she said as she dabbed at his face, “rest assured you’ll be fine for the moment and besides, Bella isn’t the only one who needs a little reassuring right now. You can split off when we get to the clothing store, how about that?”

He seemed to find that agreeable enough but didn’t say anything. None of us wanted to be the first one to say anything, but even a trio of reticent fuckups like us probably couldn’t avoid the elephant in the room for another three hours. I couldn’t imagine any way that conversation could go that wasn’t at least some kind of heartbreaking or humiliating. Even if we could ignore it, I’m not sure I’d be happy with us just not saying anything either. The moment I was alone back at home the anxiety would eat me alive; the two of them are this picture perfect couple and I’m just me tripping into the frame like a jackass. What am I even doing here?

And like, holy shit, what kind of girl am I that I’d put out before dinner on a first date? Hypothetically speaking, since tonight is not any kind of date or date-like thing. We haven’t even talked about dinner. Do they eat? Don’t be stupid, they have to eat somehow. Or, can that even be called putting out? I mean, from Jacob’s evasive explanation of the whole bases system, I’d guess we only went to second base? But, shit, that felt like a lot fucking more than second base.

“Hey Bella, watch this!” My eyes snapped up as Alice hauled her arm back and threw a rock towards the water a block away. The stone went off like a shot and I couldn’t follow it for more than a moment before I lost it in the pooling wine-dark clouds of the evening sky. I couldn’t help it, I started laughing.

“What?” she asked, all cute indignance.

“Alice, I’m sure that was very impressive, but it’s too far away for me to see if you hit anything.”

She put her body in front of mine, doing that almost rubbing, almost contact thing where she gets so shivering close to me and then glides away effortlessly before we crash into one another. Her eyes held mine and she looked happy, “Sorry, I forget. It made a great splash though! You’ll just have to believe me.”

The owners showed up soon after and we were ushered into a little shop just up the street. It was a cozy kind of clutter, almost too good to be real, like the sort of record shop that you’d see in an indie flick, complete with a disco ball hanging from the ceiling. One of them put on the record player behind the counter and we were made to feel comfortable enough, but I still would have liked the place better under normal circumstances.

Alice knew exactly what she was getting and was more interested in guiding me around the store and having me look at things. Jasper shrugged when I tried to ask him about music and said he preferred live performances to a recording. He still bought a Tom Waits CD titled “Alice” though.

I was pressured by Alice into picking out some posters for my room. I didn’t really want anything from a group I didn’t listen to or from a local band I’d never seen, but after a bit of thought I got a Salvador Dalí print of a rose floating over a desert landscape, which reminded me of home a little bit, and a Clockwork Orange movie poster, but the image was on a black background instead of the more common white one. What can I say, I’ve got a soft spot for a bit of the old ultraviolence.

Alice had to go talk to the owners after that to set up her order for February. Apparently she bought music for herself and Edward every month. I went and found Jasper to give him the poster tubes I’d purchased and discovered him hunched over in front of a red information kiosk cycling through older music releases.

I tapped him on the shoulder, “Hey, I’m going to step outside for a moment so hold on to these for me. We didn’t call Jake when we got into town and I don’t want him worrying about me.”

He waved me off without really looking up, “Yeah, sure sure. Take your time, Alice is probably going to be a few. Just stay in sight of the front windows, alright?”

“Will do,” I said, “If I’m not back in ten minutes, uh, let my dad know what happened to me and make sure someone waters my cactus.”

He chuckled at that, and then, seemingly remembering something, he turned from the kiosk and looked over his shoulder at me, “By the way, I found some buttons with the store logo on them. I’m going to get one for Alice. I don’t know if you’d like one as well or if you’d even accept a gift from me, but I was thinking about it.” Shaggy blond hair fell across his dim eyes as he searched my face for an answer to a question he hadn’t actually asked.

He was so awkward sometimes, but God help him, he was trying. Attempting to be reassuring, I smiled and told him, “I’d like that. Sure. Why don't you buy one for me too and I'll meet you at the door.”

 

The evening outside had taken on a chill cast. I leaned on the big concrete planter by the door and made my call to Jake. He picked up right away but he was eating dinner so we kept it brief. It seemed that he had settled in by the phone for the night with a stack of comic books, so it wouldn’t be a problem that I was calling every hour. I had him give my love to Billy who was in the room and then hung up.

I’d really wanted to talk to him about what had happened in the car. He’d know what to think of it, but there was no way I could bring it up. Jake was very mature for his age; after his mom had died and his sisters had ditched out, he’d had to work hard to take care of Billy and keep things together. With the wheelchair, that was more true than ever now. Even so, he was still very young and me putting the moves on a pair of monsters would feel like a betrayal to him. Maybe it was a betrayal. The point is that he wouldn’t understand and he’s the last person in the world that I’d ever want to hurt.

Oh well. It was useless to wish things were different. Our relationship with each other had always been very easy, very direct, but I don’t know that it had ever been simple, not even when we were young. We were always too many things to each other, filling too many holes that all the missing people in our lives should have been there for. Soon. I’d find a way to tell him soon.

The downtown was really starting to empty out. There were only stores and stuff on this block and it seemed like everything had either closed an hour ago or else had started closing up when we got here. The street was a one way also so there weren’t even that many cars. On impulse I decided to call my dad too, but he still wasn’t home yet.

I left a message and told him that the three of us were in Port Townsend shopping and that we’d probably get dinner in a bit and then head home. We might be back a little after nine, but that was when we were aiming for. Had I told him before that Jasper would be with us? Would that be a problem? Yesterday was starting to feel a long way off. I told him I loved him. I know I don’t say that enough.

After I hung up the cell phone I found I didn’t really want to go back inside yet. I didn’t know what to do with the two of them and I could use the air. Was it safe to be out here? It hadn’t sounded like the threat of a cold one being in the area was all that serious, or at least that it was unlikely. How dumb would it be, I mean what are the odds of even spotting one.

Oh. How about that. The kid walking past me on the opposite side of the street was a cold one. I was sure at a glance. He was carrying some groceries and wasn’t looking my way but something about the way he moved, all liquid and grace, practically screamed predator. I wasn’t alone exactly since there was a young couple walking along at the end of the block, so it wasn’t scary noticing him per se, just odd and a little jarring.

He was my age or a little younger, with a beanie pulled down low over dark matted hair. He was wearing a green windbreaker with torn jeans. He caught me staring and smiled in my direction as he passed by. I ducked my head down, a little freaked out at being noticed. Definitely time to go back inside.

I stood up from my full body slouch against the planter and turned towards the door. I was trying to be casual and just brush this incident off as a simple bit of weirdness but something didn’t feel right. I felt like I was being watched. Is he following?

I risked a glance back over at him again. He’d stopped moving and was standing perfectly still staring right at me from across the street. I felt the first inklings of fear and I’m sure my face was giving everything away. I fumbled the cell phone to the ground and hesitated for a second almost stopping to pick it up, but instead I kept moving towards the door. I’d be inside in a second and that was more important.

My fingers were almost touching the door handle when a sharp jerking motion pulled me violently backwards. There was a hand clutching my hood and forcing me back away from the door. Something about the motion set off my vertigo and I found myself leaning forward with one hand on my knee and the other clutching out to the planter for balance. I was gasping for air. I looked up.

The young man slid into view between me and the door as easy as could be. He picked up the phone I’d dropped and held it up for me to see, “Say, miss, you dropped this.” Instead of offering it back to me I noticed him discreetly pocketing it with a casual flutter of his hands.

“That’s ok, it’s no big deal,” I heard myself saying. I forced myself to stand and tried to edge past him but he blocked me easily. Up close I could see that his clothes were very dirty and a little ragged. The cuffs of his pants were stained with mud or something and he wasn’t wearing any shoes. He’d covered the distance to me so bloody fast and I hadn’t heard a thing! I glanced around and saw his groceries abandoned on the ground a little way behind me. There was a bag of marshmallows, a case of Rainier beer, and a bundle of firewood, all dropped without a clatter.

He pulled back the beanie he was wearing and stooped to look me in the face. It was oddly reminiscent of Jasper doing the same thing earlier, except this time I was sweating bullets.

Then I saw his eyes! His eyes were shockingly red in the most vibrant shade of crimson I’d ever seen. Frightening, violent, unnatural eyes. I think I gasped aloud.

He had a polite little voice, “Excuse me for saying so, but it seemed like you recognized me there. You do seem familiar. Have we met before? Possibly in Michigan?”

“That’s my boyfriend’s phone,” I babbled, “he’s like you and he’ll be really angry if I don’t bring it back to him. He’s right inside,” I was just saying whatever came to mind while trying to think. He wasn’t threatening me yet exactly but throwing myself at the glass or screaming were quickly becoming my best options.

“Like me? We’ll see about that,” he stepped into my space and grabbed a strand of hair hanging down from my braid. He rubbed the tip of it underneath his nose and inhaled deeply. My skin crawled and I felt more than a little violated.

Up close he looked all wrong, boyishly handsome sure, but with that same dull gray hunger in his features that Alice and Jasper painted over. He looked sickly or deranged or dead and it was clear he’d been living rough. He was the skulking shade, the insidious wretch, that put the lie to all the Cullen’s pretensions of civility and humanity. Gray lips pulled back over glistening white teeth in a cruel victorious smile.

“You smell so good, definitely the sweetest flower of all,” he said letting his bloody gaze linger over me, “too bad for you that the asshole who marked you is the same pussy whose territory I’m stealing. He hasn’t been in town all month so I’m taking it! What a fucking joke.”

I threw myself towards the door, the start of a cry forming in my throat, but he caught me in midair with an arm across my abdomen that forced all the air of of my lungs in one big strangled rush. I fell hard against the planter as he shoved me back.

“Does the name Jasper Hale mean anything to you?” I gasped out. “He’s going to come after me. I know it. You better watch out, he’s fucking terrifying.” There was a sort of steely pride for me in that fact.

He looked at me with amused pity, “Sorry, not ringing any bells. Is he your ‘boyfriend’ or your mate? If I’m just poaching his prey he’s really not going to do dick about it.”

“Mate?” My confusion was evident and I knew I was well and truly fucked.

He laughed, a childish cruel sound, “That’s what I thought. You poor unlucky girl. From one sad fate to another. I wasn’t even hunting tonight, just getting ready to reel in some campers tomorrow. But I suppose I can’t have you wandering around town and scaring away all the other little fishies.”

He was holding my forearm painfully hard and the way he jerked me away from the planter made it clear he intended to drag me. I saw him winding up with his off hand to knock the wind out of me again and I quickly told him I’d go quietly. Maybe it wasn’t the best idea, but perhaps I could find an opportunity if I dragged my feet a little instead of being dragged off of them.

“You smell like berries or something, it’s sorta weird, but I like it” he sounded almost like a normal teen, lost in thought, thrilled to have someone who would listen, “my mom used to make me salads with berries and flowers in them. I liked hollyhocks, they’re dark and pretty little flowers. I’d pull them apart and eat them petal by petal. Dammit, I really miss real food.”

I can’t say his monologue was making me feel any calmer. I didn’t even have to fake it to go slowly, he’d jerked me around enough that my dizziness was making every step feel like another opportunity to lose my lunch. The only way I could keep calm and focus was by repeating in my head that someone was going to come for me. Someone would come. I wasn’t going to die like this. I wasn’t going to die.

“Where are we going? Have there been others?” I could barely talk. Need to keep it together. Keep him distracted. Come on guys, where were you.

“Just a little farther,” he said soothingly, “as for others, you mean what, like in town here? Since we decided to claim this city there have been six others.”

I realized as I stumbled across the center of the road that our intended destination was a curious awning that was sticking out of the sidewalk just across the way. I looked like the entrance to a subway, but there was no way that was what it actually was. It looked old and weathered.

“Then I am the seventh. What is that thing?”

“What that?” he smiled his condescending fucking smile and adjusted his beanie that had fallen over his eyes again. “Fascinating place, Port Townsend. Looks so nice on the surface, really beautiful city, but bad things happened here. That leads down to the tunnels below the streets. Old tunnels. The story goes that they used to shanghai drunken sailors using them, they’d wake up on boats set for every godforsaken part of the world. Lucky for you we’re not going any further than just out of sight.”

His grip loosened slightly as we stepped over the curb and I took my chances. I hit him square across his face with a hard slap and then I was off running. I didn’t make it more than a few stumbling steps before he was on top of me strangling off my cry of fear. I looked around frantically for someone to save me but the street was deserted. He dragged me the last few feet by my arms and suddenly we were there at the top of a narrow flight of metal stairs leading down into the pulsing yawning darkness beneath the city.

I struggled with all my might but he just picked me up and started to carry me down them, confident now that he wouldn’t be seen. That no rescue was coming.

I couldn’t die like this. I wasn’t going to fucking die like this. If I died I’d find some way to come back, to haunt his stupid punk ass. My thoughts flashed to Alice and her vow of revenge. At least I’d told my dad I loved him. At least I’d done that right.

We were halfway down the stairs when Jasper stepped out of the darkness at the bottom and into the intruding light from the surface above. He almost seemed to sparkle to my eyes, but then I realized he had particles of broken glass in his hair and on his clothes. I started laughing, a high pitched giggle of complete terror and relief at the same time. Jasper did a slow clap like the beautiful bastard that he was. I could kiss him right now I was so happy to see him.

“Took you long enough to get here,” he drawled, “can’t believe you let a human slow you down that much. It doesn’t bode well for you. Look, I’ll tell you upfront, the only way you’re walking away from this alive is if you kill the girl right here and now. It’s up to you. Your fate is in your hands.”

I felt my captor’s growl with my whole body and he put one hand on my crown and the other on my shoulder like he was going to rip my head off without hesitation. But he did hesitate.

I heard his polite little voice, strained with suspicion, “Why would you want me to kill her? You’re trying to trick me somehow.”

Jasper grinned, full of malevolent mirth, “I don’t care if you kill her, but that little one is keeping me busy right now. I’ll tell you, there are plenty of fates worse than death, and with all the free time I’ll have without her, I think I’ll be inclined to show you each and every one of them. For years at a time. I can be a very patient man when I want to be, and you and your mate will have earned my full consideration.”

“What do you know about my mate? Who the fuck do you think you are?”

Jasper laughed at that, a deep satisfied laugh, “I am so glad you asked. Major Jasper Whitlock at your service you worthless piece of filth, currently of the Cullen coven. If that doesn’t mean anything to you, I’m also known as El Cadejo, the black dog of Texas, despair himself.”

The boy behind me was shaking now, his hand on my head had slid off while his hand on my shoulder had tightened. I was worried he was going to drop me down the stairs.

“I’ve heard of you. Even a newborn would know who you are. I’m-” he started to say, but Jasper cut him off.

“I don’t give a damn who you are!” In the light, Jasper seemed so much more substantial than the sniveling wraith who had his arm around me. He was solid and commanding, without a hint of concern. It wasn’t even a contest who was the more menacing monster.

With precise deliberate motions Jasper unbuttoned the cuffs on his sleeves and rolled them up to his elbows. Instead of the smooth unbroken skin I’d been expecting, his arms were covered in a web of thin silver lines that just barely showed up in the dim light. I didn’t understand what that could mean at first but then I remembered the keloided scar on Alice’s shoulder and I was sure I knew the answer. It didn’t make sense, but those had to be scars. Just, there were so many.

“You’re probably thinking you could take me if you use the girl as a shield, but I promise that you can’t. It has been a very long day and you would not believe how much I just want to cut loose finally and cause some mayhem. If you come down these stairs I’m inclined to break every bone in your body. And I can. Trust me, I’m not your run of the mill animal!”

My assailant found his voice, “You’re a pussy and a chump. I got your prey from right under your nose. I took your territory and made this town mine. I’m going to hunt you and me and my mate are going to burn you, man.”

Jasper just shook his head, “No you’re not. This whole damn peninsula is our territory, all the way to the edge of Seattle. You’ll excuse me if I can’t be in every corner of my land at once. We’re a coven seven members strong. You can’t beat that. And she’s not my prey, she’s my-”

“Your what?” the kid barked. “Your worthless whore? Are you grooming her or something? Or are you just slumming it?”

Jasper shrugged, a subtle motion the rippled across his muscular frame, “Grooming her? Maybe I am. I’m not sure yet. The answer doesn’t matter really since she’s going to outlive you anyway. I’m right here and you don’t stand a chance. Let me paint you a picture while you consider your chances of running away.”

The kid continued his scared growling. I felt myself pulled backwards and I realized he’d started a slow retreat with the intention of taking me with him.

“Do you remember that feeling when you first woke up and understood what you’d become? I remember Maria attacking me at night, and then I experienced the fires of Hell and I thought I’d died. I prayed that I’d died. When I came back, when I could think, I knew that the nights would never again hold terrors for me because I’d become the thing in the darkness worth fearing. I was as good as any boogeyman and no human could dare to face me. I felt omnipotent.”

“I remember,” the small voice behind me whispered.

“Well, I quickly learned that even this life is not without its threats. My upbringing was brutal and I was forced to fight. I was made to serve. I earned every scar you see on me. I was just a little piece on a big chessboard, so I decided to upend the table itself. Many years later, standing in a junkyard in Texas as the sun broke over an impromptu battlefield, the dawn hazy with smoke and the air choked with death, I realized I’d arrived. Now I was the thing in the light that all the little boogeymen feared. So, lowly pawn, step down into the shadows with me and let’s dance. Or, cut and run if you must, but you’ll never make it with the girl in tow.”

That was it, that was the tipping point. The kid hurled me down the stairs and ran. I remember falling backwards, watching him hoof it up and back outside. I wondered in that silly detached sort of way during a major accident if perhaps I’d break my spine. Billy and I could race our wheelchairs together.

Then two things happened at once. Jasper caught me, since he’d been running up to meet me from very first moment. And Alice jumped down off the metal roof of the enclosure over the stairs and brained the fleeing cold one in the back of the head with a large chunk of concrete.

Jasper took my pain and rage and fear and shame way. Jasper took everything away. It was like the whole world just flattened out till I was watching it from just beyond myself through a numb piece of glass. In other circumstance it would have probably scared the crap out of me but I didn’t have an ounce of fight left in me. I didn’t want to be.

Jasper clutched me close to his chest, “I’ve got you darlin’, everything’s going to be ok. I got you Bella. Alice is going to bash that fucker’s head in and then we’re going to drag him down here and have a talk with him.”

Without a word, without any emotion other than careful concentration, I watched Alice bring the cement chunk down repeatedly in front of her. Then she grabbed the ankles and pulled the body the other way around so the head was hanging off the edge of the first step. With the way the beanie was sagging I could see the indentation that she’d crushed into his skull. There should have been so much blood but I couldn’t see a drop, not that I could feel any fear right now anyway.

“La belle dame sans merci,” Jasper said in my ear, “my beautiful lady without mercy, Alice is maybe the one individual who could ever scare me, which is part of why I’m so happy and proud that she’s mine. Plus with her power she’s an unbelievable pain in the ass to face in a fight.”

Alice did a little impromptu two-step, her heels clicking in the quiet night, the end of the measure punctuated by a kick to the back of the kid’s neck, replete with a squishy snapping sound. She kicked the limp body rudely down the stairs and it hung there about halfway down, wedged in unnaturally between the tight walls.

“She’s killing him,” I said, surprised. I wasn’t especially concerned by it.

Jasper carried me down the last few steps with soft deliberate steps, trying not to jostle me, “He’ll be up again in a second. I’m not sure how much Alice told you, but we don’t rightly have much in the way of vital organs. Destroying the brain and severing the spine should be enough to disorient him though.”

It was true. I saw the kid’s fingers twitch on one hand and then clutch the edge of the stair in front of him. He started pushing, trying to find traction, but something was broken in the wrong way and he couldn’t lift himself up.

I watched in fascination as Alice danced down the stairs, sashaying to music no one but she could hear, and then she did a series of three form-perfect ballet pirouettes; her hands made a circle at breast level and her raised leg swung around gracefully as she spun. She dropped down a step with each rotation. When she got to the body she transitions smoothly into stomping on the shoulder bone with all her weight until I heard it shatter and then body began to move again. She grabbed the boy’s other arm and wrenched it up towards her. She looked so happy and beautiful, like one of her drawings.

“In one piece, Alice,” Jasper barked, quickly realizing her intent, “please dearest, remember that Bella’s watching. I’m doing my best to limit her trauma here, but there are still some things it’s unwise for her to see.”

“You looked really cool there Jazz,” I watched myself saying, “I thought you were going to fight him. Would have liked to see that. Thanks for not letting me die, though I didn’t like you telling him to kill me I guess.” The world was so far away and even my voice sounded alien to me.

He put me down on my feet in the tunnel but hugged me from behind so I wasn’t really supporting my own weight yet.

“Just a simple bit of reverse psychology backed up with a hard blast of paranoia and fear. I’m sorry it took so long to rescue you, but we needed him cornered so he’d drop you. You can thank Alice for all of it, this was her plan. She knew right where he was going as soon as he picked up her phone.”

He laughed with relief as he buried his face in the hollow of my neck, planting a subtle little kiss to the side of my throat before he spoke again, “You know, I had to jump through a window and race through the building above us to make it down and around. You certainly don’t make saving you easy, but I made it in time. I made it, I’ve got you.”

Alice threw the body down in the center of the floor and stomped on the spine once for good measure. I pushed my way out of Jasper’s arms and ran over to the crushed mess of a boy. Before emotions could return to cripple me I grabbed the cell phone out of his jacket pocket and spat full on in his face. Saliva dripped down his cheek and he jerked back to life with a strangled cry of rage but Alice was there to swoop me up in her arms and carry me backwards into the tunnel. I hugged her neck and held on to her with all my strength.

“You want to see Jazz fight, huh?” she said admiringly. “Good choice, he’s amazing to watch. You’re in for a treat! That even gives me time to plan an ending too.” Alice sounded bright, chipper and unconcerned. So truly and totally Alice, which was weirdly enough very reassuring.

“I think I nearly died,” I told her matter-of-factly. It still wasn’t registering exactly but just, fuck.

“Not even close,” she giggled and rubbed her cheek against mine, “not while I’m still around. If the grim reaper shows up to claim you I’ll bash his head in too! Just you watch!”

Jasper, who stood blocking the stairs, signaled for our everyone’s attention by kicking the ribs of the downed youth, who grunted in pain, “Listen up. First lesson: don’t ever get pinned down between a pair of mates. Tactically it’s suicide and they’ll each work harder to save each other than they would to protect themselves. If you can’t tell if your opponent is alone or not, assume they have someone waiting in ambush.”

The kid pushed himself up and stretched out before us on all fours, snarling. I could hear the vertebrae of his spine popping back into place as he stretched, as if an invisible hand were mending what had been broken.

Jasper casually hooked his foot around one of the kid’s arms and sent him crashing back to earth, “Lesson two: never talk before a fight without a damn good reason. Never threaten what you aren’t willing to do. Negotiating is fine. Crushing their resolve is fine, though that’s usually ineffective for people who aren’t me. If you’re not doing something goal oriented by talking then you’re getting played, you’re getting stalled, or you’re get set up. If you find yourself monologuing about your upcoming battle plan, just shut up and punch them already.”

The kid stood up with a roar of anger, “I don’t need your lessons you pompous piece of shit. Stop yapping and fight me like a man. No interference from those bitches this time either.”

Jasper just smirked, and if I were that kid I’d have punched him, which was kind of Jasper’s point. “Why would you presume that I’m talking to you? That’s almost humorous. This lesson is for Bella, the human girl. You’re just the practice dummy. But, as you said, you and me, one on one, as soon as you’re fully healed. Ready yet?”

The kid pulled the beanie out of his eyes again and raised his fists. The hat was sitting normally on his head now. Somehow he’d recovered from having his brains bashed in. It didn’t make any goddamn sense to me. Shouldn’t he be a drooling vegetable after what Alice had done? In one sense the answer was magic I guessed, but I couldn’t figure out how the trick was being played.

“Yeah, I’m ready to-”

Jasper came at him hard with a sucker punch after the first word, knocking the rest of the sentence out of him. He followed it up with a left hook across the face that left the kid reeling. The blows were sharp and precise, all execution, no show.

“Lesson three:” Jasper started as the kid lunged at him with snarling snapping jaws, “fight to win. Don’t look for honor on the battle field. Take glory in victory, not in fighting itself. Fighting is a base, dirty thing and there’s no honor in killing or dying.”

Jasper was grappled and it looked like the boy was going to bite a chunk out of his arm or something but Jazz kicked out his knee so his leg bent sideways and he twisted to the side the wrong way. I didn’t like the way the boy’s mouth opened so wide, there was something unsettling about it, something that looked wrong. He’s got the head and it’s as fierce as wolf and a mouth as large as a…

Jasper stooped down and ran his hand along the base of the wall and when the kid turned back to face him again he peppered him in his beady black eyes with a handful of dirt and grit. The boy fell back snarling and reeling.

“There’s no such thing as fighting dirty,” Alice explained, mimicking Jasper’s cadence perfectly, “there is fighting and then there is fighting and it don’t make no difference how you do it. The less you assume about an enemy, the more ready you can be for whatever they have to dish out.”

Jasper wasn’t saying that part because he was too busy pummeling the kid in the chest with a series of body shots that reverberated in the enclosed dimness of our little hallway. The boy was stumbling a little, not having expected the frenetic pace that Jasper was setting. The kid threw a few stray punches, some of which connected as glancing blows to Jasper’s face, but he was wildly outmatched.

“This is a handicap match since that guy is trying to kill him while Jazz is just trying to pulverize his heart,” Alice helpfully explained, “the heart is kind of how we can heal so fast in a round about way. Like, if our body were a computer, the heart would be the Zip disk were all the important stuff is backed up to restore it. If you wreck that, then it needs to be put back together first before the rest of everything can be fixed.”

Jasper turned towards us in irritation, “Please don’t tell Bella that kind of thing. It’s bad enough what she knows already.” The kid went for a lunge with the opening he thought he had, only for Jasper to duck the attack and throw him down onto the concrete in front of us.

Jasper was on him in a moment with another hard right-left-right to the boy’s chest from above. Seemingly satisfied with this he grabbed his opponent’s arms when the kid reached up to try and stop him. I could hear his joints popping as Jasper twisted the kid’s wrists with his hands, grinding the small delicate bones to pieces. Jasper had a sadistic look of concentration on his face as he brought his strength to bear.

It was only a few moments work before the boy’s hands were grossly misshapen, hanging uselessly in Jasper’s grip while the pinned monster whined with fear and pain. That was enough for me. No matter how glamorous Jasper looked doing it, or how much rage I had pent up, it was just too cruel, too unrelenting.

I imagined the kind of internal injuries those crushed hands would suffer, blood pooling in damaged tissue, the whole thing turning a mottled purple and red. I was losing it. Alice took a few big steps back, with me in tow, meanwhile I was starting to hyperventilate hard.

I was vaguely aware of Alice trying to ask me what was wrong. She set me down on my feet and propped me up against a wall, her body pressed against mine, physically shielding me from the world.

For my part I did my best to gasp out what I was thinking. I felt the world contracting at the edges, a prelude to me passing the fuck out. “Blood, it’s the blood thing again. Just, lookin’ at his hands, at his injuries, and I keep imagining… and,” I sputtered out, not sure how to described how those mangled pieces of flesh set me on the precipice of completely losing my already tenuous shit.

I heard Jasper let out a ragged sigh of frustration, “Alice briefed me back in Forks while you were trying things on. I’m sorry. I though it would be fine if I didn’t break the skin.” That disconnect was jarring to me; his honest concern for me juxtaposed with his callous disregard for the harm he was currently inflicting on a member of his own species.

Alice was more direct. She snapped her fingers a few times in front of my face to get me to focus and then presented me the front of her wrist to inspect. I didn’t get it. She has pretty little limbs, flawless and well made, but that was something I already knew.

“No veins, Bella,” she said at my confusion, “look at my wrist, it’s perfectly smooth. Think back to the bathroom. How did my skin look then?” From over near the stairs I heard a growl of pure irritation from Jasper that she was telling me this, followed by the dull thudding of more blows against his victim’s body.

She was right, there was no blue web of veins lying under her wrist, just pure bleached skin. No veins meant no blood. I hadn’t seen any blood during the fight, and really by this point I should have. I closed my eyes and forced myself to breathe slower, to focus on being calm, to focus on Alice’s weight and the push of her against my body as she kept me safe.

By the time I managed to calm myself enough to open my eyes again it was all over. Jasper stood in the dim light of the corridor like a conquering demon prince with his foot over the boy’s neck. Alice guided me forward with her arm around my waist. I looked over at her pretty face and she grinned reassuringly.

Jasper smiled at me pleasantly as he ground his boot down, “I’d say he fought pretty well considering he’s little more than a newborn. What’s your judgment Bella, thumbs up or thumbs down?”

I was disgusted by the whole thing, tired beyond words, and liable to start crying at any moment. I didn’t want this. I didn’t want this sort of choice. I’d nearly been murdered by a monster. I would have been the seventh. I couldn’t let him walk away but I also couldn’t do this. I almost wished Jasper would manipulate me, find that anger I’d had a minute ago and help to turn my thumb down for me.

Alice came to my rescue, she slipped her icy hand under my hoodie and drew a bright clear line up my back with her thumb, repeating it a few times so her point was clear. Up, up up! Just like she’d said, she was writing the ending to this little fiasco.

I gave Jazz a thumbs up and he nodded tersely.

“You see that? The human has asked me to spare you. That’s why their kind rules the planet and we’re no better than wild dogs. I want you gone. After what we’ve put you through your hands are going to take a half hour to heal at least. You have twenty minutes. You and your mate are getting on the next ferry and you’re not going to stop to feed until you’re across the bay and out of my territory. You’re as weak as a kitten and totally defenseless right now, so don’t even think of double crossing me.”

That was that. As soon as he lifted up his boot the kid scrambled to his feet and ran up the steps without so much as a smart remark.

I sagged in Alice’s grip, “Hey guys, I think I wanna go home now. Is that alright?”

Alice just hugged me to her possessively, reaffirming to herself that I was still here, “Of course dear, we can go right now.”

Jasper stepped up next to her and she turned her head towards him to meet him in a kiss. His hip pressed against mine as he leaned down to catch her lips and for a moment all three of us were pressed very close. I was caught between a pair of mates, just like Jasper had warned me against, but somehow that seemed like the least dangerous part of this whole bloody mess.

“Say, love,” he began after withdrawing, “I know it’s a pain, but do you mind swinging back to get me after you drop Bella off? I’m not really in the mood to run back to Forks tonight if it can be helped.”

Alice was quick with her cheery assent but I was dismayed, “Wait, you aren’t coming with us? Jasper, Jasper, what do you mean?”

He shook his head firmly, “I can’t. I have to go follow that scum bag and make sure we won't see him anymore. It’s my fault he got anywhere near you, so it’s my responsibility to see this through.”

Alice carried me up that narrow flight of stairs, up out of the underworld and back to the air and the evening. Very carefully she set me down. I sucked in a big lungful of the cool salty air and my hungry eyes took in the last bitter dregs of the evening dying in the sky. I hadn’t thought I’d see the sky again. It felt so fucking good to be alive.

“Come on, let’s go,” she said gently, and then as if she was reciting something she continued in a lilting voice, “Dear, you should not stay so late / Twilight is not good for maidens.”

“What’s that?” I asked.

She giggled sweetly, “Just something that popped into my head right now watching you. It’s from Goblin Market, a poem about being saved. As my reward for vanquishing that slithering scoundrel of a serpent with my stolen stone sword, I get to watch you read that poem someday. I’m positive you’ll turn the most delightful colors.”

I sagged on my feet and she caught my elbow, supporting me. “Oh come on Alice, you’re wrecking the whole metaphor thing we’ve got going on,” I told her, only a tiny bit serious, “I thought you were supposed to be the snake.”

She flicked her tongue out at me in a rasping raspberry, “I lied just now about being the hero. Of course I’m the snake!”

Once I had my feet again Alice broke off to go bring the car around while Jasper courteously walked me back across the street to the record store. They were playing it very safe with me until they were sure the danger was over. My poster tubes were leaning against the locked door of the darkened shop. Next to them was a cardboard box holding whatever Alice had purchased. We loaded them into the car and then I threw the bag of marshmallows and the case of beer from the sidewalk in the back seat too for good measure.

“You come get us at Goodwill when you’re done,” I told Jasper, “you hear me, I’m counting on you.”

He slipped off into the night without a word, moving silently in lean long strides like an otherworldly shadow.

I got in the passenger seat and Alice took my hand. She didn’t ask me anything; she already knew where I was going to tell her to go. She kissed the back of my knuckles and I ran my thumb over her veinless wrist. I looked out at the empty sidewalk in front of Quimper Sound. I wished we could have come here during the day. I wished that Alice and Jasper could just be human, that things could make sense. I wished I could ignore the things I was starting to suspect.

 

Shopping with Alice was trying. She didn’t get hungry or thirsty. She didn’t need to take breaks, or go to the bathroom, or sit down. Her feet didn’t hurt and she hadn’t almost been murdered a few minutes ago. What was worse was that we had time to kill. I had all this endless time I had to make it through, but she assured me that Jazz would probably only be about forty minutes tops.

The winter coat was the easy part. She went right to it and it looked nearly the same as the one we’d seen in Forks. It was another long down coat, though this one was a cheerful capri blue color and it was made by Land’s End instead of Calvin Klein. It was also about thirty dollars, which was maybe even a little cheaper than I’d have been willing to go.

Alice also found a petite looking leather biker jacket that she wanted me to try on. Leather wasn’t really my thing, but whatever. My abdomen was starting to feel pretty sore so I used the opportunity to duck into a changing room and strip down to my bra. I wasn’t totally surprised to find bloody purple bruises littering my arms, standing out in stark contrast against my pale flesh. There was another larger darker bruise that was just barely visible beneath the edge of my bra cup. It was all a bit concerning to say the least.

I called over the top of the flimsy partition, “Hey, Alice, your dad is a doctor right? Can you come in here a second and maybe make sure I’m not dying or anything.”

She crowded into the booth with me and wasted no time in having me take my skirt off too. I was standing there in my fanciest black panties and an everyday gray bra in a dingy Goodwill changing stall while she looked me over for internal bleeding. My sense of modesty with Alice was more or less shot and I was even starting to get used to her icy hands touching me in sensitive places.

“Don’t scare me like that,” she muttered after she’d got a good look at me.

Together we determined that of the new bruises I had, the ones on my left breast and my right inner thigh were Jasper’s fault and he needed to be way more careful with me. The large bruises on my forearms and shoulder were from where I’d been grabbed by my assailant, and there was another one on my upper arm that I don’t remember getting, but then again I had been thrown around a bit. Truth be told I looked a bit of a mess.

I thought I was going to cry until Alice wrapped me up in a hug, “As far as terrible luck goes, you’re very fortunate. You’re going to be fine. Look at me, I know you can keep it together until Jasper gets back, so just stay strong for me Bella.”

She was so concerned for me. To distract myself I put on the leather jacket over my bra and modeled it for her. I didn’t really think much of it, the jacket was cool I guess, but I wouldn’t have picked it.

I felt my tears dial back to merely being imminent and eventually unavoidable rather than being completely and totally urgent. I sniffled, “Was I always going to keep it together here, or is it just because you told me that it’s possible?”

“That’s the trick, isn’t it? What if I told you that the jacket you’re wearing is going to become one of your favorites, that you’ll wear it all the time.”

I shrugged, “I don’t think that’s likely, but I guess anything is possible.”

She smiled enigmatically, “You’re going to love that jacket. It’ll grow on you because I was the one who gave it to you.”

“If you say so. I mean, if that’s true I guess then I’m fine with it.”

“Bella, look at yourself in the mirror. You look like such an unbelievable badass right now. The jacket fits you perfectly, and I already told you I like the open shirt over a bra look. You’ve got Jasper’s mark showing on your breast, right over your heart, and basically the whole look is incredibly sexy. I think you look super hot in that jacket, so, that’s why. A moment ago I told you what was going to happen and now you know the reason for it after the fact. If the outcome is one you wanted anyway, is that really such a bad way to do things?”

I felt my face heat up and I realized I was in a very tight stall with a very pretty girl who had her hands on my hips. I politely pushed her out of the door so I could get dressed again. Jasper could not get back soon enough. I needed him here to protect his girlfriend from me. How was I going to last another half hour without dwelling on death or Alice?

Luckily enough for her her chastity and my sanity, I remembered that I still needed a present for Jake. Alice was waiting for me, and, as much as she was wearing me out, I didn’t want to be separated again tonight. She was happy enough to help me find decorative bric-a-brac for Jake’s garage, though she was moving way too fast compared to how tired I was and I had trouble choosing between the top few contenders once we narrowed it down. Not being able to pick between a couple of attractive options, well now, wasn’t that just my night.

We ended up in the video section just bumming around and killing time until either Jasper showed up or the store closed. I’d had to ask Alice to back off for a bit, to just look around near me and keep herself entertained, and she was being mostly good about it.

“What about that one,” she asked, pointing to a beat up looking VHS in a hard plastic case that was wedged between a copy of Alien: Resurrection and two copies of Jerry Maguire.

I picked it up and was surprised to realize it was a movie I was very familiar with. Of course, with Alice I really shouldn’t have been surprised.

“Oh, this is an oldie. Cat People, black and white, made in 1942 I think. As movies go it’s probably in my top ten.”

“Yeah, so what’s it about?” She seemed interested.

I handed her the case so she could take a look, “Do you care about spoilers? The movie is weirdly kind of relevant to you.”

She just snorted, “Spoilers really don’t make a difference for me. I find that I enjoy myself just the same either way. I knew you’d get excited and talk about it if I pointed it out, so that’s why I did.”

“Okay, so the movie is about this young couple who fall in love and get married and everything is perfect except the wife is terrified of having sex for the first time. She won’t even kiss her husband. She’s scared that deep down inside she’s really a cat person and that she can never be normal or have a normal relationship with a man. It’s not something that she asked for or that she can control, it’s just an unhappy accident of her birth.”

Alice looked at me quizzically, amusement sparkling in her eyes, “Alright, so, is this supposed to be relevant for me or for you?”

“Stuff it, you. So anyway, she’s scared that if she gets horny or angry or jealous that she’ll lose control and turn into an animal. That she’ll lash out and kill someone. Sound familiar? Oh, and animals hate her too, just like you. But she loves her husband and doesn’t want to hurt him. Meanwhile, with his marriage falling apart, the husband begins to get close to a woman from his office who is the all American girl next door type. Her name is Alice by the way.”

“Of course it is,” she laughed, “too many Alices is my cross to bear.”

“So the wife starts stalking Alice. She is fascinated by her and envies her. She just can’t leave her alone. There’s this great scene where she corners her in a swimming pool and Alice goes to get out but the wife blocks the ladder and Alice shrinks backwards in the water in fear. It’s fantastic! I always told myself if I ever met a cat person that I wouldn’t shrink back.”

Alice, my Alice, was enraptured, “And you didn’t, you really didn’t. So how does it end. How do the three of them work it out?”

“Work it out? They don’t. She kills a bystander, a man who kisses her, but she ultimately spares her husband and Alice. Not wanting to live her life as a monster she goes to the zoo and frees the panther that’s there, so at least one them can escape their cages. In its fear it kills her, which is probably what she wanted. Then the movie ends.”

“Oh,” her face fell and she looked like she wanted to say something but she couldn’t find the words. I took the movie case back from her and put it in the pile of things I was buying.

 

We were the last customers in the store. It was already seven and I was starting to get anxious. I was starving and so ungodly tired. Alice was paying for my new leather jacket and some other clothes she’d picked out, clothes, I might add, that I was praying were not also secretly meant for me.

I saw Jasper come in and a staff member tried to stop him but he just pointed over at us and lied that he was our ride. I was so happy to see him, stupid suspenders and all! I rushed over and practically collided with his shoulder as I threw my arms around him. He put his hand on the small of my back and pulled me close. He looked about as tired as I felt. Up close he reeked of the wintry smell of campfire.

I pulled back and gave him a look, “You smell all wrong. How did it go?”

“Sorry,” he said, “they were posing as campers with a tent and a fire pit. I had to go in there and force them out. Bottom line is that I got them onto the ferry and they should be crossing the river right now, so you can relax. They’re ones you won’t be seeing anymore.”

I saw Alice coming our way and made room for her. She leapt up and wrapped around him in a hug, and for his part he spun her around like a kid. When he set her down again she made him lean down and she inspected his upper arm where his shirt had a bit of a rip in it.

“Looks like one of them tagged you. Everything go fine?”

He nodded, “It was just a little nip. The girl got the jump on me going into the woods but it wasn’t a problem. It’ll be a pretty faint scar.”

“Can I see?” I leaned in and pulled the cloth aside. Neither of them stopped me. I was expecting a scratch of some kind, but the wound was just another broad semi-circle like all of his scars, only this one was almost black in color instead of silver and it hadn’t raised up yet at all.

He pulled away once I’d had a good look. “Come on, let’s get you home,” he said.

Alice grabbed my arm and we made our way out to the car. I told them we should call Jacob one last time before we left town. Considering that I’d nearly bit it tonight, his anxious insistence that I check in seemed almost prudent in hindsight.

Alice and I settled in together in the back seats and Jasper started the car to get the heat going. There was ringing and then someone picked up.

“Hey Jake,” I said, hoping my weariness wasn’t apparent in my voice.

“Hi Bells. Good timing, I just sat down again. How’s your weird date thing going?”

I froze. Oh man, what do you say to that? I glanced between Alice and Jasper hoping that one of them had a snappy comeback, but they looked as uncomfortable with the question as I was. The silence was booming. Alice looked caught somewhere between hope and panic, while Jasper looked like a shamefaced dog that had been caught standing on the table. The silence stretched on and on until the silence itself was a way of confirming everything.

For his part Jake sounded incredulous, moving steadily towards horrified, “Oh Jesus, Bella, that was supposed to be a joke. Please tell me you aren’t actually on a date. How would that even work with the three of you?”

I turned a set of pleading eyes towards Jasper to save me but he was having none of it, “Don’t look at me Isabella, I’m just the chaperon and chauffeur here. Sorry if I couldn’t read the mood. If you and Alice want this to be a date I’m not going to get in the way again.”

“I’m not a fucking lesbian,” I snapped, “so obviously that isn’t what’s happening. I didn’t mean for this to be a date of any kind but that’s how you’re both taking it I guess so I’m really not sure what to say about all of this.”

Alice sighed and addressed Jake, “Tonight has been a little rough. We’re, uh, working out the kinks still. Oh, Bella! I didn’t mean it like that. Look, um, maybe we should call again you later?”

Jasper cut in, “Tell your dad there was a pair of cold ones in Port Townsend but we took care of it. Bella’s a little shook up from it but unharmed. They must have arrived just after our visit last month and they got six people since then, mostly campers and hikers. I doubt any of the bodies will turn up, but I figured I’d mention it. Tell him we upheld our part of the treaty, just like we’re sworn to.”

“Oh sure, bring up cold ones right now” I snapped, “that’ll make things less awkward!”

“I can’t believe you’d put Bella in danger!” Jake started. “How could you–”

“We didn’t!” Alice objected. “It was just a random thing that was totally impossible to see coming. We feed every eight to ten days, so he shouldn’t even have been in town tonight if he already fed a week ago. We had a few minutes warning at most that he was around before she bumped into him. It was just bad luck, you’ve got to believe us.”

“Jacob, I’m fine,” I told him, meaning it, “I’m just tired, stressed out, and starting to get cranky because I’m hungry. Alice and Jasper are taking good care of me and I want to be here with them. Today has been less than great in some ways, more shitty drama than I’d normally put up with, and after we hang up here we’re probably all going to need to say some shit that none of us wants to cop to, but the main thing is that I feel comfortable with them. When have I ever said that about anyone new I’ve ever met before?”

Jake sounded very young and very hurt, “I don’t like it.”

“I know you don’t. Jacob, you are my best friend in the whole world and I love you and I promise I’m not going anywhere. I’m still going to hang out with you all day Saturday. I realize that this whole situation is fucked up, and that probably I’m a little fucked up too, and that Jasper and Alice aren’t very good people, but I like them anyway. They’re amazing and terrible and I want to find out what this is. Can you live with that?”

Alice squeezed my hand supportively while we waited for Jake’s response. Even Jasper had the good sense to not fucking butt in for once.

Finally Jake answered me. His voices hitched as he spoke but he kept his tone steady, “You know what? This sucks. Why them? Obviously I haven’t met ‘em, but from what I do know I think they’re disgusting and I can’t imagine how you could be attracted to someone like that. It’s gross and weird. They’re dangerous. I think you’re being stupid and selfish and making stupid mistakes.”

“Is that a yes, Jake?”

“As long as they’re actually good to you. Like for real. You hear that assholes? Treat Bella like the world or else you’re going to have me hounding your every step. She’s my best friend and she doesn’t deserve any less than that. I’m going to be watching out for her, so don’t you ever, ever hurt her.”

“Thank you,” I whispered, feeling like I could breathe again.

“Whatever, I’m out,” he said as gruffly as he could, “call me in an hour so know you’re still alive.”

He hung up without waiting for a goodbye and that silence from a moment ago surged back to flood the cab of the car. The three of us were drowning in silence. Alice’s hand sat cold and hard entwined with mine. Jasper leaned forward and rested his forehead on the steering wheel. I felt a little trapped sitting in this car. I hadn’t meant to say everything that I was feeling, just, it always kind of all came out with Jake. He made me brave, and now that he was gone my bravery was crumbling.

So softly my voice barely made ripples in the silence I said, “I just put everything on the line with Jake, so please. This, us, this is something, right? The three of us, I’m not just imagining it?”

At my words Alice dropped my hand and put her index finger up. She was gone, lost in visions I guess. Fucking great.

Jasper sighed. He sounded like despair itself, “You’re right, this isn’t nothing. But still, I wish you hadn’t done that. You might find this hard to believe, but I really don’t know where to go from here. The cold logical side is telling me I should get rid of you.”

“What, like you got rid of that kid and his mate?

He sounded perplexed, that fucking faker, “You mean send you across the bay to Coupeville? No, not exactly. Look, do you like living in Forks?”

I kept my voice flat, “No. Not really.”

“Then, before something bad happens, I should send you someplace you’ll actually be happy. I tried to say it gently this morning with all that crap about Lamia, but I’ll be blunt now: you know too much and something has to give somewhere. I should get you a scholarship and send you to a boarding school somewhere. Any school of your choice, no expense spared. Your dad says you two aren’t close so no loss there, and you’ll have a chance at top notch education preparing you for college. You’ll meet human kids your same age and forget about us. You’ll fall in love for the first time with someone, boy or a girl, it doesn’t matter, and your first time having sex will be fumbling and new for both of you. Your life will go on and we’ll disappear from it.”

“Why do you think that’s what I want? All day I’ve been telling you in different ways what I want and it’s not any of that. I’m not leaving Forks.”

He looked back at me, trapped, helpless, black eyes pleading, “We’ll leave then. We’re used to packing up and moving on. We were going to do it anyway after graduation, but doing it now is fine. It’ll be better for Edward that way anyway, not having to be around you. It’s the only responsible thing to do to keep you safe.”

I held his eyes in mine, “You’re not going anywhere either. You’d leave town just because I got a little too close and it scared you? I’m scared as shit, but here we are anyway. I’ve given you every trust so far, more than you deserve really, so can you please trust me for a couple of minutes. Jasper, just talk to me, what are you running away from?”

He smiled weakly and then turned back to the steering wheel and rested his head again. “I’d rather you remembered me halfway fondly as an asshole who abandoned you, instead of you ever finding out the truth about us. You’re special to me Bella, I think I can safely say that, and I don’t ever want you to be afraid of me. I don't want to see a look of pure disgust on your face when you learn what a miserable hole of a person I’ve been. I didn’t mean for things to turn out like this.”

I glanced over at Alice and she was still serene and unreachable, a mere statue of my friend. How irksome. I held my hand over her nose and found she wasn’t even breathing. Goddamn monsters. Turning back to Jasper I reached out over the seat and put my hand on the back of his neck, “Where did you think this all was going when you invited me to cut school with you?”

He laughed, “I was aiming for amiable, if you can believe that. I wanted to see what Alice sees in you. I guess I do now.”

I had to laugh too, a good gallows laugh between us, “I hate to say it, but you overshot amiable by a long ways. Come on, is it really that bad?”

He let out a ragged sigh. If he could still cry, I wonder if he’d be tearing up right now. “It’s that bad and worse, darlin’. You heard what I said in the tunnel. You saw me fight. You saw me keep fighting when I could have stopped. In my lifetime I’ve wronged my own kind, I’ve wronged humanity, and I’ve wronged you personally in ways that you’re not yet aware of. I was fine keeping you in the dark when you were just going to be Alice’s friend, but now it just seems unconscionable. I’m damned if I do and damned if I don’t, you see that right, so there’s not much point in getting your hopes up. Either you leave now, or I tell you everything and then you leave anyway but you also hate me too.”

I was getting irritated now, “You really think I have no idea still? Do you think I’m stupid or something? I know plenty more than you think. Jazz, I watch a lot of monster movies. The terrible things that you imagine are lurking in the dark are almost always worse than what they actually show you, so can you start small and just tell me something? Please just trust me a little?”

He just shook his head silently, petrified.

I was venting now, almost ready to just say fuck it and walk out into the night, “I don’t know what the stakes are here. I don’t know what you’re thinking. I don’t know what you won’t tell me. I don’t even fucking know why you bothered touching me if this is how it’s going to be. Is this just a game that got out of hand? Am I some kind of plaything for the two of you to bat back and forth between each other? Is that really what I am?”

“No one’s toying with you, Bella.” It was Alice’s voice. I looked over and she was back, staring at me very intently with her big black eyes.

She surged forward wrapping me up in her arms and pressing me against the car door. She was very heavy and icy cold and sinfully soft. She fit against me perfectly and held me as tight as she dared, her crimson painted lips pressed to my neck below my ear.

“The stake are very high,” she continued, purring into my neck, “because I’m going to love you someday. I can see the future, in visions, and I just checked every way I could think to check. Every which way this thing goes down I’m going to love you. If you stay, if you go, if you die, if you hate me, any way at all, at this point it’s impossible for me not to end up loving you.”

I was… I was floored. I thought of the drawing she’d shown me where we were sitting side by side with our arms around each other and our heads leaning together and I knew it was true. That was what love looked like for us, and she’d had that vision from the very start.

“Do you love me now,” I asked her very simply.

She giggled into my ear, “Why Bella, we only just met! I hardly even know you yet. But I like you immensely a lot so far, and I will love you, sooner or later, no worries about that.”

It was sort of like my whole world re-oriented itself. So many of my interactions thus far with Alice, as well as Jasper’s anxieties about the two of us, made sense finally. Everything going backwards was bathed in a new light. I should have been more surprised, shocked even, but in it way it was the only thing that made sense. I’d remembered about the drawing. I’d been paying attention to her and the things she showed me, about how she felt and about what she wanted. Of course she was looking to fall in love.

“When you say love,” I started hesitantly, “do you mean that in the romantic sense?”

She kissed my neck. Her kiss was like Jasper’s but softer, more feathery and delicate. That was the first time she’d ever done that there. I wonder if she was even aware of what she was doing.

“That’s for us to decide,” she said, “I thought we were going to be best friends, like sisters, but it doesn’t have to be that way. I liked that idea at first because it seemed easiest, especially since I don’t get to keep you. But we could end up as lovers if you wish, if you come around to wanting that, or you could be my cherished nemesis, or something could happen with all three of us. That last one really wasn’t a likely thing outcome-wise before today so I’m about as caught off guard by it as Jasper is, though I’ll admit it does have a certain elegance to it and the chemistry is right. Then again, I just got finished per-emptively taking you away from Edward, so I’m not overly keen on sharing you.

“As for the nature of it, honestly I don’t know if the form our relationship takes will really change how I’ll love you. Most likely it’s the same impulse from my side of things no matter what, just channeled into whatever context seems most appropriate. I know I’m rambling, but I guess I wanted to reassure you that knowing the future doesn’t mean you have no choices left. My talent is all about having choices.”

“Back up a bit, what do you mean you don’t get to keep me?”

She nuzzled my neck a little, “I mean that we have to leave after graduation and you have to go to college. This was always going to be a limited time thing, which is why I’m nervous about crossing certain lines. Like, I’d be a pretty terrible person if I let love be a justification for messing up your whole future. If you stick around us too long you’ll either end up dying or turning into a monster yourself, but I figure I can be greedy and take two years of your life as long as I keep the risks in check.”

“When you say turn into a monster, you mean becoming a cold one, right?”

She smirked, “Possibly. More like you’d be hard pressed to hold onto your innocence. Think of that old Roman game we played in the tunnel tonight, thumbs up or thumbs down, only at some point we’re playing for real and I’m not rigging the outcomes. Bella, love shouldn’t cost an arm and a leg.”

From the front Jasper snarked, “Well that, and we tend to commit a bunch of felonies. If we were humans, the mafia would tell us to stop stealing their schtick. For example. driving up here was a gross misdemeanor at the speeds we were going and I have some fake IDs in my pocket if we need to up those stakes. Hope that doesn’t bother you, miss police man’s daughter.” Whatever, Jasper could fucking suck it right now.

I eased her off of me and sat facing her. I wanted to be touching her somehow but I didn’t know exactly what to do. “I just moved fifteen hundred miles to live here. I’ll consider myself warned, but neither of you are going to scare me off with the threat of needing to make big life decisions.”

She sighed, her elfin face in a pretty pout, “I sort of want to just tell you everything and let the chips fall where they may. That’s one of the problems with seeing the future, sometimes you just want to do the thing you really want to do anyway and not see how it’ll turn out first. What do you say Jazz, can I just tell her?”

“Absolutely not,” he growled, “you talk about not wrecking her life one moment, then you turn around and want to get the destruction done and over with. Every indiscreet word from your pretty pair of lips steals her human life away as surely as if you were killing her yourself.”

He turned himself around awkwardly in the driver’s seat and once again I wanted to be out of this car and someplace we could actually talk, “So, Bella, it’s like this, we’ve got a governing body called the Šafaq Sariyya, or in English, the Dusk Company. They’re a non-governmental organization based out of the middle east, with a particular interest in Iraq. On paper they’re a humanitarian and archaeological group, but in reality they are invested in the history and preservation of our race. I’ll spare you the details, but their one big rule, punishable by death, is don’t let the humans know what we are.”

“There is plenty of wiggle room though,” Alice whispered, “we can always make a human into a cold one instead of simply killing them, provided we do it in a reasonable time frame. Basically one way or another we just need to stop their heart,” she giggled

“As I was saying,” Jasper continued, “the one thing they will not tolerate is one of us telling a human our secrets and then letting them go. If a human already knows and we fail to act but no harm is done, that at least is a judgment call for Sulpicia and the other two, but willful disobedience is death. That’s what we’re dancing around. They already have it out for me, if I tell you and then don’t follow through I’d be risking Alice’s life, and I just can’t do that.”

“But we can still tell her most of it,” Alice argued, “like if she can’t name us properly, tell others the nature of our threat, how we work on a physical level, or what our weaknesses are, then it could be argued that she doesn’t represent a threat to us. Anyone in Forks could describe quite accurately how to spot one of use, so where do we draw that line? We’ve been given wide latitude by the Šafaq Sariyya to conduct this experiment regarding long term residence among a human population, so this can just be part of that.”

“You’re playing a dangerous game Alice,” he sighed. He gave me an outright apologetic look.

“Yeah, well this situation fucking blows,” she growled. “Whatever, I’m going for it. Bella, ask me anything you want. If I can’t answer I’ll make an X with my arms and you’ll know the question is rejected outright. Jasper, you can play along too if you wish, but I understand if you’re too busy self righteously pretending that you’re just an uninvolved bystander who didn’t do half the work of getting us to this point.”

Oh! Sick burn! My mouth dropped open. I don’t think I’d heard anything stronger than a ‘damn’ out of her before that moment. Looking back now, I can count on one hand the total number of f-bombs she’s dropped in the whole time I’ve known her. As a reflection on herself she considers swearing to be very uncouth, but sometimes you just fucking have to be uncouth to make a goddamn point.

I tried to think of the first thing to ask, but I was getting antsy sitting here parked and my stomach was yelling at me that I needed to eat. Might as well bite the bullet, “Okay, so starting simple here, what do you all eat anyway? I’m starving and you both look pretty drained yourselves. Maybe we can compromise somehow?”

Jasper laughed derisively, “See, first question and you’re already in trouble Alice.”

“You’re being an ass. Give me your hand Jazz,” I demanded, “let me see, please.”

He brushed his fingers across mine petulantly, just long enough to make a connection and I felt it. I knew how his power worked too, I wasn’t fooled, with me he had to really try to make that connection stick. None of his haughtiness or superiority was real right now. Inside he was a man unmoored by fear. He was adrift in a sea of his own terror, and faced with an island of hope on the horizon he was choosing to sink and drown instead.

Alice answered smoothly after a pause, “We go far into the deep dark woods and hunt large animals. We can digest raw meat, internal organs, bones, that kind of thing. That healing ability of ours needs enough raw materials to work with.”

Alice had said she’d always tell me the truth. Now was the time for me to test that.

“Is that all you eat? I can’t help noticing that every single cold one so far has told me how delicious I smell. That’s Edward’s whole problem, right, that I’m too tempting? I smell too good? The repetition of the sentiment has left impressions on me.”

Alice started to raise her arms in an X but she stopped. Rejecting the question would be as good as admitting it. She either had to fess up or lie through her teeth. I decided to help her out.

“Hopefully you don’t have to kill me now, but that’s the big secret, right? The reason for all the skulking around and keeping a low profile? That you’re some kind of animal, cannibal?”

“Goddamn it, Bella!” Jasper looked like he was choking in horror.

Alice smiled a wild, bleak smile, “Humans who blunder far into the deep dark woods are large animals too. We’ve learned how to steer away from them rather than towards them on a hunt. That’s why we have our pretty amber eyes instead of those ugly crimson ones you saw. Don’t ask me why we have such an obvious warning system, but that’s just how it is. We eat deer instead of people, dear.”

I felt my skin crawl. I looked at Jasper. I took a deep breath. “On that first day, when we locked eyes, you said you wanted to spill my brains across the cafeteria table. Then what? I’m realizing now that you maybe hadn’t finished that story for me earlier.”

His hands were clenched around the headrest and somewhere inside of it I heard plastic snapping. He was shaking his head no but he answered in an easy level tone, “I would have lapped them up off the table, pink and delicious, until my siblings pulled me away. I told you already, they would have been luscious to eat. There now, are you ready to go home yet? We can arrange a ride for you if you’d prefer that at this point.”

“You should see yourself in a mirror right now Jazz,” I laughed, “you look unhinged. You tried to ask me to let you go eat some poor deer earlier, didn’t you. You dog! Yeah, we can go. Do you need to go hunting before we leave? Can I watch? I want to see!” It dimly occurred to me that I probably wouldn’t like how I looked in a mirror right now either. It was like I could feel the paltry bounds of sanity snapping loose to let me free. At what point in this conversation had I started to lose it? How long had I been losing it for?

Alice smiled at me patiently, not one to blink in the face of madness, “That wouldn’t be a good idea. Hunting is… a little too stimulating for us. I don’t think we’d eat you necessarily, but it’d be really easy for you to get hurt. Oh! I just had a wonderful idea! We could all go eat sushi together! There’s a sushi place in town, and dead meat is like the most boring thing for us to eat. You could see what we’re like around prey, and I could get my wish of actually having a human meal in a restaurant! We all win!”

I didn’t think it was physically possible for Jasper to look more uncomfortable but he managed it. He was looking back and forth between the two of us with the same sort of admiration and horror that he’d had while Alice was beating that guy down. La Belle Dame sans Merci, another fine Keats poem, and with Jasper valiantly cast as our pale and wounded knight on the cold hill side.

“I can’t imagine a more singularly horrible plan then that. There’s no way you can actually think we’d do that,” he looked at me, hoping I’d agree with him, “I’m so sorry Bella, my wife is totally out of her head!

“I didn’t mean to say that,” he very quickly amended.

Our old friend the terrible awkward silence tried to come back into the car, but then I just couldn’t help it, I started laughing and killed it for good. Like, really really laughing.

“Wait, you two are married?” I had to pause for breath I was losing it so hard, “Oh fuck, of course you are, because why not!? It’s just too perfect,” I broke out into giggles that wracked my whole body, “no, that really just tops everything. When were you going to tell me Jazz?”

“Given the way things have been going, the thought had crossed my mind,” he deadpanned, “but not like this, obviously.”

Alice looked mortified, “Oh no. Things have been moving so fast and I just didn’t even think about it. You’re not mad are you? I wasn’t trying to hide it from you, other stuff just kept seeming more important in the moment.”

I was choking on my laughter, my abdomen positively on fire with the effort, “Not mad. Just like, how much more wonderful could my day possibly get. The fear I have at the thought of getting knocked up and then marrying as a teenager is just about the only thing that rivals my fear of blood, so this is just…. This is good. Good show everyone. Way to live out my own personal nightmare you two. Bet you thought it was the supernatural bullshit that was going to get to me finally, but nah, it’s totally this.”

There’s a line I particularly like from 2003’s must-see family film of the year, Old Boy: Laugh and the world laughs with you. Weep and you weep alone.

I felt very alone at that moment in the back seat of that car. Alice was there, her hand held out tentatively to touch me, but halted midair, hesitant and uncertain. Jasper was somewhere inaccessible and distant, lost in the darkness of his own imagination and fear, only now beginning to rouse to action at the sound of my tears.

“What’s wrong with her,” Alice asked as I started to weep. “Can you fix her Jazz?”

“I think Bella has had enough for today,” his voice was compassionate, accepting of his wife’s uncomprehension, “she’s just done for the moment.”

I leaned over into Alice’s lap and stained her pretty Easter dress with my tears. I saw Jasper reaching out to put his hand on my neck and I swatted him away.

“Don’t you dare! Just let me cry, damn you,” I sobbed.

“What can we do for you?” Alice asked in a careful, innocent way.

It took me a while to answer, for words to collect enough in my mind to turn my moans of anguish into anything coherent, “Make me feel better like a person would. Just be nice to me and touch me and tell me this isn’t all going to shit. And also get me out of this fucking car! I feel trapped in here. Just take me somewhere safe, please, you two.”

Jasper stroked my head, “We can do that darlin’, just you hold on.”

I felt Alice’s delicate hands rubbing my back in big soothing circles.

“I’m going to love you Bella. I can’t help loving you. I’ll find a way that we can all be happy. I’m really good at that kind of thing. Nothing is ruined, so just hang in there and cry all you need to.”

I don’t know how long I cried for or what the two of them said to each other. I wasn’t aware of space or speed, or really much of anything beyond Alice’s voice and hands.

At some point Jasper lifted me out of the back seat of the car. I was completely disoriented; I could see darkness and street lights but I didn’t know where we were, just that he was strong and solid. He still had the pleasant smell of a campfire lingering about him.

My crying had quieted into awful snot choked hiccups. As I clung to him I couldn’t help myself, I started pleading, “I need the truth Jazz. You have to tell me the truth. You have to.”

Without a word he connected to me with his talent for a moment, just long enough for me to feel his heart breaking.

“Fine. What is it?” he sounded so forlorn, everything about him tensing for the worst.

“You killed them, didn’t you. That kid and his mate? You fucking killed someone because of me, didn’t you?”

He was surprised, “That’s what you want to know? Bella, do you really think this is going to make you feel better?”

“You killed them and burned the bodies, I’m sure of it. He was out buying firewood and they were going to try and lure someone in tomorrow. They wouldn’t have had a fire tonight! You can’t even get cold, so–”

“Bella, please, you’re shouting,” he hissed, “it won’t be long now, we’re almost there.”

“You took the firewood with you, didn’t you? I don’t remember seeing it again later. It’s the only thing that makes sense. I have to know Jazz. Please Jazz. Why can’t you trust me?” My sobbing re-surged again at full force.

He easily could have said nothing. He could have let me cry myself out and denied it all as the imaginings of an overwrought mind. Nothing had really changed that would make him think that telling me was a good idea, that it was anything other than disaster. What he’d done was unforgivable and he knew it, so how could he hope for my forgiveness?

I felt myself being laid down somewhere soft. Alice was there wiping my eyes dry with a fresh cloth of some kind.

Jasper’s steady rich voice intruded on the gathering haze of my mind, “Fine, you’re right about all of it. Of course I killed them; they were little better than a pair of mangy animals terrorizing the good people of Port Townsend. Their indiscretion was putting our lifestyle here in jeopardy. He was putting you in jeopardy. Compared to us they could hardly even be considered the same species. Everything in that tunnel was a ruse to get him to drop you and then lead me back to his mate. I told him outright that the choice was his life or yours but he didn’t hear a word I said. I knew you were paying attention though. I’m so very proud of you.

“I followed him to the woods. When I took his life I was efficient and professional. No talking or gloating. He’d done all the suffering I required up front. I extended the same courtesy to the woman he was with. I had to. I couldn’t have either of them coming after you. I sent them over the river Styx in Charon’s care. I’ll admit I didn’t leave them any coins for the fare, but by now I’m sure the ferryman knows to put it on my tab.

“The hell of it is that I’m not even sorry about it, just relieved that you won’t have to watch your back, jumping at shadows for the rest of your life. I know it’s not what you wanted and I don’t care if you hate me for it. I can take it.”

I was worried I’d be too hoarse to talk. I motioned him closer. Jasper leaned in close until I could feel his breath. Alice had laid herself out next to me with her cold cheek pressed against mine and her hands on my arms cooling my bruises.

“Thank you, Jasper. And thank you, Alice; I hope that I’ll come to love you too. I’m so sorry that I keep fucking everything up all the time. I’m so sorry you guys.”

I’m sure Jasper couldn’t just leave a line like that be, that he must have had some kind of response so he’d have the last word, but for the life of me I can’t remember anything at all after that point. Everything was darkness until I woke up again.

Chapter Text

When I woke up I was confused. My thoughts were hazy, still twisted up in dreams and nightmares. I stretched out and tried to take my bearings.

I felt like crap, I was aching in several places and I had the faintest hint of a headache. My arms also felt heavy when I tried to move them and I quickly found it was because I had an ice pack wrapped around each forearm, carefully held in place with medical tape. So, I wasn’t great, but I was better than I had been. It was true that I still felt exhausted, but I was refreshed enough that I could tell it would be a bit before I could sleep again. At least I was warm and comfortable for the moment. I pulled the covers up around my shoulders and sat up against the headboard. How long had I been out?

It looked like I was in a hotel room somewhere. I take that back, it looked like I was in a pretty cheap hotel somewhere. For a moment I imagined that I’d dozed off during my job cleaning rooms and that the whole last week had been a dream. Wouldn’t that be better, if it had been a dream and I was still in Arizona? In a way that would make more sense than the truth, but the thought of not seeing either of my pallid suitors again made my chest ache a little.

It was the type of room with two beds facing a television, leading to a sink at the end of it and a door leading to a bathroom. It was a room so generic that I could have been literally anywhere in North America, but most likely we hadn’t gone far.

I got out of bed, pleased to find that I was still dressed in my gray skirt and dark green tank top. There was a glass of water and a bottle of aspirin on the side table and I gratefully unstrapped my compresses and traded them in for some pain killers. The digital clock on the table was flashing blankly at me and needed to be set. Neither of my companions were around, but I could hear the shower running and Alice’s cute Easter dress was folded up neatly on the counter next to the sink.

I knocked politely, “Alice, are you in there?”

There was no response.

Her hearing was pretty good, but maybe she couldn’t hear me over the sound of the shower. I cracked the door open a little, letting wisps of steam escape, and tried again, “Alice? Hey, I’m coming in. I kinda don’t want to be alone right now.”

I started to push the door open only to have a heavy body press against the other side and lean out across the opening; an intricately scarred arm blocked my way and Jasper’s questioning face peered out across the threshold. I started back in surprise.

I couldn’t help myself, I took a good long look at him. He was dripping wet, his eyes were almost totally black, and, from what little I could see of his chest, he was very naked. He was also the most scarred up motherfucker I’d ever laid eyes on; those scars on his arms kept going to his shoulders, and from there they spread out in wide lazy random patterns that marred most of his skin.

He gave me a curious look, “Bella. I’m surprised you’re up so soon. Alice is out dealing with the car right now. Something I can do for you darlin’?”

I took a step back and shook my head, “Sorry. It’s nothing. Just wanted to hang out and bug her if she was here. It’s fine. You can finish your shower.”

The corner of his mouth twitched up in amusement, “I was almost done anyway. I thought you’d prefer it if I didn’t smell like smoke all evening. Let me go rinse off and I’ll be right out. In the meantime, there should be some pants in a plastic grocery bag by the front door. Grab those for me, would ya.”

I found a dirty looking bag after searching around and recovered a pair of flannel pajama pants out of it. They seemed clean, with no sales tags, and had a subdued black, gray, and pink plaid pattern. Where the hell had these come from?

Once I heard the shower turn off I passed them through the crack in the door, “I hate to break it to you Jazz, but I’m pretty sure those are women’s pants. Why not just wear what you had on before?”

I could hear him toweling off on the other side of the door, “I took them out of a dead woman’s tent, so that would make sense. They were the only pair that looked like they would fit.”

I scoffed, “You’re not really going wear those, are you?”

Irritation colored his voice momentarily, “Oh grow up Bella, they’re just clothes. For your information, the outfit I wore here reeks of smoke and it has little particles of broken glass sticking to it. Between the two of us, if you cut yourself on a piece of glass we’re all going to have a real bad evening. Plus that shirt has not one, but two holes in it from me being bitten by psychotic broads.”

Right. He’d been bit when he followed that guy. He’d… he’d killed him and the guy’s mate had bit him. Just thinking about that made me feel fidgety and anxious in a not-fun way. It’s true that I found Jasper’s charming menace to be intoxicating, but I’d wanted to believe there were lines. I’d seen him threaten, frighten, and hurt, but I’d hoped there was a hard line in front of kill. The three of us had yet to find a line that at least two of us together couldn’t forcibly drag the third one across. I was guilty of that too. But killing a guy… this wasn’t Jazz’s first time, that much was clear. This wasn’t even his second or third time. And given all of that, Alice probably had also…

Jazz swept past me into the room, toweling off his hair, “You look confused. Hey, sorry, I was only teasing. You bit me too, remember? In the car.”

I could ask to go home again. They’d understand. Alice had been ready to take me earlier. If I stayed here at this point did that make me some kind of sociopath for not freaking out more? Did it make me complicit? There had to be some line we couldn’t blow past. I’d seen enough movies about nice girls dating serial killers to know to know that things weren’t supposed to end well for me. I was a nice girl, right? I could just say all that, and Jasper would nod along and be all smug about being right and then they’d take me home and kiss me goodnight or whatever.

But, then again, they’d already rented the room.

Jesus. What the fuck is wrong with me?

Jasper was sitting shirtless on the bed still drying his long hair. The rosy pajama pants clung to his legs, tight and wet. It wasn’t fair how good they looked on him. Nothing ever looked that good on me. He patted the bed next to him when he saw me looking and I went over and sat hip to hip with him. The black dog and the gentle sheep. Seems about right.

Jasper cleared his throat, “So, I suggest you savor this moment because it only happens once. This is that special awkward time after everything has calmed down, where two people who have recently had sex realize they probably don’t know that much about each other and have no idea what to say now.”

I laughed. Ugh, it still hurt to laugh. “That’s a hell of an icebreaker, Jazz. If you’re talking about what happened in the car, I wouldn’t exactly call that sex, but yeah, I’m at a loss too.”

He shrugged and tossed the towel onto the floor, “I’d call it that. I made you cum. You made Alice cum. It wasn’t proper fucking or anything, that’s for sure, but it was something very nice. Anyway, semantics aside, how are you holding up?”

“Not well,” I admitted, “trying not to think about everything so I don’t have to feel super guilty. Hey, like, so, we’re in a hotel room. I mean, that’s obvious of course. And it’s not really a good hotel room, which is kind of odd. I’d think Alice would have demanded a suite or something…”

“You can’t carry a sobbing, yelling woman out of the back seat of a car and into a nice hotel,” he interrupted, “but please, continue.”

“Ok, right,” I wet my lips, “so, I’m not holding up that well and I just wanted to let you know up front that I don’t think anything is going to happen tonight. Like, nothing serious at least. Sorry. I don’t know if there was a plan with you two or anything, but yeah. I can’t.”

Jasper stood up and took a deep bow, holding my hand in his, “This whole hotel room is yours of course, and everything within it is at your command. Alice and I don’t even have to stay here if you don’t want. It’s easy enough to get a second room, or to arrange transportation to take you back home.”

He dropped my hand and the gentlemanly affectation as well, and shrugged, “Honestly, I sorta figured you could use a night off from your life. Whatever you want tonight darlin’, it ain’t my place to say anything otherwise.”

He smiled at me, that easy charming smile that was so rarely real. He was so handsome when he smiled, and I hoped each one I saw was a little less forced. I patted the spot next to me on the bed, returning his earlier invitation, and he plopped back down beside me.

“How long was I out?” I asked, “I’ve got no sense of time right now.”

“You slept about an hour, so it’s a little after eight. Alice is out sabotaging the car’s engine and pushing it to a mechanic’s shop where they tragically won’t have the replacement part on hand until tomorrow morning. With her gift, that kind of thing is right up her alley.”

Trying to imagine how that worked made me feel exhausted, “Ugh, her shit is even more irritating than what you do. So, I take it our story is that we broke down on our way out of town? Why all the subterfuge with actually busting up the car? Also, isn’t Edward going to be mad about that? It is his car, right?”

Jasper gave me a gorgeous spiteful grin, “He’s going to be furious, but that’s just a nice little extra really. The real problem is that your dad is a fairly competent cop and, from past experience, I know he isn’t above checking on our alibi. When you call him and talk to him, I want you to be able to give him a detailed story about what’s wrong with the engine and where we took the car.”

Well, that answered that. I lapsed into silence. What to say now? He was right, I barely knew anything about him. He was married at eighteen? He was a Major in the army? His real last name was Whitlock? He’d fought a supernatural war across the Texas country side? It all defied any kind of narrative sense.

I looked over at him and realized he’d been studying me for a while. I felt a hot flush of embarrassment creep across my cheeks and I lowered my eyes. This had the effect of me staring at his bare chest while becoming increasingly self conscious under the steady scrutiny of his gaze.

“I wish Alice were back already,” I confided quietly, breaking the silence, “everything seems so easy when she’s around.”

“Yeah,” he nodded, “I was thinking the same thing.”

It seemed like the conversation was going to lapse again so I continued, not sure what I was trying to say, “You’re a little intimidating to deal with all alone. You know that?”

“As a monster, you mean? Yeah. I’m sorry if I scare you,” he sounded so resigned to it, even though it wasn’t true. He was like a mean old junkyard dog, trained for violence, powerful and brutal, but still at his core unfailingly loyal and endlessly eager for affection. There’d been no sign so far that he might turn on me, instead, as near as I could surmise, he mostly wanted to lick my face and stick his nose in my crotch.

I gave the tiniest of head shakes, “You only scare me as a man.” I took a deep breath before continuing, “Like, holy shit, I nearly walked in on you naked and, ok so how do I put this, there’s a part of me that really wanted to see that, and then again another larger part that’s completely freaked at the thought of going there with you.”

His scars weren’t uniform, instead they flowed across his body telling a story that I couldn’t quite read. They clustered at his shoulders and at his hips, with stray marks all over his torso. Some were big and ragged looking, while others could have almost been put in place by an artist’s hand. I’d been avoiding staring at his face too much, but his makeup had washed off and he looked hungry and dangerous. My gloomy drowned prince bearing pale opal skin, all adorned with silver filigree. Only his neck was free of any kind of wounded gilding.

The scars were thickest on his forearms. I’d read once that knife fighters were expected to take their hits on their arms and I wondered if it was like that. All his outfits so far had included long sleeves, so maybe it was something he was sensitive about.

As if sensing my thoughts, or more likely watching my gaze, he said, “Go ahead, it’s alright. You can touch them if you like. They don’t hurt me or anything. Granted, I’m sure they’re not what you were expecting.” He sounded nervous, like my reaction to his scars even mattered.

I reached out and tentatively ran my fingertips up his arm. He still felt warm from the shower. The scars were bumpy and harder than regular skin, but abnormally smooth. Given how soft his skin was anyway it was kind of an enticing alternation of textures.

“I like them,” I told him after a pause, working up the courage to meet his dark eyes, “they suit you. I was surprised at first of course, but, even if they’re a little ugly, they’re also super beautiful. Actually, can I be honest?”

“Yeah.” He put my hand on a jagged looking one above his left breast and I traced its outlines, finding its cold topography.

“They are kind of a turn on,” I admitted, “like, a lot.”

He sighed forlornly and then laughed, “If Alice had told me a few days ago that she’d had a vision that I’d end up alone in a hotel room with a seventeen year old human girl who got hot and bothered by scars, I’d have said never in a thousand years. There is no way any version of me would be that stupid. Hopefully you know me well enough at this point to appreciate the irony of me feeling morally squeamish here, well, given my usual lack of morals of any kind.”

I put my other hand on his chest as well, fingers tracing his violent past, “Why, because I’m underage? Well I’d say that’s pretty rich given how you were bragging about your numerous felonies or whatever. I have to deal with heebie jeebies every time I think about the fact that you’ve killed people, that shit’s probably going to haunt me, so excuse me if I’m somewhat lacking in sympathy here. You’re eighteen, right? I don’t think a year difference is worth making a big of a deal about. Doesn’t Washington have Romeo and Juliet laws?’”

He gave me a half cocked smile, “You’re very clever, you know that? I hope that doesn’t come off as sarcastic because I really do mean it. Right now, this is one of those things I kept hoping you would puzzle out on your own to spare me having to say anything. You’d just figure it out, in the same infuriating way you’ve been demolishing our flimsy cover stories all day long. Actually they’re pretty good cover stories, but somehow it was like you had your foot in the door from the very start and we never had a chance. I’ve never failed this hard with a human before, it’s humbling.”

I curved my fingers into claws and scratched across his chest, slow and languorously, “No more surprises, Jazz. I’m tired of begin caught off guard. Just spit it out, whatever it is.”

“You’re lucky,” he continued, totally failing to spit it out, “that I’m here instead of Alice. This is just one of those things that she doesn’t really understand. It’s like she’s a little color blind, and there are certain common human experiences that are red, red, red. In that sense I was bound be the one to have to do this talk eventually. So, spitting it out here, what if I told you that Alice and I are older than you think?”

“That’s not spitting it out. That’s asking an annoying question and leaving me hanging. I guess it depends on how much older? You’re married, and you’ve been in the army I guess, and you’ve lived in Forks for two years. Assuming you joined at eighteen, I guess you look like you could be twenty four at the oldest. That’s, what, a seven year gap between us? Seven years is maybe swingable, but yeah, that’s well into statutory rape territory, isn’t it. Ugh. Fucking great. And what about Alice? There’s no way she could be much older than me.”

Jazz gently removed my hands and scooted back a little bit so he could fold his legs and sit on the bed facing me. He very patiently waited while I blurted out everything I was thinking. I wasn’t upset exactly, just I needed space to try and think through this. This wasn’t anything I’d been expecting so it mostly just felt surreal like my whole life had turned into some horrible farce.

“Alice is either eighteen or nineteen, and I’m nineteen as well...” he started explaining.

“Oh, that’s not so bad, you had me worried there,” I said like a complete and utter rube.

“Please just listen. We’re both around nineteen years old physically and mentally because that’s when we stopped aging and became cold ones. However I was born in 1844 and I’ve been wandering this earth for 160 years.”

I was such an idiot. I was such a fucking goddamn idiot. Beautiful, wealthy, well cultured, polygot teenagers didn’t fucking exist in any reality. Nope, not a real thing. I should have just jumped to immortal amoral monstrosities from the start. It was such an obvious setup. Actually, the bigger tipoff should have been that they were interested in me. Good things didn’t happen in my life, so this could only ever have been a setup for misery.

I ground my teeth, feeling tears prickling at the edges of my control. I pushed past my snarky defense mechanisms and forced myself to confront this. The truth was that this revelation stung. I hated it. I hated that they were married. I hated that they had so much more experience than me in the world. I hated that they had so much more experience than me together. Who knows how many years they’d had now. I’d thought they were like me, a young couple nervously discovering that they wanted more than they'd dared to imagine, but everything he’d said so far had pushed me farther and farther back into the distance until I was so small and faint on the horizon I could barely see myself.

I force a smile. I’m sure it was hideous. I don’t know how long I’d paused, trying to think about the whole thing, but I pretended that I hadn’t.

“So, a 143 year gap. You are so lucky because that looks like it’s just under my own personal limit. Any older and I’d have to say no way, but a hundred and forty fucking years is just fucking fine.”

“Alice is only about a hundred years old if that helps?” He had a shit eating grin when he said it, but I could tell he wasn’t really enjoying this conversation. He looked like he wanted to bolt and he was forcing himself to sit carefully in place.

I pushed him over in irritation and then collapsed bonelessly next to him. He put his arm around my shoulder and pulled me up next to him in the bed. His body was cooling fast but it was still a pleasant sensation.

I sighed loudly, “I never had a chance, did I? I wish I’d known. Even if I’d been born fifty years ago I’d still be too young for you two. Jesus. I get why you couldn’t say anything sooner than this but don’t you think it’s a little unfair.”

He kissed my forehead. I should have been even more irritated at him but it felt nice.

His voice was gentle, “I can’t help who I am any more than you can help being you. We just have to take our chances where we find them. I know it probably doesn’t help much but we’re closer to your level than you’d guess. We’re pretty static creatures when everything is said and done.”

I rolled my eyes, “Oh, yeah, now I feel better. Well, I might as well really embarrass myself here. So, uh, is this the kind of thing where I need to, like, tell you how grown up I am for my age? Or are you just trying to assuage your guilt in advance of taking advantage of such a young girl and I really needn’t bother.”

He was so strong around me. His arms were a solid cage that bore the evidence of years of attacks. Nothing could get through. It felt so reassuring. It felt like even my own mind trying to haunt me couldn’t get me here.

He grinned down at me, “Oh, believe me, my willpower is nowhere near the level where there’s any point in pretending that I’ll do the right thing here. If you end up feeling like I fucked you up, come find me in a few years and I’ll take responsibly however you need. Say, tell you what, would it help if I told you something else that’s objectionable so we can move on and you can be outraged at the next thing instead?”

I laughed, “I am filled with horrified anticipation at what you could possibly say to follow that up. I can add it to my growing list of serious concerns.”

“My military service was back when I was human. I joined when I was younger than you, I falsified some papers and snuck in. So, really, not so different from how I’m still living my life. Anyway I was a proud member of the Trans-Mississippi Army, which is a fancy way of saying I’m a bonafide confederate soldier, darlin’.”

I snickered in surprise at that. Shit, still hurt to laugh. “Are you for real? Anything else? Are you going to tell me you also spent several decades running a puppy mill or defrauding vulnerable adults out of their pensions? Damn it Jazz, why do you have to be so stupidly awful?”

“Alice doesn’t care that I’m awful,” he ventured. His accent had come out hard as he pronounced the name of the army and now I was fascinated with the way he drawled out the word “awful.”

“Yeah well, lovely as she is, she’s awful too. So, let me get this straight, you’re a supernatural centenarian serial killer cannibal confederate soldier?” I went slow and stumbled through saying that whole mouthful. “Did I miss anything there? Because that’s not what I fucking signed on for when I said we should hang out.”

I could feel him shrug as he held me firmly to his chest. I snorted in frustration and buried my face in his neck, trying to find a comfortable position. Too many labels and categories and identities. They didn’t actually make anything better. I hated that whole damn list of words; it was just an exercise in drawing boxes around him that separated us from each other. In fact, the whole situation sucked a lot, but at the same time I couldn’t imagine a safer spot than where I was right now.

“Easy on the confederate thing if you don’t mind. I know how it sounds, but I’m actually rather proud of my service. And Alice is more of the serial killer type if you want to try and label things. She’s always so proud of us only eating animals and she’s super quick to protest about how she hates hurting people if she doesn't have to, but honestly she’s got this whole weird fascination with limbs coming off. Maybe it has something to do with the missing memories thing, like she’s preoccupied with ideas of wholeness and dissasemblement. Anyway, I’m more content to simply bash heads in. I’m sorry. I can’t imagine you want to hear any of this.”

I nipped lightly at his neck in retaliation but he didn’t even flinch, “It’s better than you lying about it or me finding out on my own way too late. Personally, I’ve had plenty of time in my life to think about monsters and villains. It’s kind of why I like Gothic literature I guess. When you read The Monk you are the monk and you get to live through Ambrosio’s fall from godliness into sin and depravity. Sometimes you don’t even know for most of the book which of the perspective characters will end up being the hero or the villain. That feels real to me. I’ll admit, hearing about it in real life is a lot less enjoyable than I thought it might be, but I still want to know what kind of protagonist you are.”

His hand stroked my back in slow easy strokes as he spoke, “I’m the blackest sort of cad. My first love was my Machi and then after she died I was forced into becoming the very sort of supernatural menace she’d tried to save people from. I fought in a war on the side of slavery and then as a cold one I was made a slave who then enslaved others. I turned them into cold ones, trained them, led them into battle, took lovers from among the ranks, and finally killed any survivors who lasted long enough to become dangerous.

“But at my heart I’m a warlord, cut from the same cloth as Vlad Tepes. Or, I used to be. Have you followed the war in Afghanistan at all? I was a regional warlord like that, except I was fighting to rule Texas. I didn’t impale people but I left my enemies burning. To know me was to know despair. I was a holocaust in the shape of a man. I mean that in the classical pre-World War II sense of a holocaust as a burnt offering conducted at night. Something that is totally consumed with nothing to show for it.”

I was starting to shiver in his grip as neither of us was wearing all that much in the way of clothes, “Well there’s that other shoe falling. Or, really at this point, is that the fifth or sixth shoe to drop? Shit got dark fast. So, what’s the bridge? How do I reconcile Jasper the unkillable warlord with Jasper the high school student who yearns to be harmless?”

“I did it, you know,” he whispered, “I took over Texas. The state I’d joined the confederate army to preserve. Took me 75 years, but I did it. Shoved everyone else off the map. The whole effort was endless and boring. The worst kind of insipid monotony. The day I won, that was one of the worst days of my life. Bella, it was so empty. I missed my Machi; I’d been fighting to die. For everyone I killed I felt their deaths on an emotional level. It was like I died each time too. I was so in love with death, kind of like you are. But no one could beat me. And then there was no one left. And for what? To stroke Maria’s ego by winning territory? She was my maker, my captor, and my mate. I loved her in a way, but only because she was death for me too.

“On that day I realized that the kind of man I’d worked all my life to become was pointless. I wasn’t strong. I was miserable. I was broken and trapped. Not by Maria, but by my image of myself. So I just walked away from it all. After 75 years of killing everyone I’d ever fought, who was left that could stop me? I went to stay with the only two people I’d ever done anything good for and had a long needed mental breakdown. Maria’s enemies regrouped, started carving out chunks of territory again, and before long everything I’d accomplished was undone. All that death and suffering had been for nothing. At some point the Dusk Company stepped in and massacred most of the remaining players because they were drawing too much attention, but even that didn’t totally put an end to things. Maria is retired now but Texas is still a minor warzone to this day. Nothing really changed. Except that I did.”

I desperately wanted to lighten the mood, “Wow. So, yeah. To quote Alex Trebek from Celebrity Jeapordy: You have lead a horrifying life. Jesus old man, that’s rough. Fuck. I don’t know. You tell me, how the fuck am I supposed to be feeling about all that?”

His fingers played through my hair on the back of my head at the point where it met my neck. I was still cold but the shivering had stopped as my body had adjusted to his proximity. I felt that line in me, the tension between a truly profound discomfort and total relaxation at being so close to him. The sad thing is Jasper was winning. I wanted to accuse him of calming me down, but I really suspected he wasn’t doing anything. I actually did feel this calm around him. Now there was a scary thought.

“I don’t know,” he said finally, “feelings are my thing, but we are well and truly through the looking glass here. I’m not sure conventional morality has much bearing on my kind to be perfectly honest. I’ve done more horrible things than anyone else you’re ever going to meet, but if I’m telling you the truth, in my mind I’m not a monster. Not really. I’m not a calculating sociopath killing for sport, I’m a bleeding hearted empath with lifelong depression and the distinct misfortune of having been born the best military tactician of my generation. When I think back to the cold hearted boy I used to be I know that I’ve done some terrible things, but I’m just that, a person who has done horrible things. I’m not a horrible person. And, if redemption is possible, don’t I get my shot too? Otherwise, if there’s no walking back from the edge for me, then all these things that I've done, all of my experiences, really will have been for nothing.”

“I hate to break it to you Jazz, but I don’t think most evil men consider themselves to be monsters. Like that old truism goes, even Hitler was a vegetarian.”

I looked up from his chest and glanced at his face. I saw a playful smirk develop on his lips as he thought of something terrible to say, “Then I’m one step ahead of them because I’ve strongly considered the possibility that I’m unredeemable. So, funny enough that you should mention it, but my family all joke around that we’re vegetarians too because we eat animals instead of people. How’s that for bleak?”

I could feel the mood shifting, and again I knew it was just because of Jazz being Jazz instead of any kind of manipulation. He could charm the pants off the devil herself. “Yeah, that’s pretty morbid,” I agreed, trying to suppress a grin.

“Now, as to your larger point about the question of evil, I have to say, given what I know of human history, military history in particular, being a terrible person has basically no relation ever on getting laid. So what do you think, want to be my Eva Braun?”

“Oh gross,” I laughed painfully, “that’s not funny. Seriously, don’t say that ever again.”

“Sorry, bad joke. But really, I’m very curious about what’s going through your head right now.”

I smiled in spite of myself. I smiled in spite of everything that I thought I knew about myself. My voice was light and my tone was joking, “I’m thinking that I shouldn’t be interested in such a sketchy married older man. It’s gross. I should be thoroughly repulsed. Like you were saying about me earlier, it’s a situation I thought I’d never be dumb enough to consider. I guess I’m thinking about if I can deal or not.”

“Ok, just bear with me,” he drawled, “I’ll be real with you then. In my experience no relationship is ever exactly what you sign up for. There are usually big ugly things about them that aren’t what you expect, challenges you can’t spot till you’re right up close, and then once you see them you have to decide if they are things you can handle or things you can’t. Is the pleasure worth the pain?

“Take Alice for an obvious example. Living with someone who always has one foot in the future is hard and frustrating. And it’s a little painful sometimes when she doesn’t understand something and I realize that there will always be these gaps in our experiences that we can’t quite bridge. But she’s wonderful and I love her. Every day with her is a new adventure. She’s so totally grounded in the here and now, in how wonderful it is to be alive, and with her I can let the past be the past. I mean, I can literally feel her joy as we make our life together. It’ll never be perfect since nothing’s ever perfect, but goddamn if she isn’t worth it and I will always choose to put the work in.”

It was my turn to smirk at him, “So you’re telling me that Alice is worth it and I should skip you in favor of her. That’s probably really good advice.”

He kissed my collar bone, “Glad you were listening.”

I rolled over on top of him so I was straddling him and pushed myself up with my hands on his chest so I could look in his face, “Jasper Hale, or Whitlock, whoever you are. You are terrible and I kind of fucking hate you right now. Want to know a secret? All afternoon I’ve wanted to grab you by your stupid fucking suspenders and kiss you. I was going to go through with it too. So what do you do? You throw them in the trash as soon as I fall asleep.”

He shifted under me and helped me stabilize my perch upon him, “Sorry to tell you darlin’ but that wasn’t exactly a secret to anyone.”

“Right, and then when I’m working up the nerve to kiss you fresh out of the shower while you’re still warm and you start telling me all kinds of terrible shit about yourself and you totally kill the mood. I’m out of excuses to do it and I can’t even really justify myself at this point. You are the last person on Earth I should want to kiss anymore.”

“That’s going to make it real awkward when you do it in a moment,” he said, with a grating amount of arrogance.

My heart fluttered and tried to rip out of my chest. This was it. I was ready, I wanted this, so why was I suddenly so hesitant and uncertain.

I whetted my lips and spoke, “Any chance you can use your dumb power to help me be alright with this? That’s a weird request, but if I’m going to be a total idiot I might as well delay the feeling of wanting to bang my head against the wall for later and just enjoy this right now. Wait, I’ve got it, you saved my life! Yeah, there, that’s the perfect reason to give you a kiss.”

He lay sprawled out beneath me like a vulnerable maiden, bare chested, clad in only a feminine pair of pants that hugged his body. His honeyed locks pooled around his face as he held cautiously still and let me lead. He was bright eyed and fierce, the waiting hunter.

“Sorry honey, no can do, this is all on you. You have no idea how hungry I am,” he drawled, “it’s everything I can manage to not push you over and gobble you up. It’ll be fine so long as I don’t move too much.”

“What about Alice?” I asked, wanting to make sure. Needing to make sure.

“What about her? If she were standing right behind you watching us, would that make you more or less inclined?”

That was a good point. I moved my hands so they were on his shoulders pushing him down into the bed. He moved his hands to support me at the waist but I was still in control. I leaned forward and pressed my lips against his hungrily. This wasn’t my first kiss, but it was my first kiss with him.

I closed my eyes. His lips were silken and cool, hungry and pressing. We fit together so easily. I pulled back momentarily breathing out my lust only to have him surge forward and kiss me again. Hard, hot. His bottom lip sliding against mine as he took what I wanted him to take. He was squeezing my waist a little too hard and then he pulled away and let me go. I could feel his chest heave beneath my perch as he broke the kiss again and sucked in air.

“Holy shit,” I whispered, and then I pressed down on his shoulders as hard as I could, he let me overpower him, and I was kissing all over the side of his neck. The dam had burst and I couldn’t hold back. He grabbed my ass and I bit down as hard as I could on the side of his neck, near where his jugular would be if he still had veins.

He winced at that one, “What the fuck, Bella!?” He didn’t sound totally displeased.

I let go and nipped lightly at his earlobe.

“I got you again,” I growled, “you have such a beautiful neck. Totally unspoiled. Waiting for someone to penetrate your defenses. I did it. It was me. I got to be your first.”

He kissed my shoulder, lips pulling hard against the skin, trying to bruise the surface, “I shudder to think of the damage you could do if you really were a cold one.”

I heard Alice’s airy laugh behind me, “Need some help, love?”

Jasper’s lips let go and he took my chin in a free hand, turning my face so he could give me a quick peck on the lips, before he looked over my shoulder and turned his attention on Alice, “Yes please. I seem to have underestimated our darling Isabella yet again and I’m in a bit of a bind here.”

I heard her beautiful giggle, “My turn then!”

Frozen hands grabbed me by the ankles from behind and yanked me hard backwards in a classic horror movie move. I clawed for purchase but Jasper just held my gaze and let me fall.

I landed at the foot of the bed in a tangle of topsheets. I’d managed to pull part of the bedding down with me. I looked up and Alice was in front of me, kicking off her shoes and shrugging out of my new crimson rain jacket. The cold night air still hung around her like a spell.

She was dressed formally, in dark slacks and a tight black button-up shirt. She’d been shopping in the young men’s section at Goodwill earlier and she looked dashing now. There was something hard about her eyes that made me nervous. She was smiling, and I could tell she was happy to see me, but something was seriously off about her demeanor.

“Stand up.” Her voice was pleasant enough but the words were a curt little command.

I put my hands on the carpet under me and started to struggle to my feet. She reached out with her leg like a ballerina and unbalanced me with a delicate push of the ball of her foot against my shoulder. I crashed back against the bed and looked up at her only to see a pleased grin flit across her lips.

“I said stand up.” Her words were all sugar coated menace, like a sparkly frosted cupcake with a razor blade pushed into the top as a decoration. I couldn’t help it, I felt myself grinning a little too.

“Are we really doing this?” I asked, not really believing it.

She scowled cutely, “Don’t make me repeat myself again.”

I struggled to comply, getting up as fast as I could manage. I felt a little cowed and vulnerable under her glare.

“Now come over here.”

She’d taken a few steps towards the bathroom and I hurried to catch up.

As soon as I was within arms length she sprang her trap. In the blink of an eye she’d grabbed me by the upper forearms, careful to avoid the bruised area lower down where I’d actually been manhandled earlier that evening, and she’d swung me around pretty solidly into a bare patch of wall. By her standards it was nothing but a gentle love tap, but by my standards it hurt. It was literally a shock to my body.

I felt my breath catch in my throat, I was starting to get scared. Her elfin face leered in front of me and I turned my head away. I wanted to hide behind my hair but she’d been so considerate and had braided it all up a few hours ago and now I had nowhere I could escape her beautiful wrath.

“You dirty little sneak,” she spat at me, “I was only gone a few minutes. I saw you kissing Jazz. You thought you could steal a kiss and I wouldn’t care?”

I wanted to look anywhere other than into her face. I struggled in her grip but she was impossibly strong. I wasn’t getting out of this. On the bright side, as long as she was forcing me against the wall like this she couldn’t make me look at her. I glanced over at Jasper who was sprawled out on top of the messy bed watching this with obvious fascination. Yeah, he wasn’t going to lift a finger for me.

I felt the icy hand of death clamp around my throat. I felt Alice’s delicate grip on my windpipe. Her other hand forced my face forward. I stared into her face, a sharp predatory grin plastered across her lips as all the sweetness bled out.

“Don’t look over there. I’m right here. You should be looking at me right now. Now, you do admit that you’re a dirty little sneak, right? You’re the kind of tramp who kisses other people’s husbands.”

All I could do was nod my head. I looked up and to the side to avoid eye contact. Her eyes were all consuming. I was breathing hard, so painfully conscious of every breath I took.

“Good,” she sneered, “at least you know what you are. Everything that is Jasper’s is mine, so really that was my kiss that you stole. And I’m not going to fall behind here. You’ve been doing all the hard work today so I’m going to be your super nice best friend here and make this nice and easy for you. You want to be a good girl for me, right Isabella?”

I didn’t react. I was going to fight her and resist for as long as I could. Her hand that had been forcing me to look at her had moved on to stroking my side under my shirt. She felt terrifyingly cold. I was hyper aware of the hand over my throat. She could end this whenever she wanted. I was utterly at her mercy. I was totally and completely helpless to this tiny scrap of a girl.

“Just hold still. This is going to feel really nice.”

I held still, anticipation building. She was going to kiss me. I had no choice. It wasn’t my fault. This isn’t what I wanted. No one could blame me. I couldn’t move even if I wanted to.

It was just a kiss. It probably didn’t even count if I was forced. Besides, I’d already kissed a murderer. What did it matter anymore if I kissed a girl. No one would ever have to know. I wanted this so bad.

Her lips touched mine as she cut off my air with a press of her fingers. Her kiss took my breath away. It was everything I’d dreamed of. She was well practiced and graceful in her motions; I was soft and yielding beneath her. She was lighter and more teasing than Jasper, more exploratory. I could tell she was less confident than she’d been trying to appear, but she was also bolder too. I felt her tongue trying to enter my mouth and I parted my lips to let her in.

A girl had her tongue in my mouth. I felt her slide against me, something cool and alien inside me. It felt good. It felt so good. Alice! I was kissing Alice! I shuddered against her, trying to breathe and remembering that I couldn’t. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t breathe. I was so fucking helpless right now. I ground forward against her body, wishing she had her leg wedged between mine.

“See, perfectly harmless,” she whispered to me, just to me, only to me. She sounded like her normal self except she was still choking the life out of me. It had only been a few seconds but I was desperate for air. I didn’t want to die like this. I just wanted to breathe. I needed a breath.

She leaned in for a second kiss. I tapped out.

I delivered a quick double tap with my open hand to her forearm and that was it. Instantly she was backing up, concern lining her face, her dominance taken off and put away like just another social mask. I braced myself against the wall behind me for support.

“I’m so sorry, Bella. Are you okay? I took that too far, didn’t I?”

I waved her off weakly, “Oh hush. You’re fine. I was pretty into it.”

“It was the kiss, right? I really did think you’d like it once you had a chance to try it. Plus, you know, it was only fair. So I just, well, I don’t know,” she had this adorable sort of way of rambling along breathlessly when she was flustered. She was so worried about me being upset that she couldn’t see how blown away I was.

I tried to sound like I was fine, “Alice, hey, I told you, don’t worry about it. I didn’t tap out because of the kiss. Just, hey, for future reference, I don’t like actually having my air cut off. That’s all. The threat of being choked is enough and that’s the part that does it for me.”

Jasper’s voice cut into our closed world, “You’ve done this before?” It was more an observation than a question.

I nodded my head, “I’ve never really done, like, a scene before, but yeah, I did experiment with getting choked by someone I trust. I figured out what I liked and didn’t like about it, and he figured out that he didn’t like anything about the experience.”

“Someone?” Jasper rolled the word around demandingly. I didn’t owe him shit. Then again, if I was trying to open up a little that was something I could start with.

Alice handed me the glass of water from the nightstand as soon as I thought about asking for it. She had a coy little smile, “I thought you said you weren’t the kind of girl who did things that needed safewords.”

I rolled my eyes at the languorous boy on the bed and turned to Alice, “Well, obviously it was with Jacob. Who else could I trust for something like that? And, yeah, clearly, we didn’t use a safeword or anything. I mean, come on.”

“Perhaps I’ll have to ask him about that,” she said teasingly, “we called him while you were asleep and talked for a bit to let him know what was going on. He seemed pretty cool after he calmed down. He invited us to his birthday too, as long as you are okay with it, so we might even show up at the barbecue thing at your house this weekend if the weather lets us.”

Alice and Jasper getting friendly with Jake was a blood curdling notion. I’d been fine when they were trading barbs over the phone in the car, but the idea of them talking to him without me made me super uncomfortable. They’d talk about me. Jake was my friend. That was a little closer than I was ready to deal with yet.

“Show Alice how to do it right,” Jasper suggested out of the blue. I blinked at him, not comprehending and he flexed his hand in a clenching motion. He had a wicked smile as he considered the idea. From his cues it didn’t seem like he was picking up the mantle of control from where Alice had dropped it, more like he was just very used to giving orders and having them be obeyed.

Well, hell! Let’s do this. I guided her to the spot on the wall that I’d just left. I felt nervous touching her, but when I put my hand over her neck her eyes sparkled with delight.

“Like this,” I said haltingly, “just enough to feel the pressure. So, for me, knowing that you can choke me is enough to scare the shit out of me. With your strength actually doing it is probably a bad idea anyway.”

Her hands were running over my sides again beneath my tank top, getting bolder and sliding over the sides of my breasts. Despite having her pinned I still felt like I was the one in the trap.

“What else?” she asked, biting her lip and staring up at me with her big dark eyes.

I leaned in close, pressing my body against hers, trying not to be scared of the contact, “Then, I tell you that I knew you were there when I kissed Jazz. The idea of you being there was a huge turn on for me. That’s what I wanted.”

She was all sassy defiance, “I came in silently. You couldn’t have known.”

I put my leg between hers, like I’d wanted her to do with me, and she ground down against my thigh with a ragged little breath. Her poise faltered and then fell aside with a moan. She was so vulnerable and open beneath my grasp.

I squeezed her neck experimentally. She didn’t need to breathe.

“You pulled the same stunt at Newton’s earlier. I’m not going to fall for the same trick twice. And, well, the way Jazz said it, it just seemed like a set up, ‘cause you both are kinda dicks sometimes. I just knew.”

“You should do the next part of our scene too,” she said softly, totally under my spell. Or was I under her spell?

I felt her hands running over my breasts, squeezing me through my bra. I hesitated as her lips parted in anticipation. They were a sultry red just begging to be kissed.

The girl batted her eyelashes at me, “I get it already, I need to be very gentle with the human girl and scare her silly in the best possible way, but you don’t have to be careful with me. Come on, Bella. You’re wound so tight, just let go and do it.”

I put my other hand on her neck as well and squeezed with both hands as hard as I could. I could feel her windpipe collapse beneath the pressure, and she made little playacted struggling motions with her hands, still mostly just pawing at my breasts.

She went limp in my grasp. If she were a human girl I’d be killing her. In the background Jasper whistled in appreciation. All I could do was stare at her red, red lips.

I must have been standing there too long throttling her because she opened one of her lifeless eyes to peek at me like a sly little corpse. She was still waiting for me, breathless in her anticipation. I was shaking, so scared of what I wanted. It was just a kiss. Something harmless.

I pressed my lips against hers at the corner of her mouth, taking the cowards way out. Not a real kiss at all, but as close as I could muster. I pulled back and let go. I could feel cold sweat prickling at my neck as I tried to breathe. My arms were aching and my hands felt numb from letting go.

Alice came back to life in front of me. There was a moment of rough coughing from her and then it turned into laughter.

“You awful cheat,” she growled out in a sign song, and effortlessly she lifted me up and threw me down on the bed beside Jasper.

In a heartbeat she was all over me on the bed. She was kissing my neck, my collarbone, my jaw and cheeks. Everywhere except my mouth. Jasper’s hand found mine and I clutched him hard for reassurance.

“I thought I had you,” Alice said between kisses, taking out her frustrations tenderly on my flesh.

Alice’s right hand crept to the hem of my skirt and started to push below the waistband. Jasper interrupted the action with an awkward cough. We both froze and turned to the third participant on the bed with a united glare of irritation.

“As much as I’m enjoying this vision of sapphic loveliness,” he started, “I was looking at the clock and I just remembered that you said you wanted sushi, Alice. If we leave right now we can still make it. We’ll be those assholes who show up last minute, but we can do it. Who knows when we’ll have a better opportunity?”

“She’s mine! You’re not going to rescue her this time,” Alice growled out possessively, her mouth hovering over my throat.

She looked up at me pleadingly. She gave my pubic mound a firm squeeze through my panties and I knew I wasn’t ready. I wanted her so bad. I was unbearably horny, but I was also starving. Hunger clawed at me and made the whole thing less romantic than I wanted. I was also roughed up, strung out on adrenaline, exhausted, and overwhelmed. Alice seducing me was the most natural thing in the world but I wanted it to be perfect when it happened. I mean if, if. That should be “if,” not “when.” Somewhere special, not in a cheap hotel room that reminded me of my old life.

Honestly, I was just scared. It was too much too fast.

I reached up and stroked the side of her head. She nuzzled into my hand, the spikes of her hair running ticklish and prickly against my skin. I held her gaze, hoping I could convey what I was feeling right now.

“You’ll have other chances to ensnare me. You are my beautiful Lamia, and, like an Ouroboros, this isn’t the end. For now, just like, let’s all take a step back and do this whole date thing in the right order. You two need to take me out to dinner still.”

Alice kissed the corner of my mouth petulantly, reminding me of my cop out, and then went over to her makeup bag on the counter to fix her lipstick.

I put my hand on Jasper’s chest, feeling his scars beneath my palm, and leaned up to his ear, “Thanks for the save. You’re not such a bad guy, you know.”

I’d meant it as a private comment, but over at the counter I saw Alice smiling at my words.

Jasper gave my waist an affectionate squeeze and pushed me off of him.

“Don’t thank me yet,” he chuckled, “you really have no idea yet what a shit show dinner is promising to be.”

I thought of Alice’s hand at my neck again and smiled. I couldn’t wait!

Chapter Text

Of course I had to call Charlie first.

“No, come on, listen dad, you only just got home. Please. Carlisle already arranged for a hotel room for us and everything.”

It could have been going worse.

Charlie’s voice came out soft and tinny through the cellphone’s speaker, but even so I could hear the stubbornness in his tone, “Look, I just, I don’t feel right about leaving you stranded for the night. I want to know that you’re safe Bella.”

That’s about what I expected from him. He hadn’t known if I was safe or not for most nights of my life, but now suddenly tonight matters. In a way I was disappointed.

“A night away from home isn’t going to kill me,” I argued, “so you can just stay put and you don’t have to drive all around the state in the dark worrying about me. I’m totally safe, I’m with friends, and I’m having fun, so it’s all good. I’m just going to roll with it and not let stupid random bullshit ruin my first trip outside of Forks.”

I’m not a good liar but that was basically the truth. As far as I was concerned car breakdowns and attacks by random cold ones were both impossibly stressful and outside of my ability to deal, so it didn’t really matter which one was the real reason I was staying over in Port Townsend. What mattered was that I was making the best of it.

“Alright, sure.” His voice had a firmer edge to it all of a sudden like he’d made up his mind. “If you’re sure about that I’ll drop the issue. Just. Ok, I’ll just say this. So. No drinking, no partying, and no strangers. Period. You three are going to stick together and you are going to get your ass back home as soon as the car is fixed tomorrow morning. Am I being clear?”

He wanted to sound stern, like a cop dad in some sitcom on TV. When he was on duty he really did make a good showing of it – police chief Charlie Swan, pillar of the community. But I’d known him on and off for my whole life. He was quiet and introverted at home. Prone to deep silences. He cleaned his guns like it was meditation. Looking back, he was always a shy man I suppose. Painfully shy. I sometimes wonder if I got my anxiety from him.

“I’m a good kid. You don’t have to worry so much dad.” That was the line I’d always taken with him. I don’t know if he’d ever really believed that I was fine.

“I know you’re a good kid, Bella,” he replied almost automatically, “that’s not it. I just worry is all. You probably don’t want me saying this, but your mother was only a couple of years older than you are now when we first met. I swear, that woman was always totally fearless. I mean, she ended up dating me after all,” he laughed a corny dad laugh at that, “but, just, I don’t know. I don’t think jumping into everything feet first has worked out all that well for her.”

“Why are you bringing up Renée right now?” I asked, surprised at the bitterness leaking into my voice.

“I’ve just been thinking is all. Mostly you take after me. You’re a lot like me really, but sometimes, just sometimes, it startles me how similar you are to-”

“I’m nothing like my mother,” I cut him off. As far as I was concerned that was the end of our little talk. Fuck. I didn’t need Charlie telling me he was worried about me making terrible, impulsive life choices like my mom, especially not while I was in the middle of making totally different terrible, impulsive life choices.

Alice stalked by from behind me, my crimson rain coat draped loose about her frame; she was seemingly ready to go. She made the international hand symbol for a handset so I gave her back her phone after saying my goodbyes and telling Charlie to get some rest.

I listened to her for a moment, she sounded excitable and young as she soothed Charlie’s nerves about this. She tried to make it sound like this was just an unexpected sleepover. Except it wasn’t. It couldn’t be. Jasper was there, and that made things weird. I quickly tuned her out. She was better with Charlie than I was and it was a little irritating.

Speaking of, Jasper sauntered out of the bathroom still wearing the pink flannel pants, only now he also had the Misfits hoodie on as well. It was hanging open slightly, unable to be zipped up with his broad shoulders. I could see a pale narrow strip of his scarred chest peeking out from the open center of the large skull printed on it. The cartoon skull patches that Alice had put on the shoulders looked especially cute and out of place on him but the overall effect was more menacing than sweet. Sitting stiffly around his neck was that intricate silver collar again. Christ, that thing had to be over a hundred years old! Now, there was a daunting thought.

“Well, how do I look?” he asked in a wry tone.

“Like a scumbag, but, ya know, with great abs. Man, forget going to a restaurant! In that getup I’m not sure you could even buy gas station sushi.”

“Why Bella, that might be the nicest thing you’ve ever said to me. Now, hold still for a moment,” he leaned in close with an eyeliner pencil and once I realized what he was doing I tilted my chin up.

“Looking a little older probably isn’t a bad idea right now,” I shrugged. What I meant was “thank you.”

“I’d do more but we don’t have time right now. Do you want it heavy or light?” He asked as he carefully traced my eyes.

“Ohh, Jasper, give it to me thick and messy,” I purred in imitation sultry.

“Good girl,” he laughed “goth eyes it is.”

After finding a natural pausing point for the her conversation, Alice edged Jasper out of the way and admired his handiwork on my face, “Oh, nice! Here love, I’ll trade you the cell phone for the pencil; I buttered the chief up a bit so he probably won’t be too surly with you.”

Jasper turned away from us with a “Hello, sir.”

Alice thought about it for a second and then put the pencil to my face again, “He didn’t do a half bad job; I’m giving your eyes some wings though. I really want to see you with the cat eye look! I’m looking forward to tonight so much. I know you’re tired, so thanks so much for being game.”

It was only a moment later that Jasper came back holding the leather jacket up for me. I let him help me into it and then with an exaggerated flourish he dropped the cell phone into the side pocket so I’d have it. It was a nice gesture, a reminder that I still had a lifeline.

“That was awful quick,” Alice commented, “what’d he say?”

“Oh nothing much,” Jasper said offhandedly, trying not to smile like a shit, “Actually it was just the sound of him cocking a shotgun into the receiver.”

“Oh bullshit,” I complained, “come on, what did he really say?”

He ruffled my hair as he walked past, “That you are the most important thing in his life so I’d better not cock this up. That this is the only chance I’m going to get. You know, stuff like that. Come on, let’s go.”

I took a look at myself in the mirror. My hair was braided still, although it looked a little messy, and I was wearing the leather jacket that Alice had picked out for me as well as the thick black eye liner they’d taken turns applying. I looked a bit like Bella, but also a bit like someone else. I was a Bella that I’d never seen before. It wasn’t a bad difference though. I thought about how Alice knew a ton about fashion and stuff, and there was that tickle of a thought in the back of my head that maybe if I stuck close to her there were other Bellas still waiting to be discovered. Who knows. Maybe I could find one I wasn’t so uncomfortable being all the time.

I studied at the two of them standing together waiting for me to move and had another more unfortunate realization, “Oh shit, we all look gay as hell.”

It was true, with Alice’s form fitting buttoned-up androgyny, Jasper’s soft-punk trashy male model thing, and my fierce feminine leather jacket ensemble, we made a, well, a queer looking bunch to say the least. It didn’t escape my notice either that on a technical level, between the pants, the hoodie, and the necklace, Jasper was wearing nothing but female garments at this point, though he pulled off the look with such an unflappable sense of masculinity that I doubted anyone else would even notice.

Jasper smirked and turned to Alice, “Someone should tell her, right? At this point, I feel like someone should tell her. By now you’d think she’d have a clue?”

“Oh hush,” she chided him, and then she reached forward and grabbed my wrist, “and as for you, no second thoughts honey. It’s time to go. Please, let me take care of tonight.”

I thrilled at her touch and let her pull me to the open hotel room door.

“Is this going to be something dangerous?” I asked, kinda knowing already that it would be, but looking for an excuse to say yes.

“Dangerous?” She smiled at me, pale and beautiful as she stepped out into the half-light outside the door, in my eyes so frighteningly intense, “Oh, poor Bella. Have you never wanted to do anything that was dangerous?”

“Yeah? Go on,” I said, finding myself unconsciously leaning towards her.

“Where should we be if nobody tried to find out what lies beyond? You never wanted to look beyond the clouds and the stars? To know what changes darkness into light?” She had this impish look on her face as I concentrated, trying to figure out why all of this sounded familiar.

I was totally enchanted. “If you talk like that...” I started saying, feeling breathless all of a sudden. I felt Jasper’s hand on the small of my back, still with us, but hanging back and letting us have this moment.

“If I could only show you what eternity is,” she whispered, both of us out of balance on the threshold.

“I wouldn’t care if everyone thought I was crazy,” I answered simply, finishing our back and forth. We’d paraphrased more and more as our exchange went on, but it almost seemed like it meant more that way as our own words found their way in.

I felt my heart swell in my chest. She was cheating, calling up a seventy year old movie like that, but I didn’t care. If she was going to quote “Frankenstein” at me, while staring into my soul, I’d let her lead me anywhere.

Her grip loosened on my wrist and her hand slid into mine. She led me out into the night with the unspoken promise that no matter what dangers we might find, all three of us would find a way to sate our many hungers.

 

I wanted to run on ahead of them. I wanted to jump up and down. I wanted to punch myself in my own smug stupid head. The walk into town should have been peaceful, with the raw edge of a cut-out hillside facing us across the road and sandy beaches and open water on our other, interrupted only now and again by buildings. It wasn’t doing shit to calm me down though.

“You’re so jittery tonight,” Alice grinned over at me, her features lit up by a passing car, “what’s up with you? Not nervous, are you?”

She gave my hand a little squeeze and I damn near tripped I was so distracted looking over at her. I started trying to sputter out a reply but ultimately gave up and trailed off into silence.

It was true, I had so much pep my step that I could barely walk in a straight line, but it wasn’t from fear. I was relieved now that the weight of having to talk to Charlie had been lifted and we were well on our way, but, more than that, with a little quiet time to think, the last half hour we’d had in the hotel room was really hitting me finally.

They’d touched me! And kissed me! And it had felt amazing. It was crazy how much I’d been missing something simple like touch. It’s an ache like pain that you don’t notice until it stops hurting all day long. When had that started being a thing for me? I kind of just wanted to pump my free fist in the air and yell “Fuck yeah I got some action” at the top of my lungs, but they’d probably catch on to something subtle like that and then I’d really be embarrassed. I didn’t want to jinx my chances after all.

Actually, maybe the crazy part was how much coming to Forks had felt like a prison sentence. Like I was punishing myself by being here and that I’d planned to just exist and suffer my whole time here until I could go to college. There was something appealing in the thought, even though a part of me knew how deeply stupid it was.

I caught Jasper looking at me over Alice’s head, studying the exaggerated expressions playing out across my face. Or maybe he was just rummaging through emotions. Either way he winked at me. Alice was walking between us, oblivious to my inner turmoil and pleased as punch to be the center of attention for a little bit. Actually, it was a nice change. After today I was almost eager to give up the spotlight for a bit.

“So what’s the game plan?” Jazz asked her.

Alice rubbed her head against his shoulder, pulling me along with her in her motion, “I’m looking ahead and getting some ideas from the menu, just trying out different combinations of things, but nothing solid as a plan yet. We might still get lucky though.”

“Alice is looking for anything fresh enough that we’ll find it palatable,” he explained conversationally, addressing his remarks to me while Alice continued her intermittent scrying. “As long as she can find something that was recently killed we can probably eat it just fine. In which case, expect a lot of snarling, snapping of jaws, aggressive posturing, and poor table manners, which is the other thing she’s hopefully trying to account for. You already know my opinion on all of this, but if anyone can guide us through this safely it’s Alice.”

“She really wants this that bad?” I asked.

“It’s an idea that’s come up in conversation a couple times between us in the past. I’d always assumed it was a fantasy that we’d never act on, but it would seem you’ve change the calculus on this one.”

Alice gently headbutted my shoulder as she caught on to what we were saying, “I want to order a meal in a restaurant that I can eat and enjoy without having to puke it up afterward! Then I’ll be able to say I’ve had a real meal out finally instead of all the faking and pretending we do. And more than that, I love the idea that you and I can sit down at a table and eat the same food, even if it’s just this once; that we’re no so different after all and it’s something we can share.”

I grinned, “Good times. And I get to see you both at your most feral, furthering my apparent Lovecraftian agenda of learning forbidden truths that man was not meant to know.”

“You’re a dork,” Alice laughed at my hammy pronouncement.

These two were so much fun; this felt so good and easy. I’d been getting worried that we weren’t the kind of people where things could be easy.

I took a deep breath and let my mouth run away with me, saying the flirty shit I was thinking, “Hey, how about you, Jazz? We’re both getting our forbidden desires fulfilled here, or whatever dumb suggestive way you want to phrase that, so uh, what about you? What do you want that you wouldn’t normally admit to? Any troublesome fantasies rattling around in your head that we can help you with, you know, while we’re at it?”

He shrugged, “I’m good. You don’t need to worry about me.”

“Don’t be so modest,” Alice egged him on, “she’s secretly your type, right? I’m sure there’s a thing or two you could think of to do with a girl like her.”

Jasper gazed out over the bay in contemplation, eyes fixed on the dark waters lapping at the pier’s edge, “Of course there is. That wasn’t the question. She asked if there was anything I wanted to admit to, and I think that I’d rather not.”

So, there was something. I wanted to try and dig in a little and see if he’d relent but Alice suddenly sagged between us, her eyes darting around frantically beneath half closed lids. Jasper managed to catch most of her as I staggered under her unexpected weight. It wasn’t more than a few seconds before she straightened up again, and when she did she wore an expression of victory.

She picked up the pace again, swinging all or our arms in unison as she practically skipped with joy, “I’ve got it all! All the way down to the table settings! Oh man, this is going to be so much fun. Ichikawa Sushi Bar here we come!”

Jasper looked somewhat relieved, “Cutting it a little close there Alice.”

She rolled her eyes, “Close would be waiting until we’re being served. This is whole blocks early.”

I was intrigued, “So, what am I going to order then? Is this the kind of thing that works like that?”

She tilted her head in thought, “Sort of. I can see that you’ll get two sushi rolls and some appetizers, but I can’t identify most of it by sight. My visions are kind of literal in that sense; mostly it’s like watching a movie from the future with no sound or context. I simply see the world from some omniscient viewpoint that’s out of the action, pretty much like a video camera. Sometimes there’s also sensory details like touch or smell, or sometimes I’ll just know things about the vision, but all of that is pretty rare.”

“That sounds less useful than what I’d been imagining,” I admitted.

Jasper snickered, “No it isn’t. It’s horribly broken. Unfairly so. I’d try to explain, but honestly she does a way better job than I do at talking about this stuff.”

“Have you ever read a choose your own adventure book?” she asked me very earnestly.

“Yeah, Alice,” I smiled, “I was a lonely Junior High student not so long ago. I must have read a dozen of those.”

She nodded sagely, “Oh, ok then. Well it’s like that.”

Jasper just laughed at her cryptically succinct answer and addressed me again, “Darlin’, you’re in luck at least. A while ago I decided to dig in and really figure out her powers; I told her I hadn’t read one and she made me go buy before she’d say anything more. I ended up reading about a girl trying to rescue her pony Acorn from the forces of darkness while wrestling with the temptation to abandon her morals and betray her friends in order to save her pony. For a book meant for ten year olds it was at least an experience.”

“Any reason that one in particular?”

“Eh, they didn’t have much of a selection. It was either that or one called ‘You Are a Shark’ which seemed a little out there for my first time.”

I shook my head, “Fair enough. I’m still not sure I get it though.”

“Alice, dear heart, perhaps you could expound a bit on the similarities,” Jasper helpfully prompted.

“Oh ok, well, you start reading and soon enough you come to a choice, right? For most people that’s all they get. They make their choice and move on through the story. For me, I get to peek ahead and look at the pages that follow directly from each choice, either my own or someone else’s if I’ve met them. If I want I can also just page through the book and read random passages here or there, but of course there’s no clear way of knowing what future choices will link up to what.”

“Visions of what might yet come to pass,” Jasper offered, “she’s done that a bunch with you and your futures, most of which we’ve probably invalidated already today alone. Actually, given what I’ve heard, that’s probably for the best.”

“And then sometimes I run across a book ending. Or rather, they kind of just hit me. They’re not really endings of course, because life doesn’t have endings, but they’re big events that multiple paths all lead to that are going to play out in a specific way unless I change the things that are needed for them to be fulfilled. Meeting Jasper was a big vision like that which took a long time to come to pass. Falling in love with you will be like that. And dinner tonight is like that in some ways too.”

“Doesn’t seeing the future change it?” I asked. “Every time you peek ahead, aren’t you basically just killing a cat in a box? Maybe? Sorry, I think I’m using that metaphor wrong.”

Alice put her arm around my waist and guided me out of the way of a cyclist coming up behind us. It was almost uncomfortable walking three abreast like this compared to the narrow width of the sidewalk, but it felt important for the moment at least. I wanted to be on equal footing with them, and right now no one was falling behind.

“Every vision I have acts as if it’s a future where I’ve already had that vision. I guess the cost of that is that I end up with a lot of self-fufilling visions, but at least I don’t have to second guess everything I see, worried that I’m already blowing it right from the start.”

Jasper ruffled her hair and she leaned into his hand. He added for my benefit, “I tend to think the whole thing is just her subconscious working overtime sorting through an infinite deluge of possibilities. As opposed to the visions being the will of the gods, or the hand fate, or what have you. She’s got this little quirk where if you address a document to her she’ll get a vision of it pretty much right away as it’s being composed. It’s just her mind grasping at anything relevant that effects her, which can lead to some exploitable weirdness for those of us who knows how it works.”

“Like trying to brute force a vision about dinner?” I guessed.

“Yeah,” she murmured, “this is too important to try and micro-manage a strategy like we did when you snuck up on Jazz. I needed to know for sure that you’ll be safe no matter how dicey things get so I pushed and pushed until I had enough details in place and just jumped straight to the solution. I know every action the three of us will take from the point the waitress puts the bowl of soup down in front of you to the end of the meal when you’ll excuse yourself for some reason. That’s good enough for me.”

Jasper crowed triumphantly “Ha, I knew it! Of course you cheated at the pizza place. It’s nice to hear it confirmed. Anyway, like I was saying Bella, her power is horrendously unfair in pretty much all situations, even with its rather idiosyncratic downsides and limitations. For instance, knowing that it’s choice based gives you a pretty good avenue to try and circumvent it by avoiding choices. Also, I forgive you for earlier. It’s noble of the two of you to admit that you wouldn’t have had a chance sneaking up on me otherwise.”

I really wanted to elbow him in the ribs or something but Alice was in the way. I was trying to think up a good comeback when Alice interrupted my thoughts.

“Hey, isn’t that our restaurant over there?” She pointed across the street and we both looked over. We’d nearly passed it by completely, we’d gotten so caught up in talking.

What we saw was a small boxy non-descript building tucked away at the back of a parking lot. I have no idea why, but when they’d mentioned this was supposedly a top tier sushi place, I’d pictured a traditional Japanese wooden building of some kind overlooking the water. Instead, it was a small dull colored unit that was one step away from fitting in as part of a strip mall.

We made our way over to it and the inside was another matter. Ichikawa was small but comfortable with a sleek looking sushi bar visible from the entryway. The tables and furniture all looked very modern and upscale, but the décor itself was more like I’d imagined with lots of wood accents and Japanese prints on the walls. Some of the stuff was a little overdone and tacky, like the waving cat statue by the register, but the potted bamboo plants at the bar were a good touch and helped the place seem elegant and welcoming.

There was no one at the front counter so Jasper marched right into the restaurant without missing a beat, leaving me and Alice to hang up our coats. The waitress was around the corner checking in with a customer seated at the bar and Jazz put his hand on her shoulder to get her attention.

I’ve never worked in a restaurant, but I think a move like that would creep me the hell out. Of course, he was blitzing the heck out of her chakras or whatever it is he does with his power, so instead of shaking him off she turned around and smiled at him like he was an old friend.

“Seating for three, if you would,” he bid of her.

The woman hesitated as if she wanted to say that it was awful close to closing, or maybe just that he was a little too close, but then Alice cut in with her own brand of disarming charm, “He and I are celebrating our third anniversary tonight! I’ve heard you have some kind of fancy room set off to the side. Could we use that please? Our friend here has really been looking forward to eating here.”

I groaned inwardly. Of course she couldn’t pass up the opportunity to give us a cover story that would completely mess with me.

Alice nudged me forward to be a prop in their game. No, it was our game this time. The hostess looked me up and down. Looked all of us up and down really. There was clearly a war going on within her. The professional side of her was sizing us up as potential trouble, while on a personal level she was taking an inexplicable shine to us thanks to Jasper.

“I’d hate it if we bothered the other guests,” I added lamely, not sure what I should be doing, “these two seriously have no idea what the word ‘discretion’ means.” Heh, true enough.

The waitress smiled a very charming smile. She looked so tired behind her smile. She was tall and blond, with sort of broad masculine features and an honest to god tiny little dimple on her chin that made her look friendly and easy going. The thought crossed my mind that she’d be really cute with shorter hair.

“Of course, where are my manners,” she said, still studying me. “It’s been a long night I guess. Normally we reserve the Tatami Room for a party of six or more, but you’re probably our last customers of the evening so I don’t see the harm. My name’s Rebecca. Now, if you’ll follow me this way.”

She guided us around the corner and got us seated on floor pillows around a low square table before going over the specials for the night. It turned out that the Tatami Room was just off the side up a couple of steps; it didn’t really have as much privacy as I’d hoped since the large arch of the doorway opened directly onto the bar area, but it was as secluded as a small restaurant like this could hope to offer. I couldn’t tell if the Tatami Room actually had tatami flooring or not, it’s a kind of mat I think but I really don’t know, but it had a framed silk print of a blossoming tree on the wall behind us and a polished bronze plated ceiling that made the space feel warm and cozy.

She gave us a couple of minutes to look at the menu and talk things over. I was seated across the table from Jasper, with Alice claiming the side between us that faced the doorway. Mostly we talked about what I was getting since the two of them were set already. Well, that and the question of if we should get some booze.

Jasper fixed me with his best overpowering stare, “Darlin’, your dad will have my head if I get you drunk. So, no way, no how. I thought we just had this conversation about about me acting like a real adult for a change.”

I did my best to act nonchalant, “Yeah, I though we decided you sucked at it and you weren’t going to bother. I’m not asking you about this as the ‘adult’ here or whatever the fuck you’re thinking. I’m asking you as someone who trusts me; I know what I’m doing when I say that I’ve had a really hard day and I’m not doing this sober.”

Alice giggled, “Well, that’s bold coming from you. Have you ever even drunk before? I can’t see how it would be a problem either way. If it comes to it, I think the two of us can take one drunk human. Come on Jazz, I say let the girl take the edge off. She’s earned it.”

I thought Jasper was going to challenge me on that, at which point my flimsy defense of having gotten drunk once before was going to fall apart under the slightest of questioning. It had been earlier in the year at my mother’s wedding reception. I don’t really know what I’d been drinking for then, just that it had felt like something I desperately needed. Just like right now. Instead, Jasper just gave me a small nod and the issue was settled.

Soon after our waitress showed up again and began taking our orders, starting with Jasper.

“For a starter we’ll have the fried dumplings, the grilled yellowtail collar, and the breaded mushroom slices. My wife and I will each have an order of the raw sliced salmon, the ahi tuna, and the sea urchin with raw egg. Our guest will have the seventh heaven roll and both kinds of cooked eel sushi.”

“Cooked eel sushi? Do you mean the nigiri, or are you getting confused?” Our waitress asked, a getting a bit lost at the end of the order herself. She’d loosened up a little from before but something about her demeanor seemed almost too relaxed now, like how a friend acts if you visit them at work and they have to pretend to be professional.

“Let me read that back to you and see if I got it. Appetizers are the gyoza, the hamachi kama, and the agedashi shiitake. Entrees are two orders of sake sashimi, maguro sashimi, and uni with raw quail eggs, also an order for a tetsuna roll as well as both ebi and unagi nigiri? Did I miss anything?” She had this tight smile like she knew exactly what she was up to.

Ok, so it wasn’t so much starting the order with Jasper, as it was being his show entirely. On one level it kind of pissed me off that he’d ordered for me again. On the other hand it was all stuff that Alice and I had picked and it was precious watching him squirm as he tried to get through it without saying any words he didn’t know how to pronounce, only to have the waitress turn it around on him at the end.

He shot me a helpless look as he tried to mentally parse her summary, and I came to his rescue, “Yes, that’s everything. Oh! Also an order of miso soup for me.”

“And a bottle of sake for the table!” Alice added.

“Sure thing. Can I see some IDs?”

Without missing a beat both Alice and Jasper pulled out what were presumably fake driver’s licenses and handed them to her. I started to sweat. I hadn’t really thought this part through.

“I don’t think I have my wallet on me,” I offered, throwing my own pleading look back at Jasper to get me out of this.

“Check again. I’m pretty sure it’s in the same pocket as the cell phone. I could swear I put it in there for you,” he had that hint of a grin, relishing my momentary discomfort.

I didn’t have to play act this. I really wasn’t sure if he had or not so I dug around a bit but came up empty. “Nope. It’s not there.”

Alice reached over and plucked something off the shoulder of the jacket and held it out as an offering to the waitress. To my utter embarrassment I realized it was the sales tag.

“Sorry,” she said, “new jacket. I can vouch for her though. Her twenty first was in September.”

The waitress looked at me askance, “If you don’t mind me saying so, you all don’t exactly look like you’re from the liquor board so I think we’ll be fine just this once. Alright, I’ll go put your order in. It’s probably going to be a few minutes but I can bring out the miso right away if you like.”

I thanked her and unwrapped my napkin to retrieve my chopsticks so I could play with them while I waited. That should have never in a million years worked. Never ever. Like for real, having the power over people’s hearts sorta sounds like a kind of cutesy and limited ability in theory but actually seeing it in action it up close was something else. It had turned out to be everything from a subtle boon in a pinch to a sinister and powerful assault on consciousness and free will itself when push came to shove.

Across the way Jasper was trying to get comfortable on his pillow and failing. I reached out with my sticks and pulled a petal off one of the flowers in the vase in the middle of the table. Alice was watching me closely and I saw her struggle to imitate what I was doing with her own chopsticks, except that she couldn’t get them to come together.

“Don’t eat Asian very often?” I asked, trying to make small talk.

“Not since they finished building the railroad,” Jasper answered in particularly black humor. Yeah, not touching that one.

Alice shook her head, “I’ve never been in a place like this. This is all new to me. How about you, Bella?”

“I think this is my third time trying sushi. I asked my mom take me for my birthday last year. I’m pretty good with chopsticks though. We had a Chinese buffet near our place back in Phoenix that I liked. Here, hold them like this.”

I took her hand and opened up her fingers. She’d had the sticks crossed and was trying to do a pinching motion with them before I corrected her. Every time I touched her I felt a little breathless, but she got it after only a moment once the bottom stick was nestled correctly. Across the table we heard the snapping of wood, and Jasper had somehow broken one of his sticks while trying to imitate what I was showing her.

“These damn things are paper thin,” he growled, “They’re almost as bad as the pencils at school.” Alice thought this was super funny and laughed uproariously while handing him her pair to try again with.

“Let me,” I said, and reached out to touch his hand. His eyes met mine and I faltered. I blushed and then took his hand in mine anyway. He pretended to fuss about it being unnecessary as I positioned the sticks, but he soon had the motion down pat without any further incident. I didn't really understand what it meant for them to have lived as long as they had, but it was good to see they hadn’t lost their adaptability.

“You were trying to ask me about eating Japanese food earlier,” he started, “and I was being flippant. To tell you the truth this is my first time too. When I was a young man Japanese restaurants weren’t exactly a thing. I think the last year I was human the emperor of Japan issued an edict to expel all the ‘barbarians’ from the country in a bid to keep it closed from the outside world. I know this, of course, because it was a precursor to them having their own civil war a few years later, waged mostly with spears and swords, as well as matchlock and needle firing rifles.”

“Oh now, isn’t that interesting,” Alice purred, “soooo, you told her about your youth, circa 1863? Even I thought that talking about our lifespans might be a little indiscreet. You two certainly do get up to some mischief when I’m not around.”

“Maybe we’ll all have to stick together then,” I wanted to say. I wanted to say that, but I didn’t. Because I’m a coward. Instead Alice shot Jasper a knowing smile that I found unfathomable and squeezed my knee briefly under the table.

Our waitress came back with my miso and Jasper launched into a detailed explanation of the Japanese Boshin War of 1868, who was fighting it, and why. The soup was delicious and Jasper was a compelling orator, his skills enhanced by Alice’s presence and her ability to ask questions that drew him out and kept him talking. Jasper continued to fascinate me: his areas of knowledge were narrow but deep like a series of dizzying crevasses. He had stumbled while trying to order nigiri yet he could rattle off the names of the shogunate commanders and the battles they had fought in as easy as if he were a native speaker, which he most assuredly was not. I finished my soup in record time and felt like there was still a yawning pit in my center as I waited for the waitress to return with more food.

“Goddamn. I am sooo fucking hungry,” I complained, “I can’t remember the last time I felt this ravenous.”

“Of course you are,” Alice responded, her words easily finding space around Jasper’s poetic musings on the Shinsengumi, “you used a lot of magic today. Every time Jasper pushed at your emotions you pushed back just as hard. That power has to come from somewhere you know. For you, that’d be from your own life energy. Now you’ve both worn yourselves out crashing into each other.” I studied how dark her eyes had become, still a shade lighter than his, and felt like I sort of understood.

After slightly too long our appetizers showed up as well as warm damp towels for the each of us to tidy our hands with before eating. I dug into the food with the gusto of a condemned man spending his last night on Earth fucking his way through a royal harem.

“Jesus, Bella. Slow down or you’re going to choke,” Jasper admonished after I’d drizzled soy sauce over the chunk of cooked yellowtail in front of me, picked the whole thing up and attacked that delicious flaky bit of fish unreservedly. I spat out an irregularly shaped translucent bone in response.

“I think it’s kind of nice,” said Alice, “she makes me a little less self conscious about the idea of eating in front of her in a minute.”

Changing my focus I shoveled dumplings into my mouth. They were crispy and fresh and full of meat and scallions. Considering the wide variety of really unattractive sides of me that the two of them had seen that day, it was a miracle we’d made it to dinner at all.

Jasper turned to Alice at her mention of their reason for being here, “You’re my mate and I know you think you’ve got this, but, just so we’re clear, that waitress hates us. Like, really hates us. Or, she would if I wasn’t here. I’m dangerously close to being totally spent and if her natural revulsion for our kind wins out there’s going to be trouble.”

Alice was blithely unconcerned, “She’s not going to interfere while we’re eating, and at this point that’s pretty much all I care about.”

Part of my own trouble I decided, was that there were always too many good questions to ask all at once, and the ones I didn’t ask always ended up biting me in the ass. I was only halfway through the gyoza but already the tempura fried shiitake slices were calling out to me. There wasn’t much left of the yellowtail so Alice pushed that plate aside towards the center of the table. Well fuck, it was all mine eventually, so no need to hold back.

“What’s the word ‘mate’ mean to you all anyway?” I asked, only slightly ashamed to be mumbling through a mouthful of mushroom. Alice tickled my ankle beneath the table and I was forced to take a long pull of water.

She didn’t have to think too hard about answering this one, “Originally everyone used it in the more British sense of a friend or compatriot, but it seems like the American romantic sense of the word keeps trying to edge it’s way in to the definition. Strictly speaking it just means anyone whose welfare you care about more than your own; ours is a selfish race so the average amount of mates a person will have at any given time is zero, with the uncommon outlier of one, and numbers like two or three being mostly unheard of. Almost always it’s romantic couples, but strictly speaking you don’t even have to like your mate, just so long as you’re willing to die for them.”

Jasper pushed his untouched water glass across the table to me, “Or, in my case, it means that I’ve found a woman I’m willing to live humbly for. Of course, if anything ever happened to her, the vengeance I’d wreak would be swift and out of all conceivable human proportion.”

“Aww, well I love you too Jazz! I spent all those years biding my time and holding out hope just to meet you. Neither darkness, nor death, nor memory will ever keep me from thee.”

I eyed the last few dumplings. My pace was starting to slow down, but I went for them anyway. I wasn’t sure how I’d finish a bunch of sushi after this, but that was a problem for slightly future Bella to deal with.

Rebecca came back bearing booze, “Here’s that bottle of sake. Dinner ought be out in just a moment. Everything still tasting fine?” While she refilled our waters I peeked around the corner and saw that we were down to just her and one of the patrons left at the bar, and that guy looked like he was pretty much done eating.

Alice poured little ceramic glasses for us, “A toast! There is a touching Arab custom that promises eternal friendship between those whose have shared bread and salt under the same roof. Now, this is the Olympic Northwest and we have neither bread nor salt tonight, but the spirit is with us and I’m not one to deny eternity its due. So here’s to friendship! And unbreakable bonds!”

Jasper and I both raised our cute little sake glasses up as we considered her words. In the end we both drank it down alongside her. The alcohol was hot and strong and I winced my way through it, hating every moment that I could still taste it. I immediately set to work pouring another shot for myself.

Rebecca returned again bearing food and Jasper dismissed her as soon as she’d set it down, “Thank you. That will be everything. We don’t need refills on our waters and everything probably tastes fine. No one is saving room for desert. You shall be handsomely tipped for your services of course, but until such time as dinner is over we really don’t want to see you again.”

She blinked at his words, clearly taken aback, “God, you’re a weird bunch. Well whatever I guess. Makes my job easy. I hope you all enjoy your dinner. I’ll be in the kitchen so just holler if you need anything.” I wondered if that was going to eat at her once her emotions went back to normal, but honestly I had bigger problems on my plate. I took my second shot. The sushi in front of me looked like something out of a magazine, but my appetite was totally gone. The booze sat like a hot lead matchlock ball in my stomach.

Alice went to work on the identical plates sitting in front of her and Jasper. He lounged as far back as he could, seemingly afraid to even smell it, while she plucked off all the garnish and vegetable matter surrounding what were effectively three small piles of raw meat. One was a hearty deep red color, one was a delicate pink, and the third was fucking disgusting, like a cow tongue wrapped in seaweed that someone had cracked an egg over. She slowly and deliberately transferred the inedible parts to an unused appetizer plate and put that to the side. The hardest part was the gross looking sea urchin, which made a mess as soon as she unwrapped it.

She already had yolk on her fingers from unwrapping the one on her plate when she went to unwrap Jasper’s too. He lunged forward to try and snap at her fingers while she was pulling the seaweed out of place. And then it was on. That quick.

I’d thought there’d be some final warning, or some nervous banter first, but in an instant Jasper had his face buried in a mound of eggy sea monster meat while Alice pulled her fingers back with an irritated snarl. She licked the raw yolk off her fingers, a kind of dumb petulant look on her face, and then she was pushing at her plate with her mouth too, her jaws a horrifying cacophony of motion. I watched some cow tongue looking sea sludge slide past her dark lips.

My heart plummeted instantly. Oh. How disheartening. I’d stopped existing the moment they’d been given a chance to eat. Well, fair is fair I suppose. They’d stopped existing to me too in a sense. These creatures at the table didn’t seem anything like my friends from a moment ago.

Various slurping chewing sounds filtered into my consciousness as I focused on the food in front of me. Well fuck it. I could eat sea monster too. I tried to pick up one of the eel nigiri, but my chopsticks were shaking too badly for me to manage and I dropped it. I picked it up again with my fingers and ate it that way. It turned into cement in my mouth. I’m sure it was delicious but I could hardly taste it. I grabbed the sake bottle in easy reach in front of me and took a long pull to try and force it down my throat. I choked a bit but managed. At least I was numb to the alcohol all of a sudden.

Fuck. Just, fuck.

Jasper was hovering over his food, having pushed his plate forward while trying to get at it. He had his hands on the table and he was hunched over the surface like he was going to crawl up onto it. He was eating like a fucking dog.

Such pretty words. That toast had been some very pretty words. My “eternal” friends had abandoned me as surely as if they’d left and I was alone at a table with a pair of animals wearing the shapes of people I liked. They’d known it would be like this; I hated it in a very different way than I’d expected. It was more pathetic than frightening. They looked as pretty as ever, but nothing about how they moved was like a person should be able to move, as if even their very musculature had taken on some monstrous new configuration.

Alice was in less of a desperate rush than her mate. She was at least still exhibiting the ability to pick things up. Now that she was past her frenzy to get at the sea urchin she was picking up the remaining pieces of meat and tossing them into the air so she could catch them in her jaws with a snap. She practically swallowed them whole with each clangorous bite. Her eyes were cold and black and they slid past me completely as she scanned the room.

I picked up a piece of my roll and took a bite. I’m sure it was colorful and tasty and all that crap, but the effect was lost on me. I did my best to gag it down. Man, fuck everything if I wasn’t going to eat this goddamn dinner. At least a bit of it. Alice was going to have her satisfaction from all of this.

Alice’s gaze may have missed me, but Jasper’s sure didn’t. He looked up from his plate and let out a long low growl, something deep and guttural. He was staring right at me. Oh shit, that wasn’t supposed to happen. I jerked my arm wildly in panic and knocked over the extra glass of water in front of me. Dark water pooled on the table, washing away the delicate petals I’d plucked from the centerpiece. The half eaten bit of sushi fell somewhere on the table and I sat back on my heels, not quite having the good sense to try and run.

With slow deliberate menace he started to crawl up onto the table. He shouldered the whole flower vase out of the way as he started to advance. I suddenly found myself with my back to the wall, literally, having backed up unconsciously as far as I could manage.

Looking back I can’t say for certain if he would have really attacked me or not. We’d been playing with fire all day and he was on edge enough that he certainly could have made a sloppy and tragic mistake out of me. But he didn’t. So who can say if he really would have? It’s an academic discussion anyway since Alice had us covered with her so called broken and unfair powers.

What happened is that he put his hand down by mistake on an empty appetizer plate. It’s laughable really. Jasper would normally never make a mistake of that caliber; the man has a practically perfect sense of coordination. Except, in this particular case, Alice had pushed an empty plate with yellowtail bones on it across the table while he was engrossed in talking. There it had sat hidden just out of his sight behind the vase. As he’d advanced he’d never taken his eyes off me; when he put his hand down on the plate it had slid easily from beneath him across the wet surface of the table. A bunch of little random chance things that weren’t random at all.

And so the unthinkable happened, Jasper stumbled in his advance. Alice took advantage of his lapse in attention and snapped her teeth near his ear with a hiss, her jagged terrible maw just barely missing him.

He snapped back at her with teeth just as hideous, the sound of it amplified in my mind like a gunshot, but he sat back down again, growling quietly and licking egg off his lips. Too bad for me, because as Jasper retreated Alice advanced.

She had this horrible Cheshire smile, all teeth and madness. Everything about the moment felt a little unreal, but maybe that was the booze hitting me finally. Everything except her mouth that is, which was a stark sober certainty. It was like I was seeing it now clearly for the very first time. It looked more real than real, like someone had taken an eraser to the space in front of her lips and I was seeing through to what was underneath. It only extended to the space directly around her mouth but the skin there was a pale yellow-tan color, dusted over with faint spots of reddish discoloration. Perhaps that doesn’t sound like much, but compared to her normal washed out palette it was a shocking difference. More than that, there were little blemishes, slight imperfections. There was a little crease at the corner of her lips that I’d never noticed before and I’d practically spent the whole day already staring at her.

Her smile was still perfect and dazzling beneath her blackened lips. She had six sharp little incisors top and bottom and then some large wicked canines on either side of her mouth that nestled against each other top and bottom in the smile of a consummate carnivore. The incisors were small and pointed for rending meat, in contrast to a human’s flat front teeth, and the canines were at least twice as long as them and curved to a deadly point. The canines were sort of like a more aggressive version of what you’d see on a chimpanzee, but there was something almost felid in their suggestion as well. Even in the dim light her fangs were this eerie sparkling white—I found myself considering the smile of the great white shark for some reason, even though structurally they looked nothing alike.

I made the mistake of looking up at the ceiling. I know why I did it. I did it because I had to know. It was still a stupid thing to do. Her smile was floating there in the jumbled chaos of her reflection held above us by the bronze mirror of the ceiling. It was sharp, perfect, and completely unnatural. I’ve often seen a girl without a grin, but this was the first time I’d seen a grin without a girl. It was the most horrible thing I’d ever seen in my life.

She crawled towards me, one hand awkwardly clutching a handful of raw meat. I can’t explain what the difference was or why it felt that way, but it was exactly like being approached by a dangerous wild animal. There was no smile of reassurance or nod of recognition, she just seemed curious about me. Apparently she liked what she saw. When she got to my edge of the table she held her handful of flesh out to me. When I didn’t move she took a piece of it in her mouth and ate it, as if to show me it was safe.

I crawled forward, my heart beating so hard I could faint. At my first move she hissed and pulled her hand back. A moment later she thought better of it and offered her hand forward again. She took another piece out of her hand using her mouth, but this time she just let it dangle there clenched between her pearly fangs. It hung there red and sinful against her black cold lips. She leaned forward as far as she could while balancing there, crouched above me on the table. I accepted her invitation and closed the distance between us so I could bring my mouth to hers.

The meat wasn’t as slimy as I thought it might be. I was being silly of course, I’d had sushi before, so I should have known. Even without the rice or the seaweed the meat was still the same.

The kiss wasn’t as shameful as I though it’d be. I don’t know what I was doing freaking about it before. She was still just Alice. Her alien mouth was just as cool and soft as it had been earlier, even if it looked a good deal more sinister. It wasn’t any worse than kissing Jasper or Jacob.

I pulled back, taking my half of the tuna chunk with me. She still looked like a goddamn nightmare as she chewed but I wasn’t being menaced right now and against all odds we were actually sharing a meal in a restaurant even if the whole thing had gone inevitably pear shaped and ended up weird as fuck. I moved forward again as docile as could be, ready to take a piece from her hand. That moment could have been nice almost if I hadn’t followed the hint of movement that I spotted out of the corner of my eye and ruined everything.

I think that’s one of my problems. I never know when to look away like everybody else does. Looking away from unpleasant things is a much much safer policy. From where I was crouched I could see our waitress, Rebecca. She was slumped against the outside wall just beyond the doorway of the room, pressing the check holder with our bill in it against her mouth to stifle any noise. She didn’t look ok.

I watched her as she tried to wipe at the beading sweat on her forehead and then as she dropped the check holder by mistake. A shaking started in her knees, a slow steady disruption that worked its way up her body to her hands and shoulders. Her fingers groped blindly in the air for the check holder that was no longer there. Then she was leaning forward gasping for air in deep shuddering breaths. She pressing her hands to her mouth again after a moment, desperately trying to keep it all in. All of that in the space of twenty seconds.

I’d never seen someone so viscerally terrified before. What a sinking feeling in my breast, to know that this was all my fault. It was us. The three of us had fucking done this to her. Honestly, I couldn’t decide what was worse, that we had caused this, or that I didn’t have the good sense to be as freaked out right now as she was. After all, I’d seen the jaws of death and leaned in for a kiss.

Wait, wasn’t I in the middle of something? I snapped back to attention and Alice was trying to look over in the direction I’d been staring. Luckily she had the wrong angle to see around the corner, but this was bad. Across the table I saw Jasper start to slink towards the door. No, this was very bad. I couldn’t let this happen.

I did the only thing I could think of. I grabbed her offered hand, brought it to my mouth, and bit her as hard as I fucking could on the side of her hand. Egg yolk, raw fish, and the cinnamon perfume of my Alice. Another brilliant plan by Bella.

She recoiled in surprise and pain with a force that knocked me back as her hand shot out of my mouth. I heard a short keening screech, like a fox would make. Oh fuck. Jasper was going to kill me for doing that. I was sure of it.

“Cygne. Cygne,” I tried to spit the word out through a mouth that felt like mush, not sure if I was saying it right or if it would help.

I felt a heavy body on top of me and I opened my eyes in time to see a gruesome maw opened wide in front of me, the whole thing unhinged and cavernous. I looked at the neck, expecting to see the silver necklace, but it wasn’t there. Oh. It was Alice instead. She leaned forward until her mouth was hovering above my shoulder. I could feel the two points of her upper canines just barely scratching against the bare flesh of the top of my shoulder. She was shaking with the effort of holding back for some reason. What was she waiting for? Had she heard me say cygne? In any case she didn’t look like she was going to make it. I’d bit her and now she was going to to bite me. That made sense. This was going to hurt. I was glad I’d taken those sake shots beforehand. I felt like I should close my eyes for this, but I couldn’t look away.