The first thing I see when I wake up is Edward’s face swimming into view. He’s perched in the corner, arms crossed with a frown affixed on his face, directed towards one particularly unlucky tile of the floor. My sudden consciousness no doubt registers with him immediately, and he rushes to my side, almost overbearing in his concern.
“Slow down, cowboy,” I tell him. My voice comes out in a rusty croak. Before he can say anything in protest, I do my best to shift back so I’m sitting up against the pillows. Pain shoots through my side, and I wince, trying not to think about what sorry state my ribs are in. For all I know, it could just be soup in there.
He’s wringing his hands together, looking and sounding lost. “It wasn’t supposed to be like this, Bella. We didn’t know. I’m so sorry. I should have been there quicker.” As he carries on, I let my eyelids flutter most of the way shut and arrange my face into what I think is a magnanimous position. It’s a weird thought to have, but with those bright and worried eyes he looks so young―as if matching the rest of his face for the first time.
“I won’t lie, I’ll probably need a hot minute to process what happened. But it’s definitely not your fault. I thought he had my mom,” I say, forcing down a residual wave of panic. “But when I got there, it was just.” If I keep talking, there’ll be too many tears to blink away, so I trail off, abstaining from reliving my dance with death any further.
Speak of the devil and she shall appear―my mom bursts through the door, meaning the rest of our debrief has to wait until later. Worry splits open her face and practically spills out of her. For a brief moment I think she’ll disregard whatever state of disrepair I’m in and squeeze me in a hug. In bits and pieces, I gather the fake car accident story that Edward has given her and do my best to keep pace with her hurried words.
She doesn’t stay long, even though she clearly wants to. When she leaves it’s for the sake of my continued rest, and I’m only too happy to oblige.
“Edward,” I murmur when it’s once again just me and him in the room, asking the questions that have quickly become urgent in my mind. “What happened? Where’s James?”
“He’s dead.” He draws the blinds closed―it’s gotten late. “We don’t really know what happened. When I got there, he was in flames. We don’t know much more than that; I was hoping you did,” he says. “But either way, we’re likely to find out soon enough. We’ll make sure of that. The most important thing is that you aren’t in any danger anymore.”
With the assurance of safety, it’s like a switch flips in my brain, and exhaustion rapidly overtakes me. Even still, it’s hard to ignore that something between us has changed. Uncertainty has captured us; he doesn’t know if he can keep me in his world, and I don’t know if I’m welcome anymore.
The dream that I have seems to be my brain’s desperate attempt at filling in the plot holes from the ballet studio disaster. The first bit is true to life: James throwing me viciously against the wall, the split second between me trying to keep my balance and buckling to the floor. Instead of slipping out of consciousness, I instead blur into the role of some out-of-body observer, watching as James’s descent upon me is interrupted by a split-second attack. I struggle to focus on who it is―curiously, it’s as if their face is blank, and before long my whole vision is engulfed in flames.
Familiarity wells up within me when I see that figure, that mysterious guardian angel. It’s of some significant kind: this isn’t one of those seventh-grade math teacher dreams.
Don’t get me wrong, I still love the guy. But between Edward outwardly feeling responsible for my near-death and my own uncertainty about my future, it feels like whatever we are, whatever motions we’re going through, it’s hard to―I don’t know what word I’d use for it. Heal, maybe.
I tell him as much, one day when he’s driving me home. After mending both my bones and my relationship with Charlie, I had settled uncertainly back in Forks, clutching onto every mundanity like it’s a little lifeline.
“I understand,” he says, staring out at the road.
He takes it graciously and gives me a light hug, free of romantic intention, before I turn to climb the stairs to the front porch. He’s been thinking the same thing, I can tell, and I wonder if that’s why it’s so easy. Or maybe he’s just not convinced it’s entirely the end.
It’s weird, how much sunny days were reframed when they were a piece of the great Cullen mystery. With the unexpected weather, it’s a lot easier to relax, stretch my legs out in Biology, send Edward a cheeky “Lab’s much easier without you” text, and enjoy the feeling of the first true day of spring. To hell with SPF―I’m desperately undersunned, and the UV rays seem more like a friend than an enemy to me right now.
After school, I drive down to the beach, deciding on making the most of this opportunity. I have to park pretty far away, having lost better spaces to the dozens of others with the same idea (and the audacity to arrive earlier).
Standing out from the other beach inhabitants is a particular odd figure perched on the ledge, overlooking where concrete turns to sand. Her side profile is chillingly recognizable, an elegant vision if not for her legs swinging back and forth, black boots knocking against the wall. She’s bundled up, jacket draped around her shoulders like a cape, gloves that go up to her elbows, and a wide-brimmed, floppy sun hat adorned with a yellow ribbon: perfect for whatever the opposite of blending in is.
It’s audacious for her to fly this close to the sun. More audacious than the Cullens would dare to be, and I can’t help but feel like this isn’t a coincidence. Fear rises in me, numbing my hands, and I clench my fists to force a feeling out of them. I start walking towards her. If there must be a confrontation, then this is probably the safest place for it. Running would be entirely useless, but talking, maybe I stand a chance.
It’s only when I’m a few steps away that she―Victoria―acknowledges my presence. She pats the spot beside her, and I dare to sit down on the ledge.
“A rather different type of sun exposure my kind worry about, I’m afraid." I suppose this is our icebreaker, our small talk about the weather.
She looks at me, or at least I think she does. It’s the sort of imagined eye contact you make with someone who’s wearing sunglasses. A little out of place, a little out of time. She certainly acts the part of the aristocrat.
I feel a need to slice through whatever this tension is with bluntness of my own. “Are you here to kill me?” There’s something that spurs me towards combativeness, like I’m already anticipating a denial to come.
A performative exhale, then twin clacking sounds of the sides of her sunglasses being folded up. She stares at me and grins.
“Well, I am getting rather tired of this look.” Her eyes are pools of sunny yellow, and they give me a wink.
I tense up, head to toe. “I will scream. That is a promise.” Why the hell are her eyes that color? Blurrily, I try to pull together my memories of the last time I actually saw her face. Baseball, cloudy skies, long shadows cast by trees.
“Relax. If I wanted you dead then I would have just let James finish the job, wouldn’t I? I didn’t save you from that awful fate for nothing. Trust me, I empathize with you here. Being hunted by James is an utterly undesirable position. Was, rather. He won’t be troubling any other young women in the future.”
What? “What?” I can’t pull together anything else to say.
She relishes that I’m on the back foot, and I hate it. “Although maybe I suppose I could just be waiting to kill you myself.” She taps her chin in fake contemplation.
I roughly push myself off the ledge and drop to the sand, vibrating with fear, confusion, irritation. “Fine, then. Let me know where and when and I’ll be sure to clear my schedule.”
“Oh don’t be like that, Miss Bella.” Victoria says, with an exaggerated pout. “I was only kidding. But you do owe me,” she calls after me―I’ve already started heading back to my truck, day ruined―“and I will come to collect.”
It was Victoria who saved me. I’m wrapped in blankets on the couch, idly listening to the sounds of baseball on the TV with Charlie, whose company is much appreciated. I don’t think I can really be alone right now.
Edward’s message comes back quick. That was who I suspected, somewhat. It was almost certainly another vampire. Having confirmation is crucial, Alice currently trying to see what happens.
The initial period of awkwardness between us had faded, leaving behind a quiet comfort. It’s nice, and somehow it feels like we’re closer than before, more open with each other now that we’re just friends.
Alice is really inconclusive right now. But nothing indicates you’re in any danger. She won’t turn you or kill you.
That’s a relief, but tinges of worry still linger on my nerves. Good to know.
My mind swirls with thoughts, mostly on the woman who had saved my life and expected something for it, plunging me into uncertainty and fear. There was a baser fear with James, someone who used his cunning instinct for a disgusting mindless purpose, merely to conquer and kill. But this, this was different. At least death would have been certain.
Do you want to sleep here tonight? You can always take the couch. Alice says she wants to talk with you.
It’s probably better than my all-too-easily breached room, and I accept the invitation easily.
“I’m spending the night at the Cullens’ tonight, is that alright?”
Charlie frowns. “Thought you guys weren’t dating anymore.”
“Yeah, but we’re still friends.” My instincts want to invent a fake biology project to further justify me going over, but I bite my tongue instead. Every lie I tell him makes me worry, like I’m purposely widening some sort of rift between us.
Luckily, I think the contentious incident of months past was a bit of a shock to the system. Many heart-to-hearts later, it feels like he knows I value my independence but finds ways to make sure I’m still being safe. “Call me when you get there, alright?”
“Sure thing. Love you, dad.”
When I get to the Cullens’, I sit heavily on the couch and let my sleepover bag drop to the floor, dialing the number to the landline that he still prefers. “Hey, just got here. Talk to you in the morning.”
Alice sits next to me and leans over. “Thanks for letting Bella come over,” she chirps into the phone, before I hang up.
Groaning, I collapse into Alice’s shoulder.
“You’ll be fine, Bella,” she tells the top of my head. “Your near-death days are over.”
“Because these are my regular-death days?”
She laughs, baring her teeth at me. “Wanna watch a movie?” She waggles a DVD case in front of me enticingly.
“Wait, I was under the impression that I came over so we could have a strategy session.”
Edward chooses this moment to make his grand entrance through the front door, Jasper coming in behind him. “We don’t have anything to strategize upon yet. We’re taking shifts in twos to surveil the area, which is par for the course for any nomad―but she’s distressingly hard to pin down.”
“What Edward means is that you came over because I missed you and wanted to hang out with my best friend.”
“What Edward means,” Edward parrots, “is that Victoria’s unpredictability is dangerous, and she’s very good at covering her tracks.”
“Firstly, you said she’s only been feeding from animals. Secondly, she hasn’t made plans to kill anyone. If she was, I’d know.”
Edward looks at her for a few seconds, seemingly but not assuredly silent, and then sighs. “No animated movies, please. I’m tired of Disney.”
Alice laughs and puts the DVD she’s holding back on the shelf.
A week passes and I still see her everywhere she’s not. There’s a red-haired woman on a park bench who seems like she’s waiting for someone. Someone smartly dressed in the narrow aisle at the convenience store, pressing her lips together in dissatisfaction. During the night, she drifts in and out of my dreams. The feeling is not a kind one.
Today's culprit is another woman with fiery hair at the bookstore. I hold my breath almost by instinct, but there’s nothing particularly threatening about her. She’s squatting, thumbing through something from the bottom shelf, maybe a woman on a weekend out, one who appreciates a good book. I can respect that. I breathe out, laughing at myself to chase away the paranoia, resisting the urge to get closer so I can make sure she doesn’t have her face.
In the end it doesn’t matter whether by chance or desire, as the authors in the next aisle start too far in the alphabet. I double back, sidling past the woman, stopping just a little past her. My eyes roam the shelves, painfully aware of her presence, and when I finally flick my eyes down to take direct stock of her, she isn’t reading anymore.
“Ready to go?” She asks, as if we had come here together, closing the book. Knowing her, we probably did―I just wasn’t aware of it.
“Not going to buy that?”
“Oh, it wasn’t interesting in the least.”
Hackles raised, I shoot back: “Well, I’d like to finish up here before we go, if you don’t mind.”
Unperturbed, she sits cross-legged on the floor, pale red long coat pooling around her.
I find the book I’m looking for―an author Angela recommended―and feeling spiteful, I decide to open and read the first few pages before making a judgment. I collect books with the frenzy of squirrels before winter, and I’m not normally so discerning before making my impulse purchases (which is probably to my detriment). But this time, I think Victoria can stand to wait.
And wait she does. She squints up at me, craning her neck to read the reviews on the back cover.
“If it’s good, I’ll have to borrow it, if you don’t mind. I’ve become emotionally invested at this point.”
“Great. Here you go,” I say, placing the book firmly in her hands. “I assume my debt has been repaid, and I am now in good standing with you. It’s been a nice chat, but I'm gonna motor.”
I don’t know what about her makes me so snippy. Maybe it’s because this situation I’ve been forced into is exhaustingly suffocating, and if I’m annoying enough, I’ll provoke her into tipping her hand. Maybe it’s the smug way she dangles her unknown intentions above me like a sword by a thread. Whatever it is, I take great pleasure in walking away from her, wishing I had heels so I could clack my way away.
I’m not long outside the store when Victoria catches up, handing the book to me. The receipt is tucked into the front cover.
“Now that’s two you owe me.”
I sigh. “What do you want?”
“Do you promise not to get mad?”
“I’m already mad.”
She smiles wryly. “Walk with me.”
There’s something refreshing about having another liaison between me and the vampire world, infuriating though she is, and my curiosity keeps sidetracking the conversation between us. Countless burning questions about Victoria rush to my mind, chief of them what she wants of me, and why she spends the days alone in a bookstore rather than kidnapping unlucky hikers to drain and discard. She tells me about herself, and her past, with a refreshing and disarming candor.
“I have a strong awareness of threats," she is saying. "Presumably your friends are frustrated with me for being so difficult to track. My plans come together on instinct―I do what I must to protect myself. Many a time when without that upper hand I would have died.”
“Is that your power, then?”
She scoffs. “Power. As if we are children’s playthings to collect. It is merely what we were as humans, our strengths sharpened and focused to a purpose. Much of the sharpening is done when one is alive. Lives are not often easy.”
It’s a rather metaphorical explanation, but a far more complete one than any I’ve ever been given.
“Eventually, it became clear to me that slowly but surely, over the years he tracked me, that James was forcing me into a losing position.” She talks about it like it’s some sort of game. “But there is a strength in that, which is that you do not turn complacent. Seeing the bigger picture was my way forward. Let him think he’d won, then wait for the time to strike.”
I scrunch my nose, processing the story. “You should really be thanking me, don't you think? It sounds like I was the distraction you needed to win.”
“Is that so?” Our meandering path has taken us to the outskirts of town. We're in the middle of wooden steps that snake upwards onto a rock outcropping, by the sea. She stops there, leaning on the railing, and looks at me in full force. An amused spark in her curled mouth finds its way into my veins, an electric current of something challenging and tremendous.
There’s no one around. The realization sinks heavily within me.
I take a step back, and my back collides softly with the railing on the other side. Just me, and her.
She sees this thought cross my face, and her smile widens.
“I suppose you're right. Let’s call it even then; I won’t demand anything of you. Really and truly. But I'll tell you what I want anyway. Just out of the goodness of your sweet and tender heart, how would you feel about donating a little blood today?”
There’s a lush curve to her words like a warm breeze, blanketing my thoughts. Why can’t I think right now? I open my mouth but somehow can’t muster the air in my lungs to produce noise.
“I,” my breath catches. “I-“
She steps forward, and her cool finger catches the underside of my jaw and trails down, cutting a path of ice through my burning face and neck.
“It won’t hurt,” she whispers, “and you won’t die.”
I don’t know whether her words have the ring of truth to them or whether I’m so far gone that I’m just hearing what I want to hear. This is the woman that saved my life, I say to myself. She saved my life. She’s probably not evil. But even then, are vampires particularly well-known for their self-control? She seems confident now, but wasn't it some profound challenge for Edward to refrain from killing me? What was it that he said, about everything about vampires being designed to lure you in? Something about predators? My brain struggles to recall it and then soundly rejects the notion. Dammit, brain, I thought you were supposed to be protecting me-
“And, I’ll never bother you again.” The words are lilting, almost in a singsong. Her eyes are darkening pools of honey, and I wonder how I must look to them. I’m still aware of my own presence, however dimly―arching into the tiniest bit of contact between our skin, pulse thrumming against her finger.
And traitor to myself that my neck is, it also facilitates a shuddering nod, and at that Victoria takes another step in. “That is,” she says, snaking her arms under mine, pressing me against the railing. “Unless you want me to.” Her low voice is devastating. Oh my god. Oh my, fucking god-
She presses her lips to my neck and it’s so searing that I almost don’t notice the piercing feeling on my skin a second later. She hums a high note of satisfaction that vibrates against my throat and I’m fucked, I’m well and truly fucked.