A/N: Back! Tough chapter, but then I always say that.
This isn't the final chapter, but in some ways it might feel like it. As always, thank you all so, so much for all your thoughts last time. Hope you enjoy, and see you at the end!
Chapter 25: Love
I knelt in the grass, feeling immovable hands gripping my arms and shoulders. Sulpicia's iron grip encircled my wrist.
As I stared up into his painfully beautiful face, full of agony, even amidst all the horror I allowed myself to take comfort in one thought. When Beau went to that place and he didn't make it back—I knew Sulpicia would have no more use for me. She would come back and execute me for my rebellion, and to prevent my doing what I had nearly been able to do in this clearing ever again. She would want to remove me from the equation as soon as possible.
Sulpicia's fingers were clamped hard against my skin, and of course she knew my every thought. And I heard her thoughts in return—as always, at once gentle, and coldly calculating.
I will not kill you, she thought. After all, should Salvatore kill him—well, I know you will then hate him more than you hate me. And if you must focus on one target first to attempt to satisfy your vengeance... well, it will be to my advantage were he to have an enemy as threatening and resourceful as you.
I bowed my head, in acceptance of my fate, wretched as it was. How I wished that they would go all the way, here and now—tear me apart, and set me aflame. Because I knew the horror of the destiny that awaited me—unlike before when I had tried to die, when I had believed I had no one but myself to blame for his death, if I knew his killer existed out there, I could not submit myself so willingly to destruction. I would have to go on, burning in the agony of his loss and the neverending hatred of those who had done it, until I found a way to get my hands on them. Sulpicia was right—much as I might hate her for driving Beau to this, I would hate the one who had actually done the deed far more.
I closed my eyes, and welcomed the pain.
I came to slowly.
The first thing I was aware of was the burning. Everywhere, my neck, my arms, my legs, my torso—as though I had been torn apart, and reassembled with acid glue.
I recalled suddenly then all that had happened. Strange, I had not experienced such disorientation since my change—the unfamiliar sensation made me feel almost human.
The pain was savage—the vampire venom that was necessary to reattach lost limbs burned like fire, an echo of the tortures of that first transformation. Not so terrible as the horror of Beau's scent on that first day in Biology class, but a vague echo of it. Yet those were nothing to the panic that seized me.
I opened my eyes to a clear blue sky. The sun had now passed its zenith—I'd been unaware for hours. It must all be over by now. Sulpicia would not have ordered my reconstruction until then.
My hellish fate awaited me. Vengeance—however long it took. But how would I fight Salvatore, and Jonathan and Alexa, where even Sulpicia had failed? I would need Archie's visions to help me evade them for now. There was someone in Brenden's memory, I recalled, someone with a powerful gift. Perhaps that would be a place to start, as I worked to construct the army I would need...
A new disturbing thought occurred to me—Sulpicia's resources as the effective head of the Volturi were not inconsiderable. Assuming that she had made it safely away as she had intended, she would likely grant willing aid to anything I might try. The one who had sent Beau to his death, my best ally.
I closed my eyes again, tightly. I didn't want to think about it yet. Not yet. Instead, I pictured in my mind his perfect face—not his immortal one, which in our short time together had always been guarded or full of conflict, any sliver of happiness snatched away from us by Sulpicia's games—but his human one, smiling with pure radiance as he stood across from me as we spoke our vows, his sky blue eyes wide with joy and wonder. I pictured it clearly, going over each and every detail. When I got up again, my future would be one of violence, my chest an empty pit of black hate. But for now, I would remember the warmth.
"About time you woke up," came a drawling voice somewhere to my left. "I'd call you Sleeping Beauty, but—wow, watching all your little bits twitching and trying to come back together, your vibe's definitely more zombie than princess. My skin is still crawling."
I'd already registered some details of my surroundings in a distant sort of way, but now I focused on them. The gentle lapping of water some distance away, the taste of salt water on the air. Gritty sand at my back. I opened my eyes again.
Julie Black was sitting on a twisted piece of driftwood a little ways away, reclining back on one elbow as though relaxing on a couch at her home. We were on a beach, in the shade of a small alcove, though just a few meters away the sun glittered off the white sand.
Julie Black gestured vaguely toward the shoreline. "Figured we might as well stick close to water. You know, in case we still needed a quick getaway. Sam seemed like she was giving up, but I couldn't be totally sure, and better safe than sorry."
She didn't bother to explain any of the context of this, but I got enough from her thoughts to understand the gist of it.
"You should have let her kill me," I murmured. My own voice grated against my ears—unnatural, metallic.
She rolled her eyes. "Well, there's gratitude for you."
I wouldn't have expected even Julie Black to be so strangely blasé. Her world overrun by bloodsuckers, many of her sisters likely to be killed as open war erupted. And Beau—Beau—
I stared at her, and the question hung like tar on my tongue. I couldn't seem to force the words out.
She was still thinking about Sam—being cut off from the pack, an outsider now—but then her eyes turned to me, and I knew she read the question in my face. Memories played in her mind—asking Sulpicia for guards to help protect me. Mentally fighting off Sam. And, at last, a call from Sulpicia.
My eyes didn't move from her face. A strange feeling was creeping through me—yet it wasn't quite the happiness or relief I would have expected. There must be some trick, some lie here. Beau was dead. He couldn't have survived.
Julie Black eyed me warily, as though I might be an unreasoning animal about to turn feral. "He should be here soon," she said finally, speaking aloud. "He's okay. So, yay for you. You don't have to run off and get yourself killed like a crazy."
I swallowed against the burn in my neck, where my severed head had been replaced on my shoulders. In one movement I was sitting up.
"How?" I whispered, desperate. "He was... Sulpicia knew... Are you certain she hasn't somehow..."
She rolled her eyes again. "Tricked me? Made me think I was hearing his voice when I wasn't? Hey, I'm not saying the queen of darkness doesn't love to lie, but what would be the point now? She might be psychotic, but it's usually a psychotic that at least sort of makes sense."
She was right. Of course she was. It hit me in a sudden wave, a shearing downpour—Beau was alive. He had succeeded, and he was alive. It doused the blazing flames of agony in an instant, and I sagged in on myself, with a relief so profound I could have cried.
However, another feeling was already welling up beneath it. It tasted sharp and bitter in my mouth, and burned against my insides in a wholly new way.
I'd given them up as dead. A thousand faceless strangers—no, I had already accepted the world erupting in the flames of Armageddon as a forgone conclusion. I would have dragged Beau away with me to safety, leaving him to forever burn in the guilt of wondering if he could have done something. For everything Sulpicia had put him through, put Julie Black through, what I had almost done was far worse.
I was nearly overcome by this thought. Beau had succeeded—but I had failed. I'd failed him. He deserved a happy ending, but I didn't. Not when I would have taken the chance for the same away from so many others.
Julie Black was still watching me. "You don't look happy," she observed.
As I stared at the sand beneath me, my hands gripped so tightly together my knuckles were white through my skin, at last I raised my eyes briefly to meet hers.
"You didn't try to stop him from going," I whispered, my voice still grating like the sound of metal on metal, inhuman. "You knew he would succeed."
She shrugged. "Actually no, I didn't. I guess we all knew it was a longshot, but the queen did a good job of hiding just how far a longshot it was until you laid it all out there."
She shook her head. "But I didn't have much choice, did I? It was something he had to do. Things sucked enough without me making it harder on him trying to stand in his way. Keeping you from getting chewed on by Sam and the others was about all I could do for him in the end."
I gazed at her for a long minute. At last, I closed my eyes and let out a long breath. "He really should have chosen you," I murmured.
"Yeah, he should have," she agreed. She paused, and for a moment all was silent but for the murmur of the waves against the sand.
At last she said slowly, haltingly, "I really don't get you, to be honest. You... love him. A lot. So much it's hard for normal people to comprehend. But how can you, after all this time, still not understand him?"
I'd opened my eyes again, and I felt myself flinch back slightly from the words.
Julie Black continued, "When you thought Beau was dead that one time, you ran off to kill yourself. Did you really think that was what he would want? For you to leave your bloodsucker family to just pick up the pieces? When Beau got you to stay behind from the fight against the army of bloodsucker newbies, because he was so terrified of something happening to you, you just did it—even though it meant if something happened to one of them, he'd be left blaming himself over it for all eternity. And if he'd done what you wanted him to do just now, he'd have blamed himself forever for what happened to all those people, and you'd have blamed yourself, and you'd both have been miserable together."
She threw up her hands in exasperation. "What is wrong with you? I always thought you bloodsuckers were supposed to be smart. You told me before you had the choice about how to love him—this is how you decide to do it?"
I gazed back at her silently. Feeling the accusations prick me with each word. There were no excuses I could give, or wanted to give—yet I found myself considering each of her questions seriously. The reasons behind each of my decisions over the course of my short time with Beau, such as they were.
"You're... right," I murmured softly at last. "I have tried to love him as best I know how, to sacrifice all I can so that I may take away just a little of the suffering I have inflicted on him. I have become a far better person through my love for him than I was before. But, in trying to do as what I feel is best for him—I have indeed often been selfish. Again and again."
I closed my eyes. "Being what I am," I said softly, wretchedly, "my future is not like yours, even with your extended life. Beau has truly been the one thing that has brought light into my dark world, joy to my meaningless existence, and in losing him I would not have a finite time to endure the pain. There would be no natural end to which I could look forward, even as I continued to live and hope to do some good in the world for his sake. I have already lived longer than most humans are likely to—and there would be decades, centuries of nothingness ahead of me. That—that is more crushing than I can ever describe. Death is the only hope, the only escape from such a prison."
Julie Black didn't answer right away. Instead she gazed out at the ocean, as the waves pushed and pulled up and down the beach in a gentle rhythm. Trying to process, trying to decide how she felt.
"It does sound bad when you put it like that," she admitted at last. "But still—you love him that much, there has to be some good you could find to do with it. Even if Beau wasn't around."
She wasn't looking at me, still gazing out at the water, expression distant. I knew the wisdom in what she said, at least on a theoretical level. At the very least, I could have tried to find a way to let him go and do as he needed to do, and simply found peace in the knowledge that, when he was lost, I could follow him after. But while I didn't fear my own end, the idea of his not existing somewhere in the world—
She glanced in my direction, and saw the agony that twisted my face. My arms rose to wrap around myself as I felt I might, at the very thought, break to pieces again.
Julie Black looked away again, uncomfortable. My poise, my seemingly supreme confidence had always frustrated her. She had always wanted to see that confidence shaken—now I heard it in her thoughts as she had a maddening compulsion to say something that would make me feel better.
If it had been any other time, I might have laughed—reduced to the pity of werewolves. How the mighty had fallen.
"Well, whatever," she said, frowning down the beach. "Guess it all worked out. A bloodsucker happy ending. You two, together forever."
I found my own eyes drawn to the shifting ocean waters as well. The brilliant sunlight, glittering off the waves in uneven patches.
"We'll see if it's quite that simple," I murmured. "But he is alive—and that is enough of a happy ending for me, regardless of what may come next."
I turned my eyes away from the waters to her instead. Her scent was, as always, overwhelmingly repugnant. In spite of the guilt roiling inside me, scalding and unbearable, I felt a smile touch my lips.
"Thank you, Julie Black," I said.
She blinked and glanced back unwillingly in my direction. Her eyebrows sank and her mouth formed a thin, resentful line, yet her thoughts were more startled than hostile. "What's that for?" she asked. She eyed my face warily, as the open warmth and gratitude swelled in my chest.
I laughed softly. "You already know. For making a happy ending possible. I suppose I won't ever be able to repay you now."
She stared back at me for a second, then looked away again, scowling in sudden irritation and embarrassment. "Yeah, yeah," she muttered. "Whatever." She lay down against the driftwood, turning her back to me. She added in a resentful mutter, "You're still not off the hook. The question's not going to go away."
I could see where her thoughts were, so I didn't need to ask for any clarification. The question. The question of what I would do next time I was faced with the possibility Beau might leave this world.
I could only call what I had done to Beau a betrayal. But if faced with some variation of the same circumstances again, would my answer next time be different? The ending Julie Black believed Beau and I would have now may not be so inevitable as she assumed. Beau deserved someone who would support him in the way he needed. Even if he would accept me back with open arms—should I let him?
We both gazed out at the deep blue sky, as passing clouds cast shadows overhead.
It was late afternoon by the time I reached the spot. Jules has taken Edythe a long way from where we'd parted ways, plus being the middle of the day I decided it best to be careful, sticking to the shadows and making sure there wouldn't be any occasion for a wayward human to somehow spot me. The last thing we needed now was for me to end up on the news, and Sulpicia decide she didn't like me so much after all.
The guard Sulpicia had sent with me trailed some distance behind as I followed Jules's pungent odor. I'd barely detected any traces of Edythe, given that she had never touched the ground, but I did catch three unfamiliar trails—all with the same foul, burning note as Jules. I was sure it couldn't possibly be good, but the scents were old enough that they had to have been made before the phone call. If something were wrong, Jules would have surely said something.
It wasn't until my feet lightly touched the sand of the beach that, on a light breeze curling toward me, I finally tasted Edythe's familiar fragrance on the wind. And I felt some of the lingering tension in my neck and shoulders finally relax.
My eyes quickly swept the area. The two guards Sulpicia had sent were there—they were taking shelter from the sun, just in the shadow of the treeline. The guard who had come with me had already gone to join them. My gaze fell on a small, shadowy alcove beside a cliff, I caught a glimpse of color. Again I tasted familiar, welcome scents on the wind.
I approached with light steps, my form casting a shadow over the sand beside me. Only the hood over my head kept my skin from glittering like diamonds.
I came to a stop just on the edge of the shadows, and they were there—Jules with her russet skin, sprawled out on a piece of driftwood, eyes closed, along with another, smaller form, sitting in the sand, stock still as a statue.
Edythe's torn clothing betrayed exactly where she had been broken—a frayed ring around her thigh, loose threads hanging off her left shoulder. The disconnected material was rumpled and sagging where it had been sheared off. Her right pant leg was completely missing from the mid calf down, and a long split ran up one wrist of her jacket. The white scarring of each break stood out starkly against her pale skin, where venom had been used to reattach the limbs—the jagged scar ringing her neck most obvious of all.
The sight was enough to shock me into stillness once again. She was every bit as beautiful as she had always been—yet I would never escape that I was the one who had done this to her. That I had hurt her.
She turned her eyes slowly to look at me. Eyes of purest gold, brilliant as the sun, even in the shade of the alcove.
Jules opened her eyes, and sitting up, gave me a lazy wave with two fingers. "Yo," she said. "There you are. Glad to see you're alive. Thanks for, you know, saving us from the world going all Night of the Bloodsuckers."
I blinked, and my gaze shifted to hers. In spite of my churning thoughts, I felt my mouth flicker in a ghost of a smile anyway. "No problem. How many man points do I get?"
She shrugged. "We'll negotiate. Might not be as many as you think. You did pretty good, but I'm not sure yet if you're going to stick the landing."
She looked briefly between the two of us, then slowly climbed to her feet. She beat some of the sand from her clothes. "Well, guess you two could use some time to—well, whatever it is you leeches do after averting world disaster."
She sauntered past me then, giving me a casual slap on the shoulder as she went. However, as she glanced over her shoulder, and her eyes met mine, for a moment they were full of conflicting emotions—
Then she was off, jogging down the beach. As she hit the treeline, I saw her form explode, in a mass of muscle and fur. I watched the place she had gone for a moment.
"She'll be back," murmured a gentle voice behind me. "Once we've had time to... talk."
I hesitated—then slowly turned back around to face her.
I felt like we should be celebrating. Like I should be throwing my arms around her, kissing her with all the dizzying passion we couldn't quite have back when I was human, and maybe have the honeymoon we didn't quite get before right here. Like we knew we would never have to be separated again.
Instead, I just stared down at her. Wondering if, in spite of her final words to me, she might be angry after all, reprimand me as she had once when I'd evaded Archie's visions to run off to La Push in spite of the danger she was sure I was putting myself in. Her face was more sad than angry, but there was something in her expression—something that warned that what she had to say wasn't good.
She reached out with a delicate hand, and patted the sand beside her, smoothing it out as she did so as though to make it more comfortable for me. "Will you sit with me for a moment?" she asked, in that strangely formal, flawlessly polite way that took me back so many months, to the early days in Biology. The days when she was still such a mystery to me.
Automatically I reached up and undid the clasp on my cloak, letting it fall to the sand behind me. Then I was sitting beside her before I'd given myself time to consciously think about it. Maybe it was being with her, who made moving and acting like a human into an art form, but I was suddenly aware of my own still lacking skill. As far as acting human went, I had a lot of practice ahead of me.
"It seems I'm in Julie Black's debt once again," she said conversationally. "You must have picked up the other scents—Samantha and some of the other wolves were here. I won't bore you with the details, but—it's largely thanks to her actions I was not forced to pay for my violation of the treaty."
This brought me up short. "Sam was trying to—" But there so many bloodsuckers here, so many that ate actual humans. She couldn't really have— "Didn't she know what was happening?" I heard myself ask. "Why would she go out of her way to—"
Edythe reached out to gently touch my hand, and I fell silent.
"She had her reasons," she said simply, soothingly. "That's all over now. I just wanted you to know. Julie Black made a great sacrifice for us—for you."
I nodded, settling down slightly. I still felt cold at the idea that Edythe had been in danger while I was away and I hadn't known it, that I could have come back to find she had been—but I refused to let myself dwell on it. Instead, I felt another swell of gratitude. Jules really was the best friend I'd never deserved—still, I was distracted by the odd note of wistfulness in Edythe's voice.
"I forgot to thank her when I saw her," I said at last, mostly to break the silence. "I'll have to give her double thanks."
It was quiet again, and I crossed my legs, staring out at the ocean. "So," I said at last.
"So," she echoed softly. She sighed and closed her eyes. "Beau, I—owe you an apology, once again. You were right to do as you did. I'm—more glad than I can say, that things have turned out as they have."
I smiled at her, though her tone still left me hesitant. The lingering distance, the hint of some coming blow.
"I'm glad things turned out like they did too," I said. "But... I'm sorry too. I hurt you. And, well—if all that with Sam really happened, then I nearly as good as got you killed. I—won't ever forgive myself for that. But I'll do better. I won't let it happen again."
Edythe's eyes had opened, and she was regarding me once more. Her golden eyes seemed to burn in the shadows. She whispered, "About that, Beau. Is there... really a future for us?"
Her words were no more than a breath. Even though I heard each with perfect clarity, for a moment I couldn't compute.
Then I was suddenly kneeling in front of her, my hands holding hers between mine.
"Of course there is," I said fervently. "We're finally together, and there's nothing standing in our way. If you hate me for what I did, I could accept that, but—"
"Do you trust me?"
The words cut across mine, low and intense. I stared back at her, confused.
She clarified, slowly, gently, "If this all happened again, would you trust me not to do what I just did to you a second time?"
"If you do," she murmured, "you shouldn't. I'm glad of the way things turned out—but that is purely the benefit of hindsight. You will never be able to trust me, not in that way. You deserve better."
I looked down, where I was still holding her slender hands between mine. Then I looked up again. "And... you're just going to decide that," I said finally. "And I'm not even going to get a say."
She laughed a little, though there was no humor in it. "No, I've already learned that particular lesson. I won't try to force my own decisions on you. But I want you to think about what has happened, beyond just your feelings in this moment. Think about—not forgiving me for past wrongs, but who I am now.
"You already know love is more than simply desire. It's—safety, trust. You need to be able to trust me, to let you do the right thing when the time comes. But I can't give you that. My weakness will be a burden to you—you will never be free. I wish you would see clearly, Beau. Won't you at least try? For me."
Again, I stared back at her. Every perfect line of her face, her lips, her nose, her scorching gold eyes. The jagged white line about her neck.
At long last, I slowly sat back, withdrawing my hands from hers. Her fingers gripped mine briefly, as though to hold them there—then went limp.
"Okay," I said.
Her face was still wistful, resigned, but at this she raised a slender eyebrow. "Okay?" she repeated, drawing the word out in a question.
I was sitting across from her, and I folded my arms across my chest. "Okay," I said. "Then let's break up. Divorce, de-mate, whatever they call it."
I might have expected some reaction. Shock or hurt, or even a kind of defeated triumph. Instead, she just regarded me warily. "Just like that?"
I shrugged. "I mean yeah. You're the villain, aren't you? I'm glad you brought it up first, because I wasn't sure how I was going to say it—but this whole dark couple thing is just not me."
Edythe was still eying me with suspicion, too uncertain as to the direction I was taking this to have decided how to feel. "That's fair," she said cautiously. She added, "I apologize if I seem surprised. You're just not usually so... cooperative. I don't suppose you'll explain to me what you're thinking. For old times sake."
I was sitting with my legs crossed, and I rested my elbow casually on one knee, my head resting on my hand as I stared back at her. "Well," I admitted. "There might be a little caveat. Before we, you know, get all the papers signed. And that's that you have to listen to my apology now."
Edythe, who had been frowning out at the ocean again, as though bracing for something painful, shifted, eyes darting back to my face. I could already see the frown lines forming between her eyes, and her mouth opened in an objection.
I did something I'd never have dared to do as a human—I reached up and placed my hand over her mouth.
She glared back at me, and I said gently, "Apology. My turn."
When I was sure she wasn't going to try to argue, I let my hand fall, and my eyes wandered down the beach, beyond the shadow of the alcove to the bits of driftwood scattered along the sandline. I could make out tiny glittering shells in the sun.
"You're the most amazing person I've ever met," I said quietly. "At first it was just your beauty—it just seemed so unreal to me, that there could even exist someone as beautiful as you were. There were times that made me kind of mad—I hated you could play games with me if you wanted, that you could just smash my heart to pieces and wouldn't care."
I glanced back at Edythe. She was still frowning, but she didn't interrupt—instead, her eyes were filled with the old curiosity I knew, the eagerness to be given some glimpse inside my head, mundane as it might be.
I felt my face soften as the old memories replayed themselves in my mind. So much of my human life was faded now, hard to remember, but I'd held on tight to as much as I could.
"But—in the end, the real you turned out to be more amazing than I could have imagined. Good and kind and selfless—"
Edythe's eyes dropped from mine. She flinched slightly as though at some blow, looking away. "Beau—" she began.
I held up a finger, interrupting. "Still my turn," I said, and she sighed, falling silent.
"I learned what an amazing person you are," I continued. "More beautiful than you are on the outside. You did everything you could for me, even when it hurt you, even when you had to make sacrifices. You always looked out for what was best for me, even when I was being dumb and didn't know myself. But—"
I reached out now, cupping her face in my hand, and gently raised her eyes to meet mine.
"But," I said softly, "there's so much more to you than that."
And suddenly, a grin tugged at the corner of my mouth.
"Like—how you lied to me about why you suddenly wanted to drag me off to Florida."
"Or how you killed my truck to stop me going down to La Push," I continued. "Bribed Archie into holding me prisoner in your house. Walked out on me, lying about how you'd just gotten bored, without even asking for my opinion."
Edythe was watching me again. She didn't flinch as she did before, instead her gold eyes were wide, as though she were drinking the accusing words in. Though her eyebrows were still pushed together in some confusion.
"You lie to me," I continued, and my voice was lower now, "you decide what's best for me and go over my head. Now you put my safety ahead of other people..."
I saw it this time—the flash of pain lancing across her face, eyes haunted. And suddenly I couldn't take it anymore, and my arms were around her.
I pulled her against me, pressing her face to my shoulder. I pressed my lips to her hair. My throat felt as though it had closed, and my velvet voice seemed to break on the words as I spoke.
"I'm sorry, Edythe," I whispered. "I'm so sorry. All this time. What you said before, about how you hadn't meant to make me feel like I had to be a certain way in order for you to love me—that's what I've been doing to you. I haven't made you feel safe with me, like you can trust I'll love you no matter what—instead I just kept these blinders over my eyes. Even when I was trying to understand you, even when I was disagreeing with you—I've always talked about you through a rose-colored filter. As though you weren't a real person."
I held her tightly against my chest, and I marveled once again that we were the same temperature now, that she no longer felt cold and hard, but soft as I used to be. "You're a real person, Edythe," I whispered. "I don't want you to be afraid anymore, that there's going to be some new revelation about you that's going to drive me away. You still don't see all your amazing qualities clearly at all, and we're going to work on that, but I want you to know I see you—you're a real person, and I love you. I love you, Edythe. I love you, I love you."
The words came out in a rush, and I had never felt them more intensely than I did in this moment. The future lay before us, more beautiful and exciting than it had ever been—not because it would be perfect, but because it wouldn't be. Because in years to come Edythe and I would come to know each other as Jessamine and Archie knew each other, as we discovered more about each other's weaknesses, and perhaps we would learn to compensate for them, or work on them together. We would argue at times, disagree, and we would still face the guilt of our past mistakes. But we would always have each other to forgive them, to love in spite of them.
I felt Edythe's hand slowly rise up to gently press into my back—then she pressed harder, until she was gripping the back of my jacket.
Her head pulled back from my shoulder, and suddenly I felt her lips against mine. Crushing, desperate, with all the passion we'd been denied for what felt like years since we'd last been together. Her once hard stone lips molded against mine, and she felt almost warm in my grip. We were together now, and nothing would keep us apart.
She was evidently still exercising some control however, because she pulled away from me before I could decide I was going to tear my stupid jacket—and maybe more—off. I reluctantly let her go—we would get our real honeymoon, but she was right in that neither of us probably wanted it to be here.
She was smiling at me as she leaned back on one arm, in a way that seemed oddly carefree. "You know," she said casually. "You forgot something."
I frowned, still trying to get my bearings about me—I had a clearer mind than I had as a human, yet it was still evidently entirely distractable. "I did?"
She nodded once, fingering the sand, and producing a white seashell from just under the surface. She gave me my favorite dimpled smile. "All those people I killed, drank their blood. Or did you forget?"
"Oh, right," I said. She offered me the seashell and I took it, eying the white contours. I brushed off the sand—it was nearly perfect, but for a chip on one side. "Sulpicia was telling me some more about that. All the psychological torture and stuff. But honestly, I've been thinking about it, and I'm still not sure I feel that bad about that one. I mean, murderers and rapists?" I shrugged a shoulder. "Still doesn't seem so unreasonable. Maybe Sulpicia has rubbed off on me."
Edythe laughed softly. "Sulpicia did always admire my—ah—sense of justice. And perhaps it is more reasonable for that to be your position, now that..."
She trailed off, and I saw her eyes had flickered down to the dark cloak in the sand behind me.
I glanced back at it, then sighed deeply. "Yeah. I guess I kind of am... part of the Volturi now. Technically."
Edythe gazed at me for a long moment, expression impossible to read. "In other words," she murmured. "This may not be the last time that I am faced with such a decision. Julie Black is, as usual, quite prescient."
I blinked, staring back at her. I said quickly, "I have control over the power now. A situation like this won't ever be as dangerous for me." I hesitated. "But basically... yeah. Sulpicia told me about a guard who left the Volturi once—Chariton. He had this important gift to break or forge bonds. He let Sulpicia give the gift to someone else, because Sulpicia said he knew he'd keep getting called into service otherwise. I don't know, but... I think it's going to be like that for me."
Edythe gazed back at me for a long moment, before at last her eyes dropped. She had taken one of my hands again, and her fingers absently traced lines over my knuckles. "I... understand," she said at last.
Her gaze drifted out, back toward the ocean horizon beyond me. "We are frozen as we are," she murmured, almost to herself. "Unable to go back, or move forward. Only love has the power to alter our kind. Otherwise we are immutable, unchangeable. Or..."
Her brow creased for a moment, and her eyes wandered to the chipped shell in my fingers, now gleaming and free of sand. "Is that simply a myth we have told ourselves to avoid responsibility? I have made choices—some good, some bad. As I have said, I can make you no promises now as to how trustworthy I may be in future. But perhaps my love need not always be the same as it has been. Perhaps I am not always doomed to repeat my past mistakes."
She blinked, coming back to herself, and her eyes rose back to mine. I set the shell aside, then took her other hand, smiling. She smiled back—only now with a hint of mischief.
"Of course, perhaps it would not be a bad idea to start contemplating the question yourself," she said. "Mustn't these things go both ways?"
I stared back at her in confusion.
Edythe leaned back on one arm complacently. "Well, you're not the only one Sulpicia saw as potentially useful—in fact, if you had fallen, she would have certainly made use of me to fullest. What if it's not you she wants to sacrifice for the sake of the world next time, but me?"
The smile had completely slipped from my face now. "Um..."
She laughed softly. "I suppose that will be something we can both work on."
I was still kneeling across from her, and now she touched the sand beside her, once again smoothing it out as though to make it more comfortable.
Letting the shell fall back to the sand, I was once again beside her, in an instantaneous movement far too fast to be human. I felt her slide an arm around back behind my back, and in a moment I had my arm around her waist.
"I'm a hypocrite," I muttered. "Sorry."
Edythe once again reached over to entwine her fingers with mine. "Aren't we all?" she answered.
Edythe leaned into my shoulder, and I drew her a little closer. We watched the golden sunlight playing off the ocean waves, the deep blue of the sky overhead. And I was content as I'd ever been.
"At least there's been one good thing to come of all this."
Edythe spoke unexpectedly into the quiet, and I glanced down at the top of her head. "Oh?" I said.
Edythe chuckled, and when she glanced up at me, her golden eyes were twinkling. "Well, I so hate to sound like Royal, caught up in vanity, but—"
She let go of my hand to reach up to her own neck, then to her shoulder, where the end of the sleeve had been shorn off, the slender white ring where the venom had left a scar just beneath it. I knew, at least from what I recalled of seeing Jessamine, to human eyes it would be barely be visible—but to mine, the jagged texture of the skin against the perfect smooth marble was only too obvious. Broken stone glued back together.
Pain rose like a lump in my throat, and my hands clenched into fists. Still, I didn't let myself look away from what I had done. However, I wasn't completely sure where she was going with this.
"The aesthetic is rather nice," she noted. She lifted the arm with the scar along the wrist to gaze at it admiringly. "Now I really do resemble Frankenstein's monster. In body as well as in mind. Jessamine won't be the only one to terrify newborns and other covens—you have no idea how long I've secretly envied her."
I stared down at her, incredulous. "You—" I started to say. I shook my head. "That might be the most morbid thing I've ever heard."
"Battle scars are in, Beau," she explained to me patiently. "That flawless, untouched look most of our kind like to keep? Overrated. Why should I want to look fresh and naïve?"
I opened my mouth again to say how crazy she was—then I closed it. I still thought she was crazy. But while I'd always hate those scars as the reminder of what I'd done to her that they were, if anyone could make the imperfections somehow make her more beautiful, it was Edythe.
Sighing, I pulled her to me again. I turned my head and pressed my lips to her hair.
Once again we stared out across the beach, to the gently lapping waves and broader glittering ocean beyond. As we watched, an osprey dove for the waves, and when it rose again, a fish hung clutched in its claws.
Edythe's words from another life drifted back to me. Her forlorn face as she gazed out at a darkening sky, and spoke of the twilight. The beautiful day that would inevitably come to an end. It wasn't anywhere near twilight now, but it would still come.
Theoretically, we might have eternity together now—but with Sulpicia no doubt putting me on her speed-dial, I knew that wasn't a guarantee. And if we did survive, there were some things in my life now that would end—even if Sulpicia extended my time with Charlie and my mom, I would have to end all contact with them in a few years, a decade at most, and I would probably live to see them both die. I might live to see my new younger sibling, not even born yet, die, and his or her kids after that.
Endings would come. But for now, I had Edythe by my side, a vampire family ready to welcome me into the fold, a human family I might still get to see, and good friends who would stick by me in the bad times. In spite of the difficulties along the way, I could look forward to the future.
I felt Edythe squeeze my hand slightly as she looked up at me, and I smiled back, before I turned my eyes to look straight out—as we both gazed ahead into the sunlight.
A/N: The end!
Just kidding. Still two more (kind of) chapters, plus an epilogue. Yay for Lord of the Rings endings.
So then, here's the plan. Next update will be in my bio as always—it's going to be a longer gap than usual, but that's because I mean to post the remaining two chapters as a combo, with the epilogue coming maybe a week after that. I've kept saying the ending is in sight, but now it's really true.
In the meantime there's going to be a few things happening. First, I'm going to be reuploading almost all the chapters for all the books so far. For the most part the changes will just be a few corrected typos and streamlining a few bloated author's notes, but there will also be revisions to Royal's and Jessamine's backstory chapters from Eclipse, as well as to Chapter 11: Legends. Hopefully Royal's and Jessamine's stories will be more canonically accurate, and Legends will have a better flow.
The second thing is I'm going to be working on getting these stories up on Archive of Our Own (Ao3). I've been wanting to get a feel for how the site works and experiment a bit, and I thought it would be something fun to try, and possibly reach a few new people over there. Because Ao3 also has an option to include images with your stories, and because I've wanted to celebrate finishing this project somehow in a small way, there will also be some new Life and Death art (anime style of course) to go along with them. So be on the lookout for those if you're interested. Once I've got all the chapters caught up, I'll add a URL to my bio here to the tumblr from which I've hosted all the images, where they'll all be collected in one place, along with my old Life and Death art.
Thanks so much for reading! If you have a moment, let me know what you thought, and see you in the final chapters!