A/N: Hey all! As mentioned last time, I'm posting this chapter as combo with the next one. This is mostly falling action stuff, but hope you'll enjoy it anyway.
Consider this kind of a bonus chapter, as it wasn't written with the original draft of the story. (Writing will probably be on the rougher side for that reason, but. This chapter addressed many of the problems I had with the original ending.)
Hope you enjoy, and see you at the end!
Chapter 26: The Future
Emerald grass swayed gently in a light breeze, beneath a clear, blue sky. Only interrupted by piles of ash and blackened scorch marks, of the many dead immortals.
It was beautiful in its own way, thought Sulpicia to herself as she surveyed the landscape below, watching as her guards mulled about, scattering the ash to the wind, churning up dirt to make evidence of the supernatural fighting less pronounced. It would likely all have to be burned anyway—but always best to be thorough beforehand. Truly there was nothing more beautiful than the clean destruction of a battlefield, and the hope of years, decades of further peace it may preserve.
Sulpicia stood in a shadowy alcove in the side of the cliff, no doubt gouged there by thousands of years of erosion, wearing away the weaker sediment. Aro would have been delighted to discover the scientific knowledge humans had accumulated these past millennia—Sulpicia sometimes wished she might have a similar fascination with the scientific in the many thoughts she had absorbed, that knowledge for knowledge's sake would excite her in some way. However, such insight only excited her insofar as it was useful to the greater goal.
There was no sound beside her, no whisper of wind or rustle of a cloak. Yet, she smiled anyway.
"Ah, Stver," Sulpicia said without turning. She reached out a hand, and felt a single finger touch her palm.
The information flowed—quickly and freely, as always water exploding through a dam. However, much of it was already familiar—a thousand memories and feelings, a life that was not her own, yet felt her own in this moment. She focused in on the new.
"Very good," she murmured. "Will you kindly convey order 119 to the others? It seems order 9 will not be necessary after all. And if you would have Miroslav execute code 94."
Again, no motion beside her, not even the faint breath of wind of a nod. Sulpicia let her hand fall back. Instead, she placed it briefly on Renatus's shoulder, where he held close as always, clenching the side of her cloak in a fist.
Sulpicia folded her hands in front of her, once again surveying the torn landscape with satisfaction. She had been anticipating a very long campaign before returning the world to some semblance of order. Even if she herself had been destroyed, agents like Stver would ensure the machine she had built would still grind forward—the strategic network of spies and operatives would have followed her final orders. Those planted closest to the leaders of the greatest military powers would have given the humans all the knowledge they would need to build weapons to be used against immortals. And also provide aid in administering them in the most effective and devastating way.
She was glad it had not had to come to that. It truly would have been a world of war and chaos, miserable for immortals and humans alike. Her gamble on Beau Swan—well, Beau Cullen, she supposed now—had paid off.
Now was, of course, time to look to the future. Without Jonathan and Alexa, she would need to rebuild, find more great talents to ensure the Volturi was once again untouchable. Beau Swan would not agree to being a permanent guard of course, but he would be a useful resource to draw upon in times of need. There was also the illusion-caster the Romanians had discovered, though any chance at that would likely take Dora's intervention, if only she might be persuaded. Amun's two talented children would be something as well. Edythe Cullen had also proven herself capable of being a powerful offensive weapon—so long as her mate's life was not on the line, she too could turn out to be a useful resource to consider.
Sulpicia would have to think on it more. There were many talents, but acquiring them was always a delicate business, even in the rare cases when Athenodora agreed to some well-timed nudging. The Volturi would have to be rebuilt. Their defenses were still intact, but offensively they were crippled. Even with the show of force today, many might be inclined to think that, without Jonathan and Alexa, the Volturi were toothless, no longer to be feared—Sulpicia would quickly disavow them of that notion.
Sulpicia scanned over the field, now no longer in motion as the first stage of cleanup neared completion. Many guards had come to stand beneath the shadow of the cliff, in neat rows, waiting for final orders. Tacita and Cato were, at the moment, leading small forces to track down a few rebels that had managed to get away. Sulpicia had instructed them to allow a few to escape for now—to spread word of Salvatore's failure. However, soon Sulpicia's eyes were drawn to a figure, standing just on the edge of the alcove, overlooking the scene. His shoulders were slightly hunched, hands balled into fists at his side.
"Brenden?" said Sulpicia softly.
He tensed slightly, then slowly turned. Sulpicia had told him to remain close by with Renatus, as additional protection, but the real reason was she knew he did not yet feel comfortable working alongside the other guards just. He felt out of place in the Volturi's well-oiled machine of centuries—they always did at first. But he would learn. He had performed well throughout all this, especially for one so young. He too was an asset she would cultivate.
Sulpicia recalled dimly then there might be another talent worth pursuing. A newborn friend of Brenden's—her name was—Freya, wasn't it? Strange, how difficult it was to remember her, to think of her. There was an odd foul taste to the memory, the thought, that made Sulpicia naturally skip on to other thoughts instead. The ability to repel others, even thought—it must be a very powerful gift indeed. To find her might require the combined help of Beau Cullen, and Demia, if the two of them might be persuaded...
Sulpicia put the thought aside for the present. She could read in Brenden's posture, his expression, he was upset by something. Best to address it first.
She did not try to touch him, rather said simply, gently, "I can imagine what you must be feeling. To have become, standing with us, a target of the Volturi's enemies. A terrifying first experience with us, to be sure. But you must also feel the true worth of what you have done—you have helped protect this world. She would be proud of you, I'm sure."
Sulpicia smiled at him, and then at last offered her hand, palm up. Solidifying loyalty was always more of a process than a single moment or decision, and while often her conjectures had merit, it was never the same as actually seeing.
Brenden hesitated. He glanced briefly at her hand—but didn't take it.
Her smile didn't change, but after a moment she withdrew, tucking the hand back within the folds of her cloak. A bad sign. Best to take care of it immediately, before whatever thoughts he might be having had time to fester.
"What is it?" she asked, smiling. "What's wrong? You don't have to show me, but you're always free to speak your mind."
Brenden stared at her directly for a moment, before his eyes fell away, uncomfortable. He stared down at the small trickling stream far below, the wet stones glittering in the sun.
At last he said, "You... made that boy..." He hesitated. "Beau... think his human mother was in Greece. Why? After that he just wanted to leave and save her. What was the point?"
Sulpicia read the accusation implicit in the words, even if his tone was muttered and detached. Why lie? Interesting that out of all he had watched her do, he fixated on that. But, it was a lie. Brenden had always struggled to trust in his former lives, both as a human and later as a fresh newborn in Victor's army. He had even been initially suspicious of the girl he had later come to love. He needed some sense of transparency. He needed truth.
"It was a cruel trick," Sulpicia conceded. "But it is not always easy to sacrifice oneself for an abstract notion, perfect strangers—I hoped a more directly personal stake might give him just that small bit more incentive. I wanted to give him every chance of success."
Brenden nodded slowly, though whether agreeing with her reasoning or simply in understanding, it would be unclear until the next time he offered his hand to her. She could touch him anyway—but she must focus on building trust at this stage. She would not bring up the subject of Freya yet. He was still at a stage where loyalty to old friends may trump loyalty to the greater cause. She would focus on the long game for now.
It was all just as she had told him in the beginning, when he had first been brought to the Volturi—she might speak of rules, of right and wrong, but in the end the greater good came before all. Principles, rules, justice, friends—when peace was threatened, unimaginable miseries hovering at the doorstep of so many, all means must be put to use to achieve the optimum end. Lies were simply a tool. Sometimes a dangerous tool, with drawbacks that had to be considered, but a powerful one.
As a member of the Volturi, Brenden would have to accept that eventually—to trust in the cause above all else, to understand the double-meanings behind what she said when she spoke of justice and right, and not be disturbed by it. It was too soon for now to explain all this, at least so directly. He must be allowed space to think for himself, to draw his own conclusions—she would give him that space.
Sulpicia surveyed the clearing below, and saw Cato reemerge from the forest at a distance. Placing a hand on Brenden's shoulder, though not touching his skin, she said, "Brenden, if you would please go and inform Cato to gather our remaining forces. We are almost done here, and it will be time to move on."
Brenden hesitated. He glanced at her hand once, half raising his own—as though feeling guilty for having slighted her, and offering it to touch. However, the hand fell back again, and he gave a curt nod, before he disappeared over the cliff lip.
Sulpicia watched him move quickly over the grass below. Then turned her gaze to the rest of the force.
"Milady," said a voice behind her.
Sulpicia turned to see one of the auxiliary guards, one of those called into service only in the most dire of times. It was clear in his uncertain posture that he didn't know quite the proper way to act in her presence, and he kept his head slightly bowed, as though she might require that he not appear taller than she was.
"Milady," he said again. "There's—someone who's asked to see you. She claims to be a friend of yours."
The inexperienced guard—Mael Leroux, who hailed from France—had not thought to offer his hand, in the standard, efficient way the permanent guards like Tacita and Cato always did to convey information. Sulpicia only smiled at him, and extended her hand as a gentle reminder.
Flustered, he quickly scrambled, hand out.
Sulpicia took it, and she felt his thoughts pour into her—though she focused on the most recent. On the face of the one who had asked to see her.
Sulpicia froze for just a moment—like a newborn vampire, startled into stillness.
At last she smiled and said, "Please show her through. I will be glad to see her. It has been a long time."
Though she had let the guard's hand fall, she could read his confusion in his face. Wondering most likely if Sulpicia had many such friends she would see at such a time.
However, the guard simply bent his head obediently, then turned.
Sulpicia gazed out at the field. The smile had slipped from her face, and an odd tension was creeping up from the base of her neck. For all that had happened this day, she felt her thoughts drawn back in time—a strange mixture of odd feelings rose at the memories, familiar, yet foreign.
She glanced down and saw Renatus staring up at her with his round, timid face.
Sweeping an affectionate hand through his hair, she said with a smile, "Would you mind going to help Brenden for a moment? Tacita should be returning soon as well. And—you have more than earned a few moments to yourself."
Renatus stared up at her with wide eyes. For any other guard, this sort of order would be natural, routine, but Renatus was never separated from her. Even during the training with Beau and Tacita, he'd never gone far enough where he wouldn't be in range to use his power to protect her if necessary. Alexa and Jonathan had indeed been weapons who had made the Volturi impossible to fight, but it was he who had made their ancient family truly invulnerable. The defender, rather than the attacker.
Perhaps it was foolish of her, to allow her emotions to make her take an unnecessary risk this way, no matter how slight it might be. But this was one friend she preferred to see alone.
Renatus, of course, didn't question her, trusting her judgment implicitly. And he silently slipped away from her, shoulders hunched with nerves as he obeyed, slipping down the side of the rockface.
Sulpicia raised her eyes to stare straight ahead, this time not at the clearing below, but at the sea of trees, expanding out in a blanket of green before her, all the way to the blue horizon in the distance.
Sulpicia heard the quiet shuff of climbing hands on stone, followed by soft footfalls, before she heard a voice speak.
"Milady?" The guard from before. "I have... brought her."
"Thank you, Mael," said Sulpicia. "You may join the others. I will call you if I need you."
The rustling of cloth—another hurried bow—before he turned and made his way back down the side of the cliff.
Sulpicia gazed out over the field for just a moment more before, taking a silent breath, she turned.
A figure stood there. The stone outcropping extended just enough from the cliffside that a line of sunlight still struck at an angle, and so her skin glittered in the light. Of all the immortals Sulpicia had ever known, many of whom had been worshiped as divine beings, here was the only one she had ever known who might have truly passed for one. Her eyes were, as always, a deep gold.
Sulpicia smiled in warmest welcome. "Carine," she said. "My dear friend. How good it is to see you. It has been far too long." She raised a beckoning hand.
Carine Cullen approached then, stepping from the sunlight into the shadow, glittering diamond skin turning to stone.
"Sulpicia," she said with a smile. "I hope I haven't come at a bad time."
Sulpicia glanced back toward the field, where the unnatural gouges in the earth and scorch marks had been mostly swept over. "It is never a bad time to see my most cherished friend. I did have a slight inconvenience earlier, but—I am happy to say it is now all well in hand."
Carine's gaze too drifted toward the remnants of the battlefield, and for a moment her smile faded, eyes sad, in just that way Sulpicia had come to know well. The sadness at the destruction of any life.
Sulpicia felt the corner of her mouth tighten imperceptibly for a moment, before she smiled again, wider than before.
"What a delightful surprise to see you here," she said, voice slightly raised. "I trust you have been well. Imagine my surprise, when I discovered you had made a coven of your own—you seemed so opposed to the idea. Your eldest daughter is a force to be reckoned with. You must be proud."
Carine looked back. She blinked once in surprise—then smiled. "Forgive me, Sulpicia, but—can it be—have you now learned the art of small-talk?"
Sulpicia smoothed a nonexistent wrinkle from her cloak, with a hint of smugness. "I may have adopted a new tactic or two. Times have changed. I still believe mindless chatter over nothing a supremely inefficient use of time—but sadly leadership in these modern days is more complicated than it used to be."
Amusement flickered in Carine's gold eyes. Sulpicia's style of leadership in the days past Carine had spent with the the Volturi had been different from what it was now. Sulpicia knew she had often been cold, austere—Carine had suggested there might be small ways Sulpicia might express more affection for those who followed her, ways to express outwardly the empathy she felt. Perhaps asking questions about themselves. Sulpicia had had no patience for it at the time—she knew their lives, understood those who served her with an intimacy no other leader could ever possess. She did not need to ask questions she already knew the answers to, and secure leadership seemed better achieved through a show of strength than friendliness.
But, as with much of Carine's thoughts and advice from that time, it had stuck with her through the centuries. And she had, bit by bit, softened her approach, until the newer guards likely couldn't imagine her being any other way. Harsh measures still had to be taken—but she had others to be the face of it.
"I... was sorry to hear about little Mele," Carine murmured, hesitant. "A terrible thing."
Sulpicia let a sigh escape her, long and deep. "Yes, it was unfortunate. But perhaps... necessary."
Carine blinked once in confusion. Her eyebrows creased briefly—in an unsettled look she could not immediately suppress.
For the first time, Sulpicia noticed that Carine had not offered her hand to touch, as she always had freely in the past. Carine had never been afraid of having the full measure of her thoughts disclosed—perhaps because she never seemed to think ill of anyone. But she lingered back now, maintaining enough distance as not to be easily touched.
For a moment, an old memory surfaced in Sulpicia's thoughts. Carine, standing before her, much as she had now, only reluctant to extend a hand for Sulpicia to see. The sad smile on her face as she said the time had come for her to move on.
An echo of the same feelings from that moment rose briefly in her mind again. Disappointment. Frustration. Bitterness. Sulpicia had met no other vampire she respected, even admired, more, and perhaps it was for that reason that, at times, that sad, distant smile felt like a condemnation.
"You didn't interfere," Sulpicia said suddenly. Her voice had lost the politeness, the gentleness. As though she had gone back in time—her voice was harsh, direct. A sword piercing through flesh. "When she told you—when you knew he was here with me. When she wanted you to help her."
Carine didn't need further explanation or clarification to understand the question. She gazed back at Sulpicia evenly, without shame, without regret. "I trusted you," she said softly, simply. "I trusted you would have the best interests of the world at heart."
"But you love her," Sulpicia answered, tone still sharp, accusing. "So I've known from her thoughts. The intensity—you love her as your daughter. As much as I loved Mele. And you love the boy, too."
Carine watched her, face as always kind, understanding. "Yes," she murmured. "I do. I love them. They are the family I longed for back then. I will never be grateful enough to have found them."
Sulpicia stared at her a moment longer. Then she turned away, staring out over the field again, but not really seeing it.
It had always been the strange thing about Carine—how, even as she sought no explanations, she could make Sulpicia feel compelled to explain herself.
"It's—not that I couldn't have loved them," Sulpicia said coldly, harshly. "Jonathan, Alexa. I could have loved them as much as Mele if I had let myself. But Mele was danger enough. If I had let myself love them that way—I would have been no better than your foolish daughter. I'd have let myself and the world burn before seeing harm befall them. I had to keep them at a distance. To lose Mele—but I see now it was for the best. I see more clearly than I have ever seen, and I have no more liabilities that will make me wish to burn the world in vengeance."
Sulpicia felt Carine's eyes on her, and she didn't turn to look to see if there was any surprise there. But likely not—Carine had been accustomed to such outbursts back then. The justifications, at once aggressive, precluding any argument, yet also daring her to judge.
"It... was a difficult thing," Carine murmured at last. "Becoming the leader of a coven of my own. The responsibility. The terrible fear of losing what I had gained. I admit it, that fear has not left me. When Edythe left to seek out Beau, I can't describe the pain—all the more when Archie's visions told us there was no way we could any possible good for her, even if we followed her. Helplessness—it is still the pain I dread the most."
A breath escaped her as she continued, "It was my time with you that prepared me for the responsibility of having my own coven. You see the needs of the larger world, outside your own personal ties. And so many have been better off for it. I have always admired that. I can say now that I have never put my own family over the lives and bonds of others, and so I have been left with far fewer regrets."
Sulpicia had seen deep into Carine's mind and past, and yet somehow it had never ceased to amaze her. That gift for understanding and feelings of kindness even in the face of sharpest hostility that was almost transcendent—maybe that was why she had often spoken in such a way in the past, to this friend whose opinion she valued. Like a petulant child, waiting eagerly for a magician to perform some impossible feat.
Sulpicia sighed, the old bitterness dispelled as soon as it had come. She stared out onto the battlefield, now mostly devoid of signs of supernatural destruction, at least from a distance. "You already know I'm not like you," Sulpicia murmured. "If I loved as you did, the world would be lost. I am not so selfless as to let go of what I truly love the most—and so it is best for all if I love the world most."
Sulpicia added, "It was good to see you again, my dear old friend. Send along my regards to your children and mate, won't you? And congratulations on the newest member of your family. He seems a great deal like you. A kind one. He will make your daughter very happy."
Sulpicia let her eyes slide closed. Concentrating—pulling her mind back from what it had once been centuries ago. Back to perfect serenity, politeness, simply a series of dispassionate calculations. Trying already to forget the friend whose true thoughts of her and what she had done it was likely for the best she didn't see.
A rustle of cloth, a whisper of wind—only it was closer rather than further away, and no sound of stone hands on rock.
Sulpicia opened her eyes to find that Carine had stepped closer, to stand right beside her. With a gentle smile, she extended her hand, palm up.
For a moment, Sulpicia gazed down at it, uncertain. She slowly raised a hand automatically, unthinkingly.
Carine briefly drew the hand back a fraction, then said, "In light of our friendship, Sulpicia—perhaps you might... agree to one condition first?" She was still smiling, though she dipped her head slightly in a hint of apology. "There is someone who... well, if he has done something you find offensive, I hope that you will pardon him."
Sulpicia gazed at the hand, then let her eyes shift to meet her friend's again. The corners of her mouth tightened. "I suppose I have little choice. I can be generous—at least today, of all days."
Carine smiled again, and she reached out, lightly placing her hand on Sulpicia's.
Memories—a thousand thousand of them, of a life of centuries. The first were familiar, memories she had already seen long ago. First came the dim images of Carine's human life. Her relative isolation, her overbearing father. Her transformation, not by accident or because she was wanted, but pure vindictiveness against her father, a man who, she discovered in the end, did love her after all.
Then came the struggle against the monster she had become, and the years of loneliness. Meeting the Volturi, the relief in having found cultured, refined friends to converse with, and in Sulpicia someone to discuss philosophy, who also wished, in her own way, to use immortality to make the world better than it was. Yet Carine unable to accept the ruthlessness, the continued sacrificing of human life, the continued loneliness of philosophies that could never quite match. A prick of guilt—for the envy she felt to have a Mele of her own.
Next came the new memories, which Sulpicia only knew in incomplete fragments through Edythe Cullen. The creation of Edythe, Carine at last ending her lonely wanderings to become a coven of two. The profound joy of at last having a family of her own. Then came Carine's mate, who loved her and her family with a fierce passion she could never appreciate enough, and her other children, Royal, Eleanor, Archie and Jessamine. And their sister coven led by Tanvir, who shared the same value for human life...
Sulpicia's eyes had slid closed as she absorbed each and every memory, but at this last one she smiled, as she now saw the reason for Carine's initial reluctance.
"It was kind of Ivan to tell you," she said. "That he had seen Beau, and he was all right. In spite of the fact it was understood that they were not to speak with our encounter with us to anyone. Courageous—perhaps I misjudged him."
Sulpicia felt Carine's hand on hers tighten slightly, affectionately.
The memories continued. Edythe meeting Beau. The terrible danger he presented to the family. Her swelling pride in Edythe, as Edythe chose to protect him, even from the others, even as Carine was forced to watch her daughter's suffering and torment. Edythe going to the Volturi for death, their coven fighting the newborn army formed by an enemy seeking vengeance, joining forces with the wolf shapeshifters... And, at last, Edythe's early return from her honeymoon. The haunted, desperate look in her eyes.
Even in memory, the thoughts racing by in a blur, the remembered days following Edythe's return felt long, excruciating. As they waited for Archie to see Beau's future again, or to find some way they might go after Edythe, help her, without making things worse. They soon traveled to Europe to be ready for any good they might do—only to be forced to wait again. Carine made the final decision to hang back, to trust in Archie's visions, knowing it was all they could do, even as her mind was weighed with the guilt, the feeling of having let her daughter down so terribly when she needed her most...
And then came Archie's final vision of Beau, and the battle. The knowledge that it would all be over soon. Coming to pay an old friend a visit.
At long last, Sulpicia let go of Carine's hand, withdrawing. She smiled wistfully, a deep sigh escaping her.
"It never ceases to surprise me," Sulpicia admitted. "A thousand years, a thousand minds I have read in my time. There are always secrets, weaknesses—yet your thoughts continue to be as clear and pure as they ever were. You have always been intimidating, my dearest friend—and I see, in our time apart, you have only grown more formidable."
Carine laughed softly. "It has been good to see you again, Sulpicia. I've missed our old conversations. I see now I was perhaps overly idealistic back then. Thank you for all you have done—for keeping our world safe. The life I've been able to have now would not be possible without you."
There was nothing but sincerity and gratitude in Carine's kind features, and Sulpicia couldn't help but return the smile. She too, missed those days. The memory of that final conversation still stung, even now, centuries later—At the time, she had been convinced that the reason she could not let Carine leave was purely logical. That, given Marcus and Athenodora had no passion for the Volturi's role in protecting the world, it would be wise to have someone else close to them who could slip into it if Sulpicia were to fall. Someone integrated in with the core of the Volturi far enough to at least work behind the scenes, pushing Marcus and Dora where they needed to be pushed. Carine was the only one Sulpicia had ever met who she could trust in such a powerful and dangerous position.
However, it was obvious looking back that Carine was far too kind to have ever been an effective successor. It had been simply weakness, a longing to have a sister who shared her ideals, who sharpened her thinking. It was just as well that Carine had removed herself from the Volturi. Or she, too, could have had the potential to become a liability.
"Carine?" said Sulpicia.
Carine had gone back to the edge of the precipice now, stepped out from the shadow into the light. But she paused and looked back, color glittering in the air around her.
"Yours is a powerful coven, with many gifts," Sulpicia said, smiling. "If the world needs it again... can I count on your support?"
Carine gazed back at her for a long moment. Then she smiled once more, faintly. "We will always do whatever we can to protect those who need it."
Sulpicia nodded once, still smiling. A qualified yes, then.
As Carine made her way down the side of the cliff, Sulpicia turned back to the clearing.
Signs of a supernatural battle were no longer visible, not from a distance. The ash had been scattered to the winds, the dirt churned up. But of course, it would be impossible to remove every sign of it. A large forest fire wouldn't appear odd, not this time of year. Fire was always one of the best cleansers after a battle.
In the shadows below stood the Volturi guard, and she raised a hand, giving them the signal.
As the midday passed into afternoon, the forest felt oddly still. No little animals stirring in the underbrush, no winds rustling the leaves. As though the forest itself was still waiting with baited breath for the world-deciding battle that was about to unfold—as though the messenger who was supposed to tell it when the battle was over had managed to fall down on the job.
So I was thinking to myself as the five of us whipped through the forest at lightning speed. Me, Jessamine, Royal, Eleanor, and Earnest—Carine had said she would be after us shortly, after paying her respects to Sulpicia.
There was something honestly so freeing in the simple act of running—to be on the move, doing something, after so long sitting in anxiety. Combing again and again through each and every variation for the future, looking for one where we acted, dragged Edythe back, helped her, simply came to her side and stood behind her, anything—that didn't end up in making things a hundred times worse. I'd never found that way—but at least it was all over. The waiting. The anxiety.
Edythe had somehow managed to make it out alive through all this, even making deals with Romanians, and even attacking the Volturi. I was relieved—so happy she had made it out alive, in spite of everything. So glad.
Because I was going to kill her.
We broke through the trees at a run, and we all came to an immediate halt. Shifting tides rose over silken sands, only to recede, then rise again. Here the air was not quite so still—a light breeze brushed our faces, and everything felt calm and at peace. I wouldn't have needed to follow the faded footprints in the sand to find them—I knew precisely where they would be. Sitting together in the shadow of an alcove, curled up against one another, as though they might never be parted again.
Jessamine, naturally, sensed my mood, though she probably would have been able to guess even without feeling it. A hint of a smile touched her lips. Perhaps replaying in her mind, as I was, the roiling storm of emotions of the past week.
I sat by river, watching the water rushing past. Normally the river was more sluggish this time of year—the fewer rains in the heat of late summer. But as the heavy rain fell on my back, soaking my shirt to the skin, I could just see the level rising, rushing with ever more mad purpose toward the ocean.
I'd had to get out of the house. I couldn't take any more—trying to explain what I'd seen of Edythe's future, going to Egypt for a tracker, only to find the Romanians. Joining with the Romanians to go after Sulpicia. Royal's accusations about why I hadn't tried to stop her. Earnest's face stricken with horror and fear for her safety. Carine's calm questions of whether I saw any future where we might go after her, where we could do any good.
I stared out at the water, and into the forest beyond. My eyes slid closed briefly—but I only saw flickers I didn't want to see. Mostly blurs, indistinct shadows—the only thing certain was the darkness of Edythe's course. And because I couldn't see in that future the path that led her back to Beau, I couldn't see her return to the light.
My eyes opened again, to stare at the rushing water. Right now, I envied it. At least it had somewhere to go. A purpose to fulfill.
I heard the light brush of feet on grass, and a moment later, I felt a hand on my shoulder. An unnatural wave of calm and wellbeing settled over me, like a blanket smothering a fire.
Normally I would have had an affectionate hand over hers in return, perhaps stood and drawn her into an embrace. Instead I stayed sitting, arms on knees, frozen like a statue.
"Sorry, Jess," I said softly. "But would you mind... not doing that?"
The smothering calm lessened slightly, though it lingered, still taking the edge off the overriding horror, the panic, the helplessness. Surely there had to be something we could do. If we just went there, found her, I could talk sense into her. Or we could all take her and drag her back here to safety. Or we could help find Beau and somehow bring him back. There had to be some future I wasn't seeing—one where the vicious unpredictability of the Romanians didn't get us destroyed. I stared at the future, and saw each and every one of us die, again and again, in different ways. Carine, Royal, Jess... No way past. No other paths.
Jess's hand still hadn't moved.
"I should have stopped her," I said suddenly into the quiet. "Right then. Royal's right, I should have done something before she got out of our reach."
Royal's accusing words drifted through my mind. I'd been the only one who knew where they were going. The others had been following my lead. And I'd failed.
I didn't turn to look as I sensed Jessamine sink to the grass to sit beside me. Not her usual ready crouch, as though prepared to fend off an enemy at any moment, but with her legs crossed. To sit with me as long as I needed it.
"Would you?" she murmured, in a voice below the rushing water, like a breath on the wind. "Would you have stopped her? Even if it meant the two of you fought? Even if it meant you were taking her decision away from her?"
I didn't reply. I'd seen the question coming, but I still didn't know what to say.
She continued, "I could have pursued her myself when she first left, if it were so simple. But in that moment I felt what she was feeling. We are still her family, but if we had stood in the way of her attempts to save her mate, then we would have been her enemies. And if I had been in her place, I would not have felt any different."
For one long last second, I stared out at the landscape. The terrain that had become so familiar in the months we'd lived here. In terms of years, we'd spent more time in other places. But this was the one that felt most like home now. Because of Beau.
The rain continued to fall on my shaved head, and for a moment I found my thoughts wandering. I wondered—how might things have been different, if I could go back and edit my life a little? If I had seen the entire future all the way back then up to now, and I had the power to change it? If I'd had the chance to live as Mark Brandon, with the little brother I'd lost back then. Had a normal, human life. Would things have been simpler? The decisions between right and wrong easier to see? Or would it have been just as complicated as this?
I shook his head, and I felt as the rain shifted, falling lighter now. I turned my eyes for the first time to look at Jessamine, sitting beside me.
She was watching me of course, with those deep honey eyes that could always at once be so full of passion and intensity, and calm understanding. My eyes traced the familiar pattern of the interlocking scars that rose up her neck and onto her face. The reminder of the life she had led before we were finally united. The violence, the death. She knew the bad side of our world in a way none of us could ever fully comprehend. I'd always believed in looking to the future rather than dwelling on the past—but that was the only thing that sometime made me wish I could see into the past too. If I could just see everything she had seen, feel everything she had felt, I could share her burden in a new way.
I reached out and took her hand in mine. I smiled a little. She was the reason I'd never really regret my lost human life. Neither of us could do anything for the moment, for Edythe or for Beau. But she made the torture of waiting just a little more bearable.
"So," I said, trying to inject a lightness into my voice I didn't really feel. "Do you want to start a betting pool? About whether Edythe will really destroy the world trying to save Beau or not?"
Jess seemed to consider the question seriously. "You know I don't bet against you as a matter of principle."
"Except when you're betting about how many people Beau's going to accidentally off before he gets proper control," I pointed out. We'd managed to keep that particular bet secret from Edythe, though no doubt she'd blow her top when she found out.
"That's different," Jess said, a hint of a smile on her lips. "You're simply letting your emotional attachment interfere with rational judgment. You don't know newborns like I do."
I slipped an arm around her shoulders. "We'll see," I said, smiling back.
We stared out at the rushing water of the river. The rain had stopped now—yet still the thunderous clouds hung over the sky like a dark veil, threatening another storm at any moment. The anxiety settled over me again. There was nothing worse than not seeing, not knowing. Everything could still work out—but the paths that led to ruin, to misery for all of us and everyone else in the world besides, seemed far more numerous.
I stared out at the water, flicking through visions of the future once again—trying to find the ones that still held hope.
I came to a stop just on the edge of the sandline, and the others soon followed suit. Jessamine at my elbow, Earnest to my left, and Royal just a little further back with Eleanor with him.
We were all standing in the sunlight, the light shattering off our skin, but there was no one around to see us. Just as well, as this wasn't likely to be something that should be seen by humans, even without the sun.
I folded my arms across my chest, and tapped an impatient finger against my forearm.
Edythe and Beau appeared around the edge of the stone cliff. Their hands were entwined, and as they walked, they kept as close as physics allowed. Edythe was beaming, her face alight in purest rapture, and as the two passed out of the shadow and into the sunlight, they both seemed transformed to beings of divine radiance. It was impossible not to notice their matching wedding bands on their ring fingers, gleaming gold in the sunlight.
I checked my Rolex, tapping the face.
The two came to a stop in the sand. Beau had the decency to look slightly sheepish, and he rubbed the back of his neck. "Hi," he said, raising a hand. "Great to see you guys here. How's it, uh... going?"
The last time I'd seen Beau, he had still been his breakable human self. Though I'd known of Beau's change, and even seen his new form in visions, there was no denying it was a shock. His soft human features had been replaced with the hard angles of immortality, his rough human voice smoothed out like buttery silk. He didn't move with the quickness of many newborns, apparently already practicing looking more human, but there was a new grace and coordination to each of his motions. His eyes glowed a bright blood crimson.
I'd known it was coming—been anticipating it with relish, when immortality was proven to suit Beau in every way, like a custom-sized glove over a hand. But I'd expected to be there when Beau was changed. I'd expected to be a part of it, to watch it happen and be doing my part in helping Beau adjust. Instead, I felt like I might have if the two of them had slipped off and eloped for the wedding after all.
My eyes slowly shifted to Edythe.
My sister, by contrast, did not even pretend to look the least bit guilty. Instead, she shamelessly beamed at me, as though the thoughts she were hearing from me were nice ones.
"I'm so glad to see you all here," she said. "We'll all be flying home together, of course—it seems Sulpicia is going to have one of her private jets prepared for us, so we won't have to fly back commercially."
My mouth thinned. Right. Sulpicia. The vampire Edythe was planning to snuff out.
Edythe looked back at me, her smile angelic.
I fixed her with my most ferocious scowl. "So," I said. "You have something to say to us? To me?"
For the first time, Edythe did look contrite. She bowed her head. "I am... very much aware of the gravity of my actions. And the pain and worry I'm sure I caused you all. I will do everything I can to atone." She glanced at the spot next to Earnest where Carine normally would have been, then away.
"And?" I said.
"And I am a terrible sister who will gladly spend the next decade of existence groveling for your forgiveness, and you can have first choice of room in any new houses we move into."
"And?" I pressed.
Beau, who had been holding Edythe's hand in his, now took a defensive half step forward. "Hey," he said. "Edythe has been through a lot too. There's no need to—"
I'd been storing up a lot of choice words the past week to get off my chest, and not even Beau was getting in the way of them. I put up a hand, a single finger, and he fell silent, though he continued to frown at me.
"Okay," I said, my eyes on Edythe. "Let's just do a quick little recap. First, you run off." I made little running motions with my fingers for emphasis. "Go join some rebellion, attack the vampire government while its dealing with another rebellion. No plan in place for what you're going to do for world order after the government goes down."
Edythe was grave. "I know."
"Leaving us sitting at home. Doing literally nothing."
I could sense Earnest wanting to cut in with a supportive comment right about now, and I put up a hand to stop him.
I stared back at her for a long moment, unsmiling. "You put us through hell, Edythe," I said bluntly. "I hope you know that. A lot of things could have been destroyed."
Edythe gazed back at me, not a hint of amusement in her eyes. "...I know," she said quietly.
I could have said more. A lot more. I'd never done the suffering in silence thing well, and definitely not when it involved being sidelined to a bad future I couldn't see. However, I saw I wasn't going to get the chance.
"That's enough," said a low, dangerous voice.
Beau was standing in front of Edythe now, half bent in an aggressive posture. "Back off," he said—calmly, but coldly.
Edythe touched his arm and tried to say something, but he didn't turn.
I'd let my arms drop to my sides, and now I folded them again. "Back off or what?" I said, my voice half challenge—half curious. Beau was a volatile newborn who might really start a fight if pushed to it, but I couldn't see his immediate future clearly until one or both of us made a decision about what was going to happen next. I noticed for the first time that Beau seemed—different, somehow. Beyond simply now being immortal.
Beau glared back at me, but instead of making some threat, he said, "If Edythe hadn't done what she did, things would have turned out a lot worse. She's as much to thank for saving the world as anyone."
This incredible declaration was followed by a beat of silence.
"And... how do you figure that?" I eyed him dubiously.
Royal behind us muttered under his breath, "This ought to be good."
Beau glared at me for a second longer, before he glanced away, looking almost embarrassed. He looked back toward Edythe, as though looking to her to explain.
Edythe who had stepped forward to stand beside him again, raised her eyebrows. She lifted a hand to stroke the back of his neck, as though to smooth out his raised hackles. "Sorry," she murmured. "I have no idea what you mean either."
Beau straightened, then placed a hand around Edythe's shoulders, while he took her hand in the other one once again. He looked back at us.
"You probably know already," he said. "That Sulpicia... she wanted to use me for my power. The one that blocks mind reading and torture and stuff. Well, I couldn't get the power to work right—at least, it took so much concentration I couldn't control it very well. I was supposed to sneak into the camp to help take out Jonathan and Alexa, but even Sulpicia didn't think I'd be able to do it. But then Edythe..."
He turned to look at her, smiling with such triumph and joy it was almost too annoyingly blinding to look at it. He rubbed her shoulder. "Well, after everything that happened, Edythe helped me figure out what I was missing. Without Edythe, I'd have failed. The world is okay thanks to what she did."
I watched the two of them for a long moment. Then my gaze slowly shifted to focus entirely on Edythe.
"Well," I said. "Tell me, sister. Do you think that vague explanation gets you off the hook?"
Edythe, who was smiling back up at Beau with that look of pure radiance again, seemed to have to drag her eyes away from his face. "No," she admitted.
I clapped my hands in congratulations. "So you do read minds."
Beau had turned back to scowl at me, and he opened his mouth as though to say something.
However, just then, Edythe stiffened beside him, and he glanced down at her in questioning concern. She glanced toward the forest, and I did too—though of course I also already knew what was coming.
"What is it?" Beau asked, nervous now. "What's wrong?"
Edythe didn't reply, only I noticed as her grip on his hand tightened ever so slightly. She glanced up at him, as though looking for support, before once again she focused on the greenery of the forest linne.
A lone figure emerged from between the trees, skin glittering in the light. Her light blond hair whipped lightly in the soft breeze that had kicked up.
Edythe's gaze dropped away, not looking at anyone.
Carine came to a stop near us, smiling, though her brow was slightly creased. "You didn't need to stop your reunion on my account," she said.
"Hey Carine," I said, waving a casual hand. "Hope your reunion was nice."
"Yes," she said. "It was nice to talk with her again. In some ways, she has changed much from when I knew her. In others... she is the same friend I always knew." Her eyes shifted back to Edythe—as though expecting some severe renunciation of Sulpicia and all she had done.
Still, Edythe didn't look at Carine. Instead, she fixed her eyes on the sand in the distance.
"Edythe was just apologizing," I told her. "She said she'd grovel, but she hasn't yet. Now it's your turn, maybe she will for you."
Carine wasn't one for giving her children disapproving looks, but she directed one at Archie now. "I don't think—"
"Yes," Edythe interrupted. For the first time, she forced herself to raise her eyes, to meet those of her mother. "Yes, Carine, we... I'd like for us to talk. If we could."
She glanced at Beau, and he smiled down at her encouragingly, rubbing her arm. She squeezed his hand in return, though I noticed she made no move to separate.
"Plus Beau and I need to have a talk, man to man," I hinted. I made shooing motions with my fingers.
Carine shook her head at me while Edythe gave a hint of a smile.
With a long sigh, Edythe at last slowly disentangled herself from Beau's arm. Turning she gave him a light kiss on the lips, and he seemed as reluctant to let her go.
She stepped away from him, her eyes lingering on his face—then she turned toward Carine.
Carine briefly touched Edythe's arm with affection. Before Edythe turned, leading the way back down the beach. Carine followed after a moment. They took off at a good clip, not quite a human pace, but not vampire speed either. After a moment, they had disappeared around the edge of the alcove, and I heard the sound of their retreating footsteps in the sand as they continued on.
Beau stared after the place they had gone like a seaman's wife staring after her husband's departing vessel. He sighed deeply.
I put a hand on his shoulder. "They'll be back," I said.
Beau turned to glower at me again. "Cut her some slack when they get back," he said. "Or you'll have me to deal with."
I glanced back at him, hardly intimidated, of course. However, as I eyed his expression, I thought I knew what was different from before. It wasn't that Beau had ever really been afraid to speak his mind around us—even with us being vampires and he still a human, he'd never been afraid to challenge me or Edythe on something he disagreed with. But there was a new confidence in the way he stood, the way he talked. Like before he still hadn't quite known his place in the world, and now he did. When it came to protecting Edythe, he was going to have a bit of a bulldog streak. Edythe would have trouble adjusting, no doubt. But it would be good for my sister to get a taste of her own overprotective medicine.
I shook my head. "Come on, you know my sister. She needs someone to lay on the hot coals of guilt, or she just does it worse to herself later."
He blinked once, looking surprised for some reason. His brow furrowed in contemplation.
I added complacently, "Course, that's why it's a good thing she's got me. To give her what she needs when Prince Charming can't—like telling her off for nearly dooming the world to Armageddon."
Beau sighed and shook his head. His gaze drifted toward he distant shore further down the beach, and he blinked again, seeming to notice for the first time that the others had wandered off.
Royal and Eleanor had headed back along the beach in the opposite direction, holding hands as always. Eleanor leaned up to murmur something in his ear—no doubt to soothe what he was probably feeling. Like me, he'd known Beau was already changed. But it had to still bother him. To see Beau's human life was truly at an end, with no going back. I didn't see the two of them becoming best friends any time soon—but Royal did accept Beau as part of the family, I knew. As important to him as the rest of us.
Earnest had retreated back closer to the forest, and he was smiling with all the joy only a father whose children had finally found happiness could. His eyes went to Royal and Eleanor first, then rose back toward the spot Carine and Edythe had gone. At last his gaze returned to me, and our gazes met briefly. He smiled one of his crinkling smiles, before turning back to Royal and Eleanor again. Watching over us all.
Jess alone had remained standing near me—as always, she could sense what I wanted, just as I could for her, and I didn't want her to leave.
Beau glanced at her, then rubbed the back of his neck. "So," he said, somehow managing his old familiar awkwardness, in spite of his new immortal grace. "I'm one of you now. You'll have to keep me in check."
Jess gave him a warm smile. "Welcome to the family," she said. "Don't worry, we will. Although..." Her eyebrows came down slightly, perplexed. "You seem... very in command of yourself for one your age. Both your appetite, and emotions."
I was probably the only one who read the hint of disappointment in her tone. Jess still always felt like the weak link of the family, and she hated it. I knew, even if she'd never admitted it, she'd been looking forward to Beau's early years, when she was no longer the family's biggest worry. I hadn't had the heart to tell her Beau was probably going to be the most in-control newborn we'd even seen. Whether it was because Beau was more mentally prepared than most or just because Beau was Beau, I didn't know.
I stepped forward then, and raised an arm to drape casually over his neck. Beau tensed for a second automatically—then relaxed.
"So," I said. "Few things you're going to need to know, bro."
Beau glanced at me. "Yeah?" he said cautiously.
"First," I said, "I'll forgive you this time because it wasn't really your fault—but if you break my sister's heart again, I'll take your fingers and use them as throwing darts."
Beau nodded solemnly. "Yeah."
"Second," I said, "stay out of Edythe's fights with Royal. There's just no good you're going to be able to do getting in the middle of that, and Edythe can take of herself."
Beau frowned. "Well..."
"And last," I continued, talking over him. "Now that you're changed, Eleanor's going to insist on having that arm wrestling match. Try not to gloat too much, because she's going to insist on having rematches until your newborn blood wears off, and then you're not winning any any contests of strength with her ever again. You don't want to have to eat too many words, because she won't ever let you forget them. Ever."
Beau paused for a second, considering all these pieces of brotherly advice. Then he grinned.
"I'm glad I survived," he said. "I've been wanting to be a part of your family since I met you—I can't believe it's actually happened. I would have hated to have made the change, and then miss out on that."
I let go of his neck then, and sighed dramatically. "Yeah, and I missed it. I had this great plan for when you transitioned over. First second you opened your eyes, I was going to say, 'Look at that guy! He's so cool! Just like how I kept saying he would be.' It was going to be this great I-told-you-so moment, and I completely missed it. Sulpicia and Edythe both have a lot to answer for."
Beau grinned again, but then his eyes wandered out toward the ocean. He watched the waves lapping back and forth, and his gaze was far away.
"It's strange, isn't it?" I said softly.
Beau blinked, and glanced back.
I stared out at the water too, watching in the distance as a fish breached the shifting waves. Then at last I turned my gaze back to him. I grinned.
"Think about it. Sulpicia went after you and your powers, but didn't give a thought about mine. I mean, seeing the future? What the heck? That wasn't cool enough for her?"
Beau gave a half grin. "Don't get too comfortable. You never know what power she'll want next time."
I stroked my chin. "You know, if you're going to be part of this family, you're going to need to learn how to get in on the betting pools. When do you want to guess when the world will be in danger next? Twenty-five years at the outside?"
Beau gave me a look like that wasn't funny, and shook his head incredulously.
The three of us stared out at the water, the waves shifting in their ever slow dance.
Just then Edythe and Carine reappeared on the edge of the alcove, both smiling, Edythe glowing as though she had swallowed the sun. Her scanning eyes found us, and as Beau's eyes met hers, she opened her arms, and Beau immediately took off down the beach without a word, not moving at even remotely human speed.
I turned back to the water, though not before sending a quick smile back at Jess, who was watching me as always. I knew she was basking in the warmth of so much relief and happiness. She didn't need to use her powers for anything at the moment, only absorb it all. The happiness of this day, and the continued happiness that stretched into tomorrow.
The future was never certain, I knew that better than anyone. And there would still be obstacles to come. But, even so, I had to say the future looked pretty bright.
A/N: And, there it is. Just one (short) chapter left before the epilogue.
In the original version of this chapter, I had Archie in third-person, like Sulpicia (and like Salvatore from a few chapters back). I'm glad now I went back and changed it. I hadn't intended to break out of the mostly Beau/Edythe and occasional Jules-perspective format, but in the original draft of this story the Cullens didn't reappear after Chapter 12: Rebellion at all, and I'd been looking for a way to change that. (Still wish I'd found a way to make the Cullens be more involved throughout, that's still always going to be my biggest regret of this story.)
The Carine/Sulpicia conversation—this was actually inspired by something I'd been thinking about incorporating into a Part 2 of Midnight Sun Reimagined if I ever got around to doing it (which I haven't sadly, at least for now). I've always pictured Sulpicia and Carine having had far more of a real friendship and impact on each other than Aro and Carlisle did, and in reading Midnight Sun and remembering that Carlisle/Carine actually spent decades with the Volturi, that was only solidified in my mind all the more. I'm glad there was an opportunity to get a bit into that here.
Side note—this entire project is officially up on Ao3 now, including some bits of new Life and Death art scattered throughout. I've also reuploaded all the chapters here now, mostly fixing typos and streamlining bloated author's notes, but with a few more substantial changes in places. In Eclipse, I revised both Royal and Jessamine's backstories (Chapter 6 and Chapter 12) to make them more accurate, particularly Jessamine's. Also, even though this wasn't my intention, I ended up doing some rewriting in Midnight Sun's Chapter 15, Preparations, to incorporate a few ideas from the official Midnight Sun. So, feel free to check out any of those if you're interested.
Well, enough gabbing, onto the next chapter!