A/N: Final chapter! We're here at last. (And it turned out to be a surprisingly long one.)
Thanks as always for reading so far! Hope you enjoy this last one, and see you on the other side!
I crouched low amidst the tall grasses, half-yellowed with the summer heat. My ocher eyes focused like lasers on the large deer standing in the early morning darkness beside the waterhole.
The animal paused for a moment, lifting its head and cocking an ear, as though it had heard something. Or maybe through some supernatural extra sense, simply felt in the air the presence of a predator.
I didn't panic. I just stayed where I was, calmly, patiently, and, as expected, the deer eventually went back to drinking.
I circled closer, making no noise, in spite of the dry grass that would normally want to crackle with every step of a normal creature. I kept myself downwind. Then, at the right moment, perfectly timed, I lunged.
The deer never saw me coming. My hand came up under its head and I snapped its neck in an instant. The body collapsed limply to the ground. I bent my head to drink.
I'd picked up a lot of hunting tips from Edythe over the past several years. I liked to think of myself as a stealthy hunter—I wasn't Eleanor, trying to pick fights with my prey. I preferred to take them down before they even had time to be afraid. If they happened to notice me, I generally let them go, although that didn't happen too much anymore.
"Very nice," a voice said from behind me.
I turned to see Edythe drop lightly from the tree she had been lounging in, and approach. She had just been hunting herself, though except for her bright, liquid gold eyes, you couldn't have told it. Her clothing was absolutely perfect and untouched.
I wiped at my mouth, and let the carcass drop. "Thanks."
She sighed and touched my sleeve. "Although I admit I do miss the days when, every time you hunted, we had to get you a new shirt."
I shook my head. "I don't know how you stand it. It's such a waste."
Since joining the Cullen family, there were some things I'd learned about them I'd never known before. For instance, Archie apparently had a liking for designing clothes. Nothing wrong with that, except that also apparently he didn't like any of us to wear the same thing twice. I didn't care how rich we were, whether we could afford it or not, it still completely went against all my natural instincts. Of course, as a result, Goodwill ended up seeing a lot of donations, so I did my best to focus on that.
Edythe stretched out her hand for mine, smiling. "Ready?" she asked. "Or did you want to find one more, just in case?"
"I'm good," I answered. In truth, I didn't need extra hunting for this. My eyes could be solid black, and there still wouldn't be any real danger—Edythe still often marveled at how complete my control was, and even Royal had once grudgingly admitted he was impressed. But, I was always careful out of habit. In my mind, there was no sense taking chances trying to be macho.
We took off through the trees, hand-in-hand as we moved at a leisurely pace for us.
"Ten years," Edythe murmured, almost to herself.
"Yeah," I said. "Technically, you might say it's my birthday today."
Edythe glanced away from me. It was ten years since I had made the change from human to vampire, to the very day. Even after all these years, I knew she still felt some shadow of the guilt of the circumstances of my change. But, as I often reminded her, the world was a better place for me having become a vampire. I'd done something to help the world I never could have done as a human.
Not that I would have changed anything even if we could. I wouldn't trade these years with Edythe—the beginning of our eternity—for anything.
I squeezed her hand slightly, and smiled at her. She turned her head, and smiled back.
We made it back in good time. The sun was only just breaching the horizon, though we couldn't see it past the ever-present gray cloud cover.
The Cullen house and its airy architecture of glass and pale whites, designed by Earnest so long ago, stood as always in the woods in the middle of a perfectly manicured lawn. The house was quieter now than it had once been—everyone had since moved away, leaving it to Edythe and I. Carine and Earnest had dropped contact with everyone they had known in Forks, and also with my mom, much to her disappointment. It had been time for them to quietly remove themselves from society, to edge out of one fake human cycle, and look to beginning another. After all, no one looking at either of them would believe they were supposed to be over forty.
I knew my time was coming soon, too. I had known it for so long, from the beginning, but now that it was nearly arrived, I still dreaded it. I knew I would have to die, and leave everyone in my old human world behind. If there was just one thing I regretted about this new life, it was that. There was one person I regretted leaving most of all—more than even my mom, or my dad. One that I really hadn't been expecting.
Edythe and I quickly moved about the house, making sure everything was in place. There wasn't a lot to do—we'd added beds to all the bedrooms to make the house look more authentically human a long time ago, which we just left year-around, and we never touched the case of kids' DVDs we kept by the flat-screen television, or the scores of video games near all the latest consoles.
"Did you check to make sure the playset out back is still good?" I asked Edythe as we met in the living room. "I thought the chains looked like they were starting to rust out."
"There was a touch of rust on the connectors near the seat, so I just replaced them," Edythe promised. She added, "Although he hasn't used the playset since he was six."
I shrugged. "Never can be too careful. He might go back to it on a whim, he's not really too old for it just yet."
"Although apparently he's too old to let us buy new toys for him. Last year he promised to throw a fit if he saw we'd bought anything new this year." She gave me a reproachful look. "Apparently it's genetic."
I thought about arguing that not wanting to be showered with excessive gifts all the time wasn't necessarily a bad thing, but instead dipped my head in defeat. Now that I understood the fun of having someone to buy way too much for, I could relate to her frustration back in high school.
"Sorry," I said.
She started to say something, but then her eyes lost their focus, and she turned her head in the direction of the eastern forest, as if someone had called her name.
"Seems we have another visitor," she said.
"Another visitor?" I asked, puzzled. Then I heard it—the soft sound of padding clawed feet in the forest, rushing toward us.
"I'll give you three guesses," Edythe said. "Most of the time she's furry, runs on all fours, and loves getting on other people's nerves."
I frowned. "She's kind of early, isn't she?"
"As I said," Edythe replied gravely, "she likes to get on people's nerves."
I heard the rapid sound of snaps and creaks, like bones shifting and changing shape, too quick for human ears to have picked up. It was followed by a loud thunk as a pair of feet landed on the porch.
A moment later the door opened, and a tall figure with russet skin dressed in nothing but a skin-tight T-shirt and spandex shorts appeared in the doorway, leaning casually against the frame.
"What was that?" Jules asked. "Did I just hear someone complimenting me behind my back?"
"Hello, Julie," Edythe said politely. "And I might point out some might consider it rude to listen in on private conversations."
She snorted. "Because you are so committed to privacy rights." Her dark eyes were bright as she glanced around the room. "Is he here yet?"
I shook my head. "You know he's not, or you would smell him. He's going to be here later this morning, Charlie insisted on us letting him pick him up from the airport."
"Shoot," Jules said. "Won't see him for a few days then. I told Lee I'd run a double-shift on patrols while he does something-or-other in Port Angeles today, and I already had Sarah run a bunch of double-shifts last week. Can't let it slide since we picked up that new bloodsucker scent a few weeks ago. They could be back anytime."
Edythe and I shared a quick glance, and she nodded imperceptibly.
"Um, Jules?" I began. I'd thought sounding awkward was something I would leave behind in my human self, but somehow I still managed it. "We were thinking, you know... maybe you shouldn't hang around so much this time."
Jules frowned. "Why not? He has fun when I'm around." She added, "I told the pair of you, just because I like to talk about how a little danger makes life more interesting doesn't mean I'd let him do anything crazy. I keep a close eye on him, enough even you two psycho-worriers couldn't complain."
"Uh, it's not that." I reached up to rub the back of my neck. "It's just... I think he has a crush on you."
Edythe shook her head. "No think about it."
Jules shrugged, nonchalant. "Of course he does, he's a smart kid."
Edythe added, "He really doesn't like Lee. If he wasn't a third of his size, I think he might really challenge him to a fight."
Jules picked at her ear. "Well, that's something we have in common then. I don't think anybody likes Lee. And if I didn't need him for patrols, I'd probably pick a fight with him myself." Then she grinned, a flash of white against her russet skin.
I gave her a serious look. "Really, Jules. Don't hurt his feelings."
She rolled her eyes. "You know me better than that." She added, "Although I'll keep Lee away, just in case. He's such a dork, he might really get in a fight with a nine-year-old kid."
"Almost ten," Edythe corrected. "He wants to be called almost ten now, he told Beau so in one of his last texts."
Jules laughed aloud. "Guess he's going to have a thing about age now, just like his brother."
I sighed, and gave Edythe a sideways look, which she returned with an innocent smile. I still wish she hadn't let slip to Jules my thing about age before my change. Jules had been finding ways to rib me about it ever since.
We all heard a howl in the far distance, and Jules glanced over her shoulder. She sighed. "That'll be Lee. Impatient, much?" She started to turn away, then glanced back a moment. "And don't be so over-protective. A little crush never hurt anybody. Well—most people." She gave the two of us a fish-eyed look.
There was another howl, and she sighed, exasperated. "Yeah, yeah," she said under her breath. "And people say I like to get on people's nerves..." However, she was half-grinning to herself as she said it, and as we watched, she leaped from the porch, exploding into wolf form in midair, and landing halfway across the yard in a single bound.
Edythe winced. "I really wish she wouldn't do that in broad daylight."
I smiled. "She knows you would warn her if there was anyone close by."
She shook her head. "It's the principle of the thing. One should get in the habit of being careful, rather than relying on other people to keep things from getting out of control."
I shrugged. "If Jules did that, she wouldn't be Jules."
She smiled ruefully. "True."
We had both wandered over to the open doorway, where we watched Jules' blurred form disappear into the forest, and listened to the quiet sounds of her rapid footfalls fade.
Edythe's smile faded, and she gave me an unusually serious look. "Speaking of which, Archie texted me earlier. I didn't know how to tell you, but it seems—"
Just then, my smartphone buzzed in my pocket, and I pulled it out. It was a text from Charlie. I still couldn't believe he had caved and gotten himself a phone. But, Bonnie had finally convinced him it was a good thing to have, for emergencies if nothing else.
Got the kid, on the way
Great, see you soon, I swiped back, and sent it. I looked back up to Edythe. "You were saying?"
She gazed at me, her features strangely sad. She glanced away. "Maybe I'll tell you in a little while. For now—Archie also said Charlie's car would break down on the way. Shall we go out to meet them?"
I gazed back at her a long moment. Even now, Edythe hated causing me any unpleasantness, the same way I did her. But, I didn't push—she would tell me, in her own time. She'd always tell me.
I smiled at her. "Okay. Let's go then. Though we might want to time it so we don't get there right as it's breaking down."
Edythe grinned back. "You have certainly gotten skilled at staying inconspicuous."
"Thanks." In the early days, sometimes even having a crazy fast vampire brain hadn't stopped me from accidentally doing some things that were a bit suspicious. Moving too fast or showing up an times a little too convenient. Fortunately I'd always had Edythe there to save me from myself.
We loitered around the house a little longer, me checking the playset again and seeing that Edythe had indeed replaced the chains, before we headed out to the garage. Edythe tried to convince me to take my Ferrari—a car she'd bought for me back before my change to use after I turned—but I shepherded us both in the direction of her new Volvo instead. It was a different model than the old one she used to drive, ash gray instead of silver, and more of a van to accommodate more passengers. I'd tried to buy a Honda on the sly once, but unfortunately Archie had gotten wind of it, and Edythe had quickly put a stop to the scheme. Apparently, becoming a vampire hadn't suddenly given me a deep fascination with fast cars, much to Edythe's disappointment.
The sky was, as always, overcast overhead, as Edythe drove us up the highway, me reminding her to go at a reasonable speed out of habit. Mostly I'd accepted Edythe's insane driving, but there were going to be young eyes watching us soon, and I didn't want us to be a bad influence. Edythe complied without complaint.
As expected, we passed Charlie's police cruiser pulled off the highway, and Edythe turned the Volvo around to pull up behind them.
Charlie was looking intently under the hood, glaring at it as if it were a criminal under his arrest. And beside him, hovering by his elbow, was a kid with a head of dark hair and could have been about ten years old. Or almost ten.
He looked up and saw us. Charlie looked startled briefly, but the kid showed no sign of surprise, and instead his mouth split in a wide grin.
Before I had turned off the car and pushed open the door, he was already there, waiting for me.
"Hey, kiddo," I said as I got out, and was instantly enveloped in a hug around my midriff. He didn't flinch at the cold hardness, which I knew he could feel even through my T-shirt and light jacket. I lightly hugged him back, and I knew my grin was almost as wide as his.
Edythe got out on the other side, and she smiled as she watched us. "Hello, Ren," she said as he detached himself from my midsection. She glanced toward the police cruiser. "Is there a problem?"
"Cruiser broke down," Ren said, nonchalant. "I told Gramps you'd be along soon to pick us up." He grinned again.
For some reason, Ren had taken to calling Charlie Gramps. Edythe said it was because Ren sometimes thought of us as his other parents, rather than simply his older brother and sister-in-law, and considering the timing of his birth, not long after Edythe and I were married, I knew he wasn't the only one. Some people around Forks occasionally got confused when he came to visit, as he had every summer since he was two, and thought he really was our son, being taken care of by my mom out of state because we hadn't been ready for the responsibility. Neither Edythe nor I really minded the confusion.
Charlie, to my surprise, had taken to the nickname—especially when he had found out Edythe couldn't have children. Though he often said the two of us acted more like doting grandparents than he ever had.
Charlie left the open hood, and came to us. "Can't say I'm not happy to see you," he grunted. "Just got this new cruiser since the old one went out, and I just had it in for servicing at Dowling's last week. They'll be getting an earful from me."
"Beau was getting anxious, and wanted to come meet you halfway," Edythe said. "I kept telling him you two weren't due yet, but he insisted. He must have a sixth sense."
Charlie chuckled. My dad was a bit more in the know than he had been back in my high school days—since marrying Bonnie, he knew more about the Quileute so-called superstitions, and that odd, supernatural things tended to happen around them and the Cullens. However, according to Bonnie, he'd made it clear he didn't want to know anything about any old legends he didn't have to, and he often seemed happy to ignore odd coincidences or our uncanny ability to be just in the right place at the right time. Still, we often engaged in a bit of playacting in front of Ren.
"At least he does when it comes to his kid brother at any rate," Charlie said. He gave Ren an affectionate look, who was now all but attached to my side.
Charlie had gotten noticeably older in the past few years. There were bits of pepper gray mixed in with what hair he had left, and some of the wrinkles in his face had grown more pronounced. Of course, with my sharp vampire eyes, I could see even the most minute changes as he aged day by day, but now even human eyes could detect the difference.
I had a hand on Ren's shoulder as we came around the car.
"Why don't you have me take a look at it, Charlie?" Edythe asked. "I'm not my brother Royal, but if it's something simple..."
"Go ahead," Charlie said, stepping aside to make way for her. "I really can't figure out these new machines. If you can fix it, I might have to start bringing it to you instead of Dowling—even if you charged a normal rate, it would still save me an arm and a leg."
While Edythe bent over the engine, asking Charlie technical questions about how the car had been acting when it quit, Ren looked up at me, beaming so wide the expression lit his entire face. He wasn't as pale as I had been, probably because he spent a lot more time outdoors. Unlike me, he liked playing sports, which I figured he must get from Phil.
"So how was the flight?" I asked. I'd expected him to look tired, almost six hours straight flying overnight was rough on a human, especially a kid, but he seemed bright-eyed as always.
"Slept most of the way," he said, shrugging. "I like that engine-hum, it's kinda relaxing."
"Well, good," I said, glad to hear he hadn't struck up conversation with the passenger next to him this time. Only in the last couple of years had he insisted he travel alone, calling it a waste of money for me to buy a round trip ticket to go all the way out there just to fly back with him, but it made Edythe and I both nervous, especially when he was so often determined to talk to strangers. Archie had had to promise Edythe and I to keep half an eye on him.
"How's school been?" I asked.
He shrugged under my hand. "Same old, same old," he said dismissively. "Tanner dumped us to go hang out with Brad and them, so now it's mostly just Levi and me. Oh, and Kaylee Briggs comes and hangs out with us sometimes now. Though Levi still doesn't like it, because she always beats him at arm wrestling. Course, she beat me too, but I'm just not dumb enough to keep challenging her."
I smiled. There were a lot of things about Ren that reminded me of me, but there were other things where he could have been my polar opposite. Although Ren didn't really seem to think of himself as one of the cool kids, from everything we could tell the other kids all liked him, except for the bullies like Brad Lark, who had been something of Ren's arch nemesis since kindergarten. Ren had a friendly openness about him that drew people to him, and from almost the moment he first learned to talk, he had a way of telling stories so they came to life in vivid detail. I didn't have a doubt that when he grew up, he'd be one of those people who was always the most interesting person in the room.
"How about schoolwork?" I asked.
He made a face. "Mom keeps telling me I need to raise my grades. She says you got straight A's even though she was single and you were half taking care of her all the time."
I laughed. "I wouldn't trust Mom's memory. I definitely didn't get straight A's."
"Close to it though," he said.
I shrugged. "Everybody has their strengths. Like I say, Gym wasn't my best subject."
He gave me his usual half incredulous, half skeptical look. My complete lack of coordination was something that had gone away when I became a vampire.
I added, "But, Mom's right, you could be putting more effort in on your grades. Even if you don't use it all later, just learning how to make yourself do stuff you don't want to will make things easier down the road. Because, you know, everyone has to do things they don't want to sooner or later."
I kept my eyes focused on Edythe and Charlie working as I spoke, trying to keep my voice casual. The truth was, I really wasn't one for doling out words of wisdom, and I knew nobody liked to be lectured. But Edythe had suggested I try giving more advice once in awhile.
"He looks up to you," she had said. "Maybe more than anyone else. So he might listen to you where he wouldn't his mother or Phil."
Ren was a good kid, mostly responsible, and loyal to his friends. Even though he was doted on by so many people, he didn't have an overly high opinion of himself. Still, he was a kid, and inevitably his priorities weren't always where they could be. With Phil there to take care of things, he'd had a very different childhood from mine.
Ren didn't look annoyed or sulky, like he sometimes had when I heard Phil trying to say something similar, on the very few times Edythe and I had visited them up in Jacksonville. Instead, he looked sheepish. "Yeah, I know."
I ruffled his hair affectionately, then looked up to Edythe, who was just leaning back, wiping black grease from her hands on her white pants. Jules would be proud, and no doubt Archie would be happy at the excuse to force on her yet another set of new clothes.
"I think it should run now," Edythe said. "A connector for one of the electrical sensors came out, it might have come loose when they were working on it at Dowling's. I just put it back in."
Charlie muttered something about new-fangled contraptions and putting computers where they didn't belong, then went over to the driver's seat to see if it would start up. The new cruiser immediately purred to life, and Charlie gave Edythe the thumb's up as she shut the hood.
"Okay, kid," Charlie called to Ren. "Let's go."
"Whuh?" he said, still attached to my side. "But..."
I laughed and ruffled his hair again. "Go on. Gramps wants to talk to you, too. We'll have plenty of time back at the house, you are going to be here three weeks, you know. Edythe and I will follow right behind you."
He sighed, then trudged off toward the cruiser. In fact, Ren liked talking to Charlie as much as anyone, and when we had cookouts over an open fire in the backyard, he always wanted to know if Gramps was going to be there so he could grill him on what it was like being a police officer. He had even gotten Charlie to take him fishing once, but it turned out he liked the idea of fishing more than the actual practice, and ended up exploring the shoreline, until Charlie actually caught something, at which point he suddenly became interested again. But, when I was around, he always came to me first.
Edythe came around the cruiser, and I noticed she was moving a little quicker than she normally did around humans. She shot a troubled look at the back of Ren's head, then looked back at me.
I shifted closer to her. "What is it?" I said in a low voice, too low for Ren to hear as he opened the passenger door and started to get in.
"You should go with him," she said softly. "I'll follow behind you in the Volvo." There was an odd intensity in her expression that alarmed me, but I forced myself to keep my expression neutral.
"Okay," I said. "If that's okay with you."
I started to turn for the police cruiser, but Edythe reached out and touched my wrist, and she said quietly, "Oh, and also—over the school year since we last saw him, it seems Ren has been thinking about something. He's going to try to ask you about it, though I don't know if he'll be able to ask before—"
She broke off, and as she gazed back at me, her features were pained.
I wondered if this had to do with what Archie had seen. However, I knew this wasn't the time for that conversation and, not knowing what else to do, I just squeezed her hand, then turned for the cruiser.
Charlie was just finishing up checking his rearview mirror when I rapped on his window. He rolled it down partway.
"Edythe kicked me out, so looks like I'm coming with you," I said.
Charlie grumbled something in reply—he knew if I was around, Ren was liable to pay all his attention to me and barely talk to him—but he waved me in the direction of the backseat.
I got in, sitting in the middle so I'd be able to see both Charlie and Ren sitting up front. Ren's face had brightened when he saw me, and he grinned, but then he turned back to Charlie.
"So," he said, as we pulled away from the gravel curb. "Do you ever see big wolves like those anymore?"
Charlie shook his head. "Not been any sightings in a long time, and no more attacks. Although some hikers have seen some fresh tracks which look like big wolves. Plenty of folks think their normal prey just happened to be scarce for a while, and it drove them down closer to town. We've had some overhunting problems from time to time, but now the deer and elk populations are back up, so those wolves are probably back to their normal hunting grounds."
"Bet deer taste better than people," Ren commented.
I had to bite back a chuckle.
"But Bonnie doesn't like you to talk about hunting wolves, does she?" he asked.
Charlie shrugged. "According to the legends, the Quileutes descended from wolves. So wolves are considered sacred."
"I know," Ren said enthusiastically. "It's pretty awesome, huh? Maybe the Quileutes asked the wolves to stop killing people, and they did."
Charlie chuckled. "Could be," he said. Though his tone was more affectionately humoring than serious.
"They used to turn into wolves," Ren said. "You know, according to all the legends and stuff." He sighed. "I wish I were a Quileute. Then maybe I could figure out the secret, and change into a wolf. That would be so awesome."
Last year, Jules had taken Ren to one of the bonfires the Quileutes held. I'd had my reservations about the idea, but it wasn't like everyone who went had to be in on the secret—Jules had used to go back before she knew any of the legends were actually real. When Ren had gotten back, he hadn't been able to stop talking about it, though it surprised me he was still thinking about it a year later.
"Hey," Ren said, half glancing back toward me, "that reminds me, do you think Jules will be stopping by today at all? Just wondering."
His tone was so overly casual that I had to fight not to laugh. I realized his talk about the Quileutes had probably mostly been to lead into this question.
"From what I heard she's going to be busy the next few days," I said. "But I'm sure she'll be coming by sometime. Why?"
He shrugged, with affected nonchalance, though was given away by the fact his ears were suddenly pink. "No reason. I was just going to ask her some more about the Quileutes and stuff."
"I think she was doing something for Lee, but I expect she'll probably be here when she can."
I saw the predictable frown cross his face, and wasn't sure whether to laugh or wince. I knew Jules wouldn't be staying away whatever Edythe and I recommended, but I hoped at least she wouldn't do anything to inadvertently encourage him.
I didn't talk most of the rest of the way there, leaving Ren to pepper Charlie with questions about his days as a police officer in Forks. Though Charlie wasn't all that quick at coming up with good stories, Ren had a way of asking questions that reminded him of things, and I found myself drawn in by old past events I'd never heard before myself.
We reached the house, and Charlie lingered a few minutes to finish up his last tale, about a young entrepreneur who had come to town who started a business that turned out simply to be a front for drug trafficking—it was oddly Mrs. Newton who had cottoned on to the situation, and alerted the police force.
As Charlie drove off, Ren and I waved, just as Edythe came up behind us from having parked the Volvo in the garage. Hearing Ren talk to Charlie had made me realize that his life as an officer in Forks had been more interesting than I'd always assumed. Ren wasn't quite as dedicated in school as I had been, but he was legitimately interested in other people, in a way I realized that I'd never been. But unlike Edythe, who simply saw everything there was to know about other people while holding herself in reserve most of the time, he happily gave of himself, too.
Ren was squinting off into the woods. "Did you ever stop animals getting into your cabin?" he asked curiously.
I grimaced slightly. Back in our slightly wild, just-post-honeymoon days, Earnest had designed a little rustic cottage for us to stay in on our own, away from the house. Needless to say, we'd trashed it. Although with the rest of the family gone, we didn't really need it anymore, Ren had discovered it once on one of his many explorations of the grounds around the house, and we'd told him part of the truth, that we'd stayed in it when the other members of Edythe's family were still staying in the house, but told him how we could never get the foundation quite sealed up, and how animals had taken it over since we left. He seemed to have a strange fascination with the place we couldn't seem to quite curtail.
"It's still a wreck," I said. "We might clean it up sometime, but we don't use it for anything."
To distract him, I smiled and patted his shoulder. "So, what's on the agenda first?"
"I'm starving," he answered. "What's for breakfast?"
"Ah, that's right," Edythe said from behind us. "Shall I go whip something up?"
Ren pretended to give me a horrified look that Edythe couldn't see. Edythe actually didn't cook that bad, as she'd studied the art of human cooking on cooking shows for years, but I still remembered my human skills well enough for it to come a lot more naturally to me, and it was a running joke that if she and Charlie ever got together to make dinner, they'd probably burn the house down.
I put a hand on her shoulder. "Maybe there will be time for some of your experiments later in the week," I suggested kindly. I gave her a surreptitious wink and we grinned at each other. However, I thought I saw a hesitation in her smile, and her gaze dropped briefly from mine.
Trying to quash my growing worry, we all headed inside the house.
I stood at the stove, the smell of crackling oil and scrambled eggs rising in the air, which I could still recall from my human days but now reeked to my vampire senses.
Ren, meanwhile, seemed to inhale the pancakes I had fixed him. Between bites, he asked, "Aren't you guys going to eat anything?"
"We ate earlier," I said. "You know I've got my special diet I have to stick to."
He nodded slowly. He of course knew about my sickness—the cover story that Sulpicia had helped me establish far back in the earlier days of my change. According to doctor's orders, I had a strict dietary plan I had to follow. Ren always had a lot of questions about everything, but he'd had even more about it particularly in the previous year. Hard as it was, I'd tried to tell him how limited my time left was, and there would be times he would get quiet, and just look at me soberly, and I knew that was what he was thinking about.
He was looking at me quietly now, his expression thoughtful, solemn. I hated what I was going to have to do to him. To die, when I wasn't really dead. But there really wasn't anything else to do. I understood now, more completely than I ever had as a human, Edythe's feelings in wanting to keep me out of the world of vampires, wanting me to have every human experience there was, not wanting me to lose anything. I didn't regret my choice—I felt more comfortable and like I belonged more than I ever had in the human world. But that was me. Ren loved everything about his world, everything was an adventure. I just hated I wouldn't be able to experience it all with him.
As I was dumping a liberal amount of scrambled eggs on his plate, I felt my phone buzz in my shirt pocket. A message.
I set the dishes in the sink and washed my hands, drying them on a neatly pressed towel, then started to reach into my pocket to pull it out.
Edythe, who had been sitting at a table typing at a computer—she had recently taken up a temporary job as a free-lance writer for a small human-interest journal—looked up and met my gaze. Her expression was composed, but I saw in the slight tension in her mouth and the wideness of her eyes a kind of warning.
"I'll be right back," I told Ren. "I'm just going to make sure I set out the towels for you in the bathroom, I can't remember."
He nodded, though couldn't respond as his mouth was stuffed full of egg. I patted his shoulder as I passed, then headed into the other room and upstairs.
I entered the bedroom Edythe and I shared, and carefully closed the door behind me. Hesitantly, I reached into my pocket and pulled out my phone, swiping to unlock the screen.
There was a new message notification at the top, and as I saw the name listed below it, I felt my cold, still heart sink, all the way down to the floor.
I opened the text.
Something has come up, it read without preamble. I'm going to need you to fly out tonight. Your ticket has already been taken care of, your flight will leave at 8:10 PM, PDT. My assistant will be there to meet you when you arrive.
I looked at the name I had put in to identify the sender—V.S. The code I used to identify Sulpicia. Sulpicia had sent me such messages before, short and brief instructions to fly out, never explaining why or exactly where I was going, whenever she needed my powers for something. I was always briefed when I got there—my assistant pretty much always meant Tacita. I guess she sent Tacita since Tacita was her strongest fighter and could better guarantee my safety, but sometimes I wished she would send someone who glared a little less.
However, with Ren having just arrived for his yearly visit, it seemed like the timing couldn't have been worse, even if, most likely, I'd just be there a few days and be able to come right back. None of what Sulpicia had had me do over the years had been a hundredth as dangerous as the fight against Salvatore and his people. However—the worrying fear niggled at the back of my mind. Sulpicia had given me ten years to be with my family, to continue to live as the human Beau Swan—even though as a member of the Cullen clan I took the name Cullen when our family was together, Edythe took the name Swan with our human acquaintances—and now those ten years were pretty much up. If I saw her now, would she tell me the time had come? Would she even let me come back to see Ren again?
Without quite knowing what I was doing, I had sunk down on the edge of our bed, holding the phone in my numb hand.
I don't know how long I'd sat there when I heard the sound of light footsteps in the hall, a moment before Edythe appeared in the doorway. She gazed at me, her face tense with pain. She hesitated, then came to sit beside me on the bed. She put a hand over mine.
"I'm sorry," she whispered. "I should have told you before. I just—didn't want to ruin the morning."
I shook my head. In a way, I was glad I hadn't known. My old human self would have argued, but I felt now that maybe sometimes vague worries were better than concrete ones.
"What am I going to tell him?" I whispered. "Edythe, what if when I go there, she tells me that I can't... that this is the last time..."
Edythe put a firm hand on my shoulder. "She won't do that, Beau. We have your death planned out. Your sickness is going to get suddenly worse, and you'll fly out to Sulpicia's hospital—the nurses will treat you there for a week or two, and you'll get worse, and one night, pass away in your sleep. We decided it wasn't going to be sudden, so everyone would have time to mentally prepare."
I nodded slowly, forcing myself to breathe. "But... it is going to be soon," I said dully.
Edythe hesitated. She looked away. "Probably," she said quietly.
I took another slow breath. "I need to talk to him," I said, standing. "I'll tell him I've been having some serious symptoms lately, and you told me I really needed to get in to see someone. And... my time's probably getting close."
There was something again in Edythe's expression—just a hint of something I'd learned usually meant she still wasn't telling me everything—but then it was gone, and she stood beside me and stroked my arm. "I'll go run some errands at the store, and leave you two alone," she said.
She eyed me for a moment, face tense with concern. She leaned up to kiss me lightly on the lips, then turned and left.
With a deep sigh, and feeling somehow more weary than I ever had as a human, I stowed the phone in my pocket and headed back downstairs.
I found Ren sitting cross-legged on the couch in front of the television, playing one of the game boxes. It looked like he'd picked out the Xbox One this time, and was playing some racing game. He was leaps and bounds better at video games than I'd ever been as a human.
I came in and sat beside him on the couch. "Hey, kiddo," I said.
His eyes didn't move from the screen. "Hey," he said vaguely as he punched the D-pad to go around a particularly sharp turn.
"So," I said.
He didn't answer, eyes still glued to the screen as he nailed a particularly difficult jump.
He probably had an inkling what this conversation Edythe had mentioned to him was going to be about, at least part of it. We had told him about my so-called illness when he was still pretty young, that I only had so much time left—we hadn't wanted to suddenly spring it on him when he was older. Whenever I had tried to talk to him about it, he always seemed to get like this. Disengaged, barely paying attention, sometimes deaf. I could understand—it wasn't fair a kid his age had to deal with it. Of course, it was even less fair that my death was going to be a lie.
"Edythe's gone to the store to pick up a few things," I said. I hesitated. "Did she... say anything to you?"
His eyes were still fixed to the screen as he hit turbo propulsion to jet over a body of water. "She just said you had to talk to me about something."
I nodded slowly. "So," I said again.
He sighed and finally paused the game, turning reluctantly to look at me.
"It's... getting close to time," I said quietly.
His eyes dropped from mine, wandering back to the paused game.
"The doctor gave me ten years to live," I said. "It's been about ten years now. I'm going to fly out this evening to go see the doctor again—I was going to try to wait until after your visit, but my attacks have been getting worse, and Edythe doesn't think it's smart to delay. Hopefully I'll just be there a few days for any adjustments in my medication and be back."
"We'll come with you," he said immediately, eyes still focused like lasers on the screen. He was still holding the controller, and he gripped it tightly.
I shook my head. "No way, this is your vacation, and you're not going to have much fun stuck in a doctor's office all day."
"I have fun wherever you are," he said stubbornly. "It's better if we're all together."
I sighed, and put a hand on his shoulder. "Thanks. I appreciate that, more than I can say. But—to be honest, I deal with it better when I'm by myself. Edythe wanted to come with me and leave you with Jules, but I convinced her to stay here with you. It's just... easier."
He didn't answer. His eyes were still focused on the paused video game.
I put my arm around his shoulders, and pulled him against my side. "It's going to be okay," I said. "You're going to have a long, happy life, and my life's been happy too—more happy than I ever expected. At least, you better be happy." I gave him a sideways glance out of the corner of my eye. "You don't want me to be looking down on you from the sky, seeing you all depressed, do you? Then the first part of my afterlife will majorly suck, and when you get up there too, I might have knock you around a bit."
He looked up at me for the first time, and gave a rueful half smile. He wiped at his eyes, where I saw tears glimmering at the edges.
"I'm proud of you, you know," I said suddenly.
He blinked. "What for?"
I smiled down at him. "Because you're a good kid," I said. "I don't mean following all the school rules, or staying out of trouble—I mean the way you see the world. You make friends, you care about people. Those are good things to have. Don't lose them."
He looked slightly embarrassed, but happy. However, his grin was sly. "Are you trying to be wise?" he asked.
"Yeah," I admitted. "Is it working?"
He shrugged. "You're better at it than Jules. Whenever she tries to be wise, she always says something that contradicts everything a second later."
I chuckled. "Yeah, she does. Although I think she does that on purpose. She's just not comfortable with being wise."
He grinned. "Yeah, I know."
I glanced down at him, my arm still around his shoulder. "Can I say just one more wise thing? Then I'm done, I promise."
He pretended to sigh. "I guess."
My eyes wandered away from his, and I found myself staring straight ahead at the television screen, though not really seeing it. "You've got a long life ahead of you, Ren. There's a lot of lessons you've still got to learn. Everyone's born kind of selfish, so learning to care about someone more than you care about yourself is a journey—learning to think about their way of seeing things. You've also got to learn how to not give up too easily, not just go with the flow, but fight for the life you want. And then, when it comes to those people you care about, when it's the right thing to do..." My voice softened, barely above a whisper. "Let them go."
We were both quiet for a long moment, both staring at the frozen television screen. At last I patted his shoulder. "And, those are things I had to learn. Although it never gets any easier."
Ren nodded slowly, eyes still on the screen. They were slightly red as he reached up to brush tears away with his sleeve. He sniffled once, then wiped at his nose. He breathed deeply several times.
After a minute, when he seemed to have gotten a hold of himself, I clapped him on the shoulder again. "So," I said in a cheerier tone. "What do you want to do? My plane doesn't leave until this evening, so we could play some more video games if you want. Or we could go outside for a while, it's getting muggy out now, but it's really not too bad out there in the shade of the trees."
Ren was still holding the game controller in his hands, and he was staring at the screen again, though something in his expression had changed. His mouth was tense, brows pulled over his eyes, as though he were concentrating on something, or gearing up to say something. At last, he set the controller aside and, pulling out from under my arm, he turned to face me fully. His expression was nervous but determined.
"Can I... can I ask you something?" he asked.
I blinked, confused. "Sure. Ask me anything."
His eyes wandered from mine a few times, but finally he forced himself to look me steadily in the eye. "So, this is probably going to sound kind of stupid—and it seems even stupider now that I'm actually here and I'm not just sitting at my house thinking about it—and I don't want you to think I'm just giving myself false hope or something—"
He broke off and didn't continue, and at last I prodded, "Yeah?"
His eyes had moved from mine. He took a deep breath. "So—so Dad took me to see a Superman movie. Long time ago, he always takes me to something when summer's over and I have to go back to school. We watch a lot of superhero stuff, like Batman, Spiderman... Even read a few of his old comics."
He grinned at me sheepishly.
I hesitated. "That's cool. You never told me you liked superheroes." I was already thinking of potential gift ideas. I really wished he hadn't inherited the getting-present-hating gene I had.
"Yeah," he said, "everyone at school thinks superheroes like Superman are dumb and old school. But wouldn't it be cool if you could do that? Like be strong and save people and stuff?"
"...Yeah," I said cautiously. "That would be cool."
He hesitated, staring hard at the empty space in front of him. "So, well..." The rest of the words poured out in a rush. "I never could figure out what it could be exactly, but it always seemed like there was something weird about you and Aunt Edythe."
I gazed back at him. Not letting the suddenly pounding emotions in my brain to show. Searching for something to say, I finally said, "I told you Edythe is technically your sister-in-law, you don't have to call her Aunt. You don't call me your uncle."
He still seemed agitated, uncomfortable. But he forced a shrug. "She just seems more like an aunt. Like... old."
Ren wasn't probably able to articulate it, but it was probably obvious why he unconsciously reacted that way. Edythe still always had a polite, formal way of speaking, and she tended to play more the parent when Ren was doing something potentially dangerous and needed to be more careful.
Ren glanced at me suddenly, worried, and added quickly, "Not like, old in a bad way or anything, just like, you know—"
I smiled at him and chuckled a bit. "Edythe is old," I conceded. "She's always been mature and responsible. What you don't realize is I can be pretty mature and wise too, I just hide it better."
He grinned back at me, relieved. Then his eyes wandered back to the paused screen, smile fading back to serious. "But," began. "So. What I was saying."
I stared back at him with my full attention, trying not to let my expression give anything away.
"You guys..." he began. "You just seem like you're so good at everything. Like, you always tell me you were bad at Gym, but you seem so good at sports. But Gramps tells me you're telling the truth. And then it seems like whenever I need help when you guys aren't around, you just show up right in time. Like when the cruiser broke down today. And—you've just never seemed that sick. I mean, you look different from what you looked like when you were my age, but I always kind of thought in some ways you actually looked... stronger. And now you're leaving on short notice."
He stared hard at the screen. "I know it sounds dumb, but—there's this voice at the back of my head that started wondering. You know, if you're really dying—of if secretly you're really, like, a superhero, and you're not going off now to get looked at by a doctor, but you've got some secret mission you have to go on to keep the world safe, and you're just faking your death so you can be a superhero twenty-four seven."
The room was quiet. My entire body was rigid, tense, and after a minute, he finally turned to peek up at me.
"Stupid," he muttered, looking away again quickly. "I know."
I didn't know what to say. His theory wasn't exactly right of course, but it was close. I always saw Ren as an outgoing kid, who liked to tell his own stories, but I don't know if I'd ever consciously realized the quiet, observant side he had too. I found myself going back to my own dim human memories, sitting in a school cafeteria across from Edythe, trying to understand what she could be.
I knew I should probably say something, deny the theory outright so he wouldn't keep clinging to it. But I couldn't—somehow all the lies, implicit and direct, we had told over the years to keep the secret seemed nothing next to the utter cruel duplicity of lying to him when he was asking so directly for the truth.
"Just," he said, still not able to look me in the eye, "if it is, you know, true—if you are still going to be out there, saving people. Would you still come and visit me sometimes? I wouldn't tell anyone, I promise. Your secret would be safe with me."
I didn't answer, only reached over to put my arm around him again, and ruffled his hair, feeling at once proud of him for seeing, if just a little, through our pretenses, and miserable all over again at the thought of being cut off from him.
"You'll be okay," I said again, rubbing his shoulder. "You're a smart, strong kid, who knows how to care about people. You'll be okay—and I'll be watching over you."
He nodded slowly.
He turned the game back on, and I grabbed a controller to play with him. I'd learned how to mimic my old human skills pretty well—which meant I played like I barely knew how to drive. Soon we were laughing and having a good time, and Edythe got back in time to bring in some of Ren's favorite snacks. However, all the while, with my multi-layered mind, my thoughts wandered. I was glad we'd had this conversation, even if it seemed to reopen all the questions I had long asked myself about what the right thing to do was—and I felt myself already slipping ahead to the future, wondering what Sulpicia would need from me this time, trying to get myself into my more disciplined state of mind.
I found myself absently reaching over to ruffle his hair more often than usual, until it was such a mess Edythe asked Ren if he'd let her comb it.
I let myself enjoy the moment, even as my overly large and complex vampire mind continued to work.
The airport was less crowded than I would have expected it to be, possibly because it was the evening on a week day, though it was generally busier during the summer.
Edythe had called Archie to get a reading on exactly how long it would take me to get through airport security and to my plane without missing it, so I lingered with Ren and Edythe in the lobby up until the very last minute. Jules had managed to come too, for which I was glad. She kept dropping morbid jokes about my illness, and though Edythe kept shooting incredulous glares her way, strangely, I liked it. It kept what might have otherwise been a gloomy atmosphere light, and somehow the thought of my coming death didn't seem quite so serious. Ren laughed with us.
Edythe, Ren, and Jules all waved to me from behind the security line as I passed TSA, and kept on waving as I headed on to my terminal. I waved back, until I had to go around a corner and lost sight of them. I felt as if something heavy had settled on my shoulders as I made it to my gate, just in time to hear my section called. With my light bag over my shoulder, I followed the line inside, and made my way up the cramped aisle until I reached the first class seat Sulpicia had bought for me. I sat down, settling in for the long flight. I had a straight flight to New York, then I would be transferring to another flight that would take me to Europe. Exactly where in Europe, I didn't yet know.
We hadn't been told to turn off our devices yet, so I sent Edythe a text, just the usual telling her that I loved her, and asking her to take care of Ren while I was gone, not that I had to ask her that. Then I hit Ren's name.
I sat there for a moment, trying to decide what to say. His earnest expression as he sat in front of the television, his eyes on me, returned to my mind. "Would you still come and visit me sometimes?"
I smiled ruefully. Edythe hadn't wanted me to become a vampire. Partly because of the soul question, but also because she hadn't wanted me to have to face dilemmas like this. When I died, I was going to hurt him. Secretly going to visit him after wasn't a realistic option. Even if Sulpicia would have allowed it, just asking him to carry a secret like that, not just from all his school friends, but from Mom, from his dad, would be an indescribable burden, and it would isolate him from everyone he knew. Even if letting him think I was dead was a kind of betrayal, a betrayal he might not forgive me for if he ever found out about it, it was better than trying to force an alternative.
My mind wandered back to all those years ago, when I'd just been a normal human teenager coming to Forks. I had to smile to myself as I recalled my own recklessness, pushing Edythe to tell me the truth, promising to keep her secret.
Choosing this path had meant sacrifices—but that was okay. Having someone to face them all with had made it all more than worth it. I hoped someday Ren would find someone like that. When I was gone, and Edythe and I were back with Carine and the others—the one good thing I had to look forward to in all this—I hoped he would find someone to fight for, who would make him feel better even about the most painful sorrows just by being there.
I stared down at the screen in my hand for a long second, trying to think what to say. How I could communicate everything I felt, how important he was to me, all my hopes for his future. Strangely, I found myself thinking of Jules—rising back from heartbreak to find a happiness beyond what she had thought she wanted. Jules had always been strong, resilient. And the truth was, I knew Ren was too.
Smiling, I typed in,
Love you, kid. And I'm telling Edythe not to let Jules be too bad an influence on you when I'm gone.
A moment later he sent back a sly-looking emoticon face, and said, Too late.
Chuckling to myself, I quickly typed back one last message, before putting my phone away, as the flight attendant began to go through the safety procedures. I sat patiently in my seat, watching her dutifully until she was finished, then leaned back.
I carefully unzipped my shoulder bag and slipped my fingers inside—where I felt the cool material of my deep gray Volturi cloak.
I was going off to help Sulpicia again. But I wasn't abandoning Edythe, or even Ren, though our time now was surely nearing an end. I hoped in some small way, I could help keep the world safe for them, so Ren could live his life to the fullest.
Closing my golden eyes, I pretended to sleep.
A/N: And, that's it. At long last, the end.
It's been a long, crazy journey—back at the end of 2015 when I took a break from some other projects to read Life and Death: Twilight Reimagined, and then write a few chapters of a Reimagined version of New Moon, I never expected to come this far. I've gotten to immerse myself in the Twilight universe and fandom in a way I never had before, and through the work I've also been able to improve as a writer. There were times this project seemed to flow like water, and others I felt like I was stitching together a Frankenstein's monster of my own, but it's amazing to actually reach the end.
So, possible future Life and Death projects—for now I consider this project complete. I teased a bit I might consider writing the second half of Midnight Sun, and I have started drafting the first couple chapters, but as always I never know if something will happen until I have the full drafts done. It will remain an eventual possibility, though if it does happen it will be in the distant future. There's also a Reimagined idea separate from this project entirely I've been considering recently, though of course that also doesn't exist at this time either, so we'll see.
The tumblr from which I hosted the bits of art for the Ao3 version of this story is now available to look at, so feel free to browse through it if you're curious. The URL will be in my bio (just remove the spaces between periods), or you could probably find it just searching 'twilight reimagined artwork' on tumblr. Mostly I just wanted to do something fun and different to celebrate the end of the project.
Thanks so much to all of you who have come along for the ride, and been able to have fun with this series even a little. I've so enjoyed every review and pm conversation, and just the opportunity to get to meet other Life and Death fans. I hope anyone who might still find this story in future has found something to enjoy as well—thank you all so, so much again, and hope you all have a safe and wonderful year!