Title: Love & Duty

Author: Girl Who Writes

Characters: Alice, Jasper

Word Count: 6132

Rating: PG

Genre: AU, Romance, Drama

Summary: Mary-Alice Brandon was never surprised to be banished to Texas on her sixteenth birthday; she'd known her entire life she'd don the blacks and take up the mantle just as six generations of Brandon witches had done before her.

A trainee witch is sent to treat a wounded cowboy from her brother coven.

Notes: Jaliceweek20 Day 7: Western AU Gosh, I love writing fics that are only just barely relevant to the prompt. The idea for this 'verse came from a tumblr post that cowboys are just 'day witches', and I loved that idea. This is another fic that will be expanded on because I love world-building, and so much got left on the editing room floor.

Thank you for reading!


The old farmhouse sits outside Laredo, Texas. The wood has blackened from decades underneath the sun and seems to sink in on itself; the ground cracked and dry. The barn roof has caved in, obviously years before if the elaborate nest tucked at the edge is any indication. At the end of the drive, the sign once bore the name of the owners, but that name has long since faded into the wood.

It is an unwelcoming place, for any passerby or stranger - a house that actively discourages anyone from crossing the boundary, even if they never notice it.

But for those that sought it out, and for those few that lived there, it was very different.

It was a sacred duty, once upon a time - the Guardians of the Border, sent to protect and prevent the Southern Wars from spilling over from Mexico into America proper. For decades, girls from all the old families across the country were sent to Texas to run the Guard Houses, to protect and shield those who did not know what lurked in the shadows. Back then, there were so many daughters that only the very best were accepted at the Guard Houses; most girls ended up in the city compounds, mixing the potions and preparing the weapons - or even preparing to teach the next generation. Some girls were even sent right back home to their families - there were only so many beds, after all.

And Texas remained well-guarded.

But time marches on. Vampire wars, human wars, they all have a death toll, and entire family lines died out. It became less of an honour, more of an obligation, and one that fell to the oldest daughter, or the oddest daughter, or the ugliest daughter. It became more important to keep the bloodlines strong than to protect the South from the never-ending Wars.

Mary-Alice Brandon was never surprised to be banished to Texas on her sixteenth birthday; she'd known her entire life she'd don the blacks and take up the mantle just as six generations of Brandon witches had done before her. She was not seen as 'good breeding stock', with her 'visions' and her temper and her complete disinclination to conform to her parents' social obligations. Cynthia was a much better heiress, and so off to Texas Alice was sent, to three ancient 'aunts' who would train her in all she would need to know, having lived their entire lives defending the Laredo house. And when Alice turned twenty-one, she would take her vows.

The house wasn't so bad, if you looked past the glamour. To the right eyes, the house was in good repair, and the aunts maintained a lush garden out the back, of herbs and flowers. They had two strong horses - Hallow and Haven - and half a dozen well-pleased cats. Her own bedroom looked over the road, hidden only by the branches of an ancient willow tree. Of course, the aunts were strict teachers that expected impossible standards, sharp-eyed and sharper-tongued, and third-rate cooks. But no place was perfect, and at least here no one cared about manners or propriety.

But she missed the sunshine. That was one thing the aunts never budged on. "Day is for sleep." And hell was raged over her head if she wasn't tucked up tight in bed every morning before dawn, the curtains drawn tight and refusing to budge. Once every moon cycle, her aunts would have a dawn meeting with other Guardians and Council members but she wasn't allowed to join those until she was twenty-one, when she formally became a Guardian. Until then, she was just a student, handmaid, and dogsbody.

Which is why she was up to her ankles in mud, trying to pry an overzealous hemlock plant from the ground because it was smothering the chamomile again, with nothing to light her work except the lanterns on the porch. And this was just the first of the positively irritating chores she had been assigned that night.

It was her own fault, really. She should have kept her nose out of the books, and maybe there'd be more lessons for her to finish.

Shoving her hair out of her eyes, Alice glared viciously at the hemlock plant, and wondered if the aunts would consider it 'inappropriate behaviour' to curse the damn thing to burn.

"Mary-Alice!"

One of the aunts came dashing out of the backdoor - all three were fairly interchangeable, which felt like an uncharitable thought, but it was the honest truth - looking more agitated than Alice had ever seen her.

"Yes, Auntie?"

"Get out of the mud, and go and fetch one of the horses," the older woman said, buckling an overstuffed messenger bag. "Be quick, girl. Change your boots, don't worry about your dress."

Struggling out of the garden and into the house to find her riding boots, Alice knotted her hair back before hurrying to the barn, where all three aunts were gathered, Hallow already saddled - she would have thought Haven a better choice since Hallow was so big and she was not the strongest rider.

"You're going to Del Rio, girl," one of the aunts said, shoving over a mounting block with surprising strength. "One of our allies has suffered an injury and cannot be moved. Hallow should have you there by dawn."

"Del Rio?" Alice couldn't remember the last time she'd been into Laredo proper, let alone more than a hundred miles up the border. And at night, when she ran the terrifying risk of crossing paths with … well, the night hid a lot of monsters, none of them she fancied facing alone.

"Yes. Now, they're expecting you," the second aunt said, taking her hand and half shoving her up and into Hallow's saddle. "Everything you need is in the bag; there's food and water for you, but you'll need them to provide more for your return journey. Hallow knows the way; if you hit the yellow farmhouse, you've gone too far. There should be a scout waiting for you anyway, don't worry. It's a long trip, but it's a good practice for you, and you're a good, clean healer."

"The boy's in a bad way, so you best be off," the final aunt said, looking grim. "Let us know how long you'll be staying and when you set off home."

"Okay," Alice managed, a bit dazed from the amount of information she'd just been given.

"Blessed and safe journey, my dear," the first aunt said, looking worried before Hallow decided they had lingered long enough, and moved out of the barn.

Alice suddenly regretted cursing the hemlock.

The ride was long and hard. She honestly regretted not getting changed into something more sensible - she'd learnt to ride as a girl English style, side-saddle, but the aunts had laughed at that particular pretension, and Western saddles and long skirts were not a winning combination.

The bag wasn't heavy enough for any of them to have thought to pack her a clean dress, either, and she was truly wretched at cleaning spells. Perhaps the Del Rio coven could loan her a dress.

Hallow stopped some time after midnight, and she took that opportunity to eat - a floury apple, some dry bread, and cold chicken that was so well cooked it might as well have been shoe leather. But it was food, and the urgency that she been sent off with - alone - implied she didn't have more than a few minutes to rest.

The rest of the trip felt long, and as pink and gold streaks began to hover at the horizon, Alice wondered if she'd taken too long - if the poor boy (boy? she'd never heard of a coven accepting a boy, but maybe the Guard Houses had decided to modernise) had already succumbed. But it wasn't like she was provided with a map or proper direction…

It was dawn when Hallow began to slow, and she saw a man leaning against a signpost with an indecipherable sign, the road behind him leading to a fire-decimated house on a hill in the distance.

"Miss Brandon?" the man said, looking at her with suspicion before his eyes softened. "Ah, Hallow." The horse clearly recognised him, nickering affectionately at the man.

"Yes, I am Miss Brandon. You are the scout from Del Rio?" she asked primly, as if she didn't have mud on her face and dress and sleeves, and no hat.

"Yup. Come on, he's in the house. I'm Peter," the man said. "Budge up."

Within seconds, Peter had swung himself onto Hallow behind her, and Alice gasped at the impropriety, but didn't get a moment to say a word as Peter clicked and Hallow took off like a bullet.

As Hallow passed another sign that couldn't be read, the fire-ruins shimmered before reforming into an expansive and well-lived farmhouse, with a large barn. Out the back, she could see pristine fields full of horses and cattle. It was like chalk and cheese from home, and for a moment, she was jealous.

As they stopped in front of the house, Peter slid off, and tied Hallow's bridle to the porch railing, reaching up to help her down.

"Quick now, one of the boys will come take care of Hallow, we need you to tend to Jasper now," Peter said, half dragging her up the front stairs and into the house.

The house was so bright and airy, like a real family home; Laredo had always had the feeling of a formal place, like a library, no matter how long she lived there. But this house was all sunshine and happiness - handmade gingham curtains, a discarded pair of boots, and jumble of coats and hats on hooks. The smell of fresh bread filtered through the house, and Alice couldn't help but look around in awe as she was dragged deeper into the house.

"Char! The witchling's here!" Peter bellowed, and suddenly Alice was presented with a drawn-looking woman with strawberry-blonde hair, wearing a dress smeared with blood.

"Oh, thank gods," she said. "I'm Charlotte. Come with me. His fever keeps getting higher, and I've tried everything I know. We called out to everyone, but your aunt was the only one who got back to us."

She was lead into a back room with the curtains drawn tight; in the middle of the room, upon a mattress laid out on the floor, was a tall, scarred man covered in sweat and moaning in pain.

Alice tried not to gasp. The scars were quite clearly vampire bites, healed ones. The old family lines still bore some natural immunity to vampire venom, but it only slowed down the process and allowed it to be reversed if it was caught in time. There were dozens of stories of girls who couldn't be saved, and had been burnt before the change could be completed. It was, unfortunately, one of the risks of their duty.

"He got ambushed," Charlotte said, kneeling beside the man. "The harpy practically gutted him, but he got away somehow." She pulled back the sheet, to reveal an enormous wound that had been clumsily stitched, from the middle of his chest, slashing downward over his stomach to his hip. "It needs cauterising I think, but I'm no healer."

Alice came back to herself then. Whatever was going on here - male Guardians, this untrained woman, all the bite marks - could be questioned after this poor man - Jasper, had Peter called him? - was treated.

Dropping to her knees, Alice quickly inspected Charlotte's stitching of the wound. "It will need cauterising, it's too deep," she determined quickly. "And treatment for infection, but stitching it was a smart thing to do." Charlotte looked relieved. "Did he get bitten?"

"His arms," Peter said, and Charlotte quickly pulled off bandages, already blackening from the venom. Three bites on one arm, four on the other. Bad, bad business.

"Okay. Do you have a smock, and a place I can wash up?" she said, standing quickly. Walking into a sick room in her filthy clothes and boots had been a stupid thing to do, but nothing for it now.

"Of course - show her the washroom, Peter," Charlotte darted out.

Within moments, Alice had a smock over her underthings and a pair of borrowed slippers - Charlotte promising to wash her dress immediately - and she'd scrubbed every visible inch of her skin as fast as she could, her hair pinned under a kerchief.

It was a very, very long day. The bites had to be purified, cleaned, and bandaged to draw out as much venom as possible; the bandages had to be changed four times every day, to prevent the venom lingering against the skin. Jasper had to be fed the tonic that the aunts had sent every two hours to flush any venom that had already entered his system. Then she had to treat the fever, to lesson his evident discomfort, and treat the infection that had clearly set into the wound Charlotte had stitched, whilst reassuring Charlotte that it was nothing actively wrong that she'd done, just the natural result of riding home with an open wound.

But by the time night fell, Jasper was somewhat more comfortable - the moaning had stopped, and with a generous dose of pain and sleep tonic, he seemed to actually be sleeping.

Alice wished she could.

Instead, she changed his bandages again before finding herself in the kitchen, with Charlotte piling plates with food.

"We heard from the others," she said, taking her own seat. "They're days away at least, Carlisle is furious. Emmett's already on his way back with Rosalie, but they won't know how long until they're closer." Charlotte looked exhausted. "At least they'll bring supplies."

"What's done is done," Peter said smartly, watching Alice as she began to eat, exhaustion in every one of her motions. "Jasper will be okay now, yes?"

Alice looked up. "Well," she began, and sighed. "There were so many bites," she managed, trying to be kind. "And he's been bitten before - even one previous bite decreases the effectiveness of treatment. I swear I am doing everything I can possibly do."

"You're young, yes?" Peter shot back. "Not even a full Guardian yet?"

"Peter!" Charlotte scolded.

"No, I'm not of age yet. My title does not affect my ability - I have been trained. I have completed my lessons. There is nothing I can think of that I am not already doing," Alice retorted.

"And we are grateful," Charlotte broke in.

"Yup, I'm positive Jasper would be thrilled that his life is in the hands of a schoolgirl," Peter muttered before getting up from the table and storming away.

Alice was too tired to be angry, and just sighed and went back to her food - Charlotte was far and away a better cook than the aunts; perhaps a week of edible food, and she'd be filling out her dresses properly.

"I'm sorry, Peter and Jasper… they're like brothers. They've been together for years - he's just afraid," Charlotte said, looking at her plate. "…Please, please don't let Peter's rudeness dissuade you from helping Jasper…"

Alice looked up in shock. "No. No, of course not. I understand his frustration, I do. And there's nothing he could say to me that would make me treat Jasper any less, I promise."

"Thank you," Charlotte smiled, and began to clear the table. "The guest room is at the top of the stairs, I've laid out a nightgown for you, and some towels. Peter's taken care of your horse, and I'm sure…"

"That's very kind of you," Alice said gently, "but I'll sit up with Jasper tonight; he'll need watching."

"Could I help at all? Watch him in shifts?" Charlotte asked, but Alice could see the exhaustion and worry in every line of the woman's face. If they weren't careful, Charlotte would fall ill too and she'd have two patients.

"No, it has to be me, to make sure the bites are clean and the tonic takes. We'll have a better idea of how he is tomorrow, though," Alice offered. "I would like to bathe, though, if you could watch him?"

"Oh, of course - there's a bathroom in the guest room," Charlotte said, gesturing to the stairs. "Thank you, Alice. I mean it. Thank you for coming. I feel like everything is going to be okay now that you're here."

It was a long night, with exhaustion setting in for Alice - she hadn't slept in over a day, had ridden half-way up the border… she felt like an old woman. But it was her duty. And she would do it to the best of her ability.

Charlotte had lent her several dresses, and it was quite strange to wear a colour that wasn't black or grey, but a welcome novelty, even if the dresses were a size too big.

Settling beside the sickbed, Alice administered the tonic every two hours, and found herself changing the bandages obsessively, as soon as she saw or smelt the venom. She flushed out the bite wounds - one would need stitching. She'd have to cauterise the chest wound first thing in the morning; his fever still lingered, but the tonics and potions seemed to have had a powerful effect on the infection, with the red veins having already retreated.

Though, she might have to teach Charlotte how to properly administer stitches whilst she was here. The woman was clearly unfamiliar with stitching flesh. Maybe some rudimentary treatments so that they didn't have to wait twelve hours for treatment to start if they every had another emergency. It bewildered her that a Guard House was running without any healer in residence.

The aunts had packed her two new books to read - purely educational, histories of the coven, that were not even a little bit relevant in her current situation, or even vaguely interesting. But they did keep her awake, since she knew the old crones would quiz her on them as soon as she arrived home.

Morning came, and Jasper's fever had broken. She nearly cheered at that, and when Peter and Charlotte burst in at dawn, she gave them the good news. She thought that Peter was going to cry - Charlotte certainly did. But then she required the couple hold him down as she cauterised the chest wound.

Charlotte ended up vomiting at the smell, and Peter looked a little woozy, but at least Jasper was held together with more than embroidery thread now. She quickly applied a fresh layer of ointment that smelt like mint and tea leaves to the raw wound and bound up his chest up in fresh bandages. Alice was impressed that Charlotte had the practicality of preparing an immense quantity of fresh, sterile bandages that looked like they been cut from good quality bed linens or petticoats.

The day moved slowly; Charlotte brought her meals in on a tray, and sat with Jasper whilst she changed her dress again, and sent a message to the aunts. Peter was very respectful around her now - either Charlotte had spoken to him, or Jasper's improvement had sweetened his mood - and brought her anything she asked for - purified water, feverfew, lavender, aloe vera. Jasper seemed to sleep more comfortably that the previous day, as she fed him cold tea laced with every possible tonic and potion she had in her bag and could create from scratch. His bite marks were clearer, settling into fresh scar tissue. She was genuinely sorry that they had scarred, but there was nothing for it.

But only time would tell if the venom had made it to his heart.

Seven days. She had been at the Del Rio house for seven days and seven nights. Jasper had passed out of danger, and was now just healing, though he hadn't regained consciousness. But Alice continued to nurse him, as was her duty and purpose here. She fed him careful sips of tea and then herbal broth, to build up his strength and hopefully reinforce his immunity; she rubbed ointments into his new wounds to keep the skin supple and prevent the forming of thick scar tissue and ease any discomfort. She helped Charlotte wash and dress him as soon as she deemed it safe.

That she had not been expecting. She hoped her poker face was good, because she'd really never seen a man's body before. Not like that - she was only eighteen, had lived with the aunts since she was sixteen and had never been courted - her father had run a strict household. Even her lessons had been done on whatever animals they could hunt or trade for from the market, not humans. And this man, he was… handsome. He was tall and just the right amount of muscular and tan; with longish blond hair and oh, she shouldn't be having these thoughts.

She couldn't even imagine her embarrassment if this Jasper had seen her in such a way.

Oh, she was definitely sleep-deprived; there was no other explanation. She had yet to sleep a single second in the guest room, snatching cat naps in the corner of Jasper's sick room when she couldn't hold her eyes open a single moment longer and her head pounded.

Which was what she was doing now. She twisted her neck uncomfortably; she'd been sleeping at a funny angle, she'd be feeling that all day. Stretching out, she looked over at her patient, only to see Jasper staring back at her curiously with the brightest green eyes she'd ever seen.

"Oh my gods!" Alice gasped, scrambling over. "You're awake? How are you feeling? How long have you been awake?"

She quickly helped him sit up, reading for the water cup on the beside table. He took two deep swallows before coughing.

"Oh, it's got lemon and mint in it, for healing," she explained. "It's helped, I promise. Hopefully we can get you back to normal drinking water and food tomorrow."

"Who are you?" croaked Jasper, looking up at her with glazed eyes; even with dark circles underscoring them, he had beautiful eyes.

"Oh. Um, I'm Alice Brandon. From the Laredo Guard House," she said, embarrassed. She was acting like a bumbling sixteen-year-old trainee, not a proper Guardian. "I was summoned when you were wounded."

"Alice Brandon from Laredo," Jasper repeated, a quirk of his lips. "Thank you." His energy seemed to drain out of him all at once - totally normal for the severity of his wounds and his recovery.

"It was nothing," she said. "Sleep now. It's a great healer. Charlotte and Peter will be awake in a few hours."

He nodded half-heartedly before he closed his eyes again, and Alice sat backwards. He was okay. Two green eyes without a hint of red, talking and lucid, and drinking easily. She had done it.

He was going to live.

Both Peter and Charlotte had wept when they realised that Jasper was conscious again, and Peter had nearly tackled the man when he saw Jasper sitting up, drinking water and talking to Alice, trying to piece together what had happened to him, and to learn how she had treated him - the Del Rio Guard House had fallen to the Whitlock-Hales several generations ago, and many of the old skills - like healing - had been lost.

In fact, it was only him, Peter, and Charlotte who were at the house full-time now - they hired local boys to help out on the ranch that funded the Del Rio clan. Jasper's own sister and brother-in-law visited regularly, as did various other friends and allies, "but none of us are witchlings," he coughed. "We were raised in the sun, not in the night."

She smiled at the reference to the old rhyme. "Even your sister?" she asked; girls were kept to the night, boys to the day. Old attitudes that had held true - girls were protected and cloistered (and much less likely to be caught poisoning or cursing) in the darkness. Their herbs and plants bloomed and grew so much hardier under the moon than the sun. But boys, they were the fighters, the warriors, and battle against vampires and other dark creatures was best done when there was no darkness to escape into. This was the very first time that she'd ever met one of the male covens, but she had read of them before - she'd never even heard of a Guard House being governed by a male coven.

"Even my sister," Jasper had smiled. "Rose would have made a horrible healer - punched me in the arm and told me to 'man up' the first time I fell off a horse; my arm was broken. She's not nearly as committed as I am, but she helps. Her husband's good at it too, he just married into the madness." He spoke about his family with such affection, Alice felt a little jealous, but before she could ask any other questions, Charlotte and Peter were there, Jasper just as pleased to see them as they were to see him.

Alice slipped out to give them privacy - a bath and a clean dress sounded heavenly right now, and she ought to send another message to the aunts. She'd help Jasper wash and change afterwards, and hopefully be able to move him from the sick room to his usual quarters with fresh sheets. He'd sleep more comfortably in his own bed.

By lunchtime, Jasper was safely ensconced in his own bed, in a room that overlooked the a paddock of horses. He'd eaten some broth and drunk as many cups of herbal tea as Alice could press on him, as she fussed around. Peter had headed off to get ranch work done, and Charlotte had taken up a vigil at Jasper's bedside with some sewing.

"Alice, please, you don't have to do any of that," Charlotte laughed as Alice began folding clothing. "You should rest - you must be exhausted." Turning to Jasper, she continued, "I don't think she's rested this entire time - she sat with you every night, didn't even wake us to help change your bandages. She insisted Peter and I sleep."

"Oh, I'm up at night anyway," Alice laughed. "And I'm here to help."

Jasper was watching her carefully now.

"She hasn't stopped at all. I cannot imagine how efficient the Laredo House is," Charlotte shook her head. "Though, I'm sure having proper recruits makes a difference."

Alice shook her head, as she reached out to plump a pillow behind Jasper's head. "Oh, it's just me and the aunts," she said airily. "All the old families are dying out, and, well, it's not exactly a glamorous position. I knew I'd be sent to Laredo since I was very small, so I suppose my mother and father prepared me for it."

"It sounds lonely," Jasper said quietly.

It was lonely. She always tried to think of the positives - that she had her own bedroom - not all Guard houses had the space, especially in the city compounds - and being the sole trainee meant that she had been able to work through her lessons so much faster, and do hands-on practice much sooner. And there weren't really that many household chores with only the four of them. But she had still been alone for three and a half years, with the cats and horses as her closest companions, and her duty - with the knowledge that it would be like this for her whole life. It hadn't quite felt as bad until she'd come here, to this bright and happy place with sweet Charlotte, and practical Peter, and handsome Jasper…

"It's home," she finally said, honestly. "But I will take you up on that offer for a rest. If you need anything, please don't hesitate to wake me - no matter how small it seems."

"I'll be fine, I promise," Jasper said.

"See that you do - you're my first official patient, and it would look terrible if you died when I was napping," Alice teased, before slipping out of the room. She could sleep, finally.

The next week and a half fell into an easy routine. Jasper regained his strength surprisingly quickly, and went from being bedridden to eating meals in the kitchen with them all, to back on his horse - an enormous brown beast named Duke - within the week, though he did seem to tire quickly.

Charlotte fluttered around him with an air of panic, every single time he tried to do something new, insisting it was 'too soon'. Alice half-heartedly agreed with her, but mostly she followed her teachings - as long as he wasn't going to worsened his injuries, or create new ones, it was a good thing that he was getting back in the saddle, so to speak. He cut a striking figure on horseback, she had to admit. And, really, there was no harm in admiring him from afar - if she'd been a normal girl, no one would think it abnormal or inappropriate for her to notice a handsome man. It would be expected of her, practically.

Peter seemed to think the whole thing was hilarious for a reason that mystified her.

In the afternoons, Jasper would escort her about their property, showing her their operation - from the cosy library full of well-thumbed books tucked behind the sitting room, to the walls of blessed weapons in the barn and in the house - some of them older than the Del Rio Guard House itself. Weapons were mostly for the males, and Alice marvelled at the craftsmanship and detail in each one - her own weapons were only blessed bone knives that she was supposed to have strapped to her leg, but she mostly kept on her belt or in her pocket, whilst the Del Rio house held swords, scythes, shotguns, and battle-axes too heavy for her to even lift.

Then, in the stables, there were the saddles Jasper and Peter modified by hand to carry the weapons; Jasper seemed very proud of that, and Alice was suitably impressed by their dedication and work. Even the horses were carefully trained to protect their rider and be desensitised to the presence of vampires. She had been delighted to learn that both Hallow and Haven had been Whitlock-Hale horses, born and trained here before being sent to Laredo. In fact, watching Jasper and Peter handle their current horses made her a little embarrassed by how under-utilised Hallow and Haven were back home.

Jasper also spoke about his family - both blood and Guardian; it turned out that Charlotte was a newcomer, a local girl raised as a kitchen-witch whose brother had worked on the ranch. Charlotte had fallen quite hard for Peter, to hear Jasper tell it, and hadn't flinched when she realised she'd married into a quasi-family of cowboy vampire hunting warlocks. She had started a small greenhouse with many common herbs that was a good start, but Alice knew that they needed something a little more robust. She immediately promised Jasper to write them a list of additions they needed - and send them seeds and samples as soon as she was back in Laredo.

He asked her questions, too - about her family back in Mississippi, and seemed horrified when she admitted she hadn't heard from her family since she'd left Biloxi; that as far as her father was concerned, she had ceased to exist the day she'd turned sixteen and left for Laredo. He actually seemed interested when she explained how she had treated him, and how each treatment worked - and eager for healing lessons for all three residents of the Del Rio house.

It was all very pleasant, but Alice realised quickly that Jasper was, for all intents and purposes, healed. She had no place here any longer; his sister would arrive soon, and he had no use of a nurse or witchling now. She was overstaying her welcome, really. She needed to leave.

She announced those plans at dinner that night, as Charlotte presented another one of her delightful spreads.

"I'm going to miss this," she said ruefully, as they all dug in. "The aunts cannot cook at all."

"Miss this?" Charlotte asked innocently, passing out hot rolls.

"Jasper is healed," Alice smiled, trying to keep her voice upbeat. "Your recovery will continue, and you should be conservative about what you take on for a month or two, but you have no need for me any longer. I should return home first thing tomorrow."

Everyone froze.

"So soon?" Jasper managed, almost looking… hurt?

"The aunts need me. They're elderly," Alice explained, "and it's where I belong."

Silence.

"Well, we're mighty grateful you came all the way out here for us," Peter said. "We'd all be happy to see you around here again."

"Ah, but that would mean one of you was hurt, and that would be unacceptable," Alice teased. "You've been very kind to me. If I could trouble you for some food for the trip home, Charlotte…"

"Oh, of course," Charlotte nodded. Jasper was focused on his potatoes and not looking at anyone. "You must stay in touch, yes? It's been so nice having another woman here."

"Of course," Alice gushed, trying to ignore the reaction she knew the aunts would have if she started using the messaging system for socialising. "I'm going to be lost without you!"

"You're not the only one," Peter murmured, and Alice chose not to pull at that thread, and instead turned the conversation to Jasper's sister's arrival and tried not to dread the next morning.

It was a moment of weakness when she waited til Jasper was downstairs helping Peter wash up, when she slipped the medallion into his cowboy boots. He'd never feel the tiny silver charm, blessed with protection and a long life, but it would keep him safe.

She tried to convince herself it was only because he probably wouldn't survive another bite, but it didn't work.

She left just before dawn, once against clad in her blacks - freshly washed and mended by Charlotte. She hadn't slept well, counting down the hours before she had to leave. But the time had come, and she tried to leave the house quickly, only to find Jasper waiting there, holding Hallow's bridle as she walked out, tucking the food Charlotte had left for her into her bag.

"Oh, you didn't have to do that," she said, realising Hallow was saddled and ready to leave.

"I wanted to." He looked her up and down. "You look beautiful."

Alice smiled - her black lace dress, from ankle to wrist to throat - was practically her uniform; she had four more just like it hanging in her wardrobe at home. Any particular beauty she found in the garment had faded the one-hundredth time she wore it.

Jasper stepped closer to her; with her standing on the second step of the porch, they were nearly eye-to-eye. Gosh, she never realised how tall he was.

"I never truly thanked you for everything you did for me - Peter and Charlotte filled me in," he continued. "I owe you everything."

"It was truly nothing, it was what I was born for," she said, wondering if it was Jasper's proximity that was making her so warm, or if summer was coming early. Or perhaps it was because her dresses were made to worn at night, not during the day. "I'm just glad that I could help."

Jasper just stared at her and all of a sudden his lips were on hers.

She had never been kissed before, not even once, and it was… unexpected. Within a moment, Jasper deepened it, and she was properly clinging to his strong shoulders and oh, how could he do such a thing to her when she was about to leave?

Pulling back slowly, Jasper ducked his head. "I just wanted to do that once," he murmured. "I couldn't let you walk away without…"

"I can't," Alice whispered, somehow unable to pull away. "I… I'm not allowed. I would have to recant my oath, and the aunts have no one else to take on the Laredo house… I just can't."

Jasper looked at her. "That seems cruel," he said in a low voice. "Looking after some old ladies until they die, then being left alone without being allowed anything more."

"It's how things are done," Alice took a shaking breath. "I'm sorry. Please thank Charlotte and Peter for their hospitality."

And with that, Alice took Hallow's bridle from Jasper and mounted her horse, leaving for the Laredo house, trying to drag her mind away from what was behind her, from the first (and likely the only) kiss she had ever been given. From the way he looked at her, like she hung the moon.

She was, in all probability, never going to see him again.

And that was how it was supposed to be.


Notes

- Yes, there will be more. I'll probably turn it into a series of one-shots rather than a full-length fic, but we'll definitely be revisiting Laredo and Del Rio in the future; there's a whole second part that is unfinished that I want to rewrite and post! Plus there are so many other characters that didn't make it into this final version; Rosalie might have staunchly refused to formally train as a Witch Guardian but she's still a total badass.

- I did fudge the ages here; Jasper's around 20-21 and Alice is 18. I didn't feel it was realistic having such a heavy responsibility as a Guard House being placed on Jasper if he were any younger. I think Peter's probably 23 and Charlotte's the same age as Jasper. Jasper is the 'leader' because he's a Whitlock-Hale - blood comes before age/experience in this 'verse.

- Laredo is the oldest Guard House, and the most traditional; whilst Del Rio is one of the more 'modern' ones since it fell into the cowboys' hands; traditionally the women ran the Border Houses, and the males ran ranches, but things change. This is also why Alice can't get romantically involved with anyone - traditionally, she would not be allowed to marry once she takes her formal vows at 21.