Author's Note: Happy 2013, everyone! :) I don't really have much to say. Just a friendly reminder that all minute-by-minute HL updating info is on my website (link in profile). Also, I've switched to a new platform (venaism . tumblr . com) for you guys to ask questions, because Formspring is no longer allowing anonymous questions.
You guys are, as always, wonderful and patient and kind and everything good in the world, and I only wish I could update every day to show my gratitude. I know many of you have missed Jesse as of late, and I am happy to announce his return! Jules and I slaved for months over this chapter (don't forget to send her some love!) so I really, really hope that you guys like it. :)
Love and hugs,
P.S. My eyes are bleeding from editing and proofreading this chapter at such a late hour, so please forgive any typos or mistakes! (And do send them my way if you catch any!)
"Time is at once the most valuable and the most perishable of all our possessions." – John Randolph
Honey was certain that she could have been in a vegetative coma and still have felt Adam's anger from halfway across the world. Due to their recent connection, the strength of his wrath literally jolted her awake. She didn't even have time to register the fact that she was lying on the floor of the gazebo before he hauled her up against his chest. It wasn't a kind gesture.
"We have got to stop meeting like this," she mumbled.
He shook her, and yelled things that she couldn't yet comprehend because she was still dizzy from Evelyn's spell.
"Stop, you're hurting me," she slurred, trying to pry herself from his death-grip.
"You went off running to the one person who's trying to kill you!"
"No! You have no idea what the consequences of your actions are!"
Eyes blazing, he ripped open the front of her shirt.
As the cool air met the newly branded burn on her skin, she hissed. For the first time, she looked down at the mark. It was a short string of rough yet intricate symbols, resembling an ancient, extinct script.
He stared at the welted red lines on her skin like they were snakebites. Breathing uneven, his stricken gaze met hers.
"Did you solicit the offer?" He ground the words out. "What did she say to you? What did you tell her?" He gave her another shake. "What did you tell her?"
He was furious, she knew that, but to be connected to him, to feel the intensity of his fury, was a completely different experience. She burned, down to the tips of her toes, and her skull felt like it was going to crack open.
As her vision started to shatter again, she let out a whimper of distress. "Adam, stop, please. You have to calm down. My body—my body can't take what you're feeling."
Her words seemed to snap him out of his angry trance, and for the first time, she could tell that he was feeling what she felt. His fingers released her, as if scorched. Horror, guilt, worry, and the old Adam she knew returned. The echoing effect on her body was instantaneous. Pain seeped out of her pores, and her knees almost buckled from the relief.
This time when he reached out for her, it was out of concern. "Christ. I'm sorry." He held her face, appalled with himself for losing his temper. "I'm so sorry. I just—I thought I lost you."
Her heart fluttered in a way that was almost painful.
His gaze dropped back down her to the emblem on her chest. "No, you're not." And then, "God, I'm a monster." He took off his sweater and pulled it over her head, careful not to scrape the burn area.
"Wait, you'll get cold. You're only wearing a t-shirt."
He shook his head, immune to her resistance until she was cocooned in cashmere.
"What did she say to you?" he asked, once again in control of himself.
"You can't tell by being connected to me?"
"No, I think the effects of the overspill are waning."
How strange and yet familiar it was that she could feel each of his emotions so clearly. She understood them as though they were speaking to her, as though her mind and body had acquired a new language.
It occurred to her then that Adam must have been extremely distraught earlier. And she was finally able to put her finger on the emotion that had fueled his anger: fear.
It was different from the fear she detected during their encounter this morning. She realized how terrified he must have been to have his mind exposed, to have someone else reach in and access his thoughts and memories, to touch what used to be his alone. Oh, sweet irony.
Betrayal clogged her throat as she remembered why she had run away from him in the first place. He was going to stay and force her to leave, and he would have deceived her to get the job done. How easily he agreed to Evelyn's simple request.
"Why didn't you ask to be released from the contract?" she asked.
He looked her in the eye, not bothering to hide his thoughts from her anymore. "I did."
You can make her forget you and South Merritt . . . Stay, and I'll heal her.
Evelyn's voice lingered in the space between their minds.
"But you let her convince you otherwise because of me."
"Honey." He said her name like a plea. "I've lived this life longer than most countries have existed in this world. It's what I know. It won't make a difference if I stay. But you have your whole life ahead of you. I can't do that to you."
"Then why were you so scared when you realized I was with Evelyn?"
"Deep down," she continued, "you knew that she would never really spare my life. No matter what you did. Because as long as I continue to live, there's a risk to your life that no one is willing to take."
She had him there.
"I wanted to believe her," he said finally.
He paused, hands in the pockets of his pants. Standing there in a white t-shirt and dark jeans, she could almost see him as just a regular guy. College senior, on the verge of graduation, just accepted into a prestigious graduate program abroad. It gave her a funny feeling in her stomach.
He saw the image through their connection, and she could see that the concept was both fascinating and foreign to him. She felt his reaction—a mix of confusion, strangeness, thrill.
"It scares you," she said.
"But I want it," he admitted.
It wasn't just about salvation or punishment anymore, and perhaps it had never been. His desire to live had always been there—time had simply buried it. And now those old emotions were reawakened. His yearning was so strong she felt the raw pangs in her own chest.
She stepped closer to him, wrapped her flappy sweatered arms around his midsection, and rested her cheek against his chest.
"I can feel how badly you want it," she murmured against the fabric of his shirt as he held her quietly. "The years only make it worse, only push the hunger into starvation."
"I heard it," she said after a moment. It had just been a figment of her wandering imagination before, but now it was real. She pressed her ear against his chest, right over the heart. "I heard this."
He didn't move, only let her stay there as their body heat spread into each other.
"One hundred turned into two hundred," he said. "Then three. Eventually, I lost count. Sometimes, the lust would pass, like a bad storm, and I wouldn't remember. Some days it was hard to remember those feelings, like recalling prepubescence from old age."
"Can Evelyn really do that? Just restart time again once it's been stopped for so long?" she asked.
"Has she ever?"
They both seemed to think on that, not knowing where to go from there.
At last, she said, "Do it for yourself. Not for me. Because no matter what you do—" Flashbacks from her encounter with Evelyn invaded her mind.
. . . You pledge your soul to me, and you are free to live for an eternity . . .
. . . But if there ever arises a situation in which Adam's life is in danger . . .
. . . you swear, by blood . . . that your life is at my disposal . . .
Adam stiffened and pushed her away. "No, this is—"
"I haven't accepted."
"The fact that you are even thinking about it is ridiculous." He placed two firm hands on her shoulders. "Honey, look at me."
She couldn't hide it from him. If she was going to die anyway, why not spend the last of her days in peace, with the world at her fingertips? She knew Evelyn was manipulating her, and that she was signing away her life, but some time between that moment and now, she realized that she wanted to spend the last days of her life with Adam.
Surely if there was such a horrible and masochistic emotion as love, this was it. And it made her thankful for their connection because she wouldn't have been able to say the words. She watched him become aware of her feelings, of her resignation and acceptance . . . and then felt her world crumble away when she felt his answer kindling within her. His eyes shone with despair, stricken with dread, as though he were watching her drown in the Black Sea, unable to save her.
He didn't want her to stay.
It wasn't a rejection, but it hurt more than one.
She didn't resist when his arms came around her, because she wanted to hide her face from him.
"Oh, Honey." He pressed his lips into her hair, an apologetic gesture, a desperate "I'm sorry" for hurting her. "You don't want this."
She did though, and that was what made it worse. Even in the face of death, she couldn't stop the wanting, no matter how much she convinced herself otherwise.
"Please believe me," he said. "This life isn't for you. You don't know what it feels like, to have your entire existence sucked out of you. You will come to regret it. You will hate it, hate yourself, hate me, hate everything. Because you won't be able to go back to the life you knew. And if Gabe's vision comes true, you . . ."
I can't let you contract your life away.
She savored the way his words resounded in her mind, the way she could feel his communication in every cell of her body, the way even her fingertips could hear him. And because of this, she understood.
He couldn't love her, because doing so would ruin her.
This wasn't the life she wanted. She had dreams and aspirations, and if all that were taken away from her, she would come to resent her immortality, and come to resent Adam. Yet, faced with the prospect of imminent death, her fear drove her forward. It took over rational thought, and made her see things through its lens.
"What is the script on my chest?" she asked.
"It says neshama. It's Ancient Hebrew for 'soul.' The incision and design open up a gateway between your soul and Eve." He pulled back looked her very firmly in the eye. "Promise me you won't go to her, Honey."
"But if I don't, she'll kill me anyway."
"We'll find a way."
"She'll find a way, too." Honey shuffled her feet in thought, recalling the very human array of emotions she witnessed in Evelyn today. "If I were her, I would find a way to kill me."
"Are you defending her?" he asked incredulously.
"No! I'm just—I get it. I understand why she's doing what she's doing."
Adam shook his head. "You're all crazy."
"Caring isn't crazy." She frowned, because she remembered then how unsettling her encounter with Evelyn had been. Something about Evelyn felt very strained and precarious. It felt like she was on the cusp of breaking, and that at any moment, an unsuspecting pin would drop and crack the thin ice beneath Evelyn's feet. Honey shivered.
"Are you still cold?" Adam asked.
She managed a small laugh at his concern. "No, please, keep your t-shirt on."
She was tempted to make a joke about him actually wanting to show off his sacrilegious abs—which now that she thought about it, she'd never actually seen—but he looked so serious that she pursed her lips and tried to contain her inappropriate spasm of humor.
Only, of course, she'd forgotten about their blasted connection, and he caught wind of her imagining him naked as soon as the image materialized in her mind.
He raised an eyebrow.
"Don't say it," she warned, feeling a wave of heat rise up in her cheeks. "Whatever it is that you're thinking about saying or remotely thinking about saying, don't say it."
He dutifully remained quiet, but she could feel that he was both amused and exasperated that she would be thinking about something like his body when she was in such a dire situation. It didn't take a rocket scientist or a magical connection to figure that out.
"So what now?" she asked, changing the subject back to the problem at hand.
He patiently took the sleeves of his sweater that extended past her hands and rolled them up to her wrists. Then he took both her hands in his and said, "You leave."
Honey shook her head. "She'll find me."
But Adam would not budge. "Not if you're far enough."
"Adam, every time I close my eyes, she's there. As soon as I start to dream, I'm hers. I could run halfway around the world, and she'd still be able to get to me."
"No, I've spent some time thinking about this. Eve is only able to enter the dreams of people she's come into physical contact with. But if she doesn't ever remember those tactile memories, she can't touch you."
"I don't understand how that's possible. She's not going to just forget—" As soon as the words were out of her mouth, she realized what Adam was implying. "Can . . . can you do that?"
"I might," he answered. "I can't detect Eve with my powers like I can others, but if I am physically touching her, I can read her mind. Her powers enable her to deflect anything I may do to her, though, which is why I can't make drastic manipulations. As soon as she realizes what I'm doing, she'll be able to stop me. So the window that I have to work with is small."
"What would you be able to do in the zero-point-three seconds before she senses your presence and blocks you out?"
"Probably erase all points of physical contact that have ever occurred between the two of you."
"How does that work?" The wheels in Honey's head were finally turning. "Even if she can't recall any of the times we've come into contact, the connection between her body and mine has already been established. Wouldn't she be able to access that connection, even without the memories?"
"The neurological intricacies are complicated. I have to actually undo all the neurological connections between synapses that have formed to recreate the state of her mind before she came into contact with you. Without those tactile memories, she has no basis from which to draw the link."
"So . . . unless she comes into contact with me again, she won't be able to hurt me while I'm sleeping."
Heart racing, she tried to wrap her mind around the plan. "And if you don't succeed . . ."
"But you've never done this before. A millisecond's hesitation or mistake and—"
He squeezed her hands. "Have faith in me."
Her heart flopped in her chest. "I do. On a scale of one to ten, my faith in you is an eleven. But on a scale of one to ten, how sure are you that you can do this?"
She gave him an unamused look. "Adam."
He smiled then. "It's not going to make you feel better if I say two. I know how risky this plan is. But . . ." He pulled her closer. "My will to keep you alive is a one hundred on that scale."
She had no doubt that was true, and the thought filled her lungs with gloom. His life would never be the same again, and it was all because of her. And once Evelyn discovered what Adam was doing, she'd be in a fit of rage, and then . . .
She felt him shaking his head as he read her mind. "Let me worry about that."
But she knew that he was hiding something from her. The stakes were higher than he was making them out to be. He was exerting an extra mental effort so she wouldn't know what could happen to him once Evelyn found out. That thought alone filled her with terror.
Trying to shake off the feeling before he felt it, she asked, "How long do we have?"
"Until your offer expires. Eve can't touch you—physically or mentally—within that timeframe. Usually about three days."
"Until December 1," she said, counting the days.
"Promise me you won't go to her. If you reject her offer, the channel will close, and she'll try to hurt you."
Who knew that the mark over her heart would actually be her salvation?
"I . . ." she began. She couldn't quite describe the odd ache in her chest. Everything had come too fast. She wasn't ready for this new ending. "I don't know if I want to spend the rest of my life on the run. I . . . won't remember anything, will I?"
Adam shook his head.
"But Evelyn will," she said. "She'll come after me, she'll find me and I won't have anything to protect myself against her and—"
"I'll watch over you," he vowed. "She won't find you."
"And what about you?"
"What about me?"
"If you have to protect me until the day I die, then you can't ask to be released from your contract."
He nodded, aware of the consequences of this plan of action. His unshakeable resolve and selflessness made her nauseated. He was going to sacrifice the next seventy, eighty years of his existence to make sure that she could live a normal life.
He nudged her chin, reading her thoughts. "What's another few decades? Or even a century? Don't worry about me."
"But you worry about me."
She gave him a look that told him exactly what she thought of that response.
"We'll make it work," he said. "I promise."
It was weird to think that he would be watching over her for the rest of her life, only to gain freedom upon her death. It made her feel like her existence was shackling him, keeping him imprisoned in a life he didn't want.
"Hey." He gave her a gentle shake. "There's nothing for you to feel guilty about, do you understand? This has always been my cross to bear."
She nodded, even though she disagreed. All she could think about was Gabe's vision—that somehow, somewhere, as long as she was alive, Adam would be in danger.
She wasn't stupid. Deep down, she knew it wouldn't just be another seventy years. Evelyn would never have killed all of those people if she was just going to let Adam die a mortal death anyway. Especially once Evelyn discovered their plan, she would never let him go.
"Honey, look at me," he said. "I've spent the last three months trying to keep you alive. I made that promise to myself a long time ago, and I would do anything to see it fulfilled. For months, I locked you away from the world while I held myself out to be some kind of hero, chasing after the culprit of your sickness. It always existed in my mind as this nameless, faceless monster. But when I found out about Eve and Gabe . . . " He stopped and brushed his fingers through her impossible bangs. "That faceless monster wasn't so faceless anymore. All this time, I'd been trying to protect you by keeping you near me, but it turns out that I'm the enemy. I'm the antagonist."
He looked down then, as if letting the truth of his own statement sink in, and her heart broke into tiny pieces. When he met her gaze again, his eyes implored her to understand, and she was powerless to deny him.
"Let me make things right again."
Tick. Tock. Tick. Tock. Tick. Tock.
Cheek pressed against the floral chaise, Eve hugged her knees closer to her chest.
Out of all the rooms in the estate, she liked this one best. The piano room boasted ceiling-height windows and gleaming maple hardwood. Its master stood proudly at its center, the original 1887 Alma Tadema Art Case Steinway. But that wasn't why she was here.
The wide empty space magnified each click of the heel, each shuffle of sheet music, each gentle exhale. She liked this room best because she could hear the air, the hollowness of it. It enveloped her mind and kept the voices away.
She was so tired that even breathing felt laborious. The life had been sucked out of each bone in her body. All that was left of her was an empty shell.
She stared, unfocused, at the artwork on the Alma Tadema as she lay on her side. Each stroke of the grandfather clock rippled across her scalp and echoed in the recesses of her consciousness. She felt the vibrations, the hum of the silence.
Closing her eyes, she counted the seconds with the clock. Her mind was numb, and it felt good.
Tick. Tock. Tick. Tock.
She'd tried. She'd offered Honey the only thing she was able to. A mere human with absolutely no potential for growth, training, or power. She'd offered her eternity.
Children, all of them. What did they understand about the world? After all this time, Adam was still the same, the same eighteen-year-old boy he had been the day she met him. Always so controlled by his human emotions, always unselfish, always the savior.
Eve squeezed her eyes shut, trying to force the thoughts out. But inevitably, her sanity remained.
She'd taken the lives of seven people. What was one more? And yet, every time she looked at Honey, her finger hesitated on the trigger. This weakness wouldn't do. Not after seven misfires. It was never supposed to be eight lives for one. It was supposed to be one-for-one. One life to save Adam's. But now she was in too deep. It would all go to waste if she didn't finish what she started.
Adam's words replayed over and over again in her mind.
I don't need to be saved. Not by you.
She put her hands over her ears to stop the noise. His voice was so loud, she couldn't hear the clock. Her breathing escalated when she couldn't hear the seconds.
Let me go, Eve.
She buried her face into her hands then, as if hiding the world would hide her from it.
She shot up from the couch to see Jesse stroll into the room.
"Where in the Heavens did you fall out from?" The laughter in his eyes died when he saw her face, and he came over to her in a few quick strides.
"Hey, hey." He brushed away the wetness from her eyes and cheeks. "What's wrong? You can't be that happy to see me."
It had been so long. She'd forgotten what a beautiful boy he was.
"Has Gabe been bullying you?" He kissed both her cheeks as he always did when he greeted her. "I haven't seen you in days."
She tried to speak, but he looked so happy to see her and so genuinely concerned that a web of guilt built up in her throat. She recalled the way Adam reacted to the news, how Teddy did, how they had all turned on her. Fear paralyzed her.
"Mon dieu, you're shaking." He rubbed his hands up and down her arms. "Trust Gabe to keep you away from me. He is as expressive and altruistic as a rock on a good day."
It was so easy to be with Jesse. That sun-kissed blond hair, the cornflower blue eyes, the ease of his grin. Despite his womanizing debauchery, he was so gentle on the inside. She was going to take that away from him.
She held up both hands, her scared and jittery fingers cupping his face. Eyes wide, she felt unable to get enough air into her lungs.
He turned his head and kissed the inside of her palm. "No one says it like you do."
"Jesse . . ."
Sweet, sweet Jesse. He never did anything to harm a soul.
And then she was crying again. At first quietly, but as the tears began to force their way out of her, she broke into loud, choking sobs.
"Hey, what's going on?" Alarmed, Jesse tried to hold her, but she resisted.
She couldn't look at him anymore. She couldn't have him hate her, too. She couldn't.
Wrestling herself out of his arms, she made a run for the entryway.
Within the blink of an eye, Jesse was at her side again. "Eve, honey." He tried to still her but she cried out and flung his arms off, falling onto the floor.
Jesse was saying her name, saying words that had no meaning to her. It was all muffled by the screaming. Her screaming.
She gripped the doorframe, gouging her nails into the painted wood. The awful wails escalated because she couldn't stop them from coming.
She felt a pair of strong arms holding her, a voice in her ear, but all she could see was the outline of Lou's corpse beneath her favorite yellow bed sheet.
"I know, I know," she heard when she gagged for air. Between the gasping and choking, Jesse's voice finally came through.
He held her tightly, forehead pressed against her temple.
"Please, cherie,"—the endearment he always used for her—"you're breaking my heart."
Her entire body shook with shuddering breaths, but Jesse didn't let go.
"I know, I know," he said over and over again, until the violent storm that seized her body subsided.
She leaned against him, letting his strength support her. And only then did she realize what she'd been screaming through her tears.
I killed her. I did it. I killed her!
Jesse's breath expelled against her ear as he whispered one last time, "I know."
The two of them stayed like that, him kneeling, her body limp in his embrace.
Her old demons rose like spirits around her, ghosts rising from their graves. She felt horrible and free.
"A week before Lou passed away," Jesse said softly, "she told me she had a secret. I teased her about keeping something from me, but she just giggled whenever I asked about it."
Eve could hear the fondness in Jesse's voice at the recollection of Lou, and she closed her eyes to keep herself from cracking.
"She kept that secret, and took it to her grave. The night she died, I sat on her bed while she took her last breaths, and she told me to lean in close, because she had something to tell me. And when I was right next to her ear, she said, 'Don't blame Auntie Eve.'"
With her head bowed over, she couldn't see Jesse, but she could feel his pain through his touch.
"I didn't piece things together until Elizabeth. That girl had a will of steel. It took weeks to crack her. And it took me a century to make peace with it. Between Lou and Adam, one who was my sister, and one who is a brother to me . . . it would have been unfair to blame you for having to make that choice." His voice was quiet in her ear. "And while I know this, a part of me will always hate you for making her suffer."
Eve felt bereft, hollowed out, as if someone had taken a curved knife and gouged out everything inside of her, making sure to scrape her clean.
"It wasn't supposed to be like that," she whispered. Her voice was hoarse, her vocal chords torn and sore from crying.
Lou's bouncing curls, the color of sunshine and daffodils. Lou's bright twinkling eyes, the color of the sky on a summer afternoon. Lou's gap-toothed grin, with a dash of mischief that was so characteristic of Jesse. Eve remembered her in a way that was too clear to be a memory.
"She wasn't supposed to be born," she said, more to herself than to Jesse now. "I saw it in Gabe's journal eight months after your mother conceived. And I knew that she couldn't be born. So I ended it, forcing your mother into induced labor."
Cool air sluiced across her skin as Jesse released her. He turned her around so they were facing each other. He waited until she looked up at him. The intensity in his gaze turned his eyes a very startling blue. Desperation swam in their depths as he wordlessly pled to hear the rest of the story. And the words simply fell from her lips.
"But your mother had twins again."
As she watched Jesse absorb the information, tears began to fall again. She'd hurt him so deeply.
"I still remember the look on your face when you first held her," she said. "And I just couldn't do it."
But she'd known that sooner or later, she'd have to take Lou away from him. Those four years . . . she didn't know how they passed. If there had ever been a time when she was closest to losing her sanity, that period had been it.
"I tried to make it quick," she said. "I did everything I could." She hugged herself, gripped her sides with brute force to keep the memories from breaking her. "But my powers were out of control. She'd been so small and her mind so young and undeveloped that I couldn't do it without hurting her."
She licked away the steady stream of tears from her lips. "So I told her that God had a special mission, meant only for her. That she had to go up to Heaven to ask for Adam's safety, because she was his guardian angel." Jesse's fingers dug into her shoulders. "But in order to get her wings to fly up to Heaven, it might hurt a little."
Jesse didn't say anything. He let her confession hang in the air between them, and she knew he was attempting to keep the memories of Louisa's death at bay.
"I tried," she whispered again. "I did—but I was a monster anyway."
When Jesse finally exhaled, she sat back on her heels, the weight of her crimes pulling her into the ground. For centuries, she'd never told a soul, not even Gabe. Each time, she had been so sure. Or perhaps her fear blinded her to doubt. "Why didn't you try to hurt me back?"
He shook his head and ran the pads of his thumbs across her cheeks, capturing the last of the wetness. "You and I, Eve, we are sinners." The blue of his eyes were made even more beautiful by the pain in them. "The worst punishment will always be to not be punished at all."
His words struck home. How many times had she felt like she wasn't entitled to cry? Because she'd been damned by her own actions.
"You will never be able to undo what you did." Jesse let her cry as he held her. "It will consume you, and you will suffer for an eternity because those sins will always be with you."
She pressed her eyes against the hardness of Jesse's shoulder, forcing stars to explode across her vision. Breathing hurt.
"I hate him."
Jesse stroked her back in slow circles. "I know."
And she hated herself even more for needing him. Somehow, over the years, after each death, love and hate had become the same emotion. She had no control over it, and knew that she wouldn't be free of its clutches until she saw the final death through.
Out of desperation and insanity, she'd offered Honey eternal life, grasping helplessly for a lifeline she knew did not exist. Even if Honey became immortal, the chances of Gabe's vision not coming true were too slim, and it was a risk she wasn't willing to take. But at least this way, Honey would be a willing participant in the last chapter of Eve's book of sins.
"I have to kill her," she heard herself say.
"I know," Jesse said. "And I will do everything in my power to stop you. But know that when all of this is over," he continued, "no matter what happens, you still have me."
She laughed then, she couldn't help it. An inappropriate, hysterical sort of laughter.
Jesse held her shaking body.
To any outside observer, she was still laughing. Her shoulders quaked to the uneven and erratic rhythm of her breath.
"Tell me when, Eve," he said quietly. "When does Adam die."
The dark, angry script of the torn page of Gabe's journal had been branded to her mind. She didn't ask how Jesse knew, only knew that it had been her secret too long. She saw the letters and numbers as clearly as though they were in front of her.
"December 1. Time of death—3:15."