Edward had never experienced a longer week, trapped in the endless, slow ride down the Mississippi—with James.
James had been ready to jump the boat the minute they were out of St. Louis, and Edward had almost let him. Good riddance. But Edward knew the Imperium better than James did—Masterson wasn’t solely governor of the city; she reigned over the whole region. Criss would still be on the lookout for them, and he’d been close enough to catch their scent—if either of them set foot on her territory again, he’d be able to track them, one way or another. And while Edward would have been more than happy to see James on the receiving end of the non-existent Imperial mercy, he was also well aware that he would squeal in a second, and point to Edward. And then there would be a chance that it would get back to Carlisle. And Edward didn’t want him involved in this—any of this.
So Edward argued him into submission—if he left now, he’d be caught. And when he tried to leave only a day or two later, when they were out of Missouri, Edward again stepped in—even if they were out of Masterson’s territory, the fact remained that they’d broken Imperial Law—both of them had. That meant that Criss would likely be more than willing—obligated, even—to track them even out of the state. And Criss was in some ways better than James, despite not being so powerful—because he didn’t rely only on his gift, but could also track like a hunter. If they left the safety of the boat, he’d likely pick up their trail—if not with his gift, then he’d be able to find their scent and their tracks.
No, their only real chance was to get out of Masterson’s sphere of influence all together, and “safely” into the territory of another governor.
And so that meant that they were stuck here, on this barge, together.
James made his anger and contempt more than clear; in the week or two they’d known each other, he’d become quite skilled in keeping some of his thoughts hidden while all but shouting others to the surrounding air. Edward had spent the entire time being forced to listen to his mocking insults, his derisive scorn, and, just to twist the knife deeper, his skewed memories of that last, disastrous hunt.
Edward curled in on himself, huddled against the side of the barge, as far away from James as possible. She had been only sixteen—younger than he was, when he was changed. She’d just wanted to go home. She was a good girl, and she had a little brother, and she was the apple of her father’s eye, and she was happy and loved—
And they’d killed her.
She’d been frightened and helpless and innocent, and they’d killed her. And most horrible of all was that Edward didn’t know which of them had done it. One minute she’d been screaming, and then the next, she was dead. Oh, it had been easy enough to blame it on James at first, but in the painfully long week trapped in the stinking, pig-filled hold of the barge, he’d been forced to admit that he didn’t know if it was James.
He rested his forehead against his knees. They’d killed her—they’d murdered her. It was an accident, he told himself—but James…he had been going to kill her anyway.
But Edward hadn’t…no…
…He’d been going to kill the other one.
To save her! I was going to save her!
And fine job he did, too. She probably would have survived Ellis—killing wasn’t his modus operandii. But it was James’s.
And it was his, too.
He scrunched his eyes closed and listened to the soft grunts of the pigs, the lapping of the water outside, the heavy footfalls of the crew, their bodies warm and their hearts beating, glowing red and bright in the cool of the evening, so warm, and their blood coursing and fresh, and James wanted it, was listening, yes, that one, he’d have him, just come on down, yes, soup’s on, little man, come on down into the kitchen…
Edward was on his feet in a flash, tightening his jaw against his fangs and dashing across to the other end of the barge, where James was lurking behind stacks of feed by the stairs down into the cargo hold.
Edward seized him in the nick of time, hauling him backwards just as the hapless Stan Fleischer ambled down into the hold, oblivious to the fact that Death had barely passed him by.
Edward slammed James again the wall, bracing him with his arm. “What do you think you’re doing, you idiot?” he growled in his face.
“What you’re too much of a pussy to do—I’m hungry!”
“Not here!” Edward hissed, shoving him harder as he started to struggle. “Do you want to get caught? Because you are doing everything in your power to get caught!”
James stopped fighting, but his mouth was still contorted in an angry snarl. “Think, James—think!” Edward said, pushing against him for emphasis. “Criss knows he lost us on the dock, and then come to find out that a barge from St. Louis starts losing crew members? Can you be any more stupid?!”
James’s mind was a seething riot of outrage and anger, but when he went stiff and still, Edward knew that he had him. When James went to throw off his restraining arms, Edward pulled away on his own, stepping back and regarding him down his nose. “You have no one to blame for this but yourself,” he said coldly. “I told you that we can go longer without eating, but you refused to even try to restrain yourself—now you have no choice, due to your own excesses.”
“No, only ‘cause of the pole up your ass,” he retorted derisively, straightening his coat. “We would have been fine right where we were—but you can’t handle going for girls.”
Edward refused to dignify him with a response, merely giving him a look of withering scorn and watching him, his arms crossed, as James settled down on the floor, and then once he was down, doing the same. “Aren’t you gonna go back to your sackcloth and ashes over your little whore?” James sneered nastily.
For the briefest instant, Edward wanted nothing more than to simply grab James by the hair and smash his smug, smirking face right into the side of the barge, to grind that mocking sneer into the ground until there was nothing left but a red pulp. Restraining the impulse, Edward simply gave him a freezing glare. “No—I’m afraid now I have to mind the child,” he answered icily.
The barb was not lost on James, and they glowered at each other in silence. Well, outward silence, anyway. James was once again making his displeasure more than clear to Edward, who was being subjected to a mental barrage of extremely foul and infuriating insults and denigrations, but he ground his teeth and refused to rise to the bait.
But that wasn’t all he was being forced to endure. Despite the fact that Edward knew he could go longer without feeding, James was hungry. Very hungry. And getting hungrier. And Edward had to listen to it. To feel it. It wasn’t long before he was no longer clenching his jaw to keep an angry retort from escaping, but rather to try and force his lengthening fangs back in his mouth. He didn’t need to eat, hadn’t needed to eat at all, even when he was going out after Ellis, he was full, he was sated, he was fine, didn’t need more blood, didn’t need to catch the next passing hand, to drag him behind the stacks of feed, to muffle his screams with his hand, to bite, to drink—
He hissed behind his teeth. “Dammit, James, if you just keep sitting there dwelling on eating, do you really think it’s going to get any easier to deal with?” he snarled, his voice rough.
James looked up, and a sneer twisted his lip. “I know exactly what would make it easier, dipshit,” he replied, and then his face went mock-soulful, his voice warbling and high-pitched. “Oh, but we can’t do that—we might hurt the humans’ feelings if we eat. They might be too nice to eat.”
Edward bared his teeth in a frustrated growl, but James just jabbed his middle finger skyward in his direction and went back to concentrating on the rich red smell of the deckhands above, only this time Edward sensed a perverse, mocking enjoyment behind it, because now he was well aware that Edward could feel it, and now wanted to feed too.
But he wouldn’t. He didn’t need to. He was fine. There was no reason to eat, no reason to hurt anyone, and many reasons to keep quiet and leave no traces behind.
(mmmmmsmell that yes good sogood would grab and bite and EAT ohyes want it want it NOW)
Edward sucked in a harsh breath; it whistled over his long canines, and his lips were wet with venom. He clenched his fists tight and scrunched his eyes shut, thinking of wide open spaces and running through forests and desperately trying not to think of the bright red spots of heat that walked to and fro above them, of the throbbing warmth of their bodies, and the rich warm pulses in their necks, the delicious redness that ebbed and flowed beneath their flesh, so close, so easy to just bite and feed…
He fisted his hands in his hair, forcing himself not to breathe, but it was no good, the smell of them was everywhere and it filled his nose, and he was going to go mad, he could still smell them, even over the muddy brown smell of the river below them and the disgusting stink of the pigs—
He was hungry. He wanted to feed. But he didn’t have to eat a human. Carlisle had told him that much, and he had been right—animals could be a means of survival. And he needed to survive, needed something to help him get a handle on this ridiculous, unreasoning bloodlust that coursed through his veins and gave him no peace.
But he already knew it wasn’t going to be that easy. Even as his head cleared as he knew what he would do, he felt his fangs run dry and shrink back up into their sheaths. He swallowed reflexively, his mouth no longer filled with venom, but rather thick saliva, the precursor to nausea, or whatever passed for it in vampires. He shuddered at the memory of his last attempt to eat an animal, of the deer in the woods, and every other feeding he could recall before that, of forcing down that sticky, noxious foulness, rather than the delectable sweetness of human blood—
He stood abruptly, startling James, and took a deep breath. “If you are really about to utterly die of starvation,” he said, his words laced with contempt, “then there is a way we can get around it.”
James barked with exultant, scornful laughter and he leapt to his feet, and Edward felt a tiny, grim smile curling one corner of his lip as he heard his mind fill with mocking triumph. Somehow he doubted James would be so enthusiastic when he realized what Edward was talking about.
Carefully, keeping to the shadows and moving as silently as only a vampire could, Edward slunk deep into the hold, listening and making sure that James was following him. The smell of the pigs was stronger here, near overwhelming, helping to clear his mind of the fog of bloodlust brought on by the scent of the humans. Edward peered out from behind a stack of grain sacks, and James looked out too, puzzlement crowding in on his excitement.
“What are you doing?” James demanded, his brow furrowed, his face and his mind becoming closed and wary.
“Eating,” said Edward shortly. “Not for enjoyment—for survival.” And he moved.
The great, heavy sow had its back to him, didn’t see him or smell him. Edward leapt out of the shadows, landing hard on the broad, bristled expanse of its back, seizing it ‘round the middle and hauling it backwards towards the corner, wrapping one arm tight around its neck, trying to silence its sudden, shrieking squeals without killing it, slamming it hard on the ground and leaning over it. His mouth was dry, his fangs tucked away despite the hunger that gnawed inside of his bones; he closed his eyes, summoning up memories of feeding, of the thick red tide that welled up beneath his teeth when he sunk them into the smooth flesh of the throat, of Reggie’s throat, of Froggy’s and Rocko’s, and he opened his mind and embraced James’s wild hunger (oh sweet Jesus what the fuck is he doing?!) and his fangs were long and waiting and dripping and he struck.
His teeth ripped into the stinking hide, through the putrid fat, the rough, prickling hairs scraping against his lips, and then the blood, yes, the blood, hot and stinking and rancid, bubbling up thick and greasy, and he swallowed, and it took everything he had not to retch as it seared its way down his throat, boiling and burning and acrid. His stomach twisted, churning as that fiery filth poured down into it, fighting, rebelling, his innards desperately trying to force it back up even as he kept swallowing it down, down, his throat clenching and closing as he swallowed, mindlessly frenzied in his wild repulsion, can’t stop, will go on, must keep feeding, must keep swallowing, swallowing, swallowing!
He threw the twitching carcass away from him, falling to his knees, panting, his mouth burning, his stomach twisting and cramping, and he wrapped his arms around himself and rocked, clenching his jaw and desperately fighting to keep it down. Long runners of bloody saliva dripped and swung from his lips, and his reflexive breathing was ragged as his throat opened and closed.
Edward looked up—to see James standing over him, his face twisted in a look of disbelieving revulsion. “You sick fuck,” he breathed.
“It’s for survival,” Edward grunted, his voice emerging as a gurgling croak. “We can’t eat the humans.”
“So you eat that?!”
Edward tried to move, to stand, but James recoiled violently backwards. “You keep away from me, you goddamn freak!” he hissed, and Edward felt his stomach twisting now with James’s borrowed nausea as well, and he fell back to his knees, squeezing his arms tight around his cramping stomach, fighting to keep from vomiting everywhere, and he felt his still heart squeezing too, the veins in his cheeks opening and filling with that burning ichor in a mockery of a blush as he heard James’s shouted thoughts on the air.
(sick psycho shit-eating pervert animal fucking FREAK)
And then he was dashing away, putting as much distance between himself and Edward as possible, but his horror and repugnance were still loud and clear, even when he was on the opposite side of the ship. But Edward couldn’t speak, couldn’t call him back to explain, to defend himself; he barely had the wherewithal to drag himself to the side of the hold so he could slump against the cold metal of the ship. His stomach was spasming wildly, twisting and churning and contracting, violently trying to throw back the muck that filled it, but Edward wouldn’t let it—no, he had to eat, and that’s all there was, had to keep it down, wouldn’t be sick, was stronger than that, could do this, didn’t have to eat people, didn’t have to.
Violent tremors wracked his body as the pig’s blood started seeping through him, oozing along his veins and filling him up, and he could feel it, feel it mixing with the human blood inside of him, diluting it, weakening it.
He panted helplessly, feeling as if he was being smothered, choked, and he curled up on himself, squeezing his eyes shut and fighting against the pained moans that wanted to escape him, shuddering and twitching against the hull as the barge floated slowly down the river.
Edward didn’t know how long he sat huddled in the corner, his body trying ferociously to reject the foul, unwanted sustenance that he’d forced upon it. He was barely aware of James’s thoughts—just enough to know that he wasn’t trying to eat anyone (although if he had, Edward honestly didn’t know what he’d have done in his state)—much less those of the other people on board.
But the cramping spasms subsided eventually, leaving him wrung-out and trembling and weak. He stayed where he was, curled around himself, his eyes closed, just trying to regain some semblance of himself.
He started rather badly when the barge jolted to a halt, rattling to its rivets as it clanged to a stop at the docks. He rose, his knees weak and shaky, and all but staggered out of his corner, forcing his sluggish mind to wake up and listen to find out what was going on.
They’d reached their final port on this trip—New Orleans; after unloading their cargo, they’d be headed back north up the river.
Shaking himself in a vain effort to clear his muddy thoughts, he took a reflexive, steadying breath and slunk towards the opposite end of the ship. The moorings were being lashed, gangplanks slid into place; soon the hold would be thrown open, the pigs herded out. He and James had to leave before then, to creep off the ship in the scuffle between docking and unloading.
He was easy enough to find; he’d forgone his foul songs and limericks, brooding loudly and unreservedly, pausing to abuse and deride Edward every so often. His thoughts were a beacon, and Edward dragged himself behind the stacks of grain to where James was skulking.
“You smell like shit—like what you’ve been eating,” he said without preamble when Edward slid over next to him.
Edward’s own nose was permeated with a thick musk that he’d thought was the pig—but now realized that it was him, that he did stink, and that he could smell it. Susannah had been right all those years ago. But he merely said, “Small price to pay to keep myself out of Imperial hands.”
James’s lip curled, and he didn’t speak, but his thoughts were loud and clear—nothing was worth that.
Edward deliberately ignored him, saying, “It’s just past nightfall; we’re in New Orleans, should be outside of Masterson’s influence. They’ll be unloading soon; we need to leave.”
James gave a curt nod and stood, and, despite ostentatiously wrinkling his nose and keeping an unnecessarily large distance away from Edward, he followed as they crept over to the small flight of stairs leading up to the deck.
Edward scouted the lay of the land through the eyes of the deckhands; they were all occupied with mooring and positioning the boat, and the way was open. There was a nearby barge, already docked and empty and well within jumping distance, and from there they could make their escape. Edward looked over his shoulder and gestured with his chin, and he heard James move when he started forward.
He poked his head out, looking over the deck, still preferring to use his eyes to verify what his mind told him; the coast was clear, and he dashed up and out of the stinking hold, out into the moist open air the early night, and ran to the edge of the barge. He raced along the side, towards the empty boat beside them, and jumped—and he almost didn’t make it. His toes barely hit the edge, and he tottered nearly over the side, his arms pinwheeling wildly, before he managed to catch himself and tipped forward onto his knees, rather than backwards into the muddy waters of the Mississippi Delta.
There was a rush of air above him; he looked up just in time to see James arcing effortlessly through the air. He landed nimbly on his feet, firmly on the deck, and he sneered at Edward as he hastily righted himself. “You call that survival?” he asked disgustedly, and Edward felt his face darkening but didn’t answer, just brushed by him as he made for the pier; James pulled away rather than touch him.
Still, he stuck by his side as they descended down onto the New Orleans waterfront, the two of them sliding between the shadows, Edward’s gift alerting them to passers-by. Although he wouldn’t have needed it, not tonight—he was tinglingly aware of every person they neared, the merest breath of a passing human, the tiniest whiff of their scent, and he found himself burning with a wild, helpless thirst, his fangs jutting out past his lips.
James noticed it, too, noticed his protruding teeth and sunken eyes, and his mocking disgust was more than evident on his face—to say nothing of in his thoughts.
The two of them skittered between the riverfront buildings, sliding further down into the city—and further down amongst the people. Mere blocks away from the river, Edward’s stomach was fairly cramping with hunger, his teeth long and dripping and ready, and he stopped, leaning his forehead against the cold bricks of a sagging old hospital and sucking in deep breaths of night air, trying to steady himself. The thick, antiseptic stink of the building did a great deal to mask the smell of the humans inside, and he did his best to wrestle the ravening beast inside him into submission.
A hand grabbed his arm and spun him around before he could even register the touch.
James was standing in front of him, his eyes raking over him with contemptuous scorn. “You ate that shit, and now you’re paying for it—you’re starving—and so am I,” he said flatly. “We’re eating—you’re keeping an eye out for any trouble—and then you can take your sorry ass out of here and away from me.”
Edward’s back stiffened. “No—I intend to have nothing more to do with you,” he said, his voice glacial as he drew himself up to his full height—the one physical advantage he had over James. “I’m not hunting with you, I’m not helping you, and if anyone is getting out of here, it’s you—you’re the one with all the self-control of an animal who can’t be trusted living anywhere permanently—so I’ll stay here, and you can go back to living in the brush like the mad dog you are.”
James went rigid, his eyes flying wide and his mouth contorting into a snarl. “You’re the one with a thing for animals around here, fucker—not me!” he growled. “And this is my turf now—I’m setting up shop, and I’ll eat who I please, and you’re not gonna stop me!”
Edward’s hackles rose, his fingers curving into claws, and he hissed. “Don’t test me, James,” he threatened.
James seized him by his collar and near jerked him off of his feet, hauling him within inches of his face. “Oh, I’d just love to see you try and take me, you scrawny little pig-fucking son of a bitch!” he spat.
A guttural rumble boiled up from Edward’s chest, his lips drawing back from his fangs, and James growled in reply, and Edward grabbed at his arms, and reached into his mind, oh no you don’t, your little songs and dances won’t keep me out, you miserable bastard!
A heavy hand fell on his shoulder and squeezed, and he felt himself pried slowly, almost gently, away from his deadlock with James, and saw the surprise on his face as he too was inexorably drawn back from their fight; they dropped their arms and looked up.
The man towered over them, huge and hulking and broad, the dark wool of his suit and the red silk of his tie shouting wealth and defiance in the filthy alleyway. Two massive hands, be-ringed and bejeweled, were clamped with inescapable force on their shoulders, holding them in place even as they were held apart. The broad brim of his hat cast his dark face into shadows as the long, jaunty feather in the band danced in the breeze above it.
“Now, boys.” The admonition emerged as a low, basso rumble, thick with pure French Creole. “Is that any way to be behavin’?” And he squeezed, and the two of them cringed, shrinking beneath the stabbing twist of his thumbs. But then he let them go, and they both straightened, brushing themselves off and helplessly, futilely attempting to look nonchalant.
The man’s eyes crinkled in amusement, golden and glittering in the guttering lamplight from the nearby buildings. “Now—that’s more like it,” he chuckled. “I’ll not be having you two roustabouts disturbin’ the peace of my city.” And then he smiled, his teeth brilliantly sharp and white in his swarthy face. “Laurent Laveau,” he said by way of greeting. “Imperial Governor of New Orleans.”
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