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Birth

Summary:
Bella's transformation goes less than smoothly; a series of scenes from a variety of perspectives.


Notes:


1. Chapter 1

Rating 5/5   Word Count 7784   Review this Chapter

***

"Bella?"

There were so many questions in those two syllables; so much fear, hope, love, anguish. I wanted to answer, but I couldn't bring myself to do it. My eyes remained tightly shut, and I was still in a way I could not have been three days ago. I didn't want to move; moving, I knew, could only reveal more that was new, alien, instinctually repulsive on a level I hadn’t expected at all.

It was like my skin was crawling, only about a hundred times worse; I wanted to crawl away from my own skin. This is not my body, screamed a voice at the back of my mind.

That voice had begun an uneasy muttering sometime several hours back, but the burning pain was still louder, then. Now, the pain had receded and narrowed, lingering in my gut and in my throat, transmuted into something I couldn't call thirst. Thirst was something I could comprehend, and whatever this was, lurking there in the still, hollow center of this body that was not mine, it was nothing I could wrap my brain around. Edward had said he was a monster, that I was choosing to become a monster - a matter of semantics to which I now wished to object. It implied some sort of unity of self, being a monster.

There's someone in my head, but it's not me, supplied my brain, and already I couldn’t remember the name of the song it came from, though I was sure I’d known three days ago. It made me want to giggle – hysterically - but that would have involved movement. I couldn't, couldn't move.

If I moved - if this body moved when I prompted it, if the alien form that enclosed me responded to my thoughts, my emotions - I didn't think I could stand it. The thing in my chest, trying to claw its way up my throat, the lurking, enormous not-thirst - that was not me. The smooth, hard skin that surrounded me - still as death despite my quivering terror and revulsion - it was not mine. It just couldn't be.

Rationally, I knew that it was - that it would be forever - but my mind skittered away from the thought and focused instead on being very, very still. It was like being trapped in a very small space, I thought; if you just don't move you won't realize how close the walls are, and it won't be so bad. Just lay still, as if you're choosing to do so, as if you could move if you wanted to.

I wasn't even breathing.

I'm laying here conscious and not breathing.

"Bella?"

"Have patience, Edward, this is still completely normal." Carlisle's voice.

No, it's not. It's not normal at all. This is not my body. My body breathes. My body has a heartbeat, and it sweats, and shakes and trembles and twitches and - and -

I sucked in a great, shuddering breath; I heard Edward's answering gasp. I heard his clothes rustling with a degree of clarity I had no idea how to process. I could differentiate the shifting of individual crinkles of cloth against the marble of his skin, so that just hearing him move told me exactly how his shirt was wrinkled.

There was nothing horrible about that, really. It’s a new experience, I told myself, that’s all. Novel. Intriguing.

I wanted to scream, just to drown out the noise.

"Bella? Bella, it's alright. It's over now."

No, it's not.

His hand settled on my arm. I’d been holding as still as I consciously could, but at that touch my force of will ceased to have anything to do with it. I was stunned, frozen.

It didn't feel like Edward's hand; the contrast of textures was all wrong, his flesh too giving, mine not giving enough, and it was faintly warm. There was a texture to it that was almost like softness, not the granite I remembered, but something that evoked a gut-deep wrench of recognition.

Fellow-feeling, supplied the voice at the back of my head as I lay there unresponsive for some unmeasured span of time, no heartbeat providing reference for the duration of my shock. It feels like skin. It feels like flesh of your flesh, one of your own. My mind tried to associate this new sensation with the fading memory of human touch, but it was too much, and I had to pull away- physically away, my alien body deciding to bypass my confused thoughts entirely and respond on instinct instead. My arm jerked out of his grasp.

"Edward, give her a moment." Carlisle's voice was both gentle and stern, but I barely heard, barely processed the stricken, strangled sound that Edward made. That was all inconsequential, because I'd moved.

It was only a few inches change in where and how I lay, barely a twitch of muscles, but it was enough. If the thing in my throat wasn't thirst, then the terrible potential I could feel in these limbs couldn't be called strength.

My eyes flew open, staring directly into Edward's. He flinched, and I knew why, because I could see my reflection on the surface of his corneas in perfect clarity, every minute detail, every striation in the brilliant red of my own irises - where he was reflected back again, over and over and over unto eternity, inside of each other.

I felt a tiny sliver of wonder slicing through the abject terror, a burst of emotion that was simultaneously triumphant and despairing. It was done. These were the first moments of what would be the rest of our lives. This, more than the fear, was the thought that held me still and wide-eyed as I watched his expression settle first into firm resolve and then melting tenderness. He bent towards me. I didn't want to be kissed, didn't want him to touch these lips that didn't feel like mine, but it was what we had - what I'd chosen, what I'd wanted, what I had to live with.

His lips were soft and, for the first time, open to mine. I felt a rush of overwhelming gratitude for the care he'd taken when I was human - not for having delayed this change, but for making our kiss now something different. His lips were still too pliant, too warm, but the touch of his tongue was just new - my human body had never done this, felt this. There was no jarring sense of wrongness to it, and so I gave myself over to it, that one sensation that was just that, just sensation without any remnant of discordant muscle memory attached, just touch and taste -

- taste -

- something at the back of his tongue - something so amazingly, achingly wonderful -

- and then there was only searing need, the thing that was so much more terrible than thirst, and the realization that I was wrong.

No alien consciousness swam up to overwhelm me. I wished that it would, that some separate and distinct will would assert itself as owner of this body and its impulses. None did. I needed what I tasted on Edward's tongue, needed it beyond any thought of resisting. I bit down, lucidity floating and lost in the flood of instinct, and yet still there - still there, still me, my clenching hands, my curling lips, growl vibrating in my burning throat and my teeth sinking into Edward's tongue. In that moment I knew that I was still me, body and all – because it was me, myself, Bella, who couldn't stop.

***

"It's not that funny!" Alice turned and hollered up the stairs; it only set Emmett off all the more. He was practically howling with laughter.

The cadence of the water pouring from the faucet behind her changed, splattering uselessly down the drain; Edward muttered something rather impolite. Alice could hear Rosalie upstairs, making a fruitless attempt to convince Emmett of the seriousness of the situation - it only resulted in a renewed burst of hysteria every time she used the word "tongue".

Alice went on frowning, her eyes losing their outward focus as her attention shifted inward, and forward, listening for her adopted brother's voice.

Behind her, and in the present, Edward spit into the sink.

It was aggravatingly difficult to bring a random instance of speech into focus, and after a few moments of trying to sort through a whirlwind jumble of the future mutterings of Edward, Alice decided to look for the next time he'd be purchasing a car. After that, it took less than a fraction of a second to glean the information she needed.

Also, he was going to get Bella that Audi. Bella was going to be pissed.

Edward tried to move past her.

"Nope," she proclaimed, reaching behind her without looking and shoving his head back into the sink.

He gave an indignant shout of protest as the side of his head hit the faucet and knocked it off-kilter, changing the sound of the water again and resulting in a barrage of visions popping up behind Alice's eyes like bursting bubbles. They were going to have to go to Anchorage for a new faucet; Rosalie was going to insist. She'd say the mangled one looked trashy.

Oops. Alice grinned and bounced on her toes at the prospect of shopping; Edward swatted at her and growled. She just tightened her grip on his hair and absent-mindedly adjusted his head so that it was actually under the faucet this time, the water running into his mouth. He spluttered and choked, trying to speak; the words were lost to the water, but the tone of dire warning was still quite clear.

"You haven't got all the venom out - I still see you lisping," she informed him coolly. "Give it a few more minutes."

He made some gargling, incomprehesible reply and attempted to kick her. Alice danced neatly to the side, but that weakened her leverage, and she saw that in a few seconds he was going to twist free of her grip.

"Fine," she sighed, releasing him. Edward came up coughing and glaring. He wiped his mouth on the back of his hand and winced, obviously still in pain. Because there's still venom in there. Idiot. "It's your dignity." Alice gave an affectedly careless shrug. "You want an eternal lisp? Have an eternal lisp."

"I should -" he started, heard his own distorted voice, and flinched, eyes rounding comically. Alice scowled at him. "I should be out there with her," Edward proclaimed slowly and deliberately; he managed to sound resolute, though still rather marble-mouthed.

"Well, it's up to you," Alice answered, in her best calmly reasonable tone; she tried to imagine, and emulate, how Esme might sound. Edward eyed her warily, quite rightly suspicious of her easy capitulation. "I'm sure she'd appreciate having you along on her first hunt."

Edward knew her well enough to just keep glowering, waiting.

"And," Alice continued smoothly, "I'm sure she won't mind if you end up with a permanent speech impediment, not if it's for her sake. How could she find that unattractive knowing it was acquired for her benefit? Because you just couldn't wait five more minutes to be with her?"

If looks could kill, Alice thought, she'd be jig-sawed and burning right about now. It was getting increasingly challenging to keep a straight face; it helped that she knew this was going to work.

"If it were the other way around, you know - if it were her, with some completely preventable disfiguration in the making, caused by you - well, that'd worry me. Because I know how you would get about something like that - but, it's not like that," Alice finished brightly, practically chirping. She gave another deliberately casual shrug. "I mean, you know Bella. She's unnaturally adaptable. I doubt she'll have any issue at all with having a constant reminder that her lapse in control -"

"You're evil," Edward accused, jabbing a finger in Alice's face; she smiled serenely, trying very hard not to burst into giggles. It sounded more like "ebil." He stuck his head back under the faucet, letting the water run into his mouth, over his bitten tongue.

"Few more minutes," she promised him, giving his awkwardly contorted shoulder a reassuring pat.

***

“Bella, dearest, it’s -”

The newborn vampire made a noise that was half growl and half whimper and danced out of Esme’s reach. Jasper watched, a few paces back, tense and wary. The mangled body it clutched in both hands was little more than an unidentifiable lump of fur, but he knew it had once been a squirrel. A squirrel. He’d hoped it wouldn’t be this bad, that the relative lack of traumatic injury and blood loss before Bella’s changing, the amount of blood left in her body, would mitigate the severity of the newborn thirst.

It didn’t seem to be happening that way, Jasper observed with rapidly escalating trepidation. It wasn’t the first time he’d seen a newborn like this. He’d once seen newborns rip a house to shreds trying to pry nests of mice out of the walls – and those were newborns permitted to gorge themselves on human victims.

“I’m not going to take it from you,” Esme went on soothingly; she was standing too close to the newborn for Jasper’s liking. “But dearest, it’s all used up. Let’s find you something bigger.”

If it was blood-mad over a squirrel, then it was unimaginably dangerous to someone like Esme. Someone who wouldn’t want to hurt it.

What Jasper knew of managing newborns involved balancing the relative influence of bloodlust and survival instinct as motivating factors. Those he and Maria had made knew they would survive only so long as they remained both useful and reasonably convenient; those who could control themselves sufficiently to remain in both categories lasted about a year. Those whose bloodlust was stronger than their fear of him tended to last a few days at best.

He’d disposed of the newborns who’d gone after the mice; he had scars from the experience, one of the few times a newborn had managed to inflict even that much damage. The madness gave them an edge, sometimes.

The blood-crazed ones were still useful, in a way; it was necessary to provide frequent reminders to those with more willpower, as to why they should move themselves to exercise restraint.

There could be no such lessons for this newborn. There would be no disposing of it if it grew inconvenient.

But if it grew dangerous?

Jasper thought calming, soothing, full-bellied, wet-throated thoughts at it with everything he had, and eyed the narrowing span of ground between it and Esme with impotent dread.

“It’s alright,” Esme murmured, approaching slowly and carefully, hands out at her sides, posture as unthreatening as possible – as if she needed to work not to be threatening. When they’d taken on Victoria’s army, Esme had fought, to the best of her ability – but so far as he’d seen, she’d accounted for not one kill. And she’d been shaken afterwards anyhow. Badly shaken. She’d been resolved in practice, and she hadn’t run from the fight, but it just wasn’t in her to kill another sentient being. She ran interference, mostly, and she’d been good at it. She had a grace to her, a slippery economy of movement that made her impossible to pin down.

As a human lieutenant, he had been forgiving. Perhaps he would have made her a scout. He would have had nothing scornful to say of her, anyway. She was no coward – she just was what she was and did what she could. There were worse things.

But as Maria’s second, he would have disposed of her within weeks, a month at most. She was weak – useless in the sort of fight where relative degrees of sheer vicious rage were often the deciding factor.

And now gentle, peaceful Esme was standing just a few paces away from a newborn just hours old, a newborn that had gone mad with bloodlust over a squirrel, and somehow, somehow Jasper had to keep this from ending the way his every experience and instinct told him it must.

Bella had possessed a number of disconcerting weak spots, emotionally, but when it came to violence, she had been frighteningly quick to adapt. Bella was not weak, and that was presently terrifying.

This newborn could not be disposed of, and it could not be permitted to harm Esme. How in the hell he was supposed to manage that, Jasper had no idea – and it clearly fell to him to manage it. Carlisle wasn’t even there, hadn’t even given chase when the newborn took off after its squirrel, and Esme took off after the newborn. He hadn’t seemed concerned.

The newborn was whimpering, scarlet eyes round and dilated. Its fingers disappeared into the mangled body of the squirrel, thin trickles of fluids that weren’t blood running down its wrists, dripping from the rodent’s ruined guts. It had bile smeared on its chin and its face was contorted with disgust. It radiated pain and confusion.

“We’ll find you another if you liked it,” Esme offered with a small shrug, a rueful half-smile on her gentle face. “The world’s not short of squirrels, I suppose. You can hunt squirrels if you like, okay? Shall we go find another squirrel?”

The newborn stared, twisting the dead squirrel between its hands like a rag, and began keening softly and rocking. Esme was perhaps two steps away from it now, and Jasper realized with alarm that they’d moved several steps farther away from him without him realizing it. He hedged closer, carefully silent, not wanting the newborn to be alarmed by his approach. He cursed silently to himself – where in the hell was Carlisle, and why was he allowing this? Jasper didn’t dare take his eyes off Esme to look for him, though he knew he was himself, at perhaps ten paces from them, much too far away to do any real good. He should have been moving while Esme was moving, while the newborn was distracted. He shouldn’t have let himself be distracted by his own uneasiness, by the lack of any coherent plan of action should this all go rapidly to hell, as it seemed quite likely to do. Even a clumsy, mindless newborn was fast, and could inflict serious damage before he could manage to get himself between them, close as they were, far away as he was.

Esme moved closer yet.

Where in the hell was Carlisle? Why was Esme even here? Jasper crept a careful, soundless step nearer as Esme sank into a crouch, putting herself at eye level with the gore-spattered creature, for God’s sake, putting herself off balance and raising her chin to look it in the face, of all suicidal things to do – Jasper couldn’t remember why he hadn’t spoke up when they were leaving the house. She shouldn’t be here.

It probably had something to do with the way his fingers had been stinging from where it had bitten him, when he and Carlisle and Emmett had all had to pry it off of Edward’s face, which should have suggested things were not going quite according to plan, damn it.

“It’s alright,” Esme was saying, as the remnants of squirrel came apart into gory shreds in the newborn’s hands and its keening escalated into tearless sobs and wails. “Shh, honey, it’s alright. I know it hurts. We’ll find you more, okay? Shh, dearest, shh, it’s going to be alright, let’s just get up -”

She reached for its arm.

“No!” Jasper shouted frantically, flinging himself forward even as the newborn dropped the squirrel and launched itself at Esme in a shuddering, uncoordinated lurch. He saw their two bodies collide a fraction of a second before he was on them, knocking all of them off-balance, into the ground, and he twisted so that his shoulder wedged itself between them. He was distantly aware of a number of sounds – Carlisle, finally, shouting something, and Esme’s gasp of protest – but first and foremost there was the whistle of displaced air between snapping teeth.

He caught one of the newborn’s legs between his, wedged his elbow between their bodies, and threw them away from Esme. They rolled, and he let them roll, trying to ignore the waves of sheer panic and confusion that were pouring off it. With so much physical contact, it was impossible to block it out.

When momentum ceased to carry them, he straightened his arm between them, thrusting it away. Jasper was on his feet almost instantly, springing into a wary crouch; it scrabbled away on all fours.

Scrabbled backwards, making no move to attack. Its mouth was open in one long, wavering wail. Its confusion seemed to flood the whole clearing, overwhelming its other emotions, nearly overwhelming him. The force of it was staggering; he had to grit his teeth not to flinch away.

“What are you doing?” Esme demanded furiously, brushing past him, hurrying right back toward it. Jasper tried to grab for her arm, but someone caught his arm, restraining him. He broke the hold with almost no effort, turning and snarling.

“Easy,” Carlisle spoke hastily, voice calm and level, hands spread wide. What was wrong with the lot of them that they reacted to a threat by making themselves as vulnerable as possible? Jasper ignored him instantly, whipping back around toward Esme and the newborn, hoping that fraction of a second of distraction hadn’t been too long.

It had its arms around Esme’s shoulders, clinging . . . and shaking. Esme’s hands were rubbing its back in small circles. They were both kneeling. Esme glowered at him through the mess of their entangled hair.

Jasper drew in a shuddering breath; the confusion and nausea and the weak-kneed, desperate terror he felt seeping in to replace whatever passed for adrenaline among his kind could have been the newborn’s, in part, but he knew the larger portion of it was all his own.

“I’d wondered,” Carlisle murmured at his back, tone carefully neutral, “if the manner of changing had an effect on the newborn’s mental state. If a violent change produced more aggression. I was inexperienced when I changed Edward, and his adjustment was harder than the others. Esme was a little better – I was a little gentler with her, I couldn’t bear not to be - and with Rosalie I was willing to experiment, I’m afraid, impulsive as the decision was. She suffered least yet, and Emmett got the benefit of that experiment’s success. They were hardly any more aggressive as newborns than I’d guess they were as humans.”

Jasper just watched the newborn with Esme, being rocked and shushed and comforted like any frightened child.

Child. Newborn.

And distracted as he was, his mind began to follow a path he had forbidden it for years. How many? his traitorous mind enquired of him.

There were two vampires of his creation still walking the earth, so far as he knew – Peter, and Charlotte. And he could hardly take credit for Charlotte’s survival. Even those he’d abandoned. Left them to follow paths of wickedness, left them as lost as he had been, before Alice, before hope, and suddenly he could remember the preacher from the church of his childhood, the smell of his mother’s best perfume and the stifling summer heat and if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.

“I appreciate your concern for her safety,” Carlisle said gently, referring to Esme.

Esme, who now held the newborn at arm’s length, licked her own fingers and began scrubbing the blood from its trembling chin. It stood calm and pliant.

How many?

Carlisle’s hand settled again on Jasper’s shoulder and gave a brief squeeze. “Ask me sometime to tell you about the work I did for my father,” he said, and then he walked around Jasper to join his wife and the creature he’d accepted as a daughter. To join his family, to which Jasper knew he should not belong, did not deserve.

The family he had to accept, whether he deserved them or not, because Alice most emphatically did. He knew what they meant to her, and he’d die rather than take that from her.

And why had he been so pathetically anxious, just now, if it wasn’t because Esme meant something to him? She called him her son. So did Carlisle. It was ridiculous; he was Esme’s elder by a good half-century.

Carlisle turned to look back at him expectantly, and all Jasper could feel from him was unwavering acceptance and a dull, old sort of sadness.

Esme glared warily at Jasper as he approached their small huddle, one arm wrapped around the newborn’s quivering shoulders, tugging it closer to her side. He could feel her anger, but there was no true rage there, no threat, no hatred. She was disappointed in him. Absurd.

Carlisle’s expression remained calmly encouraging, utterly confident in what Jasper would do.

“I’m sorry.” He addressed the newborn, making himself meet its wild scarlet eyes and look for Bella there, his wife’s best friend, a person. There was precious little sanity to be found in its gaze, but there was something – a spark, a glimmer, he didn’t know what to call it, but he’d taught himself a very long time ago to ignore it. A thing with scarlet eyes was not a person, it was a dangerous and disposable tool. But this thing was Bella.

And if it was Bella, then what had the rest of them been? Who had they been? Alice – and it was a pain like been ripped in two to think it – Alice must have been like this once, red-eyed and wild, and alone.

“I’m sorry,” he repeated, speaking softly and slowly, burying the pain of recognition deep where it couldn’t seep out and hurt her, not it, her, his new sister. “That won’t happen again.”

***

“Please, Bella, let me in,” Edward’s voice begged.

I didn’t respond, standing with my hands braced against the shower wall, the hot water pouring over me.

It, like everything else, felt wrong. With the dial barely half-way between hot and cold it felt hotter than anything I had reference to compare, hot enough that it should have been scalding, but it wasn’t. It didn’t burn.

It did wash the dirt and the blood away somewhat more effectively than cold water, though. It made the burning in my throat a little worse, but the alienness of every other part of me a little better; my flesh was starting to warm up.

“Please, Bella.”

Edward used to tell me that my warmth felt good, amazing; I wondered if I’d ever adjust sufficiently that I could experience any physical feeling as nice ever again. In the span of just a few hours I’d grown alarmingly accustomed to measuring sensation in terms of the degree to which it either soothed or exacerbated some other feeling of awfulness. The horror of my foreign flesh, the desperate confusion of all the input provided by my overwhelmingly heightened senses, and last but certainly not least the not-thirst, which was presently in abeyance, curled up sated in my gut and only occasionally stretching to rake its claws down my throat. It had only taken one squirrel, a fox, a pair of snowshoe hares, and finally an elderly elk, to bring me to this state of relative sanity and just barely tolerable pain. I felt much better.

“I could break down the door, you know.”

“G-go away!” I managed, wincing.

I knew how he’d take that – how he’d be blaming himself. I vacillated between the certainty that it wasn’t safe for him to be around me, and the despairing thought that maybe it’d be better if I did him some minor damage, just so he’d learn – but he hadn’t learned from the first time.

And somewhere in the very farthest and darkest corner of my mind, some piece of me thought he deserved to suffer. He’d done this to me.

This, more than anything else, convinced me that I was a monster after all. He’d been right, but it was done, and there was no taking it back.

There was silence from the other side of the door; I felt a wrenching pain in my gut, and almost, almost called out for him to come back. I hadn’t really expected him to listen. I stopped myself – I couldn’t do that. As much as I was hurting him by pushing him away, I knew it would only hurt him more to let him see me this way, and besides that, it wasn’t safe. I wasn’t safe.

The irony was by no means lost on me, but I didn’t have his restraint, wasn’t good like he was. I was a monster who had attacked my own husband and then blamed him for it.

That didn’t stop the rush of giddy relief when, perhaps ten minutes later, I heard the doorknob perfunctorily ripped from the door. It didn’t stop my stomach from sinking when I realized the footsteps striding purposefully across the tile floor towards the curtained shower sounded wrong, not like Edward’s stride. I allowed myself a moment of hope – maybe it was just my new hearing, maybe his walk sounded different just as his skin felt different – but the hand that pulled the shower curtain back was slender and feminine. The face that peered inside was Rosalie’s. I crossed my hands in front of my hips and shrugged my hair over my chest, blinking in confusion through the water.

“Oh, don’t bother,” Rosalie said dismissively, her voice oddly gentle and uncertain. “We’re sisters now, aren’t we?”

I watched her in mute befuddlement, then slowly let my hands fall to my sides. It was odd to feels as though I should be blushing and yet have no heat rising in my cheeks, the only warmth my body could manage being that stolen from the water. I waited for the rush of skin-crawling horror at this newest bit of strangeness, but could feel only exhaustion, and on its tail, a joyless sort of relief. That was an improvement. Maybe in time I’d work my way up to just feeling freakish, rather than actively wanting to tear myself out of my own skin.

“Do you need help with your hair?” Rosalie offered, with a grotesquely stilted attempt at a smile. She reached out to run her fingers across the tangled the strands, ignoring my flinch. “You did always have beautiful hair, so long. I wish mine had been longer.”

“What – what are you doing?” I demanded, inwardly flinching at my own rudeness but unable to make myself apologize and take the question back. I wanted an answer.

“I’m trying,” Rosalie answered bluntly, shrugging and giving me a level stare. “I’m not sure . . ” She sighed. “Honestly, I’m not sure I’m ever going to be able to forgive you for what you threw away, but . . but I’m trying to see things differently, and that means trying . . with you.” She paused. “Of course, that’s not really your problem. If you’d rather have Esme here, I can go get her. She wanted to come up herself, but I asked her to let me.”

I just stared back, completely at a loss.

“If you want Edward, that might be more difficult, given he’s unpacked the electric keyboard and is now firmly ensconced, probably writing funeral dirges, thank God he’s got it set to only play to his headphones – but I could probably get Emmett to wrestle him up here if that’s what you want.”

“I – I don’t know,” I confessed, struggling to find the right words. “I don’t know what I want,” I blurted out, and was grateful for the water running down my face, feeling almost, almost like tears. “I don’t want Edward here.”

Rosalie’s face was still and closed but not quite managing to be expressionless; she was very obviously trying not to be angry. Her lips were pressed into a hard line. She still looked like an angel, but a terrible angel, a bringer of judgment.

“I’m sorry,” I whispered. “You don’t have to be here. I know this is awful for you, you don’t have to try with me now.”

Rosalie sighed. “No, the thing is, I do. I – Emmett and I -” she stopped, eyeing me assessingly, and seemed to reconsider her words. “Oh, never mind. See, there I go, about to tell you about my life and my plans, and it’s not like you care.”

I flinched. “I do -”

“No, you don’t,” Rosalie cut me off. “Maybe in a year or two you will, but right now, you don’t. Right now you care about Edward and blood, probably not in that order.” She paused again, and grimaced. “Damn. This wasn’t what I meant to do. I really did mean well, I promised myself . . . ” She let it trail off, shrugging helplessly.

You’re not very good at keeping promises to yourself, I thought. What I said, however, was, “I think I still have twigs in my hair.”

“You do,” Rosalie affirmed, eyes darting critically up and down the wet, tangled masses that hung over my shoulders. She sighed again, but it was a different sound this time, tremulous and yet resolved. “Why don’t you sit down on the edge of the tub, and hand me the conditioner? We’ll make a mess of the floor but it’ll be easier that way.”

“Okay,” I agreed, and complied. It moved most of my body out of the water, the spray just hitting my knees. I could feel the change in temperature, but it still didn’t feel entirely like cold should. My reaction to this was even more feeble than it had been to the un-burning heat.

“I had sisters,” Rosalie announced quietly to the back of my head. “Three of them, all younger than me.”

“I didn’t know that,” I responded, for lack of anything better to say.

“I know,” Rosalie replied, and began working the conditioner into my hair.

***

“So let me see if I’ve got this. Bella, all newly un-breakable, is upstairs, in the shower, presumably all wet and naked -”

Edward shot Emmett a warning glare.

“ – with my wife.” Emmett paused a beat.

Edward turned back to the electric keyboard and focused very, very hard on a complicated string of notes that refused to settle into a rhythm that properly expressed the pathos he was hoping to convey in this composition, and with some effort, managed to ignore Emmett’s thoughts. He knew his brother well enough to know that if he caught a glimpse of the mental images that were likely to accompany that train of thought, he’d almost certainly be moved to violence.

“Not with you. Because you,” Emmett sighed. “You are in the basement playing the piano.”

Another heavy pause.

“Man. Seriously.”

“You’re interfering with my concentration,” Edward replied tersely.

“Your concentration needs interfering with. So does your wife.” And the image that went with that thought was rather unignorable.

“Edward. Edward!

Carlisle’s voice seemed to reach Edward’s ears down some long, white tunnel – everything was hazy and bright, an afterimage burnt onto his retinas by the sudden explosion of rage that engulfed him. Edward felt a hand on his shoulder jerking him backward, blinked, came back to himself.

Emmett was sprawled in a crater of ruined boxes, laughing uproariously. The electric keyboard lay in pieces across his chest, cracked in half with such force that bits of it scattered across the boxes, colorful wires draped across a broken cardboard topography labeled things like ‘summer clothes’ and ‘garden tools’ and ‘lamps, in progress’. Edward winced; he doubted even Esme was going to be able to do much with those lamps now, and his keyboard – his music – was gone, useless, just like that.

“That feel good?” Emmett asked, still laying there amid the ruin, still faintly chuckling. “You know, there are better ways to release -”

“Emmett,” Carlisle spoke warningly, his hand tightening on Edward’s shoulder. It was unnecessary; Edward didn’t think he’d ever been in more perfect control of himself than he was in that moment, staring down at mangled boxes, mangled lamps, mangled music, mangled life. He did feel better, not for having hit Emmett – not that that hurt – but for the feeling of hollow clarity within himself at the ruin he’d caused.

Boxes and lamps and keyboard and Bella, all the same, all broken. It was fitting. The idea that he could make music, that he could create something beautiful, was grotesque and absurd. No, this, this was a far truer expression. Composition finished – pathos expressed.

“What?” Emmett asked, tone jovial but his expression challenging, meant to incite. “So he hits me again. Maybe this time I’ll feel it.”

“I think your mother would like to retain a few possessions in their original shape and number of pieces,” Carlisle ventured dryly.

Emmett propped himself up on one elbow, looked around, and flinched. “Aw, fu – uh. Shit. Damn. Darn,” he finished lamely, cringing even further, glancing apologetically at Carlisle. “Look, I’ll -” He stopped, sharing a look with Carlisle over Edward’s shoulder.

Edward could have listened in on both their thoughts and known exactly what that oblique stare meant, to each of them, and how badly their perceptions of what had been communicated by it mismatched – something that usually amused him. Right then, though, he didn’t really want to know what either of them were thinking of him, of Bella, of the whole broken situation.

“I’ll go tell her sorry,” Emmett finished. “Um, now.”

“Thank you,” Carlisle replied levelly, as Emmett pushed himself to his feet, brushed off the remains of the exploded keyboard, and loped past them.

When he was gone, Edward shrugged Carlisle’s hand off, slightly more violently that was really necessary. He strode over to where Emmett had fallen, picked up a single, dislodged minor key, and examined it critically. It was glossy and black and, separated from the whole, just a senseless, purposeless shape.

“What?” Edward demanded of the silent figure at his back, aware of being rude and sullen, and yet unable to be otherwise. It was unfair to blame Carlisle for allowing this – for all but forcing this, for the fact that he would have done it if Edward hadn’t – unfair and selfish and wrong to think that he should have damned well let him, at least then it’d be on his head, at least then he, Edward, wouldn’t be the one who had –

“Edward -” Carlisle began carefully.

Edward threw the key at the nearest wall; it exploded into tiny bits of white-edged plastic shrapnel, rebounding far enough to pepper his face and arms. It didn’t hurt, of course. A small cloud of paint and drywall marked the spot where it had hit, dissipating slowly to reveal a sharply carved dent. He turned to face his father.

“Don’t,” Edward ground out between clenched teeth, “tell me to give this time.”

“Alright,” Carlisle acquiesced with a placid nod of his head. It was infuriating, mitigated only by the genuineness of his worried frown – though that was enraging too, in its own way. The very suggestion of peace or calm or good in the universe made Edward want to hit something again, preferably something that would feel it. Nothing should be right or peaceful now.

“I don’t want to talk about it,” Edward growled.

“I don’t want to have to replace the house,” Carlisle retorted calmly.

“I won’t destroy the house,” Edward snapped.

Carlisle just moved his gaze rather pointedly to the dent in the wall.

Edward sat on the nearest whole box; it sagged alarmingly under his weight, and he sprang back to his feet, pacing to the wall. He braced his hands against it, letting his head fall forward.

The room went silent.

“How do you live with it?” Edward asked, almost inaudibly.

“At the moment?” Carlisle responded. “With difficulty. But for the most part, I try to give you as much happiness as I can.”

Edward gave a very bitter laugh.

“She asked, Edward. Never mind asking, she begged, bargained and manipulated.”

“She didn’t understand,” Edward snarled.

“No, she didn’t,” Carlisle allowed. “But does anyone, really, when making that kind of choice? Does a woman who conceives a child understand the responsibility she is undertaking? Does a man who becomes a soldier understand how war will change him?”

I understood what I was doing to her,” Edward countered. “I understood it.”

“No,” Carlisle replied quietly, “No, son, you didn’t.”

Edward did not reply, but his hands curled into fists, nails digging rough gouges in the drywall.

“So should there be no children born?” Carlisle posed, so disgustingly, infuriatingly, inexorably calm and reasonable. “Should no one ever stand up and fight? Nothing fundamental should ever change, because we can’t help but choose blindly.”

“That’s not what I said,” Edward retorted, but he could hear the tone of still-angry defeat in his voice.

“How would it have changed her if you’d said no?” Carlisle asked.

There was no answer to that. Edward wanted to say that it would not have, that she would have been well and whole if it weren’t for him, but he had Jacob Black’s borrowed memories of Bella’s time without him. There was no right answer; he could do nothing but hurt her.

Soft, hesitant footsteps broke into the heavy silence, descending the stairs; their gait was unfamiliar, which was telling enough. There was only one person in this house whose sense of balance, whose everything, had changed so as to make her unrecognizable.

Carlisle got up and left.

“Hi,” Bella said softly.

***

Edward turned away from the wall slowly, moving as if in pain; I didn’t know if I wanted to run to him and beg him to hold me, or run as far from him as I could get. I was hurting him.

“Hello,” he said, so gently, as if he could break me by speaking.

I stepped down off the stairs and into the room slowly, tentatively; a few steps in, something crunched under my feet. I blinked and looked down; I had been so focused on Edward that my surroundings had ceased to register themselves at all.

“What happened to the keyboard?” I blurted out.

“Ah,” Edward began, and didn’t continue. I glanced up; he had one hand on the back of his neck, a familiar nervous gesture, and his expression was distinctly abashed.

“What?” I pressed, intrigued now.

“Emmett has a very hard head,” Edward offered in explanation, and looked even more acutely embarrassed.

I stared, blinked, and then to the utter astonishment of both of us, giggled.

It was only a small giggle, barely worth noting in other circumstances, but at that moment it was so startling that I stopped instantly, shocked into disbelieving silence by the sound of my own amusement.

I was amused. I was laughing.

“I’m sorry I bit your tongue,” I said in a rush, my giddiness making me brave. I wanted to say it before the shame came back.

The dumbstruck expression that had appeared on Edward’s face when I giggled vanished, and he scowled. “I’m sorry I made you into something that would bite my tongue,” he retorted darkly – and dismissively.

“Okay, no,” I said firmly.

“No?”

“No, you are not going to blame yourself for -” I shrugged and spread my hands. “ – this. I asked.”

“You do regret it,” Edward surmised, eyes narrowing and lips thinning into an expression of finely controlled agony.

“No!” I assured him hastily; too hastily. He didn’t look even close to convinced. “Okay, so right now it sucks,” I allowed. He was still eying me doubtfully. “It sucks a lot,” I amended, and stopped trying to sound so brave and chipper; my voice wavered. This he seemed to accept. “But it gets better, right?” It was half a reassurance and half a plea. “I mean, you haven’t bitten anyone’s tongue out recently.”

“Bella -”

“So we’ll just have to be careful,” I rushed on, not wanting to hear whatever it was he was going to say in that awful, agonized voice.

“Bella, I am so, so sorry.”

“Don’t be,” I snapped; my voice cracked, and some of the horrible, monstrous anger slipped through. I drew in a deep, shuddering breath and pushed it away – and then I had an idea.

I wasn’t sure it was a good idea. My throat was starting to burn again in a way that was becoming harder and harder to ignore. It was possible that attempting this before I’d fed, again – how often would I have to do that? I was going to depopulate the Alaskan wilderness at this rate – it was possible this was a very bad idea. It still felt necessary, urgent and right. “Just . . hold still. Perfectly still.”

“Why?” Edward asked warily, as I tiptoed across the room, stepping around broken bits of keyboard. I watched my feet, ducking my head so that I couldn’t see his expression and I could tell myself he was just concerned in a general sort of way, and not afraid of me.

“Just do, please,” I asked, my voice very small. He made no further reply, but when his feet came into view inches from my feet, I couldn’t even hear him breathing. He was still as stone, but for his eyes; I forced myself to meet his eyes, and what I saw there made my stomach turn over in a way that had nothing to do with bloodlust.

“Because I can do this,” I whispered.

Oh so slowly, so carefully, I brought my lips to his.

***