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Metamorphosis

Summary:
Metamorphosis title imageShe got what she wanted. My venom flows through her bloodstream, changing her, reshaping her from a human to a vampire. Soon, that transformation will be complete. And I'll be able to keep her forever.I am the most selfish creature that has ever walked this earth. Edward's point of view in "Breaking Dawn", beginning with Book Three. winner banner


Notes:


2. First Hunt

Rating 5/5   Word Count 8028   Review this Chapter

As I lead Bella toward the tall rectangular window on the opposite wall from the door, I can feel her slight resistance in the way she grips my hand, and the confusion rolling off of her stiffened form in waves.

Using my free hand, I lift the enormous pane and shove the gossamer curtains aside while giving my wife a wide smirk. "After you." I gesture towards the swatch of cloudy blue-gray sky with a grandiose sweep of an open palm.

Bella stares at me, blank incomprehension on her pale, heart-shaped face, for a full two seconds – which is quite long for a vampire – but of course, she is new, and still adjusting to the sensory overload.

She leans over the window ledge, fingers tightening just noticeably around mine, and the light breeze stirs her dark hair as she gazes at the ground below.

"The window?" she asks incredulously.

I wait until her rounded eyes leave the rock-strewn expanse of lush emerald grass to peer up at me before speaking. "It's the most convenient exit." My smirk softens in order to reassure her, along with my words. "If you're frightened, I can carry you."

Emmett chuckles under his breath, though his mind is not nearly so quiet – my brother's mirth rings like a chorus of low-pitched church bells in my head.

Bella appears not to notice his unsuppressed burst of laughter; though it would not have registered in her human ears, she is surely able to hear it now – but then again, I have no way of knowing for certain without seeming conspicuous –so I decide not to react, keeping my attention solely on Bella.

She fixes me with a dubious, scarlet-colored stare. "We have all eternity, and you're worried about the time it would take to walk to the back door?"

Her way of phrasing is an endless source of entertainment for me. A little thrill races through my nervous system in response to the realization that I now have until the end of time to collect Bella's every word in my ears, storing each one within my infallible memory.

But despite that, I am reminded of the precarious, razor-sharp edge we are now treading between the wild, uncontrollable tendencies of a newborn and the unmistakable lure of two beating hearts sharing this house with a family of vampires.

A frown darkens my tone as I reply implicatively, "Renesmee and Jacob are downstairs..."

"Oh."

Her eyes flash, illuminated by some unknown inner light; I have come to recognize it as an outward sign of Bella's intuition forming a connection in her head, almost like she is fitting together pieces of a puzzle.

I wish that I could experience it with her just once.

The flash behind her crimson irises dies, and her expression twists slightly with concern. "Is Renesmee...okay...with Jacob there?" Her whisper floats just above the breeze rippling the curtains. "He doesn't like her much."

Like her? That is the understatement of the year, just not in the way that Bella perceives. Jacob does not like Renesmee – he is captivated by her, a willing prisoner to her every whim and desire.

No matter how much I try to push it aside, to keep it from staining this moment with my wife, the dog's irrefutable tie to our daughter seeps back into my thoughts like a continuously sour note in a nocturne.

Perhaps I should tell her now. She has as much right, if not more, as me to know just what type of creature is with –

No. Not yet.

I made a promise. And as much as it pains me, I am a man of my word.

Nevertheless, I flatten my lips to fight against the words that threaten to erupt, remarking instead, "Trust me, she is perfectly safe. I know exactly what Jacob is thinking."

"Of course," Bella says quietly, and her gaze drifts back to the ground, a little crease forming in the middle of her eyebrows.

Hoping to distract her from her obvious apprehension, I challenge with a teasing grin, "Stalling?"

"A little." She raises her hand, tucking a lock of hair behind her ear - and I groan inwardly at having missed an excuse to touch her. "I don't know how..." she trails off, eyes flickering to my face, to the cluster of silent figures behind us, and to her formal attire in a handful of seconds.

I squeeze her hand, and gently slip from her grasp. "Watch me."

Placing my feet on the ledge, I throw her a swift smile over my shoulder, and walk out into thin air.
Like a million times before, the landing is smooth and incredibly easy, just like taking another step on a flat surface rather than jumping out of a two-story window.

Bella's silhouette is visible above me, lingering beside the window frame as though she needs the stability to maintain her balance. She inhales one quick breath, and imitates my fall with perfection.

Except that hers is infinitely more beautiful.

Like a graceful autumn leaf drifting to the earth, her hair and dress swirling around her sinuously like currents of water, Bella floats down to the grass beside me effortlessly. Grinning like an eager child, she declares with confidence, "Right. Easy."

I smile back; I cannot resist the joy behind her expression. And, I know exactly how much what I am about to say will please her. "Bella?"

Her face, tilted up to the window in wonderment, turns toward me in response. "Yes?"

"That was quite graceful - even for a vampire."

It is as if the sun itself shines out from her delighted expression. The description of ‘graceful' is never a term Bella, or most anyone else for that matter, would use in reference to any action she performs.
But what my family and I have just witnessed is nothing short of a prima ballerina executing a flawless leap in the final pas de deux of Romeo and Juliet.
And if that ballerina had been watching, she would have burned with jealousy.

"Thank you," Bella exclaims with profuse gratitude.

She removes the silver stilettos that Alice had insisted she wear – "They're the only pair that matches the dress, and they're from Chanel, Edward! Do you know how many women would kill to have these shoes?" – and flings them one by one through the open window.

My sister snatches the left shoe in mid-air, just before the five-inch heel burrows into the wood paneling, and snags the right shoe from Jasper's hand. "Her fashion sense hasn't improved as much as her balance," Alice grumbles with disappointment. But I have plenty of time to convert her to my way of thinking, she adds mentally. She'll come around.

Which I sincerely hope is a very long time from now, if ever.

I reach for Bella's hand. Though her skin is the same temperature as mine, our point of contact still sears through me like tongues of white-hot flames, licking at my nerve endings.

Concentrate, Edward, Jasper cautions inside my head, along with my own common sense. Heeding this advice, I push those electric feelings aside – for the moment – and dart towards the river, Bella following my guidance with ease.

We pause on the riverbank, the water sparkling with shimmering, muted tones of jade and topaz under the slate-colored blanket of clouds. Bella, oblivious to the rugged splendor of our surroundings, inquires with bright, excited eyes, "Are we swimming?"

The fleeting image of a dripping wet, dark-haired goddess clad in water-stained satin fills my vision. While I am barely contemplating that intriguing concept, Alice screeches inside my skull, Edward, don't you dare! That dress is one of a kind!

Because she is my sister – the only true and empathetic friend I have ever known before I met Bella – I will honor her rather forceful request. But I swear this is the last time I make concessions for Alice's obsession with my wife's attire.

I glance sideways at Bella, offering her a casual half-smile. "And ruin your pretty dress? No." Alice conveys her gratitude excessively with her thoughts; I tune her out after the twentieth repetition of the words ‘thank you'.

"We're jumping," I finish explaining, watching Bella's face for clues into the hidden workings of her mind.

She purses her lips – a habit that I find extremely distracting – and studies the width of the river with wary eyes. "You first," she says, lightly pulling her hand from mine.

My fingertips stretch out to brush along her cheekbone, and I force myself to withdraw as a flash of heat sizzles through my being. I stride backwards two paces, sensing Bella's intent gaze on me the entire time as I dash forward and spring across the rushing water, the wind singing in my ears. At the last second, I roll my body into a fluid somersault, landing easily amidst the densely packed foliage on the opposite shore.

"Show-off," Bella mutters under her breath, and a low chuckle escapes from my lips. Through the shards of dim light between the deep green leaves, I watch as she retreats from the water's edge, giving herself far more space than is necessary to make such a simple jump, and takes in a deep breath.

One slender leg arcs forward to begin her first stride, when the sudden noise of fabric tearing causes her to freeze, glancing down at her dress in horror. A long triangle of smooth white skin glistens upon her thigh, and my opinion of Bella's clothing increases dramatically.

Alice groans mentally in dismay while Bella rips the pale blue satin on her other leg, freeing herself from the tight hem. Gritting her teeth, my sister complains bitterly with her thoughts as a cacophony of laughter drifts from the house.

I recognize the dog's throaty, barking chortle echoing beneath the bell-like peals of our family's glee; his mind rises briefly to the forefront of my perception.

She's still Bella. I guess the bloodsucker was right, after all.

Rolling my eyes towards the heavy clouds, I shake my head with irritation. Jacob is definitely not the brightest dog in the pack.
I banish his thoughts from my mind instantly, threading quickly through the underbrush, back to the river. "Bella?" I call as I continue forward, "Do you want to watch again?"

She inhales once, and then her feet are bounding across the ground, carrying her into the air like a bird in flight. Stunned surprise ripples through me as she soars by, looking as ethereal as a ghost in the shadowy woods, and I run after her, following the wake of her delighted giggles.

Scanning the nearby trees, I spot Bella's elated, beaming face atop a spruce's wide branch, her bare feet balanced perfectly on the rough bark. As I come to a halt next to the tree trunk, she dives with elegant precision, arriving nimbly at my side with the barest thump. "Was that good?" she questions, breathing rapidly with excitement while her eyes glitter like polished rubies.

"Very good," I answer at once, but my voice seems a little off – saturated with the deep surprise that ambushed me during Bella's first true foray into the physical capabilities of a vampire. I am not certain why it is so astonishing to me - it is not as though I have never seen the unbelievable feats of a newborn, powered by their sheer strength.

No, I think it is because this particular newborn is my Bella. Bella, who never saw herself as anything other than ordinary – just another face in the crowd – has once again managed to overwhelm a one hundred and ten-year old vampire simply by being herself.

How I ever saw this amazing, exquisite creature as an insignificant little girl is utterly beyond me.

"Can we do it again?" Her voice interrupts my dazed musings, practically trembling with childlike enthusiasm as she leans forward, ready to dash headlong into the forest.

I smother the amused grin that threatens to spread across my face, repeating silently to myself that I am the more mature vampire and I need to keep Bella's concentration fixed on the task at hand.

"Focus, Bella –" I gaze at her from the corner of my eye. She is staring earnestly back towards the river, and my muscles coil reflexively, preparing to catch her should she choose to run "– we're on a hunting trip."

She blinks, and straightens almost instantaneously, throwing me an apologetic wince. "Oh, right." Her head bobs once in agreement. "Hunting."

I cannot bear the crush the waning embers of anticipation lighting up the depths of her eyes, so I take one large, measured step away from her, angling my body towards the deeper shadows of the ancient trees. Grinning at her with the thrill of competition buzzing like an electric current in my brain, I taunt playfully, "Follow me...if you can." And I virtually disappear into a swift sprint, my euphoria urging my legs to pump faster as I detect Bella's footsteps gaining ground behind me.

Her wind chime laughter is intoxicating, along with her unique rain-soaked freesia-and-floral scent, and she runs at my side, her fragrant brown tresses billowing like the tail of a comet.

I purposefully shorten my stride, allowing Bella to seize the lead. She has never been very good at physical activities; she deserves to know that she can now outdistance any Olympic athlete with no difficulty whatsoever.

And besides, I have a much better view from the rear.

Despite my numerous decades of reading, studying various subjects of literature and art, I am unable to find a suitable allusion by which to compare Bella's beauty and gracefulness. Everything good and pure about human Bella has been translated seamlessly into her vampire incarnation: the expressive face, the flash of intuition in her eyes, her quick wit and caring nature – even her smell. All these things and so much more have combined to create the immortal angel racing giddily ahead of me.

And she is mine.

The surge of desire accompanying that revelation causes me to briefly lose my equilibrium, and I slow even further, the roar of the wind in my ears dulling to a soft hum.

Get a hold of yourself, Edward, I chastise internally, and test the air swirling among the foliage as it filters through my widened nostrils. Recognizing where we are – and just how many miles we have already traveled – I call out dryly, "Bella," and lean against the nearest silver fir.

A full second passes, and then another. Before I can launch myself after her trail, she skips over to my side, face glowing expectantly. I smile, raising an eyebrow. "Did you want to stay in the country? Or were you planning to continue on to Canada this afternoon?"

"This is fine," she responds with casual nonchalance. Her eyes grow warm as her attention flits across my face, lingering momentarily on my mouth... and more than ever, I want to surrender to the tidal wave of yearning that pulls inexorably on my consciousness, narrowing my focus until all that I am aware of is Bella. Bella – my wife, my soul mate – who is no longer breakable... and still smells so mouthwateringly divine...

"What are we hunting?" Her question sends a jolt of reason through my fogged brain, and the burn in my throat flares at the thought of fresh, hot blood.

"Elk," I answer her quietly. "I thought something easy for your first time..." Bella's thickly lashed eyes narrow at the word ‘easy', and my explanation fades into silence.

She swallows in discomfort, her features distorting slightly from the ache of her thirst, and her stare begins to dart around the small clearing. "Where?" she demands impatiently, the muscles in her limbs stretched taut like piano wires.

"Hold still for a minute," I soothe, and lay my hands gently upon her tense shoulders. Little fizzles of energy dance up my fingers at the sensation of her skin on mine – and judging by the abrupt absence of sound, we both stopped breathing as a result of this one innocent touch.

"Now close your eyes." The tone of my voice is low, husky. Does she notice? I shake myself mentally from the tightening vise grip of lust. I have to stay focused, or the two of us are in serious danger of forgetting all about our hunting trip and moving on to...other activities.

Bella obeys my murmured request, her lavender eyelids glistening faintly in the muted light.
Because I cannot resist any longer, and to appease the growing hunger that has nothing to do with blood snarling in the pit of my stomach, my palms reach out to lightly frame her face.
While my thumbs caress her cheeks, stroking back and forth, her breath quickens – and I beat back the swell of emotion by employing the rigid self-control I had developed all throughout our relationship.

Focus. Concentrate. You are her teacher now, not her husband. Don't let her suffer from the thirst any more.

With this silent mantra repeating endlessly in my head, I instruct her softly, "Listen. What do you hear?"

She frowns, pressing her full lips together into a firm line. After a handful of seconds, her jaw tenses underneath my hands, and I know that she has heard them even as she asks with her eyes still closed, "By the creek, to the northeast?"

A slight, approving smile curves my lips. "Yes. Now...wait for the breeze again and..." The cool wind ruffles the hair tickling my forehead and stirs the leaves of the forest canopy. "What do you smell?"

She takes in a deep, slow breath through her nose; I can see the deliberation on her lovely features as she tastes the air with her enhanced senses, analyzing the various scents being carried by the wind.

Bella's adorable nose wrinkles suddenly. I chuckle warmly at her expression. "I know – it takes some getting used to." Animal blood sates our thirst, but it does not appeal nearly as much as human. The small herd of elk that we have chosen as our prey are quick, easy meals – ‘vampire fast food', as Emmett is so fond of saying. But while fast food for a human is sometimes compared to one of the seven deadly sins, a vampire would equate our version to a child being forced to eat a serving of vegetables before leaving the dinner table.

Bella's dark brows arch over her lowered eyelids. "Three?" she guesses hopefully.

"Five," I clarify, after recovering from the distraction of her exhale fanning lightly across my face. "There are two more in the trees behind them."

Her face puckers with uncertainty. "What do I do now?"

"What do you feel like doing?" I counter, grinning broadly.

Her chest rises and falls with another deep breath. The white satiny skin on her throat and bare arms starts to shift, the muscles underneath constricting as her body reacts to the instincts vying for control over her mind. And then the pale eyelids snap open, revealing Bella's intense, fire-colored eyes.

"Don't think about it." Though a dull ache blooms in my chest, I let my palms slip from her face and back away, giving her some room to move. She will hunt, and I will watch – looking after her just like I always have – then, I would see to my own stinging thirst.
I offer one last suggestion, murmuring solemnly, "Just follow your instincts."

The lingering traces of insecurity vanish from Bella's eyes, masked by a predatory, calculating gleam that I have seen countless times on the well-known faces of my siblings. She heads northeast, as silent and swift as a wraith, and I trail after her, shadowing her every step.

Pausing amid the low-lying ferns at the edge of the clearing, her lithe white body shifts into a crouch; she moves sinuously, like a lioness on the prowl, completely focused on her intended prey. She rises barely a millimeter on the balls of her feet, coiling to spring – when a gust of air from the south slams into us both.

It takes me only a fraction of a second to recognize the scent carried by the wind. The burning sensation in my throat intensifies, like pouring gasoline on an already blazing inferno, and a rush of venom pools on my tongue. A surge of desire races through me, screaming at me to follow that delicious smell to its source, but it is quickly squelched by an icy wave of horror.

Bella alters her course in mid-leap, wheeling towards the south – compelled by the irresistible pull of fresh human blood. She hurls herself into the forest, leaving a blurred line of muted color in her wake.

Calling myself every foul name I can think of in a variety of languages, I hurry after her, preparing for any number of contingencies. I do not doubt in the slightest that I can catch her – I am the fastest in our family, after all. The problem is that I have no idea how she will react to my pursuit. Her instincts seem to be ruling her consciousness at the moment, but that is only an educated guess.

And there is no way that I can detain a newborn on my own...

Her head turns just a bit. One wild, glowing red eye peers at me from within undulating strands of dark hair, and her pace slows.

Which is the reaction I have been hoping for.

I lengthen my stride, flying across tangled roots and thick clusters of underbrush. Soon, there is less than three feet of space between us.

She spins around, teeth bared, and snarls. The sound is feral, devoid of any rationale – and so unbelievable as it issues from my wife's lips that I freeze for a half-second in shock. A shock that increases briefly as I watch the ferocity in Bella's scarlet orbs dim, chased away by a flicker of surprise.

A soft breeze rustles through the leaves overhead; thankfully, the direction is eastward, and is saturated with nothing more than the rich scent of wet earth and the fragrance of an approaching rainstorm.

The snarl is still twisting Bella's perfect mouth, her body tensed defensively. I remain motionless, my arms raised and slightly stretched forward – ready to restrain her, as much as I am able.

Her fierce expression melts, and her spine straightens almost forcefully, lifting her body out of the low crouch. There is a hint of frightened dismay on her face, and she blinks once, staring at me with wide eyes. I take one slow step towards her and lower my arms. I can tell that she is not breathing.

In that instant, I am not sure which of us is more surprised. She seems to have shocked herself by turning on me instinctually, defending her hunt – and I am stunned by the possibility that she somehow understands what is happening to her, why she was drawn to the scent from the south, and is holding her breath to keep from being tempted to follow.

"I have to get away from here," she growls through her teeth, small hands clenched into tight fists at her sides.

Disbelieving, I feel my jaw drop at her words and the intense look of determination settling into the hard lines of her expression. "Can you leave?" I manage to force out through my frozen lips.

She hesitates for another second, an unspoken question in her gaze – and yet again, one of the constants in my existence pushes its way to the forefront of my mind: what is she thinking?

Bella snaps me out of my internal brooding as she rushes past me in a flat-out sprint, heading due north, almost like she is fleeing from the scent of the humans that are most definitely in the wrong place at the wrong time.

I take off after her, keeping her slim form within jumping distance while still giving her space to regain control. Stern admonishments, directed solely at myself, stream continuously through my head. I should have checked the area first before turning Bella loose on a hunt. If she had killed one of those unfortunate people, I and the other members of our family would have forgiven her, chalking it up to the untamed thirst of a newborn vampire. But Bella... she would never forgive herself for stealing another's life, regardless of whether or not the circumstance was beyond her control.

Suddenly, she stops, as motionless as a marble garden statue. In my surprise, I race by; before the wind of my passage has barely stirred the dry leaves on the forest floor I have turned around, skidding to a halt right in front of my wife.

Placing my hands on her shoulders, I gaze unblinking into her bright red eyes. "How did you do that?" I demand, still awash in utter astonishment.

Bella retorts with a question of her own – one that has absolutely nothing to do with the present situation. "You let me beat you before, didn't you?"

I shrug noncommittally, shaking my head. The indignant scowl painting her lovely features in positively adorable – the little kitten who thinks she is a tiger has finally become one – but I refuse to be distracted. So I ask again, "Bella, how did you do it?"

She looks up at me blankly. "Run away? I held my breath."

A trickle of irritation leaks into my brain along with the shock. I swear, one of the main goals of her entire existence must be to find out if she can drive me insane. "But how did you stop hunting?" I spell it out for her, watching her eyes for clues into her mysterious thought processes.

The uncomprehending expression on her face crumples with shame, and her eyes grow wide, pleading. "When you came up behind me...I'm sorry about that."

Every remark that I had been planning to deliver evaporates in that instant, drowned out by the overwhelming need to comfort and reassure her, to make it very plain that none of this is her fault.

I move closer, lightly squeezing her deceptively fragile-looking shoulders, and murmur softly, "Why are you apologizing to me? I'm the one who was horribly careless." I shake my head once, appalled by my own lack of prudence. So much for being the more mature vampire. "I assumed no one would be so far from the trails, but I should have checked first. Such a stupid mistake!" Softening my gaze, I enunciate my next words carefully, hoping that she will take them to heart. "You have nothing to apologize for."

Bella's face is a pale mask of distress. "But I growled at you!" she exclaims, as if that excuses any need for me to apologize for nearly putting her in harm's way – not physically, of course, but emotionally.

A tiny smile quirks one corner of my mouth. Always the martyr, my Bella. "Of course you did," I reassure her gently. "That's only natural. But I can't understand how you ran away." My forehead creases in response to my puzzlement. I know what should have happened: once Bella had picked up the trail, she would have gone after the hikers with single-minded ferocity, and I would have had to restrain her until Emmett or one of the others showed up to help. Alice would surely have seen...

But then, why didn't she try to call me?

Unless...there really was no danger...

"What else could I do?" Bella asks incredulously, her eyes wild with dismay. "It might have been someone I know!"

I had once thought, during my ninety-odd years of existence as a vampire, that the feeling of surprise could no longer touch me. Then this small, beautiful, witty and unpredictable girl had appeared in my world – and surprise became a permanent fixture in my daily routine.

But even then, I considered myself fairly apt at guessing how Bella would react to certain situations, just by my constant observation of her behavior and the ever-changing expressions on her face.

Clearly, that is not the case.

My chest rumbles, and I throw my head back to release a spasm of riotous laughter that echoes among the towering trees. If I should live for a thousand years, I will never grow tired of Bella. She is my sun, forever holding me in orbit around her life-giving light. How foolish I am to think that I could ever predict this force of nature contained within the slender body of the woman before me.

What I should have been able to predict is that Bella is anything but normal. Even for a vampire.

"Why are you laughing at me?"

The livid exclamation vibrates through the rough bark of the nearest fir, and my laughter dies immediately. Bella has jerked herself away from my grasp, and glares at me with fists clenched. I watch her warily, even inhaling with slow caution; she seems to recognize the volatility of her emotions and deliberately relaxes her hands, her chest heaving in a deep breath.

I sidle towards her, battling against the urge to smooth a fingertip over her brow in an effort to calm her – I do not know how such an action will be received – and attempt to explain in a quiet voice, "I'm not laughing at you, Bella. I'm laughing because I am in shock. And I am in shock because I am completely amazed." The ghost of a grin flits across my face as I slowly touch her arm, just below the shoulder.

She leans into my caress automatically, her attention locked on my face even as she moves closer, reducing the distance between our bodies. "Why?" she questions, confused.

My hand lightly cups her upper arm, seemingly of its own accord, while I reply with mild amazement, "You shouldn't be able to do any of this. You shouldn't be so...so rational. You shouldn't be able to stand here discussing this with me so calmly and coolly. And, much more than any of that, you should not have been able to break off mid-hunt with the scent of human blood in the air. Even mature vampires have difficulty with that – we're always very careful of where we hunt so as not to put ourselves in the path of temptation."
I exhale once - a brief rush of air - and stare at Bella wonderingly. "Bella, you're behaving like you're decades rather than days old."

"Oh." She meets my eyes after a moment, the faint shadow of a thoughtful frown marring her forehead, tilting her head slightly to one side.

I frame her face between my palms, feeling a bit lightheaded as her breath wafts into my parted lips, the sweet taste igniting an explosion through every nerve in my body. I murmur longingly, "What I wouldn't give to be able to see into your mind for just this one moment."

She raises her hand; soft fingers trace the lines of my face, brushing along my skin as softly as a moth's wing. I suppress a shudder as she runs a fingertip over my lower lip, her gaze burning into mine.

"I thought I wouldn't feel this way for a long time?" Bella speaks uncertainly, halting. I can scarcely concentrate on her words while her fingers are still touching my mouth, lost in the feel of her caress and the magnetic pull of her body towards mine. Her eyelids lower halfway, looking unintentionally seductive even as she finishes her previous statement with quiet honesty, "But I still want you."

I snap out of the pleasurable stupor that her ministrations lulled me into, and blink at her in shock. "How can you even concentrate on that? Aren't you unbearably thirsty?"

She grimaces, removing her hand from my face, and tries to swallow. The muscles of her throat contract; she winces minutely, and sighs, letting her eyes drift closed. Recognizing that she is trying to focus outward with her senses to locate another suitable quarry, I drop my hands and hold my breath, not wishing to sidetrack her from hunting any more than I already am, apparently.

Bella's eyes flash open, and she pirouettes gracefully to dash eastward. I can pick out several scents that would lead us to possible prey – and, mercifully, none of them are human. So I hang behind her a short distance as we climb a steep slope decorated with sparse groupings of fir trees, marveling at the sheer perfection of her every movement while monitoring the flavors carried by the shifting breeze.

Suddenly, she clambers up the trunk of a silver fir – and I hear the soft thudding of large paws, the rhythmic throbbing of a strong heart. I wait below, pursing my lips in an amused smirk. It is fitting, I suppose, that Bella would stalk my favorite prey for her first hunt. I do not think she even made a conscious choice to go after the lion.

Lifting my chin, I glimpse her motionless silhouette perched above the big cat's position in the boughs, waiting for the right moment to strike. As he prepares to spring upon his own unsuspecting victim, Bella flies through the air and lands directly behind him, causing the branch to quiver.

The lion whirls, exposing his teeth while letting out a piercing roar, and swipes at her with curved black claws. I tense, eyes locked on the wild animal threatening my Bella, and put my weight on my haunches as I judge the distance I would need to leap to place myself between them –

And my common sense catches up with me just as Bella, holding the squirming, enraged lion in her steel-like grip, crashes to the ground on my immediate right. A twinge of worry gnaws at my awareness as I watch her wrestle with the shrieking cat, his claws ripping long gashes in her blue dress while her white skin remains untouched, flawless.

Bella growls involuntarily, pinning the lion to the forest floor, and sinks her teeth into his neck.
She begins drinking quickly; the lion's struggles grow feebler, and his mindless howling fades into a choking gurgle. He dies soon after – a limp, furred carcass –and Bella pulls away, standing upright in one fluid motion. Scrutinizing her with an observant stare, the desire that I had felt earlier flares white-hot in the pit of my stomach as I take in her disheveled appearance.

Her dark brown tresses are a tangled riot around her face and shoulders; she wipes the back of an arm across her face, smearing away a droplet of blood from the corner of her mouth. The ice blue satin dress is in tatters. One strap stayed intact, but the other hangs in ragged shreds, and leaves a sizeable portion of Bella's décolleté exposed to the late afternoon light. Long stripes of silken flesh are visible on her torso and rib cage; the soft curve of her hip and upper thigh peeks out on one side, and the uneven hem rides high on her left leg, leaving little to the imagination – and I have a photographic memory.

She smoothes her palms over the ruined fabric, glancing down at herself with a rueful expression, and tries to adjust the top half of the dress to cover her chest.

"Hmm." The thoughtful noise slips out as I lounge against a tree trunk, arms crossed casually.

Bella looks up at me. Her cheeks are faintly flushed, and a rosy tint colors her full lips. "I guess I could have done that better," she admits, shrugging helplessly.

"You did perfectly fine," I assure her with a small smile. "It's just that...it was much more difficult for me to watch than it should have been."

Her brows arch in confusion. I gesture absentmindedly with one hand while I explain, "It goes against the grain, letting you wrestle with lions." I have spent the last three years safeguarding this precious woman's life. Now that she is like me, it seems that my protection is no longer required.

But that does not mean that I will stop trying.

"I was having an anxiety attack the whole time," I conclude, my smile tilting into a lopsided smirk.

She returns my smirk, a teasing glint in her crimson eyes as she shakes her head at me, chiding, "Silly."

"I know. Old habits die hard." My gaze rakes over her scantily clothed body, absorbing each intricate detail, and raise an eyebrow. "I like the improvements to your dress, though."

Bella ducks her head bashfully, lowering her eyes. If she were still capable, I am certain that her entire face would be flushed a deep red with embarrassment.
I wait for the stinging prick of guilt to puncture my silent heart, mourning the loss of her humanity – but it does not come. Instead, my joy at having Bella as a permanent fixture in my world lightens any dark feelings, dulling the self-loathing over my selfishness to a weak ache.

"Why am I still thirsty?" She changes the subject, rescuing me from wallowing in my shadowed thoughts as only she can.

I ensure that my facial expression is once again relaxed and open, and reply simply, "Because you're young." Even I have trouble sometimes with controlling my thirst between hunting trips. Two weeks at most is usually the limit of my self-discipline – in normal conditions. While Bella was pregnant, I did not leave her side for nearly a month, even for the most basic of needs. I knew that it had hurt her to see me suffering...but to depart from her for even one hour would have killed me.

That is all behind us now.

She sighs heavily, pushing out her lower lip in a pout. "And I don't suppose there are any other mountain lions nearby."

Making a mental note to schedule a cross-country hunting expedition for mountain lions in the near future, I lift one shoulder, commenting idly, "Plenty of deer, though."

Her expressive face shapes into the most adorable scowl I have ever seen. "They don't smell as good," she complains, sounding like a sulking child.

"Herbivores." Boring targets, I will admit – and not that appetizing either. "The meat-eaters smell more like humans," I explain quietly.

A peculiar look briefly covers her face, almost like she is...afraid. "Not that much like humans," she disagrees in a low voice, no doubt remembering the smell of the hikers that she went after and the impulses they triggered in her new body.

That fear has no place on my Bella's lovely features. Contemplating a means to erase it, I decide to tease her – a lighthearted attempt to redirect her thinking. "We could go back," I propose solemnly, straightening from my position against the tree trunk. She blinks at me, shocked, and then seems to notice the humor deep within my gaze. "Whoever it was out there, if they were men, they probably wouldn't even mind death if you were the one delivering it." My eyes run over her entire form; she really is quite ravishing, in a macabre way. "In fact, they would think they were already dead and gone to heaven the moment they saw you." Not that I would share this particular image of my wife with anyone. I give her a toothy leer, to which she responds with a snort.

Rolling her eyes, Bella starts trotting off to the southwest, grumbling under her breath, "Let's go hunt some stinking herbivores."

We begin the journey back home, tracking a herd of mule deer along the way. Since I am convinced that Bella is fairly confident in her own hunting skills, I dash from her side and we flank the herd as they try to flee. She tackles a large buck; the pair of them fall into the muddy edges of a creek bed. Chuckling softly, I bring down and drain a younger male, as well as a sizeable doe that happened to leap too close.

I lay the doe's carcass aside and glance sideways. Bella is just finishing with her buck. I press my lips tightly together, stifling a guffaw. Her torn, bloodied, poor excuse for a dress is now embellished with splotches of red-brown mud, and drying streaks of dirt are visible along her right cheekbone, both forearms, and legs.

The deer have gained a short distance from us; I nod my head in that direction, questioning Bella with my eyes. She races to my side, and we take off after the herd in tandem. My thirst still rages, unchecked and scalding in the back of my throat, so I jump onto the glossy back of another doe, the force of my landing severing her spinal column.

After slaking my thirst, the doe's blood warming all the way to my fingertips, I become aware that I am being watched. Straightening, I turn to look at Bella, curiosity awakening inside me as I measure her expression.
It is a glowing combination of pride, satisfaction, and a desire so apparent that a very different kind of hunger ties all of my internal organs into complicated knots.

But her needs come first, so I ask in a mild tone that belies my convoluted emotions, "No longer thirsty?"

She shrugs, tugging her remaining dress strap back onto the top of her shoulder. My gaze follows her every motion with sharp precision. "You distracted me," she answers, eyeing my spotless garments enviously. "You're much better at it than I am."

I shove my hands in my pockets, ambling over to her. "Centuries of practice," I declare as I come to a stop in front of her, and smile crookedly.

"Just one."

I laugh at her correction. In fact, I have not laughed so much in one afternoon for quite some time. Bella's presence makes all the difference – she is my midnight sun, setting the black void ablaze with golden light and warmth and love. I sweep her tangled, leaf-strewn hair aside, brushing my fingers over her collarbone. "Are you done for today? Or did you want to continue?"

"Done, I think." She lays her free hand on her stomach, palm down, as humans sometimes do when they have had an abundance of food. The smoldering glow of her red irises has dimmed a bit, but it will still be a while before the ghoulish quality completely fades.
Her eye color does not bother me in the slightest, though it seems to unsettle her a great deal. What matters to me are the thoughts, the feelings, that I catch glimpses of behind those ruby-colored orbs. That is what makes up the real Bella. Everything else is superfluous.

Her palm slides downward, pausing over her lower abdomen, and a look of fierce resolve crosses her face. "I want to see Renesmee," she says firmly.

I reach for her hand, knitting our fingers together. The heat of consumed blood is nothing compared to the flames now shooting up my arm from the sensation. My cautious optimism, brought on by witnessing firsthand that Bella is unlike any other newborn vampire, has increased dramatically. She wants so desperately to see our daughter, to ensure that she is indeed real and alive and safe, and I want to give her that.

The others will be uneasy – and I can just imagine how annoying Jacob will behave – but, as I had told my father yesterday, this is our decision.

Soft, timid fingers brush a feather-light caress along my temple, following the line of my jaw, and effectively banish all conscious thought from my mind. I am vaguely aware of Bella disentangling her other hand from mine, and another set of fingertips delicately stroke the faint shadows beneath my eyes.

I stare at her, unblinking, silently willing her to meet my eyes as she watches the progress of her fingers across my skin, enlivening my entire being to her touch. She lightly traces the outline of my lips, and my breath catches. Her gaze flickers upward - and whatever she sees burning within my expression prompts her to move closer, pressing the slender curves of her body into mine.

I force myself to remain motionless while Bella appears to be testing herself, constantly aware that she is stronger than me and capable of inflicting pain. After an infinitesimal handful of seconds, she rises on her tiptoes, breath quickening, and twines her arms around my neck. Our lips are scant inches apart, and the tip of her nose grazes across my skin.

I lose my failing grip on sanity.

Enveloping her supple figure in my arms, I crush Bella into my chest and cover her mouth with my own feverishly. The first taste of her is like a bolt of lightning piercing through my skull, electrifying my brain and setting every cell in my body on fire. And like an addictive drug, I am instantly craving more.

Her tongue presses against my lower lip; I immediately respond, granting her access, and I feel her fingers twist into my hair, urging me closer. If I could, I would disappear inside her – sink deep into the core of her being and never surface.

The sound of our ragged breathing fills the whole forest, resonating among the trees. One of my hands abandons her waist to cup her face, and I feel dizzy, the world spinning out of control, as she runs her palms over the muscles of my chest. The friction of our kiss carries all the explosive force of an atomic bomb; I have never lost myself so completely – forsaking carefulness and fear – until nothing else exists but pure sensation.

Before I can even understand what is happening, the air is whistling in my eardrums, and I am flat on my back among the fringed ferns. Bella's eyes flash open, wide with alarm, and I start laughing, exuberant, our connected mouths trembling with the force of my mirth.

She withdraws a little, hovering over me with a worried expression. "Oops," she breathes, and I laugh harder. "I didn't mean to tackle you like that. Are you okay?"

I calm down, a smile curving my mouth, and stroke her cheek with the backs of my fingers. "Slightly better than okay." The confession is soft, husky, and fraught with the yearning for more. An abrupt, rational notion occurs to me; my expression rumples, showcasing the puzzlement I am experiencing as I struggle to figure out what Bella wants most at this particular point in time.

From my place beneath her, staring up into her twinkling eyes, her hair falling in a fragrant curtain around us, I would prefer not to go anywhere for several hours.

She comes first, I remind my selfish nature sternly. Always.

Bearing that in mind, I question her tentatively, "Renesmee?"

She ponders our options for a few moments, resting her weight against me. Ignoring other, more... aggressive impulses, I wrap my arms around her tenderly, rubbing small circles on her back with my hands while she thinks.

Finally, she pushes herself up on her elbows and sighs, gazing at me with a rueful smile. "Renesmee," she consents, and climbs to her feet, pulling me with her. I take her hand, and we fly through the forest as easily as the birds soaring in the treetops above us.