Text Size Large SizeMedium SizeSmall Size    Color Scheme Black SchemeWhite SchemeGrey SchemePaper Scheme        

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:


22. The Happily Ever After II

Rating 5/5   Word Count 11606   Review this Chapter

The elegant, natural beauty of a forest in winter captures our interest as we travel at a relaxed pace, the red-brown wolf loping alongside us. I know that the others are probably starting to wonder what is keeping us, but Alice will surely have seen that we have taken a more scenic route and assure everyone that we will be there in due time.

Of course, once we arrive on the porch steps, the collective curiosity saturating the minds of those inside has grown to immense proportions.

The front door is thrown wide open and Emmett appears, saying as a greeting, "You took your sweet time getting here." He scowls alternately at Bella and myself, ready to yank us all into the house if we linger outside any longer.

I give him a noncommittal shrug as Jacob trots across the yard – back in human form – and shoulders his way past Emmett, wondering if there is anything to eat in the kitchen.

Alice is waiting for us on the staircase, an apologetic smile shaping her lips as she watches us file across the threshold, Emmett slamming the door shut in our wake. "I tried holding him off for as long as possible," she remarks wryly, "but you had to drag your feet." Em was just about to go looking for you. She folds her arms over her chest and frowns in mock-disapproval, though her bright gold eyes are sparkling with delight.

Without loosening my hold on Bella, I dash forward and tuck my favorite sister under my arm, murmuring warmly, "Thanks, Alice."

"Emmett's been driving us all crazy," Jasper speaks up from the front room. I steer our little group around the piano and spot him seated next to Esme on the sofa near the window wall. "The extent of his patience is the equivalent of a five year-old's."

He smirks at our brother, who visibly grinds his teeth but does not reply – at least not so anyone except me can hear. Apparently, Jasper won the race, but not before upping the ante to appeal to Emmett's competitive nature. He is a master strategist when it comes to games of chance, and Emmett has a weakness for sucker bets.

Attempting to ignore Jasper's rather smug expression, Emmett heads over to the recliner in front of the television and deftly spins it around to face the center of the room. Then he deposits his considerable bulk on the cushion, waving a meaty hand dismissively as he says, "Never mind that. Let's get on with what I know we've all been waiting for." He glares around the room as though daring someone to contradict him.

Esme watches him fondly, her whole being exuding profound contentment and joy at her family being together once again, while Jasper stretches his long legs out in front of him as a show of getting comfortable.

From the alcove beside the dining room, Rosalie glides into the massive area and makes a beeline for her husband, perching herself on the closest armrest and leaning against his sturdy frame. And in the farthest corner beside the fireplace, Carlisle and Huilen are engaged in deep conversation, seeming oblivious to anything else happening around them.

Only Nahuel, who is sitting beside his aunt, takes notice of our entrance, his teak-colored eyes zeroing in on Bella like she is a magnet.

"Well?" Emmett's annoyed voice draws my attention away from the young man. "Lay it on us."

Although I know perfectly well what he is referring to, I cannot help but to tease him a little. Raising my eyebrows in innocent confusion, I ask, "Pardon?"

You... While he proceeds to rant by using a bizarre mixture of insults in his head, he tosses his hands up in the air and exclaims, "The inside story! Come on, Edward, you're killing me! Tell us what you heard in those bastard's heads." His lips stretch over his gleaming white teeth in a ferocious grin. "You know you want to," he goads.

I sigh loudly in mock-resignation, though I cannot quite hide the faint smile on my face, and shepherd Bella, Renesmee, and Alice towards the sofa.

My sister wedges herself between Jasper and I, my arm still draped over her shoulders – and Bella curves willingly into the side of my body, our daughter cradled in her lap, her tiny hands fisted around her mother's shirt like she has no intention of ever letting go.

Emmett all but rubs his hands together in anticipation, his eyes glowing with keen interest. "So?" he prompts me impatiently.

I take another second or two to compile everything that I had heard during the confrontation, and then begin to relay the buried motivations behind the Volturi's plans. "As I said when they arrived, Aro and Caius had a many-layered strategy in place to dismember our coven and acquire those of us they wanted for their guard." My gaze flits sideways to Alice, who nods once in solemn agreement. "But what they weren't prepared for," I go on in a more animated tone, "was an organized defense on our side – not to mention the number and variety of allies we had managed to amass to support us."

Glancing from my sister to Bella, I silently amend my statement, acknowledging that neither my family nor the Volturi had been expecting that the day's outcome would hinge on the ability of one newborn vampire.

Bella holds my eyes with her own, their mysterious amber depths intoxicating me as I explain quietly, "So I was a combination of things there at the end, but what it really boiled down to was...Bella." Even I can detect the awe in my voice, and she lowers her eyelids, the lashes creating delicate ebony shadows on her pale skin.

Unable to curb the impulse, I lean over and kiss her forehead, wordlessly apologizing for putting more unwanted attention upon her.

Afterward, I straighten up and gently squeeze the spirited little imp on my opposite side. "Alice gave Aro the excuse he needed to get out of the fight," I tell everyone with a lopsided grin.

Hold your applause, she jokes playfully. It is insane how much I have missed her these last few weeks.

"If he hadn't been so terrified of Bella," I remark, coming back to the discussion, "he probably would have gone ahead with their original plan."

Bella angles her body slightly to look at me, the dubious expression on her face one I have seen many times – always when I try to convey to her how amazingly, exceedingly special she is. "Terrified?" she says, disbelieving. "Of me?"

I study her for a moment, tracing the lovely, familiar lines of her features with eyes that can now see even further beyond what I have already discovered about this remarkable woman. She is half of all that I am – the embodiment of everything good and pure and worthwhile in my whole existence – and she has no idea that the world was changed today, in part by her hand, just as she changed me with one word from her warm, supple lips.

I let out a soft breath, my adoration of her mingling with wonder and a hint of frustration, and I murmur tenderly, "When will you ever see yourself clearly?"

Raising my voice to include the others, I succeed in extracting myself from the pull of Bella's wide eyes and glance around, resuming my tale. "The Volturi haven't fought a fair fight in about twenty-five hundred years. And they're never, never fought one where they were at a disadvantage. Especially since they gained Jane and Alec, they've only been involved with unopposed slaughterings." Which is what they had intended for us, until Aro realized that he and his brothers had seriously underestimated our family.

Jacob wanders into the room while I pause to draw breath, his belly full and his smug satisfaction with our victory seeming to fill every corner of the house.

My own sense of triumph inflates as Jasper allows the emotion to affect each one present, and I exclaim with gleeful pride, "You should have seen how we looked to them! Usually, Alec cuts off all sense and feeling from their victims while they go through the charade of a counsel. That way, no one can run when the verdict is given." I remember my original goal, when the universe was crumbling all around us, to ensure that I would have Bella in my arms when Alec's gift began its terrible work, so that we would perish together.

My smile widens, seeming to take over my entire countenance, as I recall how intimidated the Volturi – the most powerful coven ever – were by a group of unconventional vampires and their friends. "But there we stood, ready, waiting, outnumbering them, with gifts of our own while their gifts were rendered useless by Bella. Aro knew that with Zafrina on our side, they would be the blind ones when the battle commenced."

My pleased expression dims somewhat as I consider aloud, "I'm sure our numbers would have been pretty severely decimated, but they were sure that theirs would be, too. There was even a good possibility that they would lose." A rarity in and of itself, which energizes my intense happiness and lightens my tone. "They've never dealt with that possibility before. They didn't deal with it well today." A chuckle punctuates the end of that sentence, triggering a low chorus of laughter from my audience.

Emmett laughs loudest of all, and when he notices Jacob standing close beside his chair, he pokes him in the arm with a forefinger, commenting through his guffaws, "Hard to feel confident when you're surrounded by horse-sized wolves."

Jacob grins hugely at him. You got that right.

"It was the wolves that stopped them in the first place," Bella points out, adjusting a nearly asleep Renesmee in her cool grasp. Sighing, the little girl curls into her mother's chest, resting her cheek against Bella's collarbone, a sleepy smile bowing her lips.

"Sure was," Jacob declares, his eyes locked on Renesmee while he heads in our direction. The rest of us watch in amusement as he sprawls on the hardwood floor by Bella's feet, his back propped against the sofa.

Barely resisting the urge to shake my head, I say in agreement, "Absolutely. That was another sight they've never seen. The true Children of the Moon rarely move in packs, and they are never much in control of themselves."

I had garnered quite a bit of information about these mythical creatures while Caius and Aro compared the Quileutes to the beasts they had hunted down centuries ago. "Sixteen enormous regimented wolves was a surprise they weren't prepared for. Caius is actually terrified of werewolves," I inform everyone, grinning crookedly. "He almost lost a fight with one a few thousand years ago and never got over it."

Ain't that a shame, Emmett thinks, snorting humorously.

Meanwhile, Bella turns sideways in her seat to stare at me with wide-eyed inquisitiveness. "So there are real werewolves?" she asks, astonished. "With the full moon and silver bullets and all that?"

Her earnest curiosity reminds me of the early days in our relationship, when almost every answer I gave her was immediately countered by another question. I pretended to be exasperated with her witty interrogations, but secretly I was overjoyed that she seemed to want to know as much about me as I did about her – which was everything.

A puff of breath escapes from Jacob's mouth, and he cranes his neck to peer at Bella, a sarcastic smirk in place as he teases, "Real. Does that make me imaginary?"

Not breaking eye contact with me, she pushes his shoulder with her left knee. He rocks sideways a little from the pressure and I hold back a proud smile, pleased that she has learned to control her newborn strength in such a short amount of time. "You know what I mean," she grumbles to Jacob.

He chuckles quietly as he settles back into his previous position.

"Full moon, yes," I answer, smiling into Bella's fascinated eyes. "Silver bullets, no – that was just another one of those myths to make humans feel like they had a sporting chance. There aren't very many of them left. Caius has had them hunted into near extinction." The edict calling for the Children of the Moon's destruction is the source of the innate animosity between vampires and wolves. A thousand years of hatred because of one immortal's abhorrence toward a creature that is as much a victim as those it kills.

Bella cocks an eyebrow and purses her full lips. The sight is unbelievably enticing; I have to force myself to not react the way my body is screaming for me to do and remain politely attentive while she says, "And you never mentioned this because...?"

"It never came up." I shrug, feigning nonchalance.

She rolls her eyes, her irritation with me as endearing as always, and Alice giggles. I can see why you love to tease her, she sends good-naturedly. Her reactions really are too much fun. As though to prove her point, my sister leans forward in order to see around me and winks at Bella, her smile growing when she receives a heated glare from her best friend in return.

A snapshot of Bella's outraged face flits across Alice's mind, accompanied by a jumbled mix of shouts and unfinished sentences, and she sighs softly. I figured this was coming... The thought is bathed in mild remorse and a hint of indignation. Alice props her elbows on her thighs and rests her chin in her hands, staring at Bella with raised eyebrows, waiting. "Just get it off your chest, Bella," she offers after a few seconds of silence.

"How could you do that to me, Alice?" she demands at once. The others are a bit confused by her question; they understood the gist of what had been summarized for Aro, and the suspicions I had shared with my parents over the last three weeks, but none of them fully realize yet just how much Bella had kept to herself with the intention that I would not divulge the key to our survival to Aro. Both Alice and I can see the flicker of hurt in her yellow-orange gaze, and it grieves the two of us that she suffered from this knowledge for so long alone.

Sympathy softens Alice's expression, but her voice is firm as she replies, "It was necessary."

"Necessary!" The word explodes from Bella, the shrill noise ricocheting off the high ceiling. Emmett pretends to soothe his eardrums by rubbing the side of his head with his fingers, unsuccessfully hiding his amused smirk. Carlisle and Huilen look up from their involved conversation in bewilderment at the outburst – thankfully, the slumbering toddler in Bella's arms remains undisturbed by her mother's show of temper. "You had me totally convinced we were all going to die!" Bella continues to rail at Alice. "I've been a wreck for weeks."

I know. Believe me, I know. Although Alice had been on the other side of the world, she was still attuned to the future's shifting around our family's lives. She had seen Bella's anguish and the measures she had taken to preserve the utmost secrecy of the instructions Alice had left. So it is with a sense of apology that my sister absorbs Bella's fury with complete calm. "It might have gone that way," she reminds her gently. "In which case you needed to be prepared to save Nessie." Her stare drifts downward to Renesmee's sleep-flushed face, and the slender arms curled around the little girl's tiny body tighten their hold, as Bella no doubt remembers how we could have easily lost her forever.

However, my stubborn Bella will not renounce her argument just yet. "But you knew there were other ways, too," she accuses, narrowing her eyes at Alice. "You knew there was hope. Did it ever occur to you that you could have told me everything?" Disgruntled, she flips her hair over a shoulder, the ends snapping against my shirt in the process. I studiously avoid eye contact with anyone else in the room, because I would surely burst into laughter over my sheer adoration of this unpredictable woman. "I know Edward had to think we were at a dead end for Aro's sake," Bella goes on, "but you could have told me." She gestures to herself with one hand for emphasis.

Humming thoughtfully, Alice examines her for a moment. Maybe that would have been better for her, she speculates, but not for the rest of us. Bella decidedly lacks in the lying department. Aloud, she remarks with certainty, "I don't think so. You're just not that good an actress." Alice's lips twist as she winces, regretful.

Bella's mouth pops open in shock – which swiftly changes to outrage.

Jasper attempts to tamper with the spikes of her ire, but he is having a difficult time readjusting to the volatile aspects of her temperament. Only you would find a mate whose mood swings rival your own, he complains mentally. I lift one shoulder in a faint shrug. He glowers back, feeling my utter enjoyment of the whole situation.

Like a teapot set to boil, Bella shrieks incredulously, her tone rising in pitch with each word, "This was about my acting skills?" She stomps her foot on the floor beside Jacob, who locks his arms across his chest to keep from shaking with the uncontrollable hilarity filling his thoughts.

Alice shares my entertained feelings in regard to Bella's tantrum, but she is irked at her best friend and sister for not being able to grasp how difficult the separation from our family was for her and Jasper.

Determined to make her see events from the opposite perspective, the petite inky-haired firecracker at my side seems to come uncorked, erupting into a high-speed monologue. "Oh, take it down an octave, Bella. Do you have any idea how complicated this was to set up? I couldn't even be sure that someone like Nahuel existed – all I knew was that I would be looking for something I couldn't see! Try to imagine searching for a blind spot – not the easiest thing I've ever done. Plus we had to send back the key witnesses, like we weren't in enough of a hurry," she inserts petulantly. "And then keeping my eyes open all the time in case you decided to throw me any more instructions. At some point you're going to have to tell me what exactly is in Rio." She eyes Bella as she inhales a short breath, her expression fraught with implication, and my own curiosity piques, my mind chasing after a dozen likely scenarios.

"Before any of that," Alice restarts a beat later, "I had to try to see every trick the Volturi might come in with and give you what few clues I could so you would be ready for their strategy, and I only had just a few hours to trace out all the possibilities."

A flash of memory floods her thoughts at that moment – a chaotic whirlwind of sights and sounds surrounding her like she was standing in the midst of a hurricane, picking out which future outcomes would affect our situation while also monitoring her own path and how her choices would alter the end result.

She had very nearly lost herself in the ever-changing labyrinth of time; Jasper had been forced to shock her out of her trancelike state by using an onslaught of intense emotion, which to him is as violent and inexcusable as if he had struck her.

Shaking herself from the recollection, Alice then addresses the hardest thing she had ever done in her century of existence. "Most of all, I had to make sure you'd all believe that I was ditching out on you, because Aro had to be positive that you had nothing left up your sleeves or he never would have committed to an out the way he did." Her chest swells with a deep breath, and she jabs her index finger in Bella's direction, scolding, "And if you think I didn't feel like a schmuck –"

"Okay, okay! Sorry!" Bella holds up a hand and waves frantically, surrendering just as Alice knew she would. "I know it was rough for you, too. It's just that..." Her features melt into an expression that readily conveys both guilt and deep affection. "Well, I missed you like crazy, Alice. Don't do that to me again," she warns halfheartedly, her lips molding into an intriguing blend of smirk and pout.

A musical, trilling laugh rings out from Alice. The sound, so familiar and loved – and one none of us have heard in what seems like an eternity – causes smiles to appear on everyone's faces. "I missed you, too, Bella," she says warmly, golden eyes alight. "So forgive me, and try to be satisfied with being the superhero of the day." She grins, and a tiny giggle bubbles out of her.

The whole room fills up with laughter following Alice's comment, and Bella predictably dips her head in embarrassment, hiding her face within Renesmee's bronze curls.

"Alice is right," I declare after the chuckles start to die down. My eyes focus lovingly on the crown of Bella's dark hair as the others look towards me with mild interest. "It was Bella's shield that ultimately made the Volturi run away with their tails between their legs." My fingertips tease the soft curve of her hip, and she hesitantly raises her chin. Her eyes dart quickly to mine, then around the room in less than a second before fixating on our sleeping daughter.

I let out a low sigh. Self-conscious to a fault, my Bella cannot or will not understand that the credit for today's victory rests almost exclusively on her incredible gift. Her entire mindset of her own significance is ridiculously skewed; I wish I could see firsthand how she views herself – then I might be able to change that perception with better success.

It seems even I am capable of foolish notions.

Coming back to the discussion, I finish summarizing what I had witnessed in Aro's and his coven's minds, and the barrage of questions ensue. I answer as best I can, all the while watching each slight movement made by the center of my existence.

Her gaze shifts occasionally from Renesmee to Jacob, seeming to take some comfort in his easygoing expression. If I had to hazard a guess, I would say that she is constantly looking to him because his opinion of her is unchanged by these events. Unusually talented newborn or no, Bella will always be just Bella to him. Which is ironic, to say the least.

In addition to conversing with my family, the small part of my awareness that is not consumed by Bella monitors the behavior of the only other half-vampire in the room.

Nahuel has not taken his eyes off my wife since she entered the house – and his thoughts, though initially confusing, have leveled out to an internal debate based on what he has believed of his own existence for the last one hundred and fifty years.

While I glean some essential pieces of insight to account for his fixation on Bella, another set of eyes have noticed Nahuel's stare and understandably misinterpreted his focal point.

Why's that punk keep staring at my niece? Emmett growls to himself, fierce protectiveness saturating his mind. He better not be thinking what I think he is, ‘cause it's not gonna happen. She's just a baby! Then, true to form, his thoughts turn toward the possibility of a future brawl between Jacob and the hybrid. That'd be a good fight, he remarks with wicked glee. I'd bet on the dog; Jake's unstoppable when it comes to Nessie. Though things might get hairy if she's anything like her mother and tries to play both sides...

I barely resist the urge to pinch the bridge of my nose in frustration. Any speculation on my four-month-old daughter's potential suitors is not a thought I want to entertain at the moment. Or at all, if I can help it.

Long after the snowy forest outside has turned blue-black with the night, the question and answer session has broken up into several overlapping conversations.

Alice has wormed her way out from under my arm and tucked herself into Jasper's side, chattering animatedly with Esme about having a belated Christmas celebration.

Smiling slightly, Jasper kisses the top of his wife's head and purposefully dulls the overzealous enthusiasm radiating from her. Alice pinches his thigh just before his ability fully takes effect, and then proceeds to punish him by summoning wave after wave of less than appropriate emotion.

The sofa frame and floorboards vibrate with Jasper's inaudible growl, and I immediately block his thoughts, remembering from past experience that he has a particularly...vivid imagination when it comes to Alice.

Foreheads pressed together, Rose and Emmett murmur to each other in low undertones. Carlisle and Huilen have progressed through a number of fascinating subjects throughout the evening, and are now in the midst of discussing Huilen's people while her nephew continues his silent scrutiny. Meantime, Jacob is half asleep as he lounges on the floor by our feet, the soft, quick voices lulling him into a daze.

I glance back at the windows, the inky shadows of nighttime beckoning, and picture the little cottage nestled within a frosted glade. And I realize in that instant that I want more than anything to be home – to place Renesmee safely in her crib and feel Bella in my arms as we seclude ourselves in our bedroom. I want to finally have some peace.

Turning sideways, I meet my favorite pair of amber eyes and sense on some inexplicable level that she shares my desire to return to our small corner of heaven. She confirms my hunch a moment later as she begins to inquire in a tone little louder than a whisper, "Should we take Nessie..."

"That's probably a good idea," I respond at once, not bothering to keep my voice as low as hers in my haste to agree. "I'm sure she didn't sleep soundly last night, what with all the snoring." I grin broadly at the back of Jacob's head.

He twists around to peer up at us and rolls his eyes, a yawn escaping through his lopsided smile. "It's been a while since I slept in a bed," he says, rubbing the back of his neck to get rid of the crick in his muscles. "I bet my dad would get a kick out of having me under his roof again." He snorts under his breath. Unless he's already made my room into a storage closet, since I can't remember the last time I was actually there for more than fifteen minutes.

Bella reaches out and tenderly places her slender hand on his cheek. "Thank you, Jacob," she murmurs with heartfelt intensity.

He leans into her touch, black eyes echoing the emotion in her tone. "Anytime, Bella." The russet skin under her white fingertips crinkles as his smile widens. "But you already know that."

Clambering to his feet, Jacob lets out a groaning yawn, stretching his arms high above his head, and bends down to press his lips to Renesmee's forehead. Afterward, he kisses the top of Bella's head, as well. Then he throws a playful punch into my right shoulder, offering as a farewell, "See you guys tomorrow. I guess things are going to be kind of boring now, aren't they?"

"I fervently hope so," I reply in all seriousness. Considering all we have been through in the last month – let alone the crises Bella and I have endured over the course of our relationship – I eagerly welcome a little boredom.

Jacob waves at everyone from the doorway and disappears into the night amidst a chorus of goodbyes.

I rise from the sofa and hold out my hand to Bella, needing any sort of physical contact with her body rather than acting purely out of chivalry, and she slips her palm into mine without pause, straightening up gracefully. Renesmee breathes deep and even in her arms, finding respite in the solace of a dreamless sleep.

Quite suddenly, Bella spins halfway around and asks, "Oh, Jasper?"

He looks up with arched eyebrows, picking up on the flicker of curiosity and – concern? – in her emotions. "Yes, Bella?"

"I'm curious – why is J. Jenks scared stiff by just the sound of your name?"

So that's where she obtained the necessary paperwork to get Jacob and Renesmee out of the country if they had to run. She must have been meeting with Jenks when she went out the other day dressed uncharacteristically chic.

I thought perhaps that had been the case when I saw fragments of the clues Alice had left for her in my sister's mind, but Bella must have done a great deal of detective work to locate Jenks and to figure out exactly what she needed from him.

My clever Bella, I muse fondly, smiling at her as she waits for Jasper's answer.

Chuckling low in his throat, my brother tells her, "It's just been my experience that some kinds of working relationships are better motivated by fear than by monetary gain."

Bella frowns sternly, and a deep-seated resolve flares like a struck match within her eyes. Instead of dwelling futilely on what decision she could possibly have made in light of Jasper's words, I tug gently on her hand and start towards the rear of the house.

Say good night to your mother first. Esme leaps up from the sofa and enfolds all three of us in her arms, kissing my cheek, then Bella's, and Renesmee's brow.

The others add their own well wishes – Emmett of course cannot resist an opportunity to taunt me about how we intend to spend the rest of our evening – and soon the golden glow of the house gives way to the cool blue shadows of the forest.

The frozen river glistens with icy glitter from the recent snowfall, snaking like a ribbon of silver through the black silhouettes of the trees, and together Bella and I cross effortlessly, our pace unhurried. It is a simple pleasure to just move along however we wish without worrying about deadlines or impending arrivals. We can just be...for the first time in months.

Buoyed by a carefree spirit, I adjust my hold on Bella's hand and lift our entwined fingers to my lips, brushing a kiss on each of her knuckles. She smiles at me, her amber irises beginning to smolder beneath her thick fringe of lashes, and a flash burn of hunger travels through my whole body, settling into a gnawing ache in the pit of my stomach.

Half of me desperately yearns to take Bella in my arms and not let go until the craving has been sated – and the other half remembers that I am not only a husband, but a father as well, and our daughter deserves a peaceful night's rest in her warm bed. And it is that responsible reminder I heed as I lower our clasped hands and seek out a distraction, voicing the first thing that comes to mind. "I have to say, I'm thoroughly impressed with Jacob right now."

Bella stares out at the wintry landscape, murmuring thoughtfully, "The wolves make quite an impact, don't they?"

While I could drive myself mad speculating on how her mind drew that conclusion from my statement, I simply explain, "That's not what I mean. Not once today did he think about the fact that, according to Nahuel, Nessie will be fully matured in just six and a half years." In truth, I have not given it much thought, either...because I am fairly certain that I will be tempted to hide the three of us away in some forgotten part of the world for the next decade or so.

The tranquil stillness of the night envelops us for a moment as Bella considers what I said. Finally, she replies with quiet assurance, "He doesn't see her that way. He's not in a hurry for her to grow up. He just wants her to be happy." She peers up at me, looking for confirmation, and I am once again amazed by her uncanny insight.

"I know," I agree softly, smiling with pride at both her perceptiveness and Jacob's steadfast devotion to Renesmee. "Like I said, impressive." Knowing that he would do anything – be anything – to her and for her, causes me to rethink all of my firmly held convictions in regard to the wolves, and especially Jacob. "It goes against the grain to say so," I confess in a rueful tone, "but she could do worse."

An adorable scowl wrinkles the corners of Bella's mouth, and her nose scrunches up as though smelling an unpleasant aroma. "I'm not going to think about that for approximately six and a half more years," she vows with staunch obstinacy.

I laugh at her stubborn expression, indulging for a fraction of a second in the naïve fantasy that we can ignore our daughter's fast-approaching adolescence...and then a cold blast of logic shatters the dream as I recall the unblinking yellow-brown eyes that had watched us all evening.

My grins fades, and a deep sigh escapes my lungs. Though it pains me to even contemplate it, Emmett's thoughts of a future rivalry for Renesmee's affections may be fated to happen. "Of course, it looks like he'll have some competition to worry about when the time comes," I mutter darkly.

The fine lines etching Bella's features deepen as the meaning of my words takes root in her mind. "I noticed." She blows a quick breath through her full lips, making them vibrate quietly, and tucks a wayward strand of hair behind her ear. "I'm grateful to Nahuel for today, but all the staring was a little weird." Her gaze lowers to the sleeping child burrowed in her arms, and she adds in a steely undertone, "I don't care if she is the only half-vampire he's not related to."

"Oh, he wasn't staring at her," I remark mildly, leaning over to brush my lips across the crease between her eyebrows. Nothing should spoil the perfect happiness of this night – not even the worries that we share as parents. "He was staring at you."

Her eyes connect with mine, and she asks in bewilderment, "Why would he do that?"

"Because you're alive," I murmur in a quiet, subdued voice. She has no idea that her very presence amongst our family has created a momentous paradigm shift in Nahuel's life. Having learned through his internal monologue what he has believed of his own existence, I can understand – and even sympathize – with the young man's avid interest in my wife...and myself.

Bella shakes her head a little, still puzzled. "You lost me."

Hoping to summarize all that I had discovered with his mind, I start to explain, "All his life – and he's fifty years older than I am –"

"Decrepit," she inserts playfully, bumping into my side with her shoulder as we continue to meander through the silent woods.

I smile inwardly, reliving in a fraction of a second every agonizing yet engaging conversation I had with her when I would attempt to explain something and she would constantly interrupt with some observation or question. I used to think I would go mad...until I realized that not hearing her voice at all was far worse torment than patiently navigating through her endless interjections.

However, in retaliation for her teasing, I pretend as though she has not spoken. "He's always thought of himself as an evil creation, a murderer by nature."

Nahuel recalled with astounding clarity how Huilen had lovingly wrapped her sister's destroyed corpse – ravaged by animals and the elements while she burned with the venom for three days – in palm leaves and laid her to rest in a grave made inside the tangled roots of a vine-draped tree, tearless sobs quaking her small frame.

"His sisters all killed their mothers as well," I say, fighting vainly against the onslaught of gore-splattered memories surrounding Renesmee's birth, "but they thought nothing of it. Joham raised them to think of the humans as animals, while they were gods." My teeth grind together at the callous, self-serving indecency of this vampire who preys upon innocent women for the sole purpose of instigating a new species...

Bella squeezes my tense hand gently, staring at my profile in concern, and I breathe in a deep breath of icy, floral-scented air, dulling the sharpened edge of my temper. "But Nahuel was taught by Huilen," I pick up where I left off in a lighter tone, "and Huilen loved her sister more than anyone else. It shaped his whole perspective. And, in some ways, he truly hated himself."

Renesmee's guilt-ridden expression from the day Tanya's family arrived floats through my mind's eye, her sweet voice echoing her sorrow. "This is my fault."

She would have blamed herself if anything had happened to Bella after she had brought her into this world, which makes me wonder. Since Renesmee was conceived in love rather than coldhearted deception, could that have also shaped her feelings toward the human half of her creation? Or perhaps my daughter is simply blessed with a profound capacity to love...just like her mother.

That same compassionate spirit radiates from Bella's jewel-tone irises as she murmurs softly, almost to herself, "That's so sad."

My thumb caresses the top of her hand, back and forth – an automatic response to soothe – and I give her a reassuring smile. "And then he saw the three of us – and realized for the first time that just because he is half immortal, it doesn't mean he is inherently evil." I glance up at the velvety black sky, focusing on a swath of pale moonlight breaking through the clouds and the sprinkling of stars visible beyond, and inform Bella, feeling somewhat humbled, "He looks at me and sees...what his father should have been."

"You are fairly ideal in every way," she remarks affectionately, her guileless expression lighting up the winter's night, and my chest floods with warmth, even though I cannot hold back a quiet snort. She sees me about as clearly as she views herself, but her unique perspective is just one of the thousands of reasons why I adore her.

Sobering, I shift my gaze from the heavens to my own personal embodiment of paradise, recalling the core motive for Nahuel's attention. "He looks at you and sees the life his mother should have had," I say in a low voice.

"Poor Nahuel," she breathes with genuine empathy, and then a sigh escapes her mouth, mingling with the faint breeze stirring the frozen air.

"Don't be sad for him," I urge, while at the same time promising myself that I will spend the rest of eternity ensuring that she will never experience the emotion again. "He's happy now. Today, he's finally begun to forgive himself."

Like the sunrise, a smile slowly blossoms on her face, its glow banishing any traces of sadness, and I feel my lips curve into an echo of her joy.

We make the rest of the journey home in comfortable silence, my curiosity awakening when Bella's contented grin widens in a burst of unexpected delight, but I successfully repress the impulse to ask the everlasting question.

As I had once done to acclimate my instincts to the allure of her temptingly luscious scent, so I would practice every day until the end of forever to ignore the burning need to know her thoughts. After all, I used to believe that it was impossible for me to even be in the same state, let alone the same room as my singer...and now look at us.

Surely, given enough time, I will be able to control my longing to hear Bella's mind. Her mysterious, baffling, and utterly captivating mind...

I must be kidding myself.

The forest opens before us to the snow-covered glade encircling the cottage, its eaves bedecked with glittering strings of icicles, and we stroll up the hidden path to the door, smiling at each other with sheer happiness. Together we cross the threshold, and leave all the angst and dark shadows from this day behind, refusing to let them enter our home, our sanctuary.

When we reach Renesmee's room, Bella's hand reluctantly unwinds from mine to adjust her hold around our sleeping daughter, and I dash over to the crib to arrange the blankets. With a soft hum, Renesmee curls peacefully into her bed, a tiny smile bowing her rosy lips. I gently smooth a quilt over her small body while Bella strokes her bronze-colored hair, moving it away from her flushed cheek, and then she kisses the little girl goodnight. My kiss overlaps hers a moment later.

Turning around, I watch with growing amusement as Bella unclasps the hideously extravagant diamond necklace from her throat and tosses it into the far corner of the room. The priceless gem lands with a soft thump atop a pile of stuffed animals and other toys for Renesmee to play with however she wishes.

Then Bella offers me her hand, and we slip out of the room, silently closing the door in our wake.

Carefree as children, swinging our joined hands between us, we wander towards our bedroom, the electric current connecting her body to mine intensifying with each step. I lose myself in her warm amber eyes while I nudge the door with my heel, the latch clicking into place, and then I pull her flush against me, relishing the sensation of having her fully in my arms.

The craving to touch her bare skin, to hear her breathless cries of my name, surges like molten fire through my veins, yet I smother the compulsion to act rashly. This is a night to rejoice, to savor every precious second. "A night for celebrations," I murmur, tasting her sweet fragrance on my tongue when she exhales, her palms resting passively on my chest.

My right hand travels along the contours of her frame and curves around her chin, gently lifting her mouth as I bend down –

Her fluttering eyelids snap open, and she leans away, muttering, "Wait."

Out of utter surprise and confusion, my hands drop to my sides. I can see the reflection of my dumbfounded look in her obsidian pupils. She immediately takes pity on me and smiles a little, the expression tinted with mischief and – oddly enough – a deep-seated resolve. "I want to try something," she tells me.

My brow furrows with an even greater sense of perplexity. Try something? What could she possibly want to try? And why now?

Aggravation intermixes with my baffled thoughts, and the muscles in my neck and shoulders tense as my jaws locks, stifling a growl. I have not felt this level of frustration in regard to Bella's unknowable mind in some time, and it roars inside my skull like an agitated beast, feeding on the voracious hunger for her love that has been delayed by her strange request.

Why can't I just hear what she is thinking?

I open my mouth to voice the question, but then Bella lets out a quiet breath and raises her small, perfect hands to my face. She combs her fingertips through the wisps of hair behind my ears and I instantly start to relax, basking in her touch though my confusion remains.

Flattening her palms on either side of my head, she closes her eyes and presses her lips together into a stiff line – a study of intense concentration.

The seconds wear on, painstakingly slow, and my stare roves across her delicate features, noting each minute change. A deep crease forms a familiar V shape in the middle of her forehead, her eyelids screwed shut so tightly that she looks as though she is struggling mightily, and the pressure of her hands on my skin increases little by little with each passing moment.

How I wish I knew what she is trying to accomplish; I would do anything to help her – she must know that –

On the fringe of my awareness, a tickle of thought brushes against my mind, stopping all speculation in its tracks. The sensation is lighter than the faintest breeze...but it leaves a remnant of warmth and tenderness and undeniable familiarity that every fiber of my being is left yearning for more.

Quieting my own thoughts, I listen for another thread of insight, wondering who or what it could be while staving off the sudden, explosive hope trembling in the center of my chest – when the warmth returns, pressing upon my consciousness like a handprint.

Words weave themselves through the unbelievably passionate feeling, spoken in a voice that is purer, lovelier, and more enchanting than anything I have ever heard before or since.

Push... Come on, Bella, you can do this... just a little further...

A shudder races through me as the timidly awakening hope erupts within my very soul, filling my world with blinding white light and stealing the breath from my lungs after a startled whisper parts my lips. "Bella!"

I can hear her.

I can hear Bella.

There are no words to describe the emotions that my marble skin is barely containing. My heart surges inside my rib cage as though it has been recalled to life, drumming out a pulse that speaks of joy and redemption, love and commitment, heaven and eternity.

Afraid of losing my equilibrium, my quivering hands stretch out to clutch Bella's waist, my wide eyes drinking in her expression as the realization that she has achieved her goal sets in.

It's working.

The thought – her thought – reaches me again, and another shiver of pleasure sends a wave of heat down my spine. Then my vision blurs, transforming into a hazy mixture of color and motion, and I eagerly submerge myself in the warm depths of her mind, praying that I can experience this forever even as she summons a cascade of memories.

The cafeteria was crowded. I knew it was the Forks High School cafeteria, although the edges of the memory were pale, unfinished smudges, like a faded photograph.

I could hear Jessica Stanley's nasal voice babbling in the background to the right as I saw through Bella's eyes for the first time. Her attention drifted around the room, dropping to the laminate tabletop quite often whenever she felt embarrassed – and then she spotted my siblings and I in the far corner.

She examined each one of us with incredible perceptiveness and unabashed fascination, before focusing solely on my face, turned in profile in front of the rain-soaked window. She could not seem to look away as she tried to decide between Rosalie and I who was more beautiful.

She thought I was beautiful, even before she knew my name.

"Who are they?" she asked quietly.

I looked over at her table before Jessica answered – I remembered that I had heard her think my family's name and had automatically glanced their way – and then my eyes touched Bella's.

She felt the same curiosity – the same jolt of energy – that I had in that fraction of a second.

Then she lowered her gaze again, and I both mourned and celebrated as the fuzzy-edged memory disappeared...

The golden light of the sun heralded another recollection. I could feel the heat of the rays just as Bella had, and heard her heartbeat thundering in her ears. I savored the rhythm for a brief moment...until I saw my own face swimming into focus in front of her. My expression was pained yet hopeful, wary yet determined.

A cold caress chilled the sun's warmth on Bella's cheeks, and she watched my lips as I whispered huskily, "Be very still."

I found myself holding my breath along with Bella as my remembered self leaned forward and rested my head on her breast, listening to her heart while immersing in the temptation of her delectable scent.

I knew how the monster had clawed at his prison in my head the entire time, even as the once-foreign desires I carried for her body churned in the pit of my stomach, clouding my thoughts as I felt her shiver underneath my palms.

I had wondered at the time, and many times since then, if she had truly been afraid. Now I knew.

She never felt fear. The impulse to pull away from my grasp and run, distance herself from my icy skin and unnatural appearance, never once crossed her mind. She was...happy, overjoyed even, that she was the one in my arms.

While the wind danced among the wildflowers and the sun continued its path across the sapphire-colored sky, she wanted nothing more than for me to hold her, though her life could end in the blink of an eye.

The meadow swirled away in a wash of yellow and green...to be replaced by utter blackness.

For a second I panicked, worried that something might have happened with her shield, but then I heard the sounds. A wild, furious snarl – breaking glass – a gasp of pain as agony lanced across her body – and a voice. I should have recognized it at once, but when I first heard it, it was too choked by anguish, too heightened by hysteria and too desperately pleading to identify. "Oh no, Bella, no!"

More sounds...but Bella blocked them out, concentrating on the frantic voice that she had labeled an angel, but I now knew to be the despairing cries of a heartsick vampire fearing he'd lost the only thing that made his monstrous existence worth keeping. "Bella, please! Bella, listen to me, please, please, Bella, please!"

I almost considered begging her to stop, to move on from this particular memory, but whatever she wanted me to understand was too important to both of us to cast aside. So I endured, though my silent heart writhed in torment as she fought to respond to my pleas and I continued to weep, calling for my father. "Carlisle! Bella, Bella, no, oh please, no, no!"

As she let the memory draw near to its inevitable conclusion, I began to realize what she wanted me to know. She had no doubts that I would save her. While I remembered warring with my every instinct as I sucked the poison from her veins, she floated on a tranquil sea of acceptance, though she had worried before succumbing to unconsciousness that I would vanish into the darkness.

That was when she murmured my name, asking me to stay...and that is what ultimately gave me the strength to deny the bloodthirsty fiend that I refused to become.

"Thank you, Edward," she said in the barest whisper.

I heard myself, weary and triumphant, reply fervently, "I love you."

"I know." Her sigh was heartwarming, her trust in me cemented into the foundations of her soul.

The darkening vision sank back into her mind while my weak laughter echoed in her ears...

And one of the blackest days turned into the brightest as my head suddenly rang with the chords of Mendelssohn's wedding march and the shadows became brilliant spots of silver and white.

Through the milky gauze of her veil, Bella stared in awe at the flowered garlands that had decorated nearly every surface as she and Charlie entered the room, and I smiled slightly when her eyes skittered across the rows of guests without picking out any familiar faces. Then she looked towards the end of the aisle and locked onto the man standing at the altar, waiting for her, as he had been for over a century.

His burning gold eyes pierced hers, startling her with their intensity, and her sense of wonder colored the memory with all the vivid magic of a dream as an exulting smile blossomed on his – my – face. After that breathtaking moment, she was alight with excitement, ready to begin our life together.

She held onto my unblinking stare throughout the entire ceremony, the remembered image of my gleaming topaz irises blurring with saltwater while she spoke her vows. "I do."

I had wanted to shout the words from the rooftops, but I settled for declaring them as clearly and jubilantly as I could, and she felt the weight of my promise. "I do."

My hands cradled her face as we leaned toward one another for the binding kiss...

...and the balmy, tropical air of a moonlit night rose to the forefront of her thoughts.

Bella's heartbeat stuttered when she caught sight of a pale figure standing waist-deep in the black ocean, and I tried to squelch a rush of desire as the terrycloth wrapped around her body was thrown beside my clothes on the branch of a palm tree and her toes sifted through the foam of the surf as she walked out to meet me.

Rather than dwelling on any specific moment from our honeymoon, a montage of intimate memories flowed between us, stirring a tempest of need within me as she shared how she reveled in each kiss – how she cherished every moan of her name that left my mouth – how her skin burned like a living flame beneath my wandering hands...

The same hands that gingerly shaped themselves around her swollen abdomen while she laid limply on the sofa, staring in shock at my expression, at the black eyes fixed on her belly.

I tried not to cringe when the me she remembered spoke, but the deadened tone of his voice was a testament to a time that had been both heaven and hell on earth. "The f–" A hard swallow. "It...the baby likes the sound of your voice."

She rejoiced as I had marveled with her over our baby, talking about names like any other expecting couple, and her gasp of surprise when I nestled my ear against her stomach quickly transitioned to overwhelming elation as she absorbed the whispers I breathed into her skin. "He loves you. He absolutely adores you."

We're going to be a family, was the first thought that sparkled in her mind once she realized that I no longer had any intention of killing our child. Though the birth process frightened her – as I had suspected – she trusted me to save both her and the baby. Like before, in the meadow, she had no doubts.

Her dim human memories swirl into the ether, and the next vision is breathtaking in its clarity: the perfect recall of a vampire. Instead of vague impressions lingering on the outskirts of the memory, each detail is repeated with flawless accuracy.

My face, frozen in surprise and caution, peered across the operating table that Bella had effectively died and been reborn upon.

Her awareness seemed to shrink until all she knew was me, and then I could hear her thoughts – articulate, captivating, eccentric, and radiating the addicting warmth that has seeped into my every pore.

How many times had I stared at Edward and marveled over his beauty? How many hours – days, weeks – of my life had I spent dreaming about what I then deemed to be perfection? I thought I'd known his face better than my own. I'd thought this was one sure physical thing in my whole world: the flawlessness of Edward's face.

I may as well have been blind.

For the first time with the dimming shadows and limiting weakness of humanity taken off my eyes, I saw his face. I gasped and then struggled with my vocabulary, unable to find the right words. I needed better words.

Even as a vampire, she still saw me as beautiful – a celestial being that had descended to the realm of mortals – and I once again became the center of her universe as she attempted to come to terms with her new existence.

The backdrop of the upstairs bedroom morphed into a cloud-shrouded forest, my face the only constant image. The faint flush of newly consumed blood painted my cheeks and lips, and I sensed Bella's admiration and longing as she reached for my outstretched hand.

I was unable to resist stroking his face again. And again.

I sort of forgot that I was waiting for a response to my request as I stared into his shimmering gold eyes.

It was almost as hard as it had been to turn away from the scent of human blood, but I somehow kept the need to be careful firmly in my head as I stretched up on my toes and wrapped my arms around him. Gently.

He was not so hesitant in his movements; his arms locked around my waist and pulled me tight against his body. His lips crushed down on mine, but they felt soft. My lips no longer shaped themselves around his; they held their own.

A little hiss escapes through my teeth at the obvious hunger in her thoughts – a hunger that I am dangerously close to reciprocating.

My fingertips press into the curve of her waist as I steel myself to endure as long as she wishes, and then she pulls me back in, her willing victim to this sensual torture.

Our bedroom came into focus, surrounding us, and I had just finished telling her about the closet, nodding in that direction as I laughed.

Bella's passionate gaze never left me, her thoughts pouring over me and through me like the sweetest nectar.

"We're going to tell Alice that I ran right to the clothes," I whispered, twisting my fingers into his hair and pulling my face closer to his. "We're going to tell her I spent hours in there playing dress-up. We're going to lie."

He caught up to my mood in an instant, or maybe he'd already been there, and he was just trying to let me fully appreciate my birthday present, like a gentleman. He pulled my face to his with a sudden fierceness, a low moan in his throat. The sound sent the electric current running through my body into a near-frenzy, like I couldn't get close enough to him fast enough.

I heard the fabric tearing under our hands, and I was glad my clothes, at least, were already destroyed. It was too late for his. It felt almost rude to ignore the pretty white bed, but we just weren't going to make it that far.

His hands found my bare skin and slid down my back, tugging me closer to him, and I whimpered his name, a heated shiver rippling through me as his lips burned a trail of kisses along my throat to my collarbone, wandering further down when I wrapped my leg around his hip...

Beyond the point of rational thinking or any show of restraint, I abruptly lean forward and cover her mouth with mine, groaning quietly at the taste and feel of her lips, her memories of that night continuing to dance across my mind's eye.

She gasps, startled by my fierceness, and the most tantalizing thoughts I have ever encountered wink out like a snuffed candle, leaving an afterglow on my consciousness that renders me dazed and aching for more. "Oops, lost it!" she sighs, disappointed. Her thumbs caress the shape of my jaw line, and she pulls back a little to meet my eyes, a rueful, lopsided grin on her face.

All I can do is acknowledge the miracle that has just taken place, my voice throaty and laced with profound emotion. "I heard you." Her smile widens in satisfaction, her amber eyes glistening like jewels, and she rises up on her toes to kiss the tip of my nose. "How?" I ask breathlessly. "How did you do that?"

Bella chuckles once under her breath, tipping her head to the side as she answers, "Zafrina's idea. We practiced with it a few times." She seems to be enjoying my reaction immensely, brushing her fingers along the planes and hollows of my features as I blink twice in slow succession, feeling as though I have been lost in another world. I shake my head, hoping to clear the hypnotic fog, while at the same time Bella's gentle touches rouse vivid pictures from the memories she gave to me.

"Now you know," she comments with a shrug, her hands falling onto my shoulders. "No one's ever loved anyone as much as I love you." Her whole countenance exudes a delighted sense of accomplishment. She seems certain that she has won our ongoing debate over whose feelings are the strongest – a debate that began at a school lunch table what feels like a lifetime ago.

But I am not one to be outdone, especially when it comes to my unconditional and all-consuming love for my Bella, my soul mate.

Smiling down at her, I quirk an eyebrow and remark casually, "You're almost right." A hand slides up her back to her chocolate-colored locks, and I pinch a strand between thumb and forefinger, tugging lightly. "I know of just one exception."

She purses her lips to hide her smirk, rising to the challenge. "Liar," she retorts, and flicks the collar of my shirt with a fingernail, tilting her chin in endearingly stubborn fashion.

I take that as an invitation and bend down to her tempting full lips, idly wondering how it would be if she were able to lower her shield the entire time we are together, how extraordinary it would feel to give her whatever she wanted as soon as it entered her mind...

I stop a hair's breadth from her mouth, my eyes flicking up to hers questioningly. "Can you do it again?" I muse aloud. Lightning sizzles across my nerve endings, anticipating the addictive freedom and warmth of her thoughts melding with mine, and I grin like a eager child, waiting for her reply.

An unsure grimace contorts her heart-shaped face. "It's very difficult," she says hesitantly.

I watch her with earnest confidence, believing with everything I am that she can do this.

She sighs in defeat and then squares her shoulders, lifting one hand to point a warning finger between my eyes. "I can't keep it up if I'm even the slightest bit distracted," she tells me in a stern voice.

"I'll be good," I swear at once. Please, love, I add mentally, begging her with my eyes.

Her eyes narrow, calculating as she studies my expression, her mouth forming that ridiculously tempting pucker, and then she smiles, and I know that I have gained her concession.

She presses her hands to my temples again, eyelids fluttering closed, and I follow suit, waiting with bated breath for the initial brush of thought. The last vestiges of self-control that I employed during our honeymoon are bolstered in those few suspenseful seconds. I must hold myself in check for as long as possible; it will be good practice for us both.

A warm nudge strokes the far corner of my perception, and an instant later, the memories surface, more swiftly than before.

I am overwhelmed – a piece of driftwood being dragged out to sea by the tide – captive to the inescapable allure of her mind.

...I whimpered his name, a heated shiver rippling through me as his lips burned a trail of kisses along my throat to my collarbone, wandering further down when I wrapped my leg around his hip.

"Bella," he moaned against my skin, his arms tightening around me.

Starbursts of light erupted inside my eyes, and I dug my fingers into his back as the universe exploded all around me. Edward was my anchor in the firestorm, and I cried out, buried within a surge of sensation and raw emotion so intense that I could never have survived as a human.

I felt him tremble against me, and he breathed my name again, his head sinking into the hollow between my neck and shoulder. Then his mouth started roaming, taking a different path than before, setting me ablaze as a low growl rumbled in his chest, and I responded with one of my own...

Instinct compels me into action. Capturing Bella's face in my hands, I crush her lips to mine, feeling a sense of loss when her thoughts vanish from view.

She laughs into my mouth, her fingers curling around the base of my neck, and then she returns my urgent kiss with equal passion.

But I cannot help expressing my frustration. "Damn it," I growl, my lips traveling along the curve of her jaw to her throat, pushing her hair aside with my nose in order to reach every inch of her silky skin.

"We have plenty of time to work on it," she murmurs encouragingly, angling her head to the side while her palms slide down my torso to pull on the hem of my shirt.

My kisses linger on a particularly soft spot behind her ear, and she promptly makes short work of the obstructing fabric with one swipe, her caresses igniting pulses of electricity on my bare skin.

Emulating her movements, I tear at the clothes sheathing her lithe body and breathe out a sigh of indescribable relief when I can truly feel her in my arms. I stumble backwards to the general vicinity of the bed, mumbling into her collarbone, "Forever and forever and forever."

We collapse onto the mattress in a tangle of pale limbs, commemorating this night as two halves of a whole, finally granted access to a paradise that exists only for us. A paradise that will never end.

"That sounds exactly right to me," Bella agrees huskily. Her hand snakes around the back of my head, and she pulls my lips down to hers, sealing our bodies into one in every possible way.

She is my beginning and my end, my death and my resurrection, my fate and my salvation. She has given me her heart, her body, her soul, and now her mind – the one thing that I thought would forever be denied me. She offered all that she is freely, without the slightest hint of indecision.

And then she bestowed upon me the greatest gift: a child. Our precious Renesmee, who will be an eternal testimony of the love between a human and a vampire – a love that could not be broken, severed, or destroyed.

Bella has also given me faith, which is almost as great a miracle as the knowledge that I get to keep her forever. Because of this faith she has nurtured within me, I am able to look back on my lonely, self-indulgent decades and realize that the soul I had thought was absent was only dormant – lying in state in the deepest caverns of my dead heart – waiting to be awoken by its mate.

Eighty-seven years later, my soul heard the call, and the essence of my whole existence was found in a fragile human girl that was quite literally the embodiment of my every desire.

I remember thinking once that Bella was sent to this rainy little town to punish me – a living, breathing torture device constructed by a vengeful hag known as Fate – to beckon to the monster I fought so hard against on a daily basis and cause me to stumble in my self-imposed quest for redemption.

When I finally grasped the magnitude of my love for the same girl, I had reasoned that perhaps she was not an incarnation of retribution, but a reward. I envisioned a careless angel crafting the only creature in the world that would demand my attention – one who would be selfless and genuinely good, who would see a person worth loving inside my cold granite shell.

Whether a hag, an angel, or God Himself is responsible for delivering Bella to me, I do not know. Nor do I care. For I believe that no matter what divine powers may have influenced our paths, we both would have searched the world over for each other, and not rested until we had at last joined with our other half.

And once we were together – then, as now, we would never part.

The sun rises over the snow-dusted trees and streaks through the icy windows into our bedroom as Bella and I float blissfully back down to earth, entwined as thoroughly as two people can be. Her fingertips trace patterns on my chest, and I marvel at the red-gold sparkles adorning her skin, bending down often to place a kiss anywhere I might have missed.

Part of my brain recognizes the fact that today marks the beginning of a new year. I consider sharing that information with Bella, but decide a half second later that it really does not matter. There will be many years, decades, centuries and even millenniums that will be new for us. Each day is a new start in our forever.

The dawn continues to break over the horizon as we melt into one another, rejoicing together as forever welcomes us with open arms.