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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:


7. My Star

Rating 5/5   Word Count 11639   Review this Chapter

I have not had to put up with this level of tedium since before Bella graduated from high school.

All throughout Charlie's extended visit, I waver between the two extremes of acute tension and unadulterated boredom. I try to pay attention to the football game – but the sport holds little interest for me, and Emmett is in rare form today, making pointedly uncouth remarks under the guise of commenting on the game. So I ignore his words and block his thoughts, which are considerably more offensive, and seek out a new distraction.

Naturally, I always gravitate to Bella.

She remains a tightly bound bundle of nervous energy, though outwardly she appears calm and collected. When it begins to rain, her chestnut-veiled eyes watch the rivulets of water create patterns across the glass windows, and I watch her. She is the single most fascinating person I have ever met.
I entertain myself for an indeterminate amount of time by inhaling her sweet freesia scent, causing my tongue to tingle in remembrance of the taste of her skin – and then I study the hidden thoughts that emerge fleetingly on her heart-shaped face, wondering what motivation is behind each small twist of her lips, every slow blink of her eyes...

Because I am staring so avidly, I notice immediately when the first set of contacts dissolve, exposing the vivid scarlet of Bella's irises.

I nudge her gently with my hip, and she turns to look at me questioningly. In silence, I raise my free hand and brush a fingertip along the petal-soft skin under her eye, arching my eyebrows to convey the meaning behind the gesture.

It only takes her a fraction of a second to catch on, and she claps her hand over her mouth to stifle a gasp. Swiftly handing Renesmee to me, she leaps to her feet and hurries up the staircase to the bathroom, head down to hide her eyes. But she needn't have bothered; Charlie scarcely looks up when she leaves the room, and I am fairly certain that he is as interested in what is happening on the television screen as I am.

Bella comes back shortly – almost too soon, if one is working with a human timetable – and settles in her seat beside me on the couch, her eyes once again a mediocre shade of brown. On that point, I agree with my sister; the unusually deep chocolate color of Bella's gaze, and now Renesmee's, is far superior to the camouflage provided by the contact lenses.

My arm enfolds her slender shoulders just as Renesmee crawls from my lap and into Bella's waiting arms. The two of them gaze absently out at the rain, and I glance sideways at the tiny figure sitting furthest away from everyone else.

Alice is hunched over slightly, elbows on her knees and her face cradled in her hands, looking unseeingly at the wood grains of the paneled floor. In her mind, blurred images of Charlie, Bella, and our family swirl like drops of paint in a glass of water – vague and ephemeral.

It'll be okay, she keeps repeating. Not too much longer – there is another commitment for Charlie's time...dinner, I think... The tenor of her inward musing turns surprisingly bitter. Stupid dogs. If I could just see properly...

She gets lost in her visions again, and I tune her out, joining my wife and daughter in their observation of the undulating sheets of rain outside.

I expect Bella's father to leave when the game ends, but of course I should have known better than to pin any assumption on Charlie. After minimal coaxing from a gleeful Emmett, Charlie agrees to stick around to watch yet another monotonous sporting event.

As the rain marks time, slowing to a light drizzle while a steady wind carries the water-heavy clouds to the west, the others take to finding ways to amuse themselves. Carlisle strolls over to the bookshelves and retrieves a copy of Thoreau, already reciting a favorite sonnet in his head. Esme glides from the room gracefully shortly after – only to return some minutes later with a pencil and notepad, her contemplations centered on sketching ideas for Renesmee's bedroom at the cottage. From what I can tell, her design will be absolutely perfect.

The second football game ends, followed by the commentary, and Jacob complains to himself, Man, I'm starved. Clambering to his feet, he stretches his long arms high above his head and ambles into the kitchen. The muffled noises of him digging through the refrigerator – stocked specifically for the wolves' use and for my father's continued attempts to persuade Renesmee with human food – echo dimly above the voices issuing from the TV.

Bella excuses herself again, anticipating to lose another pair of contacts, and transfers Renesmee – who is becoming quite groggy and disoriented – to me while she heads upstairs.

It is then that I briefly manage to attract Charlie's attention.

Renesmee nuzzles her face into the fabric of my shirt, yawning, and the moment is so reminiscent of the many nights I spent with Bella in her small bed that I act unconsciously. Laying my cheek against her bronze ringlets, I begin to hum the melody that had come to me while we waited for Bella to wake up only days ago. It is simple – the notes flowing as tranquil as a quiet brook through a forest glade – and Renesmee sighs, her thoughts blurring into ambiguous dreams resplendent with color and the faces of those she loves.

I feel his eyes on me as a muted burst of intertwined emotion and memories resonates from his mind.

He seems...pleased, though it hardly makes sense to me. Did he expect me to show little or no affection for my daughter? I have accepted the fact that he may never fully trust me with Bella's heart, though I will spend the remainder of his life trying to convince him otherwise, but does he hold me in such contempt as to think that I would not put forth every effort to be a father to Renesmee? Am I that much of a monster in his eyes?

Edward. Edward, that's not it at all; stop brooding about something that's not even there, Jasper broadcasts loudly to me, interrupting my – brooding – as he so eloquently labeled it. I look over at him, tangled up inside. He goes on, Charlie is pleased that you seem to have a better understanding of fatherhood than he did when Bella was born. Jasper's topaz-colored eyes light up with a rare show of enthusiasm. Don't you see? He's starting to accept you, Edward. It's going to take some time...but I think that you just might be able to prove to Charlie that you deserve Bella.

I blink at him, startled.

Of course, there is not enough time in all of eternity for me to become worthy of Bella – but if there is the slightest possibility that Charlie will accept me, even forgive me for the damage I so thoughtlessly wrought on his daughter when I left... I know how elated such a gesture would make my Bella.

My gaze flickers to the side, connecting with Charlie's curious eyes for one second before he breaks off, looking back at the television screen. He will not make it easy on me, I know – but now that I have this hope, this knowledge that I can redeem myself in the eyes of at least one person who perceives me as something other than human – perhaps I can one day look at my reflection and see the man that Bella loves and not just the monster.

She nestles into my side, having returned from the bathroom, and reclaims Renesmee. The little girl is fast asleep, tiny puffs of air whistling lightly through her parted lips. Putting my arm around Bella once again, I allow my attention to drift around the room, taking note.

Alice has abandoned her post by the front door after being convinced by her latest vision – Bella bidding farewell to Charlie in the doorway – that all will be well, and is lounging casually on the bottom step of the staircase. Jasper, relieved that the stress has somewhat dissipated from the house, joins his wife on the stairs, his thoughts weary. Alice seems to sense his psychological fatigue and wordlessly encourages him to lay his head on her lap.

Rosalie tugs on Emmett's hand, pulling the remote control from his grasp, and motions with a sultry nod of her head for him to accompany her. His mind instantly fills with images that I cringe away from in disgust, and the two of them make their way to the small alcove under the stairs. Astonishingly, Rosalie's thoughts are, for once, not in line with her husband's. She is formulating a plan to construct a house of cards comprised of exactly fifty decks, which are stacked neatly on the table. I may have to check up on their progress later tonight.

The opening credits for the news filters from the television set, and Seth perks up. He scrambles upright, stretching just like Jacob, and walks over to Charlie's chair. "You gonna stand Billy and my mom up, Charlie?" he asks amiably, ignoring it when Charlie starts in surprise at his voice. "C'mon," he prompts, moving to block Charlie's view of the TV screen. "Bella and Nessie'll be here tomorrow. Let's get some grub, eh?" Seth offers him a bright, cheery grin.

The chief of police responds with a dubious expression, but yields after a moment under the influence of Seth's infectious smile. "All right..." he mutters, bracing his palms on the armrests of his chair. "I'm coming." Charlie pushes himself erect, groaning as the bones in his spinal column realign after being in one position for several hours, and glances almost reluctantly at the three of us sitting on the sofa. "Guess it's time for me to shove off," he remarks in a low voice.

"I'll walk you out," Bella volunteers at once. Keeping Renesmee's limp form cradled in her arms, she rises fluidly and follows Charlie and Seth to the front door.

I stand as well, not wishing to seem impolite by remaining seated, and say as a farewell, "It was good to see you again, Charlie." My words and the tone behind them are sincere, and I hope that he is able to recognize that.

He halts in mid-step, mildly surprised as always by my courteous treatment of him – and quite suddenly I have to mask my own surprise as he meets my eyes without glaring in dislike. He succeeds in astonishing me even more by replying quietly, "You too –" He hesitates for the length of one heartbeat. "– Edward."

Bella's eyes are shining as she watches the exchange, though her face clearly displays her sense of amazement in her father's behavior.

Seth turns around in the doorway and says to Charlie, "I'll meet you back at the house." Then he grins warmly at Bella. "See you tomorrow?" She nods, and Seth measures her with a keen black-brown stare before slowly raising one arm towards her for a hug. Bella does not hesitate to coil her free arm around his waist, and Seth cheers inside his head. After she withdraws, he waves at me. "Later, Edward." He jogs down the front steps and across the lawn, his pace quickening into a run when he hits the tree line, and Charlie rubs the back of his neck, shaking his head.

While he joins Bella by the threshold, I stroll over to my piano. The melody I hummed to Renesmee is still floating around in my mind, and I may have an idea for a new composition – well, not new so much as a rendition of another piece.

Sitting down on the bench, I begin to run my fingers over the keys very softly, my back to Bella and Charlie, and can easily distinguish every word.

Charlie's semi-opaque thoughts radiate profound unwillingness to leave the house, accompanied by his fear that he will never see his daughter again after tonight. Surely Bella can read the uncertainty in his stance as he hovers in the doorway, murmuring to her, "I don't know how much we should tell Renée about this." He stretches again, and his stomach growls loudly. He probably has not eaten since this morning.

I add a harmonizing line to the melody, committing the notes to memory. Bella agrees fervently, "I know. I don't want to freak her out. Better to protect her. This stuff isn't for the fainthearted."

Rueful, he tells her, "I would have tried to protect you, too, if I'd known how."
I smile secretively to myself. I know from experience just how vexing it can be to protect Bella. As a self-proclaimed ‘danger magnet', she has continuously been a target for fate since the day she arrived in Forks.
I suppose it was inevitable that she be changed into a vampire; it is the only possible means for her to stay safe. Aside from myself, of course.

Charlie coughs out a short laugh. "But I guess you've never fit into the fainthearted category, have you?"

I can picture Bella's bright smile in my mind's eye, and scarcely resist the urge to turn around to see it firsthand. Of their own accord, my hands dance across the piano, and her lullaby floats above the sound of breathing, Charlie's steadily throbbing heartbeat, and Renesmee's delicate, fluttering pulse.

"I'll think of something," Charlie assures Bella. "We've got time to discuss this, right?" he asks, apprehensive.

"Right," she promises with confidence.

While the familiar strains of the lullaby wrap around me, I integrate the new melody as a tinkling descant. Like the song that the antique gold music box that belonged to my mother plays, it is light and airy, and its presence changes the emotional feel of the entire composition.

When I had first crafted the lullaby, it would fill me with an indescribable ache every time the last note shivered perpetually in my ears – for at the time, I was convinced that there was no future for Bella and I. She was human, and deserved to remain so until she left this world...though she would take my cold, dead heart and all meaning from my existence with her.

Yet now, as the music she inspired is interwoven with Renesmee's song, the ache in my chest is replaced by a powerful surge of elation, hope, and love. It is pure joy.

Shifting into an exuberant major key, the chords ring out like church bells as the prominent melody keeps time, steadying the piece, and the descant soars – free and graceful – in a continuous stream of notes.

So beautiful... Esme's unspoken praise and soft sigh call me back to reality, and I glance up at her beaming face, returning her wide smile. This is what I have always wanted for you, Edward, she sends the deeply affectionate thought to me. You are happy. And there is no greater joy for a mother than to see all her children experience true happiness.

In contrast with my mother's blissful musings, Charlie then mumbles to Bella, his tone a peculiar mixture of accusation and petulance, "Jake says you guys were going to take off on me."

She immediately offers him a placation. "I didn't want to do that if there was any way at all around it. That's why we're still here."

He shuffles his feet, the rhythm of his heart accelerating a bit, and the tenor of his thoughts becomes hardened with staunch determination. "He said you could stay for a while," Charlie leads off, speaking firmly, "but only if I'm tough enough, and if I can keep my mouth shut."

"Yes..." Bella falters, hesitating over her response. After the barest pause – too short for Charlie to notice her uncertainty – she murmurs, "...but I can't promise that we'll never leave, Dad. It's pretty complicated..." Her tone slips, betraying a hint of sorrow as she speaks of leaving.

Whether Charlie is aware of it or not is unclear, but he inserts a quiet reminder, belying his own innate desire to keep his daughter close to home. "Need to know."

"Right," she agrees, breathing out in relief.

"You'll visit, though," he asks tentatively, shuffling his feet again, "if you have to go?"

She immediately vows in a low, ringing voice, "I promise, Dad. Now that you know just enough, I think this can work." Judging by the bright flickers of hope lightening her words, I can tell that she wants it to work just as much as Charlie – and she adds, feeding that hope, "I'll keep as close as you want."

Indecision and longing war briefly with one another in Charlie's clouded thoughts, and then both emotions vanish beneath a wave of firm resolve as the soft rustle of fabric and a stutter in his pulse filters through the ceaseless music emanating from the instrument under my fingertips.

Picking up a thread of awareness from my sister's mind, I watch through her eyes as Charlie leans toward Bella to embrace her, and she very carefully wraps an arm around his waist, Renesmee's sleeping face pressed into the curve of her shoulder. "Keep close, Bells," her father says quietly. "Real close."

Bella's teeth lock together with a muffled snap – steeling herself for the temptation of his nearness – and she squeezes her eyes shut. "Love you, Dad," she whispers with deep feeling.

The tiny hairs on the back of his neck prickle, either in response to the coolness of her breath or the instinctive fear that close proximity to our kind awakens in humans – Bella herself being the exception to that rule, of course.

He shivers and pulls away while trying to be casual. Bella instantly lowers her arm, rocking back on her heels to provide a little more space between their bodies. Charlie's lips twitch into a hint of a smile. "Love you, too, kid," he tells her sincerely. "Whatever else has changed, that hasn't." His dark eyes flick downward, softening, and he gently touches Renesmee's plump, rose-stained cheek with a fingertip. "She sure looks a lot like you," he comments in a subtle undertone.

Warmth blooms inside my chest. I am glad that both Charlie and I are perceptive enough to discern the obvious similarities Renesmee shares with her mother – and there are quite a few, by my reckoning.

Bella's full lips tremble, her eyes shimmering in the most peculiar way. She controls her expression a half-second later, though she cannot fully disguise the overflow of emotion in the gaze she gives her father, who is still looking fondly at the slumbering baby in her arms.

"More like Edward, I think," she replies, and I feel my mouth twist into a frown. Even as an immortal with superior senses and an enhanced mentality, Bella is still inexplicably unobservant when it comes to her own unique impact on the world and the people around her.

She has always glamorized me – calling me her angel, her eyes full of wonder every time she saw my skin glittering like a prism in the sunlight – when I am the one who is undeservedly blessed by the miracle of her light, her love, in my empty, infinite existence. She is my angel, turning the barren wasteland that had become my world into paradise by bringing the parts of me that I never knew existed to life with her mere presence. But she does not see herself that way.

She thinks that Renesmee inherited her exquisite beauty strictly from her vampire genealogy because she has never understood what I, and the majority of the male population at Forks High School, see when she enters a room. Our daughter may have my bronze hair, but every time I look at her, I see a miniature replica of my Bella's perfect face – complete with blush-tinted cheeks and wide chocolate brown eyes.

Bella interrupts my internal ruminations by mentioning almost shyly to Charlie, "She has your curls."

He jerks back a few inches, startled, and then snorts in disbelief. "Huh. Guess she does." He removes his finger from the little girl's flushed skin and rubs the back of his neck in an automatic, embarrassed gesture. "Huh," he mutters again. "Grandpa." Shaking his head incredulously, he glances up and meets Bella's eyes for a brief moment before Renesmee steals his attention once again. "Do I ever get to hold her?" he asks, though it sounds more like an admonishment.

She blinks once, surprised, and then looks down at our daughter, judging whether or not it would be safe. Apparently she decides in Charlie's favor, for she says softly, "Here," and lifts Renesmee's warm weight away from her shoulder. The little girl sighs in her sleep while Charlie forms a cradle with his arms and Bella carefully places her in his embrace.

When Bella completely withdraws, her father mutters under his breath, "She's...sturdy." He grunts very quietly, shifting his arms minutely. Renesmee remains deeply asleep, her rosebud mouth hanging slightly open as she breathes slow and evenly.

Seeing Bella's frown as he glances up, he swiftly amends, "Sturdy is good." He looks down at his granddaughter, his weathered face creasing into a grimace, and mumbles to himself, "She'll need to be tough, surrounded by all this craziness." His expression softens a moment later, and he begins to sway from side to side, a genuinely affectionate smile tugging on one corner of his mouth. "Prettiest baby I ever saw, including you, kid." He shrugs in vague repentance, peering over at Bella. "Sorry, but it's true."

She agrees - as I knew she would. "I know it is."

Charlie has already returned his attention to Renesmee. "Pretty baby," he croons, his warm breath causing tiny wisps of her bronze hair to tickle her forehead, and she snuggles more willingly into his chest. "Can I come back tomorrow?" he pleads, still rocking in a gentle motion on the balls of his feet.

"Sure, Dad. Of course." Bella smiles as she watches him, and affirms, "We'll be here."

"You'd better be." There is an edge of warning in his voice, but his expression is incredibly tender as he continues to gaze at Renesmee. "See you tomorrow, Nessie," he whispers. My hands pause for a split second from their dance across the piano keys, bracing for the onslaught.

"Not you, too!"

Charlie jerks his head upright, surprised by Bella's sharp, ringing outburst, and takes in her suddenly livid features with bewildered eyes. "Huh?"

Bella struggles visibly to compose herself, her teeth grinding together. Her chest heaves as though she is about to inhale – but seems to think better of it and flexes her small hands into fists behind her back. She speaks slowly, her words clipped but not furious, "Her name is Renesmee. Like Renée and Esme, put together. No variations."
Jasper's head rolls to the side on Alice's knees, tasting Bella's emotions with his talent, but his face is completely free of worry and his thoughts are benign. Alice must have shared with him her vision of Charlie departing from our company unscathed.

"Do you want to hear her middle name?" Bella inquires. The wind chime tone has returned to her voice, the question flowing more naturally from her mouth – though the fire in her level stare lingers, cooled but not yet smothered.

"Sure," Charlie answers. I suspect that the curiosity in his eyes has more to do with his daughter's volatile temper than with his granddaughter's middle name.

The beginning of a grin plays along the corners of Bella's lips. "Carlie," she announces. "With a C." Her hands relax from their tightly clenched position and she folds them in front of her body, interlocking her fingers. The motion strikes me as somewhat bashful, though the reason behind this response eludes me. After I had ‘come around', as Bella said, referring to the imminent arrival of our baby, she had expressed her desire to name the child in honor of both our parents. I immediately agreed. Needless to say, Esme was nothing short of ecstatic when she realized that Renesmee had been christened so with her in mind. I did not, however, tell my father that he was to be accredited as well.

Feeling a bit eager, I tune in to Carlisle's mind, momentarily swept up in the tranquil flow of his mental voice as he recites Thoreau – ‘As in the twilight of the dawn, when the first birds awake' – as Bella explains softly, "Like Carlisle and Charlie put together."

Oh! My father breaks off in the middle of the seventh stanza, his wide gold eyes darting to mine. Smiling crookedly, I nod once and transform Bella's rephrased lullaby into the composition I wrote as a musical illustration of the love that I watched blossom between he and Esme.

Carlisle's face lights up and his thoughts fairly glow with pride, love, and gratitude as Charlie grins at Bella. "Thanks, Bells," he remarks, inordinately pleased.

"Thank you, Dad." Bella speaks earnestly, her gaze intense, "So much has changed so quickly. My head hasn't stopped spinning. If I didn't have you now, I don't know how I'd keep my grip on –" she stops, and swiftly resumes, "– on reality."

An all-too-familiar wave of frustration swells inside me, but I successfully ignore it...to a certain degree. It is blatantly clear to me that Bella had been about to say something else, and changed her mind at the last minute. I wonder if I will ever get to a point in our relationship when her silent thoughts no longer plague me with a curiosity that often burns hotter than my thirst. In all likelihood, that day will never come.

Charlie's stomach growls loudly, protesting the absence of food, and Bella unclasps her hands. "Go eat, Dad. We will be here." It is impossible to doubt her honesty, and Charlie steps closer, assisting as much as he is able as Bella reclaims our daughter.

He takes one backward step, lingering in the doorway, and his eyes flash around the spacious room, inventorying our various activities. His perception must be sharper than the average human's, because he detects the faint change in the atmosphere – the almost imperceptible slip of my family's well-crafted façade – and shivers. He tries to conceal the involuntary reaction by shaking his head and placing a hand on the wood doorframe. "See you tomorrow, Bella." A slight frown darkens his face as he looks her up and down critically. "I mean," he adds, "it's not like you don't look...good." He shrugs, resigned. "I'll get used to it."

"Thanks, Dad."

He nods at her and ducks outside, striding at a slow pace to his cruiser. I watch through the long panel of gleaming windows as his car is swallowed by the dense clusters of emerald leaves, listening to the sound of his tires transition from the muted crunch of earth to the smooth plane of damp pavement, and glance swiftly over my shoulder.

Bella is still standing before the open doorway, a look of profound amazement on her heart-shaped face. Blinking steadily for the first time in several minutes, a barely audible hiss drifts across the room, and the veil of plain, unappealing brown disappears from her widened eyes. As Renesmee nestles into her embrace, she whispers in awe, "Wow."

I spin around on the black polished bench and stand, racing to her side in less than a second. My arms snake around her waist, her back pressing lightly into my chest, and I breathe in deeply. The feel of her body against mine and the pure, distinctive scent of her skin have alleviated some previously unknown ache in the core of my being. Resting my chin on her shoulder, I murmur in genuine pleasure, "You took the word right out of my mouth."

"Edward, I did it!" she exclaims joyfully.

"You did," I tell her, immensely proud, and my arms tighten around her slender frame. "You were unbelievable. All that worrying over being a newborn, and then you skip it altogether." A laugh bubbles out of me, caught up in strands of Bella's dark hair. I want so desperately to touch my lips to the delicate curve of her neck but I refrain. We both nearly lost ourselves in that last kiss, so the rest will have to wait until we are alone – when there will be no interruptions.

Speaking of interruptions, Emmett calls out from under the stairs, "I'm not even sure she's really a vampire, let alone a newborn." He snickers, and adds, "She's too tame." Seriously, kid – he apparently cannot resist including me in his ribbing – did you two even have any fun last night? Or are you too squeaky clean for that?

I block him, forcefully pushing his thoughts aside while wishing to do the same with his skull, and suppress the growl starting to build deep inside my chest. Bella, on the other hand, does little to curb her irritation. She stiffens against me, and a snarl rips through her clenched teeth, low-pitched and dangerous.
It only serves to spur Emmett on. Chuckling, he replies in a mocking tone, "Oooo, scary."

She hisses, the threatening noise rattling in the back of her throat, and Renesmee stirs in her arms. Tiny rosebud mouth stretching wide with a yawn, the little girl blinks her long-lashed eyes and looks around groggily. Her brow puckers in confusion. An image of Charlie materializes in her mind as she sniffs, searching for his scent. She lays a palm on Bella's cheek, showing her the picture, her thoughts questioning.

Bella instinctively moderates her angry features before meeting our daughter's wide brown stare and smiles gently, replying, "Charlie will be back tomorrow."

"Excellent," Emmett says, injecting a fair bit of wicked amusement in his voice, and I can just imagine the lopsided smirk that must be on his face. He cackles with glee, already brainstorming for more suggestive remarks to insert into conversations, and this time Rosalie joins in – she never could resist the opportunity to laugh at another's expense. Especially mine.

An errant notion suddenly rouses in a far corner of my mind. My lips purse as I consider all possible implications if this idea were to proceed, and Renesmee peers around Bella's head to look at me inquisitively while my thoughts swirl inside my skull. I am purposefully keeping my idea from becoming a firm decision; if the immediate future solidifies, then it may ruin my chance to get back at my brother.

As I expected, Alice picks up on my deliberate cluttering of the timeline. Edward...? Edward, what is it? she asks, her vision growing shadowy and obscured, and she stares intently at my back from her place on the stairs. What are you trying to decide?

Ignoring her questions, I unwind my arms from Bella's waist and circle around to face her, looking over the top of her head towards the little room under the staircase. "Not brilliant, Emmett," I comment scornfully. While his thoughts cloud momentarily with puzzlement, I hold out my hands for Renesmee.
She watches me with clear, deep eyes while Bella's eyebrows furrow, hesitating as she measures my expression. Holding her gaze, I allow one lid to drop into a wink, a crooked grin lifting one side of my mouth.
Though she continues to frown in confusion, she passes Renesmee to me, and our daughter settles with ease in my arms, resting her little hands on my chest.

"What do you mean?" Emmett finally demands. His voice still rings with mirth, but his mind is abuzz with a vague sense of apprehension. This is between me and my new little sister, Edward, he insists. It's not my fault that you happen to be included in the package.

I narrow my eyes derisively. "It's a little dense, don't you think," I say, arching an eyebrow, "to antagonize the strongest vampire in the house?"

His response is a loud, mocking snort. "Please!" he shouts in sarcastic disbelief, throwing his head backward to crow with laughter at the ceiling.

"Bella," I turn my gaze on her, the disdain on my face melting into affection and a hint of mischief – and Emmett instantly silences, listening attentively, "do you remember a few months ago, I asked you to do me a favor once you were immortal?"

Her expression scrunches up into a thoughtful frown as she sifts through her dim human memories while my mind recalls every detail with crystalline accuracy.

Bella sat on the kitchen counter, swinging her legs lightly like a child as she leaned against my hard shoulder. Her beautiful face was still painted with a rosy flush from our kiss, and her warmth penetrated through both our clothing to flood my body with exquisite heat.

I was quietly explaining why newborns have unusual strength in their first year as a vampire – the human blood lingering in their systems fueled the sheer power in their transformed bodies.

She asked with the ever-present curiosity, "How strong will I be?"

I glanced sideways at her, grinning, though the steadily weakening part of my conscience lamented the impending loss of her humanity. "Stronger than I am," I told her truthfully.

Her chocolate brown eyes lit up. "Stronger than Emmett?"

My grin widened. Alice had received a flash recently of a sulking Emmett and a gloating Bella, her vivid scarlet irises glowing with triumph. I was incredibly interested in seeing that particular vision come to fruition. "Yes. Do me a favor and challenge him to an arm-wrestling match. It would be a good experience for him."

She laughed, the sound sparkling in the air like precious gems, and laid her head for the briefest moment on my shoulder. I never wanted to move from that spot for the rest of the evening.

"Oh!" Bella gasps out, the same brilliant light from the memory in her eyes, and I work hard to keep my expression neutral under my brother's keen stare.

The blurred vision in Alice's mind immediately clears, and she lets out a shrill, tinkling laugh. This'll be fun! she exclaims mentally, bouncing a little in her seat with excitement.

What's up? Jacob leans around the kitchen doorframe, his cheeks bulging with half-eaten food, a handful of some foul-smelling substance in his large hand.

Glaring in equal turns at Alice's jubilant smile and the smug look on my face that I cannot quite conceal, Emmett growls, "What?"

Bella's shining eyes focus on me, her lips parting slightly in wonder. "Really?" The question is delivered in a tone that conveys an odd mixture of incredulity and anticipation.

"Trust me." I curve my mouth into her favorite crooked smile. The outcome Alice and I had seen through her gift is rock solid – all Bella has to do is believe in herself.

I watch her fondly as she takes a deep breath and squares her shoulders, her chin rising into the air fractionally. Then she pivots fluidly in a half circle to face the staircase, her gaze hardening with determination. "Emmett," she calls out, "how do you feel about a little bet?"

His entire countenance ignites with a wild, exuberant glow and he leaps to his feet. "Awesome." Now we're gettin' somewhere! "Bring it."

Alice inwardly shouts words of encouragement as Bella tucks her lower lip between her teeth for a second, uncertainty marring her confident features. Emmett instantly notices her hesitation and arches his eyebrows, insinuating, "Unless you're too afraid...?" He trails off, crossing his huge arms over his chest while he stares down at her with humor-filled topaz eyes.

Bella jerks her chin higher and straightens her spine, trying to appear tough within the shadow of my enormous brother. "You. Me. Arm-wrestling. Dining room table." Her vibrant red eyes widen a little. "Now."

A broad grin decorates Emmett's face, nearly splitting his cheeks, and Esme stifles a frightened gasp, her thoughts filling with worry. Oh no... Edward! Edward, it will be destroyed!

Flickering images of mahogany splinters and my mother's horrified expression burst across my mind's eye and Alice interjects swiftly, beating me to the punch, "Er, Bella, I think Esme is fairly fond of that table. It's an antique."

Esme relaxes, stilling her hands from their nervous wringing, and mouths gratefully, "Thanks."

None of this is able to dampen Emmett's buoyant mood – or his absurdly wide smile. "No problem." Unfolding his arms, he begins to stride towards the back door, motioning for us to follow with his hand. "Right this way, Bella."

He leads the way to a cluster of weathered granite rocks near the riverbed. The rest of our family follows behind as we head towards the steady rush of the river, their combined thoughts a cacophony of glee, curiosity, and amusement. I cast a quick glance sideways at Bella; she is staring resolutely forward, though faint lines wrinkle her smooth forehead like she is fighting some internal battle inside her mind.
I open my mouth to offer a vote of confidence – when the sound of my name being called causes me to pause in mid-step for a fraction of a second. Bella marches on without looking back while Jacob trots barefooted to my side.

Bella's gonna arm-wrestle? This I gotta see. I resume walking; he falls easily in step with me, and Renesmee gives him a vibrant smile. Jacob studies both Bella and Emmett as they continue on ahead of us, his mind contemplating the approaching contest, and then he shoots me a furtive glance. Can she win? he asks in a subdued tone.

I simply roll my eyes and incline my head a few millimeters. The grin that parts Jacob's lips could rival Emmett's smile. He chuckles almost silently under his breath, commenting mentally, Cool.

Supremely arrogant in regard to his physical strength, Emmett is completely at ease as he sets his elbow on top of the flattest stone and waves at Bella, still grinning in obvious enjoyment. She maintains a composed demeanor, though her gaze darts to the thick bands of muscle on his bent arm.

I come to a stop several feet away, and the others form a loose semi-circle in the center of the area, their keen eyes locked on the two contenders. Circling around to the opposite side of the makeshift table, Bella copies my brother's position and declares in a crisp, business-like voice, "Okay, Emmett. I win, and you cannot say one word about my sex life to anyone, not even Rose. No allusions, no innuendos – no nothing."

His eyes narrow dangerously. "Deal." Then he adds his own terms. "I win, and it's going to get a lot worse." A truly fiendish leer twists his features when Bella holds her breath in shock. You know that I don't bluff, brother, he says to me. Are you sure you want her to go through with this?

C'mon, Bella...don't let him get to you! You can do it! Alice cheers inside her head, and Jasper places his palm on the back of her neck to calm her overexcited nerves. She throws him an annoyed glare; his hand slips from her neck to the small of her back – just to touch her and not regulate her emotions.

Bella looks at Emmett with wide eyes, a twinge of apprehension crossing her expression, and he seizes the opportunity to taunt her. "You gonna back down so easy, little sister?" He shakes his head in mock-disappointment. "Not much wild about you, is there? I bet that cottage doesn't have a scratch." Laughing raucously, the noise bouncing off the gray-brown rocks, he says between chuckles, "Did Edward tell you how many houses Rose and I smashed?"

Red fire flares in her bright eyes, and her jaw locks with an audible snap. Glowering menacingly, she grabs Emmett's big hand, her slim fingers curling less than halfway around his palm, and mutters through her teeth, "One, two -"

"Three." With a grunt, Emmett shoves against her hand, his bicep rippling in exertion. Bella is unmoved; the threatening look on her heart-shaped face cracks a little with surprise, and she stares at her own hand in wonder, a faint smile tugging on her lips.

Emmett growls, a deep bass rumble coming from inside his chest, and his thick eyebrows lower fiercely in concentration. A string of profanities ricochets within his skull when Bella does not lose so much as a millimeter. He throws his whole body into the force behind his grasp, the seconds ticking by, and Bella's smile becomes more prominent.

Abruptly, she bends her deceptively fragile-looking arm infinitesimally and Emmett nearly loses his grip in shock as she propels his hand back an inch. Enchantingly lovely giggles erupt from her mouth, and the sound is so delicious that I cannot help but to laugh with her. Beside me, Jacob lets out a muffled guffaw, his dark eyes twinkling with merriment.
An incensed snarl rips through the bright peals of laughter; Emmett bares his vivid white teeth at Bella – but she only smiles sweetly, reminding him in a serene voice, "Just keep your mouth shut."

With a casual flick of her wrist, she smashes his hand into the boulder.

A noise like the clap of thunder reverberates off the rocks and the surrounding forest, startling a jay from his perch on a pine bough, and Renesmee jumps in my arms. I tighten my hold around her, all of us looking on as the slab of granite quivers and a jagged piece disconnects from the whole and topples to the ground. It lands squarely on Emmett's foot – cracking in two in the process – and Bella snickers, pulling her hand away with a triumphant grin. I laugh quietly at her amusement and my brother's outraged and disheartened scowl while Jacob cups a hand over his mouth, resisting the urge to double over in hysterics.

Curling his lips over his teeth, Emmett kicks a fragment of the broken rock across the river. It spins through the air like a propeller, slicing a maple tree in half, and then slams into the thick trunk of an ancient fir. A flock of birds take flight from its branches, squawking to one another in dismay. The tree sways perilously – and falls with a groan until it is propped upright at an odd angle by a neighboring silver pine.

Once the clamor dies, Emmett fixes my wife with a blazing ocher glare. "Rematch," he snaps. "Tomorrow."

Bella's slight smile is patronizing, her ruby-colored eyes glittering with the joy of victory. "It's not going to wear off that fast," she informs him, shaking her head. Then she suggests teasingly, "Maybe you ought to give it a month." Her smile tilts to one side, becoming more of a smirk, and a dimple appears in the center of her small chin.

Emmett growls, sounding exactly like the irritable grizzlies that he enjoys to hunt, and shows his teeth once again. "Tomorrow," he snarls at her.

Her expression switches from mischievously amused to positively angelic in the blink of an eye. "Hey," she says in a pleasant, lighthearted voice, shrugging her tiny shoulders, "whatever makes you happy, big brother."

While an impressive collection of obscenities permeates his thoughts, Emmett pummels the slab of granite with his fist like a toddler having a tantrum. The rock shatters under the force of his blow, sending a puff of dust into the air and a shower of gray splinters onto the grass. He spins on heel and storms off toward the tree line – no doubt to nurse his wounded ego for the remainder of the evening. Rosalie wonders if she should follow...but decides against it for the time being. Emmett's temper shows itself rarely, but when it does, the only logical advice for the rest of us to heed is ‘look out'.

My brother's departure only captures my attention for a handful of seconds before I find my gaze drawn back to Bella. Open fascination brightens her soft, pale face as she looks down at the boulder in front of her, splaying her fingers wide on its gritty surface, and after a moment's hesitation she slowly digs her hand into the stone. Her crimson eyes light up even more, and she raises a handful of crushed rock to her face, inspecting it with a small grin. "Cool," she mumbles to herself.

Her full lips stretch over her teeth in a huge smile. I unconsciously mimic the expression, watching avidly as she twirls in a swift circle and chops the rock with the side of her hand in a surprisingly believable representation of a karate move. With a low-pitched shriek, the stone shivers, an explosion of dust erupting from a fissure opening down the middle of the slab, and splits in two.

Peals of delighted laughter dance on the light breeze that stirs Bella's dark hair as she makes a game of demolishing the rest of the stone, using her hands and feet to break up the granite into tiny shards. After each strike, a quiet snicker – like the laugh of a naughty child – bursts out of her mouth.

I share in her mirth, chuckling in genuine amusement while she enjoys her newfound strength, and once I start Jacob joins in, his russet-skinned face turning redder as he cackles at his best friend's antics. Carlisle's shoulders shake with a quiet laugh, the tone of his thoughts echoing his profound happiness that I now have a beloved mate to cherish for eternity, and Esme covers her mouth with a hand to stifle her own soft giggles.

Rosalie lets out a puff of air, a reluctant smile curving her lips, and shakes her head. Tossing her golden locks, she silently slips away into the forest, intent on locating her missing husband. As plans start to materialize in her mind to make Emmett forget about his defeat, I hastily block Rose's thoughts before the mental pictures become too well defined.

Jasper absorbs our combined good humor like a sponge, grinning broadly the whole time, and Alice is, well, Alice. She trills merrily, her high-pitched laughter ringing throughout the small clearing.

Suddenly, a new sound floats above the amused chorus. Shrill, effervescent giggles like the ringing of silver bells on a crisp winter's morning emerge from Renesmee's tiny mouth, her cheeks bright pink as she watches her mother's playful behavior with sparkling brown eyes.

Everyone falls silent; six pairs of dumbstruck eyes turn towards the baby in my arms, and Bella pauses in mid-punch, looking at our daughter in astonishment. Straightening, she brushes the dust from her hands and glances up at me, her ruby-colored eyes wide in surprise. "Did she just laugh?"

"Yes," I tell her, smiling crookedly. Renesmee beams in response, her gaze flitting from one parent to the other as she remembers Bella destroying the rock and the happiness it seemed to awaken in her.

Jacob snorts under his breath. "Who wasn't laughing?" he mutters, rolling his eyes. Bella was acting like a complete goofball, he adds mentally.

I glance sideways at him, a smirk playing along the edges of my mouth. Though the circumstances of Jacob's inclusion to our family are not of my choosing, I meant it when I told him a few days ago that I think of him as a brother, a comrade-in-arms. And despite our...disagreement with the Charlie situation, it cannot change the fact that he has become more or less a permanent fixture in our lives – and I still owe him for the constant protection he afforded my Bella during those agonizing months we were apart.

My smirk becomes more prominent, and I nudge him carefully in the ribs with my elbow, teasing good-naturedly, "Tell me you didn't let go a bit on your first run, dog."

Surprise quickly gives way to joy on his face as he realizes that I am bantering with him just as I would with either of my brothers, and he raises his eyebrows, grinning broadly. "That's different," he justifies, lightly punching my shoulder with his fist. From the corner of my eye, I see Bella's lips part in disbelief while she takes in the easy camaraderie developing between Jacob and I. I wish that I could see her eyes – they are my only windows to her hidden thoughts – but Jacob is still speaking. He explains mock-seriously, dark eyes glittering with humor, "Bella's supposed to be a grown-up. Married and a mom and all that. Shouldn't there be more dignity?"

I gaze in silence at him, dubious, while Renesmee frowns deeply, a little crease appearing in the middle of her tiny brow. Her scorching palm touches my cheek, and she shows me her memory of Bella's little game, focusing on the unbridled elation on her mother's face. She colors the image with a strong sense of enjoyment – and then the vision shifts abruptly, like the turning of a page in a book. Renesmee repeats Jacob's words and broadcasts her annoyance with his suggestion that Bella stop having fun. She likes to see her mother smile and laugh. It makes her happy. We share a common bond in that respect, it seems.

"What does she want?" Bella eyes the two of us curiously as she picks up a fragment of gray-brown stone from the ground and twirls it between her fingers.

Grinning, I tell her, "Less dignity." Her scarlet eyes are still dancing with pleasure, her long brown locks swaying gently around her neck and shoulders in the breeze. She holds me captive without putting forth any conscious effort. I would be perfectly content to watch her destroy an entire mountain if it made her giggle like that. "She was having almost as much fun watching you enjoy yourself as I was," I say, the center of my chest warming with adoration.

Bella smiles, her expression full of mischief and affection, and her eyes flit from mine to Renesmee. "Am I funny?" Not expecting an answer, she darts forward. Mother and daughter reach for one another simultaneously, and I release my hold on Renesmee while Bella's arms wind around her small body expertly. Once the little girl is settled, Bella offers her the rock in her hand, balancing it in the center of her palm. "You want to try?"

Renesmee beams eagerly, snatching the rock with both hands. The piece of granite fits easily between her tiny fingers and she squeezes, her auburn-colored eyebrows knitting together as she concentrates, using all of her considerable strength – given her age and size – to pulverize the stone as she had seen her mother do.

A slight noise, like the scraping of rock against rock, emanates from the shard in her hands. The smallest trace of dust trickles down to be caught up by the wind and blown away, but the stone remains intact.
Renesmee grimaces in disappointment and holds up the shard to Bella. She takes it at once, assuring our daughter with a smile, "I'll get it." Her fingers contract just noticeably, and the stone disintegrates into a handful of pale gray sand. Renesmee claps gleefully, laughing, and the sound is so sweetly infectious that we all join in – a chorus of bells resonating across the babbling river.

Another breeze rustles the canopy of leaves covering the forest, and the clouds blanketing the sky suddenly part. Thick beams of sunlight, tinged ruby and gold, burst from the burning orb of the setting sun and illuminate the clearing. Rainbow flecks of light glitter on the exposed flesh of every vampire present, dappling the deep jade grass and the rough bark of the surrounding tree trunks, and fiery sparkles burst upon the ripples of the water...but all of this is incapable of rivaling the jewel-like brilliance of Bella's skin.

From the first moment that I had seen my flesh glisten in the light of day, I had been repulsed.
The words that reverberated in my head each time I looked at myself in the mirror or through the minds of my family were harsh, cutting, and undeniably true: unnatural, alien, frightening...the skin of a killer.

When I took Bella to the meadow on that fateful day, I had felt the cold tingles of fear skitter down my spine, the dread clawing at my insides, as she waited for me to step into the sunlight, a halo of gold shimmering on her chestnut hair.

But she was not repulsed, or afraid. She was enthralled.

It was at that precise second while her heartbeat drummed steadily in my ears that I felt absolute acceptance. I had shown Bella everything that I was, all that I could do – and still she stayed with me. She had even called me beautiful as she dreamt that night in my arms.

Looking at her now, I am struck by the notion that ‘beautiful' is an absurdly inadequate description for a being as glorious as the one standing beside me.

Every glittering facet on the apples of her cheeks flashes with perfect clarity in my eyes, and the slender column of her throat twinkles more brilliantly than the most costly diamond necklace. Her pale lavender eyelids shimmer like amethysts as they flutter; she holds her hand up before her face, her expression full of wonder as she slowly turns her palm over, mesmerized by her new skin.

A set of tiny, dimpled fingers touch Bella's cheek, stroking along the edge of her jaw. Renesmee's dark eyes are round with awe as she stares raptly at her mother. She reaches for one of the slim arms supporting her feather-light weight and pushes up the white fabric covering Bella's forearm. The exposed skin sparkles instantly beneath the sun's rays, and Renesmee puts her small arm next to her mother's, comparing their appearances.

Our little girl's flawless ivory skin is softly luminous – not startling like a vampire's, but not the flat tone of an average human. It certainly would not keep her from going out in public on a sunny day. Renesmee, however, is far from satisfied with this knowledge. Her thoughts are intensely displeased; she wants to sparkle like her parents, because we look so pretty in the ruby-and-gold light.

She raises her palm and touches Bella's face again, showing her an image of their arms side by side and flavoring it with her childlike malcontent.

Bella shakes her head in denial, smoothing Renesmee's curls – gleaming vividly like an open flame in the sunlight – away from her soft cheek, and smiles gently. "You're the prettiest," she murmurs, reassuring our daughter.

That does not sit well with me. Without a doubt, Renesmee is the loveliest child to ever exist on this earth – but as enchanting as she is, it is like comparing the pure, distant light of a flickering star to the dazzling radiance of the sun. I cannot tear my gaze from the dark-haired angel holding a cherub in her embrace at my side, and the words slip out from my mouth of their own accord – low and ardent. "I'm not sure I can agree to that."

Bella turns sideways, lips parting to form a reply – when she abruptly halts, her eyes widening as she stares at my face. I have seen this particular expression on her face countless times, because I am the only one who can affect her thought processes with just a glance.

I hold her eyes, unblinking, the light creating tiny multicolored sparks across her full lips, the tip of her nose, and the curve of her throat, until the fabric of her shirt hides the rest of her flesh from view. I have the sudden, wild urge to pull away that annoying material from her body. It conceals a true masterpiece from my vision, and I want to see her, to have such a profound memory seared eternally into my brain...

Ugh. Could you stop making googly-eyes at each other? I'm getting a stomachache. Jacob quickly strides forward, filling the space on Bella's other side, and avoids my glare as she catches his movement in her peripheral vision and turns to look at him. He lifts his hand in front of his face, mockingly shielding his eyes from her glittering skin, and jokes, "Freaky Bella."

I treat his statement like a compliment and express honestly, "What an amazing creature she is." Unconsciously, I take a step closer to Bella, her scent overwhelming even Renesmee's unique aroma, and wrap an arm around her waist. She immediately moves into my hold, fitting herself at my side as though she was made to stand there.

After a minute or so of comfortable silence, the others' thoughts humming dully in the background of my mind, she smiles to herself, and the curiosity reawakens with fresh vigor. I lean over to press a kiss on her cheek, and then murmur quietly in her ear, "What are you thinking?"

She angles her head to meet my eyes, and I am momentarily rendered speechless by the sheer joy blazing inside her crimson irises, lighting up her entire countenance with an inner fire. She is utterly dazzling. "That I've found the place where I belong," she replies simply.

I cannot help myself. My free hand comes up to frame the side of her face and I cover her mouth with mine. The emotions coursing, uncontrolled and explosive, throughout my body are reminiscent of what I experienced the first night I entered Bella's bedroom and heard her say my name as she slept.

Jasper groans internally as he struggles to dampen my emotional storm – with minimal success – and Carlisle tactfully clears his throat, hoping to interrupt us by embarrassing Bella.

She breaks away at once, inhaling a sharp breath, but I refuse to drop my hand from her cheek. I run the pad of my thumb over her bottom lip and her shaky exhale wafts across my face, filling my head with an extremely heightened awareness of her and only her.

Alice giggles, the sound muffled by the hand covering her grinning mouth. Oh, go on – she encourages with her thoughts – get out of here already. I'll look after the baby until Em and Rose get back, and Esme can get a head start on her plans for Nessie's room. A vision swirls inside her mind, disrupting her line of thought, and I only catch a brief glimpse of a circular forest glade that strikes a familiar chord before she blocks me by translating "The Jabberwocky" into Thai.

I sigh and shift my eyes from Bella just enough to see my petite sister standing a few feet to the left. She winks, then motions with her small hands for me to take my wife elsewhere. "Scoot." Her lips move soundlessly to form the friendly order, and she skips forward with her arms held open, waiting to receive my daughter.

Turning my gaze back to Bella, my thumb continues to trace the shape of her mouth while I murmur in a low, smoldering voice, "Come with me."

She nods helplessly, making a noise in the back of her throat that is half-assent, half-moan, and electricity begins to sizzle through my veins once again.

As I lose myself in the fiery depths of her brilliant red eyes, I use my free arm to remove Renesmee from Bella's hold and pass the little girl to Alice. My sister claims Renesmee easily, an impish grin on her elfin face, and swiftly returns to Jasper's side. See you in the morning, she thinks playfully.

Without sparing the others even a farewell glance, I pull Bella onto my back in a movement that is strictly reflexive and sprint to the northwest, leaping across the river, and am soon enveloped by the comfortably well-known emerald cocoon of the forest.

Bella's lips are suddenly at my ear. "I can keep up with you now, you know," she breathes, and I have to reinforce my concentration as she lays a feathery kiss on my neck.

"Oh, I know." I glance at her fleetingly over my shoulder, smiling. "But time is running short, and I believe that I proved just this morning that - of the two of us - I am the fastest."

"For now," she mutters sourly, adjusting her grip around my shoulders and crossing her ankles in front of my waist, and my smile widens at the hint of warning in her voice.

My eyes flick upwards as we pass beneath a gap in the leafy canopy, the light creating red-gold sparkles on our skin, and I increase my pace, tracking the glowing orb of the sun hanging low in the sky.

Less than five minutes later, I break through a ring of lush ferns and skid to a halt directly in the center of a small meadow – our meadow. Late summer daisies dot the swaying grass, tinged a burnished gold by the setting sun, and stalks of purple foxglove decorate the outer boundary of the meadow, just touching the low-hanging branches of the fir trees.

Bella lithely springs from my back and wanders slowly through the soft grass. The expression on her face is exactly the same as when she and I came here the first time – full of wonder and appreciation of the wild, untainted beauty surrounding us. A light breeze gently tosses her dark hair, sending an intoxicating cloud of her scent towards me, and I force myself to approach at a slow walk, allowing her to have a moment to absorb this special place with her newly enhanced senses.

She spins to look at me, a faint smile curving her lips, and the sunlight illuminates her entire face. My breath leaves my lungs in a rush, staggered by the absolute magnificence of the woman standing before me.

Seeming not to notice my inability to construct a coherent thought because of her inadvertent ‘dazzling', Bella remarks quietly, "We haven't been here since..." She trails off, her gaze suddenly distant – no doubt remembering our last trip to the meadow. It is quite vivid in my mind, as well...and as the memory pervades my thoughts, my earlier desire to see Bella's bare skin in the sunlight swiftly overrides my fading willpower.

I leap forward just as she unexpectedly pounces, the brilliant scarlet of her eyes ablaze with lust, and we crash into one another, the noise echoing like distant thunder across the treetops. Together, our hands make short work of the clothing separating our bodies, and as Bella's fingers tangle themselves into my hair, pulling my face towards hers, I suppress the hunger long enough to pull away. I want that vision of her perfect figure shimmering like a flawless diamond more than I can ever hope to explain.

"Edward?" Her grasp loosens and she frowns in confusion, staring up at me while I move further away, angling my body to the side so that my shadow does not hinder the long fingers of light piercing the dusky blue sky.

And then...there are no words to describe the image that becomes permanently embedded in my brain.

A few seconds go by. I am unable to move, to blink, half-afraid that this celestial creature will vanish – return to the heavens from whence she came. Bella's eyebrows come together, a little crease appearing in the center of her forehead, and she starts to push herself up on her elbows. "What –?"

"Stay still," I beg in a hoarse whisper. The puzzled frown remains on her face, but she heeds my request and lays back on the flower-strewn grass, her chestnut locks spread out around her like a fan.

My avid gaze roams over every curve, each elegantly shaped contour of her divine shape, and I feel my clenched muscles start to tremble from the exertion of containing my need.

For the span of one whole minute, I indulge my bizarre whim, letting my eager eyes take in their fill. Impatient and bemused, Bella finally reaches for me...and I cannot fight against such a compelling temptation anymore. Melting into her embrace, I brush my lips along the edge of her jaw, down her neck, and pause at the hollow at the base of her throat to murmur into her fragrant skin, "You are so beautiful."

In a sudden burst of inspiration, I let the tip of nose glide upward, following an invisible line to her mouth. With our lips barely touching, tiny wisps of her breath leave a sweet taste on my tongue as she exhales heavily, entwining her slender arms around my neck. Repeating the same words from before, when I had tried to persuade her – and my unflappable morality – to give ourselves to one another before the wedding, I whisper, "I love you." I kiss the corner of her mouth. "I want you." When I kiss the outer curve of her lower lip, she whimpers ever so quietly, and my arms instinctively tighten around her waist. "Right now," I manage to finish, the air entering and leaving my open mouth in shallow gasps.

"Yes..." She sighs, and captures me with her whole body, holding me to her with steely arms and legs while fiercely pressing her lips to mine.

The feathery meadow grass is as comfortable as our bed at the cottage. Broken blades get caught in my hair, and Bella's, but neither of us are of a mind to care. We remain as closely fused as two separate beings can possibly be until the endless expanse of sky above us has long since darkened to blue-black, sprinkled with millions of pristine white stars.

"Look, love." I do not raise my voice above a whisper; somehow, I feel as though speaking any louder will disturb the tranquil perfection of this moment, like waking from a dream that could easily go on forever. Deftly, I rearrange our bodies so that she is lying across my chest, her head pillowed on my shoulder, and I thread my fingers through her hair. Angling my chin downward, I look on with a smile as her eyes grow wide and a low gasp escapes from her parted lips.

"There's so many," she comments in awe, turning her head in every direction. The faint glow of starlight casts a silvery sheen on our bare limbs. There is no moon tonight, but I can make out even the smallest details in the texture of her full lips as I watch her stare up at the night sky. "It's like..." She struggles to organize her thoughts, and I stifle the ever-present frustration caused by her editing. "Like it just...goes on forever. Only I couldn't see it before."

"Neither could I." Irresistibly drawn, my fingertips caress her cheek, and she nestles deeper into my embrace with a contented sigh.

I was not referring to the eternal scope of the universe, but of my life with Bella. She is the sole reason that I can now call this unending existence that I never chose a life. Because of her, I can see the sunrise and think of it as a new day and not merely another drop in the monotonous ocean of time.

And we will have this life together – forever.

That realization fills me with such hope and encompassing joy that I swear I can actually feel my soul flutter within my hollow chest and pulse like a heartbeat.

The worry and uncertainty of Renesmee's lifespan and her connection to Jacob still stain the fringes of my mind, and undoubtedly Bella's as well, but those emotions hold no power over us tonight.

Glancing briefly at the stars, I recall from an old manuscript on sailing that a ship's captain would navigate his vessel by observing the stars, using their fixed course in the sky to steer his ship back to port. When the storms came, threatening to sink the craft in the seemingly limitless waters, the captain would need only remember the position of his guiding star to find his way through the turmoil.

Bella is my star. The only star I will ever need.

As long as I have her light to shine on my life, I will always be home.