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Chapter 24: Vote

Summary:
Chapter 24 of New Moon from Edward's point of view.


Notes:
I'm working on the scene after this for Novel Novice's next contest. Please review and give suggestions for what comes next. Disclaimer: All publicly recognizable characters, settings, etc. are the property of their respective owners. The characters and plot are the property of Stephenie Meyer. No money is being made from this work. No copyright infringement is intended.


1. Vote

Rating 0/5   Word Count 7726   Review this Chapter

A vote? How were my family's opinions on Bella's mortality relevant? However, I played along, mostly to keep Bella from jumping out her window by herself. At best she would have sprained an ankle. She flinched slightly on the way down, and her long hair swirled around my face with the breeze. I enjoyed the scent of freesia more than ever before because it barely burned my throat, thirsty as I was. Now, that scent meant she was alive, and not even the worst part of my nature wished to change that. Even if it meant a fight with the Volturi, she would remain alive. However, it was more likely to mean a fight with Bella.

“Alright then, up you go,” I spat, once we were on the ground, failing to keep the ire out of my voice.

I ran quickly through the forest, eager to have this ridiculous conversation in the past. The path that I had worn into the ground between our houses was covered by weeds. The forest had succeeded in moving on where Bella and I had failed. I was furious with myself for hurting her and for making this debate necessary. However, as angry as I was, I still relished the feel of Bella's form pressed against my back. There was no doubt that she was lighter than before, and I mentally kicked myself again for what I had done to her.

The light kiss on my neck broke me from my self-loathing. “Thank you. Does that mean you've decided you're awake?” I asked, longing for a lighter mood.

She laughed. It was a real laugh, a sound I hadn't heard since her birthday party. “Not really. More that, either way, I'm not trying to wake up. Not tonight.”

Her words both lifted my spirit and reminded me how far we had to go. “I'll earn your trust back somehow, if it's my final act,” I muttered. I wasn't sure if it was possible, but I would gladly spend the rest of my existence trying to make up for my mistakes.

“I trust you,” she insisted, confusing me again. “It's me I don't trust.”

She'd lost me. I dropped to a walk to make talking easier for her. “Explain that, please,” I begged. Her silent mind was still plaguing me.

“Well,” she paused, dragging out my agony, “I don't trust myself to be…” I tried to be patient and let her gather her thoughts, “enough. To deserve you. There's nothing about me that could hold you.”

Did she understand nothing? From the first day we had met, she'd held me, although I didn't understand it then. I stopped and pulled her around in front of me. I held her fragile body as tightly as I dared, trying to illustrate my point. “Your hold is permanent and unbreakable. Never doubt that.”

We were near enough to my house for me to hear the thoughts of my family. They couldn't hear us coming yet, but Alice saw us, of course. Edward, stop fighting this! It's what Bella wants, and her future is still clear. She showed me yet another picture of red-eyed Bella. That was not helpful. I could never take Bella's life because of my selfishness or Aro's threats. If Bella knew everything about this existence, she would never want it. And I had a plan to avoid the Italian thugs. Besides, the threat of the Volturi was insignificant compared with the fate of her soul. I wondered how much she had considered that. She seemed to have other concerns.

“You never did tell me…” I said, before I stopped to think if I really wanted to know.

“What?” she asked.

“What your greatest problem is.”

“I'll give you one guess,” she sighed as she touched the tip of my nose.

I was afraid of that. “I'm worse than the Volturi. I guess I've earned that.” I could apologize for all eternity, and I would still deserve that.

Surprising me again, she rolled her eyes. “The worst the Volturi can do is kill me.” I supposed I already had killed her. “You can leave me. The Volturi, Victoria, they're nothing compared to that.”

Her words cut me to the bone. She really had suffered more than I thought possible. The difference between our sufferings was that mine was self-imposed, and I could have gone back when my will caved. She had been caged in her suffering. Perhaps my century of living death distorted my perspective on human suffering. How could I truly understand?

“Don't,” she whispered, as she touched my face. “Don't be sad.”

I almost smiled at the absurdity of her comment. Don't be sad? I had hurt her so badly that death was less frightening than the pain of my leaving again. I had to assure her that she would never suffer that pain again. “If there was only some way to make you see that I can't leave you.” I was coming up empty. “Time, I suppose, will be the way to convince you.”

“Okay,” she agreed lightly. She wasn't taking me seriously.

“So, since you're staying, can I have my stuff back?” Her eyes twinkled.

I laughed halfheartedly. At least she wasn't suffering at this moment. “Your things were never gone. I knew it was wrong, since I promised you peace without reminders. It was stupid and childish, but I wanted to leave something of myself with you. The CD, the pictures, the tickets, they're all under your floorboards.” I think my sanity was trapped there too.

“Really?” she asked, sounding pleased. I nodded sheepishly. “I think,” she paused, “I'm not sure, but I wonder…” Her silent mind tortured me again, but I deserved torture, so I remained silent. “I think maybe I knew it the whole time.”

I blinked unnecessarily. What? “What did you know?”

“Some part of me, my subconscious maybe, never stopped believing that you still cared whether I lived or died. That's probably why I was hearing the voices.”

Where did hearing voices come from? “Voices?” I asked warily.

“Well, just one voice, yours. It's a long story.”

She had been hearing my voice. Something in this story was backwards. Ever since I left her in the fall I had been hearing her voice and seeing her face. She always begged me to come home. What had I been saying to her? “I've got time.”

“It's pretty pathetic.”

There's no way it was worse than curling up in a rat-infested attic sobbing tearlessly for days at a time.

“Do you remember what Alice said about extreme sports?”

I probably didn't want to hear this. “You jumped off a cliff for fun,” I stated, fighting to keep my voice even. Did my voice tell her to jump? to kill herself?

“Er, right, and before that, with the motorcycle–”

“Motorcycle?” I cut in. She had promised to stay safe. Had she been suicidal? I realized that I had only scratched the surface of the damage I had done. I thought I had left to keep her safe, but apparently it was just the next way for me to destroy her life.

“I guess I didn't tell Alice about that part.”

“No,” was all I could say. The image of my fragile, accident-prone Bella splayed across the highway burned itself across my vision. It was a miracle she was still alive.

“Well, about that… See, I found that… when I was doing something dangerous or stupid… I could remember you more clearly, I could remember how your voice sounded when you were angry.” At least my imaginary voice maintained some sanity. “I could hear it, like you were standing right there next to me. Mostly I tried not to think about you, but this didn't hurt so much – it was like you were protecting me again. Like you didn't want me to be hurt. And, well, I wonder if the reason I could hear you so clearly was because, underneath it all. I always knew that you hadn't stopped loving me. ”

I was nearly speechless. She had almost killed herself, multiple times apparently, just to hear my voice. “You… were… risking your life… to hear–”

She interrupted me, “Shh, hold on a second. I think I'm having an epiphany here.”

Her eyes were unfocused, staring into nothing the way Alice did when she was having a vision. At least with Alice I could see the vision. With Bella, I could see that the wheels were turning, but I couldn't hear anything. This time, however, I felt a small bit of pride along with the standard frustration. Her mind not only thwarted me but also the most powerful vampires in existence. I tried to concentrate on her beautiful – although too thin – features to help extend my patience. Her soft hair, her pink cheeks, her chocolate brown eyes, her sweet scent, her thrumming heart, her infuriating mind…

“Oh!” she finally said.

My superhuman patience was wearing thin. “Bella?” Care to elaborate?

“Oh. Okay. I see.” Was she intentionally dragging this out to drive me insane?

“Your epiphany?” Did she finally believe that I loved her, or did she finally believe that I was a monster?

“You love me,” she said with an awed voice.

What an understatement. “Truly, I do.”

She continued to gaze at nothing, but the smile that broke across her face drew me to her. I couldn't look away from her eyes. I was dazzled. I kissed her the way I had dreamed of kissing her every day that I was gone. When her need for oxygen forced me to break away, I leaned my forehead down to hers, unable to allow any distance between us.

“You were better at it than I was, you know,” I confessed to her. She had admitted her hallucinations to me; now she needed to know how weak I had been. Hallucinations weren't even that far out of the ordinary for me.

“Better at what?”

“Surviving. You, at least, made an effort. You got up in the morning, tried to be normal for Charlie, followed the pattern of your life. When I wasn't actively tracking, I was…” dead already, but she wouldn't want to hear that, “totally useless. I couldn't be around my family – I couldn't be around anyone. I'm embarrassed to admit that I more or less curled up into a ball and let the misery have me. It was much more pathetic than hearing voices. And, of course, you know I do that, too.” I had been wrong: my years had not made me stronger. Time and my ability had dulled my senses to human emotions. She truly was stronger than I was, although she may have suffered just as much.

“I only heard one voice,” she corrected with a smile.

Laughing, I pulled her to me and began walking toward the house.

“I'm just humoring you with this,” I cautioned her. “It doesn't matter in the slightest what they say.”

“This affects them now, too.”

I shrugged. It was still my decision. No one would contradict me. They couldn't force me to bite her. I could hear my family's silent greetings now that they heard us coming. They were all surprised and pleased that Bella was with me, even Rosalie. Alice had not told them we were coming tonight, probably because she was too occupied with Jasper. That didn't matter though; I was certain of the outcome without being clairvoyant.

We walked into the house, and nearly everything looked as it did before we left Forks. All of the artwork was back in place on the spotless cream walls, and not even the basement, I'm sure, held a single cobweb. My neglected piano had even been dusted until it shined. It was good to see my home looking like home again. My family had started moving back the moment Alice called to tell them we were safely on our way home. They were all upstairs wondering why we were here and why Bella was awake at this hour.

I called them downstairs, and they ran to meet us, not bothering with the human charade.

Carlisle was the first one down. Is everything okay, Edward? I looked down at Bella in response. “Welcome back, Bella. What can we do for you this morning? I imagine, due to the hour, that this is not a purely social visit?” he asked.

She nodded. “I'd like to talk to everyone at once, if that's okay, about something important.” She nervously looked up at me, seeming more worried about my reaction than about being in a house full of vampires.

Why is she so troubled? Carlisle wondered. I didn't answer, and he turned his attention back to Bella. “Of course, why don't we talk in the other room?”

He led the way through the living room, where Bella usually visited with my family, to the dining room – my family's conference room. Although the table was mostly just a prop, it occasionally was useful for family discussions. The antique mahogany table had been Esme's in her human life. Carlisle and I relocated it after her former husband's unfortunate disappearance.

When we all sat down, the never-used eighth chair was finally occupied. We made an odd family, seven vampires and one human, but it seemed to fit. Bella sat between Carlisle and me. I felt safest with her there. Alice sat down smiling like a Cheshire cat. She had seen what Bella was going to ask, but she couldn't see everyone's answers because they hadn't been decided. Okay, so Alice was going to vote against me, but one vote didn't matter.

The vampires of the roundish table are assembled again. What is our quest, Sir Edward? I ignored my favorite brother. His cavalier attitude likely would not work in my favor. Emmett was glad to have his little sister back, and he just might vote against me.

There was no way Rose would agree with Bella. As she reminded us on a regular basis, she would give anything to be human again.

I wasn't sure how Jasper would vote. At the moment, he was concentrating on Bella's nervousness, and he thought it was because of him. He tried to calm her a bit without her noticing. I hope you told her how sorry I am. I nodded and tried to send forgiving feelings to him. I wasn't as good at that as Alice.

Carlisle and Esme were just happy to have all six of their children together again. I felt ashamed when I realized that not only had my absence hurt my parents, but Bella's absence had hurt them too. They really did consider her their daughter already. They weren't thinking about Bella as a vampire, and they would agree that this was my decision. Two votes wouldn't matter. Actually, none of the votes mattered.

Carlisle gestured at Bella, “The floor is yours.”

Bella blushed, and I took her hand under the table.

Man, I'm going to miss it when she doesn't blush anymore, Emmett thought.

I glared at him in response.

What? It's true.

“Well,” Bella started. “I'm hoping Alice has already told you everything that happened in Volterra?”

“Everything,” Alice said. And I didn't edit, she added to me. Of course she didn't edit; that might have made my life easier.

“And on the way?” Bella asked, looking intently at her.

“That, too,” she nodded, remembering their conversation on the plane.

Bella sighed, “good, then we're all on the same page.”

Now everyone's thoughts were of Bella as a red eyed vampire. Most of those thoughts were eager, and that irked me, but I hadn't explained my alternative yet.

“So, I have a problem,” Bella continued. “Alice promised the Volturi that I would become one of you. They're going to send someone to check, and I'm sure that's a bad thing – something to avoid.”

Only if they can find you, I thought smugly. So much had changed over the past day and a half, one of the most ironic was that I had learned to appreciate Bella's mind and its unusual operating frequency. However, all the enthusiastic thoughts of Bella's death were grating on my nerves. I wished they too were on another frequency as I tried again to tune them out.

“And so, now, this involves you all. I'm sorry about that.” She looked around the table, not flinching from a single face. “But, if you don't want me, then I'm not going to force myself on you, whether Alice is willing or not. ”

Of course we want you! Esme opened her mouth to assure Bella, but Bella stopped her.

“Please, let me finish. You all know what I want. And I'm sure you know what Edward thinks, too. I think the only fair way to decide is for everyone to have a vote. If you decide you don't want me, then… I guess I'll go back to Italy alone. I can't have them coming here. ”

Of all the ridiculous… I tried to fight back a growl, but I didn't entirely succeed. Did she honestly think any member of my family would send her back to the Volturi? Not even Rosalie was that harsh.

“Taking into account, then, that I won't put any of you in danger either way, I want you to vote yes or no on the issue of me becoming a vampire,” she finished and lifted a hand to Carlisle to begin.

“Just a minute,” I added. I had to give them the real alternative to taking Bella's soul. Shipping her back to Volterra was never an option.

Bella glared at me. Her kittenish anger was still endearing.

“I have something to add before we vote.” Bella sighed, but I disregarded it. “About the danger Bella's referring to, I don't think we need to be overly anxious.”

I certainly had my brothers' interest. Anything involving danger or a fight would have their support.

“You see,” I said, looking at each member of my family, “there was more than one reason why I didn't want to shake Aro's hand there at the end. There's something they didn't think of, and I didn't want to clue them in.” Jasper, ever the tactical genius, was quite curious. Emmett was just hoping to pick a real fight. Carlisle was listening to both sides with an open mind. Esme would vote with Carlisle. Alice and Rosalie were already decided and just waiting for me to shut up.

“Which was?” Alice prompted, skeptical as ever. It always annoyed her when I tried to change her preferred version of the future.

“The Volturi are overconfident, and with good reason. When they decide to find someone, it's not really a problem. Do you remember Demetri?” I asked Bella.

She shuddered, and her heartbeat accelerated. That would be a yes.

“He finds people – that's his talent, why they keep him. Now, the whole time we were with any of them, I was picking their brains for anything that might save us, getting as much information as possible. So I saw how Demetri's talent works. He's a tracker – a tracker a thousand times more gifted than James was. His ability is loosely related to what I do, or what Aro does. He catches the… flavor? I don't know how to describe it… the tenor… of someone's mind, and then he follows that. It works over immense distances. But after Aro's little experiments, well…” I shrugged, letting my brothers imagine their own conclusions.

“You think he won't be able to find me,” Bella stated.

“I'm sure of it. He relies totally on that other sense. When it doesn't work with you, they'll all be blind.”

I was pleased with my logic, and my brothers were imagining the lost little Volturi with smiles. Carlisle and Esme did not like the idea of provoking them. Carlisle's experience living with the Volturi would be a tremendous asset, but convincing him to use that knowledge could be tricky.

A noble quest indeed, thought Emmett. I smiled at him. Maybe his attitude would help me.

“And how does that solve anything?” Bella had missed the point.

“Quite obviously, Alice will be able to tell when they're planning a visit, and I'll hide you. They'll be quite helpless. It will be like looking for a piece of straw in a haystack!”

Emmett was enjoying the thought of their confusion almost as much as I was. We grinned at each other. Jasper was looking at the situation from every angle. He had yet to find a flaw in my plan.

“But they can find you,” she retorted.

“And I can take care of myself.”

Emmett laughed and we pounded fists. “Excellent plan, my brother.” This could be fun. I almost hoped they visited soon.

“No!” hissed Rosalie. She did not like the idea of Emmett fighting the Volturi, especially over Bella.

“Absolutely not,” added Bella.

“Nice,” Jasper commented. He saw no holes in my strategy. Coming from him, it was quite a complement.

“Idiots,” Alice muttered. She, Rose, and Esme never did understand the fun of a good fight.

That is incredibly irresponsible! I expect better from you, son. Consider Bella's feelings. Esme scolded me silently.

I turned away from her when Bella called for order again.

“Alright then,” she said, regaining everyone's attention. “Edward has offered an alternative for you to consider.” Her tone made it clear that she was not considering it.

“Let's vote.”

She looked at me first. “Do you want me to join your family?”

Ouch. “Not that way. You're staying human.”

I listened to the thoughts around the table. Jasper, Emmett, and Esme were against me. That surprised me. My plan to fight seemed to have backfired with my mother. Carlisle's mind was quiet. He was listening to the others and controlling his thoughts. I realized that his vote would be the only one that mattered, not mine.

“Alice?”

“Yes.” You knew that was coming, Edward. Yes, I did, but just because Alice didn't remember her human life did not mean that Bella's human life had no value.

“Jasper?”

“Yes.” I'm sorry, Edward, but it's what she wants. Your beliefs do not negate her right to choose. And I can't deny that it would be so much easier for me if she were like us. If Jasper wanted to debate the philosophical implications of this choice, I would wipe the floor with him, quite literally.

“Rosalie?”

I don't want to do this, but I have to, she thought. “No.”

Bella started to move on, but Rose stopped her.

“Let me explain,” she begged. “I don't mean that I have any aversion to you as a sister. It's just that… this is not the life I would have chosen for myself. I wish there had been someone there to vote no for me. ”

I was pleased to hear my sister tell Bella the truth. Oddly, this was one of the few times when Rosalie and I agreed on something.

Bella then turned to Emmett.

“Hell, yes!” he bellowed. “We can find some other way to pick a fight with this Demetri.”

Bella grimaced, and I ignored him. This was not going well. In fact, I would have been better off keeping my mouth shut. Now, I was just waiting to hear from Carlisle, who still had not given me a hint of his vote.

My mother answered next. “Yes, of course, Bella. I already think of you as part of my family.”

I did too, but I didn't think becoming a vampire was a requirement for being part of this family.

“Thank you, Esme,” Bella breathed as she turned to my father. Her increasing heart rate told me she was anxious about his answer.

Carlisle looked at me. “Edward,” this is what she wants. It's her decision. I, also, approve of her choice. I won't refuse her.

“No,” I growled. My lips pulled back in a snarl and I fought to keep from slipping into a crouch. I didn't need Alice's vision to know that attacking my father would be counterproductive.

“It's the only way that makes sense,” he said calmly. “You've chosen not to live without her, and that doesn't leave me a choice.”

I released Bella's hand before I completely lost control of my anger, and I stalked from the room. I didn't want Bella to see me like this. I couldn't even listen to the conversation in the dining room. My hands were trembling in fury; I wanted to rip something apart. The nearest thing that would make a satisfying crunch was the television, but even after it was in pieces, I didn't feel any better.

I paced around the room. I couldn't believe my father would take this choice away from me. Did he not see the beauty of Bella's pure human soul? And now he wanted me to take it from her? There had to be some other way.

Edward! I heard Alice's panicked thoughts as she saw a vision of herself holding Bella's lifeless body.

“No! No! NO!” I stormed into the room to see Bella looking expectantly at a horrified Alice. I was livid. “Are you insane?” I shouted, standing between them. “Have you utterly lost your mind?”

Bella cringed and put her hands over her ears.

I froze. I had just shouted at Bella. I had to get myself under control.

“Umm, Bella? I don't think I'm ready for that,” Alice hedged. “I'll need to prepare…” Like, prepare someone else to do it.

“You promised,” Bella prodded.

“I know, but…” I expected Edward to do it anyway. “Seriously, Bella! I don't have any idea how to not kill you.”

“You can do it. I trust you.” The girl still had no sense of self-preservation.

A snarl broke free from my chest.

No, no, no, no, no, please stop her, Edward. Alice was petrified at the thought of killing her sister. She was no longer a danger, and I ignored her.

“Carlisle?” Bella asked, hopefully.

I held my hand out to Carlisle and grabbed Bella's face with my other hand. This was going to stop now. We were not going to go around the table, because Emmett was foolish enough to try.

“I'm able to do it,” Carlisle answered, ignoring me. “You would be in no danger of me losing control.”

“Sounds good,” Bella murmured around my hand.

“Hold on,” I said, forcing myself to remember Bella's fragile jaw in my hand. “It doesn't have to be now.”

“There's no reason for it not to be now,” mumbled my stubborn girl.

“I can think of a few.”

“Of course you can. Now let go of me.”

Her temper didn't sound any better than mine, and I was not calming down despite Jasper's efforts, so I released her face and crossed my arms to keep myself from doing anything rash. “In about two hours, Charlie will be here looking for you. I wouldn't put it past him to involve the police.”

“All three of them,” she growled, but she looked thoughtful. She couldn't hurt Charlie like that. Could she?

I had to take advantage of her hesitation. Jasper was also keeping Bella calm, and once we left it would be even more difficult to reason with her. “In the interest of remaining inconspicuous,” I turned to Carlisle, “I suggest that we put this conversation off, at the very least until Bella finishes high school, and moves out of Charlie's house.”

“That's a reasonable request, Bella,” Carlisle agreed. He didn't want to do this now any more than I did.

Bella's lips formed a thin line as she thought it over. “I'll consider it.”

I relaxed. As long as she didn't ask Emmett, no one would try to bite her tonight. That was as close as I was going to get to a victory. The battle was over, but the war was far from won.

“I should probably take you home,” the sooner the better, “just in case Charlie wakes up early.”

Bella turned to Carlisle, “after graduation?”

“You have my word.” Edward, I will not take her choice from her, but I will wait until she is ready.

That threw me for a moment. It felt like he was throwing my own words back at me. Her choice? What about my choice?

Bella turned back to me. “Okay, you can take me home.”

Before anyone could say another word, I rushed her from the house. I avoided the living room because I didn't want her to see the destruction that resulted from my temper.

I ran back to Bella's house, but I did not push myself to top speed. My mind was racing. I needed more time to think. How could I get out of this?

Carlisle had promised to change her after graduation. I imagined him pressing his lips to her throat, and I had to fight back a snarl. Both of the monsters inside me roared that she was mine. The vampire swore that every drop of her blood was mine, and if he couldn't drain her, he was getting every drop he could. The man in me screamed even louder that no other man's lips would ever touch her, not even my father's, not even for that.

I knew that the only way she would be changed would be by me and me alone.

But is that what she would want? Would she trust me to do it when she could have the more experienced Carlisle?

Yes, a little voice whispered. How many times had she begged me to change her? And then she asked Alice. Carlisle was her third choice. Yet again she demonstrated her lack of a sense of self preservation.

Could I do it? Yes and no. I was capable, certainly. Especially with Carlisle's support, there was no way I could kill her. Even my vampire monster shied away from that thought. Nevertheless, I wasn't ready. I was scared. What if she changed her mind? What if she hated me forever for taking her life and her soul? I wasn't prepared to deal with that.

What could I deal with? Time, at the very least. I needed time to make sure she understood what she was asking. Hours ago in Volterra, she seemed horrified at Gianna's desire to become a vampire. I thought she had finally understood, but she was still stubbornly determined to become one of us. Didn't she realize that we were all the same – killers – deep down?

I reached Bella's house and leaped through the window without pausing. I helped her off my back and placed her gently on the bed. She must be exhausted still. I then began pacing slowly across her room.

How could I make her understand? I had to talk some sense into her. There's a battle I'd never be able to win. Maybe I could bribe her into waiting. No, not a bribe, a compromise. But what could I offer the woman who refuses gifts?

“Whatever you're planning, it's not going to work,” she said, breaking my concentration. If I let her dazzle me now, this would certainly never work.

“Shh, I'm thinking.” What could I offer her? There had to be something she wanted. Not for the last time I wished I could read her mind.

“Ugh,” she groaned. Her scent swirled around the room again as she flopped down on the bed and covered herself with the quilt.

The only ways I had to know what she was thinking were her eyes, which she had just hidden, and the obvious way of asking her. Well, and listening to her talk in her sleep, but that was too unpredictable and I didn't have that much patience.

I decided to stop over-thinking this and go with the obvious. I laid down beside her and pulled back the quilt. Her eyes were still hidden by her hair, so I brushed it behind her ear.

“If you don't mind, I'd much rather you didn't hide your face. I've lived without it for as long as I can stand. Now… tell me something.”

Her heartbeat picked up slightly, but her eyes were still guarded as she asked, “what?”

“If you could have anything in the world, anything at all,” – diamonds, yachts, your own island, a trip around the world – “what would it be?”

She looked suspicious, probably thinking of all the gifts she had already refused from me, and answered, “you.”

I shook my head. She missed the point. “Something you don't already have.”

She thought it over for what seemed like an eternity. I wondered what she would come up with. She always surprised me.

“I would want…” yes? yes? “Carlisle not to have to do it. I would want you to change me.”

Speaking of things you already have… I kept my face carefully controlled. Maybe this would be easier than I thought.

“What would you be willing to trade for that?”

“Anything,” she answered quickly, looking shocked. Did she honestly think I wouldn't give her the thing I wanted most? I smiled. How much time did I need? Hmm, best not to push her too far.

“Five years?” that was reasonable.

Her face fell. I supposed that felt like a long time to a human.

“You said anything,” I said gently.

“Yes, but… you'll use the time to find a way out of it.” Naturally. “I have to strike while the iron is hot.” Nice analogy for the burning, though probably unintentional. “Besides, it's just too dangerous to be human – for me, at least.” I would never let anything happen to her. “So, anything but that.”

Of course this wasn't going to be easy. “Three years?” I offered.

“No!” she all but shouted.

“Isn't it worth anything to you at all?” I wondered if it really was important to her. About half a second after she was bitten – I repressed a shudder – she wouldn't care who had bitten her. On the other hand, I probably wouldn't do any better offering diamonds.

“Six months?”

The blink of an eye. “Not good enough,” I sighed, rolling my eyes.

“One year then. That's my limit.”

“At least give me two.”

“No way. Nineteen I'll do, but I'm not going anywhere near twenty. If you're staying in your teens forever, then so am I.”

Very difficult, as always. I was loosing. I was about two seconds from relenting and giving her everything she wanted with the diamonds thrown in too. Diamonds...

“Alright, forget time limits. If you want me to be the one, then you'll just have to meet one condition.” The easiest one of all.

“Condition? What condition?” She didn't trust me.

I was giving in completely, and at the same time begging for the thing I wanted most. “Marry me first.” I was such an idiot. I didn't even have her ring with me.

She paused. “Okay, what's the punch line?”

She thought I was joking? I would never joke about something so vitally important. I sighed; I needed to keep it light. “You're wounding my ego, Bella. I just proposed to you, and you think it's a joke.”

“Edward, please be serious.”

“I am one hundred percent serious.” I wished again that I could read her mind. Why didn't she believe me?

“Oh, c'mon, I'm only eighteen,” she said, sounding slightly hysterical.

“Well, I'm nearly a hundred and ten. It's time I settled down,” I retorted, trying to make her laugh.

Why was she panicking over something as simple as marriage when she had been begging to become one of the eternally damned just moments before? I thought this would be easy. Shouldn't she have been happy and excited? Oh, right, Bella never reacted the way I thought she should. She looked away. How was I supposed to guess what she was thinking when I couldn't see her eyes? Was she trying to torment me? I knew I deserved it, but–

“Look, marriage isn't exactly that high on my list of priorities, you know?” No, I didn't know. “It was sort of the kiss of death for Renee and Charlie.”

“Interesting choice of words,” oh you who were begging for the kiss of death.

“You know what I mean.”

I knew that her parents marriage had not worked out well, but I didn't understand how that applied to us. I sighed. “Please don't tell me you're afraid of the commitment.”

“That's not it exactly. I'm… afraid of Renee.” After all the vampires, werewolves, and other things that could have killed her in the past year, she's afraid of her mother? “She has some really intense opinions on getting married before you're thirty.”

“Because she'd rather you became one of the eternally damned than get married,” I said sarcastically.

“You think you're joking.”

No, you think I'm joking, remember? I fought to keep my voice even. “Bella, if you compare the level of commitment between a marital union as opposed to bartering your soul in exchange for an eternity as a vampire…” I didn't understand her at all. “If you're not brave enough to marry me, then–”

“Well,” she cut me off, “what if I did? What if I told you to take me to Vegas now? Would I be a vampire in three days?”

She was still a rotten liar. “Sure, I'll get my car.”

“Dammit, I'll give you eighteen months,” she muttered.

She was offering more time, and saying no. I won, but I lost. I forced myself to dwell only on the winning part. I forced myself to smile, but part of me was crushed. “No deal. I like this condition.” Actually, I was desperate for this condition.

“Fine, I'll have Carlisle do it when I graduate.”

Horrible liar. Besides, that would never happen, not that she knew that. “If that's what you really want,” I shrugged, demonstrating a proper bluff.

“You're impossible, a monster.”

Very true – the monster part, anyway – but she didn't believe it. I laughed. “Is that why you won't marry me?” I was still blocking the pain of her rejection.

She just groaned in response.

Pain shot through my heart. I was not above begging. I leaned in, trying to dazzle her. “Please, Bella?” I asked, breathing on her face.

She just shook her head.

“Would this have gone better if I had time to get a ring?” As if I didn't already have one. I should have thought of this earlier and brought her ring with me. Idiot!

“No!” she shouted. “No rings!”

Charlie's peaceful dreams of fishing melted away and clarity returned to his mind. “Now you've done it,” I whispered.

“Oops.” That little word always reminded me of our first kiss. I really didn't want to leave her now.

“Charlie's getting up; I'd better leave.” I couldn't imagine his anger if he found me here.

Her eyes said that she didn't want me to go either.

“Would it be childish of me to hide in your closet, then?” I didn't add 'again.' I was pretty sure she didn't know about the times I had hidden there before.

“No, stay, please,” she whispered.

I smiled as I dashed into her closet, carefully avoiding the piles of dirty clothes on the floor. At least she still wanted me here. The wounded pieces of my heart began to hope again. What was it about marrying me that frightened her? Was it the way I asked? Was it really her mother? Was she unsure about me? Or was it something different altogether?

I listened to her conversation with Charlie with half my mind while the other half ran over my proposal, wondering what I had done wrong. Volterra must have scared her. But why would she be afraid of marriage, but not afraid of becoming a vampire? Was she just afraid of me? But why would she want me to stay here? And why would she want me to be the one to bite her? The girl was an enigma.

In the other room, Bella was threatening to move out if Charlie tried to send her to Florida. Why would she do that if she were afraid of me?

“Would you like to explain where you've been?” Charlie demanded.

Oops, we never had invented a decent cover story. Now it was up to Bella the lousy liar. I froze. If his thoughts grew violent, I would rush out of this closet, grab her, and – wait, bad idea, Charlie won't hurt his daughter.

“There was… an emergency. I don't know what to tell you, Dad. It was mostly a misunderstanding. He said, she said. It got out of hand.” Nice understatement, but Charlie wasn't buying it. “See, Alice told Rosalie about me jumping off the cliff…” Charlie's thoughts went red. “I guess I didn't tell you about that,” she squeaked. Note to self: never put Bella in a position where she'll have to lie again. “It was nothing. Just messing around, swimming with Jake. Anyway, Rosalie told Edward, and he was upset. She sort of accidentally made it sound like I was trying to kill myself or something. He wouldn't answer his phone, so Alice dragged me to… L.A., to explain in person. ”

Charlie hadn't heard much besides 'kill myself.'

“Were you trying to kill yourself, Bella?” Charlie and I both wanted a truthful answer to that question.

“No, of course not. Just having fun with Jake. Cliff diving. The La Push kids do it all the time. Like I said, nothing.”

Anything involving the La Push kids, by definition, wasn't nothing.

“What's it to Edward Cullen anyway?” he demanded. Finally his anger was directed at the right person. I cringed at the pain in his thoughts. They still weren't clear, but I got a good idea of the damage I'd done to Bella. “All this time, he's just left you dangling without a word–”

She cut him off. “Another misunderstanding.” Another understatement. She should have said, 'yes, Edward Cullen is the biggest idiot to ever walk the face of the Earth.' She was too forgiving.

“So is he back then?"

“I'm not sure what the exact plan is. I think they all are.” My family's plan probably involved putting me under house-arrest if I tried to leave again, not that I would.

“I want you to stay away from him, Bella. I don't trust him. He's rotten for you. I won't let him mess you up like that again.” He was right, but I would never hurt her again.

“Fine,” Bella replied. Fine? Fine?! What does she mean 'fine'?

“Oh, I thought you were going to be difficult.” So did I.

“I am. I meant, 'Fine, I'll move out.'” I didn't need to hear her thoughts to know she wasn't bluffing. But where was she going to go? She was always welcome at my house. Would she be willing to marry me then? Or maybe she was thinking of somewhere like Angela's. Or I would get her a place of her own if that's what she wanted.

Charlie's thoughts were reeling almost as quickly as mine.

“Dad, I don't want to move out,” she said softly. “I love you. I know you're worried, but you need to trust me on this. And you're going to have to ease up on Edward if you want me to stay. Do you want me to live here or not?”

“That's not fair, Bella. You know I want you to stay.”

“Then be nice to Edward, because he's going to be where I am.” I loved the sound of her voice when she said that.

“Not under my roof,” Charlie roared. I hated hearing them fight, especially over me.

“Look, I'm not going to give you any more ultimatums tonight – or I guess it's this morning. Just think about it for a few days, okay? But keep in mind that Edward and I are sort of a package deal.”

“Bella–”

“Think it over, and while you're doing that, could you give me some privacy? I really need a shower.”

Charlie left the room, and I went to sit in the rocking chair. I hated being the cause of that fight. I had done so many stupid things!

“Sorry about that,” she whispered as she climbed out of bed.

She's apologizing to me? “It's not as if I don't deserve far worse,” I reminded her. “Don't start anything with Charlie over me, please.”

“Don't worry about it,” she said easily. “I will start exactly as much as is necessary, and no more than that. Or are you trying to tell me I have nowhere to go? ” she teased.

“You'd move in with a house full of vampires?” I asked, secretly pleased at her choice.

“That's probably the safest place for someone like me. Besides, if Charlie kicks me out, then there's no need for a graduation deadline, is there?”

This woman was going to kill me. “So eager for eternal damnation,” I grumbled.

“You know you don't really believe that.”

“Oh, don't I?” How long had I been trying to explain this to her? This was the primary reason I didn't want her to be a vampire like me.

“No, you don't,” she replied confidently.

I glared at her. This was not funny. I tried to think of how to explain the importance of her soul.

“If you really believed that you'd lost your soul, then when I found you in Volterra, you would have realized immediately what was happening, instead of thinking we were both dead together. But you didn't – you said 'Amazing. Carlisle was right.' There's hope in you, after all.”

I was stunned. She had me. She was right. I still wasn't sure I believed Carlisle, but I did have hope buried deep inside me. Bella had reawakened yet another human emotion in me.

“So let's both just be hopeful, all right? Not that it matters. If you stay, I don't need heaven. ”

I walked over to the marvelous creature who had changed me so dramatically. “Forever,” was all I could say.

“That's all I'm asking for,” she said. She stretched up to kiss me, and I realized I was already in heaven.