* * * Part of me still revels in the knowledge that Bella genuinely desires to be with me forever – so much so that she called for a family vote a few weeks ago and then, after receiving their approval, guaranteed that she would join me in immortality by seeking Carlisle's word that he would condemn her to three days of torture after her high school graduation. The other part of me – the part that still fears the destruction of Bella's soul despite her rebuttal about my beliefs, "There's hope in you, after all." – plots daily to circumvent this rapidly approaching deadline. I thought that I had come up with the perfect stalling tactic that same morning, but I realized as the days went on that it was far more than just a strategic maneuver. It was the deepest wish of my heart. "Marry me first." * * * Penumbra – A space of partial illumination (as in an eclipse) between the perfect shadow on all sides and the full light. Eclipse from Edward's point of view.
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She is as in a field a silken tent
At midday when the sunny summer breeze
Has dried the dew and all its ropes relent,
So that in guys it gently sways at ease,
And its supporting central cedar pole,
That is its pinnacle to heavenward
And signifies the sureness of the soul,
Seems to owe naught to any single cord,
But strictly held by none, is loosely bound
By countless silken ties of love and thought
To every thing on earth the compass round,
And only by one's going slightly taut
In the capriciousness of summer air
Is of the slightest bondage made aware.
- The Silken Tent by Robert Frost
* * *
The term has been skittering through my mind all night, teasing the edges of my consciousness like faraway strains of music, daring me to latch onto the knotted threads of hope and sheer need that accompany each syllable. These threads both tantalize and sicken my imagination, summoning memories of events that culminated with the two greatest failures of my entire existence.
From the very beginning, before I fully understood the consequences of the path I had been placed upon, I tried to thwart fate. Running from the single most powerful temptation I had ever faced, I foolishly reasoned with myself that the worst was over, that I could return to my family as though nothing had occurred – when in fact the foundations of my whole world were shifting like quicksand under my feet.
The midnight hue of the night sky bathed the snowy field in shades of violet and cobalt, the stars twinkling like pinpricks of white across the velvety black expanse of the heavens.
I curled my knees to my chest and rested my chin atop them, thinking of my family. I was anxious to see them...yet I continued to hesitate, craving the icy haven of Denali for just a few more minutes.
I knew that Alice would see me coming home, that she would tell the others. This would make them happy – Carlisle and Esme especially. But I gazed at the stars for one more moment, trying to see past the face in my head.
Between me and the brilliant lights in the sky, a pair of bewildered chocolate-brown eyes stared back at me, seeming to ask what this decision would mean for her. Of course, I couldn't be sure if that was really the information her curious eyes sought. Even in my imagination, I couldn't hear her thoughts.
Bella Swan's eyes continued to question, and an unobstructed view of the stars continued to elude me. With a heavy sigh, I gave up, and got to my feet. If I ran, I would be back to Carlisle's car in less than an hour...
So I went back to my routine, donning the cultivated façade I had perfected over the years, and found myself face to face with the same enigmatic creature that had so thoroughly disrupted the consistent pattern of my life with her mere presence.
I wanted to rise above the bloodthirsty monster clawing at my throat with each breath of her appealing fragrance, to prove to my siblings and ultimately myself that my will was strong enough to overcome instinct, and – if I was completely honest – the girl presented a challenge that I felt compelled to undertake: the mystery of her silent thoughts.
Initiating harmless conversation while we were partnered for a ridiculously simple lab assignment, I began to realize that she was far more observant than any other human I had encountered...and instead of making me more wary, I grew careless.
"Prophase." She lifted her face from the microscope, certain that her assessment was correct.
Thin, cream-colored fingers grasped the ends of the slide, preparing to remove it, but I was not entirely convinced of her intelligence in this area. The other children were struggling – their mental scrambling made a dull clamor in the back of my head – so why was she so confident? I had to know.
"Do you mind if I look?" Instinctively – stupidly, as if I were one of her kind – I reached out to stop her hand from removing the slide.
For one second, the heat of her skin burned into mine. It was like an electric pulse – surely much hotter than a mere ninety-eight point six degrees. The heat shot through my hand and up my arm. She yanked her hand out from under mine.
The sensation of that remembered surge of heat pales in comparison to the warmth that suddenly coils around my ribcage as Bella shifts closer to me in her sleep, one arm thrown across my torso, her head nestled into the curve of my shoulder.
Every conscious thought flees when her soft sigh ignites my skin like sparks to dry kindling, the ache in my throat from her sweet scent nearly vanishing as liquid fire pools in the center of my being.
Petal-soft lips catch the collar of my shirt as she mumbles in a low, breathy voice, "Edward."
My eyes flutter closed, longing and profound gratefulness spiraling through me in response to the sound of my name coming from her mouth. Turning slightly, I rest my cheek on her sleep-tousled hair and pull my right arm from behind my head, threading my fingers into the dark tresses.
With flawless clarity, I recall the first time I entered this room, driven by a gnawing, inescapable need to see her face again. And that was the night I truly came to life.
She murmured my name, no louder than a gentle whisper, her eyelids quivering.
I froze, staring at her unopened eyes.
Had she woken, caught me here? She looked asleep, yet her voice had been so clear...
She sighed a quiet sigh, and then moved restlessly again, rolling to her side – still fast asleep and dreaming. "Edward," she mumbled softly.
She was dreaming of me.
Could a dead, frozen heart beat again? It felt like mine was about to.
"Stay," she sighed. "Don't go. Please...don't go."
Unexpectedly, the memory distorts like cracks splintering across a mirror, and Bella's slumbering features change into a mask of devastation, her rosy lips bleached white, brown eyes consuming her pale face as she stares up at me.
"Don't," she begged in a hoarse whisper. Her full lower lip trembled; I forced myself to hold her gaze while staving off the urge to smooth my thumb over the warm curve. "Don't do this." She staggered a half-inch forward.
If she came any closer I knew that I would not have the strength to finish what I had begun. I clenched my hands at my side, my palms burning with the need to touch her skin, her hair, and said harshly, "You're not good for me, Bella."
Her shoulders slumped, defeated, and she seemed to cave in on herself even as she drew in a shaky breath, her weight settling back onto her heels. "If...that's what you want," she replied in a quiet, lifeless voice.
I wanted to die. I wanted to live – with her. I wanted what I did not deserve. I wanted what was best for her. Lost in a whirlpool of contradictions, I could only nod.
Sucking in a sharp breath, I grit my teeth and concentrate, dispelling the horrific images of my first failure, and bury my nose in Bella's hair. A single deep inhalation of rain-soaked freesia fills my lungs, returning me to the cool spring night I found the reason for my existence.
She was dreaming of me, and it wasn't even a nightmare. She wanted me to stay with her, there in her dream.
I struggled to find words to name the feelings that flooded through me, but I had no words strong enough to hold them. For a long moment, I drowned in them.
When I surfaced, I was not the same man I had been.
My life was an unending, unchanging midnight. It must, by necessity, always be midnight for me. So how was it possible that the sun was rising now, in the middle of my midnight?
At the time that I had become a vampire, trading my soul and my mortality for immortality in the searing pain of transformation, I had truly been frozen. My body had turned into something more like rock than flesh, enduring and unchanging. My self, also, had frozen as it was – my personality, my likes and dislikes, my moods and my desires; all were fixed in place.
It was the same for the rest of them. We were all frozen. Living stone.
When change came for one of us, it was a rare and permanent thing. I had seen it happen with Carlisle, and then a decade later with Rosalie. Love had changed them in an eternal way, a way that never faded. More than eighty years had passed since Carlisle had found Esme, and yet he still looked at her with the incredulous eyes of first love. It would always be that way for them.
It would always be that way for me, too. I would always love this fragile human girl, for the rest of my limitless existence.
I gazed at her unconscious face, feeling this love for her settle into every portion of my stone body.
She slept more peacefully now, a slight smile on her lips.
Always watching her, I began to plot.
I loved her, and so I would try to be strong enough to leave her. I knew I wasn't that strong now. I would work on that one. But perhaps...
A silent snarl contorts my mouth, my own thoughts tormenting me once again with visions of anguish and betrayal and every cruel lie I had wielded like a blade, shredding into Bella's tender flesh to pierce the only heart that could love a monster like me.
She accepted my terms of the promise I had no right to ask, and I told her in an even tone that belied the chaos vying for dominance in my skull that I would promise her something in return. "I promise that this will be the last time you'll see me. I won't come back. I won't put you through anything like this again. You can go on with your life without any more interference from me. It will be as if I'd never existed."
With those words, I had spoken truth. In the months I was gone, I had not existed. I had been a ghost – a white shadow lurking in the hidden places of the world, battling for sanity every passing second while experiencing a craving infinitely more powerful than thirst that pleaded for me to go back to the only sanctuary I had ever known.
Surrender had seemed imminent; though I had distanced myself from Bella by an entire continent, it would have been a simple matter to return.
Then the phone rang.
Rosalie and I sparred verbally; she hinted that something had happened that would cause me to come home, and informed me that Alice – whom had vowed to leave Bella and Forks alone for as long as I did – was currently in the rainy little town that sheltered the one who held my heart.
"I thought once this whole Forks thing was finished, you would get over it."
"Forks was never the problem, Rosalie," I said, trying to be patient. What she'd said about Esme and Carlisle had struck a chord. "Just because Bella" – it was hard to say her name out loud – "has moved to Florida, it doesn't mean that I'm able... Look, Rosalie. I really am sorry, but, trust me, it wouldn't make anyone happier if I were there."
"Um..." There it was, that nervous hesitation again.
"What is it that you're not telling me, Rosalie? Is Esme all right? Is Carlisle –?"
"They're fine. It's just...well, I didn't say that Bella moved."
I didn't speak. I ran over our conversation in my head. Yes, Rosalie had said that Bella had moved. She'd said: ...you only warned us to stay away from Bella, right? The rest of Forks doesn't matter. And then: I thought once this whole Forks thing was finished...
So Bella wasn't in Forks. What did she mean, Bella hadn't moved?
Then Rosalie started rushing through her words again, saying them almost angrily this time. "They didn't want to tell you, but I think that's stupid. The quicker you get over this, the sooner things can go back to normal. Why let you mope around the dark corners of the worlds when there's no good for it? You can come home now. We can be a family again. It's over."
My mind seemed to be broken. I couldn't make sense of her words. It was like there was something very, very obvious she was telling me, but I had no idea what it was. My brain played with the information, making strange patterns of it. Nonsensical.
"I don't understand what you are saying, Rosalie."
A long pause, the length of a few human heartbeats. "She's dead, Edward." A longer pause. "I'm... sorry. You have a right to know, though, I think. Bella...threw herself off a cliff two days ago. Alice saw it, but it was too late to do anything. I think she would have helped, though, broken her word, if there had been time. She went back to do what she could for Charlie. You know how she's always cared for him –"
The phone went dead. It took me a few seconds to realize that I'd shut the power off.
I sat in the dusty darkness for a long, frozen space. It was like time had ended. Like the universe had stopped.
Slowly, moving like an old man, I turned my phone back on and dialed the one number I'd promised myself I would never call again.
If it was her, I would hang up. If it was Charlie, I'd get the information I needed through subterfuge. I'd prove Rosalie's sick little joke wrong, and then go back to my nothingness.
"Swan residence," answered a voice I'd never heard before. A man's husky voice, deep, but still youthful. I didn't pause to think about the implications of that.
"This is Dr. Carlisle Cullen," I said, perfectly imitating my father's voice. "May I please speak to Charlie?"
"He's not here," the voice responded, and I was dimly surprised by the anger in it. The words were almost a snarl. But that didn't matter.
"Well, where is he then?" I demanded, getting impatient.
There was a short pause, as if the stranger wanted to withhold the information from me. "He's at the funeral," the boy finally answered.
I shut the phone again.
Bella moans a little, tucking her warm body into my side, and the painful tightening in my chest lessens somewhat, the echoes of the past clearing in the light of the present like mist burned away by the sun.
I brush my lips on her forehead, wordlessly thanking her for saving me yet again from the darkness of my own mind. But I recognize in this moment of reflection that my first failure – abandoning my Bella to the likes of Laurent, Victoria, and the dogs – paved the way for my second failure. A failure that, selfishly, feels like more of a triumph whenever Bella is in my arms.
I have no one to blame but myself for involving the Volturi. And of course once they learned that a human is aware of our world, there are but two options: death or transformation.
Part of me still revels in the knowledge that Bella genuinely desires to be with me forever – so much so that she called for a family vote a few weeks ago and then, after receiving their approval, guaranteed that she would join me in immortality by seeking Carlisle's word that he would condemn her to three days of torture after her high school graduation.
The other part of me – the part that still fears the destruction of Bella's soul despite her rebuttal about my beliefs, "There's hope in you, after all." – plots daily to circumvent this rapidly approaching deadline.
I thought that I had come up with the perfect stalling tactic that same morning, but I realized as the days went on that it was far more than just a strategic maneuver. It was the deepest wish of my heart.
"Marry me first."
Gently, I slip my hand under her left palm, cradling it like a delicate glass figurine, and rub the pad of my thumb across the bottom of her third finger. I have no doubt that Bella wants me and not Carlisle to usher her into this life, but her aversion to marriage keeps her from readily agreeing to my condition.
And while I am undeniably relieved to have been granted a stay for her conversion, I cannot stifle the growing ache within me to see my mother's ring on her hand. Although Bella continually insists that she is mine, the tangible symbol of belonging that a ring holds is something that I am unable to fully banish from my thoughts...especially since the altercation in the woods with the dog.
I owed the boy for his constant protection of Bella in my absence, but it was crystal clear on that rainy afternoon that he felt more than friendship for the fragile girl shielded behind me. Considering how violently he had reacted when she had all but spat at him that her choice to become one of us was none of his business, and how he had used his sorrow over her impending 'death' as he saw it to appeal to her self-sacrificing nature, warned me far more than his stench and quivering limbs that he is a much greater threat than I had first assumed.
The mutt loves my Bella, and he wants her for himself.
I have seen his memories of their time together, and the image of her pale face framed by his large hands, his imaginings of sharing a kiss with her, causes a nearly inaudible growl to rumble through my chest.
He cannot have her. She is mine.
And, however perversely, the idea of him seeing my ring on Bella's hand, of him finally realizing that he has lost, fills me with a wicked sense of satisfaction.
From the corner of my eye, I notice faint streaks of pale orange illuminating the overcast sky outside the bedroom window, and a quick glance at the nightstand clock confirms that the alarm is poised to go off in exactly eight and a half minutes. Plenty of time to wake Bella up properly, I muse to myself, smirking.
Arranging her limp form carefully beside mine, I lean down and nuzzle the line of her jaw, breathing in fiery gulps of air, and then I whisper into her ear, "Bella, love...it's time to wake up."
A soft whimper is all I receive in reply.
"Bella..." I call again, a bit louder, and tickle her cheeks and eyelids with a string of feather-light kisses. "Wake up." My lips grace the tip of her nose, and hers part ever so slightly, tempting me. But her eyes remain closed, so I cajole her affectionately, "Open your eyes so I can tell you good morning."
Two narrow slits of chocolate brown part her lashes, and she grimaces at the brightening glow of the window. "Are you sure it's morning?" she grumbles under her breath, her voice croaky from sleep.
"Mmm-hmm," I affirm, grinning in ridiculous amusement at her scrunched up expression. There is something unbelievably adorable about the way she rubs her eyes with her fist like a child. I smooth her tangled hair behind an ear and watch with delight as a rosy flush blooms on her cheeks even as she attempts to squint at me in mock-disapproval.
"Are you awake now?" The eagerness in my tone is obvious – it has, after all, been six hours and twenty-two minutes since our last kiss. But this new hunger is a tricky thing to manage. I must maintain some level of control despite the electricity sizzling between our bodies.
Bella hums in assent, still blinking her sleep-fogged eyes, yet as soon as I capture her exquisite face in my hands, her heart thrums out a rapid staccato rhythm.
Pausing a hair's breadth from her lips, I say tenderly, "Good morning, love," before alighting on her warm mouth.
Of course, these types of careful kisses evolve quite swiftly into tight embraces and soft, exploring caresses. Today is no exception.
From the moment of our reconciliation after returning from Italy, the intimacy between Bella and I has continually escalated, building towards something I cannot even begin to fathom.
My thumbs drift over her flushed skin, savoring the heat, and she lets out an earnest sigh, one palm sliding up my chest to curl around my neck, branding my nerve endings with her white-hot touch.
A tiny voice buried within my oddly fragmented thoughts warns that I should bring this to a close, but I am incapable of releasing her moist, burning-soft lips just yet.
Then a slender calf slips around the back of my legs, and in less than a second, an intoxicating blend of warmth and friction explodes between us as Bella pulls herself against me, her soft curves melting into the icy hardness of my torso.
The sensation is beyond description. And extremely dangerous.
I exhale in a sharp gust, my eyes snapping open in shock, only to find that Bella is mimicking my reaction exactly, her face a brilliant shade of crimson.
Deftly, I unwind my legs from hers and separate myself from her a few inches, balancing on the very edge of her too-small mattress, and look on with mounting dismay as the mortification in Bella's wide eyes changes to apology. She drops her gaze to the wrinkled sheets, mouthing almost silently, "Sorry."
That she would take responsibility for the unfair restrictions of our physical relationship is utterly unacceptable. With a low sigh, I reach out and cup her reddened cheek, offering consolation by tracing the shape of her absurdly enticing lips with my fingertips. "Bella." I pause for the length of one of her heartbeats to relish the way her name rolls off my tongue. "It's not your fault. You have no reason to be sorry." This morning will not be ruined because of my weakness. Lifting one corner of my mouth, I give her a crooked smile and remark, "Now, if you don't mind, I'd like to finish telling you 'good morning'."
She smiles back timidly, and then closes her eyes, holding perfectly still while I lean in for a brief but sweet kiss.
"There," I declare a moment later. The shrill beeping of her alarm clock fills the room just as I speak.
Bella groans and throws the blankets over her head. "I'm not going," she states in a muffled growl.
Playfully, I tug the blankets from her grasp and sit up. "Yes, you are. History quiz today, remember? I won't have another incomplete on your transcripts."
She mumbles something unintelligible into her pillow and abruptly heaves herself out of bed, plodding over to her closet.
I head towards the window, reluctant as always to leave her, and toss a quick grin in her direction while sliding open the glass pane. "I'll be back in an hour to pick you up." A sudden, unwelcome thought breaks through, and I frown. "Am I allowed to take you to school?" Charlie's strict rules have until recently forbidden me from even pulling into the driveway, but I was permitted several times to collect Bella after her shift at Newton's Outfitters. Perhaps a ride to and from school would be acceptable, as well.
"I don't see why not," Bella answers, abstracted. She removes a t-shirt and a pair of jeans from the closet – ignoring the dozen or so complete ensembles that Alice had put together for her – and looks up at me with a faint smirk. "You've already picked me up from work, so school should be fine, too."
My grin widens, inordinately pleased at how our reasoning is aligned. "Then I'll see you in an hour." I bend my knees slightly to spring out the open window.
"Fifty-seven minutes," she counters, bringing me up short. When I glance at her curiously, she nods towards the clock, arching her eyebrows.
Chuckling, I dash to her side and lean down for a quick kiss. "Yes, ma'am," I breathe, staring deep into her chocolate-brown eyes. Her heartbeat stutters in response. Then I leap outside before I lose the will to leave, if only for fifty-seven minutes.
Beneath the soles of my feet, the awakening town swiftly gives way to the comforting green embrace of the forest, and soon I am sprinting across the meadow and up the front steps of the house.
Alice, of course, is waiting for me on the staircase. "You could have at least encouraged her to wear one of my outfits," she chides, trailing me to my bedroom in the third floor. I spent a good deal of time and effort to find clothing that is both stylish and practical. She could show a little more interest.
I roll my eyes. "You know as well as I that Bella is incredibly stubborn," I remind my meddling sister while striding into my closet to change. "She hates the idea of wearing something that costs more than her entire paycheck." I tug on a pair of black pants and yank some random shirt off its hanger from the rack to my left. "Besides," I say, preparing to throw the shirt over my head, "it doesn't matter to me in the slightest what she wears. She always looks beautiful."
A streak of black and white whizzes past me, plucking the shirt from my hands. It is replaced a half-second later by a cobalt blue button-down, and Alice leans against the doorframe, arms crossed, one thin eyebrow quirked in expectation. You are not going to school in last season's D&G collection, she all but snarls mentally. It is my job to make sure that this family upholds a certain standard in fashion, and you are a part of this family. As is Bella.
She grins in triumph when I dutifully put on the button-down. And as for your insistence that it doesn't matter what she wears... "You say that now, Edward," she trills aloud in an annoyingly superior tone, "but trust me: one day you'll pay very close attention to what Bella's wearing."
To prove her point, Alice treats me to yet another variation of the same vision she has been getting on and off since my initial proposal weeks ago. Bella, wrapped in white lace and chiffon, a misty gauze veil draped over her blushing features, walking down a flower-strewn aisle towards me.
Though my dead heart threatens to sprout wings and take flight each time Alice teases me with this vision, I successfully tamp down my enthusiasm to fix her with a withering glare. "It's not going to happen anytime soon, Alice. Let it go."
"I will whenever you do," she immediately retorts. Your future hasn't deviated from this course, so you've obviously made your decision. "Or until Bella makes up her mind." She flounces to the doorway, calling out, "Which will be very soon, trust me." I catch a brief glimpse of her impish smile and winking topaz eye as she ducks around the corner. "Meet you at the car."
Scowling, I walk over to the small mahogany table beside the leather sofa and crouch down, retrieving a honey-colored wooden coffer from the bottom shelf, which holds my most treasured mementos. I flip open the brass clasp and lift the lid, my gaze locking at once on the square black satin box tucked into the far right corner.
Within that tiny box is the representation of one hundred years of yearning and loneliness and a hope that refused to die, and it is meant to be worn by the woman who is my every desire brought to life.
Very soon, Alice had said. I had been considering the idea of proposing properly before graduation, a date that sends a shiver of dread down my spine at the same time that fireworks burst within my skull, but that may not be enough time to sway Bella from her obstinate demand of undergoing the transformation before her nineteenth birthday.
A key piece to my strategy is still missing. Bella desperately wants me to change her, yet that want has lacked the strength to keep her from following through on her pact with Carlisle.
There must be something else I can barter with, something she wants more than immortality...but what?
Edward, it's after seven!
Spurred on by Alice's singsong pronouncement, I hastily close the lid and replace the box on the shelf, flying down the stairs and through the door while Esme comments from the massive front room, "Have a good day at school, dear."
Alice is already seated in the back of the Volvo, her thoughts a flurry of images as she scans through the day's coming events. I jam the key into the ignition and the engine rumbles to life. Half a minute later, we are turning onto the highway to head back into town, the weakened yellow rays of the rising sun struggling to filter through the thick clouds dominating the sky.
"Nothing out of the ordinary," Alice informs me suddenly, her mind returning to the present. With the continued threat of Victoria, my sister has risen to the challenge of keeping very close tabs on Bella at all hours, doing whatever she can to protect her best friend. "Your plan to show up tonight with college applications should make Charlie less inclined to interrupt," she adds in a mild tone. "Though I can't say that Bella will be pleased." The image of Bella's fierce yet adorable glower flits across her mind's eye, and she giggles softly.
I smile to myself. Bella has certainly been selling herself short with her list of potential schools, although we had reached a compromise by applying to the University of Alaska Southeast. My acceptance letter is due to arrive in the mail today; I am positive – courtesy of Alice – that Bella will receive hers, as well.
But if I succeed in convincing her to wait at least a year, I want every possible avenue open to her in regard to higher education. She deserves nothing but the best, and neither tuition nor location is an issue.
My imagination begins to chase after the delightful vision of Bella and I sharing a dorm as a married couple as the Volvo coasts down her street, Alice chiming in the background, "Park out front; Charlie hasn't left yet."
I can hear Bella's footsteps skittering down the stairs, her pulse beating out a quick cadence, and then she says, "Hey, Dad, could you..." She hesitates, and sucks in a breath. "Are you going to see Billy today?"
The air freezes in my lungs. The dog, again.
Interest and a hint of smugness color Charlie's hazy thoughts. "I was thinking that I might pay him a visit sometime this afternoon," he tells her. "Why?"
"Could you give him this?" A faint rustling noise, like paper, punctuates her request. "It's for Jacob." Her voice wavers a bit when she says his name.
My fingers tense around the steering wheel. It frustrates me to no end that she insists on trying to maintain her friendship with the mutt – especially when he is the one who exposed her secret of motorcycle riding to Charlie in hopes of sabotaging our time together.
More than that, he is a juvenile wolf: unpredictable and wild by his very nature. It is out of the question for Bella to be in his presence without the protection of myself or my family, and since I am bound by the terms of the treaty as much as he, she will not be crossing the boundary to Quileute lands anytime soon.
"Sure, kid," Charlie agrees. "But..." Confusion weaves into his words as he asks, "I thought he hasn't returned your phone calls in weeks. Why don't you just go see him?"
Leather and plastic creak in protest beneath my palms. Alice lightly places her small hand on my shoulder. Calm down, Edward.
I force a deep, slow breath through my nose, deliberately relaxing my grip on the wheel.
"It's easier this way," Bella replies in a hard voice. Perhaps she is not as quick to forgive the mutt's rudeness as I had originally believed. "Maybe now he'll actually give me an answer." The front doorknob clicks as it is spun to the side, and her lithe silhouette appears on the threshold. "See you later," she calls in farewell, and pulls the door closed, her pace quickening with every step towards the Volvo.
Collapsing into the passenger seat, her warm aroma billowing around her, she turns to me with a vivid smile. "Right on time," she murmurs happily.
The aggravation birthed by her unknown appeal to the dog evaporates in the glow of her expression. Whatever her reasons may be for ceaselessly striving to preserve a dangerous association with my kind's natural enemy, I am the only one who is granted the privilege of seeing such a smile on her face. "Was there ever any doubt?" I remark, leaning sideways to pull the seatbelt across her body, pausing infinitesimally to brush a kiss in the hollow beneath her ear.
I pull away from the curb, and once my hand releases the gearshift, Bella latches onto it with both of hers and strokes my cold skin with her fingertips, creating idle patterns that scald my nerves. My breath shudders in my chest as I fight to stay nonchalant, even as my flawless memory relives our heated embrace from earlier this morning.
An irritated huff erupts from the back seat. Honestly... Alice gripes, I should have just driven to school myself. In a lower-pitched, heavily sarcastic tone, she says, "‘Good morning, Alice. How are you today?'" Then, in her usual chipper voice, "Well, I'm just super, Bella. Thanks for asking. How about you? ‘Oh, you know, the usual. Your brother spent the night in my room and things got a little hot and heavy right before my alarm went off –'"
The tires screech on the pavement, the car lurching to a stop at a red light, and Alice smirks at me in the rearview mirror. You told me to keep an eye on her. I can't help what I see.
While I attempt to suppress a growl, Bella whips around in her seat and shoots her best friend a glare that could rival the ill-fated gaze of Medusa. "Do not watch us, Alice," she hisses, teeth bared in an impressive replica of a vampire's snarl, "or so help me, I'll..." She falters, searching for an appropriate threat. "I'll..." Her dark eyes suddenly light up with an almost feral glee. "I'll take back every single article of clothing you've ever bought me."
Alice's smirk drains from her elfin face. "You wouldn't," she deadpans, and then a picture of Bella's closet standing half-empty swirls into her thoughts.
Bella holds her ground, her chocolate-colored irises ablaze, until Alice grimaces in surrender and slouches against the leather interior, pouting like a spoiled child. "Fine," she mutters. Then she thinks for my benefit, I won't eavesdrop on purpose. But we both know that I can't always edit my visions. At least now I know to never bring it up. She looks out the window, a faint grin playing across her pursed lips, amused by Bella's temper in spite of herself.
As for me, I cannot help the proud smile stretching out my mouth while Bella spins back around, a tiny, satisfied smirk on her face. With the hand still trapped within her frail hold, I raise hers to my lips and lightly kiss her knuckles, the Volvo speeding forward once the light changes.
She holds my adoring gaze for a handful of seconds before ordering half-heartedly, "Keep your eyes on the road."
With a low chuckle, I obey.
* * *
By the school day's end, Alice is her usual perky self, the altercation in the car forgotten, and she chatters on about the conversation that had started at lunch. "I'm pretty sure that Angela will get into the University of Washington. They have an excellent arts program, and I think Ben applied there, too. As for Jessica..." She snorts. "It's highly doubtful that she'll complete her major at UC Berkley. She probably won't even make it through the first semester. And that Lauren creature –" Here Alice inserts a murderous snarl. "I don't know where she the gall to brag on and on about her acceptance to Stanford, of all places. I just don't believe it."
She sniffs in distaste, more for effect than anything else, and catches my eye fleetingly in the mirror. Let me test the waters for you. In a slow, almost offhand manner, Alice says, "You should have gone for Ivy League, Bella. You definitely have the aptitude – not to mention the class – for a first-rate college experience. Maybe there's still time for you to send in an application."
"Alice, please..." Bella groans. "Not you, too." She scowls at me from the corner of her eye as though I had told my sister to broach this subject. "I've already sent my application to the University of Alaska Southeast, and unless their requirements have changed in the last three weeks, I'm pretty sure that I'll get in. And that's all there is to it," she concludes in a very final tone.
"But it couldn't hurt to have a few more options, right?" Alice responds blithely. "Just in case."
Silence fills the car for a moment, and then Bella cranes her neck to peer sidelong at the petite vampire behind us. "Are you telling me that I won't be accepted to Alaska?" Skepticism coats every word as her narrowed eyes study Alice's cheerfully blank features.
Ignoring my pointed glare reflected in the rearview mirror, Alice shrugs her thin shoulders, evasive. "I'm only saying that you shouldn't sell yourself short." She smiles brilliantly at Bella's distrustful scrutiny and throws open the door the instant the Volvo stops at the end of the long drive to the house. Jazz and I will be away tonight, hunting near the Strait, she sends to me while saying aloud, "Emmett's going to wait for you. Don't forget." In the blink of an eye, the door is closed and Alice has vanished into the trees.
I turn the car around to take Bella back to Charlie's, noting her thoughtful and – nervous? – expression in the rain-spattered glass of the passenger-side window.
After a couple of minutes, I cannot stand the suspense any longer. "What are you thinking?" I phrase the familiar question as gently as possible; if she only knew how difficult it is to hold onto my sanity whenever she becomes lost in her hidden thoughts.
"You and Emmett are hunting tonight?" she murmurs in tentative observation. Her fingers are squeezing together in her lap so tightly that the knuckles are leached of all color.
My eyes shut for a brief eternity, a bitter wash of regret and pain creating a hollow cavity in my chest. In the weeks after my return, the slow process of regaining Bella's trust began with one agonizing step at a time.
For days I could not so much as be less than a mile from her – clinging to the faint sound of her heartbeat like a lifeline. The thirst had scorched my throat into a raw, aching void, and my irises were as black as death...but any suffering on my part was inconsequential compared to Bella's anguish.
Eventually, she pleaded with me to hunt and I abided by her wish, though we both paid for my absence later that night as vicious nightmares tormented her fragile psyche, my name more often than not leaving her mouth in a strangled scream.
That was over two weeks ago. Since then, we have established a precarious balance of time spent together and apart, and her nightmares have slowly abated. But no separation is any easier on either of us, even if it is for the most basic of necessities.
Opening my eyes, I raise my hand to her cheek and caress her silken skin from temple to chin, back and forth in a soothing motion. "It will be a quick trip, I promise," I tell her in a low voice. "After all, you'll be having dinner then, as well" – her lips quirk into a weak smile – "and I will be on your doorstep at seven o'clock sharp." With my fingers, I gently turn her head in order to meet her eyes, and the soft gleam of love and trust in their dark depths gives new life to my broken spirit.
"Okay," she replies simply, and opens her door. With a dim sense of surprise, it occurs to me that we are already sitting in her father's driveway. I start to wonder exactly how long we have been here – but that question is abruptly answered by the police cruiser waiting beside the curb, the engine revving impatiently.
Bella throws an angry glare in its direction, then purposefully leans back inside the car to press her lips against mine. "Seven, on the dot," she reminds me, breathless instead of commanding, and I hum in agreement.
Charlie's severe displeasure radiates from his half-hidden mind as I pull out of the driveway, my mouth tingling with delicious heat from Bella's kiss, and she watches the Volvo coast down the street until I loop around the corner, her face disappearing from the side mirror.
Now begins the tedious torture of waiting. Of course, Emmett and I do have plans, which should make the evening arrive faster. I just have to convince my brother to accompany me one more time on this rather specific hunt.
I park the car out front, the buzzing of my family's thoughts filling my head, and as soon as I enter the house, Emmett's loud voice booms from the left, "Forget it, Edward, I'm not going with you again." Alice told me that you'd ask, and I'm telling you, no way, he snipes mentally.
Hard tawny eyes fix on me once I stroll into the living room, and Emmett jabs an index finger at me from the recliner in front of the brand-new plasma TV purchased to replace the one I destroyed the night my family voted to end Bella's life. "It's a freakin' waste of time," he goes on, "and I'm not missing another game!" He jerks his chin towards the baseball field glowing vividly on the 50-inch screen.
In silence, I lean my hip against the glossy black grand piano and cross my arms, expecting such an immediate response from him.
He growls at my patient expression and looks away. You're not going to guilt me into this, he vows, focusing on the television with forced attentiveness.
A soft touch brushes my arm, and Esme drifts into the room, her gentle tone breaking some of the tension. "Maybe Emmett has a point," she comments, folding herself gracefully onto the pale sofa. "Things have been quiet for weeks now." A swirl of fiery red hair and scarlet eyes floats across her mind, and I grit my teeth. "It may be possible that –"
"She won't give up." The retort comes out harsher than I anticipated, and Esme blinks at me, startled. Sighing, I rake a hand through my hair. "Revenge is the only thing driving her now," I explain in a calmer voice. "It's the only logical reason why she would risk hunting in the wolves' territory. Things have been quiet," I admit, "but that only makes me worried as to what she could be planning. I can't..." My hands clench into fists at my sides, my chest heaving with thick breaths of unneeded air, and the memory of piercing sunlight, a sea of red, the booming chimes of a clock and a desperate desire for the world to end makes my head swim. "I can't lose Bella again," I choke out.
Oh, Edward...my son... Esme's familiar arms wind around my stiff shoulders, her motherly embrace beating back the hellish images of my attempted suicide. "You won't lose Bella," she whispers into my ear. "She's a part of this family now, and we can't lose either of you." She spins sideways to glance at Emmett, eyes soft yet resolute. "Each of us will do whatever we can to ensure Bella's safety. We protect our family."
Emmett slams his meaty palms on the armrests, exhaling dramatically. "You are the master of the guilt trip, Esme," he moans in defeat. Hauling his considerable bulk upright, he stomps towards the front door, elbowing his way past me, and mutters under his breath, "Let's get this over with."
With a smile, I kiss Esme's cheek. "Thanks, Mom."
Anytime. She gives me one last squeeze and then backs away. By the way, you received a letter in the mail today. A long white envelope stamped with the return address for the University of Alaska Southeast appears in her thoughts.
When a broad grin lights up my face, her golden eyes twinkle with pleasure and she teases affectionately, It must be an acceptance, then. Congratulations. She then gestures to the open front door. I kiss her other cheek as I dart around her and cross the threshold.
I catch up to Emmett easily; he is almost across the meadow, yelling out in a long-suffering tone, "Rose, you know where I'll be."
A metallic clang echoes from the garage several yards beyond the house. He's such a pushover, she complains, mentally rolling her eyes.
At the tree line, Emmett and I launch ourselves into a sprint, heading southwest. He maintains a stony silence for half the trip, and then he finally cracks as the pungent odor of wet dog wafts toward us on the breeze. You know I was just being an ass back at the house, right? he thinks seriously. You're my brother, and I'd do anything for you. And Bella's practically my little sister. I want to help protect her.
"I know, Em," I assure him quietly. I draw up short next to a cluster of silver firs, recognizing that the border separating the Olympic forest from the Quileute lands looms less than a dozen feet in front of us.
This is the last section of boundary left unchecked for traces of Victoria, the nomad vampire bent on avenging her mate's demise by killing the reason for my existence. She came terrifyingly close to achieving her goal while I was...away...but now that my family and I have returned to Forks, her head is mine the instant she is detected within a hundred miles of Bella.
Crouching down to the leaf-strewn earth, I flare my nostrils and breathe in, searching for any hint of Victoria's sweet, ferine scent.
Emmett trots down the invisible line and mimics my stance, sniffing once before he coughs, waving a hand in front of his nose. "Whew! How can you smell anything besides those dogs?" It's nasty, he adds, pretending to gag.
At my scathing glare, he straightens and rolls his eyes. Yeah, yeah, I know - 'We have to check every inch,' he quotes me, stepping to the right. A branch snaps under his foot, ringing out like a gunshot through the peaceful woods, and I hear a low rumble of thought at the edge of my perception.
"Emmett." My voice is just above the sound of the wind rustling the leaves above us.
What? He examines the low-hanging branches of an ancient spruce, cringing with each breath.
My gaze zeros in on a large pair of eyes flashing yellow-green in the waning daylight twenty yards to the west. "We have an audience," I inform my brother calmly.
He looks up at once, taking less than half a second to spot our furry observer, and then resumes his inspection of the nearest tree. Took him long enough, he remarks, kicking the snapped branch out of his path. Last time it felt like that big black one was waiting for us or something.
This wolf is smaller than the black one – whom Bella has identified as Sam Uley, the Alpha of the pack – and his fur is a mottled gray-brown. Cleverly, he is limiting his thoughts to his native language, which I do not yet fully comprehend. Jacob has undoubtedly told the others of my mind reading ability.
Although there is a strange undercurrent in the dog's mind, like distant voices echoing through a canyon. It is a sensation I had also picked up from Sam when he came upon us in the forest, but the voices seemed more...suppressed inside his mind.
My guess is that I am able to discern the thoughts of all those connected to the pack; Bella said that they can hear each other, and that is how they coordinate their movements. It is a fascinating concept, to be sure, but not exactly relevant at the moment.
Emmett and I pay no attention to the sentry, though we both keep him in our peripheral vision as we conduct our sweep of the border, and as my brother had predicted, there is no trace of Victoria.
It was worth a shot, Emmett offers gallantly...then he immediately follows up with a childish, but I told you so. There's nothing here to find.
I sigh, my disappointment overshadowed by the growing impatience to return to Bella. "You're right. Let's head home."
I watch our departure through the wolf's eyes until our wraith-like forms fade from his view, the dusky purple of twilight shading the low clouds as the light fragrance of an approaching rainstorm fills the air.
The first drops start to pelt the damp ground when we get back to the house. Glancing swiftly at the antique clock on the fireplace mantle, I dash upstairs to collect the manila envelope and roll of stamps resting atop my leather sofa, tucking them inside my jacket to keep dry, and am again out the door before it has completely swung shut.
The time for waiting is over. I have a promise to keep.