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Chapter no 15 – PROBABILITY

Midnight Sun (The Twilight Saga, Book 5)

“Now, Alice,” I began as I shut my door.

She sighed. I’m sorry. I wish I didn’t have to—

“It’s not real,” I interrupted, accelerating away from the parking lot. I didn’t have to think about the road. I knew it too well. “It’s just an old vision. Before everything. Before I knew I loved her.”

In her head, it was there again, that worst of all visions—the agonizing potential that had tortured me for so many weeks, the future Alice had seen the day I’d pushed Bella out of the way of the van.

Bella’s body in my arms, twisted and white and lifeless… a ragged, blue-edged gash across her broken neck… her blood red on my lips and blazing crimson in my eyes.

The vision in Alice’s memory brought a furious snarl ripping up my throat—an involuntary response to the pain that lashed through me.

Alice froze, her eyes anxious.

It’s the same place, Alice had realized today in the cafeteria, her thoughts tinged with a horror I hadn’t understood at first.

I’d never looked beyond the ghastly central image—I could barely stand to see that much. But Alice had been examining her visions for decades longer than I. She knew how to remove her feelings from the equation, how to be impartial, how to look at the picture without flinching away from it.

Alice had been able to absorb details… like the scenery.

The gruesome tableau was set in the same meadow where I planned to take Bella tomorrow.

“It can’t still be valid. You didn’t see it again, you just remembered it.” Alice shook her head slowly.

It’s not just a memory, Edward. I see it now“We’ll go somewhere else.”

In her head, backgrounds to her vision spun like whirling kaleidoscopes,

changing from bright to dark and back. The foreground remained the same. I cringed away from the pictures, trying to push them from my mental eye, wishing I could blind it.

“I’ll cancel,” I said through my teeth. “She’s forgiven my broken promises before.”

The vision shimmered, wavered, and then returned to solidity, with sharp, clear edges.

Her blood is so strong to you, Edward. As you get closer to her…

“I’ll go back to keeping my distance.”

“I don’t think that will work. It didn’t before.” “I’ll leave.”

She flinched at the agony in my voice, and the picture in her head shivered again. The seasons changed, but the central figures remained.

“It’s still there, Edward.” “How can that be?” I snarled.

“Because if you leave, you will come back,” she said, her voice implacable.

“No,” I said. “I can stay away. I know I can.”

“You can’t,” she said calmly. “Maybe… if it was just your own pain…”

Her mind raced through a flipbook of futures. Bella’s face from a thousand different angles, always tinted gray, sunless. She was thinner, unfamiliar hollows beneath her cheekbones, deep circles under her eyes, her expression empty. One could call it lifeless—but it would only be a metaphor. Not like the other visions.

“What’s wrong? Why is she like that?” “Because you’ve left. She’s not… doing well.”

I hated it when Alice spoke like that, in her strange present-future tense, which made it sound like the tragedy was happening right now.

“Better than other options,” I said.

“Do you really think you could leave her like that? Do you think you wouldn’t come back to check? Do you think when you saw her that way, you would be able to keep from speaking?”

As she asked her questions, I saw the answers in her head. Myself in the shadows, watching. Creeping back to Bella’s room. Seeing her suffer through a nightmare, curled into a ball, her arms tight around her chest, gasping for air even in her sleep. Alice curled in on herself, too, wrapping

her arms tensely around her knees in sympathy.

Of course Alice was right. I felt an echo of the emotions that I would feel then, in this version of the future, and I knew I would come back—just to check. And then, when I saw this… I would wake her. I would not be able to watch her suffer.

The futures realigned into the same inevitable vision, only delayed a bit. “I should never have come back,” I whispered.

What if I’d never learned to love her? What if I hadn’t known what I was missing?

Alice was shaking her head.

There were things I saw, while you were away.…

I waited for her to show me, but she was focusing very hard on just looking at my face now. Trying not to show me.

“What things? What did you see?”

Her eyes were pained. They weren’t pleasant things. At some point—if you hadn’t come back when you did, if you’d never loved her—you would have come back for her anyway. To… hunt her.

Still no pictures, but I didn’t need them to understand. I reeled away from her, nearly losing control of the car. I stomped on the brake, and pulled off the road. The tires tore into the ferns and threw patches of moss onto the pavement.

The thought had been there, in the very beginning, when the monster was nearly unbridled. That there was no guarantee that I wouldn’t eventually follow her, wherever she might go.

“Give me something that will work!” I exploded. Alice cringed away from the volume. “Tell me another path! Show me how to stay away— where to go!”

In her thoughts, suddenly another vision replaced the first. A gasp of relief choked through my lips when the horror was removed. But this vision was not much better.

Alice and Bella, arms around each other, both marble white and diamond hard.

One too many pomegranate seeds, and she was bound to the underworld with me. No way back. Springtime, sunlight, family, future, soul, all stolen from her.

It’s sixty-forty… ish. Maybe even sixty-five-thirty-five. There’s still a

good chance you won’t kill her. Her tone was one of encouragement. “She’s dead, either way,” I whispered. “I’ll stop her heart.”

“That’s not exactly what I meant. I’m telling you that she has futures beyond the meadow… but first she has to go through the meadow—the metaphorical meadow—if you catch my meaning.”

Her thoughts… it was difficult to describe… widened out as if she was thinking everything at the same time—and I could see a tangle of threads, each thread a long line of frozen images, each thread a future told in snapshots, all of them snared together in a messy knot.

“I don’t understand.”

All her paths are leading to one point—all her paths are knotted together. Whether that point is in the meadow, or somewhere else, she’s tied to that moment of decision. Your decision, her decision.… Some of the threads continue on the other side. Some…

“Do not.” My voice faltered through my tight throat.

You can’t avoid it, Edward. You’re going to have to face it. Knowing it could easily go either way, you still have to face it.

“How do I save her? Tell me!”

“I don’t know. You’ll have to find the answer yourself, in the knot. I can’t see exactly what form it will take, but there will be a moment, I think

—a test, a trial. I can see that, but I can’t help you with it. Only the two of you can choose in that moment.”

My teeth ground together.

You know that I love you, so listen to me now. Putting this off won’t change anything. Take her to your meadow, Edward, and—for me, and especially for you—bring her back again.

I let my head fall into my hands. I felt sick—like a damaged human, a victim of disease.

“How about some good news?” Alice asked gently. I glared up at her. She smiled a small smile.

Seriously.

“Tell me, then.”

“I’ve seen a third way, Edward,” she said. “If you can get through the crisis, there’s a new path out there.”

“A new path?” I echoed blankly. “It’s sketchy. But look.”

Another picture in her head. Not as sharp as the others. A trio in the cramped front room of Bella’s house. I was on the aged sofa, Bella beside me, my arm casually slung around her shoulders. Alice sat on the floor beside Bella, leaning against her leg in a familiar fashion. Alice and I were exactly the same as we always were, but this was a version of Bella I’d never seen before. Her skin was still soft and translucent, pink across the cheeks, healthy. Her eyes were still warm and brown and human. But she was different. I analyzed the changes, and realized what I was seeing.

Bella was not a girl, but a woman. Her legs looked a little longer, as if she’d grown an inch or two, and her body had rounded subtly, giving a new curvature to her slender frame. Her hair was sable-dark, as if she’d spent little time in the sun during the intervening years. Not many years, maybe three or four. But she was still human.

Joy and pain washed through me. She was still human; she was aging. This was the desperate, unlikely future that was the only one I could live with. The future that did not cheat her of either life or afterlife. The future that would take her away from me someday, as inevitably as day turned to night.

“It’s still not very probable, but I thought you’d like to know it was there. If you two get through the crisis, this is out there.”

“Thank you, Alice,” I whispered.

I put the car into drive, and pulled onto the road again, cutting off a minivan chugging along under the limit. I accelerated automatically, barely registering the process.

Of course, this is all you, she thought. She was still picturing the unlikely trio on the sofa. This doesn’t take her wishes into account.

“What do you mean? Her wishes?”

“Did it never occur to you that Bella might not be willing to lose you?

That one short mortal life might not be long enough for her?” “That’s insanity. No one would choose—”

“No need to argue about it now. Crisis first.” “Thanks, Alice,” I said again, caustically this time.

She trilled a laugh. It was a nervous sound, birdlike. She was every bit as on edge as I was, almost as horrified by the tragic possibilities.

“I know you love her, too,” I muttered.

It’s not the same.

“No, it isn’t.”

After all, Alice had Jasper. She had the center of her universe safely at her side—even more indestructible than most. And his soul was not on her conscience. She had brought Jasper nothing but happiness and peace.

I love you. You can do this.

I wanted to believe her, but I knew when her words were built on sure foundations, and when they were no more than ordinary hope.

I drove in silence to the edge of the national park and found an inconspicuous place to leave the car. Alice didn’t move when the car stopped. She could see that I would need a moment.

I closed my eyes and tried not to hear her, not to hear anything, to really focus my thoughts toward a decision. A resolution. I pressed my fingertips hard against my temples.

Alice said I would have to make a choice. I wanted to scream out loud that I’d already decided, that there was no decision, but even though it felt as though my whole being yearned for nothing but Bella’s safety, I knew the monster was still alive.

How did I kill it? Silence it forever?

Oh, he was quiet now. Hiding. Saving his strength for the fight that was coming.

For a few moments, I thought seriously about killing myself. It was the only way I knew to be sure that the monster didn’t survive.

But how? Carlisle had exhausted most of the possibilities in the beginning of his new life, and had never come close to ending his own story, despite his very real determination to do so. I would have no success acting alone.

Any of my family would be capable of doing it for me, but I knew that none of them would, no matter how I begged. Even Rosalie, who I’m sure would claim to be angry enough to do it, who might bluster and threaten the next time I saw her, would not. Because even though she sometimes hated me, she always loved me. And I knew if I could trade places with any of them, I would feel and act exactly the same way. I would not be able to harm any of my family, no matter how much pain they were in, no matter how much they wanted out.

There were others.… But Carlisle’s friends wouldn’t help me. They would never betray him so. I could think of one place I might go with the

power to end the monster very quickly… but doing that would put Bella in danger. Though I’d not been the one to tell her the truth about myself, she knew things she was forbidden to know. It was nothing that would ever bring her the wrong kind of attention, unless I did something stupid, like go to Italy.

It was too bad the Quileute treaty was toothless these days. Three generations ago, all I would have had to do was walk to La Push. A useless idea now.

So those ways of killing the monster weren’t possible.

Alice seemed so sure that I had to go forward, to meet this head-on. But how could that be the right thing to do, when the possibility that I would kill Bella existed?

I flinched. The idea was so painful, I couldn’t imagine how the monster could get past my aversion to overcome me. He didn’t give anything away, just silently bided his time.

I sighed. Was there any choice but to face this head-on? Did it count as courage if one was compelled? I was sure it did not.

All I could do, it seemed, was cling to my decision with both hands, with all my strength. I would be stronger than my monster. I would not hurt Bella. I would do the most right thing that was left to me. I would be who she needed me to be.

And then suddenly, as I thought those words, it didn’t feel so impossible. Of course I could do that. I could be the Edward that Bella wanted, that she needed. I could grasp hold of that one sketchy future I could live with, and then will it into being. For Bella. Of course I could do that, if it was for her.

It felt stronger, this decision. Clearer. I opened my eyes and looked at Alice.

“Ah. That looks better,” she said. In her head, the tangle of threads was still a hopelessly confusing maze to me, but she saw more in it than I did. “Seventy-thirty. Whatever you’re thinking, keep thinking it.”

Perhaps just accepting the immediate future was the key. Facing it. Not underestimating my own evil. Bracing for it. Preparing.

I could do the most basic preparation now. This was why we were here.

Alice saw my action before I took it, and she was out her door and running before I had opened my own. I felt a shallow sensation of humor and almost smiled. She could never outrun me; she always tried to cheat.

And then I was running, too.

This way, Alice thought when I’d nearly caught up. Her mind was ranging ahead, looking for quarry. But while I caught the scent of several nearby options, clearly they weren’t what she wanted. She disregarded everything she saw.

I wasn’t exactly sure what she was searching so minutely for, but I followed her unhesitatingly. She ignored a few more flocks of deer, leading me deeper into the forest, angling south. I saw her searching ahead, seeing us in different corners of the park—all of them familiar. She drifted east, starting to curve north again. What was she looking for?

And then her thoughts settled on a slinking movement in the brush, glimpses of a tawny hide.

“Thanks, Alice, but—”

Shh! I’m hunting.

I rolled my eyes, but continued following her. She was trying to do something nice for me. There was no way for her to know how little it all mattered. I’d been force-feeding myself so much lately I doubted I would notice the difference between a lion and a rabbit.

It didn’t take us long to find her vision, now that she was focused on it. Once the movements of the animal were audible, Alice slowed to let me take the lead.

“I really shouldn’t, the park’s lion population—” Alice’s mental tone was exasperated. Live a little.

There never was much point in fighting with Alice. I shrugged and passed her. I’d caught the scent now. It was easy to shift into another mode

—just let the blood pull me forward as I stalked my prey.

It was relaxing to stop thinking for a few minutes. Just to be another predator—the apex predator. I heard Alice head east, searching for her own meal.

The lion hadn’t noticed me yet. He, too, was heading east on his own search, looking for something to hunt. Some other animal’s day would end better, thanks to me.

I was on him in a second. Unlike Emmett, I saw no point in giving the beast a chance to fight back. It would make no difference, and wasn’t it more humane to do it quickly? I snapped the lion’s neck and then quickly drained the warm body. I wasn’t that thirsty to begin with, so there wasn’t

any real relief tied to the action. Force-feeding again.

When I was done, I followed Alice’s scent north. She’d found a sleeping doe, bedded down in a nest of brambles. Alice’s hunting style was more like mine than Emmett’s. It didn’t look like the creature had even woken up.

“Thank you,” I told her, to be courteous.

You’re welcome. There’s a bigger herd back to the west.

She got to her feet and led the way again. I bit back my sigh.

We were both done after one more. I was too full again, my insides feeling uncomfortably liquefied. I was surprised that she was ready to quit, though.

“I don’t mind continuing,” I told her, wondering if she’d seen that I would sit the next round out and was being polite.

“I’m going out tomorrow with Jasper,” she told me. “Didn’t he just—”

“I’ve recently decided that more preparations are necessary,” she said, smiling. A new possibility.

In her mind, I saw our home. Carlisle and Esme waiting expectantly in the front room. The door opening, myself walking through, and next to me, holding my hand…

Alice laughed, and I tried to bring my face back under my control. “How?” I asked. “When?”

“Soon.” Possibly Sunday…

This Sunday?”

Yes, the one that comes after tomorrow.

Bella was perfect in the vision—human and healthy, smiling at my parents. She wore the blue blouse that made her skin glow.

As for how, I’m not entirely sure. This is just an outlying chance, but I wanted Jasper prepared.

Jasper at the foot of the stairs now, nodding politely to Bella, his eyes light gold.

“This is… through the knot?”

One of the threads.

It spun out again in her mind, the long ropes of possibilities. So many converging on tomorrow… not enough emerging on the other side.

“Where am I at?”

She pursed her lips. Seventy-five-twenty-five? She thought it like a

question, and I could see she was being generous.

C’mon, she thought as she saw me hunch in on myself. You’d take that bet. I did.

Automatically, my lips pulled back over my teeth.

“Please!” she said. “Like I was going to pass up such an opportunity. This isn’t just about Bella. I’m relatively confident that she’ll be fine. This is about teaching Rosalie and Jasper some respect.”

“You’re not omniscient.” “I’m close enough.”

I could not match her joking mood. “If you were omniscient, you’d be able to tell me what to do.”

You’ll figure it out, Edward. I know you will.

If only I could know that, too.

No one but my mother and father were home when we returned. Emmett had no doubt warned the others to make themselves scarce. It didn’t matter to me one way or another. I didn’t have the energy to care about their stupid game. Alice, too, ran off in search of Jasper. I was grateful for the thinning of the mental conversations. It helped me a little as I tried to concentrate.

Carlisle was waiting by the foot of the stairs, and his thoughts were hard to block, filled with all the same questions to which I’d just begged Alice for answers. I didn’t want to admit to him all the weaknesses that kept me from running away before any more damage was done. I didn’t want Carlisle to know the horror that would have come to pass if I hadn’t come back to Forks when I did, the depths to which my monster would have sunk.

I gave him one tight nod in acknowledgment as I passed him. He knew what it meant—that I was aware of all his fears, and that I had no good answer. With a sigh, he nodded back. He followed up the stairs more slowly, and I heard him join Esme in her study. They didn’t speak. I tried to ignore what she thought as she analyzed his expression: her alarm, her pain. Carlisle, of all the others, even Alice, understood best how it was for me, the never-ending chatter and babble and commotion that was the inside of my head; he’d lived with me longest. So, without a word, he now led Esme to the large window we often used as an exit. Within seconds, they were far

enough away that I could hear nothing. Silence at last. The only commotion in my head now was of my own making.

At first I moved slowly, at barely more than human speed, as I showered, cleaning the residue of the forest from my skin and hair. As before, in the car, I felt damaged, impaired, as if my strength had been drained away. All in my head, of course. It would be nothing but a miracle, a gift, if I could somehow truly lose my strength. If I could be weak, harmless, a danger to no one.

I’d almost forgotten my earlier fear—such a conceited fear—that Bella would find me repulsive when I revealed my true self in the sunlight. I was disgusted at myself for wasting even a moment over that selfish concern. But as I looked for fresh clothes, I had to think of it again. Not because it mattered whether she was sickened by me, but because I had a promise to keep.

I rarely gave what I wore a first thought, let alone a second. Alice stocked my closet with a wide variety of items that all seemed to go together. The main point of clothing was to help us blend in—to embrace the current time period’s fashion, to downplay our pallor, and to cover as much of our skin as possible without looking shockingly out of season. Alice pushed the limits within those constraints, offended by the idea of trying to make us look unnoticeable. She chose her own clothing and dressed the rest of us as a form of artistic expression. Our skin was covered, its pallid hue was never put in contrast with deeper tones, and we certainly were up to the minute with current style. But blend we did not. It seemed a harmless indulgence, like the cars we drove.

Alice’s forward-thinking taste aside, all my clothes were, if nothing else, designed for maximum coverage. If I were going to fulfill the spirit of my promise to Bella, I would need more than my hands exposed. The smaller my exposure, the easier it would be for her to compartmentalize my disease. She needed to see me for what I was.

At that moment I remembered a shirt, stuck in the back recesses of my closet, that I’d never worn.

The shirt was an anomaly. Usually, Alice wouldn’t get us anything that she couldn’t see us wearing. Typically, she was quite strict in following the letter of the law. I recalled the afternoon, two years ago, when I’d first seen the shirt hanging with a new lot of Alice’s acquisitions, tacked on at the

very back, as if she knew it was all wrong. “What’s this for?” I asked her.

She’d shrugged. I don’t know. It looked nice on the model.

There hadn’t been anything hidden in her thoughts. She seemed as confused as I was by the impulsive purchase. And yet, she hadn’t let me throw the shirt away, either.

You never know, she’d insisted. You might want it someday.

I pulled the shirt out now, and felt a strange wave of awe. A chill, almost, if I were capable of feeling such a thing. Her uncanny premonitions reached so far, stretched their tentacles so deep into the future, that even she didn’t understand all the actions she took. Somehow she’d sensed, years before Bella had chosen to come to Forks, that at some point I would be facing this most bizarre trial.

Perhaps she was omniscient after all.

I slipped into the white cotton shirt, unnerved by the look of my bare arms in the mirror inside the door. I buttoned it, sighed, then unbuttoned it again. Exposing my skin was the whole point. But I didn’t have to be so conspicuous right from the start. I grabbed a pale beige sweater and pulled it over the top. I was much more comfortable that way, just the collar of the white shirt showing above the crew neckline, covered up as was normal. Maybe I would leave the sweater on. Maybe full disclosure was the wrong path.

I wasn’t moving as slowly anymore. It was almost comical, with all the dire fears and resolutions in my head, that the more familiar fear, the one that had recently dictated almost all my movements, should still be able to control me so easily.

I hadn’t seen Bella for hours. Was she safe now?

Strange that I should even be able to worry about the millions of dangers that weren’t me. None of them were close to as deadly. And yet, and yet, and yet… what if?

Though I’d always planned to spend the night with Bella’s scent, more important tonight than any night before, now I was in a hurry to be there.

I was early and, of course, everything was fine. Bella was still doing laundry—I could hear the thumping and sloshing of the unbalanced washing machine and smell the scent of softener sheets blowing hot from the dryer’s exhaust. Part of me wanted to smile as I thought of her teasing at

lunch, but the superficial humor was too weak to overcome my ongoing panic. I could hear Charlie watching a sports recap in the front room. His quiet thoughts seemed mellow, sleepy. I was sure that Bella hadn’t changed her mind and told him of her real plans for tomorrow.

Despite everything, the easy, simple flow of the Swans’ uneventful evening was calming. I perched in my usual tree and let it lull me.

I found myself feeling jealous of Bella’s father. His was a simple life. Nothing serious weighed on his conscience. Tomorrow was just a normal day, with familiar, pleasant hobbies to look forward to.

But the next day…

It wasn’t in his power to guarantee what that next day would be for him.

Was it in mine?

I was surprised to hear the sound of a hair dryer from the shared bathroom. Bella didn’t usually bother. Her hair was, as far as I had seen in my nights of protective—if inexcusable—surveillance, wet as she slept, drying over the course of the night. I wondered why the change. The only explanation I could think of was that she wanted her hair to look nice. And as the person she planned to see tomorrow was me, that meant she must have wanted it to look nice for me.

Maybe I was wrong. But if I was right… how exasperating! How endearing! Her life had never been in deeper peril, but she still cared that I, the very menace threatening her life, liked her appearance.

It took longer than usual, even after the extra time with the dryer, for the lights to go out in her room, and I could hear some quiet commotion inside before that happened. Curious, always too curious, it felt like hours before I could be sure I’d waited long enough for her to be sleeping.

Once inside, I could see I hadn’t needed to wait quite so long. She slept more serenely than usual tonight, her hair fanned smoothly across the pillow over her head, her arms relaxed at her sides. Deeply under, she did not so much as murmur.

Her room immediately revealed the source of the tumult I’d heard. Piles of clothes were thrown over every surface, even a few across the foot of her bed, under her bare feet. I acknowledged again the pleasure and the pain of knowing that she wanted to be attractive for me.

I compared the feelings, the ache and the soaring, to my life before Bella. I’d been so jaded, so world-weary, as if I’d experienced every

emotion there was to be felt. What a fool. I’d barely sipped at the cup life had to offer. Only now was I aware of all I’d missed, and how much more I had to learn. So much suffering ahead, more than the joy, certainly. But the joy was so sweet and so strong that I would never forgive myself for missing a second of it.

I thought of the emptiness of a life without Bella, and it brought to mind one night I’d not thought of for a very long time.

It was December 1919. More than a year had passed since Carlisle had transformed me. My eyes had cooled from brilliant red to a mellow amber, though the stress of keeping them so was constant.

Carlisle had kept me as isolated as possible while I worked through those unruly first months. After almost a year, I felt quite sure that the madness had passed, and Carlisle accepted my self-evaluation without question. He prepared to introduce me into human society.

At first it was only an evening here or there: As well-fed as possible, we would walk along a small town’s main street after the sun was safely below the horizon. It surprised me then, how we could blend in at all. The human faces were so completely different from ours—their dull, pitted skin, their poorly molded features, so rounded and lumpy, the mottled colors of their imperfect flesh. The clouded, rheumy eyes must be nearly blind, I thought, if they could really believe we belonged to their world. It was several years before I grew accustomed to human faces.

I was so focused on controlling my instinct to kill during these excursions that I barely registered as language the cacophony of thought that assaulted me; it was just noise. As my ability to ignore my thirst grew stronger, so the thoughts in the crowd became clearer, harder to dismiss, the danger of the first challenge supplanted by the irritation of the second.

I passed these early tests, if not with ease, then at least with perfect results. The next challenge was to live among them for a week. Carlisle chose the busy harbor in Saint John, New Brunswick, booking us rooms in a small clapboard inn near the West Side docks. Besides our ancient landlord, all the neighbors we encountered were sailors and dockhands.

This was an arduous challenge. I was entirely surrounded. The scent of human blood was ever present. I could smell the touch of human hands on the fabrics in our room, catch the scent of human sweat wafting through our windows. It tainted every breath I took.

But though I was young, I was also obstinate and determined to succeed. I knew that Carlisle thought very highly of my rapid progress, and pleasing him had become my chief motivation. Even in my relative quarantine up to this point, I’d heard enough of human thought to know that my mentor was unique in this world. He was worthy of my idolization.

I knew his plan for escape, should the challenge prove too much for me, though he meant to hide it from me. It was nearly impossible for him to keep a secret. Despite the sense of being encompassed by human blood on every side, there existed a quick retreat through the frigid waters of the harbor. We were but a few streets from the gray, opaque depths. If temptation were close to triumph, he would urge me to run.

But Carlisle believed I was able—too gifted, too strong, too intelligent to fall victim to my baser desires. He must have seen how I responded to his internal praises. It made me arrogant, I think, but it also shaped me into the man I saw in his head, so determined was I to earn the approval he’d already given.

Carlisle was shrewd like that. He was also very kind.

It was my second Christmas holiday as an immortal, though it was the first year I appreciated the change of seasons—the year before, I’d been too racked with the newborn frenzy to be aware of much else. I knew that Carlisle worried privately about what I would miss. All the family and friends I’d known in my human years, all the traditions that had brightened the gloomy weather. He needn’t have worried. The wreaths and the candles, the music and the gatherings… none of it seemed to apply to me. I looked at it from what seemed an impossible distance.

He sent me out one evening about midway through our week, to take a stroll alone for the first time. I took my assignment very seriously and did all I could to appear as human as possible, bundling myself into thick layers of clothes, pretending I felt the cold. Once outside, I kept my body rigid against every temptation, my movements slow and deliberate. I passed a few men headed home from the icy docks. No one addressed me, but I did not go out of my way to avoid contact. I thought of my future life, when I would be as controlled and at ease as Carlisle, and imagined a million strolls like this one. Carlisle had put his life on hold to deal with me, but I was determined that I would soon be an asset to him rather than a burden.

I was quite proud of myself as I returned to our room, shaking the snow off my wool cap. Carlisle would be anxious for my report, and I was keen to give it to him. It had not been so difficult after all, going out among them with only my own will for protection, and I pretended nonchalance as I strolled through the door, only belatedly noticing the strong scent of resin.

I’d been preparing to amaze Carlisle with the ease of my success, but he was waiting to surprise me.

The beds were carefully stacked in the corner, the wobbly desk shoved behind the door to make room for a fir tree tall enough to brush the ceiling with its highest branch. The needles were wet, dustings of snow still visible in places, so quickly had he melted the candle stubs to the ends of the branches. They were all aglow, reflecting warm and yellow against Carlisle’s smooth cheek. He smiled widely.

Merry Christmas, Edward.

I realized with a bit of embarrassment that my great accomplishment, my solo expedition, had been merely a ruse. And then I was glad again to think that Carlisle trusted my control so much that he’d been willing to send me off on a sham trial in order to surprise me this way.

“Thank you, Carlisle,” I responded quickly. “And a merry Christmas to you.” Truthfully, I wasn’t sure how I felt about the gesture. It seemed… somehow juvenile—as if my human life were just a larval stage that I had left far behind, along with all its trappings, and now I was expected to return to inching along in the mud despite the existence of my wings. I felt too old for this display, but at the same time, touched that Carlisle would try to give me this, a momentary return to my former joys.

“I’ve got popcorn,” he told me. “I thought you might like to join in the trimming?”

In his mind, I saw what this meant to him. I heard, not for the first time, the depth of the guilt he felt for having drawn me into this life. He would give me whatever little pieces of human pleasure he thought possible. And I would not be so spoiled as to deny him his own pleasure in this.

“Of course,” I agreed. “I imagine it will be quick work this year.” He laughed and went to coax the embers in the hearth to life.

It was not difficult to relax into his vision of a family holiday, albeit a very small and unusual family. Though I found my role easy to perform, the sense lingered of not belonging to this world I was playing at. I wondered if

I would settle over time into the life Carlisle had created, or if I would always feel like an alien creature. Was I more of a true vampire than he was? Too much a creature of blood to embrace his more human sensibilities?

My questions were answered with time. I was still more a newborn than I realized in those days, and everything got easier as I aged. The sense of alienation faded, and I found I did belong in Carlisle’s world.

However, in that particular season, my concerns left me more vulnerable than I should have been to the thoughts of a stranger.

The next night we met with friends—my very first social encounter.

It was after midnight. We’d left the town and ventured into the hills to the north, searching for an area far enough from humankind to be safe for my hunt. I kept a tight rein on myself then, working to check the eager senses that yearned to be set free, to lead me through the night to something that would satiate my thirst. We must be sure we were far enough away from the populace. Once I’d set those powers loose, I would not be strong enough to turn away from the scent of human blood.

This should be safe, Carlisle approved, and he slowed to let me lead the hunt. Perhaps we would find some wolves, also out hunting in the thick snow. More likely in this weather, we’d have to dig the animals from their dens.

I let my senses range free—it was a distinct relief to do so, like relaxing a long-constricted muscle. At first, all I could smell was the clean snow and the bare branches of the deciduous trees. I registered the relief of smelling no humans at all, no desire, no pain. We ran silently through the thick forest.

And then I caught a new scent, both familiar and strange. It was sweet and clear and purer than the fresh snow. There was a brightness to the fragrance that was only linked to two scents that I knew—Carlisle’s and my own. But it was otherwise unfamiliar.

I jerked to a halt. Carlisle caught the scent and froze beside me. For the tiniest part of a second, I listened to his anxiety. And then it turned to recognition.

Ah, Siobhan, he thought, immediately calm. I didn’t know she was on this side of the world.

I looked at him questioningly, not sure if it was right to speak aloud. I

felt apprehensive, despite his ease. The unfamiliar put me on my guard.

Old friends, he assured me. I suppose it’s time for you to meet more of our kind. Let’s find them.

He seemed serene, but I detected a hushed concern behind the thoughts he composed into words for me. I wondered for the first time why we’d never come in contact with another vampire thus far. From Carlisle’s lessons, I knew we were not that rare. He must have kept me from the others deliberately. But why? He did not fear any physical danger now. What else would motivate him?

The scent was quite fresh. I could distinguish two different trails. I looked at him questioningly.

Siobhan and Maggie. I wonder where Liam is? That’s their coven, the three of them. They usually travel together.

Coven. I knew the word, but had always thought of it in relation to the larger militarized groups that had dominated Carlisle’s history lessons. The Volturi coven, and before them, the Romanians and the Egyptians. But if this Siobhan could have a coven of three, did the word then apply to us also? Were Carlisle and I a coven? That didn’t seem to fit us. It was too… cold. Perhaps my understanding of the word was imperfect.

It took us a few hours to catch up with our quarry, for they were running, too. The trail took us deeper and deeper into the snowy wasteland, which was fortunate. Had we come too close to human habitation, Carlisle would have asked me to wait behind. Using my sense of smell to track was not much different from using it to hunt, and I knew I would be overwhelmed should I cross a human trail.

When we were close enough that I could just make out the sound of their running feet ahead of us—they were taking no pains to be noiseless, and obviously not concerned about being followed—Carlisle called loudly, “Siobhan!”

The movement ahead ceased for a brief moment, and then they were bounding back toward us, an assertiveness to the sound that had me tensing in spite of Carlisle’s confidence. He halted and I stopped close to his side. I’d never known him to be wrong, but still I found myself crouching almost automatically.

Easy, Edward. It’s a difficult thing at first, meeting an equal predator.

But there is no reason for concern here. I trust her.

“Of course,” I whispered, and I straightened beside him, though I could not keep my posture from rigid tautness.

Perhaps this was why he had kept his other acquaintances from me. Maybe this strange instinct to defend was too strong when one was already overwhelmed with newborn passion. I tightened my hold on my locked muscles. I would not disappoint him now.

“Is that you, Carlisle?” a voice rang out, like the clear, deep tone of a church bell.

At first only one vampire emerged from the snow-dusted trees. She was the largest woman I had ever seen—taller than either Carlisle or me, with broader shoulders and thicker limbs. However, there was nothing masculine about her. She was profoundly female in shape—aggressively, forcefully female. It was clear she’d had no intention of passing for a human tonight— she wore only a simple, sleeveless linen shift with an intricately designed silver chain as a belt.

It had been in another lifetime that I had last noticed a woman this way, and I found I was hard pressed to know where to put my eyes. I centered them on her face, which, like her body, was intensely female. Her lips were full and curved, her deep crimson eyes enormous and fringed by lashes thicker than the needles on the pine boughs. Her glossy black hair was piled into a generous roll on top of her head, with two thin wooden rods carelessly stabbed through to hold it in place.

I found it a strange relief to look on another face so like Carlisle’s— perfect, smooth, lacking the fleshy lumpiness of human faces. The symmetry was soothing.

A half second later, the other vampire appeared, leaning out from behind the larger female’s side. This one was less remarkable—just a small girl, not much more than a child. Where the tall female seemed to have an excess of everything, this girl was the picture of lack. She looked all bones beneath her plain, dark dress, her wary eyes too big for her face, though it, like her companion’s, was comfortingly flawless. Only the girl’s hair existed in abundance—a wild thatch of bright red curls that appeared to be knotted beyond the possibility of recovery.

The larger female leaped forward toward Carlisle, and it took all my self-control not to jump between them to stop her. I realized in that instant, observing the musculature of her substantial limbs, that I would only be

able to try. It was a humbling thought. Perhaps Carlisle had been protecting my ego, too, by keeping me isolated.

She embraced him, enveloping him in her bare arms. Her bright teeth were exposed, but only in what looked to be a friendly smile. Carlisle clasped his arms around her waist and laughed.

“Hello, Siobhan. It’s been too long.”

Siobhan released him but kept her hands on his shoulders.

“Where have you been hiding, Carlisle? I was beginning to worry something untoward had happened to you.” Her voice was nearly as low as his, a vibrant alto, with the lilt of the Irish dockworkers transformed into something magical.

Carlisle’s thoughts turned to me, a hundred lightning flashes of our last year. At the same time, Siobhan’s eyes darted swiftly to my face and away.

“It’s been a busy time,” Carlisle said, but I was more focused on Siobhan’s thoughts.

Practically a newborn… but his eyes. Strange, but not the same strange as Carlisle’s. Amber rather than gold. He’s quite pretty. I wonder where Carlisle found him.

Siobhan took a step back. “I’m being rude. I’ve never met your companion.”

“Allow me to introduce you. Siobhan, this is Edward, my son. Edward, this is, as I’m sure you’ve inferred, my friend of many years, Siobhan. And this is her Maggie.”

The little girl cocked her head to the side, but not in acknowledgment. The thin lines of her eyebrows pushed together as if she was concentrating very hard on some puzzle.

Son? Siobhan thought, at first thrown by the word. Ah, so he’s chosen to create his companion after all this time. Interesting. I wonder why now? There must be something special about the boy.

What he says is true, Maggie thought simultaneously. But there’s something missing. Something Carlisle isn’t speaking. She nodded once, as if to herself, and then glanced at Siobhan, who was still examining me.

“Edward, how delightful to meet you,” Siobhan said. She offered me her hand, her gaze lingering on my irises, as if trying to quantify their exact shade.

I knew only the human response for this kind of meeting. I took her

hand and brushed my lips against the back of it, noting the glassy smoothness of her skin against mine.

“A pleasure,” I responded.

How charming. She let her hand drop, smiling widely at me. So pretty. I wonder what his gift might be, and why it appealed to Carlisle?

I was taken aback by her thought—only comprehending, when she used the word gift, exactly what she’d meant before, when she’d presumed there must be something special about me—but I’d had enough practice by now to hide my reaction from her interested eyes.

Of course she was right. I did have a gift. But… Carlisle had been honestly surprised when he’d understood what I could do. I knew, thanks to my gift, that he was not pretending. There was no lie, no evasion in his thoughts when he’d answered my own whys. He was very lonely. My mother had pleaded for my life. My face had unconsciously promised some virtue that I wasn’t entirely sure I embodied.

I was still mulling over both the rightness and the wrongness of her assumptions as she turned back to Carlisle. One final thought about me lingered as she moved.

Poor boy. I suppose Carlisle has imposed his odd habits on the lad. That’s why his eyes are so strange. How tragic—to be deprived of the greatest joy of this life.

At the time, this conclusion did not trouble me as much as her other speculation. Later—their conversation lasted through the night and trapped us away from our rented rooms until the sun had set—when we were alone again, I spoke to him about it. Carlisle told me Siobhan’s history, her fascination with the Volturi, her curiosity about the world of mystic vampire talents, and finally her discovery of a strange child who seemed to know more than was humanly possible. Siobhan had changed Maggie not because of any need for companionship or personal concern for the girl, who might, under other circumstances, have been dinner, but because she was eager to collect a talent for her own coven. It was a different way of viewing the world, a less human way than Carlisle had managed to preserve. He’d withheld the information about my own talent from Siobhan (this explained Maggie’s strange response to my introduction; she knew Carlisle was holding something back by virtue of her own gift), not certain how Siobhan would have reacted to his having acquired access to such a rare and

powerful gift without even a search. Because it was no more than a strange coincidence that I should have turned out to be talented. My gift to read minds was part of me, so Carlisle did not wish it away any more than he would have wanted to change the color of my hair or the timbre of my voice. However, he never saw that gift as a commodity for his use or advantage.

I thought about these revelations every so often, less and less as time went on. I grew more comfortable in the human world, and Carlisle returned to his previous work as a surgeon. I studied medicine, among many other subjects, while he was away, but always from books, never in the hospital. Only a few years later, Carlisle found Esme and we returned to a more reclusive life while she acclimated. It was a busy time, full of new knowledge and new friends, so it was several more years before Siobhan’s pitying words began to trouble me.

Poor boy.… How tragic—to be deprived of the greatest joy of this life.

Unlike her other conjecture—so easy to disprove when I had the transparent honesty of Carlisle’s thoughts to read—this idea began to fester. It was that phrase, the greatest joy of this life, that eventually led to my separation from Carlisle and Esme. In the pursuit of that promised joy, I took human life over and over again, thinking that, in the arrogant application of my gift, I could do more good than harm.

The first time I tasted human blood, my body was overwhelmed. It felt totally filled and totally well. More alive than before. Even though the blood was not of the greatest quality—my first prey’s body was saturated with bitter-tasting drugs—it made my usual fare seem like ditch water. And yet… my mind remained slightly removed from my body’s gratification. I couldn’t keep from seeing the ugliness. I couldn’t forget what Carlisle must think of my choice.

I assumed those qualms would fade. I found very bad men who had kept their bodies clean, if not their hands, and savored the better quality. Mentally, I tabulated the number of lives I might be saving with my judge, jury, and executioner operation. Even if I was just saving one per kill, just the next victim on the list, wasn’t that better than if I’d let these human predators continue?

It was years before I gave up. I was never sure then why blood wasn’t the existence-crowning ecstasy that Siobhan had believed it to be, why I

continued to miss Carlisle and Esme more than I enjoyed my freedom, why the weight of each kill seemed to accumulate until I was crippled under their combined load. Over the years after my return to Carlisle and Esme, as I struggled to relearn all the discipline I’d abandoned, I came to the conclusion that Siobhan might not know anything greater than the call of blood, but I had been born to something better.

And now, the words that had once haunted me, once driven me, came back with surprising force.

The greatest joy of this life.

I had no doubts. I now knew the meaning of the phrase. The greatest joy of my life was this fragile, brave, warm, insightful girl sleeping so peacefully nearby. Bella. The very greatest joy that life had to offer me, and the greatest pain when she was lost.

My phone vibrated silently in my shirt pocket. I whipped it out, saw the number, and held it to my ear.

“I see that you can’t speak,” Alice said quietly, “but I thought you would want to know. It’s eighty-twenty now. Whatever you’re doing, keep doing it.” She hung up.

Of course I couldn’t trust the confidence in her voice when I didn’t have her thoughts to read, and she knew that. She could lie to me over the phone. But I still felt encouraged.

What I was doing was basking, drowning, wallowing in my love for Bella. I didn’t think it would be difficult to keep doing that.‌

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