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Chapter no 17 – CONFESSIONS

Midnight Sun (The Twilight Saga, Book 5)

FELT THE SUN, WARM AGAINST MY SKIN, AND WAS GLAD COULDN’T see that,

either. I didn’t want to look at myself now. For the longest half second I’d ever lived through, everything was silent. And then Bella screamed.

“Edward!”

My eyes flashed open, and I fully expected to see her running away from all I had just revealed myself to be.

But she was running right at me in a collision course, her mouth open in distress. Her hands were half-extended toward me, and she tripped and stumbled her way through the long grass. Her expression wasn’t frightened, but it was desperate. I didn’t understand what she was doing.

I couldn’t let her crash into me, whatever she was intending. I needed her to keep her distance. I raised my hand again, palm forward.

She faltered, then wobbled in place for a moment, exuding anxiety.

As I stared into her eyes, saw my reflection there, I thought perhaps I understood. Mirrored in her eyes, what I resembled most was a man on fire. Though I’d debunked her myths, she must have held on to them subconsciously.

Because she was worried. Frightened for the monster rather than of it.

She took a step toward me, and then hesitated when I moved a half step back.

“Does that hurt you?” she whispered.

Yes, I’d been right. She wasn’t afraid for herself, not even now. “No,” I whispered back.

She stepped another foot closer, careful now. I let my hand fall. She still wanted to be closer to me.

Her expression shifted as she approached. Her head cocked to the side, and her eyes first narrowed, then grew huge. Even with this much space between us, I could see the effects of the light refracting off my skin shining

prism-like against her own. She moved another step and then another, keeping the same distance away as she slowly circled around me. I stayed completely motionless, feeling her eyes touch my skin as she moved out of my sight. Her breath came more quickly than usual, her heart pumped faster.

She reappeared on my right, and now there was a tiny smile beginning to form around the edges of her lips as she completed her circle and faced me again.

How could she smile?

She walked closer, stopping when she was only ten inches away. Her hand was raised, curled close to her chest, as if she wanted to reach out and touch me but was afraid to. The sunlight shattered off my arm and whirled against her face.

“Edward,” she breathed. There was wonder in her voice. “Are you frightened now?” I asked quietly.

It was as if my question was totally unexpected, as if it shocked her.

“No.”

I stared into her eyes, unable to stop myself from fruitlessly trying— again—to hear her.

She reached toward me, very slowly, watching my face. I thought perhaps she was waiting for me to tell her to stop. I didn’t. Her warm fingers grazed the back of my wrist. She stared intently at the light that danced from my skin to hers.

“What are you thinking?” I whispered. In this moment, the constant mystery was once again acutely painful.

She shook her head slightly, and seemed to struggle for the words. “I am…” She stared up into my eyes. “I didn’t know.…” She took a deep breath. “I’ve never seen anything more beautiful—never imagined something so beautiful could exist.”

I stared back at her in shock.

My skin was blazing with the most flagrant symptom of my disease. In the sun, I was less human than at any other time. And she thought I was… beautiful.

My hand lifted automatically, turning to take hers, but I forced myself to make it drop, not to touch her.

“It’s very strange, though,” I said. Surely she could understand that this

was part of the horror. “Amazing,” she corrected.

“You aren’t repulsed by my flagrant lack of humanity?”

Though I was fairly sure now what her answer would be, it was still astonishing to me.

She half smiled. “Not repulsed.” “You should be.”

Her smile widened. “I’m feeling like humanity is pretty overrated.” Carefully, I pulled my arm out from underneath her warm fingertips,

hiding it behind my back. She valued humanity so lightly. She didn’t realize the depths of what its loss would mean.

Bella took another half step forward, her body so close that its warmth became more pronounced, more present than the sun’s. She lifted her face toward mine, and the light gilded her throat, the play of shadows emphasizing the coursing of her blood through the artery just behind the corner of her jaw.

My body reacted instinctively—venom welling, muscles coiling, thoughts scattering.

How quickly it surfaced! We’d been in this arena of visions mere seconds.

I stopped breathing and took a long step away from her, raising my hand again in warning.

She didn’t try to follow. “I’m… sorry,” she whispered, the sound of the words lilting up, turning them into a question. She didn’t know what she was apologizing for.

I carefully loosed my lungs, and took a controlled breath. Her scent was no more painful than usual—not overwhelming, the way I was half-afraid I would suddenly find it.

“I need some time,” I explained. “Okay.” Still a whisper.

I moved around her, slow deliberate steps, and walked to the center of the meadow. I sat down in a patch of low grass, and locked my muscles in place, as I had done before. I breathed carefully in and out, listening as her hesitant footsteps crossed the same distance, tasting her fragrance as she sat down next to me.

“Is this all right?” she asked, uncertain.

I nodded. “Just… let me concentrate.”

Her eyes were huge with confusion, with concern. I didn’t want to explain. I closed my own.

Not in cowardice, I told myself. Or not just in cowardice. I did need to concentrate.

I focused on her scent, on the sound of the blood gushing through the chambers of her heart. Only my lungs were allowed motion. Every other part of me I imprisoned into rigid immobility.

Bella’s heart, I reminded myself as my involuntary systems reacted to the stimuli. Bella’s life.

I was always so careful to not think about her blood—the scent I couldn’t avoid, but the fluid, the movement, the pulse, the hot liquidity of it

—these were things I could not dwell on. But now I let it fill my mind, invade my system, attack my controls. The gushing and throbbing of it, the pounding and sloshing. The surge through the biggest arteries, the ripple through the smallest vein. The heat of it, heat that washed in waves across my exposed skin despite the distance between us. The taste of it burning on my tongue and aching in my throat.

I held myself captive, and observed. A small part of my brain was able to stay detached, to think through the onslaught. With that small bit of rationality, I examined my every reaction minutely. I calculated the amount of strength needed to curb each response, and weighed the strength I possessed against that tally. It was a near calculation, but I believed that my will was stronger than my bestial nature. Slightly.

Was this Alice’s knot? It didn’t feel… complete.

All the while, Bella sat almost as still as I was, thinking her private thoughts. Could she imagine any part of the turmoil inside my mind? How did she explain this strange, silent standoff to herself? Whatever she thought of it, her body was calm.

Time seemed to slow with her pulse. The sound of the birds in distant trees turned sleepy. The cascade of the little stream grew somehow more languid. My body relaxed, and even my mouth stopped watering eventually. Two thousand three hundred sixty-four of her heartbeats later, I felt more in control than I had in many days. Facing things was the key, as Alice had predicted. Was I ready? How could I be sure? How would I ever

be sure?

And how did I break this long hush I’d imposed? It was starting to feel awkward to me; it must have felt so to her for a while.

I unlocked my pose and lay back in the grass, one hand casually behind my head. Feigning the physical sign of emotion was old habit. Perhaps if I portrayed relaxation, she would believe it.

She only sighed quietly.

I waited to see if she would speak, but she sat silent as before, thinking whatever it was she might be thinking, alone in this remote place with a monster who reflected the sun like a million prisms. I could feel her eyes on my skin, but I didn’t imagine her revolted anymore. The imaginary weight of her gaze—now that I knew it was admiring, that she found me beautiful regardless of everything—brought back that electric current I’d felt with her in the dark, an imitation of life running through my veins.

I let myself get lost in the rhythms of her body, let the sound and the warmth and the smell comingle, and I found that I could still master my inhuman desires, even while the phantom current moved under my skin.

This took most of my attention, though. And inevitably, this quiet waiting period would end. She would have so many questions—much more pointed now, I imagined. I owed her a thousand different explanations. Could I handle everything at once?

I decided to try to juggle a few more tasks while still tuning in to the flow and ebb of her blood. I would see if the distraction was too much.

First, I gathered information. I triangulated the exact location of the birds I could hear, and then by their calls identified each one’s genus and species. I analyzed the irregular splash that revealed life in the stream, and after equating the water displaced with the size of the fish, deduced the most likely variety. Categorized the nearby insects—unlike the more developed species, insects ignored my kind as they would a stone—by the speed of their wing movements and the elevation of their flight, or the tiny clicking sounds of their legs against the soil.

As I continued to classify, I added calculation. If there were currently 4,913 insects in the area of the meadow, which was roughly 11,035 square feet, how many insects on average would exist in the 1,400 square miles of the Olympic National Park? What if insect populations dropped 1 percent for each 10 feet of elevation? I brought up in my head a topographic map of the park and started computing the numbers.

Concurrently, I thought through the songs I’d heard most rarely in my century of life—nothing common that I’d heard played more than once. Tunes I’d heard walking past the open door of a bar, peculiar family lullabies lisped by children in their cradles as I ran by in the night, discarded attempts by the music students writing their theater projects in the buildings adjacent to my college classroom. I mouthed through the verses quickly, noting all the reasons each was doomed to failure.

Her blood still pulsed, her heat still warmed, and I still burned. But I could keep my hold on myself. My grip did not loosen. I was in control. Just enough.

“Did you say something?” she whispered.

“Just… singing to myself,” I admitted. I didn’t know how to explain what I was doing more clearly, and she didn’t pursue the question further.

I could feel that the silence was coming to an end, and this did not frighten me. I was growing almost comfortable with the situation, feeling strong and in control. Perhaps I was through the knot after all. Perhaps we were safe on the other side and all of Alice’s hopeful visions were now on their way to becoming real.

When the change in her breathing telegraphed a new direction to her thoughts, I was intrigued rather than worried. I expected a question, but instead I heard the grass shift around her as she leaned toward me, and the sound of the pulse in her hand moved closer.

One soft, warm fingertip traced slowly across the back of my hand. It was a very gentle touch, but the response in my skin was electric. A different kind of burning than that in my throat, and even more distracting. My calculations and audio recall stuttered and stalled, and she had all my attention, even as her heart throbbed wetly just a foot from my ear.

I opened my eyes, eager to see her expression and guess at her thoughts. I was not disappointed. Her eyes were bright with wonder again, the corners of her lips turned up. She met my gaze and her smile grew more pronounced. I echoed it.

“I don’t scare you?” I hadn’t scared her away. She wanted to be here, with me.

Her tone was teasing when she answered. “No more than usual.”

She leaned closer, and laid all of her hand against my forearm, slowly stroking down toward my wrist. Her skin felt fever-hot against mine, and

though a tremor quivered through her fingers, there was no fear in that touch. My eyelids slipped closed again as I tried to contain my reaction. The electric current felt like an earthquake rocking through my core.

“Do you mind?” she asked, and her hand paused in its progress.

“No,” I responded quickly. And then, because I wanted her to know some little bit of my experience, I continued, “You can’t imagine how that feels.” I couldn’t have imagined it before this moment. It was beyond any pleasure I’d ever felt.

Her fingers traced back up to the inside of my elbow, outlining patterns there. She shifted her weight and her other hand reached for mine. I felt her tug lightly and realized she wished to turn my hand over. As soon as I complied, though, both her hands froze and she gasped quietly.

I glanced up, swiftly realizing my mistake—I’d moved like a vampire rather than a human.

“Sorry,” I muttered. But, as our eyes met, I could already tell I’d done no real harm. She’d recovered from the surprise without the smile ever leaving her face. “It’s too easy to be myself with you,” I explained, and then I let my eyelids close again, so I could focus everything on the feel of her skin against mine.

I felt the pressure as she started to try to lift my hand. I moved my hand in concert with her motion, knowing that it would take quite a bit of effort for her to heft even just my hand without my help. I was a little heavier than I looked.

She held my hand close to her face. Warm breath seared against my palm. I helped her angle my hand this way and that as the pressure of her fingers indicated. I opened my eyes to see her staring intently, rainbow sparks dancing across her face as the light moved back and forth across my skin. The furrow was there again between her eyes. What question troubled her now?

“Tell me what you’re thinking.” I said the words gently, but could she hear that I was begging? “It’s still so strange for me, not knowing.”

Her mouth pursed just a little, and her left eyebrow rose a fraction of an inch. “You know, the rest of us feel that way all the time.”

The rest of us. The vast family of humanity that did not include me. Her people, her kind.

“It’s a hard life.” The words did not sound like the joke I meant them to

be. “But you didn’t tell me.”

She answered slowly. “I was wishing I could know what you were thinking.…”

There was obviously more. “And?”

Her voice was low; a human would have had a hard time hearing her. “I was wishing I could believe that you were real. And I was wishing that I wasn’t afraid.”

A flash of pain stabbed through me. I’d been wrong. I had frightened her after all. Of course I had.

“I don’t want you to be afraid.” It was an apology and a lament.

I was surprised when she grinned almost impishly. “Well, that’s not exactly the fear I meant, though that’s certainly something to think about.”

How was she joking now? What could she mean? I sat up halfway, too eager for answers to pretend nonchalance any longer.

“What are you afraid of, then?”

I realized how close our faces were. Her lips, closer than they had ever been to mine. No longer smiling, parted. She inhaled through her nose and her eyelids half closed. She stretched closer as if to catch more of my scent, her chin angling up half an inch, her neck arching forward, her jugular exposed.

And I reacted.

Venom flooded my mouth, my free hand moved of its own volition to seize her, my jaws wrenched open as she leaned in to meet me.

I threw myself away from her. The madness hadn’t reached my legs and they launched me all the way back to the far edge of the meadow. I moved so quickly I didn’t have time to gently release my hand from hers; I’d yanked it away. My first thought as I landed crouched in the shadows of the trees was her hands, and relief washed over me when I saw they were still attached to her wrists.

Relief followed by disgust. Loathing. Revulsion. All the emotions I’d feared to see in her eyes today multiplied by a hundred years and the sure knowledge that I deserved them and more. Monster, nightmare, destroyer of lives, mutilator of dreams—hers and mine both.

If I were something better, if I were somehow stronger, instead of a brutal near pass at death, that moment could have been our first kiss.

Had I just failed the test then? Was there no longer hope?

Her eyes were glassy; the whites showed all around her dark irises. I watched as she blinked and they refocused, fastening on my new position. We stared at each other for a long moment.

Her lower lip trembled once, and then she opened her mouth. I waited, tensed, for the recrimination. For her to scream at me, to tell me never to come near her again.

“I’m… sorry… Edward,” she whispered almost silently. Of course.

I had to take a deep breath before I could respond.

I calibrated the volume of my voice to be just loud enough for her to hear, trying to keep my tone gentle. “Give me a moment.”

She sat back a few inches. Her eyes were still mostly whites.

I took another breath. I could still taste her from here. It fueled the constant burn, but no more than that. I felt… the way I normally did around her. There was no hint in my mind or body now, no sense that the monster was lurking so near to the surface. That I could snap so easily. It made me want to shriek and tear trees out by their roots. If I couldn’t feel the edge, couldn’t see the trigger, how could I ever protect her from myself?

I could imagine Alice’s encouragement. I had protected Bella. Nothing had happened. But though Alice might have seen that much, watching when my break was still the future and not the past, she couldn’t know how it had felt. To lose control of myself, to be weaker than my worst impulse. Not to be able to stop.

But you did stop. That’s what she would say. She couldn’t know how not enough that was.

Bella never looked away from me. Her heart was racing twice as fast as normal. Too fast. It couldn’t be healthy. I wanted to take her hand and tell her everything was fine, she was fine, she was safe, there was nothing to worry about—but these would be such obvious lies.

I still felt… normal—what normal had become in these last months, at least. In control. Just exactly the same as before, when my confidence had nearly killed her.

I walked back slowly, wondering if I should keep my distance. But it didn’t seem right to shout my apology across the meadow at her. I didn’t trust myself to be as close to her as before. I stopped a few paces away, at a conversational distance, and sat on the ground.

I tried to put everything I felt into the words. “I am so very sorry.”

Bella blinked and then her eyes were too wide again; her heart hammered too fast. Her expression was stuck in place. The words didn’t seem to mean anything to her, to register in any way.

In what I immediately knew was a bad idea, I fell back on my usual pattern of trying to keep things casual. I was desperate to remove the frozen shock from her face.

“Would you understand what I meant if I said I was only human?”

A second too late, she nodded—just once. She tried to smile at my tasteless attempt to make light of the situation, but that effort just marred her expression further. She looked pained, and then, finally, afraid.

I’d seen fear on her face before, but I’d always been quickly reassured. Every time I’d half hoped that she’d realized I wasn’t worth the immense risk, she’d disproved my assumption. The fear in her eyes had never been fear of me.

Until now.

The scent of her fear saturated the air, tangy and metallic.

This was exactly what I’d been waiting for. What I’d always told myself I wanted. For her to turn away. For her to save herself and leave me burning and alone.

Her heart hammered on, and I wanted to laugh and cry. I was getting what I wanted.

And all because she’d leaned in just one inch too close. She’d gotten near enough to smell my scent, and she’d found it pleasant, just as she found my face attractive and all of my other snares compelling. Everything about me made her want to move closer to me, just exactly as it was designed to.

“I’m the world’s best predator, aren’t I?” I made no attempt to hide the bitterness in my voice now. “Everything about me invites you in—my voice, my face, even my smell.” It was all so much overkill. What was the point of my charms and lures? I was no rooted flytrap, waiting for prey to land inside my mouth. Why couldn’t I have been as repulsive on the outside as I was on the inside? “As if I need any of that!”

Now I felt out of control, but not in the same way. All my love and yearning and hope were crumbling to dust, a thousand centuries of grief stretched out in front of me, and I didn’t want to pretend anymore. If I could

have no happiness because I was a monster, then let me be that monster.

I was on my feet, racing like her heart, in two tight circles around the edge of the clearing, wondering if she could even see what I was showing her.

I jerked to a stop where I’d stood before. This was why I didn’t need a pretty voice.

“As if you could outrun me.” I laughed at the thought, the grotesque comedy of the image in my head. The sound of my laugh bounced in harsh echoes off the trees.

And after the chase, there would be the capture.

The lowest branch of the ancient spruce beside me was in easy reach. I ripped the limb from the body without any effort at all. The wood shrieked and protested, the bark and splinters exploded from the site of the injury. I weighed the bough for a moment in my hand. Roughly eight hundred sixty three pounds. Not enough to win in a fight with the hemlock across the clearing to my right, but enough to do some damage.

I flicked the branch at the hemlock tree, aiming for a knot about thirty feet from the ground. My projectile hit dead center, the thickest end of the bough smashing with a booming crunch and disintegrating into shards of shattered wood that rained down on the ferns below with a faint hissing. A fissure split through the center of the knot and snaked its way a few feet in either direction. The hemlock tree trembled once, the shock radiating through the roots and into the ground. I wondered if I’d killed it. I’d have to wait a few months to know. Hopefully it would recover; the meadow was perfect as it was.

So little effort on my part. I’d not needed to use more than a tiny fraction of my available strength. And still, so much violence. So much harm.

In two strides I was standing over her, just an arm’s length way. “As if you could fight me off.”

The bitterness disappeared from my voice. My little tantrum had cost me no energy, but it had drained some of my ire.

Throughout it all, she’d never moved. She remained paralyzed now, her eyes frozen open. We stared at each other for what seemed like a long time. I was still so angry at myself, but there was no fire left in it. It all seemed pointless. I was what I was.

She moved first. Just a little bit. Her hands had fallen limp in her lap

after I’d wrenched away from her, but now one of them twitched open. Her fingers stretched up slightly in my direction. It was probably an unconscious movement, but it was eerily similar to when she’d pleaded “Come back” in her sleep and reached for something. I’d wished then that she could be dreaming of me.

That was the night before Port Angeles, the night before I learned that she already knew what I was. If I’d been aware of what Jacob Black had told her, I never would have believed she could dream of me except in a nightmare. But none of it had mattered to her.

There was still terror in her eyes. Of course there was. But there seemed to be a plea in them, too. Was there any chance she wanted me to come back to her now? Even if she did, should I?

Her pain, my greatest weakness—as Alice had shown me it would be. I hated to see her frightened. It broke me to know how much I deserved that fear, but more than either of those burdens, I could not bear to see her grief. It stripped me of my ability to make anything close to a good decision.

“Don’t be afraid,” I begged in a whisper. “I promise—” No, that had become too casual a word. “I swear not to hurt you. Don’t be afraid.”

I moved closer to her slowly, making no movement that she would not have time to anticipate. I sat gradually, in deliberate stages, so that I was once again where we’d begun. I slouched down a bit so that my face was level with hers.

The pace of her heart eased. Her lids relaxed back into their usual place.

It was as if my proximity calmed her.

“Please forgive me,” I pleaded. “I can control myself. You caught me off guard, but I’m on my best behavior now.” What a pathetic apology. Still, it brought a hint of a smile to the corner of her lips. And like a fool, I fell back into my immature efforts to be amusing. “I’m not thirsty today, honestly.”

I actually winked at her. One would think I was thirteen instead of a hundred and four.

But she laughed. A little out of breath, a little wobbly, but still a real laugh, with real mirth and relief. Her eyes warmed, her shoulders loosened, and her hands opened again.

It felt so right to gently place my hand back inside hers. It shouldn’t, but it did.

“Are you all right?”

She stared at our hands, then glanced up to meet my gaze for a moment, and finally looked down again. She started to trace the lines across my palm with the tip of her finger, just as she had been doing before my frenzy. Her eyes returned to mine and a smile slowly spread across her face till the little dimple appeared in her chin. There was no judgment and no regret in that smile.

I smiled back, feeling as though I could only just now appreciate the beauty of this place. The sun and the flowers and the gilded air, they were suddenly there for me, joyous and merciful. I felt the gift of her mercy, and my stone heart swelled with gratitude.

The relief, the confusion of joy and guilt, suddenly reminded me of the day I’d come home, so many decades ago.

I hadn’t been ready then, either. I’d planned to wait. I wanted my eyes to be golden again before Carlisle saw me. But they were still a strange orange, an amber that tended more toward red. I was having difficulty adapting to my former diet. It had never been so hard before. I was afraid that if I didn’t have Carlisle’s help, I wouldn’t be able to keep going. That I would fall back into my old ways.

It worried me, having that evidence so clear in my eyes. I wondered what was the worst reception I could expect? Would he just send me away? Would he find it difficult to look at me, to see what a disappointment I had become? Was there a penance he would demand? I would do it, whatever he asked. Would my efforts to improve move him at all, or would he just see my failure?

It was simple enough to find them; they hadn’t moved far from the place I’d left them. Maybe to make it easier for me to return?

Their house was the only one in this high, wild spot. The winter sun was glinting off the windows as I approached from below, so I couldn’t tell if anyone was home. Rather than take the shorter route through the trees, I paced toward them through an empty field, blanketed in snow, where— even bundled up against the sun’s glare—I would be easy to spot. I moved slowly. I didn’t want to run. It might alarm them.

It was Esme who saw me first.

“Edward!” I heard her cry, though I was still a mile out.

In less than a second I saw her figure dart through a side door, racing through the rocks surrounding the mountain ledge and stirring up a thick

cloud of snow crystals behind her.

Edward! He’s come home!

It was not the mindset I’d been expecting. But then, she hadn’t seen my eyes clearly.

Edward? Can it be?

My father was following close behind her now, catching up with his longer stride.

There was nothing but a desperate hope in his thoughts. No judgment.

Not yet.

“Edward!” Esme shouted with an unmistakable ring of joy in her voice.

And then she was upon me, her arms wrapped tight around my neck, her lips kissing my cheek over and over again. Please don’t go away again.

Only a second later, Carlisle’s arms encircled us both.

Thank you, he thought, his mind fervent with sincerity. Thank you for coming back to us.

“Carlisle… Esme… I’m so sorry. I’m so—”

“Shush, now,” Esme whispered, tucking her head against my neck and breathing in my scent. My boy.

I looked up into Carlisle’s face, leaving my eyes open wide. Hiding nothing.

You’re here. Carlisle stared back at my face with only happiness in his mind. Though he had to know what the color of my eyes meant, there was no off note to his delight. There’s nothing to apologize for.

Slowly, hardly able to trust that it could be so simple, I raised my arms and returned my family’s embrace.

I felt that same undeserved acceptance now, and I could barely believe that all of it—my bad behavior, both voluntary and involuntary—was suddenly behind us. But her forgiveness seemed to wash the darkness away. “So where were we, before I behaved so rudely?” I remembered where had been. Just inches from her parted lips. Enraptured by the mystery of her

mind.

She blinked twice. “I honestly can’t remember.”

That was understandable. I breathed in fire and blew it back out, wishing it would do some actual damage to me.

“I think we were talking about why you were afraid, besides the obvious reason.” The obvious fear had probably driven the other out of her mind

completely.

But she smiled and looked down at my hand again. “Oh, right.” Nothing more.

“Well?” I prompted.

Rather than meet my gaze, she started tracing patterns across my palm. I tried to read their sequences, hoping for a picture or even letters—E-D-W- A-R-D-P-L-E-A-S-E-G-O-A-W-A-Y—but I could find no meaning in them. Just more mysteries. Another question she would never answer. I didn’t deserve answers.

I sighed. “How easily frustrated I am.”

She looked up then, her eyes probing mine. We stared at each other for a few seconds, and I was surprised at the intensity of her gaze. I felt that she was reading me more successfully than I was ever able to read her.

“I was afraid,” she began, and I realized gratefully that she was answering my question after all. “Because… for, well, obvious reasons, I can’t stay with you.” Her eyes dropped again as she said the word stay. I understood her clearly, for once. I could hear that when she said stay, she didn’t mean for this moment in the sunshine, for the afternoon or the week. She meant it the way I wanted to say it to her. Stay always. Stay forever. “And I’m afraid that I’d like to stay with you, much more than I should.”

I thought of all that would entail if, after all, I forced her to do exactly as she described. If I made her stay forever. Every sacrifice she would bear, every loss she would mourn, every stinging regret, every aching, tearless stare.

“Yes.” It was hard to agree with her, even with all that pain fresh in my imagination. I wanted it so much. “That is something to be afraid of, indeed. Wanting to be with me.” Selfish me. “That’s really not in your best interest.”

She scowled at my hand as if she didn’t like my acknowledgment any more than I did.

This was a dangerous path to even hint at. Hades and his pomegranate. How many toxic seeds had I already infected her with? Enough that Alice had seen her pale and grieving in my absence. Though it felt as though I, also, had been corrupted. Hooked. Addicted with no hope of recovery. I couldn’t fully form the picture in my head. Leaving her. How would I survive? Alice had shown me Bella’s anguish in my absence, but what

would she see of me in that version of the future, if she looked? I couldn’t believe I would be anything more than a broken shadow, useless, crumpled, empty.

I spoke the thought aloud, but mostly to myself. “I should have left long ago. I should leave now. But I don’t know if I can.”

She still stared at our hands, but her cheeks warmed. “I don’t want you to leave,” she mumbled.

She wanted me to stay with her. I tried to fight the happiness, the surrender it pulled me toward. Was the choice even mine, or was it hers alone now? Would I stay until she told me to go? Her words seemed to echo in the faint breeze. I don’t want you to leave.

“Which is exactly why I should.” Surely the more time we were together, the harder it would grow to be apart. “But don’t worry. I’m essentially a selfish creature. I crave your company too much to do what I should.”

“I’m glad.” She said the words simply, as if this was an obvious thing. As if every girl would be pleased that her favorite monster was too selfish to put her before himself.

My temper flared, anger pointed only at myself. With rigid control, I removed my hand from hers.

“Don’t be! It’s not only your company I crave! Never forget that. Never forget I am more dangerous to you than I am to anyone else.”

She looked at me quizzically. There was no fear anywhere in her eyes now. Her head cocked slightly to the left.

“I don’t think I understand exactly what you mean—by that last part anyway,” she said, her tone analytical. It reminded me of our conversation in the cafeteria, when she had asked about hunting. She sounded as if she were gathering data for a report—one she was vitally interested in, but still, no more than an academic inquiry.

I couldn’t help but smile at her expression. My anger vanished as quickly as it had come. Why waste time with ire when there were so many more pleasant emotions available?

“How do I explain?” I murmured. Naturally she had no idea what I was talking about. I had not been terribly specific when it came to my reaction to her scent. Of course I hadn’t; it was an ugly thing, something I was deeply ashamed of. Not to mention the overt horror of the subject. How to

explain, indeed. “And without frightening you again… hmmmm.”

Her fingers uncurled, stretching toward my own. And I couldn’t resist. I placed my hand gently back inside hers. The willingness of her touch, the eager way she wrapped her fingers tightly around mine, helped to calm my nerves. I knew I was about to tell her everything—I could feel the truth churning inside me, ready to erupt. But I had no idea how she would process it, even as generous as she always was toward me. I savored this moment of her acceptance, knowing it could end abruptly.

I sighed. “That’s amazingly pleasant, the warmth.”

She smiled and looked down at our hands, too, fascination in her eyes. There was no help for it. I was going to have to be obscenely graphic.

Dancing around the facts would only confuse her, and she needed to know this. I took a deep breath.

“You know how everyone enjoys different flavors? Some people love chocolate ice cream, others prefer strawberry?”

Ugh. It sounded worse out loud than I would have thought for such a weak beginning. Bella nodded in what looked like polite agreement, but otherwise her expression was smooth. Perhaps it would take a minute to sink in.

“Sorry about the food analogy,” I apologized. “I couldn’t think of another way to explain.”

She grinned—a smile with real humor and affinity; the dimple sprang into existence. Her grin made me feel as though we were in this ludicrous situation together, not as opponents but as partners, working side by side to find a solution. I couldn’t think of anything I would wish for more— besides, of course, the impossible. That I could be human, too. I grinned back at her, but I knew my smile was neither as genuine nor as guiltless as hers.

Her hands tightened around mine, prompting me to continue.

I spoke the words slowly, trying to use the best analogy possible, knowing even as I did that I was failing. “You see, every person smells different, has a different essence. If you locked an alcoholic in a room full of stale beer, he’d gladly drink it. But he could resist, if he wished to… if he were a recovering alcoholic. Now let’s say you placed in that room a glass of hundred-year-old brandy, the rarest, finest cognac—and filled the room with its warm aroma—how do you think he would fare then?”

Was I painting too sympathetic a picture of myself? Describing a tragic victim rather than a true villain?

She stared into my eyes, and while I automatically tried to hear her internal reaction, I got the feeling that she was trying to read mine as well.

I thought through my words and wondered whether the analogy was

strong enough.

“Maybe that’s not the right comparison.” I mused. “Maybe it would be too easy to turn down the brandy. Perhaps I should have made our alcoholic a heroin addict instead.”

She smiled, not as widely as before, but with a cheeky twist to her pursed lips. “So what you’re saying is, I’m your brand of heroin?”

I almost laughed with surprise. She was doing what I was always trying to do—make a joke, lighten the mood, deescalate—only she was successful.

“Yes, you are exactly my brand of heroin.”

It was surely a horrific admission, and yet, somehow, I felt relief. It was all her doing, her support and understanding. It made my head spin that she could somehow forgive all of this. How?

But she was back to researcher mode.

“Does that happen often?” she asked, her head tilting curiously to one side.

Even with my unique ability to hear thought, it was hard to make exact comparisons. I didn’t truly feel the sensations of the person I listened to; I only knew their thoughts about those feelings.

How I interpreted thirst wasn’t even exactly the way the rest of my family did. To me, the thirst was a fire burning. Jasper described it as a burning, too, but to him it was like acid rather than flame, chemical and saturating. Rosalie thought of it as profound dryness, a screaming lack rather than an outside force. Emmett tended to evaluate his thirst in the same way; I supposed that was natural, as Rosalie had been the first and most frequent influence in his second life.

So I knew of the times the others had had difficulty resisting, and when they had not been able to resist, but I couldn’t know exactly how potent their temptation had been. I could make an educated guess, however, based on their standard level of control. It was an imperfect technique, but I thought it should answer her curiosity.

This was more horror. I couldn’t look her in the eye while I answered. I

stared at the sun instead as it slipped closer to the edge of the trees. Every second gone hurt me more than they ever had—seconds I could never have with her again. I wished we didn’t need to spend these precious seconds on something so distasteful.

“I spoke to my brothers about it.… To Jasper, every one of you is much the same. He’s the most recent to join our family. It’s a struggle for him to abstain at all. He hasn’t had time to grow sensitive to the differences in smell, in flavor—” I flinched, realizing too late where my rambling had taken me. “Sorry,” I added quickly.

She gave an exasperated little huff. “I don’t mind. Please don’t worry about offending me, or frightening me, or whichever. That’s the way you think. I can understand, or I can try to at least. Just explain however you can.”

I tried to settle myself. I needed to accept that through some miracle, Bella was able to know the darkest things about me and not be terror- stricken. Able not to hate me for it. If she was strong enough to hear this, I needed to be strong enough to speak the words. I looked back at the sun, feeling the deadline in its slow descent.

“So…,” I began again slowly, “Jasper wasn’t sure if he’d ever come across someone who was as… appealing as you are to me. Which makes me think not. Emmett has been on the wagon longer, so to speak, and he understood what I meant. He says twice, for him, once stronger than the other.”

I finally met her gaze. Her eyes were narrowed just slightly, her focus intent. “And for you?” she asked.

That was an easy answer, with no guesswork needed. “Never.”

She seemed to consider that word for a long moment. I wished I knew what it meant to her. Then her face relaxed a bit.

“What did Emmett do?” she asked in a conversational tone.

As if this were just some storybook fairy tale I was sharing with her, as if good always won the day and—though the road might get dark at points

—nothing truly evil or permanently cruel was allowed to happen.

How could I tell her about these two innocent victims? Humans with hopes and fears, people with families and friends who loved them, imperfect beings who deserved the chance to improve, to try. A man and a woman with names now inscribed on simple headstones in obscure

graveyards.

Would she think better or worse of us if she knew that Carlisle had required our attendance at their funerals? Not just these two, but every victim of our mistakes and lapses. Were we a tiny bit less damned because we had listened to those who knew them best describe their shortened lives? Because we bore witness to the tears and cries of pain? The monetary aid we’d anonymously provided to make sure there was no unnecessary physical suffering seemed crass in retrospect. Such a weak recompense.

She gave up waiting for an answer. “I guess I know.”

Her expression was mournful now. Did she condemn Emmett while she gave me so much mercy? His crimes, though much greater than two, were less in total than mine. It pained me that she would think badly of him. Was this—the specificity of two victims—the offense she would balk at?

“Even the strongest of us fall off the wagon, don’t we?” I asked weakly. Could this be forgiven, too?

Perhaps not.

She winced, flinching away from me. No more than an inch, but it felt like a yard. Her lips pulled into a frown.

“What are you asking? My permission?” The hard edge in her voice sounded like sarcasm.

So here was her limit. I’d thought she’d been extraordinarily kind and merciful, too forgiving, in truth. But actually, she’d simply underestimated my depravity. She must have thought that, for all my warnings, I’d only ever been tempted. That I’d always made the better choice, as I had in Port Angeles, driving away from bloodshed.

I’d told her that same night how, despite our best efforts, my family made mistakes. Had she not realized that I’d been confessing to murder? No wonder she accepted things so easily; she thought I was always strong, that I only had near misses on my conscience. Well, it wasn’t her fault. I’d never explicitly admitted to killing anyone. I’d never given her the body count.

Her expression softened while I spiraled. I tried to think of how to say goodbye in such a way that she would know how much I loved her, but not feel threatened by that love.

“I mean,” she explained suddenly, no edge in her tone, “is there no hope, then?”

In a fraction of a second I replayed our last exchange in my head, and

realized how I’d misinterpreted her reaction. When I had begged pardon for past sins, she’d thought I was excusing a future, but imminent, crime. That I meant to—

“No, no!” I had to fight to slow my words down to human speed—I was in such a hurry to have her hear them. “Of course there’s hope! I mean, of course I won’t—”

Kill you. I couldn’t finish the sentence. Those words were agony to me, imagining her gone. My eyes bored into hers, trying to communicate everything I couldn’t say. “It’s different for us,” I promised. “Emmett… these were strangers he happened across. It was a long time ago, and he wasn’t as… practiced, as careful, as he is now.”

She sifted through my words, heard the parts I hadn’t said.

“So if we’d met…” She paused, searching for the right scenario. “Oh, in a dark alley or something…?”

Ah, here was a bitter truth.

“It took everything I had not to jump up in the middle of that class full of children and—”

Kill you. My eyes fell from hers. So much shame.

Still, I couldn’t leave her any flattering illusions about me.

“When you walked past me,” I admitted, “I could have ruined everything Carlisle has built for us, right then and there. If I hadn’t been denying my thirst for the last, well, too many years, I wouldn’t have been able to stop myself.”

I could see the classroom so clearly in my mind. Perfect recall was more a curse than a gift. Did I need to remember with such precision every second of that hour? The fear that had dilated her eyes, the reflection of my monstrous countenance in them? The way her scent had destroyed every good thing about me?

Her expression was far away. Maybe she was remembering, too. “You must have thought I was possessed.”

She didn’t deny it.

“I couldn’t understand why,” she said in a fragile voice. “How you could hate me so quickly…”

She’d intuited the truth in that moment. She’d understood correctly that I had hated her. Almost as much as I’d desired her.

“To me, it was like you were some kind of demon, summoned straight

from my own personal hell to ruin me.” It was painful to relive the emotion of it, to remember seeing her as prey. “The fragrance coming off your skin… I thought it would make me deranged that first day. In that one hour, I thought of a hundred different ways to lure you from the room with me, to get you alone. And I fought them each back, thinking of my family, what I could do to them. I had to run out, to get away before I could speak the words that would make you follow.… You would have come.”

What must it be like for her to know this? How did she align the opposing facts? Me, would-be murderer, and me, would-be lover? What did she think of my confidence, my certainty that she would have followed the murderer?

Her chin lifted a centimeter. “Without a doubt,” she agreed.

Our hands were still carefully intertwined. Hers were nearly as still as mine, aside from the blood pulsing through them. I wondered if she felt the same fear that I did—the fear that they might have to come apart, and she wouldn’t be able to find the courage and forgiveness necessary to bring them together again.

It was a little easier to confess when I wasn’t looking into her eyes. “And then,” I continued, “as I tried to rearrange my schedule in a

pointless attempt to avoid you, you were there—in that close, warm little room, the scent was maddening. I so very nearly took you then. There was only one other frail human there—so easily dealt with.”

I felt the shiver move down her arms to her hands. With every new attempt to explain, I found myself using more and more distressing words. They were the right words, the truthful words, and they were also so ugly.

There was no stopping them now, though, and she sat silent and nearly motionless as they gushed out of me, more confessions mixed up in explanations. I told her about my unsuccessful attempt to run away, and the arrogance that brought me back; how that arrogance had shaped our interactions, and how the frustration of her hidden thoughts had tormented me; how her scent had never stopped being both torture and temptation. My family wove in and out of the story and I wondered whether she could see how they influenced my actions at every turn. I told her how saving her from Tyler’s van had changed my perspective, had forced me to see that she was more to me than just a risk and an irritant.

“In the hospital?” she prompted when my words ran out. She studied my

face with compassion, with eager, nonjudgmental desire for the next chapter. I was no longer shocked by her benevolence, but it would always be miraculous to me.

I explained my misgivings, not for saving her, but for exposing myself and consequently my family, so that she would understand my harshness that day in the empty corridor. This led naturally into my family’s varied reactions, and I wondered what she thought of the fact that some of them had wanted to silence her in the most permanent way possible. She didn’t shiver now, or betray any fear. How strange it must be for her, to learn the whole story, the dark now woven through the light she’d known.

I told her how I’d tried to feign total indifference to her after that, to protect us all, and how unsuccessful I’d been.

I wondered privately, not for the first time, where I would be now if I had not acted so instinctively that day in the school parking lot. If—as I’d just grotesquely described to her—I had stood by and let her die in a car accident, then revealed myself to the human witnesses in the most monstrous way possible. My family would have had to flee Forks immediately. I imagined their reactions to that version of events would have been… mostly the opposite. Rosalie and Jasper would not have been angry. A trifle smug, perhaps, but understanding. Carlisle would have been deeply disappointed, but still forgiving. Would Alice have mourned the friend she’d never gotten to meet? Only Esme and Emmett would have reacted in a manner nearly identical to their first reactions: Esme with concern for my well-being, Emmett with a shrug.

I knew that I would have had some small inkling of the disaster that had befallen me. Even that early, after just a few words exchanged, my fascination with her was strong. But could I have guessed the vastness of the tragedy? I thought not. I would have ached, certainly, and then gone about my empty half life never realizing how very much I had lost. Never knowing actual happiness.

It would have been easier to lose her then, I knew. Just as I would never have known joy, I wouldn’t have suffered the depths of pain I now knew to exist.

I contemplated her kind, sweet face, so dear to me now, so much the center of my world. The only thing I wanted to look at for the rest of time.

She gazed back, the same wonder in her eyes.

“And for all that,” I concluded my long confession, “I’d have fared better if I had exposed us all at that first moment, than if now, here—with no witnesses and nothing to stop me—I were to hurt you.”

Her eyes widened, not in fear or surprise. Fascination. “Why?” she asked.

This explanation would be as difficult as any of the others, with many words I hated to say, but there were also words I very much wanted to speak to her.

“Isabella… Bella.” It was a pleasure just to say her name. It felt like a kind of avowal. This is the name to which I belong.

I carefully loosed one hand and stroked her soft hair, warm from the sun. The joy of the simple touch, the knowledge that I was free to reach out to her this way, was overwhelming. I grasped her hands again.

“I couldn’t live with myself if I ever hurt you. You don’t know how it’s tortured me.” I hated to look away from her sympathetic expression, but it was too hard to see her other face, the one from Alice’s vision, in the same frame. “The thought of you, still, white, cold… to never see you blush scarlet again, to never see that flash of intuition in your eyes when you see through my pretenses… it would be unendurable.” That word did nothing to convey the anguish behind the thought. But I was through the ugly part now, and I could say the things I’d wanted to tell her for so long. I met her eyes again, rejoicing in this confession.

“You are the most important thing to me now. The most important thing to me ever.”

Just as the word unendurable was not enough, so were these words weak echoes of the feelings they tried to describe. I hoped she could see in my eyes exactly how inadequate they were. She was always better at knowing my mind than I was at reading hers.

She held my exultant gaze for just a moment, pink creeping into her cheeks, but then her eyes fell to our hands. I thrilled to the beauty of her complexion, seeing only the loveliness and nothing else.

“You already know how I feel, of course,” she said, her voice not much louder than a whisper. “I’m here… which, roughly translated, means I would rather die than stay away from you.”

I wouldn’t have thought it possible to feel such euphoria and such regret at the same time. She wanted me—bliss. She was risking her very life for

me—unacceptable.

She scowled, her eyes still lowered. “I’m an idiot.”

I laughed at her conclusion. From a certain angle, she had a point. Any species that ran so headlong into the arms of its most dangerous predator wouldn’t survive long. It was a good thing she was an outlier.

“You are an idiot,” I teased gently. And I would never stop being grateful for it.

Bella glanced up with a puckish grin, and we both laughed together. It was such a relief to laugh after my grueling revelations that my laugh shifted from humor to sheer joy. I was sure she felt the same. We were utterly in sync for one perfect moment.

Though it was impossible, we belonged together. Everything was wrong with this picture—a killer and an innocent leaning close, each basking in the presence of the other, totally at peace. It was as if we’d somehow ascended to a better world, where such impossibilities could exist.

I was suddenly reminded of a painting I’d seen many years ago.

Whenever we canvassed the countryside for likely towns in which to settle, Carlisle would frequently make side trips to duck into old parish churches. He seemed unable to stop himself. Something about the simple wooden structures, usually dark for lack of good windows, the floorboards and pew backs all worn smooth and smelling of layer upon layer of human touches, brought him a reflective kind of calm. Thoughts of his father and his childhood were brought to the fore, but the violent end seemed far away in those moments. He remembered only pleasant things.

On one such diversion, we found an old Quaker meetinghouse around thirty miles north of Philadelphia. It was a small building, no bigger than a farmhouse, with a stone exterior and a very Spartan arrangement inside. So plain were the knotty floors and straight-backed pews that I was almost shocked to see an adornment on the far wall. Carlisle’s interest was piqued as well, and we both examined it.

It was quite a small painting, no more than fifteen inches square. I guessed that it was older than the stone church that housed it. The artist was clearly untrained, his style amateurish. And yet, there was something in the simple, poorly wrought image that managed to convey an emotion. There was a warm vulnerability to the animals depicted, an aching kind of tenderness. I was strangely moved by this kinder universe the artist had

envisioned.

A better world, Carlisle had thought to himself.

The sort of world where this present moment could exist, I thought now, and felt that aching tenderness again.

“And so the lion fell in love with the lamb…,” I whispered.

Her eyes were so open and accessible for one second, and then she flushed again and looked down. She steadied her breath for a moment, and her impish smile returned.

“What a stupid lamb,” she teased, stretching out the joke. “What a sick, masochistic lion,” I countered.

I wasn’t sure that was a true statement, though. In one light, yes, I was deliberately causing myself unnecessary pain and enjoying it, the textbook definition of masochism. But the pain was the price… and the reward was so much more than the pain. Really, the price was negligible. I would pay it ten times over.

“Why…?” she murmured, hesitant.

I smiled at her, eager to know her mind. “Yes?”

A hint of the forehead crease began to form. “Tell me why you ran from me before.”

Her words hit me physically, lodging in the pit of my stomach. I couldn’t understand why she would want to rehash a moment so loathsome.

“You know why.”

She shook her head, and her brows pulled down. “No, I mean, exactly what did I do wrong?” She spoke intently, serious now. “I’ll have to be on my guard, you see, so I better start learning what I shouldn’t do. This, for example”—she stroked her fingertips slowly up the back of my hand to my wrist, leaving a trail of painless fire—“seems to be all right.”

How like her to take the responsibility on herself.

“You didn’t do anything wrong, Bella. It was my fault.”

Her chin lifted. It would have implied stubbornness if her eyes were not so pleading.

“But I want to help, if I can, to not make this harder for you.”

My first instinct was to continue insisting that this was my problem and not something for her to worry about. Yet I knew that she was simply trying to understand me, with all my strange and monstrous quirks. She would be happier if I just answered her question as clearly as possible.

How to explain bloodlust, though? So shameful.

“Well… it was just how close you were. Most humans instinctively shy away from us, are repelled by our alienness.… I wasn’t expecting you to come so close. And the smell of your throat—”

I broke off, hoping I had not disgusted her.

Her mouth was pursed as if fighting off a smile.

“Okay, then, no throat exposure.” She made a show of tucking her chin against her right collarbone.

It was clearly her intention to ease my anxiety, and it worked. I had to laugh at her expression.

“No, really,” I reassured her. “It was more the surprise than anything else.”

I lifted my hand again and rested it lightly against her neck, feeling the incredible softness of her skin there, the warm give of it. My thumb grazed her jawline. The electric pulse that only she could awaken started to thrum through my body.

“You see,” I whispered. “Perfectly fine.”

Her pulse began to race as well. I could feel it under my hand and hear her galloping heart. Pink flooded her face from her chin to her hairline. The sound and sight of her response, rather than awakening my thirst again, seemed only to speed the rush of my more human reactions. I couldn’t remember ever feeling this alive; I doubted I ever had, even when I’d been alive.

“The blush on your cheeks is lovely,” I murmured.

I gently extracted my left hand from hers, and arranged it so that I was cradling her face between my palms. Her pupils dilated and her heartbeat increased.

I wanted so much to kiss her then. Her soft, curving lips, ever so slightly parted, mesmerized me and drew me forward. But, though these new human emotions now seemed so much stronger than anything else, I didn’t fully trust myself. I knew I needed one more test. I thought I’d passed through Alice’s knot, but still felt something was lacking. I realized now what more I had to do.

One thing I’d always avoided, never let my mind explore. “Be very still,” I warned her. Her breath hitched.

Slowly, I leaned close, watching her expression for any hint that this was

unwelcome to her. I found none.

Finally, I let my head dip forward, and turned it to lean my cheek against the base of her throat. The heat of her warm-blooded life pulsed through her fragile skin and into the cold stone of my body. That pulse leaped beneath my touch. I kept my breathing steady as a machine, in and out, controlled. I waited, judging every minuscule happening inside my body. Perhaps I waited longer than necessary, but it was a very pleasant place to linger.

When I felt sure that no trap waited for me here, I proceeded.

Cautiously I readjusted, using slow, steady movements so that nothing would surprise or frighten her. As my hands drifted from her jaw to the points of her shoulders, she shivered, and for a moment I lost my careful hold on my breathing. I recovered, settling myself again, and then moved my head so that my ear was directly over her heart.

The sound of it, loud before, seemed to surround me in stereo now. The earth beneath me didn’t seem quite as steady, as if it rocked faintly to the beat of her heart.

The sigh escaped against my will. “Ah.”

I wished I could stay like this forever, immersed in the sound of her heart and warmed by her skin. It was time for the final test, though, and I wanted it behind me.

For the first time, as I breathed in the sear of her scent, I let myself imagine it. Rather than blocking my thoughts, cutting them off and forcing them deep down, out of my conscious mind, I allowed them to range unfettered. They did not go willingly, not now. But I forced myself to go where I had always avoided.

I imagined tasting her… draining her.

I’d had enough experience to know what the relief would feel like, if I were to utterly quench my most bestial need. Her blood had so much more pull for me than any other human’s I’d encountered—I could only assume that the relief and pleasure would be that much more intense.

Her blood would soothe my aching throat, erasing all the months of fire. It would feel as if I had never burned for her; the alleviation of pain would be total.

The sweetness of her blood on my tongue was harder to imagine. I knew I had never experienced any blood so perfectly matched to my desire, but I was sure it would satisfy every craving I had ever known.

For the first time in three quarters of a century—the span I had survived without human blood—I would be totally sated. My body would feel strong and whole. It would be many weeks before I thirsted again.

I played the sequence of events through to the end, surprised, even as I let these taboo imaginings loose, at how little they appealed to me now. Even withholding the inevitable sequel—the return of the thirst, the emptiness of the world without her—I felt no desire to act on my imaginings.

I also saw very clearly in that moment that there was no separate monster and never had been one. Eager to disconnect my mind from my desires, I had—as was my habit—personified that hated part of myself to distance it from the parts that I considered me. Just as I had created the harpy to give myself someone to fight. It was a coping mechanism, and not a very good one. Better to see myself as the whole, bad and good, and work with the reality of it.

My breathing continued steadily, the bite of her scent a welcome counterpoint to the glut of other physical sensations that overwhelmed me as I held her.

I thought I understood a little better what had happened to me before, in the violent reaction that had terrified us both. I had been so convinced that I might be overwhelmed, that when I actually was overwhelmed, it was almost a self-fulfilling prophecy. My anxiety, the agonizing visions I’d obsessed over, plus the months of self-doubt that had shaken my former confidence all combined to weaken the determination that I now knew was absolutely up to the job of protecting Bella.

Even Alice’s nightmare vision was suddenly less vibrant, the colors leaching away. Its power to shake me was ebbing, because, and this was obvious now, that future was entirely impossible. Bella and I would leave this place hand in hand, and my life would finally begin.

We were through the knot.

I had no doubt that Alice saw this, too, and that she was rejoicing.

Though I was exceptionally comfortable in my current position, I was also eager for the rest of my life to unfold.

I leaned away from her, letting my hands trace along the length of her arms as they dropped to my side, full of simple happiness to just see her face again.

She looked at me curiously, unaware of the momentous occurrences inside my head.

“It won’t be so hard again,” I promised, though I realized as I spoke that my words probably made little sense to her.

“Was that very hard for you?” she asked with sympathetic eyes. Her concern warmed me to the core.

“Not nearly as bad as I imagined it would be. And you?”

She gave me one disbelieving glance. “No, it wasn’t bad… for me.”

She made it look so easy, being embraced by a vampire. But it must take more courage than she let on. “You know what I mean.”

She smiled a wide, warm, lopsidedly dimpled grin. It was clear that if it

did take any effort to bear my nearness, she would never admit to it.

Giddy. That was the only word I could think of to describe the high I was experiencing. It wasn’t a word I often thought of in relation to myself. Every thought in my head wanted to spill out through my lips. I wanted to hear every thought in hers. That, at least, was nothing new. Everything else was new. Everything had changed.

I reached for her hand—without first exhaustively debating the act in my mind—simply because I wanted to feel it against my skin. I felt free to be spontaneous for the first time. These new impulses were completely unrelated to the old.

“Here.” I placed her palm against my cheek. “Do you feel how warm it is?”

Her reaction to this first instinctive act of mine was more than I’d expected. Her fingers trembled against my cheekbone. Her eyes grew round and the smile slipped away. Her heartbeat and her breathing accelerated.

Before I could regret the deed, she leaned closer and whispered, “Don’t move.”

A thrill shivered through me.

Her request was easily accomplished. I froze myself into the absolute stillness that humans were incapable of duplicating. I didn’t know what she intended—acclimating herself to my lack of a circulatory system seemed unlikely—but was eager to find out. I closed my eyes. I wasn’t sure whether I did this to free her from the self-consciousness of my scrutiny, or because I wanted no distractions from this moment.

Her hand began to move very slowly. First she stroked my cheek. Her

fingertips grazed across my closed eyelids, and then brushed a half circle beneath them. Where her skin met mine, it left a trail of tingling heat. She traced the length of my nose and then, with the trembling in her fingers more pronounced now, the shape of my lips.

My frozen form melted. I let my mouth fall slightly open, so that I could breathe in the nearness of her.

One finger caressed my bottom lip again, and then her hand fell away. I felt the air cool between us as she leaned back.

I opened my eyes and met her gaze. Her face was flushed, her heart still raced. I felt a phantom echo of the pace inside my own body, though no blood pushed it.

wanted… so many things. Things I had not felt any need for in my entire immortal life before I met her. Things I was sure I had not wanted before I was immortal, either. And I felt that some of them, things I’d always thought impossible, might, in fact, be very possible.

But while I felt comfortable with her now as far as my thirst was concerned, I was still too strong. So much stronger than she was, every limb of my body unyielding as steel. I must always think of her fragility. It would take time to learn exactly how to move around her.

She stared at me, waiting, wondering what I thought of her touches.

“I wish… I wish you could feel the… complexity,” I fumbled to explain. “The confusion I feel. That you could understand.”

A tendril of her hair, caught in the breeze, danced in the sun, catching the light with a reddish shine. I reached out to feel the texture of that errant lock between my fingers. And then, because it was so close, I couldn’t resist stroking her face. Her cheek felt like velvet left out in the sun.

Her head tilted into my hand, but her eyes remained intent on my face. “Tell me,” she breathed.

I couldn’t imagine where to even begin. “I… don’t think I can. I’ve told you, on the one hand, the hunger, the thirst, that”—I gave her an apologetic half smile—“deplorable creature I am, I feel for you. And I think you can understand that, to an extent. Though as you are not addicted to any illegal substances, you probably can’t empathize completely.… But…”

My fingers seemed to search out her lips of their own accord. I brushed them lightly. Finally. They were softer than I’d imagined. Warmer.

“There are other hungers,” I continued. “Hungers I don’t even

understand, that are foreign to me.”

She gave me that slightly skeptical look again. “I may understand that

better than you think.”

“I’m not used to feeling so human,” I admitted. “Is it always like this?” The wild current singing through my system, the magnetic pull drawing me forward, the feeling that there might never be a closeness that would be close enough.

“For me?” She paused, considering. “No, never. Never before this.” I took both her hands between mine.

“I don’t know how to be close to you,” I cautioned her. “I don’t know if I can.”

Where to set the limits to keep her safe? How to keep selfish desire from pushing those limits unwisely?

She shifted closer to me. I held myself still and careful while she rested the side of her face against the bare skin of my chest—I’d never been more grateful for Alice’s influence on my wardrobe than in this second.

Her eyes slid closed. She sighed contentedly. “This is enough.”

The invitation was not something I could resist. I knew I was capable of getting this much right. With meticulous care, I wrapped my arms lightly around her, truly holding her in my embrace for the first time. I pressed my lips against the crown of her head, breathing in her warm scent. A first kiss, though a stealthy one—unrequited.

She chuckled once. “You’re better at this than you give yourself credit for.”

“I have human instincts,” I murmured into her hair. “They may be buried deep, but they’re there.”

The passing of time was meaningless while I cradled her, my lips against her hair. Her heart moved languorously now, her breath was slow and even against my skin. I only noticed the change when the shadow of the trees fell over us. Without the reflection off my skin, the meadow seemed suddenly darker, evening rather than afternoon.

Bella heaved a deep sigh. Not contented this time, but regretful. “You have to go,” I guessed.

“I thought you couldn’t read my mind.”

I grinned and then pressed one last hidden kiss to the top of her head. “It’s getting clearer.”

We’d been a long time here, though now it seemed like mere seconds. She would have human needs she was neglecting. I thought of the long, slow trek to get to the meadow, and I had an idea.

I pulled away—reluctant to end our embrace no matter what came next

—and placed my hands lightly on her shoulders. “Can I show you something?” I asked.

“Show me what?” she asked, a hint of suspicion in her voice. I realized my tone was more than a little enthusiastic.

“I’ll show you how travel in the forest,” I explained.

Her lips pursed, doubtful, and the crease between her brows appeared, deeper than before, even when I’d nearly attacked her. It surprised me a little; she was usually so curious and fearless.

“Don’t worry,” I reassured her. “You’ll be very safe, and we’ll get to your truck much faster.”

I grinned encouragingly at her.

She considered for a minute, and then whispered, “Will you turn into a bat?”

I couldn’t suppress my laughter. I didn’t really want to. I couldn’t remember ever feeling so free to be myself. Of course, that wasn’t exactly true; I was always free and open when it was just me and my family. However, I never felt like this with my family—ecstatic, wild, every cell of my body alive in a new, electric way. Being with Bella intensified all sensation.

“Like I haven’t heard that one before,” I teased once I could speak again.

She grinned. “Right. I’m sure you get that all the time.”

I was on my feet in an instant, holding out one hand to her. She eyed it doubtfully.

“Come on, little coward,” I coaxed. “Climb on my back.”

She stared at me for a moment, hesitating. I wasn’t sure whether she was wary of this idea of mine, or just wasn’t sure exactly how to approach me. We were very new to this physical closeness, and there was still plenty of shyness between us.

Deciding that the latter was the problem, I made it easy for her.

I lifted her from the ground and gently arranged her limbs around me as if for a piggyback ride. Her pulse quickened and her breath caught, but once

she was in place, her arms and legs constricted around me. I felt enveloped in the warmth of her body.

“I’m a bit heavier than your average backpack.” She sounded worried— that I might not be able to bear her weight?

“Hah,” I snorted.

It struck me how easy it was, not to carry her insignificant weight, but to have her literally wrapped around me. My thirst was so wholly overshadowed by my happiness that it barely caused me any conscious pain.

I took her hand from where it was gripped around my neck, and held her palm to my nose. I inhaled as deeply as I could. Yes, there the pain was. Real, but unimpressive. What was a little fire to all this light?

“Easier all the time,” I breathed.

I took off at a relaxed lope, choosing the smoothest route back to our starting point. It would cost me a few extra seconds to go the long way, but we would still get to her truck in minutes rather than hours. It was better than to jostle her with a more vertical path.

Another new, joyous experience. I’d always loved to run—for nearly a hundred years, it had been my purest physical happiness. But now, sharing this with her, no distance between us bodily or psychically, I realized how much more pleasure there could be in simply running than I’d ever imagined. I wondered if it thrilled her as much as it did me.

One qualm nagged at me. I’d been in a hurry to get her home as soon as that seemed to be her wish. However… surely we should have concluded that most momentous interlude with a proper finale, a sort of seal on our new understanding? A benediction. But I’d been too hasty to realize it was missing until we were already in motion.

It wasn’t too late. My system was electrified again as I thought of it: a true kiss. Once I’d assumed it impossible. Once I’d mourned that this impossibility seemed to hurt her as well as me. Now I was sure it was both possible… and fast approaching. The electricity ricocheted around the inside of my stomach and I wondered why humans had thought to name such a wild sensation butterflies.

I slowed to a smooth stop just a few paces from where she’d parked. “Exhilarating, isn’t it?” I asked, eager for her reaction.

She didn’t respond, and her limbs retained their taut grip around my

waist and neck. A few quiet seconds passed with no answer. What was wrong?

“Bella?”

Her breath came in a gasp, and I realized that she’d been holding it. I should have noticed that.

“I think I need to lie down,” she said faintly.

“Oh.” I was in dire need of practice with human. I hadn’t even thought of the possibility of motion sickness. “I’m sorry.”

I waited for her to release her hold, but she didn’t relax one locked muscle.

“I think I need help,” she whispered.

With slow, gentle movements I freed first her legs, then her arms, and pulled her around so that I was holding her cradled against my chest.

The state of her complexion alarmed me at first, but I had seen this same chalky green before. I’d held her in my arms that day, too, yet what a wholly different affair it was now.

I knelt down and set her on a soft patch of ferns. “How do you feel?”

“Dizzy… I think.”

“Put your head between your knees,” I advised.

She complied automatically, as if this was a practiced response.

I sat beside her. Listening to her measured breathing, I found that I was more anxious than the situation merited. I knew this was nothing serious, just a bit of queasiness, and yet… seeing her pale and ill bothered me more than was reasonable.

A few moments later, she lifted her head experimentally. She was still pale, but not as green. A faint sheen of sweat covered her brow.

“I guess that wasn’t the best idea,” I muttered, feeling like an ass. She smiled a wan smile. “No, it was very interesting,” she lied.

“Hah,” I huffed sourly. “You’re as white as a ghost—no, you’re as white as me.”

She took a slow breath. “I think I should have closed my eyes.” As she said the words, her lids followed suit.

“Remember that next time.” Her color was improving, and my tension eased in direct correlation with the pink infusing her cheeks.

“Next time?” She groaned theatrically.

I laughed at her sham scowl.

“Show-off,” she muttered. Her lower lip jutted out, rounded and full. It looked incredibly soft. I imagined how it would give, bringing us even closer.

I rolled to my knees, facing her. I felt nervous, and restless, and impatient, and unsure. The yearning to be closer to her reminded me of the thirst that used to control me. This, too, was demanding, impossible to ignore.

Her breath was hot against my face. I leaned closer. “Open your eyes, Bella.”

She complied slowly, looking up at me through her dense lashes for a moment before lifting her chin so that our faces were aligned.

“I was thinking, while I was running…” My voice trailed off; this was not the most romantic beginning.

Her eyes narrowed. “About not hitting the trees, I hope.”

I chuckled as she tried to hold back a grin. “Silly Bella. Running is second nature to me. It’s not something I have to think about.”

“Show-off,” she repeated, with more emphasis this time.

We were off topic. It was surprising this was even possible, close as our faces were. I smiled and redirected.

“No, I was thinking there was something I wanted to try.”

I put my hands lightly on either side of her face, leaving her plenty of room to move away if this was unwelcome.

Her breath caught, and she automatically angled her head closer to mine. I used an eighth of a second to recalibrate, testing every system in my body to be completely positive that nothing would take me off guard. My thirst was well under control, sublimated to the very bottom of my physical needs. I regulated the pressure in my hands, in my arms, the way my torso curved toward her, so that my touch would be lighter against her skin than the breeze. Though I was sure the precaution was unnecessary, I held my

breath. There was no such thing as too careful, after all.

Her eyelids slid shut.

I closed the tiny distance between us, and pressed my lips softly against hers.

Though I’d thought I was prepared, I was not entirely ready for the combustion.

What strange alchemy was this, that the touch of lips should be so much more than the touch of fingers? It made no logical sense that simple contact between this specific area of skin should be so much more powerful than anything I’d yet experienced. It felt as if a new sun was bursting into being where our mouths met, and my whole body was filled to a shatter point with the brilliant light of it.

I only had a fraction of a second to grapple with the potency of this kiss before the alchemy impacted Bella.

She gasped in reaction, her lips parting against mine, the fever of her breath burning my skin. Her arms wound around my neck, her fingers twisted into my hair. She used that leverage to crush her lips more tightly to mine. Her lips felt warmer than before, as fresh blood flowed into them. They opened wider, an invitation.…

An invitation it would not be safe for me to accept.

Gingerly, with the lightest force possible, I eased her face away from mine, leaving my fingertips in place against her skin to keep her at that distance. Apart from that small shift, I held myself motionless and tried, if not to ignore the temptation, at least to separate myself from it. I noted the unpleasant return of a few predatory reactions—an excess of venom in my mouth, a tightening in my core—but these were superficial responses. While perhaps it would be unfair to say that rationality was in total control, at least it was not a feeding passion that made that statement untrue. A much more agreeable passion held me in its thrall. Its nature, however, did not eliminate the need to moderate it.

Bella’s expression was both overwhelmed and apologetic. “Oops,” she said.

I couldn’t help but think what her innocent actions might have precipitated just a few hours ago.

“That’s an understatement,” I agreed.

She was unaware of the progress I’d made today, but she had always acted as if I were in perfect control of myself, even when it wasn’t true. It was a relief to finally feel as if I deserved some of that trust.

She tried to move back, but my hands were locked around her face. “Should I…?”

“No,” I assured her. “It’s tolerable. Wait for a moment, please.”

I wanted to be very careful that nothing was escaping me. Already, my

muscles had relaxed and the influx of venom dissipated. The urge to wrap my arms around her and continue the alchemy of kissing was a harder impulse to deny, but I used my decades of practicing self-control to make the right choice.

“There,” I said when I was totally calm.

She was fighting another smile. “Tolerable?” she asked.

I laughed. “I’m stronger than I thought.” I would have never believed how in control I was able to be now. This was very rapid progress indeed. “It’s nice to know.”

“I wish I could say the same. I’m sorry.” “You are only human, after all.”

She rolled her eyes at my weak joke. “Thanks so much.”

The light that had filled my body during our kiss lingered. I felt so much happiness, I wasn’t sure how to contain it all. The overwhelming joy and general bemusement made me worry I wasn’t being responsible enough. I should take her home. It wasn’t so hard to think of ending this afternoon’s utopia, because we would leave together.

I stood and offered her my hand. This time she took it quickly, and I pulled her to her feet. She wobbled there, looking unsteady.

“Are you still faint from the run?” I asked. “Or was it my kissing expertise?” I laughed out loud.

She wrapped her free hand around my wrist to steady herself. “I can’t be sure,” she teased. “I’m still woozy. I think it’s some of both, though.” Her body swayed closer to mine. It seemed intentional rather than vertiginous.

“Maybe you should let me drive.”

All disequilibrium seemed to vanish. Her shoulders squared. “Are you insane?”

If she were driving, I would need her to keep both hands on the wheel and I could do nothing to distract her. If I were driving, however, there would be much more leeway.

“I can drive better than you on your best day. You have much slower reflexes.” I smiled so that she would know I was teasing. Mostly.

She didn’t argue with the facts. “I’m sure that’s true, but I don’t think my nerves, or my truck, could take it.”

I tried to do the dazzling thing she’d accused me of before. I still wasn’t exactly sure what qualified. “Some trust, please, Bella?”

It didn’t work, perhaps because she was looking down. She patted her jeans pocket, then pulled out her key and wrapped her fingers into a fist around it. She looked up again, and shook her head.

“Nope,” she told me. “Not a chance.”

She started toward the road, stepping around me. Whether she was actually still dizzy or just moved clumsily, I didn’t know. But she staggered on the second step and I caught her before she could fall. I pulled her against my chest.

“Bella,” I breathed. All the jocularity vanished from her eyes, and she leaned into me, her face tilted up toward mine. Kissing her immediately seemed like both a fantastic and a terrible idea. I forced myself to err on the side of caution.

“I’ve already expended a great deal of personal effort at this point to keep you alive,” I reminded her in a playful tone. “I’m not about to let you behind the wheel of a vehicle when you can’t even walk straight. Besides, friends don’t let friends drive drunk,” I concluded, quoting the Ad Council slogan. It was a dated reference for her; she’d been only three when the campaign was launched.

“Drunk?” she protested.

I grinned a crooked smile at her. “You’re intoxicated by my very presence.”

She sighed, accepting defeat. “I can’t argue with that.” Holding her fist up, she let the key drop from her hand and fall into mine.

“Take it easy,” she cautioned. “My truck is a senior citizen.” “Very sensible.”

Her lips pursed into a frown. “And are you not affected at all? By my presence?”

Affected? She’d utterly transformed every part of me. I barely recognized myself.

For the first time in a hundred years, I was grateful to be what I was. Every aspect of being a vampire—all but the danger to her—was suddenly acceptable to me, because it was what had let me live long enough to find Bella.

The decades I had endured would not have been so difficult had I known what was waiting for me, that my existence was advancing toward something better than I could have imagined. It had not been years of

killing time, as I had thought; it had been years of progress. Refining, preparing, mastering myself so that I could have this now.

I wasn’t entirely sure of this new self yet; the violent ecstasy suffusing my every cell seemed unsustainable in the long term. Still, I never wanted to go back to the old me. That Edward seemed unfinished now, incomplete. As though half of him was missing.

It would have been impossible for him to do this—I leaned down and pressed my lips to the corner of her jaw, just above her pulsing artery. I let my lips brush softly along her jawline to her chin, and then kissed my way back to her ear, feeling the velvet give of her warm skin under the faint pressure. I returned slowly to her chin, so close to her lips. She shivered in my arms, reminding me that what was unprecedented warmth for me was icy winter to her. I loosed my hold.

“Regardless,” I whispered in her ear. “I have better reflexes.”

 

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