24. AN IMPASSE

 

24. AN IMPASSE

My eyes opened to a bright, white light. I was in an unfamiliar room, a white room. The wall beside me was covered in long vertical blinds; over my head, the glaring lights blinded me. I was propped up on a hard, uneven bed - a bed with rails. The pillows were flat and lumpy. There was an annoying beeping sound somewhere close by. I hoped that meant I was still alive. Death shouldn't be this uncomfortable.

My hands were all twisted up with clear tubes, and something was taped

across my face, under my nose. I lifted my hand to rip it off.

"No, you don't." And cool fingers caught my hand.

"Edward?" I turned my head slightly, and his exquisite face was just inches from mine, his chin resting on the edge of my pillow. I realized again that I was alive, this time with gratitude and elation. "Oh, Edward, I'm so sorry!"

"Shhhh," he shushed me. "Everything's all right now."

"What happened?" I couldn't remember clearly, and my mind rebelled against me as I tried to recall.

"I was almost too late. I could have been too late," he whispered, his voice tormented.

"I was so stupid, Edward. I thought he had my mom."

"He tricked us all."

"I need to call Charlie and my mom," I realized through the haze.

"Alice called them. Ren¨¦e is here - well, here in the hospital. She's getting something to eat right now."

"She's here?" I tried to sit up, but the spinning in my head accelerated, and his hand pushed me gently down onto the pillows.

"She'll be back soon," he promised. "And you need to stay still."

"But what did you tell her?" I panicked. I had no interest in being soothed. My mom was here and I was recovering from a vampire attack. "Why did you tell her I'm here?"

"You fell down two flights of stairs and through a window." He paused. "You have to admit, it could happen."

I sighed, and it hurt. I stared down at my body under the sheet, the huge lump that was my leg.

"How bad am I?" I asked.

"You have a broken leg, four broken ribs, some cracks in your skull, bruises covering every inch of your skin, and you've lost a lot of blood. They gave you a few transfusions. I didn't like it - it made you smell all wrong for a while."

"That must have been a nice change for you."

"No, I like how you smell."

"How did you do it?" I asked quietly. He knew what I meant at once.

"I'm not sure." He looked away from my wondering eyes, lifting my gauze-wrapped hand from the bed and holding it gently in his, careful not to disrupt the wire connecting me to one of the monitors.

I waited patiently for the rest.

He sighed without returning my gaze. "It was impossible... to stop," he whispered. "Impossible. But I did." He looked up finally, with half a smile. "I must love you."

"Don't I taste as good as I smell?" I smiled in response. That hurt my face.

"Even better - better than I'd imagined."

"I'm sorry," I apologized.

He raised his eyes to the ceiling. "Of all the things to apologize for."

"What should I apologize for?"

"For very nearly taking yourself away from me forever."

"I'm sorry," I apologized again.

"I know why you did it." His voice was comforting. "It was still irrational, of course. You should have waited for me, you should have told me."

"You wouldn't have let me go."

"No," he agreed in a grim tone, "I wouldn't."

Some very unpleasant memories were beginning to come back to me. I shuddered, and then winced.

He was instantly anxious. "Bella, what's wrong?"

"What happened to James?"

"After I pulled him off you, Emmett and Jasper took care of him." There was a fierce note of regret in his voice.

This confused me. "I didn't see Emmett and Jasper there."

"They had to leave the room... there was a lot of blood."

"But you stayed."

"Yes, I stayed."

"And Alice, and Carlisle..." I said in wonder.

"They love you, too, you know."

A flash of painful images from the last time I'd seen Alice reminded me of something. "Did Alice see the tape?" I asked anxiously.

"Yes." A new sound darkened his voice, a tone of sheer hatred.

"She was always in the dark, that's why she didn't remember."

"I know. She understands now." His voice was even, but his face was black with fury.

I tried to reach his face with my free hand, but something stopped me. I glanced down to see the IV pulling at my hand.

"Ugh." I winced.

"What is it?" he asked anxiously - distracted, but not enough. The bleakness did not entirely leave his eyes.

"Needles," I explained, looking away from the one in my hand. I concentrated on a warped ceiling tile and tried to breathe deeply despite the ache in my ribs.

"Afraid of a needle," he muttered to himself under his breath, shaking his head. "Oh, a sadistic vampire, intent on torturing her to death, sure, no problem, she runs off to meet him. An IV, on the other hand..."

I rolled my eyes. I was pleased to discover that this reaction, at least, was pain-free. I decided to change the subject.

"Why are you here?" I asked.

He stared at me, first confusion and then hurt touching his eyes. His brows pulled together as he frowned. "Do you want me to leave?"

"No!" I protested, horrified by the thought. "No, I meant, why does my

mother think you're here? I need to have my story straight before she gets back."

"Oh," he said, and his forehead smoothed back into marble. "I came to Phoenix to talk some sense into you, to convince you to come back to Forks." His wide eyes were so earnest and sincere, I almost believed him myself. "You agreed to see me, and you drove out to the hotel where I was staying with Carlisle and Alice - of course I was here with parental supervision," he inserted virtuously, "but you tripped on the stairs on the way to my room and... well, you know the rest. You don't need to remember any details, though; you have a good excuse to be a little muddled about the finer points."

I thought about it for a moment. "There are a few flaws with that story. Like no broken windows."

"Not really," he said. "Alice had a little bit too much fun fabricating evidence. It's all been taken care of very convincingly - you could probably sue the hotel if you wanted to. You have nothing to worry about," he promised, stroking my cheek with the lightest of touches. "Your only job now is to heal."

I wasn't so lost to the soreness or the fog of medication that I didn't respond to his touch. The beeping of the monitor jumped around erratically - now he wasn't the only one who could hear my heart misbehave.

"That's going to be embarrassing," I muttered to myself.

He chuckled, and a speculative look came into his eye. "Hmm, I wonder..."

He leaned in slowly; the beeping noise accelerated wildly before his lips even touched me. But when they did, though with the most gentle of pressure, the beeping stopped altogether.

He pulled back abruptly, his anxious expression turning to relief as the monitor reported the restarting of my heart.

"It seems that I'm going to have to be even more careful with you than usual." He frowned.

"I was not finished kissing you," I complained. "Don't make me come over there."

He grinned, and bent to press his lips lightly to mine. The monitor went wild.

But then his lips were taut. He pulled away.

"I think I hear your mother," he said, grinning again.

"Don't leave me," I cried, an irrational surge of panic flooding through me. I couldn't let him go - he might disappear from me again.

He read the terror in my eyes for a short second. "I won't," he promised solemnly, and then he smiled. "I'll take a nap."

He moved from the hard plastic chair by my side to the turquoise faux-leather recliner at the foot of my bed, leaning it all the way back, and closing his eyes. He was perfectly still.

"Don't forget to breathe," I whispered sarcastically. He took a deep breath, his eyes still closed.

I could hear my mother now. She was talking to someone, maybe a nurse, and she sounded tired and upset. I wanted to jump out of the bed and run to her, to calm her, promise that everything was fine. But I wasn't in any sort of shape for jumping, so I waited impatiently.

The door opened a crack, and she peeked through.

"Mom!" I whispered, my voice full of love and relief.

She took in Edward's still form on the recliner, and tiptoed to my bedside.

"He never leaves, does he?" she mumbled to herself.

"Mom, I'm so glad to see you!"

She bent down to hug me gently, and I felt warm tears falling on my cheeks.

"Bella, I was so upset!"

"I'm sorry, Mom. But everything's fine now, it's okay," I comforted her.

"I'm just glad to finally see your eyes open." She sat on the edge of my bed.

I suddenly realized I didn't have any idea when it was. "How long have they been closed?"

"It's Friday, hon, you've been out for a while."

"Friday?" I was shocked. I tried to remember what day it had been when... but I didn't want to think about that.

"They had to keep you sedated for a while, honey - you've got a lot of injuries."

"I know." I could feel them.

"You're lucky Dr. Cullen was there. He's such a nice man... very young, though. And he looks more like a model than a doctor..."

"You met Carlisle?"

"And Edward's sister Alice. She's a lovely girl."

"She is," I agreed wholeheartedly.

She glanced over her shoulder at Edward, lying with his eyes closed in the chair. "You didn't tell me you had such good friends in Forks."

I cringed, and then moaned.

"What hurts?" she demanded anxiously, turning back to me. Edward's eyes flashed to my face.

"It's fine," I assured them. "I just have to remember not to move." He lapsed back into his phony slumber.

I took advantage of my mother's momentary distraction to keep the subject from returning to my less-than-candid behavior. "Where's Phil?" I asked quickly.

"Florida - oh, Bella! You'll never guess! Just when we were about to leave, the best news!"

"Phil got signed?" I guessed.

"Yes! How did you guess! The Suns, can you believe it?"

"That's great, Mom," I said as enthusiastically as I could manage, though I had little idea what that meant.

"And you'll like Jacksonville so much," she gushed while I stared at her vacantly. "I was a little bit worried when Phil started talking about Akron, what with the snow and everything, because you know how I hate the cold, but now Jacksonville! It's always sunny, and the humidity really isn't that bad. We found the cutest house, yellow, with white trim, and a porch just like in an old movie, and this huge oak tree, and it's just a few minutes from the ocean, and you'll have your own bathroom -"

"Wait, Mom!" I interrupted. Edward still had his eyes closed, but he looked too tense to pass as asleep. "What are you talking about? I'm not going to Florida. I live in Forks."

"But you don't have to anymore, silly," she laughed. "Phil will be able to be around so much more now... we've talked about it a lot, and what I'm going to do is trade off on the away games, half the time with you, half the time with him."

"Mom." I hesitated, wondering how best to be diplomatic about this. "I want to live in Forks. I'm already settled in at school, and I have a couple of girlfriends" - she glanced toward Edward again when I reminded her of friends, so I tried another direction - "and Charlie needs me. He's just all alone up there, and he can't cook at all."

"You want to stay in Forks?" she asked, bewildered. The idea was inconceivable to her. And then her eyes flickered back toward Edward. "Why?"

"I told you - school, Charlie - ouch!" I'd shrugged. Not a good idea.

Her hands fluttered helplessly over me, trying to find a safe place to pat. She made do with my forehead; it was unbandaged.

"Bella, honey, you hate Forks," she reminded me.

"It's not so bad."

She frowned and looked back and forth between Edward and me, this time very deliberately.

"Is it this boy?" she whispered.

I opened my mouth to lie, but her eyes were scrutinizing my face, and I knew she would see through that.

"He's part of it," I admitted. No need to confess how big a part. "So, have you had a chance to talk with Edward?" I asked.

"Yes." She hesitated, looking at his perfectly still form. "And I want to talk to you about that."

Uh-oh. "What about?" I asked.

"I think that boy is in love with you," she accused, keeping her voice low.

"I think so, too," I confided.

"And how do you feel about him?" She only poorly concealed the raging curiosity in her voice.

I sighed, looking away. As much as I loved my mom, this was not a conversation I wanted to have with her. "I'm pretty crazy about him." There - that sounded like something a teenager with her first boyfriend might say.

"Well, he seems very nice, and, my goodness, he's incredibly good-looking, but you're so young, Bella..." Her voice was unsure; as far as I could remember, this was the first time since I was eight that she'd come close to trying to sound like a parental authority. I recognized the reasonable-but-firm tone of voice from talks I'd had with her about men.

"I know that, Mom. Don't worry about it. It's just a crush," I soothed her.

"That's right," she agreed, easily pleased.

Then she sighed and glanced guiltily over her shoulder at the big, round clock on the wall.

"Do you need to go?"

She bit her lip. "Phil's supposed to call in a little while... I didn't know you were going to wake up..."

"No problem, Mom." I tried to tone down the relief so she wouldn't get her feelings hurt. "I won't be alone."

"I'll be back soon. I've been sleeping here, you know," she announced, proud of herself.

"Oh, Mom, you don't have to do that! You can sleep at home - I'll never notice." The swirl of painkillers in my brain was making it hard to concentrate even now, though, apparently, I'd been sleeping for days.

"I was too nervous," she admitted sheepishly. "There's been some crime in the neighborhood, and I don't like being there alone."

"Crime?" I asked in alarm.

"Someone broke into that dance studio around the corner from the house and burned it to the ground - there's nothing left at all! And they left a stolen car right out front. Do you remember when you used to dance there, honey?"

"I remember." I shivered, and winced.

"I can stay, baby, if you need me."

"No, Mom, I'll be fine. Edward will be with me."

She looked like that might be why she wanted to stay. "I'll be back tonight." It sounded as much like a warning as it sounded like a promise, and she glanced at Edward again as she said it.

"I love you, Mom."

"I love you, too, Bella. Try to be more careful when you walk, honey, I don't want to lose you."

Edward's eyes stayed closed, but a wide grin flashed across his face.

A nurse came bustling in then to check all my tubes and wires. My mother kissed my forehead, patted my gauze-wrapped hand, and left.

The nurse was checking the paper readout on my heart monitor.

"Are you feeling anxious, honey? Your heart rate got a little high there."

"I'm fine," I assured her.

"I'll tell your RN that you're awake. She'll be in to see you in a minute."

As soon as she closed the door, Edward was at my side.

"You stole a car?" I raised my eyebrows.

He smiled, unrepentant. "It was a good car, very fast."

"How was your nap?" I asked.

"Interesting." His eyes narrowed.

"What?"

He looked down while he answered. "I'm surprised. I thought Florida... and your mother... well, I thought that's what you would want."

I stared at him uncomprehendingly. "But you'd be stuck inside all day in Florida. You'd only be able to come out at night, just like a real vampire."

He almost smiled, but not quite. And then his face was grave. "I would stay in Forks, Bella. Or somewhere like it," he explained. "Someplace where I couldn't hurt you anymore."

It didn't sink in at first. I continued to stare at him blankly as the words one by one clicked into place in my head like a ghastly puzzle. I was barely conscious of the sound of my heart accelerating, though, as my breathing became hyperventilation, I was aware of the sharp aching in my protesting ribs.

He didn't say anything; he watched my face warily as the pain that had nothing to do with broken bones, pain that was infinitely worse, threatened to crush me.

And then another nurse walked purposefully into the room. Edward sat still as stone as she took in my expression with a practiced eye before turning to the monitors.

"Time for more pain meds, sweetheart?" she asked kindly, tapping the IV feed.

"No, no," I mumbled, trying to keep the agony out of my voice. "I don't need anything." I couldn't afford to close my eyes now.

"No need to be brave, honey. It's better if you don't get too stressed out; you need to rest." She waited, but I just shook my head.

"Okay," she sighed. "Hit the call button when you're ready."

She gave Edward a stern look, and threw one more anxious glance at the machinery, before leaving.

His cool hands were on my face; I stared at him with wild eyes.

"Shhh, Bella, calm down."

"Don't leave me," I begged in a broken voice.

"I won't," he promised. "Now relax before I call the nurse back to sedate you."

But my heart couldn't slow.

"Bella." He stroked my face anxiously. "I'm not going anywhere. I'll be right here as long as you need me."

"Do you swear you won't leave me?" I whispered. I tried to control the gasping, at least. My ribs were throbbing.

He put his hands on either side of my face and brought his face close to mine. His eyes were wide and serious. "I swear."

The smell of his breath was soothing. It seemed to ease the ache of my breathing. He continued to hold my gaze while my body slowly relaxed and the beeping returned to a normal pace. His eyes were dark, closer to black than gold today.

"Better?" he asked.

"Yes," I said cautiously.

He shook his head and muttered something unintelligible. I thought I picked out the word "overreaction."

"Why did you say that?" I whispered, trying to keep my voice from shaking. "Are you tired of having to save me all the time? Do you want me to go away?"

"No, I don't want to be without you, Bella, of course not. Be rational. And I have no problem with saving you, either - if it weren't for the fact that I was the one putting you in danger... that I'm the reason that

you're here."

"Yes, you are the reason." I frowned. "The reason I'm here - alive."

"Barely." His voice was just a whisper. "Covered in gauze and plaster and hardly able to move."

"I wasn't referring to my most recent near-death experience," I said, growing irritated. "I was thinking of the others - you can take your pick. If it weren't for you, I would be rotting away in the Forks cemetery."

He winced at my words, but the haunted look didn't leave his eyes.

"That's not the worst part, though," he continued to whisper. He acted as if I hadn't spoken. "Not seeing you there on the floor... crumpled and broken." His voice was choked. "Not thinking I was too late. Not even hearing you scream in pain - all those unbearable memories that I'll carry with me for the rest of eternity. No, the very worst was feeling... knowing that I couldn't stop. Believing that I was going to kill you myself."

"But you didn't."

"I could have. So easily."

I knew I needed to stay calm... but he was trying to talk himself into leaving me, and the panic fluttered in my lungs, trying to get out.

"Promise me," I whispered.

"What?"

"You know what." I was starting to get angry now. He was so stubbornly determined to dwell on the negative.

He heard the change in my tone. His eyes tightened. "I don't seem to be strong enough to stay away from you, so I suppose that you'll get your way... whether it kills you or not," he added roughly.

"Good." He hadn't promised, though - a fact that I had not missed. The panic was only barely contained; I had no strength left to control the anger. "You told me how you stopped... now I want to know why," I demanded.

"Why?" he repeated warily.

"Why you did it. Why didn't you just let the venom spread? By now I would be just like you."

Edward's eyes seemed to turn flat black, and I remembered that this was something he'd never intended me to know. Alice must have been preoccupied by the things she'd learned about herself... or she'd been very careful with her thoughts around him - clearly, he'd had no idea that she'd filled me in on the mechanics of vampire conversions. He was surprised, and infuriated. His nostrils flared, his mouth looked as if it was chiseled from stone.

He wasn't going to answer, that much was clear.

"I'll be the first to admit that I have no experience with relationships," I said. "But it just seems logical... a man and woman have to be somewhat equal... as in, one of them can't always be swooping in and saving the other one. They have to save each other equally."

He folded his arms on the side of my bed and rested his chin on his arms. His expression was smooth, the anger reined in. Evidently he'd decided he wasn't angry with me. I hoped I'd get a chance to warn Alice before he caught up with her.

"You have saved me," he said quietly.

"I can't always be Lois Lane," I insisted. "I want to be Superman, too."

"You don't know what you're asking." His voice was soft; he stared intently at the edge of the pillowcase.

"I think I do."

"Bella, you don't know. I've had almost ninety years to think about this, and I'm still not sure."

"Do you wish that Carlisle hadn't saved you?"

"No, I don't wish that." He paused before continuing. "But my life was over. I wasn't giving anything up."

"You are my life. You're the only thing it would hurt me to lose." I was getting better at this. It was easy to admit how much I needed him.

He was very calm, though. Decided.

"I can't do it, Bella. I won't do that to you."

"Why not?" My throat rasped and the words weren't as loud as I'd meant them to be. "Don't tell me it's too hard! After today, or I guess it was a few days ago... anyway, after that, it should be nothing."

He glared at me.

"And the pain?" he asked.

I blanched. I couldn't help it. But I tried to keep my expression from showing how clearly I remembered the feeling... the fire in my veins.

"That's my problem," I said. "I can handle it."

"It's possible to take bravery to the point where it becomes insanity."

"It's not an issue. Three days. Big deal."

Edward grimaced again as my words reminded him that I was more informed than he had ever intended me to be. I watched him repress the anger, watched as his eyes grew speculative.

"Charlie?" he asked curtly. "Ren¨¦e?"

Minutes passed in silence as I struggled to answer his question. I opened my mouth, but no sound came out. I closed it again. He waited, and his expression became triumphant because he knew I had no true answer.

"Look, that's not an issue either," I finally muttered; my voice was as unconvincing as it always was when I lied. "Ren¨¦e has always made the choices that work for her - she'd want me to do the same. And Charlie's resilient, he's used to being on his own. I can't take care of them forever. I have my own life to live."

"Exactly," he snapped. "And I won't end it for you."

"If you're waiting for me to be on my deathbed, I've got news for you! I was just there!"

"You're going to recover," he reminded me.

I took a deep breath to calm myself, ignoring the spasm of pain it triggered. I stared at him, and he stared back. There was no compromise in his face.

"No," I said slowly. "I'm not."

His forehead creased. "Of course you are. You may have a scar or two..."

"You're wrong," I insisted. "I'm going to die."

"Really, Bella." He was anxious now. "You'll be out of here in a few

days. Two week at most."

I glared at him. "I may not die now... but I'm going to die sometime. Every minute of the day, I get closer. And I'm going to get old."

He frowned as what I was saying sunk in, pressing his long fingers to his temples and closing his eyes. "That's how it's supposed to happen. How it should happen. How it would have happened if I didn't exist - and I shouldn't exist."

I snorted. He opened his eyes in surprise. "That's stupid. That's like going to someone who's just won the lottery, taking their money, and saying, 'Look, let's just go back to how things should be. It's better that way.' And I'm not buying it."

"I'm hardly a lottery prize," he growled.

"That's right. You're much better."

He rolled his eyes and set his lips. "Bella, we're not having this discussion anymore. I refuse to damn you to an eternity of night and that's the end of it."

"If you think that's the end, then you don't know me very well," I warned him. "You're not the only vampire I know."

His eyes went black again. "Alice wouldn't dare."

And for a moment he looked so frightening that I couldn't help but believe it - I couldn't imagine someone brave enough to cross him.

"Alice already saw it, didn't she?" I guessed. "That's why the things she says upset you. She knows I'm going to be like you... someday."

"She's wrong. She also saw you dead, but that didn't happen, either."

"You'll never catch me betting against Alice."

We stared at each other for a very long time. It was quiet except for the whirring of the machines, the beeping, the dripping, the ticking of the big clock on the wall. Finally, his expression softened.

"So where does that leave us?" I wondered.

He chuckled humorlessly. "I believe it's called an impasse."

I sighed. "Ouch," I muttered.

"How are you feeling?" he asked, eyeing the button for the nurse.

"I'm fine," I lied.

"I don't believe you," he said gently.

"I'm not going back to sleep."

"You need rest. All this arguing isn't good for you."

"So give in," I hinted.

"Nice try." He reached for the button.

"No!"

He ignored me.

"Yes?" the speaker on the wall squawked.

"I think we're ready for more pain medication," he said calmly, ignoring my furious expression.

"I'll send in the nurse." The voice sounded very bored.

"I won't take it," I promised.

He looked toward the sack of fluids hanging beside my bed. "I don't think they're going to ask you to swallow anything."

My heart rate started to climb. He read the fear in my eyes, and sighed in frustration.

"Bella, you're in pain. You need to relax so you can heal. Why are you being so difficult? They're not going to put any more needles in you now."

"I'm not afraid of the needles," I mumbled. "I'm afraid to close my eyes."

Then he smiled his crooked smile, and took my face between his hands. "I told you I'm not going anywhere. Don't be afraid. As long as it makes you happy, I'll be here."

I smiled back, ignoring the ache in my cheeks. "You're talking about forever, you know."

"Oh, you'll get over it - it's just a crush."

I shook my head in disbelief- it made me dizzy. "I was shocked when Ren¨¦e swallowed that one. I know you know better."

"That's the beautiful thing about being human," he told me. "Things change."

My eyes narrowed. "Don't hold your breath."

He was laughing when the nurse came in, brandishing a syringe.

"Excuse me," she said brusquely to Edward.

He got up and crossed to the end of the small room, leaning against the wall. He folded his arms and waited. I kept my eyes on him, still apprehensive. He met my gaze calmly.

"Here you go, honey." The nurse smiled as she injected the medicine into my tube. "You'll feel better now."

"Thanks," I mumbled, unenthusiastic. It didn't take long. I could feel the drowsiness trickling through my bloodstream almost immediately.

"That ought to do it," she muttered as my eyelids drooped.

She must have left the room, because something cold and smooth touched my face.

"Stay." The word was slurred.

"I will," he promised. His voice was beautiful, like a lullaby. "Like I said, as long as it makes you happy... as long as it's what's best for you."

I tried to shake my head, but it was too heavy. "'S not the same thing," I mumbled.

He laughed. "Don't worry about that now, Bella. You can argue with me when you wake up."

I think I smiled. '"Kay."

I could feel his lips at my ear.

"I love you," he whispered.

"Me, too."

"I know," he laughed quietly.

I turned my head slightly... searching. He knew what I was after. His lips

touched mine gently.

"Thanks," I sighed.

"Anytime."

I wasn't really there at all anymore. But I fought against the stupor weakly. There was just one more thing I wanted to tell him.

"Edward?" I struggled to pronounce his name clearly.

"Yes?"

"I'm betting on Alice," I mumbled.

And then the night closed over me.

EPILOGUE:AN OCCASION

Edward helped me into his car, being very careful of the wisps of silk and chiffon, the flowers he'd just pinned into my elaborately styled curls, and my bulky walking cast. He ignored the angry set of my mouth.

When he had me settled, he got in the driver's seat and headed back out the long, narrow drive.

"At what point exactly are you going to tell me what's going on?" I asked grumpily. I really hated surprises. And he knew that.

"I'm shocked that you haven't figured it out yet." He threw a mocking smile in my direction, and my breath caught in my throat. Would I ever get used to his perfection?

"I did mention that you looked very nice, didn't I?" I verified.

"Yes." He grinned again. I'd never seen him dress in black before, and, with the contrast against his pale skin, his beauty was absolutely surreal. That much I couldn't deny, even if the fact that he was wearing a tuxedo made me very nervous.

Not quite as nervous as the dress. Or the shoe. Only one shoe, as my other foot was still securely encased in plaster. But the stiletto heel, held on only by satin ribbons, certainly wasn't going to help me as I tried to hobble around.

"I'm not coming over anymore if Alice is going to treat me like Guinea Pig Barbie when I do," I griped. I'd spent the better part of the day in Alice's staggeringly vast bathroom, a helpless victim as she played hairdresser and cosmetician. Whenever I fidgeted or complained, she reminded me that she didn't have any memories of being human, and asked me not to ruin her vicarious fun. Then she'd dressed me in the most ridiculous dress - deep blue, frilly and off the shoulders, with French tags I couldn't read - a dress more suitable for a runway than Forks. Nothing good could come of our formal attire, of that I was sure. Unless... but I was afraid to put my suspicions into words, even in my own head.

I was distracted then by the sound of a phone ringing. Edward pulled his cell phone from a pocket inside his jacket, looking briefly at the caller ID before answering.

"Hello, Charlie," he said warily.

"Charlie?" I frowned.

Charlie had been... difficult since my return to Forks. He had

compartmentalized my bad experience into two defined reactions. Toward Carlisle he was almost worshipfully grateful. On the other hand, he was stubbornly convinced that Edward was at fault - because, if not for him, I wouldn't have left home in the first place. And Edward was far from disagreeing with him. These days I had rules that hadn't existed before: curfews... visiting hours.

Something Charlie was saying made Edward's eyes widen in disbelief, and then a grin spread across his face.

"You're kidding!" He laughed.

"What is it?" I demanded.

He ignored me. "Why don't you let me talk to him?" Edward suggested with evident pleasure. He waited for a few seconds.

"Hello, Tyler, this is Edward Cullen." His voice was very friendly, on the surface. I knew it well enough to catch the soft edge of menace. What was Tyler doing at my house? The awful truth began to dawn on me. I looked again at the inappropriate dress Alice had forced me into.

"I'm sorry if there's been some kind of miscommunication, but Bella is unavailable tonight." Edward's tone changed, and the threat in his voice was suddenly much more evident as he continued. "To be perfectly honest, she'll be unavailable every night, as far as anyone besides myself is concerned. No offense. And I'm sorry about your evening." He didn't sound sorry at all. And then he snapped the phone shut, a huge smirk on his face.

My face and neck flushed crimson with anger. I could feel the rage-induced tears starting to fill my eyes.

He looked at me in surprise. "Was that last part a bit too much? I didn't mean to offend you."

I ignored that.

"You're taking me to the prom!" I yelled.

It was embarrassingly obvious now. If I'd been paying any attention at all, I'm sure I would have noticed the date on the posters that decorated the school buildings. But I'd never dreamed he was thinking of subjecting me to this. Didn't he know me at all?

He wasn't expecting the force of my reaction, that was clear. He pressed his lips together and his eyes narrowed. "Don't be difficult, Bella."

My eyes flashed to the window; we were halfway to the school already.

"Why are you doing this to me?" I demanded in horror.

He gestured to his tuxedo. "Honestly, Bella, what did you think we were doing?"

I was mortified. First, because I'd missed the obvious. And also because the vague suspicions - expectations, really - that I'd been forming all day, as Alice tried to transform me into a beauty queen, were so far wide of the mark. My half-fearful hopes seemed very silly now.

I'd guessed there was some kind of occasion brewing. But prom! That was the furthest thing from my mind.

The angry tears rolled over my cheeks. I remembered with dismay that I was very uncharacteristically wearing mascara. I wiped quickly under my eyes to prevent any smudges. My hand was unblackened when I pulled it away; maybe Alice had known I would need waterproof makeup.

"This is completely ridiculous. Why are you crying?" he demanded in frustration.

"Because I'm mad!"

"Bella." He turned the full force of his scorching golden eyes on me.

"What?" I muttered, distracted.

"Humor me," he insisted.

His eyes were melting all my fury. It was impossible to fight with him when he cheated like that. I gave in with poor grace.

"Fine," I pouted, unable to glare as effectively as I would have liked. "I'll go quietly. But you'll see. I'm way overdue for more bad luck. I'll probably break my other leg. Look at this shoe! It's a death trap!" I held out my good leg as evidence.

"Hmmm." He stared at my leg longer than was necessary. "Remind me to thank Alice for that tonight."

"Alice is going to be there?" That comforted me slightly.

"With Jasper, and Emmett... and Rosalie," he admitted.

The feeling of comfort disappeared. There had been no progress with Rosalie, though I was on quite good terms with her sometimes-husband. Emmett enjoyed having me around - he thought my bizarre human reactions were hilarious... or maybe it was just the fact that I fell down a lot that he found so funny. Rosalie acted as if I didn't exist. While I shook my head to dispel the direction my thoughts had taken, I thought of something else.

"Is Charlie in on this?" I asked, suddenly suspicious.

"Of course." He grinned, and then chuckled. "Apparently Tyler wasn't, though."

I gritted my teeth. How Tyler could be so delusional, I couldn't imagine. At school, where Charlie couldn't interfere, Edward and I were inseparable - except for those rare sunny days.

We were at the school now; Rosalie's red convertible was conspicuous in the parking lot. The clouds were thin today, a few streaks of sunlight escaping through far away in the west.

He got out and walked around the car to open my door. He held out his hand.

I sat stubbornly in my seat, arms folded, feeling a secret twinge of smugness. The lot was crowded with people in formal dress: witnesses. He couldn't remove me forcibly from the car as he might have if we'd been alone.

He sighed. "When someone wants to kill you, you're brave as a lion - and then when someone mentions dancing..." He shook his head.

I gulped. Dancing.

"Bella, I won't let anything hurt you - not even yourself. I won't let go of you once, I promise."

I thought about that and suddenly felt much better. He could see that in my face.

"There, now," he said gently, "it won't be so bad." He leaned down and wrapped one arm around my waist. I took his other hand and let him lift me from the car.

He kept his arm tightly around me, supporting me as I limped toward the school.

In Phoenix, they held proms in hotel ballrooms. This dance was in the gym, of course. It was probably the only room in town big enough for a dance. When we got inside, I giggled. There were actual balloon arches

and twisted garlands of pastel crepe paper festooning the walls.

"This looks like a horror movie waiting to happen," I snickered.

"Well," he muttered as we slowly approached the ticket table - he was carrying most of my weight, but I still had to shuffle and wobble my feet forward - "there are more than enough vampires present."

I looked at the dance floor; a wide gap had formed in the center of the floor, where two couples whirled gracefully. The other dancers pressed to the sides of the room to give them space - no one wanted to stand in contrast with such radiance. Emmett and Jasper were intimidating and flawless in classic tuxedos. Alice was striking in a black satin dress with geometric cutouts that bared large triangles of her snowy white skin. And Rosalie was... well, Rosalie. She was beyond belief. Her vivid scarlet dress was backless, tight to her calves where it flared into a wide ruffled train, with a neckline that plunged to her waist. I pitied every girl in the room, myself included.

"Do you want me to bolt the doors so you can massacre the unsuspecting townsfolk?" I whispered conspiratorially.

"And where do you fit into that scheme?" He glared.

"Oh, I'm with the vampires, of course."

He smiled reluctantly. "Anything to get out of dancing."

"Anything."

He bought our tickets, then turned me toward the dance floor. I cringed against his arm and dragged my feet.

"I've got all night," he warned.

Eventually he towed me out to where his family was twirling elegantly - if in a style totally unsuitable to the present time and music. I watched in horror.

"Edward." My throat was so dry I could only manage a whisper. "I honestly can't dance!" I could feel the panic bubbling up inside my chest.

"Don't worry, silly," he whispered back. "I can." He put my arms around his neck and lifted me to slide his feet under mine.

And then we were whirling, too.

"I feel like I'm five years old," I laughed after a few minutes of effortless waltzing.

"You don't look five," he murmured, pulling me closer for a second, so that my feet were briefly a foot from the ground.

Alice caught my eye on a turn and smiled in encouragement - I smiled back. I was surprised to realize that I was actually enjoying myself... a little.

"Okay, this isn't half bad," I admitted.

But Edward was staring toward the doors, and his face was angry.

"What is it?" I wondered aloud. I followed his gaze, disoriented by the spinning, but finally I could see what was bothering him. Jacob Black, not in a tux, but in a long-sleeved white shirt and tie, his hair smoothed back into his usual ponytail, was crossing the floor toward us.

After the first shock of recognition, I couldn't help but feel bad for Jacob. He was clearly uncomfortable - excruciatingly so. His face was apologetic as his eyes met mine.

Edward snarled very quietly.

"Behave!" I hissed.

Edward's voice was scathing. "He wants to chat with you."

Jacob reached us then, the embarrassment and apology even more evident on his face.

"Hey, Bella, I was hoping you would be here." Jacob sounded like he'd been hoping the exact opposite. But his smile was just as warm as ever.

"Hi, Jacob." I smiled back. "What's up?"

"Can I cut in?" he asked tentatively, glancing at Edward for the first time. I was shocked to notice that Jacob didn't have to look up. He must have grown half a foot since the first time I'd seen him.

Edward's face was composed, his expression blank. His only answer was to set me carefully on my feet, and take a step back.

"Thanks," Jacob said amiably.

Edward just nodded, looking at me intently before he turned to walk away.

Jacob put his hands on my waist, and I reached up to put my hands on his shoulders.

"Wow, Jake, how tall are you now?"

He was smug. "Six-two."

We weren't really dancing - my leg made that impossible. Instead we swayed awkwardly from side to side without moving our feet. It was just as well; the recent growth spurt had left him looking gangly and uncoordinated, he was probably no better a dancer than I was.

"So, how did you end up here tonight?" I asked without true curiosity. Considering Edward's reaction, I could guess.

"Can you believe my dad paid me twenty bucks to come to your prom?" he admitted, slightly ashamed.

"Yes, I can," I muttered. "Well, I hope you're enjoying yourself, at least. Seen anything you like?" I teased, nodding toward a group of girls lined up against the wall like pastel confections.

"Yeah," he sighed. "But she's taken."

He glanced down to meet my curious gaze for just a second - then we both looked away, embarrassed.

"You look really pretty, by the way," he added shyly.

"Um, thanks. So why did Billy pay you to come here?" I asked quickly, though I knew the answer.

Jacob didn't seem grateful for the subject change; he looked away, uncomfortable again. "He said it was a 'safe' place to talk to you. I swear the old man is losing his mind."

I joined in his laughter weakly.

"Anyway, he said that if I told you something, he would get me that master cylinder I need," he confessed with a sheepish grin.

"Tell me, then. I want you to get your car finished." I grinned back. At least Jacob didn't believe any of this. It made the situation a bit easier. Against the wall, Edward was watching my face, his own face expressionless. I saw a sophomore in a pink dress eyeing him with timid speculation, but he didn't seem to be aware of her.

Jacob looked away again, ashamed. "Don't get mad, okay?"

"There's no way I'll be mad at you, Jacob," I assured him. "I won't even be mad at Billy. Just say what you have to."

"Well - this is so stupid, I'm sorry, Bella - he wants you to break up with your boyfriend. He asked me to tell you 'please.'" He shook his head in disgust.

"He's still superstitious, eh?"

"Yeah. He was... kind of over the top when you got hurt down in Phoenix. He didn't believe..."Jacob trailed off self-consciously.

My eyes narrowed. "I fell."

"I know that," Jacob said quickly.

"He thinks Edward had something to do with me getting hurt." It wasn't a question, and despite my promise, I was angry.

Jacob wouldn't meet my eyes. We weren't even bothering to sway to the music, though his hands were still on my waist, and mine around his neck.

"Look, Jacob, I know Billy probably won't believe this, but just so you know" - he looked at me now, responding to the new earnestness in my voice - "Edward really did save my life. If it weren't for Edward and his father, I'd be dead."

"I know," he claimed, but he sounded like my sincere words had affected him some. Maybe he'd be able to convince Billy of this much, at least.

"Hey, I'm sorry you had to come do this, Jacob," I apologized. "At any rate, you get your parts, right?"

"Yeah," he muttered. He was still looking awkward... upset.

"There's more?" I asked in disbelief.

"Forget it," he mumbled, "I'll get a job and save the money myself."

I glared at him until he met my gaze. "Just spit it out, Jacob."

"It's so bad."

"I don't care. Tell me," I insisted.

"Okay... but, geez, this sounds bad." He shook his head. "He said to tell you, no, to warn you, that - and this is his plural, not mine" - he lifted one hand from my waist and made little quotations marks in the air - '"We'll be watching.'" He watched warily for my reaction.

It sounded like something from a mafia movie. I laughed out loud.

"Sorry you had to do this, Jake," I snickered.

"I don't mind that much." He grinned in relief. His eyes were appraising as they raked quickly over my dress. "So, should I tell him you said to butt the hell out?" he asked hopefully.

"No," I sighed. "Tell him I said thanks. I know he means well."

The song ended, and I dropped my arms.

His hands hesitated at my waist, and he glanced at my bum leg. "Do you want to dance again? Or can I help you get somewhere?"

Edward answered for me. "That's all right, Jacob. I'll take it from here."

Jacob flinched, and stared wide-eyed at Edward, who stood just beside us.

"Hey, I didn't see you there," he mumbled. "I guess I'll see you around, Bella." He stepped back, waving halfheartedly.

I smiled. "Yeah, I'll see you later."

"Sorry," he said again before he turned for the door.

Edward's arms wound around me as the next song started. It was a little up-tempo for slow dancing, but that didn't seem to concern him. I leaned my head against his chest, content.

"Feeling better?" I teased.

"Not really," he said tersely.

"Don't be mad at Billy," I sighed. "He just worries about me for Charlie's sake. It's nothing personal."

"I'm not mad at Billy," he corrected in a clipped voice. "But his son is irritating me."

I pulled back to look at him. His face was very serious.

"Why?"

"First of all, he made me break my promise."

I stared at him in confusion.

He half-smiled. "I promised I wouldn't let go of you tonight," he explained.

"Oh. Well, I forgive you."

"Thanks. But there's something else." Edward frowned.

I waited patiently.

"He called you pretty," he finally continued, his frown deepening. "That's practically an insult, the way you look right now. You're much more than beautiful."

I laughed. "You might be a little biased."

"I don't think that's it. Besides, I have excellent eyesight."

We were twirling again, my feet on his as he held me close.

"So are you going to explain the reason for all of this?" I wondered.

He looked down at me, confused, and I glared meaningfully at the crepe paper.

He considered for a moment, and then changed direction, spinning me through the crowd to the back door of the gym. I caught a glimpse of Jessica and Mike dancing, staring at me curiously. Jessica waved, and I smiled back quickly. Angela was there, too, looking blissfully happy in the arms of little Ben Cheney; she didn't look up from his eyes, a head lower than hers. Lee and Samantha, Lauren, glaring toward us, with Conner; I could name every face that spiraled past me. And then we were outdoors, in the cool, dim light of a fading sunset.

As soon as we were alone, he swung me up into his arms, and carried me across the dark grounds till he reached the bench beneath the shadow of the madrone trees. He sat there, keeping me cradled against his chest. The moon was already up, visible through the gauzy clouds, and his face glowed pale in the white light. His mouth was hard, his eyes troubled.

"The point?" I prompted softly.

He ignored me, staring up at the moon.

"Twilight, again," he murmured. "Another ending. No matter how perfect the day is, it always has to end."

"Some things don't have to end," I muttered through my teeth, instantly tense.

He sighed.

"I brought you to the prom," he said slowly, finally answering my question, "because I don't want you to miss anything. I don't want my presence to take anything away from you, if I can help it. I want you to be human. I want your life to continue as it would have if I'd died in nineteen-eighteen like I should have."

I shuddered at his words, and then shook my head angrily. "In what strange parallel dimension would I ever have gone to prom of my own free will? If you weren't a thousand times stronger than me, I would never have let you get away with this."

He smiled briefly, but it didn't touch his eyes. "It wasn't so bad, you said so yourself."

"That's because I was with you."

We were quiet for a minute; he stared at the moon and I stared at him. I wished there was some way to explain how very uninterested I was in a normal human life.

"Will you tell me something?" he asked, glancing down at me with a slight smile.

"Don't I always?"

"Just promise you'll tell me," he insisted, grinning.

I knew I was going to regret this almost instantly. "Fine."

"You seemed honestly surprised when you figured out that I was taking you here," he began.

"I was," I interjected.

"Exactly," he agreed. "But you must have had some other theory... I'm curious - what did you think I was dressing you up for?"

Yes, instant regret. I pursed my lips, hesitating. "I don't want to tell you."

"You promised," he objected.

"I know."

"What's the problem?"

I knew he thought it was mere embarrassment holding me back. "I think it will make you mad - or sad."

His brows pulled together over his eyes as he thought that through. "I still want to know. Please?"

I sighed. He waited.

"Well... I assumed it was some kind of... occasion. But I didn't think it would be some trite human thing... prom!" I scoffed.

"Human?" he asked flatly. He'd picked up on the key word.

I looked down at my dress, fidgeting with a stray piece of chiffon. He waited in silence.

"Okay," I confessed in a rush. "So I was hoping that you might have changed your mind... that you were going to change me, after all."

A dozen emotions played across his face. Some I recognized: anger... pain... and then he seemed to collect himself and his expression became amused.

"You thought that would be a black tie occasion, did you?" he teased, touching the lapel of his tuxedo jacket.

I scowled to hide my embarrassment. "I don't know how these things work. To me, at least, it seems more rational than prom does." He was still grinning. "It's not funny," I said.

"No, you're right, it's not," he agreed, his smile fading. "I'd rather treat it like a joke, though, than believe you're serious."

"But I am serious."

He sighed deeply. "I know. And you're really that willing?"

The pain was back in his eyes. I bit my lip and nodded.

"So ready for this to be the end," he murmured, almost to himself, "for this to be the twilight of your life, though your life has barely started. You're ready to give up everything."

"It's not the end, it's the beginning," I disagreed under my breath.

"I'm not worth it," he said sadly.

"Do you remember when you told me that I didn't see myself very clearly?" I asked, raising my eyebrows. "You obviously have the same blindness."

"I know what I am."

I sighed.

But his mercurial mood shifted on me. He pursed his lips, and his eyes were probing. He examined my face for a long moment.

"You're ready now, then?" he asked.

"Um." I gulped. "Yes?"

He smiled, and inclined his head slowly until his cold lips brushed against the skin just under the corner of my jaw.

"Right now?" he whispered, his breath blowing cool on my neck. I shivered involuntarily.

"Yes," I whispered, so my voice wouldn't have a chance to break. If he thought I was bluffing, he was going to be disappointed. I'd already made this decision, and I was sure. It didn't matter that my body was rigid as a plank, my hands balled into fists, my breathing erratic...

He chuckled darkly, and leaned away. His face did look disappointed.

"You can't really believe that I would give in so easily," he said with a sour edge to his mocking tone.

"A girl can dream."

His eyebrows rose. "Is that what you dream about? Being a monster?"

"Not exactly," I said, frowning at his word choice. Monster, indeed. "Mostly I dream about being with you forever."

His expression changed, softened and saddened by the subtle ache in my voice.

"Bella." His fingers lightly traced the shape of my lips. "I will stay with you - isn't that enough?"

I smiled under his fingertips. "Enough for now."

He frowned at my tenacity. No one was going to surrender tonight. He exhaled, and the sound was practically a growl.

I touched his face. "Look," I said. "I love you more than everything else in the world combined. Isn't that enough?"

"Yes, it is enough," he answered, smiling. "Enough for forever."

And he leaned down to press his cold lips once more to my throat.

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