And so the bill comes due …

Dr. Cullen came to free me from the hospital after a couple of hours, as soon as he had a moment between handling his other tasks at the hospital. He observed my perfectly healthy condition with a grim sort of look about him, sagely nodding. I addressed the old vampire with respect. After what Cripsin had told me about his vital role in bringing about his odd family of animal-eaters, I couldn't help but be awed by him. He was truly an anomaly. Not once in all my days had I heard even stories of vampires like the one he was, like the ones he had made. He and his little coven-family were precious, indeed.

All the more reason to protect them. I made a mental note to bring it up with the Matriarch as soon as I could go home.

Dr. Cullen observed my perfectly healed, healthy body with great bafflement. "If you aren't human, why didn't this happen sooner?" he asked, softly. "The Quileute shapeshifters begin healing immediately after their injuries."

"I was cut off from my powers," I explained as the doctor checked the motion of my once-injured shoulder. "The seizure was from when I found them again. It's a long story."

"I see." Carlisle checked my spine where my neck had previously been clicking. "Everything looks perfect. It would seem we need to get you out of here as soon as possible."

"You can make up some excuse to get me out, right?"

"I can. It will take some persuading, but the alternative is unacceptable. We both have secrets to keep from the humans." The vampire doctor gently took my hand in his own cool, bloodless one. "I'll take out your IVs. Crispin, do you need to step out?"

I glanced at my favorite vampire boy. He shook his head. "I can handle it."

Dr. Cullen nodded. He peeled the tape off my arm and plucked out the IV tube with his precise vampire movements. He put a cotton ball on the tiny hole left behind and I set my thumb over it. "I'll have quite the time explaining this to the nurses," he mused.

"Sorry," I said, grinning a bit sheepishly. "I had plans to do this more slowly."

"At least you'll be alright. That's what matters." The doctor helped me to my feet. "You do smell very like spiced woodsmoke. It surprises me every time. You should get ready to go. It would seem I have a few books to return to you, as well."

Cripsin handed me my clothes. I went into the bathroom and happily redressed myself. What a relief to be back in my familiar old stuff! I'd been getting pretty sick of living in that awful breezy hospital gown, even if it could have been breezier and more awful than it had been. I pulled out the bun my hair had been in and yanked my hairbrush through it before tying it behind my back in a loose ponytail. I was glad I had gotten a bath from the nurses this morning. My dark hair was wrinkled in odd spots from drying in a bun, but at least it was clean. I stepped into my socks, yanking on my hiking boots and pulling the laces comfortably tight the way I liked them. When I stepped out, Cripsin was sitting in his seat against the wall near my bed, slowly turning the pages of one of my books. This one was a long-winded textbook that every young dragon owned. It was the most up-to-date treatise on vampires. I cringed at the look of it. Crispin, of course, could not read it because it was written in the old draconic script, but I knew what it said about his kind and I did not like it. I had a sudden thought that I should probably burn it as soon as I could take my dragon form. Then I considered keeping it for the fun of it. I'd be updating that textbook soon, if I had anything to say about it.

Crispin was on his feet in a swift movement. He came to me quickly, not bothering to hide his incredible speed. I gasped a little. He was quick. So scary quick. The wind from his speedy motion rushed around my face and brushed back loose strands of my hair. My heart had jumped into my throat even though I knew I didn't need to be scared of him. The instincts I had gained from years of learning to fight vampires wanted me to dodge or instantly take my indestructible form, but I reigned in the feeling. This was going to take some getting used to. I would have to learn to listen to new instincts, now.

Crispin's gentle, cool hands held my shoulders. I calmed at the touch. He tilted his head. His eyes sparkled like sunshine through a jar of honey with bubbles in it. "Hi," he said, observing my response to his hands. My heart was going too fast. It was embarrassing.

"Hi," I said. "Let's get out of here."

"Carlisle suggested that you lean on me as I take you out," he said. "It might look more convincing."

Heat rose up my neck and into my face. More embarrassment. Crispin tilted his head the other way, a cheeky little smile adding an attractive curve to his lips and barely showing off shining teeth. I glared up at him. "Now that's not allowed."

"What's not?"

"You do not have permission to exercise your attractive powers on me just because I like you."

Crispin looked very interested. "I had no idea I had been using my … ah … attractive powers on you. I swear it's an accident."

I sighed, resigning myself. It was probably mostly my fault. Before I'd started to think of vampires as anything but monsters, I had not allowed myself to feel attraction to their perfectly proportioned bodies. Their unnatural beauty had merely been an obvious signal to me that I was dealing with a human-killing machine. That was all I had cared to notice. But now, as my heart was falling for this particular vampire, I found myself appreciating his physical perfection in ways I had never imagined I would. I wasn't sure it was a good thing, either, because of what it did to my physical body. These unconscious responses were embarrassing, and they would make me appear weak to other vampires. I wasn't sure I wanted to appear weak to other vampires.

Good thing I still had my magnificent true form. A dragon in all her glory could never appear weak to any creature.

Crispin wandered around the room, scooping up my books and subconsciously fingering a pen in his pocket. He gathered everything up in one arm and offered the other arm to me. "M'lady."

"GoldenEyes," I teased, accepting his offering. I tried to remember exactly how I'd leaned on him when I'd still been weak, without my fireheart. It was difficult to copy the exact way I'd done it when I was now perfectly healthy and strong. Crispin made a small happy noise like a purr that startled me. It was almost draconic, only on a smaller scale. I found myself leaning into him a little more. He felt ridiculously solid to my mortal frame, as though he'd been made of a smooth brick. I playfully turned up my temperature to hide the erratic motion of my heart. Crispin took in a sharp breath. I felt his forearm go tense, solidifying as living stone beneath my hands.

"Oh, that's going to take some getting used to," he muttered, shifting. "That's hot."

"I didn't know vampires were so sensitive to temperature," I said, blinking up at him, innocently. He grinned at me, although it looked a little like a wince.

"It's not actually hurting me," he said, quietly, as he led me to the door. "But it … stings. It's sharp."

"It burns, you mean."

" … I suppose that's what it is."

"Can you get used to it?"

"My flesh warms up after a minute," he murmured. "It …" He paused. I observed closely. There was that look, again, that vampire-blushing look. "It feels quite good, actually, once I get used to it. Although, you might want to turn it down until we walk out of the building. No point in taking risks."

He was right, of course. I sighed, reigning in the heat of my soul. Crispin chuckled. I linked my hand with his. It was strange to be so open about what I was feeling. He certainly seemed to enjoy it, and after his magnificent display of self-control from this morning, I was unashamed of my behavior. The fact was, this had turned into more than a friendship. It was deeper than that.

Crispin brought me to the front desk to check out. He set me in one of the waiting room seats, where I tried to look tired and sore. The woman at the desk brought over a scanner to scan my wrist tag, and then I was out. It was so ridiculously easy, half of me wondered why I hadn't booked it before now. Then I remembered that Carlisle had been required to give permission for my exit. Still, nobody had asked me a single question about how I was feeling or anything. It had been ridiculously simple.

Ah, the sweet, forest air! I took a huge breath the moment I stepped outside, closing my eyes. The clouds were thick, there was a drizzle of rain falling from the sky, and a cool breeze clipped my skin. I felt fresh and free in an instant. I leaned heavily on my GoldenEyes, resting my head on his shoulder. His spiced-honey-pine smell was a perfect blend with the rainy-forest-earth odor permeating the air. Crispin startled me by gently putting his nose into my hair. "Well, we can't really go to my house," he murmured. "And, on another thought, it might be best to move away from it. The further we are from my brother, the less likely he is to hear my thoughts and come after you."

I grimaced, squinting my eyes. Good thing there was still some daylight left. "Good idea. When does Carlisle get off?"

"Not until six."

"I'll wait."

Crispin laughed, quietly. "And I will help you wait. We have choices, of course. There's a nice place I sit at the park when I want to think, and there's the library, and I think you'd be perfectly comfortable in the woods …"

I smiled. This was good. As much as I dreaded the upcoming experience with Crispin's soon-to-be-furious family, I still had hours left to spend with this boy. Hours to talk about nothing and everything, time to work out what I was supposed to do to keep him safe, time to do some serious vampire research. If I was going to do that, I would need somewhere a little more private.

"How about the library? Does it get very busy in the day?"

"Not too busy," said Crispin. He took my hand. "There's a wonderful corner in the back with beanbags. Very comfortable."

"Also, I'm starving."

"That can be easily handled. I hear human food is much easier to come across than vampire food."

I'd imagine so. Crispin took me down the street on a walk, offering his arm like a gentleman from the old days, which I happily took. He was interested to know how much of the little town of Kellogg I had seen thus far. I had to tell the truth about that. Most of it. I'd been stalking the area on foot for nearly a week hunting my vampire quarry. I knew most of its nooks and crannies by now. Crispin was very impressed, although he looked slightly nervous when I told him about how I'd sought out clues as to his whereabouts. I felt a little sorry for him. It had to be scary, hearing how well-trained I was to locate his kind. "If you'd been a normal vampire," I murmured, quietly, "I would have found you much sooner."

"And it would not have been an accident," he added. I felt him shiver slightly and was besieged by sickening guilt again.

"I'm sorry, Crispin."

Crispin sighed. He firmly took my hand off his arm for a brief moment to press a kiss to the back of it. "You already said that, Sera. I know what you came here to do. Don't feel bad about it anymore. Remember what I said? My choices made me who I am. The same goes for you."

I smiled. "This is going to sound ridiculous to my folks back home."

"I'm sure so. I hear it was perfectly ridiculous to my family when Edward fell in love with his mate. Did I tell you about that?"

I raised an eyebrow. Crispin's fierce grin blazed. "Bella was human when Edward found her. She was … appealing to him. As a snack. Unusually so. What really drew him to her was the fact that he couldn't hear her thoughts. It irked him. They fell in love that way, as he tried to understand her. It was a huge scandal."

Vampires falling in love with humans.

I exploded into incredulous laughter. Crispin looked down, a little alarmed. I had to stop, leaning back against an old brick building and wiping tears out of my eyes. "Oh, my goodness. First I've got vampires who don't eat humans, then I fall in love with one, and now—what's this I hear?—one of these golden-eyed critters already fell in love with a human before I ever turned up."

Crispin hushed me, frantically, grinning in spite of himself. "The walls have ears, Sera! Easy!" He took my wrists gently into his firm, white scholar's hands.

"I'm sorry, I'm sorry. I just—bother, what's next? This gets more ridiculous by the minute."

Crispin sighed, shaking his head. "I know it does."

"By the Mother of Fire, I'm sure that was a right mess. What did they do, run to turn Bella into a vampire to keep it all hush-hush?"

"Er …" Crispin looked a little awkward. "No, actually. She was human, still, for a couple more years. They got married. Had a baby."

Now I was quiet, stunned. I stared up into Crispin's incredible gold eyes. They were gorgeous in the natural light outdoors. "There's a hybrid in your family?"

" … yes. Bella was still human at the time. They turned her moments after the baby arrived, or so I'm told. She would have died otherwise. Apparently it was quite the mess."

Heaven knew it would have been. I was reeling. A vampire-human hybrid, right here! At the same time as I was astonished and amazed, my stomach felt like it had turned inside out. If my people had known about that … we did not have a hybrid amongst our collection of vampires. They were incredibly rare. Now I had double the reasons to get these creatures somewhere safe. "Great Sun, you're all just begging to be research subjects," I muttered, darkly. Crispin darkened, too.


"Yeah," I mumbled. "I won't be mentioning this to Grandfather. Or anybody else."

"Good plan."

I took a deep breath, shaking my head. "So. You got any other unbelievable things to tell me while we're at it?"

"Erm …" Crispin looked at the cement sidewalk for a moment. Then he brightened a little. "Well, it's not unbelievable, per se, but there is this." And he took a pen out of his pocket, holding it out to me. I accepted it, observing the coolness of the soft, smooth resin, which had been sitting against Crispin's undead body. I didn't recognize the instrument, although it was stunningly beautiful, made of royal blue and white, blazing with glorious, delicious chatoyancy. "It's … for you," Crispin muttered, awkwardly. "I … thought you might like it. The Edison Nouveau Premiere in Neptune's Pearl."

I stared up at him. "You got me a pen?"

"I … well, yes, I did." Crispin paused for a split second, and then said in a breathy rush, "I was going to get jewelry of some kind, at first, but it didn't work out and I didn't know what you would like, and Alice suggested that I get you something I knew you liked, which made me think of fountain pens, and … so … I got you one." The look on his face said he was horrified at what had just burst out of his mouth.

I beamed. "You got me a pen!"

Crispin relaxed slightly, still looking a little concerned. He was breathing more heavily than normal. "Yes. Yes, I did."

"You adorable nut, you!"

Crispin did the vampire version of a blush again. His eyes went down to the ground and couldn't hold eye contact. I laughed, stepping happily forward to give him a big hug. He was very sturdy. He looked shocked for a moment. Then he returned the gesture, gently. "Do you like it?"

"I think it's a wonderful pen. It's so beautiful. Only trouble is, I can't really test it out. You left my journals with Carlisle."

"I probably ought to have given it to you at the hospital," Crispin agreed, "but I forgot. Sorry. I filled it with Dia—"

"Stop!" I put a finger on his lips to shush him mid-sentence. His big golden eyes were like glitter. "Nope. I want it to be a secret."

Crispin smiled under my shushing finger. He took my wrist in a gentle hand and chuckled. "So be it."

My stomach ruined the moment as loudly as possible. The sound was like a slug had just gone through my intestines. I pulled a slight face and Crispin softly laughed. "Let us not forget about feeding the little Firebrand," he teased, patting the back of my hand. "Come on. This is the mortals' favorite place."

It was the same restaurant I had visited on my first day in Kellogg. I was slightly embarrassed to be back here, and was even more alarmed when one of the ladies working up to the counter recognized me. "Hey, I remember you," she said, eyes widening as we approached. "You had two whole double-steak family meals all by yourself."

It was true that my face was not an easy one to forget. I tried to smile. Crispin laughed. "So you've been here!" he exclaimed, beaming down at me. "You ought to have said something, Sera. Two double-steak family meals. I'm not surprised, somehow."

"It was my first day," I muttered. "I'd just flown in. Needed the calories."

Crispin looked very amused, indeed. He turned to the woman at the counter, whose eyes instantly glazed over at the sight of the beautiful vampire. I sighed through my nose. This was going to take a while. He got another one of the double-steak meals, probably just for the fun of it since he wasn't going to eat anything, himself. I was pleased when he ordered it to go. He knew how I liked the outside.

We sat up to a nearby table within sight of the counter to wait. Crispin set the receipt on the table. "You could try the pen here."

"Not on that awful paper, Crispin. Won't do the ink justice." My GoldenEyes looked exasperated. I was simply amused. "Later. I promise. For now, let's chat."

Crispin put his hands under his chin and watched me intently from beneath his black bangs with those fierce gold eyes. "Okay, I have to know. The accident. How did you get out of it alive?"

I chewed my tongue, thinking. It would be difficult to give him a satisfactory answer when he wasn't familiar with my magic and the way it worked. I also needed to be cautious of the humans nearby. I tried to decide on a quick way to explain that would still make sense. "Okay, here's what happened. I saw the truck coming, right? The headlights were approaching, and fast. My human eyes aren't very good, so I couldn't make much else out. I just knew it was going to hit me. So I reached for my powers and … tapped into them, if you will. I started to take my true form at the moment of impact."

Crispin leaned forward, his golden eyes shining with interest. I loved that look. "I see. Your magic saved you."

" … pretty much."

"Did you choose to take your true form? To save yourself?"

"No, it … happened on its own. It's kind of an automatic self-defense response." I tried to think of how best to describe it. "My seizure from this morning happened when I found my powers again, right? Well, the flow of energy was going to make me transform before I passed out. I only just barely held it back, actually. That could have been a much worse disaster than it was."

Crispin's eyebrows met, intently. "You almost took your true form at the hospital? But that …" His eyes grew slowly enormous as he realized the implications. "But your true form is … enormous."

"And destructive. My very nature is to destroy, Crispin. You have no idea how many people would have died."

Crispin became somber. "The whole hospital?"

"Yes. And likely the whole town. My powers really were getting out of my hands. I could have torched about thirty acres to ash in two minutes."

Crispin blinked. He sat back in his seat, folding his arms across his chest, and squinted at the ceiling. I could see him doing math, working out the scale. I allowed a minute of quiet to pass, giving him time to think in the ways that Crispin thought, glancing at the counter just for the sake of something to look at. I saw three of the female workers staring at Crispin from near the kitchen, just gaping at him. I didn't bother to hide my irritation with their foolish fixation. I locked my gaze with theirs, narrowed my eyes, and slightly lowered my head, gritting my teeth. They scuttled away. I did not like them ogling my vampire. Mine.

I was startled at my own possessiveness. It probably wasn't a good thing.

Crispin spoke softly, drawing my eyes again. "How … how does your fire-breathing work?"

My stomach did itself back into a knot. I had just imagined how I would really explain, by taking my true form and showing him the small tubes that ran from my vast chest, up my throat, and to the floor of my mouth. It was a strange picture. It gave me anxiety. How would he react to my true form, to the terrible strength of my body, to the rows and rows of teeth, to the scarlet glow deep in the back of my throat, hinting at the terrible flame I could spit?

"It's a little complicated." I ran my tongue over my teeth. "I … might have to show you."

Crispin was watching me with an alarmed sort of look. I could tell he'd probably put two and two together. Dragon form was big. Lots of fire. Rather dangerous. And, if I had to take my true form to show him … scary. Shoot, why had I bothered mentioning anything about fire? My stupid, blabbering mouth. I could not shut up when it mattered. I was trying not to scare him! Crispin leaned forward once more, his elbows on the table and his chin in his hands. His gaze was intense and eager, the fear ebbing away. "Tell me, how did you hold back your power? When you were about to transform in the hospital?"

"Mental restraint," I said, simply. I was glad we were moving away from scary, intimidating things. "All dragons learn from a young age to control our mental connection to our powers. It's usually easy to do. I'm not sure why it was so intense at the hospital this morning. Then again, I've never been cut off from my powers before. What happened could be perfectly normal. I'll have to look it up."

Crispin traced his lips with a neat white finger, deep in thought once more. I watched him silently, wondering what he was thinking. What was he imagining of the monster that I was? What did he think I looked like? After a moment, he took a breath to speak … and a waitress stepped up to our table with my food in a set of little foam boxes. I could have groaned in frustration, but Crispin handled the interruption very sweetly, accepting the meal and offering a tip even though we hadn't technically been waited on. He hurried me out the door. I was glad. I didn't want to stay where there would be interruptions like that.

It was good to be back outside. My stomach was making all assortments of embarrassing sounds, trying to get my attention and seizing Crispin's very effectively. I grinned apologetically at him when he cast me a sideways smile. His incredible hearing would pick up every song and squeak from my gut. It had to be irritating. The trouble was that the food smelled so good. I was hungry. Dragon-hungry.

Crispin led the way into the forest. The drizzle had stopped, although the clouds still brooded comfortingly overhead. I was glad that they were there. If Crispin stepped into broad daylight, his crystalline skin would catch the sunlight like a diamond with ten million facets. Not exactly the kind of look he'd want to have if he was trying to blend in with the mortals. I thought of him glittering and suddenly wondered exactly what that would look like with the other wavelengths of the electromagnetic spectrum that I couldn't see as a human. It would be beautiful, surely, enchanting.

I was completely infatuated.

Crispin took me a few feet into the trees at the edge of the road so we could be safe from prying human eyes. He found a mossy log, checked to make sure it wasn't too damp, and kindly helped me plant myself on it. He popped open one of the foam boxes, peered inside with a light sniff, and then pulled a disgusted face and handed it to me. "That just smells bad."

"To you, maybe," I muttered, grinning into the box at the slab of steak. "But not to me. Oh, that looks good." I wasted no time digging in. My table manners quickly went out the window. It had been a long time since I'd gotten to eat something this hearty and rich. My draconic appetite was having a field day. Not as good as a whole grizzly bear, maybe, but it was still meat. Crispin watched in fascination as I ripped away at my meal, predatory and very hungry. He tilted his head, watching me gnaw a massive bite off the steak with amazement. I observed him, blinking. I raised an eyebrow.

"This is not usually a human way to have dinner," Crispin commented. "Are you feeling fearsome?"

I rolled my eyes. Compared to him, I was nothing more than a fragile little paper tiger in this form. I wasn't feeling particularly fearsome, just hungry. Draconically ravenous. That was the fact of it. Crispin sat himself on the log next to me, chuckling.

"Poor little Firebrand. Starving to death."

I growled a noncommittal response, too busy with my meal to waste time talking. The nickname he'd chosen—it was very fitting. I wolfed down the last of my steak, finally pausing for a moment to breathe. Crispin observed with his unquenchable interest. I squinted at him. "What?"

"Need a fork?" said Crispin, offering the little plastic one they'd included with my meal. I sighed and accepted it. It would be much cleaner to handle my vegetables this way, he was right. I jabbed my asparagus and loaded some into my mouth.

"You were gonna say somethin' in there," I said through my asparagus. "Before we got interrupted."

Crispin exhaled heavily. "I was. I wonder if … well, I'm not sure it would do me much good to dance around the subject, the way it is. My family has trouble understanding that speculations on my part aren't necessarily fact. They'll be upset no matter what. So … I supposed I'd better just … say it like it is." He looked down at me, and I up at him. "… How serious were you about that kind of destruction? You make yourself sound like a living bomb."

I chuckled, darkly. "I was perfectly serious, Crispin. And that's a pretty good way to describe a dragon. A living bomb. A living … volcano."

Crispin gave me a sharp look. I raised an eyebrow at him. What was that all about? He observed me intently for a moment, looking extremely serious. Then he relaxed a little, leaning over to put his elbows on his knees. "A real dragon," he murmured, softly. "I've fallen for a real dragon. What is this world coming to?"

I looked back at my vegetables and started stuffing them down again, trying to hide the abrupt heat in my cheeks. He said he'd fallen for a dragon. The words rang with truth, especially after what we'd confessed to each other in my hospital room.

I rolled my eyes at myself, shaking my head. Those kinds of thoughts could wait. As tightly as I was finding myself tied to this vampire boy, I had to be getting ready to step away for good. If it was required of me to protect him, I would do it. I would do it even though it would hurt. My stomach worked itself into a painful knot. It was suddenly hard to swallow my food. If I never got to see him again when I left … the thought made me feel sick. I'd never be able to get him out of my head. I'd mourn the loss for the rest of my long, draconic days.

Had these things really progressed so far so quickly?

Crispin startled me by lightly touching my knee. "So … what do dragons eat?"

I raised a baffled eyebrow at him. He smiled, innocently, but stayed like that, waiting for me to answer. I gulped down the last mouthful of my asparagus without bothering to chew it. "In my true form? I'll take any animal big enough to make it worth the effort of catching it."

"So … chickens? Pigs, maybe?"

"Eh … mouthfuls. Appetizers. I'd much rather do mountain goats. Or … horses. Elk. Bison. Elephants, for those who live in those parts of the world. We take from the sea, too. Any big thing that swims will do it."

Crispin looked fascinated. "How do you get away with eating something so large? Wouldn't it draw attention if you had to stand over your kill?"

"We keep away from humans whenever possible. If we have to take prey near them, we carry it to safety. And it doesn't take long to eat most things, either. You just …" I waved my fork, expressively. "Swallow it whole."

Crispin looked a little disgusted. I chuckled at his look, setting aside the first empty foam box and picking up a second. This one was full of mashed potatoes and gravy. I took a big forkful and popped it in. "You'll understand if you ever get to meet me in my true form. You'll get it, then." It was so weird to be talking about this so openly with a vampire. I had to take a moment to fully appreciate the situation. If I didn't know Crispin like I did, this would have been the act of a mad-woman. Sharing draconic secrets with my own prey, as though I wanted him to be my friend or something.

Good thing he was more than my friend. I scooted a little closer to him. He lightly touched my elbow, and then tightly clasped both hands in front of himself. I watched his hands longer than I probably should have. He still had the most perfect scholar's wrists I had ever seen. The tendons stood out beneath his white skin. He was like Michelangelo's David, a piece of fantastic artwork too beautiful and precious for the world. I focused on my mashed potatoes with all my might. Nope. I was not going to let myself think those things right now. I was supposed to be preparing for separation, not getting myself closer.

The sun set more quickly than I could keep track of. By the time my we had reached the library, it was already looking low in the sky. Six-o'-clock was less than an hour away. I was sorry not to have more time to spend with Crispin in this library. I wanted to be with him as much as it was possible to be. Every moment was precious. I kept imagining in my head the way his family would likely look when we confronted them. It was hard because I'd only met a few of the members and I didn't know all their faces. It was hard, too, because I kept seeing them with scarlet eyes. That would not be the case, I reminded myself. They would be golden-eyed, like Crispin was.

That still didn't change the fact that they would be angry. Afraid, too. Crispin knew the truth, and his mind-reading brother would soon know it, as well. The others would learn it from him. I was a dragon. I was gigantic, I was fire-breathing, I was a living bomb. I was dangerous. I had been sent to kill them. I had intended to kill Crispin the first moment I had encountered him. If his eyes had not been golden, I would have done it, too.

My heart was in my stomach. There was no way they'd forgive me the way Crispin had. They didn't know me like Crispin did. They had no understanding. How would this work? What on earth could I say to comfort them? I, the great war-machine calamity! I, the indestructible force of nature! They'd be wise not to believe a single word out of my mouth.

When we arrived at the library, the librarian at the desk recognized Crispin at once, smiling and nodding. He probably spent a great deal of time here. The idea of Crispin settled in one of the overstuffed armchairs with a stack of books on the table and one in his hands made my heart light with pleasure. He was adorable when he read books. This was going to be good.

Crispin took me to his favorite corner with the beanbags, like he'd mentioned. He paused on the way, plucking volumes from shelves. I couldn't see exactly what he'd grabbed, but I was sure I'd enjoy them, whatever they were. I followed him to the corner. He encouraged me to settle down in one of the biggest beanbags, a worn-looking fabric one the color of pine trees. He cautiously arranged himself beside me, pressing into my side. My cheeks warmed. So did my core body temperature. Crispin noticed it. He raised an eyebrow at me, setting the small stack of books in his lap. "Are you okay?"

"Yeah," I muttered. "Yeah, I'm fine."

He looked down at his books, a little knowing smile lingering on his lips. I tried not to stare at his face, looking at my hands clasped in my lap. His shoulder was pressed against mine. We were much closer than I had originally planned. His undead body would be slowly soaking up the excess heat from my overactive fireheart, warming up the longer we sat here. Crispin gently popped a book into my lap. "How's that one?"

I didn't even look at the title. I just said, "I like this one," opened the volume, and hid my face in it. Crispin sighed. He stretched, even though he was a vampire and had no reason at all to do so, and smoothly put his arm around my shoulders. My fireheart kicked my temperature up another few notches. He laughed in response, tucking me closer, opening his own book and holding it at a comfortable distance with his free hand. I tingled with slight envy. His arm would never get tired of holding that book. What would I give to never be fidgety during a long reading session.

I slowly relaxed as the minutes passed, settling back, letting Crispin hold me. I started reading and found myself actually interested. He'd chosen me a book of ancient recipes from around the world. I had no idea why he'd picked such a book, but it was interesting, so I dug in. Crispin held me gently, and we sat there together in happy cohesiveness.

I was eventually able to stop watching the time. It took a while for my stress to go down to the point where I could quit glancing at the clock every six seconds. And, once I had relaxed enough, time seemed to speed up tenfold. Before I quite knew it, Crispin's phone buzzed in his pocket against my hip. I glanced down. He sighed and wriggled around to extract it. "Carlisle. He's ready to go home."

My stomach curdled into a dumpling. Crispin saw my fear. Or maybe he could smell it. He looked worriedly down at me and put his arm back around my shoulders, tucking me close into his side. He reclined back, staring up at the ceiling. "I'm not going to let them hurt you, you know. I'd sooner die than allow that."

I took a deep breath. "It's … not that I'm super worried about, actually. I'm more worried about what they'll do with what they're about to learn. And … what about us? Will they try to stop us? And … oh, you're all in danger. I can't pretend you're not. My people will … they … it might be some armageddon-level destruction. You could die, Crispin."

Crispin startled me by gently placing a small kiss onto the top of my head. "Little Firebrand, I trust you to do what you think is the best thing. That's all you can do right now. We can work out the details of the worst if we must. For now, I have confidence that you will find a way to bring your people around."

My throat tightened. I was partially angry with him. How could he have so much trust in me like that? That … just wasn't how things worked. I was only me. I might be a fearsome, powerful, indestructible dragon, but I was only a young one, put up against a whole horde more of my own kind who were much less willing to bend. I was literally the match flame against the bonfire. Crispin gave me a firm little squeeze. "Come on," he murmured, softly. "Carlisle's here to get us."

The car smelled strongly of vampires. Crispin's honey-pine smell was thickest at my side, but there were other sweetnesses, too, from many different vampires. Some of them were so sweet they were almost sickening. I had never fully understood why humans found their smells so appealing. Too often, especially to my dragon form, they were simply overpowering. Crispin's smell was one of the few I actually liked.

We were mostly quiet, at first, as I stared at my knees in the falling darkness and tried to think about what I was going to say. Dr. Cullen started talking to me after a minute, asking if I was going to be okay. All I could do was shake my head a little. Crispin leaned forward to quietly explain to his vampire-father what I was and what I had been sent here to do. The gentle doctor murmured some shocked little exclamations, too quiet for me to make out, but he was otherwise silent as Crispin rapidly told him all he needed to know in the humming vampire speech. I tapped into my fireheart a couple of times to listen in, but then just listened to the senseless humming without bothering to make out the words. They gave me too much anxiety.

Carlisle was a frighteningly fast driver. I hadn't been in a car very many times in my life, but I did know that speed limits were a thing, and Carlisle seemed to pay them no heed whatsoever. I made it a point not to look outside, even though it was dark and all I could make out were vague blurs in the night. It still made my worried stomach ill to realize exactly how fast we were going. I couldn't blame the doctor. Vampires were hardwired for speed. Whenever they could, they were going to move as fast as possible. The quiet road seemed to encourage this. Half of me wished he would slow down so we would have more time to work out what to say to the vampire family. The other half of me wanted him to go faster so we could get it all over with.

Crispin nestled into my side and put his arm around my shoulders once more as we approached his home. The car was slowing down. My anxiety was at an all-time high. My stomach was writhing in guilt. Was I going to throw up? Crispin gave me a firm squeeze. "It will be alright," he murmured. "Don't be scared." He lightly stroked his knuckles over the side of my head, wiping away sweat. "Let's get you some air."

We stopped at that moment. My head jerked up. In front of us towered a great, luxurious house. It was at least three stories, plus an attic, with wide windows that showed off the shimmering lights inside. There were glowing spots on the roof. Skylights. I saw some dots of water on the car's windshield. It was drizzling again, and would likely soon be raining for real. I stared at the house nestled between the trees. Inside there were a whole lot of vampires, who I had once had intentions to kill.

I took a great, shuddering breath. This fear wasn't normal for me. I was a dragon. I feared nothing. But now, faced with the rage of a bunch of vampires while I was in my human form, faced with protecting these same vampires, and faced with losing the one I had come to love … it was overwhelming.

Crispin moved like lightning once he was out of the car, zipping around to my side and opening my door for me. I felt him catch himself on the door handle, sliding a little with his momentum. Crispin opened the door and offered a perfect, white hand to me. "Come on, little Firebrand. Come here."

I slowly got myself out. Crispin helped me stand. Then he pulled me gently close and put his arms around me. I buried my face into his honey-pine-scented shirt. My breath caught, painfully. My throat was tight. He rested his cheek on my head and rubbed my shoulder, patiently trying to comfort me. We stood there for a while. My mind raced and the guilt of what I had nearly done to this family rolled through my gut like poison. I might have somehow gotten Crispin's forgiveness, but the rest of them? And now they were in terrible danger, just because I was here. My kind would not forget them. They'd never escape.

Crispin's chest expanded under my face and he suddenly spoke. "What do you want, Edward?"

Edward? I jerked around. The other vampire was standing a respectful distance away, watching us. I almost stepped away from Crispin, but his grip tightened, protectively. Edward winced slightly. He averted his eyes for a moment, as though embarrassed, and then looked squarely into Crispin's eyes. "I've got the family in the conference room. I didn't tell them much. I was afraid I'd misinterpreted something. Didn't want to get it wrong."

I could tell this affected Crispin deeply. He held his breath for a moment. Then he murmured, "well … thank you."

His brother took a great breath. "A … a dragon? How on earth … could this possibly … are we going to die?"

I got chills at that. It was awful. I could hear legitimate fear in Edward's voice. He had every right to be scared. Indeed, he might not be afraid enough, yet. I wondered what Crispin's mind had shown him. Crispin softly rubbed my back. His cheek returned to my head, and he softly squeezed me. "I don't know," he said, quietly. "I can assure you that Sera won't do anything. We are perfectly safe with her. It's the rest of her kind we have to worry about."

Edward was quiet. I seized the opportunity to say something, hating the way my breath shuddered and my voice cracked. "I'm still … I'm trying to work out how I'm going to convince them to come around. We've been raised to hate vampires. It won't be easy to persuade them that you're … people, like us."

Edward stirred slightly. I heard a tiny crunch from the gravel under his feet and instinctively glanced over, half-worried he was going to attack. But he'd only shifted his weight, upkeeping human-like habits. "Crispin says his gold eyes changed your mind about killing us."

I nodded and replaced my face into Crispin's front. Crispin inhaled deeply. "She knew I didn't consume human blood," he explained to his brother. "It threw her off. She's young … flexible. She was willing to change her opinion of us. She's not sure the others will be so adaptive."

"I see," Edward murmured. He stood still, and we were in silence for a minute. Then he blurted out, almost accusingly, "why didn't you tell Carlisle you're thinking about leaving?"

Leaving? Why was Crispin leaving? My gentle GoldenEyes sighed, quietly, his breath rushing over my hair. "I couldn't. Besides, he has enough to think about right now. Sera and I still need to finish making plans about what she'll tell her people."

"Why—where are you going to go?" I demanded, upset, looking up at him. He smiled a little.

"I was thinking … with you. Anywhere."

I sighed and rested my forehead back on his shirt front. I didn't want to reprimand him, but the fact was that his idea, though wonderful, wouldn't solve our problem. The others would come for his family whether he and I were here or not. Now that they knew the vampires were here, there was no getting away. I wasn't going to leave his family behind to be burned like some coward. I knew it would make Crispin feel bad to say these things to his face at the moment, so I kept my mouth shut. We had enough to handle as it was. I didn't need to make Crispin feel guilty on top of all that.

The drizzle picked up, suddenly. It became more like rain, and started to soak my hair. Crispin applied a light kiss to the top of my head. "Come on. Let's go inside before it gets too rainy."

The inside of the house smelled like vampires, too. I blinked around the softly lit entryway, pulling myself together a little. Crispin pulled off his jacket and tucked it around my shoulders. Edward had come in behind us. My instincts were nervous about his close proximity. I was used to Crispin, not him. But he was relaxed and simply looked at me, curiously. "You really do smell smoky."

I rolled my eyes, nearly smiling. Then the anxiety swallowed up any amusement, and I was back to feeling sick. Crispin took my hand. He pulled me gently along with him, down the short hallway and around a bend.

I sucked in a shocked gasp. I had expected there to be a lot of vampires here, but I had not fully comprehended just how many. My eyes flitted around the room, counting all the staring faces, taking in all possible exits as I frantically tried to develop an escape plan on instinct. They were everywhere, leaning against every wall, standing by every window, no more than six feet of space between all their bodies, less than that in most cases. They were arranged into pairs, although a few were in small bundles, a pack of three lingering very close to each other in a corner. Edward moved around us and went to join them, making a bundle of four. Crispin heard my heart rate shoot up and stepped up behind me so he was pressed into my back. His hands came around and gently took my wrists. His mouth lightly touched my hair and he murmured, "ssshhh, easy, there. Easy. It's okay."

Great Mother of Fire, I'd never seen so many vampires in one place. This was more dangerous for me than I'd realized. And for them! If I had to take my true form to protect myself … I'd smash them all to pieces in my panic. Carlisle was sitting up to the long, dark wood table, holding the hand of the beautiful vampire woman next to him. She had to be his mate. I was stunned when she gave me the nicest, gentlest smile I had ever seen. I had never witnessed such a strange look from a vampire in all my days. Not even Carlisle's kindness and concern over my injuries had been quite like this. It was … motherly. For the first time, I looked at a vampire's glittering, perfect teeth and wasn't instinctively afraid of them. Her gold eyes were soft and tender.

They weren't all so nice-looking. Some looked vicious, like one of the women, who was leaning against the biggest and burliest vampire of the lot. Her yellow eyes fixed on me with a kind of disgust. Others seemed cautious, even suspicious, like one of the men with blonde hair. He stood close to the tiniest vampire woman I'd ever seen, who sported a pixie haircut. She was watching me intently, like she was trying to see more than my frail human body. I instantly had the feeling she knew things. She must be like Edward, somehow, able to sense things she shouldn't. She raised an eyebrow and tilted her head when I made eye contact. She didn't look angry, just … curious.

I suddenly thought of how I'd felt when meeting Crispin for the very first time. The pixie-like vampire reminded me of the things I had felt at that moment. I was suddenly less afraid of her. Her mate on the other hand … he gave me chills. His body was flayed with scars. Dozens and dozens of vampire bite marks. He practically screamed danger. Where on earth had he come from?

I abruptly realized that some of them were not like the others. I stared at the bronze-skinned, dark-haired boy who sat in a loveseat with a red-haired, pale young woman. His eyes weren't gold or scarlet, but deep brown. He looked Native American. I tilted my head slightly. What was he doing among all these fearsome creatures? The woman beside him was … odd. She looked vampiric, but she was also not. Her eyes were chocolate brown. She looked alive. My heart skipped. Was she the hybrid?

The human spoke first. "So you're the one Crispin thinks is a shifter, right? Well, you're not Quileute, so …"

Edward shook his head, wearily, leaning against the wall and taking the hand of the woman beside him. She was soft-looking, with brown hair and a heart-shaped face. "We already know she's not a werewolf, Jacob. We figured that out a long time ago." Edward looked into my eyes. He raised an eyebrow.

A werewolf? I stared at the boy for a minute, surprised. It had to be a misnomer. He wasn't a Child of the Moon. I knew what they looked like—there were signals to be found on them in their human forms. He didn't have the scars, his gaze wasn't quite right. He had the muscle tone, maybe, but he wasn't a werewolf. Crispin seemed to know what I was thinking. He lightly patted my forearms, releasing my wrists. "This is Jacob, Sera. He's a shapeshifter. He turns into a wolf."

I raised an eyebrow. I wasn't sure that I could speak, but I cleared my throat and tried anyway, internally horrified when my voice cracked and caught. "In that case, his relation to my kind is distant. We can shapeshift, but I don't turn into a dragon. I am a dragon, and I turn into a human."

The family stirred at that. I heard low mutters, too quiet and fast for my human ears to understand. Crispin shifted, moving into a slightly protective stance. My body responded instantly to his subtle physical cues by kicking up the temperature about twelve times. Crispin gasped and let go of me. I was immediately sick with guilt. "Crispin!"

"I'm fine, I'm fine, it's okay." Crispin lightly rubbed his hands together. "Ouch, that's hot. Are you alright?"

"I'm just … freaking out a little," I muttered. "Heat doesn't bother me. I can barely feel any difference." I couldn't make eye contact with anyone. My senses were all straining, ready to set me off into panic mode at the slightest signal that things were going awry. Carlisle shocked me by laughing, softly.

"Ah, that fever! I see. I see."

I risked a glance at him. He was grinning. He sat back comfortably into his seat, trying to behave in a relaxed manner. I couldn't tell if he was faking it or not. The family were all glancing between him and me, trying to work out what was going on. I took a deep, trembling breath. Crispin nestled up behind me once more and tried to take my wrists in his hands. He hissed a little, drawing back at the heat, and then stubbornly tried again. Oh, Crispin. My sweet GoldenEyes. "Will you quit hurting yourself?" I muttered, awkwardly. He growled.

"No, I'm getting used to it. It's fine."

"A dragon?" The vicious-looking woman glared savagely at Edward. "Forgot that detail, Edward? A dragon? A fire-breathing dragon?!"

Carlisle growled, deeply, a low snarl that shocked me. I hadn't imagined him being so fierce. "Rosalie, I'm afraid I won't tolerate any of that right now. We have vital things to discuss here. I need everyone to stay calm."

I was flabbergasted. Carlisle radiated a smooth control and power. It was incredible. Crispin was very still behind me. His fingertips were lightly touching my wrists, just barely making contact as he tried to get used to the heat. His eyes were on his father-figure, frozen, waiting. Carlisle relaxed again, settling down. "Yes," he said, calmly. "Sera is a dragon. She confirmed this to Crispin today."

"As in, big and strong enough to destroy this house in an instant?" The scarred vampire with the blonde hair looked extremely worried. He was tense. His body had the look of someone who was getting ready to launch himself out the window and flee. Or maybe launch himself at me to destroy the threat.

Well, I couldn't lie. I swallowed and nodded. "I could, technically."

The scarred one did not look happy. Crispin tapped my wrists, physically wincing each time. It was like he was touching a hot burner. "Here, allow me to make some introductions before we get too ahead of ourselves. You should at least know our names. Sera, this is Jacob," he nodded at the human-shapeshifter, "and that's Renesmee. And that's Bella, Nessie's mother, and Edward, her father. You know Carlisle," he nodded at the doctor. "And that's Esme, his mate. She's wonderful," he added. Esme, the one with the motherly smile, beamed. I couldn't believe how much joy and love there was in her. She was like a piece of the Mother Sun, even though she was a vampire. The dichotomy was baffling to my brain.

"That's Emmett," Crispin continued, indicating the enormous, bear-like one. He grinned in a jaunty, dofus fashion, waving a massive hand. "And that's Rosalie …" The ferociously pretty one gave me a venomous look. "And those are Jasper and Alice," Crispin finished, nodding to the other pair, the blond scarred one and the pixie-like one. "Alice is a psychic. She can see the future."

I raised an eyebrow at the smallest vampire. So my initial impression had been right. She did know things she technically shouldn't. She shrugged, her little shoulders bobbing, her lips pursed. "Can't see you, though," she said to me. "Not unless you're in your giant—well, your dragon form. Even then, it's not very good. If that makes you feel any better."

I frowned. Only in my dragon form? Why? "Honestly, right now, I really wish you could see my future."

Alive smiled, soothingly. "Don't be afraid, Sera. We're not as horrible as we look, I promise. We might take some getting used to, but we're mostly alright." She gave the snarly one, Rosalie, a pointed look.

I laughed humorlessly. "I wish I could say the same about myself."

"Sera," Crispin scolded, gently. I put up a hand to shush him.

"Crispin, you can't pretend it's not true. If you hadn't stopped me that day in the library, I would have been just as horrible as I look in my true shape." Crispin took the hand I'd used to shush him, sucking in a sharp breath at the heat. I tried to yank away so he wouldn't hurt himself, but his vampiric grip was too strong. "Crispin, seriously. Stop that."

Crispin stubbornly pecked the palm of my hand. Poor kid. It had to be like putting his face up to a bed of bright coals.

"So," snapped the angry one, Rosalie. "Are you going to explain yourself, or …"

I yanked fruitlessly at my hand again. Crispin was kind enough to let me lower it, but he wouldn't let go. "Well, I don't see any point in sugar-coating the truth, and I'm sick of hiding things. So here's the facts: I was sent to slaughter you all."

I felt Crispin wince. Dr. Cullen's face did something that looked painful, too. The gentle welcome I'd received from his mate, Esme, vanished, to be replaced by cold shock. Jasper straightened and shifted, twitching into a defensive stance, looking like he was ready to fight. His mate, Alice, refused to follow suit. She rooted herself to the spot like a crystal statue and would not move from her relaxed posture. Edward lowered his head and shut his eyes. Jacob, the one who called himself a werewolf, straightened up in the loveseat, tightly gripping the armrests.

I let the statement hang in the air. The family stared at me, mortified, frozen. I took a deep breath, ready to respond to an attack, my internal timer ticking … four seconds … five seconds … My heartbeat banged wildly in my ears. My fireheart wanted to get hotter. I reigned it in with all the strength I had. I couldn't let it hurt Crispin.

I was ready to bolt out of the house and flee at eight seconds, when Emmett said, bluntly, "so … you can kill us all, right? Well why aren't we dead?"

I exhaled heavily. The attack had not come. Good. "Crispin." I explained, simply. "He wasn't a murderer. I knew he didn't consume human blood. I couldn't follow through. Couldn't do it. My gut wouldn't let me."

Emmett tried to say more in his big voice, but his mate's hiss interrupted. "And?" Rosalie pressed, angrily, "now what?"

"Rosalie," Carlisle growled, gently. "Patience, please."

"I'm going to have to side with Rosalie on this one," said Jasper, quietly. He stared at me from across the room with wary eyes. Crispin shifted a little, moving slightly in front of me, shielding me. Jasper threw his hands up. "Don't you worry, Crispin. I won't do anything. I saw what she did to the meadow, and she didn't even use fire, then. I don't want that to happen to our house."

Crispin gazed intensely at him. "She's not going to hurt us. I swear it."

"Not now, maybe," said Jasper, shooting me a wary look around Crispin's protective frame. "But she would have. Why?"

"Cultural reasons, actually," I murmured. "We've been vampire-slayers since the beginning. It was the purpose of our creation. My task here was to perform my coming-of-age rites. It's tradition for a young dragon to kill their first vampire and return home with a jar of its ash as a sign that they've become an adult." Jasper looked skittish. Alice rested a hand on his arm. I shook my head and plowed on ahead before anyone could interrupt. "Point is, I'm not going to kill you. Any of you. You're just … not the monsters I was always taught you were."

"Not to mention," Edward added, suddenly, from his corner, "she's got every reason to keep us alive right now. You may have noticed Crispin's little attachment …"

"She seduced him," Rosalie hissed, venomously. "That snake."

I fixed her with a furious stare. As stressed as I was, I couldn't stand to have somebody tell me that my love for Crispin was not real. I peeled my lips back from my teeth, letting the flame into my eyes. "How dare you."

The family members who could see me saw my unnaturally glowing eyes. The one called "Nessie" made a startled noise. Her father shifted protectively closer to her. Esme whispered "oh," and reached for Carlisle's hand. Crispin noticed their discomfort, glanced behind him, saw my blazing eyes, and moved swiftly to get things under control. "Whoa, Sera! … Easy …" he murmured. "Hold on, there."

"Didn't you hear her?" I snarled. "That witch!"

"I know, I know," Crispin soothed, trying to take my hands. He gasped at the heat and yanked back. "Ouch! Bah, Sera, that's just Rosalie talking. Easy."

I gritted my teeth, slowly reigning in the flame. Jacob the not-werewolf stood, taking Renesmee's hand and scooting back to get as far from me as possible. Scarred Jasper yanked on Alice. "Come on! What are you doing?" he hissed at her. She shook her head and frowned at Rosalie, still reclining against the wall with her arms folded.

"Rosalie, that one was uncalled for."

"She's here to murder us all!" Rosalie practically shrieked back. "How is that okay?"

"It's not okay," said Crispin, glaring at her. "What is okay is that she made the choice to let us live. She's come around, the first of her kind to do so."

And maybe the only of my kind, I thought, miserably. The vampires started arguing, all of them speaking at once. I still had no idea how I was going to tame the other dragons. It could take years. And they weren't going to wait that long to take out this golden-eyed family. I closed my eyes for a moment, still trying to keep a leash on my blazing draconic soul, seeing in my head the way it would have to be done. The Matriarch, first. She wielded the power. We needed her authority if we were going to be safe. Otherwise … Well, I'd have to uproot the vampires and relocate them to a strategic location. Someplace I could defend.

Silence suddenly fell. I blinked, coming back to the living world. They'd been talking, arguing, and now they were all frozen, fixed upon Alice. She had her eyes closed and her face tense. I looked up at my favorite vampire. Crispin was looking at Edward, eyes round, waiting. Edward was very still, eyebrows knit. Then he shot me a terrified look. "How big are you?"

"What?" The question was odd. Crispin growled.

"What is it? What do you see?" He whirled on Alice. "You can see her true form. What is it?" Alice was smiling. She turned and beamed at me. She clasped her hands together in front of herself. "You guys, it's going to be okay."

"Alice!" Crispin groaned. "The cryptic riddles. Please get to the point."

Alice chuckled. "I see you," she said, gently. "And a dragon."

My temperature shot up. Good thing Crispin wasn't touching me. "What color?" I demanded, frantically. Alice gave me a slightly muddled look.

"Black. Like obsidian. Shiny."

I exhaled, heavily, putting a shaking hand to my forehead. If it had been any other color … my family coming upon them, ready to burn the whole forest …

"Crispin has his hands on her nose. She's just looking at him—I don't know. I'm not used to reading dragon faces. She seems happy. Beautiful eyes, by the way," she said to me. "Crispin's smiling, so that's good. It's snowing."

"How … big is she?" Edwards' mate wondered. I couldn't remember her name. Alice shrugged.

"He could stretch out on her snout and read a book no trouble."

The family shot me shocked looks. Crispin's hands carefully found my upper arms, nervously trying not to get burned. "That's a good idea, Alice. Thanks."

"Thanks, he says," Rosalie hissed. "Inviting an enormous dragon into our house! One werewolf's enough! I've had it!"

I grimaced. This wasn't over. "It's not me you need to be afraid of," I said. "My family. My people. If I go back without a jar of vampire leftovers, they'll be furious. They'll come after you. And they will not let you live."

Quiet. Everyone looked at me. Gazes sharpened, fear swiftly permeated the atmosphere once more, enough I could nearly taste it. "Well, just … don't go back," said Emmett. Esme, the motherly one, rounded on him.

"Emmett," she scolded. "That was very unkind."

"No, he has a point," I said. "But I've already considered it. It's been long enough. My family will start to wonder where I've gone. They'll want to know why I haven't finished my mission. And it will no longer matter what I tell them. They'll demand I come home and explain myself … or they'll come get me. And either way, you will all die."

Emmett's jaw tightened. "Oh."

"Then we have to run," said Jasper. "We can't stay here." Rosalie looked livid.

"A plausible option, actually," I said. "But if our leader, the Matriarch, really wants you dead, fleeing will not stop them. How do you think I knew to come here in the first place? I was sent by the all-knowing one. She selects the vampires she wants to kill and we carry out the orders. It won't matter where you hide, how far you run, how deep underground you burrow. They will find you."

The family looked desperate. I could feel their fear. Carlisle looked so sad and dismayed it made me feel even more sick. I couldn't believe I'd brought this terrible danger upon these gentle creatures. It was so wrong and disgusting I wanted to claw myself to shreds. This was my fault.

"But …" Crispin bent a little in front of me to look me in the face and peered into my eyes. "She would understand, wouldn't she? She's all-knowing, right? She'd understand us. That we're not … like other vampires."

I took a deep breath. "I don't know, Crispin. I like to imagine that might be true, but I don't have much real evidence to support such an idea. She's a vampire-killer, too. She made my people to kill your kind. Why would she leave you alive? Her mission is to destroy all. Until I go to her … until I can confirm what her desire is, it's probably more realistic to assume your idea is wrong."

Emmett made me jump with a loud, snorting laugh. He sharply elbowed his mate, grinning. Rosalie gave him a deadly look, but he ignored it, still playful. "Look at that. She didn't seduce him. She's exactly like him! Two peas in a pod!"

"Emmett," said Crispin, wearily, looking mildly amused. "We're trying to have a very serious discussion here."

"What about my vision?" Alice demanded. "Crispin, you looked happier than I've ever seen you. And it was snowing. Can't you see what that means?" Crispin was very still for a moment, registering that. Alice blurted out the answer just as I came to it. "Winter is still months away. If this is going to come to a head right now, how can that mean doom and gloom is on its way? If her people come after us so soon—" Alice glanced at me, "we should pretty much be gone by then. But my vision shows otherwise. And you're happy in it."

My heart was performing an odd bouncy motion. She had a point, and a good one. Was it really going to work out? Did this vision prove it? Crispin said, "maybe it's just … me not caring that I'm going to die anymore?" He sounded hesitant. "Maybe we'll find a way to evade the other dragons for a while."

"She has a point, Crispin," Carlisle murmured.

I furiously rubbed my eyes. "I don't know what to believe. I have to speak with the Matriarch. If things don't go well from there …" I grimaced. Crispin winced, sympathetically.

"Then what?"

"Then I relocate you all to the most strategically defensible position possible. Then I will do battle with any and all dragons sent to finish you off until I am dead."

Crispin looked awful at that. The other vampires glanced at each other. There was stillness for a minute as the weight of it settled into my chest. Yes, I would sooner die than let my people have these vampires. It simply wasn't right to kill them or experiment on them. I knew that much, even if nothing else in the world made any sense. They were innocent. They let humans live. Or saved human lives, in Carlisle's case. In defense of that, I would pay the ultimate price. Even if it does no good, I despaired.

I was surprised when Edward's mate was the first to speak. Her voice was soft and ethereal. "You would die for us?" she said, realizing the weight.

"Yeah," I mumbled. "Maybe not for you, exactly. Let's be honest, I barely know most of you. It's … for what you mean. For what you are. You're not monsters. We were wrong about vampires, somehow. If it takes my death for my people to even consider changing their minds, then that's what has to be done. Isn't it?"

"Surely … it won't have to go that far," said Carlisle, hesitantly, glancing at Alice as though for visionary confirmation. "They won't kill one of their own kind. They'll have to stop. They'll have to take you seriously if it really comes down to that."

I smiled grimly at the oldest vampire, shaking my head. "We are a very proud people. Stiff necks. Unchangeable, like your kind can be. We don't bend easily, especially when it comes to something so deeply ingrained."

"But we can bend," Edward murmured. He gave me a pointed look and took his love's hand. "I had to change, once. Bella was human. The monster inside me wanted to kill her, to devour her. And when I realized that she loved me … everything changed. The monster went away. I didn't wantto hurt her anymore. I wanted the opposite. Change is possible, even on a fundamental level."

I took a deep breath, shaking my head. "I don't know, Edward. I just don't know. We're not vampires. A few weeks ago I wouldn't have even dreamed of comparing us in such a way—"

"But you changed," Edward pressed, eagerly. "You did. The others can do it, too."

I plunged my hands into my hair, groaning, agonized. "I can't guarantee that!"

Crispin gently took my hands, sweeping his fingers through my hair and scooping my hands up. "But there's still hope, Sera. We can't lose hope."

I stared at the floor, sorrowing. He was right—I couldn't give up inside. As long as I was alive, I still had a chance of protecting these vampires, of protecting Crispin. A slim chance, maybe, but it was better than nothing. I took a deep, shuddering breath, trying to keep control of myself, trying not to cry. "I know, I know. I just don't want to lose you. I feel so sick. This is my fault. I should have left. I shouldn't have stayed here. Now there's this—" I held up our clasped hands, furiously, "and I don't know if I could walk away if I tried. Why didn't I leave the night I saw you for the first time? Why didn't I go find some scruffy red-eyed murderer and just … go home?! They would never have needed to know about you. It would have been so easy to fake it."

Crispin looked down at me in pity. "You couldn't leave, you got a hit by a truck." I faltered. I'd forgotten that little detail for a second. Crispin sighed, heavily. "Sera, all you can do now is your best. This isn't all your fault. It's just … the way the cookie crumbled."

I glared angrily at the floor, my vision blurring with tears. "Blasted cookie," I muttered. "It's going to get us all killed."

"My vision!" Alice quietly insisted in the background. Crispin nodded.

"She has a point, Sera."

I just closed my eyes.

Crispin patiently waited for a moment. Then he sighed, releasing my hands. "There's still a chance that this will work out, Sera. Alice's vision shows us together, and happy. Granted, her precognitions don't always mean what they appear to at first glance, but I don't see how we can be together like that if we're going to die."

I shook my head, wearily. Crispin stood there for a while, probably wanting to give me a hug, but too shy to do so when we were surrounded by his family. Finally, he sighed, turning to face the others. "I don't know what to tell you. Until Sera can speak with her leader, we'll have to wait. I don't think we're in any immediate danger …" he glanced behind himself at me, "and Sera is ready to do what she must to protect us. We have to trust her."

Rosalie issued a derisive snarl. "I'd trust a fire-breathing monstrosity like her about as far as I can throw it." Her burly partner, Emmett, lightly punched her shoulder.

"Come on, Rose."

Dr. Cullen made a weary little noise. "Rosalie, please. This situation isn't ideal for any of us. Sera is going to try her best to help us. We should consider ourselves lucky that it was she who came here. Another one of her kind might not have chosen to let us live."

That was very true. I cringed at the thought of what would have happened if Grandfather had come to Kellogg. Then my mind whispered, if the Matriarch had wanted them dead, she would have sent Grandpa. Not you.

I pressed the heel of my palm into my temple. How I wished that could be true.