A/N: When I went to write Chapter 18, I found that in order to produce a coherent chapter, I had to write straight through Chapters 23 "The Truth" and 24 "Vote" of New Moon, so that I would be able to decide where to make cuts. Most of Chapter 23 hit the cutting room floor in the production of Chapter 18. However, some folks expressed the desire to read the whole thing, so--this is the first part of Chapter 18, which mirrors Chapter 23 of New Moon. (Approximately 2,000 words of this appear in Chapter 18; the rest was cut from the final draft.) If you so desire, this can be read before Chapter 18, as the real chapter begins right where this outtake ends.
As always, the characters and their world belong to Stephanie Meyer. Any mistakes I have made interpreting them are, of course, my own. Dialogue from New Moon is used for continuity purposes only; no copyright infringement is intended.
Chapter 18 Outtake: The Whole "Truth."
Carlisle left just before midnight. It was odd, sitting with my father again, just talking in the stillness of Bella's bedroom. He had never been here before—in fact, he had been careful not ever to fully give me permission to be here myself. At one point, Charlie had come in to check on Bella and the two of us had made a hasty retreat to her window ledge, hanging motionless by our fingertips while Charlie worried over Bella's sleeping form for a few minutes. I hadn't escaped my father's wry thought: Just so we're clear, my hiding with you does not constitute my approval of your being here against Charlie's wishes.
I'd rolled my eyes, and Carlisle had shot me a gentle smile in the darkness.
Special circumstances may be excepted.
When Charlie had gone, we had resumed our positions on Bella's bed, me stroking her hair, and Carlisle occasionally rubbing my shoulder or patting my back. Once or twice I thought about suggesting that he stop, but I knew his thoughts—every time his fingertips grazed my back or my shoulder, I heard, He's real. He's still here. His pain was more than enough for both of us, and yet, I had my own—Bella still hadn't awoken, still hadn't spoken to me since we'd left Volterra now almost a day ago.
The conversation with Carlisle had been strange. On one hand, it felt like I had been gone mere hours—everything about my father was familiar, from the timbre of his voice to the way he moved. On the other, something which I couldn't quite put my finger on seemed to have irrevocably changed between us. Every one of Carlisle's thoughts carried with it an undercurrent of anxiety, and I couldn't shake the feeling that something had happened in my absence that had created a divide between us, although I couldn't quite pin what it was. One hour we would sit and talk comfortably, and the next we would bear in awkward silence.
Four hours passed before I finally told him about that awful day in Brazil. Much to my horror, my shoulders had started to tremble uncontrollably as I told him about the phone call, the havoc I had wreaked on the tiny apartment, and finally, what had become of the journal he had gifted me at the outset of my trip. He made no effort to hide his sadness and disappointment that this particular memento of his was lost, but when I'd apologized for what I'd done, Carlisle had simply put his arms around me and pulled me into his body. I remember every word of that journal, son. You are more important to me than any piece of paper could ever be.
But still, I felt his sadness, and it gnawed at me.
Not long after that Carlisle decided that he ought to go home and check on the rest of the family. He asked if I would be okay without him—a strange question—and when I answered in the affirmative, he stood.
I will see you later?
It was clearly a question, which made me feel a little sick to my stomach. Had I lost the right to answer, "Of course?" I simply nodded, and Carlisle slipped through the window and was gone, the slight sway of the spruce branches outside the window the only evidence of his departure.
Without Carlisle, I was left simply to ponder Bella as we lay together on her bed. I put my arms around her and kissed her face and neck again and again, my throat offering its welcome burn each and every time I did so. She didn't move away from me, which surprised me. Did she not know I was here? Did she only perceive her bedclothes, and not the being who straightened them over her shoulders?
Or perhaps she thought I was someone else.
His name had come up in her sleep, the other boy. Jacob. The last I'd known, Bella had been every bit as annoyed by his intrusion on our time at prom as I had been. Yet I knew from Alice that she'd spent time with him—in my sister's head, I'd heard Chief Swan's words: "Ever since she started hanging out with Jacob Black, I've noticed a real improvement….She's happier….she used to think of him as a friend, but I think maybe it's something more now."
And so, as I lay in the darkness next to the only thing tying me to this world, I wondered if perhaps I was too late.
When she began to stir, I felt my own anxiety increase. After so many nights, I knew every change in her body that precipitated her waking—the slight rise in body temperature, the increased restlessness, which for Bella often meant more talking. She mumbled repeatedly about Italy, me, Alice, the wolf, and questioned if she was dreaming still. For a moment I debated if she might find it easier to bear if I were across the room when she woke, and then she mumbled, "Dream…Edward, dreamed ward."
A smile broke on my face. If mine was the name on her lips upon waking, I could take my chances. I pressed my lips to her forehead, and her eyes scrunched tighter. A heartbeat later, they flew open.
I had only a split second to look into her eyes before she'd thrown her fists over them, hiding herself from me and me from her. Confused, I leaned forward as I waited what seemed like years for her face to reappear before me.
"Did I frighten you?"
She blinked twice, her eyes racing back and forth as she studied my face. Her heart sped, and I suppressed the urge to press my hand to her chest to make her breathe and slow its hammering. We stared at each other for a long moment as I grew increasingly anxious. Would she throw her arms around me? Push me away? Tell me she loved me? Tell me to leave? I wasn't sure. When finally her lips moved, the words out of her mouth were the last thing I expected to hear:
For Bella, that was about as debauched an expletive as she ever managed to say. Was it actually directed at me? Apparently I wasn't too far off-base in my imaginings that I was about to be summarily thrown out.
"What's wrong, Bella?"
Her face pulled itself downward in despair. "I'm dead right? I did drown. Crap, crap, crap! This is gonna kill Charlie."
"You're not dead." I frowned.
"Then why am I not waking up?"
Dreamed ward, indeed. "You are awake, Bella."
She shook her head, pushing me away slightly as she backed up on the bed. "Sure, sure. That's what you want me to think. And it will be worse when I do wake up. If I wake up, which I won't, because I'm dead. This is awful. Poor Charlie. And Renee, and Jake…."
For a second I lost myself in the sound of her rambling. It was good to hear her prattling on again, worrying needlessly about everyone around her, arguing with me about established fact. I had missed this more than I had been willing to acknowledge. But of course, as usual, there was a fatal flaw in her logic.
"I can see where you might confuse me with a nightmare, but I can't imagine what you could have done to wind up in hell." That would be, after all, where I would be, all other things being equal. "Did you commit many murders while I was away?"
She grimaced. "Obviously not. If I was in hell, you wouldn't be with me."
At least there was no confusion that this was my same stubborn Bella. For a moment, her eyes flickered away, and then I felt the burn in my throat rise even more as her face colored.
"Did all of that really happen, then?" she said timidly.
"That depends. If you're referring to us nearly being massacred in Italy, then, yes." I swallowed, remembering Aro's face, Caius's insistence that we all be destroyed. How she could even imagine that those moments had been anything but the most horrifying reality was beyond me.
"How strange." Her head cocked to one side. "I really went to Italy. Did you know I'd never been farther east than Albuquerque?"
We had just barely escaped Italy with our lives intact, and she wanted to make small talk? "Maybe you should go back to sleep," I suggested. "You're not coherent."
"I'm not tired anymore." She sat upright, beginning to stretch. "What time is it? How long have I been sleeping?"
"It's just after one in the morning. So, about fourteen hours."
"Sleeping." Which was a very good thing. "You should probably know that I'm breaking the rules right now," I added. "Well, not technically, since he said I was never to walk through his door again, and I came in the window." As had my father, but now was probably not the time to mention that. "But still, the intent was clear."
"Charlie banned you from the house?"
"Did you expect anything else?" And truly, even Bella had to admit that it made perfect sense for Charlie to haul me out by my collar if at all possible. She had now nearly met her death on three separate occasions, four if you counted the day I had first met her, five if you counted her bout of "extreme sports." All directly traceable to me. No, I couldn't blame Charlie at all. From Bella's frown, however, I deduced that she certainly could.
She said nothing for a long moment, and when her mouth opened again, it was to change the subject. "What's the story?"
The story? "What do you mean?"
"What am I telling Charlie? What's my excuse for disappearing for…how long was I gone, anyway?"
Oh. That. I had been so preoccupied with Bella that I had completely forgotten to ask Carlisle for help with the cover story. He was the master at covering tracks, and if we were all giving the same line, it would be more convincing. I grimaced. "Actually, I was hoping you might have a good explanation. I've got nothing."
She groaned. "Fabulous."
"Well, maybe Alice will come up with something." Although I might have hoped for it, I doubted that a newfound propensity for thrill-seeking amounted to an increase in Bella's skill at lying. And if Charlie made it too hard for me to be near her with Victoria running around—I shivered.
"So," she said, looking up at me. "What have you been doing, up until three days ago?"
Still the small talk. I needed to know if I was too late, if she still cared for me, if there was any room in her heart to have me back. That I hadn't yet been asked to vacate the premises was encouraging, but nevertheless, this was not the burning question on my mind.
"Nothing terribly exciting."
She frowned. "Of course not."
"Why are you making that face?"
The frown stayed. "Well….If you were, after all, just a dream, that's exactly the kind of thing you would say. My imagination must be used up."
She was incorrigible. I was annoyed and, at the same time, delighted to feel the same mild irritation at her irascibility. "If I tell you, will you finally believe that you're not having a nightmare?"
"Nightmare!" She glared at me, but I held my ground. "Maybe," she said. "If you tell me."
"I was"—how exactly did I phrase this?—"hunting."
This elicited an eye roll. "Is that the best you can do? That definitely doesn't prove that I'm awake."
I sighed. Unmovable as always. "I wasn't hunting for food," I answered carefully. "I was trying my hand at….tracking." That sounded at least moderately right. Remembering what Alice had told me about Victoria in the water, I shuddered. "I'm not very good at it."
Bella's voice seemed happier now. "What were you tracking?"
Now that I knew I couldn't answer. "Nothing of consequence."
"I don't understand."
Of course she didn't. How could she? She had never, not once, not even after I had explained to her how I had nearly been her demise that first day in AP Biology, understood the true threat of my kind. And in my myopic foolishness, I had left her vulnerable and exposed. I shook my head furiously, trying to shake off the feeling that I had hurt her.
"I—" am dirt, my mind went on. I am someone who should never have been inflicted on you. No, that wouldn't do. She wouldn't believe me, anyway. I took a deep breath. "I owe you an apology."
That wasn't true. I owed her my life. "No, of course, I owe you much, much more than that." The words started to come fast, and I knew I was going to have to repeat myself later, but I knew if I didn't say them now, they might never be said. "But you have to know that I had no idea. I didn't realize the mess I was leaving behind. I thought it was safe for you here. So safe. I had no idea that Victoria would come back. I'll admit, when I saw her that one time, I was paying much more attention to James's thoughts. But I just didn't see that she had this kind of response in her. That she even had such a tie to him. I think I realize why now—she was so sure of him, the thought of him failing never occurred to her. It was her overconfidence that clouded her feelings about him—that kept me from seeing the depth of them, the bond there."
A lump had formed in my throat, and I swallowed over it with some difficulty. "Not that there's any excuse for what I left you to face," I added. "When I heard what you told Alice—what she saw herself—when I realized that you had to put your life in the hands of werewolves, immature, volatile, the worst thing out there besides Victoria herself—" I cut myself off, choking on the words. There was the possibility that the wolves had replaced me in my absence. As much as I hated it, I had to acknowledge my debt to them for making sure that there was a Bella for me to come home to at all. But it didn't make this feel any easier. "Please know that I had no idea of any of this," I went on. "I feel sick, sick to my core, even now, when I can see and feel you safe in my arms. I am the most miserable excuse for—"
My voice cut off immediately, and I swallowed. She was angry with me. My muscles tensed, readying themselves to launch me toward the window when she told me to get out. I stared at her and for a long moment we hung in silence, the only sounds her thrumming heartbeat and the electronic hum of her alarm clock.
"Edward, this has to stop now."
My face fell. She was right, of course. That was why I had left in the first place, wasn't it? As much as I had always wanted her to agree with me, to see the danger my life posed to her, to hear the words on her lips still stung and I found myself momentarily speechless. I shifted my weight so that I could get to my feet, and began to fumble for the words, "You're right, I'll go now," when she went on, the words spilling out of her mouth in a disconnected jumble.
"You can't think about things that way. You can't let this…this guilt…rule your life. You can't take responsibility for the things that happen to me here. None of it is your fault, it's just part of how life is for me. So, if I trip in front of a bus or whatever it is next time, you have to realize that it's not your job to take the blame. You can't just go running off to Italy because you feel bad that you didn't save me. Even if I had jumped off that cliff to die, that would have been my choice, and not your fault. I know it's your…your nature to shoulder the blame for everything, but you really can't let that make you go to such extremes! It's very irresponsible—think of Esme and Carlisle and— "
She was shaking so much that the bed moved beneath us. But it would figure. Of course she didn't want to get rid of me. It seemed that our time apart had given her no more perspective than she'd had when I'd left. As she took a deep, wavering breath, clearly intent on going on, I cut her off.
"Isabella Marie Swan," I began, feeling my face pull into a frown. "Do you believe that I asked the Volturi to kill me because I felt guilty?" The words absurd.
"Feel guilty?" Of course I had felt guilty. Guilty that my life, my selfish need to have her at my side had so altered her existence that I had driven her to the edge of that cliff. What man is more at fault than he who all but murders his mate? "Intensely so. More than you can comprehend."
Her expression was blank, confused. "Then…what are you saying? I don't understand."
"Bella, I went to the Volturi because I thought you were dead. Even if I'd had no hand in your death"—which wasn't the case, but as long as we were speaking in hypotheticals—"even if it wasn't my fault, I would have gone to Italy. Obviously, I should have been more careful—I should have spoken to Alice directly, rather than accepting it secondhand from Rosalie. But really, what was I supposed to think when the boy said Charlie was at the funeral? What are the odds?"
Bad, my mind answered for me. The odds are bad. They always had been. "The odds," I muttered. What were the odds that my singer would move from her safe haven in Arizona to this remote region of Washington, come to sit next to me in class, and then fall in love with me? What were the odds that a tracker would appear in tiny Forks, set his sights on this girl who was the very center of my world, and chase her to Phoenix? What were the odds that his disgruntled mate would hang around to try to kill mine if I left?
"The odds are always stacked against us," I repeated. "Mistake after mistake. I'll never criticize Romeo again."
She was still giving me that confused face. "But I still don't understand. That's my whole point. So what?"
So what? My whole world nearly comes to a screeching halt, and her response is so what? I blinked. "Excuse me?"
"So what if I was dead?"
She might simply have shoved a broadsword through my middle. For a moment the image I had seen in the middle of the piazza flooded my memory—Bella's body, broken, bleeding, fading away as I tried to touch it. The air was suddenly thinner. The very idea of her dead, now that I had truly confronted the possibility—I shuddered. But her words brought back another memory as well—six months and one week ago, when that awful expression had crossed her face in the woods behind the little white house where we both now lay. "I don't want you to come with me….You're not good for me….It will be as if I'd never existed." The words clawed at me now, threatening to rip me apart from the inside as they had in Ithaca, in San Francisco, in New Orleans, in Brazil. She had believed me then, and she still believed the lie now.
"Don't you remember anything I told you before?" My voice sounded funny, high. Pleading, like a little boy's.
"I remember everything that you told me."
I didn't miss her emphasis. With a single finger, I reached out and traced the line of her lower lip. To my pleasure, she did not recoil, and so I went on. "Bella, you seem to be under a misapprehension. I thought I'd explained it clearly before. I can't live in a world where you don't exist."
It was Aro's voice this time that came to my ears. "And so you wish to be destroyed." Of course I did. There was no world for me without this brown-haired woman in it.
"I'm a good liar, Bella. I have to be."
I realized at once it was the wrong thing to say. Her whole body seized as though she was expecting me to hit her, and her eyes darted toward the window. Unthinkingly, my hand shot to her shoulder, shaking it. "Let me finish!" At least if she heard me out before she told me she never wanted to see my face again, I could leave knowing for certain that I would not be granted her forgiveness for this most heinous of my sins. "I'm a good liar," I continued, "but still, for you to believe me so quickly, that was"—like being knifed into small pieces— "excruciating. When we were in the forest, when I was telling you goodbye, you weren't going to let go. I could see that. I didn't want to do it—it felt like it would kill me to do it—but I knew that if I couldn't convince you that I didn't love you anymore, it would just take you that much longer to get on with your life. I hope that, if you thought I'd moved on, so would you."
"A clean break," she whispered, and I winced as my words returned to haunt me from her lips. A clean break, to let her move on even while I remained stagnate as ever, gradually losing my ability to reason and function. I told her the lie so that she would be so gloriously human and forget me, leave me behind in the dust where I'd always belonged. But that she'd believed it so quickly, and for so long!
"Exactly," I said quietly. "But I never imagined it would be so easy to do. I thought it would be next to impossible—that you would be so sure of the truth that I would have to lie through my teeth for hours to even plant the seed of doubt in your head." It had taken only one short moment, and we were broken. One lie, one moment when she believed it, and that had been it.
"I lied," I continued, my voice beginning to shake as the words started to spill out too quickly. "I lied, and I'm so sorry—sorry because I hurt you, sorry because it was a worthless effort. Sorry that I couldn't protect you from what I am. I lied to save you, and it didn't work. I'm sorry!"
My breath quavered again as I remembered her confused, hurt face. "You … don't … want … me?" she'd said, and the words stung just as hard now as they had six months ago. I had to tell her the truth, to make her understand it for herself before I left once more; I had to at least see if she could forgive me. The words were out of my own mouth before I could stop them, fast, rapid, the cry of a desperate man.
"But how could you believe me? After all the thousand times I've told you I love you, how could you let one word break your faith in me? I could see it in your eyes, that you honestly believed that I didn't want you anymore. The most absurd, ridiculous concept—as if there were any way that I could exist without needing you!" My hand went to her shoulder again. "Bella, really, what were you thinking?!"
To my horror, she began to cry. Tears welled in her eyes and spilled down over her cheeks, leaving tracks through the thin layer of sweat and oil that had accumulated as she'd slept. I felt my own body seize again, readying itself to move as soon as she told me to get out. If she wanted me gone, then I would go—where, I didn't know, but I would disappear to the ends of the Earth at her command. When I saw her lips part, I winced in anticipation of her words.
"I knew it," she sobbed. "I knew I was dreaming."
Were it not so gravely important, her obstinancy might have been funny."You're impossible. How can I put this so that you'll believe me? You're not asleep, and you're not dead. I'm here, and I love you. I have always loved you, and I will always love you. I was thinking of you, seeing your face in my mind, every second that I was away." It sounded so simple in my head, so irrefutable, so scientific. "When I told you that I didn't want you, it was the very blackest kind of blasphemy."
The tears continued to fall, racing down her cheek and dripping onto the bedclothes in dark splotches. She was still cringing away from me, her body tense as she looked up into my eyes with utter disbelief.
"You don't believe me, do you?" I whispered. "Why can you believe the lie, but not the truth?" For so long I had told her again, and again, that she was my salvation, my rescue from ninety years of despair, the very center of my bleak existence. And yet one lie had broken that between us forever, because it was the lie that would linger, instead of the truth.
I was never going to make this right.
"It never made sense for you to love me," she said matter-of-factly. "I always knew that."
I blinked and felt my face tighten. Nothing had ever made more sense in the history of man. But of course, Bella wouldn't see it that way. How many times had we talked last spring, over the summer, into the early fall, when she continually told me how unworthy of my love she was? She had never understood.
There was, of course, the possibility that she never would.
I didn't know what to say any longer. If she wouldn't believe my words, what would she believe? I had already apologized; I had already explained. And still she wasn't budging, obstinately refusing to believe my presence and my contrition both.
I needed a plan B. And I needed it now.
My hands were on the sides of her face before I'd really thought to put them there. "I'll prove you're awake." At least that will be something.
She struggled. For a second, my hands lingered there before my heart registered what my fingertips were telling it. I could almost feel it beginning to fall to pieces before Bella gave it the final tap:
I froze. It had been less than a day since I had uttered that exact word—not to Bella, but to Carlisle, as his thoughts had turned to my safety in the baggage claim at SeaTac. Don't. Don't move forward, don't comfort me, don't welcome me. The ache of having almost lost Bella was still cutting me wide open, and I wasn't ready for anything Carlisle had to offer. And now here were my own words, back to haunt me, digging the same deep hole in my heart that I knew they had dug in my father's. Please don't.
"When I wake up"—I just barely moved to answer when she corrected herself—"okay, forget that one—when you leave again, it's going to be hard enough without this, too."
The flight home came back to me at once. Stroking her arms, her face, her shoulders. She flinched each time I even got near—not so much that a human would notice, probably not enough that she noticed, but I saw it nevertheless.
I sat back a little. "Yesterday, when I would touch you, you were so hesitant, so careful, and yet, still the same. I need to know why."
But that way was barred. Please don't.
"Is it because I'm too late? Because I've hurt you too much? Because you have moved on, as I meant for you to? That would be"—the worst kind of pain imaginable; the end of my world—"quite fair." I gulped. "I won't contest your decision. So don't try to spare my feelings, please—just tell me now, whether or not you can still love me, after everything I've done to you. Can you?"
She frowned at me, and for a moment, time stopped as I awaited her response. Again, I studied the features I had missed—the subtle curve of her cheekbones, the slight irregularity of the shape of her nose, the dusting of freckles she insisted didn't exist. Her face had taken on a ghastly cast in the green glow of her alarm clock—she looked ill. It would make sense if she were, after all I'd put her through. I waited, tense. Of course it was too much. How dare you do this to me? I don't ever want to see you again. After what seemed a decade had passed, her lips moved.
"What kind of an idiotic question is that?"
Come again? For the second time in only a handful of minutes, I found myself unsure of my footing once more. I ask the gravest of questions, and she calls it "idiotic?"
"Just answer it. Please?" Or I might explode.
Another long moment stretched as her heart thrummed and the alarm clock whirred. I didn't move, afraid that somehow, the slightest motion would set her off, cause her to answer this question differently than she otherwise might. I couldn't risk it.
She was still frowning. "The way I feel about you will never change. Of course I love you—and there's nothing you can do about it!"
There weren't gods enough to thank. The words barely got out of my mouth—"That's all I needed to hear"—before my lips were on hers. My body remembered her as easily as my mind did—it shaped itself to her, knowing without any conscious thought on my part exactly how much was too much, exactly when and where it could exert no more pressure. Her fingers searched the planes of my face hungrily, and mine did the same to hers. Her name sounded again and again in the stillness, and it took me a few iterations to recognize the whispers were coming from me.
Finally she pulled away ever so slightly, and I took that as my cue. I slid down her chest and laid my head against her breast, my ear pressed to her skin. I was at once calmed by the familiar sound of her too-enticing blood as it rushed from atria into ventricles, accompanied by the rhythmic closing first of mitral and tricuspid, then aortic and pulmonary valves, each moving in perfect synchrony with the others. For a moment I lost myself once more in the gentle pulse I had been certain I would never hear again.
"By the way," I said to the darkness. "I'm not leaving you." For as long as this heart would beat for me, I would stay glued to it.
There was no answer, and I lifted my head to study her face once more. She looked both contented and worried, sated by my kisses and yet still reluctant to take my words at face value. I went on, the words tumbling from me like a man offering his last feeble excuses before the executioner. "I'm not going anywhere. Not without you. I only left you in the first place because I wanted you to have a chance at a normal, happy, human life. I could see what I was doing to you—keeping you constantly on the edge of danger, taking you away from the world you belonged in, risking your life every moment I was with you. So I had to try. I had to do something, and it seemed like leaving was the only way. If I hadn't thought you would be better off"—the very notion seemed absurd now—"I never could have made myself leave. I'm much too selfish. Only you could be more important to me than what I wanted…what I needed. What I want and need is to be with you, and I know I'll never be strong enough to leave again."
Victoria flashed in my mind. "I have too many excuses to stay," I added. "Thank heaven for that. It seems you can't be safe, no matter how many miles I put between us."
Her brow was still furrowed and her jaw set. "Don't promise me anything."
"You think I'm lying to you now?"
"No," she answered quickly. "Not lying." Her eyes moved to my face. "You could mean it…now. But what about tomorrow, when you think about all the reasons you left in the first place? Or next month, when Jasper takes a snap at me?"
My brother came barreling out of my memory, and I felt again the jolt as our bodies collided. I winced. She didn't miss my reaction.
"It isn't as if you hadn't thought the first decision through, is it?," she said quietly. "You'll end up doing what you think is right."
A hard laugh bubbled up from my chest. "I'm not as strong as you give me credit for. Right and wrong have ceased to mean much to me; I was coming back anyway." My hand closed, remembering the feel of the phone in my hands as I began to make the phone call that had been so disastrously interrupted. "Before Rosalie told me the news, I was already past trying to live through one week at a time, or even one day. I was fighting to make it through a single hour. It was only a matter of time—and not much of it—before I showed up at your window and begged you to take me back. I'd be happy to beg now, if you'd like that."
She rolled her eyes. "Be serious, please."
"Oh, I am. Will you please try to hear what I'm telling you? Will you let me attempt to explain to you what you mean to me?" For a moment I paused, searching for the right explanation—the one that would finally bring her around to understanding how devastatingly incomplete my life was without her. "Before you, Bella, my life was like a moonless night. Very dark, but there were stars—points of light and reason…And then you shot across my sky like a meteor. Suddenly everything was on fire; there was brilliancy, there was beauty. When you were gone, when the meteor had fallen over the horizon, everything went black. Nothing had changed, but my eyes were blinded by the light. I couldn't see the stars anymore. And there was no more reason for anything."
"Your eyes will adjust," she mumbled stubbornly.
"That's just the problem—they can't."
Her upper lip curled ever so slightly. "What about your…'distractions?'"
The laugh was there again. "Just part of the lie, love. There was no distraction from the…the agony. My heart hasn't beat in almost ninety years, but this was different. It was like my heart was gone—like I was hollow. Like I'd left everything that was inside me here with you."
She looked at me with a puzzled expression. "That's funny."
I blinked. "Funny?"
"I meant strange." The bridge of her nose scrunched, the way it always did when she was thinking about something serious. "I thought it was just me. Lots of pieces of me went missing, too. I haven't been able to breathe in so long. And my heart—that was definitely lost."
Her heart wasn't lost. It was right here before me, thrumming its steady beat in the darkness. I dropped my head to her chest once more, and almost at once I felt her cheek meet the crown of my head. She inhaled deeply, her breast rising and falling beneath my ear.
"Tracking wasn't a distraction, then?" she asked after a moment.
I sighed. "No. That was never a distraction, it was an obligation." One I still intended to uphold.
"What does that mean?"
"It means that, even though I never expected any danger from Victoria, I wasn't going to let her get away with…" existing. I let myself trail off for a moment. In exactly how many ways had my family been right in all of this? They had questioned me when I thought Victoria needed to be caught; they had encouraged me to stay in, then return to, Forks. If I had…none of this would have happened.
I shook my head, trying to regain my train of thought. "Well, like I said, I was horrible at it. I traced her as far as Texas, but then I followed a false lead down to Brazil—and really, she came here. I wasn't even on the right continent! And all the while, worse than my worst fears—"
Bella's shrill voice cut me off. "You were hunting Victoria?!"
"Not well. But I'll do better this time. She won't be tainting perfectly good air by breathing in and out for much longer."
Speaking of breathing in and out, Bella suddenly seemed to be having difficulty with it. It took her a moment to answer me. "That…is…out of the question," she finally spluttered.
My head flew from side to side. "It's too late for her. I might have let the other time slide, but not now, not after—" Alice's remembered horror as she listened to Bella's explanation of the wolves and their current mission now flooded my mind, twisting my stomach. I took a deep breath and held my tongue.
"Didn't you just promise that you weren't going to leave? That isn't exactly compatible with an extended tracking expedition, is it?"
A growl rumbled low in my throat. "I will keep my promise, Bella. But Victoria is going to die. Soon."
Bella straightened up, projecting confidence, but her eyes widened. "Let's not be hasty," she said, her voice quick. "Maybe she's not coming back. Jake's pack probably scared her off. There's really no reason to go looking for her. Besides, I've got bigger problems than Victoria."
Alice's mind again, and the possessive, protective boy who had tried to stand in Bella's way. The awful voice I had heard on the phone when I'd tried to ascertain the validity of my other sister's announcement. There were five in the pack, now, according to Alice. I nodded.
"It's true. The werewolves are a problem."
She rolled her eyes. "I wasn't talking about Jacob. My problems are a lot worse than handful of adolescent wolves getting themselves into trouble."
It was both comforting and disconcerting to realize that Bella's penchant for completely underestimating the dangers of her situation had gone unchanged these last six months. "Really? Then what would be your greatest problem? That would make Victoria's returning for you seem like such an inconsequential matter in comparison?"
I didn't get a response right away. Instead she carefully studied my face. "How about the second greatest?" she finally said.
She had a bigger problem than Victoria, and the wolves, and still one on top of that? "All right…"
"There are others who are coming to look for me."
I sighed. This was, after all, my Bella. It only made sense that she would rank someone who was actively trying to make sure her life ended behind the threat of the men in Italy who probably wouldn't recall her promise for at least a decade. "The Volturi are only the second greatest?"
"You don't seem that upset about it."
That was because they weren't really that big a threat. "Well, we have plenty of time to think it through," I told her. "Time means something very different to them than it does to you, or even me. They count years the way you count days. I wouldn't be surprised if you were thirty before you crossed their minds again."
At this, she backed up on the bed, her knees contracting to her chest. Her eyes widened further, and the tears welled up again in their corners.
"You don't have to be afraid. I won't let them hurt you." I would burn Volterra to the ground first.
"While you're here."
Of course she didn't believe me. You deserve this, Edward. My hands found her face, and for a split second I reveled in the warmth of her cheeks against my palms as I held it. Never again would I give up this feeling. I opened my eyes and stared into hers.
"I will never leave you again." Please, please believe me.
"But you said thirty." Now the tears were spilling over her cheeks. "What? You're going to stay, but let me get all old anyway? Right."
I felt my face tense once more. "That's exactly what I'm going to do," I answered. "What other choice do I have? I can't be without you, but I will not destroy your soul."
"Is this really…?" She cut herself off.
"But what about when I get so old that people think I'm your mother? Your grandmother?" The tears flowed again, trickling down her jawbone and leaving splotches on the comforter. I leaned forward and brushed my lips to them—like every other part of her, they were exquisite. How was it possible for her to think I would ever find her anything less than unbearably desirable, no matter how far we might be spread in physical age?
"That doesn't mean anything to me," I whispered, my breath hitting her cheek and ever so slightly moving the miniscule hairs there. "You will always be the most beautiful thing in my world. Of course"—that did not, however, mean that I would always be the most beautiful thing in hers—"if you outgrew me…if you wanted something more…I would understand that, Bella. I promise I wouldn't stand in your way if you wanted to leave me."
Her expression was skeptical. "You do realize that I'll die eventually, right?"
Of course I did. "I'll follow after as soon as I can." This time, knowing that I would make good on my promise, surely Aro would be faster to grant my wish.
If she had looked distressed before, it was nothing to her face now. "That is seriously…sick."
"Bella it's the only right way left—"
"Let's back up for a minute. You do remember the Volturi, right? I can't stay human forever. They'll kill me. Even if they don't think of me till I'm thirty, do you really think they'll forget?"
"No. They won't forget. But…" But I had seen how they would find her, and based on Jane's little experiment—I had every reason to believe that their tactics wouldn't work.
"I have a few plans." Despite myself, I grinned.
"And these plans...these plans all center around me staying human." Her face dropped back into a frown.
Of course. That was the entire point. "Naturally."
She glowered at me a moment. Then she sat up—and shoved my arms away.
My face fell. Now she would ask me to leave. I had known it was coming, because of course she could never absolve me of the terrible sin I had committed in leaving her. I made myself perfectly still, bracing for the words I knew were coming: Get out, Edward. I don't want to see you again. But she didn't speak, and I found it was I who was forced to continue our conversation.
"Do you want me to leave?" My voice broke.
"No," she answered, kicking her legs to push the bedclothes further off herself, and swinging her legs over the edge of the bed. "I'm leaving."
She proceeded to fumble around her room in the darkness, groping at the end of her bed, holding onto her desk chair. I watched her for a moment. "May I ask where you're going?"
Her answer was gruff. "I'm going to your house."
My house? I reached to the end of the bed and picked up her discarded tennis shoes. "Here are your shoes." She took them without thanking me and began to shove them onto her feet. "How did you plan to get there, exactly?"
I had to stifle a laugh. Her truck's rumbling was liable to alert the local outpost of the National Guard, much less the town police chief who was snoring in the next bedroom.
"That…will probably wake Charlie," I offered.
"I know." She finished tying her laces and sighed. "But honestly, I'll be grounded for weeks as it is. How much more trouble can I really get in?"
Charlie's face appeared in my mind. "Get out, you good-for-nothing son of a—" He'd stopped himself short of saying the word in front of someone he considered a teenager, however incorrectly.
"None," I answered, wincing. "He'll blame me, not you."
Standing, she squared her shoulders. "If you have a better idea, I'm all ears."
She rolled her eyes. "No dice. But you go ahead and make yourself at home." She gave me a bright smile, and then headed for the door. I cut her off, and she immediately turned, heading for the window. She wasn't actually so confused now as to think she could jump, was she?
"Okay," I sighed. "I'll give you a ride."
She shrugged. "Either way. But you probably should be there, too."
My eyebrows raised. "And why is that?"
"Because you're extraordinarily opinionated, and I'm sure you'll want a chance to air your views."
Views? "My views on which subject?"
"This isn't just about you anymore," she answered, shooting me an exasperated look. "You're not the center of the universe, you know. If you're going to bring the Volturi down on us over something as stupid as leaving me human, then your family ought to have a say."
I frowned. "A…say…in…what?"
"My mortality," she said, sounding strangely cheerful, giving me a smug smile before turning back toward the window. "I'm putting it to a vote."
The words repeated in my head, as I watched her foolishly lift her foot to the windowsill. "Your family ought to have a say in my mortality. This isn't just about you anymore."
She was putting it to a vote.
Now, if you so desire, on to Chapter 18. Enjoy!
Many thanks to VivaViva for catching all my lovely typos in this.