A/N: Sorry for the extremely long wait on this one, but I am indeed still alive and working away on this. This chapter is a bit of a roller coaster, but I promise, we're still heading towards the happily-ever-after in just a few chapters here. ;)

Many many thanks to my amazing beta and baby sister, Jezunya, who continues to stick with me through all this madness, cheering me on and fixing my typos. Couldn't do this without you.

Chapter 22 – An Unbeating Heart

The crescent moon climbed higher in the sky as Edward and I wound our way through the woods, our fingers intertwined, hands swinging easily between us as we walked. All the urgency I had felt over the last few days had evaporated, leaving only this fragile joy. I still felt unsettled somehow, off balance, but as we meandered north, I tried to convince myself that every step forward moved me further away from the tumultuous events of the last few days, and the devastation of the last six months.

"I'm still trying to piece it all together," Edward said over the nighttime sounds of the forest, after we had been walking for several minutes. "You've had a busy fortnight, I suppose," he added, smiling at me slightly. My human eyes hadn't been able to fully appreciate the beauty of Edward in the moonlight, and for a moment I stared at him, unblinking.

"It feels like it's been a lot longer than that," I replied finally, looking away.

"How much do you remember?" he asked when I didn't go on.

"From before? Everything. It's blurry, but it's all there," I said quietly.

We walked on, and I glanced over to find him smiling sadly.

"I'm not sure if I should be glad that you still remember our first months together," he said, "or sorry that not even the change could free you of the memory of what I did to you."

I flinched, the scar on my chest stabbing sharply as memories of that day six months ago flooded my mind, and I knew that Edward felt the movement through our joined hands.

"Though my memory of it will always be infinitely clearer, I'm afraid," he murmured, rubbing his thumb along the back of my hand, his stone skin ever so slightly warm against mine.

"Not that it excuses my behavior," he continued a moment later, "but I was on the brink of returning to you, two weeks ago. Each hour was a struggle, trying to convince myself to stay away, that you would be better off without me. And then when I saw you in the river—" He cut off abruptly, the muscles of his jaw standing out tense beneath his skin.

The world spun around me, and suddenly Edward had me pressed up against the base of a tree, faster than human eyes would have been able to follow. "I thought you were dead," he whispered, his cheek smooth and warm against mine and his breath at my ear, "and it nearly destroyed me."

I wrapped my arms around his neck, glad that he couldn't see my face in that moment. "I thought you didn't love me," I replied, just as softly, "and it nearly—" my throat closed around the word, it was such a lie, "—destroyed me."

Edward made a strange strangled noise, both a sob and a laugh, and leaned back to look at me. "Let's not do that to each other again, agreed?" he said, his hands on my face.

I nodded, putting my hands over his as he leaned in to cover my lips with his, and returned his kiss with as much gusto as I could summon, the scar across my chest still prickling.

We continued on our journey a few minutes later, our hands once again clasped between us. Blurry memories of the night Edward had left me in the woods, only a few short miles from here, surged through my brain, but as I packed them away behind my wall of white noise, I started to think about what he had just said.

"So if you thought I was dead," I said slowly, allowing my mind to be enthralled by this new puzzle, drawing me away from my dark memories, "what did you think I was, the last two days?"

He sighed out a puff of air, shaking his head slightly. "A ghost? A demon? My own hallucination? I honestly didn't know. After feeding this morning, I was fairly certain that I was seeing your ghost, but that only served to make what I had to do all the clearer."

My stomach clenched at the mention of his decision to commit suicide, the pain entirely separate from the scar on my chest. "Would you have gone through with it?" I asked quietly when he didn't go on.

Edward looked over at me, his black irises glinting in the moonlight. "Undoubtedly. I nearly did earlier this week, as it was. But I couldn't, until I knew for sure you were dead. And yet, I also couldn't bring myself to return to Forks to confirm my fears. When Alice called me—" He broke off abruptly, blinking at me. "That was actually you on the phone, wasn't it?" he asked.

I smiled at the bewilderment in his voice. "It was. I grabbed the phone from Alice at the last minute. The idea that you were right there…" I trailed off, shrugging. The memory of how I had felt in that instant was at such odds with the current moment, that I pushed it back behind the wall of white noise before it could take root.

"I wouldn't have believed it if you had told me it was you," he said, staring into the distance. "I was so sure you were dead. Not even seeing you could convince me otherwise. I'm still not one hundred percent certain that you're really here." He stopped walking and turned to face me, running the fingertips of his free hand lightly over my cheekbone, the ghost of a smile tugging at his lips. "But if you want me here, how can I even consider anything else?"

"I want you here," I whispered, looking up at him, barely breathing.

He smiled down at me in earnest, then leaned in and kissed me again. I pulled him towards me, putting my new vampire strength to good use, and returned the kiss fiercely. Tangling my fingers in his hair, I poured everything I could into that kiss, all the loneliness, all the hurt and worry, all the joy I was afraid to let myself feel now. Edward clung to me as well, matching my ferocity.

"A few hundred more kisses like that," he sighed happily when we finally broke apart, resting his forehead on mine, "and I'll either be convinced that you're real, or too far gone to care if I'm insane."

"A mountain lion or two might help with that, too," I replied, feeling myself smiling without conscious thought.

"Right, I knew there was a reason we were in the woods in the middle of the night," he said dryly, kissing my forehead and straightening up, again taking my hand and leading me north.

We walked on, and as the fog of our recent kissing lifted, my brain once again began tangling with the mundane details of what Edward had said. "So you could see me, and you recognized that it was me," I started, speaking slowly even as my mind buzzed, "but you still thought I was dead?"

Edward looked down at me, cocking an eyebrow in amusement. "It's so easy to forget how much of a newborn you are," he replied, "and all the hyper-fixation that comes with that." He looked away, out at the dark forest. "Let's just say I haven't been in the best mental health and leave it at that, shall we?" he said softly.

The ghost of my own hallucination sidled up to me, that blurry, imperfectly formed Edward borne of a broken heart, but I brushed it away, back behind my memory shield. "And you didn't notice that I changed clothes?" I pushed on. "That my nails are painted?"

He turned back to me as we walked, giving me a skeptical look and raising our joined hands to examine my fingernails, as though he was just now noticing the dark red polish. "I may be crazy, Bella," he said, letting our hands drop, "but I'm still a man."

I grinned up at him as he leaned away, looking me over. "When did you get new clothes, anyway?" he asked. "Or find time to paint your nails?"

"Rosalie painted them for me late last night, after we got back from the airport. And Alice went clothes shopping for me last week," I added, making a face.

"Rose painted your fingernails?" Edward asked in disbelief, then shook his head. "That's one point in favor of you not being a hallucination: I never would have dreamed that one up. Anything else I should know about?"

I shrugged, not sure how to express everything I had been through in the last few days, the strength I had found and the relationships I had reformed, without dragging down the tone of our conversation. "Alice is helping me study to take the GED," I said, picking the most mundane topic. "She seems to think we're all headed to college in the fall. I've finished History and Spanish, just Calculus to go still."

"You really have had a busy two weeks. And hunting every day on top of that, I assume?"

"Not every day," I replied, shaking my head. "My shield blocks out the thirst a bit, so it hasn't been bad."

"How many times have you gone hunting?" he asked, helping me over a fallen log, though I probably could have thrown it further than he could, now.

"Four times," I answered, once my feet were back on solid ground. "A moose on my own when I was trying to get to Denali, a couple of bears with Emmett, and a mountain lion with Jasper this morning."

"A mountain lion?" Edward repeated, and peripherally I registered that he looked slightly hurt. But my mind had already jumped ahead, consumed by a suddenly very pressing topic.

In the nine days since I had woken up in the river, I had hunted and killed four animals. And each time, I had walked away covered in blood and dirt. I had gotten better at it with each successive hunt, but as my perfect memory flashed back on Edward's pristine white shirt as he stood over the corpse of the stag in the garage, I was abruptly and overwhelmingly mortified.

It was one thing to make a bloody mess in front of Jasper or Emmett or Rosalie, but a completely different thing in front of Edward. I felt the absence of a blush, my stone skin as cold and unblemished as ever, even as my stomach dropped and my scalp seemed to shrink. I had been so enthralled by the idea of hunting with Edward that I hadn't stopped to think that Edward would be hunting with me.

"Is that something I might get to see?"

"Absolutely not!"

"Bella?" Edward's voice broke through my building self-consciousness, sounding worried. "Are you alright?" he asked, and I looked up to find that we had stopped walking.

"I don't think I feel like hunting," I said in a small voice.

"Oh," Edward said. His expression fell, then turned impassive in less than a human heartbeat. "Of course, if you hunted this morning. Shall we go back to the house?" he asked, too formal.

"No, you should hunt," I replied quickly. "I'll just… watch," I added, feeling awkward.

He softened slightly. "You don't need to do that, Bella. But," he hesitated, then pressed on in a rush, "I thought you were excited to hunt with me."

I dropped my eyes, my mental chagrin as powerful as any physical blush. "I was – I am," I said quietly, still looking away. "It's just… I make a bit of a mess. And you're always so clean."

Edward's laugh startled me, its perfect echoes bouncing off the surrounding trees. "You're embarrassed?" he asked, placing a finger under my chin and tilting it up until my gaze met his. "You really must tell me what you're thinking, Bella, or I'll go mad from assumptions. Emmett and Jasper didn't show you how to keep from getting blood everywhere?"

"There's a trick to it?" I asked, suddenly indignant. It wasn't such a stretch to imagine Emmett withholding such information for his own amusement, but Jasper? He was going to have to explain himself once I got back to the house.

"A very simple one," Edward replied, wearing my favorite lopsided grin. "Although, I suppose I should be glad neither Jasper nor Emmett took it upon themselves to teach you," he added softly, a strange expression crossing his face.

"And why is that?" I snipped back, still annoyed at my absent brothers.

Edward chuckled huskily, his dark eyes glittering in the moonlight. He sauntered closer to me, suddenly towering over me, the subtle heat of his body radiating across the few scant inches of cool nighttime air that separated us. I tilted my head back to look up at him, my irritation of a moment ago completely forgotten, and my unnecessary breathing becoming shallow and quick as the mood shifted palpably.

"There is a trick to it," he said, leaning in to place a kiss just below my left ear, and even my boundless vampire mind took a moment to remember what we had been talking about, my head full of his honey-lilac-sunshine scent. "But it's the sort of technique that is better demonstrated than explained," he continued, dropping open-mouthed kisses down the length of my neck. I leaned into his touch, stretching my neck to give him better access, and trusting my brain to follow whatever it was he was saying.

"Believe me," Edward continued, his hands settling at the base of my spine, just a bit too low for polite company, even as he continued to kiss his way towards my shoulder, "if not for my telepathy as a newborn, and Carlisle's medical expertise, he would have had a very uncomfortable time trying to explain the mechanics to me."

He reached my collar bone and nipped at it softly, his teeth just barely grazing my skin, before changing directions and angling towards my right shoulder. I made a breathy purring noise deep in my throat to indicate I was still listening, if only barely.

"When the time came to teach Esme to hunt," Edward went on, continuing his path of kisses up the right side of my neck, "I was more than happy to let Carlisle handle it."

"Why's that?" I managed to slur out, just before Edward took my right earlobe in his mouth, sucking on it with the most delicate pressure, and my ability to form words fled from my brain.

"You see," he said, again switching tracks and starting down the edge of my jaw, "it's all about suction." He kissed the corner of my mouth, laughing softly as I balled my hands in the front of his shirt, trying to fight the urge to tackle him. "And timing," he added, still chuckling, as he languidly kissed the opposite corner, "and patience."

Patience was the last thing on my mind, but I forced myself to relax, and tried to focus on what he was saying rather than on the feel of his lips against my skin, the pressure of his hands at the small of my back, the smell of his hair, the heat of his body—

"You've hunted before," Edward was saying, his breath at my left ear again, "so I think we can assume you have timing and patience well in hand."

I hummed in agreement, willing him to move faster, but he held to his leisurely pace, nuzzling the curve of my ear before returning his lips to my neck again.

"When you have your prey cornered," he said, pausing to kiss the point on my neck where my pulse had once thrummed, just beneath the surface, "and you go in for the kill, your goal should be to puncture, not bite. The lightest pressure is all it takes." He opened his mouth wide, and I could feel his razor-sharp teeth ghosting mere millimeters above my stone skin, directly over my dead pulse point, sending whisper-shivers down my spine.

"And then," he continued, his voice smooth, unhurried, though his hands pressed me closer, "once you've punctured the artery, you simply have to form a seal."

In a flash, Edward's mouth made contact with the base of my neck again, assaulting the silent vein with a force that made my knees go weak and the breath catch in my throat. I suddenly understood what he meant by seal– and suction. Visions rose to my mind of bruised skin, broken blood vessels, the sort of mark I wouldn't have been able to hide from Charlie with my inept makeup skills. I felt Edward's shirt tear beneath my fingers, as insubstantial as cobwebs, as I clawed at the fabric, trying desperately to get closer to him.

I had no foggy human memories to compare this to. It had never been like this, Edward's lips at my neck, the force and pressure marking me as his. It would never have been like this, in that blurry half-life – his teeth would never have been this close to my fragile human skin, to my blood rushing below. It was a danger he never would have allowed, no matter what we had to give up in exchange.

But I wasn't a fragile, appetizing human anymore.

My hands found his shoulders of their own accord, leaving a path of ruined fabric in their wake, as Edward continued at my neck, unabated. I wrapped myself around him, dragging my fingers through his hair, wishing for this to never end, and yet feeling the tension building to a fever pitch. My breath was ragged in my chest, syncopated and uneven, making up for my absent heartbeat.

Just when I thought I couldn't possibly stand any more and remain in one piece, Edward surfaced, took my face in his hands, and kissed me fervently. There was nothing shy or hesitant about this kiss, our tongues warring for dominance, our bodies pressed together from shoulder to hip.

Edward broke off the kiss before I was ready for it to end, leaning back just slightly to look me in the eye, his hands still on my face.

"Now show me," he said simply, his dark eyes burning.

But I hardly needed the encouragement. I tackled Edward before the echoes of his words had faded from the nighttime air, knocking him to the ground and letting myself be pulled down with him. Hovering over him, my body flush with his, I found the spot at the base of his neck where his blood had once flown, so long ago now, and paused to breathe in his scent.

With Edward's honey-lilac-sunshine smell filling my head and my chest, I did as he had done, dragging my teeth a hair's breadth above his skin, pantomiming piercing the skin as he had described. Instinct – sexual or predatory, I couldn't say – kicked in then, and I launched myself at the long-dead vein, pressing my open mouth to it and forming a seal against his skin with my lips.

I both felt and heard Edward's sharp intake of breath below me, his hands coming up to grip my hips. His head fell back, giving me better access to his neck, which I greedily took, adjusting my angle and drawing in more of his skin under my lips. Edward groaned, his hands spasming against me, which only spurred me on.

I pressed myself closer, my vast vampire brain somehow following two lines of thought simultaneously, both imagining the hunt to come – the animal powerless beneath me, its blood hot in my mouth – and imaging the things I would do to Edward, now that we were finally on equal footing, now that my humanity could no longer come between us.

Without removing my mouth from Edward's neck or lessening the pressure there, I let my hands roam down his body, relearning the planes of his chest through his tattered shirt. A flick of my fingers removed the buttons from their threads, and I pushed aside the remains of the fabric, skimming my fingertips over his skin, like velvet stretched over granite. Edward shuddered, clutching me tighter. I trailed one hand down his side, grazing his hip bone, the waistband of his pants…

Edward growled deep in his throat, and quick as lightning flipped us over, breaking my seal on his neck. For just an instant he pressed against me, trapping me between his stone body and the soft forest floor, and words fled my brain at the feel of him. I growled in reply, reaching for him, but he was already gone, crouched over me instead, leaving far too much cool air between our bodies.

He leaned down and kissed me once, fiercely, before I could object to his distance, and then rasped two words in my ear, his voice primal and wild:

"Let's hunt."

He rose, turned, and bolted into the woods, nearly a blur even to my eyes. Bounding to my feet, I followed him, venom beginning to coat my mouth and a smile playing about my lips. Edward had always been fast, but I was faster now. I caught up to him easily, keeping pace as we dashed between the trees.

He glanced at me sidelong as we ran, his black irises glinting dangerously and a smirk curving the corners of his mouth. I grinned back, and felt it widen as Edward pushed himself still faster, pulling ahead of me and disappearing into the foliage again. Speeding up as well, I closed in on him in a matter of seconds – and kept going. I looped in front of him, crossing from his right to his left and back again, weaving between trees with exaggerated, mock laziness, even as I continued to grin at him.

The next time I crossed in front of him, Edward surprised me with a sprint, closing the distance between us, catching me around the waist and hauling us to a stop. He kissed me then, all feral passion and need, his hands fisting in the back of my shirt. Just as hunting was taking a distant second in my list of desires, I caught the scent of something delicious on a breeze from the east. Edward caught it too, breaking the kiss and looking eastwards, his nostrils flaring.

"Do you smell it?" he asked, his voice rough. "Mountain lion!"

I did smell it, and I wanted it. Almost as much as I wanted Edward. But as the mountain lion would have to be taken by force, I decided to give the animal priority now and take my time with the man later. I smirked up at him through my eyelashes, feeling the predator inside of me and not shying away from it.

Edward leaned down and kissed me once more, fervent but brief. "This one is yours," he growled when he broke away. "Go. I'll be right behind you."

I grinned at him for a fraction of a second, then dashed away, towards the east, his lesson still fresh in my mind. Behind me, I could hear Edward following, but I kept my attention on the mountain lion, chasing the breeze east until I picked up the animal's scent on the forest floor. Turning more northward, I followed its trail as it stretched out ahead of me through the woods. I dropped into a predatory crouch, running close to the ground as my hands curled into claws of their own accord.

The mountain lion's aroma was a bright ribbon through the trees, growing warmer as I went, pulling me forward and stoking the burn at the back of my throat. It mixed with Edward's scent wafting from my clothing to form something primal, primitive – my prey and my mate – spurring me onwards.

When the lion's trail leapt from the forest floor to the intertwined limbs overhead, I followed, jumping lightly from branch to branch as the animal's scent grew stronger, fresher. A moment later, the slow, wet beating of her heart let me know I was close. I paused, perched on a tree branch, and listened to the sound, admiring the hum of life, its beat so resolute and strong.

And all for me.

Creeping forward on silent feet, I matched my breathing to the she-lion's, drinking in the combined Edward-lion scent with each breath until my head spun, venom slick in my mouth. The trees pulled me higher, into branches too small for the mountain lion, and I followed her trail from above until I caught sight of the beast, golden and lanky, stretched out on a thick tree branch.

I was on her before she knew I was there, knocking her from her perch and pinning her as we hit the ground. In a flash I found her jugular, piercing the vein with the lightest of pressure, and then pressed my lips to the animal's furry neck. The she-lion's blood rushed into my mouth, quenching the burn in my throat, and I struggled to maintain the seal, to not lose myself entirely in the beat of the lion's heart, the sweet flavor of her blood. I angled myself closer, the memory of Edward's voice the last clear thought in my mind: "You see, it's all about suction…"

Her blood consumed me from the inside out, searing its way down my throat, igniting a warm glow in my stomach that spread to my limbs, until I was numb and heavy, and yet vitally alive. This was all there was, all there could ever be, the hot blood and Edward's scent clinging to me.

It was over far too soon, the mountain lion's heart stuttering to a stop, her blood slowing to a trickle. I broke away and leaned back, the sense of my own body slowly returning as I blinked around at the dark trees surrounding me, and for a moment I was wild and thoughtless. As I came back to myself, the memory of my conversation with Edward resurfaced, and I reached up and wiped my mouth on the back of my hand. It came away without a spot of blood.

I stood and whirled around in one fluid motion, my pride in my accomplishment nearly bursting out of me. But where I had expected to find Edward, perhaps perched in a tree above me, there was only empty forest. Confused, I turned again, trying to get my bearings in the small clearing the lion and I had tumbled into. I knew the direction of true north at a deep, instinctual level, but in the sudden and absolute quiet I found myself questioning that knowledge.

"Edward?" I whispered as I spun slowly in the center of the clearing, knowing he would hear me.

The wind rustled the leaves overhead, but otherwise the woods were silent. My scalp prickled uncomfortably.

I had come from the southwest, and turning in that direction revealed the branch I had knocked the mountain lion from. A quick jump and I was back on the tree limb, deep gashes carved out of the bark by the lion's claws. But even from my new vantage point the forest was eerily quiet.

"Edward?" I called again, slightly louder, and the scar of the old wound in my chest tightened. I brushed the thought away before it could fully form, banishing it back behind my wall of white noise. Edward had said he would be right behind me, and while I was disappointed that he hadn't been there to see me take down the mountain lion, I resolutely pushed back against the wave of panic that threatened to overwhelm me.

I climbed higher, into the branches I had stalked the she-lion from, and as the breeze calmed momentarily, I drew a deep breath in and examined the aromas around me. Edward's smell still clung to my clothes, but it was fading, nearly as cold as the mountain lion's scent below me. I could pick out the trails of other animals nearby, layered over the moist smell of the forest, a fallen tree beginning to rot, clean water over the next hill… But Edward's scent was nowhere to be found.

My fingers tingled numbly and I slumped against the trunk of the tree, even as my breathing sped and my vision narrowed. He was gone. Edward was gone. Edward was gone and I was alone in the woods—

No. I pushed against my collapsing shield and tried to think clearly, though the tightness in my chest was making it difficult to breathe. Edward promised me he wasn't going anywhere, and he had just been right behind me. If I simply backtracked over my own path I would find him, or find where his trail split off from mine. He had probably caught a second scent, I argued with myself. He needed to hunt, so I could hardly begrudge him that.

He's gone, a dark corner of my mind whispered again, if he was ever even here to begin with.

My chest seized painfully, and I gripped a nearby branch until it cracked and crumbled to dust in my hand. He had been here, hadn't he? In a fraction of a second, my mind raced through everything that had happened in the last twenty-four hours, then Rio before that, the preparations with the Cullens, finding them in Denali, the moose, the wolves, the river…

And before that, my hallucination of Edward. The dark months without him, and that last night in the woods.

I squeezed my eyes closed and blotted out the memories. He had just been here, not ten minutes ago. I could still smell him on my clothes. He was here, he was real, and he loved me. It was ridiculous to think—

"You… don't… want me?"


I tumbled out of the tree, somehow managing to land on my feet. Southwest. All I had to do was go southwest until I found our trail again. And then track Edward down, wherever he had gone. I forced my feet to move, placing one in front of the other slowly at first, and then faster. A light rain began to fall, the rhythm of raindrops hitting leaves overhead a metronome to my racing thoughts: He's not gone, he's not gone, he's not gone

Suddenly there were arms around me, hauling me to a stop and spinning me around before pulling me into a rough embrace, and for a moment all I could process was Edward's bright scent, fresh in my lungs. And then I felt his breath on my cheek, felt his chest solid under my hands, and knew he was real. I threw my arms around his neck, holding him to me as tightly as he held me, and not sure I would ever be able to let go.

"You're here," I managed to squeak out, my painful memories still wringing the air from my chest.

"I'm sorry," he whispered, almost frantically, kissing my neck and clutching me tighter. "I had to—" kiss "—get away," kiss. "I'm sorry," kiss.

I squirmed slightly in his arms, trying to lean back to see his face, but Edward held fast. "Get away?" I asked, attempting to make sense of his words. "From what?"

"It was all too much," he answered, turning his frenzied attention to my earlobe. "Seeing you take down that mountain lion. I didn't think I could control myself, so I ran."

I let out a huff of air, not quite a laugh. "I would have been happy to share."

"It wasn't the mountain lion I wanted," he growled.

"What?" It was hard to think with Edward kissing my neck again, and the memory of that last day in the woods six months ago still lingering just behind my shield.

"You were so… sexy. I didn't want to do something we would regret."

My mind spun, struggling to understand what he was saying. "Stop," I breathed, leaning away from his kisses again.

"I can control myself, Bella, I promise," he said, kissing my dead pulse point.

"Stop it," I said again, more forcefully, this time bringing my hands up to put some distance between us.

Edward finally stopped kissing my neck and leaned back to look at me, confusion clear on his face. "What's wrong?"

"What's wrong?" I repeated, indignation growing in my voice, as I stepped backwards out of his embrace. "You left me alone in the woods and you want to know what's wrong?"

His arms hung empty in the air for a moment before dropping listlessly to his sides. "I didn't really leave you," he said, trying to hide his confusion under an appeasing tone, "I didn't go very far."

I bristled. Logically I knew he was referring only to this moment, but my mind refused to ignore the double meaning. "And that's supposed to make it okay?" I asked, not bothering to try to keep the anger out of my voice.

Edward's jaw tensed. "It seemed like the gentlemanly thing to do," he said tightly.

"What does that even mean?"

He looked away for a moment, and when he turned back to me his eyes were dark pools in the moonlight, stark against his pale skin. "I was raised a certain way, Bella. Raised to believe there is a right way and a wrong way to behave. A gentleman," he put special emphasis on the word, "would never take advantage of a lady like that."

I blinked at him in utter disbelief. "'Take advantage of'…? This is about sex?"

His lips pressed into a thin line, but he didn't reply. I took his silence as an affirmative.

"How is it 'taking advantage' if it's what we both want?" I asked, annoyed.

Edward closed his eyes wearily. "Bella…" he started, but I was having none of it.

"So if two people – who love each other and have a chance to spend eternity together – get caught up in the moment and have sex, that's about the worst possible thing you can imagine?"

"I'm trying to protect your virtue, you silly girl," he sighed, shaking his head.

"I didn't ask you to!" I shot back. "Did you ever stop to think about what I want? About what's important to me? A good start might be to ask!"

"It's my responsibility—"

"It is not your responsibility!" I yelled, the words tumbling out of me. "In case you hadn't noticed, I'm a vampire now. We're equals, we should be making these decisions together. How am I supposed to trust you if you keep making unilateral decisions that end with me alone in the woods?"

Comprehension finally dawned on Edward's face. "I'm sorry. I didn't even think—I'm sorry, Bella."

"You say that like it's supposed to make things magically better! Do you even know what you did to me?" I cried, tearing at every edge of my shield I could imagine, throwing my whole mind open, laying it all bare. "Do you have any idea what you put me through?"

Edward stumbled back a step as though I had shoved him – I wasn't completely sure I hadn't – and stared at me with wide, ink-black eyes, but didn't reply. I stared back, the rain misting from above beginning to darken my shirt.

"No, you don't," I said softly, answering my own question.

"Bella," he started again, reaching for me.

"Don't," I said, shying away from him as my shield snapped back into place, my eyes burning dully. "I can't, I just can't."

I turned away from the expression on his face and ran, pushing myself faster than he would be able to follow, and trusted my feet to lead me back home.