Disclaimer: All publicly recognizable characters, settings, etc. are the property of their respective owners. The original characters and plot are the property of the author. The author is in no way associated with the owners, creators, or producers of any media franchise. No copyright infringement is intended. Jasper's observation at the end is a paraphrase of the quote by Voltaire, "Men use thought only as authority for their injustice, and employ speech only to conceal their thoughts."


A Thin Line


On my first night back after almost a year's absence, one would think they'd have to pry me from Alice's cold, dead . . . oh, right. Never mind.

Now, to be perfectly honest, I was hardly in the right mindset for lovemaking. I'd just been spanked like a little kid, after all, and even without my . . . ah, encouragement . . . Carlisle wasn't exactly handing out love pats. Even were it not for the fact that the slightest pressure on my backside made me wince, I just didn't think the mood was there.

That said, though, when Alice told me she was going hunting, I assumed I'd misheard.

"Ah, pardon?" She lay facing me on the bedspread that I had clumsily yanked back into place just before she came upstairs, roughly half an hour ago. I felt as if, after being apart for so many months, I could spend twice that long just staring into her beautiful eyes. I was thankful, once again, that I had held off on returning until my own were the same color. I could not have met her gaze — or Carlisle's, for that matter — had mine still been red. Even though I knew now that they would have welcomed me regardless.

"Hunting. With Esme. I haven't gone in over a week," she explained, threading those thin, graceful fingers gently through my messy hair one last time before abruptly hopping up off the bed and heading for our closet.

I sat up slowly and watched as she opened the closet door and stepped inside. Nervously, I pressed my palms against my trousers, a human habit I hadn't ever managed to shake despite almost a century of being unable to perspire. "It couldn't . . . wait?" I asked, still a little dazed.

"I've been waiting." Alice rummaged through the racks of clothing, looking for the perfect outfit to hunt in, just in case the same guy that discovered Lana Turner sipping a soda in the Top Hat Café happened to be in the woods that night with an eye for new talent. I couldn't understand the sudden urgency. True, her eyes were slightly darker than usual, but . . .

"Well, I'll go with you," I offered. "Why would you go with Esme instead of me?"

"I hardly think you're fit to go anywhere right now," my mate said, frowning at the dress she'd taken from the closet. "I've worn this three times already," she muttered, tossing it back inside.

"Hon, if you can't even bear to wear it hunting, why not just throw it out?" I reasoned as I tapped my fingers nervously against the night table.

Alice peered over her shoulder and gave me an exasperated look. "It's pretty. That would be a waste," she explained.

"All right, then." Far be it from me to start an argument over a dress. "But . . . why, exactly, am I unfit to go anywhere?" I swallowed as Alice stepped out from the closet, having shed the dress she'd been wearing in order that she might start tugging on a fresh one. The sight, however brief, of her lacy underthings was causing quite the stir in my trousers. I shifted uncomfortably on the bed, hissing as the sudden movement reminded me of the . . . conversation that Carlisle and I'd had not an hour ago.

Alice gave me a knowing smile as she finished buttoning up her dress and hastily straightened the shoulder seams. "That's why," she said, flitting over to the bed to give me a quick kiss on the forehead. "We won't be long, but both of us are too thirsty to wait, and you and I can go some other time." Then she added, meaningfully, "Alone." And without further discussion, my mate skipped blithely out of the room, leaving me as frustrated as if I'd been actually expecting us to make love.

It's a unique feature of the male mind that once it latches onto the subject of sex, the only chance of escaping with everything intact is the introduction of a new topic, preferably a repugnant one. The thought of taking Alice in the woods, our bodies joining under the stars with no one around for miles to overhear and no furniture to worry about, was making an already uncomfortable situation exponentially worse. Tried-and-true methods of thinking about baseball and Eisenhower's State of the Union proved fruitless, and I was contemplating a cold shower when my gaze lit on one of the rips in the bedspread. That did the trick. No better way to shoot a man's horse out from under him.

Relieved, I listened intently to Alice's conversation with Esme as the two clattered out the back door (Alice would be wearing heels, of course) and headed for the woods, but there was nothing in their lighthearted banter to answer the thousand questions I had. They didn't mention me once.

The only sound now was the tinkling of Edward's piano from the living room. I didn't recognize the tune, but it brought to mind crystal and silver and moonlight on moving water. My mood was definitely not improved by his maudlin melody as I tried desperately to find a reason for Alice's unusual reserve.

When she'd met me on the porch, I'd kind of expected her to slap me. I'd certainly deserved it; that, and much more. But she had only smiled and tenderly caressed my cheek, her eyes glowing feverishly with love and adoration. When Carlisle had gone inside, she'd whispered, for my ears only, the same words that I'd heard six years ago when we first met in that diner, which I took to be my signal that all was forgiven. She'd practically welded herself to my side until Carlisle sent me upstairs. Why this coldness all of a sudden?

Left alone, still vulnerable after the scene with Carlisle, I began to panic. I wondered how Alice could leave me so soon, and apparently with so little regret. What if she were angry, after all? What if . . . what if, after so long, she had grown away from me? These were the doubts that plagued me as I sat brooding over my mate's abrupt departure.

As I had so many times before, however, I'd underestimated the little pixie that had taken over my life so completely. Not five minutes after her and Esme's voices had faded away into the night, I heard footsteps approaching my closed door. I thought perhaps it was Carlisle, coming to check on me . . . or tell me that he'd changed his mind and wanted me to leave, after all. Such was my resulting paranoia, after what I perceived to be a snub by Alice, that I was able to conveniently forget all the implications of our recent conversation. But in the next moment, I registered the bleak emotional signature of self-loathing and vague malaise that plagued only one member of the family besides myself.

Once outside my door, Edward hesitated before knocking. I hadn't even noticed when his piano broke off mid-tribute to candlelit dinners and midnight trysts by the river, but it was pretty clear now that he'd only been waiting for Alice to leave in order to pay this visit. I could sense, though, that he was regretting coming upstairs. Had we been human, Edward probably would have turned around and slunk back down to the piano bench he'd vacated in favor of this errand, or at least skulked around the hallway a little longer, counting on average human hearing to disguise his movements. But he knew that I knew that he was out there, and so he had no choice but to knock.

"Come in," I called reluctantly. If I wasn't in the mood for lovemaking, then I really wasn't in the mood to talk to Edward right now.

The door opened slowly, and Edward stood framed in the doorway, his hand still gripping the knob as if prepared to close it again should I prove less than inviting. "Can I, uh . . . can we talk, maybe?" he murmured, not meeting my eyes.

"I guess so." I didn't like the idea, but it would be pretty rude to refuse. As Edward closed the door behind him and shuffled slowly over towards the bed, I wondered what he could possibly want. He hadn't given me a hard time yet about taking off like I had, at least not when we were all sitting in the living room — maybe now that Alice was gone, he planned on telling me off. Was he going to rag on me for getting spanked?

Edward snorted. I realized belatedly, and with some embarrassment, that he had been listening to my inner musings. It had been so long since I'd had to worry about having my mind read that I'd forgotten how to filter my thoughts around him. "I was over Carlisle's desk not two months ago. I'm hardly going to make fun of you for it," he said dismissively.

"Oh," was all I could think of to say. I looked at Edward's face appraisingly, and he stared steadily back at me as he leaned against the end of my bed, curling his arm around the bedpost. I found his logic hard to follow. Just because everyone was punished the same way didn't mean the ones who'd gotten lucky this time had no reason to lord it over the scapegoat. "How do you know I wouldn't feel smug? If it had been you, I mean?" About this I was truly curious. Edward and I certainly didn't have what one could call a trusting relationship.

"I read minds, genius," he replied easily. "Since you came here, Emmett and I both got it two or three times apiece from Carlisle. Rose, too, once, although you weren't in the house at the time. But you knew it had happened. And you didn't think it was funny at all. Actually, you were kind of . . ." Edward stopped, and looked as though he were afraid of offending me. ". . . uh, scared."

If I'd been human, I probably would have blushed. It was true. The first time Carlisle had taken Edward into his study and I heard the smacks and the crying, I'd panicked. They had argued first — not a huge screaming match or anything (Carlisle never raised his voice at all), but enough to make me nervous as a cat in a roomful of rocking chairs. Alice and I were reading on the sofa, and my first instinct was to get both of us out of the house. My wife had quite the task in convincing me that everything was going to be all right. Sometimes I found myself torn between knowing that Alice would surely be able to see an attack coming and wanting to shake her for being so utterly naïve all the time.

"Well . . . I don't like it when people fight," I hedged, not wanting to come right out and admit I'd been frightened. "It usually ends badly."

"Not here." Edward was so sure of himself, and while I would have found his innocence contemptible at any other time, I only felt envious now. What might it have been like, I wondered, to be 'raised' by Carlisle and Esme? To know without a shred of doubt that you were loved and cherished, and to always have someone there to explain the complexities of life and guide you through the tough times? I might have become a better man, someone more worthy of Alice.

"We all came from different parents to start with. You have all eternity to become a better man." Edward was speaking to the wall above my head.

It was probably a good time to change the subject. "That piece you're working on — that's new?" I asked, trying to make conversation. It was something I'd never really done with Edward, preferring to interact with him no more often than was strictly necessary, and even then only peripherally. I also wasn't much used to pleasantries. When he nodded, though, I added sincerely enough, "It's nice. Why did you stop?"

"Well, I can't very well concentrate on much," Edward told me, sounding frustrated. "Dad's in his study, beating himself up."

That was unexpected. "Why?"

"For beating you up, from what I gather," he answered. He leaned forward and lowered his voice, as if that made a difference. If Carlisle were listening, it wouldn't matter how quietly we tried to talk. "What happened? Did you try to run for it?" Edward asked. He winced, as if recalling some painful memory. "I could have told you that would end badly."

"You wouldn't have, though," I returned calmly.

Edward tried to look offended. "I . . ." He stopped, unable to contradict me. "Well, maybe you're right. But . . . it's just that we don't talk much."

There's a very good reason for that. I hate talking to you, I thought before I could stop myself. Edward flinched, and I instantly felt bad for hurting his feelings. "It's not that I hate talking to you," I explained. "I just feel like we don't have a whole lot in common, so it's very awkward." I tried for a bit of humor. "Like old women at a tea for some charity, waiting for someone else to start the conversation. Trying to find neutral topics that are safe for people they don't know and probably won't ever see again."

Edward didn't smile. "Emmett and I don't have much in common, but we don't hate talking to each other."

"You've also lived together a lot longer, though," I reminded him. "And I already said that I didn't actually mean 'hate.'"

"Yeah, well, Alice and I get along fine," Edward argued. "And you got here the same day."

I smiled. "I think we both know the rules don't apply to Alice."

This time, Edward smiled back. "She's unique," he agreed. "I'll grant you that." Then he went silent for a moment. "Still, it's been several years. And it's pretty obvious you're here for the long haul. I'd like for us to get along."

"I want that, too," I said, and I meant it. "It's just . . . I'm not good at trusting people. It's not going to happen overnight."

"No, I guess it wouldn't," Edward murmured.

"I'm trying," I added, and Edward nodded understandingly. There was another silence, but not an uncomfortable one by any means.

"So why did Carlisle go so hard on you?" Edward finally pressed. "I've heard him get all sad afterwards, like he felt guilty, but this is worse than any of that. He's ready to drown in it."

"I, uh . . . I may have . . . made him angry," I admitted. "On purpose, that is. So he'd crack down on me."

Edward was looking at me as if I had suddenly grown breasts. "What the hell did you do a thing like that for?" he wanted to know.

I shrugged noncommittally. Like you'd understand. "I felt guilty."

"Hmph. Frankly, I didn't expect you to go along with it at all, much less encourage him," Edward mused. "Seems to me like you'd be the type to panic and break the door down to get out." I felt both ashamed and angry at his opinion of me. No one wants to be seen as a coward, particularly by someone who bawled like he did under a far less harsh punishment.

"That's the point, Dumbo," he shot back, in response to my unspoken defense of my behavior. "Everyone gets nervous, even those of us who would trust Dad with our lives. Seeing as how you wouldn't trust him if he told you the sky was blue . . ."

"It did scare me, the first time," I admitted reluctantly. I had learned very early in life never to let on that I was afraid, lest someone use that knowledge to hurt me. But for the first time since Alice and I came to live here, Edward and I were having a real conversation. I didn't sense any malice from him; he was mostly curious. It was only fair to be honest. "From the moment I first came here — from the moment Alice told me about you, actually — I couldn't believe any coven could exist without a leader who punished the others for their mistakes. I watched him. I watched all of you. And I just never saw anything like it. You all bicker, but it never escalates. And I never saw him get angry.

"So when he took you upstairs that time," I continued, "and I heard it happening, I just panicked. I felt like I'd been fooled all along. Like all my worst fears were coming true at once. I didn't know it was going to stop when it did. I've never seen them stop, not once they get going."

"'They' who?" Edward asked, bewildered. "They're our parents. You talk about them like some cruel monsters."

I saw that I'd been misunderstood. "I didn't mean Carlisle and Esme," I said hastily.

"Who'd you mean, then? Maria?" he challenged, ignoring my low growl warning him to tread carefully. "You're going to lump Carlisle and Esme together with her and all the coven leaders you've ever seen or heard of, like they were just the latest banana republic generalissimos and could be replaced next week by some other tyrants?" Edward's hands had balled themselves into fists, and I swiftly pulled my arms and legs back into a defensive crouch as I felt his anger start to bubble just beneath the surface.

"That's not what I meant," I muttered through clenched teeth, trying to send a wave of calm his way as I scrambled to explain. "But I've never seen a coven that didn't work that way. Anytime there's a group larger than one bonded pair, there's a leader. And they have to be hard, or someone will take their place." I spoke in a monotone, staring past Edward's shoulder so as not to challenge him. "So what was I supposed to think when he spanked you?" Calm . . . calm . . . calm . . .

Whether he was aware of my interference or not, Edward didn't call me on it as he visibly relaxed in response to my not-so-subtle manipulation of his emotions. "It's no different from a family, though," he argued. "My human parents punished me when I messed up. And Carlisle's a hell of a lot more lenient than they ever were."

"I guess you're right," I said, wrapping my arms around my knees, which I'd drawn up to my chest, and taking a couple of deep breaths to calm my nerves. The position was a terrible one for my backside, but I had to stay on guard in case he got angry again.

Still, while I'd only agreed with Edward to keep him happy, it did make a certain kind of sense. My own human parents hadn't hesitated to whip me when I got out of line. Compared to what I was used to, even excepting Maria's vicious attacks, Carlisle's 'punishments' were almost laughable. Even this one. "Were you scared? The first time?" I asked hesitantly, not really expecting a response. He'd probably get all flustered and refuse to answer. I know I would.

But Edward always managed to surprise me. "Well, yeah, a bit," he admitted, sounding a little ashamed of himself but not hesitating for all that. "I mean, here I thought I was an adult . . . I hadn't been punished like that in years, and by that time, I was technically eighteen . . . and Carlisle never gave me the impression we were anything but equals. So when he said he was going to spank me, I felt . . . kind of betrayed."

"Like he'd been using you," I answered him slowly. I knew the feeling, precisely. It was exactly how I had felt when Maria had taken me as her second in command and confidante, then still punished me whenever I displeased her. No less often than the newborns, even. "What had you done?"

"Nothing spectacular," Edward replied, his expression rueful. "Just . . . pushing my limits too much. Carlisle warned me and warned me, but like all kids, I knew I was smarter than him, and finally I went too far and killed someone. I felt bad, of course, but that didn't mean I agreed that a spanking was going to fix things."

"Well, I suppose it had to be that way," I said cautiously. "The worst thing for y'all to do is kill a human, so it makes sense you'd get the hardest punishment for it."

"I wasn't punished for that," Edward said. "You should know better than that by now. It was for not being careful, and for disobeying one too many times until it got me in trouble. And it wasn't the hardest at all. Not by far." I started to feel a strange mixture of emotions coming off him. Embarrassment . . . shame . . . regret. I was instantly curious again.

"What was? Do you mind telling me?"

"No." His emotions told a different story, but that was beside the point. "I was arguing with Esme. I was angry, and . . ." Edward looked down. "I might have sworn at her."

"Jesus," I whispered, appalled in spite of myself. "You swore at his mate? No wonder he punished you."

Edward raised his head again and gave me a look of utter contempt. "I swore at Mom," he said, enunciating as though I were a particularly slow-witted child. "At a lady. That alone would have gotten me a blistering, had it been a painted woman on the city street. The fact that it was my mother? Sweet, gentle Esme?" He shook his head in disgust. "What is the matter with you? I thought you Southern gentleman types were all about respecting the women."

"Of course I'd never swear at a lady, you jackass," I shot back. "I'm not an animal. How about you? Didn't you know any better than that?"

"Of course I did!" Edward looked murderous, but he couldn't hold my gaze for long. "Well, maybe I needed a little . . . reminder," he amended.

"But they forgave you, right? I mean, once you were punished, that was the end of it?"

"I didn't get to find out," he answered. "That was our last argument for a long time. That's when I . . . left."

"Oh." Alice had told me about Edward's time away — now that I thought about it, I couldn't remember whether she'd gotten the story from Edward himself or from Carlisle. Maybe even Esme, who knows? Alice is always full of some gossip or other. "I don't understand, though," I said, bewildered. "Carlisle said before that I was forgiven already, and the sp — uh, punishment was to help me with the guilt. He's punished you a few times since I've lived here, and you've never felt hostile afterwards. You felt . . ." I groped for words. "Understanding, I think, and . . . kind of, uh, relieved. Like you could start over. And you admit it was deserved. So why didn't you then?"

"I didn't feel that way at the time," Edward explained. "Which, really, I can't understand. I was certainly raised better than that. But I don't know . . . like I said, I'd gotten to feel like Carlisle and I were equals, and that I was an adult." He shrugged. "Maybe I figured that was something a man was allowed to do." I waited as Edward examined his fingernails. This was a conversation I had certainly never expected us to have, and it still felt rather surreal. "I know better now," he finished quietly.

"Where did you go?" I wondered. "When you ran away?"

Edward's smile was tinged with self-deprecation. "Lots of places," he answered. "But they were all the same, and I missed home so much."

"Why didn't you come back, then?"

"Same reason you didn't, I suppose. I was afraid I wouldn't be welcome," Edward replied sadly. "Shows just how little I knew my parents. I was away a lot longer than you, too, and it seemed like every day it got harder to believe they'd ever let me come back home."

I nodded; I knew what he meant, too well. "I know," I whispered. "If it weren't for Alice still being here . . . I don't think I could ever have gotten up the courage to ask."

"Carlisle had a feeling that would be the case," Edward told me. "He thought that if you went away for a while, particularly with Alice still here, you'd miss us and want to come back. And it would work out better than if you'd stayed all the while." He pinched the bridge of his nose, and I noted, not without a pang of longing for the same kind of bond with Carlisle, that he and his father both employed that gesture when particularly stressed.

"So maybe my leaving was important, much as I regret it every time I remember," Edward continued, his voice somewhat muffled by his hand. "For me, but also for Dad. We both learned a lesson from it. Maybe it proved that sometimes . . . sometimes you need to lose what you love most, that you might appreciate it more when you finally get it back."

For a long time, I sat and mulled over Edward's words. In all the time I'd spent away from here, I'd always seen myself as the one who'd lost something, as a natural consequence of my own failings. My mate, my family (though I'd never trusted them completely, somehow I had already begun to think of them that way), and any chance I might have left at redemption despite the monster I'd become. But it occurred to me now that Carlisle had been laboring under the same sense of bereavement. Carlisle had probably spent each day wondering what he might have done differently in my case. What else was he to think, having had two boys walk out on him like that?

"I think you may be right," I said, my voice thick. "Both of you. I know I'll never take Alice for granted again. Or any of you, for that matter."

Edward wasn't looking at me, but I saw him smile. I suddenly realized that he and I had much more in common than I ever would have guessed. From the beginning, I'd marked him as a spoiled, whiny little brat that had never known agony or grief, save the pain of transformation and the natural sorrow that would result from losing his human parents. While our backgrounds were as different as night and day, I saw now that Edward's life wasn't much happier than my own. He didn't even have a mate to ease his loneliness. In that moment, I felt such pity for him that I had to struggle to keep it to myself. Edward wouldn't appreciate pity.

"Carlisle said I could call him 'Dad,'" I reflected, staring down at the spread even as I braced myself for Edward's emotional reaction.

I expected resentment, perhaps, or anger. I felt neither. Instead . . . could that be relief? I chanced a look over at Edward, wondering if some of my wires had gotten crossed from spending too much time with him.

"About goddamn time," he muttered. "Now I won't have to listen to him bitching about it every time he sees you."

It took me a moment to figure out what he meant. My head snapped up. "If you knew he wanted me to call him 'Dad,' why didn't you say something?" I asked, exasperated. Edward didn't answer, just held his eyes steady on the skylight as he leaned his head back against the bedpost. "Oh."

"If I'd told you, would you have believed me?" Edward demanded, shifting his gaze to me without moving his head.

I opened my mouth to protest, but closed it when I realized I couldn't honestly contradict him. "No," I admitted, sighing as I flopped on my side and propped myself up on one elbow. "I'd have thought you were trying to get me in trouble."

"Which is exactly why you've never fit in here," he snapped. Scared the hell out of me, he did. I thought we were having a nice talk, but Edward's face was now dark, his tone acidic. "Always jumping at shadows. Always suspecting everyone of ulterior motives."

This time, I fought successfully against my instincts and managed not to curl up or fly backwards off the bed. "I said, I'm working on it," I retorted tersely.

"Well, work harder," Edward shot back, but there was no venom in his voice anymore. He sounded kind of tired. I allowed myself to relax, figuring that we couldn't undo several years of rivalry in one night, after all.

"So . . ." Edward was tracing his finger along the seams of the bedspread. He fingered the edges of one of the tears, and I saw him recoil, probably in response to my sudden flash of remembrance. I felt for Edward suddenly. It couldn't be easy, his gift, though I often wished we could trade. I don't know how much emotion the thoughts he receives can evoke in him, but I imagine it's easier for him to tune people out than it is for me.

"So," I agreed.

Edward lifted his head, but still couldn't look at me. His gaze settled on the painting of Esme's that hung over the bed. "I'm, uh . . . I'm s — I'm sorry. You know, about the . . . the thing."

I did know, of course. Despite all that had happened, I still remembered the night I tried to escape to my room — the one place I didn't have to feel their eyes on me, my imagination painting accusation where probably there was none, and their tension as they wondered whether we would all be forced out of town — and found that thrice-damned article staring back at me from the very door I was planning to close on the world.

"'S'okay," I muttered, though the memory made me feel ill. "I made quite a mess, after all."

"We've all made messes, and all of them meant we had to move. Yours hardly disrupted our lives at all. Plus, none of us had almost a century drinking humans to excuse ourselves with. I was just being a dick."

"I said it was okay," I replied, maybe a bit too forcefully. I softened my tone. "I mean, I understand. I didn't try very hard to get along with you. If it had been you that killed someone . . . I can't say I'd have behaved any differently."

"I think you would have," Edward contradicted me. "You're not vindictive, that's for certain. And if you didn't try very hard . . . well, I guess that's something else we have in common. Neither one of us was very flexible."

"And I took your room," I reminded him, smirking. "That didn't exactly cement our relationship."

"Alice took my room, not you," he replied, grinning back. "I've never been confused on that point." His grin widened, and there was a devilish glint in his eyes. "It was obvious from the start who wore the pants in your little family."

I kicked out with my foot, but missed — Edward was now laughing at me from across the room. "She was wearing a skirt," I grumbled, wincing as my maneuver caused the pain in my backside to flare. "I had to watch her try on seventy-five different outfits before she found one good enough to wear that first day." It hadn't actually been seventy-five different outfits, but rather the same pieces put together in different ways, not to mention all the times she tried the same ensemble three or four times. Either Alice had had been more distracted than she'd admit, or she'd been testing me to see if I'd notice the repeats.

"Alice could have shown up wearing a garbage sack with holes cut out for her arms and head, and Carlisle wouldn't have turned her away," Edward replied soberly. "I knew her five minutes and didn't mind that all my stuff was in the garage. She's . . . special like that."

"She is my life," I said simply. "I was . . . incomplete before. I am incomplete when she isn't near me. When I left, the pain was so bad that I think it would have killed me, had I been a human. I didn't do anything for weeks — I didn't hunt, or read, or walk, or anything. I just . . . was."

Edward was watching my face intently. I felt rather uncomfortable, having never opened up like this to anyone before. Well, no one besides Alice, anyway. But having started, I felt I owed it to him to continue. "Finally, one day, I saw my reflection in the water and realized my eyes were just about black. I felt . . . not good, you know, but better when I didn't have to see the red. So I thought I could just not feed for a while, and it would make the red disappear completely."

"I tried that," Edward replied, low. I felt a sickening flare of guilt in my stomach, and looked up to see Edward's face reflecting the same emotion. He was remembering something that made him feel completely wretched. "One night, after I'd drunk from one of the humans . . . back when I left Carlisle and Esme . . . I just sat there afterwards and felt so desolate. There had been so many, all their thoughts blacker than you'd want to imagine, and I was so tired. I just wanted to go home." As Edward spoke, he had crossed back over to the bed and perched on the edge of the footboard, his back against the post once again.

"I'd always thought that if I didn't drink and let my eyes go dark, that'd be the end of it. The way humans fast to clean out their systems, and then start over new," he explained. "And I think I kept drinking from humans even after they lost their appeal, longer than I even wanted to, on the idea that I could take that way out anytime I liked."

"But it didn't work." It wasn't a question. I already knew the answer, and I braced myself for another wave of guilt, or of despair, from Edward as he recalled the humiliation of his failure. I had felt both emotions myself . . . and so many others.

"No." It was truly staggering how much agony and regret could be conveyed in just one word. "The day I decided to go home, I wanted to just go, you know? Right that moment. It was torture, waiting for my eyes to darken enough. And then, when I finally couldn't take it any longer, and drank from a deer . . . and I looked in the water and saw the red . . ." Edward's hands spread out in a helpless gesture of supplication. "You can imagine how I felt."

I nodded, my teeth clenched as I tried to block the terrible grief radiating off him. I didn't think I could stand it much longer. In an effort to redirect the conversation as well as satisfy my own curiosity, I asked, "What did you do then?"

Edward took a deep breath. "I went back anyway," he said, sounding sheepish. "I wanted to go home so badly by then that I didn't think I could wait another hour. At that point, I was so miserable that I hardly felt I was risking anything by going there with red eyes."

"And they took you back." Again, I wasn't asking a question so much as I was stating the obvious.

"Of course." Edward gave me a tight smile. "Just like they would have if you'd come back glaring crimson. But it made them so happy that your eyes were golden, I can promise you that. Not because you 'followed the rules' or anything," he added hastily, "but because it proved you didn't come here on a whim, you know? You worked at it. Still, Mom and Dad would have been ecstatic to see you regardless."

I would have liked to believe his words, but it all sounded a little too good to be true. "I almost didn't come," I volunteered hesitantly. "It took a long time for me to get up the motivation to go back to feeding on animals, particularly because Peter and Charlotte think it's unnatural. And I looked at them — they're so happy, Edward. I don't know if you can understand that, because of the way you've been raised. But there's nothing evil or cruel about either of them. They just don't see any reason to change their nature. I started to feel like maybe Carlisle was . . . was a freak, or something, after all," I confessed.

He cocked his head quizzically. "Why didn't you stay with them, then? Or go back to your old coven?"

I gave him a sidelong glance. "Would you rather I had?"

He looked shocked. "No, of course not! Only . . . it sounds like you were happy enough. I just wondered why you'd try so hard to stop drinking humans and come back here if you thought we might be wrong."

"Same reason as you," I fibbed. It wasn't an outright lie, after all; it just wasn't the entire truth. Of course I'd been afraid that Carlisle would slam the door in my face, and that Alice would turn her back on me. I couldn't 'test' the future the way she could, and unlike Edward, I wasn't even able to eavesdrop on their thoughts as I stood outside. And if it had turned out differently — if Alice, or the family as a whole, had shunned me, I would have nothing left to live for. I would almost have welcomed a return to Maria at that point, hoping that somehow my soul could be cleansed in a baptism of agony before I was eventually — mercifully — destroyed.

That would have been my desired end. But the reality was that I could never go back, not even if everything else were lost, for two reasons. Most importantly — if either one can be said to outrank the other — was that returning to Maria would, at least eventually, mean returning to Maria's bed. And that was impossible. I may have left Alice behind, but that was for her safety and happiness. She had longed for a family, this family, for decades, and loved her new home so completely that her feelings of pleasure and contentment sometimes threatened to overwhelm me. I couldn't rip her from them; I'm not that much of a monster. But she was still my wife, and I would perish in flames before I betrayed her.

The other reason was the violence. Long before I'd met Alice, and through her this family, I'd grown disenchanted with our lifestyle; the constant strife and upheaval wreaked havoc with me more so than any of the others, due to my gift (or curse, as I called it in those days). I had grown to loathe feeling the humans' terror and pain as I drank.

Granted, as I had just admitted to Edward, I had fed on humans while I stayed with Peter and Charlotte. It was natural for them, and after having once fallen, it was hard enough to resist staying down when I was alone. In the company of others who saw nothing wrong with what was, after all, our nature, what motivation had I to change? They certainly weren't about to pull me up short and demand, gently but firmly, that I learn to resist the way Carlisle would have. Had, in fact. And to my surprise, I found that I missed having someone to look up to, someone with centuries of wisdom to share with me if I had the inclination to listen and learn. I didn't want to have only friends; I wanted a mentor.

Or a father.

"I see." I looked up and found Edward staring at me with a pained expression. Once again, I'd forgotten that he was following my thoughts, and I felt sick with shame at what I might have inadvertently revealed. "I see why it was hard," he continued. "I've never understood something, though. I mean, I could see when we first came here, how you'd be a little wary of strangers. But you've been here a few years now, and you still tend to think we're all out to get you. What would it take for you to trust us?" Edward sounded frustrated.

I thought for a long moment before answering. The automatic response would be to say that I did trust him, but I wasn't entirely certain that that was the case. And I wanted to be truthful. "I do trust you," I finally said, slowly, "in the sense that I know you're different from . . . her. There isn't going to be violence here, and even if we have to move sometimes, it's not about territory, or taking down some other coven. But . . . I'm different from you." I felt a tightness in my throat as I thought of Carlisle. "I don't know if I'll ever get better. I don't know if I can ever be whole again."

"Neither do I." Edward sighed, stretching out across the foot of the bed and placing his hands under his head. "I guess we have all eternity to find out, though," he murmured, shifting around until he could look out the skylight.

We sat for a while like that, not talking or anything, content just to share each other's company. There were two skylights in this room, courtesy of Esme. Edward's position on the bed was directly under one of them, but by moving down a bit and lying parallel to him, I had my own, as well. I could feel a pleasant contentment emanating from Edward as he stared out at the stars. As far as we were from the city with its bright lights, and with our ultra-sensitive vampire sight to boot, we could see practically every one of them as clearly as diamonds scattered over black velvet.

As I lay there, though, I was thinking back on our conversation. There was a great deal to contemplate. I had never liked Edward very much, considering him rather stuck-up. I could also sense that he didn't like me, whether because of our different personalities or the natural aversion vampires feel for a new male trying to elbow his way into a coven. In my experience, such males were usually killed. If they were lucky enough to be accepted, they were doomed to always rank lowest among the members, and were never certain of their continued right to exist.

But I knew now that this situation was different. Maybe the Cullens were unique, but if not, they were part of an infinitesimal minority. Vampires did not form families, yet this was a family. Maybe deep down, they could never truly love me the way they did Edward, Emmett, or Rosalie . . . but what we had here sure beat the hell out of my old life. If they were willing to try, then so was I.

"What do you really think of me?" Edward suddenly wondered aloud. "I want you to be honest."

I chose my words carefully, knowing that there was a line between honest and insulting. "I think . . . you're not always a very good sport." He waited. "When Emmett will try to give you a hard time, you'll call foul right away instead of just going with it."

"You think I'm a crybaby."

"Not exactly. You're not a coward or anything, but you just take everything so personally," I said meditatively. "I think that might change when you meet your mate someday. Suddenly, things that used to annoy you won't even register, and even major problems aren't so bad unless they threaten her in some way."

"You're a fine one to talk," he muttered. "Talk about taking things personally."

He was right, in a way, though it was hard to say it out loud. "I guess my problem is that I see everything as a threat to Alice," I offered, toying with a ribbon of hers I'd picked up off the night table. "She's so trusting, and I know I should trust her . . . but she lies sometimes to make me feel better, so I never know for sure. I want to be your friend, but it's just so hard to let anyone get close."

"I don't want to be your friend," Edward said, sounding frustrated. Once again, I could feel my muscles clenching, preparing for a fight, though I had no idea what he meant by it. "We live together. We hunt together. I want to be your brother."

Well, that knocked me for a loop. "I — "

"I know we didn't get along before," he said, cutting me off, "and to be perfectly honest, I was . . . I was relieved when you left. Well, not for long," Edward amended. "Not when I saw how sick it made Alice. And then one day, I heard Carlisle thinking about you and wondering if you were safe and if you'd come back soon . . . and it hurt me."

"Why?" I reckoned that maybe I already knew the answer, but I wanted to hear him say it.

Edward wouldn't look at me. Hadn't looked at me, in fact, for most of the conversation. By now, instead of lying stretched out, he was sitting upright near the top of the bed, but still only stared at his hands clenched in his lap. "I was jealous," he replied matter-of-factly. "I finally had him to myself, and he was only thinking about you."

"All to yourself?" I said incredulously. Was Edward really that thick? "You'd had him for years before I came! And besides, you're the one he wrestles with and talks about medical stuff with. You get all the hugs and the attention. Every time he looks at you . . ." I swallowed, not wanting to go on. Edward was watching me intently, waiting for me to finish, and I didn't want to. I didn't want to give him even the tiniest bit of leverage. But keeping it to myself wouldn't change the facts.

"He loves you so much," I muttered unwillingly, feeling a little sad. "I could feel it every time you were around each other. So much love."

Edward smiled, and it was amazing how young and gentle it made him look. I was used to seeing him looking angry or cranky, as if everyone and everything got on his very last nerve. But I was curious. "How could you not know?" I asked. "You must have heard him thinking about it."

"Not really," Edward said, sounding as bewildered as I. "He says it a lot, of course, but then again, he says that to all of us. Only not to you, because he's afraid it'll make you uncomfortable. But I guess I didn't realize he really felt that way, and it wasn't just some duty."

"He does." Spoiled little brat. What do you want, an engraved invitation? I saw him glance at me and knew he'd heard. "Sorry. It just bothers me. You have all the love you could want, and you don't even see it." My throat felt tight like it did when I was crying over my bed not long ago.

Edward rolled his eyes. "I get the words, and you get the actual emotions, and you think I'm the thick one?" he asked incredulously. "Words can be faked. Emotions can't."

"I guess."

He sighed. "Anyway, it was when I heard Carlisle's thoughts that day that I realized I'd only been jealous. You'd . . . I mean, maybe if you'd been more like Alice, I wouldn't have cared, but . . ."

"More submissive, you mean." I heard Edward loud and clear. I had certainly never forgotten, even for one moment, by just how far he outranked me in the family. But I wasn't about to give in to him for all that. Not with Alice to think about.

"None of us would ever hurt Alice," he said, exasperated.

"I know," I whispered. And I think I meant it.

I chanced to look at him just as his expression changed. Pensive before, he now looked horrified over something. "Jesus," he whispered, sounding appalled. "All right, that is just disgusting."

"Uh, what?" I asked warily.

Edward shook his head briskly as if to clear it of some unwanted image. "Er, Alice would like you to meet her in the . . . at the edge of the property," he said. "And you might tell her that I didn't appreciate being shown why."

"Oh." The same smirk he'd worn when he'd been teasing me about Alice's forward nature was now flashed right back at him. "Don't worry, Eddie, you'll find a mate someday."

"When I do, we're never doing that," he stated emphatically. "That's just . . . unnatural."

I snorted. "I don't imagine a fifty-three-year-old virgin is in a position to judge what's natural and what's not." I caught his flailing fist before it could even chance reaching me and carefully aimed a nip at his fingers, grinning when Edward yanked them away like he'd been burned.

Edward got up to leave, but paused at the door and turned around. "I'm really glad you came back. And not just for Alice's sake, or Dad's, or any of theirs. I think I actually missed you." He gave me that crooked grin again.

"Like you'd miss a hot stove you'd sat on long enough," I muttered. I was feeling very mellow by now, and was even willing to quote Huck Finn in spite of his creator, who'd milked the South for what he could fill his books with and used the money to improve the Connecticut economy. But I was smiling. My woodland fantasy, it appeared, was about to come true. And if I were careful in my departure, I could avoid displaying my excitement over that fact to the whole household.

But there were other reasons for my happiness that went beyond pure animal lust for Alice. I'd spent almost a year yearning for this house and the people in it, yet terrified to come back lest they turn me away. In the space of one night, everything had changed . . . or, rather, the circumstances hadn't, but my perception of them had. And perception, I'd found, made all the difference.

Carlisle, far from merely tolerating the liberty, actually wanted me to call him 'Dad.' Edward could have gone back to his usual habit of ignoring me, which I would have been happy to reciprocate, but instead he'd reached out and offered not only friendship, but brotherhood to me. Esme had been genuinely thrilled to have me home; I knew she didn't have it in her to pretend. Emmett and Rosalie probably didn't feel quite as deeply about it, being rather wrapped up in each other, but while we sat together as a family before, I'd sensed that they, too, were pleased at my return.

Before, my sole focus had always been Alice. Nothing mattered more than our relationship, and I had managed to fool myself into thinking that I didn't need anyone else. Granted, my life would be incomplete without her . . . but now, to my surprise, I found that it wouldn't be any less so without the rest of them.

"'Night," Edward called as he closed my door behind him. This time, I didn't bother responding out loud; Edward would hear me anyway. And what is speech, after all, but a way to conceal our thoughts?

'Night . . . brother.

The End