Title: Endure Burning

Penname: Jackiejones

Rating: M for violence and related themes

Disclaimer: Stephenie Meyer owns all things Twilight; no copyright infringement is intended.

Summary: Tragedy ensues when Bella's mother sends her to visit Charlie for a month in the summer of 1996. There are just some sins that can't be redeemed.

Submitted for the 'To Kill a Cullen' Contest

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What is to give light must endure burning – Viktor Frankl

July 5, 1996

Edward wondered, in a way only possible for a vampire who could think on so many levels at once, whether Alice was somewhere in the state of Minnesota, frozen in horror at what she must be seeing. He was here, outside of Forks, Washington, watching it with his own eyes, causing it even, and the horror was nearly overwhelming. Even as the primal growl rippled out of his chest and his predatory nature catalogued the weaknesses of both prey and obstacle, there was a part of Edward that could feel sympathy for Alice - too far away to stop things, but never too far away to watch them unfold.

His own growl was met with a fierce reverberation, swallowed by the menace and violence promised in the crouching, defensive stance of the vampire before him. That rational voice in Edward's head, the one that sounded remarkably like Carlisle, was mute now. Stunned into silence. Hoarse from screaming frantically for him to stop: to stop growling, to stop pacing, to stop breathing. He could do none of those things.

His muscles instinctively tensed as the vampire before him contemplated making a move, wondered how this could have come about, but refused to back down.

A snarl ripped out of him, surprising them both with the desperation contained therein. His vision was tinged with red, his senses heightened with bloodlust, and he knew it wouldn't be long before he was satisfied.

A breeze slid between him and his prey, carrying the intoxicating scent of her sweet blood to him in an excruciating way. Never before had he smelled something so enchanting. Never again would he find a meal concocted just for him, as this one was. He'd been a vampire for nearly eighty years, and he was certain that all his days of immortality would be dated "before" and "after" the moment he tasted the blood calling to him now.

Don't Do This.

This cry echoed in his head repeatedly as he faced off against the fierce vampire before him. Edward heard her voice, and the part of him conditioned to obey was inclined to back down. The voice of his conscience, still sounding like Carlisle, roused itself in response to her plea, tried to second this very rational message telegraphed to him amongst the snarls and hisses emitted by the angry woman before him. Unfortunately for both of them, the voice of his conscience was no match for the raging voice of hunger controlling his limbs. But a truce of sorts could perhaps be reached. He would try one last time to achieve his wishes without dismantling his whole world.

"Step. Aside." Edward's voice grated with the effort necessary to speak. This was not a request. This was a command. But he could read in the set of her shoulders and the expression on her face, let alone her thoughts, that she would not. She would fight him. And it would not end well for any of them. And before Edward could even spare a portion of a second to regret what would inevitably follow, his prey stirred, let out a pitiful moan that practically invited him to drink, and Edward lost the final inhibitions that were holding him back.

And though Esme did not have the benefit of reading his mind or the gift of seeing the future, she threw herself in the path of her self-destructive son, would give her un-life if necessary, to prevent him from falling beyond the pale, slipping into the darkest depths of self-loathing. Her love was large enough, even for this. And so, as she registered the slight stirrings of the child bleeding behind her, she launched herself into the air to protect them all.

Seven Days Prior…

June 29, 1996

This time, it was Jasper. Last time, it had been Emmett. Well, the three times prior to this one had been Emmett's fault, but Edward tried not to keep count. Having an eidetic memory made forgiving and forgetting a bit difficult, though. Still, Emmett was probably relieved that it was not his mistake that caused the Cullen family to pull up stakes once again.

Regardless of who was at fault, Edward was ready to turn his back on his hometown. Chicago made him feel empty in a way that no other city could. He imagined his dead family members as an amputated limb - he itched and ached for what if to a greater degree here than he'd known previously. Though Jasper had been aware of Edward's depression, he couldn't place its specific source, so he'd kept Edward's secret and let him put on a brave face for the seven years the Cullens called Chicago home. Edward was often grateful that no one could read his mind, though always felt guilty whenever that observation passed through his well guarded thoughts. Though he had abstained from suggesting an earlier relocation, he was quick to agree to the move when the crisis arrived and the Cullens were displaced once again.

The girl next door (or as close to "next door" as was feasible in the well groomed and luxurious suburbs that the Cullens inhabited) was only fourteen, but her crush on Jasper led her to act foolishly, take risks she couldn't begin to estimate. She had his daily schedule memorized; found it necessary to wash her car or pick up the mail just as Jasper was likely to return home. She smiled at him and tried to engage him in conversation. His aloofness only piqued her curiosity, led her to think up new ways to try to draw him out. Discovering that he was a graduate student, the girl had begun to assertively ask for help in her coursework. She wasn't fooling anyone - not Alice, who could see her plans forming; not Edward, who could read her intentions; and certainly not Jasper, who had to wade through the cloud of infatuation every time she approached him.

It was summer now and school was out, so Grace Swanson had to contrive a new excuse for taking up Jasper's time. Edward heard Alice laugh aloud and listened in on her thoughts as she saw the girl's latest plan materialize. Grace accidentally-on purpose left the gate to her backyard open, allowing her brother's dog just enough time to escape. The dog had gratefully obliged, following the scent of a rabbit out into the wooded area that bordered the expansive property and shared driveway against which the two homes backed up. When Edward concentrated, he could actually hear Grace counting next door, giving the dog plenty of time to escape, and ensuring herself a reasonable excuse to seek Jasper's aid. Jasper had picked up on Alice's and Edward's amusement, but was unable to assess that he was its source.

Sure enough, Grace deemed one thousand, four hundred and forty six seconds enough for the collie to be out of sight and began her faux-panic as she slammed the front door of the neighboring home and covered the distance between her home and the Cullen's house at a run. She was actually a relatively good actress, all things considered.

"Help!" Grace cried, pounding on their front door. Jasper paused long enough to raise one sardonic brow at Alice, then walked slowly, even for humans, to open the door.

"Oh, Jasper! You have to help me! Joey's dog has escaped - I must have left the back gate open when I went out to feed him. If Ollie's not back when my mom and dad get home with Joey from his baseball game, I'm going to be in so much trouble! Will you help me look for him?" By that time, Grace was nearly hyperventilating, and if Edward were unable read her thoughts, he would have been tempted to believe her. That could have been because she was having second thoughts, now that the dog was gone and Jasper was standing in front of her.

Of course, it would have been easy for Jasper to track the dog, though perhaps not so easy to get near enough to catch it -- alive. As it was, the poor dog went crazy with fear every time one of the Cullens stepped out of their front door. Still, Grace was looking up at him with eyes that were…yes, they were actually filling with tears, and one thing Jasper could not resist was a woman in distress.

"Sure, Grace." Edward snickered as he read Jasper's recognition that this situation was most likely contrived. Jasper may have been reluctant and embarrassed by Grace's preference for him (it was usually Edward, as the "youngest" and single one who attracted the female attention), but he would tramp through the underbrush and whistle for the girl's dog because that was how he was raised. Jasper and Alice had hunted just last night, and Edward noted that Jasper's thoughts were largely focused on spending as little time with Grace as he could manage without being rude. Grace, on the other hand, was determined that they begin their search in the direction opposite to the one that she saw Ollie head in just about ten minutes ago. Still, being alone with a human, especially for Jasper, was a mistake in Edward's mind - a mistake of which he couldn't approve. He also wasn't inclined to offend Alice by suggesting Jasper was likely to slip in their "vegetarian" diet. Alice seemed to anticipate his objection however, and showed him that no doom seemed imminent.

Unfortunately, it was not long after the two disappeared into the tree line that Edward's piano playing was interrupted by Alice's abrupt inhalation. He was by her side in less than a second, already absorbing the vision that had frozen her in place and painted her face with horror. In another moment, Edward was out the front door, running towards the woods, hoping that he could beat the future, get there in time.

He did, sort of. Grace had already decided to kiss Jasper, was already working up her courage for the assault. She was fourteen and wanted to know what it was like to be kissed, had convinced herself that Jasper, with his long, lean silhouette and quiet intensity, was the most handsome man she would ever meet, easily eclipsing the ridiculous boys she was surrounded with at school. She liked the way she felt both nervous and excited when he was around, the fear giving an edge to the attraction pulling her towards him. Though a girl of fourteen would never be able to effectively tackle a vampire, she could still surprise him, distracted as Jasper was in trying to wall off his own feelings from the crush of hormones she was sending towards him and still make a show of looking for the dog.

Edward was fast, but he hadn't been given enough time to arrive nonchalantly, interrupting the moment in a way that could be laughed off or, even better, go unnoticed. In his mind, he kept replaying the snippet he gleaned from Alice's brain: Grace barreling into Jasper, nearly breaking herself against his unsuspected strength, and Jasper, overcome by her nearness, leaning down and effortlessly feasting on her yielding flesh. If this abrupt arrival was Edward's only alternative, then speeding through the woods and knocking Jasper down had to be his preference, even if it did leave their natures exposed to the overactive imagination of a fourteen year old lovesick girl. To her, Jasper was the bull's eye that she'd been aiming at, only to find him gone, then strangely, crouched beside his brother and making a menacing hissing noise. There wasn't much the vampires can do to play that off, and Grace ran towards her house, her heart pounding and her brain stuttering in fear. Ollie would have to find his own way back.

Okay, so the blame for the abrupt Cullen family departure from the outskirts of Chicago was debatable. Despite Jasper's protestations over condemning a man based solely upon Alice's precognition, however, Edward still felt that Jasper ought to simply acknowledge the idiocy of following a human girl out into the woods alone and apologize for being a chivalrous moron. And yes, it was possible that he himself could have handled things differently…but still, this one was on Jasper.

July 1, 1996

Isabella Marie Swan was small for her age, or at least, she appeared to be when (and if) a person first looked at her. Her mother, Renee Higginbotham, frequently nagged her to stand up straight. Bella's ballet teacher frequently yanked on her pony tail of rich brown hair to remind her to stand up tall and proud. But when no one was watching, which was most of Bella's life, her shoulders folded in and her back curved over just a bit, unconsciously trying to take up as little space as possible.

Bella's mom, who was larger than life, seemed to expand into every space, filling it with laughter and energy, but inadvertently pushing her daughter into the margins. Bella's large brown eyes watched Renee greet strangers in the market or ask out good looking men, absorbing the way that people were drawn to her mother, eager to inhabit her circle of joy. Bella loved her mother; she didn't mind that she was a better cook at eight than her mother was at twenty-eight. Mostly, she thought that the things people loved about Renee, like her charisma and playfulness, were the very things she herself lacked, the qualities replaced by what her mother laughingly called Bella's "Charlie Quirks." She didn't mean to, but Bella pretty much credited Charlie with all the things she liked least about herself.

"Though I'd never choose to go back to Forks, baby," Renee rattled on as she drove her silent daughter towards the airport, "I sure would have been excited to fly on an airplane all by myself when I was your age!" In anyone else, Bella would have thought this kind of enthusiasm was an act, but she knew her mother well enough to know she was sincere. An eight year old Renee probably would have been thrilled by the adventure of flying across the country alone. Bella, on the other hand, was holding inside a growing wave of anxiety. So many scary "what ifs" were running through her head, she could hardly keep herself from throwing up all over her favorite purple Converse tennis shoes.

Renee kept talking, but Bella could only hear the sound of her own heartbeat thrumming in her ears. It wasn't that Bella didn't want to see her dad, it was just that she didn't understand why he couldn't come to her new home in Arizona to see her, like he did last summer. Instead, Renee and Charlie had determined to send Bella to Washington for a month every summer. This wasn't her first airplane flight, but it would be her first one alone. A dull ache began to throb behind her belly button. Tears welled up in her eyes, though she tried to keep them from falling when she realized that they'd parked and Renee was pulling Bella's ugly brown suitcase out of the trunk of the car.

Of course, because she was Renee, Bella's mom bumped into a friend of hers from work as they approached the gate from which Bella's flight would be leaving. For such a large city, Renee seemed to know everyone. She chatted away with the woman, laughing at the antics of their boss, speculating on office romances, and making plans to enjoy what the woman inconsiderately called Renee's 'month of freedom'. Bella spent the thirty minutes compiling lists in her head of all that could go wrong on a four hour flight to Seattle. Her backpack was stuffed full of books and a lunch she made for herself last night, so she was pretty confident that if she got stuck somewhere, she'd be okay. Mostly, she just worried that Charlie wouldn't be there when she landed. Bella imagined herself wandering a cavernous space she imagined as the Seattle Airport, hearing her dad's name called repeatedly on the loud speaker, but unable to find him anywhere. Did she have a backup plan if something happened to him on the way to the airport? Bella wondered what she would do if she suddenly knew no one in the state of Washington. She tried to mention this concern to Renee, but her mother laughed what Bella recognized as her "who are you and how can we be related?" laugh. Nothing helpful ever came of that laugh. Renee hugged her tightly, cried a little as she handed Bella over to the perky stewardess, and then waved frenetically as her only daughter boarded the airplane.

Four hours later, Bella breathed a huge sigh of relief as she saw that Charlie was front and center amongst the crowd of well-wishers as she accompanied the flight attendant into the SeaTac airport. He jogged up to her, hugging and spinning Bella around. This type of behavior was expected from Renee, not Charlie, so Bella held on tightly and rested her head on her dad's shoulder, equal parts awkward and sweetness. He missed her; she realized how much she'd been missing him now that he was holding her. They didn't say anything for a minute, just embraced tightly while the lovers and families and businessmen sped by.

Charlie pulled his head back so he can see her, but didn't set her down as he asked, "Ready?" Bella nodded and squeezed him a little tighter. Charlie had driven the four hours from Forks to meet Bella at the SeaTac airport, rather than have her change planes and fly alone to Port Angeles. It meant a longer day for both of them, but they drove first into downtown and rode the Space Needle to the top. He asked her what she wanted to eat, and she shyly shrugged her shoulders, used to just going with the powerful flow that was her mother. They sort of looked at one another, directionless, and the moment that could have been really uncomfortable settled upon them instead with an overwhelming sense of peace. They were both easygoing. They were both self-contained. They were both accustomed to adapting, compensating, accommodating. Quiet smiles crept over their faces as Charlie saw a piece of himself in Bella's expression and Bella wondered for the first time whether her "Charlie Quirks" were all bad. She slipped her hand into his warm, calloused one, and he squeezed it gently.

July 2, 1996

Edward had arrived with Carlisle and Esme in Washington state early on the morning on July 2nd. Alice and Jasper were driving Alice's new Mustang across country, stopping to check in on Peter and Charlotte, who were currently in Minnesota. Rosalie and Emmett had elected to remain in Illinois for a short time, as Rosalie was completing a graduate degree in psychology. She was so cross – at both Jasper and Edward, though Edward continued to protest his innocence in the 'Ollie the Collie Debacle' as Rosalie dubbed it – it was probably better that they spent some time apart, regardless.

Though the Cullens owned property in various towns along the Olympic Peninsula, Esme was looking forward to refurbishing the old home in Forks, purchased the last time the family had lived in the area–just after Rosalie and Emmett had joined their family. Though Edward couldn't say that he was looking forward to reenrolling in high school again, he understood the necessity of maximizing the time they lived in any one area, and, without a mate to distract him from his piano or books, it wasn't as though he was short on time to pursue his own interests. Mostly, he was just looking forward to the more consistently overcast weather, which allowed Edward to feel less like a 'creature of the night,' and a break from the frequent reminders that his human life was severed from him long ago.

Carlisle and Edward worked (tirelessly, luckily) at Esme's direction all day, knocking out walls, installing various technology, including the steel shutters that protected the back wall of windows should that ever be necessary. It was simply easier for the family members to acquire new skills to meet their needs than draw their neighbors' attention to their strange proclivities. Not to mention that their vampire-enhanced dexterity, mental acuity, and vision made even the most complicated of tasks rather easy.

Despite the massive 'honey-do' list Esme had created, Edward still found a bit of time that evening to explore the wilds of the park abutting the Cullens' overgrown estate. He found a particularly beautiful meadow a ways out – the woods thereabouts afforded little more than deer to hunt and he wasn't particularly thirsty, so Edward determined to simply revel in the silence of such large swaths of unpopulated acreage. The meadow was remote, and to his perception, untouched by humans. He promised himself that he'd return on the first sunny afternoon Forks provided, and then he headed back to the next chore his 'mother' had waiting for him.

July 4, 1996

Bella was really missing her mom today. Not because they had some special Independence Day traditions, and not even because it was colder in Forks in July than it ever was in Phoenix in January. Mostly it was because she was sitting on a well-worn loveseat in the crowded living room of Billy and Sarah Black, Charlie's closest friends, out on the Quielute reservation. There weren't many things Bella liked less than feeling as though she stuck out. Here in the home of this friendly family, Bella felt as though her ghostly complexion glimmered in the lamplight, making her feel that she was an outsider. Charlie and Billy were out, manning the bar-b-cue, drinking beer, and swapping implausible tales of fishing exploits, which always apparently took place on the rare occasions when the other was absent. The Blacks' daughters, Rachel and Rebecca, had made stilted efforts to include Bella in their amusements, but she was too uncoordinated to join in their cartwheel and handstand competition out back. Jacob, the little six-year-old baby of the family, was busy jumping off furniture and pretending to be a superhero. Every time Sarah looked up from the preparations of their dinner, Bella saw that she was wearing an expression of pity, or maybe it was just concern. Bella wished she could melt into the cushions, or at least hide in a book, but Charlie had vetoed her intention of bringing one along, and Bella was left all knobby knees and awkward silences, unconsciously picking at the skin around her fingernails.

Sarah Black mixed the potato salad, and it was obvious that she was trying to come up with something to talk about with Bella, wanted so much to make her feel welcome that it only underscored how out of place Bella was.

"You're going into third grade, Bella?"

"Yes?" The answer came out like a question, and Bella couldn't think of anything else to say, so she bit her lip fretfully and stared down at her shoes.

It wasn't exactly silent, mostly because Jacob had tied a pillow case around his neck and 'soared' through the tiny house humming the theme to Batman. Bella wanted to tell him that Batman didn't fly, and he definitely didn't wear a plaid green cape, but there was a childish confidence in him that quelled the impulse, made clear somehow that precision wasn't so very important at that moment. Other noises murmured through the front door: the men's conversation outside, punctuated occasionally by the giggles of the girls. But the silence stretched between Bella and Mrs. Black, and both women read it as a failure of some kind on their part.

So Bella mostly wished she were back in Phoenix right now, not tagging along with Charlie and burdening the Black family with one more mouth to feed. Bella noted in her peripheral vision when Sarah stepped outside for a moment, and cringed when she returned with Rachel and Rebecca in tow. The only thing worse than sticking out, in Bella's mind, was being foisted on someone who didn't want your company. A gnawing ache grew behind her belly button again.

The pain eased just a bit when she saw that each girl was carrying several wriggling kittens. Some were black, others calico, some just a hodge-podge color that was hard to name. They were small, and they kept trying to climb onto shoulders, heads, and necks, which made the girls laugh: all three girls, and the sound of Bella's laughter brought a smile to Sarah Black's face. Without a verbal invitation necessary, the three girls sat cross-legged facing one another, keeping the kittens penned in between them.

Rachel grinned at Bella in a friendly way over the top of a fuzzy cream face, and it occurred to Bella that maybe these girls were just as shy as she – maybe it wasn't that they didn't want her around at all. Conversation flowed gingerly now, with the kittens as the focal point, and Bella learned about how Rebecca had found the litter out back about six weeks ago. They were engrossed in the wriggling balls of fur, laughing when Sarah brought them a few pieces of yarn to tantalize the kittens with. Sharp claws found their way into more than one arm, and Bella was surprised to find just how rough a kitten's tongue felt on her finger tip. At one point, Jacob plopped down and pretended to wrestle with one of the more lively kittens, but his interest was short-lived, and he quickly became more fascinated in sneaking potato chips out of the kitchen when his mother wasn't looking.

Eventually the kittens were returned to their make-shift bed in the plastic tool shed outside and the girls cleaned up for dinner. Luckily, the ice was mostly broken at this point, so though Bella slipped back into silence, it was a more comfortable silence than the isolating one she had inhabited earlier in the evening. After dinner, the families joined others from the reservation down on the beach for a bonfire and a few fireworks. There was a moment when Charlie put his arm around her shoulder, and she put a corresponding arm around his waist – that was a really good moment.

The second best moment was when the Swans were getting ready to leave and Rebecca, apropos of nothing, asked her mother, "Can't Bella take home one of the kittens?"

Sarah's face got pink and she sternly reminded Rebecca that that was a decision for Charlie to make, and he should have the liberty of thinking it over without her children hopping up and down, squealing and shouting. Charlie did, in fact, look a bit flummoxed, unsure whether it was even something Bella would want, and concerned that she might feel obligated so as to not hurt the girls' feelings. But he looked down at his quiet girl, who was simply looking back at him, and he just wanted so much for her to love and be loved. Wanted her to feel as though Forks were her home too that he simply raised an eyebrow at her, making it her choice. Immediately, Bella's face was overcome with happiness, and the adults stared at her in mute wonder, surprised at just how very beautiful she was when she was happy.

Rachel and Rebecca cheered and Jacob hooted in approval. The girls grabbed Bella's hand, and the four children raced to the shed so that Bella could pick out a kitten.

July 5, 1996

Bella was quickly discovering that owning a kitten was more work than she'd expected. Also, this kitten didn't like to sleep. The little rascal, whom she'd named Gilbert, had looked awfully sweet nuzzled half-asleep amongst the other kittens, all black silky fur and a patch of white covering one ear and one paw. Getting him home, Gilbert had spent the next six hours exploring Bella's bedroom, leaping on her feet as she tried to sleep, and mewing forlornly in her ear. Still, petting him in the crook of her elbow, Bella was pretty glad she'd decided on him – there was something about the startled yet curious way he looked out at the world that made her want to hug him, and maybe cry just a little.

Gilbert played in the kitchen as Bella ate her breakfast, mostly attacking the shoe strings on Bella's tennis shoes, and even getting a good bite into her ankle. Gilbert rolled around in the sheets as Bella stood on a kitchen chair to set the load of laundry going in the washing machine. Gilbert managed to knock over the framed school photo of Bella from kindergarten, but since she hated that picture – all tight smile and the pigtails that Renee had insisted would look cute – Bella decided that he was the best kitten in the whole world. All the while, Charlie worked in the garage on the engine in his fishing boat – it had started stalling out, and though he loved spending time with Bella, he found that they were both remarkably self-sufficient.

In the late afternoon, Bella had been persuaded by Gilbert's determined fascination with the sliding glass door to take him out into the open grass that functioned as a backyard for Charlie and the adjoining neighbors. The kitten bounded about happily, chasing a little red ball Bella had found in her dresser upstairs, and Bella talked to him about her life in Phoenix – how she wondered how two such different people as Renee and Charlie could have ever been in love long enough to create her. She told Gilbert how it made her sad that Charlie was always alone, but that she thought maybe her mom was even lonelier, and that just didn't make sense to Bella. She was tempted to leave Gilbert here in Washington when she had to go home in August so he could keep Charlie company, but she hated the idea that he might not remember her when she saw him again next summer.

Charlie poked his head out the back door and asked Bella what she wanted on her pizza. She just shrugged – she was pretty easy to please, which she thought Charlie knew by now, but he winked at her as he slid the door closed and that made her giggle. When she turned back to the kitten, though, he was gone. Bella leaped up, scanned the ground around her, and felt her heart plummet as she caught a glimpse of Gilbert's black tail slipping into the ferns at the edge of the woods.

"Gilbert! GILBERT!" Bella yelled loudly as she ran towards the tree line. She stumbled once on a gopher hole, but righted herself and hurried into the woods after the kitten. What if he got lost? What if he was eaten by some scary forest animal? She couldn't even keep a kitten alive for one day!? Thoughts like these propelled her forward, despite the dimness under the canopy of the tree branches. Gilbert was nowhere to be seen, however, and Bella's vision was quickly obscured by tears. Some thorny plants dragged at Bella's jeans, and she tripped over a bunch of branches, but she was resolute: she wasn't leaving without her kitten. She paused, sucked in a ragged breath, and tried to listen for Gilbert. Looking around, Bella realized that she had no idea which direction was home. Suddenly it wasn't just Gilbert she was worried for. She cried harder as she looked from one identical tree to another, couldn't see any landmark that might indicate she'd passed by before now.

Now Bella's cries oscillated between "DAD!" and "Gilbert!" but as she continued to wander, the former definitely began to outnumber the wasted some energy berating herself for her stupidity, for taking Gilbert outside to play, for taking her eyes off of him for even a second, and most of all, for chasing him into the woods without a second thought. Charlie will be so worried was the thought that sent Bella into renewed hysterics, imagining how he would be condemning himself for his own decision to let Bella play outside unsupervised. Her tear-choked voice grew hoarse quickly, and so she continued trying to find a way home, a trail, anything that might get her home sooner.

Unfortunately, what she found was a steep ravine, and she found it by falling down it, hard. Feeling jostled and a bit dizzy, Bella lifted her hand to her forehead, trying to clear the hair out of her eyes. And that was when she was met with a sight that truly had her hyperventilating: a sharp piece of bone was jutting out of Bella's forearm, just sticking out like it was the most normal thing in the world. As she watched, horrified, blood welled up around the bone and seeped down her white arm. Bella turned her head just enough so that the vomit that spewed forth landed in the mossy dirt at her side, rather than down her shirt. Bella's tears took on a new level of fervency as her stomach emptied and her knowledge of the injury was telegraphed to the nerves in her arm. On top of all those things, the salty, coppery smell of her own blood was making her light headed, and Bella welcomed the blurry darkness as it covered her completely.

July 5, 1996

Carlisle was interviewing at the local hospital, and Esme was feeling restless. She'd checked in with Emmett and Rosalie, smiling to herself as the two bickered good-naturedly about a host of inconsequential things. Esme'd accomplished the bulk of remodeling she'd envisioned for the house, and Alice had been adamant that she wait to complete the decorations when she and Jasper arrived on Saturday. It wasn't often that Esme admitted, even to herself, that eternity could sometimes feel like an awfully long time, that boredom was a constant menace, lurking in the shadows. She pushed it away forcibly and called up to Edward, "Let's hunt."

Edward found it endearing that Esme spoke aloud when it was just the two of them around. It made him feel a little more normal, like the human façade was tethered in reality, and with it their relationship of mother and son. He was down the stairs in a flash, happy to accede to her wishes. They'd hunted a week ago in Illinois before the "Ollie the Collie Debacle" (he rolled his eyes at how obnoxious Rose managed to be, even when she was absent) had broken into their structured lives, but Edward was feeling restless too, and he didn't really need an excuse to stretch his legs.

They ran for a while, not really that interested in the dull tang of the deer fleeing the vampires' scents, just laughing and exploring the area more thoroughly. The wind was behind them, making the hunt just a little more interesting. A stuttering heartbeat drew them to the south, but both stopped in shock at the sight that met them when they turned a corner in a steep ravine. It was a little girl, lying prone on the ground, and the scent of moist blood hung in the air, along with the pungent scents of bile and urine. She wasn't moving, but the sound of her weak heartbeat thrummed loudly in their ears.

In the split second that the entire scene impressed itself upon them, Esme and Edward had opposite reactions. Everything that was maternal in Esme seized her, stopped her from breathing, nearly resuscitated her long-still heart as it constricted in agony over the injured child. Edward -- Edward was nearly knocked off his feet by the power with which that blood called to him. He couldn't imagine existing if that scent weren't translated into taste. The shock of desire looming up and coating his throat in a thick blanket of venom cost him the precious moments that might have allowed him to drink of the girl and avoid the ensuing tragedy. As it was, his lightning quick brain stuttered to a halt, and by the time he'd processed the fact that he had every intention of making a meal of the child, Esme had processed that same fact and had taken up a defensive crouch between him and girl.

The animal in Edward had never been so strong – and this animal was so very dangerous. He was equipped with razor sharp teeth, impossible strength, lightning fast reflexes, and the overwhelming advantage of being able to read minds. Make that mind, singular. Edward was confused to note that while Esme's panic and horror and anger and fear were all being broadcast to him clear as day, nothing could be heard from the girl. Perhaps she was brain dead? Her heart was still beating, but there was definitely no thoughts to be discovered. If he thought that that discovery might sway Esme to step aside, put the poor thing out of her misery, he would have pressed the advantage, but even without access to her thoughts, Edward knew Esme better than to expect that. Right now, at the back of her mind, Esme was reliving the loss of her own child, and there was nothing he could say that would convince this beautiful, ferocious woman from abandoning this child while it still breathed.

Edward wondered, in a way only possible for a vampire who could think on so many levels at once, whether Alice was somewhere in the state of Minnesota, frozen in horror at what she must be seeing. His cell phone had been vibrating in his pocket off and on during the three minutes he and Esme had been locked in this stand-off. Alice. Jasper, maybe. Carlisle, even. He wasn't sure, but it didn't really matter. The song of this girl's blood had untethered him, freed him from every facade, every responsibility, every obligation, every need but his thirst. It was a siren call, and he had every intention of crashing his ship upon its rocks.

Don't Do This. Esme's voice shook with so many emotions, part of Edward felt exhausted just by cataloguing them. It didn't matter. Nothing mattered but the girl and the sweet smell of her blood. Well, there was still enough of rationality left in Edward to want his meal and his family too – but he knew which he'd choose, if it came down to choosing.

"Step. Aside." Holy fuck. He didn't want to do this to her, to Esme, the only mother he really knew now, but she wasn't going to step aside and he wasn't going to back down. The wind had died down before they'd even found the girl, but as though his current state of tortured temptation were not sufficient, the breeze picked up the girl's luscious scent and wafted it closer.

And they pounced. But Edward knew where Esme was aiming, knew she didn't want to hurt him, just stop him from doing something that would crush his spirit, make him loathe himself even more than he already did, he knew how easy it would be to break her. Edward shifted his focus from the girl and the glistening red he could see wasting itself in the dirt beside her, turned his focus to the source of the enraged growl, which was aiming itself at his legs. It was an easy maneuver, to catch her arm, swing her a bit, and send her careening into the clay wall of the ravine. Easy to conceive, defensively and offensively speaking, horribly painful to execute if Edward had allowed himself to acknowledge that it was his mother he was fighting. Instead, he closed off his mind, gave himself over to his instincts entirely, and reminded himself that this girl was made for him, no one had the right to stand between them.

Esme's shock was brushed aside quickly, and was replaced by renewed determination. She wouldn't let Edward do this. It didn't matter what the cost was, she couldn't let him murder a child.

Their bodies reverberated loudly in the woods, as though the very mountains were warring. But that was nothing compared the shrill scream of pain that Esme expelled as Edward's teeth ripped into her shoulder, separating her granite limb from her torso. Pain more excruciating than what she'd endured in her transformation to vampire raged at the corners of her vision, and yet she would not yield. Every time Edward tried to move his attention from Esme to the little body that occasionally whimpered, Esme found new resources of strength and dragged him backwards, forcing him to defend himself. She knew she couldn't beat him, wouldn't last much longer in fact, with the venom seeping from her torn shoulder, besides, he was Edward, who was she kidding? She only knew that she would not give up, could not give up. And it wasn't even for the sake of the human child, or not entirely, but it was Edward she was fighting for. He was her son. Thoughts of his face when he had come back to them, decades ago, the Prodigal – those had been fiends he'd executed, and yet he found it impossible to forgive himself. How would he survive this?

EDWARD! Don't Do This! Edward thought that it was, once again, his conscience warring with his instinct, but this time it continued, falling into a desperate string of profanities. When Edward realized that the voice was accompanied by the images of forest speeding by, by the feeling of desperate fear, by the repeated mantra Please God, don't let me be too late, it finally clicked in his mind that it was Carlisle's voice in truth. Carlisle was zipping through the forest, following both the scent of his family and the sound of the battle raging.

Edward stood over Esme, who was struggling to rise, and looked longingly at the crumpled form of the little girl. His time was running out. He could actually hear Carlisle with his ears, not just his mind, now.

Esme reached out, gripped his hand, grated out a single word between her clenched teeth: "Please." It closed Edward's eyes, made him wish more than ever before in his un-life that he could weep. When he opened his eyes, Carlisle was standing between him and girl, but he wasn't looking at Edward, he was staring in mute horror at the suffering of his mate. Esme's eyes glowed with joy as she realized what Carlisle's presence meant – Edward was saved. The child was saved. It didn't even occur to her to think that it also meant that she was saved.

Edward looked at his feet, but that only brought his gaze closer to the alabaster limb he'd torn from her – his mother. Carlisle's wife. He was a coward – he couldn't look at either of them, couldn't bear to see either judgment or compassion, hated to think that this was within his character enough that they might not be shocked by these events, might be able to just chalk it up to him being Edward. No. He couldn't live with that.

He ran.

July 6, 1996

Charlie hadn't left her side since Bella had come out of surgery. Couldn't take his eyes off of her, just kept running his finger tips over her forehead (creased, just like his, in worry, he hoped not in pain). He wanted her to wake up. Wanted to scold her for terrifying him like that. Wanted more than anything to see his own warm brown eyes reflected in her face.

Renee was asleep in the chair in the corner – had flown most of the night to get here. He could still see the salty tracks of her tears, and Charlie swallowed the lump growing in his own throat. Every time his thoughts strayed to what if… he had to pull himself up short, couldn't let himself think about such things.

She was here, she was safe now.

Charlie wasn't a religious man, but he offered up a silent thanks, found his mind boggled by the overwhelming sense of providence that could have led the new surgeon and his wife to take a hike through the very portion of the woods where Bella had wandered and fallen. It was just as likely that she might have died—Stop. Still, Carlisle Cullen was Charlie Swan's new hero, and Esme Cullen was a close second. Both had been clearly shocked by the experience – their strained and shaken appearances registered in Charlie's law enforcement-honed instincts, even if he couldn't articulate what he thought precisely. Esme, especially, had seemed so upset, but that made sense, he supposed, considering that Carlisle was a doctor and had probably seen any number of—Stop.

But they found her. That's the important thing. And she's going to be fine. She's going to be fine.

July 7, 1996

Edward's phone had died about twelve hours ago. It hadn't stopped buzzing since—well, it had been ringing for a while, and though he couldn't bring himself to answer it, he also couldn't find it in himself to throw it away, drop it in a stream or shatter it against a tree. He didn't know precisely where he was now – he'd run north from the accident site, stopped briefly at a convenience store in a small town across the Canadian border, then simply aimed himself towards the remote woodland that would make it harder for Alice to find him. He'd stopped finally because he'd found a small clearing, a meadow that actually reminded him of the one back near Forks –and that seemed appropriate. He'd meticulously cleared away the dry grass. Picked out a good number of stones from the river bed a ways off, and sat contemplating the years he'd been working himself up to this moment. He gagged as he remembered Esme's arm in the dirt, the same hand that had tried to straighten out his ridiculous hair any number of times, the same arm that embraced him tightly for no reason at all. With that image hanging in his mind, Edward stood and slowly disrobed. Though he couldn't feel the chill in evening breeze, his instincts rebelled against the sense of vulnerability he felt in standing naked in the midst of the quiet clearing. He hated himself just a bit more for that – for the fact that, even now, he had to fight his instincts. A bitter smile scarred his handsome face as he recognized the irony that now, in this moment, survival remained an imperative.

Edward wouldn't let himself hide any more, wouldn't even close his eyes. He bit down on his finger, severed it cleanly at the knuckle. A sharp expression of pain rocked his frame, but the thought that he had done this very thing to his mother, kept him bowed to the task. Each finger on his left hand fell at his feet. If Edward had had any hope of redemption, he wouldn't have been doing this, so he didn't waste any time on prayers or pleas for forgiveness. Instead, he knelt on one knee and used his entire strength to tear his left leg from his hip. He couldn't stop a roar of agony from escaping his mouth, but he quickly bit down on his tongue, crumpling onto his right side, opened his mouth and let the venom stream down over his face. The wounds in his arm and hip wept venom as well, and Edward's body shook with the wracking pain of it all. If he could have found escape in unconsciousness, he was certain it would have happened already, so he determined to bring his final plan to fruition. Edward rolled over, pulled the lighter from his right pants pocket and set himself ablaze.

The word torture couldn't encompass the level of torment he experienced because, you see, he could have still escaped. Even hobbled as he was, Edward could have fled the flames, could have doused himself in the river's embrace and put himself back together as Humpty Dumpty could not. He could have considered the pain as payment for what he'd done to Esme, how he had wounded Carlisle, what he'd meant to do to the girl. So, it was the determination, the exercise of his adamantine will to end this shameful existence, when his will had been so very insufficient to stop him just days ago, that was the true torture.

But he did – endure the burning. By the time Alice arrived, Edward was gone. The dirty purple smoke had been blown away by the wind, obscuring the cold stars above. A small pile of ashes covered the river rocks, and Edward's clothing were neatly folded nearby. Somehow, it was this detail that left Alice screaming. That he was so meticulous, could be so goddamned punctilious even as he left them with a huge hole in their hearts, it made Alice ache with both impotent fury and unending pain.

February 5, 2010

Bella Swan was a little creeped out. She'd been pushing her grocery cart down the frozen food aisle, trying to distract her screeching toddler from the fact that they were twenty minutes late for his nap. He was so LOUD. She hated the way that old ladies passed them in the aisles and looked at her like she was a horrible mother or something, just because her thirteen month old wasn't a perfect angel. Well, that's what she figured they were thinking, and mostly she just really really hated the fact that people were staring at them, period. In desperation, she grabbed a box of overpriced baby crackers from the cart, ripped it open, and danced the cartoon-shaped carbohydrate in front of her baby's face. Just as she knew he would, he laughed, grabbed it, and got down to the business of gumming it to death. She sighed. Clearly it was she who was conditioned, and not the boy. Still—he wasn't crying, and for that she could be grateful, and no doubt, so were the other patrons of this establishment. It was with this thought that Bella realized that a petite young woman was standing beside her, staring intently at both her and her son.

"Hello?" Bella wasn't sure if the young woman had stopped with the intention of speaking to her, or if she had simply wanted to gape at them. When Bella spoke, the girl's focus shifted from the boy (now contentedly smearing cracker residue all over his shirt, his hair, and the cart's handle) to Bella. A smile widened across the girl's face, although Bella thought maybe there was a sadness there too.

"He's beautiful," the girl said, and Bella was struck by not only the musicality of her voice, but the poise that radiated off of her. Her dark, jagged hair cut was styled fashionably and she was dressed simply in a well tailored black dress. Bella cringed to think of her own worn denim jeans and pilly Gap sweater that had been washed too many times.

Still, she agreed with the girl's assessment, and though she was inclined to make a self-deprecating reference to the decibel to which he was capable of screaming, particularly in a public place, Bella simply smiled and said, "He is."

"You're happy." It wasn't a question, which seemed odd because Bella was pretty certain that she'd never seen this girl before. But before she could question her, the girl leaned up on her toes, darted a quick, cold kiss on Bella's cheek, whispered, "I'm glad," and exited the aisle with a lithe, dancer's step.

Bella stood there in the frozen food aisle, staring into empty space until the baby screamed for another cracker. Bella rubbed the scar on her arm absently, and did what she usually did when something seemed unpleasant or disconcerting: she buried it, and chose to focus on the things she loved about her life. So she smiled at her baby and pushed her cart into the next aisle, trying to remember what else was on her list.

The End

A/N: I've gotten a few questions regarding the narrative choice to "break" from canon in allowing Edward to commit suicide, so I thought I'd add a quick note to explain that I intentionally worked within the realm that SM created. What I've done here is take advantage of an area where I don't believe the world she's fashioned makes sense. Carlisle obviously attempted (unsuccessfully) multiple means of suicide, but at that time had never lived among vampires, and so he wouldn't have been familiar with the means of 'killing' them. It doesn't make sense to me that in New Moon and Breaking Dawn, Edward needs the wolves or the Volturi to end his life. If the science of executing a vampire is simply to dismember them and then light the pieces on fire (so they won't reanimate), then it seems to me that a vampire capable of enough will and self-hatred should be able to dismember himself/herself enough to get the process going - the problem would lie in having the determination to "endure burning" long enough to complete the process. Hopefully it's come across here that the tragedy for Edward is that he (perhaps alone among vampires) is capable of such self-mutilation and destruction, but those very same qualities make him the character we meet in the novels - thus, the line between tragedy and comedy (in the Aristotelian sense) is extremely thin.

I'd love to hear what you think!