Age of Consent

Summary: With age comes wisdom. And confusion. A solid look at relinquishing humanity and participating in a mature, equal relationship. B/E No babies.

These are Ms. Meyer's characters, I'm just playing with them.

"Mrs. Cullen?"

"Yes," I answer, looking up at the secretary with my customary impersonal smile.

"The registrar is finished processing the paperwork, but she needs your signature. Two doors down the hall, on your left."

"Thank you, Miss…?"

"Malley. You can call me Dana," she grins. She's young and pretty, about twenty-five or so, and she's been very sweet. I notice she has a silver Celtic Triskelion pendant around her neck. A pagan. I've studied paganism purely academically, and I might be in the right town for historical research, but I've never been able to have an in-depth conversation with a real pagan before. I want to talk to this girl, ask her questions about her daily life, find out what she likes about her religion and whether she really practices rituals or simply feels a deep and abiding respect for nature. Under different circumstances, I might invite her to have coffee with me, and we might even get to be friends. But the circumstances aren't different, and I can't afford to have humans getting too close, especially not humans from the school.

"Thank you, Dana." I gather up my purse and stalk out of the front office and into the hallway, the heels of my boots clicking against the hard floor. I notice a few boys, about fifteen years old or so, staring as I walk by. One of them mouths 'MILF,' and though I'm committed to my husband, I have to admit it's a little flattering.

The first door on the left is the guidance counselor's office, where Edward's counselor is frowning at something on her computer screen. I can see the back of his head, shaped in its usual bird's nest, but he does not turn as I walk by. He's sitting straight and perfect, his normal habit whenever we enroll him in a new school. By tomorrow he'll be slouching like any other modern teenager, but he believes in making a good first impression on school staff. His brothers and sisters each have their own little first-day traditions, and this is his.

A rotund, pleasant-faced black woman in her mid-forties greets me when I enter the registrar's office, shaking my pale hand and introducing herself as Ms. Dixon. I was expecting to simply sign my name and go, but she seems to be in a chatty mood.

"So, I see you came from Oregon. What brings you to Massachusetts, Mrs. Cullen?"

I feed her the usual story about going through a personal tragedy and wanting to start over someplace new. We're trying something different this time around, choosing to live in a larger city rather than a small one. There are still plenty of state parks and wildlife preserves within running distance, but I feel that it might be easier to blend in with the humans and explain our bizarre 'custody' situation if we're lost in a large crowd rather than newcomers in a small, clannish community.

"Your nephew is a good-looking boy, and so smart," Ms. Dixon is saying. I pretend not to notice the inappropriately appreciative quality to her smile that will only irritate me if I analyze it. "He should make friends easily and adapt well to the new…situation."

"Thank you, Ms. Dixon," I reply politely. "If that's all, I'm afraid I'll have to get going. I have a few appointments this morning."

"Oh, I'm sorry! I always lose track of time talking to new people." The woman hands over the paperwork, which I sign rapidly. "Welcome to Salem, and thanks so much for your time. Please don't hesitate to call if you need anything…" she looks at my signature.

"Isabella," I say, standing up and reaching for the door. "Isabella Cullen."

One month. I'm giving myself one month to meet all the requirements to practice law here, and then I need to start interviewing with local defense firms. For the record, I know I don't have to work. There are five nice, fat bank accounts in my name in this country alone. But as I explained to Edward the last time we had this conversation, the fact that we're wealthy is no excuse for idleness or a useless existence.

I completed my law degree about five years ago. It wasn't the career path I expected, but growing up as a cop's daughter, the legal system held a certain fascination for me that I chose to nourish as an adult. I thoroughly enjoyed my time as a criminal attorney in Oregon, but with my being the only one aging, we really couldn't stay there any longer. There were only so many places in Oregon where we could go without running into someone we'd met before.

Now I have the task of studying for a whole new state bar exam. The woman I speak to on the phone says I'm lucky: Massachusetts used to only hold this exam in February and July, but this year they've changed their schedule to add an October test. Love of the law notwithstanding, it's a royal pain having to relearn everything. This state—excuse me, commonwealth—certainly seems to take itself seriously. I halfway expect the judges to wear wigs. Fortunately, with Edward in school all day, I have plenty of time alone to devote to the meticulous task of learning two hundred eighty-two chapters of the General Laws of Massachusetts, in addition to the city and county statutes and civil procedure. Right. Piece of cake.

I think I'll just unpack a few more boxes first.

I always take my time with my pictures. My favorite thing to do every time we move is to pull out the photo albums and frames and look them over, remembering where we've been and what we've done. It takes forever to get through them all, but I don't care. It makes me smile.

The first box contains photos from Washington. Most of the photographs were taken in Forks proper, or at the Cullen home, and a few at my father's house: a barbecue for Charlie's deputies, a scavenger hunt, a few shots of "Family Skit Night" that I like to keep for blackmail purposes. There's only one picture of Jacob, which I keep not out of longing, but out of a sense of duty—he did get me through a rough period in my life. There was a time when Jacob would have liked to have been more to me than a friend, and he insisted he could protect me from anything that came our way, but after Edward and I came back from Italy, I had a conversation with Sam that changed all that. Once Sam understood exactly what kind of firepower he'd be up against, and that his entire tribe of 751 innocent people would be safer if my humanity remained the only concern the Volturi had, the pack leader thanked me for the warning, asked that my coven keep him informed of future visitors and that we not linger in Forks too long, and otherwise wanted nothing to do with me anymore, "human or otherwise," was how he put it. He sent Jacob to Neah Bay for a while, probably hoping Jake would meet a nice native girl on the Makah rez and forget about me. I think it worked, because he never called me again.

Edward and I stayed with our family after our Forks High graduation, in an apartment Esme constructed over the garage. Our summer was actually quite peaceful thanks to Alice and Jasper, who had quietly and efficiently dispatched Victoria to the great beyond during the Easter break instead of letting the situation build up to some big, unnecessary production. Charlie disliked not having me under his roof, but he got over it when the Widow Clearwater started cooking for him. Since the Italian vampires seemed to have forgotten about me thanks to the reprisal of a perpetual power struggle in Romania that promised to last at least another century, I found myself in a surprising state of…not complacency, exactly, but leisure and security. For the first time in so long, my destiny was under my own control, and there was no need to hurry. Edward persuaded me to spend a bit more time as a human before undergoing the change, so I might be able to enjoy a few more years with my parents before I had to leave them behind entirely. In exchange, he agreed to two conditions: no more pestering me about marriage (which, I reminded him, was supposed to be a freely given emotional commitment and expression of love, not a bargaining chip), and gradually working our way toward a more physically intimate relationship. That second one took a solid year to come to full fruition, but damn was that an amazing year.

Unfortunately, while I was clearly getting older and finally growing bigger breasts, the Cullens were frozen in their stagnant bodies, and the population of Forks was starting to notice. So we moved one state away instead of across the country, and I pursued a criminal justice degree at Portland State while alternating visits with my parents every other holiday. Eventually the rest of the family felt the need to move on again, but I was accepted to Lewis and Clark Law School. I found myself faced with two options: move to the Yukon and be changed, and hope that it would only be a year before I could handle the presence of large groups of people, or stay close to Portland, attend Lewis and Clark, and finish what I started. Edward encouraged me to pursue Plan B. At twenty-two, I felt like I was finally almost as pretty as Edward had always told me I was, and I wasn't in danger of wrinkles or arthritis any time soon. When you're that age, you still feel as young as you always have, and you really don't think of yourself as aging yet. Such was I.

Edward stayed in school with me as long as he could, but when he couldn't pass for anything older than twenty-three, we had to juggle our schedules and living arrangements so that he could start over in another nearby town, this time as a community college student getting an associate degree in music theory. I graduated with my law degree a week after his commencements. He treated his graduation as a trifling thing, just one more in a long string of useless accomplishments. That cast an unanticipated hollow feeling over my own ceremony, in spite of how proud he was of my academic success.

Once I had my law degree in my hand, it felt silly and wasteful not to use it—what was the point in all that effort if I was just going to collect diplomas like stamps? My Edward, ever mindful of my ambitions and being more than willing to extend my human years, insisted that we stay in Oregon and get my career started. Charlie stopped speaking to me when I informed him I wanted to work for a defense firm rather than the District Attorney's office. My attempts at explaining that both the guilty and the innocent are entitled to a defense (the Sixth Amendment, Charlie, does that sound familiar?) went unheard. To him the cop is always right, and defense attorneys and Miranda Rights are all that's wrong with the American legal system. I'd love to be able to say I was surprised at being disowned over the idea of defending the remorseful criminals and the wrongfully accused, but the thing is, Mom left Charlie for a reason, and I was finally old enough to realize it wasn't strictly out of boredom.

Edward and I wound up in the little seaside town of Brookings, OR, adjacent to the Rogue Valley wine region (for me) and Siskiyou National Forest (for him), and as far south as we could go without hitting California. That time Edward played a high school junior. I told him it wasn't necessary, and that I'd much rather he be my live-in lover publicly instead of secretly, but he insisted, hoping that by his starting out younger, I'd have plenty of time to accomplish what I wanted professionally before we had to move on. The sacrifice was appreciated, but our living situation required an explanation. I was in the awkward position of either having to pretend I was his older sister or claiming to be a relative by marriage. So it was that I became a widow without ever having been married.

When Edward turned eighteen again, I surprised him (as only I can) by booking tickets to Las Vegas. We reserved the whole top floor of the Bellagio, and the entire vampire family flew in, including the Denali cousins and their mates. Tanya's new mate was Radha, a quiet, mysterious, five-thousand-year-old Bengali female…didn't see that one coming. We were married in a quiet ceremony in the hotel's small but elegant East Chapel. Edward was so happy, it actually hurt—all those years I had denied him such joy because I was worried about what my hard-hearted father, who didn't care anymore, and my scatter-brained mother, whose opinion didn't matter now that I was an adult, would say. Renee wasn't invited to our wedding. We spoke less and less over the years, and I'd gradually stopped visiting her, partly because I was so busy, partly because she and Phil were still wrapped up in each other, but mostly because it would have been too obvious that Edward was inhuman. If she'd attended the ceremony, she would have seen her twenty-something daughter marrying the still-seventeen-year-old Edward. I didn't even tell her I was getting married because I knew she'd want pictures or feel inspired to visit.

The wedding was lovely, the honeymoon divine, but when it was all said and done, we had to go back to Brookings and either pretend I was still Edward's brother's widow or tell a town of five thousand people, including my employer, that I married my teenage brother-in-law, over whom I'd been a legal guardian for over a year. That was why I chose to marry in Nevada—their liberal marriage laws were such that the Oregon law clerks never saw the marriage certificate.

Time slipped away in Brookings as I went from one case to another, and life was as good as we could make it, but not easy. After years of enduring more and more whispers as the populace wondered why Edward still lived with me instead of leaving for a four-year college and speculated what went on between us behind closed doors, Edward and I decided we had enough of Oregon and spent several months traveling. We stayed away from Italy for obvious reasons, but that still left the entire globe to explore. For the first time since law school, we could hold hands in public, kiss in front of anyone, and just be open and free about how much we loved each other. Nobody cared about the age difference in France, but the general public opinion was that we were engaged in a typical affair, not happily married to each other. In Venezuela, they called me a culebra, which literally translates to snake, but figuratively means approximately the same as referring to a woman as a 'cougar' in the U.S. In India, where marriage at a very young age was still common, most people initially assumed Edward was my son! After some time, our favorite destinations became remote locations with few or no humans.

Vacationing is fun, but it's not an occupation. Eventually I grew weary of the constant roaming and having nothing to do. I told Edward I wanted to settle down somewhere, have a place to call home again, and go back to work. After many long conversations and exhaustive research, we decided to try Salem, Massachusetts. It's not quite as large as nearby Boston, but it's closer to good hunting grounds and universities. This time instead of playing his dead brother's wife, I'm his uncle's widow, the same fictional car accident claiming both my husband and Edward's parents. In a city this big, nobody cares beyond the cursory 'I'm sorry for your loss.'

Edward purchased a cabin on a large parcel of land near a state forest so that we'll have somewhere we can escape to on weekends. During the week, however, we need to be close to town. I picked out a modest two-bedroom home in Salem near the coast. We closed on both properties just last month, and now I'm unpacking our things in my slow, human way rather than waiting for Edward to come home and rush through the process. I'm debating if we should divide our pictures between the house and the cabin or keep them all in one location, when I come across a faded envelope containing my original birth certificate. I forgot all about it, but my birthday is next week; I never celebrate my birthday, much to Alice's unending dismay. Wondering which doctor in Forks delivered me (Snow, Gerandy, or someone else entirely?) and what time I was born, I unfold the document and take a look at the data.

The thing about turning thirty that you least expect is: you're turning thirty.

Life doesn't stand still just because you have a startling realization.

I study, research ongoing local trials, buy my groceries, study again, run on my treadmill, flip through scrapbooks, study some more, cook my favorite recipes, watch the occasional Hayao Miyazaki film when I'm sick of looking at small print (What? I like Howl's Moving Castle) and decide which items we'll be taking to the cabin. Edward attends school, zips through homework assignments, practices at the upright piano we bought five years ago, upgrades the bathrooms and repairs the window shutters for me, and fills the night hours with various hobbies he's picked up over the last hundred years, from tinkering with his car to building those ship-in-a-bottle things. Without the threat of impending disasters over our heads, Edward is ten shades more laid back and content than he once was. We read books, snuggle up in blankets to watch movies together, rearrange the furniture, hang paintings and lithographs on our walls, take walks through McCabe Park after dark, and laugh at absurd things. Concert season is about to begin for the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and while we're both looking forward to it, it's like Christmas come early for my husband. Edward's already making plans to attend Boston's nearby Berklee College of Music next fall, which will give him a great official excuse to continue living with me after high school graduation. He's actually composing a symphony of his own, so his piano is always happily covered in an organized mess of sheet music, notation, a tuning fork, and pencil shavings, and I couldn't be more proud of him.

We make love, not every day, but often. It's funny—after years of practice, lovemaking is somehow less dangerous than kissing. Edward knows his body and mine, knows exactly how much pressure I can take, how much of his weight is too much, how to touch my face without hurting me. Kissing on the other hand involves open mouths and tongues, which are not a problem—humans have been safely swallowing venom for as long as Tanya and her sisters have been around—until we factor in his razor-sharp teeth and my too-soft flesh. We still have to be extra cautious about avoiding accidental cuts that could expose my bloodstream to his venom glands, but when Edward kisses me, I can feel it with my whole body, so I don't mind savoring the sensation. When I was nineteen, we had sex daily because it was new and because we could, but I couldn't keep up that pace for long, and after a while things slowed down. Now I just…want him all the time for no apparent reason, even when I'm bone tired, at three in the morning or three in the afternoon. I don't want it slow and gentle, either, which comes as a surprise to both of us. He's not complaining, that's for sure. Sexual peak, here I come.

Esme calls me from Racine, as is her weekly habit. She asks when the rest of the family will be able to come for a visit. I suggest waiting until Columbus Day or Thanksgiving so that Edward won't have to miss school. He's already missed a day because of the sun, and we really don't want to call attention to him with unnecessary absences. Esme says she's facing the same problem with her kids. I try to pretend I don't hear the inflection.

I field phone calls from three of Edward's teachers and his guidance counselor the first week, offering us willing ears and the names of grief counselors who can guide us through the "recent deaths" in our family. I thank them all, pretend to write down names and phone numbers, and hang up. Is it weird that I'm looking forward to another such call, just to hear a compassionate voice? Maybe I'm starting to go a little stir-crazy, spending so much time in the house studying for the bar. I really need to get out. I'm looking up the Salem Events calendar (Peabody Essex Museum…gay pride parade…what is The Witch House, and do I really want to know if their Physick Herbs Exhibit is a legitimate horticultural exhibit or a euphemism for something else?) when I hear a knock at the door. One of the neighbors invites me over for drinks and cards with her friends, and instead of telling her I've got unpacking or studying to do, I take Monica up on her offer.

When I play cards with the Cullen family, I never, ever win. No matter how good my poker face, everyone at the table can hear my heart race, or discern victorious emotions, or foresee what cards I'm about to lay down before I do it. I can always tell when they're letting me win. It feels like charity. But I don't want to be accused of being a spoil-sport, either, so I smile and keep playing and losing. Playing gin-rummy with three other human females, I have an honest-to-god sporting chance, and I win several hands. It's actually…fun.

I get a lot of questions about my late husband, who I claim is named John. I hate having this conversation, not because I don't know my story, but because I'm dealing with complex expectations. These women expect more than just sadness—they want me to be a brave soul who is trying to move forward from that sadness, or a polite lady who doesn't want to spoil everyone else's good time with my problems, or even terrified at the thought of suddenly having to raise a teenager. Business cards for child psychologists for Edward are discretely slipped into my hand, and invitations are extended for future Girls Nights. One of them asks when I think I'll be ready to start dating again, promising to set me up with a nice guy from her husband's office. What can I do except wiggle my left ring finger, still adorned with Elizabeth Masen's ring, and say, "Thanks, but it's much too soon."

Girls Night turns out to be Girls Spa Day. I don't know why I said yes, but Edward encourages me to go pamper myself. He spends his Saturday hunting while I go to a day spa in downtown Salem with my neighbor and her crew of power wives. Mud baths, seaweed wrap, face mask…I swear, it's like I have to turn into the Creature from the Black Lagoon before I can look my best. Still, it's kind of nice, having women to talk to who aren't clients—it seems like it's been years since I've engaged in normal girl talk. I could do without the woman who gushes over her own baby's photos, as if she doesn't spend hours with him daily, but it is her first child, so I smile politely and wait for the subject to change. My neighbor gets excited when I tell her I lived in Oregon wine country, and her enthusiasm is new for me; like cuisine, it's a topic I can never really share with Edward, no matter how much he tries to understand. Just as I can't discern between the blood-palate subtleties one subspecies of deer and another.

Everything is actually going fine until one of the beauticians gently suggests I schedule an appointment with a colorist to take care of a few silver hairs I hadn't noticed. After I'm done suppressing a minor panic attack, I decide to take her advice; I need to look dignified for my upcoming interviews, but not old. What happened to the pretty twenty-two-year-old I remember from the mirror?

Getting skin treatments with a gaggle of women is not my only source of human interaction, thank goodness. One thing about being a lawyer: you have to develop contacts. Even if you're not a trial attorney (which I am), you still have to deal with other lawyers, police officers, the parole board, corrections officers, judges, doctors, psychiatrists, law clerks, you name it. These people are important, and you don't want to make enemies right away. This is something I have to keep in mind as I'm calling law firms or being introduced to so-and-so's husband who works at Smith, Thomas, and Price or Bryant and O'Leary. I can't just blow them off socially and expect them to have a good opinion of me whenever the time comes for me to seek gainful employment. Nor do I want to ignore them. The truth is I enjoy this part just as much as I do arguing a case. This isn't like high school, when I thought I was so different from my teen peers because I was forced to interact with shallow girls who thought chiefly of boys, boys, boys. We're professionals; we have real conversations and talk legal strategy, politics, who to watch out for at the D.A.'s office, and recent changes to the Constitution, like the newly ratified ERA. I stick to coffees and lunches, always in cafes and restaurants full of other lawyers, and I have to forego offers of wine because it's the middle of the day and I came in my own car. It's more convenient this way; it doesn't interfere with my time with Edward, because he's stuck on campus for lunch and can't come home to see me then anyway.

Another thing about being an attorney: notoriety. It doesn't happen quickly, and it isn't even guaranteed to play out in a positive direction, but it does happen, especially for a trial lawyer. Fading into the background would be easy, but I'm not a mediocre public defender—I'm dedicated, and I'm very good at what I do. Eventually I'm going to be given a challenging case to cut my proverbial teeth on. It hasn't come up here yet, because I haven't actually started working, but as you take on clients and come up with brilliant defenses (or fail miserably, which happens to everyone), your peers take notice. People keep track of how many cases they've won and lost, and they want to know how many I won and lost back in Oregon, and whether I worked on anything exciting or unusual. It's like I'm a basketball player and they want my stats. They get excited when I tell them I successfully defended a police officer charged with official oppression and trumped up assault charges. Never mind that the man was actually innocent, and that there was no evidence to support the charges—it's a miracle that I was able to sway the jury at all, because people love to make an example of cops whenever they can.

This sort of thing is fascinating to prospective employers; a good reputation gets my foot in a lot of doors, but it also inspires curiosity about me. I worry about what might happen if they call my old law firm and ask personal questions about me. Fortunately I'm not above suing my old boss for invasion of privacy, and you'd better believe he knows it. What can I say? I'm a blood-sucking lawyer: lawsuits are my natural instinct. But even with that, just one person has to find the holes in my story, and I'll be in deep trouble. Edward and I will be exposed, and we'll have to leave Massachusetts and start all over again somewhere else, maybe with a different name and falsified certification for me. I hate the idea, like the degree I worked so hard for is just as useless as Edward's twenty-three high school diplomas.

It takes me three weeks to realize I can't do this anymore.

"I'm home!" Edward calls, quietly closing the door behind him. I hear the swish of the living room blinds being closed. That's always the first thing Edward does when he comes home.

"In here," I answer, shutting my own set of blinds. It's Friday, a week before everyone is supposed to fly in for Columbus Day, and I'm in the kitchen putting away clean dishes. Edward hates it when I do this by myself because I'm short and the cabinets are so high that I always need a step-ladder. Nearly thirteen years together, and he's still ready to throw himself at me to protect me from any little accident. Never mind that I haven't 'tripped over nothing' since my college undergrad days, when we took ballroom dancing as our kinesiology elective and my instructor informed me that my problem was not poor balance but a tendency to drag my feet. Good lord, that was a decade ago.

"Hello, my love," Edward murmurs in my ear a half-second after he hears the kitchen blinds close. Cool arms wrap around me from behind, and I lean my head to the side for a kiss to the throat. "How's the studying going?"

"Today's been one of those days," I sigh, "when I had to remind myself the reason I'm putting myself through this is because innocent people have the right to an attorney, too. That got me through about five hours before I called it quits and retreated to the last of the moving boxes."

"I'm sorry to hear it," Edward sympathizes. Because he knows me so well, he doesn't say anything else about next week's bar exam, which I'm already nervous about. "By the way, have you finished sorting through the pictures yet? Did you decide where you want me to hang them?"

"I think we should stick to artwork on the main floor," I reply softly, closing my eyes as Edward nuzzles my neck. "I'll keep a few albums here, but I'd rather save the framed photos for the cabin."

"If you like." His touches still set fire to me, and he certainly knows how to get me going. All it takes is for him to kiss one particular inch of skin along the curve of my collarbone, and I'm reduced to a puddle. I wait for it, but today he's taking his time getting there.

"How'd it go today?" I ask dreamily.

"They're still buying the story." A hand slips almost nonchalantly under the hem of my black cashmere sweater. "You were right; apparently I'm not the only fifteen-year-old senior there. Only one year of high school this time, and we can stay here for at least seven years before anyone asks questions, maybe even eight."

Eight. Years.

"Is something wrong?" Edward asks—I realize that I just froze up on him.

"What are we doing here, Edward?" My voice is hollow, even to my own ears.

"I'm sorry?"

I turn around and look up into my teenage husband's eyes. "What. Are. We. Doing?"

Edward takes both my hands in his and leads me to the couch. "Bella, tell me what you're thinking. Whatever it is, I promise I'll do whatever I can to make it right."

I sink into the cushions and look around for a moment. Esme generally favors white on white in public homes to minimize the impact of everyone's pallor, but I prefer warm, inviting colors, reds and browns and golds, and this house reflects that. It's helpful, actually—I relax quicker and get in the right headspace for sharing my concerns.

"Well…" Perhaps it's best to start with a supernatural practicality. "What's going on with the Volturi? Have you heard anything new?"

"The vampire wars in Africa are keeping their attention occupied. Ever since the new AIDS cure began free distribution there, the humans aren't accepting tales of disease and tribal warfare as readily as they once did." Edward brings a comforting hand to my face. "Alice assures me The Volturi have made no decisions about you and me at all. She doesn't believe they're even thinking about it. We're as safe as we can be, but if that changes, you know I'll tell you immediately. Please, I don't want you to be worried about that—the stress isn't good for your health."

"My health," I say thoughtfully, nodding my head. "We certainly wouldn't want anything to damage my health."

Edward frowns in contemplation, and I only have to wait two seconds for him to start asking questions. "What's wrong, Bella? Really."

"I don't know," I tell him truthfully. "I know that in a few more years, I won't have to explain that the reason I'm your guardian at such a young age is because I was married to a relative who was only a little older than you. After a while, no one is going to question the age disparity—they'll just assume I'm your mother, because that's what I'll look like to them. It was hard enough, hiding our relationship in Oregon, but at least we were both still young enough that you could pull off eighteen and I could be just a few years older. I told you it was a waste of time pretending to be my brother-in-law when you could have been my partner outright. But now…"

"Bella," Edward whispers, pulling me close. "It's all right."

"No, it's not all right," I groan, backing away from him a little. He needs to take this seriously. "I'm thirty."

"Yes, I know." Edward looks down for a moment. "I didn't want to say anything about it because I know how upset you get." He meets my eyes again, his filled with curiosity. "Is it really so different from twenty-nine?"

"No. And I don't imagine thirty-one will be any worse. That's not the point," I tell him. "It's a world away from seventeen. You're a teenager, and I'm a grown woman, and you're talking about staying here until I'm thirty-eight. I can't do this, Edward. I thought it would be okay, but I can't just keep advancing my career while you repeat high school over and over. I can't keep politely declining genuine offers of friendship because I don't want anyone to come to our house and see the wedding photos. I can't keep making up excuses for why I'm not seeing anyone yet. Most of all, I can't be your Aunt Isabella in the daytime and be your wife Bella behind closed curtains and locked doors. It's not fair to either of us to live our lives that way."

"I know," Edward says tenderly. "Bella, you've given me so much time, more than I asked, more than I thought you would. You've been so good and accommodating, and I want you to know how much I appreciate your doing that. That said, I have to agree with your assessment."

"Really?" I'm surprised; I thought for sure that he'd protest.

"It's…aggravating," he grimaces, "rejecting advances from these human girls. And I was asked twice this week by faculty members if my 'mother' is single. I don't like it. I think we made a mistake arranging our life this way."

"What do we do, then?" I ask him.

He cocks an eyebrow at me, as if I've said something strange and unexpected. "What would you like to do?"

I can't tell which of us is more bothered by the fact that I don't immediately give the obvious answer.

"Edward," I wail, burrowing into his side, "I don't want to lose you."

"You'll never lose me," he vows, arms clutching me marginally tighter. "I'm never leaving you, no matter what." That's easy to say, but experience has taught us that it's harder to live through. Renee lied to me: being in your thirties does not mean you finally have everything figured out, not for me. But at least I don't have to figure my life out alone. My husband and I spend all weekend at the cabin, cleaning, talking, and doing some serious soul-searching.

Soul-searching is perhaps a misleading term; we don't have arguments about my soul anymore, or anyone else's for that matter. I've already made it perfectly clear that I feel the only person responsible for the condition of my soul is me, based on my own actions, not on what someone else does to me. It took a while for the others to get on board with that. Eventually Edward and Carlisle stopped debating their 'vampire theology,' its obvious Christian overtones, and its impact on me when I told them Renee and I hadn't been to temple since I was a young child, after she took Rabbi Stanley's advice to heart (we do not spend all our days in one room to think only about the next room) and decided life was too short to waste it worrying about metaphysical theory. Everyone stopped arguing about it after that and started respecting the idea that the life I was in meant more to me than whatever vague and conflicting imaginings they had of the next plane of existence. I am not worried about an afterlife because I never have been. Neither is Edward anymore, because he's already in his afterlife, and it is what he makes of it. That's not what's bothering me.

My concern (or hesitation to change, I guess) is not about the superhuman aspects of being a vampire—there's neither mystery nor fear left in that regard. I'm not childishly captivated by lightning speed, unnatural strength, or iridescent skin anymore, and after well over a decade, I've heard most of the family's gripes about their nature more times than I can count. How they despise their thirst and the pain that comes with it, but can never do more than keep it manageable. How they have to force themselves not to see humans the same way I see my favorite restaurant menu (but at least they try). How demoralizing it is when someone accidentally kills a human—even Emmett still feels guilty, though he hides it behind a boisterous personality. I don't want to kill anyone, and I know there are precautions I can take, but I'm not foolishly optimistic enough to think I'll possess Carlisle's level of control. It's possible that they've overstated some complaints (Edward is often accused of exaggeration), but I don't think it's possible to overstate the seriousness of taking a life. My point is: I've considered this part already, ad nauseam. I think I have a decent (though not practical) understanding of what it is to be a vampire with a conscience. Certainly, I'm much better prepared than most would-be newborns ever are, it's just… There is no easing into this, no dipping my toes in the water, no trying it out like a Tuesday night beginner's cake decorating class. Either I jump into vampirism with both feet and deal with the consequences as they surface (an attitude that reminds me of all the worst parts of passing my youth with my mother, but then she was never prepared for anything) or I don't do it at all. Ironically, Edward is more confident in my ability to adapt to it than I am, and he promises me that I wouldn't be alone. I appreciate that, but that's not what's stopping me. I just don't know what I want.

Thirteen years ago, this would not have been happening. Thirteen years ago I would have been jumping at the chance to be bitten and turned and never have to get old or be away from Edward ever again. Thirteen years ago (okay, technically twelve) I was chomping at the bit, rejecting the idea of college or a career as meaningless compared to spending an eternity with Edward. Eternity, however, doesn't mean what I thought it did at that age. When you've done nothing with your life yet, eternity sounds like possibility. But when you've done enough living to see reality for what it is—not just good things, but boredom, heartbreak, exhaustion, hard luck, judgment, cruelty—eternity is a really long time.

This is especially true if you have no sense of purpose. I got restless taking a nine-month vacation—the thought of having to spend years, decades, not doing anything significant with my time does not appeal to me. I already know that there will be stretches of time when I can't work for the simple fact that as crime escalates and media coverage becomes more prevalent, the likelihood that I'll eventually have to appear on TV on behalf of a client will increase. I'm not saying I'm on par with Johnny Cochran, but with the internet bringing local media to a global audience and the public's thirst for scandal, getting recognized in an entirely new state will be highly probable. I will have to stay out of the public eye. That might be possible if we go back to small-town living and I only take on small cases, but we've been down that road—it doesn't work for us anymore.

Law careers are made over long periods of time; starting over in a new state every six to ten years is not viable, and with the exception of federal attorneys and branches of the law I'm not trained for, most lawyers spend their entire career in one state, if not one city. Edward and I don't have that option. More to the point, everything I do professionally, from education to certification to individual cases, is part of the public record; I can't hide everything that points to who I am. So not only will I never be able to stay in one place long enough to make partner or keep my own firm open for longer than a few years, I'm afraid I might have to give up law entirely just to keep our identities secret, and though there's nothing I wouldn't do for Edward, I don't want to sacrifice something I love doing. Edward has never wanted me to sacrifice anything, either, but I don't see a way through this without having to lose something I value.

My neighbor's friend calls to invite me to a dinner later this week with several couples, adults only, and she's got the 'perfect guy' for me—he's a mid-level executive at a marketing firm, and he's recently single! Why does this woman think she knows enough about me to determine who would be my perfect match, or even a mediocre match? I answer her with heavy silence, but I accept her apology gracefully when she realizes she's made a social gaffe by trying to set me up too soon after my "husband's death;" it means she won't ask again for a long time. It also saves me from having to make up some bizarre excuse for why I don't like going out without Edward, at least for a few more months anyway. I already have my perfect match, thank you. But nobody here knows it, and I can't tell them.

As I hang up, I realize how lonely it is in Salem, in spite of the size of the town and the doting husband at my side. Edward is my best friend, but it's just us—there is no nearby girlfriend to give me an outsider's perspective on my relationship, or to help plan an anniversary surprise, or to pour my heart out to if the need arises. There was a time when I didn't need anything like that, when I was satisfied with being alone, but I don't think that's enough anymore, and business lunches are no substitute for genuine closeness. I hate how socially isolated I feel, and I know being changed would magnify this. Against my better judgment, I've begun to form superficial friendships and acquaintances with the humans around me, but even that much is only possible because I'm human, too, and I don't terrify anyone on an instinctual level. I want to make friends. I want to go out to dinner with people and not feel socially awkward or nervous that I'm going to let something slip. I want to see different perspectives and form new ideas and opinions. I want to have all these new conversations with my husband at my side, not my 'nephew.' I don't want people to see Edward and have their first question be how I'm adjusting to life as a single parent.

The most hair-pulling concern for me is the continuous need to conceal my relationship with Edward from the surrounding population. It's ridiculous, and often painful, that we have to lie about something so beautiful. Everyone should be so fortunate as to have a trusting, supportive marriage like ours. I love Edward, I love who I am when I'm with him, I love bringing him joy, I love how we make each other feel and how much fun we have together when we aren't constantly on our guard for watchful eyes. But I can't just apply blinders to all those eyes. I know he's my husband, and he knows he's my husband, but in order for him to stay in one place longer than four years, five at the most, he has to assert that he's a minor at first. Even if he's an emancipated minor, I am clearly a grown woman and legally have no right to form a romantic relationship with an underage boy.

If we are to be a couple in public, he has to claim eighteen, and I'll have to claim twenty-five or thereabouts. I'm not sure I can pull twenty-five off. I've stayed in good shape, and I don't think I'm bad-looking, but in my current human form, I do look thirty, or at least I think so when I compare my reflection to my wedding photos and see the new lines under my eyes. I'm not sure what immortality would do for my appearance. Will I look twenty-five, or will I just look like an even paler thirty-year-old? Do I want to be thirty forever?

Edward says I'm fixated on age. He's probably right, but we've reached critical mass here—it's not unimportant anymore, not when part of the dynamic is preventing raised eyebrows from leading to serious suspicions, investigations, or even exposure.

I call Kate in Alaska for advice. She's always struck me as more approachable than her sister Tanya, and she does not disappoint. Kate doesn't remember how old she was before being turned; in those days, nobody actually kept track. She feels that after a thousand years, it really doesn't matter what age she tells people she is—they'll think she's lying anyway, if they care at all. Edward sends a picture of me with his phone, then another of the two of us together. Kate tells me that, while it might have been more prudent to be changed when I was a bit younger, now is still a good time. She says I'll be beautiful. My husband insists I always was and always will be lovely, no matter what I decide to do.

I should wait for everyone to get here before I start asking immediate family members what they think. I know that. But the idea of trying to have a private conversation with Carlisle when six other vampires can hear us from anywhere else within two hundred feet is ludicrous. Alice, who can always be counted on to see my intentions, has Carlisle call me during a break between hospital shifts.

"I can't tell you for certain if you'll look younger, Bella," he sighs. "It's not reconstructive surgery. It's different for everyone because no two people have identical facial bone structure, muscle mass, and fat content. I was twenty-three, and most of the time I can pass as up to thirty-five. You, however, are trying to round down, and I've never done that myself. You'd really be better off asking the children."

"Right. The children." Like my husband, always aged fifteen to twenty-four, if we're lucky—he's one of the children. Emmett and Jasper were changed when they were twenty, and they look twenty, or at least I think so, but they've passed for sixteen before…barely. Rosalie was changed when she was eighteen, but she's always looked older than that to me because she's so ridiculously gorgeous. Alice doesn't really know how old she was when she was changed, but she's so tiny and her hair's so short that she passes for fifteen as easily as twenty-five. Meanwhile, I'm already physically older than Carlisle. I could be changed right now and there's no way I'll ever be able to pass as one of 'the children.'

"Bella," my father-in-law says apologetically, seeming to realize that he committed a faux pas. "I wasn't trying to imply—"

"Don't worry about it." It appears that he knows where my mind is going with this. Maybe Edward's been confiding in him about his own concerns privately. "I understand what you were trying to say. Why don't you just tell me what you can about what the others were like before you changed them?"

"They were dying, Bella." He sounds a little irritated with me. "Edward could barely breathe, and Esme broke nearly every bone in her body. Yes, I cared that Rosalie was beautiful and Emmett strong, but mostly I cared that she'd nearly been raped to death and he'd been mauled by a bear. I realize you're going through an early mid-life crisis, and I don't want to demean that, but there are worse things than getting old. As many times as you were nearly killed, I would expect you to remember that."

Carlisle's always been good at putting things into perspective for me.

The question I can't seem to answer for myself is: is being thirty forever really better than going on to thirty-one, thirty-eight, forty-two, fifty? If I weren't married to an eternal teenager, I don't think I'd mind it so much. Aging happens to most people. Hell, my boss in Brookings said he loved turning fifty—he was rich, he was at the top of his career, his kids had all moved out so he and his wife had more time for each other, and he was still young enough to enjoy life and not need constant medical supervision. I'm already rich, I only really have Edward, I've enjoyed my life thus far in spite of the ups and downs, and I don't need a team of doctors (yet). The only thing missing is being at the top of my career.

It sounds absolutely ridiculous when I put it that way, but Edward doesn't think so—he can't have a career at all, though he's desperately wanted one for a hundred years. He's been through medical school about half as many times as Carlisle, and grad school, law school, teacher's college, Julliard, even stunt-driving school once, but he's never been able to go out and make a real difference in the world, not like I can. He says if he could settle into a satisfying career, he would. "I've seen you in court many times, Bella," he recalls proudly. "You're fantastic up there. You won't be happy if you leave something you love that much."

I can be a lawyer at fifty, but can I still be with Edward if I'm that age? Will either of us even want each other anymore, or will we just be together out of habit by then? Will he still find me attractive, or will he close his eyes and long for the days when I was still seventeen? Will I still find him attractive, or will I wish he looked like a full grown man, not a boy? What if one or both of us finally acknowledges the impossibility of the situation and decides to call it quits? What do I do then? How am I supposed to live without the love I have for Edward? I feel awful for even thinking Edward would ever leave me again—I know better than that. His love for me is not in question, nor is mine for him. But love changes as people do. If we stay with each other until my hair is solid white, what exactly will our relationship be evolving toward, and would it even be something I could call a marriage? Are the human friendships and career ambitions I crave, the opportunity to keep maturing and changing, the ability to die as nature intended, really worth the possibility of losing my husband?

In accordance with Edward's wishes, I tell him everything I'm thinking, no matter how painful. I hate that I'm hurting my sweet husband, but this isn't the easy decision it was at seventeen, when nothing else mattered to me in the world but the rose-colored bliss of young love. It was one thing to lament that Edward didn't allow James to take the choice away from me then. It's another thing entirely to be given the responsibility of choosing my own fate. It would be unwise to wait longer than another year to be changed if I don't want people to believe I'm Edward's mother, but if I undergo the transformation and realize it was a mistake to become a vampire, I can't take it back.

"Anything you want," he swears, kissing my fingers one by one. "Whatever it takes to make you happy."

At the end of the weekend, our cabin is ready for company, but I'm still confused.

My bar exam takes two days to complete, Wednesday and Thursday, and I have to take it in Boston. Fortunately I made sure to bone up on the Massachusetts Rules of Civil Procedure over the last month; one of the essay questions covers that topic, and it takes me forty-five minutes to write a complete answer. It's a stressful time for me, but I feel confident about the test overall—as the saying used to go, this isn't my first rodeo. It's not until I'm fighting rush hour traffic to get home to Salem on the second day of examinations that I realize I could have intentionally bombed the test as an excuse not to stay here. What does it mean that I did my best? Does it hold any significance that I genuinely hope I passed? Is Edward secretly hoping I failed? God, what if I did fail? I could just take the test again in a few months, but do I want to?

I'm looking forward to having the family down for the holiday. All day Friday I cook my favorite Mexican foods to take to the cabin—apparently Columbus Day is largely regarded as an Italian holiday here in the Northeast, which I didn't learn until law school, when I really started enlarging my circle of acquaintance, but where I grew up, Día de la Raza was decidedly anti-European. Anyway, the cabin kitchen isn't much, but it's enough to store and reheat my food—no one appreciates my cooking smells, though I think they're delicious. Even though I'm the only one who eats, Cullen family gatherings are mostly about the company anyway. We're all free to be ourselves around each other. Esme will probably rearrange our furniture singlehandedly about seven times before she's satisfied with the aesthetic—if I'm lucky, she'll indulge me with her famous chair-juggling routine, since our cabin is in a remote location. Alice and Jasper can say how much the area has changed from the way it was sixty or seventy years ago, and nobody will raise an eyebrow. Emmett will probably complain about not being able to find any decent predators in the local woods, and all three boys can wrestle and run at their natural speed. I can say "hunting" without getting human comments about gun control, animal rights, or hillbilly relatives.

Everyone arrives in Massachusetts on Friday evening, and it feels so good to be together again, just talking. Alice, ever prepared for our interactions, says I will get a passing grade on the multiple choice part of the bar, but she can't tell about the essays because grading is subjective. She sounds a little envious, actually, but goes on to describe the ins and outs of her current junior year—having nothing better to do, she's taken to acting as the student body's anonymous advice columnist. Apparently she's saved three good relationships and shut down five bad ones. It's strange; I talk to Alice almost as often as I do Esme, but I find that no matter how much I love her, I can't relate to Alice the same way I once did. High school is something far away from me, but for her it's a recurring event. She must be sick of it by now, so why doesn't she do something about it? Can she do anything about it when everyone thinks she's seventeen? On the plus side, the schools are much better in Racine than the one in Forks, so everyone's trying something different with their electives. Rosalie and Emmett are trying sculpting. I think it's good for them—it requires delicacy and patience rather than Emmett's brute strength or Rosalie's need for instant results. Jasper, who favors film over digital photography, presents me with a stunning collection of black and white candid shots of the family in their new home while Carlisle talks about the area. It's much nicer on Lake Michigan than I expected, and Racine even has its own symphony. I'd like to visit for Thanksgiving; Esme loves that idea, promises to dig up an old cookbook she kept from the years we lived together, and asks how large a turkey I can eat by myself these days.

I stay up late the first night, catching up on what everyone is up to, from Esme's job as an architect to Rosalie's restoration of a 1957 Chevy Bel-Air. I've always hated being the only Cullen who sleeps; it feels like one more way for me to be left out. I don't care if they want to talk about me after I'm unconscious—heaven knows I've had plenty to say about each of them over the years. It's just frustrating, being the odd human out. But I am still mortal, and eventually I nod off in an easy chair, the voices around me dropping to murmurs that burble pleasantly through my dreams.

In the morning I wake up to a group of vampires in a vastly different mood. Evidently Edward took the liberty of sharing my concerns with the rest of the family—I don't mind that he did, though. They ask me to elaborate, they listen and contemplate and remind me of things I'd forgotten or didn't know. We have a real discussion about the issues at hand, and every one of us is expected to pay attention and contribute to the conversation. The days of deciding what to do about me without my input are long past.

"You're always welcome to rejoin the rest of the family," Esme offers.

Everyone begins chattering at break-neck speed about moving us to Wisconsin, whether they should upgrade to a larger home or add on to the existing house, and how far it is to the nearest hunting grounds. I listen silently and hold Edward's hand as they debate property values and zoning laws. Alice stares off into space for a few seconds and frowns. Jasper looks at her in confusion, but continues debating with Emmett which national forest has better prey, Nicolet or Manistee. Once they start talking food, I know it's time to interrupt.

Unfortunately, Alice beats me to the punch. "You're not coming?"

The disappointment in my mother-in-law's face is impossible to miss. It pains me to do that to her, but it's necessary. "Thank you everyone," I say, "really. We appreciate what you're trying to do for us." I look over at Edward, who offers me a reassuring smile and picks up where I left off.

"Esme," he says gently, "Bella and I didn't stay with you in Racine for a reason. It's difficult enough concealing our marriage when it's just the two of us. I can't live as your adopted son and her husband at the same time. I'm sick of pretending she's anything but my wife."

"Then don't," Jasper shrugs, as if this is a simple thing, not the source of my gradually increasing stress for the last several years. "Adopting an adult son with an adult wife wouldn't make sense anyway. There's no family policy in place that says we have to maintain the exact same illusion everywhere we go. Get your own house and use the name Masen. Or even Swan. Esme's claiming thirty-two right now. Bella can be her younger sister or cousin."

"She looks her age, Jasper," Rosalie groans. "There's no way she can pull off being younger than Esme." I don't take it as an insult—it's the truth. Esme's been twenty-six since the nineteen-twenties, and I'm never going to see twenty-six again.

"Then she can claim her real age," Emmett suggests, "and Edward can be eighteen. So you get called a cradle-robber, Bella. Big freakin' deal."

"No one is going to believe I'm older than you," Edward reminds him. "I look younger than every single one of you."

"They aren't going to notice because you won't be in school with us every day," Emmett reasons. "We're still in high school, and you can start at the university in January. Hell, you can get a job for once, so Bella doesn't have to be your sugar mama." Edward just rolls his eyes.

"Wouldn't it make things even more awkward than they already are," I ask, "if Esme and Carlisle are the surrogate parents to four teenagers, while I'm obviously in a sexual relationship with one?"

"I don't particularly care," Alice remarks. "So people talk about your age difference. The yentas at school already gossip about Rose and me sleeping with our foster brothers. I'm over it. I'd rather have the two of you with us." She gives my hand a gentle squeeze. "I miss you." I miss her, too. Younger or older, common ground or not, no one could ask for a better sister.

"If you're worried about your relationship affecting my standing at the hospital or Esme's reputation at work," Carlisle tells me, "don't be. My superior is a 45-year-old woman with a 25-year-old lover. You were right about large cities versus smaller communities, Bella. People register that we're physically different, but for the most part, we're not the most scandalous people in town."

Clearly Wisconsin is a hotbed of social deviance. I should find plenty of clients there.

"When I was a child," Jasper says thoughtfully, "it was common for men to marry much younger women, fifteen-year-olds even. First cousin marriages were considered normal, not incestuous. In another hundred years or so, depending on what country we live in, there's no telling what the marriage customs will be. It's silly to get so hung up on what the norm is right now when human culture is constantly in flux. We survive by adaptation, and that means embracing change."

That's something I hadn't considered, but he has an excellent point. I give my brother-in-law a warm grin. This is why I love family meetings.

"Next time we move," Rosalie pipes up, "I vote we do away with the adoption charade altogether."

"What?" Esme startles, hurt briefly shadowing her face again. Being a mother is an integral part of her identity; I wonder when she last pretended to be anything other than someone's mom on the official public family tree.

My gorgeous sister-in-law looks at Esme with a smile that's almost, but not quite, apologetic. "Nothing will ever change the way I feel about you, but I'm getting sick of playing an orphaned child. I've been doing it over and over for almost ninety years, and what is the damned point to it anymore? I know it's easy to take advantage of crappy foster care records, but eventually we're going to run out of places that don't already have our names or old photos of us in the state systems. Meanwhile we're a hair's breadth away from having incest charges filed against us because the legal definition of 'sibling' varies from state to state, and sometimes it does include foster siblings. All that hassle and potential for exposure and prosecution, and for what? High school rarely teaches us anything we don't already know, and claiming we're teenagers when we start someplace only draws even more attention to the fact that we aren't aging."

"She's right, you know," Alice adds. "Starting as kids, the humans seem to expect our faces to change more. I didn't have that problem when Jasper and I lived on our own. Maybe it's time we give up that particular pretense. It doesn't seem worth the risk."

"But…" Esme falters. "You're my children."

"Yes, they are," Carlisle says firmly, but not unkindly. "All six of them. But you don't talk to Bella or about her like she's one of the kids anymore. You think we don't hear you on the phone with her?"

"It's not the same," Esme sighs. "Bella's in a very different place in her life than she was before." The longing in her voice makes me wonder how long she's waited to have a regular friend, not someone she feels responsible for guiding, and I feel like I should say something.

"You don't know how relieved I am to have someone in the clan to relate to on that level." I'm trying to be diplomatic while still showing my support for the brothers and sisters who've supported me. "But I'm the youngest member of our family, not the oldest."

"You're an adult now," she clarifies, as if we didn't all know that.

"We're all adults," Rosalie reminds her, "and I for one would like to be treated that way for a change. Not just by you and Carlisle, but by everyone, by the whole world. We live in the age of inexpensive plastic surgery—let the humans whisper about how much 'work' we've had done if it means I can have a career instead of yet another cheaply made polyester cap and gown." Rose flashes a grin my way. "I think I might like to try law school, too."

"I pity your opposing counsel," I say with a smirk.

By the time the family flies home on Monday, everything is settled. Edward and I will stay in Massachusetts until the end of the year, then relocate to Racine. Esme is already mentally compiling a list of properties that could be perfect for us. Edward and I drive back to our house, wondering if we should try to have our furniture moved or if we should just admit defeat and donate everything to Goodwill. His mother has retained a sense of what I used to like, but my tastes have evolved, and I'm fairly attached to my things. I suppose it doesn't matter—we'll move again in a few years anyway, and I might like something else entirely by then. What's important is that everyone is happy.

There's just one little problem.

"Bella," Edward murmurs against my naked skin late Monday night, "Alice took me aside this morning when we were hunting. Is there something you'd like to tell me?"

"Actually," I whisper back, "I have questions for Esme."

"Well then," he replies knowingly, "I suppose it's a good thing she agreed to stay in Salem for an extra night. We should call her hotel."

"Ask her to come by in the morning," I yawn, thankful for Alice. She may occasionally be meddlesome, but I wouldn't change her for the world.

"Monica," I say brightly to my neighbor, "this is my sister, Esme." We exchange pleasantries for a few moments before I manage to extract us from the situation. I like my human neighbor and her welcoming demeanor, but she has no sense of when to shut up.

"This is lovely," Esme says of the décor, and I don't know why that's such a relief to hear. "Cozy and comfortable, inviting…" She stands in the entry while I close the door, take her coat, and wait for more judgment. "Do you ever have people in here?"

"Not yet, but I'm planning on having my neighbor and a few of her friends," I nod, hanging up our jackets and hats on the coat rack. "It's my turn to host the card game this week."

"Are they good friends?" she asks, raising an eyebrow.

"They're nice people." But that's not what she asked, and we both know it.

"There's something slightly impersonal about the space," she notes, turning back to the room and looking carefully at the walls. "Usually you hang photographs."

"I'm sure you understand why I can't do that anymore." I sit down on my couch, in my favorite spot, and smile at her weakly. "I'm anticipating a few questions about why I don't have any photos of my late husband or Edward's parents up. I still can't think of a good answer."

She comes to sit with me then, sympathetic even though I was expecting her to be upset with me. "Tell me what's on your mind, Bella."

I begin, uncomfortable but hopeful. "Esme, how difficult is it for you to be in my house right now, with my scent on everything?"

"It helps that I spent several days with you in the cabin and fed from a deer," she hedges, not entirely answering my question. "Spending last night in a hotel was fine for keeping me acclimated to human smells in general, but you've always been a bit more…flavorful. How Edward always manages to resist when you cut yourself is beyond me."

"And Jasper?" I wonder. "How was it for him?"

"If you're expecting me to give you a detailed account of everyone's various degrees of discomfort and thirst," Esme warns, "you'd be better off asking Edward. He's always been the one to monitor such things. But to address your real concern, Jasper wasn't chomping at the bit to feed on you. He and Edward had that talk years ago."

"I know," I sigh. Jasper, who withstood the call of a pool of my blood in a ballet studio long enough to kill James, should have been more than able to tolerate my paper cut later that same year. Jasper felt that having me in proximity for several days prior to the fight with James made all the difference, and blamed my birthday incident on Edward for forcing him to maintain a wide berth from me at all times for the entire summer. Edward blamed Jasper for not demanding more of himself, for failing specifically because he expected to fail and had everyone else convinced to expect it, too. In the end, they reached a middle ground agreement. I still feel that, like Edward, when Jasper was more concerned about saving my life than satisfying his own thirst, neither his desensitization, nor my flavor, nor anyone's expectations made a bit of difference.

But we're not facing that same life-threatening situation every day. Sometimes I just want to kick back with a book and a glass of merlot and listen to music, and I'd like to be able to do that without worrying that my brother-in-law is going to attack me because I've unintentionally made his throat burn. "Is it reasonable," I ask, "for me to expect Jasper and everyone to be fine with me in the house?"

"You're getting your own house," Esme frowns, still looking a bit peeved about that part of the deal.

"Yes," I reply, "but the point of moving to Racine is to be closer to all of you. We're going to visit each other's homes often. Is it any less dangerous for him to visit me periodically in a house that reeks of my human scent than it is for me to visit him in a house that doesn't smell like me at all?"

"I don't understand." Esme looks at me curiously. "Bella, what are you trying to say?"

"I haven't actually…" I taper off. In court I'm eloquent, but right now I feel like I'm a stumbling seventeen-year-old again.

"Is this about the transformation?" she says helpfully. "If you're scared about the pain, Carlisle thinks he should be able to keep an IV inserted to feed you Demerol for the first two days."

That would be a good idea if I thought it would work, but my memory of James's bite and Carlisle's morphine says otherwise. "I don't care about the pain. It's temporary."

"I know you're concerned about the intensity of the thirst," Esme sympathizes, "and you're not wrong to be worried, but it won't always be as awful as it is the first year or so."

"No, no, it's not that," I wave off her concern.

"Well then—"

"Esme," I ask her abruptly, "what do you miss about being human?"

If she's surprised by the question, it doesn't show. "My baby," she says immediately. "I still miss him. If I could, I'd have another." But I already know that.

"What else?" I insist.

"That's all I can remember clearly." She looks away briefly, sorrow contorting her features, before turning back to me. "Why?"

"What else do you recall?" I want to know. "Anything?"

"Well…" she flounders, "nothing concrete. Basic things stayed with me when I woke up, like my name, language, math and reasoning skills, the same general sense of morality. I can remember my ex-husband, a little. He was abusive, so I ran away when I learned I was pregnant. You know this story."

"You didn't remember your parents, your human friends, school, anything?"

"No. Or if I did, I don't remember them now." She gives me a compassionate look. "But I didn't try. Bella, I had just committed suicide. I didn't think there was anything left for me in the world. There was no reason to actively attempt to remember anything about my life. I woke up to Carlisle, and he was kind and gentle. I wanted my son, and Edward eventually became that for me. Everyone remembers things differently. Rosalie recalls a great deal about her life because she's always clung to the humanity she feels Carlisle robbed her of. Edward remembers bits and pieces about his mother, the Great War, and the epidemic in Chicago, but he doesn't remember much about his father, his friends or extended family, or what schools he attended. Carlisle has held onto his memories of his last two human years in England for almost four centuries, but his childhood is completely erased. Do I need to continue, or do you get the general idea?"

"Don't you remember anything else at all?" I plead with her.

"Carlisle mending my broken leg when I was sixteen," she says slowly. "That's it. Nothing else."

"Just the images," I prompt hopefully, "or do you remember speaking to him?"

"I remember flirting with him." The dreamy look on her face is impossible to miss. "He told me I was too old to climb trees, but he looked impressed. I loved his smile. I remember thinking that I wanted to break my other leg just to have an excuse to have him touch my skin again…I nearly forgot about that…" She starts out of her recollection and gazes at me differently. "Is that what you're afraid of, Bella?"

With a hard rub at my temples, I close my eyes and confess. "I can give up most things for Edward, practically anything. I never wanted to be a mom, so that's no sacrifice. Food and wine aren't really that important to me. I can forego having human friends or memories of my parents, because I have my family and friendships in all of you, and my parents are practically strangers to me now anyway. Even the career I've been building isn't more important to me than my marriage. I can start over with any number of careers eventually. I can give up on adrenaline, pheromones, growing my hair, all of it.

"But there's one thing I can't bear to lose, Esme, and that's the last thirteen years with Edward." I meet her eyes, wondering if she sees the desperation in mine. "I love the life we've lived together, even the difficult parts. Being with him is what made all the whispers, the battles, and the bodily harm worth living through. If you can promise me I'll still love him as fiercely after the change as I do now, I'll go yank him out of school this minute and have him turn me. But the idea that I might forget him or the way I feel…no, Esme, I just can't do that."

"Oh, honey," Esme whispers, reaching over for my hands at lightning speed. "Bella, I would love to be able to make you that promise. But I can't. None of us can, not even Carlisle. All I can tell you is that the clearest memories are the most recent or significant, like Emmett and his bear and staring at Rosalie, or Jasper and his military career. I would be surprised if you didn't remember Edward most of all."

"What about Alice?" I whisper. There is no need to say more than that. In spite of all her family research, including meeting her human sister's Alice-faced great-grandchildren (one of whom was somehow not surprised to see her), our tiny Alice has no more memory of her human life than before.

We stay quiet for a while, Esme waiting with me for a few minutes before she excuses herself to take a tour of the house and get an updated feel for my decorative tastes. When I finally manage to recover my composure, I join her, saying nothing of the conversation we just had, instead answering questions about how much space I think I'll need in my next home.

"You know," I reassure Esme before she leaves for the airport, "just because the others don't start out somewhere in a high school claiming you adopted them, that doesn't mean they aren't still your kids or don't need your advice. I certainly do."

"Thank you for saying so." Her careful hugs always manage to feel soft, in spite of her cool, nearly unyielding skin. "Just remember, Bella: your choice is not just about you. I know my son, and I know he's trying not to pressure you one way or the other, in spite of his own feelings."

"You're absolutely right," I agree, thinking of the familiar brooding eyes and stance he's been exhibiting lately. "I think he feels bad about influencing my decision to remain human for so long."

"That certainly sounds like him," she sighs knowingly. "Edward would have you believe this is an intensely personal decision, and in your case it is. But I want you to think about something: your entire adult life, Edward has been telling you that the only thing that matters is what you want. That's why you've lived in the places you have and attended the schools you did. I'm glad you've had those life experiences, but don't you feel it's time you think about what he wants? Whether he admits it or not—and if he hasn't told you by now, I don't think he will—whatever you decide is going to have a major, long-term impact on him. A supportive marriage works both ways."

"Edward," I murmur, softly but not sleepily, "I have a question for you."

"Of course, my love." He's behind me, holding me close under our electric blanket. It's December, and we've had our things from the main house sent to Racine ("to be closer to my sister" is what I told the neighbors) and the property listed for sale. Because we'll be driving and don't know how long it will be before Edward can hunt again, we're spending our last week in Massachusetts at the cabin, which we've decided to keep for future vacations. He spent all last night feeding, and we just finished packing the last of the pictures this morning, ready to transport them ourselves whenever we decide to move on.

"Will you still love me if I'm old and grey and wrinkly, with arthritis and cataracts and tubes in my veins and nose?" Curtains are open, blinds are up. There's a quarter moon shining through the window.

He kisses my hair. "I will."

"Will you still love me if my mind starts to go," I ask softly, lacing my fingers with his over my stomach, "and I can't remember who you are or why you're with me?"

Edward gulps audibly, and the sound makes me sad. "I promise."

"Will you love me when my skin is cold and hard," I say, my own voice shaking, "and my heart doesn't beat anymore?"

"Bella," he breathes, his mouth grazing the side of my face. The unfamiliar sound of difficulty shudders through his voice. "I will love you every day of your life, and every day of mine, no matter how long either of those may last."

I shift around until my lips meet his. "Edward, my wonderful Edward," I tell him, reaching up to twist my fingers into his hair. "I adore you." I pull back and meet his moon-silvered eyes. "No matter what else happens, please remember that for both of us."

His kiss flutters over my forehead, and I could almost swear he sounds like he's crying. "Always."

"Make love to me?" I ask.

Edward's hands ghost over me, finding all the favorite spots as my lips linger over his, our legs interlocking in perfect symphony as we join with slow, loving thrusts and call to each other in whispers. "Bella," he groans against my mouth as we reach our climax, lost in pleasure.

"I love you, Edward," I cry.

Without another sound, I slip my tongue between his lips and carefully slice it open against his venom-coated teeth.