So I kind of feel like a kid kicking her toe in the dust right now...is anyone still out there? I could probably write a book of excuses in this AN, since it's been so freaking long since the last chapter. I'll spare you and just say that writer's block sucks. Most of this chapter's been written for a really long time, but it was just stitching those chunks together that stumped me. Anyway, now you've got an extra long chapter to make up for the wait. Enjoy!

KristenLynn betas, cheerleads, and tells me when I'm being too wordy. I can't thank her enough.

AmeryMarie, tragicallyepic, and Yoga_Gal preread and make me smile.


In the last chapter:

Bella and Edward returned to Washington and settled into a cottage a couple miles away from the Cullens' main home. Carlisle admitted to Bella that she is the reason they betrayed Edward, which was quite upsetting to her. Of course, Edward did his best to reassure her that it didn't matter. Though not all is forgotten or forgiven, they're going to try and coexist, especially since they need the extra protection the Cullens can provide.


-Chapter 27: Polymerization-

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The next afternoon, Edward and I stood at the edge of the woods bordering the back of the Cullens' home watching the warm glow of the windows in the watery light. It was the first cold snap of fall, and though I marveled at how little it affected me, there was a very noticeable crispness in the damp air that suggested chilly weather. It looked like the predicted heavy rain was coming earlier rather than later.

It was going to make our procrastinating a little more difficult. We wouldn't be freezing like a human would, but being rained on really wasn't pleasant unless one was on a private tropical island...

"Alice is back." Edward's voice broke through the foggy silence.

I could hear her high-pitched voice as she chatted with Jasper, even 100 yards from the house. "I think we should change our minds for the fun of it. Let's make some random decisions just to screw with her."

"And then we can sneak up on them using your gift." He grinned wryly as he made the off-handed comment and I knew he was joking, but I knew genius when I heard it.

"Edward, that's an awesome idea!" I said, fighting back the urge to steeple my fingers like Montgomery Burns. "I can sneak into the house and start touching things to make them disappear!" Oh, this was going to be quite entertaining. And it would show Carlisle exactly what I could do in the process.

"Are you sure you can make objects invisible, Bella?" He frowned, thinking. "I can't believe I didn't think to have you try that," he muttered almost to himself.

"Well, there's no time like the present, right?" I reached out to hook my fingers into his belt-loops and walked him backwards, gently pushing him against the nearest tree trunk.

He went willingly, a half-smile lending him a playful air, his eyes bright and almost relaxed. His hair flopped onto his forehead as it caught the breeze, casting a shadow over his brow. It made him look so young, more like his human age of seventeen; he was all cocky charm and dark, insolent glances. But the gleam in his gaze was not like that of a boy. When he wrapped an arm low around my back and pulled me toward him, I went slowly. He widened his stance to steady the both of us as I leaned against him, fitting perfectly into the space between his legs.

"I'm not ready yet," he told me, squeezing my hips lightly.

"I thought we decided to get this over with," I teased, stretching up to press a kiss to his chin.

"I changed my mind. We're immortal. Carlisle can afford to wait another year or ten."

"Edward..."

"I know, I know. I'm just not looking forward to this," he admitted.

He slid one hand up to cup my cheek and tilted my lips up to his. His kiss was soft, gentle, and inspired some naughty thoughts that I was sure he wouldn't mind being privy to. But he was the one that needed convincing, and letting him know I was currently picturing him naked wasn't the best way to ensure that he didn't chicken out of this conversation.

"How can you not be looking forward to messing with them?" I asked, pulling back slightly. I decided to play dumb and ignore the fact that he was referring to simply interacting with his family at all. The fact was that we had to—but I could certainly make it more fun for him (and for me) by fooling around with their sanity a little.

He raised a brow, lips quirking.

"Come on, you know it will be fun..."

Running a hand through his hair, he sighed and nodded. "Okay, how are we going to do this?"

I grinned widely. "You just hold my hand and be quiet; I'll take care of the rest."

"Wait. Shouldn't we test out this theory first? We should probably make sure you can actually make things disappear, not just people." He was stalling, but he had a point.

"So, what do you want me to vanish?"

He snorted. "Vanish?"

I rolled my eyes. "You know what I mean. When things disappear, they vanish, right?"

His smirk let me know he was just messing with me, and enjoying it. Good. My plan was already working.

"Okay, so...why don't I try that boulder over there?"

Shaking his head, he muttered, "So much for starting small."

"Hush. Why would the size make a difference? I can make your pretty ass invisible...why not a twelve-ton boulder?"

A bewildered laugh rumbled from his chest. "Why not, indeed?"

Grinning at his antiquated speech, I untangled myself from his arms and zipped across the short distance to the rock. Lifting my hand, I let my fingers hover a few millimeters from the moist, gritty surface, pausing to center myself. I closed my eyes and reached for my gift, then set my fingertips to the boulder. The sensation was strange, so different than when I shielded Edward. I was beginning to recognize how it felt when I was shielding; it was like I was projecting myself outward, surrounding whatever I decided to target. I metaphorically wrapped my big flasher trench coat around it. With the huge rock, it was easier—there was no life there other than the lichens and moss that dotted the surface, no motion for which I'd need to compensate.

"Amazing," Edward breathed, snapping me out of the little trance I was in. "The things you can do..."

The awe in his voice made me nervous, and I felt it was undeserved. My gift amounted to little more than a parlor trick when I wasn't using it to hide from other vampires. A coward's talent, that's what I had.

And Edward was amazed?

I shook my head, frowning. "I make things disappear, big deal," I griped, moving away from the boulder and walking back to where he stood.

"You'll never see yourself clearly, will you?" he asked with a gentle smile, taking my hand. He drew me closer. "It's okay...I have an eternity to show you what a jewel you are."

I just looked at him, never realizing my mouth was hanging open until he reached up to nudge my jaw shut with the tip of his finger. Then his arms were right back around me as he looked down into my face, amusement making his eyes gleam.

"Come on, love...let's get this over with."

Now he was the one encouraging us to get on with it? How the hell did that happen?

-x-

Holding tightly to Edward's hand, I carefully led us down the staircase of the main house. I knew the others would likely hear our steps and smell our scents, but they weren't expecting us to be invisible. Plus, making them think they were hearing things would be part of the fun.

We knew that they were gathered in the living room, thanks to a little reconnaissance we completed before entering through the sun room on the third floor. It had been an easy leap from a sturdy tree branch, right through the open floor-to-ceiling window. I'd even managed to land with complete grace, pivoting to give Edward a little bow as he grinned at me from his perch in the tree. His entrance was just as silent and perfect; I couldn't help but admire the lithe lines of his body as he landed effortlessly, dropping into a crouch to mute any sound of his feet hitting the floor.

The house was unfamiliar to the both of us, and we couldn't avoid a few creaky boards as we descended the stairs. None of the Cullens came to investigate, though we did hear Emmett comment, "Aww, the newlyweds are back."

Edward and I locked eyes as we paused at the second floor landing. Newlyweds... I had a flash of myself dressed in flowing white, walking slowly toward a tuxedo-clad Edward, who waited for me at the end of the aisle with a radiant smile curving his beautiful lips.

I wanted it...God, how I wanted it.

And from the way Edward watched me, his head tilted toward mine, those molten amber eyes warmly caressing my face, I thought that he might want it, too.

True, it was a human custom—one meant to tie together finite lives—but I wanted to tie myself to him in every way possible, human or otherwise. A simple piece of paper couldn't begin to define what was between us, but the sentimental aspect of the ceremony was something I could certainly appreciate. I wanted to pledge myself to him and hear his promises in return.

Edward squeezed my hand, smiling down at me, and I couldn't help but return it. The moment was sappy, but I couldn't have been happier as we made our way to the first floor.

When we reached the living room, the others gave no sign that they knew of our presence. Just to mess with them, I decided to start small. We crept to the fireplace, where an attractive antique vase graced the corner of the mantle. Esme and Carlisle sat on the loveseat directly opposite, and I decided to test their observational skills first. I set my finger to the smooth, glazed glass and waited.

Nothing happened. They all continued chatting amongst themselves, talking nonsense to fill the time until we "arrived." Their main focus was what could come of my talent. I couldn't help the smirk that tugged at the corner of my mouth. They were all about to get a taste of it, first-hand.

Still clutching tightly to Edward's hand, I gave up on the vase and moved to stand behind the armchair where Emmett was currently sprawled. I waited until the room fell silent, and then I struck, touching a fingertip to the soft, corded fabric of his chair. Shooting a grin at Edward, who returned an answering one of his own, I waited.

"What the...?" Jasper muttered, doing a double take as he glanced in Emmett's direction.

"Holy shit!" Rose breathed, jumping up from her perch on Emmett's lap. She stumbled back a few steps in an uncharacteristically clumsy move. "How are you not flat on your ass right now, Emmett?"

Emmett looked down at his lap, noticing that his chair had disappeared. "What the fuck? Where'd the chair go?"

"My BarcaLounger!" Esme shouted, leaping away from Carlisle, who stayed where he was, a dumbfounded expression dominating his features.

I snorted at that, the name reminding me of a favorite sitcom from my human years. Jesus, the things my immortal brain held on to...

Edward almost lost it, covering his mouth with his free hand, but a single laugh escaped. I had trouble containing myself at that.

Fuck me, but he was even hot when he was being dorky.

"What the hell was that noise?"Alice snapped, eyes searching the room.

Jokingly, I shrugged, wiggling my eyebrows at Edward as I broke contact with the chair.

All the Cullens looked like cartoons as they shook their heads, blinking in shock.

"Are we hallucinating?" Esme asked softly, her hand flying to her mouth. "It's back!"

Seriously, the woman couldn't look more like a fifties housewife if she wore an apron, pumps, and a string of pearls.

Just to antagonize everyone else even more, I touched the chair again. Emmett was still frozen in shock, his ass apparently glued to the recliner.

"It's gone again," he said, a blank look on his face. "Am I floating?" He deliberately poked his fingertips into the cushion, eyebrows flying high when he felt the give of the fabric beneath them. "This is so fucking weird...I can feel the chair...but I can't see it!"

I glanced at Edward, flashing him a grin. He answered with a smirk and rolled his eyes, as if to say, "No shit, Sherlock."

Okay, so maybe that was more like something I would say, but it was funny to picture it coming out of Edward's sometimes Victorian mouth. I squeezed his hand, biting my lip to keep from laughing, and he shook his head at me, a warning to keep it together. We were just getting started, and I could tell he wanted to mess with them more before we revealed ourselves. Emmett broke the spell by speaking again.

"This is some fucking freaky Criss Angel shit, man!"

"That dude is a fucking freak," Rose snickered. "That hair...and have you ever seen a man wear so many diamonds, aside from Liberace?"

"Emmett! Rose!" Esme snapped, scowling in his direction. "Language, please."

Emmett rolled his eyes at her. "I don't see why I can't drop a few F-bombs. My chair is missing, but I'm still sitting in it! Wait a minute, why am I not missing?" He slapped his palm to his forehead. "This makes my brain hurt."

Rose just shrugged unapologetically and kept on snickering at Emmett, patting him on the head gently. "Don't overtax yourself, babe."

Esme sighed and shook her head, giving up on trying to rein in their foul mouths. She got up and walked over to the chair, standing less than a foot from where I was. Touching a fingertip to where the arm of the chair should have been, she gasped. "Wow, it really is still here..."

I dropped my hand from the chair and froze—I stopped breathing, blinking, everything. It was a wonder she hadn't noticed our scents yet, but I assumed it was due to surprise. Plus, Edward and I had been all over this place yesterday, so maybe our scents had saturated the house. Either way, I had a feeling all it would take was one movement, one current of air, to make them aware of our presence.

Carlisle, Alice, and Jasper simply sat back as the chair reappeared, observing. Carlisle's mouth curved in a slight smile as he crooked a finger at Esme, beckoning her back to his side.

"But Carlisle, aren't you the least bit concerned about what's going on here?" she muttered as she went, plopping gracelessly onto the loveseat and crossing her arms in frustration.

He smiled like it was no big deal. "Not especially."

Esme glared at him, brows dipping down into a scowl. She huffed a breath and turned back to the chair.

Alice's expression alternated between a scowl and a blank, glazed look. I wondered if she was trying to use her talent to decipher what was going on. Huh...wonder how that's turning out for you, Queen Know-It-All? Is it working yet?

Edward tapped my temple, drawing my attention away from the bewildered vampires. "Carlisle knows," he mouthed.

Squeezing his hand hard, I reached for that part of my mind that shielded my thoughts and let Edward in. I didn't do it often, since it was so draining, but it was really the only effective way for us to communicate without tipping the others off that we were there. You read it in his thoughts?

He nodded.

I guess it's time to show ourselves, huh? I pursed my lips, pouting. This had been pretty damn entertaining. I loosened my grip on his hand, but he stopped me.

Edward shook his head minutely and held up a finger, asking for a moment. I smiled up at him, content to give him whatever he wanted. Seconds ticked by into minutes as he searched my face, but I had no idea what he was looking for. I only knew I'd give it to him without hesitation. One hand came up to hold my face, his long fingers caressing the bend of my jaw. His eyes darkened, glinting with a hint of mischief as he lowered his head. Warm lips pressed against mine and my eyelids fluttered closed.

Oh...there's nothing like this...

Edward sighed, deepening the kiss, dipping his tongue inside, giving me the taste of him I craved. I wound an arm around his neck, pulling myself up against his chest. His fingers tightened on mine as his other hand slid into my hair, tugging and knotting as he pressed closer. Everything and everyone else dropped away.

Love you...

With one last, slow kiss, Edward pulled back, a blissful smile on his lips. They were shiny with moisture, and it made me want to yank him right back to my mouth.

"Thank you," he whispered, finally cluing the others in to our presence in the room.

"Who the fuck is that?" Jasper muttered, squirming in his seat. "And where's all that lust coming from?"

Oops. That would be Edward and me...

Reluctantly, I let go of my gift, severing Edward's connection to my mind as we reappeared. I imagined it looked like we'd just appeared out of thin air to the other vampires, and they sat there for a moment, looking stunned. Carlisle was the first to speak.

"Well done, Bella. I suppose that was your trick with the chair?"

"Behold the vampire parlor tricks," I said with a shrug.

He smiled. "Oh, it's more than just a parlor trick, Bella. Edward has told me about your ability to make yourself disappear. I hope you won't mind a few more demonstrations. There's so much to learn. I believe yours is a truly extraordinary gift."

Edward frowned. "Give her some time to rest before you start the experiments, Carlisle."

Esme's eyes flicked from one man to the other in worry before she came over to greet Edward and me. "Edward, Bella...it's so nice to have you back in Washington," she said softly, enveloping me in her arms.

A soft cloud of her fresh, floral scent perfumed the air, the hint of it sparking a foggy memory of my mother's perfume. A wisp of sadness curled in my stomach, but it wasn't overwhelming. It was watered-down, muted by the layers that separated my vampire self from my human memories. Edward had been right—as time went by, the loss was becoming easier to bear.

I returned Esme's hug with real affection, realizing that while I couldn't have my mother and father, I did have these people...and I likely would for a long time to come, if Edward decided we'd stay with them.

"Thank you for the cottage, Esme."

She smiled brightly. "You're welcome. I knew it would be perfect for you two." Releasing me, she turned to Edward and hugged him with no reserve.

I didn't miss the way he stiffened at first, but after a moment he relaxed, his arms coming around her waist. His eyes closed as he bent his head, resting his cheek on the crown of her head. When he opened them, those golden irises went straight to me, and while I could see his affection for the other woman, I could also see his fear. Gently, I placed a hand on his arm and opened myself once more.

It's okay to let her care for you, Edward. And it's okay for you to care about her. Whatever you feel, don't fight it. Before I broke the connection, I swamped him with all the love I could muster, and I was rewarded with a soft, loving glance as he and Esme parted. It held more than just thanks—it held hope. And when he wrapped an arm around me and offered both his adoptive parents an awkward, tentative smile, I felt it.

Were we finally home, on the way to being happy?

I didn't know, but I'd do anything I could to make sure of it.

-x-

It was a good thing vampires couldn't get headaches, because if I were human, I'd certainly have one. If Carlisle asked me to use my talent one more time, I'd break off one of his fingers.

Esme might enjoy helping him reattach it.

Okay, so it was possible I was slightly crabby after two weeks of the Vampire Gifted Program. It's a really hard class, y'all.

He was most interested in pushing me to expand my gift to cover more than one person. It wasn't easy, but I was making a little progress. I had to be in direct contact with the person in question for them to be affected. Shielding two people was hit or miss most of the time, and it left me exhausted. If the person I shielded was touched, it was doubly hard for me to maintain the illusion. Usually, the whole thing would fail and I'd have to start over.

Carlisle theorized that my shield must work like some sort of sensory interference. In layman's terms, I jammed everyone's radar. The best I could assume was that I blurred the lines of vision, making myself—or those I shielded—blend into the surrounding environment. Apparently, I really was Chameleon Bella.

Objects were different. If someone touched an object I was shielding, it stayed invisible. We assumed that because inanimate objects had no sensory perception, they stayed hidden, since they projected no sentient information to their surroundings. They had no psychic signature to overcome my shield.

I still didn't know what good that would do in a confrontation. So I could hide and make things disappear; big deal. I supposed I could smuggle in a flame thrower if I had significant enough warning, but if we were surprised, we were SOL. If that happened, I was grabbing Edward and making us go bye-bye. The rest of the Cullens could fend for themselves.

Unfortunately, my talents presented a problem—my shield made it very difficult for Alice to see any futures in which I was directly involved. We were essentially blind as long as I was in the picture, and it wasn't something the family was used to.

We also learned that Jasper couldn't influence my emotions, which was just fine with me. My emotions were intricately entwined with my thought process, and I didn't want an outsider messing with my brain.

Needless to say, the pair—especially Alice—wasn't happy with me, because I couldn't figure out how to control my brain's "force field" thing. To be honest, I wasn't working very hard on that aspect of my gift. I liked being immune to their powers. It was only fair, since I wasn't very happy with the family as a whole. Even vampires couldn't escape karma—and it served them right for what they'd done to Edward. Then again, it would have been nice to have Alice's gift, to know what was coming. Instead, I was stuck working my ass off playing brain games with Carlisle, and getting my ass kicked by the rest of the Cullens.

It was a damn good thing that Edward was the perfect nursemaid. He tended to be pretty touchy-feely after I came back from a session, and knowing I could go back to the cottage with him when it was all over was a great motivator. When we were together in the evenings after a long bout of Cranial Olympics, the happiness level in our little living room was almost sickening.

"Bella, do you think you can completely turn off your gift?"

I jumped a little at being caught swimming in my own thoughts. Carlisle was looking at me with a determined, inquisitive expression, and I knew what that look meant—this session was going to have me yanking my hair out before it was over. Why had I decided that I'd be able to handle this meeting with Carlisle by myself?

That's right—because I could barely concentrate with Edward's sexy self watching me. Damn it.

"I'm not sure," I answered, trying not to clue him in to the depths of my frustration.

"You've never tried to lift your shield?"

I thought for a moment. "Well, I've been able to let Edward in a few times. Does that count?"

His eyebrows rose. "That's very good!" He placed a finger over his lips and paced to the other side of the room, his gaze fixed on the floor in front of him.

I wasn't sure how it was good for anyone else but Edward, because he was the only person I'd even consider letting into my thoughts. "What does that have to do with lowering my shield? And would you stop stalking around the room? You're making me nervous," I added, casting him a side-eyed glance.

"Well, in theory, if you're able to block one aspect of your gift, you should be able to block everything." Pacing back again, he lowered himself into his ergonomic office chair, steepling his fingers in front of his face as he rested his elbows on the large, shiny surface of his antique oak desk.

"Okay..."

"What does it feel like?"

I frowned. "What do you mean?"

"What does it feel like in your mind? When you let Edward read your thoughts, how do you let him in?"

"Oh!" I leaned forward, resting my chin on my hand as I recalled the feeling of having my mate share the same headspace. Though at first it had been painful, the more I worked on it, the more comfortable I felt with him in my head. "The first time, it was excruciating. I felt like I was ripping my skin off, piece by piece. I had to fight for every layer I exposed to him. But now, it's more like lifting a heavy weight—it gets easier the more I do it."

"Do you think it might work the same way with other gifts?" he questioned, leaning back in his chair.

"It might." I wasn't sure I wanted to let anyone but Edward that close to me. When I let Edward in, it was an intimate, special thing. It was something I chose to share with him—and only him.

Carlisle noticed my reticence. "What's wrong?"

"I just...that's private, you know?"

"I understand, Bella. But could you try?"

"I suppose I could...but I'd want Edward to be there." His presence afforded me more security than anything else. If we weren't together, I wasn't comfortable. Being apart from him was almost tiring.

"Of course. I imagine Edward wouldn't have it any other way," Carlisle conceded with a slight smile. "He doesn't like to have you out of his sight, you know."

I looked down at my lap, fighting the stupid, girly sigh that wanted out. I knew it. Things were the same for me. Even now I missed him, and he was mere feet away, in the music room.

"You're perfect for him. "You, my dear, are everything I could have wanted for my son."

My eyes shot up to his. So many words gathered on the back of my tongue, from pleased thanks to bitter, angry accusations, but I kept them to myself. "I'm glad you think so," was what I finally settled on. I'd be with him regardless, no matter what his family thought. I was Edward's, plain and simple, and he was mine. I wasn't with him to please his estranged family—I was with him because Edward and I fit together like Legos. And we were really fucking hard to pry apart. We'd also really fucking hurt you if you stepped on us.

"I know how you feel about us," he added, sadness creasing his features. "But we truly had his best interests at heart."

I was standing before I realized it, leaning threateningly over the large expanse of the walnut desk that separated us. It was the first time I'd allowed my emotions to rule me like that since we'd come to Forks barely a month ago.

"Will you stop saying that? Stop giving him excuses and just say you're sorry! Believe me, he knows what you did to him, and all the reasons you've given for doing it. He doesn't need any reminders." I gentled my tone, took a moment to force my body to relax, and then I sank back into the seat. Nothing would bring Edward barging in here faster than a bunch of yelling (if he wasn't already on his way). "Just...just stop doing that, okay?" I finished. "Don't try to mitigate what you did with excuses. He needs you to own it."

Carlisle stood and started pacing in front of the unlit fireplace. "Do you think I don't?"

I stayed silent.

"Do you think I don't regret that decision every single second? I betrayed my son!" He let out a shuddering breath. "He trusted me, and how did I repay him? By crushing it. Crushing him." His head snapped up and he pinned me with a determined gaze. "If I have to give him up because of what I've done, then so be it. With you, Bella, he is truly happy."

The weight of his words squeezed my chest until it almost hurt. It was like talking to a brick wall. There were many things I'd learned since becoming a vampire. That we were all stubborn as fuck was one of them. Once we got something in our heads, good luck changing our minds.

It was extremely frustrating.

"You all took the easy way out," I snapped, unable to keep my blunt thoughts to myself. "But I never will. I love him enough to trust him. That's something you didn't do."

Carlisle sighed, nearly collapsing back into his chair. "Perhaps you're right. But I do love him. He's my son." He said nothing else, just simply stared off at a point somewhere beyond my right shoulder.

"I think I'm done for the day," I said, rising from my seat. "I'll see you tomorrow." I didn't wait for his reply. Deciding not to wait for Edward to break down and come get me, I met him in front of Carlisle's office.

His eyes were dark and contemplative, and I knew he'd been listening. I waited for him to ask, but he simply took my hand and led me to the cottage. He never said a word while he stripped me of everything but my shirt and undressed himself down to a pair of black boxer briefs that made me clench my thighs together like some silly character in a smutty romance novel.

It wasn't until he tucked both of us underneath the covers that I realized he wasn't going to speak—or anything else. He just held me tight, his body spooned around mine, nose buried in my neck. His breathing was slow and regular, reminiscent of the rhythm of human sleep.

This was about comfort, just lying there in that bed, still as only vampires could be. I could catalog every detail about the way his body felt against mine; I appreciated every single moment of bliss as we laid there drinking each other in. It was all so easy. So right.

I will fight hard for this. So hard.

Because I couldn't bear to lose him.

-x-

In the six weeks since we had arrived in Forks, Edward and I had developed our own routine in the little cottage. We spent all of our time together when I wasn't working with Carlisle learning to control my gift. He constantly put me through my paces, coaching me on using my talent at will. Turning it on and off was almost like breathing to me now; holding on to my shield had become almost like second nature. Carlisle seemed pleased with my progress, but I could tell he was still concerned I wasn't proficient enough for his liking.

Or Edward's. On that, they agreed. In Edward's opinion, I could be wrapped in titanium, surrounded by electrified wire and encapsulated in a ring of fire, but I still wouldn't be safe enough. Carlisle wasn't quite so bad and not nearly as overprotective, but apparently perfectionism was a pretty common trait in vampires, and he wouldn't cut me any slack. Living forever made people really anal, apparently.

Though I diligently worked to gain complete control of my talent, I still wasn't sure I could help that much other than hiding myself and Edward if the Volturi came calling. Without maintaining physical contact, I couldn't hide everyone...and I didn't exactly want to stay within arm's reach of all the Cullens, all the time.

No thanks. The only person I wanted attached to my hip was Edward.

Edward didn't take long to make good on his promise and, with Jasper's help, was teaching me to kick some vampire ass. Alice, Emmett and Rose often joined in, and what had started off as lessons in self-defense morphed into more advanced instruction in the art of vampire fighting. Sparring became a daily occurrence, and I was pitted against every partner available, working my way up to defending myself against more than one opponent. That part wasn't going so well, but Edward assured me that it was difficult for even the oldest of vampires. Edward and Alice sparred against each other quite often, and I suspected that he enjoyed it more than he let on. I knew he liked kicking her ass repeatedly. He liked it even better when he and I worked together against her—my gift made it extremely hard for her to anticipate our moves.

To my surprise, I was an extremely quick study when it came to fighting. All I had to do was see something once and I could replicate it—which didn't stop the others from making me repeat the exercises over and over and over... Even so, I felt sort of like Keanu Reeves in The Matrix.

I know...Kung Fu...?

Excellent!

Oops...right actor, wrong movie.

"You're not concentrating, Bella!" Edward's sharp voice broke through my thoughts, cutting through like a laser. As soon as the words left his mouth, his ankle swept beneath mine, knocking me on my ass.

My breath whooshed out of my lungs with a loud grunt. I blinked up at the sky, and then Edward appeared above me. His hair was a messy reddish-brown halo about his face, ruffled from the wind and our mock-fighting. He was trying to look stern, but he broke after a few seconds, unable to conceal that dazzling half-smile. I couldn't help but grin up at him, my stomach flip-flopping in response.

Why am I on the ground again?

Jesus. I apparently had the brains kicked out of me today.

Holding out a hand, he said, "You can't lose focus like that, love. I know you're capable of more."

I pouted as I let him help me to my feet. "We've been at this all day. I need a break." I wasn't tired—it wasn't physically possible—but I was definitely weary of all the battle tactics and strategy. I just wanted to be with Edward, to pretend we didn't have a giant cloud made of pretentious, micro-managing vampires looming over our heads. I wanted things to be like they were back on Isle Esme.

"The Volturi won't be so accommodating," he warned. He raked a hand through his hair and looked up at the sky, tipping his head back before sighing heavily and returning his gaze to me. Though he tried to be calm, frustration rolled off him in waves, and underlying it all was a deep-seated fear. He was afraid that what we were doing wouldn't be enough to keep me safe.

"I know that, Edward. I know," I said, keeping my voice soft. "I made you a promise, and I intend to keep it. You asked me to keep myself safe, and I will. I work with Carlisle every day, learning to control my gift. You and Jasper have taught me just about every martial art known to man—or vampire. Alice is watching every decision they make, even though she's limited by my involvement. But I don't know what else I can do..."

"We can keep working, make sure we've exhausted every option—"

"And what if they never come?"

He gave me a dubious look, and I knew his pessimist side was winning again.

"Okay, so what if they show up tomorrow?"

If he wasn't already pale, he would have gone positively ashen then. He sucked in a short breath, his expression stricken. "They can't. We're not ready," he uttered through clenched teeth.

"We'll never be truly ready, Edward. Even if they don't show up for a hundred years, will you ever be ready?"

He still hadn't let go of my fingers, and he used them to draw me closer, until he could wrap his arms around me. "No," he admitted, burying his face in my shoulder.

I returned his embrace, holding him tightly. "So will we spend eternity looking over our shoulders? Preparing for something that might never happen? Why can't we enjoy each other just a little?"

"I enjoy every moment I'm with you, Bella. And if I'm helping you learn to defend yourself...believe me, it's worth it. I won't—no, I can't—leave you unprotected."

He lifted his head, gaze locking onto mine. The hint of desperation in his eyes made me want to calm him, soothe his worry any way I could.

"I feel the same...but I'm not unprotected, Edward. Don't you see? You're teaching me to look after myself, and I'm learning," I stressed. "I have a very good instructor. And we can't forget the rest of the Addams Family back there." I grinned. "I have an entourage now."

He smiled slightly, and I felt a spark of warmth at the pride in his gaze, which was dark and teasing. "You're lucky to have such a talented, brilliant, very patient instructor."

"Come on—trust me, okay? I know I'm not invincible, and I'm not going to make the same mistakes I made before."

He let out an exasperated breath. "I do trust you. You're the only one I really do trust. But I will never trust the Volturi with someone as important to me as you."

The way his voice softened at the end almost undid me. Oh, Edward.

"Then you have to know I won't endanger myself. I'll do everything I can to make myself safe. For you. For us."

He seemed to relax a bit at my vow, his smile softening, widening, as he reached up to pick a blade of grass from my hair. After a long pause, he spoke. "I'm sorry I knocked you down."

It wasn't complete agreement, but I had a feeling it was the best I'd get for now. And I'd take it.

"Don't worry, I'll get you back when you least expect it. Besides, you're right—I wasn't paying attention earlier. You were right to take me down."

Edward gasped dramatically. "Did you just say I was right?" He brought a hand up to my forehead and pretended to check for a fever.

I giggled as I tried to dodge him, but he just tightened his arm around my waist and kept me from moving. "Stop it. I can't get a fever anymore!"

He frowned as he slid his fingers from my forehead to tangle in the hair at my temple. "Are you positive? I think I might need to make sure..." He made it halfway through the sentence before his lips curved into a smirk. Banding one arm low around my hips, he lifted me off my feet and stalked through the calf-high grass, heading for the edge of the clearing. I wrapped my legs around his waist and held on.

It seemed he was taking a page from the book of Bella—finding the easiest avenue of distraction and running with it.

"What are you doing?"

He tugged my hips against his as he kept walking, letting me feel the growing bulge in his pants. "I told you, I'm going to check you for a fever," he rumbled, his voice low and suggestive.

A burst of laughter escaped. "How are you going to do that? With your meat thermometer?"

We actually stopped moving for a second, and he almost dropped me. He tried, but he couldn't hide the twitch of his lips. "That's horrible, even for you, Bella."

"Come on, I know that's what you were thinking!"

"That's my line." One eyebrow arched up in amusement.

I just grinned up at him knowingly.

The tips of his fingers dug into my ass, and I squirmed against his grip. It was getting harder and harder to ignore the way my body responded to the close contact. My nipples peaked to near-painful points, and heat sparked low in my belly. Tangling a leg with his, I managed to trip him, which sent us tumbling to the ground. Edward twisted so that he landed on bottom, leaving me perched astride his hips. I smiled down at him triumphantly, enjoying the surprise that flitted across his features.

"Hmm," he breathed, reaching up to hold my face in his hands. Slowly, he drew me down until our lips were just a hairsbreadth from touching. "Perhaps you can read my thoughts..." Closing the distance, he captured my mouth.

I sank against the firm wall of his chest, closing my eyes and melting into the lazy press and slide of his lips, the soft sweep of his tongue. My hands found their way into his hair, tugging hard. He grunted a little and I gentled my grip, rubbing soothing fingers over his scalp. Warmth swelled from somewhere deep in my belly, sparked wherever his body pressed up against mine. It wasn't enough. I'd never get close enough; the tightest embrace wouldn't satisfy me.

His fingers burned a trail down my neck, gently drifting along the midline of my body, until his fingertips found the narrow strip of skin exposed between my shirt and jeans. He tucked them just underneath the denim—teasing, testing. I barely had time to register the skin-to-skin contact before he had the button and zipper undone, his hand covering me through the lace of my underwear.

I loved it when our sparring sessions ended like this. It didn't happen often enough.

"Touch me, please," I whimpered, looking down into the liquid amber of his eyes.

"I think you are reading my mind." He feathered light, fleeting touches across the heated, damp fabric between my legs. A slow smile stretched across his face. "God, I just want you all the time."

I grinned back. "I want you now." You could have totally quit beating me up and started sexing me up lot sooner than you did!

Amused pride lit up his eyes. "You can take it, love."

Shit, he heard that.

The minute I realized my shield was down, it snapped back into place. Edward's smile turned rueful, but I distracted him quickly. I didn't want him to feel rejected, but it wasn't like I'd done it on purpose. I had a good grasp on my gift, but it was still very involuntary when we were this close. He shorted out my brain or something.

I covered his mouth with my hand. "I know."

"I love you," he mumbled against my palm.

Sliding my hand down to rest on his chest, I deliberately let him in one last time to answer, I know.

He visibly relaxed. Gently, he shifted my underwear to the side, sliding his fingers over my bare skin. There was no more talking. I arched against his hand, the teasing graze of his fingertips only making me crazy with need. His eyes darkened, leaving only a thin, burnt-ochre ring around his pupils. I let my gaze wander over his face, and noticed the way his lips parted as I gasped in response to his touch. I kept my eyes fixed on his face, catching a glimpse of his tongue as he ran it across the inside of his bottom lip. My eyelids fluttered closed as he cupped his hand over my sex, grinding his palm in a slow, torturous circle. I gripped his hair, loving how it was the perfect length for grabbing—long enough to sink my fingers into.

When he removed his hand from my jeans, I let out a little growl of disappointment and tugged sharply on his hair. He grinned wickedly, and suddenly the world spun in a swirl of cool wind and damp mist, leaving me disoriented. When I opened my eyes, Edward had me pressed against the soft leaf litter. I sucked in a quick breath and the scent of crushed grass and dewy evergreen needles mingled with the crisp, clean scent of his skin. He felt so good, and when he hovered over me, I released his hair, smoothing my hands over the soft, bronzed strands that shone in the watery light. My fingers kept going, trailing along the broad, strong expanse of his shoulders. Eager to feel more, I traced his ribs and lower, over the lean, subtle ridges of his abdominals.

I shivered beneath him, shaking with a surging wave of awareness as he gave me his weight. He slid one arm beneath my back, bracing his forearm against the ground. When Edward held me, I remembered what it was like to have a racing heart. It was a heavy, pounding rush that echoed in my chest, warming me in one swift beat.

With one long, sinuous stretch, he leaned down and covered my mouth with his. His hand slipped back into my jeans and underwear, where he pressed a finger inside me and flicked his thumb over the swollen peak of my sex. His touch was slow and gentle—too much so. I moaned against his lips and made fists in his shirt, trying to pull him closer. I was lit up like a freaking lava lamp. Forget candles, Christmas lights, or any other kind of glowing bulb. Those were steady. This was tumultuous, restless—like pieces and parts of me were tumbling over one another in an endless circuit.

He moved on top of me, his body undulating in a slow languid arch, pressing every bit of himself against me. His mouth and hand worked in rhythm, making me wild with need. I cupped my hand over the front of his jeans, imagining the warm, solid length of him in my hand. The temptation to rip away the denim so I could close my fingers around his hard, smooth flesh was driving me insane. I squeezed him, drawing a groan from deep inside his chest, and I had to bite my inner cheek to keep quiet.

Oh, God, that sound...

Without warning the heavy crunch of leafy footsteps crashed through the woods, and panic blossomed through my chest as fear overtook arousal, definitively squeezing the air out of our sex bubble. Damn it. Someone was coming, and they weren't being subtle.

"Is he fucking kidding me?" Edward muttered, resting his forehead against mine. "I'm sorry," he whispered as he pulled away, squeezing the curve of my waist.

"Go away, Emmett!" he shouted, not hiding his annoyance.

Relief washed over me, rinsing away the fear and leaving me aching with the dull throb of thwarted hormones. Why did he have to pick now to interrupt? Letting Edward go was the last thing I wanted to do, but I doubted Emmett was leaving anytime soon. With a resigned sigh, I slipped my hand from the front of his jeans, balling my fingers into a fist.

"Aw, Jesus," he complained, "I think I liked it better when you guys fought all the time. At least then you weren't perpetually attached at the lips. What the fuck is growing on Isle Esme these days? Some kind of vampire aphrodisiac?" He muttered the last sentence to himself, but we still heard it.

I was beginning to think Emmett was protesting too much. This made the fifth time he'd come upon us in a less than respectable position. Pervert. But who was counting?

I banged my head against the ground and growled, "Fuck off, Emmett. Besides, you're too late. You'll just have to wait until later for me to kick your ass. Ninja Bella is done for the day." It was probably better than accusing him of trying to catch a glimpse of Edward and me doing it. For now. He could still have a valid excuse, but how many times did it have to happen before I started to smell horseshit?

Snorting, Emmett said, "You're lucky I didn't come here to wipe the floor with you, little sister. I don't feel like breaking you today." His voice sobered as he added, "I came because we got a message."

I sat up, gingerly moving to sit on the ground next to Edward as I tried discreetly fasten the button of my jeans. I didn't miss the way Edward winced as we righted our clothes, and the little hiss when he adjusted himself went straight to my already buzzing lady parts.

Emmett ignored both of us and clomped into the open field, his arm thrown over his eyes. "Can I look now?"

"Why are you here, Emmett?" Edward asked, sounding more than a little bit grouchy.

"Well, I'm not here to watch you two rabbits screw, that's for fucking sure."

Protesting. Too much.

Edward growled under his breath.

"I don't believe you were invited to watch," I snapped. "We thought we were alone."

"The forest has eyes—which are now blind, by the way. You two uh..." He cleared his throat. "You two decent yet?"

"Yes, Emmett," I sighed, looking over at Edward with a pitiful expression. "I miss the island."

"Tell me about it," he replied, slinging an arm around my shoulders. He pressed a kiss to my temple before looking to Emmett. "What's going on?"

I felt his entire body stiffen, just as his face turned to stone. "How long?"

Emmett sighed, holding out his hands in a gesture of helplessness. "Two weeks."

"What's happening?" My eyes darted from one man to the other. "Edward, tell me."

When Edward finally met my gaze, his eyes were dark and sad. "There's been a letter. Aro has summoned us. He wants to hear our version of the events on the island—from us."

Fear knotted into a block of ice in my chest and grew outward, the force of it threatening to drive me apart. I knew then that Edward was right.

I wasn't ready. At all.

Crap.

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I should also mention that I don't own The Matrix, Friends, or any sketches from Saturday Night Live.

I'll do my absolute best to make sure you don't have to wait as long for the next chapter. Thanks for sticking with me. It means a lot that you'll put up with the long wait between chapters when there are other stories out there that update much more often. I wish I could do that for you, but you probably wouldn't want to read the story then, trust me!

So thank you for reading, and if you'd like to drop me a line and let me know what you thought, I'd love to hear your comments. Now, I'm gonna settle in and wait for Dexter to come on...

Oh, and in the meantime, I hope you're all having a great Holiday season so far! Hopefully I'll have another chapter for you before then!