Chapter 13: Swirling Currents

I finished this early, so you're getting an early update. Summer holidays are awesome, eh? Thank you to everyone who reviewed. It keeps me going.

This chapter's musical selections begin at #27 on the Dove Playlist:

"Good Morning, Baby," by Dan Wilson (Semisonic) and Big Runga

"Bad Things," by Jace Everett

"Out of My League," by Stephen Speaks

o~o~0~o~o

[Woman :]
The path of excess leads to the tower of Wisdom
[Man :]
The path of excess leads to the tower of Wisdom

-'The Gravity of Love' (Enigma)

Tuesday, February 3rd, 2004, 7:10pm:

420 Woodcroft Ave:

"Stop being so cranky and just go see her, already!" Titch snapped.

I shoved my hands in my pockets, and stared out of the living room's glass wall, fuming. "They're following me everywhere."

"Billy Black said you could be with Bella," she argued.

"The younger Wolves aren't letting me anywhere near her. I'm so tired of Hearing what they think of me. They're so prejudiced. I tried to go over last night, and that egotistical snot-nosed twit Embry Call jumped right out in front of me and told me to go back to my belfry."

Alice sniffed. "That he managed to surprise you proves how distracted you are. You need your mate."

"Tell me something I don't know! I nearly smashed his nose into his brain, I was so incensed."

Sounds like a viable option to me. Jasper had his feet on the ottoman, and (as he often did) he was looking over one of his modern Civil War history books, adding copious notes to its margin. They are not behaving like gentlemen. Call me next time, and we will wreak a little mayhem.

"Not a good idea, Jazz," Titch said darkly.

"Carlisle said no fighting," Rose told us firmly as she applied nail polish to Alice's nails. I bit my tongue. Anything I said would only add fuel to Rosalie's fire, and I didn't need any more arguments with her. She was worried that Bella's presence in our lives would result in harm to the family, since certain of the Kwoli were still being intrusive. Conversely, she was also concerned about Bella.

At the moment, I was worried that I was going to wither away to nothing without my mate. I had not seen her since I drove her home from the hospital the morning before, and being separated from her, after being with her constantly, was actually physically painful. I scowled and paced, trying to come up with a solution that wouldn't get anybody killed.

"They don't realize they're making it harder for me to maintain my self-control." ◊Maybe I ought to ask Jazz and Em again to escort me to Bella's.

"Edward." Titch rolled her eyes. "I know you'd like to have us escort you, but I still See it ending up in a fight." My sister's eyes went black and she lost focus. "Well, aren't you lucky!"

Billy, Harry and Sue Clearwater had just decided to attend a Tribal Council in Queets with the entire pack in an attempt to improve Leah's circumstances. I was already in motion.

Titch called after me, "You have exactly half an hour to get inside Bella's house and hide yourself from their prying eyes. Take a change of clothes with you for morning, and amscray!"

"Thank god he's going," Rose muttered.

"Bye!" My heart soaring, I rushed up to my room and grabbed three sets of clothing, my sweats, toothbrush and comb, stuffed them in a backpack, and leaped out my window into the trees. I hurtled through the forest at top speed, and came out behind the Swan house ten minutes later. It was definitely a speed record.

Bella was out back, storing trash bags in the white shed. I dropped into the yard with a thud, startling her. She crouched and prepared to run. Her heart hammered out of her chest, and in one split second, I lost my mind.

The blood! Chase prey! I moved, a red haze clouding my vision, not heeding the thing in my pocket as it buzzed.

The human gasped, placing a hand over her juddering heart. Then, instead of running away as any sensible prey should have done, she hurtled with a joyful cry into my arms. She wrapped her legs around my middle, pressing her pussy against my instantly raging, hard cock. A lustful growl thrummed in my chest as I caged her, and she stiffened.

Salivating, I ran my nose slowly over her jugular, eager to bite into buttery, savoury flesh. The throbbing blood would spurt, and course down my excruciatingly painful throat, and the burn would be quenched for two weeks. If I could control my thirst long enough to bewitch her, I could satiate my hungers as well.

I applied my mouth to the large muscle of her shoulder, parting my teeth to rest them against the seductive, fragile skin, inhaling deeply as I tongued flesh. The human shuddered and whimpered. Then, I tasted lavender and freesia and realized that this creature was not my prey, but my Bella.

"God, Edward! I've missed you so much!"

My Bella. If I drained her life away, there would be no more joy. Ever.

"Edward, you okay?"

Summoning every iota of willpower I possessed, I pulled back an inch and clenched my teeth together. Venom ran down my jaw and dripped onto her t-shirt.

"Oh, boy." She began to shake. "I guess that answers that."

I held my breath while she panted. My throat was so raw. I had been away from her too long. She tried to pull back from me, and my arms tightened around her in a vice-like grip. "Mine!"

Wisely, she stopped resisting and stilled.

Softness. Warmth. Welcome and invitation. This was my Bella. My mate. I wanted her in every possible way. I knew I was holding her too tightly but I couldn't loosen my grip. Consequently, her breaths came fast and shallow as they ought to in my presence. Intoxicating. All I had to do was nip her and she would be mine forever. She would be mine in every possible way. Everything in me yearned for it.

"I wish you'd bite me and get it over with," she had said. "It's all or nothing," she had said.

Why? Why was I resisting my heart's desire?

Because she doesn't know what your existence is really like, idiot. She doesn't know what it's like to not have your prayers answered. She doesn't know what it's like to look at a corpse you just drained, still shedding tears after crying for his mother. She doesn't know what it is to be damned.

I couldn't do it. But I couldn't run away, either. I had to compromise my morals, just a bit. Just enough to placate the monster so he wouldn't take over and destroy everything I had with this girl.

With intent, my mate took deeper breaths and I relaxed my biceps enough that she could breathe freely. After several minutes, her heart slowed, and I was able to pull in a test-breath. Her blood-scent attacked my throat like razors, and I gulped down venom repeatedly. Gradually, the pain and lust dulled, and came back under my control. I leaned over my mate, sniffed behind her ear tentatively, and listened to the throb of her life force in her veins and arteries.

"Y-you're my mate," she whispered, with a small shudder. "Don't kill me."

I shook my head, brushing her warm cheek with my cold one. "Ssh." I ran my nose through her hair, winding my fingers up in it to tip her head, exposing her throat to me. A new round of her shivers stimulated my groin. I pressed my mouth and nose against her jugular, feeling the tickle of her breath against my face. My mate surrendered to me, going limp, and allowed me to support her full weight. So warm and soft. So trusting.

"Mine," I growled against her skin, rocking from foot to foot as I supported her under her hip bones with my other hand.

"Yes," she gasped, arching against me. She tangled her fingers in my hair, her body temperature rising. "Kiss me."

A fantasy of snatching up a wife and joining with her, with the momentum of a runaway freight train, played out behind my eyelids. It was only for vampires. I couldn't love this fragile Bella that way. I harnessed my strength, cradled her limp form, and bent to lick a long line from the hollow of her collar bone up to her jaw. I tasted the nervous, salty sheen of sweat decorating her skin. Then, she flushed, radiating heat and desire.

She shuddered and moaned, and I shuddered and came. In that moment, there was nothing in me but gratitude and adoration. Adjuring myself to be careful, I lifted her arm to wrap around my neck, urging her to hold me as I licked her again.

"You have a tongue like a cat's." Tentatively, Bella touched her tongue to my neck. And then she licked me back.

Esme was right. Licking was… Energy zapped through my entire being. I painted my own scent over the evidence of fear and aggression with my tongue. It really appealed to my possessive tendencies, and yet it showed affection, and was gentle. I decided I would be licking my mate often.

Bella shivered again, and I realized her skin was pebbled with cold. My lamb was only wearing a t-shirt and jeans, and it was February! Furthermore, I was spooning with my mate, out in the open, where anyone could see. I swung her over my shoulder, and carried her into the house. Gently, I eased her down to the kitchen floor, and she swayed and clung to my forearms. I was very glad that Mr. Ed had relaxed, because -had he poked my little lamb again- it would have been highly embarrassing.

My voice was rough. "Sorry I scared you."

"I take it you missed me," she rasped, toying with the hair on my forearms while staring at the silver venom staining the left side of her white tee. Had she been less virtuous, she might have noticed the wet spot on my jeans.

"You have no idea." I pressed my lips against her temple, feeling the pulse of my very world against my mouth. Her scent was so intense, and mixed with mine, it made me feel very powerful, but I knew I was approaching the threshold of my limits and I couldn't afford to step over it. I could not love Bella with my body as my siblings loved their mates. It would be morally wrong, and physically impossible. Still, I resolved to give her a plethora of gentle touches. She would never have to guess at the depth of my regard. Actions speak louder than words.

"Am I hurting you?" she asked innocently. Grr-wow, what a novel idea! Lamb cleans up on lion. Now why did that sound hawt? Ahem.

"No." I smiled faintly. "Well, initially it's really hard on my throat," which Bella licked with her hot tongue, "but the pain becomes manageable once I acclimate myself to your blood." I grazed her jaw with my nose, accepting the burn.

My mate tipped her head so I could lick beneath her ear. "I thought, for a minute there, you were going to bite me."

I kissed her jaw and pressed my forehead reverently to hers. "I thought so, too."

Bella pulled back and shot me a wry expression. "Gee, thanks for the reassurance. Are you sorry?"

"Not sure."

Bella's jaw dropped but her eyes shone. "You're not sorry you did something dangerous?"

"I'd be sorry if I ever did anything to hurt you. But I didn't hurt you, did I?"

"Not at all. That was totally hot."

I couldn't believe my ears. "You aren't scared?"

"Well, I was until you started to lick me."

I nodded. "You did the exact right thing to help me get control over my urges. You played dead. Any time I make you nervous, you should do that."

"Then you should re-name me Possum, because you make me nervous all the time."

"Hah. Very funny, little lamb. Don't stoke my fire. I love making you nervous." I winked. Apparently, Bella had already dismissed the idea that I was dangerous, and I was far too turned on to contradict her.

"You are very naughty."

I shrugged theatrically. "I've been trying to tell you that."

Bella hooked her thumbs into the belt loops of her jeans. "So where have you been? I've been missing you."

Talk about a bucket of cold water!

"I tried to get over here last night. The Wolves stopped me. I nearly got in a fight with Embry Call. He's so obnoxious."

Bella blanched. "You mustn't start a fight, Love."

I rolled my eyes. "I know. I was well-behaved. I let him live. But it was really difficult, Bella. The only thing that's stopping me from going psycho all over their furry butts is the fear of reprisals. Emmett and Jasper feel the same way. It's not just me. Are the dogs giving you any trouble?"

My mate's eyes dropped. "I don't want you to fight. I can't bear the thought of any of you getting hurt. If someone in your family got... If someone got killed, I'm quite certain none of you would get over it. Promise me you will behave better than the Wolves."

She waited for my response. I sighed. "I won't instigate anything, Love, and I'll tell Jazz and Em to do the same. But it's not immature to act to protect our mates or ourselves. You're right. We would never get over losing a family member. Now, you didn't answer me. Are they troubling you?"

Bella chewed her lip. "Not directly. Billy and Charlie had a really bad argument yesterday. I overheard Charlie tell him the boys were to leave you alone, or he'd file a restraining order on all of them. That shut Billy up pretty quickly. He was being all nicey-nicey after that. Oh, and Jacob showed up to apologize. I don't think Billy has told him the truth. He was ranting to me about how illogical his father's behaviour was, and how he's worried about Embry and Young Quil, because they seem to be constantly hanging around with Paul and Sam. Jake thinks they're bad influences."

I let out a long-suffering sigh. "So, Jacob doesn't know. Billy doesn't realize how much trouble it would bring down on this part of the world if Jacob opens his mouth to the wrong person. Jacob needs to be told about vampires, or it's going to be a bloodbath."

"I'll warn Billy," my mate promised. "And I'll tell him to remind the Pack that we're allowed to see each other."

"Thank you. I'll update Carlisle." My eyes drifted to the venom on her t-shirt. "You need to wash that before it stains permanently."

"But," she hesitated, and blushed.

"But?"

"I kind of like it there," she protested.

I frowned. "It might melt the fabric. I don't think it could hurt you once it's dry, but won't Charlie question what it is?"

Bella scrunched up her mouth to one side. "Maybe."

"Would you please change it?"

"But it smells like you." She gave me puppy-dog eyes.

Yeah, that's the problem. "It's making me feel territorial."

"Hawt."

Yeah, that's the problem. I hung my head sheepishly. "I have a confession."

Bella mockingly gawped at me. "Another one?"

I felt venom sizzle under my skin. "What can I say? I do a lot of bad things."

"You don't look so hot. Come and sit down." She pulled my arm, and I allowed myself to be led into the Swans' small sitting room. She sat down on the loveseat and tucked a foot under herself, watching me anxiously.

I sank down beside her, wincing as my injured muscle gave a twinge. Bella noticed and let her hand twitch toward me, but I stilled it. If she was going to get mad at me, I really didn't want her that close to my privates. I knew from Rosalie that females could fight dirty.

I cleared my throat and ran that telling hand through my hair. I really had to stop doing that. "I... When I got home from Denali, I was anxious to come and see you, but... I was worried about being tempted by your blood. So, I... kind of sneaked in here, when you and Charlie were out for the day, and... I spent the day in your rocking chair, getting used to your scent."

She beamed at me. I was expecting to get chewed up one side and down the other, and she beamed at me. "I thought I was nuts! I knew I smelled your scent in here. That was ingenious!"

I peeked at her from under my lashes. "I can't take credit for it. It was Jasper's idea. He's an old soldier. He knows a lot of tricks and tactics that really work to our benefit."

"Do you have my ratty old t-shirt?"

I was stunned. "How did you connect the dots so fast?"

"I say 'I want to keep your venom on my t-shirt', you tell me about acclimating yourself to my scent, and I'm missing the t-shirt my Gran gave me. Not that hard to figure out. What's the big woof?"

"Well, you're quite the detective. Oh, it's a memento of your Gran? I thought maybe you kept it to dust with or something. I'm very sorry, Bella. I'll bring it back." I started to get up, and she put a hand out to block me.

"I guess it didn't look very important. You probably found it under my pillow, right?"

"No, it was on the floor." Under your bed.

Bella nodded. "I loved Gran Marie. She was such a nurturer. Esme reminds me of her, actually. Anyway, I don't want you running off to get a ratty old shirt when you've had so much trouble getting here. I've missed you."

"And I, you."

"Tell you what, you bring me the shirt the next time you come over, and maybe..." she blushed again.

"Maybe what, Bella?"

"Can I have a t-shirt you've been wearing, to put under my pillow? I'll give you this one to take home."

"Yes!" I loved her so much. "It would actually help me a lot, if you were to exchange shirts with me regularly, to keep the scent fresh."

"Yeah, we can do that."

I felt some of the knots inside me ease. "That's great, Bella, because I'm really not a masochist, and when we spend time apart, I lose my ability to deal with your blood. I have to start almost from scratch, getting used to it, and I won't say that's not dangerous."

Bella looked crushed. "Are you telling me, every time we're parted, it causes you pain to reunite with me?"

"Um." ◊What should I say? It really would be better for Bella if she were with somebody normal. If I let on that every time I see her, it causes me pain, she'll send me away. It would be an easy way to set her free. But I didn't want to let go, even if that was selfish. But being selfish with Bella is not an option. So I should be dishonest. But lying to Bella doesn't seem like a workable option, either. What a muddle! My silence lengthened.

"Edward, tell me the truth right now. When we were in the hospital, together day and night, did the burn in your throat go away?"

I closed my eyes. My little lamb was a force with which to be reckoned. Eenie meenie miney mo, catch a tiger by the toe...

"Please tell me."

I opened my eyes, but I couldn't look up. I was ashamed that I wanted to keep Bella for my own so badly that I would actually choose to not tell her a lie that would protect her. The truth would not protect her at all, because it would keep her with me. I had nearly bitten her. I could kill her.

"Please," she whispered.

I swallowed hard. "When I'm with you twenty-four hours a day, the burn virtually vanishes. I had forgotten all about the pain until you kissed me in front of Tanya. Then, it flared. You must understand that the pain is a signal for me to feed. Blood gets rid of the pain. I am the most dangerous thing in your world. Never forget that."

Bella crossed her arms stubbornly. "So, when you're with me for hours and hours, the burn goes away?"

"Pretty much." I risked a peek at her.

"Well, then, it's simple," she declared, throwing out her hands.

"Huh?"

"You have to move in with me."

I actually heard my mother and father spinning in their graves.

o~o~0~o~o

Tuesday, February 3rd, 11:00pm:

The Swan House, 775 K Street:

Titch was ecstatic. She was convinced that this new plan of Bella's was going to solve all our problems, the chief of which being (in Alice's estimation) that I did not wish to transform my mate. In Alice's not-so-humble opinion, my presence in Bella's bed every night would definitely take the edge off my wish to keep her human. Mr. Ed tended to agree, but the Victorian in me did not. I was still waiting for the lightning bolt to strike me for agreeing to try cohabitation.

I crept out of the Swans' bathroom, more than a little frightened that somebody was going to show up to murder me –if you can murder somebody who's already dead, that is. Charlie was out on a late call pertaining to an awful traffic accident on the highway outside Hoh. I stepped through the door into Bella's room, standing shyly in my sweats with a wet head, and my mate turned joyfully from her task.

She was hanging up the contents of my knapsack: three sets of fresh clothes. And she was wearing the white Oxford shirt I had worn all day, with the cuffs undone. A hint of dusky rose nipple beneath the white taunted me. It didn't look like Bella was wearing much else, except for socks. Hopefully, she was wearing underwear. Very ugly underwear meant for someone's grandma. If she wasn't, I might just drop dead.

Bella in my clothes: Sigh. Most. Minxy. Thing. Ever. At vampire speed, I adjusted Mr. Ed.

"Did Alice tell you to pack a lot of clothes? Did she See you staying here with me?" my ecstatic mate wanted to know as she shut the door to her closet.

I ran a hand over my wet head. "S-she only told me to pack a change of clothes and to get over here before the Kwoli could get out of their meeting to track me."

Bella was nonplussed. "Then why did you bring enough clothing for three days?"

I squirmed. "It's not enough clothing for three days. It's not enough for one day, actually."

Bella nodded, her eyes full of questions. "Is human-made clothing not durable enough for vampires? Do you wear holes in it or something?"

I tugged my hair some more. "Um, sometimes that happens, especially if we wear inexpensive garments, but it's not the real reason. I have OCD, and the state of my clothing is part of it." I looked in my knapsack. It was empty. "Bella, uh..."

"Yes, Love?"

"Where's... my underwear?" Naming my personal undergarments in front of a young lady gave me six kinds of guilt.

She skipped over to the highboy and opened the top drawer. "It's right here, with mine. And you can keep your shaving kit in here too, okay?"

I gasped, wondering if the undead could faint. "Bella, that's not appropriate!"

"It's the only place Charlie won't find it," she said simply. "There's no way he'll go anywhere near my underwear."

I could relate to that, for completely different reasons. Gentlemanly reasons. "Jeez Louise." I sighed, pinching the bridge of my nose between my fingers.

"It's only underwear, Edward. I do Charlie's laundry. Not like I've never seen men's underwear before. I used to wash Phil's clothes, too, and he and my mother are total pervs. You would not believe the things they expected me to wash."

I gaped at her. This doe-eyed girl was going to be the death of me. She pinked up a bit, which didn't help me feel any more under control of my appetites.

Bella walked over, sat at the foot of the bed, and patted it, inviting me to join her. I wanted to. Instead, I gestured at the rocking chair.

"Do you mind if I sit here?"

She shook her head. Slowly, I sank onto the chair, careful not to break it.

I cleared my throat. "I have an OCD. I'm a mysophobe."

"I didn't understand any of that. Please speak English."

"I have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. It means when something triggers me, I obsess over it, and do things that aren't logical, but relieve the stress. Most vampires have an OCD. Carlisle thinks it's a side effect of the venom that transforms us. In fact, there's one legend that applies to a fair number of us, that you ought to keep in mind, should you ever be threatened by a Trad."

"Okay."

"Have you ever read that if a vampire attacks you, you should spill something tiny on the ground so he stops to count and collect it?"

"Yes, I have," she said curiously. "Like rice or peas."

"Rice is too small. And who carries peas around? Because you hang with us, there's a small chance you could meet a Trad someday. Wear beaded necklaces. Should you ever encounter a Trad, tell him you are Isabella di Olympia, break the necklace, and spill the beads. If you're lucky, he'll stop to pick them up, and you can get somewhere public before he catches up with you. Unless a vampire is insane, he won't attack humans if they're in a group."

"Oh. Do beads work on you?"

"I don't know. None of my victims ever tried it," I said uncomfortably, "but I do count things. I know that your seed bead bracelet is made up of 2032 beads, and you have eight freckles on your nose, and 183 eyelashes on your upper left eyelid, and 185 on your right. If I ever were to lose control with you, spilling beads would probably distract me long enough for my sanity to return."

"Oh."

"See, when I'm hunting, I give myself over to my senses. It's automatic. But when I smell you, I register that you're my mate. I was able to regain my self-control today. I hope I can get a better grip on my instincts, so that I never hurt you, but I'll warn you again that if you spend time with me, the risk of death is-"

"You would never hurt me."

I sighed. Bella couldn't understand. So I would have to give her strategies to employ if I ever lost control. "Jasper told me a woman once stopped him by dropping a bowl of cereal."

"Huh. So what triggers your OCD?"

I pulled my hair. "It could be anything that provokes anxiety. This is an anxiety disorder, and frankly, it's insane, because there's not a current reason for me to be a mysophobe. It's a carry-over from the trauma of my Influenza."

"Mysophobe?"

"Fear of germs. There's no reason for me to be afraid of germs anymore. Vampires don't get sick. It's totally illogical, but it's ingrained, because germs killed me."

A cheeky light flickered in Bella's eyes. "Then, if you attack me, and I sneeze, will it stop you?"

"I don't know. It might slow me down. The call of your blood is overwhelming, though, and if you're faking, that might register. I can smell illness on people. I'll be steering you away from people who are coming down with the flu, yeah?"

"That's awesome!" She bit her lip. "So... you're afraid of germs, and when you're feeling anxious, you engage in repetitive behaviours that are comforting?" My girl was so smart. I was pleased that she understood.

"Exactly."

"So what's your compulsion?"

"I have to be clean, and personally tidy, and I avoid contact with germs. I've learned not to obsess about my room, because if I do, one of my siblings is apt to come in and purposefully mess it up, either in retaliation for some prank, or in an effort to make me get over my OCD. I'm really picky about where things I value are kept. For example, my music collection is all micro-organized. So are my books and journals. But I'll leave laundry on the floor, just so they don't bug me."

"Wow, you strategize a lot," Bella mused.

"I over-think everything."

"So you change your clothes often?"

I sighed. "I shower at least five times a day. Our skin is very sensitive, even though it's far more durable than yours. I can feel if there's something on it, like dust or grime or the oils from a human's skin –from shaking hands, for instance- and it's terribly distracting. It makes me tense, and so I relieve the stress by keeping clean. And that goes for clothing, too."

"Huh. But you didn't shower a lot in hospital, and you didn't get changed a lot, either."

I looked down, and peeked at her sheepishly. "That was due to two circumstances that I couldn't control. And the funny thing is, they should conflict, but I'm not sure they do."

Bella signalled me to continue.

"First, we spent a lot of time exchanging affection. I was focused on that. When I was sharing positive attention with you, I was distracted from my anxiety. During the moments when I was feeling uptight, when the Kwoli were there, for example, you were there to calm me down."

Bella nodded. "Okay." ◊Gee, she's not running away, even though I'm explaining what a head case I am. How encouraging.

"Second, my family went out of their way to make it harder for me to indulge my repetitive behaviours. When I asked them to bring me changes of clothing, they would only bring me underwear. They seem to think, for some reason, that forcing me to not change clothes is somehow going to cure my OCD."

"It only makes it worse, doesn't it?"

Bless her heart! She really gets me. "Yes. You're absolutely right. If they take the option away from me, it feeds my anxiety and makes me want to do it even more. Now the one good thing about their attempt to do an intervention when I was in hospital was that I had you there with me." I looked at her affectionately. "Whenever I felt the urge to get up and shower, I thought about whether I could do it without disturbing you, and when I got uncomfortable because the inability to wash was bothering me, I concentrated on you instead. So, I coped better. But when I got home from the hospital, and you weren't there to support me, my OCD got worse than ever."

I dragged my hand through my hair, trying to relieve pent-up frustration. Should I tell Bella about my bad coping skills? "Between not being able to see you, and dealing with the Kwoli, and experiencing the ongoing frustration of lacking my emotional crutches, I have been a real bear to live with for the past twenty-four hours. My siblings are all ticked off with me, and Carlisle and Esme are being annoyingly patronizing." How perceptive was Bella? With trepidation, I showed her my chapped hands. She moved to sit at the end of her bed and caressed my silvered knuckles.

"How did you get these fine scratches?"

"I wash my hands a lot when I'm stressed."

"You scrub them with something until they bleed."

I evaded her too-correct assertion. "I don't bleed. I heal quickly so it doesn't matter."

Bella tightened her grip on my fingers. "Edward, you scrubbed your hands raw. How does a vampire do that?"

I couldn't look at her. "Steel wool."

Bella silently caressed my knuckles. I waited for her to tell me I was too fucked up for her. "Sounds like it would good for everybody if you were to stay out of the house for a while."

Dared I believe my ears? "Yeah?"

"I've been moody, too. If you stay here, it's win-win."

I tugged my hair again. "Um, the only flies in the ointment being-"

"You're not going to pull the propriety card again, are you?" my mate interrupted. I avoided looking at her.

"Whether or not it's appropriate for me to stay here seems to be moot. I just can't seem to stay away from you."

"Good to know." She let go of my hand. "So what's the problem?"

"Two concerns, which both revolve around my OCD habits. First, Charlie is never going to let me move in here. You're only seventeen. So I'll have to sneak around. Not only does that bother me morally, it limits my ability to indulge my OCD. If I shower too much, your electric bill is going to go up, and Charlie is going to wonder why. He also might be able to smell me, especially if there's steam in the bathroom or I use a towel. Second, if I leave the house to wash and change, the Wolves will interfere in my comings and goings. If I leave, I might not be able to get back, and that is going to be stressful on everyone."

"Okay. I understand. We'll take it one step at a time, and see how it goes. Is there anything else you need to tell me?"

"I don't know. I'm not used to ... This is all new. Do you have any questions?"

Bella looked off, and then refocused on me. "You almost bit me tonight. How come? Was it just from smelling me, after not being close to me in a couple of days?"

"Good question. No. I startled you. It didn't occur to me that you wouldn't hear me coming. When I jumped down, you panicked for a second, and my predatory instincts kicked in. And had you run away, I would have pounced, and probably this would have ended... badly. But you played dead, and that was awesome. Vampires love it when prey resists. But you did one other thing that provoked me, and if you could try not to do it, it would be helpful."

"Okay," Bella agreed. I was encouraged by her amiability. I lived in a household where personalities frequently got in the way of teamwork. My family could function as a team, but it wasn't always easy to get people on the same page. Bella was refreshingly open to working with me. It encouraged me to communicate with her frankly.

"You moved quickly. You also did it when you kissed me in front of Tanya. When you move suddenly, my targeting instincts kick in. I need you to not do that. And I need you to not talk or josh about biting. Mated pairs, well, they all bite each other in affection. I have to focus all the time on not hurting you, because I'm so much stronger than you are. And I cannot, at all cost, bite you, Bella. If I taste your blood, I might not be able to stop." I gulped down venom, picturing it. Knowing that even the suggestion of biting provoked my darker urges was disheartening.

Bella brushed back my hair. "Hey, no moping. You're doing so well. I trust you. We'll find this easier to do as we get to know each other better, right?"

"Yes, I hope so," I murmured. Bella always knew what to say to me. I was the luckiest m- vampire on the planet.

"Will you hold me now? I've missed you so much. I barely slept last night," she sighed, reaching for me.

I smiled slyly. "I didn't sleep at all."

"Cheeky."

I rose as Bella crawled to the head of the bed and pushed her legs under the bedclothes. "What if Charlie comes in to check on you?"

"Hide in my closet," Bella shrugged. "It's not like we're... you know."

Had I been a human male, I would have had sweaty palms. I crossed to the bed, and lay down gingerly on the window-side. Bella turned out her bedside lamp.

"Aren't you going to get under the covers with me?"

"I would make you cold," I murmured sadly.

"It doesn't matter." When I stayed quiet, she propped her chin on my chest. "Are you moping?"

"Sleep, Bella. We have to go to school tomorrow, and face the curious horde."

"You just set me up for nightmares."

I rolled my eyes, not that she was apt to see me in the dark. "She's not afraid of me, but just mention the Forks Grapevine, and-"

Bella chuckled. "Shut up and cuddle me."

"Yes, Ma'am," I said in a silly voice.

To my delight, she snorted. "Go to bed, Yoda. I love you."

"I love you, Bella. Sleep well."

o~o~0~o~o

Wednesday, February 4th, 2004, 6am:

"Bells? I'm going," Charlie called through the door.

Bella stirred. " 'Kay, Charlie."

Wish... Dad. Damn Renée. Oh, well, Bella... good girl.

I heaved a sigh of relief as Charlie pulled out of the driveway, and relaxed further into Bella's narrow bed. Bella's sleep-heavy scent caressed me, as her head rested on my chest. It was heavenly. Had I not been afraid of the wrath of God, I would have thanked Him for this precious interval of peace and joy. I knew it wouldn't last forever. It would only be so long before Bella realized I was no good for her; that I was dangerous, and then this tender chapter in my existence would be over. I therefore appreciated it all the more. I basked in my mate's comforting heat for a further half hour before she began to wake up.

"Edward," she sighed, reaching up to grope at my face with a sleepy hand. I chuckled, capturing it.

"Well, that's better than 'five more minutes, Charlie'." I smiled. "Good morning, Love."

"I wanna wake up to that beau-ful face for the res' of eternity," she garbled at me, smiling, and then her face fell solemn. "You are so beautiful."

I huffed, embarrassed. "Males are not 'beautiful', Bella."

"Beautiful," she repeated, extending a tentative finger to stroke my jaw. It wasn't rough. I had already shaved at top speed in the middle of the night. I didn't want to scrape her skin with my stubble.

"Beautiful," she said again, tracing my brow. I shut my eyes while she touched me, leaving trails of heat in the wake of her fingers, and wondered if this was what it felt like to be relaxed. A melody started in my head. A love song for Bella.

Her hand came to rest against my cheek, and her thumb ghosted over my bottom lip, tracing the shape. Did I dare play a joke? Of course I dared. I was not only a vampire, but a seventeen year old guy. It was pretty much inevitable that I should want to play bratty games.

I moved at top speed, pretending to take a snap at her thumb. "Yarmph!" I growled, and Bella pulled her hand back like she had been burned, looking at me in shock. I assumed a holier-than-thou expression. Her head canted to the side, and slowly, her eyes lit until they positively shone.

"You, bad, bad vampire!" she gasped. "Who told me not to mention b-"

Gently, I stopped her mouth with my finger. "I couldn't resist. Sue me. Hold still and be quiet."

Apparently, my Bella knew when to obey an order. I leaned in, ghosting my lips over her flushed skin. I pressed a kiss to each corner of her mouth. Her eyes shut, her lips parted, and she arched. I was so, so tempted to claim a passionate kiss. Instead, I drew back, with venom pooling in my mouth. I gulped it down. Better not push my luck.

Bella opened her eyes. Deciding she wasn't in danger, she brushed the backs of her fingers over my temple. "Hi."

"Hi," I echoed. "It's time to feed the-"

She recoiled from me in terror. I panicked, sliding backward onto the floor. ◊I never said I was going to hurt her; didn't she know that I wouldn't?

Abruptly, she pointed her finger at me and slayed herself laughing. "Got you!" she crowed, pointing and hugging herself.

"You are masquerading as a sweet young girl," I accused with a mock-frown, chock-full of admiration.

"And you're masquerading as a sweet young man," she chuckled, "which means we're perfectly suited."

I arched a brow. "That so?"

"You're just as much a brat as I am."

"All right, enough joshing." I laughed, marching over to throw her over my shoulder. I carried her out of the room.

"Put me down!" she squealed, smacking my backside.

"No way, José," I said loudly, taking the stairs at top speed.

Bella squealed. "I have to pee!"

"Yikes!" I turned around, set Bella down inside the bathroom door, and escaped back into the bedroom to pace. This was going to take some adjustment on my part. There were no manuals for raising human girls, or for living with people who had to use commodes. How was I going to take care of her properly?

Bella came out of the bathroom and extended her arms theatrically. I thought she looked too delicious for words, wearing my now-rumpled white Oxford. I decided she ought to wear my clothes more often. I slung her back over my shoulder and carried her down, thinking that little white sock-feet at the end of long creamy-looking legs were absolute perfection.

I turned into the kitchen and dumped my giddy mate on the countertop. Her face was all red, and she squirmed with glee. "I ought to spank you for that prank," I growled, nose to nose with her.

She tossed her head. "Hah! I dare you to try!"

"You'd better hope I don't," I warned her, grinning. "I give you one tap?" I caressed her knee with the tip of my finger. "You won't sit down for a month."

She made a fish face and shook her head at me. "That could be fun."

Grr-wow. "Shut up. You're all red, and you look yummy, and my bet is you taste yummy, too." I rested my elbow and forearm to the outside of her thigh.

"Why don't you lick me and find out?" she dared me. Whoa, boy. I turned my back and adjusted myself surreptitiously.

"If I do, we're both going to miss school, and Carlisle will not be impressed with that." I improvised a reason not to turn around: looking in cupboards for dishes.

"Are you making me breakfast?" Bella asked, her voice merry.

"Somebody has to take care of you. You do far too much around here, and Doctor Gerandy told you to rest."

"So, what are you cooking? Crepes Suzette? Eggs Benedict?"

I froze, at a total loss. "Um..."

"Do you even know how to make toast?" she giggled.

"No," I said sheepishly.

"All right. I'll teach you to feed the human." Bella slid off the counter. "You great provider, you."

"Oh, sure, make fun of me," I whined, pretending to pout.

"I am woman. Watch me hunt." Bella pulled a toaster closer to the edge of the counter. "Now this, my dear vampire, is a toaster. First step? Plug it in."

"For your information,' I said haughtily, hugging her from behind, "my family has cooked Christmas Dinner at various missions since 1924." She turned to gape at me.

"So you can make turkey dinner, but you don't know how to make toast?"

"Shut up."

She snorted, and swung her hair. Her scent enveloped me like a cozy blanket. "Step two, see this little button?"

"It's a lever."

"Whatever. You drop in the bread, and push it down. Go on, push it."

I did so.

"Now in a few minutes, it's going to pop up, so don't be startled."

"It's burning." The smoke from the toaster stung my nose. I rubbed it absently-minded.

"That's called 'toasting'," Bella said with an eye roll. The toast popped, and she grabbed it out of the air, and hissed when it burned her fingers. I plucked both pieces from her grasp and set them on her plate while she sucked her fingers.

"You should have let me do that," I chastised her.

"What? Suck my fingers?"

Twitch, twitch. "Oh, you are so bad. I meant, catch your toast for you. The heat doesn't bother me."

"I was under the impression you were highly flammable."

I sighed, putting my hands on my hips. "Who's protecting whom, here?"

"I'm for equal opportunity care-taking, you dinosaur. Go look for the butter in the fridge." She waved me toward it.

"What's butter?" I asked blankly.

My mate put her hands on her hips and eyed me suspiciously. "You are putting me on."

I looked at her with what I hoped were innocent eyes, but as Bella continued to glare at me, my mouth gave me away by crinkling up on the left.

"You are such a brat," she chuckled, walking past me to open the fridge.

I laughed. "I know, but you find that strangely attractive."

"Don't press your luck," she growled from inside the fridge.

"No, Ma'am," I smirked, enjoying the view of her behind. ◊In the name of all that's holy, Bella's legs go on forever. As she stood up and turned toward me, I looked away. God forbid she should discover I was such a perv.

"How are we going to get to school without getting ambushed by those Kwoli?" she sighed.

Upstairs, my cell buzzed. "My phone's ringing. It will be Alice. Please excuse me while I grab it." But I stopped before I had taken two steps: unwelcome thoughts invaded my happiness, and they didn't belong to me. They belonged to three Kwoli Ute and a human boy. I looked out of the kitchen window in dread. "The Kwoli know I'm here. Jacob Black is coming to see us."