For Noah. You were most precious to me. You still are. Now and always.

Chapter 18

Edward POV

I liked the dark. The loneliness was easier to bear in the dark.

My hands ghosted over the keys, random chords echoing in the empty room. I stared listlessly ahead, trying to empty out my mind. Trying not to think.

A melody weaved itself through my hands, my fingers moving on their own. For the past two weeks, this song was all I'd played—a piece I composed when I could no longer endure the misery and tried to exorcise it through music. By now, I knew this song all too well. It was the sound of my heart breaking.

Bella's face drifted before my eyes. As much as I tried not to see, she was everywhere I looked. I shut my eyes tight, trying to block out the sight, but it was useless.

My hands came down on the keys abruptly as her absence made itself evident and slashed through me.

I'd now gone sixteen days without seeing Bella. My last words to her had been get the fuck out, and it seemed she took them to heart. I was desperate to apologize, to beg her forgiveness, to tell her how I was the most despicable idiot for saying that, for blaming her for what happened, but I never got the chance. I called her constantly in the days after, left messages until her voicemail was full, but she never called back. She called none of us back.

I haven't taken a proper breath since that night, as though someone held my head underwater and only let me up for breath twice a minute. I didn't know how much longer I'd last before I drowned.

I wished I could talk to Rosalie about it; she always had the right advice. After the funeral, she decided to stay in town while our parents' estate was settled—and to see more of Emmett, if my suspicions were correct—but of course, I couldn't tell her any of it. I hadn't even seen her since the service; I couldn't make myself leave the penthouse. The thought of Bella returning and not finding me here terrified me. What if she came back and I missed it?

A couple of days ago, Kate called Alice to tell her that Bella had been there the entire time, and that she was all right. Alice had already seen Bella going to Alaska, but she appreciated the confirmation of Bella's wellbeing just the same. That relief was short-lived when she tried to call Bella—again—only to get the disembodied voice saying the inbox was full, courtesy of yours truly. Alice went ballistic at Bella's refusal to answer her call yet again.

The proverbial light bulb lit up in my head. Why hadn't I thought of it before? There was only one solution: I was going to go to her and bring her home myself.

My resolve was invigorating. It felt good to have a plan of action. It sure as hell beat sitting here on my ass wishing I could take back the moronic things I said to Bella.

Dashing to Bella's bedroom, I went straight into her closet to find a duffel bag. I had already thrown some clothes haphazardly into the bag when it suddenly occurred to me that the only shoes I had with me were sneakers. Shit. I'm going to need boots if I'm going to Alaska. That meant a quick detour by my apartment and straight to the airport afterwards. I'd just figure out a flight once there.

Having zipped up the bag, I made a mad dash through the penthouse towards the front door. Alice stood in the foyer, trying to look as though she were just hanging out there.

"Going somewhere, Edward?" She was leaning against the wall beside the door, nonchalantly inspecting her nails.

Fuck. I hadn't accounted for this holdup. If she'd seen me leaving, she'd also have seen where I was going. It was futile to lie at this point.

"Yeah, I am. I'm going to go find Bella." My voice carried a lot more confidence than I felt.

The look she gave me was full of pity. "Edward, you've been there all of one time. Think back on the second half of that journey. Do you remember a road?"

My face scrunched in concentration as I thought about it. We had veered off the main road well before we got the Denalis' cabin; the whole way had been snow and trees, probably indistinguishable from any other clump of trees buried in mounds of snow. I rearranged my expression quickly before Alice could see my dismay.

"It doesn't matter. I can find the place." Now I was riding purely on bravado and stubbornness.

"You getting lost and freezing to death in the Alaskan wilderness won't help anything. Bella would chop me into bite-size pieces and barbecue them if I allowed you to go through with this foolishness."

I dropped the bag and paced around the foyer, my hands flying to my hair in frustration. "I don't care, Alice. I have to do something. I'm desperate to fix the mess I made, but I can't because she won't even talk to me!"

Alice held out her hand. "Come with me."

I stared at her hand for a long moment, unsure of what to do.

She huffed impatiently, stepping forward and grabbing my hand when I made no move to take hers. Alice dragged me to the living room and silently motioned for me to take a seat on the couch. I did as she suggested, and she sat next to me.

"You have to understand. Bella has been having doubts," she began.

Punch me in the face, why don't you? Bile rose up in my throat. Don't puke, don't puke. Doubts? Fuck… I knew it! She was leaving me. Oh my god, what do I do now?

"Edward, breathe," Alice said, shaking me by the shoulder. "She's not having doubts about you, or how she feels about you."

She said nothing else for a minute, letting those words sink in. Gradually, my heartbeat slowed to a rhythm that wouldn't immediately lead to a coronary. I breathed deeply to steady myself.

When she ascertained that I wasn't going to hyperventilate into unconsciousness, Alice continued, "Her doubts center on whether she can make you happy, whether she is what's best for you. The funeral really shook her—not being able to be there with you because of the sun, though Tanya could. It was your darkest hour, and she feels she failed you."

Alice's tone was gentle, but she might as well have screamed it in my face, interspersed with obscenities. It cut me just as deep.

Before I could retort, Alice spoke again. "She also feels guilty about what happened to your parents. Bella thinks that our presence in your brother's life and yours endangered you and your family, and she ultimately feels responsible. While she knows we couldn't have done anything at the time I had the vision, she still thinks there was something she overlooked, some sign she missed that hinted this would happen."

There was nothing I could say to that. I had no words to counter it, not when I had—stupid, stupid, stupid—said the same thing to Bella in a fit of anger.

Alice bit her lip and frowned, wanting to say something but hesitating on how to say it. "She was already being plagued by these doubts. Your outburst, in her mind, validated them. Staying away is her way of honoring your wishes; you told her to get out, so she feels she shouldn't inflict her presence on you."

"What outburst?" Jasper asked as he stepped into the living room.

God fucking dammit. "Nothing," I muttered.

"Obviously not 'nothing,' Edward. You look like someone just fed you a spoonful of dog shit, and you're sitting here having a heart-to-heart with Alice in the wake of Bella being gone for two weeks. Come on, brother, I'm not that dumb. What's going on?" Jasper looked from me to Alice, expecting either of us to give him an explanation.

Alice got up and went to him, kissing his lips before leading him back to the couch. Jasper knew about the vision of our parents' murder, and that they had probably died at the hands of a yet-unknown vampire. What he didn't know was that I blew up and blamed it on Bella, earning myself the title of "Asshole of the Year."

My insides burned with shame as Alice explained to him exactly what had transpired the night Bella took off. While she had tried to keep it private for Bella's sake and mine, now that Jasper had directly asked her about it, she wouldn't lie to him.

Jasper turned to me, his expression disbelieving and irate in equal measures. "You did what?!" Not waiting for an answer, he ploughed right on. "Are you fucking stupid? I know you're hurting. Trust me, I know exactly how you feel; you're not the only one who's lost them, but that doesn't give you the right to be a jackass. And to blame them for it?" Jasper looked disgusted. "There's nothing they could have done!" His hands shot up in frustration at my idiocy. "Did you stop your 'woe is me' bullshit for two seconds to consider what they've gone through? How hard it must have been for Alice to actually witness our parents being murdered and knowing there was nothing she could have done, or how Bella must have felt having to pretend nothing was wrong, all the while knowing how devastated you would be when you finally found out?"

I couldn't bring myself to look at my brother. Every word he spoke was the truth, and I was too mortified to raise my head. Jasper took no pity on me.

"No, I didn't think so," he sneered. "You're too busy with your pity party." He softened a little at my evident humiliation. "Look, Edward, I say this because you're my brother, and I love you. But you fucked up royally here."

Yeah. Tell me something I don't know.

Jasper stood, towering over me as I crumpled. "Fix this shit. I don't care if you spend the next six months on your knees begging Bella's forgiveness, but you'd better fix this."

Somewhere inside me, once again, the grief sparked into rage. I sprang to my feet, getting in Jasper's face and yelling, "You think I haven't wanted to do exactly that since the fucking words came out of my damn mouth? You think I haven't stayed up nights calling her, only to leave pathetic messages that she never answers? You think I— you think— I tried— but she— I can't…!"

The weight of Bella's silence, thrown on top of what I'd done, knocked me to my knees, my breath coming out fast and shallow. Only Jasper's feet were in my field of vision, and I saw him walk away as Alice knelt down beside me, rubbing soothing circles on my back as I finally lost my shit.

"Take deep breaths, Edward. Just listen to my voice. Try to relax," Alice whispered. I'd lost my footing, and I couldn't regain my balance. Bella was my true north, and I couldn't find my way without her. The guilt and shame were spiraling out of control, and incoherent screams tore themselves from my throat. The pain was burying me. I couldn't handle it anymore.

"Kate?" Alice was whispering as though from a distance, facing away from me. "Get Bella on the phone. I don't care what she says. Now! It's an emergency."

I was too overwhelmed to make sense of what she was saying. I only caught snippets as my brain shut down with grief. "…come home…your mate…nervous breakdown…so help me god…needs you…losing it…"

Without realizing I'd stood up, I found myself on my feet. Alice was leading me to Bella's bedroom, whispering soothing nothings as though I were a little child, afraid to say the wrong thing and set me off again. Plopping me down on the bed, she held out a glass of water and a round white pill. I recognized it instantly; it was one of the sleeping pills Carlisle left before he and Esme returned to Forks, in case Jasper or I needed them.

I stared at it dubiously. I'd refused to take them so far, not wanting to be lulled into a drug-induced sleep that would have me feeling just as shitty the next day.

"Take it, Edward," Alice coaxed. "Bella will be on the red-eye. You'll be up by dawn, early enough to go pick her up at Sea-Tac. Her flight gets in at six-thirty." She smiled at me, encouraging me to take the pill and sleep off my embarrassing shit fit.

Knowing I'd be seeing Bella in a little over twelve hours made me want to sleep until I could finally hold her in my arms. I snatched the pill out of Alice's hand and chased it down with a big gulp of water.

Sleep found me in mere minutes, but nightmares that alternated between images of Bella in a black cloak on a snowy plain and my mother's battered face haunted me until I woke, tired and jittery.

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The terminal was deserted in the early hours of the morning. When the flight status on the board changed from "landing" to "arrived," my heart started beating in double time. I was anxious to see her, but worried at the same time. I didn't think Alice had told Bella I'd be the one picking her up. What if she didn't want to see me?

The passengers came through the gate in sporadic groups. After a while, the last stragglers that had arrived on her flight walked past me. No sign of Bella. Alice must have given me the wrong time. I lingered for a few more minutes before conceding defeat. Stuffing my hands in my pockets after I pulled my jacket closer around me, I started to make my way to the car.

I'd taken two steps when I heard a voice, a mere whisper that called to me. In that same instant, nothing hurt anymore, and I felt more at peace than I've felt in a while. With a deep breath, I turned around.

"Edward?" Bella stood barely past the gate, looking confused and anxious.

I opened my mouth to speak, but no words came out. The relief of seeing her again filled me, flooding my stomach and my throat. My legs carried me to her without a conscious thought, my arms tingling painfully with the need to hold her. I'd been about to pull her into an embrace when I stopped myself. I had no right to touch her now, not yet. Not until she forgave me.

"Alice sent me to pick you up. I hope that's all right?"

"It's fine. Shall we go, then?" Bella eyed me uncertainly, waiting for me to lead the way.

Glancing at her feet, I asked, "Where's your luggage?"

"Oh. I don't have any. Kate let me borrow some of her things while I was there." She shifted from one foot to the other, looking embarrassed.

"This way, then." Managing to keep my hands at my sides with great effort, I walked towards the parking garage. Bella followed a couple of steps behind. The distance she put between us lashed at my back as though she brandished my words like a silent whip.

I said nothing as I drove, and Bella hadn't broken the silence until she noticed we weren't headed for her penthouse.

"Where are we going?"

"My apartment. I want to talk to you, and I'd rather do that in private. Alice can wait a little longer to see you," I told her, hoping she wouldn't tell me to turn around and take her home. I really didn't want an audience for this, and Alice wouldn't be able to help listening in.

Bella nodded and said nothing more.

When we got the apartment, I let us in and motioned her to the couch. She took her seat with the look of someone expecting the furniture to explode the moment she touched it; she braced for impact. I sat next to her.

Though I hadn't said much so far, my mind had been anything but silent this whole time. I knew what I wanted to say to her—what I needed to say—but I couldn't figure out the best way to do it. I'd probably end up sticking my foot in my mouth and just making things worse. Maybe I should do it quick, like ripping off a Band-Aid?

"Bella," I began.

She lifted her eyes to mine, and what I saw there encouraged me to continue.

"I'm—" I'm what? A moron? Sorry? Crippled without you? Yes, all of the above. Maybe I should go for a less melodramatic start to this conversation. I tried again. "Do you think you can forgive me? I'm so sorry for what I said. I didn't mean it, but that doesn't excuse any of it. I was such an ass, and I'm so, so sorry, Bella." Now that wasn't so hard, was it?

"I already have," Bella said. "But the question is, can you forgive me?"

I was momentarily thrown off by what she said. "Forgive you? Why on earth would I need to forgive you for anything? I'm the one who's made a mistake here."

"Not entirely." She looked so sad, almost afraid. "I've failed you. When you needed me the most, I couldn't be with you. Can you forgive me for that?"

I already knew she felt like this—Alice had told me as much—but still, to hear her ask for forgiveness was just mind-boggling. "Bella, you didn't let me down. I understand why you couldn't be with me. There was nothing you could have done about it. Though you were there, weren't you? Alice told me."

"Yes, we were," she confirmed. The memory of it seemed to make her sadder still.

I realized with a jolt why the remembrance of that day would bother her. "Alice told me that you were upset when you saw Tanya there. Had you stayed long enough, you would have heard the conversation we had afterwards where I told Tanya that you were all I would ever want."

Bella still looked pained. I couldn't stop myself anymore. I had to touch her. I raised my hand and brushed her hair back over her shoulder with the gentlest touch.

"I never questioned that, Edward. What broke my heart was the fact that she could stand by you and comfort you in your worst hour, and I was forced to stay away. When you said … what you said, it was easy to believe you. It never made sense for you to love me," she said with a small shrug.

What in the blue hell…?

"There's so much I cannot give you," she continued when she saw the stupefied disbelief on my face. "I'm not human, and because of that, many doors are forever closed to me. If I'm in your life, these doors are closed to you as well."

My hand rose to silence her before she said another word. "You can stop right there. Whatever it is you think I'm missing out on, you're wrong. My life has never been as full as it is now that I'm with you. I have so much love in me. You bring me so much happiness that sometimes I don't think I can hold it all. And as for Tanya comforting me?" I snorted in derision at the very thought. "While she was there, all I wanted was for her to go away, but she clung harder the more I tried to shake her off. The only thing that comforted me in that moment was thinking of you. I was looking forward to getting back to you, having you in my arms, and that made it all bearable. Even if you couldn't stand there, you were still with me, Bella."

I cupped her face in my hands, ghosting my thumb over her cheeks. "It makes perfect sense for me to love you. It's the only thing that makes sense."

The intensity of her gaze burned through me, and I was lost. Still holding her face, I crashed my lips to hers with the ferocity of man crazed with starvation. She hesitated for only a second before kissing me back, and I could have screamed with joy.

Never letting our mouths break contact, I laid back on the couch, pulling her along on top of me. One hand remained on the back of her head; the other snaked down her back to press her against my chest. I needed to feel her, to reassure myself that she was real and that she was here. But it wasn't enough, I needed more, to feel more of her, but I didn't know how we could get closer. I wanted to bury myself deep into her, to possess her body and fuse it to mine.

A sudden ripping sound startled me, and my eyes shot open. My shirt was suddenly gone, and so was Bella's. She still lay on top of me, but no longer with a barrier of fabric between us. We were skin to skin the entire length of our torsos, and the contact of her chest on mine was exquisite. Her skin was cold, but I felt feverish.

I ran my hand up and down her naked back, elated that she seemed to crave my touch as desperately as I craved hers. The last two weeks melted away, and I felt closer to my Bella than I ever had.

"I love you, Edward," she whispered against my lips. "Please, don't send me away again."

My insides trembled in fear at the very thought. "Oh god, Bella… Never. I never wanted you to leave in the first place. I've been miserable without you. I was so scared you'd leave me for good." I buried my face in her neck, her hair falling over my face like a perfumed curtain. I inhaled deeply, feeling my heart break all over again for having hurt her. My hand tightened its grip on her back, pulling her closer to me, her weight a warm comfort to my aching heart. "Thank you for forgiving me, and for coming back. Though I think it'll take a lot longer for me to forgive myself."

I held Bella's head in place, refusing to let go of her neck. She could have pulled away if she'd wanted to, but she let me keep my face against her skin.

"Don't be too hard on yourself, love. You were hurting so much. Sometimes, shifting all that pain into anger is the only way to cope with it."

A memory of us in Forks occurred to me—Esme telling the story of how Bella came to be what she was today. "You lost your dad, too." My throat closed up with emotion. How had I not realized this before? "You were there when he died."

Bella nodded.

Swallowing the lump in my throat, I continued, "I didn't realize… You know how I feel. You remember what it's like to lose a parent."

Bella pulled back just enough so her eyes could meet mine. "Well… not really. You see, human memories fade quickly with time if you don't focus on them. When Father passed, I was already unconscious, and after I was turned, there were so many other pressing matters taking up my flittering attention. My newborn year was rather eventful. Then, of course, there was the immense joy of being reunited with my mother, which I had never expected to happen. I don't really remember my father all that much anymore, except for what Mother has told me of him."

Her face turned downwards in embarrassment. It was clear she felt ashamed to not remember her dad—the man who'd raised and cared for her once Esme was no longer human. My brain had short-circuited once she spoke a certain phrase: after the change, she barely remembered. Without memories, there's no pain!

My body shot up into a sitting position, and I was sure that if I could see my face in a mirror, I would look half-insane. Eureka! "Oh, Bella, change me now! Then I can forget, too. Then all this pain can finally stop."

She looked at me with…pity?

"I'm afraid it's not quite that simple, my sweet," she said, raising her hand to my cheek.

Her refusal incensed me. "How is it not 'that simple?' You change me now, and I forget this whole shitty situation. Win-win, if you ask me." I might have come off as more of a petulant child being denied a Snickers than I intended. I didn't care, though. This was a perfect plan—a plan that would get rid of this fucking horrible feeling I carried with me day and night since New Year's.

My words did nothing to sway her. "Edward, when a person is changed into this," she said, waving a hand towards her tempting body, "they become frozen in time. No more changing."

I still failed to see the problem here.

She peered closely at me as though there was something I hadn't quite grasped. "Your body doesn't change. Your mind doesn't, either. If you were to be changed right now while you carry all this hurt in your heart, you would feel it forever. In a few decades, you probably wouldn't even remember why you felt that way, but you'd still grieve. Have patience, my love. I will change you." Her tone had turned from soothing reasoning to intense promise. "But not while you hurt so. I don't want you to live forever with this pain. It would be so much worse if you felt like this a hundred years from now without even remembering why…"

I huffed in admittance to losing this argument. For a brief, shining moment, I thought I'd finally be rid of my mother's beaten face, and the agonizing pain the sight brought me each time.

Bella seemed to notice that I was beating myself up again. Shit, I needed to get ahold of my facial expressions. This "open book" crap is detrimental to maintaining my manly-man attitude. What's next? Embroidered hankies? Fuck…

Bella moved closer, circling her arms around me and bending to kiss the spot above my ear. "Be kind to yourself, love, and forgive the man who hurt so badly he knew not what to do with it," she whispered.

At those words, she lifted her head to face me. Her molten caramel eyes were soft, serene. If this bright angel could forgive me, maybe I could find it in me to forgive myself.

*.*:*.*:*.*:*.*:*.*:*.*:*.*:*.*:*.*:*.*:*.*:*.*:*

The next few weeks were good, all things considered. I'd gone back to school to finish out the semester and graduate. I'd been so determined before to just drop the whole thing, but now I couldn't shake the feeling that this was my last chance to do something that would make my parents proud. It had felt like an unbearable chore before, but in the wake of everything that happened, my perspective had been drastically changed. It was as though my parents had been canonized the second they died—even Senior. He'd been such an asshole to me before, but now that he was dead, I longed for one last chance to make him look at me and think, Good job, Edward! That's my boy! Pathetic, right?

The dead didn't turn to saints the moment they ceased to breathe, but their faults seemed harder and harder to remember.

Emmett called a couple of days ago. He was excited about a possible replacement for James. Some guy who had transferred here from Iowa State and ended up in a few of Emmett's classes in the engineering program. He wouldn't be available for a tryout until the weekend after next, which worked out for us since Alice and Bella wanted to spend the upcoming days off in Forks. I was more than happy to go; I'd missed Esme and Carlisle, and I could do with getting away from Seattle for a weekend. Besides, riding in the car with Bella driving down the freeway at 160mph was a surefire way to improve my mood.

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Bella POV

"Come on, they're up in the attic." Alice pulled me by the hand in the direction of the house. We'd been out hunting, and now she was anxious to get back to Jasper.

We dashed up the stairs to the attic to find Edward and Jasper there. I had not been prepared for the sight that awaited us.

They'd apparently gotten into one of the dozens of storage boxes up here—one of the several containing some of Carlisle's old clothes.

"Hmm, yes, old fellow, old chap," Edward was saying with an affected, terrible British accent as he smoothed the lapel of the jacket he wore.

"Ah yes, indeedy-oh, my good man," Jasper replied, the monocle he wore falling off his face.

Edward was just readjusting his top hat when Alice giggled too loudly and called their attention.

"Erm…We were just…" Jasper blushed beet-red while Edward looked around himself as though hoping to find a good excuse lying on the floor nearby just waiting to be picked up and fed to us.

"Why, fair gentlemen, how fare ye this fine morn'?" Alice trilled, floating into the open space towards one of the boxes containing some of Mother's old things.

I still stood silent, watching the absurd—but undoubtedly hilarious—scene before me.

Glaring at me as discreetly as she could, Alice beckoned me to join them as she dug into yet another box of ancient clothes.

Before long, we were all dressed in early 1900s garb, speaking to one another in ridiculously fake British accents.

"Edward, you sound like a leprechaun on crack," Jasper pointed out, cackling in glee.

My beloved's face fell slightly; he thought he'd been doing splendidly with his accent. I rushed to reassure him.

"Pay him no mind, my good sir. You make a dashing Englishman," I said, kissing the tip of his nose as I adjusted his top hat. He rewarded me with dazzling smile.

Alice was walking about, twirling the parasol she carried, which perfectly matched the dress she had on, a dress a little too long for her elfin stature.

I smiled fondly once I realized what she wore. "I remember this old thing," I said, picking up the ends of the long silk ribbon tied around her waist.

Alice caressed the silken sleeves, her eyes closing in delight. "This dress is gorgeous. I wish they hadn't gone out of fashion before I had a chance to wear gowns like this." She twirled around the room a few times with the grace of a nymph. "It was such a romantic style," she sighed in nostalgia for a time she never lived.

Jasper followed Alice's movements with his eyes, soaking up the elation that emanated from her.

The dress and matching parasol were purchased in 1921 when we attended a fundraising picnic for the Cambridge Hospital where Carlisle worked and taught at the time. The horrified look I gave mother when she presented me with the poofy, powder blue monstrosity was "priceless," as the story went.

My enthusiasm for the dress was minimal at best; I'd taken to wearing pants around the house when I was sixteen, much to my father's indignation. After days of arguing, threats of packing me off the nunnery, and saying I looked just like Calamity Jane, he'd agreed to let me wear them at home, but remained adamant about proper attire in public. Growing through the more impressionable years without a mother figure rendered me something of a tomboy, or perhaps wearing twenty pounds of clothing was simply that uncomfortable.

Once I became a vampire, I went years without putting on a dress. Seclusion was imperative at the time, what with my newborn period and all. What I wore mattered little when no one else besides Carlisle and mother would see me. I might even have underplayed my control around humans to avoid social situations that would require dressing up. Once Alice joined us, that option was a thing of the past—Alice adored shopping for occasions and wearing beautiful, fancy things, and we'd be ice skating in hell before she allowed me to stay behind and deprive her of an opportunity to use me as a dressmaker's dummy.

"Don't you wish we could still wear clothes like this, Bella?" Alice asked as she eyed me from across the attic, rolling the parasol back and forth in her hand.

Throwing her a disbelieving look, I started to pull off the dress—one of mother's—I'd put on over my clothes. "I'm afraid I don't. I hated these things," I answered. Alice looked baffled as though this was news to her.

Jasper chuckled. "I bet you were as much of a girly-girl when you were human as you are now, huh?"

Alice's voice was muffled by the dress she was pulling over her head. "I wouldn't know. I don't really remember." There was the barest hint of sadness in her tone, her brow creasing infinitesimally. It pained her to have no memories of her life. I was extremely grateful she didn't.

"You don't remember? Is that normal?" Jasper asked.

"Not really. Human memories tend to fade over time if you don't think about them enough, but I had none when I woke up." She hung her head as she told Jasper this; speaking of the life she couldn't remember always dampened Alice's spirits.

Edward had been quiet throughout this exchange. His eyes had remained fastened on me, his face blank, lost in thought.

This whole conversation was going in an entirely dangerous direction.

I winked at Edward and nodded once towards Alice. She saw my plan with only a millisecond to spare, turning around to glare at me, her mouth barely forming the word "no" before I pounced.

I launched myself at Alice, and we both flew out the open window in the attic straight down to the front lawn. Alice tried to break free from my grasp, but I continued to hold her down on the muddy grass.

As soon as she stopped trying to disentangle herself and began trying to pin me down, I knew I'd succeeded. Over our decades together, I'd learned that the quickest away to break Alice out of a sour mood was to anger her, and the most efficient way to do that was to get her dirty. She considered her outfits "works of art," and to have them damaged or soiled was akin to sacrilege in her eyes.

The guys' laughter floated down to us amidst Alice's furious growling. She was good and mad, so it was time for me to let her win.

Shoving my head down into a pile of leaves, Alice sat up on my stomach and pointed an accusatory finger in my face. "Isabella Cullen, how dare you!" she hissed and stormed into the house to clean up.

Her irritation wasn't worrisome; Alice was simply incapable of holding on to her anger. It was her dejection that truly concerned me.

I stood up and followed her into the house at a lazy pace. Edward had come downstairs to meet me, his face alight with mirth.

"That was awesome, but Alice is pissed." He smirked, pointing his thumb over his shoulder in the direction of the stairs. Wrapping his arms around my waist, he kissed my forehead, eliciting a purr from me. He pulled back, and his eyes swept over my head. "Your hair looks like a haystack," he said, pulling out a twig from it.

"I'd better go get cleaned up." With a sheepish smile, I brushed my lips to his and went upstairs, heading for Alice's room.

Jasper was standing outside the closed door. "Is she still changing?" I asked him.

He nodded, trying his best to look stern, but a small smile betrayed him.

I knocked twice on the door and let myself in. "Alice?"

A low growl came from the depths of her closet.

"Alice, would you please help me pick the leaves out my hair?"

She appeared at my side instantly, pushed me—none too gently—towards the seat at her vanity, and shoved me down as hard as she could without crashing the wooden stool.

The feel of the silver-handled brush she ran through my hair was soothing, and though she was rough at first, her motions softened as her ire evaporated.

"I don't know what possessed me to cut my hair so short as a human," she sighed as she continued to brush my waist-length hair.

The smile I forced to appear on my face was at odds with the memories running through my mind. "Well, I can. It offsets your delicate features. You obviously had perfect aesthetic sense even then, as you probably noted that the shorter hair would give you a more ethereal appearance. Fairylike."

She smiled, visibly appeased. "Yeah?"

"Absolutely," I confirmed with a vehement nod.

"Bella? Alice?" came mother's voice from somewhere on the first floor.

"In my room, Esme," Alice answered, still brushing my hair.

A moment later, mother appeared at the door. She spotted the small pile of leaves and twigs at my feet and shook her head with a knowing smile.

Brandishing a piece of paper, she walked into the room. "I'm going into town to buy groceries. I hadn't stocked the pantry properly, I'm afraid, and we're out of several items. Would you like to join me?"

"No, thank you, Esme. Jasper and I are going to watch a movie." We'd spent hours away hunting, and that had been all the time Alice could stand to be away from Jasper.

"I'll go, mother. Let me ask Edward if he would like to join us," I said, standing up and turning to face Alice. I kissed her cheek and thanked her for helping restore my hair to a presentable state.

Alice crossed her arms, still determined to rake me over the coals. "Hmph. You wouldn't need grooming if you weren't such a hooligan."

"What can I say? I find mud baths just so refreshing," I said as I walked out the room. Alice's hiss trailed behind me.

I found Edward in the living room. He and Jasper were perusing the DVD shelves in a preemptive attempt to quickly pick a movie before Alice could do so. Poor devil… if Jasper thought he'd be avoiding Breakfast at Tiffany's, he was in for a surprise.

"Edward? Mother and I are going to the grocery store. Would you care to come with us?" I hoped he said yes. While I wanted to spend some time with mother, I didn't want to be apart from Edward a moment longer than necessary.

"Love to. Let me just grab my coat." He bounded towards the entry hall to retrieve his jacket.

"Here you are, dear," mother said. She's heard him and brought his coat over before he could make it into the hall.

"Thanks, Esme."

Mother beamed at him and turned towards the door.

*.*:*.*:*.*:*.*:*.*:*.*:*.*:*.*:*.*:*.*:*.*:*.*:*

Edward had been pushing the cart as mother and I collected the things on her list, but once he spotted a display of snacks, he wandered off to pick up some.

"Bella, dearest, would you please ask Edward what type of noodles he and Jasper would prefer? I've read that there's quite a bit of dissension about which type is best. They all look the same to me," mother said, eyeing the shelves of pasta noodles that seemed to vary only in shape.

"Sure." I focused my hearing for a second and quickly pinpointed the exact location of Edward's heartbeat. I was so attuned to the sound, I could probably pick it out of a crowd.

Following the sound that called to me like a siren song, I walked up behind Edward and wrapped my arms around his waist. My hands trailed up his chest, and he covered them with his.

A smile danced on his lips as he looked around to me. "Hey, beautiful."

I rested my hand over his heart; the feeling of it beating under my hand reverberated through my skin, bringing me the peace I thought was the stuff dreams were made of.

"Mother wants you to pick pasta noodles. Apparently, the preferred shape of the things is a bone of contention among humans the world over. She won't be able to live with herself if she picks the wrong one."

"I can hear you, Bella, dearest," she said from four aisles away.

"Sorry, mother." My contrition was spoiled by the soft laughter in my voice.

Edward turned around and cupped my cheek, his green eyes boring into mine. I suddenly forgot where we were, or why we were there. His lips descended onto mine, a gentle feathering of wet warmth that threatened to overwhelm my senses.

"Let's go settle the great pasta debate of the decade, then." He kissed me again and slid his hand into mine, pulling me along towards mother.

The bubble of contentment that encased us was popped by a sharp intake of breath behind me. My head whipped around towards the sound.

A middle-aged Native American man sat in a wheelchair next to a hulking, able-bodied, younger version of himself. His eyes were wide with a mixture of terror and loathing, fixed upon me as though he couldn't force himself to look away.

"Jacob, we have to go. Now," he grunted at the young man accompanying him. Given the similar shape of their eyes, the same curve of their jaws, and the apparent twenty-year-or-so age difference, I surmised the boy was his son.

"Dad, I came down here this weekend to help you. There's nothing to eat in the house, and I won't be able to come down here for at least another couple of weeks. Now quit being stupid; we need to get enough for you to live on 'til I can come back."

The boy sounded flustered with his father. I had an inkling as to what had bothered the man. I'd recognize them anywhere; they belonged to the Quileute tribe that resided just outside Forks' city limits, and the older man acted as though he actually believed the age-old legends of his people about my family and my kind. We suspected the elders of their tribe were aware that their histories and superstitions weren't mere fiction, and this behavior was clear evidence to support our misgivings.

"Jacob, don't argue with me!" the man in the wheelchair spat. "We're leaving now."

"Fine, old man. But when you're starving to death, don't call me." The boy named Jacob—his size belied the youth of his face—pushed his father out of the store. I could still hear the man's heart thundering in his chest. His eyes had bulged dangerously when he saw Edward kiss me. Did he think I was purchasing groceries to fatten Edward up before I had him for a meal?

Edward was oblivious to this entire exchange. The Quileute men were several yards away from us, out of his human ears' hearing range. Not so for me. I heard every word with perfect clarity.

Mother noticed my annoyance, asking in a voice too fast and too low for Edward to hear, "Everything all right, child?"

I nodded inconspicuously. "Quileute," I hissed under my breath.

Mother frowned, but said nothing; she knew what that implied. It greatly pained Carlisle that the Quileutes no longer visited hospital in Forks when needed, simply because he worked there, and in turn, his disquiet resonated with my mother. I must confess it made me quick to dislike them for the sorrow they caused two of the best beings to have ever walked this earth. It was unadulterated prejudice on their part, and the unfairness of it angered me.

There were others of our kind who were the cold ones of their legends—human drinkers. Our family, with Carlisle as our patriarch, has never taken to such ways. The fact that this man seemed to automatically take us for human drinkers, despite the unique color of our eyes, rankled. Surely, if they knew us to be vampires, they also ought to know that our eyes would turn a bright crimson were we to partake of human blood? This person was probably the reason the Quileutes no longer visited the hospital. I had few doubts now that he had been the one to instruct them to stay away, in fear that Carlisle would drain their people. Ignorant, insufferable little man!

Calm, Bella. Calm and steady, now. I took a pacifying breath, willing myself to regain control. It seemed I needed to do that a lot these days. The more I practiced my power and allowed it to flow freely after so many years of suppression, the more my temper ran with it. It was as though both were intimately intertwined, and to control one meant losing my hold on the other.

Mother eyed me with concern, noting my struggle for composure. The unsettling thoughts flashed through my brain for only a moment, too fast for Edward to notice my distress, for which I was grateful. His arms still surrounded me. His skin on mine grounded my scattered mind.

Our shopping done, we drove back to the house.

The weekend passed peacefully. Edward and Carlisle played chess well into the night, my beloved beating Carlisle yet again, much to his chagrin. It made me inordinately proud that Edward could best a vampire in a strategy game. He would make a glorious immortal, if his mind was this sharp as a human. He was a brilliant man, and he was mine.

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Edward POV

I was late getting to Emmett's this morning. I had stayed up late last night with Bella and ended up sleeping in. It's been weeks, but I still felt I had to make up for the time we lost.

We'd be trying out the new guy today, and the prospect of getting back to our gigs had me driving a little faster. We were all dying to get back into it.

Emmett was waiting for me on the porch; he came down the steps, waving a hand at me as I opened the back door to pull out my bass.

"You won't be needing that." Taking the case out of my grasp, he slid it back on the backseat.

What the fuck?

I threw him a questioning look, as I had no idea where he was going with this.

"We got a new bass player," Emmett boomed.

I stared at him in disbelief. "But what about me?"

"Edward, so you play the guitar. Big fucking deal. You're acting like we're kicking you out of the band or something."

I'd just been informed that the replacement Emmett had in mind for Babylon was a bass player. In effect, I would be replacing James, and this new guy would pick up the bass.

"But—"

"But nothing! You can play the guitar just as well, if not better, than you play the bass. Remember when we had James twirl his dick while you played first guitar because he couldn't cut it? Now quit your bitching and give this guy a chance." Emmett had already made up his mind about this, and it would be easier to just agree with him than to fight it. Once he got an idea in his head, he could be as stubborn as mule about it.

The band was already in the living room of Emmett's little house, deep into rehearsing for a Pick Your Poison night with my replacement playing the bass—not too badly, sorry to say.

Jasper was playing the opening chords of an AC/DC song as I stepped into the cramped living room. He stopped playing when he saw me and banged his head up and down, waving devil horns at me, beyond excited to have us playing again. Fucker. How do I turn them down now?

Nodding his head once towards the guitar he set up for me as though he knew I'd accept the switch—smug bastard—he started playing the song from the top.

I picked up the instrument. It felt foreign in my hands for all but a second before I ran my way up and down the guitar's arm, reacquainting myself with the sound.

When the song finished, new guy walked forward with his hand extended to shake mine as Emmett made the proper introductions. "Edward Cullen, meet Jacob Black."

"Nice to meet you, man. I'm stoked to join you guys." New guy gave me a sincere smile as he crushed my hand with his.

"Mmhmm." I eyed him up and down, taking in his massive frame. His bulk rivaled Emmett's. On second thought, Jacob was even bigger than Emmett. "You know, we rehearse fairly often. You're not going to have time to hit the gym five hours a day, seven days a week anymore."

New guy boomed a laugh as though I'd just told the funniest joke he'd ever heard. "No worries, dude. I don't even go to the gym."

Sure. This bodybuilder shit you got going is all the product of "good genes." My ass, I thought wryly.

Emmett stepped up then, holding out a list to Jacob and began detailing our schedule.

It was time to break up this bromance. "Hold up. I haven't agreed to this yet." I was going to agree—really, what choice did I have?—but I was still kind of miffed to have been shuffled around without anyone asking my opinion. Making Emmett sweat over it for a minute might make me feel better.

Emmett and Jacob lifted their heads at once and turned to face me. Jacob had the decency to look abashed. Emmett just pierced through me with his laser bitch-stare.

Ignoring his glare, I turned to New Guy. If he were to be my replacement, I ought to have some say in it, and certain elements were definite deal breakers. "Not so fast," I said, raising my hand. "Before I go along with this, I need to ask a very important question."

My eyes fastened on Jacob's, and I hoped to convey the gravity of the issue. He stared back at me, accepting the challenge.

"Beatles or Stones?"

He didn't miss a beat before answering with a grin. "Neither. Zeppelin."

My jaw dropped. I was dumbfounded. It took a moment before I found words again. "Have my babies," I choked out.

Emmett and Jasper, who had been waiting for the fallout with bated breath—and there would have been one if New Guy had chosen "Beatles"—laughed in relief.

Jacob walked forward with a satisfied expression and grabbed my hand again, pulling me into a shoulder bump. I slapped his meaty arm once—Jesus, this thing looked like a Christmas ham—and turned to Emmett.

"I guess he'll do," I conceded, reaching for the guitar.