21. ASHES

My eyes opened to a bright, white light. I was in an unfamiliar room, a white room. The wall beside me was covered in long vertical blinds; over my head, the glaring lights blinded me. I was propped up on a hard, uneven bed – a bed with rails. The pillows were flat and lumpy. There was a persistent beeping sound somewhere close by. I hoped that meant I was still alive. I didn't think death would be this uncomfortable.

My hands were twisted up with clear tubes, and something was taped across my face, under my nose. I lifted my hand to rip it off.

"No, you don't." Cool fingers caught my hand.

"Edward?" I turned my head slightly, and his exquisite face was just inches from mine, his chin resting against the railing on the bed. I realized that I was alive, a wave of elation and relief washing through me. "Oh, Edward! I'm so sorry!"

"Shh," he shushed me. "Everything's alright now. You need to rest."

My hand drifted to my head, memories flooding back. "My mother!" I gasped.

"She's fine, Bella. Just cuts and bruises. You're the one who got hurt."

"What… what happened? How..?"

"I was almost too late. I could have been too late." He said, his voice tormented. "The studio was on fire."

"You went into a burning building?" I asked, breathless.

"I could hear your mother screaming inside. You were unconscious."

"But you – you could have… the way he caught fire…"

"I know, but I made it out. We all did. It was crazy, I didn't even think about the fire. I just had to get to you."

"My dad… he'll be panicked…."

"Renee called him already. She told him that you came to surprise her for her birthday and that you were in a car accident together. Alice and Jasper planted a rental car, crashed it themselves. Rosalie knows computers, she broke into the rental agency's computer system to alter their records, and Emmett put your truck near the airport. So far it's all checked out, the police aren't going to investigate further."

"Her birthday isn't for two weeks." I said.

Edward laughed, but his voice was still weak with relief. "That's the part of the cover that most concerns you?" He asked. "She said Charlie never remembered her birthday, especially since they were married for such a short time."

"So… so she knows. About you."

"Yes, Bella." Edward said. "She knows about me, and my family. She already knew when we arrived. She said that the tracker… had said some things. And she saw what happened to him, when you set him on fire. How quickly it happened, how a burn on the skin consumed him in flames. She knew he wasn't human, and it seems he mentioned some things about us, as well."

I tried to sit up, but it was too difficult, so I just turned my head more fully to look at him. Something seemed off, different.

"Edward…" I said, before the shock hit. "Your eyes!"

Edward turned his head away sharply, trying to keep me from examining them. It was too late, though. I saw that they had changed.

They were red.

He cleared his throat, looking ashamed. "His mate must have been close by, because… he was already dead when we got inside, the whole place was on fire. But I began to feel very ill and then I started bleeding heavily. I drank the bag of blood that Carlisle made me carry. It turned out that I didn't even need it. James was already dead, and we never actually saw her. She must have come to try and save him, seen he was dead, and then run off rather than fight us."

"But Carlisle said… a relapse…"

"I am the only one who needs to worry about my self-control, Bella. You don't need to worry about it. I don't want to talk about the side-effects of what I did. You're safe, that's what matters."

My mother walked into the room, then. Edward looked up at her, and then turned his eyes away. He stood, pulling a pair of sunglasses from his pocket. "I'll give you two some privacy." He said, and walked out of the room.

My heart ached as he left, but when my mother walked over and took my hand, she was all I could think about.

"Mom," my voice broke. I tried not to cry. "I'm so sorry. I'm sorry, Mom."

"It's not your fault, Bella!" She said, tears already spilling from her eyes. "Bella… what I saw…"

"You can't tell anyone, you can't! Edward's whole family could be ruined if you do. I know, I know you don't have any reason to trust him, but please – I love him!" I said desperately.

She leaned over me, stroking my hair the way she had when I was a small child. I could hear her crying as she held me. "I'm not going to tell anyone, Bella." She said at last. "I do trust him. I saw what happened to the other one when you burned him… and that young man came into the fire for you. One spark could have killed him. He saved both our lives. I think the boy's in love with you."

I was crying freely, then, though I don't know whether they were tears of happiness or fear, or maybe just relief. All the emotions of the past two days were pouring out of me in a sloppy mess. "Mom, I was so scared," I finally said, sobbing. "I was so scared, Mom, I thought…"

"Shhh…" she said, kissing the top of my head. "I know, baby, I know," she murmured. "We're okay now. We're safe. It's over."

"I love you," I said.

"I love you too," she said. "You're grown up, and you're so strong. I never knew how strong you are. You were so brave, Bella. I'm so, so proud of you."

She pulled back, then, wiping the tears from her face. I sniffled. "What were you doing back home?" I asked. "Where's Phil?"

"Florida – oh, Bella! Just when we were about to leave, the best news!"

"Phil got signed?"

"Yes! The Suns, can you believe it? We went out to celebrate and I cracked a tooth in the restaurant, I came home to have Dr. Wyatt fix it."

"There aren't dentists in Florida?" I laughed a bit, wiping my eyes.

"Bella, I can't go to a dentist I don't know!"

"Yeah, something bad might happen," I said. We both laughed. It was all we could do, now that the terror was over.

"By the way, I'm upset you didn't tell me you had such good friends in Forks!" She said, laughing through her tears. "Tell me about your boyfriend!"

...

Edward held my hand, helping me into the wheelchair the hospital had provided to take me to the car. When I was settled, he began pushing me toward the door, where my mother was bringing her car around. She was going to drive us to the airport.

"Edward…" I said as we rolled through the hall.

"Yes?"

"Why did you refuse to change me?" I asked. "I know that, if you had, James would have just gone onto someone else. I'm not saying I wanted that to happen, but… why were you so against the idea of changing me?"

Edward had the advantage of being behind me. I tried to look up at him, but the angle made it impossible to tell what he was feeling, especially with the sunglasses he wore to conceal his red eyes.

"I'll be the first to admit that I have no experience with relationships," I said. "But don't you think… in a relationship, you have to be equals?"

"You are my equal!" He protested. "I treat you as my equal, don't I?"

"I know you do, but that's not what I mean. How we interact together isn't the problem. It's external. I can't just rely on you to swoop in and save me all the time. Other people have already gotten hurt because of us. My mother, Tyler…"

I could feel him tense up.

"Physically, I can't defend myself against a vampire, Edward. I got lucky this time, but what if something happens in the future? And… you live in a different world than I do. When I'm around you, I become a temptation to all the vampires that surround you, strangers and family alike. I just think it would be better for everyone, if I wasn't human."

"It wouldn't be better for you." Edward said. "This isn't something you do for convenience! It would destroy your human life. You couldn't be around your friends, your family. Your family, Bella! Your mother and father!"

"My mother knows about you. About us. And I could tell my dad, we could find a way. I could be around them, I think…"

"You don't know what you're asking, Bella." Edward said.

"I think I do."

"No, you don't! You don't know. I've had decades to think about this and I'm still not sure! You can't understand how it changes you, it changes who you are."

"Do you wish Carlisle hadn't saved you?"

"For a long time, yes, I did! The only reason I changed my mind is you, Bella."

"Esme said – "

"Of course she did," he muttered angrily. "Of course. It's different for Esme, Bella. She hasn't been a human for over four thousand years. She chose what she is, it's different!"

"It would be my choice, too, Edward." I said softly.

"I can't, Bella. I won't."

"What if, instead of you, one of the others did it? Would that be better?" I asked.

"Don't ask them to! You can't do that, no. It's dangerous and you just, you don't understand what you're asking."

"I'll die, Edward. Eventually, I will die. It could be days, months, years from now, but it's going to happen."

Edward said nothing.

"Don't you want to spend your life with me?" I asked.

"Of course I do." Edward said. "But not like that."

"The problem, Edward, is that your life will go on for centuries after mine ends. What will you do when I die? I can spend my entire life with you, but what happens to you after I die?"

"I don't know!" He said, his tone angry. "I'm not talking about this anymore. I won't do it."

I didn't say anything for a long time, and he pushed my wheelchair into the elevator.

"Are you angry?" He asked as the elevator started moving.

"Yes." I said.

"I'm sorry."

I swallowed. "The only reason you're saying 'no' is because you wish you were still human."

"Of course I do!" Edward said. "I don't understand why you think that your life is so worthless."

"I don't think it's worthless, Edward. It's just… keeping me human, it won't give you your human life back."

"I didn't say that it would."

"But that's what you feel, that's why you don't want to do it. You think keeping me human will somehow bring you back to what you lost. It's impossible. You can't be human, again. But I can be a vampire. I can become like you, and we can be together. Forever."

"Your life is how it's supposed to be. People are supposed to grow old, they're supposed to die."

"But you can't have that, Edward!" I said. "You can't have it. And I don't want it."

"I refuse to change you into a monster, Bella."

I didn't push any farther, because we were at the car. I didn't want to have the argument in front of my mother. Edward helped me into the car, and we headed toward the airport.

...

We sat in my living room. My dad had fussed over me endlessly when I'd first arrived, and in fact he hadn't even seemed angry that I had lied to him. I'd told him again and again how sorry I was, and he'd always said the same thing, "Bella, I'm just glad you're okay."

It had taken awhile for my memories to come back fully. We'd been home for over two weeks before I remembered some of the more confusing things that James had said in that ballet studio.

Edward had been very careful in being around my dad. He'd been wearing contact lenses that colored his eyes nearly black, but it seemed he had to get new ones every few days. He wouldn't talk about it, nor would he talk about how he was doing with his relapse. I wondered how long it would take for his eyes to return to the gold color I loved.

We hadn't talked again about turning me, not yet. So much had happened after I'd arrived home in my walking cast, with all the cuts and bruises from the fight I'd been in. I'd spent a lot of time at Edward's house, getting more comfortable with his family.

"Edward," I said, my mind distracted from the movie we were watching. "I wanted to tell you something."

He looked at me with a cautious expression. My tone must have worried him. "Yes?"

"The tracker… he said something to me at the studio. I didn't know if I should tell you, but I think you should know. He said something about Alice."

His eyebrows drew together. "Alice?" He asked.

"He told me that he'd tried to take a human from a vampire once before and that she'd gotten away, because the vampire had changed her. He said he saw her in the meadow and she didn't even recognize him. He said she was the only one who'd ever gotten away from him."

He was silent for a long moment. "I wasn't sure… if I should tell, because it's so horrible." I said. "What should we do?"

He wet his lips, turning his eyes back toward the television. "I don't know." He said.

"She deserves to know," I said.

"But I don't know if she'd want to." He added.

"Exactly." I shrugged. "You know her better than I do, of course. It's probably better for you to decide what to do."

"I'll think about it." He said. He leaned over and kissed me briefly. "I'll let you know when I decide what to do."

...

Edward and I went to prom together, even with my walking cast. I wasn't able to dance very easily, but it didn't seem to bother Edward at all. Anyway, he seemed to have grace enough for the both of us. It seemed so effortless for him, and I was surprised to realize that I was actually enjoying myself. Of course, the enjoyment was after an excruciating day with Alice, who had trapped me in her bathroom to get my clothes, makeup and hair in order before the event. Still, being with Edward made up for it.

It was nice to see Tyler, too. He'd had yet another surgery on his knee, so we had matching casts. I did feel bad that he was still recovering from the crash in the parking lot; it felt so long ago. Everyone at school had heard the story that Edward and my mother had come up with to explain my injuries, so Tyler and I commiserated on the effects that cars could have on the human body. Mike and Jessica had been thrilled to see me at the dance, and Angela was shy around the Cullens but pulled me aside to tell me how beautiful I looked.

I excused myself from my friends when I saw Edward turn, staring toward the doors with a pensive look on his face. As I got closer to him, it turned closer to anger than apprehension.

"What is it?" I wondered. I followed his gaze, disoriented by the music and movement in the gym. But I could finally see what was bothering him. Jacob Black, not in a tux, but in a long-sleeved white shirt and tie, his hair smoothed back into his usual ponytail, was crossing the floor toward us.

After the first shock of recognition, I couldn't help but feel bad for Jacob. He was clearly uncomfortable – excruciatingly so – and his face was apologetic as his eyes met mine. I was shocked at Edward's reaction, a low growl coming from his throat.

"What's the matter with you?" I asked, upset with him.

"He wants to chat with you." Edward's voice was scathing.

Jacob reached us then, the embarrassment and apology even more evident on his face.

"Hey, Bella. I was hoping you'd be here." Jacob sounded like he'd been hoping the exact opposite, but his smile was just as warm as ever.

"Hi, Jacob." I smiled back. "What's up?"

"Can I cut in?" he asked tentatively, glancing at Edward for the first time. I was stunned to notice he didn't have to look up. Jacob must have grown half a foot since the last time I'd seen him.

Edward's face was composed, his expression blank. His only answer was to take a step back. I saw Jasper walking over, taking hold of Edward's arm and pulling him away to speak quietly with him. He must have sensed Edward's inexplicable anger.

"Thanks," Jacob said amiably. He put his hands on my waist, and I put my hands on his shoulders.

"Wow, Jake, how tall are you now?"

"Six-two," he said, smiling with a hint of pride.

We weren't really dancing – my leg made that impossible. Instead we swayed awkwardly from side to side without moving our feet. It was just as well; the recent growth spurt had left him looking gangly and uncoordinated, he was probably no better a dancer than I was.

"So, how did you end up here tonight?" I asked. Edward's reaction was still confusing to me.

"My dad made me come," he said. "I guess I shouldn't say made… he… strongly encouraged me. And he gave me twenty bucks to come." He looked abashed.

"Well, I hope you're enjoying yourself, at least." I said. "Seen anyone you like?" I nodded toward a group of girls lined up against the wall, looking like pastel confections.

"Yeah," he said. He looked away, embarrassed. "But she's taken."

I blushed, dropping my eyes.

"You look really pretty, by the way," he added shyly.

"Thanks," I said. "Why do you think Billy paid you to come here?"

Jacob didn't seem grateful for the subject change; he looked away, uncomfortable again. "He said it was a 'safe' place to talk to you. I swear he's losing his mind." He gave an uncomfortable laugh, I tried to join in.

"He said that if I told you something, he would get me that master cylinder I need," he confessed with a sheepish grin.

"Tell me, then. Anything to help you with your car." I grinned back. At least Jacob didn't believe any of this. It made the situation easier, if only slightly. Against the wall, Edward was watching my face, his own completely expressionless.

"Don't get mad, okay?"

I looked back to Jacob. "There's no way I'll be mad at you, Jacob." I assured him. "I won't even be mad at Billy. Just say what you have to."

"Well – this is so stupid, I'm sorry, Bella – he wants you to break up with your boyfriend. He asked me to tell you 'please'." He shook his head in disgust.

"He's still got a thing against the Cullens, huh?"

"Yeah. He was… kind of over the top when you got hurt in Phoenix. He didn't believe…" Jacob trailed off self-consciously.

"I got in a car crash." My eyes narrowed.

"I know that," Jacob said quickly. "But he thought – he didn't know how Edward got there so fast, found out about it. He thought…"

"He thinks Edward had something to do with me getting hurt." Despite my promise, I did feel angry. At Billy, anyway.

Jacob wouldn't meet my eyes. We weren't even bothering to sway to the music anymore, though his hands were still on my waist, and mine around his neck.

"Look, Jacob. I know Billy probably won't believe this, but just so you know – " he looked at me now, responding to my earnestness. "– Edward didn't cause my injuries. I promise you. And between you and I, Edward saved my life. My mom's, too. He…" I didn't know what to say. "He was in Phoenix already, with me, and he saw the accident. He pulled us out of the car. We didn't tell anyone because I was afraid of what my dad would think if he knew Edward went with me, he'd think…"

"He'd think something happened," Jacob gave me an embarrassed smile, understanding my trepidation.

"Right. I don't want him to know that Edward was there with me. Please don't tell Billy, either. But Edward saved us. If it weren't for him, I'd be dead."

"Okay." He said. It sounded like my sincere words had affected him some. Maybe he'd be able to convince Billy of Edward's innocence, at least.

"Hey, I'm sorry you had to come do this, Jacob," I apologized. "At any rate, you get your parts, right?"

"Yeah," he muttered. But he still looked uncomfortable.

"…There's more?" I asked in disbelief.

"Forget it," he mumbled. "I'll get a job, get the money myself."

"Just tell me, Jacob. It's okay."

"It's so bad."

"Tell me," I insisted.

"Okay… but, geez, this sounds bad." He shook his head. "He said to tell you, no, to warn you that – and these are his words, not mine – " he lifted one hand from my waist and mimed question marks with his fingers. "'We'll be watching'."

He watched me warily. It sounded like something from a mafia movie, and I couldn't help but laugh aloud.

"Sorry you had to do this, Jake," I said.

"I don't mind that much," He grinned in relief. "Anytime I get to see you…" He shrugged. "Should I tell him you said to butt the hell out?"

"No," I said. "Tell him I said thanks. I know he means well."

The song ended and I dropped my arms. His hands hesitated at my waist, and he glanced at my cast. "Do you want to dance again? Or can I help you get somewhere?"

Edward answered from behind me. "That's alright, Jacob. I'll take it from here."

Jacob jumped at the same time I did. Neither of us had noticed Edward coming up to us. Jacob stared wide-eyed at Edward.

"I didn't see you there," Jacob said. "I guess I'll see you around, Bella." He stepped back, waving half-heartedly.

I smiled. "Yeah, I'll see you later."

"Sorry," he said again before he turned for the door.

Edward's arms wrapped around me as the next song started. The next song had started, an up-tempo one that I wouldn't be able to dance to in my cast. It didn't seem to bother Edward. I leaned my head against him, automatically, but I was still reserved about his behavior.

"Feeling better?" I asked.

"Not really."

"Don't be mad at Billy," I sighed. "He just worries about me for Charlie's sake. It's nothing personal."

"It is personal. But I'm not mad at Billy." His voice was clipped. "I don't like his son."

I pulled back to look at him. His face was very serious.

"Why?"

He didn't seem to know how to articulate his feelings. "He called you pretty," he finally said, his frown deepening.

"You're jealous? After everything?" I asked skeptically.

"It's not that, exactly," he said. "I… don't know. There's something about him. I don't trust that kid."

"Well, you'll have to get over that." I said. "He's my friend."

Edward's mouth set in a hard line.

"Come on," I said, taking his hand, my voice softening. "Let's go for a walk."

He eyed my leg skeptically, but we moved outside. We walked across the dark grounds until I began to feel tired. We sat down on a bench beneath the shadow of the madrone trees. He sat there, keeping me cradled against his chest. The moon was already up, visible through the gauzy clouds, and his face glowed pale in the white light.

"Twilight again," he murmured. "Another ending. No matter how perfect the day is, it always has to end."

I laughed. "So dramatic," I said. He wrinkled his nose at me, but I could see the smile beneath his expression. "You know, you could be a writer, maybe. Be a recluse writer like Salinger, never meeting fans or editors in person. That's a career you could have without anyone knowing you don't age."

"What, we're giving up on track star?" He asked, grinning.

I took a deep breath, looking up at the stars that were beginning to come out at last. Edward looked up with me.

"Why did you want to come to prom, Edward? It doesn't seem like the kind of thing you'd be interested in."

He gave me a strange look. "I wanted to come for you, Bella." He said. "I want you to have every experience a human should have. I don't want you to regret missing things because of what I am. It's important for me that you can enjoy all the things a normal couple would do. I want your life to continue as it would if I had died when I was supposed to."

I frowned. "You weren't supposed to die," I said. "If you were supposed to, you would have. "

"You're wrong."

"You're wrong, Edward." I said, trying to keep my tone gentle. "People don't get to decide what is or isn't supposed to happen. You just have to trust that things turn out the way they are meant to. I know you have suffered a lot because of… of what you are. But that doesn't mean you aren't supposed to be here."

He said nothing. "You're trying to get me to agree to... you know," he accused.

"I'm not." I said. "I just want you to understand, there is nothing wrong about you being here. And to be fair, if you hadn't brought me, I probably wouldn't have come to prom."

I pulled his arm over my shoulder, squeezing his fingers. He relaxed against me.

"But I'm ready, whenever you are." I said softly.

He was quiet for a moment. "You're ready now, then?" he asked.

"Yes."

"Right now?" His breath was in my ear, and I shivered involuntarily.

"Yes." I whispered, so my voice wouldn't break. I'd already made the decision, and I was sure. It didn't matter that my heart was hammering, my breathing erratic.

"I'll stay with you, isn't that enough?"

"I want to stay with you, too. Forever."

He chuckled darkly. He leaned down to press his cool lips against my throat.