A/N: Twilight belongs to Stephanie Meyer. I'm only making her characters do my bidding for a little while. The plot and original characters of Longing do belong to me, however. Jasper as the God of War and Peter "just knowing shit" are ideas that belong to Idreamofeddy.

Thank you to my awesome beta/pre-reader and sister, Shelljayz, and my pre-readers, juliangelus and deebelle1. I love you all.

Thank you to all of you that have read, followed, favorited and reviewed. I also love you.

So yeah, this chapter is ridiculously long, much longer than usual, which I didn't intend. I didn't want to split it in to a third part though, so you all benefit from it I suppose. I'm sure you're all so very peeved about it. :)

oOo

Tuesday, December 22nd, 2080

BPOV

When I was small, there was only one thing I was afraid of.

Obviously I wasn't like other children. That one fear didn't include spiders or the boogeyman or anything in between. I had been trained not to fear things of that nature long before most kids even knew what they were or were even capable of comprehending the notion of fear except in a visceral sense. No, my fear was of failing to follow orders.

I wasn't afraid of what would happen to me if I didn't. Pain had been introduced to me just as early on as the notion of fear was, though not in the same way it was used later on in my life as my training progressed, and just the same as fear, I learned to become unaffected. It wasn't the idea of punishment or reprisal that shook me to my core. No, it was because I had always known what I was supposed to be, what my purpose was—I was a soldier. The perfect soldier. I was the solution to keeping my country safe and to ending the needless casualties of the regular enlisted men and women of our military. If I failed at following orders, I failed at saving the lives I was meant to and my country was not safe. I did not fulfill my purpose. I was not a good soldier; I was not the perfect soldier. As far as I was concerned, that meant I wasn't a soldier at all. I was nothing. Even as a toddler, I was smart enough to know what that meant, and I didn't want to be nothing. What I wanted was to be the best at what I was created for. More than anything, I wanted to be the perfect soldier. Therefore, I could not fail at following orders.

Later, when I escaped Project Apotheosis and Fort Ares, I changed and so did what I was afraid of.

The thought of no longer following orders no longer terrified but thrilled me, though I regretted that I wouldn't save the lives I was meant to or protect my country and often wondered if I had made the right decision in leaving. I no longer had only one fear but two then. Each of those fears were constantly at battle as to which scared me the most, but more often than not, they held equal weight. The first was of being caught and dragged back, and again, it wasn't the pain, punishment or reprisal that would inevitably be my fate as a result that twisted my stomach up in knots. It was what I knew I would become if I ever went back that tormented me. They had trained me in such a way that I was no longer breakable, but they would find a way to get inside my head and reprogram me so that "Bella" ceased to exist and all that was left was Soldier Omega. Soldier Omega was all that was supposed to exist anyway. Soldier Omega was the perfect little soldier they'd been hoping for; it was Bella that had thrown a wrench in things. Bella was the pain in their ass, and they would do whatever they could to see her dead. I would fight it, of course, and I would hold off the inevitable for a while, but in the end, that is precisely what it was … inevitable. The second fear of mine had nothing to do with my well-being. I was terrified that anyone who got attached to me would be drawn in to the danger that being involved with me entailed. I had nightmares about the people I met suffering the way I had before I escaped, and there were times when my fear for the fate of others far surpassed the fear that I felt for myself. It was why I was so fucking adamant about keeping my distance from everyone. I never, ever wanted anyone to suffer the way I had and would if I was caught and taken back. No one should have to endure that. Not only that, but they weren't built for it, not the way I was and could.

I was beginning to wonder if to grow older meant to grow more afraid. As a child, I had only one fear, as a teenager, I had two, and now, at seventeen, I had added a third.

Jasper Whitlock.

Jasper Whitlock scared the ever-loving shit out of me. My fear of him was not simple in the way I saw the other things that scared me but so very complicated. I was not afraid of him in the traditional sense of the word. As a vampire, he didn't scare me, even though I knew I hadn't seen him at his worst and most fearsome. I supposed it was Jasper, the man, that scared me, and I wasn't so much afraid of him but of what he made me feel because he made me want things I shouldn't want and feel things I had never felt before. It was one thing in particular that scared me the most, something I had never realized I hadn't felt even after I escaped. He made me feel alive. Feeling alive wasn't a bad thing. If not for the reason for it, it would be a very good thing and I would be pleased. Instead, in addition to scaring me, it unnerved me, it fucked with my head and it was so, so dangerous. I hated the feeling but I couldn't turn it off. I couldn't turn off my attraction to him either. I cared about and for Jasper Whitlock.

Of course I could have fixed that if I wanted to, and I did want to, but it wasn't that simple. I not only generally had exemplary control over my emotions but I had the ability to turn them off. It was like flipping a switch; it had been part of my training, but I rarely chose to employ that ability because the potential consequences of using it were dire and disastrous. For a person like me, who was capable of such violence and devastation, it was vital to maintain as much humanity as possible. That involved feeling everything, as painful as it was. If I lost my humanity, I lost myself. I became a machine, the killer they had created in the lab at Fort Ares, and I was close enough to falling in to that without flipping that switch as it was. Keeping my emotions meant I hadn't been able to prevent myself from growing to care about the Cullens, about Jasper, but it kept me from becoming something I never wanted to be—that machine that killed with no thought or emotion, with no remorse. I still had that awful sense that it was inevitable anyway, but at least this way, I had a chance.

The fact that I did care was what brought me to the here and now, not to mention the current predicament I found myself dealing with.

Jasper was avoiding me ... again, and again, I didn't know why. The part of me that needed to distance myself from him was relieved by it. I could not afford to get anymore attached to him than I already was in the time I remained here. That was also the part of me that was terrified that he would be able to take one look at me and know how I felt about him, or that he had somehow magically recovered his ability to feel my emotions and that he could read them properly now too. The other part of me was not relieved in the slightest. That part was miserable because it was still important to me that he and I leave things in a good place before I finally headed out of Forks for good. That part of me wanted to know what the hell I had done to piss him off this time. Was this another Tyler/Winter Formal type beef between us or was it because he felt awkward about comforting me days ago? Because he had. He had chased away the majority of my demons and I was no longer on the verge of breaking down. We had both felt awkward about it the last time. Or did he have a problem with me after what Gavin had done? Was he upset about what he'd revealed to Emmett and Edward about being disemboweled?

Yes, I'd overheard that as I made my way to the garage; I had sat in my car, eavesdropping, until he was done telling Emmett and Edward all about it. How could I not? When you hear something like that you can't just ignore it and not eavesdrop. I knew without a doubt that he wasn't fucking around with them; I didn't have to see his face to be certain. Just call me Peter.

It was a possibility that his revelation was what was behind his distance, which meant it had nothing to do with me, but I didn't think that was it. Whether that was it or not, I couldn't help but dwell on it. He'd sounded so detached when he talked about it, a little gleeful at scaring the shit out of his brothers but otherwise indifferent. I couldn't get it out of my head because I couldn't fathom what situation he could possibly have been in where that would have been done to him or that he would have done it to someone else, and it disturbed me. For starters, his tone had sent a chill down my spine. Still, I empathized with him because I knew from firsthand experience how painful getting disemboweled was—it was a pain I never wanted to think about or feel again, which ignited a mixture of sympathy and disgust that flowed through me strongly and quickly. I had to force myself to continue to listen despite it, even though I shouldn't have been. It repulsed me that Jasper had put others through that when he knew how much agony it caused, and it swarmed my brain with memories of when it had been done to me, only in place of the person who had actually done it, it was Jasper who wielded the knife. It took me a few days to shake those images and get over it, but those were the consequences I had to suffer for eavesdropping.

Once I was able to shake those images from my mind, I went back to wondering about his avoidance. Had I legitimately done something and just didn't realize it? I honestly couldn't tell because he wasn't acting angry, not outright anyway. Jasper was being pretty passive-aggressive. He had spoken to me only a handful of times in the past week and only when absolutely necessary.

It wasn't until after the second day since he'd saved me from my meltdown that I had picked up on a definite pattern of avoidance. Every time I entered the same room as him, he left; not always right away, but he always did. After that I started to keep track of just how long he waited before he up and took off to another part of the house or went on a hunting trip.

I had been conducting my little experiment for four days now, and I was fed up. I could no longer keep the urge to confront him at bay, so I marched into his study with determination and plopped down on the chaise lounge across from where he sat on his couch with a book open in his lap. I pressed my knees together but spread my ankles wide and folded my arms over my chest, fixing my eyes on him and hoping he could somehow sense my silent demand to look at me. If he did, he ignored it.

"Two minutes, six point seven four seconds," I announced to get his attention. I held my car keys poorly concealed in my right hand so he would clearly see them. I had a plan, you see. I always did.

"Is that supposed to mean something to me?" he questioned, finally looking up.

"It should," I replied steadily, as though it was an obvious thing for him to know.

"And yet, it doesn't," he said, baffled, slightly annoyed and more than a little impatient.

"That is the mathematical mean of how long you've waited to leave a room every time I entered the same one you were in for last four days," I clarified. "It's two minutes, nine point three one seconds if I count all six days you've been doing it."

"I'm not—" he immediately cut in.

I rolled my eyes and held up the hand that didn't have the car keys in it. "You can pretend like you have no idea what I'm talking about, which makes you a pussy, or you can man up and tell me what we're fighting about so we can deal with it and move on."

He gritted his teeth for a moment, clenching his hands as they rested on the pages of the book he'd been reading before I waltzed into the room. "And if I really do have no idea?"

I gave him a pointed look, crossed my legs, laced my fingers together, still clutching my keys, and placed my hands atop my knees in a gesture of stubbornness. He was not getting out of this. I just had to get him to admit I was right. It was part of my strategy. I smirked smugly. "Pussy."

He didn't take the bait but he was still very clearly irritated, eyes narrowing as he abandoned his book. "And what, have you been pulling out a stopwatch to time me?"

"I don't need a stopwatch," I confided, a conspiratorial quality to my voice, and gave him the slightest smile. "This thing?" I tapped my temple. "It's like a steel trap."

Jasper snorted but didn't respond to that. That wasn't good—it meant I wasn't making any headway—but it wasn't bad either. I had tricks aplenty up my sleeve, and everyone could be manipulated if one knew what to target. All I had to do was choose which tricks would hit those targets and weaken them. With Jasper it was tricky because he was smarter than any of my usual marks. His senses were sharper, he was more observant and his ability to read people and their probable intentions were far superior than anyone I had ever met. He was by no means gullible but there were some things I did know that could be used against him. For starters, he was a guy, and there were two things that almost always got guys to drop their guard or at least elicit a reaction one could work with: ego and sex. It wasn't sure-fire that he would fall for shots at those because he was a formidable and atypical opponent, but he might. He was still a guy after all. With Jasper specifically, his hatred of being out of control was the weakness I would have to exploit. I didn't like that I had to use anything against him at all, but if I didn't, we would get nowhere, and I didn't have all fucking day to argue with him—it was my preference for us to smooth things over today, but my ultimate goal was for us to be back on good terms by Christmas. I couldn't be heavy-handed with any of those three things or he would see right through me, so at least there was that small mercy.

Phase one: threaten his control.

"Oh, come on, Whitlock," I complained in exasperation. "This is the easy way of doing things but there are much more difficult ways of getting them done. I have absolutely no problem implementing those tactics."

He rolled his eyes and held out his perfectly steady hand. "I'm shakin' in fear, Bella. Really."

I hid my grin on the outside but let it stretch wide on the inside. That was just the lead-in, the primer, if you will. "Don't make me go all drill instructor on your ass."

My tone was only mildly threatening, but I knew the taunt would resonate with him. For some reason that I doubted I would ever know, Jasper was touchy about being a soldier when he was human. I had a feeling, an instinctive, niggling seed of suspicion, that his issues with control were linked to his time in the military. Soldiers had very little control over their lives. They were given orders and were expected to follow them, no matter what they were or how they felt about them—it was an unspoken, and sometimes not so unspoken, rule. That wasn't something that had changed over the centuries. I knew that very well. It was where most of my own control issues came from.

I rose gracefully from my seat and crooked one corner of my mouth up, not enough to be a smirk but enough to pique his interest and make him wonder what was going through my head. My posture was straight, confident, determined, predatory as was my gait as I approached him.

Now was the time to get him thinking with his downstairs brain. I knew Jasper didn't want me that way, but I was still a pretty girl. Guys liked a decent ass and pair of tits. Mine were better than decent, awesome in fact, and whether he was interested or not, he could still appreciate my assets. I would use that to my advantage.

When I reached him, close enough for our knees to touch, I leaned over—something I seemed to be doing a lot of around him lately—so I was looking down on him, my breasts at his eye level and rested my hands on his shoulders, keys dangling over his collarbone. My shirt was just loose enough around the bust that he could get a decent peek down it and see the lacy, skimpy bra I'd stolen from an unwitting Rosalie for precisely this purpose. Just as I'd been counting on, his gaze zeroed in on where I'd intended it to before he lifted it to meet my eyes. His expression was unreadable, so I didn't know if this particular tactic was successful, even if he had taken the bait.

"I wouldn't mess around with me," I warned, my tone light but still serious. "I can rock a set of fatigues and a pair of combat boots just as well as a ballgown and stilettos or a mini skirt, halter top and slutty heels."

His eyebrows lifted in surprise, curiosity and something else in his gaze at this revelation of mine. I didn't know what that something else was but it didn't matter. The surprise and curiosity were enough to work with.

"Which one are you picturing?" I asked, smirking. Maybe the sex angle had worked after all.

A slow grin spread across his face. "All of 'em."

Bingo! It sent a thrill through me that he was at least contemplating me in a sexual way, but I resolutely shoved that out of my head so I could stay in character and rolled my eyes. "Normally I would razz you for being such a guy, but since I started it, I can't."

"Nope," he replied, that stupidly gorgeous grin of his widening. "And what would you know about bein' a drill instructor?"

"Everything I need to know about it I learned from Full Metal Jacket," I informed him. So that wasn't true, but that didn't matter. And now for the dig at his ego. One of the eyebrows he'd just lowered rose again. I shrugged. "It is one of the greatest war movies ever made. Are you going to be my Private Pyle, Jasper?"

He scowled at me, and he had good reason to. The character referred to as Private Pyle in the movie was hopelessly incompetent. No amount of training or determination had made a difference in helping him hack it as a Marine in boot camp. Even never knowing Jasper as a human, I had no doubt he'd been a talented soldier—his name and Major General Magruder's wartime journals were proof of that. Proof or not, I would have known he was good, known it in my gut.

"Oh, no," I said before he could reply. "You're from Texas, and you know what they say about Texas, don't you?"

"Don't say it, Bella," he threatened lowly, eyes flashing dangerously. He was obviously familiar with the movie, which wasn't surprising, and knew exactly where I was going with this. "Do. Not. Say it."

And now, for my final blow. I straightened up and about-faced, taking a few steps before I peeked at him over my shoulder and met his eyes, a challenging look in them I knew he wouldn't be able to resist. Then I used the quote I knew would get him up and out of his seat, "Only steers and queers come from Texas, Major Whitlock, and you don't look much like a steer to me, so that kinda narrows it down."

Jasper's face darkened with menace and fury as did his already completely black eyes, as impossible as that seemed. I didn't stick around after that. Instead I took off, sprinting out of the room at a fast but still human pace, taking the corner with an almost dangerously tight turn ... for anyone else. Next, I ran down the hall until I reached the stairs and raced down them two at a time. I felt wind whip past me as Jasper overtook my position, using his vampire speed to full advantage. As soon as I hit the bottom step, I slowed to a walk and meandered the rest of the way to where I knew he would be, ignoring every single vampire present and whatever their reactions were to what they'd overheard as I passed through the living room.

Jasper's back was propped against the door to the garage, arms crossed over his chest and legs crossed at the ankles. The look on his face was still thunderous. I just smiled in triumph.

"One for the human while Major Badass has yet to score," I gloated cheekily.

The fury of his expression didn't dampen but there was an added element of confusion in it now.

"I didn't take you for a guy who could be so easily manipulated," I said. My tone wasn't teasing anymore. I knew that wouldn't go over well, and if he didn't have a legitimate reason to be angry with me over the last six days, he definitely did now.

"Excuse me?" he bit out, hostility tensing every inch of him. I refused to follow the progress of that tension from head to toe, though it was tempting. Now was not the time to ogle him, especially not when there was such a good chance I would get caught. It was never the time to ogle him; not if I wanted to get over these feelings I had for him and I needed to. Not just because I was leaving but because of the conversation I'd had with Leah about imprinting. It was the wolf version of mating, and even though Jasper had no interest in being mated, that didn't mean he wouldn't find his mate eventually and fall in love with her. The statistical likelihood of that happening before I left was slim but it was still possible. As Leah's story had clearly demonstrated, falling in love with someone who was meant for another—fated for another—was the worst thing a person could do. That did not mean I was in love with him though.

"You just played right into my hand is all," I replied neutrally. "It's no big. Everyone can be manipulated if a person knows where to strike, and it just so happens that I did."

Comprehension lit his expression, and for the second time in this endeavor of mine, he gritted his teeth and clenched his hands, the creak of his fingernails piercing his palms echoing through the room. "You are a fuckin' pain in my ass, Crawfield," he snapped.

"Maybe you should find someone to kiss it better," I retorted matter-of-factly. I wanted to kick myself the second those words left my mouth because now I was being hit over the head with images of Jasper doing various couple-y things with a nameless, faceless woman: holding hands, hugging, whispering together and laughing, kissing … touching her the way he'd touched me in the alley in Louisville and dreamed of weeks ago before that dream had turned into a nightmare. It turned my stomach and I had to grudgingly admit that the thought of Jasper with someone else made me jealous or at least I assumed that's what this burning, sick feeling was.

He's not yours, Bella, I chided myself violently. I knew that. I did. He will never be yours. You can't have him. He's meant for someone else. And you don't want him anyway.

The snort that resounded in my head when my inner voice made that laughable declaration was loud enough to make me cringe, but I didn't.

"Maybe you should," he came back at me, his voice and face a little lighter but also more predatory than before, "since it's your fault."

That was not something I'd been prepared for him to say, and for a split second, a lump formed in my throat. I choked on the witty response that was clumsily making its way from my brain to my lips. I could picture it, kissing him. Not his ass, mind you, though it was very nice to look at. There were just other places I would rather kiss before I got there.

Not yours, I reminded myself again. And it's not like he was serious or anything. We'd had a moment in Kentucky, but we were strangers then. We were friends now, kind of, and that moment had long passed. If anything, we were family or something now. That thought made me want to shudder. It was gross but true in a way.

"That would be counterproductive," I came back at him with an ease and nonchalance that surprised me. My voice was perfectly steady, and I doubted he even noticed there had been the slightest of pauses before I replied. "And I did say we could do things the easy way or the hard one. If you had just 'fessed up when I asked you why you're avoiding me, I wouldn't have had to resort to manipulation, now would I?"

Jasper had no response to that, but I doubted it was because he thought I was right.

"You're undeniably smart, Bella," he said darkly, "but don't for one second think that you're smarter than I am."

"Oh, I know I'm not," I acknowledged easily. Jasper and I both had off the charts I.Q.s but my measley less than two decades of life experience versus his two plus centuries was no match. "But you underestimate me. Not often, mind you, but often enough that you open yourself up to being caught off guard, which is how we ended up here. Now, get your sore ass in my car," I commanded. "We've got somewhere to be."

His eyes narrowed and he clenched his fists. "I told you once that I don't take too kindly to bein' given orders, especially from little girls, sugar."

Okay, that stung and I was fully prepared to whip an equally biting comment back at him. I didn't though. I had just manipulated him, and he was correct. That was basically an order. I hated orders and I had no right to give him one. It was hypocritical, especially since I had played on his control issues just minutes ago. "You're right," I admitted apologetically, willing him to see in my eyes how sincere I was. "That was rude and I'm sorry. I am going somewhere, and I would like you to go with me. Will you come?"

His posture relaxed some again and he studied me for several long moments. He probably wasn't expecting me to admit I was wrong and apologize. "Okay," he said.

Then he opened the door to the garage and allowed me to pass through first before following behind me. I clicked the unlock button on my Shelby, we both climbed in, and I stuck my keys in the ignition, but before I started the engine, I turned to look at him. He met my eyes head on, still hanging on to some of his defiance and anger from earlier. "You are the first person ever to ride in this car besides me, so I need to establish some ground rules," I informed him.

"Such as?"

"Really, there's only one," I said. "It's the ever prevalent commandment of Dean Winchester: driver picks the music, shotgun shuts his cake hole."

Jasper grudgingly chuckled at that but nodded, so I revved the engine, flipped the stereo on, programming my iPod to a classic rock playlist and pulled out of the garage.

Phase one of my plan to get him talking to me again was complete and at least marginally successful. Now on to phase two ...

oOo

Phase two was fairly innocuous. It involved the two of us hanging out and having fun while I gauged whether or not it would even be a good idea to bring up why he was avoiding me again today.

By the time we got to our destination, Jasper was grinning, and I had to fight hard to suppress my own. I couldn't take the chance that it would wipe the happy expression off his face, and I so loved to see him smile.

"You're not disappointed I take it?" I said, eyeing him sidelong.

His smile didn't fade as he turned in his seat. I followed his lead and turned toward him too. "No," he answered. "I haven't been here in a long time."

I did smile then but it was bittersweet. "Not since before our fight about the dance."

He nodded unnecessarily. "Too long."

"Yeah," I agreed, my voice soft. Then I clicked my door open, Jasper doing the same, and we made our way into the office to let the owners of the ranch know we were there for the time I had scheduled and paid for in advance, which was from eight to one.

"Head to the indoor arena," I directed my vampire companion. This place had both an indoor and outdoor arena for riding lessons as well as indoor and outdoor round pens for training. The fact that Forks was so wet and cold all the damn time made them necessary. Mud and snow made the ground outside dangerous both for the horses and riders as well as the trainers. The first time we'd come here, Jasper and I had gotten lucky—the weather had been nice enough for us to go off on our own. That was not the case today. "I'll meet you there after I get Chaos."

He nodded again and headed in that direction without a word while I made my way to the stable that housed the horse I was beginning to think of as ours. He nickered as I approached, and just as I had known with Wildfire, I knew that he knew the second I walked in the building without needing to lay eyes on me. It was an instinct that made me smile and then grimace in rapid succession, bringing to mind my suspicion that I could have horse DNA integrated in to my double helix that might be responsible for that innate certainty.

I stopped to pat him on the nose before I went to grab grooming equipment, and he pushed it into my palm affectionately.

"Hi, buddy," I greeted softly, watching his nostrils flare as he sniffed my hand. My tone was just as affectionate as his gesture had been.

I groomed Chaos slowly, taking the time to reestablish our bond. Though it hadn't been as long for me as it had been for Jasper, I hadn't been here in a while either. It was necessary for us considering we were getting back to work desensitizing him to a vampire, but that wasn't the only reason I was taking my time. I needed this time to collect myself, to prepare for however long I would be alone with Jasper. I had no idea just how long that would be because I wasn't sure how much I would be able to pull out of him, but that would come later. Horse bonding came first.

Jasper was sitting on the small set of bleachers there for parents and friends to watch riding lessons, waiting, when I led Chaos into the building that housed the arena. The gelding visibly tensed, automatically shifting in the opposite direction, nostrils flaring for a different reason now, ears pinned back, tail swishing nervously. I ran a reassuring hand over his neck and continued in the direction of the actual arena while Jasper shifted to the far side of the bleachers to ease Chaos' nerves. I added soothing murmurs as I closed us in to the dirt enclosure and led Chaos as far away from Jasper as possible. It only made things marginally better.

I beckoned Jasper to enter the arena, so he hopped over the fence and stood stock still at the opposite end.

"I don't suppose your gift has magically unscrewed itself while you're around me?" I asked at both a horse and vampire-friendly volume, partially in hope and partially in dread. On the one hand, in terms of working with Chaos, it would make things easier. However, it was probably better that we did this without the aid of his emotional fuckery. On the other, I preferred that Jasper's gift was fucked up in my presence. It meant he couldn't read me.

He shook his head.

"Alright," I said. "I'm going to stay with him while you approach today. It will probably help if he has someone he already trusts by his side," I reasoned and then hastened to remind him, "and don't forget to match your breathing to mine to mask your lack of a pulse. Project confidence."

Jasper nodded and began his slow trek toward us, eyes on the ground to avoid emphasizing that he was a predator. Chaos didn't start going crazy until he hit a fifteen foot distance, which was a vast improvement from the last few times we'd worked with him when we'd hit a stagnant forty feet. I couldn't help but grin at that … after I finished calming our horse down of course.

"Hey," I called. "Why don't you try talking to him as you walk to us?"

He hadn't uttered a word since we got out of the car and that didn't change now. He merely cocked a perfect, honey blond brow.

"You voice is …" I paused, trying to find words that wouldn't make what I needed to convey sound like something I didn't want or mean for it to, "... nice. Soothing, I guess," I admitted, shrugging. "That might help as well."

The only emotion that registered on his face was determination.

As he moved forward, he took my advice and spoke as he walked. His voice was quiet but Chaos could hear it despite the low volume, and that was the best choice overall.

After forty-five minutes, not including the breaks we gave him in between tries to keep him from going into cardiac arrest, Jasper had made it to Chaos, hand held out flat before his nose. Chaos was rigid, still wary and uncomfortable, nostrils flared extra wide and feet shifting restlessly as he sniffed Jasper close up for the first time. Jasper continued to murmur reassurances to him, which calmed him some after a while.

We continued to do this for several more minutes until Chaos had relaxed even more.

"He needs a break," I said. "But we're not quitting for the day yet. There's another thing I'd like to try before we go."

Jasper nodded again. The only words he'd uttered were to Chaos. Though he was grinning wider than I had ever seen before, he still refused to speak to me, hanging on to his defiance after I'd confronted and played him earlier. I, however, did not care because we had done what we set out to do weeks ago, something I hadn't even known could be done without some sort of mystical help, and I felt serious joy at the moment. It was a foreign emotion for me and I didn't want to squander it, but not even Jasper in surly-mode could put a damper on that, not that he really could have anyway—he was just as excited about our achievement as I was. It was written all over his face, and it was so beautiful it made my chest ache. So he refused to talk to me. That was now. I would change it before we left here because when I put my mind to something, I always succeeded. That was the whole point of this little field trip.

"I'm taking him back to his stall," I informed Jasper. "I won't be back for a while. He shouldn't be left alone just yet."

He nodded yet again, and I felt the burn of his eyes on me as I led Chaos out of the arena. I had to work doubly hard to remain in control of my body's physiological reactions.

oOo

When I returned, Jasper was sitting on the bleachers again, and I took a spot next to him that wasn't too close. We were quiet for several minutes, but I didn't mind so much because he was still beaming in that way that made my chest ache. He looked happier than I had ever seen him before.

I did that, I thought to myself with no small amount of pride. Again, I restrained myself in case a smile as wide as his pissed him off, but I figured a small one was acceptable.

"I can't believe we did it," Jasper said suddenly, voice laced with disbelief and unmistakable excitement and eyes on me. "I wasn't sure if we could do it at all or thought that it would take so much longer, especially since it's been such a long time since I've been here."

"He speaks," I teased, leaning over to knock his shoulder with mine. It was the first time I had touched him since we got here. I had every intention of taking special care to touch him as little as possible now that I knew I felt more for him than casual caring and was no longer in imminent danger of losing my shit.

He rolled his eyes but didn't retort.

"Well, when you were gone, I may or may not have stolen a few of your dirty shirts from your laundry hamper before Esme got to them and wore them while I worked with him," I admitted hesitantly. "Not the ones you destroyed when you hunted. Just the ones that were truly saturated with your scent."

"May or may not have?" he questioned, not bothering to hide his smirk. His eyes were sparkling with an emotion I couldn't name, like depthless chunks of obsidian glinting in the light of a full moon. Even black, they were the most gorgeous eyes I had ever seen. I shook that thought off. This was not about that.

I was the one who rolled my eyes this time and gave him a defiant glare. "I did."

"Why?" he questioned again, brows furrowed, and all traces of smugness, the mystery emotion and his smirk gone. "You were pissed at me."

I shrugged, keeping my expression neutral and my body relaxed. "I really, really was, but I told you once before that being around horses brings me peace. That made my anger a little easier to deal with." I shot him a mischievous smirk. "As was the fact that I had complete control over the fate of your motorcycle …" I bit my lip, just a little, "... and I also felt guilty. I thought I'd run you out of Forks. Besides, I didn't figure I'd be pissed at you forever, and I didn't want to lose the progress we made. I thought continuing to expose Chaos to your scent might help to retain that progress at the very least. I wasn't sure it would, of course, but I guess it did."

"I guess." Jasper's brows had furrowed deeper. "And you didn't run me out of Forks."

I didn't respond because I didn't believe him.

"You're kind of brilliant," he said next.

I didn't respond to that either. I was brilliant, but that had very little relevance to the situation at hand.

"Thank you," came after that. It was spoken softly, his hand drifting over the space between us and hovering over mine, electricity igniting in the empty air between our nearly touching skin, but he changed his mind and grasped the back of his neck instead the way most guys do when they're uncomfortable or nervous.

I was uncomfortable too. Thank yous threw me for a loop. I felt stupid saying you're welcome like the whole reason I did whatever I did was for that purpose alone. I didn't like that. Also, the little sparks of electricity left over from his near touch made it very hard to concentrate. I almost regretted that I didn't get to the part of my training where I learned how to be unaffected by my hormones.

My actual reason for stealing Jasper's shirts to wear while I worked with Chaos was because it was necessary. I had genuinely believed I would be gone after the dance and I hadn't known when or if Jasper would be back. If he did return, he wouldn't be able to train Chaos on his own, and I knew how much he liked being here with him. He needed horses just as much as I did, and I had to do whatever I could to make sure he wouldn't lose that when I was gone.

"Sure," I said, my discomfort audible.

Silence fell over us again, awkward, unlike the last time. I knew it wasn't time for me to bring up why he'd been avoiding me again, so I had to think of something else to talk about in the meantime. It took me a few minutes to figure out what. It was something I had been monitoring ever since Jasper told me there were more reasons for it than anger ...

"Your eyes are still black," I spoke quietly. No one else was in the arena building with us but caution was still essential. He locked those eyes with mine for what seemed like forever, the look in them hard, searching. I just didn't know what it was he was searching for, and I didn't think he found it. Whether he did or not, he still looked away from me, focusing his gaze on the "C" at the opposite end of the arena.

"Yes," he said simply, the volume of his voice matching mine. It became obvious after a couple of moments that that was all he planned to say. Either he still wasn't real keen on talking to me at all, or he wasn't eager to talk about this. I would put my money on both.

"They haven't changed at all," I prodded gently, determined to pursue the subject anyway. I hadn't seen the golden hue in Jasper's eyes since right before things got really heated in our fight about the dance, but he was gone for a week. Still, he'd been back for ten days with no change. Either he was really pissed off or really thirsty. Neither option set well with me.

"No," he acknowledged again, still intent on the "C."

"I guess you haven't found anything appetizing," I thought aloud.

"No," he answered, though it wasn't a question.

That made me frown deeply and alarm bells went off in my head. He had gone at least ten days without finding something he wanted to or could "eat." The longest I had ever gone without food or water was twelve weeks, but that was during a training exercise designed to hone my ability to go into "hibernation mode," and during those times, my body literally began to function differently to accommodate for the prolonged induced dehydration and starvation. It was always around day ten that the lack of nutrition and hydration started to pound dully in my hollow stomach, slowly withering blood vessels and frazzling my nerves, but Jasper wasn't me. Vampires weren't human but even they weren't equipped to hibernate, to starve. That meant he had to have been hurting for days. I felt the need to torture myself and find out exactly how long he'd been suffering. "How long has it been since you've fed?"

"A while," he replied. It wasn't the answer I wanted but it was the one I'd expected.

"I'm sorry," I said sincerely. Against his better judgment, he eyed me curiously. "I know what it's like to starve. It isn't fun."

"No, it isn't," he agreed, his hands fidgeting in his lap like he wanted to busy them but didn't know exactly how.

"Isn't there anything you can do about it?" I asked, actually managing to hide the desperation I felt. Jasper may not be equipped to starve, but he would never die. If he couldn't feed, that meant an eternity of agony. "Or maybe Carlisle?"

Jasper snorted, a clear bitterness in the sound, and shifted his eyes away from me. His whole body went rigid and his fingers gripped the wood to his left, nails tearing a chunk off with a splintering sound, and he tossed it with a side-armed throw into the arena. It skipped across the dirt the way a stone would skim the surface of water when thrown right. "He's tryin'. I'm not particularly fond of his methods."

I cocked an expectant brow at him even though he was no longer facing me. He must have felt that I was looking at him or seen it out of the corner of his eye because he brought his gaze back to me again.

"Peter and Charlotte lured me out to the treaty line under false pretenses," he elaborated, the bitterness present in his snort also present in his voice. "In addition to them, Carlisle, Edward and eight of the wolf pack were waiting for me. The wolves had to be there because Peter, Charlotte and Carlisle's solution to my problem is human blood, and we had to make sure they didn't make incorrect assumptions if they saw me with red eyes … you know, because of the treaty."

"Oh." I mean, what was I supposed to say to that?

"That wasn't exactly my reaction," he said.

"And your reaction was …" I prompted.

"Peter and Charlotte betrayed me to Carlisle and then they all fuckin' ambushed me!" Jasper growled lowly, jaw so tight it was a miracle he got the words out at all and eyes taking on an even darker sheen just as they had in the kitchen when I revealed I manipulated him. "In front of the fuckin' wolves, no less." His fingers—of both hands this time—again dug into the wood of the bleachers but he left them buried quarter of an inch deep in the grain as he took a breath and got control of himself. "What do you think my reaction was? I pretty much blew a fuse."

"Oh," I said again. I had no idea what to say to that either.

"Oh?" he responded sharply. "Oh? That's all you have to say?"

I shrugged. "What do you want me to say?"

He sighed, and though his shoulders slumped in defeat, they remained tense. I wanted to smooth my hands over the taut expanse, to make him release all that tension, but I didn't. "I don't know."

I thought about it for a moment. "I suppose I could ask why the idea pisses you off so much."

"Are you fuckin' kidding?" he demanded in disbelief, eyes going wide.

"No," I said evenly. "It's a reasonable question, don't you think?"

"No," he snapped irritably. The wood groaned as his fists tightened and the increased pressured continued to pry it apart. "It isn't."

"I'm just trying to understand," I told him. I looked pointedly at the hand I could see, and the groaning abruptly ceased. "I mean, I don't know where you're coming from. I've starved before, but I'm sure that while human starvation and vampire starvation are similar in some ways, they must also be very different. Besides, I thought human blood was infinitely more appealing than animal."

He sighed again and scrubbed his hands roughly over his face. "It is."

"Then what's the problem?"

Jasper didn't look at me when he answered, but his profile looked thoughtful. When he spoke, his tone was blunt but not harsh, "The problem is that I haven't always been a good man, Bella. I'm still not … not really. I fed from humans for a very long time. I could tell you I did it because I didn't know any better. That's true, but knowing it before I did wouldn't have mattered. I didn't care how many people I killed until I couldn't stand having to bear the emotions they felt as I drained the life out of them. If not for my gift, I doubt I ever would have stopped. I never would have cared. I doubt I ever would have cared about anything."

His posture had been deceptively relaxed as he told me these things, but I could see the strain in the tendons of his wrists.

He finally met my eyes when he was finished and watched me with little emotion staining his features as I digested this information. I mulled it over for quite a while because I needed him to understand that when I finally responded, I hadn't spouted off the first thing that popped in my head. This wasn't the type of situation where that would be okay. "Are you expecting me to condemn you for that?"

"Aren't you goin' to?"

"No," I replied with conviction.

Jasper stared at me like I was something he'd never seen before. "Why?"

"I'm not a vampire," I answered. "I can't understand why you do what you do because of that, but I can be rational about it. You drink blood. That's how you survive and everyone wants to survive. We're hard-wired for it. Maybe you wouldn't have cared that there was another way until your gift kicked your ass, and I'm not saying taking human lives isn't a serious thing or that I'm particularly fond of the idea, but every species has a natural order. Your natural order happens to be that you drink human blood. Would it be fair of me to judge a bear for eating fish or a coyote for eating a rabbit? No, because that is the natural order of things for them. Killing a human with friends and a family who will miss them is absolutely more tragic, but what are you gonna do? You can't exactly turn that off, can you? And you're trying to live a different lifestyle now. That counts for something."

"I don't understand you," he muttered.

"That's because I'm a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside a bitch shoved in a taco," I joked, giving him a tentative smile. "It's the taco part that's throwing you off … you know, since you can't eat them and all, which really is a shame."

Jasper laughed even as he grimaced at the idea of consuming human food, just as I had intended. "So, technically, you're sayin' all I have to do to figure you out is eat a taco?"

I shrugged. "It's a theory. One I don't suggest you try."

"As tempting as the idea of finally understanding you is, I wasn't plannin' on it," he assured me with the slightest smile, which I returned.

"I guess I just see the world differently than most people," I said, getting serious. "I'm not a sociopath or anything. I'm just very logical."

Jasper chuckled again. "I know you're not a sociopath, Bella."

"That's good." I smiled. It was important to me that he didn't think that. "So, how did Carlisle propose you go about drinking human blood? Did he expect you to suck it straight from the vein or something?"

"It wasn't Carlisle's idea. It was Peter and Charlotte's. He just agreed with it and to it, but if that is what they all expected, I would have torn them apart and hidden the pieces," Jasper spat with loathing. "I have half a mind to do that anyway. It took me nearly fifty years to gain control over my bloodlust. It's harder for me with my gift. Do you remember what I told you about it? How emotions connect to physiological reactions, like pain?" I nodded. "Well, I can feel the others' thirst, no matter how minimal. Thirst is physiological but it also affects emotions. It can cause anxiety, restlessness, rage, and a plethora of other feelings, so I feel all of those things, plus the burn of it, and animal blood never completely sates it. Only human blood does that."

"That sounds miserable," I guessed.

Jasper shrugged. "It has been nearly fifty-one years since I've slipped up and killed someone. I'm not about to ruin that with a choice I willingly made."

"Well," I said slowly. "That is certainly something to be proud of, but if Carlisle isn't expecting you to feed directly from a human, why are you worried?"

"It doesn't matter how I get it, which in this case is through blood bags Carlisle filched from the hospital," he answered, a tinge of misery coloring his tone. "Merely tasting human blood again might make me lose control."

"What else is there besides animal and human blood?" I countered diplomatically. "There isn't anything else, Jasper. Do you really think Peter and Charlotte would make a suggestion like that if they were going to let you slip up?"

"I know they've got my back, but they may not get a choice in the matter," he replied. He sounded exhausted, but as far as I knew, vampires didn't get tired. More alarm bells went off in my head.

"Don't you think you should at least try?" I refused to give up until I had exhausted all possible, plausible arguments. "You can't just not feed forever. After a while, it won't matter whether you want to feed from a human or not. You'll be so thirsty that you'll snap anyway."

"I did try," he confessed, both uncomfortably and with defeat, tugging at his hair. "It didn't work."

"It wasn't appetizing either?" I questioned curiously. I knew it was prying but I was worried. I needed to ask. There were even more alarm bells.

"No," he answered. "It was … until it wasn't. My stomach wasn't all that enthusiastic about it no matter how good it might have tasted at first. It sure as hell didn't taste as good as it should have."

"What does that mean?" I asked.

"It means," Jasper said, "that I couldn't keep it down."

"Vampires can throw up?"

"It's complicated," he replied. "Because it's both possible and impossible. Emmett and Peter, for example, have thrown up before. We all have after consuming human food to keep up the 'normal' charade. They have been particularly dumb about it by daring each other to stuff themselves silly with human food and then wrestling with each other after. Human food is unnatural for us. It would be nice if our bodies naturally rejected it so it doesn't just sit there in our stomachs because it is very difficult for us to throw it up, but we can if we really force it. It doesn't always happen of course, but with the way those two wrestle around, it's almost better than sticking your fingers down your throat. Ultimately though, vomiting isn't a natural physiological thing for us to do."

"So you should never have a problem keeping blood down," I finished.

"Exactly," he confirmed.

"What do you think is causing it? Can vampires get sick?" I questioned, tangling my fingers in the chain of my phoenix pendant and twisting it to hide my worry. I knew it didn't do a good job of it. Playing with my necklace was probably my only tell, but I used it for such a variety of things—half the time absent-mindedly or to quell boredom—that it didn't really give away what the tell was for.

"No, we can't. I ..." he trailed off, an expression of clear hesitation and discomfort on his face. "Carlisle …"

He paused, a frustrated and annoyed huff escaping him, his reluctance to share more prominent than ever.

"You can tell me, Jasper," I prodded coaxingly. "You know I won't judge you."

Jasper rolled his eyes at that, but after several moments, he continued. "He thinks I have post-traumatic stress, and he believes that is what's causing all this. It's total bullshit, of course."

"Of course," I agreed just because it was the wisest thing I could say for now.

I did consider that it wasn't bullshit though because it made sense. Post-traumatic stress could affect a person's appetite. That didn't mean it was the cause of Jasper's troubles. I didn't know enough about his past to make that conclusion, but if it was true, it was another thing we had in common. Even so, it was not something I felt I had the right to press him on even a little, and while I knew a lot about psychology, I wasn't a doctor. If he wanted to open up to me about it, he would have to do it without me pushing him.

I nodded to acknowledge his words but said nothing about them. "So," I said instead, dragging out the word, "what now?"

"Unfortunately, I have to keep tryin' both animal and human blood whether I want to or not," he said, casting a sideways glance at me. "It's a safety thing now and the wolves won't stand for the risk. Neither will I, as much as I don't like it."

"Because of me?"

"I don't want to hurt you, Bella," he said, sounding agonized. "I haven't had the urge to yet, but that could change."

"You won't hurt me," I told him firmly. Despite my vow to avoid touching him, I took his hand and squeezed it. He didn't squeeze back.

"Maybe not." He didn't sound convinced. "Just do me a favor?"

"Sure," I promised, hoping making it without knowing what it was wasn't shooting myself in the foot.

"Don't dare me to kill you until I get all this shit figured out," he requested, running his thumb in a circle over the back of my hand.

I tried to keep the smile from curling the corners of my mouth—I really did—but they snuck upwards anyway. I also fought against showing the shiver that ran down my spine at the feel of his skin moving over mine. "I suppose I can control myself until then, but after that, all bets are off," I said slyly.

He tried to fight a grin as well. He was more successful than I had been but still not entirely.

"I have one more thing to say," I told him.

Jasper nodded slowly, sensing through the change in my voice and demeanor that it was important and not on the light side of the spectrum.

"Everyone in the family is loyal to each other," I began, my voice gentle but firm. "So loyal they would die for each other, but Peter and Charlotte? They take it to a whole other level with you. I think they would walk into hell with a smile on their faces if you asked them to." As much as I didn't want to, I took his hand again to help drive my point home. "So how likely is it that they told Carlisle about your feeding issues to betray you? I'm sure they knew you wouldn't be happy about it, but they're the 'do what has to be done' types. Doesn't that make it more likely that they did what they did because they love you and were worried and know you well enough to predict that you were going to throw an epic tantrum the second the words 'human blood' left their mouths and refuse to try the thing that could solve your problem? I know that would occur to you once you're able to see past your anger, but since that probably won't happen any time soon, I'm just throwing it out there as food for thought."

His lips had thinned into a hard line and he said nothing, but I didn't expect him to. I squeezed his hand once before I let it go. Like the first time, he didn't squeeze back.

"Do you want to learn how to pair bond with Chaos?" I asked him now, eager. We needed to change the subject, Jasper needed a pick-me-up, and it had been about forty-five minutes since I had taken Chaos back to his stall. This was the perfect way to do it. "I'm pretty sure that didn't exist when you were human."

"Yes," he answered after a moment. "I would like that."

oOo

Jasper and I stood in the middle of the indoor round pen, watching as Chaos paced against the railing. It was the first time he'd been in such a small, enclosed space with a vampire and he needed a few moments, or several, to adjust. A lead rope, lunge whip and plastic grocery bag lay at my feet.

"Okay," I began, turning away from the still-anxious horse and facing Jasper. "Remember, just tell me if you already know something I'm trying to teach you."

He nodded, expression serious and again filled with determination. The hint of a smile was curling his lips as well. I wondered if he had gone back to not speaking to me unless it was absolutely necessary.

"So, obviously," I continued, "the point of pair bonding is to build a bond. It is also to build trust between you and your horse, but it's more than that too. I know you already know this. We've talked about it before, but dominance and making sure they know they can't take advantage of you is everything with a horse. This is a way to establish dominance without coming across as a threat, which is especially important in your case."

Jasper nodded again.

"You know about pressure, right?" I questioned.

"Yes, but refresh my memory," he said.

"Horses respond to pressure. They move away from it in groundwork or with leg yields in the saddle," I explained. "Each horse is different. Some don't require a lot of pressure. Others are stubborn or untrained or just flighty, and need more. The trick is that once you find the right amount, you have to back off when they do what you've asked of them. It's an ask and give approach. Letting up is a way to reward the horse. Only make a correction and apply more pressure if they lose momentum or their attention drifts."

Jasper paid rapt attention, soaking up every word like a sponge.

"There are different ways to apply pressure," I continued on. "The horses that need less might respond to nothing more than a hand gesture. You can also use a lead rope or a lunge whip." I indicated two of the three items lying at my feet.

"And the grocery bag?" he asked, eyes flitting to the item in question.

"Just a more enhanced way of going about it with the lunge whip," I replied. He nodded again. "Okay, so there are five things you want to look for once you get your horse moving: relaxed ears, licking and chewing or even just a loose mouth, good, hard eye contact, a dropped head and the horse stopping when you stop and then facing you."

"Alright," he said.

"To get the horse to move, stand just behind their hip and add pressure until you work them into a trot," I instructed. "I'll show you."

Chaos had settled and I knew he was ready to get to work. Well, not ready exactly. Most horses didn't particularly like working. I picked up the lead rope just to show as an example, though I doubted Jasper would need anything more than his hand when he gave this a shot since he was a vampire. I swung the end in a slow circle, testing to see how much pressure Chaos needed to get moving. I only had to increase its speed a little before I had him moving in a steady trot on the rail so I backed off to reward him. After only a few seconds, he was displaying all the signs: the eye contact, relaxed ears, licking and chewing and dropped head. He kept up the pace beautifully, doing everything I asked for a solid minute when a distant whinny sounded. It drew his attention away from me.

"If you lose their attention, just come up with a way to get it back," I said. "It doesn't have to be anything major—snapping your fingers, clucking your tongue, patting your leg, whatever works for you. It just needs to bring their focus back to you."

I saw Jasper nod again in acknowledgment as he continued to turn in circles with me. That was the only drawback to pair bonding. You had to continually twist in circles to keep the horse moving. It could make you dizzy … if you weren't me or Jasper probably. I clucked my tongue and Chaos made eye contact with me again but began to drift off the rails. I shifted toward his shoulder and took a few steps forward to press him back against them before I returned to just behind his hip to keep him moving. I applied more pressure with the lead rope to work him up into a canter for another minute, making adjustments as I needed to before I decided it was time to show Jasper the end result or what I hoped the end result would be.

Lowering the lead rope, I stopped moving and let Chaos continue to trot. Stopping with me had to be his decision; it was part of the process of pair bonding and I explained that to Jasper. Chaos gradually slowed to a walk and halted fifteen seconds later.

"When the horse stops, turn to them and look for the last sign, that they're facing you. Then head towards them," I said, beginning to walk to Chaos. Jasper stayed put in the center of the round pen. "As always, don't make eye contact until you get close. Once you reach them, give them a pat as a reward, then take a few steps backwards. If they follow you, you have successfully pair bonded."

When I reached Chaos, I patted him firmly on the neck and finally made eye contact with him. The affection I felt for him was mirrored in his eyes as he gazed back at me, and I knew when I stepped away from him that he would follow. I was right. I even turned around, walking to the opposite side of the round pen with him trailing behind me the whole way.

Successfully pair bonding with a horse was one of the most amazing feelings in the world. It was the most amazing feeling for me. Building that bond, feeling that connection with something, cultivating that trust was so awesome. It was a connection and a trust I could afford to build. A horse couldn't betray me. A horse could never call me a freak. A horse didn't judge. All a horse did was love. In that moment, I missed Wildfire dreadfully. As much as I loved Chaos, Wildfire was my soul mate. Pair bonding with him made me feel whole and special. It wasn't that doing it with Chaos didn't, but with Wildfire, it was different. Anytime I did it—with any horse—it brought a genuine, peaceful smile to my face no matter what and when I turned to Jasper, he was watching me with a soft expression on his face and a smile of his own.

"Pretty cool, huh?" I asked.

His smile widened. "Yeah."

"You ready to try it for yourself?"

"Sure," he said, enthusiasm in his tone. It was slight, like he was trying to hide it, but it was there.

We worked off and on over the next two hours. It wasn't that Jasper hadn't picked up the necessary skill required. He had in a flash but the fact that he was a vampire affected Chaos' ability to connect with him. It was to be expected, and Jasper understood that, but I could tell that their slow progress frustrated him. He wasn't a quitter though and refused to give up, keeping at it despite that frustration.

At first, Chaos often picked up into a canter, sometimes even a gallop when Jasper didn't ask him to. He now allowed Jasper to approach him without totally losing his shit, but he still wasn't completely comfortable with being penned in with a vampire in such close proximity, so even though Jasper applied the same amount of pressure I had, Chaos' nerves made him speed up. He got so wound up because of them that he bucked a couple of times too. He refused to stop moving when Jasper did, to the point that I had to step in to halt him, but the fact that Jasper got Chaos to relax his ears was remarkable. By the time we knocked off for the day, Chaos had at least begun to slow to a walk when Jasper lowered his hand and stopped. It was genuine and amazing progress that I was enormously proud of. I was proud of Jasper. I was proud of Chaos. I was just proud and I could tell that Jasper was too. I could also see that he was feeling the joy of pair bonding, even if he and Chaos hadn't gotten there yet.

When I came back from cooling Chaos down, returning him to his stall and grooming him again—it helped relax him after such a stressful day—Jasper was laid out on his back in the middle of the round pen, obviously not giving a shit that he'd be covered in dirt when he got up. It was one of the things I liked about him. I joined him, again making sure to keep a healthy distance between us.

"You did really well today, Texas," I complimented. I hadn't called him that in a while. It hadn't felt right but it did now. "I'm proud of you."

I saw him smile in my peripheral vision, just the smallest quirking up of the corners of his mouth. "Thanks, pretty girl. Really."

I just smiled myself, refusing to acknowledge the tug on my heart when he called me "pretty girl." I had never cared whether or not I was beautiful but I cared that he thought I was. I could even go so far as to say that I liked it. It was such a girly thing, and it's not like being what I was made me so butch that there was no room for me to be feminine, but no one had ever made me feel like an honest-to-God girl before. It was nice.

"You're really good at this," he mused. "With horses and teaching."

I had never really thought about that but I liked that he had. I was glad that I could help him in some way, give him back a little piece of his human life that he clearly missed, a good piece that meant something to him. I hummed, not necessarily in agreement but just to respond in some way.

"What do you want to be?" he asked suddenly and completely out of the blue. "You know, when you grow up? Putting it that way sounds silly, but I'm curious."

"You know, no one has ever asked me that before?" It was a rhetorical question, more a statement than anything else, but true.

"Really?" Jasper was surprised. I didn't know why: why he found it surprising, why he wondered what I wanted to do with my life at all, why it mattered to him.

"Really."

"Well, now someone has," he said.

"Yeah." I didn't know how to answer his question. It was something that would have been simple for anyone else, but it wasn't for me. "I've never really thought about it."

"No?" he questioned, truly curious and I saw in my peripheral vision that he had turned to watch me. I didn't turn to watch him.

"No."

It wasn't something I really could think about. I didn't have much of a future in that regard. I actually had no future when it came to a career of some sort. My future was running, which allowed for shitty, dead-end jobs and nothing else. I had always known this. I had accepted it a long time ago, but acknowledging it out loud, especially to someone else, hurt. Out of habit, I grabbed the chain of my necklace and twirled it, causing the phoenix pendant to spin around and around.

"Well, think about it now," he encouraged, tone almost eager.

I opened my mouth to protest but refrained. I couldn't explain the futility of it to him and it would be nice to fantasize for a few minutes, to pretend my future could be different.

"My options are sort of limited," I said.

"I didn't ask about your options," he pointed out, "which aren't limited, by the way. With how smart you are, you can do anything, be anything, Bella. What I asked is what you want."

"I can't do what I want," I insisted.

That admission only partially had to do with the fact that my future was running—I just wasn't quite to the point of being able to pretend yet. As ironic and silly as it seemed, I actually almost wanted to be a soldier. Not the kind that was a classified science experiment with abilities no person should have, but a regular one, one who chose to enlist or go through an ROTC program throughout a normal school career solely out of a deep love for their country and an intense desire to serve and protect it because, as cruel as the government had been to me, I did love my country. I respected the military, and being a soldier, a covert operative, was what I was best at. All I wanted, had wanted since I escaped anyway, was the ability to choose my own path. But I could never have that kind of experience with the military because if I ever went back, nothing would change. The fact of the matter was that I was a classified science experiment with abilities no person should have. My existence would be just as brutal and nasty as it had been before.

At the same time, a soldier was the last thing I wanted to be. I wanted to prove that there was more to me than that. That I was capable of something else—anything else.

"Again," he said impatiently. "You can do anything you want. You're only limited because you are putting limitations on yourself."

I rolled my eyes and he rolled his but neither of us said anything, and he went back to staring at the ceiling.

"A jockey," I finally answered several minutes later.

"As in horse racing?" Jasper asked with interest.

"Yes," I confirmed. "Tending bar wasn't the only job I had in Louisville. It was just the only one that paid the bills." He cocked a brow at me, prompting. I had intended to explain anyway. "I was also an exercise rider at Churchill Downs. I loved it."

"Nice," he approved, not that I needed his approval. It bugged me that I liked that I had it just the same.

"I thought so," I said, pushing my irritation aside.

"Was the horse you were workin' with any good?"

"Breakout contender for the Triple Crown," I told him proudly as I thought of Wildfire again, a tender smile gracing my lips. "Do you follow horse racing?"

"Yes," Jasper responded enthusiastically. "I couldn't have horses in my life, or so I thought, so I hung on to them that way. Would I have heard of this horse of yours?"

"Maybe," I answered. "He's a two and a half year old colt new to the racing circuit. His name is Wildfire."

I didn't see the harm in telling Jasper about Wildfire. He wasn't there. He couldn't connect the events leading up to my near-death with my beloved horse.

"Oh yeah," he said with recognition, clearly impressed. "He's good, has a lot of potential. His jockey sucks though."

"Exactly!" I exclaimed with passion. Jack, Wildfire's trainer and my former boss, had hired Jeremy the Stable Boy to be his jockey and he did suck. It wasn't that he was a bad horseman or jockey, but he was green and he wasn't the right rider for my horse. Then again, no one was right for him but me in my eyes. On the other hand, Jeremy didn't pick up on Wildfire's cues while on the track. He didn't give him his head at the right time and it was like all the work Jack and I had done was going to waste. Wildfire had won the races he had on pure, raw talent and a fiery spirit alone. "He has no idea how to read him. It's frustrating to watch."

"I'll bet."

We fell into silence after that and I concentrated on the sound of the newly falling rain pinging softly against the roof as I considered my options. Since Jasper seemed to have abandoned his vow to talk to me only when necessary, for now at least, I debated whether or not to take my chances and bring up his avoidance again or continue to leave it alone and save the rest of my mission to salvage things between us for another day. We had made progress. Maybe that was enough, but then, in certain respects, I had always been a gambling type of girl.

"So," I began, not cautious exactly but unhurried. "Are you going to spill why you've been avoiding me or are you going to leave me hanging?"

Jasper sighed. "I wasn't gonna avoid you forever. I just didn't really know how to talk to you about it. I still don't. I don't know if I even want or need to talk to you about it. I only meant to wait until I figured things out, if I even decided to talk to you about it at all. If I didn't, I would have just stopped avoiding you and done my best to get things back to normal. I suppose I should have known you would notice and not let me get away with it."

As difficult as it was, I managed to refrain from rubbing it in his face that he had just admitted I was right by copping to the fact that he had been avoiding me. "Yes, you should have. Now what's up, Jasper, or have you decided you aren't going to talk about it?"

He was quiet for a long time, so long that I was sure he that was what he'd decided ... and then he spoke. "It has to do with Gavin."

My breath whooshed from my lungs before I sucked another in with a sharp, unintentional gasp. Of all the reasons I had considered he could have had, that one was the one I'd been most afraid of. I hadn't admitted that to myself until just now but that didn't make it any less true. Sometimes people saw you differently after something like that and I knew he had seen it because Edward had seen it in countless people's heads, overhearing different interpretations over the last days. It was probably driving him crazy and he had certainly been more brooding than usual but also uncharacteristically surly despite the compassion and tenderness he displayed with me. I knew he would have shared at least one version of that day's events with Jasper, Peter and Emmett, as well as with Carlisle and Esme, who had been physically in Forks but still not present to witness them.

What if Jasper was disgusted with me? What if he saw my initial hesitation, how I had frozen, as a distasteful weakness that had altered his view of me, not that I really knew what that view had been in the first place. "Um," I responded slowly, carefully and with dread. I did my best to hide it and I was mostly successful which didn't count for shit—it was all or nothing. I spun my pendant faster. "What about him?"

"What happened just got me thinkin' is all," he answered nonchalantly, but his tone was the only thing that was. He wasn't looking at me but his whole body was rigid with tension. I just didn't know which kind.

"Thinking can be dangerous," I noted, hoping the truth of that would penetrate his thick skull and ease some of the tautness so I didn't have to touch him. I could not touch him.

"Yes," he agreed. He may have understood but that understanding had absolutely no effect on the stiffness in his back and limbs.

"Is it a general something or a specific one that you're hung up on?" I pushed gently, not wanting to alienate my already mostly unwilling and very stubborn interrogatee.

"Specific," Jasper said again but again, like so many times already today, he chose to leave it at that and I couldn't figure out if it was because of why he had been avoiding me or how I had gone about getting him here, to discussing it. I supposed that didn't really matter. All that mattered was that he was discussing things now.

"You've gotta give me more than that, Jasper," I said.

"Self-doubt isn't something I typically struggle with," he started out. "But as you know, my temper can get the best of me and I sometimes do rash things because of it. You are also particularly good at pissing me off, as you also already know since you are constantly pushing my buttons just because you can, and all the shit that went down with that despicable little shit made me start to wonder ..."

"Wonder what?" I prompted when he didn't speak for more than a minute. "Jasper?"

He finally looked at me then. "It made me wonder if I did the same thing to you."

I frowned, bewildered, brows furrowing deeply.

"In Louisville," he finally clarified. "In the alley."

"Oh." That ... that was not what I had expected. It had never even crossed my mind.

He pressed the heels of his hands into his eyes, saying nothing, waiting. The tense set of his body even as he lay on his back betrayed how wary he was of what a more elaborate response from me would be.

Well, now everything certainly made sense: why he'd been avoiding me, leaving the room every time I entered the same one, barely speaking to me. He doubted himself; he felt guilty, and it was obvious that what Gavin had done to me made him feel no small amount of disgust.

I rolled so I was lying on my side, head propped on my hand, facing him, the dirt shifting beneath me and clinging to my clothes. I could feel it.

Jasper mimicked me. "Is it, Bella? Is that what I did to you?"

Please, his eyes begged silently. Please, tell me I didn't.

Even so black and fathomless, those eyes of his were expressive—tortured, pleading, desperate. Seeing those emotions so plainly broke my heart.

"What do you remember about that night, Jasper?" I asked quietly, studying him with intense awareness. I was always hyper-aware of him but this time it was especially important.

"Everything," he answered, voice barely more than a whisper. He smiled ruefully. "I don't have a choice in that."

I refused to acknowledge that him wanting to forget, which he clearly did, hurt me a little. It would be better for both of us if we could, especially now—well, better for me. "Right," I said. "Your mind is a steel trap too."

"Yes," he responded unnecessarily. "What do you remember, Bella?"

Everything, was what sounded in my head, echoing him. Instead, I said, "Enough."

His eyes turned imploring. I had to put him out of his misery.

"I remember that you didn't sneak up on me. You made damn sure I knew what your intentions were instead of blindsiding me. I remember you didn't ask permission with words but you asked with actions. You made sure I was totally okay with your intentions before you actually made a move, and when you did, you were gentle with me but didn't treat me like a china doll. You were passionate and you wanted to make sure it was good for me."

I suppressed the shiver that threatened to rip through me as vivid memories of our encounter in the alley paraded through my brain—the feel of him pressed against me, his hands on me, his fingers stroking me and lips pressing to my skin. Those were memories that would stay with me for the rest of my life, that would torment me for the rest of it.

"I can't imagine what else anyone could possibly want in a lover, and when you somehow figured out I'm a virgin, and I still have no idea how you knew that all of a sudden, you stopped. You wanted better for me than a fuck in an alley against a brick wall even though I didn't care. Do you think Gavin would have cared if he'd figured that out? First of all, he's not smart enough to pick up on it, but even if he did, he definitely wouldn't have given a shit. You are nothing like him, Jasper," I reassured him vehemently. "And there is a difference between what happened between us and what Gavin did. The difference is that he did something to me whereas you and I did what we did together. I wanted it, Jasper. I wanted you. I didn't want him."

The look of relief that washed over his face and relaxed his body was immediate, the emotion itself palpable, but he was also confused.

"And I'm okay. About the Gavin thing. I mean what happened wasn't okay and I'm not okay with it. Obviously I'm not or I wouldn't have bothered putting him in the hospital, but that isn't why I freaked."

He raised an eyebrow.

"It was more about the dance," I explained, not thrilled that I was doing it but I felt it was necessary anyway. I didn't want Jasper doubting himself anymore, even if that meant copping to something I never wanted to. "I was stupid. I don't like being touched. It's not good for me. Good things have never happened to me when I've been touched in the past and I don't mean in the way Gavin did. I hate that it makes me weak, but too much of it and I can't deal."

Jasper frowned but didn't ask about my past experiences. Instead, he questioned something else. Something I genuinely wished he wouldn't. "Why?"

Now that was a can of worms I didn't want to open, so I decided to play dumb. "Why what?"

The trouble with that was that Jasper knew what I was doing, and my purposeful idiocy annoyed him. If I stuck to it, it would probably ruin the progress we had made today. Judging from the scowl on his face, my suspicion went from probable to concrete.

"You know what, Bella," he said with little patience. "Why did you let me touch you when it affects you the way it does? And just ... why me? What makes me different?"

Damn it! Why did he have to go there?

"It didn't really have much at all to do with you," I admitted reluctantly, which was the absolute truth. "I have gone through the majority of my life wanting things but refusing to let myself have them because I know that I shouldn't have them, that I can't. For once, I just wanted to let go, to let myself have something, to just feel and be. When you walked into The Finish Line that night, you brought an opportunity with you. I had met you before so you weren't exactly a stranger but at the same time you were, and I knew you wanted the same thing that most guys do. No strings sex you can walk away from afterward with no obligation to the girl you did it with, and that you had no intention of sticking around afterward because of that. It didn't hurt that you touching me bothers me less than it does when other people do, though I don't know why that is. Besides, you were a dick but I could have done worse. You are pretty hot after all."

I followed that up with a grin to lighten the atmosphere created by my heavy confession. It didn't really make a difference at first, Jasper rolling back on to his back and staring at the ceiling as he mulled over what I'd said. I felt no inclination to say anything else because I already felt as if I'd said too much. After several minutes, I realized he wasn't going to respond to what I'd said. Part of me was disturbed by that. The other was relieved. Then I did feel the need to say something, to make something very clear.

"But Jasper," I said. Yes, I had told him this before, but it needed emphatic reiterating. "It didn't mean anything. We had a moment but it was nothing more than mutual lust at the time, and that moment passed the second I left you behind in that alley. That's it. It won't ever go there again. I don't want it to, and I know you don't want it to either."

"I know," was his simple response. I found it odd that it wasn't a denial but it wasn't really a confirmation either. And yet it was a confirmation. I didn't need for him to say the specific words to know I was right.

"Our time is up," I informed him a few minutes later. We'd spent those minutes in contemplative silence. "We need to get going."

He nodded.

oOo

Later that day … Forks General Hospital

It was half past three and I was currently sprawled on Carlisle's couch, waiting for him to return from surgery. This was an unplanned trip, or it had been until an hour and a half ago, so he had no idea I was here, but he would soon. He would pick up my scent, pull it apart from all the others in the hospital the closer he got to his office. For all I knew, he could already smell me and actually was aware of my presence. It didn't really matter because I still had forty minutes until he was due to return. I knew because I had called to check—the timeframe had been an hour at the time—and I needed that window to hang out in his office without his knowledge or at least not his knowledge of what I was doing while I was there without his supervision. This visit was a cover, you see. I was on a mission and needed a reason to explain why I had come here. The hospital staff as well as patients would see me, and I stood out. They knew me as Carlisle's newest foster child and the fact that I had been here would get back to him. He would wonder why I had come. He would ask about it and I needed a plausible explanation. Of course this was just the preliminary phase of the operation. I was preparing for it, doing reconnaissance, gathering the necessary information to complete said mission covertly. So far, I had accomplished what I needed to up until this point—hacking into Carlisle's computer after making my fingerprints disappear. Despite his age and how smart he was, his password had been cake to decrypt. I had gotten what I needed from his files, leaving behind no trace the machine had been tampered with. Now on to my second objective ...

Ten minutes later, when none of the staff were scheduled for breaks or lunches, I wandered out of Carlisle's office and hung a left, walking the short distance to the open area that housed the nurse's station and several other vital things for the smooth running of an in-patient facility. My foray into the heart of it was under the guise of finding a restroom, which was an innocent reason to be there. In actuality, I had chosen to come here and at this specific time precisely because I did know that none of the staff was on break and that the majority of them would be buzzing around the central hub like worker bees as they rushed around doing their jobs. The only ones absent were those in surgery with Carlisle. The ones tending to bed-ridden patients flitted in and out of rooms for me to at least catch a glimpse of them, and that was all I needed. Still, to eliminate the possibility of failure, I walked a slow circuit along the outer edge of the main room nearest to the patient ones, peeking in to them out of the corner of my eye to ensure I truly had seen everyone here at the moment, and I needed to. I had to find the most perfect candidate I could to help pull this off and not all the pictures on file were current ones; therefore, I couldn't rely on them. I knew I could get this done but it was risky, and the potential consequences of failing weren't ones I could afford nor did I want to think about them.

I spied my perfect person after a solid minute of perusal. From across the room I saw that her name tag read Cheryl Evans, R.N.. She didn't look much different from her picture: young, fresh out of nursing school young, with black, shoulder length hair and striking gray eyes. She was perfect because we were the same height and build, the bone structure of our faces similar, and there was a certain resemblance there that was just enough that I could pass myself off as her ... as long as I kept my head down and didn't linger around anyone who might try to talk to her. Also, according to her personnel file, she had clearance to enter the place I needed to go.

According to the schedule on Carlisle's computer, Cheryl clocked out at five-thirty, which was the perfect moment for me to set things in motion and arrange for us to meet before she left or crashed in an on-call room as long as I kept an eye on the clock and made sure to leave Carlisle's office at the right time. From a note made on the copy of Carlisle's staff schedule, Cheryl was covering a ten hour shift for a fellow nurse and would be clocking back in at half-past eight, which was just another factor that made her perfect. That three hour window gave me enough time to get together everything I needed to get to accomplish my overall mission.

It was five to four when I returned to Carlisle's office and I waited the remaining seventeen minutes before he came back with only mild impatience, anxious as I was to get this show on the road. He walked through the door at twelve minutes after, probably having finished precisely when he was scheduled to despite that he could have sped through the procedure with practiced ease and without making a mistake. But that wasn't the kind of person or doctor Carlisle was. He took his time, gave the best quality of care, and what else would he do if he finished early all the time? In comparison to metropolitan hospitals, Forks General was sleepy. He would probably go insane from boredom.

"Bella," he said with surprise. "I wasn't expecting you. How long have you been waiting?"

I shrugged noncommittally. "Not that long."

"Well, why are you here? What can I do for you?" he hurried to ask, moving behind his desk and taking a seat.

"Do you have a few minutes?" I responded. I already knew he did but he didn't know that.

"Yes," he answered. "I always have time for you."

I smiled at that. "I was hoping we could talk."

"Of course. You know I'm always here to listen."

"I do," I assured him.

And so it begins ... and I had to begrudgingly admit that my cover wasn't insincere. What I was about to ask was something that had been bugging me for days now.

"I've been wondering about something," I began.

Carlisle folded his hands atop the surface of his desk as he waited for me to continue.

"It's just ..." I twisted my own hands in my lap to accentuate the uneasiness I felt, though I refused to let it show in my voice. This was hard enough and I was already going to be more vulnerable with Carlisle right now than I ever had been for the sake of this mission, but I was only willing to go so far, to look so weak. Fucking Jasper! "... over the last several days, everyone has been telling me their stories. You know, about their human lives and how they were turned."

He watched me closely, with the shrewdness of a scientist but the patience and kindness of a father, nodding now that I had paused.

"Well, not everyone," I corrected quickly, letting my nerves actually affect my ability to communicate for once—letting myself be a little more human than I generally allowed. "Edward, who told me about himself and Alice, and Rosalie and Emmett. It's something that Edward and Rosalie said that I've been wondering about."

"Alright," he said, still patient, like he had all day for me to get my act together and spit out what I wanted to say. If he had any clue what I was getting at, it didn't show in his expression, but Carlisle had a nearly impenetrable poker face.

"You've turned four of the eight other vampires in the family and they said that you only chose them because they were dying, that if there was a chance they could have been saved—kept human, I mean—you wouldn't have made them vampires."

Comprehension lit his face. "Yes, that's true," he confirmed, not that I had needed him to, "for the most part."

Damn it! Only an idiot wouldn't know where I was going with this, and Carlisle Cullen was not an idiot. Instead of saving me obvious discomfort and just giving me the answer to the question I hadn't asked but was implicit the way I had hoped he would, he was going to make me say it.

I took a deep breath I didn't need, though I was still uneasy as all hell about what his answer would be. I met his eyes, hard and steady, refusing to show any more weakness than I already had—pride is a bitch—and bit the bullet. "I died in Louisville. You managed to save me but we both know that even with how good a doctor you are, I was too far gone when you found me and shouldn't have been able to," I said bluntly. So that wasn't entirely true for me but it was for a regular human, and he didn't know I wasn't one.

"I know," he responded softly, face contorted with sadness.

"So why didn't you turn me?" I finally asked.

Carlisle remained silent for a few moments and I imagined that he was trying to find words that wouldn't offend me because Carlisle Cullen didn't believe in offending people unless they had managed the remarkable feat of landing themselves on his shit list.

Oh, God! What if I'm right? What if he knows I'm a freak? What if he tells me he knows and he looks at me that way? a tiny, panicked voice whispered frantically in my head. And I had been looked at like a freak before ... by some of the soldiers stationed at Fort Ares and assigned to train me in some way. They weren't allowed to call me a freak because I would hear, but the venom and disgust in their eyes, the loathing, had cut deep. I didn't understand those looks before because I hadn't understood just how different I was for a long time, but I understood now. Those looks haunted my dreams and the idea that Carlisle might suddenly look at me that way made me feel like I wanted to throw up, which was ironic considering why I was here. I wanted to take the words back, to tell him not to answer, but I didn't do what I wanted; I rarely ever did. Instead I squared my shoulders and straightened my already impeccable posture, continuing to meet his eyes with no more vulnerability in them, just curiosity.

"After hearing all those stories, do you not already know the answer?" he replied, tone still sad but also resolute.

I merely watched him impassively, waiting. He had made me say something, ask a question that he damn well knew I didn't want to voice. He could have shown mercy in that but he didn't. Now it was his turn. Payback was a bitch.

"I suppose I should tell you my story now," Carlisle mused thoughtfully

"Or you could just answer the question," I suggested. I couldn't tell if he really wanted to share his life story; then again, listening to it meant putting off his inevitable revelation that he knew exactly what I was and that he hadn't turned me because freaks shouldn't be allowed to live forever. And I was curious. He was the oldest vampire in the family. His story was bound to be interesting.

He smiled knowingly. "It's probably better if I just tell you everything. It will help you to comprehend my reasons."

Now he decides to let me off the hook! Fucker!

"I was born in London in what I believe was 1640," he began, and just as it had with Rosalie, his English accent, which I could now clearly place as originating from London when I couldn't before, had become more prominent. "Time wasn't measured as accurately then as it is now. My father was Merrick Cullen and my upbringing was heavily influenced by him, which, of course, wasn't unusual as women were valued much less during those times and long after. Even so, my mother, Farrah, died during childbirth and had no chance to temper the morals he instilled in me, and I genuinely believe she would have succeeded in doing precisely that had she lived."

Carlisle sighed and I could see the sadness in his eyes, only it was for himself now. I had never seen him look like he felt sorry for himself before. It was disconcerting, and just as many of the revelations made by the other Cullens during the sharing of their stories, the display of that emotion tugged at my heart. Just like me, Carlisle had never had a mother. I could tell that he had loved her though, even if he had never known her.

"My father hardly ever spoke of her but when he did, I could tell he had loved her fiercely and that her death had devastated him. I often wondered if he blamed me for it, resented me, but I never asked. It wasn't my place and children didn't question their parents back then. It was disrespectful in the most offensive way and it was something that just wasn't done. He was harsh with me and unapologetic for it, but I didn't question that either for more reasons than one. It was just how things were between sons and their fathers, and it was especially practiced that way in men of God."

Carlisle's tone was matter-of-fact, the sadness over the loss of his mother gone now. Seeing him detached was another rare and disconcerting thing. I didn't like it one damn bit. This wasn't the Carlisle I knew, the one I was dangerously on the verge of loving.

"My father was an Anglican pastor, you see, and religion was less about compassion then as it was about judgment and retribution. That isn't to say that there weren't servants of God who practiced their beliefs the way they are meant to be practiced, with kindness, unconditional love and no judgment whatsoever, who served the people and did genuine good, but some things haven't changed in all this time either. Religion can be violent, people can use ideals meant to save and show love as excuses to persecute those who do not share those ideals. My father was one of those people. He passed judgment and exercised what he believed was his right as a man of God to deliver retribution on those he perceived as guilty, whether he had concrete proof of wrongdoing or not. Sadly, his teachings affected my behavior, though I did not share his beliefs. I went along with his crusade because, as I said, sons simply did not defy their fathers and no matter how despicable his actions, I wholeheartedly believed in God and loved Him ardently."

I still wasn't sure if God existed, but I liked that Carlisle believed he did and I could tell he truly meant it when he said he loved God. It was nice to see a religious person have such conviction without abusing it or using it to judge. Carlisle Cullen was the picture of patience and acceptance, which was exactly the way servants of deities were supposed to be.

"Those are beliefs that have not faltered in all my centuries of life, but there were other things I had to consider at the time as well. I had always been intelligent and rational and there were factors I could not ignore. I could not deny him the respect of those considerations. My father was older when he married, forty-five in fact and forty-six when he fathered me. He had lived much longer than I had and studied the Bible for the whole of his life. Those who have lived much life often know things, possess wisdom, that the young do not. Perhaps he had an understanding for why his methods were necessary that I would not come to see until I had lived for far longer. I vowed to try to understand his reasoning, to see things from his perspective, but also hoped I could get him to see things from mine, that we might perhaps come to a happy medium of sorts."

And there, again, was something so intrinsically Carlisle. He'd told me he doubted he possessed the wisdom his family believed he did, but he was wrong. Everything he'd just said proved it.

"But my father was stubborn and set in his ways, and he would not consider my position. I was young and what I believed was not worth the time he would have had to take to question his own. It was hurtful, but my hope had been minimal from the start so I wasn't surprised. Nowadays, vampires, witches and werewolves are the stuff of legends. Their existence is fiction to be brought solely to life in the pages of fantasy novels or in movies and television shows for entertainment to pass time, but that wasn't the case then. People believed then. They weren't legends. They were reality, and some were less careful about keeping their existence hidden, relying on fear of what they were to keep them safe. Even so, many were careful about concealing themselves, and I was fully aware that those we punished and executed were not the creatures my father believed them to be and more often than not innocent. It made me sick, but I didn't know what to do to change it. I was a compassionate man but I was also a coward."

Hearing Carlisle call himself a coward was another thing I hated, and the words made me clench my fists, my jaw tightening with the desire to protest. Unfortunately, his claim was true. It may have been the way of things back then—for sons not to questions their fathers—but innocent people had died. I didn't hold his decision not to speak up against him though. I had never spoken up either.

"To say I was relieved when my father was no longer able to lead the raids is no small understatement. It then became my job to carry on his crusade. I couldn't refuse the responsibility, again out of respect for him, especially since he was still involved, but I vowed that I would be far more careful about how I went about it. I made damn sure those we accused of heresy were actually guilty of it. With my cunning and logic, I actually managed to find a real coven of vampires living in the sewers of London, but I had no idea what they were truly capable of, that no mere human could possibly take on a single vampire, let alone many, and hope to survive it.

"I was left bleeding in the street after a run-in with one of that coven, and I dragged myself into a potato cellar while I underwent the change. I knew what my father would do if he found me. Of course, I had no idea how long the transformation took then, but I knew he would finish what that vampire had started. Despite that I had been raised to hate what I instinctively knew I was becoming, my will to survive kicked in ... until I woke and discovered exactly what I was capable of. I tried to kill myself then: jumping from great heights, starvation, drowning.

"Nothing worked and the thirst is so much more powerful when we're newborns, so much more difficult to resist. To this day, I'm not sure how I managed to," he said, and he seemed confused by it but grateful. "But I did. The longer I went without blood, the harder it became, and the weaker I got, the more my will deteriorated. I could not kill a human, Bella. I could not betray my beliefs," he told me emphatically, passionately. "I hated what I was, in part because of my father and also because I felt as though I had failed—him, myself, God.

"I traveled as far away from humans as possible, wandering, searching for the loneliest places. I lived that way for months, weakening further with each day that passed and slowly losing my sanity."

This was Jasper times twenty, and as much as I hurt for him, I hurt for Carlisle more.

"Then, one night, a herd of deer passed my hiding place. I was so thirsty, so wild with it, I attacked without thought. I realized then, in that moment, there was another way. I didn't have to go through this existence as a monster, as I thought I was at the time, though I no longer do. I couldn't entirely be the man I was when I had a heartbeat but I got as close as I could be and found better uses for my time. Even as a human, I had an eagerness for the acquisition of knowledge. That transferred over when I became a vampire and intensified, and once I was able to figure out an alternative lifestyle, I was able to focus on that. I traveled to Europe—to the universities there—and used the intelligence I had always possessed, now enhanced, to study music, science, medicine.

"It was when I found medicine that I found my true calling in this life, whether I'd been human or a vampire. To save human lives. What better way could I, can I, serve the humanity I lost? It was a struggle and it took two centuries, but I'm almost immune to human blood now. It enables me to work at the hospital agony-free, which is wonderful, because it brings me a great deal of peace.

"During my time in Europe studying, Italy specifically, I ran across others of my kind. It wasn't the first time, but it was the first time I had met ones so refined and civilized," Carlisle said. "The Volturi—Aro, Caius and Marcus and their Guard. They welcomed me and I found a home there, albeit a bit of an uneasy one. They don't share my views on our natural food source and I think part of the reason they invited me to stay was because they considered me to be a curiosity, almost like a sideshow. They did try to convert me, of course. Obviously, they didn't succeed.

"I stayed with them for a few decades, but being with them was empty in a way. There were many vampires there in Volterra but our differences in opinion kept me from making the kinds of connections I craved," he told me with reminiscent longing. "I did have someone. Her name was Chelsea. I cared for her a great deal, loved her even despite that she fed from humans, and truly enjoyed her company. I had come to the conclusion by then that I couldn't pass judgment over those that partook of our natural diet. My beliefs may be different, I may not like how things are, but that doesn't make our natural order wrong. I knew and know I will always be in the minority and that if I hoped to ever ease my loneliness, I couldn't deny a woman's affections because of her food choice. Still, my love for Chelsea wasn't quite right and though she has the gift of relationship manipulation, she cared enough never to use it on me.

"We had been together for a decade when she found her mate, Afton, while out on a mission with the Guard. Of course our relationship ended after that, and I was less upset about it than I probably should have been because I always knew Chelsea and I weren't meant to be. I left the Volturi a year later, having decided to give the New World a shot. I knew it was unlikely, but I hoped I might find others like me who fed from animals. I hoped …" he trailed off with a mild sense of chagrin I didn't understand, "... I hoped I might find my mate."

I remembered what Rosalie had said about some vampires waiting for centuries, sometimes millennia, before they found their mates. It was apparent to me that Carlisle had considered the possibility that he might be one of those vampires. I couldn't help but wonder in that moment if Jasper would be one of them. As against mating as he was, I hoped not.

Carlisle sighed. "I didn't find others like me, and I found myself sometimes contemplating the possibility of changing someone. I knew I would have better luck trying to make a new vampire understand why my alternative lifestyle had validity instead of an older one already firmly established with a human blood diet, and I just knew that lacking a companion with my values was one of the reasons my life was so empty. No one understood me and I needed that so much. I wanted it so much.

"I never got up the courage though," he admitted with another sigh. "Not until Edward. I just couldn't bring myself to steal away another life the way mine had been stolen from me. With him, it was different. His life was being stolen from him by a disease. I am aware that that happens all the time with humans, but in that instance, I had a desperate mother make a desperate plea, and there was just something about Elizabeth Masen. She was a lovely woman with a wonderful heart who loved her son more than anything. She was the kind of mother I would have liked to have had as a boy, that I liked to imagine I would have had had she lived, and I had suffered more than two centuries of aching loneliness by then, even with Chelsea as a lover for a time. I was selfish. I told myself I was changing him for his mother's sake, and for his, and I did. I really did, but more than anything else, I did it for me. I changed him for me. I needed someone after so long and here this dying woman practically dropped her son into my lap, begging me to save him, and I had always wanted a family of my own as a human. I'd always wanted one as a vampire." He met my eyes seriously, penetrating. "Selfish, I know," he reiterated. "Edward knows all this. It's something that took a while for him to ferret out because it was something I couldn't admit to myself for a long time, but eventually it did come to light.

"I didn't expect for him to hate what he'd become, what I had turned him in to as much as I had initially," Carlisle lamented sadly, dropping his eyes to his folded hands which still sat atop his desk. "I should have. I just … didn't. I was there for him every step of the way, of course, and I know he loved me, but I also know how much he hated and resented me as well, Bella. And then there's Rosalie." He let out a gust of air. It was a defeated sound. "If Edward hated and resented me for what I'd done, Rosalie took it to a whole different, much higher level, and she had every right to feel that way. I had been selfish again. Yes, letting her die really would have been a waste, but it wasn't my choice to make. She suffered for decades because I took that choice from her. She still suffers." He studied me again, his keen, clinical doctor's eye with the undertones of his father's patience and kindness again making an appearance. "And that is why I didn't turn you in Louisville, though I did consider it briefly."

Carlisle went silent after that, continuing to watch me and wait, I guess to see if I would reply. I didn't.

After a few moments of silence, he carried on. "Knowing the children I loved unconditionally—even though I had turned them for selfish reasons—hated and resented me just about killed me, Bella, and they felt that way for decades. I could hardly stand it, and the guilt I felt over it? It was immense. I still feel guilt over it from time to time, though I can't say I regret my decisions. I love my family with everything in me.

"You, Bella, have been special to me from the moment you broke in to our house. There's just something about you that clawed its way into my heart and warmed it," he said with a smile. "But you aren't like Rosalie was. As a human, she was naive and sheltered. She had very little idea of what she wanted or what was really out there in the world. That changed some right before she died, it's true, but you know about things Rose will never know about even if she lives for ten thousand years. If she hated and resented me so intensely for taking her choice from her, if Edward, whose human life had many of the same qualities as hers, did, then the potential for how much you could despise me for that was so much more that I couldn't even fathom it. They may have come to forgive me eventually, but I hardly believed you ever would, especially after your little tirade when Esme and I threatened to call Child Protective Services. If there is one thing I couldn't handle, could not bear, it's you hating me. I can't go through that again," he said, and when he looked at me, his eyes were agonized. "Especially not with you. That's why I couldn't do it, Bella. It would have killed me if you'd died, but having you look at me the same way as Rosalie and Edward did for so long and knowing you would never look at me any other way? That would have killed me more. I learned my lesson."

Why Carlisle cared so much for me, I still didn't have a clue and it bothered me. It genuinely bothered me. I was just a girl ... well, part girl ... I had done nothing to deserve his affection, but deserving or not, I cared for him too. As much as I would have liked to, I couldn't deny that. Jasper wasn't the only Cullen who'd crawled beneath my skin.

"But Esme and Emmett didn't hate you," I argued softly, needing to ease some of his pain. I doubted it would work but I needed to try. I could not, however, deny any of the claims he made about me. I would have hated him for turning me. I would rather die than be more of a freak than I already was.

I was right. As happy as the two of them made him, as fond of them as he was, as lost as he would be without his mate, my words didn't appear to be much comfort.

"No, they didn't," he said just as softly, not failing to notice how I ignored the very last things he'd said. There was no way he couldn't. "I got lucky with them."

We remained in silence for several minutes before I decided I needed to try to ease his mind again. "Thank you," I said clearly. His expression turned confused. "For not turning me. You made the right choice because I really would have hated you if you had."

Carlisle smiled weakly and dropped his eyes to his folded hands. "I would make an exception for you," he murmured. "If you ever change your mind."

My eyebrows rose in surprise. "But only if I was dying, right?"

He brought his gaze to mine and stared at me hard and steady. "No."

My mouth opened and shut several times. I had no response.

"There is only one other person I would have made that exception for," he revealed with absolute honesty. "I even planned to offer her the choice, but I didn't get the chance."

It didn't take a genius to figure out who he was referring to. "Esme?"

Carlisle offered me an amused smile. "Yes."

"Because she's your mate?" I guessed.

"Yes," he confirmed. "Though I didn't realize it for years." His smile turned soft. "She was sixteen when we first met, just like you. It was 1911, in Ohio—Columbus. I had moved there some months before and I had offered my services at the local hospital, but only as a volunteer. I hadn't been sure how long I would stay, so I didn't want to risk getting too involved in the community. She was Esme Anne Platt then, and she was beautiful, playful, mischievous, vivacious. She got herself into trouble a lot because of those character traits. Not the bad sort really, but she liked to go on adventures and got so absorbed in the imagination of it that she didn't always pay attention to what she was doing and got injured because of it."

I cocked a brow at him in question. For someone who didn't want to risk getting too involved in the community, he'd sure known an awful lot about Esme. From the look on his face, he would have been blushing if he was human. He gave a slightly embarrassed shrug.

"I noticed her even before we formally met. She was well-loved in Columbus, not just playful and mischievous, but sweet and kind. The excuse for our meeting was a professional one. The local doctor was out of town, and Esme had fallen out of a tree and broken her leg, so it fell to me to treat her. Being so close to her instead of glimpsing her from afar was overwhelming for me."

This revelation was something he was not embarrassed by.

"I was so drawn to her," he told me. "I felt connected to someone in a way I never had before, and when I left her that day, I couldn't get her out of my head. There were times I went to check in on her, to make sure she was okay. After the fourth time I did it, I moved. My feelings and need to be near her confused me, and though my control was nearly perfect, I feared that meant I might slip and hurt her. Despite the distance I put between us though, I still visited her over the years. I couldn't resist. I perched in a tree outside her window and got to know her simply by watching her, seeing her interact with her friends and parents, reading and doing her school work and how smart and inquisitive she was as she did. I fell in love.

"After six years, I couldn't stand it anymore. I had finally realized what she was—my mate," Carlisle said. "And I knew. I just knew what I had to do. I had to forsake all my morals, everything I believed in and ask her to be mine, offer her immortality. I had to make her fall in love with me, and as abhorrent as I should have found the idea, I wasn't truly bothered by it. I had been lonely for centuries and I just couldn't stand it anymore.

"So I went to her. I was going to tell her everything, but when I got there, I was too late. It was her wedding day to a man named Charles Evenson, and when she emerged from the church, she looked happy … radiant. Maybe she was my mate, but what if she couldn't love me the way I loved her? How could I take that happiness away from her when she now had the real possibility of having a full human life with children? I knew how much she wanted them, and I couldn't do it, so I did the hardest thing I had ever done," he murmured. "I let her go."

His voice was so filled with pain that it made my chest tighten with it. It was an uncomfortable feeling I didn't like, but I had always been able to empathize. It was a trait my creators had never been thrilled with but they had never been able to break me of it. I sometimes wasn't thrilled with it, but I would rather be able to empathize than be apathetic. It was all about that switch and my wariness over losing my humanity, of becoming a truly mindless killer.

"As difficult as it was, I managed to stay away. I couldn't watch her with someone else," he continued. "But four years later, fate intervened. Edward and I had moved to Ashland, Wisconsin, and I wasn't just a volunteer at that hospital. I found her in the morgue, having been mistaken for dead and it was no wonder she was. She'd jumped off a cliff after the death of her infant son from lung fever just two days after his birth. It wasn't too late for her. She could be saved and I had to. There was no way I couldn't, so I did. I took her home and turned her. It wasn't until later that I realized I was mistaken the day of her wedding. Esme wasn't happy. She had never loved Charles but was pressured to marry and had put on a good show for her parents and friends. It was convincing, so convincing she even fooled me. She had never forgotten me and had been just as drawn to me as I was to her. Had I gone to her that day and offered her what I'd intended to, she would have accepted without hesitation. It would have saved her much misery. Her marriage wasn't a happy one and not because she didn't love her husband. He had hidden his true nature behind a pleasant façade, but he was an abusive man."

My heart broke for Esme, and I felt connected to her in a way I hadn't before.

"The times were such then that women were expected to endure it instead of seeking a way out, but Esme was strong and left him while he was away at war," he continued. "That was how she had ended up in Wisconsin. She didn't want her child to live a life of fear and was willing to do anything to make sure he or she wouldn't have to. The loss of her son is what has made her maternal instincts so strong and why all the children let her mother them to a degree. It helps that they were all relatively young when they were changed and still need one from time to time."

He gazed at me intently for a minute, searching. I didn't know for what. Understanding? Now that I knew, I understood as much as a person who hadn't entirely experienced what they had could. Acceptance? Absolutely. Still, I couldn't be sure.

"So you see," he said. "As passionately as I am in my convictions, I'm not so rigid in them that I won't break them in certain circumstances … for certain people. You happen to be one of them, but like I said, I won't make that choice for you."

I did nothing but nod. I had already told him I was grateful to him for that. I didn't need to repeat it.

The relief I felt was so immeasurable I couldn't describe it. Carlisle didn't know I was a freak. The fear and dread I had struggled with for days had been laid to rest and I could focus all my attention on this little mission of mine.

I glanced to the clock even though I was perfectly aware of how much time had passed, down to the second. It was five twenty-nine—time to "introduce" myself by way of the bump, grab and slip technique.

"I need to take off," I announced after a moment. "I'll see you at home?"

Carlisle smiled warmly at me. "Of course."

"I'm glad you told me all that."

"Me too."

oOo

"Oh!" I gasped. "Oh my God! I am so sorry!"

Immediately after leaving Carlisle's office, I had made my way back to the central nursing hub, stationing myself casually across from the room where employees clocked in and out, the door to which was conveniently open. Since I had only just arrived a few seconds before, it didn't actually look like I was loitering, so my presence didn't seem at all suspicious. When Cheryl Evans emerged, I headed in the direction of the bathroom again, careful to bump straight in to her on the side where the lanyard attached to her name tag, which she used to clock in, dangled out of the pocket of her scrubs.

Cheryl Evans gave me a tight smile, exhaustion evident on her face and throughout her body, and I caught and held her gaze for three solid seconds—enough time to allow me to be able to replicate her retinas later on. "It's fine, but you really should watch where you're going."

"I will," I exclaimed emphatically, dropping my gaze from hers in a fake display of nervousness, embarrassment and contrition. "I just really have to pee. I'm so sorry!"

Her expression softened a little at the sound of my desperation. She pointed. "Bathroom's that way, in case you didn't know."

"Thank you, thank you, thank you!"

Her smile turned genuine. "No problem."

And then she walked off, and I actually did go to the bathroom. As soon as I entered, I reached into the pocket of my coat and pulled out the object I'd stowed inside, dangling it out in front of me—Cheryl's key card—smiling victoriously before pocketing it again. After waiting an appropriate amount of time, I left, only making one more pit-stop before I took off. I had to procure part of my disguise before I executed the next part of my plan; scrubs I nicked from a supply closet. Once that was done, I went off to Port Angeles to acquire the rest of my disguise and sequester myself in a private place—in this case, the storage facility—to prepare for the upcoming window of opportunity during which the rest of my operation would occur. I was brilliant, with an eidetic memory, but there was no such thing as being too prepared.

oOo

A/N: Alrighty! Who loves the Bella/Jasper bonding besides me? And what on earth is Bella up to now?

Until next time, take care! :)