Edward leapt from a rocky outcrop onto his victim's back. He sunk his teeth deeply into its neck and wrestled it to the ground. Blood gushed. He tried to wrap his lips around the wound as the beast flailed, but couldn't do it.
"How do you deal with the fur?" he asked, the front of his shirt now covered in blood. He spat and picked bits of hair from his teeth "It's disgusting, and it makes feeding quite messy."
Jasper laughed. Edward eyed him cautiously.
"I'd forgotten how difficult the mechanics of it can be for a newcomer," Jasper said. He bent over the mountain lion's body, now twitching.
"Here. Do it like this."
He flipped the animal over and bit into the other side of its neck. The blood only oozed now. He showed Edward how to drain the animal by opening the wound more and leaning over so any extra didn't get on his clothes.
"It doesn't taste very good, either," Edward said.
"One of the sacrifices we make," Jasper replied. "But in the end, it's worth it." He stood and brushed debris from his knees.
"I have a hard time seeing how," Edward said, disgust creeping into his voice. "If it weren't for the Volturi, if it weren't for Bella, I wouldn't even consider this an option."
"Do you really despise mankind that much, Edward?"
"Mankind? Mankind did this to me!" he screamed, surprising himself with the level of his anger. He pulled his coat tightly around him and turned away, taking a cigarette from his pocket and wishing he hadn't said anything.
"I've never met another vampire who smoked," Jasper said, apparently realizing a change of subject was a good idea.
"Old habits die hard," Edward said, laughing. He paused. "The truth is, it's the only human part of me left. I don't want to give that up."
He studied the tip of his cigarette and thought for a moment. Was his killing of humans simply a habit, too? Or was it an addiction? He wasn't sure. He had been doing it for so long, the very asking of the question seemed like an academic exercise, not something that could have real-world consequences.
"We should get back," Jasper said. They began walking. "You're doing great, you know."
"By what standard? By not having killed anyone in more than two weeks? The temptation hasn't gone away, I assure you."
"Nor has mine. Not a day has gone by since Alice found me more than sixty years ago that I haven't thought about what I'm missing." He stopped and smiled. "Speaking of Alice."
Alice stood outside the cabin and greeted them with a smile. She looked at Edward's bloody clothes and laughed.
"Give me that." She began pulling his coat from his shoulders. "The shirt too. Come on. Off with it. I'll get these in the laundry."
Edward walked into the cabin wearing only his black jeans and steel-toed boots. He watched Jasper and Alice go up the stairs and saw Bella sitting at the kitchen table. She was eating. He ran his hand through his hair, crossed his arms, and leaned against a wall, studying her.
She was quite beautiful, he thought. He remembered thinking the same thoughts the night he'd first seen her. How her skin seemed to glow. How her hair covered half her face, deepening the mystery.
"I can tell you're watching me, you know."
"How did it go?" she asked. She looked at his naked torso, pushed her plate away, and got up from the table with a wicked grin on her face.
"From the looks of you," she said, grabbing a napkin and approaching him to wipe a spot of blood from his chest, "you had dinner, too."
She smiled, but didn't remove her hand.
"It went as well as can be expected," Edward said. "But I'm not sure I can do this."
"Why is it so hard for you?"
"I never wanted to be a killer, Bella." He put his hand on hers, feeling the warmth on his chest. "But it's all I've known for nearly a hundred years. It is who I am. I'm afraid it's who I'll always be."
She pushed him away. Pulled a pack of cigarettes from her pocket. Walked onto the porch.
"Do you really think everyone is bad, like you said the night we first came here?"
"I do. Everything I've seen has convinced me. Name another species not only capable of destroying the planet, but one that seems intent on doing so one individual at a time."
"What about me?" Bella said. "Am I bad?"
Edward hesitated. He had forced himself not to confront this question. A minute passed. Bella sat on the steps and smoked. He sat beside her.
"I honestly don't know," he finally said. "Perhaps that's why I find you so irresistible."
She crushed her butt on the bottom step and flicked it away, watching it arc into the air before crashing into the ground.
"I'm irresistible, huh?" she said, smiling and bumping an elbow into his exposed ribs. Edward flinched. She did it again. He flinched again.
"Are vampires ticklish?" She reached across his body and squeezed his ribs. He jerked away. "Oh my god. You are ticklish!" She plunged her hand under his arm.
"Stop," Edward said through his laughter. He bent forward, trying to squirm away. He clamped his arm down on her hand and held it still, careful not to hurt her. But he was still smiling.
Bella caught her breath. She reached out and kissed Edward on the lips. He started to pull back, surprised, but she put her hands behind his neck. He returned her kiss, surprised again. Bella parted her lips slightly, and Edward broke away. He put his arms around her and pulled her closer. He didn't want to acknowledge that he liked it. At least not out loud, so he said nothing.
"I find you kind of irresistible, too," Bella said, pulling back so she could look into his eyes, now the golden brown color of an animal feeder. "I don't know what it is. You're unlike anyone I've met. Unlike anyone I've ever dreamed of. People are so fake, Edward. They cheat and they lie and they pretend they're good. They act like they're god's fucking gift to the world. Not you. Other than Charlie, you're the first honest man I've ever known."
"I am none of those things, Bella." He stood. "I'm a killer. I'm a monster who you'd be better off without."
"That's not gonna happen."
"Why? Why do you insist on being around me?"
"Because you inspire me, Edward. That first night? I saw in you the person I wanted to be. I saw your strength. Your confidence."
He shook his head. "That makes no sense, Bella. I'd just killed Mike Newton. You were angry. You tried to run from me, as you should have. You screamed for help."
She bit her lip. Edward longed to kiss it again, but he turned away. She put her hand on his shoulder and forced him to turn back around.
"I haven't been completely honest with you, Edward. Mike was sort-of dating my friend Jessica. The only friend I'd made, really, since coming to Forks." She lit another cigarette. "I never liked him, but I didn't know why. Then, a couple months ago, I overheard them fighting. I stayed back and listened. I figured it was none of my business. Until I caught him hitting her.
"I couldn't help myself. I attacked him. The truth is, I beat the shit out of him." She laughed. "I told him if he ever did it again, I would kill him. And I meant it."
"But you seemed devastated when you'd found out I killed him, Bella. You were pissed. You screamed about him being a nice guy."
"I was there that night to kill him, Edward. It was going to be my last act before I left town. I'd run into Jessica earlier that day. I could tell something was bothering her. I finally got the truth. Mike was still beating on her. She tried to make excuses for him. She said she loved him. It was the same crap I heard from Renee all those years. I couldn't take it anymore. I guess I snapped.
"But, yeah, I was also scared shitless when I saw you there. You were looking at me like you wanted to eat me, blood on your face, your eyes glowing red. What was I supposed to say? I was scared of you and I was drawn to you at the same time."
She circled her arms around his waist and rested her head on his chest. "And now I have you," she said, hugging him tighter. "We just need to figure out how to handle this. How to handle us. How we can be together."
Edward tensed up. He knew he needed to do something. He couldn't condemn Bella to a life with him. To a life with a monster. He cared about her too much for that.
He braced himself for the lie he was about to tell. It would be the most unselfish act he'd committed since he was turned so long ago. He broke their embrace.
"There is no us, Bella," he said, "and there never will be. Get that through your thick skull. I am a vampire. I could kill you at any moment. I have come close already. You are in mortal danger anytime you're near me. You'd be better off with protection from the Cullens.
"And what about Charlie? He's worried about you. Staying out late every night, never telling him where you've been. Besides," he said, taking a deep breath, "I don't want you, anyway. I don't want any of this."
He stormed off toward the woods. He heard Bella calling after him, but he paid her no mind. He knew it was best this way. He would leave the Cullens, for her sake. The civilized vampires could deal with the Volturi for her. Aro and his minions would probably catch up with him, eventually. But it was a price he was willing to pay if it kept Bella safe.
As he headed into town to do the inevitable, to kill one last time before going on the run, he heard Alice's high-pitched shriek: "Oh no. This changes everything."
He picked up his pace. At this late hour, he knew, most of Forks would be closed up and silent. He wasn't sure where he'd be able to find a victim.
The gas station, he thought. Where it all started. It was staffed twenty four hours a day.
He headed for the highway, ignoring the inner voice that was telling him to stop and turn back. That he was about to throw away everything. His head told him this was the right thing to do, despite what his heart felt.
When he reached the road, he slowed down. It was one thing to vow to return to his true nature. But drawing unnecessary attention by blasting past speeding cars was quite another. Whoever was clerking tonight would wait.
He walked down the center of the road, determined. His steel-toed boots clomped one after another on the double yellow line. He reached for his cigarettes and realized that he was still shirtless and without his coat. No matter, he thought. I won't be needing them anyway. The Volturi would catch him and do what they did. There was little use in pretending anymore.
The gas station's fluorescent glow stood just ahead. Edward moved to the side of the road and approached, his mind set.
"Wait. Please don't." Bella stood before him, flanked by Alice and Jasper. "Alice saw this, Edward. But it doesn't have to be this way. You can change. People change all the time."
Edward felt his anger brewing.
"You don't want to do this. Not now. Not when you're so close," Jasper said. He moved closer.
A calm overtook Edward that he couldn't explain. He probed Jasper's mind for a clue.
"Do not use your trickery on me," he said. "I've made up my mind."
"It's ok," Bella said. "We're here to help you."
"Dammit! I don't want your help. Leave me alone. I need to do this. It's who I am, and nothing can change that."
"If that's what you really believe," Bella said, edging closer, looking him directly in the eyes, "then go into that gas station right now and do whatever you're going to do.
"But know this: If you do, you'll only be proving you're not the man I thought you were, Edward. It's your choice."