"Who are they?"
I heard the question over the continual murmur and occasional yell or screech of hundreds of adolescent voices. I looked at Edward to see if he'd heard as well; he caught my eye with a smile. "New kid," he whispered, imperceptibly to anyone but the six at our table. "He's asking about us."
Our eyes sought each other again, and we became lost for a moment. A century hadn't dulled the intensity of looking into Edward's eyes. So beautiful, so wonderful in every way, and mine, all mine. I wished we could just get up and leave the school at that moment, run together to our meadow...
Jasper made a faint noise, like a cough. "Could you bear in mind," he murmured, "that you're supposed to be siblings?"
I looked away. "Sorry, Jasper." The sibling thing may have been a mistake. We usually chose cover stories that identified us as four couples, of one description or another. Even with many years of experience at dissembling, it was sometimes hard to disguise the real nature of our relationship.
"The Plattes," the new kid's informant was explaining. "Their dad's a doctor at the hospital here, and their mom is some kind of city planner. She volunteers to do something or other for the town council."
"Esme would be gratified to know her work is so appreciated by the local youth," Edward said, and most of us smiled. Rosalie was ignoring us and everything around her. She found our time in the cafeteria especially tedious.
"They're very good looking, aren't they?" the new boy said. "Especially the blonde girl."
That, Rosalie heard; she smiled faintly. A former lifetime of being trained to see beauty as her primary, if not her only, virtue had left an indelible mark, one that would never really change. I was glad the little tribute eased her irritable boredom a bit.
"Yeah. They just moved here in the summer." That seemed to imply an explanation of our appearance: we were from somewhere else, where people were better looking.
"Where are they from?" new boy was asking. Keith, I should call him; Keith Burdon. Everybody in this small school was aware of the new boy from Philadelphia. His arrival at school today was the focus of their attention. I remembered, vaguely, and my sympathies went out to the kid. I could see the others at my table were tuning in to Keith's conversation.
"California," the informant - Asher Crowley, descendant of a former classmate - reported. "Near Los Angeles someplace. Lord knows what they're doing in Forks."
"Asher tends to romanticize large cities," Edward said quietly. "As he sees it, glamour increases with population density."
"I could point out some urban centres that would challenge that assumption," Jasper said.
"They're all pretty close to the same age, aren't they?" Keith asked, sneaking a look at us. "How can they be brothers and sisters?"
"Oh, they're all adopted or foster kids or something," Asher said. "The Plattes are too young to have kids that age. But it's funny how they look alike."
"Some of them are related, that's why," a girl at their table put in. "They adopted nieces or nephews first, and then started adopting other kids. That's what I heard."
"And if you think they're good looking," another girl added, "you should see their parents. The father...!" She pretended to fall forward onto the table in a dead faint. The first girl giggled.
"They're all honour students," Asher remarked with a touch of resentment in his voice.
"Yeah," one of the girls - called Dolores, a name that was currently and inexplicably popular - added, "even though they miss a lot of school."
"Do they?" Keith, the new boy, asked. "Why? Are they sick?"
"No, on nice days their parents take them out hiking and camping and stuff. The school doesn't mind, I guess, since they all get straight A's anyway. They go hunting a lot, too."
"Deer hunting," Dolores confirmed. "But it's weird, they hardly ever eat deer meat. They have the carcasses butchered and the meat donated to charity."
"Long enough?" Alice asked. We rose, gathering our largely untouched lunch trays. The contents were different from when we were last here, in keeping with changing tastes and food trends. We carried seaweed wraps, raw vegetables with yogurt and hemp seed dip, and sparkling carrot-pineapple juice. And pizza, of course. Pizza never even came close to going out of style. We dumped the food in the biodegration unit, placed the containers in their proper recycling bins, and left the cafeteria.
I noticed Alice glancing down at my shoes, then at her own. "Admit it," I said to her, "they're nice."
Alice had been annoyed when high heels made their complete, and apparently permanent, retirement from the fashion world, many decades ago. Her irritation was mitigated when people of both sexes began introducing creativity into their flat-heeled footwear. Students here at Forks High School could be seen wearing woollen pixie slippers, floral canvas ankle boots, shoes in paisley, polka dots, and beadwork, many of them with little ceramic animals attached to the instep as mascots, a current fad. Alice's shoes were made of a kind of silvery mesh and had a lacy frill around the ankle, like an Elizabethan ruff, while mine were red velvet with little rosettes on each toe and a tiny lion figurine attached to the left ankle strap. "They're okay," she conceded. "At least there's a wide range of possibilities." She led the way out the door, giving her feet one more admiring glance.
Since students here were now allowed to go outside during their lunch hour, we usually brought a prop lunch with us from home and sat out in the grassy area adjoining the school. It made the lunch break easier. Today it was raining, however; and although the rain wouldn't bother us, humans stayed indoors in this weather. Hanging around outside in the rain would attract attention. Instead, we collected our books for the afternoon and walked down the corridor to the school's library and study hall. The world-class Charles Swan Memorial Library, funded by an anonymous donor, had been added years ago, when the school had been rebuilt. Nobody would be surprised to see the Platte kids there, apparently studying, when most of the student body were relaxing in the cafeteria. How else would we keep our impeccable grades?
"No concerns?" Jasper asked Edward as we sat down at a large table.
"No, nothing out of the ordinary. Curiosity about us, about where we live. Some silly speculation about where we got all our money. It's conjectured that Alice is the secret abandoned daughter of some celebrity she apparently resembles. Otherwise, nothing."
"We've only been here a few weeks," Emmett said. "Give them time."
We chatted, textbooks open in front of us, until the five minute bell rang. "Spanish," Rosalie sighed, rising from her chair. "I wish this teacher wasn't so keen on class participation. We're supposed to working in teams of two, one making a speech and the other doing simultaneous translation."
"I'm going to talk about the life cycle of plankton," Emmett said. "'Plancton en el Mito, la Leyenda y la Poesía'."
"That should keep them on the edge of their seats," Alice remarked. "Come on, Jazz. World History awaits." They walked side by side down the corridor. The couples had all arranged, one way or another, to be in classes together. It made the day more pleasant.
Edward and I took our places in the Biology lab at the far end of the building, just before the bell rang. "Take out your slates," the teacher called out as he entered the room. The electronic tablets that acted as textbook, notebook, study guide, and homework distributor, were known by the deliberately anachronistic nickname of slates. I thought it was cute. "I've forwarded an outline for today's examination of the carbon cycle." A subject Edward and I were already more than familiar with.
"Still my favourite class," Edward whispered.
At three thirty, we filed out the door along with the rest of the student body, pulling on hats as we went. Another fashion trend that pleased Alice was the return of headgear for both men and women. I was wearing something similar to a cloth newsboy's cap, Alice a sort of shallow-brimmed pink cloche hat with a little bow on the side, and Rosalie wore something that very much resembled a spoon bonnet. The boys wore the typical fedora-style hats the male students favoured, the modern version in a wide variety of colours and patterns, many of them with the ubiquitous little animal figures hanging from the hatband or the brim. There was no predicting where fashion might choose to go. Even Alice had trouble with it.
Most of the kids headed for the public transit station near the road, only a few to the parking lot. Cars were less common than they had been during our previous residence here. Fortunately for the Cullens, privately owned automobiles were not quite unusual enough to attract attention. The other four hopped into their solar-powered Ziara, one of the sportier models from the flourishing Slovakian auto industry. "Baseball tonight!" Alice called from the car as Rosalie headed for the exit. We waved as they drove off, and climbed into my own little red Sumrak two-seater. We had errands to run.
I drove into Port Angeles to pick up the hardware items Esme had ordered, necessary for finishing touches on our house. Our original house, the big white three-storey one, was occupied at present, but we'd found another we liked almost as well, in an equally secluded spot outside the Forks town limits. We took our time, strolling through the downtown area and reminiscing a little. La Bella Italia was gone, the site now occupied by a dental office, but Edward pointed out the spot, the place where he'd first allowed me to know who and what he was.
We returned to Forks and purchased the weekly grocery order for the family, part of keeping our cover story intact. We tried to buy mostly non-perishable food, which we'd pack up and drop off, secretly and by night, at charitable institutions in surrounding communities. By the time we'd finished and packed the groceries in the trunk, the sun was setting.
"Can we make a stop?" I asked, as we drove past the graveyard. "I've been meaning to since we moved here. Would you mind?"
"Of course not, love."
I parked and we got out. It took a few minutes to locate Charlie's grave. The marble headstone I'd purchased, long ago, was still intact, the words still legible. Beloved husband, father, and friend. The grave itself, I noticed, was surprisingly well cared for. Sue's grave wasn't here; she was buried beside Harry, in keeping with tradition; maybe for her children's sake. "I thought of coming back at some point, just to see him. Without his seeing me, of course."
"Are you sorry you didn't?"
"No. It was best. It's not like we could have talked or anything. Besides...I'll always love Charlie, but he belonged to my other life. You can't go back across the Styx, you know?" He nodded.
I found Rachel's and Paul's graves, side by side, and smiled as I ran through our many years of long-distance conversation in my mind. Their headstones were smaller, but Rachel was remembered still, in the name of the reservation school's library. Another anonymous donor had seen to it.
"She meant a lot to you," Edward said.
"Yes, I guess she did. She was the only human friend I was able to keep. Special circumstances."
Then we came across two more graves, also side by side. "Wow. This is an odd experience," I said, looking down at the pair of granite stones with the all too familiar names engraved on them.
Edward stood, an arm around my shoulders, watching me, trying to gauge my emotions. "Are you all right, love?"
I nodded. I found that I really was; better than all right. "Let's go for a run," I suggested. "Just a little one. We're not needed back home right away, are we?"
He smiled. "No, I don't think so. Let's go."
I parked the car near the trailhead of one of the more rugged paths through the Olympic National Forest. The darkness and the rain ensured the area would be deserted, and we chased each other joyfully through the trees. The pleasure of running, gracefully and at blinding speed, never lost its charm for me, any more than being with Edward did.
On our way back, Edward suddenly froze, looking intently ahead into the forest. An instant later I picked up the repellant scent and stood still beside him. As we watched, first one, then a second enormous wolf climbed over a rocky crest and into sight. Both were shaggy, one russet, the other slightly smaller and with grey fur. They stood and looked at us a moment, then turned and ran back into the trees.
"They're coming right back," Edward told me. "They're going to phase, and put some clothing on."
"Is everything all right?" I asked nervously. "We haven't crossed the boundary." I'd been shown the borders of Quileute land on our arrival in Forks, and had carefully avoided even going near it.
"No, everything's fine. They just want to talk. To say hello."
"They seem to have gotten past their dislike of us. Not of vampires in general, but of us and our family. I'm not sure why, but their attitude has evolved."
We waited. A short time later, two human figures emerged from where the wolves had run, barefoot and dressed in loose shorts and tee shirts, clothing most humans would find inadequate in the cold drizzle and the chilly night air. They walked side by side, holding hands. The man was large and strongly built, with a handsome, open face; the woman tall and willowy, with lovely features, long lashes and high cheekbones. Both were beautiful; both had the same long, straight, inky black hair, the same dark eyes. I vaguely recognized them both from my cloudy human memories.
Their movements seemed synchronized, as if they were held in orbit around one another; and when they looked at each other it was with an expression of serene pleasure. They were like something from mythology come to life: perfect, eternal mates.
They walked toward us from a distance, at leisurely human speed, and as we waited for them to reach us, my mind automatically pieced together minor facts, drawing conclusions in my elementary way.
First, I saw that they weren't just like something from a legend; they actually were part of a legend. I felt sure that now, when the Quileute met to recount old stories, there were new additions. They would tell of the time they made an alliance with some of the Cold Ones, honourable ones who did not kill humans, in order to fight off others. And they would conclude by adding that two members of that wolf pack, a man and a woman, had become husband and wife and continued to take on wolf form and protect the Quileute people, and all people near their territory. The story would conclude, as many stories did, "and so they still do, to this very day." Most of those listening would think it was only a fable; others would believe it was a metaphor, a symbolic way of talking about aspects of tribal history. Only a few of the elders would remain aware of the truth, seeing Jacob and Leah live on the reserve until their perpetual youth became too prolonged, then move a short distance away, coming back again when a new generation was in place. As others came and went, they continued their work, protecting their people, supporting themselves by moving from job to job as their identity changed, doing so joyfully because they were together.
Second, I realized that Rachel hadn't been the last human friend I would ever have, after all. Jacob was a friend from my human life, and he could know me as I was, due to his particularly special circumstances. So could Leah, if she wanted to. I felt sure she would. Leah's lovely face was no longer marred by a permanent scowl. She was happy and at peace, and I was sure that any friend of her Jacob's would be her own friend as well.
I began to describe my thoughts to Edward, then took the simpler route and lifted my shield so he could see for himself. He nodded thoughtfully. "Yes, I see. And you're right: they're both prepared to offer us their friendship."
The couple reached us. Their faces were strange, in a way: full of too much experience for people so apparently young. They were filled with more than a century of life, and not a century such as I'd lived, gaining experience but still frozen in place, forever keeping the perspective I'd had at eighteen. They had grown and matured in the way only humans can, but without aging physically. I was a little in awe of them.
Then Jacob smiled, the same wide, happy, slightly smart aleck smile I could still remember, and suddenly he wasn't so imposing any more. Leah gave us a warm smile and raised a hand in friendly greeting - the first friendly greeting I'd ever received from her, but not the last, I was certain.
"So," Jacob said casually, "you're back."