You are on page 1of 105

A Little Crazy Chapter 1 June 3rd He moved in quietly in the middle of the night.

A large truck sat at the dark curb and three men shuffled boxes and a few pieces of furniture inside. I watched from my living room, awake as usual. The truck pulled away with a deep shudder and the street fell silent again. ***** June 4th Parents ushered their kids into cars, and husbands kissed wives goodbye at the doorway. I sat on my stoop watching the house across the street. Dusty blue paint curled at the window sills, and the grass had overgrown since the previous tenants a young, scruffy couple had moved away. The house had been silent since the last box was unloaded, and the door shut behind whispers of thanks. I waited to see him again, wondering if he was the one who stayed, or if he was one of the two who left in the truck. The house was never rented for long. Three months, six months. Once it had been rented for almost a year. The neighborhood had grown tired of the revolving door of tenants and had learned to ignore the quiet house. Kids passed it over at Halloween, neighbors borrowed sugar two doors down instead, and Fourth of July parades never lingered in that yard. But I always noticed the house. I noticed the transient tenants. The neighborhood's general disregard to the permanence of the house made me feel protective, defensive. I felt the house deserved better. I always made a pie for new tenants, in hopes it would convey to them that it mattered to me they were here, that someone cared about the house. ***** June 7th The asphalt was melting in the heat and the air was distorted close to the ground. I parked and began unloading my groceries when I noticed him deep in his driveway, washing a car I had never seen before. It was a late 80's Volvo station wagon: rust colored and dusty. He was beautiful and shirtless, his arms covered in blues, reds, and yellows. His hair was damp from sweat and his shorts were

drenched with water from the bucket on the ground. I let my eyes linger on his arms, on the stories they told above the rippling muscles of his forearms and the taut lines of his biceps. His back was bare but for words in black along his lower spine. He stood and stretched, turning to crack his back. Our eyes met and lingered. "Hi," his lips said in a smile. "Um," I mumbled, before turning and walking into the house with my bags. ***** June 8th His pie had crust latticed over apricots, blueberries, and scattered purple plums. Colorful and beautiful. I hoped he wouldn't notice, and I hoped he would. I carried it over, hopping barefoot over the hot street, balancing the pie. I reached the door and knocked once on the familiar wood. Footsteps slapped along the hardwood and his auburn hair appeared in the row of windows before his eyes peeked over and then disappeared. Moments of silence passed and I feared he could hear my heart beating. I also feared he had walked away. The knob turned and he appeared in front of me. Clean but scruffy, beautiful but unfortunately clothed. His ears were stretched with small black bands, his eyebrow was decorated with a small ring, and he had a silver vertical labret in his lower lip. "Hi," I smiled. "I brought you a pie." His eyes broke from my gaze abruptly and looked down at my hands. "For me?" he asked, grinning. I nodded, looking at the blue and red ink spanning his neck. "It's what I do whenever someone moves into this house." His face registered this, and what looked like disappointment and excitement mixed over his features. His lips pressed together in recognition that other lips had tasted pies that I made just for them. His eyes shone when he guessed that I had only ever blended color like this for him. "I went a little crazy with yours," I confirmed, nodding to the pie. I bounced on my toes on the hot porch. He took the pie and lifted the corner of his lip as he smiled. "I like a little crazy." I laughed and turned to leave, waving at him quickly. "Bye colorful neighbor guy." "Bye a-little-crazy neighbor girl," he murmured. I felt his gaze on me the entire way back across the street.

***** June 9th His light was on when I woke at 2am, hot and unable to find comfort in the big house. I sat on my porch swing, sipping water, imagining him eating my pie in the middle of the night. ***** I climbed out of bed and pulled a t-shirt over my head, padding to the door to fetch the paper. On top of the Times was a small piece of white paper, folded in fourths. I bent over to retrieve it and smiled. A drawing of a stick figure, smiling and holding its belly, was scribbled on the paper. I laughed, walking back inside. The rest of the day my thoughts lingered on the man across the street as I worked in my office. The slightest sound from outside would send me needlessly into the kitchen to peer out the window. From there, if I bent ever so slightly, I had the perfect view of his little blue house. My eyes scanned the yard in search of the sound, ready to be disappointed again, when movement near the fence caught my eye. He walked around the tall oak in front, a tool box in hand and stopped at one of the smaller front windows. My breath caught as I noticed that he was once again shirtless. I watched as he bent down and focused on his task, completely unaware of my wide-eyed spying. The muscles of his back flexed and twisted as he finally forced the old window open. My eyes were drawn down his torso as he moved to the next window, trying to make out the colored markings that began along his ribs and disappeared below the waistband of his shorts. He was so different than anyone I'd ever known before, and yet in the few minutes we had spent together, I felt inexplicably comfortable and known. Reluctantly pushing away from the counter, I sighed and looked at the clock. My jaw dropped. How was it possible that I had spent an entire day thinking of a man I didn't even know? I opened the refrigerator and began mechanically removing items to make dinner, pausing with a smile as the lawn mower started across the street. An hour later I had a piping hot pan of lasagna in my oven mit-covered hands, and it occured to me what I was doing. Without realizing it, I had prepared two pans and was in the process of crossing the street to place one on his porch. Before I could second-guess my actions, I secured the foil over the glass dish and stepped out into the waning sun. The sound of children playing bounced off the hot pavement. The air was thick and cooler now, ripe with the smell of freshly cut grass and family barbeques. I was surprised by the noticeable difference in the old blue house. Gone were the waist high weeds that spiraled around the weathered mailbox and the long overgrown lawn that I used to watch sway

in the breeze from the window seat in my bedroom. The grass was now short and covered in a crisscross pattern. The flower beds were now bare but weedless and the once desolate looking windows were liberated from their broken blinds, proudly streak-free and framed by the freshly-sanded blue paint. Silence greeted me as I hopped up the warm sidewalk, balancing the hot pan in my arms. I put the dish down and turned, quickly scurrying back to my house. A lone purple flower, saved from the twisted mass of overgrown weeds caught my eye as I passed. It struck me how that defiant little flower seemed to belong. Strong, unusual and truly beautiful. The next morning, I stepped out onto the porch to retrieve the paper, once again surprised to find something there waiting for me. My clean dish held another folded piece of white stationary. I bent to retrieve it and laughed out loud, my hand moving to cover my mouth as the sound echoed in the quiet morning. The paper displayed a simple sketch of two stick figures eating together. I glanced up then, meeting his wide smile from the front window. I looked down momentarily, blushing, and was greeted by his smile and wave when I lifted my gaze back to his. I quickly returned his wave and turned back to the house, already planning our dinner. ***** I wasn't quite sure what I was getting into. My body moved without any voluntary action from my brain. My knock on the door sounded louder than usual even though my arm felt weak with anticipation. The sound of bare feet padding to the door spiked my nerves and I took a stumbling step backwards as the door flung open and he stood before me, gorgeous and grinning. "Come on in, a little-crazy neighbor girl." He made a broad sweeping gesture with his hand before he noticed that I had stumbled. "Oh damn! Are you okay? Did I scare you?" "No," I laughed nervously. "Well, I didn't mean to open the door so suddenly after your knock," he laughed, waving me inside. "Exactly," I smiled. "Give a girl at least the customary ten seconds." "See?" He grinned, shaking his head. "This is where I always mess up. I never know the rules." I looked around and lost track of what I was going to say in response. He had started to unpack and the house looked like mayhem. There was little furniture, a couch in the living room, a small coffee table, and a few crates of books. Most of the floor was covered with drums. Scores and scores of drums. "Wow," I murmured. "You have a lot of drums." I bit my lip and groaned inwardly at the obvious observation. "I do, and most of them I haven't seen in over three years. I hope it's not too loud for the neighbors, but man, I have missed these." He looked wistfully at a line of tall narrow drums against a wall in what used to be the dining room, and then shivered into the present moment, reaching for the bag of food I carried. "Here, let me get that."

I handed the bag to him and wandered into the dining room, letting my fingers run over the different shapes of wood, gourds, and metal. Some had bells, strings, and keys. Some were covered in hide, others in fibers. He came back from the kitchen and watched me pick up a goblet-shaped drum and run my fingers over the stitching. "That one is a Djembe," he said, walking towards me and offering me a glass of wine. "Where is it from?" I put the drum down next to its twin and took the glass, swallowing a large sip and begging my body to relax. He scratched the back of his head, thinking. "Well, you can find them almost anywhere now. They're used in all sorts of music. But I got these in Africa." "You've been to Africa?" I asked, not sure why I was so surprised. If I had to guess, I would say he had been lots of places. He nodded into his own wine glass. "Yep." I walked to a pair of large drums shaped almost like wine barrels. "What are these?" He swallowed and followed me, running his hand over the taut drum head. "These are both taiko. This one," he ran his hand over the longer of the two, "is a nagado-daiko. The other one is a sanchou shime-daiko." "Let me guess... Japan?" I smiled. "Yes, Japan," he said, returning my smile and pursing his lips slightly. "And I am an Edward. A colorful, neighbor Edward." His eyes were relaxed and familiar and I found it hard to break my gaze from his. "From the United States?" I asked. He didn't have an obvious accent, but he didn't sound American, either. His words almost had a faint lilt, all smooth edges and soft vowels. "Hm, I suppose," he shrugged. "Born abroad, sometimes raised here." "And drumming all over the world, I take it." He nodded, "I try." His vague answers didn't beg more questions, but when I thought about them, they didn't seem to give me much information, either. He leaned forward and gave me a playfully stern look. "Do I get to hear your name? I'm happy to keep calling you a-little-crazy neighbor girl if you like." I laughed, almost choking on a sip of wine. "Bella. I am a Bella." ***** We made our way around the dining room, talking about his drums. He seemed to be thrilled that I was so interested and I couldn't get enough of his voice, his quiet, easy laughter, and his infectious enthusiasm.

We finished our three-walled circuit and I looked at the door to the kitchen. "Should I get dinner ready?" He froze and my heart flipped uncomfortably. Had I misunderstood his drawing? "Oh my God, Crazy Neighbor Girl. I invited you over and didn't even think to cook for you." I laughed, relieved. "I love to cook and rarely get to do it anymore. This would appear to be a winwin partnership." I went into the kitchen and began unloading the food. Having no idea what kind of kitchen equipment I could expect, I had planned a no-cook meal of chicken salad sandwiches and cucumber salad. "It would indeed," he sighed, relieved. "I'd love to make you dinner in theory, but I am useless in the kitchen. I could probably burn water." I looked over my shoulder at him, interrupting my hunt for utensils, and laughed. "If you could do that, you'd be a scientific genius." He nodded, chuckling. "I suppose I would. I'm sorry I haven't really unpacked much kitchen stuff yet. Is there anything I can do to help?" "There isn't much to do," I assured him, putting the food on paper plates I had packed. "You can tell me a story, though. You can't have obtained that many drums without getting a few stories in the process." "Hm, that's true," he murmured. He took our plates and walked to the living room putting the food on the coffee table. He sat down on the floor and looked up at me, wincing. "Is this okay? I don't really have much furniture." "It's fine," I grinned, flopping down across from him and looking at him expectantly. "Story?" He scratched his cheek absently and my eyes were drawn to his labret below his full lip. He watched me looking at him and smiled. "Story," I nodded, blushing. And with that, our dinners began. Quietly, comfortably, and with our eyes on each other nearly constantly. The first story Edward ever told me was of his trip to Ghana when he was twenty and traveling with an African music ensemble from college. He'd gone shopping with his best friend for some lightweight clothing, not bothering to research clothing customs in the region. When he arrived with his suitcase full of shorts, his host family teased him that he would be shunned from the mens' table and should sit with the boys. "That suited me just fine," he laughed, pouring us both some more wine. "I sat with the boys and learned more drumming from them in four hours than anyone else learned in the entire trip. I told my host Father that next time, even if I came back when I was fifty, I was bringing nothing but shorts."

I laughed and nodded, easily picturing him sitting on a stoop with some boys, drums in their laps as they taught Edward how to play the instruments of the region. "Have you been back?" "Not to Ghana," he said, looking away. "But I've been back to Africa several times." I finished my sandwich and leaned back on the heels of my hands. "I imagine you've picked up a lot of great music there." He looked past me, far away for a moment, and then his eyes met mine. My body suddenly felt leaden, as if I was having one of those moments that I would remember for the rest of my life, exactly like this. I felt calmed by the wine, but charged by the way he was looking at me. I started to stand. "I should probably get home, I have a busy day tomorrow." "Me too," he groaned. "I'm going to start painting the house." "You are?" I said, excited. He eyed me carefully. "You really love this house." It wasn't a question, but I could tell he wanted me to explain. "I do," I said, defensively. "It's a great house. The people who live here are always so nice and no one notices the tenants because they aren't in the PTA or coaching the kids' teams." He laughed, shaking his head. "I think this house needs a guardian like you." I grinned at that, putting the leftovers in his fridge even though he protested. "You're going to need food when you're painting tomorrow." I insisted, winking. "It's really for the house's sake that I'm leaving you food." "Ah, well in that case, I can't refuse. I know how attached you two are to each other." I felt his hand gently grip my arm as I grabbed my bag. "Thanks for dinner, Bella. You're welcome over any night." I looked out the kitchen window, thinking. "If you like, I could bring dinner tomorrow. I mean, you'll probably be pretty wiped..." "I'd love that," he murmured, letting his hand slowly drop from my arm. "Seven?" "Seven," I nodded. ***** June 13th "So how do you fill your days, Bella?" he asked, scooping up the last bit of gazpacho with a chunk of bread. "Besides feeding hungry men that is."

I smiled. "I work, I gardenI watch cooking shows." I swirled my spoon in my soup and shrugged, realizing how incredibly ordinary that sounded. "Do you do anything in particular, a little-crazy neighbor girl?" he teased, lowering his chin to meet my eyes. I couldn't keep from smiling. "I write," I began, resting my spoon across my plate. "What do you do?" "I help people," he stated simply, as if it was the most obvious thing in the world. "By playing the drums?" I asked, confusion evident in my expression. He wiped his mouth, placing his napkin on the table before leaning back on his hands, a hint of a smirk pulling at the corner of his lips. "Sometimes." "Why do you do that? I asked, watching him through narrowed eyes. His smile broadened. "Do what?" "Never really answer anything?" He leaned towards me, his arms folded on the table, his gaze meeting mine. "I'll answer any question," he said softly, his fingers reaching out to brush a stray piece of hair from my eyes. "You just have to ask." I felt my pulse quicken at his proximity and took a deep breath to steady myself. "Okay," I said, drawing the word out and attempting to keep the slight tremor from my voice. "Do you do anything in particular?" Sitting back, he regarded me for a moment before running a hand through his hair. "I travel a lot," he started, motioning to his drums. "And I'm a doctor." He paused, appearing to wait for me to speak. "You're a doctor?" I gaped. He nodded. "How is that possible? I mean...wouldn't you need to be in one place?" "Well, I go where I'm needed. If there is a humanitarian crisis in Thailand, I go to Thailand. After the Wenchuan earthquake in China I went to China for several months. And whenever I can, I go to Africa. Because there is more work there for me than I can possible handle, and I never feel finished." Aware of my stunned silence, he leaned forward again, propping his arms on his knees.

"How long have you lived here?" he asked, his soft eyes full of genuine interest. I shook my head distractedly. "In this town, my whole life. Across the street, three years." His eyebrows rose. "What?" I asked, confused by his expression. "That's just," he trailed off and shrugged. "I don't know, hard for me to comprehend. Don't you ever get the urge to just leave? To see new things?" His voice didn't carry judgment; he was simply curious. I considered this as my eyes followed the vivid blue ink that wound up his forearm and disappeared under the sleeve of his t-shirt. A river perhaps. From what I'd seen, his tattoos were all that way. Not shapes or drawings from a book, but his memories. Scenes of mountains and rivers, lush trees and thick vines. They told a story. I met his eyes again. "My life is here." "But is your life a place? Or is your life made up of the few important things you can carry with you?" I sat back, resting against a box behind me. "I guess I never thought about it that way. To me, I suppose, my world has consisted of what I've known - this town, my home. I've never ventured beyond it." "Maybe you just haven't found what you want to keep with you." ***** June 16th "Pulled pork..." I smiled, putting a plate in front of him. "But watch out: I put habaneros in the simmering sauce." "Spicy," he said with a silly accent and grinned, leaning over to inhale deeply. "You're spoiling me." "I never get to cook like this anymore. I miss it." I shrugged and sat down across from him on the floor, draping my napkin on my lap. "Have you ever had a roommate?" he asked, stabbing a bite with a fork and avoiding my eyes. "Yes," I said, looking at the ceiling. "My boyfriend and I bought the house together." His head shot up and our eyes met. "Oh. I" he looked around the house as if to understand why I would be here and not at home. "He moved out a few months ago," I explained into my wine glass. "I'm sorry," he said, running his hand through his hair and leaning his elbow on the low table. He winced at me and smiled.

I put my glass down and smiled back. "I'm not. We weren't a good fit." I laughed, remembering. "Not at all." "How did you know?" "We were together for eight years," I mumbled. "We met in college. First love isn't always best love." I offered him a small one-shouldered shrug and bit my lip. He grinned and then pursed his lips as he watched me. "So, what, you grew apart, or.. were just not right for each other after all or...?" He leaned in towards me. I smiled. "He liked going to the bar and playing darts every Friday. He liked predictable sex." I watched him carefully as I buried this important admission in my list. I saw his arm twitch. "He liked getting take-out every Wednesday and listening to the same Tom Petty album in the car on every road trip. I didn't." I shrugged and took another sip of wine. "You don't seem to be averse to habit," he teased, nodding towards our dinner, indicating our new routine. "I love habit." I nodded, laughing. "It's the particular habit that matters. I also love to incorporate something new into routine." "Ah yes. You started with blueberries and apricots, and worked up to habaneros," he smiled, reaching for his glass. "You are a positive daredevil of habit." "Exactly," I giggled. We were quiet for a moment. He stared at his glass and his eyes shot up to meet mine. A flash of desire was immediately replaced with a warm smile. He dragged his tongue ring along his upper lip unconsciously. His eyes were slow to relax. "What about you?" I asked quietly. "What about me what?" His voice was gentle and my heart pounded. Did I want to know this? "What about you and girlfriends?" "Never really had one," he shrugged. "What? Even in college?" "Well, at least not what I think you mean. I've been with women, Bella." He smiled, almost apologetically. "In college I was focused on school and music. I dated, but not much more. And now that I travel so much... no one has really made me want to stay put." He shrugged, taking a long sip of wine. "It's hard to build relationships because I move often. It's also hard to open myself up over and over again. It gets exhausting. I like what I do, even though sometimes it's lonely. Unfortunately I'm averse to constancy, so I need to move around." He winced a little and took a bite of his dinner. I watched him chew, watched him enjoy the dinner I had made us, watched him relax into the familiar moment here, with me.

"There is constancy in your life," I pointed out, daring him to react. "You're committed to your lifestyle, at least." He nodded, swallowing quickly in order to answer. "Being averse to constancy is not the same as being averse to commitment, Bella. My aversion is about geography, not romance." Our gazes remained locked for the longest silence we had ever shared. "You're beautiful, Bella." It took me several seconds before I could respond, and when I did, my voice sounded like it was coming from behind me. "Thank you." He leaned forward, maintaining eye contact. I was unable to look away. "I've never said that to anyone before," he whispered. I finally managed to break his gaze and sat forward, grabbing my wine glass and smiling. "You're going to break my heart." I laughed a little, trying to make it sound like I was kidding. He bit his lip, watching my mouth. "I don't want to." We stared at each other for a moment before I put my glass down and fidgeted with my napkin. "Wow, that got heavy," he laughed, running his hands through his hair. ***** June 17th The next night I made a pasta salad with fresh mozzarella and heirloom tomatoes. "God, I love your cooking," he mumbled into a bite. He always hummed and closed his eyes when he chewed something that tasted good. I wondered if he knew he did that. "The tomatoes are from my garden," I smiled. "So is the basil." "The tomatoes are amazing," he sighed. "What are they called? They're so colorful, they have to have some crazy fruit names like Wild Woman and Big Bird." I laughed and nodded. "The purple ones are Cherokee. The yellow ones are Banana Legs. The green ones - my favorites - are Green Zebra." He mouthed the words "Banana Legs," and chuckled, shaking his head as if it made perfect sense. I watched him eat and he looked up at me and smiled before leaning to take another bite. I felt a twist of anxiety and excitement mingling in my chest. I didn't know how I could feel this way for someone I had only just met. He seemed to be taking everything in stride so easily. His desire to see me every night was a simple fact to him, uncomplicated. He loved our time together as he loved this dinner: something to be enjoyed while he had it in front of him.

He looked up at me again and saw me watching his lips. "What?" he smiled but his eyes simmered with something heavy and warm. He licked his lips slowly. "Are you watching me eat?" I felt him toying with me, daring me to admit to the layer that continually thickened with each of our nights together. I let my eyes drop to my hands and I laughed, but it sounded forced. I wanted to let the tension out of the space between us. I wanted a bare admission that we both felt this pull, this inexplicable draw, but I was terrified to know whether it meant something different to him. I wondered how many women he left behind who felt like I did. I blinked to clear my head. "What made you choose your tattoos, your piercings?" I asked quietly. He lifted his arm and inspected it. "I love every home I have, no matter how long I'm there. I like keeping some of it with me. I felt like I needed decoration. It's not about disliking my skin, it's about loving it." One tattoo on his shoulder was of a small tree bearing yellow fruit. The tattoo on the inside of his forearm was a man's face, old, wrinkled, and patient. "Who is that?" He whispered, running his finger over it, "My grandfather." Without realizing what I was doing, I reached up and stroked the ring on his eyebrow. Instead of flinching or moving away, he leaned into my hand, his eyes closing. He exhaled as if he had been waiting for something for a long time and had finally found it. Warmth spread from my fingertips and radiated down my arm. My heart hammered like one of his drums underneath his hands and I held my breath, resisting the urge to run my fingers down his face and down his neck to his bare shoulder. I watched his face relax under my touch and slowly moved my hand away. "And that?" It was a long moment before he spoke, and when he did it sounded sleepy and relaxed. "Same thing. I think it suits me." He opened his eyes and looked at me. "You, on the other hand, are best completely undecorated." I felt the heat behind his words, the meaning of more than just tattoos or piercings. The tension between us was laid bare and I ached to touch him again. Perhaps because I knew he would leave and it felt safe, or perhaps because I knew I was falling in love with him, I wanted him to know me, to really see me in a way no one had. His eyes moved down my neck to my shoulder and back up. I took the napkin from his hand and pulled his fingers to me, pressing his index and middle fingers against my nipple, letting him feel the metal there. He hissed in a breath, letting his hand spread over my breast and pressing his palm against my piercing. His thumb swept back and forth over the side of my breast. I held my hand over his, watching his face freeze in an expression of need.

I pulled his hand away and gently replaced it with the paper napkin. He dropped the napkin, his hand still molded in a curve. He stared at it before meeting my gaze. "Bella?" his voice was hoarse. I imagined I saw his pulse racing below a tattoo of a mountain across his neck, a small crack in our fault line had been carved. I wanted to crawl into his lap and press my lips to that pulse. "Let me get these," I said instead, ducking my head and gathering the dishes. ***** June 21st "What are you making?" His voice, nearer than I expected, caused me to jump slightly. "I'm sorry," he said softly, his hands coming to rest on my hips. "I didn't mean to startle you." I swallowed, certain he was able to hear it. "You didn't. I meanI just wasn't paying attention." My hand stilled on the cutting board, the tomatoes momentarily forgotten. The heat from his palms filtered through the thin cotton of my skirt and my eyes closed as his thumbs drew small circles on my lower back. "I just needed to reach something." His hands lingered on my hips a moment longer, easing me over slightly to reach two glasses from the overhead cabinet. He smiled a cute half smile, his eyes meeting mine briefly as he closed the cupboard door. My stomach always fluttered at that smile. Still standing closer than necessary, he peered over my shoulder. "Salad?" His scent drifted to me, and my eyes fluttered closed. "Thai chicken salad with peanuts and lime," I answered, turning my head to see him. He was so close. My nose brushed his jaw, the rough texture of his unshaven face abrasive against my skin. I leaned into him slightly, my lips mere inches from his neck. He swallowed and I was unable to look away, hypnotized by the way his Adam's apple moved and the muscles flexed along his throat. My breath caught as he pressed into me, my body now trapped between his and the counter. I felt his lips move to my hair, that simple chaste gesture more intimate than any heated kiss I'd ever experienced. "Bella?" he questioned, his voice low and the sound reverberated through his chest. I tilted my chin towards him, the movement bringing my mouth to his jaw. I brushed my lips from side to side, enjoying the coarse texture against my skin, and pressed the softest kiss there. The persistent beep of the kitchen timer filled the air, pulling me from my haze. He exhaled deeply and pushed away from the counter, my body feeling the loss instantly.

"Why do you come back?" I asked, watching as he pulled out a plate for each of us. "How long do you stay?" "I come back here to rest, see my family, see my dentist, get my blood tested..." "Blood?" I stopped moving and then nodded awkwardly when I understood. "Oh." I mumbled, slicing some limes. He stepped in front of me and stilled my hand. "What is 'oh'?" His face told me I misunderstood but until his voice explained, I wasn't pushing. "It's just the smart thing to do after visiting third world countries," he urged quietly. "No, I get it," I nodded. I could feel him watching me as I diced the tomatoes. "What's going on with us, Bella?" His voice was unobtrusive and calm. Too unobtrusive and too calm. I was a tornado inside, full of too many things I couldn't keep together. I felt like everything I knew was being uprooted and thrown. "I don't know," I sighed, willing whatever it was to stay put between us and not keep melting into another layer of tension. "Nothing." He leaned forward and waited until I looked at him. My eyes gave it all away. "Okay," he murmured, smiling sadly and tucking a strand of hair behind my ear. "Okay, sweet thing. I hear you." I could feel him watching me cook and several times I knew he started to speak but then stopped. Hesitation was rare for him and it made me nervous that he had something to say that he was anxious to bring up. "So, have you done all those things?" I asked in a mumble, knowing my question would unfortunately show me the hourglass flipping, my time with Edward coming to a close. "What things?" he asked, confused. "Dentist, family, blood," I said quietly, pushing the tomatoes into a bowl. "Oh, yeah. Dentist and blood are done. Family is in Australia this time. Mostly this trip I wanted to come here and work on the house. I've neglected it way too long, as you have surely noticed." I dropped the knife and turned to him. "What are you talking about?" He stared at me and then understanding softened his eyes. He pulled at his eyebrow ring absently. "I figured you knew I owned the house..." "Why would I know that?"

He shrugged and his hand dropped and slapped against his thigh softly. "I mean, you saw me working on it. I painted it, fixed the windows, did some work inside.... So I figured you would know it was mine." I realized immediately that all the signs were obvious and that everything he had done since he'd been back showed that he was more than just a passing tenant. I was embarrassed for not putting it together, and frustrated that I had to ask him everything, that nothing personal was ever offered. "Why don't you want me to know you?" I said, looking at his feet against the kitchen tile. "What on earth do you mean by that?" he said gently, pulling my chin up with his index finger. "I have to ask you everything. You offer nothing voluntarily. I feel like it doesn't occur to you to help me get to know you." He stared at me and then looked away, out the window behind me. "It doesn't," he said simply. "I don't know how to let someone like you in the way I want, I don't know how to... do this," he waved at the space between us. "But you tell me it's nothing and so I figure it's just me misreading everything. But Bella, I feel something and I don't know what to do with it. I'm not perfect." I realized that I had thought that, in a way. I had believed that since he was well-traveled and educated and always seemed so comfortable in his own skin that he would know how to do this. I trusted him to guide me until he was gone, assuming that he came up against this often: starting to get close to someone and then having to leave. I believed - despite what he'd told me - that wherever he went there was a Bella, and dinners, and tension, and then, ultimately...a departure. "You haven't done this before?" I whispered. "No," he insisted. "Almost everything about this is a first for me." I ran my hands into my hair and tied it up in a loose bun on my head. "Oh." ***** July 13th "I'm going to China." His voice was barely audible. My heart froze in my chest but somehow my hands continued to move, robotically forming the falafel into balls. "When?" I tried to keep my voice light and interested. Instead I sounded anxious and shaken. "Soon." It wasn't even a whisper. I'm surprised the sound made it to my ears. "Why?" I looked up and out the kitchen window. I couldn't see him in the reflection; he had stepped to the side so I couldn't see his face. He was silent.

"Edward?" I didn't hear him but suddenly he was there behind me before I could turn around. He stepped closer and pushed my hair to the side, letting his lips rest against the curve of my ear. "Do you want me to say 'because I'm scared?' or 'I'm not that guy?' Is that why you think I'm leaving?" "Honestly? It's what I expect to hear," I admitted, watching us in the window. I let the most selfish words out: "You can be a doctor anywhere." He placed his hands over my back, splaying his fingers across my ribs as far as he could, testing to see how much of me he could encase. I felt tiny in his hands. I was sure he would break all of me. "I'm going because it's what I do, Bella. I travel. I heal." His voice was neither defensive nor apologetic. He wasn't leaving me. He was leaving to go help others. I hated the tight curl of resentment than pulled at my stomach. "I'm scared," I whispered. I was scared to be apart. I was scared he wouldn't come back. I was scared he would come back, but different. "I know." "You're not?" I could feel his body moving in a one-shouldered shrug behind me. Without words to explain, it felt too casual. It was not at all the reaction I was having and it made me feel even more defeated. "Don't start this. Please?" I heard the pleading in my voice and almost welcomed it. I had no more strength if he touched me again. He pressed his lips to my neck and I felt the cool air between us as he stepped away just as I began to lean back into him. "Okay," he murmured. His hand was the last part of his body to leave me as it lost contact with my hip. I finished cooking dinner and we ate in silence for the first time, staring at our plates and pushing our food around. "I'll get the dishes," he said quietly, although he didn't move to get up. I could hear the question in his voice. He wanted me to stay. "Okay," I nodded. I broke my own heart: "Good night." He was disappointed, but not surprised. "Good night, Bella." ***** July 14-15th

I didn't see him the next night. I spent the night in my room, not eating, not sitting on the floor, and trying not to think about him. The soft drumming that blew across the street distracted me all night. I didn't want to cover the sound with music or television or even my hands over my ears, but it made my chest hurt, made me remember his stories, his fingers, the lilting rhythm of his speech. Probably no one else on the block heard the music over the crickets and cracking wind. Maybe the sound was like the house itself only noticed and appreciated by me, something that had to be attended to actively to be seen or heard. He was a magnet to me; anything he did I would notice. It only made sense that the house was his. I had always belonged to him and had never known it. I cooked the next day. I cooked for us, maybe out of habit but more out of a naked, conscious need to imagine that he would be in that house tonight, and the next night, and every night after that. I layered phyllo dough over kale, squash, and various Spanish cheeses. I made it delicate and hearty and colorful. I made it something we would both want, something that would bring us together with comfort and spice, novelty and familiarity. I knew he wouldn't get to eat it if I didn't take it to him, but I was nothing if not constant. I wondered idly if I would cook for him every night of forever, even when he was being inconstant elsewhere. It came out of the oven bubbling hot, steaming, golden, and beautiful. The door rumbled with the movement of feet up the front steps. I didn't need him to knock, and he knew it. I felt him on the porch. I dropped my dishtowel and went to the door, opening it and letting in the humid night air, the dry wind, the smell of him. He stood on the doorstep, scruffy and distraught. "Are you scared that I'm not that guy?" he asked, his eyes begging. "Yes." He moved towards me and I took a step back, overwhelmed by what I wanted from him and terrified that he was going to give it to me. He pressed me against the closet door, his hands planted next to my head. "You make me want to stay here," he whispered, running a hand down my bare arm. "You make me wonder what is most important." "You make me want to leave with you." I admitted, finally. I felt my brow furrow, felt my eyes sting with tears. I was so naked for him; I felt like there was no floor underneath my feet. His gaze lingered on mine for a moment before his eyes dropped to watch both of his hands move to anchor my wrists to the door with his thumb and index finger. He had a small bandage on his wrist and I started to ask if he was okay, but he looked up at me and leaned forward, letting his lips hover in front of mine, mere millimeters from touching my skin. "Do you think you can love me?" His voice was strained, needy. "Just like this? The way I am?" "Do you want me to?" I asked quietly, watching his eyes.

"Very much," he nodded, spreading my legs with his knee and leaning into me. He raised his hands and pressed them against my cheeks, wiping my tears with each of his thumbs. They were warm and calloused, and his touch felt achingly familiar. He felt like home against my skin. He bridged the short distance and pressed a single soft kiss to my lips, pulling back to look at me. "I never once asked you to leave." He kissed me again, longer this time, but still chaste. "I would never have asked you to leave. I've never been so lonely as I was last night." His words sent a thrill throughout my entire body and I closed the small space between us. His mouth was warm and welcoming and I felt the breath leave his lungs in surprise, the moist air fanning across my lips. I moaned softly as I felt his lips fully against mine, his taste, his smell wrapping around me. His hands cradled my face, his thumbs brushing in feather light strokes along my skin. I melted into the door as his tongue slipped between my lips, tasting me for the first time. My hands trembled as I brought them from my sides, unsure as I placed them against his chest. Hard muscle flexed beneath my fingers, and his hands threaded into my hair, his fingertips massaging my scalp as he deepened his kiss. He was gentle and tender and my heart tore with the knowledge that this could be the only time we were together. Sliding my hands down his chest, I let my nails drag softly along his hard stomach, feeling the muscles contract and release under my touch. His breath caught as I reached the waist band of his jeans, slipping under the hem of his shirt. He was warm and smooth under my fingertips as I traced the sculpted muscles running along his torso. My mouth was becoming more urgent, teasing, searching and silently pleading with him to take more. As if sensing my need, he pulled away from my lips, his teeth dragging along the column of my throat. "Bella?" he whispered, waiting for my permission. Without a word I pushed him away slightly and began walking backwards, leading him down the hall towards my bedroom. His lips never left my skin, he pulled his hands from my hair, letting them linger as he moved them down my body, stopping at my waist. "Can I see you?" he asked, his hazel eyes searching mine. I nodded, moaning softly as his callused fingers grazed the soft skin of my stomach. He slid his hands up along my ribs, the thin material of my tank top gathering under his fingertips, and pulled it up and over my head. A ragged breath escaped his mouth as he looked at me, his fingertips brushing along my neck, across my collar bones and down between my breasts. "Can I see you?" I whispered, my lips brushing along the cotton of his t-shirt. "You never have to ask that," he said into my hair. I freed him of his shirt, my eyes feasting on the beautiful colors and pictures painted into his flesh. "You're so beautiful." I traced my fingertips along each image, trying to memorize them.

He laughed quietly, letting his hands run from my shoulder and down to my hand, pulling my fingers to his lips. "Bella, I have no words..." I smiled and he kissed me then, his hands running back up my arms and over to the soft lace of my bra. I led him towards the bed, our hands exploring, learning the planes of each others bodies. He removed my bra and bent to take one nipple into his mouth before moving to the other. My hands threaded into his hair as I watched him, his gaze meeting mine as he caught and lifted the silver ring with his tongue, hooking his barbell and pulling gently. My head fell back and I moaned, finally seeing what I had fantasized about every night since I met him. My hands moved to the waistband of his jeans, unbuttoning them slowly, feeling his lips move over my chest and to my shoulders, gently sucking. His hands began to work my yoga pants down my hips. "I need to see you," I whispered. "I know," he breathed. "God, I know." Our hands became impatient, pulling down the remaining clothing between us, and hungrily touching everything. His fingers moved between my legs, spreading me, learning and memorizing. His mouth covered mine, his kisses becoming almost desperate in their hunger. It was a frenzied moment, his hand was at first hesitant and then ravenous, finding a rhythm on my skin, pumping his fingers inside me and stroking my clit in fast, light strokes. I clawed at his back, bit his lips. He held my leg up around his waist with his free hand and balanced us as I ground against him, crying out in my almost immediate orgasm. It was almost as if my release calmed us both and allowed us to slow down, our kisses slowing to languid, his movements more measured as he lowered my leg and rubbed my hip gently. "You were so wet," he breathed. "Your sounds... Bella...." I ran my hand down his stomach and lower, feeling him twitch beneath my first, tentative touch. Our foreheads touched as we looked down at my fingers feathering his shape and tracing the piercing through his frenum. "Did it hurt?" I asked in a whisper, ghosting my fingertip over the horizontal bar. "A little," he admitted quietly, always honest, never verbose. "Does... this hurt?" I wrapped my fingers around him loosely and squeezed. "Hurt?" he whispered, letting out a quiet laugh through his nose. He shook his head slightly. "Not at all."

I found myself wanting to move my hand, but not sure what to do. We stared at my fingers around him, and he seemed to be content just with this level of contact, this level of stimulation. He was always so patient with me, never pushing. I pulled my head up and our eyes met. His were heavy and dark and his breathing was choppy. Lust spiked beneath my sternum and ran down my abdomen. "Show me?" I breathed. His eyes dropped to the space between us and I rested my forehead against his again as his hand moved to cover mine. He shifted my grip up slightly before squeezing his hand around my fingers, tightening my grip. With a slow, smooth movement, he shifted our hands down, pulling his foreskin over his piercing in the process, and back up again, covering the head of his cock. "You don't have to be tentative," he murmured. "It just makes me... sensitive." I repeated the action and felt his hand loosen and then release mine. My thumb reached his tip and I flicked it gently over the top, spreading the moisture around before stroking down again, his skin covering the piercing quickly in the downward movement. He moaned and his head fell back. His Adam's apple bobbed as he swallowed heavily. "God," he hissed in a trembling breath. His hands moved up to cup my face, pulling me towards him and kissing me roughly. "That's just... " he trailed off, letting his teeth run over my bottom lip. I felt bolstered by his reaction and gripped him tighter, increasing my pace. He sighed against my lips and I watched his eyes roll closed. His lips moved with mine almost as if we had been kissing like this for years, not hours, and I took a step closer to him to feel my chest brushing against his, my arm moving between us. The feeling of his piercing under the base of my thumb as my hand moved down and up, of his foreskin slipping easily over the head of his cock, was the most delicious sensation I could imagine. I felt a surge of confidence, for the first time I was certain with a lover that I could ask for what I wanted, I could be honest in what I needed. "I want it on my skin," I whispered. Without needing further explanation he grunted quietly, and his words came out in a tight moan, "Where, Bella?" "My chest." He stepped forward and I stepped backwards until the back of my knees hit the edge of the bed. I kissed him, pulling his bottom lip into my mouth and letting out a whimper around it. "You feel so good in my hand. Does this feel good?" He let out a short, tight laugh, communicating everything he needed to in that single, overwhelmed sound. I sat in front of him, my eyes level with his stomach. He stepped between my legs, bracing his hands on my shoulder as we both watched my hand glide over him. "I'm so..." he whispered. "You..."

I leaned forward and licked a bead of precum from the tip of his cock and sat up again to watch, needing to see what I did to him. "Oh God," I whispered. "I want..." That finally did him in. He twitched in my hands and his fingers gripped me. He moaned my name and his entire body froze before I saw and felt him coming on my chest, on my neck. "Fuck," I breathed at the same time he did. He stood still in front of me, his head bent and resting on top of mine. "Jesus, Bella." I held him in my hand, feeling his body relax. "Stay with me," I whispered, still looking down at him in my hand. "Of course," he murmured, kissing my head and stepping back, disappearing for a moment before returning with some wet tissue from the bathroom to clean me up. We crawled into the bed, pulling a sheet over our bodies and letting our limbs tangle with the familiarity of years together. He buried his face in my hair and I wrapped my arms around his torso, pressing my face into his chest. "God, this is nice," he said, kissing my hair. "What is this?" I asked, rubbing the gauze on his wrist. "A truth from my most recent home." His tone was casual but it was still a sharp reminder that he was leaving "Edward?" I asked quietly and he hummed in response. "How long?" He was completely still against me for a long moment. "At least six months." I froze, feeling my throat close. "When?" I felt him swallow heavily against my forehead. His voice shook, "Tomorrow, Bella. They needed someone who could come right away. I had it in my paperwork that I could be a last-minute resource if need be." He looked at me and kissed me, long and slow. "That was true until recently." That was finally too much for me. "Why didn't you come over last night?" My voice broke. "We wasted a day and I didn't even know!" Edward held me and whispered softly as I sobbed against him, clutching his back with my nails. "Please," I whimpered, pulling him over me. "God, please."

He moved fluidly, brushing the hair from my face and looking down at me. "Do you have protection?" "I'm still on the pill," I whispered, stroking his arm he used to prop his body above me. "I've been tested..." "Me too," he smiled and I laughed quietly, remembering the jealousy that had ripped through me when he mentioned his regular blood work. "I've only been with one person," I said, biting my lip. I felt like I needed to explain. I wanted him to know what he meant to me before he left. "I want to be the only one that matters." I reached down and took him in my hand, rubbing my thumb over his piercing, pulling his foreskin over his head and taut again. "Fuck, Bella," he choked. I rubbed him along my slick skin before pressing down and letting him push inside me. We both moaned, our mouths coming together in the same slow rhythm as his movements in me. I pulled my legs up along his sides, my knees at the side of his chest, letting him slip deeper. "I love you," he breathed. "Already... so much," I whispered. He pulled my hand up next to my shoulder and held it there, resting his forehead against mine as he moved over me. "Will you come back to me?" "Of course," he whispered. It was the last thing I asked him, our words giving way to soft breaths and quiet moans. He moved in and out of me in the shortest of increments, preferring instead to stay as deep and connected as he could while he was here. "Oh God," I whispered. "I know." "I'm...I'm... " " Oh God...Oh God..." He covered my mouth with his, the sounds of our climax spreading only as far as the space between us. *****

July 16th He was reluctant to sleep, but I begged him to try. He fell asleep almost as soon as he gave his body permission, his head curled against my chest, his arm bent at my waist, his hand on my breast. For hours I couldn't sleep. I could only let myself think about how his skin felt against mine, how he looked at me over the coffee table. I stared at the bare skin of his wrist where I had seen the bandage earlier. The bandage no doubt came loose at some point in our lovemaking. The gauze was gone, somewhere buried in my bed, and I could see the edge of asian characters underneath the protective sheer covering. I reached in my bedside table for my pad of paper and a pen, and rolled his arm slightly, trying to copy the characters. He stirred, moving his arm to my waist and pulling me closer. "Bella?" His voice was thick with sleep, but his body woke next to me. I dropped the paper on the floor and rolled to him. He pulled me on top of him. "Please," he whispered. I lowered myself onto him and made love to him, kissing him goodbye over and over. ***** It wasn't a long, drawn out goodbye. It was made up of sweet kisses and strained voices. I watched him climb into the cab and two hours later the same movers that brought him to me came to carefully pack up his drums and take them to storage again. I stood and watched the entire time, absently sweeping my hands across my wet face. It was the middle of the night, when I was thinking about how he felt moving inside me, and I remembered the tattoo. I found the paper and searched online dictionaries for the characters I'd seen. I hadn't drawn them entirely right, and I wasn't sure I even found the right characters until the translation popped up on screen. I'm destined to be hers. I crossed the room and flung open my closet. My suitcase looked ridiculous: too new, never really used. My hand reached for the handle and pulled. *****

Chapter 2 July 16th Bella was touching me, tasting me, wanting to see me come on her skin. She knew nothing ever sounded strange when she said it to me. She knew I wanted to be everything for her, that I would wait a hundred years for her to figure out how to say what she needed to say. Her soft hands were running up my arms as I moved on top of her. "Oh god," she whispered. And then she was above me, moving over me in the dark room. Her moans were just for me. I knew instinctively that she'd never made that sound for anyone before. I knew, because she'd told me, that no one had ever made her come, that she had always had to do it herself. I knew when she said she loved me, that it was the first time she really meant it. I woke up with a jerk, slapping the bottom of my tray table and nearly knocking over the lunch the flight attendant had just placed in front of me. I had no appetite for this food. July 17th We descended into the haze of Lanzhou and I had been sitting for so long that my legs were coiled and tight, trapped in the small economy seat. I feared I wouldn't be able to exercise for many days, certainly not until everything had been unloaded and my presence in the village had been accepted. With a final, indulgent breath of filtered airplane air and after squeezing my eyes shut to burn the image of her into my mind, I stood up to prepare myself for what I had ahead of me. I had been to Lanzhou twice before. It is a city with a vast history common for most of China's larger cities but to me Lanzhou had never been a city of politics, activism, or even associated with my general routine of traveling to treat illness. It was a city of discovery, of unearthing the history of early ceramic drums and finding a true and deep passion for the origin of Asian percussion. Lanzhou was large and sprawling, but choked with pollution caused by rapidly expanding industry and decades of unregulated waste disposal. In recent years, the government made an effort to curb the generation of pollution, but I felt certain, as I looked around the air just outside the airport, that I wasn't the only one who wondered if these efforts weren't already too late. In any case, from what I gathered from the assignment letter, the city population wasn't my concern. My concern was ChenghuaCun, a small village outside of the city one of the hundreds of "cancer villages" where almost every inhabitant was struggling with various malignancies, most of them presently untreated. The healthy youth had long since fled the small farming community. What remained were the older generation, the farmers who had taken pride in their land their entire lives, and who now had nowhere else to go.

I fetched my own baggage and walked to the customs office to retrieve the boxes of medical supplies that were sent here for me. Each step away from the plane felt like one more step away from her, from the life I'd unintentionally grown so attached to. A quick glance at the inventory of each box and my stomach plummeted. This was not a standard field trip for me. I was not there to treat disease or save lives. I was there to treat only symptoms. I was there to give comfort, not hope. I turned on my phone to send Bella a short text, suddenly desperate for a tether to a more optimistic world: I've arrived safely. There are no green zebras here. What's for dinner? The chaos around me while I waited for a taxi was a stark contrast to the calm of my life with Bella. There were people everywhere. It was hot and the air was suffocating. I felt burdened by how many bags and boxes I had to transport, and finding a taxi that was large enough for my parcels seemed to take hours. Nothing about the experience was familiar, and yet, everything about the experience should have been. This routine bustling travel, crowded airports, foreign surroundings was my life, was what I knew. Suddenly it seemed almost impossible that I had known Bella for such a short time. Every trace of her seemed to have back-filled my memories in such a way that even my trips before I met her were somehow colored differently. How could it be strange that she was not with me? The realization shook me, given that, had anyone asked, I would have answered that it would be truly surreal to have her here. Although she'd never really been anywhere, I found that I was able to imagine her everywhere. It never would have occurred to me to ask her to come with me but I found, with a crushing realization, that perhaps given enough time to prepare, she could have. Would she have? The drive to the village would add another couple of hours to my trip and once I was tucked into a van, I struggled to calm my fidgeting, tense limbs. Traffic slowed our progress and the late summer air was thick and hot. I didn't know what to expect when I arrived, only that my friend and colleague Tommy would be there and that people would be sick and in pain. I wanted to close my eyes and think of her, but I knew if I did that, when I opened them, I wouldn't be able to resist asking the driver to take me back to the airport, to the comfort of her soft wet lips, her endlessly accepting dark eyes. Instead, I focused on the passing landscape, on the road diverging from the familiar route to Xianghuajian village where the Lanzhou hand drum originated and where I found comfort in the community but no intimacy other than through music. Only through music had I ever found any semblance of intimacy, and always fleeting. ...Before dinners on the floor together... ...Before being able to reveal myself bit by bit with someone every night... ...Before Bella... I looked around as we drove on barely passable roads and felt the crushing weight of helplessness. The Yellow River, the Mother River, was dying. The river had sustained this region, and many others, for centuries. Now, stained with pollution, its beautiful color altered by sewage, crowded with dams that should never have been erected, it trickled almost lifelessly. Although its path used to stretch thousands of miles, in the past decade, there had been years when the river failed to reach

the sea at all. This dwindling was apparent everywhere, but the pollution was most apparent here, just outside the city limits. I gave in and closed my eyes, swallowing my desire to reverse our route. I tried to imagine her at my sink, snapping the tops off of beans fresh from her garden. Her foot would be tucked against one leg as she scratched her calf absently with her toe. Her hair would be in a high messy ponytail. Her legs would go on forever beneath her shorts, and when she looked at me, her eyes would turn up into a smile that was just for me. A large pothole on the road roused me from my daydream, and I realized hadn't heard back from Bella. I looked at my phone. I had no cell service out here. Tommy stood, waiting at the small mouth of the village, having seen the dust cloud of the van approaching for miles. My old friend looked exhausted. No longer the round-faced and grinning med student I knew years ago, now he was thin and worn. Dark circles shadowed his eyes, and I imagined he often stayed awake solely with the help of caffeine and will power. Clearly, he was barely keeping enough energy for himself. I was immediately glad that I was here for him. I stepped from the van as it stopped and climbed out to embrace my old friend. He wore a lab coat that was yellowed from wear and, presumably, from being washed in local water. I glanced at the embroidered pocket. . Dr. Zhao. "Hey Little Zhong," I said, grinning as I used the familiar nickname. "How're they hanging?" "Neglected," he smirked, returning my hug and patting my back with surprising vigor. He seemed to almost deflate with relief. "Welcome to ChenghuaCun," he said, stepping back and sweeping his hands in a grand gesture. "You need a drink?" "Yes," I laughed, grabbing a box and beginning the process of carrying my baggage to the small group of buildings in the distance. "Are we at the same hotel?" Tommy laughed as he fell into step with me and nodded his head to a small home at the end of the long row. The houses were barely habitable but the accommodations were better than other I'd had in the field. "That one's yours," he said, adjusting the weight of the box of supplies in his arms. Once we had carried all of the supplies to a small building that seemed to be serving as his medical headquarters, I wandered to my temporary residence to change and unload my luggage. I knew without having to ask that it had been recently vacated because of a death. The home was neat and well kept, if sparsely furnished. There were three rooms: a larger main living area with a bed and small table with two chairs, a bathroom area that housed a wash-basin and small tarnished mirror on the wall, and a small kitchen area with a camp-sized stove, some pots and pans, and a chest for food storage. There was no running water, no plumbing, and no electricity

in the small grouping of homes. The toilets were grouped outside, down the hill. Existence here was simple, straightforward, and until the last decade or so, had required little help from the outside world. I pulled my phone from my pocket and stared at it, willing the bars to appear in the corner. Never before had I even pulled my phone out of my bag once I arrived in the field, and now it was my only connection to her. I unpacked my small manual generator and placed it on the table. I realized my action was futile, that I didn't need to bother to keep my phone charged, but I was unable to stop the compulsion. I texted her again, knowing she wouldn't see it for weeks and suddenly not caring. Even if it was just a symbolic act, I needed her here with me. I walked to Tommy's home several houses down from mine and felt the eyes of the village's inhabitants watching me from inside their homes. I smiled at each dark window and the invisible faces beyond, hoping to communicate that I was here to help them. Tommy told me that there was a dinner to welcome me later that night, but I knew we needed time together before that, for him to debrief me on the situation. I handed him a bottle of Talisker and his eyebrows shot up. "Dude," he breathed. "Nice." He carried it to his small table and grabbed a couple of aluminum cups before turning and staring at the label. "How'd you get this here?" "I'm a sneaky bastard," I smiled, looking around his place. He had clearly been here awhile. "When did you get here?" "February," he said, pouring a couple of fingers into a glass for each of us as I sat at the table. "I am totally fucking drained, man." I nodded, taking the cup from him and watching as he sat down across from me. "When are you leaving?" He shook his head and shrugged. "I don't know. They've set up a heavy ion cancer center for the area, but are still not able to take everyone here. ChenghuaCun is low on the list, because almost everyone left here is over forty. I think they just see this village as a lost cause." "They didn't send me any Ara-C or Daunorubicin," I said quietly. "All I have is Zofran, morphine, and a few other symptomatics." When Tommy nodded into his glass, I realized he probably hadn't requested any chemotherapeutics to be sent with me. He didn't hope to cure anyone, either. "What is the goal here, Tom? Are we just giving comfort?" He nodded again, not meeting my eyes. This was a fairly simple medical assignment, if not completely depressing. "You need to head back to the states and recover? I can cover it for a few months." "No," he said, looking resigned. "I just needed help. I was burned out when I called Steve and asked for you. I'm trying to get samples of local water to help the Lanzhou environmental council, and sometimes it requires long day trips. I just can't treat everyone and also do those support activities at the same time." We grew quiet as we sipped our scotch and gazed out his back window to the lush earth sloping down to the river. In the back yard between our homes was a newer stone building, presumably for bathing. It was surrounded by hungry and wild vines and looked like a small oasis. I looked back at

him and took in the circles under his eyes, the prominence of his cheekbones. His request, although posted as urgent, was relatively straightforward. He had been doing everything here by himself and simply couldn't do it alone anymore and knew I would be sent immediately. He also couldn't find it in himself to leave a helpless situation, even if it was clearly affecting him. I was suddenly gripped with a nearly overwhelming sense of loneliness, of longing. "Not eating so much," I observed quietly, thinking of her, of everything I left. I tried to swallow my resentment at the realization that I had come halfway across the world because Tommy was burnt out. I wanted to conjure strength for my friend, as I would have done readily and without hesitation before my life had changed so dramatically. He needs me, I thought. He matters. My stomach remained knotted. "There's not so much to eat from here. Only for about eight weeks have we been able to have the food trucked in from Lanzhou. Before that we had vouchers but no way of getting it easily." I nodded, looking past the stone building to the withering crops beyond. The food had to be horrifically toxic. To imagine the residents were getting food shipped in only for the last couple of months sent a chill across my arms. I changed the subject. "Are you seeing anyone back home?" Tommy was a famous serial monogamist. Tommy shook his head as he finished the last of his scotch in a single gulp. I realized I'd have to keep an eye on his drinking. "Nope," he croaked, wiping his lip with a finger and reaching for the bottle. His face was flushed already and he didn't seem to care. "I need to get laid." I sat quietly, wondering why I'd chosen that topic as the distraction. I had made love to Bella less than two days ago and still felt the burn of her touch on my chest. The return question hung in the air and I felt it several seconds before he mumbled, "You?" It was a polite question and he expected the answer to be 'no'. I rubbed my hand across my mouth and then leaned my forehead into my palm, rubbing my eyebrow ring absently. "Yeah?" he asked, and I could feel him sitting straighter in his chair. "Is it serious...?" I moved my head lower and then rubbed my face roughly in both hands. What the fuck was I doing here? "Really?" he whispered, amazed. "Yeah," I mumbled. I could feel the weight of his realization as it sunk in. "You left her to come here," he said, leaning forward in his chair slightly, "...for this." His voice held an unmistakable color of apology, his expression one of dismay. Looking down at the table, I ran my finger along the scarred wood as I considered this.

I knew without question that what we did as an organization was important, that we saved lives and made a difference. I'd always given my energy and time without hesitation, knowing that the life I'd chosen was what I was put on this earth to do. People lived, and villages just like this recovered because of our efforts, but looking around at the desolation and utter hopelessness surrounding me, I felt more grief than hope. The world hadn't changed. I had. "Edward?" I looked up to find him still watching me, waiting for an answer. I took in the new lines in his face, the heaviness of his jowls. This life in the field generally brought gratification beyond description, but it also disguised the passage of time. Our lives beyond this didn't stop when we worked; they moved on, without attachment, without milestones. "Yeah," I said again, knowing it was all I could manage. June 8th She stood before me, bouncing lightly on bare feet. Her toes curled up to protect the soles from the hot porch. Her hair was pulled away from her face; her lips were smooth and wet from what I would come to know as her continual and unconscious habit of licking them. She thrust a dish at me a pie, leaking deep purple juice and with yellow fruit peeking through the lattice. I looked up at her face, disbelieving. This vision before me was for me. The pie, yes, but also the transition of her cheeks from pink and excited, to scarlet and amazed. I knew what she felt in that instant because her expression perfectly mirrored my emotions. Wonder. Thrill. A sharp spike of desire and longing. I could see all of this in her blush, in her restrained smile, in her eyes. She looked slightly wild, bursting from behind everything. "For me?" I asked, feeling my entire body lean towards her. She licked her lips again and smiled, nodding. Her eyes crinkled into beautiful crescents when she smiled. I thought she was the sweetest, most beautiful thing I had ever seen. July 17th - August 15th

I had never really fit in anywhere, unless I was in the field. It always took the locals several days before they were comfortable with me. The reason could have been that I was white, or perhaps that I was tattooed and pierced, or that I simply fell outside of their cultural norm. Regardless of my background or appearance, I had never been rejected or even mildly disliked. Once the residents got over their initial hesitation, they let me into their homes and their hearts without pretense or expectation. Though many still didn't understand that they could not eat their crops or drink local water even if boiled they offered me everything and anything they had when I came to visit. There were twenty-seven people left in the village that, only five years ago, used to be home to over seventy adults and many children. The youngest resident was twenty-five, a woman caring for her sick father. She was not ill, at least not yet. Of the residents who remained, seventeen were clearly dying, another five were sick but still able to care for their loved ones, and the remaining five were still untouched by disease. Most healthy residents had left in the past few years when the government had encouraged the tiny population of ChenghuaCun to move to the city and seek out factory work while the river pollution was addressed. That was to say, indefinitely. Those who remained received 4,000 yuan for housing and sustenance subsidy annually, but few of them, if any, knew what to do with the money. The homes had remained dilapidated and leaning, and because of the distance to Lanzhou, all food had still been acquired from local crops or trade with nearby villages with livestock. Beyond even the relative insurmountable distance to the city and the availability of safe food, until recently, it was clear that the residents were reluctant to believe that the crops and herds they raised with their own hands were poisoning them. Protein in their diet was scarce; livestock herds were faring worse than were their caretakers. The population of farmers was therefore weak, resistant to change, and also living by a horribly polluted water source. Exposure was inevitable, even with all available precautions. I knew it was only a matter of time before I fell sick with an acute illness. There were different flora here, different things my system was not used to dealing with. What worried me most was my ability to keep local produce from my diet, to keep local water from my everyday activities. It was almost impossible to be here and avoid contact with contaminated water. August 16th Bella once questioned my commitment to constancy but it would probably surprise her that, in the field, my entire world was built of routine. Every morning, I would greet each family and provide the needed care and treatment. I would text Bella some short note before repeating the visiting circuit to ensure that each individual was drinking water from the correct bottles and eating food from the bins we provided, not from their own supplies. Invariably, I would have the same conversation multiple times each day, every day, in my broken Mandarin, knowing the same skepticism and concern would greet me the next day. My own care and comfort became the concern of a small woman in her fifties, Jiang Lin. Her hands remained cracked and thick, though she understood earlier than most that her farming efforts were futile. She now survived on the provided rations, the generation of nonexistent gossip, and caring for Tommy and me.

Her husband was sick but refused most pampering and virtually every treatment except the occasional dose of morphine. Instead of engaging in continued attempts to get him to agree to her hovering, she doted on us, cooking for us and insisting on cleaning our homes. Without pomp or pretense she entered my home as I sat, organizing doses of morphine at my small table. "Jian qi lai," she motioned for me to stand up. "Wo xian zai da sao yi xia." I'll clean now. "Jiang Sao," I started before she hissed and shook her head. "Ah Lin," I corrected, using the more familiar name she insisted we use. "Ni bu yong da sao." You don't have to clean. She quieted me with a shake of her head and a sweeping gesture, and I stood, reaching to gather my bottles from the table. In a blur of movement, she caught my arm and pulled it to her with two strong hands, staring at my anthem, forever tattooed on my wrist. I'm destined to be hers I winced, having been only able to gaze at those words when I was alone and allowed myself to be vulnerable in the dark of night. "Ta shi shei?" she asked quietly. "Bella," I whispered. We both stared at my arm. She repeated the name softly, running her fingers over the characters. Somehow, even with her accent, the name brought Bella here, into the room. The thought of her here both stirred me and caused my chest to ache. The sound of her name filled the room with light, but I didn't want her light polluted by the land. Ah Lin looked up at me. "Ni ai ta." You love her. From the moment I saw her, I wanted to say. Instead, I simply said, "Yes." She dropped my arm gently and cupped my chin in her hand, pulling me down closer to her face. "Come," she smiled at me. "Wo hua ta de hua xiang gei ni." My heart seized. I will draw her for you. June 17th

We stood in comfortable silence in my kitchen, her back to me as she sliced a bowl of brightly colored vegetables. I leaned against the counter opposite her, my eyes moving along her glossy hair, the curve of her shoulders beneath the thin straps of her top, to the way her hips shifted slightly with each move of the knife. My eyes darted to the cupboard above her, knowing how my life must look to someone as grounded as her. I knew these feelings I had could never be returned, and yet, I couldn't keep my eyes away. Clearing my throat, I pushed off the counter and moved toward her. "Is there anything I can do to help?" I paused, unable to keep from smiling as I waited for her practiced answer. We had developed a routine of sorts, she would cook and I would watch. Then I would eat and she would watch. I couldn't not watch. "No," she began, her ponytail swinging softly as she shook her head from side to side. My eyes were drawn instantly to the graceful curve of her neck. "I'm almost done actually. It's been so hot, I thought we'd both like something cool." She scooped the colorful pieces onto the blade and deposited them in a blue ceramic bowl. "Sounds perfect." Turning, she reached behind me, offering me a warm smile as she retrieved a large spoon from the drawer to my right. Her cheeks were flushed slightly, whether from the sun or the unrelenting June heat, I wasn't sure. I placed a hand on her forearm to stop her, my thumb moving to her face to absently brush along her pink skin. "Is it too warm in here?" I asked. My gaze followed the movement of my hand, completely mesmerized by the softness under my finger. I met her eyes, bright and curious and warm brown. She shook her head. "No." She licked her bottom lip unknowingly and pressed her palm against her other cheek. "I must have gotten too much sun today." I smiled, my hand lingering before reluctantly pulling away. "You're pink, Neighbor Girl," I said, my smile widening as I reached up again and brushed a piece of hair from her warm forehead. "It suits you." Her eyes fell briefly, her expression bashful. "You're teasing me." She chewed her bottom lip before looking up at me again, a devious glint in her eye. "And I think I like it." I laughed, loud and happy, shaking my head as she winked and turned back to her crazy vegetables. We sat later around my scarred coffee table, her feet tucked beneath her as she waited. She had made us pasta salad tonight, it was bright and colorful and delicious. "God, I love your cooking," I mumbled, my eyes falling closed as I chewed.

"The tomatoes are from my garden. So is the basil." She smiled widely, the pride in her voice evident. So that's what she'd been doing outside all afternoon. I savored each bite a little more knowing it had come from her. "The tomatoes are amazing," I sighed. "What are they called? They're so colorful, they have to have some crazy fruit names like Wild Woman and Big Bird." I speared a particularly bright yellow one, pausing to examine it before popping it into my mouth. I looked up at her laughter. "The purple ones are Cherokee. The yellow ones are Banana Legs. The green ones my favorites are Green Zebra." Laughing, I shook my head, loving that she would chose things like this to fill her time and her garden. She was so unlike anyone I had ever met, so open and so real, as if every emotion that passed through her mind, moved in tandem across her sweet face. What was she doing here with me? I wondered. She should have someone in that little yellow house that watched her cook dinner and helped her in her garden. I'd never met anyone like her. She loved my house, old and forgotten as it had been, welcoming me as if she'd always known I would be here. I looked up to see her watching me. Watching my mouth. A longing stirred from deep within me. The tension that always surrounded us seemed to continually thicken. I was drawn to her in a way I'd never known, as if the air changed into something vibrant and alive when she was near. It was more than just our bodies. I felt her, in every sense of the word. "What?" I asked, licking the vinaigrette from my lips. "Are you watching me eat?" She blushed and I wondered if she would admit it, admit to this thing that seemed to be pulsing between us. Despite knowing she shouldn't, I wanted her to. Her eyes fell to her hands and she laughed, shaking her head briefly before looking at me again. "What made you choose your tattoos, your piercings?" she asked, her gaze moving along my exposed arms. "I love every home I've had," I began, examining the pieces of my life that covered my skin. "No matter how long I'm there. I like keeping some of it with me. I felt like I needed decoration. It's not about disliking my skin, it's about loving it." I remembered my first tattoo, a small bird with yellow and red feathers painted along the left side of my torso. The colorful bird held the most important memories I carried of my time in Kenya. It had been my first official tour, my first time on my own. I'd traveled with my parents as a child, yet being on my own seemed different. I'd struggled more than I'd expected to those first days. My Swahili was still rough and I'd felt like an outsider to some extent. One morning I had awoken, still chilled from the cool savannah nights and sore from a particularly long night of sleeping on a threadbare cot. I had made my way out of the tent and been faced with a small bird perched on one of the smooth stones that encircled the extinguished fire.

I'd smiled. Each morning, it would be there, a small reminder of the color and beauty that existed in this brown and dusty place. This was the piece I'd chosen to take with me when my time there was up. "Who is that?" she asked, her voice and tentative touch along my forearm bringing me back to my small living room. My hand followed hers. "My grandfather." She shifted, her hand moving to my face to lightly stroke the metal ring that pierced my eyebrow. Her hand was warm and soft I leaned into her touch, my eyes closing from the sheer weight of having her know me this way. "And that?" she asked. I opened my eyes as she motioned to the piercing just below my lip. I was lost in a way I'd never known, in a way I'd never wanted with anyone before her. "Same thing. I think it suits me," I answered, smiling softly at the way her eyes moved across my face, at the way she took me in and seemed to accept the differences between us. "You, on the other hand, are best completely undecorated." I couldn't help but watch her in the same hungry way that she'd watched me, unable to keep the literal meaning of my words from forming in my mind. She would be so beautiful: naked soft skin, and sweetness, and welcoming, open arms. A strange expression moved across her features: uncertainty, shyness and finally a look that spoke of determination. She took the napkin from my hand and pulled my palm to her, placing it against her breast, her nipple between my fingers. She pressed me to her more firmly and I felt it, the distinct feel of metal, of a ring pierced through the hardened tip. My breath caught and I hissed at the realization. I was torn between looking into her eyes, to understand what she was feeling, and watching the way her perfect breast fit in my grasp. Her breath was heavy, her heart pounding beneath my touch as my thumb moved back and forth, relishing in this hidden piece of herself that she was sharing with me. Too quickly she pulled my hand away, placing the paper napkin in my empty palm. It fell to the floor, my hand unwilling to forget the shape and perfectness of her. "Bella?" I asked, my voice full of confusion and wanting, my world and what I thought I knew having tilted off its axis in that single moment. "Let me get these," she said quietly. She didn't meet my eyes, the pink of her sunburned cheeks deepening as she gathered our plates and made her way to the kitchen. I watched her go, my chest heaving and my mind in chaos, wondering if perhaps we weren't so different after all.

August 16th With painstaking slowness I described Bella in my limited Mandarin, gesturing when I had to. I spent what felt like hours describing her eyes, her blush, and the long slope of her neck. Ah Lin smiled at me knowingly as she drew in meticulous and breathtaking detail, and when she handed me the paper, I felt the agony of longing so intense it made me nauseous. I calmed myself as much as I could and thanked her profusely before taking the picture out back and leaning against the stone shower, staring. It rocked me, yes. I felt like I was suffocating, looking at the picture in my hands. I hadn't seen her face in weeks. This drawing gave me a piece of her to gaze at and to remember. But so much was missing, and in some ways it was the missing pieces that hurt the most. The picture didn't capture how her neck felt under my lips, or how her laugh sounded in the kitchen but was always quieter and deeper from across our makeshift table in the living room. I had never had a chance to hear her laugh in bed, underneath me, above me, or feel how she squeezed me when I made her laugh while I loved her. The picture was beautiful but it didn't capture how she'd watch me take my first bite of dinner, pretending not to look, not knowing that she held her breath every single one of the thirty first bites she witnessed and how she exhaled slowly when she saw with her own eyes how much I loved her cooking. It didn't capture how she felt under my fingers, or how her voice sounded the first time she climaxed with me inside her. She whispered later, when I was beneath her and she was making love to me, that she already didn't know how to go a day without being with me, and I came into her then with a low groan, unexpected and overwhelming. I pulled out my useless phone and texted her: You are so beautiful. I played these images of Bella in my head over and over later that night, when I was alone and fighting the consuming loneliness after yet another evening without her. In my bed, I closed my eyes and took my erection in my hand, remembering how her fingers felt under mine as I showed her how to touch me. When I came, I imagined her watching, asking me to come on her breasts. I remembered how she licked her lips and looked up at me, not moving to clean herself, instead almost seeming to feel more beautiful with my orgasm on her skin. I felt my cock soften in my hand and struggled to keep her voice in my ear. I didn't want to be done. I didn't want to lose this connection with her, even if I was alone, thousands of miles away. I grasped at the images: Bella tugging on my hair, hungry for my kiss. Bella curled up against me as her entire body relaxed. Bella's hair tangled underneath her, underneath me. Bella's voice asking me to put my mouth on her.

This last fantasy shook me because I realized I had spent thirty evenings with Bella and had never tasted her. This thought haunted me continually for the next six days until I fell ill and continued into my delirium. August 22nd It felt like it took me forever to make my morning house calls. I didn't want to leave the house without eating, but I couldn't find anything that my body wanted. I felt cold in the sweltering heat. Pushing the thoughts aside, I grabbed my morning doses and left, waving weakly to Ah Lin as I passed her on the path. In the cool damp darkness of his home, ChangMing's arm was tiny and wrinkled in my grasp. "How do you feel?" I could hear the improvement in my Mandarin, but it still took me so long to find the words. He shrugged. "I don't like what the medicine makes me feel." I looked up at him. "Tell me what you mean. I want to make sure I have the right dose." "I'm tired all the time," he said, frustrated. "Wo ren he de shi qing dou be neng zuo." I can't do anything anymore. I inhaled deeply, stilling the nausea I had been fighting all morning. "Part of that is the cancer," I told him quietly, wanting to be honest. "And part of that is the morphine. It will make you tired." He huffed softly. "Is the pain better?" He hesitated and then nodded once. I watched him, feeling sorry for this man who had once been so strong. I knew that more could be done to help him if he would consent to being moved to the treatment center in the city. His life could possibly be saved, the cancer sent into remission. His health had improved somewhat with the changes in his diet, but it wasn't enough. I could only do so much here and had told him as much, several times in fact, but like the others that remained in the village, he was unmoving. "Lei de gan jue bei tong hao shou?" Is the fatigue preferable to the pain? He didn't answer. I took it as a yes and smoothed an alcohol wipe over his arm, moving slowly so he could stop me if he wanted. The front door opened and closed quietly behind me. "Zhao yi sheng, ni hao," ChangMing called weakly to Tommy behind me.

"Go lay down," Tommy told me as he walked in and stared at me with concern etched on his forehead. "I'm good," I mumbled, leaning to give ChangMing the shot. My hand was steady, but not without effort. "Ah Lin told me you were weaving. You are. You're like a drunken sailor." I didn't say anything but felt a spike of panic when I realized he was right. I felt terrible; I looked up at him, feeling frantic for several long seconds, trying to track any and every exposure I might have had in the past month. He put his hand on my arm, understanding. "Dude, you're sweating like crazy. Go." I was sweating. I had a fever. My body was fighting an infection, nothing more. I nodded absently and stumbled from ChangMing's home. The path to my place felt like an illusion, it continually stretched and retracted. I needed water. Small hands gripped my arms and an arm slid around my waist. "You have a fever," Ah Lin whispered. "Come." I collapsed on my bed and stared at the ceiling as it rippled above me, like water suspended. Ah Lin tilted my head up and poured bottled water into my mouth. I coughed a bit. "I'm not so weak that I can't drink on my own." I managed a laugh, taking it from her. She placed a rough hand on my cheek, assessing. "Ni jiu hui." You will be. *~* = Longing Love asks for blood at first Disclaimer: Santa Meyer los crea y ellos se juntan. Yo solo me encargo de jugar un poco con ellos. Nota uno: S que tengo varias lectoras de Chile. Si eres de ese pais y lees este mensaje, que por favor te pongas en contacto conmigo, via pm, solo para decir que estas bien. Nota dos: En este capitulo hay varias frases en Italiano. El traductor no es nada fiable y no estoy nada segura que haya hecho una traduccin correcta y yo bastante tengo con el ingls. Asi que desde aqu, si alguien sabe italiano y se ofende, pido disculpas. No era mi intencin. ~*~

Missing Y si sangro, sangrar sabiendo que eso no te importa Si duermo para soar contigo, encontrar las sabanas vacas Nadie me echar de menos?...Missing (Evanescence) ~*~ "Eres tan hermosa". Como siempre, mi subconsciente me traicionaba y las falaces promesas de amor de Edward volvan a mi mente a modo de tortura. No era consciente del tiempo que llevaba en aquella ducha de un hotel de cinco estrellas de Seattle. Tal vez, era demasiado. Mi piel empezaba a arrugarse y las mamparas de la ducha a empaarse como consecuencia del vaho. Hlne haba sugerido que descanssemos unas horas antes de ir al aeropuerto. Tal vez, por mi gesto adusto y mi silencio prolongado durante el viaje, le hizo creer que me encontraba agotada del viaje. Por qu debera sentirme tan entusiasmada por ir a la majestuosa Roma? De alguna manera, ella deba comprender mi estado de nimo, y despus de un pequeo esfuerzo por forzar una conversacin, lo dio por imposible y se mantuvo callada solo interrumpiendo esos intervalos para preguntar alguna tonta cuestin a sus guardaespaldas. Mentalmente le agradec su silencio. Haba un vacio interior que las palabras no lograran llenar. Solo recuerdos tallados en frgiles cristales que se rompan con las mentiras y sus fragmentos se clavaban el aquel escaso trozo de alma que me quedaba. Lo suficiente como para sobrevivir, aunque quebrada y herida de profundidad. "Tan hermosa" Aun en mis pensamientos, su voz me produca un sutil cosquilleo en el pecho que me recorra la espalda para despus causarme punzadas tan fuertes que me hicieron frotarme la espalda con tanta fuerza que no me hubiera extraado, de un momento a otro, ver sangre en las yemas de los dedos. El agua caliente no consegua devolverme el calor que mi cuerpo reclamaba, por lo tanto, exasperada, me sal de la ducha y me frot bien la piel con la toalla hasta que qued totalmente enrojecida. Era intil, mi cuerpo haba desarrollado la memoria del suyo de forma dolorosamente irrevocable. La garganta me picaba y mis ojos se llenaban de incomodas lgrimas que yo no permita que saliesen a flote. El espejo estaba empaado por el vaho de la ducha. Por un momento, alc la mano para limpiar su superficie, pero, por un instante mantuve la mano en el aire y no hice nada. Suspir. Debera temer

a lo que viese? Tal vez el futuro ya estaba escrito, e hiciese lo que hiciese, yo ya tena que tomar ese camino especfico, sin posibilidad de bifurcaciones. Sin embargo, a medida que limpiaba el espejo, mi desilusin iba en aumento. Me esperaba ver? Si era a esa hermosa y onrica imagen de aquella perturbadora versin de m, oscura y lejana, me equivocaba por completo; y al despejar por completo, la realidad me impact por completo. Se trataba de m, la humana y desarraigada Bella Swan; con cambios sutiles, pero siempre yo. Tal vez mi piel estuviese ms plida aun, mis ojos enrojecidos en el que solo se distingua un difuso iris que se funda con la pupila debido a que se haba oscurecido de tal manera que le daba a estos un aspecto de tener carbn apagado. Dnde estaba el color chocolate en ellos? No haba ni rastro. Y para hacer aun ms siniestra mi apariencia, me vea sombreada por unas enormes ojeras negras. Tal vez, si alguien que conociese un poco el mundo donde me mova, por mis palabras, dira: "Oh, ya eres un vampiro!" Pero en cuanto me viesen, desechara la idea. Yo era lo ms contrario a un vampiro. Al observar mi labio inferior, no me atrajo su color intensamente rojizo, bastante notorio en un rostro monocromtico, si no algo de naturaleza ms sutil, que no se podra percibir a simple vista si no se fijaba bien uno. Una pequea cicatriz en forma de media luna parta de forma inconexa mi labio en dos. Aquel era el modus operandi de Edward. Heridas pequeas que dejaban grandes mutilaciones. Mi alma estaba llena de ellas. Abr el cajn del armario, cog un peine con la misin imposible de deshacer todos los nudos y mantener domado mi pelo salvaje. Me quej y maldije el primer obstculo que sus pas encontraron, arrancndome por el camino, varios de mis mechones. Cerr los ojos para contener las lgrimas de dolor y de nuevo, los recuerdos me asaltaron. La sensacin de los labios de Edward sobre los mos era abrasadora. Por no hablar de sus glidos dedos recorriendo mi cuerpo desde mi recto cuello hasta las curvas de mis caderas, finalizando en aquella zona de mi cuerpo donde terminaba lo decoroso y lo prohibido se confunda con lo excitante. Con la otra mano, peinaba mi largo cabello de manera mucho ms efectiva que aquellas estpidas pas de plstico. "Ests enterrada en mi corazn, y nadie podr desenterrarte de l." Tal vez, pero si me lo arrancaba de cuajo y se lo llevaba consigo, s podra. Luego me vino otra evidencia. La que me avisaba de todo lo que iba a ocurrir y que la realidad era fra y oscura. Carpe diem.

Mi pelo no tena arreglo. No quera que tuviese el recuerdo de su tacto en l. Si l haba conseguido sacarme de su existencia, yo tambin lo hara. Y una manera era eliminando todo aquello que me hiciese funcionar aquella parte de mi cerebro. Me pareci ver que al lado del peine haba unas pequeas tijeras. Volv abrir el cajn Eureka! Las cog y las abr mientras colocaba un mechn de mi pelo en ellas. Por qu tanta incertidumbre? "Tienes un pelo tan hermoso" A la mierda! Junt las dos hojas con mi pelo entre ellas y al or zas, supe que ya no haba vuelta atrs. Y menos cuando sent su tacto sedoso en la piel de mi hombro. Te gusta mi pelo, Edward?Desafi a la imagen de mi espejo en su lugar mientras me cortaba un mechn aun ms largo. Todo tuyo. Poco a poco, un acumulo de ondas castaas caan como hojas de un rbol en otoo bajo mis pies y cubran el inmaculado suelo del bao. ~*~ No se me ocurra otra cosa mejor que estar tumbada en la cama, cambiando de canal de aquella maravillosa televisin pantalla plana mientras luchaba por que los parpados no se me cayesen y me dejase vencer por el sueo. Cuntas horas faltaban para coger el avin? Solo tena constancia del tiempo segn se iba amortiguando la luz que se colaba por las rendijas de la persiana. Se me meti un pelo en el ojo, y aquello fue la excusa para volverlo a revisar. Admita que no haba salido tan mal del todo aun tratndose de la primera vez que lo haca. La combinacin de flequillo liso y largo con el pelo corto y todas las puntas hacia los lados, le daba cierto punto de catica distincin. Bastante fashion. Y lo mejor de todo, que con un poco de gomina, se peinara a la perfeccin. Por primera vez mis labios dibujaron una sonrisa al imaginarme la cara de horror de Alice si tuviese la oportunidad de verme con mi nuevo aspecto. "Demonios, Bella! Se puede saber que se te ha perdido con los Emos?... Esto es totalmente antiesttico!" Dej de rerme cuando su rostro se visualiz en mi mente.

Mi Alice. Ni siquiera me haban dejado despedirme de ella. Esperaba que comprendiese que yo estaba dispuesta hacerlo. Tal vez aquella nube de confusin se haba disipado y ya podr ver el futuro. Podra haberme visto en aquella habitacin de hotel haciendo zapping? Adis, Alice. Dese que ella lo hubiese visto. Habra visto tambin mi llegada a Roma? Aquel sentimiento de prdida hizo que me aovillase hasta el extremo de casi juntar las rodillas con la barbilla y que los sonidos se volviesen confusos fundindose con las imgenes que pasaban rpidamente por la pantalla de plasma. Por qu no desapareca ese fro? "Alice", suplicaba por que hubiera podido orlo antes de apenas yo haberlo pensado, "por qu no le dices a Edward lo mucho que duele?" En aquel instante me hubiera gustado que la puerta se hubiese abierto y que Alice entrase en ella, venciendo la distancia, saltando alborozada, y que se sentase en la cama para dejarme apoyar mi cabeza entre sus piernas a modo de descarga. "Todo ir bien, Bella", me hubiese asegurado mientras me acariciaba la punta de los cabellos. "Roma es fabulosa y all estars a salvo." Roma. Haba algo que iba muy mal. Tal vez, el instinto no iba de la mano con el estado de nimo, y al contrario que ste, siempre estaba en activo. Y ahora me estaba diciendo que yo no estara a salvo en Roma. Mi estmago se encogi y mi respiracin se aceler a la par de mi corazn. Leslat siempre me haba contado que Roma era una especie de lugar donde, si tena problemas, yo podra gritar: "Me acojo a sagrado!" Que yo tuviese constancia, los Stregoni, por disgusto y proteccin de su modo de vida hacia los Vulturis, eran los representantes de los vampiros vegetarianos y se encargaban de aquellos humanos que haban visto demasiado del mundo vamprico, ya fuese accidental o por haber sido vctimas de ellos, y se encargaban de protegerles y de adecuarles una vida lo ms parecida a lo que llevaban antes de que el horror se cruzase en su existencia. Iba a estar bien. A salvo!Murmur intentando creerlo.

Pero en los flashes de recuerdos vea detalles que durante el viaje no me pareci percibir. La sonrisa de Hlne era dura y fingida, y sus ojos estaban oscuros. Si antes no haba apreciado su tono de voz, triste y confuso, en aquel instante estaba ms claro que el sonido de la televisin. "A salvo?", Mi ment me repiti la pregunta de manera sarcstica. Fue como si me diesen un pinchazo y me obligasen a reaccionar levantndome acelerada y con todo la intuicin al mximo. Algo no iba mal. Sencillamente, iba muy mal. Y si aquello no fuese suficiente para alertarme, ella, aquella voz aterciopelada y musical, volvi despus de tantos meses. "Sabes que no va bien las cosas, verdad?" Tragu saliva y aun as mi garganta estaba seca. Nomusit. "No te quedes en esta habitacin ni un minuto ms!", Me exigi. "Aun no se ha puesto el sol y eso te da ventaja." Me cost reaccionar antes de darme cuenta que necesitaba encontrar las zapatillas de deporte y la chaqueta del chndal. Despus, rpidamente, busqu las cosas desperdigadas para meterlas en mi mochila. "No tienes tiempo!", me disuadi. "Sal ya del cuarto!" Dnde ir despus?La pregunt mientras abra la puerta y me aseguraba que Hlne ni sus guardaespaldas estaban vigilando. Hecho bastante extrao. "Asegrate de salir del hotel". Me iba a echar a correr por los pasillos, cuando de nuevo me detuvo: "Ve despacio. No levantes sospechas", me indic. Una puerta se abri y me sobresalt. Una seora de mediana edad y aspecto amable fue a dejar las toallas sucias en el carrito de la ropa y al verme me sonri. Correspond a su sonrisa para no parecer demasiado asustada. Despus cerr la puerta, y mi corazn volvi a latir a su velocidad normal. Mir de un lado a otro, buscando una salida de emergencias, pero al parecer, ella saba cmo tena que sobrevivir mejor que yo. "Levantaras demasiadas sospechas. Ve por el ascensor".

Me dirig hacia l y tuve la enorme suerte de que bajaba, por lo que no me demorara demasiado. Y para mayor suerte, no iba sola. Haba tres personas ms; un botones y una pareja de novios, aproximadamente, de mi edad. El botones me dej espacio, con una sonrisa radiante, mientras que la chica se agarraba al cuello de su pareja y le arrastraba hacia la esquina, comindose la boca a besos. Joder! Saba que era morboso y de muy mala educacin mirar fijamente sin respetar su espacio de intimidad, pero era mucho ms fuerte que yo. El pasado era hermoso, y no me hizo falta ms que mirar hacia atrs dos semanas para verme a m misma con Edward en la misma situacin. Seguramente, al igual que nosotros, acabaran de hacer el amorbueno, siendo realistas, los hombres llamaban a hacer el amor a follar mientras susurraban al odo dulces mentiras, pero la necesidad de sus cuerpos, era ms primitivamente instintiva y el mapa del cuerpo de l se quedara grabado en el alma de ella. Era la realidad de una ilusin que saltara en pedazos. El corazn me dio un pinchazo y volv la cabeza reprendindome por ser tan masoquista. Ola a sangre. Eso significaba una nueva herida abierta en mi corazn. Cerr los ojos y me concentr para no or los gemidos de ella acompaados de las tontas risitas de l. Oh, Peter!Fingi regaarle soltando una sonrisa tonta. Comprtate!... Seoritatuve que dejar de mantener la mente en blanco y volver a aquel ascensor para darme cuentas que el botones me llamaba. Seorita!Volvi a insistir hasta que logr mirarlo. Su rostro reflejaba sincera preocupacin. Est usted muy plida. Necesita algn tipo de ayuda?Se mostr bastante solicit. Negu con la cabeza mientras ensayaba una mueca que pudiese pasar por sonrisa. No, graciasmurmur. He estado todo el da metida en el hotel. Solo necesito estirar las piernas fuera. Como guste, seorita. Un ronco gemido me hizo volverme de nuevo a aquella maldita esquina. S, yo estaba muy enferma. Se me hizo un nudo en la garganta y empezaron a picarme los ojos cuando observ el espectculo de aquella pareja feliz, besndose con profundidad mientras la cadera de l buscaba profundidad en el cuerpo de ella, provocando una cadencia espasmdica bastante rtmica de sus cuerpos en coordinacin. El espacio del ascensor se me haca ms y ms pequeo y la sensacin de faltarme el oxigeno era evidente. Sin embargo, en su mundo idlico, no haba lugar para personas desgarradas por el amor.

"Ms dura ser la cada", le advert mentalmente a la chica mientras pona los ojos en blanco ante las caricias que le prodigaba su amante novio por debajo de su camiseta de tirantes. Si ella hubiera podido orme, pensara que soy una rencorosa muy cruel. Me hubiese gustado decirle: "No, querida. Solo vctima del exceso de amor no correspondido". Al abrirse el ascensor, sal como si me estuviesen persiguiendo las furias, aunque el posible peligro que corriese era lo de menos. Sencillamente, a nadie le gustaba intoxicarse en su propio veneno. "Ve ms despacio", me rega a consecuencia de las zancadas que daba a travs del largo pasillo. Aminor el ritmo mientras visualizaba la puerta de salida. Por lo que se vea, nadie se fijara en m. El recepcionista estaba ocupado con los recin llegados y se estaba haciendo el cambio de turno de los botones, por lo que solo estaba los turistas saliendo y entrando. Nadie sospechara de m. Una cliente ms que saldra a dar una vuelta. La puerta estaba a dos pasos. Uno ms y ya poda agarrar el picaporte. Legu a sentir el fro del metal, pero algo me paraliz y retraje la mano a un bolso, mordindome el labio y la impotencia convirtindose en rabia. Dnde crees que vas, Isabella?Me pregunt una voz monocorde e infantil. Una voz que yo conoca de sobra y que haba aprendido a odiar. Y si eso no me hubiera servido para reconocerla, el cristal reflejaba una pequea figura cubierta de negro cuyos ojos rojo resaltaban y sus gruesos labios infantiles se curvaban en una cruel sonrisa. Janesolt un suspiro. Donde crees que ibas, Isabella?Volvi a preguntarme. Y ahora, qu?Pregunt a la voz que estaba en mi mente. "No puedes hacer otra cosa que obedecer. No te resistas y haz lo que te dicen". Lentamente, di dos pasos hacia atrs y me dispuse a darme la vuelta cuando una enorme figura se me enfrent y no pude evitar agitarme. Solo me tranquilic, en parte, cuando comprend que se trataba de Felix, el hercleo guardaespaldas de Aro, que me dedicaba una lasciva sonrisa. Sin embargo, su voz no poda emanar ms distincin: Seorita Swanhizo una inclinacin a modo de deferencia como saludo, un placer encontrarla de nuevo. Ojala pudiese decir lo mismole respond con las pocas defensas que me quedaban. En lugar de sentirse ofendido, me ofreci la mejor de las sonrisas.

Jane, con impaciencia, se quit la capucha acercndose a nosotros analizando los escasos movimientos que estaba realizando. Despus de tanto tiempo, ella me tena en sus redes y sin posibilidad de escapar. No tena porque perder la calma. Por lo tanto, mi integridad se condicionaba a su estado de nimo. Tal vez, si estaba lo suficientemente exaltada con su triunfo, el dao que me infringiese fuese menor. Sin pedir permiso, me agarr de la mueca presionando lo suficiente para cortarme la circulacin en esa zona. Desde la ltima vez que nos encontramos, su tacto se me haca menos fro. Aunque, eso se tratase de la nueva condicin de mi naturaleza. Ay!No fui capaz de mantenerme callada ante la sensacin de dolor. Se supone que no debes salir del hotel me reprendi sin parar de apretarme. Se supone que nadie me dijo que me estaba prohibido salir a dar un paseola desafi a pesar del castigo al que me someta. Y t no eres nadie para llamarme Isabella. Se limit a encogerse de hombros sin soltar un solo milmetro de mi mueca oprimindola sin piedad. Incluso podra jurar que estaba oyendo el chasquido de mis huesos. Jane!Le grit Felix Para ya! Conoces de sobra las ordenes del Maestro respecto la chica Swan. Si sufre el ms mnimo dao, te las vers con l. Jane se resisti unos segundos hasta que se decidi a soltarme y se volvi dndome la espalda: Tienes razn, Felix. Es el Amo quien tiene que decidir sobre ellaluego se ri de manera infantil. Total, cuando el Amo termine con ella, me encargar de que tenga peor destino que su padre. "No respondas a su incitacin, Bella", me aconsej la voz. "Ese es el poder que quiere de ti. No des motivos para provocarla". Y a pesar de toda la rabia que tena acumulndose en mi cuerpo, ante su confesin de ser la potencial asesina de mi padre, no pude hacer el heroico y estpido gesto de vengarle. Yo ahora estaba sola y ella, por ahora, quedara impune de su delito. No saba cuando, pero me vengaraSi sala de sta. Empec a girar la mueca de manera dolorosa viendo los cambios de color entre rojo y morado, dejando un recuerdo de sus dedos en aquella zona de mi piel, mientras agradeca que no estuviese rota. Nos esperan, seorita Swancon un gesto de la mano, Felix me indic que deba seguir a Jane, sin ms demoras ni trucos por mi parte. El tono haba sido amable, pero sus ojos eran totalmente aterradores. No quera comprobar de lo que era capaz; segu sin mucho entusiasmo a una Jane exultante en su xito, mientras que Felix me cubra las espaldas. Podra decirle que no era necesario. Sin katana, sin sai y sin ningn Cullen, yo solo era una indefensa humana.

Jane se meti en el ascensor, despus de tener una corta discusin con el botones, que tuvo que salirse de all se meti en l, acurrucndose en una esquina. Pronto vi que no se encontraba sola. Haba dos personas ms con ella, se trataba del compaero de Felix, de la misma estatura e igualmente amedrentador, aunque sus rasgos estaban ms suavizados y el pelo largo le daba un toque ms humano. Totalmente falso. No solo las lneas de muerte me lo gritaban. Leslat esperaba el momento de pillarle desprevenido para acecharle. Y haban pasado quinientos aos y todo pareca estancado. Eso indicaba que no haba encontrado aun ningn punto dbil. No deba subestimarlo. Era un hueso duro de roer. A su lado, Hlne permaneca con la cabeza gacha y su porte de reina de la belleza se haba esfumado como el humo. Pareca abatida y no se atreva a levantar su mirada con la ma. S, debera estar muy enfadada con ella. Haba traicionado a su amigo Carlisle y me haba puesto en bandeja de plata a los Vulturis. Sin embargo, estaba hecha polvo y los reproches solo me haran gastar energa. Pas por su lado, sin ni siquiera mirarla. Mientras subamos, la angustia se me anudaba en la garganta y el estmago Y ahora qu? "Tienes que rendirte. No tienes armas para luchar. Para ganar una guerra hay que saber que batallas perder". BellaHlne me llamaba con voz ronca. Como decid ignorarla, ella volvi a insistir: Nunca ms podr mirar a la cara a Carlisle por lo que ha sucedido, y aunque no te lo creas, para m es el peor de los castigos. Ahora Alistair es el nuevo jefe de los Stregoni y ha decidido que una alianza con los Vulturis es mucho ms ventajosa que con los Cullen. Adems de satisfacer a Aro, Caius y Marcus, nos hizo creer que entregarte a ti a los Vulturis salvara nuestra forma de existencia La vida de un humano por la existencia de los vampiros vegetarianosmurmur. Es un buen juego poltico. Os felicito; no hubierais escogido mejor momento para hacerlo que ahora; todo a perfeccin milimtrica. El momento de actuar de la nefita e incluso cuando Edward, Jasper y Alice estaban fuera. O tenis mucha suerte o llevabais meses planendoloreclam con sarcasmo. No es justo que te separasen de tu familiaintent empatizar conmigo. Demasiado tarde. Si yo hubiera estado sola, me hubiera opuesto sin ninguna duda; pero t sabes tambin que nuestros enemigos nos retienen con lo que amamos. Alistair encerr a mi pareja y le ha puesto bajo vigilancia. Me amenaz conpareca que se ahogaba. Negu rotundamente; intua cual era el objeto de su chantaje. Tena que cumplir la misin, y aun as tengo miedo de que algo malo le ocurra. T deberas comprenderlo tan bien como yo, Bella. T tambin amas. Apret las manos en el pecho con la sensacin de romperse y empezar a sangrar sin remedio. Ya era suficiente. Hlne agach su cabeza hasta mi odo y con su glido aliento, me susurr:

Aro no tiene intencin de hacerte dao. Nos lo ha prometidome aclar la garganta para no tener que rerme de aquella afirmacin. Desde cundo Aro cumpla sus promesas?Adems, puede que aun puedas volver con los Cullencontinu bajando el tono de voz.Carlisle va a viajar a Roma dentro de unos das, y tal vez pueda negociar con Alistair tu puesta en libertad Vaya por Dios!Exclam Jane falsamente compungida Carlisle Cullen en Roma ante Alistair y nos lo vamos a perder! Si alguien tiene una cmara de video, que grabe la cara que se le quedar cuando le digamos que te has convertido en una Vulturis. Felix y Demitri se rieron a comps con ella como si le estuviesen contando el chiste ms divertido. A lo mejor tienes suerte, Jane, y le tenemos en Volterracoment Felix divertido. No sera tan estpidole rebati Demetri. Ya lo veremostermin Jane divertida mientras bajaba del ascensor y me haca un gesto para que la siguiese. Dio rdenes a Felix y Demetri sobre Hlne. Procurad que se comporte hasta que la dejis en el aeropuerto. El Maestro ha dicho que no se le hiciese ningn dao Oh, mejor! Pareci pensrselo. Acompaadla a Roma y podris decirle a Alistair que todo ha salido bien. Y que ordene la puesta en libertad de Ethan. No me gir al or la respiracin entrecortada de Hlne. Poda comprender lo furiosa que estaba por estar dependiendo la vida de su amante de alguien con aspecto de nia, pero eso haba dejado de ser relevante para m. Me sonaba bastante el pasillo que estbamos recorriendo. Dnde vamos?Me atrev a preguntarle. A tu habitacin. Heidi te est esperando para arreglarte adecuadamentese par, girando la cabeza por el encima del hombro, para dedicarme una mirada despectiva. No pensars que te voy a presentar con esta indumentaria al Maestro? Ante esa revelacin se me nubl la vista hasta que se volvi todo oscuro y las piernas se negaron a responderme. Se haba tomado la molestia de salir de Volterra solo para recogerme? Tan importante era? Solo volv a la consciencia cuando o un suspiro exasperado de Jane. Por qu?Me pregunt a m misma. No tengo ni idea la verdadse encogi de hombros. Pero yo no soy nadie para cuestionar a nuestro Maestroaun tratndose de tiescupi las palabras. Abri la puerta de mi habitacin y me encontr a una magnifica Heidi que me saludaba con una sonrisa como si fusemos amigas de toda la vida: Encantada de verte otra vez, Bella.

No la contest para evitar una mala palabra con ella y me qued con la mirada fija en el vestido negro extendido sobre la cama. Jane, Dnde habis estado? Nos estamos retrasandola rega Heidi mientras me coga de la mueca y me daba el vestido. Sabes que al Maestro no le gusta esperar y tenemos que hacer unos cuantos arreglosech a mi atuendo una mirada desaprobatoria. No la poda juzgar. Ella con sus pantalones ajustados de cuero, su top color cereza y sus largos bucles caoba, cayendo ordenadamente sobre su espalda, pareca una reina de la noche. La nia quera a dar un paseoJane se tumb aburrida sobre la cama. Desde luego que no la quera aqu! Ella no tiene porque quedarsele manifest a Heidi. Es ms, cuanto ms tiempo la pueda tener ms lejos, mejor. Los ojos de Jane se abrieron hasta casi salirse de sus orbitas y sus pupilas se dilataron hasta parecer una brasa de carbn encendido. Ella no es nadie para decirme donde debo estar!Vocifer. Sin embargo, Heidi no se dej impresionar por ella. Jane, creo que es mejor que salgasla invit de manera amable no exenta de impaciencia. Mi trabajo ser ms fcil si t no ests merodeando por la habitacin. Adems el Maestro puede necesitar de tus servicios. Esta vez la furia de Jane fue dirigida hacia Heidi: Eres la ltima persona que deberas darme ordenes. Recuerda mi rango en Volterra. Recuerda el mo tambinla sonrisa de Heidi haba desaparecido y su voz se convirti en spera y seca. De mala gana, Jane se levant de la cama y se dirigi a la puerta, no sin antes lanzar una mirada peligrosa a Heidi. Una mirada que yo haba aprendido a temer. Heidi no se dej intimidar y le lanz un gruido: Ni se te ocurra hacer lo que ests pensando, Jane! La tensin que se estaba creando, solo se disip cuando Jane sali de la habitacin dando un portazo tan fuerte que el marco de la puerta se desquebraj: Puttana capelli rossi (1) la omos insultar en una lengua desconocida para m. Supuse que en Italiano. Tal vez lo que nos dijese sonaba mucho menos impactante en ese idioma que en ingls. Heidi, ignorando sus improperios, sac de un maletn un peine y un bote de gomina.

Sintateme indic. Tenemos mucho trabajo que hacer. Tal vez fue por las escasas fuerzas que me quedaban, o por un mnimo de agradecimiento por enfrentarse a Jane, que hice lo que me pidi sin rechistar. Humse acarici la barbilla mientras observaba mi cabello excesivamente corto. Veamos como lo arreglamos. Est muy mal?Le pregunt asombrosamente preocupada por mi aspecto. La verdad que cuando me lo cort, lo haba hecho tan sumamente deprisa y catico que no sabra cual sera la impresin de los dems. Heidi neg sonriente. No. La verdad que te queda bienadmiti. Tal vez con un poco de gel, se te fijaran mejor las puntas Ech un chorro de gomina sobre sus dedos para extenderlo y despus se acerc a m para empezar a expandirlo por mi pelo. Vindola de esta guisa me haca preguntarme donde se encontraba aquella scubo petulante y lasciva que haba visitado a los Cullen. Tras un rato de marcado de peinado y silencio absoluto, Heidi se atrevi a hablar: Puede que formar parte de nuestra familia no sea algo que t desees, Bella, pero, con el tiempo comprenders que no es tan malo como parece. Tal vez ests idealizando lo que significa ser humana; yo me acuerdo de parte de mi antigua existencia y fue de todo menos agradablesonri con enigmtica tristeza y tras un suspir, continu hablando. Al contrario de lo que piensa tu amiga, la rubia, mi belleza no me llev a alcanzar mis metas; ms bien se convirti en un obstculo. Por lo tanto, estoy muy agradecida a nuestro Maestro por haberse fijado en m y darme la oportunidad de ser un miembro de su guardia. En aquel momento me mostraba cualquier imagen menos la de una vampiro fra y cruel. En parte, su mscara se haba desquebrajado y estaba exhibiendo facetas muy humanas. No me titube la voz cuando le pregunt: Te sientes orgullosa de ser una Vulturis a pesar de toda la maldad de la que son capaces? S, me parece lgico que quieran proteger el secreto de vuestra existencia, pero hay ciertos lmites que no se pueden saltar. Y precisamente Ar, esto, el Maestro Aro no acta por el bienestar de los vampiros. Solo quiere poder. Los ojos rojizos de Heidi se ensombrecieron y la lnea de sus labios se hizo ms estrecha hasta casi desaparecer. Sigui peinando como si yo no hubiese dicho nada. Solo cuando termin y preparaba el lpiz de ojos, se dispuso a hablar: En estos casos, yo solo me limito a mirar hacia otro lado y obedecer.

Y ahora ests haciendo eso conmigo? Safirm rotunda y sin dudar. Despus mir el reflejo del espejo y musit: Lo siento, Bella. ~*~ Desde el espejo del ascensor, no poda ignorar como el botones, que nos acompaaba a la planta de arriba, lanzaba una mirada de lasciva fascinacin hacia Heidi. Sin embargo, ella se haba acurrucado en una esquina, mirando de forma pensativa como los nmeros cambiaban. No tuvo el detalle de dedicarle una sonrisa a aquel pobre infeliz. "Mejor para ti!", le recrimin su involuntaria ceguera. "Si ella no est interesada en ti, tu vida estar a salvo". Pero para l, Afrodita se haba hecho mujer, y no poda darse cuenta que los vampiros no entendan la diferencia entre fascinacin y peligro. Para no entretenerme en el dolor de estmago que ese pensamiento me produca, me limit a observarme en el espejo. Oh, genial! Si antes me pareca a una emo, en este instante, con el peinado que me haba realizado Heidi con mi corto pelo, la raya negra pintada sobre mis ojos y el vestido negro de gasa, podra declararme jefa de un clan. Solo me faltaba un mechn rosado y ya estara marcada como una de ellos. Por lo menos tena que agradecer a Heidi que me hubiese conseguido unos zapatos estilo bailarina lo suficientemente planos como para no dar rienda suelta a mi torpeza. El ascensor se par y Heidi me hizo una invitacin a salir. Que tengan una feliz estancianos dese el botones con la esperanza de que la bella ocupante le dedicase unas palabras amables. Leslat tena razn cuando deca que los dioses concedan sus deseos a los mortales a los que queran perder, ya que Heidi le mir profundamente con sus ojos rojos brillando de manera liviana dibujndose una sonrisa de feliz condenacin ante aquel desdichado hombre. Podra jurar or como su corazn se detena y su respiracin se haca ms errtica. Sencillamente, no quera mirar. Yo no poda sentir pena por l cuando yo me encontraba en peor situacin. Me limit a seguir a Heidi cuando continu su camino hacia el laberinto de habitaciones. Cul de ellas es la habitacin?Realmente era muy morbosa por querer preguntar eso. Yo no quera este encuentro.

Todasrespondi con suficiencia. Esta planta siempre est reservada al Maestro cuando tiene que resolver sus asuntos en Seattle. No suele venir demasiado, pero Pero cuando lo haca, vena a lo grande. Poda notar la diferencia de calidad y la decoracin de esta planta y las de ms abajo. Demasiado sofisticada. Antes de abrir la puerta, se volvi a m y me avis: Djame hablar a m primero, no digas una sola palabra hasta que l te haya dado permiso y no te sientes hasta que no se te haya invitado. Lo sla contest como una nia buena. Estaba muy cansada y quera acabar con todo esto de una vez. Al entra en aquella habitacin, la primera sensacin que me arreci, fue la de un fro profundo que se me calaba en los huesos y no me permita reaccionar. Mis ojos no se acostumbraban a la oscuridad y el sonido de la msica clsicacre reconocer a Maria Callas en Madame Butterfly se cortaba por los susurros de tres personas que se encontraban en la sala. Reconoc a Jane, sentada a los pies de una persona, mientras lea un libro que dej cuando nos vio entrar. Frunci el ceo y baj la cabeza para no tener que saludarnos. La otra mujer se encontraba detrs de la silla, callada y quieta como una estatua. Si no recordaba mal, se llamaba Renata y era la guardaespaldas de Aro. Su aparente calma no me convenca en absoluto. Pero no tuvo el mismo efecto que Aro sentado, tranquilo y magnifico, sobre un silln de cuero como si se tratase de un monarca. A pesar de haberle visto en la casa de los Cullen, su aspecto de seor de las tinieblas aun haca mella en m, y los escalofros de mi cuerpo se deban a aquel temor ancestral que mis antepasados me haban inculcado sobre l. La esencia pura de los vampiros. Y cuando sus ojos escarlata se fijaron en m, me qued tan petrificada como si me hubiesen mostrado la cabeza de Medusa. Me dedic una sonrisa perversa que le lleg a los ojos, pero cuando se levant con los brazos en alto, le dedic unas palabras a Heidi: Cara, ho sempre detto che hai la mano di un maestro di fare i pi bei fiori sbocciano (2) la alab en un idioma con una cadencia muy musical, aun as no exento de autoridad. Heidi pareca encantada con sus palabras: Maestro un piacere per voi per innaffiare i fiori del suo giardino (3) Heidi me dedic una mirada triunfal.

Hermoso nombresuspir hablando, por fin, en ingls. En nuestra lengua, tu nombre significa "hermosa"me explico cuando se dirigi a m. Luego se rasc la barbilla y murmur: Mi amigo Carlisle me ha decepcionado. No te ha enseado nada de nuestra lengua. Lo sientono fui capaz de darle una respuesta racional que no fuese una disculpa. Se encogi de hombros como si el detalle no importase: Son pequeas grietas en una gran construccin. No hay nada que pueda remediarse con un poco de dedicacin. La humana no sabe la suerte que tiene por ser educada por alguien como usted, Maestroel halago de Jane no poda haber sido ms rastrero. Ya veremosse limit a contestar para luego dirigirse a ellas. Queridas mas, me temo que tendris que ir a dar una vuelta por Seattle; los asuntos que tengo que tratar con Isabella solo nos incumben a nosotros. Por lo tanto, qu tal si me concedis una hora? Solo Heidi se fue directa hacia la puerta; Jane y Renata se miraban atnitas, como si no hubiesen comprendido las rdenes de su superior. Pero, Maestrobalbuce Jane. Jane, estar bien. Isabella viene en son de pazsi lo traduca en mi idioma significaba que estaba totalmente indefensa. Tendremos una charla muy amenase volvi hacia Renata y le puso las manos sobre los hombros. Querida ma, te dispenso de tu trabajo por unas horas. Necesitas salir y alimentartese me cerr el estmago al or la palabra alimentarse. Sencillamente me gusta resolver mis asuntos. Maestrobalbuce dubitativa mirndome con desconfianza. Pero Aro le dio un suave beso en sus labios. En paz, querida. Jane, que no estaba nada contenta por tener que irse de nuevo por mi causa, sali dando un portazo sonoro. Esperaba que el hotel estuviese asegurado a terceros. Cuando Renata sali, discreta y silenciosa como siempre, Aro volvi a reparar en m: Por qu no te sientas?De manera amable, me ofreci una silla. Odio que mis invitados se queden de pie. Y ms si se trata de una seorita como t. Y si quieres, come algo. Te he hecho traer comida. Tenemos tanto que celebrar. Te has hecho de rogar casi dieciocho aos, escapando una y otra vez, pero da igual las demoras; soy paciente y en el tiempo en que yo entro en la biblioteca, reviso mi coleccin personal y releo los grandes clsicos en diez idiomas, da tiempo a que un pequeo capullo, a penas humano, se convierta en una bellsima flor. Tal vez, la idea de raptar a tu madre y retenerla hasta tu nacimiento, no hubiera sido tan buena. Cierto, querida, que si hubieras nacido en Volterra, nos hubiramos ahorrado tiempo. Pero gracias a esa circunstancia violenta, me di cuenta de tu valor. S, eres muy valiosa, digna de formar parte de la familia ms importante de

vampiros; pero para m has subido tu cotizacinsonri ensendome sus dientes blanqusimos. Y lo mejor de todo, querida, es que no sabes cunto poder tienes. Tal vez sea cierto eso que nos hieren con lo que amamosse ri tenuemente. Aro acababa de confesarme que casi dieciocho aos atrs, me intent raptar. Seguramente, eso sera lo que Charlie intent contarme la noche anterior a su ataque. Mi madre siempre haba evitado hablar del momento de mi nacimiento, y probablemente, ahora, pudiese comprender todo esa fobia a los vampiros que Leslat haba tardado en vencer parcialmente. Aun as, no comprenda del todo lo ltimo que quera decir. Soy importante pero no lo ms importante?Quera que me contase por qu se haba dedicado a destruir todo mi mundo. Sencillamente por ser un pequeo insecto en sus grandes planes? No tena sentido! Mene la cabeza como si estuviese decepcionado conmigo: S eres importante, Isabellaremarc. Eres una pieza clave en los Vulturis. Pero no eres lo ms importe para m. No?Mov la cabeza para metrmelo en la cabeza. Entonces una parte del enigma me qued claro: No creo que todo lo que ha pasado en estos ltimos das fuese para nada. No tiene sentido que se corrompa al que ha salido lder de los Stregoni para nada, y que ese lder, por ansias de venganza, culpase a Leslat de algo que no haba cometidoDe paso, mataba dos pjaros de un tiro; porque as, le quitaba mi custodia y yo quedaba indefensa. Y aun menos, convertir a una pobre humana en una peligrosa nefita y que haga un trabajo chapucero para conseguir, de alguna manera que solo usted sabr, que Edward se aleje de m y los Stregoni culpen a los Cullen de lo ocurrido Y absolutamente para nada? La furia me invadi. Sin embargo, no se trataba del tpico ataque de ira en el cual me levantaba e intentaba un vano intento de magnicidio. Era una clera, de apariencia fra, en la cual la razn no se dejaba cegar y admita la supremaca del plan perfecto del adversario vencedor. De eso se trataba la furia del vencido. Posiblemente, estuviese esperando que bajase la cabeza, totalmente avergonzado, y se limitase a negarlo todo. Lo subestim. Elev la cabeza majestuosamente y me dedic una sonrisa despectiva. Si nos quedamos en la superficie, tal vez te hubiese felicitado por desenrollar todo el hilo de Ariadna. Eres humana, Bella, y sencillamente tu mente no puede profundizar ms. No te lo tomes como una ofensa, mi nia. Se necesitan eones de tiempo para lograr el conocimiento. Solo te puedo decir que tu eres una batalla que quiero ganar; no la guerra. Y sabes lo mejor de todo Bella? Que has tenido la verdad tan cerca. Y eso es el gran defecto de los humanos. Se os muestra una parte de la verdad, y os parece tan intensa esa sensacin que os acabis quemando sin conocerla nunca del todo. Ms os vale estar en tinieblas toda vuestra existencia, ya que un rayo de sol os ciega por completo. Por lo tanto, ests destinada a no saber nunca con tu apariencia mortal, lo que realmente vales.

Y a que se debe esa paradoja?Me encontraba perpleja y muy descolocada. Por favor, quiero una respuesta. Sin embargo, por el momento no lo iba a hacer. La msica de Madame Butterfly cambi por un fragmento del Carmina burana, bastante indicado para el ambiente que se empezaba a respirar. Intent abrir la boca para empezar a saciar mi curiosidad, pero Aro estaba tan absorto, con los ojos cerrados, dejndose llevar por el influjo de la msica, que solo pude compartir su silencio. Te gusta el "O fortuna", Bella?Me pregunt distendidamente como si tuvisemos una conversacin sobre msica. S, pero prefiero otro tipo de msicale confes. Se ri levemente: S, querida. Puedo imaginarme qu tipo de msica te gusta y el porqu. Si te soy sincero, me gusta su espectacularidad, pero no es porque est de acuerdo con ello. Por qu? Hac in hora sine mora corde pulsum tangiterecit. Sabes latn, Bella? Tradcelo. En esta hora sin demora toquen las cuerdas del corazn quod per sortem sternit fortem, mecum omnes plangite! el destino derrumba al hombre fuerte que llora conmigo por tu villana. Es un cantico pagano a la diosa fortuna. Los hombres dbiles achacan sus desdichas a sus designios. Solo los hombres de frrea voluntad son capaces de sobreponerse al destino y salir airoso. Su voluntad contra las maquinaciones divinas. Es tambin capaz de asumir sus errores? He aprendido demasiado de los hados para no cometer errores, Bellase mostr altivo y petulante. Observ la bandeja y me apremi: Querida deberas comer algo. Es de mala educacin devolver una bandeja llena, y ms cuando est lleno de cosas tan deliciosas para los humanos. Por alguna razn, mi vena de rebelda salt: Por qu?Inquir defensiva Mi sangre sabr mejor si como algo? Aquello le pareci tan gracioso que irrumpi en una carcajada esperpntica. Tom aire para relajarse y continu hablando: Te propongo una cosa; t comes algo y yo te doy una leccin de cmo dominar el destino para no ser un mediocre Don nadie. Te parece buen trato?

Como respuesta, cog un sndwich y le pegu un pequeo mordisco. Hice grandes esfuerzos para tragrmelo y que mi estmago no lo rechazase. Aro, incapaz de permanecer ms tiempo sentado, se levant y empez a pasear por la habitacin, pisando con milimetrada exactitud las baldosas de mrmol y adquiri un aire concentrado, como si tuviese que reorganizar eones de historia en palabras. Tom una bocanada de aire y empez a divagar: Recuerdo pocas cosas de mi vida anterior, pero cuando me convert en vampiro tuve claro mis objetivos y no me dej llevar por los instintos asesinos de los nefitos. Para m, mi existencia no es una condena; significa un don divino para mis designios. La muerte sera un gran freno a mis ambiciones, Cmo conseguir mis aspiraciones cuando su fro aliento estaba sobre mi nuca? Hacindome inmortal. Si pude vencer a tan formidable enemigo, comprend que ya nada ni nadie podra hacerlo. Decid dar el don de la inmortalidad aquellos amigos que yo consideraba ms aptos para ser honrados con la nueva existencia, y formamos una especie triunvirato, aunque por el bien de Caius y Marcus, ellos tuvieron claro, desde el principio, quien mandaba aqu. Adornamos nuestra pequea soberana con un sequito real, del cual solo poda formar parte aquellos vampiros que nosotros consideramos aptos, y as formamos nuestra selecta familia. Sulpicia y Athenodora eran las perfectas consortes para nuestra pequea corte. Todo vampiro que quera apreciarse, acuda a nosotros, ya que adelantbamos por siglos a los humanos, tanto en artes como ciencias. El resto de los vampiros nos teman y acataban las reglas que dictbamos. Te mentira si te dijesen que solo eran para mantenernos a salvo de los humanos. Tengo que admitir que la sensacin de poder que emana del terror es muy placentera. Casi hednica. Podra tratarse de una pequea esperanza, pero me pareci como su sonrisa se rompi y sus ojos rojos dejaron de brillar con el mismo entusiasmo. Qu habra pasado en su escalada al poder? No estaba dispuesta a creer que algo le afectase. No a alguien como Aro. Una de las grandes inquisiciones de mi pequea familia me concedi una gran sorpresa y una enorme satisfaccin. Se trataba de una jovencita de diecisiete aos con mltiples cualidades. Su belleza era el menor de ellos. Cuando le di el don de la inmortalidad se destap como lo ms extraordinario de nuestra especie. Su sangre humana permaneci incluso despus. Era un vampiro de sangre pura. La verdad, tampoco s porque me extra. Se trataba de alguien procedente de mi pasado. De mi familia humana. Era mi hermana Didyme. Si no hubiera estado tan asustada, disfrutara del relato de Aro. No tena ni idea de que haba tenido una hermana. Leslat no la haba mencionado nunca. Qu habra sido de ella? Seguramente, para mi desgracia, pronto me enterara. No me gustara. Didyme tena todo al alcance de la mano para ser absolutamente feliz. Estaba casada con Marcus, quien estaba totalmente enamorado de ella, y tena todo tipo de influencias en nuestro mundo. Podra haber llegado tan lejos. Pero ella, al contrario que yo, no era feliz. Ella siempre quiso ser humana, y aunque nunca se atrevi a contradecirme directamente, reprobaba mis actos. Cuando la sed no se lo impeda, se juntaba con los humanos e intentaba ayudarles. Los antiguos la

consideraban como una diosa benfica. S, era una conducta bastante atpica en nosotrospor no decir otra palabra. Solo lo he visto en Carlisle y su familia. Me imagin cual fue el destino de Didyme. Era como si me pusiesen una vieja pelcula cuyo final estaba claro desde el principio. Cmo podra la aristocracia vamprica juntarse con la chusma humana? Sin embargo, yo no quera perderme ni una palabra de lo que contase. Tena esa extraa intuicin de que en un momento, algo se entrelazara. Por lo que permanec muy atenta a todo lo que tuviese que decir. Pero todo eso hubiera sido aceptable de no haber cometido el gran error No, peor que un error! El gran pecado! Totalmente imperdonable! Por lo que tuve que hacer algo que no quera Oh, Bella!Suaviz el tono de su voz cuando vio que abr los ojos hasta casi salirse de mis orbitas debido al terror que senta. Mi pequea! Pensars que soy un monstruo insensible por esta accin. Si Didyme fue sacrificada, fue por el bien comn, pero nunca dej de sentirlo. Al fin y al cabo, ella era mi hermana y yo la amaba. Cuando ella desapareci, yo me sent tan vacio. Tuvieron que pasar siglos hasta que encontr a alguien que me volviese a llamar la atencin. Y fue increble! Se trataba de una humana. Pero desde el primer momento, haba algo en ella que me fascin. Era como si Didyme hubiese vuelto. Como una reencarnacin. Y yo volv a caer en el mismo ciclo del error. Y aun peor. Me hizo tener esperanzas y descend a su nivelcrisp sus puos y su voz fue adquiriendo matices duros. Nunca deb haberme involucrado tanto con un ser cuya existencia carnal la hace tan dbil Necesidades humanas!... Si era as como Aro comprenda el concepto de amor, no quera saber cmo sera de implacable con sus enemigos. Por eso se consideraba el enemigo ms cruel. No tena debilidades y solo le mova la ambicin, que era infinita. Cules eran las probabilidades? Dadas mis pocas estrellas de la suerte, no hablara de apuestas. Aun as, lanc mi ltima jugada. Ya que se haba molestado en arrebatarme de los brazos de aquellos que ms amaban, necesitaba un porqu. Y saba que detrs de toda aquella historia tendra la respuesta. No importaba que me gustase o no. Era un pequeo rayo de sol de verdad. Cul fue el pecado tan atroz de Didyme por el que fue castigada de manera tan terrible?Mi garganta estaba seca y notaba como mi voz titubeaba. Aro me dedic una sonrisa de nuevo. Esta vez fue una sonrisa triunfal. Como si hubiera estado esperando aquella respuesta durante eones. Mi consciencia me gritaba que corra peligro, pero el terror me mantena atada a la silla. Ni siquiera mi mente poda huir. No quera recorrer los largos y oscuros pasillos. Necesitaba estar ah. Sin darme tiempo a pestaear ni a preparar mis odos para or pasos, no me prepar para tener a Aro, enfrente de m, a escasos centmetros de distancia. Jur que el corazn se qued paralizado en mi pecho y la sangre se detuvo en su trayectoria. Aro alarg su mano hasta mi rostro. Mi cuerpo sufri un colapso cuando sus dedos me acariciaban la mejilla y la palma de su mano se acomod en mi barbilla. Era tan distinto del roce de Edward. No se converta en calor.

Sabes una cosa, Isabella?Negu con la cabeza. Cuando Didyme era humana, tena los ojos marrones con un aura negra alrededor de su iris. T has adquirido sus mismos ojos. Y lo mejor de todo, sabes cual era su poder como vampiro? Ella, al igual que t, poda visualizar las lneas de sangre de los vampiros. Y por supuesto, con la mismas limitaciones. Se ech la capa hacia atrs y tir de una cadena que llevaba en el cuello hasta que se sac la figura que llevaba colgada y me la mostr. Al ver mi expresin confundida, me agarr por la mueca y rpidamente me la gir. Al comparar aquella figura con el dragn desdibujado en mi mueca, me tap la boca para no gritar. Con la diferencia de que el mo estaba invertido, el dragn que llevaba en el cuello Aro, era totalmente idntico. El dragn rojo era el escudo de mi familiame explic. Yo lo adopt porque representaba el poder que ansiaba conseguir. No lo entiendotartamude. Pues est muy claro, Isabellapareca exasperado como si estuviese claro. T, en extensin de todos los Swan, tienes sangre vamprica por vuestras venas. Por lo tanto, los cazavampiros no sois ms que una extensin de nosotros. La luz y la oscuridad de un ciclo. Las dos caras de la misma moneda. Una misma esencia destinada a luchar entre s. As se equilibra el mundo. Cmo?Logr balbucear. Sin hacer caso a mis vacilaciones, Aro continu hablando: Desde que tu antepasada logr acceder a la sangre de Didyme, sta se ha ido transmitiendo de generacin en generacin hasta llegar hasta ti. A medida que se iba pasando de padres a hijos, la sangre iba perdiendo fuerza, ya que juntabais esa sangre con los simples humanos y, al mezclarse, perda sus cualidades. Pero ha habido Swan donde la fuerza de esa sangre era intensa y lograban sobresalir entre otros. Nunca he sabido por qu, lo cual me parece fascinante. Tu mismo padre es un Swan bastante mediocre, siento decirlo as, y sin embargo, t eres tan distinta a l. Tu sangre vamprica, por muy mezclada que est con las de los humanos normales, se ha manifestado de manera tan acentuada. Eso te hace ser tan especial. Todo un diamante en bruto. No me puedo imaginar todas las posibilidades. Si esto era una broma no tena gracia. No poda ser cierto. Rompera todas las certezas que hasta entonces conoca de los vampiros. Yo pensaba que los vampiros no podais No podamos que, Bella?Arrull las palabras, aunque no me sonaban suaves y musicales como Edward lograba, si no desafinadas y dolorosamente agudas. Tener descendencia. Chasque la lengua en tono de desaprobacin: Bella, Bella, Bellame rega. Al parecer sigues limitada a tu mente humana. Relacionas la palabra "hijo" con el acto carnal de tener sexo. Eso es tan humano. Pero degradante para nosotros, los de nuestra especie. Aunque en ese aspecto, los mos imitan a los tuyos y lo practican cada vez

mshizo un mohn de asco. Carlisle lo hace por sentirse ms en su papel de humanocogi un mechn de mi cabello y lo olisque. Y al parecer, Edward tambin ha cado en el vicio. Su aroma continua en tu pieluna punzada me delat un sentimiento increblemente doloroso. Aro hizo como si no se diese cuenta de mi gesto de dolor. Totalmente degenerante! Sexo! Los de mi especie deberan darse cuenta que la carne es dbil y se corrompe con el paso del tiempo. Las ataduras carnales nos hacen morir. Pero no las de la sangre. En la sangre est escrito todo. La vida. La muerte. La inmortalidad. El destino est en la sangre. Y algunas sangres son ms poderosas que otras. Para alcanzar el poder, hay que ser consciente de esa realidad. Todo se rige por la sangre. Por lo tanto, Bella, tal vez no seas descendiente por va carnal de Didymeesa posibilidad nos est vetada, pero tienes su sangre y eso debera hacerte sentir mucho ms importante. Debera sentirme halagada por ello? Ahora pareca que todo por lo que haba estado luchando todos estos aos haba sido en vano. Cmo podra continuar luchando contra los vampiros, si yo misma tena su esencia? De repente, me sent increblemente sucia. Siempre haba caminado por el mundo con una venda en los ojos y al despojarme de ella, haba descubierto un mundo oscuro. Ya haba perdido la inocencia y no poda pedir que me volviesen a poner la venda para imaginarme mi mundo feliz. Se haba hecho aicos. Si alguna vez volva a ver a los Cullen no sabra encontrar las palabras exactas para decirles lo que en realidad era. Y Edward Edward ya me despreciaba, podra hacerlo aun ms? l odiaba su naturaleza y a Aro. Y yo, de manera mstica, formaba parte de su familia. Cmo enfrentarme a l?... No haba vuelta de hoja. Mi esencia podra hacerme ms igual a l, pero no cambiara nada. O ms bien lo hara a peor. Tena que felicitar a Aro. Me haba separado de Edward para siempre y me resultaba repugnante permanecer en mi piel. Eso era todo lo que l quera. Pues que lo hiciese ya! Consegu mover el brazo y exponer ante l mi mueca. Me mir fingidamente extraado. Eso qu significa, Isabella?Inquiri. Ha ganado. Siempre lo ha hecho. Por muchas bifurcaciones que tomemos, tenemos que afrontar nuestro destino. Y ste se lleva en la sangre. Me volvi a coger de la mueca, con fuerza, y se la llev hasta la nariz para aspirar mi aroma.

Un buque fresco y juvenil. Aunque ya no tan virginalel calor me regaba la cara. Eso significaba que me estaba ruborizando. Va a ser un autentico placer llevarte a tu verdadero destino, Isabella. "Hazlo ya!", rogu mentalmente. Y mientras los dedos de Aro palpaba con delicadeza mis venas, mi estmago se encoga y las nauseas convulsionaban mi cuerpo. Ante el glido roce, mi mano se tens y mis dedos se agarrotaron. Cerr los ojos y supliqu para que fuese rpido e indoloro. La oscuridad se volvi a aduear de m. Parece que mi cuerpo ha estallado junto todos aquellos cristales al colisionar con el espejo. Posiblemente, alguno se me habr clavado. Intento abrir los ojos, pero una densa nieblilla me impide ver las cosas con claridad. Solo soy consciente que el suelo est teido de rojo. El olor metlico de la sangremi sangreme produce vrtigos. Me da vueltas la cabeza y soy incapaz de conexionar todos mis pensamientos. Ni siquiera s que msculos he de mover para levantarme en cuanto oigo sus pasos cada vez ms cerca. Es una seal de hasta dnde puedo llegar. Me siento liviana y que floto en el aire. Pero cuando una frrea presin se sita en mi cintura, no puedo evitar gemir. Seguramente, tendr una herida y el roce me produce dolor. Con brusquedad, mi pelo es apartado de mi cuello y el sonido de mi blusa desgarrada me chirria. Siento su fro aliento sobre la piel de mi cuello. Me quema. Pero sin que me d tiempo a protestar por ello, sus dientes perforan mi piel llegando a mi vena, extrayndome lo ms vital para m. Me muerdo el labio. No le dar el placer de orme gritar. En realidad, ste es el ltimo favor que le hago. Me ha mordido. S. Pero no significa que me vaya a transformarme. Est distrado, por lo que no ve como mi mano vacila por coger un trozo de cristal. Cuando lo cojo me siento duea de mi destino. Solo tengo que tener fuerzas para elevarlo un poco y Aro solt mi mueca y la presin y glidez desaparecieron rpidamente. Abr los ojos sorprendida. Tan rpido era? Con morbosa curiosidad, me mir la mueca y una mezcla de alivio y decepcin me invadieron. No me haba mordido.

Dej de mirarme la mano, y le hice miles de mudos interrogantes. Se limit a rerse mientras mova la cabeza. Tienes miedo, Bella. Un sentimiento tan humano. Noment. Puedo olerlome rebati. Adems, al parecer Edward se me ha adelantado. Arrugu le entrecejo sin entenderlo. Me toc el labio inferior. Edward te ha marcado de mltiples maneras, querida. Aunque ni l mismo comprende ese significado. Conozco mejor que l sus propios poderes. Si l supiese como me haba marcado tan profundamente. Eso significa que no me va a convertir? Se limit a encogerse de hombros. Sera ms complicado, pero podra hacerse. Aunque, no. Hoy no lo har. Por qu?Esperaba que no hubiese sonado demasiado ansiosa. Querida, si te soy sincero, no he venido hasta Seattle para convertirte. Solo tienes diecisiete aos. Aun no has desarrollado todo tu potencial. Entonces ir a Volterra como humana? Novolvi a negar. No es porque no quiera que visites mi bella ciudad, Bella. Realmente no puedo salvaguardarte all. Caius y Marcus son bastante quisquillosos con traer humanos a Volterra y no son realmente curiosos. Para ellos, los humanos solo estn en su cadena alimenticia. Y t hueles tan floral, y aunque tu deliciosa esencia virginal haya desaparecido, sigues siendo una gran reserva. Y no es que los dems sean muy abstemioshizo un gesto teatral. No, querida ma. No estn muy dispuestos a conocer gente interesante. Se estaba burlando de m. Me ha arrancado del hogar de los Cullen con engaos tan enrevesados absolutamente para nada? Grit. Era completamente humillante. Isabella, Isabellame tranquiliz con una sonrisa burlona en los labios. Para m no ha sido un viaje en vano. Me encanta charlar con gente interesante. Acaso nuestra charla sobre msica e historia no ha sido fascinante? Yo la he encontrado tan amena. Aparte que Carlisle, en cuyas muchas cualidades no destaca el sentido del humor, no hubiera apreciado nuestra conversacin. La verdad, es que tiene que aprender relajarse. Aunque no llega a los cuatrocientos aos. Tiene tanto

que aprender aunNo, definitivamente, l no estara muy feliz si supiese que hemos tenido esta charla. Definitivamente, me estaba tomando el pelo. Podra creer eso de un abuelo con mucho tiempo libre, pero no, precisamente, de un vampiro de ms de tres mil aos. Dara lo que fuese por saber lo que estaba tramando. Seguramente, vera la desconfianza en mis ojos. Con tranquilidad se sent en su silla y se limit a mirarme con expresin divertida. Cuando se cans de hacerlo, apoy su codo sobre el reposabrazos y acomod su rostro sobre su mano. Sus labios adquirieron una lnea seria. Isabella, si me he ganado cierta reputacin, es por la de cumplir mis promesasluego su sonrisa perversa volvi a su rostro. Pero tambin tengo fama de voluble y me gusta cambiar de opinin respecto a los objetivos que persegua. Tal vez, ahora ya no me intereses tanto como haca dieciocho aos, o hace unos meses. Es aburrido estar siempre persiguiendo lo mismo, no crees? Adems, s, admito que encontrarme con una gota de sangre de mi hermana Didyme me hace mucha ilusin. Pero tambin s que hay otras dos gotas de sangre de mi hermana igualmente fascinantes. Incluso ms. Record algo que me dijo Leslat. Te refieres a los otros dos Swan?Aro saba de su existencia y seguramente antes que el propio Leslat. Solo saba Dios cuanto tiempo llevaba buscndoles. Afirm. Al contrario de lo que t piensas, ellos estn caminando por el mundo de las sombras desde hace mucho tiempo. Estn muertos? Aro ri por ensima vez ante mi perplejidad. Isabellacanturre, cuando te he dicho que has estado tan cerca de la verdad que te has quemado. Pero sigues sin vislumbrarla y ahora es demasiado tardesuspir trabajosamente. No he venido a hablar de eso. Quiero proponerte un trato, Isabellaabr los ojos de par en par, y mi cuerpo, que empezaba a adormilarse debido al sopor, reaccion al or sus palabras. Qu clase de trato?Tena la sensacin de ser como Fausto respecto a Mefistfeles. Si algo haba aprendido en mis diecisiete aos, era que pactar con el diablo era menos peligroso que hacerlo con un vampiro. Siempre haba truco sucio que le beneficiara a l. Prest odos a sus palabras. Sencillamente, estaba muy cansada.

No has tenido la sensacin de haber estado durmiendo con fantasmas todo este tiempo? No te hubiera gustado que estos cinco aos que has pasado persiguiendo vampiros y viajando por medio mundo sin ningn lugar a cual llamar casa? No te gustara despertar de todo este sueo y sentirte a salvo bajo tus sabanas en tu habitacin de Phoenix? Permanecer al lado de tu madre y Phil hasta que te vayas a la universidad? Estudiar la carrera que te gusta?...Sencillamente, vivir. Tener expectativas como una humana normal de diecisiete aos. Lo has tenido que haber pensado alguna vez, Isabella. Oh, s cierto! Era muy tentador. Y mucho ms ahora que, con los Cullen fuera de lugar y Edward apartndome de su existencia, esa idea cobraba fuerza. Sera posible? Podra ser posible?Estaba mostrando ms inters de lo debido. Aunque l ya lo hubiese percibido por el brillo de mis ojos y mi voz temblorosa. Todo es posible en este mundo, Bella. Y t, ms que nadie, se merece un descanso. Las aventuras estn bien un cierto tiempo, pero al final, uno siempre tiende a volver a casa. Renee te echa mucho de menos, Bella. No la disgustes ms y vuelve a casa con ella. Una lgrima se me escap al pensar en Renee. Yo tambin la haba echado de menos. Aro tena razn. Era hora de volver a casa. Cul es la condicin de este trato?Claudiqu. Con aire triunfal, se levant de la silla y venci la distancia que haba entre nosotros calculando los pasos. Apoy sus manos sobre mis hombros y me, echndome el aliento sobre mi cara, susurr: Los vampiros no existen. ~*~ (1) Taco que no merece ser traducido debido a su vocabulario soez. (2) Querida, siempre he dicho que tienes una mano maestra para hacer florecer las flores ms hermosas. (3) Maestro, un placer regar para usted las flores de su jardn. ~*~ My Best Friend's Sister Outtake I promise this is the last of the MBBF material and I won't bug you guys anymore. I have to admit, I'm a little sad posting this. Not only b/c this is all that's left, but I've been holding onto this as kind of like a piece of my own MBBFward. I would add onto this whenever I was in a slump and needed to get back into writing MBBF. MBBF is told as Bella's story. It was a nice break from time to time to write something as Edward.

This out take takes us full circle from the beginning. If you don't remember (b/c it was so long ago) the story begins with Bella jogging and Twilight Time by The Platters comes on her iPod. Her thoughts immediately go to the time she spent with Edward in the meadow. It was their last time together before he went off to college. The chapter opens with her anticipating his arrival and she tells herself she can handle it, but as you all aware, it doesn't go as she expects it. This is the actual scene from the meadow, but it's through Edward's first person point of view. I don't normally do first person POV's, but this was supposed to be just an exercise for fun. To head off any questions, this is an outtake. This not a continuation and there will be no sequels. This is just a short piece to show what was going through Edward's head when they were back in high school. Anyway, thank you all again for reading. I hope you enjoy!

EPOV I don't know how I got myself into this. I didn't plan it and it seemed the more I resisted, the more I was thrown into Bella's company. Maybe it was fate telling me that I had to stop avoiding her. Or maybe it was my sister Alice who managed to keep putting me in Bella's company. I tried to ignore the sound of her ragged breathing and the snaps of dried leaves crunching under foot. I could tell that Bella was struggling not to fall behind, but her careful steps impeded her progress. I was doing well, keeping my distance, avoiding her. But these last two weekends were like bittersweet torture. It was easier avoiding her at school. There were other people around and I could find refuge in the library if I needed. It was cowardly. I know, but it was the only way. It was becoming increasingly more difficult to hide my feelings for Bella. Especially after last weekend at the movies. It was supposed to be just me and Emmett. I was glad to be getting out of the house. I had managed to avoid Bella for the whole week and I was quite proud of myself, but when I was alone in my room, she invaded my thoughts and the wanting would resurface. I found myself hoping she'd visit Alice just so I could have her near me. So Emmett and I made plans for the movies and before I knew it, Alice had invited herself along which of course meant Bella was coming too. I should've run away, but I was too excited at the possibility of spending time with Bella, however, fleeting it would be. That in itself should've been a warning. I was way too eager to see her and I even entertained ideas of talking to her, but when the fantasy of talking to her turned into lips touching and Bella breathing my name against my mouth, I sobered up and was determined to just go to the movies. I was such an idiot.

When Alice and I arrived at Emmett and Bella's house, Alice shot up the stairs so fast, I had no idea what came over her. One minute, we're talking about the action movie we were going to see and then once we entered the house, Alice was gone. Emmett asked what was going on and I shrugged. It was another twenty minutes before Alice and Bella came back down. Emmett was complaining that we were going to be late. There was still forty-five minutes until the movie started, but Emmett liked getting there early so he could get snacks and find a good seat. I was unprepared for what happened next. Bella descended the stairs in a mini-skirt. Her legs. God, her legs went on and on and I just wanted to wrap them around me while I lay between her thighs. I was snapped out of my thoughts when Emmett asked what the hell happened to Bella when Alice merely shrugged and told us that there might be someone at the theater they were going to see that Bella might be mildly interested in. I felt something rise in my throat and before I could choke out the words, Emmett asked who the hell was Bella planning to see and to this Alice merely shrugged and walked out the front door. I looked at Bella to see that she had been looking at me and when our eyes met, a very soft blush spread across her cheeks. Then she was out the door, following Alice. I cleared my throat and followed them out. Bella was only a few feet ahead of me, walking toward the car. The sway of her hips in that short skirt was hypnotizing and it took every ounce of my willpower not to pin her against the car. I was thinking about the ride to the movies. Alice and Bella were sitting in the back seat while I rode up front with Emmett. They weren't talking about anything important, but the sound of Bella's voice had me craning my head toward them just so I could hear her. I listened now as we walked through the woods. She was quiet. We hadn't said a word since we parted from Alice and Emmett. Dumb ass Emmett and his ideas. We were looking for the meadow. He thought it would be cool to find it and then once we did, he wanted to throw some kind of tail gate party which didn't make sense. If it was hidden as well as we all thought, there probably wouldn't be any way to bring his truck there. I let my thoughts wander again back to the end of that night after the movies. When I sat in the back seat with Bella, one of those long legs had brushed against me. I thought I was going to lose it right there in the car. That would not be cool since my sister and my best friend, Bella's brother, were riding up front. I don't think they would've appreciated me experimenting on the eight different ways I imagined getting Bella to moan my name. My footsteps quickened as if I were trying to run away from those impure thoughts. Then in another minute, I heard the unmistakable sound of a hard thump against the ground. The sound caused fantasies of having Bella in the backseat of a car to disappear and I was brought back to the woods. I turned around to see Bella on her stomach while letting out several choice words.

I walked back to her and picked her up by her elbow. "Are you alright?" She stood up and shook my arm off. "What? Are you talking to me now?" She didn't even look at me when she walked off. I let out a long sigh. Yeah, this was not good. I followed her, but kept my usual distance. After a minute, she said something, but I didn't catch it. "What did you say?" She kept walking, but turned her head. "I said, where the hell are we supposed to be going anyway?" "I have no idea." She stopped abruptly and turned to face me. "What do you mean you have no idea?" I shrugged. Her forehead wrinkled in that way that told me that she was pissed. Great. "Then why have you been walking through this forest like you knew where you were going?" "I wasn't-" "Geez. You know I have trouble walking through the woods." She looked down at her self and started to dust off her knees. I'm officially the world's biggest jerk. I was so caught up in not trying to show my feelings toward Bella that I wasn't thinking about her welfare at all. I shortened the distance between us in two quick strides. "I'm sorry. I was thinking about stuff and. . . I wasn't paying attention." She was now dusting off her sleeves. "Well, what were you thinking about that made you lose track like that?" I hesitated before I said, "Nothing." Bella's dark eyes studied my face. I was afraid that it was obvious what I was thinking about. After a minute, a look of frustration occupied her face and she said, "Right." And turned away and continued walking. I followed her, but this time I stayed close enough that in case she fell again, I could catch her. After a couple of minutes, she stopped again, but she didn't turn around. "This is stupid. We have no idea where we're going and we both don't want to be here." I couldn't help feeling stung by her words. As stupid as it may seem, I did like being around her. I just had to be careful and it was getting more and more difficult lately.

I stepped beside her and looked at her. "I'm sorry." She scanned the forest. "For what?" For wanting you when I shouldn't. For wanting to touch you in a way that brother-like people had no right to do. For wanting to taste"Edward?" I shook my head. "What?" She rolled her eyes. "Never mind." She took a step forward. I touched her elbow. "Wait." She stopped and looked at me. What do I do now? I ran my fingers through my hair to try and stall. After a moment, I said, "I'm sorry we're stuck with one of Emmett's crazy ideas. And I'm sorry that. . . you got stuck with me." Bella looked at me as if to see if I was telling the truth. Then her expression softened and she said, "Well, I suppose it could've been worse. At least this way, it's quiet." A small smile pulled at the corner of her mouth before she said, "I could've been stuck listening to Emmett talk about all his plans for the meadow." She was not helping at all. She looked at me with mild amusement in her eyes and her lips spread into a breathtaking smile. I wanted to kiss her. Instead, I took her hand and we continued walking. "Come on. Let's try to find the meadow." I told myself that it would be best if we held hands in case she might fall again, but I knew I was being selfish. Our relationship never crossed into anything more than just friends, but because we had been always around each other, there would be harmless contact like an arm around her shoulders or elbows touching. Some harmless gesture that was meant as a sign of friendly affection. But then it changed after that day at the cabin when she was in that red bikini. That damn red bikini. After that, whenever we had any sort of physical contact, I couldn't help wanting there to be something more. I figured it was because I knew what was under her clothes now. I was a bastard for wanting more. She was Emmett's sister. Younger sister.

I shouldn't be having thoughts like this about her. She looked up to me like another brother and here I was aching to lick the skin between her breasts. The idea of taking advantage of her like that sickened me. She trusted me and she looked to me for protection. What kind of sick bastard takes advantage of that? When I realized that, I decided I needed to distance myself from her. I decided that I would allow this one gesture. This one time. After this, no more. The wanting was getting unbearable. Luckily there were only a couple months left until I'd be leaving for UDub and I wouldn't have to try so hard to fight these feelings. "Hey, what's that?" Bella pointed a finger with her free hand toward a parting between two trees. "I don't know." My grip on her hand was more firm as we continued walking toward the two trees. When we got there, I heard Bella gasp beside me. It was the meadow. She was the one to take a step first into the clearing. She hadn't let go of my hand and I willingly followed her. I'd follow her anywhere. This was one of those moments when everything was brighter, more colorful, and just clearer. I'm sorry to say that I don't remember what Bella was saying, but the way she was leading me into the meadow was absolutely mesmerizing. She still had my hand in hers, but she had turned around to say something to me and at the same time she kept walking. It was all happening in slow motion. Her hair bouncing with her every step, her eyes widening and crinkling at the sides when she smiled. God, that smile. It took every ounce of my willpower not to cover her mouth with mine. And the light. It was twilight time. The light was soft and it caressed her face, giving it an almost incandescent glow. She was leading me into the meadow, but I might as well have been lead into oblivion. At that moment, I knew one thing for certain. This wasn't an infatuation. This wasn't me being a hormonal teenage boy. This wasn't a fleeting crush. This was forever. I was irrevocably in love with Bella Swan. I was so fucked. "Edward?"

I was brought out of my thoughts when I realized Bella was only inches away from me. The smell. Her smell. My eyes closed as I took her in. "Edward?" she asked again. My eyes flew open. "Are you alright?" She looked at me with genuine concern. "Uh. . . yeah. I just. . ." "Do you feel dizzy?" "What?" "You looked like you were going to pass out for a second." Her eyes examined my face. "Come on." She sat down on the ground and tugged on my hand. There was a bit of concern in her expression, but something else as well. I looked at her for a minute and realized she was afraid. What could she be afraid of? As if reading my mind, she said, "I don't know what's going on with you lately. You. . . You're different. We don't. . ." She looked away for a moment and her face crumpled, but she quickly recovered. "Whatever's going on with you, do you think you could just. . . put it aside for just a little while and just. . . be with me?" I felt like I was knocked down on my ass and the air was taken out of my lungs. She had no idea how much I wanted to be with her. She was still holding my hand and was now giving me an almost pleading look. God, if she only knew. I couldn't form any words, so I nodded and sat beside her. We sat next to each other. Our legs stretched out in front of us. It was like some unspoken agreement that our bodies wouldn't touch. We had let go of our hands and I was sad for the loss. After a moment, Bella turned to me and held up an ear bud. "Wanna listen?" "Sure." I took the offered ear bud and put it in my ear. It was The Platters. Together at last at twilight time. I couldn't help letting out a small laugh. Alice had mentioned that she was going through an oldies phase much to her annoyance. In this moment, it felt safe to be with her. She looked at me with a raised eyebrow.

I shook my head not willing to explain my jumbled thoughts about her. Instead I brought my arm around her. Her eyes widened at the contact and for a second I thought it was a mistake. Her surprise quickly disappeared only to be replaced by another breathtaking smile. Bella moved closer to me and rested her head on my shoulder. I resisted the urge to kiss the top of her head. Instead I lowered my head, so that my cheek brushed against her hair and then I was captivated by strawberries and freesia. I closed my eyes and let her smell envelop me and the music became the soundtrack for this moment. This moment. This memory would later become a source of inspiration and bittersweet torture. In this moment, we were just Bella and Edward. The meadow had enabled us to be two people enjoying the other's company. But once we stepped out of the meadow, she would become Bella, my best friend's sister. I would become Edward, the guy who is like-a-brother-but-who-really-wants-to-get-into-his-bestfriend's-sister's-pants. But deep down, I knew I wasn't really that guy. I also knew I couldn't be anything more to Bella. Emmett was my best friend. We had gone through so much together. He wouldn't understand if I told him that I was in love with his younger sister. So, until I had to put the mask back on, I'd enjoy this moment and dream that some day I might have more than a fleeting moment in a meadow to show Bella how much I love her. This Hungry World

Friday, September 7, 2007 Hyde Park, New York EPOV Her thoughts were tangled and fractured, but I had enough experience to find an underlying theme and had to restrain myself from assuring Noelle that she wasn't wrong to leave before talking more to Andrew. Bella reached for my hand and I squeezed it, looking forward to the drive ahead of us, just the two of us. "Thanks for the ride, you guys," Noelle mumbled, blushing as she fumbled with the seatbelt and the door handle. "Our pleasure," I told her honestly. "Night, Noelle," Bella said softly.

Noelle climbed out of the car and I followed her as she weaved her way towards the dorm. She waved awkwardly before letting herself into her building. "Call us when you're in your room," I called to her as she moved through the door, watching to make sure she heard me. She looked back and nodded, but thought I was being unnecessarily careful. When I could no longer see her in the hallway, I made my way back to the car. Bella exhaled and looked at me as I sat down, smiling almost apologetically. "I'm glad we gave her a ride," she said. "I didn't want to let Andy take her home." She watched me carefully when she said this, seeming to look for a specific reaction. "Neither did I," I grumbled quietly. I turned the car around and began our trip to Hanover. "I'm excited to see everyone," she said quietly after a moment, watching the trees pass by the car. "I didn't know how much I would miss them." "Do you miss them very much?" I asked, tucking her hair behind her ear so I could see her face better. She nodded. "Everything feels so different here." "Everything is different here," I agreed. "I miss our Forks bedroom," she murmured, looking out her window. I smiled inwardly, loving that she called it "ours" and knowing what was waiting for us at our Hanover house. She turned to me and in my peripheral vision the movement seemed fast, almost as if she had been struggling to resist and finally gave in to something. "Are you happy?" Her eyes seemed almost desperate with worry. I gaped at her and then focused back on the road. It took a moment before I could respond. "Bella? Is that a serious question?" She sighed and rubbed her face quickly. "No." She closed her eyes and dropped her hands to her lap. "Yes? I don't know. I just can't tell what you're thinking lately." I watched her worry her lip for a moment while I tried to think of what to say. "We have less time just the two of us," I reminded her. "We're not constantly in each other's head. Maybe that is what you're feeling?" "I guess so," she smiled and shrugged, looking slightly embarrassed. "I just wanted to make sure that, after we've started classes and everything, you're still glad we're doing this." I realized when she said this that classes had begun Wednesday morning, that she had admitted to Alice on Thursday that she was anxious about my reaction, and here we were on Friday night, still not having discussed much of it. The paradox was that whenever I watched her in class, all I wanted

to do was hear what she was thinking about everything. Unfortunately, once I had her home, after we spent time with Alice and Jasper in the evening, all I wanted to do was be inside her for hours. "I'm enjoying the experience very much. I want to share this with you, sweetheart," I assured her, hoping she would see the truth in my simple reassurance. "I promise." "Can you translate that for me?" she sighed, looking defeated. "That feels carefully worded." I blinked at her and looked away, suddenly unsure what she needed to hear from me. "I love going through this with you. I know we should be talking more about all of it." I lowered my voice and glanced at her. "I watch you all day and wonder what you're thinking, but as soon as I get you alone I can hardly wait to make love to you." She nodded slowly, seeming to pick apart my words and sift for deeper meaning. After a moment she inhaled, held her breath, and then slowly released it. She turned to me with a strained smile. "Did you like the discussion of handling dairy?" I raised an eyebrow, a little surprised by the subtle change of topic. "Oh, yes. How I've missed heavy cream." At Canlis, heavy cream was routinely used in the desserts. Jasper and I had grown quite proud that we were able to work with it without gagging. "Good," she murmured, looking back out the window. Her phone rang and she answered, talking briefly to Noelle who apologized for taking so long to call. She had been sick. Bella supplied the necessary questions of concern before ending the call and slipping her phone back into her bag. A heavy silence filled the car and I realized there was more she needed to say, maybe needed me to say. I grasped at the tendrils of what she'd offered so far since Noelle had left the car. I glanced at her and could tell her mind was working on something. I moved my hand to turn up the music to bring some calm into the car. Before Bella, I had no experience with love, with its soft, intricate moments of ecstasy, or its heady, overwhelming torrent of need. I had never felt lost by myself because I had always been entirely self-possessed. I had learned about all of these treasures in the past year the most perfect year with my wife. Here and now, I felt that we were seeing another side to love; the side that needs encouragement and strength, the side that flounders without attention. I did not yet know how to face this side of love but felt the weight of it in the car tonight. I was missing something. I opened my mouth to ask her what was on her mind when I heard her voice, small and hesitant beside me: "Edward?" "Bella?" I answered, reaching out instinctively and stroking her cheek with my thumb. I couldn't seem get the words right but I could tell she needed more from me. "In class today... yesterday, too... why did you sit in the back again?" she asked, too casually. "Because of DeVries?" I watched her play with her nails; the distracted gesture was clearly to communicate that she didn't want this to seem like it was a big deal.

"Not entirely. It's harder to simply watch you when I'm next to you." I trailed my hand down her neck before putting it back on the steering wheel. "And I like to watch you." She looked up at me, slightly wounded. "So he wasn't keeping an eye on us?" I shook my head, deciding to give her a small glimpse of DeVries' thoughts. "The first day he was. Now, he is watching you because he's curious about your skill, not because he doesn't like that we're in class together." Her lips formed an "O" as she heard this and I realized that it was possible she could see my struggle with what I should and shouldn't tell her as dishonesty. "So you sit back there because you just want to watch me? Did you pay attention to the course at all?" she asked, looking slightly put out. "We do get tested, you know." I smiled at her and pulled her hand onto my thigh. She felt stiff but relaxed when my fingers stroked across her knuckles. "Would you like me to recite the lecture back to you, love? I also heard the lecture next door, as well as the internal reactions to each lecture all around us. You, my beauty, are my focus, but I still keep track of the world around me... around you." She scoffed and shook her head before pulling her hand from mine and taking her book out of her bag to read. I felt pulled into a moment of dj vu and realized I had seen this before, from Alice. I watched her and realized she was still frustrated, deliberately focusing on something other than this conversation. "Bella? What has you upset with me?" She looked up at me and shook her head, looking defeated. "It's not you. I just don't think I would have been able to split my attention like that. I don't think I could have stared at you all lecture and been able to absorb anything else." I struggled to understand the guilt in her voice and insistently pulled her hand back onto my leg. "Nor should you. You should be absorbed in this." "But if you can do both, I guess... I just feel frustrated that this seems to come so easily to you." "Darling, I've had a good head start on balancing various inputs. It just takes time." I wasn't sure why but my reason didn't seem to appease her; there seemed to be so much more to her response than simple frustration that she was unable to divide her attention as well as I. She turned her head to look out her window; her hand was limp in mine. I tried to determine what would upset her about this. Did she want to know more about what I heard from others around her? I wasn't sure I had the balance right, and worried that she felt kept out of my private loop with the rest of the world. "Are you also upset that I didn't tell you that I simply wanted to be able to watch you? That I said it would be better for us to not appear inseparable? Do you feel misled?"

She shrugged and turned to face me in her seat. "A little. It seems like..." she shook her head, searching for words, "like you're keeping things from me." I gaped at her before returning sufficient focus to the road in front of us. "I never want you to feel that way," I breathed. I felt the struggle bubble to the surface, feeling torn about how much of what I see I should share with her, and how much I should let her find out for herself. Would telling her how DeVries viewed her change her behavior? Was not sitting with her in class something that we needed to discuss at length? I hadn't thought this was worthy of discussion. She roused me from my inner turmoil, her voice soft and hesitant in the car. "You're more in your head lately. I can tell that you're thinking about things all the time... but I don't know what they are. Some things come out only through sex," she said, biting her lip and pulling our hands onto her lap now. "Do you know what I mean?" I thought about what she said and nodded. This was about more than DeVries. She was feeling generally disconnected. "I think so." My mind felt full too full with musings over what she was saying. Was it wrong for us to communicate primarily through lovemaking? Since our first night together on the island, hadn't we always done that? Everything had changed when we made love and our openness had poured forward almost as if we couldn't possibly keep things from each other. Was it not enough for her anymore for our most naked selves to appear when we were being completely intimate? I knew I hadn't told her everything, but couldn't determine whether the things I had kept from her were necessary to share. How much of what I saw from everyone around us was information she required? She looked at me, and I knew she needed something but I felt at a loss. I smiled at her and took her hand. "Edward?" This time I simply murmured, "What, my love?" "What are you thinking about?" She studied me, and her continued expression of worry tore at me. "I'm trying to figure out how to balance telling you everything I see and hear, and telling you things that I think matter." She chewed her lip, considering this. "Why not just tell me what you've always told me?" I looked at her and let my eyes wander over her face, taking in all of the lines of concern and question. "There are a lot more people around us now. When it was just the family, you knew everyone's motivations, or could at least ask them yourself. Now, we're surrounded with exponentially more people, many of who are also curious about and interested in you. I'm filtering a lot, I suppose, but most of it feels like noise. What isn't noise, such as what our professors are thinking... well, I'm not sure what you want to know."

She shook her head, seeming to dismiss some of what I was saying. "I miss knowing everything you're thinking," she whispered. I closed my eyes briefly, then looked back at the road. "I don't want you to feel that way." "I understand why you wouldn't share every thought you hear..." she said, staring again at her hands. "But... there aren't important things that you're keeping from me, are there?" I glanced at her again. "What do you mean?" I felt like there was a rock in my stomach when she said this, suspecting where we were going. I knew we were getting to the heart of what was upsetting her: the idea that something was eating at me and she wasn't let into my processing of it all. "Someone thought of me tied up... and it really upset you." I swallowed heavily, and the feeling of violent protectiveness whipped through me and, most likely, flashed across my face. "Yes." She stared at me, seeing everything, I knew. "But we never talked about it, not really." I nodded. "I know. I didn't want to put the thoughts in your head, too." I waited for the mild reprimand that I could feel building in the space between us. "What if I want to share those things?" I was silent, feeling ambivalent. I wanted Bella to know every thought I had. I also wanted to keep her from the darker side of the world she seemed to take in with such awed vulnerability. She continued, "And tonight, you were really keeping an eye on Andy." I looked at her and realized she had made the connection. "Let me ask you," I said, quietly and in as measured a tone as possible. "What do you feel from him?" She shrugged and pulled her hair into a ponytail and dragged it over her shoulder. "He's young and cocky. He's horny. He's, what? Eighteen?" "Twenty one," I corrected, quietly. "Okay, he's twenty one," she said. "I can tell he's controlling. I get a lot of those vibes from him. He seems really type-A, but I'll be honest, I get a lot of that here." Her tone was casual and I pondered the differences in our gifts, how his thoughts were simply idle curiosity and hadn't become something he necessarily felt were part of him, felt he needed to act upon. His pathology wouldn't register for her yet. She glanced at me and saw something in my expression that caused her to lean closer. "What? What am I supposed to see?" "Nothing," I said, smiling at her with a wave of relief. "I guess I'm relieved."

"This is what I mean," she sighed, leaning back heavily and clearly aggravated. I ran my hand through my hair and looked at her, confused. "What you mean about what?" "This..." she waved her hand, "vagueness. It's like we're apart all day and then we get home and have some cathartic sex and then just kiss and hold each other for hours on end, and don't get me wrong it's wonderful, but we aren't talking about everything anymore. Which is weird because in some ways there's more to talk about. I feel like we're regressing." I stared at the road ahead of us and exhaled when her fingers threaded through the hair at the back of my head, encouraging me to engage. "You're right," I admitted. She waited, silent next to me. "I don't like Andrew," I said quietly. "He's very disturbed." "Okay," she said, drawing out the word. "I kind of got that impression. You can see everything going on with him, though, so obviously you know how to handle him. He's a human. We're vampires. What's the problem?" I closed my eyes, swallowing my frustration with her navet and knowing she was speaking out of her own exasperation with my reticence to discuss this. Knowing how to face all of these new things didn't come so easily to me, either through my gift or through social interaction. I found myself struggling, for her sake, to fit in and interact with people other than my family, and this was particularly true with Andrew. I simply didn't know how to deal with my feelings about him. "It doesn't work that way, Bella. Looking into minds isn't like reading flashcards" She pulled her hand away from my head and it slapped lightly against her thigh. "Condescending much?" she said, wide-eyed. "I'm not" "Edward, I hate this! I hate being back to this place where I have to pull every single bit of information from you and you feel like you have to protect me from everything. We worked so hard to not be like this anymore." I heard her voice shake and looked at her, trying to figure out if she was trying not to cry. She was struggling. "Bella," I whispered, taking her hand. She let me and looked at me, searching. She was right, of course. I had to tell her what worried me, what fears I had, and what dangers I saw real or perceived.

I squeezed her hand as I tried to explain. "When we were in front of Roth on Wednesday, and I jumped up... " I stole a glance at her, not sure why it was so hard to tell her this. "Andy had just walked past us. When he saw you, his thoughts were initially pretty tame in fact, they didn't really register. He saw your hair and face, considered your shape and your voice as you chatted. None of this stood out; it was all idle interest really. Of course, there was an undercurrent of attraction..." "Okay," she murmured patiently, encouraging me by turning to face me more fully. "And in an instant it transitioned to something much darker." I closed my eyes for a moment before opening them and focused on keeping my grip light on the steering wheel. "It wasn't only that he imagined you tied up, as you know. It wasn't recreational domination. He wanted you tied and afraid." She breathed, "Afraid?" "He wanted to hurt you. The image of your fear aroused him. He liked the idea of hearing you crying, of hearing you screaming." "Oh, sweetie," she murmured, leaning across the console to press her mouth to my cheek and holding it there. The reaction was so quintessentially Bella, and I felt a solid lump in my throat as her concern for me pressed against my face with her kiss. The warmth and understanding in her gesture motivated me to continue. "Bella, it upset me so much. It's the kind of thing that I used to look for to find the lowest form of human," I whispered, afraid of how it sounded. "It's the gray area, the dark thoughts that may never come to fruition. I know that I can't be jury and executioner ever again I have no desire to go to that dark place but I have still had to learn to accept that there are monsters even outside of the monster world... human monsters." "I know, baby," she said against my skin. "But seeing those thoughts directed at you..." I shook my head, knowing she would understand. "Remember the men in Port Angeles? I almost killed them. I would have killed them." I heard my voice thicken with a growl and pulled in a steadying breath of her scent to calm down. "Why didn't you tell me this? I only could sense how much you needed me bound and... adored, I guess." She leaned back into her seat and sighed. "I guess it makes sense now, but I think it would be good to talk about it, and not just let it out through sex." I was quiet, feeling the weight of the admission lifted from my chest. Feeling guilty that I hadn't told her everything in my head the last few days, I took her hand again and brought it to my lips, kissing her wedding ring. "I'm sorry." "Edward?" she said, reminding. "Why didn't you think you could tell me this?" "It's not that I didn't think I could tell you," I hedged. "It's just that I hate that you'll see this side of the world. Its darker sides, its evils." "Pull over," she murmured.

I steered the car to the side of the road and turned to her in my seat. She climbed over the console and into my lap, letting her knees settle on either side of my thighs. The soft leather pressed into my thighs through my jeans and I felt comfortably trapped in my seat beneath her. "I don't think this world is made of marshmallows and rainbows." "I do know that," I sighed. "But nor do you really understand that there are disturbed people who would derive pleasure out of hurting you, hurting women." For all she could see and perceive now, she was still so naive. She cupped my face in her hands. "No one is going to hurt me." I nodded, agreeing with her on this point. "I know. I do know that. I'm not afraid that Andrew will hurt you." "What then?" "I am afraid he will continue to think of hurting you and it will make me want to kill him, make Jasper want to kill him, make Emmett want to kill him." "Oh." This next part was where I feared she would pull away and worry that what we were doing was too much for the family to handle, all for her. I didn't want her to hesitate for a moment and wonder whether we should be here. "Bella, I'm also afraid that eventually he will hurt someone else and I will know about it. I'm afraid that someday soon his fantasies won't be enough for him and he'll need to act on them. I don't think you feel that from him yet because I don't think it's reached that point. He's just discovering this side of himself. It doesn't drive his actions yet." I looked at her, seeing the understanding settle over her features as she realized what this meant. "I haven't had cause to interact with someone, within the small worlds that we create for ourselves, who possesses the potential to do the things that I believe Andrew is capable of. If he acts upon any of his impulses while we share a world with him, I would either have to turn the other cheek, or act on it and put myself in the role of human protector." "Can't Alice see?" she whispered. "If he's going to do something to someone, I mean?" "She can," I admitted. "Do we want to do that? Do we want to police the human world? We've never done that before. If I'm going to be honest, love, I'm not sure I want to become that entrenched. You ask me why I am not interested in making human friends... well, this is an extreme example, but it is an apt one." "Was he thinking those thoughts about Noelle?" Her mind went exactly where I knew it would to her new friend, to the part of the world she wanted to let in. She understood the complexity of the situation, but perhaps not the need for the

black and white boundaries I was beginning to realize despite my desire for her to have everything we would require. I shrugged, hesitating slightly because I didn't want her to use his reaction toward Noelle as a larger index of his inner workings. "No. He was more fascinated with your interactions with her. But, Bella, does it matter? Do we decide if we intervene based on who he is targeting?" She stared down at her hands idly playing with the buttons of my shirt and offered a one-armed shrug. "What did you do before? When you met someone like this?" "I've never had consistent interaction with someone like Andrew," I said again, gently. "Minds like his aren't common." "Oh," she whispered, understanding the magnitude of that. I pushed her hair back from her shoulders and tilted her chin up to look at me. "I suspect he was near Noelle only to be near to you." "That's absurd," she said, shaking her head. I simply stared at her until she stopped shaking her head and seemed to think about what I was saying. "He can't do anything to you," I murmured. "He'll only get as close as we let him, and for his safety I suggest we don't let him get close at all." She looked up at me and I decided to let it all out, to give her everything I had. "He didn't even register when I turned angry. He didn't notice that I growled at him or that my cards were nearly crumpled in my fists as he thought of you. He didn't react with jealousy when you kissed me. His reactions are beyond abnormal." She shivered slightly and closed her eyes for a moment before opening them and looking at me. She nodded slowly. "Are you going to talk to Carlisle about it?" "Yes. Would you like to be there?" The brief image of discussing this with Carlisle, of hearing his wisdom and perspective on this topic, had actually kept me tethered to my chair at the card table. She look surprised when she nodded, and I whispered, "Okay." She was silent sitting on top of me, toying with my shirt and thinking. She brought her eyes to mine and her voice was nearly silent when she asked, "Do most men react with jealousy when I touch you?" After the last word left her mouth she let her gaze fall to my lips. "Yes. Varying degrees, but as a rule, yes." I traced the slope of her collarbone with my index finger, feeling the energy between us shift slightly. "Do women feel jealous of me when I kiss you?" she whispered. I hesitated, watching her teeth pull her lip into her mouth and then release it, shiny and wet. I wanted to devour her. "Yes." "Except for Noelle and maybe Tasha, the others seem hesitant to like me," she said, shifting her weight over me. There was a vulnerability and an innocence in her deeply sensual movement. She

had essentially lined her sex up with mine and rocked over me, and I wondered idly if she, too, needed this type of connection now. "As well as we can blend in, we're still different. What you said to Jasper earlier was true. Humans do notice our differences, but the opposite sex will overlook things if there is a baser attraction there. Women are wary of you for various reasons, including jealousy. Likewise, men tend to be more suspicious of me than women do." "Except Evan," she giggled. I groaned and laughed, "Right. I should say most men are suspicious of me." "Is Teddy?" "Teddy is young and trying hard. If he is, it's pretty latent. He still wants to impress you, and, therefore, me." She shook her head and closed her eyes. "Well, you definitely made an impression on the women." Her tone flashed like a red light in front of my eyes. I tilted her chin so she would open her eyes and look at me, wanting to understand what had her worried back at the party. "Hey, sweet girl." "They just said some nasty things." She smiled weakly. "I don't know why it bothers me. I'm not surprised that girls can be catty." "Catty?" I asked, surprised that this was her assessment. The single, flippant word contrasted with what I had assumed bothered her about what she'd overheard. "It's nothing," she said, rolling her eyes. "I feel nave for even thinking girls in college would be different." I blinked to clear my head. She wasn't upset for the reasons I had imagined. "Bella?" "You know, they were just saying how we got married so young, and how I was probably what you wanted for now and it was all just so.... needlessly bitchy..." She looked up at me and grinned selfconsciously. "Saying it out loud I realize how silly this sounds. Their opinion means nothing to me." I laughed, knowing perhaps the response wasn't the best one, but was surprised at how relieved I was. "I assumed that you were upset because you heard some truth in their words and wondered if perhaps you hadn't married too soon, or worried that I would move on at some point." She laughed softly at me, running her finger down my jaw. "Why would I think that? You were barely able to play cards tonight." She smiled and bit her lip, looking at me through her dark lashes. "I have no idea," I murmured, amused with how grounded she was when I tended to over-think everything. I leaned to pull her lip from between her teeth with my mouth. "Jasper told me you were worried, and it got my mind working overtime..."

"When did he do that?" I hesitated, smiling, and then looking down at her hands on my chest. Even when soft and encouraging, her gaze could feel so penetrating. "When you were listening to the catty girls and I was struggling to figure out what was going through your head." "You do so love watching me through the eyes of others," she purred these words and I realized in that moment that Bella knew exactly how much I watched her. "I do." A simple confirmation was all that was required. I loved watching Bella, period. "It's a good thing that we'll never be at a public beach together. I'm not sure you could handle seeing me in a bikini from every angle at once." The thought had never occurred to me, and suddenly I was bereft at its impossibility. "Why not?" I asked, ignoring the slight whine in my voice, ignoring the fact that it would allow many eyes to see my wife in a bikini. Her head fell against my shoulder as she laughed and she looked up at me. "Because if it were warm enough to wear a bikini, it would probably be too sunny for a public outing." "Of course," I mumbled, slowly working her shirt over her head, happy to settle for the view of my wife in a light-green lace bra. "I can't believe I had to remind you of that," she whispered, staring at me staring at her. "Did all of the deer blood in your body leave your head and travel south?" I laughed and pulled her by the back of her head closer to me, kissing the corner of her mouth. "Something like that." She leaned back and surveyed me, suddenly serious. "Did what they said worry you?" I paused as I tracked backwards in our conversation, realizing she meant the girls in the kitchen. I shook my head. "No." "So why did you think I would be worried? Do I seem insecure in your feelings about me anymore?" "Not often," I assured her quickly. "I just know that those two comments our perceived age and my permanence in your life are your two trigger points." "Trigger points?" she grinned, rocking over me suggestively. I narrowed my eyes at her and stilled her hips. A baser part of me one even deeper than the part comprised solely of lust for my wife needed to finish this conversation. We had finally revealed how many discussions we had left dangling or even completely untouched lately, and needed to tie them together. "My fear that you are fragile? Your fear that I am impermanent?" "Oh," she whispered, understanding my meaning. "Yeah."

"What do you think your bathroom wall is about?" I asked quietly. She smiled and bit her lip. "Does it calm you to see pictures of us together?" She sighed and smiled at me. "Yes." I lowered my voice further, "Do you think that might be because I once robbed you of our pictures?" She hesitated and then nodded. "What do you think my over protectiveness is about? I know Andrew can't hurt you. It doesn't matter. I don't even like the suggestion that he'd like to. I don't really care what I have to do to protect you, even if the protection I'm offering is needless. I will never get the image of James biting you, of him breaking your leg, out of my head. I will never forget our fight with Victoria." She nodded but her eyes grew darker, more deeply and intimately engaged. "I know." I closed my eyes and leaned my head back against the headrest. I felt her face close to mine, felt her lips ghost across my chin. "You know what?" she asked, drawing the tip of her tongue along the side of my lip. "What?" I arched my hips up against her unconsciously. "You were my first kiss." She nibbled my bottom lip, sucking and grazing it with her teeth. With such a simple reminder, the entire outside world melted away. "And you were mine," I said, parting my lips slightly so she could suck on them. I opened my eyes to see her looking at me earnestly. "I really love kissing you," she murmured. "More than almost anything." I hummed in reply, watching her face so close to mine as she kissed and teased me. "Bella?" "Edward?" I felt her smile in her lips on my chin. "I'm sorry I didn't talk to you about it." I hated that I had let her down, that I had let the world in but put my own walls back up to keep it out, including her. She kissed me once, briefly, before she leaned back. "About Andy?" "About all of it," I clarified. She nodded, her expression serious. "It's okay." "This is new for me," I said quietly. "Navigating being more social, navigating the different facets of marriage. I find that I'm struggling to keep up with what I think I need to be doing, when all I want to do is just be with you." She sighed and looked sad for a moment and all I could think to do was smile and move to kiss her.

I ran my fingers up her sides and cupped her breasts through the soft lace of her bra, pressing my thumbs against her nipples. She groaned and shifted over me, rubbing against my erection. "Bella," I whispered. "I want to get you to Hanover. I want you to see what I did to our room and make love to you there." She nodded and yet didn't move from my lap. "We can make love there, too." "Too?" I grinned at her. "Do I need to put the back seat down?" She smiled and scooted back into the passenger seat before pushing me towards my door. I laughed, climbing out of the car and moving to the back, flipping the release on the backseat and laying it down flat. "Your bed, my lady?" I offered with a sweep of my hand before walking around the back and climbing in through the rear door. She scrambled back from the front seat, meeting me as I turned from yanking the door closed, and pulled me down over her hungrily. Suddenly, her hands were everywhere, holding my head to hers, fingers digging against my scalp. She didn't bother to unbutton my shirt, instead pulling it open and letting the buttons fall wherever they wanted. "Edward, oh God..." she whispered when my bare torso pressed against hers. I stopped moving over her and leaned back, looking at her face. "Hey," I smiled down at her and cupped her face in my hand. "I know that look..." She beamed up at me and pulled my hips closer to her with her legs around my thighs. "Yeah..." I groaned, having missed this expression for the past couple of weeks. She lifted her body to me, grinding slowly and whispering to me unintelligible words expressing her sudden plummet into deep and urgent need. It was as if a cloudy filter had been removed between us and the degree of her need for connection was unleashed. She pushed at my shoulders and I rolled over in the small space as she straddled me, hiking up her skirt and unbuttoning my pants. Her grin was devious and playful as she pulled me from my pants and pulled my own hand between her legs. The soft satin of her underwear was already soaked through, aided by the intensity of the ascent into her love day. Slipping two fingers inside her and letting her adjust and move over me, I smiled at her soft moans and words already begging for more. The scent of her filled the car. She was so smooth against my hand and I groaned, murmuring, "I want this on my face." She laughed, giddy, and the space lit up with the sound. I wasn't sure how she maneuvered it so quickly, but in an instant she was kneeling over my face and shoving my pants down to my knees. "I love it when you're impatient," I growled, pushing her skirt up over her waist and shredding her panties from her hips.

She teased me licking my thighs, blowing a cool stream of air over my tip so I played with her as well, already lost in the intimacy of the delicious anticipation. I kissed her perfect backside and blew across her skin. She wiggled and arched and gasped, and I wasn't sure I could last very long when faced with how excited she was. Her arousal always, since the first time I'd registered she was wet for me was so delicious, so consuming. I stilled her with my hands around her thighs and reached with my fingers to open her up for me. "Please," she breathed, kissing along my length. I jerked in her grip, my erection instinctively angling for her mouth. My own mouth moved along her lips, sucking and licking but avoiding where she wanted my attention on her the most. Her tongue darted out for a taste and mine did likewise. After this, neither of us could tease anymore. My mouth opened around her and sucked her clit gently just as her own lips surrounded me and buried me in warm, drenched suction. The synchronization of our movements was shattering it was wet and hot and urgent everywhere in an instant from my lips to my groin. She began to come almost immediately, propelled by the energy in her body and its singular focus... me. She called out unintelligibly, already needing more, and her own movements became frantic along my length, bordering on too rough. "Gentle, sweet thing," I murmured against her flesh, pulling my hips back slightly in reaction. She hummed in apology, licking me carefully so I knew she'd heard. It was a struggle to remain focused on her with her hips shifting over my face, and her sounds echoing around us and vibrating deep inside me. I couldn't see her face with her spread in front of me and with her skirt around her waist, but in some ways it was more enrapturing to simply feel her mouth and hear her sounds, to taste her respond to me responding to her. It was always like this, a reverberating circuit where her pleasure amplified my own, and the harder I was for her the more it excited her. Yet I loved so much to see her fall into this spell where she wanted nothing but me. I couldn't help but want her to come over and over to show me how good I could make her feel. The feeling of her mouth on me became a warm current, a heady backdrop to my own motivation to bring her to climax again and again. She was velvet on my tongue, delicate and small; my tongue wrapped around her clit so completely, so hungrily. With a soft pop she released me, compelled to speak. "Coming, coming..." she whispered. I knew this one was different, charged, and she was overcome because her entire body stiffened above me, her thighs closing around my head like a vise. I could feel the contractions inside her against my upper lip and groaned as she rode it out, whimpering at the end and dropping her head to my hip. My kisses moved away from her clit and turned softer, bringing her down and I felt her mouth slide down me again, this time with distinct purpose. Firm strokes, up and back down, sucking and gripping me. Needing, now, to feel the effect she had on me. The balance of give and take in a love day was so familiar and practiced now that we both reacted instinctively, giving constantly until the absorbed one needed to give in return. It didn't take long; there was no greater aphrodisiac than the smell, taste, and sound of Bella's orgasm. I groaned and bit down on her cheek in front of me and she took me as deep as she could, moaning and urging my own orgasm from me.

It felt like it had been years since I had come with such intensity, but of course it had only been a matter of hours since we had made love. The difference was her own wild need and how it affected me; everything was different when Bella wanted me so much she couldn't speak. She slowly released me and held my erection gently in her grip. She scattered devoted kisses along my hipbones and thighs and I moved my lips over her legs next to my head. It was the sweetest post-coital moment: soft and quiet and reciprocal. "Need more?" I asked quietly, my lips pressed against the juncture of her leg and her sex. "No, just enjoying feeling you under me and around me." I nodded, and began to massage the back of her thighs, completely lost in the musk of her body and the softness of her skin when I heard a crunch and the invasion of someone else's thoughts: Audi A6 Wagon, All-Road, 2008 model, Washington plates... Is there someone inside... the clear thoughts were pulled from a mesh that included memories of dinner and a recent speeding ticket. "Bella," I said quickly. She bolted upright, hearing the footsteps behind the car but we were only able to sit up before the officer tapped his light against the rear window and shone it in on us. Bella held her arms to her chest and I covered my groin with my cupped hands. "Everything all right in there, kids?" ***** Saturday, 4:00am, September 8, 2007 Hanover, New Hampshire We moved up the front walkway, laughing and advancing awkwardly with Bella's legs determined to remain tangled up with mine. I groaned a moment before Alice opened the door. Warm light poured from the living room and Emmett's raucous laughter spilled onto the quiet street. "Sixty niiiiine!" he cackled from inside. "My favorite number!" "What kept you guys?" Alice asked, wide-eyed and shaking her head with mock concern. "We almost called the police we were so worried!" My Yes My No

his short out-take was written for the Haiti Compilation. Thank you MsKathy for putting it together. Thanks to my beta, gkkstitch. MYMN Out-take Prequel & Chapter 1 EPOV Excerpt

To the extent that I could be, I was exhausted. The only thing that could rejuvenate me sat crumpled next to me in a hard plastic chair at the airport gate. I needed her lips on mine, telling me we could start over. I had lived away from her for too long. The experience had been more draining than I could have ever known; never would I have been able to anticipate how she nourished me, how her simple presence fed me vitality, vigor, and the simple motivation to exist. I looked at her and felt undeserved relief and shattering regret that she seemed to have fared just as poorly away from me. The generic hum of the airport terminal droned around us and I watched Bella's eyes flutter heavily before sliding closed. She immediately jerked awake next to me, turning quickly to look at me to make sure I was still there. The simple reaction spoke volumes. How long had she looked this way? The Bella I had left was never frantic like this. I wondered briefly what a trip like this would do to a human body as frail and small as hers. Since we had left Volterra, she refused food and insisted only on caffeinated beverages to keep her awake. Next to me, Alice's thoughts were blurred and hidden. I felt almost as if I was frantically digging through a chest of fog, searching for something firm to grasp. "Stop," she hissed. "Do you not know?" I whispered, glancing at Bella as she nodded off briefly. "Can you not tell me if she will take me back?" I wasn't above looking into Alice's visions for reassurance. Alice looked at me and scowled as she continued to shut me out, finding a way to make everything shades of gray and obscure shadows instead of the deep browns and reds of Bella. Instead, she simply told me, "You have so much work to do." Bella jerked awake and looked at me again, confirming my presence before staring at her lap blankly. "I know," I murmured. "I'm so angry at you, Edward." Alice breathed, and the sound was heartbroken. "I love you, and I missed you. But I am so angry." "I'm sorry," I said, unable to take my eyes off of Bella. ***** Even after several hours I was still unaccustomed to her proximity. Not because of what it did to my thirst, but what it did to my chest. Never again would I believe that my heart was a dead organ. I ached for her. I hadn't been able to function without her. I didn't know what I would do if she didn't take me back. The air on the plane was stale and dry. She blinked often, clearly from tears restrained and from the arid atmosphere around us. The jets were so loud: too loud. All I wanted to hear was the sound of

her pulse, the reassuring thrum of her heart beating next to me, a constant reminder that she was not dead, that I had another chance, that I could yet earn her love back. Though, to be honest, I wasn't sure that I could, or should. Her hand was so small, the bones underneath her skin so entirely breakable, but she had survived with me and without me. Her life didn't rest in my hands; her existence didn't depend on me. I slipped my fingers over her skin, felt the pulse pushing out from between the ligaments and tendons in her wrist. Her hand and arm were a constant vibration of movement as she shook underneath my touch and I almost anticipated her need to recoil. So why did she not? Why did she let me hold her hand? I closed my eyes briefly and took in the scent of her, for the first time positively relishing how it stimulated me. I tried to calm myself through the reassuring burn. I glanced up at her face; it was pinched with confusion and hurt and...fear? Did she fear me? I cringed and felt my ribs tighten with a heave of my abdomen over what I had put her through, over the memory of her bewildered expression, her lips parted as she tried to find the words to ask how I could stop loving her in an instant. Of course she would fear me. With my face entirely devoid of emotion, I had pulled her heart from her body and held it before her, telling her that I didn't want her, and that she didn't belong in my world. I knew which words to say. I had cruelly traced the lines of her fears in the delicate muscle before plunging my fingers into her heart at exactly those lines of weakness and discarding her love for me without any visible reaction. How could she not fear me? What I hadn't shown her was my own heart, dead and arrhythmic but far from unfeeling, clutched in and then similarly discarded from my own hand. When I lied to her, I had not held my heart up for her and shown her how every individual fiber was shaped with the letters of her name. When I said goodbye, I had not shown her that the moment I kissed her forehead, my entire world had stopped carrying any meaning whatsoever. When I left her, I had not let her see how I had been unable to run and had instead stood nearby, frozen in the agony of watching her try to comprehend a world without the love we both knew we had. I swallowed and tried to find the words I needed to say. Bella, I'm sorry. Bella, I loved you more than I could ever tell you, and more each day we were apart. Bella, I need to be with you. Bella, forgive me. Bella, I... I leaned down and kissed her wrist, wanting to kiss every inch of her and beg her to take me back.

Bella, marry me. Be with me always. Let me undo all of my mistakes. Let me try again to show you how I feel. I inhaled deeply, smelling her, feeling her, needing her. Let me deserve you. I could hear her heart begin to race and she swallowed in an attempt to begin to speak. When the words came out they were dry and rough from her own fear. Although her voice scratched through my ears, it was how her voice shook that annihilated me. She was confused and broken and, no matter what happened between us, she would never be the same again. "I..." she whispered, and my eyes shot up to hers, watching her stare at my fingers around her hand. "I don't understand why you're holding my hand." From the seat behind me, Alice was briefly unable to control her thoughts as every possibility changed with Bella's quiet statement of confusion. Brief images of Bella and me flashed through her head, torrential swarms of scenarios where Bella was angry, where Bella was holding me, where Bella lay turned with her back to me, where Bella ran from me, sobbing. Alice's thoughts swung wildly, circulating within the myriad of possibilities before a crystal image of Bella appeared. She was underneath me, nude, and her face moved underneath me in my mind. I realized I was moving over her, making love to her. I clenched my eyes shut, clinging to this future as one would to a thin vine emerging from the ledge of a cliff. In an instant, the image disappeared and was replaced with one that ripped my mind into a thousand pieces: Bella slipping a ring on a finger I didn't recognize. Everything turned gray again and I swallowed heavily, preparing for the long battle in which I knew I would never surrender.

First Blush

"Bring your leg by myughyeah, just like that." "Can you gogod, right there." "Harder, ride me harder." "You like that?" "Fuuuck, yes." Strong hands gripped her hips, pulling roughly. Her head fell back, her eyes fixed on the ceiling as wave after wave of the most delicious sensations she'd ever known washed over her. Her own hands

moved to her breasts, her fingers toying with and pulling at her nipples. She could feel the tension low in her belly, the way it grew and tightened, each rock of her body pushing her closer. So close. "Almost there" "Can you feel that? The way youoh god" "So close." "Fuck, yestake it, baby. Take all of it." "I'mI'm." "Bella?" "Hmmm?" Gentle hands shook her shoulder. Bella frowned, not wanting to wake, struggling to retain the images as they began to fade from her consciousness. "Bella, honey. I think you wereumdreaming." Her eyes flew open, her thoughts disoriented as her vision slowly came into focus. Alice Brandon sat on the couch next to her, a knowing smile lifting the corners of her mouth. "What time is it?" Bella asked, sitting up slightly and blinking against the afternoon sun. "It's about 2:30," Alice answered, attempting to hide her amusement. "And that must have been one hell of a dream." Bella sat up and ran her hands through her hair, trying to remember the face of the man from her dream. "Oh, it was." "Same as usual?" Alice asked. "Pretty much." "Look, I'm sure we could talk endlessly about the fact that it's been weeks since you've even had a date, let alone gotten any which we really need to do something about, by the way. But half the park staff is still out with the flu and I need you to handle the field trip that's coming through here in a few minutes." Moaning, Bella let her head fall back against the couch. "Again? Alice, I'm so tired, it feels like all I've done is work the last two weeks." Noting the way Alice's lower lip stuck out in an exaggerated pout, she pressed the heels of her palms against her

eyes. "It's not another private school, is it?" she groaned, knowing the answer as soon as she'd spoken the words. "I know, I know," Alice countered, rolling her eyes at Bella's dramatic sigh. "But I promise I'll make it up to you. Okay?" "You owe me, Alice. Like big-time owe me, like new-pair-of-shoes owe me." "Yeah, yeah. Add it to the list. It's a jr. high group, so it shouldn't be too rough. Come on, Bella," she said, pulling her from the couch. "Look on the bright side, maybe the teacher will turn out to be some gorgeous, rich playboy and he'll sweep you off your feet and take you away from all this." Both girls burst out laughing as they headed out of the breakroom. ***** After washing away the last remnants of her dream and freshening up, Bella made her way out into the park. It was true that her love life had been in a bit of a dry spell lately. She snorted when she thought of how big an understatement the term "dry spell" really was. She cringed inwardly, realizing for the first time that it had been over a month since she'd even gone out. Between work and finishing her doctorate, she was lucky to find time to sleep; dating had fallen far on her list of priorities. For the last few weeks, she'd attributed the dreams to her recent lack of a social life, unsure if she should welcome them or seek professional help. In truth, they weren't completely unpleasant, far from it actually. It was waking from them, alone and frustrated, that was beginning to piss her off. They were usually the same, wild and unrestrained sex, always with the same person a beautiful mystery man whose face she could never quite discern. Alice was right, she thought with a frown. She really did need to get some. As she rounded the corner, a large group of teenagers came into view. They were gathered around the courtesy desk, all dressed in what she assumed were school uniforms, consisting of navy slacks and white or green polo shirts. Hmm...quiet, seemingly well-behaved maybe this wouldn't be so bad, she mused, glancing down at the clipboard in her hands. School: Workland Academy Grade: 9 Teacher: Mr. Cullen As she reached the group, her most welcoming smile in place, she scanned the crowd in search of the teacher. Her eyes widened as a tall figure stepped out from behind a particularly large pair of students. He was beautiful, but in a way she'd never seen before: unique and unassuming. He was tall, at least six feet; slender, with wide shoulders and a head of hair that made a girl want to get lost in it. A small girl of about fourteen stood behind him, lightly typing his shoulder to gain his

attention. As he turned to speak with her, he looked up. Bella's breath caught as their gazes met; the deepest green eyes she'd ever seen were looking back at her from behind a pair of black-rimmed glasses. She glanced quickly down at her paperwork, certain there had to be a mistake; there was no way she was lucky enough for that to be Mr. Cullen. As she caught his eyes again, he gave a slight wave of acknowledgment and began moving toward her through the students. He'd taken only three steps before he stumbled and disappeared into the giggling group. "Oh my God," Bella gasped, instinctively rushing forward to help. He jumped up quickly before she could reach him, brushing himself off. "I'm okay, I'm okay," he said, pushing his glasses farther up his nose and assuring the swarm of female students that had gathered around him that he was fine. She paused and waited for him to reach her. He was dressed in a pair of dark-brown dress pants, a white button-up shirt, brown tie and...a tan sweater vest. A sweater vest? she thought, trying to recall the last person she'd seen wearing one. "Sorry about that," he mumbled, brushing his wavy hair from his forehead and motioning behind him. His cheeks held the faintest trace of a blush and Bella bit her lip to keep from smiling. "Are you...are you all right?" she asked, not wanting to embarrass him further, but worried he'd actually hurt himself. "Oh...yeah. That was..." Frowning slightly, he shook his head before meeting her eyes and extending his hand. "I'm Edward Cullen." His voice was soft and gentle, the deep and soothing tone causing her heart to flutter momentarily. Smiling, she reached out and took his offered hand. "I'm Bella Swan," she said, noticing how he softly repeated her name to himself. "Is this your class?" "My what?" he asked, confused. Bella lifted her eyebrows in amusement and looked over his shoulder. He shook his head and smiled. "Oh, yes my class. This is my class." "Okay, well...um," she stammered, wondering why she was so nervous. "I don't normally do these things, but we've been pretty short-handed lately and we're all helping where we can." Pausing, she looked down at their joined hands, realizing she had yet to let go. "Sorry," she mumbled, releasing his hand and wiggling her tingling fingers. "Shall we get started?" "Um...yes. Of course." He turned to the class then, calm and commanding. "Ok, class. Everyone's attention over here." The students began to quiet, and Bella was struck by the change in his demeanor as he interacted with them. "This is Mrs. Swan," he began.

"Ms., actually," she interjected, wincing at how quickly she'd rushed to correct his assumption. Obvious much, Bella? "Ms.," he repeated, looking back at her, a soft smile playing on his lips. "This is Ms. Swan, and she'll be our guide today. Everyone needs to have their notebooks out, their mouths quiet and their attention focused on Ms. Swan." Turning to her, he grinned and motioned to the class, "Ms. Swan, they're all yours." "Right," she mumbled, praying her face wasn't as red as it felt. "Thank you. Okay guys, as Mr. Cullen said, I'm Ms. Swan and I'm an assistant trainer here at Sea World San Diego. Today we'll be taking a tour around the park and learning about marine animal husbandry and training." The next hour passed quickly; the students were typical teenagers but well-behaved for the most part. Bella couldn't help but notice the way Mr. Cullen's class adored him; the boys looking at him with hero worship in their eyes, the female students sighing and hanging on his every word. She was surprised to see that he was completely oblivious to their attention. ***** "Belugas live in the Arctic Ocean and surrounding seas," Bella began, waiting as the group gathered around a large glass enclosure. "Belugas vocalize for communication and navigation. Sounds are produced by movements of air in nasal sacs below the blowhole." "Sacs and blowholes," a student snickered, and the entire group burst into a fit of giggles. "Hey," Mr. Cullen warned, narrowing his eyes at the boy. He turned to her apologetically, mouthing the word "sorry." Nodding, she looked away, biting the inside of her cheek to keep from joining in the laughter. She wasn't very successful. As the hours passed, Bella found herself unable to ignore his presence, glancing over to find him watching her on several occasions. He would turn his head quickly or avert his eyes, an adorable blush spreading along his cheekbones. She watched the way he rolled his shirtsleeves up past his forearms as he stood in the high California sun, the way he repeatedly pushed his glasses farther up his nose, and his nervous habit of running his hands through his hair. He fidgeted and tripped, even stuttering slightly at times, yet each of these awkward habits only made him more intriguing to her. Frowning slightly as they reached the dolphin exhibit, she checked her watch, noting that their time was nearly up. The students crowded around the large pool, taking turns retrieving a small fish from the bucket and learning the basics of the positive reinforcement used at the park. As the dolphins pushed a large beach ball across the surface, splashing as they dove into the rippling water, Bella warned everyone that they stood a chance of getting wet. Turning to steal a glance at him for the fifth time in as many minutes, she watched as Mr. Cullen leaned over to get a better view, noting the way his hair fell over his eyes and the way he habitually pushed it back. The larger dolphin broke the surface in that moment, batting the ball across the pool and causing the water to surge over the edge soaking Mr. Cullen in the process. Rushing to his side, she gripped his arm, the water pouring off him and pooling around their feet. "Oh my God," she gasped. "I'm so sorry, Mr. Cullen."

He looked at her, his mouth open in shock, water running from his hair and down his face. She followed his gaze to where her hand rested on his forearm. His skin was soft, the muscles taut and sculpted beneath her fingers. Her grip tightened slightly, the subtle tingle she felt where they touched moving from her hand and continuing slowly up her arm. "I It's Edward," he said, so quietly that she had to lift her gaze to his to be certain he'd even spoken. "Please, call me Edward." Smiling widely, she nodded, unable to stop the way her stomach fluttered as his eyes continued to peer into hers. "Edward," she said softly, noting the way his smile caused little crinkles around his eyes and one corner of his mouth lifted slightly higher than the other. She was overcome with the urge to run her nose across the freckles on the side of his neck, thread her hands through his wet hair and kiss the corners of that crooked smile. The sound of catcalls and snickers slowly filled the air around them and she blinked, suddenly remembering that they weren't alone. Reluctantly, she withdrew her hand and took a step back. Clearing his throat, he looked around, blushing to the tips of his ears. "Okay, okay. Very funny, guys. We have about five minutes before the bus gets here, so let's all thank Ms. Swan for her time and the fascinating tour." The students thanked her in unison and began shuffling back to meet the bus, the sound of their laughter and chatter fading the further away they got. Bella swallowed, her trembling hands moving to brush a piece of hair behind her ear as her wet shoes shifted slightly on the pavement. Her eyes moved to his feet and she smiled as she noticed the water still running off him onto the ground around them. "Um..." she began, motioning to his wet clothes. "Do you have something you can change in to?" Looking down, he seemed to notice the state of his clothing for the first time. Shaking his head and gripping the bottom of his sweater, he pulled the sodden fabric up and over his head in one movement. He began to wring the water from the vest, and Bella was unable to tear her eyes away from the way his white dress shirt, now wet and almost see-through, clung to his surprisingly sculpted body. She swallowed loudly, looking up to the sound of a throat clearing. "Would you...um." Edward held his sweater toward her. "Can you hold this for a second?" "Oh! Yes. Of course. God, I'm so sorry. I was...um...I wasn't...I mean...sure." She took the shirt, inwardly cursing herself for her idiotic rambling. "I'm really sorry, Edward." "Oh, don't be," he said, waving her off and removing his glasses. She gasped as she watched him, first at the way he looked without his glasses, and then as he untucked the front of his shirt to dry the lenses. A small patch of toned stomach was momentarily visible to her wandering eyes. Without realizing it, she brought the back of her hand to her forehead to wipe her brow.

When had it gotten so warm? "Bella?" Her eyes moved up his body to his face, horrified to find him watching her curiously. "Sorry," she mumbled. "I uh, I guess it's warmer out here than I thought." He lifted his arm, moving his fingers nervously through his hair as his mouth opened and closed several times. The silence continued. "Come on, Mr. Cullen!" A trio of voices echoed from the parking lot, the awkward silence that stretched between them amplified. Was this it, she thought, was she really going to let him just walk away? Frustrated, Bella watched as he replaced his glasses and turned toward his class as they started to board the bus. "I guess I'd better go," he began, his eyes moving across her face. "Thank you again for the tour." "No problem." "Well...goodbye." He gave her a soft smile and turned slowly, his hands in his pockets and his head down as he made his way toward the bus. "Bye," she said softly. She watched him, feeling her pulse race and her stomach twist as he moved farther and farther away from her. Her body leaned forward slightly, as if every cell was telling her to stop him, not to let him go without...something. "Edward! Wait!" she shouted. He lifted his head and turned quickly. "Yes, Bella?" Oh great, she thought, suddenly panicked. What was she going to say? Her eyes fell to the wet fabric still clutched between her hands. "You forgot your sweater?" she said, unsure why the words had come out as a question. Shaking his head, he closed the distance between them, stopping just in front of her. "Right," he said, shaking his head and chuckling softly. "My sweater. Thank you." She nodded, her mouth suddenly dry. Now that she had him here, she had no idea what to say. Edward cleared his throat as he toyed with a string on his most certainly ruined brown sweater. "I meant what I said...earlier, I mean. I really enjoyed the tour," he paused, lifting his chin to meet her eyes. "Belugas really are fascinating." Bella laughed and the tension eased slightly.

"They are pretty great," she said, a slight teasing tone in her voice. Biting her lip, she breathed in deeply, almost certain he could see each beat of her heart as it pounded wildly in her chest. "Perhaps if you come back some day...I can tell you more about them." Edward's smile was breathtaking. "I'd like that. A lot," he answered. "So would I." In the distance, the bus honked. "Well, I'd better go," he said, motioning behind him. "Okay." "Goodbye, Bella." "Goodbye, Edward." He turned slowly again and began walking toward the parking lot. She watched him, surprised when he suddenly stopped. Looking back over his shoulder, he smiled widely before turning once again and stepping onto the bus. Chapter 2 July 2nd I watched as she unloaded the canvas bag she carried, laying our dinner ingredients out before her. "Let me pay for these," I said, noticing the way she paused briefly before setting a bunch of deep purple grapes on the counter. "That's not necessary, Edward. Really." She turned her head to glance at me, her face open and welcoming and honest. I was struck in that moment how beautiful she was, how simple, and sweet, and utterly beautiful. "Bella, you've cooked dinner for me twenty nights in a row. Please, let me pay you for it." I pleaded with my eyes, willing her to understand how much I wanted to do this, how much her simple kindness meant to me. Feeding me was more than just sustaining the physical part of my being; it was what it represented care and nurturing, the sharing of ones self. I was used to caring and being cared for in return. In the villages I traveled to I helped those that couldn't help themselves; I gave of myself willingly and they accepted it. The women in the fields took care of me. They thanked me with food and meals from their own land and tables. I accepted it with gratitude. This was different. What did I give to Bella? What did she receive from our time together?

"Cooking for two is easier than cooking for one," she answered simply, folding her bag neatly and moving it to the opposite counter. "I miss having someone to cook for." And with that, the conversation was over. She moved around me with ease, returning to her task of sorting and unwrapping, her expression clear of all but the simple smile I had grown so attached to. Her hands paused and she turned to me, her lips turned with slight worry. "You have a grill, don't you?" "A grill? Yeah, sure, it's right out here." I lead her through my small kitchen to the back porch, motioning to a forgotten charcoal grill that sat just off the landing. "It's not much," I said, shrugging and rubbing the back of my neck. "I don't really use it." She brushed passed me and lifted the lid carefully, peering into the cobweb filled base. "It's perfect." Her eyes moved around the small yard as if looking for something. "Can you clean out all the spider webs and I'll run across the street for some briquettes?" "Yes, ma'am," I answered, happy to have something to do, a small way to help. She nodded and I watched her retreating form move to the door and disappear from my view. My eyes lingered on her long, tanned legs. By the time she returned, another canvas bag in hand, the grill was cleaned and waiting. I smiled as I listened to the screen door open and close. I enjoyed the ease with which she moved around my home. I met her at the bottom of the stairs, eagerly taking the brought items from her arms. "You bring anymore stuff over and we might as well put a toothbrush for you in the bathroom." She smiled and broke eye contact as her cheeks reddened. "Sorry," she mumbled, tucking a wayward strand of hair behind her ear. "I have sort of taken over your kitchen lately, haven't I?" "Bella," I said, tilting her chin upward. "I was teasing you. I love seeing your flowery girl bowls in my dishwasher." She smacked my arm and laughed, and together we made quick work of starting the fire. We sat together on the rough wooden steps, wine in hand. Her hip was close to mine; I felt the heat of her even through the late afternoon sun. The tuna steaks she'd brought for dinner were marinating in the refrigerator, and we watched the coals turn from black to grey to almost white. "Just about there," she remarked, her eyes moving from the smoldering briquettes to my pathetic yard. "You've really done a lot here." She turned to me with a pleased smile on her face. "You care. It shows."

"I've cleaned up," I said, trying to see it the way she would. "The last occupants really let it go." She nodded in agreement and continued to take in the bare space. I couldn't help but feel almost inadequate as I considered the differences between my imagined idea of her yard and my own. I felt my respect for her grow as I considered the time and effort it must take for a woman living on her own to maintain. "Neighbor Girl," I said, keeping my eyes trained on my wine glass. "I really enjoy our dinners." I turned to her and smiled. She nodded and took another sip of wine. The sun glinted off the crystal stem of her glass and the red and gold highlights in her hair. I'd never really noticed them before; they were like flames. I suddenly understood the thousands of metaphors about fire, and each one fit. "So do I." She laughed softly and I waited, wanting to ask but knowing it wasn't necessary. People weren't books left open for the world to read. "It's been nice actually," she began, moving a small pebble across the cracked cement with the toe of her shoe. "I miss these things, the small things." I took in the tone of her voice; removed and soft. I wondered what other things she missed. "You mean cooking for someone?" "Sure," she nodded. "Jake and I were good. That's the only way I can explain it. But we weren't great." It was my turn to nod, understanding what she meant, to find enjoyment with a person but not feel like you belonged to each other. "It's the silly things I miss," she began with a shake of her head. "Mowing the lawn, getting something heavy off the shelf" she smiled and I nudged her slightly to continue with the almost caressing sound of her voice, intrigued with the way her cheeks suddenly flamed. "It would be nice to have companionship" she trailed off before licking her lips and arching an eyebrow. "But I can manage certain things on my own." The blush faded and she took a long draw from her glass. Her lips curved into a devious smile before she turned away, but I saw it, and my eyes widened at the realization of what she was saying. There was so much to this sweet girl, a fire that licked and crackled just below what she let the world see. "I'll get the fish," she said suddenly, standing and retreating into the house. She returned moments later carrying a large platter filled with tuna steaks and sliced vegetables.

The fish hissed and sizzled as she placed it along the heated metal rack, the rich smell of smoke and sesame evoking memories of so many dinners past dinners that were less intimate, less grounded, less... everything. I didn't want to think of them tonight. The food cooked quickly and we found ourselves once again sitting across from each other at my battered coffee table. I took a large bite, my eyes closing at the way the delicate fish melted in my mouth. I hummed to myself as I chewed, unsurprised to look up and find her watching me. "How many tattoos do you have?" she asked, her eyes moving along my arms and shoulders and across my neck. I finished chewing as I contemplated my answer, unable to look away from her silent appraisal of my body. "A lot," I answered with a smile. Her eyes lifted to me almost in surprise, as if she'd been so lost in her thoughts she'd forgotten the question she'd asked. "That's not very forthcoming," she chided, reminding me of a previous conversation. She'd asked why I didn't want her to know me. I'd been stunned, so lost in my own routine it had never occurred to me that she would want to know me in that way. I nodded in silent understanding. "I had more to begin with. I added to them until they melted into one another. So in answer, I have fewer now, they just cover more of my skin." She put a snow pea in her mouth, chewing as she mulled over my response. Her tongue reached out to lick a drop of sauce from the end of her chopstick. I had to look away. "How many piercings?" "Six," I answered, taking a long drink of my wine. "This is delicious, by the way." "Six," she said softly, more to herself than as a response to me. Her voice was quiet, her eyes shifting as if trying to account for the piercings she could see and the one she couldn't. I dipped my head to take another bite in an attempt to hide my smile. Moving slightly, she stretched her leg out along the edge of the table, her bare foot coming to rest against my outer thigh. My hand burned to reach out and touch the smooth skin. "You're not like you seem." I met her eyes across the table. "What do you mean?" "On the outside. You're nothing like you seem on the outside."

I smiled widely then. "Neither are you," I said pointedly, thinking back to that hidden piece of herself she'd shown me. She held my gaze, a knowing smile lifting the corners of her pink lips. "I know." August 23rd Calloused hands and humidity. A constant hum of complete silence. This village was so quiet. Where was the urgency I expected? "He needed me here," I said, explaining to the air why I was thousands of miles away from my Bella. "It's not just the masses that matter, it's the few you need." "Drink now." Water was poured carefully down my throat. I struggled to sit, to hold the bottle with my hands. My hands shook so much. Water spilled across my neck, my chest. "Don't move so much. You're such a busy man. Why do you always have to be so busy?" Warm broth followed. "Don't want." "Shh," Ah Lin's voice calmed me. "You need more than water." I slept most of the time. I didn't know how many cycles of light and dark moved through the room and over me. The sun came and went, leaving a relieving swath of darkness and cool air when it departed. Nighttime was harder inside my head, but more comfortable against my skin. "You make me want to stay here." The words were spoken in English and they sounded like they came from my own mouth. "Quiet. Keep your strength, Xiao huo tou." "I don't know how to let someone like you in the way I want," I explained quietly, pleading behind closed eyes. "I'm going to China." "Sleep now." "...Neighbor Girl..."

"...banana legs..." "...I love seeing your flowery girl bowls..." "...not like you seem..." August 25th I heard voices outside for the first time in days and I woke up, damp and disoriented. The room shifted and swam until I closed my eyes. "Come in, a little crazy neighbor girl," I said, laughing messily at my private joke. Tommy's voice and Ah Lin's and then a quiet gasp and some shuffling back through the door and outside. Everything became too quiet for me to hear. I fell back asleep. Footsteps entered the room and I didn't bother to open my eyes. The air was heavy and soothing. I heard shuffling and the clanking sound of a pot on the small stove. A hand lifted my head and I drank. The broth in my delirium tasted like Bella to me; in my fantasy I tasted the signature of her cooking. Hands on my face, again, but softer now and I wondered how long my stubble must be to cut through the texture of sweet Ah Lin's abused fingertips. "I'm scruffy," I mumbled. "You are perfect," Bella whispered in my dream. August 26th The sunlight bleached everything in the room and I pressed the heel of my hands against my eyes, bringing back the easy darkness for a moment. The house was quiet. I was alone. I inhaled deeply and opened my eyes, waiting for the room to spin. It didn't. I sat up, slowly.

The house was tidy, and I swallowed heavily at the familiar smell of her somehow still in my head. The vivid dreams were turning to vapor too quickly, but somehow her smell stayed with me. I shifted so that I sat at the edge of the bed and leaned my head into my hands. The stillness and quiet of the room was pierced with a shriek from outside and I jumped up before bending over against the table to steady myself. The sound wasn't Ah Lin. Images rushed through my head: soft brown eyes, smooth fingers, a broth that tasted like home to me. Hushed whispers and promises during the night. Bella? I stumbled outside to the shower and my legs nearly buckled under me as I stood frozen, watching her bend to pick up a tin of soap. I blinked hard and staggered slightly from the forced movement, but she was still there. I turned and stared back at the main house and tried to remember the contents of the table next to the bed I had occupied for days. There had been nothing there that would make me hallucinate, nothing there to indicate I had been suffering anything other than delirium from fever. I turned back to the doorway of the small bathroom outside. She was still there, her back still facing me. Her hand dragged a soapy cloth down her side and suds ran from her naked back, down her hip to her thigh and curled around her knee. "No," I whispered, not believing what I saw, and terrified that my instinct to believe that it was all in my head was the right one. "Holy shit!" she yelped, whipping around and covering her breasts instinctively. She gaped at me and I felt my chest heaving violently. I gripped the side of the door. "Edward?" she whispered, dropping her arms. "Baby, are you okay?" She looked behind me almost as if she expected to see Ah Lin following me with a cup of broth and some herbs. I nodded, numb. She was so beautiful. She was here. She was still mine. She lowered her arms and held them out to me, beckoning. My heart was restored when she did this and my tears began falling, propelled by the wracking sobs of my chest. She was naked, but I was completely bare for her. "Shh, sweetie. Come here," she said, nodding and curling her hand to me. "I can't believe you're up." I couldn't move. Not because I didn't want to go to her I wanted nothing more than to feel her skin, to smell her hair, to just fucking kiss her with abandon and tell her I loved her but because I was afraid if I moved she would disappear. "What..." I started, shaking my head slightly and wiping my face. "How."

She licked her lips and, given my hesitation and delay, seemed to wonder whether she should cover herself. She reached for a towel slung over the side of the small stall. "Don't," I said, too loudly, and my voice cracked on the single syllable. It was hoarse from misuse but I rasped, "God, Bella, don't." I felt as though I may lose my mind if she covered herself, if I lost any part of her in front of me now. She dropped her hand and smiled. Her eyes crinkled and I moved towards her then, completely unable to stop myself. I practically fell against her but she was close enough to the wall that my momentum simply pressed her against the stone of the small shower. I heard her sob and her arms flew around my shoulders. I completely lost it then, heaving in my relief and gripping her as tightly as I could. She held me. Her hands. Her voice. Her smell. It was all real. The water seeped through my clothes and made me shiver but I ushered every ounce of strength I had to keep her from letting go of me. She was here. She didn't disappear. "I found you," she whispered, running her hands over my shoulders. Her hands smoothed over my back until I stilled. I was several inches taller than her but she held me firmly, slowly shifting how we stood until I leaned against the stone. "You should lay down." I shook my head. "I can't leave you." "I'm almost done," she whispered. "Do you want a bath too? Can you stand for a few minutes?" I nodded. Her fingers slipped gently under my shirt and then tugged, urging me with an expectant lift of her eyebrows to raise my arms as she pulled the shirt over my head. She untied my pants and pulled them down my hips. Her eyes never left mine. "Are you cold?" I nodded. "Here," she said, bringing a cloth to my chest. "The water was really hot. It's probably okay now." She took a cup and poured some down my chest, looking at my face to make sure I was okay. Another cup went down my back. She carefully tilted my chin up and poured a cup over my head and through my hair.

And just like this, with soft familiar fingers that had fed me so many nights, Bella bathed me. On her tiptoes she washed my hair, and on her knees she washed my legs. Her hair was wet and smoothed back and away from her face. I had forgotten how far down her back it reached. Her neck was so much longer than my memory told me. Long and smooth, tensing as she reached behind my thighs. Her ears were small and unpierced. I had never studied them before. Her lips were fuller, slightly chapped. I imagined her biting them continually as she watched me come in and out of my fever. Her collarbones seemed sharper had she lost weight? Her hands were exactly how I remembered them, but her shoulders were stronger. Only now when I realized how much I had missed in describing her, did I truly believe she was here. My imagination could not have come up with her exactly like this in front of me. "I love you." My voice broke and the last word stuck in my throat. She looked up at me and her face crumpled at the words. She stood and wrapped her arms around my neck. My eyes opened up to darkness; flashes of my fragmented dreams fogged my vision of the room. Something warm pressed against me and I pulled it closer. My hands tangled in silk that smelled like home, like Bella. I sighed and felt the emptiness inside me fill. The ever-present ache dulled as I held her in my dream. "Bella." I murmured her name through dry lips, my eyes opening as something stirred against me. Dark hair nestled against my neck. I lifted my head to peer down, wincing as a wave of dizziness and fatigue swiftly flooded through me. I closed my eyes tightly, shaking my head before opening them again. I remembered waking to a surprised cry from the shower, how the familiar sound had pulled me forward like a cord inside my chest. I remembered her body; the way the sun had danced along her wet skin, and how certain I'd been that she couldn't be real. My eyes moved over her face, the face I'd seen so many times as I'd looked at Ah Lin's drawing. It was so much more beautiful than I remembered. With trembling hands I brushed a piece of tangled hair from her forehead. She shifted in her sleep and with easy familiarity, pressed her cheek against my chest. Her bare leg brushed against mine before moving to rest along my hip.

I felt her skin, her softness. Even in my weakened state, my body stirred. My arms shook as I lifted my hand to ghost along her body, over her shoulder, down her ribs. Her fingers twitched and I lifted them to my mouth, kissing her palm. Dark ink caught my eye and I shifted her arm to see. There, along her wrist and in Chinese characters were words so much like my own.

Fated to love him My thumb traced the newly inked skin; the significance of what it meant was not lost on me. She had marked herself I was what she wanted to keep with her. I was tired and weak, and my limbs trembled as I tried to support my weight. I kissed her wrist again, closing my eyes as I pressed my lips to the words. I kissed her warm cheeks, her nose and finally her mouth. She moved beneath me, her eyelashes fluttering along my cheeks. Sighing against my mouth, she rolled me onto my back. "You should be resting," she said into my mouth. My hands moved under her arms and to her shoulders, holding her to me as I kissed her. "You're sick," she murmured against my jaw. "Please." My hands moved to her hips, then lower, cupping her bare curves in my palms. She fit so perfectly. She bit her lower lip as she considered. "I'm fine," I said softly, seeing the hesitation in her expression. I brushed a piece of hair over her shoulder. Her eyes moved across my face before her lips pressed to mine. I moaned at the way she felt in my hands and at the way her scent enveloped me. She opened her mouth to me, and I felt myself harden between our bodies as her tongue tangled with mine. She fit so perfectly against me, her naked body molding to mine as it had in each of my fantasies. A sense of urgency overtook us as she sat up, her legs on either side of my hips. Her hands slipped down my chest to grip me, her fingers brushing along my length, her thumb tracing the underside of my piercing. "That feels so good," I said, watching as her hands became reacquainted with my body.

Her touch was so familiar and I was overcome with longing, practically shaking with the need to feel her. My eyes never left hers as she positioned herself and took me inside. I watched as she moved over me, helpless to look away. My eyes devoured her. She was so vibrant and full of life, so perfect in every way, such a stark contrast to the unending fatigue I felt. My arms lay heavily at my sides, only having the strength to relish the movement of her hips or lightly brush along her stomach and breasts. I felt every breath, every sweep of her hand, how her thighs tightened against me and her skin pebbled beneath my trembling fingertips. I watched where our bodies connected, and how her breasts moved above me. I watched her hair fall around us as she leaned over me for a kiss, how it felt like we disappeared from the world. I relished in the sounds she made, and the way she would close her eyes for only a second before looking down at me again. I watched the way the metal through her nipple glinted in the moonlight and the way she tensed and sighed my name as she brought us both to orgasm. Moaning softly, I shook as I came inside of her. "I love you," I breathed heavily, the only words that filled my head, my body. She fell against my chest with a contented sigh. "Your heart is racing," she laughed and the sound was so beautiful. I smiled at the way it vibrated through me. My hands moved to her hair and I closed my eyes, holding her to me, feeling whole for the first time since we'd been apart. She shifted and I lifted my head to find her propped on my chest, silently watching me. I brushed the back of my fingers across her jaw and down her neck, to her arm. I kept my eyes on hers as my thumb traced her tattoo. She smiled as I brought it to my mouth and kissed it gently. "Did it hurt?" I asked, wondering about the story behind it, if she regretted marking herself this way. "A little." She looked down as if suddenly shy and I lifted her chin. "It made me feel closer to you somehow, like a tie between us. A tangible piece of what mattered." "It's beautiful," I said simply. She smiled widely. I wondered if maybe she had been worried about my reaction. "It is." *~* = Longing = Found

Related Interests