It was her first time in any northern state besides Washington.
~Bella, East of Albuquerque
'What is that?' Bella asked, eying the offending gold wrapped box with matching ribbon as if it were a bomb about to go off.
Alice rolled her eyes in exasperation and deadpanned, 'It's a present. People give them on birthdays.'
'But some people specifically asked that other people don't,' Bella responded, in an equally put upon voice.
'And some people just don't care what other people think.' Alice was doing a good job of giving her the death glare.
Bella had had a lot of experience with that look in the past few months, so she just ignored it – and the gold box – and returned to her conversation with Edward.
Across the table, Emmett started laughing.
'You had best open it,' Edward said in a soothing voice. Bella melted a bit inside.
'But I don't want to. And if we're going to acknowledge my birthday, than I get to do whatever I want, right?'
'Doesn't work that way Bells,' Emmett stated matter-of-factly. It sounded like he was speaking from experience.
'Oh fine,' Bella huffed and grabbed up the box. It wasn't very big, maybe only a few inches square. It couldn't have anything too horrific in it. And it certainly wouldn't have fit clothes, except maybe for a doll.
Gingerly, still looking as though she was holding a bomb about to go off, Bella pulled a free end of the ribbon to untie the bow and slip it off. The heavy gold paper – real gold leaf for all she knew – was closed by only one piece of tape which pulled off easily. Inside was a non-descript black box.
'This had better not be jewellery,' she mumbled.
'Just open it,' Alice sighed, starting to bounce in her seat in anticipation. Bella really hoped that meant she had seen the outcome and that it was good.
With that in mind, Bella slowly pulled the lid off to find, nestled in a bed of white tissue paper, a purple iPod.
'Thanks Alice!' Bella exclaimed, surprise lacing her voice.
'See, was that so bad? That's really only half the gift though. The reason it's unwrapped is because I already loaded it with a whole bunch of music.'
'Wow. I mean really, thank you Alice,' she said with sincerity.
'I knew you'd love it!'
Edward smiled at Bella and gave her a quick kiss before wrapping an arm tightly around her waist and taking the box from her hand.
'What?' Bella asked, suddenly confused.
'I wanted you to be in a good mood,' Alice started. Bella's eyes narrowed. 'That present is from Edward and I.' Bella's eyes narrowed further. 'But for the rest of them, you'll have to come over to the house tonight. At seven o'clock. Esme's making dinner.'
Bella had frozen in a very good representation of horror. 'Alice, tell me you haven't planned a party.'
Alice smiled; it looked only slightly evil. 'I haven't planned a party.'
'Edward, tell me she hasn't planned a party?' Bella tried again.
Edward grimaced. 'It's really just dinner and a cake.'
'Alice I told you no!'
The pixie shrugged without a shred of guilt. 'And I didn't listen; don't you know that by now? It will be fine. It's just dinner, cake and a few presents. We want to celebrate with you Bella! Is that so wrong?'
Clearly Bella thought it was, but short of disappointing not just Alice, but Esme too, there wasn't much she could say. 'Alright, fine. But if there's a single balloon with 'Happy Birthday' on it or if anyone sings, I'm leaving.'
'Deal,' Alice said, in a way that Bella knew meant none of that had been in the cards anyways. Maybe Alice did know her pretty well.
'I'm holding you to that,' Bella told her and then thought better of it. 'Edward is holding you to that.'
'I am?' Edward asked.
'Oh, you so are,' Emmett explained. 'If you're planning on getting any ever again, that is!'
'Emmett,' five voices ground out.
'Spoil sports,' the big vampire huffed.
Esme had made chicken parmesan, which she knew was one of Bella's favourites. Even better was the fact that Alice had forgone setting the massive dining table and placed Bella at the kitchen island, with only Edward to watch her eat. That much she could handle.
'Save room for dessert!' Alice reminded her, before leaving them alone.
'How big is this cake?'
Edward smiled. 'As small as she could order. You can take the leftovers home. Maybe your father will take them to the station?'
'Great idea,' Bella agreed, thinking of Charlie's deputies. There were always cookies and donuts at the station coffee table when she was there. Bella knew that Charlie rarely indulged in them – he preferred the diner's cobbler – but the other men seemed to have a sweet tooth. The cake would be gone in a day, easily.
'This is amazing,' Bella mumbled around her first mouthful of baked chicken. 'How can Esme be such a great cook when she can't taste it?'
'Years of practice,' Edward admitted. 'And the Food Network.'
Bella gave him a sideways glance.
'We never sleep,' he reminded her.
'Doesn't this smell bad to you though? How does she stand it?'
Edward shrugged one shoulder. 'She loves cooking for you. And Esme has done it more often over the decades than the rest of us. I guess she's gotten used to it.'
'Like anything, I suppose.'
Edward read the underlying statement in that. 'True. It took a while to get used to eating deer too.'
Bella choked, swallowing hard.
Edward looked guilty. 'That was inappropriate,' he apologised, handing over a glass of water.
'It's fine; just not while I'm eating,' Bella suggested.
Edward frowned slightly at that, but before he could say anything further, Alice bounded into the room.
'Are you done yet?'
'I just started.'
'Well, when you are done, come out to the living room!' she said and danced back out of the room.
'How does she do that?' Bella wondered aloud.
Edward arched an eyebrow.
'Yes, rhetorical question,' Bella admitted and resumed eating. Not wanting to keep an impatient pixie vampire waiting – and wanting to get the whole embarrassment part of the evening over with quickly – Bella pushed her plate away a few minutes later.
'If I don't eat the cake, Alice will kill me,' she told Edward at his look.
'She'll certainly try,' he reasoned, 'but I promise to protect you.'
'Thanks,' she smiled at him. 'Let's just get this over with. And no singing!' she called out, knowing everyone in the house could hear.
'I promise!' Alice called back.
Edward took her hand and led her out to the living room. The Cullens were all gathered together, though Rosalie looked less than happy to be there. She and Emmett had only returned from Africa the week before, and the blonde had made it clear that she wasn't impressed to find that her brother was still dating 'the human'.
Bella decided to take Edward's advice and ignore her.
To one side was a small round table with a few small wrapped presents and the cake. Bella was a bit surprised to find it was, in fact, small. It was a round cake, no more than eight inches wide and covered in green stripes of fondant. On the top was a solitary candle.
'That's sort of nice, Alice,' Bella admitted. 'Thanks.'
'I knew you'd like it,' she beamed, with all the certainty of a prophet. 'Now make a wish and blow out the candle!'
Bella stepped up to the table, Edward at her side, still holding her hand. She ignored the others that were staring at her. Squeezing her eyes shut, she wished hard. With a small puff the candle guttered out. When Bella opened her eyes Edward was giving her the look he did whenever he was really annoyed that he couldn't read her mind. Bella smiled. This was one secret she would keep, just in case there was some truth in birthday candle wishes.
'Sit!' Alice butted in, gesturing to one of the arm chairs nearby. 'I'll get you a slice of cake and then you can open the gifts.'
Bella sat, because it really was easier not to argue. Alice was quick to slice the cake with an expert-like hand and present Bella with a sizable wedge of it. Inside it was vanilla cake with layers of chocolate frosting, Bella's favourite.
She took an appreciative bite. 'Really good,' she assured the party planner.
'Two for two. Ready for presents?'
Bella sighed. 'If I must.' She took another bite while Alice went to retrieve a small rectangular box.
'This is from Rosalie and Emmett.'
Bella handed Edward the plate so that she'd have both hands free. She cast a surreptitious look at Rosalie, who was standing against the back wall. She looked bored. Emmett was smiling, though, and looked eager for Bella to open the box.
She undid the bowed ribbon and pulled the lid off. Inside was a wood bracelet that looked vaguely tribal.
'Did you get this in Africa?' Bella asked, awed that they had actually brought something back for her from another continent, even if Alice had probably made the suggestion.
'From Zimbabwe,' Emmett nodded, eyes shining. 'It's a good luck charm. Maybe it'll stop your clumsiness.'
'We can hope,' Bella agreed. Edward took the wood carved band from her to fit it around her left wrist. 'Thank you Emmett, Rosalie. It's really cool to have something from so far away.'
'I knew you'd like it! Rose picked it out, you know,' Emmett admitted.
Bella forced a smile and a teasing tone. 'Well, it's not like you have taste, Emmett.'
'Oh, low blow sis, low blow,' he grinned.
Rosalie cracked a slight smile. Bella took that as a win.
'This is from Jasper,' Alice said, handing over a larger wrapped object. It looked suspiciously book sized.
Bella carefully undid the thick gold paper; the same paper as the present at lunch. There was no point in ripping it. Underneath was a hardcover book, clearly old, but in good condition. The spine was embossed in gold lettering.
'Wuthering Heights?' Bella asked aloud, startled. She gingerly opened the cover to read the publication date. '1921? Jasper, this is...' she trailed off, lost for words.
Jasper smiled and in his southern accent explained: 'I found it a couple of months ago in Seattle. They've some good rare book shops there. We should go; it may be the kind of shoppin' you'd like.'
'Oh definitely. Thank you Jasper, I love it.'
'Edward might have mentioned that.'
'Did he now?' Bella smiled at the vampire beside her. 'How foresighted of him.'
Alice giggled. 'Right, last gift. From Esme and Carlisle, of course.'
Esme gave her an encouraging look as Bella took the proffered gift. It was an envelope. Bella hoped it was gift certificates or something.
'We hope you can make good use of it, especially after this summer,' Esme explained.
Curious, Bella slid a finger under the sealed backing and dragged it across, tearing the envelope open.
'Ow!' she exclaimed suddenly, pulling her finger back in a hurry. A deep paper cut ran across the side of her forefinger and a bead of blood was already welling up.
The next seconds were a blur. She was aware of a loud growl reverberating through the room and of people moving very fast. Startled and confused, Bella stood up, only to find herself immediately pushed aside. She stumbled, losing her footing and found herself falling hard against the table that held the cake. She gasped in pain as her left side connected with the wood, but the table was solid enough that she caught herself and regained her balance. Wincing, she slowly stood up to find the room had gone still.
Jasper and Emmett had disappeared. Rosalie and Alice stood by the far wall where the glass door leading to the back porch was slightly open. They were both staring out at the fading daylight.
Edward was a few feet in front of her and Carlisle was standing to one side, an arm wrapped tightly around his wife. Esme's eyes were wide.
'What happened?' Bella ventured to ask.
Edward looked torn between terror and anger and didn't seem to hear her.
'Edward, what just happened?' she asked again, louder.
Edward's gaze strayed to the hand she held slightly raised in front of her. The blood had smeared when she hit the table.
Slowly realising, Bella stuck the offending digit in her mouth to lick the blood away. It tasted like metal, but that was still better than the smell, which she was now noticing. Obviously the last one in the room to.
She saw Esme relax and Carlisle let her go. She looked apologetic. 'I'm sorry, Bella,' she muttered and moved to join her daughters at the open door.
Fresh air, Bella's brain helpfully explained. Tentatively she pulled her finger out of her mouth. Another drop of blood began to bloom, so she hurriedly swiped a napkin from the table and wrapped it tightly around the wound.
Edward seemed to snap out of his daze. 'Bella, are you alright?'
She raised an incredulous eyebrow. 'It's a paper cut; I'm fine. Or I will be if you explain what happened.'
Edward and Carlisle exchanged a look. 'Are you certain? You hit the table quite hard,' Edward went on.
'Oh, yeah,' Bella admitted. 'I guess I did. I'm alright though,' she rushed on, seeing the worry return to Edward's face. 'Just a bruise.'
'Let Carlisle make sure of that.'
Normally Bella would have argued against that, even with Carlisle, but something in Edward's eyes and in his voice made her reconsider. 'Okay,' she said in a slightly unsteady voice. 'But then you are going to tell me what happened.'
'Yes,' Edward said, though it didn't sound like much of a promise.
'Carlisle, can we do this in private?'
'Of course, Bella,' Carlisle spoke for the first time. His voice was calm and soft, as it always was. It helped to relax her a bit more. 'My office will suffice.'
'Sure,' Bella agreed and began to move towards the stairs. Carlisle stepped in close behind her with a cold hand on her back, as if worried she might suddenly collapse. Edward slowly trailed along behind as they climbed to the second floor and the wood panelled office.
Bella had been in Carlisle's sanctuary many times over the summer to borrow books or to talk. It had always seemed safe and comfortable to her, despite the nature of some of the paintings lining the wall. Now it seemed less welcoming and Edward's rigid presence wasn't helping.
'Talk,' she demanded, as soon as they were through the door.
Edward sighed deeply. 'It was the blood,' he gestured at her napkin wrapped finger. 'It was unexpected and Jasper...it was too much.'
'He tried to attack me?' Bella asked, finally putting the pieces together.
'Yes, but I managed to push him back and then Emmett and Carlisle restrained him enough to get him outside.'
'Then who pushed me?'
Edward looked horribly guilty. 'I wanted you out of the way. I didn't intend to push you that hard.'
Bella's looked softened and she stepped over to him. 'It's alright. I'm alright,' she assured him. She lay her forehead against his cold chest.
'I'm very thankful, but please let Carlisle make sure.'
'Alright,' she gave in completely.
Carlisle gestured to one of the chairs in front of the massive desk and Bella sat down. At least she had ignored Alice's push for her to wear a dress. The peasant style top she was wearing was easy to pull up to her chest, exposing the painful ribs of her left side. She hissed slightly as Carlisle lay cold fingers over her side, but after the initial shock it felt pretty good. Almost as good as an ice pack. He pressed very gently over an area that already looked like it was starting to bruise. It would look really good the next day, Bella was sure.
After a moment, Edward sighed and seemed to relax. Bella assumed that was a good sign.
'I certainly don't feel any breaks and though it is impossible to tell without an x-ray, I don't believe there are any fractures,' Carlisle admitted, sitting back on his heels. 'You're going to have a very nice bruise, however.'
Bella smiled at him. 'What else is new? Can I have a band aid for this?' she held up her finger.
'I'll be right back,' he told her. He was; gone and returned in less than ten seconds. It made Bella's head spin a bit.
The paper napkin was already sticking to the cut, but the bleeding had stopped. Bella suppressed a wince as Carlisle ran an alcohol soaked pad over the wound and then covered it with a bandage. 'I think you'll live,' he joked.
'Oh good,' Bella sighed, as if immensely relieved. 'I was worried.'
Edward's frown deepened.
'Your face will freeze like that if you keep it up,' Bella advised him. 'So stop it. I'm fine. Jasper is no doubt outside feeling horrible. I have a very good reason to never celebrate my birthday again. And you are going to stop beating yourself up,' she gave him a hard stare.
'Yes, Bella,' he said, though she didn't entirely believe it.
'I want the rest of my cake. And I still have a present to open.'
'Of course,' Carlisle rose smoothly from the floor. 'Let us return to the living room. The others are already down there waiting.'
Jasper met them at the bottom of the staircase, Alice only a step behind. Edward stepped in front of Bella, as if to protect her. She pushed him out of the way with as much strength as she could.
'Bella, I...' Jasper started.
'Please don't apologise. It was not your fault,' she looked pointedly at Edward while saying it. 'It was an accident. I'm fine. I want to finish my party. Alright?'
Jasper seemed to relax a bit, hopefully feeling how calm she was about the whole thing.
'Of course, darlin',' he agreed.
Bella resumed her seat and pick up the discarded envelope from the floor. It was already open now, but she was careful while pulling out the contents. Inside was a folded card holder with palm trees decorating the front. Curious, Bella opened the flap to find a plane ticket. Investigating further, she found two.
'What?' she asked the room at large, confused.
'Plane tickets to Jacksonville to visit your mother and enjoy a bit of sun,' Esme helpfully explained. 'There's one for you and Edward.'
Bella's eyes widened as she stared at the paper. 'Wow,' she muttered. Rare copies of books were one thing; plane tickets across the country were quite another. 'Thank you,' she breathed.
'You're quite welcome, Bella,' Carlisle smiled at her. 'I think a trip out of Forks will be most welcome.'
'Oh yes,' Bella agreed. 'It would be really nice to see Mom again. And she can meet you!' Bella turned to Edward with a wide smile. 'And then she can pester you for answers instead of me.'
Edward looked uncertain, but Bella continued to grin at him and he finally smiled back.
'Eat more cake,' Alice interrupted, swapping the plane tickets for the discarded plate. Bella happily dug in.
The others disbursed slowly, though Emmett and Rosalie were the first to go. Alice flitted around; cleaning up what little needed cleaning. She came back with the cake re-boxed. 'For Charlie and the boys.'
'Thanks Alice. I mean that. It was a good party.' Alice smiled at her. 'But never again, understood?' Bella continued.
Alice's face fell a bit, but she nodded. 'No more birthday parties, I got it.'
Bella opened her mouth to argue at the specified 'birthday' part of that, but a look from Edward made her close it. Denying Alice any fun was not a good idea. She went back to eating the cake instead.
'Next year,' Bella started quietly, 'we aren't acknowledging my birthday, right?' It seemed a good idea to make certain that Edward was indeed on her side.
Edward smiled into her hair where it rested across his chest. 'I think I can safely say that Alice has learned the error of her ways.'
That relaxed her. 'Good,' Bella sighed and snuggled closer against his blanket clad torso. 'Because that 'magnet for trouble' thing is getting really annoying.'
She felt Edward stiffen at that and immediately regretted it. His voice, when he spoke, had lost the humour of the moment before. Now he was deadly serious.
'Tonight could have ended in disaster, you do know that? If Emmett and Carlisle hadn't grabbed Jasper; if I hadn't been able to push him away; the unthinkable could have happened.'
She turned her head to look up at him. 'But it didn't. I'm fine. Jasper was really sorry, but it's not like it was his fault. I should have been more careful.'
'And Alice should have foreseen it.' He was staring straight up at the ceiling of her bedroom; unblinking and frowning.
'She can't see everything. And it's not like I decided to give myself a paper cut.'
That garnered a slight smile. 'I suppose not.'
'Edward, it was an accident. But I'm fine. You did what you had to to protect me.'
'I hardly call a collection of bruised ribs, fine.'
'I do worse to myself in gym class and you know it.'
He seemed to consider that. 'Maybe.'
'You're not blaming Jasper, are you? Or Alice?' Bella asked hesitantly.
Edward sighed, but he seemed to relax a bit as he did so. 'No, I'm not. It was no one's fault.'
Bella clearly picked up the underlying implication. 'And it wasn't yours, either.' She stared him in the eye.
'No,' he finally relented, though clearly reluctant to say so.
Sighing, Bella lay her head down again. 'No more parties. We just won't risk my clumsiness that way.'
There was silence for a long beat. Bella shifted slightly against Edward's unyielding body, easing the bruising ache in her ribs from where she'd connected with the table. Even though Carlisle had promised they weren't broken and with the painkillers Edward had insisted she take, it was uncomfortable pressed against a hard body.
She felt, more than heard, Edward take a deep breath. 'I'm surprised you haven't brought it up yet.'
Bella blinked, confused. 'Brought what up?'
'Your desire to be a soulless monster.'
'I don't want any such thing,' she started, anger in her voice as she lifted her head to stare at him again. Her ribs gave another throb, but she ignored them. 'I don't want to be a soulless monster, but I do want to be like you, with you, forever.'
'I see no difference.'
'And I do. And we've agreed to disagree. And,' Bella continued, 'I didn't bring it up because I knew you'd be like this if I did!'
'I'm sorry. Truly,' he emphasised, sounding it. 'I just don't want this life for you. You have so much ahead of you; so much potential; too much to take away. It would be a tragedy.'
'Edward,' Bella said, in a voice that clearly said you will listen to me. 'Me getting struck by a car tomorrow would be a tragedy. Getting terminal cancer would be a tragedy. Losing the man I love because he was too stubborn to see the truth, would be a tragedy. But being with you, loving you, for eternity will never be a tragedy. It cheapens my feelings for you when you put it that way.'
That, at least, made him think. 'That's not my intention. I know you love me. I just want a better life for you; please understand that.'
'I understand that you see it that way, even if I don't understand why,' Bella admitted. 'But you need to understand that I don't want a better life if it means I can't have youin it: forever.'
Edward sighed, sounding defeated. 'You should sleep; it's been a long day.'
'Fine,' she agreed, because going in circles was making her tired. 'You'll stay?'
'Of course,' he promised.
'I love you, Edward; please remember that that's the most important thing.'
'To me, it certainly is. Sleep well, love,' he whispered into her hair, followed by a kiss.
By Friday, it seemed everything was back to normal. The paper cut on her finger had healed and Bella's ribs weren't bothering her anymore, unless she poked at the still obvious bruise. Edward seemed to be all right, for lack of a better term. Or as overprotective and worrying as he always was, but not any worse.
'No homework; how is that even possible?' Bella asked as she met Edward by the Volvo after her last class.
'It has to happen occasionally,' he reasoned. Bella knew for a fact that the Cullens never had homework, because they did it in class when no one was watching or didn't do it at all, if it wasn't being graded.
'Well, I'll take the free weekend.'
'No homework will leave plenty of time for applications.'
Bella blinked at him from the passenger seat. 'For what?'
'College. It's not too early to start them and the sooner the schools receive the completed forms, the better.'
'For college?' she asked again.
'Yes, for college. I have a number of applications that have already come in the mail. We can get started on those.'
'For college.' This time it was more a statement. A confused, incredulous statement.
'Yes, Bella,' he sounded composed. 'For college. Where you will be going next September. Where we will all be going next September.'
'Well, perhaps not Rosalie and Emmett, but the entire town thinks they are at school already.' This Bella knew. 'Alice and Jasper have decided to go, though. Alice wants to move to the east coast, near New York. For the shopping,' he explained unnecessarily. 'By this time next year it will be time for Carlisle and Esme to move. They aren't getting any older.'
Bella blinked again, hoping she was imaging the whole conversation.
'And you want to go?'
'Yes. It may limit the schools we can both apply to, but I thought I'd take your advice from the spring and apply for pre-med.'
'Bella, I'm concerned,' he looked it too. 'Are you not understanding the concept or do you not want to go?'
'Both?' she asked, in a slightly strangled voice.
'Well, of course, where we end up will be dependent on a number of factors, but I am sure we can find a school that suits all of us, and in a city where Carlisle and Esme will be content. There are any number of schools that will do in the north-east. But if you don't want to go...Bella, you have your whole life ahead of you and college is an important part of that. I think you should try; at least for a year or two. If you honestly don't enjoy it, I won't force you to continue.'
'Edward,' Bella began, trying to keep her voice calm when her emotions were anything but. 'How am I going to go to college next year if all I want to do is eat people?'
This time, it was Edward's turn to blink momentarily. Then his look hardened. 'Bella, I want you to go to college. I want you to experience life before you just throw it away.'
Her tone, when she found the breath to reply, matched his. 'And I don't consider it throwing it away. I love you. I want to be with you: forever. And then I'll have forever to go to college.'
'But it will be a different experience as a human. Please Bella,' he implored, turning the full might of his gaze on her. Bella's heart stumbled. 'Just for a year or two, at least? Maybe
you will find you enjoy college and want to stay.' Clearly, this was his deepest hope.
Bella had learned, over the half a year that she had known Edward, how stubborn he could be. She'd learned what battles to fight and which to forfeit. This was a battle she was going to lose, but that didn't mean she was surrendering the war.
'Fine, I'll apply to college. It's not like any of them are going to want me anyways.'
'You'd be surprised,' Edward cautioned.
Bella glared at him. 'You are not going to bribe anyone Edward Cullen!'
'I said nothing of bribes. You're a good student, love, and many colleges will be happy to have you.'
'Doubtful, but I suppose it won't hurt to try.'
It did hurt: a lot. The pain wasn't physical, beyond the ache in her hand from filling in form after form, but it was there on an emotionally frustrating level. Edward had started with the application forms to a few state schools, before working up to the more – expensive – variety. It was a few weeks before he handed her an application form that made Bella's eyes bug out.
'Dartmouth?' she asked with a squeak.
'It has an excellent biology program for undergrad and a medical school. And there are plenty of subjects for you to choose from. Also, Jasper is interested in their psychology degree.'
'How nice for him. There's no way they're going to accept me.' Edward opened his mouth to say something, but she rushed to stop him. 'Without a large donation from the Cullen family. And haven't you been to Dartmouth before?'
'Actually, we haven't. Carlisle has. He has a PhD from the Medical School, but he has never worked in New Hampshire. He's interested in trying teaching for a change though.'
'I'm happy for him,' she managed. 'That still doesn't explain how you think I have a hope of getting accepted without bribes, donations or blackmail, none of which I will allow.'
'You won't know if you don't try.'
'Seriously?' Bella asked, because that was not an Edward phrase.
'It's on a poster in the guidance office,' Edward explained. 'Where I was looking for college listings.'
Bella had never been in the guidance office. 'I'll make you a deal. I've filled out – what? – ten, twelve, fifteen of these? If I apply to Dartmouth, that's it; I'm not filling in another form.'
'Alright,' Edward agreed, a little too easily. 'But you have to make a concerted effort with this one.'
Bella glanced through the form. All the college applications looked similar, but some of them wanted more than others. Dartmouth wanted an entire essay. She sighed. 'Fine. It's not like I don't have enough other work to do already.'
'You already have a few essays written for other schools. Cut and paste and then expand. But they will judge on the entrance essay.'
'Will they?' Bella asked with a smile.
'And I want to read it before you send it in.'
Bella sighed, knowing he would have seen through that. 'What if I don't want to live in New Hampshire?'
'There's always Vermont. In fact, we'd likely end up there. Right across the border is a large amount of open countryside where residents prefer their privacy. And Vermont would
make suitable hunting grounds.'
'Oh good,' she replied sarcastically. She gave a long suffering sigh. 'Fine, you've had your way, I'll apply. But they aren't going to accept me and I certainly can't afford it.'
'Don't worry about the money, please Bella.'
'Why shouldn't I?'
He made no reply to that.
'You aren't paying for this!'
'Of course I will. Bella, your education is important and I don't want you to be limited because of the tuition. Wherever you are accepted, and wherever we decide to go, we will go.'
'I can pay my own way.'
'But since you would prefer not to attend college at all, I hardly see why you should pay to do something you don't want to do.'
He had a point in that. 'You aren't wasting the money on Dartmouth.'
'Bella, if you're accepted to Dartmouth I certainly won't consider it a waste of money. But since you are so adamant that you won't be accepted, it won't hurt to allow me to pay the tuition.'
'Fine,' she agreed. After all, there wasn't a chance anything more than a state school would accept her and that she could probably cover. And Bella had a feeling Charlie would offer to help. She'd rather accept the money from him than from Edward.
Bella concentrated on filling out the personal details of the Dartmouth application in front of her. Edward sat watching with a smile, obviously thinking he'd won.
Bella never saw Edward's next evil plan coming. To be fair, after a few weeks of application nightmares, he left her alone. Bella had fallen into a state of complacency, concentrating on school and enjoying every free moment with Edward and the Cullens. It didn't seem as if much had changed from the summer.
Until November arrived.
'You want to go where?' Bella asked, glancing between Edward, Alice and Jasper, who seemed to be putting up a united front in this new form of madness.
'Many people visit prospective colleges at this time of year. Nearly every school as open days specifically for that reason,' Edward's voice was calm and factual.
Bella ignored him. 'Alice, this can't be a good idea. Please tell me you've seen this isn't a good idea?' she pleaded.
Alice's eyes were dancing. 'I'm afraid not Bella. I don't see any problems. And you'll enjoy it too!'
'I doubt that. Charlie is never going to let me go,' she tried her last tactic.
'I doubt that,' Alice retaliated. 'This is for school; for your future. Of course he'll let you go. Besides, it'll be all four of us and we'll only be gone a week.'
'I can't miss school for that long.'
'Yes you can; Edward will help you catch up,' Alice winked.
Bella realised she had run out of arguments. At least logical ones. 'What's the point? I mean, wasn't filling out the application enough? I'm never going to get into Dartmouth.'
'You never know,' Alice said, slyly. Bella's eyes narrowed. 'I won't hurt to visit and just see the campus. And we aren't just going to visit Dartmouth. There's an open day at Brown too and Brandeis, which I know you liked.'
'And those are all really good schools that I don't have a hope of getting into,' Bella implored.
'Fine,' Alice said, 'where would you like to go?'
Bella considered that. The phrasing of the question meant that she'd already lost; they were going on this trip one way or another. But if she had a say in it...
'I liked the University of Vermont. And it had a pre-med program for Edward,' Bella ventured. Alice smiled. 'I didn't really like Brown, though.'
'Fine, we'll visit Vermont instead. But we're definitely going to Dartmouth and Brandeis if we have time.' Alice froze, concentrating on answering her own question. 'I think we will. As long as no one makes a decision to complicate things.'
'I won't,' Bella promised, but she had a feeling Alice wasn't really talking to her.
'Great! We're going in two weeks. Charlie will be thrilled. The school will understand. And we're going to have a great time!' she said, and danced out of the room.
Bella threw Jasper a look. 'Are you helping?' she asked.
He smiled. 'No, Bella. No help from me. If my little darlin's that certain about it, then everything will be fine. Stop worryin'.
'Easier said than done,' Bella smiled back. 'Thanks Jasper.'
'Anytime,' he told her, sincerely, and followed his wife out of the room.
'You've been awfully quiet,' Bella noted to the last vampire left.
'I didn't want you to think I was trying to pressure you into anything. I do want this to be your decision. Any of those schools would be a good choice and Alice and Jasper will be happy with it. I don't want you to think it has to be Dartmouth. If you honestly like Vermont, we'll go there.'
'If I get in,' she reminded him.
'I've no doubt.'
'Hum,' Bella shrugged. 'So, I was promised homework help? I've got that test in English Lit next week...'
Edward's smile widened. 'I think I can help with that.'
'I was hoping you would,' she grinned back.
Alice was right: Charlie was absolutely thrilled. It was slightly embarrassing how proud he was that she was going to go visit a bunch of schools that likely wouldn't even accept her (and hopefully not, so that Edward wouldn't have to pay the tuition). He called the school himself to explain her absence, which meant that by the Friday before she was due to leave, everyone at school knew that Bella was going away with the Cullens for a week to look at Ivy League schools.
She spent most of Friday trying to hide behind Edward, or Alice, or whomever was closest. Still, it didn't stop Mike from cornering her in the lunch line.
'So, hear you're going to look at preppy schools. Not really you, huh, Arizona? Didn't take you for one of them.' Mike clearly still hadn't gotten over the fact that she'd gone to Prom with Edward. Or really, that she was still with Edward.
'It wasn't my idea. But the University of Vermont looks really good and I'm really interested in the program. I just have to visit a couple of other schools while I'm out there. It's not like they'll accept me anyways.'
Mike didn't look any more convinced of this fact than Edward. 'Yeah, sure. You have a good time then. Just don't go forgetting about your other friends,' he cautioned and went to join the others at their table. Jessica gave her an apologetic shrug that clearly said Mike was stating his own opinion.
Bella smiled at her gratefully.
'You know, if he's botherin' you, I can take care of it.' Jasper sudden voice behind her caused her to jump a foot in the air.
She looked back at the Texan. 'I think he's harmless, but thanks.'
'Anytime, Bella,' Jasper returned.
Alice started Sunday with a printed itinerary. Bella held the three pages of her week in front of her with a bemused look.
'This might be taking the whole thing a bit too far, Alice.'
'Edward said you'd appreciate it. That you'll know what's coming. And then I knew you'd appreciate it,' she said confidently.
'Right. Thanks,' she added, because it was rather nice of Alice to go to the effort. If she was going to be dragged off to New England for a week of Ivy League schools, somehow knowing what was coming did make it seem easier.
Bella glanced down at the first page. Headlined at the top was:
Departure from house: 1400 sharp to be at Sea Tac by 1500. Flight departure: 1545.
Under which was written, in smaller print: Don't bother packing.
Alice smiled sweetly at her when Bella glanced up in accusation. 'It's easier this way. Don't argue.'
So Bella didn't. 'Is there anything I do need to bring?'
'Yourself. And a smile wouldn't hurt,' the pixie added. 'See you at four!' she grinned and danced off the porch to where Jasper was waiting for her.
Bella shrugged, still bemused, and retreated back into her house.
'What did Alice want?' Charlie asked. He was sprawled on the sofa watching sports.
'To tell me we're leaving at two o'clock from their house.'
'When will you be back again?' he asked.
Bella flipped to the last page. 'We leave Vermont at ten thirty-five on Friday and Alice expects we'll be back in Forks by four o'clock at the latest.'
'She's certainly got this whole trip planned out, doesn't she?'
'Yeah; she's really excited.'
'And what about you?' Charlie ventured. 'I know you're not too keen on this whole college thing, Bells, but Edward's right that you should go. It's your future, you know.'
Having heard a variant of this from nearly everyone in the past month, even her mother, Bella just sighed. 'Yeah, Dad, I know. I'm just not too keen on stupidly expensive schools. There's plenty of good state colleges.'
'Yeah, but if you can go to a really nice one, why wouldn't you?'
That seemed to be what most people were wondering. 'Maybe you're right,' Bella admitted, even if she didn't really agree. 'Anyways, I better get ready. I'll be down to make lunch.'
'I can make lunch, Bells,' Charlie told her.
'If you want. But that doesn't mean ordering something.'
'I won't,' her Dad promised; eyes firmly concentrated on the flat screen.
'Leave you to it then,' Bella said and set off upstairs to read through the weekly instruction manual that was Alice's version of an itinerary.
It was completely unlike the trip in the spring. For one, they weren't fleeing a sadistic vampire set on Bella's blood. For another, there were only going to be a few hours spent in a car on this one. And lastly, Edward was in a surprisingly good mood.
'You seem to think you've won something,' Bella commented dryly from her place next to him in First Class. They were on the second leg of the journey, from Detroit to Boston.
'Not that I can think, no.'
Edward's smile widened. 'I disagree. You're on this plane, aren't you? And, amazingly, you didn't once complain that Alice had booked First Class seats.'
'That's not winning,' Bella returned. 'That's me knowing when to hold my tongue.'
'Whatever you say,' he continued to smile. It was as attractive as it was annoying. Bella went back to reading her book.
'I really am happy you agreed to this,' he interrupted a moment later. Bella just nodded, not taking her eyes from the page. 'It will be good to get away from Forks for short while and I know you like spending time with Alice, at least when it doesn't involve shopping. Jasper's been looking forward to this trip for weeks as well.'
'He has?' Bella asked, slightly startled.
'Yes. He hopes it might afford him the opportunity to spend some time with you. Since your birthday,' Bella winced, 'you may have noticed that he's kept his distance. He would like that to change.'
'I'd like that too. He's not still blaming himself is he?'
'No, but he is still very apologetic for what happened.'
'Nothing happened,' she emphasised. She gave a hard look at the back of the seat in front of her, where Jasper was sitting with Alice, knowing he could hear her.
'Still, he's been cautious. We all have,' Edward explained. 'We hope this trip might change that. And, since we've been attempting to do normal teenage activities, I think this one certainly counts.'
'Yes, because all teenagers fly across the country to check out Ivy League schools.'
'If they are planning to attend an Ivy League school, yes they do.'
Bella sighed. That was logic that she couldn't argue with. Deciding to leave it be for now, she curled herself closer into Edward's side, not at all impressed by the hard armrests between the seats that prevented true cuddling. Although, Alice looked to be making a good attempt, as only a vampire could.
'How much longer?'
Edward checked his watch. 'We'll be landing in just over thirty minutes.'
'Right. Best take a human moment. We're headed right to the hotel?'
Edward gave her a slightly exasperated look. 'You didn't read the carefully crafted itinerary?'
'You better have!' Alice said, a little too loudly.
'I didn't memorise it,' Bella emphasised.
'Yes, we'll be going right to the hotel. And you can go right to bed,' Edward assured her.
'Thank you,' she said, rising from her seat and giving Alice a pointed look. 'Don't make this harder than it is,' she pleaded.
Alice arched an eyebrow. 'I'm not the one making this difficult.'
Bella raised her own. 'We'll agree to disagree on that, okay? Excuse me,' she added to Edward and went to find the toilet.
The plane touched down exactly thirty-one minutes later, pulling into the late night darkness of Logan International Airport. It was relatively quiet because of the hour, and they breezed through luggage retrieval – all five bags of it – and picked up the rental car in less than thirty minutes. It was an Audi.
'Well, this brings back memories,' Bella joked.
'It's a car Edward. It's alright,' she tried to calm him, sorry that she had brought up the disastrous spring trip.
'Let's just get to the hotel.'
Jasper drove them across the city on the turnpike to Waltham, where they were staying at what Alice termed a 'chic hotel'. It turned out to be a large well-kept Georgian style house not far from Brandeis University. Inside looked similar to the hotels Bella had been forced to stay in with the Cullens; expensive furnishings, high-end interior design, and very well dressed guests returning from dinners out. Bella had become quite good at not looking dazzled by the posh interiors.
The room was similar in design. Bella sighed as soon as she was through the door, relieved to be separated from Alice for at least the night. Edward came up to wrap his arms around her as the doorman set their bags on a waiting luggage rack.
'Relax,' he told her and kissed her hair. 'Thank you,' he said to the man, turning to slip him a tip.
Only when the door was shut and Bella heard the lock turn did she actually allow herself to do as Edward suggested. 'I'm having a hot shower and going to sleep,' she advised him.
'That sounds like a good idea. Are you hungry at all?'
'No,' Bella said on her way to the bathroom. The Jacuzzi tub was tempting, but there was always tomorrow for that. Instead she stripped her travel clothes off – the only clothes she had been allowed to bring on the trip that Alice hadn't picked out – and climbed into the large glass shower.
It was only the sharp knock on the door some while later that pulled her out of her dazed and relaxed mood.
'Are you alright?' Edward called through the mostly closed door.
'I'll be out in a minute,' she said, at a much lower volume and reached to turn the water off. The bathroom mirror was fogged up and the air was warm, but the sudden lack of hot water still made her shiver. She wrapped herself in two towels and padded out to the bedroom.
Edward was on the sofa watching TV. The gas fireplace was turned on and the air was almost as warm as the bathroom. Smiling, Bella slipped her feet into the hotel provided slippers and pulled on the thick bathrobe waiting on the bed.
'What are you smiling about?' Edward asked.
She walked over to join him. 'I was just thinking, that this is the first time we've been alone in a hotel room. This is the first time we've been a long way away, just the two of us, together...'
'Are you trying to insinuate something?' he asked.
'Apparently not,' Bella sighed, frustrated as always by Edward's ability to destroy her good mood. 'I'm going to bed.'
'With wet hair?'
'I'm going to bed after I dry my hair,' she repeated in a cold tone and all but stomped back to the bathroom to do just that. Behind her, she could hear Edward sigh.
Bella didn't say another word to him until she woke up the next day. It didn't seem a good idea to go to bed frustrated, but she was tired and needed some time to calm down. They always seemed to have the same arguments over and over again. And all of them had to do with her humanity.
It was trying and failing to be sunny outside. 'Are you going to be alright today, all of you?'
'Alice said the clouds will get thicker. It will rain tonight,' Edward joined her at the window.
'Long as it doesn't rain while we're walking around the campus. It's cold enough as it is.'
It was cold. Bella had been surprised to find when they landed that the temperature felt the same as they'd left behind in Forks.
'How about I order breakfast and delay Alice a bit longer? Our tour is at ten, but that still leaves more than enough time,' Edward suggested.
Bella wandered over to her bag as she answered. 'Breakfast sounds nice. Bacon and eggs?'
'Of course,' Edward replied and picked up the phone to dial room service.
Apparently they weren't going to talk about last night. Which was probably for the best, all things considered. Bella opened her suitcase gingerly. She hadn't touched it the night before, sleeping in the thick robe instead. It was packed full inside, which didn't surprise her. With a sigh she began to pull out the clothing and shoes, looking for something that would keep her warm on a cold fall day as well as look fitting for visiting a prep school.
It didn't take long for her to realise that Alice had had a good reason for packing the bag for her. Everything in it was fit for tours of Ivy League colleges and there was a thick wool pea coat at the bottom with a matching scarf and leather gloves.
'Oh Alice,' Bella smiled. She decided on the grey wool trousers and cowl necked forest green sweater. The suede boots were surprisingly practical for Alice. There was even a pouch with make-up and a few necklace choices. Bella picked out the antique gold locket on a long chain and took the clothes into the bathroom to get ready.
By the time she emerged a half hour later, breakfast was waiting.
Edward beamed at her when he first saw her. 'I love my sister. Bella, you look amazing.'
'Really?' she asked, self-consciously smoothing a non-existent crease in the pants.
'That's good,' she agreed.
Edward himself was dressed in trousers, a dress shirt and blazer. 'You'd best eat before it gets cold. And Alice called while you were in the bath.'
'Wondering what's taking me so long?'
'That was the general gist of the conversation, yes. I said we'd be down to the lobby by nine-thirty.'
Bella glanced at the clock on the nightstand. 'I'd better eat fast then!'
They managed to get down to the lobby on time – just.
'Finally!' Alice exclaimed when she saw them. She was wearing a belted dress with thick tights and knee-high boots. Over it was a fur collared cape. Jasper was dressed similarly to Edward. 'I approve,' she said of Bella's outfit. 'Now let's go!'
The campus was no more than a ten minute walk away, so they reached the entrance with time to spare.
'We're to meet at Admissions,' Alice said. 'That way,' she pointed to the left.
Bella eyes widened as they walked along the path. There were buildings everywhere and it looked like she could only see a small corner of campus. The place was simply huge.
Standing in front of the building clearly marked 'Admissions' was a well-dressed woman who looked to be in her mid-thirties.
Alice approached her immediately. 'Hello, Ms. Henderson?'
'Yes. You must be the Cullen family. Welcome to Brandeis,' she smiled widely.
'I'm Alice Cullen. This is my husband Jasper, by brother Edward and his girlfriend Bella.'
'Please, call me Katherine. Now, I understand there's a few areas of the campus you're interested in seeing?'
'Yes,' Alice went on, 'Jasper is most interested in the business school. Bella and I are interested in the Arts, specifically English, I think. Edward plans to go to medical school after college, so he's applying for the Biological Physics program.'
'Excellent,' Katherine said. 'Why don't we start at the business school, since it's in the far corner of campus. I'll show you were the general services are as we walk. If you have any questions, please feel free to interrupt me at any time.' She smiled.
It didn't take Bella long to realise that the campus was even bigger than she'd thought. The business school was in the far west corner. Jasper appeared very interested, asking many different questions, some Bella was sure she wouldn't have thought of herself. Edward walked along behind her, his hand in hers, giving her the occasional smile of support.
It was a beautiful campus, she had to admit. Even in the dull grey of a cloudy and cold November day, there was a lot of green space; many sweeping lawns that would be wonderful in the summer. The students that passed them appeared to be from a variety of places, which was comforting. They moved on to the arts buildings after Jasper finally ran out of questions to ask.
Katherine showed them the History and English buildings and – at Alice's prompting – the creative arts centre too. 'Just in case I change my mind,' Alice said with a smile that seemed to dazzle their tour guide.
The libraries were next, which Bella had to admit were impressive. They looked very welcoming to her. Edward caught the smile on her face and nodded in understanding.
'I thought you couldn't read my mind,' she leaned over to whisper to him.
'I can't, but I know that look. And I know you and books.'
Bella shrugged at that. It was true, after all, and she'd make no apology for it.
Lastly they reached the science buildings and Katherine led them to the area reserved for the biological studies. 'We also have a Neuroscience unit that we offer as an undergraduate degree, if your interests lie that way.'
'I'm considering it,' Edward explained, surprising Bella. He gave her a wink. 'My father is a surgeon and he has often lamented not getting into neuroscience himself.'
Something in Katherine's eyes changed and she gave Edward a smile that Bella knew meant he'd just dazzled her. She poked her boyfriend in the ribs, being careful not to damage her finger while doing it.
Edward looked only mildly apologetic. 'Is there anything else anyone would like to see?' he asked instead, giving Katherine a moment to compose herself.
'I'm good,' Alice said.
'I think I've had more questions answered than I had in the first place,' Bella admitted, her head spinning slightly from the sheer volume of information the day had brought. She had to admit that she was impressed by Brandeis.
Katherine returned them to the front entrance, bidding them a good day and told them all sincerely that she hoped to welcome them to the school the following September.
'That wasn't so bad, right?' Alice asked when the woman had gone.
Bella shrugged. 'Not as bad as I thought. I really like the school.'
'Good,' she said, though Bella was a bit surprised to hear a lack of emotion in her voice. Perhaps Alice had already seen something about the future, or at least gotten a sense that they wouldn't be attending this particular school. 'How about lunch?'
Since it was well after one o'clock, Bella readily agreed. There were a number of places to choose from back near the hotel, and Alice and Jasper left them to it. Jasper wanted to wander around a bit and get a feel for the city, or so he said.
'Why do I get the feeling that didn't go as well as I think?' Bella asked Edward when they were alone at a table in a small cafe.
'Alice was fine, until near the end. I didn't catch all of it; the vision kept changing, but I get the sense she believes this school is off the list.'
'Too bad,' Bella said sincerely. 'I actually really like it here. And it's close to Boston, which is nice too.'
'Perhaps we'll have better luck tomorrow.'
'At Dartmouth? Not likely,' Bella said, but immediately turned her attention to the menu to avoid the ensuing conversation.
After lunch, Bella regained some of her energy she had lost turning the long morning tour, so they continued around the nearby neighbourhood, investigating the place anyways. It was nearing dinner before they returned to the hotel. Alice had slipped a note under the door.
'They've gone hunting,' Edward explained.
'Oh,' Bella said, 'was Jasper having a problem?'
'I doubt it. At least, I didn't get that from him. But he likes to be safe. There's hunting to the west, if they took the car. How about a movie and pizza?' he changed the subject.
'Yes to both,' Bella said. 'As soon as I get out of these clothes!'
By the time she'd dressed in the pyjamas Alice had thoughtfully packed, and was wrapped in the bath robe again, Edward had rented a PPV movie and ordered down for dinner.
'It should be here soon,' he explained. 'I thought you might like this movie. It's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The new one with Johnny Depp.'
Since the movie offerings in Port Angeles were limited, there were quite a few movies Bella hadn't seen since she'd moved there. 'Sounds great,' she decided. What girl didn't like Johnny Depp? Although with Edward beside her, the much liked actor rather paled in comparison.
Alice knocked on the door a while later, after the movie had ended and Bella was contemplating an early bed.
'Hi,' was all she said.
'Hi,' Bella returned, since she'd been the one to answer the door.
'Look, I'm sorry Jasper and I just up and left. He felt he should hunt.'
'It's okay Alice, I get it. Did he find it very hard?'
Alice's eyes shifted slightly and Bella suddenly realised she was lying. 'He was fine; just taking precautions.' Her gaze slid to Edward who had come up to the door as well. 'Anyways, have a good night. We're leaving at – '
'Nine tomorrow. I know,' Bella told her.
'See you in the morning then,' she said her eyes still on Edward's.
'That was weird,' Bella declared when the door was closed. 'What's she keeping from me?'
Edward didn't look happy. 'We're definitely not going to be attending Brandeis.'
'Dare I ask why?'
'It won't go well for Jasper,' was all he said.
'Is that why he wanted to hunt? Because Alice saw him slipping in the future?'
Edward just nodded.
Bella really didn't know what to say to that. 'Well, there's always Vermont.'
Edward didn't say anything to that either.
They managed to hit the road before nine the next morning. The mood in the car seemed a great deal better than it had been the day before, so Bella took that as a hopeful sign.
Jasper drove north out of the city, taking the more scenic route up to the Vermont/New Hampshire border where Dartmouth was located. It was not a long drive, but they were in no great rush, since Alice had planned to leave early and they weren't due at the school until noon.
'This is another private tour, right?' Bella asked, sometime later.
Alice turned around from the front passenger seat to answer. 'Yes. Dartmouth had its open day last week, and the next one isn't for another month. But they're always happy to give private tours, especially to a group!'
'You didn't bribe anyone, did you?' Bella asked hesitantly.
Alice looked offended.
'Sorry, it's just...you realise how strange this is for me? A year ago a state school sounded impressive, and now I'm in an expensive car, having flown First Class across the country, on my way to one of the best schools in America for a private tour. Can you get why this is weird for me Alice?'
She actually looked thoughtful at that. 'I suppose I hadn't considered it, really. This is normal for us.'
'It's not for me; not yet anyways,' Bella amended.
'We'll simply have to change that. Get you used to being a Cullen! I know,' her eyes lit up, 'we'll go away over the holidays!'
'I can't just abandon Charlie for Christmas.'
'I didn't mean for Christmas specifically. But after that they'll still be a week before classes start again. We can go somewhere really nice.'
'Somewhere with lots of shopping?' Bella ventured, knowing Alice's tastes all too well. 'You are not dragging me off to...Italy or something on a shopping spree.'
The car went deadly silent.
'What?' Bella asked.
'Not Italy,' Alice replied in a cold tone.
Edward looked momentarily like a deer caught in headlights.
'Okay...France then. Does it really matter? They're all designer places that are stupidly expensive.'
Alice seemed to relax at that, though Bella still didn't understand exactly what had happened. 'Why is Italy a big deal?' she looked at her boyfriend.
'You do remember I told you about the Volturi, yes?' Edward asked her.
'Yeah. Oh,' Bella said, sudden realisation blooming. Of course they wouldn't be going to Italy. They wouldn't go within a thousand miles of a powerful group of vampires that would probably kill her, if she was lucky. 'Okay, forget Italy. Forget Europe. And forget shopping,' she emphasised.
'Somewhere warm?' Alice ventured instead.
'That might be nice. Warm and sunny. Can we go somewhere sunny? I mean somewhere private where no one will see you?'
'I think that can be arranged,' Edward replied with a wink. 'Alice?'
'I'll think about it,' she said. 'Try a few places and see what works best. We'll figure something out Bella and have a nice holiday.'
'Works for me.'
She turned just in time to notice the road sign that read Welcome to Hanover, home of Dartmouth University.
'Right,' Bella sighed. Round two begins. She just had to make it through this one and then there would be a day off, followed by the visit to Vermont; a school that she might actually have a chance of getting into. 'Here's a thought,' she said. 'How about I attend Vermont and the rest of you can go here? I mean, it's only like an hour up the road, right? And you wanted to live in Vermont anyways,' she reminded Edward.
'That is a possibility,' he acknowledged. 'I'm glad you thought of that.' He said it in such a way that Bella knew he'd already come to that conclusion, but hadn't wanted to tell her until after they'd visited Dartmouth. In fact, until after she'd been accepted to Dartmouth and already decided upon it.
The view outside the car window was everything Bella had imagined a small town in upstate New Hampshire would look like. Despite the fact that it was November, it looked very green and well-tended. Most of the leaves were down off the trees, but they had already been swept away. The houses were well-kept and large, some even bordering on mansions. They all had a similar style too, of the 'we have money and like to show it', variety. It was as opposite as one could get from Forks, but Bella could see the Cullens' house fitting in quite well.
They pulled up to an old fashioned style inn. Bella glanced around her as she climbed out of the Audi. 'Alice? Are we on the campus?'
'Yes. The Hanover Inn is the only hotel that's actually within the grounds. It seemed like the best choice.'
Bella couldn't help herself, she gave in to the awe. The view was stunning in every direction; the perfect epitome of American class and status. Bella was suddenly very glad she'd taken Alice's advice and dressed the part, wearing an outfit not dissimilar to the pixie's the day before.
Inside they were checked in with ease and shown to their rooms, across the hall from each other. Bella was surprised how understated the room looked, though the furniture screamed 'antique'.
'Is this alright?' Edward asked.
'It's fine,' Bella admitted. 'Alice is right; I'd best get used to how the Cullens do it.' She smiled at him.
'We should head back down; Alice won't want us to be late for the tour.'
'I suppose that wouldn't make a very good first impression,' Bella laughed. It was almost as if she cared.
It was a rather short walk to the Admissions building, since the Inn was right across the road from the main quad, upon which the admin buildings stood in a semi-circle. Campus was busy with students. The weather was fair enough and some were sitting out on the lawn, enjoying what was probably one of the last pleasant days of the year. Bella glanced up at the sky, noticing the thin layer of cloud. She hoped it wouldn't be a problem, but Alice would see if something changed.
This time, it was a man who met them. He wasn't smiling like Katherine had been, but he did openly welcome them to the university.
'I have a list here of those departments that may interest you. Shall we begin with English? It's right there, at the end of the quad, beside the library.' He pointed down the lawn towards the cluster of buildings that dominated the end.
Bella smiled. 'That would be wonderful.'
This time, the man – he introduced himself as Heath 'My Parents Had a Sense of Humour' Grant as they walked – did smile. 'May I assume you are the one interested in our English department?'
'Very much so,' Bella said, ignoring Edward's snort of amazement. Just because she didn't have a chance of getting in, didn't mean she couldn't show her interest in literature, did it?
It was not a large building, though the attached library made it look considerably bigger. There wasn't much to see either, beyond classrooms, and their guide pointing out the lecturers' offices. They were allowed a short tour of the library; mainly the ground floor where most of the non-book resources were.
From there, Heath took them around to the centre of campus and the Psychology department that Jasper was most interested in. Once more, he asked all sorts of questions, and Bella could tell he was honestly excited about the prospect of attending school here. Alice trailed along a step behind him, happy to see her husband so happy.
By the time they finished that, and Heath had pointed out the nearby points of interest, including the sororities and fraternities that lined the western side of campus, Bella was getting hungry. And Alice, of course, seemed to know.
'Perhaps we could visit the arts centre next?' she ventured to Heath. 'I've very exciting to see the facilities you have here.'
'Of course. Now is the perfect time, I think. I took the opportunity to arrange a private tour of the science departments and the Medical School, if that interests you Edward?'
Bella had to smile, because Edward did seem to be quite excited about that. 'Yes, certainly. I'd love a tour.'
'Excellent. Let me make a quick call to Dr. Ramiaraz; she volunteered her services for a tour and is very excited to meet you.' He proceeded to do exactly that, having a short conversation with the woman on the other end. 'She's going to come down here to meet you. Why don't I show you the visual arts centre, Alice, and you both as well if you'd care to come. We'll leave Edward to his tour.' Heath obviously saw nothing wrong with this arrangement.
'It's fine,' Edward whispered to Bella. 'You don't want to come with me anyways,' he pointed out.
'Not really, no,' Bella admitted. 'I'll go with Alice and Jasper and get something to eat while they're at the arts centre.'
'Alright. Be safe.'
'In Hanover? Really?'
Edward arched an eyebrow.
'Alright,' she admitted. 'Fair enough. I'll check it out with Alice before I wander off anywhere.'
'Thank you,' he emphasised. 'I'll see you back at the Inn.' He gave her a quick kiss as Heath herded the three of them back the way they had come, explaining that the arts centre was on the far south side of campus.
Thankfully, they passed a cafe on the way. 'I think I'll just stop here for lunch. You go on ahead,' Bella told Alice and Jasper. 'Thank you for the tour, Heath. It was nice to meet you.'
'Of course Bella. Enjoy the rest of your stay here and we hope to welcome you next September.'
Small chance of that, she thought, but simply smiled back.
'I'll stay with you,' Jasper announced. 'Let Alice go off and explore.'
'Alright,' Bella agreed, though she was a bit annoyed that it seemed he had appointed himself babysitter while Edward was occupied. Then again, Edward had made the point that this trip was partly about Jasper and she having a chance to spend time together.
'See you later!' Alice called, already in the middle of a conversation with Heath as they headed off down the road.
'Did you just want a break?' Bella ventured.
'In part, yes,' Jasper admitted. 'But also, as I'm sure you can guess darlin', Edward wasn't too happy about you going off on your own. So I'll stay with you and he'll have nothing to worry about.'
'I'm not sure how much trouble I can get into just having lunch at a cafe.'
Jasper wisely chose not to comment on that. He ordered a coffee from the waitress for appearances sake, and made a good show of not watching Bella eat the sandwich that the woman brought for her. Thankful, Bella took a few sips of the cappuccino to make it look like Jasper was drinking.
'How long with Alice be?' she asked when she was done.
'I don't think she'll be back soon. She said to meet her along here, on Main Street. We can stay here until she's done,' he offered.
'Or we could walk?'
'If you'd rather, ma'am, then I shall be happy to escort you,' Jasper smiled.
'If it wouldn't be too much trouble, sir,' Bella grinned back.
They walked south until the shops ended and they had returned to the gated mansions of Hanover's residential circle. Bella stopped to marvel at the houses once more.
'If we came here, Edward said we'd probably get a house in Vermont, across the river, right?'
'Yes.' Jasper regarded her a moment. 'The area is similar to this, if that's what you're asking.'
Bella blushed. 'I guess I am. I mean, this isn't really any bigger than your house in Forks, but...'
'Here, everyone lives the same way?' he ventured.
'I guess. I'm just not used to it.'
'You will be, in time,' he said, and Bella knew he spoke from experience. It must have been quite the change for Jasper to suddenly arrive on the Cullens' doorstep, into a very different existence than what he'd known. Bella didn't know much of the story, except that he and Alice had been wandering for a while.
'Will you tell me?' she hesitated. When Jasper look confused, Bella went on to explain. 'About you and Alice when you first came to live with the others?'
'Edward hasn't told you the story?' he sounded surprised.
'No. He doesn't like to tell others' stories.'
'Let's go this way,' Jasper suggested, indicating a side street lined with stately homes. 'Alice can catch up with us.' He paused as they turned the corner and after a brief hesitation, he offered her his arm. 'As a proper lady should be escorted,' he explained.
Bella knew it was a big step. Jasper had tried to remain outside her personal space at all times over the summer and even further away since the incident on her birthday. She knew it was his way of saying he was sorry for what had happened and that he wouldn't risk it happening again.
'Thank you, kind sir,' Bella said, and meant it.
He was quiet for a few houses. 'I should start before I met Alice. You should have the whole story. I grew up during the Civil War,' he started, 'and I joined the Confederates, a bit too young,' he winked. 'I was a major at twenty. The youngest major in the Texas' cavalry.' She could hear the pride in his voice, and guessed that it would have been a big accomplishment back then. 'Those years aren't important. I barely remember anything from before. It was my first assignment as a major, and I was on my way back to Galveston when she found me. Maria,' he said, in a voice laced with more emotions than Bella could distinguish.
'There were three of them; Maria and her 'sisters'. I didn't know what they were. When I woke after the burning, Maria was there. Maria was always there. She wanted me to be her soldier, the captain of her army. It was normal in the south for that. Vampires turned and trained many others to fight each other; for hunting grounds, for power. Not that different from what humans do,' he added, the irony not lost to either of them.
'I thought she loved me. She certainly did a good job pretendin'. My gift helped me control the newborns, train them, and Marie never let them live beyond the first year. After a while, it was too much, but I knew she wouldn't just let me leave. Whether she loved me or not, she needed me. We had done well, by then; winning battle after battle. Maria had gained a sizable amount of land, but she wanted more, always more. She was away with her sisters when I left. Cowardly, to go stealing off in the middle of the night running from a woman!' Jasper barked a laugh, but there was no humour in it. 'I ran as far and as fast as I could, until I knew she wouldn't follow. After that, I just thought about surviving, until Alice found me. I'd never dreamed of the life she showed me, but it was all I wanted. She was all I wanted,' he said, love in his voice.
'The Cullens are different from any other of our kind I've ever met. I didn't know that vampires could live as...families, rather than covens, with a leader to control the rest. But Carlisle leads out of love and we follow out of respect. That sort of emotional atmosphere has been a blessing. And I wouldn't have known it, if not for Alice.'
'She saved you,' Bella said, voicing her opinion for the first time since Jasper had begun the story.
'In more ways than one. But the others saved me too. If not for them, I would have killed you on your birthday.'
'Perhaps,' Bella said. 'I'm not so sure.'
'You have too much faith in us,' Jasper shook his head.
'No more than I have in any human. Your past doesn't matter, Jasper; your present is what's important. And look at you now, escorting me down the street: alone. You wouldn't have suggested it if you were worried something was going to happen.'
'I suppose not. And Edward would kill me if it did.'
'I think Alice might get there first, actually.' They had emerged back onto a busy commercial street. 'We should go find her, I suppose.' Bella glanced around, trying to orient herself in an unfamiliar town.
'That way,' Jasper pointed, across the street to another. 'We can cut through there up to Main Street.'
'Okay,' Bella said and immediately took step off the sidewalk.
The bicyclist probably wasn't at fault, in truth. There were no bike lanes, and because there weren't any cars in sight, Bella hadn't stopped to check for anything else. Jasper just couldn't get to her in time, at least not while maintaining the appearance of humanity. There were just too many other people in sight.
'Shit!' the man managed a strangled cry before he, the bike, and Bella collided. The bike flipped, sending the man sprawling across the road.
The force of the connection sent Bella spinning back onto the sidewalk, falling awkwardly against the curb. She lay there, dazed, her vision a blur. She was only vaguely aware of Jasper's frantic calls of her name.
Slowly, sense returned. She blinked, made to sit up, and immediately regretted it. Pain flared through her side, worse than anything she'd ever felt. Following that, ever part of her body sent a similar signal to her brain. Jasper was crouched near her, eyes wide with worry and black as night. But he hadn't attacked her – yet.
The biker was struggling up himself, still cursing. He appeared to be bleeding from a long scratch on his leg and another on his arm. He limped slightly as he walked back to his bike.
'Why didn't you look?' he asked hotly, glancing down at Bella still sprawled on the ground.
Jasper growled. The biker backed up a full step, the anger on his face replaced by fear. 'Hey man, I'm just saying. Look, I'm hurt, she's hurt. Let's just both go home and clean up, alright?' He didn't wait for an answer, just grabbed his bike up from where it had fallen and climbed on, eager to be away from Jasper's hard glare.
'Bella, tell me how you're feeling?'
Except that she couldn't. It hurt to breathe, much less talk, and she couldn't really get a full breath. Broken ribs definitely this time. She was aware of the smell of blood too, and not just from the biker who had bled across the asphalt.
'Blood,' she managed to choke out.
'Don't worry about it,' Jasper told her, but she could tell he was staying a few feet away from her and trying not to breathe more than necessary.
'I'll call 911,' another voice interjected. A woman this time. She knelt beside Bella. 'Just hang on, sweetie. An ambulance won't take long.' And then she was on the phone, talking hurriedly with someone.
'Bella, please tell me how you're feeling?' Jasper tried again; worry creasing his eyes and spilling into his emotions. Bella could feel it; in his fear he was projecting it without meaning to. She could feel her heart racing; her breath coming in gasps that didn't get enough air in, no matter how she tried.
She managed to shake her head. In the distance, I siren wailed.
'Edward,' she whispered.
Jasper's black eyes widened. His phone was in his hand faster than she could see and the conversation that followed was too fast for Bella to make out. The woman's hand was on her hair, stroking gently, her voice soothing.
'He's coming, Bella,' Jasper said, after a moment. And then he made another call.
The sirens sounded closer.
'Jasper,' Bella begged, reaching for him. She was scared; more than she could ever remember being. She wanted Edward badly, but he wasn't there and Jasper was. 'Jasper, please,' she begged.
If anything his eyes darkened more, but then they hardened and he moved the few feet to her side to grasp her outstretch hand. 'It will be alright. Alice says it'll be alright,' he explained, finally managing to reign in his emotions.
Bella relaxed a bit as the added worry left her. She was scared enough on her own. 'Stay with me?' she begged.
'Of course,' he promised.
And then the ambulance was there, the paramedics pushing the helpful woman and Jasper away so that they could get to Bella. Her vision tunnelled again and she stopped fighting against the darkness. Black was preferable to pain.
She woke to the sound of a heart monitor beeping.
And Edward's voice.
'Come back to me, Bella. Please wake up,' he begged.
She blinked, struggling to open her eyes. The room was dim, outside the window there was darkness, and it was quiet beyond the annoying beeping.
'Oh Bella,' Edward sighed when he saw her looking at him. 'Don't you ever do that to me again.'
'’k,' she said, barely managing to form the letter. Her throat was dry, her body hurt and she really couldn't remember what had happened.
'Here,' Edward said, lifting her head gently to take a sip of water. Pain flared, and she whimpered. 'I'm sorry,' he rushed to apologise. 'Bella, do you remember what happened?'
She shook her head, because that was easier.
Edward looked even more worried. 'There was an accident. You and a cyclist connected. You're in a hospital in Lebanon, just down the road from Hanover. Does that sound familiar?'
She nodded slowly, because it vaguely did. Bella continued to look at him, hoping he would get the message without making her speak.
'You've two broken ribs, one of which is pressing on your lung, which is why it's so hard to breathe. You hit your head pretty hard; but it's only a mild concussion. You had three lacerations from the pavement and twelve stitches in your leg.' Bella flinched and immediately regretted it. 'They've had you on morphine, but they stopped it an hour ago. How much pain are you in?'
'Lots,' she admitted, because there was no point denying it and pain meds sounded really good.
'I'll get one of the nurses.' He kissed her forehead gently, as if afraid to hurt her further. 'I was so worried. When Jasper called, I thought the worst.'
He was only gone a moment, and a nurse in pink scrubs followed him back in. 'Hello Bella, I'm Jenny. I hear you're in a lot of pain?'
'Now that you're off the morphine, I can give you something else. It won't be as strong, but it should help, okay?'
Bella nodded again.
Jenny was right, the drug she administered didn't take the pain away completely, but it did help a good deal. At least Bella could talk.
'I'm sorry,' she whispered, when the nurse was gone.
'Why?' Edward asked, clearly confused.
'Ruined the trip and made you worry. And Jasper –' Her eyes widened. 'Jasper! Is he okay?'
'He's fine,' Edward soothed her. 'He and Alice are at the hotel. They were here earlier, but visiting hours are over. I was only allowed to stay because they thought you'd wake up soon.'
'He's really okay?'
'He wasn't the one flattened by a bike,' Edward reminded her. 'Actually, he seemed rather surprised that he was alright. Alice took a bit to calm him down, but once the doctor said you'd be fine, he seemed better. He's blaming himself, though,' he admitted.
'Tell him not to. It was my fault.'
'No, it was an accident. A stupid, careless, unpredictable, accident.' That explained why Alice hadn't seen it.
'Does anyone else know?'
'I called Carlisle, mostly because I was nearly frantic for the first few hours when you weren't responding.' He looked uncertain about what she'd think for having overreacted. 'He will be out tomorrow with a plane.'
Bella blinked, not understanding. 'Sorry?'
'With your ribs, you'll be in pain for days. Sitting in a commercial aircraft will be agony, and driving back will be worse. Short of arranging a med-lift – ' Bella's eyes widened again ' - there really is no other way to get back to Forks.'
'He's chartering a plane?' she asked, wanting to be sure she understood.
'It wouldn't be the first time,' Edward shrugged. 'It's the fastest and most comfortable way to get you home. The doctor said, provided you have a good night, they'll release you tomorrow.'
That was good; at least she'd be out of the hospital. Bella resolved not to think about what chartering a plane cost. She was almost surprised to learn the Cullens didn't own one outright.
'I need to go. They said I could only stay a few minutes. And you need rest,' Edward told her.
'Please don't leave me,' Bella begged.
'I have to. I'll be back first thing in the morning, I promise.' He kissed her again, just as softly. 'Just sleep. Rest. Heal. And don't worry about anything.'
He gave her a final smile at the door. Against her will, Bella found herself following his advice. Her body craved sleep, and the pain medication just helped that along.
She woke the next morning to find Alice at her side. The monitor was off, so at least the beeping noise was gone. Her breathing was easier too, though the pain was still there. Better still, however, was that her head didn't feel so fuzzy anymore.
'Good morning,' Alice said brightly, the picture of a summer's day.
'Morning,' Bella managed. Her throat was dry again. Alice dutifully offered a few small sips of water.
'They said you should try to start drinking so they can take you off the IV.'
Bella glanced at the offending needle in her hand. Good plan. 'Where's Edward?'
'Outside. Carlisle arrived a few minutes ago and he and Edward are having a rather one sided conversation with your doctor.' This seemed to amuse the pixie greatly.
Alice smiled. 'Who do you think? Don't worry, I see us all on the plane this afternoon. You're going to sleep through it though, I'm afraid.'
That was unsurprising. At least she'd be pain free until they got back to Forks.
The sound of a conversation got louder and a moment later Edward, Carlisle and an unfamiliar man in a white coat entered.
'How are you doing this morning?' the man asked.
'Better than yesterday,' Bella replied, because that was at least honest. 'My head's not fuzzy anymore. And I'm thirsty.'
He smiled. He had a rather pleasant smile, all things considered. 'Good. I'd like you to try to eat and drink, and if you manage that alright, we can take that IV out and see about getting you home.'
'Sounds great,' Bella admitted.
'Alright, I'll be back to check on you later,' he told her.
As soon as he was gone, Edward shut the room door behind him.
'Hi Carlisle. Nice of you to fly across the country to get me.'
He gave her a wry smile. 'I'm always happy to help, Bella. I just wish it wasn't quite so often. How are you feeling?'
'Better, really. I just want out of here,' she said, lips turned down in a pout.
'As soon as possible,' Carlisle promised. 'Dr. Jenkins is right, however. If you can eat and drink there's no reason to keep you here. We can be home by tonight.'
'Hand me that glass then, Alice,' Bella gestured to the sideboard. Of course, she couldn't manage it herself, because sitting up hurt, but Edward quickly stepped in to help.
'Small sips,' he cautioned. She drank slowly, but managed to finish the glass.
'I could try food, I think.' She certainly hadn't felt like it the night before, but whatever painkillers she was on now were milder, and the dizziness of the concussion was gone.
'I'll get you something,' Alice offered. 'And I'll bring Jazz back with me.'
'That'd be great,' she said to Alice. To Edward she asked 'help me up?'
It wasn't exactly comfortable, but they managed it. It took a few minutes for Bella to find a position that allowed her to breathe without her rib impeding the act. 'How long are these going to take to heal?' she hazard to ask.
Carlisle almost looked apologetic, which was nothing new. 'It could be upwards of a few months. Ribs tend to take longer to heal, since there is no way to immobilize them. You're going to need to be very careful for the next few weeks, Bella, every time you move. The one rib was fully displaced, though it's been strapped tightly, and will be prone to moving. Any sudden jars could cause further problems.'
Bella really didn't want to ask what that meant. 'No sudden movements; got it. I'll be good, I promise.'
'That will certainly help.' Carlisle's face creased momentarily and Bella saw the worry there. 'You gave us all a scare, Bella. Edward was frantic when he called me; it took more than a few minutes to pry the details out of him.' He glanced across the bed at his son, who was looking everywhere other than his father's eyes. Or Bella's. 'I thought at first the damage was much worse than it turned out to be. Though I'm quite grateful it wasn't,' he smiled and the worry faded. 'I think we may have to hold off on any more trips for a bit.'
'Alice promised me somewhere warm for New Year’s.'
'Did she?' Carlisle asked, clearly surprised. 'I suppose that may be possible. You will certainly be able to travel by then.'
Bella nodded. 'That's good. I was looking forward to it.'
'Then we will try to make certain Alice's plan goes ahead. Though I may need to place a few restrictions,' he went on.
Alice returned just then, clearly having caught the tail end of the conversation. 'Whatever you say,' she told Carlisle, completely serious. 'Here,' she said and handed over a tray. There wasn't much on it; just buttered bread, a small juice and a cup of Jell-O.
'Did you nick this from someone's room Alice?'
She tried to look innocent. 'Don't worry about it. Anyways, Jasper will be in when you're finished. Edward, can I talk to you?'
'Can it wait?' Edward asked, clearly wanting to stay with Bella.
'Just a few minutes. Bella doesn't mind, does she?'
'Whatever it is, Edward, you should probably just go get it over with,' Bella told him. 'Carlisle can stay with me.' She smiled at Edward's father.
'Fine. I'll be back in a few minutes,' he promised, and with a look at his sister he followed her out the door.
'Is everything okay?' Bella asked Carlisle.
He seemed as confused as she was. 'I've no idea.'
Deciding to ignore it, at least for the time being, Bella picked the bread into bite sized pieces and began to eat them carefully. But after a few minutes the hunger she hadn't been aware of kicked in. By the time Edward returned to the room, the bread was gone and Bella was digging into the Jell-O.
His face practically lit up when he saw her eating. To Carlisle he said, 'Alice has gone to take care of the flight arrangements and check out at the Inn. We'll be ready to leave in an hour or so.'
'Is the plane far?' Bella asked, around a mouthful of the green dessert.
'No, there's an airport just down the road here in Lebanon,' Carlisle told her.
'Why did they call this Lebanon? I mean, of all the place name choices...'
'There's no such thing as an original name. And when it was named, it didn't have quite the negative connotations it does now,' Edward explained.
'That makes sense,' she finished the last mouthful. Pre-empting her reach, Edward pulled the lid off the juice and handed it over. 'Thanks,' she said, taking a sip of the apple juice. It wasn't her favourite, but the sugar was probably good for her.
When it was finished she turned pleading eyes on Carlisle and held out her hand. 'Please?' she said, allowing a pout to show through.
He took pity on her. 'I'll find Dr. Jenkins.'
He met Jasper at the door and they exchanged a brief word.
'Hi Jasper,' Bella greeted him, trying to keep her feelings relaxed and happy, as much as she could be considering the lingering discomfort.
'How are you doing?' he asked.
'Better if people stop asking. Sorry,' she added, seeing his face fall slightly. 'I'm okay, Jasper. Really. I don't remember much of it, but I do remember you were there with me. Thank you for staying.'
He came over to sit in Carlisle's vacated chair. 'I'm only very glad I could be there, Bella. There was a moment I thought...it doesn't matter. I was so very frightened for you.'
'I was pretty frightened for myself. But it was better with you there. Thank you,' she repeated.
Jasper smiled. 'I'll go back to the hotel and help Alice. We'll see you at the airport.' With no hesitation he squeezed Bella's hand. She squeezed back.
'Did Carlisle find him yet?' she asked Edward when Jasper had left.
He listened for a moment. 'Yes. They'll be here in a moment. He has your discharge papers.'
'I'm so ready to get out of here.'
'You really don't like hospitals, do you?' he asked, unnecessarily.
'However did you guess? I've spent too much time in them. And none of it was happy memories. I just want to go home, though it's almost too bad about Vermont.'
Edward shrugged. 'Maybe in the spring we can come back, just the two of us.'
'That would be nice, especially if I get in. And we'd have to look for a place to live, right?'
'Yes,' Edward said, but didn't elaborate. 'You seem to have come around to my idea,' he added.
'I've given it careful consideration. Maybe a year or two of college wouldn't be so bad. But only a year or two,' she said, very serious.
'I'll take what I can get,' Edward relented. 'Here's your doctor.' He stood out of the way as Dr. Jenkins returned to the room, a nurse with him.
'I believe you'd like to get out of here?' he asked without preamble.
'As soon as possible,' Bella said.
'Let me examine you one more time and we'll take that IV out.' He levelled a look at Edward who withdrew from the room reluctantly.
The doctor made short work of it, at least, though making her sit up to listen to her lungs hurt. 'I've already given Dr. Cullen a prescription for pain meds. They should be strong enough for the next few days. They'll likely make you a bit sleepy, but you need to rest as much as possible.' He stood back to allow the nurse to remove the needle in Bella's hand.
She tried not to wince as the woman tugged it free.
'I've also given Dr. Cullen a sedative for the flight.' Bella opened her mouth to argue that, but he held up a forestalling hand. 'Even with an analgesic, it won't be a comfortable flight. The best thing for you is to sleep through it. No arguments?' he asked.
Bella decided she wasn't going to win, so she nodded. She'd take it up with Edward when they were out of the hospital, though she had a feeling where his loyalties would lie. And Carlisle's too.
'Do take care of yourself, Bella,' Dr. Jenkins told her as he signed her papers. 'I'm sure this wasn't the experience you were looking for at Dartmouth.'
'Not at all. I think this school's off the list now.'
'That's too bad, but I think I understand. Good luck with college,' he added as he and the nurse left.
Edward came back in. 'Here,' he said, handing her a bag that had been sitting in the corner. 'From Alice. Can you manage to get dressed yourself? I can get the nurse back to help.'
'Edward, I think we can manage,' Bella told him pointedly.
He hesitated for a long moment, looking torn, before he finally relented. He dug into the bag to pull out underwear and socks and a pair of jeans. If vampires could blush, Bella had a feeling he'd be bright red. It was sort of funny, but she took pity on him and they managed to get her mostly dressed without too much fuss, or too much revealing skin. It was almost unfortunate.
The sweater Alice had chosen was thick and warm and did up in the front. As did the shirt under it. It was a good thing, because there was no way Bella could lift her arms. Edward slipped a pair of flats onto her feet and then, as gently as possible, helped to inch her up to sit on the edge of the bed.
'Wow,' Bella said, feeling breathless. 'That's not going to be fun. I am never breaking ribs again.'
'I sincerely hope not,' Edward agreed, frowning. There was a wheelchair waiting in the corner. It hurt even more getting from the bed down into the chair and Bella had to sit still for a minute afterwards, her head spinning as pain flared through her right side.
'Okay, I'm good,' she finally managed. 'Can we go?'
With a smile, Edward slung the clothes bag over his shoulder and pushed her out of the room. Carlisle, who had been surreptitiously leaning against the opposite wall, looking for all the world like a human who belonged there, pushed off from his rest to join them.
'You aren't going to argue about the sedative, Bella,' he told her.
It went against everything she felt, but he had a point. A blissful few hours of pain free sleep and waking up already at home sounded not as bad as it usually would have.
'No,' she said simply.
She changed her mind as soon as they got on the plane. It was a twelve seater private jet, the kind companies owned, or people with too much money. Bella wondered if the Cullens fell into both those categories.
Alice had already made a place for her one of the facing sofa seats, with blankets spread out and pillows too. Edward was ever so careful as he helped her lie down, treating her as if she was made of glass. For once, Bella didn't argue.
Until Carlisle knelt down at her side with a syringe in hand.
'No,' she said. She'd have scrambled away too, if moving wasn't agony. 'No more needles.'
'Bella...' he started, but Edward did it for him.
'You're in pain. You don't need to be. You need to rest and heal, and the best way to do that is to sleep. We'll be in Forks when you wake up. This is the best way, Bella,' he said, staring right into her eyes.
She was annoyed and dazzled at the same time, which should have been impossible. With a deep sigh she turned her head into the back of the couch and just nodded. She felt the cold of alcohol and braced herself for a pinch, but there wasn't one. She did, however, feel sleepy almost immediately.
Edward was on his knees beside her when she turned her head back. He was smiling.
'That wasn't so bad, right?'
Bella pulled a face, fighting against the sleep that was already trying to claim her. 'You did not just ask that.'
A few feet away, Carlisle laughed. 'He's just practicing his bedside manner.'
'Tell him to do it on someone else,' she said petulantly. Her eyes closed against her will and she fought to open them again.
'Just sleep, Bella,' Edward told her, a cold hand on her hair. 'Sleep and get well.'
Since it was impossible to fight both Edward's soothing voice and modern medicine, Bella quickly slipped into slumber.
Charlie shuffled closer to Esme, and then thought better of it. Mrs. Cullen was an exceedingly nice woman, but somehow he'd rather stand out in the rain then huddle under her large umbrella with her. It was coming down hard now, which wasn't unusual for November in Washington. Charlie didn't really care about the rain; he just cared about the plane landing safely and having his little girl in his arms again.
'She's fine, Charlie,' Esme said, in a voice laced with calm and patience and the clear indication that she'd been saying the same thing for a while and that Charlie still wasn't listening. She understood how he felt though, because Bella was already a daughter to her. The mid-day phone call that had sent Carlisle rushing across the country had scared her more than she could quite understand. What had flashed through her mind was 'this is it' and then she had been just as worried about Edward as Bella.
But Bella was alright, if not well. And Esme's children were nearly home again.
The tires squealed when the jet landed, but they gripped after a split second and the plane braked. They taxied over to the small terminal at Port Angeles airfield and came to a stop not far from where Esme and Charlie were standing.
Jasper was the first one out the door, and with a brief smile at his mother he disappeared into the terminal building, only to re-emerge with a wheelchair a moment later.
Esme heard Charlie's breath hitch.
Alice came out next, holding a large umbrella up in an attempt to shelter her father and his precious burden. Esme could tell how carefully Carlisle was moving, knowing that the slightest shift would be agony for Bella. She was pleased to see the human awake, however, though even at a distance Bella's eyes were laced with pain. It was better when she was in the chair and still once more.
'Dad,' Bella whispered softly, too quietly for Charlie to hear over the rain and distance.
'Go on Charlie,' Esme urged him. 'She needs her father.'
He was off in an instant, rushing across the distance to kneel in the rain at his daughter's feet.
'God Bella, don't you ever do that to me again! When Esme called me I thought...God Bella,' he said again, voice laced with emotion.
'I'm sorry Dad. It was a stupid accident, but I'm still really sorry to make you worry.'
'I'm just glad you're home now. Let's get you out of this rain,' he said, but it was Edward who took over pushing the wheelchair.
'Thank you for going and getting her Carlisle,' Charlie told the blonde man left standing by the plane.
'It was the least I could do, Charlie. I wanted her back here almost as much as you. And it was the only way. She slept through the flight,' he went on and Charlie seemed to relax a bit. 'She only woke up just as we landed.'
'That's good. She's in a lot of pain.'
'Yes, she is, but she's trying very hard not to let it show. Every time she flinches Edward does too,' Carlisle said, the perfect imitation of a worried father. Of course, Charlie didn't need to know who he was most worried about.
'I can take her home, right?'
'Yes, Charlie. She'll be out of school for another week, I think. But her ribs will heal. I'll be by to check on her tomorrow.'
'Thanks for that,' Charlie said, meaning it.
'Anytime, Charlie, please know that. I'd do as much for Bella as any of my own children.'
That got Charlie's attention. He sighed. 'I keep fighting it, you know; telling her she's too young for this and it's stupid to rush into it. That he's only her first boyfriend. But I'm starting to wonder if I'm just fighting the inevitable. It wouldn't be such a bad thing, to be part of your family.'
Carlisle smiled. If only Charlie could know how significant that statement was. 'Thank you for that. We'd welcome her with open arms. I think Esme already sees her as a daughter.'
'She needs a mother. Well, a mother figure,' Charlie relented. 'Renee's a long way away and she's never really been that good at mothering. Bella's always been better at it. She takes care of me.'
'I know. She has a kind heart and she worries about others. Too much, I think, but it serves her well.'
'Yeah,' the Chief agreed. 'I should get her home.'
'May Edward come with me in the morning?' the doctor asked.
Charlie seemed to hesitate the briefest moment, but then nodded. 'Sure; she'll want to see him anyways. Thanks again, Carlisle,' he said and the two men shook hands.
Esme came up to her husband after Charlie had disappeared around the terminal to the parking lot. 'I almost wish we could take her home with us.'
Carlisle smiled. 'I wish that too. But not yet.'
Esme smiled back. 'But soon,' she said, agreeing. 'Let's get out of this rain. I want to be at home, with my family together again.'
'Yes, let's go home,' he agreed.
Healing was frustratingly slow. Carlisle wouldn't let her return to school for more than a week, so she missed nearly two full weeks of classes. Edward kept his promise though and helped her with her work, so Bella wasn't very behind when she returned to Forks High near the end of November.
'You know,' Mike started in on her in the lunch line the day she returned, 'every time you go away with the Cullens you come back hurt or sick.'
'Funny thing that,' Bella said, trying to ignore him. He was standing eerily close to her personal space and she was starting to find his blatant attempts to flirt with her beyond annoying. Maybe she should just let Emmett scare him a bit; just enough that Mike would leave her alone for the rest of the school year.
'I'm starting to wonder,' he threatened.
'About? The fact that I've always been accident prone? Seriously Mike, I've just got the worst luck. Who else runs into a cyclist?'
He didn't look convinced, but at least he dropped the matter, though Bella was certain is was a temporary reprieve. 'You gonna to sit with us?' he asked.
'Only if Edward can too,' Bella reasoned.
Mike shrugged, though he was clearly thinking unkind thoughts about Bella's boyfriend. 'Guess so.'
Angela seemed to be just as relieved to have everything back to normal. Even Jessica looked happy to see her. It made Bella feel a bit guilty, because she had obviously been ignoring them for longer than she'd thought. Her usual lunch place was at the Cullens' table. It was nice to have she and Edward sit with the other students.
Angela asked a few general questions about the trip, pre-accident. Jessica asked if there were any cute boys at the Ivy League schools, which made Mike frown a lot. Bella wished they hadn't broken up, because it was more fun when everyone had someone else. Also, Mike was a little less obvious in his pick up attempts. Still, the two of them were talking enough to sit together at the lunch table, though at opposite ends of it.
Slowly, routine settled over Bella's life once more and Christmas edge ever closer. It would be Bella's first Christmas in Forks, so Charlie had planned to do presents, brunch and a Christmas movie the morning of, followed by Christmas dinner out at La Push. Edward was less than thrilled by this arrangement, but since Bella couldn't turn down an invitation that Charlie had already accepted without disappointing her father or really annoying all of her friends at La Push, he gave in. Provided she spent afternoon at his house.
Charlie grumbled a lot over that, but finally relented after Alice batted her eyelashes a bit and told him that they wanted to include Bella in the Cullen tree decorating ceremony.
Technically, they already had; a week before Christmas Bella had been invited over one evening to decorate the massive ten foot tree that Emmett and Rosalie had 'liberated' from somewhere. It was huge, even in the substantial living room. Alice seemed to do Christmas like she did everything else – overdone, overly expensive, and over organised – and all of the decorations were colour coordinated in gold and silver, with the tree being the added colour. It actually looked quite nice when they were finished, but it made the tree she and Charlie had put up at home rather pale and scrawny in comparison.
It was actually nice to spend Christmas with her Dad, just the two of them in the morning, exchanging their simple gifts, frying up a good brunch of completely unhealthy food, and settling in to watch the morning's movie choice. But by lunch time, Bella was starting to notice Edward's absence. And Charlie was starting to notice that Bella was getting antsy.
'Alright, go,' he finally said, when brunch had been cleaned up and the movie was over. 'Go over and wish them Merry Christmas from me. But be back here at five so we can make it to the res on time. Sue will kill us if we're late.'
'Thanks Dad,' she said, leaning up to kiss his cheek. 'Merry Christmas.'
Edward was waiting on the porch for her. It was a bitterly cold day, but despite that fact there was no snow on the ground yet. Not that Bella was complaining too hard. Snow meant ice. Ice was really bad for clumsy people and her ribs were still tender.
'Merry Christmas,' he greeted her.
'Merry Christmas,' she returned and leaned up to kiss him properly. He seemed happy to return the gesture, if briefly.
'Everyone's inside waiting. Alice said you'd be by around one.'
'Smart Alice,' Bella smiled. 'And a very handy day planner.'
'Don't tell her that!' Edward pseudo whispered, though Alice, of course, would be able to hear.
The house smelled like cinnamon and baking. 'Has Esme been in the kitchen?' Bella wondered aloud.
Edward grinned. 'All morning. I promise it's not all for you. Carlisle takes it to work for the hospital staff every year.'
'Good, because I'm already full from breakfast and I still have to manage dinner tonight!'
Inside, the whole family was waiting in the living room, horribly overdressed for Christmas present unwrapping. Bella was in jeans and a sweater; not Alice approved fare, but it was Christmas and she wanted to be comfortable. She wasn't even planning on changing for dinner down at La Push.
'Merry Christmas!' Alice yelled as soon as they entered the room. She bounded over to throw her arms around Bella. The others followed, and hugs and good wishes were exchanged.
A few weeks before, Alice had taken her aside at lunch one day at school to explain 'Cullen Gift Giving 101'. What do you buy a family that has everything, after all?
Apparently, they all put their names in a hat and then drew one. That was the person they bought a gift for, but gifts were not always material possessions. They were however always thoughtful gestures. 'Sometimes we do donations to charities,' Alice explained. 'But what matters is that the gift should mean something to the person that receives it. We already did the name draw. You got Jasper,' she said with a wink. Bella wondered how rigged the draw actually was, in that case. Because her luck would usually have chosen Rosalie.
'You can ask Edward for help, if you need to.'
'I think I'm okay,' Bella had told her. Alice had smiled knowingly.
Now, it was gift giving time and Esme was first. 'My gift is to Rosalie,' she said. She handed over a small box.
Uncharacteristically smiling, Rosalie unwrapped the bow and opened the box to find a key. To Bella, it looked like an ordinary house key.
'Since it seems we'll be moving to the north-east soon, I took the liberty of redecorating your flat in New York. I thought you and Emmett may enjoy spending more time there and it needed a few upgrades. Including the electronics,' she said, noticing the look on Emmett's face.
'Thank you, Esme. We had been considering it,' Rosalie said, smiling wider. She put the box down and picked up another one at her feet. It wasn't any larger. 'I chose Emmett,' she said, and Bella knew the draw was rigged.
Emmett tore the paper off the small box with the glee of a child and out fell a key. Except this was very much not a house key. 'Yes!' He shouted, brandishing the black thing in his hand.
Smiling indulgently, Rosalie explained. 'It's waiting in New York for us. I thought, maybe, we could go in the New Year. Especially now, with the apartment redone,' she smiled at Esme.
'Car,' Edward leaned over to whisper in Bella's ear. 'BMW. The latest SUV model,' he went on, reading the image of it in Rosalie's mind.
'Awesome, babe, I love it. And I love New York even more...' he trailed off with a seductive look on his face. It was almost comical, but his wife didn't seem to mind. 'Right! I got Alice,' Emmett said finally said. 'Here,' he handed over a thick envelope.
With a smile that said she knew exactly what it was, Alice opened it eagerly. Her smile got wider. 'Emmett's found a business partner for me!' The others all nodded and smiled in understanding.
Bella looked questioningly at her. 'I've wanted to start a clothing line, but it's best to get into the business with someone who knows what they're doing. I've never actually tried it before. Emmett found me a partner who's been looking for up and coming design talent and wants to start a shop in New York. It'll be perfect! I've got time to get it started before September, and she can run it while I'm at college,' Alice explained.
'That's wonderful! You really should be able to sell your stuff to people, Alice. I'm sure there's a lot of people out there that will appreciate your style sense.'
Alice gave her a knowing look. 'I've got so much work to do! And you can all help,' she grinned. 'Including you, Bella.'
Since it was Christmas, Bella agreed to that. She could always find a way out of it later.
'I got the easy one this year,' Alice said, changing the topic. 'Carlisle,' she handed him an envelope.
Inside was a common Christmas card, but Bella could see there was a note written on the left side. 'Alice has made a donation to start an orphanage in Mexico. One of the convents there has been looking after a dozen children, but they don't have the resources to continue or expand. The money will go towards a building and supplies. This is wonderful, Alice, thank you.'
'Alice, that's brilliant,' Bella told her.
'Carlisle's easy. Every year it's a donation to a charity or similar. But I've been considering doing this for a while.'
'Perhaps we can make a trip down in the future, once the orphanage is running. I'm certain they'll need ongoing help.'
'I'll find a cloudy week,' Alice grinned. 'But that's a great idea!' Her eyes glazed, and it was obvious she was looking ahead. It only lasted a moment though, before she shook herself slightly, still smiling. She gave Bella a wink, but didn't seem to want to explain what - if anything - she'd seen.
'I don't believe I drew the easiest name, but I'm very grateful for the one I did choose,' Carlisle interrupted. Bella blinked at him as he handed over a small box.
'For me?' she asked, stunned.
Bella stared at the box for a long moment.
'Before you open it, I want to explain,' Carlisle went on. 'When I drew your name Bella, it took no consideration at all to know what to get you. I want you to know that we already consider you a part of the family, despite the short time you have been in our lives. We are very grateful, Esme and I, that you are here with us. Our family feels, at long last, complete. To mark that, we want you to have this,' he gestured to the box.
Bella took the hint. Untying the ribbon she pulled the top off, grateful for the lack of wrapping paper. Inside was a black jewellery box. Fingers shaking ever so slightly and well aware that all of them were staring at her, Bella popped open the lid.
Inside, nestled on white satin, was a necklace.
Hesitantly, her whole hand shaking, she reached out to finger it. It was small, like Alice's, but on a chain rather than a ribbon. Delicate and understated compared to Rosalie's. It was beautiful. And now it was hers.
'Allow me,' Edward said, taking the box slowly from her hands and pulling out the necklace. Bella dutifully lifted her hair aside so that he could fasten the clasp. The pendant came to rest just above her t-shirt, comfortably above her breasts. It was a noticeable weight. Still speechless in amazement, Bella fingered it again.
And then she started crying. Even more stunned, Edward froze, but Esme wasn't so restrained.
'Oh sweetheart!' she laughed and rushed over to draw Bella into her arms.
'Thank you,' Bella sobbed into the waiting arms, choking on the words. She really should find something more articulate to say, but nothing was coming to mind.
'It's alright. They're good tears. I'd be crying myself if I could,' Esme told her, looking thoroughly unhappy that she couldn't.
'Bella.' Carlisle's soft voice behind her should have startled her, but instead she pulled back from Esme's arms to hug the blonde instead.
'Welcome to the family,' he smiled into her hair.
After another minute of choked sobs, Bella managed to get herself under control, gratefully accepting the tissue Alice passed over.
'I must say, you may be the first one to cry,' Carlisle commented.
'You're all vampires; it doesn't count,' Bella giggled, still trying to dry her eyes.
'Perhaps not,' he amended. 'This,' he said, reaching out to touch a fingertip to the crest; his look suddenly serious. 'This mean safety and protection always. It means love and care. And it means strength. It means you are one of us.'
Speechless once more Bella looked up at him with still shinning eyes. Smiling, Carlisle grasped her face gently with cold hands and kissed her forehead.
'Thank you,' she managed to whisper when he drew back, hoping the emotion in her voice conveyed just as much as the tears.
'Shall we continue with the gifts?' Esme asked.
Bella nodded. 'Actually,' she smiled, 'this is pretty much perfect for my gift. I got Jasper.' The vampire in question seemed a bit surprised at this announcement. Obviously Alice hadn't given the game away after she had drawn the name on Bella's behalf.
'I couldn't exactly buy you anything that you didn't already have. And I don't really know you well enough to know your tastes. So, I thought about it for a while, and I realised that there's one thing I can give you that might mean something.' She got up and walked over to the loveseat where Alice and Jasper were sitting. Knowing what was coming, Alice gave up her place.
'I did ask Alice for a bit of help, I'll admit. I wanted to make sure this was possible, but she said it was. It only helps after that last gift,' she smiled.
'I think I'm confused, darlin',' Jasper told her.
'I know that you like to feel positive emotions, but they're probably hard to find at Forks High. And Alice said the strongest emotion is love, and I'm sure you get a lot of that from her.' Emmett snickered. 'But after that disastrous trip last month, when you stayed with me, I wanted to find a way to thank you. So this is it. I want you to feel what I'm feeling, right now, as much as you can.'
'You're sure?' he asked, seemingly hesitant.
'Completely,' Bella promised him. She closed her eyes, concentrating on the joy that was filling her after Carlisle's gift, on her love for Edward and his family, on how truly, wholly happy she was. She let it fill her up and seep out of her, keeping her focus for as long as she could.
When Bella finally drew back and opened her eyes, Jasper had a rather drugged expression on his face. She had, in fact, never seen him look so utterly peaceful.
Alice looked like she wanted to cry.
Jasper's eyes flickered open, the palest amber Bella had seen. They were shinning. 'Oh Bella, you can't know what a gift that was.'
She shrugged. 'Maybe not completely, but I think I can guess a bit. It was all I had to give, though.'
'It was more than enough.'
'I'm glad, Jasper. You deserve to feel that much joy.'
He seemed a bit startled by that.
'She's right,' Alice said, sliding into his lap. 'She's more than right, in fact. And maybe now you'll believe it.'
'I already do, my love, I already do.'
Emmett had clearly had enough of the love in. 'Who'd you get Jasper?' he said, louder than necessary even for Bella's hearing.
Smiling, Jasper let Alice slide onto the cushion and Bella stood up to give her room, rejoining Edward. He had a rather wide grin on his own face, and Bella knew he'd been reading her through Jasper, which was wonderful. Maybe they could try that again, if Jasper was willing.
'Edward, of course. After all, if I'd have picked Esme, it would've meant Edward had chosen himself.'
'Not a bad thing. I've got my present already,' he said, wrapping an arm around Bella.
'Let's pretend there's something else you'd like too,' Jasper said in an indulgent voice. 'You're not an easy man to buy for brother.'
'Oh, I know it.'
'Still, I think you'll like this. And I'll stop blocking you now,' he smiled.
'That must be hard, keeping presents a secret,' Bella suddenly realised.
'Well, Alice tries not to look, until we're opening them at least. And everyone has enough experience with blocking me out that as long as I try not to listen we're more or less safe.' He took the proffered box from Jasper's outstretched hand.
It was small; the size of Bella's jewellery box. Inside was a key. It looked a lot like the key Esme had given to Rose.
'To?' Edward asked, clearly trying to drag the whole thing out.
'Consider it a presumptuous gift,' Jasper winked. 'It may come in handy soon.' He was looking hard right at his brother.
Edward looked back and began to smile. 'Well now, that is a useful gift.'
'Share,' Bella poked him.
'Oh, I think I'll keep this one a surprise, for now.' He announced.
Bella pouted. 'That is not allowed. I want to know.'
'And I don't want to tell you,' he returned.
'Don't bother Bella,' Alice butted in. 'You won't win and it's better if you don't know. It'll make for a great surprise later.'
'It will be worth it, I promise,' he kissed her cheek and pocketed the key. 'Well, I picked Esme, obviously.' Edward said and pulled an envelope from between him and Bella. She hadn't even realised he'd hidden anything there. It was a large manila one.
Smiling in anticipation, Esme pulled out a sheaf of papers.
'I know you hadn't started looking yet, so I thought I'd see what was available. As soon as I found this, I knew,' he said.
Esme was flipping through the documents. She finally drew out a collection of photographs. They looked like they were of a building. Smile widening with each photo, Esme flipped through them, finally pulling out one. She stared at it for a long moment and then she turned to smile at her husband.
'Our new home,' she said, handing him the photo.
Carlisle studied it carefully. 'It's perfect Edward.' He handed the photo off to Emmett and took the papers from Esme to read.
Bella soon found the photo in her hands. It wasn't anything like the current house they were in, but somehow it seemed just as perfect. It was a wide shot, taking from down a paved driveway. The red brick house looked stately and old, of a style that reminded Bella of the 1800s and Colonial American. It was two stories with a small porch at the front door. A large garage in white stood to one side, separate from the house. It looked massive, and Bella supposed it probably was. In the background was a forest of trees. It was beautiful.
'We're going to live here?' she asked.
'Oh yes,' Esme said, eyes alight with possibilities. 'It needs some restoration work, but we have plenty of time for that.'
'Where is it?' Bella asked.
'It's just south of Burlington in Vermont. It's about a thirty minute drive from the city, but far enough into the countryside for privacy. It's an old estate from 1820, though it's been renovated a few times,' Edward explained. 'There is plenty of room for us all.'
'Burlington? Are we going to Vermont then?'
'Alice isn't positive yet, but it's a distinct possibility. And even if we don't end up at that university, it's still time we moved. Vermont is as good a place as any.'
'It looks so beautiful,' Bella said, before handing the photo back to Esme.
'We'll make a trip in the spring to see it, once you know what university you'll be attending,' she decided. 'We can make provisions from there and see what work needs doing. And you're more than welcome to come with us, Bella. I'd welcome your decorating input.'
'I'm not really sure how much help I'll be, but I'd love to see the place.'
'We'll be happy here,' Esme said, holding the photo of the house in hand. 'I know it. All of us.'
'Yes,' Alice said, though Bella couldn't tell if she'd seen something or not. 'Right, I have one more gift. And it's to everyone.' She brandished what looked like a glossy magazine. 'We're leaving on the twenty-seventh and yes Bella, I already cleared it with Charlie. We'll be back on the second, in time for school. And there will be sun and sand and privacy. And that's all you need to know.'
'We're really going away?' Bella asked.
'Really, really. I said we'd go somewhere nice and we're going. And don't worry about the packing. You won't need much more than a bikini anyways.'
When she looked about ready to protest, Edward intervened. 'Just go along with it. We've book a private estate on several acres of land on the island of Maui. It's ours for the week. Complete privacy.'
'That sounds amazing.'
'Really?' He seemed surprised that she hadn't argued about 'private estate' and 'several acres of land'.
'Yes. Complete privacy, where you can go out in the sun and we can just enjoy each other's company? Sounds perfect.'
'I knew it!' Alice clapped excitedly. 'Now, you really need to get back to your house, Bella, or you won't be ready in time. We're leaving at seven on Thursday.'
'In the morning?'
'Yes, in the morning,' Alice said, an indulgent look on her face. 'You can sleep on the jet.'
'Thanks Alice,' Edward told his sister. 'Can we leave a few surprises?'
'It's better if she's told ahead of time. Yes, Bella, a jet. A private jet that will fly us from Port Angeles to Maui, where we will take a helicopter to the estate. I will pack everything you need and you can stay here tomorrow night.'
Bella blinked at her. She could argue, really, but the thought of a holiday away with her family sounded too perfect to ruin complaining about the expense.
'Okay,' she said. 'I'll talk Charlie into letting me come over in the afternoon.'
Alice smiled her victory.
'I'll walk you out,' Edward said.
'Thank you!' Bella told the Cullens. 'I think this has been the best Christmas I can remember.'
'See you tomorrow!' Alice called back and then they were around the corner, the rest of the family out of sight.
'I mean it,' she told him. 'I can't remember a better Christmas. And this,' she fingered the necklace again. 'Should I wear it all the time? Or will people ask?'
'I'd suggest you don't wear it at school or people will. At least until we graduate. After that, you don't ever have to take it off.'
'I'm happy, Edward.'
He grinned. 'I know. I was paying close attention to Jasper when you gave him his gift. I know just how happy you are. I only wish you could know how strongly I feel too.'
She smiled knowingly. 'I think I do. This year has been...I don't know how to explain. The highs and lows of my life, I think. And I wouldn't trade any of it,' she told him.
'Either would I.' He stood with her in front of the driver's door of her truck. 'I never expected this. I hoped, maybe, a long time ago, but I never actually thought I'd find someone. I meant it; you are my greatest gift.'
'And you're mine. This means that,' she touched the crest. 'You're mine and I'm yours.'
'Forever,' he whispered into her hair.
Startled, she drew back from him. 'You mean that?'
His eyes closed briefly and he seemed to be gathering himself. He opened them again, pale amber shinning like Jasper's had been earlier. 'I think I do. It's selfish and horrible, but I've realised – I realised in New Hampshire – I can't live without you. I want us to have a long and happy life together. A long and happy and safe life together. And there's only one way.'
'I already know that. I've known that from the beginning. I was only waiting for you to realise. You have to want this as much as I do, Edward. I'll go to college next year. I'll give it a good try, but I want us more than I want anything else. And I won't be patient for long.'
'I won't make you wait. I don't think I can.'
'Then that's your present to me this year: a promise.'
His eyes were sad, but he was smiling. 'You have it. I love you so very much,' he whispered.
'I know. I wish you could know that I love you just as much. I wish you could believe it,' she whispered back, head now cradled on his chest, his arms tight about her waist.
'I'm starting to. To give up your life for me, Bella. To give up your soul. I don't think there is a greater love in this world.'
She considered that a moment and then pulled back to stare into his eyes, held tight in his cold embrace. 'I can't imagine one.' She sighed. 'I need to go,' she said, loath to break the moment, but needing to.
'Yes,' he said and kissed her. 'Be safe tonight. Call me as soon as you get back.'
'I will. I promise. I love you,' Bella smiled as she climbed into the truck.
'Be safe,' was what he said in return. 'For this one day, please be safe.'
He was still standing there when she passed into the trees, watching. Bella knew he wanted to come with her; to watch over her. She still didn't understand exactly what was going on between the Cullens and the Quileutes, but she knew the problems were mostly on the La Push end of things. Edward just seemed to worry for her whenever she was there. She remembered the story Jacob had told her on the beach in the spring. She'd never asked, because it seemed silly to even contemplate Jacob turning into a wolf or something, but clearly the Council thought the legend true. Then again, if vampires were real...Bella resolved to ask Edward about it, now that she was part of the family. Surely it was time she knew the whole story?
Despite her contemplations, Bella was still smiling when she got back to her house. 'Had a good visit then?' Charlie asked from the couch.
'I did. This has really been a great Christmas.' She clutched the pendant in her fist.
'Not over yet, Bells,' he reminded her.
'No,' she agreed. But the best part is. 'You're really okay with this trip?'
He sat up to look at her. He didn't look okay. 'Alice was pretty convincing. And she said you'd all be staying at the same house. I trust Carlisle and Esme to look after you. Probably more than I trust anyone else, except you. Just...be careful Bella. And not just with...Edward. Every time you go away it ends badly. Just come back safe this time.'
'Oh Dad, I'm going to try my best. And as for Edward... Look, it's not something I'm going to talk about with you, but Edward...you don't have to worry about him, Dad. Really.'
He looked confused. 'I have no idea what that means, but alright. I'll stop...talking about it. I'm aware you're an adult now and you've probably got a better head on your shoulders than your mother did at your age. In fact, I know you do. Just...keep that in mind.'
'Will do. I'm going to go get ready.'
'I'll be down here,' he said, already focused on the TV screen again.
Some things really didn't change year after year. And some things most certainly did, and for the better.
Still smiling, fingers playing with the chain, Bella went upstairs to freshen up. She still had one more family to spend Christmas with, at least this year.