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I went back to school. This was the right thing to do, the most inconspicuous way to behave.

By the end of the day, almost all the other students had returned to class, too. Just Tyler and Bella and a few others - who were probably using the accident as a chance to ditch - remained absent.

It shouldn't be so hard for me to do the right thing. But, all afternoon, I was gritting my teeth against the urge that had me yearning ditch, too - in order to go find the girl again.

Like a stalker. An obsessessed stalker. An obsessessed, vampire stalker.

School today was - somehow, impossibly - even more boring than it had seemed just a week ago. Coma-like. It was as if the color had drained from the bricks, the trees, the sky, the faces around me... I stared at the cracks in the walls.

There was another right thing I should be doing...that I was not. Of course, it was also a wrong thing. It all depended on the perspective from which you viewed it.

From the perspective of a Cullen - not just a vampire, but a Cullen, someone who belonged to a family, such a rare state in our world - the right thing to do would have gone something like this:

"I'm surprised to see you in class, Edward. I heard you were involved in that awful accident this morning."

"Yes, I was, Mr. Banner, but I was the lucky one." A friendly smile. "I didn't get hurt at all... I wish I could say the same for Tyler and Bella."

"How are they?"

"I think Tyler is fine...just some superficial scrapes from the windshield glass. I'm not sure about Bella, though." A worried frown. "She might have a concussion. I heard she was pretty incoherent for a while - seeing things even. I know the doctors were worried..."

That's how it should have gone. That's what I owed my family.

"I'm surprised to see you in class, Edward. I heard you were involved in that awful accident this morning."

"I wasn't hurt." No smile.

Mr. Banner shifted his weight from foot to foot, uncomfortable.

"Do you have any idea how Tyler Crowley and Bella Swan are? I heard there were some injuries..."

I shrugged. "I wouldn't know."

Mr. Banner cleared his throat. "Er, right..." he said, my cold stare making his voice sound a bit strained.

He walked quickly back to the front of classroom and began his lecture.

It was the wrong thing to do. Unless you looked at it from a more obscure point of view.

It just seemed so...so unchivalrous to slander the girl behind her back, especially when she was proving more trustworthy than I could have dreamed. She hadn't said anything to betray me, despite having good reason to do so. Would I betray her when she had done nothing but keep my secret?

I had a nearly identical conversation with Mrs. Goff - just in Spanish rather than in English - and Emmett gave me a long look.

I hope you have a good explanation for what happened today. Rose is on the warpath.

I rolled my eyes without looking at him.

I actually had come up with a perfectly sound explanation. Just suppose I hadn't done anything to stop the van from crushing the girl... I recoiled from that thought. But if she had been hit, if she'd been mangled and bleeding, the red fluid spilling, wasting on the blacktop, the scent of the fresh blood pulsing through the air ...

I shuddered again, but not just in horror. Part of me shivered in desire. No, I would not have been able to watch her bleed without exposing us all in a much more flagrant and shocking way.

It was a perfectly sound excuse...but I wouldn't use it. It was too shameful. And I hadn't thought of it until long after the fact, regardless.

Look out for Jasper, Emmett went on, oblivious to my reverie. He's not as angry...but he's more resolved.

I saw what he meant, and for a moment the room swam around me. My rage was so all-consuming that a red haze clouded my vision. I thought I would choke on it.

SHEESH, EDWARD! GET A GRIP! Emmett shouted at me in his head. His hand came down on my shoulder, holding me in my seat before I could jump to my feet. He rarely used his full strength - there was rarely a need, for he was so much stronger than any vampire any of us had ever encountered - but he used it now. He gripped my arm, rather than pushing me down. If he'd been pushing, the chair under me would have collapsed.

EASY! He ordered.

I tried to calm myself, but it was hard. The rage burned in my head.

Jasper's not going to do anything until we all talk. I just thought you should know the direction he's headed.

I concentrated on relaxing, and I felt Emmett's hand loosen.

Try not to make more of a spectacle of yourself. You're in enough trouble as it is. I took a deep breath and Emmett released me.

I searched around the room routinely, but our confrontation had been so short and silent that only a few people sitting behind Emmett had even noticed. None of them knew what to make of it, and they shrugged it off. The Cullens were freaks - everyone knew that already.

Damn, kid, you're a mess, Emmett added, sympathy in his tone.

"Bite me," I muttered under my breath, and I heard his low chuckle.

Emmett didn't hold grudges, and I probably ought to be more grateful for his easy going nature. But I could see that Jasper's intentions made sense to Emmett, that he was considering how it might be the best course of action.

The rage simmered, barely under control. Yes, Emmett was stronger than I was, but he'd yet to beat me in a wrestling match. He claimed that this was because I cheated, but hearing thoughts was just as much a part of who I was as his immense strength was a part of him. We were evenly matched in a fight.

A fight? Was that where this was headed? Was I going to fight with my family over a human I barely knew?

I thought about that for a moment, thought about the fragile feel of the girl's body in my arms in juxtaposition with Jasper, Rose, and Emmett - supernaturally strong and fast, killing machines by nature...

Yes, I would fight for her. Against my family. I shuddered.

But it wasn't fair to leave her undefended when I was the one who'd put her in danger.

I couldn't win alone, though, not against the three of them, and I wondered who my allies would be.

Carlisle, certainly. He would not fight anyone, but he would be wholly against Rose's and Jasper's designs. That might be all I needed. I would see...

Esme, doubtful. She would not side against me either, and she would hate to disagree with Carlisle, but she would be for any plan that kept her family intact. Her first priority would not be rightness, but me. If Carlisle was the soul of our family, then Esme was the heart. He gave us a leader who deserved following; she made that following into an act of love. We all loved each other - even under the fury I felt toward Jasper and Rose right now, even planning to fight them to save the girl, I knew that I loved them. Alice...I had no idea. It would probably depend on what she saw coming. She would side with the winner, I imagined.

So, I would have to do this without help. I wasn't a match for them alone, but I wasn't going to let the girl be hurt because of me. That might mean evasive action... My rage dulled a bit with the sudden, black humor. I could imagine how the girl would react to my kidnapping her. Of course, I rarely guessed her reactions right - but what other reaction could she have besides terror?

I wasn't sure how to manage that, though - kidnapping her. I wouldn't be able to stand being close to her for very long. Perhaps I would just deliver her back to her mother. Even that much would be fraught with danger. For her.

And also for me, I realized suddenly. If I were to kill her by accident... I wasn't certain exactly how much pain that would cause me, but I knew it would be multifaceted and intense.

The time passed quickly while I mulled over all the complications ahead of me: the argument waiting for me at home, the conflict with my family, the lengths I might be forced to go to afterward...

Well, I couldn't complain that life outside this school was monotonous any more. The girl had changed that much.

Emmett and I walked silently to the car when the bell rang. He was worrying about me, and worrying about Rosalie. He knew whose side he would have to choose in a quarrel, and it bothered him.

The others were waiting for us in the car, also silent. We were a very quiet group. Only I could hear the shouting.

Idiot! Lunatic! Moron! Jackass! Selfish, irresponsible fool! Rosalie kept up a constant stream of insults at the top of her mental lungs. It made it hard to hear the others, but I ignored her as best I could.

Emmett was right about Jasper. He was sure of his course.

Alice was troubled, worrying about Jasper, flipping through images of the future. No matter which direction Jasper came at the girl, Alice always saw me there, blocking him. Interesting...neither Rosalie nor Emmett was with him in these visions. So Jasper planned to work alone. That would even things up.

Jasper was the best, certainly the most experienced fighter among us. My one advantage lay in that I could hear his moves before he made them.

I had never fought more than playfully with Emmett or Jasper - just horsing around. I felt sick at the thought of really trying to hurt Jasper...

No, not that. Just to block him. That was all.

I concentrated on Alice, memorizing Jasper's different avenues of attack.

As I did that, her visions shifted, moving further and further away from the Swan's house. I was cutting him off earlier...

Stop that, Edward! It can't happen this way. I won't let it.

I didn't answer her, I just kept watching.

She began searching farther ahead, into the misty, unsure realm of distant possibilities. Everything was shadowy and vague.

The entire way home, the charged silence did not lift. I parked in the big garage off the house; Carlisle's Mercedes was there, next to Emmett's big jeep, Rose's M3 and my Vanquish. I was glad Carlisle was already home - this silence would end explosively, and I wanted him there when that happened.

We went straight to the dining room.

The room was, of course, never used for its intended purpose. But it was furnished with a long oval mahogany table surrounded by chairs - we were scrupulous about having all the correct props in place. Carlisle liked to use it as a conference room. In a group with such strong and disparate personalities, sometimes it was necessary to discuss things in a calm, seated manner.

I had a feeling that the setting was not going to help much today.

Carlisle sat in his usual seat at the eastern head of the room. Esme was beside him - they held hands on top of the table.

Esme's eyes were on me, their golden depths full of concern.

Stay. It was her only thought.

I wished I could smile at the woman who was truly a mother to me, but I had no reassurances for her now.

I sat on Carlisle's other side. Esme reached around him to put her free hand on my shoulder. She had no idea of what was about to start; she was just worrying about me.

Carlisle had a better sense of what was coming. His lips were pressed tightly together and his forehead was creased. The expression looked too old for his young face. As everyone else sat, I could see the lines being drawn.

Rosalie sat directly across from Carlisle, on the other end of the long table. She glared at me, never looking away.

Emmett sat beside her, his face and thoughts both wry.

Jasper hesitated, and then went to stand against the wall behind Rosalie. He was decided, regardless of the outcome of this discussion. My teeth locked together.

Alice was the last to come in, and her eyes were focused on something far away - the future, still too indistinct for her to make use of it. Without seeming to think about it, she sat next to Esme. She rubbed her forehead as if she had a headache. Jasper twitched uneasily and considered joining her, but he kept his place.

I took a deep breath. I had started this - I should speak first.

"I'm sorry," I said, looking first at Rose, then Jasper and then Emmett. "I didn't mean to put any of you at risk. It was thoughtless, and I take full responsibility for my hasty action."

Rosalie glared at me balefully. "What do you mean, ‘take full responsibility'? Are you going to fix it?"

"Not the way you mean," I said, working to keep my voice even and quiet. "I'm willing to leave now, if that makes things better." If I believe that the girl will be safe, if I believe that none of you will touch her, I amended in my head.

"No," Esme murmured. "No, Edward."

I patted her hand. "It's just a few years."

"Esme's right, though," Emmett said. "You can't go anywhere now. That would be the opposite of helpful. We have to know what people are thinking, now more than ever."

"Alice will catch anything major," I disagreed. Carlisle shook his head. "I think Emmett is right, Edward. The girl will be more likely to talk if you disappear. It's all of us leave, or none of us."

"She won't say anything," I insisted quickly. Rose was building up to the explosion, and I wanted this fact out there first.

"You don't know her mind," Carlisle reminded me.

"I know this much. Alice, back me up."

Alice stared up at me wearily. "I can't see what will happen if we just ignore this." She glanced at Rose and Jasper.

No, she couldn't see that future - not when Rosalie and Jasper were so decided against ignoring the incident.

Rosalie's palm smacked down on the table with a loud bang. "We can't allow the human a chance to say anything. Carlisle, you must see that. Even if we decided to all disappear, it's not safe to leave stories behind us. We live so differently from the rest of our kind - you know there are those who would love an excuse to point fingers. We have to be more careful than anyone else!"

"We've left rumors behind us before," I reminded her.

"Just rumors and suspicions, Edward. Not eyewitnesses and evidence!"

"Evidence!" I scoffed.

But Jasper was nodding, his eyes hard.

"Rose - " Carlisle began.

"Let me finish, Carlisle. It doesn't have to be any big production. The girl hit her head today. So maybe that injury turns out to be more serious that it looked." Rosalie shrugged. "Every mortal goes to sleep with the chance of never waking up. The others would expect us to clean up after ourselves. Technically, that would make it Edward's job, but this is obviously beyond him. You know I'm capable of control. I would leave no evidence behind me."

"Yes, Rosalie, we all know how proficient an assassin you are," I snarled.

She hissed at me, furious.

"Edward, please," Carlisle said. Then he turned to Rosalie. "Rosalie, I looked the other way in Rochester because I felt that you were owed your justice. The men you killed had wronged you monstrously. This is not the same situation. The Swan girl is an innocent."

"It's not personal, Carlisle," Rosalie said through her teeth. "It's to protect us all."

There was a brief moment of silence while Carlisle thought through his answer. When he nodded, Rosalie's eyes lit up. She should have known better. Even if I hadn't been able to read his thoughts, I could have anticipated his next words. Carlisle never compromised.

"I know you mean well, Rosalie, but...I'd like very much for our family to be worth protecting. The occasional...accident or lapse in control is a regrettable part of who we are." It was very like him to include himself in the plural, though he had never had such a lapse himself. "To murder a blameless child in cold blood is another thing entirely. I believe the risk she presents, whether she speaks her suspicions or not, is nothing to the greater risk. If we make exceptions to protect ourselves, we risk something much more important. We risk losing the essence of who we are."

I controlled my expression very carefully. It wouldn't do at all to grin. Or to applaud, as I wished I could.

Rosalie scowled. "It's just being responsible."

"It's being callous," Carlisle corrected gently. "Every life is precious." Rosalie sighed heavily and her lower lip pouted out. Emmett patted her shoulder. "It'll be fine, Rose," he encouraged in a low voice.

"The question," Carlisle continued, "is whether we should move on?"

"No," Rosalie moaned. "We just got settled. I don't want to start on my sophomore year in high school again!"

"You could keep your present age, of course," Carlisle said.

"And have to move again that much sooner?" she countered.

Carlisle shrugged.

"I like it here! There's so little sun, we get to be almost normal."

"Well, we certainly don't have to decide now. We can wait and see if it becomes necessary. Edward seems certain of the Swan girl's silence."

Rosalie snorted.

But I was no longer worried about Rose. I could see that she would go along with Carlisle's decision, not matter how infuriated she was with me. Their conversation had moved on to unimportant details.

Jasper remained unmoved.

I understood why. Before he and Alice had met, he'd lived in a combat zone, a relentless theater of war. He knew the consequences of flouting the rules - he'd seen the grisly aftermath with his own eyes.

It said much that he had not tried to calm Rosalie down with his extra faculties, nor did he now try to rile her up. He was holding himself aloof from this discussion - above it.

"Jasper," I said.

He met my gaze, his face expressionless.

"She won't pay for my mistake. I won't allow that."

"She benefits from it, then? She should have died today, Edward. I would only set that right."

I repeated myself, emphasizing each word. "I will not allow it."

His eyebrows shot up. He wasn't expecting this - he hadn't imagined that I would act to stop him.

He shook his head once. "I won't let Alice live in danger, even a slight danger. You don't feel about anyone the way I feel about her, Edward, and you haven't lived through what I've lived through, whether you've seen my memories or not. You don't understand."

"I'm not disputing that, Jasper. But I'm telling you now, I won't allow you to hurt Isabella Swan."

We stared at each other - not glaring, but measuring the opposition. I felt him sample the mood around me, testing my determination.

"Jazz," Alice said, interrupting us.

He held my gaze for a moment more, and then looked at her. "Don't bother telling me you can protect yourself, Alice. I already know that. I've still got to - " "That's not what I'm going say," Alice interrupted. "I was going to ask you for a favor."

I saw what was on her mind, and my mouth fell open with an audible gasp. I stared at her, shocked, only vaguely aware that everyone besides Alice and Jasper was now eyeing me warily.

"I know you love me. Thanks. But I would really appreciate it if you didn't try to kill Bella. First of all, Edward's serious and I don't want you two fighting. Secondly, she's my friend. At least, she's going to be."

It was clear as glass in her head: Alice, smiling, with her icy white arm around the girl's warm, fragile shoulders. And Bella was smiling, too, her arm around Alice's waist. The vision was rock solid; only the timing of it was unsure.

"But...Alice..." Jasper gasped. I couldn't manage to turn my head to see his expression. I couldn't tear myself away from the image in Alice's head in order to hear his.

"I'm going to love her someday, Jazz. I'll be very put out with you if you don't let her be."

I was still locked into Alice's thoughts. I saw the future shimmer as Jasper's resolve floundered in the face of her unexpected request.

"Ah," she sighed - his indecision had cleared a new future. "See? Bella's not going to say anything. There's nothing to worry about."

The way she said the girl's name...like they were already close confidants... "Alice," I choked. "What...does this...?"

"I told you there was a change coming. I don't know, Edward." But she locked her jaw, and I could see that there was more. She was trying not to think about it; she was focusing very hard on Jasper suddenly, though he was too stunned to have progressed much in his decision making.

She did this sometimes when she was trying to keep something from me. "What, Alice? What are you hiding?"

I heard Emmett grumble. He always got frustrated when Alice and I had these kinds of conversations.

She shook her head, trying to not let me in.

"Is it about the girl?" I demanded. "Is it about Bella?"

She had her teeth gritted in concentration, but when I spoke Bella's name, she slipped. Her slip only lasted the tiniest portion of a second, but that was long enough. "NO!" I shouted. I heard my chair hit the floor, and only then realized I was on my feet.

"Edward!" Carlisle was on his feet, too, his arm on my shoulder. I was barely aware of him.

"It's solidifying," Alice whispered. "Every minute you're more decided.

There're really only two ways left for her. It's one or the other, Edward." I could see what she saw...but I could not accept it.

"No," I said again; there was no volume to my denial. My legs felt hollow, and I had to brace myself against the table.

"Will somebody please let the rest of us in on the mystery?" Emmett complained. "I have to leave," I whispered to Alice, ignoring him.

"Edward, we've already been over that," Emmett said loudly. "That's the best way to start the girl talking. Besides, if you take off, we won't know for sure if she's talking or not. You have to stay and deal with this."

"I don't see you going anywhere, Edward," Alice told me. "I don't know if you can leave anymore." Think about it, she added silently. Think about leaving.

I saw what she meant. Yes, the idea of never seeing the girl again was...painful.

But it was also necessary. I couldn't sanction either future I'd apparently condemned her to.

I'm not entirely sure of Jasper, Edward, Alice went on. If you leave, if he thinks she's a danger to us...

"I don't hear that," I contradicted her, still only halfway aware of our audience. Jasper was wavering. He would not do something that would hurt Alice.

Not right this moment. Will you risk her life, leave her undefended? "Why are you doing this to me?" I groaned. My head fell into my hands. I was not Bella's protector. I could not be that. Wasn't Alice's divided future enough proof of that?

I love her, too. Or I will. It's not the same, but I want her around for that. "Love her, too?" I whispered, incredulous.

She sighed. You are so blind, Edward. Can't you see where you're headed?

Can't you see where you already are? It's more inevitable than the sun rising in the east. See what I see...

I shook my head, horrified. "No." I tried to shut out the visions she revealed to me. "I don't have to follow that course. I'll leave. I will change the future." "You can try," she said, her voice skeptical.

"Oh, come on!" Emmett bellowed.

"Pay attention," Rose hissed at him. "Alice sees him falling for a human! How classically Edward!" She made a gagging sound.

I scarcely heard her.

"What?" Emmett said, startled. Then his booming laugh echoed through the room. "Is that what's been going on?" He laughed again. "Tough break, Edward."

I felt his hand on my shoulder, and I shook it off absently. I couldn't pay attention to him.

"Fall for a human?" Esme repeated in a stunned voice. "For the girl he saved today? Fall in love with her?"

"What do you see, Alice? Exactly," Jasper demanded.

She turned toward him; I continued to stare numbly at the side of her face.

"It all depends on whether he is strong enough or not. Either he'll kill her himself" - she turned to meet my gaze again, glaring - "which would really irritate me, Edward, not to mention what it would do to you - " she faced Jasper again, "or she'll be one of us someday."

Someone gasped; I didn't look to see who.

"That's not going to happen!" I was shouting again. "Either one!"

Alice didn't seem to hear me. "It all depends," she repeated. "He may be just strong enough not to kill her - but it will be close. It will take an amazing amount of control," she mused. "More even than Carlisle has. He may be just strong enough...

The only thing he's not strong enough to do is stay away from her. That's a lost cause." I couldn't find my voice. No one else seemed to be able to either. The room was still.

I stared at Alice, and everyone else stared at me. I could see my own horrified expression from five different viewpoints.

After a long moment, Carlisle sighed.

"Well, this...complicates things."

"I'll say," Emmett agreed. His voice was still close to laughter. Trust Emmett to find the joke in the destruction of my life.

"I suppose the plans remain the same, though," Carlisle said thoughtfully. "We'll stay, and watch. Obviously, no one will...hurt the girl."

I stiffened.

"No," Jasper said quietly. "I can agree to that. If Alice sees only two ways - "

"No!" My voice was not a shout or a growl or a cry of despair, but some combination of the three. "No!"

I had to leave, to be away from the noise of their thoughts - Rosalie's selfrighteous disgust, Emmett's humor, Carlisle's never ending patience...

Worse: Alice's confidence. Jasper's confidence in that confidence.

Worst of all: Esme's...joy.

I stalked out of the room. Esme touched my arm as I passed, but I didn't acknowledge the gesture.

I was running before I was out of the house. I cleared the river in one bound, and raced into the forest. The rain was back again, falling so heavily that I was drenched in a few moments. I liked the thick sheet of water - it made a wall between me and the rest of the world. It closed me in, let me be alone.

I ran due east, over and through the mountains without breaking my straight course, until I could see the lights of Seattle on the other side of the sound. I stopped before I touched the borders of human civilization.

Shut in by the rain, all alone, I finally made myself look at what I had done - at the way I had mutilated the future.

First, the vision of Alice and the girl with their arms around each other - the trust and friendship was so obvious it shouted from the image. Bella's wide chocolate eyes were not bewildered in this vision, but still full of secrets - in this moment, they seemed to be happy secrets. She did not flinch away from Alice's cold arm.

What did it mean? How much did she know? In that still-life moment from the future, what did she think of me?

Then the other image, so much the same, yet now colored by horror. Alice and Bella, their arms still wrapped around each other in trusting friendship. But now there was no difference between those arms - both were white, smooth as marble, hard as steel. Bella's wide eyes were no longer chocolate. The irises were a shocking, vivid crimson. The secrets in them were unfathomable - acceptance or desolation? It was impossible to tell. Her face was cold and immortal.

I shuddered. I could not suppress the questions, similar, but different: What did it mean - how had this come about? And what did she think of me now?

I could answer that last one. If I forced her into this empty half-life through my weakness and selfishness, surely she would hate me.

But there was one more horrifying image - worse than any image I'd ever held inside my head.

My own eyes, deep crimson with human blood, the eyes of the monster. Bella's broken body in my arms, ashy white, drained, lifeless. It was so concrete, so clear. I couldn't stand to see this. Could not bear it. I tried to banish it from my mind, tried to see something else, anything else. Tried to see again the expression on her living face that had obstructed my view for the last chapter of my existence. All to no avail. Alice's bleak vision filled my head, and I writhed internally with the agony it caused. Meanwhile, the monster in me was overflowing with glee, jubilant at the likelihood of his success. It sickened me.

This could not be allowed. There had to be a way to circumvent the future. I would not let Alice's visions direct me. I could choose a different path. There was always a choice.

There had to be.

 

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