18. The Greatest of These

As far as I could remember, I had never particularly cared for nature as a child. Chicago was big, noisy, and exciting. I had liked the Christmas displays on Michigan Avenue, the alleyways, the cars. But the outdoors were a part of my being now in a way they never had been in my human life. The forest floor felt like the thickest carpet when I ran across it, and patterns of trees and underbrush that would befuddle a human hiker, were as clear to me as street signs.

Forks was nestled within the Olympic National Forest and boasted some of the oldest growth trees in the continental United States. Purportedly one could see the outline of the National Park from space, so visible were the protected old-growth trees that grew within it. Our home here was within mere miles of the mountain range—close enough that even a human could hike there without difficulty, and just a stroll away for us. It was probably the most beautiful place we’d ever settled, and it would forever have special meaning to me. It would always be the place where I finally found love.

Bella’s breath whooshed against my neck as I ran, a comforting pulse that seemed to replace the one I no longer had. It gave me something to focus on, instead of the anxiety gnawing at the pit of my stomach. I didn’t want to think about why we were running toward my home, and so I focused on the steady rhythm of ingress and egress, the expansion of the delicate ribcage against my back, the brush of warm air against my skin. As we drew nearer to the house, her breath became her warm lips, nestling a kiss deep into the join of my neck and shoulder.

It was all I could do not to throw her to the ground and begin kissing her at once. “Thank you,” I said coolly. “Does that mean you’ve decided you’re awake?”

She laughed. The sound was musical, perfect, but all too short, and left me aching. “Not really,” she said. “More that, either way, I’m not trying to wake up. Not tonight.”

I might have laughed had it not been so painful an ordeal to get here in the first place.

When Bella had awoken, it had taken me a good ten minutes to even convince her that she wasn’t having a hallucination. I found that, annoying as it was, I had missed her obstinacy. Although even I had to admit, were it not the fact that I was completely unable to sleep, I might have doubted the existence of the warm skin and beating heart that were now pressed to my back.

It was fair for her to doubt me. I deserved it. After what I had told her—it only made sense that she would believe that I loathed her. I wished now that it were different, that I had chosen some other way.

But it was a deed I would never undo. That she could still doubt my love, even riding on my back once again toward the house where we had spent such a happy summer, was unbearable.

In her bedroom, a few hours earlier, she had asked of my motivations, and it had been the utterance of a single phrase that had brought me to pieces. I had told her that I had gone to the Volturi because she was dead, assuming she would see at once that without her, my world was filled with a sucking black void, inescapable, ready to consume me and all the joy around me.

Her response had been horrifyingly nonchalant: “So what if I was dead?”

She might just as easily have shoved a broadsword through my middle. For a moment, the image from the Italian piazza flooded my memory—Bella’s body, broken, bleeding, fading away as I tried to touch it. The air was suddenly thinner. The very idea of her dead, now that I had truly confronted the possibility—it made me shudder. But her words brought back another memory as well—six months and one week ago, when that awful expression had crossed her face in the woods behind the little white house where we both now lay. “I don’t want you to come with me….You’re not good for me….It will be as if I’d never existed.” The words clawed at me now, threatening to rip me apart from the inside as they had in Ithaca, in San Francisco, in New Orleans, in Brazil. She had believed me then, and she still believed the lie now.

“Don’t you remember anything I told you before?” My voice sounded funny, high. Pleading, like a little boy’s.

“I remember everything that you told me.”

I didn’t miss her emphasis. With a single finger, I reached out and traced the line of her lower lip. To my pleasure, she did not recoil, and so I went on. “Bella, you seem to be under a misapprehension. I thought I’d explained it clearly before. I can’t live in a world where you don’t exist.”

It was Aro’s voice this time that came to my ears. “And so you wish to be destroyed.” Of course I did. There was no world for me without this brown-haired woman in it.

Bella’s answer was halting. “I am…confused.”

“I’m a good liar, Bella. I have to be.”

I realized at once it was the wrong thing to say. Her whole body seized as though she was expecting me to hit her, and her eyes darted toward the window. Unthinkingly, my hand shot to her shoulder, shaking it. “Let me finish!” At least if she heard me out before she told me she never wanted to see my face again, I could leave knowing for certain that I would not be granted her forgiveness for this most heinous of my sins. “I’m a good liar,” I continued, “but still, for you to believe me so quickly, that was”—like being knifed into small pieces—“excruciating. When we were in the forest, when I was telling you goodbye, you weren’t going to let go. I could see that. I didn’t want to do it—it felt like it would kill me to do it—but I knew that if I couldn’t convince you that I didn’t love you anymore, it would just take you that much longer to get on with your life. I hoped that, if you thought I’d moved on, so would you.”

“A clean break,” she whispered, and I winced as my words returned to haunt me from her lips. A clean break, to let her move on even while I remained stagnate as ever, gradually losing my ability to reason and function. I told her the lie so that she would be so gloriously human and forget me, leave me behind in the dust where I’d always belonged. But that she’d believed it so quickly, and for so long!

“Exactly,” I said quietly. “But I never imagined it would be so easy to do. I thought it would be next to impossible—that you would be so sure of the truth that I would have to lie through my teeth for hours to even plant the seed of doubt in your head.

“I lied. I lied, and I’m so sorry—sorry because I hurt you, sorry because it was a worthless effort. Sorry that I couldn’t protect you from what I am. I lied to save you, and it didn’t work. I’m sorry!”

My breath shook as I remembered her confused, hurt face. “You … don’t … want … me?” she’d said, and the words stung just as hard now as they had six months ago. I had to tell her the truth, to make her understand it for herself before I left once more; I had to at least see if she could forgive me. The words were out of my own mouth before I could stop them, fast, rapid, the cry of a desperate man.

“But how could you believe me? After all the thousand times I’ve told you I love you, how could you let one word break your faith in me? I could see it in your eyes, that you honestly believed that I didn’t want you anymore. The most absurd, ridiculous concept—as if there were any way that I could exist without needing you!” My hand went to her shoulder again. “Bella, really, what were you thinking?!”

To my horror, she began to cry. Tears welled in her eyes and spilled down over her cheeks, leaving tracks through the thin layer of sweat and oil that had accumulated as she’d slept. I felt my own body seize again, readying itself to move as soon as she told me to get out. If she wanted me gone, then I would go—where, I didn’t know, but I would disappear to the ends of the Earth if she commanded it. When I saw her lips part, I winced in anticipation of her words.

“I knew it,” she sobbed. “I knew I was dreaming.”

Were it not so gravely important, her obstinacy might have been funny. “You’re impossible. How can I put this so that you’ll believe me? You’re not asleep, and you’re not dead. I’m here, and I love you. I have always loved you, and I will always love you. I was thinking of you, seeing your face in my mind, every second that I was away.” It sounded so simple in my head, so irrefutable, so empirical. “When I told you that I didn’t want you, it was the very blackest kind of blasphemy.”

The tears continued to fall, racing down her cheek and dripping onto the bedclothes in dark splotches. She was still cringing away from me, her body tense as she looked up into my eyes with utter disbelief.

“You don’t believe me, do you?” I whispered. “Why can you believe the lie, but not the truth?” For so long I had told her again and again that she was my salvation, my rescue from ninety years of despair, the very center of my bleak existence. And yet one lie had broken that between us forever, because it was the lie that would linger, instead of the truth.

I was never going to make this right.

“It never made sense for you to love me,” she said matter-of-factly. “I always knew that.”

I blinked and felt my face tighten. Of course, Bella wouldn’t see it that way. How many times had we talked last spring, over the summer, into the early fall, when she continually told me how unworthy of my love she was? She had never understood.

There was, of course, the possibility that she never would.

I didn’t know what to say any longer. If she wouldn’t believe my words, what would she believe? I had already apologized; I had already explained. And still, she wasn’t budging, obstinately refusing to believe my presence and my contrition both.

I needed a plan B. And I needed it now.

My hands were on the sides of her face before I’d really thought to put them there. “I’ll prove you’re awake.” At least that will be something.

She struggled. For a second, my hands lingered there before my heart registered what my fingertips were telling it. I could almost feel it beginning to fall to pieces before Bella gave it the final tap:

“Please don’t.”

I froze. It had been less than a day since I had uttered that exact word—not to Bella, but to Carlisle, as his thoughts had turned to my safety in the baggage claim at SeaTac. Don’t. Don’t move forward, don’t comfort me, don’t welcome me. The ache of having almost lost Bella was still cutting me wide open, and I wasn’t ready for anything Carlisle had to offer. And now here were my own words, back to haunt me, digging the same deep hole in my heart that I knew they had dug in my father’s. Please don’t.

“Why not?”

“When I wake up”—I just barely moved to answer when she corrected herself—“okay, forget that one—when you leave again, it’s going to be hard enough without this, too.”

The flight home came back to me at once. Stroking her arms, her face, her shoulders. She’d flinched each time I even came near—not so much that a human would notice, probably not enough that she noticed, but I’d seen it nevertheless.

I sat back a little. “Yesterday, when I would touch you, you were so hesitant, so careful, and yet, still the same. I need to know why.”

But that way was barred. Please don’t.

“Is it because I’m too late? Because I’ve hurt you too much? Because you have moved on, as I meant for you to? That would be”—the worst kind of pain imaginable; the end of my world—“quite fair.” I gulped. “I won’t contest your decision. So don’t try to spare my feelings, please—just tell me now, whether or not you can still love me, after everything I’ve done to you. Can you?”

She frowned at me, and for a moment, time stopped as I awaited her response. Again, I studied the features I had missed—the subtle curve of her cheekbones, the slight irregularity of the shape of her nose, the dusting of freckles she insisted didn’t exist. Her face had taken on a ghastly cast in the green glow of her alarm clock—she looked ill. It would make sense if she were, after all I’d put her through. I waited, tense, for the answer I expected. Of course it was too much. How dare you do this to me? I don’t ever want to see you again. After what seemed a decade had passed, her lips moved.

“What kind of an idiotic question is that?”

Come again? For the second time in only a handful of minutes, I found myself unsure of my footing. I ask the gravest of questions, and she calls it “idiotic?”

“Just answer it. Please?” Or I might explode.

Another long moment stretched as her heart thrummed and the alarm clock whirred. I didn’t move, afraid that somehow, the slightest motion would set her off, cause her to answer this question differently than she otherwise might. I couldn’t risk it.

She was still frowning. “The way I feel about you will never change. Of course I love you—and there’s nothing you can do about it!”

There weren’t gods enough to thank. The words barely got out of my mouth—“That’s all I needed to hear”—before my lips were on hers. My body remembered her as easily as my mind did—it shaped itself to her, knowing without any conscious thought on my part exactly how much was too much, exactly when and where it could exert no more pressure. Her fingers searched the planes of my face hungrily, and mine did the same to hers. Her name sounded again and again in the stillness, and it took me a few iterations to recognize the whispers were coming from me.

Finally she pulled away, and I took that as my cue. I slid down her chest and laid my head against her breast, my ear pressed to her skin. I was at once calmed by the familiar sound of her too-enticing blood as it rushed from atria into ventricles, accompanied by the rhythmic closing first of mitral and tricuspid, then aortic and pulmonary valves, each moving in perfect synchrony with the others. For a moment I had lost myself once more in the gentle pulse I had been certain I would never hear again.

“By the way,” I had told the darkness. “I’m not leaving you.” For as long as this heart would beat for me, I would stay glued to it.

That heart beat against my back now as we ran, as though somehow my exertion caused her to be short of breath. I felt its every pulse, my skin sensitive enough to detect the motion of the individual muscles beneath her breast. Listening to it made me calm and anxious at once, for I knew that despite its nearness, I had yet to win it back.

“I’ll earn your trust back, somehow,” I muttered, my feet slowing as I saw the faint light of my home in the distance. “If it’s my final act.”

“I trust you,” Bella said, her breath caressing my neck and chin once more. “It’s me I don’t trust.”

Trust herself about what? I frowned. “Explain that, please.”

“Well,” she began, and it was an agonizing few seconds before she continued. “I don’t trust myself to be…enough. To deserve you. There’s nothing about me that could hold you.”

Nothing that could hold me? I blinked in the darkness. I could never give this up again. Her hold on me was so strong, I could scarcely survive in her absence. Slowing to a stop, I pulled her from her from my back and against my breastbone in a single motion. I missed this—the feel of her body against my own. I would never voluntarily give it up again.

“Your hold is permanent and unbreakable,” I whispered to her. “Never doubt that.” But of course, she would.

Because of me.

“You never did tell me…” I began, but stopped myself. Perhaps it was something she wished to keep, although I burned to know the answer to the question I had asked her just a short while before.

“What?”

“What your greatest problem is,” I said quietly, finishing the sentence I’d begun. The Volturi. Then Victoria. Then the werewolves. I remembered so clearly the order in which Bella ranked the evils which faced her, when we had been alone in the bedroom.

“I’ve got bigger problems than Victoria,” she’d told me, and when I’d pressed, she had revealed only that she considered the Italian brothers above Victoria. It only made sense that Bella, who had never fully understood the dangers of our kind, would rank someone who was actively trying to make sure her life ended behind the threat of the men in Italy who probably wouldn’t recall her promise for at least a decade.

But she still hadn’t told me what she considered her biggest threat to be. I had to know, but I wasn’t all that sure I wanted to.

She sighed, her eyes searching mine in the darkness, but said nothing, her heart hammering. I was almost going to beg when after a long moment, her finger reached up to stroke the tip of my nose. “I’ll give you one guess.”

My gut twisted, but I found myself nodding. It was deserved. “I’m worse than the Volturi. I guess I’ve earned that,” I said, and my voice cracked as I steeled myself for her inevitable response.

To my surprise, she didn’t begin yelling. “The worst the Volturi can do is kill me,” she answered quietly. I stared at her, puzzled. I wouldn’t kill her—I wouldn’t put her in danger. Hadn’t that been the whole point? She took a moment to study my expression and then added, “You can leave me. The Volturi, Victoria…they’re nothing compared to that.”

Once again the monster returned, rending my insides as though they were the softest butter. It took all I had to keep myself standing upright. The pain must have registered on my face because Bella’s hand shot out, the warm pads of her fingers caressing my cheekbones.

“Don’t,” she whispered. “Don’t be sad.”

How could I not be sad? Every moment we spent together, my despair grew. I would never convince her that I would stay at her side forever, now. You made a grave mistake, Edward, the voice told me. She’s right not to trust you.

But I wanted it, nevertheless. “If there was only some way to make you see that I can’t leave you,” I whispered, and my voice sounded hard, frustrated. “Time, I suppose, will be the only way to convince you.”

A brief flicker of hope passed her face. “Okay.”

We continued on for a few moments, the warm glow of the light from the house growing brighter, although we were still too far out for Bella’s weak human eyes to see it.

“So,” she said after several minutes, “since you’re staying, can I have my stuff back?”

Her things. It figured—she had probably never even gone looking for them. I chuckled, remembering how easily the worn floorboards in her bedroom had pried upward under my fingertips. “Your things were never gone,” I explained. “I knew it was wrong, since I promised you peace without reminders. It was stupid and childish, but I wanted to leave something of myself with you. The CD, the pictures, the tickets—they’re all under your floorboards.”

Bella’s face absolutely lit up, her lips turning upward in an expression of sheer joy. “Really?” I found myself smiling.

She studied my face for a long moment, and I wondered how much of my expression she could see in the darkness. Finally, she spoke.

“I think…I’m not sure, but I wonder…I think maybe I knew it the whole time.”

Knew what? “What did you know?”

“Some part of me, my subconscious maybe, never stopped believing that you still cared whether I lived or died. That’s probably why I was hearing the voices.”

What? “Voices?”

“Well, just one voice,” she said quickly. “Yours. It’s a long story.” Her eyes darted back and forth, as though I were pressing for something she didn’t wish to reveal.

“I’ve got time,” I answered evenly.

“It’s pretty pathetic.”

I raised my eyebrows.

“Do you remember what Alice said about extreme sports?”

In summary, she did jump off a cliff, but she wasn’t trying to kill herself,” my sister’s voice said. “Bella’s all about the extreme sports these days.”

My voice was flat. “You jumped off a cliff for fun.”

She looked uncomfortable. “Er, right. And before that, with the motorcycle—”

“Motorcycle?” I had never before seen Bella on even a bicycle, and had long since chalked this up to her general lack of balance. To think of her on two wheels that were powered not by her feet, but by an engine—I shuddered.

“I guess I didn’t tell Alice about that part.”

“No.”

Her bottom lip curled itself under her top teeth as she shot me another look of discomfort. “Well, about that,” she hemmed. “See, I found that…when I was doing something dangerous or stupid…I…could remember you more clearly.”

My jaw dropped. She kept talking, but her voice became a dull buzz as my midsection tried valiantly to rip itself in two. Not only had I left her in pain, not only had I dragged her into being hunted by one of the most vicious of my kind, but I had driven her to a madness where she’d played with fire in order to fantasize about my voice?

She had stopped talking, now, and was gazing expectantly up at me. I opened my lips, but for a moment, no sound came out. When it did, it was strained and high.

“You…were…risking your life…to hear—”

“Shh,” she interrupted me. “Hold on a second. I think I’m having an epiphany here.”

Bella said nothing, gazing up into my face intently. Her eyes seemed to be studying mine, as though she might figure out some deep truth of the universe by staring into their blackness. I braced myself.

You’re not worth it, Edward.

How could you do this to me?

Do you realize how much danger I’ve been in because of you?

And of course I did. I knew all of this. She had never known how dangerous for her my attraction was—she had not been inside my head that day in Biology when one instant of lost control might have resulted in her gory death. The dynamic had never changed. Perhaps now she finally recognized it for what it truly was.

I hung my head, waiting for her outburst.

“Oh!” she cried, jumping back a little as though my movement had startled her.

“Bella?” My hand shot out automatically to steady her shoulder.

She took a breath, still looking puzzled. “Oh. Okay. I see,” she said, her voice strangely distant.

“Your epiphany?”

For a long moment, she said nothing. Her brow was still furrowed, her eyes still darting back and forth as they studied mine. The intake of breath drew strands of her hair toward her face, and her shoulders rose as she prepared to speak.

“You love me,” she said at last.

A smile found its way to my face, even as I struggled to reconcile the words she had just spoken with the ones I had expected. Not “go away” or “you’ve hurt me,” but three words which right now carried far more weight than they would if they were turned the other way. Because this was what I worried she might never see again. This was what I should have shattered; this was the trust that should have fallen the moment those terrible lies had fallen from my lips.

But Bella, my Bella, the owner of my heart, saw fit to see past the lie. To accept the apology that I was trying to give with every breath and motion. It was more, so much more, than I could ever deserve. And I would spend the rest of my eternal life proving to her that it was an absolution that was not misplaced.

You love me.

“Truly, I do,” I answered, and pressed her lips to mine.

It was a little strange to see lights blazing in our home. Carlisle was the only one who turned on lights out of habit, both due to the necessities of passing easily among humans at work, and because even after well over a century, he was still a little fascinated by the omnipresence of electricity. One afternoon a few years ago, I’d caught him huddled over the desk in his study, rolling a compact fluorescent bulb back and forth between his fingers as his mind waded slowly through vignettes of a life lived mostly by candlelight.

My father sat now just off to the side of his usual place at the head of the table, light playing across his face from the chandelier that he had turned on only for Bella’s benefit. Carlisle was not a leader who demanded his authority—the head of the table was his place by our deference, not his insistence, and he had ceded the position to Bella at once when she’d announced her plans. It wasn’t often that we used the table for anything more than the occasional chess game or to spread out one of Esme’s jigsaw puzzles. In fact, the last time I could remember that we had all gathered here had been the afternoon that I had saved Bella from Tyler Crowley’s van.

The irony that we were once again assembled for the purpose of democratically debating her death did not escape me.

I had mistakenly thought that we were making progress there in the darkness of her bedroom. She had finally allowed me to kiss her—it seemed we were making up for lost ground, and lost time. And then I had stupidly mentioned thirty.

To Bella, who thought nineteen was tantamount to senior citizenship, thirty was unbearable.

When she’d pushed my arms away, for a moment my whole being had broken, waiting for her to tell me that she couldn’t love me if I wasn’t willing to put her body and soul to death. But she hadn’t. She’d resolutely gathered her things…and invited me along.

“You’re extremely opinionated,” she had said, “and I’m sure you’ll want a change to air your views.”

I’d asked her on what.

“My mortality,” she’d said, as coolly as though she was asking about which ice cream flavor she planned to order. “I’m putting it to a vote.”

And so now here we were, at the long mahogany table. The Cullen Family Conference Room. My siblings and my parents had filled in their usual places around the table, each with his or her mate. Esme’s delicate thumb traced circles over the back of Carlisle’s hand. Jasper’s hand rested on his wife’s jiggling knee. Emmett and Rosalie simply looked perplexed, although I saw Rosalie give Bella a tentative smile.

Bella’s heart hammered. I couldn’t blame her. I was a little on edge myself.

Edward looks pained, came Carlisle’s thoughts. I wonder if I ought to offer to talk through this privately with them.

Slowly, I shook my head just enough so that he would see it. He acknowledged me with a gentle gaze, shifting his weight more deeply into his chair. For the first time, the table was full—the eighth chair which usually sat empty was now occupied, and Carlisle now nodded to Bella where she sat at my side.

“The floor is yours,” he said.

Bella gulped, and instinctively, I slid my hand into hers. Her palm against mine felt like fire. It had taken me months to get used to the heat of her body the first time, and I was strangely happy to find that it would take time for me to readjust.

She didn’t pull it away, and for that I was deeply grateful.

“Well,” she began. “I’m hoping Alice has already told you everything that happened in Volterra?”

“Everything,” answered my sister, and I closed my eyes as the onslaught of images poured from my family members’ minds. Alice’s, of course, were simply memories, but the remainder ranged from Emmett’s apparent fantasy that I had taken on the entire Volturi guard single-handedly to Carlisle’s disturbingly accurate envisioning of Felix’s hands on either side of my head as he prepared to wrench it from my body.

Bella’s palm became slick in my grasp. “And on the way?”

“That, too.” Alice shot me a meaningful glance, replaying our time together on the trip home. Although I had seen her conversation with Bella when Aro had seen it in her memories, she had taken the time on the plane to discuss it with me in her mind. I had seen how Bella had remembered right away who was in Italy, and what it portended for my future.

And I had seen Alice make the decision that meant that I had one strike against me before I even began.

“Good,” Bella said. “Then we’re all on the same page.”

For a moment there was silence, and I heard the question on all my family members’ minds. Only Alice knew what Bella was about to ask, and she apparently hadn’t told a soul.

“So, I have a problem. Alice promised the Volturi that I would become one of you.” Around the table, heads nodded. This part of the story had been shared.

“They’re going to send someone to check,” Bella went on, “and I’m sure that’s a bad thing—something to avoid. And so now, this involves you all. I’m sorry about that. But if you don’t want me, then I’m not going to force myself on you, whether Alice is willing or not.”

My daughter, I heard my mother think, and I saw her mouth move before Bella’s single finger lifted to shush her.

“Please, let me finish. You all know what I want. And I’m sure you know what Edward thinks, too.” I winced as my family members’ various assessments of my melancholy flew at me from around the table. Bella, thankfully, cut them off at the pass. “I think the only fair way to decide is for everyone to have a vote. If you decide you don’t want me, then…I guess I’ll go back to Italy alone. I can’t have them coming here.

A growl rose unbidden from my chest. Bella returning to Italy was entirely unacceptable.

“Taking into account then, that I won’t put any of you in danger either way, I want you to vote yes or no on the issue of me becoming a vampire.” Bella’s pale hand gestured casually toward Carlisle.

Becoming a vampire? Rose’s thoughts reached me first, and I saw her wrinkled nose. Beside her, her husband grinned. It’s about time at least one of them grew a pair.

I shot him a withering look. “Just a minute,” I said calmly. My words were met by a dark glare from Bella, and I squeezed her hand even more tightly. “I have something to add before we vote. About the danger Bella’s referring to” —she sighed aloud—“I don’t think we need to be overly anxious.”

The fear grabbed hold of me once more as though it were this instant that I saw Jane turn her terrible crimson eyes on the woman who was my only reason for being. I felt again the rising panic, and again its slow ebb as I realized Bella’s mind was no more penetrable by Jane than it was by me. “You see,” I said slowly, “there was more than one reason why I didn’t want to shake Aro’s hand there at the end. There’s something they didn’t think of, and I didn’t want to clue them in.”

“Which was?” prompted Alice, as she thought back to the dark room, of her vision of her hand against Aro’s, of Jasper’s face finally becoming a clear, certain outcome. Her brow furrowed. He didn’t tell me that he didn’t want to touch Aro’s hand…

I took a deep breath and pressed my free hand more firmly into the table, drawing an almost immediate glare from Esme as she saw my arm muscles tense. This table was handcrafted, Edward Anthony, she thought. Don’t you dare.

My hand relaxed seemingly of its own accord. “The Volturi are overconfident, and with good reason,” I went on, my voice sounding surprisingly calm. “When they decide to find someone, it’s not really a problem. Do you remember Demetri?” Bella’s shoulders trembled slightly, and I took her response as a yes. Carlisle, however, flashed quickly through his memories of the entire guard and came up blank. Apparently Demetri had been a more recent acquisition.

“He finds people,” I explained. “That’s his talent, why they keep him. Now, the whole time we were with any of them, I was picking their brains for anything that might save us, getting as much information as possible. So I saw how Demetri’s talent works. He’s a tracker—a tracker a thousand times more gifted than James was. His ability is loosely related to what I do, or what Aro does. He catches the”—what was the right word for this—“flavor? I don’t know how to describe it. The tenor of someone’s mind. And he follows that. It works over immense distances. But after Aro’s little experiments, well…” I shrugged.

Bella’s response was without emotion. “You think he won’t be able to find me.”

“I’m sure of it. He relies totally on that other sense. When it doesn’t work with you, they’ll all be blind.”

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a wide grin spread across Emmett’s face. Niiiice.

“And how does that solve anything?” Bella’s voice was smug.

Because just like we had on their turf, we would outsmart them on ours. “Quite obviously, Alice will be able to tell when they’re planning a visit, and I’ll hide you. They’ll be helpless. It will be like looking for a piece of straw in a haystack.”

I love it, little bro. Emmett grinned at me.

“But they can find you,” Bella replied, her voiced frustrated.

“And I can take care of myself.”

Carlisle and Esme frowned. On infrequent, but not entirely rare occasions, my parents would think as one, so in tune to each other they were. Both responded to my statement that I could take care of myself with identical images: first, me, black-eyed and unmoving as I huddled at the bottom of the staircase in the house in Ithaca; second, me emerging from the arrivals hallway at SeaTac, my hair disheveled, my clothes rumpled, and deep, exhausted circles under my eyes. I hadn’t realized I had looked that bad. No wonder they were so worried.

I pretended I hadn’t heard them, instead turning my attention to Emmett, whose hand was outstretched in a fist. “Excellent plan, my brother,” he said, grinning.

Nodding, I put my out own fist and tapped it to his.

“No,” hissed Rosalie.

“Absolutely not,” Bella added.

“Nice.” Jasper grinned.

“Idiots.” Alice glared at me. Of course you’d figure out a way to get the entire family killed, now that we’re all with you again.

But it was Esme’s shocked glare which stopped me cold. She didn’t think anything directly to me; no orders, no commands. Instead her whole being flooded with the emotions of just a day ago, and my own body was wrenched with the pain of a mother who thought she had lost more than half of her children.

My head hung at once.

Beside me, Bella straightened her posture. “All right then,” she said. “Edward has offered an alternative for you to consider. Let’s vote.”

Her gaze shifted to me.

Like she doesn’t know what he’s going to say, came Emmett’s thought.

But I understood her strategy at once—if she got my vote out of the way, she could focus on the yes votes—Esme, Alice…and who else, I wondered.

“Do you want me to join your family?”

Of course, I wanted to answer. I wanted her in my family. I wanted her with me for as long as forever would be. I wanted her to wake in my arms and look on my face every morning. For as long as I might be privileged to it, I wanted to see that sleepy smile as she recognized that she’d spent the night with me. And I wanted my world to end when hers did. I wanted her; I wanted all of her, gloriously human.

With her soul intact.

“Not that way,” I answered, my words hissing through my teeth. “You’re staying human.”

Edward 1, Bella 0. Bet that table is about to turn.

I shot Emmett a withering look. In doing so, I nearly missed the split moment of Bella’s face falling with hurt. Again. I squeezed my eyes closed, and when I opened them, the soldierly expression had once again taken over her face.

She turned to my sister. “Alice?”

Bella’s image appeared, her arms pale, her eyes crimson, the two of them laughing together—and Alice’s unmitigated joy. My own mind went back to that day over a year ago, when we had been gathered around this table, deciding Bella’s fate. “I love her, too,” came my sister’s voice in my memory.

I couldn’t meet Alice’s eyes as her clear voice said, “Yes.”

Bella went straight on, not acknowledging the new score. Emmett, however, did. 1-1, brother.

“Jasper?”

It took only a split second for my taciturn brother to flood me with two emotions—one, the depths of grief, the sucking emptiness he had felt rolling off me in waves as he stared at me at the foot of the stairs in the house in Ithaca. The other was an incalculable joy—me, sitting at the piano, playing for Bella as she sat on the bench, her hip to mine, her eyes transfixed on my hands as they moved over the keys. His eyes met mine for a brief moment. I want your happiness, Edward. You don’t see you the way I do.

My gaze fell, and I heard his vote before his voice spoke it: “Yes.”

“Rosalie?”

Rosalie’s brow was pulled taut. She looked from me to Bella again, and for a moment, Emmett appeared in her mind, kissing her, making her laugh. He was quickly replaced, however, by Carlisle, a sad expression on his face as he easily deflected the large end table that she had just hurled at him. “I hate you!” her voice screamed in her memory. “I hate you, and I hate this!” The table shattered into hundreds of pieces, Rosalie shrieked in anger, and the memory disappeared.

“No,” she said quietly.

Again, for a length of time almost impossible for a human to measure, Bella’s face dropped. She recovered it with speed and turned toward Emmett, but Rosalie stopped her, holding out both her hands.

“Let me explain. I don’t mean that I have any aversion to you as a sister. It’s just that…this is not the life I would have chosen for myself.” Another image—Rosalie, doubled over in the woods, Esme gently rubbing her back as her body shook with angry, tearless sobs. Nearby lay the desiccated carcass of a wolf…

Her voice was almost infinitesimally quieter when she added, “I wish there had been someone there to vote no for me.”

Had I not had almost a century of conditioning, I might not have heard the tiny sound my father’s Adam’s apple made as it shifted downward. Without moving my eyes from Rosalie, I listened to Carlisle for a moment.

Selfish…it was selfish. The real waste has been letting her hurt for this long. The choices I’ve stolen from them all…

For a moment I saw the rest of the table through Carlisle’s eyes, as he studied Alice’s calm smile, Jasper’s hand laid over his wife’s, Rosalie’s firm frown, and Emmett’s…

“Hell yes!” my brother called, startling me out of Carlisle’s head. “We can find some other way to pick a fight with this Demetri.” Bring him on, bro.

I winced, and missed Bella’s turn to face Esme.

“Yes, of course, Bella,” my mother’s voice said softly. “I already think of you as part of my family.”

Bella murmured her thanks, and then set her eyes on Carlisle. He, however, was looking directly at me. In his mind I saw his teeth sinking into flesh—once, twice, three times, four. Me, then Esme, then Rosalie, then Emmett. And one more, except this was only his all-too-vivid imagination—the boy, the patient he had told me about a few hours before. Anthony.

I was stunned. He had planned to bite him?

The image shifted quickly to Carlisle at the boy’s bedside as his parents held his hands. My father, in his memory, stood by, his head bowed reverently as the boy’s heart thudded to its inevitable stop. He’d stopped himself, even though he had already thought through the escape, and the alibi. He’d stopped himself, not because he didn’t want to turn the boy, but because the boy didn’t want to be turned. It had not been my choice, or Esme’s, or Rosalie’s, Emmett’s, Jasper’s, or Alice’s, either, and ninety years later, he knew where he had misstepped.

His eyes shifted quickly over my shoulder, past the table and down the open hall to the kitchen. “He’s not the only one able to do it,” said the Bella in his head as she sat before him at the table. And I saw the line drawn in his mind. The ones for whom he might never be forgiven…and the one who, for the first time, would join this life by choice.

The light in the room seemed to dim for a moment. Was it possible for me to go unconscious? A growl began deep in the back of my throat.

“Edward,” my father began gently.

“No.” My breath was coming abnormally quickly, and it was as though the walls were inching inward on me.

“It’s the only way that makes sense. You’ve chosen not to live without her, and that”—a memory of him sobbing, his forehead pressed to a glass wall—“doesn’t leave me a choice.”

The wind rushed out of me, and my eyes darted away from the table toward the hallway. I need out of the room, and now. I threw down Bella’s hand and had only a split-second to register her shock before I’d shoved myself back from the table and found myself in the living room. Behind me, I heard Carlisle’s resigned voice: “I guess you know my vote.”

“Thanks,” came Bella’s distracted answer.

How dare he, I thought. Carlisle had stood the most resolute a year ago, when Rosalie and Jasper had been dead-set on ending Bella’s life. He had told me that he loved me, just hours ago, and now…this?

My breath was coming fast, and my body was beginning to shake as I gasped. I placed one hand on the wall to steady myself, but it didn’t help—the whole wall shuddered under the force of my trembling hand. My fingers unclenched from their fists and fumbled blindly for the first thing they could close themselves around.

The TV was in two before I fully realized I’d grabbed it.

I inhaled deeply and forced myself to stare at the now-bare studs and shredded wiring, the TV sparking feebly at my feet, still attached to the chunk of wallboard that had pulled away with it. I had been betrayed by nearly every member of family, save Rosalie. They were still talking, all of them, and their thoughts swarmed around me like a dull buzz. I heard Esme comforting Bella, and saw that she had put her arms around her. My mother was overjoyed by this turn of events.

It made me sick.

I was still trying to stop trembling when Bella’s voice rose again. “Well, Alice, where do you want to do this?”

Do this? Now? She wanted to be changed now? Was she out of her mind?

“No!” My voice was strangled with the first iteration, but it became stronger with each successive outburst as my legs carried me back into the dining room. “No, no, NO! Are you insane? Have you utterly lost your mind?”

I didn’t realize how close I’d come to shouting directly in Bella’s ears until she clapped her palms over them, cringing away.

You’re scoring big points there, Edward, came Alice’s sardonic thought. But she didn’t speak this aloud. “Um, Bella,” she said with a loving patience, “I don’t think I’m ready for that. I’ll need to prepare…”

Bella’s face fell. “You promised.”

“Over my dead body,” I hissed, dropping my pitch to one Bella couldn’t hear.

Alice gave me a hard look, and I saw my limbs as she had seen them in her vision, separated and burning. Edward, she thought sadly, it very nearly was.

Oh. Right.

Turning to Bella, she continued her counterargument. “I know,” she said patiently, “but seriously, Bella. I don’t have any idea how not to kill you.”

The hopeful look didn’t disappear from Bella’s eyes. “You can do it,” she said. “I trust you.”

I growled, and Alice backed down, shaking her head, but not missing the opportunity to throw her thoughts in my direction.

This is not because of you, just so you know.

“Carlisle?”

You couldn’t say that Bella wasn’t a quick thinker. In an instant I had her jaw in my hand, just barely remembering not to crush it. My father approached from behind me and I threw my hand out, growling.

Peace, Edward. This is unnecessary. Carlisle’s thoughts exuded calm, and I recognized the tone he always used when he thought I was in danger of flying off the handle. He was worried—both for Bella’s safety and for mine.

He was concerned he had hurt me.

“I’m able to do it,” he said, as his eyes darted anxiously to where my hand was clamped on Bella’s jaw. “You would be in no danger of me losing control.” But I would like to wait until Edward and I have spoken, at least.

Bella mumbled something that sounded affirmative through her teeth.

“Hold on,” I shot back, my voice again a little more forceful than strictly necessary. “It doesn’t have to be now.”

“There’s no reason for it not to be now,” she answered, this time working her jaw out of my hand just enough to enunciate.

“I can think of a few.” Charlie’s face as he told me off came back to me at once. For however little clout the Forks police department might have, I didn’t doubt that Charlie would pull whatever strings necessary to have the FBI on our tails in a matter of minutes if Bella were to disappear tonight.

“Of course you can,” Bella piped up. “Now let go of me.”

Sighing, I released her face from my grasp, watching as the white marks left by the pressure of my fingers slowly turned pink once more. Stupidly, I realized that I might have bruised her in my haste to keep her from Carlisle, who, I saw now, had no immediate intentions of acting.

Bella was still glaring at me, rubbing her cheek absently with one hand. “In about two hours Charlie will be here looking for you,” I told her patiently, “I wouldn’t put it past him to involve the police.”

And, the understatement of the year award is awarded to Mr. Edward Cullen.

Bella snorted. “All three of them.” But her eyes shifted to the floor. Her brow crinkled the way it always did when she was thinking, the way it had just an hour ago when she had decided finally to acknowledge that I loved her.

Did she still believe that? Would she recognize my unwillingness to be moved on this matter a sign of my love?

She wouldn’t the way I was behaving.

I took a deep breath, but found my jaw clamped right back into its tense, angry state. “In the interest of remaining inconspicuous, I suggest that we put this conversation off, at the very least until Bella finishes high school, and moves out of Charlie’s house.”

My father’s eyebrows raised, but he chose not to share his thought, instead directing his words toward the girl at my side. “That’s a reasonable request, Bella.”

Another silence passed as she thought. Her brow tightened once more, and her lips pursed.

“I’ll think about it,” she said finally.

“Think about it” was enough for me. My whole body relaxed. There would be time, and I would bargain for more. I could bargain for more time for the rest of her human life, if need be.

It was a start.

“I should probably take you home,” I told her. “Just in case Charlie wakes up early.” Not to mention that I didn’t need her to stay here with my family, any of whom seemed liable to turn her at the next available opportunity.

Bella shot my father a meaningful gaze. “After graduation?”

His eyes met mine for the briefest of seconds, then darted away to Esme’s, to Bella’s, and back to mine. I hope someday you’ll understand that I’ve done this out of love.

I shook my head furiously, but he drew a deep breath and said to Bella the sentence that would drive the dagger deep:

“You have my word.”

Hissing, I rushed Bella out the door.

~|+|~

There was the distinct possibility that the weathered floorboards in Bella’s room wouldn’t hold up to the onslaught of my feet as I paced. She sat on the bed with her legs folded, her eyes tracking my movement anxiously.

“Whatever you’re planning, it’s not going to work.”

It might. “Shh. I’m thinking.”

The bedcovers rustled and she disappeared beneath them. For a moment, the gap in my middle threatened to break open again and I immediately flew to her side, reveling in the warmth that had already radiated from her body into the sheets as I pulled the comforter back from her face. A single strand of hair blew its way across the curve of her cheekbone, and I reached out to stroke it away.

“If you don’t mind,” I told her quietly, as my fingers continued re-memorizing the lines of her cheeks, “I’d much rather you didn’t hide your face. I’ve lived without it for as long as I can stand.”

She sighed, but nodded once, gazing up at me in the dark.

“Now, tell me something.”

Her expression was pure skepticism. “What?”

“If you could have anything, anything at all, what would it be?”

“You,” she responded at once.

My heart, still as it was, leapt nevertheless. But she had me. I was never going anywhere, ever again. “Something you don’t already have,” I urged.

Again, her brow crinkled as she considered the question. Her thinking time would try the patience of a saint, much less a vampire. Finally, she spoke.

“I would want…Carlisle not to have to do it. I would want you to change me.”

There it was. It was odd how, that moment I first met her, I had wanted nothing more than to sink my teeth into the alabaster neck which now caught the last bit of moonlight as Bella lay beside me. And now that she wanted exactly this, it was the furthest thing from my desires.

But I did desire her.

“What would you be willing to trade for that?” I asked carefully.

Her lips parted slightly in surprise. “Anything.”

“Five years?”

Horror.

“You said anything.”

“Yes—but—” she stammered. “You’ll use the time to find a way out of it. I have to strike while the iron is hot. Besides, it’s just too dangerous to be human—for me, at least. So anything but that.

This was not going to be easy. “Three years?”

“No!”

I imagined Carlisle’s blond head at Bella’s neck, his sharp teeth slicing into her, the blood spurting from the wound. I grimaced.

“Isn’t it worth anything to you at all?”

Bella’s whole face screwed up. “Six months?”

Six months would put us barely at her birthday. “Not good enough.”

“One year, then. That’s my limit.”

“At least give me two.”

“No way. Nineteen, I’ll do. But I’m not going anywhere near twenty. If you’re staying in your teens forever, then so am I.”

I would so gladly turn twenty— and every age thereafter—on behalf of both of us, if I were able.

“All right,” I said slowly. “Forget time limits.”

She still looked wary. It made me ache, but I deserved it. Her wariness of my intentions was just going to be part of our relationship from now on. Forever on, possibly.

“If you want me to be the one”—I winced ever so slightly—“then you’ll just have to meet one condition.”

“Condition?” Again, the skeptical look. “What condition?”

The only condition that mattered. I was through thinking that my life bore any meaning without her. It had seemed she understood that, at least, her epiphany in the woods had let me hope, even for just an hour, that there was a future. According to Bella, she wanted forever.

Well, so did I.

“Marry me first.”

I knew Bella well enough to know that she wouldn’t fly into my arms and kiss me, like some girls might, I hadn’t expected her to look…puzzled. Her face was lit eerily by the green light of her alarm clock as she stared back at me. She blinked a few times.

“Okay,” she said finally, “what’s the punch line?”

The punch line? Ouch. “You’re wounding my ego, Bella. I just proposed to you, and you think it’s a joke?”

“Edward, please be serious.”

“I am one hundred percent serious.” I couldn’t remember being more serious in my century of life.

“Oh, c’mon,” she scoffed, but her expression wasn’t joking. Her eyes were widening and her pulse increasing—she was starting to panic. “I’m only eighteen.”

“Well, I’m nearly a hundred and ten.” Perhaps a joke would help. “It’s about time I settled down.”

She looked away. “Look. Marriage isn’t exactly that high on my list of priorities, you know? It was sort of the kiss of death for Renée and Charlie.”

“Interesting choice of words.”

“You know what I mean.” The covers bunched under her as she tucked her feet to her chest.

“Please don’t tell me that you’re afraid of the commitment.” Although of course, this was the root of the problem—her priorities had always put vampirism on the wrong rung of the ladder.

“That’s not it exactly. I’m…afraid of Renée. She has some really intense opinions on getting married before you’re thirty.”

“Because she’d rather you became one of the eternal damned than get married.”

“You think you’re joking.”

I had met Renée only briefly, but I had read her thoughts. Bella’s mother was flighty, sure, but she had assessed me with the scrutiny only a mother could have. However dormant her parenting skills might have been, at her heart, she wanted nothing but joy for her daughter. If that joy included me, she was willing to have me; I was certain of it.

“Bella,” I said gently, “if you compare the level of commitment between a marital union as opposed to bartering your soul in exchange for an eternity as a vampire…” I shook my head. “If you’re not brave enough to marry me, then—”

She thought only a moment. “Well, what if I did? What if I told you take me to Vegas now? Would I be a vampire in three days?”

Hah. Two could play this game. “Sure. I’ll get my car.”

“Dammit.” A brief pause. “I’ll give you eighteen months.”

“No deal.” I grinned. “I like this condition.” More than she could ever possibly realize. “Fine,” she huffed, crossing her arms over her chest. “I’ll have Carlisle do it when I graduate.”

I beamed sweetly. “If that’s what you really want.”

“You’re impossible. A monster.” She was scowling, but it wasn’t the honest anger I had seen before. We were playing again. Bantering.

To my surprise, I laughed. “Is that why you won’t marry me?”

She groaned again.

I leaned in toward her, the joking gone. Her heart pounded. “Please, Bella?”

She didn’t answer.

“Would this have gone better if I’d had time to get a ring?”

“No! No rings!”

That did it. I heard the bedsprings move in the bedroom across the hall as Charlie Swan lifted himself out of bed, roused, no doubt, by Bella’s vehement protest.

“Now you’ve done it,” I whispered.

“Oops.”

“Charlie’s getting up. I’d better leave.” It was the last thing I wanted.

Her face dropped.

“Would it be childish of me to hide in your closet, then?”

“No,” she answered, and my heart soared. If I hadn’t yet secured forever, at least I had a firm hold on right now.

“Stay,” she said. “Please.”

I was in the closet before she blinked again.

Charlie was worried. I had never been able to read his thoughts, although, it hadn’t been until Bella had arrived that I had realized why. However, I had access to the flavor of them, and right now that flavor was panic.

The door cracked open.

“Morning, Dad,” Bella said cheerfully.

I slid down the wall and decided to give them what little privacy I could offer. I couldn’t force my ears not to hear, but I could at least keep from actively thinking about their talk. I had practiced this for decades on mental voices before turning it to physical ones—it was the only thing I had ever been able to do to afford my family some of the privacy they ought to have had.

My family.

The sick feeling in the pit of my stomach returned as I thought on the six people who had sat around that table this morning. They were hurting, all of them. Carlisle had shown me some of the reasons this afternoon as we’d talked, some of the six months that I had been apart from them, but true to form, he clearly hadn’t told me everything, as his image of the boy had shown. But then, I could never again presume to know Carlisle’s mind.

Bella’s clothing stroked my face as I recalled the expressions on each of my family members’ faces as I’d moved around the table. Jasper, remembering the pain he had channeled from me as I huddled at the foot of the stair. Alice’s vision of my body, torn to pieces. Esme’s crushing pain when she’d realized she was going to lose us all. Carlisle, weeping. And Rosalie, on the other end of that horrific call: “Come back. Carlisle, Esme, Emmett, everyone—just please come back.”

It was a miracle they had welcomed me at all.

There were so many things I had destroyed. Bella’s trust, my family’s bonds, my relationships with each and every one of them. There was so much to fix. Conversations I desperately needed to have, time I needed to spend making up for months lost—months when I was lost. Perhaps it was for this that one by one, they had voted against me. Perhaps it was for this that my father had cast the final die.

And yet—I knew Carlisle’s heart. I had always known the mind and the workings of the man who I knew as father. He was not vengeful. Nothing made him happier than my happiness.

I hope someday you’ll understand I’ve done this out of love.

Someday. Someday meant there would be time to talk. Someday meant that he wasn’t angry. A hand went to my forehead, rubbing the spot where Carlisle’s lips had brushed against it in the mid-afternoon hours.

“You are forgiven, son,” said Carlisle’s voice in my memory.

“You love me,” said Bella’s.

Forgiven.

Was it possible?

The voices outside the closet began to rise, and I let myself intrude long enough to catch a few words: “Not under my roof!”

Bella’s voice was quiet, but firm. “Look, I’m not going to give you any more ultimatums tonight”—she had given him an ultimatum?—“or I guess it’s this morning. Just think about it for a few days, okay? But keep in mind that Edward and I are sort of a package deal.”

A package deal. I missed the remainder of their conversation, reveling in those words. Marriage or no, vampires or no…a package deal.

My heart soared.

Charlie stomped off down the stairs.

I was back in the bedroom in an instant, settled into the rocking chair. As soon as she was sure her father was gone, Bella threw off the covers and hopped out of bed.

“Sorry about that,” she whispered.

Well, he hadn’t thrown her out, nor locked her in her room. It had to be progress. “It’s not as if I don’t deserve far worse. Don’t start anything with Charlie over me, please.”

“Don’t worry about it,” she answered. “I will start exactly as much as is necessary, and no more than that.” She paused a moment, her bathroom things collected in her arms. “Or are you telling me I have nowhere to go?” Her mouth opened in a little ‘o’ of mock alarm.

I would never have you anywhere but at my side as long as we live, I thought, but played along.

“You’d move in with a house full of vampires?”

“That’s probably the safest place for someone like me. Besides, if Charlie kicks me out, then there’s no need for a graduation deadline, is there?” She continued around the room, picking up a hairbrush and going to her dresser for a pair of clean socks.

Still this. “So eager for eternal damnation,” I said, a little louder than I’d intended.

She stopped again. “You know you don’t really believe that.”

“Oh, don’t I?”

“No. You don’t.” She was smirking.

I opened my mouth to ask for clarification, but she cut me off at the pass.

“If you really believed that you’d lost your soul, then when I found you in Volterra, you would have realized immediately what was happening, instead of thinking we were both dead together. But you didn’t—you said ‘Amazing. Carlisle was right.’” She beamed. “There’s hope in you, after all.”

Hope. Really? I almost opened my mouth to contradict her, beginning to push myself to my feet, but as I did so, I laid my hand on the arm of the old wooden rocker, the one in which I had passed so many nights’ vigil, listening to the sounds of this strange human girl, whose single murmur of my name had been enough to change my life forever. This room, this chair, this girl—I was now returned to their world.

It was sublimely right.

“So let’s both just be hopeful, all right?” she whispered, interrupting my thought. “Not that it matters. If you stay, I don’t need heaven.”

My legs actually felt unsteady as I rose and crossed the room to her. Again I gazed into her eyes, knowing these were the eyes I would look into every day until my last. We hadn’t solved everything yet—there would be a way for this to reconcile itself, I was certain. But I was here, and she wanted me here, and we were together, with no plans to part. My hands found her face as though it were for the first time. In a way it was…the first time of forever.

“Forever,” I whispered.

“That’s all I’m asking for.” She stretched up on her toes to bring her lips to mine.

I kissed her back…and hoped.

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