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Chapter 12 Balancing

Chapter 12 Balancing

 "Billy!" Charlie called as soon as he got out of the car.

  I turned toward the house, beckoning to Jacob as I ducked under theporch. I heard Charlie greeting them loudly behind me.

  "I'm going to pretend I didn't see you behind the wheel, Jake," he saiddisapprovingly.

  "We get permits early on the rez," Jacob said while I unlocked the doorand flicked on the porch light.

  "Sure you do," Charlie laughed.

  "I have to get around somehow." I recognized Billy's resonant voiceeasily, despite the years. The sound of it made me feel suddenly younger,a child.

  I went inside, leaving the door open behind me and turning on lightsbefore I hung up my jacket. Then I stood in the door, watching anxiouslyas Charlie and Jacob helped Billy out of the car and into his wheelchair.

  I backed out of the way as the three of them hurried in, shaking off therain.

  "This is a surprise," Charlie was saying.

  "It's been too long," Billy answered. "I hope it's not a bad time." Hisdark eyes flashed up to me again, their expression unreadable.

  "No, it's great. I hope you can stay for the game."Jacob grinned. "I think that's the plan — our TV broke last week."Billy made a face at his son. "And, of course, Jacob was anxious to seeBella again," he added. Jacob scowled and ducked his head while I foughtback a surge of remorse. Maybe I'd been too convincing on the beach.

  "Are you hungry?" I asked, turning toward the kitchen. I was eager toescape Billy's searching gaze.

  "Naw, we ate just before we came," Jacob answered.

  "How about you, Charlie?" I called over my shoulder as I fled around thecorner.

  "Sure," he replied, his voice moving in the direction of the front roomand the TV. I could hear Billy's chair follow.

  The grilled cheese sandwiches were in the frying pan and I was slicing upa tomato when I sensed someone behind me.

  "So, how are things?" Jacob asked.

  "Pretty good." I smiled. His enthusiasm was hard to resist. "How aboutyou? Did you finish your car?""No." He frowned. "I still need parts. We borrowed that one." He pointedwith his thumb in the direction of the front yard.

  "Sorry. I haven't seen any… what was it you were looking for?""Master cylinder." He grinned. "Is something wrong with the truck?" headded suddenly.

  "No." "Oh. I just wondered because you weren't driving it."I stared down at the pan, pulling up the edge of a sandwich to check thebottom side. "I got a ride with a friend.""Nice ride." Jacob's voice was admiring. "I didn't recognize the driver,though. I thought I knew most of the kids around here."I nodded noncommittally, keeping my eyes down as I flipped sandwiches.

  "My dad seemed to know him from somewhere.""Jacob, could you hand me some plates? They're in the cupboard over thesink.""Sure."He got the plates in silence. I hoped he would let it drop now.

  "So who was it?" he asked, setting two plates on the counter next to me.

  I sighed in defeat. "Edward Cullen."To my surprise, he laughed. I glanced up at him. He looked a littleembarrassed.

  "Guess that explains it, then," he said. "I wondered why my dad wasacting so strange.""That's right." I faked an innocent expression. "He doesn't like theCullens.""Superstitious old man," Jacob muttered under his breath.

  "You don't think he'd say anything to Charlie?" I couldn't help asking,the words coming out in a low rush.

  Jacob stared at me for a moment, and I couldn't read the expression inhis dark eyes. "I doubt it," he finally answered. "I think Charlie chewedhim out pretty good last time. They haven't spoken much since — tonightis sort of a reunion, I think. I don't think he'd bring it up again.""Oh," I said, trying to sound indifferent.

  I stayed in the front room after I carried the food out to Charlie,pretending to watch the game while Jacob chattered at me. I was reallylistening to the men's conversation, watching for any sign that Billy wasabout to rat me out, trying to think of ways to stop him if he began.

  It was a long night. I had a lot of homework that was going undone, but Iwas afraid to leave Billy alone with Charlie. Finally, the game ended.

  "Are you and your friends coming back to the beach soon?" Jacob asked ashe pushed his father over the lip of the threshold.

  "I'm not sure," I hedged.

  "That was fun, Charlie," Billy said.

  "Come up for the next game," Charlie encouraged.

  "Sure, sure," Billy said. "We'll be here. Have a good night." His eyesshifted to mine, and his smile disappeared. "You take care, Bella," headded seriously.

  "Thanks," I muttered, looking away.

  I headed for the stairs while Charlie waved from the doorway.

  "Wait, Bella," he said.

   I cringed. Had Billy gotten something in before I'd joined them in theliving room?

  But Charlie was relaxed, still grinning from the unexpected visit.

  "I didn't get a chance to talk to you tonight. How was your day?""Good." I hesitated with one foot on the first stair, searching fordetails I could safely share. "My badminton team won all four games.""Wow, I didn't know you could play badminton.""Well, actually I can't, but my partner is really good," I admitted.

  "Who is it?" he asked with token interest.

  "Um… Mike Newton," I told him reluctantly.

  "Oh yeah — you said you were friends with the Newton kid." He perked up.

  "Nice family." He mused for a minute. "Why didn't you ask him to thedance this weekend?""Dad!" I groaned. "He's kind of dating my friend Jessica. Besides, youknow I can't dance.""Oh yeah," he muttered. Then he smiled at me apologetically. "So I guessit's good you'll be gone Saturday… I've made plans to go fishing with theguys from the station. The weather's supposed to be real warm. But if youwanted to put your trip off till someone could go with you, I'd stayhome. I know I leave you here alone too much.""Dad, you're doing a great job." I smiled, hoping my relief didn't show.

  "I've never minded being alone — I'm too much like you." I winked at him,and he smiled his crinkly-eyed smile.

  I slept better that night, too tired to dream again. When I woke to thepearl gray morning, my mood was blissful. The tense evening with Billyand Jacob seemed harmless enough now; I decided to forget it completely.

  I caught myself whistling while I was pulling the front part of my hairback into a barrette, and later again as I skipped down the stairs.

  Charlie noticed.

  "You're cheerful this morning," he commented over breakfast.

  I shrugged. "It's Friday."I hurried so I would be ready to go the second Charlie left. I had my bagready, shoes on, teeth brushed, but even though I rushed to the door assoon as I was sure Charlie would be out of sight, Edward was faster. Hewas waiting in his shiny car, windows down, engine off.

  I didn't hesitate this time, climbing in the passenger side quickly, thesooner to see his face. He grinned his crooked smile at me, stopping mybreath and my heart. I couldn't imagine how an angel could be any moreglorious. There was nothing about him that could be improved upon.

  "How did you sleep?" he asked. I wondered if he had any idea howappealing his voice was.

  "Fine. How was your night?""Pleasant." His smile was amused; I felt like I was missing an insidejoke.

  "Can I ask what you did?" I asked.

  "No." He grinned. "Today is still mine."He wanted to know about people today: more about Renée, her hobbies, whatwe'd done in our free time together. And then the one grandmother I'd known, my few school friends — embarrassing me when he asked about boysI'd dated. I was relieved that I'd never really dated anyone, so thatparticular conversation couldn't last long. He seemed as surprised asJessica and Angela by my lack of romantic history.

  "So you never met anyone you wanted?" he asked in a serious tone thatmade me wonder what he was thinking about.

  I was grudgingly honest. "Not in Phoenix."His lips pressed together into a hard line.

  We were in the cafeteria at this point. The day had sped by in the blurthat was rapidly becoming routine. I took advantage of his brief pause totake a bite of my bagel.

  "I should have let you drive yourself today," he announced, apropos ofnothing, while I chewed.

  "Why?" I demanded.

  "I'm leaving with Alice after lunch.""Oh." I blinked, bewildered and disappointed. "That's okay, it's not thatfar of a walk."He frowned at me impatiently. "I'm not going to make you walk home. We'llgo get your truck and leave it here for you.""I don't have my key with me," I sighed. "I really don't mind walking."What I minded was losing my time with him.

  He shook his head. "Your truck will be here, and the key will be in theignition — unless you're afraid someone might steal it." He laughed atthe thought.

  "All right," I agreed, pursing my lips. I was pretty sure my key was inthe pocket of a pair of jeans I wore Wednesday, under a pile of clothesin the laundry room. Even if he broke into my house, or whatever he wasplanning, he'd never find it. He seemed to feel the challenge in myconsent. He smirked, overconfident.

  "So where are you going?" I asked as casually as I could manage.

  "Hunting," he answered grimly. "If I'm going to be alone with youtomorrow, I'm going to take whatever precautions I can." His face grewmorose… and pleading. "You can always cancel, you know."I looked down, afraid of the persuasive power of his eyes. I refused tobe convinced to fear him, no matter how real the danger might be. Itdoesn't matter, I repeated in my head.

  "No," I whispered, glancing back at his face. "I can't.""Perhaps you're right," he murmured bleakly. His eyes seemed to darken incolor as I watched.

  I changed the subject. "What time will I see you tomorrow?" I asked,already depressed by the thought of him leaving now.

  "That depends… it's a Saturday, don't you want to sleep in?" he offered.

  "No," I answered too fast. He restrained a smile.

  "The same time as usual, then," he decided. "Will Charlie be there?""No, he's fishing tomorrow." I beamed at the memory of how convenientlythings had worked out.

  His voice turned sharp. "And if you don't come home, what will he think?""I have no idea," I answered coolly. "He knows I've been meaning to do the laundry. Maybe he'll think I fell in the washer."He scowled at me and I scowled back. His anger was much more impressivethan mine.

  "What are you hunting tonight?" I asked when I was sure I had lost theglowering contest.

  "Whatever we find in the park. We aren't going far." He seemed bemused bymy casual reference to his secret realities.

  "Why are you going with Alice?" I wondered.

  "Alice is the most… supportive." He frowned as he spoke.

  "And the others?" I asked timidly. "What are they?"His brow puckered for a brief moment. "Incredulous, for the most part."I peeked quickly behind me at his family. They sat staring off indifferent directions, exactly the same as the first time I'd seen them.

  Only now they were four; their beautiful, bronze-haired brother satacross from me, his golden eyes troubled.

  "They don't like me," I guessed.

  "That's not it," he disagreed, but his eyes were too innocent. "Theydon't understand why I can't leave you alone."I grimaced. "Neither do I, for that matter."Edward shook his head slowly, rolling his eyes toward the ceiling beforehe met my gaze again. "I told you — you don't see yourself clearly atall. You're not like anyone I've ever known. You fascinate me."I glared at him, sure he was teasing now.

  He smiled as he deciphered my expression. "Having the advantages I do,"he murmured, touching his forehead discreetly, "I have a better thanaverage grasp of human nature. People are predictable. But you… you neverdo what I expect. You always take me by surprise."I looked away, my eyes wandering back to his family, embarrassed anddissatisfied. His words made me feel like a science experiment. I wantedto laugh at myself for expecting anything else.

  "That part is easy enough to explain," he continued. I felt his eyes onmy face but I couldn't look at him yet, afraid he might read the chagrinin my eyes. "But there's more… and it's not so easy to put into words —"I was still staring at the Cullens while he spoke. Suddenly Rosalie, hisblond and breathtaking sister, turned to look at me. No, not to look — toglare, with dark, cold eyes. I wanted to look away, but her gaze held meuntil Edward broke off mid-sentence and made an angry noise under hisbreath. It was almost a hiss.

  Rosalie turned her head, and I was relieved to be free. I looked back atEdward — and I knew he could see the confusion and fear that widened myeyes.

  His face was tight as he explained. "I'm sorry about that. She's justworried. You see… it's dangerous for more than just me if, after spendingso much time with you so publicly…" He looked down.

  "If?""If this ends… badly." He dropped his head into his hands, as he had thatnight in Port Angeles. His anguish was plain; I yearned to comfort him,but I was at a loss to know how. My hand reached toward himinvoluntarily; quickly, though, I dropped it to the table, fearing thatmy touch would only make things worse. I realized slowly that his wordsshould frighten me. I waited for that fear to come, but all I could seem to feel was an ache for his pain.

  And frustration — frustration that Rosalie had interrupted whatever hewas about to say. I didn't know how to bring it up again. He still hadhis head in his hands.

  I tried to speak in a normal voice. "And you have to leave now?""Yes." He raised his face; it was serious for a moment, and then his moodshifted and he smiled. "It's probably for the best. We still have fifteenminutes of that wretched movie left to endure in Biology — I don't thinkI could take any more."I started. Alice — her short, inky hair in a halo of spiky disarrayaround her exquisite, elfin face — was suddenly standing behind hisshoulder. Her slight frame was willowy, graceful even in absolutestillness.

  He greeted her without looking away from me. "Alice.""Edward," she answered, her high soprano voice almost as attractive ashis.

  "Alice, Bella — Bella, Alice," he introduced us, gesturing casually withhis hand, a wry smile on his face.

  "Hello, Bella." Her brilliant obsidian eyes were unreadable, but hersmile was friendly. "It's nice to finally meet you."Edward flashed a dark look at her.

  "Hi, Alice," I murmured shyly.

  "Are you ready?" she asked him.

  His voice was aloof. "Nearly. I'll meet you at the car."She left without another word; her walk was so fluid, so sinuous that Ifelt a sharp pang of jealousy.

  "Should I say 'have fun,' or is that the wrong sentiment?" I asked,turning back to him.

  "No, 'have fun' works as well as anything." He grinned.

  "Have fun, then." I worked to sound wholehearted. Of course I didn't foolhim.

  "I'll try." He still grinned. "And you try to be safe, please.""Safe in Forks — what a challenge.""For you it is a challenge." His jaw hardened. "Promise.""I promise to try to be safe," I recited. "I'll do the laundry tonight —that ought to be fraught with peril.""Don't fall in," he mocked.

  "I'll do my best."He stood then, and I rose, too.

  "I'll see you tomorrow," I sighed.

  "It seems like a long time to you, doesn't it?" he mused.

  I nodded glumly.

  "I'll be there in the morning," he promised, smiling his crooked smile.

  He reached across the table to touch my face, lightly brushing along mycheekbone again. Then he turned and walked away. I stared after him until he was gone.

  I was sorely tempted to ditch the rest of the day, at the very least Gym,but a warning instinct stopped me. I knew that if I disappeared now, Mikeand others would assume I was with Edward. And Edward was worried aboutthe time we'd spent together publicly… if things went wrong. I refused todwell on the last thought, concentrating instead on making things saferfor him.

  I intuitively knew — and sensed he did, too — that tomorrow would bepivotal. Our relationship couldn't continue to balance, as it did, on thepoint of a knife. We would fall off one edge or the other, dependingentirely upon his decision, or his instincts. My decision was made, madebefore I'd ever consciously chosen, and I was committed to seeing itthrough. Because there was nothing more terrifying to me, moreexcruciating, than the thought of turning away from him. It was animpossibility.

  I went to class, feeling dutiful. I couldn't honestly say what happenedin Biology; my mind was too preoccupied with thoughts of tomorrow. InGym, Mike was speaking to me again; he wished me a good time in Seattle.

  I carefully explained that I'd canceled my trip, worried about my truck.

  "Are you going to the dance with Cullen?" he asked, suddenly sulky.

  "No, I'm not going to the dance at all.""What are you doing, then?" he asked, too interested.

  My natural urge was to tell him to butt out. Instead, I lied brightly.

  "Laundry, and then I have to study for the Trig test or I'm going tofail.""Is Cullen helping you study?""Edward," I emphasized, "is not going to help me study. He's gone awaysomewhere for the weekend." The lies came more naturally than usual, Inoted with surprise.

  "Oh." He perked up. "You know, you could come to the dance with our groupanyway — that would be cool. We'd all dance with you," he promised.

  The mental image of Jessica's face made my tone sharper than necessary.

  "I'm not going to the dance, Mike, okay?""Fine." He sulked again. "I was just offering."When the school day had finally ended, I walked to the parking lotwithout enthusiasm. I did not especially want to walk home, but Icouldn't see how he would have retrieved my truck. Then again, I wasstarting to believe that nothing was impossible for him. The latterinstinct proved correct — my truck sat in the same space he'd parked hisVolvo in this morning. I shook my head, incredulous, as I opened theunlocked door and saw the key in the ignition.

  There was a piece of white paper folded on my seat. I got in and closedthe door before I unfolded it. Two words were written in his elegantscript.

  Be safe.

  The sound of the truck roaring to life frightened me. I laughed at myself.

  When I got home, the handle of the door was locked, the dead boltunlocked, just as I'd left it this morning. Inside, I went straight tothe laundry room. It looked just the same as I'd left it, too. I dug formy jeans and, after finding them, checked the pockets. Empty. Maybe I'dhung my key up after all, I thought, shaking my head.

   Following the same instinct that had prompted me to lie to Mike, I calledJessica on the pretense of wishing her luck at the dance. When sheoffered the same wish for my day with Edward, I told her about thecancellation. She was more disappointed than really necessary for athird-party observer to be. I said goodbye quickly after that.

  Charlie was absentminded at dinner, worried over something at work, Iguessed, or maybe a basketball game, or maybe he was just really enjoyingthe lasagna — it was hard to tell with Charlie.

  "You know, Dad…" I began, breaking into his reverie.

  "What's that, Bell?""I think you're right about Seattle. I think I'll wait until Jessica orsomeone else can go with me.""Oh," he said, surprised. "Oh, okay. So, do you want me to stay home?""No, Dad, don't change your plans. I've got a million things to do…homework, laundry… I need to go to the library and the grocery store.

  I'll be in and out all day… you go and have fun.""Are you sure?""Absolutely, Dad. Besides, the freezer is getting dangerously low on fish— we're down to a two, maybe three years' supply.""You're sure easy to live with, Bella." He smiled.

  "I could say the same thing about you," I said, laughing. The sound of mylaughter was off, but he didn't seem to notice. I felt so guilty fordeceiving him that I almost took Edward's advice and told him where Iwould be. Almost.

  After dinner, I folded clothes and moved another load through the dryer.

  Unfortunately it was the kind of job that only keeps hands busy. My minddefinitely had too much free time, and it was getting out of control. Ifluctuated between anticipation so intense that it was very nearly pain,and an insidious fear that picked at my resolve. I had to keep remindingmyself that I'd made my choice, and I wasn't going back on it. I pulledhis note out of my pocket much more often than necessary to absorb thetwo small words he'd written. He wants me to be safe, I told myself againand again. I would just hold on to the faith that, in the end, thatdesire would win out over the others. And what was my other choice — tocut him out of my life? Intolerable. Besides, since I'd come to Forks, itreally seemed like my life was about him.

  But a tiny voice in the back of my mind worried, wondering if it wouldhurt very much… if it ended badly.

  I was relieved when it was late enough to be acceptable for bedtime. Iknew I was far too stressed to sleep, so I did something I'd never donebefore. I deliberately took unnecessary cold medicine — the kind thatknocked me out for a good eight hours. I normally wouldn't condone thattype of behavior in myself, but tomorrow would be complicated enoughwithout me being loopy from sleep deprivation on top of everything else.

  While I waited for the drugs to kick in, I dried my clean hair till itwas impeccably straight, and fussed over what I would wear tomorrow. Witheverything ready for the morning, I finally lay in my bed. I felt hyper;I couldn't stop twitching. I got up and rifled through my shoebox of CDsuntil I found a collection of Chopin's nocturnes. I put that on veryquietly and then lay down again, concentrating on relaxing individualparts of my body. Somewhere in the middle of that exercise, the coldpills took effect, and I gladly sank into unconsciousness.

  I woke early, having slept soundly and dreamlessly thanks to mygratuitous drug use. Though I was well rested, I slipped right back intothe same hectic frenzy from the night before. I dressed in a rush, smoothing my collar against my neck, fidgeting with the tan sweater tillit hung right over my jeans. I sneaked a swift look out the window to seethat Charlie was already gone. A thin, cottony layer of clouds veiled thesky. They didn't look very lasting.

  I ate breakfast without tasting the food, hurrying to clean up when I wasdone. I peeked out the window again, but nothing had changed. I had justfinished brushing my teeth and was heading back downstairs when a quietknock sent my heart thudding against my rib cage.

  I flew to the door; I had a little trouble with the simple dead bolt, butI yanked the door open at last, and there he was. All the agitationdissolved as soon as I looked at his face, calm taking its place. Ibreathed a sigh of relief — yesterday's fears seemed very foolish withhim here.

  He wasn't smiling at first — his face was somber. But then his expressionlightened as he looked me over, and he laughed.

  "Good morning," he chuckled.

  "What's wrong?" I glanced down to make sure I hadn't forgotten anythingimportant, like shoes, or pants.

  "We match." He laughed again. I realized he had a long, light tan sweateron, with a white collar showing underneath, and blue jeans. I laughedwith him, hiding a secret twinge of regret — why did he have to look likea runway model when I couldn't?

  I locked the door behind me while he walked to the truck. He waited bythe passenger door with a martyred expression that was easy to understand.

  "We made a deal," I reminded him smugly, climbing into the driver's seat,and reaching over to unlock his door.

  "Where to?" I asked.

  "Put your seat belt on — I'm nervous already."I gave him a dirty look as I complied.

  "Where to?" I repeated with a sigh.

  "Take the one-oh-one north," he ordered.

  It was surprisingly difficult to concentrate on the road while feelinghis gaze on my face. I compensated by driving more carefully than usualthrough the still-sleeping town.

  "Were you planning to make it out of Forks before nightfall?""This truck is old enough to be your car's grandfather — have somerespect," I retorted.

  We were soon out of the town limits, despite his negativity. Thickunderbrush and green-swathed trunks replaced the lawns and houses.

  "Turn right on the one-ten," he instructed just as I was about to ask. Iobeyed silently.

  "Now we drive until the pavement ends."I could hear a smile in his voice, but I was too afraid of driving offthe road and proving him right to look over and be sure.

  "And what's there, at the pavement's end?" I wondered.

  "A trail.""We're hiking?" Thank goodness I'd worn tennis shoes.

  "Is that a problem?" He sounded as if he'd expected as much.

   "No." I tried to make the lie sound confident. But if he thought my truckwas slow…"Don't worry, it's only five miles or so, and we're in no hurry."Five miles. I didn't answer, so that he wouldn't hear my voice crack inpanic. Five miles of treacherous roots and loose stones, trying to twistmy ankles or otherwise incapacitate me. This was going to be humiliating.

  We drove in silence for a while as I contemplated the coming horror.

  "What are you thinking?" he asked impatiently after a few moments.

  I lied again. "Just wondering where we're going.""It's a place I like to go when the weather is nice." We both glanced outthe windows at the thinning clouds after he spoke.

  "Charlie said it would be warm today.""And did you tell Charlie what you were up to?" he asked.

  "Nope.""But Jessica thinks we're going to Seattle together?" He seemed cheeredby the idea.

  "No, I told her you canceled on me — which is true.""No one knows you're with me?" Angrily, now.

  "That depends… I assume you told Alice?""That's very helpful, Bella," he snapped.

  I pretended I didn't hear that.

  "Are you so depressed by Forks that it's made you suicidal?" he demandedwhen I ignored him.

  "You said it might cause trouble for you… us being together publicly," Ireminded him.

  "So you're worried about the trouble it might cause me— if you don't comehome?" His voice was still angry, and bitingly sarcastic.

  I nodded, keeping my eyes on the road.

  He muttered something under his breath, speaking so quickly that Icouldn't understand.

  We were silent for the rest of the drive. I could feel the waves ofinfuriated disapproval rolling off of him, and I could think of nothingto say.

  And then the road ended, constricting to a thin foot trail with a smallwooden marker. I parked on the narrow shoulder and stepped out, afraidbecause he was angry with me and I didn't have driving as an excuse notto look at him. It was warm now, warmer than it had been in Forks sincethe day I'd arrived, almost muggy under the clouds. I pulled off mysweater and knotted it around my waist, glad that I'd worn the light,sleeveless shirt — especially if I had five miles of hiking ahead of me.

  I heard his door slam, and looked over to see that he'd removed hissweater, too. He was facing away from me, into the unbroken forest besidemy truck.

  "This way," he said, glancing over his shoulder at me, eyes stillannoyed. He started into the dark forest.

  "The trail?" Panic was clear in my voice as I hurried around the truck to catch up to him.

  "I said there was a trail at the end of the road, not that we were takingit.""No trail?" I asked desperately.

  "I won't let you get lost." He turned then, with a mocking smile, and Istifled a gasp. His white shirt was sleeveless, and he wore itunbuttoned, so that the smooth white skin of his throat floweduninterrupted over the marble contours of his chest, his perfectmusculature no longer merely hinted at behind concealing clothes. He wastoo perfect, I realized with a piercing stab of despair. There was no waythis godlike creature could be meant for me.

  He stared at me, bewildered by my tortured expression.

  "Do you want to go home?" he said quietly, a different pain than minesaturating his voice.

  "No." I walked forward till I was close beside him, anxious not to wasteone second of whatever time I might have with him.

  "What's wrong?" he asked, his voice gentle.

  "I'm not a good hiker," I answered dully. "You'll have to be verypatient.""I can be patient — if I make a great effort." He smiled, holding myglance, trying to lift me out of my sudden, unexplained dejection.

  I tried to smile back, but the smile was unconvincing. He scrutinized myface.

  "I'll take you home," he promised. I couldn't tell if the promise wasunconditional, or restricted to an immediate departure. I knew he thoughtit was fear that upset me, and I was grateful again that I was the oneperson whose mind he couldn't hear.

  "If you want me to hack five miles through the jungle before sundown,you'd better start leading the way," I said acidly. He frowned at me,struggling to understand my tone and expression.

  He gave up after a moment and led the way into the forest.

  It wasn't as hard as I had feared. The way was mostly flat, and he heldthe damp ferns and webs of moss aside for me. When his straight path tookus over fallen trees or boulders, he would help me, lifting me by theelbow, and then releasing me instantly when I was clear. His cold touchon my skin never failed to make my heart thud erratically. Twice, whenthat happened, I caught a look on his face that made me sure he couldsomehow hear it.

  I tried to keep my eyes away from his perfection as much as possible, butI slipped often. Each time, his beauty pierced me through with sadness.

  For the most part, we walked in silence. Occasionally he would ask arandom question that he hadn't gotten to in the past two days ofinterrogation. He asked about my birthdays, my grade school teachers, mychildhood pets — and I had to admit that after killing three fish in arow, I'd given up on the whole institution. He laughed at that, louderthan I was used to — bell-like echoes bouncing back to us from the emptywoods.

  The hike took me most of the morning, but he never showed any sign ofimpatience. The forest spread out around us in a boundless labyrinth ofancient trees, and I began to be nervous that we would never find our wayout again. He was perfectly at ease, comfortable in the green maze, neverseeming to feel any doubt about our direction.

  After several hours, the light that filtered through the canopytransformed, the murky olive tone shifting to a brighter jade. The day had turned sunny, just as he'd foretold. For the first time since we'dentered the woods, I felt a thrill of excitement — which quickly turnedto impatience.

  "Are we there yet?" I teased, pretending to scowl.

  "Nearly." He smiled at the change in my mood. "Do you see the brightnessahead?"I peered into the thick forest. "Um, should I?"He smirked. "Maybe it's a bit soon for your eyes.""Time to visit the optometrist," I muttered. His smirk grew morepronounced.

  But then, after another hundred yards, I could definitely see alightening in the trees ahead, a glow that was yellow instead of green. Ipicked up the pace, my eagerness growing with every step. He let me leadnow, following noiselessly.

  I reached the edge of the pool of light and stepped through the lastfringe of ferns into the loveliest place I had ever seen. The meadow wassmall, perfectly round, and filled with wildflowers — violet, yellow, andsoft white. Somewhere nearby, I could hear the bubbling music of astream. The sun was directly overhead, filling the circle with a haze ofbuttery sunshine. I walked slowly, awestruck, through the soft grass,swaying flowers, and warm, gilded air. I halfway turned, wanting to sharethis with him, but he wasn't behind me where I thought he'd be. I spunaround, searching for him with sudden alarm. Finally I spotted him, stillunder the dense shade of the canopy at the edge of the hollow, watchingme with cautious eyes. Only then did I remember what the beauty of themeadow had driven from my mind — the enigma of Edward and the sun, whichhe'd promised to illustrate for me today.

  I took a step back toward him, my eyes alight with curiosity. His eyeswere wary, reluctant. I smiled encouragingly and beckoned to him with myhand, taking another step back to him. He held up a hand in warning, andI hesitated, rocking back onto my heels.

  Edward seemed to take a deep breath, and then he stepped out into thebright glow of the midday sun.