Welp. Looks like we're still living in the wrong timeline, huh guys? Everything with Ukraine is heartbreaking, and everything else is crazy, and my friend's grandma had a heart attack, and my wonderful boss has really bad cancer. ...But hey, I just learned that Frasier is on the Peacock channel, so there's that. :"D

Anyway...take care of yourself, buddies. Eat sweet things, watch YouTube, drink water, etc. And remember! Everything always looks worse when you're tired! SLEEP!

But for now, it's mega chapter hour. :}


Chapter 10

Facts

"Your turn?" she asked as they accelerated down the street. Edward was a pretty speedy driver, but the Volvo didn't sound like it minded.

"To ask the questions."

"Nuh-uh, you said I could!"

"In exchange for your theory. It wouldn't be a very wise transaction if I let you go first, would it? You might not answer me after you got what you wanted."

Lily felt the back of her neck start to heat up in affront.

"Buddy, you better just be kidding around—for your sake."

Edward's low velvet chuckle seemed to echo in the quiet atmosphere of the car...a quiet, dark, and very close-knit atmosphere.

She was suddenly way too aware of how near they were to each other, how isolated the rest of the world felt, how the blood seemed to sing in her veins. He was sitting even closer than they did in Biology. If she wanted to, she could reach right over and brush the unruly hair away from his forehead….

Lily locked her fingers into fists, and she saw Edward's do something similar on the steering wheel. The coincidence would have made her laugh if she wasn't miffed at him. She'd waited so long to get these answers!

"Fine," she huffed. "How about a compromise? I ask you something, you ask me something. Fifty-fifty. Deal?"

"Deal," he replied, "on the condition that I go first."

"Aw, that's not fair! It was my idea."

"Consider it an obligatory gesture of good faith on your part."

"What, just to prove I'm not gonna...jilt you or something?"

"Yes."

She glared at him. "But my questions are easy—they're just about mind-reading! Yours might end the conversation right away, if you don't like the answers."

Her companion's inscrutable smile did not reassure her.

Lily huffed again, crossed her arms, and sank petulantly into the plush seat. "Why does this feel more like a contractual arrangement than a friendly chat? I oughta have an attorney present or something."

Edward chuckled one more time, but now there was a definite edge to the sound. His hands were gripping the steering wheel in a vice; she tore her eyes away from them and saw the matching tension in his face.

"All right," she conceded quietly, "ask me anything." And she meant it too, especially when he looked like that. Lips pressed tight and eyebrows scrunched. Pensive and almost pained. She might have been terrible at reading people, but she could see that much. Was this boy ever anything besides troubled? Lily was starting to doubt it...but maybe he only got that way around her. She'd need to work on cheering him up instead of bumming him out, if only she knew why it happened at all.

"Where did you get your theory from?"

She felt her eyebrows shoot up in disbelief. Wow, that was a lot tamer than she had thought it would be.

"What?" he asked when she forgot to answer.

"Nothing, I just figured you'd, um, well...cut to the chase. With the theory itself and all."

If there had been any doubt in her mind that the expression on Edward's face was pain, it would have fled at the sight of his smile—more of a grimace, really. A look of grief. His answering murmur was a tight rasp, like sandpaper over silk. "Perhaps I don't want to do that. Can't I have this moment for just a little longer?"

She had no idea what he meant or why he looked so sad. She scrambled for an assessment, an idea, anything to help counteract her helplessness, when suddenly—

"Holy crap!" Her eyes had left his face for the first time in what felt like ages, and one look out the dark window had her clutching the back of the seat and the strap across her chest. "Stop, stop, stop!"

"What's wrong?"

His voice was concerned, but not half as concerned as hers. "We're going a hundred miles an hour!"

"Relax, Lily." He had the audacity to roll his eyes, which were nowhere near the road.

"Watch where you're driving—what the heck is wrong with you?" She swatted his arm in a mix of fear and anger. It felt like she had smacked her fingers against a stainless steel fridge. She ignored the peculiar sting and insisted, "You're gonna get us killed!"

"You're perfectly safe," he said with one sharp, joyless laugh. She didn't even question that, because it was now obvious to her that he was insane.

"Are you crazy, or just stupid?"

He scoffed at the insult. "Lily, I always drive like this. Just because it seems fast to you doesn't mean it's fast to me."

She stared at him in an equal mix of wonder and worry while her hands slowly released their grip on the seatbelt. Curiosity poked up through the panic. Her heart was still pounding from what had sure seemed like yet another near-death experience...but she managed to wrestle her voice down an octave when she asked, "What do you mean this isn't fast for you?" Was this a vampire thing? A mind-reading thing? Did he have some kind of mental echolocation that let him speed safely down dark roads—like a psychic bat?

He simply said, "I believe the first question was mine, if you recall," but the smile on his lips wasn't half as grim and grieving as before. That fact quelled some of her frustration. Some.

"Can you at least tell me why I shouldn't be afraid of finding myself halfway through a tree any moment now? And could you maybe, I don't know, slow down?"

He sighed, and the car began to lose some of its rocket momentum.

"Let's just say my reflexes are a great deal more refined than yours. I've never been in an accident—I've never even gotten a ticket." The ghost of his crooked grin returned as he tapped his forehead. "Built-in radar detector."

Lily wrenched her eyes away from his smile and glared at the speedometer instead. Its needle had only crept down to eighty.

"Dude, I've barely ever gone over sixty, and I lived in Phoenix. Have the courtesy to at least ease me into lightspeed?"

One more sigh, and they were finally down to a whopping seventy miles an hour.

"How can you bear it," he griped, "driving this slowly?"

"It's better for everyone, believe me. I would love to go fast if it didn't mean certain destruction for all the surrounding vehicles. Anyway, you better watch out if you're driving like this in Forks. I happen to know for a fact that the chief of police does not appreciate teenage speed demons." She remembered her father bragging about how responsible the Cullen kids were, especially road-wise. Poor Charlie. If only he knew.

"We're digressing," Edward insisted. He sounded impatient.

"Fine, you were saying?"

"You were saying how you came by your latest theory."

An image of Jacob's russet face and bright smile flashed in her head, and a pit appeared in her stomach. "Oh. Yeah." She chewed her lip and desperately searched for a loophole. Lying to him was a very unpleasant thought. But what else could she do?

"I, uh. I got it from, um…." Aha! "I got it from a family friend."

"...A family friend," he repeated in a flat voice, clearly unimpressed by her dodge.

"Yep."

"And where did this family friend get it from?" Edward asked. His tone sounded a bit patronizing; Lily was too relieved with her success to care.

"He got it from a legend," she replied. That seemed benign enough for an explanation, and yet his hands suddenly clamped tighter than ever on the steering wheel. He stared straight ahead, but she had a feeling he wasn't seeing the road, which should have made her a lot more nervous than it did. At the moment, however, all her nerves were bundled up in this unexpected reaction.

There was no more impatience in his voice when he asked, "What legend?"

Lily gulped, and it felt theatrically loud in the quiet car—the engine was suddenly just background noise instead of a cause for concern. They could have been doing a hundred and eighty and she might not have noticed at all.

"Isn't it my turn now? You did just ask two extra questions." She was only teasing, of course. One of those questions had sounded more rhetorical, and the other had been more for the sake of clarification...and yet Edward didn't argue.

"Fine," he snapped. "You may have two questions."

She tried teasing him one more time. "Shouldn't I get three, technically? Since we're counting the few I was already going to have."

Edward growled low in his throat, no trace of forbearance in his words as he said, "You may ask your third question after I've asked my one, but you'll be home before you get to, at this rate."

Part of her was surprised and genuinely touched by his three-to-one generosity, but she still crossed her arms on principle. His impatience was making him curt.

"Hmph. Well, we wouldn't get there so fast if you would just slow down some more."

"Lily," he begged in undeniable frustration, "please ask your questions."

"How someone can be so polite and so rude at the same time is just…." The mutter trailed off, and then she continued, "Okay. Question one, that's easy. How do you read people's minds? Like, are there any special conditions—like having to concentrate really hard on a single person, or are all their thoughts just...projected into your head, like a book? Or is it different for every person, and that's why it doesn't work with mine maybe? Oh, geez—um, come to think of it, the rest of your family can't read my mind, can they? Or do—"

Lily sucked her lips together and put a hand over her mouth for good measure. Even before Edward turned his half-sardonic smile on her, she could feel the fire starting in her ears.

"Sorry," she apologized for the nervous ramble. "I don't suppose I could turn that into, like, a single question with just a whole lot of conjunctions, could I?"

He laughed, and suddenly her ears and her cheeks were heating up. When it was genuine, that laugh was like clear, shining water over smooth river rocks. She shivered and then smiled when he angled the vents on his side of the car to blow more warm air her way.

"Grammatically speaking, no. And no, it's just me. You were right, however, about one thing, and that is the qualifications of my...ability. There is a certain range of distance—I have to be fairly close. That's the limitation. As for how it's done…." He paused, eyes on the road. She stared at him, amazed that he was actually answering her questions. This guy went from bursting with impatience to indulging her run-on inquiries in the blink of an eye; maybe mood swings couldn't be ruled out just yet. Or, considering the fact that one hundred was a normal speed for him, maybe his mind just shifted gears faster than hers. She'd have to put a pin in that thought, though.

"Imagine being in a huge hall filled with people, everyone talking at once. It's just a hum—a buzzing of voices in the background. Until I focus on one 'voice,' and then what they're thinking is clear. The better I know the voice, the easier it is to pick it out. I can hone in on a familiar mind at a greater distance than an unfamiliar one, but still, no more than a few miles."

"Wow," Lily breathed. She was staring at the road now, flying beneath the headlights like running water. "I can't imagine it. All those voices, all the time? Geez. That's gotta be crazy distracting."

He laughed yet again, and then, "I'm sorry," he said, as if Lily was offended—but being laughed at didn't bother her when the sound was so wonderful. "You do say such ironic things. Hearing voices is crazy, but only in terms of the distraction it must cause."

She chortled a little herself. It was a pretty silly thing to say.

After a few more golden chuckles, he went on with his explanation, apparently feeling generous with information tonight. Or maybe, impossible as it seemed, he wanted to put off the inevitable as badly as she did.

"Most of the time, I tune it all out. You were right—it can be very distracting. And it's easier to seem...normal...when I'm not answering someone's thoughts rather than their words."

Her smile swiftly slipped away. "That still doesn't tell me why you can't hear me. Unless you're just tuning me out, heh. I wouldn't blame you. But, seriously, how come? "

"Is that your second question?" he challenged. When she groaned, he added, "I believe that I just answered several questions, come to think of it."

"Ugh, okay, okay. No, that isn't my second question." She would save it for last, in favor of another thing that had been nagging at her since dinner. "You said something about how you had an idea where I went today, even after you lost track of me. Like the bookstore and stuff, really detailed…. How? If you couldn't find me in other people's minds, and you can't read mine...do I still, like, put off a mental signal or something?"

Edward had already been frowning a little before that, but now he was frowning in earnest. He didn't say anything. She tried not to fidget in impatience. What was it about her question that stumped him? Or was he just reluctant to answer? But why would he be, if he was telling the truth about not being able to read her mind? Ugh, so frustrating.

When he hadn't said anything to her for almost a solid minute, Lily reminded him, "Um…. That's actually a question I already asked you, remember? You never answered me back at the restaurant." He was silent even after that, so she sighed as dramatically as possible and said, "Come on, this is, like, the easiest one of all! Mental signal, or mental mute? A or B?"

His answering sigh may not have been as heavy, but it sounded twice as tired. "The former would be far more preferable, if only to know where you were. But no, there isn't even that."

"So how then?" There was something he wasn't telling her. Lily's gut said so. "If you couldn't hear me at all…?"

Without any preamble or even much of a pause, he said, "I followed your scent."

...Well. She certainly appreciated the bluntness—it made it harder to wonder if she'd heard him wrong or misunderstood his words. She was also appreciative of his gaze still being glued to the windshield. He didn't see how she gaped at him, jaw practically in her lap. Of course, there was no hiding her astonishment when she spoke.

"What? Like...like actually followed—you mean like a dog would?"

He grimaced without looking away from the road.

"Sorry, sorry. I guess that's not a very flattering comparison, heh. But, I mean, wow. Wow."

His frown deepened in dismay or concern or maybe even confusion. She was getting a bit too excited about this, she supposed. Lily tried to calm her voice down a little. She didn't want him to think she was freaking out. Maybe she should have been, but instead of that, she was, well, fascinated!

"Is it, like, a physical trail, but just invisible? Or is it like a sound but in your nose, if that makes any sense—like how you can tell when you're getting closer or farther away from, um...from a noise…but with your nose…."

Edward's gaze squashed the wind out of her words. He was staring at her now, eyes wide with some unpleasant emotion. He sounded almost angry when he demanded, "How can you accept something so bizarre with such equanimity?"

She shrugged with her usual awkwardness. "I mean...what else is there to do?"

"Be disturbed, appalled, disbelieving—take your pick! Any one of those reactions would be more reasonable than this."

Lily recrossed her arms. The back of her neck was starting to prickle with heat yet again. "How the heck am I being unreasonable?"

"You aren't responding sensibly," he insisted. "I was wrong when I called you unobservant. The fact is, you simply observe the right things in the wrong way. Your priorities are all backwards! You noticed that my eyes change, that I can hear thoughts, and that I found you without the benefit of the latter. Then you ask me about the method—how I do these things instead of why I can."

"I was getting to that," she stubbornly insisted, and then she demanded, "Would you rather me be freaked out instead?"

"Yes."

Lily blinked. It took a moment to hide the hurt and another moment to make sense of it; she looked away from him while she did.

"I thought that you wanted me to trust you," she muttered, torn between petulance and pain.

Edward's voice was low and rough. "I was wrong about that too. I shouldn't want such a thing, nor should you."

She laughed joylessly, halfway past caring about her own shame at this point. "Sorry, but it's a little too late for that now, if you hadn't noticed. Or at least it's too late for me."

"Don't you say that," he practically hissed.

...Ouch….

His voice stung like a whip. An icy wind. A hard, unexpected slap. It was difficult to come up with a comparison good enough for the sharp words and the way they sliced through her. This time when Lily blinked, it was with tears in her eyes.

"Why are you so angry? Why would you want me to be freaked out?"

"Because you should be," he shot right back, and then, without so much as a segue, he commanded, "Tell me your theory."

Her arms were already crossed, and yet she crossed them harder still. She dug her back into the soft seat and snapped, "No."

"Lily."

"Well, what's the point now, Edward?" She felt a little belligerent, but she didn't care. At least belligerence kept the tears out of her voice, if not off her face. "I mean, if you've already made up your mind that I have to be afraid of you, does it even matter what you are?"

"It does," he growled.

She scrubbed at her cheeks and seethed, "Does not."

Instead of another harsh reply, he paused, and then….

"Are you crying?"

Lily shrugged. She couldn't tell what emotion made his question sound so raw. She told herself she didn't care, but then, out of the corner of her eye, she saw his right hand lift and reach for her. He hesitated. The hand slowly returned to the steering wheel.

"...I'm sorry," he said, and the emotion in his voice was clear this time. Regret. There was depth to it too, like he wasn't only apologizing for being mean just now. The tips of her ears burned in empathy.

She whispered, "Me too," and turned to smile at him. "It's okay. A deal's a deal. I'll tell you, but...I was serious." Although her smile shrank, it was no less sincere. "It doesn't matter, for real."

"What?"

"What you are." The answer was already past her lips by the time she realized that his "what" was made of disbelief, not confusion. Dismay too, by the looks of it. Edward's face was rigid and severe. She pushed on regardless, stammering all the way.

"I'm, uh...I'm at least pretty sure I have it figured out now, but—and, I mean, I'll tell you, of course—but, seriously, whether I'm right or not, no matter what you are...it doesn't change anything."

In a flat voice, he repeated, "Doesn't change anything?" He sounded on the edge of anger. She couldn't imagine why, unless it was the whole "you aren't responding sensibly" thing.

"No, it doesn't. I still wanna be friends."

"Then I imagine your theory must be quite far from the truth," he bit out coldly. The words were sharp again, like little icy needles.

Lily held her breath a second and then sighed. Would she always bring out the venom in him?

"We're digressing," she mocked his words from earlier, trying to sound more lighthearted than she felt. She stuck her tongue out a little. He glared out the windshield.

"Tell me," he commanded in a thick, almost strangled voice. His face was still rigid, but something was different now, the features more twisted up then before. Pain? Was she reading that right? Or was it anger again? Her heart lurched heavily either way.

She opened her mouth to tell him...and nothing came out but a stupid, nervous laugh, and even that came only after a few moments.

"It's difficult to, uh…. Heh, I'm not really good when I'm on the spot. Uh...geez. Where to begin?"

"...You said it was a legend."

She nodded at the quiet words and looked away from his face. Maybe it would be easier to formulate a coherent explanation if she wasn't staring at that statuesque profile in awe.

"Yeah, a local legend," she confirmed.

A beat of silence, and then, "Ah." The single syllable was low and ragged, like it burned his throat.

Lily began to fiddle with the bottom of her blouse. She twisted it between her fingers, not caring if it got stretched or wrinkled. It could have pulled apart at the seams at this point and she might not have cared.

"I, uh—I know there's, um...well, um…." Great, Lily, just stutter all your worries away, tap-dance off the stage. "The thing is, I just don't want to get anyone in trouble—if that makes sense? My source, I mean. Like I said, he's a family friend. A really good friend, when we were little. We used to play together as kids."

"I promise you, I won't hurt him."

"No, it's not that. I know you wouldn't, but…. I mean, I'd hate to ask you to keep anything from your family. And I'm not, I mean. But it's just...uh...well, say there was, oh, a treaty or something that somebody had—completely unknowingly—broken or something…."

He was silent too long after that for her not to look back up at him. The tension she'd seen in his expression before had been smoothed out of existence. For some reason, the placid look on his face now was so much worse.

Lily squirmed and wrung the hem of her shirt like a washrag. The pitch of her voice was half an octave too high when she summed things up. "I know you wouldn't hurt him. I just wanna make sure nobody else would be...upset."

"I see." Edward's voice held the same suspicious composure she saw in his features, no trace of rough emotions anymore. Lily's stomach twisted with the unexpected appearance of a gut-deep truth: he knew. He knew that she knew.

"It's okay," she was suddenly whispering. "Really, Edward, it's okay."

It caused a ripple in his too-perfect composure. His jaw twitched, and his words sounded a little rushed when he said, "I promise no harm will befall your friend or anyone connected to him. Now please, Lily. Go on."

"All right, all right. I'm hurryin' up." She sighed and tried to smile; it didn't work. "So, uh, his name is Jake. Jacob Black. His dad, he's...he's a, um…." Why was it so hard to say it? Maybe she should have skipped the backstory and just cut to the chase. Somehow it felt like simply coming out and saying it— "I know you're a vampire—" would have been way easier than this.

"He's an elder of the Quileute tribe," Edward supplied.

Lily felt her face go slack.

"Oh," she breathed. "You already…. Okay." If there had been any doubt that he knew exactly how much she knew, it was gone. "I mean, I guess that's kind of dumb, to assume that you wouldn't—I mean, I did say 'treaty,' heh. Pretty obvious. Um…. Yeah, he is."

"And what did Jacob Black tell you?"

She chewed her cheek, trying to get a handle on the words in her head and the dread suddenly twisting in her stomach. It wasn't dread for Jake and the treaty he'd so thoughtlessly violated, but for Edward. Lily stared at her friend's pale, inscrutable face, and she wondered suddenly if this would be one of the last times she ever saw it. He said he wouldn't have to go, but the sense of foreboding was too powerful to ignore.

"You promise...do you promise that you…." Her voice trailed off. Her eyes went back to her hands. "You...won't be mad?" Darn it. She had chickened out at the last second, instead of asking him what she really wanted. Maybe she would find the nerve to ask him again before their ride was over. ...But she didn't like thinking of that. She didn't want this ride to ever end, uncomfortable as it was at the moment. If she could've sat there and memorized his face for another hour, it wouldn't have been long enough.

"I promise."

"Okay." Lily swallowed the peculiar pain and began her story. "So, uh...Jake and some other local boys showed up at the beach party. I haven't seen him in a long while—well, a couple of years, but it felt like a while. He really shot up, heh. He's as tall as me now. Anyway, we talked and ate by the fire for a while, and then the two of us went for a walk."

She glanced over at his face, saw that it was still smooth as a windless lake, and went back to frowning down at her shirt. No way he was as calm as he looked, right?

"I, um...I wanted to ask him about something one of his friends said about your family—but, uh, he only said it after one of the girls—Lauren Mallory—said something about you first. The guy said y'all don't go there, but it sounded weird the way he said it, and he looked really pensive too, so I made Jake tell me. He didn't want to at first, for what it's worth—and he didn't think it was anything but legends either. Honestly, he was kind of embarrassed by it to begin with. I had to ferret the story out of him, like, uh, coercion. So he's innocent in a way, right?"

"How did you do that?"

"What, the coercion?"

"Yes, the coercion."

Lily dared to look up at him again. Edward was smiling faintly; her heart bobbed on a little wave of hope. Maybe this wouldn't be a disaster after all.

"I promised I would quit calling him Jakey."

His smile grew, and she heard the briefest hint of a chuckle as he exhaled.

"He was afraid his friends would hear me and start calling him widdle Jakey-Wakey," she continued, hoping to earn more of Edward's good humor. "It's what his sisters used to call him when he was a baby. Jakey, I mean. They called him Nakey Jakey too, when he used to run around in the rain without his clothes. Bonafide free spirit, that boy."

One more blessed breath of laughter, and then Edward sighed.

"And what story did you 'ferret out,' exactly?"

Lily frowned and looked away. "I feel like you must know, by now…."

"Humor me," he whispered.

She swallowed. Her heart had started to speed up, but her voice was as quiet as his when she went on. "It was a story about...someone called the Cold Ones. How a family of them had visited a long time ago and made a treaty with the Quileutes not to come on their land, and, um…."

Her hesitation was from a lapse in memory, not courage, but Edward picked up the slack and said, "Not just that."

She blinked up at him in confusion. "What?"

"They didn't just agree not to trespass," he clarified. "They vowed to never harm a human being." His voice was soft but very distinct in the oddly silent atmosphere of the car.

"Right," Lily agreed with a small smile. The word held enthusiasm in spite of the current somber mood and the fact that she didn't actually remember many specifics from Jake's story at the moment. She didn't try to. Instead, she focused on the encore of hope lifting her heart, the sleek lines of Edward's solemn face, and the thrill of the half-spoken admission in his words.

He frowned. His golden eyes flickered down to and then away from her face. "Go on," he said tersely.

Lily shrugged. "There's not much more to it. I went home, did some research, thought it over, bada bing." Cue the awkward, spazzy jazz hands.

"...Bada bing?"

She flinched at her own moronic words in his tense, incredulous voice. The jazz hands turned to nervous fists that clenched together on her knees.

"Well, I mean…. What more do you wanna know?"

With his teeth clenched and his face creased, he said, "You're being terribly evasive, Lily. You still haven't given a name to your theory yet. Can't you think of the word?"

His anger was sudden, but not surprising—like lightning from a dark cloud. Even so, it made her tone sharpen in return when she demanded, "What word?"

"What I am. Are you afraid of the term?"

The back of her neck practically sizzled. The red ran all the way up to her ears. "I'm not afraid of anything," she spat. A bald-face lie. He laughed at it—a harsh laugh—and she had to fight hard not to be furious. Without warning, the thought occurred to her….

"Are you afraid?"

Edward's teeth ground together visibly and audibly. Her rush of anger faded.

"Geez…. You are, aren't you?"

He didn't say anything. It looked like he was fuming too hard to talk.

The thick irony of the situation made Lily's heart ache till it actually, physically throbbed in her chest, hard and heavy. He expected her to be afraid of him—he wanted her to be, for some strange reason...and yet Edward was himself afraid.

"You don't need to be," she assured him, her voice soft now, and when he scoffed, she insisted, "I'm not."

"Then say it."

Lily shrugged.

"You're a vampire."

She said the word like it was something obvious and commonplace—as if she'd told him the day of the week instead of proclaiming him to be a mythical creature with undeniably sinister origins.

Edward winced. His face smoothed out again after that, except for his jaw, which stayed locked tight. Whatever emotions flickered through his eyes, Lily wasn't quick enough or bright enough to read them. The ride was silent for what felt like a long time after that. She stared out the window at the shapes of nearby mountains and the black water below them—Crescent Lake, she figured—until the dim view was blocked by trees again and became completely dark. Time was racing by as quickly as those pitch black trees.

"Are you mad at me?" she finally whispered, quieter than ever.

He didn't whisper when he answered, "No." His voice was soft, but not a ghostly rasp like before. It was an improvement, and yet she didn't quite believe him.

"I mean...would you have preferred I keep it all to myself?"

"No." This time he said it through his teeth.

"Good, because I literally would've exploded if I tried."

When he didn't say anything after that, she scrambled for another talking point.

"You're going fast again," was all she could come up with. The speedometer eased back down to seventy. "How about sixty?" she asked with a tiny smile. "Not that I mind so much at this point. I like roller coasters. I bet I could get used to driving fast, if it doesn't mean tickets and tombstones. I just have a lot more questions for you. No, uh, need to hurry things, right?"

For a split-second, Edward's eyes flashed over to her, and she thought he looked either surprised or upset...but then it was the next second, and his face was exactly the way it had been before.

"I believe I promised you one more question," he argued. The needle was already sinking down even further.

Lily grinned.

"Oh, come on. The worst is over with, and I didn't even scream." She was only teasing—or at least trying to—but it made him grimace. "Sorry. Just kidding. But I mean, come on. You are literally a mythical creature—practically a cryptid! You're not going to give me any mythical creature facts, now that it's finally out on the table? Do you know how cruel that is?"

"Cruel," he muttered derisively. "Alone with a monster, and the only potential cruelty you're concerned with is the withholding of information. Do you know how insane that is?"

"Gee, thanks for the compliment," she snarked, "but I thought we'd already established that my brain goes firmly in the abnormal pile." Her laugh was a little bitter. "I don't suppose you usually have trouble reading crazy people's minds? Maybe that would explain it." The last few words popped like radio static as her voice broke. Lily forcefully swallowed the tightness in her throat.

After a few silent moments, Edward said, "I've hurt you again. I'm sorry."

Another shrug. "It's just the truth. I'm insane, you're not human—we're quite a pair. Yay, go team Abnormal Buddies."

"Just because what you're thinking is insane—and it is...that doesn't necessarily mean that you are as well. I apologize for implying such a thing."

Lily sighed. Choosing not to sulk was a good opportunity to push for that change she was always chasing. Besides, she didn't have time to waste on hurt feelings.

"...Apology accepted. On the condition," she declared with a grin, "that you let me ask a few more questions."

A pause, a sigh, and then, "All right," he said in a voice that could have been either cautious or begrudging. "What do you want to know?"

A thrill shot through her. As if he could hear such a thing, Edward's eyes flickered over to her again, watchful and wary—so it had been caution on his face after all. When she smiled at him, big as she could, the caution hardened into something like discomfort, brow creased, lips pursed. Agh, darn it…. Well, he knew she was weird anyway, and if he wasn't going to be evasive, neither was she.

Lily twisted around to look at him with one knee up on the seat. No use trying to act dainty and ladylike now. "Garlic, stakes, and daylight," she listed, ticking the words off on her fingers.

"Myth, myth, and...complicated."

"Complicated? What, do you, like, turn into a pumpkin or something?"

He said, "Not exactly," and left it there. Lily wondered what she could do to get his smile back again.

"Okay, well…. Speaking of myths, would you happen to know if, um, Dracula is real, by any chance?"

There was the barest hint of laughter in his breath, and the line of his lips loosened just a little. "Apart from a fifteenth century noble with a penchant for impalement...no."

"Whewf! Thank goodness. Now that would have been scary."

All the faint traces of Edward's smile disappeared, weighed down in a decisive frown.

"That's what scares you," he said—not a question, even if he did sound incredulous. "Dusty, toothless legends. Are you going to ask me about Nosferatu next? Or shall I move on to other frightening figures—the wolfman, perhaps?"

"I don't appreciate the sarcasm, sir. What's your problem?"

"The problem," he grit out, "is that you are more concerned with Hollywood horror movies than with the very real threat sitting next to you."

Her instinct was to lash back at him, but she squashed the impulse and forced herself to focus on his words.

"Why...why would you be a threat to me?" It was another question he hadn't fully answered. "Come to think of it, why were you...like that in the classroom? If it wasn't just from not being able to read my mind…. I mean, people sit next to you in your other classes, don't they? Was it just because we shared a table?"

The frown deepened, but he didn't answer.

Lily had more questions—some prosaic, like coffins and crosses; others more important, like his age and his family—but she resigned herself to saving those for later.

"Tell me, Edward," she said in as smooth a voice as she could manage. He didn't react. She waited half a minute and then went on the offensive. "Did I do something wrong, back in the beginning? I can't think of anything—and, trust me, I thought about it a ton."

Lily ran back over all the old considerations that had driven her crazy. One detail did stand out to her in particular. "Did it have something to do with your eyes? They were black, and they haven't been black since—or at least, they haven't been black as much—but they were on that first day, and you haven't...well, glared at me as much since they turned gold…."

She was still racking her brain for the connection when he finally spoke, his voice nothing but a ghostly scrape again. "You're very close." His face had no expression, and his eyes looked far away. "What did Jacob Black tell you about the Cold Ones?"

Lily blinked. Was he trying to change the subject? "Uh…. He said you were vampires, obviously—" Edward cringed the tiniest bit, just a twitch of his mouth and his eyelids, but she hurried to move away from the word as fast as she could; it looked like a sore spot for him— "and that, um, you had been around since his great-grandfather's time, and that there were more of you now, and that his dad and some others were afraid to go to the hospital since your dad—" Oh. It hit her then. The thought had been a small one before when she was so caught up in Jake's story and its crazy ramifications, but she remembered feeling surprised that anyone could be afraid of the kind Dr. Cullen, especially with his double vow of "do no harm—" one as a doctor, and one as a vampire. "Oh. That you aren't dangerous to people. Like other...uh, Cold Ones are."

Edward's expression became sardonic. "He said that, did he? And you believed him?"

"Um...yes? I think? I might—"

"Well, he was wrong. I am the most lethal creature you will ever meet, and I am most certainly a danger to people. ...So that explains it." He laughed, an acid note of music. "You asked about garlic of all things, but not about my diet. Did you think that we were exempt from that particular portion of legend?"

"No. I'm not an idiot, Edward. I wondered about that too, but I just assumed…."

"Assumed what?" The blatant, unjustified anger in his face and his voice provoked her own.

"I don't know!" she almost yelled. Her temper wrapped its tentacles around her and squeezed, flooding her cheeks, ears, and neck with blood. Blood…. She had thought about it, of course, back in the woods. She had also been all too willing to put it out of her mind after that, and the frustration with herself and now with Edward for throwing it in her face made Lily's voice shrill.

"How the heck is it any of my business what you have for freaking breakfast every day? I didn't see you going around slaughtering my classmates, so I thought maybe it wouldn't be that big of a concern! You could be taking blood bags from the hospital, for all I know! Just because I'm not clear on the in's and out's of your daily diet, I'm supposed to forget about ever talking to you again?"

"That is exactly what you should have done," he said. The angry expression on his face buckled into something far bleaker as he spoke. "You should have put me out of mind—never spoken to me again—stayed away from me. I should have let you."

There was silence for a few moments.

"...Do you really want me to?" The question sounded as small as a mouse after her tirade, and it felt that small too.

"Of course I don't," he answered in a whisper. Rough as gravel, thin as glass. "But that doesn't mean it isn't the right thing to do. This, right now, is wrong. I'm dangerous, Lily, and I don't believe you've truly grasped that yet."

"Why?" she pleaded, and then, slowly, "Why don't you want to tell me why?"

Another minute of silence. Every second clawed at her with its waste. They had to be very, very close to home by now, but she couldn't stand to look, and she didn't care either. The car could have been in park at this point, and she would have refused to acknowledge it.

Edward bowed his head. She saw his sigh rather than heard it, a heave of his chest that had him sagging forward in his seat. The creak of leather as he clenched the steering wheel was the only sound in the world.

"We try," he said at last, his voice a dried-out whisper. "None of us want to be monsters—would give anything to be free from the craving that makes us monsters. We do what we can to stave off the hunger—or rather, the thirst. Hunting animals, gorging ourselves with their blood, it helps us to endure the desire…."

Lily filled in the dangling blank with a gentle, "But?"

His eyes closed, translucent lids sinking like a curtain on a play. That didn't hide the tragedy in his voice though.

"It isn't enough. The blood keeps us strong enough to resist, but sometimes we make mistakes. Sometimes…." He swallowed, and his face creased in an agony she couldn't hope to understand but felt down to her bones all the same. "Sometimes it's more difficult. Much more."

Lily chewed her cheek, trying to figure out the monumental weight she heard in the last of his words. A bloodlust that was more difficult to resist at times…. Click.

"So it is your eyes?" she breathed. "It's harder when they're black?"

"Yes. They change when we haven't...fed." His lip curled around the term. "The longer we go without hunting, the darker they become, and the more challenging it is to be around our intended prey."

He looked ashamed and afflicted. Again, the urge to touch him was so strong. Lily tried to make her words as soft as possible when she asked, "And that's why you were angry that day?"

Edward shook his head but still said, "Yes."

"But...what about everyone else? You had to sit beside other people too, right? Was I just too close to you, or…?"

He crossed his arms on the steering wheel and laid his head on top of them. Cold adrenaline splashed through Lily's system, not just because of the pain inherent in Edward's posture, but because the car was now parked in front of her house. Time was nearly up.

That realization made her sound a little desperate when she asked, "But why, Edward? What aren't you telling me? ...Look, I...I may suck at reading people, but I've got a pretty good gut, so don't try to tell me you're not—and anyway, it doesn't make any sense. Like, why did you suddenly leave school but nobody else did—your family, I mean—because I saw their eyes, and they were the same—and your mom, too. She sat beside me in church and her eyes were black-ish like yours. And...and Ms. Cope, too—she was, like, a foot away from you, and that was the same day. So what gives? What did I do?"

"Nothing," Edward breathed, his face still hidden.

Another click, only this one was more like a crack. The desolation on display in his hunched shoulders. The hatred she had seen in his eyes. His sudden absence from school—and maybe even the one after that, with his brother. The truth hit home now. They were her fault; she had been right all along, and the anguish that crashed down on her with that realization brought the most important epiphany of all.

"It's just me, isn't it?" she whispered—a statement, not a question. No, there wasn't any doubt in her mind anymore. "That's why you don't want to tell me. You're too nice, but it's my fault. I was right to begin with, right back at the very start."

Edward lifted his head and stared at her. His eyes were wide with an emotion she couldn't quite pin down in her current state. Maybe fear, maybe surprise, maybe relief. The latter, most likely. Relief that she had figured it out and would finally leave him alone, like he'd asked her to.

"You're allergic to me."

He blinked. The rest of his body seemed to be frozen stiff—was he even breathing? It made sense if he wasn't, considering what she knew now.

"Like my brain—you not being able to hear my thoughts. But that's not all, is it? I was right, but it's not my shampoo or deodorant." She laughed. No, it was nothing she could change. "It's just me."

"Lily—"

"I mean, it makes sense," she interrupted him, growing a little more frenzied. "With the mind reading thing and all—not being able to. It's almost funny. Of course it would be me. The one person you can't mind-read is the one person you can't physically stand. I did think that that's what it was to begin with, that I just smelled bad or something. Even Angela thought you looked nauseous. So, what, is this a vampire thing? Does my blood smell horrible or something? Or is it my brain itself? That would sure explain—"

"Lily." Edward held up his hand. He was turned around in his seat to face her now, a mirror to her own posture, minus the frantic hand ringing; Lily knotted her fingers in her lap when she noticed how she was strangling the life out of the seatbelt.

"What?"

He smiled, just a little.

"You're incredibly close, but you have the wrong end of things. You do not stink. I can promise you that faithfully." His hand, still palm-out to her, closed and sank to his knee. His smile fell with it.

Torn between embarrassment, relief, and frustration at still being wrong, she scrubbed her face with both hands and muttered, "Oh, for the love of…. Ugh!" She fixed him with her fiercest glare. "Then what is it? I creeped you out? Reminded you of someone you hate? What?"

Edward's eyes flickered to the clock on the dash and the window of the passenger door. "It's getting late," he began to say, but Lily wasn't done yet.

"Nuh-uh—no way! I am not leaving this car until I have this thing figured out." She flipped forward, crossed her arms sullenly, and braced her feet against the floorboards.

His chuckle tickled her ear with its melody, but she sat firm.

"I could just carry you," he remarked. Suggested. Threatened, whatever.

Lily grit her teeth and grabbed the strap across her chest. "Try it. We'll see if you turn into a human when I bite you."

He laughed full-out this time. She fumed in silence for a few more seconds on principle after that...but then she saw the minute number change on the clock. Her gut twisted. Time marched on. Soon Edward would be gone. That thought left her hollow and took away the pettier emotions. Only sadness and worry remained.

"Why did you hate me?" she demanded. "What did I do? ...What's wrong with me?" Lily's voice cracked on the last question. Maybe it was the heart of the matter. Maybe his being allergic to her scent—the same one he'd had to track to save her life, oh the irony—made so much sense because it lined up with everything she feared about herself. She was abnormal in a way that went beyond ADD and bad self esteem. She brought out the worst in the people she cared for—perfectly nice people like Edward and her mother. She was weird and ugly, inside and out.

"Agh," Edward groaned. "Lily, no. You're wrong."

Tears sprang into her eyes and spilled down her cheeks with record speed. Hearing exactly what she was afraid of, Lily...you're wrong…. It sounded so right. She was wrong for him, wrong for her mom, wrong for anyone, and, most of all, wrong for herself.

"Lily," he said pointedly, and she realized that he'd been saying her name for the last however many seconds.

She managed to meet his eyes. They were wide again, but now the emotion in them was very plain. Overwhelming, heartwarming concern. Because Edward Cullen was many things, but more than anything else, he was a gentleman. Here she was, stinking up his car, complicating his life since day one, and he was still trying to be nice to her. ...How had she ever believed he was a jerk?

Edward's voice was both frantic and firm. "Listen to me, please. There is nothing wrong with you. I don't hate you—I could never. Even in the beginning, when I thought that I might, really I was only trying to...to distance myself from you in any way that I could. To put distance between myself and the way you made me feel."

She sniffled and almost wiped her nose on the sleeve of his jacket before catching herself. Great. Add that to the embarrassment pile. Edward moved very slowly, as if she was a frightened animal that might bolt at any minute. He reached in front of her and opened the dashboard. There was a full roll of paper towels in there. When he pulled his hand back, his eyes were wild, and he turned his face to look out the driver's side window.

Lily took out the roll, pulled off a square, and wiped her nose roughly. Then she stuffed the paper towels back in the spacious compartment and shut it with more force than she'd meant to.

"How do I make you feel?" she challenged. "Sick to your stomach? I saw you lean away from me in class, and I can literally see you holding your breath right now."

Edward surprised her with another laugh. It sounded like he was smiling when he replied, "As I said, I forget myself in front of you. Forgive me, and allow me to clarify a great injustice...even if I can't put it right." The hint of regret she heard in his words became an entire helping. "Lily...I'm not 'allergic' to you. The fact of the matter is that you smell terribly, dreadfully...good."

"Good?" she repeated, her voice thick with tears and skepticism.

He nodded, still facing away from her. With the bluish glow of the dashboard lights, she could make out his reflection on the driver side window. His eyes were shut tight like they had been at the table this evening. It reminded her of a little boy playing hide and seek, counting to ten, all alone.

The rest of his words were a whisper, too quiet for any emotion to show.

"There isn't a way to say it without frightening you, but I'll try. Every person smells different, has a different essence. The smell of this blood, to us, is especially strong. It calls to our predatory instincts and bypasses rational thought. Our specialty diet—we call ourselves vegetarians, a joke—it's a little like...living on tofu and soy milk, if you'll pardon the food analogy; I'm sorry, but it's the only one I could think of."

She shook her head wordlessly in the pause that followed. His voice, which had already been raw with emotion, sounded even more strangled when he continued, "It doesn't completely satiate the thirst, but it gives us a level of self control that would be impossible for most of our kind. Even with that strength, however, there are some humans…."

He trailed off, and the car was silent for a long minute. Lily dried her fading tears and waited patiently until he went on. "No, there really isn't any way to put it kindly. Forgive me. ...Imagine an alcoholic, locked in a room full of stale beer. A recovering alcoholic could withstand the temptation, if he wished to. Imagine, however, that you placed in that room a glass of hundred-year-old brandy—the rarest, finest cognac—and filled the room with it's warm aroma—"

Edward bit off his words with a strangled sound. She could see his fists clench. It occurred to her that this might be difficult for him to even discuss with her so close—a small, warm space, just like in his example. It also occurred to her that she should have been deathly afraid at that moment. Listening to a vampire describe how tempting and aromatic your blood smelled while you two were alone in his car, any normal person would have been scared. Good thing she wasn't normal then.

"To be near you," he went on eventually, "is the single greatest trial I have ever encountered, and the most dangerous mistake I could ever commit. Resistance is a way of life for my family, and when you walked past me in that classroom, I almost ruined everything my father has ever built for us. If I hadn't been denying my thirst for so long, I wouldn't have been able to stop myself."

In a flash, he was back to leaning on the steering wheel, forehead resting against his forearms. She didn't need to ask him what it was that he had stopped himself from doing. Once again, her gut instinct had proven to be right: the look of attack in his fiery black eyes. It came back to her with effortless clarity, another chance for her to be scared now. She wasn't.

"I'm so sorry," he breathed. "It's monstrous, and a thousand times more for me to allow you this close at all. You can't imagine how difficult it is...no, that's not a strong enough word...how overwhelming it is just to sit beside you and not completely devolve into the monster I truly am."

Lily had to lick her lips and swallow before she spoke. "Is it the same way even now?"

"Even now," he answered immediately. The words sounded like a lament. "How I would love to say that it isn't. That your friendship has made just such a difference, and that coming to know you and building my tolerance around you has ensured your life is safe. But it would be the most deadly sort of arrogance. You are as appealing to me in this moment as you were in the very first."

He picked his head up and looked at her. To Lily's surprise, his eyes were reproachful.

"And you say it doesn't matter. The one good thing to come from all of this is that maybe now you'll understand enough to stay away from me."

She stopped twisting the paper towel between her hands and whispered, "You still want that?"

"What I want is beside the point. Your life, your safety—that is the point. You will never be in greater danger than you are right now, near me. Don't you understand?"

She nodded.

He demanded, "And?"

She shrugged.

He pinched the bridge of his nose with an exhalation that was almost a hiss and growled, "Lily, you are making this extraordinarily difficult."

She crossed her arms and declared, "The only man that can tell me what to do is my father. Stop trying to boss me around."

"I'm trying to keep you safe," Edward fumed, whipping the hand away from his face and onto his lap with a surprisingly loud smack.

"Well, maybe I don't care," she fumed back at him. "Maybe I wanna be friends anyway."

"Friends with a monster?"

"Yeah!"

Edward shook his head slowly. "It's late," he said. "Go inside, Lily."

And there he was telling her what to do yet again. It made her furious. She unbuckled herself in a frenzy and lurched out of the car, debating whether or not to slam the door shut.

Her friend stared ahead coldly, both hands on the wheel.

Anger and sadness warred within her. She always caved when it came to goodbyes…. She wanted to sound imperious, but it just came out lame and flat when she demanded, "Will I even see you tomorrow?"

"Yes."

"At school?" she clarified in case of any loopholes.

"Yes, Lily," he said with patronizing patience. "You aren't the only one with a paper due, you know." Then he had the audacity to smile at her—as if he hadn't just gotten her goat right at the end of their night.

She bit her cheek to keep from saying anything mean and shut the car door with enough force to risk her father coming to the window; she didn't care. She had just started to stalk away when Edward called her name. For one moment, she pictured herself ignoring him and walking up to her house, dignified and unmoved.

Lily turned back to the car. He had the window rolled down all the way. His face glowed from the vehicle's dark interior, pale and perfect and pensive.

"Will you promise me something?"

"I don't see why I should," she groused.

His lips flickered in a faint smile. He tilted his chin down an inch and gave her a pleading look that would have stunned a lion. His eyes were like stars.

"Please?"

As usual, she squeaked a pitiful "Okay" without even really thinking about it.

Edward's smile flickered one more time and then vanished when he said, "Don't go into the woods alone."

"...What? But...I go in the woods all the time. I was literally in there just the other day."

"I know."

"I was perfectly fine."

"I know."

She sighed and crossed her arms one last time for the night. "Well, are you going to explain, Mr. Know It All?"

He shook his head a tiny bit. His eyes were distant, like he was looking past her. "I'm not always the most dangerous thing out there," he murmured. "Let's leave it at that."

Instantly, a cold sweat began to form down her back. She wanted to ask what he meant, but all she could do was nod.

"I'll see you tomorrow," he said.

She frowned. Even with the irritation clinging to her, she couldn't help asking, "Promise?"

He smiled. "Promise."

She turned around, one foot in the air to walk away from the car, and then his soft call, "And Lily?" had her stumbling back into position yet again. She tried to feel annoyed with the way he kept stopping her and drawing this out. She tried not to notice the way he leaned towards the open window and what a sight he made. She tried hard.

"Uh-huh?"

The smile became dazzling. "You can keep the jacket."

Lily looked down at herself in surprise. She had been so mad at him, she'd forgotten to give it back.

She half expected Edward to be speeding away when she looked back up, but he was just sitting there, smiling at her. She stammered, "But...but don't you need it?"

"No."

"But I can't keep—you can't just—you don't go around giving away expensive leather jackets!" she insisted. In spite of the cold sweat that still clung to her back, heat was rising in her cheeks.

"You can consider it a loan," he suggested lightly. "Wear it to school, and give it back to me after Jessica returns yours."

Lily felt herself mimicking the aghast expression that he'd almost made her laugh with earlier. "To school? Are you nuts? Do you know what people will think?"

He looked utterly untroubled when he quipped, "I always do."

Lily threw her hands in the air. "Unbelievable! You don't want us to be friends, but you don't care if people think...if they think I'm your girlfriend or something? And you call me insane?"

Edward shook his head. "Goodnight, Lily. I'll save you a seat at lunch."

Despite all the frustration and confusion and goat-getting irritation he'd caused her...her heart fluttered like a bird. A dumb bird. Dumb in all kinds of ways, the least of which was looking forward to meeting a vampire for lunch. She shrugged at him to satisfy the part of her that was still mad. "We'll see," Lily said as blasé as she could.

He gave her one more stun-a-rock look and told her to sleep well. She nodded blankly and said, "You too." It made him chuckle for some reason. She waved, he waved, and then she walked away. He didn't drive off until she got to the front door of her house.

Lily went inside with a head as heavy as her footsteps felt. Probably a reaction to that stupid stun-gun look of his…except that when she got inside the nice warm house, she noticed her back was still cold with sweat, and then she started to notice that her entire body felt like it weighed a ton, not just her legs and her head.

"Lily?" her dad called.

"Hey, Dad," she called back.

Charlie walked into the kitchen with a pleasant look on his face. He opened his mouth and shut it again, the pleasant look gone now. "Are you all right?"

"Yes sir."

Her dad rubbed the back of his neck. "Did, uh...did the girl's night go okay?"

"Awesome." Lily winced at the lack of enthusiasm in the word and tried to make her voice sound more upbeat when she asked, "Why do you ask?"

"You, um," her father mumbled, not meeting her eyes, "you look like you've been crying."

For one second, she thought it was from what had happened in the alley, and the cold sweat dripped down her spine when she shivered. But no, she had been crying during her argument with Edward. Shoot, she'd have to lie.

This time, it was Lily's turn for her mouth to hang open without a sound. Her throat was too tight all of a sudden. She felt frozen to the floor.

Charlie stepped forward with wide eyes and put his hands on her shoulders. It was as surprising as the sob that burst out of her chest. For the next five minutes, she stood there with her arms around her father, crying her eyes out into his shirt.

When she finally quieted down enough, Charlie stopped patting her back—awkwardly, but it was appreciated all the same—and asked in a whisper, "What's wrong?"

"Something happened," Lily blubbed. "I'm okay, but...but something happened with...some guys, in an alley."

Everything about her father instantly transformed. He stood up taller. His face became stern. His brown eyes were wild and calm at the same time; they reminded her a little of Edward's, in a way.

"Are you hurt?"

"No sir."

"Do we need to go to the hospital?"

"No—I'm fine, Dad."

He didn't look like he quite believed her, but he moved on to the next step anyway.

"Can you tell me what happened?"

"Yeah…. Can we sit down?" Charlie started to walk her to the table, but she said, "In the family room?" He led her to the couch instead, quickly muting the TV. She wished he would've kept the volume on.

The police interview resumed straight away. "You don't have to tell me everything, but I wanna make sure you aren't hurt. If you wanna talk to someone else, I can get you anyone you need."

Lily nodded mutely. Her dad's concern made her throat tighter than ever. She wiped her cheeks on Edward's jacket, and the fact that he hadn't commented on it yet—the fact that he wasn't melting down and demanding every detail of the story like Renée might have done—made her cry even harder.

"Did someone touch you?"

She shook her head.

"Did someone try to?"

She nodded.

"Was it a stranger?" A nod. "More than one?" Another nod. "Did anyone else see it happen?"

Lily teetered on an untruth for a few seconds and then resigned herself to the longer, more complicated answer. She'd have to explain the jacket anyway...and lying to her dad felt unbearable in that moment; she would have to lie to him enough as it was.

"Kind of," she croaked. "Um...Edward Cullen…."

Charlie's eyes went colder and fiercer than ever. His voice was sharper too when he asked, "He was there?"

"No, no—I mean, he was at the end, but he wasn't...one of the…." One of the monsters. It was almost funny, in a remote sort of way, how different he was from those men. The real monster couldn't have been clearer; she had seen his hungry eyes and frightening grin. He haunted her now and made it hard to speak. The contrast of his sticky smile with Edward's black rage was almost humorous—or was that the delayed shock setting in?

Her dad waited patiently for her to continue. "Edward helped me," was all she managed to say.

He hesitated. His eyes looked between hers for a few moments. Then he nodded and went on with the questions. They were one after another, but it didn't feel like a barrage, and he never pushed her to answer. Even when it got a little easier to talk—that was when she was describing Edward's "lucky" appearance on the scene, how he heard her scream as he was driving by and scared her would-be attackers away—the tears never stopped. After a while, her dad sighed and ran one hand over his face. He looked a lot more like the Charlie she knew when he did.

"The important thing," he said in a different, wearier voice, "is that you're safe now, and you weren't hurt. Thank God for Edward Cullen."

Lily laughed a sniffling little laugh. Charlie put his arm around her and pulled her close with surprising vigor. Now that she was really looking at him, she could see the fear in his wide eyes and the lines of his face.

"I'm sorry," she started to say, but he cut her off firmly.

"Don't you be one bit sorry. You didn't do anything wrong."

"If I hadn't wandered off and got lost…."

He frowned thoughtfully for a few moments and then said, "That part's just inevitable, I guess."

Her laugh was more genuine now. Her body was starting to feel less like a heavy block of ice.

Charlie grumbled, "Should've made you take pepper spray."

"I will next time."

There was a minute of silence while she rested her head on his chest and listened to his breathing. Then his voice vibrated beneath her cheek with a meek, "Lills…." She looked up. He expression was pleading. "Don't let there be a next time like this, if you can help it. Like I said, it's not your fault, but…."

"But don't give trouble a chance?" It was one of the few things Officer Swan said often. He smiled at her now for remembering.

"Atta girl."

Lily leaned into his chest and stared at the television. He was missing his basketball game. "Thanks. For not freaking out, I mean. You'd make a great cop, you know that?" She looked up again with a grin, anticipating her father's incoherent grumble and splotchy blush. After another moment, she took mercy on his awkwardness and straightened back up; his warmth was missed immediately, even with Edward's jacket around her shoulders.

"Uh...speaking of which, um...do you think I'll have to talk to anyone about this? The police? Like, officially?" She chewed her cheek while her dad thought about his answer. She knew what it would be just from the apologetic look that scrunched up his face.

"You oughta make a report. Sorry. But if anything happened to somebody else, it'd be good to have another account on file."

"Ugh," she groaned. "That's what I was afraid of. Okay."

"And I, uh...might need to talk to Edward too."

Her groan doubled in volume and she jumped up from the couch. "Fine. Fine. In that case, let's just go right now."

His face screwed up in confusion. "To the Cullens' house?"

"Agh! No!" The idea of Chief Swan knocking on the Cullens' door so late at night was extremely uncomfortable for all kinds of reasons, although the idea of her dad alone in a house of vampires was one of the last ones that occurred to her. "I would die of embarrassment, and then this whole night would have been a waste."

His eyes went to the jacket she was still wearing, but, once again, he didn't ask. "Come on," Lily said before he could change his mind. "Escort me to the station, officer. I'll talk."

"It doesn't have to be tonight, Lills. You look tired, and you've been through, well...through something traumatic."

"What's traumatic is going to be you interrogating Edward Cullen on my behalf. I don't want two things hanging over my head, so I might as well get the other one over with now. ...Unless it's, um, too late at night?"

Her dad sighed and stood up slowly. "The lobby'll be dark, but Jerry should still be there."

"Thank you, Dad," she said again and watched his ears turn red this time.

"By the way," he said as they walked out the door, "Jessica called you. She didn't leave a message, just said she'd talk to you tomorrow."

Lily's sigh was big enough to make her dad's eyebrows raise an inch as he ushered her out the door.

"She and Ange were leaving the restaurant when I showed up with Edward," she explained. "She was...really, really interested. In him being there, I mean. She's gonna absolutely grill me tomorrow."

Her dad grunted in a nervous sort of way, no doubt sensing the undercurrent of feminine matters. He unlocked his cruiser, and they got in. She smiled a little as she buckled up; it had been a long time since she'd ridden in the good ol' chariot. This was a nostalgic seat, firmly situated in so many happy childhood memories. Boring, sometimes, but happy.

"Did you tell them what happened?"

"Uh...no."

Her father's glance was disapproving.

"Well," she hedged, "they were already going home. Edward and I watched them get in their car—so I knew they would be fine. ...And anyway, I was a little, uh, distracted." Not in a bad way, though. No, the stress had only come out after he was gone, as if it had been lying in wait for when her protector cleared off.

Charlie cleared his throat. "Is that Edward's jacket?"

Lily's brain left its considerations of delayed shock and moved on to a different kind of horror. She swallowed, answered, "Yes," and carefully watched for his reaction out of the corner of her eye.

He nodded.

She waited a few seconds before gingerly explaining, "I left mine in the car—Jessica's car. I got cold; he was just being polite."

"He drove you home, too?"

She winced. Her answer was as casual as she could make it, which wasn't much. "Well, uh, Jess and Ange had already eaten, and I hadn't, and he was, well, worried about me going into shock, heh, so he wanted to make sure I ate something." Maybe the new traumatic event unfolding before her now would trigger that reaction in full force and she would go catatonic. Lily could only hope.

It wasn't the shock she'd expected, however, when Charlie's expression went from placid to pleased. "He took you to dinner?"

Lily stared at her father with wary astonishment. The suspicion in her voice made her answering, "Yeah," sound like a question.

He nodded again. He was practically smiling.

"What?" she demanded. "What's that look for?" What was with all the questions and bizarrely pleasant acceptance?

"Nothing."

"Liar. What were you thinking just now?" Lily wished she could read the emotions that her dad quickly stuffed behind a blank expression. So frustrating! It made her pity Edward a little. At least he had the benefit of knowing everybody else's minds. Meanwhile, Lily could barely read her own father's face sometimes, let alone the rest of mankind's social cues. Her kingdom for an ounce of discernment, ugh.

"Nothing, Lills," he continued to lie.

She let it drop with a huff. Men. They made you drag the thoughts out of them like a toddler out of the toy aisle.

Still...she couldn't help but be grateful to her father for his amazing tranquility when it came to the opposite sex. He kept surprising her. It felt like every mention of a boy to her mother had ended in some kind of fight. Even when she was young, that particular transgression had warranted a drawn-out lecture about "skin boundaries" and "guarding her heart." Throwing the birds and the bees into the mix had made everything so, so much worse. Anyone would have thought Lily was an at-risk youth with a bad track record for romance from the way Renée fussed. Not one boyfriend in seventeen years, and she got the riot act for so much as going to a guy's birthday party.

Lily was still munching on that piece of chewed-up, bitter old cud when they pulled up to the police station. The Forks Police Department does not look like a police department, because all the institutions in Forks sit one notch higher on the ladder of domesticity: the hospital looks like a motel, the school looks like a small collection of houses, and the police station looks like a small school. In fact, the police station shares its quarters with City Hall. A jail and a welcome center all rolled into one—that's Forks. Whether the emphasis is on the prison part or the hospitality depends on whether you like Forks or not. Lily, for her part, couldn't help but smile at the white metal building and its jutting angles, no bigger than the old gym at her old high school.

The janitor vacuuming the halls said hello to her father and stopped them to chat. The older police officer named Jerry was leaning back behind the desk in the lobby. He was immediately concerned to see the two of them, and he spent all of half an hour asking her about what had happened and trying to comfort her before he finally said, "Well, better get to that report."

A bit cloying, maybe even claustrophobic, but cozy. That's Forks.

Lily went home feeling not so much better than she had before leaving it, but definitely more satisfied. The tedious part was over with, and maybe having to lie to her father about certain things would weigh less on her conscience, now that she'd put the rest of the truth down on paper. Maybe it would help catch the grinning man—and the other guys too, although he was the one who had stood out the most—and save another girl somewhere who wasn't as lucky as her.

"I'd like to talk to your friend sometime this week."

What was that about being lucky?

"Can't it wait?" Lily pleaded. She leaned back against the kitchen counter and clasped her hands together. Puppy dog eyes only worked on her dad once in a while, but it was worth a shot for such a worthy cause. She thought about Edward and everything she'd learned about him, everything she still had to learn. Having her father's interrogation hanging over him in addition to hers couldn't do anything good for that score.

Charlie shook his head. "I'd rather not, Lil' Bit."

Lily sighed and hung her head in defeat. Darn that nickname; it was way more effective than puppy dog eyes could ever be.

"Fine, ugh," she moaned. "But will you at least give it a day? One day—for the sake of...decompression?"

In truth, she wasn't so much concerned with letting things settle as she was with having Edward all to herself—but, wow, probably oughta rephrase that, Lily. And it wasn't like she should be expecting all of his time anyway. That was clingy. Friends shouldn't be clingy. No, if anything, she was probably more worried about her dad embarrassing her. That was a normal friend-type concern, right?

...Actually, she should have been a lot more concerned about that, come to think of it. Just because Charlie had reacted well to her talking about a boy didn't mean everything would be okay once he met one in person, especially if her other parent's behavior was anything to go off of.

She had a stunningly horrific memory of Renée turning mama bear on an unfortunate young man from Lily's eighth grade history class. Her mom had known she was working with a boy for the presentation and hadn't seemed more bothered by it than usual—just the normal level of ranting—but when she forgot the poor guy was coming over to work on the presentation, and he showed up at the door asking for Lily...boy oh boy. Maybe the same sudden volcano reaction was hardwired into all parents. If Charlie got nervous about girl stuff, would it be so farfetched to think he might get the opposite about boy stuff? Maybe Lily had a bigger problem on her hands than she thought….

"I didn't say it had to be tomorrow," her dad pointed out, oblivious to the Vietnam-esque PTSD trip unfolding in his daughter's head. "Thursday or Friday's fine too."

Lily shook off the existential crisis and focused on the decision at hand. While she would have liked to put it off as long as possible, Thursday would mean another day to make it up to Edward, should anything...unfortunate happen to him. Visions of her dad shining one of those interrogation lamps into his face in a small dark room filled her head. It wouldn't be like that, of course—they didn't have that kind of lamp, at least—but if Edward did change his mind about driving to Seattle because of it, she would still have a chance to change it back...if she could.

"Thursday," she decided, only to realize that she should have asked Edward first.

Apparently her dad didn't think of that either, because he nodded, sighed, and came over to put an arm around her in a self-conscious sideways hug. It was unexpected and awkward and deeply appreciated.

"I'm...I'm really glad you're okay, kiddo," he told her, his suddenly gruff voice at odds with the tentative contact.

She rolled her teary eyes and turned towards him for a proper hug. At least he knew how to reciprocate one of those, even if he couldn't get the initiation quite right.

"I love you too, Dad."

Lily went up to her bedroom feeling drained down to her toes, like the evening had taken all the life out of her and left dead weight in its place. Just dragging herself through a shower was tiring, but she was glad for it when she remembered the grinning man's eyes on her body and the other man's warm, trailing touch on her arms….

She should have been too exhausted to think about it after that. Once she turned out the lights and got under the covers, though, it was all she could think about. Leering eyes and slithering touches like a waking nightmare. Gross voices that were way too loud in her ears, like flies she couldn't swat away. Laughter. A sickening grin that came closer and closer no matter how hard she tried to picture something else.

Lily sat up to fumble for the light. Her cold sweat had come back with shivers to boot. For a few minutes, she just sat there sweating and shaking as if she had a fever, staring at her walls and trying not to see that awful smile in her head. She reached behind her for the pillow—maybe she shouldn't have given away all her stuffed animals after all—but then she stopped.

Draped carefully across the rocking chair in a corner of her room was Edward's tan jacket. She got out of bed and picked it up by the shoulders, holding it up for a few moments thoughtfully. Pensively, really. Yes, he'd loaned it to her, but not with the idea of her wearing it over her pajamas. She looked down at the thin t-shirt and threadbare shorts she always wore for bed. It would be totally inappropriate to put this expensive leather coat over nothing but her night clothes...to wrap herself in it, in her bed, thinking of him….

Lily firmly shook away the taboo consideration. No, a friend wouldn't do anything so weird. A friend wouldn't smush her face into another friend's jacket just to remember how good he smelled—a gentle, fresh, sweet smell, like clover in the rain...and yet that was exactly what she found herself doing. Great job at being a normal friend, Lily. ...But she also found that her lungs loosened up when she breathed in the smell, like iron chains were falling off her chest, and she realized that her would-be attacker's grin was falling away from her too….

So she laid down on her bed with the light still on and pressed Edward Cullen's jacket to her face. The sensation of groping hands vanished, and the image of warm golden eyes filled her mind.

Yep, a friend definitely wouldn't do this.

Lily sighed and shoved the jacket away from her. She held it at arm's length, just like she'd been holding everything else that had to do with him. Refusing to actually wear the coat didn't negate the fact that she still clung to it, kept it bunched in her fist even when she held it away from her…. Ugh, and she had accused him of metaphors.

The symbolism in this one was all too clear: keeping her feelings at arm's length didn't stop them from being there. But it didn't mean that she had to give in and go around wearing them either.

When it came to Edward Cullen, she definitely wanted more than to be just friends, and that was a fact...but it wasn't a fact that had to be shared. She could acknowledge the desire to herself, maybe even indulge a bit when he made her heart race, instead of trying to justify the moment—but nothing more than that. Having feelings didn't mean she needed to act on them. Lily was lucky just to be friends with him. Anything more would be well beyond her wildest dreams and ten times as unlikely.

She sighed and closed her eyes. Without meaning to, she pulled the jacket close again, and Edward filled her senses. Her heart fluttered firmly, and this time she didn't try to stop it.

...Geez. Infatuated with a vampire. That was giving trouble way more than just a chance; it was inviting it to meet your father and letting it drive you to Seattle. The only trouble she dwelled on right now, however, was the heartbreak that might come from such a foolish, poorly-fated crush. Even if she hadn't been specially ordered to stir up Edward's bloodlust, and even if there had been any hope that he would ever feel anything for her beyond friendship, well...he was, as far as she knew, immortal. She wasn't. One way or another, they would eventually be separated.

Tragedy loomed like a storm cloud on the horizon, but it fought with and lost to a pair of eyes as golden as the sun. Even those warmer thoughts drifted away eventually, leaving her with nothing but dreams too sweet to remember when she woke up in the morning.


Whewf. That was a long one, huh?

But that's also a good thing, bc...this is it, my dudes. The last full chapter I've got done so far ;-; Idk why but it's been REALLY hard writing past this point. There's a whole lot of stuff to still figure out, especially with the climax, and I hate writing without knowing where I'm going lol so... It'll probably be a good bit of a wait until the next update ;;-;; (altho I do have like 1/4 of ch11 written fwiw) But I WILL continue to write and I will NOT stop, I super swear. No matter how long it freaking takes! For real.

I love you guys, and I love ~reviews~ a whole wHoLe bunch... :p but I still love you even if you don't drop a line. I throw my love at your silent little faces, like the dog in a car that's driving next to you. (You are the dog.)

Thank you guys so much for reading at all, and I'll see you next time! Stay safe!