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PAGE 11

33. FORGERY "Charlie, we've still got that strictly need-to-know company situation going. I know it's been more than a week since you saw Renesmee, but a visit is just not a good idea right now. How about I bring Renesmee over to see you?" Charlie was quiet for so long that I wondered if he heard the strain beneath my fagade. But then he muttered, "Need to know, ugh" and I realized it was just his wariness of the supernatural that made him slow to respond. "Okay, kid," Charlie said. "Can you bring her over this morning? Sue's bringing me lunch. She's just as horrified by my cooking as you were when you first showed up." Charlie laughed and then sighed for the old days. "This morning will be perfect." The sooner the better. I'd already put this off too long. "Is Jake coming with you guys?" Though Charlie didn't know anything about werewolf imprinting, no one could be oblivious to the attachment between Jacob and Renesmee. "Probably." There was no way Jacob would voluntarily miss an afternoon with Renesmee sans bloodsuckers. "Maybe I should invite Billy, too," Charlie mused. "But... hmm. Maybe another time." I was only half paying attention to Charlie 覧enough to notice the strange reluctance in his voice when he spoke of Billy, but not enough to worry what that was about. Charlie and Billy were grown-ups; if there was something going on between them, they could figure it out for themselves. I had too many more important things to obsess over. "See you in a few," I told him, and hung up. This trip was about more than protecting my father from the twenty-seven oddly matched vampires 覧who all had sworn not to kill anyone in a three-hundred-mile radius, but still... Obviously, no human being should get anywhere near this group. This was the excuse I'd given Edward: I was taking Renesmee to Charlie so that he wouldn't decide to come here. It was a good reason for leaving the house, but not my real reason at all. "Why can't we take your Ferrari?" Jacob complained when he met me in the garage. I was already in Edward's Volvo with Renesmee. Edward had gotten around to revealing my after car; as he'd suspected, I had not been capable of showing the appropriate enthusiasm. Sure, it was pretty and fast, but I liked to run. "Too conspicuous," I answered. "We could go on foot, but that would freak Charlie out." Jacob grumbled but got into the front seat. Renesmee climbed from my lap to his. "How are you?" I asked him as I pulled out of the garage. "How do you think?" Jacob asked bitingly. "I'm sick of all these reeking bloodsuckers." He saw my expression and spoke before I could answer. "Yeah, I know, I know. They're the good guys, they're here to help, they're going to save us all. Etcetera, etcetera. Say what you want, I still think Dracula One and Dracula Two are creep-tacular." I had to smile. The Romanians weren't my favorite guests, either. "I don't disagree with you there." Renesmee shook her head but said nothing; unlike the rest of us, she found the Romanians strangely fascinating. She'd made the effort to speak to them aloud since they would not let her touch them. Her question was about their unusual skin and, though I was afraid they might be offended, I was kind of glad she'd asked. I was curious, too. They hadn't seemed upset by her interest. Maybe a little rueful. "We sat still for a very long time, child," Vladimir had answered, with Stefan nodding along but not continuing Vladimir's sentences as he often did. "Contemplating our own divinity. It was a sign of our power that everything came to us. Prey, diplomats, those seeking our favor. We sat on our thrones and thought ourselves gods. We didn't notice for a long time that we were changing 蓉預lmost petrifying. I suppose the Volturi did us one favor when they burned our castles. Stefan and I, at least, did not continue to petrify. Now the Volturi's eyes are filmed with dusty scum, but ours are bright. I imagine that will give us an advantage when we gouge theirs from their sockets." I tried to keep Renesmee away from them after that. "How long do we get to hang out with Charlie?" Jacob asked, interrupting my thoughts. He was visibly relaxing as we pulled away from the house and all its new inmates. It made me happy that I didn't really count as a vampire to him. I was still just Bella. "For quite a while, actually." The tone of my voice caught his attention. "Is something going on here besides visiting your dad?" "Jake, you know how you're pretty good at controlling your thoughts around Edward?" He raised one thick black brow. "Yeah?" I just nodded, cutting my eyes to Renesmee. She was looking out the window, and I couldn't tell how interested she was in our conversation, but I decided not to risk going any further. Jacob waited for me to add something else, and then his lower lip pushed out while he thought about what little I'd said. As we drove in silence, I squinted through the annoying contacts into the cold rain; it wasn't quite cold enough for snow. My eyes were not as ghoulish as they had been in the beginning 覧definitely closer to a dull reddish orange than to bright crimson. Soon they'd be amber enough for me to quit the contacts, i hoped the change wouldn't upset Charlie too much. Jacob was still chewing over our truncated conversation when we got to Charlie's. We didn't talk as we walked at a quick human pace through the falling rain. My dad was waiting for us; he had the door open before I could knock. "Hey, guys! It seems like it's been years! Look at you, Nessie! Come to Grampa! I swear you've grown half a foot. And you look skinny, Ness." He glared at me. "Aren't they feeding you up there?" "It's just the growth spurt," I muttered. "Hey, Sue," I called over his shoulder. The smell of chicken, tomato, garlic, and cheese issued from the kitchen; it probably smelled good to everyone else. I could also smell fresh pine and packing dust. Renesmee flashed her dimples. She never spoke in front of Charlie. "Well, come on in out of the cold, kids. Where's my son-in-law?" "Entertaining friends," Jacob said, and then snorted. "You're so lucky you're out of the loop, Charlie. That's all I'm going to say." I punched Jacob lightly in the kidney while Charlie cringed. "Ow," Jacob complained under his breath; well, I'd thought I'd punched lightly. "Actually, Charlie, I have some errands to run." Jacob shot a glance at me but said nothing. "Behind on your Christmas shopping, Bells? You only have a few days, you know." "Yeah, Christmas shopping," I said lamely. That explained the packing dust. Charlie must have put the old decorations up. "Don't worry, Nessie," he whispered in her ear. "I got you covered if your mom drops the ball." I rolled my eyes at him, but in truth, I hadn't thought about the holidays at all. "Lunch's on the table," Sue called from the kitchen. "C'mon, guys." "See you later, Dad," I said, and exchanged a quick look with Jacob. Even if he couldn't help but think about this near Edward, at least there wasn't much for him to share. He had no idea what I was up to. Of course, I thought to myself as I got into the car, it wasn't like I had much idea, either. The roads were slick and dark, but driving didn't intimidate me anymore. My reflexes were well up to the job, and I barely paid attention to the road. The problem was keeping my speed from attracting attention when I had company. I wanted to be done with today's mission, to have the mystery sorted out so that I could get back to the vital task of learning. Learning to protect some, learning to kill others. I was getting better and better with my shield. Kate didn't feel the need to motivate me anymore 覧it wasn't hard to find reasons to feel angry, now that I knew that was the key覧and so I mostly worked with Zafrina. She was pleased with my extension; I was able to cover almost a ten-foot area for more than a minute, though it exhausted me. This morning she'd been trying to find out if I could push the shield away from my mind altogether. I didn't see what the use of that would be, but Zafrina thought it would help strengthen me, like exercising muscles in the stomach and back rather than just the arms. Eventually, you could lift more weight when all the muscles were stronger. I wasn't very good at it. I had only gotten one glimpse of the jungle river she was trying to show me. But there were different ways to prepare for what was coming, and with only two weeks left, I worried that I might be neglecting the most important. Today I would rectify that oversight. I'd memorized the appropriate maps, and I had no problem finding my way to the address that didn't exist online, the one for J. Jenks. My next step would be Jason Jenks at the other address, the one Alice had not given me. To say that it wasn't a nice neighborhood would be an understatement. The most nondescript of all the Cullens' cars was still outrageous on this street. My old Chevy would have looked healthy here. During my human years, I would have locked the doors and driven away as fast as I dared. As it was, I was a little fascinated. I tried to imagine Alice in this place for any reason, and failed. The buildings 覧all three stories, all narrow, all leaning slightly as if bowed by the pounding rain覧were mostly old houses divided up into multiple apartments. It was hard to tell what color the peeling paint was supposed to be. Everything had faded to shades of gray. A few of the buildings had businesses on the first floor: a dirty bar with the windows painted black, a psychic's supply store with neon hands and tarot cards glowing fitfully on the door, a tattoo parlor, and a daycare with duct tape holding the broken front window together. There were no lamps on inside any of the rooms, though it was grim enough outside that the humans should have needed the light. I could hear the low mumbling of voices in the distance; it sounded like TV. There were a few people about, two shuffling through the rain in opposite directions and one sitting on the shallow porch of a boarded-up cut-rate law office, reading a wet newspaper and whistling. The sound was much too cheerful for the setting. I was so bemused by the carefree whistler, I didn't realize at first that the abandoned building was right where the address I was looking for should exist. There were no numbers on the dilapidated place, but the tattoo parlor beside it was just two numbers off. I pulled up to the curb and idled for a second. I was getting into that dump one way or another, but how to do so without the whistler noticing me? I could park the next street over and come through the back.... There might be more witnesses on that side. Maybe the rooftops? Was it dark enough for that kind of thing? "Hey, lady," the whistler called to me. I rolled the passenger window down as if I couldn't hear him. The man laid his paper aside, and his clothes surprised me, now that I could see them. Under his long ragged duster, he was a little too well dressed. There was no breeze to give me the scent, but the sheen on his dark red shirt looked like silk. His crinkly black hair was tangled and wild, but his dark skin was smooth and perfect, his teeth white and straight. A contradiction. "Maybe you shouldn't park that car there, lady," he said. "It might not be here when you get back." "Thanks for the warning," I said. I shut off the engine and got out. Perhaps my whistling friend could give me the answers I needed faster than breaking and entering. I opened my big gray umbrella 覧not that I cared, really, about protecting the long cashmere sweater-dress I wore. It was what a human would do. The man squinted through the rain at my face, and then his eyes widened. He swallowed, and I heard his heart accelerate as I approached. Tm looking for someone," I began. "I'm someone," he offered with a smile. "What can I do for you, beautiful?" "Are you J. Jenks?" I asked. "Oh," he said, and his expression changed from anticipation to understanding. He got to his feet and examined me with narrowed eyes. "Why're you looking for J?" "That's my business." Besides, I didn't have a clue. "Are you J?" "No." We faced each other for a long moment while his sharp eyes ran up and down the fitted pearl gray sheath I wore. His gaze finally made it to my face. "You don't look like the usual customer." "I'm probably not the usual," I admitted. "But I do need to see him as soon as possible." "I'm not sure what to do," he admitted. "Why don't you tell me your name?" He grinned. "Max." "Nice to meet you, Max. Now, why don't you tell me what you do for the usual?" His grin became a frown. "Well, J's usual clients don't look a thing like you. Your kind doesn't bother with the downtown office. You just go straight up to his fancy office in the skyscraper." I repeated the other address I had, making the list of numbers a question. "Yeah, that's the place," he said, suspicious again. "How come you didn't go there?" "This was the address I was given 4傭y a very dependable source." "If you were up to any good, you wouldn't be here." I pursed my lips. I'd never been much good at bluffing, but Alice hadn't left me a lot of alternatives. "Maybe I'm not up to any good." Max's face turned apologetic. "Look, lady 覧" "Bella." "Right. Bella. See, I need this job. J pays me pretty good to mostly just hang out here all day. I want to help you, I do, but 2預nd of course Tm speaking hypothetically, right? Or off the record, or whatever works for you2傭ut if I pass somebody through that could get him in trouble, I'm out of work. Do you see my problem?" I thought for a minute, chewing on my lip. "You've never seen anyone like me here before? Well, sort of like me. My sister is a lot shorter than me, and she has dark spiky black hair." "J knows your sister?" "I think so." Max pondered this for a moment. I smiled at him, and his breathing stuttered. "Tell you what I'll do. HI give J a call and describe you to him. Let him make the decision." What did J. Jenks know? Would my description mean something to him? That was a troubling thought. "My last name is Cullen," I told Max, wondering if that was too much information. I was starting to get irritated with Alice. Did I really have to be quite this blind? She could have given me one or two more words.... "Cullen, got it." I watched as he dialed, easily picking out the number. Well, I could call J. Jenks myself if this didn't work. "Hey J, it's Max. I know I'm never supposed to call you at this number except in an emergency___" Is there an emergency? 1 heard faintly from the other end. "Well, not exactly. It's this girl who wants to see you___" / fail to see the emergency in that Why didn't you follow normal procedure? "I didn't follow normal procedure 'cause she don't look like any kind of normal 覧" Is she a badge?! "No 覧" You can't be sure about that. Does she look like one ofKubarev's 4? "No 覧let me talk, okay? She says you know her sister or something." Not likely. What does she look like? "She looks like . . ." His eyes ran from my face to my shoes appreciatively. "Well, she looks like a freaking supermodel, that's what she looks like." I smiled and he winked at me, then went on. "Rocking body, pale as a sheet, dark brown hair almost to her waist, needs a good night's sleep 覧any of this sounding familiar?" No, it doesn't I'm not happy that you let your weakness for pretty women interrupt 覧 "Yeah, so I'm a sucker for the pretty ones, what's wrong with that? I'm sorry I bothered you, man. Just forget it." "Name," I whispered. "Oh right. Wait," Max said. "She says her name is Bella Cullen. That help?" There was a beat of dead silence, and then the voice on the other end was abruptly screaming, using a lot of words you didn't often hear outside of truck stops. Max's whole expression changed; all the joking vanished and his lips went pale. "Because you didn't ask!" Max yelled back, panicked. There was another pause while J collected himself. Beautiful and pale? J asked, a tiny bit calmer. "I said that, didn't I?" Beautiful and pale? What did this man know about vampires? Was he one of us himself? I wasn't prepared for that kind of confrontation. I gritted my teeth. What had Alice gotten me into? Max waited for a minute through another volley of shouted insults and instructions and then glanced at me with eyes that were almost frightened. "But you only meet downtown clients on Thursdays 用熔kay, okay! On it.'7 He slid his phone shut. "He wants to see me?" I asked brightly. Max glowered. "You could have told me you were a priority client;7 "I didn't know I was." "I thought you might be a cop," he admitted. "I mean, you don't look like a cop. But you act kind of weird, beautiful." I shrugged. "Drug cartel?" he guessed. "Who, me?" I asked. "Yeah. Or your boyfriend or whatever." "Nope, sorry. I'm not really a fan of drugs, and neither is my husband. Just say no and all that." Max cussed under his breath. "Married. Can't catch a break." I smiled. "Mafia?" "Nope." "Diamond smuggling?" "Please! Is that the kind of people you usually deal with, Max? Maybe you need a new job." I had to admit, I was enjoying myself a little. I hadn't interacted with humans much besides Charlie and Sue. It was entertaining to watch him flounder. I was also pleased at how easy it was not to kill him. "You've got to be involved in something big. And bad," he mused. "It's not really like that." "That's what they all say. But who else needs papers? Or can afford to pay J's prices for them, I should say. None of my business, anyway," he said, and then muttered the word married again. He gave me an entirely new address with basic directions, and then watched me drive away with suspicious, regretful eyes. At this point, I was ready for almost anything 蓉耀ome kind of James Bond villain's high-tech lair seemed appropriate. So I thought Max must have given me the wrong address as a test. Or maybe the lair was subterranean, underneath this very commonplace strip mall nestled up against a wooded hill in a nice family neighborhood. I pulled into an open spot and looked up at a tastefully subtle sign that read JASON SCOTT, ATTORNEY AT LAW. The office inside was beige with celery green accents, inoffensive and unremarkable. There was no scent of vampire here, and that helped me relax. Nothing but unfamiliar human. A fish tank was set into the wall, and a blandly pretty blond receptionist sat behind the desk. "Hello," she greeted me. "How can I help you?" "I'm here to see Mr. Scott." "Do you have an appointment?" "Not exactly." She smirked a little. "It could be a while, then. Why don't you have a seat while I 蓉" April! a man's demanding voice squawked from the phone on her desk. I'm expecting a Ms. Cullen shortly. I smiled and pointed to myself. Send her in immediately. Do you understand? I don't care what it's interrupting. I could hear something else in his voice besides impatience. Stress. Nerves. "She's just arrived," April said as soon as she could speak. What? Send her in! What are you waiting for? "Right away, Mr. Scott!" She got to her feet, fluttering her hands as she led the way down a short hallway, offering me coffee or tea or anything else I might have wanted. "Here you are," she said as she ushered me through the door into a power office, complete with heavy wooden desk and vanity wall. "Close the door behind you," a raspy tenor voice ordered. I examined the man behind the desk while April made a hasty retreat. He was short and balding, probably around fifty-five, with a paunch. He wore a red silk tie with a blue-and-white-striped shirt, and his navy blazer hung over the back of his chair. He was also trembling, blanched to a sickly paste color, with sweat beading on his forehead; I imagined an ulcer churning away under the spare tire. J recovered himself and rose unsteadily from his chair. He reached his hand across the desk. "Ms. Cullen. What an absolute delight." I crossed to him and shook his hand quickly once. He cringed slightly at my cold skin but did not seem particularly surprised by it. "Mr. Jenks. Or do you prefer Scott?" He winced again. "Whatever you wish, of course." "How about you call me Bella, and HI call you J?" "Like old friends," he agreed, mopping a silk handkerchief across his forehead. He gestured for me to have a seat and took his own. "I must ask, am I finally meeting Mr. Jasper's lovely wife?" I weighed that for a second. So this man knew Jasper, not Alice. Knew him, and seemed afraid of him, too. "His sister-in-law, actually." He pursed his lips, as if he were grasping for meanings just as desperately as I was. "I trust Mr. Jasper is in good health?" he asked carefully. "I'm sure he is in excellent health. He's on an extended vacation at the moment." This seemed to clear up some of J's confusion. He nodded to himself and templed his fingers. "Just so. You should have come to the main office. My assistants there would have put you straight through to me 覧no need to go through less hospitable channels." I just nodded. I wasn't sure why Alice had given me the ghetto address. "Ah, well, you're here now. What can I do for you?" Tapers," I said, trying to make my voice sound like I knew what I was talking about. "Certainly," J agreed at once. "Are we talking birth certificates, death certificates, drivers' licenses, passports, social security cards... ?" I took a deep breath and smiled. I owed Max big time. And then my smile faded. Alice had sent me here for a reason, and I was sure it was to protect Renesmee. Her last gift to me. The one thing she would know I needed. The only reason Renesmee would need a forger was if she was running. And the only reason Renesmee would be running was if we had lost. If Edward and I were running with her, she wouldn't need these documents right away. I was sure IDs were something Edward knew how to get his hands on or make himself, and I was sure he knew ways to escape without them. We could run with her for thousands of miles. We could swim with her across an ocean. If we were around to save her. And all the secrecy to keep this out of Edward's head. Because there was a good chance that everything he knew, Aro would know. If we lost, Aro would certainly get the information he craved before he destroyed Edward. It was as I had suspected. We couldn't win. But we must have a good shot at killing Demetri before we lost, giving Renesmee the chance to run. My still heart felt like a boulder in my chest 覧a crushing weight. All my hope faded like fog in the sunshine. My eyes pricked. Who would I put this on? Charlie? But he was so defenselessly human. And how would I get Renesmee to him? He was not going to be anywhere close to that fight. So that left one person. There really had never been anyone else. I'd thought this through so quickly that J didn't notice my pause. "Two birth certificates, two passports, one driver's license," I said in a low, strained tone. If he noticed the change in my expression, he pretended otherwise. "The names?" "Jacob... Wolfe. And... Vanessa Wolfe." Nessie seemed like an okay nickname for Vanessa. Jacob would get a kick out of the Wolfe thing. His pen scratched swiftly across a legal pad. "Middle names?" "Just put something generic in." "If you prefer. Ages?" "Twenty-seven for the man, five for the girl." Jacob could pull it off. He was a beast. And at the rate Renesmee was growing, I'd better estimate high. He could be her stepfather.... "I'll need pictures if you prefer finished documents," J said, interrupting my thoughts. "Mr. Jasper usually liked to finish them himself." Well, that explained why J didn't know what Alice looked like. "Hold on," I said. This was luck. I had several family pictures shoved in my wallet, and the perfect one 熔憂acob holding Renesmee on the front porch steps覧was only a month old. Alice had given it to me just a few days before... Oh. Maybe there wasn't that much luck involved after all. Alice knew I had this picture. Maybe she'd even had some dim flash that I would need it before she gave it to me. "Here you go." J examined the picture for a moment. "Your daughter is very like you." I tensed. "She's more like her father." "Who is not this man." He touched Jacob's face. My eyes narrowed, and new sweat beads popped out on J's shiny head. "No. That is a very close friend of the family." "Forgive me," he mumbled, and the pen began scratching again. "How soon will you need the documents?" "Can I get them in a week?" "That's a rush order. It will cost twice as 蓉傭ut forgive me. I forgot with whom I was speaking." Clearly, he knew Jasper. "Just give me a number." He seemed hesitant to say it aloud, though I was sure, having dealt with Jasper, he must have known that price wasn't really an object. Not even taking into consideration the bloated accounts that existed all over the world with the Cullens' various names on them, there was enough cash stashed all over the house to keep a small country afloat for a decade; it reminded me of the way there were always a hundred fishhooks in the back of any drawer at Charlie's house. I doubted anyone would even notice the small stack I'd removed in preparation for today. J wrote the price down on the bottom of the legal pad. I nodded calmly. I had more than that with me. I unclasped my bag again and counted out the right amount 覧I had it all paper-clipped into five-thousand-dollar increments, so it took no time at all. "There." "Ah, Bella, you don't really have to give me the entire sum now. It's customary for you to save half to ensure delivery." I smiled wanly at the nervous man. "But I trust you, J. Besides, I'll give you a bonus 蓉葉he same again when I get the documents." "That's not necessary, I assure you." "Don't worry about it." It wasn't like I could take it with me. "So HI meet you here next week at the same time?" He gave me a pained look. "Actually, I prefer to make such transactions in places unrelated to my various businesses." "Of course. I'm sure I'm not doing this the way you expect." "I'm used to having no expectations when it comes to the Cullen family." He grimaced and then quickly composed his face again. "Shall we meet at eight o'clock a week from tonight at The Pacifico? It's on Union Lake, and the food is exquisite." "Perfect." Not that I would be joining him for dinner. He actually wouldn't like it much if I did. I rose and shook his hand again. This time he didn't flinch. But he did seem to have some new worry on his mind. His mouth was pinched up, his back tense. "Will you have trouble with that deadline?" I asked. "What?" He looked up, taken off guard by my question. "The deadline? Oh, no. No worries at all. I will certainly have your documents done on time." It would have been nice to have Edward here, so that I would know what J's real worries were. I sighed. Keeping secrets from Edward was bad enough; having to be away from him was almost too much. "Then HI see you in one week."

34. DECLARED I heard the music before I was out of the car. Edward hadn't touched his piano since the night Alice left. Now, as I shut the car door, I heard the song morph through a bridge and change into my lullaby. Edward was welcoming me home. I moved slowly as I pulled Renesmee 2庸ast asleep; we'd been gone all day用庸rom the car. We'd left Jacob at Charlie's覧he'd said he was going to catch a ride home with Sue. I wondered if he was trying to fill his head with enough trivia to crowd out the image of the way my face had looked when I'd walked through Charlie's door. As I walked slowly to the Cullen house now, I recognized that the hope and uplift that seemed almost a visible aura around the big white house had been mine this morning, too. It felt alien to me now. I wanted to cry again, hearing Edward play for me. But I pulled it together. I didn't want him to be suspicious. I would leave no clues in his mind for Aro if I could help it. Edward turned his head and smiled when I came in the door, but kept playing. "Welcome home," he said, as if this was just any normal day. As if there weren't twelve other vampires in the room involved in various pursuits, and a dozen more scattered around somewhere. "Did you have a good time with Charlie today?" "Yes. Sorry I was gone so long. I stepped out to do a little Christmas shopping for Renesmee. I know it won't be much of an event, but..." I shrugged. Edward's lips turned down. He quit playing and spun around on the bench so that his whole body was facing me. He put one hand on my waist and pulled me closer. "I hadn't thought much about it. If you want to make an event of it 覧" "No," I interrupted him. I flinched internally at the idea of trying to fake more enthusiasm than the bare minimum. "I just didn't want to let it pass without giving her something." "Do I get to see?" "If you want. It's only a little thing." Renesmee was completely unconscious, snoring delicately against my neck. I envied her. It would have been nice to escape reality, even for just a few hours. Carefully, I fished the little velvet jewelry bag from my clutch without opening the purse enough for Edward to see the cash I was still carrying. "It caught my eye from the window of an antique store while I was driving by." I shook the little golden locket into his palm. It was round with a slender vine border carved around the outside edge of the circle. Edward popped the tiny catch and looked inside. There was space for a small picture and, on the opposite side, an inscription in French. "Do you know what this says?" he asked in a different tone, more subdued than before. "The shopkeeper told me it said something along the lines of 'more than my own life.' Is that right?" "Yes, he had it right." He looked up at me, his topaz eyes probing. I met his gaze for a moment, then pretended to be distracted by the television. "I hope she likes it," I muttered. "Of course she will," he said lightly, casually, and I was sure in that second that he knew I was keeping something from him. I was also sure that he had no idea of the specifics. "Let's take her home," he suggested, standing and putting his arm around my shoulders. I hesitated. "What?" he demanded. "I wanted to practice with Emmett a little___" I'd lost the whole day to my vital errand; it made me feel behind. Emmett 蓉熔n the sofa with Rose and holding the remote, of course覧looked up and grinned in anticipation. "Excellent. The forest needs thinning." Edward frowned at Emmett and then at me. "There's plenty of time for that tomorrow," he said. "Don't be ridiculous," I complained. "There's no such thing as plenty of time anymore. That concept does not exist. I have a lot to learn and 2" He cut me off. "Tomorrow." And his expression was such that not even Emmett argued. i was surprised at how hard it was to go back to a routine that was, after all, brand new. But stripping away even that little bit of hope I'd been fostering made everything seem impossible. I tried to focus on the positives. There was a good chance that my daughter was going to survive what was coming, and Jacob, too. If they had a future, then that was a kind of victory, wasn't it? Our little band must be going to hold their own if Jacob and Renesmee were going to have the opportunity to run in the first place. Yes, Alice's strategy only made sense if we were going to put up a really good fight. So, a kind of victory there, too, considering that the Volturi had never been seriously challenged in millennia. It was not going to be the end of the world. Just the end of the Cullens. The end of Edward, the end of me. I preferred it that way 2葉he last part anyway. I would not live without Edward again; if he was leaving this world, then I would be right behind him. I wondered idly now and then if there would be anything for us on the other side. I knew Edward didn't really believe so, but Carlisle did. I couldn't imagine it myself. On the other hand, I couldn't imagine Edward not existing somehow, somewhere. If we could be together in any place, then that was a happy ending. And so the pattern of my days continued, just that much harder than before. We went to see Charlie on Christmas Day, Edward, Renesmee, Jacob, and I. All of Jacob's pack were there, plus Sam, Emily, and Sue. It was a big help to have them there in Charlie's little rooms, their huge, warm bodies wedged into corners around his sparsely decorated tree 2遥ou could see exactly where he'd gotten bored and quit蓉預nd overflowing his furniture. You could always count on werewolves to be buzzed about a coming fight, no matter how suicidal. The electricity of their excitement provided a nice current that disguised my utter lack of spirit. Edward was, as always, a better actor than I was. Renesmee wore the locket I'd given her at dawn, and in her jacket pocket was the MP3 player Edward had given her 蓉預 tiny thing that held five thousand songs, already filled with Edward's favorites. On her wrist was an intricately braided Quileute version of a promise ring. Edward had gritted his teeth over that one, but it didn't bother me. Soon, so soon, I would be giving her to Jacob for safekeeping. How could I be bothered by any symbol of the commitment I was so relying on? Edward had saved the day by ordering a gift for Charlie, too. It had shown up yesterday 蓉用riority overnight shipping蓉預nd Charlie spent all morning reading the thick instruction manual to his new fishing sonar system. From the way the werewolves ate, Sue's lunch spread must have been good. I wondered how the gathering would have looked to an outsider. Did we play our parts well enough? Would a stranger have thought us a happy circle of friends, enjoying the holiday with casual cheer? I think Edward and Jacob both were as relieved as I was when it was time to go. It felt odd to spend energy on the human fagade when there were so many more important things to be doing. I had a hard time concentrating. At the same time, this was perhaps the last time I would see Charlie. Maybe it was a good thing that I was too numb to really register that. I hadn't seen my mother since the wedding, but I found I could only be glad for the gradual distancing that had begun two years ago. She was too fragile for my world. I didn't want her to have any part of this. Charlie was stronger. Maybe even strong enough for a goodbye now, but I wasn't. It was very quiet in the car; outside, the rain was just a mist, hovering on the edge between liquid and ice. Renesmee sat on my lap, playing with her locket, opening and closing it. I watched her and imagined the things I would say to Jacob right now if I didn't have to keep my words out of Edward's head. If its ever safe again, take her to Charlie. Tell him the whole story someday. Tell him how much I loved him, how I couldn't bear to leave him even when my human life was over. Tell him he was the best father. Tell him to pass my love on to Renee, all my hopes that she will be happy and well.... I would have to give Jacob the documents before it was too late. I would give him a note for Charlie, too. And a letter for Renesmee. Something for her to read when I couldn't tell her I loved her anymore. There was nothing unusual about the outside of the Cullen house as we pulled into the meadow, but I could hear some kind of subtle uproar inside. Many low voices murmured and growled. It sounded intense, and it sounded like an argument. I could pick out Carlisle's voice and Amun's more often than the others. Edward parked in front of the house rather than going around to the garage. We exchanged one wary glance before we got out of the car. Jacob's stance changed; his face turned serious and careful. I guessed that he was in Alpha mode now. Obviously, something had happened, and he was going to get the information he and Sam would need. "Alistair is gone," Edward murmured as we darted up the steps. Inside the front room, the main confrontation was physically apparent. Lining the walls was a ring of spectators, every vampire who had joined us, except for Alistair and the three involved in the quarrel. Esme, Kebi, and Tia were the closest to the three vampires in the center; in the middle of the room, Amun was hissing at Carlisle and Benjamin. Edward's jaw tightened and he moved quickly to Esme's side, towing me by the hand. I clutched Renesmee tightly to my chest. "Amun, if you want to go, no one is forcing you to stay," Carlisle said calmly. "You're stealing half my coven, Carlisle!" Amun shrieked, stabbing one finger at Benjamin. "Is that why you called me here? To steal from me?" Carlisle sighed, and Benjamin rolled his eyes. "Yes, Carlisle picked a fight with the Volturi, endangered his whole family, just to lure me here to my death," Benjamin said sarcastically. "Be reasonable, Amun. I'm committed to do the right thing here 2悠'm not joining any other coven. You can do whatever you want, of course, as Carlisle has pointed out." "This won't end well," Amun growled. "Alistair was the only sane one here. We should all be running." "Think of who you're calling sane," Tia murmured in a quiet aside. "We're all going to be slaughtered!" "It's not going to come to a fight," Carlisle said in a firm voice. "You say!" "If it does, you can always switch sides, Amun. I'm sure the Volturi will appreciate your help." Amun sneered at him. "Perhaps that is the answer." Carlisle's answer was soft and sincere. "I wouldn't hold that against you, Amun. We have been friends for a long time, but I would never ask you to die for me." Amun's voice was more controlled, too. "But you're taking my Benjamin down with you." Carlisle put his hand on Amun's shoulder; Amun shook it off. "I'll stay, Carlisle, but it might be to your detriment. I will join them if that's the road to survival. You're all fools to think that you can defy the Volturi." He scowled, then sighed, glanced at Renesmee and me, and added in an exasperated tone, "I will witness that the child has grown. That's nothing but the truth. Anyone would see that." "That's all we've ever asked." Amun grimaced, "But not all that you are getting, it seems." He turned on Benjamin. "I gave you life. You're wasting it." Benjamin's face looked colder than I'd ever seen it; the expression contrasted oddly with his boyish features. "It's a pity you couldn't replace my will with your own in the process; perhaps then you would have been satisfied with me." Amun's eyes narrowed. He gestured abruptly to Kebi, and they stalked past us out the front door. "He's not leaving," Edward said quietly to me, "but he'll be keeping his distance even more from now on. He wasn't bluffing when he spoke of joining the Volturi." "Why did Alistair go?" I whispered. "No one can be positive; he didn't leave a note. From his mutters, it's been clear that he thinks a fight is inevitable. Despite his demeanor, he actually does care too much for Carlisle to stand with the Volturi. I suppose he decided the danger was too much." Edward shrugged. Though our conversation was clearly just between the two of us, of course everyone could hear it. Eleazar answered Edward's comment like it had been meant for all. "From the sound of his mumblings, it was a bit more than that. We haven't spoken much of the Volturi agenda, but Alistair worried that no matter how decisively we can prove your innocence, the Volturi will not listen. He thinks they will find an excuse to achieve their goals here." The vampires glanced uneasily at one another. The idea that the Volturi would manipulate their own sacrosanct law for gain was not a popular idea. Only the Romanians were composed, their small half-smiles ironic. They seemed amused at how the others wanted to think well of their ancient enemies. Many low discussions began at the same time, but it was the Romanians I listened to. Maybe because the fair-haired Vladimir kept shooting glances in my direction. "I do so hope Alistair was right about this," Stefan murmured to Vladimir. "No matter the outcome, word will spread. It's time our world saw the Volturi for what they've become. They'll never fall if everyone believes this nonsense about them protecting our way of life." "At least when we ruled, we were honest about what we were," Vladimir replied. Stefan nodded. "We never put on white hats and called ourselves saints." Tm thinking the time has come to fight," Vladimir said. "How can you imagine well ever find a better force to stand with? Another chance this good?" "Nothing is impossible. Maybe someday 覧" "We've been waiting for fifteen hundred years, Stefan. And they've only gotten stronger with the years." Vladimir paused and looked at me again. He showed no surprise when he saw that I was watching him, too. "If the Volturi win this conflict, they will leave with more power than they came with. With every conquest they add to their strengths. Think of what that newborn alone could give them" 覧he jerked his chin toward me覧"and she is barely discovering her gifts. And the earth-mover." Vladimir nodded toward Benjamin, who stiffened. Almost everyone was eavesdropping on the Romanians now, like me. "With their witch twins they have no need of the illusionist or the fire touch." His eyes moved to Zafrina, then Kate. Stefan looked at Edward. "Nor is the mind reader is exactly necessary. But I see your point. Indeed, they will gain much if they win." "More than we can afford to have them gain, wouldn't you agree?" Stefan sighed. "I think i must agree. And that means..." "That we must stand against them while there is still hope." "If we can just cripple them, even, expose them ..." "Then, someday, others will finish the job." "And our long vendetta will be repaid. At last." They locked eyes for a moment and then murmured in unison. "It seems the only way." "So we fight," Stefan said. Though I could see that they were torn, self-preservation warring with revenge, the smile they exchanged was full of anticipation. "We fight," Vladimir agreed. I suppose it was a good thing; like Alistair, I was sure the battle was impossible to avoid. In that case, two more vampires fighting on our side could only help. But the Romanians' decision still made me shudder. "We will fight, too," Tia said, her usually grave voice more solemn than ever. "We believe the Volturi will overstep their authority. We have no wish to belong to them." Her eyes lingered on her mate. Benjamin grinned and threw an impish glance toward the Romanians. "Apparently, I'm a hot commodity. It appears I have to win the right to be free." "This won't be the first time I've fought to keep myself from a king's rule," Garrett said in a teasing tone. He walked over and clapped Benjamin on the back. "Here's to freedom from oppression." "We stand with Carlisle," Tanya said. "And we fight with him." The Romanians' pronouncement seemed to have made the others feel the need to declare themselves as well. "We have not decided/7 Peter said. He looked down at his tiny companion; Charlotte's lips were set in dissatisfaction. It looked like she'd made her decision. I wondered what it was. "The same goes for me," Randall said. "And me," Mary added. "The packs will fight with the Cullens," Jacob said suddenly. "We're not afraid of vampires," he added with a smirk. "Children," Peter muttered. "Infants," Randall corrected. Jacob grinned tauntingly. "Well, I'm in, too," Maggie said, shrugging out from under Siobhan's restraining hand. "I know truth is on Carlisle's side. I can't ignore that." Siobhan stared at the junior member of her coven with worried eyes. "Carlisle," she said as if they were alone, ignoring the suddenly formal feel of the gathering, the unexpected outburst of declarations, "I don't want this to come to a fight." "Nor do I, Siobhan. You know that's the last thing I want." He half-smiled. "Perhaps you should concentrate on keeping it peaceful." "You know that won't help," she said. I remembered Rose and Carlisle's discussion of the Irish leader; Carlisle believed that Siobhan had some subtle but powerful gift to make things go her way 覧and yet Siobhan didn't believe it herself. "It couldn't hurt," Carlisle said. Siobhan rolled her eyes. "Shall I visualize the outcome I desire?" she asked sarcastically. Carlisle was openly grinning now. "If you don't mind." "Then there is no need for my coven to declare itself, is there?" she retorted. "Since there is no possibility of a fight." She put her hand back on Maggie's shoulder, pulling the girl closer to her. Siobhan's mate, Liam, stood silent and expressionless. Almost everyone else in the room looked mystified by Carlisle and Siobhan's clearly joking exchange, but they didn't explain themselves. That was the end of the dramatic speeches for the night. The group slowly dispersed, some off to hunt, some to while away the time with Carlisle's books or televisions or computers. Edward, Renesmee, and I went to hunt. Jacob tagged along. "Stupid leeches," he muttered to himself when we got outside. "Think they're so superior." He snorted. "They'll be shocked when the infants save their superior lives, won't they?" Edward said. Jake smiled and punched his shoulder. "Hell yeah, they will." This wasn't our last hunting trip. We all would hunt again nearer to the time we expected the Volturi. As the deadline was not exact, we were planning to stay a few nights out in the big baseball clearing Alice had seen, just in case. All we knew was that they would come the day that the snow stuck to the ground. We didn't want the Volturi too close to town, and Demetri would lead them to wherever we were. I wondered who he would track in, and guessed that it would be Edward since he couldn't track me. I thought about Demetri while I hunted, paying little attention to my prey or the drifting snowflakes that had finally appeared but were melting before they touched the rocky soil. Would Demetri realize that he couldn't track me? What would he make of that? What would Aro? Or was Edward wrong? There were those little exceptions to what I could withstand, those ways around my shield. Everything that was outside my mind was vulnerable 蓉熔pen to the things Jasper, Alice, and Benjamin could do. Maybe Demetri's talent worked a little differently, too. And then I had a thought that brought me up short. The half-drained elk dropped from my hands to the stony ground. Snowflakes vaporized a few inches from the warm body with tiny sizzling sounds. I stared blankly at my bloody hands. Edward saw my reaction and hurried to my side, leaving his own kill undrained. "What's wrong?" he asked in a low voice, his eyes sweeping the forest around us, looking for whatever had triggered my behavior. "Renesmee," I choked. "She's just through those trees," he reassured me. "I can hear both her thoughts and Jacob's. She's fine." "That's not what I meant," I said. "I was thinking about my shield 覧you really think it's worth something, that it will help somehow. I know the others are hoping that I'll be able to shield Zafrina and Benjamin, even if I can only keep it up for a few seconds at a time. What if that's a mistake? What if your trust in me is the reason that we fail?" My voice was edging toward hysteria, though I had enough control to keep it low. I didn't want to upset Renesmee. "Bella, what brought this on? Of course, it s wonderful that you can protect yourself, but you're not responsible for saving anyone. Don't distress yourself needlessly." "But what if I can't protect anything?" I whispered in gasps. "This thing I do, it's faulty, it's erratic! There's no rhyme or reason to it. Maybe it will do nothing against Alec at all." "Shh," he hushed me. "Don't panic. And don't worry about Alec. What he does is no different than what Jane or Zafrina does. It's just an illusion 2揺e can't get inside your head any more than I can." "But Renesmee does!" I hissed frantically through my teeth. "It seemed so natural, I never questioned it before. It's always been just part of who she is. But she puts her thoughts right into my head just like she does with everyone else. My shield has holes, Edward!" I stared at him desperately, waiting for him to acknowledge my terrible revelation. His lips were pursed, as if he was trying to decide how to phrase something. His expression was perfectly relaxed. "You thought of this a long time ago, didn't you?" I demanded, feeling like an idiot for my months of overlooking the obvious. He nodded, a faint smile pulling up one corner of his mouth. "The first time she touched you." I sighed at my own stupidity, but his calm had mellowed me some. "And this doesn't bother you? You don't see it as a problem?" "I have two theories, one more likely than the other." "Give me the least likely first." "Well, she's your daughter," he pointed out. "Genetically half you. I used to tease you about how your mind was on a different frequency than the rest of ours. Perhaps she runs on the same." This didn't work for me. "But you hear her mind just fine. Everyone hears her mind. And what if Alec runs on a different frequency? What if 2?" He put a finger to my lips. "I've considered that. Which is why I think this next theory is much more likely." I gritted my teeth and waited. "Do you remember what Carlisle said to me about her, right after she showed you that first memory?" Of course I remembered. "He said, It's an interesting twist. Like she's doing the exact opposite of what you can.'" "Yes. And so I wondered. Maybe she took your talent and flipped it, too." I considered that. "You keep everyone out," he began. "And no one keeps her out?" I finished hesitantly. "That's my theory," he said. "And if she can get into your head, I doubt there's a shield on the planet who could keep her at bay. That will help. From what we've seen, no one can doubt the truth of her thoughts once they've allowed her to show them. And I think no one can keep her from showing them, if she gets close enough. If Aro allows her to explain___" I shuddered to think of Renesmee so close to Aro's greedy, milky eyes. "Well," he said, rubbing my tight shoulders. "At least there's nothing that can stop him from seeing the truth." "But is the truth enough to stop him?" I murmured. For that, Edward had no answer.

35. DEADLINE "Headed out?" Edward asked, his tone nonchalant. There was a sort of forced composure about his expression. He hugged Renesmee just a little bit tighter to his chest. "Yes, a few last-minute things...," I responded just as casually. He smiled my favorite smile. "Hurry back to me." "Always." I took his Volvo again, wondering if he'd read the odometer after my last errand. How much had he pieced together? That I had a secret, absolutely. Would he have deduced the reason why I didn't confide in him? Did he guess that Aro might soon know everything he knew? I thought Edward could have come to that conclusion, which explained why he had demanded no reasons from me. I guessed he was trying not to speculate too much, trying to keep my behavior off his mind. Had he put this together with my odd performance the morning after Alice left, burning my book in the fire? I didn't know if he could have made that leap. It was a dreary afternoon, already dark as dusk. I sped through the gloom, my eyes on the heavy clouds. Would it snow tonight? Enough to layer the ground and create the scene from Alice's vision? Edward estimated that we had about two more days. Then we would set ourselves in the clearing, drawing the Volturi to our chosen place. As I headed through the darkening forest, I considered my last trip to Seattle. I thought I knew Alice's purpose in sending me to the dilapidated drop point where J. Jenks referred his shadier clients. If I'd gone to one of his other, more legitimate offices, would I have ever known what to ask for? if I'd met him as Jason Jenks or Jason Scott, legitimate lawyer, would I ever have unearthed J. Jenks, purveyor of illegal documents? I'd had to go the route that made it clear I was up to no good. That was my clue. It was black when I pulled into the parking lot of the restaurant a few minutes early, ignoring the eager valets by the entrance. I popped in my contacts and then went to wait for J inside the restaurant. Though I was in a hurry to be done with this depressing necessity and back with my family, J seemed careful to keep himself untainted by his baser associations; i had a feeling a handoff in the dark parking lot would offend his sensibilities. I gave the name Jenks at the podium, and the obsequious maftre d' led me upstairs to a small private room with a fire crackling in a stone hearth. He took the calf-length ivory trench coat I'd worn to disguise the fact that I was wearing Alice's idea of appropriate attire, and gasped quietly at my oyster satin cocktail dress. I couldn't help being a little flattered; I still wasn't used to being beautiful to everyone rather than just Edward. The mattre d' stuttered half-formed compliments as he backed unsteadily from the room. I stood by the fire to wait, holding my fingers close to the flame to warm them a little before the inevitable handshake. Not that J wasn't obviously aware that there was something up with the Cullens, but it was still a good habit to practice. For one half second, I wondered what it would feel like to put my hand in the fire. What it would feel like when I burned___ J's entrance distracted my morbidity. The maftre d' took his coat, too, and it was evident that I was not the only one who had dressed up for this meeting. "I'm so sorry I'm late," J said as soon as we were alone. "No, you're exactly on time." He held out his hand, and as we shook I could feel that his fingers were still quite noticeably warmer than mine. It didn't seem to bother him. "You look stunning, if I may be so bold, Mrs. Cullen." "Thank you, J. Please, call me Bella." "I must say, it's a different experience working with you than it is with Mr. Jasper. Much less... unsettling." He smiled hesitantly. "Really? I've always found Jasper to have a very soothing presence." His eyebrows pulled together. "Is that so?" he murmured politely while clearly still in disagreement. How odd. What had Jasper done to this man? "Have you known Jasper long?" He sighed, looking uncomfortable. "I've been working with Mr. Jasper for more than twenty years, and my old partner knew him for fifteen years before that.... He never changes." J cringed delicately. "Yeah, Jasper's kind of funny that way." J shook his head as if he could shake away the disturbing thoughts. "Won't you have a seat, Bella?" "Actually, I'm in a bit of a hurry. I've got a long drive home." As I spoke, I took the thick white envelope with his bonus from my bag and handed it to him. "Oh," he said, a little catch of disappointment in his voice. He tucked the envelope into an inside pocket of his jacket without bothering to check the amount. "I was hoping we could speak for just a moment." "About?" I asked curiously. "Well, let me get you your items first. I want to make sure you're satisfied." He turned, placed his briefcase on the table, and popped the latches. He took out a legal-sized manila envelope. Though I had no idea what I should be looking for, I opened the envelope and gave the contents a cursory glance. J had flipped Jacob's picture and changed the coloring so that it wasn't immediately evident that it was the same picture on both his passport and driver's license. Both looked perfectly sound to me, but that meant little. I glanced at the picture on Vanessa Wolfe's passport for a fraction of a second, and then looked away quickly, a lump rising in my throat. "Thank you," I told him. His eyes narrowed slightly, and I felt he was disappointed that my examination was not more thorough. "I can assure you every piece is perfect. All will pass the most rigorous scrutiny by experts." "I'm sure they are. I truly appreciate what you've done for me, J." "It's been my pleasure, Bella. In the future, feel free to come to me for anything the Cullen family needs." He didn't even hint at it really, but this sounded like an invitation for me to take over Jasper's place as liaison. "There was something you wanted to discuss?" "Er, yes. It's a bit delicate.. .." He gestured to the stone hearth with a questioning expression. I sat on the edge of the stone, and he sat beside me. Sweat was dewing up on his forehead again, and he pulled a blue silk handkerchief from his pocket and began mopping. "You are the sister of Mr. Jasper's wife? Or married to his brother?" he asked. "Married to his brother," I clarified, wondering where this was leading. "You would be Mr. Edward's bride, then?" "Yes." He smiled apologetically. "I've seen all the names many times, you see. My belated congratulations. It's nice that Mr. Edward has found such a lovely partner after all this time." "Thank you very much." He paused, dabbing at the sweat. "Over the years, you might imagine that I've developed a very healthy level of respect for Mr. Jasper and the entire family." I nodded cautiously. He took a deep breath and then exhaled without speaking. "J, please just say whatever you need to." He took another breath and then mumbled quickly, slurring the words together. "If you could just assure me that you are not planning to kidnap the little girl from her father, I would sleep better tonight." "Oh," I said, stunned. It took me a minute to understand the erroneous conclusion he'd drawn. "Oh no. It's nothing like that at all." I smiled weakly, trying to reassure him. "I'm simply preparing a safe place for her in case something were to happen to my husband and me." His eyes narrowed. "Are you expecting something to happen?" He blushed, then apologized. "Not that it's any of my business." I watched the red flush spread behind the delicate membrane of his skin and was glad 覧as I often was覧that I was not the average newborn. J seemed a nice enough man, criminal behavior aside, and it would have been a shame to kill him. "You never know." I sighed. He frowned. "May I wish you the best of luck, then. And please don't be put out with me, my dear, but... if Mr. Jasper should come to me and ask what names I put on these documents ..." "Of course you should tell him immediately. I'd like nothing better than to have Mr. Jasper fully aware of our entire transaction." My transparent sincerity seemed to ease a bit of his tension. "Very good," he said. "And I can't prevail upon you to stay for dinner?" "I'm sorry, J. I'm short on time at present." "Then, again, my best wishes for your health and happiness. Anything at all the Cullen family needs, please don't hesitate to call on me, Bella." "Thank you, J." I left with my contraband, glancing back to see that J was staring after me, his expression a mixture of anxiety and regret. The return trip took me less time. The night was black, and so I turned off my headlights and floored it. When I got back to the house, most of the cars, including Alice's Porsche and my Ferrari, were missing. The traditional vampires were going as far away as possible to satiate their thirst. I tried not to think of their hunting in the night, cringing at the mental picture of their victims. Only Kate and Garrett were in the front room, arguing playfully about the nutritional value of animal blood. I inferred that Garrett had attempted a hunting trip vegetarian-style and found it difficult. Edward must have taken Renesmee home to sleep. Jacob, no doubt, was in the woods close by the cottage. The rest of my family must have been hunting as well. Perhaps they were out with the other Denalis. Which basically gave me the house to myself, and I was quick to take advantage. I could smell that I was the first one to enter Alice and Jasper's room in a long while, maybe the first since the night they'd left us. I rooted silently through their huge closet until I found the right sort of bag. It must have been Alice's; it was a small black leather backpack, the kind that was usually used as a purse, little enough that even Renesmee could carry it without looking out of place. Then I raided their petty cash, taking about twice the yearly income for the average American household. I guessed my theft would be less noticeable here than anywhere else in the house, since this room made everyone sad. The envelope with the fake passports and IDs went into the bag on top of the money. Then I sat on the edge of Alice and Jasper's bed and looked at the pitifully insignificant package that was all I could give my daughter and my best friend to help save their lives. I slumped against the bedpost, feeling helpless. But what else could I do? I sat there for several minutes with my head bowed before the inkling of a good idea came to me. If... If I was to assume that Jacob and Renesmee were going to escape, then that included the assumption that Demetri would be dead. That gave any survivors a little breathing room, Alice and Jasper included. So why couldn't Alice and Jasper help Jacob and Renesmee? If they were reunited, Renesmee would have the best protection imaginable. There was no reason why this couldn't happen, except for the fact that Jake and Renesmee both were blind spots for Alice. How would she begin to look for them? I deliberated for a moment, then left the room, crossing the hall to Carlisle and Esme's suite. As usual, Esme's desk was stacked with plans and blueprints, everything neatly laid out in tall piles. The desk had a slew of pigeonholes above the work surface; in one was a box of stationery. I took a fresh sheet of paper and a pen. Then I stared at the blank ivory page for a full five minutes, concentrating on my decision. Alice might not be able to see Jacob or Renesmee, but she could see me. I visualized her seeing this moment, hoping desperately that she wasn't too busy to pay attention. Slowly, deliberately, I wrote the words RIO DE JANEIRO in all caps across the page. Rio seemed the best place to send them: It was far away from here, Alice and Jasper were already in South America at last report, and it wasn't like our old problems had ceased to exist just because we had worse problems now. There was still the mystery of Renesmee's future, the terror of her racing age. We'd been headed south anyway. Now it would be Jacob's, and hopefully Alice's, job to search for the legends. I bowed my head again against a sudden urge to sob, clenching my teeth together. It was better that Renesmee go on without me. But I already missed her so much I could barely stand it. I took a deep breath and put the note at the bottom of the duffel bag, where Jacob would find it soon enough. I crossed my fingers that 覧since it was unlikely that his high school offered Portuguese覧Jake had at least taken Spanish as his language elective. There was nothing left now but waiting. For two days, Edward and Carlisle stayed in the clearing where Alice had seen the Volturi arrive. It was the same killing field where Victoria's newborns had attacked last summer. I wondered if it felt repetitive to Carlisle, like deja vu. For me, it would be all new. This time Edward and I would stand with our family. We could only imagine that the Volturi would be tracking either Edward or Carlisle. I wondered if it would surprise them that their prey didn't run. Would that make them wary? I couldn't imagine the Volturi ever feeling a need for caution. Though I was 覧hopefully用擁nvisible to Demetri, I stayed with Edward. Of course. We only had a few hours left to be together. Edward and I had not had a last grand scene of farewell, nor did I plan one. To speak the word was to make it final. It would be the same as typing the words The End on the last page of a manuscript. So we did not say our goodbyes, and we stayed very close to each other, always touching. Whatever end found us, it would not find us separated. We set up a tent for Renesmee a few yards back into the protective forest, and then there was more deja vu as we found ourselves camping in the cold again with Jacob. It was almost impossible to believe how much things had changed since last June. Seven months ago, our triangular relationship seemed impossible, three different kinds of heartbreak that could not be avoided. Now everything was in perfect balance. It seemed hideously ironic that the puzzle pieces would fit together just in time for all of them to be destroyed. It started to snow again the night before New Year's Eve. This time, the tiny flakes did not dissolve into the stony ground of the clearing. While Renesmee and Jacob slept 2憂acob snoring so loudly I wondered how Renesmee didn't wake覧the snow made first a thin icing over the earth, then built into thicker drifts. By the time the sun rose, the scene from Alice's vision was complete. Edward and I held hands as we stared across the glittering white field, and neither of us spoke. Through the early morning, the others gathered, their eyes bearing mute evidence of their preparations 覧some light gold, some rich crimson. Soon after we all were together, we could hear the wolves moving in the woods. Jacob emerged from the tent, leaving Renesmee still sleeping, to join them. Edward and Carlisle were arraying the others into a loose formation, our witnesses to the sides like galleries. I watched from a distance, waiting by the tent for Renesmee to wake. When she did, I helped her dress in the clothes I'd carefully picked out two days before. Clothes that looked frilly and feminine but that were actually sturdy enough to not show any wear 覧even if a person wore them while riding a giant werewolf through a couple of states. Over her jacket I put on the black leather backpack with the documents, the money, the clue, and my love notes for her and Jacob, Charlie and Renee. She was strong enough that it was no burden to her. Her eyes were huge as she read the agony on my face. But she had guessed enough not to ask me what I was doing. "I love you," I told her. "More than anything." "I love you, too, Momma," she answered. She touched the locket at her neck, which now held a tiny photo of her, Edward, and me. "We'll always be together." "In our hearts we'll always be together," I corrected in a whisper as quiet as a breath. "But when the time comes today, you have to leave me." Her eyes widened, and she touched her hand to my cheek. The silent no was louder than if she'd shouted it. I fought to swallow; my throat felt swollen. "Will you do it for me? Please?" She pressed her fingers harder to my face. Why? "I can't tell you," I whispered. "But you'll understand soon. I promise.'7 In my head, I saw Jacob's face. I nodded, then pulled her fingers away. "Don't think of it," I breathed into her ear. "Don't tell Jacob until I tell you to run, okay?" This she understood. She nodded, too. I took from my pocket one last detail. While packing Renesmee's things, an unexpected sparkle of color had caught my eye. A chance ray of sun through the skylight had hit the jewels on the ancient precious box stuffed high overhead on a shelf in an untouched corner. I considered it for a moment and then shrugged. After putting together Alice's clues, I couldn't hope that the coming confrontation would be resolved peacefully. But why not try to start things out as friendly as possible? I asked myself. What could it hurt? So I guess I must have had some hope left after all 蓉傭lind, senseless hope覧because I'd scaled the shelves and retrieved Aro's wedding present to me. Now I fastened the thick gold rope around my neck and felt the weight of the enormous diamond nestle into the hollow of my throat. "Pretty," Renesmee whispered. Then she wrapped her arms like a vise around my neck. I squeezed her against my chest. Interlocked this way, I carried her out of the tent and to the clearing. Edward cocked one eyebrow as I approached, but otherwise did not remark on my accessory or Renesmee's. He just put his arms tight around us both for one long moment and then, with a deep sigh, let us go. I couldn't see a goodbye anywhere in his eyes. Maybe he had more hope for something after this life than he'd let on. We took our place, Renesmee climbing agilely onto my back to leave my hands free. I stood a few feet behind the front line made up by Carlisle, Edward, Emmett, Rosalie, Tanya, Kate, and Eleazar. Close beside me were Benjamin and Zafrina; it was my job to protect them as long as I was able. They were our best offensive weapons. If the Volturi were the ones who could not see, even for a few moments, that would change everything. Zafrina was rigid and fierce, with Senna almost a mirror image at her side. Benjamin sat on the ground, his palms pressed to the dirt, and muttered quietly about fault lines. Last night, he'd strewn piles of boulders in natural-looking, now snow-covered heaps all along the back of the meadow. They weren't enough to injure a vampire, but hopefully enough to distract one. The witnesses clustered to our left and right, some nearer than others 2葉hose who had declared themselves were the closest. I noticed Siobhan rubbing her temples, her eyes closed in concentration; was she humoring Carlisle? Trying to visualize a diplomatic resolution? In the woods behind us, the invisible wolves were still and ready; we could only hear their heavy panting, their beating hearts. The clouds rolled in, diffusing the light so that it could have been morning or afternoon. Edward's eyes tightened as he scrutinized the view, and I was sure he was seeing this exact scene for the second time 覧the first time being Alice's vision. It would look just the same when the Volturi arrived. We only had minutes or seconds left now. All our family and allies braced themselves. From the forest, the huge russet Alpha wolf came forward to stand at my side; it must have been too hard for him to keep his distance from Renesmee when she was in such immediate danger. Renesmee reached out to twine her fingers in the fur over his massive shoulder, and her body relaxed a little bit. She was calmer with Jacob close. I felt a tiny bit better, too. As long Jacob was with Renesmee, she would be all right. Without risking a glance behind, Edward reached back to me. I stretched my arm forward so that I could grip his hand. He squeezed my fingers. Another minute ticked by, and I found myself straining to hear some sound of approach. And then Edward stiffened and hissed low between his clenched teeth. His eyes focused on the forest due north of where we stood. We stared where he did, and waited as the last seconds passed.

36. BLOODLUST They came with pageantry, with a kind of beauty. They came in a rigid, formal formation. They moved together, but it was not a march; they flowed in perfect synchronicity from the trees 覧a dark, unbroken shape that seemed to hover a few inches above the white snow, so smooth was the advance. The outer perimeter was gray; the color darkened with each line of bodies until the heart of the formation was deepest black. Every face was cowled, shadowed. The faint brushing sound of their feet was so regular it was like music, a complicated beat that never faltered. At some sign I did not see 覧or perhaps there was no sign, only millennia of practice臨葉he configuration folded outward. The motion was too stiff, too square to resemble the opening of a flower, though the color suggested that; it was the opening of a fan, graceful but very angular. The gray-cloaked figures spread to the flanks while the darker forms surged precisely forward in the center, each movement closely controlled. Their progress was slow but deliberate, with no hurry, no tension, no anxiety. It was the pace of the invincible. This was almost my old nightmare. The only thing lacking was the gloating desire I'd seen on the faces in my dream 擁葉he smiles of vindictive joy. Thus far, the Volturi were too disciplined to show any emotion at all. They also showed no surprise or dismay at the collection of vampires that waited for them here覧a collection that looked suddenly disorganized and unprepared in comparison. They showed no surprise at the giant wolf that stood in our midst. I couldn't help counting. There were thirty-two of them. Even if you did not count the two drifting, waifish black-cloaked figures in the very back, who I took to be the wives 覧their protected position suggesting that they would not be involved in the attack覧we were still outnumbered. There were just nineteen of us who would fight, and then seven more to watch as we were destroyed. Even counting the ten wolves, they had us. "The redcoats are coming, the redcoats are coming," Garrett muttered mysteriously to himself and then chuckled once. He slid one step closer to Kate. "They did come," Vladimir whispered to Stefan. 'The wives," Stefan hissed back. 'The entire guard. All of them together. It's well we didn't try Volterra." And then, as if their numbers were not enough, while the Volturi slowly and majestically advanced, more vampires began entering the clearing behind them. The faces in this seemingly endless influx of vampires were the antithesis to the Volturi's expressionless discipline 蓉葉hey wore a kaleidoscope of emotions. At first there was the shock and even some anxiety as they saw the unexpected force awaiting them. But that concern passed quickly; they were secure in their overwhelming numbers, secure in their position behind the unstoppable Volturi force. Their features returned to the expression they'd worn before we'd surprised them. It was easy enough to understand their mindset 覧the faces were that explicit. This was an angry mob, whipped to a frenzy and slavering for justice. I did not fully realize the vampire world's feeling toward the immortal children before I read these faces. It was clear that this motley, disorganized horde 覧more than forty vampires altogether蓉謡as the Volturi's own kind of witness. When we were dead, they would spread the word that the criminals had been eradicated, that the Volturi had acted with nothing but impartiality. Most looked like they hoped for more than just an opportunity to witness覧they wanted to help tear and burn. We didn't have a prayer. Even if we could somehow neutralize the Volturi's advantages, they could still bury us in bodies. Even if we killed Demetri, Jacob would not be able to outrun this. I could feel it as the same comprehension sunk in around me. Despair weighted the air, pushing me down with more pressure than before. One vampire in the opposing force did not seem to belong to either party; I recognized Irina as she hesitated in between the two companies, her expression unique among the others. Irina's horrified gaze was locked on Tanya's position in the front line. Edward snarled, a very low but fervent sound. "Alistairwas right," he murmured to Carlisle. I watched Carlisle glance at Edward questioningly. "Alistair was right?" Tanya whispered. 'They 2佑aius and Aro熔幼ome to destroy and acquire," Edward breathed almost silently back; only our side could hear. "They have many layers of strategy already in place. If Irina's accusation had somehow proven to be false, they were committed to find another reason to take offense. But they can see Renesmee now, so they are perfectly sanguine about their course. We could still attempt to defend against their other contrived charges, but first they have to stop, to hear the truth about Renesmee." Then, even lower. "Which they have no intention of doing." Jacob gave a strange little huff. And then, unexpectedly, two seconds later, the procession did halt. The low music of perfectly synchronized movements turned to silence. The flawless discipline remained unbroken; the Volturi froze into absolute stillness as one. They stood about a hundred yards away from us. Behind me, to the sides, I heard the beating of large hearts, closer than before. I risked glances to the left and the right from the corners of my eyes to see what had stopped the Volturi advance. The wolves had joined us. On either side of our uneven line, the wolves branched out in long, bordering arms. I only spared a fraction of a second to note that there were more than ten wolves, to recognize the wolves I knew and the ones I'd never seen before. There were sixteen of them spaced evenly around us 蓉耀eventeen total, counting Jacob. It was clear from their heights and oversized paws that the newcomers all were very, very young. I supposed I should have foreseen this. With so many vampires encamped in the neighborhood, a werewolf population explosion was inevitable. More children dying. I wondered why Sam had allowed this, and then I realized he had no other choice. If any of the wolves stood with us, the Volturi would be sure to search out the rest. They had gambled their entire species on this stand. And we were going to lose. Abruptly, I was furious. Beyond furious, I was murderously enraged. My hopeless despair vanished entirely. A faint reddish glow highlighted the dark figures in front of me, and all I wanted in that moment was the chance to sink my teeth into them, to rip their limbs from their bodies and pile them for burning. I was so maddened I could have danced around the pyre where they roasted alive; I would have laughed while their ashes smoldered. My lips curved back automatically, and a low, fierce snarl tore up my throat from the pit of my stomach. I realized the corners of my mouth were turned up in a smile. Beside me, Zafrina and Senna echoed my hushed growl. Edward squeezed the hand he still held, cautioning me. The shadowed Volturi faces were still expressionless for the most part. Only two sets of eyes betrayed any emotion at all. In the very center, touching hands, Aro and Caius had paused to evaluate, and the entire guard had paused with them, waiting for the order to kill. The two did not look at each other, but it was obvious that they were communicating. Marcus, though touching Aro's other hand, did not seem part of the conversation. His expression was not as mindless as the guards', but it was nearly as blank. Like the one other time I'd seen him, he appeared to be utterly bored. The bodies of the VolturFs witnesses leaned toward us, their eyes fixed furiously on Renesmee and me, but they stayed near the fringe of the forest, leaving a wide berth between themselves and the Volturi soldiers. Only Irina hovered close behind the Volturi, just a few paces away from the ancient females 覧both fair-haired with powdery skin and filmed eyes蓉預nd their two massive bodyguards. There was a woman in one of the darker gray cloaks just behind Aro. I couldn't be sure, but it looked like she might actually be touching his back. Was this the other shield, Renata? I wondered, as Eleazar had, if she would be able to repel me. But I would not waste my life trying to get to Caius or Aro. I had more vital targets. I searched the line for them now and had no difficulty picking out the two petite, deep gray cloaks near the heart of the arrangement. Alec and Jane, easily the smallest members of the guard, stood just to Marcus's side, flanked by Demetri on the other. Their lovely faces were smooth, giving nothing away; they wore the darkest cloaks beside the pure black of the ancients. The witch twins, Vladimir had called them. Their powers were the cornerstone of the Volturi offensive. The jewels in Aro's collection. My muscles flexed, and venom welled in my mouth. Aro's and Caius's clouded red eyes flickered across our line. I read disappointment in Aro's face as his gaze roved over our faces again and again, looking for one that was missing. Chagrin tightened his lips. In that moment, I was nothing but grateful that Alice had run. As the pause lengthened, I heard Edward's breath speed. "Edward?" Carlisle asked, low and anxious. 'They're not sure how to proceed. They're weighing options, choosing key targets 2洋e, of course, you, Eleazar, Tanya. Marcus is reading the strength of our ties to each other, looking for weak points. The Romanians' presence irritates them. They're worried about the faces they don't recognize2融afrina and Senna in particular覧and the wolves, naturally. They've never been outnumbered before. That's what stopped them." "Outnumbered?" Tanya whispered incredulously. "They don't count their witnesses," Edward breathed. "They are nonentities, meaningless to the guard. Aro just enjoys an audience." "Should I speak?" Carlisle asked. Edward hesitated, then nodded. "This is the only chance you'll get." Carlisle squared his shoulders and paced several steps ahead of our defensive line. I hated to see him alone, unprotected. He spread his arms, holding his palms up as if in greeting. "Aro, my old friend. It's been centuries." The white clearing was dead silent for a long moment. I could feel the tension rolling off Edward as he listened to Aro's assessment of Carlisle's words. The strain mounted as the seconds ticked by. And then Aro stepped forward out of the center of the Volturi formation. The shield, Renata, moved with him as if the tips of her fingers were sewn to his robe. For the first time, the Volturi ranks reacted. A muttered grumble rolled through the line, eyebrows lowered into scowls, lips curled back from teeth. A few of the guard leaned forward into a crouch. Aro held one hand up toward them. "Peace." He walked just a few paces more, then cocked his head to one side. His milky eyes glinted with curiosity. "Fair words, Carlisle," he breathed in his thin, wispy voice. "They seem out of place, considering the army you've assembled to kill me, and to kill my dear ones." Carlisle shook his head and stretched his right hand forward as if there were not still almost a hundred yards between them. "You have but to touch my hand to know that was never my intent." Aro's shrewd eyes narrowed. "But how can your intent possibly matter, dear Carlisle, in the face of what you have done?" He frowned, and a shadow of sadness crossed his features 蓉謡hether it was genuine or not, I could not tell. "I have not committed the crime you are here to punish me for." "Then step aside and let us punish those responsible. Truly, Carlisle, nothing would please me more than to preserve your life today." "No one has broken the law, Aro. Let me explain." Again, Carlisle offered his hand. Before Aro could answer, Caius drifted swiftly forward to Aro's side. "So many pointless rules, so many unnecessary laws you create for yourself, Carlisle," the white-haired ancient hissed. "How is it possible that you defend the breaking of one that truly matters?" "The law is not broken. If you would listen 覧" "We see the child, Carlisle," Caius snarled. "Do not treat us as fools." "She is not an immortal. She is not a vampire. I can easily prove this with just a few moments 覧" Caius cut him off. "If she is not one of the forbidden, then why have you massed a battalion to protect her?" "Witnesses, Caius, just as you have brought." Carlisle gestured to the angry horde at the edge of the woods; some of them growled in response. "Any one of these friends can tell you the truth about the child. Or you could just look at her, Caius. See the flush of human blood in her cheeks." "Artifice!" Caius snapped. "Where is the informer? Let her come forward!" He craned his neck around until he spotted Irina lingering behind the wives. "You! Come!" Irina stared at him uncomprehendingly, her face like that of someone who has not entirely awakened from a hideous nightmare. Impatiently, Caius snapped his fingers. One of the wives' huge bodyguards moved to Irina's side and prodded her roughly in the back. Irina blinked twice and then walked slowly toward Caius in a daze. She stopped several yards short, her eyes still on her sisters. Caius closed the distance between them and slapped her across the face. It couldn't have hurt, but there was something terribly degrading about the action. It was like watching someone kick a dog. Tanya and Kate hissed in synchronization. Irina's body went rigid and her eyes finally focused on Caius. He pointed one clawed finger at Renesmee, where she clung to my back, her fingers still tangled in Jacob's fur. Caius turned entirely red in my furious view. A growl rumbled through Jacob's chest. "This is the child you saw?" Caius demanded. "The one that was obviously more than human?" Irina peered at us, examining Renesmee for the first time since entering the clearing. Her head tilted to the side, confusion crossed her features. "Well?" Caius snarled. "I... I'm not sure," she said, her tone perplexed. Caius's hand twitched as if he wanted to slap her again. "What do you mean?" he said in a steely whisper. "She's not the same, but I think it's the same child. What I mean is, she's changed. This child is bigger than the one I saw, but 蓉" Caius's furious gasp crackled through his suddenly bared teeth, and Irina broke off without finishing. Aro flitted to Caius's side and put a restraining hand on his shoulder. "Be composed, brother. We have time to sort this out. No need to be hasty." With a sullen expression, Caius turned his back on Irina. "Now, sweetling," Aro said in a warm, sugary murmur. "Show me what you're trying to say." He held his hand out to the bewildered vampire. Uncertainly, Irina took his hand. He held hers for only five seconds. "You see, Caius?" he said. "It's a simple matter to get what we need." Caius didn't answer him. From the corner of his eye, Aro glanced once at his audience, his mob, and then turned back to Carlisle. "And so we have a mystery on our hands, it seems. It would appear the child has grown. Yet Irina's first memory was clearly that of an immortal child. Curious." "That's exactly what I'm trying to explain," Carlisle said, and from the change in his voice, I could guess at his relief. This was the pause we had pinned all our nebulous hopes on. I felt no relief. I waited, almost numb with rage, for the layers of strategy Edward had promised. Carlisle held out his hand again. Aro hesitated for a moment. "I would rather have the explanation from someone more central to the story, my friend. Am I wrong to assume that this breach was not of your making?" "There was no breach." "Be that as it may, I will have every facet of the truth." Aro's feathery voice hardened. "And the best way to get that is to have the evidence directly from your talented son." He inclined his head in Edward's direction. "As the child clings to his newborn mate, I'm assuming Edward is involved." Of course he wanted Edward. Once he could see into Edward's mind, he would know all our thoughts. Except mine. Edward turned to quickly kiss my forehead and Renesmee's, not meeting my eyes. Then he strode across the snowy field, clapping Carlisle on the shoulder as he passed. I heard a low whimper from behind me 覧Esme's terror breaking through. The red haze I saw around the Volturi army flamed brighter than before, i could not bear to watch Edward cross the empty white space alone 覧but I also could not endure to have Renesmee one step closer to our adversaries. The opposing needs tore at me; I was frozen so tightly it felt like my bones might shatter from the pressure of it. I saw Jane smile as Edward crossed the midpoint in the distance between us, when he was closer to them than he was to us. That smug little smile did it. My fury peaked, higher even than the raging bloodlust I'd felt the moment the wolves had committed to this doomed fight. I could taste madness on my tongue 2悠 felt it flow through me like a tidal wave of pure power. My muscles tightened, and I acted automatically. I threw my shield with all the force in my mind, flung it across the impossible expanse of the field覧ten times my best distance覧like a javelin. My breath rushed out in a huff with the exertion. The shield blew out from me in a bubble of sheer energy, a mushroom cloud of liquid steel. It pulsed like a living thing 覧I could feel it, from the apex to the edges. There was no recoil to the elastic fabric now; in that instant of raw force, I saw that the backlash I'd felt before was of my own making 覧I had been clinging to that invisible part of me in self-defense, subconsciously unwilling to let it go. Now I set it free, and my shield exploded a good fifty yards out from me effortlessly, taking only a fraction of my concentration. I could feel it flex like just another muscle, obedient to my will. I pushed it, shaped it to a long, pointed oval. Everything underneath the flexible iron shield was suddenly a part of me覧I could feel the life force of everything it covered like points of bright heat, dazzling sparks of light surrounding me. I thrust the shield forward the length of the clearing, and exhaled in relief when I felt Edward's brilliant light within my protection. I held there, contracting this new muscle so that it closely surrounded Edward, a thin but unbreakable sheet between his body and our enemies. Barely a second had passed. Edward was still walking to Aro. Everything had changed absolutely, but no one had noticed the explosion except for me. A startled laugh burst through my lips. I felt the others glancing at me and saw Jacob's big black eye roll down to stare at me like I'd lost my mind. Edward stopped a few steps away from Aro, and I realized with some chagrin that though I certainly could, I should not prevent this exchange from happening. This was the point of all our preparations: getting Aro to hear our side of the story. It was almost physically painful to do it, but reluctantly I pulled my shield back and left Edward exposed again. The laughing mood had vanished. I focused totally on Edward, ready to shield him instantly if something went wrong. Edward's chin came up arrogantly, and he held his hand out to Aro as if he were conferring a great honor. Aro seemed only delighted with his attitude, but his delight was not universal. Renata fluttered nervously in Aro:s shadow. Caius's scowl was so deep it looked like his papery, translucent skin would crease permanently. Little Jane showed her teeth, and beside her Alec's eyes narrowed in concentration. I guessed that he was ready, like me, to act at a second's notice. Aro closed the distance without pause 覧and really, what did he have to fear? The hulking shadows of the lighter gray cloaks覧the brawny fighters like Felix覧were but a few yards away. Jane and her burning gift could throw Edward on the ground, writhing in agony. Alec could blind and deafen him before he could take a step in Aro's direction. No one knew that I had the power to stop them, not even Edward. With an untroubled smile, Aro took Edward's hand. His eyes snapped shut at once, and then his shoulders hunched under the onslaught of information. Every secret thought, every strategy, every insight 覧everything Edward had heard in the minds around him during the last month覧was now Aro's. And further back2容very vision of Alice's, every quiet moment with our family, every picture in Renesmee's head, every kiss, every touch between Edward and me... All of that was Aro's now, too. I hissed with frustration, and the shield roiled with my irritation, shifting its shape and contracting around our side. "Easy, Bella," Zafrina whispered to me. I clenched my teeth together. Aro continued to concentrate on Edward's memories. Edward's head bowed, too, the muscles in his neck locking tight as he read back again everything that Aro took from him, and Aro's response to it all. This two-way but unequal conversation continued long enough that even the guard grew uneasy. Low murmurs ran through the line until Caius barked a sharp order for silence. Jane was edging forward like she couldn't help herself, and Renata's face was rigid with distress. For a moment, I examined this powerful shield that seemed so panicky and weak; though she was useful to Aro, I could tell she was no warrior. It was not her job to fight but to protect. There was no bloodlust in her. Raw as I was, I knew that if this were between her and me, I would obliterate her. I refocused as Aro straightened, his eyes flashing open, their expression awed and wary. He did not release Edward's hand. Edward's muscles loosened ever so slightly. "You see?" Edward asked, his velvet voice calm. "Yes, I see, indeed," Aro agreed, and amazingly, he sounded almost amused. "I doubt whether any two among gods or mortals have ever seen quite so clearly." The disciplined faces of the guard showed the same disbelief I felt. "You have given me much to ponder, young friend," Aro continued. "Much more than I expected." Still he did not release Edward's hand, and Edward's tense stance was that of one who listens. Edward didn't answer. "May I meet her?" Aro asked 2預lmost pleaded覧with sudden eager interest. "I never dreamed of the existence of such a thing in all my centuries. What an addition to our histories!" "What is this about, Aro?" Caius snapped before Edward could answer. Just the question had me pulling Renesmee around into my arms, cradling her protectively against my chest. "Something you've never dreamed of, my practical friend. Take a moment to ponder, for the justice we intended to deliver no longer applies." Caius hissed in surprise at his words. "Peace, brother," Aro cautioned soothingly. This should have been good news 2葉hese were the words we'd been hoping for, the reprieve we'd never really thought possible. Aro had listened to the truth. Aro had admitted that the law had not been broken. But my eyes were riveted on Edward, and I saw the muscles in his back tighten. I replayed in my head Aro's instruction for Caius to ponder, and heard the double meaning. "Will you introduce me to your daughter?" Aro asked Edward again. Caius was not the only one who hissed at this new revelation. Edward nodded reluctantly. And yet, Renesmee had won over so many others. Aro always seemed the leader of the ancients. If he were on her side, could the others act against us? Aro still gripped Edward's hand, and he now answered a question that the rest of us had not heard. "I think a compromise on this one point is certainly acceptable, under the circumstance. We will meet in the middle." Aro released his hand. Edward turned back toward us, and Aro joined him, throwing one arm casually over Edward's shoulder like they were the best of friends 4預ll the while maintaining contact with Edward's skin. They began to cross the field back to our side. The entire guard fell into step behind them. Aro raised a hand negligently without looking at them. "Hold, my dear ones. Truly, they mean us no harm if we are peaceable." The guard reacted to this more openly than before, with snarls and hisses of protest, but held their position. Renata, clinging closer to Aro than ever, whimpered in anxiety. "Master," she whispered. "Don't fret, my love," he responded. "All is well." "Perhaps you should bring a few members of your guard with us," Edward suggested. "It will make them more comfortable." Aro nodded as if this was a wise observation he should have thought of himself. He snapped his fingers twice. "Felix, Demetri." The two vampires were at his side instantaneously, looking precisely the same as the last time I'd met them. Both were tall and dark-haired, Demetri hard and lean as the blade of a sword, Felix hulking and menacing as an iron-spiked cudgel. The five of them stopped in the middle of the snowy field. "Bella," Edward called. "Bring Renesmee... and a few friends." I took a deep breath. My body was tight with opposition. The idea of taking Renesmee into the center of the conflict... But I trusted Edward. He would know if Aro was planning any treachery at this point. Aro had three protectors on his side of the summit, so I would bring two with me. It took me only a second to decide. "Jacob? Emmett?" I asked quietly. Emmett, because he would be dying to go. Jacob, because he wouldn't be able to bear being left behind. Both nodded. Emmett grinned. I crossed the field with them flanking me. I heard another rumble from the guard as they saw my choices 覧clearly, they did not trust the werewolf. Aro lifted his hand, waving away their protest again. "Interesting company you keep," Demetri murmured to Edward. Edward didn't respond, but a low growl slipped through Jacob's teeth. We stopped a few yards from Aro. Edward ducked under Aro's arm and quickly joined us, taking my hand. For a moment we faced each other in silence. Then Felix greeted me in a low aside. "Hello again, Bella." He grinned cockily while still tracking Jacob's every twitch with his peripheral vision. I smiled wryly at the mountainous vampire. "Hey, Felix." Felix chuckled. "You look good. Immortality suits you." "Thanks so much." "You're welcome. It's too bad ..." He let his comment trail off into silence, but I didn't need Edward's gift to imagine the end. It's too bad were going to kill you in a sec. "Yes, too bad, isn't it?" I murmured. Felix winked. Aro paid no attention to our exchange. He leaned his head to one side, fascinated. "I hear her strange heart," he murmured with an almost musical lilt to his words. "I smell her strange scent." Then his hazy eyes shifted to me. "In truth, young Bella, immortality does become you most extraordinarily," he said. "It is as if you were designed for this life." I nodded once in acknowledgment of his flattery. "You liked my gift?" he asked, eyeing the pendant I wore. "It's beautiful, and very, very generous of you. Thank you. I probably should have sent a note." Aro laughed delightedly. "It's just a little something I had lying around. I thought it might complement your new face, and so it does." I heard a little hiss from the center of the Volturi line. I glanced over Aro's shoulder. Hmm. It seemed Jane wasn't happy about the fact that Aro had given me a present. Aro cleared his throat to reclaim my attention. "May I greet your daughter, lovely Bella?" he asked sweetly. This was what we'd hoped for, I reminded myself. Fighting the urge to take Renesmee and run for it, I walked two slow steps forward. My shield rippled out behind me like a cape, protecting the rest of my family while Renesmee was left exposed. It felt wrong, horrible. Aro met us, his face beaming. "But she's exquisite," he murmured. "So like you and Edward." And then louder, "Hello, Renesmee." Renesmee looked at me quickly. I nodded. "Hello, Aro," she answered formally in her high, ringing voice. Aro's eyes were bemused. "What is it?" Caius hissed from behind. He seemed infuriated by the need to ask. "Half mortal, half immortal," Aro announced to him and the rest of the guard without turning his enthralled gaze from Renesmee. "Conceived so, and carried by this newborn while she was still human." "Impossible," Caius scoffed. "Do you think they've fooled me, then, brother?" Aro's expression was greatly amused, but Caius flinched. "Is the heartbeat you hear a trickery as well?" Caius scowled, looking as chagrined as if Aro's gentle questions had been blows. "Calmly and carefully, brother," Aro cautioned, still smiling at Renesmee. "I know well how you love your justice, but there is no justice in acting against this unique little one for her parentage. And so much to learn, so much to learn! I know you don't have my enthusiasm for collecting histories, but be tolerant with me, brother, as I add a chapter that stuns me with its improbability. We came expecting only justice and the sadness of false friends, but look what we have gained instead! A new, bright knowledge of ourselves, our possibilities." He held out his hand to Renesmee in invitation. But this was not what she wanted. She leaned away from me, stretching upward, to touch her fingertips to Aro's face. Aro did not react with shock as almost everyone else had reacted to this performance from Renesmee; he was as used to the flow of thought and memory from other minds as Edward was. His smile widened, and he sighed in satisfaction. "Brilliant," he whispered. Renesmee relaxed back into my arms, her little face very serious. "Please?" she asked him. His smile turned gentle. "Of course I have no desire to harm your loved ones, precious Renesmee." Aro's voice was so comforting and affectionate, it took me in for a second. And then I heard Edward's teeth grind together and, far behind us, Maggie's outraged hiss at the lie. "I wonder," Aro said thoughtfully, seeming unaware of the reaction to his previous words. His eyes moved unexpectedly to Jacob, and instead of the disgust the other Volturi viewed the giant wolf with, Aro's eyes were filled with a longing that I did not comprehend. "It doesn't work that way," Edward said, the careful neutrality gone from his suddenly harsh tone. "Just an errant thought," Aro said, appraising Jacob openly, and then his eyes moved slowly across the two lines of werewolves behind us. Whatever Renesmee had shown him, it made the wolves suddenly interesting to him. "They don't belong to us, Aro. They don't follow our commands that way. They're here because they want to be." Jacob growled menacingly. "They seem quite attached to you, though," Aro said. "And your young mate and your... family. Loyal" His voice caressed the word softly. "They're committed to protecting human life, Aro. That makes them able to coexist with us, but hardly with you. Unless you're rethinking your lifestyle." Aro laughed merrily. "Just an errant thought," he repeated. "You well know how that is. We none of us can entirely control our subconscious desires." Edward grimaced. "I do know how that is. And I also know the difference between that kind of thought and the kind with a purpose behind it. It could never work, Aro." Jacob's vast head turned in Edward's direction, and a faint whine slipped from between his teeth. "He's intrigued with the idea of... guard dogs," Edward murmured back. There was one second of dead silence, and then the sound of the furious snarls ripping from the entire pack filled the giant clearing. There was a sharp bark of command 覧from Sam, I guessed, though I didn't turn to look蓉預nd the complaint broke off into ominous quiet. "I suppose that answers that question," Aro said, laughing again. "This lot has picked its side." Edward hissed and leaned forward. I clutched at his arm, wondering what could be in Aro's thoughts that would make him react so violently, while Felix and Demetri slipped into crouches in synchronization. Aro waved them off again. They all returned to their former posture, Edward included. "So much to discuss," Aro said, his tone suddenly that of an inundated businessman. "So much to decide. If you and your furry protector will excuse me, my dear Cullens, I must confer with my brothers."

37. CONTRIVANCES Aro did not rejoin his anxious guard waiting on the north side of the clearing; instead, he waved them forward. Edward started backing up immediately, pulling my arm and Emmett's. We hurried backward, keeping our eyes on the advancing threat. Jacob retreated slowest, the fur on his shoulders standing straight up as he bared his fangs at Aro. Renesmee grabbed the end of his tail as we retreated; she held it like a leash, forcing him to stay with us. We reached our family at the same time that the dark cloaks surrounded Aro again. Now there were only fifty yards between them and us 嶺預 distance any of us could leap in just a fraction of a second. Caius began arguing with Aro at once. "How can you abide this infamy? Why do we stand here impotently in the face of such an outrageous crime, covered by such a ridiculous deception?" He held his arms rigidly at his sides, his hands curled into claws. I wondered why he did not just touch Aro to share his opinion. Were we seeing a division in their ranks already? Could we be that lucky? "Because it's all true," Aro told him calmly. "Every word of it. See how many witnesses stand ready to give evidence that they have seen this miraculous child grow and mature in just the short time they've known her. That they have felt the warmth of the blood that pulses in her veins." Aro's gesture swept from Amun on one side across to Siobhan on the other. Caius reacted oddly to Aro's soothing words, starting ever so slightly at the mention of witnesses. The anger drained from his features, replaced by a cold calculation. He glanced at the Volturi witnesses with an expression that looked vaguely... nervous. I glanced at the angry mob, too, and saw immediately that the description no longer applied. The frenzy for action had turned to confusion. Whispered conversations seethed through the crowd as they tried to make sense of what had happened. Caius was frowning, deep in thought. His speculative expression stoked the flames of my smoldering anger at the same time that it worried me. What if the guard acted again on some invisible signal, as they had in their march? Anxiously, I inspected my shield; it felt just as impenetrable as before. I flexed it now into a low, wide dome that arced over our company. I could feel the sharp plumes of light where my family and friends stood 覧each one an individual flavor that I thought I would be able to recognize with practice. I already knew Edward's庸揺is was the very brightest of them all. The extra empty space around the shining spots bothered me; there was no physical barrier to the shield, and if any of the talented Volturi got under it, it would protect no one but me. I felt my forehead crease as I pulled the elastic armor very carefully closer. Carlisle was the farthest forward; I sucked the shield back inch by inch, trying to wrap it as exactly to his body as I could. My shield seemed to want to cooperate. It hugged his shape; when Carlisle shifted to the side to stand nearer to Tanya, the elastic stretched with him, drawn to his spark. Fascinated, I tugged in more threads of the fabric, pulling it around each glimmering shape that was a friend or ally. The shield clung to them willingly, moving as they moved. Only a second had passed; Caius was still deliberating. "The werewolves," he murmured at last. With sudden panic, 1 realized that most of the werewolves were unprotected. I was about to reach out to them when I realize that, strangely, I could still feel their sparks. Curious, I drew the shield tighter in, until Amun and Kebi 2葉he farthest edge of our group2謡ere outside with the wolves. Once they were on the other side, their lights vanished. They no longer existed to that new sense. But the wolves were still bright flames2熔r rather, half of them were. Hmm... I edged outward again, and as soon as Sam was under cover, all the wolves were brilliant sparks again. Their minds must have been more interconnected than I'd imagined. If the Alpha was inside my shield, the rest of their minds were every bit as protected as his. "Ah, brother...," Aro answered Caius's statement with a pained look. "Will you defend that alliance, too, Aro?" Caius demanded. "The Children of the Moon have been our bitter enemies from the dawn of time. We have hunted them to near extinction in Europe and Asia. Yet Carlisle encourages a familiar relationship with this enormous infestation 蓉溶o doubt in an attempt to overthrow us. The better to protect his warped lifestyle." Edward cleared his throat loudly and Caius glared at him. Aro placed one thin, delicate hand over his own face as if he was embarrassed for the other ancient. "Caius, it's the middle of the day," Edward pointed out. He gestured to Jacob. "These are not Children of the Moon, clearly. They bear no relation to your enemies on the other side of the world." "You breed mutants here," Caius spit back at him. Edward's jaw clenched and unclenched, then he answered evenly, "They aren't even werewolves. Aro can tell you all about it if you don't believe me." Not werewolves? I shot a mystified look at Jacob. He lifted his huge shoulders and let them drop 覧a shrug. He didn't know what Edward was talking about, either. "Dear Caius, I would have warned you not to press this point if you had told me your thoughts," Aro murmured. "Though the creatures think of themselves as werewolves, they are not. The more accurate name for them would be shape-shifters. The choice of a wolf form was purely chance. It could have been a bear or a hawk or a panther when the first change was made. These creatures truly have nothing to do with the Children of the Moon. They have merely inherited this skill from their fathers. It's genetic 覧they do not continue their species by infecting others the way true werewolves do." Caius glared at Aro with irritation and something more 覧an accusation of betrayal, maybe. "They know our secret," he said flatly. Edward looked about to answer this accusation, but Aro spoke faster. "They are creatures of our supernatural world, brother. Perhaps even more dependent upon secrecy than we are; they can hardly expose us. Carefully, Caius. Specious allegations get us nowhere." Caius took a deep breath and nodded. They exchanged a long, significant glance. I thought I understood the instruction behind Aro's careful wording. False charges weren't helping convince the watching witnesses on either side; Aro was cautioning Caius to move on to the next strategy. I wondered if the reason behind the apparent strain between the two ancients 覧Caius's unwillingness to share his thoughts with a touch2謡as that Caius didn't care about the show as much as Aro did. If the coming slaughter was so much more essential to Caius than an untarnished reputation. "I want to talk to the informant," Caius announced abruptly, and turned his glare on Irina. Irina wasn't paying attention to Caius and Aro's conversation; her face was twisted in agony, her eyes locked on her sisters, lined up to die. It was clear on her face that she knew now her accusation had been totally false. "Irina," Caius barked, unhappy to have to address her. She looked up, startled and instantly afraid. Caius snapped his fingers. Hesitantly, she moved from the fringes of the Volturi formation to stand in front of Caius again. "So you appear to have been quite mistaken in your allegations," Caius began. Tanya and Kate leaned forward anxiously. "I'm sorry," Irina whispered. "I should have made sure of what I was seeing. But I had no idea___" She gestured helplessly in our direction. "Dear Caius, could you expect her to have guessed in an instant something so strange and impossible?" Aro asked. "Any of us would have made the same assumption." Caius flicked his fingers at Aro to silence him. "We all know you made a mistake," he said brusquely. "I meant to speak of your motivations." Irina waited nervously for him to continue, and then repeated, "My motivations?" "Yes, for coming to spy on them in the first place." Irina flinched at the word spy. "You were unhappy with the Cullens, were you not?" She turned her miserable eyes to Carlisle's face. "I was," she admitted. "Because... ?" Caius prompted. "Because the werewolves killed my friend," she whispered. "And the Cullens wouldn't stand aside to let me avenge him." "The shape-shifters," Aro corrected quietly. "So the Cullens sided with the shape-shifters against our own kind 覧against the friend of a friend, even," Caius summarized. I heard Edward make a disgusted sound under his breath. Caius was ticking down his list, looking for an accusation that would stick. Irina's shoulders stiffened. "That's how I saw it." Caius waited again and then prompted, "If you'd like to make a formal complaint against the shape-shifters 覧and the Cullens for supporting their actions覧now would be the time." He smiled a tiny cruel smile, waiting for Irina to give him his next excuse. Maybe Caius didn't understand real families 覧relationships based on love rather than just the love of power. Maybe he overestimated the potency of vengeance. Irina's jaw jerked up, her shoulders squared. "No, I have no complaint against the wolves, or the Cullens. You came here today to destroy an immortal child. No immortal child exists. This was my mistake, and I take full responsibility for it. But the Cullens are innocent, and you have no reason to still be here. I'm so sorry," she said to us, and then she turned her face toward the Volturi witnesses. "There was no crime. There's no valid reason for you to continue here." Caius raised his hand as she spoke, and in it was a strange metal object, carved and ornate. This was a signal. The response was so fast that we all stared in stunned disbelief while it happened. Before there was time to react, it was over. Three of the Volturi soldiers leaped forward, and Irina was completely obscured by their gray cloaks. In the same instant, a horrible metallic screeching ripped through the clearing. Caius slithered into the center of the gray melee, and the shocking squealing sound exploded into a startling upward shower of sparks and tongues of flame. The soldiers leaped back from the sudden inferno, immediately retaking their places in the guard's perfectly straight line. Caius stood alone beside the blazing remains of Irina, the metal object in his hand still throwing a thick jet of flame into the pyre. With a small clicking sound, the fire shooting from Caius's hand disappeared. A gasp rippled through the mass of witnesses behind the Volturi. We were too aghast to make any noise at all. It was one thing to know that death was coming with fierce, unstoppable speed; it was another thing to watch it happen. Caius smiled coldly. "Now she has taken full responsibility for her actions." His eyes flashed to our front line, touching swiftly on Tanya's and Kate's frozen forms. In that second I understood that Caius had never underestimated the ties of a true family. This was the ploy. He had not wanted Irina's complaint; he had wanted her defiance. His excuse to destroy her, to ignite the violence that filled the air like a thick, combustible mist. He had thrown a match. The strained peace of this summit already teetered more precariously than an elephant on a tightrope. Once the fight began, there would be no way to stop it. It would only escalate until one side was entirely extinct. Our side. Caius knew this. So did Edward. "Stop them!" Edward cried out, jumping to grab Tanya's arm as she lurched forward toward the smiling Caius with a maddened cry of pure rage. She couldn't shake Edward off before Carlisle had his arms locked around her waist. "It's too late to help her," he reasoned urgently as she struggled. "Don't give him what he wants!" Kate was harder to contain. Shrieking wordlessly like Tanya, she broke into the first stride of the attack that would end with everyone's death. Rosalie was closest to her, but before Rose could clinch her in a headlock, Kate shocked her so violently that Rose crumpled to the ground. Emmett caught Kate's arm and threw her down, then staggered back, his knees giving out. Kate rolled to her feet, and it looked like no one could stop her. Garrett flung himself at her, knocking her to the ground again. He bound his arms around hers, locking his hands around his own wrists. I saw his body spasm as she shocked him. His eyes rolled back in his head, but his hold did not break. "Zafrina," Edward shouted. Kate's eyes went blank and her screams turned to moans. Tanya stopped struggling. "Give me my sight back," Tanya hissed. Desperately, but with all the delicacy I could manage, I pulled my shield even tighter against the sparks of my friends, peeling it back carefully from Kate while trying to keep it around Garrett, making it a thin skin between them. And then Garrett was in command of himself again, holding Kate to the snow. "If I let you up, will you knock me down again, Katie?" he whispered. She snarled in response, still thrashing blindly. "Listen to me, Tanya, Kate," Carlisle said in a low but intense whisper. "Vengeance doesn't help her now. Irina wouldn't want you to waste your lives this way. Think about what you're doing. If you attack them, we all die." Tanya's shoulders hunched with grief, and she leaned into Carlisle for support. Kate was finally still. Carlisle and Garrett continued to console the sisters with words too urgent to sound like comfort. And my attention returned to the weight of the stares that pressed down on our moment of chaos. From the corners of my eyes, I could see that Edward and everyone else besides Carlisle and Garrett were on their guard again as well. The heaviest glare came from Caius, staring with enraged disbelief at Kate and Garrett in the snow. Aro was watching the same two, incredulity the strongest emotion on his face. He knew what Kate could do. He had felt her potency through Edward's memories. Did he understand what was happening now 2妖id he see that my shield had grown in strength and subtlety far beyond what Edward knew me to be capable of? Or did he think Garrett had learned his own form of immunity? The Volturi guard no longer stood at disciplined attention 擁葉hey were crouched forward, waiting to spring the counterstrike the moment we attacked. Behind them, forty-three witnesses watched with very different expressions than the ones they'd worn entering the clearing. Confusion had turned to suspicion. The lightning-fast destruction of Irina had shaken them all. What had been her crime? Without the immediate attack that Caius had counted on to distract from his rash act, the Volturi witnesses were left questioning exactly what was going on here. Aro glanced back swiftly while I watched, his face betraying him with one flash of vexation. His need for an audience had backfired badly. I heard Stefan and Vladimir murmur to each other in quiet glee at Aro's discomfort. Aro was obviously concerned with keeping his white hat, as the Romanians had put it. But I didn't believe that the Volturi would leave us in peace just to save their reputation. After they finished with us, surely they would slaughter their witnesses for that purpose. I felt a strange, sudden pity for the mass of the strangers the Volturi had brought to watch us die. Demetri would hunt them until they were extinct, too. For Jacob and Renesmee, for Alice and Jasper, for Alistair, and for these strangers who had not known what today would cost them, Demetri had to die. Aro touched Caius's shoulder lightly. "Irina has been punished for bearing false witness against this child." So that was to be their excuse. He went on. "Perhaps we should return to the matter at hand?" Caius straightened, and his expression hardened into unreadability. He stared forward, seeing nothing. His face reminded me, oddly, of a person who'd just learned he'd been demoted. Aro drifted forward, Renata, Felix, and Demetri automatically moving with him. "Just to be thorough," he said, "I'd like to speak with a few of your witnesses. Procedure, you know." He waved a hand dismissively. Two things happened at once. Caius's eyes focused on Aro, and the tiny cruel smile came back. And Edward hissed, his hands balling up in fists so tight it looked like the bones in his knuckles would split through his diamond-hard skin. I was desperate to ask him what was going on, but Aro was close enough to hear even the quietest breath. I saw Carlisle glance anxiously at Edward's face, and then his own face hardened. While Caius had blundered through useless accusations and injudicious attempts to trigger the fight, Aro must have been coming up with a more effective strategy. Aro ghosted across the snow to the far western end of our line, stopping about ten yards from Amun and Kebi. The nearby wolves bristled angrily but held their positions. "Ah, Amun, my southern neighbor!" Aro said warmly. "It has been so long since you've visited me." Amun was motionless with anxiety, Kebi a statue at his side. "Time means little; I never notice its passing," Amun said through unmoving lips. "So true," Aro agreed. "But maybe you had another reason to stay away?" Amun said nothing. "It can be terribly time-consuming to organize newcomers into a coven. I know that well! I'm grateful I have others to deal with the tedium. I'm glad your new additions have fit in so well. I would have loved to have been introduced. I'm sure you were meaning to come to see me soon." "Of course," Amun said, his tone so emotionless that it was impossible to tell if there was any fear or sarcasm in his assent. "Oh well, we're all together now! Isn't it lovely?" Amun nodded, his face blank. "But the reason for your presence here is not as pleasant, unfortunately. Carlisle called on you to witness?" "Yes." "And what did you witness for him?" Amun spoke with the same cold lack of emotion. "I've observed the child in question. It was evident almost immediately that she was not an immortal child 覧" "Perhaps we should define our terminology," Aro interrupted, "now that there seem to be new classifications. By immortal child, you mean of course a human child who had been bitten and thus transformed into a vampire." "Yes, that's what I meant." "What else did you observe about the child?" "The same things that you surely saw in Edward's mind. That the child is his biologically. That she grows. That she learns." "Yes, yes," Aro said, a hint of impatience in his otherwise amiable tone. "But specifically in your few weeks here, what did you see?" Amun's brow furrowed. "That she grows... quickly." Aro smiled. "And do you believe that she should be allowed to live?" A hiss escaped my lips, and I was not alone. Half the vampires in our line echoed my protest. The sound was a low sizzle of fury hanging in the air. Across the meadow, a few of the Volturi witnesses made the same noise. Edward stepped back and wrapped a restraining hand around my wrist. Aro did not turn to the noise, but Amun glanced around uneasily. "I did not come to make judgments," he equivocated. Aro laughed lightly. "Just your opinion." Amun's chin lifted. "I see no danger in the child. She learns even more swiftly than she grows." Aro nodded, considering. After a moment, he turned away. "Aro?" Amun called. Aro whirled back. "Yes, friend?" "I gave my witness. I have no more business here. My mate and I would like to take our leave now." Aro smiled warmly. "Of course. I'm so glad we were able to chat for a bit. And I'm sure we'll see each other again soon." Amun's lips were a tight line as he inclined his head once, acknowledging the barely concealed threat. He touched Kebi's arm, and then the two of them ran quickly to the southern edge of the meadow and disappeared into the trees. I knew they wouldn't stop running for a very long time. Aro was gliding back along the length of our line to the east, his guards hovering tensely. He stopped when he was in front of Siobhan's massive form. "Hello, dear Siobhan. You are as lovely as ever." Siobhan inclined her head, waiting. "And you?" he asked. "Would you answer my questions the same way Amun has?" "I would," Siobhan said. "But I would perhaps add a little more. Renesmee understands the limitations. She's no danger to humans 蓉耀he blends in better than we do. She poses no threat of exposure." "Can you think of none?" Aro asked soberly. Edward growled, a low ripping sound deep in his throat. Caius's cloudy crimson eyes brightened. Renata reached out protectively toward her master. And Garrett freed Kate to take a step forward, ignoring Kate's hand as she tried to caution him this time. Siobhan answered slowly, "I don't think I follow you." Aro drifted lightly back, casually, but toward the rest of his guard. Renata, Felix, and Demetri were closer than his shadow. "There is no broken law," Aro said in a placating voice, but every one of us could hear that a qualification was coming. I fought back the rage that tried to claw its way up my throat and snarl out my defiance. I hurled the fury into my shield, thickening it, making sure everyone was protected. "No broken law," Aro repeated. "However, does it follow then that there is no danger? No." He shook his head gently. "That is a separate issue." The only response was the tightening of already stretched nerves, and Maggie, at the fringes of our band of fighters, shaking her head with slow anger. Aro paced thoughtfully, looking as if he floated rather than touched the ground with his feet. I noticed every pass took him closer to the protection of his guard. "She is unique... utterly, impossibly unique. Such a waste it would be, to destroy something so lovely. Especially when we could learn so much .. ." He sighed, as if unwilling to go on. "But there is danger, danger that cannot simply be ignored." No one answered his assertion. It was dead silent as he continued in a monologue that sounded as if he spoke it for himself only. "How ironic it is that as the humans advance, as their faith in science grows and controls their world, the more free we are from discovery. Yet, as we become ever more uninhibited by their disbelief in the supernatural, they become strong enough in their technologies that, if they wished, they could actually pose a threat to us, even destroy some of us. "For thousands and thousands of years, our secrecy has been more a matter of convenience, of ease, than of actual safety. This last raw, angry century has given birth to weapons of such power that they endanger even immortals. Now our status as mere myth in truth protects us from these weak creatures we hunt. "This amazing child" 2揺e lifted his hand palm down as if to rest it on Renesmee, though he was forty yards from her now, almost within the Volturi formation again2"if we could but know her potential擁楊now with absolute certainty that she could always remain shrouded within the obscurity that protects us. But we know nothing of what she will become! Her own parents are plagued by fears of her future. We cannot know what she will grow to be." He paused, looking first at our witnesses, and then, meaningfully, at his own. His voice gave a good imitation of sounding torn by his words. Still looking at his own witnesses, he spoke again. "Only the known is safe. Only the known is tolerable. The unknown is... a vulnerability." Caius's smile widened viciously. "You're reaching, Aro," Carlisle said in a bleak voice. "Peace, friend." Aro smiled, his face as kind, his voice as gentle, as ever. "Let us not be hasty. Let us look at this from every side." "May I offer a side to be considered?" Garrett petitioned in a level tone, taking another step forward. "Nomad," Aro said, nodding in permission. Garrett's chin lifted. His eyes focused on the huddled mass at the end of the meadow, and he spoke directly to the Volturi witnesses. "I came here at Carlisle's request, as the others, to witness," he said. "That is certainly no longer necessary, with regard to the child. We all see what she is. "I stayed to witness something else. You." He jabbed his finger toward the wary vampires. "Two of you I know 2柚akenna, Charles2預nd I can see that many of you others are also wanderers, roamers like myself. Answering to none. Think carefully on what I tell you now. 'These ancient ones did not come here for justice as they told you. We suspected as much, and now it has been proved. They came, misled, but with a valid excuse for their action. Witness now as they seek flimsy excuses to continue their true mission. Witness them struggle to find a justification for their true purpose 覧to destroy this family here." He gestured toward Carlisle and Tanya. "The Volturi come to erase what they perceive as the competition. Perhaps, like me, you look at this clan's golden eyes and marvel. They are difficult to understand, it's true. But the ancient ones look and see something besides their strange choice. They see power. "I have witnessed the bonds within this family 擁悠 say family and not coven. These strange golden-eyed ones deny their very natures. But in return have they found something worth even more, perhaps, than mere gratification of desire? I've made a little study of them in my time here, and it seems to me that intrinsic to this intense family binding覧that which makes them possible at all覧is the peaceful character of this life of sacrifice. There is no aggression here like we all saw in the large southern clans that grew and diminished so quickly in their wild feuds. There is no thought for domination. And Aro knows this better than I do." I watched Aro's face as Garrett's words condemned him, waiting tensely for some response. But Aro's face was only politely amused, as if waiting for a tantrum-throwing child to realize that no one was paying attention to his histrionics. "Carlisle assured us all, when he told us what was coming, that he did not call us here to fight. These witnesses" 覧Garrett pointed to Siobhan and Liam覧"agreed to give evidence, to slow the Volturi advance with their presence so that Carlisle would get the chance to present his case. "But some of us wondered" 覧his eyes flashed to Eleazars face2"if Carlisle having truth on his side would be enough to stop the so-called justice. Are the Volturi here to protect the safety of our secrecy, or to protect their own power? Did they come to destroy an illegal creation, or a way of life? Could they be satisfied when the danger turned out to be no more than a misunderstanding? Or would they push the issue without the excuse of justice? "We have the answer to all these questions. We heard it in Aro's lying words 4謡e have one with a gift of knowing such things for certain覧and we see it now in Caius's eager smile. Their guard is just a mindless weapon, a tool in their masters' quest for domination. "So now there are more questions, questions that you must answer. Who rules you, nomads? Do you answer to someone's will besides your own? Are you free to choose your path, or will the Volturi decide how you will live? "I came to witness. I stay to fight. The Volturi care nothing for the death of the child. They seek the death of our free will." He turned, then, to face the ancients. "So come, I say! Let's hear no more lying rationalizations. Be honest in your intents as we will be honest in ours. We will defend our freedom. You will or will not attack it. Choose now, and let these witnesses see the true issue debated here." Once more he looked to the Volturi witnesses, his eyes probing each face. The power of his words was evident in their expressions. "You might consider joining us. If you think the Volturi will let you live to tell this tale, you are mistaken. We may all be destroyed" 2揺e shrugged2"but then again, maybe not. Perhaps we are on more equal footing than they know. Perhaps the Volturi have finally met their match. I promise you this, though擁擁f we fall, so do you." He ended his heated speech by stepping back to Kate's side and then sliding forward in a half-crouch, prepared for the onslaught. Aro smiled. "Avery pretty speech, my revolutionary friend." Garrett remained poised for attack. "Revolutionary?" he growled. "Who am I revolting against, might I ask? Are you my king? Do you wish me to call you master, too, like your sycophantic guard?" "Peace, Garrett," Aro said tolerantly. "I meant only to refer to your time of birth. Still a patriot, I see." Garrett glared back furiously. "Let us ask our witnesses," Aro suggested. "Let us hear their thoughts before we make our decision. Tell us, friends" 覧and he turned his back casually on us, moving a few yards toward his mass of nervous observers hovering even closer now to the edge of the forest蓉"what do you think of all this? I can assure you the child is not what we feared. Do we take the risk and let the child live? Do we put our world in jeopardy to preserve their family intact? Or does earnest Garrett have the right of it? Will you join them in a fight against our sudden quest for dominion?" The witnesses met his gaze with careful faces. One, a small black-haired woman, looked briefly at the dark blond male at her side. "Are those our only choices?" she asked suddenly, gaze flashing back to Aro. "Agree with you, or fight against you?" "Of course not, most charming Makenna," Aro said, appearing horrified that anyone could come to that conclusion. "You may go in peace, of course, as Amun did, even if you disagree with the council's decision." Makenna looked at her mate's face again, and he nodded minutely. "We did not come here for a fight." She paused, exhaled, then said, "We came here to witness. And our witness is that this condemned family is innocent. Everything that Garrett claimed is the truth." "Ah," Aro said sadly. "I'm sorry you see us in that way. But such is the nature of our work." "It is not what I see, but what I feel," Makenna's maize-haired mate spoke in a high, nervous voice. He glanced at Garrett. "Garrett said they have ways of knowing lies. I, too, know when I am hearing the truth, and when I am not." With frightened eyes he moved closer to his mate, waiting for Aro's reaction. "Do not fear us, friend Charles. No doubt the patriot truly believes what he says," Aro chuckled lightly, and Charles's eyes narrowed. "That is our witness," Makenna said. "We're leaving now." She and Charles backed away slowly, not turning before they were lost from view in the trees. One other stranger began to retreat the same way, then three more darted after him. I evaluated the thirty-seven vampires that stayed. A few of them appeared just too confused to make the decision. But the majority of them seemed only too aware of the direction this confrontation had taken. I guessed that they were giving up a head start in favor of knowing exactly who would be chasing after them. I was sure Aro saw the same thing I did. He turned away, walking back to his guard with a measured pace. He stopped in front of them and addressed them in a clear voice. "We are outnumbered, dearest ones," he said. "We can expect no outside help. Should we leave this question undecided to save ourselves?" "No, master," they whispered in unison. "Is the protection of our world worth perhaps the loss of some of our number?" "Yes," they breathed. "We are not afraid." Aro smiled and turned to his black-clad companions. "Brothers," Aro said somberly, "there is much to consider here." "Let us counsel," Caius said eagerly. "Let us counsel," Marcus repeated in an uninterested tone. Aro turned his back to us again, facing the other ancients. They joined hands to form a black-shrouded triangle. As soon as Aro's attention was engaged in the silent counsel, two more of their witnesses disappeared silently into the forest. I hoped, for their sakes, that they were fast. This was it. Carefully, I loosened Renesmee's arms from my neck. "You remember what I told you?" Tears welled in her eyes, but she nodded. "I love you," she whispered. Edward was watching us now, his topaz eyes wide. Jacob stared at us from the corner of his big dark eye. "I love you, too," I said, and then I touched her locket. "More than my own life." I kissed her forehead. Jacob whined uneasily. I stretched up on my toes and whispered into his ear. "Wait until they're totally distracted, then run with her. Get as far from this place as you possibly can. When you've gone as far as you can on foot, she has what you need to get you in the air." Edward's and Jacob's faces were almost identical masks of horror, despite the fact that one of them was an animal. Renesmee reached for Edward, and he took her in his arms. They hugged each other tightly. "This is what you kept from me?" he whispered over her head. "From Aro," I breathed. "Alice?" I nodded. His face twisted with understanding and pain. Had that been the expression on my face when I'd finally put together Alice's clues? Jacob was growling quietly, a low rasp that was as even and unbroken as a purr. His hackles were stiff and his teeth exposed. Edward kissed Renesmee's forehead and both her cheeks, then he lifted her to Jacob's shoulder. She scrambled agilely onto his back, pulling herself into place with handfuls of his fur, and fit herself easily into the dip between his massive shoulder blades. Jacob turned to me, his expressive eyes full of agony, the rumbling growl still grating through his chest. "You're the only one we could ever trust her with," I murmured to him. "If you didn't love her so much, I could never bear this. I know you can protect her, Jacob." He whined again, and dipped his head to butt it against my shoulder. "I know," I whispered. "I love you, too, Jake. You'll always be my best man." A tear the size of a baseball rolled into the russet fur beneath his eye. Edward leaned his head against the same shoulder where he'd placed Renesmee. "Goodbye, Jacob, my brother... my son." The others were not oblivious to the farewell scene. Their eyes were locked on the silent black triangle, but I could tell they were listening. "Is there no hope, then?" Carlisle whispered. There was no fear in his voice. Just determination and acceptance. "There is absolutely hope," I murmured back. It could be true, I told myself. "I only know my own fate." Edward took my hand. He knew that he was included. When I said my fate, there was no question that I meant the two of us. We were just halves of the whole. Esme's breath was ragged behind me. She moved past us, touching our faces as she passed, to stand beside Carlisle and hold his hand. Suddenly, we were surrounded by murmured goodbyes and I love you's. "If we live through this," Garrett whispered to Kate, "I'll follow you anywhere, woman." "Now he tells me," she muttered. Rosalie and Emmett kissed quickly but passionately. Tia caressed Benjamin's face. He smiled back cheerfully, catching her hand and holding it against his cheek. I didn't see all the expressions of love and pain. I was distracted by a sudden fluttering pressure against the outside of my shield. I couldn't tell where it came from, but it felt like it was directed at the edges of our group, Siobhan and Liam particularly. The pressure did no damage, and then it was gone. There was no change in the silent, still forms of the counseling ancients. But perhaps there was some signal I'd missed. "Get ready," I whispered to the others. "It's starting."

38. POWER "Chelsea is trying to break our bindings," Edward whispered. "But she can't find them. She can't feel us here. . . ." His eyes cut to me. "Are you doing that?" I smiled grimly at him. "I am all over this." Edward lurched away from me suddenly, his hand reaching out toward Carlisle. At the same time, I felt a much sharper jab against the shield where it wrapped protectively around Carlisle's light. It wasn't painful, but it wasn't pleasant, either. "Carlisle? Are you all right?" Edward gasped frantically. "Yes. Why?" "Jane," Edward answered. The moment that he said her name, a dozen pointed attacks hit in a second, stabbing all over the elastic shield, aimed at twelve different bright spots. I flexed, making sure the shield was undamaged. It didn't seem like Jane had been able to pierce it. I glanced around quickly; everyone was fine. "Incredible," Edward said. "Why aren't they waiting for the decision?" Tanya hissed. "Normal procedure," Edward answered brusquely. "They usually incapacitate those on trial so they can't escape." I looked across at Jane, who was staring at our group with furious disbelief. I was pretty sure that, besides me, she'd never seen anyone remain standing through her fiery assault. It probably wasn't very mature. But I figured it would take Aro about half a second to guess 覧if he hadn't already覧that my shield was more powerful than Edward had known; I already had a big target on my forehead and there was really no point in trying to keep the extent of what I could do a secret. So I grinned a huge, smug smile right at Jane. Her eyes narrowed, and I felt another stab of pressure, this time directed at me. I pulled my lips wider, showing my teeth. Jane let out a high-pitched scream of a snarl. Everyone jumped, even the disciplined guard. Everyone but the ancients, who didn't so much as look up from their conference. Her twin caught her arm as she crouched to spring. The Romanians started chuckling with dark anticipation. "I told you this was our time," Vladimir said to Stefan. "Just look at the witch's face," Stefan chortled. Alec patted his sister's shoulder soothingly, then tucked her under his arm. He turned his face to us, perfectly smooth, completely angelic. I waited for some pressure, some sign of his attack, but I felt nothing. He continued to stare in our direction, his pretty face composed. Was he attacking? Was he getting through my shield? Was I the only one who could still see him? I clutched at Edward's hand. "Are you okay?" I choked out. "Yes," he whispered. "Is Alec trying?" Edward nodded. "His gift is slower than Jane's. It creeps. It will touch us in a few seconds." I saw it then, when I had a clue of what to look for. A strange clear haze was oozing across the snow, nearly invisible against the white. It reminded me of a mirage 2預 slight warping of the view, a hint of a shimmer. I pushed my shield out from Carlisle and the rest of the front line, afraid to have the slinking mist too close when it hit. What if it stole right through my intangible protection? Should we run? A low rumbling murmured through the ground under our feet, and a gust of wind blew the snow into sudden flurries between our position and the Voituri's. Benjamin had seen the creeping threat, too, and now he tried to blow the mist away from us. The snow made it easy to see where he threw the wind, but the mist didn't react in any way. It was like air blowing harmlessly through a shadow; the shadow was immune. The triangular formation of the ancients finally broke apart when, with a racking groan, a deep, narrow fissure opened in a long zigzag across the middle of the clearing. The earth rocked under my feet for a moment. The drifts of snow plummeted into the hole, but the mist skipped right across it, as untouched by gravity as it had been by wind. Aro and Caius watched the opening earth with wide eyes. Marcus looked in the same direction without emotion. They didn't speak; they waited, too, as the mist approached us. The wind shrieked louder but didn't change the course of the mist. Jane was smiling now. And then the mist hit a wall. I could taste it as soon as it touched my shield 2擁t had a dense, sweet, cloying flavor, it made me remember dimly the numbness of Novocain on my tongue. The mist curled upward, seeking a breach, a weakness. It found none. The fingers of searching haze twisted upward and around, trying to find a way in, and in the process illustrating the astonishing size of the protective screen. There were gasps on both sides of Benjamin's gorge. "Well done, Bella!'7 Benjamin cheered in a low voice. My smile returned. I could see Alec's narrowed eyes, doubt on his face for the first time as his mist swirled harmlessly around the edges of my shield. And then I knew that I could do this. Obviously, I would be the number-one priority, the first one to die, but as long as I held, we were on more than equal footing with the Volturi. We still had Benjamin and Zafrina; they had no supernatural help at all. As long as I held. Tm going to have to concentrate," I whispered to Edward. "When it comes to hand to hand, it's going to be harder to keep the shield around the right people." "I'll keep them off you." "No. You have to get to Demetri. Zafrina will keep them away from me." Zafrina nodded solemnly. "No one will touch this young one," she promised Edward. "I'd go after Jane and Alec myself, but I can do more good here." "Jane's mine," Kate hissed. "She needs a taste of her own medicine." "And Alec owes me many lives, but I will settle for his," Vladimir growled from the other side. "He's mine." "I just want Caius," Tanya said evenly. The others started divvying up opponents, too, but they were quickly interrupted. Aro, staring calmly at Alec's ineffective mist, finally spoke. "Before we vote," he began. I shook my head angrily. I was tired of this charade. The bloodlust was igniting in me again, and I was sorry that I would help the others more by standing still. I wanted to fight. "Let me remind you," Aro continued, "whatever the council's decision, there need be no violence here." Edward snarled out a dark laugh. Aro stared at him sadly. "It will be a regrettable waste to our kind to lose any of you. But you especially, young Edward, and your newborn mate. The Volturi would be glad to welcome many of you into our ranks. Bella, Benjamin, Zafrina, Kate. There are many choices before you. Consider them." Chelsea's attempt to sway us fluttered impotently against my shield. Aro's gaze swept across our hard eyes, looking for any indication of hesitation. From his expression, he found none. I knew he was desperate to keep Edward and me, to imprison us the way he had hoped to enslave Alice. But this fight was too big. He would not win if I lived. I was fiercely glad to be so powerful that I left him no way not to kill me. "Let us vote, then," he said with apparent reluctance. Caius spoke with eager haste. "The child is an unknown quantity. There is no reason to allow such a risk to exist. It must be destroyed, along with all who protect it." He smiled in expectation. I fought back a shriek of defiance to answer his cruel smirk. Marcus lifted his uncaring eyes, seeming to look through us as he voted. "I see no immediate danger. The child is safe enough for now. We can always reevaluate later. Let us leave in peace." His voice was even fainter than his brothers' feathery sighs. None of the guard relaxed their ready positions at his disagreeing words. Caius's anticipatory grin did not falter. It was as if Marcus hadn't spoken at all. "I must make the deciding vote, it seems," Aro mused. Suddenly, Edward stiffened at my side. "Yes!" he hissed. I risked a glance at him. His face glowed with an expression of triumph that I didn't understand 蓉擁t was the expression an angel of destruction might wear while the world burned. Beautiful and terrifying. There was a low reaction from the guard, an uneasy murmur. "Aro?" Edward called, nearly shouted, undisguised victory in his voice. Aro hesitated for a second, assessing this new mood warily before he answered. "Yes, Edward? You have something further... ?" "Perhaps," Edward said pleasantly, controlling his unexplained excitement. "First, if I could clarify one point?" "Certainly," Aro said, raising his eyebrows, nothing now but polite interest in his tone. My teeth ground together; Aro was never more dangerous than when he was gracious. "The danger you foresee from my daughter 蓉葉his stems entirely from our inability to guess how she will develop? That is the crux of the matter?" "Yes, friend Edward," Aro agreed. "If we could but be positive... be sure that, as she grows, she will be able to stay concealed from the human world 覧not endanger the safety of our obscurity ..." He trailed off, shrugging. "So, if we could only know for sure," Edward suggested, "exactly what she will become... then there would be no need for a council at all?" "If there was some way to be absolutely sure," Aro agreed, his feathery voice slightly more shrill. He couldn't see where Edward was leading him. Neither could I. "Then, yes, there would be no question to debate." "And we would part in peace, good friends once again?" Edward asked with a hint of irony. Even more shrill. "Of course, my young friend. Nothing would please me more." Edward chuckled exultantly. "Then I do have something more to offer." Aro's eyes narrowed. "She is absolutely unique. Her future can only be guessed at." "Not absolutely unique," Edward disagreed. "Rare, certainly, but not one of a kind." I fought the shock, the sudden hope springing to life, as it threatened to distract me. The sickly-looking mist still swirled around the edges of my shield. And, as I struggled to focus, I felt again the sharp, stabbing pressure against my protective hold. "Aro, would you ask Jane to stop attacking my wife?" Edward asked courteously. "We are still discussing evidence." Aro raised one hand. "Peace, dear ones. Let us hear him out." The pressure disappeared. Jane bared her teeth at me; I couldn't help grinning back at her. "Why don't you join us, Alice?" Edward called loudly. "Alice," Esme whispered in shock. Alice! Alice, Alice, Alice! "Alice!" "Alice!" other voices murmured around me. "Alice," Aro breathed. Relief and violent joy surged through me. It took all my will to keep the shield where it was. Alec's mist still tested, seeking a weakness 2憂ane would see if I left any holes. And then I heard them running through the forest, flying, closing the distance as quickly as they could with no slowing effort at silence. Both sides were motionless in expectation. The Volturi witnesses scowled in fresh confusion. Then Alice danced into the clearing from the southwest, and I felt like the bliss of seeing her face again might knock me off my feet. Jasper was only inches behind her, his sharp eyes fierce. Close after them ran three strangers; the first was a tall, muscular female with wild dark hair 覧obviously Kachiri. She had the same elongated limbs and features as the other Amazons, even more pronounced in her case. The next was a small olive-toned female vampire with a long braid of black hair bobbing against her back. Her deep burgundy eyes flitted nervously around the confrontation before her. And the last was a young man... not quite as fast nor quite as fluid in his run. His skin was an impossible rich, dark brown. His wary eyes flashed across the gathering, and they were the color of warm teak. His hair was black and braided, too, like the woman's, though not as long. He was beautiful. As he neared us, a new sound sent shock waves through the watching crowd 嶺葉he sound of another heartbeat, accelerated with exertion. Alice leaped lightly over the edges of the dissipating mist that lapped at my shield and came to a sinuous stop at Edward's side. I reached out to touch her arm, and so did Edward, Esme, Carlisle. There wasn't time for any other welcome. Jasper and the others followed her through the shield. All the guard watched, speculation in their eyes, as the latecomers crossed the invisible border without difficulty. The brawny ones, Felix and the others like him, focused their suddenly hopeful eyes on me. They had not been sure of what my shield repelled, but it was clear now that it would not stop a physical attack. As soon as Aro gave the order, the blitz would ensue, me the only object. I wondered how many Zafrina would be able to blind, and how much that would slow them. Long enough for Kate and Vladimir to take Jane and Alec out of the equation? That was all I could ask for. Edward, despite his absorption in the coup he was directing, stiffened furiously in response to their thoughts. He controlled himself and spoke to Aro again. "Alice has been searching for her own witnesses these last weeks," he said to the ancient. "And she does not come back empty-handed. Alice, why don't you introduce the witnesses you've brought?" Caius snarled. "The time for witnesses is past! Cast your vote, Aro!" Aro raised one finger to silence his brother, his eyes glued to Alice's face. Alice stepped forward lightly and introduced the strangers. "This is Huilen and her nephew, Nahuel." Hearing her voice... it was like she'd never left. Caius's eyes tightened as Alice named the relationship between the newcomers. The Volturi witnesses hissed amongst themselves. The vampire world was changing, and everyone could feel it. "Speak, Huilen," Aro commanded. "Give us the witness you were brought to bear." The slight woman looked to Alice nervously. Alice nodded in encouragement, and Kachiri put her long hand on the little vampire's shoulder. "I am Huilen," the woman announced in clear but strangely accented English. As she continued, it was apparent she had prepared herself to tell this story, that she had practiced. It flowed like a well-known nursery rhyme. "A century and a half ago, I lived with my people, the Mapuche. My sister was Pire. Our parents named her after the snow on the mountains because of her fair skin. And she was very beautiful 蓉葉oo beautiful. She came to me one day in secret and told me of the angel that found her in the woods, that visited her by night. I warned her." Huilen shook her head mournfully. "As if the bruises on her skin were not warning enough. I knew it was the Libishomen of our legends, but she would not listen. She was bewitched. "She told me when she was sure her dark angel's child was growing inside her. I didn't try to discourage her from her plan to run away 蓉悠 knew even our father and mother would agree that the child must be destroyed, Pire with it. I went with her into the deepest parts of the forest. She searched for her demon angel but found nothing, i cared for her, hunted for her when her strength failed. She ate the animals raw, drinking their blood. I needed no more confirmation of what she carried in her womb. I hoped to save her life before I killed the monster. "But she loved the child inside her. She called him Nahuel, after the jungle cat, when he grew strong and broke her bones 覧and loved him still. "I could not save her. The child ripped his way free of her, and she died quickly, begging all the while that I would care for her Nahuel. Her dying wish 覧and I agreed. "He bit me, though, when I tried to lift him from her body. I crawled away into the jungle to die. I didn't get far 覧the pain was too much. But he found me; the newborn child struggled through the underbrush to my side and waited for me. When the pain ended, he was curled against my side, sleeping. "I cared for him until he was able to hunt for himself. We hunted the villages around our forest, staying to ourselves. We have never come so far from our home, but Nahuel wished to see the child here." Huilen bowed her head when she was finished and moved back so she was partially hidden behind Kachiri. Aro's lips were pursed. He stared at the dark-skinned youth. "Nahuel, you are one hundred and fifty years old?" he questioned. "Give or take a decade," he answered in a clear, beautifully warm voice. His accent was barely noticeable. "We don't keep track." "And you reached maturity at what age?" "About seven years after my birth, more or less, I was full grown." "You have not changed since then?" Nahuel shrugged. "Not that I've noticed." I felt a shudder tremble through Jacob's body. I didn't want to think about this yet. I would wait till the danger was past and I could concentrate. "And your diet?" Aro pressed, seeming interested in spite of himself. "Mostly blood, but some human food, too. I can survive on either." "You were able to create an immortal?" As Aro gestured to Huilen, his voice was abruptly intense. I refocused on my shield; perhaps he was seeking a new excuse. "Yes, but none of the rest can." A shocked murmur ran through all three groups. Aro's eyebrows shot up. "The rest?" "My sisters." Nahuel shrugged again. Aro stared wildly for a moment before composing his face. "Perhaps you would tell us the rest of your story, for there seems to be more." Nahuel frowned. "My father came looking for me a few years after my mother's death." His handsome face distorted slightly. "He was pleased to find me." Nahuel's tone suggested the feeling was not mutual. "He had two daughters, but no sons. He expected me to join him, as my sisters had. "He was surprised I was not alone. My sisters are not venomous, but whether that's due to gender or a random chance... who knows? I already had my family with Huilen, and I was not interested* 覧he twisted the word覧"in making a change. I see him from time to time. I have a new sister; she reached maturity about ten years back." "Your father's name?" Caius asked through gritted teeth. "Joham," Nahuel answered. "He considers himself a scientist. He thinks he's creating a new super-race." He made no attempt to disguise the disgust in his tone. Caius looked at me. "Your daughter, is she venomous?" he demanded harshly. "No," I responded. Nahuel's head snapped up at Aro's question, and his teak eyes turned to bore into my face. Caius looked to Aro for confirmation, but Aro was absorbed in his own thoughts. He pursed his lips and stared at Carlisle, and then Edward, and at last his eyes rested on me. Caius growled. "We take care of the aberration here, and then follow it south," he urged Aro. Aro stared into my eyes for a long, tense moment. I had no idea what he was searching for, or what he found, but after he had measured me for that moment, something in his face changed, a faint shift in the set of his mouth and eyes, and I knew that Aro had made his decision. "Brother," he said softly to Caius. "There appears to be no danger. This is an unusual development, but I see no threat. These half-vampire children are much like us, it appears." "Is that your vote?" Caius demanded. "It is." Caius scowled. "And this Joham? This immortal so fond of experimentation?" "Perhaps we should speak with him," Aro agreed. "Stop Joham if you will," Nahuel said flatly. "But leave my sisters be. They are innocent." Aro nodded, his expression solemn. And then he turned back to his guard with a warm smile. "Dear ones," he called. "We do not fight today." The guard nodded in unison and straightened out of their ready positions. The mist dissipated swiftly, but I held my shield in place. Maybe this was another trick. I analyzed their expressions as Aro turned back to us. His face was as benign as ever, but unlike before, I sensed a strange blankness behind the fagade. As if his scheming was over. Caius was clearly incensed, but his rage was turned inward now; he was resigned. Marcus looked... bored; there really was no other word for it. The guard was impassive and disciplined again; there were no individuals among them, just the whole. They were in formation, ready to depart. The Volturi witnesses were still wary; one after another, they departed, scattering into the woods. As their numbers dwindled, the remaining sped up. Soon they were all gone. Aro held his hands out to us, almost apologetic. Behind him, the larger part of the guard, along with Caius, Marcus, and the silent, mysterious wives, were already drifting quickly away, their formation precise once again. Only the three that seemed to be his personal guardians lingered with him. "I'm so glad this could be resolved without violence," he said sweetly. "My friend, Carlisle 覧how pleased I am to call you friend again! I hope there are no hard feelings. I know you understand the strict burden that our duty places on our shoulders." "Leave in peace, Aro," Carlisle said stiffly. "Please remember that we still have our anonymity to protect here, and keep your guard from hunting in this region." "Of course, Carlisle," Aro assured him. "I am sorry to earn your disapproval, my dear friend. Perhaps, in time, you will forgive me." "Perhaps, in time, if you prove a friend to us again." Aro bowed his head, the picture of remorse, and drifted backward for a moment before he turned around. We watched in silence as the last four Volturi disappeared into the trees. It was very quiet. I did not drop my shield. "Is it really over?" I whispered to Edward. His smile was huge. "Yes. They've given up. Like all bullies, they're cowards underneath the swagger.'7 He chuckled. Alice laughed with him. "Seriously, people. They're not coming back. Everybody can relax now." There was another beat of silence. "Of all the rotten luck," Stefan muttered. And then it hit. Cheers erupted. Deafening howls filled the clearing. Maggie pounded Siobhan on the back. Rosalie and Emmett kissed again 2様onger and more ardently than before. Benjamin and Tia were locked in each other's arms, as were Carmen and Eleazar. Esme held Alice and Jasper in a tight embrace. Carlisle was warmly thanking the South American newcomers who had saved us all. Kachin stood very close to Zafrina and Senna, their fingertips interlocked. Garrett picked Kate up off the ground and swung her around in a circle. Stefan spit on the snow. Vladimir ground his teeth together with a sour expression. And I half-climbed the giant russet wolf to rip my daughter off his back and then crushed her to my chest. Edward's arms were around us in the same second. "Nessie, Nessie, Nessie," I crooned. Jacob laughed his big, barky laugh and poked the back of my head with his nose. "Shut up," I mumbled. "I get to stay with you?" Nessie demanded. "Forever," I promised her. We had forever. And Nessie was going to be fine and healthy and strong. Like the half-human Nahuel, in a hundred and fifty years she would still be young. And we would all be together. Happiness expanded like an explosion inside me 庸耀o extreme, so violent that I wasn't sure I'd survive it. "Forever," Edward echoed in my ear. I couldn't speak anymore. I lifted my head and kissed him with a passion that might possibly set the forest on fire. I wouldn't have noticed.

39. THE HAPPILY EVER AFTER "So it was a combination of things there at the end, but what it really boiled down to was... Bella," Edward was explaining. Our family and our two remaining guests sat in the Cullens' great room while the forest turned black outside the tall windows. Vladimir and Stefan had vanished before we'd stopped celebrating. They were extremely disappointed in the way things had turned out, but Edward said that they'd enjoyed the Volturi's cowardice almost enough to make up for their frustration. Benjamin and Tia were quick to follow after Amun and Kebi, anxious to let them know the outcome of the conflict; I was sure we would see them again 覧Benjamin and Tia, at least. None of the nomads lingered. Peter and Charlotte had a short conversation with Jasper, and then they were gone, too. The reunited Amazons had been anxious to return home as well 覧they had a difficult time being away from their beloved rain forest覧though they were more reluctant to leave than some of the others. "You must bring the child to see me," Zafrina had insisted. "Promise me, young one." Nessie had pressed her hand to my neck, pleading as well. "Of course, Zafrina," I'd agreed. "We shall be great friends, my Nessie," the wild woman had declared before leaving with her sisters. The Irish coven continued the exodus. "Well done, Siobhan," Carlisle complimented her as they said goodbye. "Ah, the power of wishful thinking," she answered sarcastically, rolling her eyes. And then she was serious. "Of course, this isn't over. The Volturi won't forgive what happened here." Edward was the one to answer that. "They've been seriously shaken; their confidence is shattered. But, yes, I'm sure they'll recover from the blow someday. And then . . ." His eyes tightened. "I imagine they'll try to pick us off separately." "Alice will warn us when they intend to strike," Siobhan said in a sure voice. "And we'll gather again. Perhaps the time will come when our world is ready to be free of the Volturi altogether." "That time may come," Carlisle replied. "If it does, we'll stand together." "Yes, my friend, we will," Siobhan agreed. "And how can we fail, when /will it otherwise?" She let out a great peal of laughter. "Exactly," Carlisle said. He and Siobhan embraced, and then he shook Liam's hand. "Try to find Alistair and tell him what happened. I'd hate to think of him hiding under a rock for the next decade." Siobhan laughed again. Maggie hugged both Nessie and me, and then the Irish coven was gone. The Denalis were the last to leave, Garrett with them 2預s he would be from now on, I was fairly sure. The atmosphere of celebration was too much for Tanya and Kate. They needed time to grieve for their lost sister. Huilen and Nahuel were the ones who stayed, though I had expected those last two to go back with the Amazons. Carlisle was deep in fascinated conversation with Huilen; Nahuel sat close beside her, listening while Edward told the rest of us the story of the conflict as only he knew it. "Alice gave Aro the excuse he needed to get out of the fight. If he hadn't been so terrified of Bella, he probably would have gone ahead with their original plan." "Terrified?" I said skeptically. "Of me?" He smiled at me with a look I didn't entirely recognize 2擁t was tender, but also awed and even exasperated. "When will you ever see yourself clearly?" he said softly. Then he spoke louder, to the others as well as to me. "The Volturi haven't fought a fair fight in about twenty-five hundred years. And they've never, never fought one where they were at a disadvantage. Especially since they gained Jane and Alec, they've only been involved with unopposed slaughterings. "You should have seen how we looked to them! Usually, Alec cuts off all sense and feeling from their victims while they go through the charade of a counsel. That way, no one can run when the verdict is given. But there we stood, ready, waiting, outnumbering them, with gifts of our own while their gifts were rendered useless by Bella. Aro knew that with Zafrina on our side, they would be the blind ones when the battle commenced. I'm sure our numbers would have been pretty severely decimated, but they were sure that theirs would be, too. There was even a good possibility that they would lose. They've never dealt with that possibility before. They didn't deal with it well today." "Hard to feel confident when you're surrounded by horse-sized wolves," Emmett laughed, poking Jacob's arm. Jacob flashed a grin at him. "It was the wolves that stopped them in the first place," I said. "Sure was," Jacob agreed. "Absolutely," Edward agreed. "That was another sight they've never seen. The true Children of the Moon rarely move in packs, and they are never much in control of themselves. Sixteen enormous regimented wolves was a surprise they weren't prepared for. Caius is actually terrified of werewolves. He almost lost a fight with one a few thousand years ago and never got over it." "So there are real werewolves?" I asked. "With the full moon and silver bullets and all that?" Jacob snorted. "Real. Does that make me imaginary?" "You know what I mean." "Full moon, yes," Edward said. "Silver bullets, no 覧that was just another one of those myths to make humans feel like they had a sporting chance. There aren't very many of them left. Caius has had them hunted into near extinction." "And you never mentioned this because... ?" "It never came up." I rolled my eyes, and Alice laughed, leaning forward 2耀he was tucked under Edward's other arm擁葉o wink at me. I glared back. I loved her insanely, of course. But now that I'd had a chance to realize that she was really home, that her defection was only a ruse because Edward had to believe that she'd abandoned us, I was beginning to feel pretty irritated with her. Alice had some explaining to do. Alice sighed. "Just get it off your chest, Bella." "How could you do that to me, Alice?" "It was necessary." "Necessary!" I exploded. "You had me totally convinced that we were all going to die! I've been a wreck for weeks." "It might have gone that way," she said calmly. "In which case you needed to be prepared to save Nessie." Instinctively, I held Nessie 覧asleep now on my lap覧tighter in my arms. "But you knew there were other ways, too," I accused. "You knew there was hope. Did it ever occur to you that you could have told me everything? I know Edward had to think we were at a dead end for Aro's sake, but you could have told me." She looked at me speculatively for a moment. "I don't think so," she said. "You're just not that good an actress." "This was about my acting skills?" "Oh, take it down an octave, Bella. Do you have any idea how complicated Ms was to set up? I couldn't even be sure that someone like Nahuel existed 覧all I knew was that I would be looking for something I couldn't see! Try to imagine searching for a blind spot覧not the easiest thing I've ever done. Plus we had to send back the key witnesses, like we weren't in enough of a hurry. And then keeping my eyes open all the time in case you decided to throw me any more instructions. At some point you're going to have to tell me what exactly is in Rio. Before any of that, I had to try to see every trick the Volturi might come in with and give you what few clues I could so you would be ready for their strategy, and I only had just a few hours to trace out all the possibilities. Most of all, I had to make sure you'd all believe that I was ditching out on you, because Aro had to be positive that you had nothing left up your sleeves or he never would have committed to an out the way he did. And if you think I didn't feel like a schmuck覧" "Okay, okay!" I interrupted. "Sorry! I know it was rough for you, too. It's just that... well, I missed you like crazy, Alice. Don't do that to me again." Alice's trilling laugh rang through the room, and we all smiled to hear that music once more. "I missed you, too, Bella. So forgive me, and try to be satisfied with being the superhero of the day." Everyone else laughed now, and I ducked my face into Nessie's hair, embarrassed. Edward went back to analyzing every shift of intention and control that had happened in the meadow today, declaring that it was my shield that had made the Volturi run away with their tails between their legs. The way everyone looked at me made me uncomfortable. Even Edward. It was like I had grown a hundred feet during the course of the morning. I tried to ignore the impressed looks, mostly keeping my eyes on Nessie's sleeping face and Jacob's unchanged expression. I would always be just Bella to him, and that was a relief. The hardest stare to ignore was also the most confusing one. It wasn't like this half-human, half-vampire Nahuel was used to thinking of me in a certain way. For all he knew, I went around routing attacking vampires every day and the scene in the meadow had been nothing unusual at all. But the boy never took his eyes off me. Or maybe he was looking at Nessie. That made me uncomfortable, too. He couldn't be oblivious to the fact that Nessie was the only female of his kind that wasn't his half-sister. I didn't think this idea had occurred to Jacob yet. I kind of hoped it wouldn't soon. I'd had enough fighting to last me for a while. Eventually, the others ran out of questions for Edward, and the discussion dissolved into a bunch of smaller conversations. I felt oddly tired. Not sleepy, of course, but just like the day had been long enough. I wanted some peace, some normality. I wanted Nessie in her own bed; I wanted the walls of my own little home around me. I looked at Edward and felt for a moment like I could read his mind. I could see he felt exactly the same way. Ready for some peace. "Should we take Nessie ..." 'That's probably a good idea," he agreed quickly. "I'm sure she didn't sleep soundly last night, what with all the snoring." He grinned at Jacob. Jacob rolled his eyes and then yawned. "It's been a while since I slept in a bed. I bet my dad would get a kick out of having me under his roof again." I touched his cheek. "Thank you, Jacob." "Anytime, Bella. But you already know that." He got up, stretched, kissed the top of Nessie's head, and then the top of mine. Finally, he punched Edward's shoulder. "See you guys tomorrow. I guess things are going to be kind of boring now, aren't they?" "I fervently hope so," Edward said. We got up when he was gone; I shifted my weight carefully so that Nessie was never jostled. I was deeply grateful to see her getting a sound sleep. So much weight had been on her tiny shoulders. It was time she got to be a child again 覧protected and secure. A few more years of childhood. The idea of peace and security reminded me of someone who didn't have those feelings all the time. "Oh, Jasper?" I asked as we turned for the door. Jasper was sandwiched tight in between Alice and Esme, somehow seeming more central to the family picture than usual. "Yes, Bella?" Tm curious 覧why is J. Jenks scared stiff by just the sound of your name?" Jasper chuckled. "It's just been my experience that some kinds of working relationships are better motivated by fear than by monetary gain." I frowned, promising myself that I would take over that working relationship from now on and spare J the heart attack that was surely on the way. We were kissed and hugged and wished a good night to our family. The only off note was Nahuel again, who looked intently after us, as if he wished he could follow. Once we were across the river, we walked barely faster than human speed, in no hurry, holding hands. I was sick of being under a deadline, and I just wanted to take my time. Edward must have felt the same. "I have to say, I'm thoroughly impressed with Jacob right now," Edward told me. "The wolves make quite an impact, don't they?" "That's not what I mean. Not once today did he think about the fact that, according to Nahuel, Nessie will be fully matured in just six and a half years." I considered that for a minute. "He doesn't see her that way. He's not in a hurry for her to grow up. He just wants her to be happy." "I know. Like I said, impressive. It goes against the grain to say so, but she could do worse." I frowned. "I'm not going to think about that for approximately six and a half more years." Edward laughed and then sighed. "Of course, it looks like he'll have some competition to worry about when the time comes." My frown deepened. "I noticed. I'm grateful to Nahuel for today, but all the staring was a little weird. I don't care if she is the only half-vampire he's not related to." "Oh, he wasn't staring at her 容揺e was staring at you." That's what it had seemed like... but that didn't make any sense. "Why would he do that?" "Because you're alive," he said quietly. "You lost me." "All his life," he explained," 覧and he's fifty years older than I am蓉" "Decrepit," I interjected. He ignored me. "He's always thought of himself as an evil creation, a murderer by nature. His sisters all killed their mothers as well, but they thought nothing of it. Joham raised them to think of the humans as animals, while they were gods. But Nahuel was taught by Huilen, and Huilen loved her sister more than anyone else. It shaped his whole perspective. And, in some ways, he truly hated himself." "That's so sad," I murmured. "And then he saw the three of us 揺預nd realized for the first time that just because he is half immortal, it doesn't mean he is inherently evil. He looks at me and sees... what his father should have been." "You are fairly ideal in every way," I agreed. He snorted and then was serious again. "He looks at you and sees the life his mother should have had." "Poor Nahuel," I murmured, and then sighed because I knew I would never be able to think badly of him after this, no matter how uncomfortable his stare made me. "Don't be sad for him. He's happy now. Today, he's finally begun to forgive himself." I smiled for Nahuel's happiness and then thought that today belonged to happiness. Though Irina's sacrifice was a dark shadow against the white light, keeping the moment from perfection, the joy was impossible to deny. The life I'd fought for was safe again. My family was reunited. My daughter had a beautiful future stretching out endlessly in front of her. Tomorrow I would go see my father; he would see that the fear in my eyes had been replaced with joy, and he would be happy, too. Suddenly, I was sure that I wouldn't find him there alone. I hadn't been as observant as I might have been in the last few weeks, but in this moment it was like I'd known all along. Sue would be with Charlie 覧the werewolves' mom with the vampire's dad覧and he wouldn't be alone anymore. I smiled widely at this new insight. But most significant in this tidal wave of happiness was the surest fact of all: I was with Edward. Forever. Not that I'd want to repeat the last several weeks, but I had to admit they'd made me appreciate what I had more than ever. The cottage was a place of perfect peace in the silver-blue night. We carried Nessie to her bed and gently tucked her in. She smiled as she slept. I took Aro's gift from around my neck and tossed it lightly into the corner of her room. She could play with it if she wished; she liked sparkly things. Edward and I walked slowly to our room, swinging our arms between us. "A night for celebrations," he murmured, and he put his hand under my chin to lift my lips to his. "Wait," I hesitated, pulling away. He looked at me in confusion. As a general rule, I didn't pull away. Okay, it was more than a general rule. This was a first. "I want to try something," I informed him, smiling slightly at his bewildered expression. I put my hands on both sides of his face and closed my eyes in concentration. I hadn't done very well with this when Zafrina had tried to teach me before, but I knew my shield better now. I understood the part that fought against separation from me, the automatic instinct to preserve self above all else. It still wasn't anywhere near as easy as shielding other people along with myself. I felt the elastic recoil again as my shield fought to protect me. I had to strain to push it entirely away from me; it took all of my focus. "Bella!" Edward whispered in shock. I knew it was working then, so I concentrated even harder, dredging up the specific memories I'd saved for this moment, letting them flood my mind, and hopefully his as well. Some of the memories were not clear 2妖im human memories, seen through weak eyes and heard through weak ears: the first time I'd seen his face... the way it felt when he'd held me in the meadow... the sound of his voice through the darkness of my faltering consciousness when he'd saved me from James... his face as he waited under a canopy of flowers to marry me... every precious moment from the island... his cold hands touching our baby through my skin... And the sharp memories, perfectly recalled: his face when I'd opened my eyes to my new life, to the endless dawn of immortality... that first kiss... that first night... His lips, suddenly fierce against mine, broke my concentration. With a gasp, I lost my grip on the struggling weight I was holding away from myself. It snapped back like stressed elastic, protecting my thoughts once again. "Oops, lost it!" I sighed. "I heard you," he breathed. "How? How did you do that?" "Zafrina's idea. We practiced with it a few times." He was dazed. He blinked twice and shook his head. "Now you know," I said lightly, and shrugged. "No one's ever loved anyone as much as I love you." "You're almost right." He smiled, his eyes still a little wider than usual. "I know of just one exception." "Liar." He started to kiss me again, but then stopped abruptly. "Can you do it again?" he wondered. I grimaced. "It's very difficult." He waited, his expression eager. "I can't keep it up if I'm even the slightest bit distracted," I warned him. "I'll be good," he promised. I pursed my lips, my eyes narrowing. Then I smiled. I pressed my hands to his face again, hefted the shield right out of my mind, and then started in where I'd left off 4謡ith the crystal-clear memory of the first night of my new life... lingering on the details. I laughed breathlessly when his urgent kiss interrupted my efforts again. "Damn it," he growled, kissing hungrily down the edge of my jaw. "We have plenty of time to work on it," I reminded him. "Forever and forever and forever," he murmured. "That sounds exactly right to me." And then we continued blissfully into this small but perfect piece of our forever.

the end

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