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A Circle in the Sand

Chapter Text

“Mom, it’s getting dark. Don’t you think we should go back to the hotel?”  I suggested in an attempt to drag Mom from yet another “adorable” shop in the historic Riverside district of Jacksonville, Florida. “Phil’s probably done with tryouts, and we could get something to eat.”

My mother, Renee Dwyer, recently married and bubbly as ever, grinned over her shoulder at where I stood next to a display of handmade shell jewelry and music boxes. I crossed my arms and tapped the toe of my shoe on the polished hardwood floor. That just caused her to laugh and roll her eyes.

“Really, Bella, Phil won’t expect us for at least another hour, and it’ll take just a few minutes to walk back. Relax and enjoy the shopping, okay?” she teased.

Not that I didn’t like pretty things, but usually I shopped with purpose, knowing exactly what I wanted and leaving a few minutes later. Renee’s browsing drove me crazy, and she knew it.

I huffed, then smiled back. “Okay, but I really am hungry. I think I’ll go across the street to that little bakery and grab a snack while I wait.”

Maybe I should have asked permission instead, since I was still a couple months shy of seventeen, but as the responsible one in our relationship I hadn’t bothered for years. Mom didn’t expect it anymore, which actually made me a little sad. Weren’t parents supposed to try to control their teenagers? Renee always made a point of saying how much she trusted me, though, so maybe she was using some kind of psychology.

“Sounds good, baby. I’ll see you in a few minutes,” she promised, although it would be more like twenty. Kissing her cheek, I reflected that I probably had time to sit outside at one of those delicate-looking wrought-iron tables and relax in the humid twilight.

I headed out of the shop while she considered a rack of brightly colored t-shirts with ridiculous yet kitschy beach themes, the tinkling of the door chime echoing behind me. My smile faded as I crossed the street to the bakery a couple shops down. I had serious things to consider. Since this was Phil’s second tryout in the last month, even further from our Arizona home than the last, I needed to start thinking about what was best for him and Mom. They were newlyweds but had spent almost half a year apart while Renee stayed with me in Arizona so I could finish my sophomore year of high school. They talked about moving if he got a spot on one of the teams, and I was fine with that. Renee would be in the same position, though. She missed Phil horribly when he traveled. I’d watched their romance bloom in the months before their marriage, and as a romantic at heart I recognized true love. She lit up when he entered a room, and the only thing threatening to eclipse the glow in her eyes was the one in his.

That’s why I was coming to a conclusion that I’d avoided all summer. Perhaps it was time to come to my senses and admit that I should call Dad to see if he would mind if I wanted to move there for the next two years. Just the thought of that chilly, rainy town in the middle of nowhere depressed me so much that I bought two brownies instead of the one I’d intended to indulge in. After paying, I trudged into the deepening shadows, absently catching myself as I tripped over the leg of an empty chair next to the shallow steps before flopping into it and staring unseeing at the street around me, no longer quite so bustling as when Renee and I came here hours ago but still fairly full. My fingers pulled a brownie out of the brown paper bag I carried almost of their own volition, unwrapping the wax paper and smoothing it out to lay the fudgy square onto it.

Forks. Seriously, who named a town after cutlery? What in the world were they thinking, those long-dead settlers who somehow decided that naming their quaint settlement “Forks” was a good idea? I never understood, even though I’d visited the place once a year until I was twelve, after which I put my foot down and insisted that Charlie--Dad--meet me in California instead. I hadn’t really cared where else we spent time together, as long as it wasn’t the dreary dot on a map where I’d been born and spent the first few months of my life.

Now it looked like returning for longer than a couple weeks was my only option. Charlie would welcome me with open arms. He wasn’t the most demonstrative father, but it was no secret that he wished I would spend more time with him. Well, if he wanted that he could have moved somewhere warmer.

I sighed and bit into my brownie. It tasted fantastic, but I was in no mood to enjoy it, so I wrapped it in its wax paper and shoved it into my bag.

“What has such a pretty girl so upset?” a smooth voice asked quietly.

I jumped and nearly toppled out of my chair, which he righted with a low laugh. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you.”

A tall boy, somehow even paler than I was, stood next to me. His short, light brown hair was mostly hidden under a baseball cap. The bill created shadows across his square face in the streetlights’ yellow glow. He gave off a boy-next-door air, so I figured his eyes must be blue or brown, although I couldn’t see them clearly.

It would be nice if I could reply to his compliment or even just his apology, but all I managed to do was open my mouth slightly before closing it again. Words were trapped by my shyness, something I didn’t worry about on a daily basis but was cursing just then.

“I’m James,” he prompted, holding out his hand and flashing a bright white smile as if I’d said the funniest thing in the world instead of staring like an idiot.

“B-Bella,” I stuttered, cursing silently once again. Why couldn’t I think up something flirty? Of course, I had no practice, but all my favorite novels were romances. Shouldn’t that give me an edge?

I placed my right hand in his and jumped again at how cold it felt, as if he’d been carrying ice. I raised my startled eyes to meet his---this time I noticed their color. A dark red ring surrounded black as deep and flat as an open pit. Even the alien color didn’t hide their hunger. A scream rose in my throat, strangled by fear as his face appeared inches from mine before I could blink, his grip crushing mine until I felt my bones crack. Panicking, I wondered how he could be so strong.

“Be good and quiet now, pet. We’re going on a little walk,” he snarled at me. He transferred his fingers to create a vice around my wrist, and I was on my feet and being dragged at an impossible speed down the deserted street into what looked like a dark alley. My brain said to scream, but I couldn’t get anything past the lump in my throat other than a strangled screech as he pulled me further into the gloom.

With his free hand, James--or whoever he was--seized my throat and squeezed warningly. “What did I tell you, pet? Not a sound. I know you’re here with your mother. Such a sweet-smelling woman, although not nearly as good as you.” To my horror he leaned towards my neck and drew a long, deep breath. I felt something cold and slimy slide along my collarbone just above the neckline of my bright blue tank top. I flinched away.

“Good little pet,” he murmured as he raised his head a bit, a sadistic grin lighting his face even in the darkness. “I’m going to enjoy this, although I can’t say the same for you.”

Fingers still tight around my neck, James lifted my wrist towards his mouth. His dark red eyes held mine as he adjusted his grip so that he was once more crushing my hand. I shuddered when his lips touched the sensitive skin, probably bruised now. I wanted to stay quiet for Renee, scared of what he’d do to her if I made a sound, but a whimper escaped when I felt his teeth tear through my skin as if it wasn’t even there. The whimper became a shriek as he began to suck. His eyes flashed to mine in fury, and I clamped my mouth shut around the next shout. His eyes smiled as he continued.

Vampires aren’t real, I tried to tell myself even as I felt him pulling my blood, heard loud gulps as he drank. They’re figments of the collective human imagination, scary stories we’ve told ourselves for generations, boogeymen used to keep little children from running out into the night and getting into trouble. They’re not real.

Only they were, and I knew it even as I clenched my teeth against the screams that wanted to tear through me. I began to struggle even as a funny dizzy feeling settled over me, something I knew from too many childhood accidents meant blood loss. To my surprise James was drawing this out, taking small sips after the initial long swallows he drew from my arm as if savoring his meal.

I watched through foggy eyes as five people appeared behind James. They stood silent, then one large man reached out a pale hand and lifted James by the back of his neck, breaking his hold. I collapsed on the hot concrete, unable to move. He held James in the air. James growled and swung at him, demanding that he be allowed to finish his meal. The newcomer laughed. It should have been a beautiful sound, musical and pure, but I experienced another shiver at the malicious undertones.

 “James, James, James,” a high, thin voice said almost too softly for me to hear. “You’ve been a very bad boy. Your indiscriminate feeding in this pitiful warren has drawn undue attention. You know what happens to those who do so, I am assuming.”

A small cloaked figure stepped forward, taking down her hood. Her face should have surprised me. That voice was too cold to belong to someone so lovely. However, her red eyes--so much brighter than James’s--told me that this was another vampire.

I wanted to scramble away from the tableau, but my ankle must have broken on my fall because when I tried to push myself on my feet to run, it couldn’t support my weight. My wrist was aching and on fire, as if James’s bite had torn out a chunk instead of slicing the skin. Thinking of Renee, how worried she must be and how much I didn’t want her near these monsters, I clenched my jaw once again and huddled in the shadows, cradling my injured arm with my uninjured hand.

“Don’t the Volturi believe in a final meal?” James sneered. I wondered how he could keep up his bravado while being held as if he weighed nothing.

The girl’s eyes flickered toward me, and I cringed away from her stare. “We will take care of her momentarily. She should make a fitting snack before the flight home. But first we are going to take care of you. It’s too bad your pretty little mate decided to hunt on her own tonight, isn’t it?” she intoned, turning her attention back to James. “Don’t worry, we took care of her already. She won’t suffer, knowing that you’re dead.” Her eyes narrowed with what would seem like pleasure in anyone else as James renewed his futile effort to escape the giant’s grasp, apparently driven to an insane rage.

Flames started to lick up my arm from the bite, but the scene in front of me almost managed to distract me from the excruciating pain. The small girl nodded to the figure closest to her. He too removed his hood and stepped forward, red eyes dancing as he stretched out his hands. Impossibly, a thick gray cloud began to stream from his pale fingertips. Within seconds it engulfed James, who stopped kicking and became unnaturally still. A third man, almost as large as the first, pulled James’s head from his shoulders in one quick motion.

I did shriek then, although I tried not to. While the other four ripped off James’s limbs, the girl crouched in front of me, impassive. I stared back in terror, trying to quiet myself again despite the pain now creeping towards my shoulder.

“We might as well ensure her silence before we kill her. Alec,” she murmured. Her voice was too quiet to be heard even a few feet away, where the men piled the pieces of James into a metal trash can, but the one who’d caused the strange cloud came over.

“On it, sister,” he said. At this distance I could see that he was more boy than man, but that didn’t relieve the dread coursing through me almost as quickly as the fire when he held his hands out once more, this time in my direction.

The cloud began to engulf me, but I wasn’t sure what it was supposed to be doing. His cool look turned into a frown, while gasps of pain made their way past my lips no matter how tightly I pressed them together.

“Alec?” The girl shot a surprised glance at her brother--the most emotion I’d seen from her so far. When he dropped his hands and shook his head, she glared down at me with frightening intensity.

“Nothing, sister. It’s as if she can’t even feel it.”

The corners of the girl’s mouth curled slightly in a cruel smile. “Maybe the venom isn’t strong enough yet to distract her. I suppose we’ll have to provide more pain.” Her voice rose slightly on the last word, eyes narrowed. I tensed. Crazy amounts of strength, mist clouds that seemed to immobilize other vampires…what else were these people capable of?

After a minute of silence she hissed and reached toward me as if she was going to use that unnatural strength to rend me in two with her bare hands. With what I had just witnessed, I believed she could. Her brother caught her by both arms, and she turned on him with a surprisingly deep growl.

“Aro will want to see this one. She could resist us both while still human. He will want to know.” I couldn’t understand the significant look that passed between them, but whatever he was talking about swayed her. She stood and turned her back, washing her hands of us both.

“Demetri,” Jane called out, causing the one who’d ripped off James’s head to look up from throwing a lighter onto the pile of arms and legs sticking out of the trash can. “Get the new one when you’re done and meet us at the airstrip.”

As if he had been aware of Jane and Alec’s actions all along, Demetri nodded and turned his attention back to the flames. I closed my eyes, not caring how quickly death would take me but hoping that it would be soon because the flames had reached my collarbone, just where James had licked me earlier, and it was all I could do to hold in the screams.

Somewhere in the back of my mind I felt myself being lifted, but all that mattered by that point was the fire pouring into my chest, being pumped by my heart into the rest of my body. I was vaguely aware of a hand clamped over my mouth, and then there was nothing but the flames.

Chapter Text

It was as if every fiber of my being became molten lava. I could feel my body, arms, legs, fingers, toes, head, so I was pretty sure I was still alive somehow. Every single inch peeled away in burning slivers. I wanted to shout, to thrash, but something in the dim memories of the time before the blaze told me that wasn’t a good idea. I resorted to moans and twitches instead.

Inside my head I prayed for the pain to end, not sure if my pleas went to a God I’d never had much exposure to or the vampires who had destroyed James. I wanted them to destroy me, too. I had no idea why they spared me so far. At one point I managed to beg in a whisper around the lump of fear and agony in my throat for them to kill me. To my surprise, a high, excited voice answered me.

“I’m sorry, dear one, but you will just have to hold on a while longer. I have high hopes for you, my dear,” the voice replied.

I wanted to scream in rage and fear at that, but the feeling that something bad would happen if I did held me back. I had to control myself for…whose sake? Someone. Someone I loved but whose face or faces I could no longer make out through the inferno destroying me. Still, I knew that to keep quiet was to keep that important person safe, so I did my best. It felt as if I had ground my teeth to pieces. Relief came once the flames reached my head. I could no longer feel the pain in my mouth .

The flames consumed my body for what must have been years. As I became convinced that I would soon be ash, they began to recede from my fingers and toes. I wanted to sob at that small amount of relief until I realized that the pain in the rest of my body had increased in equal amounts. I entered a new level of hell. Inch by inch my arms, legs, and then my head cooled, but the lava inside of me grew white-hot. I’m sure I was screaming by that point, but I couldn’t care. I begged for release from the torture, but endless silence answered me. I heard only my own cries echoing back.

The firestorm drew back into my chest, hotter than ever as it devoured me. My heartbeat boomed faster in my ears, vibrating my entire body and lifting me off of whatever surface I laid on. As the beats increased in frequency the remaining fire seemed to pool in the center of my chest. One final loud thump and my heart was silent, my body completely cool and free of pain except for a dull ache in my throat.

I was so surprised by the lack of my constant companion that I drew in a deep breath. No relief came with the air, but the myriad scents which assailed me distracted from that disturbing realization. I could smell…everything! My swirling mind registered a dry, musty scent.  Surrounding that was a richer, wet aroma that might have been soil, if soil contained minute particles of iron and clay. I recognized both, although I couldn't say how. 

My eyes flew open, and I stared up in wonder. Tiny feathery spheres that reflected the dim light and created amazing shapes and patterns swirled in the air. Panicked by what must have been a hallucination, I jumped up. I expected to fall on my face, but instead I landed on my feet within less than a second between intent and movement. The specks, still visible, became just a layer hovering over gray stone walls. A single candle illuminated the small bare room I found myself in.

I swung my head from side to side, trying to determine if I was alone. A thick metal door was the only entryway. A drain in the middle of the stone floor interrupted the rough gray surface. I realized that I could detect the flecks of quartz in the stone surrounding me. I identified thousands within one square foot.

A soft swishing met my ears. It was rhythmic, mesmerizing, but it couldn’t drown out the sound that now made itself known. A quick thumping, a rushing of liquid through tiny channels. I could smell it from where I stood unmoving in my small room. Salt and honey with a slight metallic tang that was oddly appealing. I could feel the heat of it through the door as the soft sounds stopped but the pounding beat kept going, sped up. The ache in my throat flared as I raced towards the door, moaning in eagerness. The liquid I smelled could ease the ache. I knew it could.

“Isabella, please stand back from the door,” a formal, accented voice demanded in a whisper. How had the woman known where I was? Who was Isabella? Me?

I managed to drag myself away from the door, desperate for the scent I detected on the other side of the door. I had no idea how I was able to smell it, or hear the woman for that matter, through a solid metal door.

The door creaked open with agonizing slowness. A pale woman of medium height with dark hair and red eyes wearing an ankle-length black dress walked in. She was a vampire, and my new senses told me that was dangerous. I crouched, hissing, but she just stared at me, unmoved, until I straightened at the sight next to her. The woman held the upper arm of a man, a human, who would have towered over her if he wasn’t cringing away in obvious terror. One look at him told me that he was the source of the appealing aroma. It filled the room with every beat of his heart, thudding as his fear increased upon seeing me. I rushed towards him but stopped short when the woman raised her hand.

She lifted her chin, lips pinched together. When she spoke, her thin voice filled the room. “My name is Renata. I have brought your first meal. You should say thank you first, Isabella.”

Isabella. She called me that for a second time. Was that my name? It didn’t sound right. I was too thirsty to argue, though. I needed the man in front of me in a way I’d never felt before. Nothing could hold my attention, not the beauty of the candle behind his dark head, not the satisfaction I saw in the woman’s eyes when I whispered, “Thank you.”

She released his arms, and I gathered him into mine with shocking ease. Something told me that I shouldn’t be able to do this, but the veins bulging in the man’s throat distracted me. I knew what to do.

My teeth split his skin like a hot knife through butter. The rich liquid I desired filled my mouth, exploding on my tongue with even more flavor than I expected. I gulped it down, desperate to quench the fire burning my throat. The first few sips cooled my thirst a bit, but then it returned in full force even as the man tried to struggle against me. I tightened my arms around him, hearing something crack but not caring as I continued to drink down the ambrosia he offered. At one point his movement stopped, and then I no longer heard his heart. I let out a soft whine when I realized that there was no more liquid to be had from him.

“Let me take him now, Isabella,” Renata's soothing voice commanded. I saw her reach out for him out of the corner of my eye and growled, trying to keep her away. I surrendered him to her when a glimpse of her face showed her mouth tightening once more. I didn’t want to make this woman, the only other person I had seen in this place, angry with me.

“Are you still thirsty?” she asked me as she took the body from me. “Would you like more?”

“More?” It wasn’t quite a question, more of a request, but the sound of my own voice astonished me so much that I was unable to force out any other words. If there had been anyone else in the room, if I hadn’t been looking straight at my companion by then, I wouldn’t have believed that the sweet, bell-like sound came from my own mouth. I didn’t sound like that! At least, I didn’t think I did.

A small smile of approval curved Renata’s full lips upwards. “Of course you can have more. Let me take this one away, and then I will return with another as well as a change of clothes for you,” she informed me.

When she mentioned a change of clothes I looked down at myself in dismay. Blood and bits of skin covered the dark gray dress I wore, little more than a hospital gown. My eyes returned to the man’s body, his ravaged throat, and I keened in horror at what I had done. Vague memories told me that I should at least be light-headed at the sight. Instead I wanted to lean down and lap up the few remaining drops. I refrained, although I did lick my fingers a few times before I could stop myself.

Mistaking my unhappiness for eagerness, the woman chuckled. “I will be right back. Remember to stay away from the door, Isabella,” she scolded me as she left and closed the door behind her.

Small streams of blood ran along the stone from just beyond my feet to the slight indentation where the drain was set. Its purpose was now clear to me, and I wanted to retch. Still, the memory of the taste, the smell of that delicious liquid coursing into me, easing the burn that seemed to exist without end in my throat, kept me from attempting to disgorge it completely from my system. I needed more, even if I couldn’t stand the thought of hearing another heart stop.

This time I could differentiate the woman’s footsteps from the sound of her dress moving around her legs as well as the stumbling steps of another. The sound of a new heartbeat caused me to throw myself against the wall across from the door, hissing, and I heard a loud crash like the sound of thunder. In a panic I looked at the wall next to me and noticed a long crack radiating from my body. My fingers dug into the stone behind me as I burrowed back, creating finger-sized holes.

The heavy door swung open once more and the woman walked in with more confidence this time. I hung my head when she frowned at the damaged wall. Her cool voice chided me, “Isabella, you must be careful. You do not know your own strength. Now look, see what I have brought you.”

Faster than I thought possible, the woman was by my side, dragging the latest offering with her. I tried not to look, but the blood of this one smelled even sweeter than the first, if that was possible. The aroma brought to mind dim memories of hot chocolate with a sprig of mint, and a thick liquid poured over my teeth and pooled on my tongue in reaction. My eyes rose of their own accord, the burn in my throat increasing once more to a painful intensity. I growled at the site before me.

She was younger than my first meal, perhaps my own age, but thin with haunted eyes and dirty hair and clothing. A part of my mind reasoned that she must have been either poor or homeless, and I wanted to cry for the defeated look in her dark eyes before she tore them away from mine. Her increased heart rate revealed her fear, but she did not struggle against the woman as the man had done. Instead, she seemed to expect this, the death that would soon be hers at my hands.

I tried to deny the craving to taste her blood, to see if it was as sweet as it promised to be on my tongue. I wasn’t a killer. I couldn’t even swat spiders. How was I supposed to kill someone, eat them? It was horrifying, barbaric. Wasn’t that cannibalism?

The dark vein under the girl’s throat seemed to pulse in time with the other part of my mind telling me that I needed the blood, had to have it. It would taste so good, would ease the fire in my throat, make me strong. How I knew that last, I couldn’t say, but I was sure it was true nonetheless.

My hands reached for her of their own accord, and under Renata’s approving eye I brought the still girl’s neck to my mouth. She made no sound which unnerved that part of me crying that I shouldn’t do this, but the part that desired her blood purred in pleasure, relieved that there would be no struggle. I did not waste a single drop of the precious red liquid this time. When my teeth pierced her neck, the relief overwhelmed the despair until all I could do was revel in the taste of her.

This time when I finished the woman allowed me to drop the girl’s body to the floor. There was no blood running to the drain. I consumed every drop. It made no sense, went against the laws of gravity as I vaguely remembered learning them, but I knew that she contained no more blood in the fragile shell that had been her body.

Renata drew my attention by holding out something. My head whipped around from where I was staring at the girl’s body, and I saw a package of wipes in the woman’s outstretched hand. With shaking fingers I took it from her, opened it, and began to clean the blood and bits of flesh off of my hands and face. I could feel that whatever strange fluid my mouth now produced had washed away the pieces of skin from my teeth. For a moment the thought of the blood that must be in my hair upset me. When I ran a hand over it I realized that someone must have braided it for me while I burned. I was sure it wasn’t a style I usually preferred, but given the mess the rest of me was in I could only be grateful.

“Here,” my companion offered quietly, next holding out a bundle of dark gray clothing. I dropped the bloodied wipes onto the body on the floor, wondering if Renata would dispose of them along with her. I reached for the clothes with a hand that should have been shaking. She gestured that I should step away from the drying blood on the floor to change, and so I did.

There was a soft gray dress, more like proper clothing than what I was currently wearing, as well as leggings and socks. I wondered that she bothered. The chilly temperature of the room did not bother me at all. I could analyze it, determine the exact degree, and yet no goose bumps appeared on my skin. I changed into my new clothes with my back to the woman in air as comfortable as a warm summer day.

Finally dressed, I turned around. My thoughts swam in a million different directions. Who was this woman? I knew her name but nothing else. Where was I? What had happened to me? In my mind I saw blurry images of a dark alleyway, many pairs of bright red eyes. Where—where were my parents? Did I have parents? I struggled to remember. I could quote to the tiniest detail every single thing I had seen, heard, and experienced since I woke up with no heartbeat. My past, on the other hand, remained jumbled. And why wasn’t my heart beating? What was going on?

The only word that escaped my lips was, “Why?”

Renata pursed her lips as if she was considering if she would answer. “A vampire attacked you,” she said reluctantly. “We would have killed you when you did not die in the attack, but two of our guard discovered that you were a rather unusual human. They decided to allow your transformation to continue and brought you home with them. Our leader is extremely curious about you, Isabella.”

A hysterical laugh filtered through my lips, an insane peal of bells. “Curiosity? Are you serious?”

Renata’s lips drew together in a frown, making me cower back a little. I didn’t know if she was stronger than me, but I remembered more about the confrontation which had led to this as she spoke. I could see in blurry memories my attacker’s head ripped from his shoulders. For now I didn’t want that. Maybe someday soon I would.

“Do not take that tone with me, Isabella,” the woman snapped. She drew in what must have been an unnecessary breath and continued, “Do you understand what has happened to you?”

I looked down at the floor, at the slight body lying between us. “I’m—I think I’m a vampire?” I hadn’t intended for that to come out as a question. I had never even given a thought about whether vampires and other bumps-in-the-night monsters could be real. Perhaps I should have.

Renata's mouth curled up in a slight smile. “Yes. That is exactly what you are. Really, since all these books and movies have come out in the past century it is much easier to explain to newborns,” she murmured as if to herself. “This will be your chamber for the next few months. Young vampires are…unpredictable. Until we are sure you will be able to interact in a safe manner with the rest of us, we prefer to keep you isolated.”

I opened my mouth to protest, but she raised a hand and frowned again. “You have no choice in this. If you want to keep living, you will do as I tell you.”

My expanded mind latched onto that thought. “What if I don’t want to keep on living?”

Renata’s eyes widened then narrowed. “We have obtained information on your loved ones. If you become difficult or refuse to obey, they will suffer the consequences,” she informed me, her tone once again formal.

I stared at her. Love ones? At those words memories from my former life flooded back, disjointed and not sharp enough but all too real. Renee and Phil, my mother and her husband. Charlie, my father. How could I have forgotten them, even for a moment? Then I realized that I hadn’t. During my change I stayed quiet for their sakes, my brain confusing James’s warning with the need to protect my mother from the evil young girl whose hate-filled red eyes were the clearest memory of all for me.

Keening, I dropped to my knees. Tears would not come, but I sobbed silently anyway. Renata must have taken that as my agreement to be obedient. I heard her retrieve the blood-covered gown, lift the girl’s body, and then leave. The thick metal door slammed shut behind her, locking me irrevocably into my new life.

Chapter Text

As I knelt in the small stone room a thousand thoughts crowded into my head, each one distinct. I wondered how Renee and Charlie were handling my disappearance. I worried over the murders I had just committed. I allowed myself to wallow in doubts about whether I could keep myself alive by taking the lives of others. How did I know that my parents wouldn 't suffer due to my own misfortune

That thought brought me up short. Most likely they were already suffering. I had no idea how long I was burning in the flames that changed me into a vampire, but it had felt like forever. Even if it was only weeks or months, they were bound to be frantic. Had the police found the alley where my attack occurred? Had they found the blood? Did my parents think I was dead?

Even if I managed to get out of this tiny room someday, I could never let them know I survived because then I would have to tell them I was a killer. Somehow I could see Renee saying that it didn’t matter, that the lives I took were worth it so that she could see me again. Renee often had a problem with thinking before she spoke. Of course I knew that she wouldn't like that I had killed to survive, but she wouldn’t put it that way which would make me even more upset. That’s the way it always went whenever I did something I should have gotten in trouble for. I would feel guilty, and Renee would try to see the bright side of things.

Charlie, being the chief of police in Forks, would have an entirely different outlook on my short killing spree. He respected the law, and murder is definitely one of those things that are almost universally outlawed in this day and age. If he knew, he would be so disappointed. Not to mention that he was likely to try and get me put away for murder and insanity—who the hell kills thinking they’re a vampire, for goodness sake? Well, I’ve heard stories of a few, especially around Halloween when everyone likes to tell scary tales, the truer the better. So I suppose he would think I’d gone insane, if I ever got the chance to confess to him. Although I knew that I would never get the opportunity, some part of me wailed inside as I wondered how I could ever look him in the eye again, knowing the crimes I had committed.

Eyes!

I realized that all the vampires I had seen possessed red eyes. Did that mean my eyes were now red? I lifted my fingers, not sure if I wanted to press my eyelids closed or rip them out. The subtle play of light across the pale surface of my arm distracted me from my original purpose and led me to inspect my skin. It was firmer than before. Remembering James’s relentless grip, I thought that it would be rock solid to a human although it gave subtly against my finger. Paler than before if that was possible, it still seemed like my skin.

My thoughts swung wildly back to my parents. They would be able to look at me and see a killer now, as if it were branded on my skin and tattooed on my face. Normal people didn’t have red eyes. Normal people didn’t have the ability to rip someone’s throat out with their teeth and lap up their blood to the last drop. They couldn’t crack walls or move with a strange quickness that still almost felt like standing still. They didn't have brains that felt as if they could encompass all the information in the universe and more.

I rubbed my stinging eyes, wishing that I could cry. This was just some nightmare that I’d somehow fallen into. It had to be.  I would wake up soon, safe in my bed in the little hotel Renee and Phil had found adjacent to Jacksonville’s historical district. I would be free of the blood that covered my hands.

At the thought of blood my throat began to burn once more as the stinging liquid filled my mouth and washed over my tongue. I realized that the feeling meant that my horrible new body wanted sustenance once again. That there was a part of me that would literally salivate at the mere thought of blood sickened me. That other part of me longed for the taste, the cooling of the burn that threatened to drive me insane with need.

I tried to push away the demand for blood, but it was too strong. Soon I came to the point of whining, begging Renata through the stone walls for more to drink. At first I thought that she had abandoned me. I was going to die of thirst before she came back. All thoughts except gaining more of that treasured nourishment fell away as I waited, growling and pacing in anticipation.

Finally the faint sound of Renata’s skirts met my ears, but this time there was no heartbeat accompanying her. I howled in misery, sure that this meant that I was going to starve to death after all. The fires in my throat rose higher, and I clawed my skin as if that would help.

“Isabella,” Renata scolded me through the door. I jumped then crouched low at the harsh tone of her voice . “Your meals will come to you as they arrive. We cannot drain the entire city for one newborn vampire. We must harvest outside of the area where we live. Be patient. You can last a very long time on the blood from your own body alone during your newborn period. You will not starve.”

I growled back at her. That was not what I wanted to hear! I wanted the sound of a beating heart to meet my straining ears, not reassurances that I would be fed…at some point.

“Renata!” I shouted in frustration, unable to be more coherent than that.

“Come, my dear, you have to learn to control yourself. What would your parents think if they saw you now?” I could almost feel the satisfaction radiating off of her from the other side of the door as her subtle threat filled me with dread. I did quiet down then, freezing in what would once have been unnatural stillness. What else could I do?

Renata left me pacing and confused as the sound of her skirts faded away again. Our brief conversation had broken through that insatiable side of me to the more rational, compassionate part. I had been begging for another life to take. How disgusting! I argued with myself silently, afraid that somehow Renata would hear even though I could no longer hear her.

It was wrong to take the life of another person. My parents taught me that. Even my father, sport fisherman that he was, drilled into my head from a young age that you killed animals only for food and people only in self-defense. I hated the thought of what I would have to do to survive in this hell I had wound up in. Another thought snaked through my expanded brain, though, a thin thread of reassurance that threatened to drown out the cries that murder was wrong, immoral. The new thought seduced me. If it was allowable to take an animal's life for survival, surely the human lives I took to sustain myself weren't wasted. Food, clothing, tools, hell even jewelry have been contributed by slain animals since humanity’s earliest days. Was this really any different, now that I was beyond humanity? Wasn’t there something about a circle of life that I remembered from my blurry human memories? Maybe vampires were just the top of the chain, the true predators.

The more compassionate part of me, my parents' daughter, knew that was just an excuse. I was putting my own life above those of total strangers. It made me feel small, unworthy of my upbringing, but there was no denying my selfishness once I admitted it to myself.

On the other hand, what choice did I have? To keep my parents alive and out of the hands of these monsters, I had to endure becoming a monster myself. In the end it was the only way. I resolved then never to let myself like it, no matter how seductive that inner voice became. I had seen how much pleasure James and even Jane had at the idea of dealing out death. That was not me. I would not become that kind of person, that kind of vampire.

With that settled in my mind and little else to do before Renata came back—and I tried very hard not to think about why she would be coming to see me—I began to focus on the other changes in myself outside of my unending thirst. The improved sight I had noticed and catalogued for future discoveries when I had something more to look at than gray stone walls, gray cotton cloth, and the gray metal of the candle sconce and the door. Of course, they were all different shades of gray, but couldn’t whoever had put me in here at least have added a picture or two, something with some color?

To distract myself from the visual, I closed my eyes. Even the dull red of my eyelids was fascinating, though. I could make out individual veins, swirling in what should have been patterns but weren’t quite. It was amazing, the detail my eyes could detect even with minimal light on a part of my anatomy I’d rarely given much consideration before.

I wrenched my mind back to my original purpose. I attempted to focus on one sense at a time, but I realized quickly that my newly awakened brain had been categorizing and filing away every single thing I had heard, smelled, seen, touched, tasted, and even thought from the moment my heart stopped beating. Every. Single. Thing. All I needed to do was think about what I wanted or needed to know, and it was there for the taking.

Renata’s scent was a soothing mixture of lavender, chamomile tea, and chocolate chip cookies. That shouldn’t have made any sense to me, but somehow it worked. I discovered that I had smelled her before I had heard her each time she approached this room, from an amazing distance of one hundred and twenty feet. I knew the distance because I could calculate the rate of her pace with the rate the approaching scent had intensified.

The sounds I had been filtering out hit me next. A spider in one corner of the room wove its silken web, and I could hear the way that its spindles rubbed against one another while it worked. A dozen feet away some kind of burrowing animal was digging a tunnel. I could hear each swipe that its claws made as they dug into the dark earth as well as the thrumming beat of its small heart. It was not at all as appealing as the sound of the humans' had been. I wrenched my mind away from that thought and allowed myself to become lost in the sounds of their industry until finally they quieted, resting from their labors. I wondered if that meant it was night. Did creatures that lived in darkness have the same cycles of sleeping and waking as those who lived in the daylight hours?

That thought made me recognize the startling truth that I hadn’t slept since I woke up with no heartbeat. Did vampires sleep? Would I ever sleep again? Dream? I’d always had vivid dreams, and usually they were good or at least interesting. Was I doomed to be awake forever, a blood-drinking monster who couldn’t sleep?

It seemed that the answer to that was yes. When I focused I could track the passing of time. Two days, seven hours, ten minutes and fifty seconds had passed since I woke up. I was no more tired now than I was then, although I was much hungrier once I realized how much time had passed.

How often did vampires eat? I hadn’t seen Renata since my second meal, our conversation through the door notwithstanding. Was she going to leave me here to starve after all? I jumped to my feet and began pacing. I hadn’t quite managed to wear a ring into the cool stone when I heard Renata’s footsteps once more as well as a sound that was both welcome and terrifying. The thick wet thuds of a heartbeat almost drowned out her steps to my sensitive ears. I paused, going still as I waited for the door across the room to open.

This time I noticed the quick breathing that accompanied the heartbeats, shallow and wheezing. I focused on it, pushing back the part of me crying and screaming that I should ignore it. Charlie and Renee’s lives depended on me, I was certain of that, and the whining voice in my head wouldn’t make what I had to do any easier.

Renata opened the door and shoved in my meal this time, as if she no longer worried that I would tear the human apart before I could get the life-sustaining blood. I watched the quivering mass in the center of the room as I stalked around it. Within a blink of the human eye, I grabbed the overweight woman in front of me and sank my teeth into her neck.

The blood tasted as delicious as the previous two times, warm, sweet, and so satisfying for the burn in my throat. This time I was able to contain every drop. By the time I let the limp body fall to the floor, my face and hands were still clean. I wouldn't need any new clothes after this feeding. Wary, I glanced towards where Renata stood in the partially open doorway. To my astonishment, a look of wonder flashed across her lovely face before her expression became cool and dispassionate once more.

Renata stepped into the room and looked me up and down. “You are unusual for a newborn. I expected much less control from you, yet you have mastered feeding in three tries. I look forward to seeing any other ways you might be different, but for now I will leave you.” She reached down and picked up the body of my victim.

“Wait!” I cried. When she paused I pleaded, “Please, can’t I come out? You said you keep newborns separate because they’re unstable. I’m not, I swear. I have nothing to do!”

She shook her head. “For now you must adjust to your new senses. Once you are a full member of our world there will be little time for wonder. The Volturi are not known for their patience.”

Her words sounded like a warning, although her tone was soft and almost gentle. I stared at her, unsure how to process what she was telling me. Was I safer here than among the rest of these vampires? Who were the Volturi?

Before I could question her further, Renata disappeared through the door once more. As it shut with a soft thud behind her, I growled in frustration but made no more attempts to be heard on the other side of the thick metal. I wanted to shred it to pieces, but what if she was correct about the instability of newborn vampires? Could I be a greater danger than I already knew? Or was the door there to protect me from unknown dangers until I could control myself enough that I wouldn’t provoke other vampires?

So many questions raced through my mind in the few seconds after Renata’s departure. Finally I resigned myself to following her advice. Still standing, I closed my eyes once more and began to listen to the world around me.

Chapter Text

My true education as a vampire began after two months in this new existence. I had killed thirty people by then to slake my thirst. Renata, my only guest aside from the humans who became my food, swept in much earlier than usual one day.  Two other vampires followed her, each carrying several pieces of furniture. It looked like I was now allowed to have a chair to sit in, not that I felt the need. There was also a small wooden table and a waist-high bookshelf with a small stack of books making their lonely home on the top shelf. I watched the two unknown vampires settle the furniture without a word spoken between them and then leave with a nod for Renata.

When the door was closed once more she turned to me and offered one of her slight smiles. I’d never seen anything warmer from her, and she almost never spoke to me unless it was to scold me on my messy feeding habits. I no longer dripped blood on myself at mealtimes and hadn’t needed new clothing in a week, though, so even that much conversation had gone by the wayside.

“Today I am going to explain some things about the vampire world, Isabella. Then we are going to practice a bit,” she informed me, her red eyes carefully observing my still form.

When I did not reply, she sighed and folded her hands in front of her. “First, you are in Volterra, the home of the Volturi. We are a group who ensures that the laws of our world are upheld to ensure the safety of vampires everywhere. There is only one law: keep the secret. Any other rules I might convey to you will be a product of this most important law. Humans must not know of us. In order to ensure that the law is kept, it is important for new vampires to learn how to interact with the world in a way that humans would so that we can maintain the masquerade when necessary.”

Renata paused and held my eyes as if she was trying to drill this message into my head. I understood. There was no going back to my old life. I would never see my parents again. If I wanted to survive I had to let them go on with their lives thinking that I was dead. And I had to stay alive—in this semblance of a life, anyway—if I wanted them to keep their lives. A wave of despair threatened to overwhelm me, and from the way Renata’s eyes lit I knew that she was aware of my conclusions.

“I’m sure you have noticed how quickly we can move. You must learn to temper that. We have enhanced hearing. You must learn not to react to sounds which are beyond the normal human range unless you interacting with another vampire. Strength is one of a vampire’s greatest assets, but you must learn not to crush furniture when you sit on it, not to grip a pen too tightly so that the ink explodes all over you or rip the page of a book as you read it.”

At the word book my interest sharpened. I remembered that I enjoyed reading, and it would be nice to have something to occupy the long periods of isolation I had to endure. I could tell Renata had noticed my sudden attentiveness. Her smile grew just a little bit.

“I see that appeals to you. Good. Hobbies are important for us. Boredom is a vampire’s enemy. When we become too bored, we can become tempted to do things which would reveal us to the humans.” As I let that sink in she resumed her lecture, “There may come a time when you are forced to consume human food in order to maintain the illusion of humanity. Human food is revolting, and we must disgorge it as soon as we are out of sight of the humans because our systems cannot digest it. For your sake, hope that there never comes a time when this is necessary.” Her smile widened by another millimeter, and I understood that she was trying to be amusing. I tried to smile in return.

Renata paused at that point, and I assumed that was my opportunity to ask questions. “So vampires try to fit into the human world?” I couldn’t see how that was possible. The burn that filled my throat and wet my mouth with what I now knew was venom whenever a human was nearby overwhelmed my intentions not to feed on them every time. Although some small part of me still recoiled in horror, I was growing used to the sensations. I even looked forward to the short time when I was able find relief from the pain my thirst caused.

“Fit in? Oh, no, not at all. We just need to be inconspicuous when forced to move in the human world for short periods of time. You will find that most of us prefer to move and act as nature intended when we do not have the prying eyes of humans on us.”

“Nature?” I snorted. “Nothing about this seems natural!”

I immediately regretted my outburst when Renata flashed to my side and stared menacingly into my eyes. “No matter what you may think, this is natural, Isabella. Why would it not be? Just because we are deadly? We are not the only creatures in this world able to kill with little effort.”

“But we used to be human!” The anguish I still felt at the loss of my human life overcame my good sense, and the last words came out in a frustrated scream.

Renata pulled back and laughed. She was laughing at me! I growled in anger and crouched as if to attack her, but she held up her hand as her laughter quieted. “I keep forgetting how young you are, my dear. As I mentioned before, you are less…volatile than we are used to seeing in newborn vampires, although this is not completely unheard of. Most come to the point of questioning our existence so much later that I did not expect it. Forgive me.”

Renata and I stared at each other without speaking for long minutes before she continued in a gentle tone, “It is true that we were human once. However, even though we left our human frailties behind, we still retain some needs from our previous lives. We have a very strong survival instinct, and we despise boredom and loneliness. For those two reasons I have never known of a vampire who could kill him or herself, and I have never known of any who could refrain from being around humanity and feeding. We are drawn to them, even if the memories of our humanity give us compassion for them. You will come to understand this. To vampires humans are like the domesticated cattle they keep, little though they know it. It is best to view them that way, for your own sanity.”

I recognized what she was trying to tell me, but I couldn’t bring myself to comprehend the terrible truth of it. All of this was so wrong. By what right did we have to exist on the lives of others? Did comparing humans to cattle make the others feel better? Would it someday help me to accept my new reality? Somehow I doubted it.

After Renata’s explanations we settled into my lessons. They were not at all as easy as I was expecting. My first task was to sit in the chair. Since I had been standing or crouching on the ground as an occasional change for the past month, this should have been a relief. I didn’t feel the need to sit, but it would be nice to know that I could still do something as simple as sit down.

Instead of landing my behind in the chair as I expected when I lowered myself, I heard the splintering wood and looked up in astonishment at Renata from a much lower position than I had anticipated. To my amazement she was laughing again, this time quiet, girlish giggles that seemed out of character.

“It is not as easy as you expected, is it? Don't worry, you will figure out the correct amount of pressure for each action, Isabella. And once you know, you will be unable to forget. We do not forget anything,” she tried to reassure me.

“Bella,” I grumbled as I stood. She raised her eyebrows at me and I clarified, “If you’re going to be my taskmaster for the impossible, please call me Bella. It’s what I prefer.”

Renata nodded. “Very well. Let’s get you another chair, and then you will try again, Bella.”

Twelve destroyed chairs later, the first of which Renata brought herself along with a male vampire who watched us with amused red eyes and fetched the remaining replacement chairs, I finally managed to sit down. Renata was right. I knew I would always remember how to sit in a chair without breaking it. The other vampire, whose name I didn’t even know, left at that point, murmuring about needing to attend “Master Caius,” whoever that was

The next task I had to master was “acting human.” She explained that we were not inclined to make random movements the way that humans did. I hadn't even noticed, although I knew that we had no need to blink, breathe, fidget, swallow, or a hundred or so other small movements which my body had accomplished on its own before my transformation. I had to practice all of these until they looked natural. By the time Renata left to bring my next meal, I had only managed to master blinking and moving my chest as if I was breathing. It wasn’t a good idea for us to breathe around humans unless we needed to speak. Renata told me that it was easier to resist the temptation to attack if you couldn’t smell them. Anticipating the enticing scent about to fill my room, I could only agree that learning to hold my breath was the best thing I could do just in case I ever found myself in a crowd of humans. I didn't want to break the law and put Renee and Charlie in even more danger than they already were.

Renata returned with my meal, which I dispatched as quickly and efficiently as possible. I was getting good at that. When she left I would curl up in a ball for a while and mourn the human whose life I had just taken. In the meantime, some previously untapped well of strength made it possible for me to simply feed and then turn to her dispassionately as the corpse dropped to our feet. Her red lips curled up in a pleased smile, or as close to one as my erstwhile mentor ever got.

As I stared into her ruby red eyes, I wondered once more why she was doing this. Why had Alec and Jane spared my life, if you could call it that? Why had the Volturi let me live? From what Renata had told me earlier and the little I had gleaned from our periodic conversations over the past months, as a whole the Volturi were not merciful, compassionate, or any of the other emotions I would normally associate with people who save a life. That could mean only one thing. They wanted me for something. But what?

I realized that if they were taking the time to train me so carefully to survive in the human world then maybe I had gained enough importance to have that question answered. As the thought came to me, my lips parted almost against my will. “Why am I here?”

“Here?” She managed to infuse the one word with curiosity, boredom and scorn all at once, an amazing feat when all was said and done.

I nodded slowly, never taking my eyes off of hers. “Yes, here. Why am I with the Volturi? Why didn’t those vampires who killed James just finish the job on me? You told me that I was allowed to become a vampire out of curiosity. What does that even mean?” Perhaps now I would finally get some answers.

Pencil-thin eyebrows arched towards her perfectly rounded hairline and full lips tightly compressed, Renata eyed me for several long moments. Finally she conceded to grant me a tiny morsel of information. “You were able to block three of our most talented guards while still a human.  Master Aro believed that showed great promise for your abilities after te change, so he allowed your transformation to continue. Once you have gained some modicum of control, you will begin testing and training to become a member of the Volturi Guard.”

I remained quiet, unsure if I should voice the next question. Hell, why not? What was the worst they could do, kill me? If my still heart was any indication, I was already dead. And if I died, they could no longer use my parents’ lives as a threat against my good behavior.

“What if I don’t want to join the Guard?”

Renata looked surprised at my question before her brow lowered. “The Volturi Guard is respected throughout the world. It is an honor to be asked to join,” she informed me severely. She wasted no more words or time on me after that, bending to retrieve the body between us with a jerk and swishing out the door once more.

I collapsed onto the floor once more, ignoring the chair which would barely have been more comfortable. Curling up on it would not have been smart as I released the grief I felt over my latest murder as well as the thought that they intended to keep me here with them for an eternity. As it was, the stone floor soon bore new score marks from my nails as I continuously flexed my fingers next to my head. I wished that I could crush my own skull in and just end this, but I doubted it would so much as dent.

It took me another two days to learn to sit in the chair “properly” as a human would, with small movements to keep away suspicion due to vampiric stillness. Once I mastered that skill, Renata had her still-unnamed assistant bring in a box filled with wooden platters and cups so that I could practice picking them up. I went through three boxes in five days before I finally figured out just the right amount of pressure to use when lifting a plate and a cup. It was ridiculous how flimsy solid wood now was. One or two of the plates may also have shattered against the wall after the edges crumbled between my fingers.

By the time I was able to pick up a book, open it, and turn the pages without ripping them, another two months and thirty meals had passed. Handling books was the most difficult task yet, but I was ecstatic when I was finally able to read again. To my surprise, writing was even worse. The pens were so flimsy and the ink would splatter absolutely everywhere when they snapped.

I was almost six months old in my new life when Renata announced that I was ready to move to a room closer to the rest of the Volturi. While my nose wrinkled at the way she phrased it, I would definitely be relieved to leave the boredom of my four walls for a new set of four walls. Maybe I would even be able to shower instead of wiping myself off with the cloths and water provided by my mentor.

Chapter Text

The iron door was wide open, and the dimly lit hallway beyond it both beckoned me and frightened me. I had not stepped foot anywhere but this room in so long that the idea of crossing that threshold was almost too much to bear. A small shove between my shoulder blades propelled me forward, and I glanced back to see Renata lift her lips in her customary small, cool smile.

“We won’t bite, Bella…well, not much. Don’t you want to get out of this room?” she teased me. If I could have fainted from shock I would have.

Even though we had begun to relax around each other since the commencement of my “vampire lessons” four months before, we never joked with each another. Was this a sign that my life outside these four walls might be something other than lonely and dreary? Perhaps the Volturi weren’t as bad as I’d feared, I reflected. I shifted first one foot and then the other, repeating the simple pattern until I managed to push through the invisible barrier that seemed to have held me here for years instead of months.

The hallway stretched only a few feet to my left, but to my right it might as well have gone on forever. Even my enhanced eyesight couldn’t make out the end. I began to comprehend the measures the Volturi must have taken to keep dangerous newborns such as myself contained long enough to "civilize us", as Renata called it. An endless succession of candle sconces lined the walls every five feet and six inches, just close enough to light the way without creating irritating pockets of shadow.

It was only when Renata impatiently cleared her throat behind me that I became aware of my frozen state, one foot in the hallway, blocking her exit. I moved forward and to the side quickly to let her by. The path away from my little cell was obvious, but I had no idea how far down the hallway my new quarters were.

Renata moved along swiftly as if she had no doubt that I would follow. Of course I did, my wide eyes searching for any color besides gray and black, the gray of the stone and our clothes, the black of the shadows ahead. We were at the end of the hall within seconds, a dead end with another hallway which branched off to either side. I trailed behind as Renata turned left, distracted by the richly colored tapestries which now began to grace the walls.

They should have been beautiful. Every strand was perfectly dyed and woven together, the colors forming scenes of people working in fields, walking along city streets, floating in boats along winding canals. Yet mixed among these visions of loveliness were shadowy forms with glowing crimson eyes, startlingly beautiful faces carefully depicted in exquisite detail to contrast with the vagueness of their bodies. The tapestries were a reminder that vampires lurked in every aspect of human life, unseen behind trees, around corners, under bridges, simply waiting to take sustenance from the lives around them. Around us.

I felt as if my stomach should be roiling from the mess of emotions the images to either side of me invoked, but my newly improved body was outwardly calm as I continued moving slowly forward. Renata’s sharp voice called my mind back from its semi-panicked state, and my wide eyes met her narrowed ones when she glanced over her shoulder at me. The panic receded as shame slid greasily through me, as if I were a child being reprimanded for not paying attention. It was rare for Renata to make me feel that way, but I suppose she was as anxious as I was that my transition should go smoothly.

“Bella, we must familiarize you with your room and get you changed so that you may meet the Masters,” she hissed at me.

My eyebrows shot up. “The Masters? You didn’t say anything about that earlier!” I whispered back to her harshly, catching up to her with smooth, gliding steps I could never have managed as a human.

Her lips quirked down slightly. “I did not want to worry you unnecessarily. This is but a formality, an introduction to the Volturi as a whole. You will meet all of us individually after the Masters have a chance to view you.”

The way she phrased it rankled. “You make it sound as if I’m going to be on display.” I hated to be the center of attention. I might not have remembered much about my human life beyond the memories I clung to of my parents, but I did know for sure that I was not the kind to relish the idea of all eyes trained on me.

My mentor nodded slowly and spoke as if I was just a small child. “Of course you are going to be on display. You are the first newborn among the Volturi in centuries. While we have encountered many on various missions, no vampire fresh from the change has been brought into our ranks since Jane and Alec,” she explained.

My eyes widened at that. I had asked her about the strange girl and young man my last fuzzy human memory provided me a glimpse of. I knew that they had been responsible for the decision to bring me to this place, a palace of sorts in a small town in Italy Renata told me was called Volterra. The explanation behind Jane and Alec would have caused me to shiver uncontrollably in my previous life, but shock had held me still while I absorbed their story during one of my “acting human” lessons.

When Jane was human, she had been able to do small bits of magic, enough to get her noticed and decried as a witch in the late sixteenth century, the time when the witch craze was just beginning to take hold in England. In fact, she was one of the first sentenced to burn at the stake as a witch, or so records of her death in a tiny hamlet in southern England would have the humans believe. In reality, Aro of the Volturi had learned of Jane shortly before her death and rescued her just before the flames consumed her. Then he bit her and allowed the internal flames to heal the shell that she had become. After her transformation, Jane’s primary care was causing as much pain as she had been dealt in her mortal life. The only person besides Aro that she gave a damn about once she was a vampire was her twin brother, Alec, whom she persuaded Aro to turn after her newborn year by threatening to leave.

I had filed away that last piece of information, careful not to betray my interest. Still, I hadn’t realized at the time that Jane and Alec were the last newborns brought into the Volturi. Renata had mentioned several other guards during our lessons, though. I had finally learned the name of the large, dark vampire who sometimes came to help her but never spoke--Demetri, a man of few words but a strange cheer in his burgundy eyes. While introducing the silent Demetri to me, she casually mentioned that he joined only a few centuries ago, a comment which came out sounding, a lot like the ones made by the popular senior girls in high school when talking about the freshmen girls, from what I could remember.

I brought my mind back to the present as we passed door after door, most closed. The few open doors revealed bare floors and walls, as if the rooms were waiting for their next occupants. Finally we came to an area that seemed more alive. I could make out definite sounds through the thick walls, many of which I struggled to interpret. In some rooms it almost sounded as if whoever was inside was breaking down the walls, although I saw no cracks on the outside.

We passed five doors on the left and four on the right before Renata stopped at the fifth door on the left and opened it. She gestured for me to precede her, and what I saw when I stepped over the threshold surprised me.

A modern overhead light illuminated the space, causing even more glitter among the veins of stone and exposing every air pocket in the mortar between. A small table and comfortable-looking stuffed chair covered in deep red velvet stood along one wall next to a wooden door which matched the main entrance. A large four-poster bed graced the opposite wall, rich mahogany draped in more red velvet and piled high with pillows. I glanced back at Renata, my eyes full of questions.

“We may not sleep,” she explained as she followed me into the room—my room, “But we are able to make use of human furnishings all the same. The pieces in our rooms are a reminder that when we enter the human world, we must act as the humans do or bring scrutiny upon ourselves. Also, you may find some of them useful for…other things.”

When I finally understood the smirk that crossed her face I wished for perhaps the hundredth time since my transformation that I could blush. I was sixteen—well, seventeen now. I had never even gone beyond a first date with a few guys in high school, some tame kisses and touches. I couldn't imagine using that large bed for anything like what she hinted at.

“Where does that door lead?” I asked with a nod towards the door beside the chair. It was a lame attempt at redirection, but it was all I could manage.

Renata took pity on me and strode over to it. A quick flick of her wrist and the door opened to divulge the most beautiful thing I had seen in months outside of the deep ruby drops of my meals. Slate tiles, more blue than gray, covered the entire enclosure immediately facing the door. Thick glass walls surrounded barely enough space to stretch my arms between, but it was enough. A shiny chrome showerhead with what looked like multiple pressure settings was the crowning glory.

I had reluctantly submitted to the idea of merely wiping down after my meals. After all, I no longer produced sweat and my skin cells no longer shed. However, dirt and grime could still accumulate on the hard surfaces of my body and in my shiny hair, although that never seemed to any part of me entirely. I stepped into the smallest piece of heaven I could hope for here, already anticipating a hot shower with the hopes that it would help me forget what I had done to survive, even if just for a little while.

Renata stayed in the main room. When I was able to drag my gaze away from my paradise, I looked back to see her smirking at me. “You have half an hour to prepare yourself, Bella. You will find towels and suitable clothing in the small closet attached to the bathroom. Do not take your time cleansing yourself. The Masters are expecting you,” she reminded me even as she shut the door, closing me away from the rest of the world. Just where I wanted to be.

I avoided looking into the mirror over the small marble sink while I bustled around grabbing a thick gray towel and a new set of clothes, this time a red blouse and black pants, from the closet. I was thankful to finally have something to wear besides the gray that had been given to me for the last few months, but I found the colors to be trite at best. I was a vampire wearing black and red. Oh, I was so scary. Except that, yeah, I probably would have been since my eyes undoubtedly matched the blouse I had chosen.

The shower was the most amazing thing I could remember experiencing. My fuzzy human memories did not go into details about my hygiene methods, but I was sure that nothing could ever have compared to the way that my skin registered each hot droplet as it slid from the point of contact down until it flew from my body. The shampoo, conditioner, and body wash I found in the alcove beside the showerhead were lightly floral and did not detract at all from the pleasant sensations I allowed to envelope my senses for sixteen minutes and twenty-four seconds.  Finally feeling clean, I shut off the water, dried my marble skin quickly with the towel, and then wrapped the soft piece of terrycloth around my hair to soak up the moisture it had absorbed while I dressed.

I took particular care with these clothes since they were the first I had seen in months that were above the equivalent of a hospital gown. As I slid on the red silk I wondered if vampires even had need of hospitals. From what little Renata had let slip during our hours of instruction I thought it was not very likely, but maybe the newborn phase, as she called it, was as close as we could get to the hopeless fragility of humanity I was once so familiar with. I had been such a clumsy little human that the increased grace of my vampire body was almost the only positive thing I could find in this new existence.

Finally dressed, I unwrapped my hair and used the brush lying on the sink to comb out the tangles in the thick mass. After the initial discovery that someone had braided my hair for me during my transition, I had spent hours learning how to do so myself so that I could avoid any contact the creatures here might think was essential for my personal care. Now it took me only moments to weave the strands around each other, tying them off with a thick rubber band from a small bowl just under the mirror.

I had shunned looking at my reflection this entire time, but the small brave part of me still left after months of misery and monotony finally managed to force my eyes to the image before me. Unnecessary air whistled into my lungs as I gasped. There was no way the stunning woman I saw in the mirror could be me. Whose jaw was that, no longer slightly rounded with childhood chubbiness? The nose was too straight, the set of the eyes too symmetrical. Oh, and the eyes…

Ruby irises stared back at me in abject horror. I could see every fleck, every slight variation of the color. The sight sickened me even as it fascinated, drew me in. It was as if I had never seen this terrifying perfection before, despite having the examples of Renata and Demetri around almost daily. I realized that I had been evading the compulsion to examine what they represented even as Renata stood over me while I fed, even as Demetri accompanied her for my lessons.

In my panic I ceased all movement. Only the knock at my bathroom door broke the spell. I should have heard Renata’s footsteps, but I was too engrossed in my self-inspection to pay attention. Her knock brought me back to the present, back into the shell that my body had become, and I moved to open the fragile wooden barrier between us.

Perhaps she recognized the shock in my eyes, or perhaps she just wanted to make sure that I understood what she was about to say. Renata’s firm grip on my arm woke me  from my stupor as her harsh words reached my ears.

“No matter what they do, you will show the Masters the utmost respect, Isabella.” She rarely called me that anymore. Only when I displeased her or she was trying to make a point. “You will address them with a civil tongue if they ask a question, and otherwise you will remain silent. Do you understand me?”

I nodded without a word. What could I say? It wasn’t as if I could escape this place, and they wouldn’t kill me for any transgressions outside of exposing myself to humans. That would endanger my parents, which they seemed to know was important to me, so rebellion seemed pointless. Renata was my guide in this, as in all else, and I had to be satisfied to listen to her advice on how I was supposed to behave during the upcoming interview.

My apparent meekness must have been enough to satisfy her. Renata turned on her heel and strode out of the room, obviously expecting me to follow. Keeping up with her pace required no physical effort on my part, but my emotions were all over the place. At least my emotional state no longer affected my coordination or motor skills. It almost took almost no concentration to put one foot in front of the other.

She led me down several hallways, up two different staircases, and into a wide lobby that contrasted sharply with the older feel of the rest of the Volturi compound. In the half second it took for me to register the marble floor, smooth painted walls, and sleek receptionist desk at the other end, the tempting scent and wet heartbeat of a human reached me. I realized that this must be a test when I saw the source sitting behind the desk staring at us as we approached. Would I kill the human, obviously an employee who was familiar with the red eyes and absolute perfection of vampires? Did they expect this of me? Were the Volturi Masters trying to determine if Renata’s assessment of my control was accurate?

Whatever her purpose, we moved past the tempting human with ease. We approached a dark wooden door which fit the feel of the rest of the Volturi stronghold much more than the incongruous lobby behind us. Renata glanced back at me and lifted her eyebrows in a silent command before grasping the thick iron doorknob. She pushed the wooden slab open in a sharp movement, her head high. I tried to copy her as I shadowed her movements into what was revealed to be a large, echoing stone room. Twenty or thirty bodies in dark cloaks stood between us and a raised dais across the room which held three occupied chairs—twisting metal monstrosities I couldn’t help thinking of as thrones.

Even the stinging venom which continually coated my mouth and throat dried up at the sight of the men sitting above all the others.

Chapter Text

I drew in a deep breath as I followed Renata across the stone-paved floor along the path that opened up before us through the gray and black cloaks. When we reached the ten feet of open space before the dais, Renata held up a hand in an obvious command for me to stay where I was. She ascended the dais, bowed, and then took a position behind one of the seated men.

Once I no longer had her back to stare at, I forced my eyes to rise and take in the full sight before me. They were vampires, I was sure, but they were so different than those I had seen before. With skin so thin it was almost transparent and eyes like clouded rubies, these three men appeared to be the most fragile vampires in the room. Yet, I knew I must be missing something. Renata regarded these three with reverence, and the vampires I could see out of the corner of my eye seemed to as well.

After the first quick glance up, I forced my eyes to drop to the ground. I could die there, in that moment. I knew without a doubt that no matter how weak the Volturi leaders looked, they were strong enough to have me killed in an instant. Renata had told me so, over and over as she trained me. If I died, what would happen to the parents I could barely remember but whose lives still remained so precious to me?

“Well, dear one,” a high-pitched voice called out. “It is lovely to see you so soon. Dear Renata has informed us that your training is proceeding most expeditiously indeed.”

I kept my head bowed and responded as Renata had taught me. “Yes, Master.”

The sound of rustling fabric, much smoother than my own clothing, echoed through the room. Quick footsteps rang out as one of the men from the dais approached me and others rushed to stand between us. From the corner of my eye I saw him raise a hand, halting his overprotective followers. I wondered what was so special about this man that such a large gathering of vampires jumped to defend him even against such a pitiful danger as me.

He extended his hand and reached out, grasping my own. I gasped at the unexpected touch. His skin felt as if it could be easily torn by a single twitch from my finger. I knew that wasn’t the case, but the texture fascinated me anyway, a new experience even in this world of firsts. I lifted my eyes to his and read interest and amusement until his brow furrowed and frustration pulled down the corners of his mouth.

“I see that the transformation did strengthen you, just as my dear Alec predicted. How marvelous!” He was all smiles once more, but they struck me as sinister in a way I had never encountered, so I kept my mouth shut. “Shall we see if you continue to confound our other gifted members? Jane?”

My hand still in Aro’s, I turned my eyes to the right until I met the cruel pair just behind the thrones. She raised an eyebrow at me, and I heard her whisper, “Pain.”

There was a moment when I almost felt a prickle along my skin, but the ghost danced away as I stared at Jane. Her lips clamped together, and she let out a quick huff of unneeded air. Next to her, Alec laid his hand on her shoulder, in either comfort or restraint. He, too, began to stare at me. I felt as if a cool wave of air traveled over me, an impossibility in that enclosed and damp room.

"Interesting. That is enough, Alec." I could feel Aro's eyes boring into me, but I didn't want to give him the satisfaction of looking at him.

“We are so happy to see that you are transitioning well to this new life, dear Isabella. Your ability to shield yourself has no doubt helped you in your endeavors.” Aro's slimy voice made me want to pull my hand away, but I knew better. Instead, I let it rest passively in his while I dropped my gaze once more. “We expect you to begin training this miraculous ability of yours immediately. I am fascinated by it, I will admit. Perhaps in time you will be able to expand your shield to include others or even…take it down as required. I’m sure your parents would be proud if they knew what a talented girl you turned into.”

I tried not to flinch at the sharp tone in his voice. “Yes, Master.” My parents. I was bright enough to read between the lines on that. If I didn’t figure out how to shield others or at least manipulate this ability so that other vampires could—what? access my mind?—my parents could be in danger.

Aro released my hand and clapped. “Fabulous! Felix, to me.”

The rustle of cloth at my side marked the arrival of yet another vampire. His scent contained the same cloying undertones as all the others with the addition of sage and tobacco laced throughout. It was a little overpowering, much like the hulking figure I could see out of the corner of my eye. The silhouette was familiar, and I realized that he was one of the five who attacked James and allowed my change to continue.

“See that Isabella becomes familiar with the training rooms. She will be meeting with Jane to train her abilities, and at the appropriate times you will see to her physical training. We must not neglect to teach her to fight, even if her shield turns out to be as useful as I believe it will.”

Felix nodded. “Yes, Master.”

“Very well. You may go.” Aro turned and resumed his seat next to the two silent figures on the dais.

I followed Felix as he turned and hurried out of the room. To my surprise, Renata stayed behind. I felt oddly bereft. As the only person I had seen with any regularity since I became a vampire, it was strange to leave the room without her, my unwelcome and probably unwilling jailer. I was sure she was glad to be rid of me.

I kept my eyes trained on Felix’s dark head as I matched my steps to his. A part of me marveled at his size, at least a foot and a half taller than me and with the shoulders of a linebacker, while another part of my mind worried over the bone that Aro had thrown me. What if I couldn’t make my shield work for other people? What would the Volturi do to me then? Would I be allowed to leave on my own, or would they find a way to get rid of me--permanently? Did I want to continue this torturous existence? Wouldn’t it be better to let them kill me? Would they do anything to my parents, or was it an empty threat to scare me? Somehow, I doubted Aro made empty threats. I doubted any of the Volturi did.

Felix wasn’t much for small talk. He didn’t say a word as we passed the human secretary once more and then made our way through a maze of corridors until we reached a worn wooden door. The door opened with a flick of his wrist, and he led me inside.

I was expecting something along the lines of a medieval torture chamber-cum-dojo. There were stone floors and walls here, of course, since stone seemed to withstand our strength just a little better than other materials. However, the walls were inset with panels of light wood, giving relief from the unchanging gray I’d grown accustomed to. Other than the two of us, the room was empty yet immaculate, brightened by fluorescent lights suspended from the high ceiling.

“Most of our talented are able to do their training here and the rooms to the left and right, if it is necessary,” Felix’s gruff voice interrupted my thoughts. “Fighting is practiced in the courtyard during storms, so we’ll have to wait to introduce you to that. Jane will join you shortly to begin your instruction.”

With a stiff nod he spun around and then left. I tried not to be intimidated by my isolation as well as the size of the room where I waited. It would be better if I could become comfortable here since it sounded like I’d be spending a lot of time with these four walls. I began to pace around the room, familiarizing myself with the scents of the vampires lingering there.

Approaching footsteps alerted me to the arrival of two vampires. I knew one must be Jane, so I faced the door in order to prepare myself. The sight of her superior sneer as she stared down at my weakened body in that alleyway was one of my clearest human memories. I didn’t look forward to this training, although I hadn’t dared tell anyone that.

Jane opened the door in a sharp, swift movement and swept in, the same perpetual look of disdain twisting her lips when our eyes met. Demetri, looking terrified, followed her. I wanted to crouch down and hiss at Jane, but something told me that these sessions would be reported to Aro in every detail. I didn’t want to anger him. I was sure that he would take my lashing out at Jane as resistance to his plans.

“Oh, you’re here.” Jane’s words sounded surprised, but her tone revealed her apathy and maybe even disappointment in my presence. Did she think I was going to try and run away at the first opportunity? Was she looking forward to what would follow?

I didn’t bother with a response, and her eyes grew somehow colder. Raising her chin higher, she pronounced, “Your training will begin with attempts to keep Demetri from tracking me through the castle. Perhaps Renata  has not mentioned his special ability. He can find anyone after experiencing their mental signature.” I shook my head from side to side without taking my eyes off of her. “If we can’t stimulate your shield to protect others by more peaceful methods, we will have to use stronger levels of persuasion.”

That was a threat. Even a child would have recognized it. I ignored the instinct to growl at her and nodded my understanding. I wasn’t going to waste words on her if I could help it.

A tireless five days of training followed. I could feel Demetri's ability as if eyes were staring at me, at least momentarily, and I could feel Jane's ability as those annoying prickles. But I couldn't keep either from affecting the other. It was the longest I had ever gone without feeding. My throat felt like charred cinders by the time the older vampires, able to go weeks between feeding, finally agreed to take a break. In a voice that revealed her frustration at our lack of progress, Jane instructed me to find Heidi, the provider of our meals.

When Demetri left, he avoided looking at either of us. Jane glared at me, but I could see a small bit of triumph in her bright red eyes as well. She wanted the other Volturi to be frightened of me. She wanted them to resent that I couldn’t protect them. She wanted my failure. Unfortunately, I couldn’t think of any way to prevent her from getting what she wanted most, and I was afraid it would cost not only my life but my parents’ lives as well.

When no one came to find me after I finished feeding, I returned to my room. The small human remnant in me wanted to find comfort in curling up on the large bed, but I knew it would be hollow. Instead, I stood by the small window and looked out without registering what I was seeing.

I failed. I couldn’t extend my shield to keep Demetri from Jane. I couldn’t protect Demetri when Jane attacked him using her “gift” for hours at the end of our practice time. It was the most horrible thing I had seen in this place of daily terror. Demetri’s pale face twisted in a rictus of pain, his screams echoing through the practice room after we returned from yet another fruitless attempt to play our strange version of hide and seek. My damned perfect memory wouldn't allow me to forget. Thinking about it made me grateful and scared at the same time. I was grateful that my shield had protected me from Jane even as a human. Jane’s zealous pursuit of the answer to the puzzle of my mind would drive away any allies I might create here, though.

I took a deep but unnecessary breath in the vain hope that it would help settle my nerves. Perhaps if I demonstrated willingness to work with Jane unprompted, Aro wouldn’t be as upset with me. With that thought, I sped out the door in search of the one creature in Volterra I wanted to see the least.

Felix stopped me several minutes into my quest by stepping into my path and refusing to budge. I stopped, trying not to let him see how much his size intimidated me. His red eyes bore into mine steadily when I dared lift my gaze to his.

“It is time to begin your physical training.” His words drew my attention to the sound of far off thunder. I didn’t know if I should bless or curse the sudden change in weather.

Felix spun on his heel and led me through several twisting corridors. With each step, I had to fight down the worry welling up inside. Given my lack of coordination as a human and my struggles to control my strength, there didn’t seem to be much chance that I would do well. Finally we approached an archway glowing in the weak light of the cloudy sky. I could just see the courtyard beyond his shoulder. It appeared deserted.

Felix began my lesson as soon as I stepped through the graceful arch onto the flagstones beyond. He lunged for me, his hands stretched for my throat. Something made me move to the side just enough that he flew past me to land on his feet in the hallway. I crouched low as I turned and hissed. He stared back at me, surprise and approval mixing in his eyes although the rest of his face remained impassive, his body relaxed as if he had never even though of taking a step towards me.

“Well, well. A newborn who knows how to move!”

I had no idea what he meant, but I obeyed his gesture to move further into the open air, relishing the feeling for the first time in months. Everything was more vivid out there to my heightened senses. Small flowers lining the short steps down to the empty dirt ground shone in shades of blue and red I had never imagined possible. Specks of dust glistened in the air, swirling thanks to the increasing winds. I wasn’t sure how to handle the sensory overload at first. Was this why the interior of Volterra was so dark and gloomy? Did the vampires there consider it a sanctuary away from the too-bright world beyond?

Felix gestured again, indicating that we were going to the open ring of dirt at the center of the courtyard. As long as two football fields, it took up more space than I thought would be possible in an area the size of Volterra, at least the way that Renata had described it to me. Maybe it no longer seemed large to her, though, after centuries living there.

My new trainer faced off against me, less hostile than my previous one but far more intense somehow. To my surprise, he started with a lecture, not another attack.

“Vampires are stronger, faster, and more coordinated than even the most perfect human athlete. That often causes newborns to believe that they are invincible, and they are—if they are going up against a human. Most newborns, and even many older vampires, forget that in a fight with another vampire those advantages are canceled out. If you survive your newborn year, you are more likely to be fighting someone whose abilities in the physical realm match your own. There are few who are gifted with extra physical talents. Mental abilities, which you are protected against naturally, are much more common. Survival depends on knowing how to counter the physical, not on overwhelming the opponent.”

Suddenly he sprang at me once more, this time lashing out with a foot towards my left thigh. I tried to counter him with my leg, and although I was fast I still ended up on one knee with Felix behind me, my head and neck in his hands and his teeth pressed against the skin of my throat but not penetrating. For a small fraction of a second my body tried to react, to shrug him off, but that same instinct from earlier stopped me. I remained as still as possible, and I heard his grunt of satisfaction before he stood in front of me once more.

“A good fighter has control over their bodies, their emotions. They use both their instincts and brains as much as they do their strength. That is why newborns usually make pitiful fighters. Their control is non-existent. You, on the other hand, are an unusual one in many ways. You have the emotional control of a vampire decades older combined with the strength of the human blood still coursing in your veins and tissues, slowing being consumed by the venom. I believe that, in time, you will be a formidable fighter.”

And so began my time of training with the Volturi, a mixture of failure and success that would haunt me the entire time I stayed there. 

Chapter Text

I stared out over the wall separating the castle from the rest of Volterra. The sliver of waxing moon rested low on the cloudless horizon, signaling that another day was about to begin for the oblivious humans sleeping below. If I turned around I would see the opposite horizon bathed in a soft rose, but the view below was enough for now.

Nine months. I had been in Volterra for nine months, and still I wasn’t comfortable there. I was down to one meal every two weeks, which Felix liked to point out was more like a fully developed vampire than a newborn. I couldn’t force myself to take any more lives than that, though, and I had even pulled our procurer aside after meeting her to request that she try and identify those who appeared close to death to bring for me. Her look of confusion had swiftly morphed into contempt and disgust. I didn’t care if she came to the true conclusion about my request or simply thought that I couldn’t handle stronger prey. I was just satisfied when she began finding the weak of heart, lung, or mind for my meals. It mitigated my guilt the tiniest measure.

My physical training with Felix was the brightest part of my new life. Together we discovered that I was a gifted fighter on the defense, although the concept of “the best defense is a good offense” was the only way I was able to trick my brain into attacking others. Once I overcame that hurdle, Felix brought Demetri into my lessons to teach me how to track and sneak up on other vampires, another physical ability I was surprisingly good at.

Demetri’s willingness to help me had increased dramatically after Aro directed Jane to give me a break in trying to manipulate my shield. I suppose I impressed him with my sincerity by trying for three months straight without breaks for more than meals. Renata occasionally joined Jane in my training, but she was more distant than she’d ever been before. Neither could determine whether I would ever be able to shield anyone other than myself. None of the “usual” triggers worked on me, apparently. Pain, anger, fear, all of the emotions most closely associated with the few known shields weren’t enough to reveal how I might control my abilities. They simply existed inside of me, dormant as far as I could tell except for the strange sensations I would get when someone tried to use their own abilities on me.

Even though Aro had given permission for a pause in that aspect of my training, I knew he would eventually expect to see a return in the Volturi’s investment. In fact, I expected it any time. For a millennia-old vampire, Aro displayed a remarkable amount of impatience for “pet” projects. Three months, the length of my break so far, seemed close to his limit. I could practically feel his eyes boring into me whenever I encountered him, and I could swear he was developing a twitch in the right corner of his mouth.

As if my thoughts had conjured him, Demetri jumped up from the courtyard to stand to my right. I felt the penetrating gaze he sent me without needing to look in his direction.

“The Masters wish to speak to you.”

It was a demand, couched in polite words.

I turned without bothering to reply and dropped down to the courtyard, Demetri close on my heels. Within moments we reached the doors to the throne room, as it was affectionately—and accurately—called. I pushed open one side with a brisk motion to hide the dread creeping up on me. This was it. I knew it.

Aro and Caius were the only Masters present, not all that unusual when we were being less than formal. Alec and Jane stood to one side, their calm expressions giving nothing away. Felix stood to the other side, his hands held loosely behind his back.

“Ah, Isabella. It is good to see you, child. We have a challenge for your…unique skills.”

I raised an eyebrow and drew closer, each step feeling as if I was signing my own—or my parents’—death certificate. Aro’s bright, eager smile sent chills down my spine, and I almost stopped, frozen, until my internal voice reminded me that I must not show weakness to the vampire before me. I continued on without pause until I reached the edge of the dais.

“Word has reached us that an uncontrollable newborn has emerged in Germany. Aro believes that you, Isabella, will prove invaluable in containing and eliminating this threat to our secrecy.” Caius sounded doubtful, but I had known for months that he was unhappy having a newborn in Volterra. He did not appreciate change unless there was some value in it for him, and so far I hadn’t had much opportunity to prove my worth.

“This newborn appears to have a talent much like dear Jane’s, although according to our source this newborn was not mentally stable prior to his change. His mental instability virtually guarantees that he will never be able to gain control over his thirst or his talent, and indeed the tales that have reached our ears through human sources prove this to be the truth. The newborn is your target, Isabella. You have the highest chance of getting close to him with as little notice from the humans as possible.” Aro’s glittering red eyes swept over the other guards in the room. “As for the rest of you, I am entrusting you with clean-up after Isabella is finished.

I knew from my training with Felix what that meant and barely managed to hide my distaste. Any human unfortunate enough to witness the activities of this newborn or his destruction would fall prey to an “accident,” probably after providing one of us with a meal. The nameless newborn’s maker would probably also be disposed of, albeit quietly.

I did have one question, however. “Shouldn’t Alec’s gift neutralize this newborn effectively?” I knew from my occasional interactions with them that Aro would interpret that as the curiosity I intended while Caius would assume that I was trying to get out of the mission.

Before Caius could tear into me, Aro beamed and replied, “Ah, but we discovered through experimentation centuries ago that Jane is still able to use her gift, albeit indiscriminately, while under Alec’s influence.”

My gaze swung involuntarily toward Jane in sympathy. To endure her brother’s gift at Aro’s command seemed overly harsh, but she seemed unaffected by the memory. Her chin tilted at its usual proud angle; her eyes remained steadily glued to Aro’s face.

“If the newborn proves to have a similar ability to circumvent Alec on the mental level, you may be the only one able to get close while he is incapacitated,” Aro continued.

I nodded to indicate my understanding and murmured, “Yes, Master,” as I had been taught.

Aro’s smile widened, and he held out a hand to Felix. “As you will be undertaking this task as an official representative of the Volturi, it seems fitting that you be adequately attired.” Felix handed him a light grey cloak, and he shook it out expectantly. “Come, my dear. It is time that you received this.”

I moved forward in a daze. This was not what I expected. Felix had been very clear that the cloaks the Volturi wore would only be awarded to me if I was accepted as a full member after my newborn year. The weight of the wool was nothing to my vampire body, but the responsibilities and traditions it represented settled like a boulder around my neck.

The next few minutes passed in a flurry of instructions, all of which I knew must be followed to the letter. We left directly after Aro dismissed us, a flock of grey bringers of death. I felt out of place but didn’t dare let it show. Instead, I copied the confident stalk of the others as they headed for the helicopter that would take us to Germany.

The flight was short, although not as fast as if he had run. Still, the dark tinted windows provided protection from the sun that would betray us. I still marveled at the sight of my skin in the sun sometimes, shimmering with thousands of rainbows. Seeing that for the first time made me understand the outdated cloaks of the Volturi. I often wondered how other vampires, without the high walls and intimidation factor of the castle in Volterra, managed to avoid human notice so completely.

When we landed in an isolated clearing outside a small city, clouds and rain completely obscured the light of the sun, the steady sort of rain that could last for hours. Nevertheless, we all pulled our hoods up, me last of all. I was also the last to leave the copter, mere seconds after Felix, the pilot. I knew instinctively that I should take the last place in our group. I was the youngest, the least experienced no matter how quickly I had picked up the martial arts taught to me.

It was a good thing the others weren’t watching me as I descended, the whirring blades above no longer distracting me. They may have heard the hesitation as I froze, overwhelmed by noise, but none of them showed any indication that they were curious about the source since I hurried to take my place behind Felix.

Oh, the sounds of the forest surrounding us! I thought I was used to the constant cacophony detectable thanks to my enhanced hearing. I thought I had conditioned myself to ignore it, to catalogue the meanings behind the sounds automatically and move on. On the ground levels of Volterra and higher, hundreds of human conversations and thousands of cars could be heard at almost any moment. The sounds of the forest were something else altogether. At the same time quieter and more abundant, they combined with the quick patter of rain to momentarily steal my attention, forcing me to compensate.

Demetri led our group. He had met the creator of the newborn before and was using his gift of tracking their mental signature to lead us directly to our target. Alec and Jane followed him, with Felix and me taking position behind them. We walked several miles in a few minutes, guarded by trees and clouds, before stopping just short of another clearing. From the faint sounds of cars in the distance, the rundown house in the middle of the field before us was conveniently close to the city for feeding purposes. The faded, peeling blue paint, broken windows, and rotting wooden doors would have screamed lack of occupancy if I couldn’t detect the unique scents of two vampires and hear the quick, frightened heartbeats of two humans. The scents were fresh, very fresh, and underneath their overpowering sweetness the scent of several drops of human blood sent my thirst burning my throat and venom coating my mouth. I swallowed silently and lectured my rebellious body into submission. This was no time to lose control.

What intrigued me was that the humans were still apparently very much alive. Why hadn’t the vampires killed them yet? It wasn’t that I craved their deaths. I was just confused by the fact that they were alive at all with a newborn, presumably a “normal” one, nearby.

An anguished scream rent the air, torn from a human throat. It continued longer than a mere death cry might, wavering slightly before picking up strength and urgency once more. Demetri looked at Alec and cocked his head. The slight boy smiled, an eerie sight, an ghosted forward until he could see through one broken window. A dense fog began to form around his hands, and he slowly sent his power through the window. As he worked, the rest of us moved so that we covered each side of the building just as Felix had taught me. We were ready in case they tried to run, although Alec’s gift should take care of that. Caution was standard procedure, I was told over and over. So I moved as silently as the others, careful of my every movement.

The sound of growls and a second human scream alerted me when Alec’s gift took effect. The human cries died to whimpers before increasing into the shrill babble of madness, nonsense words that flowed together in an incomprehensible jumble. More disturbing, the frenzied growls came from my companions as well as the two vampires inside the building.

Unwilling to wait and see whether the vampire’s power was influencing actions as well as thoughts, I knocked over the pieces of what was left of the back door and stepped inside. The bottom floor was one large room due to the simple expedient of most of the walls lying in rubble on the cracked wooden floorboards. Dead leaves crackled under the soles of my black leather boots as I made my way to the four figures to my eft, two huddled in misery at the feet of the others. The vampires crouched in defense against an unseen and unheard threat. With Alec still binding their senses, there was no need for me to be quiet, although I was from habit.

As I drew closer, I took in the vampires, the two important pieces, my prey. My throat still burned from the scene of human blood, this time even closer, but I was able to resist with an ease that surprised me. I wasn’t concerned about them.

At first I wasn’t sure which of the two vampires should be my target. One tall, skinny and male, the other short, plump and female, both moved their lips sync with the babble and growls around me. Then I noticed that the male vampire made no sound at all, not even a whisper, and concluded that he was the source of the deranged rambling. I crossed the room until I stood in front of him. There was a moment of hesitation as I put my hands on either side of his head. What had he done to me, that I was so ready to take his life? I stared into the eyes looking blindly back at me. Then my training took over. A quick twist and his head broke free with a sickening crack.

I had experienced the loss of a limb during training. As I improved, I managed to tear several from my opponents, all reattached via time and venom. However, I had never witnessed a capitation as a vampire, let alone performed one. The feeling was at once exhilarating and horrifying. His skin vibrated against mine under the stress. I knew that he was unaware, unseeing, and yet still I felt as if he watched me while I removed his head from his body.

The babbling of the others died abruptly as soon as his head was left his next. The humans began to wail instead, but the female vampire was strangely silent. I was sure she suspected what was happening. Maybe she was trying not to incriminate herself, a futile effort.

My Volturi companions entered, no longer under the thrall of the gifted newborn. Together, we formed a loose circle around the four bodies, the male’s head still in my hands. To my surprise, Jane reached for it while Demetri and Alec, eyes pitch-black from hunger, each grabbed a human and fed. I averted my eyes with the excuse of looking at Jane while I handed off my burden, and she smiled wickedly at me as if reading my discomfort. I was sure Jane would feel no remorse about killing any vampire, especially me.

Once Demetri and Alec were done with their snack, Jane nodded to her brother. He understood the silent signal and released the female. She gasped and glared at us as sensation returned. Dark blond curls fell over one eye, and she flipped it over her shoulder with a toss of her head.

“Oh, Hulda. What have you done now, my dear?” Jane’s voice was syrupy sweet with an edge of menace—normal for her. I was surprised that she spoke in English, but perhaps this Hulda didn’t speak Italian, the preferred Volturi language. I had learned it in my first months, but Renata told me at the time that most vampires didn’t bother becoming bilingual unless they moved to a new country and wanted to attract prey.

“I know not of what you speak.” The woman’s accent was flawless, of course, but her syntax was strange. I briefly wondered when she had learned English. A few centuries ago?

“None of that. Your little toy has created quite a mess with the local populace. We can only destroy so many humans at once before the whole species becomes suspicious. Your creator explained that to you, I know. Add driving your victims mad, publically, to that list, and leaving their bodies to be found by any unsuspecting authority…” Jane’s voice trailed off as she detailed the woman’s crimes. The Volturi knew no mercy. She was aware what her fate would be.

Still she tried to plead innocence. Her eyes large, she protested, “I did not know he was not disposing of his food properly! I swear!”

“Are you admitting that you lost control of your newborn?” Alec’s silken tones held more malice than his sister’s. “And while we’re on the subject, why did you choose a weak-minded specimen to turn?”

Hulda tried to deny it. “I did not know of his mental condition! He appeared normal, charming! I believed he would make an admirable companion.”

We could all see that she lied. The tells were there, the way her eyes shifted too quickly between us, the note of doubt in her voice. She knew, maybe not the extent, but something, before she made her decision. Turning a mentally ill human was frowned on, and the creator was always held responsible if they lost control, even more than with a regular newborn.

“And what were you and this newborn of yours doing with these humans? Playing with your food?” Demetri laughed at her and kicked the corpse of the human he’d consumed.

Hulda twisted to look over her shoulder and snarl. “I was trying to help him learn control.”

I believed her, but I knew the others wouldn’t care about her belated attempts to help the one she created.

“The Volturi do not believe you should have turned him in the first place, and then your attempts would not have been necessary,” Felix informed her, flashing his teeth as he tossed a lighter into the air with one hand and caught it with the others.

The woman chose that moment to feint to the left and try to run off to the right. She underestimated my size, no doubt not suspecting I was a newborn. I caught her, and in an instant Demetri was beside us and ripped off her head. Without a word we dismembered the rest of her while Felix and Alec took care of the other vampire’s body and Jane playfully juggled bothed heads with a burst of spirit I’d never witnessed before.

In seconds they were two burning piles of intermingled limbs, torsos, and heads. As the sweet acrid smell of burning vampire filled the air, Felix and I tossed the human bodies on top. We used no accelerants, aware that if the fire was found it would be assumed the two charred humans were homeless people who had let their fire burn out of control. Felix had spent a whole day explaining the various cover-up methods the Volturi used, although like many other things on this trip it was my first time putting it into practice.

I stayed quiet the entire time and as we headed back to the helicopter. I had killed. At that point it was nothing new, but usually I was able to decompress in my room after feeding, work through my grief and guilt, and remind myself to press on for my parents’ sake. Now I could only sit frozen on my seat as the helicopter took off once more. I felt conflicted over my part in these deaths. I was glad there were two fewer vampiric threats to humanity. I was glad the members of the Volturi had been able to take care of the problem so quickly and cleanly.

On the other hand, I felt horrible for the humans who were tortured by the insane newborn. I was upset and felt guilty that I was a member of the same species of killers, and I hated that I couldn’t change it without putting my parents at risk.

Thankfully, there was little chatter on the return flight to Volterra, so my brooding went unnoticed—or at last wasn’t commented on—by the others. As soon as the helicopter touched down we disembarked and went as a group to the throne room. Aro and Caius, as well as most of the guards not out on a mission, waited there. Felix had notified them of our arrival even as he brought the helicopter down.

“Well, dear ones, how was your trip?” Aro held his hand out, and one by one the others touched him. I did not have to submit to his mental examination, for which I was grateful.

“Ah, I see.”

“Brother?” I thought it was interesting that even after millennia Caius could still be annoyed that Aro would always receive a full report first.

“It was as we were told. The newborn was able to project his madness onto others. His creator, Hulda—you remember the delightful Hulda, don’t you, brother?—could not stop him from infecting those around him as he fed, although it appears she was making a few feeble efforts to teach him. Isabella was forced to destroy him as he spread his insanity to her compatriots when cornered. Hulda was then disposed of when it became apparent that she knew her newborn was mentally disturbed to a severe degree before she changed him.” Aro’s voice range with satisfaction, but I detected a false note.

“And they cleaned up after themselves?”

We all stiffened slightly at Caius’s implied insult. As if we wouldn’t have handled that part of the mission. The others shot me glares, and I understood why he did it. He wanted the rest of the guard to distrust me as much as he did, to see me as an interloper.

“Of course!” Aro threw an irritated glance at his brother and then turned to look directly at me. “I did have one question for dear Isabella, of course. During your encounter, did you actively try to protect your fellow Volturi?”

I stared at him, unsure what he was asking. “I never felt what he was doing. I don’t know how I would have blocked him from the others.” That was partially untrue. At the time, I registered an angry buzzing at the back of my mind, but it was unimportant compared to taking down my prey.

Aro’s eyebrows rose. “I see. You felt nothing?”

“No, Master. Whatever he was doing, it was nothing I was aware of.”

Renata stepped out of the shadows behind Aro and stated calmly, “It is as I have said, Master. Young Isabella’s understanding of her gift and how it interacts with those of others must be subconscious, instinctual. She can no more control it than an infant can control what it sees or smells, and she may not be able to for centuries—if at all.”

I had no idea where this was coming from. When had Renata spoken with the Masters about me? I considered her a mentor of sorts, at least in my early days, but as far as I knew her interest in me had decreased after my formal introduction to the Volturi. I had barely seen her at all in the past months, especially during my training sessions.

As Renata gazed at Aro in adoration tinged with expectation, I realized that she, like Caius, was trying to discredit me. In this case, I believed that she didn’t want the competition of another shield within the Volturi. She had mentioned before how rare shields were and that she was the only one with any true force behind hers. Maybe she wanted to keep that distinction.

In a way I was much more appreciative of Renata’s selfishness than the biased disapproval Caius displayed. I had no desire to remain interesting to Aro. I never stopped wishing he would simply start ignoring me.

Aro did appear to consider Renata’s words carefully. “Does Renata speak the truth, Isabella? After all these months, you can detect no difference when your shield is active?”

I shook my head slowly and chose my words carefully. “I have tried, Master Aro. I swear I have. I have tried to envision my shield in various forms when it’s supposed to be working. I have tried to feel a difference when a mental gift is being used on me. There’s nothing. No pressure, no buzzing, no stinging, no indication at all that anything is even happening.” I looked down at my feet, ashamed that I couldn’t seem to do the one thing that would ensure my parents’ continued safety.

The room grew silent. I could feel all eyes on me. A swish of velvet warned me that Aro moved, and I wondered if this was it. His large hands landed on my shoulders, and then he patted me awkwardly. “Dear one, do not be disheartened. I believe you. Go now, and tomorrow continue your training with Felix, weather permitting.”

I almost couldn’t believe it, but it wasn’t a good idea to question kindness from Aro, rare as it could be. With a quick nod of my head to him and Caius, I slipped away.

In some small corner of my mind, I noticed that no one moved or spoke as I left, but I chose to ignore it.

Chapter Text

The months following my first—and so far, only—mission flew by without the worry of Aro’s expectations weighing me down. For the first time I allowed myself the leisure to explore the cultural treasures contained within the castle. I had been to the library a few times, savoring some old favorites almost as if they were a security blanket and to finish them would mean losing that comfort, but I had never attempted to wander the galleries containing the Volturi’s vast art collections, and even in reading I found myself less than adventurous until I no longer felt the older vampires breathing down my neck.

In fact, when I wasn’t training with Felix and Demetri, which was as often as the weather allowed, I was completely ignored. I wasn’t sure what to do with my free time, never having had much as a human child what with needing to take care of my mom and myself. I fell into brooding over my situation at first, but it’s not in my nature to be upset for long periods of time. Thus began my exploration of Volterra, a way to distract myself from the loneliness and sadness that threatened to engulf me.

On day while I was wandering through the gallery, this time examining the priceless Ming vases displayed on low pillars along the walls, Renata appeared beside me. I heard her approach, but it didn’t occur to me that she would care to stop and talk. We hadn’t said a word toe ach other since the day she insisted I would never prove to be a strong shield. I didn’t deliberately avoid her, but I also didn’t go out of my way to find her.

Renata appeared as serious and calm as always on the surface, but I thought I detected an undercurrent of tension in her dark red eyes. I dismissed it as being too close to feeding day. Heidi was due back from a “fishing” expedition in a few days, having gone down to Rome to pull from the never-ending round of tourists there.

“The Masters request your presence, Isabella.”

Deja vu hit me for a moment, but I didn’t bother asking questions. I simply turned on my heel and headed for the throne room. As I went, I wondered if there was another mission in my immediate future.

Unlike the last time, the entire Volturi guard currently in the caste was gathered in the throne room as I entered. It wasn’t what I expected, but I didn’t let that distract me. A path was cleared in the small crowd that led to the Masters’ thrones, so I swept forward and paused at the edge of the dais, eyes on the three sets of feet before me.

“Yes, Masters?” I tried to keep any hint of curiosity out of my voice, but I knew I failed.

“Isabella, dear girl, my brothers and I have come to a decision regarding your status here.”

I lifted my eyes to stare at Aro in confusion. My status? What did he mean by that? I was a Volturi guard-in-training, at least until my newborn year was over. That was a few short days away, but I hadn’t considered that I would be given much of a choice one way or another. Had they decided to elevate me to full guard status already?

“It is customary to request that a guard join us, but you were given no option due to your unusual circumstances—rarely do we nurture a newborn as we have you as the average newborn requires much care and oversight. My brother,” and Aro’s eyes flickered to Marcus in irritation for a moment before returning to mine, “has rightly pointed out that you have proven your control over yourself in this past year, and he believes that you should be offered the same choice available to any mature vampire at this time. Will you join the Volturi, or will you go in peace to make your own way in the world?”

I gawked at first Aro, then Caius and finally Marcus. I could leave. They were offering to let me leave. Could I really? What of my human family?

“My parents?” I asked, knowing that Aro would understand.

“If you choose to leave, your parents will remain unharmed by us so long as you have no contact with them. They believe their daughter is dead, and your current appearance would raise too many questions,” Aro advised me, disappointment evident in his eyes.

“Thank you.” I paused, momentarily unsure how to continue. “May I take some clothing with me?” I made my intentions clear without having to voice my choice.

Aro slowly nodded. “Of course, child. All but…” He looked pointedly at my shoulder.

Oh. The cloak. I reached up, suddenly hesitant to part with the symbol of my time in Volterra. My fingers worked at the V-shaped cloak clasp, and then Renata pulled the wool carefully from my shoulders, draping it over one arm. I felt slightly exposed in my black slacks and blue short-sleeved blouse, but I kept my head high as I looked at Aro.

“Thank you, for everything,” I whispered, hoping that he would believe me to be appreciative of the life I now led.

“You’re welcome, Isabella. Please remember that we would be overjoyed should you change your mind and decide to return to us.” Aro produced a thin smile that failed to reach his eyes.

I nodded with a slight upturn of my own lips and turned to leave. The same path opened before me, this time leading to the door. The guards mostly regarded me in confusion or contempt. They were all content with their lives, as far as I could tell. I was sure none of them shared my doubts about being a vampire, a plague on humanity.

Renata followed me in a weird parallel to my first visit to the throne room. Thinking that maybe Aro had given her a sign to follow me once my back was turned, I ignored her as best I could. Returning to my room took almost no time. It did unnerve me that Renata followed me in and shut the door behind her. Finally I acknowledged her presence, turning to look her in the eye.

Before I could speak, she lifted a finger to her lips. “Isabella, I have done my best for you.” I started to protest her barely whispered words, but again she interrupted. “From the beginning, I knew that you despised this life of ours. You remained strong, but I knew that you tolerated the blood drinking instead of relishing it as most do. There have been others before who hated themselves for what we must do to survive, and I fear that in time you will descend into madness the way that almost all of them did. I believed your only option was to leave Volterra.”

“Why?” I kept my own voice scarcely audible, even to a vampire’s ears, as I worked to process what she was saying and what it revealed about her actions.

“There exists a vampire who is able to survive on the blood of lesser animals, much the way humans consume the meat. Master Aro does not like us to speak of it, and all Volturi are forbidden from practicing what he considers to be a deviance from our nature. This vampire visited us for a time centuries ago, and Aro considers him a friend, but he will not agree that animal blood is an acceptable substitute despite the evidence of his own eyes.”

I absorbed this information greedily. I could understand why she hadn’t told me before, although I deeply mourned the unnecessary deaths I caused. If I had known there was an option, I might have insisted on trying until Aro became enraged. There would have been no friendly, if reluctant, parting. My parents’ lives might have still been in danger in order to gain my compliance.

Renata’s actions in belittling my shield took on a new light. Aro was no longer intrigued by my potential. He wouldn’t go to any lengths to keep me against my will. Renata made my freedom to try this alternative possible! But how? Didn’t Aro read her thoughts as often as he read those of the others? I always saw him taking the hand of one guard or another, as if he needed to constantly refresh his watch on their thoughts.

My confusion must have showed, and she interpreted it correctly. “My shield is mental, like yours, but it functions differently in that I push away those who seek to get too close. It is why Aro values me. He has never learned that I am sometimes able to push away his own gift, at least to an extent, to hide what I must. I am, perhaps, the only being in the world besides yourself capable of keeping a secret from him. I also know how to maneuver around his gift. I mentioned bits and pieces of my observations to Marcus, just enough to make him think that you wouldn’t wish to stay with us indefinitely. This prompted him to remember the old rule, and of course Aro read it in his thoughts and acted upon it. He tries to maintain the illusion that the brothers all work together, although sometimes I believe Marcus to be little more than a figurehead.”

That revelation left me blindsided. Of course I noticed how quiet and sorrowful Marcus was, but I never considered him to be less than his Volturi brothers. My expansive mind wanted to follow that path, and I let it as I continued my nearly silent conversation with Renata. “Is the vampire you spoke of still alive? The one who consumes animal blood?” I would try on my own, of that I had no doubt, but it would be nice to know I wasn’t the only one.

Renata shrugged. “I am not sure. The last I knew, he was planning to head west. He may have stopped in his native England, or he may have gone on to one of the British colonies. As I said, this was centuries ago.”

I stifled my disappointment. Colonies. History wasn’t my favorite class, but my increasingly blurry human memories told me that England once had dozens of colonies. Which one would this unknown vampire have sought? Could he still be in England? Still, what else was I going to do with my never-ending life other than somehow keep an eye on my parents until their deaths? I could add searching for an elusive, maybe-still-alive vampire to my to-do list.

“What is his name?” Is. Not “was”. I would continue to believe that he was alive until someone could confirm otherwise.

“Carlisle Cullen. He was a friendly man. You should be able to find others who knew him.” Renata hesitated, then pulled something from her pocket. “And here. You will need this if you are going to search for him.”

I reluctantly took two thin plastic cards from her. One was an American driver’s license with the picture of a woman who looked a lot like me, a 1986 birthday, and the name “Isabel Smith.” The other was a silver credit card with the same name printed on it. These two cards confirmed my suspicion that she had planned this for months. I was no expert, but forgery couldn’t be a quick process, at least not ones this good.

“The card has a ten thousand dollar limit, in American dollars, prepaid. That should cover any travel expenses and clothes that you might need to fit in.” Renata smiled, a shy yet proud look in her eyes. “Be careful out there. Practice what you were taught. I know that you will do well.”

I felt a little as if she was my mother sending me on my first day of school. I reached out and squeezed her hand in thanks. Then, uncomfortable showing even that small amount of emotion, I whipped around and started quickly packing the black duffel bag I found at the bottom of my closet months ago. Black slacks, dark wash jeans, four short-sleeved blouses, four pairs of socks and four sets of underwear filled the empty space almost to the brim. I was already wearing soft black leather loafers, so I didn’t necessarily need shoes, but if I traveled over rough terrain on foot I might need something that wouldn’t fall apart. With that in mind, I grabbed my black leather hiking boots and tucked them into the remaining space. I tossed a hairbrush on top, aware that I would need to look presentable if I traveled among humans. I shrugged on the black leather jacket hanging in the closet, knowing I wouldn’t actually need it but needing to look the part of prepared tourist. I slipped the pair of sunglasses resting on a shelf over my eyes. The driver’s license and credit card went into a pocket on the side of the bag.

Turning to Renata once more, I nodded and said at a normal volume, “Thank you for everything as well, Renata.” This time I meant the words.

“Of course, Isabella. Safe journeys.” She opened the door and was gone.

I stood alone in my room for several seconds, unsure what to do from there. At seventeen years old I was supposed to be worrying about finishing high school and deciding which college I wanted to go to, not setting out on my own to wander around the world for eternity. Where should I start?

The memory of my mother’s smile that day in Jacksonville flashed in my mind, and I knew what I had to do. I strolled out of the room that was once my own and down the hall as if I didn’t have a care in the world. It was only eight o’clock in the evening. I had time to run to the closest city and find a hotel to stay in throughout the daytime sunlight.

A destination in mind from my studies in the castle’s library, I left quietly and with no fanfare. Florence was an hour’s run away, and I spent most of the time parallel to the highway and holding my breath. I had no reason to breathe and knew it would be safer for the humans around me if I didn’t. The occasional passing car, occupants laughing or arguing or staring sleepily out into the night, were the only challenges I faced until I reached the outskirts of the city.

When I arrived in Florence, I found a decent hotel in the tourist section—easy to find due to the number of Americans wandering around—and requested a room for two nights. The drowsy clerk, blood moving sluggishly in his veins making my throat burn slightly in my hunger, took in my sunglasses and my American accent, shrugged, and handed me a key, a thick old-fashioned metal one with curling loops on one end. I thanked him and searched out my room. It was small with well-worn but clean furniture and a small bathroom. After I secured my bag I snuck back out to the small forest I encountered to the north of the city. It was time to try out Renata’s suggestion.

I had never hunted to feed before, although I assumed when humans were involved it wouldn’t be very difficult. There were always humans who could be relied upon to help or take advantage of a stranger, which I’d heard from the others was the best approach. Lure them away from populated areas, especially if you’re small, young-looking, and, best of all, female.

I imagined hunting animals would be a different situation altogether. Animals avoid vampires. They are more trusting of their instincts and recognize a predator that should be avoided. I knew I would have to use all my senses to find a suitable creature, let alone sneak up on it. Thankfully my senses were so far above those of any mortal creature that it shouldn’t prove impossible.

The hunt was easier than I anticipated. The worst part was differentiating between animal scent trails. I assumed that the strongest trails indicated larger animals, which seemed my best bet to get enough blood to satisfy my hunger. However, there were so many to choose from that it was difficult to decide. Finally, after a full minute of internal debate, I found a trail that smelled promising and began to follow.

Taking down that bear was the most interesting and disturbing sensation I’d experienced in my short immortal life. I kept quiet as I crept up, unsure what I was facing. The large, furry body in the clearing two hundred feet away would have been intimidating, even frightening, when I was human. Now I felt what passed for adrenaline pulse in my veins. The smell of the bear’s blood wasn’t quite enough to send me into a frenzy, but it was there, available for the taking. All I had to do was catch it. With that in mind, I was off.

The bear caught my scent one tenth of a second before my fingers were tangled in the fur of its back. It tried to run away, but by the time its brain sent the message to its limbs., I wrapped my arms around its torso. Even as the bear tried to claw at me, uselessly raking against the diamond-hard skin of my legs, I climbed up to reach its neck. The roar of rage became one of pain as I sank my teeth through fur to flesh.

The taste of the bear’s blood was not what I expected. Unlike human blood, with its rich bouquet of flavors, the animal’s blood tasted stale, almost lifeless. The burn in my throat was only reduced, not quenched, by the thick liquid. Would I need to put up with the pain forever if I chose to stay on this path?

This thought echoed in my mind as the bear’s bloodless body dropped from my grasp. It was followed by another.

Could I sacrifice myself daily in that way so that others—humans—had a chance at a full life?

And another.

Wasn’t that worth some discomfort to myself, no matter how constant?

The burn was never fully gone for long, after all. I would always need more blood. No matter how…unusual the animals tasted, it had to be better than killing humans.

My resolve firmed, I set about disposing of the carcass as I had been taught, figuring that what worked for humans would work for animals. It was easier than the human disposal I’d been lectured on, in fact. There were no identifying pieces of plastic or clothing to remove and burn, no face that needed to be bruised and battered to look like a human attacked them. I just buried the animal, careful to move piles of dead leaves out of my way and replace them once I filled in the hole, pushing the mound of dirt down in several spots with a foot to make it look more natural.

There wasn’t much I could do about my shredded pants or messed up hair. I could only return as quickly as possible to the hotel room, moving too fast for the human eye to see. Once more locked securely in my room, I stripped off my ruined pants and pulled on a spare pair of jeans instead. Then I went to the mirror to straighten my hair. As I lifted the brush, I saw my reflection and froze.

They were so beautiful. A deep, vibrant orange unlike the ruby red I had become accustomed to, caused by golden filaments of color among the darker shade. I could lose myself in the change, in the peace it brought me. Was this a visible sign of my new diet? If it was, I would take it. I had never been happier about a change in my appearance, not even as I slowly grew out of the awkward adolescent phase of my early teens shortly before my transformation.

With new courage blossoming at the potential my future held, I began to plan how I would search out this Carlisle Cullen, perhaps even how I would return to America, and what I would do once I was there.

Chapter Text

One Year Later…

I ran with my sister and brother through the damp forests west of our home on the Olympic Peninsula of Washington State. I relished the feel of my muscles stretching to accommodate my stride. The trees around us glistened with individual drops of rain, even under the perpetually cloudy sky, a lovely sight I never grew tired of. If I had to be holed up in a corner of the United States, at least my family had found a ridiculously beautiful place this time, unlike the stark white of Alaska. It was almost enough to make me forget my isolation, from my family and from the world at large.

I used my contemplation of the scenery in part to distract myself from the thoughts of my brother and sister. Alice and Jasper were able to block me from their thoughts if they wanted, but the thrill of the hunt often made them forgetful as they honed in on their prey. I hated the occasional intimate memory I would catch as their bloodlust rose.

Thankfully this day they were unusually focused, and I was able to unequivocally enjoy our time together. The deer were plentiful, if boring, and soon our hunt was done. We began to head back home when the wind shifted. The scent of a single vampire flooded over us, one relatively close. We all froze, Alice and Jasper looking to me. If we could smell the newcomer, I should be able to hear their thoughts and determine if they were hostile or not. I knew none of us had ever encountered that scent before, so anything was possible.

To my surprise, although I focused I could only hear Alice and Jasper, their thoughts racing. Alice went over every vampire we knew, while Jasper evaluated the trees surrounding us, identifying which areas afforded a tactical advantage. Not even the thoughts of a stray hiker or camper pinged on my radar. Yet the scent of that unknown vampire grew stronger, indicating that he or she was approaching rather than running from us. Unfortunately, that wasn’t an indication of their intentions. We were almost due west of Seattle, and a vampire looking to claim that city as a hunting ground might see us as a threat. Jasper and I braced ourselves in front of Alice, who didn’t seem particularly worried. I tried to determine the source of the twinkle in her eye, but she began to block me by repeatedly going over the latest Christian Louboutin shoe line. I didn’t have time to question her because suddenly we weren’t alone.

A female vampire stood frozen in front of us, her posture wary but unafraid. One part of my mind registered that she was short, only a few inches taller than tiny Alice, dark hair shimmering with red and gold strands woven throughout. She wore dark jeans and a black leather jacket, both less ragged than I expected for a nomad. However, it was her face, the most lovely I had ever seen, and her eyes that captivated me. I expected the normal bright red, if she’d fed recently, or burgundy. My breath caught at the brilliant gold staring back at me when our eyes met.

Vampires who feed on animals were rare. I knew of only my own family of seven and our Alaskan “cousins”, who numbered five. As far as I knew they hadn’t gained any members recently. And yet here was a gold-eyed vampire I had never met before.

She seemed as surprised as I was, as surprised as Jasper—but not Alice—was. I threw a brief glare back at my sister, who pushed forward from behind us. Alice held out her hand to the newcomer, who gave it a confused glance before recognition lit those lovely honey-colored eyes. She brought her own hand up, and the two women exchanged a brief handshake.

“Hello. I’m Alice.” My sister’s voice was cheerful, which I wanted to take as a good sign.

“Bella.” Her voice turned the syllables into pure music.

“This is my mate, Jasper, and my brother, Edward,” Alice continued, pointing to each of us in turn.

Bella shifted her eyes slightly at the introductions and then turned back to Alice. “Are you—do you feed from animals, too?”

Alice’s smile grew. “We call it being vegetarians, an inside joke.” The girl laughed along with Alice. “Our whole family feeds from animals instead of humans.”

Bella’s perfectly arched eyebrows rose. “Family?”

I knew what confused her and stepped forward, suddenly eager to contribute. “Yes, we call the other vampires we live with our family instead of our coven. The animal diet allows for closer ties than you may be used to.”

Bella looked towards me once more. “I see,” was all she said. She hesitated as if unsure how to continue. “I—I was told that feeding from animals was unusual. How did you come up with the idea?” She tried to sound casual, but I detected a strange intensity behind her question. I mentally cursed my inability to read her thoughts, probably not for the last time.

“We’d be happy to tell you our story, and to hear yours. Would you like to come to our home and meet the rest of our family?” Alice offered, her mind still veiled behind the season’s latest fashions.

Bella bit her lip, an endearingly human gesture. It was rare for one of us to keep little twitches like that. The intrigue I felt was almost enough to overcome my frustration at her mind’s silence.

“Where’s home?”

“We have a house, a permanent residence, near a small town nearby called Forks.” Before I could get out more than that, her eyes widened almost comically.

“I—I’m sorry. I can’t!” she cried and was off like a shot, headed towards Seattle.

“Bella! Wait!” Alice cried, shooting me an accusatory glare. Did you have to mention where we lived? Her thoughts accused me of acting rashly, although I had no idea why I should have avoided naming the little nowhere town we called “home” for the moment.

I took that as the prod it was intended to be and ran after Bella, Alice and Jasper following but far behind. Thankfully I was faster than this new vampire, just as I was faster than everyone else I’d ever encountered. In less than a minute I was running beside the dark-haired beauty.

“Please, Bella, I didn’t mean to startle you. Won’t you stop and talk with us?”

She slowed and then stopped. Her eyes were wild with fear when she turned to look at me. “I can’t go there! I won’t!”

“Why can’t you go to Forks, Bella?” Alice had caught up with us, and she placed a tentative hand on Bella’s arm.

Bella twitched but didn’t shake her off. “I can’t take that kind of risk. I would be too close and—no, I can’t!”

She wasn’t making any sense. Jasper’s confused thoughts confirmed that she was terrified, although he had no idea what had frightened her so much. Alice was reciting the times tables in her head, a simple but effective block for me. I desperately wanted to calm Bella down, which should have surprised me. “Please come with us. We won’t let anyone hurt you.”

I reached out to take her hand, but Alice’s thoughts stopped me. Don’t, Edward. She’ll run again. Alice allowed me past her block enough to see the brief vision she’d had of Bella fleeing us once more.

“I’m not afraid for myself,” Bella spat at me, eyes blazing brighter than the sun. “I won’t let them hurt him just because they think I’ve told.”

Dread washed over me, a feeling I didn’t want to examine too closely. Who was this “he” she was trying to protect? As far as I knew there were no other vampires nearby.

“I can tell you if your decision to come to our home will endanger anyone,” Alice tried to reassure her. “I can see visions of the future when someone makes a decision, especially if it will affect my family.”

Bella looked startled and then thoughtful as she considered Alice’s offer, her eyes softening. I wished I could know what she was thinking. Why did this fascinating creature possess the ability to keep her thoughts from me when no one else I had ever encountered, human or vampire, could?

“All right. I’ll come with you.” She looked expectantly at Alice. The relieved smile my sister shot her caused the tension in her shoulders to visibly release.

“Why don’t you follow us?” Alice suggested, her hand dropping back to her side.

Bella nodded slightly. “Okay.”

Alice and Jasper took off, leaving me to run with Bella. I wasn’t going to complain. For the first time in a very long time, it felt as if the perpetual cloud of misery I existed under had lifted, and I was eager to expand that feeling by exploring the story of the woman running beside me.

We arrived home in record time. As we neared, I could hear the thoughts of my father and mother, Carlisle and Esme, as well as those of my other brother and other sister, Emmett and Rosalie. They noticed the scent of an unfamiliar vampire as we drew closer, and all four were waiting in the living room as I led Bella inside.

Her eyes grew large when she saw the sleek but expensive furnishings, the fresh flowers, artwork, all the trappings of a real home. From memories of the other nomads we’d encountered, I thought I could read her mind second-hand. I was sure she was amazed, maybe confused that we kept so much property. I never expected the words that flew out of her mouth as if they had a life of their own.

“This is so much better than Volterra!”

We all froze and stared at her in consternation. Perhaps it shouldn’t have surprised us. Most vampires take their time to pay their respects to the Volturi if they are passing through Italy. However, the way she said it sounded as if she had a more than passing acquaintance with the city occupied by the de facto vampire rulers.

Bella noticed our scrutiny and dipped her head. I thought she would be blushing if blood still ran through her veins. It was yet another quality unique to her.

“Hello. I’m Carlisle Cullen. Are you familiar with Volterra?” my father asked, holding out a hand to her. His thoughts confirmed that he didn’t recognize her, although her reaction as she automatically took his hand held a disturbing amount of adoration.

“Carlisle Cullen! I’ve been searching for you for the past year!”

Esme, my mother, reached over and took Bella’s hand when Carlisle dropped it. “I’m Esme, Carlisle’s mate,” she introduced herself pointedly, and we all had to try and hide our grins at the unusual display of possessiveness.

Bella didn’t bother hiding her reaction at all, and it wasn’t one of disappointment. If anything, she seemed to light up from within. “It’s so good to meet you! In fact, I’m so happy to meet all of you!” Her excited gaze swept the room, taking us all in. As our confusion registered with her she muttered, “But maybe I should tell you my story, as Alice suggested, before I put my foot even further in my mouth!”

Esme, still holding Bella’s hand, pulled her forward and towards one of the couches. “Why don’t you sit here, dear, and tell us all about yourself.”

Bella didn’t even seem to question the idea of sitting, something not at all necessary for our kind to be comfortable. The oddities she presented just kept piling up, since the normal nomad would have been at the very least amused by our “eccentricity”. Yet Bella sat down as if she was used to it, completely at ease in the situation.

She acts like one of us, Alice thought, glancing at me. She waited for Jasper to sit in a nearby chair before draping herself gracefully across his lap. I saw Bella glance at them, astonishment warring with amusement in her eyes.

We quickly settled around the room. Esme sat with Bella, still holding her hand, and Carlisle took the seat on her other side. I decided to take the chair across from Jasper, closest to Bella, while Emmett and Rosalie leaned against the wall opposite from our parents. From their thoughts, the rest of my family had noticed Bella’s odd reactions as well.

“I suppose I should introduce myself first, since I know most of your names but only some of you know even part of mine.” She looked first at Esme, then Carlisle. “I’m Bella Swan.”

Given our proximity to Forks, she must have known that we would be familiar with its Chief of Police, Charlie Swan, and the tragic circumstances of his only daughter’s disappearance two years ago. The thoughts of my family echoed my own stunned response. Could it be true? I had only snatches of memories I’d caught from Chief Swan’s mind to go off of, but I thought it could be the same girl. My family looked towards me, all except Alice, silently asking if her thoughts confirmed her claim. I could only shrug, which left us all in the same state of confusion.

Bella continued, looking only at her fingers twisted with Esme’s. “I was attacked one evening in Jacksonville, Florida, by a vampire named James. He was the type who liked to…play with his food. That and a habit of not choosing his victims carefully or disposing of them properly brought him to the attention of the Volturi, although he didn’t know it until that night. James had just begun to snack from me when four Volturi guards showed up.” She rubbed her wrist absently, and I could see the marks of a vampire’s teeth when the motion drew up her jacket sleeve slightly.

“James dropped me while he tried to fight them, but it was useless. They tore him apart and burned him, and then they turned their attention to me.” She paused again and looked up, this time straight at Carlisle. “You must remember a vampire named Jane. She attempted to use her ‘gift’ on me, as a prelude to killing me, just because she could.”

We all winced. While only Carlisle had ever met Jane, we had all heard about her ability—and her sadistic tendency to overuse it. The thought of her using her ability to cause pain on a fragile human Bella enraged me. Carlisle was the one who picked up on her phrasing, though.

“You say Jane attempted to use her ability on you, Bella?”

She smiled, a tight sad quirk of her lips. “Yes. The reason they decided to let my transformation continue and bring me to Aro was that Jane and her brother, Alec, couldn’t affect me. They thought Aro would be interested, and they were right.”

The room was so silent that we could hear the dust motes in the air brushing against each other. Bella had survived Jane and Alec—as a human. Suddenly my inability to read her mind began to make sense. I wondered if it would have been the same if she had visited her father as a human, and so did Carlisle, who immediately deduced my issue with her and shot me a sympathetic glance.

“After my transformation was complete, I stayed with the Volturi for my newborn year. They told me that I was something called a shield, and it was Aro’s hope that with extensive training I would be able to extend my ability to cover others. I trained day and night to that end for months before my mentor, a shield named Renata, convinced him I wouldn’t be as useful as he hoped.”

Carlisle grimaced, and I understood from his thoughts that Aro wasn’t usually very forgiving of those who disappointed him. Once again, Bella seemed to be an exception, and I couldn’t help but wonder why until she broke her momentary pause to continue.

“Renata had noticed how…uncomfortable I was with a vampire’s basic needs, and she worked to convince Aro that someday I still might prove useful but for now I should be allowed to decide, like all other vampires are able to, whether to join the Volturi or leave and be on my own. When I chose to go, Renata pulled me aside and told me about you, Carlisle. She hadn’t dared before because none of the Volturi are allowed to try your diet even if they want to.”

Carlisle leaned forward eagerly. “So you began to feed from animals on your own after feeding from humans your entire newborn year? Wasn’t that difficult for you?” I wanted to smile at my father’s eagerness to explore this new facet of vampire psychology, but I was too busy being bombarded by the thoughts of the others, ranging from amazement to doubt to suspicion to excitement.

Bella glanced down at her lap again, her free hand tightly clenched into a fist. “I—Renata told me from the beginning that I was more in control of myself than any newborn she’d ever seen. After my first feeding, I tried to resist when a human was brought to me. After I was allowed to associate with other vampires and my meals were no longer brought to me individually, I always chose to feed from the sick or weak, someone who would die anyway. I asked Heidi, our procurer, to find at least one per trip. I didn’t want to kill anyone!” She looked up and glared at us. “My parents didn’t raise me to be a murderer!”

Carlisle’s eyebrows rose while the rest of us avoided eye contact with each other, having had similar thoughts before but apparently less control than a newborn. It was demoralizing for most of us, with only Carlisle truly able to sympathize. He, too, had been able to avoid human blood as a newborn vampire, but although he taught most of the rest of us from our creation forward, each of us had our issues sticking to the animal diet.

“How much do you remember about your parents?” Carlisle was thinking about how little we usually retained from our human memories.

Bella’s nose crinkled as she thought. “Not as much as I’d like. They were all I could think about during my transformation, but it was because I was so worried about them. I was afraid these crazy people would hurt them, and that didn’t go away when I realized what I had become. I remember who they are, what they look like—except that part is fuzzy—and that they always needed me to take care of them because they’re hopeless at taking care of themselves.”

“Is that why you came here?” Emmett burst out. I wanted to roll my eyes at my brother’s excitement for something different happening in our lives, but I didn’t want Bella to think the gesture was meant for her. Besides, I wanted to know her answer.

Bella shook her head, doubt clouding her eyes. “No, I don’t dare go near them. I’m so afraid Aro has someone watching me to see if I’ll slip up and contact them. I think he’s just waiting for an excuse to get rid of them and bring me back.”

“No one’s following you, at least not closely,” I assured her.

Bella turned to me, confused. “How do you know that?”

I felt both reluctant to tell her and yet as if I’d be lying if I didn’t.

“I can hear the thoughts of others. It’s my ability.” At her slightly panicked look, I added, “I can hear everyone except you. I suppose your shield is keeping me out.”

“Really? You can’t hear Bella? This is great! Bella, we have so many plans to make!”

The look she gave him made me want to laugh, usually a rare occurrence.

“Uh, thanks—“

“Emmett.” He beamed at her.

“Yeah. So, I don’t think I’ll be staying very long, Emmett. I don’t want to put Char—my dad in any danger from the Volturi.”

Rosalie snorted. When all heads turned to her, she huffed. “Then why did you come here in the first place if you were just going to bring the Volturi down on us all?”

This time I did roll my eyes. Typical Rosalie. All she was thinking about was how Bella’s presence affected her. Never mind that she and Emmett were due to leave on an extended “honeymoon” once again, this time for Africa. Of course that didn’t matter to her. That or—yes, she thought this might delay the trip.

“Rosalie Hale Cullen! We do not speak to guests like that!” Esme frowned. Her thoughts revealed that she was appalled at Rosalie’s outburst although not entirely surprised.

“It’s okay, Esme. I understand.” Bella looked across the room at my blond sister. “I’ve been looking for Carlisle for the last year, since I left the Volturi. I was hoping he could teach me, I guess. I just didn’t know anyone else feeding from animals. It’s lonely.”

“I can understand that,” Carlisle gently  told her, reached around to lay his hand on top of the one Esme still held.

Bella gave him a sad smile. “I encountered several of your friends in Ireland and then in the eastern U.S. They pointed me in this direction. I was actually headed further north, but I needed to hunt. I remembered how my dad would talk about the wilderness on the Olympic Peninsula and figured I wouldn’t do too much damage if I took down an animal or two here. I figured there would be fewer endangered species than in Yellowstone. I try to avoid those.”

“As do we. It makes for little variation in diet, sometimes,” Carlisle said, sharing a smile with the rest of us at this common complaint.

“We get the occasional carnivore, though. My favorite is bears!” Emmett enthusiastically told her.

“My first animal meal was a brown bear in Italy. They’re pretty good.” Then her smile fell. “But you have your family here, Carlisle, and I don’t want to intrude on that. Plus, I don’t want to put you or my dad in any more danger. I should leave.”

I couldn’t let her go. I didn’t know why, but I just couldn’t. It was unconceivable, although I didn’t know how to say that and not sound insane. I made a quick decision and turned to Alice. When I saw the results in her visions, I changed my decision slightly. She smiled delightedly.

“Why doesn’t Edward take Bella up to visit our cousins in Alaska? He was planning to leave for college anyway,” Alice suggested brightly. When Bella opened her mouth as if she was going to ask a question, Alice explained, “We all go to school for a few years everywhere we live. It lets us participate in the community and live in one place longer. Carlisle finds a job at a local hospital or teaching college, and Esme is always his wife. Eventually we ‘kids’ go off to college, and not long after Carlisle finds a job somewhere else. We’re towards the end of the cycle now. Edward and I just finished our senior year at Forks High School.”

A strange look passed over Bella’s face, and then she smiled back at Alice. “So if Edward leaves a little early you can make up a good excuse. Still, I don’t want to inconvenience anyone. It would be nice to get to know others, but…”

I met her eyes and smiled. “I would be delighted to take you to visit our cousins. They’re also vegetarians, and we’ve known each other for decades. We consider them extended family, of a sort.”

Her eyes softened. “Family. I do like that word.”

I just barely stopped myself from saying that she could join ours. That was Carlisle’s place, or Esme’s. And who’s to say that she would want to, anyway?

Thankfully, our family has a very caring and perceptive mother figure. “Please consider joining our family, Bella. We know exactly what you mean about this life being lonely without companionship. It’s why we stay together,” Esme said after exchanging a look and a smile with Carlisle.

Bella’s eyes dropped. “That’s very nice of you, Esme, but I don’t really know you, and you don’t know me. How can you know that I would be a good fit?”

Alice stood up and knelt in front of Bella, placing a hand on her free one. “I can see it, Bella. You would fit in seamlessly,” my sister told her softly.

I reveled in the flashes Alice let slip through her block. Bella and I ran through a forest, smiling at each other. I held Bella as we watched the sun set. I was beginning to understand, and the part of me that had despaired for so long grew a bit weaker.

Bella met Alice’s scrutiny and smiled. “Really?”

“I’m sure! I could use another little sister, maybe one who doesn’t know my every move!” Emmett teased.

“Plus if you join us, the guys won’t outnumber the girls for the first time in decades!” Alice added with a little grin.

“Wait a minute! What about the Volturi? What if they want her back?” Rosalie’s quiet question floored me, and Bella seemed to deflate before my eyes, head down and shoulders drooping.

Carlisle’s next words seemed to give Bella hope again. “Rosalie, I consider Aro to be my friend. I left Volterra on good terms, and it sounds like Bella did as well. As long as we avoid areas where her parents are while they live, I see no issues including her in our family.”

“We should still vote on it,” Jasper, ever the voice of reason, piped up. “Not that I wouldn’t welcome another sister, but we’ve always voted on the important things.” He was right, although I hated to admit it. Still, I could tell what way each of my family members would vote, so the actual performance was little more than that to me.

“All right, then. All in favor of allowing Bella Swan to join our family?” Carlisle asked, looking around at each of us.

A chorus of “ayes” sounded out, Rosalie’s last and least enthusiastic. I tried not to let my relief show. After all, Bella hadn’t accepted yet, and I had no idea if she would. It was unsettling.

Bella looked us each in the eye. My gaze held hers two seconds longer than the others, two seconds that I savored. “This is all happening very fast,” she told Esme, whose kind eyes she met last.

“That kind of happens sometimes in this family. Remind me to tell you how Alice and Jasper joined us,” I told her, giving her a big smile when her eyes flickered back in my direction.

She laughed. “Oh, all right. Although I still think it would be a good idea for me to get out of this area as soon as possible!” She seemed astonished at her own acceptance.

Everyone was smiling, Rosalie having left as soon as it became clear that Bella would eventually accept our offer. Alice gave Bella’s hand a pat and grinned. I choked back a laugh when I heard what she was about to say.

“Before you leave, I would love it if you would let me help you buy a new wardrobe appropriate for Alaskan weather. The humans will expect it.”

“You mean you want me to go shopping? But—“ Bella looked down at the outfit she was wearing. “Doesn’t this look warm enough?”

We all shook our heads, Alice the most vigorous. “No, I promise, you’ll need to layer up whenever you’re around the humans. It’s winter there already. We’ll go to Seattle. There shouldn’t be a chance of you being recognized there. It will be fun!”

“Well, I should probably go back out and get the bag I left in the forest when I began my hunt, before I even think about doing any shopping,” Bella hedged. I could tell she wanted to find a reason to decline, and I could see from the set of her shoulders that she was giving in.

“Why don’t I go with you?” I offered, “There’s something you should know about some of the local humans here, anyway, if you’re going to be wandering around.”

“Sure.” Bella turned and smiled at me.

I could hear the speculative thoughts of my family as we left, but I did my best not to acknowledge them. Alice and Esme tied in their delight, while my brothers shot good-natured jokes my way. Carlisle’s mind echoed with a quiet contentment.

Chapter Text

I followed Edward Cullen into the trees surrounding his home at human speed and marveled at the events of the past few hours. For the past year, when I envisioned meeting Carlisle Cullen I wondered what it would be like. Would he be glad to meet someone else who was able to resist the draw of human blood? Would I find someone willing to spend the next however many long years in my company, or would he turn out to be a recluse like that strange vampire I met in Scotland during the first months of my exploration?

Instead of finding a reclusive, lonely vampire, I found Carlisle to be the patriarch of a coven of vampires—one who called themselves a family. It was a strange and yet wonderful notion. When the small dark-haired girl first mentioned her family, I felt a longing that surprised me. As a human I was the only child of divorced parents who were also only children. Until my mother’s remarriage I had only spent time in the presence of one family member at any point in time. As a newborn vampire, I was the youngest, the least experienced and most ignored in Volterra. I held no familial feelings for any of them, although Renata would always have my gratitude for her guidance at the beginning and the end of my time there.

The Carlisle Cullen I found didn’t need me in his family, but he invited me anyway. How could I have said no? I wasn’t sure how I felt about most of the members of my new “family”, but even though I didn’t know them well I somehow felt at home with them. Alice, the small girl, I could easily see her as a sister. Her spirit drew me, even though she seemed like the bubbly type of person I would have avoided as a human. Carlisle and his mate, Esme, wore the roles of patriarch and matriarch easily, and I already felt comfortable with them even in the short time we had spent together. I was a little unsure about Alice’s mate, Jasper, and the other two, Emmett and Rosalie. Emmett seemed excited, but I noticed an almost resentful look in Jasper’s eyes when I described how I learned to hunt animals. Rosalie was the most difficult to read, and I had the feeling it would take a while for her to warm up to me—if she ever did.

Then there was Edward. I glanced over at him, trying to be quick enough that he wouldn’t catch me. His hair, a mixture of copper, blond, and light brown strands in the weak afternoon sunlight, caught my eye first, of course. I was fascinated by the color and wondered if it felt as soft as it looked. Just as I thought that, his gaze captured my own, and I realized he’d caught me staring after all. I rushed to look ahead at the trees before us, suddenly finding the individual patterns in the moss on the trunks fascinating. Another quick peek sideways revealed a smile that made me weak in the knees, which should have been impossibly. It was a crooked quirk of the lips, just one side lifted up, but it was beautiful. He was beautiful.

“So, Bella, where did you go once you left Italy?” The question in that soft velvet voice took me by surprise, but I was more than willing to talk about my travels.

“I went to England first. Renata said that she believed that was where Carlisle originated from, which made sense considering his name. It’s very English. There weren’t many friendly vampires in England—they’re very territorial—so I moved on to Scotland. I met a few vampires there who had heard of him, but none knew where he might be. I moved on to Ireland, where I met a small coven who did have occasional contact with him, at least enough that they were sure he went to North America at some point in the last century or so. Eventually I made my way over to the U.S., where I was able to piece together his travels a little bit at a time. No one really mentioned any of you, though.” I was curious about that, of course. Surely some of the vampires who knew Carlisle were aware of his expanded social circle, so to speak.

Edward shook his head and gave a little laugh. “I think most of Carlisle’s acquaintances from the east coast are unaware of the rest of us. I’ve met a handful, but we’ve stayed away from others for the most part, preferring smaller communities whereas traditional vampires try for large cities where the occasional missing person goes virtually unnoticed.”

I sighed at that, knowing he was right. That was how I’d been taught by the Volturi, after all. Hide your kills in plain sight if you can so that you don’t attract undue attention.

“Well, it’s pretty inconvenient, if you ask me!” I teased him, shocked at my own light tone.

Thankfully he took that as the joke I intended and grinned. “I apologize on behalf of all of us, of course.” His retort startled a laugh out of me as well. I tried to remember the last time I laughed, truly laughed, and couldn’t.

“In a way I’m glad I didn’t find Carlisle right away, though,” I confessed quietly.

Edward raised his eyebrows a little. “Really?”

I nodded. “Don’t get me wrong. It would have been nice to have some reassurance in the early days that I would be able to stick with the animal diet, but I’m glad that I was able to do it on my own. I feel…at peace with myself because of it. I’m not letting myself be a monster, a killer, and it’s all my own doing.”

His eyes were full of understanding as they met mine. “I wish that we could all say that,” he murmured.

It was my turn to be surprised. “Have you ever—?” I couldn’t complete my question for some reason. I didn’t want to think of this beautiful boy as someone who gave in to his vampire side when he came into the life knowing there was another option.

“A few years after Carlisle changed me, I went through what you might call a rebellious phase. I thought that I knew so much better than he did what it meant to be a true vampire but still do some good in the world.” He took a deep but unnecessary breath, and all I wanted to do was reach out and take his hand to help steady him. The impulse surprised me, and so I kept my hands to myself.

“With my ability, I was able to weed out the very worst of humanity. The rapists, the murders, the child molesters and wife beaters. These were my prey. I can guarantee without a doubt that none of my victims was in any way innocent of wrong-doing. However, after several years I began to realize that I was in danger of becoming just like them. They all had their reasons for acting the way they did, justifications they told themselves, no matter how twisted they might seem to others. What I was doing, doling out vigilante justice, was no better. I returned to Carlisle and begged his forgiveness for leaving, and of course he took me back. I haven’t tasted human blood since, although there have been temptations when I hear a particularly vile human’s thoughts.”

A part of me wanted to run far away so that I wouldn’t hear any more. A larger part of me wanted to reassure him. “I can understand that, in a way. I asked Heidi for the sick and dying so that I could ease my own conscience. Of course, I didn’t know about feeding from animals, but occasionally I have been tempted by a human who smells too sweet since I left Volterra. I just think of my parents and run in the other direction when that happens, though.” I didn’t know why I told him that, revealed the weakness that ran through me no matter how hard I tried.

Edward shook his head and gave a little laugh. “Bella, you have no idea how strong you are, do you? You’re not seeing yourself clearly at all. Barely two years into this life and with more control than almost another other vampire I know, including most of us who have been attempting this diet much longer.”

I wasn’t sure I believed him but decided to change the subject instead of argue. “You know, I’ve told you and your family a lot about myself today. Care to answer some questions in return, since it looks like I’ll be joining you?”

“Of course.”

“How are you able to maintain homes so close to humans? Don’t they notice that you never age?”

“When we move to a new area, we try start out as ‘young’ as possible,” he explained. “Emmett and Rosalie, Alice and Jasper, and I are usually high school students, or at the very least young college students. Esme and Carlisle are our adoptive parents or older brother or sister, something like that. We are able to stay four or sometimes even five years in one place that way.”

The thought of being constantly on the move made me sad for a moment, but at least they did have each other. And now they would have me, too. The life of wandering alone didn’t hold much appeal, but surely in a group it wouldn’t be so bad.

“Do you ever return to an area that you really liked?” America was huge, although the weather limited a vampire’s mobility in a lot of places.

Edward nodded. “Oh yes. We’ve been here to Forks twice in the last eighty years, for instance,” he told me.

I wanted to ask how old he was, how old they all were, but the Volturi taught me through glares and growls that questions like that aren’t considered polite in vampire society so I held my tongue despite the perfect opening. Instead I focused on the fact that he’d been to this area when my grandparents were helping to build the community, before it even became a town. “What was it like back then? I only have some fuzzy memories of childhood weeks spent here.”

He gazed out at the trees thoughtfully. “It was beautiful, and peaceful. There were so few humans here, mostly the natives, that we were able to act more like our natural selves while still becoming part of the local community for a time. It was just Carlisle, Esme, Rosalie, Emmett, and myself. Of course, the weather is perfect, with the least amount of sunny days in the entire United States. We didn’t have Alice then to tell us when the sun might give us away, so that was very important.”

That made sense. “The sun makes things so difficult, doesn’t it? Sometimes when I’m stuck because of it I just sit there and stare at my skin, wondering why we have this particular change. It doesn’t make any sense, if you consider that being inconspicuous would be our best defense against detection.”

“Carlisle has a theory about that. He believes that whenever vampires first came into being, they didn’t need to hide. Humans didn’t know about our weaknesses, and our looks would stun them into terror or awe if they happened to catch a glimpse of us without us killing them. It probably wasn’t until thousands of years later that someone let slip to humans that fire would kill us. It’s the closest vampire myth to the truth, as well as one of the oldest. He thinks that can’t be a coincidence.”

“What do you think?”

“It makes sense, I guess. I hate it because it makes us different, so I try not to think about it. My family thinks I brood enough as it is. They don’t understand how difficult it is to be burdened by the thoughts of others wherever I go unless I want to be entirely by myself.”

His words made my heart hurt. I could only imagine what that must be like, especially when there are so few people he can even be himself around. Instinctively I reach out to take his hand, only caring about comforting him. I had never been very touchy feely, but I couldn’t seem to help myself with him. He jumped at the unexpected touch, but then his fingers curled around mine. I pulled away after a few moments, confused because that didn’t feel as awkward as I expected it to. Instead, it felt right, familiar even.

“So, high school over and over again? Does Carlisle enjoy torturing you?” I tried to make light of the moment, only now bringing in a little of the awkwardness I was expecting.

Edward snorted. “It has its benefits, since we look so young anyway. But it has its drawbacks as well, especially for me. Most human adolescent minds are focused on one thing and one thing only.”

I think if both of us could have blushed, we would have. Instead, we settled for looking off to opposite sides of the forest as we walked. He was right. It was so beautiful, something I didn’t expect to find from my hazy human memories of weeks spent trapped here enduring the rain and the various outdoor summer activities my father loved.

“And how does Forks now compare to Forks from decades ago?” I felt the desperate need to keep him talking but away from embarrassing topics.

“Well, there’s the obvious increased human population, more buildings, what you would expect from a growing community. We were quite happy to see that the tensions between the natives and the whites had decreased over the generations. That was a big one when we were here last.”

I started a little at what seemed like blatant racism coming from him, and I wondered how old he really was yet again. Still, what he said made sense, too. I knew that a lot of Native American tribes resented the encroachment onto their territories, especially when they saw what happened to those in the eastern part of the country. I could imagine the kind of conflicts that would ensue as a new community of non-natives settled into the area.

“Yeah, my dad’s best friend is Quileute, I think,” I absently murmured as I followed the trail of a single raindrop along the trunk of a nearby tree.

Edward’s laugh surprised me. “Well, you don’t want to go near them now,” he warned me. “The Quileute are special. We have a treaty specifically with them, guaranteeing that we will stay off of their lands. I guess I should warn you about that. They know about vampires, and they’re very protective of their people.”

I stared at him. “You’re kidding me, right? No one is supposed to know!” Unease gripped me. If the Quileute knew, did my dad know? Was he in danger without my even realizing it?

Edward reached out a hand and laid it on my arm. “It’s okay, I promise. They have their own secrets to keep, ones directly tied to vampires. Centuries ago, one of their warriors was able to figure out how to shapeshift to protect the tribe from roaming nomadic vampires. They are a very effective weapon against us.”

“They? You mean…what do you mean?” I couldn’t wrap my head around what he was trying to say.

“Whenever we have lived here, there have been some young men of the Quileute who are able to shapeshift as well. They take on the form of very large wolves.”

Wolves. He had to be joking.

Chapter Text

“Wolves? Seriously?” Bella’s astonishment made me laugh.

“Come on, Bella. You’re a vampire. Do you really think we’re the only weird things out there?”

She made a humming sound, flashed me a grin, and began to run towards our destination. I took that as a sign that she was accepting my story, which was a good thing. The Quileute wolves were dangerous, and she really should take them seriously.

“It sounds so ridiculous when you put it that way, but I know some of those guys! My dad has friends on the rez, and when I was little he’d try and take me on fishing trips with them and their kids.”

“You can remember that?”

“Yeah. I guess the experience was so traumatic that the memories carried over. I didn’t like fishing at all. I was too clumsy.” She giggled at the memory.

Taking in the smooth movement of the woman running next to me, I shook my head. “I don’t believe it. You’re the most graceful vampire I’ve ever met.” If blood still flowed in my veins I would have blushed at the stupidity of my comment, but she just flashed a shy smile at me and didn’t call me out on it.

“My bag is just up ahead,” she told me, shooting forward. She jumped up into a pine tree and then dropped down holding a large, black duffel.

“I guess we should get back,” I reluctantly said.

“Alice does want to take me shopping,” Bella agreed, not making a move to leave.

We eyed each other as the surrounding forest began to settle down for the night. Her silent mind was as peaceful as it was frustrating. I allowed myself to relax and my mind to catalogue every millimeter of her face, her hair. Nothing escaped my attention, not an eyelash, the sweep of her cheekbones, the curve of her lips. I decided that I could easily look at her forever, and the thought startled me.

That was dangerous thinking. It was too soon. I felt as if my existence had gone from a stagnant cycle of monotony to fast forward at a pace I almost couldn’t keep up with. I needed to take this one step at a time.

“We’d better get back,” I repeated.

Bella laughed, her golden eyes sparkling. “You already said that, and you’re still right,” she teased me, and then she was off, running back in the direction of Forks.

I followed after, her laughter causing the area in my chest where my heart no longer beat to tighten. I wanted to be able to hear that every day. No matter how I tried to fight it, there was just something about Bella that drew me to her. Hell, everything about her drew me to her.

As we neared Forks, the acrid stench of wet dog came to me. I wasn’t worried. We were on the periphery of the area the wolf pack usually patrolled, after all. The smell grew stronger, though, and I knew wolves were coming toward us. I stopped Bella with a hand on her arm, and she froze next to me, the concern in her eyes revealing that she’d picked up on the strange scent as well. To keep running might look suspicious, and we had nothing to hide. I did, however, move to stand between Bella and the incoming werewolves.

Two wolves ran through a small break in the trees ahead of us. I recognized their minds as pack leader Sam Uley and his second, Jacob Black. I was familiar with both of them, in a limited sense, in both their human and wolf forms. It was almost impossible not to encounter one another in an area so isolated from the rest of civilization, although they tended to avoid us as much as possible, even to the point of driving all the way to Port Angeles, the next nearest town, for medical treatment so that they wouldn’t risk having to put up with the “leech doctor”, as they thought of him. The wolves all knew I could read minds from our first meeting with them after moving to the area, so I didn’t anticipate a problem communicating for a short period of time.

You have a visitor, leech. Sam’s cool mental voice reflected the control he’d learned over the past years.

“Yes. She shares our diet, as you can see from her eyes.” I moved to the side slightly so that he could see Bella’s face. “We have offered her a place in our family.”

I don’t like how much your family has grown. Sam’s thoughts revolved around the legends that told of only a few vampires in the original treaty between the Cullens and the Quileute, where our family would now number eight.

Even as I registered Sam’s dissatisfaction, which I couldn’t care less about, I heard Jacob’s anger. Bella! His thoughts shouted his outrage as he turned to snarl at me. What have you done, leech?

As the stance of the two huge wolves changed from wary to menacing, I held up my hands and shouted, “Hold on!” That barely got their attention, and I continued, “Yes, she is Bella Swan, but my family had nothing to do with her change. We just met her today, and she’s been a vampire for two years!”

They doubted my word, but Bella stepped around me. “Please, what Edward said is true. I was attacked by a vampire in Jacksonville, but he was interrupted before he could finish me off. When I left the group who—helped me through my first year, I searched for Carlisle Cullen because of what I heard of his way of life. It suited me better. I don’t like killing for food, but I’d rather kill animals than humans.” Her voice rang with her sincerity even as she heavily edited her tale.

Same huffed. Fine. We’ll believe you, for now, but that still doesn’t address the size of your coven. We’re not comfortable with so many bloodsuckers around.

I sighed, partly in relief and partly in aggravation. “Well, you won’t have to put up with us much longer. The whole family is moving on in the next few months.”

Sam turned without another word to me and took off the way he came, Jacob following with several looks over his shoulder at Bella. Both were relieved, something about the younger generation, but Jacob’s thoughts held an echo of regret and anger. In that brief moment I realized he’d once had a childhood crush on Bella, but he was wise enough to know that nothing could come of it now.

“Are they coming back, or can we go home?” Part of me was astonished at Bella’s calm. The wolves were one of the few dangers to our kind, other vampires and fire being the others, so I expected at least a small amount of unease about them. The rest of me was delighted by her use of “home”.

“They’re gone. Let’s go.”

The run was uneventful after that. Alice waited for us when we came into the back yard, arms folded with a frown on her face. I read what was bothering her before she spoke.

“You saw those mutts out there, didn’t you?” She couldn’t “see” the wolves or anyone they interacted with, something we’d discovered after our first meeting with Sam, and she took their existence as a personal affront.

“Yes, but we’re fine. I told them the family would be leaving soon. Sam was glad.” Seeing Bella’s confusion, I explained Alice’s handicap to her. “She watches out for us, so they make her a little anxious, especially if she isn’t around when we meet up with them.”

Bella smiled and found the one thing that could distract my sister from her bad mood. “Alice, are you ready to go shopping?” She didn’t sound enthusiastic about the prospect, but her ploy worked.

Alice’s face and thoughts brightened. “Oh, yes! I’ve seen you showing me what you brought, so I know what we have to work with. We’ll start out now so that we can get to Seattle before all the shops open, and then we’ll have the whole day to find everything you’ll need,” she bubbled, taking Bella’s arm and dragging her towards the garage. Bella shot me a look of dismay, but I only smiled and shrugged. I knew better than to get between Alice and shopping, and it wasn’t as if Bella hadn’t brought it on herself in a way. My sister would have remembered sooner versus later, but it was kind of the newest member of our family to try and pull her from her bad mood.

I spent the rest of the evening packing. I could have finished in less than an hour, but I needed time to think. So much had happened in such a short span of time that I had trouble wrapping my head around it, a rare occurrence for a vampire.

First and foremost, there was the oddity that was Bella, every aspect of her situation and her personality. What were the odds that she would be turned into a vampire, trained by the Volturi, turned loose after her newborn year, become a vegetarian on her own, and search out the man who was my father? While I knew I could compute the mathematical probabilities in seconds, I didn’t bother because it would still boggle my mind. The reality was stunning, confusing, and, I admitted to myself, frightening.

I was used to viewing myself as the loner in a group otherwise composed of mated pairs. There were times, few and far between, when I was tempted to settle for less than what I saw every day. I doubted anyone in my family would have blamed me, but with each prospective partner there was something about their minds that threw me off. I also felt guilty at the idea that if I ever fell in love with a true mate that I would quickly leave behind the “comfortable” arrangement for the bliss I knew awaited me. So I remained alone.

Now a woman practically dropped into my lap, one I was swiftly coming to like and respect on many levels. Her soul was even more beautiful than her face. That was another thing that sent me reeling. I could no longer support my own doubts about whether vampires retain their souls. Carlisle should have been enough proof that we do, but I always considered him an anomaly. The rest of us had to try so much harder to resist the lure of human blood. Bella disproved my theory rather thoroughly, and I could no longer doubt that both she and Carlisle had souls. I shuddered to think what that meant for my own or, even worse, a traditional vampire’s. My record was not entirely clean, and it had been my own choice.

My mind wheeled back to the topic of Bella as I began to methodically pack away my enormous CD collection. Her silent mind was both a draw and an irritation for me. The silence was amazing. When we were out in the forest I felt alone in my own head while actually being with someone for the first time in decades. I felt at peace, a heady sensation. How would I handle the day-to-day reality of living in the same group with someone whose inner thoughts I could only guess at, though? And what if I pursued something more—intimate? The plight of every other male of my acquaintance took on a new light with that thought.

My brother’s approach interrupted my brooding. I looked up to see him standing in the doorway to my room, arms crossed and leaning slightly against the door jamb. His thoughts were quiet, for the most part, and I knew he was deliberately trying to shield his opinion of the current situation from me.

“Brother, your emotions are enough to give me whiplash right now,” Jasper teased. I knew he chose to speak to give the rest of the family a chance to join in.

I glared at him a little. “Tell me meeting Alice didn’t throw you in a tailspin.”

He laughed. “Of course it did! I could barely tell up from down for weeks. It’s fun to watch from the outside, though.”

My mother appeared behind Jasper, peeking over his shoulder. “Oh, Edward, I will be so happy if she’s the one! Bell is such a darling girl.” Esme’s thoughts showed that she would have accepted and loved Bella anyway, but the notion that the gift of a new daughter might be doubled in such a way thrilled her.

“It’s too soon to be thinking about any of that,” I protested. “I don’t want Bella to think that everyone only agreed that she should join the family because you all hoped that we would form an attachment. I won’t have her hurt like that.” The mere thought was enough to make me clench my fists, completely forgetting the CDs I held. First-release Beatles CDs became dust in less than a second, and I didn’t even care.

Esme’s eyes grew round, but then she and Jasper shared a smile.

“Of course we wished for Bella to join us for her own sake,” Carlisle soothed as he came out of his study to join us.

When did this become a party? I couldn’t hear Emmett’s or Rosalie’s thoughts, which meant they were probably out hunting. I was sure they would have put in their own two cents otherwise. My family could meddle with the best of them.

Intent on ignoring them, I turned back to my packing. I tensed only slightly when Jasper sauntered into the room, his thoughts filled with humor.  “She seems like a sweet girl. I’m amazed at the control she has, if it’s as reliable as she says.”

“You doubt her word?” I ground out, my eyes narrowing as I turned to face him once more.

“Calm down, Edward. We’ve known her less than a day, and you can’t read her mid to confirm the truth. I can sense her emotions, and she believes every word she told us. I just prefer to remain…cautious for a while. The Volturi are no laughing matter, and none of us have gone to see them since I discovered Alice and we joined you all. You once told me that Aro coveted you because of your gift, since it was similar to but different from his. What do you think he would do if he learned of my wife’s abilities?”

“Aro would never attempt to force one of us to serve. All the Volturi guards are volunteers. They even let Bella leave when that was her choice,” Carlisle defended his friend from the doorway.

“You didn’t see into Aro’s mind, Carlisle. He’s very acquisitive. I understand Jasper’s concerns, but I don’t think that justifies disbelieving Bella out of hand.” The very thought sent a growl rippling through my throat.

A calming wave stole over me. “Of course not. I just want to be on the alert for a while,” Jasper soothed me.

Esme could see that even Jasper’s gift wasn’t completely erasing the exasperation I felt for him. She walked over and wrapped a hand under Jasper’s arm, drawing his attention to her. “Perhaps it’s time we start packing up the books, Jasper dear,” she instructed him firmly. Being a gentleman of his time, he allowed her to drag him away with just a single warning look back at me.

Really, son, I’m sure everything will be fine. Alice sees her fitting in very well. Carlisle’s reassuring thoughts were accompanied by a small smile which I returned. Then he followed his wife and other son back downstairs to the library, leaving me to my semblance of privacy once more.

After my cherished CDs were packed away, I turned to the substantial wardrobe Alice insisted I possess. Thankfully that task was simpler, as I knew that I would need little right away once I reached Alaska. Most of the clothes went into cardboard boxes, with a select few making it into the suitcase laid out on the long black couch where I often relaxed while I admired the surroundings outside the floor-to-ceiling windows that made up two of my walls.

By the time the first rays of the rising sun filtered through my windows, I had packed away the remaining possessions I bothered to keep with me from house to house. The most precious mementos of my human life such as a pocket watch that belonged to my father and my mother’s engagement and wedding rings rested in a safety deposit box in Chicago, the city where I was born. I looked around my almost-bare room, piled high with boxes, and felt a smile begin to grow inside. Anticipation was something I rarely felt for a move, but this one was different. I couldn’t wait to leave.

To pass the time until Alice returned with Bella, I drifted downstairs to the living room where my grand piano held the place of pride. I sat down and began to play a few chords, softly at first and then with more purpose as I remembered the look of joy and peace that had settled on Bella’s features when she realized that she was now a member of our family. The song flowed out of me, a gentle river of sound that reminded me somewhat of a lullaby. I wondered wistfully what Bella had looked like when she was sleeping. I would never know.

The thoughts of Esme and Carlisle revealed that they knew who I composed this song for, while Jasper contemplated the regret I felt and actually interpreted it correctly. There were many things he wished that he could have experienced with Alice, although he rarely thought about it because she made his life so full in other ways. I shied away from the intimate turn his thoughts were taking and concentrated on my music, using it to drown out the constant stream of thoughts from my family as I often did.

One particular set of thoughts became apparent hours later, and I rose from the piano long before I heard the crunch of tires on the driveway that heralded Alice and Bella’s return. I was eager to see the woman who consumed me, and their return signaled that our trip to Alaska would soon commence.

Chapter Text

I shouldn’t have been intimidated by the prospect of shopping with the energetic Alice Cullen. I was a vampire, for goodness sake, able to take care of myself just fine. Hadn’t I proven that over the past year? It wasn’t as if I’d gone as wild as some of the nomads I’d met, and I was comfortable mingling with humans as needed. All in all, I was pretty self-sufficient and confident in my abilities. There was no reason I shouldn’t be able to hold my own with her.

Unfortunately, Alice exuded far more personality than her petite frame could hold, I decided as I slid into the passenger seat of her canary yellow sports car while she bounced happily behind the wheel. The enthusiasm she showed was overwhelming, and the worst part was that I had no idea what was behind it. Was she happy to gain a new member of her unusual family? Did she really enjoy shopping so much? Did she expect something…more from me? And what might that entail?

“So, I think we’ll stick to the basics for now, just enough to help you blend in. We can customize your wardrobe later, when there’s more time.” Alice’s chatter interrupted my thoughts and answered at least one of my questions at the same time. She showed signs of being a shopaholic. “The basics”? I didn’t remember ever bothering to go beyond them, even as a human.

“I appreciate your help,” I ventured and then hesitated. I was curious about her and the rest of her family, and I blurted out the first question that came to mind. “So how did you become a Cullen? Did Carlisle change you?”

When she sobered and concentrated on the road ahead of us, I scrambled. “Not that I need to know, if you don’t want to tell me.” Some vampires avoided discussing their pasts, even the recent past.

Alice shook her head and offered me a small smile. “No, it’s okay. We’ve all heard your story, and it was a lot more traumatic than mine.” She paused, a faraway look in her eyes. “I don’t remember anything about my human life or my change. My first memory is of waking up as a vampire. I had no idea what was going on. It felt as if my throat was on fire, and I didn’t know if that was normal or not. I didn’t know how to fix it. I was in the middle of a forest, in Mississippi as it turned out, and I was pretty overwhelmed by everything I could see and hear. When the pain became unbearable, I decided to stand up. Before I could, I received my first vision.” Her smile grew.

“I’ve always wondered if the decision to move was the catalyst, since what I saw seemed so disconnected to anything around me. My first vision was of Carlisle, Edward, and Esme hunting somewhere with a lot of pine trees. The way they interacted…I knew I wanted to be part of that. They seemed so happy, although I found out later that Edward wasn’t quite so content with his life at that time. Somehow I knew I was like them; the blood of the animals in my vision made my throat hurt even worse. I decided to mimic their actions, and that’s when the second vision hit. This time I saw myself and Jasper—I had no idea who he was at the time, of course—approaching Esme hand-in-hand. She gave us a hug, and I had a goal. I would make what I saw happen, no matter what it took. I didn’t connect my visions to decisions then, but that didn’t take long, and I was able to guide my life in a way that helped me achieve that goal. The rest is a long story for another time, though,” Alice finished, her impish smile back in place.

Unsure how to react at first, I latched on to the beginning of her tale. “You don’t remember anything? Your parents? Brothers or sisters?”

She shook her head. “Not a thing. As far as I’m concerned, I’ve always been like this. Of course, it’s really only been since the 1920s.”

Her actual age was a shock. She was so tiny, although it was obvious she was in her late teens when she was changed, that I thought for sure she hadn’t been a vampire for long. She certainly didn’t seem to be close to one hundred years old.

Alice let out a tinkling laugh at my expression. “Come on, Bella. You know the Volturi are ancient, right? Why are you so surprised?”

If I was still human, I would have blushed.

“They’re always so serious. It’s not difficult to remember how old they are, even the guards. I heard plenty while I was there about how it had been more than four centuries since Volterra housed a newborn and more than two since anyone new joined. You Cullens are different—especially you!” I dared to tease her.

She shrugged. “Someone has to keep up spirits around here. Between us, we all have issues to deal with that tend to build up if we’re not careful. Emmett and I work hard to make sure that the others don’t lose sight of all the good things this life has to offer, especially Edward.”

That caught my interest. “Why Edward specifically?”

With a snort that I never would have expected from her, she told me, “Emmett’s favorite nickname for him is ‘Emoward’. He takes the downs in life pretty hard, and he has a tendency to dwell on whatever is making him unhappy. Don’t get me wrong. I love my brother. He can just be a little depressing to be around sometimes if someone doesn’t make the effort to cheer him up.”

Well, at least she wasn’t trying to sugarcoat her brother’s personality for my benefit. Did that answer my earlier question? Did I want her to push us together? I pulled myself from that train of thought and focused on her description of Edward instead. It was difficult to reconcile the shy, eager boy I walked through the woods with to the image of a manically depressed Edward, though. Maybe she only saw the sad side of him because he was less extroverted than Alice would ever be, even on a slow day. I could sympathize. I had vague memories of my mother complaining about how few friends I had, how little I went out, and how I spent all my time with my nose buried in a book. I hoped Alice wouldn’t decide I was depressed, too, once we were living under the same roof.

We lapsed into silence after that. I stared out the window and watched the trees flash past. I could run so much faster than this car moved, but I understood the need to keep up human appearances. Every detail of the trees and their inhabitants was still crystal-clear, though, down to the spots on a snail’s shell a mile away. That was strangely comforting, just as my ability to identify birds while riding in an aircraft had been. It was a reminder that I was not human and chose willingly to give up control over my movements, that I could take that control back any time I needed to.

The rest of the trip to Seattle was quiet and uneventful. I had the feeling that Alice was trying to give me time to process everything that had happened in the last twelve hours. It was definitely a lot. Never would I have expected my search for Carlisle Cullen to end with my adoption into a new family, a new way of living what was the rest of my existence beyond wandering from place to place. I might have hoped for an outcome like that, or at least companionship or even a friend, but I hadn’t expected it.

Alice hesitated before getting out of the car after we parked in front of what looked like a small, high-end boutique. That surprised me. I expected her to jump right out. Instead, she sat there staring at the bright red car parked next to us in tiny but otherwise empty parking lot.

“Well, I didn’t think she’d show,” Alice muttered. I had no idea what she meant until I noticed the blond staring impatiently at us through the store window. My eyes widened and nostrils flared.

Rosalie was waiting for us inside.

Alice turned to me, an apology evident in her golden eyes. “I’m sorry, Bella. It was a last minute decision on her part, and I kept thinking she’d change her mind. I should have told you she might be shopping with us.”

I pushed down my unease and lifted my chin. “I survived a year with the Volturi. I think I’ll survive a morning with a grumpy vampire who dislikes me.” I knew Rosalie was able to hear me, but I didn’t think what I said would offend her any more than my presence already did.

Alice sighed and nodded, but the frown between her eyes remained. “Well, let’s get going then.”

The interior of the store was everything I avoided as a human. Too smooth, too polished, with salespeople who acted as if they were doing us a favor, even though we were the only customers so early in the morning. Thankfully, Alice dismissed the saleswoman who condescended to greet us with a wave of her hand, and then she pulled me over to where her sister stood.

To my shock, I thought I saw a gleam of something that might have been respect before Rosalie turned her attention to Alice and commented, “Took you long enough.”

Shaking her head with a laugh, Alice seemed to regain some of her energy. “Not all of us are speed demons,” was all she replied.

Thankfully, Rosalie ignored me as she and Alice became a whirlwind, pulling items off of the racks and either immediately discarding them or putting them in the “try-on” pile. Alice explained in a voice too low for the humans to hear that trying on the clothes was just for show since she could determine whether we would like a choice or not just by deciding to buy it. I was sure she meant whether she would like something, but I did appreciate her attempt to include me in purchasing what would be my own clothes.

One hour later, we walked out of the store with more bags than I thought necessary. Alice glowed with contentment, Rosalie was still ignoring me, and I felt mentally exhausted for the first time since I left Volterra. However, I was now in possession of enough clothes to satisfy Alice for the moment and to blend in with the Alaskan population—including a blue wool coat I actually fell in love with. For once, I couldn’t wait to wear something, so I gave in to Alice’s insistence that I should trade out my tattered leather jacket for the sleek wool.

Neither Alice nor I talked much on the drive back. I felt too uncomfortable to ask her any more questions about the family with Rosalie following us back to the house in her red BMW and decided it was a better idea to just observe for a while. Alice seemed lost in her own thoughts, or maybe it was visions. Either way, the silent drive was enough to rejuvenate my spirits after what I considered to be marathon shopping.

Edward was waiting for us when we pulled up at the end of the long driveway. Something in me couldn’t resist staring at him as I got out of the car. The way his face lit up in a smile made my stomach clench with an unfamiliar yet pleasant longing. I scolded myself immediately and tried to believe that he was just happy to see his sisters—except his eyes never left mine.

“I’ll get her clothes packed into one of my suitcases and be right back down,” Alice trilled beside me, and I realized she had unloaded all of the bags from the car.

“I can get some of those,” I told her, feeling guilty that I had ignored her to stare at her brother.

“Nonsense. It won’t take me more than a few seconds anyway.” She waved me off and sped upstairs.

“There’s usually no arguing with Alice,” Edward informed me with a long-suffering sigh and a wink.

“Why try when I’m always right?” Alice asked from the second floor of the house. Edward rolled his eyes, and I laughed.

Alice was as good as her word. Within minutes we were saying good-bye to the Cullens—I still couldn’t quite include myself as one of them in my head—and climbing into Edward’s car. I felt a little lightheaded knowing we would be stuck in that car for hours, but again it was a welcome sensation.

Chapter Text

Bella shifted in the seat next to me as I pulled out of our drive and onto the road, and I glanced over to see her sitting ramrod straight. I wondered if she was uncomfortable in a vehicle, since many vampires tended to be. Or maybe she felt awkward being shut into such a small space with a vampire she barely knew. I hoped that wasn’t it. I didn’t want her to have any unpleasant associations with me, although I tried not to examine why I felt that way too closely.

“Do you like the car?” I asked her, wincing a little as I referred to my beloved Aston Martin as a “car”. It was a marvelous piece of machinery, one I was very proud of since I helped Rosalie rebuild the engine to accommodate our family’s preference for more speed than humans were comfortable with.

Bella gave me a weak smile and a shrug. “It’s great. I’ve never been much of a car person, though. Sorry,” she added, apparently sensing my disappointment.

“That’s okay. Rosalie, Alice, and I spend enough time tinkering with the family’s automobiles to make up for the rest of you plebeians,” I commented lightly, hoping to draw out a real smile.

“Alice?” she asked, and I could understand her incredulity.

“Well, Alice does the shopping for the cars, anyway. Rose and I are the ones who do the actual tinkering.”

Bella grinned, fulfilling my wish. “Now that I can believe.”

“You  mean, after a morning shopping with my—I mean, our sisters you’ve realized what Alice’s one true passion is? Other than Jasper, anyway.”

That earned me a laugh. “It’s pretty obvious.”

“Eventually we can get you your own car,” I offered, trying to gauge her reaction to that.

Bella’s nose wrinkled in the most adorable way. “I don’t even have my driver’s license—or I didn’t before the change, anyway. I never learned.  My mom was supposed to teach me at the beginning of my junior year.”

I felt like an idiot for reminding her of that, but she didn’t sound as sad as I would have expected. Maybe she had adjusted past the grief stage. The loss of our humanity and previous lives hit each new vampire hard, it seemed. Of course, she’d had two years to get used to the situation, but Rosalie still mourned her change even eighty years later.

“So you’ve stuck with running during your travels?” I asked, trying to steer the subject away from her human times just in case.

“Well, I stowed away on a cargo plane to cross the Atlantic, but otherwise, yes. Being in a moving vehicle is a strange sensation since I move so much more quickly, so I prefer to use my own legs. But I figured that the benefits of not looking like a drowned rat when I reached America outweighed the slowness of the aircraft—plus I wasn’t really sure if moving through water would be as easy as running.” She laughed at herself, probably having discovered since then that she had been correct. We were much slower in the water than on land. It made sense. When moving across actual terrain, our bodies weren’t fighting against anything other than the wind, which rarely trouble us. Water was a completely different story, much more dense and with a tendency to move the object it encased, even vampires.

I chuckled along with her and replied, “Air travel is faster over water, but driving cars can be fun, too. I guess it is more fun as a driver than a passenger, though, since it’s about the power you’re controlling, using your reflexes in a different manner than you’re used to.”

“I’ll have to take your word for it,” Bella shrugged and relaxed back into her seat.

Since she seemed at ease talking about her human past, I allowed my curiosity to get the better of me. “So you hadn’t learned to drive before you were changed, but weren’t you eager to learn how? I thought most teenagers these days are obsessed with getting their license and hitting the road for freedom.”

She snorted. “Not me. I lived with my mom, and she needed me. I was too busy worrying about taking care of her to care about learning something else before I had to. I think—I think I felt guilty those last few days because I was relieved that I found a solution to take care of her and put some space between us at the same time.” Her tone was thoughtful and sad, and I mentally kicked myself. Still, in for a penny, in for a pound, as my own mother used to say.

“Do you remember what the solution was?” I asked.

Bella remained quiet for so long that I began to doubt whether she would answer. Finally she sighed. “I was going to ask my dad if I could move in with him if Phil, my stepdad, got the job he was trying out for in Florida. I knew my mom wouldn’t move with him until I was finished with high school because we moved so much after she left my dad, and she was feeling guilty about it all and trying to finally give me stability. She would have been miserable without Phil, though.”

I was stunned. We moved to Forks more than three years ago. If Bella had been able to follow through on her plan, if she hadn’t been changed and taken in by the Volturi, I would have met her as a human girl. The thought was an odd one, even though I’d first encountered Esme, Rosalie, and even Emmett when they were human. I couldn’t imagine Bella as anything other than the quiet,confident vampire I first encountered. Would she have seemed interesting as a human? So few of them were after all of these years. Would her thoughts have been clear to me, or would they have the same fuzzy quality Charlie Swan’s mind possessed? Would I have been unable to hear her mind at all, just as Jane and Alec were unable to use their abilities on the human Bella?

These questions and more flashed through mind as I drove, unmindful of the silence stretching between us. Apparently it bothered Bella because her small, warm hand covered my own on the driveshaft.

“Edward? Are you okay?”

I gave her a smile. “Of course. I just realized that I would have met you as a human if you had moved here. We were already living in Forks.”

Her eyes widened. “Do you all hang out much with humas? They always seem wary of me when I get too close, like they’re fighting the instinct to run.”

“Well, not really. But we might have had a few classes together.” I was unsure how to continue honestly without hurting her feelings, but then I just plunged on. “I probably would have ignored you. We tend to keep apart from the other students as much as possible. There’s less chance of an…accident that way.”

I looked over to see her reaction to that. She seemed calm, and I hoped that was a good sign. When she turned a bit to face me, I saw that her eyes sparkled with amusement. I wished yet again that I could read her mind so that I could figure out what she thought was so funny, but thankfully she didn’t keep me in suspense.

“I’m glad we didn’t meet then, actually. I was such a mousy girl. You probably would have been bored to death if the teachers assigned us seats next to each other, especially if we would have been working on projects together.”

It was a joke that contained a thread of certainty, as if she was so sure I would never have found her interesting that she didn’t even think to question it. I found myself shaking my head as I looked into her eyes. “I think I would have found you fascinating. I can’t help but wonder if your mind would have been shielded from me before your change.” As soon as the words were out of my mouth, I wanted to smack myself. She called me on it immediately.

“Edward Cullen, are you saying you’re only interested in my mind?” she demanded, that sparkle still in her eye.

Was she flirting with me?

Her hand squeezed mine more. She was flirting with me! I wanted to shout with happiness and run away at the same time. I couldn’t think of a thing to say, my mouth hanging open When she laughed it snapped shut again, and I was able to smile.

“Well, I guess you have a few other interesting qualities,” I managed to flirt back, letting my eyes sweep over the beautiful woman next to me. She ducked her head away, and I thought she’d be blushing if blood still flowed through her veins.

“Edward, what are you doing!?”

Bella’s shout drew my attention from her lovely form, which was now twisted in my direction. Her eyes were glued to my dashboard, and I turned my head back to the road as I tried to figure out what had upset her.

“What?”

“You’re going one hundred and twenty miles an hour! Are you crazy?”

“Bella, we’re vampires. Even if I lost control of the car, and I won’t, neither of us would be hurt in a crash,” I pointed out.

She raised accusing eyes to mine. “And what about all the humans and animals you could injure? It doesn’t make sense to drive recklessly yet abstain from killing humans during feeding. They’ll be dead either way! We may have vampire reflexes, but cars still obey the laws of physics,” she scolded me.

I thought her concerns were baseless, but I found myself reducing my speed to something closer to the speed limit. Trust the daughter of a cop to care about breaking traffic laws, vampire or not. Bella’s smug satisfaction as she settled back into her seat again should have grated on my nerves, but instead I wanted to laugh. She had been like a fierce kitten defending her position, and it was adorable. I would never tell her that, of course.

Silence descended in the confines of the car once again after that, and soon it was too much for me. I reached over and turned on my stereo. Debussy was the last CD I was listening to in here, and the strains of Claire de Lune filled the air around us. Bella’s gasp of delight drew my attention, and I was relieved to see the delighted smile on her face. Many modern people disliked classical music, but it looked like she wasn’t one of them.

“Oh, I know this! I think…I think my mom used to listen to it sometimes.”

“It’s one of my favorites, cliché as it may seem. My mother was also particularly fond of the Suite bergamasque, which Clair de Lune is part of. She loved when I would play it for her.” I couldn’t remember much in the way of details about my human life, but that I knew as a certainty.

“Your human mother?” Bella asked, and I realized that she must be as curious about my past as I was about hers.

“Hmmm, yes. I don’t remember as much about her, or my human life, as I wish, but I do remember that.”

Bella bit her lip and then asked, “How old are—were you, when you were changed?”

It was not something I enjoyed admitting, as I’d always been the youngest in the family, physically anyway. However, I answered her readily enough. “I was seventeen.”

“And…how long have you been seventeen?”

“Eighty-eight years.” I couldn’t tell if the answer disappointed her or not.

She was silent for a few moments and then nodded. “So you’re older than Alice, even though you don’t look it.” Her eyes dropped to her lap. “So I guess I’m going to be the baby of the family in more ways than one,” she muttered.

I raised my eyebrows. “Why’s that?”

“I was only sixteen when I changed. My birthday isn’t until September, and it was in August. I don’t feel sixteen anymore, though.”

I sighed. “No, and you won’t, even when you’re in high school surrounded by teenagers who are your physical peers. Our personalities and bodies may not change, but our experiences will still affect us. I think it is hardest on those of us who have consumed human blood and regret it.” There. Let her make of that would she would. I had more or less just confessed to the darkest aspect of my own story.

“You—but I thought all of the Cullens are vegetarians!” she burst out, as I expected.

“We are, but we have almost all struggled with the diet. Surely you’ve noticed how much better human blood tastes and smells, compared to that of lesser animals.” I waited for her nod and then continued. “Some of us are…less able to resist the lure. The desire is there, but the will is sometimes weak. Jasper has the most difficulty. He was changed during the Civil War and didn’t come to our lifestyle for almost one hundred years. The impulse to hunt humans is very strong for him, but his reason for trying to adhere to the animal diet is just as strong. His ability is to feel the emotions of others, and he could feel his victims’ deaths in a way no one else can.”

Bella gasped, and I nodded. “It took its toll on him, as you might imagine. Each of us, with the exception of Carlisle and Rose, have slipped up, as we call it. Usually it’s accidental. We are caught in a weak moment, much like a recovering alcoholic faced with a rare aged scotch.”

“Usually? Have any of you intentionally fed from humans?” She sounded as if she didn’t really want to know, but I answered anyway. It was important to me that she know every facet of my life.

“Carlisle created me. He had been alone for hundreds of years, and he gave in to his own moment of weakness to create a companion. I followed the diet of animal blood from the beginning, with his help, but within a few years I became discontented. I could hear the thoughts of the humans around me, and I believed that there was a way to reconcile our bodies’ natural desires with the conscience Carlisle made sure I still possessed. I would weed out the dangerous humans, the ones who had committed great evil against others, and in that way I could justify my own murders. Shortly after Esme joined us, I left and began to feed on serial killers, rapists, child abusers, abusive spouses, the list seemed endless. After several years of this, I was struck by an epiphany. What I was doing, taking justice into my own hands, was no better than what my victims had done. I returned to Carlisle and haven’t touched a drop of human blood since.”

Bella made no sound. She didn’t even breathe. I berated myself. Why had I confessed? It wasn’t a subject that came up often. It was likely that she never would have found out otherwise, as most members of the family avoided even mentioning my “rebellious period”. Was I trying to push her away?

She surprised me out of my worries. “I can understand. I wish I didn’t, but I do. I think I could have chosen not to feed, even as a newborn. Renata, who guided me through the beginning of my first year, said that I was very controlled. They used that word a lot. But I needed to survive, for my parents’ sake if nothing else. Everyone was very clear about what might happen if I didn’t obey. So I justified my killing by asking for the weakest, those who were dying or likely to based on their current health, usually the oldest humans our procurer could find. I thought that would ease the guilt some. It never did.”

This time I took her hand in mine. “No, it doesn’t. But that’s why the animal diet is worth it. The more animals we kill, the fewer humans we kill. It doesn’t take away the guilt, but it’s reassuring to know we don’t have to be monsters.”

“Does that make you and I reformed monsters?” Her lips quirked up slightly.

I laughed. “I guess you could say that.”

She nodded. “I can accept that. It will be nice to have someone around who understands.”

A glow filled me, and the resistance I’d been trying to hold against falling for this woman crumbled. She was intelligent, beautiful, compassionate, and she saw the strange world we lived in with much the same perspective that I did. What wasn’t to love? Yes, love. Suddenly I didn’t care that it was too soon, that we hadn’t even known each other a full day. None of that mattered.

“Yes, it will be,” I managed to reply to her last statement around the lump in my throat. Her smile grew, and her hand stayed in mine, our fingers now entwined.

We spent the rest of the drive on lighter topics, exchanging likes and dislikes as well as details on our vampire experiences. I was happy that our musical tastes were similar, although I considered most of her favorite books no better than sappy romances with little resemblance to real-life situations and characters. She passionately defended them when I pointed that out, and we drove through British Columbia debating our separate stances before agreeing to disagree.

We stopped only for gas. Whenever I returned to the car, Bella’s hand found mine once we were on our way. It was a new sensation, one I quite enjoyed. She never said a word about it, and I could tell from the studious way she avoided looking at our joined hands that mentioning it would embarrass her.  I contented myself with knowing that she sought out my touch.

By the time we left Yukon Territory and began the long winding journey on the Alaskan backroads, I felt more at ease with her than anyone I could remember. My resistance to forming a connection with her outside of the platonic relationship I shared with the other members of the family had melted away, and now I eagerly pursued it. As I couldn’t read her mind, I waited impatiently for every word she chose to share with me, examining the revelations as a jeweler with a particularly fascinating gemstone.

Usually I found this part of the drive tedious. It was mountain after mountain and vast expanse after vast expanse, with few human settlements in between to add some variation. If I wasn’t driving my Viper, I would prefer to run past the monotony. Bella’s presence made it more than bearable. I enjoyed myself so much that I felt disappointed when I began to see signs for Denali, even though it was still many miles away.

Bella seemed to pick up on my slight change in mood. “What’s wrong?” she asked, immediately scanning the passing terrain.

“Nothing.” I flashed her a reassuring smile. “I just realized that we’ll be at our cousins’ home soon, and our trip will end.”

Her eyes met mine. “Don’t you look forward to seeing the rest of your family?”

I grimaced. “We’re closer to the Denali coven than to most other vampires, but there are occasional tensions. Also, I am enjoying getting to know you, Bella.”

She smiled, the shy one I was coming to love. “I’m having fun, too.” She paused and then continued hesitantly. “I don’t want to get so caught up in meeting new people that we won’t be able to spend time together.”

“I definitely won’t let that happen,” I promised, squeezing her hand.

“Good.” She squeezed back, and we continued getting to know each other for the rest of the trip.

Chapter Text

I could tell from the way the car was slowing even more that we must be getting close to where the Denali family lived, and suddenly I felt apprehensive. “So, before we get there, maybe you could tell me about these cousins. I like to know what I’m getting into.” That was an understatement. I hated surprises. I vaguely recalled my mother complaining that I was a control-freak. She always thought I needed to learn to loosen up, but who can relax when they have no idea what’s going to happen next?

Edward contemplated his answer for a moment. “Well, there are five of them, although originally there were just three sisters. Their names are Tanya, Irina, and Katrina—call her Kate, though. Only her sisters use her full name. They were all originally from areas that eventually became Russia, created by the same vampire more than a millennia ago.” He paused, obviously searching for words. “The sisters heard rumors about Carlisle and, like you, decided to try living off of animal blood on their own. Their reasons were a little bit less altruistic, though. Carlisle believes that they are the origin of the succubus myth, and they wanted to spare the human males they became enamored with.”

I stared at him in wide-eyed fascination. Was he serious? “Really? Some of your cousins are literally succubi?” The thought was both embarrassing and intimidating in the extreme. Still, I was intrigued.

Edward cleared his throat and stared straight ahead. “Um, yes. Even if they didn’t start the tales, they contributed greatly to their spread. Thankfully they never got out of control, or the Volturi would have gotten rid of them before they ever decided to change their ways. They’re very nice, when they aren’t trying to get you in bed.”

I raised an eyebrow at that. “Did any of them ever try to…I mean, it’s not any of my business, but…”

He shook his head. “No, it’s okay. Each of them did offer, but I always declined. What they offered was just sex, no romantic connection of any sort, and I’ve never been interested in that. I suppose you could say that I’m a man of my time. The idea is repugnant to me. Thankfully two of them accepted no right away. The third, Tanya, has been less than gracious about my refusal of her offer. She usually renews it whenever we visit.”

“And that makes you uncomfortable.”

“Very much. She is not often physically aggressive, but mentally she spends the hours and days undressing me and showing me all the things she wants to do to me. It’s degrading.”

He sounded so stiff and proper, and any other time I would have had trouble holding back laughter at his tone. At the moment, though, all I could think about was how I wanted to rip Tanya’s eyes right out of the socket so that she wouldn’t be able to look at him anymore. The thought of the mind rape she exposed him to every single time they met was disgusting to me. I was brought up to believe that “no means no”, and who was saying it or why didn’t matter. It should be respected.

Even though Edward couldn’t read my mind, he seemed to understand that I was upset. He changed the direction of our conversation, which was a relief. “Anyway, Eleazar’s situation is close to yours. He was a member of the Volturi for several centuries before he met his mate, Carmen. She was a newborn vampire and very unhappy with the necessity of killing humans. She came to the Volturi to beg them to kill her, but she was denied. Eleazar fell in love with her almost instantly and managed to persuade Aro to allow him to leave. He promised Carmen he would help her learn to hunt animals, which he learned of from Carlisle. They met Tanya and her sisters a few years later, and Carmen grew very attached to them. They all agreed to try living together in order to have a support system, and they’ve been a family ever since.”

He fell silent, which allowed me to process this second revelation. I was not the first to willingly leave Volterra. This was a shock since everyone there seemed content and even proud to be part of the Guard. Could finding a mate be enough to change that? Especially one who wasn’t happy with a “traditional” vampiric life? I wasn’t very familiar with the details of the whole mating process. All I knew was that it was similar to the human concept of falling in love, just much more permanent. Could it be strong enough to overcome centuries of lusting for human blood? The idea was fascinating and a little frightening. How much changing would occur for the sake of a mate? Would you lose who you were and become someone unrecognizable?

More importantly, if I let the feelings that were growing in me for Edward blossom into love, would I change? I barely knew who I was yet. There was still so much I needed to discover about myself. Would discovering it with someone by my side change the outcome? Would I ever be able to tell?

I pulled away from those disturbing thoughts and realized that I needed something to distract me from diving right back in. Edward was glancing over at me, trying to gage my reactions to everything he had told me. I wanted to put him at ease. Jumping back into the conversation was the only choice I had.

“So Eleazar was one of the Volturi Guard? I’ll have to ask him what his favorite spot in the castle was.” I congratulated myself on the light tone I managed. It wasn’t much of a joke, but it did earn me a crooked grin, the one I was becoming addicted to. “Really, they all sound interesting. I look forward to meeting them.”

His smile grew. “Good, because we’re almost there.”

I clutched Edward’s hand as the car began to ascend a path snaking around what he informed me was a foothill of Mt. McKinley, just on the edge of Denali National Park. It was the kind of track a human would be unlikely to notice and even less likely to attempt even if they did. It amazed me that the sporty car we were in could handle the turns at the speed we were going without flying off the side of the mountain. Edward spoke of the car so lovingly, though, that I was sure he wouldn’t risk it by driving beyond his capabilities.

He seemed to notice my death grip. “Getting nervous?” he teased, squeezing my fingers in return.

I lifted one shoulder in a shrug. “It’s so weird. With everyone else I’ve met, I could reassure myself that I might not see them again for decades, centuries—or ever. And I didn’t have much of a chance to worry about meeting the rest of your family when you, Alice, and Jasper dragged me back with you—“

“Our family,” he interrupted me to scold.

I smiled. “Yes, our family. But now I’ve had days to process meeting your—our cousins, and it sounds like there are visits back and forth on a regular basis. I just hope they’ll like me,” I confessed in barely a whisper.

He shook his head. “You don’t see yourself clearly, do you? You’re kind, compassionate, funny. They’ll love you. How could they not?”

I sincerely wished for the relief of blushing at this point. I never knew what to do with compliments, and the fact that they were from him just made it worse. Still, he was just trying to be kind. I couldn’t find it in me to brush off his words the way I would have anyone else.

“Thanks,” I murmured, playing with the hem of my wool coat.

We were quiet when Edward pulled around a final bend and stopped in front of the most magical scene I’d ever set eyes on—previously a distinction reserved for the Cullen house in Forks. A sprawling single-story log “cabin” nestled among the snow-coated trees. The driveway, packed down with snow, curved around the house to a barely visible multi-car garage, also made of logs. Like the Cullen home, the walls of the first floor consisted mostly of glass, allowing maximum light to flood in. This was the opposite of Volterra and thus incredibly reassuring.

As the car stopped, two vampires pushed open the white French door and stepped out onto the covered wrap around porch. Both were dark haired, the male barely taller than the female, and both had the golden eyes of animal drinkers. They held hands and waited at the top of the shallow steps leading down into the yard while Edward and I got out of the car.

Edward met me on the passenger side of the car. He gave me a reassuring smile and placed his hand on the small of my back to urge me forward. That pleasant electric tingle shot up my back, and my awareness zeroed in on every single millimeter where our bodies connected, the slight brush of his leg against mine as we stepped towards the unfamiliar vampires. I reveled in his touch even as I turned my attention ahead.

The male vampire on the porch stepped down into the snow as we joined them and smiled. “Hello, Edward. It’s good to see you again. And this must be Bella.” His deep voice hinted at Spanish ancestry, along with the dark hair that curled slightly along his forehead and the nape of his neck and the olive undertone to the pallor of his skin. The woman behind him was darker still, her straight hair black and her skin almost an identical shade. He continued, “Carlisle called to inform us that his family gained a new member and that you two were on your way up here. I am Eleazar, and this is my mate, Carmen. We look forward to getting to know you.” His smile was warm, and his grip when I took the hand he offered was firm but not challenging.

To my surprise, Carmen enveloped me in a warm embrace as her mate drew me nearer. When she pulled away, her golden eyes captured mine in an intense gaze. “We are so happy you have joined the Cullens, my dear.”  Her gaze flicked to Edward and then back to me so quickly that I almost believed I imagined it.

Edward cleared his throat. “Where are Tanya, Kate, and Irina?”

He probably heard the answer as soon as they thought it, but Eleazar’s shrug was accompanied by a verbal response, for my sake I supposed. “They’ve been out hunting for a few days now. They left shortly before Carlisle’s call, so they should be back soon.

Three days for a hunt? My own hunts usually lasted less than an hour! Was that normal for groups of vegetarians? I hadn’t thought to ask Edward. Maybe it was. Then again, a small voice in the back of my mind wondered if they were hunting for food or pleasure, given what I’d heard about them so far. I pushed that thought away, appalled at myself. What did I care about the possible sex lives of women I didn’t even know? Even if one of them was a pushy, over-sexed bitch, they didn’t deserve unfounded suspicion.

Carmen wrapped her arm around mine and led me to the door, consequently pulling me away from Edward. I felt the loss deep inside but tried to ignore it. “Why don’t I show you to your room while Eleazar and Edward bring in your luggage? I have prepared a room for you, a place to have a little privacy when we get to be too much. I know how overwhelming meeting large groups of people can be sometimes,” she told me, her soft voice a melody.

I allowed her to guide me along, amused at the take-charge manner she now exuded. I wouldn’t have suspected it from her based on first, impressions, but it was nice. She was obviously doing her best to make me feel welcome, reminding me of Esme in that way.

The interior of the house was a surprise. The walls of the public room were a warm cream, but every few feet a mural in dramatic bold colors graced the surface. There were abstract designs, landscapes, and portraits, each somehow harmonizing with the others while remaining unique. The reds, blues, greens, oranges, and yellows of the murals were drawn down to the accent pillows and sometimes upholstery of small groups of couches and chairs scattered around the largest section of the open space. The atmosphere was vibrant and positive, with an appeal I could acknowledge even though I probably wouldn’t choose this sort of decoration for myself. It was perfect for a house surrounded by so much white, though.

“This is so beautiful, Carmen. An oasis in the Alaskan wilderness,” I murmured to her as we passed through.

Her smile widened. “Thank you. It is all my design and my own artwork. The others indulge me so.”

I shook my head. “I doubt it’s that. Who wouldn’t be happy with this surrounding them?”

We made our way to the west side of the large room, and Carmen led me down a wide hall. The decor was more understated here but still lovely.

“The Cullens stay in this wing when they are visiting. They have their own home fifty miles west, but sometimes they will come for weeks at a time, especially at Christmas. The room at the end of this hall and to the left is yours, right across from Edward’s.” She opened a door and waved me in. “It used to serve as a library of sorts for Carlisle, but I moved all of the medical texts into his and Esme’s room. I hope you don’t mind that I left the rest for now. I thought you might like to keep some, if you enjoy reading. If not, we could remove the shelves and decorate however you wish.”

I stared in wonder at the sight before me. If I could have designed my dream space, this would have been it. Directly across from the door, a large bay window filtered in the afternoon sunlight, highlighting the wide window seat piled high with violet and midnight blue cushions. The window was flanked on either side by floor to ceiling bookshelves in a dark wood that popped against the cream walls. A desk in matching wood sat to the left of the door, and on the other side stood an armoire instead of the traditional closet. Both pieces looked at least a century old. A dark blue and purple rug covered part of the variegated hardwood floor. As Carmen promised, there were still books on the shelves, and I recognized many favorites, bound in leather with sparkling gilded letters proclaiming their titles. I knew I wasn’t letting any of these go any time soon.

“This is fantastic,” I breathed, allowing the window to draw me across the room.

“I’m thrilled that you like it.” The pleasure in her voice was unmistakable. She was the type who enjoyed making others happy.

“I love it. You couldn’t have offered me a more perfect room.”

Movement outside the window caught my eye. Three blond vampires ran into view. They were gorgeous, as we all are, although they couldn’t compare to Rosalie, easily the most beautiful female I’d ever met. The one in the lead, a strawberry blond, looked back at the other two and then sped up to disappear around the side of the house.

“It looks like the girls are back. You should meet them,” Carmen offered, gesturing towards the open door and the hall beyond.

I followed her back down the hall after I carefully shut the door to my new sanctuary. Happy laughter and conversation floated to us as we hurried outside. The first thing I saw when I stepped onto the porch was the lead vampire, a sly smile on her full lips as she stood pressed close to Edward, her hand wrapped around his upper arm. I froze even as I took in his grimace, the way he leaned his body away from hers and tried to put my large blue suitcase between the two of them.

I recalled what he told me and realized that her thoughts must have gone immediately from welcoming to indecent. That incensed me for reasons I couldn’t quite explain to myself. A growl built in my throat, and I fought it back with every ounce of training I had—barely. Instead, I moved quickly to Edward’s side and slipped my hand into his, grateful that Eleazar held my duffle as well as Edward’s suitcase where he stood by the door.

“Edward, is this Tanya, Kate, or Irina? You never bothered with descriptions when you mentioned them,” I chided him sweetly, offering the other woman a bright smile.

Her eyes, a dark gold that indicated whatever she’d been hunting recently most likely wasn’t blood, narrowed as she look at me, and I saw her fingers tighten on his arm. Blond hair curled around her heart-shaped face in ridiculously perfect ringlets, and her sleeveless green dress hugged generous curves, revealing so much skin it made me doubt the necessity of dressing in warm clothes while around humans in Alaska. Still, Edward turned towards me, effectively shutting the succubus out of his personal space despite her death grip on him.

“I’m sorry, Bella. This is Tanya.” His voice matched his eyes, a strange mixture of regret and desperation that I wanted to erase any way I could. “And over there are her sisters, Kate and Irina.” He gestured to the other two women standing off to the side, using the arm Tanya held as if he didn’t even realize she was still touching him. Their wide eyes and raised eyebrows would have made me want to laugh under other circumstances. But Tanya was still latched on, despite his best efforts to ignore her.

“It’s wonderful to meet you all.” I focused most of my smile on the other two, who might have given in to their desires with other men but who Edward hadn’t mentioned in his complaints about harassment.

“Bella is the newest member of the Cullen family,” Edward explained, taking a small sideways step towards me—and away from Tanya.

“Oh? How interesting.” Tanya’s icy voice made a lie of her next words. “Welcome to the family.”

“Thank you. I’m just so happy and relieved to meet other ‘vegetarians’. After hearing about Carlisle in Volterra and being told that he was the only one, meeting the whole Cullen family was just amazing. I’m so happy they invited me to join them,” I said as my gaze caught and mingled with that of the man next to me.

His eyes sparkled as he grinned back. “I’m glad you feel that way,” he told me, and it seemed as if he sincerely forgot about the vampires surrounding us. The look in his eyes transported me into a world where just the two of us existed.

Of course, we were rudely interrupted by a high, too-sweet voice asking, “So, how did you meet the Cullens, Bella?”

I pulled myself away from Edward’s magnetic presence enough to look around him to Tanya, who still hadn’t let go of his arm. “Actually, I was looking for them.” I enjoyed the shock that spread over her face, mirrored in the expressions of her family. “But that’s a long story. Why don’t we go inside and get comfortable first?”

Tanya raised her eyebrows at me, but her fingers finally released Edward’s arm when he moved forward. He kept my hand in his, however, as we filed inside. Our connection was only broken once he and Eleazar moved into the Cullens’ wing to deposit the bags in our rooms. I selected a seat on one of the overstuffed pale sofas, and then Edward was beside me. He sank into the spot to my right before any of the others had a chance to pick their own seats. Tanya glared at us and flounced to the opposite couch, where she was flanked by her two sisters. Carmen sat in the chair closest to me, while Eleazar hovered behind her, his arms crossed.

I decided to begin my story the same way I had with the Cullens. “Two years ago I was visiting Jacksonville, Florida with my mom and stepdad when I was attacked by a vampire. He was the sadistic type who liked to play with his food. Unfortunately for him, he was also a messy eater and had attracted the notice of the Volturi. They caught and killed him mid-meal, and then they turned their attention to me. One of them wanted to play with me before they killed me, and when her power didn’t work on me at all they decided to allow my change to continue.”

Eleazar leaned forward. “Do you mean that the Volturi left you to changein the middle of a city on your own?” His eyes revealed his shock and disbelief, and I could hardly blame him. The idea was ludicrous, but so was what had actually happened.

“Of course not. They took me back to Aro, threatening to kill my parents if I made on sound during the trip. At the time I had no way of knowing that they couldn’t immediately find my parents the second I let a sound slip out, so I made myself stay quiet through the pain as we flew back to Volterra. I remember bits and pieces after that, mostly threats to stay quiet and Aro gloating over my ‘possibilities’. I woke up alone in a room I later learned was more than a mile underneath the fortress.”

“A newborn in Volterra?” Eleazar interrupted again.

I shrugged, a little uncomfortable with his scrutiny, and Edward took my hand for a reassuring squeeze. “Aro had high hopes for what he called my ‘shield’, although I didn’t learn that until I was mid-way through my newborn year. He wanted to see if I would be able to shield others from mental gifts. Unfortunately I never developed that knack, and he was getting very frustrated when my mentor, Renata, encouraged him to allow me to progress at my own pace. By the end of my first year, though, I still couldn’t do what he wanted me to. Renata convinced him, and Caius and Marcus, to give me an actual choice about being in the Guard once the dangers of my newborn year passed. After all,” and I couldn’t stop the ironic twist of my lips, “no vampires are forced into the Volturi Guard. It’s an honor—one that I declined as soon as I was given a choice.”

My gaze dropped to my lap. “I hated it. The killing when I was first made, the ‘feasts’ later after I joined them in the main castle. I’m not a murderer! My parents…if they ever found out what I did to survive it would kill them. My dad is a cop, for pete’s sake! Renata knew, and when I was leaving she told me about Carlisle Cullen’s visit centuries ago and his strange diet. I decided to find him, hoping he could help me.” I wasn’t sure how to tell them the rest; the year of searching, meeting the Cullens, being accepted into their family.

“That’s some story,” Tanya commented. I could hear the doubt in her voice and lifted my eyes to hers, allowing the rage building inside me to pin her across the short distance. I was about to defend myself when Eleazar spoke up again.

“I believe her. Humans with abilities have been sought out by the Volturi before and deliberately turned, although it has been centuries. That is how they acquired Jane and Alec. It makes perfect sense that Aro would be interested in such a strong talent in one already changing. I assume that Jane was the one who tried and failed to use her power against you.”

As I nodded, Tanya’s doubtful voice lifted again. “It just seems so strange that they let her go so easily.”

I stiffened, and Edward’s hand tightened on mine again even as Eleazar turned a look of rebuke on his family member. His gentle reply held a hint of steel and also sounded like a continuation of an old argument. “The Volturi will not hold a vampire in service against their will if they have not committed a crime. Once Bella’s newborn year was over and she was able to prove herself capable of control, she deserved the same right to choose that we all have.”

I actually wanted to protest his confidence in Aro’s altruistic nature, since he was arguing in my favor I kept my mouth shut. I still firmly believed Aro was just looking for an excuse to bring me back. The memory of the look in his eyes when I refused his offer to join the Guard permanently chilled me and caused me to freeze momentarily in fear. I calmed myself with assurances that I would never put myself in a position where he could force me to bend to his will.

Tanya seemed as doubtful of Aro as I was, but she kept her own silence on the issue after that. Instead she turned a sickly sweet smile on me. “So you finally found Carlisle and his family. How long have you been with them?”

I answered with some caution since I was unsure of her endgame. “Just a few days. I actually met Edward, Alice, and Jasper first.”

“Really? Your eyes turned gold very quickly.” It felt like she was trying to catch me out in a lie for some reason.

“Bella has been feeding from animals since she left the Volturi. She is as dedicated to this life as any of us,” Edward jumped in to defend me. He was practically growling at Tanya, which obviously shocked her. I couldn’t help but wonder what she was thinking to cause him to react so protectively.

“The animal diet is such a relief, although the taste is less than appealing. I don’t want to hurt any more people than I already have.”

The whole room grew quiet. After all, who among us could argue with that? Carmen broke the silence by asking about the rest of the family. Edward took some of the attention off of me by regaling his—our—cousins with stories of our brothers and sisters, and even one about Esme that I never would have expected about a furniture delivery man trying to ask her out. It made me laugh along with the rest, but my still heart ached with the knowledge that I hadn’t seen it firsthand.

Chapter Text

I noticed that Bella seemed uncomfortable during my recitation of the family’s latest exploits. She kept her eyes glued to her lap where her fingers were twisted together. I resolved to end the current topic of conversation as quickly as possible, so once I finished relating Esme’s most recent embarrassing episode with unwanted attention, I turned to the beautiful woman sitting next to me.

“I apologize for talking so long. I just remembered that I promised you a tour of Alaska once we arrived. I’m sure our cousins wouldn’t mind if we went for a short hunt. If you would like to, that is,” I offered awkwardly.

Bella’s eyes lifted to mine, shining with enough excitement that I barely noticed Tanya sitting up straighter out of the corner of my eye, a shadow of a frown ghosting her face before she controlled herself. Edward, darling, you know that one of my sisters would show the new girl around, if you really think that’s necessary, she thought at me. Underlying the more deliberation communication was her desire to get me alone so that she could try yet again to seduce me. This by-play was a mere annoyance, not enough to stop me from momentarily drowning in the lovely golden eyes I preferred to gaze into.

“That sounds wonderful,” Bella murmured, a smile adding to the glow of her eyes. “I had to cut my hunt the other day short, you know,” she teased me.

I turned to our cousins, ignoring the glare that Tanya gave us, and gave them an ingratiating smile as I rose and pulled Bella to her feet with me. We stood side by side, and it felt right in a way it never had with anyone before, not even members of my family. I brushed off our cousins’ startled thoughts and told them, “We’ll be back later.” Then I led Bella outside before Tanya could voice the protests building in her mind.

The cold mountain air felt refreshing, the freezing temperature not at all a hindrance to us as we made our way down the steps and ran out into the trees. I felt Bella’s glance down at our linked hands, but neither of us commented as we continued to run. The silence was complete once we were a few miles away from the cabin, not a vampire or human mind within my range except for Bella’s shielded one. Suddenly loathe to waste a single moment alone, I slowed down to a human walking pace, and she obliged me by slowing as well.

“We were a bit rude back there, weren’t we?” Her question was hesitant, and I realized that she might still be feeling insecure about the family dynamics.

I shrugged. “Well, not entirely. They’re used to me going off on my own fairly quickly and for days at a time. Usually the rest of the family is there to deflect attention away from me, and most of them hardly notice. They know their minds are less familiar to me and that I am more comfortable after some adjustment time. Don’t worry,” I tried to reassure her.

“Hmmm,” was her only response as she took in the snow-covered pine trees surrounding us. But her hand remained in mine, so I had to think that she wasn’t overly concerned.

“I don’t really want to talk about family now, anyway. I’d rather know what you’re thinking right this moment,” I confessed.

She shot me a bemused look. “You’re really not used to it, are you?”

I didn’t have to read her mind to know what she meant. “Not at all. It’s disconcerting.”

She let out a little laugh that warmed me with the delight it conveyed. “There you go with the old-fashioned words. How in the world do you fool the kids in high school?”

I snorted. “I don’t talk to them, so they don’t notice much. I keep my answers to the teachers simple when they call on me, but I don’t volunteer a lot of information otherwise. It’s easier that way.” I raised an eyebrow at her. “And you, Miss Swan, are avoiding the question.”

She ducked her head and looked away. “You’re too good at doing that, Mr. Cullen,” was her only reply, a small smile playing on her lips my only hint that she was teasing me.

“I’ve found I have to be fairly persistent when it comes to you,” I informed her with more honesty than perhaps I should have.

Her smile widened. “Good,” was all she said before she pulled her fingers from mine and took off at a run, glancing over her shoulder to see if I would follow.

Not wanting to let the opportunity slip by, I gave chase. We ran up and down the mountains like children, sticking to the slopes by silent but mutual consent so that we had trees to hide behind. Occasionally she would disappear from my sight and I would run past where I knew she hid, only to have her rush up behind me and give a playful nudge with her shoulder before running off again. A few times I doubled back before she had a chance to catch up so that I could surprise her from behind with my hands over her eyes. Our laughter echoed in the dark as the moon rose high above. We forgot hunting in our pursuit of other prey, a dance as old as time that finally, finally I felt utterly compelled to take part in.

As we neared a small, familiar clearing, I tricked Bella once more. She shot ahead of where I lay in wait, and this time when I caught up to her I allowed my arms to wrap around her waist. She stilled at the same time I did and turned in my hold, golden eyes locked on mine. Her hands landed on my shoulders, but she didn’t push me away. Our laughter faded as we stared at one another. We stood in the middle of the clearing, neither daring to breathe lest the spell be broken.

Finally, I couldn’t take the silence any longer. “Please tell me you feel it, too,” I begged her. I wasn’t sure if I referred to the electricity that coursed through me whenever we touched or the way my still heart was now so full it might burst at any moment.

She lifted one hand and traced her fingers over my cheek. I reveled in the smooth glide of her skin against mine. Her touch shifted as she wrapped her hand along the back of my neck. “I feel it,” she whispered.

It was enough. I leaned down as she lifted her lips to mine. Our first kiss was merely a whisper of touch, but it deepened quickly. Her scent wrapped around me, embracing me in a cloud of freesia and moonlight, even as her fingers tangled in my hair. I let my hands glide up the contour of her back, pulling her closer. The feel of her soft, warm mouth on mine was indescribable.

Finally I pulled back slightly. Her golden eyes lifted back to mine, delight and passion lighting them. I was sure that mine reflected the same, but I knew that I couldn’t let us go too far. Not yet. But how could I tell her?

Thankfully, Bella herself saved me the trouble. As the passion between us cooled slightly, her lips turned down in a small frown. “Edward,” she started, her gaze now fixed on my chest. “I’ve never actually…I mean, whatever this is feels so good, but I…”

Of course I suspected as much, even in this day and age when sixteen wouldn’t have been too young to experiment with the opposite sex, but hearing that we were equal in our inexperience was a relief nonetheless. After all, she had then spent a year with the Volturi and a year on her own as a nomad, and vampires weren’t exactly known for their sexual restraint. I was an anomaly in that regard, as she apparently was as well. I quieted her with a gentle finger on her lips. “I understand, sweet Bella. I’ve never felt this way before, either,” I admitted.

Her eyes flew up to mine as comprehension dawned. “You mean…?”

“You are the first and only woman I have ever felt this way about. The only one I have ever desired or sought more than friendship from.”

A smile replaced the frown. “So you do want to be more than friends, too?”

My still heart soared into the heavens at her words. “More than words can express.” We stood there staring at one another for long minutes. In a strange way, that silence was liberating. I knew that she wouldn’t push me for more than that right then, and she obviously felt the same understanding from me.

Suddenly, the sound of heavy, wet heartbeats drew our attention. “Do you still need to hunt?” I broke the silence in a hushed voice although the animals were at least a mile away.

She wrinkled her nose up in the most adorable manner. “Unfortunately. The fox I had a few days ago just isn’t cutting it.”

“Have you ever had moose?”

Her eyes widened. “I never ventured that far north in my travels.” I could tell she was intrigued. It would be as interesting watching petite Bella take down the large animals as it was with Alice or Esme—or probably more. The very thought of watching the girl in my arms hunt sent a flush of heat through my body, although I fought it down since I still held her.

Reluctantly I withdrew my arms and held out my hand once more. “Come on, then. You’ll like this.”

I was correct. Watching Bella hunt was magnificent. She stalked the two moose with an efficiency rivaled only by my brother Jasper, and then she was a blur of speed as she chased her chosen buck. The play of muscles along her legs as she ran and leapt, the way she looked up at me with hunger-black eyes through her eyelashes as she drank down every drop of blood, was almost my undoing. Could I possibly hold to the principles I was raised with while faced with this goddess? Could I honor the wishes of us both?

Once she was finished she buried the carcass with ease and then turned back to me. She stalked forward, eyes gleaming. “Edward,” she purred.

“Bella.” Her name was a prayer and a moan.

She stepped up to me, and the last thing I wanted to do was back away. Not only would it likely hurt us both, but even more I needed to be close to her. There had to be a way to balance our desires and morals, but for the life of me I was having the most difficult time remembering why we would want to.

Bella’s arms twined around my neck, her soft curves pressed against my chest. I groaned and lowered my lips to hers once more. The taste of blood in her mouth was a catalyst that threatened to drive away all sane thought. I ran my tongue along her lips, demanding entrance, and she allowed that most intimate touch with an eagerness that matched my own. Her hands roamed over my shoulders and arms, leaving trails of fire behind. I didn’t want to give this up, but she deserved so much more than a blood-fueled tryst in the forest.

I slowed the kiss as much as possible, eventually pulling my lips from hers to drop small kisses along her cheeks and neck. I couldn’t get enough of the taste of her skin, but I knew we had to stop soon, even if she didn’t. She had me backed against a tree, which I honestly didn’t remember happening, and it creaked above us as she leaned into me.

“Bella,” I said her name again in an attempt to ground us both as I lifted my head and tried to catch her eye. I watched the passion fade slightly and confusion begin to cloud her eyes. I had to act swiftly. “Is it possible to fall in love in less than a week?” I asked her, leaning my forehead against hers.

It was a risk. I knew it was. In any sane world, it was much too soon to be declaring love. We’d only just established that friendship wasn’t enough for either of us. But we were vampires, and once love took hold for us, that was it. Better that she know now how I felt. I hoped beyond all hope that she felt it, too, and that what was between us was more than lust for us both.

Bella’s eyes widened. She stared at me for long minutes that felt like an eternity. “Is that what this feeling is?” The wonder in her voice and her growing smile decimated my growing panic.

I smiled back. “I believe so. I’ve heard the thoughts of others as they fell in love many times in my life, but it is difficult to know how it truly feels. I don’t have Jasper’s gift, and often people aren’t aware of what they’re feeling so that it will translate to thought. But yes, I’m in love with you, Isabella Swan. Of that, I am completely certain. I can only hope that you return the feeling in the same measure.”

She placed her hand along my cheek once more. “If wanting to spend every moment for the rest of my existence with you, if the way my heart feels like it will start beating again, and if needing to be close to you even if we aren’t talking is love, then I think I do. I’ve never felt this way before,” she admitted, her lashes dropping to her cheeks in an obvious show of shyness.

I pushed a strand of wavy, dark hair behind her ear. “I think that describes it perfectly.  I have never felt this way, either.”

She peeked back up at me. “Is it okay to be happy about that? I mean, otherwise you’d already have a mate, and I—“ I swear, if a vampire could blush, Bella would have been just then. She tried to move away, but I held her to me.

“I would never want anyone else as a mate,” I murmured to her, my lips against the silk of her hair.

She melted into me, her dark head resting on my shoulder. “You’re sure?”

“Positive. I have waited almost a century for you, Bella. I’ll never let you go unless you want me to,” I assured her.

She was silent for almost an hour, and I didn’t push her. It was enough to hold her, to revel in the thought that finally—FINALLY—I had found the woman meant for me. And she couldn’t be more perfect if I had expressly asked for every aspect, from the silence of her mind to her striking intelligence, her humor, and the beauty of her face and form. She was even a vampire who had willingly switched to animal blood long before meeting me, showing a depth of concern for human life equal to my father’s. Meeting and falling in love with Bella was enough to make me reconsider my disdain of destiny, for surely my fate had always been to be with her.

Finally she stirred against me. “What next?” I barely caught her whispered question.

“Next, we take things one day at a time. I’m willing to go as fast or as slow as you need me to, love,” I told her. It was true. I could be content spending the next century courting her, if that is what she needed, or I would marry her as soon as Carlisle arrived. He performed the ceremony once every few years for Rosalie and Emmett, and he’d done the same once for Alice and Jasper. I did hope that Bella would want that sort of tie as well, but I was aware that these were different times, and I would have to approach the idea carefully. From what I knew of her history, Bella was the child of divorced parents, so she might see marriage in a different light than I did.

“One day at a time? I guess I can do that,” she replied, meeting my gaze again. That put her lips tantalizingly close, and I moved her away slightly before temptation could take hold.

“Meanwhile, why don’t I really show you around? I know of some beautiful spots around here that no human has ever been able to view.”

Her eyes glowed. “That sounds wonderful.”

I offered my arm the way I would have as a young human, and she slipped her hand into the crook of my elbow with a raised brow. Then we strolled off into the trees, and I could pretend we followed a cobblestone path to our next destination, a mountaintop where I knew we could watch the sun rise in a few hours. Shorter than Mt McKinley, it was usually overlooked by human visitors looking for the challenge of a good climb.

Chapter Text

That first night on top of Mt McKinley, Edward and I exchanged kisses as much as words, but I still learned so much about him. Even our trip north hadn’t felt as intimate as those hours on the snow-covered rock. Our arms were still wrapped around each other when the sun’s rays drenched the clouds around us in pinks and oranges.

That small idyll had to end, of course, but thankfully he didn’t insist that we return to the Denali clan’s home yet. Instead, he allowed me to convince him to hunt. I would never be able to get the image out of my mind, not that I wanted to. He was majestic as he stalked a large wolf and brought it down in one swift leap. The creature didn’t have a chance, and neither did I. The glint of blood on his lips and his bright golden eyes meeting mine sent me flying to him, and we spent the next few hours sprawled in the snow. We learned what spots were particularly sensitive to fingers and lips, but neither of us felt ready to take our new bond to the next step.

Afterwards, Edward did show me around the white wonderland of uninhabited Alaska. His love of this isolated place made sense considering his gift. With no humans around for miles and little to attract more traditional vampires to the area, the northern reaches of North America were a haven for him.

Eventually and with great reluctance we agreed that we needed to return to our cousins’ cabin. I confessed that I felt like a horrible guest, neglecting our hosts for so long. He assured me that they wouldn’t mind. We headed south, chasing each other through valleys buried in snow, startling the hidden wildlife.

Edward caught my hand as we encountered the faint scent of another vampire, one I recognized as Tanya. He tensed and drew me closer. I glanced up to see a brief flare of irritation flash across his handsome features. It was gone in an instant, his mask of patient indifference obvious to me after a few short days. I wondered that Tanya didn’t pay better attention to how little he cared to be in her company.

He caught me looking at him, and his mask slipped as he gave me a reassuring smile. My lips tilted in reply for a moment, but a whirl of strawberry blond hair distracted me. I was the first to see her, and it satisfied some primal part of me that Edward’s attention remained focused on me as she drew near. Tanya noticed, glaring at us both for a fraction of a second before donning her own mask, this one bright and bubbly.

“Edward!” she called, her voice sweet and light. “Oh, and Bella. I wanted to let you know that your family has arrived.”

Edward slowly turned his eyes toward her, although he drew me closer by our linked hands. “Yes, I’ve been aware for the last two and a half minutes. We’re not that far from the cabin, Tanya. You knew I would sense them long before we reached it.” His tone mocked her, a first as far as I knew. She reared back a little, mid-motion from reaching for his other arm.

“Well, yes, but Bella couldn’t know,” she tried to prevaricate.

“Did you think I wouldn’t tell her? You didn’t even give me a chance,” he scolded before turning back to me. “Are you ready to see the others, love?”

Tanya’s breath passed between her lips in a hiss at that, and I couldn’t help myself. I sent her a smug little smile and replied, “I’m more than ready. We have so much to tell them!” It was petty. I knew that even as I said it, but her persistent inability to recognize the boundaries Edward set for her needed to end. The sooner, the better.

“Thank you for letting us know about our family’s arrival, Tanya.” With that polite yet cool brush off, Edward led me away at a run.

The Denali house appeared through the trees, and I caught glimpses of familiar faces looking out of several windows. My smile widened. I may not have known them well yet, but the Cullens felt more like family than anyone I had known in years. It was comforting to someone who had been a nomad until recently, almost like wrapping myself in a warm blanket in front of a fire, or so I assumed from reading about that sensation.

Alice darted out to meet us, followed by most of the other Cullens. Rosalie, of course, stayed inside. For a moment, I wondered how long it would take the cool blond to warm up to me, but Alice’s squeal cut any introspection short.

“I knew it!” Her eyes narrowed in on my hand linked with Edward’s. If I were still human, my cheeks would have glowed with a dark blush, but all I could do now was turn my face into his shoulder for a few seconds.

Edward chuckled. “Keep it down, pixie. It’s not like you’re surprised often anyway.”

Alice slid her arm around my unclaimed one. “Come on. I want to hear all about your trip up.”

I turned back to her and raised my eyebrows. “You mean you didn’t see it all?”

She snorted. “I only checked a few times to make sure the weather was cooperative. Despite what some people might say, I try to give people privacy as much as my gift allows.” The twinkle in her eye ruined the mock glare she shot Edward.

I squeezed Edward’s fingers before letting go and allowing Alice to pull me inside. The large family room was empty, but it quickly filled with the other Cullens. I followed their lead and sat in one of the oversized chairs, Edward perched on the arm with his hand on my shoulder as if the brief lack of contact had been more than he could bear. I know that was how I felt.

“Our drive up was uneventful,” he told our family quietly. “We got to know each other, and I told Bella some more about our cousins. When we arrived, I took Bella on a hunt to show her around the park.” I felt him shrug.

Emmett grinned. “That’s all, bro? So tame,” he scoffed.

I was about to retort when Rosalie, who had slipped in behind us, smacked the back of his head with a loud crack. “Not everyone wants to brag about their personal lives,” she told him, still ignoring me but being more supportive than I expected. I appreciated her efforts.

Carlisle cleared his throat. He didn’t say anything, but his eyes locked with Edward’s beside me, and Edward replied to his silent question.

“Bella and I are in love. You may all rest easy now. I’ve found my mate,” he told them, squeezing my shoulder.

I smiled shyly up at him and then looked around. “I hope—I mean, I know you already accepted me into the family, and I hope you don’t think I’m taking advantage of that,” I managed to say, twisting my fingers together. I hadn’t felt so nervous since going before Aro to proclaim that I wasn’t willing to stay in Volterra. “I do love Edward.”

Emmett barked out a laugh. “Not sure how, little sis, but don’t worry. We forgive you for the obvious lapse in judgement.” Rosalie smacked him again.

Jasper rolled his eyes. “Please forgive our brother. He’s often an idiot. I can feel the love the two of you share. It is as powerful as any of ours,” he assured me with a smile.

Carlisle cleared his throat again, but this time he spoke out loud, changing the subject. “Our house in Talkeetna should be ready for occupation soon. I have accepted an offer from the hospital there, and when we move in you will all begin attending Matanuska-Susitna College in Palmer. Our story will be that this is my first position after my residency. I will be living with my wife, my younger brother and sister and their significant others as well as Esme’s younger brother, who are attending college nearby and staying with us to save money on rent.”

College. I never thought I would have the opportunity, and suddenly my lack of experience felt like an insurmountable chasm. I knew that my vampire brain would allow me to learn whatever I needed to, but I hadn’t even finished high school as a human!

Jasper sensed my unease. “Don’t worry, Bella. We’ll help you catch up on the necessary subjects. In fact, Carlisle didn’t mention you in his scenario because you’re going to be their foster daughter, homeschooled for the first year we’re here.” He nodded to Carlisle and Esme.

The Cullen matriarch gifted me with a sweet smile. “We’ll get you caught up in no time, and then you and I can get to know one another better while these five are in classes,” she suggested.

“I’d like that,” I told her, warmth blossoming once again inside me at the love in her eyes.

“We thought that introducing you as a bit younger, although not much, would be plausible enough to hold up to scrutiny from anyone suspicious, Bella,” Carlisle interjected. “You were younger than the rest of us at your change. Claiming that you are close to the same age would be a bit much until you get some life experience to add some maturity to your appearance.”

I nodded, a little disappointed. “Does that mean that everywhere we go, I’ll always be the youngest?”

“You already are,” Emmett snorted, ducking away from Rosalie. She huffed and rolled her eyes at him again.

I glared. “You knew what I meant,” I retorted, glaring at him.

He grinned. “Bring it, shrimp.”

Alice leaned forward. “Be careful, Emmett. That applies to either of us, so you might find yourself fighting two if you aren’t careful,” she threatened, baring her teeth at him a little. Then she smiled, as if she hadn’t threatened our brother with bodily harm. “Don’t worry, Bella. We’ll probably get to play twins often, like Jasper and Rosalie do. Usually that’s me and Edward, but you and I are much closer in looks, anyway. We’re more believable fraternal twins. Just give it a few years.”

Carlisle reined us in once more. “Are there any questions about the main cover story? We can flesh it out a bit more while we stay here with our cousins.”

Edward and I agreed that the story sounded good. As the conversation died down, a few of our Denali cousins joined us. Tanya and Irina were missing, but Eleazar, Carmen, and Kate came in and took some of the remaining seats.

Almost immediately, Carmen and Carlisle became involved in a discussion of local medical needs. To my surprise, Edward murmured to me that Carmen was a trained nurse and midwife who often went out to help when needed, although she attempted to stay in the background to keep attention at bay. He explained that she originally helped the local doctors in a small town in colonial Mexico several centuries ago, and one of her trips to check on a patient interrupted a vampire while feeding. In punishment, the vampire changed her. The desire to heal, not hurt, never left her, although she didn’t think about feeding off animals until she and Eleazar met the Denali sisters shortly after he left the Volturi. She persuaded her mate to try the diet change, which he knew about but hadn’t mentioned because he didn’t realize the depths of her disgust for taking human lives.

I marveled at them for a few moments before turning my attention back to Alice, who invited me to a girl’s night out with the other ladies in a few days. I was skeptical about the whole idea, but she turned those wide gold eyes on me, the most annoyingly cute pout demonstrating why Edward chose the nickname “pixie” for her.

“Please, Bella? It will be so much fun. We’ll dance, get away from the guys, gossip. Have you ever been to a club before?” Alice asked.

I sighed. “Alice, I was turned at sixteen, spent my first year as a vampire with the Volturi and my second as a nomad looking for Carlisle. No, I have never bothered going into a club.”

“Our little Bella is only eighteen? I never realized. Alice, you’re practically contributing to the delinquency of a minor by inviting her along,” Tanya laughed behind me.

I turned to face her. “I suppose I never mentioned how old I was when I attacked, but that’s hardly significant. Edward was only seventeen when he was turned, and you don’t look all that old yourself. None of you do. I’ll get older, even if I won’t look it, just like the rest of you. And I’d love to go to the club with you all, Alice.” I smiled a little at my new sister. “Although I hope you’ve figured out a way to get around how young I look.”

Alice tossed her head and grinned back. “Oh, don’t worry, little sister. Jasper began working on your papers before we left. We just need to snap a quick picture of you and send it to our man. You’ll have a new ID card, passport, birth certificate, credit card—everything.”

I was shocked. “I never thought…”

“Of course not. You’re not used to how we operate. It’s more than just having the backstory. We must have all the accessories of a normal life, and they get replaced each time that we move. Comes with being a Cullen,” Rosalie called from across the room.

“Unfortunately, we usually change our names a bit as well, although in our hearts we are Cullens. We try to stick with names we will recognize so we’ll respond correctly to them, either variations of our first names or our middle names, combined with any of the last names we possessed as humans,” Edward explained.

“Oh? So what’s my name now?” I should have felt upset. My name was my last connection to my past. But I would never be “Isabella Marie Swan” again, not the way I was as a human. So the idea of changing my name, even temporarily, was easier than I would have thought.

Esme turned from where she sat next to Carlisle, showing that she had been dividing her attention between our two conversations. “Your name while we are here will be Isabel Hale. We’ve used the Hale name recently, in Forks, but you weren’t with us for that. There shouldn’t be any danger in using it again. We,” she gestured between herself and Carlisle, “will be known as Ann and Carl Platt. Those two,” she pointed to Emmett and Rosalie, “will be Rose Platt and Samuel McCarty. And they,” she indicated Alice and Jasper, “will be Alice Whitlock and Henry Platt. Edward will be Anthony Masen.” She took in my wide eyes. “Don’t worry too much about remembering who is who in our own home, dear. We were going by our original first names in Forks, which should help you remember those. And we never bother with the fake names at home amongst ourselves. You’ll be fine.”

“Being a Cullen is turning out to be more complicated than I expected, and I expected quite a bit,” I tried to joke.

Edward squeezed my hand. “Don’t worry. You’ll get used to us,” he told me, his eyes shining down at me. I couldn’t help but smile back and agree.