Preface: "Aro's Memoria"

"Memory is a beautiful thing, is it not? Yet how blind the natural mind—even the preternatural mind—is to the full exquisiteness of the thing. It must be like viewing a single plane, only one glassy facet, of the most flawless diamond.

Not that I would know.

For I am gifted, and my gift fully realized to the extent of its potential. I can turn around a memory to view it from all the perfectly-recalled angles of my experience. Then, I can view it from a fresh viewpoint, from the mind of any that might have born witness to the event. Ah, the unexpected facets and the way the light of memory reflects and refracts through them! It is truly exquisite.

Exquisite for some memories, painful for others—Oh, but even then, it is an exceptional pain, is it not? I would not do without it! No, not for one moment of regret, not for one moment of piercing betrayal, of heart-wrenching torture. Not even for that one, that one . . . memory . . .

I have viewed it from all angles, that one moment. I still fail to comprehend it. Why was I struck nearly dumb by that man's mind? What was that indescribable sensation that stole through my soulless being? Even now, how intrigued I am by him, how very fascinated. Even after all that has come to pass, I remain so.

Melancholy! Every time I begin twisting the kaleidoscopic lens of memory towards those days, I fall into such a mood. What is this loss, this regret? How could that man cause such a feeling in me, even now?

Carlisle, dear Carlisle Cullen . . ."


1. Fate Is The Reward Of A Discerning Eye

[Aro's POV]

Haze clouds a human being's memory, unbalances the scales of pleasure versus pain. The worst recollections can become cherished under the right circumstances. Details fade, events, words, faces warp, and, to salve old wounds, the mind slowly melts ugliness into beauty. Life is beautiful! Love is perfect! My life was worth living! Understandable sentiments coming from such short-lived beings. When you have a scant few decades of life to live, how can you not trump up overblown meaning and beauty to glorify it? When the end is death, how can you not try to justify the slow, grinding, limited means that brings one there? I speak of life, of course, mortal life—What a means, to such a pointless end!

It is a luxury I admit has its uses, but not one I can afford. It is one of the many prices (all worth it) I pay for a life eternal. Thus, when I bring his face back to light, on a night some hundreds of years past, I can see it there before me exactly as it was: every graceful line and curvature of his softly handsome face, every flicker of light that played across his curiously golden eyes, every crease of his expression and every emotion it betrayed.

The world was larger then, grander. There was no cynicism about beauty, no restraint in the lushness of art, no shame in decadence. The last of the worthwhile centuries, alas! Immaculately-coiffed, freshly powdered, and decorated in garments of silk and lace, intricately elaborate, the nobles glowed in the tender orange light of the dozens of candles. I wonder if humans, with their insufficient vision, appreciate the way I did the graceful diffusion of the fire's spectrum illuminating all with a wan, unsteady force? It was a lovely contrast, against the rest of the encroaching darkness in a world unexposed by the vulgar electric lighting that would come later. The darkness huddled people closer together, haunted their sky-cast eyes, made them dream in loneliness . . . or, rather, dream against loneliness.

Marcus, Caius, and I were out from evening onward, as was our wont, searching languidly for whatever may come our way: particularly delectable food, an interesting vampire, an ill-fated offender to put to trial, even a promising human prospect for immortality. Marcus, poor man, never had much interest in anything since the loss of his mate (such a tragic end I was forced to bring upon my poor sister!), and Caius was in a foul mood. I, however, lost myself many a night in the arts. These were, mind you, true arts, treasures that would be esteemed for centuries thereafter. Those I did not accumulate physically, such as jewelry and paintings, I accumulated in my memory. None on this Earth holds an equal gallery of memories: performances of the stage able to sweep you into the very soul of the script, symphonies crafted rather than simply played, the sight of a master painter setting his model to the canvas, the manic genius glimmering in the eyes of a pianist setting down the notes of his next piece; every sound (a brush wetly spreading its paint, a chest-deep cry from a lead actress in the throes of imagined misery, the tense, tentative hold of a note on violin strings), every smell (intoxicating rich oils, dusty chalks, the scent of a tear tracing down a powdered cheek), every touch, all as vibrant and exact as the moment of experience.

That night, it was the opera. Being less than two hundred years old, I held this form of expression to be quite modern still, and I had, by that time, fallen in love with it. It was amazing to see the power of a symphony set to a tangible story, underscored by the sound of voice and word. At first, I thought the play aspect juxtaposed with the symphonic aspect would diminish the subtleties of both, but I soon found they complimented and even enhanced one another.

I sat in the balcony, but apart from Marcus and Caius. Through touch, I had read their opinions on this particular opera before, and knew these thoughts were not particularly insightful or interesting. With my preternatural abilities, it was possible to both watch the performance unhindered while still scanning the crowd. On this night, I wished for new company, a fresh mind to unfold into mine. It had become a game of sorts to me, trying to guess which patron might be worth my interest with nothing but their expression and their eyes to guide me. Yes, it would have been easier to brush through touches and minds beforehand or afterward, in the lobby, but that would mean actually having to wade through the mundane and mediocre thoughts of a crowd. I had done it before, but it became so wearisome that I ceased. Over the years, I had become much more discerning with which minds I would allow into my perfect gallery of memory.

I saw him nearly from behind, with a sliver of profile visible when I shifted slightly aside in my seat. His hair was golden blond and swept back off his face, short enough to have no ribbon tying it back. I knew what he was, of course, from the soft, smooth white perfection of his skin. He was fairly young, the skin not so translucently chalky as great age brings. He wore a tasteful, pale blue jacket trimmed with silver accent, the ruffles of his ascot and lacy cuffs of his sleeves frothing about his skin airily. He sat completely still, motionless, his cheek poised against a hand with obvious affectation: a smart enough man that he had learned to mimic human posture. His profile was straight, elegant, and promised a classical beauty. I was intrigued by this teasing fragment of a face, such features etched delicately in vampire marble skin, the gilded gloss of fair hair, the way his heavy but pale eyelashes graced the hollow of his purple-shadowed eyes when he deigned to blink. What I could see of his expression showed the pain of a sensitive man unafraid to be so. Such gentility!

My divided attention turned from the opera to focus on this enigmatic figure. I longed to see the rest of that face, to revel in the exactness of the beauty I knew he must possess. I longed to touch him, see what sort of mind this genteel monster may have. My fingertips pressed together in a steeple, as I imagined how his hand might feel against them.

The man must have sensed my gaze. During a brief intermission, his head turned, revealing his profile in its entirety. Yes, he was serenely gorgeous, as I had known all along; his was the face that inspired the masters' angels of mercy in their cathedral paintings and frescoes. Such a profile! Had I a heart, that sudden view would have sent it racing, I am sure. As it was, I merely froze, staring completely at him now.

He turned his face more, and brought it fully towards mine. He sat below the balcony, and the eyes lifted up at me were sharp, intense, yet without suspicion or malice; he looked merely curious, as a child might staring up at a strange adult. Those eyes, however, they disconcerted me. I could not have been mistaken in assuming he was one of us, the evidence was there upon his very skin, yet—Why were those eyes the same unmistakable shade as that rich, golden hair?

The question pierced through me, I admit, with an alarm I had not felt in years. What was this man? One of us, surely, but different! More powerful, or less? A threat? The ridiculous thought that he was, actually, an angel ran through my mind.

I was unaware of my face betraying anything. When I viewed this memory back through the man's eyes, later, I cannot see how he possibly discerned my alarm from my still, if very minutely tense, face. But he did, and so he smiled a quiet smile up at me. Imagine, he trying to assuage me!

Somewhat affronted by the notion, I smiled back warmly. The man turned back to the stage, as the curtains rose again, and I forced my eyes to lift from him back to the performance. Spitefully, I refused to look directly down at him again.

Of course, I would have to meet him. Of course, I would have to feel my way through his skin to his mind. However, I was suddenly in a strange mood, part combative and part jocund. Perhaps I would not brush my hand against his first thing. Perhaps I would let language set the stage for my journey through his memories. It seemed a shame to end this little mystery so soon, with just a careless, callous, stolen caress. How would it feel to be mentally blind for once? How would it feel to take that bit of risk with this worthy man?

It was dangerous, even stupid, I knew. The pleasantries of those centuries could easily float you into a dream-like ennui without warning, and I was prone to such a mood as anyone else was. The shock of facing an unknown quantity, such as seeing those strange eyes—It was like the sting of a lover's whip, with an undercurrent of tenderness beneath the burn and perversity (or because of it?). Suddenly, I wanted to be prone, if only to test what this stranger might do with such an opportunity. I had not been searching for this, but suddenly I wanted it more than anything, now that I found it available.

Speaking with a voice too low for the other humans in the balcony to hear, I explained to Marcus and Caius that I would diverge from their company after the opera. Marcus said nothing, of course. Caius asked if we might part ways now, as this cacophony bored him. Irritated, (for it was a brilliant performance), I allowed him to go. My two companions left me at the next intermission, and I brooded over how they could have left the dramatic finale unwatched.

Well, no matter. I was alone with this beautiful stranger of mine, whatever he was. That was all that would matter this night, and perhaps for many nights ahead.

I followed him, at a great distance. He was speaking to friends, and his voice was of the most mild, pleasant tenor and refined cadence. He was carefully insightful about the opera; I could tell he was holding back his true feelings, out of consideration to those unable to understand them or that might be offended by them. There is a fine line between acceptably intellectual and passionately eccentric, and it takes a fine mind to recognize where that line is drawn. The friends fawned on him, though he held politely aloof, and addressed him as 'Dr. Cullen'.

A . . . doctor? The idea was so ridiculous that I nearly burst into laughter on the spot. He must be some sort of expert outside the medical field, so accomplished intellectually that it had earned him the title. Either that, or he was not a vampire, after all.

I continued to follow him out onto the street, and then down it. Fortunately, he had no carriage, another sign he was most likely one of us (we prefer, always, to walk down the streets, soaking in the scents of the night). I walked and walked after him, and could tell he was aware of my presence.

Later, I saw through his memory of that walk that he was frightened. He was deathly afraid of me! Ha! To think! I saw no trace of it on his features, excepting the slightest tension at the corners of his mouth. The way one handles their fear is always one of the most telling gauges of how civilized and intelligent one is.

"Dr. Cullen?"

That was when I saw the fear, in a stiffening of his spine, a lift of his chin. Dr. Cullen stopped, turned to face me, and then smiled again. This smile was not soothing, but cautious. "Hello?"

We were in Italy, and he spoke perfect Italian, but there was a vague trace of English accent on his syllables. Ah, British, then, of that proud and high-reaching empire.

This was the moment. How should I play this meeting? Grasp his hand in a shake, and gain the immediate advantage? Witness his very core through his memories, all of them? But then . . .

"Hello? Dr. Cullen?"

"Yes?"

"Ah! I have heard so much of you!" I lied smoothly, clapping my hands once as I walked up to him. He was tall, I noticed suddenly, a bit taller than myself. Whether he believed this lie or not was of no consequence, as I could always touch his hand and prove my claim through his own memories of his friends and acquaintances. A bit bolder, I went out on a limb, as the saying goes, with the next statement, "We share a number of passions, it seems, yes? With the arts?"

Cullen smiled, this smile the loveliest of them all, revealing his rows of pearly white teeth (I noted in the glimpse the pointed fangs—one of us for certain). "Indeed, Sir—Mm. I am afraid I am at a loss, being known and yet not knowing by whom."

"My name is Aro."

"Cullen, Dr. Carlisle Cullen."

Our hands met, and there was nothing. Gloves! Of course, of course . . . I mused that the game would go on, and had the thrill of a blindfolded man.

Carlisle stared at me openly, with that innocent curiosity that was so honest. "We seem to share more than a love of culture, Sir Aro."

I waved a hand. "Aro, only Aro."

"Aro, then."

"And what would you say we share?" I inquired, watching him closely. I could not guess from his manner whether he was timid or bold, as his politeness held him at bay.

"Given our similar complexion, I would say we might share the same diet."

It was a brilliantly tactful reply, and I laughed. Carlisle joined me, and we stood for a moment, nothing more than two like men grateful of the company. No one had met me that way in ages. It was always fear, suspicion, dread, even outright hatred. They always knew who I was, and the wild ones that did not were to be put on trial, usually, anyway. To meet an equal as an equal, now that was a singular event for me.

We walked together, speaking of the opera. Our conversation verged onto the subject of art itself, and easily then into the complexity of viewing art from an immortal one's viewpoint. Neither of us ever said the word itself, had no need to.

I gathered from the limit of his knowledge that he had seen only a couple hundred years, if that, but was worldly despite the relative youth. He had traveled the world studying all worthy things: the arts, the sciences, that plane between both we call philosophy, and medicine. I had to bite back my incredulity of his claim to be a medical doctor, as the strength of it would surely frighten the man, but I knew this would be one of the first things I would prove or disprove upon finally unraveling his mind. A practicing doctor! How could any vampire stand the torment of that?

"You are quite different," Carlisle told me as we neared his neighborhood. "Quite different," he repeated emphatically, "from the, er, others that I have met thus far."

"Is that so?" I murmured softly. We had stopped walking, by the door of a certain respectable building. Not very far from the hospital, I realized, and again wondered how he managed it, if his claim were true. Even here, I could discern the hearty aroma of flowing blood, and it was arousing my appetite. "What others is it that you speak of? Those of your own country?"

Carlisle looked a touch wistful, and nodded. "Yes." He paused, looked at the building, and faced me again. "Aro, I would very much like to speak with you more intimately. Would you like to come in with me?"

I put a hand on his shoulder, nodding. "I would like that very much, Carlisle."

We went upstairs to his rooms. His home was tasteful, not yet familiar (he had only recently come to the country), and the main furnishing seemed to be books. Many things seemed imported from other countries, and there were a few items that were obvious mementos. We needed no light or warmth, but Carlisle lit a fire for us, regardless. We sat in chairs before it, and our voices were hushed below the threshold of human hearing.

"Vampire," Carlisle said gravely. He gave me a grim smile. "That word has been the unspoken tie that has bound us together tonight, is it not?"

"Not only," I insisted, a tad too strongly. I made certain my voice regained its normal, higher register before continuing calmly, "I do not know how much you know of our world, but there are many vampires. I would never boast, but you might say that I am in a position to keep company with any of them that I would so choose."

"Oh? Then, I take it you are a man of great influence?"

"Yes," I said, modestly lowering my gaze, "it is true. Carlisle-" I shifted the chair across the floor soundlessly to be closer to him, and met his eyes. "Have you heard of the Volturi?"

Carlisle looked embarrassed; he might have flushed were he human. "I'm sorry, no."

I smiled, knowing that he had not and enjoying his small discomfort. "Ah!" I stood, pacing. I saw his eyes upon my feet, and later I would learn through his memory that he thought I looked as if I were floating rather than walking at all. I was purposefully letting go of my facade of harmlessness, giving him glimpses of the gravity of my real power. "But of course, you have been isolated from other vampires, correct?"

"Yes. From civilized ones, in any case."

"Then let me tell you." I was in the chair at the man's side again, a hand upon his sleeved arm. His hand was bare, and I was stricken by the urge to see his mind again. Soon, I assured myself, soon now. "I shall tell you who we, the Volturi, are."

Carlisle was still and pensive as he listened to my lengthy history. The fire crackled, blazed, then began to grow dim. The darkness of the night deepened, the noise of the city hushed into sleep.

"So, there are others!" Carlisle exclaimed triumphantly, on his feet. "Oh, Aro-" He put his hands upon my shoulders. "You have no idea how I've suffered, believing myself to be some anomaly! I wondered how I could have reason and intelligence. I wondered how I could possibly desire order from the chaos of being what I am. But you have formed an organization, a justice system—a sort of government."

At last! For so long, I had toiled tirelessly to defend my rule. I had met such resistance, had even been doubted by some of my own followers! It felt so very good to be not only understood to be a necessary evil, but to be appreciated for my efforts, my goals.

At this pang of joy, I snapped down to reality. I realized that I had believed every word and sentiment from Carlisle, that I—I—was taking him on faith. This brought my guard up immediately, and I knew that I would have to test his honesty now.

Carlisle would never know how his life hinged upon the next moments.

"You understand me, then?"

"Yes, I do," Carlisle told me. "Not only that, I admire you, Aro."

How naïve. I smiled. "You may not be so kind were you to witness our justice in action, Carlisle."

"I would dislike it, I am sure, but I would never question the necessity," Carlisle said, with more strength than I had yet seen in him. He walked to the window, stared out, and a shadow passed over his face. "Believe me, after all that I have seen . . . "

He turned to me again. "You came up here with me to learn of my past, did you not?"

I watched him, the smile on my face feeling ironic rather than natural now. What lies and darkness would I find in the mind of my golden genteel? I felt a rare anger at my gift, ingratitude. How dare the truth ruin my illusion of this wonderful man!

"Shall I tell you?"

"No."

Carlisle looked confused. "But, I—Have I offended you?"

"No, no," I said, waving a hand at him. "No," I repeated more softly, in front of him now. I breathed in, noting his complex scent of sterility and warmth, as that of pine and honey, old resins beneath. I looked into those golden eyes, and I was amazed at how pleadingly my intended command escaped from my lips, "Show me?"

Carlisle's thin brows etched the worried frown into his face artfully. "How can I . . . Aro, I do not understand?"

I raised my hand, palm facing him. Normally, I would explain afterward, but I felt Cullen deserved a bit more courtesy. "There are those of us who come into the eternal night with gifts beyond that of the usual," I told him. "I am one such gifted. Through touch, I can see through the mind of any being I so desire. If you allow me, I shall bear witness to your life."

"All my life? My memories, my thoughts?"

I nodded.

"All of it?" Carlisle breathed in shock.

"Yes."

There was a brief pause of consideration. I saw Carlisle's eyes take me in, and could tell he was questioning my trustworthiness. The resolution came in his eyes a moment later, and he smiled warmly. He took my hand in his own. I had intended to take his, but there it was.

The memories rolled into my mind in a hot rush. The emotions were so very strong that I was nearly drawn into them. There is always the danger of losing oneself during this experience, of slipping into the being of the other, confusing your own mind with theirs for just a second or two. This man's agony and loneliness, his desperation, was such that I nearly felt like tearing my own being apart to escape it.

Yet worse, even worse, was the purity. I was right to take him at his word, because he was all he seemed. His soul was so good, such an exceptional example of mercy and love, that it was more painful even than his torment.

Woe is he that touches the mind of a sinner, as he may turn to sin himself. But damned is the man that touches the mind of saints, for he shall drown aspiring to its light. These sympathies were incomprehensible to me. They would have been rare in any mind, but in that of a vampire! How, how? Oh, how could a soul like that reside inside that beautiful but accursed shell? I felt his determination, his doubt, his hope, hope, hope . . . A hope so bright that it burned me to my core.

I gasped. My entire being reeled. I not only broke the grasp, I flew back into the wall. Carlisle froze, paralyzed with fear, and stared at me. For a moment, I was furious with him. I was furious at his goodness, at his hope, all his insane dreams. I hated him. I hated him . . . because I could not understand that goodness, and I wanted to. I so desperately wished . . . that I could.

"Never!" I cried accusingly at him. "You, you . . . unnatural, insane, foolish . . . foolish man. Ha!" Still shaky (internally, of course not physically), I pried myself from the wall, where I had left indentations where I gripped it. "You have never killed a man. You have never tasted human blood!"

Carlisle looked chagrined. "No," he said softly. "I could not."

I paced, thinking deeply. "Yes. Yes, I saw that."

"If you saw it, why do you question me?"

His voice was soft and anguished, but there was an undertone of exasperation.

"Why!" I echoed harshly. "Would you not question the Earth, should it stop circling the Sun? Would you not question the birds, should they stop their singing? We are what we are, Carlisle Cullen, and that is the damned!"

Carlisle turned his face, and for the first time, I saw anger permeating his linear, smooth features.

"Or was your father mistaken in his crusade?" I asked. "Hm? Was his every belief wrong, his every battle fruitless?"

"No!"

"Then!"

"I deny nothing, you must know that," Carlisle told me. "Do you believe I put myself on a pedestal to persecute our kind? I do not, Aro."

He was before me suddenly, grasping me by the shoulders. He searched my eyes, and must have found doubt there, for he placed a hand to my forehead. I shuddered inwardly as his thoughts rolled into mine.

"I see." I drew back from him. "I see."

Carlisle's hand did not move from my face, but slid down to my cheek. He brushed aside a lock of hair that had escaped its tie during my violent movements, and tentatively directed my face upwards. I lifted it, met his eyes.

"I may be a fool, and I am certain that my lifestyle is a delusional one," Carlisle told me. "But it is the only way I am able to exist. It is a personal choice, Aro, and I harm no one, break no law. I persecute no one, please do not . . . do not persecute me."

"Of course not!" I snapped. "Do you think me some sort of barbarian? Do you think that I toss around judgments on whims?"

"No, I do not."

I took his face in my hand, brought it very close, and inspected those eyes. So, they were of a different hue because he sated his appetite only with the blood of beasts. The irritation began to leave me, and scientific curiosity took its place.

"Fascinating, the effect your aberrant diet has had," I observed. "I wonder if there are any other changes? Hm." I released him, walked back, stared him over. "Fascinating," I repeated, pacing around him swiftly. "I would not have thought it possible."

Carlisle said nothing. I touched his hand, discerning his thoughts. He was hopeful that his way of life would not ruin our new friendship. "Of course not!" I repeated. I halted, clapped my hands together, and beamed at him. "In fact, you must travel home with me!"

Carlisle looked stunned. "Home?"

"To Volterra." I motioned in its general direction. "Surely, you've heard of our domain?"

"Ah, of course, Volturi, Volterra. Yes, I have heard much of that immemorial place."

"Excellent! You will come, yes?"

"I would be honored."

We left arm in arm. I was delighted, absolutely delighted; for I had found a new treasure, and had no doubt in my mind that he would be mine to keep.


2. History Is A Single Note Sung In A Thousand Voices

Carlisle Cullen was amazed at the sight of magnificent Volterra. We toured through the night streets for some time outside the castle, and I pointed out the significance of certain monuments and abodes. There was much hidden meaning in this place, it was on the surface human and beneath, a monument to our kind. Carlisle was impressed, but I could tell the cruel irony we enjoyed behind the humans' backs was something his gentle soul could not be humored by.

As we walked, I realized how long it had been since I had brought someone into the city and introduced them to our legacy. It had been even longer since I had done so without being more than patiently tolerated. But Carlisle was enraptured by it all, and I often grasped his hand in mine to share his awe and impressions.

Caius and Marcus met us in the courtyards surrounding the front entrance.

"We wondered what had happened to you," Marcus informed me, his tone anything but ponderous. It was evident that Caius had been complaining to him, and Marcus, by speaking at all, was letting me know it.

"Not that we should have," Caius said, critically eying Carlisle. "I should have known you had simply found a new pet."

Carlisle looked at him with bland interest, and Caius stared coolly back. I could see a barely-perceptible start in Caius' eyes when he saw the golden orbs of Cullen's, which settled then back into confused hatred. He obviously wished to know what sort of freakish vampire I had brought home with me this time. I was far beyond the point of being anything more than amused by his stubborn disapproval.

"I bring a prospect, dear Caius, not a pet," I informed him, stepping aside. I introduced Carlisle grandly, much to his embarrassment. Nonetheless, he stepped forward, and politely shook hands with Marcus. He offered his hand to Caius, who glared it away, and then hovered closer to my side. I put an arm around him, my hand brushing his neck. He felt that he was out of his league among us ancients, a commoner among royalty. So he was, but I was determined to change that.

"You bring more filth that would dirty our name," Caius said with soft anger. "Or have you forgotten that last abomination you attempted to sully the guard with?"

"Trial and error, dear one, trial and error," I told him patiently. My hand still against his neck, I felt Carlisle's alarm at being singled out as a prospective member of our organization, and gave him a calming smile.

"Of course." Caius forced a smile onto his face. "Well! We all have our hobbies," he said condescendingly. He bowed, "I shall bid you goodnight, then, Aro. Cullen."

I gave him a look, not a very pleased one, but he was unruffled by it. On his way past, he gripped my hand in such a fast, slight gesture that no one else noticed. I saw the last scene replayed, clouded by irritation and exasperation; Caius was fed up with me, more so than usual. I could hardly blame him, as my last 'prospect' had turned out to be . . . well, less than favorable, let's say.

To my chagrin, Carlisle asked me about it by the time we had entered the main building of the castle. At times like that, I occasionally wished that my telepathy went both ways. How much easier it would be to be able to transmit my own thoughts to another, instead of tediously relying on language to spell things out.

Nonetheless, I found Carlisle easy to talk to. I explained to him the necessity of furthering our understanding of the 'undead race', as I sometimes call it. The mortals had their sciences, and so I was determined for vampires to have theirs. Damned though we may be, while on this world we have unrivaled power, so why should we not advance it?

Carlisle agreed with my studies, if not my viewpoint. He was excited that I had scientific vision, as he had been researching the same subjects on his own. His studies, however, were limited by lack of contacts within the vampire world, and largely relied upon half-baked human mythologies and superstitions.

"Not very useful, I am afraid," he chuckled ruefully.

"Not necessarily," I said thoughtfully, going through his knowledge in my mind. "You found some interesting insights in some of the lesser-known corners of the world. And your suicide attempts were quite insightful. I would not have thought ending one's own life would be so difficult. Then again, I have never met a vampire that had tried."

Carlisle looked pained and disconcerted.

"Oh, why give me such a look?" I asked. "I meant no offense, I am genuinely interested."

Carlisle considered for a moment, and then he relaxed. He was sitting in an ornate chair, in an affected casual posture that was very becoming with his tall, elegant figure. How right he looked here in one of our great libraries, surrounded by wisdom and luxury.

"While we are on the subject, if I may—How do you eliminate a vampire?"

I looked at him suspiciously.

"Not that I would make use of the knowledge," Carlisle assured me. "If anything, I am much too curious to die now. Besides, I believe I can . . . help."

I smiled warmly at him, though my amusement was due to a sharp pang of ironic amusement. How naïve he was. Our kind was beyond 'help'; we were a force of power to be regulated and controlled, that was all. I was no savior to vampire-kind.

"I may still-"

Carlisle broke off. I could tell he was aware of his own naiveté, but he should have known better than to be anything but candid with me. For I had seen his mind, how could he hide anything from me after that?

"Yes, you believe you may still do good in this world," I put it to words for him. "That is . . . admirable. I have done great things for us, even if my intentions were not so pure as yours are. So, in a sense, it is possible to 'help', as you so generously put it. The science of our kind is what brings me to seek out unique vampires, to bring them here-" I motioned around the room. "-to our hallowed fortress. I nurture and protect the exceptional, you see."

"A task easier planned than carried out, I assume?"

"Ah, you are perceptive," I laughed. "Yes, yes, there is much hassle. Many wonder why I bother at all. But for all the failures I have had—and those are useful in that they weed out . . . uniqueness of an unsavory kind. For all that, I have gleaned talent that you would not believe, talent to rival my own!"

"Such as?"

"Another time, I will introduce you to my guard," I told him. I took the chair beside him, moved it closer to him, and leaned in. "For now, let me tell you of the experience poor Caius is still so sore over."

I only told Carlisle the latter half of the story. The first half of the grudge Caius bore against me at that time concerned my methods in garnering talent. Caius is one of the original three, you see, but not apathetic as Marcus is. Thus, there are times when he begrudges me my leadership. He knows that I am put in my position not only because it was my idea to form this coven, but because I have a gift when he does not. Though he is a dear friend and ally, there are times that he would rebel against me out of spite. As of late, he had been harping on the idea that I was recruiting soldiers with a loyalty to myself alone, and not allowing he to bring in anyone that he might deem worthy. I explained to him that only I could be certain of potential loyalty, due to my telepathy, and that if I had ever rejected any of his prospects, it was due to flaws in their character that would be hazardous to us. He insisted that I was lying about what I saw in these minds, eliminating only those prospects I thought would be a hazard to myself. As if I would ever falsify my accounts of a person's mind! . . .

In any case, he was already consumed with anger towards me due to these unfounded suspicions. We had been forced to eliminate a coven, and I had brought in only a single prospective recruit of the lot. The man was bright, cunning, and ambitious, but had no ill intent towards us. In fact, he was grateful to be rescued, and thanked me profusely. His talent was a profound one: he could instill fear, primal and paralyzing, in any creature. I had such hopes for him.

Time passed. We trained him fully, and he took his place in the guard. Till this day, I ponder what changed in him, what went wrong. Was I too inattentive? True, once recruits had proven themselves in the guard, I became infrequent in my tactile 'interrogations' . . . Still, the change must have happened in less than one week—one week! What could happen to a man in that period of time to cause him to turn against those that spared his very existence?

But change he did, and this was the latter half of the story that I told Carlisle. This vampire waited until he was with us in the hall for a trial. We had a female vampire prisoner, charged with trying to sell immortality to willing customers like some street corner harlot selling her body! Of course, we put her to death, but before we could . . .

It was a dreadful scene. The fear spread into all of our minds, like ice suddenly overtaking our veins, ice so much colder than even our dead bodies. The sensation took root, sharp as needles, and brought us all into the throes of terror itself. Some were screaming, others rambling, still others moving about in intangible blurs of panicked motion. There was the sound of tearing, shattering, all things breaking and being jostled about in confused violence.

Worst of all, we had awaiting trial a rare werewolf. These mad half-beasts were uncontrollable under the best circumstances; incited by mortal terror, this one became a living nightmare, and none was lucid enough to restrain him.

Poor Caius has always had a fear of the werewolves, and his horror overtook him upon the sight. He was attacked, and did not even defend himself. I shall never forget the sight of him on the floor, shrieking as a frightened child would. He was terrorized to the point of impotence, bereft of all his preternatural power.

It was quite interesting. I would not have thought any of us capable of such feeling.

This interest brought me out of the induced fear enough to combat it. It took much doing, but I rallied those of the guard I could. Once we had some defenses back, we were able to subdue the entirety of the crowd. The werewolf, the woman on trial, and the fear-inducer were all decimated in our attack on the spot. I was incensed at this invasion into my psyche, and condemned all others awaiting trial to immediate death. Any witnesses that may have proven troublesome later were also cleaned up (a fact I left out for sensitive Carlisle's sake). The chaos ended, but the damage had been done.

"We are very rarely breached, you see," I told Carlisle. "Imagine, being a nearly invulnerable force for over two thousand years, and then being rendered helpless in an instant! No warning, no chance to fight, you are simply-" I snapped my fingers. "-inept."

"I see."

"Do you?" I smiled. "You cannot possibly see, but I am sure you understand. Predator does not like to become prey. I admit I took a risk trusting such a powerful vampire so quickly, but I honestly had no idea . . . I still wonder, myself, how he went wrong. I shall never know, even I! Caius has no right to blame me!"

I was on my feet and pacing. Until I spoke the words, I had not realized how much Caius' disapproval bothered me. More than offended, I was hurt. Caius knew me, had spent nearly three thousand years by my side, and still he mistrusted me! Why was he so difficult?

"He thinks I am frivolous," I went on, with more emotion than I intended. "He believes that I am following whims! Whims? He knows how much time I spend on this research, how many precautions I take, the lengths that I go to . . . He knows how much the Volturi have benefited from my studies! And still I get this disrespect! Has he witnessed nothing during the thousands of years that we have kept company?"

Carlisle was thoughtful, almost languidly so, as men that ponder for pleasure often are. "Perhaps he harbors a jealousy against the gifts that you possess and seek in others?"

I turned to him. Had he cut through to the heart of the matter so quickly? I had, despite my complaints, of course known the root of Caius' disapproval, but I never imagined a stranger could guess it so easily.

"You said that Caius has no extra gift," Carlisle continued. "He is one of the very few of the Volturi that does not possess one. Could it be that his anger is not directed at you per say, but at all vampires of talent?"

"You really are remarkable."

Carlisle's golden eyes gazed at me.

"Yes, I have seen such a sentiment in Caius' mind, and I suppose it is the cause of his incessant reproach. Despite all I know and see, however, I am not beyond being surprised by the thoughts I behold," I admitted quietly. "I am even less beyond being . . . hurt by them."

Carlisle touched my face, and I felt his sympathy. He thought that it must be a lonely existence of a kind, to see into so many minds yet have my own mind unfathomable.

"Yet not unfathomable to you, Carlisle," I pointed out. "How understanding of me you are. You are so young, and I so old, yet our wisdom is strikingly similar. It is truly amazing."

"I am not wise," Carlisle said modestly. "All I am is an idealist, perhaps a fool . . . You've seen my compassion. That is what brings understanding."

"Yes, but a compassionate idiot would never understand me the way you do," I insisted. "Such a creature would be placating, overbearingly so, with blind devotion. No, Carlisle, you are most definitely not a fool, but a man wise beyond his years."

"Even considering several natural lifetimes of years," Carlisle chuckled softly, looking wistful.

"Even so."

He looked doubtful, though appreciative of my words. It really did not matter whether he believed me or not. The man was the kind that would go on with his choices if he believed them right, no matter what doubts he or the world had about them. Nor did he feel the need to surround himself only with those that agreed with him. For such a gentle man, he had a surprisingly thick skin.

"I would like to hear more concerning the special gifts some vampires have," Carlisle said to me after the significant seconds of silence. "The vampire that induced fear into the minds of others, Marcus that sees the relationships between people, and your tactile telepathy—All have to do with the mind. Are all the gifts so?"

"Not all," I said. "Most of the gifts I have come across are mental, the effects take place only in the mind. Many more are ambiguous. However, there are occasions where the effect has been purely, undeniably physical."

From here, we became absorbed in a discussion about the gifts. Carlisle was fascinated by the subject, and offered some surprisingly keen insights and hypotheses. As we spoke, I imagined the years we would spend together disentangling the knotty mysteries of the supernatural. Why, with his analytical prowess, the research would be much more expediently accomplished. Besides, I would be gaining a non-telepathic opinion, completely unbiased yet as insightful as my own.

Beneath my assessment of what Carlisle would bring to the Volturi, I also felt a strong anticipation to what he would bring to me. I had thought that my mood was ennui, but it was not. It was loneliness. I had fallen into a state of isolation, as the superior usually do. Even with my mate, my dear wife, I could never be completely honest. As one that can plumb the depths of secrecy, I knew more than any how imperative it is to keep yourself guarded, to forgo the accessibility the unimportant can afford.

I also knew how solitary a life this could be.

Even among my own, I was set apart. It had been that way since my creation. Carlisle spoke of his belief that even after being turned, one might retain a glimmer of their 'soul', an echo of their mortal life's character. It was sentimental when he said it, but I saw practical truth in it. I had always had ambition, and an acerbic view of people. To me, all, including myself, were individual pieces in the grand chess game that is the power struggle of life. Those were times long past, ancient and brutal. Death was a casual thing to those that dared played the game. Lives were collateral. Even as a human, I knew this, and was determined to make the most of the violent scheme. These traits carried over into my immortal non-life, and amplified. Was this an essence of a soul, then?

Whatever it was, it kept me on a level far beyond even those two I came to power beside. Marcus barely counted as an entity, with his ludicrously permanent state of desolation. Caius was closest to being a peer, but he was without any gift, any exceptional trait besides his utter practicality and ruthlessness. The same attributes that drew us together, however, also had the tendency to repel us from each other.

Would things be different with this Carlisle Cullen? He was the first vampire I had ever met with a mind pure enough for me to feel comfortable letting in so quickly, so fully. I was still greatly reserved, of course, but much less than I would usually be.

Would it last?

Ha! Does anything ever really?


3. What Is Art To Those Who Cannot Dream?

Dawn came, day began, night fell, and the cycle repeated itself endlessly. Carlisle remained at the castle, and we went through a new quarter every day, discussing everything and anything. We never bored one another. Even when he fell silent to peruse the ancient texts of our library, I found myself content to simply sit watching him. His thoughts grew deeper by the day, his insights more profound. He was so near to becoming one of us, there yet remained only a few aspects of his nature I would have to test. I admit that I delayed doing so, wary of any failure that might ruin his recruitment, and separate us.

"How it must be to watch the world turn for nearly three thousand years," Carlisle murmured to me one day as he we strolled the gardens. His skin was pigmented by millions of facets, it seemed, and it glistened and gleamed beneath the sunlight. In the ivory suit he wore, surrounded by gracefully vine-traced roses, his powdery yellow hair swept back neatly, he looked as close to a god as any being on this planet might.

We were safe from prying eyes behind the towering walls surrounding us, and the guards positioned within these walls who stood watch eternally for straying humans (such humans, even if they managed a glimpse, would become whatever next meal was expected).

"Wonderfully fascinating, awfully tedious, and all things that fall between," I chuckled. "It is not something I would relinquish, still. The ages have rolled over me as raindrops roll over the walls of this castle. Yet I shall never crumble beneath their pressure, am not allowed to give pieces of me to sate their gentle abrading." I turned to him, and added, "Neither shall you, Carlisle."

Carlisle looked at me thoughtfully, and fell silent. He ran his fingers over the petals of a deep red rose, down the stem, the thorns breaking off beneath his touch. "Immortality," he said quietly. "People that last forever."

I plucked the rose from its stem and placed it in Carlisle's breast pocket. "Nothing lasts forever."

"You make a good try at immortality, still, Aro."

I smiled. "So, you have seen through to my real intentions, have you? Already!"

"I am afraid I have," Carlisle said. He touched my face, that I could have a glimpse of his thoughts. Nonetheless, he phrased them, as was his habit, "Your sponsorship of artists, musicians, authors; your actions to inspire their works, your signature on so many masterpieces spanning the ages, the genres, the countries, the world—You are trying to achieve true immortality."

"Not to say that I do not enjoy these pleasantries, but you are right, my strongest motive is to become the first real immortal in this world," I admitted to him. I had never spoken this ambition in words, not to anyone, and the words felt bold on my tongue. There was a deep thrill at stating such personal, secret things. "I have lived longer than many vampires in this world, and have seen more than any other ancient. I have seen our kind come and go, unseen and unheard and insignificant to time despite their mastery over it."

We sat on an iron wrought bench, and must have looked like sculptures of diamond and ivory seated there. The garden was so very still, the dappled sunlight sparkling off our skin the only motion. No birds dared venture out here, nor any kind of animal. This was the Eden of Satan, and they all knew to keep away.

"Secrecy makes our remaining behind the shadows of normal history necessary," I said. "Of course, I would never betray this one law of our world. To do so, while enforcing it so strongly, would make me worse than a hypocrite. I would doom our kind forever. No, I would not betray us that way. How, then, to make my mark on history?"

"Quite a clever solution you have found," Carlisle mused. "To leave your image in paintings, your words in the most important tomes, your feelings swaying the chords of symphonies. Brilliant."

"Oh, I merely had much time to solve the problem," I said modestly, though his words flattered me. "My first acquaintances with talented people came about at random, my influences came at their requests. Years passed, and I forgot much of those old associations and works made in my honor. When I saw many works surviving through the decades, then centuries, and coming back to my notice . . . that was when I realized that if anything in this transient world has a chance of lasting forever, it is creation. So, I began my forays into claiming immortality through the arts."

Carlisle nodded. He leaned his chin upon a hand. Despite his time here, away from humans and the need to mimic them, he still gestured so. His golden eyes even blinked at set intervals, and he not once ceased breathing. He was most comfortable this way, I had seen in his mind, it gave him comfort to cling to these traces of humanity, false or not.

"It almost . . . verifies my existence," I said. "It soothes my mind to know that even whilst I may spend hundreds of years languishing within the castle walls, somewhere in this world, I exist. When I am finally gone, Devil forbid it, I may yet whisper from the pages of books to people, and watch them from portraits hung upon walls. That, you see, that is immortality."

"Should you-" Carlisle stopped short.

"Yes?" I reached out to touch him and see his thoughts.

"No, no, please, don't do that," Carlisle said, sounding slightly stressed and waving my hand away. "Give me a moment to organize my thoughts. I do not wish to offend you."

"Nonsense! I am never offended by honesty," I assured him. Yet, I respected his wishes, and did not touch him. "Ah, but I know you well enough by now not to know what you are thinking without seeing it myself."

Carlisle looked uncomfortable, almost pained. He was a man that valued politeness and tact to a fault, so my ability to cut through to his rawest impressions disturbed him. I tried to respect his privacy, but I loved looking into his mind so.

"You are wondering if anyone should grasp at immortality," I guessed. "The echoes of the church you and your father served come ringing down through the corridors of time to tell you that only God is eternal. Well, perhaps so, but we are already damned, Carlisle. In a way, it is freeing, to be released from fear of God so completely."

"You have given up, then?" Carlisle asked me. "You believe you have no soul?"

"I do not have a soul."

Carlisle moved closer to me on the bench. "I cannot believe that."

This was not the first time the issue of a soul came between us, and I knew it would not be the last. If Carlisle was uncomfortable with my delving into his mind, I was uncomfortable with Carlisle delving into my soul. Well, into whatever he might be mistaking for a soul, in any case; for I believed then, as I still do now, that we are damned and soulless beings. We are demons upon the Earth. If we have remnants of personality and feeling from our mortal lives that have carried over into our death with us, it is negligible. Can spirits not linger to haunt after the body is dead? But would you call a ghost a soul, a person? No, you would not.

"Aro."

He lay his hand on mine, and I, for once, refused to use the opportunity to look into his thoughts. I did not want to see these naïve, hopeful sentiments. They were unnerving, a flaw in my perfect Carlisle, and they made me feel something unfamiliar, almost . . . almost heartbreak. I did not understand the feeling, and I was not used to losing control of my emotions.

"I cannot believe it," Carlisle repeated.

"That is easy for you to say," I said, standing, my hand slipping out of his. "You have yet to see me kill."

Carlisle did not move an inch, but I got the sense that he went internally rigid. His eyes winced. It was one thing to hear of the trials I placed fellow vampires on, the executions delivered, and to know vaguely that I consumed humans, but it was quite another to witness any of this in person.

I was ridiculously self-conscious. I had not wanted Carlisle to see me as . . . as what? I was what I was supposed to be, he was the one with delusions. I had nothing whatsoever to apologize for, so why was I being so self-conscious. No, no, it was time, I decided. It was time Carlisle ended his denial, and saw what vampires, consciously and rightfully, really are.

As if on cue, Caius and Marcus were suddenly before us. Carlisle stood. Caius turned his cold eyes to him, but said nothing. He had not warmed to Dr. Cullen during the weeks he had stayed with us. In fact, I believed his hatred of him had deepened; I say 'believed' because Caius would not let me put so much as a fingertip upon him, keeping his wholly mind to himself.

"Oh, dear Aro," Caius greeted with, his voice dripping cynicism, "your eyes are so dark." He lifted my face to his own by the chin, and I noted his hands were gloved. "Will you be missing another meal today?"

I patiently ignored his condescension, as it was never worth rising to his challenges. "As a matter of fact, we-" I took Carlisle's arm in my own. "-shall be joining you today."

Caius raised his almost white eyebrows, and a flicker of an amused smile danced on his usually sullen lips. "What a pleasant surprise," he said, turning his eyes to Carlisle. "Doctor, we are honored that you would deign to dine with us."

Carlisle's lips formed a thin, grim line. He looked at me with wounded eyes, searchingly, pleadingly. I knew that he wanted me to rescind the invitation, but I made it evident through my features that I would not.

We swept through the gardens, and then on into the main building. At any given time during the day, we had hundreds of staff members and visiting, loafing aristocrats in the castle. A group of so much as ten could go missing a day, and no one questioned the loss. These circles were all so temporary and shallow, it would be more noticed if groups did not come and go frequently.

Today, it was women, a small harem of six that thought they were entertaining lustful men that could not contain their desires till night. Caius had gathered them in my bedroom (a room hardly used, save for as an occasional prop). Carlisle stared either at the floor or out windows, anywhere but at the lovely human women lounging naked on silk damask pillows and velvet cushions.

Hunger overtook me, and I knew it must have at least tempted Carlisle. Though I still wanted to bring him to his senses and feed him human blood, my main objective instantly became eating. Mindless, dry, aching thirst and hunger sharpened my instincts, my senses, and crawled through my body like a disease.

"Ah, Caius, they do smell delicious," I said, staring with widened eyes at the girls. A raven-haired beauty with plentiful cleavage had presented herself before me, and was stroking my neck. I did not bother looking into her mind, caring nothing for her or even her splendid body; these women were food, not one wit of anything else. And sex could not compare to the ecstasy of eating, certainly not sex with weak, grotesquely soft-fleshed humans. I smiled at her, and she stupidly mistook my hunger for mere sexual desire.

Carlisle hung by the door, and if he were human, he would have been trembling. The pain was etched onto his face in lines I did not think his smooth visage capable of creasing into. In the throes of my hunger, which he must share,I felt furious at him. The reaction was so human, so insipidly concerned, that I hated him for it.

As if to prove my point, I turned my fury on the woman. I pulled her head back by the hair, and moved my face to her neck. Her groan of pleasure caught in a gurgling attempt at a scream, but it was far too late for her to protest. The paper-thin membrane of skin broke easily against my teeth, the muscle cut away like sponge, and the artery burst, rushing warm, sweet, delicious blood into my mouth.

Marcus and Caius had already been through two. The remaining three were aghast, unable to utter a sound. Barely three seconds had passed.

"Join us, doctor," Caius sneered with a ruthless grin at Carlisle. His boyish face had smudges of blood at the cheeks; he enjoyed the messiness of eating, and rarely left a meal with a clean face. He wiped the droplets from his skin, and licked it from his fingers.

At this point, one of the remaining three women shrieked. Marcus idly broke the necks of the three, taking one as a second meal for himself. Even he, a shell of a man, was pleased to be sated.

"I-"

Carlisle looked at me for help. My fury returned. I dragged one of the lifeless women to him, forced her into his arms. Her head rolled back limply, exposing the sinewy veins beneath her olive skin. I sliced through her neck with a fingernail, and blood rolled from the wound steadily. "Drink," I urged him.

Carlisle stared at me with the same horror the mortals had had. "Aro."

The look shocked me, and I was bitterly disappointed. "Drink!" I demanded, forcing her wounded neck closer to his face.

"No. Please."

There were no tears, but I knew he was crying. He dropped the woman from his arms, and cried out in anguish. "Please!" he begged again, falling to his knees before me. His hands grasped my jacket at the hem. "I can't."

The room was still, silent save for the sound of rushing blood. For the first time, my attention was diverted from my hunger. Everything cooled within me, went hard. For the first time, we were not simply two men joined by friendship. I was Aro, leader of the Volturi, de facto king of the vampire realm, and he . . .

He was akin to a blasphemer against us all.

"You would humiliate me like this?" I whispered in a voice the other two could not hear. The words seemed to not be spoken, but twist and wrench from my throat, almost shaking. "Do not be a fool, Carlisle. You must eat."

"I will go out into the forests, or to the farms in the valleys close to here," Carlisle told me. "This, I cannot-" He stood, facing me with certainty outweighing the distress. "I will not do this, Aro."

"Then let's not waste this delicacy on him!" Caius said urgently. He scooped the woman off the floor, looking woefully down at the blood that had seeped into the carpet already. He brought her to the other two dead ones, and he and Marcus were done with them in moments.

"Enough!" I cried at him when he was still sucking greedily at empty veins. I turned on the two. "Get these remains out of here, and go. Go!"

Marcus nodded listlessly, carting all the bodies with him; he was gone in seconds. Caius lingered, staring at me. To my surprise, he no longer looked amused, did not even snicker.

"Aro-"

"Leave me, Caius," I snarled. I was in no mood to hear his gloating, and was sick of his disloyalty and-

Caius, passing me, lightly touched his lips to my forehead. I could feel the genuine sympathy in his mind, coloring thoughts: Poor Aro, I could have told you this would happen. He was not worth your attention. But you never can help yourself, can you?

I would have preferred gloating to that pity, to be perfectly honest. I saw myself through Caius' eyes, as he saw me, and was horrified by how small, how shattered I looked. I forced all the emotions from my face, and brushed away from him. Caius squeezed my shoulder in a gesture so quick Carlisle did not even catch it, and left.

Carlisle stood uncertainly, fearful. I did not want him to fear me, now that my fury had calmed. I did not want to be one of the dark shadows that clouded his pure mind, along with the mindless sewer vampires that had turned him, and the snarling idiot ones that had plagued he and his father.

"Now," I soothed him, "they are gone. It is only us."

"Aro, I . . . I should go, I-"

"Shhh, no, no," I said. "The fault is mine. I knew your compassion, but I refused to believe it was so strong. Though I had seen it, felt it, I still . . . "

I tore out the spot of carpet with the bloodstains. Wearily, I brought it to him, and saw his lips tighten. "You must feel the thirst," I insisted. "Here. Only a taste, of a woman already long dead. One taste, Carlisle."

Carlisle turned his face. "Aro, I cannot."

"Just!"

He went to move away, and I caught him by the hand. The impossibility was there in his thoughts. Every moment of the previous scene burned with disgust, sorrow, and pain.

"No," I admitted wearily, "you cannot. I see."

"I am sorry that I disappoint you, but I . . . I won't apologize for my choices," Carlisle said. "I know you, Aro. You are refined and intelligent." He squeezed my shoulder. "You would respect my lifestyle, even if you do believe it aberrant and deluded. You would let me have my delusions, would you not?"

"Certainly," I said, trying to sound as indifferent as I could. It would not do to be so affected by such a little thing. Why it even bothered me so deeply, I could not even say. "It is as you say, I am no wrathful god, out to force his ways upon all. In fact, your refusal to consume humans makes you the least dangerous vampire in the world." I laughed shortly. "It at least ensures you will never break our law of secrecy."

Carlisle's golden eyes were still cautious.

"You are welcome to your denial," I said flatly. "I have my experiments, and I shall simply take this as one of yours."

Still, why did it bother me so? I knew that Carlisle's motives were not self-righteous, the opposite really, but I felt slighted. My mind wandered back to the first time I saw him in the opera, those golden eyes startling me, how I wondered for a moment if he was more than a vampire. The thought affronted me, made me defensive, and that was where those moments of fury came from. Carlisle's pure soul bearing witness to my inborn, uncontrollable dark hunger . . . I felt shamed, dirty, more evil than I had felt in hundreds of years.

"I will go," Carlisle said suddenly. "I am sorry to have . . . offended you. I wish things could be different between us."

"You will go nowhere, Carlisle," I told him firmly. I looked up at him curiously. "Do you really think a petty disagreement like this would cause me to let you go? Unless, of course, you wish to leave us?"

"I would rather stay," Carlisle said earnestly, "but I thought, well . . . I thought my nonattendance of, er, meals would offend you?"

"Not at all, so long as you refrain from bringing any musky animal blood within the castle walls," I chuckled. "Fair enough?"

Carlisle smiled his warm, bright smile. "Perfectly fair, Aro."

In truth, any other vampire I would have lost interest in, and let go. Doubtless, Caius would be shocked. I was a bit surprised myself. But Carlisle was one of the most interesting and beautiful vampires I had ever known. If Caius was right, and the Volturi were a collection no different from my art galleries and treasuries, then Carlisle was to be the crown jewel of it.

- Fin -