A/N: Guys, I've just realised that the last chapter was the 40th (the same number of chapters as ECS) and we hit 2000 reviews! Thank you, I guess I know which of the two is the most popular now! You're the best.
I took Aro's offered hand upon stepping out of the vehicle, I was mindful of my heels sinking into the gravel beneath my feet and felt grateful for his sure grip beneath my own. Bella before her awakening wouldn't have dreamed of voluntarily donning high heels and dresses, but my evolved self adored the way the fabric whispered around my thighs and the confidence I felt in my heels.
Of course everything had been provided by Aro, after many assurances that money was no object to him after amassing quite a fortune in his three thousand years of existence. I wanted to look as powerful as I felt, I wanted to look like I belonged on his arm.
And since he had first dressed me in clothing he felt fit for his mate, I hadn't wanted to feel any less breathtaking than I had felt in that moment when his eyes had first raked over me.
So I had embraced the clothes, shoes and accessories, reassured that at least with my newfound ethereal beauty and balance, I didn't need to fear for my life quite as much when traversing regular ground in heels.
My powder blue dress stood out starkly amongst the black and red attire of the Volturi, I realized. I hadn't wanted to stand out from them, I had wanted to look as though I belonged. I frowned as I watched the others step from the cars and wished for a moment I had thought about this ahead of time. Alas, it was too late as the Cullen's poured forth from the front door of their modern home, Alice and Jasper quickly joining them, apparently pleased to leave the company of the Volturi.
My gaze met Aro's and the devotion in his eyes took my breath away for a moment, he roamed the length of my body with his gaze before crimson met violet again and held. He stepped forward and pressed a kiss to my forehead, his voice soft as he whispered to me.
"You are perfect."
I smiled at him and leaned toward his alluring scent, feeling like I drew strength from his words and touch before I turned to face the rest of the Cullen clan. All of whom were looking at me with various expressions of shock across their face.
I stepped forward, following Aro's lead as he moved to shake Carlisle's hand, his other never letting go of mine which I cupped between both of my hands as I sought to retain the strength I felt from his touch. I knew I must look like I was clinging to his arm, but I couldn't find it within me to care.
The warm weight of the Volturi pendant at my neck reminded me of my place at his side, reminded me of my power. I belonged here.
I withdrew my hands from his and stood, my eyes roaming over those gathered as Aro exchanged pleasantries with his old friend.
A notion occurred to me and I felt the immediate need to check my power was still with me. As ridiculous as it sounded, I was suddenly overcome with the fear that standing before the Cullen's I would be the weak little human I always was.
My eyes flicked over them all, one by one, before they landed upon my intended target. The strongest of them all, physically. If I could control Emmett, I would know I was still as strong as ever.
Fear crept up my throat for only a moment, doubt beginning to cloud my judgment as my world narrowed to Emmett's bulky form which was currently leaned against the wooden porch as he observed his father greet the leader of the Volturi.
It was an action seemingly innocuous, but I should have realized my error as soon as Emmett's eyes fell closed for a split moment before opening again and landing upon me.
Vampires didn't need to blink.
I was using my human brain again and quickly refocussed my attention on Aro, just as Emmett had begun to frown at me with intense consideration.
"May I reintroduce to you, my mate Isabella." Aro's rich, dark voice made me smile as I looked up at him from beneath my lashes before taking Carlisle's hand.
Carlisle bowed his head over my hand and greeted me with a whispered. "We are honored to have you in our home, Lady Isabella."
"Carlisle." I admonished lightly, aware the melodious tone of my voice was far from what it used to be. "It's still just Bella."
Carlisle smiled that wry grin of his and shook his gleaming golden head once. "Whilst I feel incredibly privileged to be granted such an open invitation of friendship and your favor, I must insist on remaining respectful, My Lady."
I raised a single brow, glancing to Aro once who looked inordinately pleased as his hand took up residence at the small of my back, where it traced soothing patterns.
Carlisle stretched his own arm outward, beckoning Esme forward who fell into her place at his side with an ease borne of many years together.
"You know my wife, Esme, of course." Carlisle looked down at his own mate with an adoration I recognized, it was the same all-encompassing love that Aro and I shared.
Esme stepped forward and offered her hand which Aro took within his own, bowing over it much as Carlisle had done when greeting me.
"A pleasure to see you again, Esme." He intoned before standing and looking over Esme's face carefully. He still held her hand in his and I knew he was watching her life flash before his eyes.
"You suffered a great deal in your human life, my dear… Leading you to love your family with the incomparable fierceness of a mother." He paused a moment before glancing to me. "You include Isabella among them, even still."
"A mothers love is as fixed and constant as the passage of time." Esme explained before turning to me and smiling gently, my fondness for the matriarch of the Olympic coven came back to me in waves and I stopped her mid-curtsy to pull her forward and into my arms.
She came with a soft "Oof!" of surprise and laughed softly as she returned my embrace.
"Goodness, you are very strong."
"It's wonderful to see you, Esme." I pulled back from her, my newly heightened eyesight taking in every detail of her flawless face and kind eyes.
"You're so beautiful," Esme exclaimed, her own eyes taking me in. "You always were of course, but you truly seem to have become the best version of yourself. She was always there, under the surface."
"Mm.." I agreed, turning to smile again at Aro who still remained at my side. "Clearly unlocking my lineage has been good for me… In the end."
Esme and Carlisle smiled at me gently, with warmth and welcome and only the slightest tinge of hesitance. I wished I could leave the welcoming committee here, but I knew Aro wouldn't let them off that lightly.
"And are the rest of your adopted children going to greet us, my friends?" He looked pointedly over their shoulder toward the frosty form of Rosalie and the large form of Emmett who had bulked himself up to the most gorilla-like shape he could. "I don't believe we were formally introduced at my previous visit."
I bit back a fond smile at Emmett's unnecessary show of masculinity. I knew Aro's strength and even though his form was less hulking, I didn't doubt he could overpower the larger vampire if necessary.
Not that he would need to, of course, he had me.
"Perhaps that was because you were so consumed with all things Bella, the first time you visited us." Rosalie appeared before us in a blink, her silken hair not moving an inch from it's perfectly coiffed style. She offered her hand, which I noticed were gloved in the finest silk.
I couldn't withhold my huff of amusement as I looked from her hand to her cold eyes which were looking at me with detached disdain. As if she had any thoughts or memories which could interest Aro.
Ever the gentleman, Aro took her hand and bowed, though the movement was so quick that had I blinked I'd have missed it. I recognized this as his own subtle sign of displeasure at the insult she had knowingly bestowed him by wearing gloves.
Rosalie stepped back, her frown a puzzled reaction to her proximity to Aro, I bit my lip and pushed down my amusement as I knew that feeling all too well. I bore her no ill will for her reaction, it was evident it confused her beyond her own comprehension. Aro, after so long on this earth, was alluring to both vampire and human alike.
"Rosalie, may I have the honor of reintroducing you to Lady Isabella." His tone was a warning, correcting her earlier familiar term, not that it bothered me.
Rosalie and I nodded to each other cooly, my own eyes hardening as I began to feel irritated at her derogatory expression. My gaze traversed the length of her and, as if I found her lacking in some way, I blinked and met her eyes with a raised brow in challenge.
I almost wanted her to react, I could see the fury buzzing around her much as it had when we'd first met so long ago in their kitchen. Just as I knew she was teetering over the edge of her rage, Emmett appeared and offered his hand to Aro.
"Emmett." He introduced himself, a short and gruff bark of his own name which still sounded pleasing to the ear.
"Ah, I have seen and heard much about you. A pleasure to see you again." Aro shook his hand firmly and seemed pleased that without his prompting, Emmett turned to me.
Though that pleasure soon evaporated as I was gathered into rock hard arms and hoisted into the air and then spun in circles.
"Bella Swan where have you been! Look at you all Volturied up and badass!" He crushed me to him in a hug and I couldn't help but laugh and hug him back.
"It's good to see you too Emmett." I opened my eyes from my vantage point with my arms wrapped around Emmett's shoulders to see Aro observing with an eerily cheerful smile, only apparent in its falseness by the jumping of his jaw as he ground his teeth. "You better put me down big guy, before all hell breaks loose."
Emmett did as he was asked and smiled widely, offering his fist forward and I rolled my eyes before meeting it with my own. I then stepped back, feeling Aro's hand return to my waist as I smoothed my hands down over my dress and hair, ensuring I didn't now resemble a disheveled mess.
"And where is Edward?" Aro asked Carlisle as though he had only just noticed the absence of the bronze haired vampire.
"I hope you'll forgive him Aro, but he asked to be excused from this initial meeting. He will return this evening, he has assured me." Aro pursed his lips in annoyance but nodded once.
"Hm, in that case, I will need to choose someone else to inform me of the events which have brought us here." His crimson gaze roamed over them before a satisfied smirk lifted his ruby lips. "Rosalie my dear, may I?"
He held out his hand and I had to bite my lip harder this time to restrain my smirk. Trust Aro to find a way around Rosalie's little trick. There was no way she could refuse a direct request from the leader of the Volturi without causing incredible offense.
She hesitated, her eyes straying to Carlisle who urged her forward with a single nod of his head. Still, she did not move.
"Rosalie!" Carlisle admonished. "Forgive her Aro, she-"
Aro held up his other hand, removing it from my waist to do so whilst his right hand was still pro-offered toward Rosalie's frozen form.
"I'm curious as to why you are so hesitant, young Rosalie. Not hiding anything, are we?" He tilted his head and another whispered admonishment from Carlisle toward his adopted daughter seemed to echo around them. Still, she did not move. "Such a shame, I did not wish to sully a reunion between friends with such distasteful actions. Alas, you have left me no choice."
"Aro, please-" A single glance from Aro was all it took to silence Carlisle. No doubt he expected Jane to unleash pain, or Alec to numb Rosalie's senses in order to take what he wanted from her mind.
I wished I had a camera to capture the shock on all of their faces when Aro instead turned to me and crooned softly.
"Might you convince Rosalie that it is in her best interests to do as she is bid, my love?"
Rosalie scoffed quietly in derision. It was a sound I wouldn't have heard before, but now it echoed around me loudly and I felt my power thrum in my blood in response as it waited to be unleashed. I looked from Aro to Rosalie.
She seemed confused as she did so, her widened eyes moving frantically to the rest of her family before landing back on me. Then came the fear and realization and I reveled in it before making my next command.
Take off your gloves.
This time she fought, her entire body shaking with the force of it as she removed one elbow length glove and then the other. Gasps went up around us from the Cullens and I tilted my head at Rosalie.
"Are you going to do the next part of your own free will, or do I need to do that for you too?" I asked neutrally. She seemed to be considering it and I sighed and shook my head. "Not everything needs to be a fight, Rosalie. The end result remains the same whether you do this willingly or not."
Her eyes darted around once more and upon realizing I was right, she stepped forward once more and offered her hand to Aro.
"Thank you." Aro continued as though the entire interlude hadn't occurred and merely placed the backs of his fingers against the palm of her hand.
A moment passed where it seemed every Cullen was strung tightly, ready to leap to the defense of their kin.
"How disappointing." Aro breathed as he removed his knuckles from Rosalie's skin. "Rosalie's memories contain nothing of interest."
His confirmation seemed to soothe the Cullen's but rile Rosalie. I almost wondered whether she'd rather be condemned for her thoughts at the cost of remaining the center of attention.
"As this matter is one of such… Delicacy. We thought it proper that there be many witnesses to a crime such as this, I won't waste your time by introducing them all individually, but I must formally introduce my brothers. Marcus, Caius won't you come and greet the Cullen's?"
The proper introductions followed, sharp and irritated from Caius and disinterested but polite from Marcus.
"Let us go inside, shall we?" Carlisle prompted, after formally introducing his family to the other leaders of their kind, clearly eager to disrupt the tension-filled atmosphere.
Aro led first, as respect dictated, with me on his arm. As we ascended the steps he tilted his head so that his lips caressed my ear as he whispered.
"Rosalie only wished to hide her envy of you, my dearest. It seems her pride has been wounded. I am pleased it is nothing more sinister, for Carlisle's sake."
"Envious of me?" My disbelief was plain and Aro shook his head slightly in exasperation.
"And still, you do not recognize your power. You are perfection, my darling. You live and breathe and yet will still experience an eternity of time with your love. You can walk in the sunlight and live life as a human should you wish to. As a vampire who resents her own creation, Rosalie has everything to be jealous of, dearest one."
When he put it like that I understood a little more, though in all honesty, I was sure her dislike of me from my human days had merely carried over now that I was a vampire.
The Cullen's home was large, there was little doubt about that. However squeezing in the entire Volturi guard, leaders and the Cullen's into the property was proving… Challenging. A host of red eyes flicked around the place in judgment, whilst golden eyes followed those cloaked in Volturi red with more than a hint of suspicion.
"Aro, Marcus, Caius, you are of course all more than welcome in our home, though I fear it is not quite vast enough to suit your needs for more than a day or two. I'm not sure our business will be concluded quite so quickly?" The soothing sound of Carlisle's voice coupled with his diplomatic phrasing had many a female in the Volturi fluttering their lashes at him, though he did not notice.
"Do not fear, old friend. Our business will be concluded tonight. I have no intention of lingering here." Aro's crimson eyes cut to mine, as if only just considering I might have planned to stay longer. "Though of course if Isabella would rather stay a while after our business is concluded, we shall seek alternate arrangements for our stay, however long it may be."
Carlisle seemed at a loss for words for a moment, to give him credit, his mouth gaped only slightly as his eyes darted between us both.
"I'm sure Charlie would want you to hang around for more than a day Bella, in fact, he's on his way here now." I didn't need to turn around to know who had spoken, I would know that voice anywhere. It was the voice that had first catapulted me into this world, therefore I was unsurprised to see him standing there, his bronze hair ruffled and his marble features etched with equal pain and assurance.