Carlisle waited until Bella's breathing had become even. Her mumbles of her father, Edward, and even him faded as deep sleep overtook her. Even in the midst of dreaming, she looked thin and exhausted, the stress and lack of food having caught up with her even more than it had in Forks.
She had been through so much in so little time.
It was hard to think, even a week ago, she had simply been convincing Edward not to marry her.
He hoped this would be a reprieve for her, that the worst was behind them, but Carlisle couldn't believe that. Not yet at least.
He pulled her blanket up higher, regarded her prone form on the couch, and for a moment just stared. It was silly to keep guard over her like this. They were safe here, Carlisle believed that. Whatever danger they faced from the Volturi, at least in terms of their lives, it had passed.
Yet he lingered all the same.
He forced himself to breathe, to look at her for a final second, then quietly made his way out of the room. His path was easy and thoughtless, because although it had been centuries, he had taken it thousands of times before.
In no time at all he found himself standing outside Aro's study.
Unsurprisingly, Aro was still inside, and before Carlisle could so much as knock, he commanded, "Enter."
He had been waiting for him, just as Carlisle knew he would.
Aro was seated at his desk, buried in papers and books, a familiar sight. Those books might contain anything from Aro's histories, detailed accounts of events witnessed through his own eyes as well as others', human histories that Aro was in the midst of editing, detailed budgets for the guard as well as taxes owed to the human government, scientific papers in any field that caught his interest, and everything in between.
Anything and everything could be found in Aro's study.
At Carlisle's entrance, Aro carefully set the papers and books aside, and looked across at him with a nervousness Carlisle had rarely seen in the man. Aro watched, wordlessly, as Carlisle took a seat across from him, the very one he'd vacated only a few hours before.
They stared at each other, centuries spanning between them. Only, when Carlisle's mind had strayed to Italy in his wanderings, when he imagined returning to visit…
When he'd been alone, it felt too much like giving up, admitting that he had found no likeminded kin out there in the wider world just as Aro had prophesied. Later, when he'd made Edward, it had always seemed too soon and Edward too young, then his coven far too human, and then Alice's gift far too tempting.
Bringing them to Volterra, even for a visit, had not been something he could contemplate in any seriousness.
However, he had imagined he would greet Aro triumphant, introducing his oldest and dearest friend to whatever companions he had found. They would greet one another as friends, Aro would be surprised at Carlisle's success, but happy for him. Perhaps, in seeing just how long Carlisle had survived on his malnourished diet and just what he had been able to accomplish, he might entertain the idea of Carlisle's it. Though, this last had never been much more than an idle fantasy, he had left knowing that Aro would never change his ways.
Still, Carlisle had never imagined it would be like this.
That it would be silence that stretched between them.
"I imagine you have questions," Aro said, his voice barely more than a whisper, quiet as if that might soften the words and the implication behind them.
Victoria, Seattle, and Jane's damning appearance after the last minute.
"You could say that," Carlisle responded, unable to help his wry, bitter, humor. However, the questions he had didn't follow, he could not find the words to voice them.
It did not matter though, Aro knew them all, he had seen them haunting Carlisle's mind. Aro had now seen everything, and as a result, it was not Carlisle's turn to speak.
Now that he was alive, that Bella was alive, he would see what Aro had to say for himself.
"You should know that I deeply regret the—what happened in Seattle," Aro said, "There is no excuse I can offer for any of it. For our tardiness and lack of response, for—I know there is nothing I can say that you will readily accept."
Carlisle said nothing, because while an expected answer, it was a useless one. Of course, there was no explanation Carlisle would accept, defeating the newborn army was the Volturi's primary duty, it was why they existed in this world and why Carlisle had such respect for them. However, just because there was no good explanation didn't mean he expected nothing.
"I did not expect Victoria's brand of madness," Aro confessed, staring at his hands, "The Latin American covens, they remember the Volturi well, each of them was touched by the last time we purged their ranks and reminded them of the law. They quake in terror of us even now and govern themselves, building their numbers just to the limit of spiraling out of control."
He breathed out, letting out a soft, wry, chuckle, "Victoria took note of their tactics and created an army within only a few months that doubled the numbers of the newborn covens, with no experience in handling such a mass of newborns, in a city with a far lower crime rate, all for the single-minded goal of killing one human girl."
Aro looked at Carlisle helplessly, "Such a thing, Carlisle, it had never been done, not in this modern age. For all the signs, it very well could have been gang violence or a serial killer plaguing Seattle. Vampires are not always the answer."
Carlisle said nothing, was sure that nothing showed on his face, because as it was the Volturi eventually had put two and two together. Perhaps it was later than expected, perhaps it took an embarrassing number of CNN news cycles, but they had.
And they had sent Jane, and Jane had arrived damningly late.
"I know what you suspect," Aro said, "That I purposefully gave Jane, the guard we sent, the order to stall. To wait and—thin out your numbers. I assure you, Carlisle, I did not."
"Then it was Caius?" Carlisle asked flatly, and Aro winced.
Carlisle was sure he hadn't wanted to say as much, hadn't wanted to confess as much, but such actions had Caius written all over them. The question was, how could Aro possibly not have known and if he had then how did this not show his implicit approval?
"I was lenient on Edward Cullen," Aro explained, "Edward had—Carlisle, I know you hold him dear, but he had broken the law multiple times and in a matter of minutes. Had he been anyone else, I would not have let him go. Certainly, Bella Swan would have been turned in Volterra. However, Alice's vision gave me the encouragement I needed, I was confident Bella Swan would be turned. It was… not encouragement enough for Caius. He concluded that, when it came to you and yours, I could not remain—impartial."
"And so, you let my family stand and fight with children in your place," Carlisle said flatly, only to sigh and run a hand through his hair.
Why was he sitting here? What had he expected from this conversation? No apology would be good enough, no explanation would be good enough, there was nothing in this world that would make what Aro had done in any way understandable or alright.
His feet had carried him here all the same, waiting for when Bella would be asleep for a conversation that didn't concern her, and now he was wondering why he bothered at all.
What did it matter to Aro, that one of them could have very easily died that day? And for what? Because Caius didn't like that Aro had made a decision, that he had decided to punish the Cullens for that?
Carlisle stood, intending to make his way out, and halfheartedly offered, "Thank you, Aro, for your hospitality and the explanation."
"Wait!" Aro said standing from his own seat, "Please, Carlisle—do not walk out now. Please."
Carlisle felt exhausted, "What else is there to say?"
"I know—" Aro said, speaking the words too swiftly, as if they were escaping him before he intended to release them, "I know that there is nothing I can say, nothing I can do, to explain or apologize for what happened. I know, it is why I have not tried, nothing beyond a congratulations for Bella's wedding. But Carlisle, never doubt that I care or that it will ever happen again—"
"Of course, it won't," Carlisle said dully, "At least, not to my coven, my coven doesn't exist anymore."
Aro winced again and looked chagrinned as he said, "That is not what I meant."
Aro sighed, then appeared to give up on trying to apologize, he changed topics to offer his condolences, "For what it's worth, I am sorry about that. When Edward came, I was—pleased, that you had found the people you were looking for, that you were no longer so lonesome."
Carlisle sighed as well and sat back down, feeling all the anger leave him for the moment. Suddenly, being angry with Aro didn't seem worth it anymore, not when the coven in question didn't exist anyway, "Well, nothing lasts forever, you told me that."
"Even so," Aro said, "It was such a sudden thing… You're still in shock, you know."
"Am I?" Carlisle asked, he supposed it did all seem very distant to him. Esme leaving, Edward leaving, coming here to Volterra. Carlisle had been living from moment to moment for days now, the moment he slowed down, he was sure that everything would hit him.
Then, looking at Aro curiously, he asked, "Was it truly sudden? To me, yes, but—"
Aro's lips quirked humorlessly, "Edward's mind is—I would not choose to linger there. However, for what it's worth, he would not have seen such an outcome either. From what he saw of your family, I don't think they would. No, I suspect this was a shock for all."
Then how could it have happened?
If none of them had wanted this, none of them had foreseen this, then how could they have arrived here all the same? Suddenly, it seemed absurd to Carlisle that he should be in this position when no one in the world had ever desired this outcome.
"I keep thinking that they'll be waiting for me," Carlisle confessed, "That, when this is over, Bella and I will return and—"
And they would all still be there, as if Bella and Carlisle had only taken a short trip. Esme would be there, smiling as she embraced him, and so would Edward as he—
Carlisle could not picture him embracing Bella. Instead, all he could see was the way Edward had looked at her before he left, the disdain and contempt in his eyes.
Carlisle closed his eyes and forced the memory out, later, he would think on that later.
He had already texted Rosalie and Emmett, they were the only ones who expected such texts now. He had warned them to keep their distance from Volterra. Oh, they were no tempting prizes for Aro to win, and if it was hostages for Alice's gift that Aro wanted then he had them in Bella and Carlisle already. They had nothing to fear from the Volturi, but just the same, Carlisle would not see them here.
Rosalie had reluctantly agreed but demanded daily updates.
In turn, Rosalie and Emmett would see to the house, to the investigation into Bella's disappearance, and all the rest of it. He hated leaving that to them but, well, it felt like there was nothing else he could do.
When was the last time he had ever felt so helpless?
When he was very young, when he thought death was his only option, and then death refused to do his bidding. It had been far worse then, he had been mired in hopelessness and despair, but since that moment there had always been some path forward.
Except, for all Carlisle had lost his own footing, it seemed the girl he'd brought with him was walking surer than ever.
Carlisle smiled across at Aro, not sure why he was smiling or why he was even saying anything to a man that very well may have tried to murder him only a few months ago. Perhaps, in this dark hour, Carlisle needed a friend even if that friend was Aro.
Regardless, Carlisle found himself musing, "Bella's handling it surprisingly well, but then, I'm starting to think that girl is utterly unflappable."
Such an indomitable will, trapped inside such a small, frail, body. Edward had always lamented Bella's stubbornness, and yet, it seemed to have served her so well in the brief time that Carlisle had known her.
Certainly, better than his temperament had served him in the last few days.
"She's truly a remarkable girl," Aro agreed, "I thought so the first time I saw her. It's not every human who would enter this city for the sake of a man who does not love her."
At that Carlisle felt his smile slip, "What are you—"
Aro just gave him a look, something old, sad, and tired, "Carlisle, you know this yourself, and Bella knows it as well. Edward does not love her, he never did."
Carlisle swallowed roughly, "I thought—"
"You hoped," Aro corrected him with a sigh, "As I hoped when I let Bella Swan leave with him as a human. However—she had the right of it, Carlisle, or at the very least the… essence of it. Edward was in love with the idea of being in love. The girl, he didn't know her at all, let alone love her."
Then Aro offered the validation that Carlisle had not realized he had been seeking.
"You made the right choice," Aro said plainly, "Alice's vision, perhaps in the short term it would make a fine fantasy, but I believe it would serve neither Edward, Bella, nor the family itself well in the end. You ruined nothing, Carlisle, the foundations were already cracked."
"In my marriage as well?" Carlisle asked, trying to smile and failing miserably.
Instead of answering, Aro merely said, "I have never seen Esme's mind, only glimpses of her through Edward's, so it is hard to say—However—"
"You don't have to say it," Carlisle quickly interjected, he knew, he'd thought as much himself.
The woman he married, thought he had married, was in fact a stranger. He, in turn, was a stranger to her. They had never realized who the other truly was, not until it was already too late.
Carlisle felt himself choking on his own laughter, or perhaps it was sobs, he couldn't quite tell. Regardless, he held it back, forced himself to breathe and look at his old friend, and say, "Regardless, I wanted to thank you for this, for what you're doing for Bella."
"I would do nothing less," Aro said swiftly, "That you would expect anything less of me—Well, I had hoped you would never see me this way."
He didn't say anything more, didn't ask Carlisle to forgive him or understand, simply let that sentence hang in the air between them.
After a pause, Aro added darkly, "And I hope that your Rosalie's hopes, rather than your Jasper's suspicions, prove correct. I want you to know, if all goes well, I am prepared to spend centuries to make a decision if that is required."
If all went well, if the child survived birth, was what Aro meant.
Carlisle had suspected as much, Aro had kept the immortal children in the catacombs for centuries, and he had hoped Bella and his child would earn nothing less. However, some part of him did relax upon hearing Aro say it.
Perhaps they would never be what they were, perhaps Carlisle would never truly understand nor forgive what had happened with Victoria, Bree, and Seattle, but there was still something between them.
Carlisle's hopes in this man, their long friendship, they were not entirely unfounded. Carlisle chose to believe that now, at least, until proven otherwise.
"For what it's worth, I approve," Aro said out of nowhere.
"Pardon?" Carlisle asked.
"You and Bella Swan," Aro explained, as if this were obvious, "She's a bit young, but all of us are young once, and age means little in the face of immortality. I think she will be good for you, and you will certainly be good for her."
Carlisle felt flustered, off-kilter, as if he'd entered an entirely different conversation when he wasn't looking, "What in the hell are you talking about?"
"You like her," Aro said as if commenting on the weather, something so unremarkable that Carlisle bringing it up at all made him look like a fool.
(In a single, horrifying, moment Carlisle was reminded of when Edward had told him that Esme, was in fact, in love with him. Edward had used that same exact tone and damningly similar words.)
"She was going to be my daughter!" Carlisle spluttered.
"Yes, and then you slept with her at your son's behest," Aro reminded him without an ounce of pity, "And regardless of that nonsense, you find her very admirable. You see the strengths in her that you feel you lack. I can't say I agree, as you're the best and brightest of us all, but the girl does have good qualities. I think she suits you."
"I have no idea what you're—"
"You turned into a puddle of romantic goo when she called herself a ditch digger who once had a wonderful day," Aro interjected, "If that's not love, what is?"
Carlisle opened his mouth, closed it, and then stood once again.
"I am leaving," he announced to the room, "This conversation is over."
"Oh, don't be huffy, Dear Carlisle," Aro tried to placate him, but Carlisle was already at the door, "The gods know I have no room to judge."
Carlisle was out the door, jogging down the hallway at that awkward, limping, pace that was too slow to look truly panicked but too fast to look casual. It didn't stop Aro sticking his head out the door and shouting after his back.
"I support you and your happiness, Carlisle!" Aro shouted at his back, "Even if you did prostitute yourself out for the likes of Edward Cullen!"
Carlisle could not slam the door to his and Bella's room fast enough.
Author's Note: Clearly, what this story has been missing is Aro.
Thanks to readers and reviewers, reviews are much appreciated.
Disclaimer: I don't own Twilight