Yes, I am still on holiday in Asia! I've just been lucky enough to access a computer temporarily out here for long enough to write/post one more (lovely and long!) chapter. Don't expect any more till I'm back, ok? Thanks for being patient, everyone. Wish I could give all of you cookies and a virtual Jasper Cullen ;)
You guys asked for fluff – so here comes fluff. And you asked for family moments – so here comes family moments. Oh, and the voting scene :) enjoy!
"I could stay here forever."
I curled myself impossibly closer into Jasper's embrace, nestling my face against his shirt. We were curled together up against the log we'd spent the past several hours on – time had flown by just so quickly…
The moon was up, the forest silent and inky-black around us; swathing us, enveloping us together in our own little world, our own little clearing. My lips felt permanently stretched into the hugest, goofiest of smiles. Every part of me felt warm, every muscle relaxed, all tension gone, from head to foot. I hadn't felt so…so happy…so completely content in weeks – months. It was the easiest thing in the world to imagine staying here, safe in Jasper's arms, hidden away in our woody clearing forever.
"Mm-hm," I murmured in reply to Jasper's question. "Yep. Me too."
"How long do we have?" he murmured. "Before Edward comes back, I mean."
I paused mid-kiss to grimace, and he chuckled.
"That much? Bother."
I pecked his lips. "Not long. A few hours, maybe…?"
He was silent for a moment, eyeing me – then bent to kiss me deeply, lovingly, adoringly, his lips warm and probing.
"Long enough, then," he murmured, not suggestively, or even hopefully, just…thoughtfully. A statement of fact.
I smiled, hands reaching to twine with his. "Emmett will tease us rotten."
"Emmett will tease us rotten anyway," he mumbled, a hint of a growl to his voice, now. "The idiot…I swear he gets more infuriating every day."
"But he will tease less," I pointed out, truthfully. "And if Edward comes home any earlier with Bella too, and he might…we can't miss them, Jazz, we can't. Later, ok?"
He nodded, understanding. "Later," he agreed, and bent to kiss me again.
We set off back towards home again at around dawn – home, home, home! I still couldn't stop chanting blissfully in my head – just as the sky was starting to turn faintly grey amongst its sea of glistening stars and pale white moon. Jasper still wouldn't let go of me – I didn't want him to, either – so we moved slower than normal through the now faintly-green trees, arms around the other.
Emmett was waiting for us by the edge of the trees.
"Waiting for the ambush," Jasper muttered darkly against my ear as our brother approached us, grin emblazoned across his face.
"Well, good evening,you two!" he called loudly. "Though, guess I should be saying good morning, now, shouldn't I…?"
"Em, please, don't start," I pleaded, pushing past him whilst he laughed, eyes on Jasper, who was growling – oh great, of course, Emmett knew as well as I did that he could rile him up better than he ever could me.
"Ignore him, Jazz," I muttered, towing him determinedly towards the house, but Emmett only bounded along behind, grin still gloating upon his face.
"Had a good hunt, then, I take it? You must have gotten practically a whole herdof elk to have taken so incredibly long…!"
"Emmett, please," Jasper growled under his breath, whilst I pulled him up the steps to the front door. "The whole of Forks will hear you –"
"Oh yeah, sure, and you two are so worried about privacy -!"
"I'm warning you, Emmett, don't push it –"
"- ah, now there's a phrase just begging for the most spectacular innuendo -!"
"Emmett -!" I burst out, unable to stop myself – but it was too late. Jasper had wrenched free of my clasp and was on top of Emmett in seconds, tackling him to the driveway ground with a crunch.
"Aw, give us five minutes, Alice!" Emmett called, face triumphant with glee as the two of them rolled over and over on the granite, arms flailing as one tried to get a hold of another; a blur of honey-blonde hair and black curls, pale skin and brand-new, designer jeans I'd picked out for them both only last week…
I sighed, feeling a smile creep onto my face in spite of myself. Ok, fine, let them fight, I thought. We had time, at any rate, before Edward was due to turn up.
I sank down onto the top porch step to wait, curling my knees up and letting my head fall into my lap to rest…drifting…
…"I'm going to your house."
Edward's face creased in confusion, lips a tight, wary line…
"Ok. I'll give you a ride."
"…isn't just about you anymore." Bella's face, alabaster pale with dark bags under her eyes; exhausted, but determined. "If you're going to bring the Volturi down on us over something as stupid as leaving me human, then your family ought to have a say."
I felt a smile stretch wide across my lips. You tell him, Bella.
…Edward's face, suspicious now, eyebrows pulled together. "A say in what, exactly?"
"My mortality." Bella's smile was triumphant. "I'm putting it to a vote."
Jasper, face impossibly smug, shot a wide smile over at Rosalie from across the living room.
"I did. Three out of five. Your husband kept insisting on rematches."
She laughed, the sound a thousand sweet chiming bells, standing up to glide into a thoroughly disgruntled Emmett's arms as he slouched through the door behind us, all swagger gone now Jasper had taught him a lesson. Carlisle glanced up from his desk.
"How long, Alice? Before Edward returns?"
All eyes in the room turned to me – even Rosalie and Emmett broke apart to watch me hold up one finger, closing my eyes…
"…not a purely social visit…"
…the clock chiming on the mantelpiece…
"…becoming a vampire…"
"Half an hour," I concluded, in reply to Carlisle's question. "He'll be here in half an hour. And Bella's coming with him."
Half an hour it was. The doorbell chimed, and downstairs we all trooped to greet Edward and Bella, the latter of whom was looking just exactly like she'd just got out of bed to visit us at four in the morning. My hands ached to grab the nearest hairbrush and attack her hair from the second she walked through the door – how could she stand to leave it like that for even five minutes? – but now wasn't the time for hair fixing.
This was Bella's moment. That much was clear from the second she greeted Carlisle.
"Welcome back, Bella," he smiled at her, warmly. "What can we do for you this morning? I image, due to the hour, that this is not a purely social visit?"
Bella nodded, her face set with fierce determination. "I'd like to talk to everyone at once, if that's ok, about something important."
Carlisle took one glance at Edward – and I could see that he knew, already, what this was about.
"Of course," he replied courteously to Bella, and gestured to the dining table. "Why don't we talk in the other room?"
He led them to Esme's favourite, polished apple wood table he had given her as an anniversary present two decades back, and held out a chair for Bella. I headed for the seat closest to her, next to Edward, catching her eye to grin so she knew I was in on it. And on her side, one hundred percent. You can count on me, Bella.
Carlisle waited until every one seated – then nodded encouragingly towards the single human in our midst.
"The floor is yours."
Bella swallowed, glancing nervously at each of our faces in turn. I reached for her hand under the table, but Edward beat me to it. Oh well. She took a deep breath.
"Well…I'm hoping Alice has already told you everything that happened in Volterra…?" she began, tentatively.
"Everything," I reassured her.
"And…on the way?"
She nodded, satisfied. "Good – then we're all on the same page. So. I…have a problem. Alice promised the Volturi that I would become one of you. They're going to send someone to check, and I'm sure that's a bad thing – something to be avoided."
I tried to picture some of Aro's ghostly, grim-reaper-garbed guards paying a check-up visit to Forks, milling amongst its residents…and shuddered. Yes. Most definitely, something to be avoided. Avoided at all costs.
"And so, now," Bella went on, "this involves you all. I'm sorry about that. But if you don't want me, then I'm not going to force myself on you, whether Alice is willing or not."
I opened my mouth at the same time Esme did – but Bella held up a hand.
"Please, let me finish. You all know what I want. And…I'm sure you know what Edward thinks, too."
Emmett suppressed a smirk, causing Edward to kick him under the table.
"I think," said Bella, "the only fair way to decide is for everyone to have a vote. If you decide you don't want me, then I guess I'll have to go back to Italy alone."
The silence that followed was tense, as everyone considered that.
"I can't have them coming here," Bella murmured, very quietly. I felt Jasper's hand creep protectively around mine as though unable to help himself.
"Taking into account then, that I won't put any of you in danger either way…I want you to vote yes on no on the issue of me becoming a vampire," Bella finished, with small, shy half-smile.
"Just a minute," Edward cut in. "I have something to add before we vote."
Of course you do, I thought dubiously in his direction – earning myself my own good-natured kick from him under the table.
"About the danger Bella's referring to," he explained. "I don't think we need to be overly anxious."
Two pairs of eyes stared disbelievingly back at him following this statement – Bella's and mine. Didn't need to be overly anxious? What?
But Edward was deterred – he leant forward across the table, eyes on me as he spoke. "You see," he began, "there was more than one reason why I didn't want to shake Aro's hand there at the end. There's something they didn't think of, and I didn't want to clue them in."
"Which was?" I prodded, still thoroughly sceptical.
"The Volturi are overconfident. And with good reason. When they decide to find someone, it's not really a problem. Do you remember Demetri?"
Carlisle and I nodded. Bella shivered.
"He finds people – that's his talent. Why they keep him. Now, the whole time we were there, I was picking their brains for anything that might save us, getting as much information as possible. So I saw how Demetri's talent works. He's a tracker – a tracker a thousand times more powerful than James was. His ability is loosely related to what I do, or what Aro does. He catches the…flavour? I don't know how to describe it – the tenor, of someone's mind, and then he follows that. It works over immense distances. But after Aro's little experiments…well…"
"You think he won't be able to find me," said Bella flatly.
Edward grinned; smug. "I'm sure of it. He relies totally on that other sense. When it doesn't work with you, they'll all be blind."
"And how does that solve anything?" Bella demanded.
"Quite obviously, Alice will be able to tell when they're planning a visit, and I'll hide you. They'll be helpless – it will be like looking for a needle in a haystack!"
"But they can find you!" she cried incredulously, voicing my own thoughts for me.
"And I can take care of myself."
Emmett laughed delightedly – of course, he would warm to the idea – extending a fist across the table towards Edward.
"Excellent plan, my brother!"
"No," Rosalie hissed.
"Absolutely not!" Bella agreed, furious.
"Nice," Jasper murmured.
"Idiots," I muttered.
Esme just glared at her three grinning sons.
"All right, then," Bella cut in, before Edward could rally any more of us to his cause. "Edward has offered you an alternative to consider. Let's vote."
Edward was, naturally, the first person she turned to. "Do you want me to join your family?"
His answer was instantaneous – and expected. "Not that way. You're staying human."
Bella nodded curtly, and turned to me. "Alice?"
We grinned at each other. Edward glowered.
"Jasper?" Bella's voice was warier, now, her heartbeat accelerating just a touch as she turned to my husband. His eyes just barely strayed from mine as he spoke his answer.
I worried for a second that he might be simply agreeing with me, like he always did – but no…his expression was sincere. He really meant it.
"Rosalie?" Bella was asking, even more timid, now.
Rose hesitated, her eyes darting to Edward's, Carlisle's…back to Bella's…
"No," she half-whispered.
Hurt spasmed across Bella's face for a split second before she controlled it – making Rosalie hold up both hands in desperation.
"Let me explain – I don't mean that I have any aversion to you as a sister. It's just that…this is not the life I would have chosen for myself. I wish there had been someone there to vote no for me."
Bella nodded, understanding – and turned to Emmett.
"Hell, yes!" he chuckled, making her smile at last. "We can find some other way to pick a fight with this Demetri!"
Typical Emmett. Bella turned to Esme.
"Yes," she said, at once. "Of course, Bella. I already think of you as part of my family."
"Thank you, Esme," she murmured, flushing a little as she faced the final one of her voters – Carlisle.
All eyes turned to him, our family's leader. His vote would count more than anyone's; cancel all others out, regardless – and Bella knew it. But he wasn't looking to her.
"Edward," he murmured, eyes pleading as they rested on his son's already half-snarling expression.
"No," he growled, hands clenching the sides of the table so tightly I saw Esme wince.
"It's the only way that makes sense," Carlisle said, hopelessly. "You've chosen not to live without her…and that leaves me no choice."
Edward was out of his seat and away into the living room before he'd even finished speaking, snarls ripping from his chest; the sound was broken, ugly, livid with fury. Oh Edward…
Carlisle sighed. "I guess you know my vote."
Bella grimaced sheepishly.
"Thanks," she mumbled.
Everyone except me – who saw it a split second before it happened – jumped as a shrieking, shattering crash of broken glass and crushed plastic sounded from the living room. Ouch. That would be Emmett's new flat screen he'd gotten in Denali just two weeks ago…
Bella was biting her lip now, guilt twisting her features; but she jutted her chin up defiantly, determined to hold on to her victory.
"That's all I needed – thank you," she said, gazing at each of us in turn. "For wanting to keep me. I feel exactly the same way about all of you, too."
Esme pushed out of her seat to throw her arms around her new daughter-to-be.
"Dearest Bella," she breathed.
I caught Bella's eye over her shoulder, and grinned. We did it, I tried to convey to her jubilantly. We won him over, and you've got it, Bella – got what you wanted, at last!
She seemed to understand. After hugging Esme tightly back a few second longer, she gently disentangled herself from the embrace, and turned towards me.
"Well, Alice," she said, business-like all of a sudden. "Where do you want to do this?"
I stared blankly. What?
Wait…she didn't mean…she couldn't mean for us to do it...
But…but I wasn't ready! I wasn't safe, wasn't practised enough! I wasn't prepared to even consider -!
- "No!" a roar sounded from the living room, and in charged Edward again, knocking chairs aside as he reached for Bella's arms, his face wild. "No, no, NO!"
Jasper was suddenly in front of me, arms spread as he slid into a half-crouch; ready to defend. Even Emmett shifted uneasily as Edward snarled like an enraged lion, inches from Bella's cringing face.
"Are you insane?" he almost bellowed. "Have you utterly lost your mind -?"
"Um, Bella!" I managed to call, peeping around Jasper's forearm. "I – I don't think I'm ready for that – I'll need to prepare –"
"You promised!" she glared around her own mate, voice accusative now. I chewed my lip frantically.
"I know, but – seriously, Bella! I don't have any idea how to not kill you!"
Emmett laughed – the sound was too loud, fraught with nerves.
"You can do it," Bella encouraged. "I trust you!"
Edward whipped round to snarl so horrifically at me I couldn't help but flinch – don't, Edward, don't, please stop – cowering behind Jasper whilst he hissed softly, warningly under his breath…
"- Carlisle!" Bella suddenly burst out, her face alight with new hope as she swung round to face him.
"I'm able to do it," he nodded. "You would be in no danger of me losing control."
I opened my mouth to protest – no, I wanted to insist, no, this was my job, my promise to Bella, what we'd agreed on the plane together! – but Jasper's hand covered my lips.
"Please," he breathed against my ear. "Please, darlin', don't – don't antagonize him any further. I don't want to have to fight him – but I will, if it comes to that. Let Carlisle deal with it. Please, love."
My shoulders slumped in resignation. "Ok," I mumbled.
"Wait a moment," Edward suddenly spoke up, a new thought seeming to strike him. "It doesn't have to be now –"
"There's no reason for it not to be now," Bella growled, clenching her teeth in frustration.
"I can think of a few."
"Of course you can. Now let go of me."
He let her loose, settling for folding his arms and simply glaring down at her instead.
"In about two hours, Charlie will be here looking for you. I wouldn't put it past him to involve the police."
"All three of them," Bella muttered, but he ignored her.
"In the interest of remaining inconspicuous," – here he directed a pointed look at Carlisle – "I suggest that we put this conversation off, at the very least until Bella finishes high school, and moves out of Charlie's house."
Silence, for a few moments. Visions shifted, flittered, floated in and out of focus – the future was changing again…
"That's a reasonable request, Bella," Carlisle was saying, gently. She pursed her lips.
Everyone relaxed, visibly, as Edward's fists unclenched and he let his breath out in a gush. He was obviously just about satisfied – for now.
Anything to delay the inevitable, I thought teasingly in his direction. He rolled his eyes, reaching for Bella's hand.
"I should probably take you home. Just in case Charlie wakes up early."
He was in a hurry to get out, now. We could all see it. But Bella wasn't done quite yet. She turned one last time to Carlisle, fixing him with a steady, unwavering gaze.
"After graduation?" she prompted.
Carlisle smiled, inclining his head. "You have my word."
I stared at the ground, trying not to grimace. She's got what she wanted, I reminded myself determinedly, that's all that really matters, isn't it? And Carlisle will be able to do it better than you ever could. You know that.
I sighed. Yes, I did know that.
But disappointment still stung.
Bella took a deep breath – and then she too smiled, wider than she had all evening; a smile of triumph.
"Ok," she said, and then to Edward, "You can take me home."
He did just that – scooping her up in his arms and darting out the back door before she could settle any more deals he disapproved of with any of us.
Emmett chuckled as the door slammed shut behind them.
"Awesome. That was awesome."
Rosalie elbowed him. "Not for Edward, it wasn't."
"Yeah, but still, her face at the end there! Priceless!"
He chuckled again. Even I felt myself starting to grin. "Yup – she won him over."
"And about time too," he agreed, clapping my shoulder with one huge hand as he passed on his way out to the living room, Rosalie close behind him. "Though…yeah, I guess it does kind of suck for Edward. Pun intended."
Jasper groaned at the terrible joke.
"Come on, Alice," he murmured. "Let's get out of here, escape the idiocy –"
"Oh!" Emmett's cry sounded from the living room. "Damn – he's wrecked it! Smashed it to bits!"
Carlisle passed a weary hand over his face, smiling in spite of himself.
"I think," he murmured, his gentle eyes on his wife. "That it might be time for us all to escape and retire for the evening. Esme?"
They left the room arm in arm, just before Jasper and me, stopping at Carlisle's study whilst we headed on up to our bedroom. Jasper's arms were still so entwined around me it was difficult to climb the stairs.
"Jazz," I smiled, turning to face him halfway up, "you've got to stop this. I'm here. I'm safe. Everything's ok now."
He only smiled wordlessly back, arms tightening all the more to pull me into an embrace.
"Let me carry you," he whispered, soft against my ear. I let him.
Our room was a mess, when we finally entered it – everything jumbled in disorganized piles – but for once…I didn't notice it. And when we finally made it down onto our bed and a shaft of moonlight streaking in through the open window illuminated a stack of the clutter…I was far too preoccupied to care.
It would be a many, many hours before this room got the tidying up it needed from me…
For nearly two years now, I've harboured a sort of 'secret dream' of reaching 1000 positive reviews on this story. I never dreamed it would be possible - but now, thanks to you guys, I'm less than 30 away.
All I can say is: thank you, thank you, thank you everybody! And now, with just two more chapters to go...could I ask that you leave me just one more review so I can reach my goal? Thank you!