Thanks to Belindella for the pre-read on this chapter. I made a few last minute changes, so any mistakes are mine.
Kicking in the Volturi's door was a kindness. The splintered wood said this was not the moment to confront Bella, and if the Volturi had heeded the warning, their meeting might have gone differently. But when it came down to primal terror, to life or second death, it seemed Caius had no flight reflex left. He and Bella exchanged only a few hushed words before he leapt.
He leapt for her throat, while Aro, on his knees, grasped at her fingers in a bid to distract her or to read her thoughts and know if she were really going to snuff him out. Whatever his reason, they both took hold of her at once, with Renata howling on the flagstones and Chelsea staggering toward the exit.
In a moment, the fear - already past the intensity she'd managed when the wolves attacked – pulsed out, smacked against the rounded walls and slipped through the cracks between stones. She tried to pull it back. It wasn't mercy but panic when she realized she couldn't rein in the raw energy.
Caius, Aro and Renata were still, and Chelsea's thrashing slowed toward a stop at the far end of the room.
Bella took a breath of stale human blood and fresh rain, and wondered how long she'd be the heart of a storm. Guards were pounding up the spiral stairs.
"Go away," she called.
She tugged her bare foot from under a body and tripped backwards into the hall. There were others there, but she didn't stop moving even when she was out in the open. Birds landed with small thumps on the ground, and the forest cleared of life before her as though she were a spreading fire. She stopped beneath a large pine, and sat cross legged on the ground for hours until she was able to settle and make her way towards the Italian shore.
Long before Bella made it to her own front door, she knew the cabin was empty. Bat had told her where Edward wanted to go. There would be no sandalwood scent, or even just the haze from Bat's cigarettes.
The copper knob was bright, splotchy green with patina, and it turned easily, but when the door swung inwards, she stayed caught in a dim memory of a long ago fire and food. The details of her mother's face were lost, but she remembered the full familiarity of that thatched hut, and then the strangeness of coming home to a cold hearth in the year after her mother died. This midnight homecoming felt strange as well, and Bella shifted from foot to foot before retreating to the back garden to see what needed watering or pruning. Aphids infested the viburnum. A fallen branch had snapped a hole in the roof of the shed, and the hoe and two spades were rusted. She pulled the branch down and worked in the dark for some time before she realized she didn't want to go into the house to get the hammer she'd need to fix the shed.
She walked around front and leaned on the cabin doorframe, looking in.
A rag lay across the kitchen tap where she'd left it the day she'd sent Edward off to call Carlisle. Hard to believe that had only been weeks ago.
"Hello?" she said, and then wondered why she'd said it.
She stepped inside. It was a mystery how this place could be just the same and yet feel alien with the addition of an upright piano. Her fingers fell on random notes. After a while the sun came up and a sliver of early light warmed a few of the keys.
"Okay," she said.
It took twenty minutes to replace the slat on the shed roof.
It took ten minutes to sweep the porch.
She set the broom aside and stood watching the sun pass over the trees until it disappeared behind them. It rose again to find her in the same place, with newly blown leaves at her feet. When the sun set, and she wished she were hungry so she could hunt… when she sat down on the roof but couldn't be still… she was caught off guard by a longing she hadn't felt since she'd patted the dirt down on the burial mound behind her long ago hut. Surprises were rare. She'd learned to treasure even the painful ones, but this sensation burned more than most.
It took ten minutes to fill a knapsack with some clothes. It took longer than she expected to run across the country. Highways and electrical towers would appear when she thought she was in the wilderness. Human scents were never far. For the first time, she let herself imagine a world of only cities, where forests were trimmed to parks and she was forced to live among buildings and lights again. The more people came together in a place, the fewer the trees, so she could only suppose they wanted it that way, and would continue to remake the world. For now, there were still enough quiet spaces that she could run most of the way without being seen.
After four days, she reached Olympic National Park. The morning air was thin and clean with pine. Beyond that, Bella caught a sweet but almost peppery sharpness. Probably a nomad. Generally they didn't come closer to investigate the source of an unsettling feeling, but instead of turning aside, this vampire headed straight for her, and Bella came face to face with a short, dark haired woman whose hands were clasped in front of her. The stranger closed her eyes for a moment, as though she had no need to protect herself.
"Hello, Isabella," she said. "Edward's fine. He's hunting with Carlisle and some of the others. I managed to not let him know you were coming, but given how Carlisle described you, I was pretty certain it was you I saw." She took a step closer. "You are Isabella, right?"
This wasn't a nomad. She was wearing a red dress, striking against her black hair, and was far too well groomed to be living out of doors. She knew Carlisle, if she were telling the truth, and knew of him if she weren't, but Bella didn't like the way she spoke in riddles.
"What do you mean, you saw me?"
"Sorry, I should start at the beginning. My name is Alice Whitlock, and I'm visiting here. I saw you arriving, because I see possible futures, but if you'd changed your mind, the vision would've shifted." She rocked back and forth on her heels. "It's a little strange. You're making me feel on edge. Just enough that I keep checking the future to see if something's about to happen. It isn't. Or at least, nothing horrible. Ginnie told me a little about how you–"
"She and Demetri left two days ago."
Bella felt herself relax a little. Fewer people would make this visit easier. "Carlisle said there was another newborn…"
"Oh, she's not here," Alice said. "Rosalie is staying with Irina, a friend of Carlisle's. She's more comfortable around women right now. I haven't asked, but I think… well, it doesn't matter what I think. She's not here, though I believe she will be eventually." Alice looked toward the east. "Listen, Edward's quite a way off, but once he knows you're here, nothing will keep him away, and I was hoping to talk to you first, so do you mind if we walk?"
Nothing about this woman warned of immediate danger, so Bella nodded and they turned toward the west.
"We're sort of opposites," Alice said. "I see the future, and you have a long past." They reached a small creek, and Alice sat and unbuckled her sandals, then set them side by side before dipping her feet in the water while Bella took a seat on dry ground.
"It's hard to enjoy the moment sometimes when you're tempted to check the outcome of every decision," she said. "So I like pastimes that don't have a lot of repercussions. Jasper, that's my husband, he wonders how I can spend hours arranging flowers or finding just the right thing to wear, but it's a relief to make decisions that don't matter. No need to check and see if adding lilies to a centerpiece is going to bring the wrath of hell on our heads."
"Why are you telling me this?"
"I heard Edward talking to Carlisle, something about your age difference, and I got the impression that the past was keeping you from enjoying the moment." Alice sighed. "Okay, I don't know you at all, but I've gotten to know Edward a little, and I can see his future when I look for it; sometimes he's with you, sometimes without you, flickering back and forth. I don't know which would be for the best, but I know which future Edward wants.
"So I decided to talk to you about… well, your love life, which we both know is none of my business." She smiled. "Maybe I'm just giving you a moment to relax before you meet new people. And I need to tell you about Jasper. He's at the house, and it'll help if you know that his gift is to feel what you feel."
"You think I'll upset him more than usual?"
"Not in the way you mean," Alice said. "Since Carlisle said you don't feel the fear you put out, that shouldn't be a problem." She plucked one of the thin purple flowers pushing past the stones that lined the stream and twiddled it between her fingers. "But if he feels threatened, Jasper might try to calm you. It's almost instinctual. You'll lash out if you're not expecting it. I've seen you startled, and it's not pretty. Jasper is kind and actually rather soft spoken beneath the fighter you'll meet. I promise he won't harm you unless he truly believes you're going to hurt someone he cares about."
Bella nodded. She could understand that sentiment.
Alice swung her sandal straps from one hand and crossed over to Bella. "I'm not sure if you're up for a new friend," she said, "but please know how much I respect and love Carlisle and Esme. If nothing else, we can find common ground there."
Bella nodded again. "You're staying in Washington?"
"I'd like to. Jasper prefers safety in numbers, and I feel like I've found a family. We may build a home near Carlisle's." She tilted her head to the side and her chin came up. "Speaking of which, Edward is just getting back."
"I should get to the house then."
"You go on ahead," Alice said.
"You're staying here?"
"For a while. If you're going to say what I think you are, you'll want some privacy."
"That's not… I appreciate it."
"Of course." Alice smiled and thrust her sandals into Bella's hands. "Oh, would you mind taking these inside? The rain's awful for the leather."
It was starting to mist by the time Bella reached Carlisle's door and set the apparently precious sandals on the covered porch. Huge windows reflected the backlit clouds so that the entire front of the house looked like the sky. She lifted her hand to knock, but since Edward would have read her thoughts before she got this close, it was no surprise that the door opened before she made contact.
"Hello Carlisle," she said. "It's good to see you again."
"Isabella, come in." There was a woman behind Carlisle, but Bella didn't see Edward anywhere. A man leaned in the doorway to the kitchen, arms crossed in a posture that said he was ready but not worried. Alice hadn't said anything about her husband being riddled with the marks of old fights, but this was probably him. Though he was slender with gentle eyes, the scars told a different story. She kept track of him, even as Carlisle pulled the woman she assumed was Esme to his side.
"This is Esme Platt, Isabella, and this is our guest, Jasper Whitlock."
"It's good to meet you," Esme said. She held out her hand, but it was shaking, and she pulled it back. "Carlisle's told me a little about you. Edward talks about you of course…"
"Thank you for getting him back," Carlisle said.
"I promised I would." They were still standing just inside the door, and Bella wasn't sure what to say. She'd been so focused on getting to Edward that it hadn't occurred to her that she'd need to talk with strangers. She knew she ought to say something reassuring, especially since Esme was a newborn and seemed unsettled, but she couldn't seem to control her speech any more than her thoughts. "Is Edward… I'd like to speak to him, if you think he wouldn't mind."
"Of course," Carlisle said. He looked relieved. "Edward's just upstairs in his old room." He put a hand on Esme's shoulder, and she nodded as though he'd spoken to her.
"We're going to step out for a walk," she said.
"I don't want to chase you from your home."
"It's fine, dear."
Bella blinked at the endearment.
"We don't mind," Esme continued.
They probably didn't. People rarely chose to be close to Bella when they could go out and get soaked in the rain.
Everyone turned to Jasper, but for a long moment, he stared, unblinking. She knew a challenge when she saw it. His eyes were a dark red-gold, and she wondered if he were recently reformed, or whether he'd just slipped. She decided to look to the floor rather than stare him down, and that gesture seemed to be enough to get him moving.
"Ma'am." He nodded as he went by, as though she'd passed some test.
"I met your wife earlier," Bella said. "She's an interesting young woman. Please thank her for her advice."
Jasper looked surprised before he caught himself. She smiled and trusted him far enough to turn her back and take the stairs two at a time, leaving him behind and following sandalwood to the far door on the right. It was white, like everything else in this house, and it was closed.
Music filtered through, full and rich; someone was playing the piano in his room, but it didn't sound like Edward's style, and she couldn't feel the vibration through the floorboards. It must have been a recording, though it was nothing like the tin sound that whined from the one crackling speaker on her radio. Hard to believe Edward was in the next room, though scents never lied.
She made a fist and tapped it on the door. It was a bit of theatre – obviously Edward knew she was here, but she wasn't sure of her role, so she did her part and knocked.
For one ridiculous second, she expected to find the door locked, but the flat handle pressed down, and the door opened to show her Edward – not at the piano, but lying on his back on a thick white carpet with both hands tucked behind his head. He couldn't have found a less defensive position if he'd tried.
"What do I have to be defensive about?" he asked, but he did sit up and turn to face her.
He was dressed in jeans and a black shirt that made him seem to jump out against the pale floor. The top two buttons were undone, and she wanted to slip her hand through to the base of his neck, his collar bone, so that this would feel real. She was nervous now, and she wondered if it made her harder to be around.
"No, not for me."
He picked up a remote controller like the one Ginnie had used in the hotel room in India, and the rolling notes of the piano grew quiet.
This was the room Edward had missed, and she was curious to see what it had to offer, but she couldn't take her eyes off of him.
He smiled, but then swallowed and looked away.
"I know that music," she said. "I heard it played in Paris once, not by Chopin himself, but –"
"Would you just come in and sit down?" His eyes were back on her now, and his jaw was shut tight, as though he hadn't just snapped at her.
She settled onto the floor several feet away.
"Why did you come, Bella?" he asked.
She knew better than to think of every possible answer to that question. Some would offend him, and some would embarrass her.
"I thought you were beyond embarrassment," he said.
"No, not anymore."
She fiddled with the thick fibers in his rug. The friction was dry and soft, and she felt it on her fingertips, let it be the sole focus of her attention until her nervous energy started to calm. She didn't want fear to bleed out and reach Carlisle somewhere beyond the house, especially after what had happened in Volterra.
"I heard about the Volturi," Edward said. "Are you okay?" His voice had gone soft, the impatience of a moment before gone.
"Alice told you?"
Of course. Demetri would have been in contact with the survivors.
"You met Alice?" Edward asked.
"She stopped me several miles out from the house."
He slapped a hand on his knee. "I knew it! She's been strange for days and kept humming the theme to Bonanza until I went out of my way to avoid her, which, now that I think of it, is what she wanted." He sighed. "She reminds me of Ginnie."
"She's more introspective than Ginnie."
"Maybe," Edward mumbled. "You didn't say you're okay with what happened in Volterra, and I'll be damned if I can tell."
"Well that was convincing."
"I don't know how to explain. I was terrified to find I have more power than I thought, but I'm not sorry about what happened. I've always been practical. If I can be of help, I help, and if I'm threatened, I defend myself. And if there's something I need…" But she wasn't sure how to finish that. She needed something she couldn't take. She had to ask for it, and if she thought too much about that, she might grow nervous again. Calm. Be calm, she told herself.
They sat in silence, and she suspected he was waiting for some thought of hers to let him know what she wanted.
"You're the one who left," he said.
She shook her head. He was probably right, but to her it seemed the other way around.
"You didn't really expect me to go back to the cabin after you let Ginnie give me the news?"
"I had every right to be angry."
"What would you have done if I'd told you, Edward? There we were, swimming together, and if I'd said, 'I have to go to Volterra,' what would you have done?"
"I don't know, you didn't give me that choice." He stood up and paced in front of a long, white bookcase. "I guess I would have talked you out of it. I wouldn't have followed you to the shore and wiped out the local population, if that's what you were worried about."
"I'll tell you what I think," Bella said. She closed her eyes, so he could see it just as she'd imagined it. "You would have told me not to go. If you made a move to stop me, grabbed my arm or pulled me under, I might have used my ability, or tried to." She remembered the expression on his face the first day, when she'd told him never to touch her again. He'd been shaking then, and wouldn't meet her eyes. "I don't know how much you feel it anymore, but I don't want to find out. If I'd told you everything, there would have been no way around it. I had to leave." He huffed out a breath that startled her eyes open. "What?"
"And you think I'm stubborn."
"Edward, they came to my home; they attacked you, dragged you away, left you in the care of a werewolf who could've lost control at any moment. Do you think I could just let that pass without –"
"All of that happened to me. I should have had some say in how it was handled."
How to explain that he was right, but that it wasn't in her nature to let a threat hang over her head when it could be dealt with.
"Did I say not to deal with it? No. I said it wasn't alright for you to decide how best to protect me without even telling me what you were going to do."
"No, I… Does it help that I'm sorry, even though I don't know what I'd do if I had to make the same decision again?"
"Your only justification is that you were going to Volterra to kill those bastards no matter what I said, so it was easier to not let me speak."
"I didn't mean to kill them."
Edward knelt in front of her.
"You can't think I care that they're dead."
She watched his face for some sign of fear, but couldn't find it. "Not that they're dead, but that I slaughtered them."
"We're all of us deadly," he whispered. "Just because you didn't use your hands…"
"And if that fear gets away from me again?"
"Santiago wanted to kill me, and I got a pretty clear idea of what Enkidu must have been like too. There are killers, and they use whatever weapons they have at hand, but you're not like that. It was self defense."
"Was it? I went to see them."
"C'mon, Bella. I know you understand the difference between yourself and someone who wants to kill." He tapped a finger to the side of his head. "I can read between the words, remember?"
"If you can read me that well, then you must know why I'm here."
He sat back on his heels and looked at her for a long moment.
"I don't know unless you think about it. And it seems like there are a lot of reasons, and even you don't know the one that led you here."
"I do know."
"So tell me, already."
"You make it sound easy."
He sighed. "Just think about it then, if you can't get it into words, and I'll make sense of it."
"No, if I can't say the words, I don't deserve an answer." She took a few long breaths, and Edward put a hand on her knee.
"The thing is," she said, "I think you've done something, changed something. I went home, but it didn't feel like home. I know you don't like to hear about my age, but the longer I live, the more I realize what we mean when we talk about time stretching on forever. I've lived on my own with no complaint, and I've gotten used to empty rooms and quiet forests. I thought I understood them, but when I came home and you weren't there… What have you done? Because I can't be happy living the life I've lived for so long, but I don't know how to live another way."
"That's your question? What have I done?" He sounded almost angry, and she tried not to let it throw her.
"That's not…" She took one last breath and let go of every distraction. "I came to see what you want from me. I came to surrender. I came to ask if you'll come and live with me again, because I don't seem to be able to go on by myself now that I know what it's like to have you with me."
She realized her hand was tapping on the floor. He'd wanted control, and he had it now. The fact that he was young and changeable still, the fact that he might regret decisions made in these early days – it was all true, but what could she do if she wasn't able to be without him. He could ask for anything, and she'd give it if it meant he'd spend his time with her.
He reached down and took her hand and stilled it in his own.
"Bella, how can you be so… how can you know so much about so many things and not know that this, you and me, this isn't a war?"
"No, but I –"
"You say I go back and forth, but you've gone from making my decisions for me, to telling me that I can ask for anything. And let's face it, I may not be throwing people around any more, but even I don't think I'm ready to have everything my way. Not by a long shot." He leaned in and kissed her, soft and sweet, just his lips pressed for a second to hers. "Stop worrying. I'll come back with you."
"I was going to come find you before the week was out. You're not the only one who can't take the separation."
She could have waited. He would have come to her anyway.
"Hey," he said. "Stop thinking like a general. Neither of us has the upper hand when we both have something to lose."
He looked so sure. She felt a frisson run through her when she realized she was looking at the man that he could be, free from the moods and the worst of the bloodlust. "Where do you get all this?"
"I've watched Carlisle and Esme. It's like learning from the masters."
She didn't know whether to be honest now. It seemed like a bad idea.
"Since you're all about giving me what I want, I'll take honesty," he said.
"I don't know if I can be what you need. I'm not good with people."
"You're just out of practice."
"I still think you should have more than two years to get used to this life."
"But you didn't come all the way across the country to tell me that."
"No." She sighed. "I came to give in."
He brought her hand to his mouth and pressed his lips to her knuckles. "It's not exactly, 'Oh God, Edward I want you like mad,' but it's a start."
Thanks for reading, and thank you for your reviews. There's one more chapter...
All the usual characters, settings, etc. are the property of S. Meyer. Original characters and plot are mine. No copyright infringement is intended. May not be reprinted without express written permission.