Twilight Fan Fiction / Twilight Fan Fiction ❯ I Know My Duty ❯ Harmony ( Chapter 30 )
[ T - Teen: Not suitable for readers under 13 ]
Twilight and its three and two half sequels are the creation of Stephenie Meyer. This story is fanfiction based on characters, settings and concepts from Twilight, its first three sequels and the first half of Midnight Sun, all of which are the creation of Stephenie Meyer. No party other than the submitting author may alter this work in any way other than font size and other reasonable accommodations to formatting.
Let me know if this seems choppy. Some parts of this chapter were written quite some time ago, before I knew how they were going to fit in with the rest.
This chapter released at this time in honor of the best vampire franchise ever. Underworld is one of my favorite movies period. The sequels have been iffy, but this one was actually good. I can't wait for the next one but darn it they'd better get Speedman on board.
"But it sounded like singing. My voice rang and shimmered like a bell." -Bella, Breaking Dawn
Afton didn't have Demetri's talent for picking the path.
We'd made it through out plane ride in silence, or at least Afton and I had both been silent. Rolfe had attempted a joke or two, but Afton hadn't spoken, not even to give orders.
I'd kept my eye on Afton's thoughts the whole time. It was a matter of my personal safety. His mind was an angry mass of mincing blades, like a scissor factory gone mad. He knew that our mission's irregularities could be construed as his fault. Caius might prefer to blame me, but there was no lying to Aro. Afton knew that our mission had been, despite its prize, a failure, and that some of the blame would fall on him. Whenever the blades of his thoughts began to slice in unison, whenever he began to shift his weight, whether to raise is voice or his fist—that was when Rolfe would jump in. And then Afton would have to start all over again.
He'd done it before. He'd been doing it the whole time.
Rolfe only thought he didn't have a gift. Maybe that was why he was so interested in my own. It was possible that he was only good at reading people's voices and postures, but I had to wonder if on some level he could hear thoughts.
I wondered why I hadn't noticed sooner. I wondered if I'd spent these past months in a trance.
I wondered what else I hadn't noticed. I thought back over my time in Volterra. Much of it seemed strange, like something that had happened to someone else. Rolfe had been right, though. I hadn't been paying enough attention. I'd focused on my safety and Bella's and nothing more. If I was going to live my life the way I wanted to, in Volterra, then I had to do more than I'd been doing. I had to do more than just get by. I'd been making waves just by standing still.
Our plane had landed in Florence. Or rather, our plane from China had landed in Munich, and we'd changed planes, along with clothes and names, and headed for Florence by way of London. To avoid being traced, we had eschewed human forms of transportation from Florence onward. Afton had been sure that we could make it home before dawn. After all, it was a distance of only eighty kilometers by highway, less if one traveled cross-country. I'd had my doubts but known better than to voice them. Rolfe, apparently, had felt the same way.
I leaned back against a birch trunk and stared up at the brightness slowly growing through the dying leaves. It would be a sunny late-autumn day. Somehow, I'd used to know what the weather would be ahead of time, but I didn't any more.
"We always end up spending the day here," Rolfe said grumpily.
"At least it's only another few miles," I said, pulling my hood down further over my face. The Riserva Naturale Castelvecchio was a protected forest northeast of Volterra, and we were well away from the highway. It was a good deal more comfortable than squatting in a rain gutter, even if the beech and yew offered less protection from the light than I might have liked.
"Are there any tourists around?" Afton asked, staring off toward the way we'd come.
I was silent for a moment. This was the first time that Afton had spoken to me directly since Zhengzhou, and the closest to civil that he'd been since the museum. "Some to the south," I said calmly, "near the Castlevecchio." If I acted as if it had been a simple practical order from a commander to a subordinate, then maybe Afton would act that way too. "I think I can hear someone down in the other furrow, but it's a ways off. We should be safe."
Afton nodded, tucking his cloak more closely around the book. In daylight, I'd managed to get a better look at it. The characters looked like late Song to me, but it was possible that I was wrong, that it was some Yuan-era knockoff. Caius would not be pleased. Without another word, Afton knocked his hood down over his face and strode off, new-fallen twigs snapping underneath his feet.
"Don't follow him," said Rolfe. I hadn't had any intention, but I settled back down. I closed my eyes for a moment, listening to the sound of Afton's footsteps. Then I listened to everything else. It was good to be outdoors again, in woodland, even if the sounds and smells were not all familiar to me.
"If you ask me," Rolfe continued once Afton had gained a little distance, "he just wants a little time to Zen out before he gets back to that adder of a mate he's got."
I rolled my eyes. I didn't like Chelsea but that didn't mean I cared to see a lady spoken ill of. It was the principle of the matter.
"Is this what it's like in Oregon?" asked Rolfe.
I looked over at him. This was the first time that anyone from Volterra other than Aro had asked what my life as a Cullen had been like. I quietly shook my head. "Washington," I said. "I lived in Washington." Rolfe did not interrupt, so I continued. "The Olympic National Forest alone is three times the size of the Riserva, and more mountainous. The types of trees are different, and there are large animals roaming around. Many of them have only limited fear of humans."
"Like grizzly bears?" he asked.
"Haven't you ever been to the United States?" I asked.
Rolfe nodded. "Yes, but all my missions were near cities."
I shook my head. "You need to imagine the scale," I said. "You'd have to go to Sibera to get space like that. There's so much room that when we were hunting we could just..." I held up my hands.
"Let go," he finished for me.
I nodded. Yes. It had felt good to let go. Relax my restraint. In my old life, when I'd gone hunting, I'd used my gift to make sure there were no humans within range and then I'd just gone, without fear or consequences. And then I opened my eyes and Rolfe was smiling at me, as if I'd been describing life on Mars.
"I don't think I've ever let go," he admitted to me.
"Men in our position cannot afford to," I said. "We have responsibilities."
Finally figured that out, have you? he thought.
"Oh give me a break. I've hardly been—"
Rolfe and I looked up at the same time. There had been a noise. There had been a noise, but not enough of one. My eyes searched the slope behind us. Nothing. A human would have made more sound. Even a fox would have had a heartbeat. Only one kind of creature could be that still.
"Afton?" I barely breathed, well below human hearing.
"He went the other way," Rolfe reminded me in the same tone. "What do you hear?" he asked.
"Nothing," I answered. "It was only a—"
A hard poke from his thick finger knocked my head down. "No, what do you hear?"
"What do you mean? I haven't—" And then my breath caught in my throat. I gripped the think trunk of the sapling beside me. The poor thing snapped in half.
"Shit!" Rolfe hissed. "Who's after us?" he asked. "The Romanians aren't dumb enough to send agents this close to the city. Is it—"
"No," I said, grabbing the edge of his cloak as I put myself back on my feet. I breathed out sharply. "I don't hear anything," I said, not wanting to believe it.
"What do you..." then Rolfe's head tilted back in understanding. "Oh," he said. "You don't hear anything."
So there was only one person it could be. I knocked my head backward against the beech trunk behind me. "What are you doing here?" I hissed. The words flew out of my mouth like birds from a cage. It wasn't a demand or even a question. It was just ...what was she doing here?
"Careful or you'll kill that one too," Rolfe muttered, looking up at the tree. That wasn't what I was worried about killing, truth be told.
I opened my eyes in time to see Bella lean out sideways from behind a stout yew, her hood pushed halfway back over her hair, half-apologetic smile on her face.
"Heidi says that Afton always screws up the timing and has to hide out here until sundown. I've been looking for you for two hours."
"That's what we're doing here," said Rolfe, amusement coloring his voice. "I think he asked what you are doing here."
"Looking for my two favorite men?" she asked.
Rolfe laughed. "You snuck out."
"You—" I gaped like a fish. "Do the masters know you're gone?"
"They might," she said. "I didn't ask permission or anything, but it wasn't a secret. I worked double shifts the whole time you were gone to get enough people to take my place in the library for today. I wouldn't be surprised if they figured out what I was doing."
"Bella—" I ran my fingers through my hair. I was shocked that it wasn't falling out, the things this girl put me through.
"All right then," said Rolfe, clapping his two hands together. "I'll just go see how Afton's getting along, shall I?" He slapped me hard on the shoulder as he went. Looks like she missed you too. Don't wear her out too much. It's a long walk back to Volterra. I couldn't even choke on his mental images of Bella and me copulating industriously against an obliging ash tree. I was too caught up the raw fact of her presence here. Was she out of her mind?
She sat down on a fallen log a few feet away from me, hands demurely folded in her lap as she watched me with a patient smile. My own were like claws, grasping at the air in front of my chest as I paced like an agitated lion. "Bella, you can't just go when you want to."
"Trust me Edward," she said. "This wasn't when I wanted to go."
"The masters will see you and me walk back into Volterra just as if we were there of our own free will," she said beautifically. "If anything, it will show that they can keep us on a longer leash. Oh, and I did tell Renata where I was going, just in case." She grimaced. "I figured if anyone cared that I was gone, they'd ask Renata first, and she'd probably have a heart attack if she had nothing to tell them." She held up her hands. "I know, I know, we can't have heart attacks. I'm just saying that Renata would find a way."
I felt my body shake from head to heel as if I were covered in spiders.
I couldn't believe it. I could not believe that Bella would be that stupid.
"When did you go?" I asked.
"Around three in the morning, right after the shift I took for Randall," she recited, as if she'd been expecting the question.
"And what were you going to do if you couldn't find us or if we hadn't stopped here?"
"Wait until sunset and then go right back."
"Bella why—" I threw my head back, as if I could find words ready-made in the air. "What were you—?" It was useless. ...But it did sound as if the masters hadn't tried to stop her from leaving. Which meant that either Demetri was in hot pursuit or that they had actually let her come here. ...and Rolfe hadn't been alarmed when he'd seen her. I went over his parting thoughts in my mind. No... No he hadn't been at all surprised that a woman would leave the compound to meet her mate on the way back from a mission.
When I opened my eyes, she was looking at her left wrist and frowning. "I keep expecting to see my old watch there," she said. "I was going to time you. I figured you'd throw a fit, but I was never really sure how long it would take. Are you done?"
"Yes," I said, breathing in and out. "Yes, I believe so," I answered.
"Look, I'm sorry I frightened you," she was saying. "But I really did check things out before I came. People leave the compound all the time. Heidi did it herself last year to meet Randall on the way back from Norway."
"Has it occurred to you that Heidi might have been lying to get you in trouble with Caius?" I asked, more sharply than I'd meant. "Or even that Caius might have told her to lie to set you up? He's done it before."
"I asked around, Edward. If Heidi's lying, then so is half the guard." It was true. "No one runs off for three weeks in Paris without permission, but people meet teams on the way back home a couple of times a year. At least that's what I picked up."
"Caius can still have you punished when you get back," I said quietly. "He doesn't need an excuse. He doesn't have to listen to you cite precedent." But he wouldn't be able to make it sound like treason. He wouldn't be able to pretend that this was an escape attempt, not unless Demetri caught us doing anything but heading back to town. Even then, Rolfe would have to lie, and I didn't think he would. "I suppose there's no point in worrying about it." I would anyway.
Bella nodded. "Good, because I want to know if there's anything to hunt out here," she said with a sudden light in her voice. "I've never hunted outside. Emmett and Jasper made it sound like so much fun."
I shook my head. "No large game," I told her. "And there are humans. Not close, within a few miles." She'd probably noticed if she'd been looking for us that long. This whole place was crisscrossed with walking paths. "That isn't far enough," I clarified.
"Oh," she said, clearly disappointed. I felt some of my annoyance ebb. She'd never hunted at all, really. Primitive as it was, hunting was one of the few real pleasures inherent in being a vampire. I wondered if she'd ever get to do it.
"Look," she said. "I'm sorry I frightened you, but..." she pursed her lips, hidden thoughts churning. "I haven't seen you for almost two weeks."
It had been twelve days and six hours, actually. We'd left for Kaifeng around three in the morning.
"Whenever you get back, Aro always has his hand practically glued to your neck for the next day and a half." She looked at me, something moving deep down in her dark amber eyes. "So what do we do out here?" she asked.
I shrugged, glad for a change of subject. "We wait, just like last time."
She walked over and sat down beside me. "It's a bit nicer than that storm drain, though," she said. I smiled under my hood, remembering my own very similar conclusion. "How long do you think Rolfe will be gone?" Bella asked.
"All day, if Afton lets him," I answered. It had been kind of Rolfe to leave us alone. It was almost a shame that we weren't really a pair. Long periods of true privacy did not come often in Volterra. With that many vampires in one place, someone was almost always up to something. The etiquette was simply to pretend not to notice. I still wasn't used to it. I suspected that Bella simply hadn't figured out what those muted sounds coming through the walls were. It was not likely to be much on her mind until her first year of bloodlust wore off.
"So can I see it?" she asked.
"You know, Caius's thing. The thing you went to China for," she prompted. Her grin turned sly. "Unless it set off the metal detectors and the cops made Afton strip down to his boxers in the middle of the airport." Her tone was teasing, but it made me sick to my stomach. I looked away.
"Oh shit," she said, all joking falling away from her tone.
"Our encounter with the police didn't turn out so well," I explained.
"God, Edward, I'm sorry," she said.
I forced myself to meet her eyes. "You didn't know," I told her. This had been supposed to be an easy mission. No conflicts. No killing. Just there and back. I could remember putting my hands on her shoulders, twelve days earlier, and assuring her that there was nothing to worry about.
"It wasn't really a delivery mission, was it?" she asked softly. "That's just what Aro wanted you to tell us."
I shook my head. "No, it was supposed to be just that," I told her. "It went wrong is all."
Her eyes were deep with concern. I wanted to drown there. "Did they make you do it yourself?" she asked.
I shook my head.
"Did you do all you could?"
"Almost," I told her. I could have done more if I'd realized in time. I'd wanted to spare her this, but I couldn't. I wasn't strong enough to hold all of this by myself. The words spilled out into the space between us. The look on the officer's face as he'd seen Rolfe smash through the window like a monster out of a horror film, the feeling of neck, spine, skull and dashboard. I put the thoughts into the air, and she handed them back to me, in order.
Then I got to the future.
She shook her head. "But what could you do that's more than you're already doing?"
"Give it my all," I said. "Stop holding back. I don't like the way Volterran vampires live, and they've been picking up on that."
"So hide it," she said.
"I'll also have to change it," I told her. "I can make myself respect them if I try."
She leaned forward. "But they kill people, Edward, and not just when the secret's in danger. They do it for food and they like it."
I nodded. "That's the part I can't reconcile," I admitted. "I guess I'll have to try not to think about it. But if I can save even one life by changing my attitude—"
"What about your life?" she asked. "Edward there is nothing wrong with your attitude. You've got a right to disapprove of the way other people live if you want to. It's not like you go around shouting fire and brimstone at them every second."
"That's how things should be," I said, in as measured a tone as I could manage, "but it's not how things are."
She shook her head, not looking at me. That was what she did when she knew she'd lost an argument. "You've already twisted yourself into a pretzel for them," she said. "You shouldn't have to do any more."
No, no I shouldn't. I didn't want to admit it to myself, but it was better to bend than break. If I focused on my original mission, Carlisle's vision, not Aro's, then perhaps I could find some dignity in it.
I breathed in and out. She should be doing it too, I knew, but I couldn't tell her so. If Heidi had agreed to help her with this little field trip, then maybe she wouldn't need to. Aro and Caius might let her leave in the spring, and she might be able last that long just by keeping her mouth shut.
I stared up at the scanty branches above us, trying to pin down the hint of music in my memory. The trees hadn't turned all the way. There was still plenty of green, but the flush of the season was gone. Life seemed precarious. "We should move to more cover," I said. She nodded and rose to her feet. I'd spotted a cluster of pines a way up the slope and nodded toward it. The cloaks protected us from the light, but there was no sense taking chances.
Telling her about Zhengzhou and about my plans had cleared my head. It was a temporary feeling, perhaps a side effect of being outdoors without any crowds of screaming voices and with my minders at a good distance, but I felt like everything was going to be all right. I closed my eyes, just breathing in the scent of the pines and earth and her. She didn't say anything. Perhaps she felt the same way. I should have wondered why she was being so quiet—after all, she'd said that she'd snuck out to see me—but I was past caring.
A hesitant, bell-like voice broke my reverie.
"Sister golden hair surprise..."
I opened my eyes and looked at her curiously.
"You were humming," she said.
"I was?" I asked. I leaned back a bit. Yes, yes I had been. I looked around. The pines, the way the light scattered... "I know what this place reminds me of," I told her. I couldn't help smiling. "Rose and Emmett's wedding day."
"You've never told me about that," said Bella.
"She found Emmett while she was out hunting deer."
"Rosalie hunted deer? Like in Last of the Mohicans? No way."
"She hunted all the time," I said, a little defensively. She'd spend hours cleaning herself up afterward, though. This was before hairspray."
She laughed. I'd meant it seriously, though. Rose's fastidiousness had seemed very odd to me. She hadn't been so squeamish about her first intended and his friends—not that they had deserved better.
I looked over at Bella, dark hair framing her face as she smiled off into the dappled light.
Rosalie had been squeamish about Emmett, though. She'd been able to hide it from everyone but me. I remembered a morning like this one, nearing a year after Emmett's change. He'd been devoted to Rosalie from the start, in his way. But it was only once his newborn bloodlust wore thin, becoming the manageable hunger of a mature vampire, that the nature of his interest had changed. I'd watched Rosalie drumming her fingers on Esme's kitchen table, she'd wanted Emmett; she'd wanted him from the beginning, but she could remember how much it hurt.
I hadn't said anything. I'd overheard enough thoughts over the years to know that she would probably be all right, but I hadn't said a word.
"How did she find Emmett?" Bella was asking. "You told me she had to carry him a long way."
I nodded, wondering how to begin the story. I could remember it well and I knew I'd never be able to describe it. I decided to start somewhere else.
"Emmett had lots of brothers and sisters," I began. His memories of his human life had been clear at first. "He was fourth or fifth out of eight or nine. I think one of the reasons he didn't seem as averse to you as Rose did is that he was hoping to have a big family again one day." I brushed a pine branch out of my way and stepped closer. "Still, growing up wasn't easy for him. If anything truly fine came the family's way, it went to one of the oldest children—or the youngest. If by some chance, or more often through his own enterprise, he did end up with some extra money, he was expected to give it to one of his siblings, a brother's education, a sister's medicine. That was just how families got by in those days. Everyone worked so that everyone could do as best they could.
"Emmett went out hunting one day and ran across a bear that had had a similar idea. It got the drop on him..." He'd known he was going to die. "He'd just started to black out, and then he said the animal gave up a great noise." I could feel the scent of the woods, see the great hanks of shaggy fur. "And then there was Rosalie." I could see her gold hair like a halo around her face, leaning down with the light behind her.
"Emmett hardly looked alive when Rosalie brought him to the house," I told her. I could remember the pleading in Rosalie's voice as she'd begged Carlile to turn him. It was the most sincere thing I'd seen from her since the day she'd killed her first fiancé. "Rosalie couldn't turn him herself because..." I closed my eyes.
"Because she wasn't sure she could," said Bella.
I nodded. "Yes. She begged Carlisle for him." For a boy with a sweet face whom she should have known absolutely nothing about. And yet she'd been completely right about him.
"And Carlisle didn't turn him away," Bella said with a smile in her voice.
"She stayed with him, you know," I said, rembering as I said it. "The whole time he was changing." It had been unreal. I'd been used to compassion from Carlisle and Esme, but that was the first time I'd seen Rosalie do anything selfless.
"Rosalie was the best and most beautiful girl Emmett had ever seen, and she wanted him and no one else." I could remember the pair of us, my brother and me. For weeks on end she'd been all he could talk about. "She even talked like a fancy lady," I added in a halfhearted imitation of what had once been Emmett's accent.
I couldn't hear her thoughts but I could tell they were there. I could feel her eyes on me, waiting for the next part of the story. But the next didn't fit the story. Next was Rosalie agonizing over what to do about Emmett. Their feelings for each other weren't so different, and she could feel time pushing, demanding that things progress, but the what had happened to her didn't just go away. It had sharpened the gold of her second courtship to a knife's edge. She should have been able to just be happy about it, but a kiss under a maple tree couldn't just be about her and Emmett. It had to be about someone else. It had to be revenge.
"I know you must miss him," said Bella.
"I miss both of them." It was true. Rosalie hadn't liked me at first, but she'd been my sister longer than Emmett had been my brother. There was no red in the leaves above us, but some of them had turned yellow, still heavy and full of life. Just not for long.
"You said this reminded you of their wedding day," she prompted. I nodded. That was as good a place to return to the story as any.
We'd left Emmett's home area, but we were still living in the mountains. There were no visitors to see us, so we had it during the day." His eyes drifted off. He was somewhere far away. "And even if anyone had seen us, they were a different kind of superstitious. There's no telling what they'd have thought, but I doubt it would have been 'vampires.'" Some of the local peoples, white and Indian, told legends about glowing spirits, but we hadn't been forced to negotiate with them the way we had with the Quileutes, so I hadn't paid it as much attention.
"Vampires don't sparkle," she said with a honyed droplet of amusement in her voice.
I rolled my eyes her way. "'Sparkle'?"
"What?" she asked.
"Sparkle?" I asked again. "Really?"
"That's what it looks like," she said.
I shook my head. Maybe it was that she'd only seen vampires in the sun when she'd been human. I hadn't seen Carlisle's skin in daylight until after I'd been turned. Rosalie hadn't sparkled on the day of her wedding. Diamonds sparkled. That's why one saw so many of them. There was only one Rosalie, and even she had never been so beautiful as she was on that day.
"Come here," I said, getting to my feet.
"What is it?" she asked, but she'd already shifted her weight to do as I'd said.
"Just come here," I said, mentally scouting the area to determine if we were unobserved. We had a moment but perhaps only a moment.
I took her right hand by the wrist and moved us toward a shaft of daylight coming down through the trees. The sun was high now; it was not quite noon. I drew her forward and held her hand palm-down in the light.
I heard her lips open as she took it all in. Vampire skin looked smooth in dim lighting, but in sun the facted surface caught the light and threw it back in an uncanny harmony, showing colors that humans did not have words for. I released Bella's hand and watched her turn it palm-up as she flexed her fingers, light and color on a female form.
...all of it perfectly aligned to fascinate and attract her prey. A flawless, deadly skin.
"There," I said. "Like that." Except she'd been shining with something that had nothing to do with death. None of us had been killers that day. I cleared my throat and moved back to my place beneath the pines. "You wouldn't believe what Rose and Esme did with the flowers," I said, a bit lamely. It had been spring in the Ozarks. Plant after plant reaching up out of the earth to touch the hem of my sister's gown. Esme hadn't let her go to a tailor, so they'd bought quality fabric and she'd sewed it herself. "This was before Esme became an architecht. Sulpicia's little garden doesn't come close. She outdid herself for Rose's wedding. We all did.
"She was late, you know, working on her dress for an hour. It gave me time to re-tune the piano, at least. It sprung something when we carried it outside."
"Did Emmett get impatient?" she asked, turning away from the light. A tiny bit of it was still playing in a lock of her hair. I should have told her to put her hood back up.
"He'd been impatient for weeks," I answered, remembering my brother's preferred method for dealing with frustration in those days. "I was beginning to think he'd smash all the boulders on the mountain and have to go looking for more."
She laughed, and the breeze picked up, rustling the loosest of the yellow-gold leaves.
"Carlisle performed the ceremony," I continued. "They said they didn't care if he wasn't a real pastor any more. We celebrated for hours. I stayed at the piano and played almost every song I knew."
She was watching me, dark amber eyes intent. I knew I wasn't telling the whole story. Nothing in my words could create an echo of the gold light on that green spring day. I tried to picture the look on Rosalie's face through her short veil, the clasp of Esme's fingers on the flowers, hear the timbre of Carlisle's voice as he read a passage from the Bible—a short one, at Emmett's insistance.
"You're humming again," she said.
I looked at her but I didn't stop. She crossed the few feet between us and held out her hand. I took it, and before I knew it, we were moving in time.
She was hesitant. She didn't know the steps of this dance. She probably didn't know any dances that had steps, but she mirrored my movements gracefully, never stepping on my feet or tripping on the uneven ground.
It was only the edges of a song, grounded but wistful, not like what I'd actually played that day, but it fit my mood, and she filled in a phrase here and there as our feet beat a hollow harmony into the leafy ground. I couldn't help judging. The pitch wasn't perfect and she scooped the low notes. She hadn't grown up with music or dancing lessons the way Rosalie and I had. But her timing was good, and her voice was very pleasant. Maybe she'd taken chorus as a schoolchild. Voices in the desert.
I hadn't danced that day, not even with Esme. I'd told myself that I was content to sit at the piano without a partner. I hadn't danced with my sister on her wedding day.
The breeze came through, thick and cool, until the dry leaves rustled like bells. We stopped moving, and a wave of yellow, petal-like leaves trailed down from their places like streamers. I watched hrough the reflection in her eyes. This wasn't that spring day long ago. Summer was over, and I was far from home.
"What happened next?" she asked.
"Twilight," I said quietly. "The day ended. They always do."
I still had my hand on her waist. I let go but she didn't. "But what happened next?" she said with a silken thread of pleading. "Night isn't so bad. What happened that night? The next day? I want to hear about years, even boring years."
The wind blew again, shaking the air around us.
"After that, were they happy?" she asked.
"Yes," I told her. "Bella, they were very happy with each other. I don't know how either of them got so lucky." The hunter and the banker's daughter. The woodsman marries the princess. Could it ever have happened in the human world?
I'd seen the image, secondhand in Rosalie's mind, superimposed on the face of a curly-haired child. Rosalie had seen Emmett as a man with a bear's strength and a child's unadulterated capacity for love. She'd known what he was with one look.
Bella managed to smile, but she still looked sad.
I sat back down and closed my eyes. What was I thinking? What was the point of telling her these things? I should have been thinking about how to conduct myself with Caius. I should have been thinking about how to gain the respect and trust of the guard so that the pointlessness in Zhengzhou would not be repeated. Perhaps a public apology to Chelsea, if I could stomach it.
The soft ground shifted as she sat down beside me. The scent of her skin was gently sweet against the forest around us. And she laid her hand on my wrist.
I looked up, looking first at her fingers and then meeting her eye. She'd done it a hundred times before. Maybe it was the long days I'd spent away from her. Maybe it was the revelation in China, but the words jumped out of my mouth before I realized that I'd meant to say them.
"Why do you keep doing that?"
"What?" she asked with a butterfly-like flutter in her voice. She actually looked flustered, poor thing. She seemed looked strikingly human, minus only the blush in her cheeks.
I looked from her hand to her eyes and back. She let go of my wrist. So it wasn't just a habit, then. At first, I'd thought she was just being clever, acting like my mate in public, like I'd told her, but she did it even when we were alone. Always casual touches, never anything that she couldn't excuse if she needed to save face.
"I-if you don't want me to, if you really don't want me to—" She was practically shaking now, as if I'd caught her doing something terrible.
I opened my mouth and closed it again, not really sure what to say. I had no idea why she was so upset. My impulse was to tell her that I didn't mind—which I didn't, not really—but how could what she'd done be so shameful that she'd react in this way?
Oh, was my rather inarticulate thought as I realized what had been going on.
A touch on the wrist wasn't a seductive gesture—for most people. But this was Bella.
This was as much my fault as hers. Here I was telling her romantic stories and then dancing like a fool, so wrapped up in my memories that I overlooked how she might interpret them. I should have known better. She was a newborn. For the first year, her hunger for blood would eclipse any other. But she might go through the motions of attraction to a man out of fear or obligation or, more likely, if she simply thought she was supposed to.
Well she didn't have to. I would help and protect her no matter what. I held my breath a moment, wondering how to explain. "I think I know what you're doing," I said, as gently as I could.
I'd expected her to look sad or embarrassed or at least more flustered, but her hands and posture went stiff. I held back a silent curse. I hadn't meant to frighten her.
"Please don't tell," she said quietly, voice cracking like frost on a puddle.
"Whom would I tell?" I asked quickly. I wanted to put my hands on her shoulders and say everything would be all right. "And there's nothing to tell. This is no one's business but yours and mine."
She stared at me, confusion melting into her fear. "But you..." She looked away, one hand covering the bottom half of her face.
"Bella," I said as gently as I could, "I know it can be confusing, playacting in front of the others. It protects you from animals like Byron and it gets us privileges that mated pairs enjoy in Volterra, but you don't need to pretend anything with me, not when we're alone." It had the added benefit of being why Adrienne hadn't tried to act on her little fantasy of cornering me in the showers but now was not the time to bring that up.
"Oh," she answered, still looking off into the ground. I wouldn't have known what to say either. Her hands flexed in her lap.
I had to admit that this presented a problem for me. On one hand, I hardly disliked that this complex, attractive creature was paying me attention. I had not stopped being a man when I'd become a slave. And there were so many things that I wanted. To be touched, to be looked at, to be admired. I so wanted her to admire me.
It hadn't only been my relationship with the rest of the guard. I'd been playing with fire with Bella as well and I'd been doing it for far too long. I was her only true friend here, and I had taken on the role of her mate in the Volterran sense, however the concept might repulse me. If there was a recipe for making a woman fall in love with someone, that was surely it.
"Man up," I could practically hear Emmett's voice in my ears.
I could make her love me if I wanted to. I could make her love me and it would be easy. But
I was a gentleman. A gentleman did not treat a lady so.
"So you, um," she said, breathing in and out. "It bothers you when I touch you like that?"
"Bella I don't want you to think..." I closed my eyes. Surely she didn't think that I'd expect her to do more than hold my hand? I didn't think I'd misled her to the point where she could think that little of me. "I don't want you to think that you have to give me anything more that you have already."
"But ...do you mind?" she asked.
How could I possibly accept even a small sign of her favor when she was still so dependent on me?
"No." I said. It was the truth.
She didn't move to touch me right then. But she would. After we'd finished combat practice or if we caught a moment alone, then she would.
"So what did you mean 'privileges'?" she asked.
"Oh," I answered, glad of the chance to change the subject. "The bond between mates is the closest thing that vampires have to a social institution. It's why the rest of the guard doesn't question why we spend so much time alone together." Of course, there was no need to mention specifically what they thought we were doing. "Otherwise, they'd think it was the two yellow-eyed freaks plotting mischief. And you're not supposed to ask about what goes on in private between a pair."
"Really? Because Renata asks about you a lot," Bella told me.
"Private things?" I asked, confused. I was sure that I would have noticed. Renata had no talent for hiding her thoughts, especially not embarrassing ones.
"All kinds of things," Bella said. "How we met, what you're like. I don't think it's about you specifically, not really. I guess she's never had anyone to talk to about these things before."
There was a long silence. She closed her eyes and I watched her breathe in and out. Rosalie had looked at Emmett once and known exactly what he was. I would never know what Bella was.
"Its peaceful out here," she said. "I used to hate the woods, back when I'd visit my dad in the summer. They made the world seem small, like there was no horizon." She breathed again. "Now they make the world seem full."
"Are things so very different for you?" I asked.
Her head tilted to the side, as if she'd meant to nod but had thought the better of it. "I miss seeing things the way I used to," she said at last. "Some of the things I've figured out I don't like knowing."
"Me too," I admitted. I'd learned that I wasn't as brave as I'd thought I was.
"It is peaceful here," I agreed. I would have to thank Afton for choosing this place. That might be a good way to start putting things back together. I was tempted to spend the day planning, but Bella seemed content to watch the day grow between the leaves, and I found I was as well.
I still felt that way, hours later, when we walked back into Volterra, Rolfe and Afton ahead as I followed with Bella at my elbow. The gravity of her little stunt seemed to be coming home to her. I could hear her breath rattling jaggedly in and out of her chest as the late-twilight shadows of the compound was cast down over our heads. I could hear Caius in the audience chamber, expecting Afton with an accounting of the acquisitions, but Bella was as tense as a wound string beside me, eyes flicking left and right as if waiting for him to appear.
I wasn't in much better shape. My shoulders tensed and I forced them to relax. It wasn't a good homecoming. Sometimes, when I returned to Volterra, the walls and the sharp vampiric thoughts around me made me feel safe, reminded me that there was one place in the world where I did not have to pretend to be human. Today was a bad day. Today, I felt like a wolf walking straight toward the trap.
The swarm of vampiric thoughts seemed off today, sharper and more animated. Fragmented images and words flicked in and out of my awareness like shards of mirror in a windstorm. A breach in conduct somewhere. A fight. Jane figured in this somewhere, but had she started the altercation or come in and prevented the combatants from knocking the walls down?
It was almost refreshing. Aside from Oleg's execution, this was the first fight that had occurred in Volterra in which neither Bella nor myself had been involved. We hadn't even been in the city.
The new evening receptionist got to her feet, smiling earnestly as we walked by. I wondered how long she would last. Maybe it would be her in the feasting hall next, getting a syringe to the chest. Perhaps Aro would not require me to be present this time.
There was a scattered noise of footsteps behind us. Afton and Rolfe kept moving, but Bella turned around. Renata stopped at the edge of the room, motioning sharply to her. She had news, all words and impressions flashing in her thoughts, and she wanted to be the first to tell.
I hesitated, half a step behind Afton and Rolfe. I saw Bella mouth the word "Later" as Renata nodded eagerly.
"Maybe you shouldn't come in with us," I whispered quickly as we caught up to the others. Her entire defense was that leaving the compound wasn't a serious matter. She should continue to act as if that were the case. She shook her head tightly. "An innocent front can protect you better than standing next to me will," I pointed out.
"Who says I'm the one who needs protecting?" she answered.
By then, Afton had the door open.
Bella practically had a death grip on my arm as entered the main hall. There had been a feast while we'd been in China; I could still smell it in the air. I felt a pang as I hoped that Bella had managed on her own.
Caius sat in the central throne, as I'd expected, but Aro and Marcus were there as well. Aro's face held his usual benignly interested smile, but it was thinner than usual. I wondered if he knew what had gone wrong in Zhengzhou.
Rolfe was carrying the book under his cloak, and he brought it forward in a single, graceful move, a genuflection.
Caius's hands came up slowly, like the ghosts of flowers. "This..." he said, thoughts quickly appraising the age and nature of the item, "is not what I sent you to acquire."
"No, Master," said Afton, "but we thought you would like it."
Tang dynasty... Caius mused. But illegitimately obtained. No item is worth as much without its provenance.
"The original items are still within our reach," Afton said, a little too quickly. "If we send another team—"
Caius made a slashing movement with his hand and Afton fell silent. "You mean you failed," said Caius. Hot waves moved in my chest. It should not have been so satisfying to watch anyone on the receiving end of Caius's discipline ...but it was.
Afton bowed his head, accepting his master's words with a deliberate dignity.
I realized quickly that he wasn't going to try to pin all the blame on me, at least not directly. He knew that Caius would see it as weakness. Afton would wait for Caius to ask what happened—which he might not do at all—and then allow him to draw his own conclusion. Considering how little prompting Caius seemed to need to punish me, it wasn't much of an improvement. Whatever else, none of Caius's attention seemed to be on Bella at the moment, and that was worth something.
Finally daring to breathe, I looked past Caius to Aro and Marcus. Marcus was watching Bella and me from behind his lank waves of heavy hair, but he seemed distracted. ...doesn't make sense; Jane's condition has been stable for decades. But lately—
Jane should be here, Caius thought, the sharpness of his annoyance drowning out Marcus's impressions. He picture Afton enjoying a few moments of Jane's attention, just enough to be commensurate with the minor infraction of coming back with the wrong grocery items. Without her, his main options consisted of Felix and a conventional beating, which would take long enough to draw a crowd.
Whatever this afternoon's mystery event had been, it had pulled Jane away from her post.
Aro was looking at me suspiciously. "Were there any other points of interest in your journey, my dear ones?" he asked.
Afton and Rolfe were silent, both wishing that the other would speak first.
"Yes, Master," I said.
Shut up! Afton thought intensely.
"We managed to obtain the book without immediate detection," I said carefully. Bella's hand shifted to my upper arm, as if she wanted to pull me away. "However, we encountered two local police officers during our escape. We killed them. There was no evidence."
"A serious matter," said Caius. When random humans told stories, they were ignored. Authority figures, even minor ones like police officers, were more likely to be believed. "What did they see?"
"Our faces," I said. "Nothing more."
Afton was starting to breathe again. That's right, I thought carefully. I'm not going to throw you under the bus. I'd been ordered to speak, so I'd spoken. When ordered again, I would do so again, but I would do no more than that. That was what members of the guard did: Follow orders first, and then protect each other.
Aro's eyes did not leave mine. He knew there was more. He knew I had my reasons for not saying it out loud. A thick, cold feeling entered my guts.
Was Aro starting to trust my judgment?
As soon as Caius dismisses you, Aro thought in my direction with a strong mental image of his hand on my shoulder. I nodded, as subtly as I could.
"You say that my original targets are still in Kaifeng," Caius said to Afton, a hint of a sneer in the back of his throat. "Are they no longer for sale?"
"They are still for sale, Master," said Afton.
"I see," said Caius. "And whom do you recommend that we send to fetch them in your place?" he asked.
Afton's mouth didn't make any sound when it opened.
I felt Bella turn her head, just slightly as she met my eyes. I could see she understood what was happening: Afton was being demoted.
"Randall," said Afton, at last. "He should be ...reliable."
Caius's smile was like ice. "Randall, then," he said. "Go and tell him to come to me. Rolfe, Edward, you may go."
Afton didn't look at anyone as he left through the side door, but his mental image of me was rather vivid. This was his own fault, but he did not see it that way. I took in a breath. I would win him over. I would win them all over. I would be patient and enthusiastic. I would give the Volturi mission my all, and I would win them over.
Rolfe and I turned and left the way we'd come. I gave a gentle tug on Bella's sleeve. She actually shook as she realized she wasn't going to be punished. Good. Then she'd think twice before sneaking out again.
"You dodged a bullet," I murmured as the door swung shut behind us. Aro was expecting me to meet him in the hallway, but I had a moment. "Caius wasn't even thinking about you. Something more interesting happened while we were gone."
"What?" she asked intently, both hands clenching on the hem of her cloak.
I jerked my chin over her shoulder. "I think someone is very eager to tell you."
Bella turned and saw Renata hurrying toward us. "Bella," she said in a loud whisper. "You won't believe it! It's so strange!"
"What happened, Renata?" Bella's voice sounded stiff, mechanical. Behind us, I noticed Rolfe hovering near the exit, deciding whether to turn around and join us or just eavesdrop.
"It's Jane! She went crazy, and she bit Felix!"
The images in Renata's mind were flaky but sincere. She hadn't seen it herself; she'd only pulled things together from the collective recounting of five or more versions of the story. In Renata's version, Jane was like a raccoon gnawing on a hysterical black bear two hundred times her size.
"Okay, this I've got to hear," said Rolfe, lumbering toward us.
"She bit Felix?" asked Bella.
"Yes!" Renata insisted. "Wouldn't explain why either. Just said that Felix should stay out of her way or something."
"That doesn't make sense," said Rolfe. "Felix already stays out of Jane's way." Renata turned and looked at him. "He does! He only pretends he's not afraid of her."
"Well Felix was trying to pick her up at the time," Renata explained. "You know how she hates that. He said the noise was getting to him."
"What noise?" I asked.
"Marcell," explained Renata. "He'd been screaming for like an hour. Felix got fet up and said Jane should give it a rest."
"Wait," Bella snapped. "Jane was using her gift on Marcell? For an hour straight?" Her breath came in ragged. Her mouth formed the words, "Oh God."
"Bella, sometimes newborns go wild," I explained. "Jane was probably just defending herself. It's far more likely that Felix is the one who overreacted."
Bella was pressing her lips together, actually shaking. I wasn't even certain she'd heard me. "F-for an hour..."
I placed my hands on her shoulders, "Bella," I said, but she didn't look up, staring down into a stormcloud that only she could see. I touched her chin with my hand until her eyes met mine. And then I realized that I had nothing to say. "It isn't your fault." I managed to smile a little. She felt responsible for him, probably because he was mine. "You can't blame yourself for what Marcell does or for Jane. We have to keep Marcell from running wild in some way, and we don't have hundreds of miles of open forest. It's just the price we pay for carrying out a plan." Our plan, I tried to put into my gaze. The plan that would keep her parents safe.
She pressed her lips together and nodded, fingers trailing over my free hand.
"Aro wants me," I said.
She nodded again. "You should go."
"We'll go see him ourselves," said Renata, and I felt a wave of gratitude. I knew how much the newborn frightened her. "It was hours ago. He's probably fine now."
I turned as I walked away, Renata was putting a hand on Bella's shoulder. She didn't push her away.
This chapter was tricky. Some parts of this event only work from Bella's perspective and others only work from Edward's, so I ran through it both ways. I was originally going to go straight to what will now be thirty-one (that being the text that was mostly written when twenty-nine went up). I've had some of these forest scenes ready to go for a very long time, though.
drf24 (at) columbia (dot) edu