Twilight Fan Fiction / Twilight Fan Fiction ❯ I Know My Duty ❯ Status Quo ( Chapter 36 )

[ 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.

Alrightie, so this one's a little longer than usual. Strictly length-wise it might've done to cut it into bits, but thematically, it seemed to be all one piece. That being said, it's got it all! Compound politics, love scenes, plot development and plenty of vampiring.

(bows to bmthespian for the typo save)


"Only thirst. That was the deal, the price. I'd agreed to pay it." –Bella, <i>Breaking Dawn</i>


"I want to talk to you."

Bella and I turned around at the same time. I wasn't surprised to see Demetri. His mental voice was as clear and distinct as the gleam of a sharpened sword. I hadn't expected him to speak to me, though, especially not out loud. Especially not about what seemed to be on his mind.

Bella looked from Demetri to me and back. Caroly had worked a thin blue scarf into her hair today, the two ends of it falling past the intricate bun. I found it gave her appearance a certain fragility, but I couldn't deny that the dark blue looked good against her skin.

"Alone," Demetri clarified.

I squeezed Bella's hand. Communicating silently was an incalculable asset in Volterra, and Bella was learning how to do it. She knew I was promising to tell her everything later, and she left without objecting.

Her footsteps faded down the far end of the hallway. I looked Demetri in the eye and waited.

<i>He hasn't done it. He hasn't done it, and he needs to.</i>

I wouldn't have wanted to give it voice either. Even with Jane out of all practical commission, questioning Aro was a dangerous business. "I know," I said. "I wouldn't have suggested it if I didn't think it was necessary."

"We need to do more than suggest it," he said. "Things are not going well."

<i>We?</i> I wondered.

Jane had cornered Adrienne in the hallway and left six smooth tooth marks on her previously flawless shoulders. Adrienne mourned them like they were her dead sisters.

"Adrienne is going to leave tomorrow night; she's just working up the courage," I said. I wouldn't miss her, but Rolfe would. And once someone had taken the stigma of being first to run away, others would not be far behind.

"We can't afford to lose people," Demetri said. "Not like this." <i>Our reputation,</i> he thought. Thugs like Felix and Corin might believe that it was the Volturi's ability to deal damage that kept our world in line, but Demetri did not. Any coven could attack another and break bones and spirits. The Volturi were like a demon, like a flood, as unstoppable as the coming of night. One chink in our armor and the light would shine right through us.

He was right, of course. I breathed out. "Demetri, what exactly would you have me do?" I asked. "I cannot make the master change his mind."

Aro had not selected a mission for Jane. He was waiting for a mission in Italy, he'd said. The truth was that he was too worried about losing her. Jane was vulnerable in her current state, and that mattered more to him than the fact that she rendered others vulnerable.

Demetri gave me a look like frostbite.

"I think you can."

I stepped toward him and lowered my voice. "He already reads me every day," I reminded him.

"Then show him the crowd again," Demetri instructed.

I closed my eyes. "Demetri, nothing has changed," I told him. "Master Aro understands the difficulties facing the guard, he simply doesn't <i>wish</i> to punish Jane publicly."

<i>You lie.</i>

I wondered for an amazed moment whether Chelsea had gone to work on Demetri since I'd seen him last. The tracker had always struck me as completely loyal to the masters and their mission, but he'd also come off as extremely clear-eyed.

I supposed every man had a blind spot.

"Our master is not misinformed," I explained firmly. "He understands the magnitude of the problem and has chosen not to take action."

<i>Aro is cutting his losses?</i> Demetri wondered to himself.

"No," I said bluntly, "he is willfully blinding himself to the consequences of inaction." I found myself irritated. Aro was being a fool, and not just with Jane. In Demetri, he had a devoted servant. He wasted his time trying to turn me loyal when he was squandering the confidence of capable followers who believed in his cause without coercion.

Demetri glared but finally looked away, eyes narrowing as his mind worked. What I'd said couldn't possibly be true. Even in the crosshairs of his displeasure, I could enjoy watching him as he cycled through strategies with the perfect click of a revolver. This disaster might be the opening throes of some great stratagem that would pay off later. A master with his eye on the biggest picture might overlook the details growing like weeds at his feet.

I put my hand on Demetri's arm, trying to ignore the anxiety in my veins at the very real possibility that I would not get the appendage back. Slowly, I shook my head from side to side. "Even if we could convince Master Aro to take action, he would most likely tell us to convince Adrienne to change her mind." Or he would send Chelsea to work. I wondered if she was capable of severing Adrienne's affection for her own safety. As far as I could tell, she cared about nothing else.

Demetri's lower lip moved at the corners, a tiny shard of childlike expression that quickly disappeared.

"Then why?"

"Because she is his favorite," I said, "her and Alec."

Demetri's thoughts flared, images flying past each other like shards from a broken window—men on horseback on the steppe, shouts in Russian, one of them left behind in the snow.

It wasn't that Demetri thought he'd been the favorite. It wasn't even that he wanted to be. It was that Aro had done it at all. Aro wasn't supposed to be some decrepit human grandfather doting on a young darling.

"He's a man," I said, "like us."

I darted to the side as Demetri punched a wall. Then I blinked to clear my eyes of imaginary plaster dust. He hadn't done it; he'd only thought about it. At least he believed me. If he really did think I was slandering Master Aro, my eyes would oozing in his hands. I was glad I hadn't mentioned Chelsea.

"I want to help, Demetri," I told him, speaking his name for the first time, "I do. But Jane is too precious to him. He won't let us do what we would have to do." And at this point, we would have to do a great deal. Too much time had passed. Too many people had been injured and humiliated. A simple beating would not satisfy the guard, not now. Her punishment would have to be crippling. It would have to be degrading to make up for what she'd done.

This was serious. Demetri truly admired the masters—all three of them. He'd imagined them as a perfect tripod, three pillars supporting our world. To imagine that Aro could be so weak and flawed, that he could hold back out of doting fondness when necessity demanded that he act, and the act itself so simple...

For this first time, Demetri realized that Aro was old. And Caius and Marcus, they hadn't stopped him, hadn't put their wills together and done it themselves.

It was like that scar on Heidi's face. In my own eyes, the Volturi were no longer flawless. I'd realized it before—technically—but seeing things through Demetri's ice-clear perspective always made things seem more real.

"He'd tell us to convince Adrienne to stay?" Demetri asked.

I couldn't help but smile. He'd evaluated what I'd said, accepted it as the truth, and now he was ready to address the problem for what it was—an obstacle to be outthought and overcome.

I nodded.

"Can it be done?" he asked.

"My guess is no," I told him. Adrienne was reliving the attack in her mind, and it became more horrific each time. Demetri briefly considered threatening or blackmailing Adrienne into staying but dismissed the idea. Members of the guard attacking each other was what had caused this problem in the first place.

"And if Rolfe were to tell her to stay?"

I'd already thought of it, truth be told. Adrienne had taken up with Rolfe for protection, no more. From her point of view, he'd proven that he was useless. If he came to her with a round moon face and begged her to stay—or if he showed her any of the poetry he'd written—then he'd only look pathetic, less like the strong protector she wanted in a man. "Adrienne isn't really Rolfe's mate. They haven't felt the change. He has less leverage with her than he realizes."

Demetri dismissed the idea and moved on. As terrible as the situation was, I was thrilled to have a front-row seat.

"After Adrienne, who's our biggest problem?" aske Demetri.

"Probably Corin," I said. "I'm not a hundred percent on that, though. It would depend on the circumstances of Adrienne's departure—whether he could follow her without looking like a coward. Richard might be willing to go if Corin doesn't."

Demetri processed this. Corin was one of the Volturi's famous fighters. Losing him was unacceptable. And the man couldn't tell a lie to save his life. The first nomads he encountered would know that the Volturi had gone soft. The neck of this series of events, the narrow place where it could be choked, was Corin.

"Has he selected an excuse yet?" asked Demetri.

"An excuse?"

Demetri glared at me sourly. <i>He's not going to go to Caius and say, "Master, Jane puts me in fear. May I go?" He'll lie.</i>

"No," I told him, frowning. "Not yet, but..."

"But you think you know what he might say," Demetri prompted.

There was something other than Jane that Corin did not like. There was something that might actually have been reason enough to leave on its own. I told him.

An idea took shape in Demetri's mind. He looked at me.

<i>Well?</i> he asked.

It would work, at least for a while, I figured.

"I will tell the master."

Demetri cast his eyes the way Bella had gone.

"I will tell her too, and probably first," I admitted. "Don't pretend you didn't know that."

Demetri eyed me critically. I raised an eyebrow at the speculation in his mind. "Even in the middle of a crisis, you can wonder about that? It isn't really your business."

"That would be why I didn't say anything out loud," Demetri answered pointedly. "I'd be the first to admit that what a man and his mate do or don't do is their own concern, but you can't deny that it's strange."

"I can deny anything I please," I said, turning away. The master was waiting, or he would be if he knew what I had to tell him

The truth was that Demetri had a point. Bella and I had reached a sort of plateau. She'd forgiven me more readily than I could have hoped, and, in the few moments that we could steal in the hallways or our practice tunnel, she seemed to welcome my touch. I sometimes got the impression that she was waiting for something. I kept meaning to talk to her about the way the newborn blood interfered with other desires, to tell her that she'd be able to enjoy things the way she used to eventually, but I didn't want to break the equilibrium of the things as they were. After a long uphill climb, it was pleasant to linger at a status quo, at least for a while.

Deep down, I knew it wasn't only that. She was waiting for me to say it. I hadn't yet. Logically, I didn't know what was keeping me. On every other level, though, it made perfect sense. It was a block that I couldn't get past. And it might have been childish to point it out, but she hadn't said it to me either.

We had time. For that, we had time, assuming, of course, that our coven didn't fly apart around us.


Adrienne did leave that night. She came to Caius when he was in the feasting hall with only Rolfe and Felix to attend him. I watched through Rolfe's perspective. She'd bowed, gracefully as ever, and Rolfe's attention had lingered on the attractive limbs that he'd come to enjoy. It was a full minute before he realized what she was asking Caius to let her do.

<i>But you said I was your champion,</i> he thought, and I pictured his face, round like a disappointed child's. She really had called him that, and he'd been so proud to hear her say it. Her words had made him picture her as a human youth under the Capetians, tying a favor around a knight's lance. I tried not to grimace at the inaccuracy of it all. Rolfe was far more like the actual chevaliers who had hacked their way through France long before the age of courtly love.

I felt sorry, so sorry that I hadn't told him what I'd known about Adrienne before he'd gotten into this mess.

Adrienne didn't look at Rolfe. Not once. I wasn't even certain that she thought about him.

I found I was disgusted. The masters had done everything in their power to make me stay—Demetri, Bella, subtle threats to Carlisle—and Felix had spent six months using me for target practice. Adrienne abandoned her duty because of a few bites? She was a weakling. She'd always been a weakling, never up to the Volturi caliber. I wondered why she'd been permitted to join this coven in the first place.

The next day, on Aro's instructions, I watched Corin and Richard instead of Jane. I stayed in the center of the compound and listened for their thoughts. Demetri and I had gambled that Corin would be the first one to make a decision, but it was far from a sure thing. I had to be ready to call for a change of plan. Richard was already thinking about seeing Nova Scotia again. I suddenly realized that I hadn't tipped off Chelsea. I didn't like Richard or Corin, but Chelsea might truly have been able to help...

I shook my head. Sometimes I couldn't believe the things I found myself thinking.

All three of the masters were in the hall that evening. Afton and Rolfe were discussing compound security with Caius—or at least that was why they thought they were present. Chelsea was supposedly waiting for Afton. Other vampires lingered nearby as well. Not the whole coven, but certainly enough.

Corin certainly noticed the abundance of witnesses

I'd worn the cloak when I'd gone to fetch him. I knew I needed all the help I could get. Corin had been a token participant in my hazing process, but he hadn't paid much attention to me since. I hadn't impressed him much.

"The master wants to see you," I told him.

Corin processed this quickly. He had heard from Rolfe and Demetri how my gift worked, and he knew his thoughts hadn't exactly been loyal of late.

"Master Caius?" he asked cautiously, wondering, as many vampires were these days, what punishment would look like without Jane.

"Master Aro," I said.

Corin eyed me with suspicion, but he came with me.

Aro turned toward us as we walked in, "Ah yes, Corin," he said. "There is a matter of some delicacy that I wish to discuss with you."


The next day, I pretended to pour over a roadmap while I listened to the others prepare. I'd never been to Croatia before. At least on paper, western Croatia looked a lot like northeastern Italy and southern Slovenia. The people were different, or at least they fancied that they were. Thoughts in Croatian probably wouldn't be that much different from other thoughts, at least not when vampires were around. "Who are you?" "Why are you doing this?" That tended to be the gist of it.

I fought the urge to look up as Corin joined us. I saw him visualize Afton and Chelsea, where they stood whispering by the door, then Bella, who was showing Caroly how to tie up a boot without snapping the laces. Renata was nearby, insisting that Caroly should practice slow movements one more time instead. <i>Newborns and freaks,</i> he thought dully. There would be no honor in this. Winning a great victory with a mismatched team was one thing, but Corin was just starting to figure out that he'd been railroaded. He eyed Demetri, who was leaning still as a shadow against a pillar. <i>At least they gave me the tracker.</i>

Aro had given him more than that. Corin had been going to ask to leave, giving as his excuse the fact that he'd never been offered a command. Aro's offer had knocked him off-balance, especially because it had been made in front of half the coven. He'd accepted with the same breath that he'd drawn in to ask to leave. He couldn't turn down a direct order from the master—and an offer was an order—not in front of witnesses. If he left before a mission, everyone would think he was afraid of the Volturi's enemies. It would reinforce our reputation rather than damage it.

It was an ultimatum. Stay and serve or go and leave your courage behind.

If he completed the mission, though, then he could find another way to depart. Perhaps he would claim that Jane had behaved erratically in the field and cite lack of discipline. Then the fallout would be worse, not better. It was a gamble, and one that we would only win if Caius's plan worked and the pressure of the mission gave Jane back her edge. I didn't have high hopes. Jane wasn't bored. She felt stifled, but more space would just mean more stimuli.

So we had a commander who did not know that the real purpose of the mission was to let Jane blow off some steam. Chelsea and I had been specifically tasked with her. I could hear Afton murmuring to Chelsea as she settled her cloak about her shoulders. Chelsea's nerves had been fried ever since our meeting with the masters. She'd failed them far more than I had. I ignored the two of them until Chelsea turned to look at me over her shoulder. I'd never seen her look at anything that way, sad and vulnerable. It seemed that she knew we were both on the chopping block, but she was far less accepting of it than I was. I tried not to feel smug about that. I was trying to fit in, after all.

"Are you coming to Croatia too, Renata?" Caroly asked as Bella laced up her own high boots. No ballet flats on this trip. Uniformity and strength. Bella had asked about wearing trousers but she'd made no headway. I was getting used to her in gray dresses, though.

"Not this time," Renata answered, laying her hand on the newborn's wrist. I wondered if she'd learned the gesture from Bella, "but there are plenty of people here to look out for you. Everyone wants you to make us proud. You're only the third Volturi newborn in more than a hundred years."

Caroly gave a smile that didn't quite reach her eyes. Her thoughts were muted. She wasn't confident about this trip.

"I'll be there, though," said Bella, gently touching the girl on the shoulder. "And I've been out in the field before." I grimaced. No sense in saying that it had only been the once before Caius had decided that her talents would be put to better use tending the by-products of Aro's little experiment. At least being ordered to turn new vampires had a bright side. "Remember to do just as Corin tells you and you'll be fine."

"But you didn't eat with us," she said, iridescent red eyes frowning in concern. "Renata said that the blood gives us strength. Won't you need it?"

Bella smiled. I noticed the tightness around her eyes, but Caroly did not. "Edward and I don't take human blood," she said. "We're like vegetarians."

I saw Caroly's lips purse. Coring thought that it looked like disapproval, but I noted with surprise that she was trying to remember what the word meant. Caroly's human life was like shadows in her mind, more so than was usual for vampire newborns. Most of us lost our memories slowly, the way that a child in a new country can lose his first language. It wasn't supposed to happen all at once. I wondered if it was that she'd been so eager to be turned and leave humanity behind. With Marcell in no coherent shape, Caroly and Bella were the only two vampires in Volterra who'd known what was happening when they were turned. Bella had her parents, her reasons to remember. Perhaps Caroly did not. I could remember that I'd once met a vampire who remembered nothing at all of her human life, but the rest of her story escaped me.

"Is that what those pigs were for?" Caroly asked. "Renata says that pigs' blood makes you ill in the head."

"Renata talks too much," answered Bella, making the last tug on her knot a little tighter than it needed to be.

Caroly looked at something behind me. "Does she have to come with us?" she asked in what she probably thought was a hushed tone.

Bella didn't need to look. "Caroly, remember what we talked about," she said soberly.

Caroly nodded, going over the list in her head. In her memory, I could see Bella and Renata giving Caroly a very thorough lesson on the new Volterran etiquette: No references to Jane's size or age. No talking back. No talking at all. No looking at her. No disagreeing with her. No hesitation. The list came to her easily, like the drape of a cloth following a woman's body. Caroly's memories might be gone, but her sense of people was still working.

The world had gone mad indeed if a newborn vampire was being told how to keep a mature one calm.

I'd been so wrapped up in Jane that I'd hardly given Caroly any thought. Sending a newborn out on a mission was foolish enough, but two? Sure, Bella was nearing her year mark and her level of control had always been uncanny for her age, but bringing two newborns would have been pushing it even if Jane had been capable of helping

So this was what it took to make Bella disciplined. Give her someone to watch over and she became a model member of the guard. Caroly mirrored everything she did practically stride for stride. Bella might not be the strongest or most dutiful member of the guard, but she had a talent for making others strong and dutiful.

Good. Perfect. Raising newborns was a practical skill, but not one for which the Volturi had historically had much need. She was skilled enough to be useful and common enough to give away.

Bella had briefed Caroly well. She nodded attentively as Corin laid down the orders and outlined the purpose of the mission. We were to go to Croatia to investigate the irregularities near the Slovenian border. Combat was possible if any crime had been committed and if the criminals were still there. Corin didn't think we were likely to see anything—he was actually a little resentful of being sent on what he saw as a milk run—but Demetri hadn't been so certain. His last trip to Budapest had given him pause.

We left the city without incident. Ordinarily, we would have taken a train part of the way, but our group was so large that Corin hadn't wanted to attract attention. My opinion had not been asked, but I supported the decision. I didn't want Jane to find our mode of transportation too slow or confining. A good long run through open spaces would do her good.

Of course, Europe only had so many open spaces. I could remember a scrap of conversation with my human father in which he'd talked about his boyhood. They'd thought that there would be no end to opportunities in the West. Once the frontier had closed, fools like Theodore Roosevelt talked about how America's wide open spaces needed to be preserved. My father had thought it was because he'd spent time out west as a rancher. Now I realized that it was probably because he'd visited Europe.

"Who are we hunting?" Caroly asked as we hid in a brushy stretch of woods beside the highway.

"Nomads," snapped Jane, who clearly considered that to be sufficient answer.

Caroly eyed Jane carefully and then looked at Corin. "Did they break the law?" she asked carefully. Jane bristled internally at being sidestepped, but she did not do anything else.

"Oh yes," said Corin. I almost resented the lack of hostility in his voice. First, Caroly was an ordinary newborn rather than a vegetarian cultist like Bella or a newcomer like me. Second, there was the fact that she was tall, blonde and well-formed, and Corin had not had a mate in many years.

I suddenly imagined tearing Corin's head off for his nerve. Or setting him on fire. Or just doing something that would really hurt, like pulverizing his flesh, maybe with a shotgun....

I gasped.

"Are you all right, Edward?" asked Bella.

"Yes, I'm fine. I just think I might understand Charlie better than I'd like."


"Never mind."


There had been a string of deaths in the outskirts of Dragonja in Slovenia, then another near Buzet. Bodies drained of blood. That in itself was not unusual, but the bodies had not been destroyed or concealed until the evidence rotted. Local law enforcement was flummoxed. Due to the timing and placement of the events, adjacent to neither major highways nor mass transit, no one had yet concluded that they might have been caused by the same group of people.

Night came, and Croatia lit. The infrastructure was strong, and electricity was plentiful, even here in the sticks. We avoided the highway, which was new and in good repair. Not many nomads preferred places like this, farmland spotted with towns. It was either the large cities, where the crime rate could provide a cover, or the wildlands, where the bodies would never be found at all. Croatia's war for independence had made this prime vampire land back in the early nineties, but now all these pulsing, throbbing lives were a crime waiting to happen.

This type of hunt usually took weeks, but pursuits lasting well over one year were not unheard of. Trackers had to be sent to the sites of the irregularities. Local rumors had to be consulted. The perpetrators had to be found. Swift justice was good, but sure justice was better. The Volturi offered no statute of limitations.

Aro hadn't wanted a long mission this time, so he had sent Demetri with us. I'd been on three missions with him by now, but always with him as team leader. After months of dealing with Felix and Afton, I hadn't expected something like this: Demetri could slip from a leader to a follower at will. It was somehow more startling than watching Levi Uley change into a wolf.

We first tracked them to a resort on the coast. It was the off season, but there were always a few tourists, and locals enjoying a view of the waves without a crowd to get in the way. Many of the businesses were still closed for the winter. The others waited in one while Demetri and I picked up the trail. They were long gone, but Demetri knew where they were going.

"What happened?" Bella murmured to me as we made our way, at human speed, to the edge of town. In my mind's eye, I saw Caroly listening intently.

"Pretty much what the library crew said," I told her. We'd been briefed before leaving Volterra, a typical case, like the one we'd seen together the previous year. "There was feeding here, and the humans were allowed to learn of it." Caroly's eyes on me were wide and attentive. She was eager to please. "There was a crime here," I confirmed.

"Will we have to fight them?" she asked.

I nodded my head toward Corin. "Ask him," I said. In truth, it would be more than possible to send us back—or at least send Caroly back—and send for a larger team with more fighters. Technically, though, Demetri, Corin, Jane and myself ought to have been more than enough.

Demetri was speaking to Corin, telling him what he'd found in words that he would accept and understand. I realized as I watched Demetri's mind, that the longer Corin and Jane both stayed out of Volterra, the more time Aro would have to work on Richard, shore him up against his desire to leave.

And Demetri had caught their trail.

We weren't going back.


Bella stuck close to Caroly the whole time. I wondered if she knew how much that soothed the girl. Probably. Bella was an absolute monster once she decided to pay attention.

Now if the same could be said for Chelsea... I tried to warn her that she was only irritating Jane, but she liked to get close when she used her powers. It wasn't working. Chelsea tried to tighten Jane's ties to the rest of us, turn her docile like she had been, but it was like trying to bend a bunch of willow twigs just a bit too big for her grip. One would always spring up, and then others would spring up until she drew her hands away a mass of cuts.

I found myself reciting Caroly's mantra. Don't talk to her. Don't look at her. Never say anything about size or height. Jane had stayed quiet—for now, but she was like a simmering pot. The excursion had so far done nothing to tone down her flames.

Corin had chosen a sparse wooded area as a place for us to hide for the day. Tomorrow we might have more freedom if we could make it up into the hills that lined the Slovenian border. As the dawn began to break, I noticed Bella hanging behind. In Chelsea's memory, I saw her check her shoe. <i>Probably broke a heel; the pretty ones always choose foolish shoes.</i> I tried not to sniff. Chelsea was not the most observant person. She'd imagined Bella wearing heeled pumps, even though she'd been in boots throughout the mission and stuck to flats in the compound. I supposed I could forgive her for not knowing that my lady had preferred practical clothes up until the day Renata had started picking out her outfits. Even that green birthday dress had been chosen by—my neck suddenly hurt—Esme, not Bella herself.

I kept a close watch on the others. Demetri had found a place to wait out the light, a place where the trees were thicker and our cloaks would offer us protection from any humans who might wander by.

Jane was as calm as she ever got these days. Chelsea kept a loose eye on her as she watched the few birds foolish enough to remain near us. Caroly seemed calm as well. She was practicing sitting still but not too still, like Bella and Renata had taught her. She listened to Corin and Demetri speak quietly about their plans for the night. Demetri was talking about where he thought our quarry might be hiding out the day. He had a map of the area spread out in front of him. It seemed his gift could tell him distance as well as direction, gave him a sense of what kind of cover his prey would seek. I should have found it facinating

I hung back, drifted away in as non-threatening a manner as I could. Bella probably wanted to talk to me. It was practically code—slip away and wait. I found her just out of easy earshot, one pale hand playing on the bark of a thick oak tree. She smiled as I drew closer. So it wasn't bad news, at least. I opened my mouth to ask her what she wanted, but when I came within arm's length, she took hold of the sleeve on my upper arm and pulled me down into a kiss.

"What was that for?" I murmured.

"I can't just want to kiss you?" she said.

I smiled. "You know perfectly well that you can."

"I'm just happy," she said. "I'm <i>so</i> happy."

"What, to be outside?" I asked.

She looked to her left and then nodded. "Yes, I'm happy we're outside," she said, grasping the collar of my shirt and gently tugging me down again. "No snooping coven," she said between kisses, "no Aro calling you every second..."

She <i>was</i> happy, I noted. There was an effervescent enthusiasm to her that she'd never shown me in Volterra. I reached under her cloak and put my hands on her hips, guiding her toward me so that I could fit my arms around her as she stood up on her toes. Vampire strength was one thing, but it couldn't make her taller.

God but she felt good. There was a time when I'd thought I would never feel this again. There was a longer time, before that, when I'd thought I would never feel it at all.

And there was so much to feel. I broke away from her kiss before I could get too carried away and touched my lips to her cheeks, her forehead, her eyes as her hands slipped under my cloak to rub my back. She'd learned to be gentle, but she was still so strong. There was no thrill like having this vibrant, dangerous creature in my arms with her teeth so close to my throat, knowing that she could tear me apart and would not.

"Easy," I murmured. "We're on the job."

"Yes," she said, "and we can't go anywhere anyway," she broke each phrase with a kiss, "so we're taking a break. Even the guys at the burger barn get two fifteens and a twenty."

"If they think we're distracting each other, they won't let us come out here together again," I warned her. "And that goes double if Caroly acts up because you weren't watching her."

She leaned back and looked me in the eye. "If you're still thinking about Caroly, then I must be doing this wrong."

"You're not doing this wrong—I mean, that's not what's wrong. I mean—"

She stopped me with another kiss. It was just as well. I wasn't very articulate out loud today. She seemed to pay more attention when I communicated this way, anyway. As she slid her fingers from the back of my neck, I suddenly remembered that was a master communicator. Another minute and I was convinced I was some sort of genius.

We'd gone this far before, in stolen moments back at the compound, but something about her touch seemed different today. Bella smiled against my lips. Perhas I was being silly, I thought to myself. Perhaps it was only the open air and the lack of walls and prying eyes. I felt her fingers flex on my right hip and then she tucked just the last knuckle of her finger underneath my belt. I gasped and her lips formed a smirk. I couldn't blame her. I was as surprised as if she'd grabbed me outright.

I put my hands on her shoulders and held her halfway to arm's length.

She smiled, eyebrows raising just a little. She didn't even have the good grace to look sheepish. I looked off to the side and then back at her. She was just Bella, smiling and patient as she watched me figure out just what she'd planned for our "break time."


And it wasn't that I didn't want to. She was beautiful and engaging and... And I'd committed to the idea that she was Bella.

"We could work our way up to it," she said, <i>exactly</i> as if she'd known I'd have trouble with this. "We don't have to do <i>everything</i> if you don't want." She took one of my hands and held in front of her in both of hers. I wasn't touching her breast but I could have if I'd opened my fingers. And I could see in her face, to my amazement, that she wouldn't have slapped me. Weeks ago, she'd knocked me flat on my back for that one ill-advised kiss, but today, she wouldn't so much as tell me to stop. "I just thought it would be easier out here. The last time we were out in the woods together, you seemed so much more comfortable."

I was never going to live that down, was I?

"Bella," I said gently. "We didn't..." I searched for the words. "We didn't have a job to do then."

"Well you've got one to do now," she purred, trying to wiggle toward me and kiss me again.
I settled my grip on her arms and pulled back. So far, I'd accepted everything she'd given me, and gladly, but this crossed a line. "Bella," I said gently, "we'll have plenty of time for this once you're back—"

"Okay," she said stepping back, holding both hands in the air. "Full disclosure? I don't want to wait until we're back in Volterra. I know it's weird to do this outside, but it bothers me a lot less, and I can't predict the next time they'll let us both out again."

"That wasn't what I was going to say," I told her patiently. "I mean that we can certainly wait until..." God but how did I put this? "Until you ...feel a bit more like yourself."

Bella stepped back, frowning. "'Until I feel a bit more like myself'?" she asked.

I nodded. Her narrowed eyes were making me a bit nervous.

"Edward," she said with a dangerous clip to her voice, "is there some kind of vampire PMS that I don't know about?"

"Ah," I said, feeling like I was tiptoing backwards across a lava pit, "not that I know of. I only mean that there's no reason to become ...more intimate before you could truly ...enjoy it." I placed a hand on her shoulder and squeezed gently. "Really, Bella, I'm content with things the way they are. You do more than enough for me."

"What do you mean 'before I could enjoy it'?" she asked.

Master communicator indeed. I suddenly wished that the me of a few moments past were here. "I mean," I said uncomfortably, "we should wait until your physical appetites have returned," I told her. "It does happen," I said in as comforting a voice as I could manage. "Trust me."

Bella didn't look comforted, however. "Returned from where?" she asked, hands on her hips. "Detroit?"

Now it was my turn to feel confused. "Bella, don't you remember what it felt like to be human?" Her expression didn't change. How could I put this delicately? My human Bella's appreciation for my touch had been no secret to anyone. Her scent alone... I'd had to endure several of Emmett's more creative jokes. "Do you remember how you'd feel when I'd kiss you?"

"Yes, I remember," she said, her voice going up like a brass trombone about to bash the bassoonist in the head. "What does that have to do with us <i>not</i> making the most of some time alone?"

"Well, Bella, it does come back," I told her. "Like everything else in this life, it's somewhat different, but..." I trailed off. Her eyebrows had shot halfway up her forehead. Something didn't add up here, and I was starting to get an inkling of what it was.

Bella, as usual, was two steps ahead of me. "Edward are you under the impression that my sex drive shut down when I became a vampire?" she asked baldly.

How could she say it like—? Well, technically, she'd hit the nail on the head. "Well not to put too fine a point on it but yes," I finally admitted. "So you're saying that you still..."

"Yup," she said.

"For how long?" I asked. Surely not before the past month, when we'd been together.

"The whole time?" she guessed. "I mean, those first days were kind of hairy, but I didn't notice anything missing." I breathed out. The whole time? So... When I'd taken her to feed that first week and I'd taken off my shirt, she'd been... And up in the showers that day when I'd watched her comb her hair. A hundred other careless moments and innocent touches ran through my mind—at least they'd been innocent on my part.

It chimed like a bell inside my mind. When Bella had been trying to seduce me with her charms, she hadn't just been trying to secure me as a protector or show me her grattitude; she'd also actually been trying to seduce me. The knowledge of it prickled across my skin. I swallowed the venom in my mouth. Suddenly the idea of the two of us being out here alone didn't seem at all strange. A large part of my mind was telling me not to be a fool and waste it. The rest of my mind was busy making plans, most of them heavily visual.

Bella seemed to be doing some processing of her own. "So newborns usually lose their sex drives?" she asked after a moment.

"They lose almost every physical desire except the thirst," I supplied, eager to talk about something less complicated than my reevaluation of every interaction we'd had over the past ten months. "It usually takes about a year for everything to reassert itself."

"That makes so much sense," she said, smiling. "The way Marcell and Caroly act, it seemed so strange." She looked up, "Is <i>that</i> why Renata called Byron a pervert for hitting on me that time? Because she thought I was underage?"

I nodded. "It's not as deviant as pursuing a human, but it's seen as a bit indecent, yes."

Bella fixed both dark amber eyes on me with a wicked smile, "So what are you, then?" she asked.

I smiled back, "I'm no incubus," I told her with mock defensiveness, letting her watch me take in her white skin and amber eyes. "Not anymore. I find that I am completely reformed."

She chuckled, deep in her throat. Then her brow creased. "Wait a minute," she said, holding up a hand. "So if you thought I had no drive, what did you think we were doing all those times when I came and made out with you?"

<i>Accommodating my baser needs?</i> I thought. Judging by the look on her face, I was damned lucky that I hadn't said that out loud. I'd thought she was being the most wonderful woman ever, truth be told. And then there was the emotional aspect. Being held by another person was comforting and intimate even when it wasn't sexual. I figured that that was the level on which she'd enjoyed our encounters.

"You thought I only did it to please you," Bella realized out loud. "That's what all that 'you don't have to' was about, wasn't it?" She stepped back and paced back and forth. "You thought I was acting? You couldn't tell that I was into you?"

"Bella, I knew that <i>emotionally</i>—"

"But you thought I was just servicing you, like some frigid Victorian chick?"

"That's actually a myth. Back when I was human, people weren't without their—"

"That's not the point!"

"Bella, I thought you were doing something very nice for me," I said, taking a step toward her. "What I thought was that I was the luckiest man on the planet. Is that really so bad?"

"Well I wasn't doing something very nice for you," she said, taking a step toward me until her chin was only an inch from my chest. "I was being completely selfish," she said.

"Good to know," I murmured back.

Bella met my eyes carefully, her fingers playing at the collar of my shirt.

"Bella," I said warningly.

"We don't have to do everything," she protested again. "And that was your main reason for saying no, wasn't it?"

I looked away. Was it? I always figured that I'd be like Emmett or Carlisle, that I'd get married. That wasn't something that was going to be possible here. In this context, the Volterra context, the whole concept was completely alien to me. How would it even work? Intellectually, I could realize that couples enjoyed intimate moments the way Bella and I had enjoyed kissing: in between shifts, in the stairwells and alcoves and secluded places—on one memorable occasion in the art gallery—but the idea of doing something like that myself seemed impossible. The idea of having a vampire mate at all seemed impossible. Did doing this mean that she'd expect things to be different between us when we got back? What if Demetri or someone came and caught us? What if something went wrong while we were busy? How would we get cleaned up afterward? What if I found out that I was wrong, and she wasn't my Bella and I had to stay with her forever anyway? What if I was right and I'd put this sin on her soul? What if she didn't love me? What if—

"It's all right," Bella said, slipping away.

I caught her arm. "It's just... I need to think," I said helplessly. "I wasn't expecting..." I took a breath. "I just need to think."

She nodded, her face a mask. "Good," she said simply. "That's good. We can talk some more after you think."

I let her walk back to the others alone. <i>Good</i>, I tried to tell myself. Caroly needed her more than she seemed to realize. And good for me. I was angry. That damned girl had made me so angry. And a number of other things, but angry was the one I could work with.

Why did she do this to me? The last thing I needed was to be distracted in the field. I was supposed to be focusing on Jane. Why did she have to go and introduce a new element when I'd only just gotten used to things the way they were? Why did she have to feel so damned wonderful when she knew I couldn't do what she wanted—or she should have known.

I waited until I was something like rational and returned to camp a few minutes after Bella did. She was sitting near Caroly, not saying anything. Somewhere in the middle of all of this, she'd mastered the art of sitting perfectly still.

Demetri looked up as I returned. <i>Damn it,</i> he thought, taking me in. <i>He'll be no use for days.</i> And if I didn't convince him otherwise, he would convince Caius not to send Bella and me out together again—which I absolutely could not allow because then we'd never have another moment out in the woods again—gyah! What was I thinking?

Corin was slightly less perceptive. And he seemed to share Bella's opinions about proper use of mission downtime. <i>Nothing wrong with a man having needs,</i> he thought. <i>Wouldn't mind it myself if I had a woman that fine.</i> Then he had the audacity to look at Caroly. Wonderful. Now I was distracted by Bella <i>and</i> I wanted to kill and mutilate my commanding officer.

I wondered if I should apologize to Bella. I hadn't done anything wrong, not really, but her feelings might still be hurt. She had offered me something precious, after all, and I had turned her down.

I watched her lean toward Caroly to whisper something in her ear. In Caroly's mind, I could hear her talking about the way sound carried in the woods. A good lesson, well delivered. Yes, there was something precious here.

The day grew and Bella acted like nothing was wrong. So did I. My mission was to focus on Jane so I focused on Jane. We all sat still as shadows and I watched Jane watch the light and listen to the small sounds of plants and animals. We weren't out in the wilderness, not really, but it was a far cry from bustling Volterra. I was beginning to think that Caius might have been right about getting her out of the city when her thoughts struck back to that cell like a magnet, images of Marcell clicking and folding over each other in an infuriating mass. Her fingers flexed on nothing and Marcell's face was suddenly replaced with another. I stood up just a second before she rose from her place and made for Caroly out of nowhere.

By the time Jane reached the place where she'd been sitting, I'd taken Caroly by the arm and pulled her out of the way. Jane's hands closed on empty air.

Corin was on his feet, fighting the reflex to order Jane to behave. Chelsea didn't move an inch, but her mind worked rapidly, tryng to get a grip on Jane, bind her to the rest of us as members of her team. But today was a bad day.

Bella was behind me, touching Caroly's upper arms lightly with both her hands. I felt my own body go stiff as I saw Jane gather her focus to use her gift. Without thinking, I grit my teeth and tensed every muscle in my body. When I saw Caroly doubled over on the ground, I felt relief wash through me like an icy rain. Then I felt ashamed.

By now, Caroly had fallen into a fetal position, making a high, interrupted sound in the back of her throat. Bella was looking at her hands splayed out in front of that trembling body, as if Caroly was a boiling pool and she had to pluck a stone from the bottom. "Stop it!" she cried out before I could warn her not to. Bella crouched over her, cutting off Jane's line of sight. It didn't help.

"She deserves it!" hissed Jane.

"Jane we must be quiet," Demetri said, nodding his head toward where Caroly clawed at the earth, choking on air. I hadn't even seen him get to his feet, but here he was. "We must not be discovered here."

I shook myself, trying to think the way Demetri did. "Caroly can't keep that up," I urged in a loud whisper. "She'll scream soon." I forced my voice to get as calm as I could, full of honey and oil, "Jane, you must stop."

"Don't tell me what to do!"

From the corner of my eye, I saw Corin nod to Bella. "Jane!" Demetri half-shouted, drawing her attention as Bella rose to her feet. Before Jane could turn her head, Bella had her arms wrapped around the smaller vampire, lifting her off the ground. Jane snarled and struggled as Bella pinned her arms to her sides. I heard Bella give out a soft cry as Jane's teeth made contact with her wrist. Before I realized what I was doing, I'd closed the distance between us and had both hands on the smaller vampire, for what purpose I didn't know. Then the world caught light, and I was the one digging my heels against the leaf litter, trying not to make a sound.

When I returned to myself, neithier Jane nor Bella was in sight. I cast my eyes toward Corin, "We talked about it ahead of time," he explained. "Because Jane's powers do not work on her."

I didn't open my mouth. This was the first time that anyone had ever used Bella's immunity in the field, and I found that I did not like it. Not even watching the harmony of the event in Demetri's flawless lens of a perspective could make me enjoy the prospect.

"Alone?" I asked.

"No one else is safe with Jane."

"Bella is not safe with Jane," I answered.

Corin eyed me straight on. "Bella is an adult. Whom else should we send? This newborn?"

That drew my attention back to Caroly. She was still curled up on her side, but she appeared limp and boneless, not the jabbering pile of pain I'd seen a few moments before, a few strands of blond hair leaking out of the side of her cloak.

"How did she manage to keep quiet?" I breathed, not even sure that I'd said it out loud.

"Bella always said that you did," she murmured back. I blinked. I hadn't expected an answer, let alone... I watched Caroly's thoughts carefully. Bella and Renata had spoken of my discipline, my perfect self-control as something to admire and emulate. She was proud that her maker was accomplished. I swallowed. I'd have to talk to Bella about this. If we were lucky, she hadn't told any stories about Carlisle.

<i>That's not good,</i> Demetri thought, looking at me.

Demetri was right. It wasn't. Except it was.

I breathed in and out. Caroly would be mature soon, and this illusion of innocence that she had would fade. She'd be as thoughtless and heartless as she'd ever been as a human, and then all these protective feelings that I had toward her would disperse.

I pulled my attention away from the newborn—not <i>my</i> newborn, I had to remind myself—and looked for Jane. She and Bella were not far away, just out of sight down the rise. Chelsea was with them.

<i>" stuck up; thinks she's better than </i>everyone<i>," Jane was railing, mind turning over itself with images of the vampire in question.

"I know," said Bella. "And then there was that one time when she said Adrienne stole her barette, and she'd just forgotten it someplace."

Chelsea said nothing but nodded vehemently.</i>

I frowned. Corin and Demetri were staring at me. "They're..." I trailed off. "They're talking about Heidi," I supplied.

"Heidi?" asked Corin. "Why?"

I wasn't sure, but I had a sneaking suspicion. I returned my attention to the conversation in my thoughts. When had Bella learned to do <i>that</i>? Sure, she'd sat next to that harpy Lauren Mallory, but I'd never figured she'd actually been listening, let alone copying her style. It didn't seem like the sort of thing my Bella would do.

"Have you ever seen a lightning rod?" I asked.

<i>Oh...</i> Demetri leaned back. "Women's politics," he said to Corin.

That was too kind a term for it, but it would do.

<i>We'll be back in an hour or so, Edward,</i> I jumped at the clear, female voice.

"What?" asked Demetri.

"Chelsea," I said quietly. "She says to give them a while." Demetri frowned and I tapped the side of my head.

The hatchet-faced man actually smiled. <i>About time someone other than me decided to do that. What use is a reader if they don't send messages?</i> I decided not to mention Afton or Zhengzhou. I caught a glimpse in his thoughts of the hundred ways he'd figured out how to use me, most of them involving the coordination of divided attacks.

It hadn't been the fact of the message; it was that Chelsea trusted me to act on it and expected me to trust her not to sabotage me. Poor thing thought we were in this together and that I gave a damn about her. Except we were, so I had to.

Bella and Chelsea did return with Jane but not until it was nearly time to move again. Chelsea actually looked at me gratefully. It was strange but with that expression on her face, she didn't seem nearly so forbidding as she had. Bella sat down next to Caroly and put her arm around her. I held my breath, but Jane didn't react to Bella or anything.

Demetri had our path planned out and we left the minute the sun dipped behind the horizon. I brought up the rear, mindful of Jane, ready to warn the others of another flareup. After a few miles, I noticed Bella lagging behind, cloak rippling like smoke in the growing shadows. Eventually, she fell into step beside me.

"We can talk later," I wanted to say, but I didn't. I wanted to know what was in her mind. I risked looking over my shoulder to find her watching me, face full of sadness and concern. Without breaking stride, I reached out and squeezed her hand, quickly letting go. Demetri set a brutal pace, and he'd chosen to keep to the wooded area that ran parallel to the highway. We'd be past it soon.

"I want to protect her, Edward," she whispered.

"I know," I said, "but we have to remember remember she belongs to Aro."

"But I taught her and I take care of her, so she's sort of mine too, isn't she?"

I ducked under a branch. "It's true, but don't say it out loud," I told her.

"Edward," I could hear her voice breaking, "I—"

I grabbed her arm and swung us to a stop, wrapping my arms tight around her. She tucked her head against my shoulder like a hand into a well-worn leather glove.

"Say what you need to say," I hissed in a loud whisper. We had a minute, if that, before Corin or Demetri realized we'd fallen behind. Even if Demetri didn't accuse us of trying to run away, it would be our fault for delaying the mission and distracting our teammates.

"I want so much to protect her, Edward," she breathed into my shoulder. "It's sick that I don't. I feel so <i>sick</i>."

I kept my arms around her, gently rubbing her back. The first rays of the moon were hitting the tops of the low trees, turning the world an unaccusing gray. "It's natural to feel ashamed when you can't help," I said. "We'll all feel better once Jane is well."

I felt Bella's throat flex against my shoulder as she swallowed.

"I just want to go home," she said. The words were fit for a child's whimper, but she gave them to me like a confession, like they were some terrible secret. The worst part was that they had to be.

"We'll be back in the compound soon." It was the safest thing to say. "As soon as our duty's done."

She nodded.

<i>Don't break discipline in the field.</i> I willed her to know it. <i>Never lose what makes you so beautiful.</i> I willed that even more.

"My Bella," I whispered against her temple.

I let go and we were off again, falling back into place within the guard.

For the next few days, we hunted in the low mountains that separated Slovenia from Croatia. With every footprint, every careless broken twig, Demetri's mental grip on their trail grew stronger. I watched as the images of our quarry took shape in his mind: One female. Three males. An unusual combination. An unusually large group. Something about it seemed ominous.

Corin was scarcely less effective for his lack of a tracker's gift; years of experience had taught him the meaning of every movement in the air, every mark on the ground. The more I watched the two of them, the more I realized that I had no talent for tracking. Even Bella was picking this up faster than I was. During what little time that I did not spend watching Jane, I focused on Demetri, trying to use his improved sense of our prey to imagine what their mental voices would sound like.

To my great surprise, as I learned five days after we'd left Volterra, it worked.

We were three miles away from the building when I held up a hand.

Demetri looked at me and nodded.

"A farmhouse," I said quietly, catching faint, distant images of its walls and windows through their eyes. Windows! It was blatant. It was practically a dare.

What was it about farmhouses? But I already knew. What one gained in privacy and convenience to one's own property, one lost in safety. Rural areas did not have the crowds or noise of cities.

Unlike the one that Bella and I had visited in the summer, this was a modern, mechanized farm, and still in operation, or at least it would be once the frost was done. The cleared ditches and well-maintained equipment suggested to me a child's bedroom with the clothes already laid out for the next day. At this distance, I could see that there was a house on the property, or at least a structure. So much the better. No neighbors coming over for tea. No phones ringing or people to wonder why no one was picking up.

The dusk was gathering. I could feel something moving nearby. Demetri and I exchanged a glance.

"Wait," I said quietly.

Corin looked back at me.

"They're still there," explained Demetri.

"And two of their victims are still alive."

Demetri and Corin both turned to look at me. Corin had always been uneasy around the gifted members of the guard, and Jane's illness had done little to assuage his paranoia. He didn't want the two of us ganging up on him. It was Demetri's eyes that I met, though. He'd known that his prey was nearby, but his gift was selective. He saw what he was looking for and no more. I saw what was there.

"What else?" asked Demetri. From the corner of my eye, I could see Bella watching, her face a mask of pride and focus. Her Volturi face. Beside her, Caroly began to ask a question, but she fell silent at one twitch of Bella's hand.

I turned back toward the farmhouse, casting my attention past the chipped paint and dryrotted windowframes. Silently, I held up four fingers. Demetri nodded. <i>Go on</i>, he thought. He wanted what he could not get for himself.

"They drew five humans here," I said. I could see images of two large men, probably agricultural workers, and two women, one wearing a uniform from the seaside resort where she worked the meager winter season. "Two of them are still ...moving." I met Corin's eyes. "Four days."

Corin's lower lip twisted. Keeping human prey alive for that long was a risk. Sooner or later, someone escaped. Sooner or later, someone would speak and be believed.

I met Corin's gaze. "They think we will not come."

His eyes narrowed.

We had not attracted witnesses on this trip. We had thought there would be no need for showmanship.

"Do they know we're here?" Corin asked me directly.

"No, but they will if we do not act soon," I said. "One of them is watching."

Demetri and Corin exchanged a glance. "What are the other three doing?"

"Playing," I answered. I didn't want to say it. I didn't want to admit that I knew what it was. "Like you did three feasts ago," I said to Corin. "Except it's ...taking longer." And it was a crime. In Volterra, where the prey could not escape, it did not matter.

<i>Playing?</i> I heard Caroly wonder. I didn't tell her. But she would open the door and see it soon enough.

I closed my eyes, forcing myself to focus on the images in my head. This was the sort of thing that I usually shied away from, but today, I had to look.

"The front door is barred from the inside," I said, swallowing the venom in my mouth. <i>Damn. Damn it all</i>. It was not enough to stop a vampire, only the human police ...

"They're going to let one of the humans go," I said.

Demetri stared at me. "On purpose?"

I nodded. "To alert the police. When they show up..." Food with delivery service. Except it was too easy to track. Even if the human victim did not put two and two together and use the word "vampire," there was still a good chance that he'd figure out that his attackers were not themselves human.

The thoughts I read belonged to a man named Jonas. He'd had this plan for a long time, I could see, a long time, but this was the first time he dared use it. He'd always been too afraid before.

I could hear a growl from Corin's throat. To his mind, these criminals did not deserve the mercy of the quick death we were to inflict upon them.

My eyes flicked to Jane.

"We could always take one back alive," I suggested. "To dispose of properly." It would give my poor charge someone to inflict herself upon and it would allow the Volturi a chance to make an example of a blatant criminal.

Corin looked at me and nodded. "If it is at all reasonably practical," he said.

"And the human prisoners?" Bella asked.

I could feel Corin and Demetri's eyes, their thoughts on her. Worse, I could feel Jane's.

"Forgive me, Corin, but I do not know what is customary in these cases," she said, pitch-perfect and bland as a marketing executive at a seminar.

Corin actually smiled. <i>Setting up a lesson for the new one,</i> he thought. When he spoke it was for Caroly's benefit. "Always focus on our own kind first," he said. "There will be time to deal with the humans later. They don't move very fast." That was the simplified version. Caroly seemed to understand. I could only hope that Bella did as well.

"Edward should take Jane or Chelsea and go round the other side," said Demetri. Corin frowned. Demetri lowered his voice and explained. This team was larger than usual, for Jane's and Caroly's sakes. Most of our fighters could enter through the front and they wouldn't be expecting more from the rear.

Corin nodded, "Edward, take Jane and Caroly," he said. "Demetri, Chelsea and Bella will be with me."

I tried to avoid the prickle that went down my spine. I didn't like Bella out of my sight, and Corin knew it. Demetri had been good to me—relatively speaking—but I couldn't trust him to make her safety a priority, not when his duty was right in front of him.

<i>It's nothing,</i> I told myself. <i>He's not Felix.</i> Corin was a strategist. He was only taking his most unreliable fighters and putting them as far from the action as possible.

"Yes sir," I said. I held out a hand to Caroly. She looked at Bella, who nodded, giving an encouraging half-smile.

We crept around the rear of the building, staying well downwind. I had to keep my attention in five places at once. Of the four vampires inside the house, Jonas's voice was clearest, so I focused on him while keeping a general idea of where the others were. One male and the female were upstairs, enjoying the novelty of sex indoors. The other male was with a human. At the same time, I had to watch through Demetri so that I could see where Bella was and wait for his signal. I had to keep Caroly stable. And then there was Jane, dear Jane who could go explosive at any moment and get us all killed.

Corin had been toying with the idea of bursting through the door at once, but he had Chelsea and Demetri at hand and had no intention of wasting them. He had Demetri tell him the exact location of each vampire, twice, carefully, as he planned his strategy.

This gave Chelsea time to get to work. The female upstairs wondered why her partner had suddenly turned less gentle, but none of the rest of them noticed anything. They never did. Chelsea's work was painless.

I felt the wind shift. Damn. Any minute now, someone would catch the scent and they'd know they were not alone.

Breaking glass and wide eyes flashed before me as Demetri shot through the window like an arrow. He got a good clip to the younger vampire's throat before he and his partner fully comprehended what was happening. Then, with all eyes on Demetri, Bella and Corin broke down the door.

Caroly started shifting her feet, and I laid a hand on her arm. They would call us when they needed us. Nearby, Jane gnashed her teeth. There was fighting going on, and she was missing it, she thought. I realized suddenly that this had been the point of the entire exercise—to get her out. To give her air and blood and victims. Corin hadn't known. I hadn't remembered.

Bella and Chelsea each had one of Jonas's arms, and neither was entirely attached to his torso. By now the other two vampires had worked their way down the stairs, still in a state of undress.

Corin was like a miracle in a fight. I'd taught Bella how to dodge an assailant and how to strike, but Corin could duck a kick and make sure that it connected with one of his enemies. No energy was ever wasted; there was no movement that he could not bend to his will. Now he gripped the wrists of the lone female vampire and swung her like a dancer into the youngest of her companions.

Her paramour, on the other hand, was looking left and right and realizing that no one was quite moving his way.

Demetri caught him from the corner of his eye. <i>Now,</i> he thought intensely. I motioned sharply to Jane.

"Go!" I clipped.

"You're not my commander!" she hissed.

I lost myself in exasperation, "There's no time for that Jane, just stop him!"

Before the breath even left me, I knew I'd made a mistake. I'd thought her desire to inflict pain in general was stonger than her desire to inflict it on me.

I could see every capillary in the backs of my eyes. The whole world seemed so red that I thought for a second that I had blood again. The throbbing in my nerves and bones might as well have been a heartbeat.

I came back to myself long enough to see a naked leg slip out of the window behind us.

"Caroly!" I let out a choked shout. She wondered with terror that I might be asking her to help me, but I tucked my chin toward the fleeing shadow and shouted, "Don't let him get away!"

Her smooth features contorted in a snarl and she dashed off into the gathering shade. He was fast for a vampire, at least as fast as Demetri, but each one of her strides counted for three of his. In between convulsions, I saw her grasp him hard by the shoulder. Renata and Bella had taught her well, she had the basics down, but he was a better fighter by far. I focused long enough to see him get a grip on her hair and pull her round.

"Jane let me up!" I shouted.

<i>Made him make a noise!</i> bubbled up from the cauldron of her evil brain. <i>More!</i>

"There's more in the house, but let me up now!"


"Your duty, Jane!" her name dissolved into a choked snarl as all the bones in my spine seemed to shatter. "Your duty is in that house!"

The pain was gone and I was on my feet, registering the crunch of glass behind me as Jane went through the window. Even as I made for Caroly and the criminal, watching their shadowy forms grow larger in my gaze, I realized that I'd just sent Jane into the house. That was where Bella was. I'd done it. I'd done it and I could never take it back.

First things first. The criminal had dark hair and pale skin, most of which was exposed to the evening air. He'd been turned no later than his early twenties, and he was struggling to get Caroly in a necklock. He heard my feet pounding the earth behind him just in time to turn, trying to drag Caroly in front of him.

It ended quickly. I knocked him off balance and Caroly got him on the ground long enough for me to disable his right leg.

"Get his arm!" I ordered. Caroly's only reply was a snarl, but she did as I said, dislocating the limb at the shoulder, exactly as I'd taught Bella to do.

"Throat," I told her.

It was sloppy and messy, like someone trying to gut a fish, but Caroly tore the man's throat from his body, leaving him slack and helpless in our arms as his feet and fingers twitched.

Caroly exhaled, trying to calm her mind like Renata had shown her. For her, it was over, but for me... This man couldn't scream, but he was screaming. I could hear every word.

"Take him apart," I said simply. Caroly nodded. "I'm going to go check on Bella."

I could have kissed her for the kindness and concern on her face. Whatever else this creature was, she was genuinely fond of her teacher, and I loved her for it. Then the victim in her arms twitched, an she let out a growl worthy of any Child of the Moon.

I ran the few dozen steps back to the house, feeling the grittiness of broken glass against my palm as I vaulted through the empty windowsill. "Bella!" I called out, as I found myself in the brightly lit house. Volturi dignity, I thought. I had to maintain the... Oh to hell with it. I laid eyes on her crouched near the far corner of the room. "Bella!"

Bella was gasping, and her eyes looked a little wild. It looked like some of her hair had been torn out, but other than that, she seemed fine. I was on my knees in front of her before I knew I'd moved, my hands on her face. For a split second, she closed her eyes, but then she nodded tightly and pushed me away. <i>Dignity.</i> I remembered. We weren't done here.

Demetri and Chelsea were already piling the pieces of the female and one of the males near the fireplace. Demetri was thinking about what a convenience it would be to have one that drew properly, even though it was a little small.

The last criminal, Jonas, was on the floor at Jane's feet.

<i>God, make it stop!</i> The words were doubled in my mind. Jane's power was costing this man all coherence. He wanted it to stop, but he was thinking in someone else's voice. A woman's voice, one tha the hadn't heard so very long ago. The words echoed in my mind in a grotesque harmony.

Behind me, there was a careful footfall. I saw her reflection in Bella's eyes as she walked toward Corin. Her light brown hair had been in a ponytail at some point, but now it was sticking out at all angles. Her left hand was wrapped around her torso. She would have looked like she was hugging herself if she hadn't been cupping the seeping stub on her other side. She licked her lips and then breathed in to say something to Corin. I had never truly studied Croatian, but I had picked up the basics. She took a step closer and then said it again. I could feel her heart pound as Corin turned to meet her eyes. Poor thing.

Her words cut off abruptly as Corin's hand closed around her trachea. He squeezed quickly, but not so quickly that he broke her skin or blood vessels. There was no need to let this loose end become a distraction.

The woman's body hit the floor and Corin turned away. Behind them, I could see Bella, staring and open-mouthed.

Damn that woman. Had she thought we'd get to let the humans <i>leave?</i> I watched her eyes roll to Corin to me and back to the floor. Good God, she had.

There was no help for it now, not here. I rose to my feet and turned on our remaining prisoner. Jane looked up at me with a satisfied smile, as if she and I had teamed up to do this, as if she hadn't just been wringing the sanity from me outside. This was something she understood. This was something she'd missed.

Demetri nodded toward me. Time for the interrogation.

"Where is the other one?" he asked. I stood behind the prisoner, watching his thoughts.

Corin nodded to Jane and I felt her relax her control a little, dial down the inferno in our prisoner's flesh to the dull burn of glowing embers. We let him gasp like a fish on the docks for a moment and then Demetri repeated his question. The man's hair was the color of wheat mixed with ashes, but in places it was stained with more than one kind of blood.


"You had two humans here," Demetri said with a menace in his voice that I couldn't manage on my best day. "Where is the other one?"

The man's eyes rolled upward. I looked at Demetri and nodded.

Corin looked to Chelsea. "Go get it," he said.

Now that I knew where to look, I could tell why I hadn't been able to locate the human before. Caroly comes back downstairs and put the boy on the floor for Corin to see. He was still moving, which shocked me. Both arms had swollen up to twice their proper size, and it couldn't manage to push itself to its feet with them. A human barely two years old, and it reminded me of nothing so much as an old, arthritic cat.

"It thinks in German," I said, "what words it has."

<i>A tourist's child,</i> thought Demetri. That meant a search. The last thing we needed was an international incident that could be traced to our kind. Corin nodded to Chelsea. The boy started to cry as she picked him up—because her hands were cold, of all things. Then there was a twist and a crack, and it was over.

The questioning proceeded as usual from there. Corin could have led the interrogation, but he preferred the physical side of things, holding the victim down and breaking something whenever the need arose. Demetri confirmed which killings Jonas's group had been responsible for; once, in the eighties, Felix had come home to find that a string of killings in Nicaragua had continued in his absence because he'd assumed that only one band of nomads had been responsible. His punishment had been intense. Demetri got Jonas to tell us where the other bodies were, and Corin sent Chelsea and Bella to see that they were hidden properly.

After looking to Corin for permission, Caroly lit the fire. The heads went in first. I breathed gratefully as three sets of screaming voices finally went dead.

I'd been standing behind what was left of Jonas, listening as carefully as I could, but it was definitely easier without those distractions, without—

I held up a hand and Demetri stopped talking. Jonas's neck twitched, as if he had tried to turn around, but that was hard to do without a working trapezius muscle.

"Repeat your previous question," I said to Demetri.

"Did you intend to release one of your humans and allow it to call for help?" he said again.

Jonas repeated his previous answer, a long list of meaningless excuses. At least he wasn't trying to blame it all on his covenmates, but there it was again. That face, that name.

I met Corin's eyes and he nodded. Demetri moved to the side to allow me to crouch in front of our victim. Behind me, I was dimly aware of Caroly coming in through the window, of her and Chelsea bringing in the pieces of the vampire we'd killed together outside, but most of all of Bella, watching me do Aro's will, her mind a mystery.

Jonas was a pathetic sight, far less impressive than he saw himself in his mind's eye. His dark straw hair was mussed and matted. He looked like he'd been turned no earlier than forty, his face lined by years of sun before his new existence had left him pale.

"Do you know who I am?" I asked.

Jonas nodded, "E—Edward of the Volturi."

"Then you know you cannot lie to us." I was exaggerating, but it had the desired effect. I looked like a demon to him.

"Please, I—"

"Who told you to come here?" I asked. In his eyes, I seemed dark and terrifying. Good.

"He didn't offer us anything, I swear!"


Jonas swallowed. "Stefan. Stefan the Romanian. Told us you'd lost your edge. Told us we could do what we wanted, even this close to Italy."

"He lied," I snarled.

Jonas's dark red, terrified eyes stayed on me as Demetri asked his next question. I hoped he thought my gift was like a set of fishhooks digging through his mind. I hoped he thought I was like Chelsea.

"What did Stefan tell you?" Demetri said.

"Not anything in particular—"

"He's lying," I said.

"No, I'm only—"

"Jane," said Corin.

Jonas's voice caused the metal stairs to shake. If Corin hadn't broken both his legs, he'd have beaten them against the floor like oars.

"That's enough for now, Jane," said Corin. She only smiled, as if she were tightening a knot. "Jane!"

Jonas gasped, going still. The edges of his bones against his flesh seemed like a relief.

"What did he tell you?" asked Demetri.

Jonas came up with another lie, but the look in my eyes dissuaded him. "He said that the witch twins would not leave Volterra. He said they'd been turned criminal and were confined there."

Demetri and Corin exchanged a look.

"Do we have a traitor?" asked Corin.

"Maybe not," said Demetri. "Maybe someone saw the scar on Heidi's face and asked about it."

"Pity," said Corin with a dark smile, "I like what we do to traitors."

Jonas actually whimpered. It was a repulsive sound in a grown man. "We shall have to take him back with us," I said. Demetri and Corin looked at me. "Master Aro will want the full story." I heard Jonas's thoughts turn optimistic. He was going to live, at least for a few more days, perhaps even find a way to escape before we reached Volterra.

"You won't," I told him. As soon as I caught him thinking about it, I'd tell Corin, and Corin would rip off his legs. There was always the spontaneous escape attempt, but I didn't think Jonas was smart enough for that.

Transporting an unwilling vampire was always complicated. Human forms of transportation such as trains would be out of the question. Corin was pondering making a telephone call to reception and requesting a car—and Rolfe and Felix. Our return to Volterra would take some time, especially with Jane in tow.

I backed away. The meat of the decision had been made, and it was time to let my commander work out the logistics. Jane was still watching Jonas, hoping for another chance at him. Chelsea was showing Caroly how to feed twitching vampire body parts into a fireplace fire. It turned out that Renata and Bella had only trained her for bonfires.

Bella was hovering near the back of the room. She almost seemed human in the way she couldn't quite keep still. And she was looking right at me.

I wanted to apologize—for what I wasn't certain—but that wouldn't do, not kind words and sweetness in front of the prisoner who needed to be kept scared and compliant.

Corin caught me looking at her, noticed the slight shaking of her hands. He met my eyes and thought <i>Go</i> very clearly. He knew this was only Bella's second time out. He knew someone would hit a snag sooner or later. He'd been expecting that it would be Caroly, but she'd impressed him.

I strode toward her as confidently as I could and nodded toward the rear window, hoping that Jonas would think we had business outside. But Bella only stared at me blankly, something I couldn't quite read on her white mask of a face.

I leaned in closer, "Bella, come away," I said quietly. She shook her head from side to side, so slightly that it might have been a twitch. I took her by the arm and guided her toward the far wall. She didn't resist. After I checked to see that Jonas's attention was elsewhere, I picked her up and carried her out.

We walked a few steps, letting the dust of the broken glass fall from our clothes. A million words ran through my head, <i>Bella, I had to,</i> I wanted to say, but I didn't even know if that was what was wrong. Carefully, I turned toward her and took both her hands, feeling the stickiness on her fingers that told me she'd done more than her share of the fighting, disabling and dispatching of our prey.

"Tell me," I said quietly, almost in a whisper. "Bella, please tell me."

"You don't know?" she asked. She sounded impossibly tired.

"Bella there are so many things wrong with the past fifteen minutes that I wouldn't know where to start."

She turned her head away. "Her arm?" she asked. "The human."

"They cut it off. Then they pulled out the blood and made her watch," I said.

"But doesn't that waste it?" Bella clapped her hands over her mouth. "That's not what I mean!" she said. "I mean doesn't it—?"

She had meant it. The heady scent of human blood had filled that cabin. I'd started thinking of food as well. But under other circumstances she'd have thought of the cruelty; that was what she was trying to say. She breathed the clear night air in and out, calming herself. "And what did she say?" she asked me. "To Corin."

"She thanked him for saving her."

The next instant, Bella's arms were around my waist, her face pressed hard against my shoulder, as if she knew she has to muffle the sounds. I put my arms around her because I could not do anything else.

A moment passed and she went quiet. "We were never really coming here to help them, were we?" she said.

"No," I told her. "But all the others these four would have gotten—the next ones. We helped those."

"Those people. This happened because Jane is sick?"

"Yes," I said. There might have been nomads in this part of Europe anyway, but they would not have acted so blatantly. They would not have killed so many or terrorized them first. "Word got out somehow," I told her. "Some vampires respect the law for its own sake, but many only do so out of fear of punishment. If they hear the Volturi are weak, that the status quo is breaking, they'll do whatever they like." Even capture and torture a young woman and a two-year-old baby.

Bella was looking straight up at the stars, lips pressed together as if against tears as her shoulders shook. For the boy. For the woman. For innocent lives.

"Bella," I whispered, pressing my kiss to her forehead, her cheeks. "Sometimes there's nothing anyone can do," I said. "We will try to make Jane well, and if we cannot, we'll show the world that the Volturi are strong without her." She looked at me with a sadness as deep as the ocean. "We will keep this from happening again," I promised her. And then, because it was the first time I'd been truly sure since the day she'd woken up as one of my kind, I smoothed her hair back from her face and said, "I love you <i>so</i> much."

"I just want to go home, Edward," she said. "I <i>just</i> wanted to go home."

"I know," I answered. "I do too." And there was no dissembling this time. I meant our real home, with Carlisle. "But every minute we are here, we will make the best of it."

She looked up at me and nodded, face terribly empty.

Another scream came from inside the house.

"It's all right," I said. "It was the criminal."

Bella nodded again. "Everything's all right."


That'll teach me to look things up on TwiWiki. I just wanted to find out what he looked like, but Corin's a chick?! I've decided not to hit TwiWiki any more. Here, canon is what's stated in the books and no more. Corin is a dude, Renata is black, Marcus' power is not limited to romantic relationships, the wives are in the tower because they're senile and paranoid and if S. Meyer wants me to think otherwise she is well within her rights to finish Midnight Sun. (Yes, I figure some of the stuff on TwiWiki comes from interviews. I also know how often authors change their interview tack.)

drf24 (at) columbia (dot) edu