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Metamorphosis

Summary:
Metamorphosis title imageShe got what she wanted. My venom flows through her bloodstream, changing her, reshaping her from a human to a vampire. Soon, that transformation will be complete. And I'll be able to keep her forever.I am the most selfish creature that has ever walked this earth. Edward's point of view in "Breaking Dawn", beginning with Book Three. winner banner


Notes:


10. Defection

Rating 5/5   Word Count 10351   Review this Chapter

Sunlight casts a sheen of glittering gold across Bella's face as morning arrives, and I glimpse my own reflection in her grief-stricken eyes, rainbow-tinged sparkles illuminating my pale skin.

I am at a loss as to what we should tell Renesmee when she awakens. We cannot lie; she will see through it immediately with her uncanny perception, and I know that I am unable to summon the willpower to pretend that our world did not crumble to ash last night. I wish that I had something to offer her – some answer or placation that will ease her young, fragile heart after she sees our dead expressions.

On the heels of that thought is another, relating to the answers we are hoping to find, and whom was sent to find them.

It takes a few seconds for my body to remember how to move. My face feels as though it is carved from ice, and I concentrate on making the muscles shift just a little. My eyebrows twitch, and then the line of motion travels along my nerve endings to my mouth, forcing my lips to reshape and form a name.

"Alice."

Like a catalyst, my voice stirs faint beginnings of life, of movement, into the tense, freezing atmosphere. Bella lowers her shimmering lavender eyelids in a slow blink. Emmett turns his gaze toward the windows. Carlisle raises his head, a flicker of surprise crossing his sorrowful expression. Esme readjusts her footing – a old, old habit – her eyes on her husband. And Rosalie opens her mouth to speak, remarking in a quiet, startled tone, "She's been gone a long time."

Emmett slips his hand from hers, his attention still fixed on the tree line visible outside. "Where could she be?" he questions, and steps toward the door.

Darting forward, Esme gently places her hand on his arm, cautioning, "We don't want to disturb..."

"She's never taken so long before." The anesthetic of despair has begun to wear off, allowing my head to clear, and I review my sister's last actions with new eyes. She was keeping something from me - that much was obvious – but I had noticed earlier that her vision of the Volturi's arrival held more power over her awareness than any of the others had in the past. And she was visibly distracted, saying that there was so much, right before she and Jasper left.

The sharp sting of fresh panic injects an ice-cold acid into my veins, surging like adrenaline through my body. Future events have been lost to her visions before; even Alice herself is not entirely certain how her gift works. Only one person on earth understands the complex patterns of her mind better than I.

With a concerted effort, I tear my eyes away from Bella and look up at my father. "Carlisle, you don't think – something preemptive?" My voice is strained with worry, my frozen features melting and remolding into an expression of dread. "Would Alice have had time to see if they sent someone for her?"

Carlisle's golden eyes flare open, widening with fear. Oh no – Alice!

Emmett curses in a thunderous snarl that awakens Jacob. The big red-brown wolf staggers to his feet, teeth bared, a low growl rumbling in his throat. What is it? The members of his pack, who have kept watch around the perimeter of the house during the night, as per his orders, echo his growl.

I am already in a blur of motion – streaking towards the front door, Carlisle following closely, and the others not far behind him. I hear Bella shriek to Jacob, "Stay with Renesmee!"

Opening my mind, I concentrate hard to block out my father's worry, Esme's terror, Emmett's determination and Rosalie's distress, trying to listen for Alice, Jasper, or any sort of assailants that might be threatening them.

As we run, I allow more of my senses to assume control, searching the breeze for traces of Alice's light fragrance mingled with Jasper's robust aroma. My nostrils widen when I detect their trail, and I adjust my course through the forest effortlessly as their path winds toward the east.

Because I am so absorbed by the smells filling the air around me, I immediately notice the scent of rain-soaked freesia as it blooms with striking prominence just behind my father and I. But I push aside all thoughts of Bella for the moment. We have to find Alice and Jasper. The nightmarish image of my sister in Aro's greedy clutches compels me to increase my pace, but I hold back just enough so the others are able to follow.

The trail shifts north after our group leaps across the river, and Carlisle looks sidelong at me, asking, "Would they have been able to surprise her?"

"I don't see how," I reply, my gaze fixed on the path ahead. A cold, foreboding weight is pressing down on my chest, growing heavier with each stride, and I admit quietly, "But Aro knows her better than anyone else. Better than I do." Which scares me for reasons that I have never disclosed to anyone – not Bella, nor Alice herself.

"Is this a trap?" Emmett speaks up, the direction of his voice indicating that he is shadowing my footsteps about a dozen paces back. His thoughts are intent as he scans our surroundings for any possible signs of attack – ever the protector.

"Maybe," I concede. Logically, it is a risk for all of us to be out here, chasing down Alice and Jasper – a perfect opportunity for the Volturi to arrange an ambush. However, that will not stop my family from crashing headlong through the tangled underbrush as we continue to track our missing members' route. If this is a trap, then at least we will be caught together and have a better chance of survival.

The familiar scent alters course once again, veering to the west. Confusion washes through me. "There's no scent but Alice and Jasper," I remark to no one in particular. The idea of a trap becomes less and less likely in my mind, but I am puzzled by the seemingly aimless wandering of the trail as the steady rush of the river burbles in front of us. "Where were they going?"

Hurdling across the river for a second time, my mother suddenly calls out to me mentally, her thoughts distracted. Edward, wait – there's something over here, to the southeast. I dismiss her words with a quick shake of my head. It is most likely an older path made by Alice, and not relevant at this point.

When I do not pause or acknowledge her silent statement, Esme calls out, "Did you catch that scent?"

"Keep to the main trail –" I tell her brusquely, the cluster of ancient pines looming ahead stirring a memory in my brain "– we're almost to the Quileute border." Unconsciously, I shift my footing to the right, placing myself directly in front of Bella, who is only two steps behind, judging by the whisper-soft rhythm of her feet on the damp ground. "Stay together. See if they turned north or south," I instruct, beginning to catch the pungent odor of the wolves as it is carried by an western wind.

Carlisle and I slow from our mad dash, recognizing that we are less than a hundred yards from the boundary line, and I turn my head from side to side, testing the air with my nose. Surely the trail should have switched to another direction by now, unless... Alice, where are you going?

A trio of minds brushes the edges of my perception and the wolf smell intensifies, emanating from the shade of the massive silver pines. One line of thought stands out from the other two: it is calm, decisive.

I would recognize that mind anywhere; I have heard it many times in the last seven months.

My head snaps up, the muscles in my body tensing, and I come to an abrupt halt. The others stop as well, paying attention to my lead. Carlisle stands at my side, and Bella is just behind my right shoulder.

"Sam?" I say in a low, rigid tone. "What is this?"

Sam Uley, the first Quileute male in four generations to transform into a wolf and Jacob's equal in the pack hierarchy, strides briskly out of the cluster of trees, his black eyes locked on Carlisle. Two members of his pack accompany him, one on each side. The bushy tail of the wolf on Sam's left twitches in agitation, the charcoal gray fur on the back of his neck raised as he glares at our family. The wolf on the right appears more at ease than his brother; the speckled gray-brown pattern of his coat ripples along the thick muscles on his back and shoulders, his eyes sweeping the area with keen awareness.

While he marches toward us, a dizzying swirl of recollections permeate Sam's thoughts – dizzying, because of what I can now see firsthand through his eyes.

An image of Alice swims into view, Jasper standing stock-still beside her as she stares up at Sam, her honey-gold eyes penetrating and grim and barely concealing a secret heartache. Then the two of them are racing through the purple-blue forest, flanked by Sam, heading with purpose toward the sound of crashing waves and the smell of saltwater. He watches them – a pair of pale white ghosts – dive into the black ocean and vanish beneath the swell of the tide.

Gone. They are gone.

They left. Both of them. Alice... Jasper...

Alice...

I cannot summon the will to move, to blink, to breathe – I am utterly frozen, lost in a tumult of contradicting feelings and memories without any hope of surfacing.

Carlisle's jaw locks as he peers at me from the corner of his eye. Edward. I do not even recognize my own face as I read his thoughts; it is desolate, colorless, and empty. The face of a corpse. Son, he call again, what is it?

My right cheek burns under the force of the gaze fixed on me from a pair of wide scarlet eyes. I almost reach for her – almost – but the strength to budge my petrified muscles even the tiniest bit eludes me.

Sam has finally crossed the space separating our parties. Coming to a halt in front of Carlisle, he reports grimly, "Right after midnight, Alice and Jasper came to this place and asked permission to cross our land to the ocean."

Surprise rouses a brief cacophony of thought in the minds of my family – aside from the only one I cannot hear, of course – but I pay them no heed. The earlier images I had received from Sam's mind reemerge with greater clarity as he speaks, and I examine every detail carefully, searching for any possible reason as to why my sister would leave.

"I granted them that and escorted them to the coast myself," Sam goes on. "They went immediately into the water and did not return. As we journeyed, Alice told me it was of the utmost importance that I say nothing to Jacob about seeing her until I spoke to you. I was to wait here for you to come looking for her and then give you this note." He holds up a folded piece of paper, the edges torn on one side, with black text printed on the back. "She told me to obey her as if all our lives depended on it," he concludes, and Alice coalesces within his thoughts, like she is standing before us right now. Her tiny hands are balled into fists, her pixie-like features steely with resolve, and the undiluted anguish in her topaz eyes pierces me like a blade.

Sam hands the note to Carlisle, and the text by his thumb reads, "The Merchant of Venice". I also pick up faint traces of Bella's sweet aroma on the paper, so it must have been torn from one of her books. But it makes no sense; why would Alice write a note using a torn page from my wife's volume of Shakespeare? Though I must confess that very little is making sense to me at this point.

Unfolding the note, my father reads swiftly – and his expression contorts with grief. The words fill his head as well as mine, and numbness floods my being once again. Memories of my beloved sister, my best friend and confidant for nearly fifty years, dance inside my pupils, taunting me with the unanswered question: Why? Why, Alice?

"Alice has decided to leave us," Carlisle whispers, pained.

"What?" Rosalie cries. Emmett cusses internally to combat the brutal surge of shock, and Esme gasps, covering her mouth with a hand. And Bella...she remains an ice-cold statue. I do not even think that she is breathing – immobile with disbelief and sorrow.

Carlisle flips the paper around and holds it up for everyone to read for themselves.

Don't look for us. There isn't time to waste.

Remember: Tanya, Siobhan, Amun, Alistair, all the nomads you can find. We'll seek out Peter and Charlotte on our way. We're so sorry that we have to leave you this way, with no goodbyes or explanations. It's the only way for us.

We love you.

Esme stifles a sob, closing her eyes tightly, and Rose wraps an arm around her trembling shoulders, her own expression twisted by sadness. Emmett is in a state of disbelief, wondering what Alice had seen that would have forced her and Jasper to leave us and why I had not mentioned the same danger. Bella has yet to draw a breath. Carlisle slowly turns the paper back around, and Sam is able to see the written words for the first time, since he did not want to read a message clearly not meant for him.

Pondering Alice's farewell, the Quileute leader muses to himself, Are things so dangerous that Alice and Jasper would leave their family in danger, with nothing more than a note to explain their actions?

I make myself focus on his stern face, meeting his black-brown gaze. "Yes, things are that dangerous," I answer his unspoken thought, a toneless inflection in my low voice.

"Enough that you would abandon your family?" Sam retorts, frowning in disapproval. It is a cowardly act of betrayal, he censures within his thoughts. I should never have listened to her.

"We don't know what she saw." Alice could have branched out into many possible futures after she and Jasper left the house. Any one of them might have shown her that they had to leave to either avoid or initiate an outcome. If I can just hold onto that rationale, that my sister is still working in the best interests of our family, then perhaps I will be able to find a sliver of hope to sustain me.

"Alice is neither unfeeling nor a coward," I tell Sam firmly. "She just has more information than we do."

His dark eyes narrow, and he condemns Alice in his mind, his inborn loyalty to family branding my sister the lowest form of traitor by running away in our time of need. He starts to reply, "We would not –"

"You are bound differently than we are," I snap, the white-hot flame of rage searing my raw nerves and aching heart. "We each still have our free will."

Sam raises his chin, his stare hardening into shards of polished onyx, and Alice reappears in his mind's eye, her words ringing with certainty. "This fight will be different than any you have ever faced." The ache in my chest increases painfully as I listen to her voice through Sam's memory, but I push it aside. "I will not mince words with you, Sam. All of you will die if you choose to stand with us. The future is still unclear in many aspects, but that fact remains. As much as I believe and am grateful that the wolves will help, I thought it fair to warn you. Do not take this decision lightly."

He abruptly overrides her remembered statement, asserting to himself, How can I even trust in her words? We are not slaves to the defense of our people and our home – we choose to meet any foe that threatens all we live to protect. He glares fiercely, as though daring me to contradict the thoughts that he knows I have already plucked from his mind.

"But you should heed the warning," I say in a quieter, yet still sharp, tone. "This is not something you want to involve yourselves in. You can still avoid what Alice saw." Though I am well aware that Jacob will never leave Renesmee, there is no reason for the entire Quileute pack to perish along with my family, crushed like an insect beneath the heel of the Volturi.

A grim smile spreads across Sam's face. "We don't run away."

The dark gray wolf at his side lets out a snort, tossing his massive head. Damn straight, I pick up from his mind – Paul – I distinguish the name from the speckled wolf's thoughts. We're not about to let a bunch of super-powered leeches or whatever the hell they are get near us without a fight. And if we die... well, at least we go down swingin'.

Oddly enough, Paul's mental flavor reminds me very strongly of Emmett: brash, fearless, and impulsive – not to mention the unswerving devotion that seems to be ingrained in every wolf's psyche.

I cannot bear to have any more lives on my conscience. Carlisle speaks up, advising, "Don't get your family slaughtered for pride." His ocher eyes are hauntingly empty, save for the grief he holds for his two absent children.

Shifting his gaze to my father, Sam's chiseled expression softens and he remarks, "As Edward pointed out, we don't have the same kind of freedom that you have. Renesmee is as much a part of our family now as she is yours." He pictures the little girl in his head – her glittering smile and angelic face – and then reflects on the way Jacob has changed since she came into his life, the utter peace that has replaced the bitterness in his demeanor. "Jacob cannot abandon her," he says solemnly, "and we cannot abandon him."

His attention drifts to the torn paper in Carlisle's hands, his mouth tightening into a thin line. We understand what it means to remain loyal to one's family, even in the face of death. How anyone could leave behind those they claim to love at such a time as this is beyond me. He regrets granting Alice and Jasper permission to cross their land, thinking that he somehow contributed to their treachery, albeit inadvertently.

My spunky, vivacious sister grins up at me from within my memory, her elfin features alight with genuine warmth and affection. I had never questioned Alice's love for our family – it has always been obvious, both in her thoughts and in her behavior. She was the one who prodded me daily, to my extreme annoyance, to find my soul mate in Bella. And she was the first to wholeheartedly embrace the girl I loved as a sister before they had ever really met. She must have a legitimate reason for disappearing this way. Alice would not be so self-seeking as to remove herself and Jasper from this fight once it became apparent to her that there is no chance of survival. Or...would she?

I cast that notion aside forcefully, willing my doubt to fade. I love Alice. I couldn't love her more if she was my flesh-and-blood sister. I will not dishonor her by questioning her commitment to our family.

I fix my eyes on Sam, and state with conviction, "You don't know her."

He pins me with a keen stare, asking bluntly, "Do you?"

The doubt returns, fortified by Sam's words, and writhes inside my stomach as though it is alive, causing me to feel nauseous – but not in the way that humans experience the sensation. This sickness is in my heart, tainting my last moments with Alice. I recall how she had told me that she was sorry, right before she and Jasper left. At first I had thought she was apologizing for lashing out, but...what if she was referring to something else? Had she been trying to apologize for this, for what was happening now?

A hand gently touches my shoulder, pulling me from my agonizing ruminations. "We have much to do, son," Carlisle murmurs. "Whatever Alice's decision, we would be foolish not to follow her advice now. Let's go home and get to work."

I nod in agreement, turning from Sam to look at the rest of my family. Esme is sobbing – broken, tearless keening – and Rosalie has her arms around our mother's quivering frame, tenderly stroking her caramel-colored hair with her palm.

"Thank you, Sam." Carlisle extends a hand toward him, which Sam clasps at once.

"I'm sorry," he replies, and the feeling behind his offer is sincere. "We shouldn't have let her through."

My father shakes his head. "You did the right thing. Alice is free to do what she will." Both Sam and I notice the slight flinch when he says her name. "I wouldn't deny her that liberty," he concludes quietly.

Emmett calls my name mentally and I look over at him. He seems to cringe at the expression on my face, thinking of those barren seven months I had suffered through without Bella. We can't give up, he practically shouts in my skull. We have to stick together, brother. Alice has her reasons; she gave us what we need to keep going with this plan. So let's do it!

Snarling under his breath after I give him no response, Emmett proclaims aloud, "I'm not going down without a fight. Alice told us what to do. Let's get it done."

Everyone bobs their heads in silent accord with Emmett's words. Everyone except Bella. Her facial expression is blank, much the same as all our faces, but her eyes have this lost little girl quality – as if a part of her is waiting to wake up from this nightmare.

Carlisle starts for home at a steady run and the rest of us follow suit. Esme sniffles very softly, her breath hitching in her throat, and Carlisle grasps her hand, their gaits perfectly matched as they race side by side in front. I stay beside Bella, wanting to be close to her but still trapped in a numb, emotionless void inside my own mind.

The well-known rush of the river draws near, and Esme raises her head, inhaling. "There was that other trail. It was fresh." She points to the right with her chin, glancing over a shoulder at me. Perhaps we should take a look, Edward, she suggests tentatively. Maybe...maybe we'll find something else – something that will help to make sense of all this.

Ah, Esme. So caring, so kindhearted. So naïve.

"It has to be from earlier in the day," I tell her as gently as I am able, given the circumstances. "It was just Alice, without Jasper." That was easy enough to discern even from the brief whiff I detected on the breeze.

Her lovely face crumples, and she nods reluctantly. You're right...I know. But I hoped –

Hope. Did such a thing exist anymore in this new, desolate world in which we now found ourselves?

Bella's footsteps slow, and she begins to move to the right, the vacant mask on her face cracking a bit to show a mixture of curiosity and resolve in her vivid eyes.

"Bella?" I call her name in a lifeless voice.

She stops running, and measures my expression as she gestures in the direction of the older path tinged with Alice's delicate hyacinth-vanilla scent. "I want to follow the trail," she declares. The others pause when they hear her speak and swiftly turn around, watching us from several yards ahead.

"It probably just leads back to the house," I comment dully. Like Esme, my Bella can be so unbelievably naïve. Sometimes it makes me wish that I had that kind of innocence, that kind of faith in the people who affect my life.

"Then I'll meet you there." She turns, her dark hair swirling like a cloud around her shoulders, and takes a few steps in her intended direction. Away from me.

My heart immediately shrieks in denial, desperate to remain as close to her as possible. "I'll come with you," I volunteer at once, and breathe a sigh of relief when she halts and spins back around to look at me. "We'll meet you at home, Carlisle." I do not break away from her gaze as I address my father.

Very well. He gives me a nod, and then the four of them vanish into the trees.

Bella arches her eyebrows ever so slightly, questioning me without speaking aloud. Moving towards her, I explain in a soft, muted tone, "I couldn't let you walk away from me." My brows pull together as I wince in response to a ghostly stab of pain, remembering the time when I had walked away from her – her small arms wrapped tightly around her body, so sad and forlorn, standing motionless in the green embrace of the forest...

"It hurt just to imagine it," I murmur, overcoming the pain by filling my lungs with a deep breath of air saturated in her luxurious fragrance.

Her eyes are red fire; they warm and comfort my battered spirit while burning away the cocoon of numbness that shrouds my mind. Then she holds out her hand, palm up, offering to stay beside me for however long we have left. I latch onto her grasp, weaving her slender fingers through mine, and suggest, "Let's hurry. Renesmee will be awake."

She inclines her head, and together we fly across the forest floor, tracking Alice's scent as it winds through the trees and feathery ferns. Soon, I can identify traces of familiar smells on the chill wind as it brushes against my face – smells that equal ‘home' in the core of my being. In a roundabout fashion, the trail is leading us back to the cottage. It fits, I suppose, as the note was written on a page ripped from one of Bella's books, but something is still...off about this whole situation. I cannot quite put my finger on it, and it is driving me insane.

I try to analyze it out loud, wondering if the missing piece will click into place when we reach the cottage. "She left Jasper to wait for her and came here?" I glance sideways at Bella. She shrugs a little, seemingly as baffled as I am...yet there is a strange reflection in the depths of her eyes – a hint of unease that she has almost successfully kept hidden from me.

It grows stronger as we head up the stone pathway, and then suddenly Bella skids to a halt less than a foot from the door. Sliding her hand from mine, she requests in a preoccupied manner, "Give me just a minute."

My forehead wrinkles in confusion. "Bella?"

Whatever is troubling her, she ignores it for a brief moment to give me a pleading glance. "Please?" She reaches for the brass knob, turning it quickly, but does not open the door. Her wide eyes are fixed on me as she lingers next to the doorframe – and she must find acquiescence in my stare, for she then commands, "Thirty seconds." And then she is gone, the door clicking shut softly in her wake.

Sighing heavily, I start to count, listening to every minute sound coming from within the cottage.

One, two, three, four...

The smooth, gliding noise of stamped leather against wood.

...five, six, seven, eight, nine...

The low rustle of pages being turned rapidly.

...ten, eleven, twelve...

I can stand it no longer. At thirteen seconds, I slip through the doorway, only to find Bella standing in front of the fireplace, a smoldering leather-bound book lying atop the pile of red-hot coals.

"What's going on, Bella?" I inquire warily.

She does not look away from the bright blue-green tinted flames as they eagerly consume the worn hardback. "She was here," she murmurs quietly. "She ripped a page out of my book to write her note on."

I had known that, but still I ask her, "Why?"

"I don't know why." The flickering light dances across the sinuous planes of her face. In profile, her expression is enigmatic, and her thoughts are completely obscured, as always.

I sidle closer, my eyes drifting to the smoking scrap of leather in the fire. The gold embossed lettering of the book's title is nearly burned away; the only decipherable word on the cover is ‘Venice'.

Bewildered, I lift my gaze from the hearth to Bella, resuming my rapt study of her lovely features in an attempt to uncover what is going on inside that mysterious, convoluted mind of hers. "Why are you burning it?" I say, nonplussed.

Her exquisite eyes darken with anguish, her unreadable face crinkling into a deep frown bathed in frustration and pain. "I– I–" She exhales sharply. A lock of silky chocolate brown hair tumbles over one shoulder, partially veiling her expression from my sight. The fingers of my right hand twitch, longing to brush her hair aside and caress the satiny curve of her cheek. "It seemed appropriate," she finishes in a low mumble.

Unable and unwilling to repress the desire, I raise my hand and gently tuck the wayward tresses behind her ear, my fingertips lingering with delight on her skin. The profound sadness blanketing the lines of her face burns within my chest like an acid, wounding me far more than my own grief. "We don't know what she's doing," I murmur quietly in a weak effort to console her.

Bella only stares into the undulating flames, watching the last bits of charred paper disintegrate into a swirl of yellow-orange embers. Seconds pass, and I struggle to quell my impatience, waiting for her to share her thoughts.

Just when I am about to open my mouth and ask the usual question, she begins to whisper, her voice somber and husky, "When we were on the plane to Italy, on our way to rescue you..." She swallows once. "...she lied to Jasper so that he wouldn't come after us. She knew that if he faced the Volturi, he would die. She was willing to die herself rather than put him in danger. Willing for me to die, too." Her breath catches in her throat, and her eyelashes tickle the apples of her cheeks as she briefly closes her eyes. "Willing for you to die."

Part of me wants to defend my sister – to tell Bella that Alice would never intentionally put us in harm's way if it would spare Jasper and herself – but I stay mute, looking from Bella's face to the fire, the light almost hypnotizing as it creates ever-changing shadows within the hearth.

"She has her priorities," Bella whispers, so low that the words seems to disappear into the wisps of pale smoke rising up through the chimney.

The memory that I had witnessed from Sam's mind of two lithe white figures plunging into the roiling ocean replays before my eyes while the words of Alice's written farewell spin webs of resentment and distrust inside my head. ‘Don't look for us... We're so sorry that we have to leave you this way... It's the only way for us...'

"I don't believe it," I growl fiercely, summoning the image of the smiling, impish sister that I have come to depend on to the forefront of my thoughts. Arguing with my own inner doubts as well as conversing with Bella, I speculate out loud, "Maybe it was just Jasper in danger. Her plan would work for the rest of us, but he'd be lost if he stayed. Maybe..."

Bella turns slowly from the fireplace, meeting my gaze for the first time since I entered the cottage. Her crimson irises glow with love, but are also soft with compassion as she replies carefully, "She could have told us that. Sent him away."

"But would Jasper have gone?" I am determined to find some loose thread that would help to untangle the knot of misgivings and feeble hopes surrounding the impossible situation in which we find ourselves. "Maybe she's lying to him again," I suggest, my tone sounding half-hearted even to my own ears.

"Maybe," Bella agrees – except her gaze wavers uncertainly as she speaks. Then, she tilts her chin up and announces, "We should go home. There's no time."

Obedient to her wishes, I take her hand in mine and together we run from the cottage and back into the deep green canopy of the forest.

The journey is very brief, and once we reach the vicinity of the house, my head is instantly cluttered with half-finished thoughts and private musings generated by the six alert minds inside.

Bella and I slip through the front door. Carlisle, Esme, Rosalie, and Emmett are all gathered loosely around the coffee table, whereupon a large, detailed globe is still spinning wildly, as if someone had just turned it. Jacob – human again – is sitting cross-legged in a corner of the room with Renesmee in his lap. She is wide-awake, as I expected, and in her thoughts and round dark eyes I detect her newfound knowledge of the current situation.

We've been waiting for you, Carlisle mentions, but there is no admonishment in his mental tone. Did you find anything? I shake my head infinitesimally. He nods very slowly, suspecting as much. Then his mind switches gears, returning to the task at hand as he informs me, Everything has been prepared while the two of you were gone. We'll be leaving shortly. He swiftly lays out the groundwork for their plan – and I immediately bristle when he discloses what assignment Bella and I have been given.

My grip on Bella's hand tenses involuntarily, and she looks away from the rotating globe to study my face curiously, her gaze full of questions that she will most likely never voice. I pause for a half second to contain my flash-burn temper and then speak aloud for her benefit, "We're to stay here?" The words grate against my tongue like shards of glass.

My father raises a wheat-colored eyebrow ever so slightly in response to my sour tone. This is not a punishment, Edward. Now there is definite reproach in his thoughts. Surely you can see the wisdom of this decision. His golden eyes flit over to Bella as he replies placidly, "Alice said that we would have to show people Renesmee, and we would have to be careful about it. We'll send whomever we can find back here to you –" Seeing nothing but compliance and underlying grief in his daughter-in-law's crimson stare, Carlisle turns back to me. "Edward, you'll be the best at fielding that particular minefield."

Apparently, fate persists in contriving various means of testing my so-called limitless patience. I had been looking forward to the trip to South America – now rendered useless – because it would be an opportunity to channel my bottled-up anxiety in a productive direction. I have been shielding Bella from all of my negative emotions for so long that Jasper had recently pulled me aside and told me of his concern. According to him, my feelings needed to find an outlet soon, or else everything would just explode. And all those fears that I have repressed will become known to the one person I swore that I would never hurt again.

I had at the time practically begged my brother to offer me a solution. "You should talk to Bella," was what he said, completely serious. "You don't have to protect her from yourself anymore, Edward. She would want to know. It's just the same as when you told her to not be afraid to let you know how she's feeling. Besides ..." He paused, sampling my emotional state once again with his talent, and then grimaced. "I think she's probably the only one who can help you."

Jasper. He is gone now – just like Alice...

Gritting my teeth, I cement my awareness firmly in the present moment and stare hard at Carlisle's serene expression. He is waiting for me to offer a semblance of agreement with this strategy. I give him a curt nod of my head. I really cannot argue with his logic, as much as I would like to, and I have no other alternative to recommend. But the rebellious youth that still lingers in the human side of my being is unable to resist speaking a provocation. "There's still a lot of ground to cover."

"We're splitting up." Emmett decides to play interference – announcing his own role in the grand scheme while also dispelling some of the tension between our father and me. "Rose and I are hunting for nomads." If it's any consolation, he sends casually, we all figured that you'd want to stay here with Bella and Nessie. It's safer. ...Sort of. He shrugs in response to my withering glance, and crosses his arms over his chest.

"You'll have your hands full here," Carlisle remarks quietly while measuring my reaction, noting the taut skin around my eyes. "Tanya's family will be here in the morning, and they have no idea why." He begins to tick off a list of objectives. "First, you have to persuade them not to react the way Irina did. Second, you've got to find out what Alice meant about Eleazar. Then, after all that, will they stay to witness for us?"

Peering deep into my rigid gaze, he adds internally, You are incredibly gifted in the art of persuasion, Edward – but that is not the only reason why we are entrusting you with this responsibility. Your first obligation is to your wife and daughter, and they need you just as much as you need them. He goes on, almost wearily, "It will start again as the others come – if we can persuade anyone to come in the first place." Exhaling a heavy sigh, my father comments in a low voice, "Your job may well be the hardest." And I have the utmost faith in you, son. You will do whatever you can in order to succeed.

He and I stare at one another in silence for a moment, both of us recognizing what he has left unsaid – that even though I will make every effort to reason with Tanya and the others, it is no guarantee that they will support us. What had happened with the wolves and the newborn army this past June is proof enough of that.

It's time. Carlisle begins to step around the table, promising, "We'll be back to help as soon as we can." He pauses in front of me and lays a hand on my shoulder for a brief second. Take care of your family, he thinks, his piercing tawny eyes filled with warmth and fatherly affection, and it is at that moment my hostility towards this plan completely dissipates. I soften my gaze, and a hint of a smile twitches in my father's cheek before he lowers his hand and turns to Bella. Be well, my dear. He bends down and lightly kisses her forehead in benediction.

Esme throws her slim arms around me, squeezing tightly as she offers a farewell. I love you, Edward. I know you're hurting about Alice and why she left – my muscles tense, a whisper of hollow emptiness teasing the edges of my perception – but we have to trust that she's doing the right thing. She always has.

Releasing me, my mother envelops Bella in a tender hug, holding on for a few seconds longer than usual.

The dull thud of a fist punching into my shoulder breaks me from my observation. Try to have fun without me, Emmett jokes, a lopsided smirk on his face. Though from what I hear, you two are having plenty of fun on your own. He dodges my attempt to shove him backwards and thumps Bella on the arm as well.

Rosalie graces us both with a small, forced smile, not bothering to give any sort of parting words – until she turns and blows a kiss to Renesmee. Watch out for her, Edward, or the Volturi will be the least of your worries.

I have learned over the years to take Rose's threats at face value, though she has no reason to concern herself with this particular matter. We may not have always agreed on the specifics of tending Renesmee, especially when she was still inside her mother, but providing for my daughter's wellbeing is second nature to me now.

And keep an eye on the dog, she includes while giving Jacob a disgusted grimace. I swear...if someone tells me that I smell like one of those annoying over-sized vermin, I am going to –

"Good luck," I say a bit loudly, drowning out Rose's usual self-centered drabble, and look at each of their faces before meeting my father's level stare.

"And to you," he returns. "We'll all need it." Gesturing to Esme, the two of them exit the house first at a swift sprint, wheeling towards the southeast. Emmett and Rosalie follow them out the door, and then head north, their thoughts fading along with their hushed footfalls.

Bella looks out the open front door for several seconds, appearing to be both defeated and thoughtful at the same time. I walk a little further into the spacious room, and as soon as the distance between us is lengthened, Bella closes the door and glides over to my side, her eyes on Renesmee.

The little girl's mind is in a quandary. Because she is dwelling on so many things at once, her thoughts overlap and contradict one another – so much so that I have trouble distinguishing what she is thinking right at the moment.

She twists around on Jacob's lap, having decided which question to ask, and touches his red-brown cheek. Replaying a portion of Carlisle's words, Renesmee focuses on his talk of ‘others', wanting to know if these friends are going to come and help.

Jacob lifts one shoulder in a slight shrug, his black eyes never leaving her face. "I don't know if Carlisle's friends will come. I hope so." His brows pull together as he fights to hold back a wince. "Sounds like we're a little outnumbered right now," he murmurs very softly, his arms tightening protectively around her tiny form.

Bella's intent gaze narrows in response to his words. I can understand her frustration; she probably did not want Renesmee to know about the destruction aimed at our family because of her existence. Regardless of what Irina thought she saw that day on the ridge, I will not let my daughter bear the guilt of bringing the Volturi to our doorstep.

But I know Jacob: he would have kept that harsh reality from her, and from what I can see in her mind, she does not yet comprehend her part in Aro's machinations.

An almost desperate desire to help fills Renesmee's head, causing her small heart to throb even faster, and she projects a plea to Jacob, her deep brown eyes imploring.

He immediately shakes his head in denial. "No, we can't help; we've got to stay here," he tells her gently. "People are coming to see you, not the scenery."

She frowns, considering a new dilemma. Picturing his last farewell, when he went back to La Push, she wonders if he will have to leave again when our friends arrive.

Never gonna happen, he vows even before her shared thought is finished. A twinge of unease awakens inside my chest as he says to Renesmee with certainty, "No, I don't have to go anywhere." Realization, of course, catches up with him an instant later, and he glances up at me, bewildered. "Do I?" he asks.

Hesitating, I briefly consider the possible ramifications of allowing Jacob to be seen with Renesmee. Some of our potential allies might deem our close association with werewolves as unsavory, and thus influence their decision to offer aid. Most of them will view Renesmee as a bane in any case; I simply do not want anyone to think less of her and what we are asking because of our friendship with the wolves.

I hesitate one second too long. Jacob's thoughts flux, signaling that the tight rein he keeps on his anger has grown slack. He stems off the rippling shiver that starts at the base of his spine and barks roughly, "Spit it out."

Breathing out very slowly, I then take in a lungful of freesia, wet dog, and cinnamon-jasmine scented air and explain, "The vampires who are coming to help us are not the same as we are. Tanya's family is the only one besides ours with a reverence for human life, and even they don't think much of werewolves."

Amazing command of the obvious you have there, Jacob scoffs mentally.

I ignore this and go on. "I think it might be safer –"

He cuts me off, asserting, "I can take care of myself." You know it, I know it, and I know that you know it. So why even bring it up?

"Safer for Renesmee," I amend softly, watching his expressions, "if the choice to believe our story about her is not tainted by an association with werewolves." If I can just get him to see this situation from my perspective, maybe it will convince him to at least heed my advice instead of completely disregarding it.

"Some friends," he snorts. "They'd turn on you just because of who you hang out with now?" I wouldn't want somebody like that backing me up – no matter how long you've known them. He snorts again, curling his upper lip in derision.

It seems that I need to make my point clearer. Folding my arms across my chest, I tilt my head a bit to one side and adopt a contemplative stance. "I think they would mostly be tolerant under normal circumstances," I remark. Tanya and her family certainly had maintained a general aura of acceptance in regard to the wolves at the wedding, but to say that all of my father's old friends will behave in the same manner is a huge leap of faith. And we cannot afford to invest in blind faith.

"But you need to understand – accepting Nessie will not be a simple thing for any of them," I tell him earnestly, willing him to grasp the probable consequences of his involvement. "Why make it even the slightest bit harder?"

Jacob is silent for a minute, mulling things over in his head. While he thinks, Bella drifts over to the windows, staring out at the rainy woods. When she starts to wander towards the back of the room, Renesmee shifts in Jacob's arms to track her mother's movement with keen, unblinking eyes. I follow her progress as well, noticing that her steps are random, distracted. She must be trying to escape from agonizing over all the unknowns surrounding our lives by focusing on trivialities, like propelling her body into motion.

Then why, a tiny portion of my brain wonders, does it feel like she is deliberately moving to another part of the house? Bella has never been very good at subterfuge, and I hoped that would not change after she became a vampire. Her pathetic, amusing attempts to lie are incredibly endearing to me.

Oh. I get it. Subdued, Jacob straightens up a little and asks, breaking me from my speculation, "The immortal children were really that bad?"

Pulling my attention from Bella, I reply in a bleak tone, "You can't imagine the depth of the scars they've left in the collective vampire psyche."

His expression contorts into one of forlorn anguish. So he does realize the impact his presence could have on our allies' opinion of Renesmee and our innocence regarding the Volturi's pronounced sentence for a crime we did not commit. "Edward..." He trails off, leaving his appeal unspoken. But I hear it nonetheless.

"I know, Jake." Behind the tormented gleam in his black-brown eyes, I see a dim shadow of myself. "I know how hard it is to be away from her." A memory stirs in the back of my mind, and I hear my own voice, rough with the same emotion that colors Jacob's thoughts. "It's like you've taken half my self away with you."

Faint tapping noises echo dully from the far side of the house, and my eyes flash to the back windows, searching for Bella. I spot her leaning against the wall near the dining room, most of her body hidden from view. She still seems anxious; the drumming sound must be her fingers on a computer desk.

The computer...

Is she looking for something? Is that why she burned the book – to keep me in the dark?

Overreacting, a voice that sounds suspiciously like Alice whispers inside my head, and I have the sudden urge to look for her – peeking around the corner with that impish grin on her elfin face.

But she is not here.

Burying the image of my sister's bright smile and laughing gold eyes, I glance down again at Jacob. Less than a second has passed; he will not have noticed my internal conflict. "We'll play it by ear – see how they react to her," I say in a lighter tone. "Nessie is going to have to be incognito off and on in the next few weeks. She'll need to stay at the cottage until the right moment for us to introduce her. As long as you keep a safe distance from the main house..."

Jacob grabs at the concession I have posed immediately, which is what I had hoped. "I can do that," he declares, looking a bit relieved.

Renesmee squirms, impatient, in his arms, and presses her fingers to his neck. Bella's face, along with the memory of her walking away by the windows, fills her mind, accompanied by a strong sense of necessity. Jacob loosens his embrace in response and at once the little girl pulls herself upright and wanders off to find her mother.

"Company in the morning, huh?" Jacob comments, leaning his head back against the wall.

"Yes. The closest of our friends." Because it's Tanya, there is no reason for him to alienate himself from us just yet. "In this particular case, it's probably better if we get things out in the open as soon as possible. You can stay here." His eyes light up while the rest of his expression is kept carefully neutral. "Tanya knows about you," I tell him. "She's even met Seth."

"Right." He unfolds his long legs and stretches them out, crossing his ankles. From the casualness of the position, it seems that he has no intention of leaving any time soon.

The tapping rhythm has stopped. Renesmee must have succeeded in pulling Bella from her abstracted musings. With minimal effort, I pick up on my daughter's line of thought. A flickering train of images – the faces of our family and friends – race through her mind in swift repetition, flavored by a constant stream of worry.

Blinking once, I refocus on Jacob's slouching form while holding onto Renesmee's thought pattern, monitoring it with one part of my brain. He raises a black eyebrow at me in question. "You should tell Sam what's going on," I suggest quietly. "There might be strangers in the woods soon."

"Good point," he replies, and then his features and tone harden as he mutters sourly, "Though I owe him some silence after last night."

"Listening to Alice is usually the right thing." The habitual answer flows out of my mouth unconsciously, even though I am unsure whether or not I still believe in those words.

Jacob grounds his teeth, anger flaring in his mind, and he retorts mentally, If you say so.

Suddenly, Alice's face appears – crystal-clear and incredibly vivid – broadcast from Renesmee. Her childlike longing and confusion burst strongly along the edges of her thoughts, and in her own way, she is asking where her aunt has gone.

"I don't know," Bella whispers, her voice husky with pain. Both Jacob and I become immobile and silent, listening. "But she's Alice. She's doing the right thing, like always."

Renesmee sighs, a tiny puff of air, and her longing to see Alice grows.

"I miss her, too." The words falter on her tongue, and then her breath hitches in her throat.

Alarmed, my head swings around to look towards the dining room just as Renesmee peers up to study her mother's face. The deep grief and anguish distorting Bella's exquisite features is enough to cause my heart to ache in sympathy while stirring my own feelings of sorrow and despair.

Our daughter's mind clouds with sadness as she watches Bella sob brokenly, her agonized eyes devoid of tears, and Renesmee tries to soothe her by stroking her mother's cool cheek with a tiny palm.

Jacob clambers to his feet, eyeing my tormented expression. I'm gonna go talk to Sam now, he mentions as he heads for the front door. It's probably a good time anyway to work out a schedule for perimeter sweeps. He puts a hand on the doorframe, holding my gaze meaningfully. I think I'll do some of that for a couple hours. I won't be far. And he crosses the threshold, starting to pull the door closed behind him.

"Thank you, Jacob," I mouth to him in fervent gratitude.

The ghost of his classic grin flits across his lips. Don't mention it.

Then he leaves, giving me a few private moments with my family.

A new scent tickles my nose – salty, faintly sweet – and my eyes widen as I immediately recognize the source of the fragrance.

Soundlessly, I creep across the pale wooden floor and pause beside the corner wall, unnoticed by my wife and daughter. Renesmee's plump, flushed cheek glistens with a streak of wetness. She raises a hand to her own face in amazement, brushing the moisture on her skin, and holds her fingertip in front of her.

"Don't cry," Bella murmurs throatily, and she bends forward to kiss the tip of the little girl's button nose. "It's going to be okay. You're going to be fine." Sniffling, Renesmee nestles her wet cheek into the curve of Bella's neck, a few more tears escaping the corners of her dark eyes. Bella starts to rock back and forth gently, resting her head atop our daughter's bronze curls, and vows in a low, resolved tone, "I will find you a way through this."

In a hesitant motion, I step around the corner. Two pairs of wide eyes, scarlet and chocolate, flash sideways to observe my entrance. Renesmee's bottom lip starts to quiver as I draw near; she sees glimpses of the same anguish in my expression as she had in her mother's, and it hurts her.

"Shh..." I hush her tenderly, stroking my knuckles across her temple and cheek. "It will be all right." I meet Bella's eyes on the last word, and am instantly undone. In spite of all that has happened in the last eight hours – learning of our family's imminent fate and the inexplicable disappearance of Alice and Jasper – she is still able to look at me with profound passion, as if I am her mainstay amidst the destructive turmoil.

Closing my eyes to shield myself from the heat of her stare, I manage to hold the tattered remnants of my emotional control together – though I am well aware that it will not last long – and press my forehead against Bella's, inhaling deeply.

After a few minutes...or hours...I tell her very softly, "I heard you crying. Are you all right?" I open my eyes halfway, gazing at her from beneath my lashes.

Her eyelids flutter, and intense ruby-colored orbs set my nerve endings ablaze, sending tendrils of warmth into my icy, deadened spirit. I lift my hand to cradle her heart-shaped face, my thumb caressing the swell of her pale cheek. "I'm fine," Bella assures, her breath sending a waft of floral perfume across my lips. "What about you?" she asks, a little worried crease forming in the center of her brow. "Are you okay?"

My brother's advice haunts the fringe of my awareness. "She would want to know."

Later, I argue, pushing the remembered conversation from my thoughts. But I cannot lie when confronted with her beautiful, concerned, and loving expression. So I admit quietly, lowering my eyes, "For the moment."

It is the truth; I am able to reinforce my damaged feelings and bolster my tenuous grip on sanity just by being close to Bella. Though I will soon no longer have the strength to endure the storm brewing inside of me – I have spent too much time holding it in, and I can sense the walls containing my volatile emotions beginning to strain under the intense pressure. The explosion that Jasper warned me about is coming, and there is nothing I can do to stop from unleashing it upon my Bella.

"I think she's probably the only one who can help you," the Jasper in my memory whispers in the back of my mind. Sighing, I realize that I have no other choice. I have to tell her. As my brother pointed out, she would want to know.

But not yet. I will control myself for as long as possible before exposing her to the brutal force churning within my core.

The fingertips of my free hand are starting to tremble, and I clench them into a fist, willing the involuntary movement to stop.

Perceptive as ever, Bella lays her small hand over mine, nuzzling into my palm, and my breath shudders in my chest. With her touch and her eyes, she consoles me – just as she did when she lay near death on the sofa in the next room, wilting like a frail blossom in the harsh grip of winter.

Eventually, the trembling in my fingers ceases, and as if that had been her goal all along, Bella drops her hand and steps away. She walks toward the windows to watch the rainwater create patterns on the glass, and angles her body so that Renesmee can watch, as well.

I follow in her wake, shuffling in close behind her. With Bella's back pressing into my chest, I wrap my arms around them both, and rest my chin on the top of her head. And I find myself wishing that the future would never come – that the three of us could stay here forever, untouched by the pitiless consequences of reality. But to dwell on such foolish fantasies is irresponsible and selfish.

Selfish... I have always indulged in that emotion whenever Bella is concerned. I would like to believe that I have not shared my fears with her because I am practicing altruism – but honestly, it is only another example of my self-centeredness.

I do not want to seem weak to her. I do want her opinion of me to change. She has always looked to me for protection, for strength, for the answers to all the impossible situations we have faced over the last few years, and I have always given her whatever she needs.

But I cannot give her any of those things now. All that I can offer her is myself, which she has confirmed on numerous occasions is more than she deserves.

Tilting my chin downward, I hide my face in Bella's hair, taking in her sweet scent, and a fissure ruptures in the prison confining my emotions. Desperation wells inside my throat, stifling the passage of air to my lungs.

I need her. I need Bella – her skin on mine, the taste of her breath, her arms around me – or I will not survive another day. If eternity is now out of our reach, then all I want is to be with her and love her in the time we have left. And when the end comes, we will meet it together.

I comfort myself with that promise as the hours march inexorably on, leading us ever closer to the confrontation that will shape the course of our destiny.