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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:


11. Irresistible

Rating 5/5   Word Count 16877   Review this Chapter

The mind is a cruel device – a sadistic tormentor that delights in dredging up painful memories and sickening imaginings designed to bring one's sanity to the breaking point.

All day, I have endured this torture. Though I hold my Bella and our daughter in my stone arms, they are not strong enough to protect them from what is to come. While I can employ every persuasive tool at my disposal and comb the thoughts of Tanya's family, I cannot force them to help us or even guarantee that their efforts will not be in vain.

For every hopeful notion, there is a counterpoint of despair. No matter how hard I try to ignore it, to shut it out, the analytical side of my brain balances faith against logic. And if the mind is my torturer, then logic is its weapon of choice.

Only Bella remains a constant focal point for my fractured reality. She has bound me to herself so completely that even when I went halfway around the globe to save her from myself, I could not sever the cords linking my existence to hers.

But there are other powers at work against us now; powers that may be able to succeed where I failed, and cast me down to a place where all bonds of love are burned away.

There is only one word to describe such a place. A place where Bella's heart is not tied to mine, where I cannot see her light or feel her warmth – a warmth that never had anything to do with her blood, but with the warmth of her beautiful soul...

Hell.

It takes every ounce of willpower I have left to suppress the violent tremor that explodes along my spine, sending my nerves into a frenzy. Afterward, I keep my nose buried in the cascade of deep brown locks twisted around Bella's face and shoulders. Her sweet scent is the antidote for my...fear.

At one time, I considered myself above such a petty human emotion as fear. But then, I had never really known what love was – or loyalty, or joy, or belonging, or so many other feelings that I had only seen brief glimpses of through someone else's mind but never truly experienced.

I was a fool to think that I was complete before I met Bella.

Some while later, I dimly notice that the pale gray light of an overcast morning has transitioned into the dusky purple hue of twilight. Bare tree branches reach towards the sky like black fingers, grasping in vain at the waning crescent moon that appears fleetingly behind the thick clouds. Bella exhales very softly, the shape of the moon reflected in her eyes, and Renesmee fidgets drowsily in her arms, a yawn stretching her tiny mouth. These small observations succeed in pulling my awareness out of the anguished, impenetrable shell encasing my mind, and I begin to distinguish other details.

The synchronous harmony of several heartbeats. A hushed collection of thoughts and conversation. The tell-tale odor of werewolves blended with the smell of food.

Leaving one hand on Bella's waist, I pivot on my right foot – and register a faint sense of surprise at the scene that greets me.

The house is occupied by a group of Quileute teens. Seth's is the first face I see; he is sprawled on the sofa directly in front of me, munching on a four-inch thick sandwich. He freezes in mid-chew when I make eye contact, and then swallows convulsively, his thoughts a bit nervous. "Hey, Edward." His lips twitch into a vague representation of a smile.

At the sound of his voice, the conversation taking place in the dining room cuts off, and Bella turns around as well, her surprise at finding company with us more apparent in her bewildered expression. "Seth?" she asks. "What are you doing here?"

Embry and Quil come out of the dining room as Seth replies, "We're on guard duty, more or less. Jake said it would be okay for the three of us to take a breather – get something eat, you know – while he and Leah patrol the east bank of the river." He studies our blank faces for a second, his brow furrowing in confusion. "He didn't tell you guys any of this?"

"He did mention talking to Sam and scheduling some perimeter sweeps," I answer, pinching the bridge of my nose with thumb and forefinger, displeased with my lack of attentiveness.

The three pack members exchange puzzled glances. "That was twelve hours ago," Quil remarks pointedly. He seriously didn't know we were here? I thought he could hear what we're thinking.

"I can," I respond, and Quil blinks, stunned despite his foreknowledge of my talent. "But I must confess that I'm...somewhat unfocused as of late." Bella takes my hand in silent commiseration, and I hold on tightly, savoring the electrical pulses that her touch always elicits.

Seth nods sagely, his black-brown eyes radiating sympathy. "We totally understand, man." Then he adds internally, For whatever it's worth...I am so sorry that it's going down like this.

His sincerity is profound. If ever there was a mortal that deserved the description of having ‘a pure heart', it is Seth Clearwater.

"Jake should be back pretty soon," he goes on, gaze flickering to the darkness outside. "We'll be keeping an eye on things tonight – not that you really need us to, but you know how Jake is..." Seth rolls his eyes, though his thoughts are more amused than exasperated by Jacob's overprotective nature. "He told us that we'd have to clear out in the morning, though we're supposed to stay close and be invisible while your friends are here. So you'll have to put up with us for a few more hours," he finishes, grinning broadly.

Bella steps forward, a slight frown marring her features as she murmurs, "We aren't staying at the house tonight. I want to take Renesmee home, so she can sleep in her own bed." Her tone is quietly adamant, and judging by the stubborn set of her mouth, no amount of persuasion will change her mind.

I could not agree with her more. The sanctuary of our cottage will be a welcome change from the strained atmosphere permeating the house, and I am practically ravenous for a private, uninterrupted evening with my wife.

Bending over her slightly, I ask in a low voice, "Do you want to leave now?"

Bella nods, so I wrap an arm around her shoulders and begin to lead her towards the back door. Seth, a bit bemused but willing to concede to our wishes, calls out, "You know Jake's gonna be looking for you guys, right?" He might have a heart attack if Nessie's not around when he gets back.

"He knows where to find us," I comment wryly. Pulling the door closed behind me, we cross the meadow at a slower pace – though not quite as slow as a human's – and head into the northern woods, the need for familiarity growing stronger with each passing moment.

My mind's aptitude for tormenting intensifies as well. And I begin to notice that my weakening self-control is affecting not only my emotions, but also every single facet of my being. The muscles in my body are tensed as though preparing for a hunt – or to do battle. My spine threatens to curve, urging me to lower myself into a crouch, and my head turns from side to side almost constantly, scanning the forest for a potential danger...potential prey. Every instinct I have as a predator is rousing to razor-sharp acuity – without my conscious knowledge or consent.

I pull Bella closer to my side while gritting my teeth in concentration, willing the monster into submission.

Just as he is properly cowed, a rustle in the bushes on the left causes me to dance sideways, snarling. Extending my arms defensively, I place myself between my family and the unknown threat, and the monster rejoices, more than ready for a show of violence.

The shape of an enormous wolf, however, wrenches my common sense out of the red haze of instinct and I relax my stance. "Jacob."

Russet fur gleaming with threads of silver in the moonlight, Jacob parts the bushes – dry leaves fluttering to the ground in his wake – and lets out a snort, his breath a cloud of steam in the chill night air. Overreact much? he complains, black eyes glittering with annoyance.

"I'm a bit on edge this evening, Jacob," I retort bitingly, my tone laced with sarcasm. "Surely you can understand why." I turn around as he rolls his eyes to address Bella. She has both arms wrapped in an iron cage around Renesmee, who mercifully is continuing to doze. Bella's ruby-colored eyes are wide, and I brush my fingertips across her cheek in apology. "I'm sorry if I startled you, love."

"It's okay," she mumbles in a small voice.

Simultaneously, Jacob thumps one large paw on the ground and rolls his head to the side, griping loudly with his thoughts. She's fine. I'm the one you should be apologizing to – and not just for getting ready to rip my arms from their sockets. Why didn't you stay at the house? Decided to go for a midnight stroll?

"We're taking Renesmee back to the cottage," I answer, encircling Bella's waist with my arm and starting to move forward. Jacob falls in step beside me, though he leaves a foot or so of space between my shoulder and his flank. A wise choice on his part.

He chuffs under his breath, and Bella looks up at me in curiosity when I mutter tersely, "Does it really matter at this point?"

"What did he say?" she asks, her gaze wavering between mine and the wolf, visible just beyond my left shoulder, his long face tilted towards us.

Sighing, I tell her in a flat voice, "He wants to know why we would even bother taking her home."

Bella angles her neck, looking past my face to meet Jacob's black eyes. The depth of sorrow covering her expression and the haunting shadows in her stare immediately strikes him, stilling the current of his thoughts. Very quietly, she explains, "Maybe it is stupid – but... I just wanted her to have something normal to wake up to. After all that she's been through - all that she's going to go through – I want her to feel like she has a home." She shrugs a little, lowering her eyes to the slumbering child in her arms. "It's important that she remembers her home, that she could feel safe there."

I lean down and kiss the top of her head. She swallows hard, her full bottom lip quivering, and sucks in a deep breath. Jacob winds around behind us and trots over to Bella, letting out a low whine. I'm sorry, Bells, he thinks remorsefully. I'm the one who's being stupid. All this adrenaline is killing off my brain cells or something. I stifle a chuckle at that, hiding my smile in Bella's dark hair, but neither of them seem to notice. Would you tell her that I'm sorry, Edward? Jacob pleads. And tell her that I'm stupid, too. He whines again, ducking his head like a scolded puppy.

Before I can open my mouth to convey his unspoken words, Bella reaches out and touches Jacob's massive shoulder, stroking his thick fur with her palm. "I know, Jake," she assures gently. "Don't worry about it. Like Edward said, we're all a bit on edge lately."

"But we shouldn't let that turn us against each other." Frankly, it was all too easy for me to fall back into the routine of animosity when conversing with Jacob – and we have come so far from those days when either of us would have leapt at the opportunity to dispose of the other.

Peering over Bella's head at the red-brown wolf, I say with sincerity, "I'm sorry, Jacob. I had no excuse to behave so rudely towards a friend."

Great. Now you're both making me feel guilty. But he is relieved, and grateful, for my apology and Bella's reassurance. He redirects his thoughts a heartbeat later, informing me, I'll circle the woods a few miles out around the cottage for the rest of the night. I don't think I could sleep even if I tried...and being a wolf makes me feel more ready for a fight.

I incline my head in agreement just as the trees thin ahead, signifying that we are a few hundred yards from the glade. Jacob remains beside a towering oak while Bella and I weave a path through the frost-laden meadow grass and approach the small stone cottage.

Once inside, I turn to Bella and murmur softly, "I'll start a fire. You put Renesmee to bed." Then I press my lips to our daughter's brow. "Dream sweet dreams," I whisper to her, pushing a stray curl from her forehead. Straightening, I meet Bella's gaze for half a second. Her vivid eyes are full of questions, her eyebrows drawn together in tense contemplation. I prepare to mentally brace myself for the onslaught – yet she surprises me by remaining silent, offering a faint smile before she glides down the hall to Renesmee's room.

In a handful of seconds after their departure, I have placed a stack of logs over the waning embers in the hearth and revived a crackling fire. Above the dim noise of snapping wood, I hear slight vibrations in the floor – a gentle, soothing rhythm – which implies that Bella is rocking from side to side, and Renesmee is not as sleepy as she would have us believe. More likely, the little girl is physically exhausted, but her emotions and imagination are running so rampant that her body is finding it difficult to welcome a much-needed rest.

A short piece of wood falls from the pile, leaving a trail of glowing sparks on the ground, and I push it back into the hearth. As my hand lowers, I realize that my fingers are shaking. Clenching them into a fist, I bury both hands in the pockets of my jacket, hunching over towards the flames. The dancing waves of yellow and red-orange lick across the charred surface of the wood, billows of smoke rising through the chimney amid swirling golden embers...and my mind resumes its assault.

Fire is the sole element capable of destroying a vampire. It is clean, efficient, and utterly lethal, leaving only a scattering of pale ashes where a once invulnerable immortal had been.

It is how the Volturi will dispose of my family. Perhaps it will be quick; it might even be painless, considering what I learned of Alec's talent last spring. But, watching the flames consume everything around them, I start to wonder if I will feel the heat of my death.

Humans experience their end as a frigid chill – the deadening of their senses – but I have always been cold.

Will it be the opposite for me? Will my icy, stone-like skin absorb the warmth of the fire before it begins to burn through each layer? Or will it scald my nerves, boiling through my veins as the venom that changed me did some ninety years ago?

I have seen quite a number of vampires meet their demise in a similar fashion. Some I even threw into the inferno myself. But those creatures had been torn into pieces before the fire touched their skin, so it seems unlikely that they would have felt anything beyond the point of their body's ruination. To be cast into the blaze whole, still cognizant of what is happening... What must that be like?

I pull out my right hand, troubled by my own morbid curiosity, and hold it above the flickering flames. The alabaster sheen covering my knuckles glimmers dimly in the light, bathed in a yellow glow. The fire appears to leap towards my skin in vain, the heat beginning to seep into my hand –

Abruptly, the image of myself in the blaze vanishes, replaced with the vision of a towering bonfire built upon a snowy tundra, dark silhouettes gathered at its edge. Inside the flames is a young woman clutching a toddler to her breast, her pale blond hair singed as the fire starts to engulf them.

This is the last memory that Tanya and her sisters have of their mother as she died for the creation in her arms – an immortal child whose existence she had kept hidden from her own family.

Flames and roiling gray smoke pass in front of the woman, and when it fades, there is a new face in the fire. A heart-shaped face with wide eyes, a slightly upturned nose, full lips, and a tangled mass of dark hair.

My breath freezes in my lungs.

No. It's not possible.

The tiny shape in her arms shifts, and a pair of deep brown eyes pierce through me, set into an exquisite face framed by wild bronze curls that seem to mimic the flames as they dance around her cheeks.

This is not real. No. No!

Their gazes do not leave me as the fire closes in around them, and in their silence there is no accusation. Raw, desperate pleading burns in their eyes, along with trust – trust that I will save them.

But I cannot even move. The black shapes grip my arms, holding me in place. I struggle and scream and beg – to no avail.

The fire swallows them.

NO!

A woman's voice, rendered unfamiliar by shrieks of grief, joins my shout of despair. "NO! Matka!"

Gasping, I wrench myself free from the distorted memory, jerking my hand from the fire. My chest heaves and aches with each breath, and I brace my palms on the mantle, lowering my head as I squeeze my eyes shut in the hopes of blocking out the images now seared into the backs of my eyelids.

My worst nightmare, my own personal definition of hell, is to spend even one second in a world where Bella no longer exists. The agony that had ripped through my empty chest when I heard those four fatal words "He's at the funeral" was exponentially more devastating than when I left her and everything that I was in the Olympic forest seven months earlier. How I had begged God and every power above and below the earth to take what remained of my existence from me. When my pleas went unanswered – which was what I had expected – I bought a plane ticket to Italy.

It was amazing, really, that I had retained enough sanity to form a somewhat rational plan. But after my request for an assisted suicide was denied, my logic effectively fled. I had been prepared to do anything to achieve my goal, all the while clinging to a fragile thread of hope that I could see my angel one last time.

Though that dark time is behind us, the consequences of my actions still taint our lives, culminating with the fact that if I had never left in the first place, our family would have remained on the outskirts of the Volturi's notice. Instead we have become a prime target.

Painful flickers of my warped imagining burst inside my pupils, and my hands tighten convulsively. A trickle of fine gray powder floats down to the floor as my fingertips create small dimples in the stone. I feel my lips curl over my clenched teeth, and a low rumble vibrates within my chest, rising into my throat.

The monster that had craved Bella's blood has placed a new claim on her since she was changed. He has been lurking in the shadows for these last few months, but I am always aware of him, always keeping a tight rein on the volatile instincts that stir whenever I hunt or am agitated. But those instincts are no longer tempted to kill, but to defend – to possess. Both sides of my nature understand that Bella is essential for survival, and the need to protect is reinforced by self-preservation.

The fissure in the walls around my emotions opens wider, and a growl manages to slip past my teeth. Primal urges start to tug relentlessly at my failing control, begging for a violent response to this threat against my mate and our child, while also awakening a deeply possessive impulse to take Bella as my own once again.

Inhaling a slow, shuddering breath, I swallow back another growl and force my eyes to open, glaring down into the flames. Some tiny part of my mind recognizes my behavior to be like that of a wounded animal: cornered, prone to rash and aggressive actions, and at the same time seeking comfort from the pain. All I want is to be free from this prison I constructed around myself with my own hands. I want relief from the pain. I want to show Bella how much I love her, how I need her more than anything else.

The walls begin to crumble, and the intensity of the raw emotion behind them threatens to bring me to my knees. My grip on the mantle turns into a desperate hold for support.

A whisper of air mixed with the delicious, tantalizing scent of freesia teases my nostrils, chasing away the sharp, bitter tang of wood smoke. I hear her breathe in, her lips parting as she prepares to speak, and I fight hard to stave off the instinctual craving so that I can listen to and comprehend her words.

"Edward, I -"

I am lost the instant she says my name.

Forfeiting the last meager scraps of restraint, I succumb to a tidal wave of instinct and spin around so quickly that the room dissolves into a wash of muted color. The startled look on Bella's face when she sees my expression barely registers in my need-driven thoughts as I capture her in an unbreakable embrace, my mouth seeking hers feverishly. The momentum of our bodies crashing into one another propels us into the far wall, causing the entire cottage to quake from the sheer force, and Bella's shoulders contour to the stone as I pin her to the wall.

She pulls on my bottom lip with her teeth and I growl in response, moving closer so that I can feel every line of her body against mine. Combing her fingers through my hair, she uses her abundant strength to twist in my arms, gaining enough leverage in order to fasten her legs around my waist. I break away from her lips to taste the decadent skin of her throat and she lets out a purring moan, untangling her hands from my hair to reduce my shirt to tattered pieces of fabric.

Together we sink to the ground, entwined to form a single being on the woven rug in front of the hearth. Her skin burns on mine, a chorus of sighs and soft growls issuing from both our throats, and there is nothing in my head but pure sensation. Desire, lust, need, relief, joy, desperation... all these emotions and so much more revolve solely around Bella. She is my only reality, and it is my deepest wish to soar with her to the heights of heaven – to fly far beyond the stars, never to return to the depths of sorrow that we have endured these past two days.

The monster is lulled into a contented stupor as Bella murmurs my name over and over, her body clinging to mine with exquisite ecstasy. The compulsion to claim her, to make sure that I am the only one who can give her release has sated my unbridled instincts, and the haze begins to clear within my mind.

The sweet floral fragrance of her silken skin tingles on my tongue, and I realize as I wrap my arms tightly around her deceptively delicate frame that, if it were in my power, I would keep us here forever. I would never let anyone or anything rip us apart. Wherever Bella goes, there I will be as well.

I pull back slightly, my palms cradling her perfect face, and I gaze deeply into her eyes. The vivid, glistening ruby of her irises is smoldering with desire, but her lips are curved into a tender smile, and the firelight casts a yellow-gold glow on her expression...

Fire. It swirls like a thing alive around her, seeking to devour the center of my universe...

I drop my head to her shoulder before she can perceive the anguish distorting my features, and my embrace constricts, as though I am trying to disappear into her very soul. There are no more barriers between my innermost being and my visible self; they were washed away by the storm of need and suppressed emotion.

And I am so afraid.

A harsh, choking sound burns its way through my chest and into my throat, escaping my mouth as a muffled sob while I press my lips to Bella's collarbone. Her small hands, which had been stroking feather-light circles on my back, grow still. "Edward?" Her voice, husky with passion, wavers in alarm when another dry sob tears itself from my throat, rippling across her skin. "Edward, what's wrong?"

She tries to sit up, angling her upper body in an effort to see my face – but in my shattered psyche, all I notice is that she seems to be moving away from me. Frantic, I secure her slender form to mine with my arms and legs, struggling to breathe as a hard lump of grief expands in the center of my chest like a weight pressing down on my lungs.

"Edward, please!" Bella begs, truly frightened. She grips my shoulders, shaking hard, her voice rising in pitch and beginning to quaver as she pleads again, "Please tell me what's wrong!"

The words come pouring out of me in an endless stream. "I'm sorry, Bella. I'm so sorry. There is a sword hanging over our heads again, and this time I can't protect you from it – you or Renesmee. You have given so much to me, never asking for anything in return except my love...yet I cannot give you what you truly deserve. You deserve to live in a world without suffering, and it kills me inside that I'm powerless to spare you and our daughter from this pain."

A shuddering gasp fills my heavy chest, infused with the sweetness of freesia, and I clutch Bella to me in utter dependence, as one would hold onto the source of their salvation after being pulled from the abyss.

Which is exactly what she is. My salvation.

"I need you, Bella." The confession floats across her floral-scented skin as a broken whisper scarcely louder than a breath. "I need you so badly... it terrifies me to even conceive of what my life would be like without you." A sudden tremor wracks my rigid body. "The twenty-four hours when I believed you were dead demonstrated all too clearly what I should have already known. Whatever happens in the future, I cannot and I will not exist apart from you." My vow rings in the stillness with solemn conviction, and I wait for her to absorb my words.

After a few unbearably silent moments, the thin arms wrapped around me tighten, and Bella lays her cheek on my disheveled hair, murmuring softly, "I feel the same way."

Closing my eyes, I bend my head down a little further to brush my lips along the hollow of her throat. I knew, of course, that her feelings would be the same as mine in this instance – but hearing her say it out loud in that gentle yet unyielding tone causes the painful spikes of anguish bombarding my heart to recede just a bit.

But my time of confession is far from over.

"This has been bothering you for a while, hasn't it?" Bella remarks, threading her fingers absently through the tousled locks at the nape of my neck. She does not seem to expect an answer so I remain quiet, uncharacteristically nervous that she has seen through my pretense – as she is prone to do – and afraid of what she may ask next.

I try to lose myself in her tender caresses, marveling at the way our individual scents have mingled to create an entirely new, intoxicating fragrance that hovers in the air above us, and then she prompts tentatively, "Why didn't you say something before?"

"Because I am a coward."

I can almost picture the troubled frown that is sure to be marring Bella's expression, and her breast rises as she inhales, preparing to contradict me. I continue on swiftly, though my voice is halting, ashamed. "It was selfish of me not to tell you sooner – especially after I asked you to always share your feelings with me, but... I didn't – I didn't want you to see me differently. In admitting my...weakness..." The word gets caught in the back of my throat. I take a deep breath and plunge ahead. "...I thought that you would believe me to be weak, as well. And I couldn't bear to be seen as anything less than what I am in your eyes."

"That will never happen," she declares confidently. Her unwavering faith in me and my ability to keep her safe has been a source of both pleasure and frustration throughout the course of our relationship, and those emotions war with one another inside me while she continues in her attempt to bolster my fractured psyche. "You're the strongest person I know. Stronger than me." There is a brief pause, and then she amends, "Well, maybe not stronger than me physically right now, but in every other sense."

I shake my head, the tip of my nose grazing across her collarbone. Bella lets out a tiny sigh in exasperation. "Why can't you see yourself the way that I do?" she mutters under her breath.

My mouth tries to shape into a smile, failing miserably. So stubborn, my Bella – always trying to convince me that I am actually worthy of her love. Still, she also has a blind spot when it comes to her own self-image. "I might ask you the same question," I point out in an even tone, though I am certain that she can hear the hollowness lingering behind the banter.

"We're not talking about my ‘inobservance' or whatever you want to call it," she snaps impatiently. "You are not weak, so I will never see you as weak. Period."

How I wish that were true. "The trouble is," I murmur despondently into the satiny softness of her neck, "I am weak. I've clung so obstinately to my greatest fear that it has imbedded itself in my brain." Desperation colors each phrase passing through my lips. "I can't escape from it. Every time I blink, it's there, torturing me."

One of Bella's arms winds around my head, cradling it against her breast, while the other encircles my waist. "Tell me," she whispers quietly.

Swallowing hard, I choke out, "I'll have to watch you die." My hold constricts around her body when she inhales a low gasp in response. "I've seen it so many times," I tell her bleakly. "You and Renesmee, burning in the fire. And I can't save you; I can't join you. I can only watch. It's their protocol:" I will not say that name in our home. Not ever. "The immortal child is destroyed along with the creator first. Then the rest of the offending coven may be granted a show of leniency, though it is usually no more than that – a show." My hands on her back clench into fists as I vow, a growl punctuating my promise, "But I will never accept an offer of mercy. I will throw myself into the flames. I only hope that you will wait for me, so that I can see you both before I am sent to where I belong –"

Bella abruptly jerks upright, still confining me in her steely embrace, and rearranges our bodies so that we are sitting across from one another on the floor. Then, she places her soft palms on either side of my face and pulls back, her crimson eyes blazing with a ferocious light. I am helpless under the force of her gaze and stare, utterly captivated, as she asserts in a fierce, uncompromising voice, "It's not going to happen, Edward. We're in this together now – and that means wherever I go, you're coming with me. Because anywhere that you are is heaven, even if it may be hell."

Her face is hovering mere inches from mine, her delicious-smelling breath tingling on my lips; it is a simple act to lean forward and taste her sweet kisses. My hands dance across the smooth expanse of her bare back as she loops her slender arms around my neck, our bodies pulling towards one another like magnets, unable to be separated when so near to the other. "I love you," I murmur into her mouth, and she echoes the sentiment in a velvety moan as I gather her in my arms, lifting her from the floor. Our lips scarcely part while I carry her to the bedroom, pushing the door closed behind us with my foot. The windows to the garden sparkle with frost in the moonlight; the surface of the tiny pond has begun to ice over.

We fall onto the bed and entwine, infinitely tender – yet tinged with a desperation to convey in such a short amount of time our combined need and passion for each other. The sacred beauty of our union robs me of speech, so I use every caress and kiss to tell my Bella without words that she has rekindled my hope of an existence with her beyond this world. The bond between us, which has been tempered by adversity, has transformed our separate hearts into a single, indestructible entity. It can never be undone.

Despite the faint pang of grief in my chest that I have barred this angel from heaven – making her like me in order to brighten my darkness – her promise rings true: wherever eternity may find us, it will find us together.

And my silent heart rejoices.

When the moon dips beneath the ink-black outline of the forest, the sky slowly turns from misty charcoal to pale opalescent with the approaching sunrise. Our time of forgetfulness is drawing to a close, and I inwardly mourn its passing while my fingertips trace abstract lines on Bella's arm, my other hand playing with strands of her silken brown hair. She, in the meantime, is drawing invisible patterns on my chest, her cheek pillowed on my shoulder.

Briefly, I fix my attention on Renesmee's muted thoughts. The corner of my mouth twitches a second later. She is dreaming, and it is highly doubtful that she will be waking up anytime soon. We have a few more hours – two at least – to enjoy together.

"Tanya's family will be here in the morning..." My conscience pricks me with the memory of Carlisle's parting words, and I stifle a deep sigh. There is a job to be done – we can no longer remain in the comforting illusions of the night.

I press my lips gently to Bella's forehead, hoping to soften the blow of reality, and comment in a low voice, "The sun will be up soon, love." Her fingers pause in mid-motion, and I have to force myself to finish. "We need to get back to the house."

She burrows into my side, entangling her limbs with mine, her full lips teasing the skin of my throat as she begs, her tone positively heartbreaking, "Not yet. Please."

Easily defeated by her plea, I rest willingly in the prison of her embrace and wait, allowing her to determine when she is ready to face what lies in store for us today.

The minutes begin to tick by, and Bella's eyes shift frequently to the frost-coated windows, watching the sky grow lighter with a pale gold hue. In due course, the first subtle beams of sunlight streak across the horizon, painting the landscape in a topaz glow and igniting soft sparkles on our skin, and Bella fidgets restlessly beside me. She sighs, the sound tremulous, and slides to the edge of the mattress. Sitting upright, I notice the supple contours of her bare back tauten, the muscles stiffening, as she lithely rises to her feet. I quickly mimic her movements and shadow her hurried footsteps towards the closet.

Visions of the sister I lost flit through my mind after Bella throws open the double doors, but I shove them down into the deep recesses of my memory. There is no place for her here anymore.

Grabbing the first practical clothing that my hands touch, I mutter to Bella, "I wish there was a way to get the information we need from Eleazar before we tell them about Nessie." Pushing my arms through a knit gray sweater, I throw it over my head and then reach for a pair of worn black pants. "Just in case."

Bella is already dressed, combing her fingers hastily through her hair while she slips on her old tennis shoes, and replies perceptively, "But he wouldn't understand the question to answer it." We dart back into the bedroom, shutting the closet doors as she asks, biting down on her lower lip, "Do you think they'll let us explain?"

I stop just outside the doorway to the hall and glance at her over my shoulder. "I don't know," I admit quietly.

She glides past me, pausing to stand on her tiptoes in order to fluff my rumpled hair with her fingers, and heads into Renesmee's room while I make my way to the front door.

Less than two seconds later, Bella is toting our slumbering daughter in her capable arms, the little girl's silky ringlets pressed against her cheek. I open the door as she approaches, holding it for her. To my surprise, she hesitates on the threshold, turning sideways to face me. Her expression is puzzling – an odd blend of wary anticipation and determination. Then she asks, "Edward, will you teach me how to fight?"

I freeze, my eyes widening as ice seeps into my dead veins. An immediate refusal hangs on the tip of my tongue...but while my gaze sweeps along the length of her body, I come to the realization that Bella is not the fragile, vulnerable human I defended and worried for anymore. She is strong, fast, and intelligent – as lethal as any other vampire, including me. Nevertheless, she is still infinitely precious; I cannot risk her. And besides, my reasoning concludes as I study Renesmee's limp form in her arms, our daughter needs at least one of her parents with her for as long as possible.

Attempting to sidestep the issue before either of us devises a better argument, I reply cautiously, "If it comes to a fight, there won't be much any of us can do."

Bella's ruby-colored eyes flare with a sudden burst of annoyance, and her lips flatten into a hard, stubborn line. "Would you leave me unable to defend myself?" she questions in an even tone.

The image of Bella crouching underneath Felix's depraved leer rematerializes in the back of my brain, and my throat contracts convulsively around the snarl fighting to break loose from my mouth as the door shudders in protest from the force of my hand tightening on the wood. If that vile brute even looks at her the wrong way I will rip his eyes from their sockets.

A metallic-sounding screech echoes dimly in my ears; I am about to tear our front door from its hinges unless I get a hold of my temper. Common sense tells me that Bella has every right to learn how to fight off an assailant, and since she has asked me to teach her, I could show her moves that are strictly defensive rather than encouraging her to jump headlong in the fray. It will satisfy her need to contribute to our cause, and it will give me peace of mind...after a fashion.

I nod at her while consciously ordering my tense fingers to release their vise-grip on the door. "When you put it that way..." I remark in a somewhat moderate voice, "I suppose we should get to work as soon as we can."

She bobs her head in agreement and continues across the threshold, waiting for me on the stone path as I close the door. We begin walking, unhurried, our arms brushing together with each stride, and after a few moments I glance sideways to look at her expression. She seems thoughtful – eyes slightly narrowed, lips pursed – and the usual curiosity burns through my mind. Just as I successfully quell the urge to pose my persistently employed question, Bella speaks up. "What would you say their biggest advantage is?" she inquires, looking at me over the top of Renesmee's head. "Do they even have a weakness?"

Understanding at once to whom she is referring, I answer her in a bland, detached manner, "Alec and Jane are their greatest offense. Their defensive players rarely see any real action." And why would they? The sadistic twins create a path of destruction wherever they go, using their exceptional powers to advance Aro's lust for supremacy in the immortal world.

"Because Jane can burn you where you stand – mentally at least." Bella frowns a little, tilting her head to the side. "What does Alec do? Didn't you once say he was even more dangerous than Jane?"

So she remembers that conversation. I had been hoping to keep this from her for a bit longer, but she deserves to know what we are up against, and I should know better than to underestimate her resilient courage. "Yes," I respond quietly. "In a way, he is the antidote to Jane. She makes you feel the worst pain imaginable. Alec, on the other hand, makes you feel nothing. Absolutely nothing."
I raise my eyebrows a fraction, studying her expression to see if that uncanny intuition of hers has been triggered yet. A frown still pulls down the corners of her mouth as she contemplates my explanation, so I go on. "Sometimes, when the Volturi are feeling kind," my lips twist into a faint sneer, "they have Alec anesthetize someone before he is executed. If he has surrendered or pleased them in some other way," I add.

"Anesthetic?" she remarks in confusion. "But how is that more dangerous than Jane?"

Peering deep into her splendid, expressive eyes, I tell her grimly, "Because he cuts off your senses altogether. No pain, but also no sight or sound or smell. Total sensory deprivation. You are utterly alone in the blackness. You don't even feel it when they burn you."

Bella shivers as the meaning of such a gift finally sinks in, and she moves closer to me unconsciously, pressing her shoulder into my arm. Resisting the impulse to wrap that arm around her waist, I resume my tutorial in the same emotionless tone. "That would make him only equally as dangerous as Jane, in that they both can incapacitate you, make you into a helpless target. The difference between them is like the difference between Aro and me." I apologize to her with my eyes as I explain, "Aro hears the mind of only one person at a time. Jane can only hurt the one object of her focus." I pause to inhale a short breath, and to summon the will to continue. "I can hear everyone at the same time."

Her face blanches, her full lips parting in shock. "And Alec can incapacitate us all at the same time?" she whispers hoarsely, her features iced over with fear, and part of me mourns the loss of yet another facet of her innocence.

"Yes. If he uses his gift against us, we will all stand blind and deaf until they get around to killing us – maybe they'll simply burn us without bothering to tear us apart first." My words are so callous and remote that Bella cringes a little, but if I allow myself to have less control over my emotions as I speak of our end, I will never recover. "Oh, we could try to fight," I comment indifferently, "but we'll be more likely to hurt one another than we would be to hurt one of them." I will just have to make certain that I have Bella in my arms before Alec's gift takes affect – that way, she and I can depart from this life together, even though we will not see one another in those last moments.

Silence blankets our journey through the forest for a few seconds, and then Bella asks, her tone speculative, "Do you think Alec is a very good fighter? Aside from what he can do, I mean." I feel my brow crinkle in puzzlement, wondering where she is going with this odd conjecture. "If he had to fight without his gift," she says slowly, hinting at...something...but I am unsure as to what that may be. "I wonder if he's ever even tried..." She trails off, a strange, almost feral glint in her crimson eyes, and suspicion erupts within my thoughts.

Whipping my head sideways in a move so quick that the air sings in my ears, I focus intently on her carefully blank profile and demand, "What are you thinking?"

She keeps staring straight ahead, and my frustration – and suspicion – mounts when I am unable to read any flickers of her thoughts on her face. "Well," she begins placidly, "he probably can't do that to me, can he? If what he does is like Aro and Jane and you. Maybe...if he's never really had to defend himself...and I learned a few tricks –"

No.

The scenario manifests hazily in my mind's eye: every member of our family, completely immobilized on the snow-covered field in Alice's vision – frozen, helpless statues awaiting their deaths.

All but Bella. My Bella, facing the entire Volturi guard alone.

No.

"He's been with the Volturi for centuries," I interrupt her swiftly, my voice rough with panic. "Yes, you're surely immune to his power, but you are still a newborn, Bella. I can't make you that strong a fighter in a few weeks." And I can't prepare you for this ludicrous, suicidal plan you've concocted. I won't. "I'm sure he's had training," I finish, trying to dissuade her.

She lifts her tiny shoulders in a shrug. "Maybe. Maybe not." The panic eating away at my insides turns razor-sharp with desperation and darkens as fury sparks in my hollow chest. Does she have any idea what her notions of selfless idiocy are doing to me?

Her determined statement breaks through my agitated, distraught reverie. "It's the one thing I can do that no one else can. Even if I can just distract him for a while –"

My teeth snap together, stifling a low growl that vibrates in my bones. She truly is going to be the death of me. "Please, Bella," I enunciate every syllable of her name with precise care, inwardly beseeching her to let this go while also struggling not to grab her by the arms and shake some sense into that incredible, convoluted mind. "Let's not talk about this."

She glances up at me then, and the inviting warmth glowing behind the stern resolve in her eyes causes my mercurial temperament to settle. Until, that is, she advises softly, "Be reasonable."

Reasonable? I want to roar out of sheer aggravation. I am being unreasonable? She is the one who is suggesting the most ridiculous, insane battle tactic I have ever heard and she tells me to ‘be reasonable'!

I pinch the bridge of my nose with thumb and forefinger, breathing deep and slow, willing myself to calm down. I sense Bella edge closer, and then her small hand touches my forearm with the gentlest pressure. That gesture is enough to help me regain some of my self-control, and I lower my hand, meeting her gaze. "I will try to teach you what I can," I promise in a subdued murmur, my stare roving hungrily across her perfectly shaped features, "but please don't make me think about you sacrificing yourself as a diversion –" I choke on the remainder of my sentence and decide to leave it unsaid.

Bella inclines her head, conceding to my request, but her normally revealing expression is void of all indication as to what she might be thinking – and that usually happens when she is reflecting on something she knows I will not approve of. "I have to learn everything," she mentions under her breath. "As much as you can possibly cram into my head in the next month."

Assuming that she does not expect an answer, I remain quiet, turning my own thoughts towards a more constructive battle strategy.

Obviously, Jane and Alec are priority targets; the trouble would come when any of us tried to get close enough to one of them to do some damage. Felix is nothing more than hired muscle with a lust for violence, and could therefore be easily dealt with by someone a bit more apt to outmaneuver their opponent.

Then there is Demetri.

The Volturi's tracker has one of the most adept, calculating minds I have ever encountered, and his gift is the main reason why we have to prepare for this fight. No matter where on the whole planet we may try to hide, he will find us. And if our family perishes, Aro will most certainly send him after Alice and Jasper.

But...if one of us is able to kill him...my sister and brother would be safe – quite possibly forever. A part of the Cullen family could go on...

My mind instantly rejects the idea of giving her anything after she abandoned us, but the love I still have for my best friend insists that, if it is in my power to grant her some peace, then it is the least I can do.

"Demetri..." Bella's soft voice pulls me from my inner conflict. I am a little surprised that we seem to be sharing the same thoughts, though she has no reason to even consider the tracker as a potential mark. I have made my decision.

"Demetri is mine," I announce harshly, my face twisting into a vicious snarl, and my fingers curl instinctively at my sides.

Bella studies my hard expression with worried eyes, whispering almost inaudibly, "Why?"

I cannot form a rational answer at first. When we reach the riverbank, I finally glance at her from the corner of my eye and murmur, "For Alice." Her name burns in my mouth, and I swallow once. "It's the only thanks I can give her now for the last fifty years." Whether or not she deserves it, I owe her many times over – most especially for the angel now standing beside me, her heart-shaped face radiating compassion.

It's about time! Cutting it pretty close, don't you think?

Jacob's customarily loud thoughts reverberate in my skull as he bounds through the woods, approaching from the west. The massive red-brown wolf trots over to Bella's side, black eyes locked on the sleeping child nestled in her arms. She's still sleeping. That's good – she needs to get her rest. His musings become more like those of a mother hen, wondering if we've fed her yet and so forth, and I quickly shut him out.

Bella nods once in his direction, acknowledging his presence politely, and then returns her attention to me. "Edward, why do you think Alice told us to ask Eleazar about the Volturi? Has he been in Italy recently or something? What could he know?"

We leap across the river before I give her an answer. Truthfully, I had forgotten that Bella does not know the story of Eleazar's origin. I suppose it would have been easier to tell her at a less stressful time...but I have little choice in the matter now. "Eleazar knows everything when it comes to the Volturi. I forgot you didn't know." I watch her reaction carefully as I reply, "He used to be one of them."

She jerks backward, startled, and a low hiss filters through her clenched teeth. Jacob growls, his mind shouting an interesting array of expletives to convey his shock.

"What?" Bella exclaims sharply. Her indignant, livid expression reminds me of all the occasions when she tried, as a human, to intimidate me, a vampire, with her endearingly absurd tiger-kitten anger.

I feel my icy features melt, softening, and I offer her a faint smile. "Eleazar is a very gentle person," I begin, preparing to summarize my cousin's history in a few sentences. "He wasn't entirely happy with the Volturi, but he respected the law and its need to be upheld. He felt he was working toward the greater good. He doesn't regret his time with them. But when he found Carmen, he found his place in this world. They are very similar people, both very compassionate for vampires." My smile becomes more pronounced. "They met Tanya and her sisters, and they never looked back. They are well suited to this lifestyle. If they'd never found Tanya, I imagine they would have eventually discovered a way to live without human blood on their own."

Bella's nose is scrunched up in bewilderment, her eyes distant. Jacob, preferring to be more inquisitive – and abrupt – in any conversation, asks mentally, So was he one of their warriors? Like Jane or whatever the hell her name is?

I look over at him, saying, "No, he wasn't one of their warriors, so to speak. He had a gift they found convenient."

Which is?

"He has an instinctive feel for the gifts of others – the extra abilities that some vampires have," I explain, crossing my arms lightly over my chest. "He could give Aro a general idea of what any given vampire was capable of just by being in proximity with him or her. This was helpful when the Volturi went into battle. He could warn them if someone in the opposing coven had a skill that might give them some trouble." I snort very quietly. "That was rare; it takes quite a skill to even inconvenience the Volturi for a moment. More often, the warning would give Aro the chance to save someone who might be useful to him." Lifting one shoulder in a casual shrug, I remark in an offhand manner, "Eleazar's gift works even with humans, to an extent. He has to really concentrate with humans, though, because the latent ability is so nebulous. Aro would have him test the people who wanted to join, to see if they had any potential. Aro was sorry to see him go." Actually, he had begged, cajoled, and offered Eleazar everything but his own power to try and get him to stay, but Eleazar refused. Carmen was all he needed.

"They let him go?" Bella is incredulous, her eyes filled with disbelief. "Just like that?"

My smile distorts, growing dark with a sort of twisted humor, and I tell her, "The Volturi aren't supposed to be the villains, the way they seem to you. They are the foundation of our peace and civilization. Each member of the guard chooses to serve them." The tenor of my voice lowers in cynicism. "It's quite prestigious; they all are proud to be there, not forced to be there."

She looks aside, scowling, as the four of us cross the meadow, ice-coated blades of grass glistening in the early morning light. Reaching towards her, I gently sweep her hair back, my fingertips brushing the soft curve of her jaw. "They're only alleged to be heinous and evil by the criminals, Bella," I comment quietly.

Her head snaps up, and she fixes me with a clear, piercing glare. "We're not criminals," she declares, outraged and defiant.

Jacob huffs, his hot breath creating a cloud of steam in the wintry air. You got that right.

"They don't know that," I inform them both, despondency trickling through the level inflection in my voice. The skin of my palm prickles with want, and automatically shapes itself to Bella's face, the pad of thumb stroking her cheek.

She leans into my hand, the rebellious light in her eyes transforming into a flash of anxiety, and she murmurs low and quick under her breath, "Do you really think we can make them stop and listen?"

Intensely reluctant to lie to her, I hesitate for a fraction of a second before responding with a shrug, "If we find enough friends to stand beside us. Maybe." The hope fueling my words is frail – as easily crushed as a spider's web in the bitter winds of winter – but Tanya's visit today could strengthen that hope.

A sudden rush of urgency crackles through my nerves. Bella seems to sense the change in my demeanor, and in unison we increase our pace, leaping forward into a sprint. Jacob lopes after us as I say to Bella, "Tanya shouldn't be too much longer. We need to be ready."

Scrambling up the porch stairs, I hold the front door open for Bella while Jacob veers to the far right side of the house to change back into human form. Once he is inside, the three of us begin to discuss how to proceed with our preparations for the Denali coven's arrival.

A few minutes into the conversation, Renesmee awakens, her bleary eyes widening quickly as she takes in her mother's strained white face and my pacing back and forth along the length of the front room. Jacob tries to persuade her to eat, but the little girl refuses, insisting that she is not hungry.

Eventually, we decide that I will meet Tanya and her family alone while Bella, Renesmee, and Jacob keep out of sight in the dining room until I call them. Bella chooses a seat at the polished mahogany table that hides her from view by the corner wall and Renesmee stays securely in her lap, since Jacob wants to maintain a safe distance from her if he needs to phase. He squirms, restless, in the chair at the head of the table, his dark eyes straying about the room, though his attention lands on Renesmee every time she so much as breathes differently.

I lean against the back windows, watching the front door as I open my mind fully, listening to the thoughts of every being within five miles of the house. I intend to know what my cousins are thinking the instant their minds are in range; there is no room for surprises or oversights. Too much is already at stake.

With a tiny sigh, Renesmee nestles her curl-shrouded head into Bella's neck, her hand resting lightly on her cheek. No vivid pictures fill her thoughts, however. Instead, she thinks the question at the same time that she voices it aloud in a fearful whisper, "What if they don't like me?"

Looking down at her pale face, her beautiful features covered with anxiety, my still heart turns over in my chest as I share in her distress. Renesmee is certainly more intelligent and emotionally mature than any other child in existence, but she has had to deal with circumstances so grave that even I have struggled to survive. She has grown up more in the last thirty-six hours than the entire four months of her life. And that knowledge fills me with deep remorse.

Agonized by her fear, Jacob immediately speaks up, wanting to reassure her. "Of course they'll –"

Bella's scarlet eyes cut to his face, silencing him. Tilting her chin downward, she murmurs into our daughter's bronze ringlets, "They don't understand you, Renesmee, because they've never met anyone like you." Her tone is very tender and soothing, belying the worry that mars her exquisite expression. "Getting them to understand is the problem."

The little girl sighs – a melancholy sound that should have no place coming from her rosebud lips – and a whirlwind of images race through her head: the faces of vampires, werewolves, and humans. Then she envisions herself, standing alone in the woods, coloring it with profound sadness. She does not fit in any of the worlds represented, straddling the line between the realms of mortal and immortal.

"You're special," Bella assures, tightening her embrace, "that's not a bad thing."

Renesmee shakes her head. My face, Bella's, and Jacob's appear in her thoughts, surrounded by grief, dismay, and...guilt? "This is my fault," she breathes, scarcely louder than a whisper.

"No," I deny vehemently, at the same time as Bella and Jacob. The combined volume of our forceful voices has only begun to reverberate in the room when the distinct sound of a slowing engine and tires spinning on moist earth causes each of us to freeze in place. Renesmee's fluttering heart skips a beat, and she buries herself in her mother's thick brown tresses. I can feel Bella's eyes on my face, but I do not trust myself enough to meet her stare as I run into the other room to wait by the door.

Once the approaching vehicle is a few miles from the house, I pick up on the familiar timbre of Tanya's mind and instantly latch on, sifting rapidly through the thoughts in her vicinity to detect Kate, Eleazar, and Carmen. It will take a significant amount of concentration to monitor all of them simultaneously; I cannot allow myself to become distracted for even the smallest portion of a second.

Curiosity is the dominant factor in my cousin's minds, along with an eagerness to see our family – and Bella, since she has now been changed. I listen dimly to the sounds of their car coming to a stop in front of the house, the engine turning off, and four doors opening and closing at random intervals. I take a brief moment to carefully school my features into a blank, polite mask. I have the utmost faith in you, son. Carlisle's voice echoes from my memory, and I absorb the unwavering belief permeating his words before I cast him and all other thoughts aside except for those of our visitors.

The moment one set of light footsteps hit the first stair, I pull open the front door, positioning myself in the center of the threshold.

Amber eyes framed by waves of strawberry-blonde hair greet me, and Tanya enthuses brightly, "Edward!" I wasn't expecting you to greet us, she adds mentally, her gaze darting over my shoulder, in search of the rest of my family.

"Hello, Tanya," I reply as cordially as I can manage. Her smile falters slightly while I shift my gaze to the golden-haired woman behind her right shoulder. "Kate," and then to the couple on her left, "Eleazar, Carmen."

"Hello," the three of them chorus in response.

Something is not right here. Tanya speaks up, examining my face carefully and noting the bleak look in my eyes, "Carlisle said he needed to talk to us right away. What's the problem? Trouble with the werewolves?"

Jacob snorts inside his head. I block him roughly from my awareness, narrowing my focus to the four minds standing before me, and answer in a mild voice, "No. Our truce with the werewolves is stronger than ever."

Crestfallen, Tanya's shoulders slump at little, and Kate chuckles, her topaz irises twinkling with good humor. You know she's looking for a chance to redeem herself in your – and your family's – eyes, she informs me, her thoughts teasing. But she, too, has noticed my severe, controlled expression, and the fact that I have not allowed them to enter the house. A fact that Tanya brings up an instant later.

"Aren't you going to invite us in?" She rises on her tiptoes, peering around my upper body to glimpse the large, vacant room behind me. I don't see... "Where's Carlisle?"

"Carlisle had to leave."

Four pairs of keen ocher eyes study my face, a mixture of emotions visible in their unblinking stares, their minds suddenly deafening with questions.

Tanya takes a half-step closer, placing her hands on her hips, and demands in a no-nonsense tone, "What's going on, Edward?"

I inhale a short breath, striving for diplomacy. "If you could give me the benefit of the doubt for just a few minutes," I request quietly. Holding out an upturned palm towards them, I meet each concerned gaze for a half-second before continuing. "I have something difficult to explain, and I'll need you to be open-minded until you understand."

"Is Carlisle all right?" Eleazar surges forward, nudging Tanya aside with an arm, his mind awash in trepidation.

I turn over my opened hand and clasp his shoulder. "None of us is all right, Eleazar," I admit in a low murmur, but I pat him on the shoulder to try and alleviate some of his worry. It is a vain effort, of course; if anything, Eleazar grows more tensed, and I assure him hastily, "But physically, Carlisle is fine."

"Physically?" Tanya's sharp inquiry slices through the brisk air. "What do you mean?"

"I mean that my entire family is in very grave danger." I lower my hand from Eleazar's shoulder, and then spread my arms wide in a gesture of supplication. "But before I explain, I ask for your promise." It becomes immensely difficult to keep the desperation from my voice, but I force myself to go on, drawing upon every last vestige of strength that I have left. "Listen to everything I say before you react. I am begging you to hear me out," I appeal, convinced that I will shamelessly drop to my knees if it will persuade them to agree to my terms.

Tanya turns around to exchange a brief glance with her sister. Kate nods once, her cornsilk tresses swinging over a shoulder. She had made her decision even before I finished speaking. Eleazar, however, holds Tanya's eyes for a longer stretch of time, his thoughts centered on the safety of their family. And Carmen, whose mind has stayed relatively passive throughout this meeting, only mentions internally that whatever the circumstances may be, they should be gracious enough to afford me the opportunity to explain.

Finally, Tanya returns her gaze to me, tilting her chin a bit in resolve as she announces, "We're listening. We will hear it all before we judge." We owe you that much. We are family, after all.

Unable to suppress the urge, I breathe out a quiet sigh of relief. "Thank you, Tanya." The words smolder with grateful fervor. "We wouldn't involve you in this if we had any other choice." I take a step sideways, motioning with a hand for her and the others to enter.

Ugh. That stench. Tanya sniffs, her nose wrinkling in distaste, and mutters to herself, "I knew those werewolves were involved." How can you stand it? She shudders at the notion of living in a house that reeks of wet dog.

"Yes," I answer her verbal comment, closing the door softly, "and they're on our side. Again."

Shamed, she offers a feeble apology in her mind. Kate brushes her sister's forearm lightly with her fingertips in a wordless, soothing gesture.

Carmen, lingering in the protective shadow of her mate, asks in her kind, subtly accented voice, "Where's your Bella? How is she?"

Looking into her round, compassionate face, the faint olive tone of her skin highlighted by a luxurious abundance of black hair, I am unexpectedly reminded of the one loyal human friend Bella had gained in high school. Though Angela Weber looks nothing like the petite Hispanic vampire in front of me, their personalities are strikingly similar. And perhaps Carmen's sympathetic nature will work in our favor as we proceed into the more complex aspects of the next few minutes.

I smile at her – the first genuine smile that anyone besides Bella has managed to coax out of me in the past two days. "She'll join us shortly," I say, and all of them immediately discern the change in my tone as I speak of my wife. "She's well, thank you. She's taken to immortality with amazing finesse."

Tanya moves to my side, her expression grave, and murmurs with quiet seriousness, "Tell us about the danger, Edward. We'll listen, and we'll be on your side, where we belong." Listening to the motivation within her thoughts, I realize that Kate was correct in her earlier remark; Tanya would like nothing more than to atone for their refusal to aid us when we had called upon them for help with the newborn army.

Filling my lungs with a deep breath, I find myself wishing that I believed God would hear and answer the prayer of a vampire. If ever we needed a touch of the divine, it is now. Nevertheless, I reply with my own solemn request, "I'd like you to witness for yourselves first." Nodding towards the doorway that leads to the two most cherished people in my life, I tell my cousins, "Listen – in the other room. What do you hear?"

After a fraction of a second, the steady, wet thrum of a heartbeat stirs the incessant thirst in their throats, and Kate leans forward involuntarily. I throw out an arm to stop her, instructing, "Just listen first, please."

"A werewolf, I assume," Tanya answers. "I can hear his heart." And smell him, as well.

"What else?" I ask, immersing myself in the collective hum of their thoughts, my eyes intent on their changing facial expressions.

There is another pregnant pause, and then Carmen's features light up with inquisitive bewilderment. "What is that thrumming?" She tilts her head a little more to one side. "Is that...some kind of a bird?"

"No, but remember what you're hearing." I wait for that comment to sink in, for each of them to commit the unique rhythm of Renesmee's heart to memory, and afterwards I remark in a low voice, "Now, what do you smell?" Tanya shoots me a dubious glare. "Besides the werewolf," I add for her benefit.

Eleazar's mind receives a jolt of shock as the new, lighter scent filters through the pungent odor of the wolves. "Is there a human here?" he whispers, stunned.

"No." Tanya narrows her eyes, concentrating, and inhales deeply. Such a strange aroma – pleasant, and sweet, but also appealing. It could be human...and yet... "It's not human..." she disagrees aloud, "but...closer to human than the rest of the scents here." Her stare flashes up to mine, radiating curiosity. "What is that, Edward? I don't think I've ever smelled that fragrance before."

"You most certainly have not, Tanya," I concur, bracing myself for what is to come. Imploring her, and the others, with my eyes, I say earnestly, "Please, please remember that this is something entirely new to you. Throw away your preconceived notions." I have already said both too much and too little; all that is left is to show them the truth – for them to see it with their own eyes.

She touches my hand fleetingly and murmurs, "I promised you I would listen, Edward."

"All right, then." Raising my head, I angle my body towards the entrance to the dining room, calling softly, "Bella? Bring out Renesmee, please."

Hushed, wary movements echo from the other room, and Jacob proclaims adamantly in his mind that he has no intention of staying behind, even as I detect his heavier footsteps shadowing Bella's nearly inaudible approach. She rounds the corner, her expression void of any emotion – but as her wide crimson eyes lock onto mine, I can clearly see the numbing fear threatening to paralyze her. Gliding forward only one small step into the spacious room, Bella jerks to a halt, her gaze skittering across the Denali vampires before returning to me, trust warring with the fear inside her eyes.

Renesmee, though she is deeply terrified of their reaction, takes a deep breath and bravely lifts her face from Bella's curtain of brown hair, her tiny body stiff in apprehension.

Once she is in full view, the effect is immediate – and explosive.

Shrieking an inward oath from her native Slovakia, Tanya scurries backward, her entire body quivering with shock and horror. Kate retreats in a swift leap to the front door, her face ashen, and braces herself against the wall, a sharp hiss erupting through her clenched teeth. Carmen gasps, her fingers flying to her mouth, as Eleazar instinctively crouches in front of her, his features sallow with dread.

My skull throbs with the distraught, frightened thoughts filling their minds, and I resist the urge to pinch the bridge of my nose. Jacob crosses his long, muscular arms over his chest, rolling his eyes as he grumbles under his breath, "Oh please." You have got to be kidding me. She's only a baby, for crying out loud, and they're acting like a bunch of candy-asses!

Crossing the short distance between us, I wrap an arm around Bella, pulling her and our daughter close. "You promised to listen," I remind my cousins in a low, solemn voice.

"Some things cannot be heard!" Tanya wails. Her mind is reeling - a crazed, tumultuous whirlpool of denial, panic, and traumatic remembrances of her mother's execution centuries ago. "How could you, Edward?" she cries, aggrieved. "Do you not know what this means?"

Frantic, Kate gropes blindly for the doorknob. "We have to get out of here." The Volturi will surely kill us all this time.

"Edward..." Eleazar stares, uncomprehending, and appears incapable of forming a complete thought, vacillating between words of refusal and Spanish exclamations.

Kate's fingers then encounter the cool metal of the doorknob and she grasps it tightly. "Wait," I say in a louder, harder tone. "Remember what you hear, what you smell. Renesmee is not what you think she is."

Tanya rails at me, seething and hysterical, "There are no exceptions to this rule, Edward." Her eyes are unforgiving, glacial shards of topaz. You have sentenced everyone you love to death, she snarls mentally. I thought you were a better man than that.

Fire bursts within my cold body, searing every nerve and igniting my volatile temper. Only the comforting, familiar weight of Bella's body resting against mine keeps the growl from escaping my throat as I counter Tanya's rebuke sharply, "Tanya, you can hear her heartbeat! Stop and think about what that means," I tell her, my fierce glare boring into her accusing eyes.

That sound... that strange thrumming... Could it be -? Wide-eyed, Carmen peers around Eleazar's outstretched arm, studying the little girl huddled in my wife's rigid embrace. "Her heartbeat?" she whispers. Eleazar throws her a wild, disbelieving glance.

Focusing on her cautious, puzzled expression, I reply, each phrase slow and measured, "She is not a full vampire child. She is half-human."

Their blank stares and incredulous thoughts are disheartening, though it is what I had been prepared to expect. Carmen's generous nature, on the other hand, has given me the opportunity to voice an explanation – as far-fetched as it may seem – and I can only pray that she, at least, will heed my words.

"Hear me." I modulate my tone into the flowing, velvet speech of persuasion. "Renesmee is one of a kind." Listening to every thread of perception in their minds, I go on, using my gift to say whatever will convince them of the truth. "I am her father. Not her creator – her biological father."

Impossible. This is madness. Tanya shakes her head from side to side infinitesimally. Kate's thoughts are along a similar line, and Eleazar is no more encouraging, either.

"Edward," he begins, intensely skeptical, "you can't expect us to -"

"Tell me another explanation that fits, Eleazar," I challenge quietly. "You can feel the warmth of her body in the air." He tries to refute it in his mind, but I interrupt his musing with more truth. "Blood runs in her veins, Eleazar. You can smell it."

"How?" Kate demands in a hushed murmur. Her hand on the doorknob slackens its tense grip as she gazes, astounded, at Renesmee. You hear all sorts of rumors after nine centuries of existence, but this...

"Bella is her biological mother," I inform them, glancing at the captivating woman beside me, rubbing her shoulder gently with my hand. "She conceived, carried, and gave birth to Renesmee while she was still human. It nearly killed her." Flashes of Bella's gaunt, white face, swollen and bruised stomach, and her frail body arching over the table as her spine broke flit across my vision. Tightening my hold around her, I acknowledge to myself as well as to the others in the room, "I was hard-pressed to get enough venom into her heart to save her."

So much regret, even now, Carmen observes, filled with empathy. It cannot be a lie – not if it causes him pain to speak of it.

Her mate's response is not quite so benevolent. "I've never heard of such a thing," Eleazar bites out critically, his expression ice-cold while maintaining his defensive stance in front of Carmen.

I purse my lips, hiding a smile – though there is nothing remotely humorous about the situation. "Physical relationships between vampires and humans are not common," I remark, shifting my gaze to the two fair-haired sisters who had given new meaning to the term ‘succubus' in their early decades. "Human survivors of such trysts are even less common. Wouldn't you agree, cousins?" A hint of dark amusement colors my question, and both Kate and Tanya glower at me, their thoughts surly.

No. No, it is not possible. Obstinately, Eleazar refuses to accept what he is witnessing with his own eyes. I would have heard – the Volturi would have had some knowledge of –

"Come now, Eleazar," I cut off his internal consideration of what the Volturi may or may not know about a child like Renesmee and gesture with my free hand towards the little girl, her bronze curls shimmering faintly in the overhead light. "Surely you can see the resemblance."

It is at that moment that Carmen makes her decision, turning the odds in our favor. Her tawny eyes alight with wonder, she slips around Eleazar. He reaches out to grab her arm, muttering, "¿Qué haces?" but she evades his grasp, creeping forward to stand directly in front of Bella. Then she bends down just a little, staring into Renesmee's huge, chocolate brown eyes, and her sense of wonder increases dramatically.

An image of Bella on our wedding day – dark eyes sparkling, cheeks flushed – races through Carmen's mind, and the comparison is instantly understood. "You seem to have your mother's eyes," she tells Renesmee in a kind, serene voice, and the little girl's face brightens hopefully, her tiny eyebrows arching high on her forehead, "but your father's face." Then, Carmen offers her a soft-lipped smile.

Beyond elated that there is someone among our visitors that is not afraid of her, Renesmee beams dazzlingly, an idea taking shape in her head. Peering avidly into Carmen's light ocher eyes, my daughter touches her mother's cheek, picturing her hand on the other woman's face. She is curious to know if it would be allowable for her to share her talent, which of course had been our goal all along.

Just above a whisper, Bella asks, "Do you mind if Renesmee tells you about it herself? She has a gift for explaining things."

Carmen's smile widens, and she tilts her head a bit to the side. "Do you speak, little one?"

"Yes," Renesmee trills in her pure soprano. Tanya, Kate, and Eleazar flinch at the sound, recognizing immediately that though it is the voice of a child, the maturity in the way her mouth shapes the word indicates that she is far more intelligent than she appears. Carmen is the only one that remains unaffected, still holding Renesmee's eyes as the little girl explains, "But I can show you more than I can tell you."

She places her small ivory hand on Carmen's pale olive-tone cheek.

At first there is darkness, and warmth, and Carmen twitches in surprise, her lips parting as she sucks in a startled breath. Swearing internally, Eleazar dashes to her side, clutching at her narrow shoulders and preparing to wrench her from Renesmee's feather-light touch.

"Wait," Carmen tells him, breathless, as the warm darkness is interspersed with a smattering of disembodied voices and feelings of comfort, safety, and love. Awed, I realize that Renesmee has started with her very earliest memories of her life – while she was still inside Bella's womb.

With Carmen, I watch as Renesmee replays the violent chaos of her birth, when she saw Jacob for the first time, me singing to her while we waited for Bella to wake up...seeing her mother again, every moment we have spent together as a family... Each facet of her unique existence is broadcast into Carmen's mind with crystalline clarity, as if she were living out these moments herself.

I do not know how much time has passed, but at some point I hear Jacob complain in a far corner of my awareness, his weight shifting on the hardwood floor. Man, this is driving me nuts. I hate waiting. He mumbles aloud, "What's Nessie showing her?"

"Everything," I reply, and then drift back into the current of Renesmee's narration.

Soon after, Renesmee concludes her story with a memory from this morning and lowers her hand, smiling at Carmen's open-mouthed expression.

The dark-haired vampire blinks, waking from her daze. Dios mio... Her eyes dart upward, fixing on my intense stare, and she marvels, "She really is your daughter, isn't she? Such a vivid gift! It could only have come from a very gifted father."

She seems convinced, but I have to make absolutely certain. "Do you believe what she showed you?" I ask, attentive to the smallest inflection within her every thought, and I feel Bella tense under my arm.

Carmen nods once, undeniably sincere. "Without a doubt."

"Carmen!" Eleazar cries out, dismayed and worried that Renesmee might have done something to ensnare her mind.

Turning slowly, Carmen lifts his hands from her shoulders and holds them in her own, squeezing tenderly. "Impossible as it seems," she says in a gentle, confident voice, "Edward has told you nothing but truth." She raises one of his hands to her lips, kissing his knuckles, and his demeanor instantly softens. "Let the child show you," she encourages, and nudges Eleazar towards Renesmee, who is watching their exchange with the same bright grin on her cherubic face. "Show him, mi querida," Carmen tells her with a nod.

The little girl complies at once, putting her small fingers very lightly on Eleazar's forehead.

As soon as the vivid imagery engulfs his perception, he jerks away from her touch as though burned, exclaiming harshly, "Ay caray!"

"What did she do to you?" Tanya edges closer, her limbs tensed to recoil at the slightest hint of danger. Kate releases her grip on the doorknob and slowly mimics her sister's wary approach.

Eleazar is rigid with surprise, a flood of incoherent thoughts pervading his mind. Carmen strokes his cheek with the back of her hand, soothing, "She's just trying to show you her side of the story."

Impatient and a bit affronted, Renesmee frowns at him, her adorable scowl so reminiscent of her mother. "Watch, please," she orders, and holds out her hand, palm forward, a few inches from his face.

Eyeing her outstretched hand distrustfully, Eleazar then glances at Carmen, his gold eyes pleading for help. She nods, her expression openly kind, and Eleazar inhales a deep breath, willing to accept his mate's silent encouragement. He leans forward in wary anticipation and places his forehead beneath Renesmee's tiny, waiting palm.

A shudder ripples through him when the images resume, but he remains motionless, closing his eyes in concentration and absorbing every detail of her unusual tale. Several minutes pass, and his eyelids flicker as he murmurs with a sigh, "Ahh. I see." He looks into Renesmee's glittering brown eyes, scrutinizing her enchanting, vibrant smile, and finds himself grinning in return – though his is obviously more reluctant.

What is going on here? Tanya peeks around Carmen, trying to catch a glimpse of Eleazar's face. "Eleazar?" she asks, her gaze darting quickly at Renesmee, and is momentarily stunned by my daughter's delightful countenance.

Eleazar straightens, adjusting his footing to make way for Tanya, and proclaims, "It's all true, Tanya." As with Carmen, I find no traces of misgiving in his mind. "This is no immortal child. She's half-human. Come," he offers, placing his hand gently on Tanya's back to usher her forward. "See for yourself."

Obligingly, Renesmee repeats her account with both Tanya and Kate, and just like the other two members of their family, the sisters immediately believe the truth of Renesmee's existence. "Simply amazing," Tanya breathes in awe, studying the little girl's face with new eyes.

"She looks almost exactly like you, Edward," Kate remarks, gingerly touching Renesmee's bronze-colored ringlets with her fingertips.

"Except for the eyes." Tanya grins broadly at Renesmee, and is inordinately pleased when she returns the gesture.

While they coo over our daughter, Bella glances up at me, her stare questioning and guarded. My lips twitch into the shadow of a reassuring smile, and I squeeze her shoulders tenderly. "Thank you for listening," I say to my cousins in a low, quiet voice.

Tanya looks over at me, the coldness now totally absent from her amber eyes. Now: to business, she asserts inwardly, and says aloud, "But there is the grave danger you warned us of. Not directly from this child, I see, but surely from the Volturi, then." Her mouth tightens, remembering again when they came for her mother. "How did they find out about her?" she asks somberly. "When are they coming?"

I do not relish having to tell her and Kate about their sister's actions; after all, I know all too well what it feels like to be betrayed by a beloved sibling. Hardening my heart against the pain that surfaces whenever I think of my lost sister, I answer, "When Bella saw Irina that day in the mountains, she had Renesmee with her."

Tanya blanches, her expression twisted in dismay, and Kate lets out a muted growl, her eyes narrowing. "Irina did this?" she hisses dangerously. "To you? To Carlisle? Irina?" She has gone too far this time, Kate vows to herself, the gold of her irises sparking with fury.

"No," Tanya whispers, her gaze faraway. She's had her differences with Carlisle and the others...but she would never... "Someone else..." Her words fade into silence, and sorrow clouds her thoughts.

Wincing just slightly as I speak the name, I reply dully, "Alice saw her go to them."

"How could she do this thing?" Eleazar stares, glassy-eyed, at nothing, his mind racing with dread. Irina has acted rashly before – but to turn completely against her family...? Has she no sense of loyalty at all?

"Imagine if you had seen Renesmee only from a distance." Though I have no desire to defend Irina, logically, any vampire in her position, and with her history, would have behaved in the same manner. Even Tanya or Kate... I gaze at each of them in turn, my expression bleak. It could easily have been either one of these sisters standing in front of Aro, using her knowledge to damn us. "If you had not waited for our explanation."

Never, Tanya snarls, the declaration echoing in my head. Tightening her eyes, her hands clench into fists at her sides as she states, her words clipped, "No matter what she thought..." No matter how we have disproved our allegiance in the past, "You are our family." Her face is almost ferocious in the intensity of her emotions; it is impossible to doubt her devotion to us and whatever we may need from her and her coven.

"There's nothing we can do about Irina's choice now," I inform them grimly. "It's too late. Alice gave us a month."

Confusion flutters through their minds. Kate's pale eyebrows come together as she frowns, and Tanya slants her head to one side, perplexed. "So long?" Eleazar questions, his forehead lined with deep creases as he ponders the likely reasons for the Volturi's delay.

"They are all coming." My chest begins to rumble with a growl, the muscles in my body constricting as though readying for a fight, and cynicism laces into my words as I remark, "That must take some preparation." Gritting my teeth, I swallow back the growl, but my limbs refuse to loosen from their combative stance.

Eleazar gasps, visibly taken aback. "The entire guard?"

I feel my jaw bunching as I struggle to keep my voice even. "Not just the guards. Aro, Caius, Marcus. Even the wives."

As that realization takes root, a crippling surge of shock blankets each of the Denali vampires, and after a half-second of icy silence, Eleazar murmurs, aghast, "Impossible."

In a wry tone, I respond, "I would have said the same two days ago."

Scowling, he folds his arms across his body. "But that doesn't make any sense. Why would they put themselves and the wives in danger?"

"It doesn't make sense from that angle," I agree, and then exhale quietly, raking my free hand through my hair. "Alice said there was more to this than just punishment for what they think we've done." Peering at him in speculation, I convey the rest of her cryptic advice. "She thought you could help us."

"More than punishment?" Eleazar drops his gaze to the floor, his mind being pulled in a dozen different directions as he mulls everything over. "But what else is there?" Absentminded, he begins to pace the length of the cavernous room, the scowl permanently etched on his features. His thoughts are so chaotic that I withdraw a bit, not wishing to become lost in the tumult as well.

Tanya seems to take no notice of Eleazar's agitated pacing. Eyes locked on me, she asks, "Where are the others, Edward? Carlisle and Alice and the rest?"

I hesitate to answer for the briefest moment – quicker than the blink of an eye – and then give a vague, mostly accurate reply. "Looking for friends who might help us."

Holding her upturned palms out in front of her in a gesture of deference, Tanya says earnestly, "Edward, no matter how many friends you gather, we can't help you win. We can only die with you. You must know that. Of course," her expression contorts in self-loathing, "perhaps the four of us deserve that after what Irina has done now, after how we've failed you in the past – for her sake that time as well." In her thoughts, I clearly see her solemn acquiescence of the same fate decreed for my family.

I swiftly shake my head, rejecting her wordless offer of sacrifice. "We're not asking you to fight and die with us, Tanya," I tell her with quiet firmness. "You know Carlisle would never ask for that."

My father's inner lament from the morning after Alice's desertion haunts the fringes of my perception. I cannot bear to have any more lives on my conscience.

"Then what, Edward?" Whatever it is you need from us, you have it. Unconditionally.

"We're just looking for witnesses," I assure all of them, though I am mostly addressing Tanya. Her persistence in seeking redemption for a deed that has already been forgiven could become a problem. I will have to make a few details of our strategy very plain. "If we can make them pause, just for a moment." My tone becomes wistful as my attention shifts to the infinitely precious child in Bella's arms. "If they would let us explain..." I caress Renesmee's cheek softly with my fingertips.

Fiercely, her expression blazing with affection, Renesmee grabs my hand and presses it to her face. I see myself reflected back from her mind and in her shimmering eyes, accompanied by her mental declaration: I love you, Daddy. And she leans into my palm, the heat of her skin melting some of the ice from my heart.

"It's difficult to doubt our story when you see it for yourself," I murmur, the words rough with emotion.

Nodding thoughtfully, Tanya remarks, "Do you think her past will matter to them so much?"

I pull my eyes from Renesmee to look at the strawberry-blonde vampire, answering, "Only as it foreshadows her future. The point of the restriction was to protect us from exposure, from the excesses of children who could not be tamed." Which does not apply to my daughter at all. A child that had been made into a vampire was frozen in the same state as when they were human; there was no growth, no method of teaching a mind that would never fully mature. Renesmee continues to learn with each passing day, developing intellectually as well as physically, and it is only a matter of time until she reaches adulthood.

Almost as if she senses the flow of my thoughts, Renesmee pipes up, "I'm not dangerous at all." The silvery bell-like chime of her high voice fills the sudden quiet. "I never hurt Grandpa or Sue or Billy. I love humans." A tiny smile brightens her deep, clear eyes as she adds, "And wolf-people like my Jacob." She lets go of my hand and reaches around Bella's shoulder to pat Jacob on his forearm. He starts a little at the contact, having been lost in thought, but then gives her a quick grin.

Kate and Tanya glance at one another. ‘My Jacob'? What on earth does that mean? Kate quirks an eyebrow, confusion in her topaz eyes.

Edward did say that their truce with the wolves was stronger than ever... Quick on the draw, as always, Tanya guesses, Could the child have something to do with it?

Best to move on with my explanation before their conjecture becomes more...public. I am not quite ready to disclose that my four-month old daughter is the object of a werewolf's imprint and is therefore now the center of his universe, the reason for his existence. It would generate far too many uncomfortable conversations, not to mention the relentless teasing that both sisters have a fondness for whenever I am near. I had my fill of their good-humored needling at the wedding reception.

"If Irina had not come so soon," I reflect aloud, "we could have avoided all of this. Renesmee grows at an unprecedented rate. By the time the month is past, she'll have gained another half year of development."

Diverting her attention from her mate's ceaseless pacing, Carmen lifts her chin in a decisive way, stating, "Well, that is something we can certainly witness. We'll be able to promise that we've seen her mature ourselves. How could the Volturi ignore such evidence?"

Eleazar mumbles under his breath, "How indeed?" His mind is still churning, trying to uncover the information that Alice said he would have in regard to the Volturi's strategy, and the response was more automatic than having to do with him actually paying attention to our discussion.

"Yes, we can witness for you," Tanya agrees, ignoring Eleazar for the moment. "Certainly that much." A strange, vibrant light enters her tawny gaze, sending prickles of unease down my spine – which intensify as I hear her thoughts. Kate's talent alone gives us an edge; we have much to make up for...and I am sure the others would agree... "We will consider what more we might do," she says softly, but her remark is saturated with purpose, and a tenacity that would rival even Rosalie's pigheadedness.

"Tanya," I pronounce her name as a veiled warning, "we don't expect you to fight with us."

She meets my stern glare undaunted. This is my choice, Edward, not yours, she protests inwardly, and then says out loud, "If the Volturi won't pause to listen to our witness, we cannot simply stand by. Of course, I should only speak for myself." Her gaze flashes around the room, to the faces of her family.

Tossing back her pale gold hair, Kate snorts, cocking her hips as she places her hands on them in playful sarcasm. "Do you really doubt me so much, sister?"

Tanya smiles, her teeth gleaming a brilliant white, and raises her eyebrows in mock-seriousness. "It is a suicide mission, after all," she reminds Kate.

Kate grins, and then shrugs in obvious nonchalance. "I'm in." Good thing I've been practicing... Her memory awakens with images of former kills that she has used her singular ability on and I pull away, having no desire to see any further proof of her competence in a fight.

Laying a slim hand over her heart, Carmen pledges with frank sincerity, "I, too, will do what I can to protect the child." She looks down at Renesmee, the longing apparent in her ocher eyes, and tentatively opens her arms. "May I hold you, bebé linda?" she appeals.

Practically bursting with excitement, Renesmee stretches out her tiny arms with a wide smile, and Carmen pulls her close, telling her how beautiful and special she is in Spanish. Renesmee cannot understand a word of it – at least not yet – but the lilting melody of the dark-haired vampire's native tongue is pleasing to the little girl. She lightly strokes Carmen's inky black tresses with her hand as she listens to her words.

As I watch the two of them, I realize that Renesmee has an innocent charm that is completely irresistible. Like magic, she wove her spell first around Bella, Rosalie, and eventually myself before she was even born. And when she arrived, she then proceeded to enchant my entire family, Charlie, and just about anyone else she has met.

While four witnesses is not nearly enough to halt the Volturi's advance, it is a place to start. My only hope, as I take in Bella's suddenly troubled expression, is that we do not condemn our friends to their deaths by asking them to stand with us. I already have a monumental body count tallied up from my century of existence; the scales of justice are weighed against me, despite the counterpoint of my attempts to live righteously.

The low, passionate voice of my wife echoes within my skull, repeating her promise from last night. "We're in this together now – and that means wherever I go, you're coming with me."

I will cling to that promise, and to my angel, until I am nothing more than a pile of ashes.