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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:


12. Talented

Rating 5/5   Word Count 5830   Review this Chapter

Near the windows, Tanya abruptly spins around in a pool of sunlight – multicolored sparkles flash across the wall and hardwood floor – and her eyes dart over to Jacob. "What is the werewolves' part in this?" she asks.

I do not know if she meant for me to answer her question, but Jacob speaks up before I can even draw a breath. "If the Volturi won't stop to listen about Nessie, I mean Renesmee," he corrects himself quickly – Tanya quirks an eyebrow ever so slightly – and then he goes on, "we will stop them."

Patronizing and a bit amused, Tanya replies, "Very brave, child, but that would be impossible for more experienced fighters than you are." A hint of a smirk lifts one corner of her mouth. Imagine: a pack of overgrown dogs routing the entire Volturi guard. The smirk becomes more pronounced as she eyes Jacob's thickly muscled form, offset by his still-youthful face. Such delusions of grandeur for one so young.

"You don't know what we can do," he retorts, irked by the fact that she had called him ‘child' when his physical age is greater than his seventeen years of life by almost a decade.

She shrugs, oblivious to – or preferring to ignore – his annoyance. "It is your own life, certainly," she says nonchalantly, "to spend as you choose."

Jacob's black-brown gaze flits at once to Renesmee, watching as Carmen and Kate fawn over the little girl. She is my life, he murmurs to himself. There is no mistaking the deep longing and adoration in his expression, and Tanya immediately puts two and two together.

He has a bond with the girl; that much is certain, she muses shrewdly. I wonder how Edward feels about that... She eyes my face for a brief moment, and I smother a grimace. Apparently, I will not be able to escape her relentless teasing during this visit either. But instead of openly addressing the subject, Tanya turns her attention back to Jacob and comments in a softer voice, "She is special, that little one." Her head tilts slightly toward Renesmee. "Hard to resist."

"A very talented family," Eleazar mutters. His pacing has continued for a while, and now his gait is so fast that the edges of his body are somewhat blurred as he repeatedly walks the distance between Carmen and the front door. Thinking out loud, he recounts under his breath, "A mind reader for a father, a shield for a mother, and then whatever magic this extraordinary child has bewitched us with." A jolt of insight electrifies my brain and I twitch a little in surprise, my eyes widening. Engrossed by his own thoughts, Eleazar remarks, "I wonder if there is a name for what she does, or if it is the norm for a vampire hybrid." He snorts. "As if such a thing could ever be considered normal! A vampire hybrid, indeed!" The noise that erupts from his throat sounds like another snort, mixed with an incredulous chuckle.

"Excuse me." My voice quivers in astonishment, and despite the stunned haze permeating my mind, I catch Eleazar by the shoulder, halting him in mid-step. "What did you just call my wife?"

His scowl dissipates as curiosity flares in his golden eyes. He doesn't know? "A shield, I think," he replies, his lips twisting a bit in uncertainty. "She's blocking me now, so I can't be sure." He shoots Bella a half-frustrated, half-confused glance. She, in turn, furrows her brow as she meets his stare, clearly puzzled by his statement.

I hear and understand his words, yet I cannot seem to string them all together, comprehend their meaning, in my head. Stupidly, I repeat, "A shield?"

Eleazar throws up his hands in frustration. "Come now, Edward!" he exclaims. "If I can't get a read on her, I doubt you can, either. Can you hear her thoughts right now?" He stabs a finger in Bella's direction.

To be able to see into Bella's mind...would be the most profound, erotic experience of my life. But, to my everlasting dissatisfaction, "No," I tell him quietly. "But I've never been able to do that." Gazing sidelong at my wife, a wistful smile flickers across my lips. "Even when she was human." On more than one occasion, I had thought that the burning curiosity would reduce me to ashes – or drive me mad – every time I tried to dissect her facial expressions in order to figure out what she was thinking. Would I have found her as interesting, as alluring, if I could hear her mind?

...Yes. Absolutely, yes.

"Never?" Eleazar blinks, surprised. "Interesting. That would indicate a rather powerful latent talent, if it was manifesting so clearly even before the transformation." His eyes narrow slightly in concentration. "I can't feel a way through her shield to get a sense of it at all. Yet she must be raw still – she's only a few months old." Then, he gives me an exasperated glare. "And apparently completely unaware of what she's doing. Totally unconscious. Ironic. Aro sent me all over the world searching for such anomalies, and you simply stumble across it by accident and don't even realize what you have." Shaking his head in disbelief, he ponders inwardly, An accidental discovery, perhaps...but the irony of a mind reader choosing a mate whose mind is blank to him is almost fitting.

I consider it poetic justice for all those years I spent as a vigilante – seeking out the guilty through the use of my gift – that the one mind I would give anything to hear just once is closed to me.

But ‘fitting' is a fairly accurate definition, all the same.

A deep frown pulls down the corners of Bella's full lips, a little V creasing the skin between her eyebrows, and she asks Eleazar, "What are you talking about? How can I be a shield?" Her nose wrinkles as she says the word. "What does that even mean?"

Wondering where to start, Eleazar tilts his head to the right, regarding her thoughtfully. "I suppose we were overly formal about it in the guard," he begins. "In truth, categorizing talents is a subjective, haphazard business; every talent is unique, never exactly the same thing twice. But you, Bella, are fairly easy to classify." He folds his arms casually over his chest, explaining, "Talents that are purely defensive, that protect some aspect of the bearer, are always called shields. Have you ever tested your abilities? Blocked anyone besides me and your mate?" The curiosity resurfaces in his tawny eyes while he waits for her reply.

Bella blinks rapidly, bewildered by his description. Looking aside for a second or so, she flattens her lips - an outward sign that she is thinking – and then raises her eyes. "It only works with certain things," she remarks in a slow, introspective tone. "My head is sort of...private. But it doesn't stop Jasper from being able to mess with my mood or Alice from seeing my future."

Hmm... Eleazar cups his chin in his palm and nods to himself. "Purely a mental defense. Limited, but strong." Stronger than most I have seen. A flickering image of a petite, dark-haired woman enters his mind and, recognizing her face, I sense the need to add a little more clarification.

"Aro couldn't hear her," I tell him, full of quiet pride. "Though she was human when they met." I will never forget the baffled look on the ancient vampire's white, papery-skinned face when he found that he was unable to breach the walls surrounding Bella's mind. It was priceless.

Eleazar's eyes widen. Madre de Dios... he stutters internally. He could not hear her at all? I shake my head the tiniest bit. He lapses back into Spanish, rambling on and on in amazement.

"Jane tried to hurt me, but she couldn't," Bella inserts, studying Eleazar's open-mouthed expression and my faint, undoubtedly smug grin. "Edward thinks Demetri can't find me, and that Alec can't bother me, either." When his gawking eyes grow even wider, she asks timidly, "Is that good?"

"Quite," he mumbles, his head bobbing up and down.

It all makes perfect sense to me. The pride I feel in my wife's ability swells inside my chest, and I announce, satisfaction coating every word, "A shield! I never thought of it that way. The only one I've ever met before was Renata, and what she did was so different." Indeed, the meek-looking Italian vampire has a very straightforward talent, and it was my opinion at the time we were introduced – in the broadest sense of the term – that Renata's gift could have easily been born from her evasive personality.

Recovering from his shock, Eleazar says, his thoughts still a bit dazed, "Yes, no talent ever manifests in precisely the same way, because no one ever thinks in exactly the same way."

"Who's Renata?" Bella peers avidly at each of us in turn. "What does she do?"

Hearing her mother's inquiry, and also attentive to our conversation, Renesmee leans away from Carmen to see around Kate, her eyes bright with interest.

"Renata is Aro's personal bodyguard," Eleazar answers before I can. "A very practical kind of shield, and a very strong one." But compared to what she is doing – unconsciously, even – "I wonder..." he considers aloud. "You see, Renata is a powerful shield against a physical attack. If someone approaches her – or Aro, as she is always close beside him in a hostile situation – they find themselves...diverted." He gestures vaguely with a hand as he explains, "There's a force around her that repels, though it's almost unnoticeable. You simply find yourself going in a different direction than you planned, with a confused memory as to why you wanted to go that other way in the first place. She can project her shield several meters out from herself. She also protects Caius and Marcus, too, when they have a need, but Aro is her priority."

He then seems to measure Bella with a serious gaze, a hypothetical scenario rising to the forefront of his mind – and I must confess that I, too, share in his curiosity.

"What she does isn't actually physical, though," Eleazar resumes. "Like the vast majority of our gifts, it takes place inside the mind. If she tried to keep you back," a faint smile flits across his mouth, "I wonder who would win?" Shaking his head, amazement creeps back into his tone as he murmurs, "I've never heard of Aro's or Jane's gifts being thwarted."

As if it is perfectly obvious, Renesmee says in her high, silvery voice, "Momma, you're special."

Wearing the most adorably bewildered expression, Bella stares first at our daughter, and then at me, a myriad of questions swirling inside her wide scarlet eyes. I wonder if she is thinking back to the discussion Carlisle and I had in regard to her surprising self-control. My father had felt fairly certain that her ability to exhibit such restraint could be attributed to something above the norm – but I believe that she was simply better prepared than any other newborn, and her trademark stubbornness kept her from falling prey to her vampire instincts.

Now that Eleazar has categorized what she can do, it should have been apparent from the very beginning.

A shield, I marvel again to myself, a wry grin curving my lips.

Kate skirts around Carmen and Renesmee, her keen ocher eyes on Bella, and asks, "Can you project?"

"Project?" Bella stares, perplexed, at the blonde vampire.

"Push it out from yourself," Kate clarifies, taking another step closer. "Shield someone besides yourself." If she could...it would be a formidable asset, indeed. Her expression brightens with interest as she reflects on that thought, but Bella's talent is still raw. It will take her some time before she can effectively define the limitations of her shield.

Bella shrugs helplessly. "I don't know. I've never tried." She glances over at me again, as if she is searching for confirmation. "I didn't know I should do that," she admits, embarrassed.

"Oh, you might not be able to," Kate replies quickly. She flips her pin-straight cornsilk tresses in a casual manner and says, "Heaven knows I've been working on it for centuries and the best I can do is run a current over my skin." She rolls her eyes, hearing the whine in her own voice, and smirks at Tanya.

Completely baffled, Bella only gazes uncomprehending at Kate. I come to her aid by murmuring a brief explanation. "Kate's got an offensive skill. Sort of like Jane." It is the most familiar comparison that I can draw in describing my cousin's atypical talent – but probably not the best choice, given Bella's previous encounters with the Volturi's prime assassin.

Once that name leaves my mouth, Bella inhales a sharp breath and recoils, her eyes rounded in shock. Kate laughs, the sound lighthearted, and it brightens the suddenly tense atmosphere. "I'm not sadistic about it," she tells Bella with a smile. "It's just something that comes in handy during a fight."

The shock drains from Bella's crimson irises, her body relaxing, and then her expression becomes distant, flickers of several unknown thoughts dancing across her pale features. Without warning, she gasps, latching onto Kate's forearm as she cries out, "You have to teach me what to do!" Her fingers constrict in tandem with her almost desperate insistence. "You have to show me how!"

Reacting instinctively, Kate winces in response to Bella's painful grip and her power erupts, causing a fizzle of energy to skitter along her arm. My muscles tense, anticipating that my wife will experience the burning jolt and crumple to the ground – but common sense catches up with my subconscious a half second later while Kate grumbles, "Maybe – if you stop trying to crush my radius." She struggles vainly to release herself from Bella's hold, the ends of her golden locks crackling with static electricity.

"Oops! Sorry!" Mortified, Bella drops her hand.

Kate twists her wrist from side to side, rotating the bones in her forearm, and then shakes her hand, dismissing the ache still registering in her nerves. Newborns...she complains inwardly. Eyeing the shamed brunette fidgeting in front of her, Kate remarks in a sullen tone, "You're shielding, all right. That move should have about shocked your arm off. You didn't feel anything just now?"

Disgruntled by her blasé attitude in regard to hurting my Bella, I mutter crossly, "That wasn't really necessary, Kate. She didn't mean any harm."

Oh, keep your shirt on, Edward. She raises an eyebrow in mild sarcasm, looking at me from the corner of her eye. Bella's fine. I couldn't really control it anyway – it was pure instinct.

Not surprisingly, Bella ignores my comment. "No, I didn't feel anything," she answers. "Were you doing your electric-current thing?"

"I was. Hmm." Crossing her arms, Kate tips her head to one side, pursing her lips thoughtfully. "I've never met anyone who couldn't feel it, immortal or otherwise."

Avid for information, Bella leans forward, her ruby-colored eyes gleaming with interest. "You said you project it? On your skin?" she asks.

Kate nods. "It used to be just in my palms. Kind of like Aro." Great, now I'm comparing myself to the Volturi, she thinks sourly.

To ease both of their minds, I insert quietly, "Or Renesmee."

"But after a lot of practice," Kate resumes, encouraged by Bella's attentiveness, "I can radiate the current all over my body. It's a good defense. Anyone who tries to touch me drops like a human that's been Tasered. It only downs him for a second, but that's long enough," she concludes, grimly pleased.

Abruptly, I am pulled from their conversation by the change of direction in Eleazar's thoughts. Memories are racing, unchecked, through his mind, and he reasserts to himself that ...the pattern remains the same. He becomes more agitated after that, and I step closer to him, listening intently to his inner monologue. When his line of thinking evolves into a plausible theory, his eyes flash up to meet mine, the amber irises darkening with reluctance and dismay. No, he argues. No, that cannot be right. I don't want to think of them that way. That would mean that...what I've done for them...

"Can you think of even one exception, though?" I contend, narrowing my gaze in suspicion.

The room around us has grown utterly silent; every occupant is focused on Eleazar and myself.

Gritting his teeth, Eleazar repeats aloud, "I don't want to think of them that way." I helped them accomplish this. I was such a fool – blinded by good intentions and a code of ethics that Aro exploited for his own use, just as he did with my gift. Shaking his head very slightly, as if to banish that self-condemning thought, he starts to speak. "If you're right –"

"The thought was yours, not mine," I interrupt. Truly, I sympathize with his plight – but he has to face his past if we are to gain any advantage in the impending confrontation.

"If I'm right..." He sighs, frustrated. "I can't even grasp what that would mean. It would change everything about the world we've created." His face contorts, reflecting the anguish in his mind, the chaos of his thoughts. "It would change the meaning of my life. What I have been a part of," he adds nearly inaudibly.

I allow my stare to soften a little. "Your intentions were always the best, Eleazar."

"Would that even matter?" he argues back. Deeply troubled, he rakes a hand through his short black hair, his eyelids falling shut in agony. "What have I done? So many lives..." His voice dies, and he covers his face with that same hand, his memories continuing to torment him.

Tanya flits over, laying her small palm on Eleazar's shoulder comfortingly. "What did we miss, my friend?" she inquires in a gentle tone. "I want to know so that I can argue with these thoughts. You've never done anything worth castigating yourself this way." She squeezes his shoulder. Carmen, her tawny eyes filled with concern, watches her mate's hunched form, debating whether or not to approach.

Eleazar lets out a short puff of air. "Oh, haven't I?" he mumbles under his breath, his low voice infused with cynicism. Jerking his shoulder out from under Tanya's hand, he begins to pace again, the motion faster and more aggressive than before.

For a portion of a second, Tanya follows him with her gaze – then she turns to me, her features tight in apprehension. "Explain."

Nodding once, I remain attentive to Eleazar's thoughts while tracking his movements, and begin to speak. "He was trying to understand why so many of the Volturi would come to punish us. It's not the way they do things. Certainly, we are the biggest mature coven they've dealt with, but in the past other covens have joined to protect themselves, and they never presented much of a challenge despite their numbers. We are more closely bonded," I remark quietly, "and that's a factor, but not a huge one."

"He was remembering other times that covens have been punished, for one thing or the other, and a pattern occurred to him." The images start to resurface within his mind, but Eleazar does not dwell on one in particular. Each memory leaves a fleeting impression in his thoughts, almost like a photograph, and I go on with my explanation. "It was a pattern that the rest of the guard would never have noticed, since Eleazar was the one passing the pertinent intelligence privately to Aro. A pattern that only repeated every other century or so." And it is coming in to play right now.

Carmen asks, though her attention is centered on Eleazar, "What was this pattern?"

"Aro does not often personally attend a punishing expedition." My lips quiver, threatening to pull back over my teeth and form a snarl. I take in a quick breath, striving for a levelheaded perspective. "But in the past, when Aro wanted something in particular, it was never long before evidence turned up proving that this coven or that coven has committed some unpardonable crime," I inform everyone in a solemn tone. "The ancients would decide to go along to watch the guard administer justice. And then, once the coven was all but destroyed, Aro would grant a pardon to one member whose thoughts, he would claim, were particularly repentant. Always," a thick layer of scorn covers my words, "it would turn out that this vampire had the gift Aro had admired. Always, this person was given a place with the guard. The gifted vampire was won over quickly, always so grateful for the honor. There were no exceptions."

Broodingly, Kate mulls over what she has learned, her thoughts growing dark. To watch your entire coven slaughtered before your eyes...only to find that you alone have been spared – to join the most powerful group of vampires in the world... "It must be a heady thing to be chosen," she implies in a dull monotone.

"Ha!" Eleazar's outburst is punctuated by a snarl. He has not ceased in his rapid pacing, and as he flashes past me for the umpteenth time, he mutters a single word – a name – so low that even I can barely make it out. "Chelsea."

Both Tanya and Kate are impatient, waiting for me to give them a reason for Eleazar's rare show of temper, and I can feel a pair of well-known bright eyes heating the side of my face. "There is one among the guard," I murmur slowly. The hesitation in my voice causes a spike of worry to pierce through Tanya's mind, and I go on at once. "Her name is Chelsea. She has influence over the emotional ties between people. She can both loosen and secure these ties. She could make someone feel bonded to the Volturi, to want to belong, to want to please them..." I trail off, disgust and anxiety warring inside my heart as I remember when Aro had considered – however fleetingly – having Chelsea use her gift on me. But by then, it was too late. Bella was with me again, and the bond between us is too strong for her to manipulate.

As though his legs have turned to stone, Eleazar abruptly halts, and spins to face the others in the room. "We all understood why Chelsea was important. In a fight, if we could separate allegiances between allied covens, we could defeat them that much more easily," he tells us. "If we could distance the innocent members of a coven emotionally from the guilty, justice could be done without unnecessary brutality – the guilty could be punished without interference, and the innocent could be spared. Otherwise, it was impossible to keep the coven from fighting as a whole." His sharp-edged features harden, his voice becoming as cold as ice, and then he says, "So Chelsea would break the ties that bound them together. It seemed a great kindness to me, evidence of Aro's mercy. I did suspect that Chelsea kept our own band more tightly knit, but that, too, was a good thing. It made us more effective. It helped us coexist more easily." He scoffs inwardly, yet again calling himself every type of fool for not seeing the motivation behind these so-called punishments.

Tanya stiffens, her pale limbs and the muscles shaping her white skin flexing with stress. On edge, she asks intently, "How strong is her gift?" Then her keen golden eyes dart to each member of her family, half-afraid of the answer that she will receive.

Shrugging faintly, Eleazar replies, "I was able to leave with Carmen." He shakes his head an instant later, his mouth set in a grim line. "But anything weaker than the bond between partners is in danger. In a normal coven, at least. Those are weaker bonds than those in our family, though. Abstaining from human blood makes us more civilized – lets us form true bonds of love." He looks at Tanya, his expression mellowing a little, and states with certainty, "I doubt she could turn our allegiances, Tanya." But she will most definitely try, he adds darkly, and catches my eye. Tanya inclines her head, reassured by his declaration.

"I could only think that the reason Aro had decided to come himself," Eleazar resumes, "to bring so many with him, is because his goal is not punishment but acquisition."

Involuntarily, my hand contracts into a white-knuckled fist at my side. I had known this already of course, having heard it through my cousin's thoughts, but still the very idea of anyone in my family being chained to the Volturi is enough to rouse the monster lurking in the dark places of my spirit.

While he growls to life in the back of my head, Eleazar remarks, "He needs to be there to control the situation. But he needs the entire guard for protection from such a large, gifted coven. On the other hand," he holds up a finger, "that leaves the other ancients unprotected in Volterra. Too risky – someone might try to take advantage. How else could he be sure to preserve the gifts that he wants?" Arching his dark eyebrows, he muses quietly, "He must want them very badly."

Against my will, my intuition summons an image of a pixie-like face crowned by a halo of black hair. The Alice in my imagination stares back with earnest topaz eyes, a secretive sort of smile playing along the corners of her mouth, and her last words to me echo dimly in my ears. I'm sorry, Edward.

I had been so ready to think the worst of my sister that I completely ignored the obvious facts. Aro had taken a keen interest in her ability to foresee the future after he heard my thoughts, and that interest is now bordering on obsession.

Could that be the reason why she left us? Had she seen another piece of the Volturi's plan – one that involved her surrender to Aro?

My chest tightens, and I breathe out in less than a whisper, "From what I saw of his thoughts last spring, Aro's never wanted anything more than he wants Alice." My gaze focuses on Bella as I speak, wanting to see her reaction...but also needing to look into her exquisite eyes, to draw strength from her in order to beat back the swiftly rising tide of grief welling up inside my body.

Her full lips part in shock, the scarlet of her irises blazing with horror, and I can sense that she is forming the connection in her head as the seconds pass. She turns toward me; my heart squeezes in anguish at the frightened, distraught expression on her face. "Is that why Alice left?" she asks, her voice hitching around the syllables of our sister's name.

Tenderly, I reach out and cup Bella's cheek in my palm, blocking the disturbed uproar of thought emanating from the Denali family. "I think it must be," I tell her softly. "To keep Aro from gaining the thing he wants most of all. To keep her power out of his hands." Looking at it from that perspective, it seems far easier to believe that Alice went away in order to deny Aro his chance to control her rather than her and Jasper abandoning us simply for their own self-preservation.

Kate and Tanya are muttering to one another in the background, their voices quick and troubled. For the moment I pay them no mind, and watch in growing dismay as Bella's eyes widen, her fright evolving into acute terror. In a small, broken whisper, she utters, "He wants you, too."

I arrange my features into a calm mask, hoping to allay her fear. I had told both her and Alice after the debacle in Italy that Aro had dwelt on the possibility of recruiting my sister and I to his guard. ‘Virtual omniscience' is what I had called it – the present and the future, laid bare for him to see and bend to his will.

Bella is still staring up at me, rendered motionless by dread, and I smooth my thumb across the apple of her cheek, shrugging my shoulders indifferently. "Not nearly as much. I can't really give him anything more than he already knows." Which is true; the main reason he wants access to my gift is because it is – as he put it – ‘convenient'. "And of course that's dependant on his finding a way to force me to do his will," I remark, injecting a fair amount of skepticism in my tone. "He knows me, and he knows how unlikely that is."

Raising an eyebrow derisively, I tell myself that there is nothing Aro could do that would compel me to serve him... but a tiny voice admonishes in my ear that there is one thing – one person – in my existence that I would do anything for, no matter what it cost me.

Do not treat this so lightly, Edward. Arrogance is a folly that none of us can afford. Eleazar glares at me, frowning, and then he states pointedly, "He also knows your weakness." With deliberate slowness, he shifts his gaze to the precious woman standing in front of me. Bella meets his eyes, unnerved, her face still cradled in my hand. Aro's seen your mind, Eleazar reminds me grimly, his internal voice sharp and cold. He knows that you cannot live without her. For someone with his influence, it would be all too easy to trap you by using Bella. Just one compelling threat, and you would do whatever he asks –

"It's nothing we need to discuss now." I cut off his line of thought, warning him with my eyes to drop this subject. My fingers tighten imperceptibly against Bella's skin, and I see her vivid stare dart to my face, no doubt measuring my blank expression against the underlying steel in my tone.

Eleazar dismisses my ominous intimation and goes on, suggesting, "He probably wants your mate, too, regardless. He must have been intrigued by a talent that could defy him in its human incarnation."

My jaw clenches, and I lower my gaze. As uncomfortable as I am with his presumption...he is correct. Aro was fascinated by Bella's unique ability to resist any vampire's talent relating to the mind. And my cousin also hit it on the mark when he spoke of the means Aro would employ to coerce me into obeying him; all he would have to do is threaten my Bella and I would submit.

She alters her stance subtly, drawing my attention, and while I take in her expression I realize that she is just as ill at ease as I am. Bella is perceptive enough to know that we are each other's greatest strength and greatest weakness. As I would sacrifice my free will for her, so she would do the same for me.

Frustrated with my own morbid thinking, I divert the course of our conversation. "I think the Volturi were waiting for this – for some pretext. They couldn't know what form their excuse would come in, but the plan was already in place for when it did come." My tone rings with sudden insight as I observe, "That's why Alice saw their decision before Irina triggered it. The decision was already made, just waiting for the pretense of a justification."

Carmen steps forward; Renesmee adjusts her position in the circle of the Hispanic vampire's arms to see everyone. "If the Volturi are abusing the trust all immortals have placed in them..." Carmen's lilting voice is filled with righteous anger.

"Does it matter?" Eleazar asks, not really expecting an answer. "Who would believe it? And even if others could be convinced that the Volturi are exploiting their power, how would it make any difference? No one can stand against them." He dashes over to Carmen, subconsciously needing her closeness, and Renesmee studies him briefly with clear chocolate brown eyes.

Chuckling humorlessly inside her mind, Kate mentions under her breath, "Though some of us are apparently insane enough to try."

She is as incorrigible as her sister. Biting back an exasperated retort, I shake my head and reiterate, "You're only here to witness, Kate. Whatever Aro's goal, I don't think he's ready to tarnish the Volturi's reputation for it." He will not want to risk losing his coven's superiority in the immortal world by blatantly challenging our family without the disguise of upholding their laws. "If we can take away his argument against us," I declare with more certainty than I feel, "he'll be forced to leave us in peace."

"Of course." Tanya betrays none of the doubt that is saturating her thoughts as she expresses her agreement, and judging by the tenor of the thoughts invading my skull, no one else seems inclined to believe my words, either.

For several minutes, nobody speaks. Grateful for the reprieve, I tune out the constant din inside my brain and angle my body beside Bella. She grasps my hand at once, her brow puckered in contemplation as she stares with a faraway expression at the beams of sunlight warming the hardwood floor.

As it is, she is the first to pick up on the soft crunch of spinning tires transitioning from pavement to dirt as a car pulls off the highway and onto the long drive. "Oh, crap, Charlie." Worrying her bottom lip, Bella glances up at me and mutters hastily, "Maybe the Denalis could hang out upstairs –"

"No." I open my mind once again, listening for any familiar voices... "It's not your father," I tell her while unraveling the various threads of thought surrounding me. Then, the echoes of the two minds approaching create a vaguely recognizable harmony that I have not heard in some time. Blinking once, I focus on Bella's puzzled gaze and say quietly, "Alice sent Peter and Charlotte, after all. Time to get ready for the next round."