Text Size Large SizeMedium SizeSmall Size    Color Scheme Black SchemeWhite SchemeGrey SchemePaper Scheme        

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:


13. Company

Rating 5/5   Word Count 10137   Review this Chapter

A surge of nervous energy crackles inside the room as the implication of my words sinks in.

Bella presses her teeth into her lower lip, and I stroke the curve of her face with my fingertips, suggesting, "Take Renesmee back into the dining room, love. I'll call for you when it's time."

She flies into motion at once, darting swiftly over to Carmen, and reaches for our daughter at the same time that Renesmee lifts her tiny arms, her dark eyes huge and filled with worry. Jacob follows the pair around the corner and out of sight while another car pulls onto the lawn beside Tanya's.

I wait by the door, listening to Peter and Charlotte's nearly synchronous thoughts, dimly aware of the Denali family moving into more casual positions throughout the vast area, hoping to make our guests feel at ease.

Opening the door as soon as their footsteps resonate across the porch, I greet Jasper's brother-in-arms and his mate courteously. "Peter. Charlotte," and bid them to enter with a wordless gesture.

Peter, with the genteel manners of a previous era, allows Charlotte to precede him into the house. The petite vampire scans their surroundings with quick burgundy eyes, her white-blonde hair glinting almost as brilliantly as her skin as she passes through a shaft of sunlight.

Her mate, fair-haired like her but towering above her small form at a height similar to Jasper, keeps his stare locked on me while I close the door and turn to him, murmuring, "Thank you for coming."

"Alice sent us," he says without preamble, "as I'm sure you are aware. She didn't say what it was about – only that we had to come." His attention flickers briefly to the others in the room, noting to himself the odd smell saturating the air and the distinct cadence of a heartbeat.

"Did she tell you where she and Jasper were heading?" I ask, trying not to cling to hope.

Peter shakes his head once. "No, nothing at all." His brow furrows when he adds, "She didn't mention that we would see them in the future, either."

A short stretch of silence follows his statement – and then I catch a thread of observation from Charlotte's mind that intrigues me. He seems different, this...Edward – yes, that's his name, she muses, studying my face. The last time we visited, he was incredibly rude and taciturn. Now, he is...more grounded. Something has changed him.

Peter and Charlotte's last visit occurred less than two months after Bella arrived in Forks. I was still fighting every predatory instinct I had to not slake my thirst with her appealing blood while also striving to protect her, wanting to declare myself and give my love to her, and seeking ways to prevent the future that Alice's visions spun daily of Bella joining me for eternity.

Naturally, I was less than a polite acquaintance.

The little blonde takes a step forward, clasping her hands in front of her. "I don't wish to seem impolite," she remarks, her voice carrying a bit of a Southern drawl, "but would you please explain why Alice sent us here?" She poses her question very mildly, but I can tell from the look she shares with Peter and each of their thoughts that their suspicion is growing – particularly as to why we have more visitors than can be considered normal, even for an eccentric coven like ours.

I proceed cautiously, repeating the introduction I had used with Tanya and the others – sans the little exercise I had devised that involved the sound of a moist, thudding heart and the scent of Renesmee's unique blood. There is a difference, after all, between arousing curiosity and inviting disaster.

Peter and Charlotte's aversion to what Renesmee appears to be is not as pronounced as the Denali family's rather violent reaction. Neither Peter nor his mate had ever seen an immortal child, but of course they knew of the enforced rule. After I explain my daughter's origins, curiosity spurs first Charlotte and then Peter to experience Renesmee's gift... and, as with the others, the couple immediately accepts our story as truth.

While Peter and I – with Eleazar occasionally chiming in – discuss what exactly it is we would like them to do when the Volturi arrive, Charlotte speaks to Bella. She is intensely interested in the woman who captured my affections while still human, and discerns in the midst of their conversation that the presence of a mate is the new element that has irreversibly altered the course of my existence.

I could not agree more.

By mid-afternoon, we have added two more witnesses to our group, and I allow myself to feel a small portion of optimism. Though Peter is reluctant to commit to standing beside us if it comes to a fight, Tanya maintains her staunch determination to do whatever is necessary to preserve our family and demonstrate her coven's loyalty.

Around sunset on the following evening, just as I am trying to persuade Bella to go hunting with Kate and Tanya – she is stubbornly refusing, asserting that she will go when I go – I detect the feathery touch of a strong, unfamiliar mind on the fringe of my consciousness.

Focusing, I realize that the thoughts emanating from this new mind are becoming more defined because it is coming closer, and also, the language it is using – though predominately English – is flavored with a smattering of Gaelic and medieval Celtic.

"Edward?" I hear Bella's voice as though from very far away. "What is it?" she asks, concerned.

"Company."

In the blink of an eye, she and Renesmee retreat to the dining room, preparing for my cue at the right moment. Tanya hovers just outside the back door, Kate waiting a few yards out near the tree line, and inquires tensely, "Who?"

"My best guess?" Shifting my gaze to hers, I reply in an even tone, "Carlisle's friend from Ireland. They're making better progress than I thought," I add, speaking mostly to myself.

Would you like us to stay? Kate thinks, already leaning towards the house on the balls of her feet.

"No," I tell both of them. "You need to hunt. From what Carlisle has told me, Siobhan is a very sensible person, and he has great respect for her." Not to mention the fact that the newest member of her coven has a singular talent that could aid us greatly. Smiling just a little, I assure the sisters, "We'll be fine."

Slower than usual, Tanya flits to Kate's side, and together they ghost into the forest, promising to return within two hours. I close the door and swing around to the front of the house, deciding to wait for Siobhan and her coven on the porch.

The trio emerges from the bare, twisted trees on the far side of the lawn only seconds later. Catching sight of me standing in the shadows beneath the awning, the tallest woman moves forward and the other two orient themselves around her, forming a spear point as they draw near.

I refrain from talking until all three are gathered on the porch, and then I extend my hand in greeting. "Thank you for coming."

Siobhan is silent for a moment, looking me straight in the eye – literally. Her thick, waist-length hair is the color of rust, and despite being tangled with briars and leaves, the strands give off a faint luster in the evening light. Her facial features are all slopes and curves, evoking the memory of ancient royalty from her homeland – and her physical presence is imposing and hypnotic, like the ‘Phantom Queen' Morrígan of Celtic mythology.

A few seconds pass, and then Siobhan's ruby eyes soften, her thin lips arcing into a smile. She grasps my wrist instead of my hand – an age-old symbol of comradeship – and replies in a velvety alto voice, "So you are Edward. Carlisle said that you would be expecting us." Upon my nod of assent, she drops my hand and gestures to the man on her left. "This is Liam," she introduces. The lack of expression on his face causes him to appear stern and apathetic, but his sharp gaze pierces the chill air with its intensity, and his mind is highly alert. Then Siobhan points to the woman on her right. "And Maggie." Maggie is a sprite compared to Siobhan and Liam, and she looks the part with her impish expression, wide, glittering eyes and springy red curls as she peers up at me, the top of her head just reaching Siobhan's well-formed bicep.

"It's an honor to meet you all," I offer sincerely. "Please, come in."

Ushering them into the living room, Siobhan immediately makes herself comfortable by sitting down on the pale, overstuffed chair across from the sofa. Liam remains at her side – a motionless sentinel. "Now, Edward." As she says my name, I hear more of her Irish brogue coloring the syllables. "What is this all about?" She raises her eyebrows ever so slightly.

I move over to the sofa, taking a seat directly in front of her, and Maggie perches herself on the opposite end, her keen stare fixed on me. I expect that she will begin to employ her gift as soon as I open my mouth. I am counting on it, actually.

The rehearsed words flow easily through my lips. I keep my gaze locked on Siobhan, though she betrays nothing of her thoughts in her expression – but I attune my mind to Maggie's, listening to her inner voice as she measures every sentence that I speak in order to detect the slightest falsehood.

When I call for Bella, she hesitantly makes her way to the place beside me while Renesmee peeks over a tiny shoulder at our guests, and Siobhan stiffens for a beat just before her eyes dart to Maggie. The little redhead watches my daughter with obvious fascination, certain of the truth of my explanation as I give an account of how Renesmee came into being and the impending visit from the Volturi.

Once I am finished, the members of the Irish coven turn to one another for a brief conference. It is clear from the way that Siobhan and Liam stare expectantly at the younger vampire and the tone of their thoughts that Maggie's verdict will be the deciding factor in whether or not they will grant us their support.

"He speaks the truth, Siobhan," she declares, the accent heavier in her blithe, musical voice. "Every word."

Siobhan gives her a small nod. Turning her face back towards me, she murmurs with certainty, "We shall stay and witness for your family."

"Thank you," Bella and I chorus softly. Maggie slides closer to my wife an instant later, grinning as she asks Renesmee to demonstrate her unusual talent.

The sliver of hope clinging to the walls of my lifeless heart swells as the number of witnesses increases.

That night, and the next, elapse uneventfully. At dawn, however, the resiliency of my hope meets its first test. Strolling with Bella to the house – my arm hugging her waist, her head resting on my shoulder as Renesmee rubs her eyes groggily with her small fists – I suddenly halt on the river's edge. The irate thoughts echoing through my head prod the monster, waking him from his dormant state, and my eyes narrow into slits. Bella lifts her head, a slight frown crinkling her expression. "Edward?"

I inhale deeply through my nose, savoring her delectable scent and its unfailing ability to soothe the savagery of my temper, and then I remark, "A few more visitors arrived very early this morning. Apparently, one of them is quite...put out that we were not here to greet them." I quirk an eyebrow at her, my mouth tipping to one side in a wry grin.

Bella grimaces, muttering in chagrin, "Maybe we should have stayed at the house last night." Generally a modest person, Bella had insisted on putting Renesmee to bed when the little girl yawned no more than twice, her arguing point being that there had been a lot of excitement lately and she – unlike our guests and her vampire parents – needed to sleep.

Of course, I soon discovered from the way she pounced on me once we were in our room that Renesmee's bedtime was the excuse she needed for us to make our escape.

And just like that, my mood is lightened. Chuckling under my breath, I tuck Bella more firmly into my side and brush my lips on her forehead. "Don't worry, love; we'll get things straightened out." The familiar, electric sensation of her skin underneath my mouth awakens a deluge of crystalline memories from the night, and I nuzzle my face into the curve of her neck.

She gasps a little in response, forcing me to concentrate on my words rather than the desires coursing through my body as I murmur into her ear, "I have no regrets about last night, and neither should you. In fact," I trace the line of her jaw from temple to chin, back and forth, my voice fading to a husky whisper, "you can be in charge of bedtime from now on."

Moving downward, my lips press lightly onto her throat, and Bella heaves a shuddering sigh, arching her neck instinctively to grant me better access – which I take full advantage of at once.

"You're driving me crazy," she complains weakly. Her free hand slides up my back, her fingers tangling themselves into my hair.

"Sorry," I mumble into her satiny, fragrant skin, working my way back to the underside of her jaw.

Surprising me, Bella abruptly turns her head, capturing my mouth with hers, and everything else disappears into the ether as the taste of her kiss consumes my senses.

Too soon, she pulls away – only to lean her forehead against mine, a lopsided grin decorating her perfect face. "No you're not," she counters in triumph. With a breathless giggle, she twists out of my hold and sprints toward the river, leaping across effortlessly with our daughter secured in her arms.

I purse my lips, more enticed than annoyed with my temptress wife. I shall have to come up with an appropriate form of retaliation for tonight. Smirking in wicked anticipation, I race after her, landing at her side on the opposite shore in less than two seconds.

The agitated noises of an argument echo from the looming white house, and Bella throws me a worried glance. "Stay out here for now, love," I tell her in a low voice, my gaze locked on the back door. "I'll send someone to come get you in a moment." From the corner of my eye, I see her nod, and I dart soundlessly to the door, slipping through while the verbal tirade of our newest arrival assaults my eardrums and my mind.

"– traveled halfway around the globe because Carlisle spoke of a great danger to his family, and now we have been kept waiting for over six hours!" The shouting voice is masculine, flavored by a strong Middle Eastern accent, as well as the imposing sting of one used to being shown immediate respect.

It must be Amun and his coven from Egypt.

Jacob is lingering with a sullen expression in the far corner. His black-brown eyes light up as he catches sight of me, but then frowns in confusion when he realizes that neither Bella nor Renesmee is with me. "Outside," I mouth to him, and he instantly passes through the shrinking gap between the door and its frame, still hanging open from my entrance.

Squaring my shoulders, I stride into the cavernous living room and interrupt Tanya's attempt to diffuse the quarrel by announcing my presence. "My apologies for keeping you all waiting," I say in a calm, assured tone. My eyes pick out the most irate-looking face from the quartet of darker-skinned vampires and I approach. "I am Carlisle's son, Edward. It is an honor to finally meet you, Amun – my father has always spoken very highly of you." I raise my hand, offering it to him.

He stares at me for a half-second, taken aback, but it quickly fades into displeasure. Ignoring my outstretched hand, Amun juts out his chin and criticizes harshly, "I am certain that Carlisle would be ashamed by your lack of hospitality in his absence. We have been waiting –"

"And now I am here to answer your questions." I meet his blazing ruby eyes unflinching, all the while striving to modulate my voice into an even level. There is a difference between treating one's guests well and being reduced to servitude. I intend to make it abundantly clear to Amun that he will not bully me into catering to his every whim.

While the Arabic vampire shouts incredulously inside his mind, the young man accompanying him steps forward, gripping my hand firmly as he smiles. "My name is Benjamin," he says, his teeth very white against his washed-out caramel complexion. Judging by the youthful roundness of his features, I would guess that he was not much younger than me when he was changed.

Benjamin then gestures to the exotic-looking girl on his left with wide, almond-shaped eyes and a cascade of midnight hair. "This is Tia, my wife." She inclines her head in greeting, but makes no move to shake my hand, as per the customs of her culture. "We understand from your father that you have recently married," Benjamin goes on, and I blink at him, surprised despite myself. "You have our congratulations."

"Enough pleasantries, Benjamin," Amun snaps. The younger vampire glares, but falls silent, backing away a few steps. Staring hard at me, Amun demands brusquely, "You will tell us why we are here."

A sarcastic retort immediately comes to mind, but I push it aside, focusing my energies on maintaining a courteous disposition. I realize belatedly in some dim corner of my awareness that the older woman standing like a statue just behind Amun's left elbow has not said a single word, or even moved so much as a millimeter. She must be his wife. I unearth her name – Kebi – from his thoughts, filing it away into my memory, and begin to convey our tale once again.

The Egyptian coven responds predictably when Bella carries Renesmee into the room, but Benjamin continues to impress me as he moves toward the little girl only seconds after I finish my explanation, interested in her way of sharing her story.

"Remarkable," he whispers several minutes later. My daughter smiles radiantly, though I notice the traces of uncertainty in her brown eyes, and she watches Benjamin as he extends a hand in wordless command to Tia.

Renesmee repeats her story to Benjamin's wife, convincing her just as thoroughly as all the others. Tia straightens, and turns her attention to Bella, offering a slight, genuine smile. "Your daughter is very beautiful," she comments softly.

Bella releases her lower lip, which she has been biting down on from the moment she walked into the room, and stammers, "Th-thank you."

"You see?" Benjamin raises his dark eyebrows at Amun. "Edward has told us the truth. This child is no threat."

I clench my jaw in frustration to Amun's thoughts right before he disagrees aloud, "A trick. This is all a trick." He jabs an accusing finger at Renesmee. She cringes into her mother's embrace, and Bella bares her teeth at him. "That abomination has bewitched you, Benjamin, and I refuse to let it deceive me, as well." Whirling around, he begins to head for the front door, declaring, "We are leaving. Now."

"No."

Amun halts in mid-step. He spins on heel, his expression irate and disbelieving. "What?"

"No," Benjamin says again, his voice hard. "The Cullens came to us for help, Amun, and I intend to help them. This child has done nothing to me except to open my eyes to a whole new world of possibilities." He narrows his eyes; I pick up a thread of shrewd coercion from his thoughts, and barely hold back a smirk. "A coven such as this," Benjamin remarks mildly, "is not bound by prejudice or intolerant assumptions. Perhaps someone looking for a...broader scope would be better suited for this coven, rather than another." He crosses his arms, staring meaningfully at his creator.

Cunning in his own right, it does not take Amun very long to dissect Benjamin's veiled statement. His deep red eyes widen in fear, but his words are angry as he asks, "Are you threatening me?"

"Not at all," Benjamin replies with a shake of his head. "I was only making an observation."

In the end, Amun is won over by Benjamin's subtle hints of breaking ties to his coven and he agrees to stay. But in his narrow-mindedness, he will not go near Renesmee, and forbids his wife to touch her, as well. He and Kebi slink off to the far side of the house while Benjamin officially introduces himself and Tia to Bella. Pleased, I watch in silence as they congratulate her both for our marriage and the birth of our daughter, and a grin pulls up the corners of my mouth as Bella ducks her head a little, smiling in secret delight.

Sometime in the mid-afternoon, Eleazar returns with Carmen from a hunting trip. Upon meeting Benjamin, Eleazar's vivid golden eyes widen with awe as his gift interprets the younger vampire's talent. Mixed with the garbled exclamations in Spanish, I am able to piece together the gist of Benjamin's ability...and it is formidable, indeed.

Bella studies my and Eleazar's reactions, her gaze inquisitive, but she does not bring it up until we are back at the cottage. After Renesmee is sound asleep and tucked into her bed, Bella and I lounge comfortably on the plush loveseat by the fireplace, our fingertips idly stroking each other's bare skin.

"Is Benjamin's gift like some kind of magnetism?" Bella asks curiously, tracing the pale blue veins from the crook of my elbow to my wrist. "It seems like Amun and the others are...drawn to him."

Gently, I push her long, chocolate-colored hair aside, exposing her neck and shoulder, and press my cheek against her throat, my fingers ghosting over her collarbone. "It's not that," I murmur, turning my face towards her neck so that I can inhale her heady aroma, allowing it to fill my head, and I almost lose my train of thought completely. Pulling away a few centimeters, I take in a quick breath of less potent air and go on. "His gift is so singular that Amun is terrified of losing him. Much like we had planned to keep Renesmee from Aro's knowledge -" a sigh escapes from me, and Bella lifts my hand to her mouth, kissing the palm "- Amun has been keeping Benjamin from Aro's attention. Amun created Benjamin, knowing he would be special."

"What can he do?" Bella shifts a bit in my arms, tilting her head back and to the side in order to see my face.

"Something Eleazar's never seen before," I tell her. "Something I've never heard of. Something that even your shield would do nothing against." Grinning crookedly, I lean down and kiss the tip of her nose, indulging in my proud adoration of her. Her soft gaze, though shimmering with love in the firelight, is still curious, and so I finish my answer. "He can actually influence the elements - earth, wind, water, and fire. True physical manipulation, no illusion of the mind." Her eyes widen in amazement. "Benjamin's still experimenting with it," I remark quietly, "and Amun tries to mold him into a weapon. But you see how independent Benjamin is. He won't be used." And I respect that; one of many things that I respect in Benjamin's character, as a matter of fact.

Bella examines my expression for a full second. Losing myself in her mesmerizing stare, I notice the subtle differences of color in her scarlet irises. The lingering shade of brilliant ruby is prominent only around the pupils, and then it fades to a clear reddish-orange – like the glow of the setting sun – with a faint ring of amber on the outer edge.

"You like him," she guesses, awakening me from my spellbound reverie.

I shrug one shoulder. "He has a very clear sense of right and wrong. I like his attitude."

Speaking of attitude... I lower my head, hiding my devious little smile by kissing the top of her shoulder. It is time to put my plan of vengeance into action.

With my lips on her shoulder, I draw a path up to the base of her neck, lifting her hair into my hand while pressing a kiss on the nape. She shivers, just as I knew she would, and I stifle the urge to cackle with glee.

Adjusting her weight so it rests further down on my lap, I begin to brush my lips along the curve of her spine, marking the place of each vertebrae with a feathery kiss. When I reach the small of her back, she whimpers ever so softly, testing my resolve, and tries to turn around. "Patience, love," I chastise her in a whisper. I make my way back up, following the previous movements exactly, but this time I let my mouth hover on the back of her neck, tracing her skin from the hollow of one ear to the other.

She twitches, and my arms tighten automatically, keeping her locked in place. "You're trying to kill me," she moans throatily, each word throbbing with passion.

I chuckle, though the sound is shaky to my own ears. I am determined to prolong this tender torment for a few more minutes, but the anticipation is starting to feel like punishment to the both of us. Attempting to break some of the tension, I joke, surprising even myself, "I thought I already did."

Bella is quiet for a moment, but then she defies weakly, "Ha, ha."

She sucks in a sharp breath as I splay one of my hands on her stomach, the other skimming lightly across her breastbone while my lips tickle the side of her throat. "Edward..." she whispers. I close my eyes at the desperate desire in her voice, my willpower faltering with every passing second. She tries to move again; my hold convulses – but it is feeble, and she knows it.

I have the barest fraction of a second to brace myself before she murmurs the one word that shatters my self-control. Even then, it does no good.

"Please?"

As soon as I loosen my arms, she writhes like a wild thing, twisting around and entwining her body with mine while our mouths connect in an explosion that sets my entire being on fire.

I burn with her until the sun begins its slow ascent into the watery blue sky.

That same day is when the first nomad arrives. Garrett, having been sent by Emmett and Rosalie, made his way from New England at once, stopping only to hunt. He is tall and lean, his sandy-blonde hair tied back with a scrap of leather, and he has an adventurous disposition – which is how he came to this country in the first place.

A colonist in the late 1700's, Garrett was changed by a vampire that had long since made a home among the then untamed wilds of North America, and he happened to be out scouting for his fellow patriots when she came across him. The local Mohican tribes called her Musqáyuw Pchanim – the Red Woman – for her lips were always stained with blood.

Not even Garrett himself knows why she did not simply kill him. She only waited until he awoke, a fresh kill draped in her arms, and let his instincts figure out the rest. Then she was gone.

He is fairly easy to convince, though I suspect he is eager for a challenge rather than facing the injustices of the Volturi – but, given his history, I cannot rule it out. He is also intrigued by our and the Denali family's lifestyle and quickly falls in with Tanya and Kate, directing incessant questions at them at every opportunity. Although, there is more to Garrett's fascination with Kate in particular than just her hunting habits, yet he hides it well. For now.

It will be interesting to see how that plays out.

Not too long after, Mary – a nomad from the Midwest with a sharp wit and cropped locks the color of toffee – comes to the house. Tagging along with her is another nomad, Randall – whose dark, tousled hair and ready smile remind me of Emmett. The two had met up with one another en route to the Olympic Peninsula and decided to travel the rest of the way together.

Like Garrett, both of the newcomers accept Renesmee's story and agree to witness for us. In their minds, however, all three nomads examine the possibility of standing beside our family if the Volturi do not pause and see reason.

While I am strongly opposed to any of our friends perishing with us, a frail bubble of belief buoys up my spirit, whispering to me daily that the number of witnesses has grown, and thus our chances of averting this disaster have multiplied.

Contemplations of a hunt starts to permeate the thoughts of several guests; those who have traveled the farthest and been with us the longest are not as accustomed to harnessing their thirst as we are, and I find myself having to block some of the more...graphic images from my mind before the smoldering burn in the back of my throat flares into a wildfire.

All of them are aware of how we survive, but it occurs to me that I should address the issue – if only for the sake of clarifying a few particulars as to how our guests should conduct themselves while they are here.

I gather them all together in the massive front room – a total of twelve ‘non-vegetarians' – and submit my request: that they only hunt out of state, avoiding the town of Forks and La Push, as per the treaty with the wolves.

Bella fidgets a little beside me as I speak, and I know she is probably uncomfortable with the idea that we are inadvertently encouraging the slaughter of innocent humans...as am I. But, we each have made our choices, and the fact remains that if these vampires were not here, they would most assuredly be hunting elsewhere in the world.

Jacob is even more disturbed than Bella; his hands begin to tremble while I offer this compromise to the others, but he realizes that we have no other option. Though it chafes his very nature to allow a group of vampires to threaten human life when he was born to defend it, he cannot argue, and I think that feeling of helplessness is what bothers Jacob the most.

Once our visitors agree to my terms, I mention that there is transportation available to those who would like to use a vehicle, and Garrett's keen scarlet eyes instantly light up with interest. "Count me in," he announces. "I could use a change of scenery."

Randall, Benjamin, and Tia also take advantage of my proposition, and I lead the way to the garage as the others chatter to one another in muted enthusiasm.

A soft brush of a hand against mine causes me to smile slightly. Bella has never been far from me in the last few days, and the need for closeness is entirely mutual, so I have never broached the subject. Before her fingertips withdraw from my skin, I flip my hand to the side and clasp hers tightly. She squeezes my fingers in tender commiseration.

Clutched in Bella's other arm, Renesmee looks up attentively at Jacob's scowling face while he walks alongside her mother, resisting the urge to glance over his shoulder as his instincts scream for him to protect himself from the vampires strolling casually behind him. He has been trying to maintain a careful distance ever since the first of our family's friends arrived, but Renesmee seems to expect that his presence should be a constant at the house – and he, in turn, finds it extremely difficult to stay away from her.

Seeming to sense his bad-tempered mood, Renesmee stretches out a tiny hand and pats Jacob on the arm, attempting to soothe him. He glances sideways at her and gamely tries to smile, but it ends up looking more like a grimace. "I tell you what, Nessie," he grumbles under his breath. "Someone is going to have to write up an index if anyone expects me to keep all these new bloodsuckers' names straight." His eyes flash over to me, and I purse my lips to hide a grin while Bella elbows him – cautiously – in the ribs.

Randall suddenly lets out a low whistle that echoes throughout the garage, his eyes widening appreciatively at the collection of vehicles gleaming beneath the overhead fluorescent lights. "Nice," he murmurs, eyeing the red M3 parked on his right.

"I haven't got the keys to that one," I tell him, smirking. "Rosalie is very...particular about who is allowed to drive her car." Bella giggles softly in response. "But you would be most welcome to use any of the others." I gesture towards the line of cars with a hand as I speak.

Benjamin and Tia opt for the less conspicuous black Mercedes; the two of them rocket down the long drive and onto the freeway in a handful of seconds. Randall, having been denied the chance to sit in the driver's seat of a BMW, chooses to take the yellow Porsche for a spin. I manage to even out my features as I hand him the keys to Alice's car – a gift from me – and I sense Bella's concerned eyes on my face, a thin web of lines marring her smooth forehead.

After Randall is well on his way, Garrett's voice calls out from the back of the enormous garage, "What's under here?" He is pointing at a curved, vaguely rectangular shape covered by a sheet of white linen, tucked into the far left corner and partially hidden behind Emmett's Jeep.

Surprise ripples within my mind, momentarily disrupting my train of thought. For all of my careful planning and time taken in order to choose the perfect means of transportation for my bride, I had completely forgotten to show it to her.

Immediately I turn to her, humiliation knifing through me, and I grasp her free hand in both of mine. "Bella, love...I'm so sorry. I forgot about your birthday present. I should have given it to you months ago." Self-loathing contorts my expression. In my deplorable selfishness to finally have all of her to myself and to live together as equals, I missed my opportunity to mark the most important day of her life – and mine – by presenting Bella with a small, tangible token of my love for her. Beseeching her with my eyes, I plead, "Please forgive me for being so thoughtless, I should have remembered –"

Two soft, slender fingers press against my lips, silencing the remainder of my apology. "Edward." She says my name so affectionately that my mouth instantly craves the sweetness of her skin, but I refrain from kissing the fingertips resting on my lower lip. Smiling ever so slightly, Bella says in a gentle tone, "It's fine. You don't have to apologize. I already got more than I could ever want for my birthday" – her flame-colored eyes smolder in remembrance of our first uninhibited night in each other's arms, and tendrils of heat lick at the nerve endings along my spine – "and you know how I feel about gifts in general anyway, so it doesn't matter." She slowly lowers her hand, and part of me mourns the loss of her touch as she remarks with a faint shrug, "But you can show it to me now. If you want."

Grateful as always to earn her forgiveness, I reach for the hand she just dropped and cradle it delicately in mine, raising it to my lips. Holding her gaze, I breathe quietly, "Thank you," and kiss her knuckles in the gallant manner of times gone by.

Bella arches an eyebrow, her expression playfully condescending. "If you're trying to butter me up so that I won't throw a fit about the car, it's not going to work," she declares. Her full lips shape themselves into that deliciously distracting pout. "We made a deal, I know, but that doesn't mean I have to be happy about it."

"I wouldn't expect you to," I reply with a warm smile. Despite her less than gracious acceptance of my gifts, she has not pulled her hand from my grasp, and I let the pad of my thumb draw small circles on the back of her hand, becoming hopelessly adrift in the liquid fire of her eyes.

Heaving a long-suffering sigh, Jacob gently extracts Renesmee from Bella's hold and sets the little girl on her feet. She wraps her tiny hand around two of his fingers, her dark eyes inquisitive as she peers up at him, and then she sends him a picture of the covered object, wanting to see what is underneath the sheet.

"It's your mom's present, Nessie," he tells her in a low aside. "You'll have to wait until she's ready to open it." Then he lowers his voice even more and adds, "Which could be sometime in the next decade or two."

Without breaking eye contact, both Bella and I remark in unison, "Shut up, Jake."

His mouth twists into a smirk, and he waits until Bella throws a familiar scowl in his direction, thus ending the unspoken conversation between us, before he says loudly, "So, you bought Bella a car?" It is obvious from his tone and his thoughts that he is ready to move on from the ‘daily googly-eyes session'. He and Renesmee start to walk towards the far end of the garage; I tug lightly on Bella's hand, signaling her to follow, and she exhales in a resigned sort of way.

Garrett is still waiting – leaning casually against the back wall, his long legs stretched out in front of him – his ruby-red stare keenly observant as the four of us come to a stop in front of Bella's gift.

"Actually," she answers Jacob's earlier question, "he got me two cars –" a sour glare pierces my gaze, and I smile back angelically "– one for when I needed protection from tanks, and one for when I'm less breakable and more coordinated."

"The Guardian was only on loan, Bella," I remind her. Jacob's confusion over her statement immediately clears as I mention the model of the car she drove before our wedding to ease my mind. I had tolerated that rusted monstrosity of a truck for so long simply because it was a sturdy vehicle and Bella had an absurd affection for all things that were hazardous to her health – myself included.

Perhaps the missile-proof glass and body armor was going a bit overboard...but the mere notion that she could be harmed while I was away made my insides churn with dread, and I could think of nothing else.

This car, however, is better suited for someone as extraordinary as Bella Cullen.

Dropping her hand, I stroll around to the side of the shrouded gift, grinning broadly as I wonder what her reaction will be, and grab a handful of the white cloth. "But this one," I announce in a gleeful tone, "is all yours." I yank off the sheet in one fluid motion, my attention fixed on Bella's perfect face.

Her eyes widen the tiniest bit, but otherwise she remains unmoved, staring at the sleek car, its elegant body gleaming in the bright light.

"Pretty," Renesmee whispers. She raises a hand to touch the scarlet hood –

Jacob jerks her backward. With a wounded frown, the little girl tilts her head up to look at him. My grin grows even broader as I take in his dumbfounded and awed expression, his mouth hanging open like a panting dog. Yes, it is definitely worth it to have someone with a useful appreciation for quality automobiles present for this little event.

Is that...? It can't be! It's not – Hoarsely, Jacob manages to ask, "Is that what I think it is?"

"Yes, it is," I reply with a nod.

"Damn!" he exclaims. "Now that's a beautiful piece of machinery!" He starts to circle the vehicle at a very slow pace, angling his head this way and that in order to glimpse every surface. Renesmee trails along, less interested than before and still disgruntled that he will not let her lay a finger on the polished paint.

Chuckling softly, Garrett comes away from the wall, commenting, "You do like to spoil your woman, don't you?"

I laugh in response, looping around Jacob's towering frame to stand beside Bella, who turns to look at me with a belligerent glower. "More like he's just trying to find new ways to embarrass me," she accuses, though I detect the flicker of indulgent pleasure in her crimson irises.

In an effort to dispel her negativity, I bend forward and brush a kiss on the tip of her nose. A reluctant smile tugs half-heartedly on one corner of her mouth. Victorious, I wrap an arm around her shoulders and nudge her closer to her gift, motioning towards it with my other hand. "What do you think, love?"

She ponders for a moment, and then shrugs. "It's pretty."

Jacob twitches upright from crouching beside the left rear tire, gawking at her in disbelief. "‘Pretty'?" he says incredulously. "Bella, do you know what kind of car this is?"

"Um..." She leans far to the side, searching for some clue on the vehicle itself – and suddenly she spots the emblem on the driver's side fender. The months she spent in my, and Jacob's, company has educated her enough to recognize a variety of manufacturer logos, though she still sounds a little unsure as she replies, "A Ferrari?"

"Yes, Bella, a Ferrari," Jacob deadpans, mocking her lack of enthusiasm. Then he virtually explodes, his face lighting up with a sort of wild fervor as he points at the car. "This is a Ferrari F430, Bella! It has a 4.3liter V8 engine with a max speed of 197 miles per hour and can go from zero to sixty in 3.5 seconds! C'mon, Bells!" He throws up an arm, exasperated. The volume of his words has steadily risen, so now he is practically shouting at her. "The rpm on this baby could give even you whiplash!" I mean – his mind is still reeling as he digs through his memory – it's probably something insane, like 7900 or –

"8500," I interject helpfully. He jabs a finger at me in silent emphasis and then raises his eyebrows in expectation at Bella, waiting for her to admit that she is impressed.

She eyes us both as though doubting our sanity and crosses her arms over her chest. "I don't understand half of what you just said, Jake," she remarks flatly. "I still think it's pretty."

Garrett tries to disguise his guffaw as a cough while I cover my mouth with a hand, smothering my amused laughter. Refusing to be deterred, Jacob marches up to us, his black-brown eyes boring into Bella's, and demands, "Take it for a test drive. I guarantee that when you come back, you'll have a better opinion of your car other than ‘it's pretty'."

Smelling a challenge, Bella juts out her chin in defiance and holds out an open palm to me. "Edward, my keys," she orders, not looking away from Jacob's fierce stare.

It is fortunate that I had the presence of mind to put all of the spare keys in the garage. As I walk over to the black cabinet mounted onto the rear wall, I motion for Garrett to join me. Opening the cabinet, I retrieve two sets of silvery keys and toss one to the nomad, which he catches easily, his expression curious. "Take the Vanquish," I tell him, inclining my head towards the car parked directly across from the Ferrari.

With a mock-salute, Garrett climbs in and maneuvers the compact vehicle effortlessly around the others and out the garage door, disappearing quickly into the shadows of the trees.

Jacob and Bella are still trying to outdo one another through intimidation, and neither of them seems to notice as I unlock the Ferrari and open the driver's side door. Clearing my throat, I call out in a mild voice, "Bella." She flounces past Jacob with her head held high and slides into the black leather seat. I close her door and dart around to the passenger's side, sitting down before offering her the car keys with a slight smile. She blinks at me in confusion. "I'm not about to let you go alone," I tease her, dangling the keys from my forefinger. "Do you even know how to drive stick?"

A low growl vibrates inside her chest and I hold back a snicker, incredibly entertained while I watch her jam the key into the ignition and twist. The engine blazes to life with a purring roar, and Jacob mentally approves, though he is beginning to wish that he could come along, too. He scoops Renesmee into his arms and she waves at us as we coast onto the dirt drive.

As we head to the highway entrance, I instruct Bella on the basics of manual shifting, holding onto her hand as she practices switching gears in the air. She had always absorbed new information rather well as a human, and her enhanced vampire mind retains every detail I relay to her perfectly.

"Are you ready?" I ask, grinning.

She inhales a deep breath, biting down on her lower lip, and a determined gleam flares in her eyes. Grasping the gear shift, she shoves it forward and slams on the gas pedal, and the car leaps forward like a pouncing jaguar, launching us down the highway at a speed Bella would never attempt in the past.

She breezes through three gears, appearing not to notice how the needle on the speedometer is inching closer to one-thirty – and suddenly she gasps, muttering, "Too fast, too fast," and lifts her foot off the pedal.

The needle falls to ninety, then eighty...

"Bella, love," I murmur soothingly as the car slows to seventy-five miles per hour, "you're not going to crash, and you won't get a speeding ticket. Just drive how you want."

Her head whips sideways, fixing me with a desperate, frightened glance. "What if I hit someone?" she whispers.

"You won't. I won't let you."

She nods slowly, gaining confidence from my promise, and steps down on the clutch, moving it back into a faster gear. The speedometer needle rapidly returns to the space between one-thirty and one-forty, hovering there for several minutes. Bella giggles once; it sounds a little strained, but the faint grin curving her lips is genuine. "I remember this being a lot harder," she remarks under her breath.

I stay quiet, just enjoying the view. The contours of the black seat hug her body seamlessly, her slender fingers curling around the steering wheel, and I reach out to tuck her hair behind her ear. My fingertips linger on her silken cheek as I admire her, commenting in a husky voice, "You are...exquisite."

A shiver ripples through her while I trace the shape of her mouth. "Stop distracting me," she mumbles, her words shaky, "or we really will crash and ruin this pretty car." Her eyelids flutter involuntarily; she snaps them open, her grip tightening on the wheel, and gazes fixedly at the road.

Chuckling low in my throat, I withdraw my hand. "As you wish." But I do not take my eyes off her throughout the course of our journey.

Eventually, Bella exits the highway and turns around, heading back to the house. She pulls into the garage – Jacob and Renesmee are nowhere in sight – and shuts off the engine. An unexpected frown crosses her features, and I immediately ask out of sheer reflex, "What are you thinking?"

Rotating in her seat to look at me, she admits in embarrassment, "I really do like this car."

"Good." I frame her cheek with my palm, my grin fading as I try to decipher the cause of her self-conscious behavior. "But why is that a bad thing?"

"Because it means that Jacob was right." Her nose crinkles in distaste.

A burst of jovial laughter erupts from my mouth, and I lean across the center console to enfold Bella in my arms, pulling her from the driver's seat and into my lap. She is still pouting as I kiss her cheek, nuzzling my face into the crook of her neck. "You are so utterly charming when you sulk," I confide to her softly.

She tilts her head to look at me, the frown melting from her expression, and in her warm eyes I see the gratefulness that she will never articulate. But just knowing that she feels it, however minutely, is enough for me. I brush my lips with the lightest pressure over hers, murmuring, " And you're welcome."

I deny her the chance to argue by holding her face securely to mine with one hand on the curve of her jaw and the other tangled in her silken brown locks, cupping the back of her head. She moans very quietly, the sound both defeated and sensual, and twists a little further against me so that she can wind her arms around my neck, burying her slender fingers in my hair.

Three sharp raps on the passenger window startle us apart. Losing myself so completely in Bella, I had allowed the constant flow of other's thoughts to fade into the background, and remained blissfully oblivious of any forthcoming interruptions – until said intruder has already arrived.

Rolling my eyes, I sigh in frustration and mumble to Bella, "It's Jacob."

She exhales a gusty breath and spins in a half-circle, her legs resting atop mine, and jabs her forefinger onto the automatic window button, her expression one of fierce displeasure. "What, Jake?" she hisses.

Touchy... Wearing an obnoxiously cheerful grin, Jacob places his forearm on the window frame and bends down to see both of us, though his eyes flicker more often than not to the Ferrari's stylish interior. "So," he begins, "what do you think of this baby now?" He thinks he has her backed into a corner, forcing her to admit an improved opinion of her gift, and is practically crowing in triumph inside his head.

Bella straightens, feigning thoughtful contemplation as she taps her chin with a finger, humming. "It's still pretty – and fast –" Then she beams, exposing her gleaming white teeth. "But I like to run."

My laughter reverberates noisily through the open window and within the garage as Jacob stares at her, speechless. Bella smiles at him sweetly while the tinted window rolls back up, reminding him just before it seals shut to make sure Renesmee goes on a hunt, and then proceeds to banish every distraction from my mind except for her over the course of several hours.

Needless to say, I find myself appreciating the concept of flexibility for the first time in my existence.

One week to the day since they left, Carlisle and Esme return home.

Seconds after greeting Bella, Renesmee, and I, they are literally swarmed by our guests, all of them eager to speak to my father, as he has not seen them in some time. As his wide topaz eyes absorb the number of vampires crowded into the main room, Carlisle searches for me, spotting my crooked smile near the back of the group. You have done well, son, he compliments with deep sincerity. As I knew you would.

My eyes prickle, and I blink quickly, inclining my head towards him.

Esme threads her way to me through the chattering throng with her granddaughter clutched in one arm. She pulls me into an embrace with her free hand, hugging my shoulders tightly, and kisses my cheek. "I am so proud of you," she whispers in my ear.

Once the welcoming clamor has somewhat dimmed, my father ducks out the front door – only to reappear with another visitor, whom he has apparently dragged off the porch and into the house. I am a bit taken aback by the sour flavor of the newcomer's thoughts, which waver between various fears and irritation both with himself and Carlisle for agreeing to be here.

"Everyone," Carlisle announces genially, "this is Alistair, another friend."

Taking that as my cue, I lift my daughter easily from Esme's hold and head towards the two men. Bella meets up with me halfway and matches her steps with mine, grasping my hand as soon as I am within her reach. "Alistair, this is my son, Edward – his wife, Bella – and their daughter, Renesmee," Carlisle says to the motionless, dark-haired vampire beside him.

I repeat our story to Alistair in a low voice, monitoring his inner musings in the process, and I start to realize that my father's friend is perhaps slightly neurotic and extremely antisocial.

He seems to listen to my explanation, though he had already decided before making the journey to trust Carlisle's word, and he is the third guest to refuse Renesmee's offer to share her story. He also says very little to anyone present – not knowing, of course, that his mind speaks volumes to someone with my talent – and once the formalities are concluded, he slips back outside, retreating first to the porch and then into the fringe of trees surrounding the meadow in front of the house.

In the aftermath of Alistair's abrupt departure, Kate waits for a handful of seconds before sniffing in annoyance and griping, "What's his problem?"

Carlisle shakes his head, smiling ruefully. "That's just Alistair's way. I suppose I've gotten used to it in the few hundred years we've known each other." Then he turns to me, his gaze and thoughts questioning. "But what does he think of our request, Edward? Will he stay and witness?"

I review what I heard from his mind for a brief moment and then reply, "He is afraid to be here, but more afraid of not knowing the outcome." That is the only reasoning I can come up with for his erratic internal struggle between staying and leaving. "He is deeply suspicious of all authority," I go on slowly, "and therefore naturally suspicious of the Volturi. What is happening now seems to confirm all his fears."

"So he'll stay?" Esme asks.

Shrugging, I tell her, "He seems decided now, but that could change."

Indeed, the misanthropic vampire hovers incessantly in the realm of indecision all throughout his sojourn with us. He has a habit of talking to himself, and prefers to do so in the attic of all places, the boards creaking under his feet as he paces back and forth, muttering all the while.

On one such occasion, Bella and I happen to be in my old room under the guise of sorting through some of my belongings to bring to the cottage, when in reality we just wanted to find a vacant spot to enjoy each other's company without an audience. Bella freezes in my arms when she hears him grumbling above us as we lay together on the wrought-iron bed, "Of course, now they'll know I was here. No way to keep it from Aro at this point. Centuries on the run, that's what this will mean. Everyone Carlisle's talked to in the last decade will be on their list. I can't believe I got myself sucked into this mess. What a fine way to treat your friends."

The mattress shakes along with my frame as I chuckle soundlessly. Bella stares at me with wide eyes and whispers so swiftly that her full lips appear to vibrate, "How in the world does he plan on running from the Volturi?"

"Alistair is a tracker," I murmur into her ear, breathing in her luscious fragrance at the same time. "He is nowhere near as precise as Demetri, but he feels a...pull toward whatever he seeks. That pull will be enough to tell him which direction to run if or when Demetri starts looking for him."

Bella's hair tickles my cheek and forehead as I leave a trail of tender kisses along her throat. When I reach the middle of her breastbone, she asks with a quivering sigh, "How did he and Carlisle meet if he hates being around other people so much?"

"A story for another time, love," I respond absently, my concentration fracturing under the intoxicating sway of my wife's heady scent and the taste of her skin as it clings deliciously to my tongue.

She suddenly grips my face between her palms, tugging my mouth up to meet hers, and I suppress a smile, briefly rejoicing at having successfully distracted her from her questions.

Honey, I'm home!

A growl rumbles low in my chest; ever perceptive, Bella mumbles, "Another visitor?"

My fingers press gently into the curve of her waist while my other hand rests on the side of her neck, my thumb lightly tracing the shape of her jaw line. "Em and Rose are back," I inform her, using as few words as possible to convey my answer.

"Time?"

"Five minutes."

"We can be downstairs in ten seconds," she declares, and my chuckle is swallowed by her urgent kiss.

Truly, it is a relief to have everyone – well, almost everyone – back at home. Emmett radiates glee and a feral sort of satisfaction upon learning of the seventeen witnesses we have gathered thus far, and claps me hard on the shoulder after cuddling Renesmee to his enormous chest and very nearly repeating the action with Bella. "This is going to work, brother," he asserts boldly. "You'll see. And then I expect to hear a great big ‘Thank you, Emmett'."

"Thank you, Emmett," Bella mocks in a sarcastic tone, smoothing her palms over her disheveled hair, aggravated that he had picked her up as if she were no more than a child.

He grins down at her. "I missed you, too, little sister." The affection in his voice is genuine and Bella senses it. She smiles back, a little unwilling, and shoves against his chest playfully.

Rosalie keeps Renesmee in her arms until it is time to put the sleeping little girl to bed. "Bella," she speaks up softly as her newest sister pulls Renesmee from her embrace. Bella peers at her curiously. "We're going to protect her." Rosalie's vow is low and fervent. "Nothing is going to happen to her. We will all do what we must to keep Nessie safe."

Bella touches Rose on the arm, smiling faintly. "Thank you, Rose," she murmurs.

Looping an arm around Bella's waist, I nod my thanks to Rosalie and steer my wife towards the chilly black forest.

"Make sure you come back in the morning," Emmett calls to our retreating backs. "You wouldn't want me to have to come and get you!"

His boisterous snickering follows us all the way to the riverbank.