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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:


14. Practice

Rating 5/5   Word Count 11714   Review this Chapter

With the dawn, the first coating of snow blankets the Olympic Peninsula.

Renesmee weaves a wild path through the trees as we return to the house, her cheeks glowing a beautiful, flushed pink while she races around the trunk of a weathered pine, a handful of white powder clenched in her tiny fist.

Giggling, the sound like a tinkling chorus of sleigh bells, she throws the snowball in my direction, pelting the side of my left leg. "Nessie..." I growl, stalking towards her with exaggerated slowness. She shrieks in delight and vanishes into a cluster of bare saplings circling a pair of ancient oaks.

Her breathless giggles and sweet scent lead me to her easily, and I surprise her by sneaking around the opposite side of the rightmost tree trunk. "Gotcha!" I hoist her into the air, tossing her feather-light form above my head, chuckling as she screams and laughs each time she floats weightlessly for those few brief seconds right before I catch her. Finally, I cuddle her to my chest, kissing her rosy cheeks and her forehead. "I love you, Nessie."

Renesmee puts her small hand on my face, her brown eyes glowing. "I love you, Daddy," she says both aloud and with her mind. Her gaze drifts to the side, looking at something behind me, and a glittering smile lights up her cherubic face.

A lump of hard-packed snow slams into the back of my head.

Bella's startled, triumphant guffaw rings across the wintry backdrop like the most beautiful music. The sound is abruptly cut off as she claps her hand over her mouth, her fiery-colored eyes rounded in suspense while I turn around with slow deliberation.

I touch the wet flakes clinging to the ends of my hair and then cock an eyebrow at my wife, whose small hand does not completely hide her alluring, devilish smirk. "Did you just throw a snowball at me, Mrs. Cullen?" I ask politely.

She composes herself and adopts a prim, formal stance. "Why yes, I did, Mr. Cullen."

Keeping my attention locked on her, I set Renesmee on her feet and straighten up, resisting the impulse to take even the smallest step in Bella's direction. "Are you going to apologize?" I say in the same measured tone.

"Are you going to make me?" she counters. Her body shifts infinitesimally, giving away her intended escape route.

I give her a wide, wicked grin. "Most definitely."

I feign a head-on sprint and Bella, anticipating any sudden movement on my part, leaps sideways and races toward the west. Renesmee claps with excitement as I loop around the low-hanging branches of a massive fir, capturing Bella in my arms right after she darts past.

Yelping in surprise, the momentum of her sprint causes us to tumble to the ground, rolling down a short incline. I swiftly position myself so that she is lying on her back, her wrists locked in my hands while I hold her arms above her head, her legs pinned beneath mine to prevent her from wriggling free.

Leaning in, I hold her wide-eyed, sparkling gaze and pause only when our noses brush together. "I'm waiting for my apology," I growl, though her lively expression and the feel of her body pressing against my own is making it very difficult to carry on our little game.

Her eyes grow warm, and she lifts her head, giving me a brief but sweet kiss. "But I got you to chase me," she remarks simply, a smile lighting up her heart-shaped face. "Should I be sorry for that?"

"Not at all."

We hold one another tenderly on the icy, snow-sprinkled forest floor. At some point, I feel Bella's palms smoothing over my back and across my chest – and then a handful of something wet slides underneath the collar of my shirt, soaking into the fabric. "Oh, you are going to get it now..."

Snickering shrilly, Bella squirms out of my grasp and snatches another clump of snow from the ground before vanishing into the woods. I shake out my shirt, using some of her sabotage to form my own snowball, and track her scent back to our daughter. By now, the area is saturated with the instantly recognizable odor of werewolf.

Jacob carries Renesmee, shielding her from any stray fire, while Bella and I cavort like children, attacking each other with a flurry of snowballs as we cross the river and make our way to the back door of the house.

The room erupts with laughter upon seeing our disheveled, snow-ridden appearance. "Have fun this morning, Edward?" Emmett jokes, a knowing glint in his ocher eyes.

I ignore the answering chuckles, walking over to Bella and framing her cheeks with my palms, my thumbs clearing the lingering beads of ice from her skin. "Yes, I did," I murmur in response to my brother's insinuation, though my gaze is fixed on Bella. She lowers her eyelashes – her new equivalent of a blush – and I bend down to touch my lips gently to hers.

An unfamiliar, ferine consciousness invades my skull with the abrasive force of a hurricane. My head snaps up, swinging towards the front door, my nostrils flaring. "Were we expecting anyone else?" I demand to no one in particular, stretching out with my gift in an effort to interpret the more subtle workings of this new, quickly approaching mind.

"Not that I'm aware of," Carlisle answers in a low voice. Are you able to gain any insight?

The wildness of these thoughts is foreign, but I can detect no hostility as far as my family is concerned. As the seconds pass, the pattern of the internal voice seems to separate, forming two individual minds that are even more in concert with one another than Peter and Charlotte.

I also pick out various images that strike a memorable chord: the tangled, deep emerald foliage of a rainforest – a half-moon suspended in a velvety black sky – then I glimpse an elfin face, crowned by a spiky halo of ink-colored hair.

I inhale a sharp breath, stunned. "They've seen Alice." I can hardly believe the words, even as I speak them. "Alice sent them."

A knock on the door punctuates my statement. My father silently glides forward and turns the knob, pulling the door open. His disguised apprehension swiftly morphs into pleased surprise, and a lower-pitched feminine voice greets, "Carlisle."

"Zafrina and Senna!" Wearing a welcoming smile, he moves aside at once, bidding the woman and her companion to enter. Bella lets out a low gasp as she catches her first look of the Amazon coven – and she is not the only one present who is bewildered by their physical appearance.

The two vampires are tall, their limbs elongated to match their long faces, their restless burgundy eyes and lithe, quick movements reminding me of a jungle cat on the prowl. Each woman has coal-black skin, their bodies covered by garments made from animal hides; the taller of the two wears a vest patterned by the clouded spots of a leopard. Both have long, thick ebony hair which one has tied back in a topknot with a braided tail dangling down her back – and the other sports a cluster of loose braids, the ends secured by scraps of leather decorated by colored yarn and beads that glitter in the dim morning light.

"But where is Kachiri?" Carlisle asks them, his brow knitting in confusion as he closes the front door. "I've never seen you three apart."

The woman closest to him – the tallest one with the leopard-skin vest and untamed braided hair – replies, "Alice told us we needed to separate." Her rasping, throaty tone sounds like the rough purr of a jaguar, and she accents certain letters in such a way that makes me wonder if she prefers not to speak at all. "It's uncomfortable to be away from each other, but Alice assured us that you needed us here, while she very much needed Kachiri somewhere else." Bella's eyes dart sideways to mine. "That's all she would tell us," the Amazon vampire goes on, "except that there was a great hurry...?" She trails off, her questioning stare darting around the room as though searching for an explanation.

In unison, I begin to move towards them while Bella takes Renesmee from Jacob's hold, and then the three of us come to a stop before Carlisle and the newcomers.

After a short introduction, Zafrina and Senna listen in calm silence to my story, and then permit Renesmee to use her talent on them in order to convince them of the truth. Zafrina, like many of the others, takes an instant liking to the little girl, and spends the remainder of the day in close proximity – which affords me the opportunity to inquire about her gift.

Bella listens carefully to our conversation from her place beside me, her stance almost mirrored by Senna as she hovers motionlessly just behind Zafrina's right elbow.

"You would like to know what it is that I do?" she inquires, intrigued by my curiosity.

"Yes," I nod in encouragement. "If you don't mind."

As a reply, Zafrina's eyes fall half-closed, and the room around me begins to shimmer, the walls undulating strangely. Reflexively, I wrap my arms around Bella, tucking her slender body into my chest just as the environment transforms – filling with vibrant shades of jade, buttery yellow, and vermilion. Towering, vine-covered trees surround the small clearing I am standing in, and I watch in awe as a red-gold furred monkey leaps across the branches, a scattering of foliage drifting to the ground in its wake.

"What is it?" I hear Bella ask, but I cannot see her. "What's happening to him?"

"You...do not see it, as well?" Zafrina says slowly, puzzled.

"Bella's ability makes her immune to any powers that affect the mind," I tell her. A little disoriented, I come to realize that my arms are still fastened around a soft, well-known form, and I concentrate on the sensation in the hopes of maintaining some sort of equilibrium.

Zafrina chuckles once – a deep, coarse sound. "You have a fascinating gift indeed, young one."

"Thanks," Bella mumbles, but I can hear the buildup of frustration in her voice. It exasperates her when her questions go unanswered. Yet one more trait we have in common.

On a gamble, I shift my footing the tiniest bit, holding on tightly to the slight weight in my embrace, and look up at the shafts of sunlight streaming through the emerald canopy of leaves above me. "It's a very straightforward illusion," I explain to Bella. "She can make most people see whatever she wants them to see – see that, and nothing else." Glancing to the side, I watch a colony of red ants march single-file along the stalk of a large-leaved plant, marveling at the detail. "For example, right now I would appear to be alone in the middle of a rain forest. It's so clear I might possibly believe it," I admit, and then smile, the circle of my arms constricting gently, "except for the fact that I can still feel you in my arms."

The vision wavers, like heat rising from sun-baked pavement, and dissipates. I blink once, focusing initially on the crown of dark hair nestled beneath my chin, and then I look up at Zafrina, returning her grin. "Impressive," I praise her with sincerity.

Unafraid, Renesmee marches over to Zafrina, her tiny face alight with a rapt expression. She reaches out to the dark-skinned vampire, who immediately and with great care lifts the little girl into her arms. "Can I see?" Renesmee asks, her brilliant smile as eager as her soprano voice.

Charmed, Zafrina indulges, "What would you like to see?"

"What you showed Daddy."

Bella tenses against me when Renesmee's deep brown eyes become unfocused, her little rosebud mouth shaping into an 'o' of wonderment. I press my face into Bella's hair, kissing the top of her head, and she relaxes a bit.

Our daughter's heartbeat flutters, and then her grin stretches from ear to ear, the illusion fading from her perception. Turning to look straight into Zafrina's amused scarlet eyes, Renesmee declares firmly, "More."

Thus, the dainty bronze-haired hybrid and the formidable-looking Amazon vampire become nearly inseparable playmates. Because Bella worries about what kind of illusions Zafrina will share with Renesmee, the little girl thinks up a solution: using her gift to show her mother the visions, and then Bella can determine whether or not they are appropriate.

As our daughter continues to be enthralled by Zafrina's pretty pictures, I sidle over to Bella and lean down to murmur in her ear, "Let's take advantage of the impromptu babysitter and get out of this house for a while."

She glances up at me, surprised, and tries to disagree. "But –"

"Please, love?" I beseech, gazing deeply into her flame-colored eyes, hoping that I can dazzle her into compliance. "There are too many thoughts inside my head right now; it's hard to think straight." Lowering my voice to the barest whisper, my lips caress her earlobe as I breathe, "I only want to be with you."

Bella shudders in response, and I hold back a smirk as she mutters unsteadily, "You are such a cheater." The rebuke loses most of its ire due to her trembling, though the expressions on her face war between accusation and desire.

I take her hand and lead her towards the back door – Emmett tosses a mental jib at me as we brush past him on our way to the river – and together we bound into the frost-painted trees.

Snowflakes dance lazily through the air as we run, falling from an overcast, slate blue sky. My feet direct our course instinctively, and soon we are standing in the middle of our meadow. The change of season has not diminished its simplistic beauty. A soft, thin covering of white coats the yellowed grass, our footprints already being covered by the fresh snow drifting down upon us, and the needles of the surrounding fir trees are all decorated by sparkling garlands of icicles.

Cottony droplets are clinging to Bella's long dark eyelashes as she raises her head to look up at the sky. Watching her the entire time, I step over to a weathered gray boulder situated at the far end of the meadow and sit down, settling my back against the stone. "Come here," I request to her softly, holding out an arm.

She consents at once, fitting herself against my chest, my legs on either side of her, and I pull her close, burying my nose in her ice-speckled hair.

The snowfall slowly begins to decrease, though we remain for the most part sheltered by the overhanging cleft of rock above us, and Bella picks up my left hand in both of hers, fiddling with my wedding ring again. She has not made a single noise ever since we left the house, and her idle movements as she twirls the band on my third finger are halting, tentative.

Angling my head far to the left, I peer curiously at her profile, half-expecting the pursed lips that she unknowingly tantalizes me with whenever she is deep in thought. "Something's bothering you," I observe, sweeping her windblown tresses over her shoulder. "What is it?"

She blinks rapidly, awakening from her pensive mood, and replies in a hasty, flustered voice, "Huh? I'm fine. Nothing."

I raise an eyebrow ever so slightly. She lowers her gaze, chewing on her bottom lip, a fingernail tapping nervously on the top of my ring. "Bella." The chastisement in my tone as I say her name is gentle, but still demanding. My curiosity is scalding the edges of my mind. "Please tell me."

Sighing very quietly, Bella flips my hand over and traces the lines on my palm with a fingertip, and I struggle to retain my hold on patience. Nearly half a minute passes before she speaks, remarking hesitantly, "Remember when we talked about...me learning how to fight?"

I grow still, staring intently at the side of her face, and hold my breath for a few seconds in order to control my immediate reaction – which is to tell her in no uncertain terms that she will not be putting herself at risk. Once I am fairly convinced that I can respond calmly, I tell her, "Yes."

She twists in my arms, turning her body so that we can see one another face-to-face, and my breath catches in my throat at the timid, hopeful plea lighting up her scarlet eyes. "Do you think that maybe you could teach me now?" she asks.

Disquiet writhes uncomfortably in the pit of my stomach, leaving a sour aftertaste on my tongue that even Bella's succulent fragrance cannot completely obscure. But I cannot refuse her this opportunity to learn how to defend herself; she deserves to know how to keep out of harm's way during a fight. Surely she has gained enough maturity and responsibility to not consciously place her life in jeopardy...

A memory flashes with perfect clarity across my vision. A frightened, pale angel backed against a cliff wall, holding a jagged shard of granite in her hand, the knuckles wrapped inside a thick brace. She rakes the sharpened point of the rock up her other arm, baring the skin, and presses it into the crease in her elbow, preparing to draw blood – an attempt to distract our assailants by sacrificing herself –

I tighten my eyes briefly, willing the image to disappear. Bella will never do something that reckless again. I will not allow it. Focusing on her lovely, anticipating expression, I force my lips to flex into a tiny smile and answer with a nod, "If that's what you want."

Clearly it is, for she scrambles to her feet as soon as the words leave my mouth and flits to the opposite end of the meadow. I follow suit at a slower pace, my feelings of unease and aversion increasing with each step, and come to a stop while Bella continues on, putting some distance between us.

The ground here is more even – the terrain forming a vaguely circular area about twenty yards in diameter. Though it is nowhere near as large as the field we had used for practice in battling the newborn army, it should serve as an adequate space in which I can educate Bella in how to conduct herself in a fight.

She pauses near the tree line and spins on heel to face me, her entire countenance blazing with fierce determination, and a brisk winter wind tosses her dark hair wildly around her slim frame. "I'm ready," she announces, immediately lowering her body into a hunting crouch.

I shake my head at her, resisting the impulse to expel a heavy sigh. Despite her almost unnatural adaptation to vampirism, she still has a propensity to behave like a typical newborn in many ways. "Not like that, Bella," I say quietly, moving towards her.

She cocks her head sideways in confusion. "What do you mean?"

Standing behind her, I hold her arms and pull them farther away from her torso, bending her elbows a little further. "You need to guard your sides just as much as your front," I instruct her, my tone brusque. She notices the change and glances at my expression from the corner of her eye. I inwardly berate myself for allowing my temper to burn against my wife, and then concentrate on softening my voice as I go on. "Straighten up a bit." I lay a palm on the middle of her back, pushing gently, and she uncurls her spine. "That's good; now, move your right foot forward and balance your weight evenly – yes, that's it – in case you have to turn around..." My eyes rake over her posture, trying to ignore the fluid lines of her supple form, and instead evaluate the strategic placement of her limbs. "Perfect," I declare, and give her a crooked smile.

Bella beams proudly. She holds her position while I head back to my previous spot. My instincts rouse as I turn – along with the monster, who rumbles deep inside the darkest shadows of my being – and the muscles corded to my bones tense, molding my body into a familiar combat stance. "Are you ready?" I ask her. Part of me is hoping desperately that she will recant her decision to begin this exercise, but I know that her one-track, extremely stubborn mind will never consider the possibility.

In that fraction of a second as I wait for her reply, I remember the very first time I looked across this meadow and saw her standing there. The sun had been shining brightly on that day, igniting streaks of auburn in her chestnut locks and creating a shimmering halo of gold around her head. Her wide-eyed wonder of both the meadow itself and my sparkling marble skin was a source of indescribable joy for me. She was my sweet, trusting and adorable lamb in that instant, and I loved her all the more.

The memory vanishes in a swirling blast of snow, replaced with the vision in front of me. A graceful, exquisitely beautiful and dangerous predator that is now my equal in many respects and yet so far above me in all the ways that matter looks on with calculating, but still trusting, wide eyes. My love for her is an unending, unquenchable passion that has forged a permanent link from my soul to hers, and dimly I realize that I have started to hinge my sanity on faith – on her promise that we will always be together, whether in this life or the next.

"I'm ready," Bella replies firmly, and I put aside this new revelation for another time.

"All right. When I say ‘go', I want you to try and pin me." She nods – though the quick, nervous gulp in her throat gives her away. I murmur in a soothing tone, "It's like hunting, love; allow your instincts to guide you, but not control you. Find a medium between reacting and planning."

"Okay." She inhales a deep breath and slowly lets it out, settling her weight on the balls of her feet.

I wait for another beat, and then say under my breath, "Go."

At once, Bella stalks forward, holding her defensive pose quite well for a novice, and without the use of my gift, I have no foresight as to what she will do next.

Carefully, I sidestep to the right, my eyes locked on her approach. She compensates immediately, adjusting her footing...and I spot a weakness. She slides her left foot back; I dive at her, fastening my arms around her torso and locking my hands around the opposite wrists, and we fall to the ground.

Without affording her the slightest moment to gain her bearings, I pin her body to the snow-covered grass with mine. She twists to the side, growling involuntarily, and I see my opening to rip into the silken, alabaster skin of her throat with my teeth, severing her head from her shoulders –

Horrified by the workings of my own mind, I leap up and away from her, turning around so she cannot see my expression, which must be contorted by revulsion and shock.

Clenching my fists, I take in a deep, cleansing breath through my nose. The intoxicating aroma of freesia fills my lungs, serving to remind me that I am fighting not an enemy, but Bella – my Bella – and my thoughts reel, my stomach churning as I recall how the tactical part of my brain had envisioned tearing her apart...

I shudder mightily, flexing my hands in an effort to dispel the urge to destroy something.

A soft rustle echoes behind me. The monster shrieks for me to defend myself, but I shove him back into the shadows, forcing my primal instincts to recede.

I hear Bella breathe in as she sits upright, and can feel her gaze on my back as I stare at the barren landscape, appalled for the first time in a while with my own vicious nature.

"I'm sorry, Bella," I mutter, the apology bathed in pained remorse.

"No, I'm fine." Ice crunches faintly as she gets to her feet, her jacket crackling while she brushes the snow from her clothing. "Let's go again," she says, persistent as ever.

I close my eyes, squeezing them shut tightly to block out the images that are emblazoned on the backs of my lids. "I can't." I can't pretend to attack you again. It will kill me to see your death – even if it's only imagined.

"What do you mean, you can't?" she asks in bewilderment. "We just started."

I do not answer, continuing to pull in slow breaths of chilled, floral-scented air. I cannot bear to disappoint her, but neither will I subject the both of us to the torture of resuming this training. A ghostly touch of the emptiness I felt last spring in Volterra sends a rush of icy dread through my veins, and I barely hold back another shiver.

"Look," Bella murmurs, her tone soft and persuasive, "I know I'm no good at this," I almost turn around to contradict her, but am afraid of what she will see on my face, "but I can't get better if you don't help me."

When I refuse to respond again, I hear the wind sing around her lithe frame just before she tackles me, and we tumble into the snow. I remain passive, averting my eyes while self-preservation tightens the muscles in my body, attempting to compel me to defend myself. But there is no protection from the divine creature poised above me, straddling my abdomen as she holds my arms to the ground in an unbreakable grip.

I catch a glimpse of her triumphant smile and stay frozen in place while she bends down and presses a gentle kiss to my neck, right above the jugular. "I win," she proclaims smugly.

My competitive streak flares weakly, causing my remote gaze to narrow, but again I do not speak. There are no words that I can offer her that will absolve me of what my sick, blackened mind envisioned while she fought to free herself from my grasp.

Though Bella does not, and will not ever, know what I saw in my mind's eye, she unwittingly shames me further by asking, "Edward? What's wrong? Why won't you teach me?"

The skin on my wrists tingles from the contact with her hands, and my palms sting with want, yearning to touch her as she stares down at me, confused and impatient. If only there were a means to make her understand that although we consciously chose to face each other in a mock-battle, my – our – instincts do not differentiate between practice and reality.

It was easier before, when I wrestled with my brothers, to allow the playfulness to control my actions and not visualize the inevitable outcome. Besides, their thoughts are usually so loud that I spend most of my time listening to what they are planning instead of conjuring my own strategy.

But when it is just Bella, I am alone with the monster inside my head. He may have claimed her as his mate, but like with any primal creature, survival supercedes all other natural impulses.

Time lengthens, the seconds stretching out into a whole minute, and finally I summon the courage to reply. My attention focuses on a spot right beside her left cheekbone, unable for the moment to meet her eyes, and my voice is quiet as I admit, "I just can't...bear it. Emmett and Rosalie know as much as I do. Tanya and Eleazar probably know more." Perhaps I can convince her to seek out other help from those who have fewer qualms about demonstrating fighting techniques. "Ask someone else," I say, hearing the plea in my tone, but am confident that Bella will not have noticed.

She huffs, her expression screwing up in frustration. "That's not fair!" she complains. "You're good at this. You helped Jasper before – you fought with him and all the others, too." An indefinable emotion crosses her features, and she suddenly loosens her grasp on my wrists, placing her hands on her waist. Tilting her head, she frowns, upset by whatever thought has occurred in that fascinating mind of hers. "Why not me?" Bella's red-orange irises cloud with uncertainty. "What did I do wrong?"

Exasperated, I sigh loudly, glaring up at her. Silly girl – automatically assuming that she did something wrong when in fact I am the one who should be apologizing to her.

The insecurity that she had somehow displeased me shows plainly on her flawless heart-shaped face, and I quickly soften my gaze, wordlessly consoling her that nothing she could ever do would make me unhappy.

Once her expression clears a little, I try to clarify, though the words stick to my tongue, struggling to remain unsaid. "Looking at you that way, analyzing you as a target." The image of my teeth ripping into her throat resurfaces hazily, and a stab of pain lances through my chest. "Seeing all the ways I can kill you..." I flinch. "It just makes it too real for me." I shrug, attempting the lighten the tense atmosphere, and surrender to the desire to put my hands on her hips, holding onto her gently. "We don't have so much time that it will really make a difference who your teacher is," I point out. "Anyone can teach you the fundamentals."

A ridiculously adorable scowl paints Bella's face, twisting her full lips into a pout. Smiling, I lift a hand to touch her protruding bottom lip, enjoying the texture as I run my finger along the soft curve. "Besides, it's unnecessary. The Volturi will stop." Or we will make them stop. "They will be made to understand."

"But if they don't!" Bella protests. So headstrong, so determined – the light shining from her fierce countenance dazzles my eyes. "I need to learn this." She frowns down upon me; I refuse to be swayed.

"Find another teacher." Please, I silently add.

She folds her arms over her chest, sulking, and turns her face aside, depriving me of seeing her expression. My fingers dance up her sides, and I surprise her by tugging her body to mine, my arms encircling her slender frame. Bella snuggles her cheek into my collarbone and holds me in return, her hands snaking around my torso. I rest my head atop hers, grateful that despite the fiasco our practice session turned out to be, we can still enjoy a brief reprieve in each other's company amid the peaceful stillness of winter.

Of course, once we get back to the house, Bella literally pounces on the opportunity to resume her education, per se. She latches onto one of Emmett's massive arms and beseeches him to help her. He jumps at the chance to dish out some payback, since she is still considerably stronger than him – not to mention his wounded pride as a result of the arm-wrestling match – and the two of them spend the remainder of the daylight hours sparring in the open area beside the river.

As a result of her newfound diligence, Bella becomes the epitome of a good student throughout the next few days, more persistent than ever in learning how to fight. After several sessions with Emmett, she then calls upon Rosalie to teach her a subtler attack pattern – and both she and Bella conspire against me throughout their lesson, attempting to sway me from my decision to abstain from instructing my wife myself – with no success.

Eventually, Rose decides to summon Tanya and Eleazar, and both of them graciously agree to help out with Bella's training. Renesmee and I look on while Tanya explains how to read an assailant's body language – whether there is an opening to attack or a need to stay defensive – and Eleazar instructs Bella on how to divide her attention between a one-on-one battle while keeping an eye on her surroundings at the same time, lest she stumble into another brawl accidentally.

Even Garrett pitches in; he has a certain fondness for Bella that stems from her unique reactions to circumstances, and his presence among the group is never a hindrance, as it might be for a less sociable nomad. And Zafrina takes a turn as well, though quite frankly my nerves are stretched as tight as piano wires while my Bella challenges the fearsome, dark-skinned Amazon, but she comes away from the experience with an improved appreciation of her smaller size, having learned a couple evasion maneuvers from Zafrina.

One afternoon, Kate wanders into the backyard, watching Bella and her band of instructors with a thoroughly bored expression. Inspired by my cousin's appearance, I call out, "Bella, why don't you take a break from fighting practice and work with Kate on projecting your shield?" Kate's golden eyes blink once at me, startled. I keep my attention fixed on Bella.

Her reddish-orange irises light up, and she immediately motions for Kate to join her while the others clear a space.

A hand unexpectedly snags my wrist, pulling hard. "Come on, Edward," Kate mutters as she drags me with her towards Bella. "We'll need a second opinion to make sure her projection is working." Her thoughts are flying – but I determine the outcome of her internal calculations all the same.

Stopping beside Bella, who peers sidelong at Kate and I in confusion, I raise an eyebrow and remark, "So that's my purpose in this exercise? Guinea pig?"

"Do you have another suggestion?" Kate counters. She tightens her mouth, trying to mask the amused smirk tugging at the corners of her lips.

I sigh, defeated. "Not really."

"Wait." Bella's head whips from side to side, staring first at me, then at Kate, and back again. "What?"

I turn to her, moving aside a strand of hair from her cheek as I explain. "In order to project your shield, you need to have someone nearby who can tell if it's working. Kate is going to use her ability on me, and you will have to protect me from it." I smile at her, though her lips have parted in horror as I finished speaking, and add teasingly, "Quite the reversal of roles for you and I."

"No," Bella retorts sharply. "No." Her eyes flash over to Kate. "Not that way. Why can't Zafrina just use her gift instead?"

I notice a strange, poignant undercurrent of fear in her tone. Part of me wonders where it comes from, and the other part squirms with unease, believing that I know her fear's origin all too well.

"You need better motivation than just shielding Edward from an illusion." Kate's pale features soften a little as she meets Bella's wide eyes. "I know you hate seeing him in pain. But just think:" she goes on earnestly, "once you get a handle on your ability, no one will be able to hurt him. Not even Jane."

The barest wince crosses Bella's face when Kate mentions Jane, but then her eyes tighten and she looks up at me, asking, "Are you okay with this?"

"Of course, love." Reaching for her hand, I cradle it in mine and bring it to my lips, kissing her knuckles tenderly. "If it will help you hone your talent, then I can handle a couple of electric shocks."

"It may be more than a ‘couple'," Kate mentions blithely. Bella fixes her with a hard stare. "Oh, don't worry – I'll keep it on a low setting. It will feel like a zap of static electricity." To start with, anyway, she amends silently, and I give her a warning glare. She merely grins toothily in response.

Taking in a deep breath, Bella squares her shoulders and adopts the now-familiar expression of fierce determination. "Right." Then she frowns uncertainly. "Should I...touch his arm or something?"

Eleazar speaks up from several feet away, answering, "Since this is the first time you've attempted to shield someone other than yourself, you'll need to stay as close to Edward as possible so that it extends to him, too."

With a short nod, Bella spins on heel to stand in front of me, her slender arms wrapping tightly around my waist. Instinctively, my arms raise to embrace her – but as I remember that I will be on the receiving end of Kate's power, it would probably be better if I do not hold onto Bella on the off chance that I might inadvertently hurt her. So instead, I offer her a crooked smile. "You can do this," I murmur in encouragement.

Kate ambles closer; Bella eyes her warily. "The first thing you need to do," the blonde vampire says in a businesslike tone, "is to get a sense of how your shield works. Try to visualize it around you."

Bella's eyelids fall half-closed, her brows drawing together, and her grip on my body constricts just noticeably. "I...think –" she grits out through her teeth.

"Then let's give it a try." A palm touches my shoulder, and my nerves abruptly sizzle, pain shooting along my arm all the way to the tips of my fingers. I hiss, squeezing my eyes shut to keep from breaking free of Bella's grasp.

Gasping, Bella removes her arms from my waist and cries, "I'm sorry!" Then she pivots on one foot to give Kate a positively murderous stare. "You could've given me a little more time," she accuses.

Kate shrugs, not bothered in the least by the small brunette's threatening demeanor. "Like I said," she comments, "motivation."

A low growl rumbles in Bella's throat. She whirls back around to face me and enfolds my waist in her arms, pressing herself against my chest as if her body could shield me from Kate's gift as well, and frowns in concentration. After several seconds, she mutters to Kate, "Again."

For almost three days, with brief periods of rest and hunting in between, I am the recipient of over a thousand shocks, each one at varying levels of intensity despite Kate's assurance to Bella that it would be ‘low', and I have only been shielded from less than half of those shocks by Bella's gift.

She is doing remarkably well for a newborn, but her shield is sporadic – and not always entirely impenetrable. Sometimes she succeeds in protecting me completely from being shocked, and other times she has lessened the pain but not negated it. She apologizes every time I so much as flinch, her perfect face contorting into a mask of anguish, and I do all I can to comfort her.

"It's fine, love," I tell her, leaning down to press my lips on the worried crease between her eyebrows. "You're doing so well. I'm proud of you." I stroke her cheek with the back of my hand.

"But you're still getting hurt," she whimpers. "It's just so hard. Sometimes I think I've got it, and then the stupid thing snaps back...like a rubber band. I can't hold onto it."

"You're learning," I remind her gently. She groans a little and drops her head onto my chest as though exhausted, and I chuckle under my breath. "Don't be so critical of yourself, Bella. You'll figure this out soon enough. I have faith in you."

"You're just saying that because you're my husband." The grumbled words are muffled by the fabric of my shirt.

Shaking my head, I allow my arms to enfold her supple frame, pulling her closer. "One of many reasons, love." I bury my face in her silky brown locks, filling my lungs with the enticing scent of freesia.

The sound of a throat being cleared causes us to awaken from our reverie. Kate crosses her arms over her chest, her cornsilk hair swirling in a breeze, and quirks an eyebrow sardonically. "If you're ready..."

A soft chorus of laughter follows Kate's statement. Our practice sessions have drawn a small audience in the last day or so. Eleazar, Carmen, and Tanya have been joined by Garrett, Benjamin, Tia, Siobhan, Maggie – and even Alistair has taken an interest as he peers down from a third story window.

Bella adjusts her hold around my torso, her expression collapsing into a deep grimace, and jerks her chin up and down once. Kate places her hand on my shoulder. A tiny wave of electricity skitters across my arm – nowhere near as strong as the last one. "Hey," I announce cheerily, pleased that my voice sounds relatively normal. "That one barely stung. Good job, Bella."

She inhales through her nose, her small hands clenching into fists that I can feel against the small of my back, and orders with a quiet grunt, "Again, Kate."

I hold my breath, trying to brace myself while not locking down the muscles in my body – I do not want to discourage Bella – as Kate touches my shoulder once again.

There is not so much as a whisper of pain registering to my raw nerves.

I sigh, relieved. "Nothing that time," I declare, glancing over at Kate, who lifts her palm with mild surprise.

Really... She lifts a flaxen eyebrow. "That wasn't low, either." Unless you have a high tolerance for pain, cousin, she taunts mildly. Which may be the case since you're sharing your bed with a newborn.

As I shoot her a withering glare, Bella tells her in a breathless voice, "Good."

"Get ready." Kate pauses for a whole second – Bella scrunches her eyes shut – and I feel a faint pressure on my upper arm.

Then, an explosion of white-hot fire races through my entire body, and every muscle grows taut in reaction to the pain. A shudder ripples along my spine, and I suck in a breath, the air hissing between my gritted teeth.

Bella clutches me to her as I sag a little, my knees weakening; Kate apologizes with her thoughts and takes a step back while I focus on holding onto Bella in an effort to regain my bearings. "Sorry! Sorry! Sorry!" she repeats, a heartbroken lament, biting her lower lip as she hangs her head in misery.

At once, I put aside my physical discomfort and hug her tight to my chest; she presses her face into the hollow below my collarbone, still mumbling with needless guilt. "You're doing an amazing job, Bella," I tell her sincerely, laying my cheek on the crown of her head, and her hushed voice falls silent. "You've really only been working at this for a few days and you're already projecting sporadically." She truly is an extraordinary creature, and the pride and contentment I feel in knowing that she is mine, that I belong to her, only increases my adoration of the woman who brought my frozen, dead heart back to life.

Angling my head a little, I kiss Bella's forehead and then glance sideways at Kate, whose facial expression is amused, but her eyes are two shards of deep, unreadable topaz. "Kate," I invite in a lighter tone, "tell her how well she's doing."

My cousin purses her lips, and the inner monologue of her thoughts suddenly changes to Slovak – a clear sign that she is hiding something from me. I narrow my gaze at her while she remarks casually, "I don't know. She's obviously got tremendous ability, and we're only beginning to touch it." Kate puts her hands on her hips and lifts one shoulder in a faint shrug. "She can do better, I'm sure. She's just lacking incentive."

The slender figure nestled against me goes rigid, and Bella's head snaps up, her disbelief plain on her heart-shaped face even as her full lips curl away from her teeth. Unfazed, Kate holds her stare for half a second before her attention shifts in the direction of the riverbank behind us. Murmurings from our gathered audience, all of them in favor of Bella's tremendous effort thus far, melt into a quiet hum as Kate gives away her intentions by mentioning a single word – a name – in her nearly indistinguishable thoughts.

"Kate..." I begin to warn her, but the lithe blonde is already in motion. Sprinting along the curve of the river, she slows to a halt in front of Senna and Zafrina, the latter holding hands with Renesmee. Jacob, who is shadowing the little girl a few paces behind, tenses and then relaxes as Kate approaches the group.

"Nessie," Kate says brightly, "would you like to come help your mother?"

Renesmee smiles her glittering smile and nods eagerly just as Bella snarls in refusal. "No."

I pull her close in an attempt to soothe her swiftly burning temper, but she jerks free from my arms, her teeth bared in a vicious scowl as Renesmee darts across the snow-covered field, making a beeline for her mother. "Absolutely not, Kate," Bella says threateningly as the blonde vampire and the two Amazons follow after our daughter, and I watch her carefully, noticing how her stance is subtly transitioning into an aggressive crouch.

Bronze ringlets wafting out behind her like a banner, Renesmee leaps into her mother's open arms and cuddles into her embrace, tucking her head under Bella's chin. "But Momma," she proclaims in a determined voice, "I want to help." Her tiny palm touches Bella's neck, showing her a collage of images of them together, a strong desire to help coloring her thoughts.

Bella shakes her head vehemently. "No." A sudden movement catches her eye, and she jerks backward a step while Kate slides one foot forward, an outstretched hand held out in front of her.

My initial instinct is to protect my family from potential danger, and my body starts to lean into a defensive pose, ready to block Kate's advance. Stay where you are, Edward, she cautions mentally. This is the only way she's going to learn how to control her power.

Though it challenges every natural reaction in my entire being, I keep myself rooted in place while Bella continues to retreat. "Stay away from us, Kate," she hisses through her clenched teeth.

"No." Smiling a predatory grin, Kate deliberately lowers herself into a crouch and stalks forward, the ends of her cornsilk blonde hair crackling with static electricity as she primes the energy that fuels her talent, channeling a current into her raised palm.

Without taking her eyes off her adversary, Bella guides Renesmee's small form around her torso so that the little girl is curled against her back, her tiny arms and legs locking around Bella's body as she peers with wide dark eyes at the approaching vampire.

Once her hands are free, Bella spreads her arms in the position she learned from me days ago in our meadow, and as the seconds tick by I watch her expression shift with growing apprehension.

Her sunset-colored irises seem to darken and smolder at the same time, her lowered brow casting a slight shadow over her eyes, and her nose wrinkles like a lioness on the hunt as her lips are drawn even further away from her exposed teeth. Her widely spread fingers begin to tremble, and she inhales a quick breath, her eyes widening a bit in what appears to be surprise.

A scorching flash of rage instantly devours that emotion as Kate inches closer. A harsh roar rips itself from Bella's mouth, the sheer ferocity of the noise prompting me to advise my cousin. "Be careful, Kate."

Kate slinks forward another step – then, completely unaware of the hostility emanating from the newborn vampire only a short distance away – she turns to look at me. "Can you hear anything from Nessie?" she asks calmly.

While she is speaking, Bella senses her opportunity to strike and pulls her knees downward, preparing to spring on the inattentive blonde. Several minds shout warnings to me, but before Bella can fully formulate the path of her leap, I place myself in the open space separating them, my body an obstacle for Bella's line of sight to Kate.

Glaring sternly at her, I answer Kate's question. "No, nothing at all." The tenor of Renesmee's thoughts winked out at the same time that Bella seemed to be surprised at something, which I suspect is the enhanced power of her shield. "Now give Bella some space to calm down, Kate," I order, my voice low and hard. "You shouldn't goad her like that. I know she doesn't seem her age, but she's only a few months old."

Kate immediately retorts, her tone matching mine, "We don't have time to do this gently, Edward. We're going to have to push her." Even you cannot deny that Bella's ability could very well be our only line of defense against the Volturi guard. "We only have a few weeks," she continues aloud, "and she's got the potential to –"

The heaving breaths of the provoked newborn behind me are shot through by a rumbling, animalistic growl. As exceptional as she is, Bella has neither the discipline nor the practice in controlling the blood lust brought on by pure, undiluted fury. I cut off Kate's reasoning with a sharp rebuke, widening my stance a bit in case Bella is able to slip past my guard, "Back off for a minute, Kate."

Though she frowns in frustration, Kate straightens from her crouch and lowers her hand. You know I'm right, she snipes inwardly. You can't protect her forever, Edward – not even from herself.

Perhaps not. But I will be damned if I stop trying.

"Kate," Bella calls out, her wind chime voice warped by the grating sound of resentment. The ground shifts infinitesimally beneath her muted approach, and my nerve endings fizzle in anticipation as her palm settles into the slight curve at the small of my back. She inhales, the air entering and leaving her lungs at a faster pace than before, as if she is winded, and then commands, "Again. Edward only," she adds, the warning glaringly obvious in her tone.

Rolling her eyes, Kate darts forward and lays her slender hand on my shoulder. Well?

"Nothing," I reply with a smile. Bella's fingertips press further into my skin, her breath hissing through her teeth.

With her hand still resting on top of my shoulder, Kate amplifies the electric charge passing through her body and asks, "And now?"

"Still nothing." My smile tilts to one side while I quirk a smug eyebrow at her.

Like a high voltage pylon, the current of energy radiating a few centimeters from Kate's alabaster skin heats the atmosphere surrounding the four of us. "And now?" Her voice is strained by exertion as she channels a sizeable amount of her full power into her palm.

"Nothing at all."

Kate grunts in defeat and backs away, her hand falling to her side with a dull thump. I scarcely resist the impulse to spin around and embrace my Bella; her fearless determination is a source of never-ending pride and admiration for me, and I wish that I could have even a fraction of her indomitable spirit.

Intrigued by this outcome, Zafrina summons an illusion in her mind and pushes it towards us. "Can you see this?" she questions in her throaty, deep voice, her ruby eyes staring intently at the three of us.

I shake my head fractionally. "I don't see anything I shouldn't."

"And you, Renesmee?"

Now that my daughter and I are encased within Bella's shield together, I find that I am able to hear her thoughts once again. Convinced that this is a great game, I sense the little girl's amusement as she also shakes her head at the dark-skinned vampire, her cheek brushing against her mother's neck.

The pressure behind the hand resting on my back has increased in the last few seconds, as if Bella is trying to support her weight by leaning on my body, and her quick breaths have turned into panting. I can only imagine the Herculean effort she is utilizing to maintain the protective barrier encircling us.

I am about to suggest that she take a break when Zafrina announces, her mind humming with speculation, "No one panic. I want to see how far she can extend."

With that, a curtain of blindness falls over the group surrounding the little practice field. Each of them gasps, shocked, as their view of the world disappears, and I pause for a moment to filter out their mental exclamations from my head.

"Raise your hand when you get your sight back," Zafrina tells the small group, and then levels a serious, unblinking gaze at Bella. "Now, Bella. See how many you can shield." She motions with one hand toward the anxious vampires scattered throughout the clearing.

A puff of air caresses the back of my neck as Bella releases a breath. I hear her teeth grinding against one another while she concentrates, and I studiously monitor the others' thoughts, waiting for any indication that her shield has swollen to include another.

Kate is the first. Her eyelids flutter, her vision refocusing on the snowy backdrop, and she slowly raises a hand as Bella groans very softly in relief.

It really is quite a marvel how Bella's mental shield works. I say as much in a low voice while she leans more heavily on my body, her panting breaths stirring my hair like a tepid breeze. "Fascinating! It's like one-way glass. I can read everything they're thinking, but they can't reach me behind it. And I can hear Renesmee, though I couldn't when I was on the outside." A thoughtful hum vibrates in my throat. "I'll bet Kate could shock me now, because she's underneath the umbrella."

Sifting briefly through the din echoing inside my head, I feel only a small pang of disappointment that the one mind I am so desperate to hear is still not present. "I still can't hear you..." I admit to Bella, my eyes narrowing as I consider the probable reasons for her continued silence. "Hmmm. How does that work? I wonder if..." Perhaps there is another layer to her mind's protection – a secondary barrier that acts involuntarily to safeguard her consciousness from attack or infiltration. It makes sense, I suppose.

Garrett lifts his hand a moment later, a slight half-smile on his face. Zafrina nods once in satisfaction and offers a word of praise to Bella. "Very good. Now –"

A sharp gasp cuts across Zafrina's statement, and my vision suddenly goes black, along with the three others that Bella had been shielding. Renesmee panics, crying out for help with her mind; Bella huffs wearily, and our daughter's fearful thoughts vanish from my perception, her mother's ability protecting her from the illusion once again.

"Can I have a minute?" Bella pleads, sounding absolutely exhausted – though, of course, that exhaustion is purely mental. Almost the entire length of her slender body is pressed against mine, seeking support, and her palm slides from my back as she heaves a tired sigh.

"Of course." Zafrina dispels her illusion immediately after agreeing to Bella's request, and everyone starts to relax, their sight returning as easily as flicking on a light switch in a dark room.

Disconcerted by the moment of weakness they endured during Zafrina's experiment, our audience mutters quietly to one another as they leave the field. I turn around and move close to Bella, our shoulders touching, and lean over to kiss the top of her head. As I am about to tell her how incredible she is to have made this much progress in such a short time, I hear Garrett's mind enflame with curiosity. My eyes flash over to the tall vampire just as he calls out, "Kate."

"I wouldn't, Garrett," I say as a warning, seeing his course of action within his thoughts.

He ignores me, his scarlet-colored irises bright as he walks up to Kate, pursing his lips in contemplation while she watches his approach with raises eyebrows. "They say you can put a vampire flat on his back," he remarks.

I barely hold back a derisive snort. What does he think that I have been putting up with for the past three days, not to mention the last five hours? He only wants an excuse to speak with the willowy blonde; he is far more curious about her in general than he is about her ability.

Kate, appreciative of his interest and a master of flirtatious dealings, nods her head once in agreement. "Yes." A crooked, wily smile plays across her mouth, and she lifts her hand, wiggling the fingers at him as she asks mischievously, "Curious?"

Shrugging, he replies in a casual tone, "That's something I've never seen." I know she was holding back with Edward, he murmurs inwardly. But still – "Seems like it might be a bit of an exaggeration..." he trails off, eyeing her in dubious speculation.

In the blink of an eye, Kate's expression of playful teasing dissolves into bland seriousness. "Maybe. Maybe it only works on the weak or the young. I'm not sure." A wicked notion materializes in her mind, and though she controls her outward appearance, inside, she is cackling with glee. "You look strong, though," she tells Garrett, appraising him with twinkling ocher eyes. "Perhaps you could withstand my gift." Kate stretches out her hand, palm forward, and stares expectantly at the sandy-haired vampire. Her lips tremble just noticeably as she fights back a grin, certain that Garrett is setting himself up for a fall, and she funnels a potent dose of her ability into her offered hand.

Confident as ever, Garrett smiles broadly at Kate, intent on meeting her challenge. With his index finger, he touches the middle of her palm.

The burning explosion of electricity surges into his body and he gasps, his knees buckling. In less than a second, every nerve is temporarily deadened, and he falls backward – an immobile statue. His head slams into an unfortunate hunk of granite, and the stone splits with a loud crack. Bella flinches slightly beside me; it can be unsettling to witness the debilitation of another immortal. However, I did try to warn him.

"I told you so," I mutter under my breath to the prone vampire on the snow-covered ground.

Several seconds pass, marked by the quivering of Garrett's closed eyelids and his astonished thoughts. Kate cranes her neck to peer down at him, a satisfied smirk on her pale face, and she puts her hands on her hips, looming over Garrett like a conquering warrior.

His eyes snap open, widening in awe as he stares up at the first vampire – and a woman, at that – who has ever succeeded in knocking him down. "Wow," he breathes with a smile.

Kate's smirk wanes, and she quirks an eyebrow skeptically. "Did you enjoy that?" she asks, her tone implying that she doubts his sanity.

"I'm not crazy," he assures her, laughing, and shakes his head as he rolls onto his knees, "but that sure was something!"

"That's what I hear." Kate moves back a half step, giving him room to stand, her gaze roving over his body while she considers the possibility of their mutual interest in one another being more than that of friendly acquaintances. I like him, she declares after a minute or so.

I roll my eyes. For a fleeting, blissful moment, I had actually forgotten that living with the Denali clan is like sharing quarters with a gaggle of sorority sisters.

An outbreak of surprise and suspicion unexpectedly fills my head while a low hum of voices resonates from the front of the house. Trying to sort through the chaos, I then hear my father ask, his tone uncertain and troubled, "Did Alice send you?" Before he has finished speaking, he calls mentally, Edward, come inside.

The background blurs into a wash of muted colors as I sprint to the back door, overtaking Tanya and Siobhan in the process, and dart inside. Carlisle is standing at the front door, his posture tense, addressing two black-clothed figures.

Without pause, I reach out to their minds while threading through the crowd gathered in the living room to join Emmett as he sets himself defensively behind our father.

The pair of vampires on our doorstep are very old, their papery white skin and shrewd thinking reminiscent of Aro and Caius. Both glance fleetingly in my direction as I take a spot beside Carlisle's right elbow, their deep burgundy eyes unusually clear given their age – I had been expecting the thin, milky film that coats the eyes of the Volturi brothers.

Though each newcomer is shorter than myself and very thin, their limbs wiry, their appearances are exact opposites in every other way. The one directly in front of Carlisle has dark, nearly black hair, and the other's ash blonde tresses seem almost a pale gray in the filtered sunlight of the overcast sky.

But it is the tenor of their inward musings that bothers me. These two ancients came halfway around the world from Romania after receiving word of an assembly of immortals, whose objective is to challenge the authority of the Volturi. Having seen the group of vampires clustered together in the house, both Romanians are silently rejoicing, eager to exact their own vengeance on Aro and his brothers.

The dark one shifts his focus back to Carlisle. "No one sent us," he answers, and the brittle, whispery voice – like an icy wind blowing through the bare branches of a dead tree – sends a prickle of caution down my spine.

Acting purely on instinct, I latch onto the familiar consciousness of my daughter, siphoning her mind out from the din of the group. I exhale an inaudible sigh of relief; she and Bella are huddled together in the kitchen, just inside the doorway. Renesmee looks up, and Bella's eyes are wide and apprehensive as she presses her back against the corner wall, listening to what is unfolding in the other room.

Their names are Stefan and Vladimir, my father tells me as he studies the Romanians for a fraction of a second. They have held a grudge against the Volturi for over a millennium. Aloud, he inquires warily, "Then what brings you here now?"

"Word travels," the blonde one replies, his voice almost exactly the same as his companion's. "We heard hints that the Volturi were moving against you. There were whispers that you would not stand alone." A ghostly hint of a smile twists his thin lips. "Obviously, the whispers were true. This is an impressive gathering," he concludes, pleased.

These two are expecting a war, Carlisle remarks adversely in his mind. "We are not challenging the Volturi," he says in a slow, stressed tone. "There has been a misunderstanding, that is all. A very serious misunderstanding, to be sure, but one we're hoping to clear up." He gestures to the side – at the crowded room filled with uneasy vampires. "What you see are witnesses," my father assures, but the Romanian's expressions and thoughts do not change; in fact, they seem a bit...amused...at Carlisle's peaceable manner. "We just need the Volturi to listen. We didn't –"

"We don't care what they say you did," the dark one interrupts. The truth is obvious in his calculating mind, as is the malice he harbors toward the Volturi. "And we don't care if you broke the law."

The blonde one adds, "No matter how egregiously."

"We've been waiting a millennium and a half for the Italian scum to be challenged," the dark one goes on, hatred laced into every word. "If there is any chance they will fall, we will be here to see it."

"Or even to help defeat them," the blonde one inserts, his dark crimson irises glowing with feral hope. Then he amends, "If we think you have a chance of success."

I am through playing word games with these two ancients; I had more than my fill of such exercises in Volterra. Narrowing my eyes at our ‘guests', I call out in a tight voice, "Bella? Bring Renesmee here, please. Maybe we should test our Romanian visitors' claims."

Tension is thick in the room as Bella carries Renesmee through the small crowd, heading straight for Carlisle and I at the front door. Though I do not relinquish my attention from the two Romanians, I note with grim satisfaction that most of the surrounding vampires are deeply distrustful of the new arrivals – and I can tell by their thoughts and the subtle movements of the hardwood floor that Carmen, Tanya, Zafrina, and Senna have adjusted their positions to form a loose, protective circle around my wife and daughter.

"Well, well, Carlisle," the dark one remarks, grinning as he eyes the bronze-haired child clutched in Bella's rigid arms. "You have been naughty, haven't you?"

"She's not what you think, Stefan," my father says at once.

"And we don't care either way." The blonde one shifts his gaze from Renesmee to Carlisle, raising his ash-colored eyebrows ever so slightly. "As we said before."

Their minds are synchronous on this point: it honestly does not concern them in any way if we have broken the taboo of creating an immortal child or not. The Romanians exist by the rule that the end justifies the means. If our supposed breach of the law leads the Volturi to confront us, then Stefan and Vladimir will use that knowledge to their advantage. They mean no harm to us...but it is extremely questionable as to whether or not they will ally themselves with our family if it comes to a fight.

Since I offer no contradiction to their words, Carlisle declares firmly, "Then you're welcome to observe, Vladimir, but it is definitely not our plan to challenge the Volturi, as we said before." His face hardens as he speaks, and his eyes are icy chips of polished topaz.

Bizarrely entertained by Carlisle's fervor and the heightened protectiveness that everyone seems to feel for Renesmee, Stefan comments in an offhand tone, "Then we'll just cross our fingers."

"And hope we get lucky," Vladimir concludes with an enigmatic smile.

Hope. It has become a staying force ever since the first of our witnesses arrived. In the end, there are a total of twenty-eight vampires residing on the Olympic Peninsula – the largest cooperative gathering of our kind in history, with the exception of the Volturi.

Hope begins to weave its spell through everyone's mind, whispering words of support while Bella practices using her shield and Benjamin commands the winds to stir up a cyclone – while Renesmee continues in her accelerated growth – even while the Romanians watch all our movements in silence, convinced in their minds that we have the resources to dethrone their hated enemies.

And my hope... my hope lies with Bella.

While I want more than anything to preserve our daughter's life and the lives of our family, I cannot pretend that the hope of forcing the Volturi to listen is any guarantee of survival – I have been a cynic for far too long to cling to such a fragile hope too tightly.

No, the hope I am beginning to depend on is the promise of forever with my Bella. Though some part of me continues to doubt that I can ever be worthy of heaven – and it is certain that my sole definition of heaven includes Bella – I cannot dismiss the fact that we have passed through so many testing fires together and emerged stronger. Even when I was convinced that she was gone, somehow, we found each other again.

Bella entrusted her soul to me the moment she sat down in the only empty seat in a Biology classroom; I gave her mine, such as it is, on a moonless night as she breathed my name in her sleep.

We no longer belong to ourselves...so how could my soul be taken, cast down into the blackest pit of hell, when hers has completed it? What has been made whole can never be separated.

Naïve. Foolish. Unworthy, the specter of doubt mutters to me.

Then so be it.

I would rather be a naïve fool believing in an illogical hope than face the possibility of a barren eternity of suffering without Bella – my angel, my midnight sun.

We all hope for something. Without it, there is no reason to the world. Our hopes are as different as we are, but it is the one emotion that binds us together, that makes us feel alive.

And so, we hope.

Sometimes it is the only thing we can do.