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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:


15. Secrets

Rating 5/5   Word Count 14208   Review this Chapter

Despite their assurances that it is irrelevant what we had done to provoke the Volturi, Stefan and Vladimir eventually submit to their curiosity about Renesmee and ask for an explanation as to how she came into being.

After repeating the same story I had given the others, Renesmee stretches out a tiny palm, offering the Romanians the chance to experience her gift. Both refuse – but I discern from their thoughts that it is not because they harbor some aversion to her, but in fact they have a significant hatred for any talent that remotely resembles Aro's. Fifteen hundred years of animosity has shaped their opinion of all mental abilities through which one's thoughts are exposed.

I wonder how they will perceive me once they realize what I can do...not that it matters.

Fascinated by the unexpected additions to our group of witnesses, Renesmee asks aloud, the sound of her pure soprano voice causing most of the surrounding vampires to pause and listen, "Why is your skin so different from everyone else's?"

Bella winces in chagrin, but the Romanians are not offended by our daughter's rather blunt question. In fact, their thoughts are vaguely shadowed with remorse. Before I can determine the source of the emotion, an image fills my head of an ancient castle built into the cleft of a jagged mountainside.

It quickly vanishes into another image – this one of a rectangular space lit by torches and constructed of slabs of gray-brown stone. Two chairs sit on a raised dais in the center of the room, decorated by scarlet cushions that mimic the few splatters of dried blood on the floor. Then, Vladimir answers, "We sat still for a very long time, child." Stefan nods in agreement but stays silent as his companion goes on quietly, his burgundy eyes distant, "Contemplating our own divinity."

Quite a few minds scoff at that – Jacob covers the bottom half of his face to stifle a disbelieving snort – but Renesmee pays attention with sincere interest, even as her mother's expression twists a bit in response.

"It was a sign of our power that everything came to us," Vladimir says in a whispery, reflective tone, and a faint smile crosses his white lips. "Prey, diplomats, those seeking our favor. We sat on our thrones and thought ourselves gods." He sighs very quietly. "We didn't notice for a long time that we were changing – almost petrifying. I suppose the Volturi did us one favor when they burned our castles." The stark contrast of vivid yellow-orange flames against a black sky emphasizes his statement, but the lingering sadness flavoring the memory is swallowed up by a grim sense of satisfaction. "Stefan and I, at least, did not continue to petrify. Now the Volturi's eyes are filmed with dusty scum, but ours are bright." He pauses for a beat, and then murmurs, even as he envisions the scenario inside his mind, "I imagine that will give us an advantage when we gouge theirs from their sockets."

Horror flashes briefly in Bella's wide eyes before she adopts a polite smile and invents an excuse to remove Renesmee from the Romanian's company. The little girl starts to protest, but is immediately cowed by the stern, narrow-eyed glare of her mother. She makes no effort to appeal to me; she knows that Bella and I are in total concert when it comes to parenting, and we will not contradict the other's decision.

We spend the rest of the day mingling with our family and guests, giving Bella some time to replenish her mental energy from practicing her shield, and make our way back to the cottage a little after midnight, toting a barely awake Renesmee.

Once she is settled in her crib, I use the remaining hours of the night to demonstrate my love for Bella – telling her without words how proud I am of her, how I am beginning to accept her promise of hope for an eternity together – and we do not separate until the sky has lightened to a pale, wintry gray.

"I'd like to take Renesmee to see Charlie today," Bella announces from nowhere as we are preparing to leave the cottage. Surprised, I stare down at her in silence as she helps our daughter put on her shoes, and she looks up with raised eyebrows when I do not reply. "Is that okay?" she asks, a little uncertain.

I shake off the effects of my surprise and give her a tender smile. "Of course it's all right if you want to see your father, love. I was just a little...startled that you would want to visit him today."

"Well..." She picks up Renesmee, the movement briefly hiding her expression from my view. "I thought it'd be better if I went to him rather than him deciding to come here." Turning sideways, she flips her dark hair over a shoulder and peers at me with a serious, earnest gaze. "I know that everyone promised not to kill anyone in a three-hundred-mile radius, but since Charlie's on the need-to-know plan, I didn't think that introducing him to a bunch of visiting vampires was a good idea." Her nose wrinkles a bit as she concludes her reasoning, and I lean down to kiss the tip, savoring the silky feel of her skin.

"Point taken," I agree softly. A look of relief crosses her perfect features, but it is wiped away before I can even begin to puzzle out the motives behind such an expression. I watch her eyes carefully as I tell her in a quiet voice, "I think it would be best, however, if I stay here and ‘hold down the fort', as it were."

Flashing her a crooked grin, I notice the infinitesimal widening of her pupils – as if she is bewildered that I am volunteering to remain behind. Though I cannot deny that any absence from Bella is not painful, creating an ache in my chest that marks the scar I had rent when I tore myself from her, it is overshadowed by the conviction that she will always come back to me.

But, it seems odd that Bella would be expecting me to insist on accompanying her to her father's house. Is she looking for an excuse to be apart from me for a few hours? Should I rescind my offer to stay and ask to come along? What reason would I give her then?

I go on, explaining, "Having a mind reader on call in a houseful of vampires is a useful tool for avoiding any potential difficulties. Besides, I'd like to talk to Carlisle about the location for our meeting with the Volturi. In the vision, it looked like the same field where we had fought the newborns. It's probably the best choice, since we already know the area so well."

She nods in acceptance, and we begin our journey back to the house. Neither of us seems to feel the need to speak, though I keep stealing sidelong glances at Bella's face, wondering what is going on inside that enigmatic mind of hers.

After about half a dozen of these furtive looks, she shifts Renesmee to one arm and wraps the other around my waist, tucking herself into my side. While she makes no attempt to start a conversation, I have a feeling that she is trying to assuage my incessant curiosity in regard to her thoughts. There is something almost apologetic in her hold, and I press my lips into her hair, breathing in her sweet scent.

Once we are inside, Renesmee fairly jumps out of her mother's arms to greet Zafrina. The tall, dark-skinned vampire sweeps the little girl into her long arms, and then glances over at Bella with solemn ruby eyes. "I thought perhaps we should continue with our practice this morning, young one," she says in her deep, wild voice. "I have a...theory that ought to be put to the test." Her thoughts swirl briefly, not focusing on the specifics of her so-called theory, but I have no objections. Bella has grown tremendously in the use of her shield through Zafrina's tutoring, and the selfish, overprotective side of me rejoices that the Amazon has kept her from hand-to-hand training with Emmett or one of the others.

The unconventional pair head out back, trailed by Senna and Renesmee, and I wander into the kitchen, where my mother is busying herself by cleaning out the refrigerator. Since the wolves have not been around as much, she had noticed a rancid smell earlier this morning and could use the distraction; Esme can be quite prone to constant worrying – particularly in regard to her children.

"Good morning, dear," she greets, her golden eyes warm as she looks up at me. She holds out a plastic container, its contents a mixture of congealed tomato sauce and limp noodles. Throw this out for me, will you?

I promptly toss it into the garbage bag stationed near her on the tile floor, peering through the bay window at the two figures standing across from one another beside the riverbank. "Bella is out practicing again?" Esme's voice is slightly muffled as she sticks her head in the fridge, rooting around for the as yet unknown source of that strange odor.

"Yes." I watch the wind gather Bella's dark hair, causing the tresses to stream behind her like the tail of a comet. "And she plans on visiting Charlie today, as well. She's afraid that he might decide to come here since he hasn't seen Nessie in a while."

Aha! Esme grins in triumph and pulls out a saran-wrapped dish laden with what was once a gourmet dinner and now resembles a child's science project, depositing it into the trash, and ties the bag. "Be sure to give him our best," she tells me as she carries the bag to the back door, tossing it unceremoniously into the can a few feet from the threshold.

"I'm not going with them."

Her head snaps around in surprise. "That's not like you," she comments warily, the fog of worry shrouding her mind thickening as she asks, "Is everything all right?"

"Yes," I respond at once, and then sigh. "No." I lean my shoulder against the side of the refrigerator, staring down at the floor as I mutter, "I don't know."

My mother glides over, placing a comforting hand on my arm. Edward, she consoles mentally, the imminent arrival of the Volturi is taking its toll on everyone. I'm sure that whatever is bothering the two of you can be easily remedied –

"It's not that." I jerk away from her touch and start to pace the length of the kitchen, willing myself not to look each time I pass the window.

Esme, long used to my quicksilver temperament, sits down on the counter next to the sink, watching me with a patient expression. Then what is it?

A puff of breath escapes my mouth as I pinch the bridge of my nose between thumb and forefinger, my eyelids falling closed. "I think..." I come to a halt directly across from Esme. "I think that Bella is keeping something from me," I admit in a low voice.

My mother listens with compassion as I narrate my suspicions, which began the night Alice left – when I came into the cottage and found Bella watching her book go up in flames – and has perpetuated through even this morning.

Once I have finished, Esme holds out a hand towards me and I take it, drawing a small measure of solace from her affectionate smile. You have considered me as your mother for many years, Edward, she muses, and I am very grateful for that gift. So I want you to regard my words as a mother's advice. She waits until I nod in agreement before continuing. Bella may or may not be keeping a secret from you...but even if she is, you need to decide if you will still trust her.

"I do," I blurt out fervently.

Do you? Esme contradicts in a forthright manner, raising an eyebrow very slightly. Trust and love are two very different emotions, Edward, but they are so intricately linked that sometimes it is hard to separate one from the other. Her expression gentles, and she covers the top of my hand with hers as she goes on so that only I can hear. Your love for Bella has been a powerful example to us all, as has her love for you...yet I wonder if you have ever fully stepped back and given her your complete trust. She squeezes my fingers with the lightest pressure. You have always protected her, saved her life many times over, and she has trusted you – blindly and irrevocably. Can you not trust that maybe, just maybe, she has a secret because she is trying to protect you and Renesmee?

I blink at her, stunned. "I hadn't thought of that," I whisper, feeling a bit ashamed, and my gaze flits to the window of its own accord, finding the slender form of my wife near the ice-choked river.

Esme pats my knuckles and then drops her hands from mine, pushing herself off the counter. Just keep it in mind, she suggests, and heads for the staircase, intent on finding Carlisle and asking him to accompany her on a hunt.

Standing motionlessly in the middle of the kitchen, I consider my mother's advice, turning each word over inside my head.

If Esme is right, and Bella is trying to protect Renesmee and I, what reason could she possibly have for not sharing what she knows with me? She must realize that I would do anything in my power to help her. Why would she deliberately keep me in the dark?

A nagging sensation tickles the fringe of my mind, prodding an idea into shape, but it is so undefined that I cannot quite label it. All I know is that it feels like the answer to all my questions should be obvious, but it continues to lurk just out of sight, preventing me from discovering the key to this unusual puzzle.

I do not know how much time has passed, but suddenly my contemplations are interrupted by the back door swinging open and a burst of freesia carried on a brisk gust of air, teasing my senses.

Arranging my features into a casual grin, I comment to Bella as she walks inside, "Did your practice go well?"

"I guess so." She snorts, dubious. "But for the record, Zafrina has some pretty strange ideas about how to strengthen my shield."

I bend down and press a kiss on her brow. "I'm sure you did an admirable job."

Bella leans into my body, her arms coiling around my waist, and a gentle warmth begins to fill the center of my chest, radiating pure contentment as she rests her head over my heart, its silent song playing only for her. My own arms encircle her supple frame, and I lay my cheek on the crown of her head, wordlessly pleading with her to not bear any burden on her own.

Too soon, she pulls away with a reluctant sigh, mumbling, "I need to call Charlie."

She walks into the spacious living room and I follow, staying as close to her as is prudent while she retrieves the phone from its cradle on the end table by the sofa. Then she dials Charlie's number and waits for him to answer, wandering slowly towards the frosted windows.

He picks up after three rings. "Bella?" His tone sounds a bit groggy, but delighted.

"Hi, Dad. I didn't wake you up, did I?" Bella asks nervously, biting her lower lip.

"No, I was already up. Had a couple things to take care of." A newspaper rustles very quietly in the background. "So, are you calling to invite me over? I haven't seen Nessie in a while – and I know you've got...company..." He stumbles a little over the word, betraying his dislike of the current situation.

"Dad," Bella starts, but he talks over her.

"I've been waiting like you asked," he reminds her, perturbed, "but it's going to be the holidays, kid, and you only live a few miles away –"

"Charlie," she interrupts him in mid-rant, her wind chime voice soothing, "we've still got that strictly need-to-know company situation going. I know it's been more than a week since you saw Renesmee, but a visit is just not a good idea right now. How about I bring Renesmee over to see you?"

Silence, broken only by the low sound of breathing, resonates through the handset. Bella glances up at me, her eyes questioning and apprehensive, and I shrug faintly in response. But nearly half a minute later, Charlie mutters in frustration, "Need to know, ugh."

I suppress a chuckle. He and Bella are more alike than they realize.

"Okay, kid," he says, his tone considerably brighter. "Can you bring her over this morning? Sue's bringing me lunch. She's just as horrified by my cooking as you were when you first showed up." He laughs under his breath, and then sighs wistfully.

"This morning will be perfect," Bella declares.

With the promise of seeing his daughter and granddaughter, Charlie's mood has improved dramatically. "Is Jake coming with you guys?" he asks lightly, more rustling noises echoing in the background.

Bella shrugs, though he cannot see her, and replies, "Probably."

"Maybe I should invite Billy, too. But..." Charlie hesitates, and I wonder absently if he and Billy are feuding. It wouldn't be the first time, or the last – both men are incredibly stubborn, and set in their ways. During her father's reluctant silence, Bella touches her fingertip to the glass panel in front of her and slowly traces the pattern of the ice clinging to the outside. "Hmm. Maybe another time," he dismisses, taking a sip of some unknown beverage – most likely a cup of coffee – and effectively closing the subject.

Still absorbed in her thoughts, Bella lowers her hand, murmuring into the phone, "See you in a few." Then her thumb slides to the off button, and she replaces the handset into its cradle with a quiet exhale.

I study her profile, desperately trying to figure out what troubles her. All the signs are there, though they are more subtle than when she was human: the tightening skin around her eyes, the inattentiveness in a conversation, and the way she unnecessarily shifts her weight from one foot to the other.

Just as I am about to question her, a bronze-haired cherub bounces over and wraps her tiny arms around Bella's knees. "Are we going to see Grandpa?"

Looking down at Renesmee with a soft smile, Bella answers, "Yes." She smoothes a stray curl from the little girl's forehead tenderly. "Go find Jacob and ask him if he wants to come with us."

As our daughter disappears out the back door, Bella finally turns to me, the expression on her heart-shaped face open and loving...but there is something hidden in the depths of her nearly amber eyes. "Can I take your car?" she inquires, her lips curving into a rueful smirk. "I don't think it's a good idea to drive mine through Forks. It could start a riot."

I shake my head at her, chuckling, and remark in amusement, "Anything to avoid attention." Fishing my keys out of my pocket, I set them inside her outstretched palm. "What time will you be home?" I inquire softly as her fingers curl around the metal key ring.

She opens her mouth to reply, but Renesmee flits into the small space between us, touching her mother's forearm to let her know that Jacob will meet them in the garage.

"Late," Bella responds to my question, and lifts her shoulders faintly, striving for casualness – though the muted shadow of desolation in her eyes proves that she dreads any separation from me, as do I. "Charlie's not going to be happy unless he gets to spend the whole day with us," she glances down at the little girl, grinning, "and I think that someone's been missing their Grandpa, anyway." She laughs once when Renesmee bobs her tiny head in agreement.

Reaching out, I gently capture Bella's perfect face in my hands and lean forward to brush my lips against hers. "Hurry back to me," I murmur.

She places a slim hand on my cheek, and I quickly turn my head to kiss her palm, the fiery color of her irises smoldering as she holds my gaze. "Always." Her voice is low and husky, and my fingertips dig into her skin involuntarily, my body unwilling to let her go.

I force myself to loosen my grasp, giving Bella a crooked smile to disguise the effort it takes to summon enough self-control to remain behind, when every fiber of my being is screaming for me to not let her out of my sight.

You need to decide if you will still trust her, the memory of Esme's counsel whispers in the back of my head, and it gives me the strength I need to look on as my wife and daughter slip through the doorway, Renesmee waving at me cheerfully over her shoulder.

A handful of seconds later, my ears easily pick up on the familiar sounds of the Volvo's driver's side door opening and closing, the key being inserted into the ignition, and the low purr of the engine.

Aw, c'mon! Jacob grumbles to himself as he stomps into the garage after catching sight of Bella and Renesmee. "Why can't we take your Ferrari?" he protests, glaring down at her. I haven't even had a chance to sit in the thing yet!

"Too conspicuous," Bella retorts immediately.

He rolls his eyes. Sure, sure.

"We could go on foot," she says, a faint scowl drawing her eyebrows together, "but that would freak Charlie out."

"He'd get over it," Jacob pouts, but he nevertheless circle around the Volvo to the passenger door, yanking it open, and flops into the seat. Renesmee clambers from Bella's lap into his, excited to be on her way to visit Charlie.

The thrum of the engine accelerates, the tire treads raking across the cold, hard dirt as they pull out of the garage, and Bella asks kindly, "How are you?"

"How do you think?" he grounds out, his tone acidic. "I'm sick of all these reeking bloodsuckers." She shoots him a severe, admonishing frown and he backpedals, his expression sarcastic as he looks toward the ceiling. "Yeah, I know, I know. They're the good guys, they're here to help, they're going to save us all." A short breath puffs out from between his lips. "Etcetera, etcetera." He shakes his head. I trust them about as far I could throw them – and even that's stretching it. "Say what you want," he comments with certainty, "I still think Dracula One and Dracula Two are creep-tacular."

I chuckle under my breath at his statement, and watch through his eyes as a tiny smile lifts the corners of Bella's mouth. "I don't disagree with you there," she admits.

The break in the forest that is visible through the windshield signals the entry point for the highway, and I take that as my cue to withdraw from Jacob's mind, leaving the three of them to their own devices.

My plans to speak to Carlisle about the location where we would meet the Volturi have been put on hold, as he and Esme have gone hunting, and I am beginning to consider another course of action when my brother's mental voice suddenly echoes within my head. Edward, you should come and see this. And I glimpse the snow-covered hillock on the western bank of the river.

Grateful for the distraction, and mildly intrigued by the level of awe in Emmett's words, I dart outside, spotting a group of about ten or so vampires gathered beside the frozen water. As I draw closer, I notice one lanky figure standing apart from the rest – a motionless statue perched atop a weathered boulder dusted with white by the recent snowfall.

Benjamin is a study of rapt concentration, his mind centered on visualizing his goal, and a half-second later the light breeze stirring everyone's hair and clothing abruptly dies.

A finger of swirling wind stabs into a fissure interrupting the icy surface of the river, pulling the frigid water out and shaping it into a three-foot high stream. While all of the assembled group watches in amazement, the waterspout dances through the spider web of cracks in the ice and then slams into a bristly pine sapling fifty yards downstream with a loud splash.

In the silence that follows, the breeze returns, sending wisps of powdery snow into the air, and a low whistle breaks the stillness. "Damn, kid..." Emmett marvels, shaking his head. "You are something else."

Quick, enthused murmurings answer his comment, floating on top of the thoughts humming within my skull like a hive of bees – and Benjamin, a jaunty grin on his face, leaps down from the boulder, his attention fixed solely on his wife.

Tia's smile is as bright as the sun, her expression radiating a powerful sense of joy and affection as Benjamin bends over and kisses her gently. She says nothing, but they communicate on such a deep, unspoken level that there is no need for words. He knows how proud she is of him.

Peering around Tia's billowing curtain of ebony hair, Benjamin spies me next to my brother and his ruby-colored eyes light up. Edward! he exclaims with pleasure.

A slight swagger in his step, he makes his way across the snowy field, Tia by his side, and comes to a halt in front of me. "What do you think, my friend?" he asks, his arched eyebrows and eager smirk making him look like a boy showing off for his neighborhood pals.

I smile back. "Controlling two elements at once. You've been practicing more than you let on," I insinuate teasingly, shoving my hands into the pockets of my jacket out of sheer habit; the wintry temperature does not bother me in the least.

Benjamin shrugs, replying in his usual amiable manner, "Well, we have your wife to thank for that."

My confusion must be obvious, for he immediately clarifies, "Bella's dedication and focus during her own training is, I must admit, an inspiration to me – and to Tia, as well." He gestures to the side, and Tia nods once in mute accord. "Watching her the other day," he goes on, becoming more animated as he speaks, "I thought to myself: if a newborn can have this much commitment to developing her gift, then surely I can do the same. Although..." he chuckles, remembering the last practice session he had watched between Bella and Kate. "Bella is unlike any newborn I have ever met." And I mean that in the best possible way, he adds inwardly.

"She's one of a kind," I agree softly, repeating the words my sister spoke to Charlie over a year ago. Wrenching myself free from the melancholy echoes of the time in which Alice made that observation, I pin on a crooked smile and say, "Of course, I already knew that she is special, but it's gratifying to realize that my bias is not completely unfounded." Though it is a personal goal of mine during the next millennia or so to convince Bella of her own indescribably beautiful uniqueness.

Benjamin and Tia laugh in response; I join them while Emmett wanders off to search for Rosalie. Getting along with the two younger members of the Egyptian coven comes easily for me – most likely because there are certain similarities between Benjamin and myself. We were both changed at a relatively young age by a vampire that became a father figure in our new existence, and each of us obtained a power that, quite frankly, overwhelms us at times.

But where Carlisle allowed me to grow – become accustomed to our way of life and develop the use of my ability at my own pace – Amun has pushed Benjamin nearly to the point of breaking his mind, determined to forge his creation into an unbeatable weapon.

I think, deep down, the hardened Arabic vampire cares for Benjamin, but it is not the same type of bond that I share with Carlisle. Though he created me, Carlisle has never treated as anything less than a son – a much-loved son, at that – and I will always view him as my father. His example is one that I have and will continue to strive for, especially now that I have been given the incredible gift of a living legacy in Renesmee.

Renesmee. Bella. They must surely be at Charlie's by now.

It would take me less than five minutes to race down the well-worn path to that small house on the edge of the woods...

Unconsciously, my feet begin to shift, and I clench my jaw, willing myself to ignore the intoxicating idea of seeing their perfect faces sooner than anticipated – envisioning the look of surprise and then delight in Bella's wide eyes...the dazzling, excited smile that Renesmee would wear when she sees me...

Stop. The self-inflicted chastisement rings loudly inside my head, clearing some of the fog brought on by my desires from my common sense. They will be back tonight.

But a faint tug issues from somewhere within the core of my body – like there is an invisible string connecting me to Bella – and when it stretches so far, the inexorable pull compels one of us towards the other. I had almost shredded myself to pieces on its razor-sharp edge when I fled from her arms, the only true sanctuary I had ever known, thinking that it was within my power to release her from all ties that bound her to me.

To my everlasting shame, the torture of our separation had claimed us both as its victims, leaving deep scars that I can only pray will fully heal with time...yet I still rejoice in the knowledge that the cord affixed between my soul and hers has remained unbroken.

It seems that my masochistic tendencies have decided to linger, after all.

I need to find a suitable distraction – at least until Carlisle returns from hunting with Esme.

Not trusting myself to pursue my typical attempt at diversion, for I am convinced that if I start to run, I will follow the pull on my heart to Bella, I engage in conversation with various guests scattered throughout the area surrounding the house.

After a very illuminating discussion with Siobhan in regard to how she and my father first met, I catch sight of a familiar willowy figure perched on a branch midway from the top of a knotted old elm, strawberry-blonde waves rippling around her face and shoulders.

At one time, I would have shied away from any one-on-one exchange with Tanya, but she has always been like family to me, and the pangs of loneliness interrupting her thoughts strikes a chord inside my chest.

Pausing at the base of the enormous trunk, I call up to her with a slight grin, "Is this seat taken?"

Topaz eyes stare down in surprise, and then glitter mischievously. "Are you ready for some more 'intimacy coaching', Edward?" she asks, hinting at the little chat we had at the wedding reception. "I guarantee that you and Bella will benefit from the education." Her teeth gleam unnaturally white in the pale light as she smiles at me, her mind briefly overcrowded with illustrations of a man and a woman in compromising positions; however, she and I are both aware that her attempt to block me from her thoughts will be short-lived.

I feign inattention for the moment and swing onto a wide tree limb about a foot beneath and to the left of her location, settling my back against the rough bark of the trunk. "I think we've managed quite well by ourselves, Tanya," I respond to her teasing dryly, and she laughs under her breath, the bell-like sound nearly disappearing into the wind.

Tilting my head, I look up at her, noting the distant ache in her expression. It is a testimony to our long-standing camaraderie that there is no reason for a preamble. I simply say in a low voice, "How long have you felt this way?"

Tanya sighs. I knew that you would hear me sooner or later, she grumbles, the words tinged with reproof – but it is directed internally, not at me. Aloud, she murmurs a vague reply. "A while."

Several images flit across her mind, and I struggle to determine the common factor in each one, hoping to alleviate some of her sadness. "Does Kate know?" I ask after a few seconds. I had glimpsed her pale, smiling face the most in the pictures that filled Tanya's head.

"You think I blame Kate?" she retorts harshly, her gold eyes crackling with indignation. "Am I so petty to you that I would hold my own sister responsible for my pain? If that were true, I would have condemned you long ago for the troubles I've endured!" She glances away from my widened stare, worried about being overheard, and breathes out a tense exhale. Once... she resumes mentally, her thoughts more mild than her spoken words, I might have wanted to blame you for how I feel, but I have evolved from that smitten, narcissistic woman who thought that you could be what she was missing.

"Tanya –"

Please don't interrupt. I need to tell you this. She waits for me to nod in acquiescence before continuing. Part of me also wanted to lay the blame on your Bella – how one encounter with a silly human child had changed your entire demeanor both amazed and aggrieved me – but I held onto that notion for even less time than the idea of making you responsible for my pain.

The earnestness in her steady gaze overshadows the bleak cast to her elegant features as she remarks, I have seen with my own eyes that you and she are meant for one another, and any feelings I may have held for you pale in comparison to the overwhelming passion you share with Bella. She forces a smile, but the gesture is lost to the onslaught of sorrow consuming her entire countenance.

"Tanya," I try again, the lump in my throat hindering my ability to speak, "you can't give up. There is still hope for you."

Edward. A regretful sort of acceptance flavors her internal voice. I have wandered this earth for a millennium. I have lived in whatever capacity I chose, with my mother and sisters for company, and when Sasha was killed, I took up the role of leading my family. But I have always felt this...ache – a gnawing loneliness that even those I love most cannot completely fill. And I have begun to accept that it will remain thus for me; until the end of time, or the end of me. Whichever comes first. She lifts her slim shoulders in a casual shrug, attempting to persuade me of her nonchalant attitude, and failing miserably.

"There is someone for you," I contest adamantly. Never could I have guessed that I would offer this kind of consolation to Tanya, of all people. "Look at me: I had convinced myself that I didn't need anyone when all the while I was slowly killing what remained of my humanity, and then Isabella Swan crashed into my numbed existence and made me see what I had always been searching for. Her."

Tanya is strangely quiet for a few moments, looking down at me with an unfathomable expression, her thoughts repressed like muffled whispers at the very edge of hearing. Then, at length, her face transforms, and the mixture of emotions displayed perplexes me. The sorrow is still prominent, but there are also flickers of exasperation, amusement, tolerance, and what could almost be defined as...pity. Why, Edward Cullen – her tone is light with humor, her lips twitching into a small grin – you have turned into quite the idealist.

"Hmm." Mildly surprised by her observation, and by the fact that I agree, I remark, "I suppose I have. But is it wrong for me to want the best for everyone in my family?" The rhetorical question hangs in the icy air for several seconds, weighted with dozens of abstract implications, and I sense Tanya's uncertainty as she mulls over the correct way to phrase her answer.

I care for you deeply, Edward, so please don't take this as an insult...but... Ire sparks in her ocher irises, her mouth flattening into a thin, angry line. You and I are nothing alike. She takes in a slow breath, the tumult in her mind calming, and goes on. You use your relationship with Bella as an archetype for the inevitability of fate, when in truth you are barely more than a child to this life. I have lived for over ten and a half centuries without a mate. You endured a paltry ninety years of loneliness and self-imposed celibacy before finding your wife – your other half. Tucking a few errant strands of hair behind her ear, Tanya murmurs inwardly, I know you mean well, and perhaps you can understand what I'm feeling on some level...but I must ask you not to try to diminish my grief with platitudes. I am far too old to be coddled.

Respectful of her wishes, I leave my previously chosen words unsaid, and instead ask quietly, "Is there anything I can do?"

I can feel the warmth in her voice as she responds aloud, "That you have listened to me is enough."

She works on putting aside her personal heartache, reminding herself that it is of little consequence in our present circumstances, and out of courtesy I block her thoughts, turning my awareness outward in hopes of hearing Carlisle's return.

A pair of minds tickles the fringe of my perception an instant later; however, it is not the couple I had been expecting. Once I focus on the most recognizable of the two, I easily discern who is approaching, and glance up at Tanya with slight trepidation.

Before I can say anything, a gust of wind screeches through the bare branches and Tanya's nostrils flare, immediately detecting the spicy citrus aroma of her sister. Kate, she thinks out of reflex. Then, to my astonishment, a broad, impish smile parts her lips. Scrambling to her feet, Tanya tiptoes across several boughs until she is hidden from view by the tree's massive trunk. Don't just sit there! she yells impatiently. Hide!

I comply, swiftly threading my way through a tangle of smaller branches and pressing myself against the trunk, wondering at the same time how my cousin's mood could shift from despondency to exuberance in the blink of an eye.

A flash of brilliant gold catches my attention, and I angle my head sideways, watching as Kate and her new near-constant companion Garrett approach the outlying border of the forest. Tanya giggles madly to herself in anticipation, honing in on their murmured conversation, and I am caught up in her ridiculous eavesdropping. Like naughty children spying on an older sibling, we hold our breaths in order to stay completely still and listen intently.

"I just don't understand how you do it," Garrett says to Kate, his tone saturated in earnest curiosity. "I can smell them out there –" he raises his chin and sniffs the air once as though to prove his point, and then crinkles his nose at the distinctly pungent odor of animal blood "– and I have to tell you, it doesn't seem very appetizing."

Kate is only half-listening; most of her attention is fixed on the far-off pounding of hooves on the frozen ground and the direction of the herd's scent. "It's an acquired taste," she comments absently, stepping forward as the itch in her throat begins to build. Then she halts in mid-step, looking over at him with a quirked eyebrow, her dark amber eyes bewildered. "What are you doing?"

He blinks, and then counters, "What are you doing?"

"I'm thirsty," she tells him very slowly, as though explaining herself to someone incredibly dense. "I'm going for a quick hunt. So unless you've changed your mind about your choice of diet, I'll see you later."

A sudden thought occurs to her, and Kate smothers a grin. Twirling a strand of pale blonde hair around her finger, she remarks in an idle tone, "It's too bad, really. I would have liked to see you try and take down an entire herd of deer in four minutes. That's my personal record."

She is diabolical. Garrett has already figured out Kate's little game, but he enjoys their playful banter and acts of competition too much to withdraw. Besides, it is not in his nature to surrender. "You think I can't?" he challenges, effectively hiding his amused smirk.

Kate flips her hair over a shoulder. "I never said that. I only said that you could try." She allows her brilliant grin to conquer the bland expression on her face. "But not today," she declares facetiously, mocking him with her gaze, and starts to amble off into the trees. "I'm too thirsty. You'll only slow me down."

All of a sudden, he is in front of her, blocking her path. "I'll make you a deal, Kate," Garrett offers. "If I prove to you that I can hunt your way, then I get to come with you next time." He grins, his ruby eyes twinkling with merriment and deepening affection for the feisty blonde frowning up at him.

"And if you can't?" Kate asks, placing her hands on her hips.

"I won't hunt my way for a fortnight." It's been done before, he assures himself, more concerned at the moment with accomplishing this task rather than suffering through the thirst for two weeks.

Kate contemplates the terms of their agreement for less than half a minute. "Deal." She extends her right hand.

He grasps it, his long fingers wrapping with surprising tenderness around her slender hand, and shakes once – but does not immediately let go. The pad of his thumb lightly strokes the soft skin of her wrist, his unblinking stare holding hers as he murmurs in a low, almost husky voice, "I look forward to exceeding your expectations, Katie."

Her features soften, the slightly dazed look in her wide eyes reminding me of all the times Bella said that I was dazzling her, and then Kate purses her lips, sending a tiny current of electricity into her palm. Garrett jerks away instinctively, his fingers twitching. "We'll see," Kate informs him coolly, and darts into the snow-covered woods without giving him a chance to reply.

He shakes his hand a few times, chuckling quietly to himself, and turns to head back to the house, seriously considering the notion that he should speak to one of the other members of our family about our hunting methods.

Carmen is right, Tanya muses as she circles around the tree trunk to watch Garrett's departure. He is just the type of man Kate needs: brave, adventurous, and a little bit reckless. She laughs, the sound nearly inaudible above the words she herself spoke within the memory that surfaces in her thoughts. "The Cullens are all evened up in numbers now. Perhaps it will be our turn next, eh, Kate?"

Realization clears the haze from my mind. "That's why you were thinking of her earlier," I say, finally understanding. "You believe that Kate has found her match in Garrett."

And I am glad. She tilts her head to peer sidelong at me, one arm coiled around an overhanging branch as she leans into the open space above the ground, her strawberry-blonde locks dancing wildly in the crisp breeze. I wish my sister nothing but happiness, and he seems like a good man. Not like – she chokes off that thought abruptly, purging all images associated with the sister whose name she refuses to remember.

"He is a good man," I concur, steering the conversation away from that treacherous subject. "From what I've heard in his mind, he has a strong set of principles for a nomad, and would more than likely convert to our way of life in order to build a relationship with Kate." Sitting down on a particularly wide branch, I dangle my feet over the edge as I reflect on the quirk of fate that brings two people together, only to have them face probable annihilation at the hands of the most powerful coven in the world.

And I am no longer just thinking of Kate and Garrett.

The perpetual droning of thoughts inside my head unexpectedly changes pitch. Like noticing a familiar strain of music above a clamor of insignificant noise, my awareness instantly latches onto the benevolent mind of my father. He and Esme are a few miles from home and will be here in less than a minute.

I swing down to a y-shaped limb a short distance below me, intent on speaking to Carlisle before he is pulled into another discussion, and Tanya watches my movements with veiled curiosity. "If you will excuse me, Tanya," I say as I drop to the ground effortlessly, straightening my knees from a slight crouch. "I have some things to talk over with Carlisle." Waving up at her motionless form, I then spin on heel and launch myself into a sprint, crossing the yard in a handful of seconds.

As I open the back door, a soft, intense voice whispers in my skull, I haven't given up hope, Edward.

I smile faintly to myself, entering the house almost simultaneously with my parents, their vivid gold eyes expectant as I approach. After offering a brief word of welcome, I tell Carlisle quietly, "I'd like to speak to you."

"Of course," he agrees at once. "Shall we go to my study?"

Nodding, I gently brush past Esme to head for the staircase. She touches my cheek with her palm, pleased that I seem less anxious about Bella and Renesmee's absence than when she left, and smiles warmly.

After we ascend the stairs to the second floor landing, I allow my father to precede me into the study, and then close the door for some semblance of privacy. He walks over to his desk, the gleaming mahogany wood buried beneath a mountain of books, papers, and topography maps of the Olympic Peninsula, and I can sense his inquisitive gaze on me as I reach for a stack of photos balanced on the bottom right corner of the desktop, rifling through them quickly.

"I've been thinking about Alice's vision," I murmur under my breath. The pain of her departure has dulled somewhat in the last week; I am able to say her name aloud without having to fight back a wince. "As a matter of principle, there are some things that cannot be changed in what she saw, and I believe that one of those constant factors is the location of our meeting with the Volturi."

I hold up a snapshot of the field where more than one battle has already taken place, its wild grass tread upon by my family, James and his coven, the wolves and the newborn army, and even several members of the Volturi guard.

Carlisle nods slowly and folds his arms across his torso, his expression thoughtful. "It is far enough away from Forks to not attract attention," he says in a low voice, "and since we are familiar with the area, we have the advantage of knowing how best to prepare ourselves." It is a sound plan, Edward, he adds mentally.

"The trick is determining which direction they will come from." I bend down and smooth out a map of the Olympic forest and mountain range, the area in question marked by a circle drawn in yellow highlighter. "Some of the details in the vision are sketchy, but it seems like they will arrive from the north –" I trace a line with the tip of my index finger "– right through the Juan de Fuca Strait."

"Mmm... Aro will avoid as much contact with humans as possible, and this route would take them very close to one of the coastal cities," Carlisle disputes mildly, and then gestures to the map. "Crossing the strait here, near the Makah reservation, would help them maintain anonymity and allow for a more direct path to the forest."

"But then, ultimately, they would enter the field from the west."

"Yes. But, that is only a guess." He smiles very faintly. "A well-educated guess."

Humming in the affirmative, I continue to study the layout with narrowed eyes, using my perfect recall to envision the landscape in my mind's eye. Quite literally, we will have to arrange our group of witnesses like pieces on a chessboard: wanting to appear benign, but also needing to position the key players in ideal spots lest the encounter devolves into a fight.

My protectiveness flares white-hot in my chest as I consider the fact that Bella is well on her way to becoming the focal point for our defensive strategy – which will no doubt thrill her, since she warned me back in June that she refused to 'sit on the sidelines' the next time we were pulled into a war.

I do not know if she can do much more than shield me and perhaps one other without taxing her concentration, but it will ensure that she remains by my side indefinitely throughout the battle, if indeed it comes to that –

Son. A hand comes to rest lightly on my shoulder, and I glance up, surprised. Carlisle peers deep into my eyes, his buttery yellow irises mirroring the affection and concern permeating his thoughts as he imparts, Before we become too caught up in planning, I want you to know that Esme told me what you shared with her this morning. I agree with the advice she gave you, and we both want to respect your privacy, as this is really between you and Bella... He squeezes my shoulder briefly. Just remember that I, and Esme as well, are here if you need to talk.

"Thank you," I murmur with sincerity. Before our family is plunged into the dark ambiguity of the future, I must make certain to tell this man – my creator, my mentor, my father, and my friend – how grateful I am to him, and that I should have told him decades ago to never regret his decision to change me. Every struggle and tedious passage of time, even my fit of rebellion, has shaped me into who I am, and led me to the only woman capable of breathing new life into the frozen lump of stone that was once my heart.

Unaware of my internal ruminations, Carlisle lowers his hand and returns his attention to the map, considering the terrain that the Volturi will have to cross and mentally calculating an estimated time frame. He and I pour over each scrap of information at our disposal, secluded in the study for hours on end – until just around sunset, he folds the piece of paper in his hands and sets it down, a quiet sigh escaping his mouth. We've done enough for today, Edward. Besides, I need to relay to Siobhan and Amun our decision on a location. He stands, running his fingers absently through his normally tidy blonde hair, and asks in vague curiosity, Shouldn't Bella be on her way home soon?

"She said that she'd be late." Mimicking his previous action, I rake a hand through my own tousled locks, frowning a little to myself. Deprived of yet another distraction, my entire being starts to crave Bella's presence, the nerve endings in my flesh trembling in anticipation like an addict desperate for his next fix.

Because he knows me so well, Carlisle senses my restlessness and offers, his tone strangely hesitant, Perhaps you should play something on the piano. It has always worked miracles on everyone's mood in the past, and I'm sure that your mother would appreciate hearing your music again.

He exits the room, leaving me motionless in my chair, lost in a quandary of emotion.

I have not touched the familiar ivory keys of my piano for over a week; in fact, part of me has been constantly overlooking the polished ebony instrument whenever I enter the house in a vain effort to stave off the memories.

One in particular rises to the surface, and instead of suppressing or fleeing from it I let it fill my mind, reliving the moment in flawless clarity.

Esme rested her loving hands tenderly on my shoulders as I tried to compose, the feelings erupting from my chest and seeping through my pores shaping the notes in ways I had never imagined before.

I felt a transition coming in the line of melody, but couldn't quite get what I was hearing in my head to come to life through my fingers on the keys.

"It's charming," Esme interrupted my mounting frustration in a soft voice. "Does it have a name?"

"Not yet," I answered. Her delight in my music helped to calm my thoughts, become less focused on the notes, and a subtle key change made itself known as I continued to play.

"Is there a story to it?" she asked. Even without seeing her face, I could picture the contented smile that must be gracing her lips. She had always taken great pleasure in listening to me perform, and I had been selfish as of late – allowing my depression to pull me away from everything that used to soothe me. Even my family.

I swallowed back the hard lump of guilt in my throat, and then replied thoughtfully, "It's...a lullaby, I suppose." Yes, a lullaby. Written for an exquisitely beautiful girl asleep on a small bed, her cheeks flushed with a rosy hue, her hair arrayed on her pillow like thick ribbons of dark silk...

"A lullaby," Esme murmured under her breath.

Alice then glided across the floor and settled beside me on the bench. As I played, she began to sing in a high, pure voice, creating a vibrant descant that was lovely, but didn't...fit...with the emotion of the piece.

"I like it," I assured her. "But how about this?" Inserting the melody she had constructed into a lower octave, the composition then transformed, its ambiance warm and tender, and also fathomless in the reverence that saturated every thrum of the bass notes – like the heartbeat that filled my ears each time I pictured her in my mind.

My sister understood the essence of the piece now, and adjusted her song to compliment the main melody, letting it take precedence over her wind chime timbre. Better? she trilled mentally.

"Yes," I told her quietly, not wanting to disrupt the flow of the music with my words. "Perfect."

Esme's hand tightened on my shoulder in affection, as caught up in the simplistic beauty of the lullaby as Alice and I were.

My eyelids fell half-closed, an ache blooming inside my chest as I realized that the image of the slumbering angel could not, and should not, change. She was perfect as she was, and the only thing I would do by weaving the threads of my world with hers would tarnish that innocent splendor with the darkness that marked my soulless existence, the blood that stained my teeth and hands.

An angel deserved far better than the love of a monster.

The harmony shifted, filling the music with sadness, and the notes slowed, echoing my reluctance to let go of the sleepless dream that haunted the empty places of my heart. Alice lowered her voice, and it rang like the somber tolls of church bells, fading into the final chords as I brought the song to an end.

When my hands ceased from their playing, I bowed my head in supplication and closed my eyes. Though I knew it was wrong of me to ask, for I hardly deserved any show of divine grace, I silently begged God to grant me one chance – just one moment – to hold Bella in my arms and tell her how I felt. And I swore that afterward, if she ran from me, as she should...I would let her go.

A palm began to stroke my hair, and Esme's voice echoed inside my head. It's going to be fine, Edward, she comforted in a maternal fashion. This is going to work out for the best. You deserve happiness, my son. Fate owes you that.

I wanted so desperately to believe her – to believe that I could find happiness, experience the joy of requited love...but hope is a foreign concept to me.

Hope is for those who are still worthy of redemption.

Nevertheless, I did not wish to trouble Esme any longer with my black mood, so I whispered faintly, "Thanks."

Alice nudged her tiny arm against mine, reminding me that I had her full support and unwavering friendship, and then she and Esme proceeded to shed some light on my sorrow with snippets of familial bonding.

But the fragments of my dead heart – the lifeless piece of stone that had been revived by the breathy murmur of my name from the lips of the only girl in the world – continued to throb in anguish.

I slowly rise from the embrace of the memory, feeling more at peace with myself, for I had faced the recollection undaunted, and the pain of my remembrances of Alice has dulled.

Feeling decisive, I stand up from my seat and make my way out of the study, following the hall to the staircase. I let the steady hum of the ten or so minds filling the main floor of the house wash over me as I descend the steps. Carlisle eyes me with approval from the entrance to the dining room, but I do not avert my gaze from the piano situated near the front door.

Like greeting an old friend, I slowly circle the beautiful instrument, my fingertips stroking the gleaming curves of its frame. I can hear Esme's hopeful curiosity mingling with the mild interest permeating Maggie's thoughts as she watches from her place tucked into the far corner of the loveseat, as well as the passing questions issuing from the others milling casually throughout the massive room.

Once I complete my orbit around the piano, I settle onto the bench, inhale a quiet breath, and then lift the cover from the keys. The familiar black and white pattern of the ivories was once my solace in a seemingly empty eternity of loneliness. Composing music was an outlet for the wordless desires that I kept bottled up in the furthest depths of my mind, and for nearly eighty years the only passion I felt was in the ebb and flow of the notes being created beneath my fingers.

Until that unforgettable, miraculous Sunday morning when Bella sat beside me on this bench – the scent of freesia filling my lungs as her warmth radiated into my granite shell – and I played for her the one piece that I had truly felt, for my inspiration was the sheer perfection of the angel that had granted me the gift of holding her in my arms as she slept the night before.

I shift my eyes to the windows, noting the faint streaks of red painting the horizon.

Bella. I miss her terribly.

But I do know of a temporary relief for the agony of waiting, and with a slight half-smile, I rest my hands on the keys, my fingers automatically curling into the required position.

To compliment my mood, the introductory line of Debussy's Rêverie begins to emanate from the piano – and as the harmony gently falls into the background of the soothing melody, Esme sighs in pleasure, a wide smile on her face. She sinks onto the loveseat next to Maggie, riveted by the graceful, trancelike feel of the sweeping phrases.

Immersing myself in the music, I allow my conscious mind to drift, the thoughts that incessantly flood my brain becoming no more than the distant, rhythmic pounding of waves on the seashore. As the last soft chords ring out, a new string of notes manifests in my head, evoking a strange tangle of emotion.

Captivated, I begin to pick the notes out on the keyboard, repeating the pattern several times at different tempos, trying to decide which one suits the overall tone of the composition. I then add a few chords, and a harmonizing contrast that fluctuates between a major and minor key signature, lending a melancholy quality to the piece.

Yet after a time, the music seems to take on a life of its own, compelling me to weave a more elaborate sequence of notes that rise and fall along the scale, resonating a profound sensation of...hope.

I toy with this latest piece as the sun sinks below the jagged, snowcapped mountains, the first flickering stars peeking timidly from behind the thick clouds swathing the deep violet sky, and the muted hum of noise echoing dimly in my ears alters in pitch. The low, even purr of a finely tuned engine and the muted rotation of car tires on snow-laden dirt causes my heart to leap with ecstasy inside my chest, my fingers stuttering infinitesimally atop the piano keys.

They are home.

To keep myself from sprinting headlong to the garage, I play snatches of various melodies with an abstracted sort of air, listening intently as the Volvo comes to a stop and the engine is cut. A door opens, and as soon as it is closed, I begin to play the lullaby I created for Bella – my way of welcoming her home.

I do not hear Jacob's unmistakably loud mind, so my guess is that he stayed behind at Charlie's, which is just as well. I know how flustered he has been lately while being surrounded by some twenty-odd vampires, and considering how irritable he was with Bella when they left earlier today only solidifies the fact that he can use a break from our company.

Her footsteps are slow, almost a human's normal pace as she crosses the yard to the back door of the house. A couple of the guests offer whispered greetings, and I distinguish from their thoughts that Renesmee is sound asleep in her mother's arms, the rapid flutter of her pulse more deliberate than usual.

Bella pushes the door open, our daughter nestled against her, and I give her a crooked smile, continuing to play when more than anything I want to wrap them both in my arms. "Welcome home," I say warmly.

She walks forward until she is standing right beside the piano bench, and I eagerly breathe in the air that is now perfumed with her sweet fragrance, my eyes drinking in her appearance as though she has been gone for days rather than hours. It is then that I notice the spark that normally lights up her fiery-colored irises has dulled, and the edges of her calm expression seem strained, like she is struggling to control herself.

Did something happen with her father? But he sounded so excited at the prospect of seeing her and Renesmee on the phone this morning...

I keep my smile in place, but my gaze studies her face closely while I ask, the barest hint of concern in my voice, "Did you have a good time with Charlie today?"

"Yes," she responds, a sheepish look molding her features. But her eyes remain void of their familiar luster. "Sorry I was gone so long. I stepped out to do a little Christmas shopping for Renesmee." Her dark brows pull together very slightly, wrinkling the alabaster skin on her forehead. "I know it won't be much of an event, but..." She trails off into a shrug.

How I wish I knew what is upsetting her. Could it be that our lack of a celebration for our first Christmas as husband and wife, and Renesmee's first as well, is bothering her? That does not seem like Bella; a woman who can scarcely tolerate receiving gifts of any kind would not likely request a traditional Christmas, unless it is for the sake of our daughter. If that is what she wishes, it will be a simple matter to make the proper arrangements.

Frowning, I lift my hands from the piano and turn sideways on the bench to face her. Then, I place my palm on her waist, the slender concave matching the shape of my hand almost exactly, and gently guide her closer. She steps into the space between my knees, lowering her chin in order to meet my eyes, and I tilt my head upward, scrutinizing every flicker of movement in her expression. "I hadn't thought much about it," I admit. But perhaps she has, so I start to suggest, "If you want to make an event of it –"

"No," she interrupts hastily, a brief flash of panic widening her gaze. "I just didn't want to let it pass without giving her something."

I arch my eyebrows at her in anticipation and inquire softly, "Do I get to see?"

"If you want," she murmurs, trying to feign nonchalance over a gift she so obviously chose for the specific purpose of presenting to Renesmee, and I hide a grin. "It's only a little thing."

Bella opens the small black clutch tucked under her arm and withdraws a swatch of burgundy velvet tied at the top with a golden cord. "It caught my eye from the window of an antique store while I was driving by," she explains, her tone still casual.

I hold out my hand as she unties the cord and tips the little bag upside down over my palm. A round gold locket on a thin, glittering chain slides into my outstretched hand. The front is adorned with an elegant vine sculpted around the entire edge of the circle.

Curious to see if she put anything inside yet, I carefully unfasten the clasp and examine both halves. One side is blank – a space for a tiny picture – and the other has an inscription in neat cursive, the words written in French. "Plus que ma propre vie."

A chill skitters down my spine. Keeping my stare locked on the miniscule writing, icy tendrils of foreboding begin to slither into my brain, awakening all of my earlier anxiety in regard to my suspicions about Bella's recent behavior.

I draw in a quiet breath, willing myself to not overreact or jump to conclusions. Maybe she did not ask about the meaning of the inscription. Maybe it is only coincidence.

A part of me scoffs at my own naivety.

Somberly, I trace a fingertip along the outside rim of the locket and ask, "Do you know what this says?"

Her voice lowers to match mine, and I can feel her eyes on my bowed head as she replies, "The shopkeeper told me it said something along the lines of 'more than my own life'." A sharp pang stings my heart. Of course she knows what the words mean; it must be part of the reason why she purchased the locket in the first place. "Is that right?" Bella adds hesitantly.

"Yes, he had it right," I answer under my breath, my feelings in turmoil and my thoughts a chaotic jumble of questions, worries, and promises.

Desperate for any type of response – any hint as to what burden she is carrying on her own – my head snaps up, and I look hard into her eyes, plumbing their vivid amber depths for the secrets held within her closed mind.

In a handful of seemingly infinite seconds, our stares hold, and once I move past Bella's thinly crafted façade, the overwhelming power of her grief threatens to crush me. I do not have my brother's talent to draw on, but there is no mistaking the utter devastation lurking in the shadows behind her gaze.

I have seen this emotion in her eyes only once before: on that black September day when I spoke the most heinous words of blasphemy that this world has ever known.

But, hidden underneath the despair, there is an all-too-familiar opacity in Bella's stare – an impenetrable wall that I have come to associate with her innate ability to guard any secret she may want to keep from becoming exposed.

That wall had virtually disappeared when she and I were married; it returned the morning Alice and Jasper left, and has since sprung up on random occasions, most especially when there is talk of Alice's vision or our preparations for the arrival of the Volturi.

Esme advised me to trust Bella, to show her the same level of belief that she has given me countless times, and I want to be able to do that so badly...yet my very nature rebels against the idea of being the one who is protected, instead of defending the core of my existence, as I have done from the beginning.

I can almost appreciate the irony in my rationale.

I have entrusted my life, my heart, and my very soul to this woman, whom I vowed before mortal and immortal – even God Himself – to honor and cherish for eternity, and for the last few days I have relied on her developing talent to shield me from multiple mental attacks. And in spite of all that, I cannot trust her with a single undisclosed thought? Is omniscience really a trait that I should be striving for, or one that I should try harder to avoid?

Omniscience... That term triggers a warning in the back of my mind, though I cannot quite put my finger on why. It is like another word is missing.

Omniscience...omniscience...

Virtual omniscience.

Aro.

If he touches me, he will know not only my thoughts, but also every thought I have ever heard.

Bella could be keeping something from me for fear that, through me, Aro would learn of her secret.

Can you not trust that maybe, just maybe, she has a secret because she is trying to protect you and Renesmee?

I peer deeper into Bella's sunset-colored eyes, silently begging her to offer some sign that will confirm or deny my suspicion. She immediately retreats from the intensity of my gaze, blinking once before turning her attention to the television, pretending to be interested in the movie that has Emmett laughing hysterically from his place sprawled on the sofa. "I hope she likes it," Bella mumbles, and her bottom lip twitches, as though she is suppressing the urge to tuck it between her teeth.

In that instant, I make my decision. With my eyes locked on her slightly averted profile, I vow inwardly to both her and myself that I will never ask for an explanation, no matter what happens. Bella will tell me in her own time. I trust you, love, I tell her in my mind. Then, I remark aloud, my voice blithe and untroubled, "Of course she will."

Her stare flits sideways, measuring my mild, controlled expression, and a sort of unspoken pact is forged between us as we study one another for a fraction of a second. I am certain that she is now aware that I know she is keeping something from me, and that I have no idea what it might be – nor do I intend to ask. The power of that revelation belongs to Bella, and her alone.

Suddenly, I have the undeniable need to take my wife and daughter to the sanctuary of the cottage – to see Renesmee cocooned securely in a soft blanket, asleep in her crib – to feel Bella in the circle of my arms as we lie together on our bed.

Rising to my feet, I wrap an arm around Bella's shoulders, pressing my face into her hair while I say tenderly, "Let's take her home."

I expect Bella to step forward with me, but she pushes back against my hold, biting her lip uncertainly. "What?" I ask, though it sounds more like a demand. The selfish, possessive side of my personality is starting for vie for dominance. I have been apart from my wife for nearly twelve hours and will make no further sacrifices for her time.

She fidgets a little against me; my fingers instinctively tighten around the curve of her shoulder. Rueful, she then confesses in a quiet murmur, "I wanted to practice with Emmett a little..."

My brother perks up, leaning back to look at us over the top of Rosalie's blonde head, and grins widely. Sounds like a plan. I'm dead bored, anyway. I barely stifle the growl that rattles inside my chest as I listen to his eager thoughts. "Excellent," he proclaims with his usual zeal for all things destructive. "The forest needs thinning." I glower at him darkly. Hey, he contradicts in a laid-back manner, she's the one who suggested it. I'm only taking her up on the offer.

Still frowning, I turn to Bella. She seems puzzled by my attitude, her wide eyes bewildered as she looks up at me. "There's plenty of time for that tomorrow," I assert firmly, and attempt to steer her towards the door.

Her expression morphs into a withering glare to rival that of any defiant teenager. It is positively adorable, and I press my lips into a rigid line in order to restrain a smile. "Don't be ridiculous," she objects snappishly. "There's no such thing as plenty of time anymore." Her mouth begins to form that incredibly tempting pout, her lower lip jutting out as she tilts her chin upward, and I swallow back another growl – one that is exasperated as well as enticed. "That concept does not exist," she goes on, her nostrils flaring as she gears up for an argument. "I have a lot to learn and –"

I lean forward until our faces are mere inches apart, cutting her off in mid-sentence. "Tomorrow."

Emmett starts to protest mentally, and my head whips to the side, my eyes narrowing to slits as a rumble wells up inside my throat. His topaz eyes widen at my hostile glare. Okay... He raises both hands – one clutching the remote, of course – in mock-surrender. No practice tonight. Got it. Don't get your panties in a twist. Rolling my eyes, I loosen the tensed muscles in my arms. Emmett notices my relaxing stance and seizes the opportunity to get in a quick ribbing. Now get out of here. He cocks an eyebrow, smirking wickedly. See if Bella can get your panties untwisted.

"You are dangerously close to breaking your end of the deal, Emmett," I warn, pulling open the front door. Bella glances first at me, and then over at our brother while Rosalie sighs in annoyance, though she has long since become used to the half-completed conversations I have with other members of our family.

Uh-uh. He shakes his head, grinning like a naughty child. Bella told me that I wasn't allowed to say anything about your sex life. She never made any restrictions on what I could think, or write, or text...

Count on Emmett to find a loophole in any set of rules.

Sighing in resignation, I usher a wary-looking Bella outside, my arm still wrapped tightly around her slender frame, and together we head into the cold, glistening forest.

As we walk, our steps so light and quick that we leave scarcely visible footprints in the thick snow, I bend down and kiss Bella's forehead. "I missed you today," I tell her in all honesty, my lips brushing her skin.

She drops her head onto my shoulder, and Renesmee stirs a bit in her arms, tiny snoring noises escaping from her open mouth. "I missed you, too," Bella responds softly. Then she turns her face towards me and presses her lips delicately to the hollow of my throat.

Less than a minute later, we are sheltered within the comforting walls of the cottage. Bella glides down the hall to put Renesmee to bed, and I linger in the darkened threshold to the little girl's room, watching fondly as Bella smoothes the blanket around her small form and strokes her tangled curls away from her peaceful face.

When she looks up and sees me leaning against the doorjamb, the love in her eyes changes, growing fiercer and scorching across the length of my body. I open my arms in wordless invitation, and she fits herself in my embrace, her mouth seeking mine hungrily.

We stumble backwards down the hall, shutting Renesmee's door and ours in the process, and collapse onto the bed, reacquainting ourselves with each other's scent and taste. I braid my fingers into her dark hair, leaving a trail of fervent kisses along her jaw, from temple to chin, and down the curve of her neck.

She lets out an almost frustrated mewl and tugs on my hair, urging me back up to her lips. Smiling into the delectable skin of her throat, I proceed to trace the graceful arcs of her collarbones with my mouth, and then begin to move downward, following the gentle slope of her breastbone.

A low growl quivers in the air. Bella suddenly twines her limbs around me and rolls to the side, imprisoning my body beneath hers. But in her haste, she misjudged the distance to the edge of the bed, and we promptly crash to the floor with a dull thud.

Lying on a heap of shredded fabric, we give ourselves to one another, temporarily entering another world where nothing else exists but the two of us and our love.

Once the intense craving has been quenched, we lay side by side, studying each other's faces, our bodies woven together like we were designed to exist as one complete being. After a moment of enjoying the sweet, contented smile on Bella's lips, I reach for her hands, holding them between us with mine.

Cradling their small, deceptively fragile-looking form in my palms, I gaze into her bright red-orange irises and grin crookedly. "These are very beautiful hands."

She laughs, the melody more exquisite than any master's symphony. Undaunted, I go on in a soft murmur, "I mean it." Turning her left hand over, I trace a fingertip along the lines in her palm, pausing several times at the rounded base of her ring. "When we sat together in Biology, I used to stare at your hands – just so I knew that you were still there, because I was afraid to look into your eyes."

I had been such an egotistical fool then, thinking that I could avert the course of destiny through sheer force of will, denying myself a mere, undiluted glimpse of her face with my own eyes instead of using someone else's thoughts as a conduit.

A memory flashes to the forefront of my mind: Bella's soft, pale hands clutching a plastic bottle of lemonade as she stared at me across the cafeteria table, her meek voice trembling slightly as she asked, "You're dangerous?"

My grin brightens eagerly. "I want to show you something," I tell her, and spring to my feet, her confused stare following me as I dart into the closet. Opening a drawer built into the far wall, I dig out a folded piece of sapphire blue cloth and race back to her side. She slowly sits up as I carefully unwrap the keepsake, and then reach for her hand, laying it gently in her palm.

She eyes it with an incredulous expression for a few seconds. "It's a..." Her eyes flick upward to meet mine. "...bottle cap," she remarks in a dubious monotone.

"Yes," I nod. She probably does not remember; her human memories are far dimmer than what her new mind is used to processing. It was only a minor detail then, as well – maybe even she missed what had transpired in that moment.

Bella raises her eyebrows, waiting for an explanation. "I don't get it," she finally admits. "Why do you have a plastic bottle cap?"

I hold her gaze in silence briefly before replying quietly, "Because it was yours."

"Mine?" She blinks, surprised.

Speaking in a tender, measured tone, I take her hands in mine once again as I question her, "Do you remember the first time we sat together at lunch?"

Her brow crinkles at bit in concentration, and then she declares almost stubbornly, "Yes."

I smile faintly, my thumbs stroking the insides of her thin wrists. "What we talked about that day...it was one of the most important conversations we'd ever had. But more than that, it was the day I decided that I could not stay away from you anymore." I lower my eyes to the yellow plastic lid in her hand, murmuring, "You said yes to me three times – when I asked you to go to Seattle with me, when you came over to my table in the cafeteria, and when you sat down across from me. I wanted to not only remember that moment, but to have a tangible reminder of what I wanted, and I wanted much more than your blood." My voice has faded to a whisper as I finish my explanation. Bella senses my turbulent emotions and moves her free hand out of my grasp, only to slide her fingers lightly up and down my forearm, soothing me with her touch.

"I wanted to be worthy of your trust," I say in a rough undertone, lifting my gaze from our clasped hands to her face. "Trust that I was so undeserving of, yet you gave it without a moment's hesitation." And how that would frustrate me, I reflect sardonically. One corner of my mouth pulls up, and I conclude, "So I kept this bottle cap as a memento of your trust in me. Now:" I gently push her hand, and the bottle cap, towards her, smiling at her astonished gawk. "It is a symbol of my trust in you."

She stumbles over a reply; I place two fingers over her lips, hushing her attempt to disagree. "Bella," I caress her name with my tongue, "I trust you with my heart, my life, and my soul. Everything that I am." Removing my hands from hers, I cup her face in my palms and lean forward, until my entire universe is only in her eyes. "And I trust you when you say that we will never be apart," I avow huskily, choked with emotion. "That no matter what happens here, you will always be with me. Forever."

Her breath hitches, her full lips trembling as she whispers my name like a reverent prayer, and then her body covers mine, her passionate kisses flavored with the sweetness of joy and the tang of grief.

Clinging to her as though we have been permanently welded together, I banish all thought of the secret she holds within her silent mind. It no longer matters. Instead, I will do what I can this night, and for the rest of eternity, to make her happy.

And as we ride the crest of the storm, our souls uniting as wholly as our entwined bodies, I feel her lips against my ear, her breathless voice whispering the three words that have become the foundation of my entire existence. Three words that fill me with the hope of heaven.

"I love you."