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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:


16. Declared

Rating 5/5   Word Count 11794   Review this Chapter

We are running out of time.

This knowledge is the driving force behind a renewed sense of urgency that permeates the atmosphere surrounding our small corner of the world.

Every vampire is affected in some way. Hunting patterns shift as the need to magnify physical strength increases.

Some of our visitors, with Emmett as their motivator, begin drilling one another in hand-to-hand combat techniques to hone their skills – and to release some of the tension that seems to coat the grounds just as surely as the thin layer of ice that rains down in silvery ribbons from a charcoal-violet sky.

Those with an ability make preparations as well.

Benjamin doubles his efforts for control of his gift on a daily basis, and more often than not can be seen outside, sitting on the frozen meadow with his palms pressed into the dirt as he tries to locate fault lines in the earth.

Kate begins to minimalize the use of her power, explaining to an ever-curious Garrett that she can store a charge like a battery – preserving the full potency of her talent for the Volturi's arrival.

And Zafrina, with her vigilant ruby eyes and imposing presence, steals Bella from my side every morning as soon as we reach the house for practice, insisting despite Bella's less than enthusiastic attitude that she must develop her shielding capabilities.

On the eve of the winter solstice, Carlisle and I call everyone together in the main room to lay out our next course of action.

In silence, the others file in, finding places to sit or stand all throughout the cavernous area, but their minds are so loud that I have to concentrate intently on distinguishing one thought from another.

Bella, the only completely silent person in the room, becomes my counterpoint for the mental chaos inside my head. For several seconds, I focus on her blank consciousness and find respite – but I cannot linger for long, as my father is depending upon my ability to monitor the thoughts of our guests.

In a low, passive voice, Carlisle informs the group that because we have no specific timetable for the Volturi's coming other than the fact that the field was blanketed thickly with snow in Alice's vision, we plan to stay at that location for a few days.

It is his hope that we can prevent any vampires from venturing too close to Forks if we lead their tracker to us, and since he and I have determined that Demetri has most likely latched onto my mental signature – once we reach the field, I will stay there for the duration.

Once again, Carlisle offers them the choice to remain behind, though all we are asking for is that they witness on our behalf, but no one speaks up.

Afterward, Benjamin pulls me aside and animatedly describes his idea of burying twenty or so stones in the field – 'vampire booby traps', he calls them – that could successfully distract an opponent long enough for someone on our side to take them out.

Furious eyes burn into Benjamin's back, and equally enraged thoughts pummel me as Amun watches our conversation from the stairwell. I can only make out snatches of his internal ranting; the Arabic vampire has taken to thinking in a dialect spoken by his Bedouin ancestors in order to disguise his mind from my ability, but I grasp the general concept.

He would like nothing more than to withdraw his coven from our company and return home. He also knows that Benjamin has grown fond of my family, and will never choose to leave, so I believe that Amun will not act on his desire...for now.

The following morning, sunlight dances across the glaze of ice decorating the forest, the clusters of needles on the fir trees shimmering like tiny prisms.

Zafrina and Bella are out back, facing each other from a short distance. The Amazon vampire's dark skin resembles the glossy facets of an onyx as she treads sinuously around the meadow, and Bella glitters more brilliantly that the blinding white glow of the ice-covered landscape, her chocolate brown hair a striking contrast to her alabaster features.

Stepping away from the windows, I turn and peer into the living room. Nearly the entire wooden floor has been hidden by a tiny replica of Forks, constructed out of small colored blocks. Roads snake around the sofa and chairs, under the staircase, and even beneath my piano. Small, bright green trees dot the empty spaces between the buildings and – I smile widely – there is a little black and white police car parked outside a house that is a miniature duplicate of Charlie's home.

Beside the window wall, Jacob and Renesmee are working on a model of the highway. He lays down a rectangular white block; Renesmee promptly touches his bare arm, a fierce glower on her lovely face, and demands that the road be finished with only black blocks. At once, he corrects his error by snapping the proper-colored block in place, and she nods in satisfaction.

Certain that the two of them will be entertained for some time, I walk over to the computer and remove a small package from my jacket pocket.

I had purchased the MP3 player for Renesmee yesterday, albeit covertly – Rosalie had volunteered to run the errand while testing the modifications she made to her convertible – and had been waiting for the opportunity to store my favorite music on the device.

While the download is in progress, I scour the Internet for an appropriate Christmas present for Charlie. Bella has not mentioned buying a gift for her father, so I assume that the notion has not crossed her mind.

Rather than subject her, and ultimately myself, to Charlie's disappointment, I select a top-grade fishing sonar system from a reputable outdoorsman website and pay for it to be shipped overnight. Esme is a genius with wrapping paper; she can give free rein to her talent on the box when it arrives.

Christmas Eve is a relatively sober affair – though for me, it is a vast improvement from my last Christmas – and from the way Bella remains staunchly at my side, I expect that she feels the same.

Charlie's gift is left on our doorstep in mid-afternoon by a very frazzled-looking delivery truck driver, and my mother's expression lights up when I ask her to wrap the box. She immediately disappears downstairs, only to return seconds later with an armful of tubes of festive paper, a box of bows and ribbons in her hands.

As Esme debates internally which color scheme to use, Bella leans over to murmur in my ear, "Whose Christmas present is she wrapping?"

I glance down at her, studying her curious gaze with surprise. "Your father's," I tell her quietly.

She seems confused for a moment, and then a look of absolutely horrified embarrassment contorts her perfect face. With a gasp, she exclaims, "I totally forgot about Charlie! He would've been so upset – and after everything I've put him through the last few months... Was it expensive?"

I chuckle at her swiftly changing phrases. "I know you forgot, love, that's why I ordered a gift. Don't be anxious," I add, pressing a soft kiss to her brow. "As for said gift being expensive..." I shrug one shoulder in casual nonchalance. "Let's just say that it's a step towards due compensation for all the stress he's had to deal with lately."

She grimaces, and mutters under her breath, "So it was only a small fortune, then." Suddenly, her expression clears, and she smiles a little, her eyes regaining some of their usual sparkle. "That's okay. I trust you," she says simply.

Such a sentiment cannot go unanswered. Bending down, I tilt her chin upward with one finger and brush my lips against hers, a mutual sigh wafting between us at the brief contact. "And I trust you," I remind her in a whisper.

Edward, Esme calls in an abstracted tone, could you please indulge your mother with a few carols? I think we all need our spirits lifted.

I sigh, and start to pull away from Bella. She frowns in puzzlement, so I clarify, "Esme wants me to serenade her with some mood music." Her features smooth out, and she grins encouragingly before settling further into her seat, a picture of rapt attention.

I cross the room to the piano – stepping carefully over Renesmee's tiny town – and sit on the bench, sifting through my memory for a selection of traditional carols. Most of the melodies are incredibly simple, so I embellish each piece with descants, added chords and varying tempos.

Esme sends her gratitude and then begins to sing along, her gentle soprano voice lower-pitched than Alice's, but full of warmth and emotion.

One song in particular stirs a mixture of conflicting emotions as my mother croons in her mellow timbre, the lyrics haunting every corner of the house and my mind, ripe with double meaning.

"God rest ye merry gentlemen, let nothing you dismay..."

I find myself, however futilely, picturing the Christmas we should be having this year. The whole family would gather in this room, on this night, and decorate an enormous pine tree – the largest that Emmett could successfully maneuver through the front door.

Then, in the morning, the space underneath the tree would literally overflow with gifts. Most of them would be for Renesmee, of course, but each family member would have bought a little something for everyone else.

I could imagine my daughter's childlike eagerness, my parent's loving smiles, my brothers' laughter, my sisters' good-natured demands for photo opportunities...and most importantly, my Bella's radiant joy and feigned disapproval when she received my gift – another 'hand-me-down' piece of jewelry from my inheritance...

Forcefully, I wrench myself from the daydream, for it is nothing more than that – a dream. This is a critical time for my family, and it is irresponsible of me to become lost in visions of what could have been.

Yet Esme's voice continues to ring melodically in my ears, spinning thin, glistening threads of fond memories and future hopes.

"O, tidings of comfort and joy, comfort and joy... O, tidings of comfort and joy."

At dawn, Bella and I retrieve a sleepy-eyed Renesmee from her crib and sit in front of the fireplace, her two little gifts laid out on the mantle.

She regards the locket with delighted reverence, the tiny circle a perfect fit in her palm, and as soon as she pries it open, her curiosity flares. "Momma, what does this say?" she asks, pointing at the elegant inscription.

"It says 'more than my own life', sweetheart," Bella answers softly. She reaches out and pulls her fingers with gentle care through the little girl's tangled bronze ringlets, murmuring, "That's how much we love you."

"I love you and Daddy that much, too," Renesmee insists, giving us her vivid, glittering smile.

Bella swallows hard, her lips pressing together tightly, and then flexes her mouth into a faint grin. "Would you like me to help you put it on?"

She nods excitedly and crawls into her mother's lap, holding out the necklace. Bella moves her long curls aside and loops the chain gently around our daughter's slender throat, closing the latch. The locket brushes over Renesmee's breastbone – so near her precious, fluttering heart – and the sparkling gold chain enhances the rosy flush of her ivory skin.

"Beautiful," I tell her warmly. In response, she lifts a small hand and touches the locket with her fingertips, a wondering look on her cherubic face.

A quiet, shuddering breath issues from Bella, and I swiftly wind my arm around her, pulling her body closer to mine. Before Renesmee can pick up on her mother's distress, I remind her of the other gift.

She tears open the silver-wrapped box gleefully and removes the MP3 player, examining the device from every angle as I explain what it is and how to use it. In less than a minute, Renesmee has the ear buds on, music filtering through her thoughts as well as remembered images of her locket.

"Are you all right?" I whisper to Bella in a rapid burst while our daughter is thoroughly preoccupied.

She inhales deeply, and then sighs, glancing at me with an almost rueful expression. "Yeah."

I would like to wish her a Merry Christmas, but the jovial spirit of the holiday has not visited me this year, and I have no desire to offer an artificial salutation. So, I nestle my face into the curve of her neck, my lips caressing her skin as I speak the only truth that is relevant in my world. "I love you."

Cheery, ridiculously loud singing abruptly fills my head, and I jerk away from her with a growl. "What is it?" she questions warily.

"Jacob," is all I can say in reply.

Deck the halls with boughs of holly, fa-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la

‘Tis the season – something, something, fa-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la

I scoff under my breath. The dog cannot even remember the words to the simplest song. "He really shouldn't sing," I grumble, trying vainly to block his thoughts from my perception. "Ever."

Bella kisses my cheek in sympathy and then rises to walk over to the door, opening it just as Jacob raises his fist to knock. A brilliant grin lights up his russet face, and he throws his arms around her, shouting, "Merry Christmas, Bells!"

He releases her an instant later and waltzes into the cottage, his dark eyes locked on Renesmee even while he punches me lightly on the shoulder in greeting.

Pleased as always to see him, the little girl shows off her presents as Jacob sits cross-legged on the ground in front of her. "Wow, those are great, honey," he remarks, but his thoughts are growing nervous and oddly disjointed. Don't chicken out, Jake – she'll love it... they understand how it is – no reason to get all worked up...

My eyes narrow at him in suspicion. He visibly gulps, but otherwise ignores my glare as he fidgets and clears his throat. "I, uh –" He pulls a small white square from the pocket of his worn jeans. "I have something for you." Quickly, he places the box in Renesmee's lap, a lopsided smile contrasting with his tense features. "Merry Christmas, Nessie."

Her tiny fingers pry off the lid, and lying atop a piece of white cotton is a multicolored braided circlet, adorned at the center with a polished sphere of white stone shot through with veins of pale gray. Renesmee's brown eyes widen in awe as Bella peers into the box, her eyebrows arching high on her forehead. "It's beautiful, Jake," she compliments. "Did you make it?"

"Yup." He watches avidly while Renesmee plucks the bracelet from the box, his gaze twinkling with barely suppressed elation as she gingerly pushes her hand through the woven band. "Emily helped me put the stone on, though. It's from an earring that belonged to my mom," he tells us in a low voice. Then he shrugs sheepishly and mumbles, "My dad told me it's called howlite." Faint blotches of red appear on his cheeks.

"Naturally," I snarl in biting sarcasm. I can see all too clearly where this exchange is heading, and though I understand, I do not like it one bit.

Imprinting may be unavoidable, but she is still only a child – more than that, she is my daughter. The scenario has changed, yet Jacob's intention to mark Renesmee as his own is the same as when he gave Bella the charm bracelet at her graduation party.

Jacob cringes a little in response to my retort. Renesmee blinks up at me, startled, and Bella's sharp eyes cut to mine, full of silent warning. I grit my teeth and hold my tongue, fighting back the impulse to breathe through my nose. The powerful stench of wet dog will only goad my temper.

After waiting a beat, Renesmee places her hand on Jacob's chin, picturing the bracelet and saturating the image with deep gratitude.

He smiles in relief. "You're welcome." The pounding rhythm of his heart accelerates as his features shift into a solemn, compelling expression, and he vows, "This bracelet is my promise to you, Nessie. I will always be there for you, whenever you need me. Always." He shoots me a brief glance, measuring the veiled hostility in my eyes, and then peers at Bella.

Surprisingly, she seems completely at ease with the implications of his gift. "We should get going," she remarks in a lighthearted tone. "Charlie's waiting for us."

In a quarter of an hour, the four of us are piling into my Volvo, Charlie's gift secured in the trunk, and we make our way with the rest of the holiday traffic on the slick highway to Forks.

Judging from the cluster of vehicles parked outside the Swan residence, and the sudden assault of excited thoughts on my brain, it is a fair guess that there are quite a number of overzealous wolves crammed inside the small house.

"It seems we've kept everyone waiting," I comment to no one in particular as I pull the Volvo into a tight space beside the tree in the front yard and a weather-beaten blue sedan.

Bella worries her bottom lip nervously. "I didn't think they would be here yet," she mutters, referring to the rest of Jacob's pack.

"It's Christmas," Jacob says with a shrug from the back seat. "The one day a year when even I don't sleep in."

As soon as I turn off the engine and car doors begin to pop open, the front door swings wide, followed by a boisterous cry of, "Merry Christmas, kids!"

Bella's back is to her father, and I watch over the roof of the Volvo as she composes her expression right before pasting on a passably genuine smile. "Hey, Dad," she greets while turning to face him.

"'Hey, Dad'?" Charlie sweeps her into a quick hug, his tone mildly incredulous. "C'mon, Bells, you gotta show more enthusiasm than that. It's Christmas!"

He backs away and shakes my hand, pretending not to be startled by the fact that I looped around the car to Bella's side in less than a second. "I hope you're in more of the holiday spirit than the Scrooge here, Edward," he tells me good-naturedly while jabbing a thumb in his daughter's direction.

Rather than wait for a response that I am not prepared to give, Charlie bends down and scoops Renesmee into his arms, stifling a grunt as he notices the change in her weight. "Merry Christmas to you, too, Nessie," he announces, grinning broadly. "There's lots of presents inside with your name on ‘em. Want to go see?"

Renesmee bobs her head and he promptly carts her across the yard and through the door, Jacob trotting along on his heels. A chorus of greetings rings out as they disappear inside.

Bella stays with me as I retrieve the beautifully wrapped package from the trunk, and together we head towards the house.

Entering Charlie's living room is almost like walking into a furnace. The feverish bodies of six werewolves have soaked warmth into every corner of the home, their pungent aroma nearly overpowering the subtle, appealing scent of the three humans intermingling with this rather unconventional gathering of supernatural creatures.

Floating above the thick musk of the wolves are faint notes of pine, dust, the sweet, minty fragrance of peppermint, and the less than appetizing stench of cooking food.

I prop Charlie's gift on the wall beside the half-decorated tree as Emily waves at Bella timidly from the worn sofa – a greater gesture of good faith than she has shown in a while – and Bella makes her way over to the other woman, exchanging brief words with Quil and Embry in the meantime.

A large, scorching hot palm thumps onto my shoulder, accompanied by Seth's enthusiastic voice. "Long time no see, man! How're things?"

I glance at him with a small smile. "Same as always." Then, I add jokingly, "Though I was getting used to not having to put up with the smell of wet dog polluting the air."

"It beats whatever B.O. you've got going on," Seth jibes in return, waving a hand in front of his nose.

"You get used to it," Jacob interjects as he saunters past, his head now covered by a felt Santa hat, and he plops down on the floor by the tree, where Renesmee is eyeing the colorful boxes speculatively.

There is a short silence, and I can hear the shift in everyone's thoughts, their attention drifting back to the imminent advent that is fast approaching. Quil peers cautiously over a shoulder in the direction of the kitchen, and then turns to face the room, muttering under his breath, "Sam told us yesterday that you're planning on heading to the field in a few days."

Bella stiffens, and ceases to breathe – a reflex reaction to stress. Jacob nods once at his pack member, his laid-back demeanor waning, and Quil looks eagerly over at Embry, his dark eyes abruptly fierce with a sort of wild glee. "We've got an edge this time. I remember the lay of the land exactly. The vampire mafia isn't going to know what hit them."

"Though we are trying to avoid a fight, Quil," I remind him in a low murmur.

He dismisses this with a quick jerk of his head, rolling his eyes. "I know. But it never hurts to be prepared, right?"

I cannot argue with that logic.

"Yeah, but..." Seth gazes down solemnly at his pack brother. "If it does come to a fight, it'll be different than the last one. Those bloodsuckers were newborns. Easy targets. You weren't there when Edward was fighting the redhead," he says, his memories of that morning in the clearing surfacing with vivid clarity in his mind. "She was lethal, man, and she couldn't do the stuff that some of these other leeches can do."

At the mention of Victoria, Bella becomes an icy statue on her father's couch. I do not think she has taken a breath since this discussion began. Emily's eyes dart sideways to her apprehensively.

Embry speaks up, pointing out, "They haven't seen what we can do yet, either. They don't even know we exist yet. That's gotta count for something," he remarks. Quil nods in agreement.

From the corner of my eye, I see Leah pressed against the doorway of the kitchen, her sharp features hardened into a mask of indifference, though inwardly she is concerned for the safety of her people if anything should happen to the Quileutes' protectors.

"Enough." Emily glares sternly at each of us, her soft voice ringing with a maternal authority that is reminiscent of Esme. "No more talk of any fighting. It's Christmas."

She is the third person in the last hour to offer that phrase as a justification. For whatever reason, it works, and the three wolves avert their gazes, cowed into silence.

Emily gets up from her seat shortly after to offer assistance to her aunt in preparing the food, and I swiftly take her place, wrapping my arm around Bella's rigid shoulders. "Breathe, love," I whisper in her ear. Her chest heaves with a deep breath, letting it out slowly, and I lay a kiss on her cheek.

Jacob pulls his stare from Renesmee long enough to meet mine, offering a mental apology. I incline my head every so slightly in acknowledgement.

Lunch is served not long after, and the wolves fill their plates to overflowing, eating with almost obscene gusto. Renesmee tolerates the small fare Charlie sets before her – more to humor him than to keep up with the human façade – and because the food is set up as a buffet, it is a simple matter for Bella and I to feign consumption, as Jacob cleans off two plates and pretends that they are ours.

When it comes time for the gifts, everyone watches Renesmee unwrap her presents with the same avid fascination that she instills in all whom she meets.

Once she has finished, and is enthralled by the miniature upright piano Charlie purchased for her, Bella stands and retrieves his gift from the corner, handing it to him with a tiny smile. "Merry Christmas, Dad."

"Aw, Bells..." He accepts the package – beautifully wrapped in a deep red paper emblazoned with intricate swirls and adorned by a large gold bow. "You didn't have to do that," he chides halfheartedly.

"Open it," she insists.

Tugging on the edges of the paper gingerly, as though reluctant to ruin Esme's handiwork, Charlie slowly pulls out the box. He tears into the brown packing cardboard with enthusiastic curiosity and then holds up the sonar system, his mouth hanging open in amazement. "This is... it's... wow."

"Edward picked it out," Bella comments a bit shyly.

His awed gaze turns to me, so I add in a good-natured tone, "I know how much you enjoy fishing. This should help you bring in a bigger catch."

"Thank you," he says fervently, his attention alternating between Bella and I. Then, he removes the sonar instruction manual from the box and starts to read, engrossed in every detail.

Renesmee wanders over to him after a moment, and he places her in his lap, holding the booklet so they both can see – though of course, Charlie is not aware that she is able to comprehend the words. "See this, Nessie?" he remarks, pointing at something on the pages. "Your Grampa's going to beat his personal record for the most fish caught once the season starts up again. And maybe," he peers with a half-smile up at Bella, "you'll get to come with me a few times."

Bella's lips twitch, like she is trying to smile, but the pained distortion of her pale features is glaringly obvious to me, so Charlie has undoubtedly noticed, as well.

Sure enough, he frowns a little in concern and asks, "Are you okay, Bells? You seem a little...down today." Reflexively, his eyes dart sideways to me. From what I can discern of his thoughts, he appears confused as to why his daughter is acting so sad, and instead of accusing me, he is hoping that I will offer an answer.

She forcibly exhales, arranging her expression into an appropriate look of liveliness, and says as an excuse, "I've just got a lot on my mind, Dad. I'm fine."

"You sure?"

She nods, and quickly reaches for my hand, lacing her fingers through mine and squeezing once – a clear cry for help. I lean forward and motion to the manual in his hand, stating, "Did you get to the part where it talks about setting the sonar to detect bottom composition and depth?"

His suspicion fades at once as he reverts back to his earlier sense of awe. "It does that?" He blinks, and looks down at the device sitting on his leg beside Renesmee with wide eyes.

Charlie spends the remainder of our visit buried in the instruction manual while Sue brings him mugs of steaming coffee. Their friendly yet bashful interaction with one another hints at feelings that must be developing beneath the surface, and I find that I am pleased – as I am sure Bella is, as well. She had been so afraid of leaving her father alone after our marriage and her change; it is a comfort to know that, since there is a chance he may never see any of us again, he and Sue will have one another to turn to for support.

In the early evening, Sam and Emily are the first to depart, propelling the rest of us into action.

Jacob's pack files out next; Seth claps me on the shoulder as he passes while promising silently to meet up with our family again at the field whenever Jake gives the signal.

We load Renesmee's gifts in the trunk and call goodbyes to Charlie and Sue, a palpable sensation of relief emanating from Bella and Jacob as well as myself while I guide the Volvo down the street, the house shrinking in the rearview mirror.

Quiet descends on the car throughout the trip home. Jacob lounges in the back seat, teetering on the edge of unconsciousness, and Renesmee fiddles with her locket, opening and closing the tiny latch as she hums inaudibly to herself.

Chancing a brief glance at Bella, I notice that she is staring out the window, the backlit lavender glow of the sky causing the droplets on the glass to create a watery pattern on her skin.

The familiar burn of curiosity smolders in the back of my mind, urging me to voice the eternal question, but I remember the vow I made to her a few nights ago. Instead, I reach for her hand, tugging gently until our clasped fingers are resting on my thigh.

A thin sheet of ice is beginning to form on the highway pavement, and the amount of cars on the road has dramatically dwindled. From what I gather via the anxious thoughts of a nearby driver, the weather service is cautioning area residents to stay indoors tonight, as the precipitation will be changing from sleet to snow in the early morning hours.

I easily overtake the careful humans still out navigating the roads and turn onto the dirt path, the shadows of the forest welcoming and familiar.

However, as we near the house, the low buzz of raised voices echoes through the walls, intermixed with a smattering of growls. Instantly on guard, I open my mind...and the virtual explosion of thought overwhelms me for a fraction of a second.

I park the Volvo out in the front of the house, gritting my teeth while I struggle to suppress the tide of unchecked mental observations, and meet Bella's wary eyes before we exit the car at the same time.

By now, Jacob has picked up on the angry din inside and clambers out of the back seat, settling into his inherent role as leader of his people's guardians. What's going on? he asks me, his black-brown eyes alert.

Bella and Renesmee stare at my hardened expression with the same question coloring their delicate features.

"Alistair is gone," I announce under my breath as we race soundlessly up the steps and dart indoors.

The living room has the tense air of a battle arena. Vampires stand in an unbroken line against the walls, their combined attention fixated on the trio facing off in the center of the crowd. Another group of three hovers close to this one; Esme, Kebi, and Tia look on worriedly – Tia fidgets a few times, like she wants to approach but remains in place – as Carlisle and Benjamin stand across from Amun. It seems that the Arabic vampire's growing inclination to leave has finally come to a head.

Clenching my jaw, I grip Bella's hand and pull her behind me while I move to flank Esme. A trickle of relief breaks through her anxious thoughts – but upon noticing Renesmee gripped tightly in Bella's free arm, my mother angles her body subtly, putting herself between Amun and her granddaughter.

Carlisle spreads his hands wide in a gesture of sincerity, his tone placid as he says, "Amun, if you want to go, no one is forcing you to stay."

Don't let the door hit you on the way out, Emmett thinks acidly. Swiftly, I pick out his huge, tense form about a yard from the confrontation. From the way Rosalie's slim hand rests on his crossed arms, I would guess that she is preparing to hold him back in case Amun physically threatens our father.

Although, given the harsh resentment glowing within her ocher irises, she may be more liable to join in the foray rather than attempt to keep the peace.

How have things begun to unravel so quickly in our absence?

Yelling a string of Middle Eastern insults in his head, Amun screeches at Carlisle, his mouth contorted into a snarl, "You're stealing half my coven, Carlisle!" He points at Benjamin, who regards his creator without expression, though his eyes blaze with irritation. "Is that why you called me here?" Amun continues to shout. He is practically beside himself in his rage. "To steal from me?"

My father sighs, weary of this quarrel. He is seeing deceit where there is none, he laments inwardly.

This is ridiculous. Benjamin rolls his eyes and replies, his voice thick with sarcasm, "Yes, Carlisle picked a fight with the Volturi, endangered his whole family, just to lure me here to my death." He stifles a snort. "Be reasonable, Amun. I'm committed to do the right thing here – I'm not joining any other coven." Lifting one shoulder in an indifferent shrug, he adds, "You can do whatever you want, of course, as Carlisle has pointed out." But I am staying. There is not the slightest hint of wavering in his mind.

"This won't end well," Amun hisses, labeling us all fools mentally. "Alistair was the only sane one here. We should all be running."

On Esme's opposite side, Tia mutters in a wry tone, "Think of who you're calling sane."

Several onlookers grin at her remark; Amun glares in her direction, but shouts to the room as a whole, "We're all going to be slaughtered!"

A right little ray of sunshine, aren't you, Kate sneers. Energy fizzles sporadically in her palm, and she envisions dropping Amun to the ground with one shock.

Tanya eyes her sternly, but knows as well as I that the threat is unfounded. If Kate truly wanted to attack him, she would have done so without a second's hesitation, and he would now be a twitching heap on the hardwood floor.

With firm conviction, Carlisle declares, "It's not going to come to a fight."

"You say!" Amun retorts heatedly.

Ever the peacemaker, my father offers in a calm, even voice, "If it does, you can always switch sides, Amun." The Denali sisters hiss at this response, and Maggie sucks in a sharp breath, surprised by Carlisle's truthfulness. "I'm sure the Volturi will appreciate your help," he says, ignoring the outbursts around him.

Amun's face twists into a blatant display of scorn. "Perhaps that is the answer," he growls.

Emmett jerks forward; Rose's fingers tighten on his forearm and he settles back in place, his lips rippling in a silent snarl.

It is their choice to remain or not, Carlisle reminds himself, and he murmurs aloud, "I wouldn't hold that against you, Amun." His sincerity baffles the Arabic vampire, and most everyone in the room, as well – except for those who know him best. "We have been friends for a long time, but I would never ask you to die for me." I would be no better than the Volturi if I asked for their lives.

Carlisle's topaz gaze flits briefly to me, and then to Esme, Bella, Renesmee, and Rose and Em on the other side of the room. If I could, I would spare my family from this conflict, too. He slowly reaches out and places a hand on Amun's shoulder.

Amun shakes him off, his deep red eyes cutting and his voice sharp as he pronounces, "I'll stay, Carlisle, but it might be your detriment. I will join them if that's the road to survival." His glare never leaves Carlisle as he thinks scathingly for my benefit, You can see the certainty of my words, mind reader. Then he goes on aloud, "You're all fools to think that you can defy the Volturi." He breathes out heavily, scowling, and peers sidelong at Bella and our daughter. "I will witness that the child has grown," Amun decides, exasperated. "That's nothing but the truth. Anyone would see that."

"That's all we've ever asked," my father says in the same calm tone.

Grimacing, Amun observes in a cross mumble, "But not all you are getting, it seems." He raises his eyes to Benjamin, glowering at the younger vampire, and claims, "I gave you life. You're wasting it." Willful, ignorant child.

Ice seems to cover Benjamin's features, molding them into hard, unyielding shapes, and a glacial chill soaks into his youthful voice, making him appear as old as his years instead of his physical age. Tilting his chin in defiance, he tells Amun, "It's a pity you couldn't replace my will with your own in the process; then you would have been satisfied with me."

Amun's eyes narrow, irked and perturbed by the thinly veiled challenge in Benjamin's statement.

The two contend with one another in silence for a full second – then Amun gestures brusquely to his mate, and he and Kebi vanish through the front door.

Bella glances up at me, her eyes wide. "He's not leaving," I assure her quietly, "but he'll be keeping his distance even more from now on." My stare flicks to the doorway, disquiet churning uncomfortably in the pit of my stomach. "He wasn't bluffing when he spoke of joining the Volturi." Of their own accord, my fingers constrict around her hand.

She leans closer; I lower my head to hear her whisper, "Why did Alistair go?"

"No one can be positive; he didn't leave a note." I grin crookedly, hoping to lighten the mood, and Bella quirks an eyebrow, waiting for me to continue. "From his mutters," I tell her, "it's been clear that he thinks a fight is inevitable." She nods almost imperceptibly, no doubt remembering the words we had overheard him speak that day in my old room. "Despite his demeanor, he actually does care too much for Carlisle to stand with the Volturi. I suppose he decided the danger was too much," I conclude with a shrug.

Eleazar, listening in to our conversation just like most everyone in attendance, chooses to speak up. "From the sound of his mumbling, it was a bit more than that. We haven't spoken much of the Volturi's agenda, but Alistair worried that no matter how decisively we can prove your innocence, the Volturi will not listen." He looks around the room, meeting the eyes of all. "He thinks they will find an excuse to achieve their goals here."

The others exchange glances in apprehension, snatches of thoughts filtering through my brain – hinting at those who are beginning to see the Volturi for what they are: greedy and power-hungry – and those who are still reluctant to become involved in any open confrontation with the vampire hierarchy.

The only exceptions are the Romanians. Wearing small, ironic smiles, Stefan and Vladimir emit a slight aura of amusement in regard to this entire situation.

After a few seconds, clusters of vampires converge, speaking to one another in hushed tones.

Eleazar turns to Carmen and Tanya, and Garrett lopes after Kate as she crosses the room to stand near Rosalie and Emmett. Esme glides from my side to Carlisle, and the vacated space gives me an open view of the Romanians, who bend towards one another to confer – but not before Vladimir shoots a speculative glance in Bella's direction, pondering to himself, The scales are tipped in our favor...but it can easily become unbalanced.

Puzzled by his words and suspicious of his attention to my wife, I hone in on their conversation.

"I do so hope Alistair was right about this," Stefan murmurs in earnest to Vladimir. His ruby-colored eyes are bright with feral excitement. "No matter the outcome, word will spread. It's time our world saw the Volturi for what they've become. They'll never fall if everyone believes this nonsense about them protecting our way of life," he says, his voice contemptuous.

Vladimir nods once. "At least when we ruled, we were honest about what we were."

"We never put on white hats and called ourselves saints," Stefan agrees, inwardly scoffing at the idea.

Vladimir's gaze shifts to Bella again. She stares back, deliberate in her attentiveness, and a flicker of approval lightens his thoughts. It is then that I realize the Romanians want to be overheard. What I do not know yet is why.

"I'm thinking the time has come to fight," Vladimir comments, a powerful gleam of anticipation in his eyes. "How can you imagine we'll ever find a better force to stand with? Another chance this good?" he questions his brother.

"Nothing is impossible," Stefan hedges, looking around the room critically. These young ones lack resolve. Perhaps...with the proper incentive... He returns his attention to Vladimir and begins to say, "Maybe someday –"

The fair-haired Romanian cuts him off. "We've been waiting for fifteen hundred years, Stefan. And they've only gotten stronger with the years." There is no ire in his demeanor, however. In fact, the only description I find that fits the tone of Vladimir's mind is cunning.

He peers at Bella in the brief pause that follows, unsurprised that both she and I are watching them unabashedly, and one corner of his mouth twitches into a ghost of a smile. "If the Volturi win this conflict," he speaks in low deliberation, "they will leave with more power than they came with. With every conquest they add to their strengths. Think of what that newborn alone could give them" – he motions to Bella with a quick jerk of his chin – "and she is barely discovering her gifts." His scarlet eyes flick sideways. "And the earth-mover," he adds, nodding towards Benjamin. The younger vampire tenses, his spine straightening like an iron rod, and Tia softly touches his arm with her fingertips.

We have gained their full attention, at least, Stefan muses to himself in satisfaction. He is correct; every pair of eyes in the house is fixed on the Romanians, and every ear is attuned to their words.

Vladimir continues in his tally of the gifted vampires, mentioning dispassionately, "With their witch twins they have no need of the illusionist or the fire touch." He looks over Stefan's shoulder at Zafrina, whose taut, sinuous frame is reminiscent of a panther on the hunt – and then at Kate, whereupon she tosses her cornsilk blonde hair away from her face, one eyebrow raised sardonically.

"Nor is the mind reader exactly necessary," Stefan observes, his measuring stare landing on me for a second, and then he turns back to Vladimir. "But I see your point. Indeed, they will gain much if they win."

His brother arches his pale brows high on his forehead. "More than we can afford to have them gain," he prompts expectantly, "wouldn't you agree?"

A flurry of questions floods my head, and not all of them are mine. The Romanians are trying to lead us somewhere with this seemingly casual exchange, but they are guarding their thoughts well, and I am having a difficult time interpreting the meaning behind their turn of phrase.

In my peripheral vision, I see the thoughtful frown covering Bella's heart-shaped face as she mulls over the significance of their discussion.

A quiet sigh drifts throughout the room. "I think I must agree," Stefan concurs somberly. Within his mind, he is exulting. My confusion must show in my expression, for he glances at me with a faint grin and quotes an old proverb from his homeland. Nu mâsura pe altii cu palma ta, young one.

While I struggle to decipher the translation of his thought, he leads off, "And that means..."

"That we must stand against them while there is still hope," Vladimir concludes in satisfaction.

Stefan remarks, "If we can just cripple them, even, expose them..."

"Then, someday," his fair-haired brother states triumphantly, "others will finish the job."

"And our long vendetta will be repaid." Their eyes glow at the promise of victory. "At last."

Staring at one another for a moment, their thoughts are in complete concert as they envision standing amidst our group of witnesses on a nondescript field across from the Volturi. Traces of self-preservation weave into their notions of revenge, but the strength of these thoughts pales in comparison to the Romanians' thirst for violence against Aro and his coven. In unison, they assert decisively, "It seems the only way."

"So we fight," Stefan pronounces. Now we shall see...

The wheel has been set in motion, Vladimir muses inwardly as he says out loud, "We fight."

A delicate shudder ripples through Bella's slender body in the silent aftermath of the Romanians' declaration, and I squeeze her hand, pulling her closer to my side.

Listening to the swirl of contemplations filling the room as completely as any spoken dialogue, I realize that Vladimir is right: the wheel has indeed been set in motion. Every coven represented among us is weighing their loyalty to Carlisle and his family against the threat of falling to the Volturi, wondering if the time has come for each of them to declare their intentions.

Benjamin and Tia share a meaningful glance – asking questions of one another and receiving answers with their eyes – then Tia speaks up, her tone quietly solemn, "We will fight, too. We believe the Volturi will overstep their authority." Her passive, yet piercing crimson gaze latches onto her mate. "We have no wish to belong to them."

Benjamin grins, the boyish charm that had left his expression during the argument with Amun returning in full force as he tosses a rascally smirk at Tia, and then looks toward the Romanians. "Apparently, I'm a hot commodity," he remarks. "It appears I have to win the right to be free." And not just from the Volturi, he adds mentally, remembering the possessive way his creator guards his every movement.

With a startled jolt that she tries to disguise, Kate looks on as Garrett strides from her side, calling out in a dry, humorous voice, "This won't be the first time I've fought to keep myself from a king's rule." He stops in front of our group and claps Benjamin on the back, smiling rakishly. "Here's to freedom from oppression," he announces, raising an imaginary glass with his free hand.

Tanya, in the same unswerving allegiance she has displayed since the day the Denali clan arrived, raises her own voice to be counted with our supporters. "We stand with Carlisle. And we fight with him."

Kate nods in agreement, as do Eleazar and Carmen.

I have lit enough fires on the broken bodies of my kin to last a hundred lifetimes, Peter reflects sadly. Like Jasper had mentioned the last time I saw him, he knew his old comrade would be intensely reluctant to consign to any fight, regardless of the cause. "We have not decided," the Southern vampire murmurs.

The tiny, doll-like blonde at his side stiffens. He peers down at her with pleading in his burgundy eyes but Charlotte avoids his gaze, staring forward, her lips pressed into a hard line. The Volturi have crossed a line, she rails inwardly. Who are they to tell us how we should live, whom we should love? That child does not deserve to pay for a crime her parents did not even commit.

She continues with this particular line of thought for several seconds, even as the two remaining nomads publicize their intentions.

"The same goes for me," Randall says without qualm. I'm here to witness, that's all, not get into a brawl with the Volturi.

Mary adds, "And me," though she seems more at odds with this choice than any of the others.

Jacob shifts his footing and crosses his arms over his chest, walking further into the room. Well...just so everyone's clear on where we stand... "The packs will fight with the Cullens," he proclaims in loud determination, and then a lopsided smirk brightens his face. "We're not afraid of vampires." But they should fear us, he thinks, scarcely holding back a snicker. An amused puff of breath escapes my lips.

Bristling at Jacob's casual reference to the carnage of war, Peter mutters irritably, "Children."

"Infants," Randall amends, eyeing the only wolf in attendance with obvious condescension.

Jacob mocks them with his entire demeanor, exuding jovial self-confidence as his grin widens, and he tells me, Make sure these two get a prime view of the field. I wouldn't want them to miss our 'playtime'. He winks, and I roll my eyes.

Near the window wall, Siobhan is having some sort of wordless dispute with the youngest member of her coven. Her marble arm rests heavily on Maggie's thin shoulders, her aquiline features darkened with warning, but the small redhead ducks out of her grasp and boldly minces forward. "Well, I'm in, too," Maggie states. "I know truth is on Carlisle's side. I can't ignore that." She smiles a little at Bella and Renesmee.

Deeply worried at this turn of events, Siobhan stares at the younger vampire's back for a moment, her mind filled with anxiety, indecision, and dread.

A beat later, she shifts her ruby eyes to my father. "Carlisle." Her tone is hushed, the Irish brogue thick in her words as she converses informally with her old friend like they are the only two people in the room. "I don't want this to come to a fight."

Cradling Esme's hands in his own, Carlisle meets Siobhan's apprehensive gaze with open friendliness and replies, "Nor do I, Siobhan. You know that's the last thing I want." A faint grin curves his mouth. "Perhaps you should concentrate on keeping it peaceful," he suggests lightly.

"You know that won't help," she counters, vaguely regretful. Still he clings to the absurd idea of me possessing an ability. A quiet chuckle echoes in her head. He's as stubborn as any of my kinsmen. Fondness and mild exasperation color her expression and glitter in the depths of her scarlet irises.

Carlisle shrugs. "It couldn't hurt."

His witty rejoinder causes Esme to hide her smile by ducking her head, and Siobhan rolls her eyes in disbelief. Placing her hands on her hips, the Irish vampire tilts her head to one side and arches an auburn eyebrow. "Shall I visualize the outcome you desire?" she poses, the question fairly dripping with sarcasm.

My father's grin spreads across his face, his teeth gleaming brilliantly in the overhead light. "If you don't mind," he says cheerfully. Her gift is subtle, but it is real. If only she would believe it.

Siobhan retorts – not harshly, but with the air of one who feels victorious – "Then there is no need for my coven to declare itself, is there?" Maggie turns to look over her shoulder at the elder vampire incredulously. "Since there is no possibility of a fight." Siobhan steps forward and puts her hand on the girl's arm, moving her back to her place near Liam, who has watched this whole discussion in stoic silence.

Bewildered looks paint the faces of nearly everyone present, but neither Siobhan or my father offer any explanations, so their conversation is soon forgotten.

Now that the dramatic interactions have passed, the crowd slowly begins to thin as some of our guests file outside and others seek diversion indoors.

Emmett plods over to the chair in front of the television and clicks it on with the remote, quickly locating a football game to shout at for a while. Rose perches herself on the arm of his chair, leaning her body against his while threading her fingers idly through his dark curls.

With so little time left until the moment that defines what remains of our existence is upon us, no one wants to be apart from their loved ones.

Bella lets out a relieved sigh and swallows out of habit; I immediately notice the barely perceptible wince that she tries to smother, realizing that while she may have the self-control of a mature vampire, she is still just as thirsty as any newborn.

The little girl in her arms is uncomfortable as well. Renesmee has no trouble eating human food, but her stomach starts to bother her after a few hours, and she needs an ingestion of blood to appease the immortal traits of her body.

"Let's go hunting," I murmur softly to the pair. Their identical heart-shaped faces light up eagerly in response, and I keep my hold on Bella's hand as we head towards the back door. "Jacob," I call over my shoulder, inviting him to come along.

He breaks eye contact with Peter, who has been glaring in Jacob's direction since he spoke up earlier, and jogs after us, irritation brewing in his mind as we walk outside. The icy rain has finally ceased, and the air is brisk, promising a snowfall – the herald of things to come.

Once we reach the frozen riverbed, Jacob growls under his breath, "Stupid leeches. Think they're so superior." He snorts derisively.

I glance at him with a slight smirk, remarking, "They'll be shocked when the infants save their superior lives, won't they?" I myself have been guilty of underestimating the wolves on numerous occasions, but after witnessing firsthand what they can accomplish through the total concert of the pack psyche, I am pleased to call them allies...and friends.

Smiling mischievously, Jacob thumps his fist into my shoulder. "Hell yeah, they will," he chortles, a wicked glint in his black eyes, and then disappears into the shadows to phase.

Renesmee wriggles out of Bella's arms as the massive red-brown wolf pads out of the underbrush, lowering his furry head to nudge her playfully with his nose, and at an unspoken signal the two of them dash into the forest, beginning their usual game of who can make the first kill.

I turn to Bella at the exact same time she peers up at me, her eyes questioning. Sweeping a hand towards the bare, frost-covered woods, I offer, "After you, love."

She sniffs once at the gust of wind that tangles her dark hair and cocks her head, listening to the distant rhythm of hoofbeats, the faint pulse of a cluster of hearts – and then leaps forward, snaking through the trees like a wraith.

I match her stride easily, following the pull of my instincts, and before the predator completely resumes control I detect a hint of preoccupation in Bella's graceful movements, as if a part of her mind is separated from the hunt.

Before I can fully examine the possible causes of her abstracted behavior, we come upon the small herd of elk we had been tracking. Even without the ability to read her mind, Bella and I have learned to anticipate one another's course of action to near perfection.

Lowering herself into a crouch, she attacks the herd straight on while I loop around to the rear, surprising those who try to flee. Bella pounces on a large female with a fierce growl and buries her face into its neck.

Satisfied that she is fulfilling her own needs, I grasp the muscular body of a three-pronged bull and snap his spine, pulling back its head to expose the throat. Then, in a rare moment of clarity, a dull thud registers in my eardrums and I glance up while baring my teeth.

The half-drained carcass of Bella's kill lies at her feet, and she stares with wide, vacant eyes at her bloodstained hands, her lips parted in horrified realization.

At once, my protective nature trumps thirst, and I drop the dead elk, rushing to her side. "What's wrong?" I ask, curling my body defensively as my eyes scan the surrounding area, searching for a threat.

Tiny white snowflakes dance through the air, melting as they land on the ground and the warm bodies of the discarded animals. Opening my awareness to discern any nearby thoughts, I pick up on Jacob's mental crowing and Renesmee's intense concentration about fifty yards to the east.

Apparently, their sudden assault on the elk caused the herd to break into two groups. Subtlety, after all, is not Jacob's strong suit.

But other than that, I discover nothing out of the ordinary.

Gasping breaths escape from Bella's mouth, her dark amber eyes rounded in fear, and she chokes out, "Renesmee."

I softly stroke her upper arms, murmuring soothingly, "She's just through those trees." I nod to the right, desperate to reassure her – to do whatever it takes to banish the terror from her gaze. "I can hear both her thoughts and Jacob's," I go on in a low, comforting voice. "She's fine."

Bella shakes her head frantically. "That's not what I meant," she says, finally raising her face to mine. Snowflakes alight on her long eyelashes as she tells me, her tone bordering on hysteria, "I was thinking about my shield – you really think it's worth something, that it will help somehow."

Of course, I want to tell her, but the floodgates have been opened.

She continues, her words becoming faster and tinged with dismay. "I know the others are hoping that I'll be able to shield Zafrina and Benjamin, even if I can only keep it up for a few seconds at a time. What if that's a mistake?" she asks anxiously. "What if your trust in me is the reason that we fail?"

My arms instantly engulf her slender frame, pulling her into my chest. She presses her face into the folds of my jacket, a shudder rippling through her, and I tenderly rub her back, kissing the top of her head. "Bella," I whisper into her silky locks, "what brought this on? Of course, it's wonderful that you can protect yourself, but you're not responsible for saving anyone."

Nuzzling my cheek against her temple, I inhale the sweet, floral aroma of her scent. My Bella would bear the weight of the entire world if she could. If I let her. But I need her too much to allow her penchant for martyrdom any precedence. "Don't distress yourself needlessly," I urge gently, my lips brushing her forehead.

Her small hands fist into the fabric of my shirt and she huddles deeper into my embrace. "But what if I can't protect anything?" she whispers hoarsely, taking in panting gasps of the cold air. "This thing I do, it's faulty, it's erratic! There's no rhyme or reason to it." She trembles again. I instinctively tighten my hold around her as she whimpers in defeat, "Maybe it will do nothing against Alec at all."

"Shh." Wanting so badly to alleviate her fears, to understand why these thoughts are plaguing her mind, I rock from side to side – the same way she does to soothe our daughter – and beg, "Don't panic. And don't worry about Alec. What he does is no different than what Jane or Zafrina does," I assure her. "It's just an illusion – he can't get inside your head any more than I can." No matter how hard I may wish otherwise.

Bella's head jerks up, her pale features distraught and agonized. My silent heart twists in response, echoing her emotional pain, and I reach out to cradle her face in my hands. "But Renesmee does!" she mutters through her teeth, her eyes beseeching me to see the danger in this realization. "It seemed so natural, I never questioned it before. It's always been just part of who she is. But she puts her thoughts right into my head just like she does with everyone else."

She pauses for a half-second, struggling to keep her voice down, and I figure out what must have occurred to her only minutes ago: why Renesmee is able to breach the walls surrounding her mind.

Because I have never shared my theories with Bella, she assumed the worst.

Remorse knifes through me while she hisses wildly, "My shield has holes, Edward!"

We stare at one another for a brief eternity. Bella seems to be waiting for me to experience the same horror that has befallen her, and I am trying to assemble a reply that will put all her fears to rest.

She obviously reads the calculating expression on my face, for her desperation suddenly vanishes into a dark glower, her brow lowering over her blazing red-orange eyes. "You thought of this a long time ago, didn't you?" she accuses, incensed.

Absurdly lovely, even when she is angry, I cannot muster the strength to hide my delight and amusement in her reactions. My mouth curves into a lopsided smile, and I confess, "The first time she touched you."

She lets out a lengthy sigh, her expression crumpled into a disappointed grimace – berating herself for not thinking of it sooner, I would guess – and her clenched jaw relaxes a bit under my hands. "And this doesn't bother you?" she demands, studying my face intently. "You don't see it as a problem?"

Shrugging, I answer with casual ease, "I have two theories, one more likely than the other." I smooth my thumbs over the supple contours of her cheekbones, perfectly content to spend every possible moment touching her satiny alabaster skin.

Bella wastes no time in ordering me to provide her with answers. "Give me the least likely first."

"Well," I begin in a calm, thoughtful manner, "she's your daughter. Genetically half you." A short chuckle interrupts my explanation. "I used to tease you about how your mind was on a different frequency than the rest of ours. Perhaps she runs on the same."

Shaking her head even before I am finished speaking, Bella then interjects emphatically, "But you hear her mind just fine. Everyone hears her mind. And what if Alec runs on a different frequency?" she frets. "What if –?"

I place my index finger on her lips, hushing her worried outburst, and she watches me, frustrated and anxious. "I've considered that," I inform her gently. The appealing texture of her full lips under my fingertip is unbelievably distracting, so I remove my hand from her mouth, cupping my palm around her neck instead. "Which is why I think this next theory is much more likely." I pause, waiting to see if she wants me to continue.

Her teeth audibly lock together, demonstrating her impatience, but she remains quiet. Restraining a smile at her aggravated pout, I ask, "Do you remember what Carlisle said to me about her, right after she showed you that first memory?"

I can tell that she is resisting the urge to roll her eyes as she replies in an 'of course' tone, "He said, 'It's an interesting twist. Like she's doing the exact opposite of what you can.'"

"Yes," I say with a nod. "And so I wondered. Maybe she took your talent and flipped it, too." I raise my eyebrows at her expectantly, anticipating that bright flash of intuition to ignite within her gaze.

Bella's expression registers confusion, and then a pensive frown puckers her forehead as she angles her head slightly to the side, weighing my statement carefully in her mind.

I give her approximately five seconds – then the hunger to know her thoughts becomes too much to bear, and I prompt her by starting off quietly, "You keep everyone out."

"And no one keeps her out?" she concludes tentatively.

"That's my theory," I remark, smiling. "And if she can get into your head, I doubt there's a shield on the planet who could keep her at bay." Loose tendrils of Bella's chocolate-colored hair waft across her face, obscuring my view, and I wind the strands delicately around my fingers, relishing the sensation - like silk against my skin.

Caught up in the habit I had formed not long after declaring myself to Bella in our meadow, I watch the locks slip across the shape of my hand, considering aloud, "That will help. From what we've seen, no one can doubt the truth of her thoughts once they've allowed her to show them. And I think no one can keep her from showing them, if she gets close enough."

Though I would much rather keep Renesmee as far from Aro's greedy clutches as possible, granting him access to her mind is the best way to plead our case. Renata will be beside him, I am sure, but as I just surmised, Renesmee's talent can penetrate the strongest shield I know of – and that is the one generated by my wife.

"If Aro allows her to explain..." My words die away as Bella shivers, no doubt thinking of our daughter being exposed to the Italian vampire's papery, devious touch.

Sliding my hands down her neck to her shoulders, I try to rub the tension from her muscles, commenting, "Well, at least there's nothing that can stop him from seeing the truth."

She looks into my eyes with the same need for reassurance that I had craved from her weeks ago, and lays her palms on my chest. "But is the truth enough to stop him?" she asks, a faint shadow of desolation darkening her soft voice.

How she phrased that question...it seems almost rhetorical – as if she already knows what will happen, and part of her wishes that she had stayed ignorant.

Alice would sometimes act that way after she had experienced a particularly heartrending vision...

Enough. The self-issued command rings sternly through my brain, shattering the beginnings of speculation that have sprung up within my thoughts. I promised to trust Bella, and I will hold myself to that promise, even if she does not.

Sensing that I cannot give her the answer she seeks, Bella nestles into my arms once again, tucking her head under my chin.

We remain in that position until the scent of spilled blood from Jacob's kill strengthens the desire to hunt, and we break apart, tracing the flight of the herd through the forest.

The snow falls thickly to the ground, though the flakes disappear into the rocky earth, as Bella and I weave soundlessly among the towering trees, coming upon the elk in a few minutes.

Together, we make short work of the rest of the herd. After her last kill tumbles limply from her arms, she turns to look at me. Flecks of blood smear one corner of her mouth, windblown tangles of dark brown hair cover the side of her face, and there is still a wildness in her vivid eyes that makes her appear more like a vampire than my Bella.

Yet, beneath the feral exterior, her whole countenance radiates love and a searing, bone-deep passion – and it draws me in like a magnet.

My body leans into a stalking crouch, my chest vibrating with a growl, and Bella responds with the growling purr I have come to adore, mimicking my stance.

No words are spoken. We are beyond words. Instinct dominates our actions, and we have become twin hunters, rejoicing over the bond we share with our mate.

She and I fly at one another, the sound of our crashing bodies resounding like thunder throughout the still wintry air, and Bella knocks me to the forest floor much like she did on her very first hunting trip, sealing her mouth to mine with possessive force.

Teeth and hands get rid of the heavy fabric separating her skin from my own, and we tussle sensuously amid the frosted leaves, merging with one another with an almost primal urgency, yet the emotion behind our union leaves me breathless.

For a single, fleeting moment of eternity, nothing else exists outside of our embrace. The feeling of her body against me, the taste of her kisses, and the joy of receiving her love becomes a beacon of hope that resurrects a nearly forgotten sense of celebration.

This is what I longed for, searched for, from the time I awakened to this life as an immortal.

Bella is my true other half – and my world, my purpose, my very existence – belongs to her.

"You are my life now," I had told her the morning after that first night she slept in my arms. But I do not think I ever fully comprehended the truth of that admission until I realized how irrevocably my spirit is tied to hers.

We must have always been one – from the very foundation of the universe – and however our souls were split into two, it was inevitable that we would find each other again.

In the deepest watches of the night, we lay on the frozen, silvery-coated ground, our bodies woven together as tiny specks of white twirl lazily around us like the illusion of being inside a snow globe. The peace saturating this idyllic slice of time is beautiful beyond description.

Absently, I begin to hum a very old song, fitting for this occasion. The last words of the chorus strike me as profoundly appropriate: heavenly peace.

Bella then lifts her head from the curve of my shoulder, pressing her lips to the edge of my jaw. "Merry Christmas, Edward," she whispers softly.

I dip my chin to give her a gentle, virtuous kiss, and sigh in return, "Merry Christmas, love."

And we linger in the tranquil embrace of this silent, holy night as the snow continues to fall.