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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:


17. Deadline

Rating 5/5   Word Count 12923   Review this Chapter

With the dawn comes the solemn heaviness of reality.

After a significant amount of coaxing on my part, Bella agrees to run with me to the cottage, rather than waiting until I return with an armful of clothing. Truthfully, she and I both know that I could be there and back in less than five minutes, but that is too long a time to be separated from each other, and so we streak through the forest like a pair of white ghosts as the sky begins to lighten.

A thin column of smoke rises from the chimney of our little home, and the slow cadence of a much larger heart resounds beneath the familiar rapid thrum of Renesmee's pulse, though the discordant noise of snoring nearly drowns out all other sounds.

Bella freezes in place on the stone pathway to the front door, staring up at me in utter mortification. "Jake's here?" she squeaks.

I squeeze her hand, tugging her closer, and she scuttles behind me, trying to shield her body with my own. Chuckling, I whisper, "He's asleep, love." I grasp the door handle and push my thumb down on the catch. It opens with a faint click, and Bella twitches like a startled doe, her free hand clutching my shoulder as she follows me step for step into the cottage.

Her quick breaths caress the nape of my neck, and the hairs' breadth of space between her skin and mine electrifies every nerve in my body, making me acutely aware that all I need to do is turn around...

The spectacle on the loveseat swiftly replaces the growing lust with severe displeasure.

Jacob is sprawled haphazardly on the piece of furniture that is three times too small for his frame, his head lolling far to one side and his mouth hanging slightly open as he continues to emit snuffling snores that seem to fill the entire house.

Despite the fact that his long legs are thrown akimbo over the armrest and one side of the loveseat, his thick arms are wrapped protectively around a perfect bronze-haired child slumbering against him, her ivory skin in contrast with his russet coloring.

Renesmee's flushed cheek is pillowed on his warm chest, her curls splayed across her shoulder and his like a decorative blanket, and the faint, peaceful smile on her face keeps me from yanking her out of his arms. But I cannot prevent the muscles in my body from tensing or my teeth from snapping together in annoyance.

Sensing the change in my demeanor, Bella releases her grip on me and edges forward. My gaze flicks sideways to watch her reaction.

Amber eyes blink once at the sleeping pair, and I look on in muted amazement as Bella's expression softens into a mixture of satisfaction and wistfulness, a tiny smile that is almost a mirror image of the one gracing our daughter's face on her lips.

Humbled by her unexpected and steadfast approval of their relationship, I shift my attention to Jacob once again, regarding him not as an obstacle to overcome, but as a constant in Renesmee's life. I have never and will never doubt his devotion to the little girl, and ultimately to our family – and Renesmee is as connected to him as he is to her, I see that now.

In light of the present situation, how can I begrudge either of them the need for closeness?

A low sigh escapes from the woman at my side, and then she slips silently into the hallway, moving towards our bedroom. Aching need begins to claw its way throughout my body as soon as she is out of my sight. I race down the hall, pulling the door shut in my wake, and sweep Bella literally off her feet before she reaches the closet.

She gasps in surprise – the sound is swallowed by my mouth covering hers – and we collapse unceremoniously onto the bed. My lips move to her throat, following the delicate curve of her jaw, and she tilts her head back, murmuring huskily, "You're insatiable."

"Well," I reply against her floral-scented skin, "it is a holiday, after all. Doesn't that constitute a little recreation?"

Her fingers twist into my hair as I press a kiss into the hollow at the base of her throat. "Christmas is technically over, Edward," she contradicts, but there is no force behind her words, and she exhales sharply when I move downward, brushing my mouth over her breastbone.

"Today is a holiday as well." Following an invisible line down her body, I proceed to emblazon the contours of her abdomen with kisses. "It originated as a holiday for those of greater means to give boxes of food, fruit, clothing or money to their servants as an expression of gratitude for their work during the year."

I circle her navel with my lips; she moans quietly, tugging on my scalp, but I will not surrender so easily this time, and resume my rather inane explanation. "That's how this day received its name: Boxing Day. It's still widely celebrated in Canada and countries in Europe, and many families gather to play games or –"

"Edward?"

I lift my chin fractionally. Bella stares into my eyes with fierce intensity, her hooded gaze smoldering. Without granting me any time to recover, she slithers downward on the mattress and captures my face between her palms, our noses touching as she orders, "Shut up." And she ensures my compliance with a kiss that steals away the air from my lungs.

I cannot catch my breath for the remainder of the morning.

When Renesmee's heartbeat quickens and Jacob's sleep-fogged mind registers his grumbling stomach, I regretfully release Bella from my arms and leave our bed before the desire subdues all rational thought, heading into the closet to get dressed. She emulates my movements a few seconds later and dons her own clothing, running a brush hastily through her tousled locks.

Pausing at the door, I hold out my hand to her. She fits her slender palm in mine, and together we leave our room, our haven, to meet the day – another swing of the pendulum counting down to our family's time of judgment.

Jacob halts in mid-stretch while we round the corner to the living room, his mouth opened in a yawn that has turned into an 'o' of surprise. The little cherub balanced on top of the armrest near his feet lets out a gasp of delight and launches herself into her mother's arms, broadcasting through her shared thoughts that she is glad we're home and she missed us last night. Bella cuddles her close and kisses her cheeks in response.

"When did you guys get back?" Jacob asks in a casual tone, but his black-brown eyes are wary.

I answer him in the same relaxed manner, "Just before dawn."

He and I hold stares for a moment as Jacob tries to gauge my reaction to the sleeping arrangements he had decided on for Renesmee, and I stand beside the fireplace calmly, my irritation long since departed.

His taut shoulders sag a bit in relief, and he springs to his feet with a grin, remarking, "Are you heading up to command central? I'll come with."

Our small entourage travels at human pace through the waking forest. A thin, sparkling layer of snow carpets the ground, and the rolling violet-gray clouds above are harbingers of more precipitation.

Jacob shivers, though it is not from the cold, and cocks his head, the movement distinctly wolf-like. It's too quiet, he thinks cautiously. Like something spooked all the animals. He glances up at the sky, frowning. There's a storm coming. A big one.

I nod once in acquiescence, my gaze drifting sideways as a gust of frigid wind whistles through the bare trees. Renesmee curls into her mother's body, her molten bronze ringlets lashing against her face, and Bella tightens her arms around the little girl, a look of grim determination hardening her features that I think has little to do with the weather.

That suspicion is confirmed when we approach the house minutes later. Bella scans the oddly vacant meadow with keen red-orange eyes, asking, "Where is everyone?"

Jacob echoes her question mentally, as does Renesmee, and in near-perfect unison all three turn to me in expectation. Smiling faintly, I listen for a moment, tuning into the flow of thoughts much like adjusting the dial on a radio, and find an answer. "Most have gone hunting. Emmett and Rosalie left earlier with all the Denalis, but Carlisle and Esme decided to wait for us. A few of the others are inside – some are out back."

"Zafrina?" Bella insists, the resolve in her expression becoming more defined with each passing second.

"She's by the river with Senna." Catching the wilder tenor of the Amazon vampire's psyche, I surmise quietly, "I believe she is waiting for you."

In mild surprise, I watch with raised brows as Bella sets Renesmee on her feet and marches toward the west side of the house, disappearing around the far corner. Jacob shakes his head indulgently, crossing his arms over his broad chest. "One-track mind," he says with a lopsided smirk. "Some things never change." He chuckles under his breath and then takes Renesmee's hand, leading her to the front steps as he announces, "I'm starved. I hope your Grandma remembered to go grocery shopping this week, Ness." They enter the doorway, leaving me to either catch up or to discover what has my wife so intent on practicing her shield.

After a brief flash of hesitation, I decide on the former and bound up the porch stairs, slipping inside before the door has a chance to close. Bella needs as few distractions as possible in order to master her gift, and I have no desire to break her concentration – or her blossoming self-confidence – with my presence.

Of course, while she remains outside for most of the day, I am left a bit floundering.

My daughter inadvertently rescues me from a purposeless afternoon by leaving Jacob to his lunch preparations and crawling into my lap. In her tiny hands she clutches one of Esme's sketchpads and a box of crayons. Setting the pad neatly on her outstretched legs, Renesmee positions the flipped open box beside my right hip and touches my forearm as she peruses her color choices with the same intensity of any artist.

I see in her mind that she wants to draw a picture of our family, so I pluck a pale almond crayon from the box and offer it to her, suggesting, "Why don't you start with Momma?"

She twists around to beam up at me and then sets herself to the task at hand. I can tell from the way she holds the crayon that she has been paying attention to Esme – and she may possess the creative talent naturally, I speculate to myself as she outlines an amazingly proportionate version of Bella on the paper.

"What color should we make her hair?" I say to the little girl, though my eyes have already picked out the shade that most closely resembles the rich brown of Bella's silken tresses.

Renesmee ponders for a moment, studying her options, and then selects that precise color, adding a long mass of chocolate hair to the drawn figure.

A vibrant blue catches my eye, and immediately I pull it from the box, the crystalline memory of cream-and-roses skin swathed in indigo chiffon dancing through my head. "Why don't you give her this color shirt?"

We go on in this fashion – Renesmee creating small images of each member of our family and me offering suggestions about which colors to use – until it is time for the finishing touches. Very carefully, she adds facial features to every face, beginning with the black-haired pixie at the far end of the paper.

Unlike the last time she saw her aunt, Renesmee draws a wide smile on Alice's face, making her eyes a metallic gold that imitates the sparkle that always seems to light up her entire countenance.

As she moves on to Jasper, I brush my thumb along the edge of my sister's smiling figure, wishing that I could know where she is, if she is safe, if we'll ever see her or my brother again...

A small hand pats my arm impatiently, and I awaken from my somber reverie. Renesmee has finished with every face except for her mother's. She pictures Bella in her mind, emphasizing the vivid scarlet-amber hue of her eyes, and wonders if she should make them that color in the illustration, or if they should be the same as mine.

"They'll be gold soon, sweetheart," I remind her softly. "Why don't you make them that color in your picture so you can see how pretty Momma will look."

Thinking that a grand idea, the little girl promptly wields the gold crayon and colors in Bella's eyes, her sense of pride swelling as she surveys her finished product. No detail has been overlooked. Even the representation of herself has a yellow-gold cord around her neck, with a tiny circle dangling beneath her throat.

"A masterpiece," I assure her, kissing the top of her curly head. The brilliance of her smile rivals the radiant glow of the sun. "But an artist should always sign her work," I remark, thoughtful.

The upturned corners of her mouth droop a little. "I don't know how," she admits aloud sadly. Renesmee understands letters and the written word, but has yet to learn how to form them with her own hand.

"I'll help you." Enclosing her small hand with mine, I guide her crayon across the bottom of the paper, explaining as we go, "This is R, then E, then N...E – S – M – E – E. See? Renesmee."

For good measure, we add her last name as well, and then I encourage her to show her masterpiece to Esme and Carlisle. Their awed exclamations ring joyfully through the lower part of the house, and I laugh quietly when Esme declares that she has to find a frame for the picture, wasting no time as she whisks Renesmee upstairs to her studio.

Getting up from the sofa, I glance outside the window panel – and do a double take in surprise. Twilight has descended upon the world, bathing the silvery forest in faded tones of blue. Flecks of white float down from the navy-colored sky while I cross to the windows, and the wavering reflection of my father appears in the glass beside my left shoulder. "The snowfall is predicted to be intermittent," he comments in a calm voice, "but significant accumulation is expected by the end of the week." He waits a beat, and then asks, "How much time do we have?"

Reluctant to relive the unforgiving future I had witnessed with Alice but knowing that there is no other alternative, I stare past the frosted glass and summon the memory. "The snow is thick on the ground in the vision," I reply dully. "Enough to cover the grass in the field." Blackness swallows the rest of the vision before I have to experience the coming horror of dark-cloaked figures slithering through the trees, and I meet Carlisle's topaz gaze in the window. "Two, maybe three days, at most. I can't narrow it down any further than that."

He fingers his chin pensively. Normally, this would seem like a one-sided conversation to anyone else listening in, but Carlisle is extending the courtesy of knowledge to all our guests by speaking aloud. "Perhaps..." he begins in slow deliberation, "...one more day. Then we will head for the clearing." I incline my head in agreement.

The back door suddenly bursts open in a swirl of snowflakes and Bella flits inside, her face shining with a strange combination of triumph and frustration. Zafrina and Senna trail after her like twin shadows, their burgundy eyes darting in every direction, constantly monitoring their surroundings.

I turn to face them, grinning in welcome at Bella, and say, "Practice was a success?"

"Four minutes," she proclaims with a hint of satisfaction, but her full lips twist into a pout. "That's the longest I can hold my shield around someone else."

"That's wonderful, Bella!" Carlisle congratulates. "Well done!"

I add my own words of praise. "Your progress is astounding, love, truly."

"But that's not enough time, is it?" she counters worriedly. "I mean, I know you – we – are fast, but fast enough to beat the Volturi in four minutes? And I can't even do that every time; once I could only hold it for a minute and a half. What if that happens during the fight?"

I had started walking over to her the instant she began to ramble, and as she pauses to draw in a necessary breath in order to keep talking, I fold her into my arms tenderly. "I don't think I can trust myself enough to not let you and everyone else down," she confesses, her voice small and forlorn.

Before I can speak any consolation to ease her fears, a throaty alto growls, "Self-doubt is your greatest enemy, young one." Zafrina stalks over to us like a jaguar, and though her expression is fierce, her gaze transmits a feeling of deep camaraderie. Bella swings her head to the side as the Amazon vampire chides, "Your thoughts of inferiority are uncalled for. In all my years I have never encountered a newborn with such control, such inner strength. It burns like a flame within you. You must learn how to let it out."

"What if I can't?" Bella mumbles timidly.

"You will." Zafrina's statement is filled with the utmost certainty. Even I find it impossible to distrust her words. "It will happen when you least expect it."

Rolling her eyes, Bella drops her chin onto my chest, muttering in annoyance, "Well, that's convenient."

Her mood improves a bit when Renesmee comes skipping down the stairs with Esme in tow, a dark wood picture frame in my mother's slim hands. Everyone looks at the pair as Esme announces proudly, "May I present, the first original work of Miss Renesmee Cullen." She flips the frame over in a grandiose manner. Renesmee's drawing of our family has been mounted onto a matte of gold-brushed ivory paper, beautifully striking against the mahogany wood of the frame.

The room bursts into applause. Bella pulls away from me and kneels down in front of our daughter, enfolding her in a warm hug. "It's just beautiful, sweetheart. I love it." She withdraws slightly after a moment, her broad grin mimicking Renesmee's gleaming smile, and proposes, "Should we take it home and hang it up on the wall?" The little sprite hops up and down in delight, clapping her tiny hands, and laughter echoes pleasantly throughout the massive room.

In a quarter of an hour, the three of us are back at the cottage, trying to decide on the perfect place to display Renesmee's art. By general consensus, the picture is awarded a place of honor above the fireplace mantle, and we sit together on the loveseat admiring it until the little girl lapses into slumber, a contented glow on her blushing face.

With the sunrise, Bella and I are of the same mind that this day needs to be as trouble-free as possible, for our lives are on the brink of irreversible change and our daughter deserves a full twenty-four hours of a semblance of normality.

The peacefulness I had felt during our impromptu art class yesterday has left me longing for more, and Renesmee must share that notion, for she asks if we could draw another picture today while Bella is outside practicing as we make our way to the house.

"I think your Momma is planning on taking the day off, Nessie," I tell her in a conspiratorial murmur. Bella glances at me, startled, but it fades quickly from her expression in the blinding light of Renesmee's smile. I reach for Bella's hand, losing myself in her amber eyes even as I speak to our daughter. "We'll have to think of something that we can do together."

We travel the rest of the distance in comfortable silence, and while I hold the front door open for my two angels, Bella softly voices an idea. "We could look for a photo to put inside Renesmee's locket."

Bobbing her small head in agreement, the little girl touches our clasped hands to convey her enthusiasm at this idea, which earns her a kiss on each cheek simultaneously.

"Then it's decided," I reply, savoring each second in their company, and start to lead them upstairs.

On the second floor landing, I veer off to the right – into Esme's studio. Bella scoops Renesmee into her arms and tiptoes behind me cautiously, as though my mother would chastise her for entering this room without permission when nothing could be further from the truth.

"Esme stores all our family photos in here," I explain while opening a tall closet door in the far left corner of the room.

Bella gapes at the rectangular boxes stacked from floor to ceiling in neat color-coordinated columns. "I guess you would have a lot," she murmurs almost to herself, and I chuckle once.

"Most of them are mine," I inform her, gesturing to the abundance of ocher boxes taking up nearly a third of the storage area, "because I've been with Carlisle and Esme the longest."

Bella's face mirrors her obvious interest, so I continue on, pointing to the rows of crimson boxes next in line. "Those are Rose's and Emmett's." Then I motion with my head to the smaller stack of lilac-colored containers. "And those belong to Alice and Jasper. Esme keeps hers and Carlisle's in albums on the bookshelf in their bedroom."

Stepping a little further into the closet, I pull the ocher box on top of a two-foot tall column and read the date printed on a scrap of paper pasted to the front. "This should be the most recent," I say, backing away in order to close the door.

A tiny, sneaker-clad foot suddenly slides out to stop the door. I look at Bella in confusion. Her eyes are twinkling with curiosity, affection, and resolve. "Some day," she vows quietly, "you and I are going to go through every one of those boxes."

Warmth surges within my chest, and I smile, lifting my free hand to tuck her hair behind an ear. "Nothing would please me more," I return in a sincere, adoring voice, and she lowers her eyelashes in shy pleasure. Renesmee stretches out her eager fingers towards the box, pulling us both from the brief interlude, and I then lead the way to my old room, the closet door clicking shut in our wake.

We settle onto the gold coverlet draping the wrought-iron bed, forming a circle around the box of memories, and I remove the lid, dropping it behind me on the floor. Bella blinks at the contents in awed respect. "Esme really does have some incredible organizational skills," she remarks while eyeing the labeled piles of photographs, grouped by month and year in chronological order.

My mother's chiming giggle drifts up the staircase. "Decades of practice," she tells Bella, and they share a soft bout of mirth.

Pawing through the stacks, I locate the one dated September of this year and pull it out. "Let's see what we have in here..."

Bella, apparently, has other plans. She begins taking out one pile after another, inquiring absently, "How far back does this box go?"

My hand reaches inside the box and unearths the bottom-most stack, holding it out to her. "To last May," I reply quietly, my eyes locked on her heart-shaped face.

In silence, she takes the photos from my grasp and lifts the top one from the group, turning it over. The glossy image of Bella in her deep blue prom dress and me dressed in a black tuxedo, her slightly embarrassed smile focused on the camera while I gazed at her with unabashed adoration gleams faintly in the soft light filtering through the windows.

After a moment, Bella murmurs in wondering realization, her attention fixed on the photo in her hands, "I don't think I've ever seen these pictures before."

"A selfish oversight on my part," I acknowledge guiltily. Her stare flicks upward to meet mine, her forehead creased a little in puzzlement. With an open palm, I indicate the box's strewn contents on the bedspread, explaining, "Out of all the many boxes of photographs – snapshots of my decades of existence even from when I was still human – this is the only one that matters to me."

Gently, I raise my hand to Bella's cheek, brushing the backs of my fingers along the curve of her jaw to the soft point of her chin. "Because when you lit up the sky and crashed into my world..." My thumb lightly strokes the swell of her lower lip, back and forth, and her breath tickles my skin. "...that is when my life truly began. The only life worth remembering," I finish in a low, passionate whisper, mesmerized by the smoldering embers within her red-gold eyes.

Unencumbered by the attentive stare of our daughter, we lean towards one another and share a tender, electric kiss, its sweetness piercing my still heart with profound emotion. It is as if this moment – reminiscing about the start of our impossible love in the presence of the child I never dreamed we could have – has culminated our entire relationship thus far. We have reached a milestone on the journey to eternity, and whether this will mark our last of such moments on earth is unknown, but I believe – I believe – that it will not be the end for us.

We slowly break apart, eyelids fluttering and breathing heavy, and as soon as there is an iota of space between our bodies, Renesmee deposits herself squarely in her mother's lap, waving a handful of photographs in the air like a banner. The little girl's impatience has more to do with our appointed task rather than her parent's display of affection, and I give Bella a crooked grin. "Back to business, then." She laughs in response.

Beginning with the stack I had originally removed from the box, the three of us look through the collection of images portraying Renesmee's rapid growth rate, hoping to find the perfect picture to place inside her locket. But by mid-afternoon, Bella's attention strays, and she sifts through the piles she had set aside earlier, a frown steadily forming on her delicate features as she scans the photos for a certain event, without success.

Not wishing to assume, though I have a fairly valid guess as to what she may be looking for, I ask her softly over the top of our daughter's curly-haired head, "What is it, love?"

"Edward," she replies in confusion, still examining the snapshots littering the bedspread, "where are our wedding pictures?"

It is a testament to the resolution I have developed in regard to my sister's departure that I can answer her honestly, my tone devoid of animosity, "Alice and Esme were working on a scrapbook to give to us for Christmas. Even I haven't seen most of the pictures – except in their thoughts. But if you want," I offer, "I could see if I can locate the duplicates in Alice's room –"

"No!" Bella cuts me off, alarmed. I blink at her, momentarily taken aback, and Renesmee cranes her head far to one side to see her mother's face. "No, I mean..." Flustered, Bella attempts to calm down before clarifying, "You don't have to do that. I was just curious." Her slender fingers toy with the hem of the golden coverlet and she drops her eyes, her lips pursed in chagrin.

Perplexed as always by the inexplicable workings of her mind, I study her bent head, certain that something has occurred to her that she is hesitating to address – which usually means that she wants to make a request. Stubborn and self-reliant, my Bella has a distinct aversion to asking for favors, though such an inclination should be behind us now. Everything that I own is legally hers as well, and she is more than welcome to exercise a little authority.

Yet as I open my mouth to remind her of this, she murmurs in an almost inaudible voice, "I wonder if maybe I could call Renée and wish her a Merry Christmas." She pinches a bump in the fabric of the coverlet to punctuate her statement.

And then it clicks. The wedding pictures, her mother, and her constant desire to assuage any feelings of ostracism between her and Renée. Always thinking of the needs of others.

Gazing at her fondly, I put my hand on hers, and weave our fingers together to keep her from pulling apart the bedspread. Her eyes dart upward after a few seconds, and then I let her know in a consoling manner, "Alice sent the entire album to Renée while we were on Isle Esme." My lips quirk into a wry grin as I add, "If the profusely exuberant commentary Alice received on her voice mail is any indication, I would say that your mother was extremely grateful."

Bella's shoulders relax as though an enormous weight has been lifted from her, and she sighs deeply. "Good." Looking down at our joined hands, she smoothes the pad of her thumb over my knuckles while her other palm caresses Renesmee's soft bronze hair. "That's good," she says wistfully, a faint smile ghosting across her face.

Quite suddenly, she holds up a photograph that had been resting on her knee and remarks in a brighter tone, "What about this one?"

For the better part of two hours, we debate over the final choices, deadlocked in a decision as each of us prefers a different picture. I have never been more thrilled to participate in a dispute over something as trivial as a photograph for my daughter's locket. The simple domesticity of this moment is a thing of beauty.

As Renesmee is distracted by the return of Emmett, Rosalie, and the Denali family outside the windows, Bella gracefully unfolds her legs and stands, pointing with her index finger at the picture closest to her previous spot. "That one," she declares, and then leans over, pressing a feather-light kiss to my cheek. "I'll be back." Before I can turn to her, she slips out the door, her footsteps whisper-soft as they echo down the stairs, through the front door, and vanish into the muted quiet of the forest.

Determined not to speculate on Bella's peculiar actions, I call Renesmee back to the bed and try to smother my wild, tumultuous thoughts by wheedling the little girl. "Are you sure you won't change your mind, Nessie? Your mother really likes this one, and my favorite is very nice, too..." A small triangle of white in the corner of my eye catches my attention. Looping an arm around Renesmee, I pick up the now empty storage box, noticing that one photo seems to have been wedged inside the bottom flap – almost as if it had been shoved in between the lid.

Carefully, I pull it out, and then I see the initials printed in black ink on the top left corner: A.C.

This picture belongs to Alice. She must have taken it.

So why would it have been crammed into one of my boxes?

Very slowly, a turbulent swirl of emotions coursing through me, I turn over the photograph.

Standing beneath the yellow-gold canopy of autumn leaves aglow in the sunshine, I lean against the trunk of an ancient cedar with my arms wrapped around Bella's waist, my cheek nestled into her hair as I grin, ridiculously jubilant, at the camera.

Bella rests trustingly in my embrace, as she always has, her dark locks framing her heart-shaped face while the radiance of her smile shines as brilliantly as a star. And in her arms, Renesmee beams with incandescent happiness, the fiery gleam of her curls a perfect compliment to the vivid seasonal colors in the background.

It is a family photo the likes of which I have never seen, much less been a part of in my century of existence. There is no undercurrent of enmity or indifference, no shadows darkening the hidden places behind the smiles, but an aura of love and belonging that permeates the image more so than the golden light of the sun. I find myself wishing for just an instant that I could climb inside the photo – relive the moment and the sheer joy that seemed to dominate most of our days, and to reclaim some of the innocence that was stolen from my family.

While I gaze transfixed at the picture in my hands, Renesmee scrambles across the bed and peers inquisitively around my arm, and the mixture of shock and delight that ripples through her mind finally pulls my attention from the photograph. Raising my eyebrows, I ask my daughter with a crooked smile, "Have you changed your mind?"

She jumps up and down on her knees in excitement. This one, Daddy! she shouts inwardly.

We head back to Esme's studio to use the drawing table in the center of the room. With the locket as a template, I trim the photo into a circular shape that fits all our faces perfectly, and since she cannot bear to take it off, Renesmee stays motionless as I slip the picture into place inside her locket. "All done," I tell her, closing the latch and laying the pendant gently over her breastbone.

She throws her tiny arms around my neck, squeezing with all her strength, and I cuddle her small form into my chest, lifting her off the tabletop. Her gratitude does not arise in words, but she knows that I can understand what she is unable to express clearly.

I kiss her flushed, burning-soft cheek, and murmur, "Anytime. I love you, my little love."

A flicker of confusion pierces her rosy thoughts, and she pulls away a little to see my face, her brown eyes quizzical. Bella appears in her mind, accompanied by my own voice calling her 'love', and Renesmee thinks uncertainly, her head tipped to one side, I thought Momma was your love.

"She is," I assure her, still smiling. "But I love you both. So Momma is 'love', and you're 'little love'."

Tremendously pleased by this announcement, Renesmee gifts me with her dazzling smile.

The front door opens an instant later and, sensing that it must be Bella because I do not hear any new voices adding to the steady stream of thoughts in the back of my head, I keep Renesmee in my arms and walk towards the staircase.

A slender figure sheathed in an ivory trench coat waits on the landing. Bella's lustrous brown hair is arranged in loose curls and pulled away from her face, displaying the pair of one-carat diamond earrings that I had bought for her two summers ago – the same pair that she refused to wear because I had still been foolish enough to tell her what they had cost when she asked. I had smuggled them into the pitifully sparse jewelry box in her bedroom that same night but, true to her word, she never touched them or behaved as if they even existed. Until now.

My eyes dart swiftly down her body as I descend the steps, noting the pale stockings cloaking her alabaster legs, the dainty heeled shoes wrapped around her feet and the creamy leather clutch tucked under her left arm, and then flash back up to read her expression. She smiles – a soft curving of her full lips reserved only for me – but the flat brown contacts concealing the still unnatural shade of her irises veil her intentions from my perception.

A thousand questions burst like fireworks within my skull, coating my tongue, demanding to be voiced...but I silence them all with the memory of my promise, and with Bella's own words – spoken on the night when all my fortified walls crumbled, exposing my bared heart to the warmth of her liquid-dark eyes. "It doesn't matter."

Marshalling my features into a benign, composed expression, though every cell in my body shrieks to draw Bella into my arms and never let go, I say casually, "Headed out?"

Renesmee squirms, restless and curious, against me, and I selfishly tighten my hold. I will not be parted from both of them tonight.

In the same easy tone, Bella replies, "Yes, a few last-minute things..." She digs a set of keys out of her coat pocket, and I recognize the shape of the largest silver one. And here I thought I was the only one partial to my Volvo.

My mouth slants into a lopsided smile. No matter what she is hiding from me, it will never change the fact that the only reason I exist is for her. "Hurry back to me," I bid her lovingly.

She moves forward, her gaze locked with mine, and for a brief second the veils part within her eyes, showing the luminous glow of her feelings. "Always," she returns, and raises herself up on her tiptoes for a kiss, which I am all too willing to bestow.

With equal reluctance, we drift apart, and Bella brushes her lips on Renesmee's forehead before marching down the hallway to the back door, tossing one last smile over a shoulder before the portal closes behind her.

Renesmee and I remain at the base of the stairs, motionless and silent, while the low purr of the Volvo races down the long drive to the highway.

Less than five minutes later, Mary wanders inside to ask to borrow a vehicle. Rosalie has finally gotten off her high horse in regard to her convertible, so I offer the nomad the keys to the BMW. Once she drives away, a few of the others make requests for transportation, as well. Soon, every car except Emmett's Jeep and my Vanquish has vacated the garage.

In the meantime, Jacob collects Renesmee from me and encourages the little girl to go on a quick hunt with him – which she adamantly declines, much to my relief. Stumped, he asks her what she would like to do instead.

To my amazement, she minces across the room to retrieve a book from the shelves on the far side, and then makes her way over to me. Dark eyes shining, Renesmee grasps my hand with her tiny one and heaves, urging me to follow. Bemused, I trail behind her to the sofa, whereupon she indicates that I should sit beside Jacob, who is watching this entire scenario with undisguised fascination.

Once I am settled, the little girl clambers into my lap and hands me the book. Glancing at the title, I remark with a chuckle, "I see you've tired of poetry." She nods emphatically, her face bright in anticipation. "Shall I read to you?" I ask, teasing. Her lower lip juts out in a pout that she obviously learned from her mother and she huffs, crossing her arms over her middle.

I suppress a laugh and kiss the top of her head. "All right." There is a wide satin ribbon marking a page, so I open to that place, recognizing the text immediately as one of Bella's favorite Shakespeare plays. Softly, I begin to read, " 'How now, spirit! Whither wander you?' 'Over hill, over dale, Thorough bush, thorough brier, Over park, over pale, Thorough flood, thorough fire, I do wander everywhere, Swifter than the moon's sphere; And I serve the fairy queen, To dew her orbs upon the green.' "

Renesmee listens raptly, her highly developed mind cataloguing each word into memory...but her body is still that of a half-human, and it requires sleep.

She starts to doze when Demetrius and Lysander prepare to fight for Helena's love, and her head falls back onto my chest, her breathing slow and deep as Puck begins to lead the two combatants astray. I gently lay the ribbon over the page and close the book, moving as little as possible. The world outside the windows has already darkened to wintry, blue-black night, and it occurs to me rather belatedly that I have no idea when Bella plans to return home.

Before I can dwell on that slightly distressing fact, Jacob suddenly speaks up, his voice low but his thoughts baffled and chaotic, "So...Puck accidentally gave the love potion to both Demetrius and Lysander, and now they're fighting over the same woman again, only it's a different woman than before. And Titania thinks she's in love with a guy who looks like a donkey." He blows out a long breath through his lips. "This story is seriously screwed up."

"You were paying better attention than I thought," I say, impressed. Jacob strikes me as the kind of man who would be more inclined to pick up an issue of American Iron than Shakespeare, if he bothered to read at all.

He shrugs, muttering nonchalantly, "It's not like I have anything better to do. And I gotta admit, it is pretty interesting – though I only understood about half of what everybody was saying." His expression contorts into a pained grimace.

As his mind attempts to reorganize, a question surfaces, and I answer out of habit. "It turns out all right in the end. Everyone goes back to who they're meant to be with, and there's a wedding and feasting and revelry..."

"Your basic happily ever after," Jacob inserts in a mildly bored tone, but I detect the underlying satisfaction in his words.

"Yes," I agree quietly. "Happily ever after."

Silence blankets the room for a moment, and then Jacob's black-brown eyes shift to my face as he muses internally, Never thought I'd find myself wishing that you and Bella could have a happily ever after, but I do. Really.

I smile faintly. "Thank you, Jacob. I wish that all of us could achieve some measure of happiness."

We both ignore the 'but' floating on the edge of my statement.

I carefully rearrange Renesmee's limp form in my arms and stand upright, her head tucked under my chin. "I'm going to take her home. She should already be in bed."

"Yeah." Jacob rises as well, stretching his long arms high above his head and yawning. With fond tenderness, his gaze lingers on the little girl's peaceful features as he murmurs, "She needs the rest." The fingers on his hand closest to Renesmee twitch, like he wants to brush the stray curl from her forehead but is unsure if such an action would be acceptable.

"So do you," I tell him pointedly. By my recollection, he has not had a decent night's sleep in almost two weeks, and the darkening circles under his eyes are a telltale sign of his exhaustion.

"Nah," he dismisses with a snort, "I'm fine. ‘Sides, I said I'd check in with the pack tonight." He walks with me to the front door, remarking under his breath, "I think they're all getting a little stir-crazy, waiting for something to happen."

Without thinking, I mumble to myself, "They won't have to wait much longer."

Jacob starts, his countenance flipping from casually laid-back to intensely focused in a heartbeat. "What do you mean?" he demands.

Sighing, I put my hand on the doorknob and turn, preparing to head outside. I had not intended to let that cryptic hint slip out – at least not until Carlisle and I had put together a few more details in regard to the wolves' position in our defensive line. Bella's absence keeps me from concentrating wholly on the task at hand. In an attempt to diffuse the tension, I offer in reassurance, "I'll explain in the morning," and pull open the door.

A large red-brown hand shoots out and holds it shut. I raise my eyes calmly to Jacob's suddenly fierce expression. "You'll explain now," he growls.

Old, old instincts bristle within me, and my muscles constrict, my spine threatening to curve my body into a crouch as my nostrils flare, filling with the pungent odor of an age-old enemy to my kind.

Then the tiny, infinitely precious child cradled against me moans in her sleep – and the soft noise breaks us both from the power of our ingrained hostility.

Jacob drops his hand from the door as though scalded, his face flushing with shame. What the hell is the matter with you, Jake?! he berates himself. This is your family!

It is the first time he has ever referred to me as his family, and the admission pleases me more than I would have thought possible.

Rubbing the back of his neck, he forces himself to meet my gaze and says humbly, "I'm sorry, Edward."

Compassion colors my tone as I absolve him of guilt, replying, "It's all right, Jake." I lift my free hand from the doorknob and lay it on his shoulder. He does not even flinch; rather, he seems grateful for the gesture. "You're right. I owe it to you and the wolves to keep you informed on the situation. I'm just a bit...distracted now," I add, looking aside.

He understands at once. "Where is Bella, anyway?" he asks, quirking a black eyebrow.

"She had some errands to run." My voice sounds relatively mild. "She should be back soon," I finish, willing that statement to be true.

"Sure, sure." He waves a hand as he speaks – his usual form of nonchalance. "I'm gonna bail." He slips around me and opens the door, crossing onto the porch, and then he turns, wagging a finger. "But I expect you to tell all first thing tomorrow morning," he orders, grinning widely.

I touch two fingers to my forehead in a mock-salute.

He sprints across the meadow toward the snowy trees, pulling off his shirt as he runs.

I leave the house in the same fashion, looping to the north instead of following Jacob's path eastward, and leap over the frozen river, eager for the comfortable familiarity of the cottage.

Soon, Renesmee is tucked in her crib, and I consume minutes by building a fire in the hearth, feeding the flames with kindling until the blaze is crackling merrily. Afterward, I locate one of Bella's old books from the tall shelf and stretch out on the loveseat. The worn pages of The Collected Works of Jane Austen exude the intoxicating fragrance of rain-soaked freesia, and though I try to absorb myself in a story, my mind is constantly drawn back to Bella.

Though it has only been a few hours, the gnawing hunger in the pit of my stomach refuses to dispel, its intensity building as vivid sensations awake along my nerve endings – like every cell in my body can remember the echoes of her caresses, the inviting silkiness of her skin, the addictive taste of her kisses...

I rake a hand through my tousled hair, sucking in a deep breath. I will literally drive myself insane if I continue to dwell on thoughts of my wife.

The door unexpectedly swings open, and my salvation arrives as a snowbound angel, crystalline flakes of white adorning her dark, windswept locks.

Bella gives me a weary but genuine smile as she closes the door and sets her clutch on the straight-backed chair near the threshold. "Welcome home," I greet her warmly. Her scent begins to fill the room like the richest perfume, battling for dominance over the aroma of wood smoke and clinging traces of wolf, and I inhale greedily.

Then she removes her coat, and I forget about breathing altogether.

A strapless, knee-length dress of ruched oyster satin, cinched at the waist by a cream-colored ribbon, fits over her soft curves as though it was made for her. Her alabaster skin glows a dim topaz in the firelight and streaks of burning gold ignite in her chestnut hair.

"You look stunning," I murmur in a husky voice, my stare roving over each line of her frame repetitively, drinking in every detail.

Some small part of my brain wonders why Bella, who is content in jeans and a cotton shirt, is wearing such an elegant and undeniably costly garment for 'a few last-minute things', but I dismiss the notion as she bends down to undo the small buckles on her shoes.

"These things still annoy the crap out of me," she grumbles, kicking the expensive heels with impeccable aim into a corner. Chuckling, I toss the book aside and open my arms for her. She swoops onto me, laying her body over mine, and nuzzles her face into my collarbone, the tip of her nose grazing my throat as she breathes in my scent.

I gently push her hair to the side and kiss the hollow beneath her ear. "I seem to recall you telling me that you were never going to wear these earrings," I remind her, the words hushed as I nibble her lobe delicately with my lips.

"It was the only pair that matched my dress," she murmurs throatily, her mouth tracing a path along my jaw line to the point of my chin. Abruptly, she sits back, meeting my bewildered eyes with a stern expression. "But don't get any ideas about giving me a late Christmas present from Tiffany's," she warns. "As far as I'm concerned, you've used up your expensive gift quota for the next two or three centuries."

"Yes, ma'am," I respond, smirking.

Bella leans forward, her eyelids falling half-closed, and I wait eagerly for a kiss – but she continues to speak, her lips brushing over mine in playful, sensuous torment. "I really like this dress, don't you?"

Helpless, I manage to hum in assent, though it sounds more like a low growl.

"I would hate for it to be ruined," she whispers. Her mouth curves into a smile, and she extracts herself from my embrace to stand in front of the crackling fire, turning her back to me.

Peering coyly over a shoulder, she unzips the dress in a single fluid motion. The gap exposes a tantalizing swathe of soft white skin, and I swallow hard, my fingertips tingling with desire.

A mischievous sparkle lights up her amber eyes, and then she whirls into the hallway, vanishing around the corner in a blur of chocolate and ivory.

For a fraction of a second, I am rendered immobile by the power Bella holds over me and the yearning that she has inflamed within my entire being.

Cognizance returns like a white-hot flash of lightning, and before I can draw another breath, my legs propel me to our room. I close the door quietly behind me, my gaze locked on the figure silhouetted by the glittering snowfall blanketing the small garden outside.

Bella's bare limbs glows pearlescent in the dim light as she watches the snow, her dark hair a river of ink that flows down her back, and a lump wells in my throat. This magnificent, sacred creature deemed me worthy of her love – and though I have hurt her, maimed her fragile yet stalwart heart – still she chose to accept me, sacrificing her humanity for the promise of forever together.

A burning ache floods my body, fueled by the need to feel her skin on mine, and I quickly shed all inhibitions, leaving my clothes in a pile on the floor.

I wrap my arms tightly around her, pressing my cheek against the crown of her head, and sigh in relief as our bodies conjoin flawlessly. The arc of her spine fits into the planes of my torso, and her slim arms rise to rest atop my own, her shoulders lifting in a slow breath.

It is then that I notice Bella's expression in the window. Instead of looking out at the snow, her eyes are studying her reflection in the glass, her features pensive.

She must read the question in my gaze, for she says in a low voice, "I was thinking about...when I woke up as a vampire, and how Alice wanted me to see what I looked like." Her head tilts a little to the side as she considers her own face in the frosted pane. "I remember thinking that the girl in the mirror wasn't really me – that she couldn't be me – because I didn't recognize her." She pauses, and then her tone changes, becoming wry as she goes on. "She was so beautiful, which made me glad, but all the things I used to find wrong with myself were just...gone."

Nuzzling into the crook of her neck, I whisper soothingly, "Bella, love, you are exactly the same as you have always been. I know you don't believe me, but you were beautiful as a human, and you are beautiful as a vampire. That will never change." A soft chuckle escapes my mouth. "You do have difficulty seeing yourself clearly, after all," I murmur against her collarbone.

Her left hand moves up to curl around the back of my head, her fingers tangling in my hair. "But that's what I have you for," she breathes shakily. "Right?"

She may be only humoring me, yet I am fervently sincere as I raise my lips to her ear and whisper, " 'And since you know you cannot see yourself, so well as by reflection, I, your glass, will modestly discover to yourself, that of yourself which you yet know not of.' "

A shudder ripples through her, and suddenly her arms are fastened around my neck, our mouths melding together in a searing kiss. Molten fire rushes through my veins, bursts of bright light erupt behind my pupils, and the angel in my embrace calls out my name as the explosion thrusts us both into the starry realms of heaven.

We drift back to earth while the winter sunlight illuminates the silver-gray horizon.

It is a struggle to let Bella out of my arms, knowing that this day marks one of the final swings of the pendulum, but she offers wordless assurance by pressing her lips to the troubled crease between my brows before sliding off the rumpled sheets.

In silence, we both choose garments that are sturdy yet flexible for movement. There is no reason to carry additional clothing to the field – at least not for the two of us – and once she is dressed, Bella heads to Renesmee's room, a small black leather backpack slung over her shoulder. Assuming it is for our daughter's use, I pay it no further mind.

Jacob shows up on the doorstep not ten minutes later, his expression somber but his dark eyes blazing with almost feral anticipation. Rather than inviting him to come inside, the three of us join him on the icy stone pathway.

"We got everything worked out last night," he informs Bella and I as we journey through the forest. "Half of the combined packs will wait out the next few days in the woods, and once the Volturi arrive, Sam will call the rest of them to form ranks around our side. That should even the odds quite a bit," he adds brashly, his teeth glittering in his red-brown face.

Bella's head suddenly whips sideways, an oddly panicked look twisting her features. "But you'll stay by us, right, Jake?" she rattles off, eyes wide.

He stares down at her in mock-disbelief, scoffing, "Like you have to ask. I'm not letting Nessie get five feet away from me until this is over."

The house looms beyond the barren, twisted branches of the ancient cedars just ahead, and a tense, business-like atmosphere has settled over every mind inside.

Carlisle and I had agreed some time ago that we would stay in the clearing for two days before the rest of our family and our witnesses arrive. He, Esme, Rosalie, and Emmett are waiting for us just inside, their well-known faces displaying a wide variety of emotions.

My mother's brave expression belies her deep-seated terror as she strives to keep a level head. Rose's inborn tenacity is the fuel that feeds her need to protect our family – particularly its newest addition. Emmett, with his backbone of steel and all-encompassing heart, tosses me a large duffel, remarking, "See you soon, brother."

And as my father swiftly kisses Esme before moving towards the door, his unwavering inner serenity is fractured by apprehension and profound grief. When he glimpses my expression from the corner of his eye, the barest shadow of a smile flits across his lips. I am far from perfect, son, he says mentally. Even I have doubts. Then, he begins to recite from the fifty-fifth Psalm while bidding us aloud that it is time to leave. 'Give ear to my prayer; O God; and hide not thyself from my supplication...'

Jacob phases into wolf form in order to keep pace, and our small group reaches the field at mid-morning. Scraggly blades of yellowed meadow grass poke through the thin layer of snow on the ground, but one decent winter storm will coat the clearing in the thick drifts that blanketed it in Alice's vision.

Several yards to the east, surrounded by a cluster of icy firs, is a circular area that will be perfect for a makeshift campsite. I cart the duffel in that direction, trailed by Bella and Renesmee, and start to remove the tent poles and stakes from the canvas bag.

Jacob wanders over after a minute or so, volunteering, "I can give you a hand with that." He grabs a handful of support poles without waiting for a response. Though it would probably take me less than half the time to construct the tent on my own, I allow him to help out, reading in his thoughts a powerful desire to contribute in any way, especially when it comes to Renesmee's safety and well-being.

At one point, while he is holding the tent's framework in place and I drive the stakes into the frozen earth with my hand, Jacob lets out a faint chuckle. Bella glances at him curiously, and I look up, raising an eyebrow. "You know..." he comments with a wry grin, "this sort of feels like déjà vu."

Vivid memories of last June bombard my senses. "Yes. It does," I agree in a low voice. Everything had been so hideously out of balance between the three of us, yet now with Renesmee's presence, the scales have tipped even.

Of course, the irony is that our world seems to have righted itself as we hover on the cusp of annihilation.

Bella never leaves my side from the moment we set foot in the clearing. Once the tent is erected and Renesmee wriggles from her arms to investigate, she darts over to me and clutches my hand tightly, weaving our fingers together. And throughout the next two days, we are constantly sharing some form of physical contact, as though it is impossible for our bodies to remain separated.

When I need my hands free while Carlisle and I study the well-worn map of upper Washington, Bella stands very close to my left side, her palm resting gently on my back. When Renesmee begs for her mother's attention and leaps into her outstretched arms, I pull her close, fiddling absently with strands of her dark hair. Every second we are together, no matter how seemingly mundane, should be cherished.

At dawn on the day before New Year's Eve, Tanya and her family arrive with Esme, Rosalie, Emmett, Benjamin and Tia, Garrett, and Siobhan's coven. My mother informs us that the others are still preparing and will join our group by tomorrow morning. She also passes on the news that a massive snowfall is expected sometime this evening.

All eyes shift to me. I nod once, very slowly.

Keenly ambitious to put his strategy to good use, Benjamin recruits several other vampires to assist him in burying piles of boulders in the ground for him to call upon with his talent, should the need arise. Granted, it will accomplish nothing but a second's hesitation for a member of the Volturi guard, yet Benjamin is convinced that it might help.

While he oversees this task, Emmett picks up the scent of a nearby herd of black-tailed deer and rallies our family and the Denali clan for a hunt.

Most of them have been recently sated, so a single herd will be enough, but Bella and I have not attended to our thirst since Christmas night. Bearing that in mind, we run with the others for only a few miles before I start searching the air for another trail.

Faint whiffs of the less appealing blood of elk mingle with the warm, spicy aroma of a carnivore. The mountain lion is most likely tracking the herd, and its path will lead us to them both.

Still linked by our clasped hands, Bella and I sprint noiselessly through the forest, coming upon the mountain lion just as he is about to pounce on his own unsuspecting prey. As one, we bring the big cat down – Bella fastening her mouth on the jugular as I bite down on a smaller artery – and share the hot, quenching liquid. Afterward, we briefly drift apart in order to corner the elk, but once the herd is decimated our fingers reach toward the other almost unconsciously.

Too soon, dusk falls upon the world, and heralds it's coming with the promised snowstorm that my mother spoke of. Dense layers of steely gray and bruise-colored clouds fill the sky, obscuring the peaks of the surrounding mountain range. Heavy white flakes saturate the air and swirl in little eddies across the field, clinging to the thin coating of ice on the ground with purpose.

Inside the tent, Bella, Jacob, and I sit in a loose semi-circle amid a heap of down sleeping bags. Renesmee is curled inside the one on top, fast asleep, her curly bronze head resting on a pillow in Bella's lap. The three of us converse sparingly for a brief time, and then lapse into silence. Jacob eventually succumbs to exhaustion, his snores vaguely reminiscent of a howling wolf, and I throw a blanket over his sprawled form.

Slim arms wrap around my waist, and Bella pulls me to the floor, Renesmee's tiny body spooned behind her. My own arms enfold her delicate frame, urging her closer, until our noses touch and we share the same breath.

She raises her hand to my face and, as light as a butterfly's wing, begins to trace my features, the movements nearly identical to the very first time her skin caressed mine in our meadow. Her eyes gaze relentlessly into my own, even as I brush my fingers against her cheek, following the curve of her jaw to her lips, and stroke her bottom lip with the pad of my thumb.

On and on, we use the simplest tokens of affection to comfort one another, memorizing every fine hair and subtle arc in the contours of our bodies. The purity of this wordless, intimate communication affects the deepest core of my being – as if my very soul is responding to hers, tightening the bonds that link her fate with mine.

Outside, the blustery wind has abated, leaving an eerie stillness in its wake. I rise to my feet, Bella locked securely in my arms, and leave the tent, a trickle of snow sliding from the zipper.

Standing at the edge of the open field, I grip her hand firmly as we stare across the bleached landscape, waiting for the sun to rise. As its red-gold rays pierce the thick clouds and create bands of fiery glitter over the clearing, there is no mistaking that the pendulum has reached the final swing. The future has arrived.

In the course of the early morning hours, the rest of our assembled witnesses filter through the trees and into the field. The endless droning of thoughts fills my skull like a hive of bees, but I let the noise rush over me as the tide, unwilling to waste energy on attempting to block the others when I will need to keep myself wide open to hear Aro and his guard.

Soft rustles in the underbrush and the heavy thudding of large paws on the frozen ground give evidence to the wolves' presence just as their collective psyche adds to the din in my head. Seth graciously sends me a greeting, also voicing his positive belief that things will turn out all right, and to my faint surprise his sister does not snap at him to stay focused. In fact, Leah's mind is more...disciplined, as of late. The hard-edged bitterness is still present, along with her deep-seated resentment of vampires and her lot in life, but she seems to have come into herself as Jacob's second in the pack.

The tent flap is pushed aside only seconds later, and Jacob strides into the woods without a backward glance, mentally settling into the coolly alert persona of an Alpha.

Bella slips her hand from mine – my skin feels bereft without hers – and walks toward the tent, where Renesmee is still sleeping. Carlisle calls for me as she disappears inside, and I jog across the field to help him arrange our group into a concentrated, but not outwardly aggressive front. Those who had firmly offered their support if this turns into a fight are positioned closest to the center, while the others are left a bit further from the main line.

Our family makes up a loose pair of lines a little ahead and directly centered between the witnesses. Emmett and Rosalie form the first row with Tanya, Kate, and Eleazar; a space for Carlisle and myself hovers between Emmett and Tanya.

The second row now consists of Zafrina, with Senna just behind her right elbow, Benjamin, who is seated cross-legged in the snow, his hands pressed to the hidden dirt, Esme, and Garrett. Kate peers over her shoulder at the nomad with an unreadable expression in her brilliant gold eyes. He tosses her a lopsided grin and a wink in response.

"Please, Siobhan." My father's hushed tones carry across the field like the light breeze that stirs the powdery snow. I glance sideways to see him beseeching the statuesque redhead to employ the gift that he staunchly believes her to possess. She gazes back at him, a flicker of uncertainty wrinkling her smooth brow. "As a friend, I am asking you to trust me," he murmurs earnestly. "Just try. That is all I'm asking. Please...just try."

Siobhan sighs, her vivid ruby eyes falling shut for an instant. "Very well," she agrees.

He clasps both her hands, expressing with fervor, "Thank you."

A tiny smile graces her bowed lips. "Beannachd Dia dhuit, Carlisle," she tells him, the blessing rolling from her tongue in lilting sincerity.

"And with us all," he adds. Releasing her hands, my father moves on to speak one last time to the rest of his old friends.

An ocean of voices swells and recedes inside my mind, the continuous hum becoming fairly easy to ignore – when a sudden shriek of denial, so filled with horror and dismay that it is almost unrecognizable, cuts through the din like a white-hot blade.

It vanishes in a fraction of a second, leaving a mental impression much like a streak of white seared into the eyes after looking at a bright light. Swiftly, I scan the area, looking for any visible signs of the mind that is experiencing such distress...but there is not the smallest hint. Needless to say, it could have been anyone, and considering the current situation, there is no time for speculation.

Twenty yards from the assembly, Bella exits the tent, Renesmee held tightly in her arms. The little black backpack is hung on our daughter's shoulders, and a glittering circle of gold winds around Bella's neck, a sparkling sphere nestled in the hollow of her throat.

Curious as to why she would decide to wear Aro's wedding gift today of all days, I raise an eyebrow while they approach, but keep my thoughts to myself. As with everything else that has happened in the past few weeks, Bella must have a reason.

In half a dozen steps, I meet their approach. My arms encircle both Bella's lithe frame and our daughter's dainty figure, and I drop my head onto her shoulder, burying my face in the silky curtain of hair, my eyes drifting closed. Her free arm coils around my waist as she moves forward another handful of millimeters, until our bodies are flush against one another.

Renesmee leans hard into my chest, nuzzling her warm cheek against the place above my heart, and I press my lips together to stifle the urge to scream at the heavens – at God Himself – over the sheer injustice of gifting us with this precious life, only to have it cut short because of a single chance encounter that could never have been predicted or averted.

She still blames herself, our sweet little girl. The guilt resides deep in her mind – a bitter aftertaste lingering beneath the unceasing echoes of her love for Bella and I, as well as a blackened shroud of anguish that remains unfocused, covering her recent memories.

Millenniums rise and fall while I hold the entire universe in my embrace. And I realize, with a certainty that lightens the weight pushing down on my soul, that this is my eternity. The last knot has been tied; the die has been cast. Wherever the course of destiny may lead, we will be together. Bella is half of all that I am, and Renesmee is the miraculous blending of our lives made flesh. I have to believe that the heaven I have found with them will continue on through whatever waits on the other side of the veil.

But this inherent faith will not keep me from fighting.

I will do anything to preserve our happiness here, among our family and friends, until not a cell in my body contains the strength to go on.

I will protect them.

A slow, deep sigh leaves my chest, and I gradually lower my arms, backing away several inches. Bella meets my eyes unblinking, seeming to search mine for some unknown emotion, but she will find only love, determination, and hope.

Flickering sparks, like the guttering flame of a candle in the wind, glitter within her amber irises. In unison, we pivot on heel and walk towards the front lines, shoulder to shoulder, while Renesmee transfers her small body to her mother's back. Bella takes her place in the second row between Zafrina and Benjamin, and I move to occupy the space next to my father and brother, staring straight ahead.

The pendulum begins to slow.

Behind me, Benjamin mutters to himself about memorizing the patterns of the fault lines running underneath the layers of snow, dirt, and rock, his power latching onto each one like a hand attaching to the strings of a marionette – preparing to manipulate the earth as he wishes.

Far to the right, just inside my field of vision, Siobhan is massaging her temples with her fingertips, her eyes shut tight in concentration. Both Maggie and Liam watch her covertly with fleeting sidelong glances.

Rosalie throws a furtive look in Emmett's direction. He catches her in the act and grins broadly, snagging her slim hand in his much larger one. Carlisle continues his inward supplication to the divine, and on the outskirts of the clearing, the wolves stand at the ready – massive, furred sentinels intent upon defending the land their ancestors claimed – their connected minds humming with anticipation and final instructions from the two cooperating leaders.

Fierce gusts of wind soar across the treetops and through the field while the low clouds roll in from atop the mountains, muting the sunlight to a dim, washed out glow. Shadows gather ominously around the edges of the clearing, the wind quiets as suddenly as it had begun, and grim recognition settles over my mind like a leaden canopy. I have seen this before. My eyes tighten, and my hands flex at my sides, struggling to curl into fists despite my rigid self-control.

Those closest to me respond to my unconscious reaction, their thoughts teeming in stress, but I am aware only of the soft intake of air at my back. Instinctively, my stance widens, my body becoming a shield for the center of my existence and our little morning star.

Screw it.

His mental declaration still ringing in my skull, Jacob abruptly lopes out of the woods, his russet-furred shape a flame of vivid color across the white landscape.

Esme moves aside, peering up at the huge wolf gratefully, and Zafrina slides one step to the right, shifting closer to Benjamin while Jacob fits himself next to Bella, his tail brushing against the snow-covered ground in agitated swishes.

Relief, mixed with a secret heartache so poignant that I lose my breath, fills Renesmee's bright mind. She stretches her hand out and weaves her tiny fingers through Jacob's thick fur, her palm touching the taut muscles of his shoulder.

He exhales heavily, his breath filling the air as wisps of steam. In a razor-edged, unforgiving mental voice, Jacob vows, I am going to keep her safe. I swear to God: if it's the last thing I do, I am going to keep her safe.

The oath rings true for me, as well. Staring relentlessly at the tree line on the far end of the field, I reach my left hand backwards to Bella. She grasps it with her own as though she has no intention of ever letting go, and I gently squeeze her fingers. The faceted texture of the diamonds on her ring press into my skin – the symbol of another promise – and I resolve to myself that as she seeks to protect our strongest offensive allies in the likely pending battle, I will use every skill in my arsenal to defend her.

A faint breeze, like the chilled touch of a ghost, stirs the frozen atmosphere.

And the pendulum comes to a stop.

Whispers float on the fringe of my perception, growing louder and more defined with each passing second. Until, with a forceful rush of clarity, the thoughts take shape.

Stiffening, a hiss pulls itself through my clenched teeth. I can hear them now.

My head fills with Demetri's sense of triumph at locating his master's quarry and Felix's unquenchable lust for violence.

Both are soon overridden by Jane's sadistic zeal to cause pain, and since she assumes that my talent is within range, she envisions my entire family writhing in agony at her feet – lingering on her imagined picture of my Bella's exquisite face twisted into a mask of pain.

Only the reminder that such a feat is impossible keeps me from roaring for that demon's death.

Then I hear the mind that is cunning and complicated, ancient and clever, scheming and deceitful. The unique tenor of his thought pattern rises above the others like foam on the waves of the ocean, equal to the power of those waves as they crash upon the shore, eroding the earth into whatever form suits its purpose. And Aro is absolutely convinced that he can do the same to my family – grinding some into the dust, and wearing down others until they can be bent to his will.

A branch shivers amid the clustered trees across the field. The quiet brush of a velvet hem swirls a thin cloud of powdery snow. Shadows begin to undulate into figures, parting through the forest like a stream of dark water.

I square my shoulders, lifting my chin high. Bella clutches my hand tightly.

So it begins.