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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:


21. The Happily Ever After I

Rating 0/5   Word Count 8734   Review this Chapter

The uninhibited rejoicing that permeates the clearing is so powerful that Benjamin, in the spirit of pure glee, summons a massive gust of wind to break apart the purple-gray winter clouds hanging low in the sky. Pale gold sunlight streams through the pearl-colored gaps and dances across the field, the icy sparkles of the snow underfoot nearly lost in the brilliant glitter of twenty-eight vampires' iridescent skin.

For the sake of propriety, and of the little girl now sandwiched between us, I reluctantly part my lips from Bella's fevered kisses, pulling in a breath of chilled air to help cool the passion simmering inside me.

Panting, her eyelids flutter open, and the obvious desire raging within her amber eyes almost causes me to bend down to her mouth once again.

With a tiny half-smile, I loosen my arms from around her and Renesmee and lean back on my heels.

The empty spot beside us indicates that Jacob has retreated into the forest – most likely to phase – and the wolves' numbers are reduced by half. Sam must have ordered his pack to return to the reservation; it troubled both him and Jacob to leave their people without protection, but every wolf was needed while we faced the Volturi.

To my right, about half a dozen feet away, Randall and Mary are bidding their farewells to Carlisle.

While Mary embraces my father, Randall catches my eye and gives a slight nod. I had my doubts about getting caught between your coven and the Volturi, he thinks to me, but now that it's over...I'm glad that I stuck around. Your little female is quite a prize. The corner of his left eye crinkles as he grins lopsidedly.

Having never been truly connected to anyone, the nomad cannot understand that Bella owns me more completely than any claim I have upon her. Body, mind, soul...everything I am is hers.

Renesmee waves at Randall and Mary as they depart, beaming her startling, vivid smile, and Jacob bounds back to us an instant later, his entire being radiating deep joy.

Issuing a wildly exuberant cry, he manages to extract Bella and Renesmee from my arms by wrapping his own around them. My daughter giggles as Bella allows herself to be picked up, the toes of her shoes grazing the powdery snow covering the ground.

Jacob sets them down after a moment and busses his russet-skinned cheek against Renesmee's, then raises his head to peer at Bella, his black eyes sparkling. "So – we're still alive," he teases.

She makes a face at him, prompting a chuckle from both Jacob and myself. "It's really over," Bella says softly, like she is trying to convince herself rather than us, and reaches for me with an outstretched hand. I take it at once and swiftly return to her side. "I guess everyone's going to head home now." She glances up at me for confirmation, and I nod.

"Looks like some people have already left the party," Jacob remarks, frowning as he looks towards the south end of the clearing. "What happened to Dracula One and Two?"

"The Romanians were gone as soon as we started celebrating," I answer in wry humor. "They were extremely disappointed in the way things turned out; they had been counting on open war, after all." Like Caius, the ancient pair had hungered for a battle to erupt between our forces, but Vladimir's parting thoughts gave evidence that this outcome had appeased him and his brother to some degree. Smirking, I add, "Although they had enjoyed the Volturi's cowardice almost enough to make up for their frustration."

Jacob snorts, rolling his eyes. "Yeah, well, good riddance is all I can say." A cold shiver suddenly breaks into his thoughts, and he mutters to himself, Though something tells me they'll be watching our every step from now on.

Thinking back to the last strains of thought that I caught from the Romanians, I am inclined to agree.

Then, like a flash of sunlight interrupting an overcast sky, his mind brightens with enthusiasm and he grins at the three of us eagerly. "Did you see how the Volturi reacted when Sam led the others onto the field? It was priceless!"

As Jacob launches into a gleeful spiel about his fellow wolves and how they had developed lines of communication between the two packs, I see over his shoulder that Esme has yet to release Alice and Jasper from her fierce, motherly embrace.

My sister is as content as ever, accepting Esme's affection with ease and returning it by coiling an arm tighter around her waist – but Jasper, for the first time that I can remember, seems totally at peace with his place in our family.

In truth, he has always felt like an outside observer in many respects – especially relating to the filial emotions that my siblings and I have for Carlisle and Esme. Neither of our parents ever treated him as anything less than one of their children, but Jasper usually shied away from any physical displays, thinking unjustly that he had no right to them. He saw me, Rosalie, Emmett, and even Alice as the ones who deserved parental affection, and he was...not comfortable, but accepting of that fact.

Now, I look on in amazement while he lowers his head to rest it against Esme's, his talent absorbing every modicum of love emanating from our mother like a plant taking in the life-giving rays of the sun. He then lays his arm across Alice's, adding weight to her hold, and she smiles up at him. With her free hand, she grasps his fingers, and the corners of his mouth twist into a grin...until a flicker of movement near the tree line behind her catches his eye.

Peter and Charlotte are anxious to depart now that their part is finished – yet Peter would like to speak to his old friend for a moment before he and his mate continue on in their travels.

The two fair-haired vampires appear to blend into the snowy landscape as they linger at the edge of the forest, both relieved that the confrontation did not escalate into a fight, although Charlotte's smug expression mirrors the thread of thought that reaches me. I knew it was right that we stay and support the Cullens. He should listen to me more often. She peers at her mate from the corner of her eye, lifting a pale eyebrow ever so slightly.

Gently extricating himself from our mother's hold, Jasper walks towards the pair, his grin a bit sheepish as he reads his old friend's scolding attitude. Peter extends his hand a beat later, and they grasp each other's forearm. "I don't know if I should be thanking you or telling you off," he remarks dryly, shaking his head. "But I think I'll just say that the next time you try to rope us into something involving the Volturi, give us a little warning beforehand."

"It all worked out, though." Jasper's smile tilts to one side. Out of respect for him, I pull away from their conversation and shift my gaze back to the focal point of my existence.

Bella is listening patiently to Jacob's yammering about the wolves, one finger idly twirling a strand of our daughter's bronze-colored curls, and I see her eyes flick once in my direction when she senses my stare. Her lips curve upward for a fraction of a second, too quick for Jacob to notice, displaying her fondness and exasperation and joy and overwhelming relief to me as easily as if I have access to her thoughts.

Perhaps after a hundred years, I will be so adept at reading her expressions that the undying curiosity and hunger for her mind will lose its potency.

Doubtful.

Even after a millennium, I will never unravel the fascinating mystery of this woman, the keeper of my soul. Why she chose me and how I can ever hope to become worthy of her are questions for which I have no answers, but I do know that she has always been far more than an average human – or vampire, for that matter. As she so clearly demonstrated today, Bella is a force of nature among the most powerful immortals in the world. That such a creature deigns to accept and even return my love is the greatest mystery of all.

But that is my ring on her finger, and my child in her arms, and I will use the rest of eternity to give her a piece of heaven – the heaven that I now believe is waiting somewhere for us. Surely there is no greater paradise than that.

And yet...what I want most is to hear the beautiful, convoluted workings of her mind just once...

"Edward."

Startled, I blink, and force my eyes from Bella just as Tia and Benjamin approach. Turning to them with a smile, I pick out their immediate plans from Benjamin's head and chuckle. "It shouldn't take you too long to catch up with Amun – though he's probably halfway to the Sinai Peninsula by now."

Jacob heaves a sigh and crosses his arms over his chest, frustrated as usual by my half-finished conversations, while Benjamin snorts out a guffaw. "Probably," he agrees, "but he should know what happened here today. Everyone should know." Zeal ignites in his voice like wildfire, his thoughts fizzling with excitement. "The Volturi were finally thwarted for the first time in two thousand years. They don't have the corner on ultimate power in the world anymore; they can be challenged. Things don't have to stay as they are." Free will is obviously a heady experience for the young man. Amun will find it very difficult to control him from now on.

However, there is a faint hint of presumption in his words that settles sourly in the pit of my stomach. "Yes, the Volturi have gone unchecked for too long, and perhaps it is time for change. But my family has no interest in taking their place. We have no desire to rule; our ambitions are far simpler, and more rewarding."

Smiling just a little, I let my gaze drift from Benjamin to touch on each member of my family.

Emmett and Rosalie are still wrapped up entirely in one another. Jasper has returned to Alice's side, whose hand is clutched by Esme even as Carlisle winds an arm around her waist. Finally, I look down at the heart-shaped faces of my most precious treasures, lovingly tracing the lines of their features with my eyes before coming back to Benjamin. "The Volturi were the ones who challenged us. We are only protecting what we value most: each other."

Bella's thumb glides across the top of my hand in silent empathy, and I am acutely aware of the circle of diamonds nestled between my fingers as she adjusts her grasp.

Benjamin is quiet for a moment, his thoughts muted, and the look on his youthful face is a strange combination of marvel, incredulity, and pride. "I guessed that would be your answer," he begins slowly, "but to hear you say it aloud...and with such certainty..." He beams broadly, and then casts a glance sideways at Tia. She smiles back with the same awed gleam in her scarlet eyes, her mental voice encouraging him to go on. "If ever you need to call upon us again," Benjamin states formally, appearing far older than his physical age, "we will come without question. We would rather perish in the service of friends than live under the hand of the devil." Aro's pleasant smile floats through his mind, and he quickly erases the image.

At an unspoken signal, the two step forward to deliver their farewells. Tia leans over Renesmee and lightly kisses her forehead, breathing an ancient blessing of her people onto the little girl's flushed skin.

In response, Renesmee presses her fingertips to Tia's cheek, projecting her sadness to see them leave and her wish that they will visit us soon.

The caramel-skinned vampire smiles gently at my daughter and then straightens, meeting Bella's amber eyes. After a half second's pause, Tia repeats the same gesture with my wife. As she withdraws, she places her hand over her heart and bows respectfully.

Meanwhile, Benjamin takes hold of my right hand firmly, promising, "We will see each other again, my friend. And it will be under better circumstances." He winks, and releases my hand. Backing away several feet, he waits until Tia rejoins him before offering a final farewell. "Fi Amanillah," he says with deep sincerity, touching his fingers to his brow while inclining his head.

To honor them both in return, I copy his movements, replying, "Ma'assalama."

Flashing one last cheerful grin, Benjamin reaches for Tia's hand and the pair darts into the snow-laden trees to the south.

A loud thwack, followed by Emmett's deep bellow of "Hey!" suddenly echoes across the field.

Spinning around, the three of us see my brother wiping a mound of powdery ice off the back of his head while Rosalie sends a death-glare over his left shoulder, specks of white clinging to her eyelashes and coating most of her golden locks.

"Whoops." Jacob brushes snow from his bare hands a few yards away and shrugs. "Sorry, Emmett. I was aiming for blondie. You guys passed up the R-rating a while back and there are children in the audience." He nods toward Renesmee, who covers her mouth with her hands to stifle a giggle.

"Dude," Emmett protests, jabbing a finger in our direction, "look who she's got for parents! That kid probably knows more about 'adult content' than you do!" Wolf-boy's spending too much time hanging around Edward – uptight, sanctimonious –

Bella sucks in a breath to throw back a biting retort, but I interrupt, commenting smoothly, "And yet, Bella and I have not been attempting to devour one another for the last twenty minutes."

Emmett starts to stomp forward, ready to speak the vulgarity that is polluting his mind...when a low, unbroken hiss rattles through the chilled air.

Teeth bared in a frightening grimace, Rosalie swipes a palm over one side of her blonde hair, collecting the bits of frost, and then that same hand balls into a white-knuckled fist. Jasper senses her temper flare and tries to level it off, fighting the urge to laugh all the while. "There. Is. Snow. In. My. Hair," she snarls quietly. "You got it wet. Now it's going to freeze." She folds herself into a crouch and stalks around Emmett, her eyes locked on Jacob.

Not bothered in the least by the approach of a hostile vampire, he merely tucks his thumbs into his belt loops and arches his black eyebrows in mild interest. This ought to be good, he snickers to himself.

Bella tenses beside me, gnawing on her bottom lip, while Renesmee stares wide-eyed at her aunt.

"Rosalie..." Esme warns, looking worriedly between Jacob and my seemingly irate sister. Aren't you going to stop her, Edward?

Alice and I share a brief glance. As if she has not been gone for weeks, she immediately reads the question in my expression and thinks, I don't see any problems with letting this play out. Do you?

I slowly look from side to side – our decades old form of communication – and nuzzle the crown of Bella's dark head to reassure her. Rose told me her intentions as she was threatening Jacob, and though it is highly unorthodox, my sister has her own particular brand of acceptance.

The guests that are still present watch with the rest of us as Rosalie halts within leaping distance of Jacob and lowers herself closer to the ground, her upper lip curled in disgust.

Catching nearly everyone by surprise, Rosalie scoops up handfuls of ice-caked snow and pelts Jacob with a flurry of snowballs. Astonished, he flails backward with a shout, barely keeping his balance under her relentless assault.

"I'll teach you to behave yet, dog," Rosalie crows triumphantly. Wisps of yellowed grass poke through the layer of ice at her feet, uncovered by all the snow she has thrown at Jacob.

Emmett gawks at her, and then a truly wicked grin lights up his expression. Jumping headlong into the fray, he whips snowballs at their chosen victim with the speed and accuracy of a major league baseball pitcher, cackling when Jacob tries to block his blows by curling his arms around his head.

"No fair!" he howls, bending down to grab a handful while still protecting his face.

"Who said we had to play fair?" my brother counters, hitting Jacob squarely in the midsection as he winds up to hurl a snowball at Rosalie.

Renesmee squeals and seizes hold of my sleeve, demanding mentally, Help him, Daddy!

Disguising his snigger with a low cough, Jasper picks up on the little girl's anxiety as well as my hesitance and decides to come to Jacob's aid. He swoops around the crossfire, gathering ammunition, and fires at his siblings with rapid precision.

"Thanks," Jacob mutters, shaking wet flakes of white from his hair.

Jasper replies by nailing Emmett with a trio of snowballs that land with a dull splat on his nose.

"Siding with the mutt over your own family?" Emmett shifts his footing to attack our brother directly, hefting a hard-packed ball of ice in his large palm.

Shrugging, Jasper balances two spheres in each hand and tells him, "I couldn't leave a fellow soldier outnumbered on the battlefield. Besides –" he tosses one snowball up in the air nonchalantly "– I was getting fairly nauseous from all the lust you two were broadcasting during your little display. I owe Jacob for sparing me from any more torture."

Indignation sparks in Rose's topaz irises, but it cannot hide her underlying mirth. "You do realize this means war," she remarks in an even tone. Her nails dig into the snow nestled inside her fists.

Jasper nods once. The almost eerie sense of calm filling up his mind is the same as when he is readying for a fight.

Jacob eyes the three of them warily, his muscles tensing while my siblings stand motionless, staring each other down, waiting to see who will make the first move.

In a simultaneous motion, all four combatants open fire, their dodging steps carrying them towards the eastern edge of the field where there is an abundance of fresh snow. A hazy cloud of glittering white surrounds their blurred forms, laughter erupting in spurts from the center of the melee.

Her tinkling giggles ringing out merrily, Alice skips over a moment later, adding her own throws to both sides, and soon the 'war' morphs into a free-for-all. I chuckle quietly at their antics while Bella shakes her head, smiling, and Esme effectively dismisses her usual embarrassment over her children's rambunctious behavior in the presence of guests from her thoughts.

When I peer sideways, intending to ask Bella if she would care to join them, I notice with some surprise that Renesmee has twisted in her mother's arms and is looking at something behind us, a wistful expression on her tiny face.

Concentrating solely on her unique mind, I am swept into the translucent vision of a richly colorful jungle, floating in front of the winter landscape. It flickers away after a handful of seconds, and then I hear the shared melancholy of the Amazon vampires, each one longing to return home.

I press my hand against the small of Bella's back to steer her in the direction of the dark-skinned females, still clustered together a short distance away, and she resists in confusion. "What is it?"

"Zafrina and her sisters would like to say goodbye," I murmur softly.

Understanding fills Bella's eyes and she follows my lead towards the trio, the crunching sounds of our footsteps suddenly too loud and ominous compared to the hilarity occurring twenty yards away.

As we draw near, Zafrina detaches herself from the others and glides sinuously forward, her exotic features solemn and tinged with sadness.

For almost an entire minute, the Amazon vampire's crimson eyes rove over each of us, lingering the longest on Renesmee, whose lower lip quivers faintly at the knowledge that she must say goodbye to her favorite playmate.

Sure enough, the little girl is the first to break the silence. "Do you have to go?" she asks in a small, forlorn voice. Bella rubs her back soothingly when she sniffs, the salty sweetness of tears filling the air.

Zafrina nods, replying in her usual straightforward way, "It is time. The battle has been averted, my sisters and I are together again, and we are anxious to return home." Her mouth twists into a frown, her spine twitching like the tail of a skittish cat. "It is...difficult to be away from our rainforest for so long. We miss the heat, the untamed wildness, and the solitude."

Fascinated, I listen more to Zafrina's thoughts and those of Kachiri and Senna while she is talking, and notice that their minds are so incredibly alike that the sensation of overlapping patterns reminds me of the pack psyche – separate consciousnesses being woven together to form a single cohesive unit. Each of the three Amazons is dwelling on some cherished aspect of their beloved rainforest, yet buried beneath the yearning is an undefined reluctance to leave.

This reluctance is addressed quite abruptly when Zafrina insists in a tone that broaches no argument, "You must bring the child to see me." She levels a firm but pleading stare at Bella, who blinks in bewilderment. "Promise me, young one," she urges, her throaty voice rough with emotion.

Renesmee's wet brown eyes grow wide in sudden hope, and she immediately presses a hand to her mother's throat. Please? Please, Momma?

"Of course, Zafrina," Bella answers with a soft smile. Our daughter beams at her joyfully, her quick mind already chasing after visions of adventures within the dense jungle, and I realize that we will probably be booking a flight much sooner than Bella anticipates.

The dark-skinned vampire lifts her chin in triumph, the tense lines of her elongated frame loosening as she exhales, and her bright irises glitter as she declares confidently, "We shall be great friends, my Nessie."

Bending down, Zafrina touches her forehead to the little girl's, vowing in her thoughts that they will see one another again soon. After she straightens, Senna and Kachiri materialize at her side, and the three of them incline their heads in farewell, fisting their right hands over their hearts. Then they vanish into the frozen woods.

I feel rather than hear my father's approach behind us, and both Bella and I turn to face him and my mother.

The acute relief and happiness shining within Esme's golden eyes is tempered with deep awe as she stares at my wife, resisting the impulse to put her arms around Bella for a tenth of a second so that she can once again bless the day this captivating woman reshaped my entire existence and fitted herself so seamlessly into our family. "Dearest Bella," she breathes, and pulls her close. Esme places a fond kiss on Bella's cheek then murmurs into her ear, "I am so very proud of you." Fierce, maternal pride radiates from every syllable, and I smile contentedly when Bella loops an arm around Esme and returns the embrace, accepting the praise that is undeniably due her.

Carlisle calls my name with his mind and smiles as soon as our gazes meet, holding out his right hand to me. I clasp it tightly, and we simultaneously lean towards one another for a hug.

Thumping me on the back, my father remarks inwardly, A miracle has occurred here today, son, and I am not just referring to the Volturi's withdraw. He pulls away a bit to see my face before continuing. There is a change in you – a light that has only grown brighter in these last few weeks. Joy broadens his smile while he studies my expression for a brief moment. It is hope, he states with certainty, and my guess is that it's yet one more thing I owe the incredible young woman you married.

I nod in fervent agreement, and Carlisle squeezes my shoulder once before letting go, his kind topaz eyes shifting to the far right side of the field. Amusement colors his thoughts as a plume of snow shoots into the sky and the ground rumbles faintly beneath our feet. "It seems Jacob is quite capable of holding his own against your brother," he observes aloud, laughter in his mild tone.

Following his line of sight, my lips curve into a lopsided smirk at the spectacle unfolding to the east. Vampire and werewolf, two sides of an ancient enmity, are wrestling in the snow without the slightest trace of hatred. Emmett is undoubtedly keeping his full strength in check, though judging by the nearly identical grins on his and Jacob's faces, it is not an issue.

Several paces from the mock-brawl, Rose is brushing ice from her palms while Alice flops down in a cloud of white, spreading her arms and legs to make a snow angel.

Jasper chuckles quietly when Emmett, attempting to stand up, is toppled by Jacob latching onto his ankle – but then a sharp sting of grief ripples through his perception, smothering his mirth. Jasper's head twists toward the opposite end of the clearing, and he thinks a single word. Irina.

The four members of the Denali coven including Garrett are gathered around a smudge of gray interrupting the pristine white covering the field. A huddled figure kneels in the snow in front of the burnt-out pyre, waves of strawberry and gold hair swirling in the breeze, and low whispers of a Slovakian prayer begin to weave through the muffled voices in my head. Tanya reaches out with a shaky hand and grasps a fistful of pale ash, cradling it to her chest with her other hand.

Once her sister's lithe frame starts quivering with harsh sobs, Kate slips out of Garrett's arm and falls to the ground beside Tanya. Their keening is a harmony of sorrow and loss that echoes across the bare treetops, prompting Alice and Rosalie to make their way over in the hopes of offering some consolation. Jasper trails behind them a few seconds later, using his talent to balance two extremes influencing the emotional climate blanketing the field.

A light touch lands on Carlisle's arm, and both he and I turn sideways in surprise. Laughing under her breath, Siobhan notes our similarly agape expressions and comments good-naturedly, "Like father like son." Then she fixes her attention solely on Carlisle. "We shall not impose on your family's hospitality any longer, my friend. But we will miss you all." The Irish vampire's intense ruby stare softens just noticeably as she extends her hand.

My father grips her forearm in farewell. Bella's gift and Alice's arrival may have averted the war, but I know Siobhan had a hand in this, as well. Even though she will never admit it. With a knowing glint in his warm gold irises, he offers her a word of praise. "Well done, Siobhan."

She snorts with dry humor and rolls her eyes. "Ah, the power of wishful thinking," she replies, sarcasm heavy in her lilting voice. Her thoughts suddenly darken, the hard lines of her features settling into the practiced stance of a wise leader. "Of course, this isn't over," she points out gravely, her fingers still wrapped around Carlisle's arm. "The Volturi won't forgive what happened here." Her eyes flit over to mine. Your mate's ability has made your family a bigger threat than ever. Aro will not give up so easily.

Before my father draws breath to answer, I speak up, projecting as much assurance as I can draw upon in light of Siobhan's ominous warning. "They've been seriously shaken; their confidence is shattered. But, yes," I admit with a sigh, "I'm sure they'll recover from the blow someday. And then..." As I consider the possible strategies of the most insidious mind I have ever encountered, tension seeps back into my veins, flattening my mouth into a grimace. "I imagine they'll try to pick us off separately," I murmur in a low voice.

Bella's fingertips dig into my side, responding to the strain in my muscles and the implication behind my words. I lean down and brush my lips against her hair, the familiar gesture granting both of us a small measure of comfort.

"Alice will warn us when they intend to strike," Siobhan declares, her watchful eyes noting the stress that has begun to build within Bella and myself, and inserts mentally, We need not worry about such things now. It may take the Volturi a number of decades to regain enough support to mount another assault. "And we'll gather again," she states out loud. "Perhaps the time will come when our world is ready to be free of the Volturi altogether." She glances back at Carlisle, her rust-colored eyebrows arcing in expectation.

He inclines his head, concurring evenly, "That time may come. If it does, we'll stand together."

She gives him a soft-lipped smile, and the expression transforms her entire countenance into a gentler, though still daunting, persona. "Yes, my friend, we will." Her smile widens as she adds in a mischievous tone, "And how can we fail, when I will it otherwise?" Tossing back her mane of dark red hair, Siobhan lets out a ringing chorus of laughter, its melody soaring into the sky like a flock of birds.

Carlisle grins back at her. "Exactly," he responds, and the two share a kind embrace. After releasing Siobhan, my father shakes hands with Liam and nods at Maggie, and then says, "Try to find Alistair and tell him what happened." He quirks an eyebrow, and jokes, "I'd hate to think of him hiding under a rock for the next decade."

Laughing, Siobhan pivots on her heel and motions for her coven to follow. Little Maggie springs forward and throws her small arms around Bella and Renesmee for a quick hug before wheeling around to sprint after the others.

"I had you that last time, mutt. Admit it."

Everyone turns to look as Emmett and Jacob amble over, both of them covered with patches of caked snow, and Jacob's black hair drips wetly into his eyes. He tosses his head back and punches my brother's shoulder, grinning. "I would've found a way out." His mind replays the memory of Emmett's unbreakable hold pinning him in place on the ground. "I'd have taken you eventually," he claims smugly.

Snorting, Emmett gives him a playful shove, using enough force to make him stumble a little. "Yeah, right. I owned you."

"Wanna bet?" Jacob crosses his arms and stares Emmett down, the challenge obvious in his tone.

A slow, wicked smile starts to creep across Emmett's face.

"Boys..." Esme says warningly.

Both of them relax their stances, looking appropriately shamed, but the mischievous glint in their eyes betrays their similar thoughts of making good on that wager sometime soon.

"Don't worry, Mom," Emmett says with a wink, "we're done. Besides, I think Bella pretty much tops us all in the ass-kicking department." He grins toothily at my wife and she ducks her head, embarrassed at being dragged into the spotlight as everyone's awed gazes focus in her direction. I gently kiss the crown of her head in an effort to console her. Pleased that he can still tease her into some amusing display of chagrin, Emmett chuckles and remarks honestly, "I'm glad you're on our side, little sister."

Bella is quiet for a moment, and then she squares her shoulders and looks up, her piercing amber eyes locking onto Emmett. The utter self-confidence in her expression is breathtaking to behold. "Just because I'm on your side doesn't mean I'll let you win our next arm-wrestling match," she tells him in no uncertain terms. A hint of a smirk tugs one corner of her mouth as she adds, "Big brother."

Carlisle and Esme laugh softly while Jacob erupts into loud sniggers; the contest of strength between Emmett and Bella is one of his favorite moments spent with my family.

Joining in with their mirth, I lower my head to the crook of Bella's neck and run my nose along her jaw line, inhaling deeply. A tremor skitters through her delicate body – as I knew it would. I hide my pleased smile in her hair and then breathe into her ear, "I love you."

Her tiny, sweet sigh in response ignites a low-burning warmth in the core of my being, yet I reluctantly pull away from the temptation of her silken skin. There will be plenty of time for our own form of celebration tonight.

A picture of Bella and I with Renesmee cradled happily in her arms floats to the forefront of the mental hubbub filling my skull, and Nahuel thinks to himself almost in lament, That is what my mother should have had.

It takes a good deal of willpower to keep my eyes from darting over to the young man. I manage to keep my attention on my Bella's flustered face and the musical sounds of my family's delight, but Nahuel's comment has made me curious about his thought patterns. I will have to monitor him more closely if I wish to discover the source before he and Huilen return to South America.

Movement flickers on the edge of my vision, and I glance sideways to see Alice latch onto Jasper's arm with both hands, pulling him away from the grieving Denali coven. He frowns at her in puzzlement but trips along after her, Rosalie trailing behind.

Snatches of their whispered conversation reach our group as they approach. "What are you doing?" Jasper asks the petite vampire leading him across the field. "I was trying to help them."

"I know you were, Jazz," Alice murmurs back tenderly. "But Tanya was going to send you away in about two minutes. I wanted to save you both the trouble." She brings him to a stop near my left side, filling the gap separating me from Carlisle and creating a loose semi-circle in the process. Rose glides over to Emmett a second later, completing the formation.

Send me away? Jasper blinks in bewilderment. "Why?"

Stroking his arm with her fingertips, Alice answers in a hesitant voice, "She wants to feel the pain, the emptiness of losing her sister, so that –" The half-finished vision swims hazily in her mind's eye. "So that she'll never forget the importance...and the price...of family," Alice concludes, nearly whispering.

While her words sink in, my sister berates herself sadly, thinking, If we could have gotten here sooner, Caius wouldn't have made the snap decision to destroy Irina just to provoke a reaction from our side. She would still be alive. I should have acted faster, or –

"No." Alice's grief-stricken topaz eyes meet mine, and I instinctively reach for her hand, gripping it tightly. "There's no way of knowing whether or not your arrival could have prevented Irina's death. Caius was so eager for a fight that I believe he would have had her executed regardless. Some things are just meant to be," I say, trying to comfort her with the familiar words she had often given me when we would argue about the outcome of Bella's future as an immortal.

The ghost of a smile twitches Alice's lips, and she leans against my shoulder gratefully, expressing her thanks through the gesture.

Emmett growls under his breath at the end of our exchange. I hate when they do that. Aloud, he complains, "I was just starting to forget how annoying that is." He waves a large hand at me and Alice, referring to the one-sided conversations we are prone to have on an almost daily basis. Heaving a long-suffering sigh, he slings an arm around Rosalie's shoulders.

She wrinkles her nose and leans away from him. "You smell like wet dog," she remarks with disdain.

Jacob barks out a laugh. Alice titters behind a hand, a vision swirling into view inside her mind, and I flatten my lips to disguise my smile, settling back on my heels to enjoy what is about to unfold.

"So do you," Emmett counters, raising his eyebrows at Rose.

She huffs, insulted, "I do not!"

Rosalie has a half second to process the devious leer on her husband's face before her traps her in a powerful bear hug, pressing the full length of her body against his own. She screeches for him to let her go, squirming in his clutches wildly, but Emmett simply lifts her off the ground, his arms clamped like a vise around her torso. "Now you do," he declares over Rose's shrieking, and the rest of us collapse into a fit of giggles, bolstered by the giddiness that stems from the overwhelming emotions of this day.

Eventually, Rosalie's struggles cease, and Emmett deems it safe enough to set her down, but he doesn't release his hold. Once her feet touch the snow-covered ground, Rose jerks back her head and sends him a glare that puts the phrase 'if looks could kill' in a whole new light.

"Aw, don't be like that, Rose." Emmett grins his best boyish smile, cajoling her in a low, deep voice, "You know you love me."

"God knows why," she snaps, a growl rumbling in her throat. She smacks his thick chest, demanding to be released, but he yanks her flush against him and a gasp escapes her snarling mouth.

Dropping his face to the hollow of her throat, Emmett nips at her skin – one predator staking a claim on another. "Then maybe I should remind you," he purrs. Rosalie's mood switches in the blink of an eye, and she wraps herself around him, their lips crashing together greedily.

"Please, not again..." Jasper exhales in defeat, raking his fingers through his blonde hair. "I can only take so much in one day." He attempts to restrain the hunger sparking between our siblings with his talent, but it is rather like trying to douse a forest fire with a squirt gun.

While eyeing the nearby pair with ill-concealed revulsion, Jacob offers in a casual tone, "Don't worry, Jasper. There's still a ton of snow left, and now I know exactly who to aim for."

A refrain of uncontrolled laughter echoes throughout the clearing, increasing when Emmett and Rosalie disconnect to glower in unison at Jacob, who smiles brightly at them in return.

My father is still chortling as a quiet feminine voice calls his name. His expression sobers immediately when he turns to see Tanya standing at the fringe of our circle, with Kate, Garrett, Carmen, and Eleazar gathered behind her.

Once he looks deeply into her golden eyes, Carlisle glimpses the broken heart concealed behind Tanya's frail smile, and he immediately reaches for her hands, clasping them gently in his own. "I cannot begin to tell you how sorry I am for your loss. I wish that your sister had not paid the price for your family's alliance with us."

"She made her choice," Tanya replies in a bleak tone. Then, like a candle flame sputtering in the wind, her resolve flares with newfound strength, and she flips her hands in Carlisle's to grip his fingers. "But our reason for coming here was not about choice. We are all part of the same family. I do not regret the decision to stand with you against the Volturi, and I never will." The rest of her coven nods in silent support of her words.

"You are not staying, though, are you?" Esme murmurs perceptively.

Tanya glances at my mother and shakes her head, the hollowness beginning to drain the waning light from her eyes. "We need time to grieve for our sister. It is best if we separate ourselves from you for a while." Her gaze drifts slowly from one face to the other, experiencing a faint pang of guilt because all the smiles have vanished. "This is a momentous day for our family," she says with conviction. "The sorrow we feel will only tarnish your joy."

There's more to it than that, Jasper ponders, narrowing his eyes in concentration. I can sense her sincerity, as well as the overwhelming sadness surrounding Irina's death...but something is still buried beneath the surface.

My brother's ability hones in like a thin beam of light, piercing the center of Tanya's emotional resonance to locate the source of the secreted feeling – and as soon as he identifies its unique flavor, he swiftly withdraws. Bitterness, he declares grimly. It's only a pinprick compared to the rest, but it is there. Through his mind, I see my profile, calmly focused on our cousin, and he asks, Can you tell where this is coming from?

I lift my left shoulder fractionally at the same time that Carlisle remarks in quiet assurance, "Joy and sorrow are meant to be shared with those we love. Please, Tanya – stay here for a few more days. There has been enough division between us." He squeezes her hands, hoping to allay any reservations she may have.

A brief flash of panic contracts Tanya's pupils. "No, Carlisle, we must go home." She clutches his fingers tightly for a half second and then slips from his grasp, her expression pleading yet adamant. "I know it is difficult for you to understand, but it's...too much...for Kate and I to deal with right now." We cannot celebrate as you do, she whispers inwardly, visions of my family's laughter and embraces swimming into her mind's eye. Your family is complete. Mine will never be again. The memory of the handful of ash she held in her palm becomes a painful lance, stabbing into her chest, and she inhales a sharp breath to choke back a sob.

"Oh, Tanya..." I sigh, realizing too late that I had spoken aloud. Though my voice was no louder than the barest whisper, all eyes flick in my direction, questioning and bemused.

Knowing what I must have heard, Tanya lowers her eyelids, her thoughts burning with shame. Forgive me, she sends, distressed. I could never fault any of you for the loss of Irina. It was cruel of me to even consider turning away from your family because you do not share my pain. She raises her head to meet my eyes, the anguish in her stare hardening into determination. That was my sister's mistake. It shall not be mine.

Carlisle, sensing that whatever is transpiring between Tanya and I is not meant to be shared, speaks up in a tentative voice. "Whenever you decide to visit us again, remember, our door is always open."

His hesitation ignites a dull ache in her heart, and Tanya instantly surges forward to give him a fierce hug. As she pulls away, she promises, "We will come back soon. Like you said: there has been enough division between us." She kisses his cheek, and then moves on to Esme, thus beginning the process of bidding farewell to every member of the family.

Kate follows her sister soon after, embracing Carlisle like a father while Garrett shakes his hand, and for the sake of their privacy I studiously ignore the exchanges until Tanya reaches me. Eyeing my seemingly immovable arm coiled around Bella's waist, Tanya smirks and opts for a kiss on the cheek instead of a hug, as she had after the wedding. "You have been doubly blessed, Edward," she murmurs, glancing meaningfully at the two precious creatures beside me. "Never take that for granted."

She then looks over at Bella, and to both of our surprise, she inclines her head in a show of respect. "I always knew you had to be someone truly special to capture this one's heart," Tanya remarks blithely, "though I could never have guessed in a thousand years that you would be the most powerful newborn in existence. We all owe you our lives, Bella," she states, quietly serious.

Uncomfortable as always with acclaim, Bella fidgets a little as she replies, "I was only protecting what's most important to me."

Ever selfless. She is a rare treasure, indeed. "Of course." Tanya smoothly diverts her attention to Renesmee, dropping a kiss on the little girl's forehead, and afterward she continues down the line to Emmett and Rosalie.

Kate says her goodbyes a moment later, her mood more subdued than usual, but I notice an inner peace – a subtle glow within her ocher irises – that had not been present before. And the way her attention keeps gravitating back to Garrett is just one piece of evidence demonstrating that her life has been irrevocably altered – as mine was when I fell in love with Bella.

While the slender blonde is conversing with my wife, Garrett grasps my hand firmly, joking in a half-amazed voice, "After two hundred years, I thought that I'd never be taken by surprise again. And then she happened." His scarlet eyes land with tender appreciation on Kate. I have to change what I am, how I live, so I can be right for her, he tells himself. His conviction and attitude remind me so thoroughly of myself that I am certain their relationship will endure.

"I know exactly what you mean," I comment to him, thinking back on how the arrival of one human girl to this rainy little town had upended my entire reality, shattered me into a million diamond shards, and then remolded me into someone who could deserve her love.

Garrett chuckles, shaking my hand one final time, and then transfers his gaze to Bella. By now, I can recognize the awe that enters everyone's stare when they look at her, their amazement over this newborn vampire with the ability to render the most feared immortals in the world powerless. "It was you, wasn't it?" the nomad questions suddenly. "You stopped Kate from shocking me when I had her pinned on the ground."

Bella nods, confirming the suspicions I'd had during that tense, nightmarish moment.

"Thank you." The words thrum with the depth of his gratitude. "You saved us both." Then he pats Renesmee on the head and follows after Kate.

Carmen and Eleazar give their farewells together. Carmen warmly enfolds all three of us in a hug, and for Renesmee she sings a Spanish lullaby under her breath before bending down to rub noses with my daughter, thanking God in her mind all the while that she was spared from the Volturi's brand of 'justice'.

Eleazar marvels yet again how I had managed to stumble upon one of the greatest finds as far as promising talent by pure accident, and reminds Bella to always practice using her shield. "In every way," he emphasizes, raising his eyebrows.

He does not elaborate on the significance of these parting words, but from the way Bella eagerly bobs her head, it must be important.

The Denalis and Garrett come together several feet apart from us after the last goodbye is spoken, and with a final wave, they leap into the northern woods, the sound of their passage a faint breeze that is swallowed up by a gust of wintry wind.

Quite suddenly, Alice lets out a tiny gasp. "You don't have to leave, Huilen!" she exclaims, looking at the startled dark-haired vampire. Her vision is a cloudy mix of shapes and colors – and it becomes even murkier as Huilen glances uncertainly from Alice to her nephew, who has continued to stare at Bella for some time now.

Carlisle offers a friendly invitation to our remaining guests, saying with a smile, "Alice is right. Both of you are welcome to stay for as long as you wish. It's the least we can do to repay you for coming to our aid."

Wringing her small hands, Huilen's scarlet eyes dart around the clearing, and she mumbles in reply, "We do not want to intrude –"

"It is no intrusion." My father steps forward, his expression open and his tone heartfelt as he tells her, "You're among friends now, Huilen. We would be honored to invite you and Nahuel back to our home." He holds out a hand and gestures with a sweeping motion to the west, his face alight in expectation.

Huilen is deeply touched by his sincerity and fascinated with the dynamics of my family, but she has lived on the outskirts of civilization for so long – and spent most of her existence sheltering and caring for her nephew – that he has become her first priority in all circumstances. She turns to him and peers intently into his eyes, trying to determine what he wants to do.

Reading the unspoken question in her gaze, Nahuel gives his aunt a slight nod, his features carefully blank, yet the excitement blanketing his every thought reveals just how much he would like to stay.

"Very well." Huilen blinks once, and then shifts her eyes back to Carlisle, smiling a little. "We accept your invitation." She places her hand in his, adding, "And your friendship."

Alice beams happily when the immediate future coalesces in her mind, and Emmett heaves a dramatic sigh, groaning in a loud voice, "So let's go already! I've seen enough of this field to last me at least another seventy years." And I think we need to find another place to play baseball, he concludes mentally.

Moving a half step away from Alice, Jasper cocks an eyebrow at our brother and dares, "Race you."

He shoots past Emmett, who swears out of sheer reflex and then barrels after him, yelling with enough volume to topple mounds of snow from nearby tree branches, "Hey, that's cheating!"

Rose puts her hands on her hips and shakes her head, staring after them. Honestly...some things never change. Her pursed lips slowly curve into a smile.

Alice dances over to her side a moment later and taps her on the shoulder. "Shall we?" she asks, the impish grin on her face a sorely missed sight.

Together, the statuesque blonde and the black-haired pixie jump playfully into the trees, their lighthearted thoughts echoing in the back of my mind like faraway music.

The consummate hostess, Esme graciously offers to escort Huilen and Nahuel to the house, and she and Carlisle lead them at a more leisurely pace in the same direction that my siblings went, following the familiar path through the underbrush.

Once everyone else has left, Jacob rubs the back of his neck, glancing sidelong at me with a sheepish expression on his face. "I guess I should've waited before I phased, huh?" he mutters under his breath. "You guys go ahead – I'll catch up in a minute." His body shifts to head into the privacy of a cluster of firs, but his eyes refuse to leave Renesmee.

There has been too much frantic activity in the last month; I have no desire to rush anything from this moment on. "We'll wait," I inform Jacob calmly.

His relief is profound, and he spins on heel to sprint into the dim shadows while Bella looks up at me, her eyes wide in astonishment. "You don't want to run with the others?"

I give her a crooked grin, shaking my head in denial. "Not today," I answer softly.

The tender yet powerful look she gives me then sends a surge of electricity throughout my body, intensifying to an almost pleasurable sting as her fingertips caress the swell of my lower lip.

All right, all right, break it up. Jacob bounds out of the forest like an overeager puppy and bumps into Bella with the side of his head, causing her hand to slip from my mouth. She sticks out her tongue at him while my skin aches for her touch, and Jacob snickers at us both, the sound hissing through his teeth.

The noise, combined with the wolfy grin on his furry face, is so ridiculous that I smile in spite of myself. Winding my fingers through Bella's, I lightly tug on her hand and begin to lead the way back to the house.