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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:


8. Travel Plans

Rating 5/5   Word Count 15610   Review this Chapter

The first week of Bella's introduction to the world of immortals could easily rival our honeymoon in its varying degrees of heightened emotions. Change is a near-constant companion – and not all of it stems from Renesmee, though she certainly contributes to the anxiety that hovers amidst our family like a persistent fog as her growth physically and mentally continues at an accelerated pace.

When Bella and I return from our meadow to the cottage as the last stars begin to fade into a brightening lilac-colored sky, we find a driftwood fire crackling merrily in the hearth and a note sitting atop the mantle, written in my mother's thin, flowing script. She had finished Renesmee's room and wanted to know what we thought.

Bella practically disappears from my side. Her amazed gasp, echoing down the narrow hallway a fraction of a second later, propels me to follow. Together, we stare across the threshold of what was only yesterday an empty room...and has since been transformed into a picture-perfect haven for our daughter.

She is in such a celebratory mood that I have no desire to protest as she locks her arms around my neck, her kisses exuberant, and tows me into our bedroom.

Apparently, Alice's vision of us returning to the house in the morning did not specify which morning.

But we cannot stay away from Renesmee for long. When the lark, still nesting among the roses, trills the first note of her song to welcome yet another dawn, Bella springs from my arms and races into the closet to get dressed. She seems to be working very hard to avoid eye contact with me as I don my own clothing, and I stifle an amused chuckle. She must be trying to prevent any further distractions.

As we near the house, Alice sends me a mental greeting – and also informs me of Charlie's visit. He had come back in the late morning, slightly discouraged that Bella was not present, but placated by Renesmee's company for most of the day. She then says that he will be here in less than an hour and will be bringing Sue Clearwater with him.

Surprising...but not exactly a revelation. Sue had lost her husband, and her children were more often than not wrapped up in their duties to their pack; she probably needed interaction with other adults – adults who share her connection with a world outside of reality. And it is obvious that Charlie is lonely with Bella no longer living in his house...

The events of the day have the feel of a routine in the making. Charlie and Sue stay for a few hours – Seth and Jacob mill about as well, infinitely more at ease, and even Leah stops in briefly – until Sue insists that it is time for a decent meal. The police chief and the Quileute mother depart under the promise of another visit tomorrow, and Bella watches curiously as Leah speaks to Jacob in a low voice while also shooting irritated glares at Jasper, who has not allowed himself to be less than arm's length from Bella since the moment she and I entered the house.

Leah stalks out the back door a minute later. Jacob finds a spot next to Bella on the sofa, given that she has Renesmee on her lap, and looks over expectantly when she calls his name. "There's something...different between you and Leah," Bella says hesitantly, tucking her bottom lip between her teeth. "You seem to – get along with her now. Why?" She instantly backpedals when Jacob turns in his seat to face her. "You don't have to tell me if you don't want to – I was only wondering..."

His expression is open, hoping to reassure her, and then he shrugs. "It's a pack thing. I suppose it's because I made her my second-in-command. My ‘beta'." He flashes her a lopsided grin. "I figured as long as I was going to do this Alpha thing for real, I'd better nail down the formalities." Then his grin widens at Bella's open mouth, her eyes rounded with surprise, and shrugs again, commenting to himself that Leah was the best choice despite her intense aversion to vampires.

I have seen his reasoning in his thoughts, and I agree. Though Leah Clearwater is a bitter, vindictive and resentful she-wolf, she has endured hardships that most people cannot even begin to imagine. Thinking of her reminds me of the time that Bella expressed pity for Leah. Perhaps I, too, have come to sympathize with her plight: this female shape-shifter who is the only one of her kind to exist and will never be able to carry on her legacy through an offspring.

The sun shines brilliantly in the sapphire blue sky for most of the day – a rarity, to be sure – so after Renesmee's second feeding Bella and I decide to take her outside.

I feel so utterly blissful with Bella twined in my arms, leaning against my chest as we lounge on the yellow grass covering a small hillock near the river. Renesmee is sitting in front of her mother, playing with a dozen or so blooms of wildflowers that she and Bella had gathered as we walked to this spot, content to travel at a slower pace to lengthen this perfect moment. She scatters the small pink petals of one flower across my outstretched leg, and then repeats the gesture with Bella's, smiling to herself.

A little while later, Bella rotates in my embrace and pushes gently on my shoulders. Smiling, I realize what she wants and lie back on the ground. Renesmee giggles as Bella arranges herself beside me, one whole side of her body pressed against mine, and she reaches for my hand, interlocking our fingers.

A cherubic face framed by a riot of bronze curls hovers above us, rainbow sparkles from our exposed skin decorating her flushed cheeks and glittering in her dark eyes. Renesmee picks up a bright yellow daisy and tucks it into Bella's hair, clapping her tiny hands in pleasure when she is finished. The little girl then makes a game of slipping any sort of blossom she can find into her mother's long brown tresses – and mine, as well.

Soon, she wriggles between us and places one warm palm on each of our faces to show us her handiwork. Two glistening statues lie motionless, hand-in-hand, on the vibrant grass, surrounded by over a hundred multicolored blooms. Their eyes are closed, and both wear identical, soft-lipped smiles that radiate sheer happiness.

We remain there until Renesmee falls asleep shortly after watching a spectacular sunset, nestled into the crook of Bella's arm. Then we make our way back to the cottage and put her to bed in her new room. Esme had selected a beautifully ornate wrought-iron crib – vaguely reminiscent of the bed I purchased for Bella several months ago. I gently close her door and, swinging our clasped hands like carefree children, Bella and I stroll to our own room.

We try to remember to be quiet for our daughter's sake...but thankfully, Renesmee is a heavy sleeper.

And so the days unfold in a similar fashion. On the fifth day after Bella awoke, the three of us enter the spacious living room to find a pair of familiar faces in addition to our usual group. Quil and Embry have withdrawn from Sam's pack to join Jacob's. Bella is ecstatic to see her old friends again, and they are equally eager to meet Renesmee.

Shortly after this reunion, and right on schedule, Charlie and Sue pull up the long drive in his cruiser.
The house is soon filled with heat, emanating from the wolves' thickly muscled bodies, and the unrelenting thrum of beating hearts.

Jasper continues to be in close proximity to my wife, and I can tell from her riled expression that it is starting to become a nuisance. I think, however, if she knew the reason for his desire to stay near her, she would be a little more tolerant.

Before I can bring it up though, she makes her complaints known that evening after Renesmee is in bed.

"Yeesh!" she exclaims, throwing up her hands as she paces the length of our bedroom. I gaze at her fondly; she is so unintentionally adorable when she is angry. "If I haven't killed Charlie or Sue yet, it's probably not going to happen." She lets out a low growl, and then pauses in mid-step to glare at me. "I wish Jasper would stop hovering all the time!"

I walk over to her and place my hands on her shoulders, smoothing my palms over the silken skin of her upper arms. "No one doubts you, Bella," I murmur soothingly, "not in the slightest. You know how Jasper is – he can't resist a good emotional climate." She frowns up at me in confusion, and I clarify with an affectionate smile, "You're so happy all the time, love, he gravitates toward you without thinking."

I pull her to me, tucking her head under my chin, my arms encircling her waist. For more long nights than I care to remember, I agonized over the decision to change my Bella into a vampire. Surely she would come to despise me for subjecting her to this life – to be forever condemned to darkness, to always be at war with the monster that demanded blood every second of every day for eternity, to never change.

"I dream about being with you forever." Bella's softly murmured words surface in my memory.
She never had any doubts about choosing this life, choosing to be with me, like me, for all time. And that was what made it so unbearably frustrating. I worried that she did not fully understand the consequences of becoming immortal, and that would lead to her resentment of me for ushering her into this existence.

Her hands tenderly stroke my back, and I cannot help the relieved sigh that escapes me. There is no denying what Jasper has been reading from her emotions – the reason why he orbits around her like a moon caught in the gravitational pull of a planet.

Bella is happy. More than happy, she is euphoric. My brother has not felt anything so pure or intense since the day he walked into that ratty little diner fifty years ago and found Alice waiting for him.

Like Jasper, I am also hopelessly drawn to Bella's all-encompassing joy. It covers both of us like a warm blanket, fueling my own elation at being able to keep her with me forever, to call her my wife, to know that she is reason why I exist...

Her slim fingers tug on the hem of my shirt, her lips brushing under my jaw, and I leave my musings for another time as we tumble onto the bed.

Two days later, the euphoria is splintered by a harsh jolt of fear.

The morning had begun as usual: Bella, Renesmee, and I left the cottage and joined the others at the house, covered in glistening droplets from the light rain. Rose was ready with Renesmee's cup of blood, handing it off to the little girl – who now has no trouble whatsoever with feeding herself – while Alice immediately criticized Bella's outfit, complaining that her new sister was ignorant of all the time and energy she had spent putting together a decent wardrobe.

The two of them got into a mild spat and Carlisle pulled me aside, murmuring in a low, quick voice that he had stumbled upon some new information, albeit from a sketchy source, about children like Renesmee.

Listening to my father intently, I let the thoughts of the other minds surrounding us drift into the background so that I can concentrate fully – until a pure soprano voice that is at once strange and yet completely familiar rings out from the other room.

"Momma, where is Grandpa?"

I arrive at Bella's side just as the last syllable is leaving Renesmee's tiny mouth. Her deep brown eyes are full of expectation as she stares at her mother, leaning away from Rosalie, whose frozen arms continue to support her slight weight even as she gazes blankly at her niece.

Bella forces a smile, though her wide scarlet eyes are vivid with fright, and she manages to reply, "He'll be here soon, sweetie." Her voice quivers towards the end, but I do not believe our daughter noticed. Silently, I reach for Bella's limp hand, weaving her slim fingers through mine.

Renesmee's exquisite face clouds with puzzlement when everyone continues to stare at her, motionless and wearing the same empty expression, and a question starts to take shape in her mind. But before she can ask it, Jacob recognizes her uncertainty and instantly seeks out a resolution.

"C'mon, Nessie." He gently removes her from Rosalie's immobile hold while effectively masking his own apprehension and starts towards the front door. "Let's wait out on the porch for Grandpa. I bet I can spot his car first." The door closes very softly behind them.

My eyes flash to Rosalie. "What happened?"

"I – I don't know." She shakes her head helplessly, worry blazing in the depths of her topaz irises. "She had just touched my cheek and asked me about Charlie and I told her that I wasn't sure where he was. Then she...she spoke." Rose's gaze falters, widening with a sort of blind horror, and her thoughts begin to scream at me. She's only a week old – and she's already speaking in complete sentences? What if her growth keeps progressing at the same rate? Will she...will she age and then die like a human? No! No, we can't lose her – not after Bella –

I cannot listen to any more. Blocking the ceaseless stream of panicked questions, I turn to Bella, squeezing her hand to catch her attention. "Bella." She looks up at me, but her eyes seem distant – peering at something that I will never be able to see. "Bella, love?" I raise our intertwined hands and brush her cheek with the back of mine. The gesture is a well-remembered sign of affection for us both, and the veil obscuring her clear gaze recedes. "I promise you –" I vow to her fervently "– we will figure this out. Carlisle has tracked down another source. He and I will look into it right away – right now, even." My lips curve into a faint smile. I desperately hope that my promise has alleviated at least some of her fear; I will have to focus on hiding my own in order to comfort my wife. She is, and always will be, my first priority.

"Go outside with Jacob and Renesmee," I suggest in a gentle, velvet tone, my knuckles caressing the smooth line of her jaw. "Charlie will be here soon. I'll come find you if we discover anything new."

I start to release her fingers – when suddenly her grip tightens and she clutches my hand in both of hers, her beautiful eyes so large that they consume her pale face. "Edward," she whispers, scarcely louder than a breath. Her gaze continues to plead with me, and once again I wish in vain to hear her thoughts.

A few seconds pass...and then I can no longer endure her delayed response. "What is it, love?"

Her mouth opens, then closes again. Her chest heaves in a deep breath, her fingers tensing around my hand, and I feel as if I am teetering on the edge of sanity as I wait for her to tell me what is on her mind. Surely she knows that she can tell me anything. I try to convey this with my eyes, silently beseeching her to reveal what she is thinking before I go utterly mad – and finally, her lips part, releasing a whispered voice that is rough with emotion.

"I'm afraid."

My still, wintry heart shatters into a million crystal shards for her. I am undone by her soft confession – I know how hard it must have been for her to admit her fear. Bella hates to show any weakness. She fails to comprehend that the bravery she has demonstrated since the moment we met is an extremely rare and precious treasure, and is something that she will carry with her – that is ingrained in her very essence – for the rest of eternity.

She must be truly frightened if she feels the need to acknowledge her feelings out loud.

The pieces of my fractured heart throb painfully – and so quickly that even I do not register the movement, Bella is in my arms. Her small hands rest atop my chest and she nuzzles her face into my collarbone, inhaling deeply, though her breath hitches a little when I kiss the top of her head. "Oh, Bella," I sigh into her hair. I want nothing more than to banish all traces of fear from her eyes, while knowing that it is not within my power to do so.

But I will keep trying nonetheless.

"Sorry..." she mumbles, pressing herself closer, and I immediately hush her feeble apology.

"No, love. You have nothing to be sorry about." I lay my cheek against her hair, luxuriating in the texture of the silken tresses as they caress my skin. "I want you to always, always tell me how you feel. Nothing is more important to me than that."

She nods the tiniest bit, but makes no attempt to break away from our embrace. Perfectly content to hold her for as long as she needs, I breathe in her alluring floral-and-freesia scent, letting it fill my head until the aroma overwhelms every troubling thought concerning Renesmee for a brief moment.

It is rather ironic, I suppose. Even when Bella was still human and her blood sang for me each time I inhaled, scorching down my throat like tongues of white-hot flame, the fragrance would never fail to calm me. I had missed it immensely when I left – when I was foolish enough to believe that I could go on existing without her – that sometimes, after practically starving myself for weeks, my brain would conjure illusions of her intoxicating smell to tease my senses. If ever I had doubted that a vampire could go insane, I now knew that I had clung to that precarious edge for months, haunted by visions that seemed all too real.

Bella slowly lifts her head, waking me from my dark rumination, and meets my eyes with a soft, tranquil expression. I open my mouth to ask her if she is all right, when her gentle fingers touch my lips, stilling the question on my tongue. "I'm okay," she tells me, a faint smile brightening her heart-shaped face.

She turns around, though my arms are unwilling to release her. She notices my reluctance and grasps my left hand, pulling it gently so that my forearm coils around her waist and I shuffle forward, eager to remain as close to her as possible. "Alice?" she calls. "How soon until Charlie gets here?"

While she is speaking, Bella fiddles with the gold circle on my third finger, stroking the polished metal and lightly twisting the band. I force a deep breath into my lungs. She probably has no idea what she is doing to me right now with the seemingly innocent motion, but there is something so...sacred in the way she touches my wedding ring – almost with a possessive reverence.

I know that it is just a symbol of our commitment to one another. At some point I will have to take it off in order to maintain the human charade at our next home; my father of course wears his constantly, but my brothers – Jasper in particular – have not worn theirs for a few decades. Emmett only keeps one on long enough for the ceremony whenever Rose wants another wedding, and then it's tossed into a drawer in their bedroom. I imagine there are quite a few rings stored in some dark corner by now, wedged beneath pairs of socks or folded shirts.

And yet, though it is only a trinket in comparison to the ring I gave Bella, it is also her way of marking me as her own. She has not touched my ring or given the slightest note of its presence since the moment she shyly slipped it over my knuckle on our wedding day – and while her distracted fidgeting may be of no consequence in her mind, I feel as though she is claiming me all over again.

That notion stirs such a tumultuous myriad of emotions and impulses that I can scarcely concentrate on keeping my feet rooted to the hardwood floor.

A sudden wave of calm washes over me, seeping into my pores and loosening the tautness in my muscles. Raising an eyebrow, I glance across the room at Jasper. He is leaning casually on the doorpost of the kitchen, arms crossed over his chest, and when our eyes meet, he lifts his broad shoulders in a miniscule shrug. Trust me, Edward – his dark gold eyes are mocking – you needed my help. Emmett is right; you are a one hundred and ten-year old ticking time bomb of sexual tension just waiting to go off. Good thing you've got Bella – if anyone can keep up with you, it's her. Especially while she's still a newborn. All that strength is bound to come in handy.

My lips part, displaying my clenched teeth in a silent warning. He ignores my black glare, arching his sandy-blonde eyebrows and adopting a ludicrously false expression of innocence. Bella's bet was with Emmett, not me, remember? I agreed to...pass on a few ‘observations' to you in exchange for first dibs on our next hunting trip. Alice made me promise not to say anything to Bella, but she didn't tell me to drop it. After all... He winks, one side of his mouth quirking into a roguish grin. ...what are brothers for?

I roll my eyes, exasperated – while also fighting to suppress a smile of genuine amusement. Despite the fact that I have long since suffered the brunt of my brothers' practical jokes, usually pertaining to my ‘relationship issues', I confess that Jasper's teasing has awakened a twinge of satisfaction deep inside my being. For one like me who has been alone amidst the constant company of three bonded pairs for over half a century to be reminded, even in the form of a tongue-in-cheek aside, that I finally know what it means to be completed by another...a muted sense of the joy I felt earlier with Bella at our cottage ignites within me and I duck my head, allowing the smile to reveal itself on my face.

At the same time as my unspoken conversation with Jasper, Alice skips over to Bella, answering her question in a blithe manner. "Twelve minutes. He had a little trouble deciding on a gift to buy for Renesmee. Sue got him on the right track, though." She beams, her honey-colored eyes alight with something akin to mischief.

"A gift?" Bella throws a worried look over her shoulder at me, then turns back to Alice, saying, "He doesn't have to get her a gift. It's not her birthday, and we're nowhere near Christmas, so why would he –?"

"Grandparent's prerogative." Alice shrugs her tiny shoulders, still grinning. "Take it up with Charlie, not me. I'm just telling you what I saw." My sister's pixie-like countenance tilts up towards me, and I am momentarily surprised by her stern frown. "Now, Edward." She puts her hands on her hips, her tone scolding. "Don't go berserk over Charlie's gift. It will hurt his feelings, and your daughter's going to love it anyway, so you might as well get over it."

"Alice..."

She holds up a small white hand, palm out, and talks over my attempted protest. "Stay out of my head. You won't get anything." And she begins to internally recite the Gettysburg Address just to prove her point.

"Alice, how can I ‘get over it' if you won't tell me what I'm supposed to get over?" I exclaim, intensely frustrated. Why does she have to be so difficult?

She smiles beatifically. The expression transforms her from infuriating sister into a charming black-haired sprite. It does not have the intended effect on my temper, however; if anything, Alice's sweet smile only serves to aggravate me further. "All I can tell you is that it will help prepare you for the future."

A low growl vibrates inside my chest. Bella runs her fingertips over the back of my hand, and the sensation of her touch on my skin is instantly soothing. Nevertheless, I open my mouth to deliver a final statement –

"I know, I know." Alice dances past us, holding out a hand towards Jasper, who is grinning with obvious adoration at his petite wife. " ‘You're awfully small to be so hugely irritating'," she quotes me in a comically deep voice, and then they both head out the back door, sprinting hand-in-hand into the forest.

A half-second goes by in silence. Then Bella comments quietly, "I love Alice, but sometimes...sometimes she drives me absolutely crazy."

I laugh under my breath – a release of pent-up tension that is far more productive than destroying another television set. "You and me both," I murmur in agreement.

She grudgingly pulls away from my embrace, sighing, "I'd better make myself presentable." She vanishes up the staircase, the bathroom door closing softly behind her. After thirty seconds she returns, the irises of her eyes once again disguised by nondescript brown contact lenses.

We reach for each other in unison, and talk in low voices with Carlisle and Esme to while away the time.

Charlie arrives a few minutes later with both Sue and Billy in tow.

I can hear Jacob calling out greetings; thankfully, Renesmee stays silent. She is intelligent enough to understand that many of the things she is capable of doing at such a young age would not be considered normal in a human's eyes – and she is perceptive enough to have picked up on her mother's anxiety and discerned the cause.

Footsteps and the squeak of Billy's wheelchair tires draw nearer, and soon there is the soft rustle of a plastic bag as Charlie coos in a tone that I would never in the past have imagined him using, "Look what I have for you, Nessie..."

Renesmee's abrupt burst of excitement explodes in my skull, so much so that she can barely focus on the object her grandfather purchased for her. Sue and Billy are both amused, more with Charlie's behavior than the actual gift – but Jacob's thoughts are a snarl of pleasure, disquiet, and hope.

Through his unwavering gaze, I finally catch a glimpse of the mysterious present, and I suck in a startled breath at the image that holds his attention so rapturously.

Bella spins around, her eyes intent on my face. "What is it?" she inquires, apprehensive.

I exhale heavily and rake a hand through my hair, shaking my head. "I have to give Sue points for ingenuity," I mutter to myself. Bella's grip tightens impatiently on my arm; I meet her nervous stare, smiling faintly in reassurance. "It's nothing too terrible, love – Alice was simply being overly cautious. Although..." I scrutinize her expression, contemplating my sister's earlier words. She had seemed more concerned with my reaction rather than Bella's, yet that did not rule out any unforeseen outcomes, especially given the fact that a newborn is hard to predict. "I am a bit surprised that she did not give a word of warning to you. You must be more tolerant than you let on," I add with a smirk, though my teasing is only half-hearted. I am entirely aware that Bella outshines me in more ways than one, which she would never agree with, but most especially when it comes to controlling my rather abrupt responses to unexpected situations.

She scowls fiercely at me, her lower lip pushed out, tempting me to lean down and catch it between my teeth... Mercifully, the compulsion is interrupted by the front door swinging open to admit our guests.
I swiftly grasp Bella's hand, uncertain of what to expect from her, and she shoots a puzzled glance sideways just before Charlie enters the room, closely followed by Jacob and an ecstatic Renesmee.

I hear Bella's breath stop as her sharp eyes focus immediately on our daughter. Charlie, who is growing more observant with each passing day spent here, notices her blank stare and explains, "I haven't seen any toys around this place and I wanted to get her a little something." He rubs the back of his neck in embarrassment, mumbling, "I was having a hard time deciding on the right one, so Sue helped me out. I thought it was pretty cute."

Renesmee looks up at her mother with shining eyes, clutching her gift to her chest as if she never wishes to let go, but enough of the object is exposed for Bella and I to receive a fairly comprehensive look.

The russet-colored fur of the plush stuffed wolf in her grasp nearly matches her bronze curls. Renesmee hugs it tightly, pressing her flushed cheek against the creature's fuzzy head – a huge grin lights up Jacob's face, echoed dimly by Charlie, who looks aside to hide his reserved smile.

Bella seems incapable at the moment of forming any type of response. She gawks at the toy, mouth hanging slightly open, a dozen emotions flitting across her divine features – so I elect to speak up, offering her father a proverbial olive branch.

"Thank you, Charlie. It was very thoughtful of you. And I believe it is safe to say that Renesmee loves her new toy," I comment wryly, mustering the effort to flex my lips into a tight smile. Billy and his son erupt into laughter, Sue smiles very faintly, and Charlie blushes self-consciously.

"Yeah." Bella finally finds her voice, gazing at her father with an indulgent expression, though her slender fingers are bent into fists at her sides. "Thanks, Dad. It is pretty..." she swallows hard, her upper lip twitching as she holds back a sneer. "...cute," she finishes awkwardly.

The silence that follows quickly becomes uncomfortable. Esme rescues us all by assuming the natural role of gracious hostess, inviting Charlie, Sue, and Billy to make themselves at home in the living room.

Jacob trots over to Bella, his black-brown eyes suddenly anxious. "The wolf thing wasn't my idea, Bells," he offers hastily. "Honest. That is totally on Sue; she just thought it'd be funny. So don't go getting all worked up about some stupid –"

"It's okay, Jake." Bella gingerly lays a palm on his arm, but she needn't have used so much caution. Jacob no longer flinches from contact with a vampire's icy skin – apart from Rosalie of course, but that is for a completely different number of reasons. "Renesmee likes it, and that's all that matters."

"You're not mad?"

She grins, shaking her head from side to side. "I'm not mad."

Jacob's thoughts turn mischievous yet remain vague. I suspect he is deliberately keeping himself from dwelling too much on his next words, for he mentions on a whim, "Then it won't bother you if she happens to get a few more of these little guys –" he pats the stuffed wolf's head with a large red-brown hand "– so she can have her own pack, y'know? And you'll be fine with the slobber she might get on her face, the hairs sticking to her clothes, and that we might start calling her ‘wolf girl'..."

He chuckles as Bella starts to push him into the other room while he is still talking. "Jerk," she growls under her breath, and gives him one last shove, causing him to stumble onto the couch. Renesmee, nestled in the circle of his arms, is barely jostled.

She continues to snarl very quietly until I take her hand and raise it to my lips, placing a brief kiss on her fragrant skin. Her eyes immediately soften as I hold her gaze, unblinking. "Enjoy the time with your father, Bella," I murmur tenderly. "I'll be in the study with Carlisle if you need me."

Forcing my feet to take the first step towards the staircase, I slowly drop her hand and walk away, feeling her eyes on me until I round the corner on the first landing.

For the next ten days I immerse myself in research, determined to uncover any insight, the smallest shred of knowledge that will help us understand Renesmee or know what to expect.

The source Carlisle told me about has nothing new to offer – except to suggest that perhaps we should speak to the Ticunas ourselves. After all, Kaure had obtained enough understanding of her people's legends to recognize what was happening to Bella on the island. Maybe there is someone among the tribes who can give us more information.

My father and I agree that we may plan such a trip eventually, but not until we have exhausted all possible resources that we have access to from our home. The darker, colder part of my mind hisses in the back of my head nearly every day that we have already reached a dead end – and it is at those times I realize that I have been apart from Bella too long. She is my sole refuge, the only remedy able to extinguish the self-destructive fires of rage and frustration smoldering deep within my being.

I spend my nights basking in her presence – breathing in the smell of her skin, cherishing every sigh and low murmur of my name that crosses her lips – and my days are used to further our investigation, interrupted by brief, enjoyable periods of retreat with my wife and daughter.

The whole situation is unbearably infuriating.

My brain demands answers, pushing me ceaselessly to travel to the ends of the earth in order to find what I seek...but my heart refuses to allow me to leave my Bella and our precious little girl even for a few hours, let alone several days.

In the late afternoon on the twelfth day of practically useless information gathering, I inform Carlisle that I need a break and leave his study to find Bella. It is simple enough: her scent wafts like tendrils of fine perfume throughout the air inside the house and the delightful sound of her laughter echoes from the living room.

As my foot lands soundlessly on the bottom step of the spiral staircase, I spy her and Jacob sprawled on the wooden floor, Renesmee between them, smiling as the little girl stacks brightly colored building blocks into a perfectly proportioned home for her stuffed Jacob-wolf.

All three look up as I approach; Bella and Renesmee wear identical gleaming smiles of pleasure while Jacob waves a hand in casual greeting.

Folding my legs, I sink fluidly to the floor beside my wife. She leans toward me as soon as I settle in place and kisses my cheek, whispering, "I missed you."

Jacob makes a gagging noise in the base of his throat. Bella casts a violent glare in his direction and mouths, "Shut up, Jake." He just grins in response.

In the meantime, Renesmee crawls over to me and scrambles into my lap, pressing her tiny, warm palm to my jaw. She is annoyed by the lack of matching colored blocks – she wanted to build the little house to look the same as ours but she has no more white blocks.

"I'll buy you another set. As many as you need," I promise her softly.

Her angel's face brightens with a glittering smile, and I distinctly hear her high, musical voice in my head. Thank you, Daddy.

I give her a quick hug, immensely pleased as always when she calls me ‘Daddy'. Suddenly she straightens up, her thoughts curious and strangely intent as she peers around my right arm.

Alice breezes into the room carrying an enormous crystal vase full of vibrant autumn blooms and sets it precisely in the middle on the coffee table. A second later she darts into the dining room – only to return with an armful of flowers, making a beeline for the end table next to the sofa.

"Hey, Shorty," Jacob calls, and frowns at Bella in confusion when she hushes him. Alice pays no heed to any of us; we may as well be invisible.

"Don't bother trying to talk to her now, Jake – she's in full decorating mode," Bella tells him sotto voce, a smirk curving her full lips as her vivid red eyes track Alice's movement around the room.

Renesmee watches her aunt for a number of minutes, her deep brown eyes attentive while her mind hums in concentration, and I struggle to understand what exactly is holding her interest.

Then all time seems to stop.

Lifting her small chin in confidence, this beautiful, one of a kind hybrid who has lived among us for a mere three and a half weeks...rises to her feet with the otherworldly grace of a vampire and walks a dozen or so steps to the windows. Once there, she spins around, grinning in triumph, her creamy skin and bronze ringlets backlit by the golden rays of the sun streaming through the glass.

Jacob is the first to realize that she wants to be congratulated and bursts into applause, the smile on his face genuine but strained around the edges. His eyes, however, are clouded with alarm. His thoughts are not much better; half-formed, frightened notions of watching the center of his universe wither away in front of his eyes stir long-buried aches in my heart and I quickly withdraw from his mind, shifting my gaze to Bella.

The years I have spent reading her expressions afford me an insight into her thoughts that my gift does not, and I can easily decipher the blind panic lurking in the depths of her crimson stare. Nevertheless, she raises her slim hands and begins to clap as well, smiling at our exultant daughter.

I copy her motions; the muscles of my face seem stiff and unwilling as I offer Renesmee a proud grin. Inwardly, my thoughts are churning in a tumultuous mixture of dread for the future, self-flagellation that I have been unable to discover an answer, and grief for the mounting worry that all these unknowns causes my Bella to feel.

That night, we enact the mutual decision to not voice our individual fears, choosing instead to escape to our own private universe for a number of hours. And at dawn, while Bella, Renesmee, and I cross the shadowed clearing in front of the house, the alternative solution that I had been suppressing for weeks is then allowed to surface in my mind.

I hold it within me, silent and fermenting like a poison, as September fades into the colorful backdrop of October – bringing chilled air and longer nights, which Bella and I are inclined to take full advantage of with unending enthusiasm.

During this time, Renesmee continues to mature at a startling rate. Alice and Rosalie commission themselves with the project of creating a baby album for their niece, and change Renesmee in and out of several outfits over the course of one day, snapping pictures all the while. But the excess clothing has more than one function: because of her unusually rapid development, Renesmee outgrows her garments on a daily basis. Sometimes I wonder if my sisters are secretly thrilled with an excuse to plan a dozen shopping trips in a single week.

According to Carlisle's calculations, the percentage of physical growth is gradually slowing, but her mind is far more advanced than an average adult human and perhaps even some vampires. Moreover, as indicated by the recorded numbers, if the rate of decrease remains consistent, Renesmee will be fully mature in approximately four years.

She will reach the end of her life at fifteen years.

And that unspoken option trickles through the grooves in my brain, tainting each thought as it materializes and reminding me of its existence with every passing moment. I resist the urge to speak it aloud until the day after Halloween, when the last small nudge throws me into the uncertain realm of desperate measures.

My father and I are holed up in his study – surrounded by books, wrinkled parchment, computer print-outs and scribbled notes from phone conversations – and the rest of the family is involved in a variety of pastimes in and around the house. Rose and Em are in the garage tinkering with his Jeep. Alice and Jazz went for a drive along the coast in her Porsche, and Esme is in the kitchen writing up a list before she heads to the supermarket in town to restock the fridge for our resident wolf pack.

As for the dogs in question, Jacob was called back to La Push for a meeting with Sam and the others. "Shouldn't be long," he'd said to Bella. "A couple of hours, tops. I'll be back before you put Nessie to bed."

Renesmee seemed a bit out of sorts when Jacob vanished into the trees, so Bella took her upstairs to my old room where they sifted through the mélange of belongings and listened to music until I heard the little girl yawn mightily over the calming strains of Clair de Lune.

Through her eyes, I watch Bella place her on the gold coverlet draped over the wrought-iron bed and retrieve a thin volume of poetry from my bookshelf. She then settles beside Renesmee, propping up the pillows, and begins to read aloud from Tennyson. Her soft, lilting voice tugs inexorably on my attention; I find myself swept away in the flow of the verses, and the manuscript in front of me becomes blurred, unintelligible.

" ‘Now sleeps the crimson petal, now the white; Nor waves the cypress in the palace walk; Nor winks the gold fin in the porphyry font: The firefly wakens: waken thou with me.' "

Renesmee studies her mother's face as she reads, providing an inescapable distraction even more powerful than the sound of her voice.

" ‘Now droops the milkwhite peacock like a ghost, and like a ghost she glimmers on to me.' "

"Edward?"

I blink a few times before focusing on Carlisle, peering down at me with bemused golden eyes. "Yes?" I reply, most of my awareness still riveted by the image of Bella's full lips moving with the rhythm of Tennyson's poem.

" ‘Now lies the Earth all Danae to the stars, and all thy heart lies open unto me.' "

"You seem a bit...distracted, son." Carlisle pats my shoulder lightly. I hardly notice. I think I tell him that everything is fine, but I am not sure.

" ‘Now slides the silent meteor on, and leaves a shining furrow, as thy thoughts in me.' "

"We can stop for tonight," he suggests, a faint smile playing on his mouth. "I must confess that it is all too easy to get discouraged from the lack of information. Perhaps..."

" ‘Now folds the lily all her sweetness up, and slips into the bosom of the lake: So fold thyself, my dearest, thou, and slip into my bosom and be lost in me.' "

Bella then falls silent and I inhale a deep breath, awakening from the spell her voice wove around me – and Renesmee, as well.

Carlisle's last words register in my brain a second later. "Perhaps what?" I ask.

"Perhaps it is time to consider the situation from another perspective." His words are hesitant, and then he adds mentally, his gaze intent on my face, I know that it has crossed your mind already, Edward – I've seen the conflict in your eyes, and Jasper told me last night that he hasn't felt this much emotional discord from you since Bella was changed.

I reply sharply, "You are suggesting that we regard that as an option? You know as well as I that the wolves will never agree to it. Jacob, especially."

Apology is etched on every plane of his features. He continues the discussion with his thoughts only, stating, Jacob, just like the rest of us, wants what is best for Renesmee. If it becomes a necessity to preserve her life by giving her immortality...he will accept it.

Jacob's inward lament from the day Renesmee taught herself to walk abruptly emerges from my memory, filling my head as it did then with his loud, frantic voice: I can't just sit here and watch her die! She's my whole life – she's everything to me! How am I supposed to go on living when she's gone? There has to be a way to stop this, to keep her here, safe and happy. Whatever it is...it'll be worth it.

"Yes." I sigh heavily, lifting a hand to pinch the bridge of my nose with two fingers and squeeze my eyes shut. "If there is no other option, he will accept it for Renesmee's sake." Opening my eyes, I lower my hand and stare hard at my father. He gazes back calmly, though the tenor of his mind is remorseful, waiting for me to finish. "But we will not mention this to him for the time being. There are still other avenues available for us to pursue. We have some time before –" I break off, listening in shock to the dulcet tone chiming like a silver bell from inside my old room.

" ‘There is sweet music here, that softer falls than petals from blown roses on the grass, or night-dews on still waters between walls of shadowy granite, in a gleaming pass –' "

Renesmee. Renesmee is reading Tennyson aloud, her clear eyes following every word on the page in front of her with flawless articulation. And the time that I had just mentioned suddenly becomes all too short.

Bella's white hand trembles visibly as she takes the book from our daughter's hands. "If you read," she asks, the fear barely controlled in her voice and an artificial smile on her face, "how will you fall asleep?"

Renesmee immediately contends with her mother's remark, a picture of Jacob and his promise to return before she went to bed materializing in her mind – but I can no longer pay attention. Carlisle is watching me, his gold eyes burning with significance, and he poses a question mentally.

I nod once. "The arrangements will need to be made soon. I'll take care of it...after I talk to Bella."

In the darkest hours of the night, entwined in each other's arms within the sanctuary of our bedroom, I relay to Bella in a low murmur the need to organize a trip to South America. "Carlisle and I have exhausted all the research we could get our hands on, and we're still nowhere closer to discovering any answers. Perhaps if we follow the legends to their source, we'll be able to piece together the clues hidden inside the myths."

"You're talking about going back to Brazil," Bella states with certainty. Her fingertips trace the arch of my brow, the shape of my nose, and the outline of my lips while we confer. My skin sings under her touch.

"Yes. The Ticunas have the only solid evidence we've come across in regard to children like Renesmee. If indeed others like her ever existed, they could be the reason why the legend was born and passed on through the generations in the first place." I cannot resist stroking the silky softness of her bare arm. My palm glides slowly from her wrist all the way up to her neck, and my hand curls gently, instinctively, around her cheekbone.

She leans forward and brushes a string of feathery kisses down the side of my face. When she comes to the lower edge of my jaw, I tilt my head back, sighing as she continues to leave a trail along my throat with her lips. "When do you want to go?" she breathes against my collarbone.

It takes me a few seconds to remember what we are talking about. "As soon as we can get everything ready," I tell her, my voice husky. The hand framing her cheek moves backwards so that I can weave my fingers into her dark hair, and I smile as she places a kiss over my silent heart, remarking mildly, "Unless you can think of a reason to wait."

To my surprise, Bella sits up, her heavy-lidded gaze suddenly thoughtful. "Actually...I can. I want to have Christmas with Charlie. It'll mean a lot to him, Edward," she includes upon spotting the frown pulling on the corners of my mouth. "After all the crazy stuff he's been through in the last six weeks, I owe him the chance to celebrate Renesmee's first Christmas with us."

"Fair enough. I suppose we can afford to wait a little longer." Grinning, I add, "It will give Alice and Rosalie more time to pack."

She scowls petulantly down at me, ignoring my attempt to pull her closer, and demands, "How come you always used to argue with me over every little decision and now just agree with everything I say?"

"Because..." In a blindingly fast move, I grasp her around the waist, holding her tight to my chest. She gasps a little in surprise, and my body instantly reacts to the feel of her soft curves against the hard lines of my frame. "I have learned to fully appreciate the benefits of submitting to your requests," I inform her throatily, and she smiles in satisfaction right before I crush my mouth to hers, moaning quietly as her fingers tangle themselves in my hair.

Completely surrendered to her embrace, my angel surrounds me, fills me, and carries me with her to the only heaven I will ever want or be granted as the night echoes with the steady beat of rain. I leave behind all thoughts of the future, and for once refuse to dwell on any aspect of Renesmee's well-being or the impending journey to Brazil. Surely this plan, relatively unassuming and straightforward when compared to others, will be implemented in the same manner.

I should have remembered what often befalls the best-laid plans.

One blustery, mid-November day, the entire family – Jacob included – are gathered in one room without experiencing a thick layer of tension hanging above us like the low-lying slate-colored clouds covering the gray sky outside.

Emmett, Renesmee, Bella, and Jasper are engaged in a two-a-side chess match. Emmett is determined to teach his niece to play more aggressively – Renesmee tends to rely on subtlety rather than a show of force in her strategizing, proving yet again that she takes after her father – and Bella wants to gain a better comprehension of the game in order to hold her own against someone with decades of practice at their disposal.

Carlisle and I had abandoned the map of South America we were examining when he received a call from the hospital: a car accident victim with a brain injury was waiting in emergency for transfer to a larger facility in Olympia and started hemorrhaging.

My father hangs up the phone and immediately looks to Alice. She flicks briefly through images of the future, her honey-gold eyes distant, and then refocuses on his expectant face. "You'll get there in time," she announces with certainty. "A tear in one of the pial arteries of the cerebrum is the cause of all the trouble."

He thanks her and heads for the garage, kissing Esme on the forehead as he passes.

"How long will he be gone?" Esme turns to Alice once the quiet thrum of the Mercedes accelerates onto the highway.

Smiling broadly, Alice replies, "You know Carlisle – he can't resist an opportunity to help someone. Once he's done with the brain injury, there will be a broken arm, a split scalp, tonsillitis and a cracked rib."

My mother's expression is torn between shock and deep affection for her husband. "I hope those injuries are related to four different people," she jokes half-heartedly.

"Oh, they are. And they'll all be very grateful that Dr. Cullen was on the job today." She giggles, the sound tinkling like wind chimes, and Esme joins in, proud as always of Carlisle's benevolent nature.

Jacob, listening to the two of them in growing bewilderment, starts to complain internally. The whole thing is totally bizarre. She knows what's killing somebody and tells Carlisle how to fix it. It's...creepy. How do you get used to something like that?

"You don't," I tell him, wearing half a smile. "You just learn to keep an open mind. And a store of patience." I throw a wink in Alice's direction; predictably, she sticks her tongue out, though her eyes sparkle with merriment.

Eager to get back to their game, Emmett claps once and rubs his palms together in anticipation. "Okay, Nessie," he declares, his ocher eyes intent on the chessboard. "Uncle Emmett is about to show you how we're gonna win this thing."

With a confident smirk on his face, he selects the knight closest to Jasper and Bella's king and moves it forward, completing a box formation with a pawn and a bishop. Leaning back in his seat, Emmett crosses his arms over his chest, gloating, "Check."

The rest of us turn to watch as Jasper peers at the board, his expression blank while a strategy begins to take shape inside his head. Interestingly enough, instead of proceeding with his plan of retaliation, my brother looks sideways at Bella, asking her in a low voice, "What do you think, Bella?"

"Me?" She blinks, startled.

Jasper nods once. "Of course. We're a team, after all," he reminds her, grinning faintly, "and you're not going to learn how to play chess if you just sit there and watch." He gestures toward the pieces arranged in front of them, raising his eyebrows – and Emmett, sensing that victory is imminent, chortles to himself.

Bella stares at the board, her forehead creasing as she frowns in concentration, unconsciously leaning forward. In the meantime, Alice flits around the table to stand behind Renesmee, her eyelids flickering as she attempts to see the outcome of the game...but the vision is cloudy because Bella has not yet made a definite decision as to what move she will use.

Then, she hesitantly raises her hand, and everyone waits with bated breath, wondering which piece she will choose. Her fingertips land on the white queen – Jasper's grin widens in satisfaction – and she slides it across the board to Emmett's bishop, removing the piece from play. "Well done," Jasper congratulates. Bella beams at him in response, her ruby-colored eyes aglow.

Scowling, Emmett quickly counterattacks by pushing his rook to the opposite end of the board, stopping just two squares from Bella's queen. A soft gasp escapes from Renesmee, and she clambers into her uncle's lap, placing her small hand on his thick neck with a frantic look on her face. "What?" he growls as she replays the mistake he just made, immediately following with an image of the next logical move their opponents will strike back with, even as Jasper nudges their queen to the side, defeating the rook.

"Oh," Emmett mumbles, abashed. Renesmee sighs almost wearily and returns to her own seat, her lips puckering into a displeased pout.

I remark, chuckling under my breath, "She's only two months old, Em, and even she saw that move coming. Maybe she should be giving you some pointers, because clearly, you've still got a lot to learn."

"Shut it, Edward," Emmett barks irritably, but he nonetheless bends over to whisper to his niece, "You go ahead and take a turn, Nessie."

Needing no further encouragement, Renesmee rearranges their pieces into a more defensive pattern over the next few moves, but Jasper's tactical organization leaves her and Emmett outnumbered on the board. The little girl manages to relieve her mother and uncle of a knight and a rook before the situation becomes totally unsalvageable, and then Rosalie chooses to saunter into the room, pleased with the modifications she just finished making on her BMW's intake manifold.

As Emmett spies his wife, his usual tendency to impress her flares into being, and he stretches his hand over the board, announcing smugly, "I've got this one, kiddo." He picks up their remaining knight and uses it to knock aside a white bishop. "Hmm." He challenges the opposing team with his eyes, daring them to attack. I shake my head, letting out a resigned sigh, and Renesmee rolls her dark eyes as she folds her tiny arms across her body.

Bella and Jasper turn to one another in unison. He jerks his chin very slightly towards the board, indicating that she should do the honors. Emmett's going to go berserk – losing to her again, he comments inwardly, and I nod in agreement, trying in vain to hide my smile.

With a superior expression, Bella guides the white queen to the appropriate space and sets it down with a flourish. "Checkmate," she says triumphantly.

The dumbfounded look on my brother's face is priceless. His mouth gaping open like a fish out of water, he splutters, "Wait a second! That's not checkmate!"

Rosalie sniffs and descends elegantly onto the sofa beside Esme, ignoring her husband's childish protest, while Renesmee pushes herself away from the table and flounces over to Jacob.

He scoops her into his arms, murmuring encouragingly, "You'll beat ‘em next time."

"That's not checkmate!" Emmett shouts again. He appears to be on the verge of another outburst; he felled half a dozen trees after losing the arm-wrestling match with Bella.

"Give it up, Em," Alice chirps. "Jazz and Bella won fair and square, so don't be a sore loser. You're setting a bad example for Nessie," she concludes, a cheerful smirk lighting up her elfin face.

Emmett jerks upright from his chair and spins around, a deafening snarl ripping from his throat, and looms over our petite sister. She simply stares up at him, unafraid. "You were standing behind me," he accuses, a deep growl rumbling beneath his words. "You were helping them cheat, weren't you?" He snarls again, the sound reverberating off the walls and high ceiling.

Bella stiffens, her full lips curling over her teeth, but Jasper touches her arm, sending a wave of calm in her direction. "I did no such thing," Alice retorts, lifting her chin. "And don't snarl at me. Have your little temper tantrum with Rose, if you must. I have no patience for it." Her tone grows hard and ice-cold by the end of her reply, reminding us all that though she may be the smallest vampire in our family, she is still a vampire – and she hates being called a cheat.

Quite suddenly, Jasper detects a surge of amusement from Emmett at the same time that I hear from his thoughts, She is too much fun when she's pissed. He growls again, baring his teeth to hide the grin threatening to show on his face.

Though Alice undoubtedly knows that he is baiting her, she opens her tiny mouth and lets out a vicious, guttural roar; the glass windows tremble from the sheer force behind the noise.

"Children!" Esme warns sharply. "Not in the house."

A moment later, Emmett starts laughing, nearly doubling over. Alice follows suit soon after, their shared mirth harmonizing like a chorus of church bells. "I never get over how funny you look when you snarl," Emmett remarks between chuckles.

Playfully, Alice jumps up on her tiptoes to smack the back of his head, declaring, "You're such a moron, Em."

"I know." Grinning, he reaches out and musses her hair with a meaty hand – and she actually lets him, for about two seconds, before dancing out of the way.

"Well," Alice begins in a teasing voice, putting her hands on her hips, "maybe we should –" She inhales a sudden, quick breath, her topaz gaze nebulous, and I open my mind fully to her thoughts just as the vision coalesces behind her pupils.

Once it fades, my sister and I hold each other's eyes for several moments. She wonders what this could mean and how we should respond; I wonder how it will affect Bella.

Of course, the woman who is always in the forefront of my mind is the first to speak up – recognizing that Alice's vision is a significant one. "What is it?" Bella stands up from her seat next to Jasper and is at my side in less than a second, glancing from me to Alice and back again. "What did you see?"

Alice is the first to answer her favorite sister's questions. "A package is arriving today."

"A package?"

She nods, her tone measured, but her stare watchful on Bella's face. "A wedding gift," she clarifies.

There is a short moment of silence, and then Emmett mutters, "Well, that was sort of anticlimactic."

"From Italy," I insert in a low voice.

The quiet that follows is heavy with stress. Bella whirls sideways, looking up at me with wide scarlet eyes, and I reach out to cradle her pale face in my hands. "It's fine, love, I promise," I murmur reassuringly, stroking my thumbs across her cheeks. "We just have to adjust our travel plans."

"What do you mean?" she whispers, trying to disguise the raw fear in her voice.

At that instant, all of us can make out the deep rumble of a diesel engine slowing on the highway - preparing to turn onto the long drive to the house. Bella stiffens visibly. "It's fine," I say again. I watch the turbulence in her crimson irises calm and then harden into chips of polished ruby, her delicate jaw tightening under my palms.

While we listen to the delivery truck as it bounces and sways through the trees, Bella asks in confusion, "How did they know about the wedding?"

I look over at my sister expectantly. Bella follows my line of sight, and when her gaze connects with Alice's, she replies, "I sent a wedding announcement to Volterra while you and Edward were on your honeymoon. I'd gotten a vision of Caius planning to send a hunting party" – she bares her teeth in disgust – "to verify whether or not you were still human." She crosses her arms lightly over her chest and raises her pointed chin into the air, her elfin features somehow menacing as her lips form a grim smile. "Then I saw that sending the announcement would delay their arrival. They spent days trying to make sense of the entire situation – it was actually quite funny."

The truck slows to a stop on the edge of the lawn, and the engine is cut. The driver's mind is weary from hours of making deliveries, but still registers awe at the sight of the massive white residence looming behind the thick branches of the ancient cedars.

Footsteps march up the steps to the front door a minute or so later, and then a brisk trio of knocks fills the lingering silence. Offering Bella a faint crooked grin, I walk across the room towards the door and pull it open with a curious expression – as any human would. "May I help you?" I inquire politely.

Holy... The driver studies my face, his awe increasing exponentially, and wonders if this is the vacation home of a professional model or small-bit actor. I barely contain the desire to roll my eyes at the man's simplistic notions. "I, uh –" He looks down at the clipboard resting atop the sizeable rectangular box in his hands. "I got a package here for Edward and Bella Cullen."

"I'm Edward."

He gives me the box after removing his clipboard from the top, and then holds out an electronic device with a small LED screen. "Signature required," he explains.

I smile, careful not to show my teeth. "Of course." Tucking the box easily under one arm, I pluck the pen from his outstretched hand and sign neatly on the line shown on the screen. "Is that all you need?"

"Yes, sir. You have a nice Thanksgiving." He spins on heel and trots off to his truck, abruptly anxious to remove himself from my presence.

I close the door and carry the package into the dining room – Bella is right behind me, and the others follow as well – and set it on the mahogany table.

We all study the seemingly inoffensive brown box with wary eyes for an indeterminate amount of time, hardly noticing as the back door opens and shuts very softly. What did I miss? Carlisle asks cautiously, folding his coat over an arm while he walks into the room, finding a place beside Esme.

An elegant, gold-embossed envelope is taped on top of the brown paper, addressed to Mr. and Mrs. Edward Cullen in handwritten Old World calligraphy.

Aro's writing, my father observes in subdued realization. I nod absently and peel the envelope from the package, flicking open the blood-red wax seal with one finger.

Bella sniffs at the thin wisp of air caused by the motion, her brow furrowing. "It smells like..." She struggles to put a name to the unique aroma drenching the paper in my hand, and I turn to see her expression just as her eyes light up with recognition. "Incense."

She leans in, linking her arm through mine and resting her cheek against my shoulder as I pull a square of heavy white paper from the envelope.

I read aloud the congratulatory note in a low, even voice. It is formal and effusive – yet somehow Aro manages to convey his words as though we are all old and dear friends. After zealously wishing many happy returns to the newlyweds, he offers a brief endearment to Carlisle...and then cleverly inserts a thinly veiled threat in the parting line: "I so look forward to seeing the new Mrs. Cullen in person."

The hint of a growl accentuates that statement as I say it, and Bella presses herself closer, wordlessly soothing my volatile temper as only she can.

I drop the note onto the tabletop and glance around the room, listening to the thoughts that penetrate the otherwise hushed atmosphere.

Renesmee is curious about what is inside the box, but also concerned for her Momma and Daddy, whom she can tell are upset. Bella apparently blessed our daughter with her own unusually sensitive perception.

Jacob despises the Volturi with a passion – which he is clearly demonstrating by the venomous thoughts permeating his mind. He visualizes them as the embodiment of the foe he was born to defend against.

He is absolutely correct in that assessment.

Uneasy, Jacob sweeps Renesmee into his arms, and both of them watch the unfolding scene with keen dark eyes.

Directly across the table from me, Carlisle maintains his aura of serenity, though he is well aware – as am I – that if Bella does not make an appearance at the Volturi stronghold soon, they will come to us.
At his side, Esme radiates motherly concern for our family as a whole and a fierce protectiveness towards her newest daughter.

Opposite Esme at my father's immediate left, Rosalie is tensed like a coiled spring, her mind whirling in a tumultuous storm of resolve and agitation. More than anything, Rose seeks to preserve the secrecy of our way of life, and she intensely dislikes any person or circumstance that could endanger that secret.
Her thoughts, as per usual, also touch on Renesmee – and what action the Volturi may take if they learn of her existence.

Filling the gap between Rosalie and myself, Emmett crosses his arms over his massive chest, looking unintentionally intimidating, but his mind is relaxed. Seldom does my brother find himself in a situation where his customary laid-back demeanor is broken by unease.

Jasper is taking mental note of the emotions saturating the room while projecting a minimal layer of calm to balance out the irregular spikes of anxiety occurring in tandem with some errant thoughts.

Next to him and on Bella's right, Alice stands on her tiptoes to peer at the postage labels on the box, remarking in an unsurprised manner that the cost of insuring such a gift must have been astronomical.

Aloud, she comments nonchalantly, "You may as well open it up, Bella. It's for you, not Edward."

I can tell she is about to decline, so I bend down to murmur quietly into her ear, "We can't send it back, love."

Her lovely face crinkles up with a martyred expression and she heaves a sigh, yanking the package closer. A quick rip and tear later, Bella unfolds the flaps of the box and gingerly puts her hands into the mound of white packing peanuts. Unconsciously, everyone leans forward as she lifts out an ancient wooden coffer with ornate scrollwork and adorned with gold filigree. The domed lid is inlaid with lustrous fragments of mother-of-pearl, and gemstones of every color sparkle along the lower rim. It is truly a beautiful, albeit opulent, work of art.

"Holy crow," Bella breathes in scarcely a whisper. A kind of horrified amazement molds her delicate features, and she sets the wooden box on the table with overdone caution – like she is afraid that she might damage it.

Pretty. Renesmee touches Jacob's face with her tiny hand, thinking about the chest and the way all the colors glitter in the yellow-white glow from the chandelier overhead.

He snorts quietly and mutters, "If you say so, Nessie." I think Bella should just throw it out. She doesn't need to keep anything from those monsters.

I could not agree with him more, but the fact that Aro would send a gift at all is significant. He was intrigued by Bella's extraordinary ability to block her mind from my talent – as well as Jane's and his own when they met in Italy last spring. There is always an ulterior motive where the Volturi are concerned, but as to what that motive may be, I am at a loss.

Alice pipes up, "The box itself is a priceless treasure." A brief flash of the carved wood smoldering in blue-green flames crosses her vision. We can always donate it to the Seattle Art Museum rather than destroy it, she suggests to me, her thoughts a bit reproving. She goes on to comment, "It would outshine just about any piece of jewelry besides the one inside it."

Bella whips her head to the side and gawks, wide-eyed, at her best friend. "There's more?" she exclaims in shock.

I fit my palm into the curve at the small of her back, hoping to chase away the apprehension that is causing her slender body to turn to frozen stone with my touch, and reply, "Wealth, like time, means little to the Volturi. No matter what is inside this box, just remember that to Aro it is nothing more than a trinket."

She measures my calm expression for half a second, her mouth twisting into a grimace, and then states in a resigned tone, "I'm not going to like it, am I?"

I grin broadly at her. "Not at all." She sighs, and I run my fingers gently up and down her spine. "Just remember what I told you," I murmur the reminder in her ear.

Looking on in silence, my family and I watch Bella unhook the gold clasp on the front of the chest, suck in a deep breath to brace herself, and slowly open the lid.

Cushioned on a pillow of black velvet is a necklace made of burnished gold. The chain is thick and scaled like the sleek hide of a snake, and it seems to be fairly short; when worn, it probably coils neatly around the base of the throat. Its only adornment is a round white diamond about the size of a golf ball - which is easily worth as much, if not more, than any of the famous gems on record.

Bella makes no move to touch the necklace, even though it technically belongs to her now, and gazes down at the extravagant gift with a strangely blank look in her crimson eyes. Carlisle examines the piece of jewelry with a knowledgeable stare, mentioning to the room in general, "I always wondered where the crown jewels disappeared to after John of England pawned them in the thirteenth century." He shakes his head. "I suppose it doesn't surprise me that the Volturi have their share."

Straightening up, Bella lifts her chin fractionally and meets my father's eyes. "The Volturi need to see that we followed their orders, that I'm immortal, and they need to see this soon. I do not want them anywhere near Forks." Her gaze darts in my direction fleetingly. I am suddenly and vividly reminded of another meeting around this very table; Bella wore the same exact stubbornly defiant expression on her heart-shaped face then as now, and her words from that time echo within my head. "I can't have them coming here."

An uncomfortable knot begins to form in the pit of my stomach as I recall her statement in its entirety.
I sincerely hope that her line of thinking is not parallel to the absurdity she made known that night, because I will not stand for it.

After nearly a century of practice in reading my face, Carlisle advises mentally, Let her speak, Edward. She is very intelligent, and she may see a solution that eludes the rest of us. Aloud, he inquires, "What do you recommend, Bella?"

She inhales an unnecessary, deep breath. It does not escape my notice that she will not look at me. "There is only one way to keep our life here safe," she says in a firm, ringing voice. "I have to go to Italy."

Immediately, I grasp the meaning behind her words. Part of me wishes I did not. Still, I want to hear her say it out loud, and I want everyone else to understand precisely what she is intending to do. "When you say, ‘I have to go'..." I prompt in a tense whisper.

"I mean that I will go to Italy." Bella finally turns to look at me – her bright eyes soft, yet resolute. "Alone."

That one word ignites an explosion of rage, fear, and conflict in the core of being, its shockwaves reverberating within every cell of my body and fueling the instinctive need to keep the focal point of my world safe. My hands curl into fists as I fight to maintain a tenuous hold on my temper. I stare into the angelic face of my wife, my mate, the one thing I cannot live without, and insist through my clenched teeth, "You are not going alone." Abstractedly, I observe with a vague sense of pride that I had been able to talk without snarling like a beast, though it is impossible to deny the growl that is swelling inside my chest. I swallow once to stifle it.

"They won't hurt me," Bella contends, her tone placating. She lays one hand over my unbeating heart, and my muscles start to betray me – instantly relaxing from the tension under her caress. "They have no reason to. I'm a vampire. Case closed."

I want so much to believe her, to trust in her naïve logic...but the risk of losing her – forever – is too great. I will not survive that kind of pain again. "No." The growl rises in my throat, vibrating through the air as I shake my head vehemently. "Absolutely no."

Her hand travels upward to press against my cheek, and I unwittingly surrender my anger to the soothing gesture. "Edward," she murmurs tenderly, still attempting to console me even though we both know that she has already won this argument, "it's the only way to protect her."

In unison, our gazes unlock and shift to Renesmee, whose tiny form is tucked securely in Jacob's arms.

Bella is right, of course. We cannot let the Volturi find out about Renesmee. Aro is a collector of exceptionally gifted vampires; he has perfected the art of scouring the globe for talented individuals to recruit, and surrounds himself with only those who have proven to hold unusual power.

It is part of the reason why he has become so interested in the inner workings of our family. We are the largest coven in the world aside from the Volturi, and their opinion of us is shifting from bemused curiosity to vigilant caution – from oddity to threat.

Aro craves the omniscience that Alice's gift and mine could bring him if we were to join his coven, and though he managed to conceal the thoughts well from me when we last met, I learned of his jealousy of Carlisle. Discovering that his perceived rival has also included a vampire/human hybrid – a truly rare and exceptional commodity – among his family could very well likely push Aro towards open confrontation.

Bella's reasoning is infallible. She is the only one whose thoughts are unknowable to Aro because of her uniquely shielded mind. Her presence in Volterra will affirm our obedience to their edict that she be made a vampire, and Aro will be unable to discern any information about Renesmee from her mind.

I release a quiet breath in resignation. Peering deeply into my eyes, Bella waits patiently for me to accept defeat, a faint gleam of solemn triumph in her scarlet irises. "Alice." I address my sister without looking away from my wife. "Can you see any problems with Bella's trip to Italy?"

Alice concentrates for a few minutes, her eyelids falling half-closed as a jumbled haze of images fills her mind. Together, we wait for the vision to sharpen...but it remains indistinct. Edward, I'm worried, she blurts out internally, and her disquiet serves to escalate my own anxiety, my basest instincts of self-preservation screaming for me to avoid this potential danger at all costs.

My imagination conjures an image of Bella enclosed on all sides by ancient stone walls and crouching defensively within the ominous shadow of Felix, a member of the Volturi guard who had wanted her as a snack when she last set foot in Volterra.

Bella must feel the tension reenter my body, for she narrows her eyes intently as she studies my expression before moving closer and placing her other hand on my chest. The desire to envelop her small frame in my arms causes them to ache, but I suppress my longing for the moment; if I take hold of her now, I may never find the strength to let her go.

Circling around Bella so that she is able to see both of us face to face, Alice begins to explain what she and I witnessed through her mind. "My visions are...unclear," she admits, the stress evident in her tone of voice. "Everything is all blurry – and it's got me worried."

"Why are they blurry?" Bella asks, confused. "Is it like what was happening before, with the visions of the newborns?"

Both Alice and I shake our heads simultaneously. She answers with certainty, "No, that was different. Those visions were hard for me to see because of deliberate interference. This time..." A frown darkens her pixie-like features. "Sometimes my visions are similarly hazy when there are outside decisions that might conflict but are not solidly resolved." She shudders delicately, and her smooth white brow puckers in concern. "It makes the whole situation very iffy."

"Which makes me question the reliability of this plan," I interject fiercely. My fists are so tightly clenched that the skin over my knuckles is leeched of all color.

"Do you have a better idea?" Bella challenges.

"I'll come with you." The impulsive offer flies out of my mouth. Before she can contradict me, I clamp a hand around her wrist and drag her over to one of the computer desks. "I know that I can't come with you to Volterra. But that doesn't mean that you have to make the whole trip alone." Using my free hand, I call up the appropriate information and then jab a finger at the screen, declaring, "There's a connecting flight from London to Florence. I can wait for you there. If anything should happen, Alice will tell me and I'll be able to get to you in a few hours." I stare at her, exultant, as she glances briefly at the screen and then turns to me.

Bella twists her wrist subtly, freeing herself from my grasp – then she weaves her slender fingers through mine and squeezes my hand gently. The expression on her face is difficult for me to interpret; sympathy, love, anger, determination, and dread all manifest fleetingly across her pale features.

Wishing desperately for her to agree, I can almost feel my heart sink with grief when I notice the sad refusal taking shape in the depths of her bright eyes. "Edward." I want to close my eyes to shield myself from the soft pleading in her musical voice as she says my name, but I cannot find the will to escape from the relentless pull of her warm gaze. "We can't both leave Renesmee. Please, stay here with her." A ghost of a smile crosses her full lips. "I'll be back so soon you won't have time to miss me." She uses my own words as a means of persuasion, and my mouth twitches in response. "Please?" she presses.

My arms wind around her back and pull her towards my body. Burying my face in her dark hair, I murmur in defeat, "You know that I can't say no when you plead with me."

"Thank you."

"But..." I nearly choke on the words as they leave my mouth. "If something happens to you..."

Bella wraps her tiny arms around my waist. "Nothing is going to happen," she proclaims firmly.

If I may, my father thinks, politely interrupting our conversation. I raise my head and look towards the dining room entrance; Bella follows my line of sight. Once he has our full attention, Carlisle says in a diplomatic manner, "Perhaps we can reach a compromise. Bella, would it be all right if I accompany you to London? That way, someone will be close enough to intercede should you need help. I know such an arrangement would make me feel more at ease," he adds with a smile, and Bella grins back, a flicker of relief softening the tense lines around her eyes. She nods in consent, and the plan is set in motion.

Alice, more worried about the ambiguity of her visions than she lets on, persists in scanning the future for the next three weeks. Her frustration grows when everything that clears from the haze is unrelated to Bella's visit to Italy. A vision of a new trend in the stock market is of little interest – but the possibility of Irina coming to reconcile with us sparks curiosity in everyone's thoughts. A fierce winter storm will cover the Pacific Northwest with a thick blanket of snow in six weeks, and Bella's mother Renée will call around Christmas, wanting an update on her daughter's health since she believes that Bella is still recovering from an obscure virus.

Renesmee turns three months old in early December, and the following day I purchase tickets for Bella and Carlisle's trip. She is adamant that the journey will be very short and has no intention of informing Charlie, which is probably a wise decision.

Jacob is still reeling from the fact that I am allowing Bella to go to Italy at all, and lets her know frequently that she is ‘being stupid about it' and that he would stop her from going if he could.

He also argues with me on an almost daily basis in regard to Brazil. Today, Renesmee, whose thirst is demanding that she go on a hunt, mercifully interrupts his rant. The little girl appears to look about two years old physically, though the shape of her small body is leaner and more elegant than that of a human toddler, and she continues to astound us all with her level of intelligence. She has a very clear understanding of right and wrong and our way of life, but she has less of an inclination towards animal blood than the rest of our family and would prefer to live on donated blood, which is infinitely more appetizing.

In a stroke of genius, Jacob created a game out of hunting animals for he and Renesmee – challenging her with getting the first kill, the largest, the most, and so forth. And thus far it has worked superbly.

The pair of them race out the back door – Jacob already goading Renesmee that he will catch the first deer – and I let out a sigh of relief. With him suitably distracted for a few hours, Carlisle and I can hammer out some details about calling on old friends of his who reside deep in the Amazon.

A flicker of movement at the edge of my vision claims my attention, and I glance up as Bella heads toward the doorway. "I'm going with Jake and Renesmee," she calls lightly over her shoulder.

Smiling, I reply, "Hurry back to me."

She returns my grin. "Always," she finishes our new standard of farewell, and streaks off into the forest as snowflakes begin to swirl through the crisp air.

It seems like only minutes have passed since they left when my phone suddenly buzzes in my pocket. Even without Alice's gasp and silent exclamation, I know immediately who is calling. The phone is snapped open and at my ear before the first ring has ended. "Bella."

She trills so quickly that her words flow in a ceaseless, anxious stream, "Come, bring Carlisle. I saw Irina, and she saw me, but then she saw Jacob and she got mad and ran away, I think. She hasn't shown up here – yet, anyway – but she looked pretty upset so maybe she will. If she doesn't, you and Carlisle have to go after her and talk to her. I feel so bad."

I hear a low rumble in the background. Through their mental bond, Jacob tells Seth and Leah to come with Carlisle and I to his location; he is worried for Renesmee.

"We'll be there in half a minute," I tell Bella while standing, Carlisle rising to his feet a half-second later, and race outside as I hang up the phone.

It is a simple task to pick out Bella's sweet floral scent and follow it into the wilderness. Seth greets me as he and his sister trail behind Carlisle. As promised, I arrive at my wife's side in thirty seconds – my father bursts into the narrow meadow shortly after. Renesmee is tucked securely in her mother's arms, her quick eyes studying each of us intently. Bella lifts a hand to point at a jagged cliff on the horizon. "She was up on that ridge," she informs us, and then chews on her bottom lip for a brief moment before remarking, "Maybe you should call Emmett and Jasper and have them come with you. She looked...really upset. She growled at me," Bella concludes almost sadly.

A snarl twists my mouth in response. "What?" The anger is thick in my voice, and I have the sudden need to find Irina and make a few things quite clear. My cousin made a poor choice in selecting Laurent as a mate. While I am sorry that his demise caused her pain, he deserved no less for threatening my Bella. If the wolves had not stepped in that day... I cut off that line of thought abruptly. Bella is safe, she will be with me forever, and I need to focus on the present moment.

I lean forward on the balls of my feet, preparing to make for the cliff and track Irina's scent.

The hand on my arm stops me from launching into the trees. "She's grieving," Carlisle reminds me. "I'll go after her."

My head whips to the side and I fix him with a hard stare. "I'm coming with you," I assert, controlling my tone so that it is low and even.

He holds my eyes for a long minute. I know you are upset with Irina, but this rift between our family and Tanya's needs to be repaired. When we do speak to her, I could use your help with understanding her reasons for coming here in the first place – but only if you can curb your irritation. He scrutinizes my expression once more, and finally nods in agreement.

We race towards the cliff, scaling it swiftly, and find traces of Irina's scent near the top. It plunges down the far side and then veers off to the southeast – heading for the sound. I push myself faster, leaving Carlisle to catch up, determined to stop her before she crosses the water.

But there is no sign of her on the icy bank. I open my mind and expand my awareness as much as I can, listening intently for her familiar consciousness, but I do not hear her at all.

It is a vain hope, but my father and I dive into the sound and swim to the eastern shore. Maybe we can pick up the trail again. We investigate every tree and leafy fern for miles in either direction for a hint of her scent, to no avail. Irina is gone.

Once back at the house, Carlisle places a call to Alaska and speaks to Tanya. Neither she nor Kate have seen their sister since they came to the wedding and do not understand why Irina would not come home after traveling so near to Denali.

"It's my fault," Bella mumbles after Carlisle says goodbye to Tanya and hangs up the phone. "Alice said she would come to patch things up with all of you and I ruined it."

"No, love." I wrap a comforting arm around her shoulders. "This is not your fault."

"If I had noticed her earlier, before Jacob phased –"

"It wouldn't have made a difference," I interrupt her gently, but resolutely. "Irina would still have overreacted when she saw the wolves and run away." Looking over at Alice, who is sitting cross-legged on the sofa, I ask, "Can you see anything? Where she might be going?"

Alice presses two fingers on either side of her head, closing her eyes in order to hone her focus. "I don't even think she knows yet," she mutters under her breath. Flashes of snow-covered mountains and green-black fir trees float through her head. "But she's not going back to Denali – I can tell that much."

Though I, and the others, think of Irina occasionally as the days continue on, her unexpected visit becomes a less important issue. Bella will soon depart for Italy along with Carlisle, and once they return, we would all be making the journey to South America. That immediate future is far more significant than the aimless wanderings of one grieving vampire. Irina's choices can no longer have any major impact on our family. What is most important now is assuring the Volturi of our compliance to their authority and discovering the answers to our questions about Renesmee. That is the future that matters.