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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:


9. The Future

Rating 5/5   Word Count 8571   Review this Chapter

Nothing is more important than family.

That principle is one of the few things I can recall from my human life – and from the moment I opened my eyes as a vampire, the concept became a foundational pillar in my timeless existence.

We Cullens are unique to the world of immortals in far more than just our choice of sustenance. Unlike the nomads, who often remain solitary or pair up if it is convenient, all of us have formed bonds with one another that differ from the bond we share with our mates. Like a communal entity, we have learned to think not only of ourselves but also for each other, and for our group as a whole.

Although I love my parents dearly, would protect my sisters against all odds and die for either of my brothers, I have discovered from past experience that I can go on – at least for a little while – without their constant presence and care in my life.

I have also come to realize what, or rather who, I cannot go on without.

It is a bit strange to me how the core of my existence, though it is still completely filled by Bella, has also expanded to include Renesmee. At one point I had practically begged my wife to let Carlisle cut our baby from her womb because I was convinced that it would kill her. I had nearly been right, of course, but looking back...how could I have ever considered such a horrific act?

The primary thought that comes to mind now when I think of my daughter is ‘protect'. That instinct has grown by leaps and bounds since I fell in love with Bella, and now Renesmee's presence has caused it to become almost feral. Though I would give myself to the flames for my family, there is no limit to what I would do to ensure the safety of my angel and our little miracle. And that thought is more disconcerting to me than I care to admit.

On this night, as I consult with my father once again in regard to the journey to South America, I am glad that my mind can collect so much information and remain observant all at the same time. Details swim through nearly every stream of thought in my brain, mixing with tendrils of worry for Bella and her visit to Volterra in just a few days, as well as a dark trickle of fear that the answers we need are nowhere to be found – in Brazil or any place on earth.

Yet in spite of all these facts, concerns, and aspirations swirling within my skull, other parts of my awareness are focused on what is happening around me as Carlisle and I plot out on a map our route across the rainforests of the Amazon.

My brothers, unsurprisingly, are discussing the hunting opportunities offered by the jungle.

"Some of the most fearsome predators are said to live in the rainforest," Jasper tells Emmett in a deep, excited voice. "It will definitely be more of a challenge to hunt a jaguar than a grizzly or mountain lion."

"I don't know if some cat will top an angry grizzly right out of hibernation, Jazz," Emmett remarks doubtfully. "With Edward on our side, it probably won't even take that long to track one down." The kid's got like a sixth sense when it comes to finding one of those lions. Something about the smell of their blood... too thin, if you ask me... He begins to think about the hot thickness that rage injects into a bear's blood and quickly shifts his attention when his mouth floods with venom. "What about an anaconda? Now that could be fun."

Jasper seems to be fighting the urge to roll his eyes. "An anaconda is a reptile, Em," he says with a hint of condescension. "Cold-blooded, remember?"

I know that, Emmett retorts mentally, and then aloud as well. "I know that. I was thinking it might be fun to wrestle with one. Wasn't that in a movie or something?"

Esme and Rosalie are engrossed in a conversation about what to bring. "We'll finally get some use out of those hiking packs we purchased from Newton's Outfitters," my mother comments, her soft-featured face illuminated by a smile. "They should have more than enough space for what we need."

"What about Nessie?" Rosalie asks. "None of us are sure yet if the humidity will affect her like it does humans. She'll need different clothes."

Esme looks pointedly at the statuesque blonde. "She has no trouble with the cold. But we will need to keep up appearances nonetheless." Her topaz eyes look aside thoughtfully. "Hmm... a half-dozen outfits each should suffice, and we can always stop in Brasilia or La Paz if we need to restock."

Rosalie sputters, "Do you honestly think six outfits will be enough?" She seems horrified by the thought of wearing the same clothing for more than twenty-four hours.

"It's a hiking expedition through the Amazon, Rose, not a photo shoot for Ralph Lauren," Esme reminds her gently, referring to a key part of our cover story should we be approached by any locals.

Rosalie huffs in annoyance, and turns her thoughts to her favorite outlet for venting her displeasure. I don't know why the mutt has to come with us – we are perfectly capable of doing this without him...

In reality, Jacob has become an essential member of our group. After listening to his arguments for days on end and then Bella's siding with him at our last family gathering, my father and I agreed that he could be useful. When – I refuse to think if – we make contact with the Ticunas, it is highly unlikely that any of them will speak to a vampire. Jacob will act as a liaison between the tribes and us; Carlisle is hoping that the visible proof of a human coexisting with our kind will convince the indigenous people that we are peaceable.

At the moment, Jacob is down at La Push with Sam and the others, preparing for his absence. Forks and the Quileute reservation will probably be safer than they have been for some time when we leave, but the wolves' compulsion to defend their land makes it impossible for them to not plan out contingencies should some danger arise while Jacob is away. The two packs have come to rely on him more than he knows.

Alice flits about the cavernous room very slowly, busying herself with adjusting the deep red bows tied to the evergreen garland looped along the banister of the staircase. Her mind, however, drifts in and out of the future as she continues to search her visions for what we can expect in South America.

I focus on her line of thought briefly, and am assaulted by such a deluge of images flashing before me like lightning that I quickly disconnect from her mind, wondering once again how my sister manages to keep her center in the midst of all that chaos.

The last and most important part of my awareness rests unwaveringly on my two reasons to continue to exist. Renesmee is lying fast asleep on the pale sofa, her bronze ringlets spread out in a tangled mass around her head, and Bella looks down at her from her place behind the sofa, her expression pensive.

The raging curiosity erupts, pleading for me to ask the ever-present question – until a sudden, forceful fragment of thought pushes itself into my brain. An image shimmers into view like a mirage: a willowy figure standing upon a rocky cleft overlooking a rolling countryside glazed by a silvery layer of frost, pale blonde hair swirling around in gusts of snow-filled air.

Where is she? What is she doing? An anxious, shrill voice narrates the vision. I can only see that much and then it just – disappears. I don't understand... is it her indecision that is causing the future to be so uncertain?

Jasper abruptly turns from Emmett and levels a calm topaz stare at his wife as she rearranges the vases decorating a large mahogany console in front of the windows and frets internally over our missing cousin. "Let it go, Alice," he commands softly. "She's not our concern." Then like a warm breeze, a wave of tranquility floats throughout the room, stealing away Alice's worry for Irina and smoothing the faint lines marring Bella's forehead as she looks up.

A bit peeved with her husband, Alice sticks her tongue out at Jasper before taking one of the crystal vases and carrying it towards the kitchen, distracting herself with the intent of removing some of the roses from the bouquet that are barely starting to wilt.

Bella looks back down at our slumbering daughter, no longer pensive but adoring, and Alice's brisk, light steps echo faintly in the background. Carlisle resumes his extrapolation of where we might find his friends in the Amazon, and I listen while watching Bella, appreciating the way the overhead light casts a rich brown luster on her dark hair.

Then the air is whistling across the facets of polished crystal. I see Bella's scarlet eyes flick upward just as mine swing over to the source of the sound. In a split second, the vase plummets from Alice's hands, shattering into thousands of glittering shards that litter the floor like confetti at her feet. Long-stemmed red and white roses and a pool of water lay strewn among the broken crystal – and in that one infinitesimal slice of time there is absolute silence in the house and in my head.

Staring hard at my petite sister's motionless back, I struggle to ignore the sudden explosion of thought flooding into my brain and concentrate on Alice.

A piercing mental scream of anguish, terror, and shock plunges through my skull like a knife, disrupting every other voice reverberating in my head, and the sensation is so painful that I reel backwards a half step.

Alice spins around to face into the room. Her golden eyes are clouded, her focus hovering somewhere between the present and the future, and are so large that they consume her thin, ashen face.

I fall into her eyes while her screams continue unabated and lock onto her familiar mind.

First there is darkness – utter blackness – and then the vision flares into life.

Ice-coated stone silhouetted against a colorless sky.

A blanket of snow, white and silent, on the ground.

The whisper of velvet brushing against frosted pine needles.

A tree line looms ahead...and then the shadows undulate, forming shapes – cloaked figures that ghost across the snowy clearing, menacing and foreboding.

A noise rips itself from my mouth – a gasp that chokes the air from my lungs and breaks in my throat just like the shattered crystal on the floor.

"What?" someone growls, the wind of their passage rushing past me. Glass shards are crushed into a fine powder under swift, powerful footsteps, and then a strange rattling sound accompanies another fierce demand in the same voice. My brother, I recognize in some far corner of my mind. Jasper. "What, Alice?"

There is more sound, the stagnant air in the room shifting around me with movement, but I no longer notice.

The vision continues, relentless and devastating.

Faces appear from within the shadows.

An angelic girl with eyes that promise agony. The ominously handsome face of an executioner. A hard smile and a pitiless ruby gaze framed by a curtain of silvery hair. The impassive stare of one who is eternally devoid of emotion.

And the sad, remorseful expression opposed by filmy burgundy eyes filled with grim satisfaction.

The dark hooded figures enclose the white clearing like a contracting noose.

There is no escape.

There are only red eyes, and shadows, and snow.

And death.

Alice and I are finally released from the waking nightmare. The logical side of my brain comprehends that I am still standing in the exact same position as before, staring across the room and into the frozen face of my sister... but in the tainted fringes of my mind, the vision lingers – haunting and excruciating as it flickers randomly behind my pupils.

Jasper has his hands wrapped tightly around his wife's narrow shoulders. He shakes her, her head flopping from side to side limply like a rag doll, but her eyes do not leave mine. "What is it?" he demands again. My brother wears the hard-edged frown of the soldier he once was, though he cannot totally suppress the panic that is beginning to thread its way into his thoughts.

It is as if my sister and I are a single entity, linked not only by my gift but also through the terrifying foresight we have just witnessed. Her lips, so drained of all color that they seem to disappear into the white circle of her face, part slightly – and I feel my mouth mirror the movement, forming the words that pervade her numbed mind as well as mine.

"They're coming for us." Our joint whisper is dead, hollow...the beckoning pall of the grave. "All of them."

"All of them," I repeat in a low moan. A humming noise begins to filter through the numbness inside my head – the thoughts of my family – yet I have neither the will nor the desire to bring their concerns into sharper focus.

"The Volturi," Alice whimpers at the same time. She mumbles hoarsely a second later, "Why?" Her breath falters as she holds back a cry of grief. "How?"

"When?" I choke out, fighting in vain to surface from the terrible emptiness that is siphoning away every emotion within my being. Struggling to catch my breath, I realize that I have not felt this hollow since those hellish twenty-four hours I endured while believing that my Bella was dead.

Bella.

Panicked, my eyes automatically dart to the side and verify that she is still here – a frozen statue beside the sofa upon which our daughter sleeps, unaware of the horrifying fate that looms on the horizon. I cannot bring myself to look at her face and see the same desolation in her eyes that is even now draining all vitality from my own spirit. I will not be able to survive it. She needs me to be strong...and I cannot give her that strength at the moment, for it is barely enough to keep my knees from buckling.

My mother clings to Carlisle's arm as though she too is on the verge of collapse. In a frantic whisper, she breathes, "Why?"

Jasper's violent, ice-cold outburst slashes through the quiet like a blade. "When?" he hisses.

Inwardly, Alice cringes away from the vision, but she nevertheless delves into the future to seek the answer to his question. I remain connected to her mind; another set of eyes will aid us in our search, and in some odd way, accompanying her again through the nightmare makes me feel as though I am – if not protecting her – then at least offering support by not allowing her to experience it alone.

The black-robed figures emerge from the shadowed forest once again, but this time Alice concentrates on the environment, picturing the landscape of Forks and the Olympic Mountain range in order to discover any clues as to when this future will arrive.

"Not long," we reply in unison.

Alice goes on in a lifeless murmur, her ocher eyes remote, "There's snow on the forest, snow on the town. Little more than a month." A bleak groan signals the end of her response.

"Why?" Carlisle asks, imploring for one of us to give him a motive that would explain this madness.

Esme tries desperately to unearth some shred of hope. "They must have a reason," she says, her voice trembling. "Maybe to see..."

"This isn't about Bella," Alice interrupts dully. The vacant stare has left her elfin features, though she seems incapable of staying completely grounded in the present. This vision refuses to release her as no other has in the past. Jasper senses her despair and it pains him – he is already wavering beneath the crushing weight of desolation pressing down on the entire room – so he tucks her tiny frame into his side, his arm wrapped securely around her slender figure. She leans against him heavily, like she wishes to vanish inside of his body, and reveals, "They're all coming – Aro, Caius, Marcus, every member of the guard, even the wives."

Impossible. Jasper refutes her words in his mind even as he contends aloud, "The wives never leave the tower. Never. Not during the southern rebellion. Not when the Romanians tried to overthrow them. Not even when they were hunting the immortal children. Never," he concludes firmly.

I whisper a reply when Alice gives no answer, nor any outward sign that she is even listening to Jasper. "They're coming now."

"But why?" my father pleads, anger with his old compatriots and desperation for understanding at war with one another in his mind. "We've done nothing! And if we had, what could we possibly do that would bring this down on us?" I do not agree with most of their methods, but I have always treated the brothers with the utmost respect – and so have my children! What possible logic is responsible for this insanity? What purpose is behind this...attack...on our family?

"There are so many of us. They must want to make sure that..." My voice fails. I will not speak the rest of that thought out loud, though the darker side of my nature snarls maliciously inside my head: that they kill us all.

A sudden ache stabs into my muscles, and the craving to feel Bella in my arms, to hold Renesmee against my chest, is nearly overwhelming. I want to hide them from that terrible future – carry them to the very ends of the earth, or use my own body to shield them from those merciless red eyes. Yet I remain rooted in place on the hardwood floor. I must be strong. For her, for both of them.

"That doesn't answer the crucial question!" Carlisle is practically shouting at this point. He hardly ever raises his voice; he is just as on edge as the rest of us. "Why?" he asks for the third time. Please, son, he beseeches me mentally, tell me what you and Alice saw so that we can face this together – all of us!

Jasper gently squeezes Alice, stroking his palm along her upper arm in a soothing gesture. "Go back, Alice. Look for the trigger. Search," he tells her, the stress in his tone causing the twang of a southern accent to emerge in his words.

I can't... She shakes her head in denial, seeming to shrink into herself, and presses closer to Jasper. "It came out of nowhere, Jazz. I wasn't looking for them, or even for us. I was just looking for Irina," she confesses, glancing up at him guiltily. "She wasn't where I expected her to be..." She trails off, hazy images quivering into existence within her mind.

The vision of Irina on the hillside returns while Alice mutters to herself that the terrain is somehow familiar to her... And then the lithe silver-blonde vampire is standing in the ancient stone turret of Volterra, lifting a hand timidly to Aro, his expression speculative.

That's the trigger, Alice snarls. Her bent head snaps upright, and her eyes are hard as steel, cold as death. Irina gives them the excuse they need to move against us.

I inhale a quick, sharp breath as I listen to her analysis, and stare wide-eyed when she growls, informing the others, "She decided to go to them. Irina decided to go to the Volturi. And then they will decide... It's as if they're waiting for her. Like their decision was already made, and just waiting on her..."

Emmett, still braced for an attack near the windows, scoffs inside his head. I don't get it. What could she tell them that would make us into Public Enemy Number One?

Irina is our family, Rosalie mourns, her feet shifting unconsciously to bring her closer to her husband. Whatever it is that they think we've done, how could she betray us like that? I don't understand...

"Can we stop her?" Jasper inquires, breaking into Esme's train of thought – which is notably similar to Rosalie's.

"There's no way." Alice grits her teeth, her hand balling into a fist at her side. "She's almost there."

"What is she doing?" my father comments sadly.

Dimming my awareness of the other's thoughts and spoken dialogue, I risk another glance at Bella. Conflicting desires – to meet her wide eyes and find some small measure of comfort, or avoid her gaze altogether for fear that she will need reassurance that I cannot give – battle within my essence.

She is not looking in my direction, but rather staring blankly into space, her face wiped clean of emotion. Several seconds pass, and as I continue to watch her, the incessant need begins to claw at the pit of my stomach, demanding that I feel her skin and breathe in her sweet scent as much as possible while there is still time left for us.

I wince in response to the morbid notion – but do not miss the brilliant flare of intuition in Bella's vivid crimson eyes. My heart twists sympathetically as her expression crumples with anguish, and then she whirls around the sofa, falling to her knees soundlessly on the floor. Draping herself over Renesmee, she buries her face in our daughter's soft curls, her full bottom lip trembling uncontrollably.

Emmett remarks, "Well, we can't just sit around here and –"

Bella cuts him off in mid-sentence, her soft, wind chime voice filled with dismay. "Think of what she saw that afternoon. To someone who'd lost a mother because of the immortal children, what would Renesmee look like?"

A collective silence permeates the room.

I had caught up with her realization as soon as she mentioned the immortal children. That particular story from our histories has always haunted her, just as it has haunted every vampire who either lived through the purge or heard of it.

And it is at that moment I understand why Bella's revelation is not the blow I expected it to be. It is because I am still numb, and part of me wonders if I will stay like this indefinitely – for I know that we are all now standing on the executioner's block, waiting for the final stroke that will send us into oblivion.

My God... Carlisle balances precariously on the verge of shock, his voice scarcely a whisper as he responds to Bella's question. "An immortal child."

Bella shudders violently, her arms tightening in a protective cage around Renesmee. Before I can even comprehend my body's intentions, my instincts have taken over and carried me to her side, bringing me to my knees. As she covers our child, so I shield her – wrapping my arms around her lithe frame and pressing my face into the dark curtain of her hair. Renesmee's fluttering heartbeat throbs loudly in the icy stillness, her slow, quiet breaths perfuming the air and mingling with Bella's intoxicating fragrance, and I lay one of my hands on top of the little girl's head, needing to touch her.

"But she's wrong," Bella insists weakly. She starts to babble, her muted voice nearly disappearing into the bronze ringlets of our daughter. "Renesmee isn't like those other children. They were frozen, but she grows so much every day. They were out of control, but she never hurts Charlie or Sue or even shows them things that would upset them. She can control herself." There is an edge of hysteria in her tone; she is waiting for someone to agree, for her reasoning to alleviate the pressure bearing down upon everyone. But relief does not come. My embrace intensifies around her tense body, and she forces herself to resume speaking – even more hushed than before. "She's already smarter than most adults. There would be no reason..." The rest of her words die in her throat, and like a shroud, deep depression falls over the entire room. For several bitter, lengthy minutes, there is no sound - save Renesmee's warm breathing and musical pulse.

I cannot let my Bella cling to a false hope. Though I would give anything in order to preserve that hope, to keep her from experiencing this hollowness with me, I owe her the truth.

Drawing strength from the familiar shape and feel of her body underneath mine, I brush my lips against the curve of her earlobe and whisper gently, "It's not the kind of crime they hold a trial for, love. Aro's seen Irina's proof in her thoughts. They come to destroy, not to be reasoned with." We are already dead in their eyes – all that is left is completing the task.

Ever stubborn, Bella asserts, "But they're wrong."

I manage to hold onto a quiet, velvet tone while I reply, "They won't wait for us to show them that."

She turns her head slightly to look at me from the corner of her eye, a waning spark of tenacity lightening the vibrant ruby of her irises – still refusing to surrender to the desolation that has already swallowed most of our family.
My chest swells with profound adoration, making it a little easier to breathe. How much I love her.

"What can we do?" she demands. A strand of soft brown hair falls over her cheekbone, partially covering her gaze. I bend down further and brush it aside with the tip of my nose, filling my lungs with her scent while trying to combat the despair threatening to overpower me. I had waited almost a century for this woman to awaken my soul and occupy the empty spaces inside my heart, and now we are poised on the threshold of total annihilation.

Was this the price I had to pay for loving Bella in the first place? I have always known that I am so undeserving of her love – the monster who had craved her blood since the day we met and had finally succeeded in stealing her from the human world – but what has she ever done to earn this fate?

The last four months have been heaven on earth; I had never known that I could feel so much joy. Is that why this is happening...because I am unworthy of having that kind of happiness forever?

It's obvious, little sister. Emmett's incorrigible mind pierces the agonizing fog clouding my brain. Squaring his massive shoulders, he calmly announces to the room at large, "We fight."

"We can't win," Jasper snaps in response. He has both arms encircling Alice's petite form now, his upper body curling in defense, his lips pulled over his clenched teeth.

"Well, we can't run," Emmett tosses back. "Not with Demetri around." He snorts in disgust. Not that I would back out of a fight under any circumstances. I've been waiting for a chance to take on the Volturi's little bloodhound. And besides – I think we're all getting ahead of ourselves with the whole ‘our doom is inevitable' thing. "And I don't know that we can't win." A fierce gleam ignites in his tawny eyes. "There are a few options to consider. We don't have to fight alone."

Bella stiffens, a harsh growl rumbling in the back of her throat, and I lean away just as her head jerks upright, pinning Emmett with a blazing red glare. "We don't have to sentence the Quileutes to death, either, Emmett!" she shrieks. Renesmee fidgets a bit beneath her mother's grasp, a slight frown wrinkling her forehead, but remains unconscious. I lightly stroke her curls and the frown vanishes as she sighs, settling more comfortably on the plush sofa.

"Chill, Bella," Emmett says, unperturbed. Man, she's got a shorter fuse than you, Edward, he adds for my benefit. Just give a sec to explain. "I didn't mean the pack," he states coolly. Then, he arches a dark eyebrow in speculation. "Be realistic, though – do you think Jacob or Sam is going to ignore an invasion? Even if it wasn't about Nessie? Not to mention that, thanks to Irina, Aro knows about our alliance with the pack now, too." Maybe they'll want to think twice before crossing both us and the dogs, he muses to himself, imagining Jane's expression right before a huge wolf tears her head from her small body. He switches his line of thought an instant later, remarking, "But I was thinking of our other friends."

"Other friends we don't have to sentence to death," Carlisle murmurs very quietly. He has recognized my brother's suggestion of a strategy – such as it is – and can see the potential. I suppose I can, too...but it will be a gamble no matter what we choose. Yet what else can we do? Calmly accept our end and wait for it to arrive? Anything would be better than that.

Emmett looks over at our father with a satisfied expression, folding his arms across his chest. "Hey, we'll let them decide. I'm not saying they have to fight with us." He lifts one shoulder in a casual shrug while his mind begins to contemplate the refining points of his idea, speaking aloud as he continues to work them out inside his head. "If they'd just stand beside us, just long enough to make the Volturi hesitate. Bella's right, after all," he comments, a hint of a smirk on his face. "If we could force them to stop and listen. Though that might take away any reason for a fight..."

The slender white hand closest to me on the sofa contracts into a fist. Bella is still fuming, apparently.
I rest my free hand atop hers, tenderly running my fingertips over the whitened knuckles, and the tension eventually starts to leak out of her muscles.

In the meantime, Esme latches onto the fragile hope Emmett has presented and replies in an eager tone, "Yes. That makes sense, Emmett. All we need is for the Volturi to pause for one moment. Just long enough to listen." I will not watch my children die. Not again, she vows mentally, thinking of the baby she lost – and of my face after I had said goodbye to Bella, to everything I am, remembering the dead look in my eyes.

Rosalie's absurdly beautiful face is twisted into a scornful grimace. This is ridiculous, she sneers in her thoughts, the bitterness leaving a sour taste in my mouth. Showing the Volturi that we have allies to stand with us is like waving a red flag in front of a charging bull – they'll only want to get rid of us that much quicker. "We'd need quite a show of witnesses," she bites out derisively, her hard eyes locked on Emmett.

Esme nods emphatically, unaware of my sister's sarcasm, and proposes, "We can ask that much of our friends. Just to witness."

"We'd do it for them," Emmett says, eyeing the cynical mask on Rosalie's face. She is such a pessimist, he mutters internally for what seems like the millionth time. She'll see... This is gonna work, and then everybody will be thanking me for coming up with this plan. He stares back at her, unapologetic, and smiles. Rose glowers darkly before spinning on heel and flouncing over to the opposite side of the room. She will not stay mad at him for long, though. There is so very little time left for any of us, even if Em's strategy works.

Alice tugs at my attention, her mind submerging into the clairvoyance of her gift, and I immediately follow, absorbing as much as I can. "We'll have to ask them just right," she murmurs absently. An image wavers into view: Renesmee, her tiny hand outstretched, an expectant look on her cherubic face. "They'll have to be shown very carefully." Alice deciphers the meaning of the vision, and it is perfect in its simplicity.

"Shown?" Jasper gazes down at the top of Alice's spiky, black-haired head in confusion.

Together, she and I shift our eyes meaningfully to Renesmee. Her unique ability allows her to share every thought in her mind with another. Once our friends see her life story, they will know for certain who and what she is and why the Volturi have no justifiable cause to exterminate our family.

But who...? Diving into her visions once again, Alice flips rapidly through images of friends and acquaintances, naming them aloud as each face appears. "Tanya's family. Siobhan's coven. Amun's. Some of the nomads – Garrett and Mary for certain. Maybe Alistair."

"What about Peter and Charlotte?" Jasper asks hesitantly. He does not want his old friend and brother to be involved in what he considers a suicide mission in his own mind. Peter and I have had enough of war; there is no reason for he and Charlotte to get mixed up in this fight. In any case, I don't see how a show of witnesses can help us. A face-off with the Volturi... He suppresses a shudder. None of them, not even Alice, know what it's like to stare down death. I wish I didn't. I never wanted her to go through something like this. His hold around the one who had saved him just as completely as Bella saved me tightens a little.

Alice notices, perhaps sensing his inner conflict, and responds to his question. "Maybe." Their presence is not as...solid as the others. She abandons her memories of those two nomads and refocuses with greater intensity.

Carlisle prompts, "The Amazons? Kachiri, Zafrina, and Senna?"

A trio of dark-skinned faces flicker in Alice's mind, and then the lush beauty of a rainforest bursts across her vision, sputtering frenetically. Shadows move in the underbrush – a pair of shadows – and Alice senses something crucial about this particular image... The jungle vanishes in a flash of white light, and is replaced by a series of swift impressions that seem to have nothing in common: a cluster of towering trees, a torn piece of paper, a footprint in the mud, a half-moon veiled by wisps of cloud.

We have no other choice. Alice's voice, fragmented by grief, echoes inside my head. She shivers, her vision flicking backwards past the jungle and to those whom we are supposed to call upon for aid.

Her concentration centers resolutely on that part of the vision as she returns to the present. Her gaze peers up at Carlisle briefly, and something strange happens to her honey-colored eyes. Yet before I can attempt to define it, she lowers her head, staring down at the floor. "I can't see," she mutters flatly.

That is not true; she saw so much that even I do not understand everything. And the way that she is repeating the names and faces of our friends, over and over – like she is trying to keep me out of her head. "What was that?" I demand in a low whisper. "That part in the jungle. Are we going to look for them?"

"I can't see," Alice says again. Renesmee is the key – Tanya, Kate, Eleazar, Carmen, Siobhan, Liam, Maggie – She lists every name in endless repetition along with the statement about Renesmee until it blankets her every thought. And that confirms to me that she is deliberately obscuring her mind from my talent. But why? I frown at my sister in confusion, silently willing her to look up. What could she possibly have to hide from me?

When I open my mouth to ask one of my many questions, she goes on by claiming, "We'll have to split up and hurry – before the snow sticks to the ground. We have to round up whomever we can and get them here to show them." She sinks into her subconscious, the faces still popping in and out like flashbulbs – until one in particular seems to freeze in place. "Ask Eleazar," she states with certainty. "There is more to this than just an immortal child."

Unexpectedly, when she mentions that ancient taboo, the image from the jungle resurfaces in her thoughts. The picture is clearer; a pair of shadows darting soundlessly through the dense foliage – but this time there are more shadows in pursuit of these two. It is a search party.

In a burst of static, Alice blocks me from her mind, repeating her earlier words with renewed urgency. Splinters of ice lodge themselves into my ribcage as I stare at my favorite sister – my best friend. "There is so much," she whispers. She has yet to meet my eyes. "We have to hurry." She pulls away from Jasper, glancing fleetingly around the room as though cataloging this moment in her memory.

"Alice?" She turns reflexively at the sound of her name, but then seems to flinch from my puzzled gaze. "That was too fast – I didn't understand." What are you keeping from me? "What was –?"

"I can't see!" she screeches at me. Her expression is distorted in a vicious snarl, her topaz eyes hard and depthless. I'm sorry, Edward. She shoves this thought into my head, bathed in heartache, even as she yells in frustration, "Jacob's almost here!"

Shocked by her reaction and by the fact that I had been completely ignorant of the dog's approach, I can do nothing but stare as Alice closes down her thoughts and wrenches her gaze from mine.

Rosalie, her nerves raw and eager for an opportunity to display some aggression, begins to walk toward the front door. "I'll deal with –"

"No, let him come," Alice squeaks in a tense, high-pitched voice. "I'll see better away from Nessie, too." Grabbing Jasper's hand, she yanks hard, pulling him behind her as she rushes to the back door. "I need to go. I need to really concentrate. I need to see everything I can. I have to go." She peers over a shoulder in alarm when footfalls thud faintly on the porch steps. Jasper staggers to a halt, perplexed. "Come on, Jasper," she commands shrilly, "there's no time to waste!"

Alice tugs at his arm, practically vibrating with impatience, and the two of them sprint through the back door. "Hurry!" she calls out. "You have to find them all!"

Their alabaster skin winks brightly in the silvery moonlight as they cross the field, and a door opens somewhere behind me, but I continue to watch Alice and Jasper until they are enveloped by the smoky blue shade of the forest.

"Find what?" Jacob shuts the front door, his mind mildly confused, but more excited by the discovery that Bella and I have not yet taken Renesmee back to our cottage to totally grasp what he has just walked into. "Where'd Alice go?" he asks, studying the door standing ajar at the back of the house.

His curiosity only lasts for a brief second. Returning his gaze to Renesmee's peaceful face, he shakes his damp hair and then puts on a black t-shirt, chattering enthusiastically the whole time. "Hey, Bells! I thought you guys would've gone home by now..." He glances at Bella's expression and blinks, startled by the flat, dead look in her eyes. What the –? What's the matter? Jacob frowns, his stare shadowed by his lowered brows as he scans the room.

The broken crystal catches his attention, and he looks down at the floor, his dark eyes widening in dismay. What the hell happened? he shouts inside his head, and the fingers of his large, red-brown hands start to tremble. Verbally, he grunts, "What?" His gaze swings back over to Bella. "What happened?"

Her lips part, but she does not speak. I expect that she feels the same way I do. There are no adequate words that would help to explain what has happened tonight.

Jacob's stare drops to Renesmee. It's not her – is it? Is she...? Horrified, he bounds across the room and kneels beside Bella, demanding, "Is she okay?" He lays a quivering palm on the little girl's forehead, and then slows his gasping breaths so that he can listen for Renesmee's swift pulse. She seems all right, but – "Don't mess with me, Bella, please!" Desperation is thick in his deep voice. He tears his eyes from Renesmee to look at Bella, who has not moved even a millimeter since Alice and Jasper left.

Her entire countenance is disturbingly vacant as she turns her head slightly to meet his anxious gaze. "Nothing's wrong with Renesmee," she tells him in a strangled tone, the words fracturing like brittle glass.

"Then who?" His black-brown eyes dart quickly around the room, landing briefly on my face, which is visible just behind Bella's head. Something is seriously wrong here. This place feels like the inside of a tomb. He shivers, even though ripples of heat roll along his bare arms to his shaking hands, the instinct to phase warning him that danger is near.

"All of us, Jacob," Bella replies in a choked whisper. "It's over. We've all been sentenced to die."

She lowers her head, hiding her face in our daughter's abundant curls, unable to say anything else. I cover her body with mine once again, resting my cheek on the crown of her head, and resist the impulse to close my eyes. The gray veil of my lids will encourage the images to jump into sharper focus, assaulting my brain with renewed ferocity – though my infallible memory can already recall each detail with painful clarity.

Jacob watches us for a moment, his thoughts in a tangled jumble of bewilderment, frustration, and concern. Eventually, he manages to voice a stilted question. "What. Are. You. Talking. About?"

He has a right to know; he is as much a part of this family as any of us, my father declares inwardly, his mind colored with the icy fog of despair. "The Volturi, Jacob." At the sound of Carlisle's faint, halting reply, Jacob peers up at him, apprehensive. "Alice had a vision. They are coming here. For us." He takes a shaky breath, and Esme coils an arm around his waist – not so much for consolation, but to just feel the steady strength of his body next to hers.

Jacob's forehead crinkles in puzzlement. "They're coming here?" His gaze flicks down to Bella and then returns to Carlisle. "But I thought that was why Bella's going to Italy - to show them that she's a vampire now."

"It's not about Bella." Measuring the young man with his wise golden eyes, Carlisle debates for a few seconds about whether or not Jacob will be able to control his rage when he hears the reason for the Volturi's imminent arrival. Though I would like nothing more than to pretend that I can sink into oblivion and feign ignorance of this whole ordeal, I lift my head a fraction of an inch and give my father a barely perceptible nod. As he had said to himself only moments ago, Jacob has a right to know.

"The vampire that saw the three of you out hunting a few weeks ago; her name is Irina." He flinches a bit as he says her name, but goes on. "She...decided to tell the Volturi what she had seen, and that is why they are coming. They believe that we have committed a heinous crime." Seeing the deep skepticism in Jacob's expression, he adds, "Even the immortal world has rules, Jacob. It would fall into chaos otherwise."

Sure, sure... "So what is this crime?" Jacob asks.

Carlisle flattens his lips into a thin white line, hesitating for another second, and then says dully, "That we have created an immortal child."

To his credit, it does not take Jacob very long to put two and two together. Jumping to his feet, he strides quickly across the floor to stand right in front of Carlisle, the trembling in his hands moving upward, causing his thickly muscled arms to quiver convulsively at his sides. "So you're telling me," he mutters, his voice shaking with fury, "that those leeches are coming here for Renesmee?"

"The plague of the immortal children left deep wounds on our society – wounds that have never fully healed," my father responds, meeting Jacob's furious glare impassively. "Any action on the Volturi's part must be swift and decisive. They will show no mercy."

A shiver travels down the length of Jacob's spine. His hands are shaking so violently that his fingers blur, and Emmett tenses at the edge of my vision, preparing to defend Carlisle from a transforming wolf.

Jacob fights to regain control by letting loose a torrent of curses within his mind, gritting his teeth so tightly that they grind against one another with a noise like fragments of shale breaking away from a wall of rock. Son of a – hold it together, Jake – The trembling slows, but does not cease. Opening his eyes, which had been screwed shut in concentration, Jacob growls, "I gotta let Sam know. We need to get ready. They aren't getting anywhere near Nessie – not without a fight."

Emmett glances in my direction, a faint smirk on his face. Told you so, he thinks smugly.

Jacob's thoughts are spinning frantically, his human mind struggling to contemplate several things at once. He begins to storm towards the front door, mumbling to himself, "There's no way I'm leaving Nessie. Just gotta tell Seth or Leah what's going on and –" He skids to a halt just inside the doorway and punches a fist into the wood frame. "Dammit!" he snarls. The wood splits from the force of the blow with a sharp crack.

My head snaps up. Carlisle steps forward, asking calmly, "What is it, Jacob?"

"Everyone is still back at La Push," he answers, whirling around. Though he is making every effort to hide it, I can see the helplessness lurking beneath the blazing anger in his dark eyes. He needs to do something – anything that may alleviate that feeling, for it seems to him as though it is tearing a ragged, burning gash through his heart.

I can sympathize...more than he will ever know.

Suddenly, he and I come upon the same solution. My eyes flash to his just as the question forms in his head, and I force my frozen features to move, looking over at my parents. "Esme, would you mind if Jacob phases inside the house?" My voice is dull, emotionless. "That way, he can communicate with Sam."

"Of course," she replies in the same empty tone.

Jacob heads to the room under the stairs, pulling off his shirt, and seconds later the air inside the house seems to crackle with energy, the floorboards vibrating as his body shifts into wolf form.

As soon as the transformation is complete, he trots back into the living room, already initiating a conversation with his pack to get a hold of Sam. Rosalie curls her upper lip as the russet-colored wolf brushes past her, but otherwise ignores his presence entirely. She makes her way over to Emmett, reaching for his hand, and then the two of them become utterly still, lost in their own agonized thoughts. Carlisle and Esme are the same.

While Renesmee continues to dream peacefully, I gently crawl around Bella's prone body and kneel in front of her. Though I have memorized every curve, each swell and dip, I need to see her face. It seems foolish to me now that I had avoided looking into her eyes earlier. It does not matter that I cannot give her reassurance – tell her that everything will be all right, that we will live through this. What does matter is using every opportunity that presents itself to tell her, to show her that she is and always will be my life – the one who resurrected what shreds of humanity remained buried within my cold, dead heart and helped me to believe that there is hope for a monster like me to be truly loved.

As if she understands – needs the same thing – Bella raises her head, settling onto her knees while resting one arm lightly on Renesmee. Locking her eyes with mine, I can read the mirror of my emotions in her brilliant scarlet irises. We are both aware beyond a shadow of a doubt that neither of us can survive without the other. We are halves of a whole – fused into one through body, mind and soul – and the proof of our union is a living, breathing miracle, sleeping beneath our hands.

In the early hours before dawn, Jacob collapses into an exhausted sleep – a snoring mass of red-brown fur curled in a corner of the room – though his mind is still a twisted mass of anxiety. Renesmee slumbers on, free of cares. Carlisle and Esme cling to one another – motionless statues carved from grief and dismay. Emmett, in spite of the worry he has for our family, is thinking about the coming battle, wondering how many of our friends will actually offer their aid. Rose grips her husband's large hand tightly, half of her face covered by a cascade of blonde locks as she laments the circumstances that brought us to this moment.

Alice and Jasper have yet to return.

While I am conscious of all these aspects as they continue to shape this darkest of nights, I do not allow any of them to divert my focus from the only thing that is indisputably relevant in my existence.

Bella stares back at me with an anguished fervor that matches my own, and I lose myself in the depths of her wide, beautiful eyes as the stars wheel in their courses across the black velvet sky and the peach-and-rose glow of the sunrise paints the horizon with yellow-gold light.

And one phrase – one promise – keeps repeating inside my hollow chest like a heartbeat as I gaze, unblinking, at the face of my angel.

I will not lose you again.