14. Fathers and Brothers

Stillness.

Blackness.

I shattered both as I raced through the Tuscan countryside with the brutal wind as my welcome companion. It was an unusually cold March for Tuscany; I had heard the discomfort in the other passengers’ thoughts as we had landed and disembarked our flight in the middle of the night. In the absence of the winter sun, the nighttime temperature had fallen to a few degrees below freezing, and the locals, used to milder weather, had complained bitterly, if not entirely aloud.

The cold was meaningless to me, but as I ran I wished I could feel its punishing sting. Purified by pain, like a medieval pre-execution torture. I would arrive to my deliverers fully prepared for what they might unleash on me; readied by the stinging cold for the peacefulness of my death.

But my body instead embraced the cold as though it were the most comfortable bath, readying me for nothing. It was no matter. I was but hours away from the physical pain which would end my grief which would result in my absolution,, and I would welcome it warmly when it was offered.

I was immeasurably grateful that the flight, the first I had been able to finagle out of Rio, had dropped me in Florence in the middle of night. The darkness meant I didn’t need a car and was able to run the distance to the city which, for all intents and purposes, stood as capital for my kind. The city from which my father fled so many centuries ago. Although we had visited Rome and Venice, he had never brought me here except within the confines of his head, but his memories served as my guide as I navigated my way through the farms and vineyards in the foothills.

I shook my head forcefully, sending airborne a spray of the dusty earth kicked into my hair by my run. It was no good to think of Carlisle.

I pushed myself faster.

The smell of Volterra hit me well before I drew close enough to see it. The sweet cloy of my kind hung over the city’s surrounds, an unmistakable shroud that warned of this coven’s sheer number to any who might dare try to fight. To humans it would be a gentle fragrance that they would chalk up to the purity of the air, the growing grapes, the sun.

To me, it was the reek of the gallows, and I breathed it deep.

A faint glow hovered over the center of town as I approached, and the engines of light-duty vehicles emitted a low, slightly dissonant hum from somewhere inside the cluster of stone buildings. Slowing to a more humanlike pace, I slipped through the narrow cobblestone streets and dark, tight alleyways between the buildings—the relics of foot travel from centuries before that were now passable only by Vespa or bicycle.

The stone buildings were familiar, virtually unchanged from Carlisle’s memories of two centuries ago. Of course now their tenants were entirely different—a sliver of light drew my eye toward a building through whose windows I could see a shopkeeper reverently mopping the floor. An as-yet-unlit green sign hanging over the door proclaimed the small shop to be a Starbucks.

Hidden from human sight by the predawn dark, I slid between the buildings and made my way to the town center in under a minute. The sounds and lights I had heard from outside the city’s gates emanated from the large open square, the Piazza dei Priori. Golf carts zipped back and forth across the center of the square, at times narrowly missing one another and cornering quickly around the expansive fountain which occupied the square’s center. The halo of light came from the headlights of several vehicles and from the floodlights which were in the process of being hung from freshly-installed rigging trusses. Two men in cherry pickers were raising a huge scarlet banner over what appeared to be some sort of main stage. At the square’s perimeter, two vendors had already arrived to set up shop for their wares—red capes and banners, and plastic toy vampire fangs.

Saint Marcus Day.

Relief flooded me as I took in the actions of the dozens already gathered in the square at this early hour. A second lucky break in only a few hours. I hoped that when I asked the brothers to eliminate me, they would do so willingly and without question or fanfare. But I had thought of a few backup plans in case I needed them—lifting a car over my head in the plaza, attacking the Volturi brothers themselves, or at the least, their guard. I had briefly considered the possibility of hunting within the city. Whatever would make the efficient assassins of the Volturi guard strike as quickly as possible.

The festival would make it unbelievably easy to draw attention to myself. To flout their law, in their city, on the day designed to celebrate them—even if the locals didn’t realize exactly who they were celebrating—it would be the highest form of treason I could commit. The guard would have no choice but to deliver my sentence as swiftly as they were able.

I smiled.

Moving slowly, I started my way across the piazza. The scent that permeated the entire city emanated from a single alleyway on the other side of the square, which led to the winding road up to a castle of sorts. Carlisle’s memory recalled him striding across this same plaza, dodging wooden carts and animal dung as he wove among the merchants toward this place where he had once resided. Carlisle had told me how the brothers had their guard bring back victims for them when he had lived with them, preferring to live a sedate lifestyle in the opulent home they had created. Now a professionally lettered sign near the alley advertised tours, directing interested parties to an office across town to purchase tickets.

It seemed the Volturi had now found an even more efficient way to feed.

A snapping sound from overhead drew my attention, and I looked upward to see a huge red streamer unfurling from the window of one of the buildings overhead. An obscenity in Italian sprang forth from the streamer’s owner as the banner was ripped from his hands by the wind, and I watched as the shimmering cloth raced down the building like a river of blood, pooling into a puddle of scarlet on the cobbled street.

“Alice saw her jump off a cliff,” my sister’s voice rang in my ears, and an instant the cloth did not merely resemble blood, it was blood. Flowing with Bella’s irresistible scent. And her mangled body lay there in the wide puddle, her broken limbs splayed in the same grotesque positions in which I had seen Esme’s in Carlisle’s memory. Her dark hair lay fanned around her, matted with blood.

I hardly heard the choked cry that tore from my throat as I rushed forward to scoop up Bella’s lifeless form, and I fell to my knees with such force that the stones beneath me split. But when my arms reached out, they plunged not into a pool of blood but into yards of silky cloth. Bella vanished.

My howl echoed off the empty buildings.

And then, a hand clamped down on my shoulder with crushing force.

He is handsome. And very young. A little giggle. Young! He’s probably a thousand.

“Only a hundred,” I muttered, and the woman behind the high mahogany desk jumped.

He hears thoughts. Like Master Aro.

“Yes,” I answered. Carlisle had long ago told me that Aro’s gift was similar to mine. His experiences with Aro had been part of how he had discerned so quickly that I was answering his thoughts and not his words when I’d first awoken. I should have expected the woman to compare me to her master.

She raised her eyebrows. She was human; I had smelled her blood and heard her heart pumping when I’d still been a floor below in the elevator shaft. For a brief moment I considered how often the brothers must go through secretaries—surely, their employees periodically became a convenient afternoon snack. But this one seemed to have been with the operation for awhile—I listened as she chastised herself for forgetting that many of us had powers. Looking away from her, I tried to block out her mundane thoughts by counting the fibers in the lush green carpet in the reception area. The couch on which I sat was of a luxurious leather. The room’s scent was too sickly sweet, and I noticed flowers distributed around the tables.

It was not often that someone came to call. From the thoughts of the thug, Felix, who had dragged me through an ancient sewer to the castle, I had learned it had been decades since a vampire had wandered willingly into this place. They had tracked my every move from the moment I drew within a few miles of the city, Felix had followed me throughout the city to be certain I was headed toward the castle. I had been too caught up in my own thoughts to hear his, and in the reek of the city, it was next to impossible to distinguish a single vampire that might be in pursuit. I supposed that was part of their very excellent defense.

A pair of feet glided across the carpet, but I didn’t bother to look up until they were directly in my line of sight.

“You,” a voice said. It was a high voice, childlike—a young teenager still not yet through puberty.

I raised my eyes slowly. The girl—for that was really all she was—was small, her light hair cropped short. The hood of her cloak cast a shadow across her face, but I knew her features anyway. And I knew her gift all too well.

“Edward,” I answered quietly.

“They will see you, Edward,” she said, and beckoned for me to stand. “Come.”

Bella’s mangled body as I had seen it out on the piazza played before me as I followed the woman I knew to be Jane, one of Aro’s closest guards. I knew her by reputation—she had been a controlling force when the Volturi had swept in to stop the wars in the south, and Jasper’s memories of her were not pleasant. It was not surprising that she was the one sent to fetch me. Her power to instantly incapacitate meant that she was the safest to send to an unknown.

I almost laughed at the idea that they considered me a threat.

Jane led me down the hall and through a plain wooden door that was hidden by the ornate paneling of the reception area and hall. A voice spoke up while we were still in the antechamber, echoing on the stone walls.

“Ah. Thank you, Jane, for bringing our visitor,” the voice greeted us as we proceeded forward.

The room we had entered was perfectly round. Pressed to the edges of the room were several large, throne-like chairs. Two were occupied. One held a vampire with white-blond hair, his eyes narrowed to slits as he watched my every move, and the other chair contained an immortal with dark hair. Caius and Marcus, I recognized. While Caius watched me warily out of the corner of one eye, Marcus was staring at me fixedly. More than a dozen other immortals floated around the room, in robes of varying shades of gray. Those in the darkest gray stood nearest to Marcus and Caius, and I deduced immediately that the robes indicated some sort of order of rank. Looking away from the other two brothers, I focused again on the owner of the voice.

Dressed in a jet black robe, Aro was as formidable as he was graceful as he glided toward me. He, of course, was unchanged from the painting by which I knew him best, but to see him in person was shocking. His skin looked thin and almost translucent. It crossed my mind briefly that it was perhaps due to his age, but Tanya and her sisters were quite ancient as well, and none of them appeared that way. It was puzzling, and for a fraction of a second I found myself out of habit making a mental note to ask Carlisle about it—and then I realized there would be no such opportunity.

I gulped, and squeezed my eyes shut, bringing back the horrific image that I had seen out in the piazza. My world had ended almost twenty hours ago, now. Now it only fell to me to finish the task. Squaring my shoulders, I forced myself to look at Aro. Confidence. I would explain the situation, convince him that there was no advantage to keeping me alive, and ask for the deliverance I sought.

Aro looked me over as he approached, and I saw his impression of me forming in his mind. I had worn the same clothing for at least two weeks now, and Carlisle’s shirt and pants were dirtied by my exploits in Rio and my run through the Italian countryside. Falling to my knees in the middle of the filthy square had stained the front of my pants even further. I looked nothing like the other immortals around me.

My eyes surprised even me, however. They were the darkest black, and the rings beneath them were so dark it looked as though it had been months that I had not hunted. It had been no wonder that the airline flight attendant had had difficulty leaving me be on the flight north. I had pretended to sleep, but she had awoken me for almost every meal and grown more and more concerned when I refused them all.

He looks as though he is dying, came the thought, interrupting my own.

I nodded. ‘That’s my intention.” My voice sounded assured. Step one.

Aro’s eyebrows shot up, but then a satisfied smile spread across his face as he recognized what had just happened.

“You are gifted.”

“Yes.” I met his eyes.

“And you hear from where you stand?”

“Yes.”

The smile grew even larger. How…useful. “Jane tells me you are called Edward.”

“Edward Cullen.”

If he had looked surprised before, he now looked completely staggered. Cullen? I saw Carlisle’s face flash in his memory. But surely not…

“Carlisle is my father,” I answered, and gasps rose from several others around the room.

Father? Aro’s face had dropped into a bemused smile. “Carlisle created you?” But he so despised his existence…surely Carlisle would not have created another.

I nodded. “He is my father,” I repeated, turning Aro’s words over in my head. He so despised his existence… For a brief moment I recalled the man to whom I had awoken in the tiny apartment in Chicago. Carlisle had told me his entire life’s story as I was changed, or as much as he was willing to tell then, at any rate. But behind it his thoughts had been tortured by loneliness and despair, and his mind had apologized thousands of times for my pain and for snatching me from death into this half-existence.

I had asked Alice not to watch me, and given that it had not been she who called when I’d decided to return to Forks, she was clearly keeping her word. How long would it be before Carlisle and Esme found out what had happened? They thought I was in Rio—would they travel there when my phone went unanswered? Track me here? But they had seen me in Ithaca as I had lost the battle to my grief. They had watched me hide in the corners of the house as it consumed me. And even Esme had given up.

Surely they would understand.

After all, Carlisle believed I still had a soul. He believed there was an afterlife for our kind. He would mourn as humans mourned, steadfast in his faith. And only I would know the truth, whatever the truth might be.

“Come now, Edward.” Aro’s voice beckoned me back to the present. “You are intriguing. I wish to know more about you.” He lifted his hand and gestured for me to place my palm against his.

I hesitated, recalling what Carlisle had told me about Aro’s gift. He had been surprised when I had heard his thoughts without contact, I remembered that much. So Aro’s reading must have something to do with physical touch. But I remembered nothing else. Carlisle had a bad tendency to pontificate when he was telling stories about his history; I was now wishing I had paid better attention.

Taking a measured step forward, I put my hand to Aro’s.

It was a strange sensation, like a subtle pressure on my consciousness. I couldn’t be certain, but perhaps this was what it had once felt like to dream. I was startled to realize that my entire history was flashing before me—and it was all being read by Aro. Memories flew through my mind at an incredible speed—waking up next to Carlisle, hunting for the first time, meeting Esme, all those criminals I’d killed during my rebellious years, the first fight with Rosalie, hunting with Emmett. And Bella—Bella was everywhere, my images of her dancing in and out of earlier and later memories as though she had always been part of my life. Her scent wrapped me and I caught its salacious bouquet. That first day in Biology, when I had nearly done the unthinkable, the day in the meadow when our lips first met, the taste of her venom-laced blood running down my throat as I sucked, and my own terror—first that she might die, and second that I might kill her.

And in the end, that been exactly what I’d done. First I’d put her squarely in danger—first James, then Jasper. So I had done the only thing that seemed right—and it had driven her to her end. I swallowed and looked down as in Aro’s mind I heard my screams echoing off the walls of my apartment in Rio, and saw the pulverized desk and Carlisle’s journal entries airborne in shreds.

I was barely aware when Aro’s hand had left my own. He was silent for a moment.

“And so you wish to be destroyed,” he said finally.

I nodded, and the room became alive with the thoughts of the other immortals.

He is here to ask to be destroyed?

He no longer wishes to be of this world?

What happened?

Images of my body, in pieces, being thrown onto a fire, flew at me from all directions. I winced.

Aro frowned, and now in his head I saw my own memories replaying, more slowly. Our family on Christmas Day four years ago, in our house in Nome, laughing and teasing as we took turns opening gifts.

“Seven,” he muttered, and I felt a strange emotion from him. Concern?

“The biggest coven in the known universe—hell, you guys are bigger than the Volturi at this point, aren’t you?” Peter’s voice rang in my head. I stiffened.

However, Aro’s mind shifted quickly away from the size of our family and back to Carlisle. It was evident he was trying to get as much a sense as possible of his former friend. He paused for a long time on a recent memory—five months ago, the morning I’d left, when Carlisle had held me in his arms. I looked down at the floor as I relived the memory with him, embarrassed by the flood of emotion pouring from Carlisle that I heard again in the recollection of my thoughts.

Aro regarded me with a look of amazement. “Carlisle’s son you are indeed,” he murmured. This statement caused somewhat of a stir among the others, and images of my father suddenly surfaced in at least half a dozen minds—minds which tried to put together an image of Carlisle with the sad being they saw standing before them. Aro, who had the privilege of ready-made memories, remembered another scene from my own past: Carlisle and I hunting together for the first time since I had returned from Denali. Carlisle had been very worried then—I hadn’t yet told any of them about Bella. Pausing to think about Carlisle’s concern, Aro shot a look at one of the other seated and cloaked immortals, the dark-haired one. Marcus. It would be nice to see…and then, as though he suddenly remembered he had an audience in me, he stopped his thinking short.

Carlisle continues to mystify us all, he thought with a smile.

He turned to the other two, who were still seated in their formidable chairs. Caius was glaring at me as though he might be able to reduce me to ash simply by the ferocity of his thought. Marcus looked completely uninterested.

“He is created by Carlisle,” Aro said, and I detected a note of reverent pride in his voice. “Our old friend has been hard at work in the New World, it seems. He has several…children.” Our family swirled once more in Aro’s mind, and again I detected the faintest worry.

Caius did not move his ferocious gaze. And he comes before us to be destroyed?

“Yes,” I answered him, and his expression changed to one of wary amusement as he, too, recognized what I’d just done. “There is no life for me here any longer.”

“He has met la sua cantante,” Aro added. “And it seems Edward is as unorthodox in his feeding habits as our dear old friend.” A brief flash—an argument? Carlisle appeared in Aro’s mind, looking murderous. One of the times Aro had tried to shift his diet, no doubt.

“His singer lives?” Caius’s eyebrows shot up.

A smile spread across Aro’s face. “He has fallen in love with her.”

Again murmurs erupted from the room

“But no, alas,” Aro said, and this time it was in his mind that I saw my imagination of Bella’s broken body, “she lives no longer, though it is not by young Edward’s hand.”

“That’s debatable,” I growled, and Aro chuckled. He glided away from me, returning to the chair on one side of the room. His cloak swirled as he sat, and almost immediately a woman, also robed in black, came to his side, laying her hand over his. I recognized Sulpicia, his mate. She looked at me with narrowed eyes, and I averted my gaze to Marcus, who looked at me with an intense curiosity. In his head stood a woman, dark-haired like he and Aro and with the same striking features as the Volturi leader. Even in memory, I felt his joy in her presence. She had made him nearly immeasurably happy. As Marcus’s gaze shifted from me to Aro and Sulpicia, I experienced an odd pulling sensation, as though I were holding two strong magnets apart by the force of my mind.

“Marcus and Chelsea were a deadly combination.” Carlisle’s voice rang in my head from almost a century before, when I had asked him about the other gifted vampires he had known in his long life. “He saw the strength of relationships. And she could break a strong one, or strengthen a weak one.” He’d confessed he did not know how either of their gifts worked. Now I was seeing it firsthand. I realized quickly that Marcus was getting this feedback from everyone in the room—one part of his mind was filled with the constant push and pull as the others moved around him, to their mates, to their friends, to those they disliked. Aro and Sulpicia had a strong attraction, as did Caius and the woman I assumed to be his mate, although she was across the room. Jane and the boy I recognized as her twin, Alec, were almost inseparable, although the feeling of that attraction was different in quality, almost as though an attraction could have a different flavor. I recognized the difference between a mate and a sibling.

Immediately my mind shot back to a moment earlier when Aro had recalled my memories of Carlisle. He had looked at Marcus, then. Did he want to know the strength of my relationship to Carlisle? Why? I studied Marcus’s mind some more as though it might yield the answer, exploring the pulsing magnetism spread around the room.

“But this request, Edward,” Aro said, interrupting my foray into Marcus’s mind, “we must take our time considering it.” This does not often happen…he shot a look at Marcus, but he again stopped, shooting me a wary look. “Nevertheless”—he beckoned to the corner and a tall figure cloaked in charcoal moved from the shadows—“you of course wouldn’t mind if Demetri and Jane escorted you back outside?” He doesn’t mind the prospect of death, surely he will not mind a guard.

A toothy, sinister grin flashed from under the cloak, and as I faced the approaching being, I found myself on the receiving end of yet another set of foreign sensations. It reminded me vaguely of being in Jasper’s mind as he read someone, except these weren’t emotions being cataloged. It happened very rapidly, and then I felt a confident satisfaction from Demetri as whatever he was doing stopped.

He felt he now knew me perfectly, and I had the immutable sense he was not wrong. His mind traveled and he began to imagine me running away from Volterra, back through Florence, and then to the United States—although his vision of what the United States appeared to be stuck in the Reconstruction Era. Then he imagined himself following me nonchalantly, using the information he had just gleaned from my mind to lead him to my precise locale.

I gulped. I had just received the immortal equivalent of a tracking chip.

“It doesn’t matter,” I muttered. “I won’t be running.” There was only one thing I had come here to do, and I had no plans of leaving. At least, not in my present form.

He shot me a puzzled look.

Jane slid her hand reluctantly from Alec’s. She glided across the room as well, her crimson eyes shining. She regarded me carefully, and I saw in her mind the same question I was sure burned in the minds of all the immortals that stood in the round chamber: if I had not killed my mate, then what had I done wrong?

The answer was nothing and a thousand things at once.

I followed Jane and Demetri through the wooden door and back down the nondescript hallway to the reception area. I was surprised we did not go further, for it would not be difficult to hear the discussion in the chamber, and I could certainly still hear thoughts. However, when I heard the voices begin to argue, it was in a language I did not recognize, a tongue which sounded wholly unlike anything I had ever heard before. I recognized the voices as they rose: Aro’s was loudest, but arguing against him—or perhaps with him, I couldn’t tell—were Caius’s and Marcus’s. The only words I caught were “Carlisle” and “Edward,” both of which were repeated with roughly equal frequency.

Demetri and Jane flanked me as we stood in the reception area, ignoring me as I sank again to the couch. Their thoughts invaded my own, and I alternately saw myself being torn to pieces with a sickening metallic ripping noise, or instead standing with them, cloaked in the same dark, almost-black gray, my eyes turned from black to a deep garnet.

I put my head in my hands. St. Marcus day was March nineteenth. A year ago, I had been camped out on a rigid foam chair in the Phoenix Children’s Hospital, waiting for Bella to awake from one of her many naps. It had taken the doctors almost four days to release her. I had worried about the possibility of needing to be in Volterra then. My own personal hell had begun that day at the end of our baseball game—I would never forgive myself for allowing Bella to be put in that danger. Well, in truth, my personal hell had begun in a Biology II classroom one year and exactly two months ago. If I subtracted the six months since I had last seen Bella, and subtracted the weeks I had avoided her in Forks after our first meeting, and if I subtracted the months that our joy had been marred by the cloud of fear instilled in me by her brief run-in with James, then it left me with ten days.

Ten days.

Ten days of blissful happiness out of nearly a hundred and five years. Ten days in which I had foolishly let myself believe that things might work out, that my life could change from the empty existence I’d known for so long. Ten days in which the love that would end us both had not been a burden to either of us.

Ten days had been all I was destined to be given.

I squeezed my eyes closed, willing away the gruesome image that had haunted me since the early morning and instead saw Bella, her eyes curious as ever, her smile enigmatic as she sat across the table from me in the Forks High cafeteria, nonchalantly eating the slice of pizza from which she had dared me to bite just moments before. Her trust in me had been complete, from the very first.

And I had betrayed that trust. I had lied.

“My world is not for you.”

That, at least, had been the truth, but not in the way I had allowed her to hear it. My world wasn’t for Bella, my world was Bella—and now my world was gone.

It was Demetri and Jane’s startled thoughts that alerted me that my shoulders had begun to shake. I took a breath, but the breath quivered as I drew it. I sounded weak. In Ithaca, I had ignored my family. Burned my clothes. Uprooted and shattered a fir tree. In San Francisco, I had permanently killed the airbag of my Porsche. In New Orleans I had demolished a front porch in a single stroke. And in Rio, I had all but decimated an entire apartment.

But now, in what I hoped would be the last minutes of my own life, I found I could do none of that. The fire that had once burned, the monster who had been my present companion for almost six months was gone, leaving behind nothing but an aching hole of sadness and grief.

And so I buried my face in my palms and quietly began to weep.

~|+|~

The room was as we had left it, except that the vampires who had once milled around it seemed now to be aligned in flanks. There was a buzzing tension in the air as over a dozen pairs of eyes fixed on me where I stood. When we were called in after the better part of an hour Demetri and Jane had at once gone to their respective places next to Aro, leaving me standing a few yards from the doorway, facing the three cloaked brothers.

“Edward.” Aro’s voice called. He beckoned me forward, and I advanced until I was standing a few yards in front of where he sat. Caius’s gaze was fixed on me again. His brow was furrowed, but he had a satisfied smile on his face. Marcus no longer looked uninterested, but his expression seemed to convey…pity? Again I saw the beautiful woman dancing in his mind, laughing, and felt his limitless happiness in her presence.

Aro regarded me again carefully, but his thoughts were guarded this time. He’d had time to prepare to speak with me again. So it was only his eyes that raked me over before he spoke.

“I have seen what you intend to do,” he said quietly after a moment. “Make no mistake, Edward, you are perfectly correct in your assumption that we will not show you mercy should you choose to flout our laws in our city. We do not make exceptions for law-breakers.”

I set my jaw. “Then will you grant what I came here for?”

Aro’s brow set in a frown. “No, we will not.”

A cold rage flushed through my body. My feet moved, and my body lunged before I was conscious of telling it to. But Alec had been ready, and the haze he emitted surrounded me in under a second. The brief growl I’d managed echoed off the round walls for a moment before I could no longer hear at all. Blinded, I lost my footing, tripping over some uneven stonework in the floor and falling to my hands and knees. I groped helplessly in the darkness, pressing my hands to the floor to find the correct location to put my feet. As I managed to right myself, the haze lifted, and I slowly heard the shuffling feet and amused murmurs of the others. The room spun back into existence as my sight returned.

Aro was holding up a hand.

“I apologize for that,” he said politely, as though he’d merely stepped on my foot. “However, I felt it might be prudent to have Alec permit you a moment of thought before you commenced any rash action.”

I growled, and he chuckled. His nonchalant condescension reminded me vaguely of Peter—had it really been only a month ago that I had seen him and Charlotte? I shook my head, trying to fully recover my senses.

“I have an offer for you, if you will hold your attack at least a moment longer,” Aro said politely. Although I doubt you will take it.

“What?” The word forced itself through clenched teeth.

Aro gestured grandly to those around him. “To destroy a talent such as yours would be beyond wasteful, Edward. If there is truly nothing else for you to live for, then live for us. Join us. You would have a high place here.” Again he pictured my family—the seven of us on one of the rare times we all hunted together. I caught a twinge of worry from him. The word powerful swirled in his mind as he imagined us—I saw his mind flit from me, to Alice, to Jasper—the gifted ones. He wanted us all. Alice and Jasper disappeared and Carlisle resurfaced, but this time his face was contorted with rage. Aro’s mind flitted back and forth between Carlisle’s feelings as he’d held me on that morning in October, and this imagined anger.

I swore. He was concerned about what Carlisle would do if he killed me. Well, that was his problem.

“I didn’t come here for a place with you.”

Aro’s face fell. “But surely you see the potential!”

Stay your course.

My head swung in the direction of the thought, and I found myself meeting Marcus’s usually vacant expression. However, this time his eyes were fixed on me and his jaw was set. I stared at him. Again he brought forth the image of the beautiful woman—her smile, his laughter. Then his mind turned rapidly to his own supplication before Aro. The woman had been killed—by werewolves? By other vampires? It seemed Marcus was unsure.

But it was clear he had once made the same request, and received the same answer. Stay your course, he repeated, and the undercurrent of his thought was palpable—death was better than his existence.

Aro’s head whipped in the direction of Marcus as well, and I saw his eyes narrow. Marcus looked away, and Aro’s face swiveled back toward me.

“So, Edward? Might you consider?”

“No,” I answered quietly, being careful to hold Aro’s gaze. From beside him, Caius hissed.

This was exactly what I said, was it not? He is far too mulish anyway. Let him die.

Aro sighed. “Then we part ways, Edward.” He gestured to Demetri and Felix, and the two glided toward me. I turned with them back toward the heavy wooden door. I am loathe to take away your will. “But Edward?”

I raised my eyebrows.

“I beg of you. Run from here. Fly back home. Give my brother Carlisle my well-wishes. Do not force my hand, for it would be a travesty to lose you.”

Spinning, I faced Aro once more.

“It would be a travesty only to you.”

I can think of others. And again, Carlisle’s face swam in Aro’s mind. I winced.

“He won’t fight you,” I answered his unspoken thought. “He’s not a vengeful man.” I turned away from Aro and strode toward the door with the two thugs at my side. We had barely reached the door, however, when Aro spoke again.

“I hope for his sake that you are right, Edward,” he answered to my back. “But I confess that I learned a long time ago not to underestimate my old friend.”

And with a low thud, the door swung closed behind me.

The alleyway reeked of urine, human and canine, and it was littered with trash—some fresh from the revelers in the square, others weeks old and turning to mush with decay. I stood with my back pressed against the cool stone wall. Humans would not recognize the nearly imperceptible difference in the height of the sun over several minutes, but I watched it move as my moment drew nearer.

It was deceptively simple, this plan. Demetri and Felix had released me into the dark sewers with a hissed warning to heed Aro’s advice, although their thoughts revealed that they were both looking forward to tearing me apart. I had remained in the sewers for several hours, pacing and planning. I had considered a hunt in the main square: mass disruption, mass hysteria. The guard would unfailingly tear me apart on the spot.

But in the end, it was too much. Carlisle wouldn’t have wanted it. And moreover, Bella wouldn’t have wanted it. At least I would depart the world with some shred of dignity. Bella had held steadfast that I was not a monster. And although I disagreed, I was loathe to make my last act one which proved her wrong.

I would simply step into the sun. It would be enough. The square teemed with thousands of people, laughing, dancing to the live bands, buying merchandise and food. They would all see.

I watched as the sun drew nearer to its apex, and the clock ticked closer to noon. A family passed near the mouth of the alley—two girls in crimson dresses, with their hair tied back in matching ribbons. The smaller girl tugged at her father’s hand as they walked, begging him to stop at the cart ahead for a gelato.

I wondered how long it would take. I knew Felix and Demetri had been following me all morning. Surely the rest of the guard was nearby, but in the stench of vampire that surrounded the city and with the cacophony of thoughts and voices from the crowd in the square, it was difficult to be certain. Surely they would not risk further exposure by eliminating me in sight of the humans, but I hoped it would be quick.

The sun and the clock moved just a little nearer, and I closed my eyes, letting the sounds of the revelry wash over me. Bella’s face swam behind my eyelids, her hair thrown behind her as she smiled. The thrum of the crowd became the pulse of Bella’s heart, that day in the meadow when I’d laid my cheek against her chest for the very first time.

“Edward!”

I smiled as her voice came to me just as surely as her image had.

Would I lose these illusions in death? Would I lose Bella? If Carlisle’s estimate were sound, then the answer was no. We would finally be inseparable and equal. If I was right—well, there was no hell worse than that which I was already in. I recalled Marcus’s vacant eyes.

His fate would not be mine.

“Edward, no!”

The clock began to toll, and my eyes returned to the family in the mouth of the alley. The smaller girl clamped her hands over her ears.

I stepped away from my discarded shirt, focusing on Bella’s beautiful image, and hoping to hear her voice one last time.

“No!” It came, more forcefully again, even as the clock tolled. “Edward, look at me!”

And I did look at her. In my mind I saw her, as I had always seen her, the beauty she failed to see, the love she exuded, that she was willing to give to a being as wretched as me. I saw her as she had never seen herself: as the only one I would ever love.

“I’m sorry, Bella,” I whispered. “I love you.” I felt the smile spread across my face as I lifted my foot.

If it weren’t for my reflexes, I might not have known anything had run into me at all. The thing started to fall backwards, and I caught it before I even knew what it was. I realized that its heart thrummed and its warmth spread against my bare chest.

And the scent.

I opened my eyes to see that my illusion had become reality. There she stood, solid—or at least, it seemed so. I felt myself smile. How had it happened so fast? I shook my head and laughed. It was no matter. It had happened. And somehow, we were together again.

For one final time, my father had yet again proven me wrong.

“Amazing,” I muttered. “Carlisle was right.”

Her voice was gasping. She was out of breath? Was that even possible? Should she even need to breathe? “Edward,” she managed. “You’ve got to get back into the shadows. You have to move!”

I felt a light pressure against my chest as the clock continued to ring. It had not yet struck the full twelve. Demetri and Felix must have literally been right behind me.

“I can’t believe how quick it was,” I mused. “I didn’t feel a thing—they’re very good.” I smiled, thinking again of Marcus. He had been right, too. I had been delivered from the world I had managed to end and directly back to the world I wished to inhabit.

Pressing my lips to Bella’s soft hair, I recalled one of our last blissful moments together, as we watched Romeo and Juliet together on her couch. “Death, that has sucked the honey of thy breath, hath had no power yet upon thy beauty.”

The clock rang a final time.

Bella’s tantalizing scent still enveloped me, raising the searing pain in my throat. “You smell just exactly the same as always. So maybe this is hell.” I kissed the crown of her head again. It had been a small price to pay in life, so it would be in death. “I don’t care. I’ll take it.”

The pressure on my chest returned. “I’m not dead! And neither are you! Please Edward, we have to move. They can’t be far away!”

I frowned as she seemed to struggle to get away from me. Who was far away?

“What was that?”

“We’re not dead, not yet!” She pulled away from me. “But we have to get out of here before the Volturi—”

The Volturi.

Heaven shifted, and I crashed back to the world I suddenly realized I had not left. One part of my mind wanted to ruminate on the fact that this was real, Bella was not dead—but the other part threw me into instinctive action, cutting off all other thoughts. I placed my hands on her shoulders and wrenched her behind me against the wall, throwing my arms to my sides and therefore to hers. My eyes darted, looking for the danger I knew was coming, and surely, it was.

From the end of the alley, the cloaked figures were already gliding toward us, their eyes shining in the reflection of the noon light. Easy, Edward, one thought, but I shook my head, steeling myself for their approach.

This time, I had reason to fight.

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