“Momma, look at this!” Nessie said, holding out her colouring book to show me another perfectly coloured picture. This one was of a princess in a long ball gown; her dress was decorated in various shades of blue, her dark brown hair topped with a yellow crown, and Nessie had very carefully coloured her eyes in an orangey-yellow colour, leaving her skin the creamy white shade of the paper.
“It's you Momma.” she proclaimed proudly.
“Me?” I gasped, pretending to be astonished. “Really?”
She nodded, still smiling, and I smiled back.
“It's lovely darling. well done. What do you think guys?” I said, taking the picture from her and showing it to the twins. “Did Ness do a good job?”
“Yeah, yeah!” EJ said enthusiastically, nodding and bouncing a little. The toy truck in his hand rattled noisily. “Pwetty 'ike Mama!”
Elizabeth nodded, then let out a huge yawn and rubbed her eyes sleepily.
“Tired baby?” I asked, and she nodded again.
I glanced at the clock, suddenly realising how late it was.
“Well no wonder!” I said. “It's almost an hour past your bedtime!”
I stood, scooping her up as I went. She immediately leaned against my shoulder and closed her eyes. Though he didn't appear to want to sleep, the connection between the twins meant that EJ couldn't help but be affected by his sister's fatigue; he gave a yawn of his own and his eyelids drooped. I leaned down carefully to pick him up, and he also settled sleepily against my shoulder.
Nessie hadn't moved; she was flicking through her book, clearly trying to choose her next project.
“Bed time Ness.” I prompted her.
“Not tired.” was her casual response; the page turning didn't even pause.
“You need your sleep darling.” I insisted. This time she simply shook her head. I sighed. She was a crafty little thing; she knew that I couldn't carry her to bed as I might have done if I hadn't been holding the twins. She had Jacob wrapped around her little finger, so he was no help. Edward seemed to be focused on the conversation between our parents at that moment, but thankfully he was paying more attention than either of us realised.
“Do as you've been asked please Renesmee.” he said in a calm but authoritative voice.
“But Daddy...” she protested, clearly about to use her 'Daddy's Little Princess' routine to get what she wanted. Edward wasn't fooled.
“No buts.” he told her sternly. “You've already been allowed to stay up late, and you need to go to sleep now. Pack up the toys, say goodnight to everyone, and go up to bed.”
Grudgingly, she submitted. I waited by the stairs while Jake helped her put all the toys into a pile in the corner ready to be put away properly in the morning, and watched as she went around the room wishing everyone goodnight one by one. Edward came to stand beside me, kissing the twins softly on the forehead as Nessie finished hugging her aunts and uncles , kissed Jake on the cheek and moved on to her grandparents. She hugged Esme and Carlisle as usual, then paused for a moment before doing the same to Charlie, startling all of us, him more than anyone; he'd been looking at me and hadn't even registered that she was there.”
“Goodnight Grandpa.” she said shyly, moving on to Phil before he could collect himself enough to respond. Phil seemed a little surprised too, but her managed to give her a quick stiff hug in return. Her interaction with Renee was much warmer; she smiled as she said, “Goodnight Nee-Nee.” and beamed when Renee returned her hug and replied, “Goodnight darling, sweet dreams.”
I felt myself smiling too, satisfied that at least one of my parents wanted to know the children and be a part of their lives, which, while not perfect, was a start; hopefully things would improve with time.
Nessie joined us by the stairs, and Edward bent down to hug her.
“Good girl.” he whispered in her ear, and her face glowed with happiness. She kissed his cheek, and he kissed both of hers before letting her go and straightening up. She scampered up the stairs ahead of me; I shook my head indulgently and followed. EJ waved sleepily over my shoulder, and there was a light ripple of laughter from behind us. Elizabeth was already asleep, her thumb firmly wedged in her mouth, and EJ was snoring by the time we reached the nursery. I dressed them for bed carefully and tucked them into the crib with a soft kiss on the forehead, then went to tuck in Nessie, who was yawning despite her insistence that she wasn't tired.
“Momma, do you think Grandpa Charlie will like us soon?” she asked drowsily as I tucked the covers around her.
“I hope so baby.” I sighed, smoothing her hair down a little. “I really hope so.”
She pursed her lips for a moment.
“I think,” she said slowly. “If we're very nice to him, maybe he'll be nice to us too.”
I smiled. “Maybe. It wouldn't hurt to try.”
She hummed in agreement, closed her eyes and was asleep almost instantly. I gave her a soft kiss, then made my way back downstairs to join the others.
They'd moved on to more serious topics in my absence, and I quickly ascertained that someone had asked a question about the Volturi, and Carlisle was explaining their role in our world more comprehensively that Edward had been able to earlier. Phil was less confused – he had finally gotten a proper explanation – and he smiled at me when he saw me. Alice, Jasper, Rosalie and Emmett had come back to the main group, presumably to better join in with the conversation, and they sat side by side on the floor with Jacob, forming a little semi circle with the two couches and the armchair that Charlie sat in. For lack of another seat, I perched myself on the arm of the sofa beside Edward, but this was clearly not good enough for him; no sooner was I settled than he pulled me down into his lap. I squeaked, much to my embarrassment, and buried my head against his neck, hiding behind my hair when everyone turned to look at me. I smacked his shoulder; he just chuckled, tucking my hair behind my ear and kissing my forehead softly.
“Sorry for the interruption Carlisle.” he said, polite and composed as ever. “Please, go on.”
Carlisle just smiled and nodded, continuing with what he'd been saying. I peeked at Charlie; he had an odd look on his face, like he was trying to figure something out. I gave him a tentative smile. He just kept frowning, clearly perplexed by something.
I looked up, startled. “Sorry Carlisle, I wasn't paying attention. What was that?”
He smiled. “I was wondering if you might be able to explain the Volturi's appearance better than I can. It's been a while since I saw them.”
“They won't have changed much.” I hedged, not really wanting to relive those particular memories. I fidgeted uncomfortably and Edward gave my waist a reassuring squeeze.
“That's true,” Carlisle allowed. “But I see them in a very different light than a human would. I thought perhaps your perspective might be more relatable to our guests. Of course...” he paused slightly, his calm expression dropping into a concerned frown. “If you're uncomfortable, I would understand. I know your interactions with them have been far from pleasant.
I grimaced. “That's an understatement.”
Carlisle nodded, and Edward squeezed my waist again, kissing my neck softly.
“You don't have to if you don't want to, love.” he murmured.
I bit my lip for a moment, considering, then sighed and nodded. “Alright, I’ll do it. Give me a minute to remember.”
Everyone waited in patient silence as I closed my eyes and tried to call up the foggy human memories, attempting not to cringe as the terror and stress came back to me; the three human heartbeats were the only sound in the room.
“They were... very beautiful,” I said at last. “But it was a frightening kind of beauty. They had red eyes – dark red when I saw them, more like burgundy – and the ancients had this cloudy film over them. I wondered if it made it hard for them to see. The guard were like most vampires, but the ancients... Aro at least, I didn't see the others up close... his skin was all powdery looking, kind of fragile. He had bodyguards too, and at first I thought it was a bit silly for a vampire to need them. Then I thought maybe he was as delicate as he looked. His hand felt like shale...” I shuddered.
“He touched you?” Charlie said, sounding aghast and a little angry.
I nodded. “He has the power to read all the thoughts you've ever had, just by touching you. He wanted to see if it worked on me, since Edward can't read my mind.”
“Did it?” he pressed.
“No,” I assured him. “No vampire ability that works inside the mind can affect me. We don't really know why.”
“Perhaps we should ask Eleazar.” Edward mused. “He can sense the talents of others, and it could be that your immunity was some kind of precursor to a more developed talent.”
I blinked, surprised by this new theory. “Can that happen?”
“It's not unheard of.” Carlisle chipped in. “I've always wondered if talents aren't just powerful enhancements of prominent human traits.”
I considered that possibility; that my mental glitch was actually the human manifestation of a talent.
“We could invite the Denalis down for Christmas.” Esme suggested. “They've been eager to meet the children anyway; it would be nice to have the whole family together for the holidays, and we could ask Eleazar to see if he can read Bella at the same time.”
“Do a lot of vampires have talents?” Renee asked curiously; Charlie flinched at her casual use of the V word. “I know you said not everyone does Bella, but it sounds like it's pretty common.”
“Particularly in the Volturi.” I said with a nod, seeing where her mind was going at once. “Aro is, among other things, a collector. He collects precious artifacts and jewels, histories of our kind... but he also collects talents, and they are his most prized possessions. He loves people who are especially beautiful and powerful, who have very rare or strong talents, and he always wants the best that he can get. He's also very inquisitive.”
“Aren't the others?”
“Not that I could tell. Caius seemed more aggressive to me, more interested in the justice aspect of things, and Marcus didn't seem to care about anything. He looked incredibly bored.”
There was quiet for a moment as my parents mentally analysed all this new information.
“I'm surprised you remember so much,” Edward whispered in my ear, too low for anyone else to hear. “considering you only met them once under rather stressful circumstances.”
He was frowning, as if the idea that I’d held on to that particular memory was upsetting to him.
“We were together.” I whispered back, stroking my fingers through his hair soothingly. “I don't want to forget a single moment I’ve spent with you, no matter how distressing.”
I kissed his cheek and gently scratched his scalp with my nails, making him purr and lay his head on my shoulder.
“What I don't understand,” Charlie said, frowning, “is what makes them think they've got the right to control your lives so much. I mean, I assume they weren't elected, so what claim do they have to authority?”
I shrugged, as did most of the others. Carlisle sighed.
“As with so many other things in our world,” he said wearily. “the Volturi's rise to power was centred in violence. What made Aro decide he wanted to rule, I don't know, but by building a guard based on talent, with only a few purely physical fighters, he succeeded in overthrowing the coven in Romania who held power at the time. He convinced the other vampires of the world that secrecy was our only chance of survival, and as more were created and those who defied him were killed, his power solidified, until we reached the current climate, where the overwhelming majority have never know a world where the Volturi weren't in charge. And they have grown and strengthened themselves, and built a reputation for swift action and no second chances, so that they are the most formidable force imaginable. Jut the mention of their name inspires fear. No one would ever think to oppose them, and actually overthrowing them would be virtually impossible.”
“Are they omniscient or something?” Phil wondered. “How do they know when people break the rules?”
“They monitor news networks mostly,” Carlisle replied, clearly skirting around the first question. “and Aro uses his talent on everyone who visits him, so he can quickly spot any possible power-plays against him. We are also encouraged to report any transgressions we are aware of, which helps him immensely. Many of us have lost loved ones to the Volturi's justice, and it can make some vampires very respectful of their laws.”
He glanced around the room slightly nervously; Jasper and I had stiffened at the mention of 'omniscience', both of us remembering Edward's description of Aro's desire.
“Alice at his one hand and me at his other... the present and the future... virtual omniscience.”
I shuddered lightly; Edward gave me another soft squeeze, and I saw Alice lean up to kiss Jasper on the cheek. I thought at first that the small movements might have gone unnoticed, but I failed to take into account the fact that my parents were currently being much more observant than they usually were.
“Something wrong Bella?” Charlie asked. Renee was giving Alice and Jasper a concerned look.
“No, nothing.” I insisted, trying to control my expression.
“We should tell them.” Alice contradicted in a calm voice, designed to sooth me. I glared at her, but she seemed unaffected. “It may cause problems later. If so, they should be prepared.”
“Prepared for what?” Renee asked nervously.
I ignored her. “That's as may be, Alice, but I certainly don't like thinking about, and I would think you wouldn't either.”
“Nevertheless,” Edward interjected. “She's right. It's probably best for them to know.”
“Know what?” Charlie thundered, very impatient now.
Edward turned towards him, face grave, voice calm. “As Bella said, Aro is a collector of talents. His offers of guard membership are always presented as optional – everyone is, supposedly, free to refuse or leave whenever they wish – but he will do whatever it takes to get his hands on something he really wants. When what – or, more precisely, who – he wants already belongs to another coven, he is inclined to become jealous of that coven's leader. Unfortunately, we have become subject to that jealousy.”
He paused briefly, glancing at me. I was still as stone, tensed as if to spring at some unseen enemy. Jasper was in much the same state, his arms in a vice grip around Alice where she had climbed into his lap. Emmett had an uncharacteristically serious expression on his face, and Rosalie and Esme both looked distressed. Carlisle was grave and stoic on the outside, but to someone who knew him well it was clear that he was upset.
“I have something he wants.” he murmured softly, sadly. The humans just looked more confused, as did Jacob, who hadn't been informed of this particular little detail.
“When we were in Volterra,” Edward continued. “Aro offered us places in the guard. He actually made an offer to all three of us, much to everyone's surprise, but of course we all refused.”
Alice and I nodded in unison. She seemed perfectly relaxed, but I knew my nod was stiff and terse.
“Listening to his mind, it was clear what he desired.” Edward was utterly serious, but far too calm for my liking when discussing such matters. “He values our talents, Alice’s especially but mine as well to a certain extent. Having someone who can see the future would allow him to intervene before situations become dire, but also to see what adversity he can expect from his enemies, and whether an attack against his power is imminent. And though he can read minds himself, he covets my ability to hear without physical contact, from some distance in fact, given concentration and familiarity. In his mind, such abilities would give him complete control over any situation, and knowledge that could be put to use as part of his own agenda. Of course,” He smiled sadly. “He has seen into both our minds, and he knows we are unlikely to accept any offer he might make us as things stand. Our current attachments to Bella, Jasper and the rest of the family are far too strong for us to even think of taking him up on it, no matter how he coerces us. He does not understand those bonds. The only relationships he can comprehend are those formed in order to increase one's own power, but ours are much stronger bonds than those. He knows all this, and so it is clear to him that we will never be his as long as our family remains. Alice worries that he may find some pretense of punishment in order to wipe out the others, sparing us for some contrived reason.”
“I haven't actually seen anything,” Alice jumped in, seeing, I guessed, the aghast expressions on the faces of all the non-vampires in the room. “But it seems to me to be the sort of thing he would do.”
I growled, frustrated, and buried my face in Edward’s neck.
“You're mine.” I mumbled possessively. “He can't have you, not ever.”
“Shh, my love,” he soothed me, rubbing my back gently. “Of course he can't. I’d sooner die than be his, especially if you were gone.”
I just snuggled in closer to him, pleased when he held me tighter in response.
Charlie was shaking his head disbelievingly. “It all sounds so crazy. I don't know how you all haven't gone insane yet, wondering when it's going to happen.”
“Well, it's still an 'if' at the moment,” Alice corrected him. “And we tend not to concern ourselves with it as a general rule. Vampire politics are horribly complicated, so we just stay well out of it.”
There were nods and murmured agreements around the room.
“Do you see other vampires very often?” Renee asked.
Carlisle shook his head. “Not really. As you've probably gathered,
we're a bit of an oddity in our species. Only our cousins in Denali
share our commitment to preserving human life, and everyone else sees
us as rather strange and eccentric. We're also fairly large as covens go, and far more
settled than others here in the US. Most of our kind, in the north at
least, travel around in small groups of two or three, or even
sometimes entirely alone, living a nomadic life to avoid discovery.
Including the children, we now have eleven members, about four or
five times the size of an ordinary coven.”
“That's another reason Aro is so suspicious of us,” Edward chipped in. “Because we're getting so large. Caius particularly sees that as a threat, and he's somehow got into his head that we're building an army against him and intend to launch a coup. He wasn't thinking of it himself, but I think he mentioned it to Felix, and his mind was not was closed as it should have been last time we met.”
“You never told me that!” I protested, frowning at him. He waved it off as if it didn't matter, which irritated me, and I crossed my arms over my chest in annoyance.
Phil chuckled, then tried unsuccessfully to hide a yawn behind his hand. Renee smiled at him sweetly and patted his head.
“As much as I’d love to stay and hear more, I think we'd better be going. We've had a long day, haven't we honey?”
Phil nodded and rested his head in her shoulder, pretending to fall asleep like a child. Everyone laughed as his silliness, and I got up to walk them out. Charlie stood as well, stretching.
“Yeah, I'd better be going too. I don't think I even locked the house before I went out.” He made a face, showing how annoyed he was for that little lapse in judgement.
I smiled, standing opposite the three of them by the door. “I hope you guys will come back soon. It was really good to see you, to get to talk to you about all of this. It means a lot to me that you listened.”
“No problem honey,” Renee said with a smile. “It was good to see you again too, and to see you so well.”
She leaned in to hug me, and I hugged her back gratefully. Phil kissed my cheek, and then Charlie gave me a tentative hug of his own.
“I love you Dad,” I whispered into his ear as I hugged him gently. “I'm really glad you came to see me today.”
Sure, I was laying it on a bit thick, but I really didn't want to lose him, and I wasn't afraid to guilt-trip him if it kept him in my life. He only grunted noncommittally in response before leading the way out to the cruiser. Renee got in the back seat with Phil, and Charlie seemed to take a little bit of sadistic pleasure from seeing them behind the bars of the partition.
Jake got up from the floor and came to the door as well.
“I think I should be heading home too,” he said regretfully. “I keep meaning to tell you, my sister Rachel came home from college a couple months ago, and she got imprinted on by Paul of all people.”
I cringed, and he nodded in understanding.
“Yeah. And he's spending a lot of time at our house, so I figure I better get back there and kick him out. Billy's too nice to do it, and of course Rach doesn't want him to leave.”
I smiled. “Well, good luck. Thanks for the warning about Charlie. And make sure Billy knows everything's alright, won't you? I'd hate to think of him feeling guilty about all this.”
He grinned. “Will do. I’ll see you guys tomorrow.”
I nodded, and there was a chorus of goodbyes from inside. Then Jake kissed me on the cheek and jogged down the porch steps as Charlie started his engine. Jake seemed in the mood for theatrics, and he turned to wink at me before phasing right there in the middle of the lawn, his jean-shorts shredding instantly. I shook my head at him, while the humans in the car stared at his retreating form in wonder. Then Charlie seemed to shake himself slightly, put the cruiser in gear and drove off, Renee waving distractedly out of the back window. I waved back, then closed the door and breathed a sigh of relief.
“That went better than expected,” Jasper commented dryly.
I laughed. “My thoughts exactly.”
Emmett and Rose had already vanished, gone up to their room, and Jasper was packing up the chess sets while Alice turned off the computer. Esme was admiring her drawing, tilting her head side to side to see it from different angles while her hands swiftly put all her pencils back into their case. Carlisle smiled down at her, his arm tight around her waist. It seemed that everyone was getting ready to go to bed, gearing up for the guaranteed alone time that the night provided. The only one who wasn't going anywhere was Edward, who stayed slumped in his seat on the couch with his head tilted back, eyes closed and a contented smile on his face.
Esme sighed happily, satisfied with her work, and closed her sketch book. Almost instantly, Carlisle swept her up into his arms and she squealed with surprise as he disappeared up the stairs with her. Jasper and Alice laughed their harmonious laughs and followed them, hand in hand.
Alice turned and waved. “Goodnight Bella.”
“Goodnight.” I said, waving back.
They vanished, and it was just me and Edward in the living room. He still hadn't moved, so I went over and plonked myself back in his lap. His smile grew as his arms encircled my waist gently, carefully, as if I were still the fragile human of a few weeks ago.
“Do you realise how incredible you are?” he asked, finally opening his eyes to gaze at me in wonder.
I just smiled back. “So you tell me. Nearly every day.”
He shook his head. “I didn't mean just in general, although it's true, you are. I meant today specifically. You realise that that's the first contact you've had with full humans and you didn't try to kill them? Even when Charlie was making you angry, you didn't lose control at all. I mean, you haven't exactly been acting like a typical newborn, but that level of self control in someone your age is unheard of.”
I tilted my head to the side and frowned a little. “Is that wrong?”
“It's different, but not necessarily wrong. You're confusing the hell out of Jasper, for sure, but there's nothing wrong with you. Control is a good thing love. It means you'll be much more mobile much sooner. I wouldn't be surprised if you could handle being out in public before too long.” He cupped my face in his hands gently and looked deep into my eyes, as if he could read all my secrets there. “What I wouldn't give to see into your mind, to see how it works. You seemed determined to be my little mystery, love.”
He grinned to show he was teasing, and I giggled, shoving his shoulder playfully. He winced theatrically and looked wounded, which turned the giggles into a full blown laugh.
“You know you can always ask me if there's something you want to know.” I informed him. “You've never hesitated in the past.”
He shook his head. “There are too many questions, too many things I want to know. If I asked you every single time I wondered what you were thinking, I would be asking you all the time. I would just have you narrate your thoughts to me in their entirety, which would be tedious if nothing else.” He smiled and leaned up to kiss my cheek softly. “But you should know, Bella, how proud I am of you today. You continue to surprise me, again and again, and I am so glad that you do, that I get to spend forever working out just what makes you tick.”
I smiled down at him, then gave him a soft kiss of my own on his lips.
“I love you.” I breathed, because somehow I hadn't said it yet today.
“I love you too.” he replied, then swept me into his arms as Carlisle had with Esme and carried me upstairs to show me just how much love he had to give.