The Count of Tuscany

Chapter 11

There was a noise, faint at first. It was a harsh, dragging, grating noise that repeated over and over, eventually accompanied by a pounding thud. The sounds grew louder as a familiar rhythm developed and she realized that she was hearing her own jagged breathing. The thudding centered on a dull pain in her temple, an ache that felt as though her head would split.

A gravelly voice said, "Thank heaven. I thought I lost you there, Love." There was warmth on her forehead as someone stroked her hair. "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry."

Other senses were returning. The acid stench of vomit all but drowned out the smell of her blood, and she tried to turn away from it when the skin of her shredded forearm screamed red-hot agony, and she cried out. Her whole body was shaking uncontrollably, her breath shallow and gasping. She felt sick, cold and clammy. The only relief was from warm hands on her face and shoulders.

Nausea overwhelmed her again and as she retched, someone held her head, wiped a warm cloth over her face, and held a cup of water to her lips.

She was too tired to move. She couldn't speak, and even her eyelids were too heavy to open again. Instead, she merely lay on her side while slow thoughts passed through her brain and she drifted, half-dreaming. She remembered Edward, the image of his teeth as he'd sunk them into her arm. Would he attack again? Had someone stopped him? How? She'd never realized before how much energy it took just to speak, but she finally managed to lift her head with a slurred, "WhezzEd'ard?"

There was no reply. With a ton of effort, she half turned, and it took her bleary vision a few moments to focus. Edward was sitting on the floor, bending over her, his hands on her shoulders. For the first time since she'd met him, he truly looked like the undead. His beauty was still there, but now it was corpse-like.

He'd gotten rid of most of the gray dust, but his hair was still bleached of color, dust still clung to his lashes, and his irises were almost black. There were chalky grayish streaks across his face as though he'd hurriedly washed it, but a darker streak stood out along his jaw line. A part of her feared him, but her overwhelming emotion was pity.

Whatever had gotten him to this state must have been extreme, yet somehow he'd stopped his attack and despite his current condition, was still practicing the same restraint. She stared, horrified, for second after second as her brain slowly took in what she was seeing.

His hesitant smile faded and he looked away.

"Wha' happened t'you?"

He turned back to her, his expression severe and harsh. "Punishment." His usually beautiful voice was like the grinding of broken glass.

He looked at her throat and swallowed convulsively, then turned away again. "Rest."

The next time she woke up, she felt comfortable and warm. She'd actually slept soundly without dreaming, but she supposed that was the result of her exhaustion.

She was in bed, covered by a blanket, and there was music playing, some classical piece turned low. Her head still ached and just looking around made her feel dizzy again. Several small bottles of water and cartons of orange juice stood on the nightstand and as soon as she saw them, she realized how dry her throat was.

With an effort, she elbowed herself up, and then leaned back into her pillows for a few moments, breathing heavily. With her left hand she picked up one of the bottles and although it was small, it felt heavy and her arm trembled as she lifted it. She hugged it to her a moment, summoning her strength.

"Drink in sips. You need to rehydrate slowly," Edward said from a distance. She saw his shadowy figure in the doorway and could just make out his face; he still wore the hard, angry expression she'd seen earlier. When their eyes met, he looked down. "I'm sorry. I'll never be able to apologize enough. I didn't..."

His hands tightened into fists and he turned, almost fleeing toward the balcony and, she assumed, the fresh air.

"You need to stay away from me, Bella." His words hurt, even though she hadn't expected him to be pleased to see her. "Drink!"

She lay back against the pillows, resting the neck of the little bottle against her lower lip and sipping as weak tears steadily made their way down her face and into her hair.

A few minutes after she finished the water she tried the orange juice, but it stung her throat, made raw by her screams. Feeling dull and numbed by exhaustion, she dozed.

When she woke, she could see brightness round the half-closed door. Her forehead tingled and the unmistakable scent of Edward hung in the air, mingled with another, more familiar, everyday smell - hot buttered toast. A plate was on the bedside table where the empty bottle and carton had been. She nibbled, taking her time, lethargy slowing her thoughts.

She must have slept again because the light had changed. For a few minutes she simply lay still, taking in the fact that she was sleeping without nightmares, and then gradually realized she needed the bathroom.

At first she felt too groggy to move but eventually she sat up, wobbling a little as one leg slid over the side of the bed, and it felt as though someone had turned gravity up a notch. She rocked, tenderly, holding her bandaged arm to her chest as she slowly peeled back the covers, noticing she was wearing an unfamiliar T-shirt, and her jeans were gone.

Suddenly, Edward was in the doorway.

"I - need the bathroom." She managed to stand, but her head swam and she immediately dropped back down on the bed.

"Do you need help?"

"Please." Her voice was little more than a weary whisper.

Edward walked slowly over to her, keeping his gaze averted and holding his palms forward as if to show he had no weapons. Like before, his face was set hard, his lips pursed as if he was trying not to speak. Still, he was gentle as he helped her to her feet and supported her across the room. His touch was warm, and it made her recall the warm hands from earlier.

"Why don't you feel cold?"

He gave her a half smile. "I warmed my hands over the stove."

He'd clearly showered; the gray dust was gone and he was dressed in jeans and a sweatshirt. The physical signs of his punishment, whatever it had been, were all washed away, but he looked gaunt, starved.

"What did they do to you?"

He shook his head and she continued to study him as he wound his arm around her waist and half-carried her to the bathroom.

"What about your family? Alice?" Were they here, too?

"Don't know." He lowered her until she was perched on the side of the bathtub, and then he was gone.

Bella stared at the doorway, shocked, as questions slowly formed in her still-sluggish mind. She knew why Edward had been punished; he'd explained the laws only a few days before he ... he'd left, but she thought that Carlisle and the Volturi were friends.

She'd brought the Volturi wrath down on Edward and his family. Did he hate her now? Had he just been following Carlisle's rules when he didn't finish her off? He'd always said he didn't want to be a monster, but she'd brought him only trouble from the first day they'd met. He looked so angry, his expression so hard and ... haunted? What was he hearing from others in the castle?

Back in bed, she huddled miserably under the covers.

When she'd been on the run from James, Edward had planned to take her away, and the thought of being locked up in a room with him had seemed like her idea of heaven. Now, it seemed like hell for both of them.

Seeing what they'd done because of her, she could understand why he'd wanted to leave her. He was right; she wasn't good for him. She'd nearly destroyed him and – with this thought a cold sweat broke out all over her body - she still might. It wasn't over yet.

It hurt too much; she didn't want to be bad for him.

Again she drifted off to sleep and dreamed she was in the forest, fear twisting her gut, a hole in her chest tearing her apart, the nothing waiting there to suck the life out of her. Edward stepped out from the trees, smiling, skin shimmering as he held his hand out to her. But as she ran to him, he got farther away, and when she called out, her voice made no sound.

"Come to me, Bella," he said in his loving, musical way, and she wanted to tell him she was running as fast as she could, but again she choked on her words.

That's when she saw the huge wolf slinking up behind him. Its attention was entirely on Edward as it stalked toward him, muzzle drawn to reveal its enormous teeth. The faster she ran, the slower she got as Edward just smiled at her, never moving, and the scream froze in her throat as she tried to warn him.

The wolf sprang, sinking its teeth into Edward's shoulder. He didn't fight or try to push the wolf away, but his smile faded. "Oh, Bella," he said in a way that broke her heart, just as the wolf engulfed him.

At this point her voice returned and she screamed, "NO! Please don't hurt him!" and stumbled forward. Then Edward's soothing voice came from far away, and she immediately calmed. "My Angel…"

Bella stayed in bed the next couple of days sleeping, or, more accurately, passing out from the exhaustion of simply being awake. Whenever she awoke, there was fresh food and drink nearby and Edward's scent in the room as though he'd just left.

She understood; he was avoiding her. The scent of her blood must be driving him to distraction. When she'd first found out about him, she'd looked up blood loss and its effects. She'd once asked him whether he might be able to just have a taste. Suddenly he was fifty yards away, staring at her with a mixture of fury and horror for long seconds before he said, "Are you out of your mind? D'you think I could just sip and stop?" He'd stayed there for several minutes, his hair taking the brunt of his agitation as he tried to get calm.

Yet, he had stopped. Twice now. This time under circumstances she couldn't imagine.

They had one brief conversation: she in bed, he in the doorway constantly glancing toward the French windows. She learned that Edward and Seth, the kid who'd disappeared from La Push, had been in Volterra since December and that Seth was in a cell or a dungeon somewhere below one of the towers. The Quileute tribe had a secret - they transformed into vampire killers - werewolves - and this had happened to Seth. She remembered her former friend Jake. She'd barely seen him since the previous year's Prom, and she wondered whether he'd transformed too.

Edward's replies were cautious. At first she thought it was simply because he was trying not to breathe her scent, but then she realized he was filtering the information, and her stomach twisted with an odd thrill that she still knew him well enough to see this. It must be important. She could do this for him - help him - play along. At one point their eyes met and she gave a small smile and a brief nod. Edward blinked, and then his expression softened, but the moment soon passed and the bitterness returned.

She didn't bother to ask why Aro had brought her here; Edward's dark-circled eyes and her bandaged arm were answer enough.

Edward kept either the radio or television on permanently. He said it was to disguise their voices and her heartbeat. As she thought about this, Bella shuddered and felt nauseated again. What thoughts was Edward hearing? They were surrounded by - how many? - dozens of vampires of all ages – throughout the castle and in the courtyard outside. She could sometimes hear their voices and laughter. From Aro's deceitfully warm welcome, it was clear her life was worthless, and their treatment of Edward must have been cruel. Though she'd asked many times, he'd refused to tell her what they'd done.

Bella longed to go to him, to run her hands through his hair and to feel his arms around her, but she kept her distance like he'd told her, while he stayed on the balcony. It made sense that he'd want to breathe air untainted by the scent of her blood.

In contrast to the hot Italian sun outside, the tower was comfortably cool. They kept the doors open, and Bella could see the heat shimmer over the roofs in the distance. It reminded her of Phoenix. Given the care the Cullens took to stay out of the sunlight, it seemed odd to see Edward's skin ablaze. He admitted he enjoyed the feel of it, and in a moment when he seemed to forget their situation, held his arms at just the right angle to direct the rainbow reflections onto the ceiling. Bella looked around the room at the little multicolored speckles dotted across her body, and then at Edward in surprise. His smile melted away, and he shuffled to an unlit spot.

She knew it was useless to love him, but when she looked at him her heart sped up, as it always had, and he heard it each time. He'd tilt his head almost imperceptibly in her direction for a few seconds, and then move back to his former position.

He said little. When he moved he was careful, and she came to realize he was in pain. It tore at her to see him so reduced from the strong and determined Cullen who used to tease his brothers and spar with Rosalie. She wanted to help him, but unless he had to, he wouldn't come anywhere near her. She wondered what words she'd really heard when she'd first awoke.

The dream came back the next night and, like before, just as the wolf took Edward down she screamed her warning and then felt comfort. In the morning all she could remember was the peace that came when she'd dreamed she heard him whispering to her.

Every day the burgundy of his eyes darkened a little more toward black.

Bella spent the third day dressed and resting on the sofa, trying to watch DVDs and read, but she couldn't concentrate. Edward was immobile out on the balcony, slumped in the corner, all knees and elbows, still staring into the sky as though his life depended on it. Again and again she found herself watching him, miserable because of the gulf between them.

On the fourth day, she felt a little stronger and more active. Despite the apparent calmness of their little apartment and lack of contact by any of the other castle inhabitants, she felt more and more frightened, and her tension increased until she wanted to scream. Small noises startled her and she continually glanced behind her. When she hugged herself the way she used to, she stopped suddenly as the movement shot red-hot wires through her arm. Each time she drew in a sharp breath, Edward's head shot up.

A little while later as Edward was taking a shower, a glimpse of color outside attracted Bella's attention. Edward appeared in front of her, arms wide, looking out toward the courtyard. At the far end, hanging by the fingertips of one hand, was a vampire, and he was staring straight at her, his mouth open in a broad grin, showing his teeth. Then he swung effortlessly from one finger hold to another, until he was close to their balcony.

Edward let out a throat-tearingly savage bellow which the stranger returned, and Bella's eardrums buzzed with the assault of sound as she staggered backward. Edward stayed near the door, keeping up a constant stream of threatening roars and snarls, crouched as though ready to spring. Bella knew he wasn't at full strength - far from it - so if it came to a fight, he stood no chance, but all she could do was sit, gasping with shock and fear.

Then she saw movement outside as the vampire dropped silently from the wall. A second later Bella heard a loud, deep crunch that she felt through the floor.

"Alec made him lose all sensation," Edward said.

The oak door opened. Aro swept into the apartment with Renata close behind, openly scrutinizing Edward and saying nothing, just holding out his hand. Edward took it, looking him straight in the eye as a barely-concealed wince crossed Aro's face, and he seemed to almost snatch his hand away before turning to Bella, as smooth and suave as ever. She thought Edward displayed a glimmer of satisfaction.

"My dear Bella, allow me to congratulate you on your recovery. You look simply delicious. I must also apologize for the unfortunate intrusion just now. Most regretful. My friend outside is a visitor and heard about you. He'd been merely curious until he caught your scent. I'm afraid you're just too delectable."

Bella stared at Aro, unable to take her eyes off of him. His smoothly polite sincerity was more menacing than if he'd threatened her. Edward hissed.

"I trust your needs are being met? I have now given orders to safeguard your privacy. This tower is clear, so you need not fear further interruption. I understand you'll require exercise, so the courtyard will be kept for your use, although you are at liberty to explore the rest of the castle if you wish. No one else will approach you."

Bella jumped as Edward blurred into a hunting crouch, feral, guttural sounds emanating from him. As she'd suspected, Aro's thoughts must be contradicting his words.

Renata positioned herself in front of Aro, but he waved her away. "Do not make yourself ridiculous, Edward. Challenge me and I give her to him anyway."

Edward slowly straightened, clearly trying to get himself under control, as Aro waited patiently.

Finally he said, "If you even think about leaving to go hunt, I will give your pet to Demetri. And if you try to change her, I will burn you both."

The color drained from Bella's face and the room swam. She knew what vampires could do, but to hear him say it so casually made it real. She flopped back against the arm of the sofa and closed her eyes, feeling sick to her stomach as she began to shake.

"They're gone." Edward sounded angry and afraid. "Are you all right?"

She slowly raised her head, and his image swam, but she could still see his face. His eyes were wide and staring, lips drawn back to expose his teeth. With his ferociously angry expression and dark-rimmed eyes, he looked truly dangerous; an angel of death who could kill her with a gesture. Yet, as he really looked at her for the first time since his attack, the anger melted away and his face softened. Within a few seconds, before her stood the Edward she used to know.

This was how he'd looked at her when she'd thought he wanted her forever. He'd even looked at her this way in the forest, just after he'd told her he didn't want her, when he'd dropped the pretense and shown her how wrong she'd been to think he cared. Aro was right. She'd been a pet, nothing more. She'd fallen for his smiles and attention, and had provided him with a temporary distraction from the long decades of his life. He'd dazzled her. They all had, and then they'd left without a backward glance.

But she'd loved him, and even though he'd told her the same often, it had never made sense. Still, she'd even believed him until he'd broken her, and now she couldn't bear to see that look, knowing it meant nothing. Knowing he was using it just to placate her.

"Of course, I'll always love you ... in a way."

Wrapping her arms around herself, she said, "In what universe would I be okay with any of this?" She gave a halfhearted gesture and he reached for her, but she flinched away. "Don't." She didn't want this; his kindness without his love, so she curled up, trying to block out the world.

"Here."

Edward knelt in front of her, holding a mug and helping her to grasp it, careful not to touch her. It was hot chocolate, and she took it, holding it carefully in her still-shaking hands. His eyes were large and afraid, his every movement hesitant. Instead of going back to his normal station on the balcony, he stayed there watching her, probably to make sure she drank it.

"I won't let it happen, you know." His voice was low, but earnest. "I'll find a way."

She sipped, fighting her longing and desperately trying to find something else to focus on. "What happened when Aro took your hand? He didn't like it, did he?"

Edward hesitated for a second before he said, "Jane had used her - gift - on me, and he felt the memory of it. It's rather - painful and he didn't want to prolong his agony."

As he'd done earlier, he was telling lies to protect her, obviously still feeling that same sense of obligation. His innate good manners and possibly a lingering but worn-out fondness hadn't let him abandon her to these monsters. He should be able to go home. It was all her fault he was here, and she didn't need to read Aro's mind to know they were never going to let her go, but there was a way she could free them both.

"You should escape, Edward."

He shook his head. "I'm sorry, but I'm not strong enough to carry you. They'd catch us before we cleared the roof."

"I - I meant alone. You could do it."

He pushed back from her. "I'm not going to leave you to him!"

This was it. Bella steeled herself. "I d-don't mean that. You c-can be strong wh-when you go. With Aro starving you, you'll wind up doing it anyway. You might as well—"

"No!" Suddenly Edward was across the room, in the doorway. He looked wild, poised on the balls of his feet, staring at her with wide eyes, one hand in his hair and the other dug into the wall, turning the stone to dust. "Are you out of your mind?"

"It's the only way."

"No!" She'd never seen him so angry. "Bella, if you value my sanity, please just ... go where I can't see you."

She hesitated.

"Go!"

She fled into the bedroom.

0o0o0o0o0o0o0

Again she had the nightmare of Edward and the wolf, but this time she fell and fell as she screamed out her warning.

"Shhh, shhhhh, it's all right."

Something cool brushed across her forehead and smoothed into her hair, calming her.

"Angel…"

"Shhhh, you're okay. It's just a dream."

She opened her eyes to find herself bundled up in the blankets, Edward's anxious face close to hers as he held her to him and brushed his fingers across her face and gently through her hair.

"I'm sorry, I'm sorry," he whispered. "I know I frighten you now, but I just ... I needed to hold you. Please. Just for a moment. I swear, I won't hurt you."

"I'm not afraid of you."

He frowned. "I - I fed on you." His beautiful face twisted. "And earlier, you didn't want me near you."

Bella looked into his eyes, and her thoughts scattered.

"Tell me," he said.

"You always used to look at me like that, back when you ... when I thought you ..."

"Tell me," he said again.

She closed her eyes. "Back when I thought you loved me."

She tried to pull out of his arms, but he didn't release her.

"You think I don't love you?" His tone was wondering, then suddenly hopeful. "You think I don't love you. That's it, isn't it? You believed my lies." He took her face between his hands and looked down at her. "Bella, I have never stopped loving you! The lie was when I said I didn't want you."

She couldn't take it in. He couldn't be saying this.

She didn't know how long she wept. At first she was lost in the release of her emotions, all her confusion, fear, love and hurt tumbling out as Edward enveloped her, rocking and shushing her. Eventually she felt a sense of calm, broken by jagged breaths, and her mind began to clear and function again. She allowed him to hold her, aware that his cheek rested on her hair. Then she straightened her shoulders and looked up through bleary, swollen eyes.

He gave her a hesitant smile. "Hi."

"What's real?" was all she could manage to say as she braced herself for his reply. If she'd misunderstood or somehow gotten it wrong, she wouldn't be able to handle it.

He sounded forlorn. "What's real is that I don't deserve you. I lied to you and hurt you, but heaven help me, I love you." Suddenly he was talking fast, the way he always did when he was agitated. "I'm sorry, I'm so sorry. If I'd had any idea, any inkling, there's no way anyone would have dragged me from your side..."

Her thoughts were in a whirl, not making sense. He seemed to be apologizing. Why? It was all her fault.

"I thought it was the best way to protect you, so you could have a happy, healthy human life. The life you deserved and I could never give you. I thought they wouldn't find out about you once I was gone."

"But I've caused you so much trouble. It's because of me that you're in this mess"

He shook his head. "No, none of this is your fault."

"I thought you'd hate me."

"Never." Then he drew in a deep breath and said, "I have to ask something. Every night you call out to someone in your sleep. Your ... Angel. Do you love him?"

"You know you're my Angel, right? And I've always loved you."

As he stared at her she felt her cheeks burn, and she put her hand over her face. For a few excruciatingly embarrassing moments, neither of them moved until he gently grasped her wrist with cold fingers. "You love me? Still? After everything I've done to you?"

She nodded and suddenly he was hugging her tightly, her head pressed against his chest, and he was laughing.

"Please say it again."

"I love you, Edward."

"Please, again."

"I love you, Edward."

"Please don't stop. I can listen to you say it forever."

"I love you, Edward."

For the first time in what seemed like an eternity, she was able to laugh when he said, "You know, I've spent all week terrified you were dreaming about Mike Newton, and I couldn't even kill him for it."

He finally pulled back, and the relief on his face was evident.

"Bella, I've been such an idiot. I love you, and I'll love you for as long as I exist. I would have come back to beg your forgiveness, but I was ..." He seemed to search for words, "detained."

She kept still, not sure how he was maintaining control as he brushed his lips across her forehead. And then ... and then ... Bella held her breath. She'd longed for this moment, convinced it could never happen. He held her face gently as he kissed her. They were both careful, keeping it soft and light, but it was more than enough.

She didn't care that she was held prisoner in a castle full of vampires.

He was healing her now.

0o0o0o0o0o0o0o0o0o0

Billy watched Charlie in concern as he tried to wrap his mind around what they'd told him. He was glad his friend knew, but it would take a while for him to be comfortable with it, and probably with him.

Sam was talking to Esme when Carlisle jumped his feet, holding out his hand for the phone. "Yes, of course, Mrs Cullen. I'll put him right on."

Billy could only hear Carlisle's side of the conversation as he tried to put it together.

"Tell Alice I'm fine … She can't see us? Seth and Edward were together, and I'm here with Sam right now, so it's possible being in close proximity to the pack blocks her … It's good Jasper's helping to keep her calm. I know she must be frustrated." He pulled his cell from his pocket. "Reception's poor here... Yes, they've made me very welcome … Well they were very grateful Edward defended one of their boys … Yes, they have a way of making contact, oddly enough through mind reading ... Seth appears safe for the moment, but it's been a while ..." He paused again, looking over at Sam. "Please don't get your hopes up, but there may be a chance for Bella. Make the calls and start the mailings, then fly up here ... I know ... we'd always hoped it would never come to this … I love you too, dear … I'll see you soon."

As he put the phone down, he was surprised to find Billy smiling.

"What are you going to do?" Charlie asked.

Carlisle drew in a slow, deep breath. "Gentlemen, we're going to blackmail the Volturi."

..000…000…000…000…000..


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