The Count of Tuscany

Chapter 12

Volterra - May

My Bella, my Bella, my Bella. Edward repeated the mantra over and over in his mind, in time with her heart.

His mood swung from elation to despair by the moment.

Bella's here with me and she loves me. Thank God she still loves me.

Bella's here with me. I wish to God she was far away and safe.

He was a mess, and he knew it.

Last night he and Bella talked and kissed until she’d fallen asleep and then he'd escaped to his balcony and the sky, away from the crushing walls and the blackness in his mind.

At least he had the satisfaction of knowing he’d stunned Aro into breaking the mind link. While Edward hadn’t been sure he wanted the ancient vampire to know about the watchers in the hills, he definitely didn’t want him to know about the reconciliation with Bella, so he'd turned Aro's gift against him.

He forced himself to summon up every feeling of despair and desolation he’d felt during all those months he’d descended into fiery thirst. As Aro touched him, Edward assaulted him with images and feelings, insanity and loathing, until his enemy’s shocked mind was wide open, thus allowing him access to the sensations that caused Aro the most pain. Edward redoubled his efforts. He sharpened his focus and strengthened it, and he was rewarded with an instantaneous feedback loop that grew in intensity. Aro knew nothing other than the attack on his mind and snatched his hand away.

The effort had taken its toll on Edward, too, but he’d had Bella to take care of. She'd barely recovered from his attack a few days ago and was now pale and shaking again.

He'd stayed inside those walls and looked after her while trying so hard to keep it all under control, and then she'd flung it back in his face. Didn’t she understand that without her there was no light, no air, no life? She'd told him to end her as though she meant nothing, and he could survive without her; as though his effort to control his nature meant nothing.

I've got to feed. I can't think straight.

At first Aro had been furious that Edward managed to stop himself from draining Bella, and he let Edward know it. But then his anger had subsided and he was almost gleeful.

Excellent. Now you will provide me with more sport, of a kind I've never before encountered.

Aro had let him know Heidi was due that afternoon and amused himself all night with plans to test Edward's limits. He would start small, maybe let Edward hear them feasting. Then for more fun and games, he’d invite them both to the next one and pit Edward against the mutant..

It echoed Edward's own fears. Even if we get out of here, I can't go home. I've broken the treaty. Will Seth attack me when we meet again? Before, he would have just let Seth take him down, but now he had Bella to protect. No! I won't kill Seth!

Marcus held a shred of sympathy, when he thought of anything at all, but he allowed time to drift by. He would think about going to see whether the bond was real between Cullen and his pet, and again the fog would envelope his mind.

Caius was disapproving of Aro's games. In his view, this was inefficient and Aro should simply get rid of them.

When Bella awoke the next morning, Edward handed her a paper with his plan written on it. He could see his idea frightened her. It scared him too, but he couldn't think of an alternative.

"I promise I'll do it quickly. It won't hurt for more than an instant."

"I know,” she said, always trusting. “You're thirsty and you don't really have any choice. I'll be okay." She'd tried to smile. "I just wish we didn't have to do this outside."

"The fresh air will dissipate the scent, so maybe you won't feel faint. Just don't look, ok?"

They'd waited until most of the castle's inhabitants were together watching a soccer match, Italy versus Germany, and Italy were down a goal. He could hear Demetri and Afton describing the torments they would have imposed on the referee and various players whose tactics displeased them.

Now he and Bella sat on a stone bench in the center of the courtyard under the blessedly open sky, the sun warm on their backs. He hugged her a little tighter and looked around. It was time.

As Bella closed her eyes and put her head in her hands, Edward lunged.

The cat didn't make a sound as he snapped its neck and sank his teeth in. The rush of blood was brief, barely enough to coat his throat, but every fiber of his being roared with need.

Keep your focus. You can do this without killing Bella.

He whirled to the next cat as he spit fur.

My Bella, my Bella, my Bella.

He drained eight more as he felt the returning glow of strength. The aches and stabbing pains from half-healed ligaments and torn muscles faded away. Drinking the blood brought a familiar but much-missed euphoria; that glorious feeling of power, building and flowing, at once everything ... and totally inadequate. This was sustenance, this was healing, but there should be more. His instincts demanded something larger and sweeter that ran on two feet.

More. He needed more. There was real prey here, larger, luscious. Why was he ignoring it?

A movement caught his eye.

Instantly he had it, hair pulled out of the way, head tilted, neck bared and ready for his teeth. Oddly, it didn't struggle.

"E-Edward?"

You can't have this one! Leave her alone.

He didn't move for several seconds as disappointment went through him, quickly replaced by anger, first at her, then at himself. He lifted his lips from her neck, not trusting himself to move quickly. His instincts screamed at him to sink his teeth in, just - there.

"Bella, don't you know better than to turn your back on a predator?" His voice was rough with the effort of restraining himself.

"I didn't think," she whispered. "I felt dizzy and wanted to move into the shade."

Get a grip. This is Bella.

"I frightened you." His shoulders sagged. "I'm sorry." He waited until her breathing and heart rate settled down. Then he took her hand and they walked across to a shady bench. He stood nearby, afraid of her reaction and, he had to admit, afraid of himself.

After a few minutes she gave him a hesitant smile.

"What?"

"Your eyes are gold. Dark, but getting lighter."

As the blood continued to flow into every cell of his body, relief made him feel almost giddy. Edward smiled back. “You really have no sense of self-preservation.”

Bella patted the bench next to her, and as he sat she took his hand. "Welcome back. Gold is way better than red. It doesn't clash with your hair."

"Fashion tips from you? Alice would be proud."

The lighthearted moment was all too brief. They'd been heard.

As they got to their feet, Caius, Aro, and Renata emerged through the far door and into the courtyard. Edward moved in front of Bella. As expected, Caius radiated annoyance, but Aro was still smiling.

"I admire the spirit of your continued defiance, Edward. It amuses me how determined you are to protect your pet." Aro allowed the memory of the ballet studio to replay in his mind, reveling in the taste of Bella's blood and how it soothed Edward's throat. Just as they had in the marble chamber all those months ago, Edward's venom ducts reacted and a shiver of longing swept through him, despite his recent escapades.

Your gambit is useless. You say you love her, but you will kill her. The issue is simply when. You could make that time now, instantaneous and painless, while she is unsuspecting. Do you love her enough to do that? Or will you continue our game, knowing you will lose? What will you force her to witness and how much will she hate you for it before you give in to the inevitable?

Bella took his hand and he looked at her. "I don't know what he said, but I trust you. You're not a monster."

"The effrontery of these modern humans." In a second Aro stood in front of Edward. "They pollute, decimate and breed out of control, carelessly forcing into extinction any species for which they have no use. Yet she calls us monsters."

Bella trembled and Edward put his arms round her.

Aro directed his words to Bella. "You have the power of speech and some limited cognitive abilities, my dear, but do not consider yourself Edward's equal. He stands at the pinnacle of creation. You are his natural food source. He should treat you accordingly.”

That's when Edward finally understood Aro's limitations. He knew all of Edward's thoughts about Bella, all his struggles to cope with the lure of her scent, and he could recall them at will. But it wasn't enough. Aro gained the memories too easily; he hadn't lived them day-to-day. Never learned this kind of restraint for himself, so he understood only the difficulties, not the reward of achievement and real love.

”Bella, hey, look at me." She did. "Don't listen. He's wrong."

"Am I?" Aro laughed. "This little morsel will destroy you - has destroyed you - but at least I can thank her for the sport you both provide. For a little while longer." He walked away. "Since you've cleared out my feline friends, let’s see how keen your pet will be to kiss you when you've fed on a few rats. Be warned, though, it’s said they carry Hantavirus. But then, maybe you should. It would add a certain piquancy to her flavor. And I do so love a good hemorrhage, don’t you?”

0o0o0o0o0o0o0o0o0o0o0o0

June - Five weeks later

Edward's tolerance had been pushed beyond limits Bella never thought he could reach. After he fed on the cats they'd had two weeks of isolation without seeing another vampire. Over time his eyes had darkened until the gold had almost gone and the purplish circles were deepening each day. One afternoon Edward stopped speaking mid-word and gave Bella a panicked look. They'd discussed what they'd do when Aro made his move, and now it was time. As the Voluri feasted, Bella hid in the bedroom with the door closed while Edward sat on the balcony, curled up and muttering to himself.

The following week they were sent for. She could hear the screams of the other humans as the Volturi fed. Keeping out of the way as much as they could, Edward held her tightly in his arms as she pressed her face into his chest. She'd heard him snarl whenever any other vampire came close, but the rest of the time he repeated, "This is my Bella, this is my Bella." When they'd finally been released, he'd had to carry her back to their apartment where they huddled fully clothed under a hot shower.

Seth had been kept cooped up in his cell. Jane had been in charge of him for months now. Her feelings weren't warm enough to be described as friendly, but at least she didn’t want to make him miserable and she took seriously her orders to keep him healthy. Having contact with someone immune to her power and who didn’t seem to hate her had been refreshing. Now he was anxious from being kept underground for so long.

The next little diversion they provided was for Aro, the ever-present Renata, and a few of the guard. There was one other vampire in the room whose eyes were bright red. He wasn’t very tall but was more heavily muscled than Edward. Aro's instructions to him were simple: drain the human or die.

The fight had seemed to go on forever, although Bella could see little of it. She'd see Edward and his opponent frozen for an instant before a blurred flurry of movement, crashes, screeches and roars and then another freeze-frame. All the while the other vampires laughed and jeered as Edward kept the stranger from her. It was difficult to see who was winning until suddenly Edward staggered backward. The other vampire was on the floor, a crumpled mess of limbs and seeping venom, writhing and twitching as they tried to reassemble. That day, Edward leaned on Bella on their way back to their tower.

They'd stopped talking about what they'd do when they got home. Bella no longer hoped anyone would rescue them. After all, no one had come for Edward in all these months, and it was only a matter of time before he was overcome - either by thirst or a stronger vampire.

She couldn't bear to talk or even think about her home. Her days were spent in a tedious tension, wondering when they'd be summoned. Together she and Edward cooked her meals, but she didn’t have an appetite. She forced the food down to please him, to ease his obvious guilt.

He didn't eat rats.

Sometimes they’d lie in each other's arms, just holding each other. At other times Edward murmured his excuses and retreated to the fresh air, shuddering with the effort of maintaining control.

They kept music playing day and night.

They were cuddled together on the sofa as evening fell, waiting for the courtyard to cool before they ventured outside. Bella rested her head on Edward’s chest and he ran his fingers through her hair. Then he turned rigid and tilted his head.

"What...?”

"Seth. Escaped."

For a wild moment, Bella felt a surge of happiness.

"They - they're armed with pikes." Too fast for her to see, Edward was on his feet, poised. "They're after him."

"We've got to help him," she said.

Edward looked toward the window, back to her, and then to the window again, face twisted with indecision. "I can't leave you! They’ll give you to Demetri!"

Bella steeled herself. "Put me on your back and run."

"But ..." He stopped for a moment and then swung her onto his shoulders and dashed out.

0o0o0o0o0o0

Just as Edward and Bella darted into the courtyard, Seth burst in from the other side. Bella gasped when she saw the huge sandy wolf instead of the spindly little kid she hardly remembered. His muzzle was drawn back to show his teeth and he snarled at Edward, clearly not recognizing him. He crouched ready to spring or to run, she wasn't sure which. Edward stopped as Seth bulleted toward them, his mouth wide open with huge curved teeth. At the last moment, Edward sidestepped, running his hand along Seth's fur as he pounded past. "Stop, Seth."

The wolf whirled, paws sliding along the flagstones. Then he stood, fur on end, ears pricked, radiating astonishment. He yelped.

"Hi, pal." Edward stepped forward and briefly rubbed his head. "I know you did ... tell you later."

Seth nodded, tongue lolling in a wolfy grin. Then he wheeled around and headed through the nearest door.

They ran down the stone-flagged corridors at dizzying speed, skidding round corners. Even though she was scared to death, Bella loved that she was doing something she never thought she’d do again. The familiarity of wrapping her arms around Edward’s broad shoulders and the smoothness of his running filled her with good memories. She tightened her arms around him. He must have understood because he touched her hand.

Seth grunted as he loped alongside. He and Edward seemed to be having a conversation. "No idea. They won't give you up .... never had a chance, but maybe now ... not on my own, but with you ... yes ... "

A few seconds later Edward grabbed Seth's shoulder and they almost stopped. "Take Bella." He swung her from his shoulders onto Seth's back. She grabbed at the fur behind his neck. "I'll be right behind you."

"Edward!" He couldn’t be…

"Bella - I love you." He turned away. "Go, Seth."

Bella gasped and clutched harder at the fur as Seth sped away. She heard crunches and roars, the sound of boulders smashing together, and heavy stone blocks tumbling. She tried to turn to see whether Edward was following, but Seth was like a giant, furry rocking horse, and it took all of her effort not to slide off his back.

The world lurched and she was flying, twisting. She crunched into the wall, rebounded, and then landed on something large and springy. Seth yowled close to her ear, staggered, and slipped sideways. Momentarily dazed, Bella looked around. Seth was on his side with something sticking out of his shoulder. He writhed and seemed to be trying to reach it with his teeth. It was some kind of wooden shaft, buried in the muscle.

She looked up the passageway. Two of them had Edward. He was on his knees with his arms stretched wide and held back. "Are you hurt?" he said as he battled uselessly against the hands that held him.

Reflexively she shook her head and then looked down to see blood all over her. "I don't think it's mine." Her head felt light.

The two vampires holding Edward dragged him to his feet and away. He still fought to get free while calling to her. Demetri appeared as Bella rolled onto her hands and knees and tried to clear her head so she could follow. Demetri swept her up and carried her after the others. She tried to see back down the passageway. "Seth...?"

"They'll bring him." Demetri grinned down at her. "I normally relish the sight of a blood-dipped snack, but wolf just isn't your flavor."

0o0o0o0o0o0

Bella wanted to scream.

Demetri held her to the side of the dais, a few feet away from Edward. Though she knew it was useless, she fought to get free.

Edward was held fast as he faced Aro and Caius.

Somewhere behind her, Seth was snarling, and then he yelped and fell silent. Three of the vampires had forced him into the chamber and were pointing large spear-like weapons at him. One of them had prodded him, drawing blood. The larger wound he'd been given a few minutes earlier was only beginning to heal, and he limped badly.

This had to be it. There was nothing left. Her ears were ringing, and every noise clashed in her head, but at the same time sounded muffled. Everything was happening in a dreamlike slow motion. She heard her own shallow breathing.

Aro said, “This game has grown tedious, Edward. Kill her now or I shall dismember and burn you in front of her, and then Demetri will have her.”

She didn't want Edward to have to kill her, but they'd left him no choice. They’d come so far and endured so much, but now it was all over. She knew that no matter how much it hurt him, he'd do this for her. He'd make it quick and painless. She might not even see it coming, but what would they do to him afterward? How much more would they make him suffer?

Everyone was silent, waiting for his answer.

Through tears, Bella noticed a slight shift in his posture, a stillness and tension in his shoulders before he slowly lifted his head again. His voice shook. "If I do this, you'll have no satisfaction from it. I'll just be your instrument."

"Oh, believe me, Edward, I will have plenty of satisfaction."

"Then can we at least have a few minutes of privacy?" Aro was unmoved. "Please, I love her. Don’t make me do this here."

"And spoil everyone's enjoyment? Are you such a fool?”

"Marcus doesn't think I'm a fool. He understands."

"Yeeesss. Our poor brother is not himself."

"Marcus is weak." Caius said. "Aro, end this nonsense."

"Please," Edward said. "Five minutes."

"You procrastinate. Since you won’t choose - Demetri, find an artery …”

“No!” Then something in Edward’s expression shifted. The lines of stress and fear softened and smoothed away and were replaced with love and longing. For a few lingering moments, neither moved nor broke eye contact until he gave her a small, sad smile. Even through her tears Bella could see he'd never looked more beautiful.

"Don't cry, Bella." His voice caressed her. "You'll be all right now, Love." He turned back to Aro and closed his eyes. "I refuse."

Bella's legs gave way and Demetri caught her.

Aro was laughing.

All Bella could do was hang, half-supported in Demetri's hands as Aro stepped forward. With an almost casual gesture he put his hands around Edward’s neck and twisted. There was a screech and then a surreal moment when Edward's body knelt, headless. It toppled sideways and gracelessly slumped onto the floor.

Seth howled. A look of shock crossed Aro’s face and his laughter stopped. He dropped Edward's head and tottered back a step.

Caius grabbed Aro’s sleeve. "He told you something as you touched him? What was it?"

"He said, 'Carlisle'."

The doors crashed open.


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