The castle was quiet.
Jasper walked in front with Alice, holding her hand. Each guard they passed grinned inanely and did nothing to stop them.
Carlisle noticed that little seemed different from his last visit, nearly three centuries ago. The stone-lined corridors were worn a little smoother, the tread of many feet had deepened the grooves in the steps, and the furnishings were a mixture of styles from down the years, but that was about it.
Emmett, Rosalie, Carmen, and Eleazar brought up the rear.
Carlisle looked back to make sure Sam and the pack were all right. They crowded together, noses wrinkled in disgust, and looked warily at the vampires they passed.
Esme tightened her grip on his hand. "He was here. And Bella and Seth, too."
Carlisle's reply was to gently squeeze her fingers as he heard sad murmurs from Rosalie and Emmett.
"Can you hear two heartbeats?" They stopped and listened. One beat was large and powerful, the other clearly smaller, with a human rhythm. Both raced.
Seth howled, and they all broke into a run.
Carlisle sprinted down several corridors and flung open the doors to the marble chamber. He paused. Aro and Caius stood across from him. For the briefest moment, Aro looked shocked, but he recovered quickly and beamed. Caius's expression was as irritated as ever.
The scent, that scent, filled the air and the world came to a shuddering halt as relief and joy washed over him.
Edward! My son lives!
There was an instant of stillness as everyone became a frozen tableau.
Something lay at Aro's feet, ungainly and ... a body, its shape achingly familiar. Nearby, a head. Horror replaced his joy.
Edward? No! We were told you were gone...
Next to him, Esme started forward with a cry, but he had enough presence of mind to hold her back. Then he held up his hand as a warning to the rest of his family but could sense their mixed relief and anxiety.
Carlisle, think, dammit!
Oh, Edward, couldn't you stall them? But Carlisle knew the answer. It was you or Bella, wasn't it? I'll get you out of here, son. It's going to be all right, I promise.
Aro laughed. "We're having a little entertainment this evening, old friend. Such a pity you missed the overture, but now that you're here for the main event, I promise it will be inflammatory."
He choked on his fury. His instinct was to dart to Edward's side and let everything else go to hell. He knew his glare must be murderous. His vampire instinct was thrilled by the prospect of savagery and violence. Renata stood poised, ready to deflect his attack.
"You don't like this, do you, my friend? Seeing what you've caused?" Aro said. "The man one calls brother always proves the worst traitor." He drifted toward the front of the dais. "Your betrayal was ignominious. An honorable man would have stood penance for his and his coven's crimes, yet you skulked in your far land. And now you trespass here, uninvited and unheralded in the manner of thieves, accompanied by those who are the mortal enemies of our kind."
Eleazar said, "Gently, friend."
Jasper sent a momentary wave of peace as a reminder of their mission, and Carlisle looked away from Aro and down to the crumpled body on the floor. Losing his focus and diverting Jasper's energy wouldn't help. Years of crisis training kicked in, and he pushed the anger aside. For now.
Bella was alive. Hurt? No, wrong shade, wrong scent–wolf.
Thank God, they haven't hurt her.
Seth. Wounded, bleeding, heart rate fast but strong. Angry snarls. Aware.
Bella was almost choking, eyes wide as she strained forward, seemingly unaware of anything other than Edward. She clawed at Demetri's hands.
Aro turned his attention to Carmen and Eleazar. "But this surprise is far from unwelcome. We miss you, Eleazar. May we hope that you have reconsidered your decision to live in the outside world and return to our service?" He smiled at Carmen. "And your beautiful mate, too?"
Carmen gave him a stiff nod, while Eleazar gestured toward the Cullens and said, "Thank you for your welcome, Aro, but we are here to support Carlisle. He has given us disturbing news that will affect us all. We think you should hear him."
"Indeed?" Aro swept around to extend his smile to Caius. "Has our friend delivered these other mutants to us, just as his son did?"
Gasps from the pack were drowned in Seth’s feral snarl. Sam laughed.
A low rumble came from Emmett's chest, and he flexed his shoulders as Felix squared up in front of him.
Aro hissed and Renata moved between them.
Carlisle fought his anger as it threatened to overwhelm him. His son lay lifeless on the floor, and Bella was almost hysterical as she tried to free herself from Demetri. Coldness gripped him when he thought how it could have gone the other way— if Charlie hadn’t found him, or he’d been too late. The notion fed, rather than quenched, his growing fury. He'd thought he could deal with this calmly, swallow his pride for the greater good and protect his family ... and the rest of his kind.
But he couldn't.
"I'm taking the children home."
Aro had been stalking toward Emmett, but now he whirled around. “Oh, I don’t think-“
"We have more important things to deal with than point-scoring. Humans have found out we exist and they’re studying us."
Carlisle pulled a thumb drive from his pocket. Such a tiny object, yet the data it held changed everything. He lobbed it to Caius. “They’ve been watching us for some years. It's all in there."
"Indeed?" Caius raised his eyebrows.
"And now they’ve learned about our physical makeup—”
“Then they’ve also learned they cannot harm us. This is an irritation, but it’s temporary. You do not impress me with your news.”
“Not so fast. Since our body cell structure turns crystalline, it can be disrupted—broken—by a specific resonant frequency. Many humans are engaged in research projects dedicated to establishing ours. Once they succeed, and they will, any vampire caught within a triangle of transmitters will shatter into a pool of venom and dust."
Caius looked thoughtful while Aro waved his hand. "Yes, yes, very interesting. But we're not going to stand by while they set up giant pylons."
"It’ll be a simple task to build the technology into small devices, such as cellphones. The signal doesn't have to be strong."
"Cellphones? They can do that?" Caius said. "We'll be exiled from the cities."
"Someone has allowed themselves to come to the humans' attention! Who has flouted our laws?" Aro shouted. "I shall personally supervise their torment for a thousand years." He stalked forward, scarlet eyes narrowing. "But do we need to look far, old friend? Is that why you're here, your whole coven and these shape-shifters? You've been noticed and now think to intimidate us into overlooking your transgressions? Is this your fool's game?"
. "It’s not us. It's you."
"You've spent thousands of years imposing your so-called ‘laws,’ while making yourselves known to religious leaders, haven't you? Terrifying them into submission? They couldn't do anything about you, had nothing with which to fight back. They kept silent because you left them no choice."
"It was necessary to maintain our power!"
"It was stupid! For centuries, you've had humans delivered like cattle. You've tortured them and slaughtered them in your feasts. You've grown lazy while the world has changed."
Aro snatched the thumb drive from Caius's hand and crushed it. Black dust seeped between his fingers. "This is all lies! It's you ... and him ... and them! Blatantly flouting our laws. You're trying to trick us because you've been detected. You're insane if you think any of you will leave here alive!"
"That wasn't the only copy. Unless we all return home safely, all our findings will be released to every vampire, human government, and television station. I've arranged dropboxes around the world, dozens of them."
"You've done what?" Caius said, sounding rattled for the first time.
"We've made it quite plain that you're the ones responsible."
Aro's voice climbed the scale. "We have not caused this! We rule this world. I'll destroy anyone who perpetuates such blasphemy and teach the humans a lesson they'll remember for eternity. I'll drain them to the last mewling babe!"
Caius was ignored.
"I shall torch your precious Edward and then skin and drain his human. All of you can join him under my courtyard. I'll mix his ashes into the concrete that holds you. When I buried him it took three months to lose his mind and I'll—"
Esme put her hands over her mouth. "Edward?"
Aro sneered at her, teeth bared, and Carlisle dropped into a crouch. Emmett followed and said "I'm gonna rip this two-faced coward limb-from-limb."
Esme gripped Carlisle’s shoulder. "Jasper? Would you please?"
As Esme stepped forward, Renata's eyes unfocused and her expression got dreamy.
Esme backhanded Aro across the face. He hurtled backward, crashed through his throne, and smashed into the far wall, shattering the stone blocks. By the time he leaped to his feet, Esme had her hand at his throat. She lifted and threw him again.
Emmett barreled into Felix mid-leap and Rosalie ran to stand in front of Jane, who narrowed her eyes and Rosalie fell, screaming. Paul and Leah were already darting across the room to loom over Jane. The little vampire faltered and froze, her delight fading.
Leah gave her an unpleasant smile. "You looked after my little brother and brought him books, so I'm not going to rip you apart just yet, but please give me a reason..."
Demetri dragged Bella to the side of the chamber, his teeth bared. Alice confronted him. "Give her to me."
"I take no orders from you, witch."
Chelsea and Corin ran to Esme, and Carlisle hauled them from his wife.
Silent shockwaves accompanied Jake and Quil as they phased, and their howls and snarls echoed Seth's.
Caius remained impassive.
In the center of it all, Jasper stood still with Carmen and Eleazar at his side. Carlisle saw him inhale deeply, and braced himself for whatever he was about to do. Jasper raised his head, closed his eyes, and clenched his fists.
The burst of feeling nearly brought Carlisle to his knees. Others fell. Bella screamed, despair turning it into an exhausted wail. Afton and Santiago dropped their pikes and Caius sagged onto his throne, while Corin whirled to find her husband. Jasper had sent love and longing, and he brought them to a standstill.
In the ringing silence that followed, the only sound was a soft rustle. Marcus was standing in the doorway, his hands held out as though warming them before a fire. Despite his youthful immortality, his face looked drawn and old from his centuries of grief. He took his time scanning everyone in the chamber. Carlisle saw, for the first time ever, the beginnings of a smile on his face.
Marcus looked at Bella for several seconds, then Edward. "We're letting them go. Carlisle is right. We have more important matters to deal with now."
Aro scrambled to his feet and pushed past Esme. "You're weak, Marcus, just as you were when Didyme—"
"Enough,” Caius said. “We're outmaneuvered. I agree with Marcus. We cannot risk destroying them now, however satisfying that might be."
“No! They do not dictate—“
“This is the result of your ambition. You instigated the laws to promote your rule over the vampire world, and now we have to deal with the consequences. Carlisle and his coven may depart. This is my decision.”
Lightning quick, Aro leaped at Caius’s unprotected back. They hit the wall with a thunderous crunch, dislodging some of the blocks. Stone chippings and mortar rained down. Aro screeched and hissed as he clawed at Caius’s shoulders and tried to sink his teeth into his neck. Caius somersaulted and tried to pull Aro from him. Then he slumped. Renata smiled. She’d obviously clouded his brain. Aro laughed in satisfaction as he pulled Caius’s head to one side.
Aro was fast, but Jake and Quil were faster. They bowled into Renata and knocked her to the floor. Felix and Santiago hauled Aro away, spitting and screaming. They forced him to his knees as Caius leaped to his feet and whirled. He reached for Aro’s head, but then Marcus was there, gripping his arm.
Caius snarled and bared his teeth, but Marcus didn’t flinch. “Don’t do this. You’ll regret it when your anger fades.”
“Get your hands off me!”
Marcus didn’t let go. “Think, my friend. We need him. We have to present a united front to lead our kind, now, more than ever.”
“Listen to him,” Carlisle said.
As Caius lowered his arms, Marcus turned to Renata. “Aro has always considered you to be his personal bodyguard. That is no longer true. Protect him at our expense again, and I’ll have you destroyed.” Although his voice was quiet, she shuddered and nodded.
Aro was writhing and screaming, demanding to be released.
“Lock him up.”
He cursed and spat, threatening Marcus and Caius as Felix and Santiago dragged him to his feet and wrestled him out of the chamber.
Carlisle looked around. To his left, Emmett and Rosalie knelt at either side of Edward. His head was back where it should be as he healed. Emmett's words belied the relief in his voice. "Bro, that's gotta sting."
Edward gave one slow blink.
"He's still in shock," Jasper said. "Take it easy."
Rosalie gave Edward a rare smile. "Trust you to do something dramatic," she said and stroked his hair. "It's good to see you, Edward."
Alice supported Bella and gently turned her. "Bella! Bella, look at me. Look at me! He'll be all right. Edward will be fine. Bella!" Alice helped her sit, and then drew her into a hug. Esme sat on her other side with her arms around her. Bella clutched at them and gave herself up to their embrace.
The pack clustered around Seth, patting him and whispering their hellos while Sam examined his shoulder.
Esme looked up and smiled. "Let’s get out of here. I want to go home."
Charlie sat with his head slumped, fingers linked behind his neck, mumbling into his cereal. "Vampires. I still can't believe it. My daughter's dating a vampire."
Billy patted his shoulder.
"And Alice.” He sounded hurt. “I liked Alice.”
“You didn’t like Edward?”
“He’s her boyfriend. I’m not supposed to like him.”
"Drink your coffee, Charlie," Billy said and nudged the mug closer.
"Last night I thought I had a handle on it, but this morning..." Charlie shuddered. “The way he looks at her. He's lit up like one of those Chinese lamps. I don't know how to talk to him. He looks like a kid, but he's a hundred and fifty or somethin'. I don’t know. I just don’t know."
He was silent for a few moments.
“They had to carry him onto the plane, you know?”
"Sue told me about it."
"They said that the vampire king ripped his head off but he was healing. Healing! Bella was in a hell of a state, crying and hugging me. I was no better, I can tell you.”
Billy said, “Sam told me Seth was shouting at him not to hurt Edward because he’s his friend and that if he'd been starved for five months, he would’ve bitten Bella, too. Here.” Billy picked up the coffee cup and forced it into Charlie’s hand.
“She sat next to him, holding his hand and he just lay there and looked at her, his eyes all black and hollow. It was weird how one minute he couldn’t do anything and then about halfway home he sat up and put his arms around her. I swear I saw Carlisle crying.
“By the time we landed he could just about talk and he told Bells to come home with me and he’d see her soon as he could. She didn’t like it, but she was dead on her feet. Alice carried her upstairs. It looked so strange, little Alice carrying Bella like she was a doll. I couldn’t bear to leave her alone. She started having nightmares and suddenly he was in the room, all healed, eyes that weird yellow color again, pleading with me to let him stay with her.” Charlie sipped his coffee absently, and then put the cup down.
“I didn't know what to do. I was exhausted myself. In the end, he just said to me, ‘Chief Swan, I understand this is very difficult for you but being so tired can't make it any easier. Why don't you get some sleep and I'll watch over her?”
“All I could say was, ‘You can't expect me to sleep with a vampire in the house.’ He just gave me that lopsided smile of his and said, ‘You don't need to start worrying about that now. We’re still the same…people…we always were. You just know a little more about us.’ I think he missed the point, but I couldn’t think what it was, either.”
Charlie rubbed his hand across his face. “And I don't know how the hell I'm going to explain all this to her mother.”
Edward held Bella close as they climbed the stairs. Emmett watched them, his thoughts serious.
Five months and you didn't eat her. This is amazing stuff, bro.
Edward nodded a thank you.
You know, with restraint like that, some day you could totally do Bella. Y'know, if you were really careful. Maybe. One day.
Edward stopped and pursed his lips. He thought over that night in Volterra, a few days after he and Bella were reconciled. She’d slept in his arms every night as his murmurs and caresses soothed away her nightmares. "Please," she'd said one night, over and over. "They'll never let us go. I want you. Please."
He'd found it so difficult to say no. God knew, he wanted her, too. He'd held her flushed, tear-streaked face between his cool hands, and when he'd shaken his head, she’d closed her eyes and more tears trickled into her hair. He'd kissed them away and leaned in to whisper, "Not here, not with an audience. Everyone in the castle would know and I won't do that to you. But if ever we get home, I promise we'll try."
Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Emmett looking up at him, radiating encouragement. Edward gave him the biggest, smuggest grin he could muster, then he continued on to Carlisle’s study as Emmett's thoughts spluttered.
In the study, Carlisle listened, grave-faced, as Edward told him about the telepaths.
“Contrary to what we thought, Aro considers me a threat. He doesn’t want Alice around, either.”
Carlisle rubbed his face. “I don’t know how to forgive myself for letting you go there alone. If I’d had any idea...”
“Don’t do that to yourself. It wasn’t your fault. You didn’t know Aro murdered Didyme any more than Marcus did.”
“I should have realized that if he couldn’t control you, he’d try to destroy you.” Carlisle drew in a shaky breath. “He nearly destroyed us, too. Sometimes I find it hard to believe you’re back with us.”
“I’m here and I love you, Dad,” Edward said and hugged him. Then he sat back down and sighed. “What do we do about Marcus? Should we tell him?”
“I think,” Carlisle said, “that we shouldn’t rush into anything. They need Aro as a figurehead and if we expose him, Marcus will likely to tear him apart. And if he doesn’t, Aro will probably try to get revenge on you. Right now, our main concern is to protect our family as best we can.”
When Edward saw the two photographs side-by-side on top of Carlisle's bookcase, he stopped to look at them while Bella browsed the shelves. The photograph of the Cullens and Bella from the previous year was now joined by first group picture of the Cullens and wolves together.
It was hot, with the promise of rare clear skies for the meteor shower that evening. A perfect day to have fun in the outdoors and enjoy a night under the stars. Carlisle was expecting some laboratory test results, so he’d waited behind and promised to join them later.
The rest of the Cullens and the wolves had packed up coolers and swim gear, and headed out into the National Park to a remote lake Alice hoped would be free from hikers. They’d spread out towels along the narrow beach and soaked up the sun for a while.
At first, they’d lazed around, enjoying the warmth as Esme gave them the latest news from Volterra.
"Aro's still in meltdown, blaming everyone but himself. They want to move out of the city, but can’t agree where they should go."
Sam had shifted to a more comfortable position. "Your family has sanctuary on the Reservation for as long as you need it, but we can’t protect you forever."
"We know," Esme said. "But it's not totally dire. Now that we know they’re looking for us, whenever they come up with something new we'll just buy up the stocks in the companies contracted to develop it.
"We're already making inroads into the telecoms industry worldwide. Life ain't boring," Jasper said and grinned up at the sky. "Esme hasn't told you the latest."
While Edward had snuggled Bella into his side, Esme looked ashamed.
"Caius and Marcus want the folks to become members of the Volturi. Make them seven instead of five. They figure we have 'skills' they can use."
Jake and Paul exchanged worried glances. Sam looked cautious.
"We refused," Esme said. "Our family can help if need be, if the Volturi choose to change their ways, but we won’t rule. We value our freedom."
"And there's no way I'm calling Carlisle 'master’,“ Rosalie said, and Emmett laughed.
"Be fun to hear Jane say it, though."
"And Esme could be his bodyguard."
"Hell, yeah! I bet Caius already thinks she's hot - ow!" Emmett rubbed his ribs where Rosalie elbowed him.
"Oh, hush yourselves." Esme looked embarrassed. "I'm not proud of that."
Edward tilted his head to the side. “Carlisle’s on his way.”
Alice glowered at him. I like the peacefulness of having the wolves around, but it can be so annoying, too.
For a while, the only sound was the lapping of the water on nearby rocks.
Then Edward laughed and everyone looked at him.
“What?” Rosalie said.
Edward tried to suppress his laughter, but his shoulders shook as he waved his hand.
“You’re so annoying. I knew I should’ve put your head on backwards.”
Alice thought, It’s good to see you laughing.
Carlisle appeared at the edge of the trees and loped to the beach. Even before he sat down, there was a chorus demanding to know what was happening.
“Edward, will you do the honors?” he said.
“No, you tell it. It’s your news.”
The Cullens looked expectant, the wolves, confused.
“It started when Edward told me about the shock the Volturi felt when they touched Seth’s fur, and I wondered why we weren’t similarly affected. It didn’t seem reasonable that it was caused by anything Seth was doing, so that meant there must be a physiological difference between us.”
“Oh!” Seth said. “I thought I zapped them with lightning power or something.”
Carlisle smiled at him. “Sorry, Seth, but from what I hear you’re quite formidable, so I don’t think you should worry.”
Jake said, “So what is it?”
“There’s also the difference in eye color between us and those of our kind who feed on human blood, as well as the cooperative rather than combative nature of our family. I’d always wondered about it, but was in no hurry to find out. Now it could be important.”
Carlisle and Edward smiled at each other.
“I commissioned Pacific NorthWest Laboratories to undertake some studies on samples I sent them. Their preliminary findings came through this morning. Because of the crystalline structure of our bodies, we sparkle in the sun. Of course, we need the venom so we can move our muscles, joints, and skin. Abstaining from human blood eventually causes the venom to change. It becomes more viscous.” He looked around. “One of the properties of quartz is that it conducts electricity and creates it when the crystals are stretched or compressed. When the Volturi touched Seth, the static electricity in the fur reacted with their piezoelectric skin. Edward’s venom is thicker and acted as a dampener, so he didn’t get a shock.”
There were nods all round. Seth looked disappointed.
“But why is Edward smiling like that?”
“Blood differs from one kind of animal to another. We drink from a wide variety of animals, so we absorb different chemicals. True quartz is changed when it’s ‘doped’ by chemicals and they alter its resonant frequency.”
Jasper sat up. “You think our bodies are different from the Volturi?”
For a few moments, no one said anything, and then hesitant grins began to appear.
“We’re on a different frequency?”
“Yes, and protected by our venom, too.”
Jasper laughed. “The transmitters won’t affect us, will they?”
Carlisle shook his head, beaming.
Emmett whooped. “Sheeeit! The Volturi will have to become vegetarian!”
Esme gasped. “Have you told them?”
“Yes.” Carlisle seemed gleeful. “Delaying could cost people their lives, so I let them know as soon as I got the results. They were …dismayed.”
“I saw Caius’s reaction,” Edward said.
Emmett stood. "Whatever. The Volturi can rule for all I care. I'm gonna play."
The joke within the pack was that Quil and Embry had imprinted on Emmett. Sure enough, they followed him to the water, followed by the rest of the pack. Alice dove and everyone watched as she soared and then somersaulted, twisted, and tucked before disappearing into the center of the lake, causing hardly a ripple. The pack cheered and whooped before pitching in and flinging one another into the air. Edward rubbed Bella's shoulder and he heard her heart rate speed up. "You okay?"
"We're home, we're together, and we’re safe."
"Forever. However long that forever will be."
Emmett yelled, "Want to play diving, li'l Sis?"
Edward hadn’t broken eye contact with her. "Bella's with me. I think it's high time I joined in this game."
Bella said, "You won't let me lose my balance?"
"If my foot slips and I go the wrong way, you'll come get me?"
"I will always come for you."
"You won't let me hit a boulder?"
"Would I let a boulder hurt you?"
Bella's smile was wide. "No, you wouldn't." She combed her fingers through his hair. "You'll never let anything hurt me."
Edward kissed the inside of her wrist, wincing when he saw the arced scar he'd put there. "I won't let anything hurt you," he’d said, frowning, "but I will let you get really wet." He swept her up and leapt into the air. Bella squealed and wriggled, shouting when she hit the cold water.
It was mid-afternoon when Carlisle set up the camera. Everyone lined up along the lake. Rosalie stood on Emmett's shoulders, Alice on Jasper's, just like before. Bella looked up at Edward, uncertain.
"Banish those shadows," he said.
Bella gave a sharp nod and Esme hoisted her up. Edward stretched up to hold her legs while Bella linked hands with Rosalie and Alice. The wolves scrambled into a pyramid, joking as they wobbled.
When the shutter clicked, both Edward and Bella were rock steady, laughing.
Edward was still looking at the pictures when Bella came to stand next to him. He put his arm around her, drew her close, and kissed her neck. She hugged him and they stood together for long minutes before Bella looked up and said, "Edward, hand me that picture?"
As he reached up for the photograph, he said, "As you wish.”
And he smiled.
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