The device was complicated. It was covered with wooden stakes, much like one side of an iron maiden torture device. The base had a shallow trench around the edge. I had filled it with oil, and set fire to it; it would burn for a while. When I dropped onto the stakes, my vampy fluids should be exposed in all their flammable gooey glory, and catch fire, thereby engulfing me in a conflagration that should provide adequate entertainment for the crowds out celebrating the Festival of St. Marcus or whatever the hell their holiday was.
Why did I build such a complicated contraption? The simple answer was that I was a coward, and I knew it. I knew that if I tried something like slicing off my own head I wouldn't have the guts to go through with it. This way, after I jumped, I couldn't chicken out. The only hard part now would be the jumping. The spot I'd chosen was the clock tower in the town square.
The plan, fortunately, was simple. All I would have to do was fall onto it. If I was going to go out, I wanted to go out with a bang—literally and figuratively. The crowds would likely think it was just another show, and I was okay with that. The day of, I stood near the top of the tower, waiting for noon, at which point I would expose myself just before jumping. Hee hee, 'Expose myself.' I had a sudden image of myself in the square, naked under a trench-coat, shocking mothers and old women as I flashed random people. I think the enormity of my situation is making me giddy. Is it normal to think such silly things while contemplating an action that is so serious, so final?
It was nearing noon, so I stepped out to look over my suicide machine one last time, to make sure everything was still in order. That's when I saw him; the half-expected face in the crowd I'd nonetheless hoped I wouldn't see. Carlisle stepped out from behind a building down below and stared grimly up at me.
So it's come to this, has it? he started in what I was sure would be our final conversation.
I won't be one of your test subject lab rats, Carlisle.
Why do you think I have that mind? He sounded genuinely confused.
I read your journals. I saw what happened to Esme. I'd rather die than be reduced to that- I broke off my thought in anguish.
He let out an exasperated sigh. Edward, listen to me. Though I admit to an uncaring attitude in regard to the pain and suffering I caused my subjects, the goal was always about scientific research. I got all my questions answered years ago, and doing anything to any more subjects would be superfluous and altogether pointless. Now come down from there.
I stared blankly at him for several seconds.
The clock struck twelve. BONNNG.
Part of me wanted to believe what he said, did not want to die.
Olivia sarcastically replying that she would "watch where she was going" flashed through my brain.
...followed by an image of Esme's simple, smiling face.
My face twisted into a visage of hurt, betrayal, and sadness as I said to Carlisle, I don't believe you.
I quickly stripped off my shirt, and my chest sparkled like diamonds in the sun. Carlisle grimaced at the sight, which faintly amused me. I took a couple steps back to get a running start—
—and was suddenly tackled from behind! Our momentum took us both tumbling so close to the edge that I could easily look down to see the device of my destruction, and I pinwheeled my arms, frantically trying to regain my balance and prevent falling to the pavement far below. Apparently I wanted to continue my existence after all. When I was steady again, I broke my attacker's hold and angrily turned to confront whoever had dared interfere with my plans—only to see chocolate-brown eyes staring up urgently into mine.
I froze for several seconds, just staring at her. "Bella?! But-you're-they told me that you-?"
"I'm not dead," she quickly answered. "I didn't kill myself, so don't you do it either."
Emotions crashed through me, and I wasn't sure how I felt. Happy, angry, mostly relieved, at the realization that they had lied to me, Carlisle and Alice both. Bella happily embraced me and I responded by enfolding her in my arms and crushing her to my chest. "Oh, Bella, I'm so glad to see you," I murmured.
Not as glad as I am to see you, the thought flitted through her mind.
I doubt that, honey.
Soon I got another thought from her. Can't...breathe...I hastily let her go and pushed her arms' length away from me. She took a couple grateful deep breaths, then walked back into my arms. I hugged her again, more gently this time. "Bella..." I still couldn't believe it. "I thought I'd lost..."
"What?" Her question was muffled against my shoulder.
Oops! "I...thought I'd lost...you. All this time I thought I'd lost you." She beamed up at me. Whew! Good answer.
"Well, you found me now, so tell me you're going to forget this 'offing yourself' nonsense," she demanded.
"Of course; now that you're here." What's going on, Carlisle? I sent out as forcefully as I could.
Oh, didn't I tell you she was all right? Must have slipped my mind...He was way too casual about it.
I'll just bet it did, you bastard.
Really Edward, that insult is getting old; consider expanding your vocabulary horizons in the future, hmm? I just barely suppressed an audible growl at that. Carlisle, it seemed, really couldn't resist trying to get under my skin. Which wouldn't have been as much of an issue if he weren't so good at it.
"Oh!" Bella pushed away from me. "Alice told me we had to hurry, before the Volturi caught on to what-"
"Never mind," I cut her off. "They already know, and this is their city. Let's get down from here." I glanced briefly off the ledge. "Safely." I led her back down from the tower. When we entered into the noonday sun, a couple of locals were waiting for us. I stepped protectively in front of Bella.
"Greetings, gentlemen," I kept my voice calm and pleasant. "I am extremely grateful for the...kindness and hospitality shown toward me while in your beautiful city. I would appreciate it very much if you would send my thanks to your masters."
"Shall we take this conversation to a more appropriate venue?" a smooth voice whispered menacingly.
"I don't believe that will be necessary." My voice was harder now. "I know your instructions, Felix. I haven't broken any rules."
"Felix merely meant to point out the proximity of the sun," the other one said in a soothing tone. They were both concealed within smoky gray cloaks that reached to the ground and undulated in the wind. "Let us seek better cover."
"I'll be right behind you," I said dryly. "Bella, why don't you go back to the square and enjoy the festival?" I hoped she had so far escaped their interest.
No such luck. "No, bring the girl," the first shadow said, somehow injecting a leer into his whisper.
"I don't think so." My pretense of civility disappeared. I shifted my weight, preparing for a fight.
"No." I heard her whisper behind me.
"Shh," I murmured.
"Felix," the second, more reasonable shadow cautioned. "Not here." He turned to me. "Aro would simply like to speak with you again, if you have not decided to join our organization after all."
"What?" Bella breathed behind me.
"I'll tell you later," I promised her. "Certainly," I said to the two. '"But the girl goes free."
"I'm afraid that's not possible," the polite shadow said regretfully. "We do have rules to obey."
"Then I'm afraid that I'll be unable to accept Aro's invitation, Demetri."
"That's just fine," Felix purred. He was very big, tall and thick through the shoulders. His size was reminiscent of Emmett.
"Aro will be disappointed," Demetri sighed.
"I'm sure he'll survive the letdown," I replied.
Their eyes narrowed, and I was certain it would come down to a fight after all, when a familiar scent wafted down the alley toward us. All three of us vampires spun to face the newcomer.
"Let's behave ourselves, shall we?" a lilting voice suggested. "There are ladies present." Alice tripped lightly to my side, her stance casual. There was no hint of any underlying tension. She looked so tiny, so fragile. Her little arms swung like a child's, but I knew how quickly they could move when the necessity arose. Fast enough to kill a vampire with her bare hands.
Demetri and Felix both straightened up, their cloaks swirling slightly as a gust of wind funneled through the alley. Felix's face soured. Bella mused that they must not like even numbers. If she only knew.
"We're not alone," Alice reminded them, and flicked her gaze behind them. Demetri glanced over his shoulder. A few yards into the square, a little family, with girls in red dresses, was watching us. The mother was speaking urgently to her husband, her eyes on the five of us.
Demetri shook his head. "Please, Edward, let's be reasonable," he said.
"Let's," I agreed. "And we'll leave quietly now, with no one the wiser."
Demetri sighed in frustration. "At least let us discuss this more privately."
I clicked my teeth together. "No."
"Enough." Yet another local vampire entered our scene. She was slim and petite, and any other word you might use to describe a woman as "small." She was also not someone you defied, or you were in for a world of hurt. Really.
"Jane," I sighed in recognition and resignation.
"Follow me," Jane spoke again, her childish voice a monotone. She turned her back on us and drifted silently into the dark. Alice walked after the little Jane at once. I wrapped my arm around Bella's waist and pulled her along beside me. The alley angled slightly downward as it narrowed. She looked up at me with frantic questions in her eyes, but I just shook my head.
"Well, Alice," I said conversationally as we walked. "I suppose I shouldn't be surprised to see you here."
"It was my mistake," Alice answered in the same tone. "It was my job to set it right."
"What happened?" My voice was polite, as if I were barely interested. She was getting a mental "earful" however. WHAT THE FUCKING FUCK WAS ALL THAT FUCKINGLY FUCKING FUCKERY WHEN YOU TOLD ME SHE WAS FUCKING DEAD?!
"It's a long story." Alice's eyes glanced casually toward me and away. "In summary, she did jump off a cliff, but she wasn't trying to kill herself. Bella's all about the extreme sports these days." I could see all that was in Alice's thoughts now. Near-drownings, werewolf friends, friend turned friendlier…
"Hm," I said curtly, and the casual tone was gone.
There was a loose curve to the alley, still slanting downward, toward a dead end that became a flat, windowless, brick face. Jane was nowhere to be seen. She had already gone ahead, down into under the street. We followed one by one down into it. I had to drop Bella down to Alice waiting below, because she was too scared to do it herself, but eventually we all made it down. As we traveled down a connecting tunnel, I made token gestures of affection toward Bella-running my fingers through her hair, or innocent touches on her face or hands; partly for her, so she'd believe my love ruse, and partly because I still really couldn't believe she was alive. I think I was still sort of in a state of shock.
We moved at a snail's pace through the tunnel, but it probably felt like hurrying to Bella. Our slow progress irritated the locals. It amused me. At the end of the tunnel was a grate–the iron bars were rusting, but thick as my arm. A small door made of thinner, interlaced bars was standing open. I ducked through and went on to a larger, brighter stone room. The grille slammed shut with a clang, followed by the snap of a lock. On the other side of the long room was a low, heavy wooden door. It was very thick–it, too, stood open.
We stepped through the door, and Bella glanced around in surprise, relaxing automatically.I, on the other hand, tensed, jaw clenched tight. I knew where we were going. We took a short elevator ride to what was essentially a reception room. The walls were paneled in wood, the floors carpeted in thick, deep green. There were no windows, but large, brightly lit paintings of the Tuscan countryside hung everywhere as replacements. Pale leather couches were arranged in cozy groupings, and the glossy tables held crystal vases full of vibrantly colored bouquets. In the middle of the room was a high, polished mahogany counter. Bella gawked in astonishment at the woman behind it. She was tall, with dark skin and green eyes. She was very pretty-for a human. Because she was very bit a human. Questions were running through Bella's brain, mostly about what this human woman was doing here, totally at ease, surrounded by vampires.
She smiled politely in welcome. "Good afternoon, Jane," she said. There was no surprise in her face as she glanced at Jane's company. As if a vampire and disheveled human girl walked in here off the street every day.
Jane nodded. "Gianna." She continued toward a set of double doors in the back of the room, and we followed.
As Felix passed the desk, he winked at Gianna, and she giggled.
On the other side of the wooden doors was a different kind of reception. The pale boy in the pearl gray suit could have been Jane's twin. His hair was darker, and his lips were not as full, but he was just as lovely. He came forward to meet us. He smiled, reaching for her. "Jane."
"Alec," she responded, embracing the boy. They kissed each other's cheeks on both sides.
Then he looked at us.
"They send you out for one and you come back with two… and a half," he noted, looking atBella. "Nice work." She laughed.
"Welcome back, Edward," Alec greeted. "You seem in a better mood."
"Marginally," I agreed flatly.
Alec chuckled, and examined Bella as she clung to my side. "And this is the cause of all the trouble?" he asked, skeptical. I nodded. "Aro will be so pleased to see you again," Alec said, as if this were a social call.
"Let's not keep him waiting," Jane suggested.
Alec and Jane, holding hands, led the way down yet another wide, ornate hall. They led us quickly to another cavernous room that had a handful of vampires engaged in quiet conversation. They all turned toward our party as we entered the room. Most of them were dressed in inconspicuous pants and shirts–things that wouldn't stick out on the streets below. But the man who spoke first wore one of the long robes. It was pitch-black, and brushed against the floor. The color matched his long, jet-black hair.
"Jane, dear one, you've returned!" he cried in evident delight. His voice was just a soft sighing. He drifted forward, glided to Jane, took her face in his hands, kissed her lightly on her full lips, and then floated back a step.
"Yes, Master." Jane smiled; the expression made her look like an angelic child. "I brought him back alive, just as you wished." I jerked my head to look at her when I heard that. She had specific orders to bring me back alive? Did that mean he had called-?
"Ah, Jane." He smiled, too. "You are such a comfort to me." I remembered again why this became a last resort for me-because Aro creeped me the hell out.
He turned his eyes toward us, and the smile brightened–became ecstatic. It was somewhat eerie. "And Alice and Bella, too!" he rejoiced, clapping his thin hands together. "This is a happy surprise! Wonderful!"
I stood sullenly as he called our names informally, as if we were old friends dropping in for an unexpected visit. He turned to our escort. "Felix, be a dear and tell my brothers about our company. I'm sure they wouldn't want to miss this." Oh boy, we were in for it now.
"Yes, Master." Felix nodded and disappeared back the way we had come.
"You see, Edward?" He turned and smiled at me like a fond but scolding grandfather. "What did I tell you? Aren't you glad that I didn't give you what you wanted yesterday?" He looked at me expectantly.
"Yes, Aro, I am," I agreed, because I was supposed to say it; he wanted me to, and at this point I didn't dare say anything else.
"I love a happy ending." Aro sighed. "They are so rare. But I want the whole story. How didthis happen? Alice?" He turned to gaze at Alice with curious, misty eyes. "Your brother seemed to think you infallible, but apparently there was some mistake."
"Oh, I'm far from infallible." She flashed a dazzling smile. She looked perfectly at ease, except that her hands were balled into tight little fists. "As you can see today, I cause problems as often as I cure them."
"You're too modest," Aro chided. "I've seen some of your more amazing exploits, and I mustadmit I've never observed anything like your talent. Wonderful!" Aro glanced between Alice and me. "I'm sorry, we haven't been introduced properly at all, have we? It's just that I feel like I know you already, and I tend get ahead of myself. Your brother introduced us yesterday, in a peculiar way. You see, I share some of your brother's talent, only I am limited in a way that he is not." Aro shook his head; his tone was envious. Yeah, he wished he had my power.
I swiftly explained for the benefit of Bella and Alice, who didn't know yet. "Aro needs physical contact to hear your thoughts, but he hears much more than I do. You know I can only hear what's passing through your head in the moment. Aro hears every thought your mind has ever had."
Alice raised her delicate eyebrows, and sent to me. Every thought ever? I nodded slightly. Mm, sounds like potential fun.
You don't know the half of it...
Aro didn't miss our exchange. "But to be able to hear from a distance…" Aro sighed, gesturing toward the two of us. "That would be so convenient." Sure. Convenient for him, and stupid-scary for the rest of us; no thanks.
Just then the final players arrived at the party. Both looked very much like Aro, one even had the same flowing black hair. The other had a shock of snow-white hair–the same shade as his face–that brushed against his shoulders. The trio from Carlisle's past was complete, unchanged by the last three hundred years .
"Marcus, Caius, look!" Aro crooned. "Bella is alive after all, and Alice is here with her! Isn't that wonderful?"
Good Lord, could he be any more of a drama queen? No wonder Carlisle left...
Seemed that Marcus and Caius might have agreed with me. Neither of the other two looked as if 'wonderful' would be their first choice of words. One seemed utterly bored, like he'd seen too many millennia of Aro's enthusiasm, and the other's face was sour under the snowy hair.
They both went to be seated against the wall, in throne-like chairs. What drama queens, all of them. Two of the attending vampires followed silently behind each of them–bodyguards, superfluous as they ultimately were. I could hear Bella muse that maybe the older vampires were weaker somehow, and needed guards. The assumption made me want to smack her upside the head. Apparently the concept of an honor guard was too far over her head for her feeble mind to grasp.
"It's just so difficult to understand, even now," Aro mused, looking between me and Bella again. "If I hadn't smelled her through your memories, I wouldn't have believed the call of anyone's blood could be so strong. I've never felt anything like it myself. Most of us would trade much for such a gift, and yet you…"
"Waste it," I finished sarcastically.
Aro laughed again. "Ah, how I miss my friend Carlisle! You remind me of him–only he was not so angry."
"Carlisle outshines me in many other ways as well." Like in douchebaggery, for example.
Aro chuckled. "I must admit I am curious now, about one thing." He eyed Bella with bright interest.
"May I?" he asked eagerly, lifting one hand.
"Ask her," I said in a flat voice. I sort of knew what he wanted. He had spoken with Carlisle, probably months before now, and he wanted to see if he could find her potential; potential that had eluded my observation, thus far.
"Of course, how rude of me!" Aro exclaimed. "Bella," he addressed her directly now. "I'm fascinated that you are the one exception to Edward's impressive talent–so very interesting that such a thing should occur! And I was wondering, since our talents are similar in many ways, if you would be so kind as to allow me to try–to see if you are an exception for me, as well?" At least he was playing along with my ruse.
He lightly touched her hand with his own, and settled in to examine her thoughts. Aro's face altered as I watched. The confidence wavered and became first doubt, then incredulity before he calmed it into a friendly mask. "So very interesting," he said as he released her hand and drifted back.
I couldn't completely read her, Edward. I darted my gaze toward him. Had I heard him right? She really had some special talent or...something? I wonder how she would fare under Jane's ministrations...
"A first," he said to himself. "I wonder if she is immune to our other talents… Jane, dear?"
"No!" I snarled the word. That might just break our tenuous relationship for good! All that "quality time" with Carlisle for nothing. Alice grabbed my arm with a restraining hand. I shook her off.
Jane smiled up happily at Aro. "Yes, Master?"
"I was wondering, my dear one, if Bella is immune to you."
Jane nodded, and turned toward us with a beatific smile. Sorry, Edward, but it always works better when I have a demonstration.
Oh, fu-and I suddenly entered a world of pain. It felt like welding torch flames were being run up and down my limbs, while at the same time high-pitched squealing noises were assaulting my ears. Every sense, every nerve ending was being overloaded with agony and screaming at me to STOP THE PAIN! and I had no way to do so.
The pain ended abruptly, and I discovered that sometime during Jane's "demonstration" I had curled up into a fetal position on the floor. I sprang to my feet as soon as I had control over myself again. Then I remembered the purpose of subjecting me to that horror. I whipped around to look at Bella, and Jane was looking at her too, a small sadistic smile on her face.
Bella looked scared, and I didn't blame her. I could hear her thoughts loud and clear: No, no pain, I don't want to feel that pain, no pain, no pain...like a mantra in her head. She shrank back, waiting for the pain. I waited for it to overtake her...
Nothing. I looked back at Jane, and she no longer smiled. She glared at Bella, her jaw clenched with the intensity of her focus. Nothing happened. It wasn't working. This was it-or a piece of it, anyway. Carlisle had hinted at 'interesting abilities' that Bella might have. She focused her thoughts on not being in pain-and Jane couldn't inflict it on her. This was unprecedented, and potentially terrifying; it could disrupt my entire plot.
Aro started to laugh. "Ha, ha. ha," he chuckled. "This is wonderful!"
Jane hissed in frustration, leaning forward like she was preparing to spring.
"Don't be put out, dear one," Aro said in a comforting tone, placing a powder-light hand on her shoulder. "She confounds us all." He slowly scanned our small party. "So what do we do with you now?" Aro sighed.
Alice and I stiffened.
"I don't suppose there's any chance that you've reconsidered?" Aro asked me. "Your talent would be an excellent addition to our little company."
I hesitated. From the corner of my eye, I saw both Felix and Jane grimace. I weighed each word before I spoke it, not wanting to make the situation worse. "I'd… rather… not."
"Alice?" Aro asked, still hopeful. "Would you perhaps be interested in joining with us?"
"No, thank you," Alice said.
"And you, Bella?" Aro raised his eyebrows.
I hissed involuntarily. I stared at Aro blankly. Was he joking? Or was he really recruiting the one I'd decided would be bound to me?
It was Caius who broke the silence.
"What?" he said flatly.
"Caius, surely you see the potential," Aro said. "I haven't seen a prospective talent so promising since we found Jane and Alec. Can you imagine the possibilities when she is one of us?"
Caius looked away with a caustic expression. Jane's eyes sparked with indignation at the comparison.
"No, thank you," Bella whispered, her voice breaking in fright.
Aro sighed. "That's unfortunate. Such a waste."
I hissed at his implication. "Join or die, is that it? I suspected as much when we were brought to this room. So much for your laws." I sneered at the last word.
The tone of his voice caught me by surprise. He sounded irritated, but slightly confused-much like Carlisle when I said I wouldn't be his lab rat. "Of course not." Aro blinked, astonished. "We were already convened here, Edward, awaiting Heidi's return. Not for you."
"Aro," Caius hissed. "The law claims them."
I glared at Caius. "How so?" I wanted to hear him say it.
Caius pointed at Bella. "She knows too much. You have exposed our secrets."
"There are a few humans in on your charade here, as well," I pointed out. I just wanted this whole thing done with.
Caius's face twisted into a new expression. "Yes," he agreed. "But when they are no longer useful to us, they will serve to sustain us. That is not your plan for this one. If she betrays our secrets, are you prepared to destroy her? I think not," he scoffed. This plan was taking a nasty turn.
"Unless…" Aro interrupted. "Unless you do intend to give her immortality?"
Huh? I considered his question for a moment. What is the plan here? "And if I do?"
Aro smiled, happy again. "Why, then you would be free to go home and give my regards to my friend Carlisle." His expression turned more hesitant. "But I'm afraid you would have to mean it."
And then Alice stepped away from us, forward toward Aro. We turned to watch her. Her hand was raised like his. She didn't say anything, and Aro waved off his anxious guard as they moved to block her approach. Aro met her halfway, and took her hand with an eager, acquisitive glint in his eyes. He bent his head over their touching hands, his eyes closing as he concentrated. Alice was motionless, her face blank. No one moved. Aro seemed frozen over Alice's hand. Another moment passed, and then Aro's voice broke the silence."Ha, ha, ha," he laughed, his head still bent forward. He looked up slowly, his eyes bright with excitement. "That was fascinating!"
Alice smiled wryly. "I'm glad you enjoyed it."
"To see the things you've seen–especially the ones that haven't happened yet!" He shook his head in wonder.
"But that will," she reminded him, voice calm.
"Yes, yes, it's quite determined. Certainly there's no problem."
Caius looked bitterly disappointed–a feeling he seemed to share with Felix and Jane.
"Aro," Caius complained.
"Dear Caius," Aro smiled. "Do not fret. Think of the possibilities! They do not join us today, but we can always hope for the future. Imagine the joy young Alice alone would bring to our little household… Besides, I'm so terribly curious to see how Bella turns out!" So was I. Where had her unexpected ability suddenly come from? Did it have something to do with proximity to us? Simply a connection to puberty? What?
Wait. What did you tell him? I asked Alice.
Just that if you didn't change Bella, I would.
And you meant that?
You better believe it. She smiled her aren't-I-so-cute-and-innocent smile, and I knew I'd have to watch out for her. I suddenly had the feeling that she was out to get Bella for herself, Carlisle's orders or no.
Aro dismissed us then, with the return of "Heidi" and her tourist snacks; meanwhile we waited in a chamber below. Bella had a breakdown, during which I got the whole story of what had happened while I was gone. I think it's a good thing I wasn't there; I probably would have made an early reappearance.
Night fell over Volterra; our guards allowed us to leave, and we departed the town under the cover of darkness.