JPOV

I found Rose and Em as agreed, but Peter had already gotten there, the fucker. Turns out we were both a little late; Carlisle had been a little more candid with them about the Volturi than I ever thought possible. It surprised me some, but then again he and I had never talked about his time there, really. I have to assume he figured I knew the drill. It's not like I can ask him now.

I figured it would be best for Bella to let her pack as much as she could on her own. She was better with the motor control at this point than she gave herself credit for, and any kind of confidence boost right now was a welcome one. Instead, I went to go make sure we had booze in stock and set up for yet another Q&A session.

Finding us to be out of whiskey, I turned to go let Bella know I'd be running out. Crossing the living room, Ruby stopped me.

"You shouldn't need to go up there," she informed me.

"How do you know where I do or do not need to go?" I asked her, quirking an eyebrow and stopping myself just short of sneering.

"Bella wants a drink, and you went to check the kitchen and came out empty handed. I can only assume you're out of whatever she prefers and need to let her know you're going out for it."

I didn't say anything, allowing my silence to be my assent. I didn't trust her, and didn't have a problem making that clear.

She waved a hand lazily. "I assume you're familiar with meditation?"

"Of course."

"Clear your mind, then form your message and will it through the bond. She'll get it."

There were a gamut of questions that ran through my mind, but the one I managed to blurt was "Why would you tell me this?"

She shrugged. "It's something only true mates can achieve, and even then, not all can. There is a certain amount of magic required to make it work. Peter and Charlotte might be capable of it, now that her magic is unbound," she said thoughtfully. "It's common among the older pairs of mates, changed when the magic was stronger in their blood. Not so much in the last thousand years or so."

I stared at her for a minute, mulling the information. "Does that mean the others aren't true mates, or that they don't have enough magic?" I finally asked.

"Magic," she replied. "I assume you've spent some time wondering about this?"

I nodded shortly, monitoring her closely for even the smallest trace of deceit. She might be able to trick the intuitive gifts, but emotions rarely lied if one knew what to look for.

"That makes sense. The type of bond you have isn't something I'd expect a vampire of your age to have seen, especially living in North America."

That made some kind of sense. I knew of very few vampires older than Carlisle who chose to make their home in this area of the world. Even if that were not the case, why would they discuss the ins and outs of their mate bonds with perfect strangers?

As I thought about this, she continued, "Yes, all the bonds in your coven are true bonds, rare as that is. Rose and Emmett's is perhaps the most subtle, and obviously your bond with Bella is the strongest."

"And Holly and Garrett?" I prompted.

"Will likely fall somewhere closer to Peter and Charlotte. I could be wrong. I don't know much about Garrett, honestly, and their bond is still so new, it's hard to say where it will fall."

"I thought it was your job to watch us all."

"It was. Garrett's family was already being watched by someone else. They declined to relinquish their responsibility."

Well now, there was an interestin' little tidbit. She made it sound like a privilege. Something to consider later, for sure.

"Do you have more questions, then?"

"Not right now," I told her. As it was, I'd have to relay all this information to everyone else piecemeal unless I could get them all together again before we left.

"Well then, give it a try. It's not going to take her that long to pack the room," she said.

Having little choice and being eager to test this out I did as I was bid, sending Bella the message, along with Ruby's advice on how to do it. I was only mildly surprised to receive her equally surprised message back.

It must have registered on my face, however.

"Told you it'd work," Ruby said, a bit smug. "Can I offer you one more thing?"

"What is it?" I asked, not unkindly.

"I couldn't help but overhear earlier. Whoever built this house was oddly selective about what to soundproof," she started.

"Most of us consider it common courtesy to ignore conversations they know they shouldn't be hearing, to give each other at least the illusion of privacy," I all but snarled, instantly angry that she'd intruded on something so private and then felt the need to bring it up.

She held her hands up in surrender, "I know that, but Jasper, the loss of memory...that's abnormal, you are correct. It doesn't happen in vampires, at least not spontaneously."

"What are you saying?"

She regarded me for a minute, and then responded, "I know of a fae line that has the ability to manipulate memory. It's a rare gift, and most of them are dead now, but one still lives, I think, unless he died very recently. He could not remove the memory entirely, as I recall, but instead suppress it to the point of irretrievability."

"What good does that do me?" I asked her, still annoyed.

"I've been watching you a long time, Jasper, and I know you a little better than you think. This hole bothers you. I don't think the person I have in mind can undo the damage, but for what it's worth, it sounded to me an awful lot like his handiwork. If you had people in your life with an interest in keeping you and Bella from realizing what you were, then it makes sense they might have enlisted his services."

"Are you implying that I knew it, all the way back then?" This made more sense than I wanted to let on. If Alice had seen what would happen, she could easily have had someone there. In all the chaos, it's unlikely they would have been detected.

"You'd have known as soon as you smelled her blood in the open air, once her fae abilities activated," she said gently, but matter-of-factly.

More revelations. More to think about, when I already had so much on my mind. Filing the information into the 'Unhelpful, but Nice to Know' cabinet in my head, I thanked her and left as quickly as I could, hoping I might still make it back before Bella finished packing.

I returned from the successful booze run just as the last of the bags were being hauled into the entryway area. Deciding on another test, I mentally asked Bella, How'd it go?

Fine. I managed to pack everything. There was one unfortunate casualty: a picture frame.

That was fine with me. There were no frames of any value among our possessions that I knew of, and I relayed as much as I handed her the bottle, along with a pack of her favorite cigarettes. She hadn't smoked since her change and I didn't know if she'd still enjoy it, but I wanted to give her the option anyway.

She took them with a wave of gratitude and settled on a sofa as Ruby breezed in with a tray she'd dug up from god knows where, full of the few bottles of booze we'd had left and glasses for everyone. I took my perch beside Bella, wrapping an arm around her and relishing the contact as everyone else got settled.

Over the following few hours, Ruby answered most of Charlotte's questions and the followups. She explained that she'd watched Charlotte intermittently from a young age, as she had all of us. Ruby had approached her brother after he'd bound Charlotte's power to protect her, furious that he'd done so. He'd explained himself and then given Charlotte's possessions over to Ruby then to hold onto until Charlotte or some descendant of hers was ready and it was safe, not wanting them to fall into the wrong hands in his coven. Ruby did not tell him Charlotte's fate, figuring it was kinder to him if she simply disappeared, but accepted her things with the intention to give them back if ever given the opportunity. In addition to the journals and lights she'd already returned, there was a set of gems.

"Everlasting stones," she called them, " They used to be quite common, but not so much anymore. We don't know how to make them anymore and like most small things, they get lost easily over time. When I learned there'd be eight of you, it only seemed fitting. I'd always intended to give them back anyway. They were yours by right," she explained. Something held all of us back from asking any more about them, even though it was clear there was more to the rings than just being made to last. If they belonged to Charlotte beforehand, it meant they were likely an heirloom passed down by and meant for her family. Possibly even made by them. If Ruby did not already know their mysteries, then they were not hers to know.

Bella did, however, inquire after the necklace that had been left to her. Ruby had confirmed that it was made of similar materials, and that it carried an enchantment, but nobody seemed to know exactly what it did. Over time, the necklace had been known to both amplify and suppress power, and didn't seem to have a set of criteria for when it did what. She knew that it was important Bella have it, but, after some prodding, reluctantly confessed that she didn't know exactly why, only that Bella would know when the time came.

She reiterated what she'd told me about bonds, and expanded on it a bit. Mating bonds, she told us, were sometimes referred to by older vampires as the "soul-link", a fae trait that had a chance to trigger when two individuals were similar in magical strength and had a certain level of compatibility. It was as rare in fae as it is in vampires, and she speculated that it might be the basis of the human concept of soul-mates. The strength of the bond was largely dependent on both magical capability and the actual compatibility of a pair, but even weak bonds were coveted.

It wasn't hard to see why.

Even without my own experience, the ideal of someone to spend eternity with was an attractive one. That, Ruby said, was why some vampires did mistake extreme attraction for a true bond. Despite our coven being made up entirely of truly mated pairs, it was actually quite a rare thing.

Most who made the mistake did forge bonds, of a kind. They were not as strong, but they were strong enough and not to be taken lightly. Some, she said, did look remarkably similar to a true bond. She reasoned it was because the strongest bonds were those that were chosen and accepted by both parties; true bonds that were fought against were often weaker than forged bonds that were not.

Coven, familial, and even sire bonds were forged bonds, she explained. They lacked the physical aspect of a true mating bond, and most of its abilities, but they did tether people together with a fierce, unbreakable type of loyalty. I understood this already - it was what I'd had with Peter from the beginning, and Charlotte later. I'd always kinda figured it was because of the venom sharing, but this explanation made sense, too. I'd never formed bonds with any of the Cullens because I'd never felt I really belonged there; I was there for Alice, and that was all. Considering Rose and Emmett now, I wondered if we all might have known that was the case on some level. We never forged bonds simply because we all knew I wouldn't be sticking around forever.

When she commented that when we were all gathered the bonds almost hurt to look at, there was a swell of pride and smugness around the room. I understood it - hell, I contributed a bit to it - but it also worried me. The Volturi were not rumored to take it well when a coven rivalled theirs in power, and her comments were confirmation to me that she saw exactly what we had here. Given her reluctance to share certain bits of information and how much she seemed to freely give out, I had to wonder what her motivation was. Why empower us further? Were the rumors wrong? Did she just not care? Or did she have a trump card yet to play that made it all irrelevant? The thought was worrisome, but there was nothing I could do about it for now except keep my eyes open.

Garrett caught my eye and sent me an intentional wave of feelings which mirrored mine on the subject. He was a little more in tune and alert than the rest of us when it came to these things, which was probably how he'd managed to survive so many wars and nasty situations. His communication served to confirm my own thoughts on the matter, and I acknowledged as much with a slight nod, masked as a shift in position so Ruby wouldn't notice. It was never a bad thing to be too careful.

As the conversation moved away from questions and toward stories about each of our families, I allowed my attention to wander a bit more, feeling everyone out for their underlying state of being. It required a little more concentration than reading surface and reactive emotions - that happened almost passively, if I was paying it even an ounce of attention. Looking past the levels of surface interest, amusement, or occasional embarrassment - as well as the happiness that Ruby was projecting so minutely I could be relatively sure she thought I wouldn't notice - I was unsurprised to find everyone in the room a bit on edge. It took differing forms in each person, but it was definitely there: doubt, suspicion, unease, and tension contributed to a general sense of disquiet that everyone was doing their best to mask beneath the buzz of liquor.

Everyone, perhaps, but Ruby. She knew about my ability, and she accounted for it, hiding her true emotions under several layers that anyone would consider predictable. It was like peeling back the layers of an onion. A thin skin of warmth, willingness, helpfulness and happiness, followed by a slightly thicker layer of anxiety - presumably at being the focus of conversation, or possibly just to throw me off. Under that there was a current of eagerness and anticipation - I suspected this was probably genuine, and safe for her to use as a last defense because it was so thick and because she'd expect me to assume it was at returning home and to her mate. She might have been correct if I didn't find the fourth layer - full of smug self-satisfaction and a sense of triumph.

She hid it all well, and it made me wish I'd been paying more attention earlier on. Bella had spoken well of her and seemed to trust her, so I hadn't considered that I'd need to dig with this one. Few I had ever encountered knew how to mask their emotions so well, and most that did had learned it after decades around me. She must have prepared herself - and underestimated me. The emotions themselves didn't bother me much - there could have been a myriad of explanations for them. It was the fact that she tried to hide them that didn't sit real well with me.

Ruby said she knew me well, but she clearly did not if she'd thought she could get past my ability, and anyone else here would be quick to defend or explain away my withdrawal. Looking at it in this way, I was pretty sure the remark was just a good guess meant to make me think she had my measure. That kind of hole in a memory would bother just about any vampire, I'd wager. Especially such a key event. Her attempt to make me think I couldn't get anything past her only heightened my suspicion further.

I cursed myself a bit for being so distracted and not noticing any of this until it was too late, but it didn't last long. I didn't see how it could be helped. I had a newborn mate and a new coven; there were as many old bonds as new within it, and we hadn't had time to grow comfortable with one another. Besides, she'd almost got past Garrett and Peter, too. There was suspicion, and then there was knowing someone to be worthy of it. One of us always noticed something that got us to the knowing when we needed it to, but it had come too late this time.

We were doing what she wanted, as far as she knew. I couldn't see any way it could have gone differently, even if I had noticed. Our coven was stronger than the Volturi, but that didn't mean we'd win a fight without casualties. I was just going to have to hope there was something Ruby wasn't counting on in those books to get us out of this mess. It wouldn't be smart to even hope for an ally in Volterra. The wrong hope at the wrong time in the wrong place could get people killed.

A voice entered my mind, I don't know what you're thinking, but I doubt you intend to be so obviously zoned out, Bella chided. True, I hadn't intended to retreat so far into myself, but it wasn't as if it couldn't be explained away. I glanced aside to look at her and noted the dreamy, faraway expression we'd seen on Ruby earlier. So that's what it was.

Am I missing anything important?

Not particularly, I can fill you in later. It's just been a few hours, and it'll be time to leave soon, she replied.

That snapped me back to the present. I had no idea how long I'd been zoned out for. I heard a laugh in my head, Don't worry, we covered for you.

I glanced around quickly while feeling Ruby out again and could detect no suspicion, so I figured they'd done a good enough job of it.

There was some lighthearted conversation while everyone finished their drinks, and then it was cleaning up and closing down the house. Not that there was anything to steal besides some glasses with the remnants of liquor in them and a whole lot of destroyed furniture. Given the number of dented walls and broken tiles, any vandals would probably assume someone else had gotten there first. I doubted it mattered much unless Rose and Em had plans to sell the place. I had no intention of ever returning.


A/N: I wasn't going to post any more until the entire thing was done...but well, I thought I could use some good news in my inbox in the morning, and maybe some of you could, too.

It's not beta'd, and so may change a bit when Ellie gets her hands on it.

Don't worry, I'm still working on this...almost there, I promise.