Disclaimer: All things Twilight belong to Stephenie Meyer. No copyright infringement is intended.
In which Bella has a meltdown...
Jasper leant against the bookshelves, his hands sunk casually in his pockets, while we gathered round to hear Marion's story.
"Edward already knows the whole story, and some of you know parts of it..." He looked at Carlisle and Esme and Alice. "So I hope you don't mind listening to those parts again while I go into deeper detail this time, now that everyone's here."
For a vague second I wondered why Edward hadn't already told me everything, but then Jasper started to speak and my attention was rivetted on him.
He'd always been the quiet one. I'd never heard more than a few words from him, but now, as he began to reveal Marion's tale, it was obvious what a gifted speaker he was.
It wasn't in the words he used, but the way he used them. It was in the lilt and rhythm of his voice, and the way his eyes made me feel like I was the only person in the conversation.
He reminded me vaguely of an English professor I had in college.
"We knew Marion had been a lecturer of European history at the University of Bucharest," he began. "I wondered if that history only covered the usual socio-economic and political strands, or if it might have included myths and legends as well, so I decided to look up her published papers. Turns out, she had a side-line area of research - the role of medieval superstition in modern vampire mythology, and in one of her earliest essays there was a single sentence that grabbed my attention...I was raised on tales of the old country."
"Ah..." Esme was nodding. "There's a personal connection," she said, picking up on something I'd obviously missed.
"Yeah," Jasper said. "There is, and it's a long story that started in a Romanian village more than eighty years ago, when Marion's great-grandparents, Cristina and Gheorghe, were married."
I didn't know what I'd been expecting, but this wasn't it and I inched forward on my seat, eager to hear more.
"You got all that from one sentence?" Emmett was skeptical.
"No," Jasper shook his head. "But because of that sentence I emailed one of her former colleagues, a Professor Garden, pretended I was an American academic interested in Marion's research and luckily Marion had shared a lot of information which the good professor was happy to share with me. He sent me a long email, detailing their conversations, and we spoke on the phone last night...actually..." He turned to Edward. "Can I cast onto your TV? I could put the email up for everyone to read."
Edward started to stand but Esme motioned for him to stop
"No, you tell us Jasper," she said and I nodded my agreement. I'd rather listen to him than read a dry old email.
"How about both," Alice suggested, smiling. "That way you can fill in any gaps that aren't in the email."
It only took a moment for Edward and Jasper to work out the technology and suddenly Edward's enormous flat screen was displaying rows and rows of tightly written correspondence between Prof Graeme Garden, and Jasper Whitlock, PhD.
"PhD?" Emmett snorted.
"It adds some weight and legitimacy," Jasper grinned.
Rosalie was squinting hard at the screen.
"Nope, can't read that without my glasses. You'll have to keep talking Jasper. Everyone else can read ahead if they want."
My own attention flickered between Jasper and the email, listening to him and scanning the words at the same time.
"So..." Jasper took a breath. "According to the professor, while Marion was growing up in England, her great-grandmother Cristina told her stories about her early life in Romania. Most were the usual folk tales that had been handed down through generations, but one story was personal, about her and her first husband Gheorghe." Jasper gestured at the screen.
It seemed Cristina had been just seventeen, and Gheorghe twenty, when they married.
The marriage had been a love-match that started in childhood, and their wedding celebrations had lasted all day and involved the whole village. Then, as evening approached, their families and friends had gone to their homes and Gheorghe had taken his new bride to the cottage he'd built near the edge of the forest.
"They were superstitious people," Jasper said. "They'd all grown up with vampire folklore and Gheorghe made sure he and Cristina were safely inside, with ropes of garlic at the windows, before the sun went down."
"Garlic." Emmett snorted and Rosalie gave him a swift, hard, stare.
"Keep going, Jasper," she said.
"That night, Cristina gave him a wedding gift," Jasper continued. "A woollen cap she'd knitted for him, blue with a red turned-up cuff. He gave her a dove, carved out of wood because apparently that's what he always called her, his dove."
They celebrated their wedding night and in the morning the fire had gone out and the cottage was cold. Gheorghe rebuilt the fire with wood he'd stacked beside the hearth. Then he'd pulled on his clothes to go outside and gather more from the woodpile. Cristina begged him to wait a little longer. The sun was barely creeping into the sky, the shadows of night still lingered on the ground and she was fearful.
So was I.
"He didn't go, did he?"
Jasper smiled a gentle smile. "He'd promised her she would never be cold, that the hearth would always be stacked with wood, and the woodpile outside would never run low. He wasn't about to let the cottage stay cold while he waited for the sun. He wouldn't break his promise on the first day of their lives together."
So he'd tugged his new cap onto his head, and stepped outside.
"Cristina waited. And waited. Gheorghe never returned," Jasper said quietly. "When she ran outside calling his name, there was no sign of him. He was gone."
The email was just a blur of lines in the background as Jasper's voice had me leaning forward, almost falling off my seat. Edward tugged me back, gently.
Jasper moved away from the screen and went to stand behind Alice as she sat on the other sofa. He rested his hands on her shoulders.
"Weeks passed..." he continued. "There were rumours and theories among the villagers. Some people talked of wolf attacks, a few said the bridegroom got cold feet and ran off. But most were convinced Gheorghe had been taken by a vampire."
Cristina's family insisted she return to them, but she refused. She believed Gheorghe would come back to her so she stayed in the cottage, growing vegetables that she sold and bartered in the village.
Her son, Gabriel, was born later that year, and a year after that, at the beginning of winter, Cristina woke one morning to find the hearth stacked with wood.
"She ran outside, hoping to find Gheorghe. There was no sign of him, but the woodpile had been replenished too, with enough wood for the whole winter."
A shiver ran through me and Edward's hand tightened around mine. Jasper came to sit on the floor at Alice's feet.
"He'd been in the house," I whispered.
"Looks that way." Jasper nodded. "Months went by and as the seasons passed and Autumn came round, the wood pile, which had grown low, was suddenly replenished again, and there were toys left by the hearth. Intricately carved animals and toy soldiers, with incredible, delicate detail."
Emmett sniffed and began blinking fast.
"Toy soldiers are always fun," he said gruffly.
The routine with the wood pile continued. Jasper told how Cristina eagerly awaited the end of each Autumn. Then one night, when Gabriel was six years old and Autumn was fading fast, she woke in the night and saw Gheorghe standing in the doorway. In the soft light cast by the fire, she could see his skin was pale white, and his eyes red. He'd smiled at her and she'd thought him more beautiful than she ever remembered; almost an unearthly beauty. He was wearing the cap she'd made him and he'd reached up, brushing his fingers over it tenderly. It was slightly worn, she noticed; fraying a little round the edge. She reached for him, and said his name, but he was suddenly gone.
"She told Marion it was like he'd vanished into dust, like he'd never even been there and she wondered if it was a dream."
I knew what that felt like and it reminded me of those early dreams I'd had in Forks, of Edward in my room.
"Cristina got up to follow him," Jasper went on. "But there was nothing to follow and no-one to find. She did find something, though. There was a wooden train with two carriages left by the fireplace. She knew then that it hadn't been a dream, and it didn't matter to her if he was an angel or a vampire, Gheorghe had returned."
"Hang on," Rosalie raised a hand. "So, it occurred to Cristina that he could be a vampire? Meaning she, they, the people in the village, knew what real vampires looked like?"
"Seems that way," Jasper said, frowning. "The traditional myths, like garlic and crucifixes and probably fangs, got mixed in with the truth..."
"And that's why Marion's more recent research was about old superstitions and modern vampire mythology." Esme was nodding. "She knew there was more to the myths."
"I think so," Jasper said.
"So did Gheorghe start coming into the house?" Emmett asked. "Did he start visiting properly now that she'd seen him."
"No. He didn't."
Emmett shook his head, his brow creased.
"How could he not go and see his kid properly?"
"Fear," Edward said. "For his son's safety. And his wife's."
Emmett went to speak, then stopped.
"Yeah," he said, exhaling sharply. "It's a risk you wouldn't want to take."
"Go on, Jasper." Rosalie waved at him to continue. "What happened?"
"Cristina hoped Gheorghe would come back, maybe talk to her. Stay, even. But it didn't happen. Years went by and the routine continued. Gheorghe came at the end of Autumn and kept the wood pile stocked so she and Gabriel would always be warm."
"How sad. And lovely." Esme was blinking hard, as though fighting tears. "Did he bring more toys?"
"I don't know. But Cristina made sure Gabriel knew the toys were from his father, and that his father loved him."
Rosalie bit her lip and wiped at her eyes.
"What happened next?" I asked.
"The Great Depression," Jasper answered. "It's effects were gradually spreading out through the countryside."
The village was disappearing. People were leaving to find work elsewhere. Cristina's brother had been lucky to find a job in Bucharest and was moving there with his wife and children. He wanted Gabriel and Cristina to go with them.
"Cristina refused to go at first," Jasper said. "Until she realised there wasn't any future for her son in the village. Gabriel was very bright and with the small village school closed, Cristina knew how important it was that he have every possible opportunity. She knew this was what Gheorghe would want for his son. So they moved. But before she left, she wrote Gheorghe a letter. She hadn't had as much schooling as Gheorghe and it took her a week, and some help from Gabriel's school books, to write it."
"Was it a love letter?" Alice asked.
"It was." Jasper smiled looking up at her. "And in it she told Gheorghe how she missed him. She told him about Gabriel, how smart and funny he was, and how they were leaving so he could have the future she knew he should have. She thanked Gheorghe for looking after them; for the wood, and the toys and she'd knitted him a new cap, because she was worried the first one was getting thin. She told him she'd never forget him. Then she tucked the letter inside the cap, and left it by the hearth the day they packed up and moved away."
Rosalie narrowed her eyes. "Why do I get the feeling he didn't find it?"
"Because Cristina's brother didn't realise what it was. He just thought it was a cap and he gathered it up while he was helping load things into his truck. He handed it to her when they reached Bucharest. She was devestated."
Tears pooled in my eyes and I blinked them back quickly.
"Did she go back?" I asked. "Did she go back to leave it there?"
"No." Jasper said. "There was no opportunity for her to go back."
"But Gheorghe would have known, wouldn't he? He would have heard them talking about the move, or seen them? And he'd know where to find her again?"
Jasper shook his head. "Not necessarily," he said. "It's pretty clear that Gheorghe spent most of the year away from the village."
"But why? Why would he go away from them?"
"To hunt," Edward said. "He couldn't risk feeding too much in the one area."
"It draws suspicion," Carlisle added. "Especially in a small population."
"But he still found her, didn't he?" I looked from Edward and Carlisle to Jasper. "Once he realised she'd gone. He would have tracked her down."
"I'm sure he would have tried," Rosalie answered for the others, her voice kind. "But not all vampires can track successfully. I know it wasn't my forte. And, sometimes...well, he might have thought it was best for her if she moved on."
A tear spilled onto my cheek.
"So they lost each other?"
"It seems that way."
I brushed the tear away, wondreing why I was so emotional over two people I didn't know, and whose story had played out and been decided nearly a hundred years ago. I took a deep breath, and focused back on Jasper.
He was looking at the TV, paraphrasing the words of the email.
"Gabriel grew up and got a scholarship to university in England. Cristina, her brother and his family, all followed. Cristina worked hard on her English and she found work in a hospital. She eventually became a qualified nurse, and she married again." He gestured at the screen.
Cristina saw Gabriel marry too, and he gave her four grandchildren. She watched them grow up, all happy and succesful, carving out lives and careers and having families of their own. It was a long way from the tiny Romanian village and Cristina was proud of what she and Gheorghe had started.
"She was particularly close to Marion," Jasper said. "And years later, after Cristina's second husband died, it was Marion she talked to about Gheorghe and the woodpile and her belief that he had become immortal."
"She was still superstitious?" Esme asked.
"Always," Jasper said.
"And Marion believed too?" Alice was curious.
Jasper screwed up his nose in a what I thought was a very cute and very un-Jasper-like way.
"It's unclear," he said. "She told Garden that it would be easy enough for someone in the village to have stocked the wood pile and made the toys and the vision of Gheorghe in the doorway could have been a dream or wishful thinking. But in his opinion, Marion had room for doubt and possibility. And Cristina's stories did fuel a passion in her for history and folklore."
So she pursued an academic career and found a place at the University of Bucharest.
"The night before Marion flew out to Romania, Cristina gave her the letter and the cap."
I gasped and Alice clapped her hands.
Rosalie smiled. "She'd kept them?"
"Yep. And she asked Marion to go to the old village and leave them hidden somewhere near the cottage."
"In case he ever went back there?" I asked and Jasper nodded.
"She believed he'd find them."
"Why didn't she take it herself? Rose asked.
"Fear, I'm guessing." Jasper considered a moment. "She had her memories of Gheorghe and the cottage and I think she probably wanted to keep them untouched. If she went back and the cottage was gone, or different..."
"She didn't want to risk the memory." Rosalie nodded. "I get it. But did Marion do what Cristina asked?"
"She did. And the cottage was gone. She said the village had grown and there was a row of houses where the cottage should have been."
"So what did she do?"
"She kept the letter and the cap," Jasper said. "She didn't tell Cristina. And Cristina never asked."
"I'd want to know," Alice said, clutching her hands to her chest. "I couldn't bear not knowing, the always wondering."
Edward shook his head. "But not knowing means she could believe the cottage is still there, unchanged, and that Gheorghe came back and found her letter."
Esme was nodding her agreement. "I don't think I'd want to know if it was gone," she said. "Sometimes it's nicer to believe."
I thought about that for a moment and decided Esme might have a point.
"We don't know much more of the story," Jasper said and I focused back on him quickly. "Garden said she became secretive in the months before her disappearance. She joked with him once that she was going to find Gheorghe and give him Marion's gift."
"So she did believe?"
Jasper shrugged. "We can't be sure if she did at that time. She had a trip to Italy planned and she was going to visit Volterra as part of her research into St Marcus driving the vampires out of the city. She never came back." He frowned softly. "Garden was very forthcoming," he said. "Almost eager to talk about her..." He lifted his gaze to Alice. "Like when a person is in love and they want to talk about that person to anyone who'll listen."
"Oh?" Alice blinked at him. "You think this Professor Garden was in love with Marion?"
"It's impossible to know without meeting him, but I got the vague sense of it while we talked. And a little from the email." He nodded towards the screen.
"I wonder if she loved him?" Rosalie murmured.
"Hang on..." I was confused. "Someone drove the vampires out of Volterra?"
The sound of good-natured chuckling ran through the room.
"It's just an old story." Rosalie explained. "The legend of St Marcus. Ironic though, isn't it, considering the vampires never left the city."
Yeah, I thought. Very ironic.
"Another Marcus," I murmured. "There seems to be a theme here." In my mind I saw Marc with a gun pointed at me and I pushed the memory away quickly, hugging myself though the room wasn't cold.
"Do you think she knew the danger she was putting herself in when she went to Volterra?" Emmett asked.
"I doubt it," Edward said. "I can't imagine she would have gone if she'd known the whole truth." He considered a moment. "Her knowledge or understanding of vampires would have been coloured by the stories of Gheorghe."
"The warm and fuzzy vampire toymaker?" Emmett got up to get a beer from the fridge. "If that's true I'm guessing she saw something in Volterra that made her change her mind." He offered a bottle to Edward, who shook his head.
"I'll stick with whisky tonight, I think."
Carlisle leant back and stretched out his legs in a very human move that was so natural it made me wonder if it was by deliberate design or merely habit.
"I think you're right Emmett," he said. "If Marion's as persuasive as we think she is, then she's probably perceptive too. The two often go together. I'd say she got a clear picture of the truth pretty quickly and got out of there."
"Marc never said exactly what happened between Marion and Heidi. I'm not sure he even knew." I looked around me at seven curious faces. "
"Well, whatever happened..." Carlisle said, "it was enough to make her change her name, give up her career, and disappear."
"And it was enough to make her react the way she did when she saw your scar." Edward traced his finger over the silver crescent on my wrist.
"And enough to make Aro turn her into a mission." Emmett took a mouthful of his beer. "He put a lot of effort into tracking her down."
"Aro was nothing if not suspicious," Carlisle said evenly. "Suspicious to the point of paranoia. He'd seized power from Stefan and Vladimir and more than a thousand years later, he was still watching for signs that they'd try to overthrow him and take back that power. That much was evident even when I was at Volterra."
"He was still suspicious, even after so long?" I couldn't get my head around that.
"Even after so long," Carlisle answered. "Vampire memories are long and while Stefan and Vladimir aren't in a position to overthrow him, I can promise you, they haven't given up on the idea. Aro knew that too. So the vaguest suggestion of anything Romanian would have had him on alert. Although..." He shrugged. "It would still be nice to know exactly what transpired between Heidi and Marion."
"Wouldn't it have been easier for him to just check out Stefan and Vladimir?" Emmett asked. "One handshake and then he'd know."
"Aro didn't work that way," he said. "I don't doubt he had his people on the lookout, making subtle investigations after the Marion incident, but he wouldn't want to put Stefan and Vladimir on guard. And he wouldn't want them to think he was concerned. That would be revealing a weakness. No, he'd want them completely unaware that he suspected anything. That way, in his mind, he'd have the upper hand."
"Well, the important thing..." Esme said, "is to let Marion know she's safe and maybe she'll tell us what happened in the castle. But I also think..." she paused, looking at each of us, "we should try to help her find Gheorghe."
There was general surprise, then Alice beamed.
"Yes!" she said. "We'll find him and he can know about his grandchildren and great-grandchildren and that Cristina had always loved him and died loving him."
"Actually..." A faint smile tugged at Jasper's lips. "You've assumed too much. Cristina's still alive."
Someone gasped. Someone else laughed.
"She must be ancient," Emmett said.
"Then that settles it." Esme was suddenly all business. "We find him."
My mind was in a whirl. "Are you saying they could be reunited?"
"Possibly," Esme answered. "In whatever way would be safest. It would be wonderful if they could see each other one more time." Her voice wobbled slightly on those last words.
Alice grinned at her husband. "What do we do, Jasper?"
There was a slightly bamboozled look in Jasper's eyes.
"Er, well, I've already tracked Marion to Singapore so it probably won't take much more work to make contact and let her know she's safe, but finding Gheorghe..." He frowned. "That's real needle in a haystack stuff. It could take years, if ever."
"Then the sooner we start, the better. We don't know what information Marion might already have about him. She might be able to give us some direction and oh! Can you imagine their reunion?" Alice was beaming. "Even if they just wave at each other from a distance? Oh, oh, wait! What if they renew their vows? A second wedding?"
Her eyes were bright and had taken on that slightly wild look I'd seen before when she wanted to dress me for prom.
"Slow down, Alice." Jasper smiled affectionately at his wife and squeezed her hand. "Lets contact Marion first."
Suddenly everyone was talking at once, working out what to do next and where Gheorghe might be and wondering what Marion had seen or heard in Volterra.
"What about Heidi?" My voice broke through the babble as a knot began forming in my stomach. "And Marc? Shouldn't we find out about them too?"
I felt like there was still this big, slightly scary question mark hanging over us with them on the run.
Edward had said not to worry about them, that Heidi was obviously scared of the Volturi and the flight to Alaska was her getting as far away as she could from Italy, but still...
I wasn't sure how everyone could have moved on so quickly from yesterday's horror to arranging weddings for Marion's great-grandparents.
Everyone went quiet and looked at me.
"Look, if I'm honest, I'm still worried about them." I swallowed hard as the knot tightened a little.
"We have family in Alaska," Carlisle said gently. "I've already been in touch and they'll be keeping an eye on things when the plane lands and we'll know more then. But Edward is right, Heidi would have been on borrowed time in Volterra, and if she's formed a bond with Marc, she'll be planning to disappear with him. As for the pilot?" He shrugged. "He wouldn't want to be known as the human who survived while his vampire masters went up in flames. He'll be looking over his shoulder for the rest of his life, even though there's nothing to look for anymore."
He spoke with such calm authority, the knot began to loosen again, just a little.
"And the few members of the guard who are left in Volterra will just drift away," he continued. "As we said before, there's no-one left with any ability to create or wield power, even if they had the desire, which I doubt."
Edward hugged me closer.
Rosalie reached over awkwardly and took my hand.
"It's okay, Bella," she said. "If there was anything to worry about I wouldn't be sitting here calmly like this while my husband brought me orange juice and a footstool."
"Huh?" Emmett frowned. "I'm not...oh...yeah, okay, onto it."
He pushed the footstool across from the corner and then hurried to the kitchen.
I felt a little calmer but there was something still nagging at me and as my mind played over the events of the past few days, a memory came crashing through and I gasped.
"Bella?" Edward was concerned.
"Marc...he said something about the Volturi rules keeping humans safe." I turned to Carlisle. "He said they kept things in check and there'd be chaos without them. Humans would become little more than cattle and slaves." My mouth was dry and I swallowed hard. "He said the world would go back the way it was when the Romanians were in power."
My heart clenched as I remembered. I'd tried to convince Marc otherwise, but now I wondered if he might have had a point and I considered the sickening possibility that my actions might have actually put humankind in danger.
"The world is a very different place now," Carlisle said. "And it's not a world where Stefan and Vladimir could come to any sort of power."
"But it sounds like Aro really did a job on this Marc person." Jasper frowned. "He made the Volturi sound like super heroes?"
"All they needed were the capes," Edward said and everyone laughed though I wasn't sure why. "Dracula joke," he whispered to me. "I'll explain later."
"I wouldn't worry, Bella." Jasper was smiling. "We'll keep a look out for any activity that's out of the ordinary and with technology the way it is now it'll be easy to track down a problem and deal with it. It'll be known that there are still rules, even without a Volturi."
There was certainty in his words, a matter-of-factness that was comforting.
Rosalie smirked. "Sounds like there's a new sherrif in town."
Jasper looked momentarily surprised, then tipped an imaginery hat.
"Yes, ma'am," he drawled. "I guess there is."
The conversation turned again, going back to Marion and Edward flicked off the television while Jasper pulled up his laptop. Hannah and Max were calling out from the bedroom, and Emmett went to supervise. Edward's stomach rumbled.
"Dinner time," he mumbled and got up to go to the kitchen.
Alice was talking about weddings and mentioned ours which led to Rosalie's shock and demands of why she hadn't been told.
"There's been other stuff going on," Edward laughed as she waved him and me over for a hug because she said it would take her until our first anniversary before she'd be able to get out of the chair. Emmett joined in the congratulations when he came back in the room and there was much back-slapping and teasing between him and Edward.
Esme was working with Alice on theories for Gheorghe's whereabouts. Carlisle and Jasper were on the laptop, maybe tracking Marion. Edward went back to the kitchen. Rosalie asked me if we had a date set and where the wedding might be.
"You can always use our place," she said. "You could say your vows down by the creek, it's beautiful there."
"Yeah," I said, hoping I wasn't blushing with my own memory of the creek. "It is."
The room was full of life and laughter and plans for moving forward. Plans for a new, post-Volturi world, but I still felt a vague heaviness. Like something was resting on my shoulders and I fidgetted in my seat, as if that might ease it.
"So, One-Shot-Swan, or maybe I should call you Bella the Vampire Slayer, how did you come up with the whole paint thinners idea?" Emmett's eyes were wide and full of admiration. "I mean, seriously, that was a killer move. Literally. How the hell did you think of it?"
My chest suddenly felt tight. That heaviness felt like it was crushing me.
A killer move.
I was a killer now.
"Um..." I swallowed, not wanting to remember but the images came anyway.
"I...I don't think I did think about it."
I looked across at Edward who was studying the take-away pizza menu like they were lecture notes and finals were tomorrow.
Edward, with his emerald eyes and a heart that beat with love and hope for a future and a family of his own.
My eyes stung and I dropped my gaze, blinking down at my hands.
"I just knew I had to stop it. Stop them." I shrugged. "It all happened so fast."
Emmett chuckled softly.
"Almost wish I'd been there to see it. Whoosh!"
I winced. Rosalie whacked him on the arm.
"Is the relief making you crazy?" she snapped. "I don't think Bella wanted to be there, you'd want yourself in that sort of danger?"
"Hey," he leant over and kissed her on the top of her head. "I said almost." He kissed her again and she nestled into his side. He whispered something in her ear before calling to Edward, who had abandoned the pizza menu and was now thoroughly investigating the inside of his fridge.
"So Edward, what about you, eh? Still got some skills...some fancy footwork..."
"Like Bella said, it happened so fast." He emerged from the fridge, frowning and distracted. "There was no time to think. But right now I'm hungry and I don't think pizza's going to cut it."
"I could go for a steak," Emmett said. "You got some?"
"Always." Edward answered as Carlisle stepped forward.
"Allow me?" he said. "I haven't had a chance to practice my barbecue skills since you moved here, Edward."
"And I could do my potato salad." Esme beamed. "Do we have potatoes?"
"Ooh, barbecue! I'll set the table on the deck." Alice was bouncing on her toes, looking around. "Actually, why don't you have a proper indoor dining table, Edward?"
"I'd never use it," he said. "When I have people over we always sit outside, anyway."
Alice's face was thoughtful now.
"You could have a round table over there..."
"The room's fine, Alice."
"Hmm..." She didn't sound convinced. "It'll do for now. Where's the linen tablecloth I gave you? And the fancy placemats? Oh, we need a floral arrangement! There are some flowers in your neighbour's garden..."
"We don't need a floral arrangement."
Edward's voice was firm as he came to join me again. He sat on the armrest of the sofa and draped his arm around my shoulder.
"But what about that Lalique vase I got you?" Alice's voice held a faint accusatory tone now. "It'd be perfect as the centrepiece, even if the table is outside."
Edward sighed and smiled down at me.
"Alice did the whole interior design thing when I got my first apartment," he explained.
"Oh, I see." I nodded, eager for fresh conversation. "That must have been fun."
"I think I spent about a year in Pier 1 and William Sonoma. Against my will, I should add."
"Someone had to take charge," Alice called from the kitchen where she was now rifling through the drawers. "Or you would have kept that old black couch and...hey! The silver ice tongs! Where's the matching ice bucket that goes with them? And why are they floating around in here with potato peelers and oven gloves?"
"We don't need the ice bucket!" The exasperation was clear in Edward's voice. Emmett was snickering. Rosalie and Jasper were hiding smirks. "And where else would I keep the tongs?"
"You should keep them with the bucket! Somewhere safe. Now the monogram's all scratched." She sighed and straightened. "Just lead me to the tablecloths, Edward."
He sighed too.
"Linen closet." He stood and motioned for her to follow him to the hallway.
Emmett made some muttered comment as they walked past and Edward responded with his middle finger. Rosalie and Jasper laughed.
Esme was humming as she prepared the potato salad. Carlisle was busy in the fridge and freezer.
I was enjoying the playful back-and-forth between Edward and his family, but still that heavy feeling nagged, and Emmett's words hung at the back of my mind, nudging, taunting. My smile faded and my stomach began to knot again. I decided I needed some fresh air so I got up and wandered towards the sliding doors that led to the deck.
Jasper watched me as I passed, the empath in him obviously picking up on my feelings. He arched a brow, a silent "Are you okay?"
I nodded and smiled and mouthed "I'll be fine." He nodded too, his eyes telling me he understood.
I just needed to clear my thoughts.
Outside on the deck, I leant against the railing, staring out at the sea as I breathed deeply, focusing on the air going in and out.
"Mind if I join you?"
Carlisle's voice came softly as he walked to the barbecue, a tray of meat and various condiments in his hands.
"I was just getting some air." I smiled and pushed back my hair. My hand was shaking and I hid it behind my back, quickly. Carlisle probably noticed, but if he did he didn't say anything.
"I hope I can remember how to do this," he said with a smile. "I got quite good in the first years after Edward's change.
He set down the tray, lit the gas, and then poured some olive oil on the grill. It sizzled softly.
"We've got steaks, sausages for the kids, and Edward said you like these vegetable patties."
"Yeah," I said, moving to stand beside him, hoping for distraction from my thoughts. "They're good. Thank you."
He placed them on the grill, the small distance between them so evenly spaced it was like he'd measured.
"Edward and I would often cook together," he said as he lined up the sausages above the patties. "And we'd talk. Even after he moved out, whenever he came to visit we'd have a barbeque for him." A faintly wistful smile curved his lips.
"You must miss him," I said, hugging myself again. "And Emmett and Rose, all living so far away."
"Esme and I both do. You could say it's been something of a wrench, especially in the beginning, when they first left to come here, but I wouldn't change a thing."
"No." He smiled softly. "It's a complex thing. Edward's older than me now, at least, in terms of human years, his 31 to my 23, but I still think of him as my son, I always will. Even when it's time for me to play the role of his grandson, and hopefully great-grandson." He smiled again. "And like all fathers, I only want the best for him, and for Rosalie and Emmett, too. That's why, as much as I miss them all, I wouldn't change a thing. To see them live the lives they want, with people they love, is everything."
He set the steaks on the grill, seasoning them lightly from the spice bottle.
"That's just one of many reasons I'm so grateful for your actions yesterday, Bella. It's true what Emmett said earlier, that his children will get to grow up because of you." He cocked his head slightly, in that vampire way. "Do you understand what I'm saying?"
It was like his golden eyes could see right through me. See the unwelcome thoughts that had begun to taunt me. I swallowed, feeling the knot in my stomach tighten.
"I understand," I said. "But...I killed people." If Marc hadn't got away, he would have died too. And I would have been responsible.
My voice broke and I looked down at my feet, shaken by how the words sounded now they'd been said out loud.
I felt Carlisle's cool hand on my arm.
"I don't regret anything," I said quickly. "I'd do the same again if I had to. In a heartbeat. But it frightens me a little, what I did." I lifted my eyes and stared into his, so deep with understanding and kindness. "I feel like I've crossed a line, Carlisle."
He rubbed my arm, the gentle action soothing.
"It's no small thing, what you did. It will leave its mark, and you wouldn't be the person I think you are, if you weren't affected. But you didn't cross a line, Bella. Marc did. And Aro. Not you." He gave my arm an affectionate squeeze. "You reacted to the situation they put you in. You defended yourself, and your loved ones. And you stopped a great evil. Remember that. Let that be the mark you're left with."
Through the glass of the sliding doors I could see Hannah and Max, returned to the living room and bouncing around, laughing and dragging bean bags towards the hall. One bean bag had cupcakes on it. The other was decorated with what looked like a giant lizard. Rosalie watched them fondly as she rubbed her belly.
The knot that had been twisting and burning inside me, began to ease.
Yeah, I'd definitely do it all again.
I sighed and pushed back my hair.
"It was so fast," I said. "I didn't think it would be."
Carlisle frowned softly as he added the sausages to the grill. Two of them rolled to the edge and he had to push them back into place twice before they stayed. Then he handed me the spare tongs and motioned for me to turn the vegetable patties. The gesture surprised me, but I quickly welcomed such an ordinary, everyday action.
"Were you expecting it to drag out?" he asked as he drizzled some extra oil over the patties and I bit my lip, remembering those dark moments in my living room.
"It's not that I wanted it to drag out," I murmured. "But while I was focused on Edward, I was also wondering how they were going to get us to the plane, would Alice see, would she come. Would there be a chance to escape when we got outside? And if there wasn't, and somehow we got to Volterra alive, what would happen then?"
My thoughts had been racing so fast I'd hardly known what they were at the time.
"And then suddenly Aro lost interest, just like that! And the next thing...it was over." I poked at a sausage. "I guess it all felt too easy, the resolution. Too quick. Which sounds stupid, and I don't know why I feel that way because I should be glad it was quick, and I am, but..." I shrugged. "Maybe I've watched too many movies. I was expecting the car chase and the action sequence."
"And the helicopter rescue over the Italian Alps?"
"Yeah, something like that."
Carlisle smiled and nodded slowly.
"You were prepared for battle," he said. "Mentally and physically. Your adrenalin would have been pumping, your muscles braced for action, but the battle didn't come. At least, not the way you thought it might. And now, because the ending played out differently than you expected, too easily as you say, you're probably wondering if it's really over. You're worried that maybe the battle will come again."
"Yes," I whispered. "I'm worried it's not really over." I swallowed, feeling the gnaw of anxiety. "They're really gone, aren't they?"
"They are, yes. You and Edward made sure of it."
"And something else won't take their place? Something worse?"
"No. Jasper and I will make sure of that."
I exhaled and nodded.
"Thanks," I said. "I probably sound crazy."
"Not at all. You sound...human."
His smile was so warm, I couldn't help but smile back. He always seemed to know the right thing to say and my mind drifted to another night, long ago, when he and I had talked about souls while he'd stitched up my arm in his study.
I'd been so different then. That night seemed a lifetime away and the physical scar from my disastrous birthday was barely noticeable, a testimony to Carlisle's skill. He'd done a good job.
He was doing another good job now, and that weight I felt began to ease a little. The location for this conversation couldn't be more different though. Here we were, barbecuing on a deck by the ocean, instead of in his wood-panelled study with the pictures on the...
"Oh! They used to be your friends, didn't they? You lived with them. You had that painting of them in your study!"
The realisation that I'd killed his friends crashed over me in a wave of awkwardness. What should I say? Should I say anything at all?
"I don't know if I ever called them friends," Carlisle said. "I once admired their civility. They were cultured and refined back in a time when the only other vampires I'd encountered were sewer-dwellers. But I could never accept or condone their lifestyle, or their attitude to humans. And after what's happened now..." He shook his head, his face hardening and his next words came with a chilling edge I'd never heard from him before. "They became a threat to my wife. To my family. They were no friends of mine."
He frowned down at the grill as he seasoned the steaks again.
"I know Edward and Emmett like a lot of flavour," he said quietly. "But I'm not always sure how much is too much."
"Um, what you've got there looks good," I said.
"They can always add salt at the table."
"They probably will."
"They'll need to keep watch on their blood pressure as they get older. Especially Edward. His has a tendency to run high."
"I'll take good care of him," I promised.
"I know you will."
We were silent for a moment, staring into the flickering flames. Carlisle shifted the patties around. I turned the sausages.
"Smells good," I said.
Carlisle smiled, the taut lines gone now from his face.
"I wish I could agree. Although, sometimes I wish I could enjoy a steak." He flipped them over. "They like them rare," he said while I rolled the sausages around a bit. "Bella?"
"What you said before, about it all happening too quickly...
"If Aro hadn't learned about your bond with Edward, events would very likely have played out as you thought they might."
"You mean we would have gone to Volterra?"
"Yes. And we would have pursued you and attempted rescue." He smiled. "The whole car chase and action sequence with helicopters, if we had to. But Aro acted true to form once he realised how powerful you and Edward would be as vampires."
"With your gifts and your bond, you stopped being valuable to him, and instead became a threat. His decision to remove that threat would have been swiftly made. Instant. There would be no trip for you to Volterra. No chances for escape or rescue. That's why he lost interest, as you say. That's why he changed his plans so quickly." He cleared his throat. "It would not have been a difficult decision for him to make."
I shuddered as I remembered Aro's command to kill Edward.
One of the sausages had split its skin, and I poked at it with the tongs. Beneath the grill, the low blue flames flickered and waved.
"Why didn't he run? Aro, I mean." I'd wondered this a few times. "He just froze when his clothes caught fire." I shuddered again and felt Carlisle's hand on my shoulder.
"Running would have fanned the flames," he said quietly. "And for vampires, fire really is our weakness. Our skin might be hard to the touch, but it still originates from organic matter. And then there's the venom."
"Venom? On your skin?"
He held up his hand, flexing his fingers. "At a cellular level. Very roughly, it compares to the natural oils in human skin. It's what gives us our flexibility, allows us to move so easily in our stone skin. Without it we really would be, well, statues. But the venom's composition makes it highly flammable."
"And produce purple smoke?"
The scientist in me was momentarily intrigued, I tried to think of the chemical properties and reactions that might be involved, but again my mind drifted back to the flat. I closed my eyes, as if that could shut the memories out, but they kept coming.
"There was so much confusion," I said. "There was the sound of the tin exploding, and then the whoosh of the flames...and then..."
What did happen then?
It had seemed such a blur of movement and chaos, and yet Aro had been so still while all around him...
My eyes flew open. Carlisle was watching me curiously.
"No-one was trying to save Aro, were they?"
Carlisle shook his head. "No."
"They were all trying to escape and...that's how Edward burnt his hand!"
"You didn't know?"
"I lost sight of him, or I thought I did...oh!" I sat down with a bump on one of the chairs. Now, without the cloud of fear and panic, I remembered new details.
"I saw him twist away from Heidi, and she killed Jane, but then he was gone...for a second." Just as the fire suddenly got worse. Just as the whole flat seemed consumed by flames. "But he...I think he..."
"I torched them."
Edward's voice, hard and cold, pulled me back to now. He was standing in the doorway, hands sunk in his pockets, watching me carefully.
"You didn't know?"
"No." I shook my head. "I just realised now..."
Carlisle smiled and turned off the gas before lowering the lid of the barbecue.
"That'll keep them warm for a while," he said. "I believe meat needs to rest before consumption, anyway." Then he quietly disappeared.
Edward came forward, crouching down in front of me.
"I thought you'd been swallowed up by the smoke and the flames. You were waving your arms around, and there was so much fire, and I was so scared..."
He gently tucked some hair behind my ear.
"You set fire to the tin," he said. "The flames spread quickly, catching Aro and Felix and Alec, but the rest weren't going to stick around to save them. They were going to get away. I couldn't let that happen."
I took his injured hand, turning it over, caressing his palm and the simple surgical dressing.
"How did you do it?"
"Your bag. It was on the floor, in reach of my foot. Heidi was still holding onto me when I kicked it and flicked it into the flames."
Ah...Emmett's comment on Edward's fancy footwork.
"And then you picked it up?"
"A second later, when Heidi was distracted with Jane and I got out of her grasp. I used it as a torch, waving it round like a villager in an old horror movie, trying to kill the monsters. I was just missing the pitchfork." He cracked a hesitant smile and tenderly touched my cheek with his free hand. "I'll replace it. Your bag, I mean."
I shook my head, laughing a shaky laugh.
"I don't care about the bag." I frowned. His fingers traced my jaw, his thumb caressed my cheek. His touch was so gentle, so warm and soothing.
So much love in such a simple caress.
"So we actually did it together?"
"You could look at it that way, yes."
"Then why is everyone talking about what I did, when it wasn't just me?"
"Because what you did was so remarkable. And if you hadn't done what you did, if you hadn't fired that gun, there's no way I could have done what I did. And right now we'd both be..."
He swallowed hard, then tilted his head in an almost, but not quite, vampire way. "I thought you saw."
"I did, I just didn't understand what I was seeing." I cupped his cheek and he turned his face to kiss my palm.
"Firing that gun was what saved all of us, Bella. You took out the Volturi leader, and more. You saved us."
He pulled me close and I rested my head on his shoulder. Normally, I felt so safe and secure in his arms but now, as he rubbed his hand over my back, I felt hollow inside, and the unwelcome thoughts were still circling in my head.
"You okay?" he asked.
"I will be. I just think...I think things are catching up with me. But everyone's okay, that's the main thing. That's why I did it. And everyone's okay. Carlisle's right, it was them that crossed the line, not me, I just reacted to it."
"Bella, love...?" He pulled back, his face concerned. "What's wrong?"
I opened my mouth to say I was fine, but different words came tumbling.
"Emmett said I had killer moves. It made me feel...it scares me." I stopped and shook my head, not really wanting to continue.
Edward's concern shifted into a frown. Still crouched before me, he rested his hands on my thighs now, massaging gently.
"Don't listen to Emmett. Nobody else does. But why does what he said scare you?"
"Because of Marc."
Edward made a sound of disgust, deep in his throat. "Don't waste any sympathy on that bastard..." "I know, I know, you're right," I said, staring down at Edward's long fingers as they stroked gently over the denim of my jeans. "What he did was wrong, and talking to Carlisle has helped, I do feel better, but...but it still scares me."
Edward's hands stilled."I don't understand."
I sighed, trying to gather my thoughts.
"I think...Marc was more deluded than evil, Edward. He was deluded and brainwashed and honestly thought he was playing with the good guys. In some ways he was a victim too, and he could have died because of me." I paused to take a shaky breath. "And the fact that I would do exactly the same thing again, fire that gun and start the fire, knowing I'd be risking his life...it makes me wonder who I am. It makes me wonder if I'm...bad."
Edward was very silent, his hands perfectly still. After a moment I lifted my gaze.
There were tears in his eyes. Tears and an ancient pain so raw it hurt me to see it. His throat worked, but he stayed silent.
"You think you're bad?" he whispered. "A killer?"
"Bella, no." There was real agony in his voice and it sliced through my heart. "You are one of the most...how could you even think...oh dear God..." He looked away, blinking hard for a moment before he turned back.
"Tell me," he said roughly. "What do you see when you look at me?"
I frowned, not understanding.
"I see you."
He shook his head, his gaze hard now, almost angry. The edge in his voice raised goosebumps on my skin.
"I don't mean that. I mean, what do you see?" He took my chin in his hand, not letting me move, keeping our gaze level. "Who am I, Bella?"
His eyes darkened somehow, I felt the faint thrill of danger, and suddenly I understood.
"Oh...Oh!" I reached out to touch his cheek.
"You're Edward," I said. "You're kind and clever. You're gentle and you make me laugh. You're an engineer who's climbed Mt Everest. And you love me." I took a slow breath. "And in a past life you saved the lives of thousands of women and children."
With every word, every truth, understanding flowed through me, bringing a warmth that filled those confused, anxious hollows and melted that knot in my stomach. I felt something shift inside me, the blanket of yesterday's horror was lifting, and perspective was returning.
"Am I bad?" Edward asked, voice raw.
"No. I'm not."
To hear him confirm that with such certainty, surprised me, and the hardness in his eyes had faded away, replaced by an emotion I couldn't name.
Then he was standing and pulling me to my feet.
"So Bella," he whispered, turning us so our images reflected in the kitchen window. "Who do you see when you look in the mirror? Who are you?"
His arms came round me, hugging me to him, my back against his chest.
"Um...I see someone who can tell the difference between bacteria and protozoa."
"Very impressive. Go on."
"I can reverse park on the first go."
"Also very impressive."
"I see someone who loves and trusts you very much."
"Miraculous and unbelievable, but I'll take it." He kissed the back of my neck. "What else?"
"I...can bake a really good cheesecake."
He leant round me so he could could give me an accusing glare.
"And you never told me that?"
"Not yet," I smiled. "I can't reveal everything all at once. There has to be some mystery."
"Not where cheesecake is concerned. But we'll come back to that. What else do you see?"
"Someone who likes to laugh and loves music. Someone who cries at sad movies and reads anything she can get her hands on." I cleared my throat. "And, um...I see someone who wants to protect her family from people who'd hurt them."
"I see that too," Edward said. "I also see someone who risked her life in a ballet studio when she was seventeen, to save her mother and keep me from danger."
Edward turned me round so I was facing him again. His eyes burned into mine, his hands gripped my arms.
"You didn't go into that flat intending to set it on fire, did you?"
"You don't go out each morning planning to do damage or cause hurt?"
"You were in extreme, extenuating circumstances in that flat."
"Did you tell Marc to get out? Tell him to leave while he could?"
"Yes. Yes, I did."
"And if you had to do it all again, would you still tell him to get out and save himself?"
"Yes. I would."
"Bella, you were trying to prevent a great evil. It was never your intention to put Marc in danger, he did that himself." Edward sighed. "So, do you get what I'm trying to say?"
"Yeah. I think I do." Some tears pricked at my eyes. "I...I'm still me."
"Yes," Edward said. "You are." He smiled. "The only difference now is that you come with the added bonus of cheesecake."
I heard myself laugh, the sound as unexpected as Edward's teasing. He was smiling too, but then his expression shifted into something more serious, and the past was there again in his eyes.
"You're not bad, and you're not a killer, Bella," he said gently. "I can promise you that. And I won't let you tear yourself up with misguided guilt, I won't let you go down that dark path."
His voice broke and I felt my eyes brim with tears. He'd walked that dark path for years, I knew that, but not anymore it seemed, judging from his words a few minutes ago.
I sank against him, breathing him in, listening to the steady thrum of his heart.
We stayed that way for a while, just the two of us in the silence beneath the stars. Then Edward exhaled sharply.
"You okay?" he asked.
"Yeah," I said. "I think I am. You?"
"All good." He sighed. "All good."
In the background I could hear excited squeals. I turned my head and saw Jasper, apparently performing a magic trick for Hannah and Max, making objects appear from behind their ears.
This was exactly what we needed.
"That's really sweet," I said, smiling. "And surprising."
"Jasper has his moments," Edward said.
He swung me up into his arms then, and sat in the chair, with me on his lap.
He rested his head against my chest.
I sighed and smiled at the moon, listening to more muffled laughter from Max and Hannah while those three little words that Edward had uttered, were ringing in my memory like a shiny silver bell, bringing a new joy now that I thought about them.
"So you don't think you're bad, anymore?"
"I've done bad things," he said slowly. "You know that. But I don't think I'm bad. At least, not as much as I used to."
"Well, it's about time. What changed?"
There was the faint tensing of his body.
"Oh, you don't have to answer, I didn't mean..."
"No, it's fine," he said. "I don't mind." He gave me an apologetic, smile and then nestled against me once more.
"I've told you about my rebellious period," he said. "Well, once I became human, I began having nightmares. I thought sleep was fantastic, but there was a period when the dreams were so bad I was scared to shut my eyes." He shuddered softly. "I figured it was fair punishment for what I'd done. And without those vampire instincts at play, yeah, it felt different. I had guilt before, but as a human it was so much worse, even though I knew that as a vampire my actions had come from a completely different, and vaguely justifiable, place."
"I'm so sorry. I had no idea."
He shook his head. "Don't be. I've dealt with it and I haven't had the nightmares for a long while now. I do still think about that period though but, I see things a bit differently these days."
"Yeah." The breeze tousled his hair and he blew it back out of his eyes with a sharp breath but it fell back immediately. I pushed it out of the way for him.
"Can you tell me about it?" I asked as I played with his hair.
He didn't answer straight away and I was about to say it didn't matter, when he tightened his arms around me, and started talking.
"I was in college," he said quietly, with a sigh, almost as if he were talking to himself. "There was a guest speaker coming to give an invited lecture at the medical faculty. There were posters all over the place."
I scratched my nails over the back of his neck and he nestled closer.
"Who was it?" I asked.
"Dr Amelia Duckworth. She was doing ground-breaking work in genetics that could make dozens of diseases a thing of the past. Save billions of lives." He paused. "Sometimes, in the past, my vigilante activities would make it into the newspapers. The doctor's name rang a bell."
My hand stilled and my skin tingled as I realised where this was going.
"I did some research," he said. "And found out her grandmother was also called Amelia Duckworth, and I'd saved her from a predetor in 1931."
He became very quiet and I wondered if he was remembering her, and what he'd seen in the thoughts of that predetor.
"Anyway," he began again. "I found an interview the doctor had given about her medical career where she'd talked about her grandmother being a nurse in World War II. There weren't always enough doctors to go around and she'd saved dozens of lives doing procedures a nurse wasn't supposed to do. She was the inspiration for her granddaughter going into medicine."
I realised then I was holding my breath, and let it go in a whoosh.
"I know," he said, exhaling too.
"What did you do?"
"I went to the lecture, and I sat at the back of the room. She took the podium and I was shaking so much the chair was vibrating on the floor. But she was remarkable. And doing so much good in the world. Afterwards, there was a small crowd all wanting to talk to her and ask questions. I joined them and I waited my turn and I...I shook her hand."
The emotion in his voice made me want to cry, and I bit hard into my lip.
"She smiled and thanked me for coming. I said it was my very great pleasure. After that, I went home and thought, maybe I could start forgiving myself. Maybe...I wasn't bad. The nightmares stopped soon after."
I didn't know what to say, and sometimes words really aren't necessary, so I just hugged him with everything I had.
"I love you so much," he whispered, squeezing his arms around me.
"Love you too."
He sighed, lifted his head and smiled.
"I haven't told anyone about that," he said. "You always make it so easy for me to talk."
"Well, I did ask."
He kissed my cheek.
"Our conversations meander a lot, don't they?"
"As long as we meander together," I said.
He leant in for another kiss and just as his lips touched mine, his stomach rumbled. We laughed and then...
"Oh my gosh, Edward the steaks! They'll be cold!" It felt like we'd been out here on our own for hours, and Edward seemed to read my thoughts.
"It's been less than fifteen minutes since Carlisle closed the lid. Perfect resting time. They'll be fine."
Almost on cue, the sliding doors opened and Alice appeared with Hannah in tow. The little girl was carrying an armful of linen while Alice effortlessly balanced a pile of plates and glasses.
"There's a right way and a wrong way to set a table," Alice was explaining while Hannah nodded very seriously.
"Aunty Alice is teaching me to ettycut," she announced.
"Table etiquette," Alice corrected. Then she smiled. "But ettycut works, too. Max?"
Max appeared, sombre-faced and walking slowly, bearing a jug full of flowers.
"You've raided next door's garden," Edward said. "But no Lalique crystal?"
"Rosalie advised against it," Alice whispered softly. "So we've gone with a plastic jug I found in the pantry. And these more basic plates instead of the vintage Villeroy & Boch. You must have bought these all yourself."
"I did," Edward smirked. "From Ikea."
Alice barely hid an eyeroll as she turned back to the table.
We watched on as Hannah began spreading the cloth over the table. Edward helped her smooth it into position and get it even. Max stepped forward and I lent a hand, guiding the jug into the centre of the table.
"Good job!" Alice beamed at the children when they were done. They smiled back at her, faces full of pride. "Now, the place settings. Symmetry is everything..."
I was smiling too. "Nice and normal," I whispered. "Well, if you call a vampire teaching table etiquette to humans, normal."
Edward chuckled. "Lets just say it's normal for us."
Now Hannah was asking Alice why there weren't enough plates for everyone.
"There's ten people" she said, holding up both hands. "But six plates."
Alice shot us a quick look.
"That's because some of us already ate. Earlier. Before you arrived."
Hannah looked very disapproving.
"Did you fill up and spoil your dinner?"
"Yes, that's right," Alice said brightly. "We spoilt our dinner."
Max shook his head, his face as serious as his sister's. "You won't get dessert."
"Then you'll have to have mine. And Jasper's."
This solution was met with grins and giggles from the children and Edward was chuckling beside me.
"Nice save, Alice," he murmured softly.
He curled his arm around my waist, pulling me into his side as two small children learned that forks go on the left and knives on the right, which is all well and good if you already know your left from right.
Tomorrow the sun would rise again, the world would go on without the Volturi, and maybe we'd take Max and Hannah down to the beach for a swim. We could look for shells and play on the sand.
I felt Edward's lips in my hair and I snuggled closer to him. Then Esme appeared with the salads.
"Dinner's ready!" she grinned.
Hannah and Max were fascinated by Jasper, and he kept up the magic tricks during dinner.
With no words, and a combination of vampire speed and traditional slight-of-hand, he made the salt shaker disappear, followed by the napkin holder. They both re-appeared in Alice's ear, which brought squeals of delight, until Rosalie suggested everyone focus on their meals.
The potato salad was delicious. Carlisle's barbequing was perfect and the table setting looked amazing. The conversation was relaxed, meandering from the latest movies to Esme's new car and what Rose and Emmett should call their baby.
Max said he wanted a brother called Burt. "'Cause it sounds like burp," he giggled and everyone laughed.
Edward and Emmett argued over football.
"AFL? It's just aerial ping pong," Emmett declared.
"You're missing the subtlety," Edward said. "I'll take you to a game sometime. You'll see the skill involved."
Emmett snorted, as if that was the most unlikely thing in the world.
"Maybe," he said.
Sleeping arrangements were sorted after dinner and Rosalie was taking the spare room while Emmett would sleep with the kids in the kombi van in the garage. This suggestion brought a new round of excited squeals and Rosalie was smiling contentedly as she kissed her children goodnight and watched them go with their father and Uncle Nedwood for story time in the kombi.
"A bed all to myself," she murmured. "Bliss."
Esme watched fondly as they all disappeared.
"They're such a blessing," she said. "Children always are."
Carlisle was on the laptop with Jasper and Alice, but he glanced up and smiled at his wife. There was such intimacy in that look, I felt like I was intruding, but it made me wonder something and the question was out of my mouth before I could stop it.
"Do you think you'll ever change back to human, too?"
It was too personal, and I was about to apologise for asking, but Esme didn't seem to mind.
"I thought about it, in the beginning, soon after Edward changed. I still do, occasionally but..." She shrugged. "Carlisle and I can do so much more with our vampire senses to help people, and perhaps this sounds arrogant but, this way, we can always keep watch on our human family, long into the future, after Edward and Emmett and Rosalie are gone." Her brow furrowed slightly at that, the thought of such a future obviously hurt, but then a gentle smile graced her lips. "Even from a distance, we can make sure their children and grand children and great-great-great grandchildren are safe and well. We can look out for them. Even if they don't always know about us."
It was such a beautiful thought.
"Like a pair of guardian angels," I said.
My words surprised her, it seemed. She blinked.
"Perhaps," she said and glanced down at her hands in her lap. She cleared his throat. "I wouldn't say we're angels,but that's a lovely way to put it, Bella. Thank you."
Then the children who were such a blessing were back, crashing through the door, needing the bathroom again and drinks of water.
A tired looking Edward followed them and sank onto the sofa.
"Where's Emmett," I asked.
Esme chuckled. "He's quite hopeless sometimes," she said affectionately then stood to round up the children. "Come on," she said. "No big drinks at bedtime, just tiny sips."
She organised the water then followed them to the bathroom to reduce dawdling. It sounded like one went for the ensuite while the other took the main bathroom.
"Don't they get jetlag?" I asked.
"Apparently not." Edward yawned. "But I think I've got the jetlag they should have."
He sagged against me. There was the sound of a toilet flushing, and then Max appeared.
"Uncle Nedwood, what's this?" He held out a bright green Scooby Doo sock. "There's somefing inside."
Edward's eyes widened, he swore under his breath, and leapt off the sofa just as Max reached in.
"No! Max, no!"
Max giggled and ran up the hall but Edward caught him, swinging him up in his arms, blowing a raspberry on his chubby cheek while smoothly taking the sock from his hand.
"Bed," he said firmly setting him down on his feet.
"I'll take him." Esme came back in, holding Hannah's hand. "Come on, Max. Why don't I read to you and Hannah tonight? Uncle Nedwood's tired." She beamed at the little boy and he beamed right back and reached up to take her hand.
"You not tired, Aunty Emay?"
"No, I don't get tired very often." They headed towards the door. "Which story shall we read?"
"Magic Beach!" Hannah exclaimed.
"No! The Bravest Bear!" Max cried.
"Well, we could read one now," Esme said. "And the other one in the morning. How does that sound? That way, you'll go to sleep with something to look forward to!"
This was accepted as a good plan and there was much nodding of agreement.
"Uncle Carl?" Max looked across the room. "You come too?"
"Well, I'd love to." Carlisle's smile was brighter than the sun and he quickly joined the little trio as they headed out to the garage.
"So Edward, what's in the sock?" Jasper asked, smirking, once the door had closed behind them.
"Nothing," Edward answered quickly, shoving Scooby Doo into his pocket.
I looked at him curiously.
"Nothing?" I arched a brow and was surprised when colour flooded his cheeks.
"Nothing," he said and got up to leave the room.
"Probably more nipple clamps." Alice nodded, her voice full of authority.
"More what?" I looked from her to Edward. Oh my gosh, was this left over from one of his exes?
Or was this something he wanted to try with me? I could feel my own cheeks colouring.
Edward's eyes flashed, he was clearly angry with his sister, then he turned to me.
"It's not how it sounds," he said.
"Bella..." He sat down beside me again, glaring at Alice. "I had a roommate for a short time while I was in college. Eric. He asked me to hid his, er, toys in my room when his mom came to visit. Unfortunately it was the same weekend Esme and Alice decided to come and see me."
"Oh!" I bit back a giggle and Japser smirked. Obviously he'd heard this story before.
"I hadn't bothered to hide the things because I wasn't expecting anyone in my room but, yeah..." He shrugged.
Jasper wasn't even bothering to hide his laughter now.
"They were on top of his dresser." Alice grinned. "All neat and tidy in a plastic bag, with a label that said 'nipple clamps', just in case there was any doubt."
I thought Jasper was going to fall off his chair at this point, he was laughing so much.
"Poor Esme walked in and walked straight out again," Alice continued. " Edward tried to explain but she said he was an adult and what he did under his own roof was his business...but she would always love him and she hoped he was being careful."
"You did tell her though?" I asked, biting my lip to stop the giggles because Edward was still glaring.
"Yes. It was one of the more embarrassing moments of my life. And hers, I think."
"I told him he should have hidden them," Alice said. "A sock would be a good hiding place."
Jasper's laughs gradually slowed, and he stood up, grinning. He didn't speak, but held out his hand to Alice. They exchanged a look and she smiled.
"We'll be back later," she said. "We might run down to the National Park again."
"Take my car if you want," Edward said. Jasper grabbed the keys from the island, and then they were gone, in that sudden vampire way that made a person wonder if they'd ever been there.
"So it's not nipple clamps in the sock, I promise you."
I nuzzled against him. "So what is it?"
He hesitated. "It's not for now. It's for later. Christmas."
"Oh!" I sat up. "You've been Christmas shopping already?"
"It is November, Bella. But if you want to see, I'll show you what I got you..."
"No. No, I'll wait." A ripple of excitement ran through me and then mild panic because I hadn't even thought about Christmas and I had no idea what to get Edward. My mind raced through a few ideas and I thought I should write them down, make a list. I'd seen a surfboard out the front the first day I ever came here. It had looked well-used and I wondered if he'd like a new one. Or a paddle board? A rare bottle of whisky?
My mind was racing and suddenly I was more exhausted than I'd ever been.
"Is this, like, the weirdest day ever?" I thought back over this morning, our skinny-dipping and love-making, Edward's second proposal, Marion's story and my meltdown. Edward's revelation about Dr Duckworth. Nipple clamps and Christmas presents.
"Yeah," he said. "I think it might be."
"It's been a big one."
"Too much going on. It's just...all too much."
"Way too much."
"I want to sleep now, I think."
Without a word, Edward stood and lifted me into his arms, carrying me up the hall.
He undressed me slowly, gently, kissing every part of my body that he exposed, until I was naked and between the sheets. He shed his own clothes and climbed in behind me, twining his legs with mine as he curled his body around me.
"It's like I've lived a lifetime in one day," I murmured through a yawn.
"I think, in some ways, we have."
Edward kissed the back of my neck, his hands coming to rest in their favourite position, cupping my breasts. He nuzzled my neck.
"What if I have a nightmare?" I asked.
"I'll hold you close and sing you back to sleep."
I nodded. "Okay. Thanks."
He chuckled and kissed the back of my shoulder, and then, as if to support his promise, he began to sing. Softly. Sweetly.
Brown Eyed Girl.
A/N: Yep, this chapter was all sorts of ups and downs but I figure, after everything they'd been through, there had to be melt-downs and moments. And we know how family life is made up of all sorts of bits and pieces, meandering conversations, shifting moods, and this chapter was a reflection of that :) It wouldn't have felt authentic to me without the chop-and-change of mood and conversation.
Thank you for the wonderful reviews for the last chapter and for all the amazing support you've given me and this story, and for sticking with me even when things got a little, er, controversial. I also want to say a very sincere thank you for your patience with the wait between chapters. It's never my plan to have such long gaps, but sometimes it just happens that way. I wish I could hug you all! xx
The next chapter will most likely be the last. A few loose ends will be tied up and we'll get a glimpse into the future :)