Disclaimer: I own nothing in this story except for my own little plot line and any characters you may not recognize. Everything else is property of the genius Stephenie Meyer.

A/N: Again, thank you all for the reviews. Some of you have asked me if I have any idea how many more updates there will be. Well... there will be about 6 chapters left, folks. So, we're definitely getting close to the end of it all now. Like always, twi-ction is amazing and I luv her.


Chapter 26: To Be Without

Bella's POV:

The air was colder down in the tunnels. It was stagnant, filled of the dead that walked in its midst. Individual flames danced along the stone walls from the ensconced torches.

I watched them flicker in the darkness as Aro moved ahead of me, his long midnight robes billowing around his feet.

"We're almost there," he sung happily, his voice like nails dragging across a chalkboard.

I imagined what it would be like to kill him. It would have been so easy…

We stopped outside a wooden door, one that I was all too familiar with. Aro rapped on the outer surface lightly and we waited in silence as quiet footsteps were heard on the other side.

Warm light washed over my face as Carlisle opened the door. His tawny gaze widened infinitesimally. "Aro. Your Grace," he welcomed, bowing slightly as he acknowledged me. "What brings this honored call?"

Aro smiled, his thin lips spreading wide over rows of sharp teeth. "Marie and I have business to discuss with you and your family. May we come in?"

Carlisle nodded once and stepped aside for us to enter. We locked eyes briefly and I tried to convey to him that I couldn't stop what was about to happen.

The living room was empty as we walked in and I hoped desperately that the family was out hunting or doing anything remotely away from here. But my hopes were shattered when Esme walked in, followed by Emmett and Rosalie. Soon, Alice and Jasper had entered into the room, their eyes guarded as they closely watched Aro.

Finally, Edward walked in.

I instantly averted my gaze from his and looked off to a bare spot on the far wall, wishing I were anywhere but here.

"Friends," Aro greeted, spreading his hands out in welcome. "Please sit down."

Carlisle closed the door quietly and made his way over to Esme. Once they were seated, the rest of the family followed.

"Marie and I have been discussing what we could do to try to better our communication with the wolves," Aro explained. He mentioned the story of his brother being attacked in Siberia once more and wished that we could find a more plausible solution to overcoming our grievances with the enemy. "Ms. Rigas had mentioned upon her arrival of sending her own people to interfere, but I do not want to cause her kind any more trouble."

I kept my gaze down and stayed silent as he spoke. I had heard this story time and again. One day, I hoped to find out that it was all a lie. Because one day, I was going to rip Aro's head from his body and set his flesh on fire.

He turned to me, extending an opened hand. "We have decided to send a small group to speak with the Romanian coven of wolves. Apparently, they keep in close contact with those in Siberia. In this way, we hope to achieve some sort of peace by having them convince their friends that we mean no harm. Ms. Rigas has the list of names."

His claret eyes were still watching me as he said, "Your Grace? Would you do the honors?"

The paper had been fisted in my hand ever since we left my own quarters. Swallowing heavily, I carefully opened the now tattered sheet and read the names aloud. "Jasper Hale, Carlisle Cullen, Emmett Cullen, and…" I paused at the last name, suddenly feeling a wave of warmth reach up behind my eyes. Desperate to keep my emotions at bay, I bit the inside of my cheek roughly.

Aro looked at me curiously and I took a deep breath in before reluctantly murmuring, "Edward Cullen."

"Pardon me, Ms. Rigas. I don't believe I heard you very clearly." Aro commented loudly.

My heart shattered. "Edward Cullen," I said, my voice carrying far across the room in hopes that I would not have to say it again.

There was an uneasy hush that washed over the room. I didn't dare lift my gaze to look at any of them. If I did, the damn of my emotions would surely burst.

"Excuse me?" Rosalie was the first one to speak. She stepped forward defensively. "Can I ask why you have chosen the male members of our family? Is there anyone else going with them?"

They were questions that I had asked and received unwanted answers to.

"Your family is highly respected amongst us, dear one. Your brothers' talents, in particular, will prove useful. Carlisle has the ability to communicate and reach a common ground with the wolves. My brothers have always revered him, as have I, and we trust him to carry out this request with success. Your husband will be there to help protect them should things turn… badly." He frowned slightly, folding his hands before him. "And no, there will be no one else going on this journey."

"What about me?" Alice spoke up. "Wouldn't my powers be useful too?"

Jasper lightly gripped her arm as she stomped forward, her eyes full of unshed tears.

Aro smiled warmly at her. "Yes, they would be, sweet Alice. But we could use your talents here as well. You could be the one to keep an eye on them, yes?"

Alice blinked and lowered her gaze from his. The anger that coursed through her small frame was nearly palpable.

Rosalie instantly stepped back, retracting from Aro entirely, and was unable to speak another word. Emmett wrapped an arm protectively around her waist, hugging her close to his side.

I couldn't even bare to look at Carlisle or Esme. The fear and worry in their eyes would be too excruciating to witness.

"You leave tonight," Aro declared, his voice was sick and sharp, like exposed nails on the road, waiting to slice its way through someone's flesh. "When the sun sets."

From behind him, I let my eyes travel up toward Edward. He stood at the end of the room closer to me, his eyes locked on my gaze. Knowing that it had worked before, I opened a connection with his mind.

Edward, I'm so sorry. A shuddering gasp escaped in my thoughts and Edward frowned, the creases in his forehead forming a visible 'V.'

Aro suddenly swept past me and opened the door. "Your Grace," he beckoned, bowing low at the hips.

I turned to him stiffly; unnerved by the way his eyes stared at me hungrily.

Without another thought, I quickly exited the room, letting the frozen air from the tunnels enclose around my face as I heard the door shut behind me.

"That went well, I think," Aro said happily, stepping up beside of me. "If you do not mind, I will retire for the evening. I suggest you do the same to give yourself some well-needed rest. We will re-convene with the training tomorrow."

I nodded once. "Of course. I will put Jasper's group with one of the others. Thank you, Aro."

And with that, we went our separate ways. I walked back up to my quarters in silence, feeling the heaviness in my feet with each step I took away from my friends… from my family.

Upon entering my apartment, I let the shadows engulf me. I turned to the open window, seeing that the sun was slowly beginning its descent behind the horizon.

Twilight.

I closed my eyes and listened to the words of the prophecy that Gabriel had spoke of. "She who is born a mortal but who does not belong to that world will show her true self when Twilight taints the sky."

The blonde strands of my hair faded to a dull brown. My body shifted and shaped back into the plain, ordinary girl that I was. I let down all of my barriers and focused on one thing. Edward.

Moments had passed and I waited in the still quiet of the room. A sad smile graced my lips when I heard the faintest click of the door open and close behind me.

His presence was all around me. I felt the nearness of him against my back and finally he wrapped his arms around my waist, letting me collapse against his chest.

"I'm sorry," I whispered, unable to think of anything else to say. "I'm so sorry."

"Shh…" Edward kissed the side of my head and tightened his embrace. "What could you have done? You have to continue to play your part, Bella."

"No," I said roughly, turning around so that I could face him. His beauty momentarily rendered me breathless. What if this was the last time I saw him? "I'm done playing by the rules. I won't let you go out there, Edward, any of you."

He smiled, though it was saddened. "You will do no such thing," he murmured softly, brushing away strands of my hair with his fingertips. "You don't know when this eclipse will come. If things turn badly before then, you'll be powerless against the Volturi. Who knows what they've been planning from the beginning, Bella. You need to keep up the charade. Please. Do it for me."

I shut my eyes tightly and ducked my head under his chin. "You said that I was stubborn."

He chuckled. "You are."

"Don't make me do this," I whispered, gripping the material of his sleeves tightly. "Edward, don't leave me. Not again."

Edward tilted my chin up toward him, but I couldn't meet his gaze. "Bella, look at me."

Slowly, my eyes shifted to his serene face.

"I love you," he whispered. "I love you more than I have loved anyone in my entire life. Don't for one second think that I don't, do you understand me? You are the most important thing to me and I will come back to you. I will." He softly traced my bottom lip with his thumb. I looked into his amber gaze, memorizing it. And suddenly, his lips were on mine, pushing against them roughly. It wasn't a soft, loving kiss. It was passionate and raw. It was as if we were trying to hide away within each other, hoping to never be intruded upon ever again.

And just like that, he was gone, cutting the ties with me quickly. It reminded me so much of the day he left me alone in the woods.

I stood still in the silence of the room, left with the ghost of his embrace and the lingering touch of his lips against mine.

A strangled breath escaped my lungs and I fell to the ground on my knees. My emotions took control and I curled in upon myself on the cold, marbled floor, letting the flood of my tears run free.

When a deep violet stained the sky, I pushed myself up on shaking legs and stumbled toward the door. "No," I muttered, wrenching it open. My feet moved quickly as I ran down the stairs, but I was stopped halfway.

Verrin stared back at me, her arms blocking my escape.

"Don't touch me," I spat.

When she did not release me, I warned, "Step aside, Verrin."

"No."

"Verrin." The tears were freely streaming down my face, but I didn't care. I needed to stop them from leaving.

"You can't do anything about it now, Bella."

I struggled in her grasp and in a flash, I found us back in the entryway of my quarters. "What are you doing?" I screamed, running back at the door.

She halted me again. "Stopping you from getting one of them killed! You need to calm down, Bella."

I slapped her for the second time that day. The sting hummed against my skin as I glared at her. "How dare you. You betrayed me not only once, but twice. Do you actually expect me to stand here and listen to you?"

"Yes."

"I don't believe this," I hissed, pushing past her once more. Yet, this time I found myself being catapulted backward and landing haphazardly on a plush, crème sofa.

"What exactly is it that you think you're going to do?" Verrin seethed, her body rigid and on defense in case I tried to leave again. "Go down there and behave like a blubbering idiot? It's even better that you look exactly like Bella Swan."

"Fuck you, Verrin," I spat. "You know absolutely nothing of what I'm going through."

She raised her eyebrows, appraising me. "Oh. I don't, do I? Well, let me enlighten you."

I turned to her as she sat down beside of me, hugging one of the fringed pillows to her chest. "I believe it's story time."

"I don't want to listen to your story," I moped. What I wanted to do was rush down to Edward and keep he and his family safe.

"Too bad, so sad," she droned. "Listen, as hard as it is for you to believe this, I do know what it's like."

I watched her skeptically, but decided to let her continue before I said anything more.

"You read some of my journals, so you know I was really confused when I came on board to this freak show. I was sixteen when Gabriel took me in."

Now, I did speak up. "Sixteen? You don't even look that young."

Verrin chuckled softly. "Well, you do age a little bit, Bella. Gabriel certainly doesn't look like the young strapping man he was when Lukas found him. He's still gorgeous, mind you, but not young. You'll probably age by a couple of years," she said, inspecting me with her violet gaze. "But anyway, I met someone only a few days after I joined the Guardiani de Trevia. He was around my age but had been in the guard for far longer than myself. He basically took me under his wing, so to speak. It took me a long time to find out that I loved him. I was in love with someone else, you see…"

"I do hope you're not talking about Alex or Damian," I mentioned.

Verrin scrunched up her face in a grimace. "Ew, no. They're like brothers to me, Bella. I couldn't possibly think of them as anything but that."

"Okay… so, that leaves me with either someone I haven't met before or Daigh, who you've only mentioned once."

She smiled, silently commending me for my observations. "Then I'd say that you'd be correct about Daigh."

"Really? So, you and Daigh – "

"Have been together for over one hundred beautiful years."

Her words sunk in, and for the first time I was seeing Verrin for who she truly was. "Who was the one before Daigh?"

Tears pricked Verrin's eyes, but she did not let them fall. A blank emotion washed over her face and I watched as the light that usually glimmered in her eyes vanished. "He died in the last war."

Suddenly, visions from my nightmare from the night before flashed through my mind. "You must save them." Her lips moved, her chin quivered as soft pleading whispers filled the air. "You must save them," and "You must save him," echoed one after the other. Crystalline tears slipped from her midnight gaze. "For I did not."

I gasped as realization took hold. "You were in love with Lukas."

She stared blankly toward the marbled floor, remembering a time far from here. "I couldn't get to him in time." Her voice was so small, almost childlike. "I never could forgive myself. Daigh took it upon himself to watch over me then, like he did when I first joined. Over time, I fell in love with him, but I think he loved me from the very beginning."

I watched this strong, beautiful woman before me. She seemed so sure of herself, even arrogant at times. But like Rosalie, there was a past that left its emotional scars. If I looked close enough, I could see the withered lines by her eyes, displaying her many years of exhaustion. I could see the pain behind her vibrant gaze. This was a woman who had been broken, yet overcame her loss in more ways than one.

"I'm sorry," I murmured.

Verrin shook her head and turned to look at me. "It was a long time ago. But I need you to understand my story, Bella. You remind me a lot of how I was. God knows, Edward reminds me everyday of Lukas."

"Why do they look so much like each other?" I asked her.

She shrugged. "It's something that you need to find the answer to on your own. I know, because Lukas told me, but the truth is hidden in his journals. Gabriel told me that Lukas has been contacting you. He's trying to guide you somewhere, correct?"

When I nodded, she continued. "Then let him."

She smiled sadly and began to pick at the white fringe of the pillow. "I want you to understand why I did what I did earlier this morning. As hard as it is to believe, I was actually trying to save the Cullens from hearing Aro's plans so soon. He had sent Demetri and Felix to give them the news this morning. I already knew that Carlisle was in one of the libraries doing research and Rosalie, Alice, and Esme were out wandering the tunnels. Jasper and Emmett were the only ones left in the quarters. So, I transformed into Alice and convinced them to leave. That way, when Demetri and Felix showed up, they only saw me and I knew that Alice wasn't a part of their plan. Besides, Jasper and Emmett interrupting your private time is a lot better than what it could have been, trust me." She sighed quietly, turning her gaze to the now darkening sky. "I know what it's like to feel separated from the one you love and I was trying to delay that from happening to you, for however long I could. When Victoria came to get you during the training sessions, I knew it'd be too risky to try to interfere. There was nothing that I could do at that point."

I stared at her in shock. Inside, I battled over whether to believe her words, but I knew deep down, that she was right.

"I did betray you before, Bella. We all did because we were so used to obeying Gabriel, but I did not betray you this time. I never will do something like that again. I promise you."

Nodding was all I could manage. I couldn't find words to say to her in that moment because I wasn't sure if I could forgive her yet. Verrin did things, whether they were good or bad, without consulting me first. I knew she was trying to protect me, but it would still take time for me to truly understand her. This was only a little piece of her that she had willingly let me see.

"I'd like to see Gabriel tomorrow, if that's okay," I said, deciding to change the subject.

Verrin frowned, but agreed with my request. "I'll call Daigh to come get us in the morning. We'll leave and return before the training sessions start."

Before she left me, she placed a hand gently on my shoulder and said, "They'll be all right, Bella. You have to believe that."

Her voice was on repeat in my mind as I lay in bed. I found myself on Edward's side, breathing in his scent as I brought his pillow closer to my face. The walls before me were dimmed in their usual brightness, painted over by the night's dark sky. Sleep wouldn't come to me. It seemed like I had stayed that way for hours, staring out at nothing, frozen in a state of solitude and grief. What had my life become? How many more had to suffer at my hands? How many more did I have to lose?

I felt the mattress give as someone climbed in beside of me. Her presence brought warmth to the slow stutter of my heart and I blinked, letting a stray tear slip from the corner of my eye. A tiny arm wrapped around my waist and I felt her body mold against mine.

"Hi, Bella," Alice whispered.

I opened my mouth to speak, but could barely make a sound.

"They're fine," she assured me. "I can see them for the time being. I doubt I'll be able to see them once they get closer to the wolves, though. When I knew you were possibly with Jacob, I couldn't even connect with you. But I know they'll be okay, Bella. Jasper and Edward will use their gifts to keep them from harm's way. Carlisle knows his way around Romania and Emmett isn't as daft as people think he is. He's a hell of lot more clever than most give him credit for. You don't need to worry."

"I'm so sorry," I breathed. It felt like that was all I could say anymore.

Alice hugged me to her closer, resting her forehead against the back of my neck. "I know."

My body trembled as tears fought their way out and I curled into a ball, ducking my face into the crook of my elbows. Alice held me to her, letting me mourn freely. She slipped a hand through mine, squeezing it gently and I clung to her, releasing the sorrow and fear I felt from being separated from Edward once more.

When the tears finally dried, and my breaths became shallow, Alice inched her lips closer to my ear. "Sleep, Bella," she whispered. "Sleep."

I remembered feeling her place a kiss to my temple before the darkness finally consumed me.