- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

No sweeping exits or offstage lines

Could make me feel bitter or treat you unkind

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Utter panic threatened to overwhelm me for a moment as I dropped the popcorn and drink at my feet and stumbled to the open car door. The cloak was unmistakable. Volturi.

I gripped the material in my hands so tightly that the fabric shredded. I'd been sure we had time. Sure that Aro wouldn't expect Bella to be turned so soon. We'd been back only weeks.

But clearly, I'd been wrong. I lurched up, dragging the cloak behind me as I hastily shoved the speaker from the car window and cranked the car, throwing it into reverse.

I drove back to Forks at breakneck speed, barely paused to kill the engine before I flew into the house, taking multiple steps at a time as I burst into the main living area.

"Where's Alice?" I demanded, startling Carlisle and Esme from their spot curled together on the couch.

"Edward, what's wrong?" Carlisle asked, on his feet instantly as he spied the tattered cloak in my hand.

"Bella's gone." I tossed the material to the ground, hands fisting. "They took her from the car."

Carlisle reached down and picked up the cloak, opening the material to find the insignia stitched inside that he obviously recognized. He sighed heavily, his face drawn. "Did you see them?"

"No," I replied, looking away. "I went to get popcorn." I fought the urge to laugh hysterically. How banal it sounded. I went for stale popcorn and sticky soda she probably didn't even want. Why had I left her alone, even for a minute?

Treads sounded on the stairs behind me and I turned to find Alice and Jasper staring at me. I realized what I must look like, soaking wet like a drowned rat, hair disheveled from raking my hands through it to keep from punching the dashboard of the car at my own stupidity.

"Where's Bella?" Alice asked, puzzled.

I turned, glaring. "Can't you see her? Where did they take her, Alice?"

She stepped back, obviously caught off guard by my snarl. "What are you talking about, Edward?"

I gave in to the impulse and smashed my hand through the wall then, unable to control my anger. The drywall crumpled like a sheet of paper and I felt no better as I felt Esme's hand touch my arm. "The Volturi, Alice. They took Bella tonight. Where is she?" I demanded.

Jasper stepped forward between us. "Leave her be, Edward, she didn't see anything about this, and you know she would tell you if she had."

Esme tugged my arm as I suddenly deflated, the surge of anger morphing back into the panic I'd felt when I'd first seen the empty car. She was gone. I'd failed her again. I closed my eyes, remembering the fascination that Bella's impenetrable mind had held for Aro. It was my fault. If I hadn't gone to Italy, to the Volturi, they'd never have known about her.

"Edward, there must be some explanation," Carlisle began, when a knock at the door interrupted him.

"Never fear, my young Edward, we have your small swan and she is in good care."

The thought ran through my mind, and I growled, realizing who was at the door.

"Carlisle, it's them, the Volturi. They're here," I hissed through clenched teeth.

I could feel the shift in the room, the tension as we all stiffened, eyes darkening. Carlisle looked around. "Rosalie and Emmett are still out hunting?" he asked.

Esme nodded.

"Very well. There will be more than the five of us. Aro doesn't travel without his guards." He gave me a level look. "Jasper, Alice, sit with Edward. Keep him calm. Let me talk."

I started to protest when the wave of relaxation I knew Jasper was projecting washed over me, making me feel nearly boneless and sedated. I attempted a glare that I suspected looked more like a half-hearted frown as Alice guided me to the couch, where they seated and then flanked me.

"Alice, why didn't you see this?" I managed, pleadingly, as Carlisle left to open the door.

She shook her head, her own face a study in confusion and fear.

"I don't know. Edward. And that frightens me. But we'll get her back," she promised.

She left off the one final word I needed to hear. Alive.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

There was something surreal about seeing Aro and Marcus, draped in their old-fashioned robes, perched on the modern sofa with clean lines that Esme had been so excited to add to the living room the week before.

Marcus appeared as uninterested and disengaged as he had been in Italy, remaining just as silent now as then. Mentally, he seemed to be brooding over a particular vine at home that was plagued with rot. I was surprised as the mundaneness of his thoughts.

Aro's thoughts were a different story however. He was picturing Bella, her body limp but otherwise unharmed and lying across the leather seat of a car, as he regarded me with a twisted smile.

I didn't know how Jasper was doing it, but he'd intently focused on me and had the relaxation vibes turned up to such a level that I was surprised I managed to stay upright and not slide into a puddle off the opposite couch on which Alice and Jasper had planted me. Otherwise, I would have been halfway across the room clawing out Aro's beady red eyes at this moment, regardless of the row of guards behind him.

Carlisle had remained standing, his arm around Esme as they faced the Volturi from what seemed to be our side of the room. "Aro, it has been some time, and I know of your reluctance to travel," he opened calmly. "What brings you to Forks?"

Aro smiled, his teeth bared beneath his thin lips. "Ah, Carlisle, always so direct. You are a vampire after my own heart. Perhaps Marcus and I just desired a retreat to the watery wilds you call home." He laughed uproariously at his own joke. "And dear Caius was unfortunately detained, he does send his regrets in being unable to accompany us to the hinterlands for our business with you."

Carlisle nodded politely. "And what would that business be, Aro?"

Aro tutted softly. "Carlisle, coyness does not become you. As Edward and Alice have no doubt shared with you, there was a certain promise made when they left Italy. Marcus and I have come to ensure that it is fulfilled. I had not planned to press the issue so soon, but I find that certain . . . circumstances have changed."

What circumstances? I tried to focus on Aro's mind, but he was well aware of my efforts, and focused on the memory of his last meal instead, a girl with hair and eyes as dark as Bella's. He savored the memory of her taste, his eyes dancing with glee at my expression as I struggled against Jasper's influence.

Carlisle nodded. "You refer to Bella, I assume?" At Aro's answering nod, Carlisle continued, "And may I take it that you have her and that she is safe?"

Aro clapped his hands in delight. "Such a careful one. Yes, yes, I have ensured that the mysterious Bella is safe for now. Her mind is such a puzzle that I wish I had the key to unlock. But that must wait for another time. Carlisle, you, more than your offspring perhaps, are aware of our rules. The secrecy of our kind must be preserved. The girl knows too much."

Carlisle nodded. "Indeed, we do not disagree, Aro. But it is for that very reason that Bella has not yet been turned."

Aro cocked his head to the side, almost like a curious bird. "How so?"

"Her unexpected absence in the community would cause concern. This is a small town and such a disappearance would not go unnoticed, particularly the daughter of the chief of police. Our family recently discussed the situation and determined that after her high school graduation, when she is scheduled to leave for college, would be the most opportune time."

I watched Aro intently as he mulled this idea over. "That is remarkably clever, Carlisle. We do miss your thoughtful logic so at times." He surveyed us all, his eyes dancing merrily. "Your coven would make such a lovely addition to our family; I do wish you would reconsider and all come to join us." He focused on Esme. "You, my dear, would simply love Volterra. It's a charming town."

Carlisle remained polite as he slowly shook his head. "A gracious offer, but we have carved a certain way of life here, as you know."

Aro laughed, a dry husk of a chortle. "Of course, of course, you diet on the lesser blood of woodland creatures." He gave a mild shiver and shrugged. "To each his own, of course."

Carlisle cleared his throat. "Now that we have cleared up the reason for the delay in turning Bella, may we request that you return her to us? You have nothing to fear, Aro; she would never reveal our secret."

"Of course, of course – I don't doubt the child's attachment to young Edward here. Marcus has commented to me more than once on the depth of their bond." He snapped his fingers to one of the guards behind him and motioned to the door. "Bring the girl in."

For the first moment since I'd seen that empty seat in the car, I allowed a wave of relief to wash over me. Bella was alive. Bella was here. Bella was going to be alright.

Within a few minutes, the guard returned, toting a barely conscious Bella in his arms. I struggled to rise immediately but Jasper and Alice maintained a firm grip on my arms that kept me anchored in my state of lethargy. I focused across the room, listening intently for her heart rate. It remained steady and strong.

Carlisle started forward to take her, but Aro held up his hand, signaling another guard to block the path.

"No need for impatience now, Carlisle. As you can see, the girl is well and unharmed, just a bit groggy. I have one condition. Despite your reassurances, I have seen the young Edward's mind, and he cherishes the life of this human to an unnatural degree. He does not wish her to be turned."

Carlisle shrugged. "As I said earlier, the family has discussed this matter, and have resolved that we will follow Bella's wishes to become one of us."

Aro grinned again. "A willing convert, always the best kind. I appreciate your need to keep up appearances, and desire to delay the event." His smile slid away to a flint hard face. "But that delay cannot be risked any longer. She may not voluntarily reveal some inkling of the truth, but accidents do happen, don't they? As I recall, the young lady in question has already engaged in a cliff diving incident – surely clever types such as yourself could develop a reasonable scenario for her death to leave none the wiser for her disappearance?"

I struggled again, cursing Jasper under my breath for what he'd done to incapacitate me.

Aro resumed his smile. "So what shall it be? Edward, would you care to do the honors, or would you prefer one of us to sort this out? She is so fragrant; I'm sure it will be quite the lucky party who accomplishes this. In fact we have one of our own who has volunteered for that task."

The face of the red-haired vampire I'd seen with Bella in Alice's vision, the one she'd called Colin, flashed in Aro's mind. I managed a weak snarl in his direction as he laughed delightedly.

"Oh, the passion of the young. Do you recall that, Marcus?" He turned to his brother, who continued to ignore him. Aro shrugged. "Very well, here is my offer, Carlisle. I was too lenient before, too open-ended as to expectations. Bella will become a vampire within the next three days, whether by one of your hands or one of our own. Out of respect for young Edward's attachment to the girl, I will allow him first option, but I would advise him not to linger."

His lips pulled back in a brittle approximation of a smile, and for a quick moment he focused on a memory of this Colin, pleading to be allowed to turn Bella. My fingers curled into the sofa cushion. I would never let him touch her. Never.

Aro stood abruptly and signaled for Bella to be handed to Carlisle. "We will be in touch. We've taken a charming little reproduction villa for our stay – so quaint and anachronistic among this wet timber and these tiny log cabins we see, but it does gives the vaguest sensation of home. It even has a dungeon!" He laughed with delight as he began his glide towards the door. "We will call again in a few days. You'll understand that we wish to verify this time."

And then they were gone.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

The second the roar of the engines signaled the departure of the Volturi, Jasper ceased his focus on me, slumping back against the couch exhausted as I bounded over the coffee table to Carlisle and my Bella.

He held her out to me and I took her gently. I cradled her like a small child as I sank to my knees, reassuring myself with every one of my senses that she was unharmed. Bella's skin was so pale, but her breathing was regular, even as she blinked up at me, still dazed.

"Edward? What happened?" she asked, her speech slightly slurred.

I held her closer, stroking her cheek which felt too cool against even my hand. "It's alright now, Bella."

She smiled softly and her eyes fluttered shut again.

"What did they do to her?" I demanded, looking to Carlisle frantically.

Carlisle knelt beside me and took her wrist, counting out her pulse. "Probably a mild sedative. Aro has members of the guard use them on humans at times when they're hunting. He likes the disorientation when they wake up."

The panic hit me again, overwhelming and engulfing. "He wants her. He's going to take her away."

Carlisle paused in his examination. "What are you talking about, Edward?"

"Aro . . . he was shielding his thoughts, but I caught bits and pieces. There's a vampire in the Guard. I saw him asking Aro to let him turn Bella, was begging for the chance." I paused and glanced over at Alice, frozen still as a stone on the edge of the couch. "His name was Colin."

"Edward, darling, we won't let that happen, you know that." Esme knelt beside us, stroking my head for a brief moment.

"Colin?" Alice choked out suddenly, looking at me with her eyes wide and golden.

"The one in the vision, Edward . . . with Bella?"

I gave a quick nod, my eyes pleading with her to not reveal that particular vision quite yet.

Alice moaned out in distress, wrapping her arms around her knees. "How did I not see them coming? Why couldn't I see them?"

Carlisle sat back from his examination, patting Bella's arm gently. "She'll be fine, Edward, just let her sleep off whatever they gave her. Take her up to your room."

He sat down beside Alice, wrapping an arm around her shoulder. "How have you been feeling, Alice? Have you noticed anything different?"

She looked up at him, shrugging with the smallest lift of her shoulders. "No. At least, I don't think so. I saw you at the hospital earlier today, treating Mrs. Simmons after she broke her arm. Did that happen?"

Carlisle nodded. "Yes, she came in about 3:30."

Alice remained hunched. "But the visions I've had of Bella in the last few days . . ."

She trailed off and I picked up the sentence before she said more, "They're more vivid, Carlisle. It's like going from black and white to Technicolor – they're almost a full sensory experience."

Jasper chimed in, "And she's exhausted afterwards. I've never seen visions affect Alice this way before."

"And it's only the visions you're having of Bella that are like this?" Esme asked.

"Both Bella and Edward. He's usually there too, in some way," Alice replied.

"Why don't you tell us more about them," Carlisle urged. "Something must have happened to trigger these changes, and Aro's appearance is too opportune for him not to be involved."

I stood with Bella in my arms. "I'm going to take her upstairs, I'll be back." I gave Alice one last imploring look and headed to the stairs.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

I know I dreamed you, a sin and a lie

I have my freedom but I don't have much time

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

I laid Bella in the center of my bed, covering her with a blanket and gently massaging her hand as I sat beside her, trying to quell my rising sense of panic and develop a plan.

I could hear the voices and thoughts downstairs, a confused cacophony as they tried to reason out what had happened tonight.

"Carlisle, we're going to have to act soon. It's clear Aro isn't going to tolerate further delay, and who knows what else he'll do if pushed," Jasper said. I won't let him take Alice away. She can't be imprisoned like that again.

Jasper's right. We don't have time to plan for much else. I know Bella's wish for it to be Edward, but if he's not prepared, I can bring another daughter into the family. Carlisle spoke, "I believe you are correct, Jasper. In my experience with Aro, although he can be persuaded at times, he appears very set on this course. He so rarely leaves Volterra." He paused. "Alice, you had no hint of this?"

"Of the Volturi coming? None, Carlisle. And I still can't see them – it's like nothing relevant whenever I try to focus on them."

"Perhaps we should go up and talk with Edward, now. He needs to be a part of this discussion," Esme said. My dear boy, he was so happy again. I know that he'll fight this.

"Agreed," Carlisle replied. "Alice, I know that the Volturi seem to be blocked, but what about Bella's future? Can you see the best way for us to explain her disappearance?"

They were going to go along with this. Force the issue. Now, maybe even tonight. I gritted my teeth in anger.

The hand in mine tightened around my fingers and I blocked out the others and pulled my focus to Bella lying before me as she sat up slowly. Her pupils were enormous and she still seemed dazed as I supported her carefully.

"Bella, are you alright?"

She nodded, her free hand touching her forehead. "I think so. I just feel so foggy." She rubbed her eyes and focused on me as I gently raised her hand and kissed it.

"Edward, the Volturi-"

"I know, they took you from the drive-in, and brought you here."

She let out a shuddering breath. "There was just one of them there. It happened so fast, he opened the door and said my name, and then . . ." she rubbed at her forehead. "Then everything gets fuzzy."

"Did you recognize him?" I asked, fighting to keep my voice neutral.

She frowned, her hands continuing to massage her temples as she tried to concentrate. "He seemed familiar, somehow, like maybe I'd seen him before. Maybe when we were in Italy?" She sighed. "I'm not sure, Edward. I know he had red hair, but I can't remember much else. When I finally woke up, I was in a big limo, with tinted windows, and Aro and Marcus were there. The other vampire was gone."

"Did he hurt you? Did they hurt you?" I fretted, my hands ghosting over her, trying to assure myself again that she was in one piece.

She shook her head. "No, I'm fine now. Did they . . . did the Volturi come for me?"

I couldn't lie to her. I nodded slowly. "Aro has given an ultimatum."

She leaned into me, sighing gently as she angled her throat. "I suppose you'll just have to go ahead then."

I sprang away from her, burying both hands in my hair in frustration. "Bella, no. I won't let them force this. It's not time. You're not ready."

Patiently, she shook her head. "Edward, I need to be with you. I am ready."

I shook my head furiously. "Well, I'm not." I crossed the room again, knelt by the bed before her and pulled her into my arms. "Bella, I love you."

Her fingers, warmed now, traced the side of my jaw. "I know, Edward. And I love you."

I closed my eyes for a second, prepared to play dirty. I opened them slowly, focusing on her intently as I leaned closer, observing her reactions. Her heart rate increased and I watched her eyes flutter as she breathed in my scent deeply. "Bella?"

"Yyyes," she stuttered in response.

I nuzzled along her cheek, before kissing the corner of her mouth softly. "Do you trust me?"

She nodded shakily. "Always."

I smiled, and kissed her lips, letting loose for the moment the carefully banked desires as I worshipped her mouth, the fear of earlier and relief at having her sound and whole in my arms again almost overwhelming us both.

I broke away as she gasped for breath. "Edward? I'm not complaining but . . ." Her voice held a question.

"Bella, you have to come away with me. Now. Tonight. We can't wait."

Her eyes were suddenly focused. "Come away where? And why?"

"Because I can't risk what will happen to you here."

Her mouth narrowed to a fine line. "What risk, Edward? If you're going to do this, there won't be a risk. And if you're not . . ." She slid off the bed and away from me, heading towards the door as I watched, suspended by my disbelief.

I realized her intentions and sprang off the floor, hurtling myself across the room and in front of her path. "No."

She crossed her arms. "It's not your choice, Edward. It's what I want. And your family will help me, even if you won't."

I swallowed hard. "And is that what you want more than anything?"

She nodded, her eyes determined. I closed my eyes, seeing her walk away from me with the other vampire again.

"More than me?" I managed in a whisper as I leaned back against the door, suddenly feeling very old.

Her warm hand touched my jawline, her fingers smoothing over my face. "Edward, what do you mean?"

I opened my eyes to her confusion. "If the choice was your natural life with me, or becoming a vampire without me, which would you choose?"

She stared at me for a long moment, than gave a soft giggle to my complete and utter surprise. "Edward, I'll always choose whichever future is with you." Her lips met mine in a soft caress, and I pulled her closer, needing the reassurance of her warmth against mine.

She broke away and pulled far enough back to look me in the eye. "But you know the future I want. I want forever. With you. And I'm ready for that now."

Her determination was clear, so I kissed her again, more gently this time. As I leaned back, I whispered, "But would you wait, for me?"

Before she could protest, I hurried forward. "Please, just a little while longer. Something's not right, Bella. If I turn you now . . . Alice has seen things."

She froze against me. "What kind of things?"

I sighed. "Bella, right now, it won't go as planned."

She exhaled a ragged breath. "What do you mean? Tell me, Edward!"

I broke contact with her, unable to meet her eyes. "I may lose control. You may . . . we may not be able to stop you from doing things . . . when you first wake up."

She shook her head, "No, no. That's not going to happen. You stopped before, after James bit me. I know you can again. And you can take me far away to do it, where there won't be anyone around when I wake up. I'll stay there as long as you say, as long as you stay with me."

"Bella," I ground out in frustration. "You don't understand. These visions . . . I've seen them."

She was silent for a long minute. "That day in the cafeteria, when you and Alice ran out, was that about me?"

I nodded.

"What happened?" she asked.

"Bella, don't make me have to do this. You told me you trusted me, so trust me on this. Come away with me. I can get us away from the Volturi tonight. They've given us three days. I'll take you to Seattle, get you a ticket to your mother's in Florida. The Volturi can't track you there once I'm not with you. I'll head somewhere else, distract them," I pleaded urgently, listening to the continued discussion among my family below. They would all be coming up soon. We needed to go.

"Edward, no, I just got you back. I don't want to lose you again." The stubborn look was back on her face.

"And I don't want to lose you, Bella. When I saw that empty car tonight," I looked away, unable to meet her eyes. "I thought I'd failed you again. Please, Bella, don't make me fail you now."

She stared at me, her eyes dark and unreadable and I dropped to my knees in front of her. "I swear to you, when the time is right, as soon as Alice sees that things will work out, I will come for you, and I will do what you asked."

"You'll do it? You'll turn me?" she asked.

I nodded slowly, my heart slowly breaking.

Finally, she smiled. "Alright. If I have your word, I'll go with you now."

"You do." I kissed her one more time. "We're going to run now. I'll carry you."

Her jacket was gone, and I worried that her light sweater would be insufficient against the chill of the night air, so I wrapped her in one of my jackets before hoisting her feather weight onto my back and leaping out the open window into the night.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Daylight was still hours away as we hit the ground. Our own cars might attract attention, so my plan was to cut through the Olympic National Forest and borrow a car left by a hiker when we reached the other side. With luck, I'd have Bella to Sea-Tac and the car returned before it was ever noticed missing.

We had traveled several miles, and she clung to me, uncomplaining as I whipped my way through the dense forest, careful of the precious cargo on my back. Our meadow loomed ahead and she patted my chest, causing me to break stride.

"I'm a little dizzy. Can we stop for just a minute?" she asked.

I halted at the edge of the meadow, lowering her to the ground as she sank the rest of the way. I knelt beside her. "Did you close your eyes?"

She nodded, hand on her stomach. "I did, it's just, I still feel nauseous from before."

"Carlisle thinks they may have given you a mild sedative. That's why you couldn't remember anything. It shouldn't have any permanent effects though," I assured her.

Looking around, I felt an odd sense of deja vu sweep over me as the clouds parted and the meadow was bathed in moonlight. The rain from earlier had stopped, leaving the deep scents of the rich soil and fresh water caught among the leaves to flavor the night air.

Along with the full force of Bella's scent. I stiffened as Alice's vision of me chasing Bella from the meadow through the forest slammed into me with such clarifying detail that I stumbled and grabbed at a nearby tree, crushing the branches.

"Edward? Is something wrong?"

She was everywhere it seemed, her scent suddenly overwhelming me as she reached to lay a hand on my arm. I jerked away, burying my face against the trunk of the tree.

"Bella, please, just give me a minute," I managed to choke out through my locked jaw as I forced myself to not breathe her in.

Through the still night air, the sound of footsteps crashing through the underbrush sounded nearby.

This way.

I could hear Demetri nearly upon us, at least three to four more vampires with him, maybe more. I braced myself. I wanted to go to her, but the image of myself at her throat paralyzed me.

She caught sight of something behind me and I watched in horror as she turned to flee, eyes wide in panic. She made it only a few feet before she caught her foot on a root, crashing to the ground. She rolled over slowly, a small cut now marring her cheek as a thin line of blood welled up. I held my breath and ran to her, scooping her up just as Demetri and four other guards burst into the clearing, quickly fanning out to surround me.

She had already pressed the sleeve of my jacket to her face, staunching the blood from the small cut, but the scent was heavy in the air. I could see the bloodlust growing in more than one of the guards' eyes. Demetri growled at them before turning to face me.

"Aro will not be pleased. You will come with us now." He delivered his message matter-of-factly, and I realized my stupidity.

Of course they would have left guards far enough from the house that I wouldn't have been able to hear them. I had blindly played into Aro's hands.

I clutched Bella tighter and nodded, still not daring to breathe as I followed behind Demetri. There had to be some way out of this, but I couldn't attempt anything that would leave her as risk, not with these numbers. I saw her close her eyes as we picked up speed and raced through the forest. I silently pleaded for her forgiveness and wished she could read my mind.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

The trees thinned as we came to an opening in the forest that lead into a formal garden, neat and manicured, and highly out of place in the Pacific Northwest woods. I was astounded to see that Aro had been serious about his castle. Rising before me was a replica of some sort of palazzo that bore a passing resemblance to some of the buildings in Volterra, with its crenelated towers and large wooden gate barring the entrance.

A shadowy figure moved to the side, strolling among the hedges, and I glimpsed Marcus staring at us in his usual impassive manner as Bella and I were escorted towards the front gate.

"Where is Aro?" I asked.

Demetri ignored me as he knocked on the heavy wooden gate, which swung slowly open and admitted us to the courtyard. His thoughts were useless, focused on some football match he'd watched the previous week.

The courtyard was open, filled with a few dozen milling members of the Guard, their faces cloaked. Their thoughts assaulted me, however, one louder than the rest.

Aro was right, the Cullen boy couldn't bring himself to do it. Now that Aro's protocols have been observed, she'll be all mine. If only Aro would return, so we can begin with her. I'll show him just how powerful I've become."

I couldn't identify the thinker among the crowd of cloaks, but I knew it was him. Colin was here and he wanted her. And Aro would give her to him. I clutched Bella tighter, suddenly aware of the other thoughts of hunger among the crowd. I had to get her out of here.

"Follow me," Demetri ordered, walking towards a small door in one of the side walls. "This way."

He led us into the narrow darkened stairway that led downwards. Hadn't Aro mentioned a dungeon? My concerns were realized as Demetri slid open one of the solid metal doors and gestured. "Inside. Aro will be back soon. He'll come for you then."

Bella's arms tightened around my neck and I sighed with relief that we wouldn't be separated. As I stepped past him through the door, I heard Bella gasp as Demetri injected another needle into her arm. I lashed out immediately, knocking the needle from his hand while supporting her weight as she slumped against me. He simply smirked and stepped outside, closing the door behind him.

"Just to keep her calm," he called out, as his footsteps retreated.

Bella was like a dead weight in my arms. "Edward," she murmured. "What was that?"

"The same as before, Bella, just a mild sedative, I think," I replied, lowering myself to the stone floor and cradling her in my lap. "You'll be fine. Bella, I'll get you out of here. I promise."

"I know," she murmured. "I love you, Edward."

I sat on the cold floor, trying to control my panic.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Faith has been broken, tears must be cried

Let's do some living after we die

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Bella continued to breathe steadily from the corner of the far bench where I'd placed her before beginning to pace the length of the small windowless cell. The hinges on the door seemed weak, and I hovered near the small barred opening in the doorway, listening intently for movement in the hallway or the presence of the guard. Hearing nothing, I started to exert pressure on the lower hinge when the wispy sound of a slight shuffle sounded in the hallway. I moved quickly back and positioned myself in front of Bella.

The door swung with an eerie creak and to my surprise, Marcus glided into the cell, pulling the door shut behind him as he settled onto the opposite bench. His gaze swept over me and my protective posture in front of her.

"Your bond with her is strong, one of the strongest I have felt in centuries."

I nodded, still not relaxing.

"I will not harm her."

I could see the genuineness in his statement, not a shred of guile in his mind and I relaxed minutely.

"Why do you not wish her to be one of us?"

The question seemed in earnest. "I do not wish to deprive her of her life."

"And if she wishes her life to be with you?"

I remained silent. How to explain to a centuries old vampire my concern over the loss of a soul, the transformation of all that was beautiful and pure in her into the monster I knew myself to be?

"Would you prefer to lose her entirely?" he asked.

I looked at her sleeping face, watched the rise and fall of her chest. "I prefer her this way. Her life is precious to me. She would never betray me or any of our kind."

Marcus inclined his head in a brief nod, acknowledging my statement.

"I do not doubt your lady's honor or devotion. But sometimes, we tarry until things are no longer within our control. May I show you something?" he inquired politely.

I gave a brief nod and watched as he closed his thin eyelids and lost himself in his memories.

The sun was sinking, the heat of the day passing as he moved through the vineyard, inspecting the grapes hanging heavy and ripe on the vine. He turned and watched as she walked towards him, carrying a basket on her hip as the sun behind her formed a halo fitting her radiance.


She smiled and moved to him, her head ducking shyly as he pulled her close to steal a kiss.

"Marcus," she scolded half-heartedly. "I came to invite you to dinner tonight. Nonna wishes you to come."

"And you, my sweet Francesca, what is your wish?"

She dropped her head shyly, her lashes fluttering as she looked up through them. "You know I am always delighted to see you."

He lifted her chin. "And tonight, will you let me talk to you father? Please, my love?"

She shyly nodded and he shouted for joy, picking her up, basket and all, and whirling her around.

The memory faded away then and I opened my eyes to find him looking at me.

"What happened?"

"I became a vampire. I was bitten that night, on my way to her father's home."

"And Francesca?"

"She wished to join my life. She loved me still, despite my cold skin. I was much like you, young and full of the anger and rage of a newborn still when she found me. Francesca was a creature of the sun, a woman with longings for children and family that I could no longer give her. I turned her away."

He closed his eyes again and I saw a small stone marking a freshly dug grave. The memory was like a dull knife, blunt from much use, but just as painful.

"There were others of our kind still in the area, of course, and my vigilance over a human drew attention. She and her family were destroyed one night was I was away."

"I am sorry, Marcus."

He bowed his head once at my acknowledgement.

"She was my first love, as Bella is yours. Do not take such things lightly, Edward. The bond you have reminds me of ours. This is why I come to you now."

I was astonished. Marcus had seemed so detached, and yet there seemed to be some stirring of emotion in his eyes as he glanced at Bella.

"Aro believes she must have a hidden talent. He wishes to try to sever the bond between you, so that he may bring her with us and explore this further. As a result, the visions of the small one in your coven, Alice, they have been controlled."

I leaned forward. "What do you mean?"

"The vampire Colin that recently joined us possesses the power to manipulate desires, project actions into one's mind. He is arrogant, and offered to prove his strength with the challenge of Bella's closed mind. Aro wished to see if Alice's powers were susceptible to Colin's talents as well, and issued him this greater challenger. It appears that he's had some measure of success in that field, has he not?

I swallowed the venom that welled into my mouth as anger flowed through my veins. "None of it was true? They weren't real?"

Marcus shrugged. "I do not know for certain. Perhaps some could have come to pass. Reality is malleable, but those visions were at the least a mere projection – unlikely to come to pass without constant manipulation by Colin. I doubt the strength of his powers past some showy parlor tricks and illusions, though he may indeed be stronger than I thought. But the bond I see between you is no less. You need not fear the future with your Bella on such a basis."

I growled, rising to my feet. "Where is he?"

He shook his head. "Colin is not your concern. I find him untrustworthy, despite Aro's fascination with his talent. His allegiances lie only to himself and he has true connections to no one. This I will deal with soon."

"Then let us leave," I begged. "You know how much she loves me, and I her. You see the bond. I'll take her far away, where there's no risk she could ever reveal anything about us."

Marcus shook his head. "The Law of the Volturi has existed for thousands of years for a reason. I merely give you the opportunity to do for your love what I failed to do for mine. Do not tempt fate, Edward. Aro will return soon with Colin, and he will not give you a second change."

He rose and glided back to the door, shutting it behind him as he issued his final warning. "Your time grows short."

The sounds of noises above, cars pulling into the courtyard reinforced his warning. I knelt beside her, my promise from earlier echoing in my ears. "I swear to you, when the time is right . . . I will do what you asked."

And that time was now. I gathered Bella into my arms, gently tilted her neck back, and laid a final kiss on her warm flesh.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Wild horses couldn't drag me away

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The next few hours passed in a blur. Aro's anger was thinly disguised when he discovered his plans had been thwarted. But with Marcus ever at his side, one of the cars was offered to whisk me and my precious cargo through the waning hours of the night towards home.

I sketched the night in the briefest of words before collapsing before my family with her in my arms, my body racked with dry sobs.

Carlisle helped me to carry Bella's body up the stairs and to my room. I laid her gently on the bed, gripping her hand as I knelt before her, wishing I could take some of the pain that was beginning to surge through her body now that the sedatives from before were beginning to wear off. Carlisle retrieved his bag and injected doses of morphine before sitting beside me.

Son, she'll be alright. We'll make sure if it.

"She was so alive," I murmured.

And she will be again.

"This is living?" I scoffed.

He winced. "Edward, you know your mother begged me to save you when you were dying. Had she not, I would never have-"

I turned my eyes to his, the pain there evident. "I didn't mean it like that, Carlisle. Bella . . . she was different. She had her whole life to live until my selfishness took that from her. If I'd stayed away from her from the start-"

"Then she might already be dead, Edward. I know that you're frightened. Even if Alice's visions were distorted, those seeds were planted. But the love Bella had for you, it will still be there. You'll see."

He clasped my shoulder lightly, then rose and left, closing the door behind him as he spoke to the others in the hallway.

I curled myself onto the bed beside Bella, wrapping myself around her to ease the fire as best I could as I waited for her to wake up and for my life to begin.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Wild, wild horses, we'll ride them some day

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