Chapter 36: Council

"Mom! Dad! You've got to see this!"

I looked in the direction of my daughter's excited voice and saw that she and several others were gathered around Carlisle and his hybrid patient, Shua.

"The venom seems to be working," Edward said, a smile spreading across his face as we hurried over for a closer look at what was going on.

Shua was fully conscious, and from the expression on her face it was obvious that she was in intense pain, but she was enduring it silently. Emmett and Rosalie were restraining her, and Mishna was whispering to her and stroking her hair.

It was rather unnerving to see the open wound up close. Renesmee had the same physiology, and I fully realized that it could easily have been my daughter who was lying here with a gaping wound. But I was unable to look away, for her skin was regenerating right before my eyes. Within seconds, what had been a large wound was fully healed, and all that remained was a thin scar outlining where Carlisle had applied his venom.

"So the venom doesn't affect her like it does us?" asked Jacob, who had come over just in time to see the wound close. The significance for Nessie was not lost on any of us - if she were ever hurt, Edward or I should be able to heal any cuts to the skin.

"I was careful not to let it enter the bloodstream," Carlisle said. "I applied it only to the damaged areas of the skin."

"Can she get up now?" Mishna asked.

"Do you feel like standing?" Carlisle asked his patient as Emmett and Rosalie released her.

Shua stood up easily. "I feel fine now!" she exclaimed, looking at Carlisle in awe as she reached down to touch her newly-healed skin. "Thank you!" Her mouth trembled and tears were welling up in her eyes.

"You need to take it easy," Carlisle cautioned. "You are fully healed on the outside, but it may take a few weeks for everything on the inside to get back to normal. Don't overexert yourself."

"I'll be careful," she promised.

Carlisle then went to check on his second patient. "How are you feeling, Seth?" he asked.

"I'll be okay," Seth answered. "Edward says you'll need to do surgery on my leg, but I'd prefer to do that when we get home, if you don't mind."

"Yes, I think that's best," Carlisle agreed as he looked over the injured leg. "I don't have the proper tools here, and I think you might want some anesthesia. We can do it at my house. Were you injured anywhere else? None of this blood is yours?"

Seth just shook his head and bit his lip as a tear threatened to escape. Edward had already told me that the blood was all Quil's.

"I'm terribly sorry about Quil," Carlisle told him. "We will always remember his sacrifice. If there's anything at all that we can do for his family…." He trailed off, knowing his offer was unlikely to be accepted.

"Thank you," Seth said simply.

"We'll find you some crutches, or make some, before we leave for the airport," Edward said.

Seth nodded, and then we turned our attention to Felix and the group that he and Jasper were guarding.

"Thank you for your assistance, Felix," Carlisle said formally, walking over to him. "It was much appreciated."

"Glad I could be of service," Felix responded, bowing his head slightly in deference.

"May I ask what caused you to switch sides?" Carlisle inquired.

A look of concentration came over Felix's his face. "After… what happened with Aro…," he began, "I knew it was my duty to protect Caius, but his order to attack didn't make sense. At best, the guard would be decimated, and he knew it. I started questioning everything, but there was no time to think. I just suddenly realized I was fighting for the wrong side."

"Chelsea's artificial bonds that tied you to Aro were broken when he died," Edward told him. "She never bound you to Caius or Marcus. Same with Renata, she was bound only to Aro as well."

"You're saying my loyalty to Aro was only because of Chelsea?" Felix asked. He sounded offended, but then he seemed to give the idea some consideration. "I know you can read minds, but how could you know that? She wasn't even here."

"She doesn't have to be present; the bonds she creates persist for a very long time," Edward explained. "I could see them through Marcus's eyes. The ones she created or enhanced looked different from bonds that had formed naturally. Some of your loyalty - the part that still remains – was natural, but she had greatly reinforced it. With Aro gone, you were able to make your own decisions without your judgment being clouded by Chelsea's influence. That's what allowed you to accept the fact that Caius had no valid reason for attacking us."

"I guess that makes sense," Felix reluctantly agreed. "I had never felt the same affinity for Caius as I did for Aro. And with Aro gone, if we had succeeded in defeating you, Caius would have ruled alone – he never seemed to value Marcus's input the way Aro did. Even when it was obvious that you were winning, Caius kept ordering us to continue the attack, knowing that the entire guard would be destroyed. He had no intention of helping, and it made no sense to sacrifice myself for him. I remembered Carlisle from his earlier time here, so I knew he would be a more worthy leader than Caius."

"Carlisle is not your master," Edward told him emphatically. "Neither am I. We hope to let each of you go your own way once we've assured ourselves that we can do so safely. Jasper has a plan he'd like to …"

Edward's voice stopped suddenly as Felix and the rest of the remaining guard members all stiffened and stared past him.

"Well, well, well," said a feathery voice.

"What have we here?" said his companion.

I had heard those voices before. We all turned to face the two Romanians.

"You've been very naughty this time, haven't you?" observed Stefan, looking appreciatively at the nearly faded plume of purple smoke.

"We weren't sure you had it in you," Vladimir added.

"Why did you spare the rest of them?" Stefan questioned, glancing over at Felix and the others with mild annoyance.

"They surrendered," Carlisle said simply.

"Only you," Vladimir said, shaking his head.

"Well, you got the ones who mattered," Stefan said.

"Bella, would you mind shielding everyone but them?" Edward asked, indicating the Romanians.

"I am," I whispered back. "Do you mean you want me to unshield you so that you're not hearing everyone else?"

"Yes, it's rather noisy in here," he said. "Do you mean you've never let down your shield? You must be exhausted."

"Alec is still out there," I said, confused.

"What?" Edward exclaimed, shocked. He was no longer whispering. "Alec got away?"

There was some murmuring throughout the group; apparently the others had not noticed either. Renesmee placed her hand against Edward's face, though it was unnecessary with him, and showed him what she had shown me.

"How did I miss that?" he growled, becoming angry with himself.

"He didn't get far," Vladimir announced. "We took care of him."

"I assure you, it was our pleasure," said Stefan. "We had been waiting for centuries to unleash our vengeance on that boy."

Everyone visibly relaxed. I breathed a sigh of relief and released my shield, allowing it to retract back to its natural state where it protected only my own mind. The fury I had felt during the battle had made it effortless to maintain, but after the main threat had ended, my shield had become somewhat mentally draining again. It felt good to return to normal. Then I remembered Edward's request and shielded all but him and the Romanians so that he could monitor their thoughts without distraction. Then Edward told me that he might need to communicate with Carlisle and Eli, so I unshielded them too.

"This is quite an army you've amassed here," Vladimir said appreciatively as he scanned the room. Then he turned back to Carlisle very abruptly and said, "Well, we just wanted to say 'thank you.'"

"And congratulations on your accomplishment," Stefan added.

I stared at them, bewildered, as they turned to leave as suddenly as they had arrived.

"Not so fast," Eli called out. "You recognized Cora. What are you hiding?"

The two stopped and turned to face us once more.

Vladimir raised his eyebrows and then shrugged. "It no longer matters."

"No, it doesn't," Stefan agreed. "What's the worst they can do? Kill us?"

The two of them looked at one another with amused smiles.

"It was you!" Alice suddenly exclaimed. "You two were the ones with Nick right before he changed me!"

The two Romanians looked startled. They exchanged another glance but said nothing.

I felt shocked as well, but the pieces were beginning to fall into place in my mind, and it suddenly made sense. I had not recognized their voices when Eli had imitated them as he scanned Alice's memories. But that was because he was relaying how they had sounded to Alice's human ears. I had never encountered the Romanians until I was a vampire, so their voices had sounded different to me. But the way Nick's "friends" had completed one another's thoughts, and the ancient quality I remembered hearing in their voices, confirmed in my mind that Alice was correct. Nick had been working with the Romanians.

"Yes, Nicholai," I heard Edward say, apparently reading the full name from their minds. "What were you doing with him?"

"What do you know of him?" Vladimir demanded, his own curiosity obviously getting the better of him.

"Does he yet live?" Stefan asked, beginning to seem concerned. "We assumed him dead nearly a century ago."

"No, he didn't continue without you," Edward said. "James killed him, just as you had assumed."

"Well, it seems that you know more than we do," Stefan said.

"So you're the special one," Vladimir said, looking at Alice. "I guess he was right about you after all."

"Yes," Stefan added, looking at her curiously. "Such a strong and useful gift. It's no wonder that Aro coveted it above all others. Had Nicholai told us exactly how special you were, we might have risked staying around to help him fight off the tracker."

"Perhaps this day could have come sooner," agreed Vladimir.

"So what were you planning to do with us?" Fernando demanded. "If you were creating an army to fight the Volturi, why were we taught to fear and avoid them? And why were we denied human blood?"

"You're all here," Vladimir said in wonder, apparently noticing Fernando and Jesse for the first time. He began laughing, and the raspy sound coming from his throat seemed unnatural. I wondered how many centuries had passed since he'd last made that sound.

"In a way, it seems our plan worked after all," Stefan said.

"And that plan was?" Carlisle prompted.

"It was a miserable failure, and yet you have achieved our goal on your own," Vladimir said.

"We did not come here to eliminate the Volturi," Carlisle told him. "They forced our hand. We were only defending ourselves."

"Yes, yes, we know," said Stefan. "We were counting on that happening eventually."

"You were the ideal candidate to lead a revolt," said Vladimir. "They trusted you and knew you would never initiate conflict, so they didn't even bother to monitor you when you left them. We thought if we created and trained some talented soldiers and groomed them to embrace your diet, you might be able to amass a talented army without the Volturi's notice. But Nicholai became attached to his human pet, and we all underestimated that tracker."

Red crept into my vision again as I began to comprehend what they had been planning, and the red haze flamed brighter as Vladimir continued speaking. The Romanians had been trying to manipulate Carlisle into eliminating the Volturi for them! Who did they think they were, to play with people's lives like that? I glanced around and saw looks of anger on several other faces as well.

"It was too dangerous for us to continue without Nicholai around to remove our self-incriminating memories," Stefan added, seemingly unaware of the fury they were inciting. "We've been deep in hiding for the last century. We took a huge risk visiting you before. If Aro had taken our thoughts, he would have had us destroyed on the spot."

"And we would not have lived to see this day," Vladimir said with a satisfied smile, glancing again in the direction of the pyre.

"You caused us to spend our lives in fear of the Volturi!" Cora shouted angrily. "You told us they were looking for us!"

"We had to give you some reason to stay around long enough for us to train you," Stefan told her with a shrug.

Cora responded with a growl.

"You also humiliated us and deprived us of blood," added Fernando as he dropped into a crouch.

"We never asked for this life," Jesse said angrily.

I realized things were about to become physical again, and I welcomed it. The red intensified further. This time, I could participate in the action. They would not last long.

I felt Edward's hands come to rest gently at my waist from behind me. "They're not worth it, love," he whispered in my ear.

"Such irony," Stefan said with a chuckle. "We left your Alice for dead, and she was the only one who followed our plan."

A growl rose up in my throat as I thought of all the agony Alice went through as a human because of the Romanians, and the way they left her for dead. It was their fault that she woke up alone, with no memory of who or what she was. I slipped out of Edward's hands and started toward the Romanians, right behind Cora, Jesse, and Fernando. If I didn't hurry, I wouldn't get to help destroy them.

Suddenly, I found myself being knocked down to the floor. Edward's arms encircled my waist once more, and this time his grip was firm. I somehow landed on top of him and struggled to wriggle loose as I protested his interference.

"Stop! There's been enough carnage today," I heard Carlisle saying over the screeching sound of vampire teeth against immortal skin. For once, the hideous sound was welcome, and I couldn't believe Carlisle wanted to let them go! Just as I was about to free myself, Eli appeared and helped Edward get me pinned down again.

"Out of my way, Alice!" Emmett growled.

I couldn't see what was going on behind me, but it sounded like more people were joining the fray.

Jesse, Cora, and Fernando seemed to have paused in their attack, confused by the fact that the two Romanians had not made a move to defend themselves and were not fighting back at all.

"Rose! No!" Carlisle shouted.

Edward rolled us to the side, but Rosalie's elbow still hit my arm with considerable force as she landed next to me. Carlisle had thwarted her attack by physically intercepting her and slamming her to the floor. Esme was helping to hold her down, and I saw that Garrett and Jasper were helping Alice hold Emmett back.

I then realized that Jesse, Fernando, and Cora still had not resumed their attack. They were just standing there staring at the Romanians.

"Why do I suddenly feel such a sense of calm?" Fernando asked, directing the question to Carlisle.

"That would be Jasper," Alice answered. "We all need to calm down. Carlisle's right; there's nothing to be gained by attacking them."

Jasper's efforts were affecting me as well. The red haze was gone. I still intensely disliked what the Romanians had just told us, but I was beginning to think reasonably again. The Romanians posed no current threat; in fact, they were essentially defenseless against us. Carlisle was right – killing them would be wrong, no matter how enjoyable it might have been.

Vladimir rubbed absently at his arms which now sported a number of fresh bite marks, and Stefan reattached his foot as if he were doing something as mundane as putting on a shoe.

"It seems we've overstayed our welcome," Vladimir observed.

"Yes, I believe we are finished here," agreed Stefan as the two of them turned to leave.

"Actually, we're about to discuss some things that you should probably be present for," Carlisle said with a sigh.

Vladimir raised his eyebrows questioningly.

"We were just getting ready to discuss how our world is going to maintain order without the Volturi," Carlisle explained. "We need to come up with a plan, and we'd like your input. We wish to exclude no one."

"We want nothing to do with any such 'plan'," Stefan said, glancing at his companion, "but we'll stay to hear what you have to say."

Carlisle gave a slight nod in acknowledgement of his words and then looked around at the crowd of vampires who were all looking at him expectantly.

"You can drop your shield," Edward whispered to me. "You must be exhausted." I did as he suggested; it was a relief to let it retract.

"Our actions here today have the potential for far-reaching consequences," Carlisle began. "I had hoped for a more peaceful resolution to this conflict, and I was reluctant to even consider this outcome as a possibility. Despite their shortcomings, the Volturi had been serving some vital functions with their self-imposed government."

He paused, looking around at certain of those present in case they wanted to respond. I heard some brief whispering, but no one spoke up.

"For example," he continued, "their rule of non-exposure, while it may have been instituted for their own convenience initially, has become truly necessary. With current human technology, if the wrong person were to learn of us, it could be communicated around the world almost instantly, and humanity now has access to weapons which could threaten us, if not destroy us. Even if those weapons couldn't kill us, their use could be extremely detrimental to the planet and could affect our blood supply – both animal and human. Is there anyone present who disagrees with the idea that we need to maintain the rule of non-exposure?"

Some people shook their heads in answer to the question, while others just stood silently. No one spoke up to voice protest.

"I don't think any of us here today has any desire to reign in the Volturi's stead," Carlisle continued, "but there may be times when the rule of non-exposure needs to be enforced, or times when an exposure occurs and needs to be contained. Jasper has a plan as to how we might accomplish that, and I ask all of you to please hear him out. Jasper?"

"As a veteran of the Southern Wars, I can attest to the need for there to be a presence that enforces the rule of non-exposure," Jasper began. "At the same time, I think we all agree that we want to avoid the situation where one coven could elevate themselves to the level of royalty. My plan is for us to appoint three representatives, each from different covens, who would form a council that would serve for a two-year period. Every two years, three new representatives would be appointed."

"So this council would go around exterminating covens who violate the rule?" Cora asked.

"Not necessarily," Jasper said.

"We would first attempt to educate the offenders about the rule and why it is necessary, and try to get their agreement to follow it," said Carlisle. "I'm convinced that most of those who were punished by the Volturi were simply ignorant of the rule and were never given a chance."

My mind went back to Bree, the terrified newborn whose destruction I had witnessed.

"Only those who blatantly and repeatedly disregard the rule would be executed," Jasper said. "It would be a last resort. Simply knowing the council exists should be enough to deter most of those who don't recognize the value of the non-exposure rule. I expect that more frequent duties for the council members would involve assisting with damage control in cases of exposure that occurred by accident, mistake, or ignorance. The council would help remove the evidence, discredit the humans who witnessed it, provide alternate explanations that humans would find reasonable, alter any video footage, that sort of thing. It would serve as a resource available to anyone who needs that type of assistance."

"And the rest of us would assemble when it's necessary to enforce the rule?" Eleazar asked.

"Yes, the council could call on the rest of us any time they need assistance," Jasper said, "although I think it's unlikely we'll encounter any threats large enough to require all of us to assemble again. It's more likely that they would call on just a few of us for any given situation, and there may be some cases where a particular talent would be helpful. And of course, I'm sure the two wolf packs would be more than happy to help out with flagrant violations."

The Quileutes all voiced their agreement.

"Would this council maintain a presence here in Volterra?" Felix asked.

"I don't think that would be necessary," Jasper said. "But that decision could be left up to the council once it is appointed. I suppose there could be certain logistical benefits since the compound is already set up."

"What will become of the guard?" Felix asked. "Will we be required to disperse?"

Jasper just looked at him for a moment, confused, and then asked, "Is that what has them all so worried?"

"Most of us lived and worked here even as humans," said one of the guards whose name I didn't know. "I would like to remain here if it is permitted."

"It would be easier for us to avoid exposure if we could stay in Volterra," added another, and several others voiced agreement.

"I've been helping enforce the non-exposure rule for centuries," said Felix. "I would like to continue in that role if I could be of use to you."

"We hadn't considered that this many of you would want to remain and assist the council," Edward told them.

"The others want to assist the council as well?" Carlisle asked in surprise.

"Many of them are less than ten years old," Felix said, looking over the group of former guard members. "After our original attack on your coven was aborted, my masters began offering more of the humans who were already in our service the opportunity to join us. Most of the ones here, at the time of their transformation, were eager to serve in the guard. They know no other way of life. It is not surprising to me that they would wish to retain their previous duties."

"You will all be free to do as you please," Carlisle told them. "I see no harm in your remaining here at Volterra if that is what you wish, though that decision would be up to the council. But I want to be clear that you do not owe us your service."

"Why don't we proceed with nominations for the council," Edward suggested, "and the former guard members can make their decision after it has been appointed."

Carlisle nodded in agreement. "First, are there any objections to the idea of the council?" he asked.

"I'm pretty sure Amun would object," said Benjamin. "But he would object to anything. My vote is to proceed."

Carlisle looked questioningly at Stefan and Vladimir. "Do either of you have any objections?" he asked.

The two of them just shrugged.

"We have no interest in your plans," Stefan said.

"You have no objection to keeping the non-exposure rule in place or to the appointment of a council that will enforce that rule?" Carlisle persisted.

"We have no burning desire to go out and expose ourselves to humans, if that's what you're worried about," Vladimir said. "Our business here is concluded."

The two of them turned and left the room without looking back, and no one made a move to stop them. It was good riddance, as far as I was concerned. If we weren't going to destroy them, I hoped at least to never see them again.

"Well, then," said Carlisle, after they had gone, "do we have any nominations or volunteers?"

There was silence at first, and then Siobhan spoke up. "I nominate you, Carlisle."

"I don't want to serve in the first term," Carlisle said firmly, shaking his head for emphasis. "I would be willing to serve at some point in the future, but if I were to accept the nomination right now, I'm sure there would be some who would accuse me of attacking the Volturi so that I could rule in their place."

"I think we need at least one person with a talent that can be used to help ensure fair judgments," Jasper said. "Edward, Eli, Cora, or Maggie – can one of you volunteer?"

The four of them looked at one another for a moment, and then Eli stepped forward. "I can do it," he said.

"Any objections to Eli being on the initial council?" Carlisle asked.

Several people voiced support, but there were no objections.

"Okay, we need two more," Carlisle said.

"I nominate Siobhan," Maggie said.

"I'd prefer to give others a chance first," Siobhan said. "I have no special talents. There are many others who would be a better choice."

"You are liked and respected throughout our world," said Maggie. "Our many acquaintances who aren't here today would know that the council is legitimate as soon as your name is mentioned. Please, Siobhan."

"She's right," agreed Carlisle. "Your presence would give the council credibility."

"It would also help make it more diverse," added Jasper. "The initial council should not be all male or all vegetarian. You could help provide that balance."

"All right," she conceded. "I will serve this term if Carlisle will serve the next."

"You drive a hard bargain, Siobhan," Carlisle said. They smiled at one another, seeming to have a private exchange, and then his face grew serious again. "I'll agree if there are no objections raised before it's time for the next term."

"We need one more," said Jasper.

"What about Eleazar?" Zafrina suggested. "He served with the Volturi in the past, so he might have some advantage in working with the former guard members who have volunteered to assist us; it might help put them at ease."

"Eli and I are in the same coven now," Eleazar said, shaking his head. "And we're both vegetarian – those with our diet would be disproportionately represented in the council. I think you should volunteer; that way, we would have representation from three different continents."

Zafrina looked as though she was taken aback by the suggestion, but before she could respond, Edward spoke up.

"I nominate Felix," he said.

"What?" I asked, turning to look at my husband. Felix? Hadn't we just removed the Volturi from power? The others appeared shocked at the idea as well, and everyone began talking at once.

But no one looked more surprised than Felix himself. "Me?" was all he managed to say.

"Zafrina had a good point," Edward explained. "We do need someone who can work with the guard members who choose to remain here and assist us. They already know Felix and respect him. He provided much of their training. And he's not exactly one of Carlisle's long-time friends, so that should help eliminate any suspicion from others that our family is trying to take over."

"But he's 'vegetarian,'" objected Jesse. "That would make two on the council."

"I don't think he's planning to continue the diet," Eli said, and then turned to Felix. "Are you?"

"No, I don't think so," Felix said hesitantly, as if he were unsure if the answer would be acceptable. "I was only doing that for Aro. And I wasn't very good at it."

His odd orange eyes attested to that.

"Would you be willing to serve on the council, Felix?" asked Carlisle.

"I've never been in a leadership position before," he hedged, still looking stunned at the possibility.

"Sure you have," Edward argued. "You've been leading the guard for centuries. Aro just didn't want you to realize how much control you had. That's why he never allowed you to wear a darker cloak."

Felix appeared to think about that for a moment before he spoke. "I'd be willing to do it," he said, "but I find it hard to believe that any of you would trust me that much."

"If Edward trusts you, that's good enough for me," Emmett said, and several of us voiced our agreement. I would never have thought of suggesting Felix, but it did make sense once Edward had explained his reasoning. Besides, Edward knew his thoughts, and if he thought Felix was a good choice, I trusted his judgment.

"Maggie?" asked Siobhan, looking to her friend for confirmation.

"He's been honest with us today," she replied. "I see no reason not to trust him."

"Eli?" Siobhan asked, turning to her fellow council member.

"I think he's the perfect choice," Eli said. "We'll have a well-rounded group for the council. And the other guard members already know him and trust him, so I think his presence on the council would make them more comfortable in working with us."

"Are there any objections to Felix joining Eli and Siobhan to complete our council for the first term?" Carlisle asked formally.

Silence followed.

"Well, Siobhan, Eli, and Felix, it looks like you're our first council," Carlisle said.

There was a brief round of applause, and the three of them moved to stand together near the center of the room. It seemed like there should be some sort of induction ceremony, but of course nothing had been planned for this unprecedented situation, so they got right down to business.

Siobhan spoke up first. "I think the first thing we need to do is to interview each of the remaining guard members, ensure none of them poses a threat to the new system, determine who will stay here, and send the rest on their way."

Eli and Felix agreed, and the three of them began to call the guard members forward, one at a time, to talk to each individually.

After the first few interviews, which were all fairly similar, the rest of us began to break into separate conversations.

"I have a question," Jake said to Carlisle, walking up to him.

"Yes, Jake?" Carlisle said.

"If your kind can poison us so easily with a single bite, why did most of them seem to be trying not to use their teeth against us?" he asked.

"Because you stink," Rosalie said, wrinkling her nose.

"Seriously," agreed Emmett. "It goes against our instincts to bite anything that smells that bad."

"The scent is a deterrent," Carlisle confirmed, using a more diplomatic tone. "It's one of your body's natural defense mechanisms. Our teeth are always our best weapons, regardless of the species of our opponent, but to be completely honest, the thought of tasting you is quite repulsive."

"Besides that, some of the ones here today were practically newborns," added Jasper. "So their strongest instinct was to crush. I could tell they'd had some instruction, but they'd never practiced against one of your kind. You've had practice with both newborns and experienced fighters, so you were better prepared than they were."

"But didn't they know that our legends said your venom is lethal to us?" Jake asked. "I thought Aro had taken all of Edward's memories, and he knew about our legends before Aro touched him."

"Yes, Aro knew about it," said Edward. "But it doesn't surprise me that he apparently never shared that information with Caius or the others. He enjoyed collecting information for himself, but he didn't share everything he knew, not even with his closest companions."

Jake nodded, seeming satisfied with the explanation. Then he sat down, leaned back against the wall, and closed his eyes for a moment. Nessie stretched out on the floor, resting her head in his lap, and it suddenly struck me how excessively tired they both looked.

"Jake," Edward said, handing him a wad of cash. "Go find a hotel. You all need sleep. We'll call you in the morning, and we can finish up here then."

"We have to bury Quil," Jake protested, forcing his eyes back open.

"Tomorrow," Edward insisted. "Renesmee needs sleep too, and so do Mishna and Shua. You can give Quil a proper burial tomorrow, when you're all alert enough to function."

"Can you assure us that no one will touch the body?" Sam asked, walking over to us.

"You have my word," Edward assured him. "I will remain in this room until you return, and no one will touch Quil."

"Okay," Jake finally agreed. "But we can sleep just as well in the woods, and we can get there more quickly than finding a hotel." He tossed the wad of cash back at Edward, and he and Sam led all the pack members, along with Nessie, Mishna, and Shua, to the tunnel exit. Nessie and the other hybrids were so tired they could hardly stand. The adrenaline rush from the battle was over, and they were in desperate need of sleep – not to mention that Shua had just had surgery. Seth, who couldn't stand anyway due to his injuries, had already fallen asleep on the floor, and two of the others carried him out without waking him.

The rest of us continued waiting while the council spent a few minutes talking to each of the guard members. To my surprise, most decided to not only stay in Volterra but also to remain in the guard and assist the council. A few, including Renata, were unsure but said they wanted to remain in Volterra at least temporarily.

Only three guards expressed interest in going off on their own and trying out life as nomads. The council reviewed the reasons for the non-exposure rule with them and taught them the basic techniques for selecting inconspicuous humans and for hiding the remains of their prey. In the past, Heidi had always brought their victims to them, and they had never had to worry about burying the bodies. Tips for either avoiding or blending in with humans were explained to them, and they were permitted to leave.

After that, the council discussed logistical issues, such as where the council members would reside and whether they should convene on a regular basis.

Felix had started explaining the new technology that had been recently installed to help them monitor human communications for evidence of exposure, when his phone rang. I recognized the panicked voice on the other end as belonging to Ariana. She was ready to leave her station for the day but had been unable to reach Caius to give the required end-of-shift report. Felix assured her that no report was required that day and that she had permission to return to her quarters.

"This raises another question," said Felix as he pocketed his phone. "What is our policy on the humans that are employed here?"

"As far as I'm concerned, they can continue as before," said Eli. "They seem to serve as a barrier between the human public and what really goes on in this building, and that's probably a good thing."

"How many of them are there?" Siobhan asked.

"Only four at the moment," answered Felix. "There are three who work in shifts at the main desk, and then there is Gigi who sits at the tourism station, but she was never made aware of our true nature, so I don't think she counts. So there are really just three. We normally have more, but several were turned in the last few months – those newborns were among the first casualties in today's battle."

"Do you anticipate any problems with allowing them to remain in their current roles?" Siobhan asked Felix.

"No, I agree that they perform a necessary function," he said. "But I was wondering if we should introduce them to the new council. Do you want them to know that they have new bosses? Or should we try to give the appearance that nothing has changed, to make sure they'll go about their duties as before?"

"I think we should introduce ourselves," said Eli. "I don't think they'll give us any problems. The human we saw in the lobby was very eager to please, and she was a lot more comfortable talking to you than she was with talking to Caius."

Felix looked baffled. "What makes you say that?" he asked. "She was comfortable talking to me?"

"Relatively speaking, of course," Eli said. "She witnessed Caius having her best friend for breakfast a few months ago, so she was less comfortable with him."

"What exactly is your talent, anyway?" Felix asked. "You judge comfort levels?"

Eli laughed. "No, I can scan others' thoughts and memories," he said.

"Like Aro," he said, clearly impressed.

"Not exactly, but there are similarities," he said. "I can hear from a distance but I can't take memories instantly like Aro could."

"And Ariana was relatively comfortable talking to me?" Felix asked again in disbelief.

"She thinks you're quite handsome, and she loves it when you wink at her," Eli said with a grin.

"I'll never understand humans," Felix said, rolling his eyes. "So, Siobhan, do you agree that we should tell the humans about our new council?"

"Yes, I agree," Siobhan said. "We want them to trust us, so we should be honest with them about who's in charge. And it won't hurt them to know that we disposed of their previous employers – it's best if they remain fearful of us."

"Their reactions should be entertaining," Eli said with a grin. "I think we should try to keep those same three around for a while so that we can avoid having to hunt for replacements. But we won't tell them that. Like you said, it's best if they're afraid of us."

"They all work here in hopes of being 'promoted,'" Felix said. "So if we're planning to leave them human, we should keep that quiet too."

"Agreed," said Siobhan.

"We can go introduce ourselves to them after we finish up here," Felix said, and the other two nodded in agreement.

"I think our next order of business is Jesse," Eli said.

"Yes, Jesse, could you come over here for a moment?" she asked, motioning for him to come forward.

"Would you like to tell us more about your power?" Eli asked.

"I assume you've already figured it out," Jesse said him. "But I don't suppose it matters anymore now, without the Volturi around."

"We all saw that you were able to steal Renata's shield," Eli said. "And I know that you were surprised that you were able to get it away from her. You didn't know before today that you could take others' talents?"

"I had known before that I was able to borrow some of Cora's ability when I was around her, but I couldn't control it very well, and I never realized I was taking it away from her at the same time – I thought I was sharing it. And I had noticed that things seemed to go well whenever I was around Fernando, but I wasn't sure if I was borrowing from him or if it was just that his good luck happened to benefit me when I was around him. I've always avoided other vampires as much as possible. I've had to fight to defend myself a couple of times, but I think those vampires must not have been talented because I never noticed anything then."

"So it was when the battle started that you began to realize what you could do?" Siobhan prompted.

"Right. I've never been involved in such a large fight before. When I started seeing red and my senses were heightened, I could see better how to manipulate my talent. Whenever I made eye contact with a talented vampire who was actively using his talent, I could see an ultraviolet ring sitting on top of their heads, kind of like a crown, and if I wanted to take it, I could will it onto my own head. But it took a great deal of concentration to keep it there. I tried it briefly with Kate, and was able to shock one of the guards, but that was when I noticed that she lost her ability when I borrowed it."

"So that's what that flicker was," Kate said. "I was afraid I was losing my touch!"

"So I just waited for one of the talented Volturi to look at me so that I could take one of their talents," Jesse continued. "I didn't think that girl was ever going to look at me. I had been trying to get her attention, but there was so much going on that she hadn't noticed my efforts. Once she finally looked in my direction, it was easy. I just took her crown and I was invincible. I was pretty angry at that point, and I think that made it a little easier for me to hold onto it long enough for the others to get to her master."

"That's an incredibly powerful talent," Felix said. "You would have been highly honored in the guard."

"I don't think Aro would have let him live," Edward said. "He would have been too worried that it could be used against him."

"Well, I had no desire to serve the Volturi or to be captured by them, so it's good that I stayed away from them until now," Jesse said.

"I assume we can trust you not to abuse your power in the future?" Siobhan asked.

"It's really not very useful, except in the sort of situation we were just in," Jesse said. "And I suppose that if I ever get into an individual fight, I might make use of it then. Is that a problem?"

"No, no, of course not," Siobhan assured him. "We all have to defend ourselves from time to time with whatever means we have at our disposal."

"So if someone was fighting you, they would just need to avoid eye contact to keep you from taking their talent?" Felix asked. "Hypothetically speaking, of course."

"Right, I need eye contact," he answered. "But once I've taken a talent, I think I can keep it as long as I can maintain my concentration."

I suspected that this would become easier for him with time, as it had for me with my shield.

"Can you still do it, now that the battle is over?" Edward asked Jesse. "Go ahead, try to take mine."

A smile spread across Edward's face as Jesse's eyes scrunched shut and his hands flew to his ears as if trying to stop the sound.

"You did it!" Edward said.

"How do you live with that?" Jesse asked.

"It takes some getting used to," Eli told him. "I had to practice for a while before I could scan him without feeling overloaded from all the input."

"Try mine," I challenged. The thought that he might be successful was terrifying, but I felt compelled to find out if my shield was not as untouchable as we had thought. I looked him in the eye and waited, but I could still feel my shield firmly around my mind. Then I remembered what he said about needing to be actively using it, so I expanded the shield around some of those standing closest to me, but still, nothing happened.

"It's not working," Jesse said, sounding a bit frustrated. "It's like you don't have a talent, even though you obviously do."

I felt greatly relieved, even though I had no reason to believe that Jesse would ever use his talent against me. It was good to know that he couldn't see through my shield enough to see how to take it.

Jesse then experimented with a few other talents. He was able to take Zafrina's, but like with Edward's, it was too unwieldy for him without sufficient practice. He also took Eli's and was able to rummage through his memories a bit once Eli explained the index. Jesse seemed a little annoyed that Eli didn't mind and was even helping – I think he had hoped to pay him back for trying to pull his memories uninvited in the past.

The council eventually moved on to other topics, and discussions on how the council would operate continued on throughout the night. There were discussions on how to spread the word of the council's existence and how to ensure that all of our kind were able to participate in elections, and formal guidelines were created to help ensure balance and fairness in the biannual elections.

The next day, once those who slept woke up, we held a memorial service for Launhe and then waited while the wolves had their own private ceremony further off in the woods for Quil. It was not feasible to take him back to the U.S. due to the logistical difficulty of transporting his body in wolf form, so they decided to bury him there, outside of Volterra. Only Renesmee went with them, being considered a member of the tribe due to her marriage to Jake. I felt for Claire, and for Quil's mother, Joy, who would not get to say goodbye properly. At least Renesmee would be able to replay the service for them if they desired her to.

We had a long flight back home, but it felt much shorter than the one we had made days earlier when we weren't sure if we would be returning. For the first time in as long as I could remember, I felt truly worry-free. The Volturi were no longer after us.

When we landed in Boston, we found Charlie, Sue, and Renée all there waiting for us in the airport.

We had been expecting Charlie and Sue, as Seth had spoken to Sue on the phone before we left, but Renée's presence was a surprise. We were halfway down the escalator when we noticed her; she had been bent down digging something out of her purse, so we hadn't noticed her standing next to Charlie and Sue until it was too late to turn back. Renesmee was right in front, and not only was she not wearing her yellow contact lenses, but we didn't have any with us since we'd had no need of them in Italy.

"Nessie!" Renée exclaimed, extending her arms for a hug from the granddaughter she knew as her son-in-law's sister.

Nessie glanced up at us in panic, and Edward gestured for her to go on. It was too late to do anything else.

I knew from Renée's gasp the precise moment that she had noticed her brown eyes – the brown eyes that looked so much like mine used to, only prettier. They hugged briefly as Nessie told her it was good to see her again, and Renée didn't mention the eye color.

"Bella! Are you really ok?" Renée demanded as she ran up to me as soon as I stepped off the escalator. She threw her arms around me and hugged me as tightly as she could.

"I'm fine, Mom," I assured her.

"You're not hurt at all?" she persisted.

"No, not a scratch," I said.

She stepped back so that she could look me in the eye. "I heard about Quil and Seth," she whispered. "I was so worried that something had happened to you, too."

"No, they were the only ones," I said. She didn't need to know about Launhe and Shua. "And Seth is going to be okay."

"That's what Charlie said when he called me back, but I could hear the worry in his voice. I had to see you for myself," she said.

Seth gave Sue a lopsided grin as he made it to the bottom of the escalator and hobbled over to hug his mother. Tears dripped down Sue's face as she clung to him, and I could feel one of Renée's warm tears soaking into the fabric against my shoulder.

After a few moments, Renée stepped back as if to get a better look at me. "Bella, you're wearing the same clothes as when you left Florida," she whispered.

"Yeah," I said, glancing down at my rumpled attire. It was surprisingly clean and was not torn, but those hours spent on the plane had resulted in numerous wrinkles.

She gave me a rare look of motherly disapproval, and I just shrugged.

Sue was continuing to fuss over Seth, and I noticed Charlie watching Renée and me. It looked like he was trying to decide whether to interrupt us, and I realized I hadn't even greeted him yet.

"Dad!" I said, making my way over to him.

He pulled me into a hug, a lot tighter than usual, and whispered in my ear, "Sue told me what happened. Nearly gave me a heart attack. What were you thinking?"

"Sorry, Dad," I whispered back. I'm not sure exactly how much Sue told him, so I decide it's best not to elaborate.

"I can't believe you took Nessie into battle."

"She was safer with us. She didn't fight. We'll explain it all later if you really want to know."

"You really weren't hurt?"

"Not at all. I'm fine."

"Well, let's go get your luggage," he said aloud. "I'm sure you're all ready to get home."

"Um, there isn't any luggage," said Jake. "We were kind of in a hurry when we left."

"But Bella and Edward had several pieces when they left Florida," Renée said, confused.

"We left it at Carlisle's," I told her. "Several of us met there before we left for Europe. But we didn't take anything with us. We needed to travel lightly."

"Oh," she said, not seeming entirely satisfied with the explanation. "Well, you are going home now, right?"

"I promised Carlisle I'd help him with something this evening, but you and Bella can go on back to the house, and I'll meet you there later," Edward said.

'What?' I thought at him as I moved my shield aside. 'You're leaving me to deal with her alone? How am I going to explain Nessie's eyes? I have no idea what she's thinking!'

He gave me a brief wink in acknowledgement.

"Could we stop and get something to eat on the way?" Renée asked me. "I'm starved."

"Why don't you come with us, Edward?" I suggested. "You can go to Carlisle's after we eat."

"I was just about to suggest the same thing," he said, giving me that crooked grin of his.

"Anyone else want to join us?" Renée asked.

"Sue wants to be with Seth, since he's having his surgery tonight, so we're going to follow Carlisle to the hospital," Charlie said. "We'll come over after he's out of recovery and spend the night at your house, Bella, if that's okay."

"Sure, Dad," I said.

After some discussion of who was going to ride in which car, we all headed out to the parking structure, and soon Edward and I were alone in our car with Renée. I had expected her questions to start as soon as we got into the car, but she was unusually quiet on the way to the restaurant.

That gave me more time to worry about what we were going to tell her. Part of me longed to tell her the truth, especially since such knowledge would no longer place her in danger of the Volturi. The new council had no problem with a few select humans being entrusted with the knowledge of our existence, and they had expressed no objections when we had specifically discussed with them the possibility that we might eventually want to tell Renée. But I worried about how she would react and how the knowledge might affect her.

It would not be easy for her to accept the idea of supernatural beings. We would probably have to provide a demonstration of strength and speed if we wanted to convince her of the truth. And then, what if she ended up being scared of me? What if she was repulsed by the fact that we drink blood? I knew that vampires had never been her favorite type of mythological character – I had a foggy memory of her rolling her eyes at the idea of watching a vampire movie, and although she was a voracious reader, I could not recall her ever reading any vampire books.

As we got closer to the restaurant, my worries increased. She was almost certainly going to confront us about Renesmee's eyes which were no longer yellow – we had blown our "secret agent" cover. What if she rejected Renesmee as her granddaughter, either due to her apparent age or just because of her not being fully human? What if the whole idea of supernatural beings roaming around was so distracting to her that she was unable to concentrate on her job, and she and Phil lost their house? What if she told Phil about us and he thought she was mentally ill and started giving her unnecessary medications?

There were just so many problems that could arise if we told her the truth, and my gut feeling was that she simply wasn't ready for it. Edward and I had discussed this some on the plane ride home, and we had agreed that we would wait and see how long it took her to grow suspicious of the secret agent story and that Edward would monitor her thoughts for indications that she might be ready for the truth. But I hadn't expected that we would need to deal with this as soon as we stepped off the plane! Things had been going so well! And would she be angry at us for having lied to her all these years?

These were just some of the disorganized thoughts that spun through my mind as we approached the restaurant. I suddenly realized that Edward must have had many of these same feelings that day in Port Angeles when I was telling him that I had figured out what he was. It had always seemed so silly to me that he had been worried I might run, but being confronted with the possibility of my mother learning the same thing about me somehow terrified me, and I understood better what he must have gone through.

As we pulled into the parking lot, my mind turned to the various ways we might be able to explain Nessie's eyes. Would she believe that they were brown contacts? Renée had gotten a good, close look at her, so that probably wasn't the best explanation. If we told her that Nessie had been wearing yellow contacts before, which was actually true, then we would be forced to come up with an explanation as to how my eyes – and Edward's and the others' – were so yellow without contacts. Maybe we could tell her that Nessie had undergone a special eye treatment to reverse the enhancements that were made to her eyes when she enrolled in the program. I hoped that Edward would do most of the explaining – being able to hear her thoughts gave him a definite advantage in this type of situation, and he could throw in some medical jargon to make it sound more believable.

Soon, we were seated at a table, and the questions started as soon as the waitress had taken our orders.

"Bella, why does Renesmee have your eyes?" she demanded angrily, getting right to the point.

"What?" I asked, genuinely confused. The way she said it did not sound like she suspected that I was Nessie's mother. She sounded like she had already come to some other conclusion of her own, and she very upset about something.

"She has your eyes!" Renée said through gritted teeth, emphasizing each word. "I recognize my own daughter's eyes when I see them. I've missed them these last several years. I just don't understand. Why would you give them away?"

"Give them away?" I repeated. She thought I literally gave her my eyes? "I still have my own eyes, Mom. They've just changed color."

"Well, then, how do you explain what I saw? Her eyes used to look like yours do now, except that I could always tell that she was wearing contacts. Now, they look like the ones you were born with, and she didn't have any contacts in today. Did you trade eyes with her or something? She's Edward's sister, so her eyes would have looked like his originally. It's starting to make sense now. But why?"

"Full eye transplants are beyond current medical science," Edward said. "There's no way to restore function to the optic nerve. Those are Renesmee's own eyes. She's been wearing the yellow contacts to blend in with us."

"Don't you lie to me!" Renée said, her anger rising. "I know you guys have your secrets, but I want an explanation on this one."

"Mom…," I began, and then sighed, unsure of how to finish.

Her eyes widened as she seemed to be making some sort of connection in her mind. "You know, I don't think you ever said exactly what government it is that you're working for. You're not working for the U.S. government, are you?"

Edward's lips twitched up in amusement for a small fraction of a second, and I knew that Renée must be coming up with some new explanation that was nowhere close to the truth.

"No, Renée, it's not the U. S. government," Edward answered. "We allowed you to assume that because it was safer for you."

"Eye transplants may be beyond human ability," Renée said, "but if you're working for an alien government, they could have used alien technology to swap their eyes. You're not human, are you, Edward? You and all those adopted siblings whose eyes all match Carlisle's – none of you are human! Am I right?"

Edward glanced at me questioningly. He wanted to know how I thought he should answer. She was far closer to the truth than I had suspected, and it scared me. I had no idea what to tell him, so I just shrugged.

"You're right. We're not human," he told Renée, apparently deciding to just go with it.

Renée gave a small gasp. I don't think she actually expected to hear her suspicions confirmed.

"So Carlisle has been making Bella more like your kind, and taking parts from her to make your sister more human?" Renée asked, aghast. "Why?"

Edward shook his head. "Renée, not even Carlisle can do a full eye transplant – I expect he could properly connect the blood vessels, which is something that is beyond current human ability, but the eye wouldn't work because of the optic nerve. I assure you, no body parts have been swapped."

"So why does Bella look more like you and the rest of the Cullens now?" she asked. "And why is your sister looking more like Bella, especially the eyes?"

"There's an easy explanation for Renesmee, but I'm not sure you're ready to hear it," Edward told her. "Keep thinking about it, and you might come up with it on your own."

Renée looked puzzled and just sat there for a moment, apparently trying to figure it out.

'Are you thinking we might be able to tell her that Renesmee's her granddaughter?" I thought at Edward, moving my shield aside briefly.

He looked up and then down – a "yes" – but also shrugged slightly. I guess he didn't want to get my hopes up too much, but I began to feel excited at the idea. Renée had apparently concluded that the Cullens were aliens from outer space, and she seemed to accept that idea much more easily than I ever would have expected. Maybe she could accept a ten-year-old adult granddaughter – who was only half human – as well?

Just then, the waitress came with our food. Renée took a huge bite of her burger, and I pretended to sip on my water.

I could tell from the look of concentration on Renée's face as she chewed that she was still trying to figure it out. I wondered what theories were running through her mind. When the waitress left, I decided it might help to give my mother a small hint.

"Renesmee isn't really Edward's sister," I told her.

She looked even more puzzled. "But she looks just like him," she protested.

"Yes, but they're not siblings," I said, deciding to give another hint. "She's not quite as old as she looks."

"And I'm a bit older than I look," added Edward.

Renée's eyes darted from Edward to me and back to Edward. She was starting to put two and two together. "What? You're her - ? But who's the - ? Bella?" Her voice dropped to a whisper. "She's your daughter?"

I nodded and could not keep the smile from my face. "Yes, mine and Edward's. You have a granddaughter."

Renée squealed in delight at this news. The other customers sitting in our area all turned and stared at us as they looked for the source and reason for the sudden, high-pitched noise.

"I'm a grandmother! I mean, I'm going to be a grandmother!" she told them, beaming, when she realized people were staring. I was glad that she had the presence of mind to say something that sounded somewhat normal. I was also glad that we were still in Boston, where no one knew us, rather than in Hanover where rumors of a pregnancy could quickly spread across campus.

Some of the people sitting nearest to us smiled and congratulated us, and a there was a smattering of applause. Then, thankfully, they went back to their meals and their own conversations.

After her initial reaction of excitement, Renée seemed to be overwhelmed with conflicting emotions, and she was understandably having trouble wrapping her mind around it all.

"I've always loved her, but I never understood why I felt so drawn to her," she said, tears forming in her eyes. "How could you keep this from me? I missed out on her childhood! Or was she never a child? Did you use your alien technology to create adult offspring?"

"No, her life began the old-fashioned way," I told her. "She just grew very quickly."

"Bella got pregnant on our honeymoon," Edward said. "Remember when you were told that she had contracted a rare disease, and no one was allowed to see her?"

"But Renesmee was never around when I visited. You hid her until she grew up?" Renée looked pained at what she had missed out on.

"Jake babysat for us whenever you came over."

"And they're married now," Renée said. "She's what? Ten years old? And she's married? Is this normal on your planet?"

"No, it's not," Edward said with a slight smile. "We'd never heard of a half-human hybrid before. Even Carlisle didn't know it could happen. I never dreamed I could father a child, and when the pregnancy was progressing so quickly, we were all very worried. She continued growing quickly after she was born, but the rate of growth slowed as she reached maturity. We introduced her to you right around the time she stopped growing, and I'm sure you remember that Jake and Nessie didn't begin dating until a few months after you met her. The two of them have always had a special connection. And while Bella and I weren't happy about their relationship at first, I have to admit that Jake has always had her best interest at heart. So, yes, having an adult daughter who's only ten years old is pretty strange. But there's never really been anything about my family that was normal."

"So that kind of explains Renesmee," said Renée, taking a deep breath. "But what about Bella? How was she changed to look more like a Cullen, and why?"

"When Renesmee was born, it was physically traumatic for Bella," Edward said. "She would not have survived if we hadn't changed her. She underwent a process that resequenced her DNA in order to make her physiology match ours. We're a bit more durable than you humans are."

"And you're really not human," Renée mused. It was still sinking in. "I guess that's the real reason why your skin always feels so cold?"

She reached out to touch Edward's arm, and he placed his hand palm-down on the table near her plate so that she would not need to lean across the table. She tentatively touched the back of his hand, apparently checking the temperature, and then rubbed her fingers back and forth so that she could feel the smoothness. Then she tapped the back of his hand gently with the tips of her fingernails, and there was a slight clinking sound, as though she were touching marble. She sucked in a breath at the sound.

"And you're like this too?" she said, looking at me with curiosity in her eyes. "More durable?"

I glanced around to make sure no one else was watching and positioned the end of my fork against the palm of my hand. Then I slowly pushed the fork forward so that the tines curled back and the handle bent.

Renée's eyes grew even larger, and she reached for the damaged utensil. I handed it to her and let her examine it, and when she was done, I quickly straightened it back out to its original shape.

"Are you okay with this, Mom?" I asked. "That I'm not human anymore?"

"Well, it certainly sounds much better than the alternative. I don't know, Bella; I'm still getting used to all of this. I just wish you'd told me earlier. You didn't trust me? Do you even work for the government at all? Any government?"

"No, we don't," I said, deciding to be truthful where I could and hoping that she wouldn't be too angry about our earlier lies.

"Was the whole secret agent thing just a test to see if I could keep a secret?" she asked.

"No, it was more because we were afraid someone would kill you if they found out we'd told," I said, "and also because we just weren't sure you were ready to hear something like this. But it's much safer now."

"So it doesn't have to be as secret anymore? Is it okay if I tell Phil about this?"

"We'd prefer that you didn't," Edward said. "My people still have a non-exposure law. Humans aren't supposed to know we exist. The more people who know, the easier it is for things to get out of hand. If your government, or any of the world powers, became aware of us - well, let's just say that it could create a very dangerous situation."

"Ah, I see," she said. "So the government doesn't know you're here? I guess a full-scale war could be started if the wrong people found out, right? How many of your people are here, anyway?"

"I don't have a number," he said. "Not many. But you're right. A war would not be desirable for either species."

"But it's safe for me to know now? What changed?"

"The rule was recently modified to allow for situations such as this, and there are now different people in charge of enforcing it," Edward said. "It's best if we leave it at that."

"This has something to do with the mission you just got back from, doesn't it?" she asked. Sometimes she was too perceptive.

"I think it's best if we don't answer that question," I said.

"What about that story you told me about the 'renegade agent' who tried to kill you in Phoenix? Can you tell me what really happened then?"

"What we told you in St. Augustine was true," I said, "except that he wasn't any sort of government agent. He was one of Edward's kind, but not part of his family."

"But why did he go after you?" she persisted. "Was it because the 'non-exposure law' had been broken?"

"No, he wasn't in charge of enforcing that," Edward said. "There wasn't any real reason; it was just a game to him."

"So was he sent back to your planet?" she asked. "Is that why you couldn't tell me what happened to him when I asked earlier?"

"Mom, remember the fire at the ballet studio near your house?" I asked, wanting to avoid the topic of other planets. Although I was relieved that she was making that assumption so that I didn't have to tell her about vampires yet, I preferred not to lie or make up a story involving space travel.

"That was related to your attack?" she asked, beginning to put it all together.

"The one who attacked me died in that fire," I said.

Renée just looked at us for a moment. "You arranged that?" she finally asked Edward.

"I would have if my brothers hadn't beaten me to it," he said. "It was the only way to stop him."

Renée nodded, seeming to accept this.

"So Jasper and Emmett are really your brothers?" she asked.

"We're all adopted, but yes, we think of each other as brothers," he said.

"And Carlisle?" she asked.

"He and Esme are the only parents I have any real memory of," he said. "And speaking of Carlisle, I need to go ahead and leave now if I'm going to help him." He pushed his untouched food away slightly and glanced at me for any indication that I needed him to stay.

"We'll meet you at the house later," I said.

"What are you helping Carlisle with?" Renée asked.

"Seth's surgery. Seth isn't one of us, but his physiology is not exactly normal, so he can't go to a regular hospital. Carlisle will be doing it as his house, and he asked Rosalie and me to assist."

"You and Rosalie? Assisting with surgery?" Renée asked, confused.

"It's not something we normally do," he explained, "but this is an unusual circumstance, and we're the only ones who've had any medical training. Sue is a nurse, of course, but she doesn't have much surgical experience, and I don't think she'll want to watch what we're going to have to do."

"Is he in worse shape than what we were told?" she asked. "Charlie said it was just a broken leg. Is there something else wrong too?"

"No, it's just his leg, and it's a routine surgery," he said. "The bones just need to be rebroken and set properly. We wouldn't be in quite this much of a hurry to get it started except that Sue is here, and she has to leave tomorrow. If we complete the procedure tonight, she can be there with him when he wakes up and spend a few hours with him as he begins his recovery."

"Oh. Okay. Well, we'll see you later, then."

"I'll give you a call when I'm on my way home," he whispered into my ear. "You okay?"

'Yes. I can't believe how well this went. You think she's really okay with this?'

"She's still a bit confused, and it's a lot for her to take in, but I think she's going to be fine," he whispered back quickly with an encouraging wink. He then gave me a quick goodbye kiss and stood up to leave.

"Wait - don't we only have one car?" Renée asked.

"I'll take a cab to Carlisle's," Edward said. "It's just a few miles from here."

"But how will he get home?" Renée asked me as he left.

"He'll probably ride home from Carlisle's with Jake and Nessie," I said.

"But their car only seats two."

"They can squeeze in," I said. He could also run home, but there was no need to tell Renée that.

Renée glanced down at her plate and laughed. "I've only eaten one bite!" she said.

"Go ahead and eat," I told her. "There will be plenty of time for all of your questions."

She took another bite, and when she finished chewing, she looked up at me and asked, "You're not going to eat, are you?"

"We don't require human food at all," I told her. "We can swallow it, but it tastes awful, and it's not compatible with our digestive system." It felt good to tell her the truth about this; I wouldn't have to eat around her anymore.

"So why did you order it?" she asked.

"Just to seem normal," I said. "We try to blend in as much as we can. If people notice that we never eat, they may become too curious about us and start watching for other oddities. If people start to become suspicious that we aren't human, we have to move on to someplace new. We have to move every few years, anyway, since we don't age."

Renée stopped chewing. "You don't age?" she asked. "Do you mean that you age very slowly? Or you don't age at all?"

"Not at all," I answered. "How much longer do you think you would have believed our plastic surgery story?"

"I guess I'm pretty gullible sometimes," Renée said sheepishly. "But plastic surgery did seem to be the most logical explanation. So if you don't have plastic surgery, do you do something else to stay young? Is it some kind of procedure with alien technology? How does that work?"

"There's not a procedure," I said. "We just don't age. Once the genetic changes were complete, my body just stopped aging."

"So what planet is Edward from?"

I had been hoping to avoid such a direct question, but I thought of a way to answer without lying. "He was actually born as a human, like I was," I told her. "Carlisle changed him when he was about to die, like Edward did for me."

"And where was Carlisle from?" she persisted.

"Mom," I said, shaking my head. "I think it's best if we don't give you too much information. You have a lot to process already."

Renée looked a little disappointed, but she seemed to understand. "Okay. I guess you still have to have some secrets. Just promise me that you won't lie to me anymore, all right? If I ask you something where you feel like you can't tell me the truth, you can just let me know that you can't discuss it, and I'll try to respect that. Will that work?"

"Yes, I think it will," I said, feeling very pleased with this agreement. Neither Edward nor I had told her that we were aliens or that his species was from another planet. I could just keep avoiding those types of questions, and later on, we might even tell her the whole truth. I could give her time to get used to the idea that we weren't human, and maybe she wouldn't freak out quite so much upon learning that there are vampires roaming her world – and that her daughter is one of them.

"Can you tell me more about your pregnancy?" she asked. "I so wish that I could have been there for you, honey."

"It's all kind of a blur now – a lot of my human memories are. I do remember the first time I felt her move," I said, smiling at the memory. "I called her my 'Little Nudger.'"

She smiled with me. "There's nothing like that first kick," she said.

"After that, things went really fast. She was born less than two weeks later."

"What?" She must have thought she heard me incorrectly.

"The entire pregnancy lasted less than a month. She was born less than two weeks after I felt the first kick."

"Was it otherwise like a normal pregnancy?" she asked, still seeming taken aback by this bit of information.

"I suppose so," I said. "I spent most of my time resting."

"I meant did it look like a normal pregnancy?" she clarified. "She grew in your stomach? Not someplace else?"

"Yes, that part was normal," I said, smiling at her imagination. "I probably looked like I was having twins, and I didn't look very healthy. We have some pictures I can show you sometime, but they're stored at Carlisle's house."

"And Edward said you had a traumatic delivery?" she asked with concern on her face.

"My placenta detached and I had a c-section. I don't remember much because I was fading in and out of consciousness."

"And where was she born? Was that when you were in Atlanta at the CDC? Or was that just a story you gave Charlie to explain why he couldn't see you?"

"It was just the cover story. As soon as we realized I was pregnant, we flew straight home from the island we had gone to for our honeymoon. She was born at Carlisle's house in Forks."

"So Carlisle did the delivery himself?" she asked. "Did Edward and Rosalie help with that too?"

"Actually, Carlisle was gone when the placenta detached. He had been planning to deliver her when he got back, but Edward ended up having to do it himself."

"Edward performed a c-section on you?" she asked, amazed.

"I know it was really scary for him. He's been to medical school, but that was the first time he actually did surgery on anyone."

"Is that why he said your delivery was 'traumatic'? Did something go wrong with the surgery?" she asked.

"No, he didn't make any mistakes, if that's what you're asking," I said. "He knew exactly what he was doing. He just hadn't actually done it before."

"That boy amazes me more and more," she said. "Is there anything he can't do?"

"I've often wondered the same thing," I said, smiling to myself.

"Is he planning to become a doctor, like Carlisle?"

"I don't think so," I said. "He'll never look any older than he does now, so we would be pushing it to tell people he was old enough to have completed medical school, and we wouldn't be able to stay anywhere very long because people would notice if their doctor still looked like a teenager when he was supposed to be more like twenty-six or twenty-seven. "

"But he's twenty-eight now, isn't he? You two are the same age, right?" Renée's brow wrinkled in confusion. This was really a lot for her to take in all at once. She wasn't fully grasping what it meant when I had told her we weren't aging.

"I was eighteen when I was changed ten years ago," I said. "I'll always look eighteen, no matter how long I live. Edward was seventeen when he was changed, but he's been seventeen for a long time - he went to medical school before I even met him. In the past, he's pretended to be as young as fourteen, and we think he could get away with twenty-five or maybe twenty-six."

"But you're both pretending to be twenty-eight right now, aren't you?"

"No, I enrolled at Dartmouth as an eighteen-year-old, and Edward enrolled a twenty-two-year-old. He'll be claiming twenty-five by the time I graduate. We'll probably have to move again as soon as I finish my degree. I don't think we ever told you we were a certain age; you already knew I was born twenty-eight years ago, and we let you assume Edward was my age since he was posing as being my age when we first met."

"Couldn't he work as a resident?" Renée asked. "He might look a little younger than the others, but not by that much."

"I think he probably could," I said. "But he doesn't have enough confidence in himself. He's too worried that he might hurt someone accidentally."

"That sounds like Edward," Renée said, laughing. "He's always too hard on himself."

"Yes, he is," I agreed.

"Can we back up a minute?" she asked. "You still didn't tell me what went wrong. Edward said you wouldn't have survived without being changed to be like him, but you said the surgery went perfectly. Now, your delivery definitely sounded scary, but from what Edward said, and the look he had on his face when he said it, I was expecting it to be even worse than that. What am I missing? There's something you're not telling me, isn't there?"

"I also had some broken ribs," I admitted. "And I'm told my spine snapped, but I don't really remember that part. And I had to have CPR."

"What caused all of that?" Renée asked, the color draining from her face. She looked confused. Those were not normal complications from a detached placenta or a c-section.

"Renesmee is very strong – almost as strong as the rest of us. Once she reached a certain size, my human body was too weak for her normal movements inside the womb."

"Oh," she said, looking stunned. She was probably remembering the fork demonstration I had done for her earlier. "But she's half-human, right? In what ways is she human, besides the eyes?"

"Well, her digestive system can handle human food," I said. "And her circulatory system is more similar to that of humans. And her skin looks more human, even in the sunlight. And she sleeps."

"She sleeps?" Renée asked. There was a slight pause as she realized what that implied. "Do you mean that you don't?"

"No, our bodies don't require sleep. We're actually incapable of it."

"So you just pretend to sleep at night whenever I'm around?" she asked, looking confused again. "I've seen Edward sleeping – he was sleeping the first time I met him, when you were in the hospital in Phoenix."

"He was faking it."

"If he was faking it, he's a really good actor. In the hospital, before you woke up the first time, I was sitting there reading a book for several hours, and he was asleep the whole time. Are you telling me he lay in that awful hospital recliner – the one that won't recline all the way and sits up when you try to lean back – and pretended to sleep for four or five hours?" she asked incredulously.

"That's right."

"So you're saying that you haven't slept in over ten years?"

"Yes."

"So what do you do all night?"

I raised an eyebrow.

"Oh," she said, her face beginning to redden slightly. With an embarrassed smile, she picked up her glass and slowly drank the last of her water.

"Would you like go to the house now?" I suggested. "Renesmee will be home later this evening, and you can spend some time getting to know her better. She'll be so excited that you finally know you're her grandmother."

"Yes, I'm ready," she said, handing me some cash to cover her portion of the bill. "So she knows I'm her grandmother?"

"She calls you 'Grandma Renée,'" I said, slipping her money back into her purse without her notice.

"I like the sound of that," she said with a huge smile on her face.

On our way out, she excused herself to stop by the restroom, so I took the opportunity to give Nessie a call. I let her know that Renée had decided we were aliens and told her how much of the truth we had shared with her. She told me that her dad had arrived just a few minutes earlier and that they were working on Seth as we spoke. The surgery would not take long, so once Seth woke up they would head home, as she was extremely excited about Renée knowing their true relationship.

On our drive home, Renée asked more questions about the differences between us and humans, and I explained to her about our enhanced vision, hearing, and sense of smell. But mostly she was interested in hearing more about Renesmee and what she had been like when she was younger.

For the time being, her excitement at learning that Renesmee was her grandchild seemed to be outweighing the weirdness of learning that we weren't human. She had accepted the truth on that subject much more easily than I had anticipated. Of course, she had been observing our oddities for nearly ten years, and her current alien theory wasn't really that much more far-fetched than the secret agent story we had given her.

She seemed very flattered to learn that Renesmee's name was a combination of hers and Esme's. Edward had told her previously that his "sister" had been named after their grandmothers, Rena and Esther, and if she had ever noticed that the name was much closer to her own and Esme's, she had never said anything about it.

When we got to the house, I got out the pictures of Nessie's childhood and looked through them with Renée. I think I enjoyed the trip down memory lane almost as much as she did. Each picture had a story associated with it – some I could share with her, and some I could not. We had just finished the fifth album when I heard Jake's car turning onto our road.

Nessie was the first one in the door, and she immediately ran to hug Renée.

Edward sat down by me and we just watched as they hugged and cried.

"Do you think we should have told her sooner?" I murmured, feeling guilty for keeping them apart during Nessie's childhood.

"I don't think she was ready to hear it before today," Edward answered. "And too much knowledge would have been dangerous for her. Let's not second-guess ourselves."

I was surprised to hear him say that last part – it seemed uncharacteristically upbeat of him. I smiled up at him and saw that he was leaning down to whisper something with a serious look on his face.

"Ness is asking me if she can show Renée her talent," he whispered. "Are you okay with that?"

'I guess so,' I answered. 'You're the one who can hear her thoughts. What do you think? Is she still handling everything okay?'

"She seems fine, but I wasn't sure how much you told her after you called Nessie."

'I told her about our enhanced senses, and that we don't sleep or age,' I thought at him. 'Mostly we talked about Renesmee. I didn't want to tell her too much without you around to monitor her real reactions.'

"Renée, there's something I think Nessie would like to share with you," Edward said. "She has a special ability that none of the rest of us has."

"May I show you?" Renesmee asked.

"Of course!" Renée said, looking at her expectantly.

Renesmee gently touched the palm of her hand to the side of Renée's face, and Renée got the same amazed look on her face that everyone gets the first time they experience my daughter's gift.

'What did she show her?' I asked.

"The first time they met," Edward whispered.

"That's amazing!" Renée exclaimed. "How did you do that?"

"We don't know how it works," Nessie said. "But I've been doing it since before I could talk."

"Where's Jake?" I asked aloud, suddenly realizing he had never come in. Had he gone for a run in the woods? I didn't even remember hearing him when they got out of the car.

"He decided to stay and keep Seth company," Nessie answered. "He wanted to give me some time alone with Grandma Renée, and he was really tired, too. He fell asleep on the couch a few minutes before I left."

"How is Seth?" Renée asked, looking over at Edward and me. "Did the surgery go okay?"

"It went perfectly," Edward answered. "We left shortly after he woke up. He'll be on crutches for a while, but he should be back to normal soon."

"That's great!" Renée said, but she had already turned her attention back to Renesmee. She just couldn't stop looking at her granddaughter.

Nessie noticed the stack of albums and picked up where I had left off, showing her the rest of the pictures.

Renée looked sad when they came to the wedding pictures. "I almost went to your wedding, you know. I was so flattered that you invited me, and I really wanted to be there, but then I found out Phil's brother was coming in that weekend, and I felt like I needed to be at home. I had no idea that I was missing my only granddaughter's wedding! I'm so sorry I wasn't there."

"It's okay," Renesmee reassured her. "I knew you probably wouldn't be able to attend. Most people wouldn't travel across the country just to see their son-in-law's sister get married. We actually thought about telling you then, but it just seemed too dangerous."

When they had finished the last album, which included pictures of their recent trip to Rio, Renée asked hopefully, "Do you have any videos?"

We all laughed – we had an overabundance of videos. It had been a running joke when Nessie was still growing that she was spending half of her life in front of the camera. We had intended to create some edited copies with fake date stamps to make it look like she had aged at a normal pace, but we had never gotten around to it.

However, as I tried to think of which ones would be good to show Renée, I realized that very few of them were appropriate unless we wanted to explain a lot more details. Those videos included vampire arm wrestling matches and snowball fights, Jake phasing into a wolf, Nessie biting Jake and watching the blood trickle out, Nessie reciting an entire Shakespearian play from memory at age two, Emmett's practical joke with the grizzly bear carcass, Rosalie and Emmett making out on top of said carcass, Nessie with her bottle of donated human blood, Nessie jumping across the river in a single bound, Nessie with her first "vegetarian" kill – no, those videos definitely weren't appropriate for Renée.

"How about my wedding video?" Renesmee asked. Her tone of voice indicated she was talking to Renée, but she looked up at Edward and me as she said it, asking if it was okay.

"I think that's a good choice," I said. There had been humans present at the wedding, and everyone had been on their best behavior. It was probably the only one we had that was appropriate for Renée.

Nessie jumped up to get it, not bothering to move at human speed.

"What just happened?" Renée asked, looking bewildered. Nessie was sitting next to her again, pressing the "play" button on the remote. "Did I really just see you move that fast?"

"Sorry!" Nessie said, cringing slightly at her lapse. "I guess they hadn't told you about our speed yet. I probably wasn't supposed to do that."

"It's okay, Ness," Edward told her. "We've been telling her about our true nature. We're just trying not to overwhelm her too much all at once."

"So you can all do that?" Renée asked.

"Yes," Edward confirmed. "That wasn't even full speed."

"That's how you were always able to catch Bella when she would start to trip, wasn't it?" she asked.

Edward didn't even try to suppress his laughter, and I was once again glad that I could no longer blush.

"I want to see," she said.

"You want to see Mom trip?" Nessie asked with a grin. "I'd like to see that too."

"No, I want to see her and Edward do what you just did," she said.

We moved around in the room a bit, darting from one side to the other a few times. It wasn't full speed – there wasn't room for that in such a confined space – but it was enough to show Renée that we really could move inhumanly fast.

"You're really taking all of this much better than we anticipated," observed Edward. "You don't seem frightened at all."

"Thanks," said Renée. "It's not frightening - it's just really amazing! Is there anything else I should know that you haven't told me yet? I don't even know what to ask. What else can you do?"

"There is one thing you'd probably want to know that you're not likely to notice on your own," Edward said. "Nessie isn't the only one with a unique ability. I have a special skill as well."

I was surprised that he had brought up this topic. I felt a little alarmed at the thought of her learning about it, but I knew it was probably for the best.

"Really? What is it?" Renée asked, obviously very curious.

"I can hear thoughts," he told her.

I hadn't quite expected him to just put it out there like that.

Renée laughed. "You're joking, right? What am I thinking right now?"

"You're thinking about Renesmee and how fortunate you are to have her for a granddaughter."

"That was too easy. What am I thinking now?"

"You're thinking of inviting her to visit with you in Florida during Spring Break."

"That was too easy, too," she protested. "You could have guessed that."

"Think of something only you would know," Edward suggested. "Think of something from your past that you've never even mentioned to Bella."

"Okay, got it," she said.

"You were remembering your first cat, which you named Sassy. You got him when you were two, and you felt frustrated when everyone called him 'Sassy' because you had been trying to say 'Tabby.'"

Renée's mouth had dropped open as soon as he said the word 'cat,' and her eyes grew larger and larger as he continued.

"You mean you've been listening to my thoughts this whole time?" she asked, clearly uncomfortable with the idea.

"I'm afraid so," he said. "I needed to know how you were reacting to all of this. And it's not something I have much control over – I can't completely turn it off."

"You know those dreams where you walk into the classroom, and you suddenly realize that you forgot to wear any clothes?" she said. "That's how I feel right about now."

"I'm sorry," Edward said, looking regretful. "Perhaps I shouldn't have told you. I've just made you uncomfortable."

"No, I'm glad you did," she said. "Not telling me would have been worse. It's just embarrassing - I know I have strange thoughts sometimes. You must think I'm crazy."

"On the contrary," he said. "I find your mind to be insightful and upbeat."

Renée made a sound that was somewhere between a laugh and a snort, and we all laughed. After a moment, she began to look alarmed. "What about when you were pretending to sleep in Phoenix, in Bella's hospital room? Were you listening then, too?"

"I don't recall anything that you should be embarrassed about. I read your book with you, and other than that, I didn't pay much attention except when you were thinking about Bella."

"And when I was staring at you while you pretended to sleep?" she asked, burying her head in her hands.

"Everyone stares when they first meet us," he said dismissively. "You just had more opportunity than most due to the circumstances. I wasn't listening to you the whole time. I was also sifting through the thoughts of the doctors, nurses, and lab technicians, trying to get updates on Bella. I could hear anyone in the hospital, or the buildings next to it, for that matter."

"Bella, this doesn't bother you?"she asked, turning to me. "You were always such a private person. You've known about this all along?"

"Actually, he can't hear my thoughts," I said, feeling a little guilty about my powers of privacy. "I seem to have some sort of barrier around my mind, and he can't hear through it unless I let him. I can shield you too. I didn't at first because we needed to know how you were really reacting to all of this."

"Please do that," she said.

"I'm doing it now," I told her, having extended my shield to cover both her and Nessie.

"I didn't feel anything," she said. She turned to Edward. "So you aren't hearing me anymore?"

"Nope. Perfect silence," he said happily.

"So is that weird for you?" she asked him. "Do you miss it when she blocks you?"

"Not really," he said. "It's made me realize how much I've always depended on people's thoughts to know how to respond to them. But mostly it's a relief to hear only my own thoughts for a change. Think about what you experienced when Nessie shared her memories with you, and then imagine getting that from everyone in the room at once and never being able to turn it off."

"That would be awful," she said, her brow wrinkling in sympathy. "How do you deal with it?"

"I'm used to it," he said with a slight shrug. "It's always been that way for me. I usually try to tune out the noise as best as I can, but there are times when it's useful. For instance, I'm able to alert my family if humans become suspicious of us or when they begin to notice that we aren't aging. And it was useful today with Seth's surgery. I was in charge of monitoring his anesthesia because I can tell exactly how he's responding to it."

"And why was it that Seth couldn't go to a regular hospital?" she asked. "Are the Quileutes from another planet too?"

"The Quileutes are human," I told her, "but some of them, like Seth and Jake, have some genetic differences that they don't want everyone to know about, so they go to Carlisle when they need medical care."

"Their physiology is different enough that we can't go by normal human dosage for anesthesia or other medications," Edward added. "Even if they weren't worried about being discovered, it could be dangerous for them to go to a regular doctor, because the normal rules don't always apply to them."

That seemed to satisfy her curiosity about the Quileutes, and she seemed comfortable again once I had assured her she was shielded. I would have to unshield her occasionally so that Edward could monitor her reactions, but I decided it shouldn't hurt to give her some privacy for most of what remained of this visit.

"What does Charlie know about all of this?" she asked suddenly. "Does he still think you're government agents? Does he know he has a granddaughter?"

"He knows the truth," I admitted. "He kind of figured it out on his own because Jake invited him over when Nessie was a newborn. We tried to pass her off as Edward's niece, but it didn't work. Her eyes made it pretty obvious. And he had learned some of the Quileutes' secrets because of his friendship with Jake, Billy, and Sue. So he's known all along that Renesmee was our daughter, and he's known that there was something very odd going on, but he didn't want to know the details until just recently. He only learned that we aren't human a few months ago, right before we left for college, and that was only because Billy had let it slip accidentally."

Renée bit her lip, and I could tell she was trying not to cry. I didn't need to be a mind reader to know that she was thinking about how unfair it was that Charlie had gotten to see Renesmee grow up, while we had kept Nessie's existence a secret from her all those years.

"I'm sorry, Mom," I said, moving to sit next to her and pulling her close. "We just wanted to keep you safe. Dad had some protection because of his connection to the Quileutes, but you would have been in real danger."

"I know," she said. "I understand that. I do. It still hurts, but I can see why you didn't invite me over as soon as she was born and say, 'Here's your granddaughter. She's not human, and neither are we. You need to watch out for assassins now.'" She gave a little chuckle. "I just feel like I need to make up for so much lost time, and I have to go home tomorrow."

She soon went back to talking to Renesmee – she still had a lot more questions for her. She wanted to hear about everything she had missed, and Renesmee was more than happy to share everything with her, both verbally and otherwise. They ended up staying awake most of the night talking, both of them eventually falling asleep sitting up.

I scooped up Renesmee to carry her upstairs to her own bed, and she threw her arm around me the way she used to when I would carry her to bed when she was little. I felt a twinge of sadness that those days had passed so quickly, but I had a perfect memory of every one of them, and she had grown into such a beautiful young lady. I stood there watching her for just a moment after laying her on her bed. She shifted restlessly and threw her arm across the left side of the bed. She was missing Jake, somehow realizing even in her sleep that he was not there next to her.

"Do you think Renée would be more comfortable in a bed too?" Edward asked as I returned to the family room. "I wasn't sure if I should move her."

"She's always been a light sleeper," I said. "I'm afraid she'd wake up. We're going to have to wake her up in three hours if she's going to make it to the airport on time, so I'm thinking we shouldn't disturb her so she can get as much sleep as possible."

Just then, Renée groaned, and then she mumbled, "…don't have enough beds…"

"What's she dreaming?" I asked.

"You still have her shielded," Edward said with a grin. "That's also why I was having trouble deciding if she was sleeping deeply enough for us to move her."

"Oh! I forgot," I said, letting my shield return to normal. It seemed to be getting easier and easier for me to keep it in place without devoting a great deal of concentration.

"She's dreaming there are flying saucers releasing hordes of grandchildren into her back yard," he said. "She's worried about where they'll sleep and who will feed them all."

"I wonder how many nightmares she'll have because of what we've told her," I said.

"I'm not sure I'd call it a nightmare," he said, lowering his voice even more after Renée mumbled something unintelligible. "It's just a strange dream. I think she was being honest when she told us that she didn't find any of this scary – just fascinating."

"It must be interesting to watch people's dreams," I said.

"Not really," he said. "Most are disjointed and don't make much sense. But I would have loved to have seen the dreams you had when you were human. You said my name at least once every night, and I spent many nights imagining what you might have been dreaming about me."

"I don't think you would have liked them very much," I said. "At least not at the time."

"It's not fair," he complained in a teasing voice. "You're finally able to let me hear your thoughts, and now you can't sleep anymore!"

'I could try to recall some of them for you,' I thought, moving my shield away. 'I may not remember a lot of detail, but I'm sure I could fill it in.'

"Not now!" he said, trying to give me an exasperated look even though he was smiling in spite of himself. "My control does have its limits. Your mother is in here!"

'I'll try to behave myself,' I thought as I sat down next to him. "It sure feels good to be home, doesn't it?" I added aloud, forcing my thoughts to another subject.

"Most definitely," he answered.

"I didn't think we would be coming back," I confessed. "I think I'm still sort of in shock that we fought that battle and won."

I was immediately hit with a pang of guilt as I remembered the two who didn't come back. My own family somehow made it through the battle unscathed, but two of our friends had made the ultimate sacrifice. My heart went out to Claire as I thought of how devastated she would be when she learned of Quil's death. Sue would be delivering the news when she returned home.

"Claire will be lost without Quil at first," Edward said, responding to my thoughts. "But she's human, and still a child; human children are remarkably resilient. It won't be easy, but I'm sure she'll get through this."

"Human children are capable of some pretty strong feelings," I reminded him. "I guess it would be even worse for her if this had happened when she was older and they had developed a romantic relationship, but she had a pretty strong attachment to him already. You know how inseparable they were, just like Nessie and Jake."

"Leaving Claire behind was his only regret," Edward said. "And it wasn't a selfish concern of not getting to see her grow up and become his wife, but a pure concern for her well-being and safety. That part of the imprinting process still amazes me, even after what I've seen with Jake."

"Quil was one of the ones I met before they started phasing. He and Embry were Jake's best friends even before they all joined the pack. This is going to be really hard for Jake, too."

"Yes, it's hitting him pretty hard," Edward said. "But the tribe considers Quil to be the ultimate hero. He'll go down in their legends as the one who ventured into the heart of enemy territory and killed four of the enemy after being mortally wounded. And Quil considered that he died fulfilling his purpose in life, and the other wolves see it that way too. For his people, there is no death more honorable than that."

I hoped that the honor in his death would somehow be of more comfort to Claire and to Quil's mother than it was to me.

My thoughts turned suddenly to Launhe. I never knew her very well, and I felt guilty that I didn't feel the same sense of loss for her death that I did for Quil's. But still, I hated that she had died fighting our battle. Had we taken advantage of the dislike we knew she and her sisters had for the Volturi when we asked them to accompany us to Volterra?

"It wasn't just our battle," Edward said, responding to my thoughts again. "Launhe and her sisters had been waiting for an opportunity like this. Personally, I think their father deserved his death sentence, but they were fiercely loyal to him in spite of what he had done to their mothers. They were all very eager to go with us, and they were fully aware of the risks. If they hadn't gone with us, they might have launched their own attack eventually. Or Aro's curiosity could have led to their abduction so that he could study them."

"I always worried that Aro might take Renesmee for that reason," I said.

"That thought did cross Aro's mind when he was considering how to respond to us at the confrontation ten years ago," Edward admitted. "It was just a fleeting thought, a plan he considered too risky, so I never mentioned it. But there would have been less risk for him to try it with Nahuel's sisters, since they lived in such a remote area and didn't have us close by to protect them. Launhe's death is regrettable, but you are not to blame for it, and we don't know that she would have continued to be safe if we hadn't asked them to meet us there."

I knew Edward was right. While even two casualties seemed like too many, we didn't know what might have happened differently if we hadn't taken our friends with us to Volterra. If we had avoided the fight, Caius might have sent the guard after us or the others, catching us by surprise and resulting in even more deaths. And if we hadn't taken our friends with us, we would have faced impossible odds. Without Eli, Marcus probably wouldn't have destroyed Aro for us, and without Jesse, we couldn't have gotten through Renata's shield. Without Quil and Launhe and the others helping eliminate and distract our opponents, we might have lost the battle. And if we had lost and the hybrid sisters had survived by staying at home, there was a still high probability that the Volturi would have pursued them eventually.

"You're right," I said aloud. "Things could have turned out a lot worse."

Edward's phone rang just then, and he answered it quickly enough that Renée never stirred at the noise. It was Jake, calling us rather than Renesmee since he knew she'd likely still be asleep. He was dropping Charlie and Sue off at the airport – their flight was leaving a few hours earlier than Renée's – and he planned to spend the rest of the day at the Cullens' with Seth before returning home. He would be bringing Seth to stay with us for a few days, until his leg was fully healed. Carlisle wanted to examine it again before he tried phasing, so it would be simpler for him to stay here for a few days rather than flying back shortly after getting home to La Push.

Edward then spoke to Carlisle for a few minutes. I could hear the excitement and fascination in Carlisle's voice as he discussed the details of the surgery and the knowledge they had gained on both wolf and vampire/human hybrid physiology over the last few days. It occurred to me that Edward was the only one he could truly share this with. Rosalie was not really interested despite her medical training, which she had done purely to please Carlisle, and none of the rest of us would have fully understood what he was talking about.

"Now where were we?" Edward asked as he finally put the phone back in his pocket.

"I believe we were trying to distract ourselves from each other," I said, marveling at how I found him even more physically alluring than normal – something I hadn't thought possible – due to having had no time alone with him for several days in a row.

"Yes. So we were," he said. My thoughts must have been affecting him, because he ran his thumb across my lower lip and then leaned in to kiss me.

"Renée," I reminded him, breaking away from the kiss after a few seconds. I allowed my shield to retract back to its normal position, realizing that I had been distracting him with my thoughts.

"I know," he said with a sigh. Then his eyes brightened with a bit of hope. "We could go out into the woods."

As tempting as that was, I worried that Renée would awaken while we were gone, or that we would lose track of time and cause her to miss her flight.

"Let's just talk some more," I suggested. "We'll have the house to ourselves in a couple of hours, and then I won't be worrying about Renée waking up too soon or oversleeping."

"Okay," he agreed. "What do you want to talk about?"

I thought for a moment, and then a question I'd had earlier occurred to me. "Why didn't the Romanians fight back when Cora and the others attacked them? Did they want us to kill them?"

"They truly didn't care," he said. "Their mates died long ago in the battle with the Volturi , and they had been focused on getting revenge for the last several centuries. Now that their enemies are destroyed, they don't really have much left to live for, no goals left to achieve. They weren't trying to provoke us, but they didn't care if they upset us. So they weren't seeking death, but as you saw, they weren't going to fight against it either."

"Did you hear anything about their failed plans that they didn't say out loud?" I asked. "I wonder how they knew to show up in Volterra right after the battle."

"I did hear quite a bit more in their thoughts," he said. "Nicholai was an original member of their coven, but he had erased himself from the memories of the guard members who knew of him, so Aro – and the rest of the world - thought that only Vladimir and Stefan had survived. The three of them had been spying on the Volturi for centuries. At first they used Nicholai's gift as a defense against anyone who noticed them near Volterra, but after they lost him, they had to be more careful. The tunnels that Cora, Fernando, and Jesse remembered were the ones the Romanians had used in their spying activities. If Demetri had decided to 'look' for them while they were in Volterra, they would have been in trouble."

"And you didn't hear anything in their thoughts about any of this when they visited us at Forks?" I asked.

"No. To be honest, I wasn't paying them a great deal of attention then. What I did hear was nothing unusual or unexpected. They were just hopeful of seeing the Volturi defeated, whatever the circumstances might be."

"So they were spying on the Volturi while Carlisle was living with them?"

"Yes, they were. I heard them remembering when Carlisle parted ways with the Volturi, and they had realized that he was in a unique position to be able to challenge them eventually. Carlisle had gained the Volturi's trust and respect, but his concern for human lives had prevented him from becoming one of them. The Romanians observed that the Volturi's attempts to 'cure' him actually left him at odds with them, and yet the Volturi still trusted him."

"It's amazing that they had such an elaborate plan for so many centuries - and that it almost worked," I said. "It still makes me angry to think how they tried to manipulate Carlisle."

"Carlisle doesn't see it that way, you know," he said. "They may have created Alice, but they never caused any of us to do anything that was against our own will. And none of us regret that Alice has become part of our family, and she doesn't regret it either. She feels like it was all meant to be, and Carlisle feels much the same."

"Thank you for holding me back when I almost helped attack them," I said. "It just made so angry when I thought about what they did to Alice and how they could have messed up our lives. I don't know how you had so much control."

"I didn't - not really," Edward admitted. "I was angry too, but I could hear Carlisle's thoughts begging me – and trusting me - to help him hold everyone back. He was worried about what the rest of our world would think if they heard that the Cullens had destroyed the Volturi and the Romanians in the same day. And he was sickened by the number of deaths that had already taken place. There was a big part of me that wanted to ignore him, and for a split second, I almost did, but then I saw you ready to attack, and I just couldn't let you do it."

"Why not?" I asked, confused.

"Bella, you've never killed anyone," he said. "You don't know what it's like to have that on your conscience. Please don't be angry. I know it probably seems like I was being controlling again, but I wanted to spare you that one thing if I could."

I wasn't quite sure how I felt about that. I knew he meant well, but he was being controlling.

"You did just thank me for stopping you," he reminded me gently. "Why did you thank me?"

"Because I can see in hindsight that Carlisle was right," I said. "Killing them wouldn't have accomplished anything, and it could have caused us new problems down the road."

"And?" he prompted.

"And it would have been wrong," I admitted, thinking that it felt like he was reading my mind even though I was still shielded. "I guess there wasn't much time for you to reason with me, huh?"

"No, there wasn't," he said.

"Edward, I can't promise you I'll never kill anyone," I told him. "You may not always be there to stop me, and there may be times when I don't want you to stop me. Will you be okay with that? Would you think less of me if that happened?"

"We never know what will happen in the future," he said. "There may be a time when it's necessary. And if that time comes, I will be behind you one hundred percent. And regardless, I would never think less of you. But until that time comes, I hope you won't hold it against me if I do my best to spare you the knowledge of what it feels like to be a murderer. Aside from Marcus, the times I've killed fellow immortals were all in defense of myself and my family, but I still carry with me the knowledge that I've destroyed sentient beings. Even when it's necessary and justified, it's just not a good feeling."

"You know I don't think less of you, don't you?" I asked, moving my shield aside as I looked into his eyes for any sign that he might doubt me. "The fact that you dislike the feeling you get when you've killed someone – even someone like Victoria who was trying to kill us or others - proves that you're nothing like them."

"I do know that," he said. "And hearing the conviction in your thoughts as you said it means a lot to me. So – do you forgive me?"

"Nothing to forgive," I said. "I'm not upset. I promise."

He smiled, hearing the sincerity behind my words.

"So what else do you want to talk about?" he asked.

I moved my shield back into place and focused on thinking of some additional topics.

We managed to fill the next couple of hours with conversation, and finally it was time to wake up Renée and Renesmee.

Renée nearly had a panic attack when she realized how little time she had before her flight was scheduled to leave, but Nessie assured her they'd make it on time.

"Just don't tell Grandpa Charlie how fast I drive," she had told her.

Renée had laughed at this. She had never been one to worry much about speed limits, but I was certain she had never exceeded them as much as she was about to. But based on her reactions so far, Edward and I had decided that she would be okay with it and would probably even find it exciting, so we had let them sleep as long as possible.

They rushed around for a few minutes getting ready and then left for the airport in the Vanquish.

It felt unnaturally quiet in the house once they had driven away. Edward and I were truly alone for the first time in several days.

It had been torture to keep our hands off each other on the flight home from Italy. We had tried to content ourselves with holding hands or leaning on each other's shoulders while pretending to sleep. We had taken the first available flight home, and it was packed with humans who seemed determined to stare at our inhumanly beautiful family, so we'd had to behave ourselves.

When Renée had shown up unexpectedly, I had been distracted with my worries of what we were going to tell her and how she might react, but when she had started her late night "slumber party" with Renesmee, I had found myself focusing once again on the perfection of Edward's face, the masculine curvature of his jaw line, and the way his arm muscles flexed as he shifted in his seat to avoid appearing inhumanly still. Once, while Renée and Renesmee were deep in their own conversation, I had even moved my shield aside, showing Edward how I wanted to be in his arms, how I longed to kiss every perfect feature of his face, how much I was looking forward to being alone with him. He had hissed under his breath; Renée hadn't noticed, but Nessie had shot us an annoyed glance.

We had managed to control ourselves while the two of them slept, but now that they were gone, control was the furthest thing from my mind.

So when he turned around after closing the door, I immediately captured his mouth. He picked me up, one arm behind my knees and the other around my back, and carried me over to the couch without breaking our kiss.

Then I shrieked in surprise when he unceremoniously dropped me there. There was a loud crack as some unseen part of the couch gave way, and we both laughed as he stepped back to assess the damage. After all, Nessie wouldn't be gone long.

"Not noticeable," he murmured, kissing me again.

He straddled me on the couch and smiled down at me. I reached up and moved his hair out of his eyes and tried to pull him closer, but he held back, playfully peppering my face with kisses as he hovered over me, not allowing me to reciprocate. He was teasing me, and I would pay him back later.

I loved seeing him in such a good mood – it reminded me of our time in Chicago, before we had learned of Renesmee's first communication from Aro.

So for a few moments, I played along. Then, when I couldn't stand it any longer, I moved my shield aside and imagined what I really wanted him to do. He immediately complied, crushing his body to mine and once again kissing me without restraint, and we spent the next several hours there on the couch.

Too soon, it was time for Renesmee be getting home. We inspected the damage to the furniture more closely and replaced a wooden support, then sat snuggled next to each other while we waited for our daughter's return.

"Happy New Year," Edward said with a grin.

I looked up at him, surprised, and realized that although I was aware it was Sunday, I really hadn't been paying attention to the calendar for the last several days. Of course. Today was the first day of January. "We didn't even watch the ball drop," I said. "Did Renée wonder why we didn't mention it?"

"No, she was too distracted," he said with a chuckle. "It hadn't occurred to me either until I heard it in Nessie's thoughts, but she decided not to say anything because she was more interested in what she and Renée were talking about."

"So our classes start back tomorrow," I said. Somewhere in the back of my mind I had known this, but I had been too preoccupied with everything else that was going on to give it any consideration.

"Are you ready to go back?" he asked.

It was a good question. We had probably just set a new world's record for the most eventful winter break ever. In the past three weeks, I had been to Biloxi, Denali, Forks, Jacksonville, St. Augustine, Egypt, and Italy. Oh yeah, and we had toppled a government that had been in place for about two millennia. Was I ready to go sit in a classroom? The idea was strangely appealing and comforting, in a familiar sort of way. A return to normalcy would be welcomed.

"Yes, I think I am," I said. "How about you?"

"Yes, it will be good to get back to normal," he said. "And some of my classes this semester should have some new material, so that will be good."

"At least you won't have to teach that lab again," I said.

"Actually, I told them I'd do it again if they couldn't find anyone else," he said sheepishly.

"And they haven't found anyone else?" I asked.

He shook his head. "I got an email yesterday confirming that they need me again."

"I thought you hated it," I said, confused as to why he would have volunteered again.

"The first few weeks were rather unpleasant," he said. "But I think I enjoyed the challenge of getting them to pay attention to their work, and by the end of the quarter I could see that they had made a lot of progress. At least it was something different. When I talked to Eli about it, he seemed to think it sounded like fun, and he gave me some ideas that I may want to try next time."

"What will we tell people about Eli?" I asked, suddenly realizing that he would be missed this quarter. "People will definitely notice when he doesn't return after the break, and a lot of students know that you and he were good friends."

"It's probably best to give them some version of the truth," he said. "We could tell them that he got married and moved away, or that he received a job opportunity in Europe that he couldn't pass up."

"Let's go with the job opportunity," I suggested. "I know a lot of girls who would be devastated to learn he got married."

"Job opportunity it is," he agreed.

"This means I'll have to find a new partner in chemistry lab, too," I said. "I'll have to be a lot more careful in lab this quarter since I'll be paired with a human this time."

"You'll do fine, love. I have complete confidence in you," he said.

"I wonder how Chloe's doing," I said. "You haven't heard anything else about her mom?"

"No, I haven't heard anything. But I wouldn't be surprised if Chloe has decided to stay with her mother. She had considered not coming back after Thanksgiving, but her mother urged her to finish out the semester."

"Does Nessie know about that?" I asked.

"No, I hadn't mentioned anything. I didn't want to upset her even more when we really don't know what will happen," he said.

"That's probably best," I agreed, looking at the clock and wondering when our daughter would be home. It would be nice to have a day with just the three of us. I wondered if Jake had sensed that she needed some time with her parents after what we'd just been through, or if he was really just waiting for Seth to be ready to travel. I decided it was probably a combination of both.

"Bella, there's one more thing I wanted to tell you before Nessie gets home," Edward said. "I was going to tell you earlier, but our conversation somehow went in a different direction. It's about the Romanians – there's a bit more that they didn't tell us out loud. It was the part that almost made me lose control."

"What was it?" I asked, wondering what could be worse than what I had already heard them say.

"I haven't told Carlisle yet, and I'm not sure that I will," he said. "I'm only telling you because of my promise not to hide things from you. It seems that Alice was not their only successful addition to Carlisle's coven."

"What?" That would mean that Rosalie or Emmett… Or Edward… Suddenly, I recalled the photograph in the newspaper clipping. "You mean - ?"

"Yes, the photograph. Apparently Nicholai was the one who told my mother that Carlisle had the power to save me. Without their involvement, I would have died a normal human death."

"But then we wouldn't be together!" I exclaimed. I couldn't think of anything more terrible. Despite myself, I actually began to feel somewhat grateful to the Romanians.

"That is true," Edward conceded. "And I'm glad Carlisle changed me, though I didn't used to be. I guess I just don't like thinking I owe my happiness to the Romanians."

"It was still Carlisle's decision," I pointed out. "And maybe your mother had more knowledge about Carlisle's abilities than we realized, but this is what she wanted for you. And from what Carlisle's told me, he was considering changing you even before she pleaded with him."

"Yes, he's told me that before as well, but I don't think he would have without her asking the way she did."

"But she would have wanted him to, even if she didn't know to ask," I suggested.

Edward smiled. "Yes, if she could have known I'd end up this happy, she probably would have."

"I think you should consider telling Carlisle," I said. "It seemed to me like he worried that your mother didn't realize what she was asking him to do – that he used her request as an excuse for what he wanted to do anyway, but it sounds like she may have known more than he suspected."

"Possibly," he said. "I hadn't thought of it that way. I'm not sure exactly how much Nicholai exposed of his true nature, but I didn't have the impression that they told my mother that Carlisle was a vampire."

"Maybe not," I said. "But it still sounds like she knew more than we thought."

"I am glad I finally told you," he said. "I'm feeling better about it myself now. And I'm reminded of what your mother was saying when we were at that pizza place in St. Augustine."

"What was that?" I asked.

"She was thinking about how everything in our lives has led us to the point where we are now," he said. "And even though she was thinking specifically about the time we were separated, it really applies to everything. Whatever I've done in the past, and whatever has happened to me in the past, whether it was bad or good, has contributed to bringing me where I am now. And I love where I am right now."

"I love where you are right now, too," I said, climbing into his lap and kissing him once more.

We heard Nessie's car pull up a few minutes later, and I went to the door to greet our daughter.

"Did you make it there on time?" I asked.

"Yeah. She never asked me to slow down once," she said. "Before we left, I showed her how driving at that speed looks to me, so she was fine with it. We actually got there a few minutes early."

Edward was now sitting in the middle of the couch, leaning back with his hands behind his head and his feet propped up on the table. The smile on his face was infectious, and I found myself smiling back at him as I wondered what, in particular, had triggered that amazing smile.

"What?" I asked, sitting down next to him as Renesmee sat down on his other side.

"I'm just happy," he said, wrapping his arms around us. "I truly have everything I could ever want, and for the first time, no one is trying to take it away from me."

Renesmee reached her free hand around to rest it against my face, and what she showed me was not the detailed imagery she usually shared, but just a sense of pure contentment and love.

However, I was certain that I was happier than either of them. I focused my thoughts on the immense joy I felt in being with my perfect family, emptying my mind of words and imagery as my daughter had done, and moved my shield aside.

Edward tilted his head my direction and I could feel his warm breath against my hair. His nose grazed my ear and his smooth lips planted the gentlest of kisses on my cheek.

"Can we just sit here like this for a while?" Nessie asked.

"As long as you want, sweetheart," Edward said. "We have forever."

~~ The End ~~


A/N: [Update Jan 2, 2015]: I have *finally* finished writing the epilogue I promised my readers over two years ago. It is sort of a two-part epilogue, or an epilogue with its own outtake. It will give glimpses of the Cullens ten years after High Noon on two separate special occasions - Nessie's 20th birthday party and the Forks High 20 year reunion. I am sending these today to be beta'ed and expect to be able to post them in the next week or two. I also have been working on the Felix outtake over the last few days and should have it posted in the near future as well. In the meantime, I'd love to hear what you thought of High Noon. :) I still reply to all reviewers (if you are signed in with your username when you review such that I have an option to reply) though I may not always be able to do it quickly. I try to get to them within a week but I have been known to get very, very behind at times.

Original A/N from when I posted this chapter in Oct. 2012:

I have an excessively long author's note to go along with my excessively long chapter. ;)

*** First, it would totally make my day if you could leave a review and let me know what you thought of the conclusion to the story, or the story as a whole. If you had a favorite chapter, favorite scene, or favorite line, I'd love to know. I hope this last chapter lived up to your expectations for the conclusion, but I'd love to hear your thoughts either way. And if anything from the story seems unresolved or missing, please let me know that as well and maybe I can address it in the epilogue.

Upcoming posts:

EPILOGUE: I still plan to write an epilogue which I *hope* to complete by the end of the year or shortly thereafter. It will be set an additional 10 years in the future (2026). Currently, I only have specific plans in mind for about four characters, and the others are still undecided. So if you have something you envision a particular character doing ten years later, or something you think should be changing for that character within the next ten years, feel free to PM me your ideas, and who knows, it may make it into the epilogue.

OUTTAKE: I am also still planning to post an outtake showing Felix's point of view for the events of chapter 35. This will be posted sometime after the epilogue. I started writing it while trying to get inside Felix's head to understand how and why he was able to switch sides, and I discovered that he saw and heard a few things that Bella wasn't aware of.

NEW STORY: I had another outtake started regarding Seth's imprint, but has developed into its own story which will be a spinoff of this one. It will be much shorter than High Noon, and I plan to have the whole story written before I start posting, so there should not be any long delays between chapters for that story. At the moment, it's about 95% written, but I also still have a lot of revision work to do before it will be ready, and it will be posted separately after the epilogue to this story has been posted.

Story Recommendations:

I've also begun serving as beta for Kelsismom's new story, "Mission." It is AU but with many canon elements, and it has some pretty creative ideas I've never seen done in a Twilight fanfic before. I am very excited to be working with her on this, and I encourage you to check it out!

One other story I'd like to rec is "Death and the Vampire" by persephonesfolly. It is a mystery written in the POV of a young, canon, vampire Edward attending high school in the 1920s, and I enjoyed it immensely. Persephonesfolly's Carlisle/Sherlock Homes crossover stories are also extremely good, and her others are on my "want to read" list.

Acknowledgements:

I want to extend a huge thank you to my beta, Javamomma0921. I had no clue how much I needed a beta until she began helping me around chapter 24. She has done so much more than just educating me on comma usage and catching my typos. She actually helped me work out some parts of the plot, and this story definitely would not be what it is without her help. It probably wouldn't ever have been finished, because I can't imagine having accomplished this without her. I've been working on this story for over three years, and she has been with me for about two and a half of those. She continued helping me even after she had, for the most part, moved on from fanfic to focus on her own original writing, and I am extremely grateful for all of her advice, suggestions, and support. Thank you, Jen!

I also want to mention that a few descriptions and references in my story were inspired by "Dark Side of the Moon" by Blondie AKA Robin, which is an EPOV New Moon story. It has been around for a while and seems to be pretty well-known, so many of you have probably read it, but if not, I highly recommend it. It was among the first fanfics I read, and it has become almost equal to canon in my mind, especially the scene in the throne room. To the best of my knowledge, I haven't actually "borrowed" any parts from that story, but I loved the way she described how Edward perceives others' talents, particularly how it looked to Edward when he saw Chelsea's bonds through Marcus's eyes - that is essentially what I was envisioning in my mind when I wrote Edward's description to Felix in this chapter (though I didn't attempt to describe the visual appearance, and I added the part about natural bonds looking different from Chelsea's), and it also kind of inspired my descriptions of other talents like Eli's (the colorful memory index) and Jesse's (the talent halo). And in my chapter 35, where Aro says, "All that I offered you before - and more - will be yours," that was a reference back to the offer Aro made Edward in "Dark Side of the Moon." That offer also contributed to my idea of Aro playing museum director, though some of the things SM said about Aro being "freakishly curious" and "keeping the histories" (on the twilightlexicon site) also contributed to that idea.

Thanks also to all of my readers and reviewers! Knowing people were still interested and waiting for the next chapter was a huge part of my motivation to finish this project. Some of you have helped shape the story by your comments. Renée's presence in this chapter (36) came about entirely due to a suggestion from a reviewer (Thais da Silva), and the idea to tie Nicholai back to Edward's mother was sparked by someone who suggested putting a newspaper article in the box of pictures/keepsakes that Edward found in his Chicago home. The email from Mike was also due to a reader's request, and I'm sure there are other examples I can't remember at the moment. So to all of you, thank you!