(Many thanks to my wonderful betas, ElleCC and MojoPen.)
I do not own the characters, I just like to play with them.
Carlisle braced himself as the plane descended into Florence. He was not concerned about the plane's landing; he was preparing himself for emotional devastation. The call from Volterra had come while he was alone, without any prying ears to eavesdrop. He left his family behind without a word, for to bring them into this would seal their fates. His sons would not have had the control to restrain themselves, and he could not let the rest of his family be destroyed. Evading Jasper was most important. Even without Alice's visions to tell him so, he knew if Jasper ended up in front of the Volturi, all would be lost. He had to protect his remaining family. Of course he had laid plans for their escape should the worst happen, and if he was unable to make contact in the next forty-eight hours, his family would be notified and things would be set in motion to give them the best chance of survival. He had no doubts that Jasper, at least, would follow him and seek retribution, but he had faith that Rose and Esme would be able to restrain Emmett. He could not imagine what waited for him in that ancient fortress, and yet his mind obsessed over the possibilities. Carlisle had no idea if he would be welcomed by friends or destroyed by enemies. Whatever happened to him, his family must live on, and he was prepared to bargain for their lives.
The stone walls of the familiar city loomed overhead as the car pulled up to the grand entrance of their lair. The residents of Volterra had no idea of the horrors that lurked behind the stunning facade. Carlisle's nose burned from the stench of centuries' worth of death that saturated the area. He had once envisioned more of his kind following his path, hoping that by proving there was an alternative, more would stray from the mindless killing of innocent humans. Such grand delusions still lurked in the corner of his mind, but he knew that to harbor any hope of change was futile. As he passed through the doors, Carlisle remembered vividly the lengths to which his supposed brothers tried to tempt him to stray from his diet. All those lives lost because of him. While he may not have ever drunk from a human, he still felt the guilt of their blood on his hands centuries later.
Then he was there, in that stale, stone room. Three ghastly princes sat on their thrones, surrounded by their guard. He scanned the room, searching for any clues, quickly assessing escape routes as well. While he may have never lived a violent life, he was still a warrior, and he had a family to protect and return to. Aro and Caius had grown comfortable and arrogant through the centuries as they reigned, twisting the law created to protect and instead using it for control. Carlisle was aware that his family's increasing size and talents had grown to be a matter of concern for the two. Aro wished to collect them like prizes, while Caius merely wanted to destroy. Marcus, as apathetic as ever, could not care less and had grown bored with his brothers' antics over the past millennia. Aro had only to take Carlisle's hand to know he had no desire to challenge the Volturi. He only wished to live in peace with his family.
The other vampires in the room gaped at him as his footsteps echoed off the walls. The legend of the animal drinker, Stregoni benefici, stood in front of them, and he could sense their morbid curiosity...and their disdain. As if he was somehow less than, weaker than they, because he denied his nature and refused to murder.
Aro greeted him with a grim smile. "Carlisle, old friend. It has been too long."
"It has, Aro," he replied. "Caius. Marcus." Carlisle dipped his head in acknowledgment.
"And how is your family?" Aro pressed.
"They are well, though two of them recently arrived in Volterra. I had hoped to find them here?" He was careful not to make accusations, as he was unsure of Aro's intentions.
"Ah yes, Carlisle, always getting straight to the heart of the matter." Aro advanced toward him. "But don't you mean three?"
Carlisle flinched at the thought of the fragile girl in their clutches. "I was not aware that the girl had come with them." The message from Alice had alluded to that fact, but he had not been sure. Why Bella would take off after Edward, after what he had done to her, should not have been a surprise. He knew the depth of their love for one another. The girl was selfless and would willingly trade her own life for the lives of those she loved. Had she not proved this in Phoenix? And now Volterra. Had she saved him?
"Yes, indeed. Young Alice and Edward both fought valiantly to protect her, but I must confess that I am disappointed, Carlisle. You knew of your child's obsession with the human girl, and yet, left her behind with the knowledge of our secrets." The ancient vampire sucked his teeth in dissatisfaction.
"Your coven has become too comfortable, Carlisle." Caius rippled with righteous indignation. "You are endangering our kind by continuing with this ridiculous human charade. The law claims them all, Aro. They all knew about it." He had never pretended to have patience for Carlisle's way of life and this was his opportunity to take out what he considered a threat.
"Now, Caius, Carlisle has always conducted his affairs with the utmost discretion. His own family did not willingly tell the girl our secrets. She figured it out on her own, with a little help from a local legend." Aro cocked an eyebrow in amusement. The werewolves intrigued him. He had been surprised to hear of the treaty the Cullens made with the tribe, though Edward's thoughts had showed no indication there were currently any wolves in the area. Aro would have liked to travel to the area in person to study them. Perhaps another time.
"She never would have had cause to figure it out if they had not been putting themselves in such close contact with humans. What happens next time? Will you excuse their disregard for our laws again?" Caius seethed.
"I am sure there will not be a next time. Will there, Carlisle?" Aro fixed his gaze on the unnaturally calm vampire. He realized that without the coven's two most gifted vampires, there was no longer a reason to view them as a threat. Caius should have been pleased, but Aro knew he'd never be satisfied until they were all destroyed. The animal drinkers were simply an aberration, in his opinion.
"Of course not. We did not know the girl would figure it out, but she has never spoken a word to anyone about it. She hoped to join our family eventually, much like the humans you keep here." Carlisle was growing weary of dancing around the issue. Aro enjoyed playing his games, and he would have to be a willing participant in order to remain in his good graces.
"And I trust you. Your judgment has always been well respected. Bella is quite fascinating. Il suo cantante! Edward put your control to shame, Carlisle! Had I not smelled her through his memories, I would not have believed the call of anyone's blood could have been so strong. Not only to have resisted the call of her blood, but to have sucked another vampire's venom from her blood. How did he manage to stop after tasting such sweet ambrosia?" He continued to muse as he paced the floor in front of the triad of thrones, gesticulating theatrically. "The girl is remarkable for a human. In addition to being the one exception to Edward's gift, it seems that she is also immune to many of our gifts. Jane was quite frustrated when she could not control the girl. And I..."―he paused dramatically before turning on his heel to face Carlisle―"I have never met a vampire or human that was not subject to my own talent. For her gift to be so strong as a human...can you imagine what she would be like as one of us? Yet your family refused to turn her." His excitement and disbelief at the situation were evident, but a darker intent lurked deeper. Aro wanted Bella.
Carlisle cleared his throat, well aware of his role in breaking the most sacred of their laws. "We felt it was up to Edward since she was his mate. He forbade anyone else from changing her. I would have willingly done this, and only refrained because we believed he would eventually change her himself."
"So you are willing to change the girl?"
Relief and hope swept through Carlisle as Aro implied that Bella was still alive. "Yes."
Aro nodded and held up his hand as Caius began to object. "Felix!" he called out. Carlisle heard the unmistakable rhythm of Bella's heartbeat nearing the doors on the left. The shuffling of her footsteps was out of place in this fortress of vampires. The doors exploded open and the sound echoed off the stone walls. Bella, so small and fragile, appeared in front of the towering vampire. Her hair hung limply, sticking to her face and neck. Black and purple bruises blossomed on her pale arms as she shivered. He quickly assessed her vitals and found her to be in better shape than he expected. She stared at the floor, uncaring as to what her fate may be and he was unable to see her face. Though Bella's demeanor made him fear the worst, Carlisle continued to hold on to a thin thread of hope that his children were still alive. He could only guess as to why they spared her life, but knew it would come with a price. As soon as Felix let go of her arms, she collapsed to the ground and Carlisle could barely stop himself from going to her. He refused to show any weakness in front of these monsters.
"A few members of my guard were a little too overzealous in performing their duties." Aro's eyes flicked over to Felix, who cast his eyes downward, but not before a gleeful smile made its appearance. "Such a waste." Aro shook his head disapprovingly as he clucked his tongue. "I had given explicit instructions for Edward to be brought back here alive, much to his own dismay. I must say, Carlisle, I've never had such a request from a vampire before. Are you sure this animal diet is healthy?" He waved his hand dismissively before continuing. "Edward and Alice put up quite the fight to protect this human. Unfortunately, my guardsmen felt they had no choice but to destroy them in order to protect our life here in Volterra. You have my deepest condolences. I know the boy was your first companion and they were both so gifted...what a shame."
Carlisle's fists clenched and his teeth ground together at Aro's admission. He willed his knees not to give out in his sorrow. The realization crashed through every fiber of his being, his still heart ripping and shredding at the knowledge that his two children had been destroyed, and mostly for sport. He struggled to regain his composure and focus on getting Bella out of here alive.
Aro crossed over to Bella and rested his hand on her head, obviously still frustrated her mind was impervious to him. He glanced over his shoulder at the minute vampire who glared murderously at Bella's crumpled form. "Thankfully, Jane arrived before they could harm the girl and knew she would be of interest to me. Considering your loss, I feel it is only right to release Bella to you. On one condition. You must change her. She will be your responsibility."
Carlisle waited for Aro to continue and when he did not, he looked at the vampire questioningly. Aro let out a papery laugh at Carlisle's confusion.
"I assure you that is all. It was a misunderstanding. We inadvertently destroyed two very talented members of your coven. In restitution, we offer you this human, who promises to be quite gifted as one of us. I know your family already harbors strong ties to the girl, and I anticipate that her addition to your coven would be welcome."
"Of course, Aro. Thank you for your consideration. We will take Bella into our care. She will be changed. You have my word." The words spilled from Carlisle's lips automatically. He hated how easily Aro trivialized his losses. It was all he could do to contain his rage, so he kept his eyes focused on Bella. He had to control himself for her. Edward and Alice died to protect her, and he would not let their deaths be in vain.
"You must know I would never have destroyed the boy willingly. Even though he tried to force my hand, the girl stopped him from exposing himself. I will deal with my own for this transgression, though I know it will never assuage your loss. Take the girl and go back to your family. We will see each other again soon. I would so like to meet the rest of your family, and of course I cannot wait to see how our dear Bella takes to immortality. Be well."
"Carlisle, I suggest you take care of the matter quickly. Should we meet again and the girl is still human, we may reconsider," Caius said.
Aro dismissed his old friend, and took his leave, along with his brothers, their black capes billowing behind them as they departed. Carlisle did not miss the scowl of discontent on Caius' face. The rest of the vampires slowly trickled out of the room, leaving him alone with Bella. He strode quickly across the stone floor and took her into his arms. She was too light, had lost too much weight. Bella's eyes widened slightly in recognition before she let her body relax into his arms. Her eyes were red and swollen. Dark purplish bruises marred the skin under them. She was well enough to make it to Florence, where he would get them a room and charter a private plane. He would have to call Esme and gather the family. They would have to disappear for a while. They would grieve when everyone was together and safe.
The fresher air was welcome as Carlisle burst through the doors and headed towards the car. Blessedly, Bella was sleeping, her body finally succumbing to the extreme stress she'd been under now that she knew she was safe. As soon as they were settled in the vehicle, he turned on the heat in order to keep Bella warm. He'd come unprepared and had no supplies, clothes, or blankets for her. Once at the hotel, he would have the concierge take care of it. He kept his thoughts controlled and methodical, refusing to think about the family's loss. His objective was to get them to a safe house. There would be time to think about all of this and grieve once he'd accomplished his goal. Carlisle continued to monitor Bella's vitals; it was a welcome distraction as they sped through the Italian countryside, the view blurring outside the windows. He counted Bella's heartbeats, each one bringing her closer to her death. If Bella had to be changed, he was thankful Aro allowed his family to be the ones to do it. He shuddered to think of her life if the Volturi insisted on keeping her for themselves. Carlisle never relished the idea of ending a life, and despite the happiness she'd brought Edward and the family, he wished Bella had managed to avoid his world.
It wasn't long before they pulled up in front of the hotel. He roused Bella from her sleep and explained what was happening.
"I need you to hold it together until we get to the room, Bella. Just let me do all the talking."
She nodded absently. He exited the car and quickly made his way around to her side, where he helped her stand. Carlisle dressed her in his jacket, pulling the hood over her matted hair, and wiped a smudge of dirt from her cheek. That was the best he could do and he hoped the hotel staff would not ask too many questions. Bella could barely stand, so he held her tightly to his side as they approached the front desk. He deftly pulled out a shiny black credit card along with his passport and slid them to the clerk.
"Your best suite, please. Two nights," Carlisle requested in flawless Italian.
He noticed the woman looking over Bella with concern and leaned forward to explain the situation to her. Bella would say he dazzled her.
"We've had a death in the family and the loss has taken its toll on my niece. She will be all right with a good night's rest and time."
"Of course, Signore Benefici. Please let us know if there is anything you require." The receptionist nodded sympathetically and finished going over the details.
Carlisle smiled wryly at the alias as he took the keys and led Bella down the hall toward their suite. The name itself was a legend based on his own exploits centuries ago, during his time in Italy, and it seemed fitting, given the circumstances. He had decided that if Bella was involved, it was best to use the emergency documents he kept on hand. Should anything happen to the girl, her father would stop at nothing to uncover the truth. He could not risk Charlie discovering anything untoward about the Cullens. The Benefici name had never been used in conjunction with their family. It was untraceable. The rest of the family's documents were sitting in a safety deposit box, and he would pick them up once they returned to the states. He was glad he'd had the foresight to include an identity for Bella after the James debacle, and they were still in Jenks' possession. He would have hers overnighted to him.
Once in their suite, he left Bella on the bed and immediately called the concierge, requesting clothes, toiletries, and food. Looking back and forth between his phone and the girl on the bed, he decided to make sure Bella was comfortable before making any additional phone calls.
"Bella, are you hurt anywhere?" She shook her head slightly. He carefully peeled his jacket off her and examined the contusions on her arms. Purple handprints marred her ivory flesh, but there was no deeper trauma, no fractured bones. He gingerly ran his fingers over her scalp and found a knot, but it did not appear to be serious. His fingers ghosted over the rest of her body and found nothing concerning. With his acute senses, he could tell there was no internal bleeding. Bella was bruised, dehydrated, and dirty, but he was satisfied that she had no serious injuries. She needed a bath, and he was hesitant to give her one, but there was no one else here to assist her, and he doubted she could manage on her own right now.
He excused himself to the bathroom and began to fill the tub, making sure the water was a comfortable temperature for her. Returning to the bedroom, he found that Bella had not moved. He lowered himself to a crouch in front of her until he could look her in the eye. The emptiness of her brown eyes startled him. It was as if she was looking right through him, seeing nothing. Shock and detachment were expected after everything she had witnessed, but it still unnerved him. Her arms were wrapped around her torso as if she were trying to hold herself together. He wondered when the torrent of emotions would break through the dam, or had she already cried out all of her tears?
"Bella, you need to take a bath. Can you make it to the bathroom on your own?"
Carlisle watched as she stood on shaky legs and when she swayed, he wrapped an arm around her waist and helped her along. He settled her on the closed toilet and turned off the water, the tub now partially filled with steaming water.
"Do you need help undressing? I'm a doctor. I see bodies every day," he reminded her. She nodded as her trembling fingers reached for the hem of her shirt. Together they removed her clothing and he gently laid her in the tub, trying to ignore the bruises that had been covered by the garments. More handprints on her bottom and thighs concerned him, but the finger-shaped bruises surrounding her breasts enraged him. His extra senses told him she had not been violated, but he could not be sure of the extent of her molestation.
"Bella, who touched you?"
She flinched and shook her head, unwilling to discuss it further.
Sighing, he retrieved the hotel soap and coarse washcloth. Even five-star hotels skimped on quality, it seemed. "I'm going to wash you now," he told her as he lathered up the washcloth and gently stroked the dirt and grime from her skin. Tearing the plastic off one of the plastic cups on the counter, he rinsed her hair. The water was murky, so he drained and refilled the tub with clean water. After washing her hair, he helped her out of the tub and bundled her up in one of the complimentary robes provided by the hotel. It drowned her tiny frame, but would keep her warm.
Once he had Bella settled on the bed, he fetched a glass of water and made her drink half of it. He couldn't help but feel sorry for the girl as her hands shook so badly that the water sloshed over the sides of the cup. A knock at the door signaled the arrival of room service, and after tipping the boy generously, he brought the food to the bedroom for Bella. Satisfied that he'd done all he could at the moment, and that she was fairly comfortable, he excused himself and closed the door to the bedroom.
Now alone in the sitting room of the suite, he held the shiny, silver phone in his palm. He called Jenks first, calling off the plan he left in place, and informing him of what he needed. Then he made arrangements for a private plane to take them back to Ithaca tomorrow.
Finally, he dialed Esme's cell phone.
"Esme, I can't explain right now, but I need everyone to gather at the house in Ithaca tomorrow...Pick up clothes and food for Bella...You just have to trust me, Esme. I need everyone there before I can explain anything...I know...I love you."
Esme was hysterical. Carlisle lay his head in his hands. He hated lying to his wife, but he couldn't risk any of the family taking off until he could be there to stop them. They had to get through all of this together.
The concierge knocked on the door moments later, and Carlisle rushed to open it. He handed Carlisle the items he had requested, and Carlisle thanked the man with a generous tip. Carlisle gathered up the clothes and toiletries for Bella and made his way to the bedroom. He knocked, but didn't expect an answer. When there was no response, he entered the room to find her curled up on the bed. She was not sleeping and had not touched the food.
"Bella, there are some clothes for you here, as well as a toothbrush, hairbrush, and a few other things you might need. I really need for you to eat something though." Carlisle helped her sit up and brought the tray to the bed. He held the fresh fruit to her lips and she mechanically took a bite and choked it down. After a little coaxing, he was able to get her to feed herself enough for the time being. He would try again later.
"Do you need help getting dressed?" he asked. Bella unwrapped her arms from her legs and tried to undo the knot in the robe's belt to no avail. He gingerly untied it for her and moved away from the bed, turning his back in order to give her some privacy. She dressed slowly, the rustle of the fabric against skin giving him some idea of her progress. Carlisle turned around once she settled on the bed, dressed comfortably in soft cotton. He grasped the brush and moved behind her to help work the tangles out of her hair. Neither one spoke, both preferring to ignore the obvious and hide their grief behind carefully constructed walls. If Bella understood her predicament, she did not acknowledge it. He was loathe to push her, afraid that once she shattered, there would be no way to get her to their destination without drawing suspicion, and he had no way to sedate her at the moment.
Carlisle left her alone then, and as the sun set, he continued to make arrangements for the next day. Each time he looked in on Bella, he found her in the same position, staring vacantly at the wall. He managed to get her to eat once more, and eventually she fell asleep. It wasn't much later that he heard a low keening sound coming from the bedroom. He flew into the room to find the girl drenched in sweat and writhing in the sheets. The sounds of anguish that came from her were almost inhuman.
"No. Don't do this!"
"Kill me, too!"
Her chest heaved as her small body was racked with sobs and screams. She continued to beg for some unseen figure to end her life. Carlisle ran to her side and attempted to soothe her, but she was asleep and lost in her nightmare. He pressed his cold hands to her face and smoothed back the long tendrils of hair that were plastered to her face and neck. She began to respond to his touch and unconsciously moved closer to him. Carlisle finally wrapped his arms around her, and with one last whimper, she fell back into a more restful slumber. The nightmares resurfaced an hour later, but she calmed down quickly when he pulled her closer and crooned comforting words to her. He wished he had more to offer her. While she slept, he struggled to keep his mind occupied. He focused on verses from the Bible, and sought comfort from the familiar words, in an effort to avoid thinking about those he had lost.