A/N: this is the end of the journey, dear readers, and also the last time I have to remind you that I'm not Stephenie Meyer, I only used to look like one of her characters when I was nineteen myself (yep, the secret is out now). Okay, let's return to Volterra and see if there is hope for Vickie to be rescued, for the sake of her family, even if by now we all want to strangle her. Good reading.

Chapter 16



Felix and Demetri walked ahead of us in silence for a while, and eventually they came to a halt at the end of a long passageway. As soon as we were inside the fortress, I expanded my shield to protect all the members of my family. I should have done it earlier to spare them the sick feeling they got from standing too close to Fred, however I had been too focused on Vickie's fate to even consider that option at the time. But now all the Cullens were under my protection and Fred was not an inconvenience anymore, no matter how near he was. He was walking very close to us, even though I hadn't heard any words exchange between him and the two other guards. I couldn't tell if he followed us to witness what was to come or if it was standard procedure to escort the visitors that far inside the citadel.

Then Demetri turned to address him, "Go back to your watch, Fred. We don't need your assistance anymore and besides, you wouldn't want to disturb Aro now, would you?"

"As you wish, Demetri," Fred replied, bowing his head in submission and turning in the opposite direction.

The way Demetri ordered him was revolting, but I knew better than to make a comment. Felix looked intensely at our coven, as if he was trying to draw his own conclusions as to the reason why we were in Volterra.

"You should ask me instead of assuming that much, Felix," Edward said after many seconds passed in silence.

I wondered what he had heard in the guard's mind.

"You're right Edward, but I will allow Master Aro the honor of the inquisition. I just hope for your own good that your presence here has nothing to do with the insolent human woman who almost forced herself in the citadel earlier today," Felix replied arrogantly.

That was all it took to put Emmett in combat mode.

"Oh yeah? And what if it was the case, you dirty snake?" he growled.

"Don't provoke Felix, son," Carlisle intervened quickly. "Can't you see that's all he wants? Don't play his game."

"Felix, remember what Aro told us when Jane announced him she had seen the Cullens talking to Fred outside," Demetri went on, gazing intentionally at Felix as if he had said more than he was supposed to. "Besides, arguing with them will only make us waste time and I have missed enough of the interrogation as it is."

And with that said, he opened the massive door and again gestured for us to enter in the room. We were in a different part of the fortress than the first time I had been here; therefore I couldn't say the place looked familiar. This area of the castle looked more medieval, for lack of a better word. The chamber we were in now was spacious, although the ceiling was not more than eight feet high. There wasn't any furniture in it, except for an armchair right in the center of the room. Sitting on the chair was none other than Vickie Villeneuve, the classmate we had come to rescue at the risk of angering the Volturi. She looked very tired but she didn't seem injured. Then again, if Jane had already tortured her it wouldn't be so obvious afterwards.

Vickie was surrounded by Aro, Caius, Marcus and all their followers, but my attention went immediately to Jane because she had been invited solely for the purpose of tormenting our classmate. It was my understanding that she was normally in charge of watching after Fred from afar and reporting his behavior to her masters. Apparently the interrogation had not progressed far, for Jane appeared very impatient at the moment. But when she saw us, her expression became downright furious. I knew she couldn't hurt us, yet the look she shot me made me even more nervous. I stepped closer to Edward and searched for his hand while staring impassively at Jane so as to not give away my feelings of anxiety and dread. I still wanted to believe that Vickie was here because she didn't know better, not to get us in trouble. And that's precisely why I feared for her despite her annoying and unpleasant attitude of late.

My husband whispered in my ear, "Jane is considering the possibility of not waiting for Aro's order and making the mysterious girl suffer just to see our reaction… which obviously would clue everyone in the room about a possible link between her and our coven."

"I put Vickie under my shield when we entered in the room, Edward," I told my husband in my head as Aro approached us.

I had pulled myself out of the shield for Edward to read my mind and I quickly got back in. Learning the different ways to use my protection was something I had come to master over the last two years.

"Carlisle! What a coincidence that you decided to pay us a visit with your family just as we have a very special prisoner under our roof…" he said.

I noticed he had not qualified his relation with Carlisle nor had he called him a friend. He probably didn't want to be reminded that his friendship with Carlisle was something he had yet to regain, if it was even possible.

"Make no mistake, Aro," Caius stated then, not giving my father-in-law the chance to greet his host. "Carlisle is not here by coincidence or his lovely mate would be with him."

Aro's smile didn't disappear as I expected. Instead, it became wider as he gazed more specifically in my direction.

"Isabella, dear, you look even more ravishing than the last time we met… but I don't see your daughter. You know how much it would have pleased me to see her again, don't you?"

"Yes, Aro," I responded, a little more composed now that I realized that we were not too late to save Vickie. "But I don't think this place is suitable for an eight year old girl."

"Then maybe Edward could do me the favor of showing me what she looks like now?" he asked.

But none of us were fooled. We knew that if Edward gave Aro the opportunity to scan his memory, he would learn about our connection with Vickie as well. On the other hand, it would look strange if we were to ask Aro to set Vickie free out of the blue. Still, Edward didn't like the way this conversation was going, so he replied, "Why don't you deal with your prisoner first, Aro? We can catch up on our respective lives afterwards."

I wasn't totally sure that Edward was just being sarcastic. My apprehension came back with a vengeance. Meanwhile, Vickie was staring at the floor and was almost as still as a vampire. How long had she been motionless like this? Aro turned to glimpse at her before he continued, "Oh yes, the prisoner! I almost forgot about her, Edward. Thank you for reminding me, although honestly I'd rather not have to deal with this annoying mortal at all…"

I wondered if Aro was acting a little foolish on purpose. It was more than likely. I also considered the possibility of saving Vickie without the Volturi knowing we were the ones responsible for her presence in their fortress. Of course for my plan to work, I needed Edward's cooperation. So I exited my shield once again to communicate with him unnoticeably.

"Edward, what if we were able to set Vickie free without having to reveal we already know her? If Vickie and our family can keep their mouths shut, I think it might work."

I was back under my protection in less than a second. I felt Edward squeeze my hand to let me know he had heard me. He hissed very low to the rest of our family, "Don't talk to the Volturi unless I blink."

Rosalie furrowed her brows. "What's with you, Edward? Why are we here if you want us to shut up?"

"Trust me on that one, okay?" he replied with clenched teeth.

It went without saying that if one of the Cullens was to admit that we were in Volterra to prevent Aro and his brothers from killing or turning Vickie, they would understand that we were acquainted with her.

"Well, Aro, not that it's any of my business, but why do you keep a human as your prisoner to begin with?" Edward went on innocently. "If the girl is so annoying, why do you keep her alive?"

What Edward had just said was horrendous but it was part of the plan. In addition, I was sure he was playing the cruel vampire to come back at Vickie for the mess she had created by coming here instead of listening to his advice. Vickie couldn't know much about the Volturi and what our dispositions were toward them. Edward was visibly trying to scare her by implying he was on the same page as Aro with regard to her fate. Would she be afraid or would she realize he was just tricking the creepy vampire into telling him his intentions?

"I don't see how this young woman can be annoying, Edward," Carlisle remarked despite my husband's request not to interfere. "I haven't heard her make a sound and she actually looks more like a statue than like a human."

He wanted to play a part in this little charade, apparently.

"Well, Carlisle, that's the whole point," Aro responded. "She wanted to see me and she did say something when she was introduced here a while ago. But then she wouldn't elaborate and she's been silent and statue-like for two hours now."

"What did she tell you, Aro?" Carlisle asked, trying to look intrigued.

"She just told me that she wanted to become one of us. And the thing is I can't access her memory when I take her hand. I only see pictures of stars and far away galaxies…" Aro trailed off.

What? Vickie was able to control her mind so as to show Aro only what she wanted him to see? This was totally surreal, for it implied she knew she had to be on her guard with the ruler of our world. But how could she be aware of his supernatural powers?

"Stars and galaxies? Edward repeated, looking skeptical. "Is this a joke, Aro? Because I can read the girl's mind just fine and I can tell you that she is sick and apparently she wants to be changed because she doesn't want to die. But my opinion is that your captive is also severely deranged if she came here instead of fetching help in a mental institute…"

"Nonsense!" Caius exclaimed from the far end of the room where he was standing with Alec, Renata, Heidi and... Gianna, the girl from the reception desk who was human last time I saw her. He was seething while I, on the other hand, was almost joyful. The act Edward was putting was becoming more compelling by the seconds. His inspiration to pretend he had no problem reading Vickie's mind was brilliant, to say the least. It was a way to spare our classmate the torture that was intended for her if she didn't talk willingly, and it was also a way to prevent Jane from using her skill and finding out that Vickie was protected by my shield as well.

I noticed that Jane was fuming; in all probability she was realizing Aro wouldn't need her help if Edward was able to enlighten him by his own means.

"Jane, my dear," Aro addressed the devilish vampire, "it seems I won't need your assistance after all. Why don't you return to your sentinel duties for the time being?"

Jane exited the chamber in a blur, and I couldn't help but wonder why she was so obedient when she could have tried to hurt the human girl and find and excuse for her wicked behavior afterwards. Were there some tragic consequences waiting for her if she didn't comply Aro's orders? Maybe her master had decided to regain our trust by showing some kind of mercy toward his prisoner and therefore he wouldn't tolerate Jane crossing his authority. He returned his attention to my husband. "So, Edward, what else can you read in the girl's mind? You said she's sick. Would that be the reason why she has no scent whatsoever?"

"How would I know that, Aro? I can hear only what she's thinking at the moment and she is purposely blocking me by showing some disgusting all-you-can-eat human food buffet."

It would be a good thing if Edward didn't have to disclose Vickie's real condition. If only she could comprehend what he was trying to accomplish and help him a little. As if she had read my thoughts, the former math teacher opened her mouth at that precise moment, "I have leukemia and I have only six months left to live, Aro."

"You spoke at last! How amazing!" Aro said with emphasis, like Vickie was a kid who needed to be complimented for her good grades at school. "But I still don't get why you came to me, dear. People die everyday around the world, it's the lot of your kind. Now, don't you cry young lady, I'm just stating a fact here. Can you be cooperative from now on and tell me your name and how you learned of our existence?"

But Vickie preferred to return to her stillness and silence. Carlisle took the opportunity to make a comment showing discontent and dismay. "Honestly I'm more than disappointed with this entire situation, Aro," he said gesturing at the captive and the other vampires lurking behind her. "I came here with my family today because we were visiting the region and I wanted to stop by and see if our friendship could be rekindled despite what happened in the past. Call me an optimist, but I still wanted to believe we can all recover from the last crisis. And yet what do I find here? A human who was not even lured into this place but rather discovered it all by herself! Jesus Aro, you have to do your part! You accused me of putting our world in danger of exposure by living in close proximity with humans, but obviously you can't keep our world a secret yourself!"

"Are you insinuating that I have something to do with the fact that this young lady found our citadel like it was advertised in the Yellow Pages, Carlisle?"

Carlisle didn't have the chance to answer because Jasper joined in the argument at that point, "I don't know who's responsible for the breach, Aro, but it's clear your special guest must have witnessed one of our kind in action and drawn her own conclusions. So my opinion is that you're not exerting a good enough surveillance as it is and you should be more cautious when it comes to choosing your watchers. They are obviously doing a lousy job. If this woman saw something compromising, she should have been dealt with on the spot. The way I see things, she might as well have alerted a lot of people about our existence and killing her won't solve the problem of our exposure."

"I will decide her fate after I know all the facts, young man," Aro replied tersely.

"I can answer the questions you asked the prisoner, Aro," Edward pointed out then. "She is talking to me right now, actually."

"Is she now? Why would she talk to you but not to me, Edward?"

"I don't know. Maybe because I'm better looking than you?" my husband replied cynically.

It was not very prudent to address Aro like this but I just squeezed Edward's hand harder. He went on, "She's telling me her name is Vickie and she's a scientific journalist. Maybe she knows about vampires simply because she did some research? She doesn't want to specify, but you must be aware of all the things we can find on the internet, aren't you, Aro?"

"Don't be arrogant and condescending with me, Edward," Aro hissed. His patience was wearing thin.

"I'm just trying to help," Edward continued anyway. "But perhaps I should stop if it's only to end up with you draining her no matter what. We didn't pay you a visit to watch a horror movie after all. Carlisle, I think we should leave now…"

Edward was very convincing. So much so that Vickie freaked out at last.

"I didn't tell anyone about your existence, guys," she blurted.

"And why exactly should I spare you and turn you instead, young mortal?" Aro questioned.

"Well, because I can make you relax with visions of animal shaped nebulae, perhaps? How long has it been since you last slept, Aro? You look awfully tired…" she trailed off.

Jeez, Vickie's little stay in a castle full of vampires didn't break her spirit one tiny bit. How could she be so fearless?

"So you understand that if you became one of us you'd be condemned to an endless existence in this fortress and you'd have to kill human people to feed yourself, don't you, Miss Vickie?"

"Or you could allow me to travel the world to insure that no vampire is acting in a conspicuous way that could expose your kind. The young man over there thinks that the vampires you're employing right now are not doing a good enough job," she suggested.

"You're very persuasive, Vickie, but you're also insulting Felix, Demetri, Jane and Alec with your insinuations," Aro replied coldly.

Maybe I had been overconfident in Vickie so far, or I had underestimated Aro's manipulative skills; one way or the other, I was unprepared for what happened next. He had set a trap with his last words and Vickie fell right into it, all because she couldn't accept being wrongfully accused: she was too proud. And Aro had come to realize that much about her.

"My insinuations? I didn't insinuate anything. Jasper Hale did," she cut him off.

Crap. Two words. That's all it took to blow our cover, and that's what Vickie had just given him.

"Did you just call this young blond man by his full name, by any chance?" he questioned with a slight smile.

Vickie turned mute once more. Aro addressed his brother, "Marcus, dear, how come you didn't tell me that Vickie knows the Cullens?"

"Do I have to remind you that Edward's mate is a shield, Aro? She's covering all of her family with her protection right now and I can't see a damn thing. In fact, I think the prisoner is under the shield as well because I can't see the link from her to them either."

"That's an interesting turn of events," Aro mused out loud. "Carlisle, what do you have to say that could prevent me from just killing your young friend? How could you lecture me about the growing dangers of exposure while you, on the other hand, are fraternizing with yet another human?"

"Dude, for starters Vickie has a husband and two kids waiting for her back in Hanover," Emmett replied instead of letting Carlisle answer.

"I highly doubt that, young fellow. Look at her: she's barely twenty years old."

"So what, Aro?" Rosalie went on, indignant over the old vampire's comment. "Elisabeth of Wittelsbach had two kids at nineteen, so I don't see why Vickie couldn't be a mom at twenty. But that's irrelevant anyway because Vickie only looks twenty. In reality she's almost forty."

"And why am I supposed to believe you, exactly?"

"I truly have a condition, Aro. It makes me younger every passing day and it's probably why my blood doesn't smell," Vickie decided to explain at last. "And Edward is right: if you searched on the internet you'd find plenty of references about me. I really am a scientific journalist."

"Are you telling me you're regressing in age, Miss Vickie?" Aro asked.

"That's exactly what I'm telling you," she nodded.

"Why didn't you tell me this earlier? You almost got tortured because of your silence!"

"I didn't want to talk because I didn't want to involve the Cullens in my quest."

"But if the Cullens informed you of our existence they must be punished, my dear. That's the law," Aro retorted.

He looked like he was about to lose his composure.

"The Cullens don't have anything to do with me knowing of the existence of vampires at large and of your coven in particular, Aro. I'm a journalist, and searching for facts and gathering information is what I used to do for a living. And I was very good at it…" she trailed off, almost smug.

"Does your husband know that you know, Vickie?"

"Of course not!" she replied heatedly. "Look, Aro, I've had my first encounter with one of your kind almost eight years ago, and my husband is still clueless about it. He travels a lot so it's easy for me to hide things from him. And if you want to know how I heard about you, the Volturi, you have to grasp that the disappearance of hundreds of tourists in Tuscany year after year is not something that goes totally unnoticed. And by the way, my own disappearance wouldn't go unnoticed either, should you decide to turn me but keep me prisoner or to snack on me."

"I wouldn't snack on you even if you were the last human on earth, Vickie. That's how unappetizing you are to me. But I could still kill you anyway. And if I am lenient and just change you, you're going to stay here forever and there's not going to be any witness to testify of what became of you, for the Cullens can't tell anyone what goes on under my roof," Aro stated darkly.

"You can't do that!" Alice said with a panicked voice.

"Why not, young Alice? Would you prefer to stay here as well? My proposition still stands, you know."

"Bella, please, let me out of your shield so I can show Aro what will happen depending on his decision."

While I did what my sister-in-law asked and watched her go to Aro to offer him her hand, Edward whispered in my ear, "I don't know if Aro is bluffing, but if he was to keep us all here as his prisoners, Esme would return to Hanover and tell Professor Letourneux that his wife and Carlisle were kidnapped while on their way back to the airport after she was cured. Alain would alert Interpol and they would come here to look after us thanks to the information provided conveniently by my mom. I don't think Aro would appreciate that."

When we dropped off Esme at the hotel, we told her that if we weren't back in Florence within hours she was to return home without us and tell the kidnapping story to the professor.

"He could also decide to kill us and Esme wouldn't know," I whispered back.

"Whether he kills us or imprisons us wouldn't change Esme's actions and Interpol would still come here to search the citadel," Edward responded.

"And of course if he was to kill Vickie but set us free, he knows that we can lie so as to not reveal our true nature. He can envision that we would make up a story involving an act of violence to tell her husband, and the professor would still end up communicating with Interpol," I concluded.

"Exactly," Edward murmured with a reassuring smile.

After a moment, Aro let go of Alice's hand and I saw a shadow crossing his unattractive face. What he had seen in Alice's visions was not to his liking, apparently.

"So it appears I have no choice but to let all of you go, Carlisle," he said with a dead tone.

"That's the voice of the reason speaking, Aro," my father-in-law replied with no emotion.

"However, you have to change Vickie yourself before leaving Italy," Aro added then.

"You can't be serious, Aro," Edward said loudly. "What about her husband and kids? She will have to abandon them!"

"I saw in Alice's visions that you already made up a story involving a special hospital in Florence that doesn't even exist, Edward. You just have to tell the professor that the medication given to his wife stopped the age regression but that it stopped the aging as well. And resourceful as this mortal is, I'm sure she can find a way to hide her true nature from her family…"

"That's just sick! Why would you want Vickie to become one of us? Do you really think she will come back to you eventually?" Edward blurted out.

"I know she will… in a couple of decades, when all her loved ones are gone. And regardless, I'm not giving you a choice. Carlisle has to turn Vickie or else I will send Felix and Demetri after her family in retaliation for the time she had me waste today."

"It's all right, Edward. I accept this ultimatum," Vickie said with a barely audible voice.

"Of course you do!" my husband snapped. "Christ, Vickie, you came here to be changed and now you'll have your way! So don't try to look like a victim or Lord help me I will ask Carlisle to give you only a minute dose of venom and you will writhe in agony for a whole week!"

"Whatever it takes, as long as my husband thinks that I received a treatment," our classmate replied bluntly.

At that moment I didn't feel much sympathy for her. I was only relieved that we could take her back to Professor Letourneux alive. But then I started to feel apprehensive again because there was no way of predicting how the venom would work on her, although it was not a detail I was going to share with Aro. Maybe he knew that much and thought she was going to die. It was plausible: if indeed she died upon receiving Carlisle's venom, he would not be held responsible for her death. Yet the worst part was that if Vickie didn't survive a vampire's bite, we would have to deal with her husband's wrath. The truth was that even though he had asked us to help his wife, he hadn't wanted for her to go to Italy to be treated. How could he forgive us if all we had done had led to the loss of his beloved in the end?

Aro was already giving orders to Alec to escort us outside. "Goodbye, Carlisle. It was nice to see you and your family again, even though it wasn't under the best circumstances. Don't forget that you can't leave the country with Vickie still human. I will have my people check on her before your departure."

Carlisle didn't turn to respond; he looked overwhelmed. I hoped he realized that Esme had been the key element in the way the confrontation had unfolded. I wanted to hug her when we were back at the hotel. She'd be so happy to see that we were all safe and sound, including Vickie.



Leap of faith


It was late afternoon when we left the Volturi's fortress. It would be almost dark by the time we arrived in Florence. I would ask all the members of my family to leave the suite we had reserved for a while except for Carlisle and Bella. My father had to take care of Vickie's turning and I needed Bella by my side to prevent me from strangling our classmate on the spot in a fit of rage.

At that moment, while we were on our way back, all confined in the small van, all I wanted was to make Vickie pay for what she had put us through. We were all silent and still, surrounding her with our unearthly presence and staring at her with anger, disbelief or pity depending whose thoughts I read.

Bella – well, her mind was private again but I could guess all the same – "If it weren't for the promise we made to the professor, I would drop off Vickie right here in the middle of nowhere."

Rosalie: "The stupid mortal girl doesn't even seem to realize that if it weren't for Alice's visions, she could have been stuck in Volterra forever. And what mother in her right mind would abandon her family to run into a nest of vampires anyway?"

Emmett: "There must be something wrong with that friend of Bella if she was willing to become one of the Volturi's pets."

Jasper: "Honestly our intervention today was unnecessary. That Vickie person could have managed a way out all by herself, bold and fearless as she is. Look at her, Edward; she doesn't even need my vibes to relax. What a circus freak…"

Alice: "If only I could see the outcome of Vickie's changing… and you know what? Screw the rest of the trip. We provided Esme with enough antiques as it is. I think I want to go to Dartmouth with you and Bella. Surely it's not too late to register, is it?"

Carlisle: "Hopefully the venom won't kill her… and hopefully she will be over with the transformation by Friday…"

Vickie must have felt that it wouldn't be wise to talk to any of us at the moment because she sat motionless and silent like the rest of the crew. I still couldn't hear what she was thinking, but it seemed enough to occupy her without interacting with us. The hour flew by quickly despite the deafening silence in the vehicle and soon we were greeted by Esme and Renesmee in the lobby of the Grand Hotel Mediterraneo.

I elected to be the one to tell my mother about Aro's ultimatum. "We managed to set Vickie free, but Aro wants Carlisle to change her before we leave the country. If we don't comply, he'll send Felix and Demetri after her family."

Esme's eyes opened wider in shock.

"Oh dear! That's not what we expected by coming here…" She then turned to face Vickie, glowering. "Do you have any idea of the lies we had to tell your husband, Miss Villeneuve? Do you know where he thinks you are right now?"

"No I don't. But whatever you told him, if it prevents him from coming after me, I owe you big time, Esme," Vickie replied softly, trying to defuse my mother.

"Vickie doesn't seem to realize that we're all pissed off at her behavior, Mom. Or maybe she doesn't care since she's going to get what she wants in the end," I stated coldly.

"That's not true, Edward, I…"

"Shut the hell up, Vickie!" I snapped before addressing my brothers and sisters, "Emmett and Rosalie, I'm sorry you came all the way here to rescue a selfish and manipulative girl who could have gotten us all killed with her reckless attitude. If you want to go back home right away I don't blame you. Alice, it is my understanding that you want to come back home as well, so we'll see you soon no matter what you decide to do for now…"

"Is that true, Alice?" Bella interrupted, momentarily all joyful. "You're not returning to your antique road trip?"

"I've been missing you, Bella. And I'd really like to attend Dartmouth with you and Edward," Alice replied matter-of-factly.

"That would be so cool! On top of the support and help you and Jasper provided us with today. And don't roll your eyes. You know you saved the day once again with your visions…" Bella trailed off.

Alice turned to me, more serious. "Jasper and I are not leaving tonight, Edward, and neither are Emmett and Rose. We're going shopping with Esme and Nessie and we need our mates to repel the local male population, if you know what I mean. It's too bad Bella doesn't want to accompany us, though."

"Edward and I need to talk to Vickie, Alice," Bella sighed.

It was true, however it was not the only reason; Bella still didn't give a damn about shopping, especially at the moment. Alice wasn't fooled and she didn't insist. If Bella was on the same page as I was regarding our classmate, she was bitter and dejected. I had the impression I had been betrayed and I was mad at myself for my lack of detachment toward Vickie. And yet I shouldn't feel this way because all I did was try to please my wife. If only the former math teacher could prove us wrong and show us that she was not genuinely careless and insensitive, that she was just putting an act of her own…

A few minutes later, Carlisle, Bella, Vickie and I were settled in one of the most sumptuous suites of the hotel. My father started to explain, "Vickie, Professor Letourneux thinks you are in a hospital that specializes in the treatment of genetic disorders."

Vickie said nothing, she just nodded.

"If we don't come up with some encouraging news by Friday, he will take a flight to Florence to stay by your side in a hospital that doesn't exist."

Upon hearing the lie we had been forced to tell her husband, Vickie replied, "Okay, Carlisle, I see your point and your concern. You think I should have discussed this with my husband before going to the Volturi and you're right. But I'm not that good a liar and I don't think I would have found a logical explanation as to why I needed to go to Europe. You probably saved me a catastrophic argument with my husband, so thank you for what you did. And I also mean for rescuing me from the Volturi. I honestly didn't know how dangerous they were, I'm sorry…"

"If you'd listened to me instead of running off, you wouldn't have to be sorry now!" I responded with clenched teeth.

But at least Vickie was thanking us for saving her. And she was repentant. She went on, "We don't want Alain to show up here because he wouldn't find the hospital, right? But if you poison me tonight, Carlisle, I will be changed by Friday. Bella told me the transformation takes two days."

Of course Bella had told Vickie the specifics of the turning. Well she knew what to expect, then. Although it was not that simple.

"Vickie," I sighed to give me the time to choose my words carefully, "Bella was an exception. She was extremely lucky that her change was complete in only forty-eight hours. It might be much longer for you. We don't know how it's going to work with your blood and your genetic mutation. In fact, we don't know if it's going to work at all."

"You mean I could die?" Vickie asked with a broken voice, at last grasping the consequence of her request.

"Not necessarily," Carlisle answered, "but you could stay human instead of being turned."

"If it were the case, at least we could tell her husband there was no cure and he wouldn't blame us," Bella remarked.

She didn't want to talk to Vickie directly. Our classmate would have to work harder to regain my wife's esteem.

"I can't step back anyway. Aro has been more than clear about that. So let's do it. I'm ready."

"I will have to gag you and tie you to the bed, Vickie. Otherwise your screams will alert the other clients of the hotel and we might be summoned to leave the place. Do you understand what it means?" Carlisle questioned.

"It means that I will writhe in pain. Edward said that much earlier."

"Vickie," Bella finally addressed her, "in case the venom kills you, is there something you want us to tell Alain, Ian and Joel?"

"Just tell them that all the stupid things I did, I did for them because I love them more than my life."

Carlisle looked at me more intensely. He felt guilty and ashamed for what he was going to do, and all the more so because he didn't have morphine with him.

"Don't bother about that," I just told him.

Bella and I went to sit in the living room part of the suite. There was really no way to know how long Vickie would be burning from inside and squirming in agony in the bed we had prepared for her. We could only hope that if she needed to scream, the gag Carlisle used would muffle the sounds. He was now telling her he was going to bite her at many places for the venom to invade her body more rapidly. She was lying quietly in the bed, accepting her fate peacefully no matter what it would be. Bella, on the other hand, looked very tense.

"Are you sure you want to witness Vickie's transformation, love?" I asked her.

"If you're staying, so am I," she murmured, resting her head on my chest. I kissed her hair and stroked her spine to make her relax.

"It's done," Carlisle said a minute later, joining us and sitting on the other couch.

Then the wait started… and so did the screams. We could hear the young woman trying to swear through the gag and I was glad Bella didn't speak French, because Vickie's vocabulary was surprisingly crude. Sometimes Carlisle would go check on her to look for the slightest change but there was nothing to report except that she was obviously suffering a great deal. And then, after a while, I began to notice that her heart was not beating slowly anymore. I approached her and saw that she had closed her eyes. Yes, she was definitely in a lot of pain, for tears were running down her cheeks non stop.

After an hour, something else happened, something unforeseen: I was able to hear Vickie's thoughts at last. And what she was thinking, aside the fact that she couldn't survive so much pain any longer, made me feel mortified. She was imagining she was with her kids and she was apologizing for abandoning them, if only for two days. She was telling them that she had met some very caring folks who were so compassionate that they had wanted to help her despite her annoying attitude and her unspeakable actions. She was so appreciative of what they had done for her that she was crying with gratitude.

I was utterly dumbfounded as I sat by Bella's side.

"What's wrong, Edward?" she asked worriedly.

"There's nothing wrong, Bella. On the contrary, I think the venom is helping Vickie somehow. I can read her mind now."

Bella's face lit up like a Christmas tree.

"Oh gosh, Edward! That's great news!"

"Yes, Bella," Carlisle confirmed, "it seems that Vickie's body is in some kind of mutation as we speak."

At ten p.m., three hours after Vickie had been bitten, my father remarked, "The others are back in the other suite. You two should go kiss Nessie goodnight."

Bella and I walked to the door at human pace. If we had ghosted out of the room we wouldn't have noticed that the woman lying in the bed didn't look like Vickie anymore. Well, not exactly anyway. Bella voiced her surprise by cursing out loud.

"Holy sh…!"

"Unbelievable!" I shouted. "Come see for yourself, Carlisle!"

The next second my father was staring at the stranger in the bed. Only it wasn't really a stranger: it was Vickie looking forty instead of twenty. It was what Professor Letourneux's wife should have looked like in the first place if she hadn't been poisoned six years ago. She didn't seem in pain anymore and she had reopened her eyes. Carlisle removed the gag so she could speak and loosened the straps he had used to tie her to the bed earlier.

"Is there something wrong with me, Edward?" Vickie asked with a voice filled with dread. "Why are you looking at me like I was a monster?"

"You don't look like a monster, Vickie," Bella said. "You look like you could be my mom."

"Are you still in pain?" Carlisle questioned.

"I was in a lot of pain for about an hour, Doctor Cullen. But it's all gone now."

"But you were still crying fifteen minutes ago," I said, confused.

"I think I fell asleep and I was dreaming of my children. In my dream I was crying because they didn't recognize me when I came back to them."

"Well, Vickie, you should prepare yourself because that might happen for real," I warned her.

"What do you mean, Edward?"

"Go take a look at yourself in the bathroom mirror. Bella is right, you could pass for her mom now," I replied with a smile.

Vickie jumped off of the bed and rushed to the bathroom. We heard her shriek in contentment, and then she thanked the Lord repeatedly, "Merci mon Dieu! Merci mon Dieu! Merci mon Dieu!"

"It's not the Lord that you should thank, Miss Villeneuve," I pointed out.

She came out of the bathroom and next she was trying to hug both Bella and I all at once. "I must thank you both for agreeing to help me even after I was rude to you and asked you to mind your own business."

"We did it mostly for your husband, Vickie," I admitted. "He was sinking into depression and we couldn't let that happen. He's too good a teacher to lose him."

"Ahem!" Carlisle said behind her. He was holding out his cell phone. "Your husband wants to talk to you, Vickie."

She took the phone and put it to her ear. "Guess what, Alain! The doctors at the hospital found the right medication for me and they were able to reverse my condition. I'm cured, and I'm prettier than ever!"

And with that factual statement being said, she giggled like a little girl, which reminded me that my daughter was waiting for me in the other room. We went to meet her and she jumped in my arms. While I was telling her a bedtime story, I could hear Vickie across the wall. She was talking to her little boys, promising she was never to leave them again. I smiled even wider at Renesmee because I knew that it was the truth.

ooo The end ooo

More than eight months went by since I started this story. I hope you had as much pleasure reading it as I had writing it.

Thanks to LadyMacKenzie who offered to help me with the editing in the first place.

And a special thanks to my other beta Just4ALE for her precious collaboration.