The Romanians were the first to depart the battlefield, leaving silently but gloating over their adversaries' cowardice. They thought that we had wasted our chance to overthrow the Volturi; they didn't anticipate another such opportunity occurring in the next millennia and they thought that we were fools to let it pass us by. However, they were mollified by the memory of Aro's face as he listened to Jane's scream of frustration and his steady, quick retreat.
Benjamin approached me as the celebrations around us began to die down a look of regret on his face.
"I'm sorry to leave you so quickly, my new friend," Benjamin said.
"And I'm sorry that you have to leave," I said, knowing already that they intended to find Amun and Kebi as quickly as they could to alleviate their fears.
"You and your family will come to visit us so that we can show your amazing daughter our city, yes?" he asked.
"But of course," I said, smiling. "Nessie's education will need to be a bit unorthodox. Field trips will be a must!"
He chuckled with me, embracing me solidly.
"Be safe," Tia said. "You will call us if you have need and we will stand beside you again."
"Thank you, Tia," I said, kissing both of her cheeks. "And you will do the same."
The left, following the trail that Amun and Kebi had followed in their haste to be away from the battlefield.
Zafrina, Senna, and Kachiri were beautiful to behold in their reunion. It was almost too intimate to witness. They welcomed their sister back silently, lightly touching hands. I could hear the thoughts racing through their heads and again I was struck by the way that they thought in tandem. It was an amazing reunion, but it was clear that they could not bear to be away from their forest. They missed it almost as acutely as they had missed their sister when she was away. I could certainly relate to that.
"You must bring the child to see me," Zafrina said, caressing Nessie's cheek. "Promise me, young one."
The bond between Zafrina and Nessie was strong and I could see in Nessie's plea to Bella just how strongly she returned Zafrina's affection. She remembered not only the pretty pictures that Zafrina had used to calm her during the more difficult times, but also the roughness of her voice, the strange gait that she walked with, and the surprisingly gentle way Zafrina had carried her in her strong arms.
"Of course, Zafrina," Bella said immediately, smiling at the strange wild vampire looking down at her.
"We shall be great friends, my Nessie," Zafrina said and I could see in her head how she hoped to show Nessie the wonders of her rainforest. I smiled, thinking myself of all of the spectacular things that my daughter would get to experience now.
The Amazonians left and almost immediately, Siobhan and her coven approached us, satisfaction plain on their faces. Although Siobhan still didn't believe in her gift, she was totally satisfied with the outcome of the day. I could see that she was beginning to see her gift differently, perhaps putting more stock in herself. I thought that, in time, she might be ready to try to harness the power that Eleazar had seen in her.
"Well done, Siobhan," Carlisle said as she hugged him.
"Ah, the power of wishful thinking," she said sarcastically, still incredulous that he would give her any credit for the outcome of the day. "Of course, this isn't over. The Volturi won't forgive what happened here."
She was right of course. Although their power was tested today, they walked away whole and in tact. They would prepare and, eventually, they may come back.
"They've been seriously shaken," I said. "Their confidence is shattered. But, yes, I'm sure they'll recover from the blow someday. And then--" I trailed off, my eyes tightening as I remembered how greatly Aro desired my wife, my sister, myself. "I imagine they'll try to pick us off separately."
"Alice will warn us when they intend to strike," Siobhan said steadily. "And we'll gather again. Perhaps the time will come when our world is ready to be free of the Volturi altogether."
"That time may come," Carlisle said somberly, not fully able to picture that eventuality. "If it does, we'll stand together."
"Yes, my friend, we will," Siobhan agreed. "And how can we fail, when I will it otherwise?" She laughed her contagious laugh and I couldn't help but join in, unable to feel any sense of foreboding in the thought of the Volturi's return.
"Exactly," Carlisle said, embracing Siobhan again and then shaking Liam's hand. "Try to find Alistair and tell him what happened. I'd hate to think of him hiding under a rock for the next decade."
Siobhan laughed again as Maggie embraced Nessie and Bella. They promised to look for Alistair even though they did not think highly of him for his desertion. They respected Carlisle enough to follow through with his wishes regardless of their personal feelings.
The Denali's came back with us to the house, but their visit was short lived. Their minds were heavy with the loss of Irina. Although they rejoiced in our victory, they couldn't fully participate in our celebration. They wished to mourn their sister in peace and they wouldn't want us to feign sorrow for their benefit. They parted from us quietly, promising to return when they could to celebrate with us properly.
I wasn't surprised to see that Garrett left with them. As Tanya and Kate were saying their quiet goodbyes to Esme and Carlisle, Garrett caught my eye. Edward, he had called to me. I followed him to the other room.
"Thank you," he said, taking my hand in his. "You've given me something I hadn't known to look for in over three hundred years."
"But, I didn't give you anything!" I protested, but he shook his head.
"Just coming here opened up a whole new world for me, Edward. I have a family now, something I never thought possible. So thank you. I'll be seeing you soon, I think."
"Indeed," I said, pulling him into an embrace. "Cousin."
They left, leaving us a whole family once again. We were joined, however, by Huilen and Nahuel. Nahuel couldn't take his eyes off of Bella, taking her in greedily and trying to replace his mother's ruined face with Bella's perfect one. He couldn't, of course. The memory of his mother was burned in his mind and forever would be. But he was beginning to place the blame that he had lived with for his entire existence where it ought to have lain always; he was beginning to forgive himself and place the blame for his mother's death with his father. He looked at me occasionally, wondering what kind of mother and father a vampire would make, how Nessie would grow up.
He was curious about Nessie as well, seeing potential in her that angered me. Jacob made it even more difficult for me not to be angry with Nahuel. The way he handled the revelations about Nessie's development both astounded and confounded me. I expected a hint of restlessness, expectation even. But there was nothing in his mind except the relief of knowing she would live. He hadn't once thought of the possibility that he could be able to enter into an adult relationship with her in less than seven years. Nahuel, who barely knew her, had thought of it . . . graphically. I was happier than I would have thought possible that Nessie returned Jacob's affections; he really did have her best interests in mind.
I sat on the couch, Bella and Nessie tucked under my one arm and Alice tucked under the other, and I was completely content. My sister was home again and my wife and daughter would be with me for an eternity. I couldn't think of anything that could make me happier at this moment. We were going over everything that went into our victory, everyone clamoring to know all of the hidden things that only I could tell them.
"So it was a combination of things there at the end, but what it really came down to was . . . Bella," I said, looking proudly at my wife again.
She really was pretty fantastic, Alice thought happily. I had to agree. She still was, snuggled next to me with our daughter sleeping peacefully in her arms. She was perfect in every way.
"Alice gave Aro the excuse he needed to get out of the fight," I said, squeezing Alice's shoulders slightly. "If he hadn't been so terrified of Bella, he probably would have gone ahead with their original plans."
I smiled, thinking back on Aro's relief at being able to back out of the fight while still saving face: appearing to be the magnanimous ruler, all the while tucking his tail between his legs.
"Terrified?" Bella asked, raising her eyebrows. "Of me?"
Well, maybe there was one thing that could make me happy. Whatever could that woman be thinking? How could she not know how fierce she looked?
"When will you ever see yourself clearly?" I asked her quietly. "The Volturi haven't fought a fair fight in about twenty-five hundred years. And they've never, never fought in one where they were at a disadvantage. Especially since they gained Jane and Alec, they've only been involved with unopposed slaughtering.
"You should have seen how we looked to them! Usually, Alec cuts off all sense and feeling from their victims while they go through the charade of a council. That way, no one can run when the verdict is given. But there we stood, ready, waiting, outnumbering them, with gifts of our own while their gifts were rendered useless by Bella. Aro knew that with Zafrina on our side, they would be the blind ones when the battle commenced. I'm sure our number would have been pretty severely decimated, but they were sure that theirs would be, too. There was even a good possibility they would lose. They've never dealt with that possibility before. They didn't deal with it well today."
"Hard to feel confident when you're surrounded by horse-sized wolves," Emmett guffawed, poking Jacob who was sitting next to him, grinning.
"It was the wolves that stopped them in the first place," Bella said.
"Sure was," Jacob agreed.
"Absolutely," I said, nodding. "That was another sight they've never seen. The true Children of the Moon rarely move in packs, and they are never much in control of themselves. Sixteen enormous regimented wolves was a surprise they weren't prepared for. Caius is actually terrified of werewolves. He almost lost a fight with one a few thousand years ago and never got over it."
"So there are real werewolves?" Bella asked. "With the full moon and silver bullets and all that?"
"Real," Jacob snorted, offended. "Does that make me imaginary?"
"You know what I mean," Bella consoled him.
"Full moon yes," I said. "Silver bullets, no--that was just another one of those myths to make humans feel like they had a sporting chance. There aren't very many of them left. Caius has had them hunted into near extinction."
"And you never mentioned this because . . ." Bella wondered.
"It never came up."
Alice winked at Bella from around my side, full of happiness. But Bella was glaring at her. Uh oh, Alice thought. Here we go.
"Just get it off your chest, Bella," she sighed. I perked up, interested to get the full story at last about what had transpired between Bella and Alice. I knew most of what Alice had done. She had given me a silent run down on the way back to the house. Of course, I still didn't know the extent of Bella's role in all this.
"How could you do that to me, Alice?"
"It was necessary," Alice said tersely. She was unhappy about the pain that her choice had caused everyone. I was listening to Jasper as well. He was watching carefully the interaction between Bella and Alice. He no longer feared her as a newborn, but he didn't know how to judge her temper right now. He caught me watching him and smirked at me. You know how it is, Edward. I smiled back at him to let him know that I did, indeed, understand his desire to protect Alice's feelings.
"Necessary!" Bella exploded and I winced. "You had me totally convinced that we were all going to die! I've been a wreck for weeks."
"It might have gone that way," Alice replied calmly. "In which case you needed to be prepared to save Nessie."
Bella clutched Nessie tighter to herself. I had looked in the bag after we arrived home briefly, saw the fake identification and the money and couldn't look any further. That eventuality was still to fresh in my mind not to be painful and raw for me.
"But you knew there were other ways, too," Bella continued, softer now. "You knew there was hope. Did it ever occur to you that you could have told me everything? I know Edward had to think we were at a dead end for Aro's sake, but you could have told me."
Is she serious? Alice asked me. I nodded slightly, smiling.
"I don't think so," Alice finally said aloud. "You're just not that good an actress."
"This was about my acting skills?"
"Oh, take it down an octave, Bella. Do you have any idea how complicated this was to set up? I couldn't even be sure that someone like Nahuel existed--all I knew was that I would be looking for something I couldn't see! Try to imagine searching for a blind spot--not the easiest thing I've ever done. Plus we had to send back the key witnesses, like we weren't in enough of a hurry. And then keeping my eyes open all the time in case you decided to throw me any more instructions. At some point you're going to have to tell me what exactly is in Rio. Before any of that, I had to try to see every trick the Volturi might come in with and give you what few clues I could so you would be ready for their strategy, and I only had just a few hours to trace out all the possibilities. Most of all, I had to make sure you'd all believe that I was ditching out on you, because Aro had to be positive that you had nothing left up your sleeves or he never would have committed to an out the way he did. And if you think I didn't feel like a schmuck--"
"Okay, okay!" Bella interrupted, letting her off the hook. "Sorry! I know it was rough for you, too. It's just that . . . well, I missed you like crazy, Alice. Don't do that to me again."
Alice laughed, filling the room with music. "I missed you, too, Bella. So forgive me, and try to be satisfied with being the superhero of the day."
Bella ducked behind Nessie as everyone beamed at her. There were many more questions about the decisions being made and I tried to answer each one. It was difficult to explain to them just how lucky we really were in the end. If any one of our advantages had been missing, things could have turned out completely different.
Eventually, they grew tired of seeing inside the Volturi minds and everyone began to have their own little conversations. I was happy to have some time to speak with my sister and brother again. I was content to sit back and watch as my family relaxed.
Alice was scolding Bella. Nothing had changed in the time she had been gone; she was reprimanding Bella for not taking full advantage of her wardrobe.
"Just look at you!" Alice rebuked. "You look thrown together! Where are all of the designer tops, the leather skirts, the DRESSES? Bella, you're my sister and you look like my poor, forgotten relative! You need to take better care of yourself!"
Bella rolled her eyes at Alice.
"I'm never going look like you, Alice, no matter how many fits you throw," she said.
"Be that as it may, tomorrow you're mine."
They both laughed, happy to be able to spend time together any way that they could.
Jasper and Emmett were discussing the amazing bounty of the jungle. I could see Jasper remembering hunting in his mind and thinking about Emmett and me being with him. He was telling Emmett about the jungle now, and how it was full of predators to satisfy even the most picky vampire.
"I'm not picky, bro," Emmett said defensively. "I just like a challenge."
"Well, the jungle is full of challenges, I can promise you that," Jasper said.
"What do you think, babe?" Emmett asked Rose, pulling her close. "You ready for another honeymoon?"
"Ugh!" she said, pretending to push him away. "I can't believe you!"
Carlisle wanted to know everything that he could about Nahuel's life and it was to this conversation that I paid the closest attention. For the whole of his 150 years, he considered his life complete with Huilen. But I could see by the way his eyes drifted over Bella and me that he was, today, finding something that he had been missing without even knowing it. I wondered where his life would lead him now, knowing that he intended to keep close. I knew that when the time came, Jacob would have a rival for Nessie's affections. But, I trusted my daughter to make the right decision. She had proven herself to be an even better judge of character than I was.
Esme wasn't saying very much at all. She was standing behind Carlisle as he continued his discussion with Nahuel, lightly touching his shoulders and looking around the room. She was thinking back to the tender goodbye that she had given to each of us on the battlefield. She was certain at that time that the happiness she had felt for so long was at an end. She had memorized each of our faces and said her silent goodbye, thinking that was the end. Now, to see us gathered together again, whole and together forever, she was thinking that she had achieved heaven once again. She looked at her little granddaughter, overcome with the thought that she would live and thrive with us for longer than any of us had ever guessed. She kept looking over at Nahuel, seeing his strong muscles and clear, intelligent eyes, and thinking of the beautiful woman that Nessie would grow to become.
Bella looked mentally exhausted, as though she could easily fall into a deep sleep. I wanted to get our child back to our house and have some time to savor our true beginning of forever. As I thought that, she looked over at me with a small smile on her lips. It was as if my thoughts and hers were in tune and I knew that we were both thinking exactly the same thing.
"Should we take Nessie . . ." she asked quietly.
"That's probably a good idea," I said quickly, standing up. "I'm sure she didn't sleep soundly last night, what with all the snoring."
I smiled at Jacob, knowing that she had absolutely slept soundly and felt completely safe next to him.
"It's been a while since I slept in a bed," Jacob said, rolling his eyes. "I bet my dad would get a kick out of having me under his roof again."
"Thank you, Jacob," Bella said, touching his cheek.
"Anytime, Bella. But you already know that."
He kissed the top Nessie's head and then Bella's, and then walked over to me. He punched my shoulder. Not bad work for some bloodsuckers and dogs, huh? I smiled at him.
"See you guys tomorrow," he said aloud. "I guess things are going to be kind of boring now, aren't they?"
"I fervently hope so," I said.
I looked over at my daughter sleeping peacefully in Bella's arms, so happy that she would have the chance to be just a little girl for a few more years. I was so pleased that I was going to get to watch her grow and change, learn and experience things. I was going to get to be her Daddy and really form the family that we had hoped to be, not some supernatural imitation. Nessie may only have six or seven years before she was mature, but we were going to have all of those years to enjoy her growing up.
Jacob left after saying his goodbyes to everyone. I noticed a slight edge in Nahuel's voice as he bid him goodbye. So Nahuel had determined that Jacob would be his rival. Good. I liked Nahuel, but, truthfully, he was no Jacob. I chuckled silently at myself and the strange turn my thoughts had taken in just a few days.
Bella rose when Jacob was gone, ready to be on our way to the cottage. She turned, just before we were about to begin our goodbyes to look pointedly at Jasper.
"Oh, Jasper?" she called.
"Yes, Bella," he said, looking up at her.
"I'm curious--why is J. Jenks scared stiff by just the sound of your name?"
Jasper chucked, and thought of the tubby man that had procured so many different identities for us all. "It's just been my experience that some kinds of working relationships are better motivated by fear than by monetary gain."
Bella frowned at him, and he chuckled again, wondering what type of working relationship Bella had played upon to gain J's respect. I didn't particularly like the direction of Jasper's thoughts, although I couldn't disagree with him. My wife was a very tempting creature when she chose to be.
Everyone was up to kiss and hug us goodbye. It was the happiest goodbye that we had in weeks because we all knew that we would be together again tomorrow. As I hugged my mother and kissed her forehead, I heard her whisper my name. Her thoughts were fuzzy as she contemplated the word forever and all of the happiness that word brought with it.
As we walked out the door, I listened to Nahuel war with himself, wanting to follow us and talk to us. I knew that he would be here tomorrow when we came back in the morning. I promised myself that I would get some time alone with him to try to answer some of the questions that were brewing in his mind.
Bella and I leapt over the river and slowed to walking speed, holding hands and reveling in the relaxed atmosphere that surrounded us. There were a few things that Bella needed to know that the rest of the family didn't. Jacob, for instance. I knew that Bella trusted him, but I was anxious to show her how much he had impressed me with his restraint and that I could finally say I trusted him as much as her.
"I have to say, I'm thoroughly impressed with Jacob right now," I said casually.
"The wolves make quite an impact, don't they?"
"That's not what I mean. Not once today did he think about the fact that, according to Nahuel, Nessie will be fully matured in just six and a half years."
Bella walked, considering. "He doesn't see her that way. He's not in a hurry for her to grow up. He just wants her to be happy."
Of course Bella had seen to the heart of the matter without the ability to read minds. She always could.
"I know. Like I said, impressive. It goes against the grain to say so, but she could do worse."
She frowned, thinking about the implications of that statement. "I'm not going to think about that for approximately six and a half years."
I laughed quietly. "Of course, it looks like he'll have some competition to worry about when the time comes."
She frowned even more. "I noticed. I'm grateful to Nahuel for today, but all the staring was a little weird. I don't care if she is the only half-vampire he's not related to."
"Oh, he wasn't staring at her--he was staring at you," I said, inwardly smiling at being able to reveal something to her.
"What would he do that?" she asked, again, not seeing herself clearly.
"Because you're alive," I said, squeezing her hand a little tighter.
"You lost me," she said.
"All his life," I explained, "--and he's fifty years older than I am--"
"Decrepit," she breathed.
"He's always thought of himself as an evil creation, a murderer by nature. His sisters all killed their mothers as well, but they thought nothing of it. Joham raised them to think of the humans as animals, while they were gods. But Nahuel was taught by Huilen, and Huilen loved her sister more than anyone else. It shaped his whole perspective. And, in some ways, he truly hated himself."
"That's so sad," she said.
"And then he saw the three of us--and realized for the first time that just because he is half immortal, it doesn't mean he is inherently evil. He looks at me and sees . . . what his father should have been."
"You are fairly ideal in every way," she agreed with him.
I snorted and then remembered what else I needed to tell her. "He looks at you and sees the life his mother should have had."
"Poor Nahuel," she said, shaking her head.
"Don't be sad for him. He's happy now. Today, he's finally begun to forgive himself."
Both of us walked into Nessie's room to tuck her into her bed, smiling at her peaceful form that looked perfectly at home here. She was where she belonged and she would get to stay here forever.
We walked slowly to our room, our hands intertwined and swinging between us. I could feel the fire smoldering between us and I could barely wait to close the door behind us and shut out the rest of the world. I wanted to be alone with my wife, to tell her in the only language that I was capable of just how relieved I was that today was over.
"A night for celebrations," I murmured, putting my finger under her chin and feeling the electricity of her course through my finger and lick itself through my body. I wanted my lips on hers; but, just as I was about to feel their softness, she pulled away suddenly, leaving me breathless.
"Wait," she said, her breath hitched in her throat.
Well, this was different, I thought.
"I want to try something," she said, smiling.
She reached her hands up to cradle my face in her hands and I could feel the pulse of electricity that her touch always caused in my body. She closed her eyes and bit her lip in concentration. Suddenly it was as if a bubble was forming around us and I heard the velvet tones of her thoughts running through my mind.
"Bella!" I whispered.
She squinted her eyes even tighter, concentrating, and my mind was flooded with images and words more beautiful to me than I ever could have imagined.
I saw myself through her fuzzy human memories, like a beacon calling out to her across a dingy cafeteria and I felt the way the sight of my face had made her mind fuzzy and her heart race. Next, I saw my face, dazzling in the sunlight, looking back at her with adoration. We were sitting in the meadow and she was feeling my skin for the first time, revealing in her ability to please me.
She was in a cloud of pain and then there was light. She was hearing my voice through the morphine as she was waking up from her ordeal with James. I was amazed that my voice was as great a drug to her as the morphine. Then, I saw my face radiant under a canopy of flowers as she walked slowly towards me. I felt her impatience at the slow pace of the march down the isle, the feel of my lips on hers when we shared our first married kiss.
Oh! I could feel the sticky warmth of Isle Esme wrapping around her and the way she felt as she looked out at me, standing in the water, waiting for her. The feel of my hands in her hair, on her body. She was never in a moment of pain; it was all exquisite pleasure for her after all. Suddenly, my face was drawn in the sharp colors of an immortal eye. The feel of our lips, the same temperature, moving together and our tongues . . . our first night together as equals.
I couldn't stand it anymore. My lips crashed against hers and I hungrily took her mouth in mine. I felt the bubble pop and her thoughts were gone, but I couldn't focus on that. All I could focus on was the feel of her lips and her hands that were now tangled in my hair.
She pulled away too quickly, breathless again. "Oops, I lost it!" she sighed.
"I heard you," I breathed. "How? How did you do that?"
"Zafrina's idea. We practiced with it a few times."
I couldn't fathom the effort that it must have taken her to push the shield away from herself for just those brief moments and let me in. It was a greater intimacy than we had ever experienced.
"Now you know," she said and shrugged. "No one's ever loved anyone as much as I love you."
"You're almost right," I smiled, wanting to argue with her so that she would try prove me wrong. "I know of just one exception."
I kissed her again, but was unsatisfied with the closeness. I wanted to hear those thoughts again, feel them in my mind.
"Can you do it again?" I asked sheepishly.
She grimaced. "It's very difficult."
I waited, eagerly anticipating hearing her again.
"I can't keep it up if I'm even the slightest bit distracted," she warned me.
"I'll be good," I promised her, still waiting impatiently.
And then she was in my head again. My hands were in her hair and I could feel the electricity of my touch running across her scalp and down her spine. The feel of her legs around my body, our skin touching and moving together.
I was kissing her before I could think to stop myself and Bella was gone from my mind again.
"Damn it," I growled, kissing her jaw, remembering from her memories how much she enjoyed the feel of my mouth on her.
"We have plenty of time to work on it," she suggested, wrapping her arms around my neck.
"Forever and forever and forever," I murmured, lifting her off the ground and cradling her close to me.
"That sounds exactly right to me," she said.
And as we found our way to the bed, I realized I had never been so happy to have the rest of eternity ahead of me.
A/N: Oh, just a little lemon peel for all of my loyal readers. ;) I tried to fit in everything that you were wondering about. As I said last chapter, this particular piece is now complete, but I'll be coming back to do a shorter piece on Edward's thoughts during th wedding and Isle Esme (perhaps a bit more lemon than peel in that one, eh?). I appreciate all of you for reading my first attempt at FF. Your reviews mean so much to me! Keep an eye out for other things from me. As I mentioned before, I'm going to focus on The Life and Death of Edward Anthony Masen for right now, but I'll put out other things as they come to me. Thanks again for your constant reading and reviewing! Let me know what you think was done well and anything that you feel could be improved upon! ~Jen