29

Flight

Following Demetri, I led Bella gently behind me into the reception area, and Alice trailed closely behind her. Bella's body was trembling and she sucked air into her lungs noisily. She was terrified. Bella's mind had been made to realize what was happening, and been marred, perhaps permanently. She was going into shock.

I felt fury boiling in my chest. The timing of Heidi's arrival had not necessarily been purposely orchestrated, but it was a cruel coincidence. The mind numbing screams still echoed in my head. I could only imagine how Bella was processing what we'd been forced to witness.

Demetri turned to us, glancing at Bella curiously, a cautionary expression crossing his face. "Do not leave until dark," his deep voice articulated. Understanding the threat, I nodded in compliance. His fleeting thoughts were focused on the banquet. He turned and was gone in an instant.

My eyes snapped to Bella and I felt my jaw immediately clamp. Her face was stricken, distraught, the blood drained from it. Her eyes were out of focus with a glaze over them and her pupils constricted. I heard her heart racing furiously and her choked breathing started gasping, sobbing, while her mouth hung open, silently screaming. She was dangerously close to collapsing. Expletives were being hurled through my head as I watched her mentally and physically break down.

I couldn't escape the elation that she was here and she was alive. The time spent in the turret chamber seemed like a cheap penance to having her here with me, now. Staring deeply into her, I tried to make her focus. "Are you all right?" My attempt at sounding calm utterly failed because she was so alluring, even in her current state.

Alice was by my side, also staring at Bella. She doesn't look so good…

"You'd better make her sit before she falls," she suggested out-loud. Her voice was much calmer than mine. The tenderness of what she was feeling was apparent and I was undeniably grateful. "She's going to pieces," she cautioned, indicating the obvious. Her words urged me to act.

Bella needed to lie down, but sitting would have to suffice. Her heart rate needed slowing, quickly. She was also close to hyperventilating. Pulling Bella with me, I chose the sofa that was furthest from Gianna.

"Shh, Bella, shh," attempting to wrap my voice around her like a shield.

You have to calm her down, Edward. She's going to be all right but not without a good deal of effort. Alice's thoughts weren't helping my own anxiety.

"I think she's having hysterics. Maybe you should slap her." Not too hard, though! I glanced at Alice, but her eyes never left Bella's terrified expression. I was momentarily unsure of how to proceed, but slapping Bella certainly wasn't an option.

Focus. Treat the shock. She needs warmth and reassurance. My thoughts organized themselves.

I smoothed my voice and pulled Bella into my lap, repetitively whispering, "It's all right, you're safe, it's all right," as gently as I could convey.

Her gasps for oxygen slowed slowed, ever so slightly. Her eyes blinked a few times. She wasn't out of danger, but she was pulling herself together.

I avoided any direct contact with my body, wanting her warm. I dreaded exposing Bella to the foulness of the Volturri cloak, but there was no other option open to me. Her body temperature needed to be regulated externally. I reluctantly wrapped the infernal wool around her body, tucking it between us, hoping she wouldn't notice the faint odor of salty rust coming from the fabric.

Damn them and damn this place and myself, while I'm at it, for forcing this situation on her in the first place.

Hearing her speak was a massive relief, despite her words being morbid and accurate.

"All those people…" I listened as her voice trailed off. She'd recovered enough to form words. The tension wasn't any where near released, but she was coming down from the shock.

"I know," I muttered feebly, silencing my growl. I watched as she blinked rapidly for a short second. Her eyes were attempting to focus and her pupils dilated to a healthier state. Her heart slowed to a healthier pace. I scrutinized every change in her with a critical eye.

"It's so horrible." Her sobs were coming slower. I could hear her heart rate slowing to a healthier pace. Whatever mental picture she'd conjured while the humans screamed was now settling into its place.

"Yes, it is. I wish you hadn't had to see that," I whispered, my voice covering the fury convincingly. I had to keep my voice steady. I continued to analyze her condition, readying myself for any possibility. She seemed to be staying herself, so my biggest fear was she'd realize her immediate situation and attempt to run. I'd have to restrain her, if she attempted to flee. They would be alert to this and prepared…

I listened, tasted, smelled her. She breathed more deeply now. I resisted my desire to encompass my arms around her. Instead, I breathed her scent. The exact moment I'd done so, my infinite desires were interrupted.

Bella pulled herself closer to me, laying her head across my chest. I stilled myself to the sensation.

My desire to envelope her, consume her, was overwhelming. I wasn't sure how she'd react to my touch and I was certain my cold body wouldn't help her regulate her temperature, so I refrained from contact. She made a strange gesture towards her face, as if her tears were irritating in some way. She reached, taking a corner of the cloak into her delicate fingers and dabbed at her eyes. I flinched, waiting to see if she would smell the odor of blood. She didn't appear to be, so I returned my focus to the pace of her heart.

In this moment, her life rescued, mine spared, I exalted quietly. She was always the only thing in this world to me. I acknowledged my existence before knowing she existed, and I felt remorse for the man I'd been. Not necessarily sad, but desolatingly incomplete. I turned my back on that isolation, back to this moment, and I inhaled her presence.

I felt absorbed. She was the purpose of my existence. Obsession and love. Was there a difference? Everything about her, every heart beat, every movement, every natural and unnatural reaction to this place. I grabbed at every thought I couldn't read. It all concluded with love and I was captivated, fascinated, haplessly surrendering to her.

Gianna was moving towards us and reality again took it's strangle hold over me. It was enough to draw me out of my stupor.

Gianna. Felix's intentions were forefront in my knowledge of her, and the woman's presence made me ill. She'd interrupted my reunion with Bella, and that was irritating, but I felt haltingly overwhelmed by my pity towards her. She so willingly donated her life to the Volturri in whatever capacity they seemed fit. They would accept her or they would end her. She accepted this fact, not knowing the pain she'd endure. I closed my eyes, wanting to so badly to end her sadness.

Her kind had violated her beyond recovery. Felix's thoughts danced around the pyre.

And she was getting closer to Bella.

Go away!

I wanted to snap at the dead woman, but I couldn't bring myself to commit such an atrocity. She was only curious about Bella and she didn't realize her proximity was so threatening to me.

So many go in but they never bring any back out. There's something about this girl.

Gianna was so sad, and she desperately wanted knowledge to solidify her place with them. Her life was forfeit and I wanted to be kind, but she had made her choice. I needed her to keep a distance. It was too sad.

Her mind was an extremely uncomfortable place to me. The abuse she'd survived was unspeakable. I felt nauseous in her presence, knowing she put her trust in such fatal hands. She'd survived so much, only to have it all end here in tragedy. She would soon be out of pain; Felix was seeing to it.

"Is there anything I can get you?" Gianna asked, courteously.

Alice tried to remain silent, but I heard the idea of smelling salts in her subconscious thoughts.

"No," I said sharply.

My voice surprised me. I hadn't meant to sound harsh. This woman didn't deserve rudeness, but I had no patience for her interruption or her lack of self-preservation. If she'd noticed my abruptness, she made no indication. She simply returned to her duties.

Bella's head rose slightly and her eyes had fixed on the human woman, watching her cross the room towards the polished counter.

"Does she know what's going on here?" Bella's voice sounded conflicted but something in the tone seemed to necessitate honesty.

I carefully thought about how to answer her, weighing my options. Bella seemed calmer, and I didn't want to cause her any undue duress. I could give an ambiguous answer without revealing the full truth. Or I could simply lie. Ironically, it seemed important to me for Bella to understand the bleak choices Gianna had made. And I vehemently did not want to lie to her. I chose honesty and hoped for the best.

Bella wanted to be changed in order to be with me. I felt the weight of her choice, and I needed her to understand how critical her life was, how this was not a choice she should ever want. I was prepared to end my... time, my existence, my stagnant immortality. But only when her heart stopped, only when she no longer breathed.

Of course I wanted her. I wanted to love her. I wanted to experience what love meant. I was terrified to touch her and I was ashamed of that. She was so fragile and so trusting. I hated being this monster, this dangerous. I wanted... her.

I studied her face as I tried to answer her question about Gianna. It was such an innocent question. Does she know? Does she understand? Why is she sacrificing... everything?

"Yes. She knows everything," I said, trying to sound casual.

Ummm, couldn't you just lie? I wanted to believe Alice wouldn't interject in this moment unless her intentions were somehow important.

"Does she know they're going to kill her someday?" Bella's voice wavered and she sounded urgent. She seemed stunned. Of course, she couldn't have any idea about the humans that were occasionally employed here. Very few were found worthy.

There was no point in revealing Gianna's fate to Bella. It would only cause her more unnecessary anguish; and knowing Bella, she would want to thwart Gianna's fate. Felix was a calculating and brutal sadist. An animal. He should be put down.

Steady, my thoughts warned.

Quietly I said, "She knows it's a possibility. She's hoping they'll decide to keep her." Bella would understand my meaning.

Still studying her, I waited for the shock to hit. It was almost immediate. She paled and her heart rate quickened. "She wants to be one of them?" her voice gasped.

Yes, my love. It's horrific, don't you see? Why would anyone choose this? Why would a lovely young woman decide to end her life by becoming a monster? What could be so awful that would allow them to even acknowledge this as a possible option?

I needed her to be horrified by the concept.

I nodded to her question, searching her eyes now, waiting for the moment she understood. Her eyes stared back, still blank "How can she want that? How can she watch those people file through to that hideous room and want to be a part of that?" Bella's voice was frantic.

I mutely watched her eyes, waiting. Several long, silent moments passed. Bella wasn't going to make the connection.

Suddenly, Bella lamented, "Oh Edward" and her voice echoed in my head.

Her exclamation halted me at once.

The sound of her articulating my name was intense. Since that moment in the woods, I'd only heard her say my name once, and it was panic stricken while I was still in my fog.

"Please Edward, we have to move."

Her voice now, when she spoke my name, was entirely different. I envisioned giving her an expensive gift. She'd be uncomfortable and she might say my name the same way. Or, perhaps, relaying some bad news about school or plans Alice made for her. She'd certainly say my name exactly like this, if that were the case. Pleading. So sadly desperate that her voice wrung my empty veins and crushed my silent heart. My physical response was more human than I'd felt in... ever.

"What's wrong?" I breathed, sifting through the possibilities that would explain her anguish. My hand on her back tried to physically console her, aimlessly wanting to force her to relax and breath.

To my surprise and overwhelming delight, she twisted her arms around my neck. Her scent was suddenly everywhere and I breathed deeply, and willingly. Her scent was my tranquility and I relished in it.

"Is it really sick for me to be happy right now?" she asked with a sad hint of confession. Her voice shook and I knew she was feeling torment. I immediately drew her closer, enveloping her. She spoke my thoughts fluently.

Relief washed over me, realizing there was no new horror. Considering our immediate situation, it did seem inexcusable to feel this elated. I didn't care. The misery that had been my life for the last seven months had vanished and I wouldn't fathom the idea of censoring my joy.

"I know exactly what you mean," I sighed. I breathed in as much of her as possible, astounded I'd ever had the strength to be apart from this.

Still, she was requesting reassurance.

"But we have lots of reasons to be happy. For one, we're alive." I tried to chide her into a smile. She only stared back at me.

"Yes. That's a good one."

"And together."

Would she let me kiss her? I decided not to press even though my body was pulsing with the want and desire. Venom filled my mouth, reminding me of the dangers for her if I gave in to my compulsion.

Then, suddenly I was exhilarated. I flirted with the idea of stealing her away, somewhere isolated and remote. My subconscious mind was recalling ballads I'd thought long buried. And the torture I'd experienced during our time apart was completely vanished, as if it had never happened.

I would never be apart from Bella again.

"And," I added, trying to amuse her, "With any luck, we'll still be alive tomorrow." Of this, I was certain. I knew the Volturri would not recant their verdict. I smiled into her gaze, hoping again to elicit a smile.

Bella seemed neither convinced nor amused.

"Hopefully," her voice was full of doubt. I wanted to take her fears into my hands and crush them. I wanted to see her smile, the life return to her eyes. I needed her to forgive me and I needed her... beauty and grace and compassion. She was so incredible and so vulnerable and I hated her not knowing I'd always be there to end any threat...

But I'd put myself in this position. She was skeptical of me. I could see it in her eyes. I gave her no reason to trust me because I'd left her... alone... in the woods. After I promised I never would.

I needed more time with her. She needed to hear me say how sorry I was, what a liar I'd been, how my choices and decisions were well intentioned and so dreadfully wrong. I began to think of ways to tell her, imploring her with my eyes.

Of course, I'd forgotten we weren't alone.

"The outlook is quite good. I'll see Jasper in twenty-four hours," Alice chimed. My sister's passion for Jasper was as true as the possibility of the dawn. This would be a vision that had no uncertainty.

Without looking away from Bella's eyes, I shared Alice's views of the near future. She saw our arrival at Sea-Tac airport. The moments with Jasper weren't mine to view, so I looked past them. Esme would need extra comfort. Rosalie was expectant, reluctant, and very remorseful. I'd deal with that later.

Suddenly Alice's vision swirled with intimacy and lust and Jasper was touching... I immediately retreated from her mind, feeling intrusive and awkward, and quite frankly, embarrassed yet again.

Sorry. Alice was stifling a giggle. I didn't look at her again for a very long time.

Although my mood didn't waiver, staring into Bella's eyes sobered me. Bella had recovered her wits and was now breathing steadily. I had assumed the color would return to her face as soon as she was calm, but it hadn't completely. And now I saw something else. Her skin had an odd paleness, and her eyes seemed dulled, foggy. She was thinner, too. The shine in her normally lustrous hair was gone. Alice's visions of her flooded me and I realized how my choices had effected her. But she looked so lifeless! Had she been terribly ill recently? She was still breathtakingly beautiful, but I couldn't help the concern that washed over me.

What had happened to her? Was I the cause of her suffering to this extent? Why didn't she move on....

Then the Alice vision of Jacob Black came into my head. I seethed with self contempt for having left her alone to learn the facts of the Quileutes. She'd put herself in such danger just for friendship because I wasn't there. My self-loathing had no boundary.

We sat like this, quietly staring, for an immeasurable length of time, me filling with self wretched thoughts and her just blindly keeping focus on my eyes. She didn't seem abashed or frightened anymore, so I didn't look away. Eventually she seemed quite comfortable to simply stare back. That was fortuitous; I doubt I could have looked at anything other than her eyes.

I was awe-struck. Realizing, only now, her sacrifice to come to this place. She, of course, wouldn't have realized the danger. But her will had been so strong! Alice had given me glimpses of the occurrences in Chief Swan's home, prior to their departure.

The boy, Jacob Black, who'd interrupted Bella's prom had been there. And he'd been Bella's companion for the last few months. He'd discovered his lethal heritage and had actually transformed while Bella was in proximity. He was careless to the danger he and his pack posed to her. They would need to be dealt with.

This boy protested her choice to come. Bella's determination was strong and she argued with him, endangering herself severely. She was off to rescue her suicidal crazed ex-boyfriend who'd abandoned her and was going to throw himself at the mercy of.... it was all a bit surreal. I couldn't blame the boy; I'd have tried to stop her myself. This was incredibly reckless and fringed on the ridiculous.

Still, it was what happened. The boy would be there when we got back and Bella didn't trust me anymore, which I deserved.

Her expression, the secrecy she tried to veil in her eyes, nothing there gave me the answers I sought. I stared down her eyes, imploring.

I would not force her to follow me to some deserted and secluded part of the world. Even though the idea still danced in my fantasies, I would do absolutely nothing that would cause her any sadness. However, I would never allow us to be apart again.

If she would have me, I would be by her side until her last breath, and even death would not separate us for long. If she no longer wanted me, I would stalk her from the shadows as she lived her life. But I couldn't abandon her presence. Not ever again.

This, of course, begged the question; did she still want me? Had I caused so much damage that she could never forgive me?

Alice had shared a vision of the dangerous Quileute child who was now much more man than child. Had Ephraim Black's descendant secured some part of her heart? She'd allowed herself to be put in so much danger with those adolescent wolves; was this to be close to him?

If he were the one she chose to be with now, how could I accept that? The thought of it was excruciating. Anyone else would be so much easier. I was reminded of the rivals from Fork's High School.

What I wouldn't give now, for my uncertainty to involve any one of them, instead of this Quileute boy. Should I put her happiness over her safety?

I could easily put her happiness over of my own. That was without question. However, her safety was the most essential aspect of existence. I could not simply walk away from her knowing she would be in such danger. She was too fragile.

Jacob Black could harm her, easily. It isn't possible for him to be as careful, as conscientious of her frailty as I was... as I am. He would certainly have feelings for her, if he had any intelligence whatsoever. However, it's simply not a possibility for him to come close to loving her to the depths that I do. Of course he loves her.

My ankles twitched at the thought of it. I immediately hated him.

So I would fight for her. I would find a way to sway her back to me, or at least away from him and his pack.

I searched her eyes. As I did, I noticed other, most subtle differences in her face. Typical human changes had occurred and I noticed she'd matured marginally. It wasn't more than a slight thinning of her features, her hair had grown some and been trimmed in a similar fashion, but I saw the difference. The changes were minimal but I recognized them.

Her complexion held a sallow tinge and there were fine red lines marking her cheeks. She had a feint purple coloring under her eyes that made me ache for her to sleep and recover. I continued to study her closer, forcing myself to uncover the damage I'd caused.

I stared into her eyes. She seemed to be longing for something. I wanted to ask her to tell me what she was thinking, but I felt a strong urge to delay this moment. I was afraid she'd... she'd no longer want me. She'd do exactly what I'd demanded in the forest.

...as if I never existed.

I'd convinced myself I could accept the consequences of my choice that day. I was a fool. And this was going to cost me dearly. Her well being had been compromised because of me! Such a fool, so stupid, so...

She blinked. In that second I stole a piece of her hair to my lips and kissed it, swearing I'd make it right, somehow and not knowing how else to begin apologizing.

Her body was so soft and warm. I'd noticed her breathing had become ragged, and although she no longer looked horrified by her surroundings, she was beyond exhausted, weaker than I'd ever seen her. Holding her here, safely in my arms, I wanted nothing more than to have her sleep and be healthy.

"You look so tired," I offered. I reached my hand to her face, lightly touching the purple shadows under her eyes. Perhaps she'd allow me to carry her as we escaped.

Her eyes fluttered as if struggling with the delicacy of her human side and her expression changed ever so slightly. "And you look thirsty," her soft voice replied. She was concerned about me. It was a great relief to know some of her absurdities would never change.

I nonchalantly dismissed her comment. "It's nothing." That was an understatement. I knew it'd been too long since my last hunt in the mountains north of Rio, but my thirst was considerably low on my list of priorities.

"Are you sure? I could sit with Alice."

A string of profanities crossed my mind. Had she lost her sanity? Was she trying to be funny? The concept of her finding any danger in my thirst was ludicrous!

"Don't be ridiculous," I exasperated. "I've never been in better control of that side of my nature than right now."

She looked like she wanted to say something but remained silent. It was a torture I'd endure, never knowing for certain what she was thinking. I couldn't bring myself to ask. Was she truly concerned for her safety in my presence? Should I attempt to convince her of the impossibility of my harming her?

For seven months I've thought of almost nothing but you. Almost because of the self-pity I allowed myself from time to time. And now, for the last twenty-four hours I've had only three thoughts.

"Bella is dead."

"Bella is alive."

"Bella is here."

What I've done has been unconscionable. I doubt that you will ever fully trust me again, but I will spend every moment of my existence attempting to prove myself to you again. I will never stop.

I love you. I love you. Bella. I love you. I will always love you. Forever.

Alice, being Alice interrupted my silent confession.

It's almost time to go. Alec will be here in twenty-two minutes. We'll need to exchange our plane tickets at the airport. I didn't expect to be here this long.

I nodded and pulled myself out of my obsessed self loathing.

I spoke quickly, not wanting to disturb Bella's momentary comfort.

"I want as quick a flight as possible. First class. You'll need to call Esme and Carlisle after Jazz. Tell them to meet us in Seattle. We're all going home." None of this was necessary. Alice's vision had already shown our family waiting for us, prepared to return to Forks. It's where we belonged and the only reason my family had left was because of me. Forks had become home to all of us.

"Oh, and…" I hesitated knowing Alice would be disappointed. "The Porsche is no longer appropriate. You'll need to acquire another vehicle. Don't get anything inside the city walls. And Alice, make it something comfortable." I kept my voice to a whisper, wanting to avoid giving Gianna, and thus her Masters, any information.

Party pooper!

I allowed that. Bella needed a backseat where she could sleep. As I spoke I had absently raised her left wrist to my lips kissed it gently, breathing in her warmth. Again, I wondered if she required food. I doubted she would've asked. She seemed to be anxious, not wanting to appear too feeble. I'd just have to listen for signs of her hunger. At the moment, perhaps being hungry was better than having her stomach full of contents.

"What was all that about singers?" Alice inquired, for some ridiculous reason. Aro had referred to Bella eloquently, grasping the siren call of her essence inside me. Her blood certainly did sing.

"La tua cantante," I repeated. Gazing into the expanse of Bella's now curious eyes and repeating the ancient Italian phrase was somehow… romantic. I felt my cheek pulling my lip up into a smile. Looking at her and repeating the phrase seemed perverse, but I had no shame left.

Besides, they were beautiful words spoken in an ancient language. I always loved the Italian language. Still, trying to surmise in mere words how her blood affected me seemed vapid, flat.

I shrugged.

"They have a name for someone who smells the way Bella does to me. They call her my singer- because her blood sings for me." I had to admit, they were at least on the right track. I barely noticed Alice's amusement at the explanation. I wanted so badly to lean down and kiss her lips.

Now is not the time. Patience. I settled for her forehead.

Bella's expression faltered. It was painstakingly obvious she'd exerted as much energy as any human could and was now fighting the urge to close her eyes. We were safe, but she seemed urgent about something, as if still desperately frightened. I considered requesting she sleep, but I already knew she'd argue. She would not rest until we were away from this place. I was growing increasingly impatient for Alec, until finally, I heard his approach. The carnage of his thoughts sickened me.

Watching his figure approach, Bella shifted in my arms, burying herself deeper into me. I kept my hold on her firm. There wasn't any reason to be afraid now, but she wouldn't be convinced. When he reached our vicinity, Alec spoke without hesitation.

"You're free to leave now. We ask that you don't linger in the city," his voice was husky, sickening satisfied. His eyes were crimson and his expression was euphoric. I shielded her from him immediately. I didn't want her to see or smell his satiated condition.

"That won't be a problem." There was nothing more to be said. Alec made an attempt of civility before leaving us to our escape.

I prepared to lift Bella, intent on carrying her, but she writhed stubbornly, intent on walking. I chose to not argue, not deny her this independence. Instead I supported as much of her weight as I could. I'd probably be amused by her audacity another day.

Gianna was giving unnecessary instructions obligingly. The expression on Alice's face solidified this woman's fate. Alice's vision was… disturbing. I quickly shook the all too familiar image from my mind feeling nothing but despair for the woman. There was nothing to be done without crossing Felix, therefore Aro and Caius.

She belonged to them. Property. They'd have considered it stealing. I felt like a cad for wanting to put distance between us, for leaving her to her fate.

We exited the lobby as quickly as Bella could manage, and in the crowded streets of Volterra I focused on getting my bearings. Bella would probably not last much longer on her feet and I was very careful with her. Even if her senses weren't dulled, she'd have trouble walking on the uneven cobblestones.

The revelers were a minor distraction to me, but were probably a nightmare to Bella. I glanced at her expression often in our haste, looking for any sign of emotional trauma. She seemed to be only vaguely aware of the bizarre celebration. Her eyes wandered as if she were watching an uninteresting movie.

I'll meet you outside. I'll find something comfortable. Oh, and I'll be sure to grab her backpack. Let her know… y'know, when she's lucid. Alice scanned Bella's face quickly. She's done really great!

I nodded to my sister as she disappeared into the shadows.

I continued to assist Bella west, to the portcullis, maneuvering through the crowd as cautiously as I was able. A drunk form in a long red satin cloak stepped too closely to Bella, almost knocking into her, and I glowered at him. He paled, immediately straightened and moved away in the opposite direction. I muttered a malediction under my voice.

Bella appeared unaware of the exchange but suddenly looked around, dully, then snapping her eyes to me. "Where's Alice?" she breathed anxiously.

"She went to retrieve your bags from where she stashed them this morning." I examined her closely, analyzing her ability to continue on her own feet. I reinforced my grip on her waist.

"She's stealing a car, too, isn't she?" Her disapproval was evident with each syllable. I kept my response light, holding back my laugh.

"Not till we're outside" I simpered.

I examined her from the corner of my eyes, analyzing her ability to continue on her own feet. Reinforcing my grip on her waist, we continued to push through the crowd. Bella seemed to be aware of my support, now, and leaned into me. I resisted the urge to lift her completely so we could escape more quickly.

Finally. The portcullis was being passed under and we were out of the city walls.

It took less than two seconds to find the car Alice had chosen and was currently revving. I ushered Bella to the waiting Citroën C4 Picasso, gently lowering her into the backseat and taking my place next to her. Alice didn't hesitate and put the car in motion just as my door was closed. I flashed an approving smile to her through the mirror. She glanced back to us, false atonement flooding her eyes.

"I'm sorry" she almost mused, grandly waving her fingers past the car's dashboard. "There wasn't much to choose from."

"It's fine, Alice" I smirked. "They can't all be 911 Turbos." Of course, I knew what she was getting at. She was disappointed by the luxury sedan.

Sighing heavily, she wistfully proclaimed, "I may have to acquire one of those legally." Then she whispered heavily.

"It was fabulous."

C'mon Edward, I'm practically handing this to you. Her lip flickered, reminding me I'd been looking for a way to repay her for Aro.

"I'll get you one for Christmas." I winked at her.

When she turned, wide-eyed, smiling brilliantly to announce her color preference, YELLOW!, Bella flinched and inhaled sharply. I held my arms around her, realizing Alice's driving was making her nervous.

I could still read some of her unspoken thoughts.

Knowing the wretched cloak was all I had to keep her warm, I clenched my jaw and wrapped it around her. She needed sleep, and there was no reason for her to be brave anymore. We were completely free of the threat of the Volturri and their Guard.

"You can sleep now, Bella. It's over," I whispered to her, leaning in close enough for my lips to find her hair. I couldn't imagine any human enduring what she'd just gone through, and now she needed to close her eyes and rest.

I forgot momentarily that she was the most stubborn creature on the face of the planet. I felt her tense and swallow hard.

"I don't want to sleep," she argued. Then with no amount of credibility she said, "I'm not tired." Why did she even attempt deception? It was comical. I knew she would eventually slip into unconsciousness regardless, but I sincerely wanted her to relax.

I wondered if my persuasive charm would still work on her. I leaned to her neck and exhaled one word.

"Try."

Bella bit her lip and shook her head. Why would she be so ridiculous? I tried to soothe her, carelessly rubbing circles on her shoulders. I was frustrated, knowing I'd have to practice my so called "dazzle" effect.

"You're still just as stubborn." I frowned but left it at that.

Alice drove in silence, traversing the almost eighty kilometers of dark road. We entered Florence from the south, and the airport was located on the north side of the city. The dark mountains west of the city looked beautiful and I dreamed of bringing Bella back some day.

In the airport, Bella requested time to change clothes and perform various human rituals in the restroom. After asking concierge, I took her to the closest personal bathroom and stood outside the door, like a brooding personal bodyguard. Alice wanted to take advantage of the Italian designers in order to replace my shirt, and I nodded.

I'll be quick. Quicker than her. She jutted her chin towards the bathroom door, smirking.

Alice was back in less than seven minutes, holding an expensive looking shopping bag out to me. I pulled the gauzy beige shirt out and quickly put it on, tossing the despicable cloak into the bag.

I've arranged our boarding passes but we don't have a direct flight. It's just a few layovers, nothing major. We're all first class. I got you guys three seats so she can stretch out.

I kissed her cheek and reminded her I loved her. She only grinned at me.

Bella finally exited the restroom, I tucked the bag under my arm and draped myself around her waist, lifting her as we walked. Alice noticed the awkwardness of Bella's step and took the bag from me, depositing it in the nearest receptacle.

Gently towing Bella, we moved gradually to the departure gate for Rome, timing ourselves so we'd board immediately. The flight was under an hour, but I'd hoped Bella would rest. She hardly blinked. It was becoming preposterous, but I didn't argue.

We made our connection in Rome. Shortly after take-off, Alice was on the phone to Jazz. Her voice was barely a whisper, and she spoke only for a few moments.

Once we'd settled into our seats for the trip overseas, I knew Bella would relax and finally sleep. Instead, Bella requested the flight attendant bring her a caffeine beverage.

Enough! This is entirely unhealthy.

I interceded. "Bella…" my voice scolded, not trying to hide my irritation.

Her entire demeanor drooped and swaggered, very much like a person inebriated with a drug or alcohol. She was fighting off what was healthy, necessary for her, what her human body needed.

Sleep.

I was jealous at that moment. Jealous that she would be able to simply close her eyes and relax, acclimate to her surroundings, let her mind wander, eventually wake to a new day, breathe softly and let each breath be... cleansing, invigorating.

Plus, she captured my interest when she slept. She would speak her secrets in her sleep. I was, without any doubt, desperate to know if I still had a place in her dreams.

Sleep, please. Dream...

"I don't want to sleep. If I close my eyes now, I'll see things I don't want to see. I'll have nightmares." Her words were poignant and quick. Of course! She was remembering the human screams. I collapsed inside. I couldn't even bring myself to look her in the eye.

I was utterly clueless, thinking only of my own deviant satisfaction. I didn't protest when she continued ordering tonics from the passing attendants.

Instead, I held her, wanting to protect her from her own memory, and having absolutely no way of accomplishing this. I expected her to share with me when and if she was able. But she held her silence and it was driving me to obsession.

When her fatigue began to overtake her, I allowed my eyes to explore her face. Even having taken on this sickly pallor, she was unimaginably beautiful. I tried to pinpoint exactly what it was that made her such a physically desirable creature. Her eyes stared up at mine, intense even in their haze. I pulled her face closer to mine.

There was innocence in her eyes, vulnerable and frightened, yet still fierce and alluring. I kissed her temples gently before falling back into her stare, hoping to find what lay beyond those eyes, brown with flecks of amber and gold, a soft black ring around the iris.

Brown was warm. I smiled softly into the warmth, remembering our distant conversation. Her skin had a translucency unlike any other humans. Now, under her cheeks, blue lines showed themselves. I stroked them with my lips, intensely aware of the heat that was rushing to them, warming her even more.

My fingers found paths through her long hair. I regularly brought wisps of it to my lips, intoxicated by the scent. Her hair was always one of my favorite playgrounds. The texture was thousands of delicate strands that seemingly moved individually, yet always as one. Her hair lacked the shine and luster it'd had last September, but the color was still as rich as the Earth after a mild rain.

I continued examining her entirely, taking my time with some of my favorite features; my fingers stroked her seductive collarbone for a long time. I found myself twisting my fingers around her wrists, examining her small hands and kissing each fingertip gently.

I kissed her features frequently. But I was savoring her lips for a more intimate moment. I'd dreamed of kissing her lips for seven months, and I was drowning in the anticipation of that moment.

She was still such a mystery to me. Blanketed in her exhaustion, she was extremely difficult to read. Generally, I succumbed to necessity of asking her what she thought. But not now, when she needed to be peaceful and relaxed.

La tua cantante.

I had to admit, there was a certain charm to having a name for my longing, even if it wasn't nearly accurate. The "singers" of the immortals never lived long enough to realize they'd had any kind of effect on the vampire in their midst. They were taken immediately, savored for too little time, and never, ever forgotten.

It had been considered a gift and a curse, to hear someone's blood sing to one of my kind. The exquisite moment was brief. And after the last drop was drained, thirst was never truly satisfied again.

To swallow her life between my lips, to taste and to take. That hunger was always present. But another hunger was equally strong. The hunger to preserve and protect the life I so greedily held in my arms.

How insane was I? Obsessed vampire, flying over the Atlantic Ocean with a mortal half sleeping in my arms, remembering high school Biology class yet again. When she first walked close to where I sat, and my fantasies overtook me. It had seemed like such an ordeal, then! Weeks then months passed, when I wasn't sure how to keep Bella alive if I stayed nearby. I had stalked her closely and shamelessly in the minds of every person who came into her presence.

I wanted to laugh. Or cry. Instead I held her and kissed every part of her wrists, her hair, her cheeks and forehead. Drawing her near, I kissed her neck and throat, torturing myself with her scent and her allure, accepting my fate. I would stay with her for as long as she lived. I would protect her life from whatever dangers lay in her path. And one day, I would return to Volterra.

The longest leg of our journey ended and Bella had won her battle against sleep. I walked her carefully through the airport of Atlanta to our final connection, holding Bella up by her waist and arms. Alice danced quickly ahead to arrange our boarding passes and to ensure we'd be allowed to board immediately.

I'll tell them she's sick. I mean... look at her.

Bella was drifting in and out, her endurance nearly gone despite the effects of the caffeine. I was supporting her completely, but she still shuffled her feet, trying to walk. She still hadn't spoken.

When we were on the last plane of the journey, I picked up exactly where I'd left off, perfectly content. I wondered why she didn't speak, but I was willing to follow suit if she was more comfortable in silence.

There had been only brief conversations with Alice. Our family would be waiting for us, of course. Esme had been beside herself before Alice's call to Jasper on the flight out of Europe. I felt a great deal of guilt for how much pain I'd caused. I would have to be especially careful with my mother for some time. I had forced her to relive the brutal pain of losing another child.

I was suddenly aware of the dread I felt for Bella. I couldn't allow even her mortality to separate us, and that was going to end in my own demise.

A thought crossed my mind. Carlisle would be loathed to put Esme through this again. And he would assume my intent hadn't altered; Bella dies, I die. Would Carlisle turn his back on my wishes and become a threat to Bella's mortality?

My mind, again, was stealing her. I'd find someplace she'd enjoy, where she could be happy to live her life, and I'd make certain it was a long life.

I wanted her to be mine, a possession! In the final stages of our flight I began to consider the possibility that I'd completely lost my mind. I struggled with myself, remembering the threat of Jasper, the resentment Rose held, Emmett's strength, even Alice simply hugging her...

I again began to question my place with Bella.

I wanted her to choose me, and be happy for the rest of her days with her decision. But how could she ever be? She would always have remorse for the threats and sacrifices a life with me would demand. And I would always serve as her protector, regardless of the threat. The thought terrified me.

Morning light was beginning to pour into the plane as we descended into the cloudy skies of Washington State. I cautiously leaned across her to close the shade over the window. She'd been so still, I thought she'd finally fallen asleep with her eyes open, but she followed my movement, and I knew she was still somewhat conscious.

We landed, taxied and departed less than fifteen minutes later. The attendants seemed willing to let us off the plane as soon as the doors were opened, so with my arm wrapped securely around her waist, I moved as gracefully as I could down the make-shift corridor towards the terminal.

Alice was behind me, but slipped past quickly as the corridor ended. I held Bella close as I followed my sister. She was moving too quickly and might draw attention. I started to question her before realizing she'd been away from Jasper for days and her need for him was strong. Instead, I refocused my clutch on Bella and kept up.

The reunion between Jasper and Alice was intimate. I purposely closed my mind to them.

Carlisle had found a secluded spot to wait patiently with Esme. My mother's eyes reached mine, overcome with love and relief. They joined us instantly, ignoring the turning heads of the nearby humans.

Esme hugged Bella intensely, which would have knocked her down if I hadn't been supporting her. She whispered gratitude in Bella's ear and my heart swelled. I had prepared myself for Bella to be improperly blamed for my actions.

Then Esme turned to me, embraced me lovingly, saying, "You will never put me through that again." I could hear the stern command loud and clear, and I stowed away the knowledge that I would, one day, hurt her more deeply than I had today.

I arranged my face appropriately and said with all the love I could muster, "Sorry, Mom." She seemed satisfied to leave the topic as closed. He's home! He's safe! I didn't want to hear her thoughts but I smiled. She was acquiesced for the time being.

Then it was my father's turn to address the limp creature in my arms. I felt like shaking her, so she could respond. My family was embracing her for bravery and potential sacrifices. She deserved their praise. But I let her remain in her stupor.

She was barely conscious.

"Thank you, Bella. We owe you." My father's words were simple and to the point. His tone was rich with sincerity. I searched his mind for any trace of threat to her, any realization of my intentions. Bella was still mortal and I wanted her to keep her life... He hadn't come to any conclusions, yet.

Bella attempted to respond but was barely audible. Whatever she'd said was garbled. At first, it sounded like she'd said "Harley" but I didn't think she held any knowledge about motorcycles. Then I thought perhaps she'd said, "Charlie" but there was no way of knowing.

I deciphered as quickly as I could and concluded she must've said "Harry". Immediately, I made the connection. Her father's friend had passed, and Bella would be quick to want to console him. She was slipping away quickly now. And she wanted to go home. She'd either said "Charlie" or "Harry" but I knew she needed her father.

"She's dead on her feet. Let's get her home." Esme's tone was disappointed, but she quickly realized I hadn't been given any control over Bella's condition. She immediately moved herself to carry Bella's half awake body, draping Bella's arm around her shoulder.

This must've been incredibly difficult for her. I knew she would love you this much. You are completely worth this. I love you, son. Please, no more drama for a while.

When her thoughts quieted, I replied, "I love you, Mom. I really am sorry for making you suffer." I whispered my lament quietly and quickly as we left the airport.

Bella's muscles were failing her and my concern was raging. I was aware of the effects of sleep deprivation, and wondered if she'd already begun hallucinating.

When we reached the valet, a familiar and tangy thought struck me like a slap in the face.

Oh thank God! Edward, I'm so sorry. Please… I am SO sorry.

I wasn't sure if I was prepared to deal with Rosalie yet. My reaction to hearing her thoughts made me want to sling Bella over my shoulder and run. I knew Rose too well to assume anything. I was quantified the "bad guy" in this whole mess and she was completely embarrassed. She might blame Bella and lash out.

"Don't" Esme urged. "She feels awful."

Rose feels really bad, kid. Don't be too harsh, for the rest of our sakes. She's been impossible to live with for the last couple days.

Emmet looked like he'd had a rough few days.

Hey, what'd ya do to Bella?

Bella was attempting to say something and I had to listen very closely in order to decipher her words. She sounded like she was trying to speak underwater. She'd said something about "fault" and I put the rest of it together myself. She was defending Rosalie. Not her fault? Yes, because that's exactly what Bella would say.

"Let her make amends. We'll ride with Alice and Jasper." Esme released Bella's arm after she was certain I had her.

I faced Rosalie head on, not attempting to hold back my anger.

"Please Edward." Bella had been more coherent this time. She articulated enough I was able to understand not just her words, but also her meaning. She did not want a confrontation, so I would not cause one. I exhaled and maneuvered her limp body into the back of the Mercedes.

I loved Rose and I understood her better than anyone, even Emmett. She hid so many dimensions of herself, wanting people to only see the parts of her she felt were worthy and attractive. But I found Rose to be completely intolerable from time to time. And since my courtship with Bella began, those times became more frequent. Her jealousy overwhelmed her, the outrage she felt that I had not obviously chosen her and now I was wanting Bella. She didn't care that her feelings for me mirrored mine. She had only seethed at the rejection.

I relaxed in her sincere remorse. She had been drowning in her guilt. All other thoughts had been pushed aside.

Bella's head fell limp against me as the vehicle glided forward.

"Edward," Rosalie whispered, her voice stricken with sorrow.

"I know." That was all I could manage for the moment, completely aware that Bella was losing her battle against sleep.

I know you know, but I'm going to say it to your face. I'm going to look you in the eyes and tell you how wrong I was to interfere. I'm willing to wait. What's wrong with Bella?

My eyes never left Bella's.

"Bella?" Rose's hushed voice was tender, so I didn't immediately stop her from addressing the semi-conscious form in my arms. I felt her stir, trying to lift her head, failing. Her response was barely a murmur.

"Yes Rosalie?" Her words blended together, making her sound garbled again.

Rose didn't hesitate, speaking quickly as if something might stop her from getting her entire point across.

"I'm so sorry, Bella. I feel wretched about every part of this, and so grateful that you were brave enough to go save my brother after what I did. Please say you'll forgive me."

Make sure she knows I mean it.

My eyes fell on the lethargic beauty in my arms. I already knew exactly how she'd respond to my sister's pleas for forgiveness.

"Of course, Rosalie." I wondered if I needed to translate. "It's not your fault at all. I'm the one who jumped off the damn cliff. Of course I forgive you."

I struggled with the possibility that this could be the moment I kissed her lips. I wanted to, immensely.

Emmett seemed amused. "It doesn't count until she's conscious, Rose," he chaffed. There was a powerful bond between them and only Em was allowed to tease Rose, and get away with it.

Rosalie remained silent, but Bella protested, "I'm conscious." Her voice had slipped under the water again. Relief flooded through me as she closed her eyes and her breathing became deeper. She finally fell asleep.

"Let her sleep." It was not a request.

I held her closely to me, never wanting the moment to end. She was all I wanted, and she was here, in my arms. I leaned down and kissed her hair, not moving again until we were pulling into the gravel in front of her house.

Charlie's house. Chief Swan. Bella's father. Very few things bring fear to a vampire, but this was definitely one.

I wasn't the least bit surprised her father was charging out the door. He looked nearly as exhausted as Bella had in the reception room the previous night. I imagined the ordeal had caused him restless nights. My respect for Chief Swan caused me to want to comfort the man.

Suddenly I wondered if Bella had even told him where she was going before she left. I hadn't gotten any details from Alice regarding Chief Swan. Everything had happened so quickly after his friend's heart attack and then death.

Charlie was having a very bad week, and this wasn't helping.

Bella needed to be in her bed. I lifted her as gently as I could so as not to wake her. I hoped Charlie would see how exhausted she was and allow her to continue sleeping.

Nope. Not even close.

What the hell has he done? Is she… Is she okay?!

"Bella!" His voice was thick with worry, relief, rage directed mostly at me. I realized this was going to be awkward.

His daughter, my love, stirred. I tried to shift her, ever so slightly, to reassure him of his daughter's well being, but also to expose him to the urgency of her remaining dormant.

"Charlie" she whispered. I don't think the sound traveled enough to reach him. I leaned over her face, my lips on her forehead.

I can't believe this. He's back? He's going to rip her heart out. Doesn't he know what she's been through?

That was all it took. Every painful realization came at me at once. She hadn't been ill, her palor wasn't some leftover virus she'd suffered. It was the anguish of our separation. I'd caused her so much pain, and now I had to face it.

"Shh. Its okay; you're home and safe. Just sleep." I cradled her firmly next to my chest. I hoped without any real optimism that Charlie would catch on.

"I can't believe you have the nerve to show your face here," Charlie seethed. I was completely willing to absorb the Chief's entire furor; I only wanted him to deliver it quietly. I carried Bella slowly towards the porch, but the Chief was approaching quickly, his heart rate steadily rising with his temper.

"Stop it, Dad." She managed to pry her eyes open.

Bella's voice sounded hollow and sad. She was trying to lift her head, force her head up.

My patience with Chief Swan was wearing thin, but I kept myself in check.

"What's wrong with her?" Charlie's loud voice was harsh and ragged.

"She's just very tired, Charlie. Please, let her rest." I tried to soften my voice, to convey the severity of her condition.

Months! And not even a single phone call. If he thinks I'm going to stand by and let him do this to her all over again…

"Don't tell me what to do! Give her to me. Get your hands off her!" Charlie's eyes were crazed. He was, at the moment, a raving lunatic. His love for his only daughter was forefront in his mind, and I could handle bearing the brunt of his fury. He was dealing with an aftermath that would cause most parents to snap.

In order to calm him, I was willing to release her into his custody, but Bella was clutching my neck, locking her fingers refusing to budge. Charlie was now physically trying to force her out of my arms.

It was quite a scene. I was vaguely aware of Rosalie and Emmett, watching curiously from Carlisle's Mercedes. This was probably the most interaction they'd had with humans since they were human themselves. Their thoughts were almost completely stunned. Emmett felt amused while Rosalie was irritated. Both were wondering how this would work itself out. I was pondering that myself.

"Cut it out, Dad," Bella's voice reminded me of an angry kitten. "Be mad at me." Adorable. She was being protective. I was almost to the porch.

"You bet I will be. Get inside." Tension spiraled out of Charlie in every direction.

"Kay, let me down." Bella wanted to walk the rest of the way. I wondered if she would be able to manage, but I wasn't going to deny her. She managed to take a single step before collapsing, face first, towards the cement.

Even if I hadn't been prepared for it, I would've been able to catch her back into my arms. But I was prepared, so I was able to do it more gingerly.

My eyes locked onto Chief Swans, imploring him to listen to reason. "Just let me get her upstairs. Then I'll leave."

Bella's voice startled me. It was perfectly coherent and full of emotion. It was one emphatic word.

"No."

Suddenly, things became clearer. She was immediately frightened. No, she was horrified! Her entire body tensed in my arms. She thought I was going to leave her again? She thought I was capable of blasphemy, twice.

I almost laughed.

I did not want her to feel any ounce of fear. I considered vowing to her then and there I would never, ever leave her again. I wanted to tell her how devoted I was to being in her presence for the rest of her life. I wanted her to understand. Leaving would never again be possible.

Now was not a good time for such a declaration. Chief Swan was practically foaming at the mouth.

I leaned into her, speaking clearly but too low for Charlie's ears. "I won't be far."

I said the words with an intensity that she would believe. That would have to do. For now. I entered the house more quickly than I probably should have, leaving Charlie in a stupor, still on the sidewalk. Out of Charlie's view I ascended the stairs with two bounds. I lowered the now unconscious Bella onto her bed. After untangling her fingers from my clothing and kissing each one earnestly, I took a step back and admired her, aware that Charlie was already entering the house.

She was marvelous. I was finally complete again. I love you. Bella.

Bella. I love you

I breathed in the glorious scent of her room.

Then, I turned to face her father's wrath, completely ecstatic.