Disclaimer: Twilight belongs to Stephenie Meyer.
Ever-gracious under pressure, Edward allowed Aro to play dumb. We didn't have to be mind readers to know Aro's motivations, but that didn't stop Edward from verbalizing them for the rest of us. "From the moment your tracker followed me to Portugal and reported back that I purchased an island with a ruined fortress you decided to use it as a means to frame us for some conspiracy to overthrow the Volturi. You were just thinking that happening upon such a piece of information was the only good that came of his rogue mission."
Edward's candor threw Aro for a moment. If I'd noticed the hesitation, I could only assume the others had as well. "It was an ill-conceived idea, one that has been addressed. And, yes, knowing that a talented coven of vampires collects fortified military outposts interests me. It interests my brothers as well."
Marcus seemed only slightly less bored after their sparring. "Realisitically, brother, such a pile of rocks cannot be something to worry over. Those covens in eastern Europe favor nuclear bunkers, a fact that concerns no one anymore."
From the looks on the faces of our Romanian friends they didn't care who knew where they lived. A Draconic arch of the brow seemed directed at one of the fair-haired Alaskans. Did Stefan just offer Tanya Denali a private tour of his bunker?
"No, but the intent is worrisome." Aro would not be shaken easily.
Again Edward interjected. This was escalating much quicker than predicted. No one had even had a chance to see our side, to see us as non-threatening. "There was no malignant intent as you have proposed. But all the better that you voice your concerns with so many in attendance. An uninhabited island should tell you that we have no desire to install ourselves as rulers of any kingdom, large or small, a conclusion your brothers seem to be leaning towards. Jealous as you are of your power though, you see threats to it everywhere. A family in no rush to change a talented human that will obviously become a talented vampire should indicate that we are not constructing an army, yet you are so anxious to expand your own arsenal, you see the same possibility everywhere you turn."
Aro did not have to defend himself. Marcus spoke up, probably shaken from his boredom by the exchange's suddenly lowered timbre. Edward's purr had darkened to a growl. "Watch your tone. I will not warn you again to be respectful. I told you I could see no harm in owning an island. The three will not act on a whim. Calm yourself."
Caius was equally interested, though apparently for a different reason. "Are these thing you hear, Edward, or things you suppose based on what you hear?"
"Then which details are supposition, brother?" Caius let Aro present his case first, a conundrum in itself: tell as much as he dared and hope his brothers would join the conspiracy, or deny it all and paint Edward a liar.
"Of course I see this talented gathering," he spoke of the Cullens while indirectly hinted at our entire group, "and wonder which way they lean. Do they truly wish the beneficence they claim or are they like so many other gifted ones we've known in years past who have declined to join our cause for reasons impure?"
"Such a tragedy when immortals refuse to follow the rules." Marcus sighed the words more than spoke them, as if giving vent to a millennium of frustration pig-headed vampires had caused him. He seemed to finally understand why he'd been dragged so far from his comfortable home and would move the process along just to return to his perch.
"But is that the case here? I doubt it very much." Caius was not losing sight of the question at hand.
Carlisle kept the conversation from deteriorating too quickly, reminding them of the invitation they received.
"Of course. Wasn't there music? Let the dancing resume!" Caius' sudden change of opinion frightened me. Vampires in general turned their train of thought on a dime, tight spirals of mental acuity now aimed at me and mine. Not encouraging.
At first, only the nomads who'd been at the house moved. The dancing resumed sedately, deferentially, until the murmured approval of the wives encouraged mingling. A few in the gallery appeared to be acquainted with our guests. The beauty of this group overwhelmed me, like the partygoers the night before.
Edward took my hand and tipped his head in Aro's direction as we joined the dancers. Uneven, sleety ice covered every pond and fountain. Overnight, just as Alice had seen in her glimpses of this day, temperatures dipped back below freezing. Every fragile blossom that peeked out had a coating of ice. Wet flakes settled uncertainly, shifting as they melted, atop every surface, leaving only an outline of frosty white in the places that saw the least traffic. Ghostly silhouettes in the carved ice hurricanes swayed with the wedding guests. A single pot of fire seemed to float atop the slushy koi pond, a formal affair with evergreen standards on each side.
I moved to one of the heaters in the conservatory. Edward hovered protectively, careful to keep the scary arm away from me, keeping the chit chat up.
An icy wind moved in from behind me. I felt a chill sneak down my collar and saw the branches above me shiver as well.
"What is that smell, that awful stench of dog?" Caius gave voice to the thought of every immortal, their perfect noses scrunched in disgust. Our houseguests giggled.
"That would be me." A growl rippled through the strangers at Jake's admission.
"And you harbor werewolves here too?" Aro was practically salivating at this new opening.
Jasper spoke up immediately. "Wolf, not werewolf. Not Children of the Moon. You know as well as the rest of us that Carlisle executed one on the continent. He would not allow one here. This wolf is not the same."
Caius cackled. "A guard dog? Or maybe just a pet?"
The comment seemed to amuse Jake but it angered me.
"Yes, yes. But why is he here? His home, which he must have left unprotected, is half a world away." Aro's interest was piqued.
"He's here for me. We've been friends since childhood."
"This gathering has certainly attracted a strange cast of characters. A wolf whose bite must be toxic to vampires, an empath, a mind-reader, a clairvoyant, a woman who can create lifelike hallucinations…the list goes on and on. I'm sure there are talents hidden here that I even I don't know about, nomads unknown to me before now. This looks conspicuously like an ambush, Mrs. Cullen. Are you attempting to ambush us in celebration of your marriage?
"Because coming here to protect his friend from being collateral damage in a battle would certainly be a reason for this canine to traverse the globe."
"Or maybe I'm just uncomfortable with her alone in a houseful of bloodsuckers." Jake's tone was light, the glib Jake 2.0 from our time in London, and elicited a giggle or two from the gallery. Under a different set of circumstances, I'm pretty sure he would've acquired some undead groupies, a sparkly new set of contacts for his phone. I could practically hear their thoughts about what to do with more than six feet of wild American wolf. Poor Edward would need a brain bleaching.
"Yes. Well…how could I know if there were games afoot? How could I be certain of what is possibly lurking here…or who?" He tapped his chin in mock contemplation. We all knew what he wanted. All he had to do was ask.
Marcus was bored of the game before it started. "The boy, the one who knows everything, he could certainly be of use. Edward, tell us what is going on. Let's get this done so the ladies can enjoy their day. They've traveled so far for diversion and all we've offered them is posturing and...well, a comparison of statures."
"Of course! Your wish, Marcus, my command. Let me be of service to you."
"You are so eager to share, Edward. I'm surprised no one protests, since you know all their secrets. Maybe there is someone else who could enlighten me. Someone who knows this story from the beginning? Carlisle?"
Marcus raised a hand and the three convened quietly. Edward leaned in to update me. "Marcus and Caius want to make sure we intend to change you. They'd like it all taken care of now."
Caius wasn't interested in delaying this. "No, brother. Let's just find out from the boy. He'll know if they really plan on giving Bella immortality, he'll know if there's an ambush. I agree with Marcus' wish for expedience."
Suddenly it was upon us, the moment I'd feared more than any other. Edward was always supposed to cross the garden to meet Aro, but it was too soon yet. Not the plan, this wasn't the plan. The uncomfortable introduction was supposed to break up, we'd have a chance to mingle, feel out the crowd in smaller groups, with less tension, and then Edward would bring up Alistair. Expedience wasn't the plan.
But one gust of wind and the plan, it changed.
He crossed the considerable distance at vampire speed, leaving before I had a chance to protest. I couldn't help myself. I followed. Without a second thought, I flipped a stray lock behind my ear, lifted my skirt to prevent a stain and kept my eyes locked on Aro. Having taken some notes over the course of the last few weeks, I had the presence of mind to not chase after Edward like a little girl. I sauntered, slowly, deliberately, in an act so defiant the vampires couldn't help but wait for me if only to assuage their curiosity.
Every eye, amber to red, lasered in on me as I rejoined my husband and slipped my hand into his. He looked at me and I saw it all—anger, confusion, fear. As a secondary class of sentient being, my actual presence was unnecessary for the Volturi to decide my fate. I was a snack or an embryo. Either way, I'd yet to reach my potential in their estimation.
Aro removed his glove. Bare skin so close to Edward would already be feeling Gen's dread. I certainly could. He should at least be apprehensive.
But we didn't know. This wasn't what Alice had seen; we were officially off the rails. Edward had taken us off. Even as I walked to meet him, I'd imagined that some movie-version of events would happen, where the should-be future and actual future would diverge and then reunite, where this aberration would be rectified. Nope. Not yet. He'd had multiple chances to right the course and passed them by. I panicked and my heart telegrammed that fear across the field. Everyone knew that this day had been full of stressors for the human but now something was really wrong. After brazening my way through this much, I'd still murder us all with my own tell-tale heart.
They knew. The Volturi knew about Aro and they didn't care. We would all be executed.
My vision tunneled and reddened. Suddenly there was no one else on the grounds at Allesworth, just Edward and I. If Aro would do this despite what Gen had left for him, he must have an end-game in mind, something to make it worth torturing himself. He was looking for something particular, something to guarantee our damnation.
Why had he escalated things so unexpectedly?
I remembered my hands in Gen's, my lips against her cheek before we parted ways. Edward had rubbed against Jake but I had not. I could have brought evidence of her right to the Volturi. Aro's smug expression did nothing to allay my fears.
He thinks a hybrid exists.
He's looking for something he can use to prove it. Close as I was to Edward, I couldn't tell if I was afraid that Aro could smell a link to Gen or if smelled the link to Gen. Was this just the paranoia she wanted him to find?
We knew it could happen, that he might wonder. He might not even smell her on me. I couldn't push the anxiety away, couldn't distinguish between real fear and manufactured, no matter how I tried.
Finally Edward extended his hand, jaw clenched. No heart was supposed to beat like this. It felt as if my skin swelled and burst when Aro took the proffered palm in his.
I held my breath. Why was no one reacting? I looked frantically at my family and friends. They were acting as if nothing was amiss. But it was! Everything was. Aro knew. He knew everything.
I looked at Jake. RUN.
Edward was smiling, smiling like he'd just eaten the canary, taunting Aro. He squeezed my shoulder and my heart thudded away, the fear that I'd never feel his cool fingertips again motoring it along. I leaned my head against his chest and braced for the worst. They would have to take us together.
"Your wife seems to have taught you a thing or two, young Edward."
What? I searched his face for some hint as to what Aro could mean and found nothing helpful. His lips curled out as if they wanted to stretch into a smile but he wouldn't allow it. His eyes found mine and he kissed my forehead.
"There is nothing to learn. She's done this on her own, though God only knows how. It's amazing, in fact, the resourceful ways that humans can protect themselves if they are backed into a corner, wouldn't you say?"
I was doing this? Was Edward insane, pushing Aro in such a way?
"They are an interesting study, young Edward, but I daresay they are not capable of protecting themselves from us absolutely."
"Fortunately for them, our lives depend on their continued existence."
Marcus looked less bored than he had a moment ago, probably more interested in the current events than he had been in centuries. "Aro, what is the boy getting at? He's glib facing such a serious situation."
Aro feigned disinterest. "He's trying to distract us from the fact that his human mate is just that, that he's assembled an army to keep her that way. By all rights, her human life should be over. Perhaps…perhaps he just needs some help deciding."
Felix stepped forward. Rose and Emmett were at my side in a second, Rose to protect the last of my humanity and Emmett to fight for all of me.
Caius smiled wickedly.
A new voice broke the wait. Alistair joined Emmett and Rose. "Enough already. Can we not call a spade a spade here? We've assembled here to celebrate this unusual union but you see more than that, don't you, Aro? Why have you dragged your court across Europe—twice—to visit the Cullens? You haven't been agitated enough to wander so far afield in centuries. It's not to celebrate with us, as you first pretended, or even to make sure that this exceptional human is sincere in her promise to become one of us. You see this family as a threat to your power and are here to destroy them."
Caius looked from Aro to Alistair, considering Alistair's allegation. "Nomad, you have made a serious complaint and you've made it in front of quite a number of witnesses. You understand the gravity, no doubt, of accusing us of such violent intent.
"I would not even feel the need to answer such unfounded questions were it not for the number of onlookers. For their sakes I will say aloud that my only intention here was to ensure that Edward and Isabella were intending to obey the law. They are and I am satisfied with that.
"Edward, and now you, have made me consider that more might be afoot.
"Marcus, what do you think?"
A sigh. "These two are so inseparably bound that she will no doubt become an immortal in the not-too-distant future, if only because a human life would part them so soon. There would be no wrongdoing if we were to let this play out.
"Aro, this group is aligned and ready to defend one another like we are, without the aid of our dear Chelsea. Could this human be enough to do that?"
"No. They are here for something else entirely."
Marcus tried to care. "But what else is there? If they have no fear of being destroyed anymore, what is their rallying point? Let us be on our way."
Aro touched Edward again. Unsuccessful again, apparently, he nodded to Jane.
Jane smiled widely. She'd been waiting, it would seem. I puckered saucily and air-kissed, even though I wasn't sure that keeping Aro out of Edward's head was a guarantee she'd be as impotent.
"She can't get to me. Are you doing this, Bella?"
"I hope so."
Aro raised a hand, the hand that had been on Edward's. "Enough. We have not come all this way to be toyed with." He seemed to be recovering his equilibrium without the influence of Gen's present.
I heard Rose snort beside me. "No. But what have you come for, Aro? You're not here just to warn Bella and Edward to color in the lines. You're not here to congratulate them. And you certainly haven't come all this way to welcome your old friend Carlisle back. Did you come to visit another old friend?"
"Rosalie, no." Esme's voice sounded like a whisper.
"Are there more old friends here?" I could almost see blood dripping from his mouth. If I let Edward go, the fear might let up but so might the protection.
Alistair strode forward, Sophie's hand firmly in his. "I am Alistair. This is my mate, Sophie. I think you have old friends in common."
Aro seemed to be without words, so Sophie helped him with a few. "You sent Tristan to fetch me from Paris all those years ago. There was an unfortunate incident with a werewolf—an actual werewolf—where Alistair was forced to change me or let me die. He chose to save me. It is a pleasure to finally meet you all, though such a pity it's under these circumstances. He tells me I was to live with you, intended to adorn your illustrious court."
Something about Sophie piqued Marcus' interest. He cast off every trace of boredom; it shattered at his feet. "I remember that story as if it was only yesterday. Tristan was quite smitten with you as a human. He only noticed you because you were with Carlisle even then...interesting.
"Eleazar came to us with stories of a human that could hear thoughts left behind, read them like slug trails. He said she was beautiful and intelligent and would make a nearly seamless transition to our world save one minor problem. She had an uncle with aristocratic ties, important to other humans. Your exit from his life would need to be carefully orchestrated. Aro decided you wouldn't necessarily have such a talent and advised us that turning you early would be unduly risky. Such a shame we didn't turn you.
"How did you find you way to immortality despite that?"
As she told the carefully-edited version of her transition and being reunited with her old friend, Aro's face changed. He began to look like a monster. I felt a gentle pull from Edward. I wrapped around him as if suddenly cold and he could offer some relief from that.
"I would've died from the injuries but Alistair decided that he was tired of being alone. He brought me here so that I could change without the threat of being found."
Aro pressed. "And you are just now seeing Carlisle? Strange to go so long without seeing your dear friend."
"A different life. You know how it goes. He wasn't even a memory when I awoke. Alistair had to tell me about him."
"Yes, well. Carlisle's gifted army of friends continues to grow."
It was clear that Aro had no intention of letting us mix informally. The time had come. This moment didn't exactly coincide with anything Alice had seen but all the major boxes had been checked. Alistair and Sophie were introduced. Aro's still-veiled accusations had been aired. Everyone knew Sophie's talent.
"Which brings me to a rather delicate point." It was Sophie's turn to be the center of attention. "Your tiny friend who provides all the painful enforcing: many of her thoughts are on you…smeared on you. And many of your thoughts sound bizarrely like what you accused Carlisle of. Are you assembling an army? What exactly is your relationship with that tiny sadist?"
Aro bared his teeth but it was Alex who spoke up. "Jane and I are twins: occupied the same womb and turned with the same venom. Neither of us have ever been interested in a mate; we are a yin and yang. You misunderstand. Aro is my father."
Marcus didn't look convinced. "Have you lied to me, Aro, and done this unnatural thing? Have you lied to all of us? Why?"
Marcus understood their connection finally. Aro was no father figure. The hive began to buzz again. The words "practically incestuous" came from the direction of the wives but I couldn't pin down the source.
Aro stood his ground. "We hide in the shadows and give humans the run of this planet. Why? So they can feel secure? We have no natural predator. Werewolves are gone. The wolf boy from Forks is part of a small pack of shape-shifters who might be able to defend themselves. Apart from them, we are the only barrier to outright rule of the planet.
"Aren't we better equipped to manage its resources? The Greeks and Romans treated us as gods and, compared to the seething mass humanity has become, we are. We are divine. We should rule."
Marcus showed not a trace of boredom. "There is no benefit to humans living their short existences in fear. And what does staying out of their way keep us from doing? Our walled kingdom is beautiful. We can make music and art, help anyone who wants to create do just that. Are you so greedy that what you have isn't enough?" One glance from Aro's ruined wife to Jane said enough.
"It's you who should be put to death Aro, not these immortals or even their American friends. What have you done?"
Even I could see the haze creeping towards him, Alec's cloying anesthetic sent to gas Aro. Jane saw it too and, though it obviously caused her pain, she dropped Alec before he could affect Aro.
The line had been drawn, the choices made quickly and I was surprised by who stood with Aro.
Author's Note: It's about to hit the fan.