The following day was Friday and passed quickly enough. The stares of the other students persisted, though Bella did not expect that they would last for too much longer.
Unfortunately, a Halloween dance was coming up, one that Bella had absolutely no intentions of attending, but before the day was through she had been forced to turn down no less than eight boys with varying levels of civility. This was all despite the fact that it was a girls' choice dance. To say that she was unimpressed was an understatement, and became even more annoyed when the Cullens would not stop teasing her about it, Emmett especially.
So it was in an unusually irritable mood that Bella exited Forks High at the end of the day only to be greeted enthusiastically by her 'step-father', Graham Chaucer.
"Bella!" he cried, pulling her into a friendly hug as many of her classmates looked on in the parking lot of the secondary school.
"Graham," Bella replied, forcing warmth into her tone. "I wasn't expecting you!"
He smiled and winked at her false surprise. "Thought I'd pop by and help you settle in this weekend. And maybe we can get some shots of you done while we're at it! What do you say, spend the next couple of days with your old man?"
Bella laughed a little, fakely, and said, "How could I refuse such an offer?"
He threw an arm around her shoulders and they began walking to his car, Bella hurrying them along slightly because she'd spotted Lauren Mallory entering the lot out of the corner of her eye and did not wish to put Graham in a position where he had to give out any personal information that either would not stand up to scrutiny or would clash in any way with the story she'd woven.
They got into his car and quickly made their way to the diner on Forks' main street where they spent a couple of hours 'catching up'. Then Graham announced loudly that it was time for them to go if they wanted to miss the traffic into Seattle where they'd spend the weekend at his little place and visit his studio. With that, they left and the good people of Forks had their necessary dose of comfort that Bella was well looked after. Bella told Graham to just drop her off at her house, which was on the edge of town and he could carry on back to his home in the big city with no one the wiser. They idled in his car for a few moments as Bella pulled out the hefty wad of cash she owed him.
"So how'd I do, babe?"
Bella rolled her eyes at that, but handed him the money just the same. "Yes, yes, you did very well. I'll probably call you in a few weeks once I've decided on plans for Thanksgiving."
"No problem, babe! Whenever," he said, cheerful now that he'd been paid. He winked at her. "You might want to think about getting some sleep between now and then, babe, you look tired."
Bella rolled her eyes again and stepped out of the car. "I'll be seeing you, Chaucer."
"Be good, Bella, babe! Brush your teeth and all that!" he said, chuckling to himself at his Dad-joke as he drove off. What a sleaze.
Grateful that the ordeal was over with, Bella walked at a human pace into her house and decided to get her homework out of the way for the weekend.
About a half hour later, she was done and grateful once again for vampire speed and memory capacity. Just as she was thinking of calling the Cullens to see what they were up to, her phone vibrated in her pocket.
"Hello?" Bella said as she brought it up to her ear out of habit before the first buzz had even ended.
"Bella!" cried a cheerful, musical voice.
An involuntary smile graced Bella's face.
"Are you still with your 'step-dad?'"
"Nope, he just left."
"Good!" she chirped. "We know that you have to pretend to be out of town all weekend now, but what do you think of actually going out of town?"
"What do you mean?"
"I mean shopping, silly! I told you already that your wardrobe needs serious attention. So how about it? You. Me. Rose. Esme. Girls' weekend!"
Bella laughed. "That sounds perfect."
"Excellent! We'll be right over."
"See you in a couple of minutes. Oh, this is going to be so much fun!"
Bella was still giggling as she hung up.
Flitting upstairs, she quickly packed some essentials into a small tote bag and changed out of her school clothes. By the time she had grabbed her wallet, keys, and purse, the sound of the Volvo could be heard rolling to a stop outside.
Throwing on her leather jacket and boots, Bella made her way out to the waiting vampires, tote in hand. Once inside the running car, she was greeted by Alice's beaming face.
"Hi!" she chirped.
"Hello," Bella replied, smiling and nodding at Rosalie in the passenger seat, who returned the gesture in kind.
"It's so nice that you're coming with us, Bella," Esme said sincerely.
Bella met her golden eyes in the rearview mirror.
"Thank you for inviting me. As much as I hate to admit it, Alice is right - it's been some time since I updated my wardrobe."
Alice was bouncing in her seat with excitement. "See, I told you so!"
The two in the front laughed when Bella just flicked her ear lightly in response.
Esme drove swiftly towards Seattle, eating up the miles under the tires and the four women chatted casually about where they would go and what they were looking to buy. Rosalie plugged in her iPod and put on a mixed list of folk music that Bella very much enjoyed, and that got them talking about music. In almost no time, they were pulling into a lot in downtown Seattle and getting out, ready to shop.
"Let's go!" Alice cheered and grabbing Bella's hand, led them off towards the strip of stores where they intended to start.
Bella soon found that shopping with Alice was an experience unlike any other. It was both good and bad: good, because she picked out most of your clothes for you, knowing ahead of time what would look good and not, and bad because she was a bossy little thing and wouldn't take no for an answer if she felt strongly about something. Bella got a whole mountain of clothes, many of which she would not have picked for herself, being a little too fancy for blending in, but which did look good and ultimately, she was pleased with her purchases. Obviously, they did not need to sleep, but they got a hotel room anyway to leave their things in and to spend the night away from prying eyes. They watched a whole marathon of movies, chick flicks that the boys wouldn't like. Bella's favourite was Roman Holiday with Audrey Hepburn, whom she adored, and that led to a lengthy discussion of actors and actresses and who had seen whom and Alice even told them a bit about the time she had acted on Broadway before she found the Cullens.
Dawn soon arrived and then it was back into the fray, the whirlwind that was Alice guiding them on. Today's focus was on shoes, jackets, and accessories, which Alice claimed Bella was sorely lacking in such as belts, hats, scarves, sunglasses, hair ornaments and so on. Several new outfits also found their way into the bulging bags.
By the time evening had come, Bella was thoroughly done with shopping, as was Esme, so it was decided that tomorrow they would visit the local museum and maybe book and photography or art stores in another part of Seattle before driving back to Forks.
Esme suggested that they go down to the hot tub until it closed but that posed Bella more than one small problem.
"I haven't got a bathing suit."
Alice just smirked. She dove into one of her own shopping bags and pulled out six bikinis, then looked at Bella innocently. "Which one would you like?"
Bella huffed, but picked one just the same and went into the bathroom to change. She did not look at herself in the mirror and switched her costume quickly before she could change her mind and chicken out.
Emerging, she heard Alice gasp and saw Esme and Rosalie tense and growl a bit automatically. She ignored her initial reaction to do the same in response and held out her hands in supplication. Slowly, she lowered to her knees, placing the others in a position of power and they relaxed minutely. Their eyes, however, remained locked on the many, many scars that littered Bella's arms, legs, front and back.
"Oh, Bella," Alice whispered, and her voice held such pain.
Esme looked as though she might cry if she could, but Bella's eyes were on the last female Cullen, whose face was unreadable.
"I will leave if you ask me to, no questions asked," she said quietly.
"Of course not!" Alice said at once, sounding scandalized, and Esme flitted forwards to give her a gentle hug when she stood carefully.
She returned it, but kept looking at Rosalie who was running her eyes slowly up her arms and over her shoulders where the concentration of scar bites was highest.
Finally, she met her eyes. "Like I said before, it's not that bad."
Slowly, the knot in Bella's stomach released and she felt a genuine smile cross her face. "Thank you," she told them with feeling.
Rosalie shrugged dismissively, sniffed and turned away to get out her own bathing suit.
Esme gave her a tight squeeze and then released her to change herself.
Alice danced forward, her eyes still wide.
"Gruesome, aren't they?" Bella said wryly, running a hand over her stomach.
Alice looked to her face quickly, and then shook her head. "I think they're beautiful," she said lowly, and reached out one cool hand to run it down the length of Bella's patterned forearm. When she reached her hand, she twined their fingers together, and looked up at her, tawny eyes still huge. Bella gave a hesitant smile, which she returned hugely, seeming relieved.
They went down to the hot tub in silence, towels draped around them, and arrived to find it empty, there being few guests at the hotel in the middle of October.
Bella found her eyes lingering on Alice's smooth back and neck as they got into the steaming water and forced herself to look away. Obviously, she was just feeling jealous of her flawless skin, and that wasn't right, Alice deserved better. Though a tiny voice in the back of her head told her that the tightness in her chest at the stunning sight had nothing to do with envy, she ignored it determinedly and found that the three of them were staring at her silently.
Ah. An explanation.
She cleared her throat unnecessarily. "I, um... hm. Do you know much of the vampire wars of the South?"
Their eyes widened and Esme looked as if she might cry again. Rosalie spoke up eventually. "We know a little from Jasper. He got out around the early twenties."
She stopped there and Bella knew that that was all she'd get out of them on the subject - that was Jasper's story to tell, though the timing of his escape was suspiciously coincidental.
Bella nodded as she began. "So you know that the wars began in about 1890," then paused as they confirmed this.
She continued. "What few people remember, because so few are left alive to bear witness, is that before the wars, the South was much the same as anywhere else. There was the occasional scuffle between covens, of course, but for the most part, nomads could travel and feed freely. It was not until Benito began creating armies that the territory wars became so fierce. And for some time, things were still alright, a little more dangerous, but not out of control. It wasn't until about 1920 that things really started to get bad and our exposure started to become a real possibility."
"What changed?" asked Esme curiously, paying as rapt attention as the other two.
Bella replied thoughtfully. "I was not around, of course, but I was told that there was one vampire, the Major of one army that was nearly undefeated. His control over his army was unparalleled, making them nigh unbeatable. His commander was ruthless and creative in the methods she had him employ to keep their newborns in check. They were challenged again and again and few could stand against them. But then the Major, for reasons that no one knew, disappeared unexpectedly. No one knew what happened to him, but the one thing that everyone was sure of was that without him, that army would not be near so formidable. Others gained courage, and the skirmishes became more frequent, more deadly, and more difficult to explain away or cover up. Chaos truly broke out. It was around this time that I was turned."
She looked at the Cullens. "I told you on Wednesday night that after I woke up to find my parents dead, I fled into the state park and fed off of animals. That was true, and I stayed there for nearly a year, honing my control over my thirst, and learning the limits of my new body. What I failed to mention was that around this time, I ran into another vampire for the first time."
Bella grimaced in remembrance of her trusting naivety. "I was lonely and scared and relieved that I was no longer alone. We discussed my diet and eye colour for a time and he eventually invited me back to his coven. Of course, I went with him." She shook her head in exasperation at herself.
"He was staying with the coven of a female named - named Jordan," she stuttered.
Bella stared at nothing for a while before continuing, the steam from the hot water providing a small amount of cover and comforting her. She liked being invisible.
"Jordan was then and remains to this day unlike anyone I've ever met. She was strong and charismatic and a natural leader. She had a vision. A vision of the South as it was before the wars began. She wanted to return it to that stability. Or, at least, that's what she said. It was not until many, many years after I left her that I began to question whether that was true or whether she wanted to the power for herself. I don't suppose I'll ever know." Bella trailed off before shaking her head and getting back on track.
"Anyway, Jordan had a different tactic than the other commanders of newborn armies. She wanted to take out all the leaders, let the newborns destroy themselves, and thereby end the wars. But taking out the leaders would be difficult, very difficult, so she decided to build up an army of her own, but instead of using newborns, she would train a group of mature vampires, and inspire them with her goal. I often wondered if she had the power of persuasion, or if she was just a natural speaker. Her words were so convincing. Needless to say, I became one of these..." Bella struggled for a term to describe her past role. "Assassins, I suppose is as good as any other word." She shrugged.
"It was an unusual coven, very hierarchical, which is why I find your family's dynamic so very surprising and appealing," she said, smiling at Esme.
"But as I was saying, I'm a fairly quick learner, and I rose through the ranks rapidly enough. After only a year of training, I was set on my first mission. As the years passed, our coven became better at what we did, more efficient. We learned how to identify the key fighters and took them out, then had a group that excelled in dispatching the remaining newborns. Our best time of strike would be immediately after a battle.
Jordan's plan was so successful because she had no base, no territory to defend; we were a roaming coven and we fed wherever we won. I continued to hunt animals, believing that the vampires I was killing were justified, but that innocent mortals were not. Jordan did not partake in my diet, but encouraged me to continue, thinking it helped my control and made me a better fighter.
The one flaw in Jordan's plan, though, was that it took time. Every loss in our coven was difficult to replace, could take months or even years. Our progress was slow but steady.
By the end of the human's second war, there were only a few weak armies left and one strong one, the Major's old army.
We picked off the weak one and then took a pause to build up our forces for the final confrontation. I, as an assassin, was waiting in the shadows for my opportunity to take out the commander, the leader herself. Maria."
As lost in thought as Bella was, she almost missed the shallow gasp that the others made at the name, but decided that now was not the moment to question them.
She smiled to herself as she recalled the fight with Maria.
"That was the greatest challenge that I ever faced. She was a brutal fighter, very skilled, very experienced."
Bella looked down at her body and put one finger on a certain scar on her left forearm. "She bit me here." She moved her finger so it was pointing at her right shoulder. "And here." Her right knee. "And here." And finally, the back of her neck where there was a shape of entire jaws. "And here. I almost didn't make it out alive."
Alice shivered next to her, and Bella saw that her eyes had darkened several shades.
"Our fight had carried us some miles away and I returned to burn her at the original site of the battle. Once I'd done so, I followed the scent of my coven back to our temporary base, unsure what my future would bring. All I had ever known was war, and now that it was over, I was unsure what to do with myself. Luckily for me, I heard a commotion before they heard me, and I approached quietly to watch and to listen. I was in no condition to fight again so soon and wanted to know what was going on."
Bella's expression turned grim. "Little did we know that someone else was watching the situation and had decided that Jordan's tactic worked well enough, why shouldn't they use it, too?"
Her muscles tensed without her telling them to at the memory.
"It was the Volturi. They had taken notice of what had been happening years before, but decided to let us do all the work of cleaning up the South with our little task force of assassins. Unfortunately for Jordan, they thought that she had gotten too powerful, had too big a coven, too much control over such a great area. They decided that this could not be allowed."
She swallowed, her voice hollow. "They decided to slaughter us all."
Bella closed her eyes briefly against the images that came to her mind's eye.
"The one thing that I can say for Jordan is that she never let on that not all of her coven was present and accounted for. I watched from afar as the Volturi guard tortured and killed my comrades and leader and did nothing. And then I ran. I turned and ran as far and as quickly as I could just to get away from that horror."
She sighed. "It turned out that one other from the coven had also survived, in fact the same one that had found me that first time so long ago in the park in Mississippi. He found me, and we travelled together for a time. But I am not much one for constant wandering and when all the roaming became too much, we went our separate ways. I went to college in Canada and began my work as a translator. I still contact him every few years, but he's the only one who knows who I am and what I've done. Until now."
The rest of the night had a solemn tone as the Cullen women digested what Bella had told them. Alice spent much of it holding her hand and rubbing circles into her palm with her thumb, which Bella found supremely soothing.
She knew that they would see her differently now, it would be impossible not to. She only hoped that they would not choose to disassociate themselves from her because of it. She did not think they would, they did not with Jasper, after all, but then, he was Edward's mate so that might be different. And yet, she still felt hope that they would remain friends - she could not see someone like Esme judging her for her past. In fact, Esme seemed to only feel sadness that she'd had to go through such an experience as far as she could tell, and that was a good sign for things to come indeed. They would still have to tell the males, of course, but the only person she could see objecting to her continued presence would be Jasper himself. Because of his history, he would no doubt be better aware than the others of the threat she posed. Then again, he might be the one who supported her the most because of the parallels in their lives.
What it all came down to, in the end, was trust: whether or not the Cullen family would trust her to act civilly around them now that she had trusted them with her story. And the fact that it was Bella herself who had extended that hand first was extraordinarily surprising to her; normally she was not at all a trusting person and it had taken years for her one surviving friend and comrade to become as close to her as he had. The amount of herself that she had opened up to the Cullens was unprecedented, especially for only having known them a few days.
Then again, she had never met another coven in all of her travels who shared her respect for human life, she thought, as she watched Alice and Esme glide off to look at another exhibit in the Seattle Art Museum. Perhaps that made more of a difference than she'd thought.
A soft throat clearing behind her caused her to turn around slowly, and her eyebrows rose when she found Rosalie watching her with an intense expression.
She just waited for the blond to speak patiently, knowing that she would say what she wanted when she was ready. Eventually, she spoke.
"You are being given a chance here, Bella. Don't waste it."
Bella paused to weigh her words. When she responded, her voice was a tad cool. "Likewise."
Rosalie smirked faintly and nodded and they moved on to admire the art, more settled now that the warning had been spoken.
The drive home felt much longer to Bella than the one away from Forks, but she did not mind, as the company was good and the conversation casual. Alice seemed to have come down from her shopping-induced high, but was always ready with a smile when Bella glanced at her in faint concern, so she figured she was just contemplating everything she'd been told in the last twenty-four hours. It was a lot to digest, after all, so she just let her be.
When they pulled up to Bella's house, Alice got out to help her with her multitude of shopping bags. They flitted side by side up the stairs to Bella's bedroom, placing them gently on the floor next to the bed. Bella turned to Alice to thank her again when Alice spoke up.
"Listen, Bella... Remember what I said that night on the point?"
Bella nodded, knowing instinctively what Alice was talking about. How your past doesn't make you who you are.
Alice looked her right in the eyes, her golden irises full of emotion. "I really meant that, okay? So... so don't worry, okay? Because, I mean," she looked down and caught Bella's hand almost bashfully in hers, twisting their fingers together. "We're friends, right?"
Bella looked down at the pixie-girl's dark, spiky hair for a moment before tightening her hold on Alice's dainty hand.
"Of course we are," she said softly, and her voice held such sincerity that it surprised even her.
Alice looked up at her, her elfin face so full of hope that Bella felt her chest clench. "Thanks, Alice," she whispered.
Alice's lips pulled up into that breathtaking smile that Bella loved so much to see, causing her own to quirk.
"Pick me up for school tomorrow?"
Alice beamed. "You know it."
Bella could not help it when a small, breathy laugh escaped her, though she was already missing the sprightly girl's presence.
"Bye, Bella," Alice chirped, back to her usual cheerful self, but there was a glint in her eye that Bella could not decipher.
Alice turned to go, paused, then turned back and flung herself into Bella's arms, swiftly kissing her soft cheek before dashing back down the stairs and out into the waiting Volvo.
Bella, for her part, was left standing with a shocked expression on her face, her hand pressed to the place where Alice's lips had met her skin. Slowly, a smile spread across her face, lighting up her tawny eyes.
Suddenly, she couldn't wait for school tomorrow.
The school week passed particularly quickly for Bella. She had never had company to pass the nights with and found the change very enjoyable. Whether it was time spent playing video games with Emmett (which she was rubbish at), chess with Edward, or talking with Alice, she found herself becoming very attached to the large coven of 'vegetarians'. She and Rosalie had a very animated conversation about cars one evening when she went out to the garage to see how Giselle was doing and Bella had come to be closer to Esme as well as they went over plans together for redecorating Bella's house. Even Carlisle had made sure to show her properly around his office and offered that she borrow any book she'd like from his many shelves. This led them to a discussion of books and authors, which Bella had been aching for.
The most emotional conversation, though, had to be the one she had with Jasper on Monday afternoon straight after school. He'd pulled her aside onto the porch once they'd arrived at the Cullen place.
"Bella, may I speak with you for a moment?"
Bella, who'd thought that this might be coming, merely nodded and waited for the others to file inside to give them the illusion of privacy. Alice threw her a wink as she went by and Bella felt her lips twitch in response despite the uncomfortable topic that was surely coming.
The two vampires looked out for a moment at the lush green of the surrounding forest before Jasper spoke.
"I understand that you were involved in the cleanup of the Southern Wars." His voice was quiet and calm, soothing. She could see how he was a good match for Edward's flair.
"Heavily," she agreed, not wanting to downplay her role for a moment. She may not be proud of what she had done, but she would not hide from it.
"The others said that you claim to have defeated... Maria."
His eyes narrowed slightly. "She was the fiercest fighter I knew when I was in the South myself, and I do not say that lightly." He almost looked like he wanted her to doubt her own story, his tone one of skepticism.
Bella shrugged. She had no need to prove herself to him. He could doubt all he wanted, she knew the truth.
"How can you be sure that she's dead?"
Bella was getting slightly irritated now. She did not enjoy having these memories brought up and displayed and picked apart as though they were for public consumption.
"I burned her myself," she said curtly.
Jasper studied her closely.
"What do I have to gain by lying?" she snapped at him. "She's dead. Mourn or celebrate, I care not. But she is not coming back, of that I can assure you."
Jasper continued to watch her for several minutes before he sighed. "This would be so much easier if I could feel your emotions."
"Suck it up."
He looked at her, surprised, then barked out a deep laugh. "You really believe it, don't you?" he asked when he'd settled down again.
"There's nothing to believe. I only know the truth."
He studied her once more before facing the trees again. "I believe you, then," he said quietly.
His voice lowered to a whisper; he may have just been talking to himself now. "I was one of hers, you know. For a long time."
Bella felt her face softening. "I know."
He looked surprised again. "Who told you?"
She smiled. "No one. They didn't need to. After all, who doesn't know of the God of War?" She went inside when he did not reply, leaving him to his thoughts amidst the trees.
Thursday morning dawned sunny and bright, causing Bella to call the school and announce that her step-father had called her in to do some headshots and that she would be gone into next week, but assured them that she'd get her work done. The moment she hung up, her phone started vibrating again. She looked in surprise down at the screen.
She should have known.
"Hey, Bella! Have you called the school yet?"
"Yes, I just got off the phone with them."
"Good! I hope you're ready."
"Ready for what, Alice?"
"For camping, of course! Get packed, we're picking you up in fifteen minutes. And don't forget your bathing suit this time!"