"What?" I heard myself exclaim, joining the same sentiment echoed all over the room.
I looked deep into Edward's eyes, questioning, and saw something there… something I couldn't describe, but this was clearly not right.
"That was supposed to be our secret," Edward hissed at Aro and Sulpicia from beside me.
"The fact that you called us was a secret," Aro snapped back. "But if what Sulpicia says is true, and you deceived us, then your secret is no longer safe with me."
"Edward, you called them?" I asked in utter and total disbelief.
"Yes, alright? I called them. Are you happy?" he barked at me.
I took a couple of steps back from him. "No! I'm not happy at all! Why would you call Aro and not tell anyone? You didn't even tell me?"
"You wouldn't have understood, Bella. You would have tried to stop me, even if you had to tell the family. I couldn't risk it," he shot back.
"What did you tell them?" Emmett asked.
"Nothing of interest to you."
"Edward, if it's about this family, it's of interest to all of us," Carlisle reminded him.
"You want to know what I told them? Fine! I told them you were hiding the truth about Fred," Edward spat at his father. "I told them what they wanted to hear - that Fred could stop an entire army with a thought, or he could pick ten people out of a crowd and put them down, leaving the rest untouched."
"But you know that's not true. Why would you say such a thing?" Carlisle implored.
"Isn't it obvious? I wanted Fred out of our lives. He was a danger to Bella and you still allowed him to join our family! She's my mate! What if he'd killed her? Did you ever think about that?" Edward screeched.
"Edward, son… You didn't have to do this. If you'd only talked to me…" Carlisle spoke soothingly.
"I DID talk to you. I talked to all of you. We even had a family meeting about it! You knew the risks, and you decided to let Fred stay anyway. You even adopted him into the family! I knew then I had to take matters into my own hands, even if it meant going behind your backs."
Sulpicia addressed Carlisle again. "Edward told us you had become attached to Fred, so you were trying to keep him in your coven. That you knew if you downplayed his abilities, the Volturi would be less interested in him. That he was actually very powerful and skilled, and would be the perfect complement to someone like Jane. Knowing you as we do, Carlisle, we believed Edward immediately. You've always had a soft spot for the lost ones among us…"
"I can't believe you would do this to me!" Fred yelled at Edward. "I never hurt Bella, not even a tiny bit. I cooked human food for her! You could read my thoughts. You knew I wouldn't hurt her."
"Yes, I could read your thoughts. Let's just say they weren't all as innocent as you would have everyone believe. Or would you like me to provide a few examples?" Edward retorted.
Alice and Jasper were strangely quiet. How did they not know Edward had done this? I wanted to ask, but it would do no good to draw attention to them right now.
"You are not the person I thought you were, Edward Cullen," Fred seethed. "You are not my brother."
"Oh, no! What will I ever do?" Edward cried out sarcastically. "Are you saying we won't be besties after this? What a travesty…"
"I know I haven't always said the nicest things about you," Rosalie confessed, "but even I never thought you would stoop this low."
"It's amazing what you'll do to save the people you love," Edward said with a meaningful look at me.
"Well, Carlisle, I must ask your forgiveness. I thought you were lying to us, when all along it was Edward," Aro pursed his lips in displeasure. "And you also, young Fred. We thought you were holding back on us and pretending you couldn't control your gift. If we'd known you were honestly incapable of the things we were expecting of you, we would not have held you responsible for your inability to perform."
"I can't even look at you right now," Esme whispered to Edward as she crossed to Carlisle, who held her tightly to his chest.
"I couldn't understand why you expected so much from Fred when I was very clear about his strengths and weaknesses. Now it all makes sense," Carlisle told Aro by way of apology.
"And now that we've uncovered this treachery," Caius said menacingly, "what shall be done with the offender?"
Aro contemplated this for a few moments. "I will leave Carlisle to deal with his son in his own way. I'm sure the other Cullens will be happy to give their input as well."
"Yeah, you can bet on that," Emmett answered, punching his fist into his hand.
Aro smirked at Emmett, nodding slightly in approval before addressing Fred. "Young man, my Brothers and I were planning to accept your membership to the guard before we understood your limitations. However, I think I can speak for all of us when I say we would still entertain your admission, but we must ask you a few questions. Will you take an oath vowing your loyalty to the Volturi?"
"Yes, I will, but please understand I can't attack my family," Fred answered solemnly.
"I cannot imagine a circumstance where we would take that kind of action against our good friends. The Cullens have always been law-abiding citizens of the vampire world," Aro nodded.
"So, is that a yes?" Fred asked meekly.
"Yes, I think we can agree to that," Aro answered with a faux smile. "And will you continue to work diligently to improve your gift?"
"Yes, most definitely, as long as I know you won't make me do something I don't want to do."
"I think we can agree not to force you to use your gift against your will…" Aro said before Caius tried to interrupt.
Aro put his hand up to silence his Brother. "With the understanding that we hope you integrate into our society to the point where your will and ours are one in the same."
"OK, that sounds like a good starting point…" Fred mused.
"And finally, do you pledge to honor your elders and fellow guard members?"
"Not Jane, right?" Fred bristled. "Or her creepy brother…"
"You must treat everyone with civility and decorum, however you are not expected to appreciate everyone on a personal level," Aro answered with a bit of mirth in his eyes.
"So that means no, I don't have to like Jane and Alec?"
"No, you don't have to like Jane and Alec, just as they don't have to like you," Aro spoke as if to a child. "In fact, I think it would behoove us to keep you separated."
"Yeah, you should put her on a leash," Fred murmured.
Jane stomped her foot and threw a miniature tizzy fit, which everyone ignored. I had a feeling that little comment wouldn't go unanswered for long, however.
"Have I addressed all your concerns?" Aro asked.
"Yeah, I think so… but what if I have a go-back?"
"There will be plenty of time for that," Aro chuckled.
Fred looked to Amanda, then to Carlisle and Esme, and finally to his best buddy, Emmett. With no objections, he answered, "OK, you've got a deal."
I let out a breath I didn't even know I was holding. My immediate inclination was to hug Edward, but I stopped myself. I was just too shocked at his behavior. I'd always said he got carried away with his obsessive need to protect me, but this was completely over-the-top, even for him. He was out of control. So we just stood there, avoiding each other's gaze and feeling generally uncomfortable.
Once the round-robin of hugs was complete, minus Edward, the pound of a gavel returned our attention to the front of the room.
"Unless there is further business, you are all dismissed" Aro announced.
The walk back to our suites was excruciating. I stayed by Edward, but didn't hold his hand. I didn't want to touch him and I certainly wasn't ready for him to touch me. He was, for all intents and purposes, a traitor to our family. I didn't know how he could have done such a thing.
Idzi and Heidi took Fred and Amanda's vacant chairs, and soon we were all sequestered in Esme and Carlisle's suite. Edward stood behind the loveseat where I sat. He picked at threads in the fabric, not looking up because I'm sure he knew all eyes were on him.
"Edward, son, what do you have to say for yourself?" Carlisle began.
"What I have to say is, there was no phone call."
Carlisle sat forward abruptly. "What do you mean? Aro told us…"
"Aro told you what Sulpicia was telling him to say."
Carlisle was clearly bewildered, as were we all. "OK, you're going to have to start over. I have no idea what you're talking about."
Edward took a deep, unneeded breath. "Well, a certain little soothsayer in our family saw that Fred was going to back the Volturi into a corner with his demands. There was no way they could accept him into the guard and still save face after that, so Alice went to Sulpicia to tell her how to fix the situation."
"Alice? You were in on it?" Esme asked.
"Better question," Alice grinned. "When am I NOT in on it?"
"Good point," Esme laughed.
"Why didn't you just tell Fred to shut up about his demands?" Jasper asked his wife.
"Because we needed him to make them," Alice answered matter-of-factly. "One of our biggest concerns all along has been the Volturi getting their hands on someone as powerful as Fred. Now they've agreed not to force him into attacking anyone, and especially not us."
"Ahhhhh…. Clever girl," Jasper said with admiration. "You know, I kept wondering why Aro would go along with that. He was right when he said the generals make the rules and the soldiers follow them."
"Because he wanted Fred in his guard. Aro would have agreed to stand on his head for a year if he could have done it in private, but accepting Fred's 'demands' in front of all his subordinates would have made him appear weak. However, if he was lied to…"
"So, Edward really didn't call Aro? For real. I don't get to beat the crap out of him?" Emmett exclaimed.
"No, I didn't call. So sorry to disappoint you," Edward grinned.
I reached for Edward's hand and pulled him to sit next to me. Luckily, he was more than willing to move.
"I'm sorry I couldn't prepare you for what happened in there. I didn't know myself until Sulpicia and Alice started giving me directions in my head."
"That's OK. I knew what you were saying wasn't true…" I murmured.
"Bella, really?" Jasper raised an eyebrow in challenge. "You were 100% confident the whole time…"
"Well, I guess I did allow for the slight possibility that Edward was a crazed lunatic who betrayed his family because of some stupid perceived threat that really didn't exist… but mostly I thought something else was going on…"
"I love honesty," Jasper chuckled.
"So Sulpicia was silently telling both you and Aro what to say… that's pretty impressive," Heidi added. "I was so shocked to see her. She never gets involved in matters of the court."
"Wellllll….," Alice drew out the word, "I may have told her a very small, very white lie."
"How small and how white?" Carlisle asked.
"Microscopic and pure as driven snow, I swear! Like….. I may have let her think a huge fight was going to break out in the Great Hall, and I might have led her to believe if she didn't stop it, Aro was going to maybe-possibly get killed."
"And how exactly did you lead her to believe that?" Carlisle narrowed his eyes at Alice.
"Ummm… I told her Aro would be killed in the brawl if she didn't stop it," Alice admitted rather sheepishly.
"It's a wonder she figured out what you were trying to say, since you were so vague," Rose snarked.
"I didn't think she liked Aro enough to care," Carlisle interjected.
"I don't think she does, but she's not stupid. He's essentially made her the Queen of the Volturi," Heidi explained. "If something happened to Aro, she would just be another vampire. I doubt Aro will try to read any of us before we leave, but do everyone a favor and don't tell Fred or Amanda that you lied to Sulpicia. Aro will read them regularly and if he knew, heads would roll… and I don't mean figuratively."
"Speaking of which, Fred just decided to confront Edward. He and Amanda will be here in a few minutes," Alice informed us.
"Come on, Emmett. Let's tell them what happened before Fred does damage to our dear brother," Rosalie sighed.
"Oh, man! No fair! I wanted to see what Fred was gonna do!" Emmett whined.
"Oh, thanks," Edward sneered. "I throw myself to the lions to save Fred from himself and you want him to pulverize me for my efforts?"
"Well, now that you put it that way… ummm…. of course not…" Emmett dodged.
"I can still read your mind, Em… Please try to remember I'm completely innocent, will you?"
"Oh, fine! Ruin all my fun!" Emmett grumbled as he and Rose left to intercept Fred and Amanda.
"If you don't mind," Felka interrupted, "I'd like to call Bohdan to tell him I'm coming home!"
"Yes, and tell him your brother wants to meet him," Idzi called after her. "And he'd better be good to you or he's going to be lunch," he mumbled under his breath. It's probably a good thing she didn't hear that part.
"So, Heidi, I think a few people lost a bet today," Carlisle teased.
"Yes, I know…," she smiled back at him.
"What bet?" Idzi asked.
"Whether or not she would find a mate before she turned 500."
"Carlisle, you're not supposed to tell a woman's age. I was planning to tell Idzi I was only 399!"
Idzi beamed at her. "Baby, you don't look a day over 299."
We all laughed as Idzi gave Heidi a sweet kiss.
Just then, the door flew open and in rushed a furious looking Fred with Amanda close on his heels.
He marched up to Edward, who stood to face him. Fred poked Edward in the chest and yelled, "Thank you!"
It took all of us a few seconds to register what was going on. Emmett and Rosalie came bursting through the open door laughing at all our astonished faces before it finally dawned on all of us what just happened.
Fred pulled Edward into a huge bear hug. "See? You're not the only actor in the family!"
Fred took a half step back and rested his hand on Edward's shoulder. "Hey, what I really wanted to say is, I'm sorry. I should have known you wouldn't call Aro. You might have done some other things to get rid of me, but not that."
"True…" Edward laughed.
"And I'm sorry I disowned you. Can I reown you again?"
"Sure, brother," Edward chuckled as they shook hands.
Soon Amanda moved in to hug Edward tightly. "Thank you… For finding Fred and bringing him here to me."
"I'm glad he found you," Edward whispered. "And I hope you can keep him in line. He needs all the help he can get."
The two of them laughed, but really, it was true.
Fred turned to face Carlisle. "OK, dad. I have a problem."
"Only one?" Carlisle asked with a raised brow.
Fred laughed. "Touché. OK, one of my many problems is this – when I officially joined the family, you said being a Cullen meant not drinking human blood, but since I'm staying, would it be OK with you if I… you know, used the program here? I wouldn't be killing or even hurting anyone. You wouldn't kick me out of the family, would you?"
Carlisle looked very upset. "I'm sorry, Fred, but that would be unacceptable. Cullens do not drink from humans. Period. You would most definitely be out of the family."
Fred eyed his adoptive father for a moment, trying to determine if he was serious or not. Then Carlisle broke into a wide smile. "Of course you would still be one of us! We don't kill or injure humans, but if you can drink human blood without hurting anyone, you go right ahead."
"That means a lot to me. The family part, I mean, although the blood part is pretty awesome, too. I was willing to do the tofu diet, but I'm not very good at being a vegetarian."
"If it makes you feel any better, I'd do the same thing if I was staying," Jasper confided.
"I was actually wondering if I could have a snack for the road," Emmett added.
Rosalie just rolled her eyes at him. "Don't even think about it. The last time you got a taste of human blood, I had to keep you locked up for a year."
"That was a good year…" Emmett recalled dreamily.
"Yeah, well, if you do it again, it won't be such a good year this time. I promise," Rose threatened.
"Oooohhhh… someone's wife has someone by the short hairs," Fred guffawed.
"Fred!" Amanda snapped. "You need to say your goodbyes. You have an oath ceremony in less than an hour. Get to it!"
Amanda winked at Rosalie as Emmett punched Fred in the arm. "And she's not even your wife," Emmett snickered.
And with that, we said our goodbyes to those who were staying. Heidi had to attend the ceremony, which I found out took a full day to complete. Aro loved his pomp and circumstance. I wondered how much of that was taking vows and how much was just fluff, but I would never know. The rites and rituals were top secret. Even Carlisle wouldn't speak of them.
"So, Fred, do you think you can come home for our wedding?" I asked.
"I'll see. It can't hurt to ask, right? I mean, I can't get into any more trouble than I already have."
"Don't push your luck, mister," Amanda said as an aside to Fred. "We would love to come! Aro was planning to send an emissary from the Volturi anyway, so why not us?"
"Don't you have to stay here?" I questioned, concerned for the welfare of the humans in Volterra.
"I can be gone for a few days, as long as everyone is well-fed first, especially the newborns." Amanda shuddered. I decided it was better not to know why.
I waved goodbye to Idzi and was surprised when Heidi came over to give me a hug. "You may not believe this, but I admire you, Bella. I think you must be the bravest human on the planet."
"I don't know about that…" I answered, embarrassed and blushing. "I just do what I have to do for my family... and friends."
Felka had just come back in, her eyes red-rimmed from crying.
"I'm sorry, will you excuse me?" I said to Heidi.
"What's wrong?" I asked Felka.
She started crying again. "Nothing… Bohdan was so excited, I thought he was going to come through the phone line. I always thought he would give up on me… on us… but he never did."
"He obviously knows a good thing when he sees it," I tried to comfort her.
"It's just… when I saw you with Edward, I thought I would never have that again… and now..."
We hugged as she finally allowed herself to let it all sink in. "And now, you're free."
"That would have never happened if it hadn't been for you," she sobbed.
"Well, I certainly didn't do it all on my own… the whole family took up your cause. And since 'Felka' means 'lucky,' maybe there was a bit of that mixed in there, too."
She sniffed and nodded, giving me a weak smile before moving around the room to thank everyone for helping her get her life back.
I hadn't noticed Edward was missing until he came in carrying our suitcases. "Sorry, I couldn't wait. I want to get out of here as soon as possible."
Carlisle and Rosalie left to pack their respective bags. Alice and Jasper wouldn't be leaving until the next day, and until then, they were on Idzi-sitting duty.
I hugged both of them. "I'm going to miss you! Come home as soon as you can, OK? And Alice, are you SURE there's nothing I need to do for the wedding? I'm nervous that you're not going to be there. What if something goes wrong?"
Jasper sent a calming wave and I just glared at him.
"Hey, I don't like wedding jitters, OK?" he laughed.
"The only thing you need to do is make sure nobody sees you in your dress. I can block Edward pretty well, but Esme is hopeless!" Alice complained.
"Should I try it on?"
Alice pondered this. "Nope. It fits you perfectly, so no need. And don't worry… you love it."
"OK, if you say so…" We hugged one more time before bidding a final farewell to Felka, Idzi, and Heidi.
"We'll keep in touch, right?" Felka asked hopefully.
"Of course we will! I have to know how things work out. And don't forget to send me some pierogies. I'll be drooling by the mailbox every day."
"Consider it done," she laughed as we embraced for the last time.
We were ready to go, so we escorted Fred and Amanda down to the foyer of the hall, the place where we would go our separate ways.
"Can we just pretend I'm going off to college?" Fred half-heartedly joked. "It seems a little less like we're saying goodbye…"
"It's not goodbye, son," Esme sniffed. "It will never be goodbye."
Fred nodded in agreement. He reached out to softly stroke Esme's cheek. "I love you, mom."
"I love you, too," she answered as she pulled him into a tight embrace. "You behave yourself, OK? I don't want to get any bad reports from your professors, college boy." They laughed, even though I could tell Esme's tender heart was breaking.
Carlisle was next. "This has been a wild ride, but it looks like you're going to be OK. Who would have thought you'd end up in the Volturi guard after everything that's happened? But I want you to know, I think Bree would be proud of you. And she probably wouldn't mind if you played a 'harmless prank' on Jane once in a while."
"I'll see if I can keep them harmless," Fred snickered, but then he became serious, perhaps more so than I'd ever seen him. "I need to tell you something, and it's hard for me because I'm not much for sentiment… as I'm sure you've noticed… I haven't known you very long, but in that time you've taught me more about the kind of man I want to be than everyone else who's ever been in my life… combined. And your relationship with Esme inspires me to be the same kind of husband to Amanda."
"Wait. Husband? Are you getting married?" I butted in.
"I haven't asked her yet, but soon."
Hearing these words, Amanda looked up and smiled beatifically.
"Wow….." was all Fred could utter. I had to agree.
Carlisle looked a little choked up. "Thank you, Fred. That means more to me than you will probably ever know."
Fred moved on to Edward and me. "Guys, I don't know what to say to you. Edward, if you hadn't kept your promise to Bree, I don't even know where I'd be today. Maybe dead, if the Volturi had caught up to me. I'd tell you I owe you my life, but your ego is already big enough, so let's just leave it at 'thanks.'"
"My ego? Who made all those demands to the Volturi? My ego, he says…"
"And Bella, the Little Human That Could. Since I'm being a sentimental idiot already, I might as well go for the gold. Of all the things you've done for me, do you want to know what meant the most? I mean, something you did that changed my life?"
"OK, I'm nervous now, but go ahead," I proffered.
"You cried for me. After I threatened you and Edward tore off my arm and beat me with it, which was very wrong of you, might I add," he mock scolded Edward, "you were so worried about me that you cried. I don't remember anyone crying for me before, and it made me really look at humans differently. I mean, I know I was one, but after the change, they just became walking bags of blood. You reminded me that humans are more than that."
"Awww, Fred. You're going to make me cry again!"
"Come here, you," he gently tucked me under his arm and gave me the slightest squeeze.
When Fred got to Emmett, he said in a soft girly voice, "I think I'll miss you most of all."
"And Toto, too?" Emmett snickered as they shared a man-hug. "You know, we can still play games over the web."
"Yeah, and we'll have webcams!"
"It'll practically be like having you… at home…" Emmett's sad voice trailed off.
"I'll miss you, too," Fred assured him. "And take good care of the Wicked Witch of the West, here." He pulled a fake punch to Rosalie's arm.
"Watch it, buster, or I'll send my flying monkeys after you," she shook her finger at him, but then pulled him in for a tight embrace. Rose wasn't usually that demonstrative, but I could tell she had a soft spot for her newest brother.
Aro greeted us in the corridor. "Ah, my dear friends, departing so soon?"
Carlisle's fake smile matched Aro's. "Yes, well… Edward and Bella's wedding isn't going to plan itself."
Even though it almost did with Alice at the helm.
"Yes, my best wishes to the happy couple. It was such a pleasure to see all of you again! Let's not wait so long before our next reunion."
"Of course not," Carlisle answered diplomatically. "It really had been much too long."
I'm not sure how he said that with a straight face… perhaps he was the best actor of us all.
"Come, my boy," Aro said to Fred. "Your ceremony is about to begin."
Aro extended his hand. Fred looked at him warily, then glanced around at all of us. Carlisle nodded, knowing this moment had to come sometime.
Fred slowly stepped toward Aro, hesitantly reaching out to grip Aro's hand as the two of them entered the Great Hall together.
"THAT VULTURE GUY?" we heard Aro exclaim just before the doors closed to us for the final time… or at least I hoped it would be.
THE END (for real this time…)
A/N: OK, that's a wrap. I've been asked to write a wedding/honeymoon companion piece, so I just might do it. Edward and Bella really need to break some of that tension!
I want to thank all of you who read and reviewed, or just read, for that matter. It's been quite a journey. As I've told a few of you, this story was originally going to be roughly five chapters long and was never going to leave Vancouver, BC. Edward was going to find Fred, tell him what happened to Bree, warn him about the Volturi, then Jane and company were going to find them, having traced Fred's scent from the spot where he split from the newborn army, a skirmish would have happened, and then Fred was going to escape, knowing how to avoid the Volturi, and live as a nomad. The end. (really… I'm not kidding)
A new reader, Abbyweyr, went through and caught my typos, so I guess instead of being a beta, that makes her an omega. I HATE typos, so I absolutely have to go back through and make the corrections. Thankfully, she said there weren't that many. Whew! Thanks, AW!
PRETTY PLEASE leave me a review, whether you've reviewed before or not. They really make me stupid-happy.
If this note gets any longer, I'm going to have to break it up into another chapter!