Please read Bronze through chapter 12 or later first. Some things won't make as much sense otherwise.
Written for LJ Summers, author of From the Wings and winner of my Fandom Gives Back auction. Her prompt was Carlisle and Bella's first meeting. Thanks LJ! And thanks to whynot (fatallyobsessed on FFn) for being my vb again.
When I read Twilight, I was confused by the fact that Carlisle had spent so much time living with the Volturi. Though Edward says it was "just a few decades," I found it hard to imagine Carlisle spending even that long in Volterra. What could make him stay, and what might be a final straw that could cause him to leave?
"He was studying in Italy when he discovered the others there. They were much more civilized and educated than the wraiths of the London sewers… Carlisle stayed with them for only a short time, just a few decades. He greatly admired their civility, their refinement, but they persisted in trying to cure his aversion to 'his natural food source,' as they called it."
Twilight, chapter 16
It was evening, but torches were never lit on this floor, except in the spiral staircase that led visiting travelers upwards, ostensibly to see a particularly nice example of 13th century architecture – the main fortress hall, with its arrowslits and lavish tapestries and its drains along the floor to catch the overflow of blood once visitors learned why they were really there. The screams were so muffled by stone, that here on the far side of the castle they were almost silent, and anyway the evening meal was just ending. Had she arrived an hour later, Bella would have been spared the sound of the whole gruesome ordeal.
After months in the open desert, the corridors were stifling, so when she passed a doorway to a cavernous room, she stopped long enough to look inside. Amidst the paintings, sculptures and yards of polished floorboards, there was someone in there, someone who had apparently not been in the great hall for the slaughter. He looked lost in thought, and her first impulse was to keep moving rather than frighten him off, but over his shoulder she saw his likeness in oil.
"That's you in the painting?" she asked.
The blond spun around to face her, but his expression showed surprise rather than dread, so Bella hoped she could risk a short stay. She gestured toward the painting. "É che voi?" she tried. She knew enough to say Is that you? and to understand the answer if he gave her a simple yes or no. "I'm sorry, but I don't speak Italian well."
Looking more closely, she saw that in the painting, this man stood alongside Aro, Caius and Marcus, so perhaps he wasn't someone she wanted to know.
"My apologies, Madam. I speak English, and yes, Solimena painted…" His voice trailed off, and his face softened into something like slack-jawed awe. It was hardly the response she was used to getting. For a moment, she almost turned to see if someone was behind her, but he recovered himself and gave her a small bow. "I'm Carlisle Cullen."
"I apologize again," he said, "but your eyes… You don't drink human blood."
Of course. That explained his strange expression. If she hadn't been busy looking for signs that she was causing him distress, she would have noticed earlier.
"Nor do you." Bella moved toward the closest settee. Making herself smaller made her seem less menacing, and usually went a little way towards relieving tension in a room. Unfortunately, at the moment, sitting down was a bit like maneuvering an unwilling camel. She'd been given a dress that had belonged to someone named Renata, though she'd refused the ridiculous hoop that was meant to be worn underneath, so there were yards of inconvenient dress silk she had to tug to the side. The movement revealed her feet, bare and flecked with dried mud, and Carlisle stared down at them.
"It was still raining when I arrived," she said. That didn't seem to be the answer he was expecting. "I don't like shoes."
His lips twitched, and eventually he made a sound that came out as a cough.
"You must not spend a great deal of time at court," he said.
"I was in the desert until two days ago. It makes all this…" She gestured toward an upholstered chair and a weathered Bernini sculpture of… was that Didyme? "…seem more than a little opulent."
"The gallery is not to your taste?"
"It's not that." Her feet disappeared entirely as she pulled her legs up beneath a sea of silk. "When I was young, if you wanted to sit, you sat on the ground. It's still like that in the desert, where a square of burlap between you and the sand is a luxury. Here among human things… They've taken the small act of changing position and turned it into satin and veneer and mother of pearl. I have no objection; it just isn't second nature to me, being in society."
He nodded. "You use the time of your early life as the ruler by which you measure all things. I have a theory that our personalities are fixed at the time of our change."
"No," she said with more force than she intended, "No, I wouldn't want to think so. I was a monster after the change."
"I was referring to your human personality," Carlisle said, but the shudder that came over him was sudden and involuntary.
"Am I making you uncomfortable?"
"Not at all," he said.
"If you're feeling unsettled… I have that effect. I can keep it from getting out of hand, but I can't suppress it entirely."
"That feeling, that's you?"
She brought her feet to the floor. "I'll leave. I shouldn't have intruded. I'd only wanted to see –"
"No, please. You don't have to go. I was anxious even before you arrived."
She knew she could only make his mood worse, but she settled back into the seat, because it had been a long time since she'd had a conversation that wasn't strictly necessary. It was selfish, though Carlisle did seem to be holding his own. He looked as though he wanted to ask questions, but instead he spoke so low she almost couldn't hear.
"I've been anxious for quite a while actually," he said. "Since before I first came to Volterra."
"I'm sorry to hear it. Are you passing through?"
"Stopping for a while. About thirty years thus far."
It was her turn to look surprised, and she didn't try to hide it. "Why would you stay here at all, when you don't feed on humans?"
For a long time he said nothing. Then he began to pace back and forth in front of her.
"You don't have to answer," she added.
"No, no…" he said, and again he was silent while the steady creak of the floorboards sounded with each pass he made across the room, until finally he slowed to a stop. "I was lost. Until I came here, the only others of our kind that I'd met were living in the sewers and back alleys, hunting their meals in the brothel districts. I wanted, I needed something else, some way to atone for what I am."
Isabella nodded her understanding. "For the people you had killed."
"Not the people," he said. "I haven't drunk human blood. Aro keeps insisting that I should try it before I pass judgment, but nothing could convince me to –"
"Aro's an imbecile. And what do you mean you haven't tasted human blood. Not once?"
Isabella slid down from the settee onto the floor with an unusually graceless thunk. "I've never met anyone, anyone not human, who wasn't a murderer at least twice over."
He shrugged. Perhaps he had no idea how unusual he was.
"You must have had a careful maker," she said.
His sharp laugh echoed in the gallery. "He meant to kill me, but was interrupted by a mob. I woke alone."
"How did you resist? The bloodlust is too strong. How did you discover on your own that you could live on animal blood?" She paused long enough to draw a breath. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to interrogate you."
"I found out by accident." He made his way over to the closest chair and sat across from her. "I attempted to starve myself."
"Surely it's not an unusual response to discovering what we are."
"I'm sorry," she said. "I don't understand. Are you saying that you wanted to die?"
"When I first awoke, every instinct I had told me to kill. Death seemed like the only way to save my soul." He tilted his head up to catch her eye, and Bella stilled when she saw the anguish there. "You don't drink human blood either," he said. "You know what a struggle it is to resist."
"It gets easier with time. And isn't it worth any amount of struggle to be alive?" she asked. "When I thought I was going to die, I wished for even one breath more, and then when I was saved… I was thankful. Maybe I shouldn't have been. I didn't resist human blood as a newborn; I didn't even know it was possible. Now, meeting you, and knowing it could be done…"
"I didn't mean to upset you."
She almost laughed. "You're a gentleman, Carlisle. I'm old compared to you, and I can tell you honestly that no one has ever said that to me before, though I've certainly said it to others."
That seemed to lift his mood a little, and Bella pulled herself back onto the settee. "So you were looking for something more than just existing," she continued. "I still don't understand how that led you here of all places."
"I wanted to learn, to study. You must understand, until I came here, I thought that our kind did nothing but slink in alleyways and caves. There is nowhere else like Volterra. Have you seen the library on this floor? That alone has taken me years to sort through. Texts dating back to 1000 BC. The galleries. This…" He gestured at the walls around them, "… is nothing compared to the public collection downstairs."
"Yes, Aro is a collector, and anything he can't find, he commissions."
Carlisle sighed, the excitement leaving his eyes. "You don't approve."
Before she could answer, they heard boot heels clicking in the corridor, and turned in unison to find Alec staring back at them with large, owlish eyes. His cape and boots were grey, and with no firelight to brighten him, he looked like a dusty ghost in the doorway. He'd always made Bella uneasy, though she wouldn't give him the satisfaction of knowing it. One of the youngest vampires she'd ever met, his expression made him look both trusting and trustworthy. Only the red in his eyes gave him away. She suspected he made the most of his boyish face just to see the shock in his victims' eyes before he took away their sight. She'd never gone up against him, though she had imagined how it might end. His arsenal was a complete lack of sensation, while hers was fear. Though she caught her breath at even the thought of being deprived of her senses, the terror she could inflict on him would always be more of a threat.
"Excuse the interruption, Isabella," he said, "But Aro will see you again now. He apologizes for taking his leave earlier, but he was called away."
"He had his teeth deep in someone's neck, you mean."
Carlisle shuddered at her words, but Alec neither looked away nor moved. He waited by the heavy walnut door until it was clear that she wasn't going to get up.
"I'd be pleased to show you to his quarters, if you would accompany me now."
"I'm speaking with Carlisle."
She could swear she saw a muscle twitch beneath Alec's eye. It was a pleasant feeling to get any reaction from him at all. She had only ever seen his sister have a noticeable effect on him. You had to wonder about a boy whose one true friend was Jane.
"Shall I tell him that you'll make an appearance in the great hall in the morning?"
"I've already learned everything I needed to know from him. I'll be leaving shortly." She knew she sounded dismissive, knew he would hate it, and knew he would do nothing about it.
"Very well," he said, and he was gone.
The tension in the air took longer to dissipate, and she remembered that Carlisle would be feeling the effects of her agitation. Calm, she told herself. Be calm now. The air in the room was stale as it passed into her lungs and out again.
"You aren't staying?" Carlisle asked.
She shook her head. "I was looking for someone. It's a bit of a riddle; I was looking for someone I don't want to find. Aro doesn't know where he is, so now I can leave, feeling as though I've done my duty by searching. But before I go, I want to show you something," she said. "Will you come with me?"
He stood and held out his hand to help her up. She knew it took courage to touch her, but he seemed determined to be kind to her regardless of how she made him feel. It made her determined to be kind to him as well.
As they wound their way through the hallways, she asked him what it was he'd wanted to study, and he told her about the balance of the humors in the human body and the best way to mend a fracture and stitch a wound.
"You wanted to treat humans?" She almost laughed, but she knew he would misunderstand. It was only that surprises had become so rare, and yet Carlisle, with his unusual mind, kept offering them up.
"I planned to become a doctor."
"But now you don't?"
"It took years before I could spend a considerable amount of time around even cadavers," he said, "but eventually I could control my instincts. I spent a short time at a barber's in Florence, healing the injured. While I was there, I was summoned to a home to treat a ten year old girl who was wasting away, as pale as you or I, with no appetite, and constantly thirsty. It was nothing like the straightforward matter of setting bones. I couldn't find a cause for her illness, so I questioned the family and their staff about every aspect of her diet and her activities. Finally I spent a day with her and discovered that her mother was dosing her with ceruse, a mixture of lead and vinegar, to maintain fair skin. It's extremely dangerous, especially for one so young, but once her mother stopped, the child began to recover."
"A happy end."
"So I thought, but only a month later, she was thrown from a horse."
They'd reached the ante chamber outside the great hall, and already Bella could smell what lay ahead. It had been a long time since dried blood could provoke her to feel anything except sadness. She turned to Carlisle.
He nodded. "Perhaps if I had changed her…"
She took his hand and walked with him into the great hall. Before morning, someone would be sent to destroy the drained bodies and the discarded wigs and canes and cloaks that littered the floor, but right now it was still a field of carnage strewn with leftovers from the evening meal.
"Why are we here?" Carlisle said, but he didn't let go of her hand.
"You can care for humans who are wounded and bleeding, and you've never killed anyone," she said. "You have an incredible talent."
He shook his head as he looked around at the pale, torn bodies, some with arms or heads severed or bent at such an angle that they resembled wax figures twisted by too much heat.
"Why did you want me to come here?" he asked again.
"The Volturi tempted you with other people's knowledge, other people's art. They don't create anything." She led him further into the room. "You're the only one I've ever known who had so much compassion that it overrode your instincts, and ironically, though it's one of the most impressive gifts I've encountered, it's completely worthless to Aro, so he'll make no move to collect you. Caius will let you go without a fight. They don't understand you, and so you're free."
"I don't know where else I want to go, what I want to do."
His grip on her hand was almost painful now, but she was sure he didn't realize it.
"You gave that girl a month of life she never would have had."
"It's not enough."
"They die, Carlisle. It's what they do. In little more than a century, every last one of them will be gone. Eventually you'll see whole civilizations disappear."
He seemed to close down then, and he refused to meet her eyes. She had a feeling that she'd disappointed him somehow.
"You're saying that it doesn't matter. None of it matters," he said. "But I won't believe that."
"That's not what I meant. I've been given thousands of years, but if you told me I had to die, I'd beg you for even a few minutes more. Humans are just the same; they will always want more time. You can give it to them, but you can't give them forever. Not all of them. If you love them, then give them more time, but you'll have to learn to let them go."
She gestured around the room at the bodies all around. "This is what the Volturi do. They take time away. As long as you stay here, you're being corrupted. They'd have you believe that they're the height of refinement, but I see beasts dressed in velvet robes. At least the murderers in the London alleyways are honest about what they are."
At the end of her speech, he was shaking and she was sorry for it, because it was probably due to her own agitation as much as the scattered corpses and the scent of blood and adrenaline. She took a breath in through her mouth to avoid the smell, and tried to let go of her anger for Carlisle's sake.
"Though I don't harm humans," she said, "I don't feel drawn to them either. I suppose I've just seen so many come and go, but you… you have the desire to be of service to them and the talent to make that possible," she said. "It's not my place to tell you what's right for you, but I can't imagine that you're content with a half-life of roaming around this castle."
He let go of her hand and moved away. She thought perhaps she'd offended him, but he only wandered farther into the room where he knelt down by the now stiff body of a young woman who couldn't have been more than seventeen.
There was a crash at the main door as Afton threw it open against the wall. He knocked a tin pail on its side as he entered, and the water spilled toward the closest drain, turning pink as it mixed with flaked blood. He had a mop and some rags in his hand and was mumbling under his breath about the "third time this month" that he'd been given this chore.
"You're late," he said when he saw them. "It's been done for an hour, but I could send Heidi after a meal for you if we ask her the right way. She'd be more than happy to find you something, I think."
Carlisle was up and facing him so fast that Bella almost missed the movement.
"No," he said. "I don't need anything. Isabella was just… No. I don't want anything."
"I was leaving," Bella said.
They wound their way past the bodies, and Bella stopped to take a rag and clean the soles of her feet. The cloth was wet and rough against her skin.
"Where will you go?" Carlisle asked.
"I don't know. I would ask you if you'd like to come with me, but I'm not easy to be around. No one can stand it for long." She tossed the rag to the floor, and they left the scent and sight of blood behind them.
"I can tell you mean me no harm," he said, but he wouldn't meet her eye.
"Knowing I wouldn't hurt you won't matter. The fear will become too much."
"Maybe just for a while then," he said. "Until we both have places to be and we go our separate ways."
If she were kinder, she would leave him to spare him the discomfort, but the prospect of a few weeks of company won out.
"Do you need to collect your things?" she asked.
"Just a moment. I won't be long."
She waited in the hallway, listening to Afton's distant whistle as he tugged bodies into a pile and pushed a mop across the stone. Sooner than she expected, Carlisle was back with only a canvas tucked under his arm. It was the Solimena painting of Carlisle, Aro, Caius and Marcus on the balcony high above the square. He'd ripped it from the frame.
"Just a reminder of how easy it was to forget," he said.
She didn't ask him what he thought he had forgotten. They made their way down the winding stairway and out into the night in silence. There was enough distance between them that anyone watching might have thought they were each alone, strangers travelling in the same direction by chance. It was winter, cold and crisp. A horse shied, breath clouding the air, when the two figures passed a carriage, but they kept walking at the same steady pace - a barefoot woman in a bloody, silk dress that dragged along the cobblestones, and a man clutching a rolled up painting of himself.
Thanks for reading.
All the usual characters, settings, etc. are the property of S. Meyer and Little, Brown and Company. No copyright infringement is intended, and no money is being made. Original plot, copyright 2010, mothlights. May not be reprinted or reposted without express written permission.