Sniffle. The end of a fic! I'm not too emotional because this was only a three-shot, but still. Thanks to all my lovely reviewers - you guys are amazing!

For those of you also following my long story "As Children After Play," here's a little hint at this week's installment. Yes, it's what you've been waiting for: Edward and Bella's reunion!


Midnight Carnival

Three days later, Bella's fever was gone and Edward decided she was probably rested enough to make the trip to Washington. It would be a several-day journey, and he planned to stop every night at a hotel so she got plenty of sleep. Ordinarily night was the best time to run, as it was less likely anyone would see him. But he refused to upset Bella's sleep schedule any more than absolutely necessary and she was definitely not a nocturnal teenager. Thankfully they were headed across some of the most sparsely-populated parts of the United States. Long stretches of prairie and badlands, and later mountains, with virtually no inhabitants lay before them. Edward purchased several maps and a pay-as-you-go cell phone, and had planned out approximately where they would stop each night. He needed to know they would be close to civilization when Bella became tired and needed to sleep.

Her knee still gave her some trouble, and the jagged slice down her arm was not healing well. Edward was fairly sure he'd stopped the beginnings of infection, but it really did need stitches. She still seemed uncomfortable with the idea, so he was waiting until they reached Forks. Carlisle would have the drugs to sedate her and make it a less stressful experience for all involved.

Bella seemed alternately excited and nervous to meet his family. He knew she worried about what they'd think of her no matter how many times he tried to reassure her. It was just part of her nature, and he had to accept it. She would probably always be a little shy, a little unsure of herself. Whether it was intrinsic to her character or a result of James' abuse he couldn't say. Not that it really mattered at this point. Bella was adamant about leaving the past behind them and moving on with the future. It was a good outlook, and Edward strove to follow her example.

It wasn't always easy, though.

She had nightmares sometimes - more often about the wolf than about James, for reasons unknown. Bella was not forthcoming with details about the night the werewolf had been captured, and Edward wasn't about to demand what she wasn't willing to give. When she cried out in her sleep it tore at his dead heart, and Edward wanted nothing more than to enter her dreams and rip to shreds whatever was causing her pain. Since that was impossible, he tried to content himself with waking her gently, then holding her while she cried a little and drifted to sleep again, clutching handfuls of his shirt as if willing him to come with her as she slept. Once woken, she did not seem to have trouble again for the rest of the night. She apologized profusely the first morning after it happened, but Edward tried to make her understand it was no trouble at all. He liked holding her - adored it, in fact - and since he did not sleep anyway, she wasn't causing any trouble.

Whether or not she believed him Edward didn't know, but she had not tried to apologize again.

Now he settled their full backpacks on his back, one thrown casually over each shoulder. It looked a little silly, but he didn't care. No one would see anything once they were running, and it didn't make sense for Bella to wear a pack when he was just going to be carrying her anyway.

"Are you sure this is the best way to travel?" she asked anxiously as they stepped into the concealing cover of the forest.

"Not the fastest or most convenient, I'll admit," Edward said, and he smiled at his girl as she bit her lip and watched him nervously. "But really the only way right now, I'm afraid."

"Won't you get tired or sore?"

Edward chuckled as he swung her nonexistent weight up into his arms. "No."

"I hate feeling like a dead weight."

"You're very much a live weight," Edward said, smiling as he kissed her temple. She slid her arms around him, nestling closer. Though she no longer had a fever, she still did not seem affected by his temperature. Edward couldn't quite understand it, but he wasn't about to argue with her if she wanted his touch. "And weight really isn't the word for you, anyway. You weigh less than a feather."

"Mm." Bella made a noncommittal sound. "I think I've eaten more in the past few days than a normal two-week period."

"Not normal anymore, little one," Edward said, pressing his lips to her skin again. "That's all in the past now."

"I know." She sighed and rested her head against his shoulder. "It still feels surreal sometimes."

"I expect it will for a while yet. But you've nothing to fear, Bella. I'm here to stay."

"I love you, Edward."

"I know." Edward smiled. It wasn't the first time she'd said the words - that had happened during a sleepy late night when she'd woken from a bad dream. But they filled him with peaceful warmth every time he heard them. "Are you ready to go?"

"I think so." She nestled a little closer to him, her arms tightening around his shoulders. "Are you sure I can't hurt you?"

"Not a bit." He kissed her temple again. "Hold on as tight as you like, little one."

She tucked her head close to his, burying her face against him, and Edward took that as his cue. With a quick glance around to make sure there were no hikers to see them, they were off.


Some time in the afternoon four days later, Edward slowed his steps to a jog, then a walk. Bella was on his back, wearing her backpack, while he held the strap of his bag in his hand. Switching positions every so often had been good for her, though it made no difference to his vampire strength how he carried her. But her muscles grew restless and achy being kept in one position for hours at a time, and even with frequent breaks to let her walk and stretch they had learned that changing things up as much as possible was best. Bella never complained, which Edward found worrying more than pleasant. He wished she was more vocal about her body's physical needs, but he understood why she wasn't. For years she'd had obedience and silence beaten into her, and it would take time for those terrible memories to be undone.

Now he knelt and allowed Bella to slide from his back. She landed awkwardly and staggered a little, and she might have fallen if he had not whirled around and caught her arm, steadying her.

"It's okay," she said, a pale pink blush sweeping across her expressive face. "My foot just fell asleep."

"You're supposed to tell me if anything like that happens, you know," he said gently, trying not to sound angry. He'd learned quickly that scolding just sent her right back into that subservient mindset he wanted her to leave behind.

"I didn't notice." She shook her leg and moved her ankle around in small circles.

Edward smiled as he knelt next to her and took her leg in his cold hands, gently rubbing to help circulation return. She was dressed in the jeans he'd bought her, and he rather missed the soft, stretchy cotton of the yoga pants. Still, it was her choice, and she knew they would be reaching their destination today. No doubt the thicker, less form-fitting material made her feel a little more secure.

"We're almost home," Edward said, standing up and offering her his hand. She took it without hesitation, a fact that always filled Edward with joy. "It's just a few minutes away. I wanted to stop now and give you the chance to collect yourself. Did you have any questions before we keep going?"

Bella began to shake her head slowly, but her lip was between her teeth again and Edward knew perfectly well what that meant.

"Sweet girl, it's okay. You can tell me anything."

"I just..." She paused, her big brown eyes troubled. "What if they don't like me?"

Edward bit back a chuckle, knowing she would take it the wrong way. "They will love you, Bella," he said again, trying to reassure her though her fears were absolutely ridiculous. There was no way his family wouldn't accept her.

"But I'm human," she said, her expression still nervous.

"Doesn't matter. I don't love you any less for that, and neither will they." Edward kissed her temple. "Are you ready to go, or do you need a minute?"

She did not seem altogether eager, but she shook her shoulders back and took a deep breath. Her long hair rippled as she moved, gleams of sunlight shining along the dark strands. It was beautiful, and it moved like water as Edward watched. She absolutely entranced him. "I'm ready," she said quietly.

"Good girl. How would you like to finish this trip? In my arms or on my back?"

"Back, please."

Edward had been hoping for a different answer - he loved holding her in his arms, her small body tucked close against his, but the point was to make her fragile human body as comfortable as possible. He knelt willingly and helped her up, her thin legs wrapping themselves snugly around his waist. "Hold on," he murmured, turning his head to smile reassuringly at her as she clutched his shoulders tightly. "Just a few more minutes, and we'll be home.

True to his calculations, Edward saw the sleek lines of his family's modern house in the middle of the woods come into view just minutes later. He slowed to a jog as he found the driveway, and then walked the last little bit to give Bella a chance to catch her breath and prepare herself.

"It's beautiful," she breathed, her heart rate beginning to pick up as they neared the building.

"You'll have to tell Esme. She designed it."

"I'd love to be able to do something like that," Bella said wistfully.

"I'm sure she'd be happy to teach you the basics. No one else in the family really shares her passion, and she loves company while she works. She says having people around reminds her to keep them in mind while she designs. It helps her remember that a house isn't just a work of art, but something that should be functional and comfortable as well."

"She sounds amazing."

"She is," Edward agreed. He stopped walking as they neared the house, and he knelt to let Bella down. She slid reluctantly from his back, her movements slow. Edward opened his mouth to reassure her again, but before he could get the words out the front door flew open and six vampires rushed out.

"Edward!" Alice screeched. She was in front of the rest of them, and Edward barely had time to straighten and brace for impact before she slammed into his arms. He caught her as she hugged him fiercely, gabbling and scolding him nonsensically at vampire speed.

"Alice," he groaned as she almost wrung his neck with the force of her embrace, "can't breathe!"

"You don't need to breathe anyway," she grumbled, but the joke worked to calm her and she dropped back to her feet and stepped away from him.

Bella had ducked behind Edward when the mass of bodies rushed out the door, and she was cowering there, shaking like a leaf and pressing her face into the back of his shirt. He wanted to turn to comfort her, but just as Alice stepped away Esme took her place.

His mother's hug was gentle, unlike his tiny sister's ferocity. Edward put his arms around her.

"I was so worried," she said when she finally stepped back, and she pressed a motherly hand against the side of his face. "You didn't come home, and then Alice started having awful visions about bars and a werewolf, and you were screaming..." She shook her head as if to clear it. "I'm so glad you're safe." Esme gave him another hug, and suddenly stilled in his arms. She reached up on her tiptoes and peered over his shoulder for a long moment.

"Bella," Edward said, releasing Esme and shifting his body a little, "Bella, it's okay."

She only pressed closer against him, her face still hidden in the back of his shirt.

"I know it was a little sudden, but I promise everything is okay, Bella," he said, trying to coax her out from behind him.

Esme stepped deftly to his side and placed a hand on Bella's arm. He watched nervously, unsure how Bella would react to so many new people at once. She was a shy little thing, and with good reason. When was the last time anyone had ever touched her kindly, or given a thought to her well-being?

"Bella," Esme said softly. "Bella, honey, it's all right. You're safe, child. Will you look at me?"

She shifted her body further, trying to keep Edward's bulk between her and the other vampires, but she raised damp, shimmering brown eyes obediently to Esme's warm gaze.

"I'm Esme Cullen," Edward's mother continued, her voice low and gentle, more soothing than Edward had ever heard it before. "Edward is my son. Alice saw you save him, and he's relayed to us by phone a little of what you've been through together. I can't thank you enough, honey, for all you've risked. All you've done. It's nothing short of amazing."

Bella's soft eyes were considering the woman before her, and Edward relaxed a little as he felt her heart rate slow. It was only a little, but it was progress. He'd been worried about this meeting and knew it would likely be difficult for Bella, but she seemed to be handling things reasonably well as long as she only had to focus on one new face at a time.

"He was hurting," Bella whispered, her face still pale and a little frightened, though her furious heart was slowly calming. "I just did what anyone would do."

"No, Bella," Esme said, rubbing her arm gently. "Not many would help a vampire - trust me."

"Vampire or human, he's still a person."

"Yes, and that's what you said when you first met him, isn't it?" Esme smiled fondly. "How refreshing to meet someone with such an unprejudiced outlook. Please don't worry about a thing, Bella, sweetheart. You're part of this family now, and you have our undying loyalty and gratitude."

Bella's pale little face flushed deeply red, and she dropped her eyes to the ground. "Don't thank me," she almost begged. "Please, don't thank me."

Esme raised questioning eyes to Edward, who shrugged helplessly. He knew it would take time to build Bella's shattered self-confidence back up to where it should be, but for now he didn't want to push. "We won't, little one," he said, and he slowly shifted so he could slide an arm around her and draw her out from behind him. She didn't move so much as let him slide around her, until her back was pressed to his front and he settled his arms firmly around her waist. "Not if it makes you uncomfortable. Now, are you ready to meet the rest of the family?"

Bella hesitated, and the color did not bleed from her cheeks. She raised shy eyes to Esme, who smiled encouragingly and waited for her to speak.

"I - I wanted to say that your house is beautiful," Bella finally said, her voice no more than a whisper. "Edward told me you made it."

Esme's gentle smile broadened. "I didn't lay the concrete and anyone will tell you my skills with sheetrock are less than phenomenal, but I did design it, yes. I'm so glad you like it. Will you come inside, and we can all sit while we get to know each other properly?"

Bella looked inquiringly up at Edward, who gave her a reassuring smile. "I'll stay right with you," he promised. "You're safe. I've got you."

Her hesitant nod made Esme positively beam. She waved them forward, and the huddled members of the rest of the family sprang to life, hurrying inside as well.

Edward kept an arm around Bella's waist as they walked at human speed through the door. Her eyes were big as she took in the eclectic mix of decorations, the vaulted ceiling and open, airy rooms. He wanted to whisper reassuring words in her ear, but didn't really know what to say. This was all so new to him, being reassuring. He was so used to pushing people away, of hiding and keeping his family's secret, that now he didn't quite know how to make Bella feel comfortable. She seemed to take comfort from staying close to him, though, and he was only too happy to oblige.

They settled in the living room on Esme's white couches and armchairs. Edward tucked Bella into a corner of the couch and sat beside her, hoping she'd feel most secure there. He handed her a throw pillow, which she hugged gratefully to her chest, and she snuggled under the arm he slipped around her shoulders.

Alice saw some of the abuse you witnessed, Esme thought to Edward. We don't know the full extent of what's happened to the poor girl, but I have no doubt you know more than we do. Will she consent to having Carlisle examine her for injuries?

Edward shrugged his shoulders lightly, a small enough movement that Bella didn't seem to notice. He wished he had a better answer for his mother, but he didn't honestly know whether Bella would consent to a physical exam. Luckily he'd done his best that first day in a hotel, and was therefore reasonably sure she had no immediate health threats other than malnutrition and the jagged cut in her arm that still did not want to heal. He'd prefer Carlisle's more thorough knowledge as reassurance, but that was completely up to Bella.

"Bella, welcome," Carlisle said, breaking into Edward's musings. He watched Bella's reaction to his father carefully, hoping she would be all right. Both Carlisle and Jasper had blond hair, like James, and he worried that it might upset her. But she seemed all right so far, nestled into the corner of the couch and the crook of his arm. Her heart was still beating faster than normal, but she didn't feel so close to panic anymore.

"You're Carlisle," Bella whispered, surprising Edward.

"Yes," Carlisle replied, a slow smile growing over his face. "How did you know that?"

She shifted a little as if trying to get closer to Edward, though that wasn't physically possible. "You look a little older," she said, her fingertips running over the pillow hugged tightly to her chest. "And you're in charge. I can tell."

Of course she could. Her time with James would have taught her how to read things like power dynamics, even in something as small as body language. Edward rubbed her shoulder encouragingly. He was happy she was talking, though anything that reminded him of James made him furious.

"Well," Carlisle said with a soft chuckle, "we try to run a democratic household as much as possible. Esme and I do make final decisions sometimes, when necessary."

"Bella," Alice said, interrupting impatiently, "Jasper said I scared you when I jumped at Edward. I'm sorry! I didn't even think. I just get so excited sometimes, and things just happen. I'm Alice, by the way. We're going to be great friends; I've seen it!"

"You're the one Edward calls on the phone," Bella said, her voice fractionally louder. "You helped us in Missouri."

"Well, of course! Family sticks together, after all, and you were there for Edward when we couldn't be. Normally I can see trouble coming so we avoid it, but I just couldn't tell where he was. There were no landmarks so I could find him." Alice looked troubled. "It's not perfect, this gift."

"I think it's wonderful," Bella said hesitantly.

Alice beamed. "Well, it does come in handy from time to time," she said. "For instance, I already know you absolutely love the room we prepared for you!"

"A room?" Bella blinked rapidly. "A-a real room? For me?"

"Of course, silly! Though I know you'll be sleeping with Edward more often than not, you still need your own place, with your own things. We all have our own rooms. Well, sort of. Carlisle and Esme have offices rather than bedrooms. Did Edward tell you we don't sleep?"

Bella nodded softly. "I - I won't tell anyone anything," she said quickly, glancing around at everyone. She swallowed nervously. "I'm good with secrets."

"I'm sure you are," Esme said, a hint of remorse in her eyes. Edward felt it, too. He knew full well how many terrible secrets Bella had had to hide, and for how long.

"Quit with the heavy stuff," Emmett complained, rising from his chair and moving forward. He sat on the edge of the coffee table near Bella and grinned at her. "I'm the big brother around here, even though I'm actually the youngest. Once you start at school with us, you let me know if anyone's hassling you. Eddie here, too. He lays a finger on you and I'll squash him."

Bella's eyes went wide, and Edward didn't know if it was because of Emmett's teasing threat or just the sheer proximity of a vampire his size. Emmett could be extremely intimidating at first glance.

"Dude, don't tell me he already has," Emmett said, misinterpreting Bella's stare. "Ed - "

"It's not like that, Emmett!" Edward snapped in exasperation, tightening his hold on Bella and trying to keep her calm.

"Oh no?" Emmett smiled knowingly. "You just wait, little brother. Bella, I mean it. One finger, and his ass is mine."

She turned deep red and hid her face against Edward's shoulder. He cupped her cheek with his free hand, easing the heat of her blush.

"Lay off, you oaf," Rose said irritably, pulling Emmett back beside her. "Can't you see you're embarrassing her?"

"But - "

"It's also clear that your warning is far too late to be of use, anyhow," she went on, her golden eyes locked knowingly with Edward's. He made a face. He and Rose were never the closest of siblings, and her reaction had been the one he was most anxious about. In normal circumstances she would not welcome a human into the house with open arms, fearing the disruption and possible trouble for the family. But this wasn't a normal situation. Bella belonged with him, and she needed a home. Her father was dead, her mother god knew where, and she had no place left to go.

Rosalie took Emmett's abandoned spot, perching elegantly on the edge of the coffee table. She leaned forward, her brilliant eyes intense. Edward tightened his grip on Bella and had to bite back a warning hiss. His human girl's heart rate had sped up immediately as Rose drew nearer, and her dark eyes looked enormous in her small pale face. He knew Rosalie wouldn't actually hurt her, but that didn't mean she wasn't scaring her.

"I'm Rosalie," Rose said, staring intently into Bella's eyes, ignoring the signs of fear. "Let's get a few things straight right now. I don't like humans, and I don't appreciate new people horning in on my family." She paused to let the words sink in. Edward wanted to bite her head off, but knew it would only scare Bella more if they started arguing. "But," Rose continued, "I also realize that it's not my choice to make, and Edward has been alone far too long." She eyed Bella up and down, and Edward was prouder than he thought he had ever been of his girl as she held steady under that piercing gaze. "That being said, I also have a message for Edward here." Her eyes suddenly flicked to him, and Edward froze. He hadn't expected that. "Your brother Emmett is the gentlest, sweetest man I have ever met. You are not. You put one foot out of line with this girl - one toe, even - and you bring the wrath of Rosalie Hale down on you. Got it? I may not know all of what she's been through, but I know enough. She needs gentleness and patience, traits you're not particularly known for." Rose paused again. "But I can see that she trusts you. And like I said, it's not up to me. Just remember - one toe out of line. One pinky toe, even." She raised a warning finger in his direction before getting up and leaving Edward and Bella in peace.

"You're a hard act to follow," Jasper said, lifting one corner of his mouth in Rosalie's direction. A light wave of calm settled across the room, and Edward flashed a grateful look at his brother as Bella stopped trembling and relaxed a little against him. "I'm Jasper, by the way. Forgive me for not shaking your hand, but - "

"It's okay," Bella said, her voice quiet but steady. "Edward told me you're new at this. I'm sorry if I make you uncomfortable." She bit her lower lip uncertainly, and Edward rubbed her shoulder.

"Don't apologize," Jasper said, looking at her with enough force behind his words that she knew he took her seriously. "It is for me to learn control, not for you to change what you are."

Edward saw Alice draw breath to argue, and he shot her a warning look.

It's going to happen, Edward, whether you want it to or not, she thought to him, scowling a little. She hated when people purposefully tried to go against her visions. I've seen it, and all your insistence hasn't changed the vision one bit. She will be one of us.

Not if he had anything to do with it, Edward thought furiously. He knew Alice couldn't hear his thoughts as he heard hers, but it didn't matter. He'd find a way to change the vision. There had to be a way.

But Alice was looking at him as if she knew exactly what he was thinking. She pursed her dainty pixie mouth, and suddenly Edward's inner sight was flooded by a vision of the future. He was in the forest, walking, casting his eyes around as if looking for something. Suddenly a blur dropped from a branch above his head, landing on his back. It was Bella. Her legs went around his waist, her arms around his shoulders, and she leaned forward to nuzzle his neck with her nose. She was an absolute vision, her beauty a little sharper, more defined. Before she opened her eyes, he knew she was a vampire. He didn't need the telltale gold to figure that out. It was the light in those eyes, and the joyful smile on her face, that surprised him. She was a vampire, and she was cuddling him playfully. She was...happy. Edward didn't know what to think.

"Edward?"

Her worried voice brought him instantly back to the present, and he smiled reassuringly at her as she chewed on her lower lip.

"It's the mind-reading," Esme said soothingly, and she sat on the arm of the couch next to Bella. "He and Alice do it all the time, trading thoughts and visions. You'll get used to it after a while. Are you hungry, sweetheart? We stocked the kitchen when Edward told us you were coming."

"I don't think so right now," Bella said quietly, "but thank you."

"Why don't we let you two escape upstairs for a while, then?" Esme suggested, and Edward could have kissed her for her thoughtfulness. "Edward, her room is the one just across from yours. Alice wanted to put a bed in your room, too, but we prevailed on her to wait and see what you preferred. We know you don't like people messing with your things."

"Thank you," Edward said to his mother, and he didn't know when he had ever meant those words quite so fervently. Bella was trembling again - not badly, but he could feel the fine tremors as she tried to tuck herself further under his arm. She needed time to sit quietly before being subjected to so many new faces again.

"Bella, I know you need some time alone with Edward," Alice called, "but we're going shopping to fill your closet in the next few days. No arguing! I'd have done it before you got here, but Edward wouldn't give me your sizes. It's better for you to try things on, anyway."

Edward personally felt that it might take more than a few days before Bella was ready to go to a large, crowded mall, but as he guided her up the stairs he said nothing. Bella had surprised him before with her fortitude and resilience, and he had no doubt she would continue to do so.

But it was clear she needed some time to relax right now, so he led her upstairs and opened the door Esme had indicated.

She and Alice had really outdone themselves, he thought as he stepped into the room. It was large and bright and airy, but that was par for the course in this house. The guest room feel had been completely wiped away, and it now looked like a room where someone actually lived. The queen-sized bed had a fluffy white down comforter, folded down at one corner to reveal deep purple sheets. It went well with the dark iron head- and foot-boards. The floors were polished wood, and there were three white walls and one purple accent wall surrounding the white slatted doors to Bella's closet. There was a white dresser and a white desk with a new laptop computer waiting on it, and by the tall windows there was a papasan chair with a purple cushion. Tall white bookshelves framed the windows on either side, some of the shelves left empty and others filled with what Edward could see were Bella's new schoolbooks.

Edward turned to look at Bella, whose eyes were gigantic. "Is all this...for me?" she whispered, gazing around at the beautiful room.

"Do you know anyone else named Isabella who wants it?" Edward teased gently. He motioned to the wall next to the door, where someone - probably Esme - had framed a long piece of paper. It said "Isabella" in gorgeous, perfect calligraphy.

"This is too much," Bella murmured, her hands in front of her mouth.

"Isn't!" Alice hollered from downstairs, and Edward had to bite back a laugh. "Say thank you, Bella, and move on!"

Bella's cheeks turned pink. "You told me vampire hearing was good," she said, "but I didn't realize it was that good."

A chorus of laughter from downstairs made her blush a deeper shade of rose.

"It's okay, little one," Edward said, drawing her to sit with him on the bed. "Since we all live in close proximity, we do our best to ignore each other." He frowned. "That didn't come out quite right."

Bella smiled, running a hand wonderingly over the snowy white comforter. "I understand what you meant."

"I'm sorry if anyone frightened you or made you uncomfortable," Edward said as she tucked herself more securely under his arm. "They were just very excited to meet you."

"I take it it's not every day you bring girls home," Bella murmured, and her mouth curved into a tiny smile as she tipped her head up to him.

"Never in over a century." Edward smiled back, then dipped his head willingly when she tugged on his shirt, kissing her mouth softly. "You're the first," he whispered, "and the last. Love is a one-time thing for vampires, as I told you before. Do you still wonder why they're so excited to meet you?"

She bit her lip, a troubled frown appearing between her eyes, and Edward reached up with his free hand to smooth it away. It wouldn't disappear, and he sighed a little. "I wish...I wish I were still whole for you, Edward," she said, chewing on her lip. "That I could have waited, and given you - "

"Hush, sweetheart." He kissed her gently, licking her lower lip until her teeth released it. "Bella, you are whole. You are complete, in and of yourself. The brutal way James used you, and allowed you to be used by the wolf, has no bearing on your wholeness as a person. Your virginity or lack thereof makes no difference to me. I may not be the first man to touch your body, but you told me I was the first to hold your heart, and I believe you. That's all that matters to me."

"First and last," Bella said, ducking her head and pressing closer to his cold body. "I don't want anybody else. Ever."

Edward chuckled. "Good. Because you're stuck with me."

He held her for several minutes, relishing the soft, pliable nature of her body, the warm silk of her skin when he stroked the back of her hand or touched her cheek. She was his now, and he really didn't care what had happened in the past. The past only mattered to the extent that it hurt Bella and her pain needed to be assuaged. Otherwise, he really didn't care. The status of her virginity had no bearing on their current relationship, and anyone who knew her past and judged her for it didn't deserve her.

"Edward?"

"Mm?" He kissed the top of her head, at peace, but felt her shift nervously against him.

"You...do you...want to be with me? Like that - physically, I mean?"

Edward couldn't see from this angle, but he bet that her lip was between her teeth again. It was an adorable habit, but he hated the fact that it meant she was anxious or troubled about something. While he knew he couldn't ease all her anxieties, they still bothered him. He sighed. This was a difficult question. "I do," he said, trying to be as honest as possible. "Believe me, I do. But I'm worried too, sweetheart. Even without your past abuse, the fact remains that I'm a great deal stronger than you. I'm worried I might accidentally hurt you, which I'd never forgive myself for."

Bella was silent for a moment. "Does that mean it will never happen?" She sounded neither disappointed nor relieved - simply curious.

"I...really don't know. I could hurt you so, so easily, Bella." He wove his fingers through the soft strands of her hair, seeking comfort. "What do you feel, sweet girl? Tell me what you think."

She shrugged, and he felt the telltale heat radiating from her face that told him she was blushing. "I...don't know?" She sounded uncertain. "I want you, Edward, but I'm still scared. And I know it's stupid to feel this way, because you already touched me and you were so gentle..." Her voice trailed off, and he felt the muscles of her jaw moving against his chest as she chewed on her lip. "I would give you anything you asked for - anything you wanted. All of me," she whispered. "Without a second thought. But that doesn't mean I'm not scared."

"You've every right to be scared, sweetheart. I don't see how anyone wouldn't be."

"But I trust you, Edward," she said quietly. "And I trust that, when we're ready, you won't hurt me."

Edward kept his doubts to himself as he pulled her closer. She trusted him. The question was whether or not he could trust himself.


EDWARD! GET DOWN HERE NOW!

Edward snapped his eyes open at the frantic edge to Alice's mind-voice, and he pulled away from Bella's sleeping form as quickly and gently as he could. It was early the next morning - too early to expect Bella to wake, and he had been resting quietly next to her in her new bed, enchanted as always by the gentle rise and fall of her chest as she breathed.

Shadow, sun, and swirling morning mist combined to make the front of the house glisten in shades of pale blue and gold. The rest of the family had gathered on the porch and Edward rushed to join them. His still heart flew into his throat when he picked a vision from Alice's mind.

The Volturi. Alice didn't know why they were coming, but they'd be here any minute. Even if Bella stayed quiet upstairs, the red-eyed vampires would surely scent her. They would know.

"I've got to get her out of here."

"It's too late, Edward," Alice said nervously. "If you run, you'll only look guilty. They'll track you down and find you, and it won't be pretty."

"I won't just sit here and wait for them to - "

"Edward?"

He whirled, finding Bella's anxious eyes watching him. He'd been too distressed to hear her soft human footsteps, but now he caught her up in his arms and held her tightly.

"Edward, what's wrong?"

He couldn't bear to hear the fear in her voice, and he knew his actions were only scaring her further. She pressed herself against him, pushing further into his embrace. Edward raised pleading eyes to Carlisle, his arms never leaving his girl. "It's all right, Bella," he said, trying to keep his voice firm. "I'm going to keep you safe. It's okay."

"But what's going on?"

"She has a right to know, Edward," Rosalie said stonily. "This may be her last day alive, and she has a right to know why."

Bella's breath caught in her throat, and Edward could have ripped Rosalie to pieces in that moment as he felt his girl tremble in his arms.

When Edward did not speak, Carlisle stepped forward. "Bella, honey," he said, his voice soft and soothing - his doctor voice. "Did Edward ever explain that it was against the laws of our kind to reveal ourselves to humans?"

She turned her head toward Carlisle, not moving from Edward's arms. He felt her small nod against his shirt.

"Did he tell you that the enforcers of our laws are an important coven of very old vampires?"

"The Volturi," Bella whispered.

"Yes," Carlisle said, giving Edward a glance he could not interpret. "The Volturi. Alice has seen that they are coming - they will be here very soon. We don't know why."

"They'll know I'm here," Bella said quietly, instantly grasping the situation. "They'll think you broke the law."

Carlisle nodded unhappily.

Bella bit her lip. "Can we run?" she asked, tipping her head up to look at Edward. "Is there somewhere I can hide?"

"It's too late now," Alice said quickly. "They're coming up the drive; they'll smell you even if Edward carries you away. Best to put on a brave face."

"You are family, Bella," Carlisle said as the sound of tires on gravel hit Edward's ears. "We'll do our best to protect you."

"I'll die trying," Edward growled, and he meant it. He pressed her closer to his chest.

"Don't speak unless you are spoken to, honey," Esme said, speaking swiftly and quietly. She moved to stand beside Edward. "Be polite, and do as they say. They are firm, but not cruel for cruelty's sake. Edward, put her behind you."

Edward tipped Bella's head up and kissed her, wishing he had more time to hold her, talk with her - god, anything. Anything but this. "I will protect you, Bella," he vowed, staring deep into her sweet brown eyes.

And then there was no more to be said. A sleek black limousine drew to a halt in front of the house, and Edward whirled to stand protectively in front of the small human girl who had now become his life. He would die for her; he was sure of that. Because without her, his life was not worth living.

The chauffeur climbed out of the car. Edward had half expected it to be an ordinary human pressed into service by the Volturi, but as soon as he saw the man's face he recognized him. Demetri, one of the guards. Edward stood shoulder to shoulder with Esme, and felt Emmett come up to flank his other side. At least they would show a united front protecting their newest family member.

Demetri opened the back door, and after a slight pause the graceful figure of Aro slid out of the car.

"Carlisle, my old friend!" the vampire said. His voice was dry and brittle as paper.

"Aro." Carlisle's voice was tight and formal. He stepped down from the porch, away from the protective line of the rest of his family, and shook Aro's hand. Edward felt Bella's small, warm fists gripping the back of his shirt, and the touch steeled his resolve. He wasn't going to lose her. Not now. He refused.

"To what do we owe the unexpected pleasure of your visit?" Carlisle asked.

Aro smiled. It was a whimsical gesture that did not set Edward at ease. Aro was the most mercurial of the three brothers, and that made him the most dangerous. You could never quite tell what he was going to do in any given situation, his respect for the laws notwithstanding.

"My scouts on this continent have shared some very interesting news with me," Aro said. "Shall we step inside and discuss it?"

"Of course." Carlisle turned and shared a long glance with Esme. She nodded almost imperceptibly and touched Edward's shoulder. He spun, guiding Bella before him into the house. Esme followed.

"Keep her behind you," she murmured. "It may not do any good, but we have to try."

Edward planned to do everything in his power to keep Bella safe. Aro never traveled alone; the only question was how many members of the guard he had with him.

Four, it turned out, when they were all settled in the living room. Edward leaned in the doorway, trying to look casual but rather afraid he was failing miserably. The rest of his family sat warily on couches and chairs, with Aro and his guards scattered among them. In addition to Demetri, Aro had also brought Felix, Jane, and Alec. The young twins were the most dangerous members of the guard, and Edward was not at all happy to see them. If Aro was mercurial, Jane was positively volatile.

"Several days ago, I received news from the heartland of this great country," Aro said, continuing his tale. He breathed in deeply, but said nothing about the tempting scent of human blood that pervaded the house. "A rather unusual sight had been found in the backwoods of Missouri. An abandoned trailer surrounded by cages. The smells of vampire and werewolf were positively everywhere, and my scouts found two gruesomely-mauled bodies nearby. Naturally, they called me for instructions."

"An intriguing tale," Carlisle said calmly, giving nothing away. "What, may I ask, did you order them to do?"

"Well, naturally we could not let human authorities find the scene. Can you imagine the predicament if they somehow learned something they should not? I ordered the scouts to bring me any evidence they could find, and then burn the site. They complied, but just imagine my surprise when I saw what they brought me." Aro reached into his pocket and pulled out a black leather wallet. It was smooth, the leather butter-soft. Edward instantly recognized it as his. "We have had little chance to converse, my young friend Edward," Aro continued, his red eyes snapping up and focusing intently on him. "I think the time is ripe to do so now."

"I was there," Edward said, trying to maintain a stoic facade and let nothing show. "What more do you want me to say?"

"Read me this riddle, young Cullen. Your eyes remain gold, and the corpses in Missouri did not appear to be vampire-kill. Yet your house smells strongly of a particularly luscious young girl, a girl I have yet to see because you are hiding her behind your back." The ancient vampire smiled like a cat with cream. "Suppose you tell me how to take this, Edward?"

"The humans had a technology that kept me incapacitated," Edward said tightly, neither moving nor admitting to anything concerning Bella. "I should think that would worry you more than anything else."

"A worrisome prospect, indeed," Aro said. "Can you explain any of it? How you were caught? What they used to hold you? How two insignificant humans even knew what you were to begin with?"

"I cannot."

"Can you at least explain to us how you managed to break free?"

"The werewolf created a diversion," Edward said, adamant that he would not mention Bella. "It was he who mauled the humans. Whatever else happened, I cannot tell you. I left quickly and did not look back."

"Like the Cullen you are," Alec sneered. "Leave a dog to do your work. What if he had not, hm? You would have let two humans who know of our presence - who held you captive - to walk free!"

"Peace, child," Aro said, holding out a restraining arm. He smiled widely at Edward. It was not a reassuring gesture. "I know why he did it." He paused. "You see, the scouts found something else while they examined the site. They found the scent-trails of many animals, one werewolf, one vampire...and three humans. Two matched the rotting remains left to bake in the damp midwestern heat. The other, they claimed, was the scent of a young girl. A luscious scent, they said - almost intoxicating with its sweetness." Aro raised his eyebrows. "You carried her away, Edward, while the wolf devoured your captors. She is here in this house, and I want to see her."

"You can go to hell," Edward bit out, but a soft hand on his back stopped him from saying any more.

Bella moved slowly, peering around Edward's tense body. He could hear how fast her heart was beating, but she stood her ground remarkably well. "If it pleases you, Your Majesty," she said quietly, stepping up beside Edward, "I am here."

Aro eyed her for a long moment, his wide mouth slowly turning up in a pleased smile. "Very nice, Edward," he said finally. "I can see why you left the wolf to do your dirty work."

Edward growled deep in his chest and moved behind Bella, drawing her back against his chest and encircling her with his arms. She turned her head to nuzzle his shoulder gently before returning her gaze to the Volturi lord's.

"Can you answer the questions dear Edward could not, child?" Aro asked. "Do you know how he was captured and held when it has never been done before?"

"Not in any detail, Your Majesty," Bella said. Edward understood she was trying to obey Esme's directive to be polite, but flattery was something Aro absolutely did not need. "James was my captor as well as Edward's, and he said I was good for one thing only. He did not discuss his plans with me."

"Nonetheless," Aro said, "there may be something you have overheard. Come here, child." He beckoned her forward. "I can read your thoughts - your entire life's history - with a single touch. Come take my hand, and give me the information I require."

Bella tipped her head around, looking worriedly at Edward for a long moment. He gazed back at her, but could not think of a reasonable way to refuse Aro's command. When she stepped out of his arms he felt an intense desire to snatch her back, but knew it was futile. Aro had not threatened her life yet. Now was not the time to fight.

He ached for his scared, brave girl as she stepped across the room and held a trembling hand toward the Volturi lord. Aro encased her small palm in both of his, drawing her even closer to him, and bent his head over their twined hands. For a long moment no one said anything. No one breathed. Edward tried listening in on Alice's thoughts, but Aro had made no decisions yet and therefore Alice was seeing nothing useful.

"Fascinating," Aro said slowly, opening his eyes and turning them on Bella. His gaze was twice as interested this time, and Edward grit his teeth. The calculating look in Aro's red eyes was not reassuring. He was always looking for new oddities, and Edward was now terrified that he would want to add Bella to his collection. "I see nothing," Aro added. He glanced at Edward. "Do you hear her, mind reader?"

Edward forced himself to shake his head slowly, though he was anything but calm.

"I wonder if all our powers are similarly impaired around her." Aro turned his calculating gaze on Jane, who smiled cruelly.

"Mine does," Alice piped up.

"Does it, little one? I don't believe I've had the pleasure." He waved Alice over, and she walked fearlessly toward him. She squeezed Bella's shoulder reassuringly, then placed her hand in Aro's.

There was silence for a long moment while Aro searched Alice's thoughts and Edward looked on, desperate to know what the Volturi leader would decide. He wanted to call Bella back to the safety of his arms, but he didn't quite dare. Not quite yet.

"It is amazing," Aro said finally, drawing away and letting Alice drop her hand, "to see what you have seen, before it has happened."

Edward clenched his teeth and his fists. He could see Aro's thoughts easily, and he knew exactly what the ancient vampire wanted. He wanted to tear this family apart, taking its talented members to serve him in his guard. Jasper he didn't know about, and with Demetri around he thought little of Emmett's strength. He couldn't care less about Esme or Rosalie, though he thought they were lovely women. But he wanted Alice and Edward badly...and Bella, too.

Carlisle was the only thing stopping him. The family had broken no laws, had done nothing to incur the wrath of their overlords. Aro had no reason to punish them, and he would not act out against his old friend. But he was searching, scheming, trying to find a way to manipulate the situation with Bella into something of benefit to him.

"So the solitary single member of the Cullen clan has finally fallen in love," Aro said, settling on a tactic. Edward could already see Aro's scheme laid bare in his mind, but it did him little good. What Aro planned to say was nothing more than the truth. "What a pity she turned out to be human." He sighed dramatically, shaking his head. "Such a pity, my young friend. You did not reveal yourself to her willingly, so I have no cause to punish yourself or your family. But the fact remains that the pretty girl is a liability. That liability must be removed."

"No!" Edward sprang forward, pulling Bella firmly behind his back. "I will not permit you to harm her!"

"Then change her, my boy. Those are your options. Either way, her human life is forfeit. Make your decision, for I grow thirsty and you must admit she is an appetizing little morsel."

"I'll die first," Edward vowed.

But again, Bella's soft hand on his back stopped him from pushing the volatile old lord any further. "Edward," she said quietly, "Edward, please."

He turned slowly, reluctant to show his back to the Volturi, and wrapped his arms around Bella when she pushed close to him. She touched his cheek with her warm hand, stroking softly with her thumb. "It's okay, Edward," she said, and he could not believe how calm her sweet brown eyes were. She had been afraid of one thing or another most of the time he'd known her. Now, at the moment her life lay in the balance, she seemed utterly peaceful. "Please," she said again, and though he didn't know what she was asking for, he understood the plea. "I don't mind," she murmured. "What has human life brought me but pain, anyway? You saved me from that, Edward, but you can't save me from this."

He shook his head tightly. "You don't know what you're saying, little one. There is a great deal of pain in this sort of existence." Frantically, he cast his mind around for someone sympathetic to his plight. "Rosalie, tell her! Tell her she doesn't want this."

But Rose's voice, though cold and firm, did not speak the words Edward wanted to hear. "Of course she doesn't want this," she said, "but what choice does she have? Be reasonable for once in your sorry life, Edward, and let her make this decision for herself."

"Do you not want me forever, Edward?" Bella asked, her voice hesitant and worried. "Is that why you're so set against this?"

"If he doesn't want you, lovely one, there is always room for you in Volterra after your change," Aro said. His tone was light, but his mind was otherwise and Edward held Bella a little tighter.

"I want you," he said firmly. "Forever, Bella. I said it, and I meant it. But I never wanted this sort of existence for you." He stroked her back, feeling the warm weight of her against his body. It was suddenly more precious than ever to him, as there was a very real possibility he might lose it forever. "Especially not like this. It's not a real choice, little one."

She bit her lip and shrugged helplessly. "Maybe not, but what else can I possibly do? I won't see any of you die for me, Edward. I won't."

"Is that settled, then?" Aro broke in. Edward had seen what he saw in Alice's mind: blurry visions of Bella as a vampire, gorgeous and ethereal. And just like Edward, it seemed that Aro was prone to fighting the future, trying to bend it to his will. "Will she change?"

"I will change, Your Majesty," Bella said quietly, turning to him once again.

"One of us will do it if Edward finds he cannot," Carlisle added, glancing at the entwined pair holding each other closely. "We give you our word."

Aro looked outwardly satisfied, though inwardly Edward could see him still scheming. This was not over. The Volturi would be watching them closely, waiting for them to slip up.

"I need time," he said, trying to make it sound like a firm demand. "She's still so young. Eighteen. Give her until she's eighteen, at least. You owe her that, Aro."

"I owe her nothing, and I grow weary of your constant whining," Aro said, rising to his feet. He gestured to the guard members, who closed quickly to ring him. "You have two weeks, young mind reader. My scouts will be keeping watch. If she has not begun the change in fourteen days, we will return in force. Have I made myself clear?"

"Abundantly," Carlisle said, shooting Edward a look telling him to keep quiet. "Let me walk you to your car, Aro. You must be tired."

"Thirsty, only, my old friend," Aro said flicking his eyes to Bella a final time before giving up on her blood and allowing Carlisle to lead him from the house. "Keep an eye on that son of yours. Two weeks, remember."

"We won't forget," Carlisle vowed.

Edward released a breath he didn't know he'd been holding, and he drew Bella down onto a couch with him. He'd be in tears if he could still cry, he thought, as he held her close. Now that Aro was gone she was shaking in his arms, her face buried in the crook of his neck.

"That was extremely well done, Bella," Esme said, stroking her dark hair gently. "And exceedingly courageous. You played him just right, flattering him as you did."

Edward kept silent. Bella's sweet nature had only fueled Aro's interest in her, but he had no wish to contradict his mother. Not right now.

"It's okay, sweet girl," Edward whispered, lifting one of her hands and kissing her knuckles gently. "He's gone. You're safe. You're fine."

"Look on the bright side," Emmett said, his voice full of forced cheer. "If you suck at high school the first time, you'll have plenty of tries to get it right later."

Bella shook harder in Edward's arms, and he was shocked to hear a watery laugh from her. "It's okay, Edward," she said, taking a deep breath and nestling more comfortably against him. "This isn't the end of the world."

"Maybe not," Jasper said, speaking up for the first time that day. "But we've still got troubles ahead."

"Like what?" Emmett asked, frowning. "The Volturi are gone, man. Eddie will bite Bella, and she'll wake up not so squashy. What's wrong with that?"

"Nothing, from our perspective. But there's another party who may not see things the same way."

Esme caught her breath, and Edward understood without even attempting to pluck the information from Jasper's brain. The wolf pack. They were going to have to explain this to the wolf pack.


Two days later, the entire Cullen clan - plus Bella - waited quietly at the treaty line for the wolf pack to appear. Edward had been dead-set against Bella coming along, particularly given her intense fear of werewolves, but Carlisle reasoned that the wolves would find their story more believable if Bella were there. She could provide the evidence that no one else was able to. She could tell Sam and his followers that she was giving up her human life of her own free will.

Edward held her securely tucked against his side, not wanting to release her even for a minute. Her stomach grumbled, but he didn't smile. She'd been too nervous all day today to eat, and though it worried him he couldn't bring himself to force her.

Bella really had been an absolute gem since Aro left. She was pragmatic about the whole business, and accepted her fate with a willingness Edward found hard to bear.

"I don't believe in fate," she'd told him just the night before. "I never did. It was too hard to accept that I was fated to live with James, to be his toy. And even after meeting you, I never really thought about becoming a vampire. Maybe I'm slow, but it just never really crossed my mind. I was too busy thinking about the fact that I was finally free, and that there was someone in my life who loved me. Someone who wanted me for me, as a person and not a thing. I want you to know that I wasn't scheming for this from the beginning or anything. But I'm okay with it, Edward. I really am. It means I get you for eternity, and no one like James will ever be able to hurt me again."

It was true, too. Edward knew that. But he still hated the thought of taking Bella's human life. This wasn't what he had wanted for her, when he took her from the Midnight Carnival.

Now he held her tighter as the lone howl of a wolf sounded through the nighttime forest. She shivered a little, but said nothing.

"Remember, Edward, you're here to translate if they will not show themselves in human form," Carlisle said, his voice firm. "Don't let them antagonize you. Sam is a reasonable man, but some of his pack are young and foolhardy. We are here to ask for a favor, remember. Don't let them goad you into a fight."

The sound of padding wolf paws grew louder, and a moment later a tall dark-skinned man strode from the trees on the other side of the treaty line.

"Sam," Carlisle said, raising a hand.

"Cullen." Sam was wary, stopping well away from the line of vampires. "I'll have you know I summoned the rest of the pack when I scented you. They'll be here momentarily."

"I don't mind," Carlisle said. "We've come here to talk."

Sam jerked his chin in Bella's direction. "What's with the human?"

"Bella is my son's mate, and the newest member of our family."

Sam froze. "No," he said firmly. "Oh, no. You can't. The treaty firmly states - "

"This is a special circumstance, Sam," Carlisle interrupted. "Please, let me explain."

"The treaty is in place for a reason! There will be no feeding, no biting! You do this, and you declare war."

Carlisle sighed as Edward picked up the sound of more wolves approaching. Something about one of their minds tickled at his memory, but he couldn't quite place it. "Won't you listen, please? This truly is a matter of life and death."

"Everything with you bloodsuckers is," Sam spat, just as the rest of the pack appeared behind him, all in wolf form.

Bella caught her breath and froze against Edward. He rubbed her shoulder gently, assuming her general fear of werewolves was causing her reaction. But then he saw the russet-colored wolf whose black eyes had locked onto her and he froze as well.

Hell.

The wolf attacked, launching itself at Edward with an open snout and snarling teeth. She's mine! he heard, the furious thought ringing in his head. The wolf knocked them down, and Edward shoved Bella violently away, hoping someone from his family would catch her as he rolled, wrestling with the huge mass of muscle and fur. Teeth snapped near his neck, and Edward forced his hand into the wolf's mouth, way back where it didn't have teeth. He yanked, trying to dislocate the jaw, but his angle was wrong. They rolled again, and Edward was able to grab an ear and hurl the monster off his body.

"Bella!" he said, unable to tear his eyes from the werewolf long enough to check for her. "Bella, get to one of the family and get out of here!"

Her mind was blank to him, as always, and he did his best to focus on the wolf. It was up again, one torn ear bloody, and it circled Edward, waiting for the opportunity to pounce again.

"Jacob says the girl is his," Sam said, confusion lacing his voice.

"She belongs to no one," Rosalie snapped back, a furious edge to her voice that Edward could completely understand. "But she's chosen to stay with Edward. If your pup here can't understand that, he's stupider than the rest of you."

"Rosalie," Carlisle said, and that was all it took for her angry words to cease. "Sam! Call him off. Have him appear in human form so we can understand."

Jacob growled furiously, fighting the order every step of the way, but he eventually disappeared behind a rock and returned in human form. To Edward he looked just like any other two-legged wolf - bare-chested and dark-haired, one ear still bleeding. But Bella whimpered, and he knew for a fact that this was indeed the wolf from the Midnight Carnival This was the wolf she had been used as bait to lure.

"It's okay, Bella," he said, once he was sure Sam's directive effectively held Jacob still. "Come here, sweet girl."

She had been crouched behind a protective phalanx of Rose, Esme, and Jasper, but she immediately rushed into his arms when he opened them to her. Fury rolled through his body in tight red waves as he felt her shake against him. This wolf had assaulted her - had put her in the hospital, even. And now she was being forced to stand in front of him again, to see the human face that haunted her nightmares even more than James did. He wrapped her tightly in his arms, holding her head against his shoulder and letting her hide there.

"Give me one good reason why I shouldn't tear you apart," he growled in the direction of the furious wolf.

"She's mine!" Jacob screeched. "She called to me, gave herself to me! That's how I was caught! I stopped James from killing her - not you, me! By all rights, she is mine!"

"Are you insane?" Rose sneered, but Carlisle held up a restraining hand.

"Bella," he said gently, "Bella, I know this is difficult, but I need you to answer me. Is this the werewolf from the Midnight Carnival? The one James forced you to play bait to capture?"

She nodded against Edward's shoulder. "Yes," she said quietly.

Carlisle sighed. "I assume you've heard her story, then?" he asked Sam.

"Only some," Sam said. "How did she come to be in your possession?"

"She's not a possession!" Edward snapped. "While your pup here was mauling the idiots who held us captive, I rescued Bella. He was enraged by blood at that point and would have ripped her to pieces, too, if he'd got hold of her."

"I wouldn't!" Jacob insisted. "She's mine, and I claimed her!"

"She was injured and ill. I tended her and brought her home with me," Edward continued, trying to ignore Jacob's outburst. The young werewolf was straining against his alpha's direct order - every line in his large frame was tensed to spring. "I love her dearly, and she loves me. Your pup can whine all he likes, but she isn't a toy or a prize. She's made her decision."

"Is this true?" Sam was clearly asking Bella, and she nodded again. She took a deep breath and pulled her face from the crook of Edward's shoulder, turning sparkling, wet eyes to the leader of the pack.

"It's true," she said quietly. "James tied me up as bait for a werewolf. I didn't do it on purpose. I want Edward, no one else."

Sam sighed. "Jake, I really don't think - "

But before he could complete his sentence, a feral roar from Jacob broke the tense moment, ripping it apart. He leaped, forcing himself free of his alpha's control, and phased in the air. His body connected solidly with Edward's, knocking them to the ground again. Edward heard a short, sharp cry from Bella, then silence.

Rage blinded him then, and he forced the rogue wolf to its back. The wolf whirled, on its feet again in an instant, but the damage had already been done. In the moment it took to right itself, Edward struck. He landed on the animal's back, squeezing hard with his impossibly-strong arms. Several sickening cracks and a high, keening yelp met his ears as Jacob's ribs cracked and he dropped like a stone.

The wolf was still alive; Edward could hear its heart. But it wasn't coming after him or Bella, so he picked himself up and turned to face her.

The sight broke him.

She was on her back, panting and gasping with pain, a deep gouge ripped down her side. Carlisle knelt next to her, but it was clear even with his medical expertise he could do nothing. The damage was too severe. Blood pulsed from her body with each beat of her heart, and her eyes were already glazing over. Werewolf claws had ripped deep into the soft tissue and organs, and she jerked a little as death began its inexorable pull.

"Sam, I'm sorry," Carlisle said, tense and clipped, "but we really have no choice. Edward, I need help."

Without another thought, Edward dropped to his knees beside his soft, human girl for the last time. He brushed a kiss across her parted lips, feeling the warmth of her panting breath. "It'll be okay, Bella," he promised. "Just hold tight for a little while longer, and everything will be okay."

With that, he bent and buried his teeth deep into her flesh.

Alice joined them after a moment, helping Edward and Carlisle to bite everywhere - everywhere they could. The rest of the family huddled a fair distance away, keeping Jasper away from the blood. Bella's body jerked reflexively with each injection of venom into her system, but Edward suspected she was past comprehension at this point. Her heart was slowing, and there was more venom than blood in her body now.

"Alice," he hissed, lifting his head when there was no more they could do. "Alice, what happens? Please, show me!"

She was breathing deeply through her mouth, trying to refuse the scent of all the pooled blood. "I think she'll be okay, Edward," she said. "I think it's okay."

Carlisle sat back, his usually immaculate self coated with blood. "We have to move her before the sun rises," he said. "It's not safe here."

Without a glance at the silent wolves, Edward drew Bella's body into his arms. For the first time, she did not curl towards him as he held her. Her head lolled against his arm, and he fought down panic. Alice said it would be okay. He clung to that hope as he rushed Bella back to the house.

Once there, he undressed her carefully. Without a word, he allowed Alice and Rosalie to help him sponge her clean, and place her on her bed. Her heart was still beating, but it was agonizingly slow. Between each soft pound Edward held his breath, waiting for the next.

Carlisle came in moments later and hesitantly touched her skin. "I wanted to stitch her up," he said, shaking his head, "but it's too late now. Already her skin is too hard for the needle."

"That's a good sign, right?"

Carlisle did not answer, but Edward refused to be cowed by his father's silence. He refused to think that Bella would die. This would not be a normal transformation, as she had so little blood left in her body and so much venom. Small amounts of translucent, pinkish liquid dripped from her gaping wound, but she was no longer actively bleeding. But he refused to believe that she would die.

As the day crept mercilessly by, Edward curled up next to her pale, still body. Though he knew inwardly she was burning, her body was actually growing colder to his touch. Her scent was changing, too, growing sharper and more distinct. She still smelled absolutely wonderful, but it was no longer the smell of something he wanted to eat.

With nothing else to do, Edward began to talk. "It will be strange, for a while, when you wake up," he told her. "But I'll be here by your side. Every moment, Bella, I promise. Every second, every day, for forever. You've been so brave, so fearless and strong. Just hang on a little longer, and the pain will go away. You'll wake up, and I'll be here."

He talked about everything they would do once she was awake - learning to run at vampire speed, and the thrill of the hunt. He talked about school, and college, telling her that she could do absolutely anything she put her mind to. They would travel - visit Paris if she wished, and London. Or they could spend months on Isle Esme, soaking in the warm sun with no one to see.

Her heart stilled sometime in the evening and did not beat again. Edward froze, waiting. The awakening was not always instantaneous, but with each moment of pale silence from Bella's body he feared the worst. Had they not reached her in time? Had she not had enough blood left in her body to survive all the way through the transformation?

And then, as the moon rose clear and cool above the evergreens, Edward both heard and felt Alice visibly relax.

A moment later, Bella opened her eyes.

Fin.