I was the only member of the family who had never gone through a move - what Carlisle referred to as a relocation and Alice called a 'hop' - and I felt a little bit useless. The interior of the big white house was dissolving around me, rapidly being collapsed into boxes and carried out the door to the gigantic rented moving van parked outside. My new speed and strength let me keep up with the others easily, whether working or playing, but the Cullens had relocating down to an art, and I was too unfamiliar with the rather precise routine to be as much help as I'd have liked. I couldn't even pack my own clothes; Alice had insisted on doing that herself, fearing I might deliberately leave some of her selections behind.
I'd become concerned, before now, that I wasn't pulling my weight in the household. In a home which required virtually no cooking or dishwashing, where individuals took care of their own laundry, and a full-blown spring cleaning could be accomplished in under an hour, I was left with no significant chores. I'd asked Edward about it once, and he'd merely told me not to worry. Rosalie, overhearing, had laughed and said, "For heaven's sake, Bella! Most of us devoted at least the first year just to coping with the change. You're a newborn, a newlywed, and a new mother, all at once! You have enough on your plate. Stop agonizing, will you?"
I wasn't sure I was even officially a newborn any more. My eyes had already changed colour some time ago. Either way, I felt I should participate in the transfer to a new house a bit more actively. I brought the matter up to Alice when the packing process began.
"Leave the lion's share to us for now. You'll pick up the details and be ready for next time," Alice assured me. "Just pay attention at the meetings, and watch what we do. Anyway, this will be an easy hop."
"Lots of time, for one thing."
Emmett, passing through the kitchen effortlessly carrying a crate twice his size, overheard. "Yeah, we've had some moves we had to accomplish overnight. Everything packed up, new ID's in place, and all of us gone before the locals knew what had happened."
"Why so fast?"
"Usually because somebody slipped up." Emmett continued out the back door with his burden. "Twice it was because of me."
"Slipped up," I repeated. It seemed like such a casual way to refer to a violent death.
"It happens." Alice sounded so bleak, I looked at her in surprise. It was difficult to quench her usual lighthearted outlook. "Two sudden moves for Emmett, once for Jazz - twice, if you count the time he came at you - and a big one for Rosalie." Yes, a series of grisly murders by a ghost in a wedding gown could definitely have drawn unwanted attention. "Once for Esme, a long time ago." She sighed. "But I hope that's all behind us. It looks like you're not going to give us any of the problems we were prepared for."
"Way too tame for a newborn!" Emmett muttered as he passed rapidly back through the kitchen.
"It's a relief," I told Alice. "I was terrified of losing control and attacking someone."
"I know!" She grinned happily at me. "Everyone's so impressed with you! Carlisle's still trying to figure out the reason." I shrugged, a little uncomfortable being a scientific curiosity. "Anyway. The other reason this move is so easy is no ID change is called for."
"Have you ever done that before?"
"Nope. This kind of situation is new to the family."
Jasper looked into the room. "Carlisle asked if everybody could come in for a short meeting." He spoke with a slight Texas drawl, something that was only heard when the family was alone together.
It was a peculiar aspect of the Cullens' passing for a human family: they adopted a common accent in public. At home, they often let their native speech come out, like slipping into an old bathrobe. While Edward, Esme and Rosalie spoke with the midwestern accent I thought of as 'normal American' English, with slight variations according to their time of birth, Jasper had the accent and grammatic oddities of his native nineteenth century Texas. Emmett, in the privacy of the family, allowed his backwoods accent to emerge, and Alice, whose speech was almost as 'normal' as Esme's, did let a trace of Southern belle creep in occasionally. Most interesting of all was Carlisle. His 'at home' accent originated in England, of course, but the dialects of seventeenth century London were not those of today. Carlisle's native speech was a mixture of BBC newscaster, Amish farmer, and native of Boston, Massachusetts, with his standard American accent superimposed over it through constant use. He occasionally lapsed into the use of thee and thou, especially when talking to Esme, which I thought was kind of cool.
I sometimes wondered how I would manage, if the family were to move abroad, and I had to fake a foreign accent. It could happen.
We hurried to the so-called dining room, where the others were taking their places at the big mahogany table. I sat down next to Edward, who took my hand immediately, and smiled over at Jacob, who was on the floor in the corner, playing some game with Nessie. Jake was not there by chance. Because he could not reasonably be kept away from wherever Nessie was, he had to be factored in when deciding the family's whereabouts; yet he was not quite one of us. The unspoken arrangement was that he would be kept in the loop whenever we were deciding things that indirectly concerned him, like in relocation meetings, but his involvement would be minimal. He would be taken into account, would know when and where we were moving, and would have accommodations prepared for him, but where and how the family lived would be our decision alone. However politely the Cullens dealt with him, he could be no more than camp follower. It could not have been an easy situation for Jacob, and I felt for him, but even Carlisle and kind-hearted Esme agreed that the family's interests had to be the first priority, and that Jacob would have to fit himself into our plans as best he could.
Our plans. It was strange how clearly I now saw myself as a Cullen, and Jacob as an outsider. He was my best friend, but he was not us.
The quiet, jovial chatter slowed to a stop as Carlisle took his place at the table. Family meetings had given me a clearer idea of the subtle hierarchy within the Cullen family. It was nothing like the simple oldest-member-in-charge kind of system I had once imagined. Carlisle was accepted, happily and unquestioningly, as leader, but it was a leadership that claimed almost no real power. Carlisle was leader by unanimous, unspoken agreement, not only because of his age and wisdom, but because no one in the family could imagine anybody better qualified. They all looked up to him, relied on him, and trusted his judgment. Most of all, they loved him, and knew that he cared for each of them like a father. Carlisle did not exert his authority where it was not wanted; he would probably never need to.
"I won't keep you long," Carlisle began. "I just wanted to go over the plans once more, for this relocation and the subsequent one, and make certain there is no confusion."
I was surprised. Subsequent? I hadn't heard about that. Did they think several places ahead, like in a chess game?
Jasper saw, or possibly felt, my surprise. "The move after this one was planned some time ago."
Carlisle looked at me. "Bella, this was decided before you were with us. From now on, of course, you'll have some input into these decisions."
I nodded. "That's fine. I didn't mean to interrupt."
"It's not an interruption," Esme smiled at me, "it's part of the meeting. We have two locations more or less in place."
"Thanks so much," I interjected, "but you don't need to go through all this just for me."
Rose sighed. "We do, though. Every family member has to be familiar with the setup. So stop being so damn self-effacing."
Edward shot her an annoyed look, but the others laughed. "It's true, Bella," Carlisle told me. "You need to be brought up to speed."
"We have two locations," Esme continued. "First, a house near Buffalo, which we could move into on very short notice."
"That's our back-up plan," Jasper explained. "We try to always have somewhere to go in case we need to move suddenly. We also have a set of papers to go along with the Buffalo residence, just in case. In an emergency, you would become Marlene Bitterman, 17 year old foster child of Carl and Elsa Coleman." He nodded at Carlisle and Esme, the 'Colemans.'
"Marlene?" I made a face.
"You get to pick a name next time," Edward assured me.
I was glad I happened to meet Edward and his family at a time when their cover story included using all their real first names, something they hadn't done for quite a few years. The name 'Edward' had become imprinted on the pleasure centres of my brain early on. It would be strange to have known Edward as 'Gary' or something, and later find his real name was Edward. I would always be known as Bella at home, but at some point I would have to choose a different name for public use. As Jasper had pointed out, Isabella and Edward were unusual names, and we didn't want to be easy to trace.
I used a tiny part of my mind to run through every girl's name I knew, and pick out a few favourites for the next time Jasper had to make up fake documents.
Jasper, along with being the Cullens' uniquely qualified de facto head of security, was in charge of what he modestly called paperwork, a chore which comprehended a great deal in the Cullen household. He took care of identification papers, passports and the like, multiple sets for each family member, along with providing the necessary trail of school attendance records, financial records, medical and employment history for each new 'cover story' the family adopted. It was an incredibly complicated task, even with occasional help from people like our friend, J. Jenks.
"The other location," Esme went on, "is a house in rural Maine, scheduled for completion within three years. Barring any emergencies, we plan to move there after we leave New Hampshire." She opened a folder in front of her on the table and took out several pages. "We own 85 acres, mostly wooded, directly bordering a state park." She showed me a series of photographs of the property.
"It's beautiful!" I exclaimed.
"I thought it was." Esme's dimple appeared. "Also secluded. And these are the house plans."
I looked at them quickly. "Plenty of room," I ventured. The house was even larger than the present one in Forks, and included an adjacent guest house, presumably for Jacob.
"Our family's expanded a little," she replied, glancing over at Nessie and Jacob. "Of course, we have several additional properties around the continent, but they're not quite livable yet. Those are for future moves yet to be decided."
I had once underestimated Esme's contribution to the family, as much as I adored her and saw how she added to everyone's happiness. I knew she took care of decorating and maintaining the Cullen home, and had a vague idea that she also planned and oversaw renovations. She had, after all, rebuilt the little stone cottage for Edward and me, after what Alice called my 'makeover.' But Esme was so unassuming and motherly, I had unconsciously categorized her as, essentially, a housewife. In fact, she had a graduate degree in architecture, personally designed or restored most of the homes the Cullens had lived in, and added unique security features to the blueprints without builders recognizing them for what they were. In addition, she located and prepared suitable residences two or three moves in advance. She also furnished and decorated each home, and made sure all the 'human' details were in place. Much of the Cullens' pleasant lifestyle depended on Esme.
Rosalie helped with renovations sometimes. Rosalie, I had learned, was talented not only at revamping engines. She had installed the hidden metal shutters Esme had designed for the house, along with a host of security devices, had contrived some of Jasper's home forgery equipment, and was adept at finding ways to bypass police radar, metal detectors, and other inconveniences.
Emmett turned to Esme. "You're using the Bower account for the Maine house, right? Let me know if it's going to need more funds."
She shook her head. "I started with just over twelve million, and the whole project won't take much more than half that."
I was gradually getting used to the financial realities of being a Cullen. Twelve million, I now recognized, was a drop in the bucket. Emmett, who was content to be seen as nothing but a big, tough, good-natured oaf, turned out to have a remarkable head for figures, even by vampire standards. He handled the family's finances, which was only slightly less intricate than administering all the branches of a major multi-national corporation single handedly. I once asked him if he enjoyed managing the Cullen fortune. "It's fun!" was his characteristic reply. "And I like doing something I'm good at. When Rosie found me, I was an ignorant hillbilly. Seriously, I could only read at the third grade level. I was better at arithmetic, though, and after I was changed I got really good at it. The money stuff is easy. People are tricky, but numbers always make sense."
"So," Carlisle said, "if I may summarize, the plan is to move to New Hampshire using our current identities. The cover story is a simple continuation of our present one: Edward and Bella are going to Dartmouth. That allows Bella to maintain contact with her parents in her real persona." I was familiar with that much of the plan, at least. I also knew Edward and I would be living in the smaller house Edward had once purchased close to the Dartmouth campus. I was pleased; as much as I loved my new family, I wasn't ready to go out of honeymoon mode just yet. "The rest of you are attending classes elsewhere. Esme is at home with the newest child, I have a position at a community hospital. Any issues with that part of the story?"
Renesmee was this 'newest child,' supposedly adopted by Carlisle and Esme. Her cover story for the next few years included being homeschooled, which was basically true - her education was an ongoing group effort we all enjoyed. We'd thought about sending her to primary school in New Hampshire, but Alice had had visions of severe complications and a possible emergency move if Nessie attended school at that point.
"So she'll be Carlisle and Esme's daughter for the next four years," I mused. It was the arrangement we'd agreed on, but it still felt a little strange.
Edward squeezed my hand. "Only for appearances' sake. It's simply easier to explain."
"And nobody in Forks, other than Charlie and the Quileutes, knows she exists, so there's no continuity problem," Jasper added. "Her documents make her a little older than she looks now. We'll have moved on by the time she outgrows her cover story."
Carlisle looked at me. "You know, Renesmee's cover story can never include being your daughter. By our next move, she will appear far too old."
Nessie, who had been listening quietly, jumped to her feet and ran over to me. Placing both hands on my forearm, she sent me a rather fervent message.
"What is she saying?" Rose asked.
Edward chuckled. "Just telling us, very emphatically, that she is our daughter and will always be our daughter no matter what the humans think."
"I know, sweetheart." I kissed her, and she ran back to play with Jacob.
"If we're doing a continuation of our current cover story," Jasper said, "even in a new place, we have to make a point of looking older. Especially you and Esme."
"Fair enough. Esme, I'm sure Alice can find ways to age you convincingly?" Carlisle looked over at Alice.
"No problem at all," Alice agreed. "I can make her pass for mid thirties."
I had more respect for Alice than ever. Her contribution as sentry to the future was invaluable to the family. Her talent for fashion, which I'd dismissed as a hobby, was almost as valuable in keeping the cover story plausible. She was incredibly adept at using outward appearance to provide whatever effect was desired. Alice was a big part of the Cullens always appearing to be what they claimed.
"What about Carlisle?" Rosalie asked. "Could we give him some grey at the temples?"
"Eyeglasses?" I suggested.
"Sure, that would help. And he can start wearing argyle sweaters."
"He's supposed to be a doctor in his thirties," Alice objected, "not some old coot in a rest home!"
" 'You are old, Father William'," Edward began to recite, and everyone laughed.
"We can work out the exact details later," Carlisle told Alice.
Jasper turned to me. "The current plan is less flexible than previous ones: just four years in New Hampshire, enough time to complete an undergraduate degree. We don't normally keep the same cover story this long, but we all wanted to ease the transition for your father. After that, we'll really have to move on to a new location and new identities. The place in Maine is being set up for that purpose."
"You realize," Carlisle said to me, "you won't be able to tell Charlie where you are, or under what name, once we leave New Hampshire. The same goes for your mother, if you are staying in touch with her." I nodded. Edward had explained earlier. "You can maintain a link through email, and even keep a cell phone number if you like, but they can't know where we are."
"I understand." They were going to great lengths to let me retain some kind of contact with Charlie and Renee.
"Incidentally," Rose added, "the Maine house is close to one of the best private day schools in the country. Nessie should be ready for high school around that time. It's up to Bella and Edward, of course, but it might be ideal for her."
Alice zoned out briefly. "That looks extremely good. She'll love the school, and no problems immediately apparent. And," she added with great satisfaction, "they don't use a school uniform!"
I looked back at Nessie, twenty-two months old but looking like a primary school student. She was growing up so fast! Every parent said that, but in my case it was especially true.
Esme noticed where I was looking. "Are you taking her to see your father tomorrow?"
"That's the plan. I thought I should let them spend some time together before we go." Nessie and Charlie adored each other still.
I noticed Jasper frowning in my direction. "You know, Charlie was prepared to have you leave for college some time ago. And he has Sue with him now, and Seth. He's not going to be lonely."
"Of course he's not," I said in surprise.
"But you feel you're to blame for leaving him?"
Every eye turned toward me. "Not at all! I mean, I guess I'm a little sorry to say goodbye, but not actually upset about it."
"Then why are you feeling so guilty?" He realized he was divulging more than I would have liked. I still wasn't used to hanging around with a talking mood barometer. "Sorry, but it was so distinct. I thought it had to do with your father."
"Is something about the move giving you trouble, Bella?" Esme asked.
"No! Just the opposite." I grimaced. As Edward had once told me, there were no secrets in this family. "Everyone's bending over backwards to make sure I can still talk to my parents, that Charlie doesn't have any sudden changes to deal with. Extra time in Forks, helping keep Nessie hidden from the rest of the town. Even extending the old cover story beyond what you'd usually consider." I looked down. "All this trouble when, sorry to bring it up, but none of you ever got to keep in contact with your human families. It doesn't seem fair."
There was a brief pause, then Rosalie murmured, "Oh, brother!"
Edward gave her an icy look. "Excuse me?"
She ignored him. "Bella, this is the same thing as your issue with accepting presents, and you need to get over it. Haven't you noticed the way things work in this family? This weird little fraternity is all any of us really have, all we can completely count on, and we take damn good care of each other. One of us slips up, the rest cover for him, pack up and leave, just like that. One of us has a problem, it's everybody's problem. You know, we once set up a major fashion design house for Alice under a fake name, because we thought she'd enjoy it. Esme built Emmett and me a honeymoon house based on the Parthenon, just to be nice! We all try to make each other as happy as we possibly can. Not because we have to, but because we like to! They even do it for me, and everyone knows I'm a raving bitch!" Emmett guffawed appreciatively. "This is your family now, and they want to be nice to you and help you, so please try and get used to the idea."
Jasper had taken on the manner I thought of as Phasers On Stun: not precisely nervous, but alert to the emotions in the room, and prepared to alter them if it became necessary. It was unlikely he would need to. We all knew Rosalie too well to be startled by this little spiel. I turned to look at Carlisle; he was watching Rose affectionately, smiling in mild amusement. He turned back to me. "While I would not have expressed it in quite the same way, Bella, I have to agree with Rosalie."
Esme nodded. "Bella, dear, none of us were really able to stay in contact with our families. It's possible for you, and it would be just...tragic, really, if you didn't take advantage of that opportunity while you can. None of us consider it trouble. Naturally, we want you and Nessie to take advantage of a piece of good fortune, and it's a privilege to be able to help you do it. Don't be uneasy about this, Bella, please!"
I nodded, swallowing nervously. "Okay," I murmured. "Thanks." I met Rosalie's eyes briefly.
"Any further business?" Carlisle asked.
Nessie ran to him. "Yes, poppet?" She placed her hand in his, looking up at him expectantly. "Ah! Esme, she wants to know what her new home will look like."
Smiling, Esme opened a second folder and held out photographs for Nessie to see.
"I'll want to start the paperwork for Maine soon," Jasper said, "and I'd like your name choices, including all new surnames, if you would. No rush, but start mulling it over."
"Please remember not to pack any supposed daily essentials until the morning of the move," Carlisle added, "just in case we have last minute visitors. Other than that, I think we are ready to proceed."
The meeting broke up and everyone went back to work.