AN: I do not own Twilight. No infringement intended.

Chapter One

When I'm Gone


Bella spread the blanket out on the hilltop under a tree and set out her supplies.

One suicide note sealed in plastic bag with rock inside to keep it from blowing away. Check.

One pistol, loaded. Check.

One cell phone. Check.

One empty backpack. Check.

She settled down on the blanket and leaned back against the tree trunk to watch the sun set over Puget Sound for the last time. Its beauty had always comforted her soul. She drew her knees up to her chin and hugged them, shivering slightly in the damp, chill air. The setting sun painted the clouds on the horizon a fiery red, edged with purple. Closing her eyes, she savored the sound of the waves and the cries of the gulls, the scent of the ocean breeze. It was here that she'd always been happiest. It seemed right that it should end here.

One last time, she went over her other list in her head, making sure she'd left nothing undone. She'd cleaned out her apartment so her parents wouldn't have to do it. She'd told them she was moving to a better place after the quarter was over, which she supposed was technically true. With that excuse, she'd managed to dispose of all her belongings, giving them to charity instead of "packing them in storage", leaving a few items she wanted her parents to have with them for "safekeeping". Her cat had been given to Mrs. Cope down the hall, and she knew that he'd have a good home there.

All of her utilities had been disconnected and the balances paid. Dropping out of the university had been the last step, settling up the rest of the charges. She didn't want to burden her parents with any bills after she was gone; she'd put them through enough. There was even a couple of hundred dollars left in her bank account which should pay for the direct cremation with no services specified in her will. She didn't want to put her parents through the heartache and expense of a funeral which no one but they would attend.

It was time. The sun had slipped below the horizon, the last sliver of the brilliant orange disc vanished behind the waves. Bella picked up the backpack and the gun. Something caught her eye and she looked back toward the tree line. The air seemed to shimmer like a mirage in high summer and then a doorway appeared. Bella's jaw dropped. Her mind jumped to The Truman Show and for a bizarre instant, she wondered if the world around her had been a set all along.

A woman stepped out of the door, her eyes sweeping around until they landed on Bella. "Oh, good," she said. "We made it in time." She lifted her hand, holding something like a small remote control. She pointed it at Bella and the world went black.

Bella struggled to open her eyes. Her lids felt like they'd been glued together and her mouth was as dry as paper. Her head ached slightly, as if she'd drank too much the evening before, but she couldn't remember. She sat up and looked around her in utter bewilderment. This wasn't her room. Plain white walls, brown floor covered in what looked like linoleum, a very narrow bed with white sheets.

The wall opened, though Bella couldn't see the outline of a doorway. A woman entered and suddenly Bella remembered being at the park and seeing this woman open a door in thin air. Bella sat there in the helpless denial that afflicts nearly everyone who sees the impossible, wanting most of all an explanation which would set everything in their world right again.

"Hello, Bella," the woman said, her tone cheerful and friendly, but it struck a slightly false note, like an airline hostess forced to smile so often that no smile seemed genuine. She wore a floor-length silvery gray tunic that split below the waist to reveal dark leggings. Her hair was nearly the same color as Bella's, a rich mahogany brown, her eyes almost the exact same shade. She looked vaguely familiar but Bella could not place her. "I'm Lauren. Don't panic, okay? You're safe and no one is going to hurt you."

"Where am I?" Bella asked.

Lauren sat on the end of Bella's bed and Bella jerked her feet away, hugging her knees tightly. Bella's reaction didn't make a dent in Lauren's smile. "This is always the tough part. Bella, I've been sent to bring you to your new home on another planet."

Bella waited. "What's the punch line?"

"It's not a joke. You're a perfect genetic match for the Emperor of the Nine Federated Planets and you are going to be the Empress."

Bella stared at her. "Yeah, okay. Ha ha. Let me out of here. I want to leave."

Lauren's smile still did not falter. If anything it became more firmly plastered into place. "You can't leave."

"You can't hold me against my will. That's kidnapping." Bella patted at the sides of her stomach for the cell phone she usually carried in her pocket, but she didn't have any pockets. She wasn't wearing the clothes she'd been wearing in the park. She was wearing a burgundy version of the tunic on the other woman, though hers was covered with elaborate embroidery and red-black stones framed the neckline. She began to inspect herself in earnest and found a band of stones like a jeweled headband in her hair and a new ring on her right middle finger. "What is all this?" she demanded.

"Some of your new jewelery," Lauren told her.

"Look, this isn't funny," Bella snapped. "I want my clothes back and I don't want to be on your stupid prank TV show or whatever the hell you're doing. I want to get out of here. Now!" She shouted the last word when Lauren didn't move to release her.

Lauren took a small, flat tablet out of her pocket and pressed on it. An image appeared in the air above it, an image of a spiral-armed galaxy which spun slowly. Bella swiped her hand through it and looked around for any possible alternative explanation, but she knew that episodes of Star Trek to the contrary, the technology to project holograms simply did not exist, especially for solid-looking images like these. "This is the Milky Way," Lauren said. She touched the pad and the image expanded to show multiple galaxies within a bigger universe. Lauren touched a spot on the hologram and it zoomed in on another galaxy. "... and this is the Forx galaxy, billions of light-years away from Earth."

"How is that possible?" Bella asked. "Even if we traveled at light speed, it would be billions of years before we got there."

"Well, it turns out Einstein was right when he said that as you approach light speed, your mass becomes infinitely large. So, to move between large distances, you need to fold space, like this..." Lauren pecked on the tablet and it showed Bella a visual of folding the universe like a sheet of paper, bringing the two widely-spaced galaxies next to one another. It sounded a lot like that String Theory extra dimensions stuff that had made Bella's astronomy classes such a trial. "And time, as well," Lauren concluded.

"I've moved through time, too?" Bella's headache was getting worse by the minute. Really, if these people (whoever "they" were) wanted her to buy into this story, they should have made the details more believable.

"Nearly three thousand years," Lauren told her.

Bella rolled her eyes. Lauren looked a little irritated, but kept her smile firmly in place. "The scoffers are always worse than the criers," she said. "You're going to see that I'm telling the truth soon enough. My job is to give you a brief introduction, to try to ease you into the transition. They think it's easier on the women if they see a fellow human first."

"I want to see an alien, then," Bella challenged.

Lauren shrugged. "Okay, if you really want to." She pressed a button on the pad and a few moments later, someone... no, something came into the room and Bella tried to stifle a scream. It was huge, nearly ten feet tall and reed-thin, with long, delicate-looking limbs and it carried in one hand a long wood staff. Completely hairless, its blue skin was as smooth as an egg. No nose or ears disturbed the perfectly oval shape of its head. Small slits where its nose should be opened and closed with every breath. Its mouth was a lipless slash. It knelt before her, watching her with patient, triangular eyes.

Bella tried to remain calm, to control her breathing, to not recoil, to not shake. She failed miserably at all four. Hollywood could do some pretty incredible things with makeup, but this creature simply could not be faked.

"This is Tanya," Lauren said. "She's your bodyguard."

The creature was female? Her bare chest was completely flat, with no nipples. She wore a pair of pants with legs so full they looked like a skirt and below them, she had a pair of bare, webbed feet. Bella forced herself to stick out her hand. "N-nice to m-meet you."

Tanya bowed over Bella's hand, her forehead nearly touching the back of it. "Greetings, Alpha Prima," she said, her voice sounding as though it emerged from a deep well. Bella saw a flash of pointed, triangular teeth. "I am honored to serve you."

"You can go now, Tanya," Lauren said. "We'll call you when she's ready."

Tanya departed, moving as gracefully as a ship through water.

"Now do you believe me?" Lauren said, a hint of sarcasm coating her words.

Horribly, Bella was beginning to. "How... Why-?" She was shaking violently, her head swimming like she might faint.

"Deep breaths," Lauren commanded. "Come on, Bella. Breathe through it."

Bella did as she commanded. After a few minutes, she felt her racing heartbeat slow to a near-normal pace. "Why me?" she said. "Out of all the galaxy, why me, Bella Swan? Why doesn't the Emperor marry a woman from his own planet?"

"Because there aren't any women on Volterra," Lauren said. "Centuries ago, the women of his race started dying out. No one could ever find a reason for it. To survive, they started scouring nearby planets for women who were close enough genetic matches to breed with them. As time passed, they began to include more and more planets in their search. Earth has only been on their radar for a few hundred years. At some point, an archaeologist dug up your bones or something and your DNA was entered into a computer. When you came up as a match, I was sent back to get you."

"What if I had already been married?"

Lauren shook her head. "You wouldn't have been entered into the database if you'd been already mated or if you had children. The Volturi have no concept of divorce. Once you're married, you're always married, even if you live separately."

Bella's mind went unwillingly to Mike, but the thought of him no longer pained her as it used to. If he hadn't broken their engagement she'd have never been kidnapped. Yet another way he'd fucked up her life.

"The Emperor... he doesn't look like Tanya, does he?" Bella asked.

Lauren shook her head. "No, she's Dynali, they're not genetically compatible. Here, I'll show you what the Emperor looks like." She tapped on the pad and a man's image blinked into the air.

"He looks human," Bella said, relieved. The image of the man rotating in the air in front of her had rusty red-brown hair and pale skin, paler even than her own.

Lauren nodded, and tapped the pad quickly so that the image vanished. "They're very similar. A few minor differences."

"This is just too strange," Bella whispered. "I can't-" Her head swam again.

"His name is Edward,' Lauren continued, as if Bella wasn't crumbling to pieces in front of her.

"Edward? The alien king's name is Edward?" Bella was an inch away from hysterical laughter, from cracking up and finally ending up in the loony bin that had been a threatening possibility for her entire life. Maybe she was in an asylum and this was all a bizarre fantasy.

"Well, of course his name isn't actually Edward, but your translator implant chooses the nearest English equivalent."

"Wait, did we skip something? What translator chip?"

"He doesn't speak English and you don't speak Volturi. That's a problem when you have multiple planets with multiple cultures in the same Federation. The chip is kind of like one of those chochlear implants that translates sound into electrical impulses that are read by your brain. It hears what the person is saying and instantly translates it to your brain so you can understand them. When you reply, their chips do the same thing for them. They're something that are installed at birth in this galaxy. You can call him Edward and he'll hear his real name in his head."

Bella reached up and touched her ears, around her head and felt nothing unusual. Lauren interpreted her gesture correctly. "Yeah, you had brain surgery to implant the chip, and to fix a few little things. Their medical technology is so advanced that they can do it without leaving any wounds afterwards."

"What few little things?" Bella asked. A race that could build a space ship that literally folded space around it had to be incredibly advanced, but the idea of someone tinkering around in her brain was very disconcerting. Her head was already too fucked up as it was.

"You had a few... er... crossed wires, shall we say. Your brain didn't produce the right chemicals, which is why you struggled with depression all your life."

"And you can fix it, just like that?" Bella was amazed. She thought of the countless drugs she'd been given, some of which had worse side effects than the illness they were meant to treat, always searching for that magical medicine, or combination thereof, which would make her like everyone else. And now, she was supposedly cured, something that her mind simply was not prepared to deal with. She didn't know what it was like to live life normally, and strangely enough, it was almost a frightening concept. She knew who "Depressed Bella" was. She had never met "Normal Bella" and didn't know what she was like.

"They can fix a lot of things," Lauren said. "Including the minor flaws in your genetic code. You will no longer age at the rate of a normal human. You'll live the same lifespan of a Volturi, which is around 400 years, and you're not susceptible to things like cancer."

"Please," Bella said, her mind reaching the over-flow point, unable to process the information it had already been given. "Just let me go. I can't do this."

"You can't go back," Lauren said. "It's impossible. You know all those time travel movies in which the characters have to avoid running into themselves? Well, it's a little more complicated than that. You would have to arrive exactly at the moment you left, because you cannot exist in two separate time streams. We don't have the ability to be that precise. Our jumps usually land us within two or three days of the target date. This was my second attempt. The first time, I arrived right after your funeral."

"Funeral," Bella repeated softly. Her parents must have disregarded her wishes, which made sense, given that Lauren had mentioned her DNA being recovered from bones. "What will my parents think happened to me now?"

"They'll think your body must have fallen into the sea and washed away, never to be recovered. That's what the newspaper articles say, anyway."

"But that makes no sense," Bella cried. "If I'm here, there's no body for archaeologists to discover."

"It doesn't have to be from bones," Lauren said. "It could have been anything with your DNA on it that could be definitely linked to you. One woman we found because her mother had saved her first baby tooth and it ended up in a museum."

"What happens if I refuse to marry the Emperor?" Bella asked. "I can refuse, right?"

Lauren shrugged. "That's up to you, but most women end up being unable to refuse in the end. Volturi males can be very charming and persuasive. As soon as he meets you, he's going to think he's in love with you and he's going to do everything he can to win you. But if you refuse him, you'll go back into the database to see if you match up with anyone else."

"Are you mated?"

Lauren's eyes flashed and her face tightened. "My mate died, so I went back into the pool. But it will probably be a long time, if ever, before I'm matched with anyone else."


She saw Lauren's jaw clench. "I'm not a high priority. You, on the other hand, would be. But make no mistake, even if you refuse ever match they come up with, you will still remain on Volterra for the rest of your life. There's no going back. It's impossible. Please, if you don't believe anything else I tell you, believe this. I don't want you having false hopes. You can't return to your time stream and Earth today isn't some place you'd want to visit."

"How long will it take us to get to the Emperor's planet?"

"Well, that's the thing. We're already there."

Time to prevent another bout of hyperventilation. Lauren was really getting irritated with her, her smile stretching tighter and tighter. She pulled a protesting Bella to her feet, and opened the doorway. Bella did not want to step through that door. In here, at least, it seemed safe. Out there, she had no idea what she as going to see. Lauren pushed her through. "Come on, Bella, I'm tired and I want to go home."

"Where are my shoes?" Bella asked. The floor was smooth and as warm as flesh, but surely she wasn't supposed to walk around barefoot.

"You don't need any," was all that Lauren said.

Bella hesitated in the door frame, still loath to walk out into the unknown. Lauren rolled her eyes. "You're perfectly safe, I assure you. Women are practically sacred in their culture."

She was propelled into what appeared to be a hallway with stone walls and a ceiling so high that it disappeared in the shadows. Bella could not tell where the light that illuminated it was coming from. Tanya, the blue woman, rose from where she'd knelt by the door, stepping up to Bella's side. Her body guard. "Do not fear, little Queen," she said. "I will protect you."

Lauren led them to a doorway, one that had an outline that Bella could see, a relief after having been in that room where she was unsure where the exits were. It was disconcerting to have what seemed to be a solid wall suddenly open but have no idea how to open it herself. The door was round, like a Hobbit door, but very high. If the doors and hallways and the height of her bodyguard were any indication, these were extremely tall people.

"One last thing," Lauren said, pausing with her hand on the knob. "When you smile, make sure you keep your teeth covered. Showing teeth is considered to be a threat."

Bella had never felt less like smiling in her life but she took the words under advisement. Lauren turned the knob and the door swung inward.

The room was small with the same stone walls as the hallway and the same hidden light source. The furnishings were scant and it had the air of a waiting room. A small group of men were seated on cushions on the floor. They all stood. Lauren gave Bella a sharp shove and she stumbled through the door. Lauren did not follow. She shut the door behind Bella, leaving without another word.

Bella recognized the one who was supposed to be her new husband, flanked on his left and right by two other men. The Emperor walked slowly toward Bella as if trying to avoid startling her and stopped right in front of her. She had to crane her neck to look up at him. She was 5'4", an average height for a woman, but beside this man she felt tiny. The top of her head barely reached the center of his chest.

He smiled at her and knelt, the other two men copying his movement. "Greetings," he said softly. Up close, she could see the differences between his species and her own. His nose was flatter, a bit wider and his amber eyes had diamond-shaped pupils with no white around the iris visible. When he spoke, she saw flashes of fangs.

She trembled, trying to remember how to speak. "H- hel- hello," she stammered.

He was studying her with great interest, especially her long brown hair. He reached out to touch it and she recoiled at the sight of his hand. He had only four fingers, like the characters of The Simpsons, and each finger was tipped by a wicked-looking claw.

"Edward, stop. You're scaring her." A woman pushed her way through the group to step between Bella and the Emperor. She was tiny with dark hair that spiked out around her small head. "Back off," she told the Emperor. He growled softly, actually growled, but the woman stood her ground. She smiled at Bella, careful to keep her teeth covered by her lips and stuck out a hand. "I'm Alice," she said. Bella took her hand in her own, pleased to see five fingers. "I know we're going to be great friends!"

She pointed to the man on the left, the one with yellow hair. Not blond, like a human, but yellow like a crayon, with the same amber eyes. He was terribly scarred on his face, arms and chest, visible around the open vests that all the men wore. Bella immediately felt an affinity toward him as she did with all wounded creatures. "That's Jasper, my mate," Alice announced. "The other fellow is Emmett, Edward's younger brother."

Edward inched a little closer and Bella saw a flash out of the corner of her eye. She stared, shock hitting her like a fist to the stomach. He had a tail and it was sinuously dancing behind his head, the tip of it graced with the same color hair as his head.

The man she had been kidnapped from her planet to mate with had a tail. Having a tail was not a "minor difference."

Bella tried to breathe, but it felt like all the oxygen had been sucked from the room. She heard Alice cry out as her vision shrank to pinpoints and then winked out like a snuffed candle.

Edward, Emperor of the Nine Federated planets, caught his small bride as she fainted. He'd been warned this might happen but he was still a little hurt and deeply worried. She was afraid of him and repulsed by his features, so different from her own.

He carried her small body over to the seating area, laying her down on one of the pillows. Alice was nearly frantic, patting Bella's pale, waxy cheeks. "Alice, leave her be," he commanded. "She'll come out of it when she's ready."

Jasper caught her shoulders and led her gently away. Alice looked nearly as worried as he felt; he'd learned how to read humans' myriad facial expressions from her.

Bella's faint gave him time to study her without making her nervous. One of her hands lay near her face and he studied it curiously. Such tiny, useless claws! He reached out and carefully pushed up her lip to see her teeth and found them to be as flat and dull-edged as the ones Alice had. It was a good thing Bella had Tanya to protect her because she was practically defenseless.

He inhaled again, drawing in her luscious scent and his heart hammered in response. There was no doubt she was the one meant for him. It would take time, but she would get used to him and his differences, and she would come to love him as he loved her.

The emotions had caught him off guard with their intensity. Tenderness, lust, protectiveness, emotions he had never felt before. It was as if the world had lacked color and then his eyes were suddenly besieged by it. He wanted to swoop her up and spin around in joyous circles. He wanted to growl at Jasper and Emmett, his closest friend and his brother, and order them away from his little bride, to embrace her and keep her safe and all to himself.

He'd found her, at long last. He'd waited so long, jealous of other couples and their happiness, longing to have someone of his own to love. And now she was here and she was more than he ever could have dreamed.

She began to stir and he sat back hastily, not wanting to frighten her by looming over her when she opened her eyes. He glanced over at Emmett and this time he did growl. Emmett was staring at her with the same thunderstruck expression that he must be wearing. His first thought was Oh, no. His second was: MINE!

Bella opened her eyes and immediately wanted to close them again. It hadn't been a bad dream or a hallucination. Her eyes ought out Alice, a small bit of normalcy. "Are you all right, Bella"?" she asked.

Bella barked a sarcastic laugh and Edward jumped, startled at the strange sound emitting from his bride.

"It's okay," Alice soothed him. "It's the amused sound, remember?" He nodded, a hint of confusion in his eyes because he could not determine what Bella thought was funny.

Bella sat up, her hand to her forehead. "I don't feel so good," she muttered.

"When was the last time you ate?" Alice asked.

Bella couldn't remember. A couple of days ago, maybe? Food had lost its interest.

"Come," Alice said, holding out her hand and helping Bella to her feet. "You need to eat something and your people are waiting to see you."

Bella clutched Alice's hand like a lifeline. "What do I do? I don't know how to act like a queen."

"Just be yourself," Alice said firmly.

That wasn't very helpful. Just "being herself" had led to a miserable childhood, ostracized and teased by her peers, and in college, her shy quietness had led to her being thought of as standoffish.

She let Alice lead her back out into the stone hallway, Tanya and the men trailing behind. She opened a door and Bella froze, her heart leaping into her throat. There were hundreds of ... beings in the room, seated on cushions around low tables and they all turned at once to look at her. Bella wanted to retreat but Edward and the other two men stood behind her, blocking her escape route. The room had gone silent.

Without warning, Edward picked up Bella and held her in the air. "Alpha Prima Bella," he announced. Bella's eyes widened and she clutched at the hands holding her aloft by her rib cage. The room erupted into noise, fists hammering on tables and her name being shouted.

When he set her on her feet again, Bella edged over to Alice. "What's an Alpha Prima ?" she asked.

Alice gestured to an empty table and they took seats on the cushions around it. It seemed that the Emperor ate with his commoners. Alice scooted over to Bella where they could converse in whispers. "Alpha Prima is your rank," Alice told her. "If you agree to marry Edward, then you'll be Empress. There are Alphas, Betas and drones. Alphas are the strongest, the most dominant."

"I'm not strong nor dominant," Bella said, confused.

Alice grinned. "You will be. I know."

Bella had no idea how to respond to a statement like that and she was saved from having to reply by a man who brought a bowl of water on a short stand. "Alpha Prima, may I wash your hands?" he asked. He was Volturi, but he was much smaller than the others, approaching the size of a large human male.

"Yeah, sure." Bella held her hands out in front of her and he dipped them into the bowl, taking care not to prick her with his claws. They had been trimmed short, but Bella imagined they could probably still do some damage.

The water had a light scent, akin to sandalwood. He rubbed each finger and used a small brush on her fingernails before tending to the palms and the backs of her hands and when he was satisfied, he patted them dry with an incredibly soft cloth towel.

"Thank you," Bella said automatically and the room went silent again. Bella blushed, certain she must have committed a terrible faux pas.

Alice whispered in her ear. "They're just surprised, that's all. Most people don't bother to thank drones."

Bella couldn't imagine not thanking someone who something for her, no matter what their rank but it made her uncomfortable to stand out. The man bowed deeply. A plate was brought to him and he set it in front of her with another bow. When he turned away, Bella saw that his tail was short, not even reaching to the back of his knees.

She mentioned the shorter tail to Alice.

"Alphas usually have the longest tails. It's a point of pride with them. If they lose a fight, the victor often cuts off their tail as a prize, so the longer the tail, the longer they've gone without losing. Complimenting a man's tail is like complimenting his virility."

She watched as the drones circulated through the room, delivering plates to people who scarcely noticed them, assuming instantly a subservient demeanor whenever someone spoke to them. "Are drones slaves or something?"

Alice nodded, and Bella was aghast. "But that's wrong. I can't have slaves waiting on me!"

"Well, there's nothing you can do about it tonight," Alice said, sensibly enough, then gestured to Bella's plate. "Eat."

"But the rest of the table hasn't been served."

"They won't be until you start eating. Everyone is waiting for you."

Bella blushed again and regarded the plate in front of her. There was no type of utensils. She glanced at Alice who made a pinching motion with her fingers. The food was in the shape of little squares, like small Hot Pockets. Bella picked one up and put it in her mouth. She bit down and her eyes widened in surprise. It was delicious, whatever it was. It was meat, light and flavorful with a texture like chicken and some kind of vegetable with a creamy sauce. She couldn't say she'd ever experienced a flavor quite like it, but it was good.

More drones arrived with bowls of water and plates which placed before the others after their hands and claws had been satisfactorily cleansed. A tray of what Bella assumed were condiments was placed in the center of the table. Jasper put a scoop of a blue paste on the side of his plate. On the men's plates, there were only pieces of cooked meat, chopped into little squares that they delicately picked up with the points of their claws, Jasper occasionally dipping his in the blue paste.

"Strictly carnivores," Alice whispered. "Vegetables would actually make them sick if they tried eating them. Can't digest them."

Edward's eyes stayed locked on Bella, as did the eyes of Emmett. It was hard to eat under their scrutiny. She tried to use the tips of her fingernails as they did. She was going to have to stop biting them and let them grow if she didn't want to appear uncouth.

"Is your food satisfactory, Bella?" Edward asked. Bella jumped a little.

"Oh, yes, it's fine. Quite tasty, thank you" Bella said.

She looked around at her fellow diners. It appeared that intelligent life in the universe had taken a similar pattern everywhere. All of the creatures were at least roughly humanoid with four limbs, two eyes, one head, but there seemed to be endless variations on the size and color of those features. There was one creature drinking liquid from a bowl with what Bella first though was a straw and then realized was his tongue.

When dinner finished, their hands were re-washed and the dishes cleared by drones. Bella made a point of thanking the drone who served her and the the delighted look he gave her was reward.

Edward stood and the room fell silent. "I intend to court Bella," he said and looked around expectantly and seemed satisfied at the lack of response.

"I will challenge," said Emmett. He rose to his feet.

Edward looked upset. There were a few gasps from around the room and Alice, beside her, closed her eyes with a little grimace. "I was afraid this would happen," she whispered.

"What? What's going on?" Bella whispered frantically.

"They're going to fight to see who has the right to court you first."

"By 'courting', do you mean dating?"

Alice nodded. "I guess he and Edward share enough DNA that you would be a match for Emmett as well."

"I choose staves," Emmett declared.

Alice released the breath she'd been holding. "Fighting with poles instead of hand-to-hand with claws and teeth means it's less likely either will be seriously injured."

"Alice, they just fight until one of them gets knocked down or something, right? It's not to the death or anything?" Bella's anxiety was climbing. She hadn't been here more than a couple hours and she was already tearing her betrothed's family apart.

Alice hesitated. "They fight until one of them surrenders. The victor can decide what happens next."

The tables at the opposite end of the room were pulled back to give the combatants room, and both men were brought long, thick wood poles.

They bowed to one another and assumed a fighting stance. Emmett made the first move and brought his staff down, swinging through the air at Edward's head. Edward spun out of the way, clipping Emmett in the side with his staff, then swinging it around in a flash to bring it down across Emmett's shoulders. Emmett stumbled but did not fall, spinning around to face in his brother's direction, immediately having to jump to the side to avoid a thrust of Edward's staff, aimed for his stomach. It seemed Emmett had more strength, but Edward was faster and more agile. Edward kept him off-balance, never giving him a chance to regain his equilibrium. Emmett desperately swung his staff at Edward's head and Edward ducked, spinning to strike Emmett across the back of the knees, sending him crashing to the floor. Edward laid his pole across Emmett's throat. There was a long pause as Emmett considered his options.

"Yield," Emmett said.

Edward held his pole aloft before bending toward his brother. Bella thought that he was leaning over to help Emmett to his feet but Edward lashed out with his claws and sliced through Emmett's tail, severing it in one stroke. He carried the still-twitching thing aloft through the room and stopped in front of Bella. He knelt and held it out to her, his head bowed.

"Take it, take it," Alice urged. "Bella, you have to take it."

Bella wished she hadn't eaten the alien Hot Pockets. Her stomach was churning. She held out a hand and closed it around the severed tail. It was surprisingly heavy, thick and ropy with muscle.

The room cheered.

Bella saw Emmett being tended by what she supposed was a doctor, pointing a box at Emmett's bleeding stump.

She looked down at the tail in her hand. She'd always thought it wasn't possible to faint sitting down.

She was wrong.