You weren't expecting another one so soon, were you? Well, don't get used to it. There's no way I can keep up this pace. ;-)
Thanks to my awesome beta, NixHaw, who's lightning fast and super sharp and absolutely the best playlist maker in the history of fanfiction. If you run into her, reward her for all her wonderfulness with lots of Supernatural GIFs.
And as always, props to Stephenie Meyer, who created a world where I can write about things that are physiologically impossible and just blame all the flaws on her. Cheers!
16. Lay It Down
The eastern sky was lightening when Bella finally headed home. The hours spent alone in the cool of the night had helped steady her a little bit, but little tremors still ran through her limbs at irregular intervals. Edward had kissed her. He had kissed her, and something had shaken loose inside of her. She was different somehow, fundamentally altered by the few minutes she had spent in his arms.
It scared her. She wished she could lock it back up again. She needed focus now. She needed to get her son back.
Bella found a casual gathering behind the house when she returned. Three Adirondack chairs had been set up in the grass, and Carlisle, Aro, and Amun each sat in one. Esme was curled up in Carlisle's lap and Kebi knelt at Amun's feet.
"There you are, sweetheart," Esme said with a warm smile. "Did you enjoy your walk?"
Bella nodded automatically. It was a little bizarre to her that she could be out for hours and still have it referred to as a "walk."
"Where's Edward? Didn't he come back with you?"
"I'll go find him!"
Alice came bursting out of the house and darted past them in a blur of energy. She disappeared into the trees as Jasper stepped out after her. He moved up behind Carlisle's chair and leaned down to whisper in his ear.
Carlisle frowned and pulled back to give him a stern look. "Jasper, I don't want you pushing her."
He hesitated, eyeing Bella, but eventually he nodded. "All right, then. Aro, Amun, I can see that you could both do with a feeding, and obviously you'll have to travel a little ways to do it. Would you mind taking care of that today so that I can address a private matter with my coven?"
"Hiding things, are we?" Amun asked with an arched eyebrow. "That's not like you, Carlisle."
He shook his head, his imperturbable smile in place. "It's not about secrets. Isabella is shy. She has a personal matter she wants to discuss, and I'm afraid it will only make it more difficult on her to have guests present."
Aro's eyes narrowed suspiciously. "Perhaps we should wait for this evening. It's less conspicuous that way."
"There's a reason we settled here," Jasper said with a wry smile. "If you keep north, you'll have cloud cover for most of the day."
"You're welcome to any of the cars in the garage," Carlisle added. "The keys are hanging just inside the front door."
Bella could see that both Aro and Amun were reluctant to leave, but she couldn't tell if it was because they didn't trust Carlisle or because they didn't trust each other.
Amun cocked his head in surprise. "You're really asking us to hunt in broad daylight?"
"If it makes you uncomfortable, perhaps we should leave," Carlisle said, nudging Esme off of his lap and standing up. "I'm sure it won't be too difficult to find a private place to talk."
"That's completely unnecessary."
It was Benjamin who had spoken. He was descending the stairs inside the house, Tia's hand in his, and the two of them headed out the back door. "We're happy to give you all the space you need, right Amun? After all, we did drop in unannounced. That's not the human way."
"Our host isn't human," Amun reminded him tersely.
"But he embraces their customs." He gave Carlisle a bright smile. "I hesitate to press your hospitality, but I can't help asking . . . the Vanquish?"
Carlisle laughed. "You're welcome to it, but I should warn you: if it comes back with so much as a nick in the paint, Edward will tear your limbs off."
"I'll be very careful, I promise."
"Amun, I doubt you'll want to squeeze into the back seat. You're welcome to take another car. I'm somewhat partial to the Mercedes, myself, particularly if the sun worries you. That one and Esme's SUV have the darkest window tinting."
Bella heard Alice and Edward jogging back to them through the forest, but she didn't turn. Alice stopped when she reached Bella's side, but Edward stayed several yards behind them. Bella wasn't exactly sure where things stood between them, but it hurt a little that he didn't stand beside her. He always stood beside her. She wondered if he regretted kissing her, and she peeked back at him to see if he was looking at her.
He wasn't. His eyes were fixed on Carlisle, his expression devoid of emotion.
Carlisle helped his guests figure out their transportation, and then he and Esme stood beside the garage and waved as three cars drove off. Everyone waited, listening as the sounds of the engines died away in the distance. Once they were out of earshot, Jasper headed toward the house.
"Come here, little one," he said, beckoning Bella forward. "This conversation has been a long time in coming. Let's get it done."
Bella hurried after him, intensely grateful for his intervention on her behalf. She followed him across the living room, but shot him a confused glance when he pointed to the corner near the hearth where she liked to curl up.
"Have a seat," he said.
She didn't argue. He was helping, after all. But she was even more confused when he dragged the coffee table over and pushed it in front of her, angling it across the corner so it blocked her from the rest of the room.
"How does that feel?" he asked. "Comfortable or confining?"
It was an odd question, but she actually did feel a little more comfortable. She liked the closeness of the space, the feeling of protection that it offered, however false.
"I like it."
"I figured. Edward, come here."
The rest of the family had followed them into the house, and Jasper started positioning them in specific places. Edward was directed to stand next to the wall beside the coffee table. Esme was guided to a chair couple of yards beyond him with Rosalie perched on the arm. Carlisle and Emmett were farther still, both seated on the couch, and when he was finished with his careful arrangements, Jasper settled on the floor across the room from Bella and pulled Alice into his lap.
Bella knew exactly what he was doing. He was arranging things to make her feel less threatened. She couldn't decide whether it was manipulative or just very, very thoughtful.
"All right, kid, go ahead. Tell us anything that might help us track down these friends of yours."
"Um . . . well . . . Joham has dark hair and he wears it in a ponytail—"
"Yeah, we have your drawings," Jasper interrupted. "I'm talking about habits or affinities. Are they nomads? Do they have regular circuit?"
Bella hunched down in her corner and drew her knees up to her chest. "I don't know."
Jasper opened his mouth to speak again, but Carlisle held up a hand. "Let's start with Alexander," he said to Bella. "Why don't you tell us how you met him?"
Edward suddenly stiffened and Alice clapped a hand over her mouth. Carlisle shot them both a frown before turning his warm gaze on Bella again.
"Go ahead, sweetheart."
She drew in a shaky breath. "Alexander is my son."
Esme gasped and Carlisle was immediately on his feet, moving to her side to take her hand.
"Isabella, I never imagined . . ." he breathed, his eyes wide. "You're so young . . ." He trailed off and shook his head. "I'm sorry. You say you last saw him in Mexico? Did you take him with you to your mother's wedding?"
Bella frowned, perplexed. "No."
"Does he live there with his father? Or was he adopted by someone there? Is that why your mother chose to be married in Mexico?"
"No . . . he wasn't born yet."
"You were pregnant with him at your mother's wedding, then?"
Bella folded her arms on her knees and buried her face in them. Nothing was coming out right.
She heard Emmett laugh quietly. "This is going nowhere fast. Sit down, Doc. Let her tell her story."
"Of course. I'm sorry, Isabella."
She peeked up as he settled on the couch again, and took another deep breath. Alice turned and buried her head into Jasper's shoulder, and that alone nearly made her lose her nerve. She looked away from her, staring past her into the trees beyond the glass wall, and with halting, fumbling words she began telling them about her stop at the bar in Tijuana. She described her meeting with Joham, trembling as she related the details about the kidnaping and did her best to convey, without really saying the words, the treatment she'd had to endure from him.
By then she had stopped staring and had buried her head in her arms again. In muffled tones she described Serena, Yesenia and the other girls, and the horrific birth of her son. And then, her throat tight with shame and regret, she told them how she had run away and left Alexander with Joham.
When she stopped talking, the room fell silent. For several long moments, no one spoke. Bella raised her head just enough to peek out at them, and caught sight of Edward. He was staring straight ahead, his jaw flexed and rigid. She couldn't read his expression but there was something in his eyes that made her breath falter.
Rosalie and Esme were clutching one another tightly, their heads bowed close together. Emmett had moved to stand behind them, a hand on each of their shoulders. Carlisle's gaze moved between them and Bella, concern and pity showing in his eyes.
Alice was still huddled against Jasper, hiding her face, while he slowly stroked her hair and stared at Bella.
Carlisle was the first to speak. He cleared his throat uncomfortably and stood up from the couch. He wavered for a moment in indecision, then moved to the coffee table and sat down in front of Bella.
"Sweetheart . . ." He reached out and took her hand, pressing it between his, and cleared his throat again. "Isabella . . . trauma can affect our memories in . . . unexpected ways."
That wasn't the reaction she had prepared herself for. She looked up at him in confusion as he continued, obviously ill at ease.
"During very painful moments in our lives, our memories can become repressed or even altered. A dream or a speculation about the future can get recorded by the hippocampus as though it actually happened."
"What do you mean?"
"You may have . . . misremembered certain events."
"Sweetheart . . ." He pressed her hand between his. "Vampires . . . can't have children."
She gaped at him, and then eyed the rest of the family, who were all watching her tentatively—except for Edward, who was still staring straight ahead.
"You don't believe me?"
"I'm sure the memories seem very real to you, but what you're describing is physically impossible. The vampire species is propagated through venom, not through sexual reproduction."
She jerked her hand away. "You think I made up my son?"
"Of course not—"
"He's not a figment of my imagination!" Bella pushed herself to her feet, her hands balling into fists.
Carlisle rose as well. "I'm not accusing you of making anything up. I know it must seem like you've lost someone very dear to you."
He reached out to brush her cheek and she reacted without thinking. She bit him, sinking her teeth deep into the hard flesh of his hand before jerking back and pressing herself into the corner. She clapped both hands over her mouth in horror, shocked by what she had done.
In less than a second, Jasper had pushed Alice off of his lap and leapt to his feet. He darted up behind Carlisle, but the coven leader raised his uninjured hand to stop him.
"Let her be, Jasper. It's my fault."
"I know it's your fault. If you'd stayed where I put you it wouldn't have happened." He took Carlisle's elbow and steered him back to the couch, though he didn't insist that Emmett return there. He moved to Esme's side and touched her hair briefly, then returned to his place on the floor next to Alice.
"What if it were possible?" Edward asked. His voice was quiet, barely more than a whisper, and he was still staring straight ahead.
"What if it's some kind of talent?" he interrupted, louder this time. "What if this man, this Joham, had an extra ability?"
"Talents tend to be enhancements of the mind. They're not usually so physical."
Carlisle raised his eyebrows. "Benjamin?"
"He can control the elements," Jasper supplied.
"If he can do that," Edward said, still staring pointedly in front of him, "why couldn't there be someone who could . . . have a child?"
Bella heard Carlisle sigh, though her gaze didn't stray from Edward.
"Don't tell me you know because you're a doctor, or because you haven't seen it before. We learn new things all the time."
"There's no physiological basis. Sperm can't survive in venom."
"But what if—"
"Edward." Carlisle stood again and moved to his son's side, gripping his shoulder. "Isabella has only been missing for two months. Even if it were possible, there simply wasn't time."
Edward finally dropped his gaze, his shoulders slumping.
"No!" Bella gasped. "Edward!" He had to believe her. If he didn't, nobody would. "I know what happened! I'm not confused!"
Edward nudged the coffee table out of the way with his toe and moved to Bella's side. He leaned over her, and Bella's skin tingled at the nearness of his body. She had to fight the urge to press herself against him.
"You said the baby bit you," he murmured, uncertainty lacing his tone. "But he was just a newborn, wasn't he?"
"He had teeth." It sounded lame even to her own ears, and she stared down at her toes, trying to avoid seeing the skepticism that she was sure would be in the gazes focused in her direction.
Edward raised a hand and ran his thumb lightly over the bite mark on her neck—the bite that had come from Joham, well before her son had been born. It wasn't until he started to turn away again that she realized that he must have assumed that was the bite that changed her.
"No!" She grabbed his hand and pulled him back to her, steeling her nerves before guiding his fingers beneath the hem of her shirt. Edward jumped in surprise and began to pull away, but she held on and pushed his hand up her ribs until his fingertips brushed the raised skin just below her left breast.
"Here," she whispered.
Edward's eyes went wide as he traced the arc of the scar. He crouched in front of her and pushed her shirt up so he could get a better look at it.
"Carlisle . . ."
Carlisle moved cautiously forward, watching Bella's reaction to make sure she didn't object to his proximity. He stopped behind Edward and eyed the bite mark intently.
Bella felt a surge of triumph—until she saw the sickened look come over his face.
"No," he whispered, his voice barely audible. "Please, God, no."
"Carlisle?" Jasper asked warily.
He swallowed hard, and Bella thought he looked paler than he usually did. "It's from a child."
Esme let out a whimper and rushed out of her chair and into Carlisle's embrace.
"Maybe it's from something else?" Rosalie suggested, her voice trembling.
But Jasper was shaking his head. "Only venom leaves a scar."
"What do we do?" She looked to Carlisle, frightened and pleading, though Bella wasn't sure what was bothering her so much.
Jasper cleared his throat uncomfortably. "The first thing we do is make sure we know what we're dealing with. Edward, phone."
Edward drew the cell phone out of his pocket and tossed it to Jasper. He dialed quickly, and Peter's slow drawl answered on the first ring.
"Jasper! Missed me already, did you?"
"You have no idea how much. Listen, I think I finally got in over my head."
"Imagine my surprise. What happened?"
Jasper started by telling him about Amun—about Benjamin's gift and about the tension in their coven—and then went on to describe Aro's arrival.
Peter let out a low whistle. "You realize you're basically harboring a fugitive? Aro's got to be the most wanted vampire in the world right now. There are a lot of people who'd like revenge for the things he's done."
"Yeah," Jasper muttered, "but all that just sets the scene. The real problem is what Isabella left behind in Mexico."
"I knew she was trouble! Is she one of Maria's?"
"No. Actually . . ." He wetted his lips nervously. "Isabella may or may not have been turned by an immortal child."
There was a long pause, and when Peter spoke again his voice was soft and cold. "May or may not have been? Friend, you're going to have to do better than that."
"I wish I could. The kid claims she was impregnated by a vampire when she was still human and had a little half-breed baby. Carlisle thinks that's a little far-fetched, so he figures the trauma of whatever happened to her must have skewed her memory. But she's got a scar and it's not from an adult, so one way or another there's a kid out there with venom."
Bella turned to Edward, confused. "What's an immortal child?"
"It's a child who's been bitten and turned," he murmured. "It's illegal, and the consequences are always devastating."
"This is bad," Peter said.
Jasper grunted. "It might be. But Isabella might be right. It might not be an immortal child."
"And what if it is? Have you given any thought to what you're going to do about it? Because I guarantee you, Jasper, your coven leader doesn't have what it takes to destroy it."
Bella stiffened. "Destroy . . ."
"And don't think you can handle it either," Peter went on. "I know you, Jasper. Do you have any idea how much emotion is invested in those kids? You couldn't even eat a decent meal without getting depressed. The atmosphere surrounding the death an immortal child would cripple you."
"No!" Bella clutched at Edward in desperation. "You can't kill him!"
"God damn it!" Peter hissed into the phone. "Your newborn is attached, isn't she?"
Jasper sighed wearily. "Yeah."
"And Edward? Is he showing the kind of interest in her that you thought he would."
Jasper shifted uncomfortably. "Yeah."
"Which means Carlisle is invested, too. Shit!" Peter drew in a deep breath. "Jasper, listen to me. I know you don't want to hear this, but I'm going to tell you anyway because I don't want to see you end up dead. Your hippie pacifist phase has gone on long enough. You need to get the hell away from there right now."
"I'm sorry, Jasper, and I'm sorry to anyone else who may be listening, but that coven is fucked. You need to put some serious miles between you and them—for Alice's sake, if not for your own."
Alice's face was still buried in Jasper's shoulder, and he drummed his fingers lightly on her hip while he listened. When Peter stopped talking, he let the silence hang in the air for a moment.
"Are you finished?" he asked.
"I need information. We don't know where this kid is, and we need to track him down before we can be sure what we're dealing with."
"Jasper, come back." It was Charlotte who spoke this time. Her voice was softer, Bella assumed, because she wasn't speaking directly into the phone, but it was still easy enough to hear her. "They've got you chained up like an animal there, and that's not you. The man I served under can't be . . . domesticated."
Bella was surprised by Jasper's tender smile.
"What are you pushing this for, short stack? You don't even like me."
"Yeah, well . . . I like Alice."
"Tell you what," Jasper said. "If this kid does turn out to be an immortal child, I'll talk to Alice about ducking out of here and laying low with you two for a few years. But we have to know first, so I need you to see if you can get a line on where he is."
"Fine," Peter muttered. "I assume it has a coven?"
"Yeah. The leader's name is Joham. Dark hair, wears it kind of long, might have it in a ponytail. How tall, Bella?"
"Um . . . under six feet?"
"I don't know. Around forty?"
"Last seen near Tijuana," Jasper went on. "He'll be with a woman named Serena, who Bella believes is one of his daughters. So . . . she might be half human."
"What exactly does that mean?" Peter asked.
"I could hear her heart," Bella said, "and smell her blood."
Jasper frowned, but nodded. "Physical age?"
"Twenty, maybe?" Bella guessed. "Her hair is really long, dark like Joham's, but her eyes are brown."
"Brown eyes." Jasper arched an eyebrow. "Okay."
"What about temperament?" Peter asked. "What impressions would they leave?"
Bella stepped out of Edward's embrace and moved toward Jasper, though she let him link his fingers with hers and trail after her.
"Joham is . . . polite. Soft-spoken, affectionate even . . . or he tries to seem that way. But he loses his temper easily."
"And Serena?" Peter asked.
"She's condescending. Very cold. And she gets jealous. She tries hard to be Joham's favorite, but he prefers his son. It makes Serena furious."
Bella hesitated. "Serena smells . . . strange. Human, but easy to resist. Like Alexander."
"And what does Alexander look like?"
"He's just a baby. Dark curls, brown eyes. He's so little . . ."
"All right. I'll see what I can do. Keep your eyes open, Jasper. You're camped out on a powder keg no matter which way this goes."
"Yeah. Have you heard anything more about armies being raised?"
"Not so much as a whisper."
"Good. Let's hope it stays that way."
They said their goodbyes and then Jasper tossed the phone aside and tucked Alice firmly against his body with one arm. He held the other one out to Bella, and though she wasn't sure exactly what he wanted, she took his hand. He used it to pull himself to his feet, and gave her a wink.
"I don't know, Carlisle," he said. "Isabella doesn't seem all that confused to me."
"Nor to me," Carlisle replied, his gaze turning to Bella. "For what it's worth, I would very much like to be wrong about this."
She nodded and forced herself to meet his eyes. "I'm sorry I bit you."
"I'm sorry I upset you," he replied with a chuckle. He turned to Jasper and his smile fell. "Jasper . . . I want you to know that I understand—"
"Save the speech," he interrupted. "We're not going anywhere."
Carlisle gave him a puzzled look and Jasper laughed.
"I only told him I'd talk to Alice. Baby, do you want to go nomad for a little while?"
Alice finally raised her head. "Are you kidding? That would ruin my Jimmy Choos!"
Carlisle smiled at her and she wriggled out of Jasper's arms and moved to give Carlisle a peck on the cheek.
"You can't get rid of us that easy, Cullen."
Edward drew everyone's attention from them when he let out a low growl and glared at Rosalie. "Don't," he hissed.
Rosalie ignored him and focused on Bella. "How could you do it?" she demanded. "How could you leave him?"
Bella winced at the lance of pain in her chest.
"Rosalie, we don't know the circumstances," Carlisle said.
"We know enough! He's just a baby, and she abandoned him!"
Bella didn't have an answer for her accusations. Her eyes prickled as they filled with venom, and little tremors shook her shoulders.
"She's a newborn," Jasper said firmly. "She could hardly help but react— "
"She's every bit as bad as he is!" Rosalie turned her furious gaze on Bella, hissing at her through her teeth. "You deserve everything you got from Joham. You can tell your sad, simpering story about all the cruel things he did to you, but you'll get no sympathy from me. You deserve it."
"Rosalie, stop it!" Emmett pulled her to her feet and grabbed her chin, forcing her to look at him. "Think about what you're saying."
She jerked her head away. "I can't even look at her," she spat, and darted out the back door into the trees.
Edward tried to slide a comforting arm over Bella's shoulder, but she pushed him away.
"She's right," she said. "I do deserve it. This is all my fault."
"No." Emmett stalked over to her and took her by the shoulders. "You listen to me. That was a hell of a stupid stunt you pulled, stopping off in Tijuana like that. You deserve to be grounded for . . . ever. You deserve to be loaded down with extra chores and lectured until your ears bleed. If I'd done something like that when I was your age, my Pa would have taken a switch to my backside." He gave her shoulders a little shake. "You deserved to be punished for being stupid, but that's not what you got. What Joham did to you was torture. It was brutality, pure and simple. Nothing you've done could possibly justify it."
Bella hugged herself, hunching her shoulders against the guilt that weighed so heavily on her conscience. She wanted to accept Emmett's words, but she knew he was being too lenient.
"I left him," she whispered.
"You saved your own skin. There's nothing wrong with that."
"It's how you're wired," Jasper added, moving up behind her. "After the change, your instinct for self-preservation kicks into overdrive and stays there for a good long time. I've known hundreds of newborns, and I can't think of a single one that wouldn't have done exactly the same thing."
Bella shifted out of Emmett's grasp and sidled closer to Edward, turning to put Jasper in her line of sight. "I wish I hadn't. I need him."
"Believe me, I can tell. It feels . . . a lot like the mating bond, actually. And if that's the case, it's only going to get harder on you the longer you're away from him."
Bella shuddered and tucked her head against Edward's chest. He wrapped his arms around her and pulled her close, rubbing soothing circles over her back.
"Don't worry, Bella," he murmured. "We're going to find him, I promise. We won't give up until you have him back again."
Emmett gave her shoulder a squeeze. "I'm going to go find Rosalie."
"Please," Esme said, stepping out from under Carlisle's arm, "let me."
Emmett nodded and Esme disappeared out the door.
"I imagine you could probably use some quiet time," Carlisle told Bella. "Why don't you go on up to your room?" He caught the glance she shot at Edward and smiled. "Take Edward with you, if you'd like, but spend a little time doing something to quiet your mind. If you let the stress build up it will drive you to distraction."
As soon as he said it, Bella found herself aching for the peace of her room. She threaded her fingers through Edward's once again and climbed the spiral staircase with him close behind. She pushed through the door into her bedroom and headed straight for the bed, flopping down in the center of it.
Edward closed the door behind them and seated himself at the foot of the bed. He pulled one of her bare feet into his lap and started massaging it with his long, nimble fingers.
"Do you really think we'll find him?" Bella asked, her voice muffled by the pillow.
"Yes," Edward murmured, "I do."
Bella let herself go limp against the mattress. It was such a relief to have someone she could lean on, someone with strong shoulders who could share the weight of her burden. There was still too much uncertainty, but at least now she didn't have to suffer through it alone. She focused on the sensation of Edward's hands on her toes and let out all of her anxieties in one long, heavy breath. They would still be there later, she knew, but she had done all she could for now and she finally felt like she could take a few minutes to rest.