(The following ramblings have nothing to do with the plot of the story. I just need to vent. You may skip to the actual chapter if you like.)
You guys . . . I don't have any Internet. It's awful. I mean, it's just really awful. And I can't keep a smart phone working to save my life, so I don't have that to fall back on, either. I had no idea how incapable I was of functioning without Twitter and Google until this week. What did we do in days of yore when we didn't know something? Did we just settle for not knowing? And what if you're trying to write? Because seriously, I research grammar questions and plot details constantly as I write. There was this whole paragraph where I wanted to write something about communism, capitalism, fascism, etc., but I had to change it because I couldn't look them up to be sure I was writing true things about them. (I like the vagued-up paragraph, though, so no worries. Whatever.) Also, I desperately needed to know something about green onions last night, and nope. No Google.
I don't even know how to live like this. It's killing me.
However, I have managed to sneak off to the library to connect with my fabulous NixDucky and have this chapter betaed. She's a star, and so is KT8812, who was kind enough to relay messages from NixDucky to me by text message. That was awfully helpful.
So here you are. Like a phoenix, I have risen from the ashes of my annihilated router and have posted a chapter for you. I'm that devoted. (Also, please don't think too hard about the flaws in that metaphor, as I'm too Internetless to go around getting things right.)
Bella didn't end up riding back to Washington on a motorcycle. With Joham in the mix, she couldn't bear the thought of allowing any distance between herself and Alexander. But Joham, as it turned out, didn't travel back by motorcycle either. Though Carlisle, Esme, and Nahuel all decided to ride in the SUV with the human girl and Nahuel's sisters, somehow there were still no empty bikes. Peter and Charlotte claimed one, and Tanya and suddenly decided that she couldn't bear to share with someone for another moment. Sadly, that left no extras to offer the three newcomers to the group. Carlisle wanted to help, he told Joham, but of course his resources had already been heavily taxed. He was confident, however, that someone as clever as Joham could arrange his own transportation to Washington.
Still, even with Joham absent from the caravan, Bella wasn't comfortable separating from her son. Instead, she and Edward decided to run back to Tonopah with him and rent a car—with Carmen tagging along to help, since neither Bella nor Edward could pass for twenty-five.
It turned out to be an experience Bella wouldn't have traded for anything, starting with the run across the desert. Alexander was thrilled by Bella's speed, climbing onto her shoulders and then leaping into the wind and letting her catch him. Bella thought the laughter ringing out across the empty desert terrain had to be the most beautiful sound in the world.
Once in the car, Edward volunteered to drive and Bella slid into the back seat next to the child seat that the rental company had supplied for Alexander. He wasn't at all happy about being buckled in, and they'd barely made it out of the parking lot before he was squirming and tugging at the belts.
"I don't like it, Mother," he complained, only holding back from tearing through the straps at her stern instruction.
Carmen laughed softly from the front seat. "You can hardly blame him, Bella. If it were you strapped down like that, you wouldn't be able to stand it."
"But . . . it's for his safety."
"Do you honestly think a hunk of plastic will keep him safer than you will? Is there an accident you couldn't protect him from better than that seat can?"
Bella smiled and shook her head. She unbuckled the latch and pulled Alexander into her lap.
"I'm sleepy," he mumbled around the thumb poked into his mouth, but a few seconds later he was peering out the window at the scenery racing by. "I never been to Washington. What does it look like?"
"There are a lot of trees," Bella replied. "And moss grows up the trunks so you can hardly see the brown of the bark."
"How come we're going there?"
"That's where I live now."
"And Father? Is he going to live there, too?"
Bella winced, wondering how in the world she was going to get rid of Joham once the gathering was over. "I hope not."
"He's very mean to his children, sweetie. I don't trust him to keep you safe and healthy."
"Why?" He was still looking out the window, seeming more interested in the starlit terrain than in their conversation, but Bella was keenly aware of the questions he was asking.
"Look how he treated Jennifer and Maysun. If he would do that to them, don't you think he would do it to you?"
He looked at her then, his head cocked curiously. "Of course not, Mother. I'm a boy."
"Do you think that makes a difference?"
"Father says it does. Father says I'm special and I'm going to be a very important man."
Bella didn't know what to say to that. She stroked her fingers through his curls, trying to come up with an answer, but Edward spoke before she came up with something.
"I'll tell you something my father used to tell me," he said to Alexander, looking at him in the rearview mirror. "You can learn all you need to know about a person by how he treats those around him. But not just the people he respects. His real character is revealed by how he behaves toward people who are subordinate to him."
Alexander pushed himself to his feet on Bella's thighs and leaned against the back of Edward's seat. "What's subordinate?"
"Someone who is subordinate is someone who has less authority than you do. Like your father and your sisters. He believes that they're beneath him, and the way he treats them tells you what kind of man he is." He turned on his blinker and changed lanes to pass a car in front of them.
"What's that?" Alexander asked, pointing to the lever.
"This? It's a turn signal. It's so other people on the road know what I'm going to do."
"Why do they have to know?"
"It helps avoid collisions."
Bella smiled. This was a much nicer line of questioning.
"Who teached you how to drive?" Alexander asked.
"Do you like Carwile?"
He smiled and nodded. "I like Carlisle very much. He's my best friend."
"Am I your friend?"
"Of course. You're my newest friend, and I hope we'll be friends for a long, long time."
"Will you teach me to drive?"
Bella and Carmen both laughed, but Edward just pursed his lips thoughtfully.
"I don't think your feet would reach the pedals."
"There's pedals?" He pulled himself up on the back of Edward's seat and peered down at the floor.
Edward shifted his knees to let Alexander see better. "Yep. This one here is the gas pedal. It makes us go faster." He demonstrated by speeding up a little. "And this one is the brake pedal. What do you think that does?"
"Um . . . makes us go slower?"
"Exactly." Edward pressed it lightly and their speed decreased. If I push it harder it would make us stop."
"What's that?" he asked, pointing again.
"It's the steering wheel. It's how I turn the car in the direction I want it to go."
"Can you push the pedals and I move the steering wheel?"
Edward's eyes met Bella's in the mirror, and she wavered in indecision.
"Just . . . be careful with him?"
"Of course, Bella." He smiled softly at her before turning a grin on Alexander. "Come on, short stack. Come sit on my lap."
For the next ten minutes Edward occupied Alexander with driving lessons, letting him feel how the car responded to turn of the wheel and showing him the lights, blinkers, radio dials, and everything else he could think of. But Alexander really must have been tired, because as soon as he had exhausted his supply of new buttons to push and knobs to turn, he slumped back against Edward's chest and drifted off to sleep.
Carmen gently fingered one of his soft curls. "I can't get over how sweet he is," she murmured. She gave him a doting smile, then started climbing over the seat. "Trade me places, Bella. You should sit up here with him."
Bella found herself feeling grateful for her new grace while making the switch that would have been all but impossible for her clumsy human self. She settled into Carmen's vacated seat and reached out for her son, jostling him awake as she pulled him into her arms. He settled down again immediately, though, his thumb finding its way to his mouth and his fingers tangling in Bella's hair.
Edward smiled at her as he watched her cradle Alexander against her chest. "Look at you," he whispered. "You're all lit up inside."
"Lit up?" She gave a little huff of a laugh. "I'm in tangles. I don't have any idea what to say when he asks me all those questions."
He reached out and squeezed her knee in sympathy, but his expression showed only confidence. "You're doing fine. After all, he didn't put up a fuss about coming away with you, did he?"
"No." It was the first time she had considered that, and she looked down at the sleeping boy, wondering what she would have done if he had wanted to stay with his father.
"He already prefers you to Joham."
"But he's learned so much from Joham. If I try to convince him that those things are wrong, will he want to go back?"
Edward shrugged. "What would Carlisle do?"
"Carlisle?" She furrowed her brow in confusion.
"Carlisle is probably the most universally well-liked vampire in the world," Edward explained. "Which is significant, considering the fact that everyone thinks he's touched in the head. But whether they agree with him or not, they respect him for his tolerance and his thoughtful nature. If you try to answer Alexander's questions the way Carlisle would, he might not always like what you tell him, but he'll like you. And that means he'll stay with you."
"But . . . Carlisle would let him drink human blood if he wanted it."
Edward nodded. "I think he would, yes. But only after doing everything he could to convince him not to."
Bella brushed back a tangle of curls that had fallen over Alexander's forehead, wondering if she could be happy raising a son who drank human blood. It frightened her to realize that she absolutely could. There was literally nothing she wouldn't sacrifice for him, and that included human lives.
But she didn't want to sacrifice lives. She wanted Alexander to respect humans as much as he respected vampires. And she worried about how much her own ideals would be affected if she frequently justified accommodations to Alexander's preferences.
And yet, behind all of her worries, there was a deep, saturating contentment. If Edward thought she looked happier, it was simply because she was happier. The separation from her son had been like a physical weight on her, forcing her down into melancholy, but now that they were together again she felt like the weight was gone. Like she could finally lift her head and take a full breath into her lungs. She did now, drawing in the sweet scent of her precious little boy and feeling the elation that came with it. She wondered if every mother felt like this—if each was sure that her own little creation was the most beautiful, the most remarkable, of any child that had ever been born. It was a nice thought, but they were all wrong. There was a certainty anchored deep in Bella's core that no other child ever had been or ever would be as perfect as her Alexander.
She let out a little laugh, and Edward raised his eyebrows in query.
"I was just thinking that I'm going to be one of those annoying parents who's always shoving pictures at people and telling them how brilliant her kid is."
He laughed. "We'd better get to work taking pictures, then."
They caught up to the rest of the caravan near the Washington border. Bella suspected that they could have managed it before then, but Edward didn't seem in any hurry to rejoin the group. Eventually, though, they all crossed paths at a gas station outside of Longview. It was full daylight now, but a heavy cloud cover made the company of vampires feel comfortable enough to strip off helmets and gloves while they refueled their motorcycles.
Bella changed the bandana around her neck for a fresh one, still thick with the foul wolf scent, but Alexander pushed open the door and sniffed at the air.
"I'm hungry mother," he said, pointing to the clerk inside the convenience store. "May I have that man?"
"Uh . . . no, honey. Remember what Edward said about treating your subordinates?"
"Humans are our subordinates, too. Don't you think we should treat them kindly?"
"But humans are for food and making babies," he said with a puzzled frown.
She hesitated, but Edward's encouraging smile helped her find the words she needed. "That's what your father believes, but I don't agree with him. I think we should respect humans."
"But what do you eat?"
"In the Cullen family, we drink animal blood. "We go out and hunt them, and it's really fun."
"Do they taste good?"
"Well . . ." She gave him a sheepish smile. "Not very good, no. But you get used to it." She frowned at the terrain around them. "This probably isn't a very good hunting spot, though. Maybe we should get you some human food today."
"Does human food taste good?"
She shrugged helplessly. "Nahuel says it doesn't taste as good as blood. But I think it would be the smartest thing for now, until we get home."
"I'll go in and see what I can find," Edward offered, "but I can't vouch for the nutritional value of gas station food."
Which was another concern. Bella had no idea how to put together a properly-balanced nutrition plan for Alexander. Did he need human food? Did he need blood? Judging by how much she had craved it when she was pregnant, she suspected that blood wasn't something he could do without. But could he survive only on blood? It seemed that he had been, up to this point, but she didn't necessarily trust Joham to make the healthiest choices for him. She would have a lot of questions for Nahuel and his sisters when they got back to Forks.
She wandered over to the SUV, where Esme was pumping gas into the tank. Rosalie had one of the back doors open, and was helping the human girl ease herself down onto the asphalt.
"That's it, Amelia. We won't go far, just a quick walk around the parking lot to get your blood flowing."
Bella angled herself away from them and toward Esme, where the odor of gasoline overpowered most of the other scents.
"He and Emmett went to see if they could get some bags of donated blood." She cast a worried look at the vehicle behind them. "Amelia's not doing well, I'm afraid. She hasn't managed to keep any food down."
Bella grimaced and nodded, remembering the feeling all too well. "Yeah, it sounds like she needs blood."
"She does," Alexander confirmed confidently. "David was supposed to get her somebody, but he accidentally killed the man he brought home. Father was angry."
"Mother, what's donated blood?"
"Um . . . sometimes humans go to these special places where they let people draw out some of their blood and store it in bags. The bags are kept for doctors to give to people who have been in accidents and lost too much of their own blood."
"Humans share blood?" he asked with wide eyes.
"Sometimes, if they need to."
"And Carwile is going to give donated blood to Amelia and Maysun to drink?"
"How come you don't drink donated blood?"
Bella didn't have an answer for that, but luckily, Esme did. "There's often not enough donated blood to fill the need for injured humans," she explained. "If we depleted those resources even further, we might end up being responsible for human deaths. It's not something we choose to do, since we have other options."
"Like drinking animal blood?"
"That's right." She smiled at him and ruffled his hair. "You sure are a smart kid."
"I know. Father says I'm very special."
Bella smiled and whispered in his ear, "When someone pays you a compliment, you should say thank you."
"Thank you," he said.
Esme beamed at him.
Edward emerged from the convenience store then, carrying a plastic bag. Bella and Alexander said goodbye to Esme, then met Edward at the car to see what he'd bought. He laid a paper towel out on the hood of the car, and Bella set Alexander down next to it.
"This," Edward said, producing the first item from the bag, "is a hot dog."
"It's a dog?" Alexander asked.
"No, that's just what we call it. This one is actually beef, which is from cows. Take a bite and see what you think."
Alexander nipped off some of the hot dog and bun, and chewed it thoughtfully. "It's good," he finally announced.
Bella sighed in relief.
"Humans like to put sauces and stuff on some of their food to give them a different flavor," Edward told Alexander, putting several little packets on the paper towel. "Do you want to try some?"
"What's that red one?" he asked.
"It's ketchup." Edward tore open a packet and squeezed out a little gob onto his finger. "Here, taste."
Alexander licked his finger and grimace. "That doesn't taste like blood."
Edward laughed. "No, it definitely doesn't. Humans don't like the taste of blood."
"Beats me, kid." He plucked up another packet and tore it open. "Here, try a little mustard."
Alexander let Edward squeeze some of the mustard onto his finger and he licked it off.
"That's good, Mother!" he said, showing her his licked clean finger. "I like mustard!"
"All right, let's put some mustard on your hot dog." Edward squeezed out a yellow line along the length of the bun, then picked up a third packet. "And this one is relish. Have a taste."
Alexander swiped a finger through the green chunks and poked them in his mouth.
"I like relish too! Mother, do you want to taste?"
She smiled and shook her head. "I used to like relish when I was human, but I can't eat it anymore."
"Yep. Only boring old blood for full vampires."
Edward finished adding relish to Alexander's hot dog and handed it to him. "Taste that."
Alexander took a bite and smiled around his mouthful to show that he liked it. He chewed energetically and swallowed it, then held his hot dog up in the air and called across the lot.
"Jennifer, do you want some human food?"
Bella looked around quickly to see if there were any humans nearby to hear him, but it was only their own party in the lot, filling up the tanks of one motorcycle after another.
Jennifer shook her head, smiling at Alexander. She and Nahuel were walking with Maysun, each with a hand under her arms to support her. "We ate at the last stop," she called back.
"Did you have mustard and relish? It's really good!" He didn't wait for an answer before refocusing on his hot dog and taking a big bite.
"I got you an apple, too, and some milk to drink." Edward pulled them out and set them on the hood of the car.
Alexander worked the big bite into his cheeks. "Can I put mustard on the apple?"
"Uh . . . I guess if you want. Humans don't. The flavors might not go well together.
Alexander chewed feverishly at his hot dog until he managed to swallow his bite, then bit into the apple. His face screwed up in discontent and he shook his head. "I don't like that."
"It's healthy, though," Bella said, cringing over the thought of him depending entirely on a suspicious gas station hot dog for his nutrition. "Sometimes we have to eat things we don't like because they give us important nutrients."
"What nutrients does an apple have?"
"It has vitamin C," Edward told him, "which is an antioxidant. Do you know what that is?"
He shook his head.
"It helps clean out all the bad gunk that your body picks up. And there are B-complex vitamins in there, too, which keep your brain nice and sharp. And apples have lots of fiber, which is important to eat so your cholesterol doesn't get too high."
"It's a fatty substance in your blood, and if you have too much of it, it sticks along the sides of your arteries and makes it really hard for your heart to pump blood. And that's bad, because if your heart has to work too hard, it might stop working altogether. That would be very inconvenient for any little boys who need their circulatory systems to stay alive."
"Do I have too much clesterol in my blood?" Alexander asked.
"I hope not. Maybe when we get home, Carlisle can check."
Alexander nodded and took another bite of the apple. He grimaced, but Edward opened the milk and handed it to Alexander to wash the bite down.
He did, and then kept drinking and drinking with only the occasional pause to suck in a hurried breath, until the bottle of milk was empty. He held the bottle out to Edward.
"May I have some more?"
Edward raised his eyebrows at Bella. "Alexander, have you ever had milk before?"
"I only had blood. But milk is really, really yummy. I like it better than blood."
"He hasn't had any . . ." Bella murmured.
Edward shook his head. "I think we need to make sure he gets plenty of it in the future. I'll be right back."
Alexander took another bite of his hot dog, his little tongue working to lick the mustard and relish from his lips. "I like Edward, Mother," he said through his mouthful.
"I like him too."
Edward glanced back as he pulled open the door to the convenience store. He caught Bella's eye and grinned at her.
The stop was a long one, and had they taken such a lengthy break on the way to Nevada, Bella would have been pulling her hair out in frustration. Now, though, fully engrossed in her son's welfare and enjoying his discovery of human food, she was perfectly content to wait as long as was necessary.
Edward reappeared with another, much larger bottle of milk, but Bella asked Alexander to eat some more of his other food before she let him have it. After eating most of his hot dog and a little less than half of his apple—with dollops of mustard squeezed onto each bite to improve the flavor, he declared himself full and pushed the food away. Bella scooped him up and gave him the milk, and he sipped contentedly at it.
"Looks like we're about ready to go," Edward said, gathering up the garbage. He jogged to a trash can to throw it out, and then everyone loaded into cars and onto motorcycles, and the whole crew got back on the road again.
Carmen rejoined Eleazar on his bike this time, so Edward and Bella were left alone in the car with Alexander. He amused them by showing off what he had learned in his lessons with Joham, reciting the all of the countries and their capitals, and then listing each country's major leaders in the last hundred years.
Bella was floored. She'd known that Joham had something of an obsession with the rulers of Ancient Greece, but she hadn't realized that he'd intended to familiarize Alexander with the political climate of the entire world. When quizzed, her son could classify a country by its major religion and economic philosophy, and then list mitigating caveats to each classification. At barely over a month old, he knew more about world politics than Bella had ever known.
It wasn't only Bella who was impressed. She began to notice that more and more of the motorcycle riders were lingering near the car, leaving space in front but clustering near on the sides and in back. All of the riders wanted to be near enough to listen to Alexander's recitations, and occasionally Bella would hear an appreciative laugh or a low whistle. It made her proud to know that her son was so fascinating to the others, but it made her nervous, too. What she really wanted was to be left alone to raise him in peace, and the more attention he garnered the less likely that seemed to be. She cradled him close to her as he spoke, her arms wrapped possessively around him, and silently promised herself that she would never let anything separate them again.
There was a police escort waiting for them in Forks again, which meant another slow procession through town. Remembering the curious stares from the first time around, Bella had Alexander hunch down in the wheel well at her feet so no one would see him. She wasn't going to be able to explain her fast-growing prodigy of a son to the people of Forks, so it was best they never knew anything about him at all.
Carlisle and Emmett had rejoined them by then, toting a portable cooler that they had strapped to the back of their motorcycle. Carlisle had taken it immediately to the SUV, while Bella tried to block out all thoughts of what was in the cooler and what was being done with it. It was surprisingly easy, now that she had Alexander to distract her. That had been nearly an hour before, and now that they were back in town, she peered curiously through the windows of the SUV to try to see it from the perspective of the people of Forks.
Of course, there was nothing suspicious to be found. Neither Maysun nor Amelia could be seen at all, and Nahuel and Jennifer affected an easy air, smiling and waving like all the others as Esme tapped the horn to draw attention. They made their way down Main Street feigning carefree happiness, until they finally reached the turn-off to the Cullens' house.
Siobhan was waiting with her coven to greet them when they pulled up out front. Carlisle jumped out of the SUV and took the time to give her a quick kiss on the cheek before moving to help Amelia from the car.
"Any new arrivals?" he asked her as he lifted the frail girl into his arms.
"A few." Siobhan nodded to the girl, and to where Nahuel and Jennifer were assisting Maysun out of the car. "I'll introduce you all when you're not so busy."
"Thank you, Siobhan."
Bella tucked Alexander against her side and got out of the car as well, while the rest of the entourage parked their motorcycles.
"Hey, Alexander," Edward said, "have you ever seen a human campground before?"
"I saw a picture in my books."
"Yeah? Did your books have any pictures of a giant group of vampires pretending to be camping humans?"
He giggled. "No!"
"Then you'd better come on back around the house so you can see it for yourself," Edward said with a grin. He held out his hand to Bella, and with one arm holding Alexander and one hand linked with Edward's, she joined the group of vampires who were making their way back to the little patches of ground they had each claimed for themselves. Jasper and Alice fell into step beside them, and Alice slung an arm around Bella's waist, her face glowing with excitement.
"I've been making plans, Bella. You wouldn't believe the plans I've been making. We've got to buy Alexander a whole new wardrobe, and he grows so fast that we'll have to replace his clothes constantly! Do you have any idea how darling little boy suits are? You're just going to die! You're probably not ready for a department store—are you? I mean, if you feel like you're ready it would be great to try . . ."
Bella smiled apologetically and shook her head.
"Okay, that's fine. We'll just take his measurements and I'll order his clothes. I'll have to alter them so they fit him properly at the hips anyway, so it won't matter very much if I have to do a little extra tailoring. This is going to be so much fun!"
Alice probably would have gone on, but Edward suddenly stopped. They had rounded the house, and Edward was staring hard at three vampires who were lounging in the amphitheater that had been prepared for the gathering. Bella's eyes were immediately drawn to the woman, who sported fiery red hair that she wore in long, wild curls. She was leaning against a rangy man with close-cropped, sandy hair, who would have been almost unnoticeable except for the predatory expression in his sharp, red eyes. The third had glossy black hair and a stocky build, with ropes of muscles rippling beneath sturdy, yet fraying hiker's clothes. He was watching the vampires passing by him with open curiosity, and he seemed as though he were about to rise to greet them, but the blond beat him to it. He untangled himself from the red-headed woman and stood up, his gaze fixed on Alice as he began to make his way around the amphitheater's tiered circumference.
"Why, little Mary Alice," he murmured, something dark and menacing lurking beneath his friendly tone. "What a pleasant surprise, running into you after all these years."