December 20, 2056
"Ugh. My hair is so staticky."
Alexander smiled, watching Xiaodan try to brush down the strands of fine black hair that kept reaching out toward the back of the sofa. "It's been too long since you've phased. It's like your pent-up energy is leaking out through your head and getting caught in your hair."
She shook her head in frustration, which only made more of her hairs rise up in a stubborn cloud around her face. "If this room were bigger and less full of antiques, I'd do it right now."
"Hang on." Alexander ducked out of the Blair House drawing room and passed through the short hallway to the bathroom near the foyer. He wetted his hands and shook them off, then returned to the drawing room and smoothed them over the Xiaodan's hair. The water weighed down the baby-soft strands enough to temporarily ease the static.
"Careful," she said with a grin. "If you drip water on the antique furniture, you could end up starting a war."
He made a show of wiping his hands on his suit pants and Xiaodan laughed.
From across the street, Alexander could hear the sounds of business carrying on in the White House. The staffers were in full transition mode, preparing for the transfer of power from one president to the next. They had one month to pass off the business of running the country, and the atmosphere held a frenetic edge. The incoming president's voice could be heard over the din, complaining that the entire day had been blacked out for one charity benefit, thus preventing him from meeting with potential staff.
"I think I like him," Xiaodan said. "At least he's eager to get to work."
"Oh, is that what you like about him? His work ethic? Here I thought it was his chin dimple."
She laughed, her dark eyes lighting up. "His chin dimple is adorable. We haven't met with a dignitary this cute since Darkan Safiullah."
"Yeah, don't think I didn't notice how enthusiastic you were about stripping down for him."
She gave a breezy shrug. "It's the job." Then with a sly peek at him out of the corner of her eye she added, "It's just a nicer part of the job when your audience is as attractive as President-Elect Castillo."
Alexander pursed his lips. "Jimmy Soul tried to tell me. Never make a pretty woman your wife, he said. Why didn't I listen?"
"You might have, if you'd been able to find any ugly dragons. Here, let me fix your tie. They'll be here in a minute."
Alexander smiled at her. "You're a marvel, you know that?"
"I do." She grinned and dragged him closer by his tie. "I'm pleased you noticed." She kissed him soundly and then sat back, smoothing the skirt of the black wrap dress that she wore—Alexander was all too aware—over nothing at all. He straightened his jacket in an unconscious imitation, trying not to think too hard about all that wasn't beneath her dress. North America was technically his responsibility, so he wouldn't have the luxury of standing back and admiring Xiaodan while she did all the talking. Which was too bad, really. The big reveal was always amusing, and he enjoyed being the silent spectator.
Delivering the news himself was almost as fun, though, and he tapped his foot impatiently as he waited. This was the good part. He always got a merciless little thrill over meeting with an uninitiated world leader.
The party from the White House finally exited and made their way toward the city-block-sized guest house across the street where Alexander and Xiaodan waited. When they entered the room dressed in their daytime formals, Alexander rose to greet them.
"President Beckett," he said warmly, taking the hand of the plump, gray-haired woman who led the group. He pressed her fingers between his and leaned in to kiss her cheek. "It's been too long."
"Yes, thank god. I wouldn't have wanted to see you any sooner." She smiled at his chuckle and waited while he turned to the man beside her, who was looking age-spotted and a little stooped in the shoulder these days. "You remember my husband."
"Of course. It's good to see you, Logan."
He returned the greeting and stepped back to make way for a tall black man who had acquired a generous sprinkling of white in his hair over the last eight years.
"Oscar," Alexander greeted warmly. "No Vivian tonight?"
"She asked me to give you her best, but she's feeling a little under the weather."
Alexander recognized the lie, but ignored it. Vivian had been deeply shaken by her last meeting with Alexander, and though she had handled it tactfully, it was no surprise that she wasn't anxious to repeat the experience. "Of course. I hope you'll pass along my regards."
With the old acquaintances acknowledged, Alexander turned to President Beckett and allowed her to take the lead in the introductions. She gestured to Castillo, who stepped forward with his hand outstretched.
"President-Elect Castillo, this is Alexander Cullen and his wife Xiaodan. I had a meeting just like this with them when I first took office."
"Really?" Castillo asked, his dark eyebrows raising in surprise. "You must have been, what, around ten years old?" he asked Alexander.
Alexander smiled broadly. "Mr. President-Elect, I'll ask you to put a pin in that question for now. We'll come back to it again when we've had a chance to talk."
He dropped the subject graciously, moving on to take Xioadan's hand. "Show-don? Am I saying that right?"
He released her hand and turned to acknowledge the other woman in the room. "This is my National Security Advisor, Marla Nivens."
Nivens was a somewhat dowdy woman with mousy brown hair and very little make-up. She was the kind of woman who didn't draw anyone's attention right away, but given her sharp-eyed gaze, Alexander suspected that she made her unremarkable appearance work for her. She shook his hand and gave him just enough of a smile to be polite, but he could tell that she was already wary about what was about to happen.
Beckett asked their Secret Service escorts to wait outside of the room, and before Castillo could take a seat, Alexander clapped his hands together. "Shall we go?"
"Go?" Nivens asked. "The benefit isn't being held here at Blair House?"
"There's no benefit," Alexander said, "and no, we're not staying here. We're going to Washington State."
"This is one of those intense moments I was telling you about," Oscar told her. "Just remember, you can still back out."
She pursed her lips. "Cute."
"You think so now . . ."
"Come now, we're not that bad," Xioadan said, taking Oscar's arm. "We serve good food and we almost never bite our guests."
"It's the 'almost' that has me worried." He took the lead, guiding them through one room after another, winding their way through the enormous guest house to a little-used side door. Outside was parked a dark gray SUV, and Alexander popped the lock and opened the rear door for them.
Castillo hesitated. "We're not taking the motorcade?"
"Nope," Beckett said, stepping past him to slide into the car. "Nor Air Force One. They draw attention, and this is one of those times when confidentiality trumps everything else. Including Secret Service protection."
His eyes widened a little at the reminder that he no longer had a Secret Service escort, and his anxiety helped to hurry him into the car. "Then why is your husband here?"
"That's a peculiarity of the Price Coalition," Xiaodan explained. "They have deep respect for marital relationships, and refuse to ask anyone to keep them a secret from their partners. You and Ms. Nivens would also have been expected to bring your spouses if you were married."
"The Price Coalition? That's who we're meeting?"
"We'll tell you all about them on the plane."
Alexander hopped behind the wheel, and as he navigated away from the curb, Nivens leaned forward. "This isn't actually a Guardian SUV, is it?"
"Very observant of you. It is."
"I didn't know they made an SUV."
"They don't," he said with a grin. "But with enough money, you can get a custom job done."
"The Price Coalition has money, huh? Is that what this is about? They're potential donors?"
"I'm afraid not. There may be donation money to be had from some of the individuals we'll meet tonight, but this evening is about giving you important information and helping you understand what to do with it."
"And we can't do this without taking a field trip with a couple of high school students?" Castillo asked drily.
"You'll need to learn to check that kind of talk, Nestor," President Beckett said. "I know our ambassadors look young, but this isn't the kind of group you want to piss off."
"Are they a threat?" Nivens asked.
Oscar laughed, long and low. "Oh, yes. If you're not careful."
"And yet we're going there without Secret Service?"
"Don't worry about it," Beckett said. "I survived my first meeting and you'll survive yours."
She pursed her lips. "If you're taking us on a snipe hunt, I'm not amused."
Alexander grinned at her in the rearview mirror. "We won't abandon you. Tonight is supposed to be pleasant, for the most part. Carlisle Cullen has invited you to enjoy his hospitality, and the man throws a pretty good party."
"So this is a party," Castillo said.
"It's a meet-and-greet. With really good food, and a long, boring lecture that you have to listen to on the plane."
"Uh," Oscar interjected, "I take issue with the boring part. That lecture is stressful as hell, and I couldn't be happier to pass this responsibility off onto somebody else."
"Oscar," Xiaodan chided, "you're going to hurt my feelings."
"Sweetie, I don't even want to hear it. You took ten years off my life when you did your little magic trick." He winked at her and she laughed gamely.
Alexander maneuvered his way through the DC traffic until he reached the airport, where he veered off onto a service road and drove them back to a private hangar. The group exited the car and filed inside, but Alexander stopped them before they could proceed to the airstairs that led up to his small private jet.
"The things I'm about to tell you can be difficult to accept," he said, backing up with Xiaodan to give them space. "I've found that it's helpful to provide a demonstration to show how very serious I am."
"This is where it gets weird," Oscar muttered.
Nivens shot him a sidelong glance. "You're not going to start talking about aliens, are you?"
"No, ma'am." Alexander grinned. "We're way more interesting than aliens. I'm going to make you uncomfortable for a second or two, but I must ask you not to avert your eyes. I need you to be aware that there is no illusion or sleight of hand at work here."
Xiaodan was already kicking off her shoes. She reached for the tie that held her dress in place and tugged, letting Alexander slide the garment off her shoulders.
"No, no, no—" the President-Elect tried to protest, but Xiaodan didn't give him a chance to say any more. A flash of heat radiated from her body and the long, lithe form of a dragon burst from the place where she stood, growing so quickly that Alexander had to scuttle backward to avoid being knocked over.
Nivens stumbled back as well, and Castillo cursed loudly. They gaped at the dragon as she stretched out her forelegs and shook her head. Her hide gleamed rusty-red in the artificial light, and her body was so long that it curved around the front of the hangar, the tip of her tail whipping lazily back and forth on the other side of the plane.
"My wife is a shape-shifter," Alexander said, not bothering to keep the note of triumph out of his voice. "Isn't she marvelous?" He strode over to her, and she ducked down to let him stroke her snout. "I assure you that she is not dangerous. She's is fully rational, whether in human or dragon form, and she has no interest in hurting anyone. She is taking this form simply to show you that things you have thought impossible are, in fact, quite real."
Logan heaved a sigh. "I'd almost convinced myself that it was all an illusion."
"Then I haven't done my job very well," Alexander replied with a smile. "Mr. President-Elect, I need to make sure you get on that plane knowing beyond doubt that shape-shifters are real, and that the world is fundamentally different than you thought it was. Otherwise I'll end up spending the entire trip trying to convince you that I'm not lying, and we simply have too much to cover to waste that kind of time." He beckoned to Castillo and Nivens. "If you would please come forward, I would like you to touch Xiaodan in her current form. Breathe in her scent. Engage as many of your senses as possible so that you won't be able to talk yourself into disbelief."
Neither of them made a move, so Oscar gulped in a breath and strode up to Xiaodan. He skirted her head and moved to her shoulder, reaching out to touch the leathery red skin of one foreleg. Xiaodan let out a little contented grumble at the contact and settled down onto the concrete floor, the movement beginning at her shoulders and rippling back along her serpentine body to her tail.
"Perfectly safe," Oscar said, though his voice trembled. "I've met with Alexander and Xiaodan a handful of times during the last few years. We've never had any problems."
"I'm an ambassador," Alexander said as President Beckett and her husband strode up beside Oscar to encourage the new president and head of national security to interact with Xiaodan. "It's my job to facilitate a relationship between the United States and the coalition I represent. The sooner you accept this as reality, the sooner Xiaodan can shift back and we can get on the plane."
Nivens took a slow breath, took a step forward, then immediately stepped back again. She clenched her fists, released them, and then before she could lose her nerve she walked forward and put her hand on Xiaodan's snout where Alexander had.
Xiaodan rumbled in approval.
"That should be enough," she said, jerking her hand away. "The President-Elect doesn't need to be put at risk."
"I assure you, there's no risk," Alexander soothed. "But yes, he does need to have this experience. Mr. President-Elect, please."
Fortunately, he was already striding forward, choosing to keep his distance from Xiaodan's teeth and moving to touch her leg. To his credit, he seemed fully invested in experiencing her presence. He stroked her scaley hide, examined the short, sharp spines at her joints, then took a slow, deliberate walk down the length of her body. He circled her, occasionally reaching out to touch a part of her body that promised a different texture. When he reached her head again, he stood in front of her and fixed her with a wide-eyed gaze.
"Incredible," he breathed.
"She smells like . . . something," he murmured. "Spices."
Alexander nodded. "She always does, though it's stronger when she's in this form. And it's a little different for each animal. Chinese shifters can take—well, theoretically, up to twelve different forms, but currently we've only managed to find nine—and I'm almost to the point where I can identify a shifter's animal by scent alone."
Castillo turned toward him, looking a little dazed. "Different . . . animals? Other kinds of dragons, or . . ."
"No, dragons are just the most impressive." He grinned as he rocked back on his heels. "Horses, rats, monkeys, dogs, oxen, sheep . . . is this starting to sound familiar?"
"The zodiac," he murmured.
Alexander nodded. "It's a trait inherited from very old families, and we fear that a few lines may have died out entirely. At present, we've been unable to locate a line of rabbits, snakes, or tigers. But then, it may be that the lines have just gone dormant. It's impossible to know."
Castillo shook his head in wonder. "Unbelievable."
"They're not the only shifters, either," he continued. "We've found eleven different cultures worldwide in which certain individuals have the ability to shift into animal forms. The dolphins in New Zealand—"
The dragon grumbled and Alexander smiled sheepishly. "You're right, darling. I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's get on the plane." He held up her dress, and she backed away from those touching her. With another burst of heat, the enormous dragon was replaced by a diminutive Chinese woman, and Alexander hurried to help her into her clothes again.
"Do you turn into an animal, too?" Castillo asked Alexander as Xiaodan slipped her feet back into her shoes.
"Me? No, I'm not a shifter. I'm just your everyday, run-of-the-mill half-vampire." He clapped Castillo on the shoulder as he passed him, heading for the airstairs. "Let's go, kids. Time's a-wasting."
Xiaodan kept step with him but the rest of them lagged behind, trying to adapt to this new information.
"You enjoy this way too much," Xiaodan said with a roll of her eyes.
"I know. I blame my father for my character deficiencies."
She snorted and headed for the room at the back of the private jet. "I'm going to put some underwear on."
"That's completely unnecessary," he called after her.
The others were entering the plane now, and Alexander invited them to take seats around the long, slim table that ran down the center of the forward cabin. He stood at the head, where a wall of display glass separated the cabin from the cockpit. Currently it was clear, and he tapped on the glass and gestured for the pilot to come back. She opened the door in the glass and poked her head out, giving them all a wave.
"Hi, guys! I'm Rosalie Cullen, and I'll be your pilot today."
"Rosalie is a full vampire," Alexander said. "Note the color of her eyes. We're going to talk about that in just a minute."
Rosalie widened her eyes, then batted her lashes, hamming up her part.
Castillo frowned. "You don't actually expect us to believe that there are vampires roaming around, do you?"
"Did you believe in shape-shifting dragons this morning?" he countered.
Castillo pressed his lips together in a hard line.
"Shifters are members of only one of three categories of beings in the Price Coalition. The second is vampire and the third is werewolf—not to be confused with shifters who change into wolves. By the end of the day, you'll have met at least a couple of each."
"What, no mummies?" Castillo asked with a small smile. "Creatures from the Black Lagoon?"
He smirked. "Not yet, but if Carlisle ever meets any, I'm sure he'll try to recruit them."
Nivens looked hesitant. "Do you . . . have fangs?"
Rosalie smiled and shook her head. "Just very sharp teeth."
"And you drink blood."
"As do I," Alexander said, "when the mood strikes. Unlike Rosalie, I have a constitution that allows me to eat other things as well. Full vampires can't digest anything but blood."
Rosalie stepped through the door just long enough to kiss Alexander on the cheek. "I'm going to get us in the air," she said, disappearing into the cockpit again.
Alexander swiped the display glass to increase its opacity, then turned back to the group. "We should get started as well. Tablets out, please."
They withdrew their handheld tablets from pockets and purses as Alexander plucked his own from his inside pocket. He loaded up the essential files and, with a flick of his finger, cast them to the other devices. He turned then and flicked the first two image clusters up onto the display glass so he would have a large visual aid.
"The files I've sent you have very limited information," he said. "The risk of hacking is real, and if information about us is leaked, we're likely to have a panic on our hands."
Nivens looked offended. "Our cyber-security is the best in the world."
"If humans can build it, humans can break it. Even the best systems have vulnerabilities."
She looked dissatisfied, but remained silent.
"Therefore," he continued, "I've only given you photographs and names of the members of the Price Coalition Head Council. You don't have to remember everyone, but should absolutely remember Tia and Benjamin." He pointed to them on the display glass. "Tia is the Chair and Benjamin is her mate. You're also going to want to know Minh, Prokopios, and Celena.
"The second file, here, contains names and photographs of the Cullen family. Yes," he smiled, "that's all one family. You'll recognized Rosalie, Xiaodan, and myself in the group. Most of my family aren't members of the Council, but they're highly influential and have helped shape the world we live in today. Again, you don't need to memorize all of them, but you need to know me, because I am your ambassador, and you need to know Carlisle Cullen."
Xiaodan reappeared then, still in her wrap dress but now wearing silk stockings and jewelry, with her hair bound up in a sleek french twist. She pushed a cart that contained flutes of mimosas and platters of finger food, and she started passing them around the table while Alexander gave his presentation.
"One thing that will make your day easier is if you can dissociate appearance with age," he told his audience. "With few notable exceptions, most of the people we're going to talk about can or must remain in physical stasis. Mr. President-Elect, you pointed out earlier that I don't look old enough to have been doing this for very long, but in fact, I've got a few years on you. I'm fifty-two."
He raised his eyebrows.
"Xiaodan is forty-four. Rosalie is a hundred and forty-one."
"Thank god," Nivens muttered.
Alexander shot her a questioning look.
"I'm more than happy to believe that this plane isn't being flown by a teenager."
He winked at her and jumped back into his spiel. "Most of the people we'll be discussing today have lived longer than a normal human life span. For vampires, life continues indefinitely unless interrupted by lethal force. For shape-shifters, as long as they're regularly changing form they can prevent aging and are resistant to injury and health problems. Werewolves age naturally, but slowly. The average uninterrupted life expectancy is probably somewhere between nine hundred and twelve hundred years, though it's been tough to get good data. The werewolves are a relatively new addition to the Coalition, and they're justifiably reluctant to share information with a race that once hunted them nearly to extinction."
Alexander spent the next couple of hours telling the president-elect and his new NSA director about the fall of the Volturi and the government that had been created to take its place. He gave them an in-depth description of each of the Council members, and included personal details about himself, like being allowed as a child to sit in on calls between Tia and Carlisle. His intensive study of government and economic philosophy had allowed him to contribute intelligently to the conversations as he grew up, and eventually he had worked with Tia to put together a program that enabled them to connect with world governments to solve shared problems.
He told them about how the Chinese shape-shifters had begun a concentrated effort to find not only their own sisters, but to locate shape-shifters throughout the world. They encouraged people with the shifting ability to send representatives to join the vampires' Council, though they ran into significant difficulties when they came across a clan of werewolves who held a deep-seated hatred toward vampires. The werewolves were willing to work with the shape-shifters, however, and years later allowed a representative to join the Council.
"This, by the way," Alexander said with a smirk, "is how the Coalition got its name. The Council came to visit our Alberta home once, and my Uncle Emmett looked around and said, 'It's like a horror movie marathon in here. Every single one of us has been played by Vincent Price.' "
Nivens, apparently a fan of the old classics, got a good laugh out of that.
"This is Prokopios, the werewolf," he said, pointing to a picture of a silver-haired man. "His mother is responsible for most, if not all, of the existing werewolves today. When the former vampire government waged war against them, she took a band of family and friends to Siberia and hid them effectively enough that they were never found. The clan has grown, but their numbers are still small. Female werewolves have difficulty carrying fetuses to term, and there isn't a lot of mingling with humans. The clan also tries hard to see that the strain is not spread to unwilling recipients through bites. They are what you might call a protected species. Their numbers are low enough that their continued survival requires conscious maintenance."
He moved on to address vampire feeding habits, and while Castillo had difficulty accepting the tens of thousands of human lives taken each year by vampires, a reminder of his voting record regarding military action soon silenced him. Alexander suspected he was embarrassed to be confronted with the death toll that he himself had directly influenced.
But for the most part, it was an easy meeting. Castillo took things better than Alexander had expected him to, and Nivens wasn't any more difficult than Oscar had been. As soon as she was able to accept the reality of the situation, she jumped in to a discussion of policy and responsibility.
They were just turning their attention to etiquette when Rosalie announced that they were approaching Denver, where they would stop to pick up two more passengers before continuing on to Forks.
Alexander frowned and opened the door to the cockpit, leaning inside. "Who are we picking up?"
"Oh, did someone finally pry them out of that cabin of theirs? I was starting to think they were never coming home."
She laughed. "They couldn't pass up a visit from you. You really ought to drop in more often."
"Is Kyra going to be there?"
"Yep. The whole family's coming, plus the Council. It's going to be a party."
"Maysun and Alistair?"
"Okay, not the whole family. But everyone else."
"Excellent." Alexander ducked back out and closed the door behind him. "Okay," he said. "Etiquette. Vampires are addressed both formally and informally by their given names. There are a handful of reasons for this, but first and foremost is that many of them simply don't have family names. That's a connection to their human lives, which most of them had to give up when they became vampires. Some, like my family, tend to use multiple aliases. Some have forgotten their names, and some simply feel no affiliation with them. Of course, there are exceptions. Carlisle, for example, was determined to hang onto his humanity after his change, and for him that included the continued use of his father's name. He has also dedicated hundreds of years to medicine, so he responds well to 'Dr. Cullen,' if you prefer a more formal construction.
"Another of our number who regards his family name highly is Luca Farrugia. He's among the oldest vampires I've known, born somewhere around twenty-five hundred years ago, and he has been something of a patron to his family ever since. Pietra, here," he pointed to her picture, "is a member of his family, and she won't have a problem with her surname being acknowledged. The shifters and werewolves, too, are perfectly content to use either family or given names, but they lean toward given names when on official business, as a matter of conformity. A good rule of thumb is to stick with the given name unless you're introduced to someone in a different way."
"Will they be addressing us by our first names, then?" Castillo asked.
"That's up to you. They'll use the name I give them when I make the introductions, so just tell me how you'd like to be known."
He looked at Beckett. "What did you use?"
"I used my title, but Logan and Oscar both went with first names."
"Do they care?" he asked Alexander. "Does it seem impersonal or . . . I don't know, more official if I ask them to use my title?"
"Not at all. They'll respect your right to be addressed the way you're comfortable."
He rubbed his forehead. "President-Elect is a little cumbersome. I think we'll just go with Nestor, but not at the White House. If you come for . . . whatever it is you come for, you should . . ."
"I should behave the way human politicians expect," he said with a smile. "Of course." He turned to Nivens for her decision.
"Marla is fine."
"Very good. Now, the first introductions I'll make will be to the Council, starting with Tia and Benjamin . . ."
He walked them through the evening until the plane landed in Denver and Rosalie stepped out to let on the new passengers. As soon as Bella saw Alexander, she darted over to him and wrapped him up in an overenthusiastic hug.
"My baby!" she squealed.
"Hey, Mom—" he started to say, but she had begun peppering his face with kisses and he rolled his eyes. He knew exactly what she was doing.
"My little boy!" she crowed. "Look at you in that fancy suit! You look so grown up!"
He had to hold back a snort. "Mom—"
"Oh, honey, your hair has gotten so long. Don't you think you should get it cut? You look so much nicer when it's short."
"And look how skinny you are! Aren't you eating? We need to get you home and get some food in you before you waste away to nothing!"
"Mother." He took her face in his hand and forced her to look at him, grinning. "You can't embarrass me. I'm too happy to see you."
She laughed gaily and pulled him in for another bone-crushing hug before releasing him and turning to Xiaodan. "It's so good to see you!"
Alexander turned his attention to the figure lingering in the doorway. "Edward," he said with a smile, and moved to hug him.
Edward hugged him back, long and hard, and then pulled away and smiled down at him.
"Look at you," he murmured.
Alexander smiled back until Edward's grin turned mischievous.
"So you really are done growing, huh? Five-eleven is the best you can do?"
"Hey! Leave me alone. I have short genes. Joham topped out at five-eight, and you've seen her." He jerked his thumb at Bella.
Edward laughed, clapping him on the back and moving them both back toward the table.
"Sorry to interrupt, everyone," he said, moving to a chair at the end. He and Bella looked excessively rustic in their jeans and winter coats next to the plane full of people in formalwear.
Alexander couldn't keep the glowing smile off his face as he made the introductions between his parents and the American dignitaries.
"You'll have to forgive us our enthusiasm," he said. "It's been several months since we've seen each other."
"Try a year," Bella said. "You haven't been home since last Christmas."
"You're one to talk. Have you even left that cabin of yours since Edward's birthday?"
Edward leaned into her and wrapped an arm around her shoulders. "Nope."
He waved them away, desperately hoping they weren't going to start talking about their sex life in order to tease him. "You two be quiet. We're still doing the etiquette section."
"Don't plug your nose around the shifters," Edward said. "Yes, they smell bad, but we try not to make a big deal about it."
Xiaodan wandered behind his chair and flicked him in the ear.
Alexander arched an eyebrow at him. "Do you want to do this?"
He pantomimed zipping his lips and folded his hands in his lap.
"We've talked briefly about the importance of mates to the Coalition, but it's worth mentioning again. You'll want to avoid insulting anyone's mate, or making jokes that disparage them. Nagging wife, oblivious husband, ball and chain . . . these don't go over very well."
"Don't flirt with someone else's mate either," Xiaodan added. "You might actually see people doing that—"
"Garrett," Edward muttered.
She nodded. "But it's a risky thing to do, and the ones who do it only get away with it because of a long history of friendship. You don't want to mess with couples in this group."
"Which is not to say you can't flirt with the single ones," Alexander teased. "We've never had two unattached dignitaries before, and after all, it is a party . . ." He waggled his eyebrows at them, and Castillo smirked. "Just make sure you're not putting the moves on someone who has a jealous lover with sharp teeth."
They ran through a few more etiquette points, and then Alexander flicked a picture of Joham up on the screen. Bella let out a string of curses, and he fixed her with an admonitory glare.
"Mother, we're in polite company. You want to tone down the language a little?"
"As soon as you get that useless sack of shit off the wall, sure."
He laughed under his breath and addressed Castillo and Nivens. "We're almost done, but there's one more thing we need to go over: personae non gratae."
"It's clear there are some personal feelings here," Nivens said, "but are we talking about this in a political sense? Are these people who are sanctioned in some way?"
"That's a fair question, and the answer is complicated. Joham is . . . I suppose you might say he's under official observation. He's caused a lot of harm to multiple people, so he's in somewhat poor standing with the Coalition, though he hasn't technically committed any crimes."
"Technically?" she pressed.
He let his eyes drift to his mother, holding her gaze while he gently explained her history. "When my mother was sixteen years old, Joham kidnaped and raped her." He looked back at Nivens. "He's my father."
She gave a bewildered shake of her head. "I'm sorry—that's not an official crime?"
"Under the Volturi regime, it wasn't. The only real laws then were related to keeping the secret of our existence. Certain patterns of etiquette arose, but there was no legal punishment for violence that stayed off the human radar. Vampires pretty much policed themselves—in an unruly, Wild West sort of way.
"That changed when the Volturi fell and the new government was put in place. Murder of vampires was made illegal, as was inhumane treatment of humans. But I'm sure you understand why he couldn't be punished for what he had done before the laws were put in place."
She nodded slowly, but looked displeased.
"With Joham, though, it was a pattern of behavior. I have a handful of biological siblings from his various assignations. My father had grand ideas about raising up a super race of half vampires—for purposes not entirely clear, though I'm sure there was some vague intention of world domination." He allowed a small smile. "My father is an intelligent and determined man—"
"—but foreplanning isn't one of his strengths."
Bella bared her teeth. "Intelligent and determined? Darling boy, I will take you over my knee."
"Relax, Mother," he said impatiently. "I'm not complimenting him, I'm pointing out the things that make him dangerous." He addressed Nivens again. "He wasn't at all happy about the new laws, but Carlisle gave him the chance to defend his actions and he could offer no legitimate reasons why he should be allowed to continue. So restrictions were placed on vampire reproduction and Joham was sent away. The Council keeps tabs on him, though, because he's known to be tenacious.
"So, to answer your question . . . in Joham's case, his questionable standing is probably more personal than legal. But with Aro, it's definitely legal." He cast Aro's picture onto the glass, replacing Joham's.
"As head of the Volturi, Aro has made a lot of enemies in his time. But his first official strike occurred just before the new regime was fully organized. Carlisle had managed to talk everyone into placing restrictions on violent crimes, and it was looking like he and his family were going to be asked to take the place of the Volturi. Aro imagined he still had a shot at regaining power and didn't appreciate the competition from Carlisle, so he tried to kill Esme in an effort to neutralize him."
Both Castillo and Nivens blinked in surprise.
"There was no formal government at the time, but there were laws that had been agreed upon, so Aro had committed a real crime. And because Carlisle was trying to make a case against capital punishment at the time, the consequence decided on was the loss of his hands." Alexander gestured to the picture. "As you can see, he's had some prosthetics made, but they have limited function and will never come anywhere close to the strength or agility of his own."
Bella and Edward exchanged looks. They knew exactly what he was leaving out, but the Council had decided that their little extra abilities didn't need to be shared with humans just now, so the real repercussions of the loss of Aro's hands had to remain unexplained.
"A while back he managed to worm his way into North Korea and encourage the development of their nuclear program," he continued. "That was his second strike. For that, he lost his teeth. If there's a third, he'll forfeit his life. But because he has made attempts at gaining access to weapons of mass destruction, all countries with nuclear capabilities are asked to keep a member of the Price Coalition on staff."
Castillo's eyes widened and he stared at Beckett. "You have one of them working at the White House?"
"Oh, sure. Tanya's wonderful. She's willing to stay on, if you want to keep her, and she gets my enthusiastic endorsement."
"She's got a thing for human men, though," Edward said, "so watch your back."
"She'll be perfectly professional," Alexander said with a sharp look at Edward. "And she does enjoy the position, so it's not a bad option. But really, nearly anyone you meet tonight is an acceptable choice, if you can convince them to take up the post. Just don't ask Tia, Benjamin, Minh, Prokopios, or Celena. And Carlisle would definitely say no."
"Which one was Minh again?" Castillo asked, consulting his tablet.
"My grandmother." Xiaodan rose, collecting the dishes that had been set aside. "She's the senior shape-shifter on the Council."
"That's right. So, if she's your grandmother . . ."
"She's a dragon too," she said with a smile.
"How many of . . . you . . . will be there?"
"Grandmother and I are the only dragons coming today, but there will be plenty of shifters. You ought to see how big those Quileute wolves are." She winked at him.
"And this is safe?"
Oscar passed the last of the dishes to Xiaodan. "Long as you don't flirt with anybody's wife."
Xiaodan giggled as she steered the cart away from the table.
"There's really nothing to worry about," Alexander assured him. "You'll be there as honored guests, and Carlisle is a very good host. We won't let you get yourselves into too much trouble."
"Is that the same airstrip we flew into last time?" President Beckett asked, peering out the window nearest her.
"It looks nice, doesn't it? We've done a little work out there."
"You put in new lights."
"Some of the shifters don't have great night vision. We figured we ought to make it usable for everyone."
Xiaodan reappeared and settled into a seat just as the plane started to descend. He reviewed a few of the highlights in their last minutes, reminding Castillo and Nivens who the key figures were and brushing over the points of etiquette again. Once on the ground, though, he tapped the power button and slid the tablet back into his inside pocket.
"That's it. The hard work is over. Let's go have some fun."
The whole crowd disembarked and loaded into a pair of SUVs waiting at the hangar. Xiaodan took the wheel of one, and Alexander herded the visiting dignitaries inside, finally climbing in beside his wife. Rosalie took the lead in the other car, and Xiaodan fell in behind her.
"It sure is pretty here with all the snow," Logan murmured, gazing out at the scenery.
"It's my favorite time of year," Alexander agreed.
"Mine too," Bella said from the other car. "You should have seen it up at the cabin—"
"Mom!" Alexander said, clamping his hands over his ears. He glared at her through the rear window of her SUV. "I do not want to hear about what you two were doing at that cabin."
"Really good hearing," Xiaodan explained to the confused-looking dignitaries.
"If you would just listen," Bella continued from the other car, "you might learn something—"
"Stop! That's not even right."
Bella pulled a face at him through the rear window, and he couldn't help but laugh.
It wasn't long before they were turning onto the drive that led to the cluster of houses that the Cullens kept outside of Forks. They would be crossing a bridge and heading beyond the houses to a large lodge tucked deep into the trees. But before they even reached the bridge, Xioadan nudged Alexander and pointed.
"How come everyone's still at the old house?"
Alexander looked, taking in the cluster of cars parked at the house that had been abandoned shortly after he had come to live there.
"Maybe they walked up to the lodge?"
"In the snow and the mud? Alice would have their heads if they showed up in dirty clothes."
Edward let out a loud laugh from the car in front of them. "Mei Zhen went into labor!"
Xioadan's eyes lit up. "Really! Oh! We have to take a detour!"
Rosalie was already turning off to park in front of the house, and Xiaodan followed.
"What's going on?" President Beckett asked.
"Uh . . . okay, so one of the Quileute wolves is married to one of the Chinese rats, and they're having a baby. Like, right now."
"It's their first girl," Xiaodan explained. "Which is important because the Quileutes pass the shifting through the male line, but we Chinese pass it through the female line. So all three of their boys can shift into wolves, but this will be the first one to go rat."
"Mei Zhen's a member of the only active rat line that we know of," Alexander said, opening the door as Xiaodan turned off the car. "So this is sort of a preservation of heritage, too. It's a big deal for us."
"So . . . we're going in there?" Castillo asked. "We're not intruding?"
"They're upstairs in a bedroom," Edward said, hopping out of the other truck. "Everyone else is gathered downstairs."
Alexander sighed. "So much for protocol. I guess we'll just take it as it comes. Come on." He beckoned for them to follow and headed for the house.
"Hey, old man!" Edward called up the stairs as he entered. "You guys need any help up there?"
Carlisle didn't raise his voice, but the sound drifted down to them easily enough. "That's all right. Embry and I have it well in hand."
"Okay." He clapped his hands together and looked around and the family and friends mingling around in the living room. All of the extensive Cullen family were present except for Alice, as well as the Denalis, minus Tanya. There were also at least two dozen Quileutes scattered around the room. "We ought to get this party started right here. I'm going to call up to Alice and have her bring us some food."
"Yes! Please tell me she made those little things with the chevre and pine nuts," Alexander said.
"How would I know? I haven't been around." He raised his phone to his ear. "Alice, get your adorable self down here and bring food. Mei Zhen's having her baby."
There was a loud squeal on the other end of the line before it abruptly cut off.
Alexander laughed. "She ought to be here soon, but for now, let me start the introductions. He glanced around. "The Council isn't here?"
"They went out to buy baby gifts," Charlie said, making his way through the busy living room toward them. He held his arms open and Alexander smiled, letting himself be enveloped in a hug.
"Hey, Grandpa Charlie. It's great to see you."
"You too, kid." He released him and fished in the pocket of his white dinner jacket, drawing out a little gold-wrapped candy.
Alexander snickered and took it, tucking it into the pocket of his vest. "You've done your familial duty. Here, come meet our president-elect."
Charlie greeted Castillo and Nivens, and shook hands with the people he'd met before.
Castillo cleared his throat, looking uncomfortable. "You'll tell me if I'm being rude? But I have to ask . . ."
"Shoot," Charlie said, shoving his hands into his trouser pockets.
"Everyone I've met so far—all of the . . . the vampires, anyway—they look so young. But you . . . well, I can tell by your eyes that you're a vampire, right?"
"Aren't all vampires young?" Charlie asked with a soft laugh. "Nah. I mean, you have a point. A lot of these folks look like they'd have to have a fake ID to get into a bar."
"Why do you look—uh, different?"
"I was older when I got bitten. They offered before, but I wasn't going to do any of this nonsense. I was happy living my life and then letting it go."
"I retired." He grimaced. "It took me about a week to decide that sitting around waiting to die wasn't going to work out for me."
"But normally people get bitten whenthey're young?"
"Yeah, I guess so. I mean, there are plenty of exceptions. Over there, that's Mike. He wasn't going to change any time soon either, but then he went out rock climbing when he was, what, forty-something?"
"He took a bad fall, and it was either lose his legs or change. So he went for it."
"I think Carlisle has a soft spot for the younger ones," Bella said, moving up beside her father and giving him a squeeze. "He feels bad for them if they haven't had a chance to live their lives. That's probably why most of our family looks so young."
"You'll see more of a mix when the Council gets back," Alexander promised.
There was a tap on his shoulder, and before he could even look back, Kyra's scent hit him. He spun around and grabbed her, crushing her to his chest in a hard hug.
"Kyra!" he cried, giving her a hard shake from side to side before dropping her back onto her high-heeled shoes. "Aw, you look so stylish. Did you finally learn to dress yourself?"
She slugged him in the shoulder. "Shut up."
He wrapped an arm around her and pulled her against his side, swinging her around to meet Castillo and Nivens.
"This is Kyra," he said, grinning down at her. "Biologically, she's my niece. If you follow adoptive lines, she's my cousin. But we grew up together, so she's really more like my sister."
Kyra exchanged greetings with them before Alexander claimed her attention again.
"You're looking more pale and sickly than usual. Don't your handlers ever let you go outside?"
She rolled her eyes. "You're just jealous because I actually use my brain when I work."
"Jealous? I get to talk about myself all the time. How is that not better than any other job?"
"Hey," Edward interrupted, leaning toward Kyra. "What's going on?"
"Nothing!" She clapped her hands over her eyes as though that could somehow protect her from him. "Leave me alone! Nothing's happening! Hydrogen, helium, lithium, beryllium, boron, carbon—"
"Okay, okay, stop reciting elements. I won't ask what it is you're trying so hard to keep secret."
"Nothing!" she yelped again and darted away from him.
Edward quirked an eyebrow at Bella, and she shrugged.
"Come on, let's go see if we can find something else to wear. We're underdressed."
Alexander made a few more introductions before a catering truck pulled up outside and Alice breezed into the house holding trays of hors d'oevres. She placed them around the room, then went back to the truck and emerged again with a carafe of Irish coffee that she began dispensing into crystal mugs for all the non-vampires.
Food and drink always helped humans relax, and both Castillo and Nivens seemed grateful to have something to do with their hands. They nibbled food and sipped coffee while they got to know some of the world's most influential vampires and shape-shifters.
At regular intervals, Embry appeared at the top of the stairs to keep them apprised of Mei Zhen's progress. Alice took one look at the flimsy cloth gown and rubber gloves that had been thrown on over his Italian suit and groaned. No one else was at all concerned about his clothes, however, and her complaint went unacknowledged.
About a half an hour after Alexander had arrived, a parade of motorcycles sped up to the house and parked in orderly rows. A large SUV followed, and some of the leather-clad riders headed toward it, while others made a beeline for the house. The door burst open and Tia whipped off her helmet, striding across the room to where Alexander and their newest guests chatted with Garrett and Irina.
"Sweetie, I'm so sorry," she said. "We meant to be back before you got here, but there was weather and traffic . . ." She gave a dismissive wave of her hand and pulled him close, planting a kiss on his cheek. "Introduce me to our new friends so I can apologize properly."
"With pleasure. Tia, Benjamin," he nodded to the man who hurried up behind Tia, "this is our President-Elect, Nestor, and his national security director, Marla."
"It's an honor to meet you," she said, "though I'm not acting like it, am I? Forgive my tardiness and my clothes. We're just so excited about this baby—did Alexander explain why?—and we couldn't let the occasion pass without gifts."
Behind her, other council members were carting in brightly-wrapped packages and pretty gift bags, stacking them all on the dining room table. Two of them began hanging a string of letters, the last word clearly cobbled together from multiple strands, that now spelled out: "IT'S A RAT!"
"Not to worry," Castillo said. "I'm happy to be flexible for something like this."
"You're a darling." She gave his cheek an affectionate pat. "If you'll excuse us for two shakes of a werewolf's tail, we'll all run up and change into something that will make Alice stop scowling at us. And then you and I really have to chat about the sustainability of your energy policies. Be right back." She breezed up the stairs with the rest of the Council in her wake, and Alexander grinned after them.
"Brace yourself. She's not going to go easy on you."
"That's Tanya," President Beckett told Castillo, pointing to the woman trailing behind the others, moving at a deliberately human pace.
At the mention of her name, she turned and waved, but continued up the stairs.
Castillo gaped at her. "Wow."
"Yep. You should see how thorough and succinct her briefs are. She's got a knack for zeroing in on the key points and explaining them as economically as possible."
"I'll consider her," he said, trying to sound steady, but Alexander could tell that he, like many before him, had been caught off-guard by Tanya's intensely attractive presence.
Tia was back again in less than a minute, dressed in Givenchy and leading an aging Chinese woman, a stocky, sharp-featured man who looked middle-aged, and a dark-haired woman who seemed a few years older than the man.
"Thanks for your patience," she said to Castillo and Nivens. "This is Minh, the senior shape-shifter delegate."
They shook hands and exchanged greetings.
"And this is Prokopios and his wife Celena, our werewolf representatives."
They said their hellos, and then Tia jumped without preamble into an argument against heavy reliance on fossil fuels. Castillo challenged a few of her points, but to his credit he really seemed to be listening to her ideas. And he was quick to acknowledge that she had a vested interest in the health of the planet.
Nivens, for her part, struck up a conversation with Jasper and Celena about intelligence-gathering. They passed another hour before Carlisle's quiet instructions to Mei Zhen brought conversation to a halt.
"She's ready," Alexander explained to those without enhanced hearing. "The baby should be coming soon."
While the vampires followed the progress of the events upstairs, the humans drifted together in the living room. Castillo gave his impressions so far and listened as Oscar described his previous encounters with the Coalition. Alexander lingered near them in case he was needed, but gave them enough space that they felt like they had a measure of privacy.
It wasn't long before a full-throated squawk rang out from upstairs, and the whole room erupted into cheers. The baby cried harder, and Embry's voice drifted down from above.
"Hey, you guys wanna cool it down there? You're scaring my daughter."
Laughter followed, but the volume was restrained.
There was a flurry of activity upstairs, and several minutes later, Embry appeared at the top of the stairs again, flanked by Carlisle and Esme and cradling a little blanketed bundle in his arms. Two tall, broad-shouldered men and one adolescent loped up the stairs to crowd around them, peering down at the baby.
"Those are her brothers," Alexander explained to his guests.
"Her face is all scrunched!" the youngest boy called out. "She looks a little like a rat already."
One of his brothers shoved him.
"You boys get out of the way," Embry laughed, pushing past them and descending halfway down the stairs. He propped the baby up against his shoulder so everyone could see her, looking as proud as a papa ever had.
"Everyone, meet my daughter Xi You."
A round of applause broke out, and the baby let out a wail of protest.
"Jeez, you guys, are you trying to traumatize her?" Embry chided in mock severity. He tucked her against his chest and bounced her lightly, murmuring soothing words.
Carlisle chuckled and he and Esme moved down the stairs. "Why don't you all go spend some time with Mei Zhen? You can meet us out at the lodge when she's ready to rest. Alice, sweetheart, go ahead and dismiss the caterers."
They all moved to follow his directions, and Carlisle and Esme descended the stairs to where the human guests waited. Oddly, Alexander noticed, they were both wearing brown contact lenses. They'd never done that for a political visit before, and he wasn't quite sure why they would do it now. They must have known Alexander would have briefed their visitors on their history and feeding habits.
Carlisle greeted President Beckett with enthusiastic kisses to each cheek, then dispensed hugs and pats on the back to Logan and Oscar. Once his old friends had been welcomed, he turned to Castillo and greeted him without waiting for Alexander to make the introductions.
"We've thoroughly botched things so far, but I think we can still save the afternoon. It's an honor to meet you. I'm Carlisle, and this is my wife Esme. How was your flight?"
"Enlightening," Castillo said, and Nivens added, "Disturbingly so."
"It's horrible, isn't it?" he asked her with a grimace. "Dumping all of that information on you at once. Alexander presents it well, but I'm not sure any amount of finesse can really make it easier to take."
She seemed surprised by his sympathy, and tried to shrug it off. "It can't be any harder than finding out that vampires exist because you've suddenly become one."
Esme laughed. "A hard pill to swallow, for sure. Have you had something to eat?" When they nodded, she continued, "Good. We've got a meal prepared up at the lodge, but we have to wait until the caterers clear out."
"Should be just a few minutes," Carlisle added. He continued to make small talk in that charming, engaging way of his, and by the time they heard the catering trucks roll past the house, Castillo and Nivens were as enamored of him as everyone else.
He offered his arm to Nivens and jerked his head toward the door. "May I take you up to the banquet?"
When she agreed, Esme took Castillo's arm, already maneuvering him after them. "As my husband is clearly already spoken for, perhaps you'd let me claim you as my escort?"
Alexander and Xiaodan looked after Beckett and her staff, and with minimal shuffling they were all loading into cars and SUVs and taking their places in a caravan headed across the river. Alexander found himself seated next to Fred, and he elbowed him gently in the ribs.
"Didn't notice you, there."
Fred smirked and nodded a greeting to the dignitaries, but said nothing—which was about what Alexander expected from him. Fred was interesting and personable one-on-one, but he was as extreme an introvert as Alexander had ever met. Socializing wasn't exactly his specialty.
The SUV skidded a little, and Oscar clutched the shoulder strap of his seatbelt. "Is this thing going to make it up the hill?"
"If not, we'll hop out and ride Xiaodan up," Alexander said with a cheerful grin.
Oscar shuddered. "I suppose there are benefits to having a dragon around."
They rounded a bend and the enormous stone-and-timber lodge came into view. It was three stories tall, with steeply gabled roofs and a rounded banquet hall sporting the large glass windows that Esme favored. Outside the atrium, several ice sculptures had been placed where they could be viewed through the windows, and inside the tables were laid with white silk. Profuse arrangements of red flowers added color to the room, and elaborate place settings glittered beneath elegant crystal chandeliers.
"I need the name of your event planner," Beckett murmured.
Alexander smiled. "That's all Alice. And you can't have her; she's spoken for."
The parking lot had been cleared and salted, and they made their way into the building without difficulty. Alexander led his party to the long head table, where place cards directed their seating. Carlisle and Esme were in the center, with Castillo, Nivens, Xiaodan, and Alexander on one side, and Beckett, Logan, and Oscar on the other. A place had been laid for Oscar's wife, but the setting had been removed and replaced with a small white gift box tied with red ribbon. He eyed it curiously and glanced at Alexander.
"I'm sure Alice wanted to acknowledge her, even though she couldn't make it," Alexander said.
"Did you phone ahead and tell her Vivian wasn't coming?"
"I did," Xiaodan lied.
The explanation satisfied him, and they all took their seats. It was another couple of minutes before everyone had found their places at the round tables laid out for everyone else, but once the crowd was settled, Rosalie, Emmett, Kyra, and Jasper started delivering plates of food to those who would be eating.
Bella stood to help them, but Carlisle murmured her name and gave her a little shake of his head.
"They've got this," he said quietly.
She looked confused, but sat down again.
"Carlisle, what's going on?" Edward asked.
He only smiled.
"Are you ever going to tell me?"
"Patience, Edward. You'll find out when everyone else does."
Alice brought the food to the head table, hurriedly laying plates out in front of each person.
"Hey, Alice," Alexander said, catching her arm as she started to move away. "Did you make those goat cheese pine nut things?"
She gave him a perplexed look. "The ones we had when President Beckett first came?"
The furrows in her brow deepened. "Alexander, do you have any idea how many foods there are in the world? And how many different ways there are to prepare them? Why would I ever make anything twice?" She extracted her arm from his grasp and headed back to the kitchen.
"Because it's delicious?" he called after her. He shook his head, turning back to his tablemates. "That woman does not understand food."
He expected the makeshift wait staff to take their seats once the food had been delivered. To his surprise, though, they disappeared into the kitchen and didn't come out again.
"Are they coming back?" he asked Carlisle, reluctant to begin eating without everyone settled.
"Soon. Please, enjoy your meal. I think they'll need just a few minutes."
Alexander couldn't imagine what they could possibly need a few minutes for, but he cut himself a tender piece of the dressed duck on the table in front of him and explored the dish that Alice and the caterers had put together.
"She understands food well enough for me," Castillo said, having tasted the duck.
Alexander turned his attention to dinner and conversation, but after a couple of minutes the kitchen doors opened again. Several vampires had already jumped to their feet before the scent of blood reached Alexander, but it drove him out of his chair as well. Beside him, Xioadan spun out of her seat, and with a burst of heat and the sound of tearing fabric, she phased. She let out a warning snarl, hovering over the humans at the table, as Alice and her wait staff calmly strolled out of the kitchen with trays of wine glasses filled with blood.
Alexander's head whipped around to stare at Carlisle, who was watching the proceedings calmly.
"Right your chairs, please, my friends," he said. "Take your seats."
Exposing vampires to blood in the presence of humans was inexcusably reckless, and Alexander rounded on Carlisle. "What are you doing?"
"Sit, please," he said. "As they're doing."
Alexander looked around at the vampires who were, incomprehensibly, actually sitting back down. No one lunged for the glasses of blood. No one went after the fresher sources. They all looked wary, but they sat where they were, eyeing the glasses of—it had to be blood—that Alexanders aunts and uncles were passing around.
It took them multiple trips. They placed three glasses in front of each blood drinker, including the half-vampires, and a few people were bold enough to lean forward and sniff the contents. Alexander did the same. They each smelled a little different, but the distinct commonality couldn't be denied. He couldn't understand why the delicious scents from the glasses weren't sending half the room into a frenzy.
Once the glasses were delivered and everyone was seated, Carlisle asked calmly, "Alexander, what do you smell?"
He sniffed again. "Human."
"Are you sure?"
He stared at the glasses, and then at all his friends. "No?"
Carlisle smiled. "Tia, what do you think? Does it smell appetizing?"
"How do you feel?"
She looked at the glasses in front of her, and then back up at Carlisle. "Impatient. What is this?"
"Friends, what you have in front of you is synthetic blood."
Alexander dropped his fork.
"It consists primarily of cloned human blood cells, with supplementary materials from various animals that have been genetically engineered to mimic human cells. And, of course, some chemical preservatives. The thrombocytes have been left out, which takes care of the clotting problem and also seems to account for why the finished product in front of you doesn't make you lose your head."
Edward raised his eyes to Carlisle's. "Thrombocytes are what send us into a feeding frenzy?"
He gaped at him. "How long have you been working on this?"
"I haven't. Kyra, do you want to tell everyone about your project?"
Kyra stood, shooting a hesitant glance toward Bella, then studiously avoiding her gaze.
"Uh. Well. A few months ago, my, um . . . my grandfather wrote and told me about a project he was working on.
The scraping sound of Bella's chair pushing back seemed ominously loud.
Kyra licked her lips, still not looking at Bella. "He, um. He was experimenting with the different properties of blood, and he wanted me to come help him set up some blind studies.
"Tell me," Bella growled, "that you're not actually talking about Joham."
Her hands curled into fists and she squeezed her eyes shut. "I'm talking about Joham."
"And . . . you told him to take his experiments and shove them up his ass. Right?"
She shook her head.
"Bella, back off," Emmett said.
"Back off?" She shoved to her feet. "Are you kidding me? You sent your daughter off to work with that fucking piece of shit?"
"What are we, stupid?" Rosalie snapped. "Of course we didn't send her off. We went with her."
"TO WORK WITH JOHAM?"
"Bella, sit down," Carlisle said quietly.
She rounded on him. "You don't get to tell me to sit down, Carlisle. Not this time. You said he wouldn't be welcome here again—"
"He wasn't. And he won't be. It was Kyra's choice to accept his invitation."
Kyra turned a pleading look on Bella. "I'm not saying he's a good guy. He's—he's really, really creepy, actually. But he was doing compelling work and I didn't think we should ignore it just because he was the one doing it."
"How could you—"
"Bella, you're starting to piss me off," Rosalie said. "She's a scientist. She wanted to do the project. That doesn't have anything to do with you."
"You let her be with him! Do you really think that was a healthy experience?"
Rosalie's eyes narrowed. "Question my parenting again and I will rip that pretty hair right out of your head."
"Okay, that's enough." Edward jumped up and pulled Bella back down with him, tugging her onto his lap. "It's done, Bella. She's back, she's fine, and we're moving on."
"We did good work," Kyra said, stiffening her spine. She pointed to the glasses on the table. "We did that."
"Which you should all taste before it gets cold," Carlisle said. "If you'd like, of course." He glanced at Bella. "I understand a reluctance to drink, especially given the source."
"How do you know he hasn't put something toxic in there?" Bella demanded.
Carlisle smiled sadly. "Esme and I have been drinking it for four months."
Her jaw dropped. "Are you crazy? He hates you!"
"I couldn't have someone else testing it, could I? And Esme refused to let me take the risk unless she did as well."
"We were watching them," Jasper said. "Alice and me. If we'd seen evidence of poisoning, we'd have known the source. You think Joham was willing to give up his life for the sake of revenge?"
"This is why you sent us off to Colorado," Edward said, turning a suspicious look on Carlisle. "Birthday present, my ass. You gave us that cabin to get us out of here."
One corner of his mouth quirked up.
"I'm not touching it," Bella said, crossing her arms over her chest.
"That's all right," Carlisle murmured, his voice soft and soothing. "You probably don't need it. After all, you've always had remarkably good control. But Bella, think about what this could mean for us. How many vampires do you know of that have been willing or able to maintain an animal diet?"
She pressed her lips together.
"Decades ago, we took a moment to consider what it would be like if vampires didn't have to prey on humans. If we could come forward as friends and neighbors, and not as killers. This could be the key that opens that door."
She shook her head, her lip quivering. "Not this way. Not from him."
"It isn't right," Carlisle agreed. "And frankly, I wouldn't trust him to maintain production of an uncontaminated product. So I bought him out."
Her brow furrowed.
"I paid him enough money that he could build a lab and start work on other things. He was rambling something about marine animals that I hadn't the patience to attend, but he has relinquished all control over this operation to Kyra. She made the product in front of you now."
Bella softened and eyed the glasses in front of her. "It does smell really good."
"It is really good," Kyra said, encouraged. "I only have a small set of blood cells to work from, so there's not a lot of variety in those flavors, but I've been tweaking the taste with the kinds of animal blood I'm adding in. I call the one on the left Predator, the middle one is Amazon, and the last is Raptor."
Alexander picked up the Raptor, and everyone's eyes turned to him at the movement. He raised it to his nose, sniffed, and then sipped from the glass. "Damn," he breathed, conscious of the scrutiny he was under. "I haven't tasted anything like that in a long time."
Kyra smiled tentatively. "You like it?"
"It's amazing. Mom." He raised expectant eyebrows at her.
"Ugh. Fine." She snatched up a glass and sipped. "Ohhh . . . holy mother . . . I'd almost forgotten what that tasted like."
Bella's approval seemed to give everyone permission, and they started sipping at their glasses and comparing flavors. A buzz of conversation rose up around them, and behind Alexander, Xiaodan settled down onto the floor. She looked more relaxed, but Alexander could tell by the twitch of her tail that she was still keeping a close watch on the proceedings.
Bella stood up and moved to Kyra, who was still standing beside her chair. Rosalie took a deliberate step toward them, but Bella just made a face at her and pulled Kyra into a hug. They embraced for several long seconds, then Bella pushed her back, holding her at arm's length.
"I hate him so much," she said flatly.
Kyra nodded, her eyes welling up. "Me too. He's awful."
"But I love you so much more. And I'm sorry if I took my feelings for him out on you."
Kyra threw her arms around her again.
"This is really amazing," Bella murmured, rocking her from side to side. "I can't believe what you've done."
Castillo caught Alexander's eye. "This is big, isn't it?"
"I think so. Carlisle, is this really what I think it is?"
He shook his head. "I don't know. Not yet. We're trying to bring down the cost of production, and meanwhile I have no idea how to manage distribution. We're looking at worldwide temperature-controlled transportation and storage of a product that has a shelf life of about six weeks. And do we sell it for legal currency? Would that encourage vampires to participate in their local economies, or would they simply steal what money they wanted? And if we don't sell it, do we give it away? Can we get production costs low enough that I can sustain that kind of expense? There are a lot of logistical questions that are still unanswered, but think of the potential." He smiled, his eyes widening in wonder. "I drink a six-ounce bottle, twice a day. I don't have to plan my residences around access to wildlife anymore. If we went public, I could carry my lunch to work with me, or take meals with my friends. I could go out for a drink after work. This could normalize our lives."
Conversation died down as people listened to his conjectures.
"It's more satisfying than animal blood," Esme said, "Not to mention more pleasant to the palate. And I find I have an easier time being around exposed natural blood since I've been drinking it."
"My focus may have slipped by a small margin," Carlisle admitted. "My reflexes are essentially the same so far."
"Oh," Esme said, "and there is this one interesting little side effect." She glanced around to make sure that she had the attention of the room before reaching up to take the brown contact lense out of her eye. She blinked a couple of times, then opened her eye wide so everyone could see.
Her eye was brown. The lens, in fact, was colorless. What Alexander had taken to be a brown contact lense had simply been a clear lense over the top of her own eyes.
"Holy shit," Edward breathed.
Esme smirked. "Carlisle, if we put out a swear jar we could probably fund the production without straining ourselves."
He chuckled, removing his own lenses.
"Wait," Edward said. "Does the blood give you brown eyes, or does it give you back the eye color you had as a human?"
Carlisle and Esme exchanged glances and shrugged. "We both had brown eyes as humans, so we really don't know. It would help if we had, say, a formerly green-eyed vampire to experiment on."
Edward made a show of draining one of his glasses. "I'm in."
All around them, vampires were sipping their glasses of blood while humans and shape-shifters consumed their food. Alexander split his appetite between the two, having a little of each to round out his meal. Then, when dinner was out of the way and everyone was still chattering about the new breakthrough in their diet, a group of shifters broke away and headed over to the piano and string ensemble set up near the kitchen. They started playing a lively piece, and Carlisle stood, offering his hand to President Beckett.
"My dear friend, would you honor me with a dance?"
Several of Alexander's friends and family followed his lead, asking their visitors to join them on the dance floor.
"Xiaodan," Sam called out to her, "why don't you run back home and get a change of clothes? We'll keep an eye on things here."
She let out a little rumble of acknowledgment and carefully made her way around the tables to the kitchen doors. Alexander watched as she headed toward the service entrance, but his attention was claimed when he heard his mother sigh.
"You never call," she said in a self-pitying tone. "You never write. The least you could do is dance with your mother."
He snorted, heading in her direction. "I write you at least once a week. And I'd call, too, if you were ever in range of a cell tower." He grabbed her hand and tugged her out onto the dance floor, twirling her into position.
"But you never visit," she said with a pout.
"I'm here now, aren't I?"
"And you're leaving again tonight."
"Uh . . . yeah."
"So when are you coming back for a proper visit?"
"Hm. Good question. We've got Bilderberg in Belgium next week, and after that we should really check in on India and Pakistan. But if that's going smoothly, maybe we can come home for a couple of weeks afterward."
She raised a skeptical eyebrow. "Your visit is dependant on smooth relations between India and Pakistan?"
"Hey, they're making some real progress."
"Right. But, really, don't let your schedule get too busy for your family. I still need you more than anyone else does."
"You're so clingy," he complained, poking her playfully in the stomach.
She giggled and batted his hand away.
"Okay, I promise. If we can't get back after India and Pakistan, we'll definitely stop in for a week before Xiaodan's thing in Cape Town."
"That's what I like to hear!"
He spun her, dipped her, and pulled her back to him again. "What do you think of this synthetic blood thing? Is it everything Carlisle hopes it will be?"
"Oh, I don't know." She was trying to sound breezy, but Alexander could detect a hint of resignation in her voice. "If he can figure out the whole distribution thing—"
"You know he's going to."
"Okay, when he figures out distribution, there's still the Council to consider. Maybe they won't want vampires going public. Maybe vampires themselves won't want to. Everyone seems pretty comfortable the way things are."
"Maybe, but it's hard to stop the march of progress. If the possibility is there . . ."
She nodded slowly. "And after all, we've kind of laid the groundwork. The Council is already recognized by most world States. That would be important if we went public."
"Really? You don't think the Council would be dissolved and we'd just be subject to our respective nations' laws?"
"Impossible. Law and order is necessarily different for vampires and humans."
"So Tia gets to keep her job, but maybe I'm out of one."
She shook her head. "You're the intercessor between humans and vampires. We'll need you more than ever."
"Maybe. Assuming, of course that anything actually happens."
She watched Carlisle for a moment, her expression thoughtful. "No, I think you're right about this. I think it's the beginning of something. I'm just not sure whether to be excited or afraid."
Edward danced over to them, abandoning his partner for just a moment so he could wrap his family up in his arms.
"Whatever happens, we're going to see it through together," he said.
Bella smiled as he released them and returned to his partner. She drew in a deep breath and smiled, turning back to Alexander.
"I suddenly feel very optimistic," she told him.
Alexander smiled as Xiaodan re-entered through the kitchen, dressed in an embroidered red qipao. "I mean, what's the worst that could happen? We have dragons on our side."
Bella followed his line of sight and let out a low whistle.
"Your wife looks hot. You'd better go dance with her."
"What, and abandon my poor, longsuffering mother?"
She grinned, dancing them toward Xiaodan and spinning them together. "Your poor, longsuffering mother will be satisfied if you can keep India and Pakistan in line."
"So, no pressure, right?" Xiaodan smiled.
Alexander twirled her away and leaned in to nip lightly at her ear. "Honey, you look good enough to eat."
"Oh, dear. My husband has developed a taste for blood."
He laughed softly, nuzzling her neck where it met the high collar of her dress. "Maybe we should slip away and make use of one of those guest rooms upstairs."
"We might have company if we do." She inclined her head toward Charlie, who was dancing closer to Nivens than was strictly necessary.
He grinned. "You know, it's a lot easier to make allies when they're single. How do you suppose Nestor's making out?"
They both scanned the room until they found him sitting at a table, leaning close to Tanya. It looked like a cozy situation, until Alexander zeroed in on the conversation. It sounded more like a job interview than a social call.
"Oh, no," he said. "Someone get that man a glass of wine, stat."
Xiaodan gave a dismissive wave of her hand. "Oh, let him work. He was anxious about having a vampire in the White House. Hopefully Tanya can put him at ease."
"I know some more interesting ways to put an attractive single man at ease."
"They might have to work together after today. One night of ease may not be worth four years of awkwardness."
Tanya's hand slid to Castillo's knee, and he stumbled over the question he was asking.
Alexander snorted. "Or maybe it is."
"That woman ought to give master classes."
"As though you needed help in the art of seduction." He pulled Xiaodan closer, running a hand up the curve of her waist. "This dress is its own master class."
She laid her head against his chest. "Things might be heading in a hectic direction, what with this synthetic blood business."
"Not for a while. We have some time before Carlisle figures out all the details."
"You know what happens when a minority group tries to integrate into a larger society?"
"It could be rocky."
"It could be worse than rocky. Prejudice. Hate. Propaganda from both sides. How do we fight that?"
His eyes sought out his adoptive father, and a reminiscent smile touched his lips. "There's something Edward used to ask me when I came across a difficult question."
"What would Carlisle do?"
She paused, considering the question. "In this case, I think he'd probably give Job a run for his money in the patience department."
"I think he would, too. He'd take the abuse and try to shake it off as well as he could. Wait for attitudes to change."
"We're not all Carlisle," she pointed out.
"If we want integration, we might have to be. And the good news is, if we can keep governments from bombing everyone, vampires and shifters have the luxury of waiting a long time for attitudes to change."
"I suppose. There are going to be some painful years, though. I'm afraid Joham has given us a rather dubious gift."
"I think you're right. But." he swung her around, dipped her, and then pulled her up hard against him. "That can all wait for tomorrow. Today, I want to eat good food, dance to good music, and feel up my pretty wife."
She laughed and kissed him, and it was hard not to feel like their future would be bright as long as they spent it together.