AN: Welcome to this story! It's written from alternating POVs, and it contains a lot of AU elements. Most of them should become clear as the story goes forward. So far, the rating is high just to be safe but the content of the later chapters will probably change that.
None of the characters are mine. I only borrow them from Stephenie Meyer.
I tried to smirk as the Cullen boy and his pet human walked away from my brothers' thrones, unharmed.
I was not sorry about wanting to kill them. He had broken too many laws and he was not a complete child. He should have known the price. Aro's insane respect for Carlisle was beginning to put all of us in danger of exposure. If only Marcus was not so soft, I could hope to rein in my brother. If we both voted against him, he'd have been forced to dispose of Edward Cullen regardless of his gift.
I had noticed the way the boy looked at the plain little girl beside him. He stared at her as if she was the most beautiful person he could ever imagine. She wasn't special in any way, brown haired and cowering, but nothing in his gaze gave that away. Although I would never dream of looking at a mortal like that, something about his expression continued to bother me. He was a fool in love, I reminded myself. I had no interest in becoming like him, hopelessly enthralled with a woman. Ready to die for her, even. It was weak and that was the one thing I refused to be.
But that didn't stop me from wanting a bond like theirs.
For three thousand years, I'd been alone. While my brothers found mates and enjoyed happy marriages, I was waiting in the wings for somebody. At first I thought I'd find her by accident, like Aro did with his Sulpicia. When that hadn't happened, Didyme, Aro's sweet little sister, told me to be patient but I'd stopped listening to that advice a few hundred years ago. I was a monster, so cruel that other vampires were afraid of facing me.
It didn't matter how I felt. It didn't matter that if I found my mate, I'd cherish her as much as Marcus loved his own wife. Someone like me was meant to be alone.
I could hear our next meal waiting to come into the room, led by Heidi. I pushed my bitterness away and sat up straight on my throne. Feeding was always a competition and if I did not pay attention, I'd end up eating the worst humans she brought in, the weak and the sick.
"Welcome, my friends! Welcome to Volterra!" Aro said. He was unbearably happy, like always.
While the humans began to get uncomfortable, their hearts racing faster, I stood up. By the time I saw her, everything was already a blur and the screaming had started.
Today definitely hadn't been my day.
Volterra is so pretty, my guidebook told me. The architecture is so interesting, it said. You definitely won't get blisters and a sunburn in the early spring, it said.
I wasn't even supposed to be in Italy. In my real life, I was a college student. Majoring in biology, nineteen years old, good head on shoulders, bright future and so forth. And then, my boyfriend dumped me.
It sounded so simple when I said it like that. We'd dated since I was thirteen. I built my life around the idea of him. I'd believed him when he said he'd love me forever because I was pretty sure I could return the favor. And then, he'd found someone else, leaving me with one no-refund airplane ticket to Paris that I'd bought with most of my salary from various crappy student jobs, a week before the trip.
I couldn't imagine seeing Paris without him. The idea made me cry, and I was sick of that. I didn't want to be the sad girl who worried her friends. So I came here to forget, after buying a train ticket in France, and to be alone for a little bit. After Spring Break I promised I'd come straight home to Chicago and be normal and happy again. Or pretend to be, anyhow. The future seemed too painful and lonely to think about.
So, here I was in Italy. In Volterra, to be more specific. On St. Marcus's Day, which was apparently a big deal since everyone was wearing red to show gratitude for the... lack of vampires?
Not the worst idea for a civic holiday I'd ever heard of. Having vampires around would probably suck.
Every little bit of my exposed skin was covered in an angry sunburn and my sandals had blistered my feet. The walking tour I was on, currently taking us inside an old and cavernous castle, wasn't too interesting. I couldn't really remember why I had wanted to join it in the first place. Still, I held up my camera and snapped a few photos of the ancient hallway we were in. I could e-mail this home when I got back to the tiny room I was renting.
I slowed down, hoping that the group wouldn't go that far ahead without me, to examine a painting that had caught my eye. It looked like it was from the Italian Renaissance, but I couldn't recognize the painter. What interested me were the people in it. There were five of them, three men and two women. They looked as different as possible, with black, blond and white hair, but the eyes... they were identical. Dark red, visible even through the layer of dust.
Creepy, I decided, but before I could look much further, I was interrupted.
"You had best keep up, miss," a brown-haired man said, without a hint of an Italian accent in his musical voice. He wore dark grey, and didn't look much older than I was, but his eyes were red, the same shade as the people in the painting. I was sure it wasn't a trick of the light. Maybe it was some kind of birth defect that this entire family had, passed on for generations. Except we had been told that the castle's original occupants had moved out a long time ago. Either way, I could feel myself beginning to freak out. I practically sprinted to catch up with my ridiculously pretty tour guide and the rest of the people she was showing around. Just before I joined her, a couple walking in the other direction brushed by us. I didn't have time to look at their faces, but the man leading them said something to the guide.
When she smiled, I shivered. There was something very, very wrong here.
"Right through these doors," she was saying, "is the council room. It was used by many prominent politicians as early as the fourteenth century, although some of the stone used in its construction is probably from Etruscan architecture.
The heavy oak doors swung open with an ominous creak, and we all stepped inside. The room was round, smaller than I thought it would be, but intimidating. In the middle of it, there were three men and I could see other people gathering in the corners.
One of the women in my group began praying. Her voice was desperate.
By now, I was panicking, my stomach full of anxious fluttering. There wasn't anywhere I could run, really, and I didn't even know what I was running from.
And then, the other people, the ones dressed in grey and black, moved towards us, so fast that they blurred. I saw blood everywhere, the tourists next to me dying with their throats ripped open, the creatures from the shadows swallowing red in mouthfuls.
Before everything turned fuzzy, I hoped that none of this was real.
She was beautiful.
I felt foolish, noticing the attractiveness of my food but it needed to be said. For a mortal, the girl was exceptional. Her skin was livid from the sun, but even that couldn't make her plain. Her hair was almost as pale as mine, but instead of looking strange, it just made her angelic. Her mouth, soft and pink and swollen where she had bitten it too hard, made me forget myself.
All I wanted to do was drain her dry, kiss her everywhere and figure out what made her laugh all at the same time. The muddle of feelings was confusing, and I hoped that Marcus was too occupied with feeding to notice my shifting bonds. The last thing I wanted was him commenting for my entire coven to hear.
I needed to get the girl, whoever she was, away from this room quickly. She couldn't leave Volterra alive but I didn't want her to die immediately either at the hands of some clumsy guard. I darted towards her, not trying to avoid whoever was in my way. Even feeding, couldn't make the Guards forget that I was their Master and they moved aside quickly. When I reached her, the girl was shaking, on the cusp of crumpling onto the floor.
Not knowing what to do, I lifted her. It was more convenient than trying to make her walk.
She was light and limp in my arms, already unconscious as I walked away from the room with the corpses.
The castle had plenty of guest rooms, but I wasn't sure which ones were clean and which had fallen out of use. I doubted anyone in my coven would know something so trivial; we did not worry ourselves with details that could be left to the lesser guard.
It would be best, I decided, to just bring the human girl into my own rooms. Nobody would dare come in there without invitation. The walk there seemed slow and too quick at the same time. I couldn't stop looking at her, marvelling at how warm her skin was. Her blood smelled delicious, like water to a man dying of thirst and I was immediately glad that I had a few thousand years of practise in restraining myself.
Nevertheless, I couldn't let myself think about it, or how stupid saving her was.
As soon as the door to my suite was shut behind me, I settled her on a low, soft couch that would be comfortable for a mortal. She seemed so small and vulnerable in contrast to the dark fabric that I didn't want to leave her. Looking around, I found a neatly folded blanket on one of the chairs. Didyme and Sulpicia had put it there, claiming that it made the room look lived in, when they redecorated a few years ago. They were probably right, though I hadn't thought so at the time and I thanked them silently before wrapping it around her.
For a moment, I paused. As though I had lost control of my body, my fingers stroked her hair. It was silky and bright and soft. Lovely, like the rest of her. The intensity of my attraction to her was beginning to frighten me. I had wanted plenty of women in the past, but this toxic combination of reverence, thirst and desire was unfamiliar. If I stayed here for a moment longer, I'd end up ripping out her throat or holding her like something precious until she woke up.
Aro and Sulpicia sat beside each other on a small loveseat. Although their posture was professional, they exchanged quick little smiles that indicated mutual adoration. Marcus and Didyme had never mastered the art of keeping their hands to themselves. She sat on his lap while he played with her long, straight hair, bunching the strands in his fingers and tickling her cheek while she giggled.
"I saved you one, brother," Didyme murmured as soon as I came into the crowded meeting room where my family waited, pointing to an unconscious young man in the corner. Her smile was so sweet that I couldn't help returning it. The fact that she cared about me still surprised me sometimes.
"Thank you, my dear," I said.
I fed quickly because I knew that my family was going to give me hell afterward and I didn't want to put it off. Keeping an unwilling human alive for a time within the castle wasn't unheard of but we discouraged it. There was a chance, however slim, that she could escape with knowledge of our existence. With current technology being what it was, that could spell the end of millennia of secrecy. Besides, having the authorities looking for a missing person was dangerous.
"How long is our new little guest staying with us?" Aro asked when I was finished, the body broken on the floor. His tone was careful, testing to see my intentions.
I stayed silent, trying to give nothing away.
"A while, I'd say," Marcus said. Beside him, Didyme grinned.
"Does this mean what I think it means?" she asked.
"Your optimism is sickening," I told her, trying for displeasure and choosing affection instead. "I haven't made plans to turn into the Cullen child and court a human."
"You are forgetting that Aro courted me when I was human," Sulpicia chimed in. "And that turned out fine."
"Better than fine," he huffed beside her, brushing a quick kiss over her hair. As giddy as my brother could be, he was steadfast in his devotion to his mate. Her presence could distract him from anything, and today I appreciated that.
"True," she conceded, melting into his arms.
They, all four of them, were so obviously delighted together that I felt like an intruder by just being there. And I couldn't bring myself to worry them. If it made them happy to think that I might have found my mate, then I'd let them believe it.
"I will tell you what will become of the girl once I've decided," I said. "I will not be careless."
I had no idea what to do with her or with myself when she woke up.