Author's note from DragonGirl323: "Hello again, everyone! First of all, thank you for the reviews. Just one quick note before all of you start reading. Stefan and Vladimir spend part of this chapter speaking in Romanian and, since I have no idea how to speak Romanian, I made their dialogue italic. I hope all of you enjoy this latest installment. Both Mortal and I would appreciate it if you left us a few words to let us know how we're doing. We love all the support we've been receiving so far."

Author's note from Mortal-paralight: "Alright, so here's the next chapter in this story. DragonGirl worked really hard on this one and it really shows in her writing, as usual. So please place a review at the end once you've finished reading to show her your appreciation."

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Chapter 4

Persistence of Vision

Stefan's Point of View

Please, don't... Please... Don't make me do this.

My arms stiffened around my chest and I ground my teeth together savagely as the echo of Bella's soft, heart wrenching cries reverberated through my mind without pause, my frame rigid in my desk chair. I had been unable to think of nothing else since the previous night after I left her room, and the appalling sensation of guilt that was still crawling beneath my skin as though it was alive only furthered my irritation.

Why, now, was I feeling this way? There was no logical explanation, no reasoning, for it that I could bring myself to comprehend.

Bella wasn't the first woman I had used my influence on to gain sexual gratification. There had been many women through the centuries, human and vampire alike that I exploited for my own selfish reasons. Some were more willing than others, but they were tools, means to an end, nothing more. I felt no attachment to any of them; no guilt over using them, no sorrow as they departed or when I killed them, and certainly not any romantic inclinations. My undying affection and loyalty was reserved for my mate alone, but she was dead and gone, forever lost to me.

Then why was I unable to simply rid myself of Bella's presence? Why couldn't I send her on her way like I did with all the others? When had I lost my indifference?

The fact that I couldn't even answer my own questions, let alone explain my bizarre...attachment to Bella was enough to distract me from noticing Vladimir's approach until he was standing directly outside my study, his slow, deliberate knocks quickly wrenching me out of my thoughts. I shook my head to clear it, then directed my attention to the door, staring at it wordlessly for a few moments. Part of me considered sending him away, not exactly feeling like carrying on a conversation at the moment, but decided against it. Never in all the time we spent as coven mates had I ever sent him away when he came to speak with me.

"Enter," I finally announced, looking back out the window at the snowcapped peaks of the Carpathians.

Vladimir stepped in and shut the door behind him with a soft click, his feet padding almost soundlessly on the rug as he strode toward my desk. "Hello, brother," he greeted in Romanian.

I swung my head around to look at him and dipped my chin. "Brother," I responded in kind as I pulled my feet off the edge of my desk and straightened in my seat, gesturing for him to sit in the chair across from me.

He promptly sat down and propped his elbows on his knees, leaning forward with a gravely serious glint in his crimson eyes. "We need to discuss something."

"Oh?" I inquired, arching an eyebrow at him and plucking a pen off the surface of my desk, twirling it between my fingers absentmindedly. The severity with which he spoke that sentence struck me as odd and I couldn't stop myself from wondering what exactly we would be discussing. "What might that be?"

"Isabella." He kept his eyes leveled with mine as he enunciated her name, and I gleaned just from his tone alone that this conversation was going to be far from pleasant. A strange sensation that I couldn't identify slithered down my spine, but I fought it back valiantly.

Both my eyebrows lifted, my gaze reflecting mild interest, but otherwise kept my expression impassive. "And what of her?"

"You are prolonging her stay here for no reason," he said, sounding as though he was becoming impatient. "When will you be finishing her off?"

I pressed my lips together as I flicked my gaze away from Vladimir, instead choosing to glance around the room as I continued to flip and twirl the pen between my fingers at a speed no human would have been able to follow with their weak eyes. "In due time," I answered, after the silence had stretched on for longer than I intended.

That didn't seem to impress him. He leaned back in his seat and extended his legs, crossing his ankles as he folded his arms over his chest. "She is nothing but a nuisance now. There is absolutely no need to keep her around; she has served her purpose," he informed me, as though I was unaware of this on some level. "Give her a clean death like all the others and we can go back to our business."

I clenched my jaw, just the thought of killing Bella now not sitting well with me. I shifted uneasily in my chair, the enigma of my irrational feelings toward her continuing to flare up, the smallest of irritants in the back of my mind. I shook my head as I met his eyes once more. "No, she can still be of use to us."

He pitched forward in his seat and braced his hands on his knees, leveling me with a sharp glare. "What use can she be now? We have everything that we need. Her usefulness has run its course," he stressed, his gaze scrutinizing me as his eyes narrowed. "Is this because you truly believe she will be useful, or because of your affiliation to her?"

My shoulders stiffened as I straightened, scoffing at such a ridiculous notion and fighting off the small inner voice that was purring in the affirmative of my confusing connection with Bella all at the same time. "Don't be ridiculous, Vladimir. Of course I think she can be useful. Aro still has the witch twins, after all, and she is the only one who can shield us from their gifts."

I forcefully broke my eyes away from Vladimir's and glared down at the surface of my desk, working my jaw back and forth. I was merely making excuses and I knew without a shadow of a doubt that Vladimir would pick up on it. I wasn't known for being indecisive, preferring to be blatantly straight forward whenever the opportunity presented itself instead of dancing precariously around the issue.

"You know as well as I that Jane and Alec no longer pose any kind of threat to us. They have no master now, which makes them lost and alone. They will not bother us, nor will any other guard that escaped the killing," he countered, pausing to sigh and rake his fingers through his hair. "Stefan, you are simply delaying the inevitable. There is no point in putting this off. Either kill her or send her on her way. You should not associate yourself with her any longer."

I exhaled slowly as I leaned back in my chair, rhythmically tapping the pen on the surface of my desk and examining the wood grains as I thought. A part of me couldn't help but agree with him. Perhaps I really was delaying the inevitable. Bella would never willingly consent to stay and join my cause; she had already made her opinion of me and my coven mate abundantly clear. So then why was I so adamant in forcing her to stay here with me? The answer to that question continued to elude me.

"Perhaps I should just let her go," I murmured, distracted, and bobbed my head languidly.

Vladimir nodded in satisfaction, rising out of his chair in one fluid motion. "Just let her go and you will never have to see her again. You will no longer be disgracing Anya's memory by having that...that pest in our household."

As soon as those blasphemous words left his mouth my body stiffened, white-hot rage exploding suddenly and violently inside my chest. I inadvertently snapped the pen I was holding into a shower of plastic shards, the pieces scattering about on the surface of my desk, as my eyes snapped up to meet his, my stare glacial.

"What?" I whispered harshly.

He looked directly into my eyes, unfazed by my outburst. "You heard me."

His indifference only succeeded in stoking the fire that was now coursing through my veins like molten metal, fury flashing through my eyes as I fought to keep my expression stoic. The subject of my long dead mate was a tender one even though it had been over a millennia since I lost her, the scars left behind from watching helplessly as her body turned to ash still agonizingly close to the surface, and Vladimir was more than aware of that since his mate had followed soon after.

"How dare you..." I sneered, my voice low and deadly. "How could you even think something so outrageous?"

"Because it is the truth, brother," he shot back. "You are disgracing your mate's name by continuing to associate yourself with that wretch. And don't think I haven't noticed the changes. Remember yesterday? When you began to feel guilt for using her?"

My top lip curled reflexively and as I opened my mouth to fire back a scathing remark, unbidden, the devastation that tore across Bella's face when I destroyed her rings and crest bulldozed to the forefront of my mind, effectively rendering me silent. Vladimir's revelation made the frustration I felt toward those traitorous feelings of remorse and guilt grow tenfold. I had been so distracted by Bella's distress that I hadn't even noticed Vladimir's presence.

This is becoming a problem, my mind whispered.

I had indeed felt guilt after leaving Bella sobbing in her room and I still didn't have the slightest inclination as to why. I clenched my hands into hard fists, banishing those thoughts and feelings from my mind. These foreign and unwelcome sensations where she was concerned, for the first time, left me doubting my own decisions, but I would not give Vladimir the satisfaction that knowledge would bring.

At my brief moment of hesitation, he continued, "Yes, I was there. I saw your reaction when you heard her pathetic cries. You are becoming soft, weak even. Anya would be ashamed to even see you this way."

"Enough!" I bellowed maliciously. The callousness in his voice made my rage boil white-hot inside me, infusing my vision with a reddish tint, and I snapped, slamming my fist onto my desk, unconcerned by the splinters of wood that shot into the air as I crushed the fragile piece of furniture beneath my hand. "Do not assume what she would think! My reasons for keeping Bella here are mine and mine alone! I am not required to explain myself to you!"

Vladimir glanced down at my desk impassively and knocked a chunk of wood away from him with his foot, then turned his scrutinizing gaze back on me, watching me for a few seconds. "Of course you don't need to explain," he replied, folding his hands behind his back. "Your expression says it all."

A primal snarl ripped up my throat as my fingers flexed into claws, his smug demeanor chipping away the foundation of my self-control, and held my ground even though I was on the verge of lunging at him. After knowing each other for most of our exceptionally long immortal lives, never had I craved hitting Vladimir as much as I was at that precise moment.

"And what does it say exactly? Enlighten me," I retorted, my voice dangerously calm.

"Simple. Your emotions for Isabella are clouding your judgment," he answered, boldly stepping around the broken pieces of my desk to stand directly in front of me. My instincts thrashed wildly inside my chest like a caged animal fighting to be free when he positioned his face mere inches from mine, finding it difficult to not consider his movements as a challenge. "Listen to me when I say this, Stefan, because this is for your own good. Either get rid of this girl yourself, and I do not care in the slightest if you kill her or simply allow her to wander off into the wilderness like a lost bird, or I will do it for you."

I narrowly managed to restrain myself from hitting him, even going as far as raising my fist to deal the first blow. I drew in a deep, cleansing breath, steeling myself, and realized he was fully aware of the effect his words were having on me and was merely attempting to goad me into an altercation. I flexed my fingers and slowly lowered my arm, returning it to my side.

"Need I remind you of the numerous trysts you have carelessly partaken in over these long centuries, Vladimir? You are a man of many tastes and if I am not mistaken you had a harem at one point," I retorted, surprising even myself with the level I had just descended to, but the words rolled off my tongue of their own volition, practically begging to be heard. "Are you so certain that Anya would be the only one ashamed?"

This was not me. Losing the carefully constructed calm I had fortified over the past millennia was not so easily swayed, and I knew Bella's presence was the difference. Vladimir and I have had our fair share of disagreements in the past, being each other's only companions is bound to cause the occasional flaring of tempers, but never had we been at odds over the pleasurable company that we kept. The deed was something we both craved, but the emotion behind it, the love and passion we demonstrated when we made love to our mates, could not be duplicated.

Vladimir's frame stiffened and fury lit up his crimson eyes like a pair of smoldering embers. We stood there in silence for an insurmountable span of time, staring one another down. Then, just as quickly as it had appeared, the fire in Vladimir's irises was snuffed out and he inhaled deeply through his nose.

"Heed my words, Stefan," he murmured. "I do not make idle threats."

"Keep your hands off of her or you will regret it," I growled savagely, issuing a threat of my own.

I shoved past him, our shoulders colliding roughly, and strode out of the room at a healthy clip with no set destination in mind. The only coherent thought that continued bobbing to the surface of my fury addled brain was distance. I needed as much distance between Vladimir and myself before I surrendered to my instincts. The fact that I had already become so infuriated over such an insignificant matter was ludicrous. I did need to wash my hands of Bella, there was no denying that, but Vladimir had crossed a line when he accused me of disgracing Anya's memory. I would sooner set myself ablaze than bring disgrace to my beloved mate.

Bella's scent hit me suddenly like a fragrant gust of wind and I inhaled reflexively, filling my lungs with the spicy crispness of her venom: apples and cinnamon. I stopped in my tracks, my head immediately swiveling to the right to lock my gaze on the doors to Bella's room, and scowled. Why was I now beginning to unconsciously seek her out? Why, when my mental state where she was concerned was anything but certain? My scowl deepened as my thoughts took a more sinister turn and for the first time since Vladimir suggested it, I started to seriously entertain the idea of killing her. I could not allow myself to fall back on the pretense that this, what I was doing with her, was still a game.

Since yesterday, something had...changed, shifted, and setting her free would not eradicate the temptation. I had let her go once before and here she was yet again, back in my territory of my own choosing.

She has to die, I thought. Only when she is reduced to ash will this strange compulsion I have acquired for her disappear.

I dipped my head and tilted it to one side only just, keeping my eyes fixed on the doors, my shoulders becoming rigid as I took a step, my body sliding forward with a keen, predatory grace. My top lip curled, pulling back from my teeth, and venom filled my mouth in preparation for the impending attack. I inhaled deeply, once again filling my lungs with her scent, and a low, carnal thrumming emanated from my chest as I imagined tearing her arms from her shoulders, rendering her defenseless, then savagely sinking my teeth into her neck, separating her head from her body.

My thoughts came to a screeching halt when I was a hairsbreadth away from crashing through the doors and acting on those violent intentions, frozen in place by none other than the infuriating, conflicting emotions I experienced earlier during my conversation with Vladimir.

Do not hesitate! my instincts screamed at me. End her! Now!

But I couldn't. I couldn't bring myself to give into my instincts. Why? What was it about her that was affecting me so? And how? What difference existed between her and the scores of my previous conquests?

A peculiar numbness unfurled inside my chest once the hostility I had been feeling toward her drained out of me, diffusing like a solitary drop of blood in a pool of water. I ground my teeth together in irritation, the clock in Bella's room counting the seconds as I glowered at the ornately carved doors, considering if I should go inside or leave her in peace. Vladimir was no longer in my study; he had left shortly after I did to return to his chambers, so I could return to sulk behind my desk for the rest of the day if I so desired. But in the back of my mind I knew that would accomplish nothing except furthering my agitation.

After a full five minutes had passed that strangely felt more like five seconds, I exhaled slowly, my mouth straightening into a grim line as I finally decided to go in and attempt at conversing with her. Perhaps if we were in a closer proximity I might be able to rationalize these strange thoughts and come to a decision about what to do with her. I realized that, given how our encounter had ended the previous day, she could very well be disinclined to be anywhere near me or even speak to me, for that matter.

Frankly, I would be astounded if she did tolerate me.

Strengthening my resolve, I lifted my hand and knocked once, announcing my presence, before stepping inside. My gaze zeroed in on her where she was leaning against the far wall, staring out the window, and her head whipped in my direction, mild shock appearing in her expression before she masked it.

I inclined my head toward her. "Hello, Bella," I muttered, unable to keep the anger and frustration I was still feeling toward Vladimir out of my tone.

She hissed and whirled away from the window, retreating into the furthest corner of the room where she tightly pressed her body against the stone, her bright crimson eyes flashing dangerously behind a curtain of dark brown hair. I clenched my jaw muscles as I pushed the door shut behind me, not surprised that she assumed I had come here to take her to bed again. I rolled my shoulders in discomfort, my spine tingling with the residual sensation of guilt as I crossed the room, coming to a halt in front of a window on the opposite wall from where she was stationed.

"Calm yourself. I did not come here for that," I informed her, bracing my hands on either side of the window and staring out at the frozen landscape, keeping my back to her.

I heard her shift behind me, her hands gradually sliding down the stone as she relaxed her posture, and I suddenly found myself hyper aware of her presence: her slow, steady breathing, the way her clothes rustled as she shifted from one foot to another, and especially the potency of her scent. I could tell that it had been at least three or four days since she'd opened a window and part of me was tempted to do just that to help clear my head. Her very essence was stifling me.

Remember that you came in here to be close to her, an aggravating voice in the back of my head reminded me.

I ground my teeth together in irritation, the stone window frame cracking beneath the strength of my grip. This was ludicrous! I should have fought the temptation and left while I still had some semblance of self-control. I hadn't offered up any resistance at all and I found that unacceptable. I pressed my lips together, realizing that coming into her room had been an exceptionally stupid and shortsighted idea, and was just about ready to turn and leave without another word when her voice stopped me.

"Then...what are you here for...?" she asked, her voice hesitant and uncertain, as if she were afraid I might punish her for speaking out of turn.

I shook my head slowly from side to side, my gaze still trained out the window even though a majority of my attention and focus was centered on the woman standing behind me. I would enjoy knowing the answer to that question as well.

"I don't know," I answered after a long stretch of conflicted silence.

I heard her hair swish softly against her clothing as she nodded her head. Silence enveloped us and I found myself anxiously waiting for her to say something else, a confounding impulse that only succeeded in fueling my aggravation.

What in the hell is happening to me?

"I heard your argument with Vladimir," she said finally, her voice low and soft.

I snorted in indignation. I would have been shocked if she hadn't overheard us. "I am not surprised," I shot back, my tone still sharp.

"But I couldn't understand anything. What were you arguing about?"

I opened my mouth to answer her, then abruptly paused, my eyebrows twitching in contemplation. Was it really wise for me to tell her? I found it preferable that she remain blissfully unaware of the details of that conversation, and inwardly grateful that she was unfamiliar with my native tongue. But even if she did have knowledge of our language, Vladimir and I used a dialect that most Romanians who lived in this day and age considered "dead", so I would have been exceedingly impressed by the highly unlikely and rare coincidence had she been able to understand us. But I digress.

I exhaled slowly and tapped my index finger against the stone window frame rhythmically. I really did find no harm in telling her the subject of mine and Vladimir's argument as long as the details remained a secret. I was unsure how she would react if she knew that Vladimir wanted her dead and was counting on the assumption that she would refrain from questioning me further.

I sighed heavily, some of the tension draining out of my posture. "You."

She inhaled sharply, more than likely taken off guard by my admission. "Oh..." she mumbled. "What...what about me?"

I grumbled under my breath and worked my jaw back and forth in frustration, flabbergasted by the fact that I had already opened myself up to her. Now that I was unwilling to divest to her. Vladimir's ultimatum would remain between him and me until a more opportune moment, a moment I was sincerely hoping would never rear its ugly head. This newfound sense of curiosity that she had recently acquired was unnerving, much like my own muddled emotions where she was concerned.

I turned my head and looked over my shoulder at her, ignoring every instinct that was screaming at me to turn on my heel and leave her question unanswered. "That is nothing you need to be concerned about."

She blinked back at me, intense curiosity swirling through her eyes, and right when I thought she was going to press the issue, she simply nodded in acquiescence and averted her gaze away from mine, choosing to stare down at her shoes. I couldn't help the wave of relief that rushed through me and felt a sudden impulse to study her a little more extensively while her attention was focused elsewhere, still trying to determine what it was about her that prevented me from turning her lose.

As my eyes swept slowly down her body I began to wonder if the reason was because I was attracted to her on some obscure level. I blanched at the thought of having any kind of romantic feelings for her, my commitment to my mate still burning brightly within me. Both of our intimate encounters had been brief, but raw, and a part of me was thinking that pure sexual attraction was the answer, the solution I had been struggling to find ever since leaving her room the previous night. I could not deny that she was a lovely woman; her lithe shape, slender yet toned with shapely curves mostly hidden by the long sleeved shirt and jeans she was currently wearing was a testament to that and my shoulders tensed as the shocking realization that I actually felt a stab of shame over considering ending her life occurred to me. Images of staring down at her alabaster skin while we were in the throes of passion briefly flashed through my mind's eye before I was able to successfully hold them at bay, causing a small disconnected thought to bubble to the surface, instantly demanding my attention.

That's why you're keeping her: for the sex, my subconscious purred smugly.

I scowled, my face contorting grotesquely as Vladimir's words chose that point in time to begin running on repeat through my head, and rigidly pushed away from the window, starting to restlessly pace the length of the room in the hope that I would be able to relieve some of my pent up frustration. I saw Bella shift uncomfortably in my peripheral vision from her position in the corner, her body once again tensing in the off chance that I made a move to approach her. My scalp prickled as I paced. I could feel her eyes on me, tracking me as I made my way back and forth across the room, and the fleeting thought that I should just march out shouldered its way to the forefront of my mind. Once again, before I was able to act on it, Bella spoke.

"Is...there anything I can help with...?" she asked, her voice wavering uncharacteristically.

I paused and met her eyes, my face twitching minutely, surprised that she had even asked that particular question and carefully considered it. Was she being sincere, or was she just trying to fill this awkward silence with useless conversation? During the duration of her stay here, never had that combination of words, or anything similar for that matter, come out of her mouth. In fact, I was fairly certain that she would rather spit in my face than offer me assistance of any sort. I frowned, perplexed by the shift in her demeanor. Out of all the possible directions this conversation could have taken, I hadn't even considered a deviation this drastic.

She returned my stare unflinchingly, the look in her eyes guarded, but not hostile. All of a sudden I felt something that I could only describe as a light tugging, like a string was attached to the front of my shirt and someone on the other end was pulling gently on it, prodding me forward. I exhaled slowly, my shoulders sagging, and approached her cautiously, folding my hands behind my back, a gesture of goodwill on my part. Bella's shoulders tensed when I stopped mere inches in front of her, but bravely held my gaze, straightening to her full height.

"No, I do not want you to worry," I answered, shaking my head. "I will take care of it on my own."

She blinked at me with wide doe eyes and remained unmoving for a short stretch of time before nodding in acquiescence. I caught a brief flash of vulnerability that flitted through her expression so swiftly that I would not have noticed it had I been a human and was momentarily thrown off balance. I did not remember what it felt like to dream, – most of my human life had faded over time, becoming an incomprehensible blur – but I had a fairly good idea that this is what it would feel like to be inside a waking dream. It was certainly surreal enough to pass for one.

I wasn't sure how much time had passed while I remained frozen there in front of her, as silent and unmoving as a statue, with her staring back at me with a mixture of puzzlement and anxiety. To be perfectly honest, I was torn. The finality of my last statement could have been interpreted as an end to our conversation, but a miniscule part of me wanted to explain exactly what mine and Vladimir's argument had been about, which was something I couldn't understand. Nothing about what I was feeling had a rational explanation and that was maddening enough on its own.

Before I could properly explain what I was doing, I had lifted my hand and moved it toward her face hesitantly, my fingers twitching. Bella's gaze broke away from mine as soon as she detected the movement, her pupils contracting to pin pricks when she focused on my fingers as they inched closer and closer to her face. Her body stilled, freezing in place, when I barely grazed the pads of my fingers down her cheek. Her skin was velvety soft beneath my touch and my hand paused when the realization that this was the first time I had ever touched her without trying to compel her struck me like a lightning bolt from the heavens. Our gazes locked and for a frantic fraction of a second I was shocked that she hadn't attempted to move away from me like she usually did.

Why is she letting me touch her?

I sucked in a sharp breath through my nose and yanked my hand away from her face, my hand a white blur as I curled it around behind me once more. I wasted no time in backing away from her, putting as much distance between us as I could. Without saying anything, I turned on my heel and strode toward the door, part of me concerned that it might seem like I was running away from her, but not exactly caring either way.

I paused before I walked out and kept my gaze fixed on the double doors in front of me, certain that I would not be able to handle looking at her anymore for today. "Do you need anything?" I asked purely as a courtesy, my tone clipped.

", thank you," she replied quickly, but it sounded as though she was distracted. Why, I didn't have the slightest clue.

"Very well. I will leave you then."

I gladly closed the remaining distance to the doors and breezed through them as swiftly as an errant gust of wind. The dull echo of the latch sliding shut resonated through my skull as I set off down the corridor, flexing my hands by my sides as I went. The level of profound confusion I was experiencing was like a maelstrom in my mind, the noise caused by it nearly blocking out every other coherent thought. A foreign sensation slithered lazily down my spine when the possibility that my feelings really were clouding my judgment occurred to me, but I didn't want to go as far as acknowledging those traitorous thoughts, or thinking about how she was able to affect me like this.

Even after I was back in my chambers, surrounded by my own scent, I still couldn't prevent myself from thinking about hers.

Alright, so hopefully you guys all liked this chapter. As I said before, DragonGirl worked very hard on this and it would be greatly appreciated if you guys would leave a REVIEW to show her your appreciation and please be patient for the next chapter. I'll try and post it as soon as I can.

Once again, please REVIEW!

Mortal-paralight & DragonGirl323