Author's Note: Thank you guys for your reviews and follows! I was blown away by the number of readers the first chapter had. Your amazing response definitely encouraged me to update faster.
There are more notes for you at the bottom. Enjoy this chapter.
Bella woke up to pale sunlight splashing through her window and painting her room with unfamiliar colors. The promise of a pretty day was usually enough to make her stomach and mood plummet. A psychosomatic reaction to a Cullen deficiency, she'd labelled the symptoms. She'd thought it was pretty funny at the time, which was a few months ago.
Today, she felt fine.
As she stretched, she caught sight of her right wrist and the neat, straight line of a cut running perpendicular to it.
So much for a peaceful morning. Her brain kicked into overdrive, stress hormones pouring through her body as noticeably as icy water.
There was an evil vampire in my bedroom. He talked to me. And then he drank from me. And he's not going anywhere until I come with him.
Oh god oh god oh god.
The smart thing to do was to start phoning the Cullens. Edward first, then Alice, then Carlisle, then maybe Rosalie. They needed to be warned about Aro. Technically, they were his subjects, and most definitely culpable for not following through on the promise made in Volterra. That and they were the only people who could realistically offer her any protection. Jacob and the pack looked intimidating, for sure, but she couldn't imagine them holding their ground against little Jane. Who was probably around here somewhere. Bella felt the sudden irrational urge to check her closet for lurking vampires. Aro didn't strike her as the type to travel without at least a few lethal backup plans.
Instead, she got out of bed on steady feet and padded into the bathroom. Calmly, she brushed her teeth and fiddled with the shower temperature. When she stepped in, the water was too hot, raising pink blotches on her skin, but she stood under the scalding stream until she adjusted. Small acts of endurance made her proud nowadays.
Keeping Aro a secret from the Cullens felt more than right, she mused as she shampooed her hair. It was necessary. Her entire resolve had hardened around the idea of silence. Which was completely bizarre and stupid and would probably get her killed, but…
For the last year, her survival had depended on the Cullens. Without them around to save her from speeding cars and dangerous guys in alleyways and random nomads with sadistic streaks, she'd be dead. That kind of reliance scared her. She'd tried to justify it by reminding herself that she was only human. Nobody with a beating heart could have survived those situations.
Then the Cullens had left, and she'd gone to pieces. Catatonic, morose, disgusting pieces. Bella couldn't stand the fact that the only thing that stood between her and being completely non-functional was one vampire and his family. During moments of painful honesty—like this one, accompanied by the citrus smell of body wash—she admitted that she didn't want immortality on those terms. Spending a thousand years worrying about the source of her sanity just leaving her on a whim… god, no.
This was basically a test. If she could fix this Aro situation on her own, without the Cullens' intervention, she could handle being a vampire. Otherwise… she flinched and supressed the thought, before grabbing a fluffy bathrobe off the hook.
"I'm not a weakling," she told her reflection through the steam.
The girl in the mirror didn't look convinced.
"'Morning, Charlie," Bella said, as she stirred two fluffy portions of scrambled eggs on the skillet. They were still a little runny for her taste. Two more minutes, she decided, eying them expertly.
"Good morning, Bells." He took the orange juice carton out of the fridge and emptied it into two mismatched glasses. The fuller one was placed at her end of the table.
"I was wondering… would you be really mad if I applied to school in Europe?" Might as well bite the bullet and ask, she figured.
"What has that boy put you up to this time?" her father said, settling his own glass onto the table with a disgruntled thump. Edward still got the contemptuous label of that boy, and it offended Bella a lot less than she thought it would have. He kind of deserved it.
"No, it's not like that," she said. "It's actually the opposite. I want to get away from my old life a little bit." Old life was very accurate, given the circumstances.
Charlie's brow furrowed, and Bella could already imagine what he was thinking. She'd made it sound bad, like she was trying to flee from Edward, and put an ocean between them. Damn it. She'd only wanted to imply the usual collegiate escapism and a bit of small-town wanderlust.
"Bella, is there anything I should know?" he asked in his cop voice, each word carefully weighed and measured.
"I promise it's not like that. If I wanted to break up with Edward, I'd do it. Running away to Paris is a little excessive," she reaffirmed, separating the eggs into two portions, and giving one plate to her father.
"Thank you." Charlie ate in silence for a few minutes, as his daughter tapped her sock-clad foot on the floor, waiting for his answer. Finally, he sighed and said, "You know that I'll help out with your tuition as much as I can, but Europe's not cheap."
She smiled, the expression brightened by relief. Legitimate excuse for disappearance obtained, she thought, as though she'd just advanced a level in a video game.
"I'm holding out for a scholarship. Plus, this is just an idea not some kind of finalized plan," Bella said.
Charlie sighed. "You're growing up too fast," he complained, his voice blurred a little by paternal pride.
"I'll teach you how to use a webcam if I ever move out," she said fondly. Suddenly, the thought of living anywhere but here, her dad not within shouting distance, filled her with the desperate, pinprick sensation of drowning beneath dark water.
I don't have time for this, she told herself, cramming the last of her breakfast into her mouth and shoving her plate hastily into the sink.
The Forks library was admittedly humble, subsisting primarily on donations of books and time. Bella liked it anyway, although the shelves were spindly, most of the paperbacks were worn and the barcodes only scanned reluctantly. There was something reverent about the silence. Besides, she mistrusted shiny new books. On Thursday nights, nobody was there, making it the perfect place to study. Picking out her favorite table, she poured out a few notebooks and a list of essays to plan onto the scarred wooden surface.
Ten minutes later, a flicker of motion across the table from her caught her eye. She glanced up, ready to see Edward and smile. The subconscious part of her brain registered black and red, colors that the Cullens largely avoided. Her expression quickly became uncertain.
Of course it was Aro sitting in front of her. Some people didn't have the courtesy to limit themselves to nighttime visitations. Bella didn't scream or panic, but she thought her glare was pretty impressive, under the circumstances.
The vampire actually seemed a lot more normal in this setting. Everybody looked a little dead under fluorescent lighting, so the delicate, powdery texture of his skin wasn't as creepy as usual. Losing the robes made him seem less like a vulture. Even his hair, tied back into a ponytail, was less sinister and more quaintly European.
So much for the aura of menace, Bella thought and smiled a little.
"I didn't expect to see you here. Are you stalking me?" she said. The playfulness in her voice was forced but she figured that it was better than terror.
"You are famous in certain circles for your love of books," he said cheerfully, examining the shelves around him with the air of a man finding a lost treasure. Obviously an act, Bella decided. He'd probably read more books than this library had in a month.
"Which circles, exactly?" she demanded.
"Edward's thoughts, mostly. The library in Volterra is magnificent." His voice was an invitation.
Bella bristled at how flippant he was being. Her eventual kidnapping by the Volturi was serious business, dammit. And he treated it like a casual invite to a tea party.
"I'm sure." She was getting good at sarcasm. Arizona hadn't had provided many opportunities to practise it.
"You will enjoy it," Aro promised in that same sinuous, purring voice he'd used last night. She couldn't decide whether she liked the implication of slippery seduction or found it repulsive.
"I already said yes to your deal. You don't need to be nice about it," she said.
"My dear, I have ulterior motives." He looked at her, the brown film of his contact lenses not quite hiding the eager, real red beneath.
Bella was painfully aware that she was enjoying herself. Being wanted was a novelty. Being wanted by a vampire ruler was a rush. She remembered wondering what his skin would feel like under her fingers and blushed.
"Edward mentioned that you were a collector," she said. It was a good reminder that he cared about her potential gift, not her.
"I'm not looking forward to being collected."
"Being a Cullen is so much better, of course." Aro's grin was teasing, and not in a nice way.
"Well…yeah. They're like family," Bella countered. It sounded terrible when she said it out loud. She had parents, and grandparents and people she'd known for her entire life, and somehow the Cullens were more important to her.
"Ah yes, the parents and siblings of your dreams. No demands, only gifts and praise," he said speculatively.
"It's not wrong to want to belong somewhere."
"You will settle for anywhere, dearest," he said.
"Seriously? You're three thousand years old and the unofficial leader of all the vampires in the whole world and you're hanging around in a small-town library hurting my feelings? You're making eternity look bad," Bella hissed, offended. He claimed that he couldn't read her mind, but here he was listing all of her insecurities. It felt awful.
"We could hang around somewhere slightly more interesting," he offered.
"That entire invitation screams stranger danger." Aro was exactly the kind of person children should be warned about, Bella thought.
"I have only the best of intentions," he continued. With some effort, he rearranged his expression into a mask of innocence.
So, an ancient, evil vampire just volunteered to… go somewhere with her. The right thing to do was run away screaming. Instead, she looked up at him carefully.
"Will you answer some of my questions?" she said. And she had so many. About mating, and relationships between vampires and humans, and what it would be like to live in Volterra, and what she'd tell her Cullens wouldn't know, and she didn't want to remain ignorant about her own future.
"But of course."
"Okay. This weekend. Port Angeles. The intersection that looks like this," she said, grabbing a piece of notepaper and roughly sketching two streets from memory. If she recalled correctly, there were coffee shops and tiny restaurants speckled all over the area. They could sit down and talk like normal people.
Normal people on a date, her brain added on, amused.
"Your gifts are clearly not restricted to one domain," Aro said, examining the drawing from all angles.
"Shush. Not all of us can be artistic geniuses," she said. Because she couldn't think of anywhere else this conversation could go, she quickly crammed her things into her schoolbag. When she looked up to say goodbye, there was nobody sitting at the table across from her.
Another Author's Note: I had a hard time understanding why Bella forgave Edward so quickly for leaving her in New Moon. You'd think that kind of thing would give a person trust issues. So, my Bella is having a hard time reconciling her feelings for the Cullens and the way they abandoned her. It's slightly OOC but it'll give her the motivation to get together with Aro eventually. Which is a good thing. Obviously :)
Anyway, thanks again for your feedback.