“I’m sorry, love. I couldn’t find him,” Edward said ruefully.
He was lying. I could see it in the tight set of his jaw. He had found Jacob, but Jacob had refused to come back to talk to me.
I never intended for him to hear about our engagement like that. I was angry that Edward had manipulated the situation so he could say it knowing he was listening. Now my best friend was hurting, and it was all my fault. I had to get over this belief that Jacob belonged in my life. It wasn’t fair to him. My future was Edward now. All I did by trying to have them both was hurt us all.
I ducked back into the tent to give myself a moment to wipe away the tears that were creeping down my cheeks. I didn’t want Edward to see the evidence of my pain, though he would probably know anyway. Sometimes vampire senses were very inconvenient.
“Would you prefer to be alone?” Edward asked from the tent door.
Though I knew he only meant for the moment, his words triggered the deep fear of his leaving. I shook my head violently. “Don’t leave me.”
“Never,” he said fervently. He came and sat beside me. Not too close as it was still so cold here. I closed the gap between us and rested my head on his arm; he wrapped it around my shoulders and pulled me close.
We sat in silence for an immeasurable period of time before I heard movement outside and glanced up.
“It’s Seth,” he said, then paused for a moment, concentrating on whatever he was hearing in Seth’s thoughts. “The pack are getting into position now, but the family haven’t arrived.”
“Why not?” I asked. My mind immediately went to all the possible reasons for their delay, none of them were good.
“It is not that!” Edward said harshly. “They will be there.”
I looked to him for an explanation, and he sighed heavily. “Leah,” he sneered her name, “believes the delay is because we are leaving the pack to fight alone. She is, of course, mistaken. They will be there soon. There is still time.”
I wondered how much time there really was. I was equally anxious for the fight to be over and terrified for it to start.
“It’s okay, love,” Edward said, brushing his cool fingertips across my cheek. “Soon it will all be…” He trailed off, his brow furrowed in confusion.
“What’s happened?” I asked.
“Alice and Esme are coming,” he said. “Alice has seen something.”
Seen what? My heart sped as my anxiety increased. I didn’t know what could have brought them here instead of to the clearing, but it couldn’t be anything good.
Edward moved smoothly to the tent door and unzipped it sending a rush of cold air at me. I wrapped my jacket around myself a little tighter and joined him outside. Seth was resting on his hindquarters, watching as Alice and Esme made their way towards us at a rapid pace.
“Calm down, Bella,” Alice trilled, evidently hearing the evidence of my panic. “There is nothing to worry about.”
“Then why are you here?” I asked.
“There has been a change of plans,” she said. Though her tone was light, I could see the tension in her eyes and Esme’s barely concealed worry. “Esme is going to stay here with you and Edward is coming to the clearing with us.”
“He is?” I asked blankly.
“No, he isn’t,” Edward said firmly. He locked eyes with Alice, looking immovable. “I made Bella a promise, and I am going to honor it.”
“Don’t be an idiot,” she said scathingly. “Do you want to get yourself killed?”
My breath gusted from me in a whoosh, and I rocked back on my heels.
Killed! Edward could be killed.
“Calm down, love,” Edward said, placing a supporting hand on my shoulder. “I am fine.”
Edward’s voice felt like it was coming from miles away. My hand reached out and gripped his wrist as if by holding him I could protect him from whatever Alice had seen.
Esme wrapped an arm around my waist steadying me. I leaned into her touch, taking both comfort and strength from her.
“What did you see, Alice?” My voice was no more than a whisper, but, naturally, they all heard it anyway. Seth was looking at me with an oddly sympathetic expression on his wolf face.
“Edward’s future is blank after the fight,” she said. “Everyone else is there but him.”
Blank future. I knew what that meant. Dead or making no decisions. Whichever the cause behind his lack of future, I didn’t like it.
“And if he comes with you now?” I asked. “You can protect him, right?”
“Bella, I don’t need protecting,” Edward said, sounding affronted.
“If he can stop being a stubborn fool and come with me he will be fine,” she assured me.
I turned to look him directly in the eye. “Then you’re going.”
“There is no ne—”
“You’re going!” My voice was almost a shout. I had never spoken to Edward like this before, but the tension and fear curdling in my stomach was making it hard to remain in control of myself.
I didn’t want him to go; I wanted him here where I could see him, but I had no hope of protecting him with my feeble strength.
He looked into my eyes and saw the resolve there. He sighed heavily. “Fine, I will go with them, but you have to swear to me that you will be safe. No trying to persuade Esme to bring you to the fight, no wandering off into the woods alone, and for God’s sake, Bella, no crazy heroics.”
“I promise,” I said hurriedly.
He cupped my cheeks in his cool hands and looked at me as if memorizing my face. I held his wrists, feeling the satin smooth marble skin against my own.
“I’ll look after her, Edward. I promise,” Esme reassured him.
Edward nodded, but didn’t lift his eyes from my own. Very slowly he lowered his head to mine and kissed me. I lost myself in the kiss.Not caring that we had an audience, I tangled my hands in his hair and gripped him to me with all my paltry strength.
He didn’t resist my hands; he held me to him locking me in place. With a jolt of fear, I realized why his was familiar. The night we separated, me for Phoenix, him to hunt James, he had kissed me like this. It was a kiss filled with desperation and unspeakable words. Again, the night of my eighteenth birthday, he had kissed me like this. That night he had been taking the last comfort in me before he left. Now he was taking strength and reassurance from the kiss before he was forced to leave me again.
Tears pricked at my eyes and my gasping breaths became unsteady.
He pulled back and frowned. “Bella, I don’t have to—”
“Go!” I said, cutting him off. “Go now, and then hurry back to me.”
“Always,” he vowed.
He embraced Esme briefly and nodded in response to an unheard remark.
Alice squeezed my hand. “See you soon, Bella.”
I nodded jerkily and watched as they ran from us and out of sight.
As soon as they were gone, I hurried back into the tent and curled up on the sleeping bag, finally allowing the tears to fall.
Esme came in and sat beside me. She rubbed my back as my shoulders shook with sobs.
My tears seemed unending, but eventually the flow slowed and ceased. I sat up on the sleeping bag and hugged my jacket around myself.
“I’m sorry about that,” I said apologetically.
“There is nothing to apologize for,” Esme said. “The fact it hurts you so much is proof of your love. You should never apologize for loving.”
I hadn’t thought of it like before, and I found it comforting. Love hurt, but it was worth the pain. Edward was worth the pain.
“It will all be over soon,” she said, running a soothing hand through my hair.
“What if something goes wrong?” I asked plaintively. “What if someone gets hurt?” Hurt because of me. Though the rest of my statement went unsaid, Esme seemed to know what I was thinking as she gave my hand a gentle squeeze.
“Our family is strong, Bella. If I believed for a moment they were in danger, I would be there with them now.”
‘Our family.’ I liked the sound of that. I vowed that next time there was danger I would not be the cause of it, but the cure. Soon I would be strong, strong enough to protect my Edward rather than the other way around.
Seth whimpered outside the tent, and I felt a chill of fear; the fight was starting.
We fell silent. I listened to the wind whipping around the small clearing of our camp and shaking the frame of the tent.
“So, how does it feel to be a high school graduate?” Esme asked. I knew she was trying to distract us both from our fear, and I played along.
“Anticlimactic in a way,” I said honestly. “Before I came to Forks, college was my focus, and high school was an important step along the way. Then I met Edward and it became simply something to get out of the way before he would change me.” I smiled ruefully. “That seems very stupid when I say it aloud.”
She smiled indulgently. “I understand. What you and Edward have is more than any human ceremony. I feel the same about Carlisle. Though, I admit I am a little jealous of you.”
My brow furrowed in confusion as I tried to imagine any reason Esme had to be jealous of me.
“I’ve never been to high school,” she said, studying the weave of the tent with a concentrated look. “My children have all graduated countless times, but I am too old. I could have gone to college of course, but it would have felt like cheating to forge a diploma.”
I considered her words. It was sad that Esme’s age prevented her from experiencing these seminal moments. I understood why it would feel like cheating to go to college, but I wished there was something I could do. As soon as the thought occurred, so did the solution.
“When I am finally ready to be around humans again, I will go to college,” I said. “I will need people around me to help…”
“Of course you will, dear.“ She hurried to assure me. “Edward will make sure to keep you safe, and Jasper, as you know, has experience in these things. We will not let you hurt anyone.”
That wasn’t the point I was trying to make, so I became a little more direct.
“I was hoping you would come too,” I said, trying to look innocent rather than conniving as I felt. “We could do it together. After all, my diploma will have to be forged.”
She was quiet for a long time, and I worried that I had somehow offended her, but when she spoke she sounded excited.
“You know that is a lovely idea.” She laughed. “Carlisle will be very pleased with you. He has been trying to persuade me to do this for a long time. What do you think I should study?”
The conversation that she had incited to distract me from my fear served to distract us both as we discussed colleges and majors.
Seth paced back and forth outside of the tent, occasionally letting out a low growl. They didn’t sound too distressed, which made me suspect he was more upset that he was unable to join the fight, rather than because he was seeing any real danger.
Esme’s soft voice and her hand running through my hair helped to relax me. In her own way she had just as soothing a presence as Jasper.
I let my mind wander to what would happen next. The ring that was currently burning a hole in Edward’s pocket featured prominently in my thoughts. Soon I would have to face Charlie and Renee and tell them I was getting married. It was not a conversation I anticipated with glee. Renee never made any secret of her scorn for marriage, and Charlie was sure to be furious at the thought of my tying myself to Edward. That thought brought with it an image of Jacob’s face. He would suffer, but I couldn’t live a half life to protect him.
Suddenly, Esme’s head snapped up and a low growl built in her chest. I blinked and she was on her feet at the tent door.
“Seth!” she snapped, and he barked once in answer. What he could have been saying I didn’t know; all I knew was that something had gone terribly wrong.
“Stay here,” Esme said fiercely and vanished out of the tent door and into the snow packed clearing.
I curled myself into a ball and hugged my arms around myself. Outside Seth was growling, but there was no sound to tell me what the danger was. My dull human ears were no use here.
“You’re okay, Bella,” Esme said from outside. “Stay there and everything will be okay.”
I heard a laugh in response. It was high and childish, like a baby’s delighted gurgle.
“Such lies,” the voice accompanying the laugh said. “She will not be okay, by the time I have finished with her she will be anything but. She will be dead, and you will be ashes.”
There was only one voice that could speak of my demise with such relish: Victoria.
“Don’t listen to her,” Esme said. Though I could not see what was happening beyond my canvas screen my mind created clear images to taunt me with. I shuddered with fear.
Seth’s growling increased in volume, then abruptly cut off with a whimper.
“Kill it, Riley!” Victoria hissed.
Who was Riley?
There was a grunt of pain and the sound of stone colliding with meat. Though I felt guilty for the thought, I couldn’t help but be grateful that I was able discern the sound of Seth’s pain instead of Esme’s. It was cruel of me, callous, Seth and the rest of the pack were risking their lives because of me, but I couldn’t help it.
My relief was short-lived, as the sound of a second collision reached my ears and this time I recognized the noise of vampires colliding. I had heard it as Jasper instructed the family on how best to fight the newborns. The sound had shocked me then, even though it was in play; now, it terrified me.
I heard a shriek of pain and didn’t know whether it was Esme’s or Victoria’s. I couldn’t bear not knowing. I had to see. It wasn’t I was any safer inside my frail canvas shelter than I was outside. Even if it had been made of steel it wouldn’t have slowed Victoria for long. With trembling movements, I edged my way to the mouth of the tent and stepped out into the snow.
Seth was on his feet, but one of his hind legs was raised from the ground as if it was causing him pain. There was an unfamiliar vampire standing close to Seth. He looked only a few years older than me, but the perfect features that were a mark of vampirism made it hard to judge.
Esme and Victoria were standing fifteen feet apart. Their stances were identical, both were slightly crouched with their hands making claws at their sides.
It looked like Victoria had been the one to scream in pain as her right arm looked strangely uneven. She turned her crimson gaze to me and smiled a cold, cruel smile.
“Bella, nice of you to join us.”
With a furious snarl, Esme launched herself at Victoria.
I couldn’t make out the blows Esme and Victoria rained upon one another, I could only hear the echoing crashes as they made contact. My hands came up to cover my ears. I wanted to close my eyes, but they were frozen open and stinging as the wind whipped at my face.
Seth and the other vampire were still fighting. I could see them easier than Esme and Victoria as their moves were slower. Seth cowered back on his hindquarters then with a move like the strike of a cobra he snapped forward and clamped his jaws around the arm of the vampire. With a screeching sound, he pulled back and spat something white onto the ground.
With a lurching sensation in my stomach I saw that it was the vampire’s forearm. The hand was dragging itself across the ground towards it owner with crablike sideways movements.
I dropped to my knees and retched, bringing up the water that was all the breakfast I’d had that morning.
“Victoria!” The vampire howled. He was gripping the stump that had been an arm only moments ago, with a look of horror.
Seth used his distraction to snap at the vampire’s leg, sending him sprawling to the ground.
Esme and Victoria’s fight stilled for a moment as Victoria glanced at her fallen ally. There was no pity or sadness in her eyes, just annoyance. Taking advantage of the situation, Esme lurched at Victoria and pulled back a hank of her hair. Her head lowered to Victoria’s neck and I was sure this was it, Victoria had to be killed, but in a move so fast it was a blur to my eyes, Victoria pushed Esme away and pinned her to the ground.
Now, it was her mouth that was lowering to Esme's neck and Esme that would surely be killed.
I couldn’t let it happen. Disregarding my promise to Edward, I snatched up a jagged rock from the floor.
Victoria’s head lowered slowly. She was relishing the moment, but it snapped up as I called her name.
“Victoria!” As I said it I drove the point of the rock into the crease of my elbow and down my arm. My blood flowed freely from the cut and drew the attention of every vampire in the clearing. The vampire Seth had fought struggled towards me, dragging himself along with his one remaining arm.
My eyes did not linger on him though; there was someone far more important here. Victoria.
She was visibly torn. Her desire split between the blood streaking down my arm and onto the ground, and Esme, her prey, at her mercy.
Her desire for my destruction was more pressing.
She slammed Esme’s head against the ground and sprang at me.
She threw me over her stone shoulder with such force the air was driven from my lungs, and then set off running. Unlike the smooth movements of running with Edward, this was jerky and painful.
I heard a wolf howl and someone shouting but I couldn’t make out the words. I tried to catch a glimpse of Esme; she had to be following us, but the cold air slamming against my face made my eyes squeeze shut.
“Esme!” I tried to scream, but it came out as a whimper. The effort sent fiery hot shard of pain into my chest. She had done some damage to my ribs when she threw me over her shoulder.
“She’s not coming, little girl,” Victoria said with glee. “None of them are coming for you now.”
She was lying. I knew it. My family loved me; they wouldn’t leave me to her cruelties.
The blood streamed from the cut in my arm leaving a crimson trail behind us. At least we will be easy to find, I thought disjointedly.
We ran for what felt like miles. My ribs became more painful with every step she took. She occasionally looked behind her; whether she was hearing my family’s approach or she was just checking, I didn’t know, but I clung to the hope that it was the former. I couldn’t see or hear anything of them, but my dull human senses were no match to her vampire ones.
The smell of salt water came to me on the air and the trees began to thin. Victoria’s pace sped impossibly faster, and then we were flying. The air whipped at my face and the pressure holding me to her tightened, and then we hit the water.
We submerged with dizzying speed, and then I felt us shooting to the surface again. I clamped my mouth shut against the water trying to force its way into my lungs.
As my head broke the surface, I drew gulping breaths of cold air and droplets of water. I choked, but Victoria paid me no mind. She gripped my shoulder painfully, holding me out of the water as she yanked the hat from my head, taking a hank of hair with it, and then stripped me of my jacket.
“W-w-w-what are you doing?” I asked through my chattering teeth. I didn’t expect an answer, and I was shocked when she gave one.
“I am setting the scene, of course.”
Her task complete, she took off swimming again, dragging me behind her like a life buoy. She took no care to hold my head out of the water, and the speed we were moving at made it hard for me to stay afloat. Soon I was back to clamping my mouth shut and gasping at the air when my head surfaced.
Something seemed to spur her into action and she dove beneath the surface dragging me down with her. My lungs burned for air and black spots swum in front of my eyes. I needed oxygen desperately. The reflex to draw a breath, even though I knew it would be a breath of water, was overpowering. I couldn’t fight it, the need was too great. My mouth opened and the water flowed freely into my mouth and lungs.
I managed only a few seconds of consciousness before the darkness swallowed me.
The fire started at my throat and crept its way across my chest and into my heart. Once it touched upon that vital organ, it flamed out over my whole body.
I didn’t understand the fire. The last thing I remembered was the water. How had the water created fire?
Another wave of flame swept over me and I stopped caring about anything but the pain. A scream built in my throat and I screeched my pain to the grey sky.
I screamed and begged and pleaded. I wanted water. I wanted relief. I wanted death. There was no reprieve from the pain, though. It swept through me, igniting every cell and fiber of my being.
My eyes closed and I lost myself in the pain.
When I opened my eyes again it was dark, and though the fire still raged, I seemed to have gained the ability to think through the pain.
I understood now that I wasn’t on fire in the literal sense, but changing from human to vampire. Someone had bitten me, but I didn’t know who. My thoughts were blurred. I remembered thunder, then water—was it the rain?— and then darkness. And now the fire.
There was supposed to be someone with me, I remembered that, but I couldn’t remember who. This change was the result of some agreement, a deal, but the details were too fuzzy to make out. I knew I had once wanted this though, and there was an important reason for it and so I should not protest the pain.
I locked my jaw shut and focused on what I could hear around me.
Someone was close to me, I could hear them shifting restlessly, but I couldn’t seem to make my head turn to look at them; it was as if the burn had made me a statue.
“Edward?” I whimpered.
The only answer I received was a mocking laugh. It was not my Edward. He would never laugh as I suffered. None of my family would. They would be talking to me, reminding me that the pain would pass, that it was worth it.
“Well, well, well, what do we have here?”a coolly amused voice said. “You have some explaining to do nomad. This was not in the plan.”
“I will kill it,” a second voice said. “But not until it is finished. I want it to feel the same pain James did. Burn from venom, and then burn from the flames. It is justice.”
It all rushed back at me. Edward, Esme, Seth, the vampire, a fight, and Victoria.
“Edward!” I moaned.
“It’s awake again,” Victoria said in a disappointed tone. “It has been quiet for a while now. I hoped its mind was going.”
“Edward, please,” I begged. He had to be here. He wouldn’t have left me to face this alone.
Someone slapped me across my cheek, hard enough to make my head rock to the side.
“Careful,” a voice I recognized as Jane’s said. “She’s not done yet. You want her to feel it all don’t you? If you kill her, you will miss your chance.”
“I want it to suffer,” Victoria said, evidently enjoying the evidence of my pain.
I made a concerted effort to control my cries again. I didn’t want her to have the pleasure of hearing me cry.
“It already is,” a softly accented voice said. I recognized this one from Volterra, but I couldn’t bring a face to mind.
“What are you going to do with it?” Jane asked. “You cannot keep it here. The Cullens will search for her.”
Her words gave me hope. They would search for me, and they would find me. I just had to hang on a little longer.
“What do you suggest?” Victoria asked.
“We will take her back to my masters. They would like to see her again, I am sure.”
“No.” The word slipped through my teeth without my permission. I couldn’t go back to that place. If I was there, Edward would never find me.
“Quiet!” Victoria snapped, punctuating her words with a sharp blow to the jaw. “If I go to your masters, what is to stop them from taking the girl from me? I want my revenge.”
“And you shall have it. Just as soon as we reach Volterra.”
Strong arms pulled at me and I was crushed against a stone chest. It made it hard to breathe. My head swam, and I found myself losing my grip on the present again.
Soon all that was left to me was the pain.