Chapter 15: Honeymoon

I did not eat anyone on the way to Ukraine. We left early, so I'd have time to fill up on animal blood as soon before the ceremony as possible. While the others checked into a hotel in town, Edward rented a car and drove me to a sufficiently human-free forested area in the middle of the night, scouted ahead to make sure that there wasn't anyone about while I waited in the car, and then gave me the go-ahead. I ate two elk, a lynx, and a wild boar. (I found I liked the boar more than I had other animals, for some reason. It had the same icky tang to it that they all did, but I was able to interpret it as being more like yogurt or sour cream than actual spoilage, to borrow a human food analogy.) By the end of this feast I felt bloated and sloshy with all the excess blood - I felt like doing anything but eating.

In the hotel, there were smells of humans everywhere, but I didn't have to get close to anyone. I focused on the way Edward's hand felt in mine as we made our way back to our rooms in the wee hours of the morning, and did not devour the night doorman, or any of our neighbors. The traces the humans left in the room made the air dry and thirst-inducing, but it was like Death Valley in the summer, not the interior of an active incinerator. Unpleasant, but tolerable, almost ignoreable, especially when I was so full.

We didn't sleep or ever urgently need the bathroom, so we were in two adjacent rooms instead of spreading out over several - a girls' room where Alice and Esme and Rosalie (mostly Alice) fussed over me, and a guys' room where the others stayed.

I heard Emmett and Jasper badgering Edward into having a bachelor party at around three a.m. I furrowed my brow, wondering what they'd do, but then shrugged to myself. It wasn't like Edward would look twice at anyone else, even if they did hire strippers for some unfathomable reason. He was all mine. I purred quietly, contemplating this fact.

Alice apparently knew better than to drag me to any human-filled place for a bachelorette party I did not want, but she insisted on curling my hair. She piled it up in a cascade of elegantly ironed ringlets on the top of my head, secured with about six pounds of bobby pins. Most makeup was impossible, since nothing would stick to vampire skin if we didn't hold our faces in perfect stillness to avoid cracking paint or dislodging clingy powder. But mascara was usable - eyelashes, like other hair, were unaffected except for growing more slowly. Alice pleaded with me to let her dab a little bit on. I thought it looked silly, gilt on the lily of my new face, but let her do it. Maybe it distracted from the sleepy shadows under my eyes. (I never felt tired - just looked like I could use a night's sleep, like all of us vampires did.)

Once I'd been pinned and painted to her satisfaction, she smoothed down her own dark spikes. Then she braided up Rosalie and Esme, coiling the expertly woven plaits into buns affixed to the backs of their heads with more bobby pins from her endless supply.

Edward and the others of his room left for our appointment first, so I could get into my dress after he was out of mindreading range and reduce the risk of his silly superstition bothering him.

Alice, ever eager to organize fancy things, had set everything up. We were meeting an official who'd conduct the service in a picturesque empty steppe, as well as a photographer - the open air would help me tolerate proximity to the humans. I had a bouquet, and so did Alice, Rosalie, and Esme (my bridesmaids - well, technically, bridesmatrons, not that anyone ever used that word.) Alice had gotten them dresses, too. Gold - like the eyes I hoped to achieve through a scrupulous "vegetarian" diet. I was wearing brown contact lenses again to avoid spooking our celebrant.

There was no aisle, but Alice had scared up a privacy screen thing from somewhere, and set it up in the middle of the grass. With Edward and the human standing some twenty feet away, the rest of us huddled behind the barrier so we could emerge as we were supposed to. The bridesmaids and groomsmen (neither Edward nor I had designated a specific maid of honor or best man) went first, pairwise: Esme and Carlisle, Rosalie and Emmett, and Alice and Jasper. I heard the photographer's camera clicking as he caught snapshots.

My father was not present, and I'd declined to have Carlisle walk me down the "aisle". That meant I was alone. I was brimful with nerves - "aaaaaah I'm getting married what would Renée say" - but nerves were not thirst. Anything but thirst was good. I took a deep breath of relatively human-free air, shielded from their scents by the screen. I took one long stride past its edge and turned towards the place where I would be wed.

Edward looked stunning. He was so supernally, exultantly happy - I'd seen him smile like that once when I'd agreed to marry him, and there it was again, and there was nothing else in the world, not even the warm heartbeats of the photographer and the celebrant.

I managed not to break into a run. I took long, but measured, steps towards him, feeling my face split into a grin of my own. In what seemed like an age, but was really seconds, I was in my designated place, on the side where my bridesmaids fanned out. Edward took my hands in his.

The service was in Ukrainian. I'd read through a phrasebook, again, and memorized what I'd need to say when, but the recitation - whatever the local equivalent was for "We are gathered here today..." - entered my ears without my comprehending more than the occasional word and our names. It would have even if it'd been in English, most likely; my eyes were fixed on Edward, my mind was full of Edward, I was listening to him breathe and clutching his fingers in mine. The celebrant was beneath notice.

I said my lines when cued. They used up my air; I drew in another breath, focusing on Edward's scent over the humans'. Glee over my imminent marriage chased out the impulse to dart to my left and bite into the man's jugular.

Edward spoke his own piece with triumphant emphasis. I lifted my hand when it came time, and he added the wedding band to the engagement ring: a delicate torus of gold, also his mother's, thin and slight enough to tuck under the wide lattice of diamonds. It, too, fit perfectly.

The celebrant, all but forgotten in my rush of euphoria, said the words that I knew were Ukrainian for, "You may kiss the bride."

Edward pounced on me as though it didn't matter if the humans saw his improbable speed, as though no one was watching at all, as though the only things in the universe were me and him and the fact that it was now time for us to be kissing. His old-fashioned restraint was properly obviated in matrimony; and I was safe to kiss; and I clutched at him with just enough caution to avoid gouging holes in him but he didn't protest, just held me tighter -

Emmett. Of course Emmett would whistle. Edward and I broke apart, matching growls in our throats too low for the celebrant to hear. The human looked indulgent, like he saw this sort of thing all the time. He had no idea. Humans would explode if they felt like this. Edward looked about to explode, so suffused with victory and satisfaction was he. I might burst myself. I'd loved him human, if anything humans felt deserved the word, but not like this. No heart also burdened with the task of beating could take it.

I kissed him again; I couldn't resist and he didn't try.

Eventually we had to interrupt ourselves again, to stand in photographer-dictated arrangements. We photographed every possible combination. Me and Edward, me and all the bridesmaids, Edward and all the groomsmen, me and Alice with and without Edward (for recipients of only partial truth), the entire wedding party together, each pair of the others.

The celebrant and the photographer had arrived separately, in their own cars. They bade us goodbye and were on their respective ways, the latter with a promise to send all the photographs in both physical and digital formats as requested. (Edward translated, bending to whisper against my ear, and almost before he finished his sentence I spun in his arms to kiss him again.)

When they were gone, there was no human anywhere in view. I plucked my contacts gently out of my eyes and dropped them on the ground, then turned back to my husband.

"Dance with me," I whispered to Edward, and then we spun, full of grace, placing our feet in flawless rhythm on the steppe, whirling in sync like figurines in a music box.

We had almost two perfect weeks before disaster struck.

For our honeymoon, Esme loaned us her private island off the coast of Brazil. It had been a gift to her from Carlisle, but stood empty most of the time. The small airplane that Edward had rented to get us to and from Ukraine couldn't be trusted to get across the Atlantic Ocean without a stop, and I didn't want to spend an overnight flight in a passenger jet full of humans. We could have swum, but it would have taken a long time.

So Edward took a passenger flight and I went in his luggage. He was nervous about the plan, thinking I might have some bad associations with traveling in cargo holds, but it was a very different situation. I was in a giant suitcase, with books to read (quite able to see them in the dark), not in need of food or water or sleep or fresh air, not squishy enough to be made uncomfortable by lumps under me or weights over me, not crampable by awkward poses. Most importantly, I wasn't the captive of a creature with many times my strength who was taking me to Italy whether I liked it or not.

The suitcase was searched at every stop - of course; I'd make any x-ray machine they put me through go haywire - but we'd prepared for that eventuality. I held perfectly still, didn't breathe, kept my eyes closed, and had a tag around my wrist that labeled me (in Norwegian, English, and Portuguese) "Untitled: Mixed Media. 2004. Anonymous artist." I could feel hot, damp hands poking at me, fumbling for the tag. I heard them zip up the suitcase again. The time I was investigated during our stop Stateside, I heard some confused mumbles about why such a pretty statue was being transported without any packing peanuts and in the same bag as a set of assorted language primers and a box of contact lenses. I didn't think this inquisitiveness would go anywhere untoward. I probably wasn't even the strangest-looking thing they'd seen that month.

Edward picked me and our other bags off the carousel in Rio de Janeiro; in the suitcase, I popped my contact lenses in. I was finally unpacked after he'd rented a car and stashed the other items in the trunk; he let me out at a moment when no one was looking and I unfolded myself into the passenger seat. Promptly, Edward kissed me, which was not at all unwelcome.

Eventually we remembered that we had somewhere to be and he drove to the docks. He found a place to stash the car which would let him leave it there for the extended duration he wanted, and then we divided our belongings between us and I followed him to a sleek white boat that floated among other, clunkier craft. I didn't know how to drive the thing, but I watched Edward pilot it skillfully out into the water and picked up on approximately what he was doing, under what circumstances, and how the boat reacted.

The trip took just under an hour. The sun came up soon after the lights of Rio were pinpricks in the distance - no one could see us. I watched my skin shimmer as I lazed idly in the boat.

Isle Esme came into view. It was a tiny island, a low beach trailing out into the water on one side and swaying palms on the other. Our boat drew up to the bleached wood of the docks, where Edward tied off. He swung our bags out onto the planks and then scooped me into his arms.

"This is Esme's island, not ours," I pointed out. "You don't have to carry me over this particular threshold."

"I'm just being thorough," said Edward gallantly, positioning my weight over one arm and scooping up the trunks with the other. I shrugged and didn't protest as he carried me up a winding path to the island's house.

It was a big, pale house, with all the glass and white carpeting characteristic of Esme's preferences in architecture. I imagined Carlisle bringing Esme here for the first time, presenting her with a tumbled-down ramshackle toy, and her setting to work outfitting it with everything she wanted. Edward took one final triumphant stride through the wide-open front doors. "Here we are, Mrs. Cullen," he said, savoring my appended name like it was a piece of candy. Candy made out of blood, I amended in my head as the analogy floundered. He set the suitcases on the floor.

"Are you planning to put me down?" I asked mirthfully.

"Hmmm," he said, in mock thoughtfulness. "Not just yet, I think." I let him carry me through the house - it was rather large for such a small island - and into a big white room with a big white bed. Everything was lit by late sunrise that streamed in through the glass eastern wall.

I smirked at Edward, raised an eyebrow, and lifted my left hand to let the twin rings flash.

Among the enhanced vampire senses is touch.

Eventually, a few days later, we had to hunt. Well, I did, constant newborn thirst working against me - Edward could have waited another week. He suggested going to the mainland, but I didn't want to take any unnecessary risks with being near humans if I didn't have to, for all that he said I was handling them brilliantly for my age. Instead, we swam, looking for aquatic lunches. I ate most of a killer whale, finding the giant creature's supply of blood a little too much to consume in one sitting; Edward polished it off for me and then added a small basking shark. Hunting underwater was interestingly different, and the whale was even tastier than the wild boar had been (as animal fare went). Edward assured me when I mentioned this that they were probably available near Norway as well, having a wide range of habitat.

And then we went back to the island.

We didn't have to breathe, we didn't have to rest, we rarely needed to eat.

Being a vampire was very... very... nice.

Edward promised me that it wouldn't bother Esme that some of her furniture would need replacing. We arranged to be out, swimming around in the warm water, when the cleaning crews came through to pick up the remains of feather pillows and the splinters of bedframes.

Twelve days after we'd arrived on the island, several things happened.

First, my new cellphone rang. Alice had flung it at me after we'd stopped in Norway after the wedding, and promised to keep my parents off my back as long as she could. I told her that if they became truly panicked she was to give them the number, if she really had to. And so when it rang, I growled and interrupted what I was doing to answer it. "Hello?"

"Hello. Can I speak to Bella, please?" growled Charlie's voice.

Of course. I sounded different. How had I not thought of that? I tried to adjust the pitch and harshness of my voice, tried to remember what I'd sounded like before it had been turned into chimes. "It's me, Dad."

"ISABELLA MARIE SWAN!" roared Charlie, apparently willing to accept the faked voice as my own.

"Isabella Marie Swan Cullen," I corrected him. "Alice was supposed to tell you -" How would I have felt about this if I were who Charlie thought I was? Embarrassed, I guessed, but with a Renée-like enthusiasm for my new direction in life - though Charlie could never know how permanent this change in course would be.

"I didn't want to talk to Alice!" shouted Charlie. "I wanted to talk to you! You - you - you - eloped! You're seventeen!"

"Yeah, we had to go to Ukraine to get married because of that - Dad, I knew you'd never give us permission, but Dad, we're so happy, please forgive me," I pleaded. "I'm so happy."

Charlie growled incoherently into the receiver for a few minutes, and I listened half-patiently for him to formulate another protest. Finally he said, "Your mother has never even met Edward."

"We'll try to find a chance to visit her soon," I promised. If I put it off till the winter, bought her tickets to Norway, and broke the heater in the house, I could perhaps have an excuse to bundle up enough that my changes wouldn't look so visible. Then Renée would be cold, but none the wiser - maybe. Or maybe Alice would see her understanding, accepting, turning -

Charlie was ranting again. "It's astonishing, you know how Renée feels about early marriage, but she was talking about how you're an "old soul" and know what's best. I was expecting her to lay into you, but she's apparently content to wait for you to call her. But I want to know if you're coming home."

"I'm in the middle of my honeymoon, Dad," I told him. "And then there's the rest of the tour of Europe. That wasn't made up."

"What about after that?" he insisted.

"I don't really know, Dad," I admitted. "I was thinking I might want to go to college early, with Edward."

"Oh, Bells," sighed Charlie, voice full of unaccustomed emotion.

"You'll be okay without me," I encouraged waveringly. "You were okay without me before."

"I already miss you," he said.

"I miss you too, Dad," I choked, unable to cry. "I love you."

"Love you too, Bells," he sighed. "Have... have a good honeymoon."

"I will," I promised.

"I love you," Charlie said again, and he hung up the phone.

Edward hugged me as I flipped my cell shut. I sighed. "I assume you've already tried every form of makeup in existence and there is nothing that would make me look human," I said.

"Not if you want to move around," he said regretfully. "Anything that sticks, cracks. Anything that doesn't crack, won't stick."

"What about a thin layer of Sculpey or something..."

Edward shook his head. "Stretches unnaturally under stress. You could cover up everything but your face with clothes, but there's no way anyone you've met before would believe you suddenly prefer to wear a burqa."

I growled, and Edward petted me soothingly, and after a few minutes I permitted the distraction and we were back where we had been.

Second, my new cellphone rang again.

A less than coherent snarl escaped my throat as I sat up and lunged hatefully for the device. "Hello?" I said as musically as ever.

"Bella," said a woman's voice, quietly, urgently. Familiar, but not instantly placed - I must have known her only as a human - who was she? I thought about who Alice might have agreed to put through to me, who the voice sounded like -

"Gianna?" I asked incredulously. "What is it?"

"Bella, I'm so sorry to ask, I hate to do it - but can you send someone to Italy?" asked Gianna in a thin whisper.

"I don't understand - why?"

"I think they're going to kill me, Bella," she murmured. And then the call suddenly cut off, leaving static in its wake.

I looked at Edward.

"Did you hear that?" I asked him quietly, and he nodded, looking grave.

"I don't think we can save her, Bella," he told me. "Her days were numbered anyway. I thought they were going to keep her longer than this, maybe until next year, but they were never planning to keep her like she hoped." He guessed, correctly, that under the circumstances I would waive my discomfort with hearing Gianna's thoughts in the hopes of learning something that could help - even though he clearly didn't have much confidence in the possibility.

"I need to try," I told him. Gianna must have precious few contacts outside of the Volturi. She knew I'd become a vampire, but didn't know I was an uncommonly controlled newborn, one who could most likely avoid devouring her. If she could have gotten ahold of anyone except me, surely she'd have tried. But it seemed she expected me to ask a family member to go. But she could have made that request through Alice. What was going on?

I decided to call Alice.

Alice called me, and I picked up. "Hi, Bella," she said. "Did Gianna call you?"

"Yes," I replied. "She thinks the Volturi are going to kill her, I don't know how to help -"

"You're going to get another call," said Alice. "Aro sent you a letter here in the Norway house - and a present - I didn't think it was a good idea to keep him waiting for your answer so I phoned them and told them how to reach you. They want to meet you in person. They were going to come here, but I said you'd go to them. I see a lot of futures where Gianna lives, so you can get her out," she promised. "But... I'm having some trouble seeing exactly how. The Volturi know what I can do, so they might be blocking me on purpose, dithering, but I can't tell. You need to go to Volterra alone," she continued. "You will be fine on the flight outside of a suitcase, just fill up first and turn your little fan on if you want to breathe."

"Why do I have to go alone?" Not that I loved the idea of having Edward there, readable, full of honeymoon memories...

Alice said, "I don't know. But you go alone in every future where Gianna lives that I can see." She sounded frustrated, and like she had a splitting headache. "Maybe you won't think of whatever it is you think of, if Edward's there? But I'm guessing."

"Okay," I sighed, trusting.

"Santiago's going to call you," Alice said, and hung up abruptly.

Third, my new cellphone rang again. Santiago's voice was easier to recognize, with advance warning. "Hello," she said, formal in her tone.

"Hello, Santiago," I replied, and I just barely heard a surprised little noise when she noticed the glassy, lyrical quality my voice had taken on. No reason to hide it from her - reason to flaunt it, actually. "What can I do for you?" I asked, speeding up a little, making it clearer that I really was a vampire.

"Aro requests the honor of your presence at your earliest convenience," she replied. "He regrets the interruption but is eager to meet you early in your new life."

"I'm packing as we speak," I said, watching Edward scowling as he folded strewn things into neat squares and piled them into suitcases. "I'll be there in perhaps a day."

"We are aware that you are a newborn, and remind you that it is strictly forbidden to hunt within Volterra," she added.

"There's no need to worry about that," I told her. Let her draw her own conclusions, assume I'd be coming with a contingent of guardian Cullens. "That or other exposure."

"Very good," she told me. "I will see you soon." And with that, she closed the phone.

"Go eat something," muttered Edward. "I'll finish packing."

I caught his hands in their flurry of activity, brought them up to my lips and kissed them. "I'll be fine," I promised.

He looked up at me with troubled eyes, then freed his hands to cradle my face and kiss me. I broke away apologetically after a minute, and went to stock up on food.

Alice made my travel arrangements; I arrived at the Rio airport to find flights booked all the way to Italy. Edward saw me off with immense reluctance, and I inhaled only as much as I had to to talk to personnel. (I'd spent the boat ride and the drive to the airport drilling myself in Portuguese and Italian, enough to get through the trip. The little Spanish I remembered from high school was surprisingly helpful.)

I had to visit the airport and airplane lavatories occasionally to change my contact lenses. I spent the journey reading my language primers - there were Italian ones among them; I'd gotten a wide selection - and muttering supersonic practice sentences to myself. I didn't walk off the plane in Rome fluent in the language, but I thought I'd be able to communicate in an emergency.

In my bag, besides the supply of lenses and the books, was a large sum of money, a shiny black credit card in my name, a forged American passport and drivers' licenses for several countries with my new face affixed to them, and various other necessities. I'd bought a bottle of water at one stopover, but I was full enough of orca blood that I rarely found I wanted it except when I had to breathe several times in close succession.

It was close to midnight when I got to Italy. I rented a car at the airport, flipped through a map on a rack at the facility while I waited for them to drive it out to me, and set out for Volterra.

Parking was hard to find, but eventually I stashed the car at an exorbitantly overpriced garage, rolling my eyes and waving my rings at the lot attendant who tried clumsily to flirt with me. I understood about two thirds of the words, but his leer was quite plain.

I vaguely remembered the route James had taken to get to the grate that led to the Volturi compound. But it had been daylight, and I had been human. I wandered the mostly deserted streets, trying to find a familiar starting place. After a fruitless half hour, I started sniffing the air, trying to find a trail of vampire scent without getting hit by a faceful of human temptation. It took only minutes before I got a hint of the characteristically cool and sweet aroma. Inexpertly, I followed it, until I found the same hole James had jumped me down into. I took out my contact lenses, which made it instantly easier to see the darkened passage.

I leapt easily into the tunnel and followed it, up to the grating, through the door and into the hallway. Only one guard was stationed at the elevator door - no one I recognized, unless I'd gotten a very brief glimpse of him while human.

"I'm Bella Cullen," I told him.

"Come with me," he replied, and I went towards the elevator, trying to conceal my apprehension. If he noticed it, he didn't comment.

I knew as soon as the elevator doors opened again that Gianna was in the room. I spotted her a split second later, and once she saw me, her expression was one of sheer terror. She shut her eyes.

"Gianna, it's me, Bella," I said, momentarily puzzled, and then I realized she might know full well it was me - and know full well I was a newborn.

She opened one green eye, still trembling with fear.

"I'm not going to hurt you," I told her. "It's okay."

Gianna let out a huge breath. I clenched my teeth a little, but I wasn't very thirsty, and I'd been getting all kinds of practice at not eating people. Gianna was, if anything, less appetizing than the average random stranger: I had extra reason not to eat her.

The Volturi guardsman looked nonplussed. I wondered if this was how they'd planned to kill Gianna - bring the newborn past her, have me tear her to pieces in a fit of ill control, call it a crime, pin it on me, use the leverage for - something? But he recovered, and led me into the maze. I made what I hoped was a reassuring face at Gianna. She, bewildered, tilted her head and watched me go.

The guard led me through the maze much more swiftly than I'd gone as a human, and the stairs and labyrinthine halls didn't seem as arduous to pass through as they had before. In no time we were in the circular chamber I'd seen before.

Aro - as well as Marcus, Caius, and assorted other vampires - were all there. I flicked my eyes around, memorizing the faces for future reference. I recognized Santiago, Jane and Alec, and three familiar ones for which I had no names. Two vampires I didn't recognize were also present. "Hello," I said, with a curtsey to Aro - there was no reason to put on an arrogant display. I was probably going to have to provoke him one way or another during this conversation. If I had any leeway, I wanted to keep it.

"Bella, my dear," said Aro, with barely detectable uncertainty in his voice. He was staring at my eyes; I could imagine him thinking that yes, that was newborn red, but where was the crazed bloodlust? "I'm surprised that you come alone."

Did I have a good explanation for that, besides that Alice had said it was a good idea? Not really... "It was me you sent for, wasn't it?" I asked innocently. "My coven doesn't revolve around me."

"Of course," said Aro, agreeable. "I had originally planned to visit you at your new home..."

"I'm glad I could spare you the travel."

"Mm. I largely hoped to confirm that you'd been turned, according to law. I see that you have. Immortality would appear to suit you very well." He was looking me up and down, with admiration or something close to it.

"I have, just as I said I would be," I told him. "No humans suspect anything odd about my disappearance and I'm going to make sure it stays that way."

"That's good to hear." Aro paused. "I am impressed that you left Gianna unharmed."

"I'm full," I said, mostly truthfully - I had nearly finished my entire whale alone, in preparation for a human-filled trek between continents, and while I no longer felt like I'd ooze orca blood if poked, I wasn't particularly empty either.

"In fact, in general you seem like a... unique... newborn," he continued.

"My mind is protected," I reminded him. I didn't think this was actually the reason I had such control, but it was something he already knew, which could have plausibly stretched in that direction if I didn't have other information.

"That's true. And it remains so?" he inquired. "From your mate?"


"And from me?" he asked, holding forth a hand.

I didn't pause as I raised my ringless right hand to touch his. With enhanced senses, I could feel that his skin really was different from other vampires'. He wasn't as smooth, and I thought I could detect something like pores - a commodity which I lacked. I wondered if makeup would stick to his skin.

Aro let his hand fall, a small frown on his face. "How curious. Have you noticed any change in your power since you joined us, apart from your uncommon clearheadedness?"

"None," I replied. Of course, I'd been distracted, and I had lots of new powers to try out that were easier to figure out.

"Hmm. Still... Do you have any interest in joining our guard, dear Bella?"

How to get out of that without getting into any trouble... "I don't think my mate would like to do that, and I must stay with him," I said. That was probably plausible. Vampires never broke up, Edward had never been interested in joining the Volturi. If there were any reason to refuse them, it would be "my mate would be upset". And without Edward here, Aro had to take my word for it, even if Edward would have reacted differently (perhaps in response to someone's thoughts).

"I thought that might be the case," Aro sighed. "Well, I have no reason to keep you here longer... I'd intended Gianna as a gift for you," he added, raising an eyebrow. "Are you sure you don't want her before you go? It's truly baffling, the way your coven has rejected our natural diet..."

I thought fast - what attitude was he trying to elicit, with this "gift"? What did he expect me to do? "Oh, may I have her?" I asked, innocently, pleased - childlike. It was easier to act, as a vampire; all I had to do was hit on the emotions I needed, encourage them to bloom in the fertile ground of my distractable mind.

Aro's face broke into a broad smile. "Of course, child." Bingo.

"I'm so glad. I'd like to take her with me," I said.

His grin faltered. "Take her with you?"

I let my eyes go very wide. "I'm not going to eat her. My mate would be disappointed." This was probably not actually true, but at least he should be disappointed in me if I ate someone.

"But then what do you mean to do with her? I'm afraid you can't just... release her into the wild," said Aro, waving a hand. "She knows too much."

"Oh, no, that isn't my plan at all!" I said. "I'll bring her home with me, of course."

"Are you hoping to turn her?" guessed Aro. "And add her to your coven?"

There was an edge to his voice, so slight that I might be imagining it. But I guessed that the correct answer was not anything he would interpret as: "yes, I seek to expand my coven's influence, when we are already the largest coven in the world apart from your own even not counting our extended family in Denali, and have values antithetical to yours, by poaching your secretary and turning her where you were about to let her die". I would have to want Gianna for something specific, something that only she could do...

"I need her to bear my children," I told him.

"I beg your pardon?" asked Aro, after a silence of almost four seconds. I had managed to surprise him.

"Before I was turned, since I had plenty of warning, one of my sisters extracted some eggs," I explained. I didn't really want to discuss anything this personal in a roomful of Volturi - but Aro already knew it; he'd read Edward after my surgery. "I'll eventually want to use them - at least one. I could hire a stranger to carry the child, but then I couldn't keep a very good eye on her, because it would be very difficult to closely associate with a human without giving myself away. But Gianna's perfect. You've made an exception for her knowing all about us yourselves already, so of course it's okay for her to realize what's going on. I can keep her at home with me and make sure she's taken care of."

"I... see." My situation as regarded the possibility of children was probably unheard of among vampires. There was no precedent, no "legal" grounding, to forbid me this. It would mean more vampires eventually - I had no credibility whatsoever if I claimed I was planning to have children and then let them die. But it would be over a time frame that would look less alarming than just turning Gianna right away, if I played my cards right. And Aro had already, very clearly, offered me Gianna. I waited, unblinking, with the cutest, most innocent smile I could muster on my face.

Marcus slid across the floor towards Aro, and they touched hands for an instant. Aro glanced to Caius, who looked like he'd eaten something that disagreed with him. Deprived of Alec's ability to keep me out of their deliberations, Caius didn't speak either, just went to Aro and communicated by thought transfer as well. I waited while Aro thought. His eyes were closed, his face completely composed and neutral.

"My dear," said Aro after half a minute, assuming an almost avuncular smile, "I said you could have Gianna, and have her you may. If that is the use for her that suits you, far be it from me to deny you." Like I was a four-year-old who'd gotten a nice toy and only wanted to play with the box it came in. I hoped Gianna didn't hate my plan, was willing to go through with whatever needed to be done in order to placate the Volturi -

"Thank you," I said, bowing again.

"We shall have to send you visitors, in a year or two, to make sure that you are pleased with your gift, of course," Aro went on. "I would hate to discover that I'd offered you a present that you didn't like. The same goes for the objects I sent to you in the mail. I hope they will meet with your satisfaction." How... lovely. A deadline on my reproduction. I managed to avoid crossing my fingers, hoping for Gianna's - and Edward's - willingness to tolerate the situation. I put off thinking about how I liked it myself. There was no safe way to back out at this point.

"I haven't seen them yet, but I'm sure your taste is faultless," I said diplomatically, "and that I will treasure them always."

"I dearly hope so, although a treasure like yourself would outshine anything I could offer."

How long were we going to keep up this ridiculous exchange of pleasantries? Tell me to take Gianna and go, already... "You're too kind," I fluttered.

"Not at all, lovely child. As long as you are here, is there anything else you should like to have?"

"I should hate to impose. I'm only glad that I could reassure you as to my compliance with our law." That might count for something, identifying the law as my own. I was rapidly finding that one of the most convenient uses for perfect recall was the ability to keep my own subterfuge straight.

"Well, then, I shall delay you no longer in your return to your mate and your coven," said Aro genially. "The sun will be up in only a few hours. I shouldn't like to keep you for so long that you would need to tarry here for an additional day."

"My thanks," I said, with one more bow. "Until next time."

Aro nodded, agreeing, "Until next time."

I followed the route I'd taken up to the chamber, backwards, without help - although Santiago ghosted along behind me, presumably for some combination of purposes including supervising my behavior and taking up the underground guard post.

Gianna was still at her desk. She looked around when I approached; Santiago swept past me into the elevator without looking back.

"Hello again," I said, trying to sound nonthreatening.

"H-hello, Bella," said Gianna tremulously.

"It's okay," I promised. "I'm not going to hurt you. I'm going to take you home with me, okay? You're going to be fine."

She stared at me, at my red eyes.

"Would you feel better if I put contact lenses in?" I asked, raising an eyebrow. "I am not going to eat you."

"Where are we going?" she asked in a small voice.

"Norway. My family's there. We don't eat humans," I promised her. "Come on, I'm sure Alice booked us a flight, I don't want to miss it. What do you need to bring?"

"I - not much - passport, clothes," Gianna fretted. She didn't get up from her seat.

"Do you want me to help you pack?" I prodded.

"They're not going to kill me?" she asked in a small voice.

I winced. "Uh... Aro gave you to me, as a "present". I think he thought I'd kill you, before, but I didn't. And I'm not going to kill you. And my family is not going to kill you. We'll do our best to keep you safe. Please pack your things. Come on, I wouldn't need you to pack if you were going to be food, would I?"

Whether she accepted this logic or the sheer repetition just finally sank in, Gianna got to her feet and managed to walk out of the room on wobbly knees. I waited, seeing no reason to continue to frighten her.

Gianna took only eighteen minutes to pack. She came back with one, small suitcase - either she didn't have much or wanted to bolt and leave a lot of things behind. "Ready?" I asked her when she wheeled her bag into the entryway. Gianna nodded mutely.

"Is there a better way out than that?" I asked, pointing at the elevator door. She nodded, and showed me through locked doors (to which she had a key, and which she locked behind her) into a part of the compound I'd never been to before. It looked like some kind of art or history museum, complete with velvet ropes and an information desk, but Gianna seemed in a hurry, so I didn't linger over this oddity. We passed through the darkened, deserted museum in a couple of seconds and out into the streets of Volterra.

I was a little turned around, but after a moment recalling and adding up all my twisting travels, I figured out where we were in relation to my car. I put a new pair of contact lenses in and led Gianna along.

She followed me without speaking at all; I could hear her heart beating too quickly, and wondered if she was okay. But I didn't know how to ask after her condition without risking spooking her further, and she was at least capable of following me where I led. I got her into my rental car and drove us back to the airport.