34 DECLARED

I heard the music before I was out of the car. Edward hadn’t touched his piano since the night Alice left. Now, as I shut the car door, I heard the song morph through a bridge and change into my lullaby. Edward was welcoming me home.

I moved slowly as I pulled Renesmee—fast asleep; we’d been gone all day—from the car. We’d left Jacob at Charlie’s—he’d said he was going to catch a ride home with Sue. I wondered if he was trying to fill his head with enough trivia to crowd out the image of the way my face had looked when I’d walked through Charlie’s door.

As I walked slowly to the Cullen house now, I recognized that the hope and uplift that seemed almost a visible aura around the big white house had been mine this morning, too. It felt alien to me now.

I wanted to cry again, hearing Edward play for me. But I pulled it together. I didn’t want him to be suspicious. I would leave no clues in his mind for Aro if I could help it.

Edward turned his head and smiled when I came in the door, but kept playing.

“Welcome home,” he said, as if this was just any normal day. As if there weren’t twelve other vampires in the room involved in various pursuits, and a dozen more scattered around somewhere. “Did you have a good time with Charlie today?”

“Yes. Sorry I was gone so long. I stepped out to do a little Christmas shopping for Renesmee. I know it won’t be much of an event, but . . .” I shrugged.

Edward’s lips turned down. He quit playing and spun around on the bench so that his whole body was facing me. He put one hand on my waist and pulled me closer. “I hadn’t thought much about it. If you want to make an event of it—”

“No,” I interrupted him. I flinched internally at the idea of trying to fake more enthusiasm than the bare minimum. “I just didn’t want to let it pass without giving her something.”

“Do I get to see?”

“If you want. It’s only a little thing.”

Renesmee was completely unconscious, snoring delicately against my neck. I envied her. It would have been nice to escape reality, even for just a few hours.

Carefully, I fished the little velvet jewelry bag from my clutch without opening the purse enough for Edward to see the cash I was still carrying.

“It caught my eye from the window of an antique store while I was driving by.”

I shook the little golden locket into his palm. It was round with a slender vine border carved around the outside edge of the circle. Edward popped the tiny catch and looked inside. There was space for a small picture and, on the opposite side, an inscription in French.

“Do you know what this says?” he asked in a different tone, more subdued than before.

“The shopkeeper told me it said something along the lines of ‘more than my own life .’ Is that right?”

“Yes, he had it right.”

He looked up at me, his topaz eyes probing. I met his gaze for a moment, then pretended to be distracted by the television.

“I hope she likes it,” I muttered.

“Of course she will,” he said lightly, casually, and I was sure in that second that he knew I was keeping something from him. I was also sure that he had no idea of the specifics.

“Let’s take her home,” he suggested, standing and putting his arm around my shoulders.

I hesitated.

“What?” he demanded.

“I wanted to practice with Emmett a little. . . .” I’d lost the whole day to my vital errand; it made me feel behind.

Emmett—on the sofa with Rose and holding the remote, of course—looked up and grinned in anticipation. “Excellent. The forest needs thinning.”

Edward frowned at Emmett and then at me.

“There’s plenty of time for that tomorrow,” he said.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” I complained. “There’s no such thing as plenty of time anymore. That concept does not exist. I have a lot to learn and—”

He cut me off. “Tomorrow.”

And his expression was such that not even Emmett argued.

I was surprised at how hard it was to go back to a routine that was, after all, brand new. But stripping away even that little bit of hope I’d been fostering made everything seem impossible.

I tried to focus on the positives. There was a good chance that my daughter was going to survive what was coming, and Jacob, too. If they had a future, then that was a kind of victory, wasn’t it? Our little band must be going to hold their own if Jacob and Renesmee were going to have the opportunity to run in the first place. Yes, Alice’s strategy only made sense if we were going to put up a really good fight. So, a kind of victory there, too, considering that the Volturi had never been seriously challenged in millennia.

It was not going to be the end of the world. Just the end of the Cullens. The end of Edward, the end of me.

I preferred it that way—the last part anyway. I would not live without Edward again; if he was leaving this world, then I would be right behind him.

I wondered idly now and then if there would be anything for us on the other side. I knew Edward didn’t really believe so, but Carlisle did. I couldn’t imagine it myself. On the other hand, I couldn’t imagine Edward not existing somehow, somewhere. If we could be together in any place, then that was a happy ending.

And so the pattern of my days continued, just that much harder than before.

We went to see Charlie on Christmas Day, Edward, Renesmee, Jacob, and I. All of Jacob’s pack were there, plus Sam, Emily, and Sue. It was a big help to have them there in Charlie’s little rooms, their huge, warm bodies wedged into corners around his sparsely decorated tree—you could see exactly where he’d gotten bored and quit—and overflowing his furniture. You could always count on werewolves to be buzzed about a coming fight, no matter how suicidal. The electricity of their excitement provided a nice current that disguised my utter lack of spirit. Edward was, as always, a better actor than I was.

Renesmee wore the locket I’d given her at dawn, and in her jacket pocket was the MP3 player Edward had given her—a tiny thing that held five thousand songs, already filled with Edward’s favorites. On her wrist was an intricately braided Quileute version of a promise ring. Edward had gritted his teeth over that one, but it didn’t bother me.

Soon, so soon, I would be giving her to Jacob for safekeeping. How could I be bothered by any symbol of the commitment I was so relying on?

Edward had saved the day by ordering a gift for Charlie, too. It had shown up yesterday—priority overnight shipping—and Charlie spent all morning reading the thick instruction manual to his new fishing sonar system.

From the way the werewolves ate, Sue’s lunch spread must have been good. I wondered how the gathering would have looked to an outsider. Did we play our parts well enough? Would a stranger have thought us a happy circle of friends, enjoying the holiday with casual cheer?

I think Edward and Jacob both were as relieved as I was when it was time to go. It felt odd to spend energy on the human façade when there were so many more important things to be doing. I had a hard time concentrating. At the same time, this was perhaps the last time I would see Charlie. Maybe it was a good thing that I was too numb to really register that.

I hadn’t seen my mother since the wedding, but I found I could only be glad for the gradual distancing that had begun two years ago. She was too fragile for my world. I didn’t want her to have any part of this. Charlie was stronger.

Maybe even strong enough for a goodbye now, but I wasn’t.

It was very quiet in the car; outside, the rain was just a mist, hovering on the edge between liquid and ice. Renesmee sat on my lap, playing with her locket, opening and closing it. I watched her and imagined the things I would say to Jacob right now if I didn’t have to keep my words out of Edward’s head.

If it’s ever safe again, take her to Charlie. Tell him the whole story someday. Tell him how much I loved him, how I couldn’t bear to leave him even when my human life was over. Tell him he was the best father. Tell him to pass my love on to Renée, all my hopes that she will be happy and well. . . .

I would have to give Jacob the documents before it was too late. I would give him a note for Charlie, too. And a letter for Renesmee. Something for her to read when I couldn’t tell her I loved her anymore.

There was nothing unusual about the outside of the Cullen house as we pulled into the meadow, but I could hear some kind of subtle uproar inside. Many low voices murmured and growled. It sounded intense, and it sounded like an argument. I could pick out Carlisle’s voice and Amun’s more often than the others.

Edward parked in front of the house rather than going around to the garage. We exchanged one wary glance before we got out of the car.

Jacob’s stance changed; his face turned serious and careful. I guessed that he was in Alpha mode now. Obviously, something had happened, and he was going to get the information he and Sam would need.

“Alistair is gone,” Edward murmured as we darted up the steps.

Inside the front room, the main confrontation was physically apparent. Lining the walls was a ring of spectators, every vampire who had joined us, except for Alistair and the three involved in the quarrel. Esme, Kebi, and Tia were the closest to the three vampires in the center; in the middle of the room, Amun was hissing at Carlisle and Benjamin.

Edward’s jaw tightened and he moved quickly to Esme’s side, towing me by the hand. I clutched Renesmee tightly to my chest.

“Amun, if you want to go, no one is forcing you to stay,” Carlisle said calmly.

“You’re stealing half my coven, Carlisle!” Amun shrieked, stabbing one finger at Benjamin. “Is that why you called me here? To steal from me?”

Carlisle sighed, and Benjamin rolled his eyes.

“Yes, Carlisle picked a fight with the Volturi, endangered his whole family, just to lure me here to my death,” Benjamin said sarcastically. “Be reasonable, Amun. I’m committed to do the right thing here—I’m not joining any other coven. You can do whatever you want, of course, as Carlisle has pointed out.”

“This won’t end well,” Amun growled. “Alistair was the only sane one here. We should all be running.”

“Think of who you’re calling sane,” Tia murmured in a quiet aside.

“We’re all going to be slaughtered!”

“It’s not going to come to a fight,” Carlisle said in a firm voice.

“You say!”

“If it does, you can always switch sides, Amun. I’m sure the Volturi will appreciate your help.”

Amun sneered at him. “Perhaps that is the answer.”

Carlisle’s answer was soft and sincere. “I wouldn’t hold that against you, Amun. We have been friends for a long time, but I would never ask you to die for me.”

Amun’s voice was more controlled, too. “But you’re taking my Benjamin down with you.”

Carlisle put his hand on Amun’s shoulder; Amun shook it off.

“I’ll stay, Carlisle, but it might be to your detriment. I will join them if that’s the road to survival. You’re all fools to think that you can defy the Volturi.” He scowled, then sighed, glanced at Renesmee and me, and added in an exasperated tone, “I will witness that the child has grown. That’s nothing but the truth. Anyone would see that.”

“That’s all we’ve ever asked.”

Amun grimaced, “But not all that you are getting, it seems.” He turned on Benjamin. “I gave you life. You’re wasting it.”

Benjamin’s face looked colder than I’d ever seen it; the expression contrasted oddly with his boyish features. “It’s a pity you couldn’t replace my will with your own in the process; perhaps then you would have been satisfied with me.”

Amun’s eyes narrowed. He gestured abruptly to Kebi, and they stalked past us out the front door.

“He’s not leaving,” Edward said quietly to me, “but he’ll be keeping his distance even more from now on. He wasn’t bluffing when he spoke of joining the Volturi.”

“Why did Alistair go?” I whispered.

“No one can be positive; he didn’t leave a note. From his mutters, it’s been clear that he thinks a fight is inevitable. Despite his demeanor, he actually does care too much for Carlisle to stand with the Volturi. I suppose he decided the danger was too much.” Edward shrugged.

Though our conversation was clearly just between the two of us, of course everyone could hear it. Eleazar answered Edward’s comment like it had been meant for all.

“From the sound of his mumblings, it was a bit more than that. We haven’t spoken much of the Volturi agenda, but Alistair worried that no matter how decisively we can prove your innocence, the Volturi will not listen. He thinks they will find an excuse to achieve their goals here.”

The vampires glanced uneasily at one another. The idea that the Volturi would manipulate their own sacrosanct law for gain was not a popular idea. Only the Romanians were composed, their small half-smiles ironic. They seemed amused at how the others wanted to think well of their ancient enemies.

Many low discussions began at the same time, but it was the Romanians I listened to. Maybe because the fair-haired Vladimir kept shooting glances in my direction.

“I do so hope Alistair was right about this,” Stefan murmured to Vladimir. “No matter the outcome, word will spread. It’s time our world saw the Volturi for what they’ve become. They’ll never fall if everyone believes this nonsense about them protecting our way of life.”

“At least when we ruled, we were honest about what we were,” Vladimir replied.

Stefan nodded. “We never put on white hats and called ourselves saints.”

“I’m thinking the time has come to fight,” Vladimir said. “How can you imagine we’ll ever find a better force to stand with? Another chance this good?”

“Nothing is impossible. Maybe someday—”

“We’ve been waiting for fifteen hundred years , Stefan. And they’ve only gotten stronger with the years.” Vladimir paused and looked at me again. He showed no surprise when he saw that I was watching him, too. “If the Volturi win this conflict, they will leave with more power than they came with. With every conquest they add to their strengths. Think of what that newborn alone could give them”—he jerked his chin toward me—“and she is barely discovering her gifts. And the earth-mover.” Vladimir nodded toward Benjamin, who stiffened. Almost everyone was eavesdropping on the Romanians now, like me. “With their witch twins they have no need of the illusionist or the fire touch.” His eyes moved to Zafrina, then Kate.

Stefan looked at Edward. “Nor is the mind reader is exactly necessary. But I see your point. Indeed, they will gain much if they win.”

“More than we can afford to have them gain, wouldn’t you agree?”

Stefan sighed. “I think I must agree. And that means… ”

“That we must stand against them while there is still hope.”

“If we can just cripple them, even, expose them . . .”

“Then, someday, others will finish the job.”

“And our long vendetta will be repaid. At last.”

They locked eyes for a moment and then murmured in unison. “It seems the only way.”

“So we fight,” Stefan said.

Though I could see that they were torn, self-preservation warring with revenge, the smile they exchanged was full of anticipation.

“We fight,” Vladimir agreed.

I suppose it was a good thing; like Alistair, I was sure the battle was impossible to avoid. In that case, two more vampires fighting on our side could only help. But the Romanians’ decision still made me shudder.

“We will fight, too,” Tia said, her usually grave voice more solemn than ever. “We believe the Volturi will overstep their authority. We have no wish to belong to them.” Her eyes lingered on her mate.

Benjamin grinned and threw an impish glance toward the Romanians. “Apparently, I’m a hot commodity. It appears I have to win the right to be free.”

“This won’t be the first time I’ve fought to keep myself from a king’s rule,” Garrett said in a teasing tone. He walked over and clapped Benjamin on the back. “Here’s to freedom from oppression.”

“We stand with Carlisle,” Tanya said. “And we fight with him.”

The Romanians’ pronouncement seemed to have made the others feel the need to declare themselves as well.

“We have not decided,” Peter said. He looked down at his tiny companion; Charlotte’s lips were set in dissatisfaction. It looked like she’d made her decision. I wondered what it was.

“The same goes for me,” Randall said.

“And me,” Mary added.

“The packs will fight with the Cullens,” Jacob said suddenly. “We’re not afraid of vampires,” he added with a smirk.

“Children,” Peter muttered.

“Infants,” Randall corrected.

Jacob grinned tauntingly.

“Well, I’m in, too,” Maggie said, shrugging out from under Siobhan’s restraining hand. “I know truth is on Carlisle’s side. I can’t ignore that.”

Siobhan stared at the junior member of her coven with worried eyes. “Carlisle,” she said as if they were alone, ignoring the suddenly formal feel of the gathering, the unexpected outburst of declarations, “I don’t want this to come to a fight.”

“Nor do I, Siobhan. You know that’s the last thing I want.” He half-smiled. “Perhaps you should concentrate on keeping it peaceful.”

“You know that won’t help,” she said.

I remembered Rose and Carlisle’s discussion of the Irish leader; Carlisle believed that Siobhan had some subtle but powerful gift to make things go her way—and yet Siobhan didn’t believe it herself.

“It couldn’t hurt,” Carlisle said.

Siobhan rolled her eyes. “Shall I visualize the outcome I desire?” she asked sarcastically.

Carlisle was openly grinning now. “If you don’t mind.”

“Then there is no need for my coven to declare itself, is there?” she retorted. “Since there is no possibility of a fight.” She put her hand back on Maggie’s shoulder, pulling the girl closer to her. Siobhan’s mate, Liam, stood silent and expressionless.

Almost everyone else in the room looked mystified by Carlisle and Siobhan’s clearly joking exchange, but they didn’t explain themselves.

That was the end of the dramatic speeches for the night. The group slowly dispersed, some off to hunt, some to while away the time with Carlisle’s books or televisions or computers.

Edward, Renesmee, and I went to hunt. Jacob tagged along.

“Stupid leeches,” he muttered to himself when we got outside. “Think they’re so superior.” He snorted.

“They’ll be shocked when the infants save their superior lives, won’t they?” Edward said.

Jake smiled and punched his shoulder. “Hell yeah, they will.”

This wasn’t our last hunting trip. We all would hunt again nearer to the time we expected the Volturi. As the deadline was not exact, we were planning to stay a few nights out in the big baseball clearing Alice had seen, just in case. All we knew was that they would come the day that the snow stuck to the ground. We didn’t want the Volturi too close to town, and Demetri would lead them to wherever we were. I wondered who he would track in, and guessed that it would be Edward since he couldn’t track me.

I thought about Demetri while I hunted, paying little attention to my prey or the drifting snowflakes that had finally appeared but were melting before they touched the rocky soil. Would Demetri realize that he couldn’t track me? What would he make of that? What would Aro? Or was Edward wrong? There were those little exceptions to what I could withstand, those ways around my shield. Everything that was outside my mind was vulnerable—open to the things Jasper, Alice, and Benjamin could do. Maybe Demetri’s talent worked a little differently, too.

And then I had a thought that brought me up short. The half-drained elk dropped from my hands to the stony ground. Snowflakes vaporized a few inches from the warm body with tiny sizzling sounds. I stared blankly at my bloody hands.

Edward saw my reaction and hurried to my side, leaving his own kill undrained.

“What’s wrong?” he asked in a low voice, his eyes sweeping the forest around us, looking for whatever had triggered my behavior.

“Renesmee,” I choked.

“She’s just through those trees,” he reassured me. “I can hear both her thoughts and Jacob’s. She’s fine.”

“That’s not what I meant,” I said. “I was thinking about my shield—you really think it’s worth something, that it will help somehow. I know the others are hoping that I’ll be able to shield Zafrina and Benjamin, even if I can only keep it up for a few seconds at a time. What if that’s a mistake? What if your trust in me is the reason that we fail?”

My voice was edging toward hysteria, though I had enough control to keep it low. I didn’t want to upset Renesmee.

“Bella, what brought this on? Of course, it’s wonderful that you can protect yourself, but you’re not responsible for saving anyone. Don’t distress yourself needlessly.”

“But what if I can’t protect anything?” I whispered in gasps. “This thing I do, it’s faulty, it’s erratic! There’s no rhyme or reason to it. Maybe it will do nothing against Alec at all.”

“Shh,” he hushed me. “Don’t panic. And don’t worry about Alec. What he does is no different than what Jane or Zafrina does. It’s just an illusion—he can’t get inside your head any more than I can.”

“But Renesmee does!” I hissed frantically through my teeth. “It seemed so natural, I never questioned it before. It’s always been just part of who she is. But she puts her thoughts right into my head just like she does with everyone else. My shield has holes, Edward!”

I stared at him desperately, waiting for him to acknowledge my terrible revelation. His lips were pursed, as if he was trying to decide how to phrase something. His expression was perfectly relaxed.

“You thought of this a long time ago, didn’t you?” I demanded, feeling like an idiot for my months of overlooking the obvious.

He nodded, a faint smile pulling up one corner of his mouth. “The first time she touched you.”

I sighed at my own stupidity, but his calm had mellowed me some. “And this doesn’t bother you? You don’t see it as a problem?”

“I have two theories, one more likely than the other.”

“Give me the least likely first.”

“Well, she’s your daughter,” he pointed out. “Genetically half you. I used to tease you about how your mind was on a different frequency than the rest of ours. Perhaps she runs on the same.”

This didn’t work for me. “But you hear her mind just fine. Everyone hears her mind. And what if Alec runs on a different frequency? What if—?”

He put a finger to my lips. “I’ve considered that. Which is why I think this next theory is much more likely.”

I gritted my teeth and waited.

“Do you remember what Carlisle said to me about her, right after she showed you that first memory?”

Of course I remembered. “He said, ‘It’s an interesting twist. Like she’s doing the exact opposite of what you can.’”

“Yes. And so I wondered. Maybe she took your talent and flipped it, too.”

I considered that.

“You keep everyone out,” he began.

“And no one keeps her out?” I finished hesitantly.

“That’s my theory,” he said. “And if she can get into your head, I doubt there’s a shield on the planet who could keep her at bay. That will help. From what we’ve seen, no one can doubt the truth of her thoughts once they’ve allowed her to show them. And I think no one can keep her from showing them, if she gets close enough. If Aro allows her to explain. . . .”

I shuddered to think of Renesmee so close to Aro’s greedy, milky eyes.

“Well,” he said, rubbing my tight shoulders. “At least there’s nothing that can stop him from seeing the truth.”

“But is the truth enough to stop him?” I murmured.

For that, Edward had no answer.

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