39 THE HAPPILY EVER AFTER

“So it was a combination of things there at the end, but what it really boiled down to was… Bella,” Edward was explaining. Our family and our two remaining guests sat in the Cullens’ great room while the forest turned black outside the tall windows.

Vladimir and Stefan had vanished before we’d stopped celebrating. They were extremely disappointed in the way things had turned out, but Edward said that they’d enjoyed the Volturi’s cowardice almost enough to make up for their frustration.

Benjamin and Tia were quick to follow after Amun and Kebi, anxious to let them know the outcome of the conflict; I was sure we would see them again—Benjamin and Tia, at least. None of the nomads lingered. Peter and Charlotte had a short conversation with Jasper, and then they were gone, too.

The reunited Amazons had been anxious to return home as well—they had a difficult time being away from their beloved rain forest—though they were more reluctant to leave than some of the others.

“You must bring the child to see me,” Zafrina had insisted. “Promise me, young one.”

Nessie had pressed her hand to my neck, pleading as well.

“Of course, Zafrina,” I’d agreed.

“We shall be great friends, my Nessie,” the wild woman had declared before leaving with her sisters.

The Irish coven continued the exodus.

“Well done, Siobhan,” Carlisle complimented her as they said goodbye.

“Ah, the power of wishful thinking,” she answered sarcastically, rolling her eyes. And then she was serious. “Of course, this isn’t over. The Volturi won’t forgive what happened here.”

Edward was the one to answer that. “They’ve been seriously shaken; their confidence is shattered. But, yes, I’m sure they’ll recover from the blow someday. And then . . .” His eyes tightened. “I imagine they’ll try to pick us off separately.”

“Alice will warn us when they intend to strike,” Siobhan said in a sure voice. “And we’ll gather again. Perhaps the time will come when our world is ready to be free of the Volturi altogether.”

“That time may come,” Carlisle replied. “If it does, we’ll stand together.”

“Yes, my friend, we will,” Siobhan agreed. “And how can we fail, when I will it otherwise?” She let out a great peal of laughter.

“Exactly,” Carlisle said. He and Siobhan embraced, and then he shook Liam’s hand. “Try to find Alistair and tell him what happened. I’d hate to think of him hiding under a rock for the next decade.”

Siobhan laughed again. Maggie hugged both Nessie and me, and then the Irish coven was gone.

The Denalis were the last to leave, Garrett with them—as he would be from now on, I was fairly sure. The atmosphere of celebration was too much for Tanya and Kate. They needed time to grieve for their lost sister.

Huilen and Nahuel were the ones who stayed, though I had expected those last two to go back with the Amazons. Carlisle was deep in fascinated conversation with Huilen; Nahuel sat close beside her, listening while Edward told the rest of us the story of the conflict as only he knew it.

“Alice gave Aro the excuse he needed to get out of the fight. If he hadn’t been so terrified of Bella, he probably would have gone ahead with their original plan.”

“Terrified?” I said skeptically. “Of me ?”

He smiled at me with a look I didn’t entirely recognize—it was tender, but also awed and even exasperated. “When will you ever see yourself clearly?” he said softly. Then he spoke louder, to the others as well as to me. “The Volturi haven’t fought a fair fight in about twenty-five hundred years. And they’ve never, never fought one where they were at a disadvantage. Especially since they gained Jane and Alec, they’ve only been involved with unopposed slaughterings.

“You should have seen how we looked to them! Usually, Alec cuts off all sense and feeling from their victims while they go through the charade of a counsel. That way, no one can run when the verdict is given. But there we stood, ready, waiting, outnumbering them, with gifts of our own while their gifts were rendered useless by Bella. Aro knew that with Zafrina on our side, they would be the blind ones when the battle commenced. I’m sure our numbers would have been pretty severely decimated, but they were sure that theirs would be, too. There was even a good possibility that they would lose. They’ve never dealt with that possibility before. They didn’t deal with it well today.”

“Hard to feel confident when you’re surrounded by horse-sized wolves,” Emmett laughed, poking Jacob’s arm.

Jacob flashed a grin at him.

“It was the wolves that stopped them in the first place,” I said.

“Sure was,” Jacob agreed.

“Absolutely,” Edward agreed. “That was another sight they’ve never seen. The true Children of the Moon rarely move in packs, and they are never much in control of themselves. Sixteen enormous regimented wolves was a surprise they weren’t prepared for. Caius is actually terrified of werewolves. He almost lost a fight with one a few thousand years ago and never got over it.”

“So there are real werewolves?” I asked. “With the full moon and silver bullets and all that?”

Jacob snorted. “Real . Does that make me imaginary?”

“You know what I mean.”

“Full moon, yes,” Edward said. “Silver bullets, no—that was just another one of those myths to make humans feel like they had a sporting chance. There aren’t very many of them left. Caius has had them hunted into near extinction.”

“And you never mentioned this because… ?”

“It never came up.”

I rolled my eyes, and Alice laughed, leaning forward—she was tucked under Edward’s other arm—to wink at me.

I glared back.

I loved her insanely, of course. But now that I’d had a chance to realize that she was really home, that her defection was only a ruse because Edward had to believe that she’d abandoned us, I was beginning to feel pretty irritated with her. Alice had some explaining to do.

Alice sighed. “Just get it off your chest, Bella.”

“How could you do that to me, Alice?”

“It was necessary.”

“Necessary!” I exploded. “You had me totally convinced that we were all going to die! I’ve been a wreck for weeks.”

“It might have gone that way,” she said calmly. “In which case you needed to be prepared to save Nessie.”

Instinctively, I held Nessie—asleep now on my lap—tighter in my arms.

“But you knew there were other ways, too,” I accused. “You knew there was hope. Did it ever occur to you that you could have told me everything? I know Edward had to think we were at a dead end for Aro’s sake, but you could have told me .”

She looked at me speculatively for a moment. “I don’t think so,” she said. “You’re just not that good an actress.”

“This was about my acting skills ?”

“Oh, take it down an octave, Bella. Do you have any idea how complicated this was to set up? I couldn’t even be sure that someone like Nahuel existed—all I knew was that I would be looking for something I couldn’t see! Try to imagine searching for a blind spot—not the easiest thing I’ve ever done. Plus we had to send back the key witnesses, like we weren’t in enough of a hurry. And then keeping my eyes open all the time in case you decided to throw me any more instructions. At some point you’re going to have to tell me what exactly is in Rio. Before any of that , I had to try to see every trick the Volturi might come in with and give you what few clues I could so you would be ready for their strategy, and I only had just a few hours to trace out all the possibilities. Most of all, I had to make sure you’d all believe that I was ditching out on you, because Aro had to be positive that you had nothing left up your sleeves or he never would have committed to an out the way he did. And if you think I didn’t feel like a schmuck—”

“Okay, okay!” I interrupted. “Sorry! I know it was rough for you, too. It’s just that… well, I missed you like crazy, Alice. Don’t do that to me again.”

Alice’s trilling laugh rang through the room, and we all smiled to hear that music once more. “I missed you, too, Bella. So forgive me, and try to be satisfied with being the superhero of the day.”

Everyone else laughed now, and I ducked my face into Nessie’s hair, embarrassed.

Edward went back to analyzing every shift of intention and control that had happened in the meadow today, declaring that it was my shield that had made the Volturi run away with their tails between their legs. The way everyone looked at me made me uncomfortable. Even Edward. It was like I had grown a hundred feet during the course of the morning. I tried to ignore the impressed looks, mostly keeping my eyes on Nessie’s sleeping face and Jacob’s unchanged expression. I would always be just Bella to him, and that was a relief.

The hardest stare to ignore was also the most confusing one.

It wasn’t like this half-human, half-vampire Nahuel was used to thinking of me in a certain way. For all he knew, I went around routing attacking vampires every day and the scene in the meadow had been nothing unusual at all. But the boy never took his eyes off me. Or maybe he was looking at Nessie. That made me uncomfortable, too.

He couldn’t be oblivious to the fact that Nessie was the only female of his kind that wasn’t his half-sister.

I didn’t think this idea had occurred to Jacob yet. I kind of hoped it wouldn’t soon. I’d had enough fighting to last me for a while.

Eventually, the others ran out of questions for Edward, and the discussion dissolved into a bunch of smaller conversations.

I felt oddly tired. Not sleepy, of course, but just like the day had been long enough. I wanted some peace, some normality. I wanted Nessie in her own bed; I wanted the walls of my own little home around me.

I looked at Edward and felt for a moment like I could read his mind. I could see he felt exactly the same way. Ready for some peace.

“Should we take Nessie . . .”

“That’s probably a good idea,” he agreed quickly. “I’m sure she didn’t sleep soundly last night, what with all the snoring.”

He grinned at Jacob.

Jacob rolled his eyes and then yawned. “It’s been a while since I slept in a bed. I bet my dad would get a kick out of having me under his roof again.”

I touched his cheek. “Thank you, Jacob.”

“Anytime, Bella. But you already know that.”

He got up, stretched, kissed the top of Nessie’s head, and then the top of mine. Finally, he punched Edward’s shoulder. “See you guys tomorrow. I guess things are going to be kind of boring now, aren’t they?”

“I fervently hope so,” Edward said.

We got up when he was gone; I shifted my weight carefully so that Nessie was never jostled. I was deeply grateful to see her getting a sound sleep. So much weight had been on her tiny shoulders. It was time she got to be a child again—protected and secure. A few more years of childhood.

The idea of peace and security reminded me of someone who didn’t have those feelings all the time.

“Oh, Jasper?” I asked as we turned for the door.

Jasper was sandwiched tight in between Alice and Esme, somehow seeming more central to the family picture than usual. “Yes, Bella?”

“I’m curious—why is J. Jenks scared stiff by just the sound of your name?”

Jasper chuckled. “It’s just been my experience that some kinds of working relationships are better motivated by fear than by monetary gain.”

I frowned, promising myself that I would take over that working relationship from now on and spare J the heart attack that was surely on the way.

We were kissed and hugged and wished a good night to our family. The only off note was Nahuel again, who looked intently after us, as if he wished he could follow.

Once we were across the river, we walked barely faster than human speed, in no hurry, holding hands. I was sick of being under a deadline, and I just wanted to take my time. Edward must have felt the same.

“I have to say, I’m thoroughly impressed with Jacob right now,” Edward told me.

“The wolves make quite an impact, don’t they?”

“That’s not what I mean. Not once today did he think about the fact that, according to Nahuel, Nessie will be fully matured in just six and a half years.”

I considered that for a minute. “He doesn’t see her that way. He’s not in a hurry for her to grow up. He just wants her to be happy.”

“I know. Like I said, impressive. It goes against the grain to say so, but she could do worse.”

I frowned. “I’m not going to think about that for approximately six and a half more years.”

Edward laughed and then sighed. “Of course, it looks like he’ll have some competition to worry about when the time comes.”

My frown deepened. “I noticed. I’m grateful to Nahuel for today, but all the staring was a little weird. I don’t care if she is the only half-vampire he’s not related to.”

“Oh, he wasn’t staring at her—he was staring at you.”

That’s what it had seemed like… but that didn’t make any sense. “Why would he do that?”

“Because you’re alive,” he said quietly.

“You lost me.”

“All his life,” he explained, “—and he’s fifty years older than I am—”

“Decrepit,” I interjected.

He ignored me. “He’s always thought of himself as an evil creation, a murderer by nature. His sisters all killed their mothers as well, but they thought nothing of it. Joham raised them to think of the humans as animals, while they were gods. But Nahuel was taught by Huilen, and Huilen loved her sister more than anyone else. It shaped his whole perspective. And, in some ways, he truly hated himself.”

“That’s so sad,” I murmured.

“And then he saw the three of us—and realized for the first time that just because he is half immortal, it doesn’t mean he is inherently evil. He looks at me and sees… what his father should have been.”

“You are fairly ideal in every way,” I agreed.

He snorted and then was serious again. “He looks at you and sees the life his mother should have had.”

“Poor Nahuel,” I murmured, and then sighed because I knew I would never be able to think badly of him after this, no matter how uncomfortable his stare made me.

“Don’t be sad for him. He’s happy now. Today, he’s finally begun to forgive himself.”

I smiled for Nahuel’s happiness and then thought that today belonged to happiness. Though Irina’s sacrifice was a dark shadow against the white light, keeping the moment from perfection, the joy was impossible to deny. The life I’d fought for was safe again. My family was reunited. My daughter had a beautiful future stretching out endlessly in front of her. Tomorrow I would go see my father; he would see that the fear in my eyes had been replaced with joy, and he would be happy, too. Suddenly, I was sure that I wouldn’t find him there alone. I hadn’t been as observant as I might have been in the last few weeks, but in this moment it was like I’d known all along. Sue would be with Charlie—the werewolves’ mom with the vampire’s dad—and he wouldn’t be alone anymore. I smiled widely at this new insight.

But most significant in this tidal wave of happiness was the surest fact of all: I was with Edward. Forever.

Not that I’d want to repeat the last several weeks, but I had to admit they’d made me appreciate what I had more than ever.

The cottage was a place of perfect peace in the silver-blue night. We carried Nessie to her bed and gently tucked her in. She smiled as she slept.

I took Aro’s gift from around my neck and tossed it lightly into the corner of her room. She could play with it if she wished; she liked sparkly things.

Edward and I walked slowly to our room, swinging our arms between us.

“A night for celebrations,” he murmured, and he put his hand under my chin to lift my lips to his.

“Wait,” I hesitated, pulling away.

He looked at me in confusion. As a general rule, I didn’t pull away. Okay, it was more than a general rule. This was a first.

“I want to try something,” I informed him, smiling slightly at his bewildered expression.

I put my hands on both sides of his face and closed my eyes in concentration.

I hadn’t done very well with this when Zafrina had tried to teach me before, but I knew my shield better now. I understood the part that fought against separation from me, the automatic instinct to preserve self above all else.

It still wasn’t anywhere near as easy as shielding other people along with myself. I felt the elastic recoil again as my shield fought to protect me. I had to strain to push it entirely away from me; it took all of my focus.

“Bella!” Edward whispered in shock.

I knew it was working then, so I concentrated even harder, dredging up the specific memories I’d saved for this moment, letting them flood my mind, and hopefully his as well.

Some of the memories were not clear—dim human memories, seen through weak eyes and heard through weak ears: the first time I’d seen his face… the way it felt when he’d held me in the meadow… the sound of his voice through the darkness of my faltering consciousness when he’d saved me from James… his face as he waited under a canopy of flowers to marry me… every precious moment from the island… his cold hands touching our baby through my skin…

And the sharp memories, perfectly recalled: his face when I’d opened my eyes to my new life, to the endless dawn of immortality… that first kiss… that first night…

His lips, suddenly fierce against mine, broke my concentration.

With a gasp, I lost my grip on the struggling weight I was holding away from myself. It snapped back like stressed elastic, protecting my thoughts once again.

“Oops, lost it!” I sighed.

“I heard you,” he breathed. “How? How did you do that?”

“Zafrina’s idea. We practiced with it a few times.”

He was dazed. He blinked twice and shook his head.

“Now you know,” I said lightly, and shrugged. “No one’s ever loved anyone as much as I love you.”

“You’re almost right.” He smiled, his eyes still a little wider than usual. “I know of just one exception.”

“Liar.”

He started to kiss me again, but then stopped abruptly.

“Can you do it again?” he wondered.

I grimaced. “It’s very difficult.”

He waited, his expression eager.

“I can’t keep it up if I’m even the slightest bit distracted,” I warned him.

“I’ll be good,” he promised.

I pursed my lips, my eyes narrowing. Then I smiled.

I pressed my hands to his face again, hefted the shield right out of my mind, and then started in where I’d left off—with the crystal-clear memory of the first night of my new life… lingering on the details.

I laughed breathlessly when his urgent kiss interrupted my efforts again.

“Damn it,” he growled, kissing hungrily down the edge of my jaw.

“We have plenty of time to work on it,” I reminded him.

“Forever and forever and forever,” he murmured.

“That sounds exactly right to me.”

And then we continued blissfully into this small but perfect piece of our forever.

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