I thought we would all be together, always. But change is something that an immortal must learn to deal with.
"Dr. Cullen? Dr. Cullen?"
I shook myself out of my thick haze of memories and looked up. "Yes, Dr. Johnston?"
"Your sister is on line two," She smiled at my temporary loss of composure and winked at me.
"Thanks, Patricia," I smiled back, and then tapped the monitor. "Hi, Alice."
"Bella, another visitor will be arriving from Volterra tonight."
My eyes narrowed slightly. "Does Aro know?"
"Yes. He's a friend of Eleazar's."
I glanced at the clock. Fortunately, Edward's last surgery coincided with my rounds.
"We'll be home in two hours."
"I know," Alice laughed and switched off.
Another visitor. This was the fourth from Volterra. The shift in the balance of power had begun.
After the confrontation with the Volturi we enjoyed a brief period of peace, but within a few months the visitors began arriving. At first it was just a few here and there. Then over about two years it increased to every other month. By the time Edward and I returned from Dartmouth with Renesmee and Jacob, Carlisle had built a guesthouse for up to six people.
Some were curious, some were seeking, some were desperate, but all of them were asking how to live without human blood. Word was spreading faster than any of us could have predicted. And then we started getting visitors from beyond Europe and the Americas. Carlisle realized what was happening long before he got the first postcard from Kate.
Their grief from the loss of Irina threatened to overwhelm them, so the Denali coven took on a new mission as members of the Cullen family: spread the word. They had started with acquaintances of Garrett's and those friends had sent them on to others.
For years we lived happily, continuing the cycle. I'd live in every moment and then I'd realize another decade had passed. Governments and wars came and went, technology sped forward unnecessarily, and truly significant moments were rare. Charlie died at 62 of an unexpected heart attack. I was in shock and Renesmee was devastated. Within a year, however, Jacob proposed and the newlyweds moved onto the reservation and stayed with the pack. We endured the separation with frequent visits. Soon, however, despite Carlisle's silver hair dye we finally had to leave Forks.
In Rochester I studied genetics at Mayo (Carlisle and I were investigating Renesmee's conception) and Edward played with the Philharmonic. Kate and Garrett came to see us just before we moved to Anchorage for the next cycle. "Vampires around the world will know your story. We're starting a vampire revolution!" Garrett laughed.
And so, everywhere we went the visitors kept coming. In just under ninety years Kate, Garrett, Tanya, Carmen and Eleazar reached their goal of walking nearly every corner of the globe, just as we returned home to Forks.
I walked through the halls of Cullen Memorial Hospital to my last rounds before my shift ended. Carlisle had made a large donation to refurbish the Forks Hospital, which needed some renovations due to advances in the latter half of the 21st century. The new wing opened when we returned from college again, just before Carlisle's 470th birthday.
The entire Denali coven joined us for the party including a new friend from India called Timir. Timir was agitated and Edward noticed his thoughts were disordered, markers of a vampire who was purposefully avoiding feeding. The boys took him out the morning of Carlisle's birthday because they also wanted to play hunting games with the old man.
I spent the morning in a whirlwind as Alice directed decoration of the house. Renesmee and I hung streamers happily remembering how Alice had decorated for both of our weddings. Esme and Kate filled the huge space with floating balloons. Carmen and Rosalie tried desperately to follow Alice's instructions for icing the gigantic cake, which only the werewolves would eat after Carlisle blew out four hundred and seventy candles.
Alice suddenly turned toward the tall, glass porch door. "Carlisle?"
A moment later, Edward appeared. He was carrying a large body.
"Grandpa?" Renesmee gasped.
I walked through reporting and giving orders at each bedside without needing much forethought. The team following me took many notes. If only vampire medicine were so comfortably routine.
Carlisle had collapsed without warning during the hunt. Edward laid him on the bed in Carlisle's office that held the emergency equipment. But vampires have no heart beat, no respirations, and we had never seen an unconscious vampire.
"He's alive," Jasper said with a clenched jaw. "He would be hard as a rock if he were dead." He was the one among us who had seen enough death to know.
Four hours later Alice ran up the stairs and Edward followed when he heard Carlisle's first confused waking thoughts.
I ran in as Esme sat on the bed and pulled his face to her. "Carlisle! Tell me what's happening!"
Carlisle caressed her cheek tenderly, then turned toward the door. "Would everyone, please, join us?" He called.
Everyone gathered within seconds. Renesmee went straight to Carlisle and her anxious face on his shoulder reminded me so much of when she was a child it broke my heart.
"What are you keeping from us?" Edward said with an edge in his voice.
Carlisle sighed. "About sixty years ago, I noticed changes. My vision was not as acute. My hearing was slightly less sensitive. Then about a decade ago my energy started dropping."
Esme shook her head. "I've seen you. You've been hiding the fatigue much longer than that."
All eyes jumped to Esme. We'd all been spending less time with them due to our life commitments, and we had missed it.
Carlisle took Esme's hand. "I didn't realize how much I was being affected, it was so subtle at first. Then I started searching for answers. I had a few old notes from when I first learned how to clean venom wounds, and reassemble disembodied vampire limbs, but I've never seen this."
"So you've found no explanation?" I was suspicious.
Carlisle looked at me and then dropped his gaze, still evasive.
"Carlisle..." Edward's frustration mounted.
"I think I'm dying," Carlisle said quietly, as if softer words would have less impact.
Every vampire in the room was frozen. Renesmee pressed her face against Carlisle's soft marble chest, and began to cry quietly. I knew her fear of losing her remaining grandfather was coming true. Carlisle wrapped both arms around his granddaughter.
"That's... not possible!" Rosalie gasped.
"Rose, I'm not saying that my logic is infallible, but I've excluded many, many other possibilities. And, everything suggests this is a natural process."
"But Aro is older," I whispered, "still strong and - "
"No, he isn't," Edward said with a hollow voice. "They've all become more fragile over time. That's why they have the guard, and Aro's shield."
"But you don't look all thin like they do!" Emmett said angrily.
Carlisle turned to Emmett. "What is the main difference between Aro and me?"
"You've fed only on animals," Jasper murmured.
Each person considered the implications of this news in their own thoughts. Then Edward turned to Alice who was sliding down the wall, her face in her hands. "ALICE! STOP!" Edward knelt in front of her and pulled her hands away. "STOP!"
"I...I can't see! Anything! ANYTHING!" She sobbed. We all knew what that meant.
Carlisle turned toward Alice. "Alice, it's okay. We don't have to know."
Edward grimaced as he held Alice.
"Don't you think we should at least try?" Esme protested.
"There is only one person you need to call now," Carlisle said calmly.
"Aro." Edward read the name in his father's mind.
Carlisle nodded. "I believe he has seen this before in other animal feeders. I need to know what he has seen. He may confirm what I believe is happening."
"Or he may try to kill you!" Rosalie shouted.
"Rose, please trust me," Carlisle's eyes pleaded.
"I'll call Aro," Edward said with authority.
"Thank you, Edward." Esme's pain was unmistakable.
Edward turned away to hide the hurt in his eyes. Carlisle had never kept secrets like this from them. Then Edward stared at Timir. "How is this comforting to you?" Edward whispered incredulously.
Timir blinked. "Mr. Edward, do you have any idea how many vampires would give anything to know that there is an end to their existence?" He turned to Carlisle. "I wish peace and prosperity to you and your family. I will tell everyone. You have changed me, for as long as I live." Timir nodded to each family member, and his words impacted us all. Where we were despairing, he had found hope.
I knew that Edward still felt ashamed for his anger with Carlisle. It was a subject he avoided even with me. I kept my thoughts to myself as he walked up carrying his white coat and scrolling through his cases for the next day. He leaned down for a tender kiss, sliding the thin touchpad into his coat. "Time to meet another visitor," I said, smiling as I straightened his collar.
Aro would arrive in the evening the following day. Eleazar was visibly stressed at the thought of Aro in the house. Tanya and Kate were uncharacteristically quiet. Their grief over their sister had reawakened, and losing Carlisle was almost unbearable.
When Jacob returned from patrolling that night expecting a party, the palpable change in the house alarmed him. Renesmee placed her hand on Jacob's cheek and he watched her thoughts in silence. Then Renesmee and I led him upstairs. Edward was there with a comforting hand on Esme who had not moved.
Some understanding thoughts passed between Jacob and Edward when their eyes met, and then Jacob approached Carlisle. "Dr. Cullen, without you there would never have been any chance for peace," Jacob said earnestly.
"Jacob, peace takes agreement and action on both sides. You are the future of our alliance." Carlisle looked at both Jacob and Edward, and then at Renesmee and me. Jacob put one long arm around Renesmee and the other across my shoulders resting his hand on Edward.
The next morning, Alice told Edward that Marcus and Caius had decided to come. Edward and I took the news straight to Carlisle and Esme.
"Carlisle, what is to stop them?" Edward paced next to Carlisle's bed.
"Edward, they cannot. Our family is too strong," Carlisle said evenly.
Edward shook his head, "I don't trust them. Why would they come here without hidden protectors?"
"Alice says they are alone." Carlisle did not waver.
"They know how to mislead her," I added. Carlisle did not respond.
Esme sat up. "Carlisle?"
No response. Carlisle's eyes were blank and half open. Edward leaned over his father and grasped his shoulders. "Carlisle!"
"I'm here, Edward. My vision suddenly clouded. I can't see you clearly..." Carlisle's voice faded.
Edward's forehead creased as his brows came together. "Father, I... cannot do this without you." Edward's voice cracked slightly.
Carlisle searched for Edward's pale face in the blur before his eyes. "Edward, you have known for a long time that you would take over leading this family. Together with Bella you have the strength. Your family will be at your side."
Edward nodded, and he allowed himself one tearless sob.
"And son, I will always be with you."
Edward released his hold on Carlisle's shoulders, and took Carlisle's hands in his. "We will defend our family, as you would have."
"Thank you, son, but I never doubted that you would," Carlisle said, and he smiled. Then he turned in my direction, "Bella," I moved closer and put a hand on his arm, "You are probably only just realizing how important you are to our family."
I struggled for words. "Carlisle, I'm not..."
He smiled again, "You are the one who was most recently human, Bella, and you've also completely avoided feeding on humans with unprecedented ease. You and Edward will be the leaders of a movement that will change vampires, forever."
Edward looked intently at his father. I knew Carlisle was talking to him without speaking. Edward's eyes softened and the corners of his mouth turned up slightly. But then I saw Edward tense, and grip Carlisle's hands tighter. "Not yet," he whispered so quietly no human would have heard him.
We pulled into the lower level garage holding fourteen of the family vehicles. I could see Edward felt the weight of his responsibility as he stared straight ahead. I reached for his hand.
Edward looked upward and smiled, "Jasper is ‘welcoming' our guest." Jasper was conscientious in his role in family security.
The evening when Jasper permitted Aro, Marcus and Caius to enter the house Aro bowed low, submitting to Edward's authority in the household. Edward personally led them to Carlisle who was laid against a stack of pillows so that he was sitting up, but his head was tipped slightly back because he could not hold it up.
"He cannot see or speak. He wants you to approach, Aro." Edward carefully listened to every Volturi thought.
Esme was still sitting on the bed, her head laid on Carlisle's right shoulder. Aro stood on Carlisle's left next to the bed and nodded to Esme. She looked sadly back at Aro then pulled Carlisle's hand to her face, blinking away nonexistent tears. Marcus and Caius stayed respectfully silent near the door.
Aro leaned forward. "Hello, my old friend. I am utterly grieved to see you this way." Then he lifted his right hand and placed it on Carlisle's cold cheek.
Aro remained motionless; his eyes on Carlisle, and the two unmoving figures locked in that moment resembled a timeless Michelangelo sculpture. When Aro finally lowered his hand, I could see sadness in his eyes that echoed with ancient desolation.
"He is declining quickly," Aro said quietly and turned toward everyone present. "It is true that human blood has fed my body better and more efficiently than animal blood is feeding yours. I am a product of uncounted millennia of evolution. But even I am not immortal. Our beloved Carlisle believes that there is hope for animal feeders." Aro smiled faintly. "He is the strongest animal feeder vampires have ever known of, and I believe his hope is justified. As you who were transformed by him carry on his line, your future progeny will only grow stronger," Aro looked directly at me. I met his gaze.
"But," Esme breathed, "you... cannot help him?"
Aro dropped his eyes. "It is not within my power."
"But there is something that can be done?" Emmett said angrily.
Aro frowned at Emmett. "Your father would cease to exist if I fed him human blood. I will never force that upon him."
Edward looked over at Carlisle, who gazed in his direction reassuringly with unseeing eyes. "He wants to talk to all of the Volturi."
Marcus and Caius were already drifting toward the bed, and Aro lifted up Carlisle's left hand in his. Marcus and Caius each laid their brittle hands on top of Carlisle's, their fingers intertwining with Aro's as he served as the conduit between the minds of all four vampires. I watched with fascination at the re-enactment of a ritual they had performed only once before in Volterra two centuries before.
Within a few seconds Aro turned and raised a hand to us. "Edward, Bella, your father has named you both as head of your family. The Volturi will honor how you govern yourselves among the humans as long as it does not conflict with our own safety."
We all exchanged glances. Our position as family leaders was not a surprise, but Aro's graciousness was. Caius seemed quite displeased, but resigned. I watched amazed as a diminutive smile passed over Marcus's face. Their ancient fight for domination that had resulted in his wife's death was over. There would be two primary covens from this point forward.
"Aro." Edward held out his palm.
Aro touched it. "Thank you, Edward. I hope the Cullen Family will accept the Volturi's deepest sympathies." Then he turned to me and bowed. "I look forward to our next meeting." I nodded. Then Aro, Marcus and Caius all floated down the stairs to the limousine and disappeared out into the dark night.
We all took positions around the bed, each one laying a hand on Carlisle. Edward spoke aloud from Carlisle's thoughts. Carlisle remembered his origins, his transformation, and learning his new way of life. He spoke of our alliances and friends, and about his wish that we would all extend our families. He remembered finding each of us, talked of his joy at seeing all of us happy, and of his love for his grandchild.
His final thoughts were for Esme.
"He says, ‘My love, my love... forever...'" and then Edward abruptly stopped speaking for the first time in over thirteen hours. Edward tightened his grip on Carlisle's leg, and found that his father's once soft marble flesh was now rock solid under his fingers. Edward's face twisted with grief, and his cry of anguish echoed in the house, then faded to silent sobs. I threw my arms around my husband's shaking shoulders.
"He would be proud of you," I said quietly. Edward was making no move to leave the car.
Edward turned toward me. "He told me in his thoughts that he had come to believe this was the reason he was changed. He found peace as a healer for humans; but he felt that God's purpose for him was... to bring hope to vampires." Edward's eyes were so liquid gold it was easy to imagine they were full of tears. "And I believe him."
I smiled at Edward as my throat closed up, and then squeezed his hand. I thought we'd all be together, always. And Carlisle was still with us.
"Let's go meet our visitor." I said with a smile.