What have I done?
The vampire, Edward Cullen, had spent much of the past two months flailing himself with that question.
Why couldn't I have left Bella alone? If I had just gone away and disappeared, what's a hundred years to a vampire? She would have been long gone and forgotten, and everything would have gone back to the way it was.
Why can't I think of a way to fix this? If Bella, Nessie, and I were to leave, we would be abandoning Esme, Carlisle, and my brothers and sisters to resolve the mess that I started, and if we stay, we obligate them to fend on our behalf.
Everyone that I care about, everyone that I love, is living beneath a hazard of my creation. Even Bella, someone I condemned to share my curse, is living a life that may turn out to be far shorter than the one she would have had if she'd remained mortal. With Nessie, I had fomented one catastrophe after the other. What penance could I pay to offset this cruel fate I foresee for her?
My daughter. How absurd is that, a vampire with a daughter? What terrible offense have I done to warrant this added punishment to this curse? Why has the god of my existence saw fit to bestow upon me a daughter that I might soon see killed? What horrible crime have I committed that requires me to be tormented so singularly?
I created this problem with my weakness, and now everyone that I love is doomed to share in my crucifixion.
Edward Cullen was going into his third month of a depression that began the day the Volturi left the Olympic Peninsula. He learned something that day that no one else within his company had. He read the thoughts of the Volturi Coven as they retreated into the forest. He took comfort in Marcus' usual indifference to the outcome of that night's event, but Caius' rage at same shocked him. Caius did not care for the fact that his planned-for entertainment was thwarted by a lot of talk. The humiliation of backing away from his prey, as if they were somehow a threat to him, enraged him like no event had within the past one hundred years. Edward discerned from Caius' thoughts that he and his family had risen to the front of the line of vampires to be cowed and subjugated by him.
Normally, this alone would not have made Edward so uneasy. He was accustomed to the ruthlessness of Caius' thoughts and his callous disregard for everyone outside of his own person. What had made Edward so depressed were Aro's thoughts.
Edward had only gathered the gist of Aro's thinking. He had successfully guarded the bulk of his thoughts during his time in that clearing. Off and on, during this time, Aro would briefly drop his guard and allow Edward brief glimpses into the mind of the Volturi vampire, whose assessments and disposition carried the greatest sway among the leading three of the coven.
Edward had peered into Aro's mind before, and had not been expecting any shocking revelations from this encounter. He'd always perceived Aro as a pragmatic and calculating thinker, who was not inclined to allow sympathetic or adverse feelings to interfere with his judgment. His primary concerns were always for what was best for him. The thoughts that Aro was thinking at that time were laced with an emotion he had never known to exist in his mind before. Fear.
Aro saw Carlisle and his family as a threat of the highest order. For him, the decimation of this threat was paramount to all other considerations and objectives. Edward could read from Aro's mind that he was fearful of not being in control. During that brief time that he was able to hear his thoughts, Edward was able to sense that this condition was terrifying to him. It illuminated a side of Aro that Edward had not known existed until then. Aro was driven, by a fear of dying, to suppress all threats to his dominion. Even as his thoughts were fading away into the distance, Edward could hear Aro plotting the eradication of the Olympic Coven of vampires.
Aro's calculating thoughts for the demise of the Olympic Coven were the impetus behind Edward's depression. He knew that it was a combination of factors that convinced Aro to forgo any direct action at the clearing two months earlier. The fact that Bella's talents made open combat the only avenue available, and the fact that there were witnesses who would likely circulate negative reports of the event, were his greatest concerns. Aro calculated into his thinking that a more subtle approach might yield profits for his coven. Aro had little doubt that he and his coven could overpower them with their numerical advantage, and Edward had no doubt of this at all.
It was not as if there was any great mystery here. Every vampire there could see the Volturi's advantage. Despite the overconfidence of the Quileute shapeshifters, from the standpoint of the vampires, they were merely a complication and not an obstacle. Edward knew that Aro chose to avoid this complication, rather than risk an unforeseen outcome. Aro calculated that doing so would also provide him with an opportunity to look benevolent. Despite this artifice, Edward knew that Aro would complete this task just as soon as he comprised a means for doing so that mitigated these complications and unfavorable side effects.
Edward confided what he read from Aro's mind with the rest of the family three days after that night in the forest clearing. Renesme was excluded from this briefing. Edward had arranged for her to be entertained by Jacob that afternoon so that the rest of the family could openly discuss their futures outside of her earshot. Eleazar, Carmen, Kate, and Tanya had left that morning for their home in Alaska, so were absent, as well. They were the last of the allies and witnesses of the Cullens to leave. Edward intentionally delayed reporting on Aro's thoughts until after they had left, for fear of goading them into sharing their peril.
"He's not done with us," Edward confided in the living room of the Cullen's home. "I heard Aro's thoughts as he left. The Volturi will make a move against us."
"When are they coming?" Jasper asked quickly.
"I don't know," Edward responded calmly.
"Then how do you know that they're coming?" Jasper quickly queried back.
"Because in Aro's mind, we are a threat he is determined to destroy."
All eyes wandered towards Carlisle for his reaction to this revelation. He took it calmly and without any sign that he was surprised by anything he heard.
"Well, they can't be coming now," Alice spoke up. "I would have had a vision if they were."
"I know," Edward responded softly. "But they are coming, and I thought you all should know."
Sensing Edward's remorse, Bella entwined about his arm and snuggled up to him. "What did we do now?" she asked aloud.
"We exist," Edward responded somberly.
"So he just wants to kill us all?" Emmett pondered boisterously.
"If given no other choice, I think so," Edward countered blandly.
Carlisle continued to look indifferent to everything he heard. Esme, standing right beside him, looked very much the opposite.
"What's that supposed to mean?" Rosalie questioned Edward directly.
"I think Aro would be willing to spare some of us, if not all, if he could convince Alice to join his coven."
Alice had no response to this. Esme was quick to fill the silence.
"This is about Alice?"
"This is about all of us," Edward countered quickly. "Aro would love to add me, Bella, and Alice most of all to his collection of servile vampires."
"What makes him think that I would ever choose to be a loyal member of his mass-murdering coven?" Alice questioned no one in particular.
Edward was suddenly distracted by a stray thought from Carlisle.
Carlisle quickly checked his thoughts, and steered his thinking away from things he did not want Edward to hear. This was a depth of control that was not uncommon for vampires.
Curious about this thought and the anger behind it, Edward directed his next remark directly at Carlisle, in the hope of breaking free more information about it.
"Aro is especially angry at you, Carlisle. He feels that you are in his way. Marcus seems to be intrigued with you as well, and with you, Esme."
Carlisle responded to the remark without betraying any guarded thoughts.
"Aro is a collector of gifted vampires. He no doubt sees me as the glue that is holding us together."
Carlisle directed his next statement to the family as a whole.
"Edward is right. The Volturi would likely have no reason to harm the rest of you if they can add Alice, Edward, and Bella to their numbers."
"You're saying we should just hand ourselves over to the Volturi?" Alice asked in an incredulous tone.
"I'm saying it's a decision you each need to make on your own," Carlisle responded softly.
Alice turned to look at Rosalie, Emmett, and Jasper in turn.
"Don't you do it," Rosalie instructed sternly.
"Hell, we chased the Volturi off once. We can do it again," Emmett added confidently.
"No, you won't. Not the next time," Carlisle corrected somberly.
The Cullens looked across at each other, looking from one to the other with concerned expressions.
"So you're saying that the only way to save ourselves is to break up the family," Esme expressed in a desperate voice.
"Yes," Carlisle confirmed.
"No," Edward contradicted an instant later.
The whole family looked to Edward for an explanation. Edward was slow to respond to this silent query.
"Nothing we do will save Carlisle from Aro's wrath."
All eyes turned to Carlisle. He looked away, in turn.
"You knew," Esme questioned in an astonished tone.
"My destiny was constructed long before any of you came into being. This has nothing to do with you."
"But it's my decision," Alice spoke up defiantly, "and they come after you, Carlisle, through me."
Jasper, Rosalie, and Emmett were quick to concur. Bella followed in turn with a soft, "I won't let them hurt you, Carlisle."
"I have lived a long life, Bella," Carlisle quickly countered. "Yours is just beginning. Don't throw your future away for me. Think of Nessie. Think of your parents."
"I won't stand by and do nothing while someone does harm to you, Carlisle," Bella spoke sternly.
Carlisle accepted this response grudgingly.
Edward looked to Bella with an expression of sorrow, before turning to Carlisle with a serious one.
"You know me, Carlisle. I go where Bella goes."
Carlisle accepted this with an affirmative nod, and then turned to his wife, Esme. She, in turn, pressed up against his chest before speaking.
"You gave me this life, Carlisle, after I threw myself off a cliff. I'm only here because you're in it. Without you, I don't want it anymore."