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Civil Twilight

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    “As much as I like school, exam week can suck it.”

 

    “Tell us how you really feel, Bells.” Charlie responded. “Something about ‘if it hurts, it’s working.’” We were having dinner with Sue Clearwater again, a celebratory meal for the start of winter break. For my own guest, I invited Alice. 

 

    “So you two are having a sleepover this weekend?" Sue asked. 

 

    “We're stargazing.” I stated, matter of factly. There’s a meteor shower or something and Alice invited to take me camping with her fam.

 

    “There is not much in the way of clear skies here. Are you heading out of town?” Charlie said incredulously. 

 

    "My family has a cabin. It's in the foothills near the state park. Forecast says clear skies at night," Alice said brightly, eager to clear up our weekend plans with a cop who would come looking for me if I didn't check in. Alice might have predicted that scenario but she would neither confirm nor deny. "And the whole family is coming. Camping is a tradition we do when the semester ends."

 

"Well, glamping. I was assured there was a cabin." I clarified to dad, who raised an eyebrow at me at the mention of camping.

 

    “Is Edward going to be there?” Dad asked, with an odd tone. Sue was clearly going to stay out of this part of the conversation. She, at least, could remember the existence of the Cullens when they are not in the room.

 

    “Ellis and Dad will be there of course." Alice tried to sound reassuring. 

 

"I'll be rooming with the girls, dad" I gave him a significant look.

 

"Okay. Okay. Just checking. I'll stop being a nosy father figure. Though now that I know you are open to the idea of camping, I have a couple of ideas for fishing trips."

 

And now I get to blame Alice for any future camping trip woes I have to endure after this. Not that I am strictly opposed to the idea of camping. I just have nightmares from the time as a kid where I woke up and the tent was completely covered in stringy caterpillars. 

 

    “This reminds me, is there anything particular, clothes wise, that I need to pack?”

   

“Well we have a bunch of bloodsuckers in our woods..” Alice started, with a serious expression.

 

    I choked on the water I was drinking.

 

    “So wear light colored clothes and long socks.” Alice finished, hiding a smile. “Ticks are still around even in winter.”

 

   

 

"Good morning." Edward greeted me at the door. 

 

"Hi." I breathed, smiling dumbly up at him. I was excited all morning and had just begun pacing when Edward knocked. 

 

"You look great. You know you don't have to get dressed up to meet the family right." 

 

"I'm not dressed up. This blouse is the only light colored top I have, sans a bunch of my summery stuff from Arizona." I smoothed out a wrinkle.

 

He pulled me in for a hug, holding the small of my back and leaning his head on mine. "Alice was just pulling your leg. She said she had fun last night. And I like the outfit." He brushed his lips against ear. "Especially since you only seem to own dark colored bras."

 

"Teasing in a good way I hope."

 

"I'm into it." His eyes burned into mine, glancing down at my lips. "So, are you ready?"

 

Impulsively, I leaned forward and kissed him. His lips were warm and firm and I wanted more. But he pulled away as quick as it started, eyes still smoldering but leaning his whole body away and tense like he was willing his body not to move. 

 

"Too much? I'm sorry." Guilt washed through me, in two distinct waves. The first, for jumping into something that he clearly wasn't ready for after mistaking his question for an invitation. The second, for myself with the reminder that a wrong move could mean my death. 

 

He shook his head, clearing it, "I'm sorry. I think I was just taken off guard." 

 

I stood there, determined to wait as long as he needed. 

 

"Now you have a frowny face. I'm sorry." He reached out and smoothed out the crease between my eyebrows with the pad of his thumb. He pulled me in for another hug, gentler this time. "That was not a dejection. My hesitancy...my control is my own problem to deal with. You did nothing wrong. Thank you for being so patient with me." 

 

"I, at least, want to make it easier on you." 

 

"You only have to risk your life every second you're around me. Of course we shouldn't count that."

 

"I got a B in maths. I can at least count to 100." 

 

He grabbed my overnight bag from the chair in the living room. "I like you. I'm gonna try'n keep you alive."

 

"One ah ah ah," exclaimed in my attempt at a Sesame Street Count impression.

 

"Okay okay." He said sarcastically, opening the car door for me. 

 

"Oh my glob. What's your favorite pop-culture vampire?" I asked, once he got in.

 

"Well obviously Count Dracula was a real person so he's out."

 

"Have you ever met Vlad? Is he scary?"

 

"Nope, he died. And I don't like how vampires are portrayed in Buffy."

 

"Understandable."

 

"So I guess that just leaves me with Sesame Street." 

 

"You're lame. I like all the episodic melodrama. Rosalie was Buffy for Halloween. You think she would do a rewatch of her favorite episodes with me?"

 

"You might just win her over if you suggest that." 

 

“Hmm.” I pondered the library of CDs in Edward’s car and we drove further out of town. “How about Mountain Goats.”

 

“Love the band but the real thing tastes terrible.”

 

“From what Alice has told me, just about everything tastes terrible.”

 

We drove further and further out of town. I was surprised to find that he was taking the road towards Shuwah but turned east on a hidden sideroad. My only point of reference for this area is that Jacklyn lives a little south of Beaver, the next town over. I couldn’t decide if Beaver was a more stupid town name than Forks. 

 

"Isn't the national forest this direction?"

 

"We live really close to the park. That's by design so we can hunt with limited hikers in the area." 

 

"What happens if a hiker is in the area?"

 

His knuckles turned white gripping the steering wheel. "It's rare but accidents do happen. Last time was in the late 80's … not me," he added quickly, "I've not killed anyone since the 30's." He sighed. "Not that that makes it better. How.. how are you doing with all of this?"

 

"I… I feel like I'm starting to get desensitized with all the causal talk of murder."

 

"We tend to talk openly about everything amongst ourselves. Owning our actions, calling it how it is, recognizing that all those people had a life and a story."

 

"It's your actions now that I appreciate. All these rules and precautions you take. How you're trying to help others. You're a good person Edward." That explanation felt choppy like I couldn't put my thoughts clearly into words yet. 

 

“I keep thinking that at some point I’ll tell you something and it's going to be too much. That you’ll run away screaming.” He gave me a half-smile but his eyes were serious. “And if never seeing me again is what you want, then of course I’d let you go.”

 

“I’m not running anywhere,” I smiled back at him. “Plus running blindly through the woods is a bad idea,” I joked. 

 

“You know what I mean...I just...I want you to be safe. I wish I was more safe for you cause I want to be with you.” 

 

He took my hand and held it as we drove up the shady two-track road. There were shrubs covered in burlap, some in clusters that I could tell would be garden alcoves along a walking path that looped in and out of sight as we drove on. 

 

"What's normally in the planters? And there's a bunch of empty spots where it looks like you mulched over." I asked. I could feel my throat tighten as I listened to him talk about how much he likes me and I wanted to move the conversation to safer subjects. I like him and don’t feel good enough, like I’m bracing for him to realize how boring I am. He says something nice and I hear it as the opposite. That I am fragile. That it's work to be with me cause he has to fight against his cursed instincts. That he can’t read my mind and realize automatically how much I like him so I don’t have to find the words for it myself. A fear that I would lose him. 

 

"The planters usually contain annuals. The shrubs covered in cloth are roses. My favorite is the night scented tobacco. It's a flower, not actually smoking tobacco," he said quickly when he saw I made a face. "Rosalie plants a lot of night blooming flowers for us. We have them near the roads and spots that get the most light. We plant things that have a really strong scent so it helps cover our own. Much easier to do in spring and summer when there's more growing."

 

I wrinkled my nose at him. "I think you smell great. Are vampires supposed to smell funny? Wait, is this where that garlic myth comes from?"

 

He gave a short laugh. "We have a fairly strong sense of smell. The scent thing is hard to describe though. We do have a distinct smell but your cute little human nose probably couldn't smell it. Most vampires are solitary or live in small groups, pairs, trios. But if someone smells another vampire in the area, instinct says go check it out."

 

Alice and Jasper were hanging out near the garage when we pulled up. 

 

"As a warning, Alice is very excited." Edward said as we parked the car. 

 

"Wait, this building is just the garage." We were in a large open room and it was obvious that there was nothing but cars in the space. Some mechanic tools along one wall. A bathroom in a corner with a small utility shower. 

 

"There are seven of us and most of us like driving. It's not very environmentally friendly, I know." 

 

"I mean where's the house?" I said, closing the car door behind me. 

 

"Just behind the hill." Alice appeared at my side and pulled me into a tight hug, the beads in her hair clicking together in her rush. Her hair was done in a new style of braids today, the colored strands removed and now with cute beads throughout her beautiful locks.  

 

Jasper walked up at a reasonable pace. "There's technically a secret way under the hill to the garage but Alice wants you to see it from the front." 

 

Everything was shaded by towering trees covered in hanging moss. Not as much moss as the Hall of Mosses in the Olympic National park where Angela took me for a hike, but still an impressive amount of greenery for winter. 

 

      "You walk sooo sloooow." Alice said in an exaggerated way. 

 

"You walk so fast." I quibbed back. "Wait, is it snowing?"

 

Alice twirled a little bit in the falling flakes. The rain from this morning had slowed and now seemed to defy gravity as it gently drifted from the grey sky.

 

"For the next hour or so,” she forecasted. “Then rain, then fog. I still promise you clear skies tonight," 

 

"Oh." When I looked up again I realized the house was in view. "Is that timber frame construction?"

 

"Yeah, it's a remodel from the existing structure." Esmond emerged from a trail that led away from the house. "Sorry to startle you just now. I heard the car drive up. It is very nice to meet you again Bella." 

 

"It's a beautiful house." I responded.

 

The hand-hewn beams made a beautiful arch, topped with a chipped-slate roof. The bricks were natural stone with a lighter mortar and the beginnings of ivy climbing up it. Two large trees flanked the little porch, casting it and all the windows in shade. 

 

"Do you build a new house in every town you move to?"

 

"More or less. It's my pet project. I build furniture between moves and start blue-prints for the next build."

 

"I'd love to see more of your work." I smiled at him. He had a heavy canvas work apron on and clearly just walked out of his woodshop to say hello. 

 

Edward leaned in and whispered in my ear. "Just as a warning, Emmett is planning on spooking you."

 

"What does that mean-" I began to ask.

 

"No you don't." Esmond spoke sternly to the tree tops, looking straight up. 

 

Emmett dropped down on the path behind Esmond as if a fifty foot drop was nothing.  A blur, a slight bend of the knees, a pout about being caught. "You guys are no fun." 

 

"If you are mean to her, she's not gonna want to come back." Esmond chided. 

 

"There is still time to turn back if you just want to hang out at your house." Edward asked me in a low tone. No sense in whispering when everyone can hear you anyway. 

 

"I have a morbid curiosity to find out if y'all sleep in coffins." 

 

"Yeah we can nail you in if you want to try it out." Emmett responded in an equally playful jest. 

 

"That sounds like fun." Rose suddenly appeared behind Emmett, chin resting on his shoulder and arms wrapped around him and her long hair spilling off to the side. 

 

"Let's feed the human some breakfast first," Edward told the crowd.

 

"I packed some food," the topic reminded me of the bag I packed. I let go of Edward's hand to circle around him for my bag. He immediately responded by flipping around again, hands out stretched in a pleading gesture, but the whole movement faster than what I could respond to. 

 

"I know you said that you'd pack some food but I purposely distracted you at the door so you would forget to grab it from the fridge," he explained. 

 

I was aware that all of his siblings were around watching, probably highly entertained by this little drama. "I just didn't want you to go out of your way to cook when none of you eat."

 

"He bought you groceries." Emmett said from the sidelines. 

 

"And baked you something," Rose added immediately after. 

 

"How about let's go inside." Alice popped her head out of the doorframe. I didn't even notice that she and Jasper weren't behind me anymore. 

 

"I wanted to cook for you." Edward said, walking backwards a few steps to open the door for me. 

 

The house was airy, with bookshelves covering the walls and furniture arranged into little sitting and study areas. It lacked windows because of the angle of the roof, except for the ones at the front and rear ends of the house. The place was arranged like I was about to check into a bed and breakfast and or ski resort. Ellis was just closing their laptop at a standing desk near far end of the room. Behind them looked to be narrow shelves that used to be mail slots, now pottery display. Mirroring the desk of the left side of the room was a bar counter with an open view into the kitchen

 

"Good morning Bella. How are you? How is the arm?" asked Ellis warmly. 

 

"Hi Doctor Cullen...It twinges a bit but it's doing much better." I said.

 

"I can suggest a lotion if the skin is feeling tight. And please, you can call me Ellis," they said as they gathered up their pile of manilla folders. 

 

"That would be nice, thank you."

 

"You'll have to excuse me for a moment, I need to put these patient files away." Ellis left through the back hallway.

 

"I'm going to arrange something for you to eat," Edward kissed the side of my head and slipped into the kitchen.  

 

"So…" I turned to Alice and Jasper and rapped my knuckles on the counter twice. "How do I check in?" The younger Cullens never followed us in so I could only assume there were more buildings than this.

 

Jasper rushed to the other side of the counter then casually returned with a blank clipboard and pen in hand. "Ah. Ms. Zhwann. Your reservation is ready. If you would just flash your ID for confirmation, I can hand over your room key."

 

I just kept my ID in a small fold in my pocket so I pulled it out and slid it over the counter, interested to see where this little game went. Jasper glanced at it and slid a pair of old fashioned keys over the desk. 

 

"Your cabin is the last on the left, marked with frog on the door, the same as the keychain."

 

"Why a frog?" I looked at the little wood carved figure on the keychain. 

 

"Cause it's building 'F'," Alice said casually, coming back out of the kitchen with coffee grinder in hand. 

 

"I was making a joke about the layout of this building being like a lodge reception office, but this really is cabin rental?"

 

"It's a refurbished campground," Esmond said from a drafting table near the front windows. "This building was the main office. We saved the main foundation and reno-ed the rest. The cabins were all in bad condition so we tore them down and built new."

 

Edward stuck his head out from the kitchen. "We call this building 'the house' for appearances sake but technically each of us has a house." 

 

Alice unscrewed the lid off of the coffee grinder, smelling the fresh beans before pouring them into a chemex carafe. From a gooseneck kettle she began methodically pouring hot water over the grounds. 

 

"So you don't just build one house in every town you move to, you build several?" I asked. I seemed to be impressed at every turn.  

 

"We tend to places that encourage outdoor tourism. Campgrounds are perfect for more secluded spots near large preserves like this. The tiny house set-up makes more sense for our particular family dynamic anyway." 

 

"How many campgrounds have you started?" 

 

"A fair few at this point. I'm careful to change my architecture style so it can't be connected back to a single person designing them. Or change with the times. For example, geodesic dome communes popped up everywhere in the late 60’s."

 

"So I guess I wasn't lying to my dad about going to a cabin." 

 

"I'm sorry that you had to lie to your dad at all," said Edward. He presented me with a small ceramic plate with fresh baked croissants, cut fruit and fig jam. Technically, I never lied to Charlie; it's not my fault that he can’t remember everything when I mention the Cullens.

 

"Wow. Wait, these are from scratch? Croissants are so complicated. How much time did you spend planning food for me this weekend?" It was sweet that he wanted to cook for me but the more mental math I did about the time involved and me being the only one eating anything made me feel guilty. Mad at myself at the same time, for forgetting the couple of sandwiches and snacks I packed. Obstinately, I didn’t want to help with the cooking since he got himself into this mess but these simple croissants are way more than what I could pull off in the kitchen. 

 

"You're gonna be eating these for breakfast tomorrow too. Now take a bite and tell me now I did."

 

"Mmm." It was a perfectly fine example of a croissant. "A vehicle for butter just like God intended."

 

"We are gonna bombard you with food apparently," Alice said, gently placing a mug of coffee in front of me. "May I introduce to you my Lord and savior, single-origin, locally and lightly roasted, high altitude grown, and ethically sourced Ethiopian coffee,” said in one breath.

 

"For someone who doesn't drink coffee, you have a lot of feels about it," I said, taking a tentative sip of the brew. 

 

"A lot of how things taste are in the smell and my sense of smell is better than yours." 

 

"I thought you said that food smells don't smell like food anymore for you." 

 

"They don't smell like something I can eat but they still smell good. Just...not appetizing." She waved her hand in a gesture dismissing the human foodstuffs on my plate and emphasizing the last two words. 

 

"So you guys don't have any human food that you miss?" I asked. 

 

"I kinda feel like there's not much to miss." Edward explained. "All of it is still around. Smells might bring out nostalgia. But it is not something we really crave." 

 

"I swear I can get some of the caffeine from the smell." Alice said, hovering over my cup. I slowly slid it away from under her nose and took another sip. 

 

Jasper came around behind Alice and pulled her into a hug. "Maybe I have been messing with you this entire time. Giving you a slight mood boost every time I see you holding a cup of coffee." 

 

"See, and that's why I love you." She said, looking up and giving him a kiss. 

 

Edward leaned close to me conspiratorially. "I believe that's an example of Pavlov's dog."

 

"Yeah but who trained who." Jasper said while planting a kiss on Alice's forehead. 

 

After breakfast, I took my coffee for a walk, Edward pointing out the little houses and which one belonged to who. Emmett's was the closest to the main house for the wifi connection. We didn't go in but apparently he has an impressive collection of video games. Rose had her own place, one of the only cottages in a clearing and not tree cover. It was half underground on a hill, consisting of a windowless stone ground floor topped with a beautiful old greenhouse. It was the closest to my coffin theory as that's where the two sleep. Not the old barn vibe I guessed from a distance but more cottage-core, dried flowers on the rafters, handmade rug, and lit by candlesticks. 

 

Jasper and Alice also shared a place but used a second cottage as a sewing and fiber studio. Jasper showed off his spinning wheel and Alice attempted to explain knitwear patterns to me until I had a glazed look in my eyes, not understanding any of the shorthand terms for knitting. What really caught my eye was the treadle Singer sewing machine. When I first moved to Arizona, I remember that grandma had an old treadle Singer, sat unused in the living room. I assumed it was broken, that she kept it for sentimental reasons. When she died, we moved it to storage, the same storage I put some of mom's things. This Singer looked exactly the same except a sewing project sat on the table and an extra work lamp illuminated the area. 

 

"That sewing machine is as old as I am," Edward said after I sat before the machine to try the treadle. I could hardly hear the gears moving, it's action was so smooth. "Actually, my dad bought that original. I lost it for a few decades but I tracked it down and was able to buy it again as an antique. I wanted to have something from my parents."

 

"And these old machines still work," Alice said. "No power needed, just the treadle. Needs some oiling every once and a while. Winding the bobbin is annoying but it takes modern needles." 

 

"They were made before planned obsolescence was a thing." Jasper said, still spinning away on his spinning wheel. That, too, looked old. 

 

"You guys would be really fun to take antiquing." 

 

"Please please please let us go antiquing with you." Alice said. 

 

"Or to thrift stores," Jasper added. He didn't need to look at the yarn he was making but it came out as an even thin thread even as his attention was elsewhere. "Alice and I like to buy out a bunch of old clothes and upcycle them." 

 

"Our altered clothing label is in a couple of different boutiques around the country." She said pointing to neatly folded stacks of clothes on a shelf. I just assumed that it was part of her own wardrobe but now that I saw the labels on the shelves, it was sorted by size and style, with handmade tags already attached. 

 

"I thought you said you do knitwear." I asked. The shelves on the opposite side of the room were full of yarn and folded sweaters. 

 

"That's a different label." She shrugged. 

 

"And yet, when I see you in school, you guys only wear clothes that you see other students wearing." 

 

Like Edward has a sweatshirt nearly identical to one of Tyler's except it's in a different color. Jessica got a new top from a trip to Port Angeles and then Alice started wearing something similar soon after. Nothing they wore was new to the fashion eye of the student body. 

 

They looked at each other for a brief second before Edward answered. "It just helps us blend it. To take fashion cues from the people around us." 

 

"If we look too different, people start to be more suspicious of us." 

 

I thought for a moment. "Well, can I buy one of your knit sweaters? That way you can start wearing your own stuff." 

 

Alice got a big grin. "Buy, no," she said, shaking her head. "You'd be doing me a favor. I will gladly send you home with a bunch of clothes." 

 

The cabin tour continued to Esmond's woodshop. I felt like I was no longer on a parade of homes but a open-studio art hop. I walk in while the artist is mid project, they pause and talk about their work. The woodshop was twice as big as the rest of the cabins, a large chunk of square footage being taken up by lumber storage. A tree trunk was drying stacked in layers, like an assembled puzzle with little spacers between each section. There were some heavy duty machines that I only recognized by name: band-saw, table saw, miter saw. Part of one wall was meticulously organized hand-tools, a lot of them antiques and a lot of them repeats with slight variations. Esmond pointed out several that were older than him, found cheap at garage sales, craigslist and auctions.  

 

"These ones, in this section, are all planers." He said pointing to some similar looking tools. "Basically what you use to make a board flat. But, changing the blade shape," he pointed to another one, "this one would make decorative moulding like you'd see around a window frame." 

 

"Wow. I thought those were all machine tooled. I, like, thought it was made on a jig." 

 

"Well they have more industrial power tools now. Still called the same thing. Planer, router, etcetera."

 

"When did you start to learn woodworking?"  

 

"I was actually a cabinet maker when I was human. In New Orleans in the 40's."

 

"Oh wow. So that really does make you the youngest of the bunch."

 

"Hey now, and oldest too."

 

"Could I ask how you turned?" 

 

He directed me to a little seating area near a bookshelf. I chose the rocking chair for myself and the other two took a bench and a step stool to sit on. 

 

"Unlike the others, I had a wife and kid in my human life. They both got sick. Because we are black we didn’t have access to the best healthcare and medical knowledge wasn't anywhere near where it is today," He paused for a long moment and then went on. "Our daughter died first, of scarlet fever. While we were still mourning, Josephine fell ill and we thought she had the same thing but it turned out to be yellow fever. I was frantic to try and find something to save her. Our local doctors couldn't do anything. Being black, we didn’t have a lot of options. There was a lot of snake-oil being sold but of course nothing worked. I left like I had to try anyway. This last one seemed too good to be true but it was a literal crossroads deal. I gave all the money I had, sold every tool, everything we owned, to meet with someone who said they could give me a cure. Met him in the middle of nowhere outside of town and he gave me a vial. Looked like something I could pick up at an apothecary. Brought it back to Josie... It immediately made her worse, rolling around with pain." Edward had held my hand and was watching me for this part of the story. "It lasted days. I thought I had killed her. During the worst of it I drank the rest of the vial to try and kill myself but nothing happen for me. After that her pain grew less and less and she slept soundly for another whole day. Slept like she was dead, I couldn't wake her but eventually she woke up on her own… she looked better. She said she felt better, shaky, a migraine, but also better than she had in years. Except she was hungry… When we couldn't find anything in the house for her to eat, her instincts took over. I… I couldn't understand what was happening. I thought, somehow, she was rabid. She bit me and I passed out. I remember the pain growing and growing as I lost blood and then I don't remember anything. When I woke up again she was gone. I vaguely made the connection that whatever rabid infection she had, I must have gotten it with the bite. Same headache she described, things too loud and bright, muscles tense… she must have thought she had killed me and ran away. I tried to run after her but I was days late and I had no idea where she went. I realized with the...thirst, that I needed to stay away from people. I think the first thing I ate was an alligator and that was partially self defense. Eventually I ended up in the Appalachian mountains. I lived alone until Ellis found me."

 

"You never found her?" I asked. My brow was furrowed and it left like I had been making that expression for a while. 

 

"No. And logic says I should have gone back to New Orleans to see if she returned. But by the time I had my hunger under control I realized I stopped aging. If I went back I might be recognized."

 

"So no one taught you how, err, about all of this?"

 

"I did eventually come across some other nomads but they wanted me to hunt like they do… I killed people by mistake. I let myself get too hungry in the beginning trying to fight it. The nomads didn't believe me when I said deer do just as well."

 

"How did you meet Ellis?" 

 

Edward joined the story. "We spent a few winters in the Catskills and came across Esmond's hunting range. Actually, Emmett found him first. He was out trying to find a bear before they went into hibernation. But Emmett couldn't just go say hello, so Ellis was the one who made contact. They're our usual spokesperson. That was a couple of years before Alice and Jasper joined us."

 

Emmett Hunting for bears?

 

"Meeting Ellis was a pleasant surprise," Esmond responded to my question. "I didn't realize I was so starved of social contact. We talked for probably a week straight when they first made contact. It didn't take much convincing to join the family." He said with a big grin, putting a hand on Edward's shoulder. 

 

Edward smiled back at him but when he turned back to me, he seemed nervous. I had the impression that Esmond said something to him physically.  With hesitancy, Edward explained, "So, we normally have to ease new people into the idea of Rosalie and Emmett. Immortal children are against our rules. Some people might try to kill them on sight."

 

"Wait, why? Who's rules?"

 

"Kids don't have much impulse control. Whole town's have been destroyed before. Kid vampires tend to prey on other kids, it can get ugly fast. The Volturi are strict when it comes to it, more so than their rule of anonymity."

 

"My ears were burning." Ellis walked into the room. "How is the woodshop tour going?"

 

"We were just talking about how you and I met." Esmond greeted them. 

 

"That it was love at first sight and we hardly left your bed? I doubt that story is safe for guests." They said, making Esmond blush. 

 

"Thank you, I left that part out." He kissed them on the cheek as part of his response.

 

"So. Since it came up in conversation, you want to know about the Volturi.” 

 

“I feel like the more I know about all this, the better." 

 

"Okay. Let's go to my study. I have something that will help explain things." Ellis offered. 

 

"So that explains why Alice dropped off tea and cookies at your office." Edward said, dusting off some of the wood shavings from his pants. He tapped the side of his head when I gave him a quizzical look.

 

Ellis's study was cozy but felt more like an art gallery, the old fashion type that put paintings up in every available wall space. A few sculptures and a bust stood on a dresser. A metal spiral staircase leads to a small bedroom loft space. Where there might have been a small kitchen in a normal tiny house, was a small library. A feature that all the houses seemed to share was a bathroom immediately by the backdoor, more modern and minimalist than the rest of the decor. I tried not to focus on why they would need a shower so sterile looking. Ellis drew my attention to the art, pointing out a specific group portrait. 

 

“These three are the Volturi.” The painting in question was more ornately framed than the others with bright classical figures and swirling robes. The background was a dark interior with heavy curtains, three figures sitting around a table posing with books and quill, mid conversation. On the table between the figures sat a skull on a stack of books along with a bouquet of flowers. It was the type of still life that was supposed to show off the artist's skill with textures and the client's wealth and accomplishments. The figures themselves were fairly unremarkable, all dressed the same, same penetrating stare at the viewer. Renaissance men. 

 

“Oh, it’s specific people. Before it sounded like a ruling body or police or something.”

 

"They are exactly that. Aro, Marcus, and Caius. The rules that they came up with are designed to keep vampires undiscovered by humans, designed to keep us safe and fed but in actuality it keeps them rich and in power. Punished by death and enforced by a collection of gifted vampires." 

 

My expression must have flashed confusion because they added, "They collect vampires with abilities. That's actually how they collected me. They thought I had potential. That was during the start of the black plague, when it was still a rumor, slowly coming west. I was a healer, they 'collected' me and had me train their people on how to doctor so they could go into people's homes and prey on the already dying. I was naive to think they actually wanted to help people."

 

"Do you have a power like Edward?" In my head I could not stop thinking about the phrase 'plague baby' and how many centuries old that made Ellis.

 

"Nope. Just the normal supernatural vampire abilities."

 

"You know that's not true," Edward butt in. "You know that deflection thing?" He asked me. "Humans never find Ellis untrustworthy. It's subtle but it's definitely noticeable to a mind reader." 

 

"I work hard to gain that trust," Ellis defended, "and never break it." 

 

"What are the rules?" 

 

"Don't let humans discover you, basically." Ellis said, pouring me more tea. 

 

"With some exceptions," Edward added. 

 

"Don't leave a body trail. No witnesses," Ellis listed.

 

"That seems pretty obvious."

 

"Which means they offer a clean up and disposal service for favors to help along their drug and trafficking business." Edward said with a dark tone in his voice.

 

Ellis moved on quickly. "No images of yourself. That one is an immortality problem." 

 

I pointed to the painting.

 

"They gifted it to me as a gesture of goodwill. A blessing on my chosen vegetarian lifestyle. And...a sign of approval for Rosalie. The major rule is no children." 

 

There was a pause. "Did you.. create her?" I asked with a confused look. 

 

"Oh, no, I'd never. I did eat those on the edge of death during the black plague but once I learned what the others were doing, only posing as doctors for an easy meal, I reexamined my morals and made a vow to never eat a person again. I ate venison in my human and, after some desperation, I found I could live on venison again. I'm… going on a tangent. I vowed to never make another vampire myself. Rosaline was turned by her mother." 

 

"Her sisters as well. They live in Canada now and visit on occasion." 

 

"Her mother was put to death. I stepped in and stopped them from killing Rose too. The main concern is that children have no self control and go on killing trying to slate their thirst. I argued that I could teach her to live off my diet." 

 

 "Rosalie has never broken her diet." Edward said with awe. 

 

"Her sisters also. They did it out of solidarity at first but it's been a few hundred years and none of them have switched. They all traveled with me at first, then it was just the younger three, and then eventually everyone but Rose settled in Alaska." 

 

"Who was next to join the family?"

 

"Emmett," Edward said before Ellis could, "but would you like dinner before we go into another story."

 

"Oh. I could eat. I didn't realize it was already that late." 

 

"I need to get ready for my shift at the hospital soon. It was nice talking to you, Bella."