Chapter Forty ThreeMature

Bella was more than a little confused to have this woman sobbing into her lap; hadn't the woman just been used as a weapon against her? Bella considered her options. The woman sounded sincere, that was clear, but what could have sparked such a change? She lifted her eyes and turned to face James. What she saw was startling, she watched as James and Edward sank to their knees at the same moment. In slow motion, she saw their sharp intake of breath, the flash of surprise in their eyes, their knees buckling and sending them crashing to the floor. The stone floor beneath them crumpled and caved beneath the weight of their mutual fall.

She studied them in silence for a moment, both of them staring openly at her, and she sighed. Something was going on that she simply did not understand and it was beginning to tire her. Something shifted behind James' emerald eyes, a sweep of clever intelligence that she had so frequently seen there before. James leaped to his feet, the motion drugged and weighted in a way she didn't understand, and dove to her. He grabbed the sides of her face and met her eyes fiercely. She could see her reflection clearly in them and the brightness that covered her face baffled her; her eyes were glowing in an unnatural way, shining like little white-hot beacons. She gasped and shut her eyes.

He pierced her mind harshly, like a steel needle meant to awaken something inside of her, and she suddenly realized that if anyone else were to see her the way she was, she would be in great danger. A danger she had the exact threat of on the tip of her tongue, like a word you can almost think of, but she couldn't quite say it. She knew she had to make sure no one else saw her; she knew it because James knew it. James was linking with her to demonstrate the urgency of the situation. She had a lump in her throat that threatened to choke off her breathing from the nerves that shook her body.

The activity in her brain quieted suddenly and she could breathe again; she could taste James' power like garlic on her tongue. She focused and scanned the side of the room she was facing; there was no one there except Edward and a deceased Gloria lying on the floor. She had to tone herself down somehow. She didn't know what was making her radiate so blindingly, but she had to get control of herself before shit really went sour.

It was almost silent in the giant chambers for a full two minutes, nothing except the ragged sound of a group of vampires breathing heavily, until Aro took in a deep breath and spoke firmly. "Alec."

For Bella, everything went black.

Something was very wrong.

Bella collapsed to the floor, limp in James' arms with her head lolling back and her eyes closed. She saw nothing, heard nothing, felt nothing, and smelled nothing. She wasn't consciously aware of her own body.

James rose to his feet, letting Bella's body remain on the ground, a snarl curling his lips up around his teeth, a low rumbling hum coming from his chest. There was a ferocity in his stare that shook Aro's bones. He molded his expression into one of contrite amusement and beckoned one of his guards forward. "Acanthus."

There was a small flash of smoke that appeared to James in his peripheral vision before a stone arm circled the front of his throat and tightened. He stopped breathing, not willing to waste the effort trying, and bent his back down until he could hook his right arm against the man's thigh and lifted them both back up. Acanthus, propelled by James' arm, slammed into the mixture of stone and dirt beneath them with a harsh "oomph!"

Acanthus teleported out and appeared behind James again, his foot sweeping out to knock James' feet from beneath him. James hit the ground on his back and all of the air he'd had in his lungs came rushing out. James rolled twice, just in time to dodge a lunge from Acanthus. He considered his options.

James wasn't a stupid man, by any means; so when it occurred to him that there was only one way to finish this fight, he didn't bother debating.

'It'll crush you!' He could hear Edward's voice in his head as clearly as he heard his own.

And it didn't matter whether Edward was right or wrong. James had a fighting chance, as good as anyone could hope for, and it was the fastest way to end this. This time, Edward didn't argue.

James rolled to his feet and shook off the blow to his back, turning as Acanthus stood up from his failed lunge. He swung suddenly, feeling the sharp collapse of Acanthus' jaw bone as James' knuckles collided with it. He watched the blood spray from his mouth, listening for the tinkles of teeth hitting the ground and was rewarded to hear four of them.

Edward bolted from his spot and scooped up an unconscious Bella and a still sobbing Delia. He skittered to a stop and heaved them both onto one shoulder. Turning once again, he grabbed Jasper from his heap on the floor and settled him on the other shoulder. He tore across the room, burst through the door and rushed across another room. Edward broke through whatever surface he had to in order to continue going in a completely straight line out of the building. The quickest way out would save their lives; ramming through a stone wall or two was the lesser of the consequences for this mission of theirs. He set them all down outside and probed the area for the thoughts of James.

James ducked swiftly and locked his foot around Acanthus' ankle, yanking his footing out from beneath him, and watched as his head bounced off a jutting stone. He must be getting tired, James thought, a minute ago he was teleporting away from me as my fist hit him. He reached down to grab Acanthus by the shirt but his hand went through nothing but air and a wisp of smoke. Immediately, James spun around to make sure he wasn't behind him, but he spun directly into a swinging fist. Red pain tore across his face and he felt his nose snap beneath Acanthus' knuckles. He snorted through his nose, despite the searing pain, to remove most of the blood that poured out; he swung his own fist and collided with a buckling ribcage.

Edward skidded to a halt in the great chamber once again and listened intently to any thoughts he had been overlooking. He heard Aro clearly, the delusional man believing that Acanthus would win the fight. There was James, Acanthus, Renata… And there, less than a whisper of a single thought. He knew the tiny voice anywhere. "ALEC!" He roared the name, his voice echoing off the stone walls and booming over and over again. The sudden noise caused Alec nothing more than a fraction of a second of a break in concentration, but he lost the thread he had on Bella's senses and flashed a single, clear thought. 'Shit.'

That one thought reverberated in Edward's head a hundred times, giving him the exact location of its origin. He spun around ninety degrees and flew through the air, pinning Alec to the wall by his throat. Edward's face contorted in blind, vicious rage as he bared his fangs cruelly at the childlike vampire. Alec hissed and Edward released feral howl as he sank his teeth into Alec's neck. He drank from him brutally, digging his teeth in to the sensitive muscles and dragging it on bone where he could. A bestial instinct rose up in his veins; it engulfed his chest and filled his bones with a wild ardor for the vicious revenge that his body was crying out for.

Edward pulled his lower jaw back as far as it could go and clamped down roughly; in a single yank of his neck, he tore Alec's throat out and spit it to the ground.

Outside, Bella's torso rose up suddenly, her lungs filling with air for the first time since she collapsed; her throat made a sick, tattered gasping sound as it sucked in gulp after gulp of air. Her eyelids peeled apart and she stared up at a midnight sky cluttered with stars.

Edward released Alec's chest and walked away from the twitching creature. He looked over at James, watching his fluid movements as he swerved around Acanthus' brute attacks and countered them. James was a fighter, it was clearer in that moment than it had ever been. This was not his first time on the field; these were not the worst odds he had ever faced. Something about the way he slid his way around his opponent, the way he managed to avoid eighty or more percent of the attacks; something about the way he handled himself in the middle of the fight seemed to scream that he was meant for this. That, somehow, he was made to be able to do this better, faster, harder, stronger than everyone else.

Bella was something unbelievable, something he couldn't even fathom just yet and it had swallowed his entire being when he saw it. There was something brighter in her than there had ever been, something alive and intense and chaotic and fierce. She was more than all of them, more than anything that had yet to exist. He knew it in his bones; deep within his soul he knew she was more than all things. He felt a strange longing toward her, one he wasn't familiar with. He had longed for Bella in hundreds of ways, but this one was unique to itself. It was inexplicable in its complication; it was protectiveness, as if she alone made up the world, but it was also an eerie submission that he didn't quite understand. There was something else though, the oddest thing he had ever felt in his life. A desperation to be beside her, always, a fierce and demanding need to take his place there. His subconscious begged him to kneel at her feet; the urge was so strong he found himself exiting the great chambers and bolting through his original exit path.

Bella focused carefully on every part of her body without moving and was relieved to find that she could feel everything once again – and none of it seemed to be injured.

There was a cool pressure against the curve of her waist and she adjusted her neck so she could look at whatever she was pushed against. Long strands of black hair fell messily over a striking face, a face Bella clearly remembered but was surprised to find in such a submissive position. Delia was curled against Bella in a fetal position, as if she were seeking the warmth of a mother or the comfort of a guardian; and at Bella's sudden liveliness, Delia's eyes lifted to meet hers. Nothing was said, Delia simply returned the gaze in a silence that seemed to convey everything Bella needed to know.

Something had happened that none of them expected, and that creature that prowled Bella's chest was still very much interested in what was going on. Bella could feel it stalking the walls of her ribcage; she could feel its steps as if the creature were taking them on the inside of her flesh, lining her entire body with animal prints and small rivets where nails dug in. The sensation was foreign but not unpleasant; it almost felt as if it should be natural, as if it should have been happening all along.

James lunged for Acanthus and was unsurprised when he hit the stone floor instead. Acanthus was starting to pansy his way out of attacks with more frequency. It hardly mattered, James was only killing time until everyone important was dragged out of the building. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Aro sitting proudly in his throne-like chair, watching with fascination as, as he thought, James lost the fight. James froze where he stood, scanning for the next puff of smoke to signal Acanthus' appearance. Six feet to his left.

James didn't even look at Acanthus; instead, he turned his head slightly to glower at Aro. With a disturbed smirk, James pulled the walls in on them.

The End

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