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Chapter 22 FLIGHT

DEMETRI LEFT US IN THE CHEERFULLY OPULENT RECEPTION area, where the woman Gianna was still at her post behind the polished counter. Bright, harmless music tinkled from hidden speakers.

"Do not leave until dark," he warned us.

Edward nodded, and Demetri hurried away.

Gianna did not seem at all surprised by the exchange, though she did eye Edward's borrowed cloak with shrewd speculation.

"Are you all right?" Edward asked under his breath, to low for the human woman to hear. His voice was rough��if velvet can be rough��with anxiety. Still stressed by our situation, I imagined.

"You'd better make her sit before she falls," Alice said. "She's going to pieces."

It was only then that I realize I was shaking, shaking hard, my entire frame vibrating until my teeth chattered and the room around me seemed to wobble and blur in my eyes. For one wild second, I wondered if this was how Jacob felt just before exploding into a werewolf.

I heard a sound that didn't make sense, a strange, ripping counterpart to the otherwise cheery background music. Distracted by the shaking, I couldn't tell where it was coming from.

"Shh, Bella, shh," Edward said as he pulled me to the sofa farthest away from the curious human at the desk.

"I think she's having hysterics. Maybe you should slap her," Alice suggested.

Edward threw a frantic glance at her.

Then I understood. Oh. The noise was me. The ripping sound was the sobs coming from my chest. That's what was shaking me.

"It's all right, you're safe, it's all right," he chanted again and again. He pulled ne onto his lap and tucked the thick wool cloak around me, protecting me from his cold skin.

I knew it was stupid to react like this. Who knew how much time I had to look at his race? He was saved, and I was saved, and he could leave me as soon as we were free. To have my eyes so filled with tears that I could not see his features clearly was wasteful��insanity.

But, behind my eyes where the tears could not wash the image away, I could still see the panicked face of the tiny woman with the rosary.

"All those people," I sobbed.

"I know," he whispered.

"It's so horrible."

"Yes, it is. I wish you hadn't had to see that."

I rested my head against his cold chest, using the thick cloak to wipe my eyes. I took a few deep breaths, trying to calm myself.

"Is there anything I can get you?" a voice asked politely. It was Gianna, leaning over Edward's shoulder with a look that was both concerned and yet still professional and detached at the same time. It didn't seem to bother her that her face was inches from a hostile vampire. She was either totally oblivious, or very good at her job.

"No," Edward answered coldly.

She nodded, smiled at me, and then disappeared.

I waited until she was out of hearing range. "Does she know what's going on here?" I demanded, my voice low and hoarse. I was getting control of myself, my breathing evening out.

"Yes. She knows everything," Edward told me.

"Does she know they're going to kill her someday?"

"She's knows it's a possibility," he said.

That surprised me.

Edward's face was hard to read. "She's hoping they'll decide to keep her."

I felt the blood leave my face. "She wants to be one of them?"

He nodded once, his eyes sharp on my face, watching my reaction.

I shuddered. "How can she want that?" I whispered, more to myself than really looking for an answer. "How can she watch those people file through to that hideous room and want to be a part of that?"

Edward didn't answer. His expression twisted in response to something I'd said.

As I stared at his too beautiful face, trying to understand the change, it suddenly struck me that I was really here, in Edward's arms, however fleetingly, and that we were not��at this exact moment��about to be killed.

"Oh, Edward," I cried, and I was sobbing again. It was such a stupid reaction. The tears were too thick for me to see his face again, and that was inexcusable. I only had until sunset for sure. Like a fairy tale again, with deadlines that ended the magic.

"What's wrong?" he asked, still anxious, rubbing my back with gentle pats.

I wrapped my arms around his neck��what was the worst he could do? Just push me away��and hugged myself closer to him. "Is it really sick for me to be happy right now?" I asked. My voice broke twice.

He didn't push me away. He pulled me tight against his ice-hard chest, so tight it was hard to breathe, even with my lungs securely intact. "I know exactly what you mean," he whispered. "But we have lots of reasons to be happy. For one, we're alive."

"Yes," I agreed. "That's a good one."

"And together," he breathed. His breath was so sweet it made my head swim.

I just nodded, sure that he did not place the same weight on that consideration as I did.

"And, with any luck, we'll still be alive tomorrow."

"Hopefully," I said uneasily.

"The outlook is quite good," Alice assured me. She'd been so quiet, I'd almost forgotten her presence. "I'll see Jasper in less than twenty-four hours," she added in a satisfied tone.

Lucky Alice. She could trust her future.

I couldn't keep my eyes off of Edward's face for long. I stared at him, wishing more than anything that the future would never happen. That this moment would last forever, or, if it couldn't, that I would stop existing when it did.

Edward stared right back at me, his dark eyes soft, and it was easy to pretend that he felt the same way. So that's what I did. I pretended, to make the moment sweeter.

His fingertips traced the circles under my eyes. "You look so tired."

"And you look thirsty," I whispered back, studying the purple bruises under his black irises.

He shrugged. "It's nothing."

"Are you sure? I could sit with Alice," I offered, unwilling; I'd rather he killed me now than move one inch from where I was.

"Don't be ridiculous." He sighed; his sweet breath caressed my face. "I've never been in better control of that side of my nature than right now."

I had a million questions for him. One of them bubbled to my lips now, but I held my tongue. I didn't want to ruin the moment, as imperfect as it was, here in this room that made me sick, under the eyes of the would-be monster.

Here in his arms, it was so easy to fantasize that he wanted me. I didn't want to think about his motivations now��about whether he acted this way to keep me calm while we were still in danger, or if he just felt guilty for where we were and relieved that he wasn't responsible for my death. Maybe the time apart had been enough that I didn't bore him for the moment. But it didn't matter. I was so much happier pretending.

I lay quiet in his arms, re-memorizing his face, pretending��

He stared at my face like he was doing the same, while he and Alice discussed how to get home. Their voices were so quick and low that I knew Gianna couldn't understand. I missed half of it myself. It sounded like more theft would be involved, though. I wondered idly if the yellow Porsche had made it back to its owner yet.

"What was all that talk about singers?" Alice asked at one point.

"La tua cantante," Edward said. His voice made the words into music.

"Yes, that," Alice said, and I concentrated for a moment. I'd wondered about that, too, at the time.

I felt Edward shrug around me. "They have a name for someone who smells the way Bella does to me. They call her my singer��because her blood sings for me."

Alice laughed.

I was tired enough to sleep, but I fought against the weariness. I wasn't going to miss a second of the time I had with him. Now and then, as he talked with Alice, he would lean down suddenly and kiss me��his glass-smooth lips brushing against my hair, my forehead, the tip of my nose. Each time it was like an electric shock to my long dormant heart. The sound of its beating seemed to fill the entire room.

It was heaven��right smack in the middle of hell.

I lost track of the time completely. So when Edward's arms tightened around me, and both he and Alice looked to the back of the room with wary eyes, I panicked. I cringed into Edward's chest as Alec��his eyes now a vivid ruby, but still spotless in his light gray suit despite the afternoon meal��walked through the double doors.

It was good news.

"You're free to leave now," Alec told us, his tone so warm you'd think we were all lifelong friends. "We ask that you don't linger in the city."

Edward made no answering pretence; his voice was ice cold. "That won't be a problem."

Alec smiled, nodded, and disappeared again.

"Follow the right hallway around the corner to the first set of elevators," Gianna told us as Edward helped me to my feet. "The lobby is two floors down, and exits to the street. Goodbye, now," she added pleasantly. I wondered if her competence would be enough to save her.

Alice shot her a dark look.

I was relieved there was another way out; I wasn't sure if I could handle another tour through the underground.

We left through a tastefully luxurious lobby. I was the only one who glanced back at the medieval castle that housed the elaborate business facade I couldn't see the turret from here, for which I was grateful.

The party was still in full swing in the streets. The street lamps were just coming on as we walked swiftly through the narrow, cobbled lanes. The sky was a dull, fading gray overhead, but the buildings crowded the streets so closely that it felt darker.

The party was darker, too. Edward's long, trailing cloak did not stand out in the way it might have on a normal evening in Volterra. There were others in black satin cloaks now, and the plastic fangs I'd seen on the child in the square today seemed to be very popular with the adults.

"Ridiculous," Edward muttered once.

I didn't notice when Alice disappeared from beside me. I looked over to ask her a question, and she was gone.

"Where's Alice?" I whispered in a panic.

"She went to retrieve your bags from where she stashed them this morning."

I'd forgotten that I had access to a toothbrush. It brightened my outlook considerably.

"She's stealing a car, too, isn't she?" I guessed.

He grinned. "Not till we're outside."

It seemed like a very long way to the entryway. Edward could see that I was spent; he wound his arm around my waist and supported most of my weight as we walked.

I shuddered as he pulled me through the dark stone archway. The huge, ancient portcullis above was like a cage door, threatening to drop on us, to lock us in.

He led me toward a dark car, waiting in a pool of shadow to the right of the gate with the engine running. To my surprise, he slid into the backseat with me, instead of insisting on driving.

Alice was apologetic. "I'm sorry." She gestured vaguely toward the dashboard. "There wasn't much to choose from."

"It's fine, Alice." He grinned. "They can't all be 911 Turbos."

She sighed. "I may have to acquire one of those legally. It was fabulous."

"I'll get you one for Christmas," Edward promised.

Alice turned to beam at him, which worried me, as she was already speeding down the dark and curvy hillside at the same time.

"Yellow," she told him.

Edward kept me tight in his arms. Inside the gray cloak, I was warm and comfortable. More than comfortable.

"You can sleep now, Bella," he murmured. "It's over."

I knew he meant the danger, the nightmare in the ancient city, but I still had to swallow hard before I could answer.

"I don't want to sleep. I'm not tired." Just the second part was a lie. I wasn't about to close my eyes. The car was only dimly lit by the dashboard controls, but it was enough that I could see his face.

He pressed his lips to the hollow under my ear. "Try," he encouraged.

I shook my head.

He sighed. "You're still just as stubborn."

I was stubborn; I fought with my heavy lids, and I won.

The dark road was the hardest part; the bright lights at the airport in Florence made it easier, as did the chance to brush my teeth and change into clean clothes; Alice bought Edward new clothes, too, and he left the dark cloak on a pile of trash in an alley. The plane trip to Rome was so short that there wasn't really a chance for the fatigue to drag me under. I knew the flight from Rome to Atlanta would be another matter entirely, so I asked the flight attendant if she could bring me a Coke.

"Bella," Edward said disapprovingly. He knew my low tolerance for caffeine.

Alice was behind us. I could hear her murmuring to Jasper on the phone.

"I don't want to sleep," I reminded him. I gave him an excuse that was believable because it was true. "If I close my eyes now, I'll see things I don't want to see. I'll have nightmares."

He didn't argue with me after that.

It would have been a very good time to talk, to get the answers I needed��needed but not really wanted; I was already despairing at the thought of what I might hear. We had an uninterrupted block of tirre ahead of us, and he couldn't escape me on an airplane��well, not easily, at least. No one would hear us except Alice; it was late, and most of the passengers were turning off lights and asking for pillows in muted voices. Talk would help me fight off the exhaustion.

But, perversely, I bit my tongue against the flood of questions. My reasoning was probably flawed by exhaustion, but I hoped that by postponing the discussion, I could buy a few more hours with him at some later time��spin this out for another night, Scheherazade-style.

So I kept drinking soda, and resisting even the urge to blink. Edward seemed perfectly content to hold me in his arms, his fingers tracing my face again and again. I touched his face, too. I couldn't stop myself, though I was afraid it would hurt me later, when I was alone again. He continued to kiss my hair, my forehead, my wrists�� but never my lips, and that was good. After all, how many ways can one heart be mangled and still be expected to keep beating? I'd lived through a lot that should have finished me in the last few days, but it didn't make me feel strong. Instead, I felt horribly fragile, like one word could shatter me.

Edward didn't speak. Maybe he was hoping I would sleep. Maybe he had nothing to say.

I won the fight against my heavy lids. I was awake when we reached the airport in Atlanta, and I even watched the sun beginning to rise over Seattle's cloud cover before Edward slid the window shut. I was proud of myself. I hadn't missed one minute.

Neither Alice nor Edward was surprised by the reception that waited for us at Sea-Tac airport, but it caught me off guard. Jasper was the first one I saw��he didn't seem to see me at all. His eyes were only for Alice. She went quickly to his side; they didn't embrace like other couples meeting there. They only stared into each other's faces, yet, somehow, the moment was so private that I still felt the need to look away.

Carlisle and Esme waited in a quiet corner far from the line for the metal detectors, in the shadow of a wide pillar. Esme reached for me, hugging me fiercely, yet awkwardly, because Edward kept his arms around me, too.

"Thank you so much," she said in my ear.

Then she threw her arms around Edward, and she looked like she would be crying if that were possible.

"Youwill never put me through :hat again," she nearly growled.

Edward grinned, repentant. "Sorry, Mom."

"Thank you, Bella," Carlisle said. "We owe you."

"Hardly," I mumbled. The sleepless night was suddenly overpowering. My head felt disconnected from my body.

"She's dead on her feet," Esme scolded Edward. "Let's get her home."

Not sure if home was what I wanted at this point, I stumbled, half-blind, through the airport, Edward dragging me on one side and Esme on the other. I didn't know if Alice and Jasper were behind us or not, and I was too exhausted to look.

I think I was mostly asleep, though I was still walking, when we reached their car. The surprise of seeing Emmett and Rosalie leaning against the black sedan under the dim lights of the parking garage revived me some. Edward stiffened.

"Don't," Esme whispered. "She feels awful."

"She should," Edward said, making no attempt to keep his voice down.

"It's not her fault," I said, my words garbled with exhaustion.

"Let her make amends," Esme pleaded. "We'll ride with Alice and Jasper."

Edward glowered at the absurdly lovely blond vampire waiting for us.

"Please, Edward," I said. I didn't want to ride with Rosalie any more than he seemed to, but I'd caused more than enough discord in his family.

He sighed, and towed me toward the car.

Emmett and Rosalie got in the front seat without speaking, while Edward pulled me in the back again. I knew I wasn't going to be able to fight my eyelids anymore, and I laid my head against his chest in defeat, letting them close. I felt the car purr to life.

"Edward," Rosalie began.

"I know." Edward's brusque tone was not generous.

"Bella?" Rosalie asked softly.

My eyelids fluttered open in shock. It was the first time she'd ever spoken directly to me.

"Yes, Rosalie?" I asked, hesitant.

"I'm so very sorry, Bella. I feel wretched about every part of this, and so grateful that you were brave enough to go save my brother after what I did. Please say you'll forgive me."

The words were awkward, stilted because of her embarrassment, but they seemed sincere.

"Of course, Rosalie," I mumbled, grasping at any chance to make her hate me a little less. "It's not your fault at all. I'm the one who jumped off the damn cliff. Of course I forgive you."

The words came out like mush.

"It doesn't count until she's conscious, Rose," Emmett chuckled.

"I'm conscious," I said; it just sounded like a garbled sigh.

"Let her sleep," Edward insisted, but his voice was a little warmer.

It was quiet then, except for the gentle thrum of the engine. I must have fallen asleep, because it seemed like seconds later when the door opened and Edward was carrying me from the car. My eyes wouldn't open. At first I thought we were still at the airport.

And then I heard Charlie.

"Bella!" he shouted from some distance.

"Charlie," I mumbled, trying to shake off the stupor.

"Shh," Edward whispered. "It's okay; you're home and safe. Just sleep."

"I can't believe you have the nerve to show your face here." Charlie bellowed at Edward, his voice much closer now.

"Stop it, Dad," I groaned. He didn't hear me.

"What's wrong with her?" Charlie demanded.

"She's just very tired, Charlie," Edward assured him quietly. "Please let her rest."

"Don't tell me what to do!" Charlie yelled. "Give her to me. Get your hands off her!"

Edward tried to pass me to Charlie, but I clung to him with locked, tenacious fingers. I could feel my dad yanking on my arm.

"Cut it out, Dad," I said with more volume. I managed to drag my lids back to stare at Charlie with bleary eyes. "Be mad at me."

We were in front of my house. The front door was standing open. The cloud cover overhead was too thick to guess at a time of day.

"You bet I will be," Charlie promised. "Get inside." i'"Kay. Let me down," I sighed.

Edward set me on my feet. I could see that I was upright, but I couldn't feel my legs. I trudged forward anyway, until the sidewalk swirled up toward my face. Edward's arms caught me before I hit the concrete.

"Just let me get her upstairs," Edward said. "Then I'll leave."

"No," I cried, panicking. I hadn't got my answers yet. He had to stay for at least that much, didn't he?

"I won't be far," Edward promised, whispering so low in my ear that Charlie didn't have a hope of hearing.

I didn't hear Charlie answer, but Edward headed into the house. My open eyes only made it till the stairs. The last thing I felt was Edward's cool hands prying my fingers loose from his shirt.

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