Chapter 21: Kneel
“Creatures such as the Volturi,” Loki had told her as they traveled to Volterra. “Assume themselves infallible. They will not look too closely at the excuses crafted to explain your presence and infiltration. Those accustomed to seats of power often underestimate those around them.”
Internally, she’d rolled her eyes at him – pot meet kettle, much? – but hadn’t been entirely convinced. It was her neck on the line, after all. What if they didn’t believe that she had come to them seeking refuge from Victoria, or hoping for retribution against the Cullens? What if the claim that Victoria’s venom had been sucked out (“I was unconscious, so I don’t know who, but assumed one of your guards maybe…”) appeared as flimsy to them as it did to her? Sure, it’d worked the one time in the ballet studio, but twice? And to pin it on some mysterious benefactor (“I just woke up in a hospital room – I have no clue who found me and brought me there”)?
It all sounded a bit too convenient to her, but amazingly, Loki had been right.
Aro had greeted her and accepted her into the fold with nary a blink. Amused by her stuttering explanations and her perceived humanness, he’d filled in the blanks on his own for the most part. His belief in her being unable to trick any of them was apparent from the start. After all, she was merely human and hardly capable of fooling a vampire. The only time he appeared even remotely curious about her explanation was when he asked to take her hand to confirm it.
“You’ve confounded one mind reader,” Loki had told her, looking a strange mix of dismissive pride in her. “Another will be no feat.”
Hesitantly, she’d placed her hand into the cold stone one of the vampire king’s and had flinched when he abruptly inhaled, his grip tightening reflexively around her fingers as a curious glint shuttered across his eye.
It’d quickly disappeared, though, to be replaced by sheer, wanting rapture.
“Bellissima Bella,” he muttered, his eyes staring unblinking at her. She could feel his covetous gaze down to her soul and fought the urge to gag. “What a treasure you are.”
Caius had been skeptical of her once Aro had confirmed that he, indeed, could not read her. But still, he clearly looked at her as one looked upon ants at a picnic – an annoyance, but tiny and insignificant. The third brother, Marcus, hadn’t even deigned to glance at her at all. If she hadn’t known vampires were unable to sleep, she’d have suspected him to be napping with his eyes open.
“But what to do with her?” was the question they were tossing around now.
Their debating made a mockery of even the most corrupt justice system, as it quickly became apparent that they knew very well how they’d proceed and she had absolutely no say in the matter. Still, it seemed they made a big production out of arguing with each other, probably designed to make her feel her future was on shaky ground, thus ingratiating to Aro for his ‘saving’ her from Caius’s wrath.
Were all vampires so blatantly manipulative and she’d just never noticed it before? What did it say about her now that she saw such schemes clear as day and felt more amused by their attempts than disgusted?
She let them play their games, however, because feigning ignorance was to her advantage. Ignoring them for the most part, she fought the urge to yawn as they droned on, wishing she could take a page out of Marcus’s book and check out of the situation all together. A nap sounded like heaven about now.
Sleep had been absent the evening before, after all. Despite the fact that she’d been through the emotional ringer and Loki’s – for once – steady and calm presence had been enough to possibly lull her into a peaceful slumber in that wretched castle, sleep had still evaded her. Instead, she’d spent the night in Loki’s arms and accepted a different kind of peace from her erstwhile god. A peace she hadn’t known he’d been capable of providing which made it all the more precious.
They’d barely spoken at all that night. Words had felt empty in the enormity of the connection they shared – the simple comfort derived from being irrevocably bound to one another. Neither knew what the future held, but they knew one way or another, they’d stand to face it together. Even as they stood on opposite ends of the battlefield.
When it came time for him to make his exit in order to lie in wait for his grand entrance – so dramatic, she scoffed – he’d pulled away from her, nudging her chin up to meet his soothing gaze.
A million words passed between them in a single look, but all he eventually said was, “You know what to do.” And then added with a devilish smirk that had her breath hitching ever so slightly, “Have fun, Isabella.”
Fun was not how she’d describe things currently as Aro and Caius continued to bicker about laws and death sentences as though she was not even in the room. Such contrived mind-games and manipulations were not something she would ever derive enjoyment from, though she supposed there was a sort of appeal to fooling the would-be schemers. They underestimated her and there was a sort of vindictive satisfaction lurking deep in the corners of her heart knowing that she would pull the rug out from under them all. A sort of eagerness to see their faces when they realized she’d been the one with the real power all along.
She wished she could delude herself into thinking that was Loki’s influence on her, but she knew, deep down, that when Edward had abandoned her on the forest floor, he’d unlocked a dormant, insecure part of herself reserved for such thinking. It was a fine line between vengeance and justice, she’d always told Loki, but it’d been Edward who’d set her on that tightrope act and if there was anything that would make her lose her balance, it’d be confronting him.
The fact that she would take pleasure in proving them all wrong, well, she supposed that just made her human and not nearly as perfect or naive as her brother always assumed her to be… Maybe she’d never been so innocent at all.
The soul bond had stretched through the enormity of space searching for the perfect match for Loki and had found her, after all. And hadn’t they both embraced the bond with the intent to manipulate the other to their whims? That had been foolish of her, she realized now. She’d wanted to save her brother at any expense, even herself, and she’d thought to twist her connection to Loki for her own gain. Sure, she wanted to save the world in the process, but she realized the truth now…
She’d been lying to herself. Absolutely she had wanted to save Clint, but the world? Well, that hadn’t mattered as much as it should’ve. It hadn’t meant as much as having a partner who would never abandon her. Someone she knew that even as they disagreed – they could fight, push, manipulate to their hearts content – they’d still stand true and were incapable of turning their back to her.
Embracing Loki, even with the hope of saving Clint (or maybe in part because of it?) had been the most honestly selfish thing she’d ever done in her entire life. She’d latched onto the first excuse available to do so with nary a second thought. She suspected that it was much the same for him, too. Stubborn and in denial, they’d cheerfully bound themselves together at the first convenient moment, trying to save face with not only those around them but also themselves, in order to protect their bruised hearts.
Knowing that, however, she could not bring herself to regret it. No matter the complications he added to her already convoluted life – and Loki wasn’t anything if not complicated – she could not bring herself to let him go. She simply did not want to.
“Alas,” Aro chirped, his voice taking on the tremor of one announcing a decision. “It is time to bring the Cullens in and finish this sentencing.”
Flinching as she caught up with the conversation stilling around her, Bella refocused on her surroundings.
“Um,” she started, her heart skipping a beat at the thought of being in the same room as the Cullens after all this time. Aro smirked and Bella’s teeth gritted. “W-What about Victoria?” she asked, vicious satisfaction pouring over her when Aro’s back stiffened, his gaze narrowing.
His response was brief, though, and his expression immediately cleared and grew placid once more. Still, she tallied the point to her favor even if she had no idea why mentioning the redhead would irk him so.
“I’m afraid the nomad Victoria is no longer in our possession,” Aro said, his tone clipped and a shade bitter.
Oh, Bella thought in surprise, distantly feeling the echo of it resonating in Loki as well. That wasn’t expected and brought a small tendril of unease for the future. Victoria was not going to give up so quietly and would likely cause trouble at the first available opportunity.
No matter, Loki whispered in her ear. We will adjust and accommodate as required.
But she could taste his impotent rage despite his assured words and realized he’d been looking forward to confronting her would-be killer. His velvet anger carried the subtle threads of protectiveness and though it shouldn’t have, Bella’s heart sighed at the sensation. That fact that he would not rest until he’d made Victoria pay for nearly ripping out her throat was a truth she suddenly felt down to the marrow of her bones.
She opened her mouth, but then closed it and looked to the floor. The show of nervousness did as it was intended to do, and Aro favored her with another condescending smirk. “I’m afraid Victoria has a rather useful gift for escaping and has managed to slip past our guards using it. She will answer for her crimes against the Volturi soon enough. Her re-capture is a moment of when, not if. I understand your fear of her, my child, but you may trust your safety to us.”
Caius scoffed and Bella agreed.
“For now,” Aro continued, ignoring Caius. “Let us focus on those present. Jane, my dear – take your brother and fetch the Cullens. It is time they answer for their crimes so we may all place this unpleasantness behind us.”
A small, but rather severe looking girl stepped away from her post and bowed, eyeing Bella derisively as she left, a dark haired boy tight on her heels.
There was a sudden quietness in the throne room designed to unnerve her, and while she was very much aware of this fact, it didn’t stop the cold wave of dread that skittered across her heart as she waited to face her demons at last.
“I wish I was stronger,” she mumbled, accepting Clint’s hand up from where she laid sprawled out on the floor. They’d been sparring, Clint mouthing off about how he wanted to see what she was made of now that she’d been working with Nat for a while.
He snorted. “You’re strong as nails, Eyas.”
Her turn to snort. “Yeah right,” she rolled her eyes. “So strong y’all can toss me around like a sack of air.”
“Cut yourself a break, kid,” he chided. “Can’t expect to go head to head with elite operatives the likes S.H.I.E.L.D. produces and expect to come out the winner after only a couple months of training.”
She sighed as they moved into position again. “I know, I know. It just kinda sucks being surrounded by all these super strong awesome people who are so capable and then, well, then there’s me.”
Clint’s stance dropped as his eyebrows rose. “Are you fucking kidding me? You’re one of the strongest people I know.”
She rolled her eyes. “Clint…” she groaned.
“Look at me, Isabella,” he said, his tone one of parental authority. He so rarely used it with her and when he did, she knew better than to ignore him.
Biting her bottom lip, her eyes flew up to his.
“You’re not an idiot so stop acting like one,” he said, no beating around the bush. “Physical strength means nothing when stacked up next to strength of character – and yours is unfailingly strong when compared to so many of us here.”
She sighed, eyes stinging as they fell to the floor again. “I get what you’re saying, Clint – I do. It just, I dunno; it just sounds like a cop out. Feels like you’re only saying it to make me feel better.”
“Eyas,” he tried again, his tone softer but infinitely more weary. This time she looked back up at him without prompt. “I’ve done things, Isabella. Terrible things – no,” he said when she went to interrupt. “I know some part of you knows this, or on some level, suspected. I’ve followed orders I didn’t agree with, ignoring my conscience while doing as I was told like a good little soldier. I’ve killed people, Isabella. A lot of people. People that mayhap didn’t need killing. You’ve no idea how many people have suffered at my hands,” he confessed, his voice trembling ever so slightly. But, there was a steel running through the words as he spoke, his gaze holding her captive as a slow tear finally spilled down her cheek.
“You’ve saved far, far more people than you’ve had to hurt, Clinton Swan,” she said, swiping the tear away while taking a step towards him. “You did what you had to do – what anyone would have in your position, I’m sure.”
He set his hands on her shoulders, bending slightly to hold her gaze pointedly. “Not you,” he claimed, one-hundred percent certainty vibrating in the words. “You wouldn’t have blindly followed orders when you knew they were wrong. You are and always have been the type to stand up for what was right even in the face of catastrophic odds. You’re the crazy type of strong that runs off and faces a vampire on her own, knowing you had no way of winning against him, but trying anyway in order to save someone else,” he laughed lightly and shook his head. She couldn’t help responding with a shy smile.
“Believe me, kiddo – one day, you’ll see. You are so much stronger than you give yourself credit for – woe be to any foolish enough to stand in your way.”
Clearing his throat as he pulled away, he gave himself a grounding shake as he took a few steps back before turning to her again. “Now come on, little bird,” he smirked, arms raising up in fighting position once more. “Show me what you got and I’ll teach you how to make sure your strength is felt.”
‘You are so much stronger than you give yourself credit for…’ Clint’s words echoed in her mind and the tide of dread subsided. Her spine stiffened and her limbs quivered – no longer in fear – but in barely restrained certainty that she was strong enough for this. They’d underestimated this whole time; it was time she stopped underestimating herself.
Loki’s essence entwined briefly with her own and that feeling of strength increased exponentially.
It seems, his decadent voice poured through her mind as rich and smooth as dark chocolate, the Hawk and I can agree on one thing.
Turning her face to the nearest wall, Bella smothered a tiny grin. She could sense Aro’s eyes on her, could practically feel his curiosity burning at the sudden show of will he had not sensed within her before.
His confusion made her lips twitch again.
Before he could address it – and he so clearly wanted to – the wooden doors thudded open.
Despite her resolve, her heart skipped a beat.
Sh-h, little siren… Now the show really begins…
“Bella! Are you alright? Please, Bella!”
Her teeth clenched at his voice, but her stubborn gaze remained locked to the wall.
“Ah, Cullens – as you can see, we are now ready to proceed with your sentencing.”
She could hear Edward being soothed by Esme and Alice, his kitten growls and pleas for her attention tapering off.
“Aro,” Carlisle’s soothing voice set her teeth on edge. “Can we not resolve this peacefully? Surely exceptions to the law can be made when a vampire is faced with a human mate?”
A dull fire of anger bloomed and set her jaw ticking. There was an answering roar from Loki, a barely tethered rage that they would dare lay claim to what was his turning her thoughts into flames eager to devour them all.
“Ah,” Aro tsk’d pitifully. “If only things were so simple, old friend.” He took slow, taunting steps towards Carlisle, stopping a few feet away. “I warned you, all those years ago, but your pride kept you from hearing. Now it’s time to reap the consequences of your arrogance. It’s time to pay the price, Carlisle.”
“Then it is our price to pay,” Carlisle muttered in defeat. “But not hers. Please, let Bella go.”
“Go?” Aro laughed mockingly. “Go where? Back to her dead family and destroyed little home for Victoria to find and finish her off? Surely you cannot be so cruel, Carlisle? You know there’s no escape from your actions,” he turned away from the family and Bella felt the weight of his gaze burning her cheek. “There will be no escape for any of you.”
Her anger and resentment kept burning, the rage of her emotions hollowing her out until she knew nothing else.
Charlie… she blinked, though her eyes were suspiciously dry. Renee and Phil…
They would have their justice if it was the last thing she ever did, she vowed.
Take your revenge, my siren, Loki purred into her ear.
“The time has come to decide – join our guard or die. There is no other option open to you,” Aro proclaimed, re-joining his brothers and sitting casually on his throne.
The Cullens shifted and hissed.
“You can’t do this,” Edward growled. “I won’t let you do this.”
Aro laughed again. “Me? I have done nothing, young Edward. You have done this to yourselves. Do not test my generosity nor my patience and consider yourselves lucky for being given the choice. Serve or die – make your decision.”
She could sense the family stirring in distress, feel their eyes flickering to her as she continued to ignore their presence while staring blindly at the wall, until a tension broke and they deflated.
Because they all knew what they would choose. They were cowards, unwilling to stand up for what was right or to fight for what they believed in. The buckled and folded into themselves, trying to maintain the moral high ground while unable to accept the truth of their being: that they were just as much as a monster as those around them. Just as much a monster as those who had killed her parents.
“You have left us no choice at all, Aro,” Carlisle murmured, the defeat in him only slightly soothing the flames of her heart. “We do not wish to die. We will serve.”
“Wonderful!” Aro clapped once, dismissing them entirely as he abruptly turned to her. “And you Isabella? What is your answer?”
“NO!” Edward roared. The only thing that kept him from leaping forward was Jasper’s quick reflexes and the fast movements of one of the guards looming forward, impressive muscles flexing in promise. “NO! I won’t allow you to change her – I won’t allow you to damn her!”
There. That was it. The kerosene that stoked her rage to nigh impossible heights as it swallowed her whole at last, the burning heat turning into ice.
“You won’t allow it?” Bella’s hissed, cold as winter as her head snapped away from the wall to land unerringly on Edward Cullen.
The scene froze, a new, unnameable tension rising as it suddenly became clear to them all that something had changed – even if they didn’t consciously know what it was yet.
He gaped at her, sunken eyes burning with grief as he drank her in while drowning in her wrathful gaze. “B-Bella – please. I l-lied when I left you – I love you. I only wanted what was best for you.”
He broke so easily, already reduced to pleading when faced with something she had never dared show before – defiance. Her restless anger told all of those present there would be no forgiveness. No salvation.
Aro grinned, unashamedly enjoying the show and in no desire to intervene. Not that he realized he no longer had the power to stop her, anyway.
“Did you now?” she cocked her head. “You have an odd way of showing it. Was Victoria what was best for me, then? Because you obviously didn’t care about the mess you left behind when you left me on the forest floor. What mess you were leaving for Charlie – for Renee and Phil. Who cares about what would happen to those left behind so long as you and your precious family were safe. But what about my family, Edward?”
“Bella,” Alice hiccuped tears that would never fall. “Please – he didn’t know. None of us did. We had no way of knowing she would come after you.”
Bella granted her once best friend the weight of her penance stare. “Really? No way of knowing? No way for someone who fucking reads minds – for someone who can see the fucking future…? There was no way for them to know?!”
Her limbs were tingling. She could feel it happening again, just like it had when Clint’s hands had been curled around her throat, choking the life out of her. That otherness of her new nature started pulling on the fringes.
“Surely you must have suspected the possibility, at the very least,” she hissed, taking slow, predatory steps forward. An unease settled across the room though no one could account for the sensation since they all mistook her as merely human. “Because if it had been my mate, I would not have risked him for anything. I will die first.”
Unable to distance herself from the thought, Bella slipped in her tenses as she spoke. Oh, how she felt the bitter truth of that statement vibrating throughout her entire being. Here she was about to enter a war the likes of which her world had never seen, but she would fight in it to her last breath if need be. Even as she fought against Loki she would never stop fighting for him. She would not risk him for anything, not even his own pride, and even if it killed her she would make him see reason. She would save him even from himself.
Disbelief and awe… A hint of warmth as sweet as molasses trickled over her and her anger was briefly assuaged in Loki – in the vast complexity of their bond as it flared to life and trebled. Inhaling, she couldn’t help but savor the feel of him all around her, luscious and complex like a honeycomb promising a sweetness so divine it would appease her hunger even as she lost herself in the taste it. The taste of him.
Timeless, they both seemed to realize as one. This connection between them would exist no matter the trials placed before them and really, was that not a wondrous gift? That this beauty existed for them and only them – this immutable relationship that would never break, never falter. It was like the answer to some sort of prayer neither had dared to give voice to and yet it had been answered, nonetheless.
The frost around her heart thawed as the warmth from him grew. It was passion, it was lust… It was fire and ice co-existing, thriving together, against all odds. Bella well knew her heart had been conquered, but now she sensed Loki’s usual possessiveness morph into something softer. Something more covetous – cherishing. Not love, no, but something honest and full of sweet promise.
Hope, she realized. The tenor between them sang of hope because what she had so brazenly told the vampires before her – that she would die for him – was entirely mutual. And what a beautiful thing this indelible loyalty to each other was; how lucky were they to have it… To have each other.
A rasping gasp broke her thoughts, tearing her eyes away from the Cullens as Loki’s emotions finally reached a more manageable simmer.
It had come from the third brother, the silent one who had been completely uninterested in the world around him. There was nothing detached about him now, however. He was leaning forward ever so slightly on his throne, head tilted as his milky red eyes burned into her.
They stared at each other for a long moment until he blinked, his right hand slowly raising and reaching palm up towards Aro.
Obligingly, Aro’s hand rose while his brow puckered in confusion.
Another hiss from Edward pierced the air. “No, that can’t be right.”
Aro’s eyes bored into Marcus as their hands made contact and not a second after, his head snapped to Bella, pinning her with a discerning glare.
“Marcus’s gift is never wrong,” Aro said, speaking to Edward even as his gaze held her captive. “She has found her mate – and it is not you, Edward Cullen.”
Time’s up, she thought, mentally steeling herself for the fireworks to come.
“Do you have something you wish to share with us, Isabella?” Aro asked, sounding like a pressed upon father questioning a toddler.
And despite the frost still laying siege to her heart, the anger that burned at being forced into this situation, a small sliver of anticipation crept down her spine. There was an awareness in the back of her mind, a certain smugness that was not entirely her own. It told her Loki was now in the room though no one, not even she, could see him.
“There are many things I want to say,” she breathed. “But what I’d actually suggest right now is one thing…”
The curve of Aro’s mouth told her he was losing his patience. “And just what is that, dear Isabella?”
A cold and brittle thing curled her lips into a smile. “Kneel,” she breathed, Loki’s grudging burst of amusement boosting her determination.
Silence. It appeared no one could comprehend the demand until Caius hissed, “You bid us kneel to you?”
“Oh no, not to me,” she shook her head, feeling quite mad indeed for deriving any joy from toying with them. “To him,” she nodded in the general direction she could sense Loki’s presence. They all turned, watching as the air rippled until he appeared in all his kingly glory looking as though folding back the very fabric of space to reveal himself had been such a simple feat.
It shouldn’t have – it really shouldn’t – but the cool smirk and haughty tilt to his head as Loki gazed upon those standing between them had her quivering with anticipation. His eyes said it all. They were nothing to him. Nothing but little bugs he was about to stomp on.
Who’d have thought she could find this aspect of him so appealing? This arrogant confidence worn as caually as one donned a coat… When it was not directed at those she loved she found it strangely endearing.
His sneering gaze ran over all in the room until it locked on her. There was a barely perceptible softening to his lips and a zing of acknowledgment that held a promise. He knew how much she was enjoying this moment. How much she was enjoying him about to conquer her enemy.
His meaning to her on the hill outside of town became abruptly crystal clear. This confrontation was a gift, an offering of sorts in one of the only ways Loki knew how to express his favor to her. Somehow he’d known that despite her hesitation and fear, some part of her would relish this moment. Relish as he made low of her enemies even if he was also serving his own selfish gain. Some dark part of her had confessed this to him and he’d decided to give her what she was too afraid to take.
Because though these creatures deserved her wrath, Bella could never bring herself to bend her morals far enough to punish them or she’d risked breaking. She couldn’t risk losing herself to the sweltering grief she still held for her parents loss or she would never be seen again. The devastation she would cause in her desire for retribution would kill a certain part of her. Justice and revenge… It had always been tug-of-war between the two threatening to tear her asunder in the moment of this confrontation.
And so Loki had come to save her. Save her from herself and save that little bit of innocence that still burned in her heart despite everything she’d been through.
“Well,” his smart voice washed over the room like the snowy wind from atop a mountain. She shivered. “I believe my lady said to kneel.”
Vicious satisfaction burned through her. He had come like some sort of fallen angel granting her clemency. Where she was unable to bend to her vices, he was all too eager to dive into his own and extract the pound of flesh that was her due.
And she was going to let him.
Woe be to any foolish enough to stand in your way…
(A/N): Thanks for stopping by ❤