Bella came in from the cold to find Carlisle Cullen in Charlie's kitchen, washing his hands at the sink. His dark gray suit jacket lay, folded lengthwise, on the kitchen table, his wristwatch neatly beside it. The sleeves of his white collared shirt were folded up past his elbows. He wasn't wearing a tie. His hands moved in practiced, repetitive motions under the flow of water from the tap. His head was bent low and his eyes were shut. Plumes of steam rose from the basin.
"Hi, Carlisle," Bella said.
He didn't respond or, for that matter, give any indication he'd heard her. Bella glanced up at Edward, a question in her eyes. He gave a little shake of his head and steered her toward the living room.
Bella let him lead her, hoping to see Esme. Esme was nowhere to be seen, but Jasper and Rosalie stood facing her from behind the couch, looking very much as though they'd been waiting for her. They were both smiling, but the smiles weren't quite right. Jasper looked particularly strained. Bella's brow furrowed.
"What's wrong? What's happened?" she asked as Edward helped her remove her sling, and then her coat. He took the coat and moved toward the entry closet. She glanced at his siblings. "Wait, the sling," she said, reaching for Edward to hand it back to her.
"You might want to wait until after Carlisle's examined you," he said softly. "You'll have to take it right off again."
She nodded, frowning. He was right. Moving her arm in and out of the sling made her shoulder ache and her skin prickle. Better to do it as little as necessary. But the sight of her paralyzed arm, the way it hung when not supported in the sling, still disturbed her. She didn't want to think about how it looked to Rosalie and Jasper. She knew they wouldn't judge her, or be unkind. It wasn't that. They were just so… pretty.
She sighed and lowered herself into one of the two matching leather armchairs that sat at each end of the couch. She adjusted her arm to rest in what she hoped was a natural-looking position on the arm of the chair. The couch and both chairs surrounded the coffee table on three sides. Alice had clearly designed this to be a cozy spot for people to sit and talk. Only, just now, no one was talking, and she was the only one sitting. She understood they didn't get tired. They didn't need to sit. But did they need to stand over her like this? Bella put her left hand over her right one, hiding the limp way her fingers curled toward her palm.
Finally, to her enormous relief, Jasper suggested everyone sit. Rosalie sat in the chair opposite Bella, and Jasper and Edward took the couch.
"Okay, so?" Bella raised her eyebrows. "What's going on? Where's Esme?"
"Esme is at the house, packing," Jasper said. "The houses, the businesses, all our professional obligations – they'll need be handled properly before we go. There's a process you'll learn. You get used to it, the things you have to do in order to live without being noticed."
"You might be surprised," Bella said. "You stop going out, stop returning phone calls, and people move on. I've become sort of an expert at not being noticed."
"Right," Rosalie said. Her stiff smile gave way to a teasing smirk. "Unnoticed except for the coven of vampires that have been searching for you since before you were born and have been guarding your life nearly every moment of the last ten years." She looked at Edward and shook her head. "Seriously. Were any of us ever this human?"
"Not me," Edward said, deadpan. "I've never had anything but perfect clarity about my place in the world. I certainly didn't run away from home every five or six years because I couldn't find a girlfriend."
Jasper laughed, and Bella felt herself relax.
"What about you, Jasper?" she said. "You have, like, emotional superpowers. Probably nothing phases you. I bet you have godlike emotional intelligence." She wasn't sure if she was teasing or asking.
It was Rosalie's turn to laugh, a deep chuckle that ended with a snort.
"Oh my god, Bella. No. He's the worst, really." Rosalie saw Jasper's glare and put her hands up. "Not the worst like that – You know how much I love you. But, Jasper, you feel things hard. You know you do. We all know you do. And when you're intense like that… well. Thank god for Alice."
"Yes," Jasper agreed seriously. After a pause, he grinned crookedly at Rosalie and said, "But maybe we should talk about you and Em—"
"We really should stay focused," Rosalie interrupted, not looking at him.
Jasper let it go, smiling with satisfaction, but he still seemed off somehow. Bella didn't know him well enough to understand what she saw in his expression. Maybe he was just tired. Do vampires get tired?
Rosalie continued. "We have a lot of things to button up in a short amount of time, and the house is truly the least of it. The house will be taken care of by the end of the week."
"Wow, already," Bella said. "You'll be selling it?" She tried to imagine who in the area could possibly afford to buy it. In the current market, just selling Charlie's little house would be a challenge. The Cullen mansion, like the Cullens themselves, never quite made in Forks. Without the Cullens to live in it, it would be stranger still. Bella couldn't imagine anyone else living in it.
"No, we won't sell it," Edward said. "At least not to any one person. Carlisle and Esme have several shadow corporations that they use to hold property that's not in use. The house suits us, and Forks suits us. We may wish to return in another eighty or a hundred years." He saw her eyes go wide, and half-laughed. "And, anyway, this way is faster. And, right now, faster is… good."
And there it was, the same tension she'd seen in Jasper and Rosalie's faces. She glanced at Jasper and saw that he wasn't smiling anymore. His eyes were closed, and he pressed one of his temples with his fingertips, as though he had a headache.
Bella looked at Edward, a question in her eyes. Instead of answering it, he glanced over at the kitchen. Carlisle was still standing at the sink, still washing his hands. He didn't seem to have moved at all. Bella felt a chill run up the back of her neck.
"Rosalie," Edward murmured. "Maybe you should…?"
Rosalie hesitated only briefly before she nodded and stood. She approached Carlisle with measured steps, stopping just behind him. She hesitated before laying her hand – just the fingertips – on his back.
"Father," she said.
It was barely a whisper. If Bella hadn't watched Rosalie's lips form the word, she'd have doubted anyone had spoken at all. But Carlisle heard. His hands stopped moving, and his eyes squeezed shut. For a long moment, the only sound in the room was the running water.
Then Carlisle opened his eyes and turned, smiling. Rosalie took a clean, white towel from the countertop and offered it to him. He took it and dried his hands, his expression and movements as casual as if he hadn't just been in… What? A trance? Deep concentration? Whatever it was unsettled Bella, and she didn't think she was the only one. Carlisle stepped away from the sink, Rosalie took his place and began to wash her own hands.
"It's very good to see you again, Bella," he said as he strode into the living room.
"You too, Carlisle," she said. "Is everything okay?"
There was a twitch at the corner of his mouth, a flicker of darkness behind his eyes. Or maybe it was nothing. Maybe Bella had only imagined it, because, as quickly as it was there, it wasn't. So Bella was surprised when, instead of the bland reassurance she was expecting, Carlisle sighed.
"No," he said. "And Alice insists that I not tell you otherwise. She believes that you're ready to be fully involved in the situation." He paused.
"Yes," Bella rushed, when she realized he was waiting for her to speak. "I am ready. I do want that."
His smile tightened.
"You may change your mind about that soon. But, nonetheless, we'll deal with today today, and later later." He gave a little nod. "We'll talk about all of it, but I'd like to see to your stitches, first."
She blinked and nodded.
"Okay." She glanced around. "Where do you?..."
"Upstairs, I think," Edward said, looking at Bella for confirmation.
"Yeah, okay," she said.
"I've set up for the procedure in your bedroom," Rosalie said. "If you get changed into a robe, we can get this done before you know it."
"Rosalie assists Carlisle in procedures when he's away from human medical staff," Edward explained. "She's learned the skills, and her control around humans is good."
Not as good as yours, Bella thought.
"Alright," she said. "I'll go get ready to be a patient again."
Edward took her hand and helped her balance as she stood. She leaned in and kissed him briefly before she left the room. She'd turned away from quickly, but not too quickly to see the astonishment in his eyes. She'd intended the kiss to be causal, automatic, the kind of semiconscious touch any couple might exchange as a passing gesture. But her heart pounded, and the image of his eyes stayed with her as she climbed the stairs. Nothing was automatic with them, not yet. Maybe it never would be.
Upstairs in the bedroom, the bed had been made and the covers pulled back. A plain white sheet had been laid over the regular linens. On the bedside table, a collection of packaged gauze and steel instruments were arranged on a blue surgical drape. Additionally, a neat stack of white folded towels rested on the top of the dresser. Beside them stood a plastic bottle of clear liquid, a smaller opaque bottle, several tubes and tubs of ointment, and two small metal bowls. Bella slipped out of her clothes and into the green cotton robe that had been hanging on her bedroom door when she first returned from the hospital – another gift from Alice.
Bella sat awkwardly on the side of the bed and waited, wrestling against the anxiety building within her.
"Knock knock!" Rosalie said from the other side of the door. "Ready?"
"Yes, sure," Bella said, pulling the robe as closed as she could manage with one hand.
Edward opened the door, letting in Rosalie and Carlisle.
"Am I having another surgery?" Bella asked, indicating all the medical supplies. She wasn't sure if it was a joke or a real question. Either way, she hadn't intended for her voice to tremble the way it did when she asked. Color rose to her cheeks, and she fought back tears.
Coward. You sound like a coward.
Edward bent and touched her cheek.
"Carlisle just likes to be prepared," he said. "This should not hurt."
"I'm fine," she said. "I'm not worried about that."
Rosalie ducked her head, pretending to fuss with a towel, but not before Bella saw her little quirk of a smile.
They really can tell when I'm lying. Oh, god.
Carlisle pulled a chair close to the bed. The strangeness she'd seen in him downstairs was gone. This was Dr. Cullen again, impassable, serene. He smiled and patted her arm.
"Shall we have a look?" he asked.
She nodded and laid back, settling back awkwardly. Edward helped her straighten out a little. It was tricky to shift herself over while still holding the robe in place. She knew she'd be exposed in a minute anyway, but she was determined that whatever dignity remained to her should be preserved. The familiar sensation of pins and needles, zaps and aches, rippled over her as her body adjusted to the new position.
Edward went around to the other side of the bed and sat down beside her. He took her left hand in his, and she laced her fingers into his. He watched intently as their hands intertwined, again with that expression of barely-veiled wonder. He shifted his fingers, just a little, a subtle slide of skin on skin. Bella looked from their hands to his face.
Nothing is automatic; nothing is ordinary. Everything is new, especially for him.
She was struck by the realization that she had no idea what else might be new for him. He was so old in some ways, but, when she held his hand, he seemed so innocent. What if he was innocent in… other ways, too? Was it possible?
Rosalie was tearing open packages of gauze, pouring the clear liquid into the metal bowl.
"How have you been feeling?" Carlisle asked. His fingertips pressed briefly behind her ears, making her shiver.
"Okay," she said. "Tired, sore."
"The worst of that should fade soon, but there will likely be lingering pain until you are Changed."
She nodded, more surprised than she should have been by Carlisle's casual reference to her impending Change. No one was pretending anymore her future would be human.
"Nausea? Chills?" he continued.
She shook her head. He took her good arm in his hand, at the elbow.
"Just lay it out straight for me," he said. When she did, he lay his other hand on her arm, sandwiching her arm just above the elbow beneath his two hands. His touch was cool, and, however gentle, still communicated immovable strength.
"Very good," he said, releasing her.
"Carlisle?" Edward asked. Bella realized, with gratitude, that he was reminding his father to speak out loud.
"No fever, blood pressure and pulse are good," Carlisle said. "I'll draw some blood today as well, make sure there's no sign of infection or anemia."
"You were taking my blood pressure? Right then? With just your hands?" Bella asked.
"Mmm hmm," Carlisle said, now examining her right hand, her fingertips and nailbeds.
"Wow," she said.
"This impresses you," Carlisle said.
"Um, yeah. It impresses me. I'm impressed."
"Here, let me show you," he said, and took Bella's left hand in his. He placed her hand on the bare crook of his elbow.
"If my heart were beating, you would feel it there, at the brachial artery." He left her hand resting there, and wrapped his hand around the back of the same arm, just above his elbow. "If you could wrap your hands completely around that pulse, you'd be able to feel the strength of the pressure when my heart filled, and when it emptied."
"Yes, really," he said. He released her arm and moved on with his exam. "I'm not extraordinary among our kind, not in that way. I've only practiced, and learned to quantitatively describe the things I sense from my patients. A sphygmomanometer is a very simple device, after all." He paused, preparing to open the front of her robe. "Bella, may I?"
She nodded and looked away as he exposed her healing wounds and began to examine her. Rosalie stood just over Carlisle's shoulder, her gaze carefully averted, giving Bella as much privacy as she could. Bella felt herself flushing red from her hairline to her chest. She'd gotten used to being naked in front of others in the hospital, but this felt different.
Rosalie tore open a package containing sterile gloves and held it out to Carlisle. He slipped them on and bent closer to Bella.
"Tell me if this hurts," Carlisle said after a few moments of silence. He held his hands flat and pressed down gently on her belly close to the incision through which her spleen had been removed.
"It's… sore. Not really bad, just, like a bruise," Bella said.
"Good. That's fine."
He moved to another spot, and another, sometimes pressing, sometimes just looking. When he was satisfied that she was healing as she should internally, he began to examine her stitches. Bella closed her eyes, forcing herself to breathe slowly. The rubbery tips of his gloved fingers touched her, just barely, all along the tender, snaking seams where she'd been torn open and sewn back together.
Just like a doll, she thought. Like a toy your child loves too much to throw away. You can't get a new one; it wouldn't be the same. The kid would know. So you fix up what you've got.
Edward stroked her hair back from her forehead, which had dampened since the beginning of the examination. Her heart was beating too fast.
"Just a little longer," Carlisle said, "You're doing well, Bella, very well."
She wanted to tell him that she was fine, but her throat was too tight to speak.
"Bella," Carlisle said. She heard him, but couldn't manage to look at him, or to answer. He said it again, this time with a note of command. "Bella, look at me."
She opened her eyes and met his golden ones. His polite smile was gone. In its place was something unfiltered, intense. It almost frightened her. It should have frightened her - but it didn't. Instead, she felt her heartbeat slow, her shoulders relax.
"Are you listening to me?" he asked, his eyes still locked to hers. They were so bright.
"I am not going to tell you not to feel afraid. Feel as you would, feel as you do. What you must know, though, is that you are my daughter. My own. That will feel true to you in its own time, but it is my truth now. You have nothing to fear from me." He stroked her cheek, just once, the backs of his fingers passing lightly over her flushed skin. "You are precious to me, Bella. And, I swear to you, I will well and truly destroy the next being that seeks to do you harm."
She opened her mouth, but no words would come. A tear slipped out and over her temple, sinking into her hair where it pressed against the bedsheet.
Carlisle bent and pressed a cool kiss to her forehead.
"It shouldn't have been this way," he murmured. "You should have been born to our family in love, in choice. And now we ask so much, for you to believe us, to trust us… Alice says you still can. I don't know if she's right, but… Please. If you can, Bella, please, try to trust us. Try to feel that we are your safety, not your foes. I can better protect you if you can trust us."
"I'm trying," she whispered. "I—Nothing feels safe, Carlisle. Nothing."
He drew back, and she saw there what he'd been concealing since she'd returned to the house. It was sorrow, regret. And maybe, guilt.
Then he cleared his throat, and the shadow was gone. His face was once again pleasant, unreadable. He gave a small nod and returned to his exam.
"You're healing well," he said after a few moments. His voice had returned to the bedside normality she'd come to expect.
"Can the stitches come out?" Edward asked.
Carlisle didn't answer right away. He drew a deep breath, let it out.
"Yes, I think we can do that. It's earlier than I would do with another patient, someone I couldn't monitor so personally, but getting the stitches out sooner rather than later may prevent a late infection. Bella, if we remove them now, you will need to take your activity restrictions and medication regimen very seriously. Can you promise me absolute compliance?"
"Yes," she said. "I promise."
Edward stroked her cheek. His eyes flicked to his father, and then back to Bella.
"Of course I'll be careful with her, Carlisle. You really need to ask?" His voice was tinged with annoyance.
"Today I do," Carlisle said, and held out his hand, palm up, to Rosalie. "Forceps, please."
He bent closer to Bella and began to work.
It didn't hurt, the stitches coming out. It felt like almost nothing, tiny pinches, little touches and pulls that might have been the steps of an insect's tiny feet, or the brush of its wings. It didn't hurt, but she still shivered and hid her face while Carlisle worked, cutting the threads, pulling them free, dropping them into the basin Rosalie held for him. He moved so quickly, but there were so many stitches. It felt like hours passed before the last one had been removed and Rosalie took the instruments and the bowl away, returning a moment later with the other bowl and a fresh set of forceps. Carlisle used the forceps to hold wads of gauze soaked in saline solution and what Bella learned was hydrogen peroxide. He wiped and dabbed every millimeter of the bright pink lines left behind after the stitches had gone, stopping frequently to replace the used gauze with clean. He used more sterile gauze to pat the wounds dry. Finally, he coated the wounds with a layer of antibiotic ointment.
"You can sit up now," he said, pulling off his gloves.
Edward helped her get upright, closing the robe around her as he did.
"No tub baths, for the next week at least," Carlisle continued. "You can rinse it carefully in the shower, but no soap. Twice a day, and after you shower, the wounds need to be cleaned and ointment applied the way I did tonight." He glanced at Edward.
"I'll take care of it," Edward said.
"Rosalie will leave some supplies for you. If there is any new redness, heat, drainage – if you smell infection—"
"I'll contact you immediately," Edward said.
Carlisle nodded and turned to Bella.
"And you need to continue to rest. If you begin to feel worse, if you become lethargic, run a fever, you must tell Edward at once."
"I will," Bella said. "Are we done?"
"Not quite," Rosalie said, smiling apologetically. She held up some plastic tubing and a plastic vial with a purple cap.
"Ugh, I forgot about that part," Bella said, and held out her arm.
Edward touched her shoulder.
"I'm going to step outside for this part," he said apologetically. "It's been… a long day, and…"
"It's okay," she said. "I'm fine. Go downstairs. I'll be there in a minute."
By the time Bella's blood had been drawn, the medical supplies had been cleared away, and she'd gotten dressed again, full dark had fallen. There was only one lamp on at the far end of the living room, leaving the downstairs in dim shadow. Bella went around the room, turning on lights.
"Sorry about that," Rosalie said. "I forget sometimes that humans can't see."
"We can see," Bella said. "We just prefer not to lurk in the shadows."
She sank down next to Edward on the couch. Jasper was sitting in the chair at the far end of the couch; Rosalie perched on the arm of the chair, rubbing his shoulder. He looked absolutely miserable.
"Are you okay, Jasper?" Bella asked.
"Of course," he said, a rasp in his voice. "We're always perfect, remember?" He tried to smile, then sighed and leaned his head back.
"We're almost done, son," Carlisle said, entering from the kitchen, shrugging into his jacket. "You've done so well."
"I- I don't understand. Done what?" Bella asked. Another thought struck her. "Why is Jasper here at all? He's supposed to be closing his practice, moving out of Seattle..."
"Jasper is here for me," Edward said. "For Carlisle, too, but mostly for me."
"Because I can't hide my thoughts from Edward," Carlisle said. "And I needed to examine you today, especially after..." He cleared his throat. "Jasper is here to help provide some much-needed calm to Edward, and, yes, to me."
Bella waited in silence for him to continue.
After a long pause, he said, "Alice has seen what the Volturi are going to require from us in regards to Changing you, Bella."
She looked around at the other vampires. No one else seemed curious or surprised, only grave.
"Isn't Alice wrong a lot?" Bella asked.
"Not this time," Jasper said. "She... was very thorough. There are no other paths. This is a certain thing. I wish very much it wasn't."
The weary defeat in Jasper's voice sent a shiver of fear through her.
"What do they want?" she asked, her voice barely a whisper.
"What they know we will not give them," Edward said roughly. His hand curled into a fist where it rested on his thigh.
Jasper flinched, and Edward shook himself, drew a deep breath, and was still.
"Sorry," Edward said in a more normal voice. "I am trying."
Jasper nodded tightly.
"What do they want?" Bella asked again, louder. Fear had given way to anger – anger at being protected in the wrong ways, anger at these distant enemies she'd never met, anger at a universe that never seemed to tire of her pain.
"They haven't asked yet," Carlisle said. "Keep that in mind. The Volturi are old, and they live more slowly than most do in this modern era. So it may be a month or more before we are officially given notice. And that's good, very good."
"Yes," Edward said. "It will be enough time. It will." He said it as though trying to convince himself.
"Carlisle," Bella said, almost pleading. "What do they want?"
He met her eyes, his mouth set in a hard line.
"They want to meet you, Bella."
A/N: It's been a thousand years and a million miles since I've been here. If you're still with me, please know how grateful I am. I'm grateful that there is anyone left to read, and I'm grateful that the storyteller in me yet lives.