This fic was written for THE GAZEBO FIC CHALLENGE: The Essence of Charlie Swan
Prompt used: 3. Charlie watching Bella struggle in New Moon

Please see the C2 - THE GAZEBO FIC CHALLENGE: The Essence of Charlie Swan for more fics in this competition

When Bella is born, and after, in that sweet too-quick year the three of them - Charlie Swan, his wife, his daughter - are a family, everybody says she looks just like Renee.

She doesn't, not really. She is an in-between child; the curve of her upper lip spells Renee, her cheekbones are all Charlie's, but she is by no means the spitting image of either parent.

And yet people say it, time and again, Like mother, like daughter, and Charlie's cheekbones don't get a damn look-in.

He rolls his eyes regularly, but he never says anything about it. He reminds himself that little girls are supposed to look like their mothers, that it's just what Renee wants to hear and what everyone wants to tell her.

Charlie never says anything about it, but then one day he just… there's no other word for it, snaps.

They're at the local store - which will later become a tight cluster of parking spaces in the 'Thriftway' lot - and baby-crazy Mrs. Macklin, true to form, tells Renee it's fine to put Bella down, she doesn't mind at all if she crawls between the aisles, pulling things off the shelves, and doing whatever the hell she wants with them.

Most stuff goes straight in her mouth. Charlie's skin crawls.

He follows close behind, clutching Renee's list, hovering over the tiny little thing in the pink jumpsuit as it slithers across the "not sure it's 100% clean, Renee" floor, having a ball and scaring the crap out of him every five minutes, as per damn usual.

Renee stands at the counter, chatting with Mrs. Macklin and occasionally calling out to Charlie about the decaf or the diapers or whatever else she's forgotten to put on the list.

Charlie huffs at each omission, but dutifully fetches the items, balancing them precariously in his arms, the list between his teeth now and therefore pointless, but no way is he gonna wheel a damn shopping cart around in here, no way; shopping carts are for ladies and lady-boys.

He's headed for the counter, gingerly kicking along a box of washing powder, groaning every time Bella tries to secure it between her grubby fingers and take a bite, when he hears it. Again.

"... exactly alike. She'll be the spitting image of you when she's grown."

Renee is blushing happily and saying something like "I just hope she doesn't inherit my judgment. I swear, if she gets knocked up before she - "

Charlie's mouth opens wide and the list flutters down to the ground.

"Oh for the love of God."

He thunders it out, and Renee and Mrs. Macklin jump like puppets on strings.

"What the hell is this about?!"

Again, he really yells it, and two pairs of female eyebrows shoot up in unison.

"Um… what… is what about sweetie?" Renee asks haltingly.

"This damn crap about you and Bella being twinsies!"

Charlie dumps their shopping down on the counter; a box of tampons and a packet of stock cubes fall and skitter across the floor. "Seriously, what is wrong with everybody?! Or is it me? Am I blind? Am I crazy?" He turns to Renee and throws his hands up. "I mean, it is my damn baby, isn't it? What do these people want, a goddamn blood sample?!"

"Oh… my God." Renee covers her eyes for a second, then shrugs apologetically at Mrs. Macklin, bends down to the retrieve the items on the floor.

Charlie pouts and shifts his weight from foot to foot in the dead silence that follows his outburst, and pretty soon he starts to feel pretty uncomfortable because Mrs. Macklin is staring directly at him, even as she types on her keypad and drops things into paper bags.

Renee picks Bella up off the floor too and hands her to him. "Here. Take your damn baby, and get her into the car-seat. I'll meet you out there."

-----

Once Charlie has Bella safely strapped in he sits down on the seat next to her, door open, feet on the ground, twisted back around so Bella can play some wordless, gurgling version of 'three little pigs' with his fingers.

The longer he sits and waits for the Renee the more stupid he feels. And the more worried about the serve he's probably in for.

He rolls his eyes, pulls his finger away just as Bella is bringing it to her mouth for the umpteenth time.

-----

When Renee comes out of the store he stands to attention, crosses the short distance to meet her and guides the shopping cart (Thank God there's nobody around) to the open trunk.

Renee leans into the backseat, tickles Bella's face and talks some high-pitched nonsense at her.

She walks around to the trunk just as Charlie tosses in the last box of Kleenex and slams it shut.

"So." she says, hands on her hips, devilishly alluring smirk on her face. "What was that all about Charlie Swan?"

Clearly the time spent paying for their purchases (and reenacting the little scene with Mrs Macklin) has allowed her to see the funny side, and Charlie's breath hitches, scatters warmly through his chest and throat, because he loves that about her, he loves that it is never too long before Renee sees the funny side.

That's my girl, he thinks.

Then he mock-fights a smile, shakes his head and grumbles out "This whole town's on crack. Kid's got my eyelashes. I mean it. Lash for lash. It's like lookin' into a mirror."

Renee laughs at that, really laughs like she hasn't in so long. She kisses him too.

It's the last time she ever does.

-----

Bella comes home for Christmas - home, Charlie remembers calling it that resolutely - in the year in which she's six.

He takes her to the Clearwaters' for lunch, and Billy is there, with Sarah and the twins and a tiny, but very, very noisy Jacob Black.

The memory of the meltdown outside the grocery store is far enough away, frayed and gray enough not to hurt, to be the kind of back-in-the-day story you tell with a wry smile to old friends at parties.

Sarah raises both eyebrows when she's done laughing at the bit about his lashes. "Oh please," she scoffs, "Everyone in this town is on crack."

"See now that's what I said," Charlie chuckles out, shaking his head and helping himself to more mashed potato. "She doesn't look that much like Renee."

"She doesn't," Sarah agrees indignantly. Then she looks over at Bella, who is neatly lining up blocks in the corner of the room while the other kids run around giving each other hell. "She has your cheekbones." She tilts her head to one side in contemplation. "And your eyes. They're exactly the same." She shoots Charlie a sidelong glance. "All wide and brown and soulful. Let's hope she doesn't turn out to be a big, old heartbroken sap like her dad, huh?"

She says it with a grin and nudge to his shoulder, it is light and teasing, and Charlie laughs, because he knows that Sarah loves him like a brother and this is just her way of trying - uselessly - to convince him to let her set him up with such and such a friend from work.

-----

The hospital again, only this time Charlie's not here to take his newborn baby home.

This time Bella isn't a baby, she's 18, a legal adult, he knows that, but she's still his baby girl. She's still his baby girl, but she's way too big for him to pick her up, bundle her against his chest and carry her to the car.

Charlie wishes he could pick Bella up, bundle her against his chest and carry her to the car.

Instead they walk together, side by side, and Bella's steps are measured, too even, she is a living, breathing monotone when she says "I'm fine, dad. That's what the doctor said. There's nothing wrong with me a little rest won't fix."

-----

The next few weeks are hell. They're a goddamn time warp. Suddenly it's 1988 and Charlie is hovering again. He knows Bella hates that - she's always been a private person, she values having her own space, and she hates people hovering... or she would have. Charlie knows she would have.

As it is, she barely seems to notice.

-----

He drives to Seattle, trawls the library there and checks out books on psychiatry and parenting.

He reads a passage on absentee fathers and how their daughters define themselves by the first man they fall in love with, how the collapse of that relationship can be psychologically devastating.

He thinks of Edward Cullen leaving Bella in the woods and he wants to rip his fucking throat out.

He thinks of himself, of how he didn't follow Renee to Phoenix, because Forks meant home, Forks was his job and his house and his friends...

He wants to rip his own fucking throat out.

-----

Billy's place.

It's been two and a half days since Charlie saw Bella holding Jacob's hand and laughing, and now they're out back in the garage together, and Charlie is out of his mind with happiness because she's laughing again.

And then, he's out of his mind with fear too, because Jake's a good kid, but he's still a kid, he's sixteen, and he's a sixteen year old boy, and the passage in the book he has long since returned to the library in Seattle still haunts him.

"You're worried about her," Billy says. It's not a question, but Charlie nods anyway, thinks how it pays to have a best friend who knows instinctively what you're thinking when you're a man of very few words.

"I'm worried about him," Billy says.

Charlie turns his head, eyebrows raised in surprise, and again, Billy articulates his thoughts for him. "Sure, Jake's a happy kid," he concedes. "And he's a big kid..." He hesitates, and an uncharacteristically mirthless grin spreads across his face. "... but sometimes, when he's looking at your girl, I could swear she's ten feet tall and any minute he's gonna start tugging on her skirts and begging for ice-cream."

Charlie's left hand makes a fist. He nods again, wonders if there was a section in that damn book about dead mothers and how their sons define themselves by the first woman they fall in love with.

He takes a long swig of his Vitamin-R and the bittersweet liquid settles sickly in the pit of his stomach.

-----

Charlie pries. He asks questions. It's something he swore he would never do, and really, it was an easy promise to make at the time because he's never been all that interested in girlfriends and boyfriends and all that touchy-feely crap.

He would have been quite happy to leave that stuff up to Renee, but she's not here, and this is an emergency, this is panic-stations and he's still hovering.

He asks questions and Bella works hard at not answering them, but when she finally tells him Jacob is just a friend and that's it, he breathes a sigh of relief.

And yet...

When she pulls her hands out of the water in the sink, wipes them tremblingly on a dishcloth, looks him in the eye and adds "He's my best friend, but that's all he'll ever be. That's all anyone will ever be." Charlie nearly doubles over.

He remembers what Sarah said about Bella's eyes and he feels sick. Because he's looking at her now, and it doesn't matter that she can laugh and smile and fill out college applications, it doesn't matter that she has a best friend whose last name is Black.

She's still broken.

Bella is still broken, and her eyes are wide and brown and soulful, and lash for bruised, battered lash, It's like looking into a mirror.

Charlie braces himself against the refrigerator door, bows his body.