Disclaimer: All publicly recognizable characters, settings, etc. are the property of their respective owners. The original characters and plot are the property of the author. The author is in no way associated with the owners, creators, or producers of any media franchise. No copyright infringement is intended.

o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o

Loose Canon

o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o

It came out of nowhere. One minute there was nothing but bright highway in my rearview mirror. The next minute, the sun was glinting off a silver Volvo right on my tail.

The Volvo followed inches behind me. I kept my eyes on the road ahead. (Eclipse, pgs. 131-32)

I tried to figure out what could have brought him back early, when I hadn't even decided to leave for La Push until about ten seconds before I actually got in the truck. It took a moment to realize that Alice had to have seen me — or, rather, not seen me — and called him. Edward would have been on his way the instant he heard her voice, and I'd been at Jacob's long enough for him to get back from wherever they'd been hunting. I felt a wave of guilt wash over me. Edward would think that I'd planned this, that I'd waited until he was gone in order to sneak off and visit Jacob.

I kept my speed steady as I continued on toward Angela's. I certainly wasn't about to stop and listen to him scream at me. As I drove, however, I found my guilt being gradually replaced by anger. I hadn't done anything wrong. I wasn't a child, wandering off when I'd been warned to stay in the yard. Edward wasn't my father. We were supposed to be in love, which ought to imply equality, at least insofar as basic rights were concerned. Maybe I wasn't talented like he was, or pretty like Rosalie, but he didn't have to make me feel so damned inferior all the time.

And this wasn't right, I thought, checking my rearview mirror again. Usually, when he was being overprotective, I could at least excuse it by saying that he wanted to keep me safe, and that I was pretty much incapable of keeping myself safe. I knew his concerns about the wolves, and to be perfectly honest, I couldn't help but wonder sometimes if my visits to Jacob were truly as harmless as I'd assured Edward. Sam, who purportedly loved Emily so deeply, had permanently disfigured her in a fit of rage. Jacob and I often disagreed; who knew what might happen if one day I made him really angry?

But following me home from Jacob's . . . following me as I drove away from the danger, rather than toward it . . . that was completely unnecessary. Edward wasn't trying to protect me. He wasn't concerned about my safety, not in that moment. He was conveying his displeasure. He was letting me know in no uncertain terms that I had been bad and that there would be further discussion. I couldn't read minds, nor did I have the superior hearing of a vampire, but I could practically hear Edward growling, "Just wait until I get you home . . ."

Exactly as though I were a child.

I knew I was being petty, but I started to wish I had some way to hurt Edward. To punish him for making me feel like I had to take orders from him. God, how I wished his family weren't all . . . well, what they were. If things were normal, I could surely arrange for him to get in trouble with his parents. Or at least with Charlie. Then again, if things were normal . . . I wouldn't be in this situation in the first place.

The minutes ticked by, agonizingly slow. I had never found the trip to or from Jacob's to be so onerously long — but then, it was amazing how tedious a drive could be when someone was tailgating less than a foot behind you. Edward's shadowing of my truck reminded me of a bumper sticker I'd seen once: If You're Not A Hemorrhoid, GET OFF MY ASS! At the time, I found that to be a particularly crass and vulgar sentiment. But thinking about it finally gave me an idea. I relaxed as I felt my face breaking suddenly into a grin.

Once, when I'd first gotten my license in Phoenix, my friend Jillian had let me drive the red convertible she'd gotten for her sixteenth birthday. It was pretty late, maybe one in the morning, and we'd been stopped at an intersection when this old black clunker went speeding by her car and ran the light. When it changed, we'd tortured him a bit by riding his back bumper for miles and miles. It was kind of nice, the thought that we must be making him nervous, and both of us were giggling like crazy . . . right up until he'd slammed on his brakes.

Had his car been any newer or Jillian's any older, we would probably have pulled into her driveway in a tow truck that night. But his brakes were ready to give out anyway, and he skidded quite a bit. Hers, of course, being new, had a hair trigger, and when I stomped instinctively on the brake pedal, my head almost hit the windshield despite having my seat belt on and the steering wheel in front of me. My chest slammed into the wheel so hard the horn went off.

In this case, the situation was the exact opposite; I had the beater car while Edward was driving the sleek showroom model. But the road was slick with the leftover rain from this morning, and in an effort to keep me safe — though he always claimed it was like trying to nail Jell-O to the wall — Edward himself had insisted that Rosalie replace my brakes. Though I wasn't oblivious enough not to sense his sister's animosity towards me, I could hardly picture her placing my life in danger with inferior work. If for no other reason than that she took such pride in her mechanical skills, I knew my brakes were probably even tighter than Edward's.

I smiled even wider and gradually sped up to fifty, pushing the tired old truck's limits. The silver Volvo increased its speed in such perfect tandem that the headlights in my rearview mirror never changed their position. Keeping my stronger right hand steady on the wheel, I slid the left one into my jacket pocket and pulled out my cell. Carefully watching the road, only taking my eyes from it for a second to find the '2,' I pressed it and held down. '1' was the speed dial for my voicemail; '2' was Edward.

I cradled the phone against my shoulder (only for show; I didn't plan to talk) and placed both hands steadily on the wheel again. Now my eyes flickered back and forth between the road and my rearview mirror. I knew the second Edward's phone began ringing, because one of his pale hands disappeared off the steering wheel — fumbling, I would imagine, in his jacket pocket as I had a moment ago. I waited for the split second when he would take his eyes off the road to check who was calling.

It all happened very quickly. I saw Edward's head drop as he looked at the phone's lighted display, which illuminated his paper-white skin in the semi-darkness behind the tinted windows of the Volvo. I eased up on the gas, letting the truck slow for two or three seconds, knowing that he would hear the change in the engine if I let it go much longer. Finally, when the Volvo's windshield had all but disappeared below the tail of my truck as Edward's speed continued unchecked, I took a deep breath and stomped both feet on the brake pedal.

The sudden stop made me lurch forward, so I didn't get to watch Edward's reaction in my rearview mirror. It was enough, for me, to hear it.

When Charlie had first shown me my truck, its hulking frame had immediately brought to mind pictures from highway smash-ups, where a behemoth like my Chevy stood firm next to the mangled remains of some late-model sedan, without so much as a paint scrape to serve as a souvenir of the altercation. I remembered sitting in the cab the first time and feeling . . . powerful. Invincible.

Now I had proof. I felt the impact, of course, when Edward's Volvo slammed into me from behind, but the truck didn't actually move at all. Like a child forced to bend to the will of an elder, for lack of a more appropriate comparison, the young Volvo crumpled around the side of the unyielding hunk of steel that was my rock. There came a rapid succession of screeches from the abused metal before I caught a flash of silver in my side mirror . . . and turned my head just in time to see Edward's car go spinning into the ditch that ran alongside the road. With a glorious crash, the Volvo finally came to rest, nose up at an impossible angle. The front wheels were still turning, though each revolution brought them closer and closer to stopping completely. Everything had happened so quickly, and yet the silence still came as something of a shock as I put the truck in neutral and set the parking brake.

Instinctively, a laugh bubbled up in my throat at just how perfectly my plan had worked. But in the nick of time, I managed to choke it back as I began to panic. Edward was going to be furious. I was all alone out on a deserted road, and he was strong enough even to hurt me accidentally. How would it be now that he was angry? I found myself being torn by conflicting emotions. On one hand, I was scared to death of Edward's wrath. On the other, I resented the fact that he had so much power over me, power enough to hurt me just for standing up for myself (as passive-aggressive as my gesture of defiance had been). I shouldn't have to be afraid of the man who claimed to love me more than his own existence.

Being thrust forward over the steering wheel, however, gave me an idea. Quickly, before I could chicken out, I let my neck bend the rest of the way and deliberately bumped my head against the edge of the wheel. It hurt, but not enough to make me cry, and probably not enough to even raise a bump. I certainly wasn't about to do it again, though. Knowing I only had half a minute at best before he'd be wrenching my door open, I frantically tried to conjure up some tears. But I'm not much of a crier even under normal circumstances, and the thought of his Volvo lying in the ditch almost made me start to laugh instead.

I could hear metal protesting as Edward opened his door, so I cast around for some sad thought to make me cry. I usually didn't think of the day he left me in the woods — when the memory occasionally arose against my will, I always stomped it hard and threw it back down into the dark morass of grief from whence it came. This time, however, I welcomed the pain, deliberately replaying every agonizing detail and milking the recollection for every last drop of hurt I could squeeze from it. By the time Edward reached my truck and threw open the door, tears were flowing freely down my face and I was taking great gulps of air to feed a series of wailing sobs. My palm was pressed tightly to my forehead as if to hold my very skull together, and my other hand was curled protectively between my breasts.

I wasn't looking at Edward, so I don't know for sure if he had even been angry to begin with. But even if that were true, it all melted away when he saw me crying. "Bella? Bella! Are you all right?" he shouted frantically, pulling himself up by the doorframe so he could lean into the cab.

"No!" I blubbered, pushing back against him. "No, don't! My head — I think it's bleeding. You'd better — "

"Oh, my God." There was a slight pause, and then I felt his cold fingers trying to pry mine away from my face.

"No!"

"It's okay, love, I'm not breathing. Let me see." I resisted again, but after a moment, allowed him to lift my hand and gently probe my forehead. "It's all right, Bella, it's just red there. But we'd better get you to the hospital."

"I don't want to!" I wailed petulantly, taking another deep, shuddering breath. "I wanna go ho — home . . ."

"Shhh . . ." Edward pulled me against his chest and cradled me there protectively. Then, abruptly, he pulled back from our embrace. "What's wrong with your hand?"

I had forgotten my left hand, which was nestled between my breasts and had formed a hard lump between us for the brief moment he'd held me. I groped for an explanation. "I, um . . . I put my hand out to stop myself, and it bent backwards," I explained in a tiny voice.

"Jesus, Bella . . ." Edward sounded ready to cry himself. "What if it's broken? I've got to get you to the hospital."

"No hospital!" I shrieked. No way was I going there if I didn't absolutely have to. The hospital reminded me of James. I frantically tried to find some way out. "I don't . . . I don't want Charlie to find out," I explained, knowing the excuse was feeble at best.

Edward was gently stroking my hair and making soft shh noises. "Sweetheart, at least let me take you to Carlisle," he pleaded. "God, I'm so sorry, baby . . ."

Carlisle, yes. I felt a surge of glee at the very thought of taking my 'injuries' to Carlisle. While it wasn't likely that Edward's dad would have interfered had I simply gone to him and complained about his son's behavior, he could hardly just ignore me after Edward had caused a car accident. Edward ought to get quite the lecture over this one. Once again, I thanked my lucky stars that Edward couldn't read my mind . . . but also that Jasper wasn't there to feel my sudden excitement. I pretended to mull it over, sniffling as Edward stroked my wrist. "Okay," I finally murmured, as though reluctantly accepting the inevitable.

"Can you move over, love? Or should I carry you around?" Edward asked softly, smoothing my hair back from my face.

I scooted over gingerly, grateful there was no center console to maneuver my legs over. I used my right wrist for leverage, keeping my 'hurt' left one in my lap. Edward waited until I was settled, then in one fluid movement he was behind the wheel and pulling the door shut behind him. He leaned over and kissed me, nuzzling our foreheads together, before settling back into his seat and reaching for the parking brake.

"Edward, the rabbit," I said, reaching over and tugging urgently at his sleeve.

"What rabbit?"

"The little grey bunny," I fibbed, gazing at him beseechingly. "Did I hit it? God, please tell me it got away. Did it?"

"You . . . you stopped on a dime for a rabbit?" Edward cried, incredulous. His hand dropped from the brake handle and hung suspended over the edge of the seat.

"Well, what was I supposed to do, just run it over?"

"You could have a concussion and a fractured wrist, and all over a rabbit?" he roared furiously.

Once again, I grasped at my memories of his leaving, which were much easier to recall this time. I let fresh tears drip down my face, making dark stains appear on my shirt.

"Why do you have to yell at me all the time?" I whimpered tearfully. "Do you even care how bad it makes me feel?" My lower lip started to quiver as I stared down at my trembling hands.

"Bella . . ." In the blink of an eye, Edward was right up next to me, his arms around my shoulders and his face pressed to mine. "Baby, don't cry," he whispered against my ear. "I'm sorry."

"You're always bellowing at me," I mewled. "You make me feel two inches tall."

"Shh . . ."

"It's not fair!" I cried. "You're supposed to be my love, not my master." It wasn't really an act anymore. Thinking of Edward's car roaring down the road, chasing me like a hound closing in on the very rabbit I had just fabricated, really did make me cry even harder.

Edward's arms tightened convulsively around me. "Baby . . ." he said helplessly, "I never think of you that way. I do love you; you're my only love. My reason for existing."

"What if it were Jacob?" I protested. "What if he followed me home from your house, three inches from my truck? What if he yelled at me for making him crash after he made me so damn nervous in the first place? What would you say then?"

"It's not the same thing," Edward stated emphatically.

"How is it different? Because you're a vampire and supposedly have more control?"

"The wolves — you saw what happened to your friend Emily!" he sputtered.

She wasn't really my friend, but I wasn't going to argue the point. "They're no more dangerous than you are," I countered. "No one ever attacked me for bleeding from a paper cut at La Push."

Edward slammed his fist down on the dashboard hard enough to make me jump. "I won't have you putting yourself in danger to go spend quality time with that mutt!" he growled through clenched teeth.

I glared at him hatefully. "You won't have me at all if you don't stop ordering me around," I snapped back. "Jacob was my friend before I knew you, and he kept being my friend after you left." I didn't miss how Edward's face contorted in response to the veiled accusation, transforming from anger to grief in a few short seconds. He turned slowly away from me and stared straight ahead out the windshield, his jaw clenched.

My mind was screaming at me not to say anything else, but something had snapped when I found myself being forcibly escorted back to Forks. I took a deep breath and plunged on recklessly. "I'm not going to be told what to do, Edward. This isn't about the wolves. If I were friends with Sam, who already imprinted on Emily, or with Seth . . . in other words, someone who could never be a romantic interest . . . then you wouldn't care. With Jacob, it isn't about my safety. It's about your jealousy and your need to control me."

Edward's hands were gripping the edge of the seat so tightly that I could see a rip forming on this side of the upholstery. I made my parting shot. "If you truly love me and want to marry me, then this has to stop. I'll see whomever I please. If you can't accept that . . . then I guess I'll be driving myself to Angela's today."

When I finished, I turned my head away from him and stared stonily out the windshield, just as he had been doing while I gave my ultimatum. My heart was pounding away in my chest, and I wished there was some way to hide the sound from him. I wanted to appear strong, not afraid. But there was no help for it, and all I could do was wait for him to respond.

When Edward had left me in the meadow, his departure was so swift and silent that I could hardly believe he'd been there at all. I remembered how I'd spent hours walking the paths, clinging desperately to the hope that maybe he was only human, after all, and couldn't have gone far. But when he left me this time, it happened slowly. He might have been human the way he opened the driver's side door to the truck and carefully stepped out, slamming it shut and moving away in measured strides . . . when I know that if I'd paused to blink, he could easily have been halfway home before my eyes opened again.

I took a deep, shuddering breath, my heartbeat quickening until it was almost a buzz in my ears. He'd left me, after all. Was I supposed to feel pain? Did one feel the moment the bullet struck the heart, stopping the flow of life? Shouldn't there be something, some last desperate grappling for purchase from a body deprived of the very air it depended on for sustenance?

Then the door was opening again and he was back, sliding behind the wheel as gracefully as a gazelle — inanely, I wondered what a gazelle would ever be doing driving a truck — and again there was silence. Finally, he muttered, "The rabbit got away."

It took a moment before my addled brain could comprehend what he'd said. What rabbit? Were we speaking in code now? Oh-my-ears-and-whiskers-I'm-late-I'm-late-I'm-late . . . Or had my mind finally blown its last surviving microchip?

Then it hit me. Of course; the rabbit I'd been worried I ran over. For the third or fourth time now, I sent up a quick thanks to whomever might be listening that Edward couldn't read my thoughts. I suddenly felt such relief, knowing that Edward hadn't been about to leave me after all. I opened my mouth — to say what, I have no idea — but he interrupted before I got so much as a word out.

"You were right, Bella." I was stunned. In my limited experience with men, I knew those were three words that they absolutely loathe to utter. Had Edward ever . . . ? No, I'd always been the one to defer to him. But strangely, I didn't feel excited, or smug, or much of anything, really. I just waited.

Edward let out a completely unnecessary breath and continued. "I am" — he spat the word out unwillingly — "jealous of the m — of Jacob. Because . . . because he was there when I abandoned you, and because . . ." I heard a catch in Edward's voice. "You won't marry me, and I'm afraid it's because of him." Now Edward was the one waiting. Waiting for me to collect my scattered thoughts and respond to his ridiculous statement.

"Edward," I answered slowly. "The reason I won't marry you has nothing whatsoever to do with Jacob. I just don't want to end up like my parents. I can't imagine my life without you."

The corner of his mouth twitched up. "So you're refusing to marry me in order to keep us together?" he asked. He gave a humorless laugh. "That's a catch-22 if I ever heard one."

"I'm not . . . saying that I'll never agree to it," I replied cautiously, not wanting to get his hopes up. "I just . . . we have all eternity, after all." I sighed, feeling incredibly drained. "Edward, I'm so tired. Can you please take me home?"

"No." I felt a spark of anger flare up again. Had we reverted to the old way so quickly, with him making all the decisions without asking, or even caring, how I felt about them? But Edward's voice broke into my thoughts again, and I relaxed when I heard why he was refusing. "I'll take you to my house. I'm still worried you might have a concussion." He gave me a sidelong smirk. "One of the symptoms is behavior that's out of character, after all."

I started to panic. Oh, God, what if I really had given myself a concussion? But . . . I hadn't hit my head nearly as hard as the day he'd saved me from Tyler's van, and that time I'd escaped injury, so surely this wouldn't . . . ? "Okay," I agreed, willing to let Carlisle take a look. After all, I was still hoping to get Edward a lecture or something. Edward put the truck into gear, and with one last grimace at his ruined Volvo, we were speeding off toward his house.

Neither of us said much on the ride there; I reckon I'd said plenty already, and Edward seemed too distracted for conversation. I thought regretfully of Angela, who would be all alone with her invitations this afternoon. I'd have to call her and apologize; surely she'd understand when she heard about the accident.

When we got to the Cullens', Edward pulled right up near the front porch and insisted that I stay in the car until he could come around the side and help me.

"Edward, I don't walk on my left wrist," I protested, but his door had barely had time to slam shut before mine was opening, and then he was gathering me into his arms and carrying me toward the house.

As we approached the front door, I carefully twisted my head around so I could look back over his shoulder at my truck. Edward's car was now a crumpled mass of twisted metal lying in a ditch halfway to La Push; had my Chevy also suffered injuries?

The truck, washed clean by the morning's rain, glistened in the sunlight. I smiled.

Not a scratch.