A/N: I know, I know it's been way too long since I've updated. Please know that I am very sorry for the delay.

Here's a reminder from the previous chapter to, hopefully, help get us back into the swing of things...

A wave of calm enveloped me right before Jasper began to speak.

"I think we all need ta take a moment to calm down a bit. Esme, your visit has caught us by su'prise, and I'm sure you're equally su'prised by what ya've seen, so maybe we could sit down in tha livin' room and talk this out some." Jasper's southern accent was thicker than I'd ever heard it before, and I wondered if it was due to the stress of the situation or if he was doing it intentionally.

Thankfully, Carlisle released Esme, and we all headed into the adjoining room. Alice arranged us on the furniture, switching Esme and Emmett after seemingly seeing a need to change their positions. Once she was satisfied with the arrangement, she nodded her head and sat down next to me, taking the hand not occupied by Carlisle's tight grip. Jasper sat opposite of her on the other side of Carlisle, his hand resting on Carlisle's shoulder. He'd mentioned that touch strengthened his ability, and I worried about my mate's emotional state. Carlisle didn't seem happy to see Esme, at all, and I couldn't help worry about the affect her being there was having on him.

My bottom lip felt foreign when I pulled it between my teeth. I hadn't had much cause for the old habit since becoming a vampire, but the situation was making me extremely nervous and a bit agitated. There was already so much to worry about, and now my mate's ex-wife was sitting in our living room, looking like she wanted to rip off my head. To say I'd had better days would be a massive understatement.


Chapter Twenty Six

Give and Take

Carlisle joined me on the small bench at the edge of the garden. It was a place I'd come to appreciate very much over the last few days. Ever since Esme showed up, things had been extremely uncomfortable. I felt even more out of place in that house than ever, and it was driving me crazy. Plus, I hated all the tension between Carlisle and his ex-wife. They fought constantly, verbally attacking each other whenever the opportunity arose. I was still trying to separate my feelings regarding Esme and was often at a loss as to how to react to their bickering. Part of me actually wanted to defend her at times because I still saw her as a mother figure. She'd once been so important to me. Letting that go wasn't something I'd been able to do yet. I wasn't sure if I ever would.

"Alice said he'll be here in a few hours. I didn't want you to be caught off guard." Carlisle was concerned about Edward's anticipated return, especially since I already had to deal with Esme living in the house with us.

"Thank you."

I found being around Carlisle a little more difficult with all these conflicting emotions running rampant. Edward's return just added another layer to the chaos in my mind. Carlisle and I rarely had a chance to be alone as Esme seemed to pop up everywhere we were. Hiding was easier. Being a newborn was hard. My brain never stopped processing, thinking, conspiring, plotting, strategizing, assessing and it was definitely a sensory overload. I often felt like I was going to explode from it all. Adding anything else to the mix was just asking for trouble. Apparently, becoming a vampire didn't alter the fact that I was a magnet for trouble. If anything, I wondered if it magnified it, strengthened the magnetic power.

"Bella, please talk to me. I need to know that we're okay, that you're okay." Carlisle's eyes reflected the sadness of his tone, and I felt horrible for what I was about to say.

"I'm not okay. And I can't form a coherent thought long enough to figure out what I need in order to be okay. It's like there's ten of me competing for space in my head right now. I don't know how to make myself cooperate with me. It's unlike anything I've ever experienced, and I think I'm failing at being a vampire because I can't keep up with my own noggin."

At first, things were pretty great. Everything was so new and fresh and interesting. I was amazed by the changes, both on the inside and outside. All too soon, however, it became a bit much. Then Esme showed up, and I had been spinning out of control ever since. It didn't help that she seemed hell-bent on torturing Carlisle. I wasn't sure if she realized that she may as well have been torturing me too. She kept apologizing to me, asking for forgiveness for her hostility, and I actually felt guilty that I couldn't give it to her. The fact that she refused to tell me why she was so mad made things that much worse. She just kept telling me she had her reasons and all would be revealed soon. And I thought Alice was cryptic.

So, I chose to stay out of the house as much as possible. Hunting took up a great deal of my time but not nearly enough. Emmett and Jasper had taken to escorting me out into the wilderness at least once a day to give me a chance to satiate my unquenchable thirst. It helped, but they could only distract me so much. Jasper assured me that everything I was feeling was completely normal, that I was handling things better than any other newborn he'd known. Considering he had experience dealing with thousands of newborns, I guessed that was saying something.

The only time I felt any peace, other than on my hidden garden bench, was when I was scouring the woods with my two brothers. Reality would always rear its ugly head, though, and break into our time together. Neither Emmett nor Jasper could stand leaving their mates for any length of time, especially given the hostility permeating through the house. Alice and Rose only left Esme when absolutely necessary, worried that she would say or do something that would finally set Carlisle off and cause him to end her life. Even Carlisle wasn't convinced he could control himself around her when she was on one of her rampages. Due to the stress of having her there, he often opted to hunt alone, saying he needed time alone. I had a feeling he destroyed a good portion of the forest each time he ventured off in search of prey.

It was rough on all of us really. So the thought of Edward returning and adding to the stress of the situation was one more reason for concern. One that Carlisle was afraid would be the one that proved too much for me. He was worried about me and wanted to keep me out of whatever Esme was up to. He was concerned about her reasons for being there and had been somewhat relieved when Alice foresaw Edward's return. If nothing else, Carlisle hoped he would be able to pick up any underlying reasons for Esme sticking around. Her claim that she had as much right to be there as anyone else had worn real thin the day she arrived.

Plus, I wondered where her husband was. She would only give vague answers when asked, which raised our suspicions even more. No matter how much Alice or Rose tried to reason with her, Esme was being tight-lipped about nearly everything.

"You know that what you just described is perfectly normal, right?" Carlisle asked, interrupting my chaotic thoughts. "Jasper is truly fascinated with your control. Trust us, my love; you really are handling this better than any other newborn we've known. I'm impressed with your ability to know when it's too much and get yourself out of the situation. I just wish we had time for you to adjust at your own pace rather than feeling you have to rush to prepare for the Volturi. I'm so sorry I couldn't stop them." His voice was full of anguish, and more than ever I longed for him to tell me more about what happened to him those months he was gone from me.

We gathered in the living room as Edward approached the house. He was walking, taking his time to get there, and I was getting impatient. Alice hadn't seen much of what would happen once he got here, which made me a bit anxious. She figured it was because so many decisions were up in the air. Apparently, Edward's ability to read minds often had that effect on her visions. Depending on what he picked up or what others were able to block, the possibilities were constantly changing, often too quickly for her to pick up anything concrete.

Alice rushed to hug her brother as soon as he reached the front door. He smiled down at her before his eyes began to search the room. As soon as they landed on me, his smile brightened, and I couldn't help returning his kind greeting. He seemed much calmer than he had been the last time I saw him. After a few moments, he walked forward to embrace Esme then Rose. He exchanged fist pumps with Emmett and Jasper before heading toward Carlisle and me. Edward nodded at Carlisle, likely responding to something in his thoughts, then pulled him into a tight embrace. I was so happy to see the two of them like that. If I could still cry, I would have been in that moment. When Edward turned his attention to me, I became a little nervous. I was worried I would say or do something to ruin the so far joyful reunion.

"Hello, Bella." His voice resonated with uncertainty, and I realized he was just as concerned as I was about how this would turn out.

"It's good to see you, Edward," I responded honestly.

We reached for each other then and hugged. The way he held me was different from all the times before. It felt friendly rather than intimate. We smiled again when we stepped apart, and I was sure my face was beaming with the pride I felt. I now knew we were going to be okay. It might not always be so effortless to be around each other, but we weren't going to let that keep us from being friends. My intuition hadn't steered me wrong yet, so I was optimistic that things would be better.

Of course, as all things in my life go, the good was immediately followed by bad. Esme obviously wasn't enjoying our happy reunion because she decided to put a damper on things. Edward's eyes flashed with anger right before she opened her mouth, so I knew nothing good was about to come of whatever she was about to say.

"As lovely as this little gathering is, I think we should think about all the trouble Bella has brought down on our family now that we're all together again." Esme thought I was to blame for everything? That was news to me.

"Esme, what are you hiding?" Edward's tone was filled with accusation, and Esme began to fidget in a very un-vampire like fashion.

"I don't know what you mean." She tried, but Edward just shook his head and stared at her as if trying to get through whatever she was doing to block him out of her thoughts.

"Esme, you might as well tell us now. You've never been good at controlling your thoughts, and Edward will figure it out sooner or later," Carlisle spat out.

"What does Wayne have to do with anything?" Edward asked, apparently getting something from her despite her efforts.

"Nothing! Get out of my head, Edward," Esme yelled, spitting venom with her words of anger.

"I think it's time for us to hunt," Alice interjected before anyone could say anything else. "Esme, Rose, please join me for a quick bite." She smiled, but it didn't meet her eyes. I wondered what she saw happening that caused her to intervene.

"Yes, that would be best," Edward stated with finality.

The three women disappeared from the room, leaving a blanket of tension in their wake.

"Bella, may I have a minute, alone?" Edward asked tentatively, eyeing Carlisle.

I looked to Carlisle, who nodded his consent, before I followed Edward out into the yard. Not that I needed Carlisle's permission. I just wanted to avoid additional angst if possible. We didn't go far, just outside of earshot of the house. When we stopped, Edward started pacing.

"I had this whole speech planned out, but it seems so contrite now. Plus, I don't want it to come across as practiced or forced. Being with you, just being near you, makes me forget everything else anyway." He sighed heavily and pulled at his hair.

Slowly, gently I reached out to move his hands out of his hair. "Hey, it's just you and me. I'm willing to work to get us back to being friends. I miss you, you know? The family doesn't feel complete without you."

"I've decided to live on my own for a while. It's too hard being in a house with so many mated pairs. I don't think I could handle hearing you and Carlisle together. But I'm here until we deal with the Volturi. After that I'll remain close, in the same city maybe, but not in the same house."

"I understand. I'm glad you're here. Everyone claims I'm really doing well, but that just doesn't seem possible. It doesn't feel like I'm doing anything right." I huffed in frustration.

He took my hand and held it between both of his. "I think you're doing extraordinarily well, Bella. You're standing here, having a conversation with me, which I've never seen a newborn be able to accomplish. I don't think Carlisle and I were able to truly start communicating until about a year after my change.

"I'm here for you, though, however you need me. I want us to be friends. Not having you in my life is just too painful."

"Will you tell me what's going on with Esme? Everyone walks on eggshells around me as if they're afraid I'm going to go postal any second. It's frustrating. I can't prepare if I don't know what I'm preparing for." I needed to vent and knew Edward would be as honest as he could be with me.

"Esme was trying really hard to block her thoughts, but she did let slip that she's here to keep an eye on us for the Volturi. It has something to do with her mate, but I couldn't get more than that. She seems desperate, so I imagine she's not acting of her own freewill." His answer did little to ease my concerns. "Let's get back before Carlisle comes looking for us."

I nodded and allowed him to lead me back toward the house, still holding my hand in his. There was nothing romantic about the gesture, however, and Carlisle smiled when he saw us approaching. He was waiting on the porch, which didn't surprise me. I was glad he was able to keep himself from coming after us. This whole mating thing was complicated. It certainly didn't help when mixed with all the other facets of being a newborn vampire.

"Looks like you two patched things up. Edward, I can't tell you how glad I am to see you." Carlisle reached out to shake Edward's hand.

To my utter astonishment, Edward looked down at the ground, resembling a chastised child, rather than taking the olive branch offered. I couldn't fathom what caused his forlorn and somewhat guilty expression. I looked back and forth between the two of them; Carlisle seemed just as baffled as I was. Finally, after what felt like forever but was likely only a few minutes, Edward raised his head. He shook his head and opened his mouth as if to speak but quickly snapped it shut again.

"Edward?" Carlisle's voice echoed through the too quiet night.

"Carlisle, I have a confession to make."

We didn't get a chance to hear Edward's confession, though, because Esme stormed out of the house, yelling at him to stop. Everything was so chaotic after her outburst that even my new abilities couldn't follow it all.

Suddenly, Jasper was at my side, pulling me away from everyone.

"We need you get you out of here." Without further explanation he swung me onto his back and took off into the forest.

After we'd been running for about an hour, Jasper finally stopped and put me down. He started pacing and shaking his head. He was muttering something to himself, but I couldn't make out any of what he was saying.

"Jasper? You're really starting to scare me."

He turned to look at me, and I was stunned by the pained expression on his face. I took an involuntary step back as his emotions washed over me. Was he purposely letting me feel what he was or was it that he just couldn't hold all that in any longer?

"I'm sorry, Bella. I'm tryin' ta rein it in but it's just a lot to digest. Esme's lying about somethin' and Edward's emotions have been on the brink of disaster ever since he heard whatever he did right before Alice took Esme to hunt. Whatever he was about to tell Carlisle needed to be done in private. Alice told me before she left that, if it came to that, I was to take ya as far away as possible and not to return for at least a day. I don't know what she saw, but it had her all worried."

"Oh." I was really concerned about the others back at the house, but I trusted Alice's judgment, and if she said I needed to be out of there, then that was probably the best option.

The sound of a strong heartbeat caught my attention, and just like that, I was off, focused on the hunt, forgetting about everything else. I appreciated the distraction. The large mountain lion put up quite a fight, and the predator within was pleased with the challenge. When the carcass was drained and thrown aside for smaller predators to enjoy what was left, I turned to find Jasper waiting patiently about a hundred yards from where I was.

"Alice called. All hell's breakin' loose at home, and she doesn't want you anywhere near it. She promised to explain everything later. In the meantime I'm ta show you somethin'." He didn't elaborate, just scooped me up again and took off.

When we finally stopped, I gasped at what I saw. The scene in front of me was like something out of a fairytale. I'd never seen anything like it. There was a slow moving stream bubbling through the uneven terrain. Everything was covered in a light dusting of snow, giving the whole area a sparkling glow as the moon lit up the large clearing. I looked around in awe, feeling calm for the first time since waking to my new life.

"Wow, Jasper, this is incredible."

"Alice," was all he said and all he needed to say.

We sat in silence for several hours before either of us said anything else. It was so nice to just be for a little while. My mind was silent as I took in the beauty surrounding us.

"Come 'ere," Jasper said as he stood up and offered me his hand.

We walked toward the stream and along it until we came to where it ran into a large circle. The flowing water stopped there as if it found its home and needn't go farther. Right where the stream flowed in, the water rippled, but the rest of the water was completely still. It created a silver, mirror-like effect. I stepped right up to the edge and looked down into the water. What I saw had me gasping for air my body no longer really needed.

"Surprised?" Jasper asked.

"Very."


Disclaimer: SM owns this bunch of characters...I just like to to ponder on the what ifs...

A/N: Any guesses on what has our little Bella so surprised? I think it's pretty obvious, but maybe it only is to me...

Thanks so much for sticking with me despite how long I've been taking between updates. The story is starting to wind down. I'm not sure exactly how many chapters are left, but I'm guessing around five at the most. I'm really hoping to have the next chapter out by next Wednesday - 12/5 - I hate keeping you waiting! I know I hate waiting for stories to update!

Much love,

SP