~ "The most important thing in life is to learn how to give out love, and to let it come in." ~
Morrie Schwartz


Ragweeds.
Chapter Nine : Jumping Obstacles
Edward and Bella fight to stay close as obstacles and consequences begin to bear down on them. Fun times are had, but are also short-lived. Their roles in each other's lives begin to shift.

IMPORTANT A/N BOTTOM OF CHAPTER.

Special Shout-Out's:
-- To my faithful readers/reviewers/twilighters/facebookers/lexiconers....
There's been a few repetitive questions concerning Ragweeds that I thought I would go ahead and answer quickly: Again, we are no where near the Preface yet. Sorry guys. I know the heartfail isn't easy, but Edward and Bella still have a lot to deal with. Fostering isn't as easy as adoption, and unfortunately, it takes a while to find a good fit in a home. I don't want anyone to get their hopes up for quick placements and easy solutions and golden pots at the end of rainbows. Life doesn't work that way, and I don't want the story to be sugarcoated. I ask that you bear with me during the fail times. There are happier moments coming, and I *promise*, the ending will be worth it.
-- To my beta Caryn (Jazz Girl) & to my "visualizing assistant" Aura (Rebecca's Mom)... Ohhh, what would I do without you both? Thanks for saving my ass and occasionally kicking it when you need to. I love you.
Disclaimer: I own nothing that is Twilight or Stephenie Meyer related. (But I busted my ass to write this story. Do not take what is not yours.)



" I need your grace
To remind me

To find my own."
~ Snow Patrol, "Chasing Cars"


Chapter Nine : Jumping Obstacles

BellaPOV

Barely lucid, my trembling fingers struggled to write. I hadn't eaten all day, or yesterday for that matter. I tried this morning, but two guys stole my food before my butt touched the seat. I thought about telling a counselor about it, but knew it'd backfire whenever a friend of a friend caught me alone in the bathroom later. I decided against it. I knew how these things worked.

I wrote letters to Edward even though I knew I would see him in a day or two. He was the only person I wanted to talk to.

With a sigh, I flexed my fingers and tried again.

Dear Edward, I wrote.
How are you? How's school going? I worry constantly about you when we don't get to speak. I worry about your teachers. About the students you roam the halls with. If they're treating you good, if they're being nice to you. I know I shouldn't think so negatively about everything, but I can't help it. I guess you could say I'm used to disappointment by now. I just hope you're transitioning well. We don't talk much about you and school while I'm there with you... Guess it seems irrelevant compared to everything else going on.
It really sucks that the escape attempt failed again last night. I wonder what happened? I really hope it wasn't the car again. With all the money Billy seems to be raking in from music lessons and with Jasper and Jake helping him out, I don't see why no one has turned in that car for a better model. At least something that doesn't have a sticky pedal, you know? It worries me whenever you drive it back and forth all the time. I just wish things were simpler for us. It seems like every way we turn, there's another obstacle. Why is that?
I had another dream about my mom last night. Wasn't much that I remember, and I'm thankful for that. All I mainly saw was her hair. Long dark hair, blowing. She stood facing away from me in a patch of wildflowers, but I smelled that expensive coconut cream shampoo. She loved it. She was addicted to it, said it drove men wild. I reached out to her, called her name. Her hair blew wildly. It mesmerized me. I couldn't move my legs to really touch it with my fingers. I wanted to, desperately, but it was out of reach. She was out of reach. And then I woke up.
I don't know if I'm thankful to have dreams about her or not. Some nights, it's too scary. Most nights, in fact. But then, I worry that when I stop having dreams about her, I'll regret it. I'll want them back. I'll take the pain to see her in front of me. To hold her hand. To touch her hair. I hate that we can't control what we think, what we see when we dream. If I could, I'd put myself in her arms. I'd listen to her whispering in my ear as she rocked me. And I'd never, ever wake up.
...But then I'd never see you again. And strangely, that seems just as bad as not having my mother. What does all of this mean?
Sincerely,
Bella.

"Hey Bella!" Angela chimed as her knuckles hit the doorframe. She entered before I could give her permission. "What are you doing?"

"Writing Edward another letter."

"Awesome," she sat in front of me and grinned wide. Excitement rolled off of her in giant waves. "Guess what! I'm getting advance placement!"

"What?"

"Yes!" she squealed, "I leave tomorrow! A family with a ranch house and horses. Isn't that awesome?!"

Baffled, I swallowed thickly and gave a rushed nod. "Y-yeah Angela," I said as she pulled me into a tight hug. I rubbed her back, "That's awesome. I'm happy for you-"

"Oooh, what do we have here?"

Angela and I broke our hold. We turned to find Sheena standing in the doorway with her arms crossed. An evil smile spread across her thick lips. Her eyes lit wickedly. "Why Bella," she said. "This explains a lot. I mean, I always thought you had it in for Aaron. But, really... you're a flaming lesbian."

"Excuse me?" I spat, standing up in front of my bed.

"Oh no, don't come toward me and give me a hug," Sheena belly laughed. "I'd hate to have your boobs pressed against me. You may get the wrong impression."

"I'm not gay," I sneered.

"Sure you're not. You probably keep a stash of tuna under your bed for late night snacks."

My fists clenched and trembled, and without thinking, I took a step toward her. "You really need to leave me alone before I beat your-"

"Hey, hey, hey!" Rosalie intercepted, rushing between us. She pushed me toward my bunk and Sheena against the doorframe again. Angela sat frozen on the bed, her jaw dropped. "Bella," Rose demanded. "What is going on here?"

"She started it."

"And?"

"And what do you think?" I shouted at her. "She always starts it! And she always gets away with it!"

"We'll handle it," Rosalie said. "The adults, Bella, not you." She stepped closer and lowered her voice while Sheena's caseworker pulled her out of the room. "Bella, you can't be getting into fights. Not when you're so close to placement."

I rolled my eyes and huffed, "Yeah right."

"I'm serious. Kate called me this morning. Come to the cafeteria with me, we'll talk about it."

I looked back at Angela, who was smiling at me. My open letter to Edward lay on my bed spread. No way was I leaving it. "Sure," I said. "Let me just... grab this first."

~*~

Rosalie explained to me about Kate. She said she wanted to push the paperwork, see if I couldn't come to her home in just a few weeks. "Two weeks tops," Rosalie grinned. "Two weeks, and you'll be out of here Bella. Aren't you excited?"

I shrugged.

"What's this?" she asked, attempting to pull the letter from beneath my hands.

My palm slapped it and I pulled it back and folded it in half. "Nothing," I shrugged. "A letter to a friend."

"Oooh, like a love letter?"

"No. A friend letter."

"To a boy."

"Edward is a boy, yes." I couldn't help but smile when I said his name. I bit my lip to stop my cheeks from warming.

"Mmm, so Edward is his name," she pondered. "Cute. Oh wait, you've mentioned him before! Yeah, I remember now. The counselors have spoken about him too. Is he your boyfriend?"

"What?" I gasped, shaking my head quickly. "No. Nooo, no, no."

"But you want him to be."

"What?" I shook my head and furrowed my brows. Why did she care? "I don't think that's any of your business. It's certainly not relevant to my case-"

"Oh Bella," Rosalie clapped her hands giddily, "I knew it! You have a crush on a boy!"

Closing my eyes, I took a deep breath. "I don't want to talk about this with you."

"Okay, okay, I'll stop badgering you about your relationship, although I think it's cute," she said. "Tell me about him though. Your eyes lit up when you said his name, which is a very rare sight for me to see, let me tell you. Come on, what's he like?"

"He's..." I pondered, fighting harder to maintain the smile, "amazing. He's highly intelligent, and extremely strong-willed. He's guarded around people, he stays out of everyone's way. But, for some reason, he opens up easily around me. We have this... I don't know... this unspoken connection. We've had it since day one, and I... He's... I... He's really great."

I couldn't believe all of this was pouring out of me. I never talked to anyone about anything. But when the subject of Edward came up, and Rosalie sat in front of me with eager eyes, I couldn't help myself. I suddenly had word vomit and no filter to catch it.

"What's he look like?"

"Tall," I answered quickly, despite myself. "Really tall. I have to crane my neck to look up at him. And he has this hair color I can't even begin to describe the shade if I tried... It's deeper than copper... maybe more of that bronzed color... I don't know. Not red though, definitely not red. But not brown. Argh, it's difficult."

"Go on," she pressed encouragingly.

The filter opened wider. The words kept coming. It felt good to speak about him to someone. "Green eyes," I said, flustered. "Amazing bright, liquid green eyes. Reminds me of holding one of those old glass bottles up into the sunlight. His eyes really tell a story. He's got chapters hidden behind them, endless chapters, and they're so dark that it makes my heart wrench whenever he speaks, and you can't help but listen and stare." I thought of Edward. All the truths he told me in private. "I want to dig it out. Like, shovel my way under his skin and dig around and pull out every dried up weed that's left him aching. He had a really rough past, one I could never even dream about. But he doesn't take it out on anyone really. He keeps it bottled up, and he doesn't explode."

"What else?" she asked eagerly. "Bella, what else?"

"His voice...," I sighed, "it's a perfect pitch. Not too high, not too low. Always smooth, even when he's upset. It's raspy at times, lower when he's really calm or talking about something funny, but it's always charming. And he, in general, is charming." I took a deep breath, amazed at where all of this was coming from. I'd never spoken about Edward. Not even to myself. "He's so respectful, Rosalie. He really takes care of me whenever we get to hang out. He always puts people first. And he's talented, God is he talented. I don't think there's anything he couldn't do if he set his mind to it. Every time I think about it, I want to beat his parents for what they did. God, that makes me so damn angry."

"You know him quite well," she thought out loud. "It's good that you have someone to talk and write letters to. Seems this boy has really had a powerful impact on you, Bella."

"Yeah..." I mumbled. "Much deeper than I thought."

It was a scary, confusing acclamation.

~*~

The next day, I tried to take a nap. I knew I wouldn't be able to. I prayed to a God I wasn't sure existed for sweet dreams filled with my mother in sunflower patches with blowing hair, or Edward's wide crooked grin and glowing emerald eyes. I had no luck. God didn't want to hear me.

I sat on the swing in the yard wearing a torn jacket, worn boots, the gloves I never removed from my hands, and two covers draped over my shoulders. Kids ran around me, having snowball fights and harassing the new arrivals. "Welcome home bitch!" they shouted with mocking laughter. "Get comfortable down there in the snow. Your face will be in it later!"

I kept to myself, folding my knees up to my chest. I was known as a loner. I heard others murmuring in the halls about how unsocial I was, how I didn't fit in. They still called me a goody-goody, though they stripped me of any dignity I had left. I'd learned not to care… as much. A moment without Sheena was not one I was willing to pass up for anything. Cold winter and frozen lungs be damned.

As the kids laughed and shouting grew louder, my eyes focused on the plain sheet of white before me, and I spaced out. How many children went through something like this? How many children were left here, in an endless ocean, waiting to be plucked like a fish? How many young souls gave up waiting for a secure tank to be placed in, and allowed the sharks to eat them alive? I thought about how tenuous families were, about how valuable a mom and daughter could be to each other and how necessary my friends back home used to be to me. How things I once counted upon had vanished. Everything could be lost. That was clear to me now. Quicker than the blink of an eye, it could all be gone.

Tom called that morning. He tried to project a chipper attitude, encouraging that everything would be all right eventually. But all I heard were rough edges around every sentence. He told me he missed me dearly. I wondered why he didn't call me. He spoke about how often he thought of me, how he hoped I was okay, if I was hanging in there. I wondered where the care package was that he was promised to send. He said it was difficult for him to think of my mother, that it broke his heart. I wanted to scream, WHAT ABOUT ME!!! How do you think I feel?

For weeks, even months, I'd waited for him to call me. Waited for him to say, Bella, I'm taking you far away. I love you and I still consider you my daughter. You're safe with me. But when he called me, all I wanted to do was hang up on him. Then call him back, wait until he answered, linger in silence to make up for all the silence he'd given me during the weeks I had waited, and then hang up again.

Sitting on the swing, I watched as two dark hawks hovered in a circle over us, squawking. To my right, a counselor looked out the window. To my left, more adults. I couldn't go anywhere here without being watched. Even the birds were watching. I stared up at the crystal blue sky, a rarity in Seattle, and wanted to scream until my chest collapsed.


EdwardPOV

On Monday afternoon, Jake met me in the hall after school. I was surprised to see him. Usually, he hung out with the jocks, caught a ride when he was ready. His time, his way. Billy never cared as long as we made it home at a reasonable hour and completed our chores.

"What are you doing here?"

He ran his fingers through his hair. "What do you think? Waiting on you to get out. How'd Bio treat ya?" When he walked across the hallway in the opposite direction, the crowd parted. If I tried it at my old school, I would have been pushed into a locker. "Ready?"

I nodded and adjusted the strap of my book bag, "How was your day?"

"Shitty. Glad it's over. I like being a freshman though. Whoever said high school was hard just didn't get it." He wore a Colts jersey over some new faded jeans. I'd forgotten he wanted to try out for the team this summer and began training for it last week. It made sense between the muscles and height. Jacob was born to play sports.

We made it halfway to the parking lot when a girl from my Biology 2 class, with wavy blonde hair and a name I'd forgotten approached us. "Hey Edward, Jake! What's up? I was wondering if you two would like to come out to my house for a little party tonight?"

"On a Monday?"

"Why not?" she giggled and looked over at me. "That exam was tough, wouldn't you say, Edward? It'd be good for us all to shake it off, have a few beers, talk..."

"Uhhhh," I looked to Jake for an answer, or simply a way out.

He didn't get the memo and nodded nonchalantly. "Sure, we'll be there, Shannon."

~*~

After my chores, I lay flat on my bed and stared up at the wooden planks. "I'm not going."

"Like hell you're not. I need a wingman."

"Take Jasper."

"He's got detention, man. Caught smoking again. I told him to stop going on that side of the building. One day he'll learn." He laughed, "Dad's going to shit a brick over it when he finds out later. He ain't hearing it from me though."

I groaned when he walked in and pulled me off the bed. I was not in the mood for this. "Do you really feel it's necessary to douse yourself that much cologne? What the hell is that?"

"Lacoste. Want some?"

"I think you're wearing enough for the both of us."

We went to Shannon's. I didn't have a choice. It was either that, or be stuck at Billy's again, doing nothing and waiting for my chance to see Bella again. At least this way, the hands of the clock would move faster.

The party wasn't as big as I thought it would be, compared to others I'd been to. Still, it was enough to easily get lost in a crowd. I sat at the crowded island in the kitchen with a plastic cup in my hand and watched how easily it was for Jacob to make friends with everyone around him. I wondered what type of chromosomes you had to be born with to behave like him, what type of teenager Billy had been. Was he wild like Jacob? Did he make friends easily? Now that I thought about it, I had no idea why or how Billy ended up in a wheelchair. I guess I never gave myself time to ask.

"What are you drinking, cutie? Beer?" Shannon stood behind me. I looked into the cup, saw the last remains there. I drank them before I answered, "It was beer, yeah."

She reached around, filled a new cup with liquid froth, and handed it back to me. "Here. You look like you could use it."

I didn't know whether to scoff or grin. "Is that a polite way of saying I look like shit?" I asked.

"No. It's a polite way of saying you deserve a break. I saw you in class today. You didn't look focused during that test. What happened?"

"I didn't have time to really study for it."

"Why not?" Shannon asked, dropping into the seat beside me. She strummed her fingernails along the granite. Her eyes locked on mine in an unnerving way.

I glanced down at the counter top and mumbled, "Because I had other things to do."

"Such as..."

"Write a few letters to my mother and…a friend," I answered, not giving her room to ask me anything else about it. It wasn't her business. "How'd you do on it?"

"Oh, I don't know," she groaned, stretching her arms up above her head. I saw the tiniest sliver of skin on the small of her back, but it quickly re-covered when she dropped her arms. "I hope I got an A or else my dad is going to murder me. He hates it when I get anything less. Says my actions are a statement of how he is as a father."

I ignored her choice of words and played it cool. "Won't he be upset with you for throwing this party?"

"He won't find out. He's hardly ever here..." She bounced on the bar stool and turned toward me. Our knees banged together. "You know, you could always come over after school. I could help you out in Bio if you need it."

"Thanks. I'll think about it."

The ceiling fan above my head whirred continuously and, as the music grew mellow and the hours ticked by, the kids settled into their cliques. My intoxication level continued to grow. Normally, I'd drink two or three. I was on seven or eight by that point, and I couldn't stop. It seemed so simple to swallow down and watch the colors of a world you don't feel a part of bleed together.

When I was at Billy's, I at least felt a slight sense of what a real family could be like. Here, with kids my age, I felt weightless. It didn't matter to them that I was here. Jake did his best to stick around and introduce me, but I knew I was disappointing him when I lost interest in conversations. All everyone wanted to talk about was the last party or the next party, or how shitty school was, or who got laid. I didn't give a damn about parties, I knew school sucked, and I never had sex. I had nothing to contribute.

A group of jocks slid a tiny glass of brownish-purple liquid toward me, encouraging me to drink it. So I did. And another, then another, and then more. I lost count. Once I moved through the liquor, I smoked a large joint. Followed by three I shared with Jake, Shannon, and two of their friends. It was great for a while. I felt myself loosening up, and even laughing at their jokes. I thought, maybe I just hadn't given them a chance? Wasn't that what I wanted back then? A chance?

The liquid inside my body sloshed and rocked like a stirring sea as I stumbled my way down the crowded hall. Taking the longest piss in the history of pisses, I leaned the side of my head against the wall and tried to make sense of things. The red flowers on the wallpaper in front of me seemed to bleed down the molding. I shut my eyes and saw my father laying in a pool of blood on the floor of my parent's bedroom. He was staring at me with lifeless, cold eyes. It jolted me back to the present, and I quickly flushed and bundled myself back up.

My mouth had dried out completely. I felt my skin grow clammy. Suddenly, I realized I had consumed much more substance than my teenage body was used to. "Shit, sorry," I mumbled when I nearly knocked a girl over. She blocked the entrance to the kitchen, where Jake was kissing the neck of a new girl. My hand slapped his shoulder. My voice came out unrecognizable even to me. "Jake," I slurred, closing my eyes, "I gotta get outta here buddy. I'm freaking out here."

"Smoke too much?" he asked, concerned.

I gave an awkward nod.

By the time we made it to Billy's house, my legs had nearly given out. Jake led us around the back so we wouldn't be caught sneaking in so late and completely fucked up. He threw my arm over his shoulder and, with the assistance from a cranky Jasper, helped me through the patio door, down the long hall, across my bedroom floor, and into the bathroom Jasper and I shared. They dropped me beside the toilet.

Jasper gave a heavy sigh and lifted my sweaty face up in his hands. "Dude, what'd he take?"

"He just drank and smoked some, how the fuck should I know?" Jake asked as he ran a rag under water.

"Well I definitely smell the fucking pot. Did you drink too many shots Edward?"

I didn't know if I managed an actual nod. The walls behind them jittered again.

"Dude, you can't drink shots after beer man. Remember: beer before liquor, never sicker. Liquor before beer, you'll be clear."

I dropped my head to the cool seat of the toilet. The walls seemed to inch closer to me, taunt me. I couldn't catch my breath.

My heart jolted. I felt it pounding in my chest. Thud, thud, thud. Thoughts of a heart attack crossed my mind as panic settled in my chest. I needed to turn off my brain but I couldn't find the switch.

"You know what?" Jake's whisper roared in my sensitive ears. "Fuck! Josh was handing out Purple Daggers. He probably drank some of those."

"You let him spike Edward's shot with a Purple fucking Dagger!"

"I wasn't paying that close attention to him! Everyone was drinking every-fucking-thing handed to them. How was I supposed to know?"

"That shit has E in it, Jake! Maybe even cocaine! You know how Josh is! Remember when he gave me that Lady Killer shit six months ago?"

Worried, I glanced at my reflection in the mirror. It bounced around even though I sat still. My eyes were deep and dark, my face lethal. I was screaming at myself, but it came out strangled. "Don't look in the mirror right now," Jacob moved my head from side to side. "Don't! Edward!"

"God, your dad is going to wake up."

"No he's not."

I shook my head to get the image to disappear. Every time I closed my eyes, I saw my mother holding a gun. The shotgun jerked from left to right, too fast, pointing from my father to me, over and over. Was she killing us both? Was I back there again? I saw Bella's face, blood for tears in her eyes, her gloved hand pushing me away. Then flashes, too many flashes, over and over. Father, Mother, Bella. Father, Mother, Bella. The world began to flip and I then I was inside my old high school pool, and somehow, I couldn't reach the surface. I wasn't going to make it. I was going to drown.

"W-What's happening to me?" I gasped and pushed the glass of water that Jacob held in front of my face away. Jasper ran around and tried to cool me off with wet towels.

I was going to die. I knew it. I was going to die before I turned eighteen. My body rocked from side to side. I saw the marble of the floor and then the wood of the ceiling, then the marble again. Nothing made sense. They spoke, but I heard drums instead of words. My heart strummed harder. Pounding turned to heavy booms.

"G-guys?" I saw their mouths moving, felt cold hands on hot skin. Quaking, I fell to the left, and the side of my face hit the ground with a resounding slap. My body vibrated. Through a puddle of saliva and mucus, I heard my voice echo in mumbles, "Get Bella. I need her, call Bell.. Bel... B...." The room faded and trapped me in the forever of a darkening night.

~*~

"Edward, did you really think you'd lose me that fast?" my father shouted, jerking me into his side. He pushed me through the screen door before I made it up the porch steps. "What made you think you could run away from me?"

I was eight. I was an eight-year-old little boy, and I had run from the car because he slapped me in the face for stealing a candy bar at the grocery store we'd just visited. I hadn't eaten in two days. He wouldn't let me, said I didn't vacuum the floors correctly. And, as I lay there staring at the ground while my father's shadow approached, trembling in fear with blood dripping from my nose, I thought, this was it. I'm dead.

When my sore eyes opened, and I stared at the 2:01 blinking from the clock on my night stand, I wished I were dead.

I didn't want to move. Or think. Or breathe. Every single bone, muscle, tendon, nerve... it all hurt. Wheezing, I rolled over onto my back and prayed that I would go numb and deaf. I couldn't remember much from the night before. I didn't want to.

The mattress dipped on my left side, but I didn't dare open my eyes or risk trying to inhale. It hurt too much. Cold fingertips and woven cloth touched the side of my face and I relaxed a little, knowing immediately who it was. "How are you feeling?" she asked softly.

"Ass," I mumbled. I meant to add the word like in front of it, but my throat was too dry from all the puking I'd done.

Bella's fingers ran across my hot forehead and into the front of my hair. "Edward," she sighed heavily. "I swear if you were able to sit up, I'd knock you on your ass."

My eyes opened slowly and I blinked at her. She had a permanent frown on her face. I caused that. I hated myself for it. "I didn't expect that response from you," I muttered hoarsely in shock.

"Yeah? And I didn't expect Jasper to show up in the middle of the night at my window, scare the hell out of me, then fill me on the details about you taking drugs, smoking weed, and drinking spiked shots full of cocaine at a party either."

I covered my eyes with the side of my arm. I felt entirely too sick. Words mumbled from my lips.

"Sorry?" she repeated. "This isn't like you, Edward. I can't believe you drank shots. After your father drank for years, and the way he treated you because of it? You're not him, Edward! I don't want you to be him!"

"I'm not him. You know I would never hit anyone, Bella. Jesus Ch-"

"I'm not talking about the abuse, Edward, I'm talking about the drin-"

"I won't!"

"Then don't do that, ever again! You scared the shit out of me! I thought I was going to lose you. All the way to Port Angeles, you had no idea what I went through. Where my mind was at! All I kept thinking about was, if you die, I'm going to die. I'm really going to fucking die, Edward, don't you get it? Are you not listening? I can't even begin to describe the-"

I inhaled heavily, cutting her off, and then winced sharply. My ribs felt like they were being stabbed through with a pocket knife. My ears were oversensitive at the moment, and the last thing I wanted to hear was lecturing, even if I deserved it. It could wait until I got my bearings and didn't want to puke all over myself. "All right," I whispered. "I won't. Please stop yelling. I said I was sorry and trust me Bella, I mean it. I made a mistake and you're right, I was stupid. I never meant to scare, or worry, or hurt you. You know that. You know me."

Bella dropped to her back beside me and folded her arms over her chest. Her voice came out steady and low again. "If you kill yourself, involuntary or not, you're going to kill me too. We go together, remember? That was the deal. And I really don't want to die. Yes, sometimes, when the ceiling starts to crack, I think it may be easier to just give up. But I realized something on the way over here. I don't want to die, Edward, I want to live. I want a real chance to live a life, and I want that for you too. I want us to get out of this. But-"

Her voice cracked under the pressure of her emotions. Curled fingers massaged the skin of her throat. "But," she repeated, "we have to stick together, okay? You can't do stupid shit like this. You just can't. It killed me to see you laying on the ground when I got here. You actually looked dead, and all I thought about was hovering over my mom, all over again. You brought me back there. Everyone was so scared. We thought we were going to have to call for an ambulance, tell Billy the whole thing. You'd be removed from here. Jasper too. His adoption wouldn't go through. Jacob would lose his brothers."

"I know," I frowned. "I'm really sorry Bella."

She wiped her eyes with the back of her covered hand, "I hate you right now. I want you to know that I'm so mad, that I think I actually hate you for being so stupid."

I swallowed and closed my eyes. "I'd hate you if you didn't hate me."


BellaPOV

Edward napped on and off throughout the night, but when I gathered my things to head back to the Volturi Center with Jasper, his hand moved off of the mattress and wrapped around my wrist. "Stay," his voice mumbled softly. With a frown, I looked down at the sickly boy who meant so much to me, and realized my world didn't operate well without him in it. "No one will notice if you're missing for one day," he continued.

His eyes cast upon mine in the dim light and, all at once, I knew I couldn't leave. Not like this. He looked so vulnerable. I dropped my bag and crawled on top of the covers beside him. "A little while longer," I said as I wrapped the blankets around his trembling body.

His lashes fluttered and a slight smile crossed his pale lips. "Good enough."

~*~

It took Edward hours of sleep, gallons upon gallons of water, a lot of dry-heaving, and the longest shower in the world before he felt any better. By the following afternoon, I was still at Billy's, and he could finally stand straight. He stayed home from school. It felt good to have the house to ourselves.

Edward ran his fingers through his hair, looking for a sweater in his dresser drawers. "Tell me about The Volt," he said softly. "Catch me up."

I bit my lip and sat on the edge of his bed, folding my hands between my thighs. "Not much to tell," I said with a shrug. "I got jumped again the night Jasper came to get me. Sheena's friends did it without her this time. Something stupid happened earlier, and now rumors are floating around that I'm a lesbian. My roommates didn't like that and decided that beating the shit out of me was the best way to keep me away from them."

Edward walked over to me and lifted my chin to examine the cuts on my lip and scratch on my nose. His body began to tremble. I pulled his hand away. "It's okay," I reassured him. "I'm fine."

Curses flew from his lips as he turned and hit his dresser. I jumped where I sat. "Really," I said quickly. "I'm fine, Edward. It didn't really hurt, especially after Jasper came. I had other things to think about. Guess I should thank you for that."

"This isn't some joke, Bella."

I played with a broken fingernail. "Oh, Rosalie's been stopping by a lot. She's not as bad as I thought, really. Kind of nice. Reminds me of my..." I paused and shrugged, "of my mom. How I used to talk to her. But, um, yeah. She said I may get placed in two weeks."

"She said that two weeks ago."

"Kate's been pushing the paperwork. Apparently, she really wants me to move in."

"If you stay there any longer, Bella, she won't have a girl to move into her house. She'll have a corpse."

"Don't say that. I told you I was fine."

"I don't believe you."

"Have I lied to you yet?"

Edward leaned against his dresser, pulled the white tee from the middle of his chest, and shoved his hands in his jean pockets. "What else?"

"Demetri's been coming around again. Guess he figures I've lost all my freak-out momentum. He's been... really nice actually. Offering me snacks. Asking me to hang out with him more and more."

Edward's head shook from left to right. "I don't like it, Bella."

"You don't like what?"

"Any of it. Sheena, those girls. Kate's broken promises." He closed his eyes and dropped his head, "Demetri."

"Well there's really nothing we can do about it, so we've got to make it work-"

"You can stay."

"Edward..."

His eyes lifted and bored into mine. "You can stay here, Bella. For another day or two. Billy won't find out, he thinks your name is Vee anyway. We'll get to hang out, and it'll be less time you'll have to spend there dealing with them."

"Are you serious?" I questioned. "That isn't really a good plan, Edward. We could get into tr-"

"If you had a choice between staying there in danger or staying here with me, would you really want to-"

"I'd pick you over every thing and every one," I snapped.

Edward nodded. "So then we're in agreement."

I stood and folded my arms. He was very stubborn. "I'll stay for one more night."

~*~

After the sun went down, a few of Jacob's female friends came over and offered me warmer clothes to wear. They were having a bonfire down by the beach and invited Edward, Jasper, and Jacob to tag along. They were promised there would be no alcohol or other substances involved, but plenty of hot dogs, marshmallows, and fire. Once we made it to the beach, we noticed most kids were wrapped in tiny blankets or laying on the ground in winter-built sleeping bags, staring up at the giant sky.

Edward didn't eat much, still partially hung over, but he enjoyed the fact that I wasn't afraid to eat in front of him. I was too hungry to feel awkward. People stealing lunches did that to a girl. Once I had consumed so much bread that I thought my stomach was going to explode, Edward led me closer toward the icy water, but not so close that I got scared. "Cold?" he asked as I trembled beside him in a borrowed jacket.

I bit my lip and nodded toward the water.

Edward pulled his hands from his hoodie pockets, took mine in his, then shoved them back in his pockets, with his hands rubbing against mine. He smiled down at me. "Body heat," he said. Even though I grew warmer, I felt myself tremble and knew it had nothing to do with the weather.

Jasper loaned us his sleeping bag after he decided to "room" with another girl in hers. I felt extremely nervous to be bundled so close to Edward when he zipped us up, and I couldn't understand why. I never stayed nervous around him before. Why was this so different?

The fire crackled and popped, and the stars twinkled above us. We could see our breath when we spoke. On a beach full of joyous teens, we, once again, we're off in our own little bubble. "What do you want to be when you grow up?" Edward asked, snuggling a little closer to me.

I thought for a moment, then shrugged my shoulders. "Alive."

"I'm serious," he chuckled.

"I really don't know," I answered after a while. "It's hard to decide. There's so many choices. What about you?"

He pushed his arm beneath my neck and curled me into him, to where I was on my side and him on his back. "Maybe Pararescue," he answered. "Coast Guard. I'd love to be a rescue swimmer."

"You want to join the military?"

"Yes."

"You never told me that," I mumbled. "It doesn't scare you?"

"No. There's always a risk, of course. But I want to save lives. I figure I love to swim, and I can swim faster than anyone else I know, so why not put it toward something good? Anyone can train and win medals. I'd rather be useful."

"I like that you have so much courage. You know you'd never find me diving into icy cold water. I'd probably kill more people, myself included, than save anyone."

"You have fewer limits than you give yourself credit for."

"Not when it comes to water."

"I can teach you how to swim."

"You'll do more saving than teaching."

Edward laughed softly, his body vibrating mine. "Good thing I know mouth to mouth."

~*~

Knowing it wasn't the best idea, I willingly stayed another night. It was too easy to be comfortable here. Jasper and Jacob were always nice. They made me feel good about myself, like Edward did. Plus, I didn't want to be away from him.

He had to return to school the next day and catch up on what he missed, but he promised that he'd only be there a half-day. Jasper stayed home sick. As soon as Billy left with Laurent to run errands, I made my way into the kitchen and figured out how to make homemade chicken soup for him. I sat on the worn rocking chair he loved while he lay in his bed and ate it with a smile on his face. "Edward should keep you around," he teased. "You're a good cook."

"Not really," I blushed. "My mom said I was good at cutting up breakfast fruit. That was it."

"She should have tried some of this. It's good."

I bit my lip and shrugged the uncomfortable feeling away. "I'm sorry you're sick."

"Meh," he said. "I'll live. I get to spend time with a pretty girl, so you know, it has its benefits."

My cheeks warmed more. I covered them with my palms.

Jasper smiled down at his soup, "We never really get a chance to talk. I hear a lot about you from Edward though, whenever he's in the mood to actually say something."

"All good things?"

"He turns into a moody bitch whenever we joke about you guys in front of him, Bella. What do you think?"

I couldn't help but smile at him. He had contagious warmth. "Do you have a girlfriend, Jasper?"

"Why? Are you interested?"

I looked up at him.

"Sorry, but I don't do my brother's girls. Even if I think you're sexy as fuck -- don't tell him I told you that though."

The answer poured out before I had time to think it through, "I'm no one's girl, and I'm not interested in being anyone's either."

Jasper didn't miss a beat. "Oh, so you consider Edward to be like your brother, then?"

The clock hanging from his wall ticked louder with each stroke. I brought my fingernail up to my lips and chewed on it.

Jasper accepted that I didn't have an answer, but his smile grew, knowingly. "No girlfriend," he said eventually.

I nodded toward the carpet. Suddenly, the one sarcastic bone I thought I'd lost when I moved to The Volt kicked back in. "Boyfriend?"

A bellowed laugh escaped his hoarse throat, and he shook his head quickly, "Sweetheart, I'm just about as gay as those nasty bitches in The Volturi Center think you are."

I smiled over at him. "Fair enough."

Once Jasper finished eating and sat the tray on his nightstand, he pulled the covers to his chin and gave a long glance at me.

"What?" I asked, twitching under his speculative eyes.

"Just so you know," he said carefully, "Edward's not gay either."

"I know that."

Jasper nodded, and his smile turned devilish, "I bet you do."

~*~

Later that afternoon, while Jasper and I sat on the couch in the living room, him flipping indecisively through channels, I stared at the time and waited for Edward to come home. Being that the house was so quiet and I had no one to interrupt, I thought of my mom some more. I wondered why she never had any other kids. All those years, I'd been so selfish to want her all to myself. It never occurred to me how badly I'd kill for a brother or sister now.

"Hey Jasper," I said, looking over at him. I tried really hard not to laugh at bundle of covers around his body and the cotton balls in his ears, "...I think it's really sweet that you called Edward your brother earlier."

The thermometer beeped. He read the results, then tossed it onto the coffee table and cleared his throat. "Gee Bella, I think you're the first girl to consider me sweet without giving her oral first."

There he went again, forcing me to blush. I bit my lip and did my best to hold his gaze. "I'm serious."

"You know how it is, Bella. You're there now. In the system, we define family differently. Edward is my brother. I'd kill for that kid, and probably will if I see Josh fucking Daggers hanging around school tomorrow."

"Edward really needs a family," I continued warmly. "He's lucky to have you guys."

"He's a good dude. He had a fucked up life, but, hell, who hasn't? I could rub a Genie's ass and make a wish to switch lives, but we'd both still be just as fucked up either way. At least I have someone to compare notes with."

I smiled. "He has someone too..."

"He's most happy with you Bella. Ask Naomi."

My stomach dropped toward the carpet. I tried to calm my expression. "What do you mean?" I asked warily.

Jasper grinned, "Ask Edward."


EdwardPOV

This is the third day that Bella's been here, I thought as I used my key to unlock the front door. I'd grown accustomed to having her around. I found myself drifting off in school, thinking of her warm smile, then having one of my own whenever I saw her waiting in my room for me at the end of the day.

And just like any other, there she was again.

"Hey," I grinned as I dropped my bag and closed my door, "what's up?"

Bella beamed, wiggling from side to side on the edge of my bed. "It's still snowing," she said simply. Her caramel eyes had a new sparkle to them. In a way, I loved how rare it was to see that. It made me appreciate it even more.

I walked over and sat beside her on the black comforter. "Yeah, well, it's really cold outside. Been snowing all week." As soon as I had reached down to untie my shoe, Bella was off the bed, and pulling me up with her, "Jasper said that we get to go sledding! Everyone's going to go. He said there's an extra tube. Come on, we have to go! Can we go, please Edward? Please?"

"Is this what you used Jasper's phone to text me about earlier at school? 'Edward, hurry home'?"

She bounced up and down, "Yes."

"Christ."

"Oh come on! It's not that cold out!"

"Uh, have you been outside today?"

"...No."

"It's fifteen degrees out there."

"I'll keep you warm," she said, rushing around. With a great pause, we steadied our movements, and our eyes connected. I thought I saw something hidden there, something she was keeping from me, but then she quickly shook her head and ran toward my closet. "Please Edward," she begged. "Please. I really need some fun in my life. You do too."

A heavy sigh and an enormous amount of joy I received from watching her beg like a small child later, I did just as she asked. My stomach flipped and rolled as we stood on top of the gigantic hill Jacob and Jasper lovingly referred to "the death drop of doom". I looked over at an apprehensive Bella, who was bundled up in two layers of everything, including jeans, and adjusted the black beanie cap over my red ears. "Bella," I said through my chattering teeth, "are you sure this is what you want to do?"

Her eyes began to fade a little as she studied the steep drop, but being the tough girl that I knew she was, she straightened up and rounded her shoulders. "We'll go together," she said. "The tube can fit the both of us."

"I'm not worried about it fitting the both of us as much as I am about it flipping and sending us to a frozen death."

"There are worse ways to go."

"Name one."

She pondered for a moment, tapping her gloved finger against her chapped bottom lip. "You could land on an ice pick? I don't see any of those lying around."

I pulled the gloves around my hands and shook my head slowly, hoping she didn't jinx us. It would be our luck.

Jasper and Jacob helped us lay the circular tube down and held onto it while they motioned for us to sit. Bella and I fumbled around, obviously knowing which way we had to go if we were going down together, but neither of us willing to make a move. "Oh come on you two," Jasper whined. "Edward, you sit first, Bella between his legs, up against his nuts. Don't worry, he'll like it. He's sixteen and a guy."

Somehow, Bella's blush managed to show across her already cold-reddened cheeks. She jerked her eyes from mine immediately. I swallowed back my nerves and wanted to hit Jasper for stating the obvious. Bella bounced from foot to foot, waiting for me to go first. I held my breath when I sat, and prayed they didn't let go until Bella was situated. I did not want to go down the hill by myself. As soon as Bella dropped in front of me and leaned back against my chest, something inside me jolted. I was used the electric connection always present between us, but this was much, much more than touching an electric fence. It was more like trying to eat it.

A strong, comforting waft of Bella's shampoo tickled me when her long brown hair brushed my nose. She dropped her head to my right shoulder and pulled my hands around her body, locking them beneath her own on her stomach. She had no idea what kind of fire she had lit inside of me. "Ready?" she asked, trembling under my palms. The wind blew harder, forcing snow flakes to spray our faces. If given another second to think about it, I was sure she'd be able to notice the change in our bodies pressed together. Luckily Jacob and Jasper decided to be dicks and push on my back, and then we were moving, then flying, then soaring down the long, steep hill at terrifyingly high speeds.

We hit a few minor bumps on the way down, and Bella's screams of laughter was so loud that I barely noticed the sharp wind scratching at my face. I held onto her as tightly as possible when we neared the bottom, and then the gigantic frisbee we sat on did a fast spin and we were twirling, and whipping, and laughing. Right when I caught my breath, we dipped down the second hill, the smaller of the two, and Bella's fingernails clutched my skin. By the time we skidded to a stop near a pile of trees, we were so taken that we fell backward, with her still on top of me. My body rocked with energy as the snow blew across our clothes. I watched my breath float up toward the grey sky in puffy clouds, one after another.

"Wow," Bella exhaled giddily as we listened to Jasper and Jacob's friends cheering for us. "What a rush."

"Yes it was."

"I wanna go again."

"You'd have to get off of me first," I teased, rocking her body with my own laughter.

"But I like it here," she whined playfully.

Once again, an awkward moment slipped between us. Our bodies tightened. We fumbled around. Bella quickly rolled away and stood up, dusting the snow from her pants. She tried to extend a hand out to me, but I was already on my way up. Jasper's friend Darren met us with a 4-wheeler and handed me the keys.

"You take it up the hill with Bella, and then John will take the next one down with the next rider, that way we don't have to walk up that gigantic pain in the ass."

Bella climbed on the front before I could object and whipped her head around. She put her chin to her shoulder. "Can I drive?" she asked eagerly, scraping her teeth along her bottom lip.

Her actions made my insides twist. Mesmerized by the dampness on her skin, I handed the keys to her without hesitation. Bella clapped her hands gleefully. I climbed behind her and wrapped my arms around her stomach. "This okay?" I asked, squeezing her slightly.

The engine roared around us.

"It's perfect," she said.

~*~

"Come on, come on, hurry!" Bella laughed, pulling me behind her, the two of us connected by frost-bit fingertips. We stayed out much longer than we should have. Everyone else left hours before, complaining it was way too cold, that they weren't feeling well, but Bella and I refused to give up. We both knew we'd be back in solemn mode soon enough, and neither of us was in any hurry to see it.

After one too many uncomfortable, electric-charged moments when we landed at the bottom of the hill together, we took turns pushing each other down the hill, and even raced side-by-side. After that it was snow angels, followed by a ridiculously cold snowball fight, which ended up with fistfuls of snow shoved down the back of her pants and my face planted in an icy miniature mountain of it by the dead shrub where Jasper took a piss hours before. (I knew she did that part on purpose, just to get back at me.)

By the time we called it quits, our eyes had been watering so much, they'd become sore. Our noses were blisteringly red and our lips were viciously chapped. We coughed and sneezed continuously. There was no doubt in my mind that we'd catch a cold by the time the night was through.

Jasper leaned against the back door with a goofy grin as Bella laughed and pulled me past him, giving him a high-five on the way in. Billy sat on the couch in the living room, watching Jeopardy. I hushed Bella until we slipped into my bedroom and locked the door behind me. Bella's gloved fingers covered her mouth to stifle the giggles. Our bodies trembled from the temperature change.

I moved us into the bathroom and ran the hot water, hoping the steam would help unthaw. "Give me your hands," I whispered through chattered teeth. "We need to get these gloves off of you."

Bella's smile quickly fell. She pulled her arms from my grasp and tucked them against her chest. "No, it's okay," she said, avoiding my gaze. "I can do it. Later."

"Bella don't be silly," I laughed, taking a step toward her. "Your gloves are frozen solid. You have to take them off so you can get warm. I can throw them in the dryer for you."

"Really," she replied dismally. Her laughter was uncomfortable. She turned away from me, and it pained me that she was trying to push away. Again. "I can do it."

I bit my lip and tried to stick my hands in my pockets. The gloves were too frozen, my hands wouldn't fit. I folded my arms across my chest. "Bella," I whispered tentatively. "We're friends."

She sniffled and glanced up at the picture on the adjacent wall. "I know that."

I took a side-step and watched her face for any type of fear. She looked completely shut-off suddenly. "I need you to trust me," I said, taking another step toward her. She tensed, but didn't move. Her eyes cast down toward the tile. "Please Bella," I whispered, moving even closer.

"It's just…" she mumbled, shifting from foot to foot. She would not look up. "I mean. I can't." She paused to wipe the bottom of her nose with the sleeve of my spare jacket. "I'm sorry."

I moved behind her, and felt her trembling before I came in contact with her. "What on earth do you have to apologize for?" I asked, tilting my head so I could see her face.

Her eyes were trained on the corner of the marble trim. "For," she breathed heavily, "existing without her. Maybe... maybe I should have gone too, you know? Maybe that's why she climbed in bed with me that night, she wanted me to go too? Maybe she was trying to hold onto me, to take me with her-"

"Bella," I whispered achingly. Her pain moved over me in heavy waves, nearly knocking me down. I couldn't imagine how painful it was for her, if I was feeling this bad. I wanted to jerk it out of her and throw it away.

Bending my knees, I pressed my chin to her left shoulder. My arms wound over hers. I held onto her hands. "Your mother would never want to take you before it was your time to go. She held onto you that night because she wanted to protect you from the pain she carried inside her heart. I don't know why she made the decision she did, but believe me when I tell you that she'd want you to live your life and not dwell-"

"You're not dwelling over your parents?" she asked bitterly, cutting me off. She scoffed and looked toward the ground. "I know you are, Edward."

"Of course I am. But I think that my mother did what she had to do to save herself, and it really sucks that it came down to that, that we didn't find another way. I'm not sure who to forgive or if I owe any forgiveness to anyone, or if I should ask for forgiveness for not taking her out of the situation before it got that bad... I'm still unsure if I even loved my father or not. Or why I ever would. I don't know. In fact, all I do know is that she is where she is and I am where I am and my father is where he is, and there is nothing I can do to change any of that right now."

I brushed the long hair off the side of her neck and pulled her back into my chest. "I can scream and claw my way across these walls, Bella, fight until I have nothing left. But in the end, I'm just a kid. Just like you are. And we do not have to find any solution for all of these messes that we're in right now. We have time to dwell, and accept, and deal, and we don't have to rush it. Do you understand?"

Bella nodded quietly.

I pressed the side of my face into her cheek, and relaxed when she exhaled and melted into my frame. It thrilled me to know she'd let me hold her, keep her standing. I had gotten through to her again. "For now," I continued, "we can just be kids who had a fun in the snow, and are now dripping all over the tile floor. We can be kids sneaking into my bedroom while my parental guardian sits oblivious down the hall, watching Jeopardy and getting all the answers wrong. Bella, we can simply be you and me, here. Just sixteen year old kids, taking it one day at a time."

Bella's smile slowly returned and she dropped the back of her head against my shoulder. "I can do that," she said softly. "I want to do that."

"I know."

Bella nodded and slowly spun to face me again. As soon as her eyes met mine, I felt all the anxiety I was holding in vanish as quickly as it had come. "We should shower."

Pausing for a brief second, I realized just how easily it would be to put her back into the mood she'd been in all day. "Yeah," I shrugged nonchalantly, "we should."

Before she could respond, I twisted her around again. Holding her against me, I turned on the water with my left hand and laughed as she quickly caught on to what I was about to do and tried to claw her way from my grip.

Silly girl.

"Oh no you don't," I growled, pushing the glass door down the track. I pulled her in, closed the door, and covered her mouth when she screamed against the hot water, soaking first her body, then my own.

Bella tried to spin around and climb out the other side of the double-door. But I quickly blocked her with my hip. On her way around the other direction, still adamantly trying to escape, her icy sneakers slipped across the slick marble floor. She fell into me, knocking me off balance. My back hit the shower door, hard. I was thankful it didn't break. And that Billy couldn't run over to find out what I was doing in here.

He did, however, call out and ask me if I was all right, since he knew Jasper had been home for a while and did his showering in the morning.

"I'm fine," I called out as loud as possible, staring down at Bella, who resembled the prettiest drowned cat I'd ever had the privilege of showering with.

Whimpering, Bella's frozen fingers clawed up the brown ragged hoodie I wore beneath my jean jacket. She tried to find her footing and squeeze past me again. I quickly attempted to block her, and slipped further down the door, pulling her down with me. I realized how much of a bad idea this was now that we were in here and could possibly be injured. I made a quick mental note to ask Billy to purchase a slip-free mat for the floor.

"Edward," she cried, trembling and breathing heavily against my chest, "the water is hot! I'm too cold right now, it's killing me!"

"Oh stop whining, cry-baby," I teased, splashing it up in her face. "That's the point, to get warm. Suck it up."

Bella glared at me, and with a vicious growl, she went from meek adorable kitten to pissed-off tiger. She pounced without warning, pulling me into a headlock. Twisting her body around, Bella tugged me beneath the spray, head-first. I laughed as she shuffled my hair around in the water, as if she could mess it up any worse than it was before.

"How do you like that, hmm?" she growled, scooping up handfuls and trying to shove it in my open mouth. "How does that hot water feel to you, Edward? Are you warm yet?"

Laughing hard, I wrapped my arms around her waist and lifted her off the ground. The water splashed around us. A shampoo bottle crashed to the floor. Bella folded herself into my body and tried to kick me. Her arms were still locked around my neck.

"Edward, are you sure you're all right in there? What are you doing?" Billy's voice echoed from down the hall. "Jake, is that him making all that banging noise in the shower?"

"He's fine dad," Jacob laughed. I could hear his footsteps padding across the floor, toward the living room Billy was in. "He's probably whacking it," I heard him say. "Let the boy release in peace."

In an attempt to stifle our laughter, Bella's hands covered my mouth, and I covered hers. I attempted to move us around, in order to find an advantage. Because of Bella's erratic flailing, we hit the adjacent wall, and knocked the soap off the tray. It clattered to the floor and slid toward the drain. Bella's hands released me, and she lunged for the showerhead hanging above us. I pulled her down by my jacket she wore. The nozzle slipped from its holder and banged me in the head. "I'm not sorry!" she laughed -- softly, of course -- as I glared at her. She splashed the stream in my face. "It's what you get!"

We wrestled around, dodging each other and blocking each other from escaping the havoc. I held Bella beneath the stream and wouldn't let her go. Bella pushed me away from her and I slipped down in the tub, all the way to the bottom. My feet hit her ankles and she fell down on top of me, her forehead smacking my jaw. She laughed and buried her face into my chest while I bit my tongue to keep from screaming in pain.

Breathing heavily, I adjusted her knee from where it pushed uncomfortably on my jeans, moving it to the other side of my thigh. Bella's hands found my shoulders. She pushed herself up to an upright position. Dark wet hair splayed all across her face and in her eyes. The shower continued its assault on us. The nozzle, now hanging from overhead, spun around with the force of the water coming through it. Water hit her back and splashed over her shoulders, covering my face and neck.

I pressed my head against the back wall while her laughter rocked on top of me. It was in that moment that I realized she was straddling my lap.

I stilled.

Bella's eyes were beaming with enjoyment. She giggled and reached up behind her to find the showerhead banging against the wall. The jacket I'd loaned her rode up, as did her shirt and tank top beneath it. I stared at her wet, ivory skin, the small patch revealed to me. I watched as her tiny belly button came into view for the quickest of seconds, and then disappeared when she found the nozzle and sat straight again.

My hands remained on her legs. Bella moved the spray from left to right, covering the clothes on my chest. "La da-da, da-da," she cooed, completely oblivious to the high-voltage electric current I felt coursing through our bodies. And the fact that she was straddling me.

At least, it seemed she was oblivious.

Keeping my left hand planted over her thigh, my right extended and covered the nozzle. I directed the spray toward the ground. She looked up at me, still smiling, but her eyes questioned why I stopped the fun. Water dripped from our bodies, off of my chin, from her hair to her clothes. "Bella," I whispered in a haze, trying to make sense of this. The fact that I, just now, realized just how wet she actually was. The fact that I wasn't thinking about anything other than that she was sitting on me. Straddling me. So close. The fact that I didn't want her to get up.

And the fact that I, for the first time, really, really wanted to fucking kiss her.

She moved closer, or it seemed like she did. Maybe I was seeing things -- or wanting to see them. I couldn't tell. My thoughts were all over the place. "What?" she breathed across my face, tilting her head.

I stared up at her, watching tiny droplets stream from her cheek to her parted lips. They seemed to float on her top lip and then drop to her bottom one, sliding down to her chin, devastatingly slowly.

I licked my lips and averted my gaze.

She looked down at me, completely clueless of thoughts in my head and the emotions stirring in my body. I put on my best smile and, pulling the nozzle from her grasp, I splashed her in the face with it.

"Nothing," I said.

~*~

Even when it snowed, it still rained. It's why I hated the state of Washington. The roads turned to a sloshy grey, then grew slick with ice. Every day had been dreary. It seemed as if the universe was telling me to keep Bella with me. She didn't need to go back. It would not be safe to take her in these conditions. With our conditions.

By the time her fifth day arrived, however, things had grown tense. I'd noticed Billy's distant behavior that morning before school. Usually he would be cheery-eyed and warm, asking us about school or after-school plans. Today, he was distant, in the corner of the booth, drinking coffee. His eyes were stuck to the folded newspaper in front of him.

I couldn't shake my nerves. I felt ansy all through school. I failed the pop quiz I had in biology. I called Bella during my lunch break using the cell phone Jasper had loaned so we could keep in touch. She said Billy hadn't been home since we left for school.

The roads on the way home were horrible. It took forever getting back. By the time I arrived at Billy's at four o'clock, my stomach was in my chest and my fingernails were chewed to the quick. Billy's truck sat parked outside. He usually kept it in the garage, especially during this type of weather. He said it didn't need any more water damage.

"Hey," I greeted as cheerfully as possible, closing the front door behind me. I swallowed thickly and dropped my bag by the door. "I'm home."

"Edward, come join me in the kitchen please."

My heart rate climbed as I entered the room. Billy sat in the same spot in the nook he was in this morning, drinking another cup of coffee and eyeing a newspaper. It seemed like he'd never moved. If Bella hadn't told me otherwise, I would've been thoroughly convinced that he hadn't.

I took a seat across from him and tried to calm my panic. "What's up?"

"How was school?" he asked. A smile played on his lips. It said he had a secret he wasn't willing to share.

I did my best to not fidget. "It was fine."

"Anything exciting happen?"

"Not really," I shook my head. "Same as usual."

"Mmm." His eyes cast down toward the newspaper. He took a small sip of his coffee, and then a longer one. I knew there was a reason he asked me to join him, that this was going somewhere I didn't want it to go. I couldn't figure out why he was drawing this out. Was he testing my conscience?

"So," I exhaled nervously, "what are you reading over there?"

Billy's posture straightened and his smile grew. "I'm glad you asked," he said. "It's quite an interesting story. I wanted to show you as soon as you got home because I know you still have some ties to this place."

"What are you talking about?"

Calmly, Billy grabbed the folded newspaper and turned it around, setting it on top of the placemat in front of me. There, on the front page, was a headline in big, bold letters: Another Missing Child Reported At The Volturi Center: Possible Runaway?

Every hair in my body stood up. I noticed a draft make its way into the room but did my best to hold my composure.

Licking my lips, I furrowed my brow and shook the negative thoughts that poured into my open head. It took everything I had not to bail from that table, run to my room, pack some clothes, and get Bella and I the hell out of here.

Suddenly, the home I felt so safe in didn't seem so safe anymore.

"Strange," was the only thing that came from my lips.

"Mmhm," Billy exhaled. "Strange indeed."

"Yeah."

"Do you know this girl, Edward?"

I stared down at the black and white photo of a lost girl with big sad eyes and a bitter, solemn expression. It was a girl on the first day she arrived in that hell hole. It was the before-Bella. She seemed so different now. I didn't want to think of her going back to that.

"No," I shook my head. "I don't. Sorry."

"She looks… familiar. I could have sworn I've seen her around somewhere... that you guys brought a girl like this here..."

I forced a laugh and crossed my arms over my chest. Did my best to look relaxed. "Billy, I'm sure that you know by now that Jasper and Jacob seem to have a wide variety of female companions. They come in and out of here every day."

Billy grinned. "Yes they do." He paused and tapped a finger to his chin. "Funny thing about that though, Edward. I never notice you with any girls. Well, before, there was Naomi. But she hasn't come around this past week or two..."

"She's been busy. It seemed irrelevant..."

"Decided you weren't interested in her?"

I swallowed.

"Well you're young," Billy shrugged. "That'll happen. Teenage boys always break the young girl's hearts. They've written enough country songs about that."

I forced a smile.

"Well, I just wanted to know if you knew her. I care a lot about you, Edward, and want the best for your well-being. I want you happy. I'd hate to know that you have a young friend like this, lost somewhere, with no place to go. I hope no one kidnapped her, or is sheltering her somewhere. That's an offense. People could get in big trouble for something like that."

My chest tightened at the reality of the situation. The only thoughts in my head were, she's not going back, you're not sending her back, please don't take her away.

"I asked Jasper about it before school," Billy continued. "He looked confused at first, almost ghostly, but... then he said he didn't know her either. Before Jasper came here, he'd bounced from one place to the next. I didn't know if maybe she'd been transferred from another center to this one, where you were placed. You know how the system bobs kids around like a cork."

"Yes," I said hoarsely. "I know all too well." And that's why she's not going back.

Billy nodded and waved his hand, dismissing me and the conversation, "Laurent will be here to cook supper. Grilled chicken and steamed broccoli tonight."

I stood up and put on my best presentation face, but I couldn't hide the cold warning glare in my eyes. I wasn't losing my friend.

Two minutes later, Jacob knocked on my bedroom door and pulled me from Bella's welcome-home hug. She was trying to tell me about how she had to hide in the closet, saying that Billy had been in my room earlier, searching through drawers. She said he wasn't in there long. It still sickened me to know my privacy had been violated. I thought things were going to be different here.

"Dude," Jacob whispered. He closed his bedroom door behind him. Jasper stood on the other side of the door. Both their expressions were angry. This felt like an intervention. "Bella needs to go back."

"No."

"No, seriously Edward," Jasper shook his head, "we all like Bella, we know you two got something going on, but shit could get dirty real fast. I've seen this type of thing happen-"

"She's not going back," I sneered, doing my best to keep my voice down so neither Bella nor Billy heard. "That's final."

Jacob shook his head at me, "What are you going to do, Edward? Keep her forever, kidnapped, until you both turn eighteen?"

"She's not kidnapped. She came willingly."

"You don't get it, do you?" Jasper said. "We're accomplices to this! This could ruin my chances for getting adopted, could ruin your chances! Billy will be devastated if he loses us, Edward. What do you think that would do to him, losing his entire family-"

"It would kill me too," Jacob interjected. "I don't want to lose you guys."

"You really need to think about this. We're not trying to upset you, but sometimes, you have to put yourself and your family before the girl, and I really don't think you're seeing the bigger picture."

I shook my head, trying my block out what they're saying. "You can't do this to me," I begged. "Don't do this to me. I can't choose-"

"Haven't we always been there for you?" Jasper pushed, stepping in front of me. "Haven't we helped you out? We care about Bella, and we know you do, and we'll figure out another way. Edward. There will be another way for you to see her, after this whole mess dies down. We'll help you, we promise! But she has to go back!"

"NO!" I barked angrily. My fists shook at my sides. I took a steady breath and calmed down. I was not going to explode like my father. I was not him.

I shut my eyes and shook my head slowly. "She can't go back there. They will put her in lock-down, worse than before. They'll probably even detain her, I've seen shit like that happen. She gets into fights every day, and I know it will be worse for her now if she goes back. They'll kill her."

"But-"

"And she's happy here," I exhaled, waving my hand around. My eyes bounced back and forth between my friends, my brothers. I couldn't hide the sadness in my voice. "She's really happy here. This expression has come out, this... amazingly warm smile, that I only get to see on the rarest of days when she's in the present and not the past, and knowing that I have something to do with that.... I can't steal that away from her. I can't be that guy, that person. I promised her I would keep her safe and I-"

"Edward, you can't protect her forever," Jacob whispered.

"I know that," I frowned. "But I can protect her now."

Jasper looked to the floor, exhaling heavily. He knew I wasn't going to cave on this. I realized, just then, how well the both of them knew me. They truly were great friends and I didn't want to lose them. But I couldn't bare the idea of losing Bella either.

"Bella doesn't know about any of this, and we won't say anything," he reassured me, patting me on my arm.

"Good," I said simply. "She doesn't need to know."


BellaPOV

I lay on top of Edward's bed, listening to his iPod. I was trying to write him another secret letter. I loved hiding notes around his room, for him to find later when he wasn't expecting it, loved seeing his smile when he discovered one in a folded pair of socks, or in the sole of his sneaker.

Occasionally, I watched the antique clock pass the time. I couldn't believe that I had been here for two weeks and that everything was going so well. When I looked up at the ceiling, I realized I was actually looking up. I rarely thought about the Volturi Center these days. I felt hopeful, confident in Edward. Every day, I was more eager for his return than the day before.

Thunder rolled outside the large windows. The clouds were too heavy to see any lightning, but I knew it was there. The sounds of the crackling, the fuzzy popping. I did my best to think about something else until Edward arrived. I wished I could get over this fear of storms, that I wouldn't feel all the negativity in it. But if I thought about it, then I thought about my mom, and that made me ache in a way that I didn't want to. So I shut it out and locked it away.

Edward barged into the room an hour later, drenched from head to toe. A grim expression sat firmly on his face. He shook his jacket off, locked the door, and dropped his bags by his dresser. "Sorry I'm late," he exhaled. He walked over to the bed, ran his long fingers through his hair, and shook the droplets from it. "It's disgusting outside."

"I see that," I replied. I climbed off the bed, went into the bathroom, and grabbed a towel for him. Edward smiled as I handed it to him. "Tell me how your day was." I said.

"You cleaned my room." Edward paused and looked around, at the clean hardwood floors. There were no more dirty clothes piles, no more shoes shoved beneath the bed. His books, given by Billy, were again organized, as were the few CD's he'd acquired -- all classical, of course. Billy's influence.

"I thought you'd feel better if you came home without having to swim your way to the bed," I replied with a teasing smile.

Edward gave a slight forced smile and closed his eyes. He hand-dried his hair in silence, before tossing the towel in the corner of the room. "Thanks for doing that, Bella. You know you didn't have to."

"No problem." I sat beside him, and curled my legs beneath me. "So?"

"So what?"

"So how was your day?"

Edward frowned and pushed the sleeves up his arm. "I received a strong lecture from Mrs. Hallson today. My grades are dropping drastically. I can't concentrate when I'm there. I lose focus."

"Why?"

"Because," he mumbled, pursing his lips, "I think too much about everything when I'm there. You. My mother. Everything going on. I worry about you. Wonder what you're doing, all alone and holed up here in my bedroom all day."

"Edward, I'm fine where I'm at, trust me. This is much better than anywhere else I could be. I'd rather live in any dirthole, around you, then in the largest mansion with no one."

"You deserve more than this, Bella," he frowned. "I just... I wish we were older. I wish I could get a job, that we could have our own place. You'd be free to move around, go where you want, not have to worry about anyone catching you-"

"Hey," I said, scooting closer to him. I grabbed his chin and made him look at me. "Stop. I'm not some fragile girl, made of broken glass and ready to shatter. I'm stronger now. I'm stronger because of you, because of the things you teach me, even when you don't realize. Edward, you have to stop worrying about me so much. I'm not the same girl I was months ago when we first met."

"No one changes that quickly Bella. Not even me."

I reached my hand up and rubbed his back. His shirt was soaked through from the rain. He should have worn a heavier jacket today.

Time passed as we sat quietly. His expression didn't change. Thunder roared, shaking the windows in the house. The lights flickered on and off, quickly.

I trembled.

"Bella, do you believe in God?" he asked softly.

"I'm not sure," I answered. "My mom never spoke about God much."

Edward turned toward me, placing his hand on my knee. "I've been thinking about God a lot lately... when I'm at school. Sometimes my mind drifts off, and I get lost in these feelings, and the idea of a God always comes to focus..."

"In a good way?" I whispered.

Edward shook his head. "I think of my father. Of all the things he'd done. I wonder, if there was a God, what I did to deserve the beatings I got from him. What my mother did. People say bad things happen to good people for no reason, but I think that's bullshit. Bad things happen to good people because we're meant to learn, to wake up. I wonder if I was meant to learn that I was going to be stronger than that one day, that I was going to survive..." He pulled his hand from me and rubbed the back of his neck. "Or," he continued, "if it was a sign that the abuse I took was the best I could get. That I would ever get."

"What are you saying?" I asked. "Where is this going?"

"I'm saying that this house... Billy... Jasper... Jacob... you... This whole other life is an illusion. We don't ever really have anything, which is why we have everything to lose, and do lose it. Nothing stays for long, Bella. Nothing sticks. This entire fucking world is a joke, and if God does really exist, then I am the living proof that there is meant to be scum in the world, and not everyone is going to rise above it-"

"Stop it!" I hissed as I shook him. I needed him to wake up, to see the truth. I was angry at his teacher for bringing him down. He was doing so well. Why did it have to always go back to this?

I swiped angrily at the tears in my eyes and glared at my best friend, sitting there broken and frustrated. "Edward, stop it. Don't say things like that. You're having a bad day. Everyone has them, but stop thinking that you are no better than that asshole father of yours. You are better. You are going to get past it. But you have to let yourself. You have to step over the walls you've built around yourself in order to get somewhere better. You have to let it go."

"Bella, you're not even letting go!" he barked. Edward pushed off the bed and trudged to his dresser. He leaned against it and glared at me, all the hate he held for his family built up in his eyes. I wanted to dig up his father's grave and beat the skeleton until it was nothing but dust. "How can you tell me to let go when you're not either?"

"I'm trying!" I retorted. I did my best to ground myself, to not yell at him. It was hard to remember that he wasn't angry with me, when all his anger was directed this way.

"No you're not," he replied bitterly. I was starting to lose him, my Edward. He was turning back to the angry boy, beaten down all of his life. It scared me. "You are not trying. I'm not trying. We're fucked so far beyond any recognition, we've lost everything, and I don't want to keep thinking things are going to change when-"

His voice cut off when I charged from the bed. I don't know where my reaction came from, but it was too late to turn back. Tears filled my eyes. I stood before him and ripped off the tattered gloves I'd worn since the day after my mom passed. I threw them to the ground and held out my hands, naked and looking every inch of my mother's.

My eyes met his and my jaw locked in place. I had so much anger and hurt in me, for him and for our pain, that I trembled. It felt like I would explode if I didn't let it out.

Edward stared at me, lips parted, an unrecognizable expression glued on his face. I could tell he was shocked. His mind was trying to backtrack, to apologize for screaming at me. There was no way in hell I was going to let him.

"Look," I said through my teeth, "look at me, Edward. Don't fucking tell me that it isn't possible. Don't fucking tell me that we can't try. If I can do it, if I can stand here and show you the one part of me that I've honestly thought about scraping off until all the skin is gone and there is nothing left of my mom-- the person I thought was my angel, who turned out to be someone who gave up on me -- then you can be better than your asshole father who had no purpose on this planet and your psychotic mother who should have taken you away from that house years ago! It was not your fault, Edward! It wasn't your fault that you were treated that way, that you had to endure it. You were not the piece of shit. They were! They have been pounding you down, trying to convince you that you were worthless. But, they were, not you. They were the idiots. And they've lost you, and I'm glad, because no one should have you if they can't appreciate you like you're meant to be. No one should take advantage of you like they did."

Edward stared at my uncovered hands. He took a deep breath and held it for a while. "What if all I'm ever going to be is a disappointment, Bella? What if I'll never add up to anything more than some middle-aged asshole who lives in a disgusting apartment with nothing to show for himself, working at a pitiful job he despises? What if all of the nothing they said I was going to be ends up being all that I really am, and then you realize that and realize you've wasted your time?" He inhaled and swallowed thickly. "What then?"

I took a step toward him. "You will never be nothing to me, Edward. And I wouldn't care if you live in a disgusting apartment, with a worthless job, and have nothing to show for yourself but a box of rocks, as long as you were happy. Truly happy. I would be there to remind you that you have risen above your family. Because you found something that they never found. You found a way out. You escaped that prison and you will never have to go back to it."

He shook his head slowly. "I'm not there yet, Bella. I'm not out yet. We have a lot of things going against us, against me. Things you don't know. I'm not out yet."

I nodded and lifted my arms higher, closer to his face. He needed to see that I was trying. For once, I could be his example. I could be the stronger one.

Edward's eyes studied my skin, hidden for so long beneath crocheted cloth, filled with memories and pain of a life I'd loved and lost.

"But you're a step closer," I reminded him.

He nodded slowly. Edward leaned down toward me, to the part of me I'd left open and vulnerable. He placed his warm lips to the inside of my right wrist, an action so truthful, but so rare between us. My entire body broke into goose bumps as his lips lingered there.

Edward drug his lips to my other wrist and kissed it also. His lips were warm and soft and inviting. His hot breath searched my skin. I watched as a tear fell from his closed lashes and did my best to stand tall for the both of us. If this was what it took to make him realize his potential, then I would do it gladly and without a second thought. I would strip and bear myself for him, over and over. No wound was worth hiding if it made him understand he wasn't alone in this.

Edward sniffled and gently wrapped his hands around my arms. Keeping my exposed wrists together, he pressed both to his mouth.

I used my fists to wipe the tears from his face where I could reach.

I didn't know how long we stood there in silence. My legs were starting to tingle. They grew numb.

Once his tears were dry, Edward shook his head and exhaled in relief. I knew my point had been made, that he really understood. "Don't ever hide yourself again, Bella," he whispered. "Please. Not from me."

I nodded and let him kiss my skin as much as he wanted. "I will never hide myself from you. I promise."


----AUTHOR'S NOTES----

I wanted to thank everyone again for their patience with me. I'm not going to give any excuses for why I am not updating regularly, with anything, but I will say that after Saturday, I will not be online or writing until the 29th of March, and maybe even later, as I am going on a MUCH NEEDED vacation with my family who's coming to visit. I need to clear my head and reset some goals in my life. But it would be wonderful to come home to some positive feedback. I don't usually do this, ask for it like this, but I will tell you that feedback is encouraging, and right now, I really need that, to hear from all of you, who keeps me going. Thank you for hanging in there. I love you guys.