A/N: So I'm back! I can't begin to thank everyone that has continued to favorite/alert this story while I've been awol and I am floored by those of you who haven't given up on me yet. I had to take an unintended step back from the fandom for my own sanity and I apologize for just leaving you hanging. Each one of you deserved better than me just disappear, but I love you to an insane degree if you are still sticking with me after all this time.

I know I failed at responding to reviews the last chapter and I may continue to for some time. My ability to get internet right now is few and far between, so I can't make any type of promises. I will try my best to answer PMs this weekend and whatever else. Just know, I have appreciated every word you have sent me! Never forget that fact. You all mean so much to me &hearts!

PLEASE NOTE: This is unbeta'd. All grammar, syntax, spelling and other mistakes are mine and mine alone. If there is a huge, glaring booboo, please let me know so I can fix it. I just wanted to get this chapter up finally without having to bother anyone on their Easter weekend.

So...on with it. *hides and bites nails*

I no longer believed in the idea of soul mates, or love at first sight.
But I was beginning to believe that a very few times in your life,
if you were lucky, you might meet someone who was exactly right for you.
Not because he was perfect, or because you were, but because your
combined flaws were arranged in a way that allowed two
separate beings to hinge together.


It finally hit me that Edward really had never asked me that before. The first time around, we had just silently fallen into a rhythm of being together. I had never even noticed that we had skipped the formality of asking one another that very basic question, but hearing it now felt like that second chance I had been looking for. It was as if those simple words would make it right this time.

Breathing deep, I held the air in my lungs until it burned, pushing it back out in a rush. "Yes," I finally answered, squeezing his hand in my own. The relief in his eyes was evident almost instantly, but I honestly couldn't have answered him differently. I was in this with him. If Edward still wanted to take on my life and all that it entailed, then who was I to say no when he had come to mean so much to me.

My life meant something even greater with him and Elise - something like what family should be.

Edward leaned into me, resting heavy and warm against my side. "Thank you." His words were soft, spoken only for me and holding to so much.

"For what?"

His answer was a simple, "For saying yes," as he ran his thumb over the back of my hand in a now familiar pattern, warming my skin with the friction. "It was nice to actually hear it, you know."

I nodded, taking my turn to lean back into him and wishing I could just meld myself into his side. I understood completely.

We stood like that for awhile, simply enjoying each other as we were lost in our own thoughts. I had no clue where Edward's silence had taken him, but I found myself trying to see the future. What was it going to be like? Was Edward really going to stick around when things inevitably got tough? Was I even going to want him there, taking my turn as the martyr, when he could have a much less complicated life without me? Was this - him - enough to fight for?

My head begun to spin, not knowing which question to focus on as more and more kept popping up the longer we stayed in our silence.

Was Edward going to be able to handle some other man's child in his life? An infant, more specifically.

Were the girls going to understand and accept what was happening now and, more importantly, what was coming?

Were we going to be okay?

I had lost track of everything happening around me and it wasn't until I felt a warm breath of air fan over the side of my head that I drew away from the darkness steadily consuming me. Edward was so close, his lips hovering just over my ear as his nose skimmed lightly through my hair. "What's going on in that head of yours, Bella?" he asked, the sound so smooth and comforting. I couldn't find the words to answer him right away, instead leaning into his side even more and grasping at the warmth he brought me.

This was the easy part of being together. Being like this - holding hands and pretending this was all we had to face in the world. That was so far from reality though. My mind whirled again as I tried to hold to a single thought. Just one, I almost begged aloud, even though it would do me no good. There were too many questions yet to be asked and answered.

All I knew was that we were right here, right now. That fact alone both terrified me and thrilled me.

Mindlessly, I circled my thumb over the back of Edward's hand, feeling the subtle differences as it ran over the tendons just under his skin. "Edward?" I asked, my voice so quiet, even to my own ears. I knew he was listening with the way he squeezed my fingers just a bit tighter, so I continued with a deep breath and all my worries on the tip of my tongue. "You know this isn't going to be easy, right? I mean, there is a lot of stuff that I still need to work through in my head and in my life. In all honesty, I've just buried most of it so far - stuck my head in the sand, I suppose you could say. And then you...you do realize that there will probably come a time when you inevitably rethink this whole mess that you're getting yourself into? Are you going to be ready for that?"

There, I said it. I started the ball rolling on all of my fears and insecurities, throwing them out there for Edward to either pick up or trample all over. The seconds seemed to tick by before he answered. "Yeah." His voice was quiet when he spoke, matching my own and keeping this just between the two of us. "I mean, this really won't be easy. I realized that a while back and it sounds like you did too. But I don't mind telling you that whoever said life was a breeze clearly never had to work a day for anything they ever wanted." He paused and I got that tingling feeling that someone was watching me. I looked over, finding his glorious face doing just that. "You want this. I want this. We'll get there somehow."

Even hearing what he said, I couldn't bring myself to let go of the uncertainty I was feeling. My hormones were playing awful tricks on me lately, making me question even the littlest things. "And if we don't?"

"Then at least we tried," Edward answered simply, giving me the dimpled half-grin that had never failed to make my knees wobble. Today was no exception. "What about you? Are you going to be ready for the point where you can't hide behind the strong face?"

No, I wanted to scream because I honestly wasn't sure if I would be. This was going to be a whole new situation for me with a whole other level of stress and issues that I would have to face time and time again. I wasn't living a cookie cutter life like I had always dreamed. Instead, my life was messy and gritty and utterly unpredictable. My new house, new job and the new life just starting within me was testament to that.

However, regardless of the fears that were at the forefront of my mind, I think I surprised even myself with my answer. "I have to be, don't I? I mean, is there really another choice?" I looked at him, feeling like a lost puppy. I just wanted Edward to tell me that everything would be okay, but even he couldn't do that. He could say the words, but would that be enough to make them true? I hated that I had gone from being so sure of where my life was going to doubting everything I thought I had ever known. "My life has to keep going whether I'm ready for it to or not. I not going to...going to let him beat me. I can't."

That much was true.

"I know." He was so matter-of-fact as if I had known that truth all along. How could he see things that I didn't?

With a heavy sigh, I felt my shoulders sag forward, suddenly exhausted over everything. "See, are you really ready for this? Are you ready for the mood swings and the inevitable breakdowns on my part and all of the pressure that this...," I motioned to myself, "...brings? I don't just have baggage, Edward. I'm a three for the price of one special carting around a u-haul full of my past."

Despite any emotion I could have guessed was possible in that moment, Edward laughed. It was deep and as smooth as the usual tenor of his voice. "Bella, I already told you once that I can't promise to do everything right." The seriousness returned to his tone, but the easy smile and light eyes were still there, holding the balance. "I mean, I'm not sure I even know how to be in an actual relationship, long-term especially. Hell, I'm not sure I know how to be in a relationship, period. I've spent the last five years focusing on Elise and before that...well, I already told you about that part of my life. Honestly, I have no idea what I'm doing." My hand was still tucked in his and he gave it a squeeze as his continued. "But I want to try. I want to try for myself because you've changed the way I look at life. There's more than this little bubble that I had built that was just my family in all of our predictable glory. You've made me see that other things are out there. That a change of pace is possible and refreshing. That things are worth fighting for." Edward spoke the last part so softly that I had to convince myself that I didn't just make it. "And I want to try for you. You shouldn't have to go through this alone. No one should."

No one should, I agreed silently. "I know that I can do this alone if I have to. I mean, I don't really have another choice, but that doesn't mean that I want to go through it without you there with me, though. That is...if you want to go down this road, of course."

His fingers brushed down my cheek, feather-light, running along the curve of my neck and back up. "From where I'm standing...," he tapped his finger under my chin, "...I'm liking the view."

I had no clue how he did it - how he made things feel easier and lighter and just simply possible - but he did. He didn't erase my fears, but he pushed them back with his words and his smile and the silent strength that radiated from the simplest gestures. "One day at a time?" I asked, finally letting myself feel a glimmer of hope again.

"One day at a time."

We stood for awhile in companionable silence again, turning back to whatever place our eyes would wander. I could hear the slow flow and ebb of other people going through the park as they walked by. More importantly though, I could hear the steady and strong rhythm of Edward's breath right next to me. It was a comfortable cadence that I found my own breath matching. It wasn't long before Edward broke through the silence. "We have to tell the girls this time around, though," he mused and I took a chance to look up at him, meeting his eyes that were watching me closely. "I mean, there's a certain sense of excitement sneaking around and stealing kisses, but I want to do this right. I'm tired of hiding this," he finished, raising our joined hands yet again to make his point clearer with a devilish smile.

"I know. I and we need to tell them both a lot of things coming up. I don't even know where to start."

"At the beginning. It's the only place we can." It was moments like this that I envied Edward's ease for everything. He always seemed so sure, at least since I had known him, never having to second guess himself. I wanted that. I wanted to believe that I would be fine just letting things happen. I wanted to believe things would happen as they will, without having to question the why behind them. Since I left James, I felt like I had done nothing but ask, "Why?" over and over again. It was exhausting.

"I know, but I can't very well just blurt out 'Hey baby girl, you get a brother or sister. Hope you understand.'" I sighed, feeling the darkness creep heavily back into my bones yet again.

"Hey," Edward whispered, drawing his warm fingers over my face until I turned back towards him. "That's not what I meant, Bella. We start with us. We are a united front here. This...," he lifted our joined hands again, "...is us. Remember? We're both a hell of a lot stronger together. Don't you see that?"

I took a moment to just look at our hands together. Mine was small and delicate inside his palm, where Edward's was wide with long fingers that held to my own. I was held inside of him, surrounded - protected.

I finally nodded, bringing my attention back to his face, losing myself in the peaceful jade of his eyes. "I want you to understand something for me," he started after a moment, letting a small smile play against his lips. "I wouldn't have let you into my world and I wouldn't have been begging for a key to yours if this...," his fingers brushed the familiar trail over my cheek, pushing strands of hair behind my ear, "...was something I was going to run from. I want all of you, Bella. The good, the bad and the seemingly unbearable."

"Thank you." The two words were soft and simple, and nowhere near adequate enough for the man standing beside me.

We finally left the safe little bubble we had worked ourselves into, letting go of each other's hand and joining the rest of our group. Jasper had taken the girls to join the others at the next exhibit down. As we got closer, I couldn't fight the urge to just stop and watch everything in front of me. The kids were running a bit further ahead, Ty in the middle holding tight to both girl's hand. I could see their faces of laughter even from back here. That was family - right there, held tightly in the hands of children.

Ali and Jasper were talking with Rose and Em, my sister entirely too animated as she talked. She had been like that since I could remember though, having this whole other sense of life to her. Alice exuded this...this energy that came so naturally. It always had. Even for every ounce of balance Jasper provided her, Alice would always be this life unlike any other. He was the steadiness to her motion. Jasper was the head and Ali was the heart in their intertwined world. Two people really couldn't have been better together.

I couldn't help but look at Rosalie and Emmett much the same. He was steady and the embodiment of compassion - the rock to lean on; the rock to raise you up. And Rosalie was every bit woman and love and undeniable strength. They simply fit, balancing out each other's weaknesses and building upon each other's strengths.

How did Edward and I fit to the outside world? I could tell you how I saw it, but my perception was skewed. I saw Edward as being the strength that kept my world steady - like the glue that was holding everything in my chaotic life together right now. But who I was to him? I wasn't sure. Maybe I caused more trouble than I was worth, but I'd like to think that I added something instead.

Edward spoke up before I could lose myself further into my thoughts in a hushed voice. "You know, I wish I could read that mind of yours. You seem to be getting lost in it a lot today. What is going on up there, love?" His fingers tickled at my lower back, burning through the thin fabric of my shirt. The action felt amazing - simple, but all-encompassing - filling by body with a gentle hum.

What am I to you?, I thought, but I pushed it back down, not ready to broach that topic today. "Nothing. I was just watching the kids. I mean...," turning back to where Carlie, Elise and Ty were still running around, "...it's more than I could ask for, you know?" I hoped he understood my words. I couldn't quite say much more without spilling every thought and worry that was jumbled up in my head.

"Yeah," he answered in turn, kissing the side of my hair and lingering their for an extended breath. "For everything that they've had to deal with in their short lives already, that's a pretty perfect picture. Ty has a big heart, you know? He just forgets that fact sometimes."

I couldn't help but laugh at how simply Edward put it. Like forgetting how much love he possesses is like forgetting to put on socks. "Typical boy," I snorted, shaking my head as I continued to watch the ease that children took on the world with.

"I also think he's starting to realize what family really is all about. Ty went through some rough patches, but it looks like he's getting it." I turned to look at Edward, catching the way his gentle smile lingered, tugging just slightly at the corners of his mouth. I know for certain that Ty isn't the only one in that family that forgets the magnitude of their heart.

It didn't take us long before we were catching up with everyone else. We all found ourselves moving toward a play area, watching the kids run up and over and around the statues and activity areas. This moment, with friends and family, I could finally catch a tiny glimpse of a full future. No matter what happened from here on out, there would always be these people standing there beside us without needing to be asked. We would all be okay in the end.

I'm not sure how long we sat there, letting Carlie, Elise and Ty chase each other and make the most of the playground equipment before Emmett and Edward found themselves rounding the kids up. The guys ran after them, scooping them around the waists in fits of giggles and happy yells. In the end, we were all a chorus of laughter, young and old and completely happy in the moment.

Edward and Emmett dropped each of their kids back to their feet and we walked away as a group, kids squealing and adults talking and laughing like we were meant to. My smile didn't stray from my lips as I reveled in the sense of lightness and contentment I was surrounded by. Carlie grabbed for my hand, swinging it as she tried skipping in step next to me, but stumbling over her feet instead. Looking down to smile at my daughter, I watched her curls bounce lightly with her happy movement. However, what caught my attention the most was how her other hand was grasping tightly to Elise's and how Elise's hand, in turn, was lost in the grip of her father's. We all held to each other.

My life and Edward's life met in the middle, in the tiny hands of two little girls that found themselves in each other.

This is what mattered out of life. Family. It wasn't based around blood lines and years, but around the love that was undeniably shared between people. I moved my gaze to look over at Edward as we walked, holding both of our worlds between us, and finally I understood everything he had tried to tell me.

We could do this.

We had each other and that could be enough.


We walked around the rest of the zoo, stopping in the aquarium for a well needed break from the heat. I found myself smiling like a fool, watching Edward and Jasper lifting the girls up so they could see through the glass better. The looks of complete wonder on their faces was magical as they called out at the fish and other marine animals that would swim by. They pointed and giggled and asked the craziest questions, like wondering where the mermaids were. Jasper covered well, telling them that the mermaids were very shy, so you might only see them when you weren't looking for them. Both girls proceeded to watch the tank through their fingers, hoping that would fool the mermaids. It was the sweetest thing.

The shark tanks were the best though, as Elise hid behind Edward's legs, refusing to get near the glass. Even Carlie couldn't drag her our with her infectious curiosity. Elise just wouldn't have anything to do with the whole business. Not that I blamed her. Sharks were definitely towards the top of my list of irrational fears.

The very last stop of the afternoon was to the IMax adjacent to the lot we were parked in. Ty and Emmett had begged endlessly through the aquarium and I think everyone was relishing the chance to just sit in air conditioning for a bit after walking so much today. I pleaded out though. On a good day, walking the stairs through the theater threw my entire world off axis. I loved the movies and the entire experience of being surrounded by the images and the sound reverberating in my bones, but the headache after just didn't seem worth it. I wasn't about ready to chance anything after finally feeling slightly back in control of my body lately.

I sat down at a picnic table with a wide umbrella shading it from most of the late summer sun. My feet ached and this felt momentarily like heaven. I looked up, surprised, just as Rosalie took the seat next to me. "Why aren't you watching the movie with everyone else?"

"Those shows, while interesting, give me the worst headache afterwards. No thanks," she answered, shrugging her shoulders before placing her cool hands against my bare shoulders. "And I figured you could use the company." Her smile was easy - genuine.

I returned the gesture, feeling my own smile tug at the corners of my mouth. "Thanks. Company is always welcome."

Rosalie shifted, getting as comfortable as you can on the wood bench. She was close - much closer than than the short bench really negated, but oddly, it didn't bother me. I swear, my personal bubble had become non-existent, especially after having a little girl that didn't know the meaning of one.

It didn't take long before Rosalie was asking the question that I had expected on some level. "How are you, Bella? Like, really. I don't want little miss strong face."

"I'm..." Good? Exhausted? Coping? Terrified? "I'm muddling through." It was the best answer I could give as I realized that Rosalie probably still barely had a clue as to the whole mess. I mean, she was there when I walked away from Edward and the party, probably thinking we just had a typical relationship spat, but I'm not sure anyone had ever clued her into the rest. It was so much more complicated than that.

So much more. "Rose, has Emmett or Edward told you anything?" I hedged, holding my breath.

"No...I mean, Emmett said that you've had it rough." She shrugged her shoulders, the movement so easy compared to the confused crease knitted between her brows. "I guess Edward told him some things when they talked, you know, that day."

Nodding, I took in her words while my fingers lost themselves in the hem of my shirt. "I...um...," pausing to take a steadying breath, "...I met Em long before I ever met Edward. Or, at least, it felt that way. My sense of time has been all over the place really." I looked around, seeing the slow ebb and flow of people in and out of the park. This wasn't a story that I wanted to tell in public, but we were far enough into our own world that we'd be free from curious ears and I wanted Rose to know. She was the only one not up to speed with the life and times of Isabella Swan.

My voice was so soft when I continued. I could only hope Rosalie would catch it all. "I w-was in an bad relationship before moving here and I ended up landing in Emmett's ER room."

"Oh God, Bella-" Rose's words were rushed and full of pity, but I pushed on before I could dwell on them.

"My ex was abusive -physically, emotionally, sexually -" the last word coming out barely more than a whisper. "It wasn't all the time, but that doesn't negate the times that he did push me around. I see that now, even if it took me years to look past what I only wanted to see. I took Carlie one night and that's how we ended up here. Ja-Ja-James...," my tongue protested pronouncing his name, "...had hurt me pretty bad that night and Alice convinced me to go to the ER. That's how I met him...Emmett."

By this time, Rose's hands were in mine, holding them in a warm deathgrip. I'm not sure she realized the strength she had, but I actually appreciated the reassurance the pressure gave me, keeping me from just wanting to run away from it all again. This hadn't really gotten easier to tell.

"You're okay now though, right?"

Taking a moment for myself, I nodded slowly. "Physically, yes. Emotionally?" I breathed in deep, letting the air burn against my lungs until it rushed out in a quiet sigh. "I'm getting there."

Her hands loosened a bit, but didn't let go. "Good."

"There's more, though, Rose. There's something else you need to know." Once again, I bided my time my taking a few deep breaths to steady my thoughts and the onslaught of emotions. This was it. "I'm...I'm pregnant, but before you ask anything...," I cut off any possible response quickly, needing her to understand this above anything else, "...I'd like to believe it was from one of the nights he actually cared about me. It's going to be easier for me and for my family if I hold to that hope."

The silence hung heavy around us, rivaling the heaviness of the humid air, but I let Rosalie digest what I just told her. I mean, it's not every day that your best friend's new girlfriend blurts out that she's pregnant with her abusive ex-husband's baby. Yet, I'd be lying if I tried to say I wasn't nearly terrified out of my skin at what would come after it sunk in. Rose was a big part of Edward's life and I wasn't sure that I'd be able to deny it if she told me I was more harm than good.

"Bella," she said softly, wrapping her arms tightly around my shoulders and drawing me close. "You know, you're a fighter. I saw that look - the one you wore when you rushed through your words. Give yourself some credit, girl. You're a lot stronger than I think you realize." I nodded. It was about all I could do as I worked to process her words. Those were my fears and my doubts, lying in what Rosalie just said, and yet, there was no hint of failure in them.

"You want to know something else?" she asked, but continued before I even had a chance to respond. "You're good for Edward. I thought it when I first heard all about you and I still think it now. You changed him in ways that I or Emmett or the rest of his family couldn't do. Just trust me on that. I have never seen him like this with anyone else.

"But this isn't about Edward; it's about you. Bella," she paused, turning me in my spot on the bench until I was facing her. She held tightly to my hands, and it was nice. It was a simple reassurance I didn't even know I needed as I listened. "I want you to remember that you can talk to me if you ever need it. You're important to Edward and that automatically makes you important to me. But even if you weren't together in whatever capacity you are, I would still consider you a friend, which makes me care even more. Whatever you need - someone to listen, a shoulder, a hand to hold or someone to rant with you - call me, okay?"

Again, I nodded, starting to feel like a bobblehead doll as I prayed that the tears pricking the corners of my eyes would just stay put. I've been on a roller coaster of emotions and Rosalie's words honestly meant something to me. It was the first time in a very long time that I felt I had this whole other cheering section besides my family. I mean, Edward's family has more than accepted Carlie and they've oddly enough even accepted me, no questions asked. It was more than I could have ever wished for.

Yet through it all, doubt still lay heavy in my mind after rehashing my history. I still didn't feel strong. I felt emotional and weak, leaning on others just to keep me standing. "How do you know?" I asked, my voice sounding as small as I felt. "I mean, you say I'm strong, but right now...I seriously am questioning that."

Rose didn't answer me right away, instead smiling softly and giving my hands a gentle squeeze. When she did continue, I was more than surprised. "Because I've walked a mile in your shoes." It took me a moment to process that handful of words. I didn't want to believe it could be true. Rosalie still held tight to my hands, drawing my attention back as she continued. "Bella, if you're here, right now, smiling and moving your life forward after that, then you are a fighter. You're a whole hell of a lot stronger than you see. Trust me, please."

"What do you mean?" My heart pounded, the beats thundering in my ears as I processed her words and hoped to God they didn't mean what I thought they did. "I mean, not that I'm trying to pry. You don't have to tell me..."

Rosalie looked at me, a soft smile still lingering on her lips as she seemingly refused to let my hands go. "Hush, it's okay." She squeezed my fingers again before continuing. This was our lifeline right now. "I was in an abusive relationship too and it was as if I was living a literal Hell. So I understand your fears and reservations better than you probably ever realized. That's why I will always be here for you, if-ever and whenever you may need me."

The air rushed from my lungs. "Oh, Rose..."

She cut me off before I could blubber out anything more. "Hey, none of that now. I'm living the life I dreamed of now and I refuse to dwell in the past. It won't change anything." Her eyes dropped down in the same moment she pulled her left hand from mine. She wiggled her fingers, dragging her thumb over the band settled on her ring finger until it sat perfectly in place. "I had known Emmett all throughout high school after the Cullen's moved here. I swear everyone thought Edward and I were going to be a sure thing with how we attached ourselves to each other's hips, but he's my best friend. It's the whole, "I love him like a brother" type thing. We just got each other." She finally looked back up, the clarity of her blue eyes almost startling in the summer light.

"I always had my eye on Em, though. I mean, he was the hot older brother that I shamelessly ogled every chance I got when I was over. I wasn't subtle either. It's not in my nature, but it didn't make any difference...at least back then. I was so head over heels in love with him, it was comical." I found myself giggling at the thought, remembering back to the awkwardness of the teenage years and trying to picture Rose throwing herself at Emmett's feet. I'm sure she had guys lining up around the block and yet she picked the one that wasn't looking back.

"When Emmett left for college in Chicago, I grew up, burying my love for him right along side my crush on Kevin Bacon." This time I didn't just giggle. I snorted, trying to suppress my laughter at first, but only making myself laugh more. "What? He was hot," she said shrugging, but I didn't miss the wink she threw in at the end.

"Anyways, Edward and I graduated two years after Em and we headed off to college ourselves. I wanted college to be my time, you know. I wanted to fall in love with someone that reciprocated my feelings and I thought I had. Royce King seemed like the answer to all my girly desires. He was hot and intelligent, with just the right amount of bad boy attitude that we, as women, are inevitably drawn to. And things were perfect. I could close my eyes and it was Royce standing there in my future.

"My junior year was the turning point. Things had been going better than I ever could have hoped for in both school and my relationship with Royce. We were serious, having all the stereotypical talks about a future together, like what we would name our kids and where we would love to live. I was so sure that this was it. Looking back, it's kind of funny how wrong you can be." My breath stilled in my lungs. I had a feeling that I knew where this was going and I prayed I was wrong. She shouldn't have to understand.

No, no, no, no, was all that kept repeating in my head, even as Rosalie continued. "I honestly don't remember most of it, so at least I'll be sparring you the nasty details. He was drunk and angry one night. I got home and he started yelling before I had even made it through the door. The screaming led to pushing and the last thing I really remembered was him pushing me away and losing my balance. From what everyone told me after, I hit my head hard against the edge of the table and opened a nasty gash." Rosalie paused, tilting her head back and staring at the red and white canvas of the umbrella above us. I knew she wasn't really seeing it though. She was trapped in her memories just as I have been every time I had to confront them. "He left me for dead, Bella, and I kind of think I would have been if Edward and Emmett hadn't found me when I didn't answer Edward's calls. He never trusted Royce and I guess it had been within reason. If only I would have been smart enough to believe him."

When she finally brought her face back down, I saw her haunted eyes and my heart broke for her even more. Her voice was so soft as she continued. "Other things happened. Things so much worse than a bump on the head. I remember the doctors filling me in once I was awake." Rosalie took a moment for herself before continuing again, her shoulders shivering momentarily. "Did Edward ever tell you that Ty is adopted?"

That single question took me by surprise, considering our conversation. "No," I answered after a moment, shaking my head.

"That's part of the other things." I felt my eyes go wide at her words as they fully registered. "Not like how you're probably thinking," Rosalie cut in quickly. "He just hurt me a lot worse after I had hit the floor. Internal bleeding from being hit or kicked or whatever it was he had done. At least that's why they told me. Like I said, Royce left me literally for dead. So, one of those first things that I remember the doctors telling me when I finally came back to the land of the living was that the odds of having children naturally were no longer in my favor. That's a hard pill to swallow, especially back then." Her voice fell away and I wanted to say something - anything - but I didn't know what. I mean, nothing I could say or do for Rose would take away that pain completely. I knew that perfectly.

"Looking back now, I see all the little things I ignored then. The warning signs are bright and dangerous in my memories now. He verbally pushed me around a lot, treating me as if I was just his thing and not an equal participant in a relationship. He physically hurt me from time to time, but it was mostly just grabbing me too tightly, even after I would repeatedly ask him to let go. I felt stupid.

"But you know what? Somehow, I'm not even sure how it happened really, as I was working to get my life back, Emmett came around and picked up the pieces instead. That's how we got here. He gave me my life back. The life that I wanted...the life that I deserved. I now have a husband that loves me between all the good and bad and a son that made my entire world complete when he came into it." As each moment had passed, the haunted memories locked in her eyes had faded, replaced with something I would only ever be able to describe as strength. Her voice further solidified that change as she spoke again. "You have to remember that I didn't deserve what Royce did to me and neither did you. You and I...we just wanted to be happy and neither of those men had the right to take that from us."

It was so hard to actually wrap my mind around everything. She got it, and I hated that. I hated that she had to know the nightmare of it all first hand. I hated that she lost so much and there would always be parts of her that wouldn't heal. I hated that someone had hurt her. I couldn't fathom how someone could do that to her.

I was angry and sad for her, for me...for all the little kids lost and hurt in the shuffle. It wasn't fair.

My mood was spiraling down quicker than I could keep track of, but Rose caught me before I could fall too far away. "And I'll let you in on a little not-so-secret, secret," she said softly, turning my face back to look at her with a small smile. "You're future is what you make it. You're past is part of you no matter what, good and bad, but you have the power to choose how you face what comes next. It's not always going to be easy, but that's why you have us - the people who care about you. We're here to carry you when you need it. So I'll say this...," she paused, making sure she had my full attention, "...keep letting Edward in. You deserve to always have that smile on your face that I saw back in there. If he pushes your buttons, push his back. You both have your battles to fight, but you can fight them together. Fix yourselves...together. You both deserve it."

We didn't talk after that that, instead just sitting there in each other's company, without feeling the need to explain our scars anymore. In a twisted way, it was nice. It was nice having someone else who could understand my fears and my reservations on some level, making me not feel so crazy when I thought back to the chaotic whirl of my thoughts earlier.

The flow of people increased and I looked over to see the theater emptying, spotting Emmett's burly shape cutting through the crowd towards us. He wore a wide smile, matching Edward's next to him. I watched as they chatted, feeling my own small smile come out.

Edward was a good man. A great man actually. He had a giant heart with more love flowing from it than he knew how to handle. He had a soft, nurturing soul that could take a lost little girl and make her feel loved beyond measure, and he could take a broken women and make her feel that life was possible again. He had his faults, but perfection was never intended for humans. Our faults made it possible to find all the little things missing from our lives in someone else, allowing ourselves to be better in the company of others.

Our group was so close, having finally made it through the crowd. I caught Edward's eyes for a moment, his expression morphing immediately to one of worry as he must had read something still written in my features. His tone matched his expression as soon as he was standing in front of us. "Hey, what's wrong?" Edward's eyes never left my own.

"Nothing," Rose answered quickly. "Just girl talk." I held his gaze through my silence, hoping in some way that he'd understand to just let it be for now. Now was not the time. When I did finally look away from Edward, I caught Alice give me, and I suppose Rose too, a small, reassuring smile, speaking volumes. She always had a way of understanding things without be clued in and in her own way, she was right there with us.

That was something I was slowly starting to understand. We have all lived our own personal Hells and in that, we were all united.

Rose had loved and lost to anger and hatred, while Emmett could only pick up the pieces at the snail's pace we, as humans, heal at.

Edward lived every parent's nightmare, having his child just out of arm's reach and people telling him no over and over again.

Alice had the most giving heart, but has been unable to share it so far. It isn't something that we talked about often, but I knew each time it defeated her a little more. And Jasper...Jasper could only do so much as a part of him shattered a little each time as well.

Our lives really weren't all that different.

But we were all here together, and that had to mean something.


The rest of the day was spent at a slightly upscale version of a Chucky Cheese. Sitting there, we had gotten a chance to actually talk about nothing of great importance while we prayed the kids were actually working off their remaining energy. It was mostly a futile hope, but we all held to it none the less. Both Carlie and Elise had passed right out as soon as we got them buckled in the car leaving the zoo, but you'd never be able to tell that now. I had a feeling that Ty had done the same.

It was nice to just sit though, without having these seemingly life-altering talks I'd been prone to lately. This felt normal and I reveled in it. Conversation was simple between us all, falling into a comfortable and familiar rhythm. We talked about all of our respective jobs and the upcoming fall carnival held at the local schools. Both Edward and I had a mountain of games and projects to plan, and we were getting a lot of great input for everyone at the table.

Emmett talked about how crazy the hospital had been lately, but he couldn't wipe the wide smile off his face the entire time. The job had killer hours and an insane level of responsibility, but you could tell that he loved it.

Rose was working hard as ever to get all her sections of dancers ready for the winter program in a couple months, which was no small feat with kids from four to seventeen.

Finally, Ali and Jasper talked about the ranch, while Ali blabbered on afterwards about the her latest painting project, never losing her infectious smile.

I found it interesting to see every one of us talk about our passions. Edward and I had our kids, both biological and those that walked in and out of our classroom doors every day. Emmett had his patients and Rosalie had her dancers and the music. Jasper had my sister and his horses, while Alice simply had her exuberant life and everything held within that.

We left a bit later with two little girls crashing from sugar highs, saying goodbye and goodnight to the rest of our group. Carlie and Elise were out again as soon as they hit their booster seats, leaving Edward and I to the silence of the car. I watched the blur of trees as we drove down the road and I felt the warmth of Edward's fingers as he took my hand, holding it lightly. Neither of us spoke the entire time, but the companionable silence and the simplicity of the way he held to my hand was more than enough for me.

The way I felt right then was something I hadn't felt in years. It was a sense of contentment with my body, with my life - with my world. I wasn't naive enough to believe I'd never feel differently again. I was on a the roller coaster of a lifetime and I was inevitably going to hit those high and low points, and those curves that send my world spiraling, yet again, out of my control until I could rein it back in. But right now, I was going to enjoy this.

We pulled up alongside the curb sooner than I would have liked, but it had been a long day and I was ready to relax. I'm pretty sure my feet would be screaming if they could after all the walking. Edward helped me from the car, pulling me into a tight embrace once I was upright. I could feel the cool metal of the car behind me soak through my thin shirt as he pressed me backwards, but I barely noticed. I was happily lost in the warmth of his arms.

"Thank you for today," he whispered, his breath rippling over the shell of my ear with the slightest tickle.

"You're welcome," I whispered back, just as softly before pressing my check to Edward's chest and measuring my breath to the steady beat of his heart. I stood there, remembering our talk and the hope he gave me in his quiet words and easy actions. "Thank you, too."

His lips pressed warm against the top of my head. "Always."

Edward tightened his arms around me for one moment more before letting go with a small, wistful smile. One hand lingered against my hip though as he reached behind and opened the back door of the Volvo, reminding me that I was wanted in even the simplest of ways. I ducked into the car, pulling Carlie into my arms as gently and silently as I could before making my way up the walk to the front door, Edward never more than a foot away. He took the keys from my bag that he had remembered to grab, opening the door much easier than I could have managed.

His voice was soft as he whispered, "Sweet dreams, maestro," leaning in to kiss the side of Carlie's head as it was cradled against my shoulder. I couldn't fight my smile. Every day he kept surprising me with the little things he did and said to Elise, to Carlie - to me. I met his bright eyes as he looked up, trying to memorize the way the very edges crinkled as he smiled so easily.

"And sweet dreams to you, my Bella." His lips pressed lightly against my forehead on his favorite spot and I let my eyes fall closed, breathing him in. His lips moved down, skimming against my cheek and ending sweetly against my lips. "Sleep well."

I couldn't even form a response, simply smiling tiredly in turn as I backed into my house, resting against the door as it closed behind me. Today was tiring and enlightening and for lack of a better term - perfect. Things really felt that they were looking up and that we all, Edward and Elise included, would be alright.

We had to be.

Carlie woke up as I sat her gently on the edge of her bed, rubbing her tired eyes with little, balled fists. I grabbed for her pajamas folded at the end of her bed. "Arms up, sweetie." My voice was tired, matching the exhaustion I felt, and my movements were sluggish as I pulled Carlie's dirty t-shirt over her head and replacing it with her jammies. Her curls were rumpled, twisted and sticking out all over after falling asleep in Edward's car. I couldn't help my fingers as they brushed through though, feeling the silky strands slide right between my fingers like water.

So smooth.

I ran them through, over and over, marveling each time in the softness and getting lost in the way her curls straightened and bounced back, but I was pulled back abruptly by Carlie's little voice.

"Momma, is daddy ever coming home?"

A/N 2.0: I know this chapter didn't get us very far, but I felt the the conversations with Edward and with Rosalie were too important to gloss over too much. I hope I did alright for my first time back in the saddle in months.

Thanks again!