A/N: This is kind of a prologue introducing us to Bella and Edward as children. This is (very) loosely based off of my one-shot, Salty Sweet. You don't need to read it to follow this story, as I have modified the plot and obviously am going back and starting at the beginning. Thanks to my betas from PTB for helping me tighten this up.


Seven years ago

"Hi, Charlie! I have a delivery here for you – one little girl, and her rambunctious protector, ready for service!" Esme scooted to the side so that Charlie could see Bella and Edward scurry up the steps to the front porch, both giving him gap-toothed grins.

"Phew! It's a good thing you guys are here, I am way behind with all my chores…" Charlie trailed off as he gazed back into the living room, a wry smile on his face. Bella and Edward both sighed in exasperation.

"Dad! We're not here to do chores, we're here to play!" Bella shouted at him as she grabbed Edward's hand and pulled him through the door. The children bypassed Charlie and ran straight to the kitchen.

"Bye, Edward! Be good for Charlie," Esme warned as Charlie stepped out onto the porch. "Sorry about bringing Edward, too, Charlie, they were just…well, Bella was really excited to come here, but she begged Edward to come too. I don't think they had a good time at Renee's."

"Did they say anything?" Charlie asked in a low voice.

"No, but they were both sitting on her porch when I got there. Renee didn't even come out to tell them bye."

"Was she there?"

"I don't know, I didn't think to ask. I'm sorry. When should I come get Edward?"

"Ah, don't worry about it. I'll bring him home. You mind if he stays over? I might take them fishing in the morning."

"You think you can get them up that early?" Esme laughed heartily.

"Well, I have my ways. Incentives always help," Charlie responded with a grin. "I'll see you tomorrow, Esme. Thanks for picking the kids up."

"Anytime, Charlie."

Charlie walked back into his house, shutting the door behind him. He could see all the way down the hall, into the kitchen, through the window and into the backyard. Bella's dark hair was flowing behind her as she and Edward ran in circles around the yard. Charlie walked slowly towards them, watching them play as he went. He couldn't tell what game they were playing.

Bella suddenly turned and plowed into Edward who was running right behind her. Both children fell immediately, Bella clutching her forehead while Edward was nursing his knee. Charlie started to hurry out the back door to make sure they were alright. Laughter greeted him when he opened the door.

"You kids okay? That was quite a spill."

"Yeah, Dad. Edward wasn't supposed to get so close to me," she said, glancing at the redheaded boy.

"I wasn't that close!" Edward shouted indignantly.

"Was too!"

"It doesn't matter, I just wanted to make sure you were okay. You guys wanna come in and get something to eat?" Charlie asked.

"Yeah!" their voices shouted in unison.

Charlie watched the two children run past him and into the kitchen with a hidden smile.

The next day, Charlie drove Edward and Bella back to the Cullen's home. When the police cruiser pulled into the gravel driveway, Charlie told Bella to go on ahead and that he needed to speak with Edward alone.

Bella agreed, but as she shut the car door and walked slowly to the Cullen's front door, she couldn't help but look over her shoulder at her father and best friend. She didn't want them to have secrets from her; though, Bella understood that sometimes boys had to talk to one another, and girls couldn't hear what they were saying. Bella turned around fully, watching the two males, as she walked backwards, only stumbling twice.

Inside the car, Edward's nerves had spiked.

"Edward, I wanted to talk to you about something," the Chief began.

"What? What'd I do?" Edward asked frantically, racking his brain for anything that could've upset the friendly yet intimidating Chief Swan.

"Nothing's wrong, Edward, calm down now. I just wanted to talk to you about my little girl," Charlie answered as his eyes flickered to his little brown-eyed daughter, watching them intently from only ten yards away with an obstinate expression.

Edward turned to look at her as well. He wished she were in the car with them.

"Now, I know you and Bella are best friends…right?" Charlie's eyes searched Edward's round face.

"Yeah. Yes, she's my best friend."

"I thought so. And you don't want her to get hurt, do you?"

"No! I didn't—I wouldn't hurt Bella!" Edward's voice was climbing higher with anxiety. He thought the Chief was accusing him of something.

"I know that, son. That's what I wanted to talk to you about. Now, I know you don't always get to go over to Renee's with Bella, but I just wanted to make sure that she was…being taken care of over there. Do you know what I mean?"

Edward looked at the Chief's mustache, studying it. He thought back on the times that Bella cried when she had to go to her mom's house. He remembered being there with her when Renee would ignore them, or forget to feed them. They were left to their own devices most of the time, but Bella always confided that she wanted to stay at her dad's, or at Edward's house instead.

"I…I don't know, Chief. She, uh…Bella doesn't really like it there. And sometimes Renee isn't nice to us," Edward began. Charlie's face tightened in frustration, and Edward was afraid he'd said something wrong.

"I thought so," Charlie began. He looked out the window, towards Bella, staring but not seeing. Bella turned to face the front door of the Cullen's house as it opened, a surprised but excited Esme greeting her. Bella cast one glance over her shoulder at the two most important men in her life, and then ran to Esme's outstretched arms.

"Listen, Edward. I just want you to know you can talk to me, about anything, okay? Sometimes…sometimes, when we're kids, we don't want to talk to our parents, or sometimes we don't want to say anything bad about our parents to somebody else," Charlie said imploringly. Edward nodded his understanding. "Just know that you can tell me anything, even if you think Bella will be mad at you for it. She won't be, I promise. She might yell at you, but she does that already, right?"

Charlie grinned and Edward laughed. They were both familiar with Bella's short fuse. She lit up quickly, but she always burnt out just as fast.

"You're her best friend, she won't stay mad. She'd be glad you were looking out for her. You can do that, right? You'll watch after Bella when I'm not around? She needs somebody, you know…" Charlie trailed off as if the ten-year old boy would refuse his request.

"Yes, sir, you can count on me," Edward stated emphatically.

Charlie wanted to laugh at Edward's seriousness, but he couldn't. He was just as serious about Bella's safety, both emotionally and physically.

"Good. Now get outta here."

Edward giggled as he opened the door and shouted a goodbye at the Chief. Charlie sat in his cruiser and watched the front door open and close again, his little girl locked safely inside. If Bella couldn't be with him, the next best place was at the Cullen's.

Charlie took the long way home, making sure to stop by a small, rundown cottage on the way. He pulled up to the side of the driveway and parked, but didn't turn the ignition off. He waited, and watched the curtains in the living room shift from a hand pushing them aside. A few moments later a petite shorthaired woman exited, wrapped tightly in a ratty robe.

Charlie could see that her eyes were bloodshot as she approached, though she tried not to look at him.

"Charlie," she greeted him with a nod. Her voice sounded like razor blades were stuck in her throat.

"Renee…how long you been doin' this?"

Renee looked up and saw the sympathy on his face. His words were genuine, she knew, but she didn't want to fess up to the Chief of Police.

"Doin' what? I was just taking a nap," she defended.

"How long did your nap last? Did you at least wait until Esme picked up the kids this time?"

"What exactly are you accusing me of, Charlie? I was tired today, so I slept in, it's no big deal. Bella was fine when you got her, wasn't she?"

"Yeah, she looked fine, but she was quiet, and Edward hinted that they don't have a good time over here," Charlie started.

"Edward said that, did he? So, what, a ten-year-old boy is more trustworthy than me now? Huh? Edward's a spoiled little shit that's probably got a nanny still wiping his ass, and I don't want Bella around him. I don't want him coming over here anymore."

Renee's mannerisms grew more erratic and twitchy as her anxiety rose. Charlie watched her closely, trying to figure out what she was on, and wondering what to do about it.

"Renee…you and I both know Edward's not the problem here. Neither is Bella. You know I don't want to have to…take any action, but you've got to get yourself together. I can't willingly send Bella over here if you're going to be drunk or high or whatever it is you are right now. I won't do it, she's too important to fuck around with."

Renee flinched at the steel in Charlie's words. She didn't want him to exercise his parental rights and get Bella removed from her home; the alimony and child support she received were barely enough to cover her expenses. She didn't believe he would be cruel, and she'd heard his spiel before. She chanced a furtive glance at him, and saw the resolve in his eyes, and the set of his jaw.

She nodded, just twice, then cleared her throat.

"I know, Charlie. I know. I'm…I'm getting my shit together, I promise. You're right – Bella is too important. Just…just give me a little time, okay? I can do this."

Charlie let out a sigh. He'd heard that before. He nodded in response, and rolled up his window. He drove away from the woman he'd once been in love with and couldn't help but feel nostalgic. It seemed like only days ago that she was wearing flowers braided in her hair and spouting nonsense about cleansing her aura and running recklessly barefoot everywhere she went.

Charlie knew that girl didn't exist anymore, but he couldn't deny that he still wanted her.

Renee slowly walked back into her modest home and tossed her robe off as she passed by her couch. She sauntered into her bedroom, eyeballing first the glass bottle sitting on her nightstand, and then the naked man sprawled across the span of her bed. She walked and picked the bottle up silently, and took it into her bathroom. She didn't shut the door.

Renee studied her face in the mirror and pulled at the sagging skin around her eyes. She didn't remember those wrinkles being there the day before. Her skin was sallow looking, her hair limp and dirty. She unscrewed the cap of her bottle of vodka, and began pouring it down the drain. Halfway through, she stopped, and lifted the bottle to her lips. She gulped it down for several seconds, ignoring the burn in her esophagus.

She pulled the bottle away with a snap of her lips and was unable to stop from coughing.

"Babe?" a hoarse voice called from the bedroom.

"Yeah, honey," Renee answered as she walked towards the bed. The man rolled onto his back, his erection prominently displayed already. Renee smirked at him and handed him the bottle.

She climbed onto the bed and straddled him, and he gasped.

"Fuck, you're so wet already. You always go commando now?" He groaned while taking a swig of vodka as Renee swiveled her hips against him. She was well practiced by now.

"I always wanna be ready for you, baby," she purred. She reached for the vodka, taking a drink as she simultaneously lifted her pelvis up and the nameless man lined himself up to enter her. She slammed down onto him forcefully, making him grunt in pleasure.

"You know just what I like."

Renee nodded and shut her eyes, ignoring the small voice in the back of her mind; the voice she assumed was her nearly forgotten conscience. She rode him eagerly, hoping the vodka would kick in soon enough so that she could forget the promises she had broken.

At the Cullen house, Esme watched the children playing surreptitiously. Anytime Edward's older brother Emmett started to play too rough with Bella, Edward gallantly stepped in and demanded that he be gentle with her. Bella, who didn't seem to mind the roughhousing, would only look at her best friend, and then shrug at Emmett.

Esme could tell that Bella instinctively knew that Edward was only looking out for her best interest, not trying to limit the amount of fun she was having. Alice would teeter around the older children as they played, watching with no small amount of envy.

Bella's big brown eyes always spotted the tiny fairy-like child standing in the corner, and went to her. She made sure that Alice felt included, even if she was too small to wrestle around with the boys like Bella could. Bella frequently suggested that they do things like play school, or doctor, so that Alice could join in.

Esme saw how Alice idolized Bella; she truly was like a big sister. Esme was thankful that Alice had another female around the house, and she loved Bella like she was her own.

Esme hated the anxiety and guilt that ate at her every time she allowed Bella and Edward to go to Renee's home. She accepted that Bella had to go, but Esme knew that Renee was incapable of really caring for her little girl. Esme didn't want Edward to go with Bella, but they both threw fits if he couldn't go. Bella was lonely without Edward, and Edward felt like he had to protect Bella.

Edward's excited voice brought Esme from her reverie.

"Can we sleep in the fort tonight, Mom? Please, please, please!" Edward's green eyes, so like his biological mother's, pleaded with him. Esme missed Elizabeth so much at times like these.

"Of course, but Alice gets to stay with you guys, too, okay?"

Emmett immediately groaned in frustration, causing little Alice's face to turn red as she looked at her feet. Edward turned to look at his sister, and as he saw Bella put her arm around Alice and nod emphatically, he nodded in return.

"Yeah, of course, Alice can always stay with us. Right, Bella?" Edward was eager for Bella's approval.

"Always!"

Bella's chocolate eyes shone with pride as she looked at her best friend, and Alice's head popped back up as she squealed with delight. Edward smiled a secret smile of pleasure. Esme knew he didn't care one way or the other if Alice played with them, but it was important to him that Bella was happy with him.

The four children eventually calmed enough to settle in their fort for the night; Bella and Edward slept side by side in the middle, with Emmett and Alice at the wings. Alice fell asleep first, and after a few whispered dirty jokes, Emmett drifted off to sleep as well.

Edward and Bella rolled on their sides to face each other, talking in half-sentences, sharing inside jokes, and communicating with their eyes. They'd been inseparable for long enough that sometimes they didn't speak at all. Both children traded yawns until Bella's eyes drooped for the final time. Edward waited until he was sure she was asleep before he closed his eyes. He didn't want to fall asleep too early, in case she needed him.

Edward dreamed that Bella was lost in the forest behind his house. He yelled and yelled her name, but couldn't find her. He stumbled over what he thought was a fallen tree, only to discover he had found Bella. She didn't look the same as she did in real life; dream Bella had longer, thicker hair, eyes too large for her face, her skin ghostly pale, and she wore a strange white dress. Edward almost didn't recognize her. But as he knelt by his best friend's body, she turned to him, her face expressionless until she shouted, "No! No no no! Please, don't!"

Edward awoke to Bella's pleas in his ear. She was actually crying aloud, the words from his dream echoed in real life. He panicked for a moment until he shook her shoulder. Bella's eyes popped open as her breaths came out too quickly, her entire body trembling.

"Bella! Did you have a bad dream?" Edward could barely make out her features in the dark, but he was glad to see that her eyes were the right size. Dream Bella looked too frightened to exist in real life, though his real best friend looked plenty afraid as he stared at her in the dark.

"Yeah, yeah, it was…it was real scary…."

Bella didn't elaborate. Edward wanted to ask, but he knew he never liked to talk about his bad dreams, so he kept quiet. He felt around in the dark until he found her hand, and he gripped it tightly in his own, pulling them up between their bodies.

"Don't worry, it was just a dream. I won't let anything happen to you in real life. I promise," he whispered to her, his eyes trying to close again.

"I know. Thank you."

Bella leaned her face against their clasped hands and breathed out slowly, wishing for sleep but afraid that her dream would come back again. She dreamed that her mother was having a fit again, and she grabbed Bella and shook her too hard. Bella's teeth were rattling, and her jaw ached.

If Bella thought about it too hard, the pain in her jaw felt real. Bella didn't want to have to feel that pain. She watched Edward's face relax with slumber, and she scooted closer to him, believing that he truly would keep her safe.

It was the only thing that made her less afraid to face tomorrow.