Disclaimer: I do not own nor make profit off of Twilight. It belongs to Stephenie Meyer and Summit Entertainment, etc.

A/N: I love Carlisle immensely. He is definitely one of my favorite characters. I don't see this as changing Stephenie Meyer's canon storyline really, so I wouldn't call it AU, per se. The events might conflict with a few minor plot details from SM's universe. Characters may be a touch OOC at times.

Chapter 1: Stubborn

Friday afternoon was just one of those days where everything seemed to go a little off the beaten track. Considering my typical experiences with 'off the beaten track', I really shouldn't have been surprised. On Saturday, I couldn't help thinking over it with some amazement all the same. As any slow day at Newton's entitled me, my mind wandered over the events of the previous evening. I still glanced for Mike or his parents in the near vicinity, just in case, as the thoughts crowded my already-full head.

Every single member of the Cullen family had solidly onyx eyes as Friday rolled around. That was odd enough, seeing as they usually didn't leave off feeding this long as far as I knew, but everyone's subsequent actions the rest of the day had made it ten times as odd that they weren't out hunting.

Edward was the only one present in classes and just this once, I strongly suspected his presence was mostly for his own sake. Somehow, he must have had the idea that I might go cliff-diving again if he even turned his eyes away for a second. By the time we made it to his house after school, I seriously wondered if he was planning to destroy my truck despite my wishes to the contrary. He didn't, thankfully, but his agitation with my old Chevy's speed was clear enough to make the idea seem plausible.

Rosalie was not vexed with me from what I could tell, but she would never stay in the same room as Edward and me. Emmett was still the big brother, but it was limited strictly to rather weak jokes. No bear hugs. I could barely hug even Alice. Our conversation was a much less bubbly affair than they typically were. From what Edward said, Jasper had taken immediate leave of the house when Alice foresaw me coming to visit; he was definitely skittish about potentially reenacting my eighteenth birthday. Poor Esme was sweet, but also limited to conversation rather than physical contact. Carlisle was Carlisle, which meant the interaction with him did not change; he was still the kindhearted father, husband, and doctor. But overall, I could clearly see that things were becoming very difficult for the others. It wasn't until I asked Edward if they were going to go hunting for the weekend that I realized why.

He was, to put it mildly, quite stubborn about not leaving me again. I understood, even agreed, to some extent. My dreams and my insecurities were never worse than when Edward was absent. The problem was that he looked more eye-smudged, frustrated, and deathly than I had ever seen him. It hurt me just knowing he was struggling so monumentally all because he didn't want to leave me alone again, even for something so important. What was worse is that the entire family felt that way about leaving me. Well, Rosalie might not have exactly felt like that, but she had refrained from leaving for a hunt all the same. This was just one of the very bad side effects of the whole fiasco with Edward leaving last fall and then the subsequent events that had taken place a little over two weeks earlier. Until yesterday, I hadn't realized just how guilty and responsible everyone felt; not just guilty for the mix-up over my cliff-diving stunt and Edward's potential suicide, but over everything that happened from my birthday and onward. So guilty, in fact, that (as Alice reluctantly confided to me) it would probably take a couple of days hunting to actually satiate their thirst adequately. Usually, it only took several hours (if they hunted without horseplay or competition, at least).

At first, I was sympathetic to Edward's feelings on the topic. I tried to talk to him about it, convince him I was ok, but that went over about as well as his leaving had. His keen frustration – from a lack of sustenance, no doubt – put a great deal more irascibility in his response than it should have. The resulting argument the previous afternoon was regrettable, particularly in front of the entire family, but I was not about to back down. Edward finally realized he could not dazzle, sweet-talk, irritate, anger, frighten, or guilt me out of my arguments. I wanted him to hunt and hunt he would, unless he wanted one very ticked-off girlfriend for the rest of his immortal existence. Much to Emmett's lasting entertainment, I am sure, Edward actually backed down in the face of my blatant refusal to give in. I have rarely ever felt so stubborn, or so pleased with the results of my stubbornness.

The previous night, the entire family headed to big game hunting grounds for the weekend. Carlisle was the exception, since he had been assigned shifts at the hospital all this weekend. I wasn't worried about him anyway. Carlisle could keep himself in check. He had been resisting the temptation from the very first moment he felt the thirst burn his throat three-hundred-and-some years ago. No one could be less worrisome than Carlisle, when it came to control. Edward thankfully felt the same, although I was still amazed that he accepted the fact that I would be alone at either my house or his for a number of hours while Carlisle worked and Charlie was out fishing. Still, without well-controlled Carlisle to stay behind in some capacity and be my protector for the weekend, my stubborn boyfriend would never have gone hunting. Edward had almost refused at the last minute, despite the plans they made, but I was forceful enough to get through his thick skull once more.

A few precautions were agreed upon before the six of them left, but for once they were ones that I was only too glad someone had thought of. While Charlie went off fishing for the weekend with Billy, for what he called a "memorial tribute" to Harry Clearwater, I was supposedly having an all-girls-weekend. As far as Charlie knew, Alice was supposedly staying back from the "hiking adventure" and the two of us were having a three-day sleepover, complete with a ride to school on Monday. Alice was ready to act up the part as always and, to my surprise, Esme had done a frighteningly accurate impression of my voice and manner of speech, in case Charlie called to check on me. Charlie never called my cell phone when I was with Alice, since he didn't trust me not to lie about Edward being there. Odd as it might be, I often felt grateful for that. Sure, it had been annoying at first, but it was strangely useful. Alice was a much better liar than I could ever be. So, I had an ironclad excuse to stay every night of this weekend at the Cullen home, if I needed to. I could only hope Charlie didn't get any urgent call from work for the weekend.

While the outward, sensible reasons for these precautions was to placate Charlie and to keep me safe, I knew that the real reason I agreed so easily to them was because I honestly didn't want to sleep without knowing a vampire was nearby. Granted, my dreams had been calm for days, but it was obviously a direct correlation to Edward's presence every night since we returned. Without him there, I feared what form my nightmares would take.

I had not been very lucky last night. Carlisle had been assigned to go to work not long after the others left the house. Thus, I was left alone in that great big house and my nightmares had no sense of mercy. Twice I woke up screaming and shaking in fear of the black shadowed forms that haunted me. After the second time, I resolutely refused to fall back asleep and so spent the night on the couch in the living room, the TV on loudly. Amazement and no small amount of relief had hit me in the morning, when I was woken from a dreamless doze by an alarm clock I didn't remember bringing with me, warm blankets wrapped around me and a neatly packed duffle bag of my clothes and essentials sitting on the opposite couch. A little note in Carlisle's clean, elegant script had lain on top.

I hope the clothes are suitable. Don't forget your early shift.
Call me if you need anything.


Unused to such outright personal care from Carlisle, I'd had difficulty reigning in my affectionate side until I looked at the clock again, realizing I would be late for work if I didn't hurry. It was lucky he reminded me and set the clock. Bad luck followed me, however. I was still fifteen minutes late.


Mike's voice dragged me from my thoughts abruptly and back to the very place I had hurried to reach that morning. I turned to look at him as he jogged to my side.

"Sorry, Mike." I inadvertently blushed, embarrassed. He had probably been calling me long before that.

"What for?" His confusion eased the redness of my face.

"I thought you'd called me a couple times already." It was surprisingly easy to answer so truthfully for once. Usually I had to evade something or another. "I was a little out of it."

The thought of my unusual truthfulness was pushed to the back of my mind when I finally noticed that Mike's parents were having a heated conversation in the open doorway that led to the back storage. I didn't know how I could have missed it before. I guessed I was more out of it than I thought.

"No big deal. It happens, right?"

Trust Mike to be so easygoing about it, but his boyish features screamed uncomfortable as Mr. and Mrs. Newton moved further into the storeroom and out of my sight, only to argue louder.

"What's wrong?" I asked in concern.

Mike opened his mouth to speak, but rapidly paled and closed his lips when a crash sounded somewhere in the back, followed by outright yelling this time. An image came to mind of the last time I had seen Mr. and Mrs. Newton argue, not that it was very often. I recalled vividly the way Mike's dad flailed his arms as he yelled and nearly knocked a stack of hiking boots into the front display.

"I don't really know," Mike admitted with a grimace. "They don't fight like this a lot."

"I can go," I offered helpfully, although the day ahead speedily faded into a mass of boredom when I entertained the prospect of leaving work. I didn't want to spend the day at Charlie's house; my homework, emails, laundry, and house-cleaning were all finished. The Cullen house was out, too, as I knew Carlisle was working late and I definitely didn't want to sit alone in that house again after my nightmares. That left slim options for spending my time outside of work.

"You don't have to," Mike responded, attempting to pull off a reluctant tone of voice.

The hopeful look that he was trying to suppress won me over. He was so awkward about the situation that I didn't have the heart to insist on staying and making it more uncomfortable for him. He was a nice enough guy, if he wasn't trying so hard to catch my attention most of the time.

"It's not a problem," I insisted, smiling for effect. "I have some work I need to get done anyway. Better to have more time for it."

"If you're sure," he allowed easily and I could already see him relaxing a little bit, despite another bout of yelling from the back that made us both wince.

"Yeah," I agreed nonchalantly, taking off my vest and stepping out from behind the counter in the process. "I'll see you on Monday."

"Sure thing." He smiled only slightly and rapidly handed me my bag from behind the counter. "Bye, Bella."

"Bye, Mike." I waved and stepped through the front door, but he was already hurrying to the back.

I shrugged and turned to walk to my truck, but typically for me, my luck didn't hold out long enough for me to actually make it to the vehicle. A slight turn in my step and straightaway I was lying on the ground, my face stopping about two inches from hitting the rough pavement thanks to my right fist and left palm being such handy barriers. Several things hurt, but mainly my hands, arms, and knees from the impact. A groan of embarrassment escaped me and I prayed no one had seen my graceless fall. Looking up hesitantly, I was pleased to note that no one appeared to be around.

Rising from my ungainly sprawl elicited another groan, this one of absolute discomfort. Looking down at my hands, I sighed agitatedly. My left palm and the back of my right hand were covered in scrapes and cuts. Minor scrapes though most of them were, there were many of them. Thankfully, the rusty smell of my blood was almost insignificant. Sighing irritably, I realized I would have to go see Carlisle at the hospital.

Not a good day. No Edward, bad dreams, little sleep, late to work, nothing to do, tripping over my own feet, and now having to go to the hospital. My temper flared at the injustice of it all. My cell phone rang all of a sudden from within my coat pocket and I knew without looking that it was Edward. Alice had undoubtedly seen my visit to Carlisle, since I'd just decided it, and they were worried. The irritation was much stronger than I had anticipated because I snapped the phone open in my right hand with a vengeance I normally saved for far more serious issues.

"What?" I barked into the phone, ignoring the flare of pain in my hand, and I viciously hoped it startled Edward for once.

Unconsciously, I clenched my left fist, but the palm stung when I did so and I forced myself to drop the motion.

"Alice saw you at the hospital." He was immediately wary of my tone, cautious in his words. "Are you okay? Would you like me to come back?"

"I just happened to walk with my usual two left feet," I still snapped at him, surprising even myself with the lingering frustration. "I don't see why you suddenly have to run back here, probably with your eyes still black as coal, over a few scrapes that Carlisle could handle blindfolded and senseless."

There was silence for a few seconds and I could imagine him blinking in stoic bewilderment from the other end of the line, black eyes staring at nothing as he considered my answer.

"You're right," he replied crisply and I had the distinct feeling one of the others had thought something that they wanted him to hear. "I just wanted to make certain you were all right, Bella."

"I'm fine," I spoke through clenched teeth, every hurt in my bruised body making its presence known in copious amounts. "May I go and get this taken care of?"

"Certainly." Edward's voice was back to its usual calm and cool manner. "I'll call Carlisle and let him know you're coming."

"No!" I half-shouted into the phone, fully annoyed with the gentlemanly coddling I usually liked so much. "I'm right here at the store and it's less than ten minutes to the hospital, even if I walked there! And if I wanted to call him, I could do that myself!"

"Yes, Bella, of course." His low tone was pure velvet and I knew he was being very patient with me. "I didn't mean to undermine your abilities. Just be careful and I'll see you on Monday."

"Hmph," I grunted the noncommittal reply, eerily reminiscent of Charlie when he was bothered.

"I love you." An amused smile just had to be on his face as he said that. I could sense it.

"Love you," the words were practically torn from my throat in as close to a growl as I could manage, I was so reluctant to be nice. But I was almost physically incapable of not letting him know that he meant the world to me, even when he was irritating.

If I wasn't so anxious to get my hands fixed up, I would have snarled ineffectually at his answering chuckle.

I closed the phone and shoved it back into a pocket, gasping as the back of my right hand brushed painfully against the lining. The stinging was almost as bad as the aching in my knees. Grimacing, I got into the truck at last and then finally parked at the hospital after a grueling five minute drive with only my right hand, since the palm of my left was useless. The nurse at the front desk, Amy, recognized me on sight, to my eternal chagrin. I didn't realize I had been visiting that often lately.

Then again, there were a number of times during the past several days that Charlie's idea of fatherly advice and parental care had almost sent me out of the house screaming, raging, or both. He was especially tough to handle when the past several months came up in the discussion, which was more frequent than I'd have liked when it concerned my zombie stages. It was in those times that I was eternally grateful for having someone like Carlisle to talk to. Edward was great, but sometimes I just had to talk to someone who was like a father figure. Of course, it also was important to keep as much guilt off of Edward as possible. He was already hard enough on himself. Not to mention it was wonderful that Carlisle, despite his three-hundred-plus years of existence, had a distinctly more youthful point of view than Charlie. The need for Carlisle's calm advice and understanding had led to me to the hospital many more times than I would have considered sane, under normal circumstances.

"Good afternoon, Bella." Amy smiled at me. "Here to see Dr. Cullen?"

"Yes, please." Well, at least I could be civil to someone.

"He's with a patient in the E.R. right now," she answered easily, "but he should be done soon. You can wait in his office, if you wish."

"Thanks," I answered, heading off to Carlisle's office down the hallway to the right with more protests from my body. I was glad she hadn't noticed my injured hands. She probably would call someone else so that I didn't have to wait, but I didn't want anyone except Carlisle tending to them. Anyone else might call Charlie about it. That would, in some ways, be exponentially worse than facing the Volturi again. The name alone sent a powerful shudder through me and it took all my willpower not to let the internal fear show on my face as I entered the only doctor's office I had ever felt comfortable in. Just the knowledge that a Cullen was nearby gave me some sense of peace, pushing away my fears enough to keep me sane.

The wait wasn't long, only about ten minutes, but I was absolutely desperate to have some relief from the hurt and growing stiffness by the time Carlisle appeared in the doorway.

One look at him and my irritation, which had been so ripe with Edward earlier, faded away almost completely. The vampire patriarch did not mesh at all with the vision I normally held of Dr. Carlisle Cullen. That being a man (or vampire) of extraordinary good looks who was calm, strong, and collected. Now, he looked downright sickly, as vampires went. His eyes were the same onyx as the rest of the Cullens' had been just yesterday, the smudges beneath looked nearly as dark, and his skin didn't carry the sheen of pale beauty that it typically did. More than that, the look in his eyes and on his features was one of definite fatigue. Even if he really tried, I didn't think he could have dazzled anyone just then.

"Bella, what happened?" His gentle voice seemed less steady than normal, unless it was my ears playing tricks. And couldn't he smell the blood from my hands? Strange.

"I was clumsy again." I tentatively held up my battered hands for his inspection and a look of concern instantly covered his weary face. "My elbows, knees, and hands took the biggest blow, I think."

"You fell on the pavement, then?" The professional doctor, not the vampire, stood before me as he leaned down to inspect my hands, holding them carefully within his own gentle fingers. I was directly struck by the fact that those same fingers seemed to tremble, ever so slightly. If I hadn't understood that vampires had near-impossible stillness and balance, I would have dismissed it as fine. Certainly, humans usually trembled that little bit every day, even when they stilled themselves as much as possible. But not vampires.

"Yeah," I affirmed in surprise, although I was watching his face while he focused on my skin, worry replacing any other feelings I had, "but how did you know?"

"The shape of the marks," he explained simply. "And there were particles left on your skin from the cement."

"Only a vampire." I let the amusement and exasperation show in equal measure.

Carlisle chuckled as he retrieved supplies from his cabinets, a tiny smile on his face, but still the fatigue was there. It was more than fatigue, though, as I stared at him. More like… weakness. It was so strange to think of a rock-hard, super-fast, super-strong vampire as fragile, but as he cleaned my injuries with an unnecessarily regular human speed, I felt that he was extremely vulnerable. I hated the thought of wonderful, compassionate Carlisle being vulnerable. It just wasn't natural in my mind.

A thought took hold while he was bandaging my hands and elbows and it steadily grew more solid as the minutes passed. Perhaps Carlisle doesn't react the same way to the lack of sustenance as Edward or the others? Edward turned aggressive when he needed to feed. And so did all of them, really, to some extent. But they had all fed on human blood at some point, hadn't they? Carlisle was the only exception. Maybe that affected him differently when he needed to feed. It seemed entirely plausible that Carlisle, never having tasted human blood, had a reaction that was very similar to humans when they did not eat. That reaction was to become weaker the longer he stayed away from his source of sustenance, rather than growing more aggressive.

Until then, I didn't realize just how much weight Carlisle carried on his shoulders, nor just how important he was to the Cullen family. Yes, he was the figurehead and the leader of his coven, but he had made himself into so much more by showing love to them and to others. In that moment, I felt a surge of smothering affection for the vampire before me. Caring for Renee for so long, as if I were the adult, had clearly forced me to think like a parent before thinking like a child.

Carlisle finished caring for my hands and I nodded my agreement when he asked to look at my knees, to which he rolled up my pant legs gingerly. Knowing that Carlisle had already seen a lot of my body while caring for me in Phoenix last year, helped to ease the little blush that crossed my face. I was pretty relieved when there were only bruises and he stood to dig out some medication that I expected was for all of my aches and pains. Another strange thing hit me then. Carlisle hadn't once spoken to me, outside of the most basic inquiries. He usually talked casually with me, to distract me from the idea of being in a hospital. God bless him for that, even if I no longer needed that reassurance when in his calming presence.

All in all, everything pointed to the fact that Carlisle needed to hunt just as badly as the others, but for a very different reason. I had to do something about it. It would certainly help to take my mind off of the pain, for now. That had to be a good thing.

"That should do it," he murmured, setting the remaining supplies on his desk.

"Thank you, Carlisle." I smiled at him gratefully, glad of the returning smile he offered.

"You are very welcome, Bella," he replied, rustling my hair affectionately. "Now, I hate to rush you, but I have another appointment in approximately ten minutes."

Carlisle sighed quietly and tiredly, emphasizing his exhaustion ever more to my watchful gaze. Another silence stole over us, a bit uncomfortable from my perspective.

"You should have gone hunting," I said at last, trying to keep my voice as close to scolding as I could while still feeling sorry for him.

"I am fine, Bella." Carlisle smiled in obvious amusement, but the fatigue around the corners of his mouth drew my attention instead. "I'll go once the others return and the hospital doesn't need my help quite so much."

"They'll always need your help, Carlisle." I felt my stubborn streak coming on again. There was something about vampires, I suppose, that made me feel especially obstinate. "You need a break. You look awful."

So much for subtlety. I could have phrased it nicer, I suppose, but it was not my day for playing nice, apparently. Carlisle didn't seem to mind, though. He just laughed lightly, shaking his head at me indulgently and ruffling my hair a second time.

"Bella, I have been taking care of my needs for over three hundred years," he reminded me kindly, not a hint of reprimand in his voice. "I can handle myself. Besides, I need to build up my reputation again. After twice leaving the hospital very hastily in the span of one year, the administration is not very happy with me. Now, you better go. I only have seven minutes now, until my patient arrives."

"Don't you have a lunch break?" I asked, starting to grasp at straws when I saw it was now about lunchtime. "It would look inhuman for you to skip that, wouldn't it?"

"I am booked all through lunch, Bella," he explained simply. "No one has seemed to pay attention to it so far."

"I'm paying attention to it, aren't I?" I felt frustrated again, furrowing my brows in absolute consternation. "And what do you mean so far? Have you been working through all of your lunch breaks since you came back?"

"Yes." His infinite patience was wearing on me. "I don't see a problem. It's not as though I have any actual use for it."

I couldn't even bring myself to smile back at him for his humor. Even if he didn't need that lunch break in the human sense of the term, he could have used it to somewhat strengthen himself with small game or something. The weakness he displayed was bothering me beyond reason. Certainly he couldn't starve to death (Edward had told me that much. I hoped it was the truth, but I guessed I didn't actually know for a fact), yet he wasn't treating himself well.

"Carlisle—" I tried, I really did, but he waved it off with another indulgent smile and gently steered me off of the small leather couch and to the door.

"I told you, Bella, I'm fine," he insisted, still as kind as anything. "You will be at our house tonight, I assume?"

"Yes," I agreed, but I couldn't just leave it and I attempted to turn back around in his strong grip, "but Carlisle, you—"

"Bella," his voice was firm and I huffed in renewed annoyance.

"Now I know where Edward gets it," I grumbled darkly and shrugged off his hand sharply as I turned out into the hallway.

Carlisle didn't even chuckle, but sighed deeply. That was one sigh too many for me. I circled roughly on my heel and stalked back to him with as potent a glare as possible, ignoring the snide little voice in the back of my mind that said three-hundred-something-year-old Dr. Cullen was not going to be impressed by little Bella's huffy face.

"You," I let my anger show through in my voice and poked him hard in the middle of his granite chest, "are a mule. A kind, compassionate, intellectual, but purely infuriating mule! At your age, you out to know better than to push yourself like this. Don't interrupt me!"

Startled (probably by my temper and my audacity), Carlisle actually did shut his mouth and stay silent, although his eyebrows almost touched his hairline by that point.

"Edward is more mulish," I admitted turning a bit quieter in case we were overheard, "but I actually convinced him to go. And even if it takes all weekend, I will get you out on a hunt somehow. Even if I have to dangle my bloodied body in front of you like a carrot before a horse!"

I knew that I was acting irrationally and that for Carlisle to jump hungrily at a bloody body was about as likely as him becoming human again. He probably would end up saving me from death, actually. Still, I was really annoyed. Plus, I was worried about him. Not as much as I had worried about Edward yesterday, but it was a close second.

"Bella..." Carlisle paused, clearly stuck between horror and amusement at the last sentence, when he saw or heard something I couldn't... "My patient is here."

I scowled at him darkly, but he just allowed a wry smile to appear on his face. If it was possible, my scowl went even darker. My heart, however, fluttered happily at the sight. He so rarely had smiled like that in the last few weeks, unsurprisingly after nearly losing his first son and companion. It was a good sight to see, but I was still frustrated. He did not comment on my heart's activity directly, but his smile widened a fraction. A dark blush stained my cheeks and I turned away in embarrassment to find Sue Clearwater coming down the hall. I had to keep my self from cringing at the sadness that still settled on her like darkness.

"Hello Bella, Dr. Cullen," Sue smiled wanly at me and then at Carlisle. "I hope I'm not late?"

"Of course not, Mrs. Clearwater," Carlisle answered graciously, opening his office door wider.

"Are you all right, Bella?" Sue noticed my hands then, of course. Even in her grief, she would notice my hands.

"I just tripped." I tried to keep my tone civil. Harry had been Charlie's close friend and Sue was having a hard time after his death. There was no reason to be rude. "But I'm fine."

"Good." She actually did seem relieved that I was okay. "I hope you can come with Charlie on his next visit, Bella."

"I'll try. Bye, Sue. Dr. Cullen."

I didn't know why I called him that, but the drop in his pleasant expression made me regret it instantly. Was I really that irritated with him?

"Isabella," he acknowledged me with a nod before following Sue into the office.

I huffed once more as the door closed behind them, but didn't make a move to leave yet. I was extremely antsy from my arguing and I really did plan to have Carlisle out hunting sometime this weekend. Today, preferably, because I couldn't stand the sight of him diminished like that any more than I had to. Without Esme here to make Carlisle take care of himself, someone had to step up.

A sudden worry stole over me that perhaps I was interfering where I shouldn't be. Somehow I couldn't envision Rosalie, Alice, Jasper, or Emmett taking such a big step as this. They might remind Carlisle of his needs, but him being such a prominent father-figure seemed to keep them from actually doing anything that would make him take care of himself. I was in a similar position to them, wasn't I? A potential daughter to Carlisle? A daughter who should be respecting the father-figure and not making him 'eat his vegetables,' so to speak? Then again, I did that same thing with Charlie and Renee all the time. It was in my nature. Besides that, I knew for a fact that Edward would be forceful with Carlisle in this instance. I was, essentially, Edward's equal in the family. In my mind, that fact was as good as a law. I should be doing whatever Edward would do in this circumstance, albeit within my human limitations.

Walking slowly back towards the entrance, I unfortunately couldn't think of a single thing to do that would force Carlisle to take a break and go out hunting, aside from having vampire strength and dragging him out.

"Oh, I didn't even see…" Amy looked nervous from her position at the desk as I came closer, eyeing my hands worriedly. "I'm so sorry, I should have sent you to someone who was free immediately, but I thought you were just visiting Dr. Cullen again."

"It's fine." Assuaging her fears seemed to be the only thing I could do right now. "He wasn't long. They're all fixed now."

For emphasis, I wriggled my fingers and ignored the twinge it brought. She looked relieved, sagging back into her seat a little.

"Thank goodness." She pulled loose strands of her sandy hair back behind one ear. "I'm sorry again. I hope they heal quickly."

"Thanks," I answered, thoughts traveling back to Carlisle.

Absent of further conversation, silence encroached on us. Standing there dumbly while the nurse returned to her work, I looked around for some hint as to how I could help Carlisle. If he didn't feel such a need to help out at the hospital so much, he wouldn't have a problem. He was working far more than what would be considered healthy for a supposed human doctor. But I couldn't fight Carlisle himself. He just wasn't going to give in to me and it would only be uncomfortable between us.

Nothing stood out as particularly helpful in the room, until I noticed the directional sign hanging above the hallway opposite the front doors. The word 'administration' stood out like a beacon in my mind.

"I need to build up my reputation again… the administration is not very happy with me…"

Carlisle's words struck something within me. If the administration wasn't happy with Carlisle leaving them so abruptly, would they really be low enough to assign him a lot of hours as a sort of payback? That was illegal, I knew, but a lot of illegal things happened anyway… Maybe it wasn't Carlisle who was pushing his limits with these ungodly long and frequent shifts. Maybe it was the hospital administration.

Everything just fit together like a puzzle. The phone call that Carlisle had gotten last night was the final piece. It all made so much sense that my temper flared again. Immortal, self-controlled vampire or not, Carlisle was a person who was being put upon by his boss.

Now I knew how I could fight for Carlisle's cause.

"Where's the administrator's office?" I asked the nurse out of the blue, startling her from her work.

"Room 189." Amy looked confused, but I didn't reply. I just hurried down the hallway to the indicated room. Before I could reach it, my phone beeped and I looked briefly at a text message from Alice.

Remember Charlie.

One of many times, Alice had only confused me. I was sure that she had "seen" my talk with the administrator, but what did Charlie have to do with it? I continued on to room 189, shaking my head exasperatedly. I didn't have time to knock before the door opened to expose a man of average height with graying black hair and a thin, unkempt mustache. He was a big enough man that I had to step back to avoid a collision.

"Hello." He smiled at me, but it was generic and sterile like the hospital, in spite of his initial surprise. "What can I do for you?"

"I have a situation," I started off, keeping cool, but paused to take in his name badge, "Dr. Bailey. I believe you're the best person to help me."

"And whom do I have the pleasure of helping?" he smiled wider, more genuinely, although his inherent arrogance downplayed the sincerity quite a bit.

"Bella Swan." I offered a hand as I spoke.

"Well, Bella," he rolled my name off of his tongue easily while shaking my hand, recognition plain on his face. I doubt there was anyone who lived in Forks who didn't know who my dad and I were, "I was just going to take my lunch break in the cafeteria. If you don't mind joining me, we can discuss it there."

"Sure," I reluctantly agreed to the obvious attempt to schmooze into mine and Charlie's good graces, only the image of a vulnerable Carlisle urging me on.

I didn't pay much attention to anything until we were sitting down at a table in the small hospital cafeteria, the entire walk resulting in a few near-trips. I decided to accept the offer of a free meal, considering I probably wouldn't feel like cooking by the time I got back to the house. In my effort to eat what I could before our acquaintance ended badly due to my interference, there was little conversation between us at first. The inevitable couldn't be put off, however.

"Well, Bella," Dr. Bailey began a conversation once more as he laid down his napkin, sitting back casually, though the effect was ruined when he folded his hands imposingly on the tabletop, "what situation are you facing?"

"A friend of mine works here." I took a deep breath to steady myself. "Lately, he has been working so much that he doesn't eat or sleep properly. In fact, he's eaten almost nothing in days, what with how often he works. I'm terrified that he's going to collapse if it goes on."

I could only hope Carlisle's smudged eyes would pass for sleep deprivation.

"I'm very sorry." Dr. Bailey didn't sound as sincerely worried as I would have liked. "I don't recall anyone being assigned so many hours. We arrange all of the shifts as evenly as possible, depending upon the position. I'll certainly speak with him about this. Who is your friend?"

I hesitated, uncertain, and then decided I simply couldn't tell him. As much as I wanted to get Carlisle out and hunting, I didn't want to get him in trouble or anything. That wouldn't be good for the Cullens at all. Too bad I hadn't thought of that before I came in here. As a matter of fact, I hadn't thought much of anything except that I knew whose fault it was that Carlisle was so weak.

I almost spoke my refusal aloud, when another beep interrupted me.

"I'm really sorry." I blushed a little under the slight disapproval from the administrator, a force of habit, and checked a second text from Alice.

Tell him.

I kept my groaning and eye-rolling to myself while closing the phone again. Alice knew what she was doing, I suppose. I was conscious of the ears and eyes all around the two of us, some of which probably recognized me or my name and would certainly recognize Carlisle's as it rolled off my tongue. To my dismay, one person that I didn't really want to be there as I debated this was Sue Clearwater, sitting not too far away, a look of curiosity on her sad face as to my current situation.

"Um, it's Carlisle Cullen," I answered Dr. Bailey quietly at last, my suspicions of earlier instantaneously confirmed when his eyes narrowed and he sat straighter in his seat.

"Dr. Cullen is an extremely important part of our medical team," he said stiffly, resentment of Carlisle's importance ringing in the words. "I'm afraid his average hours have always been much more strenuous than you might realize."

"I don't recall them being so strenuous this past summer," I retorted, my own eyes narrowed. "Or any of last year, as a matter of fact."

True, I hadn't known much about Carlisle's working hours until some time later in the previous school year, but I had no doubt he didn't work as much as he did now.

"Things change, Miss Swan." The use of my last name clued me in that I had hit home base. "I don't believe we have any more to discuss, particularly about Mr. Cullen. Now, if you'll—"

"Oh, we have plenty to discuss about Dr. Cullen," I said vehemently, standing straight from my seat as I rose to the challenge with a look of pride on my face and my shoulders squared as if to do battle. "Carlisle Cullen is one of the hardest-working people you'll ever meet. He's compassionate, kind, generous, helpful, dedicated, intelligent, and talented. He's an amazing doctor and an excellent man. You're incredibly lucky to have him on your staff, but you abuse his talents with inhumane hours and rude behavior. He deserves to work someplace better than here, if that's all you have to offer him."

"How is this your business?" Dr. Bailey was openly glaring at me now, his voice hard. "I don't recall unrelated teenage girls having a say-so about Mr. Cullen's career. You have no right to wrongfully accuse this hospital of mistreating its employees."

"Wrongfully accuse?" I was incredulous and furious, but now Alice's mention of Charlie made much more sense. "If anyone knew how many hours you've had him working, they would be appalled! How about I tell the Chief of Police just how long Dr. Cullen's usual shift here at the hospital is, Dr. Bailey? Last I checked, you called him and asked him to come in last night and he's not scheduled to leave until late tonight. In addition, you've had him work nearly a full day, every day, ever since he came back to Forks. I seem to recall it being against the law to neglect your employees in such a way. The Chief of Police would notapprove!"

I was pleased to see him gaping like a fish, nothing coming forth in response to me. What could he say?

"I very strongly suggest," I calmed my voice somewhat, "that you even out your staff working hours better than you have been doing and that you show more respect to your staff members. I also advise that you arrange for certain overworked individuals to be given the weekend off. Starting now, Mr. Bailey."

The doctor swallowed hard and the apprehension lining his features gave me a sense of accomplishment. There was no doubt in my mind that he would do as I suggested. Messing with Charlie inadvisable. What was more, Charlie was a big fan of Carlisle's. Doubly ill-advised. And Charlie would believe me, that much I knew. Ill-advised, three times over.

"I see your point, Miss Swan," Dr. Bailey smiled nervously, abruptly oily in his manner. "Dr. Cullen is a valued member of staff. I would hate to see him overworked like this. I shall speak with him right away. Thank you very much for your kind concern."

"Thank you for your valuable time." If the sarcasm leaked into my tone, I couldn't really help it. "Good afternoon."

"Good afternoon." He stood shortly.

Standing as I was with my fists just now unclenching while he hurried to dump his tray and exit, I slowly realized that every eye in the cafeteria was trained on me. Awe, shock, wonder, anger, and a hundred other things were flashing on people's faces. I couldn't tell if the negative emotions were directed at me for my behavior or at the administrator for his. A flush, darker and hotter than I could recall for some years, encompassed every inch of skin between my eyes and my chin, barring my nose. I had just decided to bury myself in the woods for the next six months when clapping sounded from across the room. All eyes suddenly shifted to the figure of Sue Clearwater, a small smile on her face directed at me. I was shocked, but never so much as when most of the room's occupants decided to join in the applause. Blushing furiously and tripping my way to the exit, I was barely able to open my phone when another beep sounded. Expecting another message from Alice, I was mildly surprised to find one from Edward.

Well done.

I love you.

The blush deepened, but a goofy grin split my face and my spirit absolutely soared. As the grin faded to a manageable level, I made my way slowly to the main entrance; blindsided by his simple affection and the congratulations I received by nurses and patients in the halls of the hospital. Even the rare unfriendly glances I received couldn't dampen my spirits. Not everyone would agree with my outburst. That I had expected.

My phone rang as I neared Amy, where she turned back to face me, and I just returned her contagious smile as I picked up the call.

"Hello?" I spoke into the phone, but was quickly overridden by a very loud Charlie.

"Great job, Bells!" He was half-shouting into the receiver and I winced. I'd have bet that he could be heard halfway across the continental U.S. "You make an old man proud!"

"Um, thanks," I said louder, half-smiling in bewilderment and holding the phone away from my ear in an effort to save what little hearing I had left, "but how did you find out?"

"Sue, of course!" I could hear the big grin in his voice. "She was so impressed that she called me after you walked out of the room. I gotta say, kiddo, I didn't know you had that in you. But today you proved me completely wrong."

"Um, that's… great." I didn't really know what to say as I made my way past the desk, but after all the praise I was sure I was floating on clouds.

When I thought I couldn't get any lighter I glanced over to find that Carlisle, in his typical blue dress shirt and black slacks, had appeared off to my left, standing stock still in the middle of the hall that led to his office. His expression was unreadable, but he held his laptop bag in one hand and a black jacket in the other. I chewed my lip in anxiety, heart racing as I tried to imagine what he thought of my display in the cafeteria. Even more nerve-wracking, what did he think of what I said of him? Was it too much? Did I mess something up by being so fervent in his defense? Edward didn't seem to think so… Charlie's loud voice drew me back to the phone, but I couldn't drag my eyes away from Carlisle as he made his way over to me at a normal human pace, finally stopping about two feet from me in front of the main doors. More accurately, I couldn't tear my eyes away from his shoulder. It seemed safer than looking directly in his eyes.

"Well, I know you're probably waiting to go and have fun with Alice." Charlie was happier than I'd heard him in a while. "I'll let you go, but you'd better believe how proud I am of you, Bells. Carlisle's a good man and you were brave to stand up for the right thing."

"Thanks, dad," I responded a little embarrassedly, knowing Carlisle had heard every word. "You better get back to the fish. Billy's probably catching all the good ones."

"Oh well." Charlie had never before cared so little about his fishing record and I was a little touched. "I'll make up for it by bragging my girl up every chance I get."

"Maybe you shouldn't do that," I panicked a little, taking my eyes off of Carlisle and thinking about Jacob and how the news would affect him. I meant every word I'd said in the cafeteria, but things were tense enough without adding this extra evidence of how much I cared about my vampire friends.

"Don't be ridiculous, Bells." Charlie wasn't going to be swayed from what I could tell. "Billy and me can take it."

I could smell the sweet scent that was Carlisle, so similar to Edward and yet different, right next to me. Good grief, was he breathing on me purposely? I was nervous enough already. My teeth found my lower lip again as I glanced back at the steely, blue-clad shoulder that had been my target a moment ago.

"Sure thing," I gave in resignedly. "Have fun."

"You too, kiddo," he enthused, probably still smiling himself silly. "See you on Monday."

"Bye," I ended a little reluctantly, just as the line went dead.

Unexpected cold on the small of my back startled me enough that I jumped, but Carlisle simply led me out of the hospital at a brisk pace towards his black Mercedes. Looking fondly back to my truck from beneath a curtain of dark hair, I settled into the passenger seat with a resigned sigh to whatever lecture he had in mind. Carlisle slid into the driver's side and we were soon heading in a direction unknown to me. His speeds were only slightly less frightening than Edward's, but admittedly I still felt safe.

The lecture he was planning seemed to be very bad indeed. I couldn't imagine why else he would be silent that long. The tension grew until I was almost trembling with repressed nerves. He had to have noticed, but he still said nothing. Every time I was prepared to break the silence, my throat closed in on me and I ended up saying nothing either.

Finally he stopped the car and I looked out of the windows to see a densely wooded area that I did not recognize looming around us.

"Um… where are we?" I ventured very quietly.

"Southeast of Forks." The gentle voice I knew was there, but it was a touch edgy. "About ten miles."

"Whoa," I murmured in surprise, still amazed at how far the vampires could drive in such a short time.

Carlisle cut the near-silent engine and handed the keys out to me, offering them silently without looking at me.

"Stay here," he intoned calmly, but his even in his quiet he was commanding. "Lock the doors, get into the driver's seat, start the car, and be ready to drive."

I blinked, fear coiling within me, but took the proffered keys with a slightly shaking hand. Carlisle reached into the back almost blindly, took a neatly bound pack in hand, and got out of the car. There was a blur of movement and he was gone. I sat momentarily, still a little stunned and unable to contemplate what we were doing out here that required such precautions, but his instructions penetrated my head a minute later. I locked the doors without hesitation and climbed over the center compartment to sit in the driver's seat. It was very cold, probably from Carlisle, but I ignored the fact in favor of starting the engine.

The minutes passed slower than they should have, or so it felt to me. All the same, thirty minutes did pass, in silence, my knuckles probably whitening gradually beneath the bandages as I gripped the steering wheel.

Somehow, in spite of my anxiety, forty minutes later I found myself starting awake from the same nightmarish events that plagued me the night before with my heart racing and my breath hitching. Carlisle still wasn't back and my fears grew exponentially with every sound that I heard outside the car. I probably drew blood on my lip from biting it, but the sting simply didn't register in my fearful haze. Another fifteen minutes crawled past me with ever-increasing terror before a gentle tapping at the driver's side window startled me into shrieking, but I turned with utter relief to find Carlisle standing there looking unbelievably apologetic.

Unlocking the doors probably took me a full minute because my hands were shaking so badly. Carlisle, on the other hand, had the door open, the seat lowered, me in his arms, and the door closed again all in the span of about five seconds. He held me in his cold embrace as tightly as he could without crushing me and leaned us both down on our sides, murmuring nonsensical platitudes into my hair. I clung to him with as much strength as I could muster, my arms tightly wound around his midsection and my head tucked up under the crook of his neck. I was ashamed to find tears rolling down my face. The comfort of his cold arms and the smell of him brought me calmness within a few minutes. As the tears ceased to flow and my shaking was reduced to gentle trembling, I could feel him swiping away the last vestiges of wetness on my face.

"Bella, I am terribly sorry," Carlisle spoke into my hair guiltily, running cold fingers through my dark waves soothingly. "I can only say I was not quite myself when I left a little while ago. It is a poor excuse, I realize, but I never meant to frighten you so."

"It wasn't you," I croaked, clearing my throat in embarrassment. "I dozed and…"

Suddenly my fears felt so stupid. It was just a foolish dream, no matter how real if felt.

"What is it, Bella?" Carlisle was ever so gentle in the asking.

"A dream," I admitted, breathing in his scent to ease the raw fear that the dreams always brought on, even when I was wide awake in broad daylight. "Just a dream."

"It looked like more thanjusta dream." There was no scolding in his tone, only kindness as always. "You were positively terrified. Your heart was very nearly racing out of your body when I came back."

"I... it was really bad," the confession forced its way out of me, the words muffled against his stony chest, "but I'm better now. Thank you."

"I should not have brought you with me like this," the guilt still pressed on his voice, but I then noticed that the fragility I had heard earlier was gone, "but I did not want to have you any further from me than was necessary."

"Why not?" curiosity overcame me, although I didn't look up.

"Well, to be honest," Carlisle sounded sheepish, even embarrassed, "when I delay feeding for so long, my protective instincts can become rather overbearing. When I heard you arguing with Dr. Bailey about me, I felt like I needed to protect you. So I decided to take you with me. It was a rash decision. The only reason I did so was because no one was there to talk much sense into me."

"That's such a… Carlisle thing to do," I laughed, I couldn't help it. It felt so much better than crying.

"I suppose so," he chuckled with me and ruffled my hair affectionately yet tenderly for the third time that day.

"So you really hunted, then?" I questioned, still keeping my head beneath his chin. I didn't have the energy to check his eye color.

"Yes, I did," he assured me with a squeeze around my shoulders. "Now let's go home."

I was about to move back into my side of the car, but Carlisle moved me in the blink of an eye and raised his seat again. As I buckled in, he turned us back around and returned to Forks in excellent time. For once, I wasn't all that worried about the speed, just the comfortably silent company.

A/N: Thank you to everyone who read and reviewed Damages I: Carlisle!