A/N: Ohai! No, I'm not gone, I promise! I've had massive writer's block with this story, but I managed to finally get a chapter done. Thanks to everyone who stuck around! We're nearing the end...
All standard disclaimers apply.
As Children After Play
Two nights later, Carlisle walked them through the staff entrance of the hospital—Bella and Edward, because her lover refused to let her go through this alone. She was glad to have him, and not afraid to let anyone know it. While she knew she shouldn't be nervous about a checkup, she really didn't know what was going to happen. When she was pregnant with Mason, she hadn't had any prenatal care at all. Carlisle and Edward both insisted that this time would be different, and she couldn't deny them. They were right, after all, but it didn't make her any less nervous.
Carlisle waved casually at a security guard and the nurse at the nurse's station, but didn't stop to chat. He had already explained calmly that the best way to avoid attention was to act like nothing out of the ordinary was going on, and Bella believed him after nobody so much as raised an eyebrow at the three of them. Carlisle ushered them into an exam room, gave her an encouraging smile, and left to gather supplies.
"It will be fine."
Edward's voice was soft, and even though she was worried Bella had to hide a smile. She couldn't count the number of times he'd said that to her today—as if he were trying to reassure himself more than her.
"Come here." She held out her hand to him.
Edward's beautiful golden eyes softened, his hand immediately folding around hers, squeezing gently. The cold firmness of his touch soothed her more than any words possibly could, and she leaned into him when he slid his arm around her.
"I just want her to be okay," he said quietly, murmuring the words into her soft hair. "I want to know as much as possible, as soon as possible, even if the news isn't great. I want to be able to prepare."
Bella understood but, perhaps oddly, she couldn't feel as worried as Edward did. Something inside her felt...calm. She'd been removed from Charlie's care and given to the Cullens for good. She and Edward were learning how to be together, really be together, in a serious relationship where they both had to give and take. She drew her hand over the hesitant swell of her stomach, smiling slightly. Edward was a worrier. It was part of who he was, and she loved him for it. She loved him for his protective streak, for the careful, reverential way he touched her and spoke to her. It was like...like a dream, thinking that she would get to keep this forever. Giving him a daughter in return, assuming she was capable of doing so, didn't seem like such a terrible thing. He wanted it so much.
"Bella," Carlisle said softly as he returned to the room. He smiled with reassuring gentleness as he washed his hands in the sink. "There's no need to worry or be nervous. I know you had no prenatal care before, but we're going to change that this time around. It's important for every pregnant woman, but you especially."
"Because we don't know how human she is." Bella nodded. She knew.
Edward watched with anxious yellow eyes as she was weighed and measured, her blood pressure, pulse, and temperature taken, everything filed away in Carlisle's perfect vampire memory rather than physical records. There would be no paper trail at the hospital—either on computer or literal paper—to show that they had been here.
"You've gained a little weight and your blood pressure is better," Carlisle observed. "That makes me very happy, Bella."
Bella cracked a smile. "I don't think I had a choice. Everyone keeps trying to feed me all the time."
"We're all just concerned for you and our newest family member." Carlisle tapped her belly gently. "I need to take some blood to test, and then...are you ready to try a sonogram?"
Bella's hand tightened on Edward's. No prenatal care with her first child meant she'd never seen an ultrasound of Mason, but she knew what they looked like from TV. She doubted she'd be able to see much more than a grainy blob even with Carlisle's help pointing out legs and arms, but she was still nervous. Seeing it with her eyes would make this all much more real.
"Maybe, if the little one cooperates, we can see whether that's a daughter you're carrying like you hope," Carlisle added as he probed the inside of her elbow for a good vein. Swift and smooth the needle pierced her skin, dark blood flowing into the waiting receptacle. Edward jerked slightly beside her, but his hand remained firm in hers.
"I'm sorry," Bella said, glancing up at him. "Is it too much? You don't have to..."
"Shh." He grazed a finger over her velvet lip. "I could never hurt you, sweet girl. You know that."
"But it hurts you."
"Leaving you would hurt more," he said simply as Carlisle removed the needle and gave her gauze to press against the wound. She'd barely felt a thing.
Edward squeezed her hand a little tighter as she settled back on the examination table and lifted her shirt as per Carlisle's direction. The machine was a small portable unit, and she looked at the blank screen with an upwelling of anxiety. How much would they be able to see? Would they find out she was carrying a daughter as Edward hoped, or would he have to be content with a son?
The gel, when it hit her belly, wasn't as cold as a Cullen's touch, and Bella snickered inwardly at all the TV women who complained about it. Of course, they weren't used to sleeping with a vampire.
"Ready, Bella?" Carlisle held up the transducer, catching her eye and waiting for her okay before he began. It was one of the things she loved best about her new father figure—his patience and calm, his ability to sense when she needed a moment.
With a deep breath, she squeezed her eyes shut and nodded. This was it.
And a handful of seconds later, as the instrument moved smoothly over the hard swell of her belly, Bella heard it—the strange underwater whooshing noise of her child's heart.
"Open your eyes, honey," Carlisle said, his gentle words laced with a small chuckle. "There's nothing to be afraid of."
The first noise she'd ever heard from Mason was a thin, angry wail when he was born. This...this was different. As she studied the grainy grey image on the screen, she let the odd sound wash over her. It was strangely...comforting.
"Well, we already knew there was a heartbeat." Carlisle's voice was soft. "Can you hear it now, Bella?"
"That's what I get to hear all the time." Edward squeezed her hand. Bella wasn't sure she could place the emotion in his voice, but his dark golden eyes ached with a yearning sort of love. "You can feel jealous if you want—that little heartbeat fluttering under yours, together they're my favorite sound in the world."
She squeezed his cold fingers in return, one side of her mouth almost managing to smile, but her gaze was drawn back to the screen. No, she wasn't jealous of Edward. Not for this, anyway. He could hear their child, but she could feel it, deep within her. The soft butterfly sensation of its movements never failed to stir emotions she wasn't sure she could explain. Something strange fluttered up under her ribcage, an anxious sort of feeling. And yet it wasn't...it wasn't all bad. Edward's child was inside her, and it was moving. It had a heartbeat she could hear.
Edward gripped tighter on her hand, and Bella watched the screen as Carlisle shifted the transducer on her abdomen.
"There's the head, here," the doctor said, pointing at a round, blobby splotch in the grey. "And the body, here. Unfortunately, this little one seems to have inherited dad's stubborn streak. It's hiding from us right now—I can't tell you whether it's a boy or a girl."
"She's a girl," Edward said softly. Bella tore her eyes away from the blurry grey image for a moment, studying her vampire. He looked...she didn't know how to describe it. His forehead was puckered in concentration, eyes squinted ever so slightly, mouth barely open. It looked like...not surprise but...awe? He couldn't take his eyes from the image of their child, the first glimpse they'd had. "Bella," he said, "look, Bella. That's your daughter."
Carlisle didn't quibble about the "daughter" remark despite the fact that they didn't really know for sure—not scientifically. Realistically, she knew it was a more or less fifty-fifty chance but...in her heart, she felt that Edward was right. Science couldn't confirm it, but this was a little girl.
Her little girl.
Bella wasn't ready to be a mom yet. She wasn't stupid. She had so much baggage, so much undealt-with trauma. Removing Charlie from her life didn't fix that. It couldn't. But the Cullens were here with her now. They loved her, and they would help her through the process of having and raising her new little one. Together, as a family, they could do this. They had Esme's love, Jasper's empathy. Alice's fun, Rose's realism, Emmett's big-brother antics. Carlisle with his quiet wisdom. She wasn't sure how it would work, how the dynamic of the family would shift as Mason grew and they added this new baby, but she knew they would be okay.
More than okay.
"Are you done watching?" Carlisle asked kindly, his hand still holding the instrument against her belly.
"I'll never be done." Edward's voice was the ghost of an awed whisper.
"You can have a video, I promise." Carlisle smiled in understanding. "But before we turn the machine off, I'd like to talk about the amnio again. You know I think we should do it."
Edward's face crinkled with displeasure. "There's risk of complications. I don't want to put my daughter through that. Or Bella."
"The risk is marginal—almost miniscule. And the benefits outweigh it, in both my professional and personal opinion. We could learn so much, Edward. Things we might need to know as the pregnancy progresses." He paused, and the two male vampires eyed each other over Bella's prone form. They'd known each other for so long, and they could communicate without words. Edward's hand didn't move in hers.
"I'm not asking for my own scientific curiosity, son," Carlisle said quietly. "This is about taking a small risk in order to hopefully prevent something worse from happening later on."
"I have no idea. This fetus is unique, as far as I know. I don't know the first thing about its development, its genes—nothing. I think it's important to run all the tests we possibly can. Or do you think that not knowing is better than knowing?"
Edward pulled hard at his hair with his free hand, his beautiful face drawn up in an agonized scowl. "You can't say shit like that to me," he said. "I want to protect her—that's all. I don't want to take risks." He closed his eyes tightly, and when he opened them again he gazed at Bella. "What do you want, sweetheart?"
It was a beautiful moment. Bella wasn't sure she'd ever felt prouder of him, or more in love. Asking her to make a decision about something he felt so strongly was...nothing less than amazing. It was maybe, she felt, the strongest thing he'd ever done.
She reached up with her free hand and he gladly leaned down, letting her cup his cold cheek in her palm. She smoothed her thumb across that perfect, pale skin and smiled, hoping he could feel in her touch just how much this meant to her. "Thank you," she whispered.
He let out a deep sigh, smoke-sweet breath brushing her face and ruffling her hair. "You're in charge now; you know that. I have to trust you. I do trust you." His love showed plainly in his yellow eyes, but she could also see fear there. He was afraid of the risk, however slight. Terrified of making a choice that might end in disaster. "I won't force you. Never again, Bella."
She believed him.
With a slow, calming breath, she nodded at Edward's father.
So Carlisle gathered the supplies he would need, hiding the ridiculously long needle from Bella's sight. He had no wish for her to faint or vomit. He cleaned an area of her belly well with antiseptic, instructing Edward to hold the sonogram machine's transducer against Bella's stomach so he could insert the needle away from the fetus. Bella winced at the injection of numbing agent, and after waiting a minute for it to take effect, Carlisle slowly inserted the needle. Bella's eyes were shut tightly, her body tense as her hands gripped the sides of the table. But when he asked her if she felt any pain, she shook her head.
After a quick draw of amniotic fluid, Carlisle withdrew the needle and had Edward place gauze on the puncture wound, holding it in place to stop any bleeding, though there shouldn't be much. He readied the sample for testing, then smiled at the teenager and teenager-like vampire before him. Bella belonged to them now and, whatever else happened, they'd get through it. He had no doubt about that.
"There," he said with a small smile. "All done. That wasn't so bad, was it?"
Slowly Bella inched her eyes open, then shook her head with a sheepish little smile. "No," she said quietly. "It didn't hurt."
"I want you to watch for any cramping or bleeding, even minor spotting. Complications are rare, but there is a slight risk." He smiled and sent them home with a promise to have results when he came home later that day.
Bella tried to hide a yawn as they drove home, but she felt Edward's eyes on her anyway.
"Tired?" He reached across the console with his right hand, which she gladly took.
"Kind of." She shrugged. "I didn't really sleep last night."
"Yeah, I know."
"I was nervous."
"I know that, too." His golden eyes flicked toward her before he turned his attention back to the road. "It's okay; you can sleep as much as you want now, whenever you want." They stopped at a red light, and he leaned over to brush a kiss against her temple. "No more nightmares?"
Bella sucked her lower lip into her mouth. She'd like to be able to agree with him, but the criminal trial was still looming and she didn't know how it would turn out. So much of their evidence at family court was inadmissible now. The belt Charlie had used to beat her was out because it was the Cullens, not law enforcement, who took it from her father's house. The photographs of her injuries were admissible, but it was her word against her father's as to what exactly caused them. Most of what they had was witness testimony—herself and Edward firsthand and the rest of the Cullens secondhand. She could prove that Frank Zinecki, her father's friend, was the father of her first child, but not that Charlie had known. No—for so much of this trial it was her word, the word of a runaway teenage mother, against his. Her success in this trial was by no means assured. And until she was free from Charlie completely, she couldn't promise that there would be no more nightmares.
Edward knew that; she knew he did. But the whole family had a kind of unspoken agreement that they would not talk about the criminal trial except during scheduled visits with their lawyer. Patrice O'Connell worked with family court only, and Bella had been assigned someone from the DA's office, since it would be the state and not Bella herself prosecuting Charlie. That was how she'd met Leia Hendricks, a young prosecutor with the state of Washington. She was loud and pushy, and Rose loathed her on sight. Bella was a little afraid of her, to be honest, but she had the skills that it would take to fight Charlie.
When they got home, it was time for Edward and the others to leave for school. He brought her close and kissed her softly, promising he'd be home around three that afternoon.
Before she left, Rosalie slapped a small stack of papers on the dining table.
"Here's your English lesson for the day," she said, throwing a knowing smile at her newest sister. "Don't worry about any other subjects—I have a feeling this will keep you fairly well occupied."
"You don't have to do it right away," Esme said softly. "You had an early morning. How did it go?"
Bella shrugged. "Okay, I guess. Still waiting for results on the amniocentesis." She was a little sleepy, to be honest, and her mouth stumbled over the long, unfamiliar word. "I don't even really know what it's supposed to tell us, but Carlisle wanted to do it, so..."
"Baby, you can always ask Carlisle anything. He's happy to explain. In fact, you should have known fully what he was doing before you agreed to the procedure. Carlisle won't hurt you, but that's the sort of thing you can't be careless about."
Bella flushed. She knew Carlisle would explain things if she asked; she did. It was yet another coping mechanism she'd have to unlearn—asking Charlie questions often earned her a slap for her "smart mouth," or worse. She'd learned very quickly not to do it. Carlisle would never, never hurt her, but the instinct remained. "I knew what he was doing," she hedged, already fully aware that it wasn't enough.
"But you didn't know why. Bella, baby, standing up for yourself is very important. You've done it in some big ways—demanding the space from Edward you needed in Britain, having the courage to go through with these trials. Now, you need to learn to do it in smaller ways. No one in this family will hurt you, you know that, so we're a good, safe place to start."
Bella nodded. She knew she was safe here, with this family. Fear wasn't the problem. Complacency was. She trusted Carlisle to know what was best, medically, and felt no real need to question his judgment. It felt so nice to let go like that, to trust. To stop second-guessing every gesture, every word, as she did at school and with Charlie. To let her guard down. To rest. Yes, she understood Esme's point. This sort of rest, of blissful trust, wasn't something she could keep. It was a gift meant for children, and she was too old now to hold onto its sweetness. The fact that she hadn't had it as a child didn't matter—not really. She'd outgrown it, all the same. She needed to step up and be an adult now.
With that in mind, Bella settled herself at the dining table and pulled over the stack of papers from Rose.
"Are you sure you want to do that now?" Esme questioned. "You can rest. You should rest, probably. I know you didn't sleep well last night."
Bella shrugged. She was used to feeling bone-weary. One night of poor sleep wasn't going to kill her. "I'll be okay."
"Let me get you some breakfast, at least."
Bella bit her lip and looked up at the gentle mother-figure she'd taken fully into her heart. "I don't want to make work for you."
"Shh." Esme stepped close and kissed the top of her head. "I thought we were over this? You're part of this family, not a burden. If we offer, it means we really want to help."
"Okay." Bella's voice was small. "I just...it's a lot..."
"I know. Believe me, I know. You'll get there." Esme squeezed her shoulder before moving into the kitchen to put the kettle on.
When she was alone, Bella looked again at the packet of papers. The first three were poems that looked like they'd been photocopied out of books. The fourth was a piece of white paper on which Rosalie had scrawled the word WRITE with a fat-tipped marker. Below that were a few sheets of looseleaf. She fetched a pen from her bedroom before settling in to read the poems. Esme slid a mug of Earl Grey and a plate with a black pudding and some toast in front of her, then murmured something about being out back in the garden if she was needed.
The first poem told Bella exactly what Rosalie was trying to do.
Why My Mother Made Me
by Sharon Olds
Maybe I am what she always wanted,
my father as a woman,
maybe I am what she wanted to be
when she first saw him, tall and smart,
standing there in the college yard with the
hard male light of 1937
shining on his slicked hair. She wanted that
power. She wanted that size. She pulled and
pulled through him as if he were silky
bourbon taffy, she pulled and pulled and
pulled through his body till she drew me out,
sticky and gleaming, her life after her life.
Maybe I am the way I am
because she wanted exactly that,
wanted there to be a woman
a lot like her, but who would not hold back, so she
pressed herself, hard, against him,
pressed and pressed the clear soft
ball of herself like a stick of beaten cream
against his stained sour steel grater
until I came out the other side of his body,
a tall woman, stained, sour, sharp,
but with that milk at the center of my nature.
I lie here now as I once lay
in the crook of her arm, her creature,
and I feel her looking down into me the way
the maker of a sword gazes at his face
in the steel of the blade.
by Gloria Vando
When my father died, leaving me
distraught for never having known
him as father, as friend,
for never having known myself
as child of one whose eyes and mouth
and temperament were mine, my mother
cautioned me, told me not to mourn
what I perceived as loss: you and I
are daughters of the wind, she said,
you and I are fathers of our souls,
sprouting intact like seedlings
from two wind-borne acorns.
We thrive on luck, she said,
there is no father's love in that.
by Louise Gluck
Long ago, I was wounded. I lived
to revenge myself
against my father, not
for what he was—
for what I was: from the beginning of time,
in childhood, I thought
that pain meant
I was not loved.
It meant I loved.
by Louise Gluck
Late December: my father and I
are going to New York, to the circus.
He holds me
on his shoulders in the bitter wind:
scraps of white paper
blow over the railroad ties.
My father liked
to stand like this, to hold me
so he couldn't see me.
staring straight ahead
into the world my father saw;
I was learning
to absorb its emptiness,
the heavy snow
not falling, whirling around us.
Rosalie's beautiful scrawl stared up at her. WRITE.
Bella had refused therapy the handful of times her new family offered or Heidi suggested it. She didn't want to talk to some stranger, particularly since there were so many secrets she had to keep. No one could know about the true nature of the Cullens, and they were trying to keep her pregnancy secret as well. The fact that she'd been in their care for the months the state thought she was a runaway. There was just too much, and she didn't trust herself not to slip if someone started digging. Plus, what was the point of therapy if she had to keep secrets? So Rosalie, being Rosalie, decided to push her a little bit.
"Poetry as self-help?"she murmured, taking a sip of cooling tea. Her daughter kicked. "Really?" If she knew Rose, the writing exercise was only a secondary consideration. Really, Rosalie wanted her to think. To confront whatever she was feeling about her parents rather than hiding from it or pushing it aside. It was sweet that Rose was worried, but Bella honestly wasn't sure if she was ready to sit down and wrestle with all of that. She'd only been removed from Charlie's care two days ago, and she was still trying to settle into this new reality where he not only could not hurt her, he wasn't legally allowed anywhere near her. She didn't quite trust that he would give up just like that and neither did Edward, but the state police were making rounds just as the judge promised, and she didn't set foot outside the house without at least one Cullen beside her.
Bella stared at the pages of poetry scattered across the table. In her mind's eye, she watched Renee scrawl her name impatiently across the legal forms that severed them from each other permanently. At the time, she'd been too drained, both physically and emotionally, to really process how she felt. Now, looking back, she was better able to understand why that moment felt so anticlimactic in regard to Renee. Her mother's willingness to sign her over to the state, to give her away, hadn't hurt as much as she thought it might, because really, she'd abandoned her long before that. Every time she put her on a plane to Charlie even though she knew Bella desperately did not want to go. When she accused her of lying the one time Bella tried to tell her what Charlie did. When she didn't see—refused to see—that her teenage daughter was pregnant. All of it—it was all abandonment in some form. Her entire childhood had been a struggle, Renee pulling away as her daughter yearned to get closer, one retreating, the other struggling along in her wake. It hadn't felt like that at a time—not in any way she could articulate. But now?
It wasn't until she saw a drop of moisture fall to the page in front of her, smudging the ink, that Bella realized she was crying. She blinked, and another tear freed itself. Her chest felt tight, her throat constricted. She inhaled and held her breath hard, denying not the emotion, but its outward manifestation. She didn't cry. She didn't like to cry. What good did it do?
Esme's soft voice was like a physical caress. She stepped close behind Bella and her arms slowly slid around her tense body. Bella blinked against the tears and turned her head to the side, burying her face against Esme's sleeve. It felt cold from the chilly air outside.
This, Bella thought, reaching up with one hand to hold Esme to her. This was what a real mother did. This was what she'd been denied, growing up, and she craved it now even though she wasn't a little child anymore.
"Ohhh..." Esme held on tighter. She didn't hush the girl in her arms. She didn't tell her there was nothing to cry about. "I'm here," was all she said. "I'm here. You're not alone."
"Why?" Bella whispered into her sleeve. "Why did she do it?"
The question was so vague that Esme didn't have an answer. She simply held her newest daughter through whatever it was that was hurting her. The "she" was either Renee or Rosalie, Esme was fairly sure. "I'm here," she said again. "I'm here."
Bella struggled for long minutes, her body aching to cry, to rid itself of the tears she repressed. Esme wanted to urge her to let it out, but she wasn't sure pushing was a good idea. Bella had grown so much during her time in Britain but she was still Bella, and Bella did not like to let go. She held her emotions tightly in check until she couldn't anymore. It was something they'd have to work on, but Esme really didn't know if now was an appropriate time to push. She'd been through so much in the past few days.
"Why did she do it?" Bella asked once more. Her voice was a strangled whisper as she fought her tears. "Why did she even have me if she didn't want to be a mom? Or was it me? She didn't want to be my mom? What did I do wrong?"
That was it.
Esme shifted her arms and turned the chair around so she and Bella were face to face. She cupped her warm cheeks in her hands and tilted her face up gently, staring into wet brown eyes. "You did nothing wrong." She spoke as firmly as she dared. "You couldn't have done anything to change how Renee treated you, nor should you have had to. It's not a child's place to strive to be worthy of her parents' love. It's the parents' duty to give it, no matter what."
"No buts." Esme pulled out another chair and sat so she wasn't looking down at Bella anymore. "Baby, I don't know why Renee chose to have you. It could be that you were a surprise she wasn't expecting, or she thought a baby could fix the problems with her marriage. Unfortunately, a lot of women seem to think that, and it tends to end badly for all involved. Maybe she thought becoming a mother was something she was just supposed to do. Maybe your father talked her into it. Maybe she was lonely and wanted something to love. There are so many possible reasons, and I'm not sure we'll ever know for sure."
"She didn't love me," Bella whispered. She sniffled. Esme handed her a napkin in lieu of a tissue. "I thought she did. I assumed she did. But now I don't think so."
"Love is a complicated emotion." Esme squeezed Bella's knee. "I don't know if even Jasper can fully explain it. Remember what he said to you after the trial?"
"He said Renee loved me. Rosalie didn't believe him."
"Rose sometimes sees black and white where others find nuances of grey. I can't say whether Renee loves you or not. I don't know, and it's not my place to guess. I know you were starved for affection as a child, and I'm sorrier than I can express for that. You can have as much of it as you want now, I promise you."
"If she loved me, why did she give me away?"
"Well..."Esme hesitated, searching for the gentlest words. "You gave Mason away."
Bella's tense body grew still as stone. She huddled in her chair, hands on her legs, fingers digging into the denim of her jeans. "I don't love him." Her throat constricted as she swallowed. "But I wanted him to have a better life. He deserves love, and I can't give it."
"And maybe, maybe Renee feels something similar. Maybe she knows, deep down, that you deserve more than she's capable of giving. Maybe she feels that we can give you what she can't." She reached out and brushed a hand across Bella's tight fingers. "That's not the absence of love, baby. It's the presence of mercy."
A hiccuped sob left Bella's throat, and she clapped a hand over her mouth.
Despite her earlier reservations, Esme pushed her gently. "Let go," she urged. "Come here. Let go. You're safe. I won't let you fall apart."
To her surprise, Bella did. She let Esme hold her, and she cried. Her tears were angry, frustrated. They showed plainly the rift inside this girl, the hopelessness she felt at ever understanding why her parents had treated her so callously. She had a wealth of love now, from a family that adored her, but Esme knew that in itself could not fix wounds accumulated over a lifetime.
"I know you don't feel like you love Mason, but you did what you thought was best for him. You gave him a better chance at a happy life. Bella, what you have to understand is that you're an incredibly selfless person, and you're not prideful at all. Other people aren't like that. They don't think the way you do. Admitting that her marriage was a failure was probably incredibly difficult for Renee—wounding to her pride. She may well have felt that she couldn't admit failure with you, too, even when she saw the signs that your father was hurting you, or that you were pregnant. Failure is so frightening, especially when the stakes are your legacy."
Bella hugged her tighter. "But it's not fair."
"No, it certainly wasn't fair to you. None of it. And I don't want you to think I'm excusing her. I just know you want answers, sweetheart. I can't give them to you, not really, but I can offer speculation."
"I love you."
"I love you, too, Bella. Don't forget that."
"How could I?" There was a hesitant sort of smile in her voice. "You show me all the time."
"You're dear to us, and not just because you're dear to Edward. Or because of this little one." Esme drew away and rubbed Bella's stomach lightly.
"I'm going to make sure she gets held." Bella sounded firm; decided. "All the time. And cuddled. I want her to know—"
"Want her to know what, Bella?" Esme urged when she broke off.
Bella sniffled into her napkin and wiped her eyes on her sleeve. "That I love her," she whispered, wrapping her arms around her body and hugging herself tightly. "So much."
After Bella calmed down, Esme convinced her that she didn't have to actually write an essay about the poems Rose provided. They'd done their job without it; there was no sense in beleaguering the point. Instead, they baked banana bread together, then curled up on the couch to watch movies. Bella ate some of the sweet bread still warm from the oven and fell asleep halfway through the second movie, her head resting on Esme's shoulder.
When the rest of the Cullen "kids" came home, that's how they found them—Bella deeply asleep, curled against Esme's side, their mother serene. "She had a rough morning," she murmured, too low to disturb Bella's sleep.
Edward's eyes darkened. "Charlie—"
"No, he hasn't been around. She's just doing some soul-searching. It's good for her, though I'm sure it isn't pleasant." She glanced at Rosalie, who said nothing.
"She's okay?" Edward brushed his fingers over her warm cheek.
"Did she write?" Rose inquired.
"No. But she talked. That's good enough."
Edward winced; Esme could only assume he was reading her thoughts as she recalled the morning's difficult conversation. "I should have been here."
"You can't be here all the time," Esme reasoned. "We muddled through. I'm sure she'll be glad to see you, though. Do you want to wake her? If she sleeps too much now, she'll never get to sleep tonight."
Edward slid his arms around Bella as Esme relinquished her hold. He raised her slowly, his touch infinitely gentle. A soft sigh escaped her, and she snuggled into his shoulder. "Edward..."
"Hi." His smile lit his face. "Are you actually awake, or are you talking in your sleep?"
"Awake, I think." She slipped her arms around him. "Missed you."
"I missed you, too, sweet girl."
"Have you heard anything from Carlisle yet?"
"Not yet." Edward pressed his lips against her hair. "Are you feeling okay? None of the warning signs Carlisle said to watch for?"
"I'm fine," she said with a little yawn. "Just sleepy."
"How about we go upstairs for a while, and you can read while I finish my homework?"
"It takes you less than five minutes to do your homework," she grumbled, but she didn't protest as he bore her upstairs.
"Is she really okay, Esme?" Alice's delicate eyebrows drew together in a pout of worry.
Esme glanced at Jasper, who smiled. "She's fine. Nervous and anxious, but she trusts us. I don't blame her for feeling overwhelmed."
"What's she nervous about?" Emmett skidded down the stairs with Mason in his arms; Rose scowled at him. "The trial? Her new kid? Charlie? That Frank fucker?"
"All of the above, and probably more." Esme stood. She wanted to make something special for Bella's dinner tonight, and it needed time to slow-cook.
The sound of a car on the driveway cut Emmett off.
"It's that new lawyer." Alice wrinkled her nose. "I don't like—oh."
"Oh? What's oh?" Rose demanded as the sound of the car drew closer. A muffled laugh from Bella upstairs filtered to her ears. "Alice?"
"The DA's office doesn't think they have enough evidence to win the case," Alice whispered. "She's come to tell us they're not going to try Charlie."
A/N: Mwah! Loves you, duckies!