A/N: Hi, duckies. I know, I know, I've been gone forever. Again. Those of you reading Wisp will know at least a little about why. I've been struggling with clinical depression and anxiety, and it got the better of me for a while there. Each day is like a new battle. Add to which, I got hurt at Twific Meetup (my first ambulance ride!) and I've been laid up with a dislocated knee. I can't promise weekly updates right now or anything like that, but I do promise to try my best to get chapters to y'all. Especially since we're so close to the end with this one! Relatively speaking, of course!

Sorry, but I don't write recaps. You can flip through past chapters if you need to.

All standard disclaimers apply.

As Children After Play

When she reached the diner, Bella was almost surprised to see Jasper there, leaning casually against the door of Emmett's jeep in the rain, waiting for her.


She shoved her hands into the kangaroo pocket of her hoodie as she approached him, relieved to see the sardonic smile hovering on his beautiful face. At least he wasn't angry. She was pretty sure Edward was going to be furious when he found out—if he didn't know already.

"Alice or Esme?" She came to a halt next to Jasper. The Jeep's engine clicked and popped as it cooled; he'd obviously been here mere minutes.

"Both, actually," he said, wiping rain-darkened hair from his face with a slow, silken movement. "So, what's the game plan, baby sister? I'm just playing bodyguard, I promise; you're the general here. But I have to ask...you're not gonna go all Oedipus on your old papa now, are you?"

Bella wrinkled her nose. "Oedipus is, by definition, a son, not a daughter."

Jasper shrugged lazily, his smile broadening. "So sue me for historical inaccuracy. There's no real allusion that fits your situation."

Bella actually managed a short laugh, despite her nerves. "You'd have to put a bunch of them in a blender. Dracula and some sort of poor orphan story..."

Jasper chuckled. "You're a literary mashup, little Bella. You're also in charge of this ruse. What shall I do?"

She bit her lip, looking at the door of the diner. Charlie was in there—she could feel the cold hulk of his police cruiser behind her and knew he was inside, having lunch, as he always was at this hour. Predictable Charlie.

"I can't live like this, Jasper," she said softly, looking up into understanding gold eyes. Jasper was the member of the family she'd connected least with, and yet she was glad of his presence. Bless Alice for sending her calm husband rather than one of the more temperamental siblings. Edward or Rose would likely hand her her head for risking herself like this, but they didn't understand. Not really. Not how it felt to live with the threat of Charlie looming over her every second. "I need it to stop."

"I don't think anyone could blame you for that. The calm before the storm is misnamed. It isn't calm at all—it's a silent hell." He swiped at his rain-soaked hair again.

"I wasn't planning on doing anything but provoking him." Bella stared at the door of the restaurant. She was starting to tremble, and was now fiercely glad that someone from the family was with her despite her earlier insistence on doing this alone. "I don't know what he'll do if he sees me, but I don't think he can control himself."

"So...maybe we just go in and order some food?" Jasper suggested. "Totally innocent-like. We'll get it to go, so we can wait right up by the counter where everyone inside will see."

That sounded good. Innocent, just as Jasper suggested. Technically, if an accidental meeting took place while she had her order of protection, Charlie was supposed to leave the vicinity immediately. She doubted he would.

"Ease the tremble, little sister." Jasper's voice was gentle, coaxing. She could easily imagine him talking to a spooked horse in the same tone, once upon a time. "Everything's gonna be okay. I won't let him hurt you."

"It has to look good, though," she whispered.

Jasper inclined his head in a quick nod. "Trust me, Bella. I'm not as fast as Edward, but I'm stronger, and smarter. You're safe with me." He scratched his chin. "Well, from Charlie, at least. All bets are off when Edward gets home."

Bella chuckled. "Edward would never hurt me."

"You're right. He wouldn't. But that doesn't mean he won't be mad." He tipped his head toward the diner, rain spilling from the eaves. "Shall we?"

She took a slow, deep breath, willing herself to follow his advice and ease her tense body, and managed to compose herself a little better. The fine tremble in her bones didn't quite disappear, but Jasper did not comment on it again. He simply slid into place at her side, eyes focused ahead, on their target. They gleamed gold, bright in the dull grey watercolor rain. Bella had no doubt that even from out here he could smell Charlie, feel him with his sixth sense. His body did not tense with nerves like hers, but she could feel the wary, coiled attention of a soldier in the way he held himself. To him, this was a mission. He was her bodyguard, tasked with the duty of keeping her safe. While she'd wanted to do this alone, now that she was actually here, just steps away from her father, she was slowly beginning to change her mind. A member of the family with her was a good idea, she decided. Just because Charlie had never hurt her in public before didn't mean he never would.

With one more breath, she stepped forward.

Time and space took on an odd quality; her focus sharpened, background blurring into a hazy wash. She could smell the bite of rain-slicked pavement so well, hot oil from the diner's ventilation system, hints of engine grease and gasoline. Her sneakers crunched gravel; Jasper, beside her, was silent.

In what seemed like the span of one human heartbeat, they were at the door. A round man about Charlie's age exited, holding the door behind him. Jasper caught, held it. Without giving herself time to reconsider, Bella stepped through.

There he was, in his accustomed seat at a booth that was meant for four—not that anyone ever challenged him for taking up too much space. The town didn't know the truth about Charlie, but they knew enough.

Jasper felt Bella's heart stutter, then speed rapidly, as she beheld her father for the first time since the family court hearing. He could feel her terror, but also her resolve. She needed to do this. The constant worry about what Charlie might do was making her sick, and that was unacceptable. Since she'd forbidden the rest of the family from taking care of Forks' chief of police for her, it was all in her hands now. He'd never let anything happen to his new sister, but as he'd told her, he was just the backup. This was her show.

And, though fear seeped from her in waves, tainting the air with a tangible bitter bite, her steps did not falter. She walked to the counter, placed a hand on it to steady herself, and even managed to force a smile at the waitress.

"Bella." Cora's voice wasn't loud, but neither was the diner busy. What little noise there was faded away as patrons looked up from their meals. Jasper could not hear their thoughts; that was Edward's department. He could guess, though, from their emotions. The few people in the diner were surprised to see her, since she'd sequestered herself in the Cullen house and refused to go into town. Gossip ran rampant in small towns, but Jasper's family did not take part, and Charlie had been angrily silent on the issue since losing custody of his daughter. So the surprise was expected, as was the rush of curiosity as people turned from the small teenager at the counter, seeking out their chief of police.

"We were just going to grab something to go." Jasper spoke into the silence, giving the waitress his best slow half smile. "Esme's been so busy today, we thought we'd give her a hand and bring home dinner." He purposefully pitched his voice to be heard throughout the small restaurant—resonant, but not booming. In his many long years walking this earth, he'd learned that he didn't need to shout to be heard.

Today proved to be no exception.

Jasper placed himself beside Bella in relation to the counter, but behind her in relation to her father. Charlie had a clear view of the girl, and Jasper stood ready to protect her as the uniformed man slowly raised his head.

He'd been eating a steak sandwich, and a smear of horseradish lingered along the bottom edge of his moustache. It didn't make him any less terrifying to the girl he'd fathered, as her heart raced even faster. Jasper wanted to put his hand out, to touch her elbow or wrist, remind her that he was still here, that he would protect her, but he didn't want to startle her.

He stayed where he was.

Charlie's black eyes glittered with malevolence, his face oddly devoid of expression as he stared at his daughter. The tension in the room ratcheted higher, tighter, and Jasper heard the breathing of the other patrons grow shallower as they, too, felt the strain. Bella was trembling again. The baby in her belly moved suddenly, perhaps in response to its mother's distress, and Jasper heard the movement even as he saw Bella's body jerk.

Seconds passed. Almost a minute. Charlie glared at his daughter, who managed to hold his gaze...but just barely. She hardly breathed, her breaths high and rapid as adrenaline seeped into her bloodstream and her heart thundered, much like the prey animals Jasper hunted. He braced himself against that mouthwatering scent, attention steady on Charlie. Charlie was a threat. This was battle, not a hunt. Later he could sate himself on something rough and wild—bear or wolf, perhaps. Right now, his duty was to keep Bella alive and intact.

Finally, Charlie spoke. "Get out." His voice was low; flat and dangerous. His dark eyes, so different from his daughter's, reflected nothing.

Bella flinched at the sound of his voice. She drew a rattling breath, but Jasper was proud as punch when she talked back to the source of her fear. "It's a f-free country," she said, only faltering a little. "I can be here if I want."

They were childish words, but she was standing up for herself.

"The hell it is!" Charlie's voice rose, rolling from him, though he wasn't quite shouting. Yet. "You get on out of here now, hear?"

"Actually, Chief, you can't tell her what to do anymore, remember? You lost custody of her. Now that's Esme and Carlisle's job."

A ripple of murmurs bled through the crowd at Jasper's words, just as he intended. Charlie's face grew red.

"I refuse to call that ungrateful whore my daughter!" Charlie's words grew louder, until he really was yelling. "But I'm still the chief of police, and what I say goes! You two get the fuck out of here—now!"

"The restraining order says y-you have to leave. Not me."

Compared to her father's voice, Bella was barely whispering, but the silent patrons definitely heard her. They gaped at the scene in front of them, mostly shocked at the revelations about their chief of police. Jasper hid a smug smile. The rumor mill would have a field day with this. Not that spreading gossip was Bella's intention, but still. Her fuckup of a father deserved it.

"And not even police chiefs are above the law," he added helpfully. "Shall I hold the door for you?"

Charlie moved incredibly fast for a man of his age. He was on his feet, sidearm drawn, and had fired off two shots before anyone in the diner managed to scream.

Jasper was faster...but he didn't expect the bullets to be aimed at him.

Bella was between him and the diner counter; he couldn't shove her out of the way. He managed to pick her up and push her unceremoniously over the counter, where she fell at a terrified Cora's feet, but even with his vampire reflexes it took time. The second bullet hissed harmlessly by, but the first ricocheted off his impenetrable skin and he heard a yelp and felt a burst of very physical pain from Bella before he was able to push her to safety.

Not good. Very not good.

"Help her!" he demanded of the waitress, and only barely managed to keep to something resembling human speed as he rushed Charlie. He wanted to demand someone call the cops, but they needed state police, not Forks police, and he didn't have time to explain that to the other humans in the diner, who either cowered under tables or lurched for the door. Maybe Alice had seen something, though her gift was notoriously unpredictable when it came to Bella. He could only hope as he knocked Charlie's gun from his hand, incidentally breaking several of the man's fragile bones in the process.

An accident, of course.

Charlie howled, whether in rage or pain, Jasper couldn't say. He was feeling a fair amount of both at the moment. He lunged for him with his bare hands, but Jasper was far too fast and too strong for the attack to have any effect. He batted Charlie away as one would swat a fly, and stood squarely between the irate man and the counter behind which Bella cowered. The police-issue sidearm lay under a chair, and he kept half an eye on it in case Charlie lunged for it. With part of his mind, he stretched toward the throbbing pain identifiable as Bella. She was rightfully scared, but her fear was coated with dazed relief—relief that the wait was finally over and, for better or worse, she had forced Charlie into action. Pain radiated from the outside of one thigh, but from the feel of it in his own head, Jasper could tell that the damage done was not life-threatening. The ricocheting bullet had ripped through flesh but missed the vital arteries keeping her alive. She was in no danger of bleeding out in the next few minutes.

If he could stop himself from biting her.

Cora was frozen where she stood—no help to Bella. "Call the hospital!" Jasper barked, struggling not to breathe. The rich scent of Bella's blood called to the beast in him. "Tell them Carlisle's needed here now!" He could control himself long enough for help to arrive, he told himself firmly. He had a job to do—to keep Charlie at bay until someone else took over.

Still, the full, sweet, tantalizing smell of blood lingered in the air, on his tongue. Fresh, hot blood. Human blood, his natural food source, which he had denied himself for decades. It whispered to the beast in him, only lightly chained, like salvation, like the key to making everything in his world right again. He swayed on his feet, just a little. Charlie would never see it, but Jasper could feel his resolve waver. He couldn't see the thick crimson flow, but he could picture it perfectly—how it would saturate Bella's jeans, turning soft blue denim black and sticky, hot with life. Life that could come to him, sustain him, if he just stopped fighting. She was just over the counter; it would be so, so easy...


The familiar sound of his other sister's voice was sweet relief, and he relaxed minutely as Rosalie stepped up beside him, blond hair immaculate, murder in her eyes.

"It's okay," she said. "I've got this." Dark, bloody glee rolled through her; Jasper shuddered at its intensity.

"Hey, baby sister. Don't cry. Big brother's got you." Emmett's voice, oddly soothing, floated from behind Jasper. He turned his head just enough to see Emmett rise from behind the counter, Bella cradled in his arms. She looked so small against his bulk, her face paper-white, one jean-clad leg soaked with blood.

Jasper glanced at Rosalie, who nodded him toward the door. Sweet relief: he could get away from the tempting scent of Bella's blood, and take his hunger out on something less...human. He turned to go, and heard Bella's voice, thick with pain but stronger than he expected. "Rose, don't. Don't."

Rosalie threw up her manicured hands. "Seriously? We're seriously still doing this? Even after he—"

"Rose, please."

Jasper couldn't stand it anymore. He slipped outside, just in time to see Carlisle's sleek black Mercedes slide into the parking lot.

"Go." His father-figure nodded him toward the woods and, relieved of his duty, Jasper ran.

Inside, only three humans remained—two patrons and Cora—aside from Bella and the police chief. Carlisle observed his eldest and youngest daughters locked in a silent battle of wills, Rose standing protectively between Bella and Charlie. Bella's biological father stood red-faced and wide-eyed, swaying slightly, staring at Rosalie as if he wasn't quite sure how dangerous she might be. One hand clutched his other in a way Carlisle knew well from working in the emergency room. That hand was broken. Whether Rose, Jasper, or someone else had done it, Carlisle couldn't guess, but he felt no sympathy for the man's pain.

Far more important than Charlie's broken hand was Bella's bleeding wound. Emmett showed excellent control as he held her, but that control could snap at any moment; they needed to get her away from any potential threat, and that included her vampire siblings as well as her biological father.

"Bella." He pitched his voice low, soft, to get her attention without frightening her. Her heart rate was dangerously rapid, her breaths fast and shallow. She wasn't getting enough oxygen, and she was in danger of passing out. "Bella, sweetheart, it's Carlisle. Come with me, please." He locked eyes with Emmett, who took a step toward the door.

"Don't." Bella swallowed hard. Her arms shook as she held onto Emmett. "Rose, please. Don't hurt him. He's not worth it."

Rosalie swore under her breath. Rebellion flared in her eyes, but Carlisle suspected she would obey Bella's wish when his own command might not hold sway. "Emmett," he said. "Emmett, bring her here. She needs medical attention."

Bella cast one last pleading look at her sister. Rose's furious scowl turned even darker, but she stomped one boot heel down hard on the linoleum floor and pulled out her cell phone. "I'm calling the state police, and this piece of shit isn't leaving until they take him away in handcuffs."

Carlisle left her to it, trusting her to hold her own against Charlie. He held the door open for Emmett, ushering him toward the Mercedes.

"I'll get it bloody," Bella objected, but Carlisle hushed her as Emmett gently placed her in the back seat.

"It doesn't matter," he said, firm but gentle, covering her with a blanket in case she went into shock. He elevated her legs by wadding up another blanket underneath them, and pressed Bella's own hands to her covered wound. "You're more important, sweetheart. Can you hold that there, please? Pressure will help stop the bleeding. Come on, let's go home."

Emmett disappeared back inside the diner, presumably to help Rose though she didn't need the assistance, and Carlisle pulled carefully out of the parking lot and onto the street.

"Talk to me, Bella," he said, shifting the rear view mirror so he could watch the prone girl in the back seat. "I need to make sure you're not going into shock. Humor me—what's your full name?"

"Isabella Marie S-swan." Her voice shook, but she answered correctly. Her eyes blinked slowly. "But I d-don't want to be a Swan anymore. Can I be a Cullen? I want to be a C-cullen."

Her words were slightly slurred; shock was a definite possibility. "Of course you can," he told her, speaking slightly louder than usual, slow and clear. "Take deep breaths for me, please, Bella. Good, deep breaths. When were you born?"

"S-september." She inhaled quickly, then put a hand to her head. "Ohhh..."

"Dizzy?" He pressed a little harder on the gas pedal. They were almost home. "Don't take your hand off the wound. Keep pressure on it."

She obediently returned her hand to her thigh, leaving a bloody handprint on the side of her face.

"You know that wasn't the smartest stunt to pull, right? You could have been killed."

"I'm not sorry," Bella said, in the first sign of belligerence Carlisle had ever seen from her. "I'm t-tired of being scared."

"Well, Charlie's likely being taken into custody by the state police as we speak. Was that what you wanted? Was that what you were trying to accomplish?" Carlisle did his best not to scold, but he honestly didn't understand exactly why she'd risked herself and the child she carried when the family would have been glad to help her think of a better plan. "He's going to lose his badge over this, at the very least."

"I just wanted it to s-stop." She was mumbling now, shaking harder. It was with a great deal of relief that Carlisle pulled into the long driveway that led to their house.

Edward, Esme, and Alice were waiting in the rain just outside the garage. As Carlisle killed the engine, Edward was already opening the back door and reaching in for his mate.

"Gentle," Carlisle said, though he hardly needed to remind Edward of Bella's fragile nature. Tender hands guided her body from the car, even as Edward's marble features were set in a furious frown.

"Will you please do me the courtesy of informing me first, the next time you try to get yourself killed?" Edward's harsh words were tempered by the fear in his voice. "God, what did he do to you? There's blood everywhere!"

They were in the spare room Carlisle had set up to monitor the health of Bella and her unborn baby without raising suspicion at the hospital, and Edward lowered her to the vinyl-covered examination table as Carlisle rooted in a drawer for scissors to cut away the leg of Bella's jeans. He moved the blanket to expose her legs, but kept it tucked close around her upper body. "Hold her hands, Edward," he said, working swiftly, cutting away the saturated denim to reveal pearl-pale skin and an ugly gash where a bullet had torn flesh without embedding itself inside her leg. She was extremely lucky. "Unless you think you can't handle it," he added, dousing the wound with sterile fluid. Bloody water ran in trickles over the new examination table and onto the floor.

"I can handle it." Edward spoke through clenched teeth, standing at Bella's head and holding both her hands. She whined, a high-pitched protest of pain, at Carlisle's ministrations.

"Don't come in if you can't handle the blood," Carlisle warned Esme and Alice, who hovered in the doorway. "Alice, I sent Jasper to hunt."

"Yes, I know." She stepped back. "I'll go find him and tell him not to come home for a little while."

"That might be best. He controlled himself admirably today, but there's no reason to tempt fate."

Edward snorted his opinion of this. Alice made a face at him, but her usual exuberant nature was subdued by the situation. She left, and Esme stepped into the room to take one of Bella's hands.

"M-mom." Bella shook. Cold vampire hands weren't ideal, but she needed something to hold onto. "I d-don't want to be a S-swan anymore."

"You don't have to be, baby." She stroked the blood-crusted hair. "Carlisle, can we clean her up?"

"Let me stitch this first." He prodded the wound, making Bella wince. It wasn't bleeding too much anymore, but it needed a doctor's care. "She's in shock—the important thing is to keep her warm and comfortable, and she needs intravenous fluids. I'm going to give her some extra oxygen, too. It can't hurt."

"What about the baby?"

Carlisle exhaled. "One thing at a time. Bella, this may pinch a little. I'm sorry for that." He worked quickly and efficiently, closing the wound in her leg. She jerked once at the first punch of the needle through her skin, but other than that remained still, save for the constant tremble in her limbs.

"Edward?" Her head turned, and she blinked flat, glassy eyes at her vampire mate. "I don't want to be a Swan anymore. I want to be a C-cullen."

A sharp bark of laughter left him, as if he couldn't help himself. "Marry me, then, Bella. Marry me, you impossible girl, and I'll make you a Cullen."

Carlisle wanted to warn Edward that she was in no position to make decisions like that right now, but he held off. Edward already knew, or ought to.

"I don't like fancy dresses." Bella tossed her head fretfully. "I just want to be a Cullen. Ow! Carlisle, that hurts."

"You can have some painkiller in your IV," he promised. "Just a moment."


Edward stroked her cheek as Carlisle probed the inside of her elbow for a good vein. She shivered, but nonetheless turned her face into his cold palm.

"Just a little prick now."

She sucked a breath through her teeth as the needle slid into her vein. Carlisle set up the IV while Esme stroked Bella's matted hair and Edward did his best to soothe her. "You don't have to wear a fancy dress. You don't have to do anything you don't want to do."

Bella's free hand reached for her stomach. "She's a Cullen," she said, stroking the swell of her abdomen with her thumb.

"Yes, she certainly is." Edward managed half a smile.

"So I should be, too."

"Bella, no one here is disagreeing with you." Carlisle leaned into her field of vision, watching as her flat eyes struggled to focus. Her voice, usually soft and retiring, sounded distinctly childlike as she struggled against the symptoms of shock. Confusion and difficulty concentrating were quite common; he wouldn't worry unless they continued after her heart and blood pressure settled. "If you want to marry Edward, you're welcome to do so. But let's deal with one thing at a time, shall we? I want you to breathe some oxygen for me, and Esme wants to clean you up a little and make you more comfortable."

Bella obeyed with her usual meekness, holding the mask of a portable oxygen unit to her mouth and nose while Carlisle placed a light dressing on her wound and Esme washed the dried blood from her hair and face with a soft towel and warm water. Edward exhaled a long, slow breath, his hands feathering lightly over her shoulders and throat, touching with the barest contact, feeling warm skin, a steady pulse; these things calmed him.

"I'm still furious," he told her, even as he helped Esme change her out of her bloody clothes and into warm, soft pajamas.

"I know." She sounded...calm. Matter-of-fact. As if she'd known all along that her choice would anger him, and yet she'd done it anyway.

"Later," Esme said firmly, and together they moved Bella, her IV, and the oxygen unit into her bedroom. "We can argue later. Right now, let's just make sure everyone's okay."

Bella drifted, her consciousness never really failing, but Carlisle couldn't say she was entirely lucid, either. She drained one bag of IV fluid laced with painkiller, and her body visibly relaxed when the drug hit her bloodstream. He hooked up a second bag and checked her blood pressure, his ears constantly listening to the sound of her heart. It calmed slowly but steadily, and as her pain eased she also began breathing more deeply, helping to re-oxygenate her body. Edward held the oxygen mask for her when her grip faltered, and the three vampires watched as her cheeks slowly regained something approximating a normal color.

Edward's hands were gentle on her skin. "Carlisle, the baby?"

"I can't say this was good for it per se, but you can hear its heart as well as I can." The fetal heartbeat had risen for a short while, but it was back to its normal, steady pace. Its strength had not faltered. "We can do another sonogram if you're concerned, but I don't think it will tell us much."

"Please." The pain and fear in Edward's voice was too much for Carlisle to resist, so, though he didn't think it was necessary, he hooked up the brand-new portable machine that had been delivered only a week before.

Bella nodded her assent when roused enough to understand what they wanted to do, and she watched along with her family as the fuzzy grey picture appeared on the screen.

"There, see?" Carlisle pointed for Bella's benefit; Edward needed no such explanation. "Here's that nice strong heartbeat you're listening to."

"She's moving." Bella's voice was rich with contentment. "I can feel and see her."

"And she's relying on you to keep her moving," Edward said, though he knew now wasn't the time for recriminations. Not while she was slowly coming out of shock. "You have to be careful, and not take chances."

"Ch-charlie was hurting her because I was always afraid. I won't let him hurt her, so I did what I had to do."

It sounded so simple when she said it.

Later that evening, the family converged on the living room to discuss the events of the day. The house had been well-aired so the scent of blood no longer lingered, and everyone, including Bella, had washed thoroughly. She wore warm pajamas and was wrapped in a blanket, reclined on the couch with her legs still elevated, as per Carlisle's directive, and she had a tray on her lap with a bowl of soup and a mug of tea.

"You didn't kill him, did you?"

Rosalie rolled her eyes at her newest sister. "No," she said, "even though he fucking deserved it." She bounced a whiny Mason on her lap—it was past his bedtime, but he was cutting another tooth and the pain kept him up all hours of the night. How a human woman who needed to sleep was supposed to deal with this, Rose didn't know. She didn't mind bouncing her cranky boy as he chewed on a cold teething ring from the refrigerator, but surely a human mother didn't have the same sort of stamina?

"Bella, why did you do it?" Edward broke the ice, asking the question that had been on everyone's mind. "Why didn't you tell us this was bothering you so much? We could have helped you." The hurt in his voice was palpable.

She frowned, searching for the words to explain how she felt and why she'd acted alone. It wasn't easy to describe how Charlie made her feel, and how positive she'd been that this was the only way to handle him. "Well, for one, I knew you'd try to talk me out of anything that put me near Charlie."

"You're damn right I would have!" Edward tugged at his hair with a violence he would never, ever use on anyone else. "Your safety is important to me, but you're also carrying our child, Bella! She needs us to protect her!"

"I was protecting her." Bella's lip quivered, and she held back angry tears. "The stress—it's bad for her, and I was scared to death that me being afraid of Charlie was hurting her."

"But that still doesn't explain why you didn't come to us first!"

"Because Charlie is my problem—not yours." Bella pushed away the tray of food, her stomach tightening into a sick, anxious knot.

"We're seriously back to that?" Rosalie snapped. "How many times do we have to tell you—"

"You can't fight all my battles for me!" Bella shot back, sharper than she'd ever spoken to her before. "I get that as a family we help each other, but if I'm always asking for help, I'll never learn how to stand on my own." Her lip quivered, and she pressed her mouth together firmly to stop it. She wasn't going to cry. There was nothing to cry about. "I'm sorry if you don't understand. I wish I could explain it better—I do. But...we tried doing things the right way, through the legal system, and it didn't work out. I know you'd do whatever I asked; you'd take me away, make me disappear. As much as I want that—and I do, so badly—it's not right. I can't just leave things hanging." She drew in a deep breath. "Charlie needs to pay, and he wasn't going to. But they can't ignore what he did today."

Edward opened his mouth to argue, but Esme put a gentle hand on his shoulder. "I think arguing about what should have been done is pointless. What's done is done. What I'd like to know now is what we're going to do about it."

"Meaning?" Rosalie caught the cold teething ring just as Mason attempted to throw it.

"The state police called Carlisle just before Jasper and Alice came back. Everyone involved has to give statements tomorrow, and I'd like to be sure those statements don't get anyone in trouble." She glanced significantly at Rosalie and Jasper.

"Charlie was aiming for me." Jasper's bright gold eyes gleamed, fresh from a hunt. "Bella got caught by a ricochet. That would cause some questions if we told the truth. Thankfully, I don't think Charlie's in any position to argue the point. I'm not sure the police are going to care which of us he was trying to shoot, only that he did so without any sort of reason. I did provoke him a little by mouthing off, and Bella tried to, too." He grinned at his human sister, who smiled shyly back. "But a little verbal joke is no reason to pull a gun, let alone fire it."

They sat up late into the night, going over their stories, until everyone, even Bella, could tell the approved version with something resembling authenticity. Heidi called around eleven, promising that she would be at the station the next day. Soon after midnight, Edward carried Bella upstairs despite her protests that she was still capable of walking. Carlisle was on his side for once, and he wasn't going to waste the opportunity.

"I'm sorry I worried you," Bella said when they were alone in her bedroom, the door closed firmly behind them. She felt the luxurious comfort of rich pillows at her back as Edward put her gently down on her bed.

His golden eyes were troubled, but they met hers without a struggle. "You're in charge." His voice was a soft, velvet buzz, just above a whisper. The yearning ache in it twisted her insides. "I know that. But please, please don't do something like that to me again."

"I love you." She reached for him, cradling his icy cheek in her palm. "So much. I don't know how to explain why I felt I had to do it." She bit down on her lower lip, pain churning in her stomach as she saw the hurt she'd caused him written plainly across his beautiful face. "Maybe it's something you vampires can't understand. You're so strong. You don't know what it feels like to be helpless."

"Yes, I do." He tilted his head into her touch, soft lips brushing the heel of her hand. "I felt it today—when Alice called and told me you'd gone to find Charlie on your own. I wanted to follow you, to protect you, but she said to go home and wait instead. You have no idea how agonizing that wait was, Bella. Not knowing what was going on, if you were hurt. I knew I couldn't stop myself from killing Charlie if I went to help you, and I think Alice knew, too, which is why she told me to go home. Please, Bella."

Unable to stand the hurt in his voice any longer, Bella shifted and leaned forward, slipping her arms around him and holding him tightly. The stitches in her leg pulled painfully, but she ignored it. This other pain was worse. "I'm sorry," she whispered into the fold of his collar. "I'm sorry."

"Just...I don't understand why you couldn't talk to me and tell me how scared you were." His arms slowly slid around her, pulling her to him as tightly as he dared. "I know I've messed up a lot, but—"

"No," Bella said, pressing closer. "It wasn't you. I don't know if I can explain it. I'm just so afraid, and so tired of being afraid, and so frustrated that I can't do anything for myself. So many rules about what I can and can't say, so many secrets to keep. And...I love you, Edward, I really do. All of you. More than I can express. But I don't want to be waited on hand and foot. It makes me really uncomfortable to have to ask for things. This was something I thought I could do myself." She sighed. "Guess I was wrong. If Alice hadn't sent Jasper..."

Edward shuddered. "Don't." His voice was tight, and he squeezed her a little harder. "Don't finish that thought."


He kissed the top of her head. "We'll figure this out, I promise. We'll do our best to make sure Charlie can't touch you, but you can have at least a little more freedom. Who knows? Today didn't go as you'd planned, but maybe it still worked. Maybe he'll be remanded without bail, and you can relax until the trial. There will be a trial now—you accomplished that much."

Yes, she had. But even so, Bella was afraid things wouldn't be as easy as Edward said.

Love you, duckies!