A/N This is a tiny little oneshot for sensecoalition's birthday. Happy birthday Tor, Billy Burke loves you and so do I.
It's stopped raining. The roads are slick; moonlight collecting in puddles on the highway. A speed trap at this time of night is a waste of time, but Charlie appreciates the quiet. He has the stereo turned down low, tuned to some station Renée would have sneered at as 'easy listening', and occasionally his radio crackles to life as Mary checks in with him.
His cruiser is old, long overdue for an upgrade that the town can't really afford. Charlie keeps it meticulously clean and the interior smells faintly of Armorall and the cold cup of coffee stashed in the console. It's just after 11:00, and he should really call it a night, but he's worried about tomorrow.
Tomorrow, when he'll drive to the airport to collect his daughter.
He was just as surprised as Renée when Bella decided to move to Forks. He'd have laid money on her never setting foot there again, after that last dreary summer when an overcast pall had settled over the peninsula and hadn't really lifted. Bella had made no secret of hating every day she was there, screwing her face up in distaste as she'd hunched in the rocking chair in her room, staring out the window at the unceasing rain.
So he'd conceded, because the last thing he ever wanted was to see her features twisted into the shape of Renée's disappointment, and Bella had never come back.
Renée remarried, not all that surprisingly, and Charlie thought it would hurt more than it did. She sent him an invitation on colorful, handmade paper, and he stared at it for a while before he threw it away. He didn't remember their own invitation, and hated that he'd lost details like that about their life together, so he dug around in the attic until he found an album. The invite was stiff, formal, nothing at all like Renée, and he realized he should have seen the signs even then. Above all he wants her to be happy. And he knows that's a ridiculous cliché, but it's been a long time now, and he's pretty sure he means it.
So the last thing he expected was Bella's call asking if she could come live with him. "I want to come, Dad," she said, in a way that sounded as if she'd been saying it a lot. Trying to convince herself more than anyone else. Charlie Swan is a terrible liar and he's glad that's one of the traits he passed on to his daughter.
He grilled Renée like a suspect, searching for any sign that she'd made Bella feel unwelcome, or that Phil wasn't treating her right. But when it came down to it, he could tell she was going to miss Bella as much as he had all these years, and so he registered Bella for high school, and went and bought her Billy's truck.
What else was he going to do? There was no way for him to say, I think you'll hate it here, Bells. Forks is many things, but it's not a town for teenagers. It's certainly not a town for Bella, as they proved so many summers ago. Meeting her in California has been easier, staying in clean, personality-free hotels with swimming pools and shuttles to Disneyland. He doesn't have to predict how much she might have changed since he saw her last; doesn't have to feel self-conscious about his house, and his town, and his choices.
He's proud of Forks, of the people of Forks, mostly. They can be small-minded, he knows that. He hates the way they judge the new doctor, who's been nothing but civil to Charlie and answers his pager any time of the day or night. He hates the way boredom pushes the young men of La Push towards alcohol and idiocy. But mostly people in Forks are warm-hearted, and civic-minded, and they look out for one another.
There was a moment when he could have left. A moment after Renée's blinding tantrum, her accusations flung like daggers. A moment before the nurse told him how long his mother had left to live. He'd sat in the hospital waiting room, his nostrils filled with the smell of disappointment and death, and he'd seen a brief glimpse of a life outside of this small town, with his wife smiling and his baby daughter growing up to be capable, and confident, and smart. At least some of it came true, even if he wasn't really a part of it. The cadence of his relationship with Renée was never smooth, a jarring rhythm of slamming doors and misunderstandings, and who's to say if that would ever have changed.
He thinks about Bella's room. It looks exactly the way it did when she used to visit as a child, complete with handprint turkeys and an ashtray made out of lumpy clay. Maybe he should pack those things away. Maybe she'll want posters of movie stars, musicians, on her wall now, or maybe Bella's above that sort of thing. Maybe she'll want art prints, or photos of her friends, her life in Phoenix.
They could paint. He could let her pick out a new color for her room, and they could stand side-by-side for a weekend in old clothes with rollers and brushes, the radio playing in the background. But then he thinks about the kitchen cabinets, still an optimistic yellow from Renée's last effort at brightening the house, and he learned the lesson then that paint will only disguise so much.
This is crazy, he thinks for the thousandth time. He doesn't know what a teenage girl wants or needs. He never knew what Renée wanted or needed, and he has the empty house to prove it. He should have asked Renée more questions. What's Bella's curfew? Is she allowed to date? Did Renée giver her 'the talk'? He feels hopelessly ill-equipped until he remembers his shotgun, and figures then that there's little about teenage boys he won't be able to handle. It'll be the rest of it that will be hard.
Billy thinks he'll be okay. Not that Charlie's expressed his fears out loud, but some time after a third can of beer last week Billy leaned forward in his chair and gave him a harmless punch on the arm. "I never thought I'd manage with the kids when Sarah died, but parenting's instinctive, Charlie. You're going to do fine." Charlie thought about the twins leaving when they were Bella's age, moving as far away as they could from a home suffocated by history and tragedy, and he held his tongue.
It will be a chance, at last, to take down Bella's school photos and replace them with new ones. To supplant the memories he has of a clumsy child with skinned knees and braids. Disgusted by the gory aftermath of fishing; quiet as a mouse. He has a photo of her all in pink, hair tight in a bun, and she doesn't look a thing like his Bells. Renée forced her into that tutu, and sent Charlie tapes of the recitals, and all Charlie could think was that she didn't look a thing like his little girl. Bella liked wearing jean shorts, and tucking up under the tree in the backyard with a novel, not pink tights and ribbons. He should get her a library card, he decides, because there's no bookstore in Forks.
Charlie knows his life has become a series of routines: ironing his uniforms on a Sunday night, a burger at the diner, watching the game with Billy. Routines that will be upended tomorrow when he becomes a father again.
He flips the visor down, looking at the picture of Bella he has tucked there. He took it last summer when she wasn't paying attention, sitting under a giant hotel umbrella reading her book. Her features are soft, lacking the insecure frown that she usually offers a camera. Like father, like daughter. Charlie keeps the picture with him because it's better than any medal or commendation. It's proof positive that he did a good thing; both bringing Bella into this world and letting her go.
Now he has a second chance, and he's determined not to blow it.
He flips the visor back and starts the engine.