Obviously, I didn't PLAN for this to take so long. For some reason, I just got a huge dose of writer's block.

Thank you for sticking with me. Here's a reminder of what happened in the previous chapter:

After Bella was kidnapped by James and Victoria, rescued and nearly eaten by Edward, and subsequently saved Edward from a nasty car bomb planted by you-now-who, the group headed over to Edward's apartment for a debriefing. They discuss James' obsession with Bella and Victoria's interesting non-interest in James' little hobbies. Finally, Edward does a better job with his "I love you" declaration. Bella is hesitant, torn between wanting to accept what he offers and her fear of hurting him because she isn't emotionally ready. OK, all caught up? :-)

Disclaimer: All publicly recognizable characters, settings, etc. are the property of their respective owners. The original characters and plot are the property of the author. The author is in no way associated with the owners, creators, or producers of any media franchise. No copyright infringement is intended.

CHAPTER 13: Teamwork

Bella sat hunched over her desk in the grad student office, frowning at the student paper covered in blue ink corrections.

"Good morning," greeted Manoj, immediately to her right. She jumped in her seat. "Sorry."

"Jeez," she squeaked. "I didn't hear you!"

"Occupied with thoughts of someone?" he teased.

Bella rolled her eyes, a wry smile escaping. Lately, Manoj had a disturbingly one-track mind. The disturbing part was that he was frequently right.

"Why do you think that?" She wasn't that obvious, was she?

"It doesn't take twenty minutes to correct the first page of that paper, no matter how bad it is."

She sighed, and looked up at her friend. His grin stood out sharply against his café-au-lait skin, his dark eyes sympathetic.

More than any of her friends, Manoj was the one with whom she could discuss how she felt. Jasper could discern her emotions, but Manoj understood them. Perhaps talking with him would help her sort out her tangle.

"He is in love with you."

"I know. He told me."

Manoj's eyes widened, and he plopped himself into the chair next to her. "Oookay. Start at the beginning."

Bella told him everything, as much as she could remember, leaving out the parts about Edward being a vampire. When she finished, Manoj somehow managed to look serious and excited at the same time. He leaned back and peaked his index fingers thoughtfully

"So, to summarize, you were half out of your mind with drugs and sleep, and he cleverly chose that moment to tell you how he felt about you. He believes for some reason that he is dangerous to you, which could be true if this James is connected to him somehow. It also sounds as if he would walk through fire for you and expect nothing in return."

Bella began to feel uncomfortable. Manoj could see right through to her heart, and now he was studying her intently. "He seems to think that there will be no one else for him, and he is willing to wait. Do you believe him?"

She nodded slowly. "Yes."

"And this makes you feel guilty because…?"

Yeah, Manoj got her. "Because I'm still…numb, but I really don't want to hurt him. I don't want to use him and his love for me. I feel like I'm reaching out and grasping him as a sort of…life preserver."

"A life preserver for your soul," murmured her friend thoughtfully. "Listen Bella. You are a warm, giving person capable of great love."

Bella grimaced, causing Manoj to shake his head. "I mean it. You've built this shell around yourself to protect your tender heart, layer by layer. You'd been taking care of your parents and your cousin, and then watched them all die. I've been here with you, remember? Nenad and I helped half-carry your father out of the car for your mother's funeral. You've been living on a knife edge waiting for the next bad thing to happen. Even that jerk you dated took more from you than he ever gave. It's time to live the life you want. But you can't do that until you let go of this idea that you exist only for others. It prevents you from really feeling."

Bella had propped her elbows on her desk, her head in her hands. She rubbed her forehead tiredly. Manoj was right, of course. Hadn't Angela essentially told her the same thing?

Her friend leaned toward her and grabbed her right hand. His expression became more intent. "Remember that palm reading I did for you? Your love line curves up, but there is a fork." He touched her palm lightly, under her index finger. "This indicates a dilemma between your passionate nature and a need to control your emotions. And these…" He tipped her hand to reveal the edge of her palm, pointing out two small fine lines and one very heavy one above them. "These are marriage lines. The bottom one was your first crush, the second is probably Mike, but this one…" He tapped the heavy line triumphantly with his index finger, a huge grin splitting his face. "Is Edward. He's the one for you."

Bella grimaced as Manoj smugly settled back in his chair. Clearly he and Alice had a lot in common.

"So how do you feel about Edward?" Ah, this was the Manoj she knew. Let the analysis begin! She needed this, though.

"It's hard to put into words," she began slowly. "I feel so secure with him. It's like he shelters me from my demons."

Manoj nodded wisely. "Let him." He grinned mischievously. "Definitely not a father figure, though."

Stupid blushing! "No."

"You've been living with him for almost a week now. How has that been going? How are things with him physically? Have you two done anything?"


Her Indian friend's grin widened. "So you have?"

"Not much," she whispered, giving in.

"Whoo-hoo-HOO!" chortled her friend. "Kissing? No intercourse yet."

"Intercourse? No!"

"How does he compare to your former boyfriend?"

Bella smiled slightly, certain that her face was now the color of a ripe strawberry. "No comparison. Mike is so far behind Edward that he isn't even in view."

A mischievous light lit her friend's dark eyes. "So you want to have sex with him? Pursue a…um…deeper relationship?"

Bella cringed at the pun. There was a definite reason he asked her this, and although she knew the question was coming, it was still a shock. It was one that she'd shied away from asking herself. With Manoj she felt oddly comfortable talking about these things, probably because he was always non-judgmental and sympathetic. He also had a way of helping her see the truth.

Did she? Yes, she admitted to herself honestly, I do. That's totally unlike me. I'm usually so hesitant to take the next step in relationships…ANY relationships. And here she was, leaping head-first into one with a vampire!

As her mother so often told her, with no outstanding good looks or talents, her purpose in this life was to serve others. What she herself wanted didn't matter as much. Until recently, she had done that faithfully. But somehow, with Edward…gah! What was she thinking?

"Does she want to have sex with whom?"

Carissa glided gracefully into the office, slinging her designer book bag on the back of her chair. She and Bella had reached a new level of understanding and respect after the kidnapping incident. They still weren't buddy-buddy or anything like that yet, but they formed a thin but strong bond that didn't exist earlier.

"Who do you think?" teased Manoj.

Carissa shrugged an elegant shoulder. "It could be one of several. There's that hot actor in that new comic book hero movie, for instance. He's on my list."

"No way!"

"How would you know, Manu? You're not a woman! Unless, of course, there is something you're not telling us? Should we be contacting your fiancée?"

Carissa turned to Bella, a twinkle in her beautifully-shadowed hazel eyes. "By the way, I saw your Prince Charming exiting his silver coach. He's probably on his way up."

Sure enough, a couple of minutes later Edward appeared in the doorway, bearing gifts. Domen, who had just finished teaching his class, arrived right on his heels.

"Hot damn, he brought subs! Is that chicken parmesan?"

Manoj chuckled. "Down, Domen!"

"Edward," grinned Carissa, "You just earned double bonus points. Any friend of Bella's who brings us food is a friend of ours. I don't suppose there's a veggie there?"

He handed over the white-wrapped packet of deliciousness, winking at Bella when she whispered, "Alice!"

They all munched and chatted for a while. Well, Edward only chatted, leaning casually against Bella's desk while she sat eating in her chair. Every so often his arm brushed her shoulder, sending tingles throughout her whole body. Judging by the glances he cast down at her, he knew exactly the effect he had on her. Damn vampire super senses.

"So," teased Edward later as they made their way down the winding stairwell, "Were you also talking about the hot actor in the latest comic book hero movie?"

Bella groaned. "Tell me you didn't overhear that conversation."

"I didn't overhear that conversation," he responded solemnly. His golden eyes danced with mischief. "Something you want to confide, Miss Swan?"

"Incorrigible brat," she mock-growled at him.

"True," he conceded. "But I'm your incorrigible brat."

"Make that cheesy incorrigible brat!"

She successfully had him distracted from the "hot actor" interrogation. On the other hand, Bella worried about how much he knew about her conversation with Manoj.

"So…how much did you hear?"

Edward looked down sharply at the petite woman walking beside him. They were in the parking lot now, almost to his car. What didn't she want him to overhear? He caught her gently by the elbow and stepped directly in front of her.

"I heard only from the point when Carissa arrived in the office."

"And thoughts?"

Drat, she'd caught him. Honesty, Cullen. He sighed. "I started listening for Manoj's thoughts when I reached your building. He was asking you about your physical relationship with me."

Bella was staring at the front of his hoodie. "I really wish you wouldn't keep doing that. It's intrusive, worse than eavesdropping."

When she finally looked up, he met her annoyed gaze. Uh-oh. "It's not something that I can turn on and off."

"You can still get out of people's heads and focus on something else."

Edward sighed. She was right, of course. "I was checking to see if you were in the grad office, and if everything was OK. With James and Victoria at large, I worry about you. I want to keep you safe." He couldn't resist tracing his index finger down the soft line of her jaw. Her skin felt wonderfully warm and alive under his touch.

"You're the most important thing in the world to me, Isabella. I'm sorry for invading the privacy of you and Manoj."

The love of his life huffed, but her beautiful brown eyes softened. Capturing his hand in hers, she tugged him toward his silver Volvo.

'Come on, Dr. Nosy. You're supposed to be driving me to work."

Edward knew how much Bella loved working at the Literacy Center. She taught two small adult classes, and tutored children in reading and writing. What's more, he loved watching her animated face when she told him about little Abby reading an entire children's book out loud, or Mr. Tseng being offered the job for the application she helped him fill out.

The Literacy Center was unusually noisy today. From what Edward could gather from the minds of the two older ladies carefully packing ESL books into boxes, the Center was in the process of moving.

"Excuse us. Coming through!" Edward and Bella backed up a few steps to allow two young men struggling with a heavy metal desk to pass.

Seeing the question on his face, Bella explained, "We're moving to another building, closer to our clientele. This place is rather remote."

Edward nodded. Yes, it was remote. The place was really just a one-storey warehouse with a basement, where they were now.

Normally Edward would skulk outside the building, waiting for Bella to finish her tutoring sessions. However, today he had an excuse to stay inside and surreptitiously observe his mate. After all, it would be ungentlemanly to not offer his assistance with the moving, right?

The next couple of hours were spent listening to multiple humans' random thoughts, pretending to struggle with feather-light objects, and sneaking peeks at Bella. At one point the thirteen-year-old boy she was tutoring whispered,

"Do you know that guy over there? He keeps looking at you."

Bella leaned a little closer to the boy. "The one with the crazy red hair? Yes, I do."

"Do you like him?"

"Uh-huh." She turned her chocolate eyes toward Edward and winked. Bella winked?

"Is he your boyfriend?"

Edward cocked a teasing eyebrow at her, wondering how she'd respond. He heard her heart speed up, but she answered calmly, "Yes, he is."

Her soft smile almost made his dead heart speed up. The boy nodded sagely. "I thought so. He has that dopey 'in love' look on his face."

Dopey "in love" look? Seriously? Bella chuckled at Edward's mildly disgusted expression.

"I think it's cute," she teased under her breath. Clearly she knew he'd hear her. He merely rolled his eyes and turned suddenly to catch a box out of one of the teetering elderly ladies' hands.

"Thank you, dear," she gasped. "My, aren't you quick!"

Edward had just finished loading the last desk into the truck when his cell phone rang. He noted the Children's Hospital prefix.

"Edward? Hey, it's Seth. We really need a favor from you."

Seth was an R2, young, enthusiastic and exceptionally good with children.

"I owe you one for standing in for me the other night," smiled Edward. "What is it?"

"We have a seven-year-old hearing-impaired boy here. Nasty two-car collision - some idiot ran a red light and hit his vehicle. He was in his booster seat in the back, and made it out with distal radioulnar fractures in both arms. The CT shows a mild spleen laceration as well. He was lucky. Unfortunately, our ASL people are either out sick or unreachable, and a couple of nurses here only know very basic sign language. That's how we got his age."

Understanding dawned. "The boy can't sign back. I don't know ASL, but you're hoping I'll be able to help somehow."

"Right. You seem to have a gift for communicating with kids. Poor little guy came in making sounds like a small frightened animal."

Edward felt Bella's warmth at his elbow.

"I can help," she murmured. "You listen to him, and I sign to him."

Edward's eyebrows shot up. "You speak ASL?" This woman never ceased to amaze him.

Bella grinned. "Fluently."

"Edward? Are you there?"

"Yes. One moment. We may have a solution." He covered the microphone and leaned down to Bella. "How long do you need?"

"My last tutee is in twenty minutes, but one of the others can help her. We can go right away."

Smiling, Edward uncovered the microphone. "Seth? We'll be there in under thirty minutes."

"We? Who's we?"

"'We' is Bella and me." He met Bella's amused gaze.

"Bella? You mean…?"

"My girlfriend," he responded with a wink at the woman next to him. As expected, her cheeks took on a lovely pink hue. "See you in a few, Seth."

A few minutes later, Edward was opening the passenger door of his car. He couldn't resist giving Bella a quick kiss before she got in. "Thank you!"

The love of his life giggled. "Not that I'm complaining, but I didn't do anything yet!"

"Well," he teased, "Then you'll just have to give it back to me until you do."

Bella's eyes lit up at his playful tone, and she reached up to kiss him back. The little cloud of happiness he floated on, ever since Bella declared him her boyfriend, rose just a bit higher.

It seemed that in no time at all they were in the hospital and had Bella's temporary ID badge made. Although he wasn't officially on duty yet, Edward donned his white coat so that they wouldn't be questioned by the staff.

A young Native American man in scrubs and a lab coat met them at the sliding glass doors to the ED. His face lit with a wide toothy grin. "Edward! Thanks for coming on such short notice."

Edward quickly introduced him as Seth Clearwater, fellow resident, one year ahead of himself. "Seth, this is Bella Swan."

Seth's grin widened even further. "So you're the one who this guy here can't get out of his mind," he remarked teasingly, jerking his thumb in Edward's direction. "It's a pleasure to meet you at last."

Bella immediately liked Seth. He had an open, easy-going personality and, judging by his manner as he quickly conveyed the details of the case to Edward, he loved his work.

"The patient is in 203," Seth continued as they moved past multiple rooms with soothing light green or blue privacy curtains. Most of the curtains were open. Bella breathed in the familiar scent of antiseptic and latex, finding it oddly calming. All around her were the sounds of beeping equipment, a child crying, murmured voices, the rustle of staff moving quickly.

"The driver of the car, Michael Brown, was airlifted, unconscious, to Northwest. They're trying to contact his sister, but so far she hasn't responded. We have no idea how the child is connected to the driver. One of the nurses tried the sign for 'father,' but the little guy just stared at her."

They stopped in front of a room decorated in soft green leaves and birds. Propped up in the bed was a small African-American boy, clutching a well-loved bear of indeterminate color. He looked so small and afraid, dwarfed by the white bed and equipment surrounding him. Both arms were splinted and wrapped in bright blue tape.

Without even thinking, Bella smiled and waved. "Hi," she greeted him as she signed. "I'm Bella." She used the ASL name with which one of her friends gifted her – the letter "B" imprinted on a variation of "kind spirit."

The child's dark eyes widened before shifting to Edward.

Drat, what's Edward's name? Oh, I know. With a mischievous grin, Bella pointed to the man next to her, and made an "E." She then shook it near the side of her head before dropping it into an "M" on her palm. "This is Edward, the doctor with the crazy hair."

Seth chuckled at the expression on Edward's face. "Oh, you have your hands full with her, Buddy. I need to check on another patient, so I'll leave you two with this young man here. Please let me know if you find anything."

Thank goodness, thought Bella. Now we can finally talk! Edward was waving at the little boy with a close-lipped, unvampire-like smile, which the child tentatively returned.

"He's envisioning a young black woman with short hair, doing this…" Edward made a letter "D" with his right hand and made a short series of signs with both arms.

Bella nodded, watching the boy's eyes widening. "She is saying 'I love you,' along with his name. It must begin with a 'D'." Turning to the astonished child, she signed, "Can you spell your name?"

Edward's eyebrows lifted slightly. "He knows I can see what is in his mind. This is amazing! He is extremely visual, and is deliberately making images for me. His name is…"

Bella copied the letters Edward made. "Devin? Is your name…D..E..V..I..N?" When Devin nodded, she asked, "Can you spell your last name?"

As the little boy concentrated on spelling 'Williams," Bella noted that he painfully tried to finger-spell as well. She focused on the fingers, knowing that Edward would be able to repeat Devin's thoughts if she missed anything.

"We'll need to be able to do this somehow," she explained, shooting her friend…boyfriend…a teasing look.

"You don't think the mind-reading thing would go over well?" responded Edward ironically.

"Um…not so much."

After a few more minutes of questions and reassurances, they could both tell that little Devin was exhausted. Edward left them briefly to relay the child's information to Seth, quickly returning with the news that Devin's mother was on her way. He found Bella gently stroking the boy's curly head as his eyes drooped closed, one of her fingers held tightly in his right hand, the teddy still in his left.

"The pain meds in his IV are taking effect," observed Edward softly. He and Bella exchanged smiles. They both watched the child for a moment, listening to the quiet beep and hum of the instruments, and the activity outside of the partially closed green and white curtain behind them.

"You're very good with children," Edward commented. "I can envision you with a couple of little dark-haired chocolate-eyed ones of your own."

Bella caught the wistful tone in her friend's voice and looked up at him sharply. "I could say the same for you, but with crazy red hair and…" She hesitated.

"Green," he supplied. "My eyes used to be green." He fixed his gaze on the chart in his hand. "Children are not a possibility for me, of course."

In spite of his matter-of-fact tone, Bella wasn't fooled. Oh drat, he's going all melancholy. Probably thinking about how he can't be

human for me again. Doesn't he realize all the things he can give me? Maybe this bet wasn't a good idea after all – it just made him internalize his concerns instead of getting them out in the open.

"They're not a possibility for me, either." When Edward looked up at her with a small frown, she added, "Scar tissue. And before you ask, surgery is not an option."

It looked like he wanted to tell her he was sorry, but held his tongue. Smart move, Cullen, she thought wryly.

"On the bright side, we can both help children in ways that many others can't."

Edward smiled and shook his head. "You really are amazing, Bella."


Bella was reluctant to leave Devin, so, after a few words with Seth, Edward went to check in. Soon, a nurse brought a frantic-looking young African-American woman to the room. It was clear that she came immediately from work – she still wore her uniform.

The next few minutes were spent fielding effuse gratitude and explanations of "what happened." With a final squeeze of Devin's hand, Bella slipped out of the room when the nurse distracted Devin's mother with a clipboard and paperwork.

Bella found Edward waiting for her outside the ER doors. He smirked, eyes dancing, as he held up his hand for a high five. Grinning, she unhesitatingly smacked the vampire's palm.

"Ready to go?" he asked. "I'll walk you to Alice's car."

On their way through the Giraffe Parking Garage, they discussed Devin. "He should recover quite quickly, although I'm not certain about his mother's cousin, the driver of the car. From what Seth indicated, he should be OK though."

Bella nodded, still absorbing their time with Devin. The trusting, incredulous expression on that little boy's face would stay with her forever. She hoped he wouldn't regale his mother with tales of mind-reading.

Edward suddenly laced his cool fingers with hers, the familiar tingle distracting her. "Where did you go?" he asked softly, looking down at her with that crooked smile of his. "His mother will think that he was imagining things," he assured her. "Alice already checked."

Bella rolled her eyes. Damn gifted vampires. For a guy who couldn't read her mind, though, he was pretty good at working out what she was thinking.

They walked in companionable silence, the only sounds the gentle slap of Bella's ballet flats on the concrete pavement, and the occasional growl and squeak of cars navigating the four levels of the garage. Catching sight of Alice waving a couple of rows away, Bella felt a flood of disappointment. Although happy to see her friend, it meant that her time with Edward was ending.

Edward heard her unconscious sigh, and gently squeezed the warm hand captured in his cold one. Every time she walked away from him, he felt as if a small piece of himself went with her. Yeah, just what she wants, Cullen. Little pieces of a walking corpse. Maybe you can offer her part of a pancreas or something this time.

They were now a couple of cars away from Alice. Edward stopped and turned to her, still not relinquishing her hand. "Thank you for coming with me, Bella. I couldn't have done that alone."

She nodded. "Aside from being able to help Devin, the best part was being able to help you. You're so much more…" She paused, hunting for the right word. "Well, just more. This time, we were equals for once."

Edward's eyebrows drew together as he gazed down at the woman in front of him. "You still don't see yourself clearly, do you?" Before Bella could protest, he grinned. "Does this mean I win the bet?"

"What? No! I did not directly put myself down, Cullen!"

Without warning, he grasped her waist with both hands, picked her up, and kissed her quickly on her indignant mouth. "Cheater," he whispered, smiling against her lips. "And now I've directly lifted you up!"

Bella grasped his shoulders tightly, even though her logical self knew he would never drop her. "Such a corny sense of humor, too!"

"Return my best friend to the pavement, Cornward," protested Alice, "And get back to work."

Edward rolled his eyes, but obligingly set his handful on her feet. "Thank you again."

Bella surprised him by quickly kissing him back. "I'll see you in the morning, Cornward," she teased.

He observed her make her way to Alice's yellow Porsche and slide into the passenger's side, his mind in a pleasant fog. How could one small human turn a powerful vampire's mind to mush? Not that I mind, he thought, watching them drive away. Not at all.

I fought with this chapter for quite some time. One of Bella's biggest issues is an ingrained sense of inferiority, not helped by the fact that she is getting involved with someone who, in her eyes, is vastly superior to her on just about every front. Although this chapter may seem unnecessary, Bella needed a chance to be "equal" to Edward. All healthy relationships should have some aspect of teamwork, after all.

So, what do you think?