A/N Twilight or its characters aren't mine. Any original characters or plot lines in this story, are.

Hi everyone! It's been far too long, I know. Life happened - I passed an important exam to make me a certified teacher. Unfortunately we had to say goodbye to a close relative as well, and this goodbye took a much bigger toll on me than I anticipated.

I still try to write whenever I can. Your lovely messages and reviews give me so much strength. Even if I can't always reply, know that your words are cherished. Being rude in a review won't make me write any faster. Shouting at me IN ANGRY CAPS is also not the way to go. I wish! I'd hire a PERSONAL ANGRY ASSISTANT TO SHOUT AT ME ALL DAY.

But, alas, in between the craziness I finished a chapter for you. Nobody has read it or beta'd it, as *gasp*, my prereaders have a life too and it just gets in the way of all the fun sometimes. Anyway, here you go :)


"I don't like green beans," Simon announces out of the blue.

The cookies we made are still in the oven, and since the weather is so beautiful I've taken the little boy back to the garden. We've played with a ball, but when Simon got bored we crawled into the hammock together. I've pulled the blanket over us that Jasper left outside, and we're rocking gently.

The deja-vu this setting creates is uncanny, and I keep hearing my mother's voice in my head. Although the memory is hazy, I do remember the safety her embrace once provided.

"Green beans are healthy," I say reasonably to answer Simon's statement.

He shrugs. "I don't like healthy."

I have to smile at his boyish petulance, and wonder if I ever was a picky kid when I was little. I decide not to try and reason with Simon, knowing that he gets enough of that from his mother at home.

"Good thing we made the cookies then, huh," I reply.

"I wish I could eat cookies every day," Simon says. "But at home I only get candy on the weekends."

"That's because candy is supposed to be a treat. If you eat it all day, it won't be special anymore."

He doesn't reply, likely because he doesn't have an answer. He sighs, and I can feel his little body becoming heavy, as if he's getting ready to fall asleep.

I can hear the door open, and I turn my head to see Carlisle coming outside. He walks up to us, looking casual in his dark slacks with a thin blue sweater. I would sit up, but Simon is lying half on top of me and I wouldn't be able to get up smoothly. It still makes me uncomfortable to have Carlisle so close when I am not standing up.

"Simon," Carlisle says, "your mother just called. She'll be a little later, okay? She will pick you up before dinner."

"Okay," Simon says timidly.

"Are you having fun?" Carlisle asks. When Simon doesn't reply, he tries, "do you like the hammock?"

Simon nods. "Yes."

"Good. You can stay in it as long as you like." Carlisle smiles at us before he turns back to the house. Simon follows him with his gaze, his eyes big and pensive.

"Bella?" he asks quietly when Carlisle has disappeared again.

"Hmm?"

"My daddy hurt us real bad. Did your daddy hurt you too?"

What can I tell him? That I'm not sure who my real daddy is? Or do I keep him from those details and tell the other part of the truth, that the men who were supposed to take care of me, hurt me instead? What kind of message would it give Simon, when all I want him to know - when all others want me to know - is that not all men are evil?

"He did," I finally say. Just as I want to continue speaking, Simon looks into the direction of the house with wide, fearful eyes.

"Not that daddy," I say, trying to keep my voice light. "He's a very nice one."

"Is he not your daddy?" Simon asks. I can hear the confusion in his voice.

"No, he isn't. And Esme is not my mommy. I'm just staying here for a while."

Simon frowns, and I can practically hear him think. "Will you go home again soon?"

"No," I say. "This is my home now."

"Good," Simon says as he settles in against me. "'Cos I would miss you if you went away, you know."

I have to smile at that. "I'm not going anywhere. I would miss you too much, little man! Want to go see if the cookies are finished yet?"

He jumps up immediately, and I wince when his elbow meets my stomach. When he starts running towards the house, I think for a moment that he has forgotten all about our little conversation. But Simon stops almost mid-step on the porch and turns to face me.

"If your daddy ever comes to hurt you again, I will protect you," he says seriously.

His brave face warms my heart, especially when I think that this must be how he feels towards his mommy as well. Still, a boy his age shouldn't have to be worrying about any of this. My jaw clenches at the injustice in this world, but what could I possibly do about that?

Inside the house, we get the cookies from the oven. Simon wants one immediately, of course, but I manage to distract him before he burns his hand. I get Wisp from my room and introduce her to Simon. I've waited with this meeting purposely, because I feared that Simon might be a little too enthusiastic for the little kitten. He plays with Wisp surprisingly gently as the cookies cool down, and then when Saskia arrives to pick him up, I place the almost all the treats in a paper bag for Simon to take home with him.

"Don't you want to keep some more?" Saskia asks me.

I shake my head and smile a little, letting her know it's okay. We say our goodbyes and I watch how Simon walks to the car, holding the paper bag carefully, but with pride in his step.

"You'll make a chef out of him," Rosalie says as she comes up to stand next to me as I watch them take off.

"Hardly," I murmur. Seeing Simon so happy somehow leaves me hollow inside, and I don't understand where the feeling is coming from. Perhaps it's the knowledge that he will heal from his past, that he has his whole life ahead of him, while I'll always carry the scars and the fear?

I don't notice Rosalie looking around her to check if the kitchen is empty.

"Hey, Bella, can I ask you something?" she asks tentatively. At my nod, she continues. "Yesterday in the car… when I said you never provoked the men who hurt you, you laughed. Do you remember that?"

I nod again, and swallow down sudden anxiety.

"Why?" she asks quietly. "Why did you laugh like that?"

I can't meet her gaze. "I don't want to talk about that," I say, my voice tight.

"You can tell me," Rosalie says gently. "Sometimes it helps to get it all out."

I know I have to pull back, or I'll snap at her, and I don't want that to happen. Taking a deep breath, I repeat my last words.

"Okay. That's okay," she says, and I can hear the true understanding in her words. Relief floods through me when she lets it go. She's respecting my boundaries - something that is still so new to me it renders me speechless every time it happens.

Then she changes the subject. "Hey, would you like us to make dinner together? You could teach me."

I nod, even though I wish I could have a few minutes to myself before we start dinner. Seeing no way out however, I ask Rosalie what she would like to make.

~O~

Rosalie is the ideal student, even though she insists that she can only learn because I am a good teacher. She gets the hang of things quickly, and the pasta casserole we create together is delicious. Even Alice, who generally doesn't care much for pasta, helps herself to a second serving, and Rosalie is all but glowing with pride.

After dinner, Emmett and Rosalie leave for the cinema. Alice and Esme clear up the table, effectively shooing me from the kitchen. I linger in the doorway however, as usual uncomfortable with having others do the work.

"If you want, you could go and bring Carlisle some tea in his study," Esme offers. "I'm sure he'd appreciate it."

Her idea catches me off guard, and I hesitate. I don't want to go upstairs and be alone with him - on the other hand, I don't want Esme to know I'm still so tense around Carlisle. My earlier words to Simon echo in my mind, that Carlisle is a nice daddy.

I know he is. I do.

I do.

Still, it takes me all the courage I can muster before I even move to the kettle. Even if I've never seen him use any violence, even when his children messed up, there's still no way to be sure he will appreciate my bringing him a drink.

I mean, what if he needs to concentrate on something, and I barge in, taking him off his task?

Steam comes off the tea in slow swirls as I go up the stairs with the mug in one hand and a plate with a few left over cookies in the other. I pause at Carlisle's closed office door, hating the dread I feel in the pit of my stomach. And it's not even because I am holding a hot drink - something I would never have done when I just came to live here.

Just do it already, I demand myself. Even my inner voice seems pissed that I am still so stuck in my fears.

I knock, but it's so softly I wonder if he heard it at all. When I hear his muffled 'come in,' I do.

Carlisle is sitting at his desk, his chair pushed back from it. His hair is all over the place, as if he's been tugging at it.

"Bella," he says pleasantly. "What can I do for you?"

Though his voice is calm, something's off. Tiny lines of tension show around his eyes, and his face looks drawn. He must be tired.

Remembering why I got her in the first place, I hold up the tea and cookies for him. When his eyes light up, I move to his desk, feeling oddly like an animal that's afraid to accept food from someone's hand. When I step back, a little too hastily I'm sure, he just smiles again.

"Thank you for this," he says as he picks up the mug. As soon as his fingers touch the porcelain, he frowns. "How long did you wait outside my door to come in?" he asks, amused.

Busted, my cheeks flame, and a shy laugh escapes me unexpectedly. It must be the feeling of safety he somehow provides, his amusement in observing my behavior, and the relaxed way he tells me what he has noticed. He shakes his head good-naturedly, but there's an underlying sadness in his eyes. It's the same look he had when he cut up the belt that Stefan sent me, but only now do I recognize the emotion Carlisle must've had back then.

And it's this sadness, more than his amusement or his genuine efforts to make me feel at ease, that seems to take away the sharpest edges of my fear.

"Still so shy around me," he observes, sipping his tea. "I wonder, if we gave you a puppy, would you grant me a smile in return?"

At this, I have to grin. I can't help it. Somehow, an agreement has formed between us. It's like he understands how I am fighting everything I've known to be true for such a long time.

He holds up a cookie in a playful salute. "Should all else fail, you could make a good living as a pastry chef," he says. "But you'll have to forgive me. I have a mountain of paperwork to work through."

I nod in acceptance and turn to the door.

"Bella?" he asks, and I pause with my hand on the doorknob, turning back to him. He's looking at me with a smile in his eyes, as if he is searching for the right words to say. After a moment, he shakes his head. "Thanks for the snack," he finally says. I wait a heartbeat longer, in case he is going to say more, but when he doesn't, I leave the office quietly.

I wonder what he wanted to say. As much as I pride myself in my ability to read others, I'm not sure what words he left unsaid. My gut feeling pushes my thoughts into the direction of something nice, but I can't be sure. Could it have been something similar to what Rosalie said to me, I wonder when I cross the landing. She said it was like she just saw me for the first time. And just now, I can't help but feel that there was something akin to that showing in Carlisle's eyes. I wonder if something really is so different about me that two people have noticed it already.

Lost in thought, I go to my own room instead of downstairs, and after closing the door, I remove the sheet from the big mirror that's still there.

Coming up close, I look at myself, really look at myself, for the first time in years. My face is still heart-shaped, my forehead high and my cheekbones a little sharp as I'm still slightly underweight. My lips are chapped, as they almost always are from chewing on it, and one is slightly fuller than the other.

But it's my eyes that draw my attention. They seem… lighter? I'm not even sure how exactly to describe it. They're still brown, and still too big in my too thin face, but it's like some of the darkness that always seemed to be in them, has faded away a little.

Instead, I see a sadness there that makes me sad just to look at it. And still, underneath that sadness, there is a sparkle in my eye. Fed probably by seeing Simon, by the good weather, and by the promise of cuddling with Edward again. Who knows?

But it's there.

And I like it.

~O~

After covering up the mirror again, I look at my room. The emptiness of it suddenly feels oppressing rather than safe, so I go back downstairs, where Alice, Jasper and Edward are watching TV. Esme is reading a magazine in the winged chair. The atmosphere is quiet, relaxed.

I've seen the movie already, and besides, I'm too restless to sit still. I'd love to go for a run, but I already went yesterday and my legs feel tired. Following Wisp's playful explorations of the living room with my eyes, I wonder for a moment what to do.

It's a new feeling, this. I've never really felt anything at all, focused as I've been on surviving. I've learned to ignore the signs of my body and mind for so long that they're a new thing to get used to, I guess.

Trailing around the ground floor, I walk past the piano and end up in the library. I love this room, but right now I don't feel like reading. Looking at the rows and rows of books, my gaze lands on a few shelves in the corner. Instead of books, there are stacks of board games. Monopoly, charades, trivia and scrabble - they're all there. There's even Chinese checkers.

In an impulse, I grab Stratego and leave the library, nearly stumbling over Wisp who has followed me here and who is now meowing sweetly, looking up at me with her amber eyes. Kneeling, I pet her, and she rubs her head against my hand, her little tail moving from left to right.

Picking her up with my free hand, I go back to the living room.

"You should put her on your shoulder," Jasper says when he looks up at me. "Teach her to travel with you like that."

"You'd be a proper cat lady then," Alice chimes in. "It would be really cool, though."

"Hey, is that Stratego?" Edward asks, interrupting the conversation.

I have to swallow before I can speak. "Yes. Would you… would you play it with me?"

His eyes light up. "Sure! Where do you want to sit?"

At my shrug he decides. "My room."

"Prepare to be squashed," Jasper says, laughing. "Edward would beat a real field marshal at that game."

Edward grins, and a smile tugs at my lips. It'll be nice to see Edward doing something he's good at, because I like seeing him smile. Maybe he'll want to teach me some of his tactics, I muse when I drop off Wisp in my room, so she can use the litter box. I leave the door open, so she can roam free when she has done her business.

I stop dead in my tracks up the stairs to Edward's room when it hits me how I want to play with him, and I'm not even scared of winning, or losing, or messing up. Edward, who's preceding me, doesn't notice my small epiphany, and so the hug I give him when we are in his room comes as a surprise to him. He doesn't hesitate however, and his arms come up around me to pull me closer.

I breathe in his familiar scent and feel his body heat against my own. When we break apart again, he moves away to put on some pop music as I sit down on his bed, placing the board game in the middle of the mattress.

"I'll go easy on you," he says as he settles on the bed with me. While he sets up the board with his pieces, he explains the rules to me. I've read about this game once, and his explanation is easy and concise. I place my pawns in what I feel might be a good position, and then we start.

At first we play in an easy silence, only interrupted by Edward's quiet advice. He's very relaxed, and I find I am not at all nervous about messing up. When I don't get the rules immediately, he patiently explains them to me until I understand, and we can move on with the game.

He chats a little, about the weather and his plans for the holiday, and when we should go to Seattle.

"It's a bit of a drive," he says. "We can go there and back in a day if Alice comes along and we alternate driving. Is there anything specific you'd like to check out when we're there?"

After thinking about it for a moment, I shrug, but it's more a way to dismiss my own words than not knowing what I want. "Maybe some things for my room," I say quietly. "Like decorations, or a few trinkets? I don't know. I don't want to waste any money."

Edward raises a brow. "You wasting money? Bella, the earth will start turning clockwise before anything like that happens. I'm pretty sure mom and dad will be cheering on the sideline the day you actually buy something for yourself."

He makes me blush, and I duck my head, shielding my face from sight with my hair.

A soft meow sounds behind us, and I look over my shoulder to see Wisp entering the room. Getting off the bed, I pick her up, kissing her soft head. She must've taken all this time to climb the stairs, and briefly I worry that it might not be the best thing to leave her unattended as yet. She might very well fall down and injure herself.

"Can she come up on the bed?" I ask, just to be sure.

He rolls his eyes in a duh-like move, and I crawl back on the bed with Wisp in my arms. We spend a few fun moments trying to get her to balance on my shoulder, and within minutes, she has found a comfy spot between my collar and my neck. Before I know it, she's settled in, and her little body grows heavy against my shoulder.

Such trust this little creature has. She baffles me every single day.

"Anyway, we'll find you some useless things to buy," Edward continues our conversation, and I can hear the smile in his voice. "Alice will have no problem at all helping you with that."

Knowing his words to be true, a soundless laugh escapes me.

His hand comes up slowly, moving the hair away from my face with gentle fingers. "Hey," he says, creating the bubble I've started to love… and crave.

"Hey," I whisper.

He leans forward over the board game, bringing his face so close he can brush his lips against mine. Wisp resettles as I move, digging in deeper. Her soft, soft purr is a constant twrr-ing in my ear.

"So what useless things are you planning on buying?" Edward asks when he pulls back, a spark in his gaze.

"I don't know," I reply, unsure why he would want to continue this line of conversation.

"A necklace to go with only one top?" he asks playfully.

"I have a necklace," I say. "A pretty one." It's the butterfly I got for Christmas, and I wear it every day. I've developed the habit of feeling for it every hour or so, and the feel of the pendant, warmed by my own skin, is always comforting against my fingertips.

"You need at least another one," he says in mock gravity. "Because your necklace is blue, and blue and green don't go together. And you have a lot of green clothes."

I finally see where he's getting at. "I better buy more blue clothes then."

"As well as a green necklace," he says seriously. "Some earrings, too."

I shake my head. "My ears aren't pierced."

He raises a brow. "That can be fixed."

"I don't think I could stand anyone coming so close," I say, my stomach tightening with just the thought.

"I meant there are other ways. You wore earrings at prom, right?"

"Right," I reply. They were clip-ons Alice had dug up from somewhere.

He looks into my eyes, holding my gaze. "Your turn," he says after a moment.

I focus on the game again, but my mind is racing. I admitted not liking something like it was no big deal, as if there were no triggers involved in what sure would be a minefield - a stranger approaching me and being in my personal space, as well as touching me? I'm pretty sure I'd lose my voice again for at least a year, even if I were to be prepared for something like that.

I move a pawn distractedly, and it takes me a moment before I realize that Edward is looking at me with wide eyes.

"You won," he says. "Wow. I've never lost this game before."

For a second I hesitate, fearing that he might become angry, but he's beaming. "How did you do that?" he asks.

"I don't know," I say, nonplussed.

He narrows his eyes. "Are you tricking me?"

I don't hear the lightness in his voice. Instead, my throat tightens up in fear. "I'm sorry," I whisper. "I'm sorry."

"No," he says, becoming serious. "You don't get to fall back into your old ways. Not tonight. Do you hear me?"

He sounds so much older than he actually is, and my breath escapes slowly as I meet his eyes.

"What do I do?"

"All you have to do right now is allow me to play with you again," he says. "Two out of three. Because I can't believe you actually beat me. So, to prove that this was just beginner's luck," he continues as he starts positioning his pawns again, "you play me again."

So we do.

And I win, again.

He narrows his eyes. "Three out of five, then."

As we set up to play out third game, I remember what Alice once told me - how Edward can be a sore loser at times. I just hope he won't be angry with me, and without really doing it on purpose, I let him win the third game.

He smiles winningly. "See? Beginner's luck," he says. "Ready for another?"

I agree, simply because I like seeing him happy. And he wins again, even though I didn't try to lose this time. Edward is good at this game, after all.

Wearing an I-am-the-man smile, he winks at me. "Do you want to finish this? I don't want to ruin the mood by effortlessly winning my third game, you know."

I narrow my eyes at him in what I hope is a playful manner. "Try me."

His eyes light up and he starts placing the pawns immediately. Meanwhile, Wisp wakes in the hollow of my neck, and I let her try climbing down my chest. Her efforts are endearing, and I help her take that final leap. She stretches sweetly, her pink tongue peeking out as she yawns.

She's growing so fast. I figured I wouldn't really notice it since I see her every day, but I do. Her fur is this amazing dark silver, and her eyes are a glowing amber that I've never before seen in any animal. As she explores the game on the bed, she pushes at a pawn with her paw, moving it. Her ears prick up, alert, as she discovers this new game.

I let her go for a little while, as she's just learning how to play and I don't want to hamper her discovery of the world in any possible way. Looking up at Edward, I can see the faint smile on his face as he watches her movements.

"Let's go to town tomorrow and buy her some toys. And maybe a collar, for when she goes outside," Edward says.

"I think she's chipped," I reply, trying to remember the visit to the vet I made with Carlisle. I only have vague memories to that night because I was so tense around the bulky veterinarian.

Edward nods. "But the people who wouldn't know that would see right away that she's someone's cat, you know?"

"Okay," I agree. "But not yet. She's not supposed to be outside too much yet. Her immune system is too frail."

"You're the boss," he says easily. "I still can't believe you were allowed to keep her. God knows we begged mom's ears off for a pet when we were younger."

"Why didn't they do it?"

"I think mom had her hands full with six children. To be honest, I don't think anyone of us would've walked a puppy as dutifully as we promised to back then. And I think mom and dad knew that."

He's not bitter about it. It's more like he understands now why he didn't get his way when he was a kid, and it once again shows how much older he seems than his actual age.

"And when you grow up?" I ask, curious.

Edward looks at Wisp, who is now really messing up the pawns, and clearly having a blast. "I would love to have a big dog. But if I really become a doctor, I don't think that would be a good idea. I'd never be home, you know?"

I nod, agreeing with his argument.

"How about you?" he asks.

"Well," I start, petting Wisp. Instantly distracted, she stops playing mid-move and turns to me so I can reach her favorite spots better. "I hear that cats can live well over fifteen years, so it seems I'm all set for the foreseeable future."

Edward smiles broadly. "Who knew you'd love to have a pet so much. I think if mom and dad had known, they'd given you something to cuddle on your first day here."

I shake my head. "Wouldn't have worked." I think Edward remembers as clearly as I do my first days here - the frequent episodes, the shut-downs, and let's not forget the way our first meeting went, shall we?

"Fair enough," he concedes. He stretches, raising his arms above his head. Some joints pop, and Wisp looks up at the foreign sound. "Man, I should start working out or something. I feel like an old man sometimes."

"You're seventeen," I counter. I don't tell him I think his soul must be over a hundred years old.

He shrugs. "Almost eighteen. Who knows. Maybe if I actually got off my lazy ass and practiced, I'd start looking more like Emmett."

"I like you just the way you are," I say, and blush immediately after for my frank words.

"Why thank you," Edward says playfully. "I'll keep that in mind the next time the uncontrollable urge to work out hits."

I smile. "I like running," I say timidly, unsure if he would be interested in my own experiences. "It calms my mind."

"Did you like going to the gym?"

I shake my head. "Not particularly." I haven't yet decided if the benefit of being able to defend myself outweighs the hassle of practicing it in a public place.

Edward smiles and shakes his head, once. "You're a conundrum. Your home was never safe, yet you seem to hate it even more to be out in public."

"I don't like doing stuff that draws attention," I clarify. "I don't like it when people watch me."

Edward doesn't ask why, and I'm grateful for his silent understanding. "I have to know though. Did you ever go out in your old home?"

I nod. "As much as possible."

He cocks a brow. "You know you're allowed to leave the house here, too, right?"

"Stefan's house was right smack in the middle of town. I could walk to the nearby supermarket and shops, and there was a bus stop close by. Here? Not so much."

"You need a license. And a car. Would that help? To go out?"

I shrug. "Maybe. I've... I've kind of come to enjoy the quiet in this house. The peace, I mean," I add when I see his challenging gaze.

Still, he frowns. "This is not a quiet house."

"It is," I say quietly. "It really is."

He looks at me for a long moment, and I can see him think. Then he takes a deep breath and holds it, and when he releases it again I know he's made some sort of decision. Picking up Wisp gently, he places her next to the game board.

"Let's play," he says. "I still have to beat you, after all." A breath. "At this game, I mean. Oh God," he murmurs as he hides his face in his hands.

I didn't even catch the double meaning until he pointed it out.

I look at him, but his hands are still blocking him from my sight.

"Hey," I say, trying to create that bubble, that safety zone that means, it's okay here, don't you worry so much about everything.

He lowers his hands. "Hey."

I smile at him, and like that, all the things we don't say are exchanged. Then I focus back on the game. "We need to play."

We do. So, we play.

But needless to say…

I win.