Disclaimer: All publicly recognizable characters, settings, etc. are the property of their respective owners. Stephenie Meyer owns anything and everything relating to Twilight. I am in no way associated with the owners, creators, or producers of any media franchise. No copyright infringement is intended and in order to keep it that way, No reproduction, copying, reposting, downloading, or any kind of redistribution of this story is allowed. This is to cover my arse as much as yours! And finally, the Original characters, plot, names, nicknames, songs, poems—anything I created from my very own brain—are all the property of the author of this fanfic, My-Bella. Unauthorized use of the material is plagiarism so please be kind and don't steal my creations.

"~~~^~~~~^~~~^~~~~^~~~^~~~~^"

Chapter 23 – Knock Down, Drag Out

Saturday, June 21st

Bella was happily surprised to wake up the same way she'd fallen asleep—curled up with Edward. A big, sleepy smile appeared on her face and she whispered, "This is really nice. That you're still laying here with me."

When he didn't respond, she turned her head to see him and found that he was sleeping. She whispered as quietly as she could, "You would probably hate to hear me say this, but you look adorable asleep." She wasn't sure why she was confiding that to his sleeping form instead of just keeping the thought in her head.

"I can't fit anything else in my head," she mumbled in answer to herself. Yesterday had been a full day for so many reasons. The most obvious, of course, being the arrival here at Buffels Bay Beach and setting up the camp. Then there had been the trip to the tidal pool, a game of Frisbee in the surf with Edward and Lizzy, a gorgeous sunset, a huge dinner with everyone, Edward opening his presents, Edward singing, and then finally her giving Edward the swim mask and being thanked in front of everyone. As amazing as they were, it hadn't been the activities that had, had her feeling so tired and ready for sleep last night. It had been all of the feelings.

Bella's life back home was a pretty steady thing. Wake up early, breakfast with Uncle Carl, work the entire morning and part of the early afternoon at Sea World, spend the rest of the afternoon either with Alice or Jacob and Leah, then head home for dinner with Uncle Carl and Alice. There wasn't much going on in the feelings spectrum with a consistent life like that—she was usually pretty happy since she enjoyed her job and the people in her life.

But with Edward … Oh, how different life with Edward had been from the very start. She wished she could say it was a merry-go-round with her sometimes feeling up and then down before coming back up. But it wasn't such a smooth ride and that made it more like a roller coaster. You might still be riding high but then you're suddenly jerked around a curve and speeding off in a different direction. Yeah, a roller coaster was definitely more apt.

And yesterday had been the craziest ride yet. In just a single day she'd felt worried, hopeful, afraid, happy, joyful, shocked, wanted, important, appreciated, and needed. And on top of all of that was the one feeling that constantly pulsed and hummed from her—her love for Edward. A love that had increased with every new expression on his face she'd witnessed yesterday and the few new discoveries she'd made about him.

And right now in their darkened tent, she was making another discovery … He was a damn hard sleeper when he actually did sleep. He didn't wake from her lifting his arm or from all the noise the sleeping bag made while she shifted and turned over to face him.

Bella just barely traced over his eyebrow, wondering what color his eyes would be when he opened them. Yesterday they'd gone back and forth between an excited blue and a riotous green and she'd laughed more at the fact that they were blue at the tidal pool than that he'd fallen and busted his butt, though that had been pretty damn funny. There he'd been, warning her to be careful and watch her footing, as if he didn't already know she'd been to tidal pools before. Then he'd taken another step forward and bam! His foot had come right out from under him and his butt had met the ground. Even now she found herself snorting at the image.

Wondering what time it was, she reached up and a little behind until her fingers felt the cool steel of her watch and the plastic barrel of the small flashlight she always kept with her sleeping bag just in case. She flicked the flashlight on, careful to shield Edward from the bright light, and checked the time on her watch. It was just a few minutes before sunrise.

Knowing how much he liked to watch the sun come up, Bella clicked off the flashlight and then rubbed her hand against his chest and called his name. "Do you want to watch the sunrise? It's nearly time if you do."

Edward didn't open his eyes but he did curl his arm tighter around her. "That would require moving and letting you go."

"That's awfully coherent for just waking. Are you sure you weren't faking sleeping again?"

"Flashlight woke me," he mumbled while snuggling closer to her.

"I'm sorry. I tried to keep it from doing that."

He smiled against her neck and then kissed her skin softly. "This is better, kapu."

"Why?" she asked, trying not to laugh despite how badly his lips and facial hair tickled.

He didn't answer; he just continued to kiss her neck and tickle her skin. When he had thoroughly covered that side of her neck, he propped himself up on one arm and turned her head so he could get the other side. She let him get in a couple more kisses before she turned and met his lips with hers, unable to wait any longer to feel that rush of excitement and arousal that came with kissing him. She'd expected it to be slow and sweet, like his open-mouthed kisses to her neck, but she was just as happy with the deep, sensuous ones they were sharing. So happy that she didn't realize he'd moved between her legs or opened her jacket to get closer to her—not until she was forced to pull away by her irritated lungs to get fresh, cool air into her body.

"Hi." It came out as a ragged whisper from her chest rising and falling hard as she struggled to breathe easier.

He smiled and let a little more of his weight rest against her. But the smile quickly faded and he cursed under his breath.

"What?" she asked, pushing his hair away with her hands so she could see his eyes and hopefully tell his mood. Even in the low light she could tell his eyes were a vibrant green.

He kissed the inside of her wrist and then looked directly at her. "You don't have a bra on."

Bella blushed bright red. "Well, no … It was late when I changed into my sweats and hoodie and I didn't feel like it."

He hummed and grinned. "Well I feel it and like it. A lot."

She rolled her eyes while slipping her fingers further into his hair. "I didn't do it for your benefit."

He dipped his head down and slid his nose along her neck until he reached her ear. "Doesn't mean I can't still enjoy it."

"Look at the time." Whit's voice wasn't directly outside of their tent but it was still more than loud enough to clearly hear him. "Can't believe the sun is up and Masen is still asleep."

"Fucking nudger," Edward whispered, making Bella giggle.

"He's usually up and walking the beach with Lizzy," Whit continued. "I'm starting to wonder if he didn't celebrate his birthday some more after everyone else went to bed."

Bella pushed her hand against Edward's cheek until he lifted his head and looked at her. "Let me up."

"Ignore him."

"We can't."

"Why not?"

"For one, everyone is going to start waking now that Whit's out there running commentary. For another, we have a line. A good line for a good reason. Besides, I think it's about time Whit got teased right back."

"Our line isn't in any danger," he promised, kissing just under her ear. "And going out there will just feed into his nudging."

Her body applauded his logic and voted for her to stay right where she was, enjoying the warmth and weight of his body against hers. But her brain was locked on the course of responsibility with a side of guilt for being so intimate with him while his family and her new friends were right outside the tent.

Responsibility won out. "Edward, we really should get up and go outside."

He grinned and she was positive he'd taken her words as some kind of challenge. He proved it by shifting his hips against hers and giving her a kiss so intense that beads of sweat broke out across her forehead. Responsibility was lost to the need to hold on to him with one hand in his hair and one fisted in his shirt.

"Still want to go outside?" He would have won. Even with the words he whispered against her lips, he would have won. But as she was quickly learning about him, Edward just couldn't help himself and had to show off his shitty grin. His triumphant expression was his downfall because it brought out her need to prove she could handle herself with him.

She smiled sweetly as she held his face in her hands. "I want you."

His smile widened and he made an attempt to lean in to kiss her that she thwarted by pushing against his cheeks.

"I want you off of me and outside of this tent."

"What if I order you to stay with me?"

She patted his left cheek gently. "You can try it. But it's not going to work."

"What happened to me being the boss?"

"Birthday's over. And so is your private time with me for this morning."

"You're sharing my tent the rest of this trip."

"I'll consider it."

"Consider it?" he asked, looking as if she'd grown an extra head.

"Yeah. It'll depend on how nice you are to me. I don't share a tent with just anyone."

He laughed as he rolled off of her and onto his back. "You're ridiculous, kapu."

She propped herself up on her elbows and looked at him. "Name calling is generally frowned upon when you're trying to get a woman to spend time with you."

He turned onto his side and lifted up to be at eye-level with her. "I've got an idea for spending time together, if you're interested."

"As long as it involves us being outside of this tent, I'm very interested."

"How about I take you snorkeling after breakfast?"

She controlled her face well but she knew he could tell anyways from the way he frowned. "I haven't said 'no'."

"Not out loud."

"It's just … What if we're snorkeling and a shark comes swimming up?"

"Do you really think I'd suggest this if I thought that was a possibility?"

"If you thought it would help with my fear somehow, yeah."

"Okay, maybe. But I'd tell you about it upfront, just like I did when I suggested you take pictures on the cradle. This area we're in, it doesn't have a natural food source for the sharks so they pretty much ignore it. Lee's been watching this beach for over a month and there hasn't been a single shark sighting by any snorkelers. And I'd have a spear with us and one of the radios just in case."

"I don't know," she said with a sigh as she tried to make an informed decision and not one out of fear.

Edward took hold of her hand and threaded his fingers through hers. "Promise to think about it over breakfast? Because I'd really like to share this with you."

"Why?"

"I want to know what it's like to be with you when you're doing something you actually enjoy."

She couldn't help her blush or her big smile.

"Think about it?"

She nodded and squeezed his hand. "Promise."

"Good." He gave her a soft, barely there kiss and then his shitty grin made another appearance. "Come on, Guppy. I've got a best friend to tease and you're holding up my progress."

She leaned in and whispered, not quite brave enough yet to tease him where the others could hear. "You better be more worried about Whit teasing you for how your sweats are being held up."

Bella left the tent laughing while Edward took a turn looking like a Guppy fish. She knew her face was red and she knew Whit was going to make fun of her for it, but it was absolutely worth it to finally be able to leave Edward speechless.

"~~~^~~~~^~~~^~~~~^~~~^~~~~^"

"Guppy! Good morning!" Whit greeted. Masen could just imagine the teasing smile on his best friend's face. "Why so red, little fish?"

Masen stopped moving to make sure he could clearly hear Bella's response. "Because I'm annoyed with you," she told him. "I spent all night sitting by the tent door, afraid of the noxious gas cloud you said would come and it never did. Now I'm exhausted and have a red face from being so tired."

Masen knew that wasn't true but the hurt tone she'd delivered it in had him feeling bad all the same. He couldn't imagine what it was doing to Whit.

And then Bella really nailed his best friend to the wall. "I thought we were friends, Whit."

After some sputtering and a couple "what" and "wait" mumblings, Whit finally got his mouth working. "Bella, seriously, I was just messing with Masen. Of course you're my friend and I didn't mean to keep you up all night."

"Well, you did." She had the perfect mix of petulant and upset in her voice and Masen laughed under his breath as he pulled his jeans up over his hips and zipped them.

"Let me make it up to you," Whit pleaded. "I've got breakfast duty this morning and I'll make you anything you want. Or if I can't make it, I'll go find a place that has it."

"I don't know …"

As Masen slipped into a clean shirt, he wondered if he should be more worried about how easily she was pulling this off instead of enjoying his friend's torture. If Bella could so effortlessly wrap Whit around her finger, what chance did he stand against her?

"What if I make breakfast and I promise not to involve you in my schemes to mess with Masen?" Whit offered.

"How about you make me breakfast and you only involve me in a consultant capacity?" she offered.

"Hey! What the hell?" Masen asked, popping his head out of the tent. He immediately knew he had been played because Bella was sitting next to Whit, the both of them smiling and staring right at him.

"Morning, bro," Whit greeted. "Sleep well last night?"

"His hair isn't looking as wild," Lee commented while pouring herself some coffee from the pot on the small campfire stove. "I think he actually did sleep."

"Dude did lay a Superman kiss on Guppy last night," Gopher joked, grinning at Masen. "Maybe he tuckered himself out."

"Asshat," Masen said as he passed by Gopher on his way to sit next to Bella.

She smiled and then whispered so quietly he barely heard her. "Good choice changing pants."

Masen figured the best way to get her back was to make her blush and the best way to do that was to kiss her in front of everyone.

But he never got the chance because Esme opened up her tent and Lizzy charged right at him and slammed into his leg. He chuckled at her silliness while picking her up and setting her in his lap. "One of these days, you'll figure out you have brakes," he told her while scratching behind her ears the way she loved.

Lee snorted. "Don't hold your breath on that, Mase. I've seen her master swimming, surfing, skateboarding, and making you her bitch. But stopping before she runs into things completely escapes her."

"Hey!" Masen yelled, glaring at Lee.

"Kid, I'm afraid Lee's right. Lizzy plays you like a violin. Whether she smiles or whimpers, you pull out the treats."

"Can't believe you two are begrudging a puppy a good life," he told them while hugging Lizzy against his chest. "A sweet, innocent puppy."

"Your innocent puppy chewed a hole in my pillowcase last night," Whit informed him.

Masen grinned as he looked over at his best friend. "Was their chocolate stashed in your pillowcase?"

Whit lifted one eyebrow up. "That's not the point."

Bella giggled and then blushed. And then she took Lizzy from Masen under the pretext of walking his puppy for him. Masen knew she really just wanted to escape Whit before he could get revenge by teasing her.

After getting himself a cup of coffee, Masen sat down beside Whit. "How bad did Lizzy chew it up?"

"Not too much. I caught her before she did any real damage. My fault anyway. I forgot to clear it out when I switched my stuff to Esme's tent."

"Yeah, about that. That wasn't really fair to Bella with the way you put her on the spot. What if she'd felt forced to share the tent and then resented both you and me for it?"

"Mase, if I'd have thought there was a snowball's chance in hell of that woman not wanting to share a tent with you, I would've kept my mouth shut. But since I was pretty damn certain the only thing holding her back was you worrying what we might think, I gave her a way to be with you. You should be thanking me."

He considered his friend's words for a moment and found that he agreed completely with him. "Thank you."

"You're welcome."

"You kept your filthy hands off my mom, right?" Masen asked, already knowing Whit would never really do anything with Esme. At least not so long as she wasn't interested and he had his dream girl to fawn over.

Whit snorted. "Your mom is pure for another day."

Now it was Masen's turn to snort. "Whatever. So have you had any visits from your dream girl lately?"

"Yeah, actually," Whit answered while staring down into his coffee cup. He was swirling it instead of drinking it and Masen knew that meant his friend was troubled. As much as Whit enjoyed his caffeine and his chocolate—sometimes together—he rarely gave his coffee time to cool.

"What's up? What happened?"

Whit blew out a breath. "I found a flaw in her perfection last night."

"Seriously? The flaw wasn't the time you dreamed she dragged you out of bed at butt crack of dawn to make sandwiches in a soup kitchen?"

"That was charity, Mase. And I like that she's got such a big heart."

"So what flaw is making you stare at your coffee instead of drinking it?"

"She hates the water."

"Define 'hates'."

"If it's not in a pool or a tub, she wants nothing to do with the water. Won't even put her feet in the surf on the beach."

"I don't suppose you know why."

"Obviously some kind of fear. I don't know if it was that exact beach or just the idea of open water all together."

"Did you recognize the beach?"

"Yeah, that was almost weirder than finding out she hates the water. We were on the North Shore in Oahu. I recognized the hotels so it looks like she's gonna be staying at one of them when we meet."

"Think it'll be this fall when we get back home?"

"I don't know, but I really hope so. I'm ready to meet her in the flesh and not just dream about her." Whit suddenly looked up at Masen, his expression more serious than Masen had seen in a long time. "Thank you. You've never made me feel like a fool when I talk about her."

Masen smiled and gripped Whit's shoulder. "Bro, there's nothing foolish about a woman who gets you. Besides, if this girl is real, it won't even be the second weirdest thing to have ever happened to us."

Whit grinned. "Does Bella get you?"

"I don't know. But she definitely knows how to challenge me."

"Yeah, but that's a good thing. You'd get bored with a woman who just went along with whatever you wanted." Whit lowered his voice, "So did you two …"

"No. Hell no, bro. Not with my mom one tent over."

Whit snorted. "I bet you wanted to, though, and Bella put the brakes on it."

"You know, I am capable of controlling myself," he replied, remembering how difficult that had been a couple times throughout the day yesterday.

Whit snorted hard.

"Whatever," Masen replied, rolling his eyes. "We have an agreed upon line to protect our professional careers and we're sticking with it."

"Right up until your patience runs out."

Masen followed the sound of Lizzy barking until he spotted Bella. "Not this time. Not with her."

"You know, that just might be the smartest thing I've ever heard you say."

Masen laughed and playfully punched Whit in the shoulder. "Asshat."

"So what's the plan for today?" Lee asked, getting both guys to look her way. "Surfing? Or tidal pool? Or maybe some beach football?"

"Maybe later," Masen said with a shrug. "I'm taking Bella snorkeling this morning."

Lee smiled as she looked over at Esme. "Remind me to pay up when we get home."

"Oh, you can be sure of it," Esme replied as she winked at Masen.

"What the hell are you two up to?" he asked, surveying each woman's expression in hopes of an answer.

Esme's expression was one of surprise but he could see the tell-tale twitch of her lips that meant she was faking. "We're just enjoying a sunny morning on a lovely beach with our family."

Masen didn't believe that for a second but he also didn't have any ideas on what they were really up to. Rather than waste his morning searching for answers they weren't going to give him, he figured his time would be better spent on convincing Bella it was safe to snorkel here. He was positive that if he could just get her into the water, she'd love it and he'd get to see her truly enjoying herself. As brave as she was getting in his element, he really wanted to see the kind of confidence she possessed in her own. Not only would it tell him more about her, it would help shape his plans for her progress and help him to gauge her expressions and reactions better. It also had the added bonus of allowing him to follow through with Esme's instruction—make a memory he'd want to hold onto.

"~~~^~~~~^~~~^~~~~^~~~^~~~~^"

"What this?" Bella asked as she took the folded pages Edward was offering her. He was trying to convince her it was a good idea to go snorkeling and that they'd be safe here. He'd already promised to take a spear with them; she didn't have the heart to tell him she doubted a spear would be much protection.

"Lee's research on this area. She found out some really interesting stuff, especially after she spoke to some of the locals in the area."

Bella skimmed over the pages quickly, her anxiety rising a bit as the words 'great white sighting' jumped out at her. She looked up at Edward as she said, "It says shark sightings are rare here but they do happen."

He nodded in agreement and reached over, flipping through the pages and pulling one out from the middle. "It happens in cycles. One year with sightings for every five without. And right now, we're in the middle of a five year cycle. The chances of a shark breaking with tradition and showing up while we happen to be snorkeling are so low as to be nearly non-existent."

"Nearly isn't the same as none, Edward."

"Think about it, Bella. We're here and we have the opportunity to snorkel and see some amazing marine life. Do you really want to pass that up just because there's a miniscule chance we could see a shark?"

She covered her face with her hands and screamed into them, her insides twisted and tortured from weighing her options and battling her anxieties. She wanted to snorkel with Edward. She wanted so badly to share that with him, something they both liked and would be good at. But how could she enjoy the experience if she was constantly looking over her shoulder for a shark?

"Hey," Edward called softly while prying her hands from her face. "We don't have to snorkel okay? We'll take Lizzy and go investigate the other end of the beach. Or we'll take a little hike up into the mountains and see what we can photograph."

"I don't want to just give in and give up, though."

"And I don't want you fighting with yourself and not enjoying your time here."

She eyed him warily. "Is this some kind of reverse psychology? Because I'm suddenly leaning more towards snorkeling."

He laughed and pulled her into a hug. "Don't you think if I had skills like that I would have already used them against you?"

"Five year cycle, huh?"

"Yep. I was thinking that either this afternoon or tomorrow, we'd go into the little town here with Lee and get some more information. If we can find a way to backup what they're saying, it would make for one hell of a research paper."

She looked up, wanting to confirm what she thought she'd heard in his voice. His eyes were a vibrant blue and his grin was adorable. "You don't want to snorkel. You want to investigate."

"I want to know. Is it water temperature? Food supply? Weather patterns? What makes an animal capable of going anywhere it damn well pleases avoid an area for such a long span of time?"

"What if it's birthing grounds?" Bella suggested even as she shivered from the possibility of snorkeling her way right into a shark-filled nursery.

Edward's knee bounced with his excitement. "I thought of that. That was my first theory, actually. But it's also been the one thing no one has been able to find yet. If this was it and we found it … MMR would make science history."

He looked at her, right into her eyes. "But, Bella, I promise you that today, I just want to snorkel with you. I want to share something you enjoy with you. That's all."

"A spear and a radio, right? Just in case?" Bella questioned even as she wondered if she had somehow lost her mind. She was going to get in shark waters with nothing but snorkel gear and a spear. And Edward, she reminded herself. He wouldn't risk his life any more than he would hers so if he was willing to get in the water then that meant it had to be safe.

"Wait here." Edward jogged over to his truck, returning a few minutes later with a backpack and a spear. He opened the bag to show her snorkel gear for two and two hand-held radios. "I'll give the other radio to Esme."

Esme on the radio and Edward at her side … Bella took in a deep breath and held tightly to her courage. "I trust you. And I really want to go snorkeling with you, so let's just go."

Edward grinned and took hold of her hand. "It'll be fun, kapu. I promise."

They headed down onto the beach and he let go of her hand to pull one of the handheld radios from his backpack. "I just need to give this to Esme and then we'll go, so make sure you have everything you need in your bag. And by everything, I mean sunscreen."

She was amazed to find herself laughing with as anxious as she felt and it helped to relax her some. "Sunscreen will be packed," she assured him.

He gave her a quick, soft kiss on the lips and then he turned to face a beaming Esme while Bella blushed at his openness even as she reveled in it.

She quickly went into Esme's tent where her own bags were still stowed. She tried not to listen in on their conversation but she couldn't really help it since they were so close. "I see you convinced her," Esme told Edward.

"More liked she convinced herself, but I'll take it. And you take this."

"What's this for?"

"She's nervous so I'm taking a few extra safety precautions. Radios and a spear. Nothing major."

"My, my. You don't even look offended." Bella knew Esme well enough by now to hear in her voice that she was teasing.

He snorted. "That's because I'm not. If it helps her feel more secure, then it helps me have a better time with her."

"Right." The amount of sarcasm Esme put into the one word had Bella feeling amazed and wanting to learn how to pull that off.

"What?"

"You're trying mighty hard to convince me this is all for your benefit, Kid. But I see what's really going on here."

"Yeah? What's that?"

"Someone—and a very smart and beautiful someone at that—has wrangled in your know-it-all attitude, even if it's just for a morning."

"Goodbye, Mom. Keep the radio with you," he ordered.

"Bye, Kid. Don't let me hear any sexy times coming through this thing or I'll be forced to cock-block you."

He groaned while Bella smiled inside her tent, more-so for the wonderful relationship Edward shared with Esme than his mom's sense of humor.

"Ready?" Edward asked, his head poking through the opening of the tent.

"Yes," Bella answered strongly as she placed her hand in his. Somehow knowing that he was doing things just to make her feel more secure actually had her feeling more at ease.

They walked off in the opposite direction from when they'd visited the tidal pool yesterday, then followed a slight curve in the beach and went about another twenty feet before stopping. "We'll go in here," Edward said as he pointed at the water. "We'll make our way toward that outcropping of rocks up ahead and then come back this way."

"Are we just going to leave our stuff here in the open?" This stretch of beach was entirely empty but that didn't mean it wouldn't get busy later in the day.

"Yeah, it'll be fine. The only thing of real value is the radio and it's short range so it won't do them any good without its partner." Edward walked a few feet away from where they were standing and dropped his backpack in the sand.

Bella used her hand to shield her eyes, checking the water as far as she could see for any sign of a fin. She didn't expect to see one and she certainly didn't want to see one, but she couldn't stop herself from checking. She could, however, decide how long she would stand there procrastinating so she forced herself to turn away from the water. That ended up being an excellent decision on her part because she turned just in time to see Edward peeling his shirt off.

He caught her looking and grinned cockily. "Kapu, you gonna stand there staring or can we snorkel?"

Bella ignored his teasing and went about putting her bag next to his and stripping down to her bikini. Since she'd worn the red, ruffled one yesterday, she was wearing the spattered one today—her personal favorite. She loved the bright colors as much as the fit and she considered it the most comfortable bikini she'd owned so far.

From the way Edward was staring, she was sure he liked it too. She smiled and used his own words, "You gonna stand there staring? Or can we snorkel?"

His response was a grunt. Reaching into his bag, he pulled out a set of snorkel gear and she noticed the mask was his lucky one from the boat.

"Did you know Lee and Esme had this trip planned?" she questioned.

"Not a clue," he answered while checking the strap on his mask. "Why?"

"You've got your lucky mask. How did you know to bring it?"

"I didn't. I just always have it in my bag in case."

"What makes it so lucky?"

He looked down at it and turned it over in his hands. "I guess because it's never failed me. The seal's always perfect and the lenses are still in good shape after all these years. I don't know … Maybe because I got it in San Francisco and felt lucky to be there to start MMR."

Bella smiled, happy that he'd added his real reason behind the practical one he'd first given. While he was definitely driven and dedicated to his work, he also had a sentimental side to him—and where she had only glimpsed it before, he was sharing it openly with her now.

He handed her the other snorkel set and after she had set the straps to fit her, they waded a little ways into the water to wet their masks. Edward put his on first and after he had it set just the way he wanted, he looked to see if Bella needed any help with hers. She very nearly signed "I'm good" to him but caught herself and gave him a thumbs-up instead. She would eventually tell him she knew how to sign, but not this morning. Right now she just wanted to have fun with him.

He gave her a smile and then put in his mouthpiece and checked the fit of his mask once more. He tightened his grip on the spear, stretched out his arms, leaned forward, and slipped his body into the blue-green water.

"Safe and fun," she assured herself while watching his body move just beneath the surface of the water. She secured her mouthpiece and then followed him into the ocean.

She was surprised to find it was only slightly less clear under the water than above since she'd heard so many mentions of the water being cloudy. She took it as a good sign since the further they could see, the safer they would be.

Edward's free hand came into her view and she gladly wrapped her fingers around his. She took one more look around them and then forced herself to focus on what was right in front of her.

They didn't have to go far before the coral and sponges started to accumulate, creating a miniature underwater forest. Most of the coral looked more like tree limbs in the fall stripped of their leaves, but the sponges were colored in bright yellows and oranges.

A little deeper in and they started to see different types of fish. The first few were too small for her to properly see and identify; she'd have to ask later if Edward knew what they were.

They swam a little lower into the coral and Bella spotted a rock lobster that she pointed out to him. It was nearly the same colors as the sponges it was hiding between and they stopped to watch it move around for a minute.

Edward led her around a tall cropping and they practically ran into a group of powder blue surgeon fish and raccoon butterfly fish. The two schools were intermingling and swimming back and forth between two sets of mini-mountains.

Bella couldn't believe how much more beautiful these creatures were up close and she wished she'd thought to ask if they had the underwater gear to bring a camera along. She was definitely going to write about these fish in her journal later—right after she made sure to thank Edward for this adventure.

"~~~^~~~~^~~~^~~~~^~~~^~~~~^"

Masen could tell from the way Bella was holding his hand and not gripping the hell out of it that she was finally relaxed and enjoying herself. He would have smiled if he hadn't had a mouthpiece in at the moment.

As much as he was ready to move on and see more, he could see she was enthralled with the surgeons and butterflies in front of them so he waited for her to make a move while he wondered if she'd ever gotten to see them outside of a tank before.

When she finally tugged on his hand, they swam up and over the outcroppings for a bit before heading down into an opening wide enough for them to fit comfortably side-by-side. Bella freed her hand to reach out and touch a bright yellow sponge so he inspected the outcropping on his side.

Right away he caught sight of what looked like an oddly colored piece of broken coral swaying in a current and he swam closer for a better look. His fingers were almost touching it when it suddenly moved in an unexpected way. Masen leaned his head in for a clearer inspection, his mask nearly touching the coral closest to him, and suddenly he found himself face to face with a yellow mouth moray eel baring its teeth at him. He made his body freeze, knowing any sudden movement could make the creature feel defensive and strike out at him. The eel stared him down with its glassy eyes for another second or two before completely twisting its spotted body around and disappearing inside of the coral. Masen quickly pushed away from the outcropping just in case the eel decided to come back.

He turned to see if Bella had noticed his surprise visitor, needing to make sure she wasn't alarmed. The last thing he wanted was for her to get anxious all over again when she was finally enjoying herself. Thankfully she wasn't paying any attention to him—she was busy trying to touch a couple of goby fish swimming around a wiggling knot of coral.

Bella turned to Masen with her hands cupped together and he could see her excitement in her wide eyes. She lifted her hands between their bodies and then opened them, releasing a translucent goby that immediately swam away. He was pretty sure she would be giggling if she could and he knew damn well he'd be kissing her if it were possible. This—this uncomplicated and pure happiness coming from her—this was why he'd been so insistent on getting her to snorkel with him. He wanted her to be able to write at least one journal entry that didn't mention any kind of anxiety or fear.

Another of the raccoon butterfly fish popped up, but after taking one look at them it turned tail and rounded the corner. Bella followed after it and Masen followed after her. She had pretty fast reflexes because she was able to dip and turn each time the fish did. Masen couldn't recall ever having seen anyone play underwater tag with a fish but that seemed to be exactly what Bella was doing. He wished he'd thought to bring a camera with them but he'd been so focused on getting her to agree to come that he'd never thought of it.

The butterfly fish turned once more and then dove toward the sandy ocean bottom. Bella followed it and when it slipped through a crack in the coral, she bent her legs to kneel on the ocean floor, probably in hopes of seeing where it had gone. Masen saw the creature at the last second but it was already too late—the stingray hiding itself in the sand startled at Bella's sudden appearance and jerked itself free. Masen dove forward but he wasn't fast enough to knock her out of the way. The ray's tail whipped around and struck Bella across her thigh. He saw the surprise in her eyes and then a wispy cloud of red obscured her face. He wasn't sure if it was pain or panic that caused her to do it—Bella yanked her gear off and water flooded her nose and mouth as she tried to scream.

Masen acted as fast as he could, grabbing her around the chest and under her arms to avoid her grabbing him in a panic. He rushed her to the surface; they weren't deep down but he also had no idea how much water she'd just taken in.

As soon as his head was above water, he spit out his mouthpiece and called her name. "Talk to me. Tell me how you're doing."

She didn't speak and she felt like dead weight in his arms as he towed her toward the beach. He wanted to stop to check her breathing but every single second counted and his time was better spent getting her to land in case she needed CPR.

Masen swam as hard and fast as he could while holding on to her, trying not to panic himself as he ticked off the seconds in his head since she'd pulled off her snorkeling gear.

He finally made it to the beach and as he looked down at Bella, he could see a thin line of red sitting on top of the water indicating the path he'd taken with her. He hoped it was just a scratch that was bleeding badly and not damage to an artery. But his big worry for now was making sure she was breathing.

Masen drug them both up the beach until they were far enough away from the tide that it was safe to set her down in the sand. He called her name again, and again there was no response from her. He ripped his gear off and tossed it aside, then lowered his head until his cheek was over her lips, checking for any sign of breathing.

There was none he could detect.

"Fuck," he growled as he tilted her head slightly back. He used one hand to pinch her nose shut and the other to push her jaw down until her lips parted. Masen took in the deepest breath he could and then blew it into Bella's mouth, making her cheeks puff out and her chest rise. He pulled away just enough to watch her chest for movement but still feel air against his face if she breathed on her own.

She didn't.

He breathed for her again and this time when he finished he pleaded with her. "Breathe, Bella. Please breathe."

Waiting for her reaction—any reaction—was more terrifying than the attack with Whit had been and until just a minutes ago, he would have sworn he'd live the rest of his life without ever experiencing anything more horrific than watching his best friend nearly bleed out.

"Please breathe," he pleaded as he leaned in for the third time. He blew every bit of air he had in his lungs into hers and he finally, finally felt movement from her. Her body jerked and he heard a gurgling, choking sound. Masen quickly rolled her onto her side and she immediately started spewing out all of the water she'd swallowed.

Relief flooded him and he whispered, "Thank you," while pressing his lips to her wet temple.

His relief was short-lived, though, because now that she was breathing it was time to focus on her leg. He leaned over her and what he saw made his stomach turn.

A ragged, bloody cut completely crossed the length of her left thigh. To make matters worse, the ray's barb was sticking out of the end of the cut. He couldn't remove it himself but he could hopefully slow down the bleeding. He twisted the end of the string from his trunks around his hand and then jerked as hard as he could to pull it free, ignoring the strong sense of déjà vu he felt. He slipped the string around her leg, just above the wound, and then tied it as tight as he dared. Too little and the bleeding would go on unchecked. Too tight and he could cut off her circulation.

She needed immediate medical attention and there was only one way to get it for her. "Bella, I've gotta get the radio. You just keep breathing. I'm coming right back," he promised.

He ran for his bag and in his hurry he broke the zipper right off the pocket holding the radio. He growled and used his fingers to force the teeth apart and then yanked the radio out. He got it turned on but then he dropped it, causing it to squawk loudly.

He plucked it from the sand and yelled the one name he knew would get the attention of anyone at camp near the radio. "Jasper!"

"Jasper, I'm coming your way with Bella. It was a ray and the barb's still in the wound." Masen didn't wait for a response. He ran back to Bella and after a little bit of struggle, he lifted her up into his arms and started down the beach with her, heading toward the camp.

He wasn't sure how far away from camp he was when he spotted Lee but he damn sure was pissed it was her and not Whit. He was the one with the medical training. He was the one with the knowledge and the skills Bella needed right now.

"Where the fuck is he?" Masen barked.

"He's right behind," Lee answered as she made it to him. "He knows I'm faster and wanted me to get the medical kit to you as quick as possible."

"I need him. She needs him. The barb's still in."

"Mase, calm down, stop moving, and lay her right here," Lee ordered. "I can help until Whit gets here."

Masen didn't like it one damn bit but if there was any chance it might help Bella, he had to take it. He stretched her out on the sand and sat back on his legs while Lee started pulling things out of the black medical bag Whit carried everywhere they went. Masen was trying so damn hard to stay practical and unattached since it was the best thing for Bella, but his feelings for her kept creeping in and making it hard to deal with seeing her in pain.

"What's that?" he asked as Lee pulled out two red, rectangular packs.

"Heat packs. Whit said to put them above and below the wound," she answered while handing a pack and a roll of gauze to him. "Don't wrap it tight. Just enough so the pack is fully against her skin and can't slip." After pulling off the string from his trunks, she put a heat pack where it had been and carefully started wrapping gauze around it.

Whit arrived just as Lee was helping Masen to finish with the pack under Bella's wound. "Any idea how much blood she's lost?" he questioned.

"No. My first priority was getting her breathing again," Masen explained, reaching up to touch Bella's cheek. "She panicked when it happened and ripped her gear off. Took in a bunch of water."

"Lee, pull the stethoscope out and listen for any water in her lungs," Whit ordered. "Mase, think hard. How long did she go without breathing?"

"I'm not exactly sure when she stopped but from the moment I got her on the beach until she spit out the water, it was maybe forty-five seconds."

"Think about how long it took you to swim to shore with her. Do you think it could have been more than four minutes?"

Masen considered it closely and carefully, factoring in the last speed he knew he'd been clocked at swimming. "Maybe almost four but definitely not over it."

"That's really good." Whit pulled the medical bag closer and dug through it until he came up with a small brown case. He unzipped it and laid it on Bella's abdomen, looking between the tweezers inside and her wound a couple times before selecting the medium-sized tweezers.

"Lungs sound clear," Lee announced.

"Masen, I need you to do you something you're not going to like," Whit said as he looked him right in the eyes. "Put your weight across her abdomen and hold her upper leg as still as you can. Lee, come around and hold her by the ankle. And make sure her other leg can't get in the way."

Lee scrambled around Whit and positioned herself between Bella's feet, then pressed both hands down on the ankle of Bella's injured leg.

"She's probably going to scream and thrash so you two really have to hold her still," Whit warned, still looking only at Masen. "Ready?"

Whit waited for both Masen and Lee to nod before moving in with the tweezers. He gripped the barb between the edges of the tweezers and as soon as he started pulling, Bella began to scream out in pain.

"Stop!" Masen yelled, holding a hand out toward Whit.

"You know I can't," Whit replied. "And the longer we wait, the more venom will get into her system."

"Then give her something! Anything!"

"I wish I could, but I can't. Not until the barb is out and we have an idea of how much venom is in her system." He leaned over Bella and used the soothing tone that only ever came out of him in tense situations he wanted to calm, "Bella, I know this hurts, but it's going to be a lot worse if I don't get this out right now."

Lee reached out and gripped Masen's arm. "Help her be strong."

He looked down at Bella, surprised to find her eyes open since she'd been keeping them closed so far. There was fear in her gaze but there was also trust too. He slipped his fingers through hers and squeezed lightly. "If there was a way to do this without hurting you, you know I'd make him. I promise he'll work as fast as he can. You've just got to be as still as you can for him."

"I can't. It burns," she said as her fingers bore down on his.

"I know, kapu, but the quicker we get it out, the sooner the burning will stop."

"Don't let go."

"I won't. I promise." He quickly kissed her lips and then he twisted his body so he could continue holding her hand while stretching himself over her again, putting just enough weight on her to keep her still. He set his arm across her leg and bore down with most of his upper body strength to keep her still, and then he nodded for Whit to go ahead.

Whit began his slow and methodical removal of the barb again and this time Masen could see the barb wasn't just sitting in the wound tract. It was hooked slightly under part of her peeled-back skin and Whit had no choice but to slowly wiggle it backward and forward in order to prevent more damage to her leg.

Bella writhed and yelled and cried with each movement of the tweezers and Masen struggled not to turn around to hold and comfort her. He was already halfway convinced he'd never get the sounds of her cries out of his brain. The only thing keeping him in place was knowing he would cause more damage if he allowed her leg to move while Whit was working with the barb.

She cried out his name and Masen squeezed her hand in response, hating that he couldn't do more for her. "You're doing great, Bella," he assured her. "Just hang in there. It won't be much longer." To Whit he whispered, "Hurry the fuck up!"

About a minute later Whit finally got the barb out and tossed it away from them. Masen immediately took his weight off of Bella and twisted around to face her. Tears streamed from the corners of her clenched shut eyes and her breathing was harsh, but at least her color didn't look bad. At least not yet.

"Hang in there, kapu. We're almost done and then we'll get you home and resting in bed," he promised while pressing a kiss to her cheek.

"Where's your radio, Mase?" Lee asked. "I need to update Esme and Gopher."

"I left it with all our gear back that way," he said, jerking his thumb over his head.

She gripped his shoulder from behind. "I'll be right back."

He nodded, not wanting to take his eyes off of Bella.

"Try to get her talking," Whit instructed. "We need to know what she's feeling so we can gauge how much venom she took in."

Masen glanced at his friend and found him using a bottle of water to clean out Bella's wound. "How bad is it?"

"The cut isn't too deep so my main concern is the venom." Whit popped open a bottle of liquid bandage and carefully pulled the ends of Bella's skin together, then began applying the liquid over the area. As much as Masen wanted the liquid bandage to work to spare Bella the pain of stitches, he doubted the jaggedness of the cut would allow for it.

"Stop watching me and focus on her," Whit demanded.

Masen leaned in to Bella and caressed her cheek. "Kapu, I need you to open your eyes and talk to me."

She mumbled his name but he could tell from her tone she wasn't as aware as he needed her to be.

He pressed his forehead to hers and immediately began hoping the heat he felt from her skin was from the sun and not the beginnings of a fever. This was too real and too wrong and he was struggling between feeling sick over her hurting and being pissed he hadn't been able to prevent it.

He licked his lips to wet them and then tried his best to mimic Whit's calm voice. "Bella, how are you feeling?"

She didn't answer.

"Kapu, please. I need you to tell me what you're feeling so I can help you."

"My leg." Her eyes fluttered for a few seconds but didn't open and she didn't say anything more.

"What about your leg? Tell me exactly how it feels," he pleaded.

Bella managed to open her eyes some but it didn't seem to Masen that she was able to focus them. "My leg burns."

"Good. What else?"

She swallowed and then licked her lips. "Hot. Sick like I might puke."

Masen looked up at Whit, worried about her nausea, but his friend didn't take his eyes off his task of closing her wound.

"Keep her going, Mase. Find out everything she can tell us. The more symptoms we know about, the better we can guess the amount of venom."

They could suddenly hear Lee's voice, "… almost back now. I'll let you know. Just hang tight for now."

Masen wished Esme was here—she would know the best way to do this, to be here for Bella. But she wasn't and it was up to him to get Bella to give them the answers they needed to help her.

"Do you feel anything else besides hot and sick?" he asked.

Her eyes were closed again and he noticed that she'd stopped shaking her head as quickly as she'd started.

"Are you dizzy? Does moving your head make it worse?"

She didn't respond.

"Bella, answer me, please. Are you dizzy?"

"Not sure. Head really hurts," she answered. She licked her lips again and after struggling for a second or two, she continued, "Pounding kind of hurting. Feel sicker if I open my eyes or move my head."

"Are you having any trouble breathing?"

"No. Talking hurts. Throat is dry."

"Here," Lee said, handing Masen a bottle of water.

"Just a little and very slowly," Whit warned.

Masen practically ripped the top off the thing and then used one hand to hold Bella's head up and the other to tilt the water bottle. He wet her lips a little first and then let some slip between them and into her mouth.

Masen pulled the bottle away at the same time that Whit reached up and patted Bella's arm. "All done, little fish. You did a great job."

She gave him a weak smile in response.

"I'm just going to put a bandage over the wound and then we're going to get you out of here."

"Then the burning will stop?"

"Soon," he promised, giving her free hand a small squeeze.

Whit looked at Masen first and then Lee before speaking softly enough that Bella wouldn't hear. "There's already swelling around the wound. That, with her other symptoms, points toward a medium-sized dose of venom. We're going to need to watch for color changes around the wound, signs of low blood pressure, vomiting, faintness, and diarrhea, but I don't think she's in any danger and the major symptoms should dissipate within forty-eight hours. The lesser stuff like the headache and nausea will probably stick around a couple days after that.

"We could take her to a local hospital but they aren't going to have anything more they can do that I haven't already done. There are enough of us to give her round-the-clock care and I've got the supplies if she should need any fluids. Personally, I think we should take her home. But, Mase, you make the call, bro."

Masen didn't need to think about it—he knew who he trusted with Bella's life. "Home."

"~~~^~~~~^~~~^~~~~^~~~^~~~~^"

It was finally silent in Bella's room for the first time in hours and Masen was pretty sure everyone was exhausted from doing what they could to help care for Bella and make her feel comfortable, though no one but Bella would sleep for a while. He doubted he would sleep at all—at least not until she started to feel better.

Bella's reaction to the amount of venom she'd taken in was severe but expected, and there was luckily nothing out of the ordinary about her condition—so far, so good. She was sleeping now, a combination of exhaustion and the medication Whit had given her. Masen was extremely thankful for Whit's medical background, especially since it allowed them to care for Bella personally instead of dealing with a foreign hospital that might be overcrowded or not have ready access to the meds she needed.

Whit had tried oral meds first but Bella's nausea had been too persistent for her to keep them down so he'd ended up giving her intravenous meds instead—but only after he'd felt it was safe to do so without masking important symptoms. Before he'd reached that point, Bella had dealt with long bouts of nausea that had eventually led to stomach cramps and a sore throat. On top of that, she had been suffering from a headache, dizziness, a fever, and low blood pressure. And Masen had been holding onto the tiniest shred of patience, just barely restraining himself from giving Bella the meds himself.

The change in her condition had been pretty quick once Whit had administered the meds and she'd been sleeping fairly peacefully ever since, with only an occasional whimper or grimace disrupting the quiet. She'd probably be more comfortable lying down but they had to keep her propped up in case her nausea suddenly came back.

"Here, let me wipe her face down," Esme said as she gently nudged Masen's leg aside so she could get closer to Bella.

"I'll do it." He wasn't offering and she must have known that because she handed the towel over without a word. Slowly and carefully, he slid the towel over every inch of Bella's face, removing the sweat from her skin and hopefully a little of the heat from her fever as well.

"I know you feel responsible for her, Edward, but what happened today was an accident. An event you could not have prevented in any way."

"I told her it would be fun. That nothing bad would happen." He didn't share the thought that had been circling in his head since he'd seen that ray … I failed to protect her.

"You had no way to predict she'd startle a ray, and I'm quite sure she'd agree with me in saying you have nothing to feel guilty about."

He was too tired to argue so he just shrugged.

Esme cupped his cheek with her hand and turned his face to get him to look at her. "I know you're thinking of Beth and of how terribly hard it was to lose her. I know this because I am too; it's our gut reaction whenever someone close to us is harmed in any way.

"But I also see this incident with Bella is completely different. My worry is that you don't, that you're comparing this moment of fear with her to the devastation we both felt when Beth passed."

He pulled her hand from his face and held it between both of his. "I'm not good at this. I'm not good at having someone I care about in a state that I can't change, that I can't fix. It's the most frustrating and pathetic feeling there is and I can't stand it. With Beth I at least had the excuse of being a kid and it being an adult situation. When Whit … The anger was the strongest feeling for so long that even that wasn't the worst. But this …"

Masen swallowed down the lump in his throat and finished his explanation, "I physically feel sick right now. I have from the second I saw that ray because I knew, I knew what was going to happen. And when she wasn't breathing—"

Esme pulled him into her arms and he hugged her back, hating that he felt weak enough to need his mom and glad she had the power to comfort him. "This is no different from Bella getting scared by that shark hitting you in the side, Edward. This is just a moment of fear that pales in comparison to the wonderful moments you've already had with her and the many more waiting in your future."

"Why is this so hard? Seeing her in pain like this? I know it's temporary and that she'll be fine in a couple days but I can't … Why do I want so badly to take her place?"

She cupped her hand under his chin, lifting his face until she could see his eyes. "Because, Sweetheart, you love her."

His immediate reaction was to open his mouth to protest, but the longer nothing came out, the more he had to admit there might be some truth to what she was saying. Of the two of them, he would trust her to know long before he would trust himself; she'd at least had relationships over the years even if no guy had been the guy yet.

"I was pretty sure you hadn't realized it yet."

Masen shook his head out of frustration and confusion. "If that's what this is … Why now? Why not last night when we were together in my tent? Or first thing this morning?"

She smiled and ran her hand through his hair before setting it on his shoulder. "It's sometimes hard to realize what's right in front of you until something happens to alter your view. You've been on a high with Bella and that gave you a form of tunnel vision. You knew you were having a good time with her and that you were drawn to her but you didn't have a name for all the things you've been feeling when you're with her. The fear you felt today took away your tunnel vision and allowed you to realize the depths of your feelings for Bella." Her smile widened as she brought her hand to his chest and patted it lightly. "Oh and you've got an awesome mom who knows how to read this heart of yours."

Love … Me? It doesn't … But if it is … Masen took a moment to consider Esme's answer; it felt right—right enough that he accepted it without attempting to dissect it. "So … What now?"

She shrugged. "Nothing."

"Nothing?" he asked, checking for any sign that she was teasing. Something this big, a change this huge, it had to require some form of action on his part.

"Well, almost nothing. The hard part is done. You opened yourself up to more and allowed yourself to fall in love. All that's left is for you to share what you've discovered with Bella. Though, between you and me, I wouldn't be surprised if she's already figured it out. She's a very observant young woman."

"What happens if she doesn't feel that way back? If she doesn't love me?"

"Kid, that is one worry you don't need to have." Esme leaned forward and placed a kiss on his forehead, then stood up to leave.

"Wait! Why don't I need to worry?"

Her smile turned into a smirk. "Think about it. I'm sure you'll figure it out."

"~~~^~~~~^~~~^~~~~^~~~^~~~~^"

"Time to eat," Esme announced as she came in carrying a tray.

"Maybe later. She's finally resting again," Masen replied, dipping his head down to brush his lips against Bella's hair. She had woken suddenly from the nausea and had been sick enough that Whit had given her more medication. Thankfully, she had been able to take it orally and keep it down. Now she was leaning mostly against him with her head in the crook of his shoulder and her fingers wrapped around his wrist, ensuring the arm he had around her back couldn't move.

"Edward, I allowed you to skip lunch but you are going to eat dinner," Esme ordered, sitting down beside him. "You can't take care of Bella if you don't take care of yourself."

"Alright," he agreed with a sigh. Not that his reply mattered since she'd already set the tray on his legs.

"You know, I could make you come out and eat with the rest of us but I'm attempting to be nice and allow you to eat in here."

He stopped with a chip almost to his lips and gave her the sternest look he could muster. "Mom, as much as I love you, there's no way in hell you could get me out of this room."

She ignored him as she leaned over and placed the back of her hand to Bella's forehead. "Still feverish."

"Whit said it'll probably break early tomorrow morning."

"That's good. The healthier she appears, the less her family will worry when they arrive."

"How did her uncle sound?"

"Like any parent—worried out of his mind and in need of as many details as possible."

"She'll be glad to have him here." Masen smiled as another thought occurred to him. "She'll feel horrible he came too. That he dropped everything to be here with her."

"Dropping everything is part of the parenting package, Kid." Esme smiled and stood, pointing at his tray. "You eat. All of it. And don't think I won't check."

"Oh, I know you will," he said, grinning as he watched her leave. He popped a chip into his mouth and realized he actually was hungry. He thought about trying to free his other hand to make it easier to eat but he didn't want to risk waking Bella so he cleared his plate one-handed.

He swallowed down the last bite of sandwich just as Lee came into the room. "Esme sent me to check on your progress," she told him.

"All done," he said, pointing at the tray. "But I wouldn't mind a plum if we have any left. Or some olives. Whichever we have."

"You and Whit wiped out the last of the plums but I'm pretty sure we have some olives."

"Would you bring me a bowl?"

"Last I checked, your legs were working just fine."

"Sure, I'll get them myself. But you pry her fingers off my wrist," he challenged, tilting his head toward Bella.

Lee's lips pulled up into a smirk. "One time. That's it. And it's for her, not you, just so we're clear."

"Crystal," he promised. He let her get to the door and then said, "Oh, and would you take the tray into the kitchen for Esme?"

Lee turned and glared at him. "You did that on purpose."

"Did what?"

"Waited until I was at the door."

"What? Why would I do something like that?" he asked, fighting the smile that wanted to appear as she walked over to him.

"Because you're an asshat."

"I'm hurt you would think such awful things about me, Lee."

She didn't respond; she just took the tray and left the room.

He was still chuckling over annoying her when Whit came in. "Lee's cursing you three ways from Sunday. What'd you do?"

"The usual. Got her back for being a smart-aleck by annoying her."

"Nice," Whit joked with a snort. He pulled a chair up to the side of the bed and then moved the blanket to reveal Bella's injured leg.

"Don't mess with her right now, bro. She's sleeping good."

Whit lifted an eyebrow at him. "Between the two of us I'm the medical professional so be quiet and let me do my thing. And if you can't help yourself, I'll have Gopher remove you."

Masen opened his mouth to argue but then decided the potential of waking Bella wasn't worth having Gopher come into the room, especially since it would be for nothing. No one could make him leave.

Whit carefully removed the gauze pad covering her wound and inspected every inch of the cut and the skin around it, sometimes leaning in close enough to touch her leg with his nose but never actually touching her.

"How's it look?" Lee asked, having come in halfway through his inspection.

"Really good," Whit replied with a smile. "No indications of infection and the color is more pink than red now."

"Guppy's a fighter." Lee looked as confident and proud as she sounded. "And her improving condition is proof that Masen can get his own snack next time," she added, handing a bowl of olives to him.

"It doesn't mean that at all. Besides, as long as she's got a hold on my wrist, I'm not going anywhere."

Lee crinkled her nose. "Yeah, well, you should seriously rethink that. You could definitely benefit from a trip to the shower."

Masen ignored her. "What are you doing now?" he asked, having noticed Whit was rubbing a Q-tip along Bella's cut.

"Covering the area in Vaseline. It'll keep it moist and help with the healing."

"I thought you were supposed to let cuts breathe."

"Yeah, well, that's why I'm in charge for this and you aren't." Whit grinned at him for a second and then turned his focus back to Bella's leg. Once he had a generous coating of Vaseline over the wound, he put a fresh gauze pad over it and secured all four edges with medical tape.

"Do you need to check her blood pressure again?" Masen questioned.

"It can wait until she wakes up. Just yell for me when she does. I'll be in the living room."

"Thanks, bro." He meant those words with all his heart and hoped his best friend knew that.

From the smile on Whit's face, it seemed he did. He gave Masen a salute and then headed out.

Masen had felt Lee's eyes on him while he'd been paying attention to Whit's work so he looked over at her. "What?"

Lee folded herself into the chair Whit had left beside the bed. "You're different with her," she said, tilting her head toward Bella.

Masen gave her a grin and a shrug. "You were never hurt by a ray. But if you ever are, I promise to keep you company and hold your hair back while you puke."

"That's not what I meant and you know it, Mase. You didn't question any of Whit's doctors when he was in the hospital but you've questioned his treatment for Bella at every turn and I know you trust him way more than some doctor in a hospital."

"Are you jealous, Lee?" He damn well knew she wasn't but he also knew it would irritate her to be asked.

"Please! I'm the one that ended our farce of a relationship, not you."

"Ended is a strong word. It was more like you said 'This is Gopher. Get back in the friend zone'."

"It wasn't that cut and dry, or quick, and you know it. It took time for me to figure out why being with Gopher was so much more than anything you and I had shared."

Masen snorted. "And then one day you magically awoke and knew your prince had come."

Lee gave him a wry smile. "If only it had been that easy."

"I thought it was."

She shrugged. "It was easier to let you think that than to try and explain the reality. I knew being with Emmett was different. I knew what I felt for him was above and beyond everything I'd ever experienced before. But I didn't know I loved him. Not until I nearly lost him."

Lee set her chin on her knees and looked at Masen, seeing the questions in his eyes, and after a few seconds, she started to give him answers. "Emmett knew pretty quickly that he loved me and wanted a future with me. He dropped his entire life in Tennessee to create one in Hawaii with me. All he wanted in return was for me to love him back. And for a long time, all I could offer was appreciation for his sacrifice and a promise that I wanted him and only him. But I couldn't say the words he needed to hear.

"It baffled the hell out of me that he could say them and mean them so damn quickly. And if I asked him why he loved me, he would list both my good and bad qualities. It just didn't make any sense. How did he know that was love and not just a close relationship? I mean, there's plenty of stuff I love and hate about you and Whit. So what was the difference that made it love?

"One night he finally got tired of waiting and flat out asked me if I loved him. I told him I didn't know. He said he couldn't accept that. He said he needed and deserved more. I stupidly told him that was his problem, not mine. So he kissed me goodbye and left. At first, I blew it off, positive he'd be back in the morning. But then I started to wonder what would happen if he didn't come back. What would my life be like if he was suddenly not in it anymore? And you know what I figured out?"

Lee looked right into Masen's eyes as she gave him the answer. "My best day with you and Whit couldn't compare to my worst day with Emmett. As good as it feels to be your friend, it's a footnote on what it is to be loved by him. And even when he's righteously pissed at me, he loves me. He lets me see it and hear it and feel it. Life without him, it would go on and it would have its happy moments. But it could never hope to compare to the wonderful adventure life with him always is and will be."

Lee shrugged and smiled. "At least that's what I believe."

"That's not a bad way to look at it," Masen admitted. "I still think Gopher was an asshat for walking out, though."

She laughed softly. "He didn't leave. Not really. He just went outside and sat on the back of his car to wait for me to wake the hell up and go after him. He was sure of how I felt even if I wasn't. He trusted that if he forced me to face my feelings then I'd know too."

Lee got to her feet and smiled at Masen. "Do me a favor, Mase, and learn from my mistake. Admit how you feel and don't make Bella force it out of you."

"I'll tell her when I know."

She shook her head though she kept smiling. "Famous last words, bro." She left him alone with Bella then.

He shifted just enough to see Bella's face relaxed in sleep. He studied her face like he would an object he wanted to sketch, searching for some sign of what it was about her that made her irresistible to him. But he already knew the answer … It wasn't her looks alone. He'd been attracted to her from the start, and now that he'd seen her heart, witnessed her strength, and enjoyed her friendship …

With his upper lip brushing her temple and his lower slightly shaking, he spoke very softly—and so quietly that even Lizzy would have had trouble hearing his admission. "I love you, kapu."

"~~~^~~~~^~~~^~~~~^~~~^~~~~^"

A/N: What a birthday trip for our boy Masen! And he's really not going to have much time to get his head out of spin mode before Uncle Carlisle and Alice arrive in the next chapter. Sparks will definitely be flying all over that rental house!

Thanks to the wonderful Eternally Addicted, we have some photos up on the blog of the undersea creatures Masen and Guppy encountered while snorkeling.

Thanks for reading and reviewing and we'll see you again soon!