Great big thanks to my official Beta Reader, Apostrophe Wrangler, and Fiction Philosophizer, NixHaw. Half of the ideas in this story are developed through conversations with her. For instance, I spend a lot of time with water in this story, and not long ago we were trying to decide whether vampires float. I think they do. Though it seems counter-intuitive, I maintain that hard ≠ dense. After all, the Cullens don't break elevators or make cars sag to the ground when they get in them, do they? So they can't be that heavy. Clearly they're made of some durable, lightweight material that keeps them from sinking boats and leaving craters in the ground when they run.
We still haven't figured out the whole venom-sperm thing, but sometimes you just have to suspend disbelief.
Bella stood on the east bank of the Sol Duc River, the rushing water separating her from the Cullens' house. Most of the family had followed Jasper outside, but he scribbled a note on a piece of paper and handed it to Rosalie.
"Mind running an errand?" he asked her.
She looked over the note. "No problem. Sealed in a bag, I assume?"
"Please. Oh, hang on." He took back the note and added something to it before handing it back to her. "It's a long shot. Take Carlisle with you and you might have a chance."
Carlisle read the note over her shoulder, and then he and Rosalie leapt back across the river and headed for the garage.
"All right, Isabella, listen up. The first thing I need you to do is go find me a rabbit. But I need you to bring it back alive and unharmed."
She blinked. "Why?"
"It doesn't matter why. I'm your Mr. Miyagi. 'I say, you do, no questions.'"
She blinked again. "Huh?"
"What?" Jasper asked. "Is that outdated already?"
Emmett snickered. "That movie came out before Isabella was even born."
"Just trust him, Bella," Alice said. "Jasper's really good at this."
Bella turned and jogged into the forest, using her ears and nose to detect traces of the little creatures. It wasn't hard; the woods were full of them. Within a few minutes she had closed in on one and managed to pluck it from the ground just before it darted into its burrow.
The tricky part was not hurting it. It squealed and kicked, and she was tempted to grip it too tightly to keep it from escaping. She doubted she would have been able to do it if she hadn't had some experience with handling delicate creatures.
But she did have experience. When Joham had placed Alexander in her arms, her instincts had told her that he required a feather-light touch. Those instincts weren't in play now, but she remembered the delicacy with which she had handled the little boy and she used it on the rabbit. She tucked the little creature against her chest and though it struggled and tried to slip through her arms, she managed to restrain it long enough to run back to where the others waited.
She gripped it by the scruff of the neck and held it out to Jasper.
He stared. "You . . . you got one?"
"Yeah." She took a step closer, still holding it out as it kicked wildly.
Jasper took it by the ears, lifting it from her grasp and peered at it. "Huh," he said. He turned it back and forth, examining it closely. "Huh." He set it down on the ground and let it go, watching it tear off into the trees.
"What did you do that for?" Bella demanded.
"I wanted to make sure it wasn't hurt."
"Of course it wasn't hurt! You said not to hurt it, and I didn't!"
Jasper arched an eyebrow, and Bella quailed under the look he gave her. "Go get another," he said.
Had it been anyone but Jasper asking, she'd have told him to go get it himself. But it was Jasper, so she set off to find herself another rabbit. A few minutes later she was back with a soft, wriggling bundle, holding it close so Jasper wouldn't let this one go, too.
He reached for it, but didn't take it from her. This time he grabbed the rabbit's head and gave it a sharp jerk, snapping its neck.
Bella couldn't hold back a snarl. "What are you doing?"
"It's better if it's dead. No need to make it suffer more than it has to."
"Then why did you tell me to bring it back alive?"
"Because I didn't think you could do it."
She dropped the limp animal to the ground. "So you're just messing with me?" she demanded, her voice raising shrilly. "You just want to watch me fail?"
"Check your attitude, kid. This is something you need to be able to do and I thought it would take you a little more practice." He allowed a small smile. "You're a quick study. That's good. Keep it up and you'll be able to see your father in a couple of days."
She gasped, instantly mollified. "Really?"
"Really. It won't be easy, and you won't be able to stay with him for very long, but you're surprisingly controlled. You'll do all right."
Bella shivered with anticipation. "Okay. What's next?"
"Pick up the rabbit," he said. "I want you to take it's foreleg in one hand and break it, but I want you to go slow. Hold it lightly and increase your pressure little by little until it cracks."
Bella followed his instructions, surprised by all of the things she could feel as she squeezed the little paw. The layer of fat crunched and oozed beneath the skin, the capillaries burst, the veins crushed . . . and then finally, the fragile little bone snapped.
"Did you feel all that?" Jasper asked her. He waited for her to nod and then continued. "All of that hurts. If you shake a human hand, you can't squeeze at all. You can't give someone so much as a pat on the back without doing real damage."
Bella nodded. She already knew this. She remembered all too well the feeling of the tiny, delicate boy in her arms, wrapping little warm arms around her neck. A pang of regret shot through her and she quickly tamped it down. She didn't have time for it now.
Jasper was watching her curiously. "What's wrong?" he asked her, his voice gentler than she was used to.
His brows lowered as he looked at her, but he didn't push. "Okay. Now, hold the rabbit by the other foreleg. Don't let it fall, and don't do anything that would injure it if it were alive."
His request was surprisingly difficult. The fur was slick, the body limp and heavy. Bella broke two more legs, but she was finally able to hold it by its back leg without damaging it or dropping it.
Jasper laughed and shook his head in disbelief. "Not bad, kid. Not bad at all. Now shake my hand, and use as light a touch as you would if I were human."
He stuck out his hand and Bella jumped back, hissing softly.
Jasper snorted. "Fine. Not mine. Esme, would you mind?"
Esme had been hovering nearby with the others, watching and occasionally offering encouragement. She stepped forward at Jasper's invitation, smiling sweetly at Bella as she held out her hand.
Bella smiled back in relief and took it, remembering Alex and the rabbit and applying only the slightest pressure.
"Just a tiny bit lighter," Esme instructed. "You don't have to hold anyone's weight with a handshake."
Bella loosened her fingers a little, and Esme's smile broadened. "That's perfect. Here, do it again for Alice."
Bella shook Alice's hand, and then Edward's, preening under the praise they offered.
"You're doing great, kid," Jasper told her. "A lot better than I expected, in fact. I thought Rosalie would be back by the time you got all that."
"We can jump ahead," Alice said, calling over her shoulder as she jogged back toward the house.
"Yeah, all right. Isabella, I want you to close your eyes, and no matter what happens, stay perfectly still."
Bella was confused by the request, but she obeyed. The other things Jasper had asked of her had been at least a little bit challenging. Closing her eyes and staying still, though? It was the most natural thing she had done all day. She would have preferred to have her eyesight, but her other senses made up for it so effectively that she hardly missed it. She knew that Jasper was pacing by the crunch of the pine needles beneath his feet, by the shifting air currents that redirected around him, by the movement of his scent. She heard Alice's light step approaching from the house, heard something that sounded like a plastic garbage bag, felt the shift of the breeze —
And then she was in motion, propelled toward Alice by the need, the desperation to have what Alice had. She tackled the small frame and sank her teeth into . . .
Bella spat the offending material on the ground and shook her head, trying to clear away the haze. Jasper was laughing behind her, and she hissed at him.
"There she is," he said, still chuckling. "You've got a vampire in there after all."
Bella straightened and looked down at the destroyed cloth in her hands. The limp fabric couldn't fulfill the promise made by the tantalizing scent that clung to it, igniting a fire in Bella's throat.
"What is it?" she asked, confused.
"It's a scarf I bought in Paris," Alice answered. "I haven't washed it yet, so it still smells like all the humans who touched it before me."
Bella swallowed the venom in her mouth, appalled that a simple scarf could elicit such a violent reaction.
"Don't beat yourself up," Jasper said. "That's perfectly natural. I made you rely on your sense of smell, and you did."
But Bella couldn't help feeling like she had failed a test. "I wasn't ready," she said lamely.
"That's how it is. Living this close to humans, you always have to be ready. You have to learn to guard against your thirst every second, because there's no telling when a human is going to pop into your path and take you by surprise."
Bella nodded and looked back down at the shredded fabric in her hands. "I'm sorry about your new scarf," she mumbled to Alice.
"Please, I bought sixteen of them. I won't even miss it."
"All right, let's try again," Jasper said. "Close your eyes, Isabella. Alice?"
Bella closed her eyes, tensing for the assault.
"You have to breathe. You can't hold your breath the whole time you're with Charlie, and you have to learn to master the urge to attack when you smell a human scent."
Bella hadn't even been aware that she was no longer breathing. She drew in a deep breath, surprised when she couldn't detect anything human in the air. "Where did Alice go?"
"She'll be back. Just breathe."
Bella took a steadying breath, and then she was lunging again, tackling Alice to the ground and clawing at a cotton blouse.
The third time through the exercise she managed to stop herself before she reached Alice, and the fourth time she held herself in place, though her entire body trembled with the need to chase, kill, drink. It was nearly impossible to resist, but the desire to see Charlie was stronger than her desire to sate her thirst. She had to see him, and she had to make sure it would be safe for him when she did.
After several more successful tests — and one or two failures — Rosalie returned with Carlisle trailing behind. She was carrying two plastic garbage bags and a carton of eggs.
"Did you get it?" Jasper asked, accepting the carton of eggs.
"We did," Carlisle answered. "Jared was happy to help."
Jasper plucked an egg out of the carton. "Isabella, catch."
She reached out instinctively to catch it, and she gasped when it smashed and splattered all over her hand.
"Physics lesson," Jasper said. "Do you know what happens when you throw an egg against a brick wall?"
"It breaks," she said between her teeth, shaking slimy egg whites from her hand.
"Right. Do you know what happens when you throw an egg against a sheet hanging from a clothes line?"
Bella frowned, distracted from the gooey mess by his question. "No."
"It doesn't break. Edward, catch."
Jasper lobbed another egg, this time at Edward, who caught it easily.
"A brick wall slows the egg down all at once. There's too much force for the brittle shell, and it smashes. A sheet slows it down over a longer distance. It moves back with the egg, just like Edward moved his hands back when he caught that one. He slowed it down over a longer distance so it wouldn't crush the shell."
Edward tossed the egg back to Jasper, and Bella watched as he demonstrated what he had just shown her.
"Humans are soft," Jasper continued. "If they bump into each other, there's no major damage. There's enough give in their bodies that they'll hardly even feel the effects. You, on the other hand, are rigid. If a human trips and falls against you, he's going to get hurt. You have to compensate for that by moving back, cushioning his fall.
He tossed the egg to Bella, and though she tried to imitate his catch, the egg still broke in her hands.
"A little more," he said. "And remember this when you see Charlie. If he tries to give you a hug, you're going to have to move with him so you don't hurt him." He threw another one, and this time Bella managed to judge the egg's velocity a little better. It didn't smash in her hand, but the shell cracked where it hit her palm.
"Another one," she said, tossing it aside.
After a few more minutes of practice, she had gotten the hang of it. She and Jasper tossed the same egg back and forth several times without causing any damage to the shell. When he was satisfied, he passed the egg back to Rosalie and allowed Bella to rinse her hands in the river.
"You've got a soft touch, kid. I'm impressed. I want to work a little more on your tolerance for scents, though." He took a garbage bag from Rosalie and opened it up.
Bella was immediately flooded with the urge to attack, but the scent brought something else with it, too. Memories washed over her; memories of herself as a little girl, curled up in her father's lap; standing on his feet and clinging to his knees as he danced her around in a circle; hugging him goodnight before being tucked into bed. More recent memories, too, of greeting him in an airport lobby; of clutching his waist as they cruised through the ocean water on a rented jet ski. The memories were so potent that it was a moment before she realized what she was smelling.
Jasper was pulling a green flannel shirt out of the garbage bag, thick with the odors of leather and river water and the musk that always clung to Charlie's skin.
Her throat burned, but she didn't feel the urge to attack the way she had before. Her thirst was tempered by the affection that rose up in her, and she drew another deep breath, savoring the connection to her father.
"Charlie," she breathed, letting the air flow out of her lungs again.
Jasper raised an eyebrow.
For a moment, no one said anything, then Rosalie laughed.
"She makes it look easy!"
Bella shook her head. It wasn't easy at all. Thirst tore at her throat, begging her to drink. But she was in control of her actions, and that was the point.
"Well?" Carlisle asked, stepping up beside Jasper.
Jasper took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "I think . . . I don't know, I hate to say it because it seems way too soon, but . . . I think she's ready."
She shrugged, giving him an apologetic look. "I don't see anything, but these things tend to be last-minute decisions."
"You saw how she handled the shirt," Jasper said.
"Yes," Carlisle agreed, "but Charlie's scent will be stronger."
"She'll also be desensitized." He tossed Charlie's shirt to Bella. "Put that on. I want you to wear it for as long as you can."
Bella shrugged obediently into it and wrapped it around her. The burn in her throat was torture, but the flannel was the only connection she had to Charlie right now, and she needed it desperately.
"Plus, our other little tricks should help out. I think she's as ready as she's going to get."
"Today then?" Carlisle asked, sizing up Bella with his eyes.
"Tonight," Alice corrected. "The clouds aren't cooperating today. We'll have clear skies until sundown."
"Maybe that's not so bad," Edward said, answering an unspoken thought. "Maybe if you're going to tell him about vampires, it's best to let him have a couple of drinks first."
"You might want to take Emmett along," Alice said. "He won't be all that eager to come with you."
Carlisle nodded. "Tonight, then. Emmett, do you mind?"
Carlisle clapped a grim hand on Jasper's shoulder, fixing his gaze on Bella again. "We'll leave at a quarter to nine."
The decision made, most of the Cullens turned and headed back toward the house. Edward, though, moved to Bella's side. He had his hands stuffed in his pockets and was grinning broadly.
"I can't believe how well you're doing. Jasper thought it would take at least three or four weeks of work to get you to this point."
She shrugged self-consciously, dropping her gaze.
"I'm proud of you."
She felt him shift closer, and then his fingers were trailing lightly down the inside of her forearm. When they reached her hand, he hesitated just a moment before sliding his fingers between hers.
Bella's breath caught in her throat and she jerked her head up to look at him. He was smiling softly down at her, but his eyes held a question. Was this okay? Did she want to hold his hand?
It startled her to realize that she did. Quite apart from being her ally in the Cullen family, Edward was interesting. She liked being near him, and the indication that he enjoyed her company as well made her feel oddly unsettled inside.
But in a good way.
She squeezed his hand and his smile grew broader.
"Do you want to hunt?" he asked. "It'll help with the burn, and you won't want to be thirsty tonight."
She nodded, but hesitated, looking down at Charlie's shirt. She had ruined so many, and she didn't want to damage this one. She shrugged out of it and laid it over a tree limb, silently promising to follow Jasper's instructions and put it back on as soon as she was finished hunting.
Edward took her hand again, more confidently this time, and the two of them darted off into the trees in search of something to quell the fire in Bella's throat.
Carlisle pulled his car up in front of the Hang-Up Tavern and surveyed the building. With its peeling paint and dingy windows looking out over a cracked and uneven parking lot, it made an unimpressive sight
"You sure you want to do this?" Emmett asked.
Carlisle shook his head, never taking his eyes off of the run-down building.
"So . . . why are we here?"
"It's not my decision. He's Isabella's father." The reminder steadied his resolve and he pushed open the car door. Emmett followed him into the building, and they stood in the doorway for just a moment, their eyes sweeping the room for Charlie.
"There," Emmett said, nodding to a shadowy corner where a morose figure hunched over a half-empty glass.
Carlisle nodded, but headed for the bar instead.
The bartender greeted him with a nod. "Hey, Doc. Emmett. You're a little young to be in here, son."
"We're not staying," Carlisle told him. "I'd like to settle Chief Swan's tab, actually. He's needed elsewhere."
"You mean tonight's tab, or the whole thing?"
"How much is the whole thing?"
He turned to a computer on the corner of the bar and punched something in. "Five hundred and eighty dollars."
Carlisle's eyebrows raised nearly to his hairline. "Jack . . ."
"Why haven't you cut him off?"
He shrugged helplessly. "I can't. The man lost his daughter, Doc. If anyone has the right to drink himself into oblivion, he does."
"He'll be drinking you into bankruptcy. Here." Carlisle emptied his wallet, tossing four hundred-dollar bills and a handful of ones on the counter.
"No, hey, this isn't your responsibility." Jack tried to push the money back toward Carlisle, but he waved it away.
"I owe the chief a favor," he lied, and then turned and headed toward the corner table.
Charlie glanced up as Carlisle and Emmett approached, giving them a grunt by way of a greeting. He eyed Emmett disapprovingly, but didn't say anything.
"Chief," Carlisle greeted back. "I need to speak with you for a few minutes."
He swirled his drink and lifted it to his lips, draining the amber liquid. "So," he said, rattling the ice impatiently. "Speak."
"Privately, if you don't mind."
Charlie grunted again. "I'm off duty."
"This is a personal matter."
"Well, as you can see," Charlie rattled his ice again, "I'm busy."
Carlisle and Emmett exchanged glances.
"It's about Isabella."
Charlie dragged his gaze up to Carlisle's face, his eyes narrowing. "What the hell could you possibly have to say about Isabella?"
"Will you step outside with me?"
He grunted and turned back to his empty glass. "I'm busy."
"Charlie . . ." Carlisle put a hand on his shoulder, only to have it shaken off. He realized he was going to have to say something to demand the chief's attention, but wished he could do it somewhere more private. He sighed quietly and dropped his voice to a whisper. "I have information about her."
Charlie snorted. "Do you? Imagine that."
Carlisle glanced at Emmett, confused by the lack of reaction. "I do."
"Funny," he said, staring at his glass as though he might find more scotch hiding between the ice cubes. "All this time I've been looking for her and you haven't said a word. But suddenly you have information."
"Charlie, please come outside and talk with me."
Charlie raised his glass, catching Jack's eye as he rattled the ice. Jack nodded, but looked away quickly when Carlisle shook his head.
"You're too late, you know." Charlie waved a hand around the bar. "They already tried the whole intervention thing. I didn't give a damn then, and I don't give a damn now."
"Of course you don't." Emmett dropped down in the booth across from him. "You'll stop drinking when Isabella comes home, right?"
Charlie glared at him. "Son, you'd best find your way to the door before you and your dad both end up spending a night in jail."
"Actually, that's a good idea. Arrest me, Chief, and we'll have a conversation in the car on the way to the station."
For a moment Charlie looked like he might. But then he dropped his eyes back to his glass and mumbled, "I'm off duty."
"Here's the deal," Carlisle said. "Jack's not going to bring over another drink until I've had my say. But if you give me five minutes outside, I'll buy you the next one."
Charlie sighed heavily. "Fine." He pushed himself to his feet and followed Carlisle and Emmett out to the parking lot.
Carlisle searched for a way to begin as the door swung shut behind them. Should he tell Charlie where Isabella was right away? He wanted to, but he was afraid Charlie would lose focus.
"Listen," he said. "There's something you need to understand about my family."
Charlie crossed his arms across his chest. "Your kids don't cause trouble and you all mind your own business. As long as that doesn't change, we'll get along just fine."
"I'm afraid you and I are going to be in one another's business for a little while. Which means you need to understand what we are."
"Okay, I'll bite. What are you? Communists? Comic book enthusiasts?"
Charlie stared for a moment before rolling his eyes and turning away. "I can't believe I came out here for this."
"Hold up," Emmett said, grabbing his shoulder before he could go back inside. "You promised us five minutes."
"Oh, so you have more to say on the subject? I suppose Jack is a unicorn and I'm Bigfoot."
Emmett snickered, and Carlisle shot him a look.
"What? That was funny."
"I know it's far-fetched, Charlie, but it's important that you understand this. We're not human."
"I don't care. Be whatever you want; you're not my concern."
"No, but Isabella is."
Charlie stiffened, staring straight into Carlisle's eyes. "What exactly does she have to do with you?"
"She's been bitten."
For several long moments, Charlie said nothing. He stood there, grinding his teeth, staring at Carlisle as his face darkened to deeper and deeper shades of red. When he finally spoke, he was shaking.
"I ought to shoot you in the head for that," he growled. "I don't care what deranged ideas you go around spouting, but you leave my daughter out of it, or so help me, I will kill you."
"We've beaten around the bush long enough," Emmett said. "I understand that you're upset, Chief, but there's a little girl back home who made her way here all the way from Mexico, by herself, because she wanted to see her father. I'm not going back to her and telling her that you couldn't tear yourself away from your drink long enough to pay her a visit."
Charlie's face went from red to white in a matter of seconds. "What did you say?"
Emmett crossed his arms over his chest. "Are you coming with us or what?"
The police chief struggled to compose himself, trying to tamp down the hope that Carlisle knew he wanted to feel. But he wasn't entirely successful. "You're telling me," he said, trying to sound dubious, "that my daughter is in Forks?"
Carlisle nodded, backing Emmett up.
"At your house?"
"Jasper found her wandering around in the woods," Emmett said.
Charlie swallowed hard. "If I find out you're lying to me —"
"You'll kill me. Got it."
Carlisle was relieved that Charlie was going to come along willingly, but just as he had feared, the Chief had gotten distracted from a key issue. "Charlie," he said hesitantly, "you need to be prepared for what you're about to see. Bella isn't the little girl you remember."
"Save it," he said, holding up his hand. "I'm finished with your bullshit. You can tell me all the tall tales you want after I've seen my daughter, but until then, put a sock in it."
"You need to understand how dangerous this situation will be for you."
"No he doesn't," Emmett said.
Carlisle raised his eyebrows in question.
"We're talking about the man's daughter, Carlisle. There's no amount of danger that will keep him away from her." He turned to Charlie. "All you need to understand is that we'll do whatever it takes to keep both you and Isabella safe. Whether you like it or not."
"Is that a threat?" Charlie asked, taking a step toward him, and despite the fact that Emmett had a good five inches on him, the chief still managed to look intimidating.
"It's a heads-up. You don't want to listen to Carlisle? Fine. It won't make much sense to you when we do what we have to do, but we're still going to do it."
"If you touch my little girl —"
"You'll kill me. Let's go." He grabbed Charlie's shoulder and steered him toward the Mercedes.
She stank so badly that no one except Edward would stand near her, and even Edward was breathing as little as possible.
Which was a little bit unfair, because they were the ones who had made her smell this way.
Jasper had been the first. When she'd come back from hunting with Edward, Jasper and Alice had met her at the river with a change of clothes and a bottle of dandruff shampoo.
"Use this," Jasper said, handing it over to her. "Everywhere, not just on your hair. But do us a favor and wash in the river, will you? We don't want that stuff stinking up the house."
Alice was already hanging some sheets over nearby tree limbs to serve as a screen. "It reeks," she said over her shoulder, "which is pretty much the point."
Bella looked at the bottle, puzzled.
"It helps to have a lot of chemical smells around you to taint the scent of blood," Jasper explained.
She'd nodded dumbly and had washed as directed. As it turned out, Jasper was right. The shampoo had a startlingly powerful odor, and it lingered in a cloud around her as she dried off and dressed in the fresh clothes.
Rosalie had met her next, handing over a bottle of lotion. It was also excessively scented, and though it wasn't as bad as the shampoo it was loaded with chemicals. Alice had added her contribution by loading Bella's hair with gels and sprays — and then twisting it into a pretty coif, for good measure — and then Esme had spritzed her with a particularly unpleasant perfume.
And now she was marinating in putrid chemicals so strong that they almost completely obscured the scent of Charlie's flannel shirt.
She was still at the river. She didn't want to carry her stench into the house where the others would have no choice but to smell her. But they had all come out with her and were standing several yards away, flashing her encouraging smiles. Even Jasper had given her a wink when he caught her eye.
Bella squeezed Edward's hand, grateful to him when he responded by slipping a hand to her hip and pulling her closer to him.
"It's going to be fine," he murmured, leaning over her. "Alice and Jasper will keep an eye on you, and if you start to lose control we'll all jump in and help out."
"To the river," she whispered. "If you have to . . . I want to go in the river."
He nodded and smiled, and the warmth in his eyes distracted her momentarily from her worry.
But then she heard tires on the gravel drive in the distance, and she shivered.
"You're going to do great," Edward said, and then because he had used up the last of his air, he took in a deep breath through his mouth and held it.
The others shifted a little closer, and Esme stepped forward to give Bella's arm an encouraging squeeze before moving back again.
They waited for the car to pull up in front of the house, and when the doors opened, Esme called out quietly, "We're back here, Carlisle!"
Bella caught her breath when she heard her father's voice ask where they were going.
"They're waiting by the river behind the house," Carlisle told him.
Charlie's footsteps stopped. "Why? I swear to god, if you're lying to me —"
"I assume it's because the outside air will help dissipate your scent," Carlisle interrupted.
"Wait, Chief, put this on," Emmett said. There was the crinkle of plastic and then a silent moment before Charlie answered.
"Don't ask questions you don't want to know the answer to."
"It will make things easier for Isabella," Carlisle's more conciliatory voice answered.
Bella heard the rustle of fabric, and then the footsteps started up again. Charlie appeared around the side of the house, an odd-fitting T-shirt pulled on over his uniform. His eyes were bloodshot and wary, and they scanned the trees frantically before his gaze landed on Bella.
His breath hitched and he broke into a run.
"Charlie, be careful!" Carlisle yelled, and Jasper was suddenly at Bella's side, murmuring in her ear.
"Move with him, just like the eggs."
It was a good thing he reminded her. Charlie slammed into her with a force that would have sent her stumbling back if she hadn't already been moving. He pulled her hard against him, and for a moment her face was buried in his chest, her ear pressed directly over the heavy, wet pulse of his heart. Before she could think to break away he was pulling back, gripping her shoulders and pushing her out to arm's length, his eyes running frantically over her.
"Are you okay? Are you hurt?"
But he didn't give her time to answer. He pulled her back to him again, squeezing her hard, and his throat was right there. She held her breath, desperately fighting the urge to scent her prey, to attack. But she didn't have the control. She was losing the battle and the panic was rising.
Jasper and Edward both jumped in and pulled her back while Carlisle held Charlie. The police chief was cursing at them, yelling for them to let go, but Bella clung to Edward like a lifeline.
"Into the water," Edward said, but Jasper was refusing.
"No, wait, it will wash everything off. Isabella, breathe."
She shook her head frantically. Just the sound of Charlie's blood was driving her crazy. If she smelled it she would lose control completely."
"Do it, Isabella! We planned for this!"
She struggled in his grasp, trying to wrench herself free, though she wasn't sure if it was the water or the blood she would run for once she was loose.
"Damn it, kid! I'll put you in the water if I have to, but if I do we're calling this a failed experiment and we're not trying again for three months."
"No!" She gasped in panic, and as soon as the new air entered her lungs she gagged and recoiled.
It was Edward's voice this time, calm and soothing, his lips close to her ear.
"Breathe it in. We did all this for a reason, remember?"
She took another breath, feeling herself steady. She could smell the blood, thick and sweet and begging to be tasted, and it set her throat afire. But mingled with that scent was the shampoo, the mousse, the hair spray, the perfume, the lotions, and then something else. Something revolting and familiar. Bella's gaze darted around the trees, trying to find where it was coming from.
"It's Jared's shirt," Edward murmured. "He let us borrow it."
Bella stared wide-eyed at the T-shirt Charlie was wearing. It stank. Worse than Bella did, even. And it soured the scent of Charlie's blood enough that it was bearable. Her throat still burned with thirst, but she could resist. She straightened slowly, easing out of Jasper's grip and starting toward Charlie again.
Only he was gaping at her in horror now, pale and stricken.
"Dad?" she whispered, halting her step.
For a moment he didn't answer. He just stared at her, his face a sickly pallor.
Bella dropped her gaze to the ground, her hands twisting in front of her. Of course he was horrified. She was a monster now. Why had she ever thought she could come back? Why had she thought he would want her like this?
But then he was moving forward again, his footsteps and his thudding heart and his stinking shirt all closing in on her, and he reached out to raise her chin, cupping her cheeks in his warm hands.
"What happened to you?" he whispered, his hands sweeping down her cheeks to her shoulders, and then down her arms. "My little girl . . . my Bella . . . what happened to you?" He pulled her against him again, hugging her hard, and then he did something Bella had never seen him do before.
Her stoic, emotionally awkward father broke down and cried.
He wept into her hair, kissing to top of her head, mumbling over and over again, "My baby, my baby, my little girl." His body shook with the force of his sobs and he rocked her back and forth, pinning her against his warm body.
Bella kept her nose buried in his shirt as she clung to him. Her throat was killing her but the wolf stench kept her focused.
Several long minutes passed before Charlie managed to compose himself, using the collar of his borrowed T-shirt to dry his eyes. He released Bella and took a step back, but he couldn't seem to keep himself from touching her. He rubbed her arm, coiled a stray lock of hair around his finger, brushed lint from her shoulder, and generally fidgeted in the way he always did when he wasn't sure what to do with himself.
"I didn't give up," he finally told her, his red eyes pleading for understanding. "I just didn't know what to do. There were no leads to follow, not a single trace.
Bella's lower lip trembled. "I'm sorry."
"What happened, baby? Where have you been?"
Bella was suddenly conscious of seven pairs of eyes on her in addition to Charlie's, and she wrapped her arms around herself, hunching down as though she could make herself disappear.
"No. It doesn't matter." He was shaking his head quickly. "You're back, that's all I care about. Come on, let's get you home."
She jerked in shock and fell back a step. "No. I can't."
"Of course you can. I kept your room just the way you left it. All your stuff is still there."
"You don't understand. I can't live with you."
"She can't, Charlie," Carlisle said, moving forward. "You need to acknowledge what she is."
"She's my daughter!"
"She's a vampire."
"Dad, I am."
He was trembling all over as he took her face in his hands again. "Bella, I don't know what these lunatics told you, but you're not a vampire."
"They're not lunatics. They're helping me."
"This isn't helping, this is brainwashing."
She took a step back. "Look at me, Dad. Look at my eyes. You know this isn't normal."
But he couldn't look at her, not for very long, before his eyes darted away. "You look like you've been sick. You need to come home so you can get some rest."
"Isabella Marie, that's enough! You're still my daughter, and you'll come home when I tell you to!"
"Stop." Edward's voice was quiet, but firm, and he pulled Bella back a few steps, tucking her under his arm. "Chief, I understand you're upset. But Bella is, too. She doesn't need you yelling at her, she needs you to listen."
Charlie's eyes darkened as he appraised Edward. "Two things, boy. First, get your goddamn hands off of my daughter. And second, I don't need a teenager telling me how to raise my kid."
"Two more things, boy," Edward snapped back, his arm tightening around Bella. "I've got sixty years on you, so don't talk down to me —"
"Edward!" Carlisle broke in sharply, giving him a stern look.
Edward clamped his jaw shut, though it looked as if it took great effort to do so, and at Carlisle's gesture he reluctantly released Bella and moved away from her.
With that matter settled, Carlisle turned to Charlie. "I'll make you a deal," he said. "Call your friend Billy Black. If you can convince him that Isabella should go home with you, I won't argue."
Charlie smirked. "Are you sure you want to make that deal? Billy doesn't like you very much."
"Billy doesn't like us because he knows what we are."
Charlie considered the offer. "And what alternative do you have in mind? Where else is she supposed to go?"
"She's welcome here."
"In a house full of teenage boys?" He snorted. "I don't think so."
"My boys aren't teenagers," Carlisle said with a small smile. "Emmett's eighty-nine. He's the baby of the family."
Emmett flashed Charlie a wide grin, but it only seemed to unnerve him. The chief rubbed a hand through his hair and muttered under his breath, "Even worse."
"Hey," Emmett said, looking affronted. "We may be vampires, but we're still gentlemen. We're not going to take advantage of a little girl."
"Yeah? Tell him that." Charlie jerked his thumb at Edward.
"Edward is quite fond of Isabella," Carlisle told him, "but I assure you, he has been nothing but respectful. I wouldn't tolerate anything else."
Esme drifted forward and placed a hand on Charlie's arm. "I wish she could go home with you, Charlie. I wish things weren't any more complicated than that. But Isabella is facing some very difficult challenges, and this is the safest place for her."
Charlie looked at her, his eyes pleading. "What if it were your kid? What would you do?"
"It would break my heart," she said gently. "But I would have to do what was best for her."
"You can call her any time," Carlisle said, moving up behind Esme. "Day or night. And we'll arrange for you to visit whenever Bella feels up to it."
Charlie was silent for a long time, looking lost and helpless. Finally, he took a deep breath and looked sadly at Bella. "No drinking or smoking," he told Carlisle, "and not too much caffeine."
Carlisle chuckled to himself, but he nodded.
"And I don't want her out all hours of the night. Her curfew is ten o'clock."
"And these two," he said, pointing between Edward and Bella. "They need a chaperone at all times."
"Deal," Carlisle said.
"What?" Edward protested.
"I'm sorry, Edward, but I agree with him. They're reasonable rules for a teenage girl."
"That's stupid," he muttered.
Charlie sighed, still focused only on Bella. "I don't know how I'm going to tell your mother."
"Um . . ." Bella bit her lip. "You can't."
"What do you mean, I can't?"
"This has to stay secret, Dad. She can't do secrets."
"Maybe not," Rosalie pointed out. "I mean, there's no more Volturi, right? Who's going to care if the secret gets out?"
"It's dangerous for us," Jasper answered.
"Because humans will panic, and they'll start bombing anybody they suspect. And that's assuming another vampire regime doesn't rise up to fill the vacancy. It's best to play it close to the vest until we see how things shake out."
"Renée has been worried sick for two months," Charlie spat angrily. "You're telling me I'm just supposed to pretend Bella is still missing?"
"It's best if you just let her forget about me," Bella whispered sadly.
"Forget? That's never going to happen, baby. Mothers don't do that, they don't just let go of their kids."
The air left Bella's lungs in a rush as the guilt slammed into her. Charlie was still talking, but she couldn't hear him over the rushing in her ears.
Mothers don't let go of their kids.
Not good mothers, anyway.
Bella sank to her knees, only vaguely aware of Edward and Jasper crouching on either side of her. Her mind latched onto the memory of a warm baby boy with black curls as soft as silk and dark, soulful eyes.
She had tried to make excuses for herself. She hadn't wanted him. She was only sixteen. She was a monster, unfit even to take care of herself, much less a baby.
But Charlie had said it, and she knew it was true. Mothers didn't let go of their kids. They didn't abandon helpless babies to vicious, unstable people like Joham and Serena. What Bella had done was unforgivable.
If Charlie knew, he probably wouldn't want to have anything more to do with her.
Charlie was kneeling in front of her. She could feel his hands on her shoulders, smell the rank odor of his shirt. She felt exposed, as though he could see all of her secrets and all of her sins. Panic rose up inside of her. She needed to run, to get far away from him.
"The blood," she gasped, because she knew they would believe her. She knew they would let her go. She scrambled to her feet and ran to the river, diving down to the bottom and hiding herself in the weeds. She could hear Charlie's anxiety-laden voice, and Carlisle's soothing reassurances. She could hear the disturbance in the water as Edward waded into the shallows before diving down to join her at the bottom. She felt his body over hers and his arms coming around to grip the river plants on either side of her, hovering an inch or two above her.
Bella released her hold and tucked her arms against her chest, letting herself float until she settled against Edward's body. She let him hold her down, anchoring her deep under the protective weight of the water, hiding her from the truths she didn't want to acknowledge.
After a few minutes she heard Charlie leave with Carlisle and Esme, but still she stayed, concealed beneath the river and Edward. He tapped her shoulder once, a wordless question, but she shook her head quickly and he gave her arm a squeeze. A few more minutes went by and she felt his fingers move to her hair, plucking out Alice's pins and freeing her long locks to the pull of the current. When all of the pins were out he laced his fingers through her hair, massaging her scalp with slow, relaxing strokes.
She let a half hour pass, and then an hour, before she finally felt able to face the world again. She pushed against the soft riverbed, nudging her body against Edward's, and he released his hold on the weeds. He wrapped an arm around her waist and the two of them drifted lazily away from their haven, allowing the current to carry them downstream before they reached the surface.
Once they emerged into the warm night air, they swam to the shallows and waded out of the water. Edward caught Bella's hand and she leaned her head against his arm.
"Thank you," she murmured.
"It was my sincere pleasure."
She smiled up at him and he leaned down to kiss her forehead.
Wordlessly, contentedly, they made their way back toward the house in their sodden clothes. Almost everyone had gone back inside already, but as they approached the house Bella noticed Jasper leaning against one of the trees outside. He caught her eye, and the hard look on his face told her that he hadn't for a second believed her lie that her thirst had suddenly become too much for her to bear.
He had seen right through her, and he wasn't pleased.
"Isabella," he said as they passed, his voice as hard as his face.
"Save it," Edward replied, and he guided Bella into the house without even glancing Jasper's way.