A/N: Hello, all my lovely readers. Yes, I've been gone for a while. For those of you who didn't hear on Twitter or through whatever fandom grapevine there might be, I was in the hospital. And I'm gonna be honest, because I'm not ashamed and I think it's important to talk about: I was at a voluntary inpatient facility after a suicide attempt. I've dealt with depression and anxiety for most of my life, and it just got the better of me. I'm working through an intensive outpatient program right now, which lasts the better part of a month. I don't know what will happen after that with RL, whether I'll go right back to work or not, but rest assured, neither Wisp nor ACAP are being abandoned. I just have a lot of RL stuff right now. So that's where I've been and what's going on with me. Shall we see what's going on with Wisp and Ed-ward?
All standard disclaimers apply.
They left Puyallup with a promise to return the next day to look at the police department's files. Wisp seemed perfectly happy to leave the past behind her. As Edward carried her away from the derelict old house, she stared at the dark, empty hulk for a long moment, lifting one hand in a solemn little wave, and then turned, brushing her lips against Edward's cheek and settling against him. Edward held her tightly. She'd been remarkably good, incredibly well-behaved, courageous beyond anything he'd any right to expect. So brave. So beautiful.
They had three rooms in a row on the third floor of a pricey chain hotel—one for Emmett, one for Emily, and one for Edward and Wisp. She rested silently in his arms as Edward carried her up the stairs and into their room, Emily following. She yawned into his shoulder and hugged him close as he sat on the side of the big hotel bed.
Emmett struggled into the room carrying and dragging the luggage. He grinned as he dumped everything in a corner and collapsed in a padded armchair. "So...what's next? Dinner? Pool?"
Edward considered the girl whose head nestled against his shoulder. She was sweet and quiet; he couldn't tell what she might want, other than some rest. And who could blame her? It had been a long, trying day. One hand drifted to her hair and he stroked the silken strands gently. "Wisp? What do you want?"
She tipped her head up, watching him with her big, solemn eyes.
"Do you want dinner? Food?"
She hummed softly, a noncommittal sound, as her eyes blinked slowly. "Edward."
"I'm here with you," he promised. "I'm not going anywhere." Not that it needed to be said, but he felt better reiterating the point. After being in those houses, he felt a deep need to keep her close, as if her past might snatch her back at any moment.
He also felt like a long, hot shower, for both of them. Or bath, in Wisp's case. The filth of the two abandoned houses clung close, both literally and figuratively.
"It might not be a bad idea to at least offer food." Emily reached for the room service menu on the table. "She's not in shock in a literal, medical sense, but she looks a little dazed."
She did. Edward hugged her close, and he had to smile when Emmett dug the little brown teddy bear out of Wisp's bag and offered it to her. She took the toy and cuddled it to her chest, even as she asked, "Pet?"
"Not tonight, I'm afraid," Edward said as gently as he could. "Pet is back home, where she belongs. You'll see her again tomorrow."
She pouted a little, but held her teddy bear and didn't complain.
"I could go for a huge steak." Emmett peered over Emily's shoulder. "Anything like that on the menu?"
"You guys can go out—you don't have to eat overpriced room service." Edward rubbed his thumb along Wisp's back in slow circles. One of her legs swung idly, and he noticed that she was still wearing those pink Chucks. "We'll be fine here."
Emmett shrugged. "I'm not picky. This is fine."
That was true. Emmett would eat just about anything.
They ended up ordering a Hawaiian pizza for Edward and Wisp, a Caesar salad for Emily, and Emmett got his steak and french fries. While they waited for the food, Edward excused himself to take a quick shower. He shuddered at the thought of Wisp crawling around on hotel carpet, but she'd get her bath afterward. His gut rolled uncomfortably as he closed the bathroom door, losing sight of her as she knelt next to Emily's chair. He didn't want to be away from her—not today. Not after everything he'd seen.
As he turned on the unfamiliar shower, Edward found that his hands were trembling. They shook visibly, and he braced one arm against the tiled shower wall, inhaling the steamy air deep into his lungs. Wisp. His Wisp. What the hell had she been through? What had those bastards done to her? He had some clues, but not nearly enough. Jeremiah Tucker, the "crazy preacher," had obviously physically abused her. Detective Singh said the boys in his care admitted as much, and there was no mistaking the satisfaction with which Wisp broke that switch when she found it. Brainwashing also seemed likely. What else would you call locking a child in a closet with a giant cross, other than an awful sort of brainwashing method? His body shook, and he turned the water hotter. There was something cold inside him, something icy and unpleasant, and he ached to feel it thaw. His body was too tight, his muscles tensed, clenched. The hot water wasn't helping.
And Leonard Gerandy? Wisp's "bad doctor"? Edward knew he'd physically abused the girl; that was more than obvious. She'd also admitted, her words and body language clear as crystal, that he sexually abused her. Unbidden, the image of her broken body rose in his mind, the way he'd first seen her. Filthy. Horribly beaten and terrified, pulled from the back of James' truck. So small. How could anyone want that? How could that sort of fear and pain bring someone else pleasure? Bile rose in his throat. He swallowed hard, but his stomach rebelled and he found himself bent over, one hand braced on the wall, vomiting liquid and stomach acid from his empty stomach. Fuck. His eyes watered and his throat burned. She was just a child. She didn't deserve any of it.
What about the tattooed man she'd yet to name? And James? Where did they fit in? Who taught her to act like an animal, and why? When had her humanity been taken from her? For what purpose? It seemed that the preacher wasn't complicit, if he forced her to memorize Bible verses. Someone else had taken her language from her. Was it the doctor? The man with the tattooed arms? Someone else, someone they weren't even aware of? How many men had hurt her? Would they ever know the full truth?
Edward was still shaking when he opened the door, showered and dressed in clean clothes. Emmett had disappeared, and Wisp had his laptop in front of her. He could hear Esme's voice through the computer speakers—Emily had set Wisp up to Skype with her mother-figure, something he hoped would help keep her calm. She seemed fine at the moment, one finger in her mouth, her other arm wrapped around her teddy bear as she stared at the lighted screen.
Emily took one look at him and rose from her seat. "Sit down," she said, putting a hand to his shoulder.
"I'm fine." He took a seat on the end of the bed nonetheless. "I told you before, I'm fine."
Emily ignored him. She pressed her fingers to the inside of his wrist again and held up her other arm with a watch. "Your pulse is still racing," she said after a minute.
"There's nothing wrong with me."
"I didn't say there was. Humor me—how do you feel physically? Any headache? Nausea? Trouble breathing, or tightness in your chest? Do you feel dizzy or faint?"
Edward wondered if she'd heard him vomiting, and whether he could lie about it. What was she getting at, anyway?
At his continued silence, Emily gave a wry, humorless smile. "I know," she said quietly. "I know it's hard to do this, especially when she means so much to you." She went to her bag and dug around until she withdrew a familiar little prescription bottle.
"Those are Wisp's," Edward objected.
Emily held the bottle out to him. "And I'm the one who prescribed them to her. I can't force you, but I want you to take one."
Edward looked dubiously at the orange bottle of tiny white pills. "They knock her out. I can't afford to be unconscious; she needs me."
"You're a lot bigger than she is. The dose to calm her will only take the edge off for you, but I think it will be useful."
"I don't have panic attacks."
"But right now your body is full of anxiety, and it's not good for you. I promise, this won't do anything more than slow things down and make it easier for you to cope. Taking a pill doesn't mean there's something wrong with you, and it doesn't mean you have a diagnosis. All it means is that you've had a really stressful day and your body needs a little help coping with it. It's up to you." She turned back to Wisp.
Edward stared at the bottle in his hand for several minutes before swallowing one of the tiny tablets.
That night, at the hotel in Tacoma, Edward dreamed.
He was married to the love of his life, a woman he squeezed playfully in his arms, her bright, loud laugh rolling out of her like music. Sunlight streamed through huge picture windows, painting everything white and gold, restricting his sight with the intensity of the light. Her hair shone, throwing back glints of sun. She patted at his head, running her fingers through his unruly hair, trying to tame it until she gave up with a little shake of her head and another beautiful laugh. He chuckled with her and dropped his hands to her round, swollen belly, feeling his child stir inside her. In his dream, none of this surprised him. Of course he was married to this woman. Of course she was pregnant with his child. There was nothing wrong with that—in fact, everything was right. So incredibly right.
Until the darkness came.
The sun clouded over in an instant.
He didn't hear a door open, but suddenly a man stood before them. He was tall, his face obscured, and his bare, muscular arms swam with tattoos. They were so thick and dark Edward couldn't tell what they were supposed to be. His wife, his love, trembled and shrank against him. He reached for her, to protect and soothe her. Just as his hands closed around soft, supple skin, the man before them laughed. Edward tried to hold her tighter, only to find that he wasn't holding a grown woman ripe with child, but a tiny, scared little girl, four or five years old at most, clinging to him with all her might. He gripped her back hard as the smell of decay, of mildew and rot, seeped into his consciousness.
The tattooed man laughed again and reached forward. He plucked the little girl from Edward's arms as easily as if she'd been offered to him. Her agonized cry lingered in Edward's ears and he struggled against the strange paralysis that sometimes attacked him in nightmares, where he just couldn't do anything to counteract the terror before him. He fought it, fought to lift an arm, move a leg—anything. But all he could do was smell the scent of ruin as he watched the man with the tattoos hold the terrified little girl against him. Her eyes were wild with fear as she reached for Edward, desperate to be away from the man who held her. But Edward couldn't move.
Her voice was high and hysterical.
Edward knew he had failed her.
He jerked awake, sweaty and panting, and instinctively fumbled for the bedside light. It was much brighter than the one they were used to at the cabin, and both he and a sleeping Wisp beside him flinched. She whined, her delicate face folded into a soft scowl, and buried her head in her pillow.
Edward forced himself to take slow, deep breaths, staring at the girl curled next to him on the big hotel bed. Neither the woman nor the little girl in his dream looked like Wisp. They didn't sound like Wisp, either, from what he could remember, though his memories were fuzzy. They slipped further from his grasp, details fading into a watery haze, as he stared at the girl sleeping beside him. His Wisp. His lovely, broken girl. He must have moved too much during his nightmare, and her little body fell from its accustomed spot on top of his. She was sleeping peacefully on the mattress now; he wouldn't disturb her by trying to move her back. Instead, he curled his body around hers, leaving the light on. But he didn't go back to sleep.
If Emily noticed his lack of sleep the next morning, she said nothing. After a light breakfast, Edward helped Wisp into her swimsuit. No matter how he felt or what happened yesterday, he refused to let an opportunity like this slip by. The hotel had a heated, indoor pool, and Wisp deserved something fun after yesterday.
The pool area was empty when they opened the door and stepped into the heavy, chlorine-scented air. Wisp squealed when she saw the full Olympic-sized pool, with a low diving board on one end. Her hands tightened into fists on his shirt, her cheeks pinking with excitement, and despite his lack of sleep, Edward had to laugh. She was so eager, so responsive.
Emmett settled on a plastic lounge chair with his camera out, saying he'd promised Rose video of Wisp's first swim. Emily sat on the side and dangled her brown legs in the water, watching with a smile as Edward shucked off his shoes and stepped onto the stairs leading into the pool. The water didn't feel particularly warm to him, but it wasn't cold, either. If Wisp got chilled, there was also a hot tub they could use to help warm her up. Right now, she wasn't interested in the smaller tub of steaming water—she only had eyes for the big pool. Her breath came fast and shallow as Edward waded deeper, and she squealed again when the water brushed her skin. She kicked her bare foot, sloshing water, testing the temperature with her toes.
Edward waded further into the pool, the water rising to his waist, stilling when Wisp wiggled in his arms, pulling as if she wanted to be put down. "Are you sure?" He shifted his grip, holding her under her arms, letting her sink lower in the water. "Your hot tub is deeper than this, but there are no seats here."
She ignored his warning, kicking her legs, pushing against the resistance of the water. He lowered her further, until her feet rested against the bottom of the pool and the water lapped at her ribs. She was a terrified little thing under many circumstances, but the water didn't frighten her at all, despite its unfamiliarity. She took to it with fascination, eyes wide, mouth set in a little O as she swept her arms across the surface of the pool, making ripples that bounced off the side and returned to her.
"You are up, little Wisp." Edward shifted his hands again, trying to give her a little more of her own weight if that's what she wanted.
"Up," she insisted, turning to face him. She grabbed his arms, and only then did he remember the game they'd played in her hot tub.
"Okay, honey," he said, and he couldn't help smiling. "We can play." He held his arms out in front of him, letting her steady herself. When she was ready, Wisp leaned her weight on his arms and lifted her feet from the bottom of the pool, hopping awkwardly toward him. Her eyes were bright, her smile big as Edward stepped back and let her come to him again. He walked the short length of the pool, never moving deeper, content to let her play in the relative shallows that approximated the depth of her hot tub. They went back and forth three times, Wisp's cheeks reddening with the exercise, her piping voice begging for more when he paused to make sure she was okay.
"Hey Wispy girl," Emmett called from the side of the pool. He had a navy blue foam kickboard in his hands, and the camera was nowhere to be seen. "Why don't you try with this?"
He jumped in, creating a huge splash and making her squeal. She blinked the water out of her eyes and watched, enthralled, as Emmett leaned the upper part of his chest on the buoyant foam board and gripped it with his hands, kicking his legs behind him and propelling himself through the water. He circled Edward and Wisp once, then stood and offered her the board. "Try it," he urged. "Then you won't have to hold on to this old stick-in-the-mud all the time." He slapped Edward's back.
Edward wasn't sure he liked this plan. As far as anyone knew, Wisp couldn't actually swim, and her muscles were weak from malnutrition and disuse. If she happened to slip off the little board or something else went wrong...
But Wisp, ever fearless when it came to water, had other plans. She grabbed the board from Emmett and lowered herself over it, just as he had done.
"Hold on tight, little Wispy girl," the police officer said, squeezing his big hand over hers to ensure that she had a good grip on the board. "Now stick those toothpick legs out behind you and kick!"
Wisp's attempts at kicking didn't stir up nearly as much water as Emmett's did, and the parts of her body not held up by the kickboard tended to sink, as she was skin and bone and her body had no buoyancy. Edward and Emmett walked on either side of her as she toiled, her lower lip sucked in her mouth, her eyes bright as she concentrated on moving her body correctly—kicking her legs one after the other, hugging the board to her chest, tipping her chin up out of the water, and keeping her balance so she didn't lean too far one way or the other.
"Good girl," Edward breathed, watching as Wisp laboriously propelled herself around the pool. She had absolutely no grasp of steering, so he and Emmett gently guided her away from the sides of the pool every time she drifted close. She panted and laughed, and it was clear that she was having the time of her life. Edward knew as he watched her that this couldn't be a one-time thing. There was no public pool in Forks, no gym they could join that offered swimming to its members, but there were several options in Port Angeles, if he remembered correctly. She didn't like car rides, but he had a hunch she wouldn't mind if she knew she got to go swimming. Her hot tub in the back yard was nice, and he was intensely grateful to his parents for the gift, but this definitely gave her more room to explore her body and what it was capable of.
Emily's voice rang hollowly in the big room, and Edward tensed. He turned, wary, and hesitated when Wisp's therapist waved him over.
"It's okay, Ed," Emmett said from Wisp's other side. "I got her. This little ducky's safe, I swear."
So, reluctantly, Edward made his way to where Emily sat, dangling her legs in the water and watching Wisp play.
"Hi," she said. "No offense, but you look like my dog does when he thinks he's getting punished. Is everything okay?"
Edward shrugged, searching for the words to explain how he felt. It wasn't that he disliked Emily. And it wasn't that he didn't trust her. She'd been immensely helpful yesterday, and he owed her a lot for even being willing to take on a case like Wisp. But...
"I feel like I'm always doing shit wrong," he said finally, watching Wisp and Emmett across the pool. "Like I'm second-guessing myself all the time now."
"Now? You mean, since I started working with you." It wasn't a question. Nor was it accusatory—Emily's voice was gentle.
"Well, yeah." Edward leaned against the rough concrete lip of the pool, feeling it scratch along his back. He heard the gentle lapping of the water at a nearby drain. "I'm not saying I don't get it, because I do. But all this shit like her sleeping with me..." He shook his head. It wasn't easy to put into words how this whole arrangement made him feel. Emily was the expert; he'd never had a problem with that. It was something else, something he found extremely difficult to define. "I don't know," he said. "I just know I don't like it."
"I don't doubt that. Constantly second-guessing yourself can't feel good to anyone." Emily kicked her legs slowly through the water, her eyes following a giggling Wisp playing with Emmett in the pool. "You said you understood why she shouldn't be sleeping in your bed."
"I do, intellectually." Edward dropped his head back, sinking lower in the water, slouching against the side of the pool. "I know it doesn't look good. I know she needs boundaries. I know all of that. But it turned out really, really badly when we tried it your way, and I'm nervous about what will happen even as we move her slowly toward independence. She's not happy about it, and I hate making her upset. But more than that, I guess I hate the assumption about me—what people would think if they knew. Not you or our family, but just random people. They'd think I was a monster taking advantage of her, and I'm not." Just the thought of it made him feel ill.
Emily was quiet for a moment. "I'd like you to think about something, Edward, if you would. I don't expect an answer, but I'd like you to consider it."
"Sure." Edward's voice was wary, and his muscles tensed.
"What do you think you might have done differently if you'd pulled somebody else out of that pickup truck? Someone other than Wisp?" She cocked her head to the side, watching him as he stared down into the water. "What if the person in there had been a young boy, rather than a young girl? What if it had been an old man? Or an unattractive girl, as opposed to one who's undeniably beautiful? What might you have done differently? Would you still have wanted to keep that person with you when the state took them away? Would you bathe them? Let them sleep in your bed? Cuddle and kiss them, like you do her?"
"I..." Edward let his voice trail off. His stomach tightened uncomfortably as he listened to Wisp's breathless laughter. He had no answer for Emily—none that he could voice anyway. Irritation raked at his insides, even though his head knew they were perfectly valid questions. What would he have done differently? Certainly none of Emily's alternatives held the visual and tactile appeal that Wisp did. She was beautiful and warm and soft, and her body fit so well with his when she cuddled into him. But what did that mean? He wasn't a predator—he wasn't. Even Rosalie knew that, and Rose did not give her trust easily. But no, Edward couldn't honestly say he'd have fought to keep an old man or a young boy in his life as he'd fought for Wisp.
And that hurt.
What if that bitch doctor from the state was right all along? What if he had some dark, hidden motive, one he wasn't even conscious of? What if his desire to help Wisp wasn't just altruism, as he'd told himself from the beginning?
"I'm not a predator," he whispered.
"Edward, of course you're not." Emily put her hand on his shoulder. He jerked in surprise, turning to meet her eyes. "You are a good man—a better man than most. If I thought for one minute that Wisp wasn't safe in your care, I'd be on the phone with her social worker demanding he find a different placement for her. Trust me, I have no doubt that your home is a perfectly good one for her. Would everyone rather she were in a home with a female caregiver, like Esme? Of course. That's just how society thinks. But no one thinks you're abusive, or that she shouldn't be with you. I just want you to really think about your relationship with her. I know you've said that you don't like defining it, putting labels on what you are to each other. You don't have to explain or justify that stuff to me. But you do need to define it for yourself, so you know where your healthy boundaries are. You need to know before she tests them, especially since you know your weaknesses, and you know it's not easy for you to deny her. For instance, you kiss her and she kisses you. Yes, it's very cute when she asks for 'thimbles,' but what will you do when she tries to kiss you on the mouth? I guarantee at some point she will, and you need to be ready. You've admitted that she's tried to give you fellatio more than once. Obviously that's way, way over the line of what's allowable, but what about smaller things like a kiss on the mouth? Or a kiss on the throat, or collarbone? What will you do if she tries to undress for you, after you've ceased to help her bathe and dress? What will you do if she decides she wants romance, once she learns the concept. You're the obvious first place she'll seek it. Is there any point at which you'd hypothetically be open to that sort of attention from her? A level of emotional and mental maturity on her part that would make you feel okay attempting that sort of relationship? These are things you need to know, Edward. For your sake as well as hers. I'm sorry to be the voice of reality when reality isn't kind, but that's the way the world works. You won't know how to handle a situation unless you've thought about it beforehand, and you know your own limits."
Edward grit his teeth. She was right. He hated it, but Emily was right.
"I'm here to help," she added, softer now, soothing. "If you get stuck, or just want to talk something out. I'm here for both of you."
"Hey," Emmett called. Wisp was on his back, clinging to his shoulders as he swam to the wall. "It's almost time to check out. Are we about ready to go?"
Wisp certainly was. Gloriously happy and utterly worn out by her brief but thorough exercise, she breathed deeply, her heart pounding as Edward eased her gently out of the pool and into his arms. She dripped as he lowered her so she could grab a towel from a pile in the corner. She buried her face in the soft white terrycloth, rubbing her red cheeks dry. "Swim," she said proudly. "Swim."
Even through his conflicted feelings over his talk with Emily, Wisp's happiness made him smile. Yes, he understood that Emily's advice was extremely important for everyone involved, and he needed to listen to her. But he loved this girl. He loved her so damn much. And that would never change, no matter how many limits he needed to enforce.
As he climbed the stairs back to their hotel room, his phone buzzed in the pocket of his hoodie, slung over his shoulder. "Will you get that?" he asked Emmett, who dutifully pulled it free. "Who is it?" Esme and Rosalie both promised they'd look in on Wisp's cat and call if there was anything wrong. Fuck, what if the little demon had got out again? Or somehow managed to hurt itself throwing a temper tantrum over Wisp's absence. He remembered all too well the fit it threw when Wisp was in the hospital.
"Uh..." Emmett stopped on the stairs, so Edward stopped, too.
"Well? Who is it?"
Emmett showed him the screen just as the call went to voicemail.
It was Tanya, his ex.
A/N: A huge thanks to MsHavisham79, CallMePagliacci, livie79, Krazyk85, and LyricalKris for being wonderful, supportive, and amazing during my unplanned hiatus.
Want to know what I'm reading right now? Some current WIP's I'm following:
Glycerine by livie79
The Cullen Legacy by pattyrose
Marley's Mother by Pandora's Box Is Heavy
Changing My Course by Twilover76
Chop and Change by Krazyk85
Servatis A Maleficum by Hev99
Adore, Adore by ooza
The Keepsake by windchymes
Kaleidoscope by luvrofink
The Gap by capitalab
The Heir and The Spare by sleepyvalentina