Stephenie Meyer owns the Twilight parts.

Thanks to Iris for cleaning this up and to M and Nic for pre-reading. Any mistakes left are mine.


Somehow I make it to work on time Friday morning. Mom sends a text to let me know that she's taking Mack to my place to pack a bag for this weekend since she won't be back until Monday. She says that Mack is fine after last night's outburst. Quiet and broody, but fine.

Just like her old man.

Only I'm not fine.

During my downtime, I call Jeff Jenks again to ask if it would matter if Mack chose to be here.

"Hell yes, it would matter," he says. "The state recognizes the child's wishes at twelve. It's not a closed-book guarantee, but it helps tremendously. We could file earlier if your daughter wants to stay with you."

"I haven't talked to her, yet. It seems like a lot to put on a little girl."

"The courts don't see her as a little girl. She's almost thirteen and capable of making informed decisions."

"I'll be in touch."

He sighs. "At some point, you're going to have to decide if you're in this or not, Edward. Your ex-wife wasn't above playing dirty the last time. This can be as clean as a whistle if Mack decides she wants to live here."

"I'll talk to her."

Mack is still asleep when I get to Mom's Saturday morning, so I catch a nap on the couch while I wait for her. The smell of eggs and coffee wakes me a couple of hours later. My stomach growls until I can't ignore it, so I throw off the blanket and make my way into the kitchen.

Mom is sitting at the table, and Mack is standing at the stove with a spatula in her hand. She turns an omelet before sliding it onto a plate. She takes it to mom and almost drops it on her lap when she sees me standing in the doorway.

"Hey, Dad."

She gets a mug from the cabinet and fills it with coffee, keeping her back to me. Before I can tell her she shouldn't be drinking coffee at her age, she turns and brings it over to me. "Are you hungry?"

"I could eat." I take the cup from her, and she nods, smiling a little.

"Sit down."

I take a seat at the island to be closer to her. She cracks eggs, and I sit back and watch. "When did you learn how to cook?"

She laughs. "I got tired of Rice Krispies, so I taught myself."

"How?"

"YouTube," she says. "There are videos for almost everything."

"Wow."

"It's not rocket science, Dad."

I wait until hers is done and then move to the table to sit with Mom. It's the best omelet I've ever had. And the only time I've ever eaten spinach and liked it.

"Fresh vegetables taste better." Mack pours a glass of grape juice before sitting next to me at the table. "Do you think we could go grocery shopping after you pick me up Monday morning?"

If she's still upset, she's covering nicely. This is the most she's spoken to me since she's been here. "Sure, we can do that."

"Whole Foods."

"Okay."

She's quiet through the rest of the meal, and when she's finished eating, she clears the table. Mom watches over her coffee cup with a satisfied gleam in her eye. It makes me wonder how much of this is Mack and how much of it is her.

I wait to ask until after Mack leaves the kitchen.

"What did you say to her?"

She glances up from a word search. "We had a chat about respect."

"I wish you would have let me do that."

"When?" The paper hits the table between us. "When you were storming out of the house?" My silence causes a tired sigh to escape her. "If that's the way you're going to handle things, you're in for a long, hard road, son."

"I had a lot of time to think yesterday. A friend suggested asking Mack what she wants, and my lawyer says she's old enough to decide."

"If you do that, I expect you to support her, no matter what she says. If you tell her she can stay, I want you to make it happen."

"I know." The last thing I want to do is let her down again. Either of them.

"Paul was always independent. And we both know Jared is the mama's boy," she says, resting her palm on my back. "But you… You were your father's shadow. I'm proud of everything you've ever done, but nothing made me prouder than the way you were with Mack." I stand to get away from her and the comfort she's trying to offer. "I've tried to give you time. I've given you space. But you keep wandering further and further away when she's gone. You can continue to do this alone, or you can let us help you."

"You already do by keeping Mack. I can borrow money from my 401K to pay the lawyer." I'd rather do that than borrow from the savings I have for Mack's college. Most of the time, I contribute for groceries at the station or eat free of charge at Silky's. I only have to pay for the booze there, so my bank account stays in the plus every month despite the automatic deduction for child support. I keep the Silky's money separate in a savings account for Mack. She probably won't need it with the grades she's pulling, but maybe she can use it for dorms or daily expenses. I worked my way through school, but it would be nice if she didn't have to.

"I'm not talking about money," she says.

Mack walks into the kitchen wearing a fitted white t-shirt and a tie-dyed skirt that ends mid-calf. Her hair is pulled back into a ponytail but still curly. This is the first day she hasn't spent almost an hour straightening it since she's been here. She looks more like the Mack I know, except for the skirt and makeup. It seems the tomboy in her may be gone.

"Do we have plans today, Dad?"

"No, not really. I told your mom that I'd drop you off at Carmen's around five. Why?"

"The Italian Festival is this weekend. Jane said they're going…"

I haven't seen her since Thursday, and I won't see her again until Monday. She'd rather spend the day with my brother's family than me.

"Okay."

"Cool. Will you send Aunt Rachel a text to let her know we're coming? What time do you want to meet them there?"

Choices. My brain works in absolutes, but according to Bella, Mack wants choices. That was an invitation, and I didn't even realize it.

"Whenever you want to go," I say.

"The gates opened at eleven. We could go now, and they could catch up later."

"Are you ready?"

"I'll get my stuff."

I invite Mom to come with us, but she says she has plans for the afternoon. She gets Mack's fully charged phone from the cabinet drawer beside the refrigerator and places it in my hand. "Talk, listen, and try to have fun."

Mack rolls her own suitcase out to the car and waits for me to open the trunk. "Thanks," she says.

The change in attitude since Thursday is like night and day. I'm starting to recognize my Mack.

During the ride over to Marquette Park, she takes a small bottle from her purse and applies sunscreen on her arms and face. I park at the Hilton Corporation, and we take advantage of the free shuttle over to the festival.

She's quiet until after we're through the gate. "Can we check out some of the booths?" she asks.

"Sure." I pull her phone from my pocket. "I'm going to give this back to you…" She holds her hand out for a moment but lowers it to her side when I continue. "With conditions." She nods. "I don't want to see it at the table again, and that goes for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. And when someone speaks to you, put it away and pay attention to the conversation."

"I'm sorry," she says. "I didn't mean what I said the other night." She bypasses the food vendors to examine the arts and crafts. "Mom waited to dump the Japan thing on me until the night before she left for Aunt Susan's funeral."

I give her the phone, and she drops in into her purse without even looking at the screen. "And you're not happy about Japan?" I ask.

"No. I have friends now. It took a while, but I finally found people I like, and now I have to leave them, too. I don't like Seattle, but the time zone difference for Japan is impossible. I don't know when I'll be able to talk to you, Jane, or my friends. And that's if my phone even works over there."

"You're a lot like your grandpa. He hated moving around all the time when Poppy was in the Navy. That's why he asked him to retire here."

"It sucks. I miss home so much already, and I know this is going to be even worse."

"I didn't let them take you away, Mack." She stops walking and looks up at me. "There were circumstances... Things happened, and there was no way a judge would have let you stay with me."

"I don't understand."

"And when you're older, I'll explain more. But for now, I want you to know that if I could have stopped them, I would have." Her frustration is clear, but she doesn't press it. "I called a lawyer Monday morning." She starts walking again, slow enough for me to fall in step with her.

"About Japan?"

"Yes."

"Is there anything we can do?"

"There are a couple of options." I stop at a lemonade booth to stall. She watches the woman behind the counter, squeezing lemons and measuring sugar. After I pay, we continue to walk and people watch.

"What options, Dad?"

"I could file for temporary custody for the year that your mom and Peter will be in Japan, or I could file for permanent custody."

"Oh."

She stops again, making me wonder if bringing this up, here and now, in the middle of a crowd and what could be a good, happy day…

"He also said that you're old enough to decide which parent you want to live with. It's not a guarantee, but in most cases, the judge rules with the child."

"I could come home?"

It kills me that it's a question. She should know. "If that's what you want."

"What if I don't want to go back after a year?"

"Then you could stay."

"What about your life?"

I'm not sure what she thinks I do when she's gone, but I wouldn't go so far as to call it a life. "You're it, kid." The best thing I've ever done and the one thing I don't want to fuck up.

"Can I… I mean, does he need an answer right now? Can I think about it?"

"Of course you can. We don't have to do anything right away." She'll have a chance to talk to Charlotte tonight, and that's okay. They should probably talk about it before Mack tries to make a decision.

"I want to live here. I know that," she says. "But there's Toby. Mom and Peter have been fighting a lot lately, and he… He's sweet, and I don't know how I feel about leaving him."

This is what I didn't want to happen. Every choice has consequences.

"I have brothers," I say, trying to ease the guilt in her voice and on her face. "I understand." If she chooses to stay with her little brother, it will hurt. But I can't blame her for it. "Are things okay at home?" I don't care about Charlotte and Peter's relationship at all, but it obviously affects my daughter.

She shrugs. "I guess. Peter works late almost every day, and Mom spends most of the night calling him or texting him every five minutes. I spend every weekend with Josie to get out of the apartment, so I don't have to listen to them fight. If Mom was smart, she'd divorce him instead of quitting her job to follow him to Japan."

"She's quitting her job?"

"That's the plan."

Her intense dislike for Peter is starting to rattle my bones. "Is Peter… Do you two get along?"

She glances up at me. "Not really. Well, I guess. Like I said, he's not around much during the week. And when he is, we ignore each other. I usually take care of dinner, and I also have yoga and homework to keep me busy."

I'm thankful that boys aren't on that list of things keeping her busy yet. I remember Paul bitching about Jane going boy crazy shortly after her thirteenth birthday. It's around the corner for Mack, and I hate it.

We catch the end of Garibaldi's pizza-tossing demonstration, and my brother shows up with his crew in time for lunch. Afterwards, Paul and the boys disappear to watch the volleyball tournament finals, and Rachel decides to meet a friend over at the stage for live music.

It leaves me with Jane and Mack, which is fine by me. They volunteer for the Luigi's CaféGrape-Stomping Contest. I stand a few feet away, holding purses and sandals, trying not laugh at the faces the girls make when they step into their washtubs.

Charlotte is going to complain if Mack shows up covered in grape juice and in need of a shower, but I'll take it in exchange for the smile Mack gives me. She scrunches her nose and shakes her head, but she holds onto her support handles with clenched fingers.

They laugh and shout to each other as they stomp their feet.

"She has your eyes," Bella says. Before I can turn around, she steps up next to me and glances over at Mack. "Are things better?"

"I think so." Mack looks over again, and her smile slips when she notices Bella standing so close to me. "It's hard to tell. Her moods change so quickly."

"Hormones," Bella says. "I was terrible at that age. It was my angry phase. If you're lucky, in a couple of years, she'll move on to sarcasm." She smiles and looks at Mack again, ignoring the blatant curiosity on my daughter's face. "I won't spoil your time with her. I just wanted to apologize for the other night."

"Apologize for what? I'm the one who got shitfaced."

"I didn't mean to imply that you were intentionally hurting Mack. I should have worded it differently."

"I'm glad you were honest." I shift the pile of shoes and bags in my arm, wishing I could touch her without dropping something. "I talked to her today, actually."

"What did she say?" Her head whips around so she can check my expression.

"She needs some time to think things over. She has a little brother. It's something I hadn't even considered."

We stare at the girls, but they're too busy twisting and laughing to notice. In this moment, Mack doesn't look like a girl torn between two families. She looks just as happy as Jane.

"I hope you guys can work it out," Bella says. "I've got to be at work in a couple of hours, so I'm going to find Rosalie and let you get back to cheering for Mack." She turns to go but stops when I speak.

"I meant what I said the other night. It wasn't the Jim Beam talking." She looks over her shoulder at me, and I keep talking. "I'm sorry I was an ass."

Her lip twitches. "You were an ass."

"I'm sorry if I ruined your night."

She turns and steps closer. "At the time, I didn't understand."

"I'm sorry."

"I wish you would stop saying that." She lifts up onto her toes to brush her lips across my cheek. "We'll talk soon. Get your stuff worked out with Mack first. Okay?"

It's not okay, because fixing things with her is important to me, too. I don't have a chance to tell her that, though. Cheers erupt all around us when time is called on the stomping contest. Mack and Jane climb out of their tubs, and Bella disappears into the crowd, moving away from the stage.

"Who was that?" Mack asks when she comes to get her shoes.

"A friend," I say, trying not to cringe. "She works at Rum Boogie and goes to school with Jasper's girlfriend."

She nods and exchanges a look with Jane, who says, "She's kind of hot, Uncle Edward."

Mack's gaze shifts to me, so I just hum and nod a little. Her eyes narrow, but a smile slowly spreads across her face. "You like her."

"He does," Jane says. "Look at his face. The tips of his ears are red."

"They do that when he's mad, too," Mack says.

Jane shrugs. "He doesn't look mad."

"Go and wash your feet off," I tell them. "It's after four, Mack."

Their laughter stops, and she nods. They get cleaned up with a water hose close to the judges' table. One of the ladies gives each of them a gift certificate to Lucchesi's for their participation.

We find Paul and the boys, and I leave Jane with them.

"Are you coming back?" Paul asks. "There's live music until around eleven."

"I don't know. I'll get a hand stamp and text you if I decide to come back."

"I wish we could stay," Mack says during the walk back to the shuttle stop. "That was fun."

"Maybe you can talk Grandma into bringing you again tomorrow."

"Maybe."

I wait until we're in the car to bring up Charlotte. "Do you want me to talk to your mom about the custody thing? You probably need to talk to her tonight since she's flying out tomorrow."

"No. I don't want her to ruin my time with Nonnie and Paw."

"Okay." There's plenty of time between now and August if she decides she wants to stay.

"Can Jane spend the night next week? We haven't had a scary movie-thon since December."

Letting them stay up all night to watch all of the Children of the Corn movies a few days before Christmas had been a bad idea. Neither of them could sleep for days. Rachel called me twice on Christmas Eve to yell at me, because it's hard to play Santa when your oldest won't go to sleep.

"I don't know if Rachel will go for it."

"She will, because Jane makes Aunt Rachel watch scary movies with her when I'm not here. She hates scary movies. Like really hates them."

"I know. She and your mom left the theater when we went to see The Blair Witch Project."

She laughs. "And that one is so lame."

"If Rachel says yes, it's okay."

"Cool. I'll check Netflix this weekend and see what's playing."

As soon as I get my shit together, I plan to have a little chat with Rachel. I don't mind her bitching at me, but I do have a problem with her bitching about me. We should clear that up, because she's been my family since I was Mack's age. Whether I like it or not, I'm going to need all the help I can get if Mack decides to stay.

"Hey, Dad."

"Yeah?"

"I have lots of guy friends, and I don't kiss any of them on the cheek. Is that woman your girlfriend?"

I don't know how in the hell to answer this question and not sound like a complete douchebag. "Not really."

She tilts her head. "She is or she isn't."

"She isn't."

"But you're more than friends."

"Almost. I pis… um. I said something stupid and hurt her feelings."

She sighs dramatically. "Why are guys so dumb?"

"I'm going to assume that's a rhetorical question." I glance over at her. "And since when do you know so much about guys?"

"I read. A lot. And I watch movies."

"Why are you so interested?" I glance over at her when I make the turn onto Carmen's street.

"I don't know." She studies the black SUV rental in her grandmother's driveway. "It would be nice knowing you're not alone. I worry sometimes."

I park on the street and get her suitcase from the trunk. "Don't waste your time worrying about me." This is one of the few times that lying to her is acceptable. "I'm fine."

"Yeah." She turns away. "I'll see you Monday," she says.

"Bright and early."

She waves and walks up the driveway alone, waiting until I'm back in the car to ring the doorbell. Charlotte opens the door for her and waves to let me know she's got her. I pull away from the curb in acknowledgement.

If Bella's working the dinner shift, she'll probably be done between ten and eleven. Showing up on Beale now would be pointless. I'd end up hugging a Jim Beam bottle or crying in my beer again. Once was bad enough.

Since I've already paid, I go back to the Italian Festival and catch up with Paul and Alec at the Bocce courts. They're not half bad and only lose their match by a few points.

By the time we meet the rest of the family for dinner, Jane has already convinced Rachel to let her spend the night next week. It's amazing what two girls can accomplish with cell phones and willpower.

The mosquitoes become unbearable around dusk, so we call it a night and part ways.

With any luck, Bella won't have plans after work tonight. I have no idea what I'm going to say to her, but I need to say something.

She's not out front when I get to Beale, so I stall outside the gate at Silky's until she steps outside. The worry on her face when she catches sight of me makes me feel like shit. Instead of disappearing into Silky's, I cross the street and wait for her to finish taking orders at the corner table.

"Hey," she says. "Did you and Mack fight again?"

"No. Charlotte is flying out tomorrow, so Mack is with her tonight."

"Oh. Cool."

"Can we talk when you get off?" I ask. "I know it's probably not what you meant by soon, but…"

"I'm done at eleven tonight. Is that too late?"

"No, it's fine."

"I'll come over after I cash out."

Time is money around here, so I nod and let her get back to work.

Alice has cooled off since the last time I saw her. "Hey," she says when I take my favorite spot by the wall.

"Hey."

"Black?"

I shake my head. "Coke."

"And?"

"Ice."

I've got to be at work at eight, and I'm still feeling sluggish from Thursday. I'm not in any shape for a bender.

Jasper comes outside after a while, and I fill him in on my talk with Mack. "Charlotte isn't going to make this easy, you know."

"I know."

The chirp of a squad car and flashes of blue lights from the street draw the attention of the audience away from the band. Drunk and disorderly arrests aren't unusual for the Saturday night crowds.

Felix leaves his spot at the gate to walk over to us. "There's something going on across the street–"

Jasper and I are both off of our stools before he can finish.

There are two MPD cars parked on Third with lights flashing, and a small crowd is blocking the front of Rum Boogie. I push my way through and catch sight of Bella sitting on the sidewalk with Captain Mike on his knee beside her, pressing a dishcloth against the back of her head. It's stained red and so is the back of her pink t-shirt.

"What the hell happened?" I ask, kneeling on her other side. The old man nods, hinting that I should take over. He moves his hand when mine slides into place, keeping pressure on the wound. "I'm going to move this to look, okay?" Silence. "Bella?"

"Okay," she says. "Sorry. Blood makes me woozy."

There's a nasty gash on her lower crown. She winces when I move a clump of hair to check the length of the cut. "I'm sorry. I know it hurts."

"My whole head hurts. My cheek is throbbing."

"Did she lose consciousness?" I ask Mike.

"I was across the street," he says. "It took a minute to get to her after she went down. If she was out, it wasn't for long. A minute or less. She's been lucid. I tried to convince her to lie down, but the blood made her sick, and she says it's not so bad when she's sitting up."

"What happened?" I ask again, taking note of the reddish purple mark blooming beneath her eye.

"They were fighting." He points to two guys sitting on the curb of Third with their hands cuffed behind them. "She tried to talk some sense into them and caught an elbow to the face. I didn't have the best view, but I think she hit the chair on the way down."

"Why didn't you let Benny handle it?" I can hear the frustration in my voice and want to strangle myself for it.

"Oh, what? Because I'm a woman?"

"No, because it's his job."

She mashes her lips into a thin line and doesn't reply.

An ambulance finally arrives, and a truck from my station follows seconds later. One of the guys brings me some gloves, and they give me space to take care of Bella. Collin calls Mike away to get his statement, and Eric takes his place across from me.

"They're going to have to put you in a neck brace for the ride," I tell her.

"Can we not and say we did?" she asks, staring at the blue and red lights and watching the paramedics with the stretcher make their way over.

Before they get to us, a familiar face turns the corner, and Bella groans. "Who called him?" she asks.

This must be Charlie Swan.

"I've been right here with you the entire time," I say. "It wasn't me."

"Collin?"

Collin ignores her raised voice and continues his discussion with Mike while his partner keeps an eye on the tough guys.

Lieutenant Charlie Swan stops a few inches away and leans over, bracing his hands on his knees. "I called James," he says. "He's going to meet us at Methodist."

"Why?" she asks. "Why did you do that? I'm fine. It's a bump on the head."

"He's your doctor. It's his job."

"Leaving his wife and baby at home on his night off is not his job. The ER is perfectly capable of handling this."

"You know you're supposed to–"

"Lieutenant," I cut in, waiting for his glance to shift to me before continuing. "We haven't finished assessing Bella's condition. The bus got here right before you did. It would be helpful if you could give us room to work."

I'm not even on the clock, but my hands are covered in his daughter's blood, so he listens and walks away.

"Thanks," she says. "I can't believe they called him."

"Can you imagine what would've happened if they hadn't?"

She laughs, and then rubs her fingers over her cheek. "Ow."

"You're going to have a hell of a shiner."

"Great."

"Are you on any blood thinners?" I ask.

"No," she says. "I don't need them."

"That's good. That means no CBC, and you can get away without an IV." She smiles, and it causes her to wince again. "You'll need a CT scan to make sure you didn't fracture your skull."

Renata and Eric take over the questions while I clean her wound with saline wash and secure the gauze. When I'm done, we ease her down onto her back. She glares at me as they put the neck brace on and again when I have to help them logroll her onto the backboard.

"This is so unnecessary," Bella says. "You could've driven me there by now, and we could've bypassed Charlie in the process."

"You'll get in much quicker this way." I expect her to argue when they put the head blocks down and strap her to the board, but in a rare moment of acceptance, she doesn't. "They'll give you something for the pain. You're going to need sutures."

She sighs. "This is going to be a long night."

It's certainly not ending the way I'd hoped it would. "A few hours at least."

"Still want to have that talk?" she asks. "I've got some time on my hands if you're not busy."

"You want me to come with you?"

"You're much better company than Charlie."

Her father is standing a few feet away, talking to Collin. Since I can't zero in on her relationship with him, I'm not sure if that's really a compliment. "I don't think he'll be happy about that."

She grins. "What? You're scared of my dad? I thought you were a badass."

"I'm going with you, but I doubt he'll let us talk much."

"Will you send him over here?"

"Yeah. Don't leave without me."

"Haha."

Collin sees me coming and pauses midsentence, giving me an opportunity to cut in.

"Lieutenant." I wait for Charlie to turn around to continue. "Bella is asking for you."

His grimace softens at the edges but comes back full force when he sees her on the stretcher. "Thanks…" He holds out his hand to shake mine.

"Edward Cullen." His grip tightens, and he forgets about Bella long enough to look me hard in the eye.

"It's good to see you again," he says.

I don't remember the first time, so I'm guessing we've done this before, only in uniform. Two years ago. "Yes, sir." I break his grip and step out of the way so he can get to Bella.

Benny walks over to give me Bella's purse and a clean Rum Boogie tee for her. He apologizes for not getting there before she did. We both know it happens, but that doesn't lessen the guilt when it does. I've got no business casting stones. He'll be beating himself up enough as it is.

He lights a Camel, and my first instinct is to beg him for one. I pop a piece of my personal crack into my mouth instead and wait for the nicotine to kill the urge.

"Which one of the fuckers elbowed Bella's face?" I ask.

Benny points to the second squad car. The guy in the back is leaning back in his seat, watching the bedlam with a smug smile on his face.

He has no idea it was a TACT lieutenant's daughter he knocked around. Accident or not. Even if Bella chooses not to press charges, Charlie will make sure the drunk and disorderly and public intoxication stick. He won't be smiling when he gets to 201.

Charlie walks away from the ambulance when they start to load Bella. Renata waves me over, so I say a quick goodbye to Benny and make my way over to her.

"She wants you in the back with us," she says. "Eric will drive, and I'll do the neuro assessment on the way."

I hold a cold compress to Bella's cheek during the ride, but other than that, I stay out of Renata's way. The guy from Gibson is waiting for us in the ambulance bay at the ER.

He's her fucking doctor.

He looks surprised to see me but approaches the opposite side of the stretcher instead of edging me out of his way. "A broken ticker wasn't enough? You're trying to break your head now, too?"

"My ticker is fine," she snaps.

"Sorry. Bad joke." He grins. "I'll try to get you out of here as soon as possible. Where's Charlie?"

"I told him not to come."

This is news to me. I'd assumed he'd be meeting us here.

"Bella–"

"Not now," she says, cutting him off. "Get me out of this ridiculous neck brace."

"Okay, but you have to promise not to argue about a CT scan."

She looks up at me. "I've already been warned that it's coming."

"Okay, then."

He walks with us to the desk so Renata can hand over Bella's paperwork. After a few minutes, she's moved to an exam room. Her roommate is what appears to be a hundred-year-old man who's knocked out and snoring.

The doctor checks her vitals again before he removes the brace. "You're going to need to change into a gown. I can send a nurse in to help…"

She looks over at me. "I think we're good."

He nods and takes her chart. "I'll be back in a few," he says over his shoulder.

"My arm hurts," she says, rubbing it with her hand. "I think I hit it, too."

I walk over to her and turn her arm. "Your elbow is skinned, and you're going to have a bruise."

"I'm going to look like I lost a boxing match."

"You already do."

"Will you help me?" she asks. "I don't think I can get my shirt off, and I don't want a nurse…"

I don't really want anyone else to see her without her clothes either, so I walk over and tug at the hem of her shirt. "Benny sent a clean shirt for later," I say, pulling the fabric up slowly and taking care not to touch her. She's probably going to be sore for a few days at least. I stare at her forehead to keep from looking down.

Being this close to her again is the worst kind of torture. I've seen her body in my dreams many times since that night in her room. Now she's right in front of me, and I can't even touch her.

She winces when she has to lift her arm, and I toss the stained shirt into the trash. We fumble through getting her bra off, and I don't relax until I've tied the strings of the gown at the back of her neck. Getting her pants off isn't as much of a struggle, and everything is covered by the gown when I pull them away from her body.

Well, everything but the blackbird.

"Thank you," she says, leaning back against the pillow. "You have no idea how much I hate hospitals. I hate needles. I hate blood. I hate tests. I hate all of it."

She sounds frustrated, angry, and forlorn all at once, and she looks like she's gone ten rounds. "I don't blame you." I'd hate them, too, if I were her.

"James is my doctor. His little brother, Simon, has a scar, too. He was in the room next to mine at Le Bonheur." She motions to her chest. "James was in college at the time, but he and his sister, Riley, came to see Simon almost every day. Riley and I are the same age. We became really good friends. She's still my best friend, actually, but she met a guy in Knoxville and stayed behind when I left to come home."

"You don't owe me any kind of explanation," I say.

"I know that." She tugs the blanket up to her chin and shivers. "He's my friend, my doctor, and my best friend's brother, so you're going to have to get over whatever problem you have with him, okay?"

I nod, figuring that's my best option at the moment. The voices on the other side of the curtain are getting closer, and a few moments later, James says, "Knock knock."

"We're good," Bella says.

"Let me get a quick look at that gash on the back of your head and see if it can wait until after the CT." He helps her sit up, and watching the way he handles her with care erases some of the animosity that bubbled up when he walked through the curtains.

She winces and swears at him when he moves the hair to get a good look. "You're going to need sutures, but it can wait until after the scan. You'll have to take the hardware out of your lip for this."

Bella rolls her eyes at him before looking over at me. "I'll be back in a few."

"I'll be here."

Her buddy ignores me while we help her into the wheelchair he has waiting. She takes the blanket with her, and they disappear down the hall. I use the sink in the room to wash my hands and watch the red turn pink and disappear down the drain, knowing I'll see it again as soon as I try to sleep.

My phone vibrates in my pocket. There are nine texts and five missed calls, all from a number I don't recognize.

Alice.

I send a text to let her know that Bella is okay and having tests done. She asks if she needs to come here to take Bella home and stay with her tonight. I tell her to stay put for now and promise to ask Bella what she wants when she gets back to the room.

They're gone for more than a half hour. It's time enough for the exhaustion to set in. This has been a long fucking day.

Bella looks miserable when they get back to the room. James gives her Lortab and asks how she's getting home.

"Alice offered to come and take you home," I say. "But I'm already here, and I can call a cab for us if you say the word."

"That sounds much better. There's no reason for her to leave early."

Alice is fine with that decision and much nicer than I expect.

Bella closes her eyes and turns her head when James pulls out the needle filled with Lidocaine to numb her for the sutures. Before I can overthink it, my hand covers hers on her knee. She flips hers, resting her palm against mine and squeezing a little when the needle pierces her flesh.

"How did you manage all of this ink?" I ask.

"It's different." She opens her eyes and takes a deep breath. "You know that."

"This would be a much prettier scar if you would let me shave the hair around this cut," James says, already at work behind her.

"Like I care about that," she says.

He does a good job, gentle but efficient. "Are you on staff here?" I ask.

"Le Bonheur," he answers.

"He's part of the Adult Congenital Heart Disease Program," Bella says. "I see him twice a year for checkups, but my psycho father acts like he's my personal physician."

"It's really not a big deal," James says, pulling off his gloves and tossing them into the trash. "Go home and get some rest. There's a note with your discharge instructions. I don't want you at work for a few days, preferably a week, but at least a few days, Bella. Either job." He shakes his head. "Besides, you look like hell." He turns to me and holds out his hand. "James Hamilton."

We shake. "Edward Cullen."

"Try to convince her to take it easy if you can." With that sage advice, he leaves us.

She's quiet during the ride to her house, with her head against the window and her eyes closed. I'm almost convinced she's asleep until we stop in her driveway.

"Will you come in?" she asks.

"Of course. Do you want me to tell the driver to wait?"

"No."

I pay him and help her out of the car. She searches her purse for her keys on the way up the steps. When she finds them, she hands them to me. "It's the one shaped like a guitar," she says, trailing off into a yawn.

Bub meets us at the door, weaves between Bella's legs twice, and then disappears into the kitchen.

"Are you hungry?" I ask.

"Not really," she says. "I'm thirsty, though." We follow the cat, and Bella points to a cabinet. "The glasses are in there."

"Do you have orange juice?"

"I think so."

"The vitamin C will help with the bruises."

A small, tired smile graces her lips. "Bouncer advice?"

I open the fridge and study the contents, looking for the juice. "My dad's. I stayed black and blue when I was learning how to board."

"Hmmm. I should probably check you for scars."

I look over my shoulder at her to see if she's joking. She's not. But she's not exactly flirting, either. Judging by her eyes, I'm going with high or too tired to know what she's saying.

She drinks half of the juice in the kitchen and carries it with her, motioning for me to follow her upstairs. "I smell like blood, beer, and hospital. I feel gross. I need a quick shower. I hate to ask this of you, but will you stay in case I have trouble? I won't be able to sleep like this."

She leaves the glass on the table next to the bed and motions for me to follow her to the bathroom. Undressing her this time is even worse, because I have the perfect view of the pale skin of her back in the mirror above the sink.

I close my eyes to keep from watching her step into the shower. Then I cross my arms and lean against the pedestal sink, staring at the floor to avoid the possibility of that white shower curtain being too thin.

By the time she finishes, the mirror is covered in condensation from tiny steam clouds. I stare at those and the door until she opens the curtains behind me. "My hair is still gross. I'm sorry. I can't wash it for two days. Maybe Sasha can help me figure something out tomorrow."

"I'm not worried about the way your hair looks. How does your head feel?"

"It hurts like hell," she says from right behind me. I'm surprised and a tad disappointed that she managed to get into a fluffy white robe without my assistance. "I can move now, so the shower helped."

"Good."

"I'm tired." Her voice is weak, and she can barely keep her eyes open. She steps forward and puts her palms against my chest.

"Do you want me to leave?"

"No. This is nice. You've talked a lot tonight." She shrugs. "More than normal, anyway." Her hands fall, and she steps back to cover a yawn.

"I'll set the alarm on my phone. I've got to be at work at eight in the morning." I follow her into her bedroom and watch her pull the bedding down. "If you're sleeping, I'm not going to wake you up when I leave."

"That might be the first time anyone has ever given me a disclaimer before taking me to bed," she says. "I'm okay with waking up alone. I'm just tired of falling asleep that way."

So am I.

I turn off the light and toe out of my tennis shoes before joining her on the bed. I'm back in the habit of sleeping in pants and t-shirts since Mack is home, so shorts and a tee are even better. Bella hasn't moved to take the robe off. She turns onto her good side and faces me in the bed.

"I'm still mad at you," she says. "I've always been honest with you. I've told you ridiculously embarrassing things about myself that very few people know." Her gaze doesn't waver, and neither does her voice. "I understand why trust might be difficult for you, but that doesn't give you a free pass to act like a jackass. If you want to know something, ask."

"I was jealous." She is a brutally honest person. The least I can do is be honest in return.

"You don't need to be." She blinks, yawns again, and then closes her eyes. "You're the only person I'm doing this with, okay?"

"And what is this?"

Silence.

"Bella?"

I run my fingers over her cheek and then pull her hand into mine, letting my thumb rest against her pulse. I watch her sleep until I can't keep my eyes open anymore.

And instead of blood, my dreams are filled with red poppies and silence.


A/N – I'm leaving in eleven days to take my kiddos to Harry Potter World (Orlando) for Spring Break. I'll do my absolute best to get another chapter done before we go, but I can't make any promises. I have to pack and clean and all that jazz, so don't hate me if it doesn't happen. This is a much better place to leave it than where we were, right? Lol.

Thanks for reading! I'll see you as soon as possible.

MSC

xoxo

Oh yeah… How many of you lovelies are planning to attend the TFMU in July over in Nashville? Let me know if I'll see you there. :)