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.


Doctors and nurses come and go over the next couple of days. So do the visitors.

Charlie Swan brings breakfast for Bella Tuesday morning. He shakes my hand, and stays to chat while she eats a bagel and sips coffee. Now that his interrogation is over with, he's been given a few days off with pay while the incident is reviewed.

Bella smiles. "Are you going to complain about the time off, too?" She nods in my direction. "This one and his brother won't stop moaning about their forced vacations."

"Hell no." He smirks and takes a pull from a silver travel mug. "My truck is packed. After I check in on Paul, I'm heading down to Sardis. I'll be fishing at the spillway by lunchtime."

"If you can find some real pants for me, I'll sign myself out AMA and join you." I'm only half-joking. I haven't been fishing in years, and anything is better than another day of soap operas and talk shows.

He catches the death-glare Bella gives me. "Maybe some other time," he says.

"My grandparents' property backs up to a lake out in Millington. They're friends with the neighbors, and we have an open invitation."

"Open invitation, huh?" He nods his approval.

"My grandparents also have horses," I tell Bella. One of the early, still unchecked items on her list was ride a horse. "I could teach you…"

"I don't know about that," Charlie says, moving his hands to his hips.

"Really, Dad?" Bella cocks her head and frowns.

"They're gentle horses," I say. "I trust them with my own daughter."

He shifts from foot to foot, uncomfortable for a change. "I guess I'll have to take your word for it."

Bella lets it slide, but he still leaves shortly after wishing me a speedy recovery.

"Well, that didn't go very well," I say once I'm sure he's had time to make it down the hall and out of earshot.

"I thought it did," Bella says.

"I don't think he liked my horseback riding suggestion."

"I did, and that's what counts." She leans in for a quick kiss. "I didn't realize your grandparents lived on an actual farm until your grandma showed me a picture of Mack chasing a chicken."

"What?"

"It's on her phone. I've also seen all of your nieces and nephews now, but I can't remember all of their names."

"I have that same problem sometimes."

She laughs through a yawn, covering her mouth and stretching out on the couch. Despite the coffee, she spends most of the morning napping. Each time the nurse comes in, I hold a finger up to my closed lips.

Alice wakes her accidently when she brings in lunch for both of us.

"I've never actually known someone who's been shot," she says, eyeing the bandages when the robe shifts.

"It's not something I recommend," I say. The pain Mack was expecting me to be feeling caught up with me late Sunday night. It's still hanging around, and this chest tube is annoying the shit out of me. I'm ready to pull it out myself. My doctor wasn't amused when I told him that last night.

"He's a terrible patient." Bella smiles, pulls sandwiches and chips from a bag, and opens a bottle of water for me. "Last night, he harassed his doctor. Today, he tried to talk Charlie into helping him escape."

"Bored?" Alice asks me.

"You could say that."

My day improves after lunch when the nurse comes to get me for x-rays. I cross my fingers as they clamp the chest tube, hoping my lung will stay expanded on its own so this damn thing can come out. I follow instructions, and let them twist and turn me for the best angles and shots.

Mack and Mom have joined Bella and Alice by the time I get back to my room.

"Well?" Mack says before my wheelchair comes to a halt.

"Don't know yet," I tell her.

An hour later, I'm listening to one of the nurses give me instructions on how to perform Valsalva's maneuver while another positions a disposable underpad, a suture kit, gloves, and other supplies they'll need to remove the tube. Just watching makes me glad that Bella and the others had to leave the room for a while. I'm not an expert on heart surgery, but I know she had to deal with much worse than an annoying chest tube. And she had to do it for much longer. She's probably seen enough of this to last a lifetime.

When the morphine kicks in, I close my eyes and follow instructions. Inhale… Bear down but hold it… In a matter of seconds, the coolness of the airtight dressing pinches my skin. After they clean up and dispose of all the evidence, another round of x-rays follows.

It's late afternoon by the time Bella and Mack are allowed back into the room. Mom is upstairs with Paul. His doctor is giving them the game plan for the week. Tomorrow, they'll be taking a patch of skin from his thigh to help repair his arm. It doesn't look like the wheelchair race will be happening. He'll be stuck here long after I'm released.

If my stats are good later, I may get to see him tonight.

Mack leaves early after apologizing and explaining that it's Carmen's birthday. She agreed to have dinner with them and spend the night at her house with Charlotte.

"I'll be back early tomorrow morning," she promises. "Love you, Dad." She hugs me and then waves to Bella. "See you later."

It's quiet for a few moments. Bella exhales, stands, and walks over to stand in front of me. "Charlotte wants to see you," she says. "She's flying back to Seattle Thursday, and she wants to talk to you before she leaves."

"Okay."

"Alone."

"That's okay, too. It's not like I'm laid up on life support and she's coming to pull the plug."

It earns me a weak laugh and a head shake. "I know. I don't trust her, though. I can't help it." She leans down to brush her lips over my cheek. "You're doing so well. I don't want her to screw it up."

"You think she'll use this against me?" I lean back and wave to my bandages.

"It wouldn't be the first time she found a weakness and twisted."

"When I talked to Jeff yesterday, he said not to worry. He's already gathering copies of my medical files and sending paperwork to the surgeon. I'll be physically capable of taking care of Mack by the time I'm released. Charlotte can't twist that." I tug her hand, pulling her forward until she's standing between my legs.

She hugs me when I rest the side of my head against her middle, letting her fingernails settle on my scalp. "She promised not to start any trouble, and I would hope she wouldn't – for Mack's sake – but who knows?"

"I'll tell Mack to give her the okay to come tomorrow."

"I guess I could kill time in the cafeteria while you talk to her."

"Or…" I rest my hands on the back of her thighs and exhale. "You could go back to work. You already missed today, and you haven't left this hospital since Sunday."

My eyes are still closed, but I can hear the smile in her voice. "Are you kicking me out?"

"I want you with me all the time, but you've been here two days without a break. I know you're not getting much sleep at night, because neither am I. You don't have to stay. Go home. Sleep. Go to work and feel normal for a little while tomorrow."

"I don't want to leave you."

"You're going to be sick of me by the time I go back to work."

"Not true," she says.

"You could barely keep your eyes open today." I lift her shirt enough to kiss the skin beneath her navel. "Please get some rest. I'm fine."

She sighs. "Okay. I'll go home for tonight, but only because I'm too tired to argue with you."

My doctor stops in, goes over my charts and x-rays, and listens to me breathe. He gives me permission to ditch the pulse oximeter long enough for a trip upstairs to see Paul. No more than an hour, though.

Bella grabs her backpack and offers to give me a lift – or in this case, a push – to his floor on her way out. Alec is stretched out in Paul's room, and he sits up on the couch when he catches sight of us.

Paul looks much worse than I'm feeling. He also looks relieved. "Man, it's good to see your face," he says.

Bella leans down to kiss me goodbye, promising to see me sometime tomorrow. She still hasn't decided if she's going to work or not.

I wait until she's left the room to grab a box of tissues and throw it at Alec's head.

"Ow." He rubs his forehead and leans over to pick the box up from the ground. "What was that for?"

"Don't ogle my girlfriend."

"Seriously?" His brows lift and his head tilts.

Paul laughs. "Son, you're going to have to learn to be stealthier, or you're going to get your ass kicked a lot in high school."

"I couldn't help it. She was right there in front of me." He holds both hands out in front of him, palms facing each other and fingers curled.

"Why don't you go and get something from the vending machine?" Paul suggests. "Maybe take a break from babysitting and call your girlfriend."

Alec stands, stretches, and steps into his flops. "That sounds like an excellent plan." He tosses the box on the couch behind him and leaves without any fuss.

"He's 15," Paul says with a laugh after the door closes behind him. "He really can't help it."

"I know. It's fun to mess with him."

We catch the end of the Redbird's game, sitting in silence, both half-stoned on pain meds and happy to be alive. The only thing that could make it any better would be a couple of ice cold beers.

Maybe when we get out of here.

Alec gets revenge for the box to the head by "accidently" ramming me into a wall on the way down to my room. I can't even give him grief, since I'd have done the same thing if our roles were reversed. He comes by it honestly.

Bella sends a goodnight text not long after I'm settled in bed. It's not enough, so I call her to tell her I love her and that I miss her already. She loves me, too, and threatens to get in her truck and come back.

When Mack's goodnight text comes in, I answer and tell her that Charlotte can come with her in the morning if she still needs to talk to me.

Another restless night passes with blocks of heavy sleep interrupted by nurses in and out, checking my bandage and my levels.

Morning brings Mack with a smile on her face. "Mom's here," she says. "Out in the hall. I'm going to go upstairs, and sit with Jane and Grandma while Uncle Paul is in surgery. It will give you two a chance to talk. If you want to come up, text me when you're done."

"I will."

I hear her voice after she steps outside the door, but I can't make out what she's saying. A few moments later, Charlotte pushes the door open and steps into the room.

"Hey," she says, setting a large tote at the foot of the bed. "How are you feeling?"

"I've been better."

"Thanks for agreeing to see me." She stands a few feet away, her gaze wavering between the window and the empty cushion on the couch next to me. Instead of sitting, she chooses to stand. "I was beginning to wonder if they were ever going to let me talk to you." She fakes a small laugh. "Your girlfriend is very… protective."

My instinct is to bite back, to tell her that Bella has had to deal with an unpleasant side of me after a visit from her in the past. I've acted like the overgrown child Charlotte has accused me of being time and time again, snapping at the bait. I'm too tired to keep up.

"She's also young," she says, digging in a little more.

"And more mature than you and I put together in some ways, Charlotte. What do you want?"

"I've changed the return date on Mack's ticket back to Seattle."

Here it comes…

"School doesn't start there until September," she says. "So I changed her return to the second week of August."

"You're letting her stay an extra week?" I wait for her nod to continue. "Why? Our mediation is scheduled for the second."

"I don't think we'll need it. I've decided to speak to Mr. Jenks before I leave." She walks over to the window and stares down at the street below. "Mack and I had a chance to talk, and I don't think Japan is a good idea… for her."

"What?"

Her hair is pulled back in a ponytail, and she's makeup-free. The dark circles under her eyes and the oversized U of M t-shirt remind me of days long past. "I had no idea she was so unhappy." She buries her face in her hands for a moment, scrubs the skin of her cheeks to swipe a few tears away, and exhales. "I thought it was normal hormonal changes. She stopped talking to me and wanted to be with her friends more. I thought… that's what kids do. I had no idea she hated me so much that she was trying to stay away from me."

"She doesn't hate you."

"Maybe not yet, but she will if I force her to go to Japan. She looked me in the eye at dinner last night and said I would be taking her away from her whole family, like I'm not her family." She stops and pulls a few tissues from the box on the table. "Do you have any idea how much that hurt?" Her laugh is bitter as she shakes her head. "She hates my husband. Hates him. She's spoken to him four times in the last year. And Peter is no help. He ignores all of us, even his own son…"

"Charlotte–"

"I know you don't care. You shouldn't. I'm trying to explain why it might be best for Mack to stay with you for a while. There's been a lot of fighting lately, and that's probably not going to change anytime soon since my husband's girlfriend is on the team travelling with us to Japan."

"Then why are you going?"

"What choice do I have?" She glances at me and then back out the window. "I don't think anyone ever realizes they're making the biggest mistake of their life when it's happening. If they did, they wouldn't do it. And when they're foolish, like me, they do it big so it can never be undone."

"Don't say things like that. You have your son."

"And he has an absent father. You and I ran out of things to talk about long before Peter came into the picture. He listened and paid attention to me. He was busy moving up the ladder and going places while you were sitting around planning another tattoo or watching ballgames with your brothers." Her voice lowers. "I wanted to go, too. I wanted the adventure. I wanted something different. I had no idea how lonely it would be."

"And yet you're willing to give Mack up?"

"I'm not," she says, glancing up with a hint of fire in her eyes. "I'm willing to grant you temporary custody for the year we're in Japan, beginning in October when we leave."

"Mack wants to come home permanently."

"Please, Edward. Don't ask me to do that. Things could be much different a year from now."

"Or they could be the same or worse. It's not up to us anymore. Mack is old enough to decide where she wants to be. At the end of one year, if she wants to stay, I'll fight to keep her."

"I've decided that Toby and I will be flying home to see my parents for Christmas, so I'd still like to have that day with Mack as planned. I'll get her in the morning, though, so you can have Christmas Eve. Let's get through this year first and worry about the rest when it's time. If you can agree to that for now, I'll call Mr. Jenks and sign before I get on the plane tomorrow."

"You need to make sure everything is agreeable to Mack before anyone signs anything."

"She wants to stay with you. For once, I don't think she'll argue with me."

"You know what I mean, Charlotte. She needs to understand that this would only be for a year and that she'll have options when that time is up."

She sighs, letting her gaze fall to the floor between us. "Okay."

"I won't push for child support," I say. I'm not in this for money, and I want her to know it. "Maybe the state will go for the minimum."

"I'm not worried about that," she says. "Peter has money. He should have to pay for something."

"I sure as hell don't want his money."

"Always so stubborn. If the state demands it, and you know it will, don't think about where it's coming from. Use it for Mack."

"I don't like it."

"I'm not getting a job in Japan just to make you feel better."

"Fine," I say. "It's not like I'll have a choice."

She takes a seat in the chair across from me and pulls out her iPad. We discuss dates, and she makes notes on her calendar. The conversation is strictly about Mack. We're both confident she can handle a transfer during the school year. Luckily, the schools here will have a fall break the week after Charlotte and Peter are scheduled to move.

That will give me extra time to bring Mack home. Being off of work for a couple of months might not be a bad thing. I can fly to Seattle to get her, and we can drive back together with her things, maybe do some sightseeing along the way.

"You still haven't told me why you're letting her stay an extra week," I say when she shuts off the tablet and puts it in her tote.

"She's worried about you." She arranges things in her bag instead of looking at me. "More time means she can see that you're getting better and it won't be as hard for her to leave. If I only have two months with her for the next year, I want them to be good ones."

"It's hard," I say. She finally looks up, barely keeping her tears back. "Being limited that way. Worrying…"

"I'm not worried. I know she'll be safe with you." She steps closer, reaches out for a moment, and lets her hand fall to her side. "I've said some horrible things to you throughout the years, but I've never accused you of being a bad father."

"I've had my moments." Good ones. Bad ones. "No one is perfect, Charlotte." A year ago, I would have spit the words at her in anger. Today, it's a tired reminder. For both us.

"She has your heart. Lucky for me, she has your heart."

"Thanks for coming. Having you here really helped Mack."

She smiles, soft instead of conniving for a change. "Tell Mack I'll be back at noon to meet her for lunch in the cafeteria. I'll talk to her then. See you in a few weeks."

"Hey, Charlotte?" She's almost to the door but stops to look back at me. "If anything ever does happen to me…" One step at a time, she retraces her path until she's standing a few inches away. "Please let Mack stay in touch with my mom… with my family. They're hers, too."

This time she catches my hand in hers and squeezes. "I promise," she says. "I know those words don't mean much coming from me anymore, but I swear I will. Take care of yourself, Edward."

She turns and wipes tears from her cheeks as she makes her way back to the door.

"You, too."

My respiratory therapist shows up before I have a chance to text Mack. He says everything looks and sounds good. With any luck, I'm days away from getting sprung from this place.

I want to sleep in my bed. Or Bella's. I'm up for either. I'm sick of needles and machines.

He wants to see how I handle walking longer distances, so he helps me with a t-shirt, and escorts me upstairs to see my family and wait with them for news on my brother. Kim has the younger kids at her house today, but everyone else is here. Mom promises the therapist she'll get me safely back to my room later today.

Grandma stands and pours two cups of coffee. She brings one of them to me and takes the seat next to mine. "I met your Bella," she says, patting my scrub-covered knee with her hand. "She's quite lovely."

"She is," I agree.

"She seems rather fond of you."

"I love her."

She looks up at me and smiles. "That makes me happy."

"What makes you happy?" Mack asks, sliding into the seat next to hers.

"Your father's girlfriend," she says. "He loves her. It's adorable."

"It is," Mack says, nodding. "They're really cute together. He kisses her like they're in a movie."

"Oh, really?" Grandma turns in her seat to look at me.

"Wait." Mack puts a hand up and looks at me. "You love her?" Her eyes widen. "I mean, I knew you did, but when did you figure it out?"

"A while back," I answer.

"Dad, you've got to tell her."

"I did. I told her the night I woke up."

A few tears fall, sliding over the scattered freckles on Mack's cheeks. "Good," she says. "I'm not going to ask what she said. I already know."

"Whoa whoa. Why are you crying?" I ask.

"Because it's sweet," she laughs. Her phone vibrates in her hand, and she swipes at her eyes before looking at the screen.

Jane walks over and takes the seat next to Grandma's. "What's with the giggling and googoo faces over here?"

Mack smiles at her phone, taps the screen, and then blushes as she shoves the device into her purse. "Dad's in looooove," she says, glancing at me.

"But we already knew that," Jane says.

"Now he does, too," Grandma says, patting her hand. "Men are a little slow, honey. It wouldn't hurt you to learn that now, before you start playing the field."

"They're a bit young for that, Grandma."

My grandmother leans forward to place her hand on my cheek. "Time flies, Edward. Sometimes, it feels like yesterday that your father brought your mother home to meet us." She turns and looks the room over, studying the faces surrounding us in the waiting room. "And look at all I have now."

"Dad." Mack catches my eye and nods in the direction of the elevator.

Bella steps off, and immediately, her eyes scan the room, taking in the very same faces my grandmother studied moments ago. When our gazes meet, she walks in my direction, and the smile on her face gets bigger with each step she takes.

I stand and take a few of my own until she's in my arms. It's the first real hug I've had since this whole mess started. She's gentle with her arms and rests her head on my good shoulder instead of my chest.

"I tried," she says. "I went to the clinic and worked for a few hours, but all I could think about was you. It's so good to see you walking around."

"It's nice to be able to ditch the chair."

She lowers her voice. "Have you talked to Charlotte?"

I nod. "It went… better than I expected. I haven't had a chance to talk to Mack yet, so I can't say much, but it's good. It's going to be, anyway."

She nods. "Any news on Paul?"

"Not yet."

Mack moves over so Bella can have the seat next to mine. She greets my mom and grandma with shy smiles and small waves. As the minutes tick by, she relaxes in conversations with them, Rachel, Mack, and Jane.

I'm content to watch them; the strong ones. They say it takes a village to raise a child. Maybe I'll get there someday, with these women pushing me to be better, like them… for them.

Especially Bella.

I've been one step behind her since we started. Thank God she waited for me to catch up.


A/N – One more regular chapter to go. *sniffs*

Thank you for taking this journey with me. I'll see you soon.

MSC

xoxo