The room cleared as quickly as it had filled. Bella remained standing in the middle of the floor - her arms now wrapped tightly around herself and her anxious, though ultimately impotent words, still echoing around her head. Jacob, Quill and Embry left first, a quiet determination and purpose surrounding them as they nodded stiff goodbyes to their new, albeit temporary, allies.
Bella sucked her bottom lip between her teeth as she followed Jacob’s retreat, her frustration and hurt a throbbing ache within her chest. His snarky reassurances replayed across her mind, doing little to calm the buzzing panic which had taken hold. Never had she felt more human, more useless than she did at this moment, surrounded by the supernatural. She didn’t possess their strength or speed, nor could she heal as fast or fight so furiously – all she really had was her words. And despite her best efforts, they too had failed her, fallen as they had on deaf ears.
A multitude of grim possibilities flashed across her mind – growing steadily in their horror and explicitly. Memories of Italy brought life to her imaginings of combat, marble flesh appearing suddenly porcelain as it cracked in splintered lines under the sheer force of blurred strikes; Edward’s beautiful body was easily and instantly replaced by each member of the family, their faces twisted in obvious pain. Her imagination did not spare the wolves; of course, and she saw their fur matted by dark blood, huge bodies lying in unnatural positions across the forest floor.
Her throat tightened under the slew, a tremor beginning in the centre of her chest.
“Bella?” The familiar voice brought her sharply into focus, her shoulders twitching in fright.
Edward slid into her field of vision as he moved, coming to stand before her. His hands hesitated, a mere twitch, before sliding into the pockets of his dress trousers.
She noticed, for the first time, that they were now alone.
“Nothing I say is going to make a difference, is it?” Her voice sounded off to her own ears, tight and slightly warbled. Her jaw ached with tension, as did her head, but she still managed to lift her gaze to meet the ochre eyes of her beloved.
He studied her expression, his superior eyesight no doubt identifying every line of tension, every twitch and tick of muscle and sinew that spoke of her upset. A frown marred the perfection of his brow, familiar worry darkening his face.
“We have no choice, love. I won’t allow anything to happen to you…”
Like an overstretched guitar string plucked once too often, Bella snapped. Every roiling hot emotion that she had tried to contain with her weak human arms wrapped around her torso coalesced and went supernova, her cheeks flushing with the heat.
“You think it’s ME I care about? People I love could end up dead, Edward!” she shouted, feeling a miniscule shot of relief at being able to vent.
Edward appeared momentarily taken aback by her raised voice and a part of her squirmed in shame at the look, any momentary satisfaction she had felt evaporating. Raising his hands in a universal sign of peace almost morphed Bella’s anger into hysterics, as though she were some threat to be stopped, some beast to be tamed.
His voice, in opposition to Bella’s, became softer.
“It won’t come to that. With the wolves it’ll be an easy fight. You heard Carlisle.”
Bella’s argument ground to a sudden halt, silence descending like an itchy blanket around them. Edward’s concerned frown deepened, one hand alighting on her bicep with a butterfly’s weight.
“Bella?” he tried, his voice laced with unease at his mate’s sudden stillness and racing heartbeat. But Bella was no longer listening. Carlisle. She was speaking to the wrong Cullen, she suddenly realised. There was only one man who could reverse this plan and he was no longer in the room.
“Where is he? Where’s Carlisle?”she finally spoke, a note of desperation in her tone.
Edward’s frown remained, his pale thumb stroking the rigid muscle beneath his palm in a delicate swipe. “He’s in his study. Esme just left and the rest have re-joined the party. Bella…?”
Bella strode quickly to the hallway, not pausing to hear whatever justifications, reassurances or platitudes would form the remainder of Edward’s sentence. The bassy thump of music accompanied her jog up the stairs, the drone of adolescent voices becoming dimmer as she reached the familiar hallway. The door at the end stood open in welcome.
Carlisle was perched in front of his desk, the heels of his hands propped against the antique wood in a pose so strikingly human, it was easy to see how he so effortlessly passed as such in his every day profession. He had shed his grey suit jacket, and the bright whiteness of his shirt added to the glow that persistently seemed to surround him. Bella paused just inside the threshold, the shadowed room swallowing the gentle illumination cast by the lone standing light in the corner. His golden eyes were waiting for her gaze when she finally met them, and though his face was as ethereally beautiful as always, and she knew it to be a physical impossibility, she couldn’t help but sense a subtle fatigue about him.
Silence grew between them, and in it Bella could clearly hear the wet thump of her stressed heart in her ears and her slightly panted breaths. Carlisle’s calm demeanour was in stark contrast to her own as he studied her patiently, almost knowingly.
She had come here with fire in her veins, a burning need to change the mind of the Cullen leader whose direction his family depended on and carried out. Whose wisdom and experience they relied on. Whose capacity for compassion and love made the house a home and not a coven. She wanted to rail at him for his decision, curse him for his calmness and confidence and scream her frustration until he had no choice but to listen to her. But standing before him now, breathless and confused and aching, she wondered if that were truly what she needed.
She could not mirror his vampiric stillness, not when it felt as though every muscle in her body were stretched and trembling, not when she required the additional oxygen her panic demanded, her chest rising and falling in the rhythm of her heartbeat.
Minutes must have passed before he finally broke the stillness of the room, causing Bella to start. Straightening from the desk, he took one, then two slow steps towards her, his whiskey gaze taking in her.
He stopped a foot away, his height causing Bella to tilt her chin upwards in order to maintain his compelling stare. He sighed then at whatever he seen in her face, deeply and meaningfully, a wholly unnecessary act but one that spoke to his thoughts.
“Bella…” he said at last, his face and voice so infused with understanding that it caused Bella’s to easily crumble.
She closed the space between them in a frantic lurch, her arms wrapping themselves around his mid-section as the first desperate sob left her mouth. Cool, steel arms enveloped her and pressed her against the stone chest her face was buried in, her salty tears heating the chilled fabric beneath her cheek.
“It’s ok, sweetheart. It’s going to be ok.” The rumbling words were exactly what she needed to hear, and though she knew them to be the prosaicisms she had earlier avoided with Edward, it hadn’t been he she needed to hear them from apparently.
A cool, healing hand wrapped around the curve of her skull, holding her closer as she continued to release the tightly coiled emotion that was rooted, she now realised, in deep seated fear. Fear for this family she had unbelievably become a part of, fear for Jacob and the young wolves of the pack, fear for her unwitting father and his friends and fear for the love of her life, her beloved, Edward.
Time lost meaning as she cried, exhausted, her hands clenching fistfuls of silky fabric. Hushed voices came and went, most often Carlisle’s, perhaps Esme’s and Jasper’s, but none were directed at her and she was glad to stay within the shelter of the unbreakable arms around her.
Carlisle’s whispered words were merely tones in varying pitch to her muffled ears, but the vibration of them against her cheek was an unexpected comfort that she hazily recalled from her early childhood.
It had eventually become stuffy and humid in the creases of fabric that hid her face, despite the icy flesh that lay below. Her nose was horribly blocked, her eyes stung with tiredness and the skin below her chin felt itchy with drying tears. Her sobs had turned to crying, her crying to weeping and now all that remained were hitched breaths, thick sniffles and an aching, clogged head.
Carlisle hadn’t moved except to hold her tightly against him, so when he suddenly leaned forward and swept Bella’s legs into his arms, it was enough of a jolt to finally bring her face into the open.
She blinked blearily at the bookcases and gilded frames that passed her by as she was carried to the leather couch on the far wall. The butter soft leather gave easily under her meagre weight as she was gently deposited. Bringing her legs up, she quickly wrapped her arms around them and over the tops of her knees, watched as Carlisle crouched directly in front of her, his intent eyes displaying a strange mix of concern and affection. Her body still twitched with every second hitched breath, not quite recovered from her rare breakdown.
Whilst not in any way adverse to the common familial gestures she experienced daily with the rest of the family; Emmett’s bear like hugs, Alice’s never ending cuddles and pampering, Esme’s maternal embraces – she had rarely instigated the contact herself, and had certainly never been the recipient or instigator of any with the man now watching her carefully.
Embarrassment rushed over her with the impact of a freight train as she fully realised what she had just done. Her hands took the opportunity to scrub at her damp face as she spoke, the benefit of hiding behind them not lost to her.
“M’sorry” she whispered, her voice emerging hoarse and nasally. Her thoughts were in turmoil, not as they were before, she acknowledged, but renewed clarity was bringing its own problems.
What had happened to the emotional stoicism she had inherited from Charlie? This would have been bad enough with Alice or Esme, but with Carlisle? Who she had clung to like some determined sea snail? Ughhh.
Cold pressure under her lowered chin brought her reluctant face and uncomfortable gaze to the man himself. He remained crouched before her, and the hand that had forced her gaze to his now held a box of tissues extended to her. She accepted them quietly and began to self-consciously mop up the wetness below her nose and across her warm cheeks. She could only imagine how she must look.
“There is no need for apology, Bella. Nor embarrassment, truly. You must know that it is, in part, your humanity that endeared you to us,” Carlisle reassured her quietly, his clear, honeyed tone a balm in itself.
“Snot and panda eyes and salty puddles. Very endearing, Carlisle.” She grumbled gently, coughing a little to clear the thickness remaining in her throat but glad to see a slight smile develop on his face.
A few beats of silence passed, less fraught than the previous.
“Stay here” he finally instructed, first pulling the blanket from across the back of the leather to cover her before flashing out the room. She had barely the time to consider any regrets or actions when he was before her again.
“For your head,” he explained, holding out a flattened palm where two small capsules lay. His other held a tall glass of water.
Bella’s fingertips fluttered over the doctor’s hand as she collected the pills and deposited them in her mouth. She drank from the perspiring glass in long, appreciative pulls, not realising how thirsty she had become. It was empty when she handed it back, slightly breathless, and she had the impression when she again met his eyes, that she were being subtly assessed and examined by the century’s old physician.
“I came here to yell at you, you know,” she admitted, not entirely sure why she felt the need to do so but keen to interrupt his close scrutiny. Something about the sheer goodness that shone from this pastor’s son made one want to be honest, she also admitted, her fingers playing nervously with the loose frays at the edge of her blanket.
He didn’t appear surprised by her confession, she noted, and briefly wondered how much silent communication was taking place between the doctor and his telepathic son.
“Indeed. As much as I loathe seeing you distraught, particularly if my own actions have contributed in any way, it heartens me to know that you feel comfortable doing so.”
Bella frowned, her agitated fingers stilling. “You want me to yell at you?” she clarified, disbelief colouring her crackling tone. Her frown remained when he chuckled softly, genuine amusement bringing a sparkle back to his eyes.
“I sincerely hope that I don’t incite the need for you to do so in the near future, Bella.” Seeing her confusion, he brought his marble hand to rest gently on her bent knee.
“Consciously or not, you have thus far displayed a certain reticence around me that is absent in your relationships with the rest of the family. I have my own theories, of course, but they are put to rest somewhat with your admission. It gratifies me immensely that you feel comfortable enough to challenge me, as well you should.”
Bella’s first instinct was to deny this insight. Indeed, she had opened her mouth to do just that but the indrawn breath remained trapped in her lungs as her fuzzy mind considered his words. Did she treat him differently? She released her breath slowly, remaining silent.
It was true, she realised with no little surprise and regret. Her brow furrowed as she forced her thoughts to the issue. It wasn’t that she loved him any less than the others, she knew, and he had certainly done nothing to create or encourage distance between them. There was, she admitted, a certain deference and intimidation though; his age, experiences and positions as doctor, leader and patriarch all leant a quiet authority to him that engendered respect and perhaps a little awe. The knowledge that he had noticed her distance from him hurt though, and she was keen to reassure him.
Her slightly clammy hand covered the one resting on her knee, her thumb moving in unconscious twitches across the silken skin as she tried to formulate her thoughts into words. “Carlisle…”
His slight shake of his head and movement to the seat beside her stopped her short. His face displayed calm understanding and a benevolence that made his eyes crease lightly around the edges. “There is no need to explain, Bella. I know and share your feelings. If there were ever any doubts, this past half hour has most assuredly put paid to them.”
Her subsiding blush reignited at the reminder of her performance and she looked down at their hands, her own looking much smaller and darker than the pale hand it rested on. “I should have stuck to the plan and yelled. At least your shirt would’ve survived unscathed.” She groused, though the half smile she threw him spoke of her returning humour despite her continuing embarrassment.
He glanced down once at the darkened patch across his chest, unchanged due to the lack of heat emanating from his long cold body. He dismissed it with a casual shrug. “It’s no matter. It is something I would wish to see more of, if I were being honest.” He admitted, taking comfort in the slowing heartbeat of the girl now screwing her face up at him.
“You can’t be serious, Carlisle. You would want more of this? Wha?...Why??” She spluttered.
He adjusted his position, turning to face her more fully. A rare flicker of indecision flashed across his face, making Bella’s stomach clench. His thoughtful pause did little to ease her discomfort. “Much has transpired these past eight months, Bella, though I realise I need not remind you. You, in particular, have suffered cruelly…” Guilt, pain and regret were easily identified across his expressive face, but even had Bella had the words to say, she did not get the chance to voice them as he continued.
“…and whilst I applaud your ability to move forward, there is a finite number of stressors the mind can cope with. What you just experienced is not only cathartic, but healthy. It is also often too easy to forget that you are, in fact, the only true teenager in this household. Whilst you are not prone to the typical behaviours common amongst your peers, the occasional crying lag and need for security and reassurance would be the very least I would expect, all things considered. I would happily sacrifice my shirts for the first, and feel fortunate to provide the second.”
New tears formed in precarious, watery ledges across Bella’s eyelids at the simple words as though to prove his point, and she swiped at them in mock annoyance, her muttered “Dammit” drawing an indulgent huff of laughter from Carlisle, effectively lightening the mood.
The hush that fell across the study was, at last, a comfortable one. In the quiet it wasn’t difficult for her weaker human ears to pick up the sounds of the ongoing party downstairs – the stuttered thump of a musical beat, the drum of overlapping conversations, the sporadic high pitch squeal or masculine whoop and the occasional thud of a car door closing in the drive. Whether it was revellers arriving or leaving she couldn’t say, and at that moment didn’t have the energy to really care.
An encompassing lethargy had seeped over her in the quiet, weighing her eyelids and pressing her deeper into the soft leather of the sofa.
“Carlisle?” she finally spoke, somnolence apparent in her voice. A protracted hum of enquiry was all the response she received and she didn’t look up from her fingers which had taken to mapping the rigid definition of steel like bones and frozen veins which contoured the back of the doctor’s skilled hand.
“I’m scared,” she finally admitted, finding some relief in voicing what she knew he had no doubt discerned. If there was irony in admitting fear to a being whose primary instincts should be to kill her, it was lost to her at that moment.
The hand she had been idly studying turned to clasp her own, bringing her attention to Carlisle’s face.
“As am I; we would be foolish to feel otherwise, Bella. But if you believe anything of me, please understand that any decision I make of this import is not done lightly or without due consideration. My uttermost priority has been and will always be the safety of my family – particularly my ever-so-fragile, compassionate and stubborn human teen. I am confident that like every challenge this family has faced these many years, this too will be overcome.”
Bella’s steady breathing hitched a little at his words; Carlisle’s easy confirmation of her place in this unique family - of what she meant to this man specifically – healed a scabbing wound that had festered since their abrupt departure some months ago.
She must have squeezed the hand still tangled with her own as she felt the pressure around her own fragile fingers increase, firm but obviously restrained.
“I know you worry for your friend; I am also aware that Jacob’s reasons for joining with us are, in part, less than altruistic. But the addition of the pack will dramatically reduce the likelihood of any of our family being hurt, as will our involvement safeguard their own numbers. Our uniting stands to protect both sides, Bella. And whether we wish it or not, this confrontation will take place – we can do no other than meet it as prepared as is possible.” Carlisle’s calm, lilting tone – echoing a hundred accents – served both to soothe her and calm the remaining panic that had been responsible for seeking him out in the first place.
She turned towards him, rolling her body so that she lay sideways, knees tucked nearly under her chin, one arm around them and the other folded under her head which now lay comfortably on the top of the back cushion. She had dislodged his hand in the process and she watched him make use of his freed appendage, blinking slowly as he rearranged the blanket around her.
Such paternal actions were foreign to her teenage self, she acknowledged. For years she had played the role as care giver, first to her well-intentioned but ditsy mother and more recently to her gruff but protective father. Where she more herself – independent, self-conscious and shy – she may have squirmed in protest and embarrassment at the role-reversal, but for the moment, feeling as she did that both she and Carlisle were in some hazy, private bubble, she allowed herself to appreciate the sensations.
“You’re missing your party,” he pointed out, though his voice retained its hushed timbre. He was closer now that she’d shifted position and she focused on his face, slightly above her and showing a knowing sort of amusement at her obvious lethargy. A slow, deep breath filled her lungs, carrying the scent of parchment, coal tar and fresh linen – similar in ways to Edward’s scent but somehow more potent, richer almost. It was both comforting and intoxicating, adding to the almost drunken stupor her body was experiencing and she unconsciously wriggled a little closer.
“I’m all partied out I think,” she admitted on her exhaled breath, allowing her shoes to slide from her feet and tucking her toes in the crease of the cushion. A few lines marred her brow as she reconsidered her words. “In fact, no more parties, Carlisle. Make it a rule or something. They’re bad luck in this house,” she declared, reluctantly thinking of her last birthday celebration.
“I certainly have no objections; but you can be the one to inform Alice…” he decided, a twitch in his lips revealing his amusement.
Bella’s own laughter followed, one hand leaving its cocoon to poke him playfully in the chest. “You’re just chicken” she accused, feeling both exhilarated and pleased with her deliberate teasing. Her slight smile bloomed into a full grin at the sight of his raised eyebrow, which wavered not a bit when his eyes slowly narrowed in mock threat.
“Have care, Miss Swan; I do not abide such aspersions against my good character, nor allow them to pass with impunity, particularly from one so young. ‘Twould serve you well to keep your wicked tongue behind your teeth.”
Bella’s eyes widened comically at both the words and the English enunciation that rolled so effortlessly from his tongue. His serious countenance cracked as he took in her expression, the moments passing in silence doing little to negate his growing enjoyment.
“I do not think, sir, you have any right to command me, merely because you are older than I, or because you have seen more of the world than I have...” Brontë flowed easily from her memory but she did not dare attempt the nineteenth century English pronunciation; sitting as she was with someone who had not only lived through such times but who hailed from their very shores.
Carlisle’s eyes shone in recognition at her borrowed words and the underlying challenge.
“If we can only speak to slander our betters, let us hold our tongues.” he replied easily, smiling at the rosy blush which signified both her enjoyment and excitement that he had responded as she wanted and retained his accent of old. He watched her chew her lip for a moment, her eyes pinched in concentration as she searched for a retort.
“It is a troublesome thing, Dr. Cullen, this susceptibility to affronts where none are intended!” she finally replied, a hint of victory about her. Though he needed no such pause in which to search his memory, he allowed a few seconds to slip by to increase her suspense.
“Oh! That gentleness! How far more potent it is than force!” Bella giggled as she watched Carlisle lift a hand dramatically to his eyes, as though he were equal parts exasperated and defeated.
She delivered her parting words with a commiserating look; “If he were insane, however, his was a very cool and collected insanity.” She had barely time to acknowledge his intent or initial motion when suddenly his nimble fingers were fluttering along her sides, the blanket tossing erratically as she wriggled hopelessly amidst her choked laughter. “I give! I give!” she panted between squeals, pushing ineptly at his tickling arms.
She puffed with exertion and relief as he drew away, a satisfied grin showing the pearly whites of his teeth.
“If I caused the cloud, it was my duty to make an effort to dispel it.” He intoned fondly and with his familiar mid-American brogue, tucking a disturbed wave of silky hair behind her ear. She returned his warm gaze, capturing his retreating hand as she resumed her previous position.
She knew he was referring to her earlier upset and shook her head slightly to dispel the idea that he had been its cause. She knew he was doing his best in circumstances out with his control and really he had enough to contend with without her adding to it.
“Thanks, Carlisle” she whispered, and knew there was no need to clarify for what she was thankful for.
Peacefulness was upon her, despite the events to come in the near future, and she did not fight the sleepiness that once more crawled across her consciousness as the slow minutes passed; instead letting her heavy lids close and pulling their clasped hands a little closer to her chin.
Carlisle watched, noting the gentle grasp of long forgotten sleep claim the girl in increments. When her breathing had deepened and muscles relaxed, he carefully extracted his now loosely held hand and again adjusted the blanket to cover her fully.
Familiar footsteps sounded on the lower stairwell, slower than they were want to be on an average day when the house was not occupied by half the local high school.
Edward had, of course, heard the entirety of their conversation, and his methodical steps towards the study spoke of his satisfaction that all was now well with his mate.
As he prepared to vacate his place next to his slumbering daughter-to-be, he whispered the words that rung most true to him in that moment;
“I know what it is to live entirely for and with what I love best on earth. I hold myself supremely blest – blest beyond what language can express…”