“I don’t know how much we should tell Renée about this,” Charlie said, hesitating with one foot out the door. He stretched, and then his stomach growled.
I nodded. “I know. I don’t want to freak her out. Better to protect her. This stuff isn’t for the fainthearted.”
His lips twisted up to the side ruefully. “I would have tried to protect you, too, if I’d known how. But I guess you’ve never fit into the fainthearted category, have you?”
I smiled back, pulling a blazing breath in through my teeth.
Charlie patted his stomach absently. “I’ll think of something. We’ve got time to discuss this, right?”
“Right,” I promised him.
It had been a long day in some ways, and so short in others. Charlie was late for dinner—Sue Clearwater was cooking for him and Billy. That was going to be an awkward evening, but at least he’d be eating real food; I was glad someone was trying to keep him from starving due to his lack of cooking ability.
All day the tension had made the minutes pass slowly; Charlie had never relaxed the stiff set of his shoulders. But he’d been in no hurry to leave, either. He’d watched two whole games—thankfully so absorbed in his thoughts that he was totally oblivious to Emmett’s suggestive jokes that got more pointed and less football-related with each aside—and the after-game commentaries, and then the news, not moving until Seth had reminded him of the time.
“You gonna stand Billy and my mom up, Charlie? C’mon. Bella and Nessie’ll be here tomorrow. Let’s get some grub, eh?”
It had been clear in Charlie’s eyes that he hadn’t trusted Seth’s assessment, but he’d let Seth lead the way out. The doubt was still there as he paused now. The clouds were thinning, the rain gone. The sun might even make an appearance just in time to set.
“Jake says you guys were going to take off on me,” he muttered to me now.
“I didn’t want to do that if there was any way at all around it. That’s why we’re still here.”
“He said you could stay for a while, but only if I’m tough enough, and if I can keep my mouth shut.”
“Yes… but I can’t promise that we’ll never leave, Dad. It’s pretty complicated. . . .”
“Need to know,” he reminded me.
“You’ll visit, though, if you have to go?”
“I promise, Dad. Now that you know just enough, I think this can work. I’ll keep as close as you want.”
He chewed on his lip for half a second, then leaned slowly toward me with his arms cautiously extended. I shifted Renesmee—napping now—to my left arm, locked my teeth, held my breath, and wrapped my right arm very lightly around his warm, soft waist.
“Keep real close, Bells,” he mumbled. “Real close.”
“Love you, Dad,” I whispered through my teeth.
He shivered and pulled away. I dropped my arm.
“Love you, too, kid. Whatever else has changed, that hasn’t.” He touched one finger to Renesmee’s pink cheek. “She sure looks a lot like you.”
I kept my expression casual, though I felt anything but. “More like Edward, I think.” I hesitated, and then added, “She has your curls.”
Charlie started, then snorted. “Huh. Guess she does. Huh. Grandpa.” He shook his head doubtfully. “Do I ever get to hold her?”
I blinked in shock and then composed myself. After considering for a half second and judging Renesmee’s appearance—she looked completely out—I decided that I might as well push my luck to the limit, since things were going so well today. . . .
“Here,” I said, holding her out to him. He automatically made an awkward cradle with his arms, and I tucked Renesmee into it. His skin wasn’t quite as hot as hers, but it made my throat tickle to feel the warmth flowing under the thin membrane. Where my white skin brushed him it left goose bumps. I wasn’t sure if this was a reaction to my new temperature or totally psychological.
Charlie grunted quietly as he felt her weight. “She’s… sturdy.”
I frowned. She felt feather-light to me. Maybe my measure was off.
“Sturdy is good,” Charlie said, seeing my expression. Then he muttered to himself, “She’ll need to be tough, surrounded by all this craziness.” He bounced his arms gently, swaying a little from side to side. “Prettiest baby I ever saw, including you, kid. Sorry, but it’s true.”
“I know it is.”
“Pretty baby,” he said again, but it was closer to a coo this time.
I could see it in his face—I could watch it growing there. Charlie was just as helpless against her magic as the rest of us. Two seconds in his arms, and already she owned him.
“Can I come back tomorrow?”
“Sure, Dad. Of course. We’ll be here.”
“You’d better be,” he said sternly, but his face was soft, still gazing at Renesmee. “See you tomorrow, Nessie.”
“Not you, too!”
“Her name is Renesmee . Like Renée and Esme, put together. No variations.” I struggled to calm myself without the deep breath this time. “Do you want to hear her middle name?”
“Carlie. With a C. Like Carlisle and Charlie put together.”
Charlie’s eye-creasing grin lit up his face, taking me off guard. “Thanks, Bells.”
“Thank you , Dad. So much has changed so quickly. My head hasn’t stopped spinning. If I didn’t have you now, I don’t know how I’d keep my grip on—on reality.” I’d been about to say my grip on who I was . That was probably more than he needed.
Charlie’s stomach growled.
“Go eat, Dad. We will be here.” I remembered how it felt, that first uncomfortable immersion in fantasy—the sensation that everything would disappear in the light of the rising sun.
Charlie nodded and then reluctantly returned Renesmee to me. He glanced past me into the house; his eyes were a little wild for a minute as he stared around the big bright room. Everyone was still there, besides Jacob, who I could hear raiding the refrigerator in the kitchen; Alice was lounging on the bottom step of the staircase with Jasper’s head in her lap; Carlisle had his head bent over a fat book in his lap; Esme was humming to herself, sketching on a notepad, while Rosalie and Emmett laid out the foundation for a monumental house of cards under the stairs; Edward had drifted to his piano and was playing very softly to himself. There was no evidence that the day was coming to a close, that it might be time to eat or shift activities in preparation for evening. Something intangible had changed in the atmosphere. The Cullens weren’t trying as hard as they usually did—the human charade had slipped ever so slightly, enough for Charlie to feel the difference.
He shuddered, shook his head, and sighed. “See you tomorrow, Bella.” He frowned and then added, “I mean, it’s not like you don’t look… good. I’ll get used to it.”
Charlie nodded and walked thoughtfully toward his car. I watched him drive away; it wasn’t until I heard his tires hit the freeway that I realized I’d done it. I’d actually made it through the whole day without hurting Charlie. All by myself. I must have a superpower!
It seemed too good to be true. Could I really have both my new family and some of my old as well? And I’d thought that yesterday had been perfect.
“Wow,” I whispered. I blinked and felt the third set of contact lenses disintegrate.
The sound of the piano cut off, and Edward’s arms were around my waist, his chin resting on my shoulder.
“You took the word right out of my mouth.”
“Edward, I did it!”
“You did. You were unbelievable. All that worrying over being a newborn, and then you skip it altogether.” He laughed quietly.
“I’m not even sure she’s really a vampire, let alone a newborn,” Emmett called from under the stairs. “She’s too tame.”
All the embarrassing comments he’d made in front of my father sounded in my ears again, and it was probably a good thing I was holding Renesmee. Unable to help my reaction entirely, I snarled under my breath.
“Oooo, scary,” Emmett laughed.
I hissed, and Renesmee stirred in my arms. She blinked a few times, then looked around, her expression confused. She sniffed, then reached for my face.
“Charlie will be back tomorrow,” I assured her.
“Excellent,” Emmett said. Rosalie laughed with him this time.
“Not brilliant, Emmett,” Edward said scornfully, holding out his hands to take Renesmee from me. He winked when I hesitated, and so, a little confused, I gave her to him.
“What do you mean?” Emmett demanded.
“It’s a little dense, don’t you think, to antagonize the strongest vampire in the house?”
Emmett threw his head back and snorted. “Please!”
“Bella,” Edward murmured to me while Emmett listened closely, “do you remember a few months ago, I asked you to do me a favor once you were immortal?”
That rang a dim bell. I sifted through the blurry human conversations. After a moment, I remembered and I gasped, “Oh!”
Alice trilled a long, pealing laugh. Jacob poked his head around the corner, his mouth stuffed with food.
“What?” Emmett growled.
“Really?” I asked Edward.
“Trust me,” he said.
I took a deep breath. “Emmett, how do you feel about a little bet?”
He was on his feet at once. “Awesome. Bring it.”
I bit my lip for a second. He was just so huge .
“Unless you’re too afraid… ?” Emmett suggested.
I squared my shoulders. “You. Me. Arm-wrestling. Dining room table. Now.”
Emmett’s grin stretched across his face.
“Er, Bella,” Alice said quickly, “I think Esme is fairly fond of that table. It’s an antique.”
“Thanks,” Esme mouthed at her.
“No problem,” Emmett said with a gleaming smile. “Right this way, Bella.”
I followed him out the back, toward the garage; I could hear all the others trailing behind. There was a largish granite boulder standing up out of a tumble of rocks near the river, obviously Emmett’s goal. Though the big rock was a little rounded and irregular, it would do the job.
Emmett placed his elbow on the rock and waved me forward.
I was nervous again as I watched the thick muscles in Emmett’s arm roll, but I kept my face smooth. Edward had promised I would be stronger than anyone for a while. He seemed very confident about this, and I felt strong. That strong? I wondered, looking at Emmett’s biceps. I wasn’t even two days old, though, and that ought to count for something. Unless nothing was normal about me. Maybe I wasn’t as strong as a normal newborn. Maybe that’s why control was so easy for me.
I tried to look unconcerned as I set my elbow against the stone.
“Okay, Emmett. I win, and you cannot say one more word about my sex life to anyone, not even Rose. No allusions, no innuendos—no nothing.”
His eyes narrowed. “Deal. I win, and it’s going to get a lot worse.”
He heard my breath stop and grinned evilly. There was no hint of bluff in his eyes.
“You gonna back down so easy, little sister?” Emmett taunted. “Not much wild about you , is there? I bet that cottage doesn’t have a scratch.” He laughed. “Did Edward tell you how many houses Rose and I smashed?”
I gritted my teeth and grabbed his big hand. “One, two—”
“Three,” he grunted, and shoved against my hand.
Oh, I could feel the force he was exerting. My new mind seemed pretty good at all kinds of calculations, and so I could tell that if he wasn’t meeting any resistance, his hand would have pounded right through the rock without difficulty. The pressure increased, and I wondered randomly if a cement truck doing forty miles an hour down a sharp decline would have similar power. Fifty miles an hour? Sixty? Probably more.
It wasn’t enough to move me. His hand shoved against mine with crushing force, but it wasn’t unpleasant. It felt kind of good in a weird way. I’d been so very careful since the last time I woke up, trying so hard not to break things. It was a strange relief to use my muscles. To let the strength flow rather than struggling to restrain it.
Emmett grunted; his forehead creased and his whole body strained in one rigid line toward the obstacle of my unmoving hand. I let him sweat—figuratively—for a moment while I enjoyed the sensation of the crazy force running through my arm.
A few seconds, though, and I was a little bored with it. I flexed; Emmett lost an inch.
I laughed. Emmett snarled harshly through his teeth.
“Just keep your mouth shut,” I reminded him, and then I smashed his hand into the boulder. A deafening crack echoed off the trees. The rock shuddered, and a piece—about an eighth of the mass—broke off at an invisible fault line and crashed to the ground. It fell on Emmett’s foot, and I snickered. I could hear Jacob’s and Edward’s muffled laughter.
Emmett kicked the rock fragment across the river. It sliced a young maple in half before thudding into the base of a big fir, which swayed and then fell into another tree.
“It’s not going to wear off that fast,” I told him. “Maybe you ought to give it a month.”
Emmett growled, flashing his teeth. “Tomorrow.”
“Hey, whatever makes you happy, big brother.”
As he turned to stalk away, Emmett punched the granite, shattering off an avalanche of shards and powder. It was kind of neat, in a childish way.
Fascinated by the undeniable proof that I was stronger than the strongest vampire I’d ever known, I placed my hand, fingers spread wide, against the rock. Then I dug my fingers slowly into the stone, crushing rather than digging; the consistency reminded me of hard cheese. I ended up with a handful of gravel.
“Cool,” I mumbled.
With a grin stretching my face, I whirled in a sudden circle and karate-chopped the rock with the side of my hand. The stone shrieked and groaned and—with a big poof of dust—split in two.
I started giggling.
I didn’t pay much attention to the chuckles behind me while I punched and kicked the rest of the boulder into fragments. I was having too much fun, snickering away the whole time. It wasn’t until I heard a new little giggle, a high-pitched peal of bells, that I turned away from my silly game.
“Did she just laugh?”
Everyone was staring at Renesmee with the same dumbstruck expression that must have been on my face.
“Yes,” Edward said.
“Who wasn’t laughing?” Jake muttered, rolling his eyes.
“Tell me you didn’t let go a bit on your first run, dog,” Edward teased, no antagonism in his voice at all.
“That’s different,” Jacob said, and I watched in surprise as he mock-punched Edward’s shoulder. “Bella’s supposed to be a grown-up. Married and a mom and all that. Shouldn’t there be more dignity?”
Renesmee frowned, and touched Edward’s face.
“What does she want?” I asked.
“Less dignity,” Edward said with a grin. “She was having almost as much fun watching you enjoy yourself as I was.”
“Am I funny?” I asked Renesmee, darting back and reaching for her at the same time that she reached for me. I took her out of Edward’s arms and offered her the shard of rock in my hand. “You want to try?”
She smiled her glittering smile and took the stone in both hands. She squeezed, a little dent forming between her eyebrows as she concentrated.
There was a tiny grinding sound, and a bit of dust. She frowned, and held the chunk up to me.
“I’ll get it,” I said, pinching the stone into sand.
She clapped and laughed; the delicious sound of it made us all join in.
The sun suddenly burst through the clouds, shooting long beams of ruby and gold across the ten of us, and I was immediately lost in the beauty of my skin in the light of the sunset. Dazed by it.
Renesmee stroked the smooth diamond-bright facets, then laid her arm next to mine. Her skin had just a faint luminosity, subtle and mysterious. Nothing that would keep her inside on a sunny day like my glowing sparkle. She touched my face, thinking of the difference and feeling disgruntled.
“You’re the prettiest,” I assured her.
“I’m not sure I can agree to that,” Edward said, and when I turned to answer him, the sunlight on his face stunned me into silence.
Jacob had his hand in front of his face, pretending to shield his eyes from the glare. “Freaky Bella,” he commented.
“What an amazing creature she is,” Edward murmured, almost in agreement, as if Jacob’s comment was meant as a compliment. He was both dazzling and dazzled.
It was a strange feeling—not surprising, I supposed, since everything felt strange now—this being a natural at something. As a human, I’d never been best at anything. I was okay at dealing with Renée, but probably lots of people could have done better; Phil seemed to be holding his own. I was a good student, but never the top of the class. Obviously, I could be counted out of anything athletic. Not artistic or musical, no particular talents to brag of. Nobody ever gave away a trophy for reading books. After eighteen years of mediocrity, I was pretty used to being average. I realized now that I’d long ago given up any aspirations of shining at anything. I just did the best with what I had, never quite fitting into my world.
So this was really different. I was amazing now—to them and to myself. It was like I had been born to be a vampire. The idea made me want to laugh, but it also made me want to sing. I had found my true place in the world, the place I fit, the place I shined.