"Hey," Edward said cheerfully, trying to hide any evidence of distress in his voice. Anything to keep me from fighting practice. "That one barely stung. Good job, Bella."
I took a deep breath, trying to grasp exactly what I'd done right, i tested the elastic band, struggling to force it to remain solid as I stretched it away from me.
"Again, Kate," I grunted through my clenched teeth.
Kate pressed her palm to Edward's shoulder.
He sighed in relief. "Nothing that time."
She raised an eyebrow. "That wasn't low, either."
"Good," I huffed.
"Get ready," she told me, and reached out to Edward again.
This time he shuddered, and a low breath hissed between his teeth.
"Sorry! Sorry! Sorry!" I chanted, biting my lip. Why couldn't I get this right?
"You're doing an amazing job, Bella," Edward said, pulling me tight against him. "You've really only been working at this for a few days and you're already projecting sporadically. Kate, tell her how well she's doing."
Kate pursed her lips. "I don't know. She's obviously got tremendous ability, and we're only beginning to touch it. She can do better, I'm sure. She's just lacking incentive."
I stared at her in disbelief, my lips automatically curling back from my teeth. How could she think I lacked motivation with her shocking Edward right here in front of me?
I heard murmurs from the audience that had grown steadily as I practiced - only Eleazar, Carmen, and Tanya at first, but then Garrett had wandered over, then Benjamin and Tia, Siobhan and Maggie, and now even Alistair was peering down from a window on the third story. The spectators agreed with Edward; they thought I was already doing well.
"Kate...," Edward said in a warning voice as some new course of action occurred to her, but she was already in motion. She darted along the curve of the river to where Zafrina, Senna, and Renesmee were walking slowly, Renesmee's hand in Zafrina's as they traded pictures back and forth. Jacob shadowed them from a few feet behind.
"Nessie," Kate said - the newcomers had quickly picked up the irritating nickname, "would you like to come help your mother?"
"No," I half-snarled.
Edward hugged me reassuringly. I shook him off just as Renesmee flitted across the yard to me, with Kate, Zafrina, and Senna right behind her.
"Absolutely not, Kate," I hissed.
Renesmee reached for me, and I opened my arms automatically. She curled into me, pressing her head into the hollow beneath my shoulder.
"But Momma, I want to help," she said in a determined voice. Her hand rested against my neck, reinforcing her desire with images of the two of us together, a team.
"No," I said, quickly backing away. Kate had taken a deliberate step in my direction, her hand stretched toward us.
"Stay away from us, Kate," I warned her.
"No." She began stalking forward. She smiled like a hunter cornering her prey.
I shifted Renesmee so that she was clinging to my back, still backing away at a pace that matched Kate's. Now my hands were free, and if Kate wanted to keep her hands attached to her wrists, she'd better keep her distance.
Kate probably didn't understand, never having known for herself the passion of a mother for her child. She must not have realized just how far past too far she'd already gone. I was so furious that my vision took on a strange reddish tint, and my tongue tasted like burning metal. The strength I usually worked to keep restrained flowed through my muscles, and I knew I could crush her into diamond-hard rubble if she pushed me to it.
The rage brought every aspect of my being into sharper focus. I could even feel the elasticity of my shield more exactly now - feel that it was not a band so much as a layer, a thin film that covered me from head to toe. With the anger rippling through my body, I had a better sense of it, a tighter hold on it. I stretched it around myself, out from myself, swaddling Renesmee completely inside it, just in case Kate got past my guard.
Kate took another calculated step forward, and a vicious snarl ripped up my throat and through my clenched teeth.
"Be careful, Kate," Edward cautioned.
Kate took another step, and then made a mistake even someone as inexpert as I could recognize. Just a short leap away from me, she looked away, turning her attention from me to Edward.
Renesmee was secure on my back; I coiled to spring.
"Can you hear anything from Nessie?" Kate asked him, her voice calm and easy.
Edward darted into the space between us, blocking my line to Kate.
"No, nothing at all," he answered. "Now give Bella some space to calm down, Kate. You shouldn't goad her like that. I know she doesn't seem her age, but she's only a few months old."
"We don't have time to do this gently, Edward. We're going to have to push her. We only have a few weeks, and she's got the potential to - "
"Back off for a minute, Kate."
Kate frowned but took Edward's warning more seriously than she'd taken mine.
Renesmee's hand was on my neck; she was remembering Kate's attack, showing me that no harm was meant, that Daddy was in on it....
This did not pacify me. The spectrum of light I saw still seemed tainted with crimson. But I was in better control of myself, and I could see the wisdom of Kate's words. The anger helped me. I would learn faster under pressure.
That didn't mean I liked it.
"Kate," I growled. I rested my hand on the small of Edward's back. I could still feel my shield like a strong, flexible sheet around Renesmee and me. I pushed it farther, forcing it around Edward. There was no sign of a flaw in the stretchy fabric, no threat of a tear. I panted with the effort, and my words came out sounding breathless rather than furious. "Again," I said to Kate. "Edward only."
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