The Broken Hearts Club

Summary: "I'm not ready for this." She looks apologetic and scared and tiny, and he wants to give her a hug, even as she's speaking the truth of his own heart. (A Valentine's Day one-shot.)

Rating: T

Acknowledgement: A bottomless wineglass of thanks to HollettLA, who is all things amazing and awesome. Be my Valentine?

A/N: This is just a quick Valentine's Day one-shot, something a little off the beaten path. (If you're looking for something more citrusy, check out last year's V-Day offering, "How Bella Got Her Groove Back.") Big, chocolate-covered, candy-heart-messaged smooches to all of you. xo


. . .

This is a mistake, she thinks to herself, glancing around at the sea of bar patrons paired up as if this were the loading dock for Noah's Ark. Nary a single to be found, not a group of three in the bunch. All pairs, duos, couples, leaning into each other like beams, postures curled together like parentheses, heads bent to murmur soft, secret words into ears. She has never felt so conspicuous.

The wool turtleneck of her sweater dress scratches at the skin of her throat, and she had forgotten why she never wore this particular garment. Pinpricks of sweat gather at the small of her back, and she shifts uncomfortably on the leather barstool, debating the merits of fleeing. Suddenly, as she casts another glance around, she spies a head of hair above the sea of people, and her heart skips in her chest.

It's him, she thinks for a split second before remembering that it can't be. And, when the crowd parts just enough for her to see his face as he bends and nuzzles the neck of a blond woman in a tight red dress, the disappointment is familiar in its crushing weight. Stupid, she silently scolds. It's been a while since she did that – hoped, even for the briefest of seconds – and she had very nearly forgotten the sharp pain that would slice through her when reality, swift and crushing, hit her. She bites the inside of her cheek and tears her gaze away from the couple, focusing instead on the untouched glass of wine before her, the bartender, the rainbow row of bottles against the wall…anything but the thick mist of love swirling around her like a dense fog.

The lighting behind the bar has clearly been selected to complement the occasion – reds and pinks and purples – and it casts the skin of everyone standing nearby in odd color, making them all appear feverish. She's momentarily transported to high school, when students would be in a frenzy all day, wondering if there might be a secret admirer lurking in the wings, if there might be a rose taped to a locker door, if a girlfriend might finally agree that tonight was the night. A crash of hormones and desire and blind optimism reserved for that one day in the shortest month of the bleariest time of year.

She had been guilty of it, too, even as logic suggested that few teenage boys would want a flat-chested, limp-haired, dull-eyed introvert, but still, she hoped. She hoped, and she was always disappointed – until he arrived in her life, all easy smiles and bright eyes and warm laughter. She had been twenty-one, longer than she would have liked to wait, but in the end, the wait was more than worth it. Her life once he was part of it became a constant flurry of happy moments: soft kisses pressed to the side of her neck, warm skin against hers beneath bed sheets, long fingers tangled with her own on the center console of the car. She had been one of these women, leaning into a tall man in a suit, giggling as he whispered something – usually mischievous – into the shell of her ear. Expectant, aflutter with love and joy and more than a smidge of lust.

Now, she sits alone, watching the colored lights spill out over the crowd, her fingers idly playing with the stem of a glass of wine the color of blood.

When her clutch purse vibrates in her lap, she pulls her phone out to see a text message from Rose.

What are you wearing?

She chews her lip as she taps out a reply, and when Rosalie's response – Perfect. Sexy but not slutty. Have a good time. We love you. – comes through, she is faintly reassured, even as the sudden desire to be at home in her sweatpants with her best friend and a movie crashes over her.

I'm not ready for this, she thinks and debates typing, but instead she slips her phone back into her clutch. Rose has heard enough of her self-pity to last a lifetime; the last thing she intends to do is to infect her best friend's first married Valentine's Day with her own melancholy. Taking a cautious sip of her wine, she casts another glance around, almost immediately regretting it. This – the thick, heady syrup of love – is what she has hidden from for so long, and she feels raw and exposed, like a wound whose bandage has been ripped off before it has had enough time to heal.

Once again she considers fleeing, but instead forces herself to remain seated and takes another measured sip from her glass.

. . .

This is a mistake, he thinks, stepping through the doors of the restaurant and glancing around, feeling immediately caged in. There are tiny spherical vases on every available surface holding clusters of red roses, and he can hear her voice in his head, see her eye-roll. Ugh. Red roses. Such a cliché. He remembers with a sharp pang how she'd admitted to him after their first Valentine's Day together that she hated red roses. When he'd asked what she did like, the enigmatic smile he'd fallen in love with had crept across her face. Surprise me, she had murmured, pressing a soft kiss to his mouth, brushing her hand across his chest. After that, every occasion had been something different: orchids for their second Valentine's Day. Violets and pink Gerbera daisies for the anniversary of their first date. A cluster of jonquils and tulips for Easter. A single, enormous sunflower for her birthday.

When she had walked up a church aisle toward him holding a cluster of every single bloom he'd ever given her, his breath had caught in his throat as tears rose behind his eyes.

Now he eyes the red roses with disappointment, even as he feels slightly guilty and more than a little ridiculous for casting his bitterness on something as innocuous as the restaurant décor.

His eyes scan the restaurant, and a faint bell of alarm sounds somewhere in the recesses of his mind. This is exactly the type of scenario he tends to avoid, if only because he is painfully aware of the fact that his presence can make people feel awkward and uncomfortable. Double-dates don't work if you're a single, and, as fate would have it, every single one of his close friends is married. People don't quite know what to do with someone who is, for all intents and purposes, available but isn't interested in looking. It's as if society has programmed everyone to believe that anyone unattached must be looking to be paired up, and his protestations to the contrary are just one more thing that makes people uneasy. Emmett is the only one who has been content to just let him be, but even he seems to be beginning to think enough time has passed.

Enough time, he thinks now, looking around at all of the happily paired people, tasting something faintly like panic at the back of his throat. Enough. Such a complicated word. Not enough time with her to be satisfied, not enough time since her to move on. Not enough, nowhere near enough. A part of him wants to turn on his heel and run, flee like a scared child back to the sanctity of his home – their home – and lose himself in memories, equal parts consoling and agonizing.

As if in reprimand, his phone buzzes against the muscle of his thigh. Fishing it out, he sees Emmett's words appear on the screen. You'll be fine. Good luck, bro. He debates the merits of responding, but finds that he has nothing to say outside of a plea not to make him do this. But even thinking it makes him feel like the most pathetic kind of coward, and he slides the phone back into his pocket, surveying the bar. Everyone is paired off like it's a dance, and he scans the crowd until his eyes fall on a dark-haired woman sitting at the bar alone. Taking a deep breath, he steps forward.

. . .

"Excuse me, are you Bella?"

She turns slowly, dark eyebrows arching slightly as she meets his gaze. She doesn't respond for a moment, and embarrassment begins to swirl and bubble low in his stomach like a cauldron until, finally, she nods. "Edward?"

He mirrors her nod, jamming his hands into the pockets of his slacks before remembering how Kate used to tell him that the habit made him seem secretive, closed off, unapproachable. Uneasily, he pulls his hands back out, letting them hang awkwardly at his sides just as Bella extends one of her fine-boned hands toward him. "It's nice to meet you." But her eyes are wary, uncertain, and he finds he's mildly relieved to see his own reticence mirrored in her gaze.

"Likewise."

There's a moment of awkward silence, and he realizes swiftly, painfully, how completely out of practice he is at this. He met Kate when he was nineteen and married her when he was twenty-four, and he never stopped to consider that he's never really had to date anyone before. As such, he's at a loss as to what constitutes normal first-date conversation.

So caught up in his own mild panic, he doesn't recognize a similar distress in her own eyes. She has no idea what to say, how to make polite, date-like conversation with a complete stranger, and for the millionth time, she aches for the familiarity of home and comfort and Ben. Ben. The simple thought of his name is enough to make her spine go rigid as if in response to a physical pain, and she sees him notice her flinch.

"Sorry," she says when she realizes that she hadn't thought to save him a stool. She throws her hand out to gesture, but before the words can come to her lips, the back of her hand makes contact with the bowl of her wineglass, knocking it over; the sharp shatter of glass causes a momentary drop in the hum of conversation around them, and she feels her cheeks burn as she attempts to mop up the deep red liquid with her lone cocktail napkin. It's sodden in a matter of seconds as the puddle continues to spread across the dark surface of the bar, shards of glass glittering like pink diamonds. "Oh, God," she mutters under her breath, feeling ridiculous and stupid as tears sting her eyes.

"Hey, don't worry about it," she hears Edward say, and in her peripheral vision she sees his long arm reach behind the bar to grab a small stack of cocktail napkins. "Here, let me." She watches as he wipes up her mess, the paper napkins turning burgundy, bleeding into the ambiance lighting as if they are another complement to the occasion.

Even spilled wine is less out of place here than I am, she thinks bitterly, as the bartender appears to take the cluster of saturated napkins from Edward and swipe the broken glass away with a microfiber rag.

"Can I get you a refill?" she asks, dumping the wad of soggy paper into a garbage can hidden from view, and Bella opens and closes her mouth, baffled by her own hesitation.

Edward dips his head, and it occurs to her, fleetingly, that in this moment they probably look like any one of the other pairs curled toward each other, ostensibly out to celebrate the occasion. Dread uncurls like a ribbon in her stomach.

"Bella?" he asks, and she meets his stare, registers the small furrow between his eyebrows, the concern in his eyes. It's hard to tell in the pink light of the bar, but she thinks his eyes might be green.

She shakes her head. "Sorry. I…" But she trails off, and Edward breaks her gaze to lean toward the bartender.

"We're okay for the moment," he says, and she disappears to tend to her other customers as Edward returns his focus to Bella's face.

"I'm sorry," she says again, reflexively.

He shakes his head. "No sweat." But the frown of concern is still in place, and he watches as she casts a despairing glance around the bar. Unexpectedly, he sees himself reflected in this small slip of a girl perched rigidly on the edge of her stool, watching couples with wide, worried eyes, and he takes a chance.

"Want to get out of here?"

Immediately, her eyes widen even farther and fly to his face, worry becoming panic, and he realizes instantly what it sounded like. "Oh, God, not like that. Sorry. I just meant…would you like to go somewhere else? Somewhere less…" He casts an arm in a wide arc, as if gesturing toward all of it: the flowers, the lighting, the couples crowded around them.

"Yes," she breathes, equal parts relieved and nervous. She doesn't know this man, knows nothing beyond the fact that he's a friend of Emmett's, but the desire to leave behind the trappings of expectation, the thick haze of romantic anticipation, outweighs the self-preservation that her father began instilling in her almost the moment she could walk.

She could swear she sees his shoulders relax as he takes a step back, holding out a hand in the direction of the exit.

It takes everything in her not to break into a run.

. . .

Almost the instant they step out onto the sidewalk, the cold, not-quite-spring air seeping through their clothing and washing away the smog of pink lighting and pheromones, Edward takes a deep breath, not noticing when Bella does the same thing. He slides his hands in his pockets, assuming that cold is a legitimate reason, and glances over at her. He's trying to think of something equal parts reassuring and friendly to say when she tips her face up toward him, and he realizes her eyes are the deep brown of dark chocolate, her skin the milky cream of white chocolate, the stain in her cheeks the soft pink of blush roses. He wonders if anyone has ever told her that she's the color palette of this very holiday.

"I'm sorry," she says, her chest rising as she takes in a deep breath of cold February air. "It was…a little warm in there."

"It was suffocating in there," he amends, and he recognizes the emotion that immediately sweeps the unease from her face: relief.

"It was. Very suffocating."

"I'll have to thank Emmett for that rather spectacularly bad choice."

"Emmett suggested Au Soleil?"

Edward smiles, the first one she's seen. "I suspect Rosalie was pulling the strings with that one."

Bella returns the smile as they stand facing each other beneath a cold blue moon and sodium yellow street lamps. "As ever."

He chuckles, and Bella feels all of the muscles that have been poised to flee for an hour beginning to relax. "Too true." Casting about as if for inspiration, Edward hunches his shoulders slightly. "Would you…we could just get pizza, if you…" Her lips purse, and he hurries to give her an out. "I mean, if you'd rather just forget the whole thing, that's fine, too. I understand."

It's the second time in the ten minutes he's known her that he's shown her the escape route, and she wonders if she's that easy to read or if it's a by-product of the fact that their hearts carry matching scars. "Pizza sounds great," she says, inordinately proud of herself for agreeing and feeling a small sunburst of courage. Absently, she wonders if this is how skydivers and bungee jumpers feel – so emboldened by the first jump that the ones that come after are easier to bear. Then her mind tries to imagine doing this again, and she folds back in on herself.

"There's a really good place a few blocks over," he says, hands still in his pockets. He wonders if she's cold but feels like offering his coat would be too much, way too much. Her...sweater-dress-thing looks warm, and she isn't hugging herself the way Kate used to whenever she was cold. He shakes his head, as if trying to physically dislodge the comparison.

"Antonio's?" she asks, eyes brightening. "That place is my favorite."

"Antonio's it is," he says, glancing toward the street. "Did you want to get a cab, or…" He glances down at her feet, encased in sensible-enough-looking shoes with small heels.

"We can walk," she replies. "It's actually pretty nice out, for February."

"Okay."

As they fall into step beside each other, he racks his brain for appropriate first date small talk topics, but finds himself coming up blank. Evidently, she's better at this than he is, and she mercifully takes the lead. "So, how do you know Emmett?"

"We grew up together," he replies, shortening his stride to match hers, remembering how Kate would complain about him leaving her behind. Ironic, considering the cards fate dealt them. "How do you know Rosalie?"

"We worked together when I first moved here after college," she replies.

"Oh."

They walk in silence for half a block before he feels her hand on his forearm and he comes to a dead stop in the middle of the sidewalk, looking down into her face, lit soft blue by the moon. "Edward?"

His heart is galloping in his chest, panic and bafflement and a miniscule, barely-there glint of curiosity. "Bella?"

"I'm not ready for this." She looks apologetic and scared and tiny, and he wants to give her a hug, even as she's speaking the truth of his own heart. "I'm sorry. I'm really…I'm not ready to date. I sort of knew I wasn't, but Rose…" She shakes her head. "Anyway, I'm sorry. I shouldn't have agreed to this. I just don't want to lead you on or anything. Rose mentioned what you've been through, and I don't want to continue the evening under false pretenses."

He blows out a breath, a tendril of her hair dancing on his exhalation before resettling against her turtleneck collar. "Me either," he says, and it feels as though he has shrugged out from beneath a cloak of lead. "I'm not really ready, either. I agreed to appease Emmett, but I'm just…I'm not really there yet." Her small shoulders relax, and for the first time all night, they share a genuine smile. Bolstered, he continues. "I am, however, still hungry."

She grins, and tilts her head forward. "Pizza, then?"

He nods, and they resume walking. "Why'd you agree?" he asks, no censure, just curiosity.

Tucking her clutch purse more securely beneath her arm, Bella shrugs. "I guess I felt badly. Rose has been trying to encourage me to 'get back out there'" – here, she uses air-quotes – "for a little while, and I guess I started to feel like she was getting tired of being my cheerleader. So I agreed. Mostly to get her off my back." As if realizing how it sounds, she winces. "Sorry."

"Don't be. I understand. Emmett's been saying the same thing for a while, too. Last Valentine's Day, he came over and watched all the Die Hard movies and drank a twelve pack of Heineken with me instead of taking Rose out, and I knew if I didn't have plans tonight, they'd try to get me to tag along with them."

"Ugh," Bella moans in commiseration. "Being the third wheel is the worst."

"It truly is." As they approach the corner and pause to wait for the illuminated sign telling them to walk, he half turns to look at her. "Thanks for being straight with me."

Bella gives him a knowing smile. "Thanks for doing the same."

He smiles, believing for the first time that tonight might not be the horrifically uncomfortable evening he'd been fearing.

. . .

The interior of the pizza place glows a harsh white, fluorescents buzzing overhead and an old-fashioned television suspended from the corner of the ceiling, showing a Serie A soccer game. The aroma of garlic and olive oil and cheese permeates the air – a welcome, comforting upgrade from roses and romance – and Edward and Bella sink into the red leather booth seats like weary soldiers back from battle. They order Cokes and lapse into a brief silence before Edward leans in.

"I hope you weren't sitting there for long before I showed up."

It occurs to Bella, perhaps belatedly, that Edward is a gentleman and is likely what most single women would see as a "catch," and she feels mildly guilty that she's not interested. Then again, he admitted to the same, so she pushes away the guilt and focuses instead on the simple pleasure of human company. "Not at all," she says, even though those seven minutes had felt like hours of purgatory.

As if he's read her mind, a small almost-smile tugs at one corner of his mouth. "I'm guessing it felt like years."

She smiles the smile of a kindred spirit. "Maybe." A shrug. "That was never really my style, anyway."

Edward shakes his head as his fingers wrap around the small glass jar of parmesan cheese. "Ours, either." He realizes too late that he's replied in the plural, a habit he thought he'd managed to break, but the reality of the matter drops between them like a lead weight. He's so busy racking his brain for the appropriate apology – how does one say I'm sorry for bringing up my dead wife on our Valentine's Day blind date, anyway? – that he nearly misses her small, soft voice when it comes.

"How did you guys usually celebrate?"

His surprised green eyes lift to hers, and the reality of the moment might have knocked him over, had he been standing. This stranger, the girl he's supposed to be on a date with, is asking about Kate. And he wants to tell her.

Nobody really asks about Kate anymore. The people who knew her have relegated her stories to once-upon-a-time memories that they might drag out on odd occasions, if ever, while people who didn't assume that his loss is either far enough in the past that he doesn't need to talk about it or recent enough that it might be too painful to discuss. As a result, he finds that the chances he has to speak her name aloud, to recall moments from the nearly eleven years she shared his life, are heartbreakingly few and far-between. "We'd go see the worst movie that was playing," he admits finally, staring determinedly at the metal lid of the parmesan jar, pressing the pad of his finger to the tiny dots of cheese caught between the holes before realizing, once they're stuck to his fingers, that he doesn't know quite what to do with them.

"The worst movie?" Her voice is encouraging, and he looks up into her eyes.

"Yeah. We'd buy popcorn and candy and sit in the back row until it got too awful to bear, then we'd, uh…" He glances back down at the red-and-white-checkered tablecloth. "Make out," he mumbles, the tips of his ears pink. "Then we'd go have burgers and milkshakes."

"That sounds perfect," Bella says, and he looks back up, so grateful and so relieved and so free and so wanting to return the favor.

"What about you?"

"Well, the first year we were together, he tried to plan this big, elaborate thing – sort of like the restaurant tonight – and pretty much every plan he had fell through. We ended up renting a movie and eating Chinese takeout on the floor in my living room. So that kind of became our tradition…takeout and a movie."

"That sounds pretty perfect, too," he replies, and the electrical wire of understanding crackles between them. "What was his name?" he asks softly.

"Ben," she replies, and as the name leaves her lips, tears gather along her lower lids. "Yours?"

"Kate," he almost-whispers, heart cracking wide, and he hadn't realized how long it had been since he said it aloud. "Her name was Kate."

Bella simply nods, and they sit in silence until the server reappears with their Cokes.

. . .

She was right about his eyes. They're green, and they make her think of springtime. "Kate," she repeats softly, thinking it's such a beautiful name, and supposing that his wife must have been beautiful, too.

"Ben," he replies with a nod, as if they're introducing spouses sitting right beside them, and she wants to close her eyes, to imagine that Ben is, in fact, in the booth beside her, but she forces herself not to get swept away in the tide of melancholy and memory. "How long ago?" he asks, not needing to clarify. This, after all, is the shorthand of the bereaved.

"Two years next month. Drunk driver." Edward nods once, solemnly, and she thinks she might love him just a little bit for not saying the words I'm sorry. "You?"

He swallows. "Eighteen months. Pancreatic cancer."

Bella nods, wrapping her hands around the base of her plastic soda cup, condensation slicking her palms, not tearing her eyes away from his. That was one of the first and one of the worst things she learned as a widow: grief makes it difficult for people to meet your eye. And, as if he understands, he gazes back at her, comprehension settling between them like a picnic blanket inviting them to sit. Bella traces a bead of sweat down the side of her cup with a fingertip. "I've always wondered if one way is worse than the other."

"What do you mean?"

"Like, is it worse to lose someone suddenly, out of the blue, with no warning? Or is it worse to lose them slowly, but to at least have the chance to say goodbye?" She's momentarily worried that this might be too much, but Edward tips his head slightly to one side and gazes at some spot over her shoulder, as if considering a math equation. Bella leans forward and takes a sip of her soda, waiting.

"I guess…" he says finally, bringing his focus back to her face. "I mean, I don't know. I've only got my experience to go on. But I'd imagine…it's easier for the one who goes for it to be quick, and it's easier for the one left behind to have a chance for goodbye. I got to say goodbye to Kate – I said it a few times over – but it killed me to watch her slowly fade away. I hated that, by the time she went, she was barely even Kate anymore. But I guess I was as prepared as I could possibly be. In your case, it was probably easier for him to go quickly – to not have to suffer – but you're left with all of the unfinished business, the unsaid goodbyes." She looks away, attempting to discreetly wipe a tear from the corner of her eye with the rough woolen sleeve of her dress. "I'm sorry," he says immediately, but she shakes her head.

"No. Please, don't apologize. You're right. That's…I think that's exactly right. I should be grateful that he didn't have to suffer. I wish I'd had a chance to say goodbye, but if it meant watching him endure months of pain…" She trails off, shaking her head. "That would be selfish."

"Hey," Edward says, reaching out as if to cover her hand with his but stopping halfway across the table, his fingers resting awkwardly on the red paper placemat. "Bella. Listen. I'm not a grief counselor. I tried seeing one, and she was a nutjob. But there's a difference between selfishness and self-preservation. There's nothing wrong with wishing you'd had a chance to tell your husband goodbye."

She nods quickly in response, trying to blink away the residual tears and forcing a rough laugh past her lips. "God, aren't we a pathetic pair? Spending our date talking about this?"

Edward shrugs. "To be honest, this is the best night I've had in ages." She snorts in response, and he smiles. "Seriously. I'm having dinner with a pretty girl, and she's letting me talk about my sob story. That's a win in my book."

Bella blows out a breath, feeling the threat of more tears recede. "Thank you."

He arches a brow. "You think I'm kidding."

"No." She shakes her head. "I know exactly what you mean."

Lapsing once more into companionable silence, they turn their focus to the plastic-covered menus before them, studying them with the kind of fierce concentration reserved for awkward first dates. Eventually their server comes over – a dark-haired, dark-eyed boy whose arms reach long out of his short sleeves, the lanky limbs of a still-sprouting teenager – and when Bella looks up, he is an unexpected reminder. Perhaps it's the occasion or perhaps it's the not-quite-date or perhaps it's because she's just been talking about him, but the boy before her reminds her fleetingly of Ben, the dark eyes and dark hair that led Charlie to joke that if that was her type, she could have just cruised on over to the rez to pick out a boyfriend. Those eyes, that hair that matched hers, that led them to believe there'd be little guesswork about the coloring of their future children, the babies they never got to have.

Gut-shot.

"Bella?" Edward's voice drags her out of the hole, and she tries to coax a smile to her face.

"Sorry."

He shakes his head, but his eyes are searching. There's something familiar about them, even though she's never seen eyes quite that color before. Not quite emeralds, not quite grass, not quite moss – more like a green stone held up to the sun so that the blue sky is visible through it. A cool, calming green, and it takes her a minute to finally identify what's familiar about them: the pain they hold. The bruised, fragile, brittle look that she knows all too well from the mirror on mornings she can bring herself to look.

"Maybe…give us a minute," Edward says to the kid, the not-Ben, and when he nods and disappears, Bella hears the question spill from her lips before she can check it.

"Do you have any kids?" He flinches – so slightly that anyone else would likely have missed it – and she feels terrible. "God, I'm sorry. I'm so sorry. That was…"

"It's okay," he cuts her off. "No. We…Kate had a half-brother who was living with us. Riley. He's three." He looks away, focuses on the Italian soccer game on the archaic television. "When she got sick, he moved back in with his father. He lives there now." A hand lifts to cup the back of his neck. "We were waiting until he was in school to have our own."

Jesus, she thinks, trying to imagine losing not only a spouse, but a child. His house must feel so empty. "I'm sorry," she murmurs, forgetting momentarily how much she hates the platitude, but all bets are off when a kid's involved. Different ball game.

"You?" he asks, and she shakes her head even as the familiar ache knocks around inside the cage of her ribs.

"We were…going to." The conversation is still as clear in her mind as if they'd had it yesterday. How they were standing in the produce section of the grocery store arguing over how to tell if a pineapple's ripe when a sticky-fingered kid with chocolate-smeared cheeks sent a pyramid of oranges crashing to the floor and rolling in all directions. He'd looked up, dark eyes wide, dark hair in disarray, and Bella couldn't help the smile that slid over her face at his obvious surprise that things had gone so awry. In the car on the way home, Ben had said it. That's what I imagine our kid might look like.

She had smiled. Yeah. Felt his fingers thread through hers.

Bell?

Yeah?

What if I don't want to imagine anymore?

The speed with which her heart had taken off, galloping in her chest like gangbusters. The gentle way he'd kissed her the minute the front door was closed behind them, took her straight to bed even though she'd have to go off birth control before anything could really take root.

"That's the worst one," Edward offers, and she grabs on to the rope of his voice like a lifeline.

"The worst?"

"The worst…undone thing. I mean, I'd never want my kids to lose one of their parents. But I just…" He trails off, tearing the corner off his paper napkin and rolling it into a ball between his thumb and forefinger.

"But at least you'd still have something of her," Bella murmurs, feeling a soul-deep understanding settle over her when his bruised eyes meet hers.

"Yeah."

She nods. "Yeah."

. . .

The server reappears, and Edward closes his menu, leaning slightly toward her. "Would you be interested in just splitting a pie?"

Bella mimics him, closing her own menu and pushing it toward the server, and he thinks she almost looks relieved. He wonders faintly if she feels the same dread that some days cripples him, the bone-weary desire not to be expected to make any decisions, even the most seemingly simple ones. "Sounds perfect."

"What do you like?"

Her small nose wrinkles, and he's surprised to realize that he finds it cute. "Anything but olives or anchovies."

"Supreme without olives?"

"Perfect."

The kid vanishes into the back, and Edward props his elbows on the table, ignoring his mother's voice in his head demanding that he remove them. "One more heavy question, then we'll move on to discussing something innocuous, like the weather."

A small smile, and she nods. "Okay."

"What's been the hardest part for you?"

Her teeth find her lip, and he can see that she's shuffling through her mind, picking up all of the daily aches and weighing them before putting them back down, wandering around and peering into the potholes of her own mind, trying to determine which one is the deepest. "I think…" she says finally, lining up her silverware as if she's setting a place for a dinner party. "It's the stupid stuff that trips me up. Like, a couple of weeks ago I went to Target and bought a bookshelf. Nothing fancy, just one of those cheap, utilitarian plywood things. I was just out of shelf space and I wanted something small. And I got home and realized as soon as I parked in my driveway that it was going to be difficult for me to get it inside because the box was so heavy. And when I finally got it inside I realized I was going to have to put it together. It took me forty-five minutes to find Ben's toolbox. I was in the garage, my fingers frozen, digging through boxes and crap – because our garage has been a glorified storage unit since we moved in three years ago – and it hit me: when he was alive, I would have just fired off a text. 'Hey, where's the toolbox?' And he would have answered. Problem solved. But I couldn't just…ask him. And when I finally found it and dragged it inside, it took me four hours to put together a stupid shelving unit that would have taken him fifteen minutes. I wasn't strong enough to get some of the screws all the way in, and at one point I misread the directions and had to try to disassemble it partway after I'd screwed it together as tightly as I could. By the end of it, I was a crying mess. All because of a stupid bookshelf." She bites her lip, embarrassed. "God, that's awful. I sound like I miss my husband because of his superiority when it comes to assembling furniture."

"Hey, stop chastising yourself. Judgment-free zone, okay?"

A forced smile touches her lips. "Okay. Well…I guess it's that kind of stuff. I always felt like he was so…capable. Fixing things, remembering things, finding things. I miss that security." He's nodding, and she shifts on the booth seat. "What about you?" The dark ends of her hair brush the tabletop as she leans forward to take a sip of her Coke.

"I think…it's the same. Stupid stuff. Like the other day, there was this movie on. It was one we'd actually gone to see one Valentine's Day and she wound up liking, even though it was truly, truly terrible. Anyway, it was on, and it's still terrible, but I sat there and watched the whole thing. And if she'd been alive, I would have fought tooth and nail to change the channel, but I didn't. I spent two hours watching a movie that's god-awful because she liked it."

The memory assaults him: the smell of popcorn and the soles of his rubber sneakers sticking to the floor and the dim lights as the movie started, and his thwarted attempts to distract her in the dim theater lighting. A hand at the back of her neck, fingertips grazing her thighs. All efforts denied because her sentimental, chick-flick-loving heart got sucked into the sap-fest on screen. It was the last year he agreed to see a romantic comedy on Valentine's Day.

"Yeah. I watched the rest of the episodes of Breaking Bad because Ben was so engrossed and I felt like…I should know how it ended. On his behalf, or something."

It's been so long since he's spent time with someone who genuinely gets it, and as much as he was dreading tonight, he already knows he'll be slightly sorry when it's over and he goes back to his dark, empty house. "Yeah," is all he says, but the word is heavy with empathy. "And I guess…I miss the girliness of her. Finding her hair things all over the house, and the way she always remembered to put fabric softener in the laundry, and the way the house would smell when she baked." He cringes. "I'm making her sound like Donna Reed."

Bella half smiles. "Only fair. I reduced my husband to Bob Vila."

"I guess…I miss the softness that she brought. If that makes sense. How she made things…gentler, somehow."

"It makes perfect sense," she says, placing her hand atop the table, her fingertips mere inches from his.

. . .

"Cliffs," he murmurs, and she glances up at him, frowning slightly.

"Pardon?"

He peeks up at her, then shakes his head slightly. "That wacko counselor I saw…her analogy for getting back into the land of the living was 'jumping off cliffs.' I thought that was particularly unhelpful because what could be more terrifying than leaping to certain death?"

Bella feels her frown deepen. "She didn't mention anything about a parachute?"

And suddenly, he barks out a laugh, surprising both of them. Bella watches, fascinated, as his head tips back and his Adam's apple bobs in his throat and she spies a tiny nick at the hinge of his jaw where he must have just shaved. He laughs, and she studies him as if he's a fascinating specimen in the zoo for a few beats before she feels the unexpected sensation of a giggle climbing her windpipe.

Then, suddenly, they're two people sitting across from each other laughing, instead of two people weighted down by the heavy mantle of grief.

"A parachute," Edward manages, still chuckling as he presses a hand to his chest. "Jesus."

Bella presses a fingertip to the corner of her eye as her own laughter recedes, leaving in its wake a sensation like soda bubbles, popping and fizzing happily in her chest. "Sorry. I sometimes…have word-vomit."

"No way," he argues. "That was fantastic. Screw therapy; they should send grieving people to stand-up comedy clubs."

"You might be on to something there," she agrees. "I can't believe Emmett and Rose didn't think of it."

Edward smirks, and the levity in the expression makes her wonder for a moment what he looked like before the bottom of his world fell out: if he was the guy who told really good jokes or the kind of guy people gravitated toward at parties or if he was like Emmett – a natural flirt, despite being a one-woman type of guy. On the heels of that, she wonders which of her own changes are visible from the outside. "Emmett…had a different kind of club in mind to help me move past my pain."

"A different kind of club?" she parrots, clueless as to what insight Emmett might have had that Rose didn't try on her.

"Strippers," Edward explains, watching her carefully as if half expecting her to throw her napkin down in affront and storm out.

"Oh," Bella replies, feeling heat rise up the sides of her neck. "Yeah. That sounds like Emmett." Playing with the straw in her cup, she glances toward the back of the restaurant, as if it's possible to monitor the status of the food from where they sit. "Did you go?"

"Hell no. I'm not a strip club kind of guy on my best days. I definitely don't want to be that sad sack sitting in an uncomfortable chair, crying into his beer and getting pity lap dances."

Bella nods. "A respectable line to draw."

He smiles again, and as she returns it, she can almost let herself believe for a second that this is a first date instead of two lonely souls clawing for company. Her clutch purse vibrates against her thigh, and she glances once more toward the swinging door to the kitchen, which remains closed. "Would you…excuse me for a second?"

"Sure, of course," he says, and as she slides from her seat, she registers the fact that he's done the same and is standing beside the booth, holding out a hand to help her to her feet. Gentleman, she thinks again, accepting his hand and surprising herself with how much she appreciates the feel of his warm palm against her cold one.

"Thanks," she half mumbles, making her way toward the restroom at the back of the restaurant. Closing herself in, she pulls her phone from her purse to see a text alert from Rosalie.

Isn't he cute?

Bella glances up at the restroom door, as if it's a window she can see him through. Belatedly, she realizes she hasn't taken much notice of his physical appearance. Now, in her mind, she considers it: the green eyes, the hair that he's clearly attempted to tame but which sticks up in a few places, as if certain strands are staging their protests. The height. The broad shoulders. The polite smile he'd treated her to from the beginning and the real smile, which is still only minutes old in her memory.

Yes, she types, and tries to think of something to add. What would the old Bella have done? Answer: the old Bella would have realized he was cute to begin with and not needed a text reminder from her best friend encouraging her to consider it. Very handsome, she adds, because "cute" makes her think of bunnies and babies and she can't quite affix the adjective to the gallant, bereaved man waiting for her in their booth. Instead, she finds she wants to send Rosalie a list of the things she has noticed:

Brave. Brave enough to be honest, brave enough to feel his pain, brave enough to laugh.

Kind. Kind enough to notice she was freaking out and show her the way out.

Gentlemanly, with the manners and the standing when she left the table.

And, yes, handsome, but really? Quite a bit more.

Her phone buzzes with another text. How's it going?

Good, she replies. Thanks for checking in. But I'm hiding in the bathroom to answer you, so I should probably get back to the table in case he thinks I panicked and bolted. Happy married V-Day to you and Em. xoxo

Bella returns her phone to her purse and washes her hands before making her way back to the table just in time to see Edward slipping his own phone back into his pocket. Before she can check herself, she tips her head toward it. "Emmett?"

He smiles again, with a look that says, "Busted," and Rosalie was right. Cute. "How'd you guess?"

She holds up her purse as she slides back into her seat. "Rosalie."

"Ah. Think they'll ever stop feeling like they have to take care of us?"

"Probably not until we're remarried with babies and dogs and everything." Realizing belatedly how presumptuous that sounds, her eyes widen and she waves a hand in the space between them, trying desperately to backtrack. "Not to each other, of course. I mean, not that you're not…I mean…oh, hell."

He laughs again, and she marvels at how much lighter he seems now than even an hour ago; she hopes he's having the same effect on her. "It's okay. I follow. So…they're going to hover with their good intentions and their gentle nudges and their not-so-subtle hints until we take the biggest cliff-dive of all, huh?"

She shrugs, grateful for his easy dismissal of her less-than-graceful rambling. "Probably."

"Well, there are worse things than friends who care."

"Yeah," she replies, and doesn't realize she's frowning until he points it out. When he asks for an explanation, she shrugs. "Do you find that a lot of the friends you had seem to have…faded away?"

"Yeah," he says simply, taking a sip of his soda before continuing. "But I hear that's normal."

"Really?"

"People don't know how to talk to you, after the initial shock of death has worn off. It's like…people are there at the beginning, because it's easy. But it's hard to be around someone who's still grieving months later." He shrugs magnanimously. "It's not their fault. Plus, there's that third-wheel thing again, you know? I mean, were a lot of your friends couples?"

"Yeah."

"Yeah."

Bella slides her hands beneath her thighs and presses them into the seat beneath her. "I heard someone say once that young widows are seen as a threat to married women who worry that their now-single friends will start coming on to their husbands."

"Get out," he says, looking – to his credit – incredulous with disbelief.

"I'm serious. And I thought it was really ridiculous. Except that I had a friend I worked with, Alice, and just after Ben's funeral her husband, Jasper, told me that if I ever needed anything done around the house or yard work or anything like that, not to be afraid to call them. Alice was standing right next to him, and not long after that, she started pulling away from me."

"Wow," Edward breathes, and Bella shrugs, even as she can feel the old hurt lingering somewhere at the back of her heart, behind the bigger, more crushing losses.

"I guess…that doesn't happen with guys?"

He shrugs. "I don't know. I didn't notice it. I mean, I had a lot of Kate's friends coming by the house, bringing casseroles and doing laundry and stuff, but I never really felt anything awkward from their husbands." Having finally acknowledged his physical appeal, Bella can just imagine the army of women who likely graced his doorstep bearing food. "I'm sorry, though," he's saying. "That you lost a friend like that. As if this didn't suck enough."

"It's okay. It's going to sound terrible, but in some ways, I was sort of…relieved when people stopped calling and inviting me places."

"You were running out of good excuses to use, huh?" he asks, and she knows without confirmation that he's been there too, hating his empty, quiet house and yet not having the strength to leave it.

"Yeah," she agrees.

. . .

He nods, thinking about the invitations he turned down, the subsequent hours he spent prowling around his house like a phantom, as if one ghost weren't enough. He had loved the big, airy, Queen Anne-style house when they bought it a few years ago, imagined filling bedrooms with babies and kids and the yard with dogs and vegetables and the driveway with cars and a basketball hoop. They spent two years making the hours theirs: painting walls and replacing carpet and landscaping and redoing the kitchen. It was mere weeks before she got sick that Kate looked around their kitchen and said, "You know, we're almost ready for our first fancy dinner party." Their house had finally been ready for the life they never got to start living. Riley was the closest thing, filling the small blue bedroom that overlooked the driveway with his little-boy things – blocks and alphabet books and a motorized train set – filling their house with the sounds that made it a home: little feet and big giggles and crashes and bangs. Edward watched Kate cutting the crusts off peanut butter sandwiches and smoothing the boy's hair off his face as she read him a bedtime story, and he felt like his life was finally beginning, like he was getting a peek at what lay ahead.

How laughably, painfully, tragically wrong he'd been.

Now, there are sacks of peat beside the fence on the right side of the yard, the grass beneath them long dead, the top sack's packaging faded by the sun – preparations for a garden that was never planted. There are paint chips in the top drawer beside the stove, samples for the one room for which they couldn't decide on a color and which still sits unpainted.

The truth is, he hasn't done a damn thing in that house besides haunt it in eighteen months. He keeps up with it – takes out the trash, does the laundry, vacuums the carpets – but he hasn't finished an incomplete project or started a new one since the day Kate went into the hospital and never came home. He's caught between the two choices he knows sit before him: stay or move. And he can't decide, can't bring himself to walk away from the room with the green paint that she had rolled across his back with a paint roller in jest, which only made him press her back against the still-wet wall and kiss her silly by way of retribution. Can't bring himself to sell the hoop-less driveway, the empty bedrooms, the party-perfect kitchen. But at the same time, he can't bring himself to keep building it for a life he can no longer have. Bedrooms he won't fill, parties he won't throw, vegetables he won't grow. He is stuck in limbo, and it makes his own home feel like a waiting room.

Realizing he's been silent for far too long, Edward leans forward just as their server reappears with the pizza and a stand. As the boy situates their dinner between them, Edward silently orders himself to focus on the night and the company before he goes back to his big, empty home once again. He watches as she reaches out for the pizza server, surprising himself by noticing the fine bones of her wrist, the careful way she slices through the toppings to free a wedge of the pie, the coloring he'd observed on a purely empirical level as they'd stood on the sidewalk beneath the moon.

Pretty, he thinks when she lifts her dark eyes to his, holding the slice aloft.

"May I?" she asks, and perhaps it's because he was just ruminating on the lack of female softness in his life, but he feels a glimmer of warmth that he can't quite chalk up to nostalgia. Since he sent his own mother home after Kate's funeral and the womenfolk of the neighborhood stopped appearing on his doorstep with freezer-friendly meals and platters of food, he's been looking after himself. Emmett, while a good friend, is hardly the nurturing type, and Edward shies away from Rosalie and her concerned eyes that make him feel like a homeless puppy. This simple act, Bella offering to serve him a slice, makes him feel like a man on a date. He can't decide whether to relax into it or panic.

"Thanks," he says as she slides the pizza onto his plate, and when he takes a deep breath and picks up his napkin-wrapped silverware, he feels marginally brave.

Determined to keep his promise, he steers the conversation away from their dead spouses. He asks the typical get-to-know-you questions: where she grew up, where she went to school, what she does for a living. She asks him in turn, and he finds that the small talk he's been eschewing for so long isn't nearly as terrifying as he'd built it up to be. The basics blend gradually into anecdotal specifics: he tells her about the semester he spent studying abroad in Ireland, where she's always wanted to go; she tells him about childhood summers spent on a Native American reservation, something he'd never given much thought to but suddenly finds fascinating. They commiserate over the lousy New England winters and connect over the discovery that they both grew up on the West Coast. He tells her about the time he was arrested the summer after his high school graduation for streaking across the school football field; she tells him that her dad's a cop, and that any and all typically teenage hijinks on her part were usually curtailed by the idea of winding up in the Forks lockup.

By the time they've downed three-quarters of the pizza and are both groaning in full-stomached bliss, Edward is surprised to discover that he's actually enjoying himself. The bill arrives and he snatches it up from beneath her small hand, arching an accusing eyebrow.

"But this isn't a date!" she protests in response to his silent rebuke, and he shrugs as he fishes his wallet out of his pocket.

"Doesn't matter. No way are you paying."

"Let's go Dutch, at least."

He looks up, levels her with a look. "Bella. This is my first first date in eleven years. I spent the first half of it borderline crying into my cutlery. At least let me man up for this part of it, please." She's chewing her lip, and he forces himself to smile. "You said you miss having a guy around. I miss having a girl around. So just…let me be the guy. Okay?"

"Okay," she almost whispers, watching intently as he pulls a couple of crisp bills from his leather billfold. "Thank you," she adds. "I've…had a really nice time."

Looking up to gauge whether or not she's just saying it to fill the roles they've decided to play, he sees nothing but earnestness in her eyes, tinged with a hint of surprise. In short, she looks exactly how he feels: like this was a lot less painful than she expected, and therefore translates to very nearly enjoyable.

He grins, laying the money down in the black plastic tray beneath the check. "Me too."

. . .

"So," he says when they're standing on the sidewalk once again, the warm cocoon of the pizza place glowing behind them, the moon glowing steadily silver overhead.

"Thanks again," she says at the same time he asks, "Can I walk you home?"

Awkwardness returns, and they both shift their weight, almost in sync. "Is this more of you being the guy and me being the girl?"

He smiles, visibly relaxing. "Yes. Unless, of course, you live hours away, in which case, you're on your own."

Laughter bubbles out of her, sweet and unexpected. Over the course of the evening she's learned a lot about this Edward Cullen – gallant, sensitive, bereaved, handsome – and now she adds funny to the list, realizing with a swift dash of surprise that she'll be faintly sorry when the evening she'd been dreading for weeks is finally over.

"Not hours," she assures him. "About eight blocks, though."

"In that case, let me drive you."

A quick consideration of factors – the cold, her shoes, Edward's earnest, open smile – and she's saying yes before she knows it.

By the time he's pulling into the small driveway of her townhouse, she is something close to comfortable in his leather passenger seat and his company. Releasing her seat belt, she finds that she's not all that surprised when he does the same and dims his headlights to walk her to her door.

Standing in the yellow pool of light spilling from her porch light, she fumbles in her clutch for her door key. When she has it in hand, she looks up to where he stands, two steps down, shoulders hunched against the evening chill. Eyeing the key in her hand, he straightens slightly. "I know I said it already, but…I had a really good time tonight."

She feels something open inside her, like a butterfly unfolding its wings. "Me, too."

"Like, a really good time. A lot better time than I was expecting to have." He winces. "Sorry. That sounds terrible."

"Not at all."

"I…" He cups the back of his neck with one hand, ducking his head briefly before glancing around. She sees him noting the flowerpots on either side of her door that hold purple and yellow pansies, the small winter wreath hanging from the door itself, the welcome mat beneath her feet, and she wonders if these are the typically feminine touches that he misses. She surprises herself by wondering what his house looks like. Edward clears his throat. "I know…neither of us is ready. But if I were…if we were…"

She nods, saving him from having to find the words. "Yeah. Me too."

His chest heaves as he blows out a breath. "Maybe…we could hang out again? You know, as friends? If that would be okay. But you can absolutely say no."

"I'd like to," she says quickly, surprising even herself with the force and truth behind the words.

"Great," he says, looking relieved and yet, somehow, still anxious. He glances around again, and she finds herself wishing, albeit fleetingly, that she could bring herself to invite him in for coffee and conversation and just…company. "So, um…listen. If you ever need help with a bookshelf or lifting something heavy or anything, I'd be happy to give you a hand." He looks nervous but determined, and she smiles.

"Thanks. If you need company to watch a movie, terrible or otherwise…" She lets it hang for a moment, hoping with all her might that he doesn't think she's asking him to make out with her in the back of a darkened theater, but to her relief, he simply smiles.

"Deal."

She nods, and the once-comfortable silence descends again, reclaiming the awkwardness of earlier in the evening.

He glances up at the moon, and when he says her name, his eyes are still on the heavens. "Hey, Bella?"

"Hey, Edward."

"Is Ben the last person you kissed?" Still looking at the sky.

A familiar pang, even though the sharpness is somewhat dulled – an effect, she imagines, of having talked about him more tonight than she has in months. "Yeah."

Finally, he brings his gaze back to her face. "Does that haunt you?"

She frowns. "I'm not sure I know what you mean."

He shifts his weight, hands burrowing deeper in his pockets, shoulders hunched like a child being scolded. She recognizes it: self-preservation mode. "Kate was the last person I kissed. And I feel like…it's there, looming. Like, the longer it goes, the more it becomes…this thing. And the more the idea of kissing someone else becomes terrifying."

Bella nods, turning her keychain slowly around her thumb. "Yeah. I hadn't really thought about it, but…yeah."

"I was just thinking that it would be good if that happened with someone who…understands."

"Yeah." The butterfly wings are fluttering now, the sweet flavor of anticipation she thought she'd forgotten rising on her tongue. "Yeah, it would be."

Edward's shoulders relax slightly. "Yeah. Okay. So maybe…someday, when you're feeling ready for that step and I'm feeling ready for that step, maybe we could…do that. For each other."

And she watches him, fidgeting in the small pool of light spilling from her porch light, his hair glowing amber and his eyes sparkling green, and a part of her heart reaches out for him, for this man wearing the same scars as her, feeling the same weight, falling into the same potholes even when he sees them coming, even when it's a street he's already walked. And unexpectedly, for the first time in nearly two years, she feels brave. "I don't know if I'll ever be ready."

He buries his hands in his pockets, shoulders curling forward, and she finds the habit oddly endearing. "Yeah. No, I know what you mean. Me either."

"So maybe we should just…jump."

"You're…I mean. You're talking about…now?" The slight squeak in his voice makes her want to hold his hand, and that's got to count for something, even if it's just friendship.

"Yeah."

Wide eyes in the darkness, and she sees him swallow. "This is a pretty big cliff."

"Yeah."

He licks his lips, an unconscious gesture, and she feels a flicker she'd thought extinguished for good spark to life in her chest. Glancing about, the debate he's having with himself is visible for a brief moment before he takes a deep breath. "Okay." He eyes her for a beat before climbing the two steps of her stoop and taking a step closer, his hands still in his pockets. She matches his tiny step, bringing them close enough together that if they were to inhale deeply at the same time, their chests would almost be touching.

They stand there, facing each other beneath the blue-white moonlight and her yellow-gold porch light, and just as she thinks he's going to take a step back and away, his right hand slides out of his pocket and up to cup her jaw. It's been so very long since she's been touched this way – the simple, affectionate, understatedly sexy prelude to a kiss – that her eyes flutter even as her heart kicks up a racket in her chest. Still, his hand is warm against her skin, his thumb on her cheek and the tip of his index finger brushing the hollow behind her earlobe, and she feels more like a woman – a whole woman – in this moment than she has in the two years since Ben kissed her goodbye before work and never kissed her hello again.

The eyes that bore down into hers are green, and the man attached to the hand cradling her face is a good head taller than Ben and he smells different – earthy and warm to Ben's citrusy and cool – but the affection in his eyes and the self-conscious half-lift at the edges of his mouth make her not want to put the two side by side. With Ben, she'd felt like they were partners in life, halves of a whole, man and wife, yin and yang. With Edward, she feels as though they are soldiers fighting back-to-back, weary survivors holding each other up, kindred spirits finding each other's hand in the darkness. The two feel so patently different that she makes herself ignore the comparison between the men.

"Bella, if you need to…pull back. It's okay." There's a small furrow between his heavy brows.

"Okay," she murmurs, still focused on the feel of his palm against her face. "You too."

"Okay." His expression is all careful calculation: precaution in the creased brow, wariness in the watchful eyes, and she's suddenly inordinately grateful for this moment, that he's being as careful as he is, that she won't be doing this with a man who will come at her with a firestorm of passion she's ill-equipped to handle.

Then he ducks his head and he's kissing her, and her own calculated thoughts are pushed aside.

His lips are cool from the wintery air and sweetly minty from his chewing gum and soft like silk and so, so gentle. He kisses her like she's something delicate – blown glass or a dandelion puff or a dew-dotted spiderweb – and she kisses him back the same way, soft and tender and understanding. And it isn't the feel of his lips on hers or the way his warm hand cups her jaw and neck or the slight friction of his chest against hers, but the way his warm breath puffs into her mouth that sends a secret thrill sparking through her veins. Because he keeps his tongue to himself, a gentleman through and through, but his mouth is open, trading breaths with hers, and it's so trusting and intimate and vulnerable that a swell of affection for him crests in her chest. Of all the secrets, the ugly truths, the painful confessions they've shared tonight, nothing has felt quite so intimate as this, the swirl of their combined breath between their open mouths.

When he closes his mouth and presses one last, soft, kiss to her lips before pulling back, there's a small part of her that wants to pull him into her home and her life and watch Die Hard and order takeout and twist tops off Heineken bottles and hide from the world and their grief together. But there's another part of her – tiny, fledgling, like a seedling only just beginning to sprout through the soil – that wants to grab his hand and jump off cliffs, throwing themselves headlong back into life, together.

Her eyes are still closed, and she feels the warm skin of his forehead press against hers. Their breaths are still mingling between them as her heart jackhammers in her chest, and she wants to laugh and cry and run and skip and leap and twirl at the same time she wants to sit in a dark room alone with a blanket wrapped around her and just…be.

"Hey, Bella?" His voice is suddenly rough, low, and it makes goose bumps rise on her neck.

"Yeah?"

"I'm still not ready."

"Me either."

"But I think…I think that just got me considerably closer."

She grins, eyes still closed. "Me too."

He pulls back, eyes opening and watching her carefully, so carefully, and even though people have been treating her with kid gloves for two years now, she finds that on him, it looks different. She finds that with him, she doesn't mind quite so much. "You okay?"

Better than, she wants to say, but all she can do is nod. "You?"

He nods, a half-smile pushing its way through the apprehension. "Just kissed a pretty girl. 'Okay' is kind of an understatement." But she sees the sharp edge behind the soft words, and she wonders if, like her, he was drawing comparisons he didn't really want to draw. Stepping back, he slips his hands back into his pockets. "I should let you get inside. It's cold."

"Yeah."

"But, uh…I'll call you? To hang out?"

"That'd be great." It's the first invitation in a long time she hasn't wanted to say no to, and she thinks that maybe that's what healing looks like.

"Great," he says, retreating down her steps backward. And as she watches him go, she has the sudden urge to see him smile again.

"Hey, Edward?"

He pauses. "Hey, Bella."

"Just don't use the quid pro quo line on the first girl you try to sleep with, okay?"

His laughter is like sun rays slicing through the hazy darkness as he backs away, and when he lifts a hand in a half-wave before turning and making his way back toward his car, Bella realizes she's grinning at his retreating back.

And as she watches him go, a brief flash sparks in her mind – her, on the receiving end of that particular proposition – and she can't deny the faint flare of interest, of possibility that flickers to life within her. She isn't ready. She knows she isn't. But as her eyes track him up her street, she lets herself believe for the first time that someday, perhaps sooner than later, she will be.

. . .

Thanks for reading. I haven't forgotten about "Infinite Visibility" – the next chapter is coming, I swear. xo