Title: Stay

Summary: A lot can change in five years. There's no way he's as perfect as I remember. Right? AH.

Pairing: Edward/Bella

Rating: M

POV: Bella

AN: This is just something short I wrote to get me back in the AH frame of mind to continue Lightning (which will start posting next week.) It won't be continued. It was inspired (very loosely) by a song. If you can guess the song, I'll be impressed, and no, the title has nothing to do with anything ;)

xx

I catch a glimpse of bronze hair across the crowded bar. Even in the dark room with dappled blue glow thrown by the overhead bar lights, that hair is instantly recognizable.

He turns, a laugh gracing his handsome features. My stomach clenches at the sight, even after five years. I wish, not for the first time, that the thought of him didn't make me so fluttery inside.

Though twenty feet separate us, evergreen eyes find mine.

He closes the space between us with confident strides, eyes scorching as he holds my gaze. I fight the urge to look away, hoping my cheeks aren't scarlet. I don't want to be that girl, the one who can't look her ex in the eye and be friendly.

"Bella." His voice is smooth, velvet.

"Edward."

I sip the drink in front of me, hoping I appear as collected as he does. How can he be so composed when my insides are threatening a mutiny?

I can't help but look at him. He looks good. Better than I remember, if such a thing is possible. He always seemed so much larger than life, even as a young twenty-something just starting to put the pieces of his life together.

He's wearing a t-shirt and dark-wash jeans. He might as well be wearing a designer suit for as good as he looks in them. I fight the compulsion to smooth my hands over the crumpled grey skirt I donned for work this morning.

He reaches for me, wrapping me in strong arms and the scent of his aftershave. I return his embrace, unsure if I love or hate that his first instinct is to hug me. His scent catches the air around me, causing long buried memories descend. I force them back into the recesses where they belong.

He pulls away, a friendly hand lingering on my shoulder. His touch warms me, even through the heavy fabric of my blazer.

"You look good," he murmurs, appraising me with kind evergreen that make me feel less like a wayward kid, and more like a confident, professional woman. He was always good at making me feel like the best version of myself.

I tuck loose strands of hair behind my ear. "So do you."

He chuckles gesturing to his casual attire with self-deprecation. "I'll bet."

If only he knew.

His complete unawareness of just how handsome he is… it's one of the things that drew me to him. I don't think I ever caught Edward staring in a mirror. Not once. Everything about him is simple, effortless, unplanned.

"You're too hard on yourself," I return with a smile. "You look good in jeans."

His eyes twinkle in remembrance. "You always did appreciate good denim."

Is he flirting with me? If my cheeks weren't heated before, they are now. I appreciate that the forgiving ambient lighting shields him from the full force of my embarrassment. What is about this man that takes me back to the feeling of being a naïve 22-year-old without a moment's notice?

"Jeans are a wardrobe staple," I assert lamely.

His chuckle is warm. Mercifully, he chooses to gloss over my pathetic attempt at conversation. I sound like I belong on some awful show on E!

"How have you been? Still working at the law firm?"

I nod, glad for a reprieve from the inane conversation I started. "Yep, I passed the bar and everything. I'm officially Bella Swan, lawyer, now."

His smile broadens. I can tell he's genuinely pleased. "Impressive."

I sit a little straighter. "Yeah, well. It was important to me. My life's goal, you know?" I can't help the edge to my voice. It's not his fault we both had dreams… dreams that led us down separate paths.

His eyes tighten infinitesimally. I remember his expressions well enough to notice.

"I know," he says softly. He glances at the empty glass in front of me. "Would you like to get a drink, maybe catch up?" He gestures to a booth that has just been vacated by two tipsy-looking college girls.

His evergreen gaze pleads with me to say yes. Helpless to resist, time, distance and other relationships be damned, I nod.

A waitress slithers up to our table before we even get settled. This has nothing to do with me, and everything to do with the man across the table.

Edward, ever the gentleman, offers a polite smile, ordering some fancy imported beer for himself. "A lemon drop for you, Bella?"

I nod, touched that he remembers my favourite drink. It doesn't matter that it's no longer my favourite. The cocktails I liked when I was 22 are a far cry from the more sophisticated drinks (or so I tell myself) that I favour now. It's been long enough that he has every excuse not to remember.

"You remembered."

He shrugs. "I remember everything about you, Bella. I know we didn't part on the best of terms, but–"

"Look," I cut him off, hoping I don't sound upset; I'm not. Not with him, anyway. I can hear the apology in his voice and I don't want spend the evening dwelling on our unsuccessful relationship. "This little dance isn't necessary, okay? I don't need to hear how sorry you are and that you wish things had been different. It won't change the past."

He gazes at me, sincerity in his eyes. "Maybe it won't change anything, but it's true. Being the cause of your pain is something I regret more than I can say."

His hand creeps across the table, slipping over mine. He clasps my fingers in his warm ones.

"I know that," I mutter, squeezing his hand, hoping he accepts it as the conciliatory gesture I intend it to be. "It wasn't like it was all on you. We both made choices."

With time and distance, and yes, some growing up, I've come to this realization. He might have been the one who packed his bags and left, but I was equally responsible for my choice to stay. The idea of taking a risk on him and trusting him to ground me as I started my life over in a new city terrified 22-year-old me. She's had to live with the what-ifs of making that decision ever since.

"We did," he agrees. "But I still feel responsible."

I shrug, noncommittal. "We'd only been together for a few months."

I wonder how those few months, just four months out of over three hundred I have lived so far, made such an impression. Why has this man left such a lasting impact on my life? What is it about him, or me, that has made it so impossible to forget?

It's not like I haven't had other relationships. Good relationships with good men; men who have made me happy. But the comparisons are always there, worming their way in, fighting for attention. Grass is greener syndrome is a bitch when you've already had a taste of the other side.

"A few months or a few decades, our relationship deserved more respect than I gave it. It was a job. You should have come first."

"It was your dream," I offer, much more charitable now than I was at the time. "It wasn't right for me to expect you to give that up when I refused to do the same."

I remember the night that signaled the beginning of the end for us with alarming clarity. The memories have been imprinted in my mind: the arguing that got us nowhere; the too-quiet words spoken in resignation as we sat side by side on my couch; the final, cold realization that our relationship was over.

Edward offers a tentative smile. "Chalk it up to being a couple of young and selfish kids?"

I nod. It's in the past. There's no use in rehashing it now. At least that's what I tell myself.

"So," I begin, wanting to talk about anything else now that we've come to an understanding about our shared history, "You're back in Seattle? Just visiting?"

Edward's gaze flicks to me. He twists the beer our flirty waitress settles in front of him between his palms. "Actually I live here."

"Hmm." I finger the stem of my martini glass, not wanting to to analyze how I feel about this confession. I know the twist of anger in the pit of my stomach is irrational, but I can't help it. He left without glancing back, and now here he is in Seattle again, like it was all for nothing. I shut down that line of thought, knowing it isn't fair to him or me.

Edward is quick to continue, as if he's plucked the thoughts straight from my head. He was always good at reading my state of mind, whether I liked it or not.

"Not for long. Just a couple weeks." He curls a fist into his hair, tugging at it. It's the first sign of uneasiness I've noticed from him all night. "Believe it or not, I was planning on looking you up. Are you still living over on thirtieth?"

"No. Better salary, better apartment," I offer wryly.

"Oh. That's great." I can't read his tone. I'd say he seems disappointed, but I can't see why he would be. My old apartment, while not a dump, was far from spectacular.

I take a sip of my cocktail. "I think so."

"So, you're a lawyer now, huh? You probably live in some upscale condo made of glass that's furnished with stuff that's all black and white."

I chuckle. "It's not made of glass."

"But it is an upscale condo with black and white furniture?" he teases.

I laugh, even as my chest squeezes. I'd forgotten just how easy it was to laugh with Edward. I've put such weight how we hurt one another that many of the little things that made him special have gotten lost in my memories.

"Maybe I'll show it to you."

I realize the instant I say it how it sounds. The way Edward's connect with mine says he does too. He has the courtesy to pretend I didn't just offhandedly proposition him.

"I'd like that. I've – well… I've missed this. Hanging out with you, I mean. I'd really like it if we could be friends."

"I'd like that, too."

My statement is true at face value, but it's also only scratching the surface of what I want. I've spent the last five years comparing every man in my life to him, after all. Given our little slice of shared history, I'm not sure if more is a possibility, but that doesn't mean I don't wish it could be.

A familiar song cascades through the bar speakers. There's a giggly couple pressing buttons on the bar's old jukebox. Clearly this melodic love song was their selection.

Edward chuckles, recognizing the song. He smiles at me in remembrance. "This takes me back. Remember Mike and Jess's wedding?"

"I tripped the bride with my hardcore dance moves. She faceplanted into the wedding cake. Something like that is difficult to forget."

Edward bursts into a full on laugh, probably remembering how epically I embarrassed myself, and poor Jess. Tingles erupt all over my skin at the sound of his laugh, despite the secondhand embarrassment on behalf of younger Bella. God, he's so pretty. It's not fair. I'd look like a Disney villain if I laughed like that.

"I liked your hardcore dance moves. It's pretty awesome dancing with someone who just wants to have fun, looking ridiculous be damned."

"There's a backhanded compliment if I've ever heard one."

"I mean it in a good way," he intones, "You're so… real. You are who you are, without any pretentious bullshit. Trust me, after living in New York, I've learned that a lack of pretention is something to be proud of."

"Thanks, I think."

"You're welcome," he says with a creeping grin that says he's up to no good. "So…do you want to dance?"

And there it is.

I fix him with a playful glare. "Don't you value your toes?"

His grin stretches wider. He taps one of the boots he's wearing. "Steel toed."

I glance at his footwear. There's no way those expensive leather boots are hiding a clunky steel toe. "Liar."

"Okay, you caught me," he smirks. "I still want to dance with you."

I shrug, unable to resist his boyish smile. "They're your feet."

His responding grin more than makes up for the embarrassing trip down memory lane. Pun definitely not intended.

He stands, offering me a hand and leads me to the small but crowded space that's been designated as a dance floor. I'm both thrilled and disappointed to note that a less swoony song has taken over. A thrumming beat replaces folksy crooning.

We both move with the pulsing music, shaking and shimmying and generally being silly. I can tell Edward's having fun. I surprise myself by realizing that I am too. It's been awhile since I've set aside my reservations and let myself have fun.

A few songs later, Edward's hands have migrated to my hips, holding me steady as we dance. I'd like to say his guiding hands are not necessary, but I've had a couple drinks and I'm wearing heels. Though they're only a few inches, they're enough to set me off kilter when combined with alcohol.

"Bella," Edward says. I glance up, and his face is right there. So close I can see the all the shades of green that fleck his eyes. In the dim light they seem almost luminescent.

I swallow hard.

Edward licks his lips. And then they're on mine. They're soft and firm, insistent but not forceful. I let him pull me closer, relishing the feeling of being dragged into the abyss of delicious sensation. He's every bit as good at this as I remember. I let him tug me closer as he explores my mouth with his. I wind my arms around his shoulders, holding on for dear life, because I'm about the consistency of jello.

All too soon, my feeble thoughts regain control of my mind. As good as this feels, I can't. I won't let myself go down this path. I won't let lust lead my decisions.

As good as this feels now, I know the longer I let this go on, the more it'll hurt when he doesn't feel the same way I do. I'm not setting myself up for heartbreak a second time. I've been there before, and I know how much it hurts to let him go. Well, to try to let him go, anyway.

When I pull away, our breathing is heavy, as is the air between us.

"Bella," Edward starts, but I interrupt. I can hear the apology coming.

"You don't have to apologize," I say. "It's fine."

"I shouldn't have done that. I mean, I should have, I don't know… asked first. Or something."

"It's fine. Really." I plaster on a shaky smile. "We haven't seen other since, well, you know. There were bound to be lingering feelings. It's totally normal."

"Lingering feelings?" Edward glances down at me with something I'm tempted to call hope.

"The way we ended things… it's not like we stopped caring about one another," I state matter-of-factly. "Life just got in the way. There were bound to be unresolved feelings. We didn't have closure. So that's probably why this happened. It doesn't mean anything."

"Right." Edward nods as if this makes sense to him. I'm the one talking, and I'm not sure I believe what I'm saying.

"This doesn't need to be awkward," I say, hoping I sound casual and upbeat; I probably sound a little on the zany side of cheerful, but I was never a great actress. "We can still be friends, right?"

I try to convince myself that this is a good idea. We can be friends. Plenty of exes make good friends. Like Bruce and Demi… or, or… dammit, why can't I think of anyone else?

"Sure, friends." Edward's smile is forced. I'd give anything to have the light banter of ten minutes ago back. I've probably hurt his pride, but this is for the best.

"If it makes you uncomfortable, we don't–"

"No!" he says quickly. "I'd like that. I was serious when I said I've missed hanging out with you."

"Me, too." I accompany the lie with a thin smile.

He returns a hesitant smile of his own. "Would you like to get another drink? We can put this behind us."

The awkwardness clouding the air is unbearable. I find myself taking the easy way out.

"Actually, it's getting late. I should probably head out." I fumble with my bracelet just to have an excuse not to meet his eyes.

I repress the guilt that accompanies the lie. It's Friday night; it's not like I have anywhere to be in the morning. But I can't stay here and listen while he apologizes yet again. I can't pretend that kiss didn't affect me. My pathetic acting skills aren't up to the task.

He nods as if my behaviour isn't painfully transparent. "Right. I understand. Let me walk you to your car."

I agree, not wanting to bruise his feelings any more than I already have.

We exit the bar silently, walking side by side with enough distance between us that it's just this side of uncomfortable. When we reach my car, I fumble with the tab to unlock it. We both stand by the driver's side door, waiting for the other to say something. Edward speaks first.

"It was nice catching up with you, Bella."

He stuffs his hands in his pockets. He's the picture of casual and unaffected. Which is why I'm sure my decision to leave was the right one. I have to leave before I lose my head, or worse, my heart.

I open my car door, just to have something to busy my hands. "It was nice seeing you, too."

"Are you okay to drive?"

I bob my head. I'm startlingly sober now that I'm out in the cool evening air.

"I only had two drinks. It's been almost an hour since the last one."

"Alright. Drive safe."

We say our final goodbyes, and I get in my car. The drive to my condo is only a handful of minutes but it seems to take triple the time. When I finally I shift the car into park, I feel my eyes burning with the heat of unshed tears.

I realize that despite our promise to remain friends, we never exchanged any contact information. Unless we run into one another again, we have no way of communicating.

I don't know whether I'm relieved or frustrated. My emotional reaction to his kiss is proof that my feelings go far beyond friendship. Even if we were to become friends, I wouldn't trust myself to hold up my end of the deal. A friend shouldn't be a jealous harpy at the thought of her friend going on a date with someone else.

My purse vibrates on the passenger side seat. I yank my phone out of it, glad to have something to focus on other than my overwrought feelings for my ex.

My phone shudders in my hand, signaling an incoming call. I don't recognize the number.

"Hello?" I say, expecting a routine sales call.

I'm greeted by Edward's soft voice instead. "Bella? I'm sorry for calling like this. But I knew that if I didn't try, I'd regret it."

"How'd you get my number?" It comes out with an accusatory edge, even though I'm more curious than anything else.

There's a shaky inhale on the other end of the phone. "I remembered it. I was hoping you didn't change it."

I can't help my shock. It's been five years. Half a decade. That's fifteen times as long as we were together, yet he knows my number by heart. In that instant, I have no doubts about his intentions or why he's calling. I feel hope.

"You remembered after all this time?" My voice is barely a whisper.

I can hear him swallow the silence is so absolute. "I remember everything about you, Bella."

It's the second time he's said those words to me tonight. But this time I believe them. A few of the tears I have been holding back spill onto my cheeks.

"Me too," I say. There's a pause. I fill it before he can apologize again. "I'm sorry for the way I reacted when you kissed me."

"You have nothing to be sorry for. I should have said something before it got to that point. And I definitely shouldn't have let you leave before I had a chance to explain. I need you to understand."

"Edward," I start, but he quiets me.

"Bella, please, let me finish." I mutter my acquiescence and he continues. "I've spent more time than I'd like to admit thinking about you. Seeing you again… you looked just like I remembered. When we were dancing, I saw a flash of the girl I was in love with, and I just couldn't help myself. I had to kiss you. Maybe it's too late for us, but I still have to try. There's a part of me that will always love you."

I don't know what to say. I'm stunned into complete and utter silence. It's hard to believe that Edward, calm and collected, cool as a cucumber Edward, is telling me he loves me.

"Bella, please," he begs, "say something."

"You were in love with me?"

"Wasn't it obvious?"

Not to me it wasn't. I mean, sure, I got that he cared about me. But love?

"You never said it while we were together."

"I was working up to it. Then I was offered the promotion in New York, and it seemed like a shitty time to say something. I didn't want you to think I was trying to sway you. I wanted you to come with me because you wanted to, not because you took pity on the guy hopelessly in love with you."

"So you never told me." That he seems to feel no remorse about his decision to keep this monumental secret from me stings.

"I'm telling you now. Would it have made a difference if I told you then?"

"I don't know. Maybe. It would have been a factor in my decision."

"Bella," he says softly. "I wasn't right what I asked of you. You shouldn't have had to give up law school to follow me. We both deserved to follow our dreams."

Perhaps he's right. If I had followed him to New York, would I be where I am today? I'm not sure. I like to think so, but there's no way to know. Maybe if I'd gone with him, we'd be wearing matching gold bands and have a couple of crazy-haired, green-eyed children instead? Who knows which way life would have taken us?

I decide what ifs aren't important. I can only change the future.

"What about now?" I ask, my heart pounding so loudly I can hear each thump.

"What about now, what?"

"How do you feel?"

I can hear the smile in his voice. "Bella, if you felt a fraction of what I did tonight, you know the answer."

"You know what they say about assuming."

His warm chuckle reverberates down the line. "I feel the same way I did five years ago. Like you said, it was circumstances that separated us. Not a lack of feelings. If you're asking if I still love you? The answer is yes."

Those simple, honest words are all it takes to toss the ball in my court.

Where this goes is up to me. I can play it safe and refuse to take a chance, just like I did five years ago. Or I can be brave and let my heart lead, hoping what it wants won't get it broken.

I'm a girl who learns from her mistakes.

"We should talk about this," I suggest, heat searing my insides at the thought of seeing him again, this time without the emotional barricades. "Meet you in fifteen? At our place?"

"I'll be there."

He doesn't ask where. It's further confirmation that I'm making the right choice… that what we had years ago was meaningful to him, too.

I hang up the phone with a smile on my face.

When I get to the little hole-in-the-wall diner where Edward and I spent far too many of our dates, he's there waiting for me, hands in his pockets, looking just as nervous as I feel.

"Hi," he says, his nerves reflected in his eyes.

"Hi," I return. We each take a step closer. I reach for his hands. We twine our fingers, matching smiles overtaking our features.

"Should we go inside?" He gives my hands a little tug. "I bet Peter still remembers us."

I shake my head. "We should do this first." I push him against the adjacent brick wall, and press my lips to his.

He returns my fevered kiss, his lips and tongue teasing and tasting. We're making out like teenagers, but neither of us care. This kiss… it's a balance of lust and love, rolled into one neat package. It's the perfect mix of raw chemistry and something a little bit magical.

When we pull away minutes later, we look like… well, like we've been making out against a brick wall. We're both disheveled, but wearing grins that indicate we could care less.

"Does that mean yes to giving us a second chance?" Edward says, evergreen eyes shining. As if there was any doubt.

"Was that not clear? Perhaps I should try that again. This time I'll be more convincing," I offer teasingly. I have no problem spending the rest of the night demonstrating my feelings. I have every intention of dragging him back to my apartment to do just that after we're done here.

"As tempting as that is… We'll have plenty of time for that later. Right?" He plays with my fingers, a glimmer of nerves flickering in his expression.

I stand on my toes to kiss his cheek. "All night, and all the rest of the nights," I agree. "I gave up on us once without a fight. I won't do it again."

"That means a lot to me. So much. You have no idea." He kisses my hair, tucking me into his side. I fit perfectly in the space under his arm, like I was made to be here.

"But if you ever try to move away again, I won't be held responsible for my actions," I warn.

His nod is solemn. "That won't happen."

I trust him. I believe when he says that this is where he wants to be. We may have taken a meandering path to get here, but at least we've found our way back. Perhaps it was a blessing. We both know now what we gave up. We aren't willing to repeat our mistakes.

"By the way," I say, as I lead him inside the diner. "I would have said it back, if you'd told me, then."

"And now?"

"I guess you'll have to say it to find out."