A/N: Hello, babettes. Welp. It's that time again. Let's see how our kids are doing.
~Nine Months Later~
"Are you ready, Miss Swan?"
Edward squeezed Bella's hand, and she turned to look at him. They had a silent conversation. She had nothing to prove, and if she wanted, he would lead her out of here, to hell with what anyone else thought.
Bella smiled and squeezed his hand back. Her grip was strong. Sure. He could see trepidation pulling at the corners of her eyes, but it was minute at best. She had this.
She let go of his hand and followed the professor to the front of the classroom. There, she shrugged off her robe-the only thing she'd been wearing-and sat on the stool, front and center of the room.
Edward went to stand in an unobtrusive corner of the room, watching as the gathered artists-in-training looked at her. Some of them tilted their head this way and that. Others set right to sketching, glancing up as they marred the pure white canvas with the first vague lines.
There were thirty or so students in the room. Edward wondered how each of them saw Bella. He knew the point of the class, the point of Bella sitting there as still as she could, was for the students to study the shape of the human body. Still, they would capture something in the way she held herself or the look on her face.
Would they even be able to glimpse the things Edward saw?
The only outward sign of her nervousness was the slight rise and fall of her shoulders. They were just the slightest bit stooped. When her eyes wandered and found him, Edward smiled. He made a motion between his breasts and then tilted his head at her, mouthing the words "nice rack." Her lips quirked up, and the tense set of her posure eased.
It had been a long, long road here.
Edward let his eyes roam the curves and swells of her body, remembering with terrible clarity what her skin looked like littered with bruises.
Shortly after she'd shut down her site, she'd told him what it felt like to be naked in front of the doctors.
"They took pictures of me. For evidence," she said, eyes blank and voice flat. "I kept thinking it was like some twisted photoshoot. How well do you think that video would sell?"
He didn't know what to say to that, but she didn't seem to want an answer. That was how a lot of her healing went. She just needed someone to listen while she tried to wrap her head around what had happened to her.
"Do you know the officer asked me those questions?"
"What questions?" Edward asked, sure he didn't want to know but also sure she needed to tell him.
"They asked me what I was wearing." At that, Bella's face became animated again. Her features scrunched up in incredulity, though she was still staring straight forward. "They asked me that, and I thought, okay. Okay. Valid question, right? Because my clothes were ripped into shreds in a bag the nurse handed them. I wasn't wearing that fucking hospital gown to make a fashion statement.
"But then they asked if we'd been drinking." She waved her hands as though at a loss. "I know it happens. I've raged at the idea that it happens. Some asshole won't take no for an answer, and they're trying to figure out what I did to make him think he could have me. Poor guy. He never stood a chance against resisting my wiles; they just have to figure out how."
She closed her eyes, gripping Edward's hands tightly as though he was the only thing tethering her to earth. "I'm so angry. I've been spreading awareness, trying to make people realize these things happen for ten years. Now it's my story. It was maddening and infuriating when it was all the nameless, faceless women. Now it's me. They did everything they could to figure out how it was my fault, and that was before anyone knew that I used my own body to make money. How dare I, right? I wasn't ashamed of my body. I wasn't ashamed of anything. How fucking dare I? What else should I expect when I'm a woman? Men can stare at me and catcall me and think it's a compliment when they tell me I have legs for days and an ass that won't quit, but I charged them for their fantasies so god knows, I don't deserve justice. I don't make it a secret that I enjoy sex, and that I've previously enjoyed sex with women as well as men. Damn, that makes me at least three times the whore. What, do I expect other men won't take that as an open invitation to my pussy? I invited a guy-my employee-into my house and sat down beside him for a minute. God damn. You can't really blame a guy for thinking you're offering up sex when you send mixed signals like that."
She was trembling by then, and Edward couldn't do a damn thing for her except wrap her up in his arms, letting her cling to him. "Oh, god," she whispered near his ear. "I should be exempt from this part."
"What part?" he asked, rubbing her back.
"I've spent so many years deconstructing all the bullshit that goes into our culturization to make us hate our bodies, be ashamed, blame ourselves for a man's lack of control. After all, you can't blame a guy. Boys will be boys. They can't help it. They teach us that from the time we're little. Little boys pull girls' pigtails when they have a crush. They can't concentrate in school if your bra strap is showing." She ducked her head, tucking herself under his chin. "And now I go out of the house every day, and I wonder if my clothes are too tight, or I'm showing too much...something. I clapped Benjamin on the arm today for a job well done, and I started obsessing over whether or not he thought that touch meant something. Does he think I'm flirting with him?"
"You don't have to be afraid of Benjamin, angel."
"How do you know?" she asked, anger seeping back into her tone. "It's more likely to be someone you know, someone you trust. I knew that, and I was still surprised. I missed signs. I wasn't vigilant enough. What else am I missing, huh? Because if it happens again, it's still going to be my fault."
As quickly as it had come, Bella's anger drained away. She let go of Edward, scooting to the far side of the couch and wrapping her arms around herself. "I'm fucking terrified of my own skin. I walk down the street in this body, and I'm wondering how many guys I pass only need an excuse. I look at every guy I know-fucking Alistair, who I know doesn't see anyone that way, let alone me-and I wonder if he's only waiting for the right signal.
"But then there's that voice in my head too that says, hey. Not all men. You can't hate all men for the actions of a few. That old standby that guys love to fall back on. Heavens no. I'm more likely to be assaulted again by someone I know, but to be suspicious isn't fair. That's on me too. I don't want to be a bitch, right? So I go into the back of the restaurant alone when Benjamin calls me, and I let Alistair hug me, and last week, I had a drink with an old friend from college. I smile at all my guy friends, and I try not to wonder if they've ever slept with a woman they honestly think wanted it when she didn't. Most rapists have no fucking clue they're rapists. How many of them do I know?"
Bella pulled her legs up on the couch and rocked. "God, I fucking hate my skin. I hate it. I'm so tired."
It was a small comfort when they found out James, after serving a month and a half of jail time, had been kicked out of school. Bella had a strong network of friends that mostly protected her from the verbal backlash of his friends. It was barely justice, but it would have to be enough.
Throughout everything, Bella had been determined to move on. There were still days when a male friend of hers would say the wrong thing, look at her the wrong way, touch her in a way that would set off her paranoia. There were still nights that she woke up from nightmares of being too dazed to get away, prone and helpless on the floor as James kicked her again and again. Now, nine months past the attack, Bella had mostly good days.
She hadn't ever pushed Edward away. Far from it; she'd let him see every weak moment, let him hold her and comfort her. She had so much more strength than he could have imagined possible, but she leaned on him when it was too much to bear.
They learned to cope together. Once, as they sat together one quiet evening, she reblogged a Tumblr post-on her private Tumblr-that she knew he would see.
I'm not looking for someone to slay all my demons. I want someone who will hold my hand while I fight my own battles.
With those words and her tender look when she knew he'd seen it, Edward knew they would both be okay.
On the stool at the center of the room, Bella had lapsed into a thoughtful, but comfortable, expression. Edward wondered what she was thinking. He was used to the thought by now. Bella had spent so many months deep in thought, trying to force her rational mind-the person she wanted to be-to overwrite her wounded psyche.
Teaching herself to love her body, when all of society wanted her to hate it, had been difficult. Reteaching herself to love her body after James tried to own it, own her, was an often torturous task.
It wasn't easy for Edward either. It was hell to watch her go through it-all the more frustrating because he had even less idea than she did how to navigate these paths. They had some hard times, because when Bella displaced her anger it was often on him. Of course it was. He was a safe target, and while that was maddening and often hurtful, Edward tried his best to remind himself that it meant her trust in him ran deep. She almost always realized what she was doing, and the few times he had to call her out, she was able to step out of the moment to examine her behavior. She apologized. They deconstructed what was happening and why. They always ended up on the same page, stronger together than ever.
The first time after the attack Bella initiated sex, Edward was a little startled to find she hadn't shaved anywhere. He knew the way she was watching him, studying his reaction, was a challenge. She was waiting for him to reject her, tongue already poised for the battle that would follow.
It was strange, but only because it was different. Edward took his time, letting his hands get reaquainted with her skin. He understood she was trying to make her body a comfortable place to live in again. Right then, it meant that she needed to be appreciated unadulterated-as nature intended before someone somewhere had decided this mild form of self-mutilation was a requirement of feminine beauty. Edward couldn't say it turned him on, but it didn't leave him limp, either.
No, he wanted his Bella. He didn't give a good god damn about the packaging.
They made love that night slow and easy. He touched her with tenderness and whispered sweet things in her ear and told her over and over again how beautiful she was.
Bella did start shaving again. Not because it made her more desirable or because it was what she thought she should do. She did it because she liked the way clothes felt against her skin. Her clothes, her skin, her hair-everything she did was to be comfortable with herself.
This was the final test.
Edward had told her over and over again she had nothing to prove, but time and again she did. It was the latest hurdle she'd been determined to overcome-to make that final connection between liking how she looked, clothed or not, and not giving a flying fuck if anyone else wanted to judge her for it. Slowly, she had worked her way back into sleeveless shirts, then skirts, then short skirts, and then midriff-baring shirts.
Now this-the last fuck you she needed to prove to herself James hadn't destroyed her confidence. He hadn't made her someone who hated her body.
When the class was over, Edward took her out to lunch. She was smiling and light-so beautiful.
"That, my friend, was an example of acceptable nudity," she said, laughing about it. "Tell someone you posed nude, and they'll look at you like you're the scum of the earth. Tell them you posed nude for the sake of art, and people call you brave. And why? What's the difference? I'm actually right in front of them, technically touchable." She shuddered. "I got paid much better to do the other thing, but I still get paid here. Semantics, man. It'll drive you nuts."
It was something he'd wondered himself-why he wasn't jealous watching the art students scratch away as they stared at her. "Maybe it feels wrong because someone got an orgasm out of it," he said, being cheeky. "People like to judge where other people are getting their orgasms."
Bella hummed around a bite of her food. "Are you planning on coming with me again next week?"
"That depends on you. I'll be here if you need me to."
"I'll be fine." She grinned and winked at him. "In that case, I can tell you at least two of the guys in the front row were sporting wood."
Edward paused with the fork halfway to his lips. "Oh, I'm definitely coming back next week."
The day of Bella's thirtieth birthday, they shut down the restaurant for a private party. There was drinking, dancing, presents, and all the people Bella loved the most.
Bella and Tanya both gave a gleeful squeak when someone put 'Holla Back, Girl' on the loudspeaker. Edward was surprised when he suddenly had a lap full of Bella on his hands. She wrapped her arms around his neck and leaned in close to him, breathing the sweet scent of the fruity cocktail she'd been sipping.
"Edward? Best boyfriend in all the world?" she asked, murmuring against his lips.
"Uh. Speaking?" Edward walked his fingers up her spine. He had no idea what she could possibly want, but it was pretty damn likely she was going to get it.
"Can I dance with Tanya?"
At his right side, Alistair clapped his shoulder. "You won't regret it. Trust me, I was there when they came up with this act."
Edward laughed again, already drunk off her infectious happiness and how free she looked tonight. "Yeah, angel."
She gave another happy squeak and kissed him quickly. Then she let Tanya take her by the hand and lead her out to dance.
To Edward's utter delight, they had a whole routine that they were just drunk enough do in front of the whole crowd. It was hilarious and dangerously sexy. The whole place was whooping and hollering.
"You should have seen them practicing this, back when we were all in college," Alistair said in his ear.
Edward's smile fell just a little bit.
"Oh, hell. You know, this whole being asexual thing can be a pain in the ass. People think we don't exist, you know." Alistair laughed. "But I think it'd probably be more of a pain in the ass to think about sex-who's having it, who had it twelve years ago, who's having it now-all the damn time." He nudged Edward in the side. "I wish you'd been there to see it, mate. You'd see why they didn't work as a couple. They're much better as friends. Very goofy friends."
Edward watched Bella and Tanya finish with some little hand-slapping, shimmying game-the kind ten-year-old girls perfected. As the song came to an end they clasped hands, laughing.
"Oh, my god," Tanya said as they came back to the table. "I didn't think I'd remember all the moves."
Alistair moved to the opposite side of the table from Edward and opened his arms, letting Tanya settle on his lap. "You two are the biggest dorks."
Bella sat beside Edward, leaning into him as he put his arm around her. "You never told me you were a choreographer."
She kissed the underside of his chin. "You should see us do that boots with the fur song."
"Oh, something to look forward to."
Off to their right, Jasper cleared his throat and Alice smiled. "Lots of things to look forward to tonight, I think," Alice said, tilting her head and giving Edward a look.
Edward narrowed his eyes at his sister warningly.
"Hell yes, there are things to look forward to." She straightened up and yelled out at the crowd in general. "Hey. What kind of friends are you guys? I have no drink. The birthday girl has no drink."
"Hold on a second." Edward did his best to ignore the fact his heart was drumming so loud between his ears, it actually drowned out the music. He put his hand to her cheek and turned her head to him. "How drunk are you right now?"
She quirked an eyebrow. "You going to cut me off already, Cullen? On my birthday?" she asked in a tone that suggested he was seconds away from being in trouble.
"No," he said, fighting a smile. "I'm trying to gauge if you can make sound decisions."
She rolled her eyes, but her smile was easier. "Don't worry, stud." She leaned in and brushed the tip of her nose along his cheek in a path to his ear. "I'm telling you now, I give my full and coherent consent for you to ravish me later when I'm drunk off my ass and my inhibitions are lowered."
Edward shivered. He was distracted momentarily from his mission by an intense need to kiss her. Threading his fingers in her hair, he put his lips to hers, lapping the bittersweet scent she'd breathed on him earlier directly from her tongue.
Jasper whistled loud enough to startle them. "Sorry, man," he said to Edward. "Alice is about to burst out of her skin if you don't do it soon."
"What are you talking about?" Bella asked. She looked at Edward. "What is he talking about?"
Edward took a deep breath. He stood, pulling her up and to the center of the room with him. Someone cut the music off. Edward took another shaky breath, looked into her befuddled but trusting eyes, and he dropped to one knee in front of her.
Little cries of surprise and pleasure went up among the gathered crowd. Bella gasped and put a hand to her mouth. Her eyes, as she looked at him, were bright, adoring, and excited.
"Bella, angel. This has been a wild ride with you." He pressed the box he'd brought out from his pocket into her palm. He closed his hands around hers. "I loved you when you were a shy high school girl. I loved you when you were driving me out of my mind. I love you now, and I'll love you forever. Isabella Swan, will you marry me?"
"Yes," she said around a giddy laugh. "Yes, yes!" She tugged at his hands and he stood. She flung her arms around his neck and jumped. Edward caught her, laughing in surprise at her fervor as she wrapped her legs around his waist.
"You crazy asshole," she said by his ear as their friends cheered and clapped. She kissed him and kissed him and kissed him. "You won't get tired of me and my social justice high horse all the time?"
He kissed her back. "Me? No. I'm a masochist."
"I guess you're lucky that I am too." Bella giggled, giddy, and kissed him one more time before she put her feet on the ground. She opened her hands and with trembling fingers, opened the box.
They were going to have a beautiful life.
A/N: Wow! So. That was an interesting experience for me. So many thanks to Moflo for the challenge. Thanks to myonlyheroin, songster, Capricorn75, Elenor and gosh, all of you who have offered up such kind words and a wealth of food for thought.
One down, a billion to go. On a personal note, my new novel, Finding Purgatory, will be coming out soon. Here's the summary:
In one short moment, Ani Novak's life is turned upside down. Her beautiful family is destroyed and she is left completely alone. With an unnamed desire, she seeks out the little sister she had walked away from when she was nineteen.
Tori Kane is barely eighteen, jaded, and reluctantly in need of her sister's help. While Ani is in the position to financially support her sister, the one thing Tori really needs money can't buy and Ani no longer knows how to give—trust.
Neither of them expected paradise, but they want more than the hell their lives have become. There has to be a middle ground between heaven and hell where they can just be.