Title: Decking The Halls
Summary: One store to decorate. One night to get it done. And one Edward who definitely isn't distracting because he's 100 percent not cute or funny at all. Nope.
Word count: 9,075
Decking The Halls
"This is horseshit," I declare, stabbing a finger at the notice.
I turn to look at Riley, who says nothing. Not that I expected him to. Declaring anything in the general direction of Riley is a gamble. Saying things, too. Basically any interaction at all.
Life tip: if you can't talk to people, customer service isn't for you.
He blinks, and attempts an expression somewhere between that of a Muppet and a mop.
"I mean, look at this," I continue, despite knowing he'd rather I didn't. "First year I worked here, I had to do the Christmas display. Second year, I had to do the Christmas display. You know who didn't have to do the Christmas display?"
He looks terrified.
"People who'd already suffered enough for a lifetime, aka, those who'd worked here three years or more. That's me! That's me now. I've paid my dues, okay? I should be exempt from this. But no. Look at this!"
Hands on my hips, I blow my bangs out of my eyes. "Horseshit."
Third year in a row, I'm being forced to stay after closing as we head into Christmas. Jessica was hired two months ago, but she's not even working today. Me? Three years, eight months, ten days. And here I am.
"I swear to god, if Jane puts me on window displays again, I'll strangle her."
Riley doesn't make a single sound.
The door to the lunch room opens, revealing Edward, who looks rightfully annoyed by the indignity of still being at work.
"This is horseshit!" I yell at him.
"Careful – if Jane hears you, she'll put you on windows again," he says, slouching off to the counter to grab a cup of coffee. "She's threatening to supervise that personally this year, too, so chill with the profanities."
I throw myself down on the couch opposite Riley, crossing my arms.
"Cheer up," Edward says, grabbing his almond milk from the fridge. Every time he brings a new carton to work, he makes a big show of drinking straight from it while staring at us all threateningly so we won't steal any. He's a lactose intolerant cry-baby.
"Because you're annoying when you're grumpy."
"I hope she puts you on windows," I tell him.
"She won't. I gave her cookies this morning."
"Ah, see, I was wondering why your nose was brown."
He just shrugs, leaning against the counter with his usual shit-eating smirk.
Slowly, the others trickle into the lunch room as they finish closing. Everyone looks tired and pissed off. Holiday cheer at its finest.
Jane bustles in, carrying a folder she's aggressively labelled 'CHRISTMAS.'
"Right, the guidelines are in from head office, everything we need is in stock, and blind monkeys could do this, so if anything looks crap, consider yourselves incompetent."
"There'll be two of you on each section. I'll supervise the windows, and Mike will be in the stockroom, as usual. I've just spent the last 30 minutes telling him how I want everything organized back there, so none of you will do anything without asking him first," she says.
We mumble and grunt.
"Now," she says, looking up from her folder to stare at us all. "It's really important that we do better than Pottery Barn, okay? They outdid us last year, and we're not going to let that happen again, are we?"
Jane's sister, Tanya, works at the Pottery Barn a few stores over. And their parents own the pretzel shop down in the food court. And their brother is a mall cop. Literally the whole family works at Bellevue Square.
"Are we?" Jane repeats, harder and more evil-sounding. Oh, not rhetorical.
"No," we agree.
"Good," she says. "Well then. It's 10 pm now. I want to be done by 2 am. That's in four hours, for those of you who failed math." She throws a significant look at Jake, who's too busy checking his nails to notice.
"Riley and Kate, you'll be doing windows with me," Jane says, consulting her folder. Everyone but Riley and Kate visibly relaxes.
Something bumps against the back of my head, and I whip around to see Edward, still leaning against the counter, lowering his leg.
"Did you just put your shoe in my hair?" I hiss at him. His grin grows wider.
"When I call your names, come up here and get your guidelines and then go away. Heidi and Emmett… Lauren and Angela…"
The room slowly empties. I'm nervous now. I know I won't be on windows, but I might get something equally awful. I hope I get Bedroom.
"Bella and Edward," Jane says, and I almost sigh with relief, except Edward would never let me forget it.
He reaches her first, grabbing the papers from her hand. I follow him out of the lunch room.
"What did we get?" I say, looking over his shoulder. Or well, his elbow. You have to be tall to look over someone's shoulder. That's not me.
A giraffe could look over Edward's shoulder. Or a person on a ladder, or a big box.
"Dining Room," he says.
"Nooo," I groan.
"Oh, yes. Napkins and goblets and table cloths, oh my!"
"Dining Room is like the hardest one," I cry. "This is such horseshit."
"Ah, well, could be worse," he says as we head over to dining. "Look, Emmett's doing Face and Body."
Indeed he is. He and Heidi are leaning against the cosmetics counters, reading over their guidelines.
We weave through Bedroom. Why couldn't we have gotten Bedroom? Make a few beds, put out some toys, hang a few garlands, and we'd be done. But no, we get Dining Room. They cram four freaking trees in there, trees we'll have to assemble and decorate. Just that is going to take us ten years.
I punch a teddy bear off a bed in anger as I stride past.
Five seconds later I run back and pick it up, whispering an apology in its ear before tucking it in by the pillows.
"Do you ever want to just… quit?" I say, hurrying after Edward, catching up to him just as we step into Dining.
"No, I want to work at Macy's forever," he deadpans.
"Okay, but what if we quit, right now? Do you think Jane would let us, or would she make us stay to decorate first?"
"Definitely make us stay."
"I was worried you'd say that."
He pulls out a chair at one of the tables. "Come on, we'd better take a look at this."
I mean, it's pretty straightforward. Head office send us sample pictures, and all the shit we need to put out is in stock, so really, it's just a matter of doing it.
I look at one of the pictures and immediately collapse onto the table, wailing into my arms.
"Hey, Whimpy," Edward says, "now's not the time. We have tables to set."
"No but, like, just kill me, okay? I would rather be dead, I promise."
"Tell you what, we get this done by 2 am, and I'll let you kiss me a little."
I sit up. "What?"
"Yeah, you know. As a reward." He grins slowly, leaning back in his chair.
"Why would that be a reward?"
He points at his face. "Self-explanatory."
"You're really full of yourself."
"Come on, you know you've had a crush on me since I started here."
I blush. "No, I haven't."
Yes, I have.
"I think your pants are on fire," he says, standing up. "Look, we should both just admit we're the best looking people here. We deserve only the best. I, of course, exceed all your expectations. You're too prone to crippling guilt to ever steal my almond milk. We're perfect for each other."
"I don't think that's generally how relationships work."
"Of course it is."
"No, because I steal your almond milk all the time. I'm an awful person."
He stares at me for a beat. "You get that I spit a little into that milk, right? Like, that's why I drink from the carton."
"Maybe that's why I steal it." Immediately, I wrinkle my nose. "Okay, no, I'm sorry, that was gross. Too far. I don't steal your milk. I don't want your… spit."
"I think you do, though. And I'm offering it to you, directly from the source." He puckers up his lips, bending down as if to kiss me.
"You look ridiculous."
"And you look like my future wife. What's your point?"
I roll my eyes. "Let's just get on with this. I'll get some boxes from Mike."
The stockroom is organized chaos of only the sort Jane can force us all into. Mike's standing on a couple of pallets, directing people left and right. He looks harassed.
"Hey," I say. "Dining."
"Dining? Ouch." He checks the paper in his hand. It's a hand-drawn map of the stockroom, full of Jane's notes. All in blood-red ink, because of course. "Uhm, okay, you're down by the back, past Kitchen. All the boxes are there."
"Cool. See you later."
When I get back to Edward, rolling boxes, tape, and bubble wrap on a cart, he's somehow found the time to change out of his work suit. Even though he looks better in a black suit than should actually be allowed, I like him better in jeans, so this works well for me.
He offers to get started so I can change, too, and when I come back, I get going on cutting up pieces of bubble wrap, ready to use as he folds out the boxes.
"How's school going?" I ask a while later, heading over to the shelf of plates. Thankfully some of them get to stay, so we don't have to strip the entire section.
"Oh, you know. Crippling my soul, shredding my mind, setting me up for inevitable failure."
He's studying business finance, because he's a nerd like that. I see him on campus now and again, and he double-straps his backpack.
"The usual, then."
"Same. But one of my professors went into false labour the other day. That was cool."
He raises an eyebrow.
"Cool because we all got to go home," I defend myself. "Not because she dropped a kid on the… Never mind."
We go through each shelf in turn, checking the guidelines to see which sets we're keeping up, and which ones are getting replaced by something tacky. We're efficient, except about halfway through when Edward decides he needs to tape bubble wrap around any part of me he can reach.
"Technically, I think this is a health-and-safety violation," I mutter from inside the tube he's fashioned around my head. I lift it off in time to see him shrug.
"The worst that could happen would be that you choked and died."
"Oh, is that all?" I roll my eyes and reach up, jamming the tube over his head. It doesn't fit, and sits like a top hat above his ears.
"Oh, that's real mature, Bella. I'm trying to work here. Stop playing around," he says, bending down to put tape around my knee.
"What's that supposed to do?"
"Keeps you on your toes."
"O… kay?" I try to peel the tape off, but I can't find the seam.
Before I even know what's happening, he walks around me and slaps me on the butt.
"Hey!" I gasp, straightening. The fabric pulls unnaturally, and I try to look over my shoulder. "You—! Did you just tape my ass?"
"I'd rather tap it, but this was a fun alternative."
I rip the tape from his hands. "Okay, that's it, I'm in charge of tape from now on."
He looks disappointed. "But—"
"No. You've proven yourself unworthy of the tape."
I ignore his protests and get back to work. He tries, several times, to wrestle the tape back, only stopping when our scuffle almost knocks several plates to the floor.
It takes us an hour to get everything packed away and into the stockroom, and another few back-and-forth trips to get all the new crap into the section.
"Okay, that's the last one," Edward says, unloading a box from the cart. He checks his watch. "Are you hungry? I'm fucking starving."
"I could eat."
"Alice will probably give us something, right? They're decorating tonight, too."
We tell Jane we're taking a break on our way out. She's up on a ladder with a garland of massive red balls around her shoulders, and I think she wants to stop us, but we move too fast. Riley watches us leave with longing.
The mall after closing is usually calm and quiet, what with all the people having gone home and the fucking music being turned off. But tonight it's still buzzing. We peek around the corner down towards Pottery Barn. If we report their progress to Jane, she might not chew our heads off when we get back.
Two workers are standing outside. One of them seems to be crying, clutching throw pillows against his chest.
Right, the usual, then.
We back away slowly and make our way down to the lower level. Pressing our faces against the doors into The Cheesecake Factory, we look for Alice.
Only a few of the employees are here decorating, and they all seem calm and happy. I guess that happens when your manager isn't Jane.
One of Alice's co-workers spots us first. She gasps in horror, taking a step back. I look to my left and see that Edward is smashing his whole body up against the glass, as if he just ran into it and died.
"You're disgusting," I inform him. "That's drool. Right there, on the glass."
"They can clean it," he says, not moving.
The employees of The Cheesecake Factory are now staring at us. I catch Alice's eye and wave.
She comes over and slaps her hand where Edward's face is. He jerks back with a yelp, rubbing his ear.
Unlocking the door, she waves us inside. "You're cleaning that," she tells him, pointing to the imprint of his face next to their opening hours.
"Fine. Feed me first, okay?"
"Your skin is kind of greasy," I say, taking a closer look at the glass. "Do you use moisturizer? Maybe you need a different type."
He stares at me. "That was mean, and uncalled for."
"I just don't want you to get acne."
"Adult acne is a thing. My uncle Marcus has it, and he's really insecure."
Alice snaps her fingers. "Guys. I'm not feeding you unless you stop talking about greasy acne."
"Yeah, shut up, Bella," Edward says, shoving me into the restaurant.
"Fine, but just remember that I tried helping you when your face looks like roadkill."
Alice grabs all of us some of their leftovers from tonight, and we take them out to the benches in the court. The staff here are decorating tonight, too, setting up the Winter Wonderland scene.
"How are things going with Jasper?" I ask Alice. "Has he done more than say 'hi' to you yet?"
Jasper is the newest hire at The Cheesecake Factory, and Alice's latest mission.
"Well," she says, looking thoughtful as she chews her bite of salad, "yesterday I blew him in the office, so yeah, pretty good."
"Of course you did," Edward mutters. Turning to me, he says, "You owe me ten bucks."
"You blew him in the office?" I ask, ignoring him.
"See, I wouldn't have the guts to do it there," I say. "Your manager looks like the kind of guy who'd have hidden cameras in case anyone came in and stole his stapler or something."
"Well, where else were we supposed to go?" she asks, spearing a piece of chicken. "I mean, my first idea was the walk-in, but Jasper thinks it's creepy in there, so he said no. But I actually think he was just worried the cold would make it smaller."
"Can we not discuss your boy-toy's pee-pee while we're eating?" Edward asks, taking a huge bite of his burger. "It's gross."
"It's not gross!" Alice looks offended.
"It's a little gross," I amend.
"Whatever, screw you guys."
We continue eating. I watch as two stick-like teenage boys try to wrangle a giant candy cane into place next to Santa's throne. It falls over, taking a couple of reindeer down with it. The boys immediately start arguing. I can't hear what they're saying, but when one of them grabs one of the fake presents and tries to smash it over the other ones head, I imagine it probably wasn't very civilized.
"Well, that's that," Edward sighs, crumpling the tinfoil Alice wrapped his burger in as he stands. "We better get back to work."
"Yeah, I guess." I stand and stretch. Man, I want to go to bed. "See you later, Alice."
"Bye," she mumbles, watching with fascination as the boys fight.
I follow Edward up the stairs. He got a haircut a few days ago, and it's still so new to me that it keeps drawing my eyes. I miss the little wisps of hair that used to brush the top of his ears.
He takes the steps two at a time, quickly putting his ass in my direct line of sight. This also keeps drawing my eyes, but it's always done that. It's a nice ass. As far as asses go, it's grade A stuff.
When he reaches the top, he waits for me to catch up, and Heidi motions us forward urgently, whispering that Jane went to the bathroom but could be back any minute. Her entire right leg is covered in fake snow, and she's lost one of her earrings.
I squeeze her arm in solidarity before Edward and I get as far away as possible.
"And so I turn around to grab a towel, and when I look back, the little shit is just gone. Poof," Edward is telling me 20 minutes later, as we fill up the new stock. "And of course, I freak out, because I know you haven't been around babies much, but they're not supposed to disappear."
"Right, but he's your brother, so are you really surprised?"
The drama that surrounded Edward's own birth is what made him such a smartass punk. At least, that's my theory, and I won't budge on it no matter how ridiculous he tells me I am.
But picture this: Mama Esme, living in the deep south as a pastor's daughter, gets knocked up at 16 by the son of the only atheists in their tiny town of 746 people. Refusing to give up her dream of becoming a lawyer, Mama Esme – now shunned by her parents – moves in with Papa Carlisle until they're old enough to hop off to college with tiny Edward.
They go to Seattle, where Carlisle's aunt lets them live with her, and bada-bing, bada-boom, Edward grew up to be a smartass. How could he not?
Then four years ago, Esme announced that she was pregnant, and the baby is a tiny copy of his big bro. Baby Garrett threw up on me the one and only time I met him, and I know he did it on purpose. Just to be a little shit.
"I don't know what you're talking about," he sniffs, stacking boxes of cutlery.
"I'm talking about Carlisle and Esme breeding devil-babies."
"I'm not a devil-baby," he protests petulantly.
"Okay, just an ass, then."
"I resent that. I'm charming, and you know it. I charm the pants off you all the time."
"Oh, right, silly me. You are charming. Like that time you made Emmett believe I had herpes? I mean, wow. So hot."
He pauses, and then grins, seemingly not being able to help himself. "Oh, yeah. I forgot about that. Classic."
I roll my eyes, turning back to rolling napkins. "So where did Garrett disappear to?"
"I found him in my car. I had to call a locksmith because he had the keys and wouldn't open the door unless I gave him a real-life Olof. You should've seen Mom when she came home," he laughs. "I don't think I've ever seen her so angry. He was pretty shell-shocked when she was through with him."
I almost say I could do the same thing to him, but the creep-factor makes me refrain.
Even though it's true. I would rock Edward's world.
I'm a freak in the 20 percent employee-discount Macy's sheet.
"Do you babysit him often?"
"Nah," he says, coming over to slide napkin rings around the ones I've finished rolling. "Just when Mom wants to spoil Dad. Buy him something pretty."
"So being a stay-at-home dad has its benefits."
"Oh, absolutely. In case you're worried, rest assured, I'll stay home with our babies. I'm great with babies."
"Who's said we're having babies?"
"Well, no one, but I think you should consider it. I mean, my good looks with your tolerance to lactose? Our babies would be unstoppable."
"Maybe I don't want babies?"
He straightens, looking thoughtful as he considers this. "That's true. Do you like dogs? We can have dogs, instead. Or cats, if that's more your thing. Llamas?"
"We're not having anything," I say, pointing back and forth between us.
He puts his hand over his heart, wrinkling his forehead in dismay. "Oh. You wound me."
"You'll get over it."
I turn back to my work. He's silent for a second, before he bumps my hip with his own.
"You sure you don't want babies with me? I have good genes, I promise."
"Can you stop fucking around?" I laugh. "I'm trying to work here."
"Who said I'm fucking around?" He bends closer, making me look into his eyes. In the right light, the green dominates the other colors in his hazel eyes. Weirdly, the Macy's lighting does exactly that.
"You always fuck around," I say, pitching my voice as close to normal as possible. "You're the prince of fucking around. Your kingdom is called Fuckaroundica."
He stares at me for a second. "I can't argue with that."
"I know. Now get out of my face."
He pinches the skin behind my knee, laughing as I yelp and buckle forwards.
Having worked at Macy's for a while, we're efficient in getting all the new crap up. Soon, all we have left to do is set decorating, which means pulling out our best Martha Stewarts, and going all out with the ornaments.
"We should get the trees first, right?" I ask. "Those always take the longest."
"Yeah, and I bet Jane's almost done with the windows by now. If we're doing the trees when she comes over to check, she might set all the tables while yelling at us for being too slow."
"Oh goodie, two birds with one stone."
"The trees are down in the basement," he says, turning as if to walk towards the employee lounge.
"Whoa whoa whoa, where are you going?" I ask, snagging his elbow and tugging him to a stop. "We're not going to the basement."
"But that's where the trees are."
"How do you know?"
"I had to help carry them down there last year after Christmas. I know exactly where they are. Come on, it'll take five minutes."
I shake my head. "No way. Jane would've carried them up here. They'll be in the stockroom. And if they're not, we need to double-check with Mike first, or she'll kill us."
"But why waste time? They're in our storage unit in the basement."
Cold sweat dews at my neck. I hate the basement. It's the size of the mall, and it's really dark and it smells, and it's scary. And all the shops have storage units down there, and they look like huge chicken coops for humans, and I'm not going down there.
"We're not going down there without telling someone," I say, glaring at him.
"Where's your go-getter attitude? Your initiative?"
"Initiative? With Jane? I'm sorry, do you actually work here?"
He rolls his eyes, which I resent. I'm the eye-roller in our relationship.
"Fine, we'll waste time checking the stockroom for no reason whatsoever, and then we'll let Mike tell us to go to the basement."
I slap his arm and hurry away, wanting to get to the stockroom first. He has longer legs though, and soon I have to run to keep up with him. That makes him run, and then I have to sprint, and obviously, I body-check him through the doorway. He stumbles forward with a surprised "Oof!", and when he turns to glare at me, I flip him off with a smirk.
That's when I notice that what I anticipated as being total mayhem, is actually super calm.
Like, creepy calm.
"Where is everyone?" I ask, my voice close to a whisper. The only light on is the one closest to the door, so all the shelves are cast in darkness. There's no one here.
"I don't know," Edward says, frowning. "Why would Mike leave?"
"Maybe he died?"
"Maybe," he mumbles. After another few seconds, he sighs, shrugging. "Oh well. Get the lights, would you?"
With the stockroom once again illuminated, we make our way down to the Dining section. Edward spreads his arms in triumph.
"See? No trees."
"Well, maybe she put them somewhere else."
He steals my move again and rolls his eyes. "Okay, fine, let's check the entire stockroom. We won't find them."
Five minutes later I have to grudgingly agree. They're not here.
"Can we go to the basement now?"
I whine, but when that fails to impress him, I throw my hands up, swear, and stomp out of the room.
Emmett's kneeling on the floor in front of the counter by Face and Body, smoothing snowflake decals on the glass. I poke his shoulder.
"Have you seen Mike?"
"He and Jane are doing a recon mission at Pottery Barn," he says, rubbing out an air bubble before abruptly thrusting his arm towards me. "Hey, smell this. We're stocking gingerbread lotion. Can you believe that? Sniff it."
"Okay, smell this one," he says, switching arms. This one has a subtle shimmer. "Peppermint ice."
"Lovely. Edward, come smell Emmett," I say, waving Edward over.
"If you put them together, it's like what I imagine Santa's ass smells like," Emmett says, demonstrating with a deep sniff.
"What if they made lube out of this stuff?"
"Yeah, what if?"
I drag Edward away with me as quickly as possible.
The employee entrance leads into a hallway, down a flight of stairs, and then outside, to the back of the mall, where we park our cars and talk shit about people. The only other door out here is for the basement.
I shiver in the cold, crossing my arms tightly as Edward scans his key fob. The light flashes green, and the door opens with an ominous click.
"I have a bad feeling about this," I say, watching him heave the heavy door open.
"Don't be a wuss."
"Ladies first," he smirks, waving his arm into the pitch-black doorway. The light above is a harsh white, making the basement look even more sinister.
"This is how horror movies start," I point out, stepping inside. I blink, trying to force my eyes to adjust faster.
He closes the door and hits a light switch. One by one, fluorescents flicker on, illuminating the space. Our storage is all the way in the back, because of course it is.
"Yeah, but I'm pretty sure there aren't any monsters hiding down here," he says, grabbing one of the carts standing by the door.
"How would you know? Have you ever seen one?"
"Well, there you go."
I start walking, and after a moment, he falls into step beside me. One of the wheels on the cart squeaks rhythmically.
"So your evidence for there being monsters down here is that no one's seen one?"
"Exactly. So prove they don't exist," I say.
"That's… That's not how it works."
"Yes, it is. The burden of proof lies with the prosecutor. So, again, prove the monsters don't exist."
He looks stumped.
"I should be a lawyer," I say, directing this to the basement as a whole.
"Yeah, for the devil," he mutters, pointing me down to the right.
We get lost, and end up by Sephora's unit. I shudder at all the broken mannequins lying in a pile in JCPenney's next to it. The air smells like stale perfume and mourning. Backtracking, Edward eventually finds our unit, and he uses the cart to prop the door open.
"Okay, let's see…"
He claims to have put the trees in the far right corner, but when we look there, all we see are Valentine decorations.
"Good job, genius. I promise you, Jane's already brought them up. We should've waited for her to get back."
"Don't be ridiculous," he says, but he doesn't look as confident as before. "They're here somewhere. Someone's just moved them."
It takes another ten minutes – two of which are spent with me yelling at him after stubbing my toe on a broken dresser – to find the fucking things. They're lying under a whole bunch of other crap, and I get crankier with every bag and every box we have to move out of the way.
"Horseshit," I viciously hiss at a bag of pillow-stuffing.
"Okay, calm down, drama-pants," he says. "We're almost done. We'll be out of here in two minutes."
I don't respond. If we get eaten by monsters, it'll be all his fault, and I'll never let him forget it.
In an effort to speed things along, I grab the cart and roll it over, heaving the first of the boxes onto it.
Edward straightens, staring at me. Then at the cart. Then at me.
"Wait," he says, eyes widening in panic.
I don't have to wonder why for long. With an ominous metal bang, the door slams shut behind us. Edward almost trips in his haste to get to it.
"You didn't prop it up with anything else when you grabbed the cart?" he says, voice rising almost to a yell as he gets to the door. The thin bars are so tight together he can only push his fingertips through them. He gives the door a shake. It doesn't budge.
I swallow. "What?"
"You locked us in," he says, still facing away from me.
"Yes. You locked us in."
"No, I didn't."
He turns to me, frustration shining on his face. He rattles the door again. "It's locked."
"So, just… Just unlock it," I say, my voice getting unnaturally high. I walk towards him.
"I can't. It's a security measure," he bites out, glaring at me. "It only opens from the outside."
"Okay, ha-ha, good one," I say, shaking with a need to punch him for some reason. "Now open the door."
"This isn't funny, Edward." My voice is hitting a pitch of hysteria. "Unlock the door."
"What do you mean, you can't?"
"Do I look like Mr. Fantastic to you?" He wiggles his fingers aggressively at me. "It's not like I can just slide my hand through these tiny bars and open the door."
I stare at the door. I want to cry.
"We're locked in?"
Clearly feeling he's proven this point enough for the moment, he says nothing. Just glares at me some more.
"But… But no one knows we're down here. We didn't tell anyone!"
"I know," he grouses. He turns away from me, linking his hands behind his head. "Shit."
"I'll call someone," I say, pulling my phone out of my pocket. I go cold all over. No signal.
"No signal," I whisper. "Oh god, we're going to die."
He takes my phone, raising it high above his head. "Damn. And I left my phone in my locker."
I kick a box towards him. "I told you! I told you this is how horror movies start! Even if there aren't monsters down here, we're going to starve. Who's going to come looking for us, huh?"
"I'm not the one who locked us in!" he says, waving his arms around. I snatch my phone back before he drops it. "When someone props open a door, for future reference, they probably have a pretty good freaking reason for it!"
"Don't yell at me!" I yell at him. "We're going to die, and I don't want to be yelled at when I'm going to die!"
"We won't die. Eventually they'll figure out we're missing. They'll check the security cameras, see where we went, and come get us."
"But that could be hours. And this place smells."
"Yeah, well, you should've thought of that before you came down here."
He slips around me and turns a footstool right way up. It wobbles dangerously when he sits down. It makes me want to kick one of its legs off, so he'll fall on his ass and then I can laugh and laugh.
"Before I came down here? You made me come down here."
"It wasn't like I dragged you. You came of your own free will."
"You're such an ass," I seethe. "This was your idea."
"Yeah, and it was your mistake that got us locked in. Don't blame me for that."
I basically see red. I kick his footstool as I stomp past. He yelps, clamping both hands down on it to keep it from collapsing.
Without another word, I go to the other end of the unit, where I can't see his stupid face. I find a pile of old, rolled up rugs and almost sit down before wondering how many mice might've nested in there. I gingerly sidestep it and sit on a crate instead.
Five minutes drag by, then ten. I don't hear anything from Edward's side. Maybe he's died of starvation already.
Suddenly there's a weird ticking noise, a rolling sound that lasts a few precious seconds, and then everything goes black.
"It's okay!" Edward yells from the other side of the mountain of crap between us. "It was just the timer on the lights."
"What?" I shriek. What kind of a moron sets timers on basement lights?
Oh god, it's so dark. I can't see anything. It presses in around me, and I might hyperventilate any second.
"Bella? Just… Come over here."
"I can't see anything!"
"You have a phone, genius."
"I… I knew that," I call back.
Using the flashlight app, I carefully make my way back to Edward, sitting ramrod straight on his footstool.
"I can't believe you got us locked in a basement with a freaking timer on the lights," I say, shivering.
"You got us locked in."
"Oh, don't be so childish," I say, putting my phone screen-side down on a bedside table. The flashlight points a beam into the ceiling, giving us a small circle of light to sit in. Everything outside the circle seems likely to sprout glowing eyes and sharp claws.
"You're childish," he mutters, resting his chin in his palm.
I find an old box and sit as close to Edward as possible.
"Do you think Jane will have checked on us yet?"
"Probably. I mean, hopefully. The sooner they realize we're gone, the sooner we'll get out of here."
"What if she thinks we've just ditched?" I ask, tapping my fingers anxiously against my knees. "What if they don't think to look for us until tomorrow?"
"Then… I don't know. There's not a lot we can do."
I think about that for a minute. "I knew this was a chicken coop for people."
"Yeah. You said it was a security thing, right?" I wave my hand at the door. "Chicken coops do that, too, I'm almost positive."
"Okay, but what would they need chicken coops for?"
"But it's not like they send us down here all the time. If it was for punishment, we'd know about it."
"Would we, though? Maybe the reason we don't know about it is because once you've been down here, they alter your memory, so you can't tell anyone what happened."
He folds his hand into a fist, and rests his temple against it as he looks at me. "Wouldn't that defeat the purpose? If you can't remember being punished, you weren't actually punished."
"Well, I don't know, I don't… I'm not a criminal mastermind. I don't torture people on the reg."
"Okay. I think your theory has flaws, but I'm going to let you work those out on your own."
I hum. "That sounds like a lot of work, though."
"Yes, rational thinking sometimes is."
"Ass," I mutter, half-heartedly slapping his thigh.
He smirks at me, his usual little-shit smirk that tells me he's going to tease, but instead, his eyes slowly soften, and then he's just smiling. Watching me. Like I'm the only person in the world he would want to be locked in a human coop with.
My neck heats, and I pick up an ugly throw pillow and pull at the loose threads.
"Thank god we ate dinner, huh?" I say, after the silence has gone on for too long.
I throw aside the pillow. I can't work with monosyllabic responses.
I stand and walk a tight circle around the limited floor space. I can't venture too far because the light isn't that strong, and I'm not risking a limb just to get away from Edward's cute smiles, but I have to do something.
"I remember these," I say, peeking inside a box. I fish out a porcelain mistletoe ornament, one of the ugliest things we've ever stocked. "We got these when I started working here. I don't think I sold a single one."
He comes over and inspects it. "Kissing under this must feel like making a deal with Satan."
"Like eating plaster."
"Being forced to hug your great-aunt at Thanksgiving."
"Doing someone else's laundry."
"Yeah, can't top that," he says. He lifts it over our heads. "Wanna try?"
"Oh yes, let's kiss under the thing we just declared was the worst ever."
"Well, I don't know how to tell you this, but kissing me is a goddamn dream. I'd make it good." He winks.
It irrationally pushes me over an edge I didn't even know I had. I grab the ornament and throw it back in the box. "Can you just— stop doing that!"
His smirk falls away, replaced by a confused frown. "What?"
"Why do you always have to make jokes?" I demand, crossing my arms so I won't punch him. "Is the thought of kissing me really that funny? Huh? Like, ha-ha, why would I kiss Bella? What a joke, ha-ha! Look at me, I'm Edward, and I make jokes out of everything, and I'm just a sarcastic, like… guy, or whatever, and I think I'm so funny! Kissing Bella is a joke. Having babies with Bella is a joke!"
He stares at me, open-mouthed. I decide to keep going, because I've shot one foot. Why not both?
"Maybe I don't like being the butt of your jokes! Ever think about that? Kissing me isn't funny, Edward. I mean, I've kissed plenty of guys, and no one's complained so far! Just so, like, you know. Just… A-plus. Gold star. Freaking, like… Like if I went to the Kissing Academy, I'd be a straight-A student!"
God, I'm losing it.
"And maybe you think it's super funny to make fun of me because you'd never actually kiss me, but loads of other people would, and just shut up, okay?"
"Yes, you do! Everything's a joke t—"
"—you and I usually like that, because I think you're funny, but maybe—"
"I'm not joking!" He has to shout to be heard over my ranting, and he throws his hands up in frustration. "I'm not making fun of kissing you, you moron."
It takes a second for these words to sink in. I shift, uncrossing my arms, and then crossing them again. In a much smaller, calmer voice, I squeak out, "What?"
"When I'm talking about kissing you, I'm not making jokes," he says, impatiently. "I'm freaking flirting."
I almost laugh, because even though I just said I don't want him making jokes about kissing me, that has to be another one.
He enunciates every word slowly, looking incredibly frustrated. "I'm telling you I actually want to kiss you."
I stare. For a long time. "That's not funny."
"I know, I'm being serious."
"You're never serious."
"Well, there's a first time for everything." He steps closer. I take a small one back.
"You're making fun of me."
"I'm not. I promise." He comes closer again. I finally let my arms fall.
"If you're joking about not joking, I'm going to fucking kill you," I say as he steps so close there's no space left between us. I can't breathe.
"Okay," he says, and I think he might actually be serious.
He grabs my head, bends down, and covers my mouth with his own.
It's a firm, determined kiss, as if he's making sure I understand that he's kissing me. His hands are cold, but they feel good against my flushed skin. He slants his lips, and they're soft and warm, and completely perfect, and he brushes mine with the barest hint of tongue before pulling back an inch or two.
"See? I'm completely serious," he tells me, his voice hoarse, like a rugged version of a breathless whisper.
"Oh," I sigh, before pushing a hand into his hair and tugging him back down.
God, he tastes good. And he smells good, and kissing him really is like a goddamn dream. Like, literally. I've dreamt of this, and reality is the rock to my dreams' scissors. Complete obliteration. Reality wins. Fuck, this is amazing.
He slips his arms tightly around my waist, pulling me so close I have to rise up on my toes.
When I pull back, he follows, like he can't bear not kissing me. That's probably going to be dangerous for my ego.
"When did you get so tall?"
"I don't know," he groans, sliding one hand to the back of my neck, trying to direct me back to his face.
"And so dreamy?" I say, pushing back against it.
"God, I don't know."
"You suck at flirting."
"Very muddled signals."
"Please stop talking," he says, before tightening his arms and ensuring I do.
He loosens his hold a minute later, and when I pull back, I honestly don't care we're doing this in the scariest basement of all time.
"So, earlier," I say, breathing hard, "when you were saying that stuff about letting me kiss you if we finished on time?"
"I was hoping you'd get the hint," he says, equally breathless. "I've been hoping that since my first day of training."
"Yeah. Jane was showing me around, and I saw you, reaching for something on a shelf. Your shirt rode up a little, so I could see this skin right here," he says, slipping his hand to the small of my back. His fingers gently push under my shirt, grazing the skin and making me shiver. "I was a goner."
I clutch the back of his shirt, wanting to move closer into his embrace, even though it's not actually physically possible.
"I didn't see you until lunch that day," I say. "I remember, because you brought fish and heated it in the microwave, and everyone hated you."
"Can we not talk about that? You guys called me Fisherman's Friend for like three months."
"I didn't," I say, raising a finger. "Because I thought you were hot, and I hoped you'd ask me out if I was nice to you."
He stares down at me stupidly. "Really?"
"Yeah. But you started making jokes about us getting married, and kissing, and going on dates. Like, everything was a joke, so I figured it wasn't going to happen."
"Well, you kept rolling your eyes at everything I said. You still do, actually."
I almost roll my eyes, but stop at the hint of triumph on his face.
"I do not."
"Okay," he says, patronizing. "I didn't ask you out because you didn't laugh at my jokes. And then I made more jokes because you not laughing made me insecure."
I pull back another inch so I can see him properly. "You? Insecure?"
"You have that effect on me."
"No, I don't," I say slowly, narrowing my eyes.
"Okay, you don't."
"I won't joke about it anymore." He cups my face, stroking his thumb over my cheek. My stomach flutters. "Well, not much, anyway."
"Idiot," I say, pulling him back down. I tug so hard on his hair he grunts against my mouth. His hands on my hips are solid and needy. Other things in that area are also solid, and needy, and he doesn't seem hesitant about letting me know.
"There's a bed," I gasp. "Over there."
He moves as if to pick me up, but I squeal and dart away.
"There's too much shit on the floor for you to do that," I say, grabbing my phone. "If you trip, we'll both die. So, don't."
"Okay, fine, lead the way," he says, placing himself behind me. He grabs my hips again, and kisses my neck as I try to walk. When we finally get to the bed, I hear a few stitches rip as I attack his shirt.
"I can't believe this is happening," I say, pulling the shirt off and throwing it away.
"I can. Fucking finally," he says, his voice deep and heated. He grabs me, pulling me flush against his naked chest and walks me backwards towards the bed, bending down so he can cup my ass. I moan against his mouth.
My legs hit the mattress, and he follows me down, falling on top of me.
The bed immediately groans, shudders, and collapses.
I scream, he swears, and the sound of splintering wood echoes through the basement as the mattress hits the floor.
We stare at each other, not breathing. Some part of the frame falls over with a clatter, rolling slowly across the concrete floor.
"Was that already broken?" I ask. "Please tell me it's down here because it's broken, and not because it's Jane's favorite stage bed."
He opens his mouth to reply, but all that comes out is a belly-laugh. Dropping his head, he laughs so hard my body shakes by association. He rolls off me, covering his eyes with his arm.
The situation is funny, but what's actually completely hilarious is Edward's laugh.
"Wh-what is that?" I press out, delighted. "You're wheezing! What the hell is wrong with you?"
He waves his hand, overcome with emotion. The sounds coming out of him aren't human.
I rise up on an elbow, looming over him. I think he's crying.
"Is this what your real laugh sounds like? I can see now why you're the smart-ass, because then you can't laugh at your own jokes."
This sets him off even harder. His face is red, the color blotching down across his chest.
"You're crazy, did you know that?"
He nods, still laughing.
Suddenly, blinding white light stabs me in the eyes, and we both recoil, squinting in the sudden brightness.
"What the eff?" I say, shielding my face with my forearm.
Edward's laugh breaks up, like he's trying to choke it down, but can't quite get the hang of it.
"Hello?" The call comes from far away. Like the entrance-to-the-basement far away. "Bella? Edward? Are you guys in here?"
"They found us," I say, dropping my arm.
Rolling off the mattress onto the floor, he clambers to his feet. "We're over here!" he yells, hiccupping a last couple of giggles.
Wiping his eyes with one hand, he reaches down with the other to help me up.
"What did you do with my shirt?"
I find it a few feet away, throwing it back to him. He pulls it on, and I reach up and run a quick hand through his hair, trying to calm it down. He does the same to me, and then presses a kiss to my lips. I blink up at him.
"This probably wasn't the ideal place for this," he says, "but I'm still really glad it happened."
Blushing with pleasure, I murmur that I am, too.
"Go on a date with me?" he asks, cupping my jaw gently. His eyes are tentatively hopeful, as if he honestly thinks there's a chance I won't. Knowing this cuter, softer version of Edward is hiding underneath his outside layer of being a dick just makes him better.
Like caramel-filled chocolate. Or boozy punch.
"Okay," I sigh.
He grins with relief, and then turns to look over his shoulder as our rescue party's echoing footsteps get nearer. "Guess we'd better go."
Our rescue party turns out to be Jane, Mike, and Angela. Only one of them looks less than pleased to have found us.
"You locked yourselves in? You idiots," Jane grinds out, turning the key still left in the door with obvious resentment. "Who told you to go down to the basement?"
I push Edward out of the way so I can escape first. "Oh, thank god," I groan, stretching as if I've been trapped in a tiny mine.
"It was my fault," Edward says while I celebrate my freedom. "We were going to get the trees."
Jane starts ranting, and he stands there and takes it, like a man. A hot, sexy man who laughs like a troll and kisses like a goddamn dream.
Angela snaps her fingers in front of my face. I start, orienting my eyes to hers.
"Yeah, I'm fine."
She nods, looking us over. Her lips press into a tight line, as if holding back a smile. "Uhm. His shirt's inside-out."
My eyes widen. Fuck.
"That's not… my fault," I lie.
"We didn't… I mean, it's not… Okay, I'll just stop talking now."
"Okay," she says again, turning away so she won't outright laugh in my face.
When Jane's done tearing us a new one, she waits impatiently while we load the trees onto the cart. When we return to the store, she rounds on us.
"You two morons severely affected our time schedule. You have half an hour left to finish Dining, and for your own sakes, you better be done by then." She turns, striding across the floor like she's the queen of Macy's. Chastised, we duck our heads and follow her. Jane takes a minute to point out everything we've done that she thinks is ugly before departing with a stern tapping at her wristwatch and a bone-chilling death-stare.
"So…" Edward says, quickly unboxing the first tree. "About that date."
"Wanna get breakfast? I know a great place that serves pancakes round the clock."
"What, so we have our date now? Tonight?"
He shrugs. "Yeah? Why, do you not want to? I'm just being practical."
"We just made out in a basement that smells like mice poop. You really want to bring romance in to this?"
"I mean, I can give you romance. Boy, can I give you romance. I'll romance the crap out of any situation. In fact," he says, brandishing a branch dramatically, "I'm going to make eating pancakes so romantic, you'll probably die."
"Oh, now I can't wait."
"You'll see," he says, somewhat threateningly. Probably realizing this, he lowers the branch. "I mean, you'll see."
"My point being, I'm a romantic guy, okay? So being with me has its benefits, beyond just the physical gratification." He pauses, nodding to himself. "Of which there will be lots."
"Can't wait," I say, without the extreme sarcasm this time. I move closer, clutching a box of ornaments so I don't fondle him. "No, seriously, I can't wait."
Smirking, he moves closer, too. "So, it's a date?"
"It's a date."
We smile at each other. It's pretty obnoxious.
Over the course of the next 30 minutes, our co-workers show up to help us as they gradually finish their own sections. Jane actually looks disappointed that everything is set up as it's supposed to, and she mopes in her office after telling us we can leave.
Edward helps me into my coat, brushing the side of my neck as he does. With a hand on my lower back – not pushing or guiding, but apparently just to be close – he walks us out of the locker room, not caring that everyone can see.
When we get to his car, he doesn't so much open my door for me as he sprints ahead so he can gather up all the fast-food wrappers cluttering up the passenger seat.
"Sit, make yourself comfortable," he says, arms full, before hurrying off to the dumpster. I look around the car, not surprised to see three different tennis shoes, candy wrappers, and a beat-up old iPod in the backseat.
When he comes back, his cheeks are tinged pink with excitement, and he's just smiling, like me being in his car is reason enough to.
Leaning over, I kiss him. He looks surprised but pleased when I settle back into my seat.
"If this is an example of the romance you were talking about, you're off to a good start," I say.
"Really? Throwing away a moldy hamburger is your minimum requirement? That bodes well for me."
"Well, I did let you kiss me in a basement. My requirements are all pretty minimum."
He grins, and reaches into his pocket. "Speaking of which… I snagged this before we left."
He pulls out the mistletoe ornament, dangling it in front of me. He's replaced the gold string it used to have with a red ribbon, which he ties around his rearview mirror.
We watch it spin slowly back and forth. The tacky silver glitter catches the light, twinkling gently at us.
"That is some ugly fucking mistletoe."
"The actual worst."
"Still," he says, "without it, I wouldn't have kissed you. So I guess it's not all bad."
"No," I say, leaning my head back as I smile at him. His own smile is both shy and pleased. "Not bad at all, actually."
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