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Chapter 18

28 October 2011

I'm all for mac-n-cheese that doesn't ooze all over the place, but when it sits on your plate in a solid lump, it's taking things a bit far.

Poking the lump with my fork, I tip it slightly to the side before letting it fall back. And nothing. Not even a jiggle. I wonder if I can eat this without breaking my teeth.

Although I suppose, when the alternative is 'Sloppy Joe Surprise,' a brick of pasta isn't so bad.

I put my fork down and reach for my milk. The flaps don't open right. Only the outer layer peels away, leaving it still glued shut. Dealing with this dilemma, I don't notice Jasper's approach until his tray is sliding onto the table. My head jerks up at the sound.

"Hey," he says, swinging his bag off his shoulder. "This seat's not taken, right?"

Without waiting for an answer, he settles into the chair opposite me, pulling his tray closer.

My mouth drops open. "Uh—"

"Man, this is a nice spot." He appraises the lunch room. "Great for people watching. I always see it when I come in, but then I sort of forget it's here." He turns back to me. "I like your thinking, Swan."

"Wh— I—"

"Hey," someone trills behind me. I realize it's Alice just before she comes into view, sweeping behind Jasper and sinking into the seat next to him. "Oh man, this table's great. Why haven't we sat here before?" She rests her hand on his shoulder as she looks around the room.

"I know, right? See, Bella knows where it's at."

"She sure does," Alice says, smiling at me. I should probably smile back. That's what normal people do. God, I'm so confused right now. "Hey, you haven't been at our house all week. How's it going?"

"It's… good. Busy."

Alice nods in response, but then, with a suddenness that takes me off guard, her eyes lights up, and she lets out a bubbly gasp. Leaning across the table, she taps my arm repeatedly. "Oh! Edward told me about your prom thing!"

I can only stare at her. "Pro—?"

"We should go together," she continues, waving a hand between us and then flapping it in Jasper's general direction. He looks amused. "It would be so much fun! You could get ready at our house, and we could go out for dinner before. I mean, I know it's ages away, but I'm so excited! I think I've found my dress already. Please don't judge me," she adds, finally stilling her hand long enough to grip my arm as her face goes from overexcited to slightly embarrassed.

"Uh…"

She goes from embarrassed to worried in the blink of an eye. Good lord, does she ever slow down? "Oh. Wait. Was Edward not supposed to tell us? Oh god, I'm sorry, I shouldn't have said anything."

"No, it— it's fine," I stutter, shaking my head. "You just talk really fast."

While Jasper bursts out laughing and Alice's shoulders slump in relief, I take a deep breath, level my eyes at her, and instruct, "What?"

She smiles. "I was just saying, now that you and Edward are — probably — going to prom, we should go together. Double-date! Double the fun, you might say."

That's when it hits me that she's talking about prom, and dating, and me and Edward dating at prom, in front of Jasper.

I feel my eyes grow wide, and before I can stop myself, I'm staring back and forth between them, my stomach tangling itself into a solid ball. Jasper's only supposed to know Edward and I are friends, nothing more.

Probably seeing the mounting anxiety in my eyes, he leans over the table and quietly confides, "Don't be mad, but Alice told me about you and Edward a couple of weeks ago, so I already know about that. And Edward kind of mentioned it, too. I haven't told anyone, I promise."

I think I should probably be upset Jasper's in on the secret, but I have to admit, him already knowing is kind of a relief. It means I don't have to either tell him myself or be there when he's told, both of which sound like horrific scenarios I want to avoid anyway. Plus, he's nice, and a chess-club buddy. I actually don't mind at all.

I slowly sit back in my chair, regarding them. "Okay," I say carefully.

"You're not mad, right? About Alice being a blabber-mouth?"

"Shut up," she happily advises while I shake my head.

"No, I— No."

"You know, you're not very talkative. I like that," he says, picking up a carrot stick and pointing it at me. "I can't decide if you're a natural mystery, or just very succinct. Either way, it works for you."

"Thanks?"

He grins, taking a bite of his carrot.

This is very confusing. Still. This is still very confusing.

"So what do you think?" Alice asks, leaning toward me.

"About what?"

"Prom."

"Oh. Right. I mean… sure?" I don't want her to get her hopes up too much, just in case Edward and I don't end up going after all, but I can't deny her enthusiasm is actually kind of endearing. "That could be fun."

"Yay," she says, quietly clapping her hands. She leans in to Jasper and grins at him. "I will make you rue the day you said prom is stupid." She turns to me. "He said prom is stupid."

"I said it in a really loving way," he protests, looking down at her. "You know I like stupid things. Why do you think I hang out with you?"

She reaches down and pinches his leg. From the way he flinches away with a hissed curse, it was probably a bit harder than necessary.

"So, uhm… Not that this isn't nice," I interrupt, and they both turn back to me. "But why are you sitting here?"

I am very much used to spending lunch alone, and as much as I like Alice and Jasper, I don't think the rest of the school has a clear understanding of what is happening. Do people even know Jasper joined the chess club? Probably not — most of them don't even know we have a chess club.

"The reasons are threefold," Jasper says, cracking the cap on his orange juice. "The main reason is that we like hanging out with you. You're a very likeable person, you know."

This is of immense news to me.

"The second reason is that Edward's going to walk through those doors in a few minutes, and this'll make him very jealous, which is a lot of fun for me."

"That isn't one of my reasons," Alice interjects, smiling. Jasper waves her away.

"The third reason is that Rosalie made fun of my World of Warcraft chess set earlier, and I don't want to talk to her any more."

"Oh." I look towards the door. "I'm not so sure I like the Edward reason."

"He gives me a lot of shit for dating his sister. This is payback."

I consider him for a moment. He gives me a facial expression like 'Am I right?'. He probably is. "That seems fair."

"It is. Very fair."

"Well. Okay." Realizing I never got my milk open, I reach for the carton to finish the job. I don't really know what to say to them. I mean, I've hung out with Jasper a few times at chess club now, and Alice is super nice and doesn't seem to care that I'm an awkward mess, which makes her easy for me to hang out with, but it's never been just the three of us like this.

I look out over the room again. Has anyone noticed yet? A few tables over, Maria, Lucy, and Nettie sit with their heads close together, whispering. Lucy's eyes cut to me for less than a second.

My ears feel hot. I swallow, focusing solely on my milk.

"Hey, you okay?"

Alice is watching me, her gaze somehow heavier than usual. I smooth out my expression, only now realizing I was frowning.

"Yeah, I'm fine," I say, trying to smile reassuringly.

She doesn't look convinced, but Jasper laughs gleefully before she can ask anything else.

"Showtime," he says, grinning.

I turn to the door, watching as the basketball team, Rosalie, and her entourage make their way into the lunchroom. Edward's close to the back, pulling a beanie off his head. Lauren's at his side, as always, yammering away.

It could just be wishful thinking on my part, but when he smiles in response, it's tight-lipped, and more polite than genuine.

I didn't think he really believed me when I told him about Lauren's crush, but maybe it got through to him more than I'd realized.

"Okay, okay, come on, act natural."

"You're so mean," Alice laughs.

"I'm sticking to my previous argument that this is more than fair."

I force myself to look away from Edward. "So you're just using me for revenge?"

"Something like that."

"And here I'd like to remind you to speak for yourself. This revenge stuff is all on you, baby-doll," Alice says, pinching his ear.

"Careful, you might break something," he says, pulling her hand down while keeping his eyes on the lunch line. "Oh, Sloppy Joe Surprise? He's a brave man." He glances at me. "You might want to stay clear of him later. Something tells me his lunch is going to be exploding out of his a—"

"Jasper! Gross," Alice complains, slapping his arm. He's unperturbed.

"That goes for you, too, Alice. I mean, you share a bathroom with the guy."

"Can you not?"

"I could, but I don't want to."

I watch as Edward loads up his tray. He has training today, so he'll eat more than usual, although I suspect the double-pack of brownies he grabs isn't exactly on Coach's recommended meal-plan.

Rosalie is the first to head for their usual table, but she slows to a halt in the middle of the cafeteria and scans the room. I'm guessing the lack of an Alice and a Jasper has been noted.

When she finally spots them, she seems taken aback, more than anything. She blinks a couple of times, but it's not until she catches me watching her that her expressions hardens. Her eyebrows ease back into their natural state of condescension, and she turns her head away in such a clear dismissal I can't stop the heavy weight of shame sweeping across me for a second, trying to settle. I brush it away as best I can. She makes her way to her seat without looking back once.

Edward steps away from the line, not bothering to wait for Lauren who seems to be arguing with the lunch lady about something. He has a new habit of quickly glancing over at me when he walks across the room. He disguises it as a sweeping survey of the whole cafeteria, so I'm not surprised when he does just that.

But this time, his head volleys back to us so quickly I wonder if he'll have a crick in his neck. He stumbles slightly, staring at Jasper and Alice. From the corner of my eye, I see how Jasper raises his hand and flutters his fingers at him.

Edward blinks. I press my lips together to stop from smiling.

Jasper, on the other hand, laughs outright. "Look at his face. Oh man, this is much better than I thought it'd be."

Edward's mouth sets in a tight line. Barely glancing at his own table, he heads over. I can see that he's trying to look relaxed, but there's something a bit stilted in the way his legs move, like he's trying not to stomp his feet.

Coming to a sauntering stop in front of us, he smiles stiffly at Alice.

"What are you doing?"

She smiles back, the picture of innocence and sweetness. I can almost see the sarcasm dripping off her. "What does it look like we're doing?"

"Yeah, Edward, what does it look like we're doing?" Jasper asks, leaning his chin on his closed fist.

Edward stares down at him, deadpan.

"We're just having lunch," Jasper says after a moment, clearly taking Edward's silence as a response.

"This was your idea, wasn't it?" Edward says, looking at him.

Jasper gives a one-shoulder shrug, seeming proud. "Consider it payback for bitching about me dating Alice."

"Oh yeah?"

"Yeah. I get to spend lunch with your girlfriend, and you don't."

Edward's jaw works. "Touché," he reluctantly mutters.

Meanwhile, I'm secretly freaking out at hearing someone else refer to me as Edward's girlfriend.

As if sensing my freaking, Edward's gaze flickers my way. But maybe he just thinks I'm freaking out because they're at my table; he looks disproportionately concerned.

"You okay?"

Someone just called me your girlfriend — I'm freaking fantastic. "Yup. All good."

"See? All good," Jasper says. "Now, if you don't mind, Bella and I have secret things to discuss — no Edwards allowed."

"Oh, come on."

"No, it's true," I say, and Jasper looks at me with pure delighted surprise. "Definitely no Edwards allowed."

Edward turns to me. His face holds nothing but deep betrayal. Still cute. "Et tu, Brute?"

"I didn't make the rules."

He tips his chin at Alice. "Why does she get to stay?"

"I'm not an Edward."

His mouth drops open for a second before he closes it again, adopting a grumpy expression. "That doesn't make any sense."

"Neither does your face. Now go away," Jasper says.

"Dick," Edward mutters, glaring at him. Jasper only smirks, leaning back in his chair.

Edward shifts slightly on his feet before glancing at me. "I'll just leave you to your secrets, then."

"Great, thank you."

He lets out a long sigh. "Fine. I'll see you after school?"

"Yeah."

"Okay."

We lock eyes for a brief second, and I want to grab his hand and pull him down next to me. Or pull him out of the room, out of the school, to somewhere we'll be alone. I just want to sit on his lap and make out and feel his hands all over me. Is that really too much to ask?

"Bye," he says, before turning and heading to the table across the room where his other friends sit. I watch him go. I can't help myself.

"Was it everything you thought it would be?" Alice's question makes me turn back. She's resting her arm across Jasper's shoulders, who smiles.

"Everything and more."

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I send Edward a text to let him know I'm on my way before trekking through the woods. The wind is howling pretty bad, ripping at my jacket, even with the shelter from the trees. I hope it doesn't start to rain, too. I don't want to have to walk home in the middle of a storm.

Knocking on their kitchen door, I wrap my arms around myself, trying to keep warm. The temperatures have really been falling this week, making winter's imminent approach hard to miss.

Seconds pass, and the door doesn't open. Frowning, I knock again, trying to see some movement through the frosted glass. Edward's usually in the kitchen when he knows I'm coming over.

Chewing on my lip, I wait. I wish he'd hurry. The cold is seeping through my clothes, and my ears hurt. I tuck my shoulders up when another strong gust whips past me, pulling at my hair.

I have to knock two more times — and more like pound with my fist, really — before a shadow passes behind the glass.

"Finally," I say as he ushers me inside. "I was starting to think I'd gotten the wrong house."

"Yeah, sorry. I'm watching a great game," he says, eyes lit up with excitement. He can barely hold still.

I laugh. "Oh. You could've told me to come over later."

"No, it's okay, it's almost over, but do you mind if I watch it?"

"No, of course not." Please don't ask me to watch it, please don't ask me to wa—

"Alice is up in her room — she said she wanted to talk to you about something and to send you up when you got here."

"Oh? Uhm, okay."

He edges around me, reaching his hand out to grasp my arm. "Hi, by the way," he says, before leaning down to kiss me. It's quick and light, but his grin is warm.

"Hi."

With a squeeze to my arm, he hurries out of the kitchen.

After leaving my things by the front door, I hesitate at the stairs. I can hear the TV, the commentators talking faster and faster because something super exciting is doubtlessly happening. I wonder what Alice wants to talk to me about.

After climbing the stairs, simple deduction leads me to know which door is hers, and I knock. Unlike her brother, she opens it immediately.

"Oh, hey!" She's not wearing the same outfit she had on at school, having instead switched to yoga pants and a hoodie that looks about ten sizes too big for her. She's so short it basically reaches her knees.

"Hi. Edward said you wanted to talk to me?"

She smiles as she steps aside. "I do! Although I mostly just said it so he wouldn't make you watch the game with him."

Snorting, I step across the threshold. "Thanks."

Alice's room is pretty great. It's smaller than Edward's, but the bay-window makes it brighter and more open. Her books are organized by size on their shelves, the posters on her walls are all framed, and her curtains are tied back with sashes.

But at the same time, her books are all sci-fi and fantasy, her posters are about Harry Potter, and the digital photo-frame on her bedside table only has pictures of Jasper, and she's glued little pink hearts all around it.

It's very Alice. This might be the most adult teenage-room I've ever seen.

"I like your room," I tell her when the silence lasts way longer than I'm comfortable with.

"Thanks. Me too," she says, winking. "Here, sit down, have a pretzel," she continues, pushing me towards her bed and a bag towards my hands.

I do what she says. It seems easier that way.

"So," she says, clapping her hands together. "Tomorrow night. Jasper's party. I need your opinion."

"Okay. On what?" I ask, covering my mouth as I chew.

"Well, Jasper and I do this thing," she says while heading over to her closet. "We pick each other's costumes each year. He's been on a Tarantino binge lately, so he chose The Bride." Pulling out a yellow biker costume, she holds it up for me. "What do you think?"

I gape. "It's, uh… bloody."

"Pretty cool, right? I made it myself. I have a blonde wig too, but I can't decide if I'll wear it. It's pretty ugly. Do you think I can be The Bride without blonde hair?"

"To be honest, I think the yellow jumpsuit covered in blood does the job on its own."

"Yeah?"

"It's extremely convincing."

She grins, clutching her costume to her chest. "Okay. Yay! Maybe I'll just skip the wig, then. It makes my head itchy anyway, and like, who has time for that?"

"Right."

"Okay, well, that was easy," she says. "Thanks. What are you going as?"

I freeze with a pretzel halfway to my mouth. "Oh. I, uh, I don't know. I probably won't go anyway, so it's not, I mean…" I mumble, lowering the pretzel again.

"What?" Her arms droop as she stares at me. "You're not going? But you have to go."

"It's not a big deal. I don't really know anyone who's going, that's all."

"You know me. And Jasper. Edward, obviously. Angela's coming, isn't she?"

Heat creeps up my neck. "No, yeah, she's going."

Her eyebrows go up as far as they can go, and she just looks at me, waiting. Fuck.

"I don't… I don't like parties," I offer. I think she can tell it's not the most honest answer; her brow sinks back down again and with her mouth slightly twisted to the side, she puts her costume back in the wardrobe and then drops down on the bed, facing me.

"Why not?"

"The people, mostly," I sigh, angling the bag of pretzels her way. She digs her hand in and grabs a few.

"What's wrong with the people?"

"Everything?"

She rolls her eyes in the same good-natured way Edward does. "Okay, but seriously?"

"Seriously… I don't know. Crowds make me uncomfortable. I just can't see myself having a good time at the party, and then there's not really much reason to go. Plus, I don't think anyone's really going to miss me if I'm not there," I say, snorting slightly.

"Jasper wants you to come," she says immediately. "I want you to come. Doesn't Edward want you to?"

"Yeah, but he knows I don't…" Trailing off, I exhale. "We've talked about it."

She studies me for a moment. "I think you should go. Come and surprise him. I think he'd like that."

I know he'd like that. He'd probably love it.

I shake my head anyway. "I don't even have a costume, so it doesn't matter."

She grins. "You can borrow some of mine. I save all my old ones."

Crap. "I— They won't fit."

"Don't be silly, of course they will. We're the same size." She jumps off the bed before I can point out that we're definitely not. "Come on, we'll take bits from old ones and put them together into something new. It'll be great."

"Alice—"

She spins back around. "Please? At least do this. You don't have to go if you really don't want to, but please have a costume, just in case. What's the harm?"

I can't think of a single one. I'm trying really hard, but I can't.

Her smile is as smug as it is victorious.

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Edward walks me home after dinner. The wind is still howling, and the ground is wet from an earlier downpour. I push my hands further into my pockets.

I'd hoped we'd spend some time breaking their open-door rule, but the game he was watching went into overtime, and when it finally ended, his mom was already back from work. So instead, we hung out with Alice.

They talked about the party a lot, which was understandable. But Edward kept glancing at me, throwing me quick looks, as if he felt bad for talking about it in front of me, which made me feel bad for making him feel bad, and then feeling bad turned into feeling guilty.

And I do feel guilty. Even knowing Edward would love it if I went to the party, even knowing that Alice and Jasper actively want me there, I still can't see myself going. There are loads of reasons, but the main one is that I just don't want to put myself through it.

Putting my own comfort first is selfish, but that's not what I feel guilty about. I feel guilty for not feeling guilty about it, which is probably worse.

And it's not even a crippling guilt. Not even close. Just a nagging sense that I should be better than this.

If Edward notices my mood, he doesn't let on. We reach my porch under easy silence.

"Are you busy tomorrow?" I ask. He glances up, pausing on the stairs. "I was thinking we could go to Port Angeles, see a movie or something. If we go around lunch, you'll be back in time for Jasper's party."

If we spend some time together in a public place, that'll balance things out, right?

He takes the final step up, shaking his head. "I can't. I promised Emmett we'd do a few hours of practice before helping Jasper set up for the party. Although you being the one to suggest we go to the movies is kind of making me want to ditch them," he says, grinning slyly at me.

I laugh, and shake my head. "No, come on. I just thought… Never mind."

"We can go on Sunday. I might be hungover, though, so I don't know if I'll be great company," he laughs.

"I should probably drive then, right?"

He chuckles and nods his head. "Definitely." He yawns, covering his mouth with his fist. He blinks slowly and sleepily. "Sorry. I'm so tired."

"I can tell."

He smiles. "Yeah, Coach was really riding us today. I'm going to bed as soon as I get home."

"Oh, you didn't have to walk me."

He's waving his hand before I've finished talking. "No, it's fine. I wanted to."

"Well, thanks. I would've gotten lost without you. So many turns and all that. And it's dark and stuff."

"Smartass," he mutters, smirking. He steps closer and puts his hand on my elbow. "I'll see you tomorrow," he says, bending down. His lips brush lightly against mine, lingering.

"Sunday," I say, almost against his lips. He pulls back a little to see me.

"What?"

"You won't see me tomorrow. You'll see me Sunday."

His face clears and he bumps his forehead with the heel of his hand. "Sorry, my brain's not working right. Yeah, Sunday, of course."

"Okay, well… Uhm, have fun. Tomorrow. At the party. You'll have to tell me all about it."

He smiles, and it's only because I know his face so well I can see he'd rather not have to. He'd rather I was there to see it all myself. But I'm selfish, and he knows that, so he just says, "I will. Goodnight."

"Night."

He kisses me one last time, a heavier, softer kind than before, the kind that makes me want to follow him back home, and then walks off the porch. I watch him cross our front lawn, hands back in his pockets and head down against the wind.

I head inside, leaving my bag by the foot of the stairs. Mom tells me she left some pie in the oven for me as I walk through the living room, and I grab a plate before taking it up to my room. I leave my bag downstairs. Alice made me promise to hang the costume up so it wouldn't wrinkle, but it's not like it matters. It's not like I'll be wearing it.

At least, I think I won't.

I hope I won't.

Ten minutes later I stomp down the stairs and grab the stupid bag.


You guys are seriously the best. I am so grateful you're still here, still reading, and hopefully still enjoying. Thank you.

Until next time,

Vic