Title: Time Lapse
Summary: As a photojournalist, Edward studies human emotion, but his own feelings are closely guarded. Bella hides nothing, her feelings as free and open as her heart. Frame by frame, Edward feels himself being pulled closer. But is he ready to step out from behind the camera and into life?
"What can I get for you, sir?"
"Coffee. Black, please." Edward reached for his wallet. The barista's smile was friendly, but her shoulders seemed to sag with fatigue as she gave him the total.
It's the most wonderful time of the year…
Edward sighed as the song played yet again through the airport speakers. It didn't matter to Edward that his flight to Denver was delayed. There was nobody waiting for him at the other end. What annoyed him was the press of bodies and excessive noise in the crowded airport.
The season had evolved into a tumult of stress and overindulgence; overspending, overeating, and overplayed music. Running even deeper than those superficial irritations, it was agony to be surrounded by reminders of what he'd lost.
"Any particular plans for the holidays?" The barista's voice interrupted his gloomy thoughts.
"Just some traveling," he answered with a practiced smile and handed her his credit card.
She ran the card and handed it back across the counter. "Sounds like fun. With your family?"
"No. Just me." He expected those questions. It was normal for people to assume that everyone had somebody, multiple somebodies, but the questions always cut a little deeper at this time of year.
At the next counter, a young brunette was ordering tea. Her loud, irritated voice caught Edward's attention.
"Mom, I'm in New York, not Afghanistan."
That made him smile. He was actually returning from a job in that country.
The brunette rolled her eyes as she paid for her drink, her phone pressed against her ear. Panic flashed across her features, and she bit her lip. "I gotta go, Mom. I'll see you soon." She jabbed the 'end call' button on her phone and threw it into her oversized bag.
Edward watched, intrigued by the emotions that played across her face — discomfort, panic, and then resignation. Edward's brow quirked when she smiled easily at the barista, the worry lines and frowns gone, just like that. His fingers twitched at his side, wanting to grab his camera and capture each of her fleeting expressions just to compare, to study them later.
"Are you gonna stand here all day?" a gruff voice spoke from behind him.
Edward grabbed his coffee and turned to leave. He apologized to the man and sidestepped the long line, then opened the lid and gently blew on the hot brew. He inhaled the swirls of steam, savoring the rich aroma. Fatigue clawed at him. He'd traveled halfway around the world in the last 24 hours. Now he just wanted to get home, get a few nights of decent sleep, and spend some time in his studio. He needed to post some teasers to his Instagram account to generate interest in his most recent project. In less than two weeks, he would be heading out of the country again, traveling to a world far away from western traditions, away from the lights and festivities.
Edward had insisted on taking this next assignment. Deep in the Amazon jungle, he was going to observe and capture the life of a remote village; the people, the routines and traditions, a culture untainted by modern technology and innovations. He wanted to record all the things that made that village unique, then share them with the rest of the world, show people the beauty and simplicity of this untouched civilization.
On another level he craved the unknown, the hidden dangers of the primeval jungle. Six weeks in the deserts of Afghanistan, the uncertainty of whether he would even live to see another day, should have dampened his need for adrenaline. But with the holiday season thick in the air, there was no time like the present to chase his next high. If only to escape.
Edward reached his departure gate, but there wasn't a single open seat. He turned to look for other options, but nearly toppled backwards as someone rammed into him. Coffee, scorching hot, sloshed over the front of his shirt and pants. The cup landed with a muted thunk, coffee splattering in every direction before soaking into the grey and blue patterned carpet.
"Son of a bitch!" He bent at the knee, hoping to relieve the burn on his cock and balls. "Watch where you're going, you fucking asshole!" he gritted out through clenched teeth, trying to breathe through the blistering pain.
"I'm sorry. So sorry," a woman's voice broke through the ringing in his ears. Her voice wavered and cracked as she spoke again. "I'm so sorry. I wasn't paying attention…"
Hearing her distress, he felt a twinge of conscience, but pushed it away. Edward held up a hand to silence her. "Coffee. Black." Two simple words. One demand. He refused to spend another five dollars to cover for someone else's clumsiness. He turned and headed to the nearest restroom to change.
Sometime later, Edward wandered into the small bar a few gates down the concourse and ordered a drink. His anger had mostly subsided. He sighed and raised the old fashioned to his lips. He finished the first and signaled for another one as he scrolled through the photos in his camera — deleting a few as he went. The deadline for next month's photo spread in the National Geographic was fast approaching. He wanted to close the lid on this project before starting the next one. And even though he held Alec, the photo editor at the office, in high regard, Edward didn't like to see his pictures over processed. He had his own vision.
Just as the bartender placed another tumbler in front of him, a to-go cup slid across the bartop. "Coffee. Black."
Surprised, Edward stared between the cup and the brunette, whom he recognized as the woman from the coffee stand earlier. He'd been in too much pain to notice before. He studied her face as she flagged down the bartender and ordered a glass of red wine. She appeared at ease, quite the contrast to how she'd seemed while on the phone. Edward thanked her and raised the cup to his lips, his attention going back to the laptop screen.
"It probably has cooled down a lot since, you know, I've searched almost an hour for you. So, if you're gonna spill it down your shirt now, it shouldn't burn as much." Her tone was teasing.
"Are you suggesting it was my fault?" He cocked one eyebrow.
"That depends on who you ask." She looked straight ahead, tilting the glass to her lips.
Edward watched her throat as she swallowed. There was a beauty to her that simply captivated him. He cleared his throat and turned to face the shelves full of assorted liquor. Gulping down the lukewarm coffee, Edward forced his thoughts in a different direction. "Before we argue about who's wrong and who's right, how about we ask a third party?"
"Alright." She leaned forward, her index finger tracing the rim of the glass. "Who do you suggest, Mr. Wrong?"
Edward chuckled. "Whoa! Hold up, Mrs. Wrong." She rolled her eyes. "Third party, remember? How about the bartender?"
"It's Ms. to you," she corrected him as he signaled for the bartender.
"Another one, sir?"
"No, thank you. We," Edward shot his companion a sideways glance and it dawned on him that he still didn't know her name. "We need the opinion of a disinterested third party. She thinks she's right…"
"I know I am."
He held up a finger to silence her. "And I know I'm right. Would you help us set the record straight?"
Amused, the bartender agreed. Both Edward and the brunette stated their version of what had happened. She claimed that he'd stepped in her path as she'd been walking back to her departure gate. She had only averted her gaze for a split second, therefore it was his fault. Edward argued that he'd been standing in one spot for almost a minute, searching for an empty seat, and he'd only turned slightly to his right when she rammed into him. Therefore she would have run into him whether he had turned or not, so it was her fault.
After a moment of silent deliberation, the bartender spoke. "I think you're both at fault. Neither of you were paying attention to your surroundings when you bumped into each other." They started to argue, but the bartender simply excused himself to tend to another patron.
Edward picked up his old fashioned and swirled the amber liquid. "Alright. How about this?" He turned to see her watching him, her brown eyes a little glassy from the wine. "I'll take the blame if you tell me about the conversation you were having on your phone back at the coffee stand." Yeah, he was prying. He wanted to know what had caused such an array of emotions to play across her face. What had her mother been saying?
She gazed at her glass for a moment, her face pensive, her lower lip wedged between her teeth. Edward's fingers twitched. He wanted to run his thumb across that smooth lip. Maybe he could even kiss that frown away.
"That's a beautiful picture."
"You're changing the subject," he said, but he turned his attention back to his laptop.
The screen showed a picture of a soldier bent at the knee, his rifle at his side as he handed a candy to a young boy. It was beautiful. A glimpse of humanity in the midst of war. At that moment, Edward decided that this picture would make it into the magazine.
"A photo journalist, I'm presuming."
He nodded as he advanced to the next image; a different soldier talking on the phone, a massive grin splayed across his face, his eyes alight with joy.
"It must be difficult…" her voice trailed off when she saw the next image. It was taken from a distance. The body of a teenage boy lay haphazardly on the side of the road. Edward remembered that morning vividly. The previous night, a small town outside of Kandahar had been shelled, killing a bunch of civilians, townsfolk, some of them people he had probably greeted while passing on the street.
"Every picture tells a story," he began, still clicking through the images, but his eyes were on her as she stared at each portrait, her face a flurry of expressions — sadness, horror, and on a rare occasion, joy. "It's my job to tell their story. Words only take you so far, but a picture… a picture shows you a broader perspective of the events." Reaching the end of the series, he shutdown his computer and stowed it away.
Silence filled the space between them, each nursing their respective drinks.
It's the most wonderful time of the year…
"Not again," he groaned, lifting his near empty tumbler to signal the bartender.
"Don't like Christmas music?"
"Don't like the holiday season. Period."
"I used to love it." He turned to face her again and was immediately engrossed as she beamed, her gaze miles — even years — away. "My dad decorates their three acres every year with lights, reindeer, trees, candy canes. He even has a Santa's workshop in the back acre! He enters the town's holiday lights contest each year and, without exception, each year he wins. As a kid, that was my favorite part. Helping him decorate, sipping eggnog. His was spiked, of course."
Edward chuckled, picturing a younger version of this beautiful woman. He leaned closer, wanting more of her.
"Every night, I'd wander through the maze just to get lost in the lights. It was magical." She trailed off, the joy slowly fading from her face.
"What happened?" Edward pushed.
She let out a humorless laugh. "I grew up. Moved away. And my mother," she shook her head and gulped more wine. "My mother has been hounding me to come home and settle down ever since. I love her, but she doesn't grasp the fact that I'm okay with not settling down just yet. That's why I haven't been back home for Christmas in two years. Because I know she won't be able to drop the subject the entire week I'm there. She claims she's worried about me all alone in this big city. It wouldn't be such a big deal, but both my brothers married their high school sweethearts, and here's me… Bella. The twenty-eight year old spinster. According to my mom. Maybe I should start collecting cats."
Usually when strangers unloaded their life story or tragedies on him, Edward found a way to excuse himself from the situation. But with her… he didn't feel that compulsion. Instead, he wanted to pick up his camera, catch every new expression, he wanted to catalog them all. But she was still a stranger. Named Bella. Single. Besides the fact that her mother was a nutcase, those two things hadn't gone unnoticed.
Edward placed his camera bag on the stool between them. He took out his DSLR and a lens. Both assembled, he quirked an eyebrow at Bella as she watched him. "Do you mind?" He asked in a low tone, adjusting the white balance, aperture and shutter speed to counterbalance the low lights of the bar.
Her cheeks pinked. Before she could answer, he snapped a picture.
Wide eyes stared at him. "How terrible is it?"
He showed her the picture, and her blush intensified. He inhaled her sweet vanilla and cinnamon scent. "You smell like Christmas," he grumbled, slightly conflicted by that fact.
Bella raised her gaze, and it lingered on his mouth. Her tongue darted out and swept across her lower lip. Edward swallowed.
Then she drew back, her face flushed. "I think the alcohol is going to my head."
"You're so good."
"Hmm?" Edward murmured from behind the camera, looking through the viewfinder, engrossed in his subject.
"I've always hated having my picture taken, but that one photo makes me look…" she searched for the words, a look of concentration on her face, then her eyes closed, and her features relaxed into a dreamy expression.
She was beautiful, bathed in the muted lights of the bar.
"Beautiful? Sexy?" Edward offered, already anticipating her reaction.
Bella's head swiveled to face him, her eyes wide, mouth agape. Every fraction of a second, Edward's camera clicked as he watched her features transform, expressions ranging from unbelief to flattery.
"You don't even know me. You're a stranger."
Lowering the camera, Edward leaned closer, and she did the same. The air felt charged, intense.
"I don't have to be. Name's Edward."
Closer. Closer. Her breath fanned across his face. Her eyes searched his — apprehensive, yet wanting, needing.
Ring. Ring. Ring.
"Speak of the devil," Bella murmured and drew back, retrieving her phone. "Mom…" she gave him an apologetic shrug and headed out the door, her rolling suitcase smacking into chair legs as she hurried to find some privacy.
"Fuck," Edward murmured and drew a hand through his hair while the other tightened around the camera.
His jaw ticked. A quick 'wham, bam, thank you ma'am' would have done wonders for his overworked nerves. But now… the mood had evaporated the moment her phone rang. Yeah, he knew she wouldn't be up for a quick romp in the nearest bathroom stall when she returned — if she returned. He cast a glance over his shoulder towards the exit of the bar and saw her pacing on the other side of the glass, phone pressed to her ear, anxiety twisting her features.
The tones of the intercom signaled the start of another announcement, and the gate attendant announced that boarding was beginning for his flight. Edward began to pack his bags — his laptop and camera — as the bartender slid the receipt across the bar top with a smile. His gaze flickered to Bella's abandoned wine glass.
"Put hers on my tab, too." He turned to see if she had noticed he was leaving, but she was gone.
Edward was disappointed, but what was one more missed opportunity? Realistically, with his nomadic and often dangerous lifestyle, a girl like Bella was not the one for him. His mind was already returning to work as he crossed the busy concourse to his boarding gate.
A/N: Collaborated with Maggie (NewTwilightFan)
Beta'd by Ninkita