Chapter Thirty-Five Notes: A huge thanks to Booksgalore for her unparalleled beta skills, GinnyW for sharing some much-needed expertise on stitches, and you for still reading this thing despite my craptastic updating schedule.
The comment I made in a previous A/N about this story not being completely consistent w/ certain parts of canon still applies. This is, after all, an AU and the characters aren't always carbon copies of who they were in SM's work.
Previously in IVO-land: Bella got attacked by Jake the Werewolf. Edward stopped giving her the cold shoulder and admitted he lied to her when he told her he didn't have feelings for her. Bella rebuffed him and refused to deal with all the drama in her life, ranging from her feelings for Edward and the massive Jake-induced scar on her back. She has nightmares of the attack, which were only complicated by Jake's repeated attempts to contact her. Feeling trapped in a corner, she finally realized that though she doesn't know where she and Edward stand anymore, he understands her and she feels safe with him. Late at night on her stoop, they talk. Edward tells her she'd kissed him once before, when she was nearly unconscious after the accident with her truck almost falling on her. And then finally kissed for real, taking us to…
CHAPTER THIRTY-FIVE: Kissed
His kiss ruined me for all others.
Before our lips met, kissing was nice. Pleasant. Better than breathing, on an even keel with top-shelf ice cream and a good book. But in a separate stratosphere than Christmas morning or hearing a favorite song for the first time. When the space between us dissolved…there were no words. No comparison. Nothing would ever be as perfect as Edward's face converging with mine. Predatory instincts and common sense be damned. We were meant for this.
At first, our mouths puckered and brushed but never quite intermingled. Edward took his sweet time. The slope of his nose nestled around the contours of my cheekbone, his eyelashes dusting the skin at my temple. He spent endless moments running his fingers up and down my neck before moving them back up into my hair. Then, we stood motionless, lips locked but bodies too cautious to inhale the other.
He's waiting for me, I realized. Edward had initiated contact, but now he wanted me to lead.
"Keep going," I breathed into his unparting lips.
His hand slowly unwound itself from my hair and cupped the base of my neck. It wasn't
enough. I needed more …and his mouth and hands were the vessels in which he could provide that validation.
Stop hesitating, my fingers begged him as they traced the cords of his neck. Eventually, the tips lost themselves in his hair, diving through soft strands and then stilling in anticipation. It was Edward's turn.
He sucked in a measured breath through his nose before leaning in further, increasing the pressure where our lips joined. For one brief moment, we froze again until finally his body answered my silent plea, I will if you will.
Edward's hand left my neck and traced its way down my side, slowing at the curve of my waist and tracing a sensual path until it found my hip. A second later, his other hand lifted to my shoulder and then mirrored the actions of the first, on the opposite side. His movements weren't sorry or shy. Edward was no longer retreating, nor was he chasing. No—he was claiming me. I allowed him to place his stake, as I was doing the same.
A finger on each of his hands coiled around the belt loops on the sides of my waist, just above my hip bones. When he pulled—gently yet determined—my pelvis arched toward him, my chest following until it became flush with his. Our mouths were in full motion now. His lips were hard in theory but malleable in practice; they gave and took in perfect rhythm with my own. Caution disappeared on my end—I darted out my tongue to taste him, to possess him as he possessed me. I was met with sweet rather than salt, smooth rather than chapped, more myth than man. He exhaled through a narrow slit in his otherwise pursed lips. A warning. His breath seeped into my open mouth, a paradox of cool and steam wafting to the back of my throat.
Edward's shoulder stiffened, and I withdrew my tongue, fighting against the irrational feeling of rejection in the pit of my stomach. Except for our lips touching, we'd been in this exact place before. That night in the forest, my chin had been lifted then as it was now and my body had reached for him, begging for contact only to be turned away.
"Venom," he murmured, separating our mouths but uniting our foreheads and pressing the tips of our noses together. "Sharp teeth…we can't…"
"Sorry." We said it at the same time. From me, it came out worried, in a fragmented gasp. From him, it was low and heartfelt.
From my voice and the panic likely scribbled all over my face, Edward knew I was slipping away from him, from this new, possibly temporary us. He stared into me, reached forth, and reeled me back in, his twisting fingers leaving the waistband of my jeans and easing up under the bottom of my sweatshirt. His hands ghosted the bare skin under my ribs as he lowered his face back to mine. More than willing to prolong whatever this was, I raised my chin and met him halfway. The pads of his fingers pressed lightly into my sides, tracing hypnotic circles on my flesh but showing no intention of travelling higher. It was innocent, PG-13 at best, yet hands down the most sensual moment of my life.
Our second kiss of the night held for what could have been minutes or hours. For awhile, Edward didn't take a single breath, but I was sucking in and then panting out enough air for two. When he eventually relaxed into me, there was no hint of one-sided lust—no overeager tongue, no excess of saliva. No trace of the only other first kiss I'd ever known. Just the soft and hard of our lips memorizing curves and corners, textures and temperatures. Occasionally, he'd brave taking my lower lip into the dip where his lips almost-but-not-quite parted, sucking just barely until I hummed a broken, pathetic melody into him. Humiliating…had I cared.
We kissed for the longest time, during most of which rational thought was a joke. The feeling of his hands on my skin drove me blissfully insane but ultimately spawned the first signs of coherency. I couldn't help but think that this was so unlike him to reach out and take what he wanted like this, to obliterate barriers he'd once refused to cross. The memory of the night he left me waiting for his mouth, sure that he'd wanted to kiss me as I wanted to kiss him, resurfaced.
And that's when I knew: At some point, we had to stop. Real life would steal us back from each other. I'd remember that Edward might leave again, that I was freshly scarred and vulnerable, that the odds were stacked against us.
Damn tomorrow. To hell with yesterday. I wanted to keep him.
If only life ceased outside the here and now, I could.
Suddenly, he broke our kiss. Only then did I realize my upper body was quaking against him.
Without thinking, I wrapped my arms around his torso, clutching him, clinging to this moment for as long as possible. He removed his hands from my sides and used them to reach between us and capture my face. I wove my fingers in the fabric of his shirt and glanced up at him, terrified but beyond curious to gauge his expression.
I expected to see his trademark tortured remorse or at least some semblance of caution flickering on his face.
What I saw was unprecedented.
Eyes dancing, mouth curved into a wild grin, Edward Cullen was jubilant.
For him, it was his first real kiss. For me, it was the only kiss that had ever mattered.
I couldn't help it. Reason and worry had no place in this moment. My lips twisted, and I beamed back up at him like the lovechild of the Joker and the Cheshire Cat. We stood close, touching each other in small brushes and occasional grabs of the other's clothes, grinning like two idiots.
It was an out-of-body experience. I felt…at peace. At peace with the simple happiness of someone who hadn't lived my life for the past four months. The pure joy flashing on Edward's face gave me temporary memory loss. I wished it would last forever.
But it wouldn't. Reality waited. We had a conflicted past behind us, an uncertain future looming ahead. My smile faltered. Edward's followed suit, dulling a good portion of the euphoric electricity humming between us.
"I…I don't know what this means," I sputtered, hating myself for sounding so lost.
When he finally responded, Edward's voice resonated gravelly. "I'm not expecting definitions right now, Bella. I just…" He set his jaw and intensified his gaze. "Stop hiding. From me—" he tangled his fingers in the loose hair falling down my back— "And from this." His hands dropped and brushed over the heavy cotton fabric covering my lower back, light enough that I felt no physical pain.
"And if I can't?" A human wouldn't have been able to hear my question. Thankfully, Edward was a step up, evolution-wise.
I let go of his shirt. Before my hands could fall to my thighs, he caught them in his. "You can."
His eyes narrowed. "Want it, Bella. You're a fighter. You can get past this."
This. He was talking about Jacob, of course, about my back and my cyclical psychotic breakdowns. My mouth flew open, preparing to parrot some weak, empty retort, but his lips swooped in and lulled us into silence. They were gone in an instant, my eyes fluttering open as he vowed, "You're going to be just fine. But you have to be the one to make that choice. You have to fight back."
He kissed me once more. Soft. Gentle. Magic.
As we stood in silence, I gripped his fingers. I didn't know what I was supposed to feel. My struggle to survive one day without a nightmare or near-panic attack didn't belong here, between Edward and me. While I desperately wanted to move beyond the shredded letter on my bedroom floor or the tapestry of stitches woven into my skin, right now that wasn't the big question. "What's going to happen to us, Edward?"
He diverted his eyes from mine but only for a second. Before I could miss his stare, it was back with newfound ferocity. "This is about you—you alone decide your fate. And right now, you don't have to make that decision."
"I'm not the only one in this equation," I corrected, not quite looking him in the eye. "The thing is, Edward, I…miss you. I wish we could go back to being just you and me, to talking without kid gloves and tension. And I wish I could believe this thing between us is inevitable, that it won't slip away and leave me even more broken than before, that you'll stay and we'll turn into…something. But—Jesus, Edward, I'm scared to death. My life is a disaster right now. You and me—we're not together and I'm in no place to be anything to you." I sighed and braved eye contact. "Yet I can't let you go. Not again."
Negating my words, I gave Edward's fingers one last squeeze and pulled my hands away. I shoved them into my pockets to avoid the temptation of grabbing at him again. He dipped his head down low, so that our eyes were level. "Then don't."
Don't. So simple. So impossible.
Straightening out, Edward's eyes left mine, and he backed up a step. His tone lightened as he changed the subject and yanked us out of our emotional black hole. "So tomorrow…no more detentions."
"I want to see you."
I flushed and babbled, "There's an English test tomorrow. I'll be the girl with the scowl and the blue Bic four rows in front of you."
Hesitantly, Edward smiled. "I meant that I want to spend time with you in a setting that doesn't involve dirty dishes or a soundtrack featuring Mr. Berty's lisp."
"Lunch, perhaps?" He was nervous. I loved that I wasn't the only one.
"My stitches," I blurted. "Um, I mean I have a doctor's appointment at ten. What's left of them are coming out tomorrow. I won't be back for lunch, probably."
"But you'll be in English?"
"God willing." .
"May I offer you a ride home? After school?" When I didn't answer, he backtracked, "Or, you know, Alice could take the Jeep and give you one, if you don't want—"
"'Kay." I nodded as I spoke over his words, my mouth curving into the most awkward of half-smiles. "I'll go…with you."
He smiled back, but he wasn't fooling me; Edward was as clueless as I was about what we were diving into.
A nagging voice in the back of my head told me to nip disaster in the bud, but I ignored it. Like a recovering addict, I planned on taking this one day at a time, except instead of weaning myself off my old addiction, I was slowly allowing it to creep back into my life. This apologetic, devoted Edward before me was a much-needed hit, a distraction from peripheral evils. His tantalizing lips drew me in; now that I knew the power of his mouth, it was impossible to walk away. He was my drug, my downfall, my savior.
He walked backward down the sidewalk, hands in his pockets, his mouth sporting a trace of a grin.
I raised my hand in an awkward wave, backing up closer to the door. My free hand fumbled for the knob behind me because my eyes refused to leave his face.
Edward cleared his throat before he disappeared from sight. His thumb massaged his lower lip. He looked beyond me, his eyes glazing over. "Bella, for the record, that was…"
My tongue swept over my mouth, trying to taste the memory. Dazed and breathless, I responded, "I know."
I waited until the darkness swallowed him before stumbling back inside. Upstairs, I stepped blindly through scattered shreds of paper, tossing a near-invisible photograph from my bed to the floor. Regardless of what damage the day had done and what tomorrow brought, tonight belonged to Edward and the heroin that was his kiss.
X X X
Charlie hauled me to school the next morning; there was no need for Alice since my current set of bandages and remaining stitches would be gone in a matter of hours. Besides, overhead, the sun was shining, and apparently at least one vampiric myth was true.
"Cloud cover won't move in until around lunchtime, so we have to lay low in the AM. I'll see you after school," Alice had promised that morning on the phone.
"Oh. Okay." Somehow, I'd thought it would just be Edward and me. I should've known better—Alice usually accompanied Edward to school in his Volvo, so obviously she would ride with us. I was pretty sure I was relieved…but not positive.
When Charlie dropped me off at school, I searched in vain for Edward. He wasn't there, of course; the sunshine I'd once cherished became my enemy, cheating me out of both his company and the ability to test the waters regarding last night's cataclysmic shift.
Until I passed out on my bed the night before, I'd tried to define what we were or what I wanted us to be. The only answer I came up with was I had absolutely no idea. Labels scared the hell out of me, but so did the possibility of not having Edward in my life. I tentatively resolved to let the chips fall where they may. I'd clean up the mess later.
When the cruiser returned at a quarter to ten, I was still anxious. For the next half hour, Charlie and I drove to the hospital and then bided our time in the waiting room. I glossed over my English notes, prepping for Berty's essay exam while Charlie stared off into space. When a nurse called my name, I almost looked forward to what was coming. Almost.
Dr. Cullen was nowhere in sight, the sunlight apparently worth a "sick day" and a bitter aside from Dr. Gerandy. "I like to fish, you know," he grumbled as he appraised by back. "I could be out on the Sol Duc right now angling salmon…but unlike some people, I take my sick leave quite seriously."
Dr. Gerandy's nurse swabbed my back with antiseptic, not nearly as gentle as Alice had been. The cool liquid on my skin made me shiver, though not as much as when he murmured, "Not a lot of crusted blood, but the scar tissue is already fairly substantial."
Dr. Gerandy scribbled away on my chart. I felt like a variable in an eighth-grade science project rather than a patient as he barked out orders. The nurse used forceps to snip and grab at the stitches on my back. For nearly two hours, slight tugs pulled at my skin, some causing me to yelp in pain, but overall the entire process wasn't as bad as when the nurse leaned over my shoulder and asked me if I wanted to "see."
She nodded toward the bathroom and thrust a mirror into my hand. I thrust it right back.
"No thanks. I have to get back to school." Pulling down my shirt, I rose up from my stomach to a sitting position, asking with icy indignation, "Am I good to go?"
She frowned, as if I was warped for not wanting to examine my patchwork of marred flesh. "I need to put some adhesives on. Lie back down."
I complied. Minutes later, she dismissed me after a spiel about keeping the bandages on for several days followed by excessive Vitamin E treatments and massaging of the scar tissue.
Within a half hour, the sun buried itself behind dark clouds and I was ten minutes early for English. Alone in the dim classroom, I spread my class notes out before me but trained my eyes on the door. When it swung open, I bordered on cardiac arrest until I saw Mike's beaming face.
One look at my expression had him asking, "What's wrong with you?"
I sighed. "Nothing."
"Ready for this thing?" Mike asked, as if one test at the end of our senior year would make or break our entire future.
"Not really," I lied, returning to feigned examination of my notes.
A minute later, the door reopened.
This time, it was him.
Our eyes met, two deer in headlights far too stupid to run from what was about to destroy us.
"Hi," Edward said, his voice too loud for the small, near-empty space.
"Uh, hey," I mumbled to the desk.
Mike's head darted back and forth between us as if watching a tennis match. After a bit, he settled on Edward as his target of choice. "Cullen," he sneered by a way of a greeting Edward obviously never asked for.
Ignoring Mike completely, Edward kept his face controlled and nodded at me before taking his seat. I twisted in my chair to avoid losing eye contact, my latest set of bandages wrinkling slightly with the strain.
Edward smiled but just barely, nothing like the blinding grin he'd unleashed on me the night before. It took a beat, but soon I understood why. His restrained expression was a test to determine whether the hours separating us from the night before reinstated me as president of the I Detest Edward Cullen Club. Nervously, I smiled back to let him know I'd resigned and very much wanted that ride home he'd offered. I knew nothing about what we were doing—except that I wanted to be wherever he was.
My gaze drifted to his mouth, and suddenly it hit me all over again that we'd kissed last night. His mouth. My lips. Touching. Whatever it meant was still unforeseen, but Holy Jesus, it had felt like electrocution, hypnosis, and sugar shock all at once. Blushing like a moron, I snapped my attention back to my notebook until class started.
I think there might have been a test. I know that at one point, I dropped my pen onto the floor and it rolled back several rows, only to be kicked forward into my fumbling fingers by the subject occupying my thoughts. The rest was a blur. The bell eventually dinged, after which I spent the next minutes scribbling mindless ramblings about Steinbeck even though the test may have covered Hemingway instead. When my lame attempt to save my A in English ended, Edward and everyone else had vanished and I had ten seconds to book it to History.
At three, I stumbled to my locker. No Edward. I grabbed my bag and jacket. No Edward. Walked out to the parking lot. The Volvo sat in the far corner but, again, no Edward.
"Photographic memory, my ass," I grumbled, surprised at how angry I was to miss out on a short car ride that I'd semi-dreaded earlier.
"Oh ye of little faith. As if I could forget you."
"Gah!" I spun to find him hovering over me. My bag dropped, its contents scattering on the sidewalk.
Edward and I crouched at the same time to retrieve them. My pulse boomed in my ears. "It's not polite to sneak up on people, you know."
An expression I hadn't seen in months crossed his face—he freaking smirked at me. "True, but it is rather amusing."
We both rose to our feet. "Says you," I scoffed.
The moment passed. We weren't the flirting, light-hearted us of four months ago, and it hit us both at the same time. My eyes began worshipping the giant sycamore near the corner of the parking lot, and Edward's neck was twisted away from me as if someone behind him had called his name, his left hand awkwardly massaging his neck. Grow up, I chastised myself. Stop pretending you don't want him around. Stop hiding like a freaking child. I rolled my eyes at myself, gathered my wits, and looked back up at him. His eyes found me, too, tension further engulfing us as we stared at each other's mouths, both trying not to focus on the fact that I'd licked his and he'd sucked on mine less than twenty-four hours earlier.
Edward held out my recovered textbooks. Beneath his elbows, his arms were bare. Good God. I scowled, wishing he'd have the decency to unroll his sleeves and cover himself in public. I barely heard him when he asked, "Ready?"
I grabbed the books and scanned the area for Alice. Dear, sweet, distracting Alice--there she was, materializing out of nowhere to lean against the hood of the car. "Hey, Bella."
Something inside me snapped; I rushed past Edward and hugged her. She was the first person I'd seen all day that didn't put me on pins and needles. No longer was I disappointed she'd be riding with us; Alice was a much-welcome, spritely shield to what would otherwise be the most awkward car ride since Renee clued me into the secrets of my "changing body" on a road trip to Albuquerque when I was nine.
"Good to see you, too, Bella," she laughed into my shoulder. "Rough day?"
I scurried over to the back door of the Volvo, muttering, "Something like that."
Alice pushed me aside. "My legs are shorter; you should ride in the front."
"No, really, it's—"
I stopped short when Edward moved next to me, grasping at the handle then holding the door open for me. His forehead scrunched up with worry. As I squeezed past him to settle into the front passenger seat, I couldn't help but feel like we were on an incredibly painful first date. I swallowed, plastered a fake, enthusiastic smile on my face, and grasped for diversion. "So, did I miss anything in Spanish, Alice?"
She giggled. "You tell me, Bella. You were there; I wasn't."
Oh. Alice had still been dodging sunlight, and I'd gone to my first two classes of the day before heading off to the doctor's office. "Right. Of course." I covered the left side of my face with my hand, and like the brainless, nervous Energizer Bunny I was, I kept on going. And going. "I forgot that you were in your coffin. Or dungeon. Or wherever you go to hide from the sun." Jesus, Bella, shut up. "I mean, I forgot that you weren't there. Sorry…just…sorry."
"Coffins? Seriously?" Alice's voice trilled with amusement. "Do I look someone who spends her time in coffins? Or dungeons? Oh, Bella. You need a crash course in Vampire STAT."
"Sorry," I grumbled into the collar of my jacket.
"Don't be." It was the answer I expected, though it came from a different source. Edward smiled at me, overly cautious as if a twist of his lips could break me in half. He continued, focused on the quickly disappearing pavement beyond the windshield, "The sun can't hurt us. But it does betray what we are."
"Yeah?" I asked as if I already understood exactly what he was saying. I wanted to make him feel comfortable. Then maybe he could return the favor.
"We sparkle in the sunlight."
Maybe it was the kissing. Maybe it was my inability to respond like a normal person to any uncomfortable situation. Or maybe the entire thing was just insane. Regardless, I spat out a laugh, and once it was out there, I couldn't take it back. "You…sparkle?"
Sheepishly, Edward responded, "Our skin reflects the sun, much like prisms."
"Or diamonds," Alice piped up.
I swallowed my irrational, hysterical smile and stared out the window. "So, you're, like, bedazzled?" I imagined the hideous denim jacket Renee bought at a craft mall a few years back, with its blue sequins and fabric paint creating a monstrosity of a shimmering dolphin across its back. Something that unnatural and gaudy did not fit along with the images I had of Edward's hauntingly beautiful alabaster skin.
Alice snorted. "No, it's way cooler than that. Edward can show you sometime."
My shoulders stiffened at the suggestion Edward show me anything. Immediately, I imagined the last thing that happened when we were alone, and without looking over, I knew his body was a rigid as mine. My eyes were in my lap, but I noticed the Volvo had come to a stop. I was home.
My fingers grabbed for the door handle, only to find nothing but a slight breeze. The car door was already open. Edward stood to the side, waiting for my exit.
I climbed out, nodding once. "Thanks for the ride."
He was close but not invasive and so very…tall. I couldn't reach him on my own; if I ever hoped to kiss him again, he'd have to help me out. My cheeks caught on fire at the thought, and I almost missed him whisper, "No problem."
I fumbled a wave behind my back for Alice's benefit and stalked off toward the house. Even before I opened the front door, I regretted my lackluster goodbyes.
X X X
I fed Charlie copious amounts of turkey for dinner. Tryptophan was a gift from the Gods. He crashed before ten.
I lied on my bed for twenty minutes before I gave up pretending sleep was possible. As I kicked shredded scraps of paper on my floor under my bed, I knew all too well that werewolves and vampires would plague my unconscious thoughts, albeit for very different reasons. I paced for another five, and then decided to stop delaying the inevitable.
After yanking on a sweatshirt, my feet found their way downstairs and out the door to the stoop—our stoop. Before my eyes adjusted to the dark, I spoke into the night. "Hey?"
Edward didn't bother with human speed. In a flash, he was here. "Hi."
I played with the drawstring on my hoodie and tried to control my face so that I didn't come across as a fawning cheerleader welcoming the game-winning quarterback off the field. As casually as I could manage, I explained, "I can't sleep."
A smile in his voice, he answered, "It's only 9:45."
"I already know I won't be able to. I'm quite Alice-y when it comes to predicting my sleeping habits."
I cowered on the porch, Edward a couple steps away on the footpath. I could see him now. Every time we separated, I convinced myself I'd exaggerated his physical beauty. Then, when he'd reappear, I'd realize I'd underplayed it in my mind--he was beyond pretty, light years past stunning. Webster's had no word for him, really. If I looked him in the eye, the attraction I felt for him rendered me incoherent and made me feel ugly inside and out. Granted, Edward was arrogant and stubborn as hell. But so much more defined him and placed him out of my league--he was beautiful, gloriously intelligent, and, if I was being totally honest, selfless to a fault.
And I was not.
Yet, despite my usual feelings of inadequacy, I didn't feel like hiding from him. I, after all, was the selfish one. I looked away so that I'd have the nerve to ask him to stay. "Sit with me?"
Edward settled into one corner of the porch swing, I the other. A canyon of unspoken truths lay between us. I sat Indian-style on my legs, leaving it to Edward to gently sway us back and forth.
"Why can't you sleep?" he asked, watching his own knees as they jutted out with each push of the swing.
"Just can't." He knew why. And he knew I did not want to have this conversation. I picked another at random, to keep him here with me and to stop myself from letting my inner coward take over and drag me back to my bedroom. "Renee bought Charlie this swing two weeks before she left him."
Edward twisted his head so his eyes bored into me. He didn't say a word, though I wished he would. I needed him to ask for the reason, to have a meaningless conversation with me so I could hear his voice and feel safe. The minutes passed, and I withdrew my legs from under my body, giving up, preparing to stand and spend a sleepless night staring at my ceiling.
My feet hit the floor, but before I could stand, one word rescued us. "Why?"
Edward didn't glance over when he asked, as he had with his last question. It was probably best that way; when I looked into his eyes, I yearned for physical contact and ended up hating him for siphoning off my strength and myself for being a spineless cliché.
I smiled wistfully and traced the chain suspending my side of the swing with my fingertips. Flakes of rust dusted off onto my sleeve. "She said her grandparents used to have one that they used to sit together in it every night at sunset. They were married for sixty-one years and died within weeks of each other. When Renee was a kid, she thought the porch swing was their secret, that they wouldn't have lasted if they didn't sit on that thing every day." I laughed nervously, trying to pretend Renee was beyond silly, even though I'd believed that swing held some mystical power until I was thirteen. "When I was about nine or ten, she told me that story and said she saw a porch swing at an estate sale and wanted to leave Charlie with something nice. Then, when I got older, she revealed the real story: she bought it as a last resort. If he swung on it with her—just once—she said she would have stayed."
Edward watched me for a very long time before he answered the unasked question, "But he didn't."
"Charlie worked long hours. He was new on the force and had to prove himself."
"It wasn't his fault."
"It wasn't entirely hers either. They didn't belong together." My breathing changed its rhythm as I realized this topic of conversation wasn't as safe as I'd hoped.
"Sure they did. At least for a little while." The half of Edward's face I could see smiled, and I hated my heart for speeding up without permission. "They needed to have you."
"You sound like Renee. She always tells me that." Blood ignited under my skin, shading it a hybrid of radish and grape.
I meant to give him an eye roll, but an involuntary smile crept to my lips and sold me out. Looking away, I asked, "What were your parents like? I mean, from what you can remember of them."
Edward relaxed into the swing, his upper arms propping on the top of the seatback. "My father was an attorney. He worked most of the time and expected me to grow up and be exactly like him. Whenever he was home, he smoked cigars and taught me how to shoot pool."
"Were you and he close?"
Edward shrugged. "Not especially. I spent more time with my mother."
I smiled. We had that in common. "Did she look like you?"
"I can't remember." Looking down to his lap, Edward shook his head. "I don't have any photographs of my parents. Their faces are fuzzy at best. Though Carlisle tells me her eyes were green. Like mine used to be, before…"
"How did he know?"
"He treated my parents and me in the hospital. After they died, he changed me." Edward still wasn't looking at me, though his voice no longer sounded soft and reflective. His profile revealed his expression was hard. It was almost as if he was purposefully avoiding my face. Probably because he knew what my next question would be.
"And how does that work? How does one change—"
He cut me off, avoiding my questions. "I do remember my mother liked to bake rhubarb pie, and even though I hated the taste, I'd sit in the kitchen with her while she cooked because the smell was intoxicating." He paused, and eventually a wistful smile thawed his face. "To this day, it calls to me, though the taste of pie disgusts me more now than it ever did then."
"Do you miss them?" Somewhere between billiards and rhubarb, I'd unknowingly turned my body toward him, my bent knees overlapping onto the cushion separating us.
"My human life was so long ago…I'm not really that person anymore." Edward's arms left the back of the seat and folded over his chest. "I know that I loved them, but the memory of them is faded, to the point where they seem almost fictional."
I watched the side of his face, surprising myself by wishing he'd look back at me rather than out into the yard. I tried not to think that he might be keeping watch; I wanted this to be a social call, not part of his role as my self-proclaimed protector. And "social" meant that I wanted to talk with him more, to know him—every version. Clearing my throat, I asked, "How are you different now? From then? Aside from the…obvious."
I expected Edward to say he'd used his immortality and sleepless nights to learn fifty different languages or how to perform a double bypass. Instead, he removed his arms from his chest, letting them drop to his thighs, and said, "I have different priorities." He shot me a look out of the corner of his eye. "Notwithstanding my diet."
Edward shifted in his seat, bracing the swing with his legs. "When I was human, all I wanted was to fight in the Great War. My friends enlisted, but I wouldn't turn eighteen until June, so I had to wait. My mother was distraught, and my father told me it would unnecessarily delay the higher education he expected me to pursue. But I didn't care. I wanted excitement and the chance to test my bravery, to prove I was a man. I had no desire to get married or follow in my father's footsteps at Yale. If I lost my life somewhere in Europe, I figured it would be a noble death and that ultimately my parents would be proud."
Edward caught something in my expression and stopped. His head tilted, and his eyes flickered with curiosity. "You have something to say?"
I shook my head "no" but spoke up anyway. "I just…did you believe in the cause?"
He furrowed his brow. "Not exactly. I wanted to fight, and there was quite a bit of pressure to enlist and prove your manhood. War provided the chance to make a difference at a very young age."
I chewed on the inside of my cheek before I blurted, "I don't get why you'd do that to your mother and father, or why you'd give up your entire future to feel brave for about thirty seconds before some enemy soldier shot your face off."
Edward said nothing. Tension prickled between us. I swallowed and opened my mouth to apologize for insulting him, but he beat me to the punch. "I had nothing to lose. My mother and father had each other. My friends were already serving in battle. I had no sweetheart waiting for me to put a ring on her finger."
I shoved my hands in my pockets and watched him, certain of the life a human Edward would have had. "You would have gotten married. Had a family. A career. I bet you would've been happy."
Edward's head still cocked, but now his eyebrows rose. "What makes you think that?"
I blinked more times than I could count before an answer came out of my mouth. "You seem to be so sure of yourself. You would have made the right choices. Had a great job, found the right girl." My throat closed up a bit; if I kept this up, I'd feel like I was swallowing a beach ball. "You don't seem like the type to settle."
He looked down and smirked, almost as if to himself. "I'm not."
"Me either." Our eyes met. Suddenly, I wanted him to see me as strong, brave. Maybe if he saw those things in me, I might believe that I could someday believe them, too. "I'm going to Dartmouth in the fall."
He grinned, uninhibited and wide. "I knew you'd go."
I arched an eyebrow and resisted the sudden, unfounded urge to playfully shove him in the chest. "You did not."
"I knew," he taunted, "and I didn't even need to ask Alice. You're not the type to give up, Bella."
His praise felt so good. We'd gone from sexual-tension hell to good-natured camaraderie in no time flat, and I welcomed the thaw with open arms. He caught the relief on my face, and his expression became deeper, his stare more intense. I glanced away and babbled, "I'm probably going to have to sell a kidney on eBay to afford the tuition, but I'm doing it." I found myself watching him again, this time unable to escape his eyes. "Anyway, I can't not go. I'll always look back and wonder how it would've changed my life."
He shifted in his seat again, moving closer but almost unperceptively so. "Certain opportunities aren't meant to be wasted," he agreed.
Edward read minds, but sometimes he gave me looks, like the deliberate one currently on his face, and I swore he was trying to get me to read his.
"Yeah," I muttered, fighting to stay clueless and keep our exchange light. "I guess."
Edward squinted at me and then dropped the Big Intense Look from his face. His focus shifted as he fingered a web above his corner of the swing. The spider inside scurried away from his hand, disappearing into the canopy. He chuckled. "I'm not popular with insects—or animals, for that matter."
"That's handy," I joked. "I absolutely hate spiders. And cats. Cats annoy the hell out of me."
Edward waved his hand, gesturing to himself. "Natural repellant."
Then, silence. Our light-hearted reprieve underwent sudden death. The quiet plaguing us was the nonreflective, painful kind where any word sounds like a good one, except the longer you wait, the stupider the next phrase out of your mouth will be. Case in point: "I should probably go to bed," I lied. It was the worst possible thing to say, as I neither wanted to leave him nor did I want to trek back up to my suffocating tomb of a bedroom.
"It is getting late. I apologize."
Caught in my silence-filling lie, I moved to get up, but my legs, still folded underneath me, had fallen asleep. My upper body lurched away from the swing, but my lower half stayed put. I looked like a worm struggling out of the muddy earth.
Edward watched me, biting his lip to contain his laughter. "Are you alright?"
I took my hand and lifted one of my calves onto the ground. It hit the porch with a thud. Still asleep, my ankle bent as my limp foot turned on its side. Then, the tingles started. Pins and needles stabbed at my nerves as my legs woke up. "Ow. Ow! OW!"
I grasped the swing's chain for support, thinking that if I stood, the blood would rush to my legs and the pain would end faster.
It didn't work.
I swayed and fell back onto the swing, propelling it back so that it nearly hit the siding of the house. My back hit the seat.
Edward's amusement vanished. "Do you need help?"
Fighting off a wince, I sighed. "No. My legs are asleep. Give me a second. I'll be fine."
He still looked worried. I shook my head at his expression. "You know, for someone who wanted to run off to war, you sure can't take watching pain very well." On Edward's face, his apprehension didn't falter. "For God sakes, Edward. It's not like I got shot."
"Excuse me for not wanting you to face plant on the porch." Edward flashed me the grimace of a five-year-old before he recovered and his faced turned haughty. "Regardless, I have no desire to go off to war. I told you; my priorities changed."
I leaned forward and rubbed my calves, my face growing serious as I followed him back to the topic we'd abandoned earlier. "How?"
"I grew up. I learned what having a family meant. I'd do anything for them."
The conviction in Edward's voice made me relax and flash him a small, pensive smile. "They're lucky to have you."
"I'm lucky to have them."
Silence again. I swung my legs under the seat. My legs were finally awake. "I should go to bed…" I spoke slowly, giving him the opportunity to spot my reluctance.
"Right," he nodded. Something in his face was…off.
"'Night," I whispered as I sluggishly walked past him toward the door.
"Good night, Bella." His expression was sad, though not the sort that would warrant pity. By simply looking at him, I knew some deep thought was transiting through that magnificently complicated brain of his.
I stopped. I hadn't wanted to leave in the first place, but now his face anchored me to the porch, giving me no choice. I hovered over where he sat on the swing, studying his face from a new angle. When he looked up at me, his eyes were amber and searching. I'd never noticed his eyelashes before; they were long so that they tangled a bit with their neighbors. Wide-eyed and lost for words, he'd never looked more human.
"What is it?" I relaxed my face, trying to get him to confess his secret to me.
"You should go to sleep; it's nothing."
"Liar." I squinted down at him in a vain attempt to intimidate. "Fess up."
Chin lifted, he narrowed his eyes at me. "There's more than just one elephant in the room, Bella. I think for now it should stay that way."
My lips pursed as I struggled to keep my emotions in check. I backed up a step and sat on the porch railing. I still sat up higher than Edward on the swing, but I felt far from superior.
No longer could I count the topics I was trying to avoid. And I hated it. The running, the weakness, the endless duck-and-cover routine. I shocked both when I looked Edward straight in the eye and said, "Tell me."
Edward reached out his hand to touch me, but I backed up further against the rail, not wanting to be placated. Folding my arms, I glared at him.
Behind his eyes, a challenge rose. "I was changed a century ago, and it's true my priorities shifted once I ceased being human. But while I love my family and would do anything for them, I was always separate from them in many ways. My first priority was myself." He ran a hand across his face, warring with himself as to whether he should continue. "Until I found you."
My jaw was open. That I knew. Otherwise, I felt nothing but his stare and a sudden shortness of breath.
Edward leaned forward on the swing, his elbow propped on his knees. "Vampires mate differently than humans, Bella. There are things you should know. About what's happened between you and me."
I nodded profusely, trying to up my tough façade, but I couldn't process his words. Rather, I focused only on the pounding of my pulse in my temples. I had no doubt my face looked like someone had a rifle aimed right between my eyes.
Edward's sincerity wafted, and he grew almost smug. "But you're not ready."
Damn him, he was right.
"I hate that I'm not," I mumbled. "Lately, my life's been too much…just too much. I can't, I want to push forward and stop freaking about everything, but I can't right now." I bit my lip, showing every bit of the cowardice I loathed.
"I know." The smugness was gone. Edward stared at our feet. "You're not wearing shoes," he said eventually. "You should get inside."
Wordlessly, I shuffled to the door. Deflated, I muttered, "See you tomorrow."
"Tomorrow," he echoed.
I couldn't look at him as I shut the door between us. Walking over to the staircase, I kicked the first step in frustration, stubbing my bare big toe. This was ridiculous. I was ridiculous. He genuinely seemed to want me. And, while I couldn't handle saying it out loud in promises or undying declarations, I had no doubt that I wanted him, too. In what capacity, I had no idea. But we'd been apart long enough and I couldn't stop being with him. Even if I was scared or a psychotic wreck.
My fists balled. "Screw this," I whispered.
I flung open the door, planning on marching back to the swing, but Edward was standing right in front of the doorjamb. Waiting for me.
For what I did next, I could have blamed pain meds. Except I hadn't taken any. I could have said it was because I hadn't been sleeping well. But last night, for the first time in over a week, I'd slept like a baby. No, the truth was that Edward drove me crazy. In the best possible way.
Which explained why I launched myself at him, jerked on his neck, and practically climbed him like a tree. He stared down at me in shock, and I took full advantage. Instantly, my mouth was on his, my eyes closed, my hands in his hair. I kissed him to forget, to survive, to show him what I couldn't say in words or even think in my own head.
He did not kiss me back.
I let go and shoved away from him. My predictable traitor of a face turned some ghastly shade of red, and I began to stammer, "I'm so sorry. I don't know what I was think—"
Edward held up his hand. He took a deep breath, and then in a single step, one of his hands was on the back of my neck while the other lifted my chin. Without hesitation, he planted his lips back on mine. Where they belonged. His kiss was sweet but wanting. I wrapped my arms around his waist, and with extreme care, he did the same, miraculously keeping his touch weighted exactly where my body was free of gashes and slices.
When we stopped, we didn't so much break apart from each other as drift in unison. We ended up back at the swing, this time without a cushion between us.
Edward knew nothing he could say could heal me at this point. I had nothing to say to clarify what any of this meant. Instead, my feet twisted around his ankles, and we sat wound together like two shoelaces. After a few minutes, he pulled me closer to him, so that my head rested on his shoulder. I closed my eyes, stretched my arm across his chest, and pressed my cheek against forgiving cotton of his shirt. Time passed; I never knew how much.
He rocked us slowly. Occasionally, his lips would press against my head. They didn't kiss me; rather, they breathed me in, memorizing my scent and comforting me with the mere hint of their presence. At some point, Edward unsnaked his arm from my shoulders and used his fingers to brush the bare skin on the back of my neck. "It's a nice swing," he murmured.
I opened my eyes and raised my head so that could see past his chin and into his eyes. "I'm glad it's here."
In that moment, on a swing laden with unfulfilled promise, Edward was my here and now. I clutched him tighter, realizing that the vampire who drove me crazy was also the key to keeping me sane.