A/N: Sorry for the long delay in this. Stupid school was kicking my ass for the longest time and I finally found some time to sit down and get this out.

Song for the chapter – Damien Rice's "Blower's Daughter"

Skin Deep


I didn't see Bella again after I left the hospital that day. I walked out that door and I knew that there was a good chance I wouldn't ever see her again.

And yet, I had found peace. She was where she needed to be and I knew that by doing this to herself she would find the help she desperately needed. I could do all I might to help her, but ultimately I wasn't equipped to provide the kind of help she really needed. I had no training, no education in mental illness. It was clear to me that Bella was off balance and people far more prepared to deal with that problem were the ones who should take care of her now.

I wasn't relinquishing her hold over me, just accepting how things had turned out.

I felt lighter than ever.

There wasn't that same weight hanging over my head. I wasn't balanced on that knife blade anymore. There was no threat of any violence in my life anymore.

Bella never came back to her room in the dorm.

A few days after a woman looking strikingly like her but with shorter hair and kookier eyes swept in and I saw her carrying boxes of things from Bella's room from down the hall.

It must have been Bella's mother.

I'd never heard about her more than a brief mention once or twice. I may have been curious to meet the woman, but I also didn't want to intertwine my life back into Bella's anymore.

I had made my choice and I would have to live with it.

Life is a series of choices and dealing with the consequences of those choices. One choice leads to another and on and on.

They may not necessarily be the best choices, but they're ones we make.

I had chosen to leave, to be the stronger person and remove myself from the situation. I had chosen to give up and move on and I couldn't turn back.

Making the decision was the hard part for me. I always agonized over them, trying to see each path laid out in front of me and weigh the pros and cons of each. But once I made my choice, I stuck with it. I wouldn't ever turn back a choice I made. For better or worse, I always saw them through to the end.

And this choice was no different.

I wouldn't turn back and wouldn't go crawling back into a world where I would only get hurt further.

So I stayed away.

I watched as box after box of Bella's precious belongings was carried from her room and imagined what each box held. I'd touched absolutely everything in that room and I could still picture every inch of it.

For the precious time I'd spent in there, that room had become more of a home to me than any place I'd ever had.

It had become my sanctuary and my hell at the same time.

It had been my rebirth and my destruction.

I had risen from the flames as a bright and glorious phoenix.

I had emerged stronger than ever.

The room stayed empty after it was finally cleared out. It was too late in the semester for the school to find another girl to move in and in a way I preferred this. It meant for as long as I would be there, Bella would be the room's only resident.

There were nights when I'd walk down the quiet hallway and sit with my back against the wall on the other side of her door. I'd sit there in the semi darkness of the hallway at night with my knees tucked under my chin and stare at the door with that little construction paper leaf announcing to the world the room number.

Just like those nights before my entire world had changed.

Just like before I really and truly met Bella.

I didn't like to admit that I did this. It was weakness. It was a small way that I couldn't yet commit to the path in life I'd selected, the path that led me away from Bella.

But this time she wasn't on the other side of the door.

So in a way I wasn't in any danger.

At least I used that to justify what I did.

Jessica didn't mention Bella for the rest of the school year and I was thankful of that. I think she picked up on the fact that I was having trouble dealing with what happened. For as much grief as I gave her, she really was pretty intelligent. She knew when to speak up and when to stay quiet. And surprisingly we did actually become pretty good friends.

Granted I moved out of the dorms I moved into a single apartment, but we still talked and hung out together occasionally. She'd seen me at my best and my worst and she accepted me for who I was.

I made good on my promise to come out to my parents the next time I saw them.

I was home for one of my breaks and sat my parents down. I held my breath for an interminable moment after I finally said it.

"Mom and Dad, I'm gay."

I don't know what I expected their reaction to be, but of course I think I thought it was going to be bad.

Much to my surprise and good fortune, my mother's eyes softened and she leaned across the coffee table. She patted my hand and smiles sweetly to me.

"Honey, I think your father and I have known that for a long time. I'm glad you finally trust us enough to tell us."

Well, hells bells. They'd known all along. Emmett put me in a headlock and made me promise not to go after Rose. Then I managed to half kick him in the junk and he called me a she-devil. Typical Emmett really.

About six months after that I met Susan.

She was pretty and smart and level-headed. We quite literally ran into each other at a coffeeshop one day and after we cleaned our drinks off each other we got to talking.

We talked for almost four hours that first day. Six the next day.

She was an elementary education major and was pretty much the sweetest girl I'd ever met. She worked at an animal shelter in her spare time and had a passion for cooking.

A part of me was so hesitant to get into another relationship after Bella, thinking it would blow up in my face again. I think Susan sensed my hesitation. She let me take things between us at my pace, never pushing me.

She let me ask her out first. She let me lead the way when we finally got physical. And she never once discussed a future until I brought it up.

She became my new world. Her soft auburn hair tickled my face when I woke up and her cute little breasts became my new heaven.

She didn't have piercings or tattoos or anything that made her stand out from the norm and I liked that.

Susan was clean and free. Her eyes weren't weighed down and when she laughed I knew she meant it. She had a great family and I met her sister one time who also happened to go to the same college as us.

Our relationship just came easy to me. It was comfortable and welcoming, warm and hearty. There was no head games or power plays or any of that crap I'd had deal with from Bella.

And I liked it.

Matter of fact I liked it so much that I asked Susan to move in with me about eight months after we got together. We exchanged rings and talked about making a life together. We did the horribly typical and clichéd lesbian thing and got a dog together, one we picked from the local shelter she worked at.

Sure, we had fights like any normal couple, but they were nothing we couldn't resolve. There was nothing big enough to come between us.

Not even when the chapter I thought I'd closed in my life suddenly reopened.

We were just chilling out on the couch one spring afternoon. Susan was sitting upright reading a book while I laid with my head in her lap. She was gently playing with my hair in one hand with her book in the other. I had my eyes closed and was half dozing from the gentle feel of her fingers running through my hair.

The dog was fast asleep in her dog bed.

And then the doorbell rang.

"Baby, I'll get that," Susan said sweetly.

"No, it's okay. You keep reading," I replied and kissed her gently on the lips as I got up to see who was at the door.

I pulled the door open to find my past staring me in the eye.

There on our front step stood Bella in all of her fine glory. She'd kept her hair long and honestly, she looked … good. She had color in her cheeks and that dead, flat look I'd last seen in her eyes was long gone.

She looked downright healthy. Like she'd found some measure of peace in the time since I'd last seen her.

"Hey," she said quietly.

I was too stunned to say anything. My hand gripped the edge of the door and no words formed in my head.

"So the alumni association gave me your address after some sweet talking," she said to fill the silence.

"Okay," I replied blankly.

Bella brought her hand up and rubbed the back of her neck, head down and eyes averted from me.

I had absolutely no idea what to do. I'd given up so long ago on ever seeing her again, of ever knowing what became of her that there had been no room for even fantasizing.

She brought her head up and gave me another version of that half smile from so long ago, though this time it wasn't a predatory one. It was a sweet and friendly one.

"I just wanted to say thank you, Alice. Without you I would never have realized some very important things about my life and I don't know if I'll ever be able to thank you enough," she said and fidgeted with her hands.

"Oh, Bella," I sighed.

"Baby?" I heard from behind me and felt Susan come up and wrap her around my waist, resting her head on my shoulder.

Her arms incrementally tightened for a second when she saw Bella there in front of me and I squeezed her hand to let her know that everything was okay.

For a brief moment I saw something flicker across Bella's face, maybe disappointment and maybe something else.

Susan kissed the side of my head and Bella's smile fell a bit. Anybody who didn't know her wouldn't have noticed the difference, but I saw it there.

I think she expected me to take her back.

Unfortunately I'd moved on. To that person who really did love me without all the pretentious crap. Someone who loved me for me unconditionally.

And I loved that someone back. Susan was my life, my world, my everything. And I was hers. I wouldn't ever do anything to damage that. I wouldn't ever put that in peril.

I loved Susan with every fiber of my being and I would never question that.

"Bella," I sighed again.

Bella's hand came up to her face and she tucked a loose strand of hair behind her ear.

"I really should be going. I just wanted to say thanks again, Alice," Bella smiled briefly again and then turned to leave.

I didn't stop her.

She disappeared back out of my life as quickly as she'd reappeared.

I quietly closed the door and turned in Susan's arms.

"Who was that?" Susan whispered against my lips, her big hazel eyes looking into mine.

"Someone who taught me how to love you," I answered.

"Then I owe her a big thanks," she smiled and pressed her lips to mine.

In the end it seemed that Bella had been so much more than a dangerous fling. She'd taught me so many things and shown me what it really meant to love someone. It didn't have to be hard or painful.

It could simply just be.

And that's all I really could ever ask for.

A/N #2: Thanks for all the support during the writing of this story. I really appreciate it. If you haven't already done so, please add me to your author alert list if you're interested in receiving notices when I post new things. I have another story brewing in my head, one that will return me to my epic Edward/Bella stories. Unfortunately I don't know when I'll be able to start it, but rest assured that it will happen eventually.

Thanks again and I hope you've enjoyed reading Skin Deep as much as I've enjoyed writing it, even if it did take forever.