A/N – Welcome, welcome, one and all to the happy, fluffy world of TPAP. You'll find no real angst or heartfail here – it's just not my style. I own no part of Twilight; neither the Twi nor the Light are mine. Stephanie Meyer has it all, and I'm just playing in her sandbox. Ready? Read!
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Past is Prologue
I'm beginning to think this might have been a huge error in judgment.
When Alice originally suggested we take a break from city life and leave unbearably humid, sticky, smelly New York City for her hometown in northern Washington, it had sounded like a perfect plan. I knew she was promoting the notion not so much because of the weather, but because she couldn't stand to see me keep freaking out over the Jake thing. I let her talk me into it anyway, and played along, because if I couldn't make myself happy, at least I could make Alice happy. And making Alice happy was really the next best thing to my own joy, because she was the fiercest friend I'd ever had – more a sister to me than any woman I could imagine claiming as a bona fide relative.
We were complete opposites in every regard, a fact which drew the attention and teasing of everyone we knew. Where I was more than a little reserved and enjoyed living in the fantasy world of literature, Alice was completely in-your-face and so full of life and energy that when we were first paired up as roommates at Columbia, I was so overwhelmed and exhausted after our first afternoon together that I slept like a coma patient for fifteen straight hours. That was also the morning I discovered I had no real use for my alarm clock, because Alice simply stuck her super-perky face in my unconscious one and chirped "Wake up, sleepyhead. It's 7 AM and your coffee's getting WAY cold! I made pancakes, but I don't think I did it right, because pancakes aren't usually full of holes like swiss cheese, are they? Mine kind of look like two-dimensional donuts."
So wrong. But she meant well – Alice ALWAYS means well – so I sucked it up and dealt. And did all of the cooking from that point onward.
Our first year as flatmates in East Campus was so successful that there was no question we'd move on to our own apartment for sophomore year. In her inimitable way, Alice found a completely amazing two-bedroom in the most beautiful brownstone on Riverside. She said she'd made a deal with the landlord and got the place for a steal, but Alice knew I'd never be able to afford more than a few hundred a month for rent, and I suspect she just did some kind of dirty deal with Landlord Larry, paying the extra cash on the q.t. to make up the difference. That was another great thing about her: her family was loaded, but she went out of her way to avoid making me feel like a charity case.
She majored in Art History, moving on after graduation to snag a great job as a buyer at Bergdorf, while I stayed on at Columbia and followed up my B.A. in Creative Writing with a Masters in English. I landed a position teaching undergrad intro courses at Hunter College through a connection and settled into a groove there, forcing myself to swallow my natural shyness and share my love of literature with the freshly-scrubbed faces in front of me.
Everything was great – I had a job I loved with a decent-but-not-dreamy salary, Alice and I spent our weekends crawling around the city with friends, and I woke up every morning to the sound of the pushy little sprite chattering me into the start of a new adventure. She dressed me up in bargain Bergdorf style, and I played wingman when her enthusiasm for the wrong boys threatened her health and/or safety.
Then I met Jake, and it all started to unravel.
Jake was a grad student at Hunter, two years younger than me and so cute it was almost cruel. I was sitting in the cafeteria at Hunter, munching on a grilled cheese sandwich and grading essays between classes, when Jake slid into a seat at my table and plonked his tray down in front of him. I didn't immediately look up for several reasons: in the first place, it wasn't unusual for strangers to sit together here, because there were always too few tables and too many hungry people; and secondly, I was completely befuddled by one of my student's essays and trying desperately to determine whether it was in fact written in English and not some obscure bastardization of Swahili in Gregg-Pitman shorthand. I'd never seen so many strange sentence fragments.
"Hey – whatcha reading over there? You look totally confused," a voice said.
"Uhm, it's either an essay on Joseph Conrad's 'Heart of Darkness' from one of my students, or a very interesting attempt on the part of a zoo animal to send a written message of distress to a kindly human," I answered, looking up and smiling. Jake grinned back in answer, introduced himself, and started asking me about my courses and how I got into teaching. We fell easily into conversation – a rarity for me – and when I finally left the table, I realized that I'd spent a whole 45 minutes chatting to a cute guy without once feeling strange or awkward. Clearly, I needed to investigate further into the reasons why I was able to do that.
Jake didn't ask me out for almost three weeks. I wasn't sure if it was because I was a little older than he was, or if he was waiting until he felt he knew me well enough to risk it, but curiously, I never doubted that he'd actually ask. God, it felt amazing to not worry about how I was coming across to someone and to not drive myself insane wondering whether or not they were into me. Jake was clearly into me in a big way, and that power went straight to my head – I freely admit it. I was totally drunk with power, and the result was that I flirted shamelessly, teased him with complete nonchalance, kissed him with reckless abandon, and had sex without a second thought. He was great in bed and he knew it, and because I wasn't super-emotional or nervous about the whole thing, for once I actually just turned my brain off and enjoyed the whole experience. I wasn't thinking, period. Bella no esta en casa. And it was awesome – for the first time ever, I felt great about myself. I felt sexy, and attractive, and, well, superior.
And then one day, about a month after we'd started sleeping together, Jake just stopped calling.
At first, I thought maybe he was called out of town or something. I gave it a few days, and then called him. I got voicemail, and didn't leave a message until the second time I called. No response.
After a week had passed without any contact from him at all, I was really getting worried. I walked past his apartment, which was clear across town from my own, and looked up at his window on the sixth floor. The light was on, but nobody answered the buzzer. Since it was spring break at school, I had to wait until the following Monday to see if he'd show up on campus.
He strolled into the cafeteria as I was finishing up my lunch. I stood at our table, my hand hovering over my backpack on the seat next to mine. His seat.
He looked over at me, and nodded briefly. Then he just walked over to the other side of the cafeteria to sit down at a booth with another guy and two girls.
Confused by his behavior, I thought back over our last date, wondering if perhaps I'd done something to piss him off, but I couldn't come up with anything. I picked up my backpack and headed resolutely over to his booth.
"Hey Jake," I said with a completely forced smile plastered on my face. Miss Casual. Miss I-Don't-Care.
"Hey," he answered, distant and chilly. "How's it going?"
"Uhm…okay?" I answered, hating that it sounded like a question. He shrugged in response. "Cool. I'll talk to you later, then – have a great day." He offered me the least sincere half-smile in the history of mankind and turned his attention back to the conversation at the table.
Unsure of what I should be doing next, I rocked back on my heels, hesitating momentarily, then shook my head and walked away.
I called Alice on her cell phone and told her what had just happened. "Shit," she fumed. "He's just ignoring you? What an asshole. How did he look?"
"Uh, he looked…I dunno, he just looked kind of…well, annoyed, really," I decided. "What the hell is that about? I mean, I don't think I did anything to piss him off. He just looked right through me as though I were blocking his view of something he'd rather be seeing."
"Hmmm," Alice responded. "I don't know for sure, but it sounds like he just went all guy weird. I hate that. I REALLY hate that."
"Al, seriously – 'guy weird'? What the hell are you talking about?"
She sighed. "Bella, this city is full of freak males. I have no idea why they do what they do, but if I'm right about him, he certainly wouldn't be the first guy to decide he'd just had enough without any particular reason. Sometimes they just turn off, like a lamp with a broken bulb, and there's no way you can turn 'em back on again. I doubt it's anything you did or didn't do. He's just one of those guys. Bastard, though. Really. My advice would be to just freeze him out unless or until he offers you a really compelling reason to acknowledge his existence."
I never got a reason from him, though. He just kind of faded away after that – I'd occasionally see him on the walkway between buildings, but we never spoke and he barely acknowledged my presence with more than a brief glance in my direction.
The whole experience left me feeling really badly about myself. Alice argued that I should be feeling really badly about Jake instead, but I couldn't shake the feeling that it was somehow all my fault. Maybe I was too cool with him? Maybe the fact that I was a little older eventually turned him off? Maybe I wasn't hot enough in bed? Maybe I bored him? The questions accumulated like cars in a foggy Florida freeway pileup until they filled my head and made me really doubt myself. And the strange part is that I didn't actually hurt about losing him, because I never loved him to begin with. What I hurt about was the fact that someone could change his mind so quickly and completely about me. I got played, and that was one thing. But I couldn't shake the fear that I wasn't worth playing for to begin with.
After a month of this, Alice had had enough. Without directly addressing anything in my life, she began to complain that the Bergdorf gig was getting boring. What she REALLY wanted to do was open up her own fashion house and design her own clothing, and even though Bergdorf's was a great learning experience, it left her no time at all to do her own thing. She also started talking about how crowded and tiresome the city had become to her. There was no space. No matter what hour of the day or night you stepped outside your door, there were always people hanging out, making noise and disturbing her peace. She missed open green spaces, and tall trees, and the calm of her hometown.
Then she started talking up Forks and how charming it was. She spun tales of a friendly, comfortable town in which people actually smiled and said "hi" to you as they passed you on the street, a place in which you never needed to deadbolt your door or lo-jack your car or grab your purse under your armpit as though it were a football and you were headed into the end zone for the game-winning touchdown. Her musings moved on to rhapsodize about the state university in Port Angeles, and how it boasted a U.S. poet laureate as a graduate along with several renowned authors. She worked her sly magic on my tired brain every day, wearing down my feeble reasons for hanging on to our current life.
I was defeated, and kind of ready for a change. And if I hated it, I was pretty sure the dean of Hunter's English department would welcome me back after a semester's absence. If I could confirm that, I'd agree to give Forks a try, provided we could sublet our apartment on Riverside and I could find a job in the university at Port Angeles. Alice yelped and nodded, getting on the phone with her mother and asking her to make a few calls to some of the faculty there. Alice's mother Esme was a fabulous artist who'd had her work shown in galleries all over the country – I was excited and more than a little proud when she sent us several paintings for our apartment, each canvas easily worth six months of my salary. They were all breathtaking, but my favorite was an oil she'd done of a young Alice in their garden on a sunny afternoon, because the painting managed to capture Alice's hummingbird energy and her absolute joy.
I knew that Alice's father Carlisle was a doctor, but didn't discover that he was Chief of Staff at UW PA General until well into my friendship with her. Both Carlisle and Esme were ridiculously good-looking – I knew that from the million photos of them that Alice had scattered all over our place. Similarly, her older brother Emmett was as handsome as the rest of his family, but oddly, he was enormous, while Alice barely reached five feet without any shoes on. Carlisle and Esme were neither freakishly short nor freakishly tall, so the contrast between the height of their children made for some truly bizarre family portraits. They were like some kind of Ford Modeling Agency circus folk.
Within a matter of three days, everything had been settled, and we were on our way to Forks at the start of July. I'd listed our apartment as a long-term sublet on Craigslist, and after a few completely unsuitable prospects, we found a nice couple who were relocating to New York as the result of a job offer – they loved our space and were quiet and clean, so Landlord Larry agreed to the sublet and we packed our stuff. I wanted to drive across country with a U-Haul, but Alice insisted that we hire a moving company and not stress ourselves, so I agreed.
When I called my mother to let her know what was going on, she pouted a little. "Why can't you just move here, Bella? I mean, the University of Phoenix is much larger, the city has so much more to offer in the way of entertainment and culture, and…and…well, it'd just be nice to have you around again, you know?"
I sighed. "Mom, you know I love you and miss you and dad to bits, but moving from one big city to another just isn't what I'm looking for right now. I'm looking forward to an escape from that – I'm not sure how long it'll last, but it's where my head is right now. Please don't be upset with me." She harrumphed into the receiver but offered no strong objection. "Just promise me you'll visit more than you do now, okay? We miss you, sweetheart."
Great. Guilt. But I wasn't going to let it get under my skin, because there was already too much going on under there, and I had no room for more conflict. I gave her my promise and told her I'd call her once we were set up in Forks.
Esme was a little put out that Alice didn't plan on moving back into her house, but understood that we really wanted some autonomy even though we were within spitting distance of Alice's childhood home. She found us a great old Victorian on a wide, tree-lined street near the center of town. The gingerbread façade was charming and friendly, and the entire house was painted in appealing shades of blue. It looked like a summer sky, and the jpegs she forwarded made me feel the first real excitement I'd felt in months. I was really looking forward to a total change – a fresh start.
We settled in quickly. Alice asked Esme to paint a mural in our large foyer, and she readily agreed. What we ended up with there was at once startling and beautiful – it was a painting of a waterfall that started at the ceiling and culminated in a beautiful lake right under our front door. The water looked so real that every time I stepped across the entryway, I felt as though I was being bathed in a welcoming hug. Esme grinned when I told her that, and said she hoped the house would prove to be a place for both of us to make nothing but happy hug-filled memories.
My first few weeks at UW Port Angeles were uneventful – I took on two undergrad courses for the summer session, both of which were well-traveled ground for me. The faculty were friendly and exceptionally well-studied; I began to look forward to our weekly meetings because we concluded departmental business fairly quickly and spent the rest of the time arguing about 19th century literature and why pre-Industrial Revolution fiction offered the reader a more complete experience than modern fiction ever could. The men all came down on the side of Hemingway, as they always did no matter where you taught. The only exception to the rule was Jasper, who was such a gentleman that he couldn't disagree with the ladies if his life depended on it. I suspect he's a closet romantic, but it might also be due to his Southern upbringing – when we were introduced, he actually "ma'am"ed me. Ma'am. For real.
Alice fixed up the top floor of our house as a design studio, and finally surrendered herself to her muse. I made the mistake of going up there once to tell her that dinner was ready, only to be dragged into the studio and forced to stand on a round platform in front of a tri-fold mirror while Alice threw a half-finished evening gown over my head and stuck me with several pins. The gown was gorgeous, though; it was a deep ruby red with a drape neck, very form-fitting at the waist and the top of the hip and flaring out gently into several languid scallops of ruby silk at the back. Although I didn't say it, even I could see that the color made my brown hair and creamy skin seem almost luminous. Predictably, Alice once again mourned the fact that I rarely let her dress me the way she truly wanted to. She had this crazy idea that I could easily be a modern Rita Hayworth if I'd only give her a few days to pull off the wardrobe.
That Sunday, we headed over to Alice's parent's house for dinner. Emmett had just gotten into town as well – Esme and Carlisle were over the moon about the fact that he'd decided to get his law degree at UW PA. Emmett had played first-string college football at Duke and planned to go pro after graduation, but a knee injury in his senior year forced him to quit and spend two years rehabbing and reconsidering. He discovered that life after jock-world wasn't so bad if he could find a job fighting for a living, and thus a lawyer was born. He could easily have stayed at Duke and secured a more prestigious degree, but chose to transfer out and attend UW PA because his high school sweetheart and fiancé Rose had a great job offer with a hot software development outfit based in Port Townsend, an easy commute from Port Angeles. Although Rose looked like a runway model, she was a die-hard computer geek with an astonishing gift for code breaking. Emmett fell hopelessly in love with her during freshman year computer lab because she called their teacher a clueless moron and managed to do it in such a way that he'd actually thanked her for it. Rose had interesting people skills.
When Rose and I shook hands, she looked me up and down in an appraising fashion. "You're the one who had some dick in New York jerk you around, right?"
"Uhm..yeah, I guess," I mumbled.
Rose snorted. "Ass clown. Give me a name and I'll make him suffer the next time I'm headed in that direction. When I'm through with him, he won't know whether to wind his watch or scratch his balls."
We eyed each other. A slow grin spread over my face, mirrored quickly in Rose's. "Rose?"
"I'm gonna hug you now. Don't freak out," I said.
Rose submitted to the hug and patted my back awkwardly. "We won't be making a habit of that, okay?"
Emmett turned his head from the television and laughed. "Don't grope my girl or I'll pound your pretty ass into a pretty pulp."
The phone on the side table started to ring. Esme called out from the kitchen to ask one of us to get it, and Alice picked up the receiver.
"Hey Dad! What's up?" Alice paused to listen to her father. "Aww, Daddy, crap – don't make me tell mom, she's going to be really ticked. It's Em's first Sunday home." Pause. "Yeah, I know. Okay, I'll let her know – what time do you think you'll be back?" Pause. "Okay, Dad – see you later. Love you – bye."
Alice made a face at the phone as she placed the receiver back into its cradle. Emmett laughed again. "Don't tell me, let me guess – he's covering the overnight for some poor slob with an actual life, right?"
Alice nodded and wandered into the kitchen to break the news to her mother. Before she could speak, Esme spun around from the counter and sighed. "He's at the hospital. He won't be back in time for dinner. God, I hate that he's so responsible – it makes me crazy sometimes. I should have married an accountant, because nobody dies if the books have to wait until tomorrow morning." She smiled, and it was obvious that marrying an accountant would only have worked for her if the accountant in question was Carlisle.
We all sat down at the dining room table and tucked into the fabulous roast. Emmett finished four slices before I'd gotten halfway through one slice, and Esme slapped his hand when he reached for a fifth slice. "Slow down and chew your food, Emmett – I didn't raise a caveman. Or, maybe I did, but I'd appreciate it if he used the teeth we paid so much money to the orthodontist for," she laughed. Alice launched into a completely grotesque story about Emmett and his braces – he'd had four rubber bands at one point, and he got really good at unhooking the bands with his tongue and shooting them onto Alice's plate at dinner. Rose countered with a story about Emmett's retainer, and how she'd accidentally taken it home from school one day, only to have her mother go through her backpack, find the case, and confront Rose about why she felt the need to get a diaphragm without consulting her parent first. I laughed so hard that tears ran down my cheeks.
We polished off two bottles of cabernet as we ate, and while I wasn't tipsy, I held my liquor so poorly that I was definitely feeling it after the second glass. Once we'd finished dinner and cleared the table, Esme packed up some roast, potatoes, and oven-roasted asparagus into several Tupperware containers, then asked Emmett if he'd drive over to the hospital to drop the food off for his father. Emmett started to whine that he was too full and tired to make the trip, so Alice quickly stepped in and offered us as an alternative. I grabbed the canvas tote bag with the Tupperware containers and after thanking Esme profusely for the lovely dinner, we said our goodbyes to Em and Rose and headed out the door.
The drive to the hospital took less than a half-hour. I wanted to wait in the car so that we wouldn't have to park, but Alice insisted I come in and check out her big-cheese father in his second home, so we parked and I headed in right behind her.
There was nobody at the central information desk, so Alice walked over to Emergency Admittance and tapped the station nurse on her shoulder.
"Hey, Alice! Long time no see," smiled the nurse. "Looking for himself, are you? He's just finishing up in Exam Three. Some idiot kid blew a little hole in his thigh with a small firecracker. Man, summers, you know? Wait over there – I'll tell him you're up front." She gestured to a waiting area with several large couches and a wall-mounted television screen. Alice and I sat down to wait.
Alice's cell phone rang – it was Esme, asking if we'd seen Carlisle yet. While Alice was chatting with her mother, I looked around the ER. It was relatively quiet, and since it was after 10 PM, there were few people milling around. A janitor mopped the floor near the automatic doors to the ambulance entrance. My eyes started to glaze over – must have been the wine. I stifled a yawn and looked up to see the doors to the exam rooms swing open, expecting to see Carlisle and complete our vittle mission.
But Carlisle didn't walk through the doors.
Instead, I found myself looking directly into the face of the most handsome man I'd ever seen.
Blinking twice, I snapped my yawning mouth closed with such force that I heard my jaw pop.
Holy Mother of Christ. Look. At. Him.
He walked over to the nurse's station with a chart in his hand. Turning his back to the waiting area, he shifted the chart from his right hand to his left, grabbed a marker with his right hand, popped the cap off with his teeth, and scrawled some notes onto the dry erase board on the wall behind the desk. Still holding the marker cap between his teeth, he turned back to face the desk and put the chart down while he recapped the marker and replaced it under the board. He plucked a pen from the pocket of his lab coat and scribbled something on the chart, leaning forward as he did so.
Completely transfixed, I stared at his face while he furrowed his brow and crossed out something he'd written. His skin was even paler than mine, and his jaw boasted a 24-hour stubble. His lips were pursed as he considered something, the lower lip jutting out slightly, and I could actually hear it beg me to bite it. His eyes were a startling, dreamy, sonnet-worthy pale green. His tawny hair ran riot on his head, making me wonder briefly if he had a lion nesting up there. My fingers itched to restore the hair to order, or possibly to create an even more demented tangle of it. His left hand came to rest at the top of the station's counter, and I shifted my eyes to peek at his long, graceful fingers as he drummed them, deep in thought.
No, really. Just – Jesus Christ. Jeeeeesus Christ. Jesus.
"BelLA! Where ARE you, woman?" Alice said loudly, apparently not for the first time within the past minute or so.
"Here. I'm here," I murmured, not turning around. "You…what?" I couldn't form a complete sentence, so that would have to suffice for her.
In the next instant, several things happened all at once. I tore my gaze from the absolute perfection in front of me to face Alice; she turned her eyes towards what had been engaging my interest, and the doors to the ER exam rooms once again swung open as Carlisle finally emerged.
I swiveled my head around again in a pretty decent imitation of Linda Blair's character from "The Exorcist". My neck instantly protested, locking firmly into place and making me gasp loudly from the sudden sharp pain.
"Ow!" I screamed, unable to transform the agony into anything remotely poetic or feminine.
"Bella?" Carlisle hurried over to my side and reached his arms out to me as tears sprang to my eyes for the second and far less entertaining time that evening. Mr. Perfect looked up as I screamed, and our eyes met for the first time. I was momentarily confused away from my pain by the look I saw on his face. He was startled, then stunned, then horrified, and finally conflicted, but as Carlisle crossed into our field of vision, he quickly dropped his gaze back to his chart, picking it up and almost sprinting back through the exam room doors.
"Bella, what happened? Are you okay?" Carlisle asked me urgently. Alice sprang up from her seat on the couch and ran forward to kneel next to me.
"My neck. I did – something – to my neck. It won't…move," I gasped.
"Let me take a look," Carlisle said. "Easy now – I won't hurt you, I promise."
He gently placed his fingers on each side of my neck and felt it very lightly. "Hmmm," he murmured. "I don't think it's whiplash, but I do think you've locked a muscle in there somewhere. Let me get an ice pack and some ibuprofen."
As he walked away, Alice put her hand on my knee. "Bel, I'm sorry. I know you're in pain right now. But what kind of hypnotic snake charming miracle did I just witness?"
"Al," I said through gritted teeth. "I can't turn my head to face you, so if you're going to grill me properly, you really need to scoot on over to my other side. And don't you DARE say anything in front of your father, or I swear to God we'll go a round or two. Clear?"
"Crystal," Alice giggled. Carlisle returned with the promised ice pack. He handed me two tablets first, along with a cup full of water and a straw. I swallowed the ibuprofen with a few painful sips of water, and then he held the ice pack to my neck for a few moments to see if it would loosen the muscle. After about five minutes, I could feel the muscle start to give, and in another minute or two, I was finally able to remove my chin from my right shoulder and gingerly manipulate it closer to its original position.
While I did so, Alice handed her father the canvas tote with his dinner. He smiled at her. "Your mother is the most fabulous woman on the planet. She knows I'd sooner lop off a limb than miss her roast." He turned back to face me again. "Ahh, Bella. There you are! Feels better now?" I nodded. "Excellent. Okay, Alice, you drive home and make sure this one doesn't move around too much. Bella, I'm going to give you a little tube of Ben Gay. When you get home, rub some on your neck and try to sleep in an elevated position tonight. You should be fine by tomorrow, but if you're not, come over to the house and I'll take another look."
Alice hugged her father and I thanked him for taking care of me. He laughed and gestured around the room. "If you're going to have an accident, this is a pretty good place for that. Feel better, honey."
I walked out to the car with Alice's arm linked through mine. "Shut up," I cautioned as she opened her mouth. "Not until we're safely in the car."
As we pulled out of the parking space, Alice shifted her eyes to mine. "Spill. That was like – I don't know. That looked suspiciously like a religious experience to me."
I rested my head against the passenger seat and sighed. "Al, that was a first for me. I have NEVER been so completely eviscerated by the mere sight of a man. I feel totally hollow. I'm a little freaked out, frankly. And my neck is killing me," I winced.
Alice lifted one hand from the steering wheel to place her index finger thoughtfully over her lips. "Hmmm…," she said.
"Do NOT – I'm telling you, do NOT say anything to your father. I will kill you dead, then get him to patch you up so I can kill you again."
She pouted for a minute, then smiled. "I promise. I won't say one word to Dad. We'll just have to figure it out some other way."
I glared at her from the corner of my eye. "Evil shrimp, I can hear your gears turning. Let it go."
Alice laughed, but didn't say another word. I grunted, crossed my arms over my chest, and began to mentally prepare for my own personal apocalypse. Error in judgment, all right.
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