5. Safe As Houses
The concrete looked warmer this time.
Edward cocked his head to the side as he opened the door to his flat, dim light flooding the room from a single lamp next to the couch that he'd left burning. How concrete managed to appear of any certain temperature was well beyond any reasoning, but, alas, it was so.
Letting his eyes fall to the brunette beside him, he smiled, gesturing with a hand that she enter before him. Her presence warmed everything in proximity, it seemed.
"'S not much, but... 's home," he mumbled, shrugging as he slid off his pea coat. He flung it over the arm of the couch, then lifted his hands from behind her, gingerly brushing his fingers against her shoulders. "May I?"
Bella blinked for a moment, then quickly nodded and dropped her courier bag against the wall, biting her lip as she let him slide her simple black jacket down her arms. "Thanks."
He didn't reply as he tossed the jacket to join his over the sofa arm, then shuffled toward the kitchen. "Can I get you a cuppa, ducks? Or coffee, perhaps?"
She turned to watch him as he made his way into the small kitchen opposite his modest sized living room, smirking.
Ducks. She'd heard Emmett say it a few times, but as strange as the expression was to her, it sounded sugary and musical in Edward's golden voice. Perhaps it was just the flutters that ignited in her stomach every time he addressed her with an endearment. Breaking from her thoughts, she realized he'd asked her a question. Her dark brows drew together. "A cuppa... what?"
"Mm?" He glanced over his shoulder to her as he flicked on his faucet. "Oh." Edward snickered then, holding a steel kettle beneath the stream of water. "Tea, love. You've been here how many months, an' you've never heard the word?"
She chuckled, rolling her shoulder into a sheepish shrug. "I suppose I never got to mingle enough with the locals to get to that intimate 'cuppa' stage. Laurent keeps me pretty busy." With slow steps, she followed his path into the kitchen, her eyes roaming over the environment. She could still see the worn couch from the cut-out on the kitchen wall that divided it from the living room, and the top of a dusty wood-framed television set just below its ledge. The upright piano blocked a portion of the view from beside the TV, and on the far wall she could see a record player and a few milk crates full of various items crammed in a corner; records and CDs, from what she could tell.
"I'll bet," he muttered, amusement and something else she couldn't identify in his tone. "Seems like quite a busy bloke, himself."
"You have no idea," she sighed, humor coloring her response. "And yeah, tea sounds nice. How long have you lived here?"
He set the kettle on the counter, and turned around with a thoughtful expression as he twisted a knob on the stove. There was a soft hiss, followed by the striking of a match as he ignited the gas on one of the burners. The place obviously hadn't undergone any major renovations in at least a decade. "Four years now, I s'pose. Emmett used to live here before he could afford a bigger place. Now he's got a decent flat not too far from here."
Placing the kettle on the burner, he sent her a glance before darting his eyes away. He liked his place, felt no shame in it, but it occurred to him that she'd probably become accustomed to posh living in Westminster. He probably should have at least dusted the old telly off.
However, she hadn't seemed terribly put off, thus far. Since they'd stepped out of the pub and slowly sauntered around the building to the metal stairs at the back that led up to the flat, he'd been observing her meticulously. Her eyes were alight with that curiosity he was rapidly growing affection for, an innocence sparkling there as though every experience was her first. It quirked her plush lips in a way reminiscent of Mona Lisa, so slight that it appeared as natural as one's usual demeanor. He feared his heart would break at the very idea of seeing those lips reflect anything but joy. He wondered if a thing of such beauty had ever truly witnessed pain or grief, for the perpetual radiance she seemed to carry.
His gaze found her face again. Those eyes, those lips, then down to those fingers as they tugged absently at the ends of her sweater sleeves. Oh, the things he could imagine with those delectable parts of her, the way he predicted her delicious grosgrain voice could hitch and gasp, his name dancing on the sounds.
Quite suddenly, he realized his lungs badly needed air, and he carefully drew in a breath, so as not to alert her to his disposition with an unwarranted gasp.
Bella didn't notice. She let her gaze wander over the sparse kitchen. Stove, sink, refrigerator, and two square feet of counter space. There was a lovely rack of stainless cookware hanging above the stove, however, and she tilted her head as she observed its quality. All expensive items, she could tell immediately, and with a homey degree of wear. Suddenly, she felt the urge to ask him if he could cook, too, to go along with his laundry list of artistic talents. She opted to smile instead. "I like it here."
"Here... you mean London, or... here, here?"
Bringing her eyes back to his face, she noticed he looked a little nervous, and she offered a smile. "Here, here. It's warm and cozy. Reminds me a little of home. It's not cold like that gaudy place in Westminster." Her smile widened when she saw the tension melt from his face. "It's inviting."
With a soft laugh, Edward nodded. Inviting was the word he'd thought of her when he'd seen her in the pub earlier. "Glad you like it. Have a seat in the parlor, if you want. Get comfortable."
Nodding, she wandered back to the living room and fell onto the couch, her head leaning against the plaid blanket that draped over the back. From here she could see the front of the piano and the TV, which had a noticeable layer of dust over its screen. She could also see Edward through the cut-out above, his back toward her as he fished through a cupboard for something. Cups, she noted, watching the muscles shift in his back as he set the cups on the counter, lines distinct with every move that he made, even through the black t-shirt he wore.
Heat instantly flooded through her entire body. Oh, dear.
It was then she remembered her curiosity of whether or not he was covered in tattoos, and she let her eyes slide to the visible skin of his arms.
There. Just beneath the ends of his sleeves, she could see the edges of a tattoo of some kind on both arms when he moved certain ways. The ink seemed to wrap nearly all the way around his biceps, and she instantly craved to see the quarter-sleeves he was hiding under there, and the taut muscles that bore them.
Her pulse quickened at the idea.
"I know you Yanks like it straight, but can I offer you cream, love?" His voice rang like lovely wooden chimes.
Nearly there already. She cleared her throat to break up the vulgarity that had involuntarily flooded her thoughts. "That would be nice."
Naturally, her eyes didn't leave his form as he finally came toward her, a cup in each hand, one of those lean arms outstretched in offering. She accepted it gratefully, the distraction of having something to do with her hands welcomed.
"Put a spot of honey in there," he commented, his eyes locked on her as he took a seat beside her. "Hope you don' mind. 'S better that way." He shrugged, earning a smile from her.
"I don't mind at all," she replied, another surge of warmth washing over her as she saw his face break into a returning grin. How people didn't constantly trip over themselves in the presence of such a smile was nearly shocking to her. Everything else in the room vanished, and there was only that face bejeweled with glimmering absinthe eyes and gleaming white teeth. Reactions such as these just didn't exist in her atmosphere. There was very little she knew about him. So little, in fact, that the question that slipped past her lips suddenly was a surprise to even her. "What's your last name?"
Edward blinked, turning his head to face her more fully, his expression inquisitive at her unexpected question. He almost laughed as he watched her face flicker from flustered to moderately satisfied, as though deciding it wasn't a wholly inappropriate question. "Cullen."
"Edward Cullen," she said, trying it on for size. The words fit nicely on her tongue. "It suits you."
Edward had noticed just how well he liked the fit of his name on her lips, as well, and tried to shrug off a shiver. "'S very... British," he shrugged, taking a sip from his cup and setting it down on the end table at his side. "Jus' like me, I reckon."
She snickered, shaking her head as she brought her cup to her lips, watching as his form slid languidly down from the couch and knelt before a milk crate of records. The view was enough to leave her momentarily breathless, once again met with the visage of the sharp lines of his back muscles.
"But thanks," he continued, pawing through the records. "Anyway, what's yours, love?"
The cup at her lips, her voice muffled, she quietly replied, the word distorted and inarticulate as a result of her instant distraction. "Swan."
Turning to look over his shoulder at her, he grinned crookedly. "Sorry, didn' quite catch that. Did you say Swine?"
She nearly sputtered out the tea, but managed to swallow before she broke into a snicker. "No, I did not say Swine."
"That's a relief," he muttered, turning his attention back to his vinyl collection with his grin spread wider. "I was afraid I'd have to tell you how much yours suits you, as well."
"I'm glad you think so highly of me," she shot back, playfully. "It's Swan."
He looked at her again, introspectively this time. "It really does suit you." He considered this statement a moment more. "'S a little... romance novel-ish, innit?"
Bella chuckled. "There's a reason I don't talk to my parents anymore."
An eyebrow shot up, and Edward's gaze didn't waver for a good five seconds before he let go of the curiosity that lingered on his tongue. No doubt there was a story there, and the words struck him in an oddly familiar way, though he still communicated with his parents. If rarely, anyway.
Instead, he offered a nod and a smirk, as though acknowledging she'd been kidding about her reasons. Shuffling once more through his records, his brow furrowed. "This is the second time this has happened."
Bella blinked, her head tilting as she watched him. "What's that?"
"I can' figure out what to listen to." He sat back onto the floor from his crouched position, turned slightly to face her. "It probably seems insignificant, but..."
He faltered over his words, aware of how crazy he was about to sound. Probably right off his nutter. Then again, she'd shown nothing but interest and objectivity despite his tangential ramblings to her throughout the short duration of their friendship.
She was looking at him with rapt attention, silently urging him to continue.
"I've always, for the last ten years, come home an' known exactly what it was I wanted to listen to," he explained, drawing his words out carefully. "'S the first thing I do. Usually somethin' classical or baroque after a long day, or maybe The Sex Pistols or The Clash when I'm tryin' t' get my blood flowin' again. But I always knew the minute I walked in." He paused to take in her expression, seeing nothing but eagerness written in her small, encouraging smile. Drawing in a breath, he looked back to the crate of vinyls, gesturing with a flick of his hand. "When I walked you home that morning, I came back here, an' I had no bloody idea. I settled on Bob Dylan, of all things, an' realized I hadn' been in a mood to listen to Bob Dylan in... a long time. An' now... 'm not sure again."
As he turned his jade gaze back to her, Bella realized that there was significance to this, and it hit her with great sobriety. And familiarity, she recognized with a degree of subtle shock.
Bob Dylan had little to do with it, she knew. Bob Dylan was simply the amalgam of all things that represented new feelings; the wrench thrown into the gears of routine.
Like her, Edward hadn't experienced a reason to externally stray from such routine. Things had become mundane, uniform; souls damned to walk a lower plane, amongst faceless drones, that lacked intimacy, intensity, and feelings beyond muted resentment that there was no place, no one in the world that quite got it. Or perhaps they were the simply two of the few that refused to compromise their integrity for the sake of blending in, and they paid the price for it, emotionally.
Swallowing, Bella set down her cup beside the lamp on the other end table and slid down to the floor on her knees. Slowly, she crawled the three feet that separated them and smiled. "Let me help, then."
Edward watched her as she began to flip through the albums, his breath catching each time she would flick a glance up at him, or when her lower lip would tuck between her teeth like she was in some form of internal debate. When she smiled suddenly, he nearly keeled over, staggered by the instantaneous compulsion to reach out and touch her lips, to experience the warmth of that smile's inherent sunlight.
"This one," she said, sliding the chosen record out of the crate and displaying it to him.
The smirk that reached his lips was involuntary. "Moondance," he agreed with reverence. "Van Morrison's always safe as houses, yeah?"
She laughed softly at the expression. "Into the Mystic gets me every time I hear it, and I've heard it... well, a lot." Her tone was indicative of deep-laden affection, a memoir that had grafted itself deeply under her skin. "I haven't listened to it in a long time, though."
"Like me an' Bob Dylan," he chuckled, tilting the jacket so the record slid cleanly out into his careful fingers. With the utmost delicacy, he held the record by its edges and got upright to his knees, gently placing it onto the turntable.
The tattoo edge that laced his left bicep had a vibrant red, multi-layered background in an abstract weaving pattern, she could tell from her up-close and personal view as he fiddled with the record player. It was intricate, with clean, consistent lines that never wavered in thickness, and she knew enough about the art to know that this was the hand of someone very skilled. Inwardly, she wished his sleeve would inch up just a little more so that she could tell what the art depicted, what focal point he'd chosen for life-long representation. She wondered if he regretted his choice now. There was altogether too much to wonder about, too much to fill a single evening with him. More time. She'd need lots more time.
The silence was broken with the quiet strains of an acoustic guitar, soulful in its resonance, even detectable through the way the musician's hands finger-picked the strings as though the instrument was the love of his life.
He'd skipped right to Into the Mystic. The appreciation revealed itself in a slow smile, and then he was before her, his face no more than a foot from hers, the milk crate of records between them.
"You know," she spoke up again, unaware that her face was tilting infinitesimally closer, "your ...er, accent is... well, different than it was the first night."
Chagrin flitted over his face for a moment, and he reluctantly nodded. "I should apologize for that." Pausing for a moment, he lowered his eyes before looking back up to her with reconsideration. "Well, for the inadvertent misleadin', I mean. My mum and dad raised me in a very... proper household, but I was the middle child, yeah? I ended up leavin' home for a few years, spent most of my teen years 'round the gutter punks and the hooligans, as they put it." A small laugh trickled up his throat, and he shook his head as he remembered the disgust from his parents, the disdainful way they'd spat the word hooligan at him like it had pained them to do so. It was amusing in retrospect.
"The speech stuck," he continued, "but... I have these ingrained habits, y'know? 'Be polite and articulate, especially around proper company' and all that arbitrary... rubbish." He shrugged, distaste tarnishing the word as though he simply couldn't think of a more fitting expression. Blinking a few times, he let his eyes linger on hers. "I sometimes don' realize I still do it, but if 'm not doin' it now, I s'pose that only means I find myself comfortable around you."
Bella smiled, involuntarily inching closer, drawn in by the humor that glimmered in his eyes. "Safe as houses?"
Taking the initiative to close the distance between them, he lifted a hand to gingerly brush her cheekbone.
"Safe as houses," he repeated, his absinthe gaze fixed on her mahogany one.
For as long as he could remember, Edward had always experienced kisses with his eyes closed. It was the way they did it in movies, the way his friends had always kissed their birds. It was a trust thing, he'd been told. Closed eyes meant one trusted the person they were kissing.
From the moment his lips brushed hers, he couldn't bring himself to close his eyes, absorbed in the way her lips parted to welcome him. He could see the fall of her chest as he stole her breath, and the way her mouth molded to the kiss. He could witness firsthand that his lips were the ones she'd chosen to grace hers with, with no modicum of uncertainty.
Bollocks to that theory. There was no lack of trust in this kiss.
It awoke his body in ways he hadn't felt in so long, and he wondered if he'd have any life left in him once they parted. After a moment of this dire deliberation, he noticed that her eyes were open to slivers, as well, and the fingers he suddenly felt threading themselves through his hair attested that she was trying to experience this sensation from every possible angle and sense, the same as he.
The crate was pushed out of their way, when and by whom, he had no recollection. Soon enough, his arms had encased her slight form around the waist, and he could feel the heat projecting from her, melding with his own developing warmth. He had a knee between hers, and she had a knee between his, trying to eliminate any unnecessary space between them.
Bella couldn't get close enough, her body beating down her rationality with a blunt object, as much as it repeated to her that this was moving way too fast. Sex was the worst possible way to start a relationship, an offering from both parties that needed to be earned, and only after intellectual and emotion values had been established. Sex too early became a bargaining chip, and usually just incurred resentment and self-doubt that it had been offered too fast.
Too fast. Too fast. Too fast.
Her lips became firmer against his, both breathing hard against the kiss, and neither minding.
Too slow. Too slow. Too slow.
Fingers clutching his thick, copper locks, Bella urged him closer, as though begging him to just penetrate her skin from head to toe, any distance too far.
Too fast. It's been too long. You're just starved from years of sexual abstinence!
Sense was slowly creeping back into her psyche, but Edward didn't seem to be willing to let her get her bearings. She instantly found herself losing all will as his tongue darted inside her mouth, playfully stroking hers.
As had happened on Tuesday, she was two inches from abandoning all well-established boundaries and standards, and ready to give herself away on this floor, on his worn living room area rug.
A sudden knock on the door ripped them both from surreality and knocked sense back in with a nearly audible whoosh.
Panting, Bella blinked rapidly as she met Edward's eyes, seeing plainly that he'd been battling with himself, too. His green orbs reflected contrition, but as the knock came again, she found herself wondering if it was solely regret for the interruption. She was about to bring it up before a voice beat her to the opportunity.
"Edward! I know you're home. Em told me you were. I need to see you."
The voice was delicate, English, upset, and unmistakably feminine. Bella tore her eyes from Edward and glanced toward the door.
"My sister," he clarified immediately, seeing her surprised reaction. Louder, he directed his words in the direction of the door. "Keep your soddin' shirt on, Alice. Give us a tick."
Focusing on Bella once more, he winced, slowly drawing himself up to get back to his feet. He outstretched a hand to aid her, as well. "'M sorry. That was right brutish of me to get so carried away."
Bella chuckled, nervously, letting him pull her to her feet. "Well, I wasn't exactly holding back."
"No," he agreed without missing a beat, amusement playing over his features as he released her hand. Bella just snickered in spite of her chagrin.
"Edward!" The voice from the other side of the door insisted.
"Oi!" He shouted back, shuffling to the door as Bella picked up her coat from the couch. "Keep a bleedin' lid on it for two minutes, would you?"
Swinging the door open, a petite young woman with stylishly cropped black hair pushed her way inside, her crystal blue eyes red-rimmed and glassy. She started when she saw Bella.
"Alice?" Edward said with sudden alarm as he saw the state of his sister, gently grasping her arm as he kicked the door closed. "What happened?"
"I'm sorry," she sniffled, turning out of Edward's hold and extending her hand to Bella. "I didn't know you had company. I'm Alice, Edward's sister."
"Bella," she replied, her brow furrowed in concern as she shook Alice's hand. "Are you... alright?"
"You're American!" the lovely pixie-like woman exclaimed, clearly delighted with that fact, despite the tear stains that marred her porcelain skin. Then the thought seemed to draw her depression back in just as suddenly. She cleared her throat, sending a watery smile toward the other woman. "How do you know Edward?"
"The pub," Edward quickly replied, drawing Alice back to face him with a light tug to her arm. "What's the matter, Al?"
Alice's eyes flickered quickly toward Bella, then back to Edward, despair etching itself onto her pretty features. "He's coming back, Edward. He's coming back to London, after all this..." She broke off to gasp raggedly.
Before Edward could work out who Alice was talking about, Bella slipped past them toward the door. "I should leave you two. It was nice to meet you, Alice." She offered a genuinely sympathetic look. "I hope everything's alright."
"You have to go?" Edward blurted out, momentarily forgetting his little sister's distress.
"Please don't," Alice piped in, bringing a crumpled tissue to her nose. "You don't have to. I really didn't mean to interrupt. It's really nothing, anyway. I'm just overreacting, I'm sure."
Bella was already shaking her head in disagreement. "No, really. I should go before Rosalie starts worrying, or before I do..." Something I really shouldn't, she finished internally, deciding it wasn't the best thing to say in front of Edward's sister.
Clearly, Edward had been able to mentally complete her sentence, as well, and shame clouded his face.
"Bella..." He wanted to apologize again, and talk out what had just happened, but he knew he was already in for the Spanish Inquisition with Alice witnessing as much as she had, as it was.
"It's okay, Edward," she whispered.
He swallowed, opting for another topic. "Will I see you again?"
A warm smile quirked her lips, and she looked at him levelly. "Of course, don't be silly. Wasn't planning to disappear. Here." Quickly, she snatched her courier bag from against the wall and ripped a piece of paper and a pen from it. After a brief scribble, she took his hand, clasping it as she shoved the shred of paper in his palm. "You can call me anytime."
Relief that everything hadn't completely been completely buggered washed over him, and he lifted her hand to his lips, placing a soft kiss on her knuckles. "I will, then. Be safe, love."
"As houses," she sang, playfully winking as she trod out the door. "Goodnight. Goodnight, Alice."
"Nice to meet you, Bella!" Alice called after her just before the door shut. Her drama temporarily forgotten, she turned a sharply arched ebony brow to her older brother, a devious smirk on her pearl-pink lips. "And who, dear brother, is that?"
Huge thanks to my beta, TwilightMomofTwo, who works diligently to keep me consistent, and corrects my stubborn lack of proper comma usage. And... TMoT, is it weird that I keep thinking all of Edward's speech should be spelled in British English, too? Like... realise instead of realize? Lol.
Also... alright, kids, I'm not a review-ransomer... I think that's a manipulative way of getting people to kiss your ass, and it doesn't sit right with me when I see people do it. Makes me NOT want to review. Reviews are completely inorganic that way.
However... I do want to express that I really do appreciate feedback. It's good for a writer to know strong points and weak points, and if things are going well on a conceptual level—i.e. Does everything make sense in the story, or am I being too vague? Or perhaps I spell things out too much? It's helpful to know.
I got two reviews for the last chapter. I am very thankful to those that composed them, as they know, since I replied in length. Heh. But the lack of feedback was a little disappointing, if you want honesty. Doesn't mean you're obligated to review. Of course you're not. I just think it's probably my responsibility to emphasize that I do really take feedback seriously, and I'd like to hear what you—the demographic—think.