CHAPTER TWENTY

THE MEANING OF LIFE


The shrill whistle of my cell ringtone woke me the next morning at just a little past four. Swearing, I groped for the phone and flipped it open, too groggy to be polite.

"What the hell do you want?"

There was a moment of silence before a muffled sob issued from the other end. I checked the caller ID: it was Rosalie.

I shot upright, tossing aside the sheets as I clamored out of bed. "Rose? I'm sorry! Are you still there? Are you alright? Rose?"

It took her a moment to answer again, and when she spoke, her voice was hoarse. "I'm at a bar, and I need you to pick me up. Can you pick me up, please? I don't want Emmett to see me."

It took a few minutes to wrestle the directions out of her, and then I was on my way, pausing long enough to throw on some clothes and tell Alice that I had to go run errands.

It didn't take too long to find the pub - it was only about a mile or two away from Rose and Emmett's apartment, and I was glad that she at least had the sense to go get herself hammered in a relatively safe neighborhood. As I parked in the lot, calling Whitlock crossed my mind, but in the end I decided against it; Rose still had a right to some privacy.

There weren't many people inside, considering the ungodly hour, so I was able to find Rosalie right away. The tension in my shoulders eased as I noticed how steady and collected she seemed, sitting by herself at the bar - she wasn't slumped over a table or sobbing on the bartender, so that had to be a good sign.

Or so I thought, at least until I got a good look at her face.

"Jesus," I breathed, sliding onto a stool next to her. "Rose, I'm here. Do you want to go now?"

She was perfectly made-up, not even a streak of mascara out of place, but she looked so goddamned sad that I felt sick. Rosalie didn't show sadness - anger, yes; dark amusement, on occasion; but sorrow? Never. Not in front of me, and definitely not out in public where anyone might see her.

Her eyes were disturbingly blank; I didn't even think she was drunk, though there was a half-empty glass in front of her. "Yes."

Taking a risk, I grabbed her hand, and when she didn't object, I knew that there was something serious going down. We walked in silence to the doors, skirting around an older gentleman who gave us a funny look as we passed by, and out to my truck. Rose got in without a word of protest, and I had to gently remind her to buckle her seatbelt before we headed back to her apartment.

Emmett wasn't home. Rose bypassed the couch and went straight into the bedroom, crawling under the covers and burying her face in a pillow. I followed tentatively, lingering by the door.

I didn't have to wait long.

"Open my top drawer," Rose said, words muffled by the comforter, "and take out the envelope."

I did as she said, gingerly sorting through piles of lacy underwear until I found a bright purple envelope that looked strangely familiar. It was still sealed, and when I flipped it over, I saw the scrawl of Rose's handwriting across the address.

Rosalie let out a bark of bitter laughter. "So much for Whitlock's miracle cures."

I remembered then: a Thanksgiving card that Dr. Whitlock had urged Rosalie to send to her mother, in the hopes of breaking the ice between parent and child. The stamped 'Return to Sender' over Rosalie's writing was a blur of red ink.

"She sent it back," Rose murmured, "without even opening it."

Slipping the letter back into the drawer, I closed it softly and came to sit with her on the bed. "Maybe it was a mistake at the post office. The address might have changed."

She didn't scoff at me, which was more worrisome than anything else. "No. It didn't. She sent it back."

There was really nothing else to say. "Do you want me to call Jasper?"

"Not now. I'll . . . I'll tell him, but not now."

I laid my hand across her back, a steady weight. "I'm sorry."

She trembled once and then sighed, twisting the sheets around herself. We sat together quietly for about an hour before she fell asleep, exhausted after a long night. I stuck around for a while longer until Emmett came home, looking frazzled and frantic.

"The shop's all closed up," he burst out, before I could say anything, "and I can't get a hold of Rosie -"

"She's sleeping," I interrupted. "She's okay, Emmett."

He let out a breath and sagged into a kitchen chair. "Thank God. She took off last night, and when she didn't come into work this morning and wasn't answering her phone, I just . . ."

"I'm sure she didn't mean to worry you." I hugged him, smiling when he squeezed my shoulders. "She'll be fine once she gets a little rest and talks some things over with Dr. Whitlock. I've got to get back to Edward now, but if you need any help or Rose needs to talk to me, don't hesitate to call, okay?"

The house was silent when I sneaked back in - Dr. Cullen had already left for work, but everyone else was still sleeping. Tiptoeing up the stairs, I looked forward to snatching a few more hours of sleep before Edward came downstairs for our talk. I hadn't had much of a chance to process everything that had happened last night so hopefully he would be dead to the world until at least seven o'clock.

As always, Edward surprised me: he was sitting on my bed when I came in, curled in on himself with his head buried on his knees. He was rocking back and forth slowly.

Oh, God, not another panic attack. I just couldn't catch a break today.

"Edward?" I whispered, not daring to touch him in case he flipped out on me.

He stopped swaying at once, jerking up to stare at me. It took a moment for him to react, but when he did, I was almost knocked over by the force of his hug.

I froze up. He'd touched me before, but never had ventured anything more than holding my hand or tapping my shoulder. I didn't know what to do with an armful of panicked Edward, and I might have called for Alice if he hadn't let me go almost at once.

"Bella, you're okay!" His voice cracked a little.

I cleared my throat. "Yes, I'm okay. Why wouldn't I be?"

He blinked. "We were going to talk this morning. Early. I came down here, and you were gone, and your truck was gone, and I thought maybe after last night . . . " He trailed off. "Well, you're here now."

"I had an errand to run - Is something wrong?"

"I should be asking you that," he interrupted, eyeing me with the air of a man taking inventory. His gaze lingered on my neck; I shifted uncomfortably. "Are you hurt at all?"

"Why wouldn't I be?"

"No one tried to . . . bother you?"

"Of course not. There's no one else in the house, Edward. I'm fine, really."

An all-too familiar twist of stubbornness appeared on his face.

"I swear I'm okay," I sighed. "No one even approached me. It doesn't . . . " I stuttered to a halt as he leaned over and began unfastening the buttons on my blouse.

"Edward!" I tried to jerk away but he held on tight, his hands determined and surprisingly strong. He peeled the fabric apart and peered closely at my exposed throat. I stopped struggling when I felt his warm fingers brush against my collarbone, caressing the sensitive flesh as he skimmed his hands up my neck to the base of my ears. I was breathless, focusing on the intense sensation, and my eyes drifted shut as he drew his fingertips lightly along my nape and down again . . .

The tender stroking stopped, and my eyes shot open; Edward was leaning back against the headboard, looking perplexed but satisfied.

"What -" My voice cracked, and I cleared my throat and tried again. "What are you doing?"

"Checking," he said simply, reaching out to re-button my shirt.

I was flushed and hot, and his terse reply only flustered me more. I slapped his hands away and finished the task myself, my fingers fumbling clumsily with the buttons. "Checking for what?" I demanded.

"It doesn't matter." He averted his eyes politely from my chest.

His evasiveness infuriated me. "Edward, that's not good enough. You just invaded my personal space and embarrassed me, and I damn well deserve to know why!"

Edward's eyes flashed angrily at my rebuke, but after a grudging silence, he mumbled, "Bite marks."

I gaped at him. "Bite what?"

"I was looking for bite marks." His chin was tilted up defiantly, but he wouldn't meet my eyes.

"While I appreciate your . . . concern, I'll have you know that my sex life is absolutely none of your business."

"That's not what I meant," he snapped. All at once the fight seemed to drain out of him, and he curled back into the pillow. "You don't understand."

"You're right, I don't understand," I admitted, fighting to keep myself calm, "but I might if you explain it to me."

"I can't." His jaw clenched tight. "In the future, I'll keep my nose out of your private affairs, I assure you."

"Oh, for the love of God . . . " I cut myself off before I said something hurtful. It wasn't Edward's fault - it wasn't even Edward talking right now. The delusions were in control. I took his hand cautiously, rubbing my thumb soothingly along his palm. "I hope someday you'll trust me enough to tell me the truth," I whispered.

He hesitated. "I do trust you. It's me I don't trust." His grip tightened on my fingers. "Will you stay with me, for a little while?"

"I always will."

I kept his hand in mine, filled with the bittersweet affection I felt for him- Edward was my friend, a patient, Alice's brother, an enigma, and in some small way, I had come to love him. This was us, sitting together in quiet harmony, confiding friends, a system of support when we both needed it most. This was what we were.

I should have known that it would all go to hell.


The voicemail from Dr. Whitlock was short and unusually brusque. Extra hours spent at the clinic were always welcome, but a curt demand to report to his office on a Saturday when I wasn't scheduled in for another week was unsettling. I'd heard of him using unusual techniques to shake up his students so I steeled myself for whatever he had in store and stepped into his office.

Everything looked in order. The room was immaculate, the furniture in its usual arrangement, Dr. Whitlock seated in his customary fashion behind his desk, etcetera, but it was pretty apparent that this wasn't some sort of unorthodox teaching method.

"Bella, I apologize for calling you out on a weekend, but a situation recently came up that required immediate attention." There was a detached quality to the doctor's voice that instantly put me on alert; he used it on his patients when he delivered particularly bad news. I sat down, needing to feel the solid support of the chair underneath me.

"Yes?"

He glanced down at his folded hands and then up again, his light eyes piercing and direct. "I'm taking you off Rosalie's case."

My breath hitched, and I stared blankly at the doctor, struggling to understand what he'd said.

But he wasn't done: "I have been concerned with your personal involvement with Rosalie and her family from the start, and it has escalated too far for me to ignore it. I was informed by Dr. Banner - one of my own colleagues - that you were with Ms. Hale at a local bar a few days ago. I'm sure I don't need to tell you how inappropriate that is. Do you have any explanation?"

I scrambled for the right words. "There . . . I think I know what happened. I mean, if this happened on Thursday night, I can explain. There was a situation with Rosalie -" I broke off, wondering if she had talked to the doctor at all.

"Ms. Hale told me about her mother's letter, if that's what you're referring to." His frown deepened. "Am I correct in assuming that she called you?"

"Yes."

"And you didn't think that it might be in Ms. Hale's best interest to call me instead?"

"I . . . no, I guess I -"

"And it never occurred to you that accepting a personal phone call and then going out to collect Ms. Hale by yourself was a violation of proper client protocol?"

"I didn't think of that at the time."

"So you deny that this is not the first instance in which you've fraternized with Ms. Hale beyond the appropriate scope of this office?"

"Fraternized? I . . ."

"Please answer the question, Bella."

I swallowed thickly. "No, I don't deny it. I consider Ms. Hale a friend, and I've met with her outside of the office."

Dr. Whitlock sighed. "Whether you intended to or not, you concealed your personal relationship with Ms. Hale from me; you broke the terms of your contract and violated my trust. You will not longer attend sessions starting this week."

I couldn't breathe. "Y-you . . . you're taking me off the program?"

"I'm not taking you off the program, but you will be transferred to another patient," His eyes narrowed, "provided that you respect our professional boundaries, and Ms. Hale's. What you choose do to outside these walls is entirely at your discretion, but you are not to approach Ms. Hale inside them. Have I made myself clear?"

"You have," I croaked.

His face was hard, cold. "You are never to seek out personal contact with a patient, or the patient's family while in the company of the patient. You are never to ask for personal information or volunteer personal information of your own. You are never to arrange meetings outside of this office, or accept telephone calls or text messages or any sort of communication without contacting me for permission first. You are never to put your problems before those of the patient regardless of what the patient invites you to say or do, and you are never, never to keep information from me. Is that understood?"

I tried to say yes, but all that came out was a sob.

"Now that you are aware of the rules, I expect you to obey them; you should have been familiar with them from the start, considering how qualified you were purported to be." He sighed, and his tone gentled. "You've shown me that you have potential, Bella. I have faith that you will learn from your misjudgments and that is why I've decided to keep you on, but make no mistake: if you overstep your boundaries again, I will remove you immediately from this office. Consider yourself on probation."

Numbness was stealing up in my chest. I nodded, incapable of speech.

"I'm glad we understand each other." He held out his hand. "Give me your notes, please. All of them."

Trembling, I pulled my notebook from my bag and laid it on his desk.

"Thank you. You may go now, Bella. Lauren will contact you tomorrow with your new schedule." He looked at me once, impassive, before waving me away.

I left in silent numbness, somehow managing to make it through the office door and down the street to my truck before I broke apart.


Chapter End Notes:

Oh, my God - I am so very sorry that I was AWOL for such a long time. RL really hit me over the head with a shovel these last few months, and things have finally slowed down enough for me to return to Atticward's ongoing drama.

I'll be amazed if anyone is still following this, but thank you so much for being patient with me, and a special thank-you to those of you who kindly checked on me to make sure I was still alive. :)

This chapter isn't the best one to make a comeback with, but the action will pick up again very soon. Thanks for reading, guys!