A/N: Well, it's been a long winter. I'm sorry my loverlies…I've been away far too long. Thank you so much for sticking with me through such a rough time. I won't make any promises…I'll just say that Chapter 15 is in the works as well as a few others.

A quick shout out to my fellow BFFF'ers. Please check out our awesome new site at "bfffersoffanfic (dot) com" !!

I also want to send my undying love to my bestie and unofficial beta akeim (author of "To Serve and Protect"). I don't know what I'd do without your inspiration and constant kudos when I'm second-guessing my abilities as a writer. I love you girlie!!

And now…Mafiaward!!

Fallen Angels, Chapter 14:

Reputation is an idle and most false imposition

EPOV

Ok, so I'm an asshole…

I never professed to be otherwise.

I admit it. I used a bit of reversed psychology on Bella in order to ensure the ball would fall into my court…a skill I learned early on and that I can honestly say has been one of the more beneficial talents I've acquired from my gene pool.

Works wonders on Alice…

But in my own defense, my motives were anything but selfish. I did it all for her. Bella needs someone she can trust, and I may very well be the only one who can provide that.

Ok, scratch that last statement. My motives were a little bit selfish. I love seeing her smile. Sadly, it's become one of the better highlights of my day.

Yeah, I'm fucked.

I just hope I'm not lying to myself that I can see it through…

It wasn't like I was lying to her. I meant every word of what I said. I wasn't planning to kiss her again…unless of course, she wanted me to. And I hadn't banked on Perry volunteering her services…that just played out well in the scheme of things since I was going to ask her anyway.

And ok…because I know it's ridiculous to deny it…I seriously played up my injuries. But that had been all Emmett's idea, not mine. A little strategically applied stage makeup can make a huge impact…or so Jasper said quite confidently as he dabbed a few more bruises and shadows on my face to make things look "fuller, poutier, and puffier."

Yeah, I really need to have a talk with that guy…

What I definitely hadn't planned on was giving Bella a bloody nose. Christ, that really fucked me up. I mean, there I was, trying to make her see that I'd never intentionally hurt her, and I fucking nearly broke her face.

Brilliant move, Cullen…Simply brilliant.

The funny thing was that she actually took it in stride. After last night, I really thought I was a goner. But she just…shrugged it off like it was nothing out of the ordinary. That bothered me more than anything. Not to mention it had started me thinking, and that's never a good thing. Especially when my focus turned to thoughts of that asshole Jacob. If I ever found out he'd damaged even one single hair on that pretty head of hers, I'd kill the bastard.

Yeah, definitely not a good thing…for him at least.

I followed Bella through the door into the classroom, fighting the urge to sneak a peek at that tight little ass of hers…

Hey, I'm a guy, not a monk. What the hell do you want from me?

Anyway, for the record, I didn't. I kept my eyes focused on her as a whole, vigilantly watching for any signs of dizziness. She'd seemed kind of flushed after noticing the blood on her hand, and the last thing I wanted was for the girl to pass out on me. But she seemed to be doing fine, so I just let her do…well, what Bella always seems to do when I start to get all chivalrous and crap. I let her lead me around like a fucking Golden Retriever…that's what I did.

The shit started the moment we both walked through the door.

You know those nightmares where you walk into class and notice everyone is staring at you with that appalled look of shock on their faces? You look around, pretty sure they're all on crack or something until you finally realize you're standing there naked from the waist down and your little friend is standing in full salute?

Yeah, this was worse.

Bella had definitely noticed it too. She had this humiliated look on her face that, quite honestly, made me want to hit the first asshole to make a damn comment. I knew we both looked as if we'd gone a few rounds with one another in the ring, and I could handle taking shit for it. Hell, I'd even admit to the fact that I came damn close to getting the shit kicked out of me by a girl. But something told me that Bella wouldn't be so lighthearted about the whole thing.

Bella looked down at the floor as she began making her way up the aisle, letting her hair cascade over her shoulders and hide her face. And I felt really fucking lousy that I'd been the reason for it. Twenty pairs of eyes darted back and forth between the two of us until most of them finally rested accusingly on me. I raised an eyebrow, and after a second of confusion and nervous twitches, most of them returned to their hushed conversations.

Yeah, you don't want to fuck with me…or her…

I made my way to the empty seat next to Bella and hoisted her backpack over the row, setting it down next to her feet.

"Thanks," she said from behind a veil of chestnut curls, her chin low.

"Hey," I whispered, leaning over and giving her a friendly tap on the arm. "Don't let them get to you. They're just trying to figure you out."

Bella turned her head just slightly, tucking a few curls behind her ear. Even with a damn bashed up nose, the girl looked like a fucking angel. How the hell does a person do that? That's the point. They don't. Anyone else would look like werewolf chew toy.

"I look like shit, Edward," she murmured insistently. "They're all staring."

"Not anymore," I smiled, pretty damn proud of my ability to intimidate with a simple, pointed glance. "I don't think they'll be giving you a hard time about it. Anyway, don't sweat it. I think it adds a bit of mystery to your persona."

"Oh please," she said, rolling her eyes.

"I'm serious," I chuckled quietly. "And mystery radiates a great deal of sex appeal."

Bella shot me a disdainful glare. "That's the biggest load of bullshit I've ever heard."

"Think what you will," I sighed, reaching down to retrieve my history text from my bag. "I still contend that it makes you more interesting." Straightening, I plopped the book on my desk and glanced sideways, casting a sarcastic half smile in her direction.

And I'll be damned…she started to smile back. And it wasn't one of those "you are one crazy motherfucker" smiles either. It was an actual, honest to goodness smile.

At least, until the jackass walked through the door.

The guy didn't miss a beat as he strode across the front of the room and down the aisle, taking the vacant seat directly in front of Bella. I knew damn well it wasn't his usual spot. No…Black was geared up to start some more shit, and I wasn't about to let it happen. Especially not after seeing what he'd done to her last night.

I could feel my adrenaline rising as she lowered her forehead into the palm of her hand, her smile instantly replaced by a clenched jaw. She took a deep breath, trying to concentrate on the words in front of her. But I could see the slightest hint of a tremble in her fingers as she quickly turned the page.

Jacob reached down and rifled through his bag, laughing under his breath about God only knew what. I had half a mind to get up and bash him upside the head right then and there. But I didn't want to end up spending the hour in Stanley's office, effectively feeding Bella to the wolves.

I could maintain self-control long enough to get through the hour.

At least, I thought I could…until the fucker opened his fucking mouth.

"Bella Bella Bella," Jacob sighed, speaking just loud enough for me to hear. "You're looking quite lovely this morning."

Bella turned another page, refusing to give him the satisfaction of looking up. But I could see the tension increase in her shoulders.

Jacob sat up, turning in his seat to face her. He lifted his hand and brushed a lock of her hair, gripping the ends in between his fingers and tugging lightly.

"New hairdo?" he smiled. "Just for me? You shouldn't have. Really, I'm touched."

Bella slapped his hand away, still refusing to look him in the eye. The tips of my fingers were on fire. Just that one simple intrusion normally would have pushed me over the edge. But I knew I had to hold back for her sake. Beating the shit out of him now wouldn't solve anything.

I'd always been taught to never throw the first punch. That way, at least in theory, you could claim self-defense when facing a felony assault charge. Unfortunately, I usually found it hard to live by that rule and, more often than not, the asshole in question didn't even have a chance to retaliate.

Hell, it was one of the reasons I was here instead of in Chicago.

And Jacob was just getting started.

"Are we having a bad morning?" he asked, leaning in closer to her. "Don't tell me you haven't forgiven me for last night at dinner. Tell me, did you call daddy dearest? Did you cry?"

"Shut up, Jake," Bella whispered through her teeth.

Jacob leaned back slightly, then glanced over in my direction. I eyed him lethally, trying to give him a subtle hint that he was treading on dangerously thin ice. A wicked smile stretched across his face.

"Ahh, I see," he said, turning back toward Bella. "You haven't told Cullen here about you and me? You're not embarrassed, are you?"

Bella's head shot up, her eyes fierce. "There is NO you and me, Jacob. There never was. And don't think you can intimidate me into admitting otherwise."

"Funny," he snickered, raising his voice. "Could've fooled me with all that moaning. Oh Jake, don't stop. Right there. Fuck me, fuck me!"

"SHUT UP!" Bella seethed, slamming her book closed and shaking from head to toe as people began craning their necks to witness the unfolding drama.

"You know," Jacob said as he leaned toward her again, his husky voice just loud enough for me to hear. "If you want, I could slip into your dorm while Rose is out for the night. I could show you exactly what you're missing. You like being restrained, right? From the look of your face, I can already assume you like it rough."

Bella's narrowed her eyes, and I immediately shot out of my seat, kicking it about two feet behind me as the asshole followed suit. My fists tightened, cutting off the circulation in my fingers. I could hear the blood rushing through my head as I moved to strike.

"Mr. Cullen, Mr. Black," Mr. Jenks said firmly as he walked into class. "Is there a problem?"

I continued to stare him down as he looked over at him and smiled coolly. "No sir," Jacob said calmly. "I was just explaining to Edward the rules of engagement in times of war. He apparently agrees with a more direct first strike whereas I tend to favor good old fashioned diplomacy."

"Yeah, well diplomacy doesn't exactly apply when the party in question is making terroristic threats to the safety and security of an allied territory," I hissed.

"Oh, allied territory? Is that what this is?" he smiled, eying Bella iniquitously before turning his eyes back on me. "Interesting turn of events. Does Senator Swan know that his beloved daughter is mixing company with the notorious Cullen family?"

"If you're both finished," Mr. Jenks said, eying us sternly. "I would advise you to take your seats so I can begin today's lesson. Unless you would like to take this up with the Dean…"

"No, sir," Jacob said, straightening his tie and swiftly sat down. "I think we're finished here."

"Mr. Cullen?"

"Yeah, we're done," I said, taking a step back.

For now.

"Good," Mr. Jenks nodded, looking satisfied as he turned and began writing on the blackboard. "If you'll open your books to page one-thirty-two and begin copying down the terms…"

I straightened my desk, then sat down and thrust open my book, still seething from the confrontation. It was a good thing that Jenks walked in when he did. Black was about to find his bloody carcass thrown out a second-story window.

I glanced over at Bella. Her face was ashen, and her hands were still shaking as she turned the pages. I really couldn't blame her. The asshole basically threatened to sexually assault her in her sleep. Some idiot across the room suddenly dropped their book on the floor, and I swear she jumped two feet out of her chair.

What the hell had happened between the two of them to make her so damn terrified of him? I mean, sure…words and open threats alone were always a powerful method of terrorizing the shit out of a person. But this was different. There was something else behind those words that caused such a fear in her that I was surprised she didn't have a heart attack.

And to just sit there and take his shit…that was seriously not the Bella I'd come to know. Hell, I towered over the son-of-a-bitch by at least a foot and she hadn't thought twice about attacking me.

I didn't like it. Not because I felt slighted or less intimidating or anything. I just hated seeing her reduced to some scared little animal like this. Frankly, it pissed me off.

Scratch that…Jacob Fucking Black pissed me off.

Bella was still trying unsuccessfully to shrug off the confrontation. When she ended up fumbling to hold her pencil, I reached over and placed my hand gently on top of hers. Her fingers were ice cold and trembling something severe.

"I'm fine," she uttered quietly, her eyes fluttering away from looking directly into mine. "Really."

I pursed my lips, not wanting to say that it was obvious she wasn't. I had a feeling disagreeing with her would only make matters worse and discussing things would only give Jacob more ammunition for a second strike. After a minute, I nodded and withdrew my hand. She took a deep breath and went back to scribbling notes into her notebook.

"Hey," I whispered, leaning sideways and poking her with my pen. "If you want, I can take notes on whatever bullshit Jenks throws at us and you can copy them later. Give that right hook a rest, huh?"

Bella sighed, then put her pencil down. "Ok."

"Ok," I said, reaching over to give her a reassuring grasp on her shoulder.

The rest of class was, for the most part, uneventful. Jacob continued to face the front of the room. I continued to take a lot of fucking notes as I stared at the back of the asshole's head. Occasionally, I would glance over at Bella to see how she was doing. The tension hadn't left her body, although she tried hard to look as cool and collected as she could. Somehow I knew that was for my benefit more than her own.

When the bell finally rang and Jenks dismissed the class, I was kind of surprised when Jacob got up and left without so much as a word. I didn't know what he was playing at, but I knew this crap was far from over.

Bella began mechanically packing up her things.

"Hey," I said as I got up from my seat. "You ok? I can walk you to your next class or something if you want."

"I'm fine."

"You sure? Because I don't mind."

"I don't need your protection, Edward," she said flatly, not looking up. "I already told you. I can handle this."

"He all but threatened sexual assault, Bella."

"It's nothing new," Bella said indifferently as she hoisted her bag over her shoulder. "Jacob likes to hear himself talk. Most of the time I just ignore him."

"Like you did last night?" I said, suddenly regretting even bringing up the subject of last night.

"I was just having a bad day yesterday," she said as she made her way toward the front of the class. "First Jake, then my father. Then…" She looked at me as if her last statement were obvious enough that she didn't have to say it. "Anyway, Jake's not stupid enough to do anything that might reflect badly on his family."

"And what he just did paints such a happy, well-adjusted portrait?" I said, raising an eyebrow. "I'm sorry, but I think you're dangerously underestimating what he's capable of."

Bella stopped short in the doorway and turned to face me. I thought she was about rip me a new asshole for prying into her business. Surprisingly, she didn't. No, she did something much, much worse.

She looked up at me with those beautiful, persuasive brown eyes of hers, and my chest felt as if it might burst open. Reaching up, she grasped the arm of my blazer and tugged it gently, then ran her hand over the area smoothing it back in place.

This girl knew exactly how to get me to shut my mouth.

"Edward, I really do appreciate what you're trying to do," she said. "I just think that if you knew better, you'd stay out of it."

"That's where you're wrong," I said, despite the fact that I knew arguing with her was pointless.

Bella leaned back against the doorframe, clutching her arms loosely in front of her. I fought the urge to take a step toward her.

"You wouldn't think that way if you actually knew me," she sighed. "Trust me…there's a reason why most people tend to keep their distance. It's not worth the hassle of getting in the middle of all this. Rosalie, Jasper, and Emmett…they put up with it because they don't have a choice. They've been dealing with Jake a long time, and the truth is they probably will have to put up with his shit for the rest of their public lives. You, on the other hand, have a choice. And honestly, I think you'd be very smart to just walk away before you get drawn in any further."

"I won't do that."

"I know," she chuckled halfheartedly. "And you make it next to impossible for me to tell you to just go to hell."

"But…"

"But I think it's what I need to do," she said, looking down at the floor. "For both our sakes."

"So you're telling me to go to hell."

"Not in so many words," she sighed. "But yes…that's what I'm telling you."

I hesitated for a moment, then stepped closer. I couldn't help myself. This girl already had such a strong hold on me, and I'll be damned…the more she tried to push me away, the further drawn to her I became.

I reached out, nudging her chin up gently so that she would look at me. She fought it at first, then slowly her gaze returned to mine. Her eyes glistened as she fought back the emotions that had been threatening to emerge throughout the entire last hour. I stepped even closer, refusing to let her deter me.

"And if I say no?"

"You'd be an idiot."

"Then I'm an idiot," I leaned down and whispered in her ear. "Because I'm not going to back down."

"Edward," she uttered breathlessly, her bottom lip trembling. "Please…don't…"

Like the night before, I felt my resolve breaking down. I wanted to make her pain…her fear of Jacob Black…of her father…of me…completely evaporate from her mind. I wanted to show her how much of an unbreakable hold she had on me; that she could trust me enough to let me in. If she'd only give me a chance.

As I leaned in closer, I could feel her body start to relent. I honestly didn't know what would happen if I dared to kiss her again. My temple throbbed a quick warning, but I ignored it. Whatever rules or boundaries that had been drawn up last night didn't seem to apply.

And just as I was about to graze my lips against hers for the second time…the sound of stifled laughter threw a wrench in the whole damn thing and knocked us both back to our senses.

"Bravo!" Jacob applauded from a few feet away. "Looks like Cullen has won the prize. But I do have to say, I don't really envy you. You see, I've had a taste of our dear Isabella and I can attest that she's really nothing more than a little cock tease in pretty packaging. But I suppose it's all a matter of taste."

I made a move toward him, but Bella grasped my arm and held me back.

"It's not worth it," she said, pulling me back toward her. "Edward, let's go."

Her eyes pleaded with me, and even though I wanted nothing more than to resolve this shit right here and now, I complied with her wishes.

Bella looped her arm in mine and began leading me down the hall. And we almost made it to the stairs.

Almost…

But not quite…

"Hey Cullen," Jacob called from down the hall. "Just a quick question before you go. Does your murdering prick of a father know your mother was skeezing around with the town pussy when she got knocked up? Or was he too busy chopping people up to give a shit?"

This guy really was oblivious to the fact that I could kill him with one swift jerk of his neck.

My body turned before I knew I'd even made a move. Yanking my arm away from Bella, I made my way toward him.

"You want to say that to my fucking face, asshole?"

Jacob turned to face me and my fists tightened, ready to forge a connection with that shit eating grin of his. He had been treading very precariously near the edge of my patience, and now even Bella wouldn't have the power to hold me back.

"Whatcha gonna do, tough guy?" Jacob grinned, stepping dangerously close. "Hit me? Please, don't let me stop you. I'd love nothing more than to see them kick you and your bitch of a sister to the curb with the rest of the trash. Face it Cullen…you don't fucking belong here."

I could feel the heat rise in my chest. My fingernails were digging hard into my palms, and my blood felt like acid coursing through my veins.

Take one more step, you fuck…just one…

"Yeah, I knew all that gossip was a load of crap," Jacob laughed. "You don't have the fucking balls to start shit with me Cullen. Not if you want to keep that free ride you've got going on here."

"Edward," Bella said, suddenly beside me and wrapping her gentle hand around my shuddering bicep. "He's not worth it."

Although the sound of her voice seemed to slow the rush of adrenaline, my eyes remained locked on Jacob's. Bella drew closer to my side, urging me to step away. I'd never walked away from a fight in my life. And this guy definitely had it coming. Why Bella was so insistent that I keep my cool when the asshole was obviously asking for a fight, I hadn't a clue.

"Edward, please?" she pleaded, and I looked down only to see her eyes…so big and beautiful…begging me to just let it go. Her bottom lip trembled ever so slightly, as if she wanted to say something more. But she only continued to look up at me, her concerned gaze speaking volumes.

No one had ever had the power to calm me when I was on the verge of a full-blown rage like this. Not my father or Esme. Not even Alice. When I hit fever pitch, there was no force on this Godforsaken earth that could stop me from combusting.

Bella was the first person to ever hold the power to break through.

Had this happened back in Chicago, I'd more than likely have end up laying in a pool of blood in the middle of the street, a bullet lodged in my skull.

I took a deep, staggered breath, still markedly fuming but definitely feeling more in control with her by my side. I shot Jacob a final menacing glare, then turned and began to follow Bella's lead down the hall.

This girl definitely had me wrapped around every one of her cute little fingers…

But Jacob would have been wise to keep his mouth shut, nonetheless.

"Tell me something," he continued spouting off behind us. "How many times did little sister have to blow Stanley to convince him to let you in here? Two? Three? Or did she just ride his brains out on top of his desk?"

And that was all it fucking took…

I shook Bella's hand off my arm and threw my books violently across the hall. Turning, I stormed ravenously toward him. Before he even had a chance to evade the attack, I went directly for his neck and threw him up against the wall.

"You want to keep fucking with me, you piece of shit?" I spat in his face. "You wanna talk some more shit about Bella Swan now? Go ahead! Do it you prick! I've put bigger guys than you in the intensive care unit for less. I could make it so you'd have to sip strained carrots through a fucking swizzle straw the rest of your pathetic existence!"

"Edward! Please stop!" Bella cried, but the trigger had been set. Her presence was no longer enough to stop my hand as it tightened around his neck.

"Give me one good reason asshole! One good reason I shouldn't kill your sorry ass right here and now!"

Jacob's face had begun to turn purple, his feet never touching the ground. But I could still make out the taunting gleam in his eyes. This guy had a death wish that I was more than eager to grant.

And I was so close…SO DAMN CLOSE…when I suddenly felt a strong pair of arms wrap around my waist and hoist me back forcefully.

"Let…go…man!!" Emmett growled from behind me, reaching up in an attempt to detach my hand from Jacob's throat. His strength was more overpowering than I'd imagined…the guy had the power of ten defensive linemen.

Emmett somehow thrust his thumb into a pressure point on my arm, and I reflexively let go of Jacob's neck and watched as he fell to the floor, coughing and gasping for air. I struggled against Emmett's grip, ready to turn and beat the hell out of him for getting in the fucking way. My struggling only made him hold on tighter.

"Shit man!" Emmett growled into my neck. "Back the fuck down already!"

I continued to struggle against his weight when Rosalie came to a halt directly in front of me.

"Edward, cool it!" she said, her icy blue eyes locked on mine. "Stanley's on his way. You need to take Bella and go. Now."

Unlike Bella's, Rosalie's voice did nothing to pacify my rage.

Over her shoulder, I could see Jacob rising unsteadily to his feet, a satisfied smirk stretching across his blotchy face. In my mind, I wanted nothing more than to finish the job. However, I wasn't about to lay a hand on Rose. Especially not with my neck in Emmett's death grip.

"I'm going to rip your fucking face off, motherfucker!"

"Fucking pussy," he said, laughing and wiping drool from the corner of his mouth. "But I have to admit, this was fun. We'll have to take it up again sometime."

"Shut up, Jake!" Rosalie turned, shooting him a scalding glance. "Just fucking go!"

I moved forward slightly, and I felt Emmett's arm tense. He grabbed my shoulder with his free hand and pressed down hard. I relented, knowing that it was useless to try and make a move with him holding me back.

"This isn't over!" I seethed. "You just better watch your back, man. Because it'll happen when you least expect it, and no one will be around to save your sorry ass next time."

"Oooh," he said, feigning fear as he straightened his tie. "I'll make sure to sleep with one eye open, if it'll make you happy."

"Just fucking let it go, Jacob!" Rosalie commanded.

"Sure, sure," he laughed. "Whatever you say princess."

"Ugh!" she grumbled, rolling her eyes and turning back to face me.

I continued to watch him as he made his way casually down the hall, still ready to jump on any opportunity to ram his skull into the marble floor. Rosalie placed her hand gently on my chest, passively holding me back until he was out of sight. Emmett finally loosened his grip, and I pushed him away."

"Why the hell did you stop me?" I roared. "He's been fucking asking for it since I first laid eyes on the bastard!"

"I know," Rosalie said, shaking her head. "But you can't just attack him like that."

"Why the hell not?" I yelled.

"Because this isn't 'The Departed,' you idiot!" Rosalie shot back. "There are a lot more consequences to starting shit with the son of the most influential backer of the Republican Party. Are you looking for a one-way ticket to ADX?"

Rosalie raised her eyebrows at me.

I had to admit…the thought of being placed in the bowels of a government supermax prison didn't fill me with sunshine and daisies. I'd heard stories, and the place made Guantanamo look like a damn cakewalk.

"Look," she said, glancing over my shoulder and out the window. "You have maybe two minutes to get out of here. Stanley's across the quad, so go out the side door. Take Bella with you and just…I don't know…go off campus for lunch or something."

Bella…where the hell had she gone?

I immediately looked to my left and saw her leaning against the wall, her arms wrapped tightly around her midsection. She was looking down at the floor, and I couldn't tell whether she was crying…or had been.

I looked back at Rosalie and Emmett. "What about Black?"

"Jake's not going to say anything," Rose sighed. "He's a stupid fuck, but not that stupid. He'll get in just as much shit for running his mouth like that, so he'll keep quiet…for now at least. But he's not going to make anything easy either."

"And if he starts more shit," Emmett said, cracking his knuckles.

"Oh, don't be an idiot," Rosalie scolded him. "No one's going to do a damn thing if I can help it. Least of all, you!"

Emmett smirked. "Damn woman never lets me have any fun."

Rose ignored him and turned her eyes on me again.

"Go get Bella and get her out of here before Stanley walks through that door," she insisted, nudging me away and taking Emmett's hand. "And you better make it fast, because he's coming up the walk now."

Taking a ragged breath, I nodded and headed to Bella's side. She was still standing like a statue against the wall. She was shaking, but I knew there was no time to stop and try to calm her. I reached down and quickly collected the mess of papers and textbooks that had scattered along the floor, then grabbed Bella's backpack and hoisted it over my shoulder.

"Bella," I said as calmly as possible.

Without a word, she pushed away from the wall and started walking silently toward the side door. She continued to hold her arms tightly around herself, and I couldn't help but feel I had caused her some sort of pain…as if I had delivered a hard blow to her gut.

And it fucking killed me.

We made it out the side door just as I heard Stanley's baritone voice echoing down the hall. I knew Rose and Emmett would take care of it, and I was suddenly thankful that they had shown up when they did. If they hadn't, I'd have a lot more to worry about.

Funny how clear that was after I'd started to regain control.

I continued to follow Bella down the stony walkway toward the lacrosse field. Her silence was driving me insane. But I knew better than to force her to talk…or to even look at me for that matter. She needed time to gather her thoughts before I had any hope of explaining what had just happened.

And what the hell was I going to tell her? That I was a raving lunatic? That I'd been conditioned from an early age to believe it was better to fight to the death than back down and let myself get killed? Truth be told, I was one seriously fucked up person.

I had no doubt in my mind that, if Jacob would have said one more word, I would be sitting in the back of a police cruiser facing some serious time in lockup. Jacob was just the type of asshole that brought out the monster in me that hid below the surface. That in and of itself was enough, but compounded by the fact that he'd not only dishonored a member of my family, but Bella as well…

He's lucky I actually held back a little.

We made our way past the long wrought iron fence surrounding the field and through the open gate. I followed Bella blindly up the concrete steps, still worried about what the hell she might be thinking and wanting to throw myself in front of a semi for causing her to think it in the first place.

She scaled a few rows up until finally setting herself down on one of the shiny metal benches. Bringing her legs up and hugging them to her chest, she rested her head on her knees and looked silently out upon the field. My chest hurt to look at her. Her eyes were red and puffy, indicating that she had, in fact, been crying at some point during the whole ordeal. Her face had become pale save for the touch of pink splotches along her cheekbones and the bruise on the bridge of her nose.

And I couldn't take it anymore…

"Bella," I began, resisting the urge to sit beside her and wrap my arms around her tiny frame. She needed some sort of comfort. But I knew better than to show her any form of physical affection when she was like this. Slow, soothing words were better.

Now what the hell do I say?

"You must think I'm such a baby," she said, unexpectedly breaking the silence without looking up. She blotted her eyes with the sleeve of her blazer. "Seriously, this is fucking ridiculous."

"I don't think that at all," I said, finally giving in and sitting down on the bench one row below her. "You have every right to be pissed at me for what just happened. I mean, I was out of control and I know that. But I need to explain…"

"I'm not pissed at you, Edward," she said, suddenly meeting my gaze. She actually looked confused that I'd even thought she was. "It's just that…I don't know…I was…ARGH!"

Bella turned her eyes back on the field and became silent once again.

"You were what?" I coaxed her along. "Come on, Bella. Talk to me."

"It's going to sound stupid," she said, burying her face in her knees. "Seriously fucking stupid."

"I don't think I could ever construe something you say as sounding stupid," I said, a nervous chuckle escaping my throat. "Honestly, you're one of the most intelligent girls I've ever met."

"Then why do I feel like such an idiot right now?" she said, her voice muffled by her skirt.

"Well," I said, turning around so that I was completely facing her. I grasped a stray curl and pushed it behind her ear. God, I felt like I'd turned into a soft little kitten now. "For starters, you might want to sit up and actually talk to me instead of your lap. That may help."

Without missing a beat, Bella jabbed her elbow into my chest.

"Hey, there's been enough violence for one day," I scolded, dodging another incoming jab. Enough for ten years.

Bella sighed heavily into her lap, then turned her head and looked at me. She didn't smile, or even give me that derisive look of disapproval I'd come to know in the last couple days. She just looked…defeated somehow. And it worried the shit out of me.

"Bella," I said, taking a chance and placing my hand on top of hers. She didn't withdraw. "I can't help if you don't tell me what's going on in that head of yours. If you're mad at me, then I want you to tell me. I won't blame you."

"I told you I'm not mad," she sighed, shoving my hand away and releasing herself from the tight ball she'd pulled herself into. She turned, resting her legs in the empty space between mine. Tucking her hair behind her ears, she took a deep, hesitant breath.

"Then what is it?"

"I was…scared, okay?" she said, lowering her eyes to the ground. "I am scared."

"I didn't mean to scare you," I said, nudging her chin up slightly although she still refused to look directly at me. "Believe me, that's the last thing I wanted to do."

"I wasn't scared of you, Edward," she said, rolling her eyes. "Jesus, you're not making this easy. I was scared for you."

"Bella, I'm perfectly capable of holding my own in a fight."

Maybe too capable.

"That's not what I meant," she said, becoming aggravated more with herself than with me. "Jacob's not exactly the kind of guy you want to haul off and attack. I mean, yeah. You want to. But it isn't exactly a good idea."

"There's nothing that asshole can do that I haven't dealt with before."

"Edward, you don't understand. He could get you and Alice expelled from this school with just a phone call," she said, looking me sternly in the eye. "Or worse. Just like Rose said…"

"Oh fucking well," I said, a little more forcefully than I'd intended. "So we get kicked out. There are other schools Bella. And if I end up spending time in lock up, then that's my own fault."

"But I don't want to be the reason for it," she sighed. "I mean, I've told you before that I can handle Jacob myself. I've been doing it for a long time, and I can deal with his crap for one more semester."

"Ok," I relented. "But shouldn't have to fend him off alone."

"This isn't your fight," she said, shaking her head.

"It is now," I countered. "And not just because he's constantly on your case. Although, to be honest that's a huge part of it."

"Edward…"

"He's been asking for a fight from the first moment I stepped foot on this campus. And the shit he said about Alice…"

"…he would have never even said if you hadn't stuck up for me." Bella smirked, then began to fidget with the hem of her shirt. "He would have left you and Alice alone if you would have just taken my advice and stayed out of it. And it's not that I don't appreciate it, Edward. Please don't think that way. It's just that…"

"…you're not used to anyone having your back."

"No," she said, looking a bit taken aback at the prospect. "I'm not."

"Well, then get used to it," I said, slapping my palms down on the cold metal bench and hoisting myself up. "Like it or not, you've got someone on your side."

"What if I don't want someone on my side?" she said, casting me a scathing glance. "What if I just want to do this on my own? I'm not incapable of dealing with Jacob."

"But you're tired of it," I countered. "And don't tell me that you aren't, because I've seen how much he wears you out."

"That's beside the point," she said, waving me off.

"You shouldn't have to spend your life looking over your shoulder and terrified that one day he's going to surpass the bar of what you think he is or isn't capable of."

"Let me ask you something," she said, looking up at me through her eyelashes. "What would Alice say? She doesn't exactly like me."

"This isn't about Alice, Bella," I sighed. "This is about you and me."

Bella pursed her lips and closed her eyes.

"There is no you and me, Edward. You don't owe me anything, and I really don't want to feel that I owe you anything."

"Look," I said, crouching down in front of her and forcing her to make eye contact even though I was about to make a complete fool of myself. "I realize that I've come on very strong the last couple days, and I completely understand why you'd be opposed to what I'm about to suggest. But you're the closest thing I have to an actual friend in this place."

"Edward…" she started to say, but I placed my finger over her lips.

"And I know that you said being friends wasn't something you were willing to commit to. And at the time, I guess I agreed. But to tell you the truth, I've changed my mind about that. I know that sounds really hackneyed and brainless…"

"And insane," she added.

"Yes," I chuckled. "Insane. But wouldn't it be nice to just have one person you can turn to that doesn't have some misguided political agenda to fulfill? Someone who's not going to report to daddy about every little thing you say or do?"

Bella shrugged defiantly and looked away. But I swear…for a moment I could tell she was considering the possibility.

Ok, yes…I suppose in some way I had somewhat of an agenda. And yes…I was seriously falling hardcore with every additional, drama-filled moment I spent with this girl. I probably should have taken her advice and walked away. I could have avoided all the bullshit and taken her rejection like a fucking man.

The thing was, I couldn't. I didn't have the power or the resolve to let her go, even if holding on meant I'd be killing myself in the process.

In all honesty, I'd stand in front of a damn firing squad to protect her.

I was so fucked…

Then suddenly, her eyes met mine and my chest began to ache. The things that this girl could do to me with just a glance were beyond maddening. I could live my entire life just staring into those big, penetrating brown eyes, and I'd die content. Despite the turmoil that lay behind them, somehow looking at Bella created a sense of calm within me that nothing else could. The feeling seemed more addictive than heroin.

Not that I would know this.

"I don't trust you," she sighed. "For various reasons."

"I know."

"And I think you're crazy."

"I am," I agreed. "I think I've just proven that with the attempted murder of a classmate."

"You're pretentious, injudicious, discourteous…"

"What? Are you writing a fucking dictionary defining my better graces?"

"See?" she raised an eyebrow.

"Sorry," I said, pressing my lips together tightly.

Bella looked away again, turning her head to look up at the gray clouds that were moving in from the west. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. I noticed that her skin had taken on a more creamy hue, and she seemed more serene. Seeing her so unaffected like this made me smile, even if I had no idea what the hell she was thinking.

Something told me I never would.

"The rain is moving in," she said, grabbing her bag and lazily slinging it over her shoulder as she got to her feet.

I nodded, feeling a little dejected that the conversation was now over. She walked past me and started down the steps. I stayed planted in place, watching her walk away. When she disappeared under the breezeway, I sat down and rubbed my face hard. This wasn't going to work.

She was too stubborn and set in her ways.

I'd already done too much irreparable damage.

She and I both had way too many issues to get past.

"Well," I suddenly heard her beautifully contemptuous voice call up from under me. I peered through the space under the seats, and Bella's eyes widened in frustration. "Are you coming or not?"

And I really needed to give us both a lot more fucking credit.

A/N: Reviews are better than a hot chocolate and macadamia nut cookies on a dreary winter night. Thanks again my loves!!