Ninapolitan's D.I.L.F. Contest
Story Title: Settling
Pairing: Edward and Bella
Vamp or Human: Human
Disclaimer: Stephanie Meyers is the queen of Twilight. I am the queen of Settling.
Hugs and kisses to antiaol who betas this crap for me and puts up with way more drama than any wussperv rightfully should.
It began on a Sunday morning. She sat beside him at the counter, little legs tucked up beside her body on the stool, blueberry gushing out the sides of her mouth as she bit down into warm dough and purple fruit.
He brushed his hand across the soft down of her head, a touch of lips on her brow and excitement in his dancing blue eyes.
Her fiancé was always boyish joy, scarcely contained, for all that his large frame was more than enough to hold the both of them. But there was something more that day. Something different and distant, a happy tale beneath those full pink lips and dimpled smile.
"You seem happy today," she cooed knowingly. He would tell her in his own time, so there was no need for her to ask. His patience was that of a child. Her giant man-boy. Her lover and her friend.
"It's the best news in the world, babe." His chest puffed huge, and she pulled her face back from his body to see his expression. "He's coming."
"He?" she questioned, a hidden suspicion already growing.
"Well, they," he corrected. "They're moving. Here."
She smiled and let him tell it.
"Edward. He got the job, and the whole family is moving. They're coming next weekend to look for houses. Isn't it great?"
He had spoken frequently of Edward, his partner in crime. His best friend.
His best friend whom she had never met.
Her eyes sparkled as she took him in, kissing quick at his lips and wiping dark blueberry on the black cotton of his shirt. "So I finally get to meet your better half?"
"As if, Bella," he smirked. "You know full well that that's you. But I can't wait for you to meet Edward, too."
She dropped down off the stool to stand before him, her bare thighs between his massive ones. "The man who made you you, huh, Emmett?"
He bent his head to kiss her, agreeing quietly with a breath into her hair. "The man you know and love."
Bella Swan had met Emmett McCarty at one of the openings at the little gallery where she worked. It hadn't seemed his scene, his voice just a little too loud, his sporty jeans not the same dark rinse as the hipster crowd.
She'd approached him at some point in the evening, intrigued and unsure what a guy like him would be doing there. He'd grinned at her approach, perfect dimples on the sides of his rosy-pink mouth. And he'd proceeded to her tell the foulest joke she'd ever heard, before going on to explain the finer points of art history, ultimately leaving her flustered and embarrassed and turned all kinds of around.
They'd talked half the night, and while he wasn't her type, she'd been drawn in by the easy rapport, the booming echo of his ringing voice and the way he made her laugh and set her at ease.
Within six month's time they'd been sleeping together, all her defenses torn down by his endless smiles and the warmth of the air between them. She'd felt comfortable and safe, entombed in warm arms and large hands. And it was enough. More than enough. After all of the heartache of her past, it was more than she ever would have thought to ask for. And at least as much as she'd learned to expect.
And so when he'd dropped down on one knee around Christmas time the previous year, an oath of devotion, a promise to keep her safe and to always make her laugh, she'd accepted gratefully, pulling herself comfortably into his embrace. And whispering yes, again and again, she'd imagined a future where she'd be content. Quiet happiness and long years - easy years where she knew she'd never again have to want for anything.
After all, wanting had never led to anything for her in the past.
On Friday night, she arrived at the restaurant first. The drive had not taken as long as she'd expected, and she was surprised to find herself there a full half hour early. Not wanting to sit alone at an empty table, she wandered into the bar, a smattering of patrons slowly sipping at their drinks, soft music and light conversation all around.
She smoothed her skirt as she sat down, lifting herself up with her hands to perch lightly at the bar. She caught the bartender's attention and ordered a glass of white wine, eager for the opportunity to unwind.
When the chilled glass appeared before her, light golden liquid swirling, she took it gratefully, grasping the stem between her long fingers and staring at it, contemplating. The lines of light danced off the brilliant surface of the wine, echoing the diamond on her hand and the ways her future felt so fluid, and yet so confined to hidden paths like glass that she could only barely see.
So caught up in the motion of liquid and light, she barely noticed the warmth by her side, as a presence, comfortable yet foreign, drew back the stool beside her. She looked over with a start, a scent of oak and leaves and soap on the air, and her elbow lightly grazing something warm against the wood of the bar.
"Do you mind?" a man's voice asked. Her eyes were frozen on a lightly muscled chest at her eye level, the soft fabric of a man's dress shirt skimming pecs and abs and ending just above the crotch of dark rinse jeans. She pried her eyes up, her gaze floating from the unbuttoned collar to a few reddish curls of chest hair over smooth pale skin, a muscled neck and a stubbled chin.
She lingered long on the line of the stranger's jaw, hard and square before falling deep into swimming green eyes.
Before her eyes they twinkled, and the sultry mouth she hadn't even had time to consider curled up into a mischievous half-smile. "May I sit here?" he repeated, and she realized all the ways in which she had been staring, her pulse a dull throb inside her ears and everything else that she had been thinking about falling away.
"Yes," she croaked, nodding her head, long brown hair drifting into her eyes. As she pushed it back to clear her vision, the man sat down, the smirking smile still strong on lips that shone just a little too red. She rearranged herself on her barstool, pulling back by inches to a point where she felt comfortable inside her skin, for all that at least it wasn't touching his.
He ordered a beer, and she unselfconsciously watched the way his hands curled around the glass and the motion of his lips as he pursed them to its rim and slowly drank, Adam's apple bobbing, the tendons in his neck set with an appealing sort of strain.
Staring still, she felt a strange something warm in the pit of her stomach and in the clenching motion of her sex. Something she hadn't felt in years. She glanced again at the engagement ring on her finger and then at the thick metal band on the man's hand gripped firm around the glass.
And while she wasn't paying attention, she swirled her own glass too hard, cool wine rising up over the lip and spilling out in a startling splash.
She blushed, embarrassed and dabbing with her napkin, sucking wine from her fingertips. She felt more napkins being pushed into her other hand, and she looked up to find the man beside her gazing at her strangely as she pulled her finger from her mouth. She thanked him and took the napkins, cleaning up the mess with the same lingering flush creeping hot into her ears from his stare.
Bella kept her eyes down, watching her glass carefully to make sure the remainder of wine stayed safely contained. She still felt warm green eyes upon her but refused to meet them.
"Would you like me to get you another?" he asked, and this time without the distraction of his body or his face, she focused on the sound, deep warm chimes, soft and low, and she wondered what they would sound like wrapped around her name. And what Emmett would think if he wandered in on this.
She shook her head no, quite certain that she'd gotten loose enough and that alcohol would not make things improve.
"Are you meeting someone?"
"I am," she confirmed, her voice pulled out of her against her will. She wanted to tell him she was meeting her fiancé but those words wouldn't come. "Some friends. Friends I haven't met."
"Than how will you know them when you see them?"
"I guess I won't," she answered. She forced the words out. "But my fiancé will point them out."
She couldn't be sure, but she thought she saw those eyes darken.
"And you?" she asked.
"Very much the same." He pulled again at his beer and set the glass down, turning his whole body to face her and she was inundated by presence again, a reaction in her pulse she couldn't control as she struggled to control everything else.
And in that moment, staring into his eyes, she felt as if he were looking into the silent places inside her, like he could see the foundation settling beneath her, everything settling, and the cracks now forming in solid ground upon which things had rested for much too long.
Looking at this stranger, she saw her whole life before her and the ways she had settled for less than she wanted in order to protect her damaged heart and to meet the expectations of those around her. And suddenly she didn't feel like settling anymore. In her mind's eye, she saw her wedding dress, starched and stiff, satin and train in a mothballed closet just waiting for the day that it would be worn and discarded. And she understood at last that it was wrong. That it should have been less sex and more intimation - black and white photographs instead of glossy magazines. It should have been lace and old things, timeless romance and a day painted green, with a veil that kissed her cheeks and made her blush seem like something more than flustered nerves and missed chances.
Her eyes opened suddenly, even though she hadn't realized they'd been closed, a clutching sadness in everything that only fell away when she felt rough fingertips, warm on her arm.
"Hey," the smooth voice returned. "What just made you look so sad?
She looked back into warm green eyes and realized the other thing that was wrong with her dress. And then she gritted her teeth and lied.
His gaze held hers a long minute, before finally looking away.
And then his entire face changed.
In one look he went from smoldering and penetrating to adoring, that seductive half-smile wiped away as tight lips twisted up into perfect joy.
Bella looked behind her to see a beautiful blond woman approaching, but quickly realized that the mystery man's smile wasn't meant for the woman. She followed his eyes much lower, down to waist height, and to a sweet little girl with reddish bronze hair and a toothy grin.
He was out of his seat and pulling the girl up to his shoulders, nuzzling his nose deep into her hair and kissing her eyes, before casting a surprised look over her tiny head.
As he reacted, Bella was surprised to hear her own name behind her, the too-loud voice ringing out harsher in her ears than ever before.
Emmett appeared from nowhere, firm hand on her shoulder before reaching out in front of her, pulling man and girl both into a bone-crushing hug.
And Bella didn't need the explanation or the introduction. She saw at once. Saw the ways the man who had turned her resigned insides to mush and liquid longing was the mysterious best friend. The other half. The partner in crime.
And here she'd been considering crimes of the heart.
When their eyes connected again, it was like a flame inside that dim and oppressive space, Emmett's warm hands around her shoulder and her body numb inside his grasp. She faced the stranger, the best friend, whose own understanding was beginning to dawn. His smooth voice issued again from beneath those malachite eyes, speaking clear and low, "So you must be Bella?"
She nodded shyly, hoping he couldn't see through her after all, as she took his outstretched hand, a flicker of a spark across her skin. "And you're the famous Edward Cullen?"
He smiled and agreed sheepishly, then pointed to the blond woman behind him, speaking casually but with a little too much intensity. "This is my wife, Rosalie. And this," he stared at the little girl in his arms adoringly, "is our daughter, Lizzie. Lizzie, this is your Uncle Emmett and his Bella."
Bella noticed how he said the word 'his' just a little too low.
Lizzie turned and Bella was shocked to find green eyes as warm as her dad's.
And in that moment she knew she was undone.
That night and so many others passed by in easy conversation, hidden looks and strange glances. She liked to watch the way Edward's long hands moved, the sweep of bronze hair over impossible eyes. She saw the tenderness he took helping his tiny daughter sit down, the motions he made to cut her food and tell her she was being so good. Bella heard his voice, startling and smooth.
She liked to say his name, to feel those two soft syllables on her rolling tongue and to watch the way his eyes darkened when she did.
And that night, like so many others to follow, Bella took Emmett home and took him to her bed, thrusting with eyes clutched closed and visions of a chiseled jaw and a lither frame, long fingers on her hips and her mouth curled soft around another name.
It was only in the darkest parts of night, when her fiancé was asleep and she was alone, that she felt the weight of the room and of her too-planned life in front of her, constrained by glass she couldn't break without causing it to shatter. She felt her betrayal and her acquiescence, her submission to the road she'd sworn to follow. And the longing she would take with her all the way down that road to contentment - to a life where she'd been told she would never have to want for anything.
And she didn't have to - didn't need to want. But the more time she spent with Edward, the more she did.
The insertion of the Cullens into their lives was immediate and overwhelming. In a whirlwind of impossibly short weeks, they were there, their beautiful new house found, bought and closed upon, box after box unloaded from an overflowing van. And from that point on there were endless dinners, hour after hour of watching her fiancé and his best friend, of playing with a little girl with eyes of startling green and trying to avoid a blond woman's stare.
And then there were the moments when she'd find herself alone again with Edward.
In the beginning, their conversations were all as awkward as their first, for all that each knew the name and the nature of the other now. With Emmett and Rosalie in the next room, Bella would watch as Edward laid on his living room floor, crayons all around, enraptured with the little girl who cooed and colored.
Slowly, their words flowed more easily. She learned that he was a doctor, drawn to their town not just by the cajoling insistence of his friend but by a new oncology ward. She loved to hear him talk about his work, about the lives he held in his hands, and she liked to imagine herself inside those hands, gleaming in the cool air of autumn nights.
She told him about herself. Told him about the gallery and the art she peddled and sold, the artists and the patrons and the constant dance of getting one to do right by the other.
She told him about Emmett, blushing all the time. Their dance of a courtship and his proposal. But she stayed quiet about their lonelier nights since Edward and his family's arrival.
He told her about Rosalie. About how they had met while he was in medical school, about her beauty and her strength, and as he did, Bella couldn't help but notice the way his jaw tightened, everything inside him wrapped around his daughter and going stiff. He told her about Lizzie and she watched him unclose, saw the tender lines of tired in his eyes and the motion of his hand on a child's falling hair.
Emmett told her about them, too. In the growing coolness of their bed he recounted escapades and lost summers, incidents with too much beer and vodka. And then he told her about how things had changed. How his friend had grown colder since his marriage to Rosalie and the almost immediate birth of their daughter. Emmett wondered aloud why Edward couldn't manage to be nicer to his wife.
"After all," he said. "It's not all that hard to just be nice."
On the night before Bella and Emmett's wedding, friends and family gathered all around. Most of them were Emmett's. Bella sat in a cocoon of quiet, more alone than usual even, wishing her mother were still with her, and quietly grateful for her father, for all that his silence still made her feel like a scared little girl.
Huddled near a fire pit by herself, Bella watched the way that embers floated up and twisted into blackness, joining with stars and floating soft into a gathering night. She heard the quiet strains of conversation from just inside, Emmett's voice unmistakable as it rose up above the humming din. She felt the way he was enveloping, always sucking people in.
And she felt herself sucked in once again. Only this time into a hole of her own decision, her settling motion into thick and tricky sand.
No one came to look for her for a long long time. She gathered her shawl around her shoulders, a burning glow on the side of her face turned into the fire and a rush of cold dancing everywhere else.
When he finally came and sat down beside her, she didn't move and didn't look.
"What's the blushing bride doing out here all alone?"
She hugged her knees in tighter, still lost in the way his voice slipped smooth around her edges, tucking her in and making her feel like she could lose herself and her hard-won control after all. Like she could lose the grip she'd made on her life.
"You're not getting cold feet?" he asked softly, sliding closer.
She brushed something that was itching from her eyes and spoke soft and low. "You should go back inside, Edward. Rosalie will be worried about you."
"She doesn't really worry much about me."
When she finally met his eyes, they were concern and regret, uncertainty and longing and so many lost feelings unsaid.
"Why did you marry her?" she asked suddenly.
"Heavy question for the night before you take the plunge yourself, eh?" He was so close to her now that she could feel the heat of his body, soft whispers of breath like the flames of the fire, eclipsed now by the light in his eyes.
"Why are you still married to her?" Bella's voice was so low she could barely hear her own words.
He sat back, tension low in his spine and that tightening again in his jaw. "Is it really that obvious?"
"That you're not happy?"
He paused. "She gave me Lizzie. She always wanted a baby. So much so that I wonder sometimes if she tricked me." He looked away, something unreadable on his stone-pale face. "But the trick was on her. She wanted a baby. But she didn't really know what one was."
"You'd do anything for her."
"I would," he nodded, knowing that she was referring to Lizzie.
"You'd even stay forever with her." He nodded again, knowing the 'her' this time meant his wife.
"I took my vows seriously." His voice was gravelly and low, and Bella was surprised to find his face only inches from hers, his mouth a gleaming shade of rose and shadow as the flames beside them licked and curled. "I always have. Never doubted them. Never doubted them until…"
The heaviness of the moment pressed hard around her and everything in her leapt and thrilled, all the things she'd been pushing down since his intrusion, his disruption, his ending to all that she'd settled herself upon in the world.
She pulled away. She wasn't sure why but she did.
He shook his head, surprised to find himself so many inches away from her, almost as surprised perhaps as he was to still be leaning toward her. His voice even lower, he repeated himself, his eyes growing more cold and more closed. "I took my vows seriously. And when you take them tomorrow, I think that you should take them seriously, too."
They sat in silence, closed off and unsure, the minutes dragging by and their body language cold. When Emmett found them there, he had no reason for suspicion. He watched the way his soon-to-be bride leaned away from his best friend, how their eyes both held on the ground. When Bella felt her fiancé's warm hands around her, pulling her up, she fell easily into him, knowing he was it for her. The last stop on a long and shaky train.
She smiled down at Edward as she rose, whispering, "You're right. I should. And I will."
The all-wrong wedding dress hung soft from her all-right curves. She felt obscene, white satin and straps, heels and rhinestones and all of it new. She marched down the aisle, her hand on her father's arm and the man she had decided on waiting, while the man she hadn't decided on stood directly behind him.
Edward handed the priest the rings, and Bella watched the way they shone in his hand.
She didn't hear the priest's words, trying hard to focus on her almost-husband. But with the way that they stood, Edward always loomed large, copper hair a faint warmth in her peripheral, fuzzy features and green eyes she couldn't quite get out of her field of view.
She focused on him only once, when the priest asked that one particular question. For that instant, she let Emmett's features fall into the short-range blur and Edward's grow sharp, his eyes on her just as hers were on him.
But he didn't raise the objection she'd been hoping for. He just gritted his teeth, flexing hardness in his jaw, and she imagined for a moment that his eyes spoke again of all the longing in the world, darkness and dreams. But then they were blank again.
And before she knew it she was staring tearfully back not at just Emmett. But at her husband. And the sand settled further beneath her heavy heart.
The best man's toast was all about Emmett McCarty, and not at all about the former Bella Swan. She heard Edward's omission, watched his mouth purse and tighten as he failed to say how perfect they were for each other. His only wish was for their happiness. Because he wanted the happiness of his friend.
Because she knew that he didn't want her.
She danced all night, dancing to remember and dancing to forget. Her first dance with Emmett was soft and sweet, safety and warmth and large arms, and her crying was easy to laugh away. She remembered the night they had met, his large hand and her acceptance, the proposal and all the nights spent lying in the same warm bed. She remembered all the reasons she'd said yes. All the reasons she'd said I do. And for all those reasons and more - for reasons just a room's width away from her on a filling dance floor - she resolved to accept him again. To embrace a life free of want.
To never want anything else ever again.
Two songs later, watching Edward balance Lizzie on his toes, a quiet dance of father and daughter, her tiny hands around his knees, her resolution almost faltered.
But it didn't.
She found herself in Edward's arms only once, toward the end of the night. It was the first time he had held her, and she teared again to know it would also be the last.
She started it. This one time, it was completely and totally her. She found him sitting at a table, helping Lizzie destroy a centerpiece while Rosalie looked uninterestedly on.
Her words were all a jumble, her voice suddenly hoarse. "So doesn't the best man have to dance with the bride?"
Edward looked up, surprised, a flash of something across his face as he stood. Without looking down, he asked, "Rose?"
"I've got her." It was the most Rosalie had said in Bella's presence without Emmett there in weeks.
Bella led the way to a quiet corner of the dance floor, aware as always of Edward's body though she knew that she shouldn't be. Edward followed silently behind her, just a little too close so that when she stopped and turned she found herself leaning into him. And he didn't back away.
Bella felt his hand, warm and rough, beginning on her bare shoulder and grazing soft skin to settle down at the small of her back. His touch tucked up soft between the places where her sides curved in, her breasts grazing his chest and his breath in her hair as her hand took his, holding it close to his chest near his heart.
"You looked beautiful today." He'd never said anything like that to her before. But she was a bride, and that was the sort of thing you were practically obligated to say. Another lonely tear wound its way from her made up eyes to his shirt, settling damp in the fabric the way her heart did inside her aching feet.
"You look handsome, too."
He held her and they rocked until she made to rest her head down on his shoulder. Then and only then, he pulled her closer in. She felt his hips, felt the hardness there and sucked in a breath, hearing him gulp as he felt the contact too, but he didn't pull away. She stayed there, wrong wedding dress feeling right beneath his hands, even though he couldn't fix all the things that were wrong.
Even if a creeping suspicion began to wash across her that he might want to, too.
She pulled away only at the end of the song, hands clasped still in a rough tug that felt so hard to let go. As she stepped another foot back, he grasped her hand still harder, pulling it to his lips and brushing a tiny kiss across knuckles and the newly added ring.
"Congratulations, Bella," he whispered. "I hope that you'll be happy." The regret was unmistakable this time in his eyes, but she pushed down every reaction, knowing it was time to seek out her husband and to leave.
Again she lied, her smile an aching falsehood on every corner of her face. "I think I will."
After the wedding, things were never completely the same. Bella still shared an easy dialogue with Edward, sweet conversations that made everything inside her quiver. But every now and then there was something more. An awkward glance, an accidental touch. A mention of the other's spouse that came too hard.
She tried to follow his advice and take her vows to heart - her heart that she didn't know if she even owned anymore. She began finding reasons not to be around, long hours at the gallery or a need for time alone at home.
She couldn't beg off all the time, though. And sometimes she didn't want to.
Sometimes, just the promise of being near Edward was enough. Just the feeling of his body feet away from her, the smooth symphony of his voice as he talked about his daughter, the little girl who was growing big and strong. Or as he recounted tales of patients and of heartbreak, stories of lives that had ended too soon.
And sometimes she felt that her life had ended too soon, too.
Life with Emmett grew different, as well. Now that she bore his name and his ring, a kind of comfort rose between them that transcended safety and quiet laughs. He stopped asking her out on dates and started going out alone.
Months of sunken longing and settled toes in tricky sand grew into years. Bella watched the curve of Emmett's spine, the weight of something she could not see. She saw Edward's eyes grow darker, little lines that showed his growing age.
She saw Rosalie out of the corner of her eye as she started to drink.
And she watched Lizzie. She saw the toddler whose green eyes had captured her heart almost as quickly as her father had as she grew into the shape of a little girl. Adventures with crayons became time with dolls and books, and Bella liked to sit with Lizzie and Edward as they read. Sometimes the little girl would try, curious mouth sounding out symbols and making meaning, her rosy face aflush and pride all over Edward's. Sometimes her dad would read, the bobbing of his Adam's apple a haunting rhythm as he smoothly turned stories into visions.
And Bella loved to watch the simple glow of them together, a halo of warm and rose as love passed from father to child in simple touches, little bits of time.
Every now and then Bella played with the little girl alone. Lizzie liked to ask her questions - the kinds of questions she probably should have been asking her mom. But her mom didn't hang around all that much when they were playing.
Once Bella caught Edward watching her with his daughter. She looked up from brushing Lizzie's Barbie's hair to find deep green eyes full of reverence, dark purple circles beneath them that showed years of loneliness and loss.
And she wanted to kiss that loss away.
But kissing other men wasn't a part of her vows.
Over the years, there were stolen moments between her and Edward, too. The two of them would find themselves cleaning dishes alone, the air just a little too heavy with bubbles and oak and leaves and smoke, fingers grazing beneath the white froth of the water, and she could imagine the leap in her heart was echoed in the motion of his throat.
But there was never another intentional touch. In three long years, he never held her again. And as her bed grew lonelier and lonelier at home, she found herself thinking long and often about his hands and his arms and the space between his hips.
And many nights she touched herself, never having felt more alone, wanting, desperately wanting for any kind of contact.
But knowing that contact was the one thing that she could never have.
It ended on a Tuesday evening.
Bella was watching Edward and Lizzie while Lizzie was watching the Little Mermaid. Again. The girls sang along to the music, and Bella tried not to sing too loudly when she wished to be part of someone's world.
The night was comfortable and cool, and Bella admired how Edward trailed his fingertips through Lizzie's hair, the little girl's eyes slowly drooping, until by the time the big kiss rolled around she was sleeping soundly on her father's arm.
Bella reached over quietly for the remote to stop the DVD, and a heavy hush settled over the room. Edward watched the little girl sleep, and Bella watched him watching her, a certain warmth building in her chest when she saw the way the lines that had been growing around his eyes grew as soft as his daughter's trusting face.
He looked up at her eventually, the softness still there as he took in Bella's features, illuminated by just a hint of warm light drifting in from the adjoining room.
"Hey," he whispered, his voice raspy and quiet from hours of not speaking.
He sat with Lizzie on top of him on one side of the couch while Bella leaned into the opposite corner, her face resting soft against the fabric back, Lizzie's little feet tucked up warm against her side.
It had been a couple of weeks since Bella had had any time alone with Edward, and she felt the weight of those weeks, the distance imposed by her own silence and her excuses, all her reasons to stay away. Reasons that were never enough any time she saw him, making her realize all over again why she wanted to never try to stay away again.
But she would.
"How have you been?" he asked, and Bella recognized a little touch of hurt inside his smooth and quiet voice, a twinge beneath the words.
"I've been good," she lied readily, searching for something safe to say that would not betray the hope and defeat in her heart. "I sold the most amazing painting last week at work."
"What was it?"
"Lovers," she spoke the title without thinking, the blush only springing up after the fact. "It was called 'Lovers.' Two figures in blue beside a single flame."
"Sounds beautiful," he whispered, and she felt sure he wasn't talking about just the painting.
"About the same," he replied, and again it was like he could see through her, and she thought he might know the precise depths of her long-lingering lie.
"How are you really, Bella? Are you happy?" There was something so lost in him, something that had given up and even more than usual she longed to touch him. She remembered his wish to her on her wedding day. A wish for happiness. Elusive happiness that had seemed to evade them all.
She didn't want to lie, so she told an almost truth, "I survive."
There was silence for a moment, only the exaggerated sound of Lizzie's breathing between them.
"Sometimes I get so tired of just surviving." The one hand not wrapped around his daughter was clenched tight over his eyes.
Bella's lip trembled. She didn't want to lie. So she told an actual truth. "Me, too."
Without her permission, her hand settled on his shoulder, a touch of comfort that they had so long denied, too scared to let comfort rage into all of the things that they knew it might become.
His shoulder was warm beneath her hand, a shaking somewhere deep inside of him and it literally hurt to not do more for him. But she felt sure that just this simple touch already was far too much, after so many years of careful non-contact. And yet she knew it was nowhere near enough.
"What happened to us all?" he asked, and she didn't think he expected an answer.
"What happened to you?" she countered.
"This," he sighed, his hand dropping from his face and gesturing at everything before them and everything behind. "I'd say I regret it, but I wouldn't give up Lizzie for the world."
"I know," she whispered. She knew he wouldn't give Lizzie up for her. And she didn't want him to.
"What happened to you?" he asked, intensity in his voice, smoothness slipping carelessly away. "Emmett's my best friend," he began, and she almost knew what he would say. How he wouldn't give her husband up for her either. "He was so happy when he met you. He thought you were, too. What happened to the two of you?"
She had nothing but the truth at this point, pulling her hand away to rest gently on Lizzie's shin, her love for his little girl the only connection she would ever have to the man.
"Emmett and I went wrong the minute that I settled for him," she confessed. "And things weren't right from even before we got married."
She couldn't look at him, admitting something she'd scarcely even admitted to herself. "I met someone else."
The silence felt heavier than all the weights and all the silences in all the world.
"Why did you marry him?" he asked, a plea, all intensity and an echo of her questions for him when she'd been trying to figure out the very same thing.
Bella finally met his eyes, brown eyes connected with green ones, a gesture without touch as old as the life of the world. "I thought the other man didn't want me."
"And what if he did?"
Bella looked down again, unable to take the tortured expression, the want she'd thought was hers alone inside a life where she shouldn't have had to want for anything.
"Why are you still married to him, Bella?"
"I made a promise." She felt a little trickle of a single tear at the corner of her eye, and then she felt his hand, warm and rough and pulling the wet but not the sadness away.
"I did, too."
"And?" she asked.
He dropped his hand, pulling it through his tired hair. "And sometimes I don't even care."
"Why are you still married to her?"
This time he answered honestly. "Sometimes I don't even know."
The crackling in the air between them hummed hot and low, everywhere inside her spine and in her sex and in the places where she touched herself when she felt alone. Their gazes both held firm to the floor, promises hanging like lost lives and wasted years, and neither knew how to move beyond them.
Bella spoke first, pulling Lizzie's legs away. "We should go find Emmett and Rosalie."
Edward sighed, beginning to fold his daughter up in his arms, a silent agreement as he settled her sleeping form safe on his shoulder. A restatement of a promise, the weight of which each of them carried alone.
Together and alone, he and Bella walked through the house, everything a little too quiet, their hushed conversation still there in the air and in the currents that tied their bodies for all that they did not touch.
They walked together into the quiet kitchen.
But Bella was the one to put her hand on the knob to the pantry door. She was the one to pull. She would always remember that she was the one to open the fucking door.
And then there was skin.
Too much skin.
Skin was all she could see, skin moving, skin sweating, silence and motion and a deep heaving and she was pushing away, running away, the contents of her stomach everywhere inside the sink and still it wasn't enough. Retching. All she had was retching. Retching and five lost years.
Bella was only vaguely conscious of Edward not two steps behind her, his shocked expression as she ran past him, his concern at the noises and the vomit and the acrid sweaty smell like sex and secrets, and he was there.
He was there the whole time.
And neither of them was expecting Lizzie to wake up.
The tiny voice said only, "Mommy?" before Edward's hands were over her eyes, pulling her back, ever back.
But Mommy had heard.
Neither Emmett nor Rosalie had noticed the opening of the door, the too-bright light and the coolness of the air outside their sweaty space. When Rosalie finally heard the tiny talking of her oft-rued daughter, she pulled her head away, let go the sucking motion of her mouth on Emmett's naked shoulder and the motion of her sex against her lover's quivering thighs.
She let go of everything. Because the secret was finally revealed.
Bella didn't stay to find out how it was revealed. She washed the contents of her stomach down the sink, cool water in her mouth and on her face and the lie was hot everywhere. The lie and the betrayal.
She'd chosen safety. She'd settled for safe and for easy laughter over everything she had needed but never known she could never have.
And safety hadn't turned out to be safe at all, fucking his best friend's wife in a glorified cupboard, mouth hot on flesh that wasn't the flesh he'd vowed to worship. Flesh that had been vowed to someone else. Someone else who was screaming up a flight of stairs, trying to hush a crying girl and push down his rage and put his love first and his hate and his betrayal and his wasted life ever second. Edward tried to put it behind him, for all that it was still naked in the pantry and he was suddenly even more alone than he'd known.
And Bella was gone. She took the keys from the bowl beside the door where Emmett had left them and drove without stopping, leaving him stranded for all she cared. She drove to their house, a whirl of tears she hadn't let fall for so many years, overturned shelves and cupboards laid bare, every single item in their pantry on the floor.
She packed quickly. Only the things that she would need. One small suitcase full of clothes and a set of lonely twin sheets.
She let herself into the gallery, into the tiny vacant apartment above it.
She made her bed herself. The bed she would lie in by herself.
And there in the quiet space, alone at last in practice and in name, she cried herself to sleep.
If she had thought she'd been surviving before, she hadn't known the meaning of the word.
The first few days passed in darkening blurs. She rose in the morning, her naked body numb beneath the shower spray, clothes pulled on and time spent in the gallery. She ate when the panging in her stomach grew painful enough to echo the panging in her heart. She slept.
Most of the time, she slept.
Emmett came to find her first. He waited three days, his banging fist finally falling on the door to the apartment above the gallery, half-hearted cries of her name and a spark in his voice she'd never heard before. He talked through the door because she wouldn't let him in. His apology was the biggest non-apology she'd ever heard. He was sorry for hurting her. So sorry for the lie.
But not once did he apologize for fucking his best friend's wife.
When he finally went away, Bella opened the door, her pale and thinning frame ghostly in the hall as she took in the other elements of her husband's non-apology.
He'd brought her boxes. Boxes of clothes and make-up. Boxes of photographs and books. She let her hair fall hard around her face again, moisture in her eyes and on her cheeks as she dragged each lonely item in.
She didn't unpack them. She just let them sit, cluttering up her doorway and reminding her that she was alone.
It was another full week before the next knock. The next visitor. The next reminder of all that she had lost.
Bella knew who it was just by the cadence of the soft thumping at the door, a lingering rhythm like the beating of her heart. She rose and walked unsteadily to place her hand upon the wood, to feel through those inches the motion of his hand, knuckles beating, fingers thrumming, a plea for entrance and for access and all her world grew still.
She couldn't bring herself to look through the peephole. If she saw his face she knew she'd let him in and she didn't know what that would mean.
After a few moments of that relentless, quiet knocking, she sank, indecision and uncertainty, her head hitting the edge of the door with a treacherous thump.
It took a moment to register. And then she heard his voice, Edward's voice, smooth low tones that healed her heart and made it ache. "Bella?"
He called her name again after a moment of silence. And then nothing. She almost tore the door open, almost ran out into the hall, suddenly needing to see if his face bore resignation or rejection. She had nothing to blame but her own inaction for his leaving, for his giving up on her. But she was frozen. Everything inside of her was ice.
Then she heard a matching thump, a falling motion of a head on wood, a lean and muscled back sliding slowly down, and she could almost feel the warmth of his body through the door, his position matching hers she was sure.
"I don't know if you're listening, Bella. But I'm going to talk." He hesitated. "Could you give me something? Something to know if you're listening? Just tell me if you're here with me?"
She twisted slightly, her side to the door now instead of her back, and she pressed her hand again to the wood, a thin brushing sound of skin on paint and splinters. With a tear between her tired lids, she lifted just her index finger, tapping gently.
It was all he needed. "Thank you. It's more than I deserve." She felt and heard his raw intake of breath, heard all his nerves exposed. "I'm sorry I didn't come earlier. It was just … it was too much.
"Rosalie moved out. Lizzie was a mess. I had to take care of my daughter. I had to, Bella.
"She's my life. I couldn't give her up."
Bella heard the same resignation on his voice as always, the way he took nothing for himself.
Her voice was weak and quiet, almost broken from lack of use over so many long and silent nights. Trembling, she said, "I wouldn't want you to." She heard his body pull away from the door, could almost hear his surprise in his quickened breath. "If you did you wouldn't be you."
"It's too much to ask, Bella. I'm a lot to handle, and I don't come alone."
"Why did you marry her, Edward?" She needed to know.
"We got knocked up. I thought it was the right thing to do." He spoke with more conviction, "It was the right thing to do. I didn't know if she'd even let me see the baby if I didn't. I had to see her. Even before … even before she was born I knew I loved her."
Bella's voice was shaky. "Why are you married to her still?"
His answer came out in one long whoosh of air on the door. "I'm not. I won't be. As soon as I can get the paperwork done, I won't be."
"Rosalie wasn't much of a mother to her anyway… And Bella … you must know that Lizzie has always loved you."
She went back and forth, not sure what to say, a weird sensation like hope and the loosening of weights that made her ankles feel free.
He broke the silence for her, smooth voice suddenly quiet and ragged, "Just like I've always loved you."
In one quick motion Bella finally opened the door.
When she took Edward in, she almost wanted to cry all over again. He looked as fractured as she did, as lost and alone.
And for the first time ever, she could do something about it.
Bella took him into her arms and into the lonely rooms where she had marked the time, as her marriage and her friendship passed her by.
When he held her again, something she had never thought that he would do, the lonely years and wasted time all melted, the hurt and the betrayal and everything falling like so much dead wood.
She lifted her head, his hand again on her face, fingertips desperate to stop her lonely crying. She felt warm skin, rough on her smooth as he took tender tears away, each tear an ocean, and suddenly she was determined to cross it. His fingers were replaced with lips, warm breath across her face as he kissed the fading traces of her loneliness, wiped up the slick surface of her tears.
He pulled his face back up, and she saw the wet upon those lips, saw her own tears on Edward's mouth. When she tasted them, they tasted like bitterness and fear.
And they tasted like him.
Their first kiss had been three years in the making, an impossible buildup of wants and things unspoken. She rose up gently on bare feet, her chest against his as her ankles shook and almost gave, pressing her mouth to his own damp lips. One arm clasped around his neck, she pulled her aching fingers to his face, tracing the line of his jaw. Tentatively, she pushed soft at the place where that bone met his ear, relaxing all the places where she had always seen him tense.
Wanting him to never know that tension when he was with her.
Wanting him always, always to be with her.
His lips gently parted and she drank him in, a trembling slow motion of mouth on mouth and the taste of his skin as her tongue darted out to meet his. With every kiss another lonely month faded away. Another memory of watching him across an empty room. Of not being able to bridge that aching space. Of being hopelessly pledged to another.
Of settling and finding herself stuck.
And with each kiss she understood anew that she and Edward had never been friends. That they could never have been. That their bodies had always been meant to talk like this.
They made it all the way to the bedroom before they spoke another word, his hands beginning to make soft circles on her body, slow caresses of breasts and thighs and all the little spaces he'd watched from afar for far too long. She touched him too, felt the lines of hidden muscles, the hard rise of collarbone and pelvis above low-slung jeans. And then, with unsure fingertips, she touched the denim-covered hardness of the space between his hips.
It was when she finally touched him that he first made to pull away, a gasp on his wet and trembling lips. For all that their touches and kisses had been slow, both found themselves shaking for breath, heat and want like liquid on their tongues and in their lungs.
"Tell me this isn't revenge, Bella. Tell me this isn't just this once for you. That it isn't you settling again. I can't - I can't," he whispered into her flesh, unable to say what he couldn't do.
She shook her head, a fearsome denial and a pushing of everything else away. "It isn't, it isn't. No."
And then she finally breathed into his mouth the words she'd been hiding even from herself, "Edward, I love you, too."
They fell back onto the tiny, unmade bed then, shaking hands finding naked flesh, fabric pulled away until they were both revealed.
"It's been a long time," he whispered, long hands upon her naked breasts as his forehead rested on her chest.
She started, surprised. "Rosalie?"
"Rosalie and I hadn't … we haven't shared a bed in more than a year."
Bella began to cry again, her relief and her desire mixing again with the bitterness of betrayal. "Me neither," she said softly as she shook. "Not in almost exactly a year."
And both of them knew the significance.
Edward gently traced again the dampness on her skin, the lines of sorrow on her hollow cheeks. He licked the bitterness away before seizing again on her lips, soft sucking of rosy flesh and tongue as she felt him grip her closer, tighter.
When he finally laid on top of her, they both were crying, although the bitterness was much abated. She cried for lost years. She cried for relief. He shed a lonely tear to find her so near.
"May I make love with you?" he asked, his voice warm and smooth against her ear.
"It's all I've ever wanted you to do."
He finally slipped inside her, a slow motion of hips gradually closing in on hips. She pressed him forward with her ankles, wrapped soft around his back to take him in. When she felt the full length of him, hard flesh embedded in all her years of liquid want, she trembled, pleasure in all the distant reaches of her body that had been a desperate stranger to her for so long. She felt all the empty places inside her suddenly filled.
The motion of their love-making was soft and gentle, clasped hands and naked bodies, quiet moans rising up to punctuate the closed-in night. She took him in, begging him ever closer, her fingernails in his hair and on his shoulders, her body smooth and tight.
When they came together, it was with a whispering of each others' names.
And that night neither of them slept alone.
It took three years for them to dance around each other, hiding in promises and vows and misplaced words.
In three more years' time they danced a different dance. Their first dance.
Well, their first as husband and wife.
In a dress that was lace and timeless romance, she held him close, her head resting soft against his chest, matching rings on fingers entwined.
They moved into their own home, a room for them and a room for Lizzie. And a third room that they made into a nursery.
When their baby son was born, it was with light hearts that they welcomed him into the world, his emergence into it marked with love instead of duty, hope and want instead of settling.
Bella cried the first time she held him, delighted to take in the same green eyes that had first enamored her of the little baby's father and his sister.
And in that moment, Edward himself couldn't have been more happy. Because his son had Bella's hair and her smile.
A/N: This entire story was written in a flu-related cold-med / fever-induced haze.
Reviews are better than NyQuil. Not in that soporific way. Just in that they-make-me-feel-better way.