A/N: Twilight and its characters belong to Stephenie Meyer. I don't own anything. Not even Boozeward. He belongs to the fab ladies at (the artists formerly known as) WArehab and they can do whatever they want with him (except allow him anywhere near water or feed him after midnight). Thanks so much for all your kind words and encouragement!
This chap is dedicated to the marvelous TKMOONNUMBERS as it is her birthday today (actually, it ended thirteen minutes ago, but lettuce pretend I posted on time and didn't have to deal with a tornado outbreak today, kk?). I love ya.
I don't know what it was about summer I loved so much. Maybe it was the sun, the smell of fresh-cut grass, or the fizz of sprinklers or laughs of children playing. Maybe it was that first month, before the frustration of sweat and smelliness had gotten to me, before I had a chance to tire of sweltering cars or wish for the refreshing breeze of autumn—or maybe it was being able to finally access the biggest portion of my Florida wardrobe: summer clothes.
I had boxes upon boxes of summer clothes that I hadn't been able to so much as peek at until my week off. I'd spent that entire week washing whole bundles of halters and tanks, and shorts and dresses. I hung them up one at a time, satisfied with how full my closet and dresser looked once I was finished. Unpacking the clothing, however, had also brought to light my many other unpacked boxes.
This was why I stood in that cluttered corner of the living room, staring at them as I gnawed my nails. I didn't know what to do with most of my stuff—I didn't see it fitting into this house and blending in with any comfortable measure.
The first non-clothing related box I'd decided to wade through held inconsequential things—knick knacks and prints and coasters and all the small items that served little purpose, but made the bigger items fit.
I considered my favorite pair of bookends and inspected each wall in an effort to feel out where they might fit in best. But the first wall proudly displayed Charlie's many Sherriff's Office accreditations, and the second was home to one fake talking bass—a battery-operated fish that sang something-or-another—and there was no way I could put the bookends on either.
I supposed I could use them in my own bedroom, but… no one would ever see them, and what's the point in that?
I pulled my cell phone from my pocket and dialed, warily eyeing the tower of unpacked boxes as the rings sounded in my ear.
"You're calling me," Edward answered, unnecessarily. "On the phone."
I rolled my eyes. "I asked for your number, Edward. What did you think, I planned to bronze it?"
He sounded about as surprised as he had the night I'd asked for it, following our reunion Scrabble game. But that's what friends did, right? They could call at noon on a Thursday for no reason whatsoever, just to ask what the other was up to.
I'd longed for that—the feeling of friendship—the entire month Edward had exiled himself from my life, because I'd been lonely—again. I'd even tried to strike up a closeness with some of my coworkers, only to find they didn't ignite that spark of interest, bursts of laughter, or unexpected comfort that I'd felt with Edward.
Our easy friendship no longer bothered me, in the same way in which that mole on my shoulder no longer bothered me. There was no use in fussing over it, or questioning it, or dwelling on the fact that it was out of place. It just was.
As I rifled through the foremost box, his surprise transformed to suspicion. "Did something break?"
My forehead wrinkled in confusion. "No. I was just calling to ask what the chances were you'd need a set of gargoyle bookends." With a triumphant smile, I pulled one of the heavy statuettes from the box.
Lester and Howard would have a good home with Edward.
Edward didn't seem particularly enthused. "Come again?"
"Bookends, with gargoyles," I repeated. "They go on the ends of book? Hold 'em upright? Ring any bells? They're less gothic-y pretentious than they sound."
"Why are you trying to give me bookends?"
Frowning at the tower of boxes, I elaborated, "I have all this… stuff from Jacksonville that I have to unpack eventually, and… I don't know what to do with it."
"So, you used the bookends in Jacksonville?"
"Yeah." Lester and Howard once guarded my set of gothic romances, which seemed apropos.
He hummed in thought. "But… you can't use them now?"
I quirked a wry smile. "I dunno how good they'd look next to Charlie's mounted talking bass."
"So take the bass down."
The thought of taking it down made my chest clench in a physical, painful way.
Edward's sigh into the phone was loud and knowing. "Bella, it's your home now."
My voice was small, uncertain. "I know."
"You should make it yours. Paint the walls, move the furniture, put up some fucking gargoyles for Christ's sake." There was a smile in his voice that sounded more sad than amused.
"It doesn't feel right," I confessed, inspecting all the little facets about the space that made it Charlie's. "I know, it's stupid, but I can't help it." It was too soon. Maybe it'd always be too soon.
Edward began, "It's not stupid, you just…," but then paused and seemed to be moving about. His voice adopted a softer tone when he continued, "You just need to start small, you know? Little things, each day, and then one morning you'll wake up, and it'll feel more like you and less like him, and—I don't know, maybe that'll hurt like a bitch, but he'd want that. He'd wanna see that house be more about the life he gave you and less about the life he lost."
I nodded, even though he couldn't see, because the tightness of sobs had captured my chest. I struggled to contain the sound of them—to twist the phone away from my face and hide my vulnerability. This had become frustratingly common. I never knew when it was going to happen—when some random reminder of the permanence of his death would trigger this pit-deep sensation of grief.
Edward must have known, because he stayed silent on the other end as my sobs slowly dissipated to long, wet sniffles, but he didn't call attention to my weakness, and I was grateful.
When I could speak, I muttered, "You talk about him like you knew him," and pawed at a nearby box of tissues.
"Not as well as I would have liked." Edward's voice was bordering on distressed, and I could sense the urgency there—knew that he was about to ask me one of the five "grieving family member" questions.
I offered a hasty, unconcerned sigh before he could. "Start small, huh?"
"Yeah. You know, something like… gargoyle bookends?"
I rolled my eyes. "I'm never gonna live this gargoyle thing down, am I?"
I clutched Lester to my chest. "It was a phase."
"A gargoyle phase?" I could practically hear the quirk of his eyebrow.
"The mythology is fascinating. Gargoyles drive away evil with a façade of malice, when at their core, their intentions are to only protect."
He hummed thoughtfully, as if considering this, but then supplied, "In any case, I'm not really one to give advice in this area. My wallpaper is baseball-themed."
I laughed so hard that I snorted, slapping a palm to my mouth. I couldn't help but tease, "Do you still have posters taped to the wall? No, wait. Lemme guess. Jamiroquai and models humping Camaros."
His reply was less offended than I expected of a thirty year old man being called out for living with his parents. "Actually, Rage Against the Machine and models humping Stingrays. I mean, come on, Bella, give me some credit. I do have taste."
"So why don't you change it?"
"Because I'm not staying."
Now, that sounded just as offended as I'd expect. I grimaced. "Of course. I didn't mean anything by it," and gently produced Howard from the box to join Lester.
Dismissive, Edward only asked, "What're you doin' today?"
"Laundry," I mused, adding, "Maybe… putting up some gargoyles? And, of course, feeling miserable as a result of the two."
He supplied a small, "Hmm, misery," before offering, "Want some company?"
Forty minutes later, Edward was standing in my living room, hands shoved in his pockets, inspecting Lester and Howard with a curious tilt of his head. He looked better than the last time I'd seen him. He'd shaved, and the dark black eye bruise had faded to a greenish yellow. I still wondered who was responsible for the state of his face, but whenever I'd asked, he'd just blown me off.
"They're…" He gave Howard a poke. "…cute."
I balked. "They are not cute. They are menacing."
Edward swept his eyes to the side, meeting my own. "They're grinning."
"Cutely," he amended. "I bet you even have names for em, don't ya?"
"Do not." I lied.
But then his voice took on that same soft, yet distressed quality as he asked, "Hey, you okay?" Even though his shoulder seemed to twist toward me, he kept a wide distance between us, which was something I'd noticed from his previous visit. He was making a new practice of standing two arm spans away. I wasn't sure how I felt about that yet—relieved or just… sad.
I was definitely sure, however, how I felt about his question. I sank into the sofa with a groan. "Now you're asking the five 'grieving family member questions?'"
At his confused expression, I explained, "Are you okay? Is there anything I can do? You'll let me know if there is? Do you need to talk? Are you sure you're okay?" I wrinkled my nose. "It all starts to lose sincerity after so long–which… is wrong, I know." I finished with a sigh, "I just can't walk out of the house without someone reminding me."
He took a seat in the chair at the farthest end of the room, eyes fixed to his shoes. "I think they're just worried, you know? You hole yourself up in this house, never go anywhere, do anything fun." His eyes scanned the room, brows pinched together. "The Chief was a good guy. I think—I know—it's just their way of respecting him. You aren't the only one who lost him, you know."
He'd pinpointed my biggest problem. This town—all these people—they had been more of a family to Charlie than I ever was. Whenever they'd show sympathy or pity—it made me feel undeserving of their kindness. I didn't want anyone to worry about me.
"What do you do for some action in this town, anyway?" I asked, drawing my knees to my chest. Edward just stared at me, unblinking, until I realized my error. I added, "Something that isn't debauch."
He pushed a small laugh through his nose at this, replying, "There isn't anything in this town to do for fun that isn't debauch—used to spend most of my time here thinking of other places to go…" His eyes took on a distant, foggy quality that made me wonder if he weren't doing that right now.
"Where would you go?"
He shrugged. "Port Angeles. Seattle. La Push, if the weather was nice." His lips formed a small, secretive grin. "Sometimes, when it wasn't."
I gleefully exclaimed, "La Push! There's a beach, right?" His nod was a little too humdrum, given the obvious perfection of the idea. "Well, we both have the day off, and it's a great day! And look," I persisted, "I have, like… a whole box of beach stuff to unpack." I punctuated this by approaching the tower of boxes and dragging one out that used to be labeled "Beach," but had "Trash" scrawled over the top of it. Clearly, upon packing, I hadn't been too thrilled with the looming grayness of Forks.
Scooting forward in his seat, he asked, "You wanna go to the beach?"
"Uhh… fuck, yeah." He'd be lucky if he could drag me off it at the end of the day. "I'll pack some lunch and stuff. It'll be great!"
"Okay," he called, but I was already jogging up the staircase to my room, arms full of beach attire.
My bikini—all black and small, and totally perfect for a day out on a Florida beach that held the promise of many a-strapping-young-men—was stepped into, tied securely, and adjusted without much consideration—at first.
I'd had a lot of time to really dwell on the fact that Edward was interested in me in some romantic fashion. If I were a bigger person, I would have simply lived in denial for the past month. But I wasn't. On the inside, a little part of me was still that same freshman girl, daydreaming of grand gestures, green eyes, toned forearms, and boxer waistbands exposed by too-low pants.
But then came the utter mortification those feelings created—mortification at being attracted to someone intent on hurting me—and I would berate myself, feel awful for not admiring someone as beautiful on the inside as they were on the outside. I'd never been a shallow person, but Ben Cheney, who'd once shown a polite interest in me, had had chronic acne and a stutter, and I'd declined his advances in high school, opting instead for lazy afternoons spent dreaming of someone prettier and yet uglier.
Ben Cheney was certainly no Edward Cullen.
Edward Cullen, that boy responsible for those old fantasies, somehow wanted me now. Like that. It was surreal to me in such a way that I didn't question my bikini until I stood before my mirror, blushing. Would it be rude to wear this? Would Edward feel lead on? Would it seem as though I was parading myself before him, half-naked, in some kind of tactless attempt at teasing him?
None of these things were true, but I was suddenly sensitive about every little thing, in conflicting ways. For instance, as I spun around before my mirror, I did worry about the implications of my bikini, but… I also worried about the state of my hips and thighs and God, I hoped that shadow on the back of my butt wasn't cellulite. The lighting in here must just be terrible.
I quickly donned a cover-up and decided I was over-thinking it, since Edward surely expected me to wear a bathing suit to the beach, and since surely, it made no difference to me whether or not he found me attractive.
As it turns out, I had nothing to worry about, because once I descended the stairs, Edward laughed at me.
"You're gonna stick out like the only tourist La Push has ever seen."
It was most practical for us to take his car, which was unfortunate. I didn't like Edward's Volvo. It was small, and I wasn't familiar with the locks.
I always made it a point to get acquainted with child safeties and possible mechanism failures before getting inside a vehicle. Nevertheless, it felt odd asking Edward about these things, especially since he could likely pinpoint the cause, and I didn't want to spoil our fun day, so I remained quiet as we took the back roads to his house, sweating and uncomfortable. I kept my hand on the door latch, aching to pull just hard enough to hear the whoosh of accompanying air in reassurance it would open.
In my teens—after I'd moved to Jacksonville from Forks—Renee had bought me a car. It'd been this tiny blue sedan—something safe and suitable for any 'average' teenaged girl—but I hadn't been able to even enter it. Nightmarish visions of getting trapped inside plagued me to the point of insanity. She'd spent so much money on it, had been so determined to see me happy and independent, that I'd eventually phoned Charlie and confessed how awful the situation had made me feel.
Ten days after that teary phone conversation had taken place, I received my lucky pen in the mail.
Now, I clutched that pen inside my fist and took steadying breaths. Even though it could only get me out of so much, my nerves ebbed knowing that I would definitely not get trapped in this car, on this day. Definitely.
When Edward finally pulled the car into his driveway, my hand acted of its own accord, pulling the latch with a soothing click.
He offered me a concerned look as he removed his safety belt and asked, "Everything cool?"
I didn't answer him until I was out of the car, gulping air into my lungs. "Yep!"
Skeptical, he lingered around the car and asked, "Do you wanna come in, or…?" and I could see him chewing on the inside of his cheek.
I admitted, "Not really," and felt a little embarrassed by my frankness until he emitted a relieved sigh.
"Cool." He smiled, calling behind him, "Be right back."
I took this moment to whirl around to the car door, open it wide, and inspect the manufacturer's text that resided on the innermost side of it. The child lock was disabled and didn't seem to have ever experienced use, but I fiddled with it—just in case—to make sure it wouldn't somehow stick.
It was then that a voice startled me. "Afternoon, Isabella."
I gasped and turned to find Edward's father standing before the second car occupying the driveway. I flushed, greeting, "Good afternoon, Dr. Cullen."
He was giving me a polite, but odd look as he lingered. "How are you?"
"Good," I answered with a bob of my head. "Working. Taking care of the house. You and Mrs. Cullen?"
He supplied a similar bob of his head. Small talk. Ugh. "Working. Taking care of our children."
My smile at this was fake and polite, and because I hated being fake and polite, it occurred to me that I should probably take this opportunity to broach, "I heard you were having some trouble at the hospital. Sorry to hear about that." It hadn't felt right asking Edward to set up a meeting between myself and his dad, given the weak foundation of our friendship, but now that he was just standing here, talking to me in something like private, I figured it couldn't hurt.
Though he did seem rather confused. "Hm?"
"Dr. Aro and all," I elaborated.
Edward's dad shook his head. "No, no trouble. He's been an enormous help. I don't know where we'd be without him."
Taken aback, I muttered a small, "Oh," and tried to hide my shock. I knew I hadn't misunderstood Edward that day in my kitchen. His words were as clear to me now as they had been then. He didn't make it sound like a mere petty difference of opinion, either. According to him, his dad had been stressed out over some 'shady activity.' So why, then, was Dr. Cullen suddenly singing Herbert Aro's praises?
Something felt off.
Dr. Cullen, in an obvious attempt to steer the subject elsewhere, remarked, "Going to the beach?"
I was still suspicious, but decided to humor him. After all, maybe he just didn't feel comfortable discussing work issues with strangers. "Edward mentioned La Push, and I thought it was a nice day to get out. He just needed to drop in to get some swim trunks."
Dr. Cullen straightened at this, smiling in a bright and infectious way. "Is that so?" he asked. "Edward never goes out anymore. Actually, I've been a little worried about him." This was punctuated with a small sigh. "He's still trying to wrap his head around the concept of having fun without booze."
Edward's words from before about my never leaving the house or having fun seemed to apply to him as well, which stirred even more guilt.
Dr. Cullen continued, "He needs a friend outside of this." He gestured at the house, and the expression he wore—the pain that laced the wrinkles in his forehead—was familiar to me. It was the same look Charlie adopted whenever I'd come home from school with bruises and no weekend plans.
I ducked my chin, unsure what to say and assaulted with that same, pit-deep grief that any memory of Charlie created.
Luckily, before the silence between us could grow awkward and upsetting, Edward exited the house and came jogging toward us.
Dr. Cullen laughed, guessing, "Making a run for it, eh?"
Edward cautioned a peek over his shoulder toward the house, but only replied in an almost shy murmur, "Mom, you know…"
His dad didn't press. "Be safe," was what he said before entering his car and backing out of the driveway.
Dr. Cullen's words rang in my mind as Edward as I stood upon a cliff, thirty minutes later, overlooking the water below. We were here because Edward had insisted that, "You can't just walk into the water." Apparently, this meant we had to climb a cliff. Edward had some sort of La Push ritual, one which required a complete disregard for self preservation.
"You have got to be kidding me."
Edward's expression seemed to mirror my own as he nudged a rock from the cliff and watched it disappear. "Wow, this looks a lot higher up than the last time I came here."
I was highly skeptical. "You didn't seriously used to jump from here." It was the highest cliff that I could see, and there were plenty of other, shorter, more practical cliffs to jump from.
His face was serious as he turned to me, assuring, "We used to jump from here all the time." He then raked a hand through his hair, brows knitting together. "But I usually had some liquid courage, and James egging me on, and the girls we brought always seemed impressed, so…" He trailed off with a guilty shrug.
Of course, this made perfect sense to me, and I joked with a wry smile, "Did it at least get you laid?"
Edward tossed me a toothy grin and an excited nod. "Oh yeah."
The last thing I wanted to hear about, for various, conflicting reasons, was Edward getting laid, so I deadpanned, "Well, obviously, there's no way either of us are jumping from this thing. Next one down?"
He agreed, but the next one down didn't seem much safer. Neither did the third. Or the fourth. By the time we hit the fifth cliff, my feet were beginning to ache, and I was sweating my ass off.
Lucky for us, the drop at the fifth ledge wasn't so bad. "This looks safe," I assessed, slipping off my sandals.
But Edward's mood had followed our drop in elevation, and his shoulders sank as he observed our jumping point. "If James were here, he'd laugh at me," he said.
I clucked my tongue. "There's nothing wrong with being smart, Edward." When he didn't look really convinced, I added, "Plus, think about your leg."
His eyes widened, palm smacking against his forehead as he exclaimed, "Yes! My leg." His lips formed a smile as he lifted his shirt above his head, remarking, "That's a damn good point."
I followed suit, removing my cover-up and placing it neatly on the ground with my sandals. I folded it just so, attentive and definitely not one bit interested in seeing Edward's bareness. Sadly, eyes have this way of seeking out strictly avoided points, so the second I turned to him, all I saw was skin skin skin. There was a lot of chest and a little bit of abs, because Edward didn't have that totally ripped, bulky-type physique, but he was toned and all… sinewy. He was even sweating a little bit, too.
I rolled my eyes as I tore them away, because duh. Edward had always been good-looking. That was obvious, constant, and, quite frankly after so long, almost caricature-like. I'd just never been granted such an unobstructed view of it.
But where I made a strong effort to hide my observations, Edward was openly sweeping his eyes up and down my figure in a way that made my skin erupt a startled-red. I figured after he got a good look, he'd just disregard me, because even though I was totally secure with myself physically, I was also realistic and knew I was nothing special to the average guy.
Edward proved me wrong, however, when his eyes ascended my body and rested on my breasts—and remained there for way longer than was appropriate, even with the five second grace period I'd given him.
I battled the urge to cover my chest with my arms. "Hello," I called, snapping my fingers before his face. "My eyes are up here, you know."
Without meeting my gaze, he answered with a nod, "They're nice, too." My fist met his shoulder with a fleshy smack that barely caused him to sway, but served its purpose as he laughed and finally raised his eyes to mine. "Oh, come on," he argued. "I saw you checking me out, too."
I groused under my breath, even though I was sure he'd hear, "But at least I was polite about it."
The water was calmer than I expected when I looked down over the edge of the cliff, and even though we were on the lowest ledge in the area, it was still a pretty intimidating drop. I took a deep breath to calm my nerves.
Edward sidled alongside me with an askew glance. "Like what you saw?"
I suppressed the temptation to push him off the cliff. "You're a very pretty man, Edward. Better to look at than listen to, I assure you."
But then his voice dropped and his shoulders rose, and his expression turned serious, which worried me, because we were definitely joking around just now. Right? "Hey, can I ask you a question?"
My response was wary. "Depends."
"Mike said something the other day, and—" His gaze shifted to the water below us, but when his mouth opened again, no sound emerged. Instead, he toed at a rock and sent it tumbling off the edge, expression pensive. For an immeasurable moment, he remained like this, until he released a chuckle and turned to me with a slanted grin. "If all your friends jumped off a cliff, would you?"
One second he was standing there beside me, and the next, he was gone.
I didn't wait to see him meet the water. I just followed his lead and… jumped. My fall from that cliff would become one of those mighty moments that I'd look back on with a smile: no walls, no doors, no locks, no ceiling or ground. Just me and the open air. I didn't scream.
I hit the water with a wonderful splash, which was warmer than I'd expected. My top was practically torn from my chest, and it felt as though I sank for miles. I broke the surface with a gasp, frantically adjusting my bikini while spinning in place to find Edward.
He was close enough that I could see the smile he wore, hand palming the water from his face, but far enough to merit his shouted, "Fun?"
"Definitely!" But, God, I really hoped he hadn't seen my wardrobe malfunction.
He raised his arms high and yelled, "I give the nip-slip an eight-point-five!"
Dammit. "That's really insensitive, you know!"
He paused for a moment, waves pushing him up and down, before replying thoughtfully, "Would you feel better if I admitted the distance made it kinda blurry?" He tilted a palm to and fro. "I bet it was more nine-point-five-ish."
"Edward," I warned, ready to drown myself if this smile beneath the surface of my anger erupted.
He threw his head back with a booming laugh before assuring, "I'm just fuckin' with ya. I didn't see a thing," Even though I was certain he probably had, I appreciated him pretending. Treading toward me, grin still wide like the cat that ate the canary, he asked, "Wanna go again?"
I didn't keep count how many times we jumped from the cliff, but it was enough that my calves eventually ached as a result of the admittedly tedious trek from the bank to the summit. Edward probably could have kept going all afternoon. He'd even offered to give me a piggyback ride, at which point I'd cunningly distracted him with the lunch I'd brought—because piggyback rides would have been a little too weird, especially since Edward's two-arm-span rule was still in full effect, and I wasn't necessarily missing his overly-touchy demeanor.
We settled on a large piece of driftwood, sandwiches in our laps, hair damp and unkempt, staring out over the water. At least, Edward was staring out over the water. When I wasn't just staring off into space, I was inspecting him through my periphery, pondering the many weird transitions we'd taken, and contemplating the moment I found us in right now.
It was during one of these odd, appreciative seconds that I noted, "You're pretty cool." I didn't really intend for it to sound so cheesy and third-grade-Valentine-card-ish. I felt the words as more surprised than anything.
He lifted one corner of his lips, revealing more of his half-chewed sandwich than I really wanted to see and replied, "Yeah? You're cool, too."
A million times in my adult life, I'd imagined meeting Edward again, and not one of them painted him in this light: the sun on his face as he reclined back, propped on a palm, eyes fixed to the slice of tomato he'd just pulled from his sandwich and tossed to the ground. He was relaxed and comfortable and quiet in an infectious way and just… cool. He was a cool guy.
"When did that happen?" I wondered, more to myself than anything. It didn't fit the perfectly carved niche I'd fit him into. I'd decided so many things, had crafted my understanding of the world and the people in it, had pieced together my morals and feelings based around that niche.
He leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees, and added with a thoughtful stare at his food, "Happened about a year ago, I guess."
Relieved that we could say these things without the annoyance of possible insult, I asked, "Was it really just the addiction that made you like that?" I couldn't really grasp it, but then again, I'd always been a pretty casual drinker.
He gave a serious and certain nod. "Of course it was the addiction. I never wanted to be that person—the guy everyone avoided and thought the worst of. I just—" He wrapped up the remained of his sandwich slowly, carefully. "After so long, it was where I belonged. It was where… people who did the things I did belonged. It was fucking… convenient. Made sense, you know?"
I wanted to point out that little of that explanation had anything to do with an addiction to liquor. "I have to admit," I said, "I don't really remember you being all boozed up in high school." A little maybe, here and there, but I was reluctant to blame his actions on drunken stupidity.
He turned to me and replied, "Oh, it wasn't always drinking in high school. I liked to experiment. Probably was just trying to find which drug I liked most or something."
I was brimming with curiosity as I straddled the driftwood and asked, "So on my first day when we met, in the gym? It was after that pep-rally—I remember because I was thinking… I'm new here and they expect me to pep? Do you remember?"
His eyes narrowed in focus for a moment, before his forehead creased in confusion. "I don't… really remember a lot."
Having an impeccable memory myself, I explained, "You, James, and that Vickie girl were on the bleachers right in front of me, and I spent the whole assembly—" I quickly edited the truth, embarrassed that I'd spent most of that hour gazing at the little freckle on the nape of his neck. "—trying to work up the nerve to actually talk to someone." Namely, him.
Edward smiled, eyes crinkled and distant. "I can imagine that."
"So," I continued, fighting back the inevitable shade of red I was about to turn, "When it was over and everyone stood up, I tapped you on the shoulder."
His smile wilted.
I lost myself in the memory. "You turned to me, and…"
His eyes climbed my body, from my knees to my nose, and when his gaze met mine, he smiled. When he spoke, he did so in a simple, matter of fact voice. "Fresh freshman meat."
My laughter was laced with anxiety at his choice of words. "Um, yeah? I'm B-b-bella." I wanted to turn on my heel, grab my bag, and stalk away, cursing my mouth for choosing a really crappy time to not cooperate. Instead, I flushed and couldn't suppress the crinkling of my nose.
Edward emitted a small laugh that puffed his cheeks, green eyes alight when he stated, "I'm Edward. This here is James, and that bitch he's arguing with is Vickie." Edward tossed his head in the direction of a bickering couple, though if I looked hard enough, I could see the sparkle at the corner of her eyes—tears brimming as she clenched her teeth and turned her back to the blond boy at her side. I couldn't make out was James was saying, but his expression was an odd mixture of fury and total delight.
"You the cop's kid?" Edward asked, seeming more curious than anything.
I grimaced, pondering aloud, "Is that how I'm gonna be known?" It wasn't that I was ashamed of my dad, but still… "That sucks."
Something flashed in his eyes—maybe sympathy or even something a little apologetic—but just as soon as it appeared, it faded. "Hey, James." He nudged his friend, which sent the blond boy whirling toward us.
James had a douchey sort of expression, and even though I hadn't really spoken to him yet, I had a feeling I wouldn't like him.
"This is Bella," Edward introduced. "New freshman."
I really hated how he called attention to that, but was thankful he hadn't introduced me as "the cop's kid," so I gave James a smile and said hello.
In the oddest way, the atmosphere between their group visibly shifted. Vickie turned to us, but only gave me a quickly appraising girlfriend- glance before moving her stare to James. Edward seemed to do the same. As James assessed me—those beady eyes narrowed and calculating—Edward and Vickie were assessing him—almost as if they were awaiting his approval.
He didn't give it. "Yeah, I heard. B-b-bella," he mocked, scoffing sideways to Edward, "That's why I hate these fuckin things. All these geek-tards always fuckin with us."
I gaped at James, firing back, "No one is fucking with you. Feel free to go screw yourself at any moment." I knew he'd end up being a douche.
The split second of disappointment that was evident in Edward's fallen expression was quickly replaced with a stony façade, but I was certain I'd seen it.
It didn't matter, of course. Pack mentality was like that.
His shift was immediate, like the snapping of a branch or the crack of a lightning bolt. His lips pressed into a hard line, and his eyes, once a vibrant green and maybe even a little warm, were now downright icy. "You fuck with me, you fuck with James." It was clear that this worked both ways. By snarking at James, I'd lost any chance at being in Edward's good graces.
Now, I was disappointed. "I see," I offered in a clipped voice, doing my best to hide the heat of my face and the lump in my throat.
This was not how I envisioned my first attempt at making friends unfolding.
He cast a short glance to James, and while they shared a pair of slow, jagged, and derisive smiles, Edward stepped onto my bleacher, close enough that I could smell the scent of his fabric softener. His eyes were hard then, paralyzing, and the sensation of alarm seized me in such a way that his words simply collided with my cheek in a warm gust.
"How about, instead of talking like a geek-tard, you and me go into the dressing room, and you can put that mouth to b-b-better use."
"I—what?" Edward bristled, face contorted into equal parts confusion and anger. "I never said that," he insisted, though his voice held more of a plea than anything resembling conviction.
"You did," I replied with certainty. "I could never forget it. I—" I had disappeared to the dressing room, but I'd done so alone, huddled into a shower stall, crying into my hands, and contemplating from all angles how I could call Renee and admit that my living in Forks wasn't going to work out.
Of course, not before I'd stomped off—not before I'd told Edward just how his suggestion would have turned out: with the loss of his most valued appendage, which had made him laugh clamorously in my wake.
All events from that day on—the shoving and the insults and the name-calling and the mocking and the bruises from the books that came from the locker that had ended it all—none of them had destroyed me as much as that first day.
It'd taken me years to really understand why that was.
Edward broke the silence with a stricken murmur. "You know what that sounds like? That sounds like something James would've said to…" His head hung in such a way that from this angle, his elbows still resting on his knees, I could see that exact same freckle on the nape of his neck. He concluded to his feet while running a hand through his hair, "I'm just... I'm sorry I was a fucking moron like that."
I didn't really want another apology. I knew he was sorry now, but not surprisingly, it gave me no sense of closure. "Were you on anything then?" I asked. He definitely hadn't been drunk. I'd smelled him, had seen the clarity of his eyes.
He held his hands out, palms up, in a helpless gesture. "Probably?"
"Is that why you can't remember?"
His nostrils flared, just barely. "I don't know, Bella. Maybe."
I grimaced at his hard tone. "Don't get frustrated, I just thought it wouldn't hurt to ask."
His hands curled into fists, clenching and releasing as he took a cleansing breath and replied, "You have a right to know. I wish I could just fucking… draw you a picture, but I can't, okay? I was an asshole."
There was definite anxiety present in the bouncing of his knee, and if I searched his eyes hard enough, I could see that little trace of panic he was hiding beneath layers of apology and regret. I didn't get it. I didn't understand why he was so comfortable shouldering the guilt of his actions for his alcoholism, making endless amends for them, and enduring daily degradation at the hands of the entire town, but any discussion involving the basis for that behavior shook him like this.
Was it easier for him to bear that cross than to explore the cause for its existence?
It was a question that'd gone unspoken, since I merely turned my gaze to the water and allowed the discomfort of silence envelope us. I felt badly for possibly ruining what was meant to be a nice afternoon. But wasn't this what I'd always wanted, and—on some level—what Edward had been wanting to grant me?
Edward's sigh was sudden and glum. "You're mad at me."
I had to laugh at this. He seemed like such a little boy in that moment, all grim frown and sulky shoulders. "I'm not mad," I promised, playfully tossing a crumpled napkin at his hung head. When he cautioned a sideways peek at me, I added, "You should know me better than that by now. When I'm mad, you'll know it."
He nodded, lips pursed. "That's true."
I offered, "Hasty change of topic?"
His eyes were wide and relieved. "Please..."
With a smile, I obliged, and we discussed all sorts of things as the sun began to set: how pissy Michael had been since the tire-changing incident, how good my tips at the Lodge had been, how it was quite likely this was due more to pity than my exceptional serving skills, and how Edward and his mother had concocted a plan to get Alice and Jasper back together.
We left La Push at twilight, but only because Edward had "prior obligations" to attend—a confession that had left him—and me—rather bummed. Despite the brief, yet rough detour our conversation on the beach had taken, it had been an otherwise perfect day. When we pulled into my driveway, Edward cut the ignition and exited the car with me, lingering at my door stoop. I couldn't miss the difference of his skin—the smatter of furious sun-pink that colored the bridge of his nose and the apples of his cheeks. I figured my own skin looked the same way, and I felt an internal kind of warmth at seeing us both having gotten some sun.
It looked good on him.
"Don't feel obligated or anything," he began, chewing the inside of his cheek once more, hands shoved into his pockets. "But I'm supposed to invite you to dinner. On Sunday, I mean. My mom—she kind of makes it a big deal." He released a soft laugh that was anxious in its tenor. "There's also a possibility that my sister'll show up, which'll be awkward and humiliating on my account." His ramble was followed by a puff of air.
I was surprised and… touched. "That's really nice of you—and your mom. If I didn't have to work that night, I'd be all for seeing you get humiliated…"
I couldn't tell whether he was more disappointed or relieved, but he lifted one shoulder and assured, "That's cool." His hair was going in a million different directions, and even in the grey-blue of dusk, his skin seemed to shine, and it was just so utterly ridiculous how good he looked, and even more ridiculous that this sensation in my abdomen bloomed and invaded what felt like every cell of my flesh and blood, and so badly, more than anything really, I just…
I didn't want him to leave. I hated being alone, and I hated knowing that had nothing to do with it.
Almost as if he could sense, and was choosing to take total advantage of my moment of weakness, he looked me straight in the eye, and in a very Edward-like fashion stated, "You're really pretty when you blush like that."
I blinked a few times before releasing a self-conscious laugh, feeling my nose crinkle. "What?" I asked, my voice incredulous, and my smile uncontainable. Had I even been blushing?
His expression never faltered. "That's what I should've said to you that day in the gym."
I felt my smile dissolve in a slow, unintentional way as he ducked into his car and softly closed his door. The sound of his tires crunching beneath the gravel as he pulled away was lost to me. I was too busy replacing the interaction I remembered—the interaction that had been the foundation of this festering resentment—with the words Edward would have chosen if he'd been this better person.
It was as freeing as a cliff dive.
A/N: Epic love to PastichePen, who beta'd, ERA and TK for doing the feedback thing, and you, for still being here, even though I suck at update consistency and review replies.
As always, your comments have meant the world to me! I hope I'm doing a little better with the update thing, but I've already started next chapter, and, again, feel free to tweet-bug me. I get all, "Awwww!" I just love ya gals.
Me and PastyP are doing Slash Backslash 2.0 contest for the slash lovin. If you're interested, link's on the profile.
I'm rec fail. Blame FGB.