An Introduction to Swirl and Daisy: The Non-Romantic Romance

Disclaimer: Any Twilight characters that may appear in this story belong to Stephenie Meyer. The remainder is my original work. No reproduction is allowed without my written consent.

A/N: THIS IS THE SECOND OF TWO UPDATES TODAY. If you have not read The First Time He Proposed, please go back one chapter.

Chapter Thirty-Six: The First Time They Felt Real Loss

. . .

God had spent six days creating the world and had taken the seventh off to rest. Not that hard.

Edward, a God-like creature, was supposed to spend six days thinking things over in Seattle and return on the seventh. Also, not that hard.

While we had kept our promise of distance as we worked out our individual needs, it hadn't stopped us from sharing our feelings through pictures: a Harry Potter book lying around the dorm, a swirl on a tablecloth, a banana, a cup of chocolate milk, my bra, his butt. The last picture I had received yesterday was of his bed, indicating he'd made it back to Forks in one piece, which was why he should have been here today. Only he wasn't.

The pictures were small, but they were something that told me we were going to be all right. Had I misread the signs? Our six days apart had made me more determined than ever to attack my problems and crush them into black powder, sans the help of The Quack. I was dying to know where Edward stood.

"What does it mean when your boyfriend says he needs space?"

"It can mean a few things," Emmett said, tossing a football in the air and catching it. "But mostly he's scared. Either he feels like you're too committed and that scares him, or not committed enough, but he's too scared to entirely take the plunge."

Alice was leaning forward over a long folding table that held dozens of toys, board games, and sports equipment, drinking up Emmett's every word like they were dripping from the Holy Grail itself. "Definitely the second one," she said. "But he lives in Seattle. I live in Forks. How much space does the guy need?"

"Space for a guy doesn't only mean physical distance. Believe me, you chicks could find ways to be up in our business from across the universe. He's talking phone calls, text messages, Myspace stalking, the whole shebang."

"Does that mean we're broken up?"

I focused on the furious back and forth of my hand as I scrubbed green crayon off a Cabbage Patch Kid's cheek. If I had known I wasn't the only one who'd had a rotten Valentine's Day, I wouldn't have sent Edward to Seattle to live it up with a newly single Jasper. He'd probably met some chippy at a UDub bar with a nice rack and no mental issues.

You know he wouldn't do that. Stop being a shrew. It's unfair to Edward. That wasn't B. That was all Bella. B hadn't made a peep since she had botched my engagement. My wrath was stronger than hers.

"Here's another one. What does it mean when he says you're a high-maintenance, jealous harpy that never stops breathing down his neck? Is that, like, a defense mechanism or something?"

"Sorry, Alice," Emmett said with another toss of the football. "That's called honesty."

"I have one," I spoke up. "What does it mean when your boyfriend—"

"I'm gonna stop you right there, Bella. I can't answer any questions about Edward."

I stared at Emmett blankly. "My relationship is in peril and you're worried about what, exactly—protecting Edward's mystery?"

"I didn't say I wouldn't. I said I couldn't."

"You're answering questions about Jasper."

"Jasper's a standard teenage dude, not that hard to understand. Edward… well, Edward's anything but standard," Emmett said with a hint of admiration.

Angela nudged my arm. "So are you," she mumbled so only I could hear.

My lips formed a tight smile. "I'm just upset. His cellphone's turned off and he's missing this. He was looking forward to it."

"Who would want to be here today?" Angela asked, chucking a filthy teddy bear in the rubbish pile.

It was Senior Service Day in Forks, which meant the seniors of Forks High were spread out all over the town doing charity work for class credit. My group of friends had been sent to a toy drive to sort through all the second-hand toys the children of Forks had selflessly discarded after getting new ones for Christmas. Angela and I were cleaning off the toys that were salvageable and tossing the toys that were nasty beyond repair. Emmett and Alice were "supervising."

"Edward's got more school spirit than all of us combined," I said, putting the now clean Cabbage Patch doll in the usable bin and moving onto a Lego box.

"Where is good ole Edward?" Emmett asked. "I was supposed to have more testosterone 'round here."

"He spent the week with Jasper." I opened the box and tried not to listen to what I was saying. "He was supposed to be back today."

"Why didn't you say so up front? That changes everything for Alice."

"How?" Alice demanded.

Emmett gave all three of us bemused stares. "You guys don't know?"

"Know what?" I asked.

"Edward's a friggin' love doctor."

"Edward? A love doctor?"

"Well, yeah. I don't think he means to be or anything, but it's hard to not want to be with your high school girlfriend after you listen to him talk about you for any extended period of time. He's single-handedly gotten me and Rose back together, like, seven times. Jasper's been around that for a whole week? I'm shocked he hasn't called already."

The annoyance encasing my heart melted, leaving room for a different kind of worry to creep in. There wasn't any doubt in my mind Edward would still want to be with me after his trip to Seattle. If there had been, I wouldn't have let him go. I would have clung to him as tightly as possible and not given him the chance to leave me. In my heart, I'd always known he'd come back with the same answer he left with.

Why wasn't he here?

"I'll put money down that Jasper calls by the end of the day, ready to give it another go," Emmett was saying. "The kids around here see that you're not like the other couples and want what you have. You guys are different."

The Lego pieces scattered all over the floor, the box having fallen from my grip. "How?" I wanted to grab Emmett's collar and shout the word into his face, but I had settled for an emphatic hand gesture.

He shrugged. "You just are." That answer was the bane of my existence. Or at least a close second to B. "Now, I have a question for you ladies. How is it that I'm a senior the one year April Fools falls on a Saturday? Does a senior prank mean the same thing on April Seventh, as it does on April First?"

"The date doesn't make a difference," Angela said. "What matters is the spirit behind the prank. The underclassmen are going to love it. Who are you going as?"

"Edward and I already have our costumes." I saw us standing at the foot of the stairs, my blonde wig in his hand. "We're going as Marilyn Monroe and Hugh Hefner."

"I'm going as Queen Mary the First, otherwise known as Bloody Mary." Alice gave an eerie hand quiver for effect. "What about you, Angela?"

"I'm thinking of going as Bonnie from Bonnie and Clyde."

"Who's going as your Clyde?" Emmett asked.

"No one." She gave a chipper little jig. "I'm all about breaking down stereo—"

"Oh. Em. Gee! OH. EM. GEE!" Alice shrieked, scaring the crap out of us. She hopped up and down, holding her cell phone about an inch from her face. "Oh. Em. Gee. Oh. Em. Gee!"

"What?" I asked.

"Emmett, you are ghetto-fabulous. Jasper texted me. He wants to get back together!"

I was happy for her, but, "Did he say anything about Edward?"

She hugged her phone to her body and squeezed so hard I worried she might break it. "No. He said after having the weekend to reflect, he thinks we have something worth fighting for and wants to give it another shot."

It was impossible not to read between the lines. Those were Edward's words, for sure.

"Told ya," Emmett said with a wink in my direction.

"What did you say back?" Angela asked.

"Nothing." Alice straightened her skirt and sat back down in faux calmness, still buzzing under the skin. "I have to wait at least an hour so I don't seem too desperate."

I squinted at her comment, seeing it as the kind of thing I would have pulled in middle school. Thank God I had the common sense nowadays to face my problems head-on and in a timely fashion. Or did I?

"Where are you going?" Angela asked, grabbing my arm as I stood to leave.

"I'm picking up Willow and heading over to the Cullens'." I wasn't in middle school anymore. I was seventeen and had a driver's license.

"You're going to ditch me with three hours left of this torment? You're the only other person doing any work."

"Come on, Ang," Emmett said. "Skipping out on Senior Service Day is a time-honored tradition. I'd do it myself, but it's clear Bella needs it more. Anyway, as a preacher's daughter, isn't community service engrained in your DNA?"

"I'm not benevolent," she said, pinching his arm.

"Go forth and skip, Bella," Emmett said dramatically. "I'll hold her off. Just remember you owe me one!"

It was impossible not to imagine all manner of dramatic scenarios as I drove up through the forested hills to the Cullens'. The worst—driving past a deadly car accident and recognizing Edward's Volvo among the wreckage—resulted in me pumping up the radio volume to ungodly heights. Willow didn't mind. I was beginning to think he was partially deaf. So loud was it that I almost missed the vibrating of my cell phone from one of Firebolt's cup holders, and I almost wished I had when I saw the name on the caller ID. Why was Carlisle calling me and not Edward?

I turned off the music. "Hello?"

"Hey, Bella. This is Carlisle Cullen."

As if I knew any other Carlisles. "What's up?"

"Hey, so, um, I know you and Edward are going through some stuff." His voice wasn't its usual smooth, delightful self. He coughed to clear the scratchiness from it, to no avail. "But I was wondering if you could come over for a bit. I've already called Charlie to ask for permission."

"Why? What's going on?"

"It's, um, it's…" He paused, and let out a long, shuddering breath.

With every prolonged second, my patience waned and the warning in my gut grew stronger. An obnoxiously loud horn blared from behind me. To compensate for talking on the phone, I was going thirty under the limit, and it seemed I had a line behind me.

"Bella, are you driving?"

I cringed. "I'm already on my way over. Tell me what's going on."

"You're driving and talking on the phone?"

"Carlisle, please," I begged. "I know something's wrong. Tell me. I'm going to drive way worse not knowing."

"Just get here as soon as possible." The phone clicked without a goodbye.

I rammed my head back against the headrest in frustration. The car behind me honked again as I dialed Edward's number. I hadn't expected him to pick up, but it was still a punch to the gut when it went through to his voicemail. Something so bad had happened that Carlisle was afraid to tell me while I was driving, and Edward wasn't picking up his phone.

"Buckle up," I told Willow, slamming on the gas in an effort to race to the Cullens'.

Firebolt managed to hit fifty before there was a terrifying sputtering noise from the engine. It was all I could do to steer it to the side of the road before it rolled to a silent stop, allowing the other cars to zoom by without a second glance.

"Why are you doing this to me!" I cried to the dashboard, the frustrations of the day pouring out of me like scorching lava. I gave myself five seconds to cry and be pathetic before I straightened up and attacked the problem.

I turned the key in the ignition over and over until I heard a spark and felt the engine rumble beneath me. I breathed out a sigh of relief and eased my way back onto the road, slow and steady this time.

A haphazard parking job was all I could manage when I reached the white mansion, where I jumped from the vehicle and ran to the door, unable to handle the not knowing. Willow disappeared inside as soon as the door cracked open to reveal a disheveled Carlisle, eyes bloodshot; the thought crossed my mind that he looked of death.

"Who is it?" I asked before I could stop myself. "Edward, he's—"

"He's fine. It's… it's not him."

Relief swelled through my soul. "God," I said, stifling a cry into my hand. It was more than relief; it was deliverance, and I was so caught up in it I almost forgot to ask, "Who?"

Carlisle was a doctor. He knew how to deliver bad news, had done so hundreds of times, but the rules changed when it was someone you loved. A name. All I needed was a name. He placed a hand on my shoulder. "Bella, you know how much Elizabeth loved you."

My stomach plummeted. "No."

"She had a heart attack this morning."

"But she's fine, right?"

Tears reformed in his eyes, saying it all. I still couldn't believe it. A chill started to creep up my spine and out through my arms. I ran my hands over the goose bumps to warm them down.

"Bella?" Carlisle asked anxiously.

I opened my mouth to tell him I didn't believe him, but couldn't get the words out. How could I accuse Carlisle of lying, with his pallor and uncombed head of hair? Instead I said, "I don't understand."

He pulled me into a hug. "I don't either." His embrace was familiar—firm and steady like Edward's. "She loved you so, so much. She saw herself in your passion. You brought her so much happiness and made her laugh more than anyone."

The past tenses were getting to me. She loved. She saw. She was no more. I collapsed in Carlisle's arms. My breaths came out as shaky rasps, and pains shot through my abdomen all the way up to my heart. I couldn't think. I couldn't breathe. All I felt were the heaves of my chest and an ache so deep I thought I was going to join her.

A sharp laugh filled my ears… hers. I looked over Carlisle's shoulder but saw nothing.

His voice came back into focus. "She called you her kindred spirit. She wanted to see what you and Edward were going to do with your lives. You were her prides and joys."

It was Edward's name that gave me the power to speak, or at least murmur, "How is he? Oh, God. How's Esme?"

"They need our help." Carlisle made sure I was steady on my feet before he stepped back and held me at arm's length so he could look into my eyes. "Me and you, we're a team, right? We've always been a team when it comes to taking care of the people we love. That's what we do."

"Yes."

"I'll go take care of Esme and you'll go take of Edward. We'll get through this as a family."

The last word rang in my ears. "Family." Blood or not, I felt it in my gut-wrenching pain, she had undeniably been my Grandma. I wiped the tears from my eyes. They were soon replaced with new ones. "Where is he?"

"Up in his room." Carlisle ran a hand down his face. "He's been practically catatonic since he found out. He won't talk to me or look at me."

"She was our hero." My lip trembled as another round of sobs threatened to choke its way up my throat. "Right now, she'd want me to be strong. Strong for Edward?"

"Yes. Strong for Edward."

"Be strong for Esme," I said and turned for the stairs.

A dog-sized gap between Edward's door and its frame indicated Willow had found a way to nudge his way inside. Nothing but darkness leaked from the gap, and when I peered into the room, the window shades were drawn, the lights turned out. Willow was lying solemnly at the foot of the bed, as if he knew Edward was in mourning. From Willow, I followed the silhouette of a body up to the back of Edward's head. He was stock-still, facing away from me. I stepped inside and closed the door behind me. He didn't budge.

I didn't know if he was asleep or, as Carlisle put it, catatonic, so I crept across the room as quietly as I could and slid in next to him, close but not touching. "I'm here when you need me," I whispered. He didn't acknowledge me.

The next several minutes were spent staring at the back of Edward's head and thinking about Mrs. Evans. It still didn't feel real. How could she be gone? Just like that? She had so much left to do on this plane of existence, so much left to teach me. I loved Esme and my mother, but there had never been another woman I'd looked up to the way I admired Mrs. Evans, with her wisdom, deep inner-strength, and endless generosity. I thought back to our first meeting, where she'd accepted me as Edward's business partner after knowing me only three minutes and invested in my future on the spot. Who did that? And now she wouldn't be there to see me walking up to the podium to collect my diploma or down the aisle wearing her wedding dress.

My tears picked up again, and I rolled into the pillow, trying to stifle my cries for Edward's sake. Thinking about Edward, how he was only inches from me but still so far away, only made me cry harder. The whole bed vibrated with the force of my sobs, so I sat up, intending to leave until I could get it together.

A hand caught mine as I stood. "Don't go," he said.

His cheeks were tearless, but a haunting anguish was etched into his features. He hadn't shaved that morning, making him look beyond his years and profoundly sad.

"You haven't cried."

"I will. Stay with me?"

I crawled back into bed and laid my head on his chest, the way I always did on the rare occasion we got to share a bed. He smelled of man, not unclean, just natural, raw. I drank it in.

A damp spot was growing on his shirt under my wet cheek. He may not have been able to cry, but I couldn't turn it off. "I'm so sorry," I said.

"It hasn't hit me." He ran his fingers through my hair. "I mean, I know it in my head. The news just hasn't reached my heart yet."

I placed my hand over his heart and felt it pump beneath me. "I'll be here when it does."

And I was.

At some point, hours later, the dam broke. It wasn't pretty or romantic. For all our deep kisses, endless stares, and insightful talks, the most intimate thing Edward and I had ever done was share our grief. Our hearts were open, on display. Neither of us held back as we clung to each other, tears mingling with sloppy comforts. We sobbed and healed together, leaving behind all the superficial things that didn't make a damn bit of difference at a time like this.

It wasn't about being strong for Edward, like I'd thought. It was about being there for each other, in whatever capacity we could be. It was about life. It was about us living it, experiencing it, and coping with its losses collectively. I knew that whenever we walked out of this room, we'd leave a different couple for it, a stronger one, an unshakable one. I was his rock and he was my fortress.

Sometime during the deep hours of the night, I woke to find Edward watching me. "Hey," he said, sitting cross-legged at the end of the bed, scratching Willow.

I hummed a response, still too conked for anything more eloquent.

"He stayed with us," Edward said, looking down at Willow. "He knew something was wrong."

After a deep yawn and a few seconds of dedicated concentration, I said, "Dogs are naturally intuitive. Did you sleep?"

"I think I did. I'm not sure." Though his voice was still thick with heartache, I could tell the storm had passed. "The last twenty-four hours are kind of a blur."

"Yeah."

"Are you awake enough that we can we talk about something?"

"Uh-huh." My eyelashes fluttered lightly as my surroundings sharpened and I sat up to lean against his pillows. "Do you want to talk about your grandma?"

"Kind of. I want to talk to you about the last time I saw her. It was the night of the proposal." Being awake was no longer a problem. He had my full attention. "I stopped by on my way up to Seattle to tell her in person that we didn't get engaged."

My insides froze. "You don't think that had something to do with the heart attack?"

"No, no, no." Edward scooted closer and took my hand. "Don't you ever think that her…" he let out a shaky breath, "that her death is on us in any way. She actually wasn't surprised at all. She knew you'd been going through something since our Ivy League trip."

The darkness made it impossible for me to read the emotions across his face, and the gruff quality to his voice made it impossible for me to read the emotions in his statement. "I swear I never told her anything. I never told anyone except for my lousy, good-for-nothing shrink."

"I know. That's just it. You never told her and yet she knew that you were struggling. I didn't."

My gaze fell to the comforter. "I'm sorry."

"No, Bella." Edward shifted so he was kneeling on the bed right next to me, bracing my hand on his chest with both of his. "It's not an 'I'm sorry' from you. It's an 'I'm sorry' from me. I have been so focused on becoming your husband that I forgot about being your boyfriend."

"Don't blame yourself for my problems. I couldn't stand it. They're my problems."

He nodded and let our joined hands fall down to the comforter. "I want to marry you, Bella, but I know you're not ready, and not just because you flipped out when I asked you."

"Technically, I said yes when you asked me."

"Point conceded. But if I may, there's one thing I've known and have been actively ignoring since long before the proposal: you suck at teamwork."

It was amazing how quickly I could go from commiseration to indignation, even when the criticism was justified. "Is this really the best time to—"

"I'd very much like to get this off my chest, if that's okay. I've been thinking about it for days. That was the point of Seattle, wasn't it?"

Slumping back against the pillows, I tried to let the defensiveness go so he could say everything he needed. It was the least I could do, all things considered.

"Where was I?" he asked.

"Bella sucks at teamwork."

"Right. That one's been about two-inches in front of my face for years, but I convinced myself that being married would teach it to you, and I could ride it out until then."

I searched for B to see if she had any opinions on Edward's assessment. She was still nowhere to be found.

"It took Grandma pointing out that it was more important to have a successful marriage, than simply a marriage, for me realize I had it all wrong. When we get married, I want us to have a clean slate, not be dealing with the same problems we're having now. That means you have to be ready to give up your independence and I have to be ready to give you the space and time to do that."

An uncomfortable nagging feeling settled in my chest. I tried to put it into words. "Does being married mean that I can't have any independence?" I pictured myself shackled and bound to an oven.

Edward scratched his scruffy chin as he thought through my question. "I think being married means that you could be independent, but you choose to be accountable to someone else. And for the record, I'm not sitting here asking this to be a one-way thing. I want us to be accountable to each other."

"You're right that I'm not ready for that," I said, feeling it deeply in my bones. "It's not that I can't commit to you. It's that I can't bring myself to commit to, I guess, the entire commitment of commitment. I don't know why that is, but I'm not ready."

"It's okay. I think one day something's going to happen and it's going to all click into place." He twisted my daisy ring around my finger. "Until that day comes, this is enough. We're young. I have time."

"What if it never happens?" I asked miserably.

"As long as we're happy, I don't care. What else really matters when we only have this one life?"

We settled into a quiet contemplation as we both reflected on what he'd said and how it had so much more meaning today of all days.

"You know," I said. "I wasn't lying when I said I was ready to commit to you."

"I know."

"What I mean is I'm ready to do something that proves that to you."

"Oh," he said. "Oh, Bella, I'm tempted, trust me, but I don't think I could. Not after Grandma…"

"God, no. That's, like, the furthest thing from my mind right now. Look at us. We're totally gross." His hair was flying in all different directions. My eyes were clogged with tear boogers. Neither of us had so much as brushed our teeth since that morning. "I meant something else, like… I have no idea. I'm not the romantic one here."

I looked to him for help, but he shook his head. "I don't know what you're going for either."

Wracking my brain, I tried to pinpoint exactly what I was trying to get across and how I could do it. "Vows?" I asked as it popped into my head.

"Vows? Like, wedding vows?"

"Why not? Obviously we'd take the wedding out of it, but we could make vows to each other, right? If you're ready, I am."

The crooked smile I loved lit up his face. My heart exploded. It wasn't something I had expected to see so soon after Mrs. Evans' passing. "I'm all in," he said.

Slipping out of the comforter so I could sit with my knees touching his, I reached out and held both his hands like I'd seen done at other weddings. He was practically glowing in the moonlight, which told me I'd made a great choice. Maybe I was better at this romantic thing than I'd thought.

"Me first, since this was my idea, but you'll have to tell me what to say because I don't know them off the top of my head." The only bit I knew was the "to death do us part."

"You're sure about this?"

"Absolutely." It had always been yes to Edward.

"Okay, then. Repeat after me. I, Bella Swan, take you, Edward Cullen."

Looking deeply into his eyes and willing every ounce of love and affection I contained for him to shine through, I said, "I, Bella Swan, take you, Edward Cullen."

"To be my, um, lawfully unwedded… everything?"

"To be my lawfully unwedded everything and beyond."

The next few lines came and went without a hitch, but were no less significant. To have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health… It was only when he hit, "To love, cherish, and—" that he stopped abruptly.

"What's wrong?"

"That's the part where you're supposed to vow to obey me."

I couldn't help but grimace. "Seriously?"

"Unfortunately. Don't worry. I would never force to make you a promise you couldn't keep."

"What if we were to say love, cherish, and fuck?" It was the first time I'd cussed in months, and it was totally worth it to see the surprise cross his face.

"You want to use the f-word in our vows?" I nodded cunningly. "Okay, then. To love, cherish, and fuck."

"To love, cherish, and fuck over, and over, and over again." Maybe it wasn't the furthest thing from my mind.

Edward was having a hard time keeping it together as he said, "Until never do us part."

"Until never do us part." I smiled at his revision. "You're turn."

Edward's vows were the same as mine, but he turned them into so much more, the way only he was able. He spoke them the way I wished I could, with his heart and soul, making my eyes well with the extent of his unending devotion. And then his eyes sparked when the "fuck" rolled off his tongue. I was a puddle of goo before the, "Until never do us part."

We consummated our vows with a short, but sweet kiss, and slipped back under the covers to sleep the rest of the night away.

"It's too bad we didn't have anyone to witness that," Edward said into my hair.

"We had witnesses. Willow was here, and I bet so was Mrs. Evans, in her way."

"I suppose, but I'd rather not think about her like that."

"Too soon?"

"No. Too creepy."

"It's a comforting thought, though, isn't it? Like we have a guardian angel now."

"The last thing I want to be wondering when we finally make love is whether my grandmother is watching us."

Could not agree more, I thought, rolling over so my chin was on his chest. "Are you going to be okay?" I asked, running my fingers over his stubble. I liked it there. It made him look like a man.

"I'm going to be okay. I miss her and I in no way feel ready to face the world outside this bedroom, but because of you, I'll be okay."

He gave my fingertips a goodnight kiss and we drifted off to sleep.

. . .

"Esme wanted to say thank you for the chicken pot pie in person," I told Mrs. Cope, handing an empty casserole dish across her desk. "As you can imagine, she's been insanely busy with trying to get her mother's estate in order." The excuse shouldn't have been necessary, but after about fifty of these tray deliveries, I'd learned it was better to get it out of the way before the old hens started pecking away with questions.

She sighed sympathetically and shook her head. "Of course. Of course." Now came either the personal experience or the I-don't-know-what-I'd-do speech. "It felt like it was months before I got my life in order after my mother passed a few years back." Then a comment about how beloved Mrs. Evans was. "We all adored Elizabeth around here. She was such a hoot at Bingo. So full of spirit and not afraid to tell the caller if he was going too fast or slow." And something about the funeral. "The service was lovely. I'm so glad the sun came out to shine on Saturday. Your eulogy was simply inspiring. It was lovely how you chose to capture her spirit instead of the typical reading of life events. You're quite the public speaker."

This was the part where I was supposed to say thank you and couldn't. My public speaking skills may have been superb, but that hadn't made it any less horrible to stand in front of Edward, as tears ran down his cheeks, and read about the rasp in her laugh or the way she flawlessly guided us through life, using her wit instead of her words.

My silence was compulsory, but always gave them the chance to move onto their favorite topic. "How is Edward doing?"

"He's doing as well as can be expected." That was the party line and I hated saying it. What did it even mean? How could anyone expect anything of him at a time like this? And why was it anyone's business anyway?

"Poor dear. Any idea when he'll be back to school? I've noticed it's been a few weeks."

He'll be back to school when he's damn well ready, I wanted to snap, but instead said, "I don't know. He's been keeping up with everything at home. I'm sure he'll come back when he's ready." The office door opened and, as if on cue, Edward walked in. "Apparently that day is today. Will you excuse me?"

Edward looked surprised to see me inside the office. "What are you doing here?" he asked when I was close enough not to be overheard by Mrs. Cope.

"Casserole dish duty. How about you? I thought you weren't going to come in for the rest of the week."

"I just…" He sighed. "I couldn't stay in that house another day. It was starting to suffocate me."

I ran my hand up in his forearm. "That's understandable. I think it's good that you're getting out. It's healthy."

He turned his palm over so our hands could meet face to face. I slid mine directly over his and left it there, like a prayer. We shared a small smile.

Mrs. Cope made the most annoying noise clearing her throat, breaking our spell. "Do you mind waiting here while I get things sorted out?" Edward asked. "We can go to home room together."

"I'll be right over there." I pointed to a group of plush chairs that Principal Benson usually sat students in when he wanted to intimidate them. I remembered it as the place Edward and I had sat after I dumped the root beer float over his head in ninth grade. My grin grew wider, recalling that day and how far we had come since. Edward and I were solid, and it was long past the point where Principal Benson, in any way, shape, or form, scared me. Charlie had told me years ago I could take him in Poker without breaking a sweat.

The dulcet sounds of adult cursing burst from behind the nameplate on Benson's closed door. A glance over my shoulder confirmed Mrs. Cope was occupied with Edward, so instead of heading for the chairs, I slunk over to the door and listened in.

There was some indistinct grumbling, some F-bombs, a few a-holes, and then, "What the HELL is a kitchen sink, anyway? A kitchen sink goes into a kitchen, not a fucking website."

Ah. This seemed like a problem for Bella Swan. I rapped the door lightly with my knuckles.

"Who is it?" he barked.

Opening the door wider to reveal myself, I said, "Computer problems?"

"What are you doing here, Miss Swan?"

"It sounded like you were having issues."

"It's this stupid school website," Principal Benson spat, swiping at the desktop monitor. "It's impossible to get things to align properly. This program is garbage."

"Do you want me to take a look?"

Principal Benson raised his head to peer at me through his spectacles. "Miss Swan, if a fully-trained professional can't figure this out, what do you think a little girl can do?"

My mouth fell open. For the first time in weeks, I felt B stir. Develop a unique, interactive design-your-own-t-shirt website. Spout off thousands of lines of code off the top of my head. Kick your arse.

"Bella." Edward was right next to me. Where had he come from? "We should go," he said, grabbing my elbow and guiding me from the door.

"Did you hear what he called me?" I said loudly enough for Benson to hear.

"Close my door on the way out, Mr. Cullen," he said with a bored air.

I yanked my arm from Edward when we were in the hall. "Did ya hear? Did ya hear? He called me a little girl! Go defend me honor!"

"I need you to take a deep breath."

"You take a deep breath! That toad called me a little girl because I offered to help him with his stupid website."

"I know. Insecure adults get offended when someone younger thinks they can do something better than they can."

"Crap on a fish stick! What do you mean think I could do better?"

Edward's head lulled back. "Bella," he groaned.

"Okay, I'm sorry," I said pretend-calmly, trying to snap out of my anger. "This is your first day back. Focus on you."

"No, I don't want the focus to be on me. I pretty much want it to be on anything else, as long as it's happy thoughts."

"Happy thoughts, happy thoughts, happy thoughts," I muttered. "Let's talk Lord of the Rings. Damn, that Return of the King was filmmaking at it's finest. I never wanted it to the end. It almost didn't."

"You'd think with all the endings in that movie, they might be able to find one that didn't deviate from the books."

My happy thoughts discussion was going terribly. "How much does Harry Potter suck? And, geez, Daniel Radcliffe. What an ugly wanker."

Edward was on the verge of laughing and I was about to drive it home when a sharp whistle broke through the empty hall. Edward was just as stumped as I was.

My eyes zeroed in on the soda machine as a whip of movement flashed from behind it. A second later, Emmett poked out his nose and waved me over.

"Emmett is hiding behind that soda machine and wants us to go over to him."

"Stop pointing, Bella," Emmett whisper-shouted. "Don't you know how to be covert?"

"Is that what you think you're being?" I asked, grabbing Edward's hand and walking over to him.

He was on the move before we could reach him. "Follow me. It's not safe to talk here."

An apprehensive expression darted between Edward and me, but we followed anyway, all the way past the parking lot to the empty baseball stadium. I flipped up my hood to keep the drizzle from soaking through my hair.

"We can talk freely here, unless you suspect Coach Swan keeps secret cameras around to spy on the players."

"He doesn't," we both said.

"Great. I brought you both here because I need help with the senior prank."

"Why?" Edward asked. "I thought it was just the senior class coming to school dressed up as infamous characters throughout history."

"That's not a prank. That's the decoy to make the senior class think they're all participating and the administration think they're getting off easy. It's not a real senior prank unless it gets everyone sent home from school early. I have the idea. I just need a couple of brains to implement it."

"Has that ever happened before?"

"Nope. The senior classes that came before us were seriously uncreative."

"What's the plan?" Edward asked, to which Emmett gave a hesitant scowl. "You can't expect us to agree to something without knowing what we're getting into."

"Fine. But you have to swear on each other's lives you won't tell anyone."

"I certainly will not—"

"I swear on Edward's life." Edward shot me a hard glare. "What?" I asked, feeling the beginnings of curiosity peek through my anger at Principal Benson's insult. Yes, I was still on that.

"Fine. I swear on Bella's life I won't tell anyone."

Emmett nodded. "Good enough for me. Have you ever seen The Shawshank Redemption?"

"We watched it together in English three weeks ago," Edward said.

"That's right. Well, I've had it on repeat since then. Best movie ever. And it gave me the idea. You know the part where Andy hijacks the prison's intercom system to play Sull'aria, Che soave zeffiretto for the prisoners?" His diction was ridiculously perfect for such a big dude. "I want to do that, but more sophisticated-like."

It wasn't a horrible plan. I only spotted one problem. "Didn't Andy get a week in the hole for that?"

"Two weeks. I'm sure with modern technology we can figure out a way not to get caught. Well, you guys can figure it out if you're as smart as I think you are."

Edward scoffed in an obviously-we-are-that-smart kind of way. "We could do it, but how is playing music going to get anyone out of school?"

"That's only stage one. I'll reveal the second stage if you guys agree." Edward and I shared a private, silent conversation. I could see the same hesitance swimming in his eyes that I felt in mine. If caught, something like this would devastate our chances of getting into an Ivy League school. It was too risky. We had both agreed on no, when Emmett threw in the clincher, "Come on, guys. Get busy living, or get busy dying."

"Get busy living," Edward repeated from under his breath. It was as if those words alone brought the color back to his face and the aliveness back to his smile. This was the kind of thing Mrs. Evans would have begged us to do.

"Personally," I said, "I think it's highly stupid to call your student a little girl, especially when she has the power to hardcore screw you over."

Edward kissed my forehead. He knew where I was going with this.

"So… you're in?" Emmett asked.

"On one condition. I get to choose the song."

Emmett rubbed his hands together excitedly. "Make it a good one."

"Oh, it will be."

It was on.

. . .

Up Next… Chapter Thirty-Seven: The First Time