A/N: Well, here I am at the start of my first Twi multi-chapter. I'm nervous as hell and hope I know what I'm doing here. This fic started from a discussion I was having with some friends one day about the fact that in both the books and fics, Bella always seems to forgive Edward so easily; whether it's for leaving her, an indiscretion, whatever. What if she didn't forgive easily, if at all?
This story would never have seen the light of day if not for the help of several incredible people. Gallathea, who beta'd early drafts and encouraged me to make it better. Chicklette, my cheerleader, hand holder, and all-around crutch. She is also a beta extraordinaire, who calls me on my bullshit and makes me delete adverbs. One of these days I hope I can write half as well as she does. If you haven't read her stories, do so! Finally, to all my WC peeps for your encouragement and unconditional support.
Okay, I'll shut up now. Go read. I hope you like it.
I try to make it through my life, in my way, there's you
I try to make it through these lies, and that's all I do. Just don't deny it.
Don't try to fight this, and deal with it and that's just part of it.
If you were dead or still alive I don't care, I don't care. Just go and leave this all behind
Cause I swear I don't care.
I try to make you see my side, always trying to stay in line, but your eyes see right through,
that's all they do. I'm getting buried in this place. I got no room you're in my face.
Don't say anything just go away.
Apocalyptica – "I Don't Care"
I looked at the invitation again and sighed. I wasn't in the mood to go to yet another blue-blood, hoity-toity art show, but I had been in town for a month, and regardless of my preferred method of spending my time, I still had to keep up appearances. After one month, people knew I was home, and I couldn't ignore the various invitations that poured in for Ms. Isabella Marie Swan, heiress, world-traveler, philanthropist, and, most importantly for the society doyennes and their sons, single.
At least I would get to spend time with my sisters. Well, sisters in all but blood. Tanya couldn't make it, but I had a car picking up Rose and Alice at the airport and would meet them at the show. I perused the piece of paper in my hand. E. Cullen. I'd never heard of the artist before, but the invitation was from someone who donated a lot of money to the various causes I held near and dear to my heart, and made it possible for me to do my work, so I had to show up, at least for a little while.
I took one final look in the mirror and smiled, knowing my latest tattoo was bound to set off a frenzy of gossip and tabloid flashbulbs. Until now my tattoos and scars had been in places easily hidden by clothes. This one ran clear down my upper arm, and unless I wanted to wear long sleeves in the middle of a Chicago summer, it was going to be on display. Fuck them all. They wouldn't understand what it meant anyway, even if I translated it for them. Only one other person understood, but he wouldn't be there tonight.
I slid into the back of the limo, the feel of the cool leather strange under my skin, the effervescence of the champagne foreign on my tongue. A month back home, and I still longed for the feel of a different type of leather, and the burn of a certain cheap whiskey. I yearned for the heat of Africa, the freezing mountains of a Chinese winter, or the utter chaos of the Middle East. I wanted to be anywhere but here, in the cloying, humidity-drenched city of my childhood, and burial ground of my dreams. Still, here I was, putting in my time, paying my dues, as it were, and making sure the machinery that kept me on the move continued to do so. I leaned back and closed my eyes, remembering my last night in Sudan just weeks before. I allowed the lulling, gentle glide of the car to take me back. I could even smell the acrid smoke from the fires, with the underlying tang of diesel fuel. The only things that smelled worse than the burning trucks were the corpses.
The SLA and government troops had clashed once more in the Korma region of Darfur. We were in a tent in a refugee camp, and tensions were running high. The doctors were steadily running through the gauze, sutures, and antibiotics we'd managed to acquire, treating both government and rebel soldiers as they came through. There was little else we could do. We'd done our part, and as the sounds of mortars and gunfire rang out in the night, desperate cries filled our tent. Fingers dug into tender flesh, and tongues danced across dry, dusty skin. Blood boiled and sweat oozed from our pores, as other bodily fluids flowed and combined, until that one moment of clarity, of singular sensation, that reminded us we were alive. In the preternatural stillness of the morning light, silence reigned over the area, and a solitary jeep made its way into the jumbled mass of tents and humanity, sickness and death. There were no long, tortured goodbyes, or longing glances back as the jeep drove off. There never were. "In this life or the next," that was all that needed saying.
I opened my eyes as I felt the car come to a stop. I took a deep breath and let the façade of responsibility and civility appear on my face. Flashbulbs erupted as I stepped out of the car, but I was quickly hustled past the gossip column photogs, and guided into the lobby of a large building. A loud squeal pierced the din of the crowd outside, and I had only a moment to prepare for the assault, as a tiny, raven-haired girl launched herself at me.
"Alice!" I cried, and hugged her tightly.
"Oh, Bella! I've missed you so much!" I pulled back enough to see the tears shimmering in her eyes, and said, "No tears, you. I forgot my waterproof mascara, and Rosalie will kill you if I wind up looking like a raccoon."
She laughed her warm laugh, and behind her I could see the aforementioned statuesque blond walking up to us, an indulgent smile on her face as she watched the fairy-like Alice. Even as a child, Alice always seemed to have one foot in this world, and another in some other place. She could read people like nobody's business, usually knowing what they wanted before they did, and she was never shy about telling them so. I looked up and locked eyes with Rose, and I could see the understanding in them as she took in the ink on my arm. Alice may have always known or managed to suss out things about me, but only Rose, of all of us, understood me. Apart from my journals, she was the only one to whom I told everything. Sometimes, I think she understood me better than I understood myself.
"Bella," she said in her throaty voice that had always driven the guys wild. It was like cigarettes and whiskey, and promised untold things in the dark. Her supermodel beauty did nothing to dissuade those fantasies, but her brains and quick wits kept her from becoming another notch on someone's bedpost, leading her instead to academia.
"Rose," I replied, hugging her tightly.
Although I'd been back for a month, this was the first time I'd gotten to see them. Alice had just returned from Alaska, where Tanya was still compiling data on the effects of global warming on polar bear populations, and where Alice would return within the month because they could not bear to be apart for more than a few weeks. Alice could continue to write her book on interior design there, and work with her editor via email. Even when we were children, Alice and Tanya had always gravitated toward each other. Perhaps their shared circumstances created a bond, but whatever it was blossomed and grew into something much bigger; they rarely spent time away from each other anymore.
Rose, on the other hand, had been making the lecture circuit throughout various universities in the country, discussing her latest paper on quantum physics. I've never pretended to understand her work, but I'd always been incredibly proud of her, and got a kick whenever some hormone-riddled jack-ass would underestimate her because of her looks.
My parents, Charlie and Renee, had brought Alice, Rose, and Tanya into our home as foster children. Rose was first, when I was about five, then Alice at six, and then Tanya when we were eight. We were all the same age, and even though they had come to us with differing degrees of damage and trauma, we became as close as real sisters. The only reason my parents never adopted them was varying legal hurdles. Well, that was true for Alice and Tanya. Rose preferred to remain a Hale, in defiance of the people who'd left her body broken and barren before puberty. She told me once that she wanted them to know who she was when she became famous, to know that they didn't break her spirit. She didn't want to hide, and didn't want to afford them the opportunity to pretend they'd done nothing wrong. She was always the strongest of us.
"So," I began, "what exactly is this night of excess and poor taste supposed to consist of? Have either of you heard anything about this E. Cullen?"
Alice, of course, had. "His work has been gaining in popularity over the last couple of years, but no one knows anything about him. He's a bit of an enigma. He's never, to anyone's knowledge, been present at one of his shows before, and has remained mysteriously anonymous. No one can find a record of a living E. Cullen anywhere, although there are other Cullens scattered throughout the country, including one here in Chicago, but they have refused to comment. It's all very intriguing. I've seen his work in my clients' homes, but have never been to one of his shows. In fact, I think this is the first one he's done here."
I knew there were other Cullens. I knew quite well there were other Cullens, but I'd never heard of this E. Cullen before. In fact, before Alice's little information session, I hadn't even known if the artist was a man or a woman.
"Well, let's go see what this is about. Maybe we can duck out early, hit Joe's, and have some drinks."
"Oh God, yes," Rose agreed.
We linked arms and walked into the main hall. The sign as we entered informed us that the exhibit was entitled, "Three Graces and a Muse."
"Someone is feeling mythological," I muttered.
We each grabbed a glass of champagne from a passing waiter, and tried to ignore the blatant stares from the guests already gathered as we wandered over to the first section of what appeared to be oil paintings. I was used to the attention that my social status provided, and Rose was quite used to the attention her looks garnered, but even so, it felt like every eye was trained on us. It was a bit disconcerting.
We approached the first section of the exhibit, an apparent diptych, and I heard our collective intake of breath. There, beautifully rendered in oil on canvas was a painting of Alice, Rose, and Tanya, lying on the grass, at the park near our home. Next to it, in equally perfect detail, was a painting of me. A chill ran through me as I looked at these paintings. We began to navigate the space, and soon discovered that the entire exhibit was comprised of paintings, sketches, sculptures, and photographic collages, of the four of us—always Alice, Rose and Tanya as the Graces, and always me, alone, the Muse. No wonder all eyes were on us.
I could tell that Rose was getting angry, while Alice was simply awed by the artistry of it. Me? I was quickly becoming sick to my stomach. This was wrong on so many levels that I didn't even know where to begin. Who the hell was this E. Cullen? How did he know us? In most of the pieces we were younger—the photographs primarily from our childhood and early twenties, like some bizarre retrospective—but there were a couple of sketches of me that I clearly recognized as recreations from more recent newspaper articles. Every single image was a moment in time of our lives, and it was too intimate, too personal. My emotions were laid bare, and I felt exposed and vulnerable. Obviously this was done by someone we knew, and possibly trusted. But this? It bordered on stalking.
I looked closely at the pictures once more. Shit. Could it be? Cold tendrils of panic started to wend their way across my heart and slither through my belly. It was much too familiar. I moved from one image to the next, remembering the moments. I could hear the click of the shutter, the zip of the film advance lever. I tilted my head and brought my face slightly closer to a painting, recognizing the brushstrokes, hearing the movement of hair across canvas, smelling the pungent odor of oil paint and turpentine. Too much. It was overwhelming. I closed my eyes and tried to catch my breath. I pushed the memories back, back to the place in my mind where I'd buried them, where I'd buried him.
I felt, rather than heard someone behind me. I could have said I'd developed a sixth sense to danger, living abroad and doing what I do. I could have said I had eyes in the back of my head. I also could have said that years of martial arts training made me more attuned to those around me. Each of those explanations would have been a lie. I'd only ever felt it with one person before, a pulse—like a secondary heartbeat—that thrummed through my body at his mere presence. I took a deep breath and turned around.
I found myself face-to-face with the golden-green eyes and bronze hair of my nightmares. The beautiful angel that burned me as assuredly as any Seraph in the heavens could. I felt a cold fist in my chest as I struggled once again to catch my breath. I heard both Alice and Rose's gasps, as they too turned around.
"Hello, Bella." His voice flowed like honey. It was always sweet, his timbre at a perfect pitch, and the undertones hinting of something smoky and dark. It poured through the recesses of my mind, flushing out long buried memories, and feelings long since scorched from existence. It ignited anger.
The cold fist began to burn, until nothing but pain and fire radiated out from the center of my being, flooding through me until I thought it would incinerate my skin from the inside out.
Rose spoke first. "Edward Masen," she spat.
I felt my hand rise of its own volition, its fingers curling into a fist, before connecting with his nose. "How dare you?! Who the fuck do you think you are? What right do you have to fuck with our lives and put them on display?"
The silence in the room was tense.
He stood before me, his perfect face not so perfect anymore, as his blood flowed freely. He cupped his hand over his nose and mouth, trying to stanch the flow, which was quickly staining the front of his shirt.
His eyes flashed dangerously, and he took a step towards me. He looked predatory—like a lion that has scented its next meal—and I shivered involuntarily. I wanted to run, just like the gazelle would, but I was rooted to the spot, transfixed by the intensity of his gaze, his pull on me no less potent after all this time.
"Marie?" a familiar sounding voice called out, thankfully disrupting the moment. I turned to see who it was.
"Oh God, Marie, it is so good to see you." He walked over to me, clearly oblivious to the scene unfolding. He gathered me into a hug, kissed me lightly, and then cupped my face, his thumb stroking my cheek. "I just got here and as soon as I thought I saw you, I came over . . ." He suddenly noticed the tension, and turned to look at Edward. "Edward, what is going on here?" Carlisle demanded, and then he looked up at the walls. "Oh fuck," he whispered as he looked at me and then back at one of the paintings. "Shit. Marie, are you okay?" he asked as he put an arm around my shoulders.
"No, Carlisle. I'd have to say I'm pretty fucking far from okay right now, and I'd like to go home."
"Of course," he said as he began to lead me out, shooting Edward a look that was both angry and sympathetic.
I heard a low growl come from Edward before he asked, "Carlisle, how the hell do you know my Bella, and who the fuck is Marie?"
a/n: Doh! Uh oh . . . Edward's growling. I like when he growls. It's sort of sexy. So um, yeah, that's the start . . . hope you liked it.