AN: It's been an unconscionable amount of time since I updated, but life is unpredictable and capricious at times. I have every intention of finishing this story, and I hope that the next chapter won't be so long in coming (I don't think it will be.) If you're still reading this, thank you so much for your patience. I hope this doesn't disappoint. Huge thanks (as always) to chicklette for her beta work. Any mistakes still remaining are all mine.
When you pull me in sometimes I almost feel
Pictured in my head, it's just too real
It's gonna be how it is, there's some things you don't change
You're done with telling us of that story
How slowly we built up walls
The years they pile on
I will steal you back
It's funny how the smallest lie
Might live a million times
I will steal you back,
Here we go, here we go, we'll take on so much pain
To feel secure, not feel anything
I only pick a fight I know I'm sure to lose
So I could I not hold my hope for you.
I Will Steal You Back - Jimmy Eat World
"When I went away—"
"You mean when you left me," Bella interrupted. "Don't use euphemisms, Edward. You. Left."
Her voice was flat, but even after all these years there was still so much pain in those words.
"When I left you that day, Bella you have to know it was the hardest thing I've ever done."
"Right," she said with a soft snort.
"It was the worst day of my life, even worse than losing Charlie and Renee. But I had to do it. I meant what I said in my letter—I needed to become a better man, for you. For both of us."
Bella opened her mouth to say something, but I just kept talking. Afraid, that we'd spend the entire afternoon arguing. Afraid, that I'd never again have the courage to tell her all of it.
"That morning I went to see James." I laughed at the look of surprise on her face. "Yeah, I know, I know, but he was making a nice little profit off fake ID's. I knew that if I used my real name you'd find me, and I wouldn't have the strength to say no to you.
"I bought a new license and a train ticket to Los Angeles. It cost me most of my cash, and by the time I arrived in L.A., I was a cliché—fresh off the train, backpack full of art supplies, twenty dollars to my name, and nowhere to go."
"Wait, wait," Bella interrupted. "We tracked you to Denver and then—"
"No. I gave James my ID when I bought the new one. You tracked someone to Denver, but it wasn't me."
"Well, shit," she replied.
"That first year was really bad. I managed to get a few odd jobs here and there, made enough to buy food sometimes. But mostly I slept in bus stations or the park. The nice thing about L.A. is the weather; it doesn't rain much and in the summer sleeping outside isn't a problem. Sometimes you can find a cot at one of the rescues, but those tend to fill up pretty fast."
"What about your diabetes?"
I shrugged. "The hardest part was getting my insulin and eating right, but there's free clinics, emergency rooms, and some pharmacies will let you buy single vials of insulin if you're broke. Some shelters let you store it in their fridge. You make do, but it wasn't well managed.
"That fall I wound up in the hospital. Some guy decided he wanted my backpack and I fought back. He beat the shit out of me, but I never let go of the backpack. That's when I met Victoria and Diego.
"Diego and I were in the same area in the ER. He got beat up by a trick, but the cops still picked him up for soliciting. I helped him get out of his cuffs and we left together. Vicky and he were together, and they let me tag along when we snuck out. We even found a place together."
"I thought you didn't have money for a place?"
"We didn't. We were squatting. It was pretty sweet for a while, even had electricity until someone remembered to shut it off. I . . . I'm not proud of those first couple of years, Bella. We stole food when we were hungry, and Vicky, well, she had other ways of making money. Diego only did it when things got bad."
"And you?" She asked.
"Thought about it. Even went with Diego once, but I just couldn't. I still thought I'd make my way back to you." Bella's face gave away nothing.
"I finally got a job at this bar/restaurant in West Hollywood though. They paid under the table. I helped clean up on Friday and Saturday nights. It wasn't much, but it helped and the owner had a soft spot for me. Used to let me take home some of the food at the end of the night. Between the three of us, we managed to eat pretty regularly.
"I'd been in L.A. about two years by then. I was on my break outside, in the back. Smoking, and yes I know, don't look at me like that. I don't smoke anymore. Anyway, some guys jumped me. They thought I was trolling for tricks, called me all kinds of names. Two of them were holding me, and a third pulled a knife. He said, 'he was sick of skinny little fags like me spreading disease' and that they were going 'to cut the gay out of me.'"
"Jesus, Edward! What happened?"
"Next thing I know someone steps in between us shouting at them to let me go. He managed to hit one of the guys holding me before he got stabbed, and managed to deck the guy with the knife before he hit the ground too. Which is sorta how I met Emmett."
Bella's eyes were huge. "Emmett saved you?"
"Yeah. The assholes ran off and left us there. I managed to get back inside and get some help, then I took off."
"You left him?"
"After I got help! There was a roomful of people helping him and 911 had already been called. I was a homeless guy working under the table at a gay bar, the owners told me to get the hell out of there. If he didn't make it, what do you think would have happened to me, or them? Anyway, I felt so bad about it I went to the hospital several days later to check on him and make sure he was alright. You know who his dad is, right?"
When Bella nodded, I continued. "Well, that meant there police were all over the place. I tried to sneak in so I could at least find out his condition. Security nabbed me at the door to his room. My stuff fell everywhere, and I was pretty sure I was in a world of trouble. But Emmett? He pipes up from his bed that I'm his friend from school and tells them to stop manhandling me, 'can't you guys see he's just a skinny art class nerd?'"
Bella laughed softly at my impersonation of Emmett.
"Anyway, he got them to let me go, but then I was stuck talking to him. I thanked him for helping and asked him how he was. He makes this face and says, 'well, they took my kidney, so I'll lose my spot in the NFL draft.' And God, I felt so bad and it must have shown on my face because he immediately stops and says, 'Shit, I'm just kidding!'"
"He joked about losing his kidney?"
"No, he really did lose the kidney. He was joking about the NFL. Emmett never wanted to go pro. I still felt awful and asked him why he would help someone like me. He just gave me this funny look and asked, 'Why wouldn't I?'
"Then I asked him what he wanted. He didn't get it. 'What I want?' he says to me. But thing is, one of the first things you learn living on the streets is that no one does anything without wanting something in return. Even the shelters and stuff, they want you to listen to them talk about God, or talk about getting off drugs, or to stop tricking, or whatever else their cause is. It makes you cynical, hard. But Em, he just . . . he said, 'well, I want to see what's in that sketchbook, then.'
"I knew he was full of shit, and I tried to get out of there, but Emmett was Emmett and he insisted on seeing it. When I tried to avoid it, he gave me a guilt trip, told me it was the least I could do seeing as he gave up a kidney for me. And well, I owed him, so I showed it to him, but left as soon as I could.
"Two weeks later he shows up at our squat. One of my drawings had been of the house and he recognized it from some weird architectural tour of L.A. an ex-girlfriend had made him take. When I told him to get lost, he said there was an old Chinese proverb that said that if you save a life, you're responsible for it after—"
"He quoted Kung Fu?"
I laughed at her question. "He did! Long story short, we argued for a long time before he convinced me that he needed a 'houseboy.' I told him I wouldn't suck his dick—I'd been saved by him at a gay bar after all—but he told me he was straight and well, I couldn't help but like the guy, you know?"
"He's hard not to like," Bella replied.
"Exactly! Anyway, he said he needed someone to help him around the house and having a real place to stay and earn some money sounded good. I tried to stay in touch with Diego and Vicky, but after a few months they skipped town and I never saw them again."
"So you what? Just moved in with Emmett?"
"Basically. I mean, it was really awkward at first. I stuck a chair under my doorknob every night because I wasn't sure I could trust him, but eventually he won me over. Living with Emmett, working for him, allowed me to really start exploring with my art again. I'd been sketching the whole time, but good art supplies cost money and, well, I never had it. Eventually, Emmett got me into a couple of art classes and then introduced me to a guy he'd gone to school with who owned a gallery. I started to make a little money and it was. . . it was really nice.
"I thought to myself that maybe, just maybe I'd finally be able to make you proud, to do right by both of us. And Emmett turned out to be a good friend, an amazing friend. Eventually, I told him about you, about all of you. I didn't tell him your names at first. Hell, for the first year or so I never told him my real name, but then, well things got ugly."
"Uglier than living on the streets?"
"I'd been trying to keep up with you, all of you, but I didn't have access to a lot of information. Just what I could find online and in print. I saw you, pictures of you going to some event with some good looking guy on your arm. You were smiling in the picture and I thought that you were happy without me, that you'd found someone and moved on. That's when I gave up."
"Yeah, gave up on ever getting you back and I just . . . wallowed. I kept drawing and painting, dabbled in photography. Got several jobs shooting models, started making some real money but it didn't matter. None of it mattered because I figured I'd already lost you."
"What happened, Edward?"
I didn't want to tell her about those years. Didn't want to show her the ugly underbelly of my life. But I poured us each another drink and did it anyway.
I told her about the booze and occasional drugs and the women. I told her about the times Emmett picked me up out of a puddle of my own vomit and climbed into a cold shower with me. I told her about the nameless, faceless women, and the dark, ugly places in my heart and my head.
Bella sat stone-faced as I continued to tell her how eventually I hit bottom emotionally, and how Emmett finally came to a place professionally where he was able to make really good connections for me. I told her about Jane, whose only flaw was that she loved a man who was in love with a memory. Told her how it was Jane who helped me out of the pit of despair I'd thrown myself into, and that it was Jane who made me realize I would never be able to love someone else until I either won Bella back, or let her go.
Bella interrupted me. "What um," her voice broke. "What happened to Jane?" she asked.
I smiled. "Eventually she met a really great guy, Corin. They're married and they have a baby girl. She still sends me a card at Christmas."
"Wish I'd met her," Bella said. "Maybe she could've helped me get over you sooner."
"Are you?" I asked.
"Am I what?"
"Over me?" I moved into her space, hands on the armrest of her chair, my face scant inches from hers. "Are you telling me you can't feel it anymore? Can't feel that tug in your gut when I'm in the room? Because I still feel it Bella. I never stopped feeling it. I feel it right now. Can't stop it. You're always inside me. A prickling under my skin and a pulse in my veins."
And for the second time since I'd come back, Bella hit me—a sharp open-handed slap.
"Damn you, Edward! You don't get to do that. You don't get to push yourself back into my life as if nothing happened. There is no going back to what it was like then. I'm not that naïve little girl anymore, Edward. I've made a new life for myself, one that doesn't include you!"
I touched my tongue to my lip gingerly, tasting copper where I bit it. "A new life, Bella? This is your new life? Chasing trouble? Getting blown up? Moving drugs? And yes, I get why. I understand wanting to help people, but what you're doing screams death wish, not new life."
"Yeah, well I like what I do, Edward. And how dare you judge me? You walked away from everything and left me to pick up the pieces. You gutted me, Edward. If you don't like what you see now, you can go fuck yourself. Just walk out that door right now. You know the way. You've done it before."
"God, Bella please, I didn't want to leave you but I had to!"
"No, you really didn't, Edward."
I shook my head, trying to find a way to explain it to her. "Maybe I didn't. Maybe you're right and it was the worst idea I ever had, but you need to know that I did it because I thought it was the right choice at the time. Was it stupid? Maybe. Probably. But Bella, I never did it to hurt you. I only wanted to be good for you. Worthy of you."
"You're such an idiot, Edward. You were the best thing that ever happened to me when I was younger. I don't know what happened, what I did to make you think that—"
"It wasn't you, Bella. Jesus, fuck, it was never you. It . . . you didn't hear them," I whispered.
"All of them. Everyone who knew us, Bella. I heard them. Heard how they all thought I was using you for your money. How you gave up going to Yale so you could stay and take care of me. Figured out that you were putting everything on hold to take care of me—because I was an utter failure at just living. And they were right, I was using you. I didn't mean to, it wasn't intentional, but you were a crutch and I allowed you to give up so much for me. Hearing it said aloud? That just put it all in perspective."
"Don't you get it, Bella? Leaving you was the worst thing I've ever done, but I never did it to hurt you. I honestly thought it was for the best. I was young and stupid . . . God, I was so fucking stupid, but Bella I loved you so much that I thought I needed to set you free and I just hoped and prayed that you would still be there when I got my shit together. Believe me, I know how dumb it was. I get that now. But then? I thought I'd be making life easier for you."
Bella shook her head. "You need to go, Edward. I can't . . . I need to think." She turned her back to me.
Still, I couldn't leave it alone. I came up behind her. "Bella."
When she spun around and tried to push me away, I caught her hand and reeled her in closer. It was wrong, so wrong, but I held her tight and I kissed her anyway. Kissed her like I'd wanted to for so many years, like I'd dreamt of, like I'd remembered. I needed to know that she still felt and tasted the same as my memories, as my dreams and my hopes.
When I let her go, she pushed me away but didn't say a word. Just put her fingers up to her lips, her eyes wide and unblinking.
I stepped away and started to walk out of the room, but I stopped and turned. "You never answered me, Bella."
That snapped her out of her trance. "What?"
"If you're over me? If you can still feel it, that pull in your gut? But it's okay. I think I have my answer now."
"I hate you," she whispered.
"No, you don't, even though I know you want to."
My next stop, though it would be a difficult one, was Carlisle's. I knew he'd been in touch with Bella's doctor in Afghanistan and that he'd probably kept tabs on her recovery as well, but I hadn't seen him since the day he helped me go to her, although we'd spoken a few awkward times. I didn't know what the condition of our relationship was anymore.
In the ten months or so since he'd found me, Carlisle had become a close confidant and friend, my uncle, but after everything that had happened, I didn't know if he'd still welcome me as his nephew. He'd been helpful and stepped out of the way when Bella had first been hurt, but perhaps the benefit of time made him change his mind about me, about Bella, about giving her up. Worse, I'd hurt the only remaining member of my family, and faced the possibility of losing him after knowing him only for a short time.
When he opened the door, Carlisle's face broke into a smile. "Edward!" He pulled me into a hug and then, into the house. "How've you been?"
I noticed that some of the furniture had sheets over it, and there was a suitcase in the hallway.
Carlisle laughed. "No, just returned. I was in Somalia, but Mogadishu got too dangerous and we had to pull out a week and a half later. I'm just home for a few weeks until I leave for Sudan."
We'd walked into the kitchen and Carlisle had opened the fridge and was rooting around inside.
"Christ, Carlisle. Please, don't go." I hadn't meant to plead with him like that. Hell, I hadn't even known if he'd let me in the door, but the thought that something could happen to him—of the danger he courted and the risks he took—it terrified me to think the next IED could have his name on it and that maybe, just maybe, he wouldn't be as lucky as Bella had been.
Carlisle turned, two beers in his hand. "Hey," he said as he handed me one. "It's okay, Edward. I'm okay."
I took a long pull from the bottle before I replied. "No, Carlisle. It's really not fucking okay. Not for you, not for Bella . . ." I took a breath, "you two . . . fuck, you're both so fucked up you know that? Do either of you even think, for just a minute about the people around you? The people who love you and need you? And shit, you damned asshole, I can't even call you selfish because you're doing these things, these amazing things, but I know, okay? I know why you do them and it's not selfless!"
"Edward, you're my nephew and I love you, but go fuck yourself you selfish shit! You are the king of making bad choices and hurting those around you, so don't fucking lecture me," he shouted, slamming down the bottle and cutting his hand as it shattered against the counter.
"Shit!" He grabbed a kitchen towel, wrapping it around his hand and applying pressure.
"What can I do?"
"I have a first aid kit in the bathroom, under the sink. Bring it, please?"
We spent the next ten minutes or so in silence while Carlisle bandaged his hand, and I cleaned up the glass and blood on the counter. The wound was more superficial than it seemed at first, for which I was thankful. I felt guilty enough as it was.
"I'm sorry," I told him.
"I did it to myself."
"Edward, it's not your fault, but I did mean what I said. We each deal with our demons in our own way, me, you, Bella." He gave me a rueful smile. "You don't have to like what we do. We both know no one liked how you chose to deal with yours, but you don't get to attack me for mine."
"It's . . . Damn it, Carlisle, I just found you. I don't want to lose you, even if you don't want anything to do with me again."
"Why wouldn't I?"
I tore the label off my bottle of beer and toyed with it a moment before whispering, "Bella."
Carlisle closed his eyes and shook his head. "In a different time and place, maybe Bella and I could have had something, but Edward, she was never mine to lose. How could I hold that against you?"
"I may have. Lost her, I mean. I just told her everything." I followed him into the other room.
He pointed at his hand before tilting a bottle of scotch at me. "I need something a little stronger." After pouring and taking a sip, he continued. "I knew everything. Emmett knew everything. Jane knew everything. None of us went screaming for the hills, why would you think Bella would?"
"Because I was a selfish asshole and I left her? Because I slept with other women during that time? Because I lived on the streets? Stole? Drank too much? I don't know, the list is long, Carlisle."
He sat on the couch and leaned forward, elbows on his knees. "Edward, you're right. You were a selfish asshole and you left her. And for that, maybe she won't forgive you. I don't know. But the rest? We all have an ugly side. We've all done things we're not proud of or wish we could have done differently. Even Bella. It's called life.
"When you first told me about her, before I knew who she really was, I told you that I supported you and hoped you'd win her back, and that hasn't changed. But I also warned you back then that not everything can be fixed and sometimes we just have to move forward and do our best. Maybe it's time you at least considered what that would mean for you."
"And if I can't?"
He gave a bitter laugh. "Then you wind up with a nephew yelling at you."
"Carlisle, I'm sorry. I shouldn't have reacted like that." I held up my hand when he tried to interrupt. "Don't. Let me get this out. Seven years ago I made the stupidest mistake of my life, and I'll always regret the pain I caused the people I love. Maybe if I'd stayed you would have found me sooner, and I would have gotten to enjoy more time with my uncle." I gave him a rueful smile before continuing. "But that's on me, and it's not fair of me to demand that you stick around now when I'm the one that wasted so much time. I just need you to know that I love you and I'm proud of what you do, even if it scares the crap out of me. It's your life to live how you see fit, and I'm just glad that I get to be a part of it now."
"Jesus Edward, when you're contrite you're something else, you know that?" He rubbed his hand over his face. "You're right though. I can't keep doing this. Or, at least maybe I need to take my own advice and start moving forward. I can't back out of going to Sudan. I've already told them I would and I don't want to leave them short a doctor. After though . . . after, I think maybe I'll take a vacation. A real one and, well, we'll see what happens."
We talked a little longer. He was leaving for Sudan in two weeks. I promised to see him before he left, and then I headed home. I walked, using the time to think about my conversation with Bella, the way it felt to hold her and kiss her once more. I was so engrossed in my thoughts I didn't see the man in front of me, until I'd walked right into him.
"Crap! I'm so sorry. I should've watched where I was going."
"That's alright, don't worry about it."
I began to walk up the steps to my place.
"Actually, I was waiting for you, Edward."
"Excuse me, do I know?" I turned to look at him.
"No, but we have a few mutual acquaintances."
"I don't think—"
He held out his hand. "My name is Aro. Aro Volturi. And I think it's time we had a talk."