Chapter Seventeen – Bella

The theatre, normally grand and enormous while swimming in misty stage lights, looked strangely bare. As intimidated as I had been by the sight of it filled with people each night, seeing it empty and in full light made my skin crawl. It lost some of its magic without the lighting, the constant murmur of the audience, the preparation of the orchestra. Like a ghost town, or a haunted house. Instead of it being comforting, it was oddly estranged.

It was Saturday, and we'd just been dismissed for a short lunch break after rehearsing all morning. It was raining out, so most of us stayed in. I ventured to one of the front rows in the stalls with a sandwich and a bottle of apple juice. Jenna disappeared backstage, on the way to the dressing rooms, I assumed. I bit into my sandwich and looked up, just in time to see Ivan staggering in my direction.

"Ugh!" he moaned, and collapsed on the seat next to mine. For the past few days, we'd all suspected he was coming down with something. He dismissed us; whether in denial or in attempt to hide the truth from us, I wasn't quite sure. But today he looked downright awful. A professional (or a nutcase) through and through, he insisted to take part in today's session.

Shaking my head, I handed him a tissue. He blew his nose loudly before flashing me a small grateful smile. It didn't reassure me like he probably meant it would. "Go home, Ivan."

"It's nothing. I'm fine. We're nearly done here anyway."

"You're nearly done," I protested.

"And what is nobler than dying a slow, agonizing death onstage? It's every artist's dream," he said, batting his lashes, but the fit of coughs that followed his dramatic statement pretty much killed off the effect of it.

"Germs! Germs!" Jenna – who appeared out of nowhere – cried out, pretending to duck.

"Ah, shut up," he grumbled. I knew he was in a bad shape; he didn't even try to come up with a backfire.

"You're looking worse, mate," she noted, and there was a hint of disapproval in her voice.

"I can't leave."

"Fine. Stay and get us all sick. Can you imagine the headlines? Cinderella's opening night postponed as the entire cast is poorly."

"Do you want me to tell Vlad you want to go home?" I probed.

"I think Vlad can already see something's wrong with him," said Jenna. My gaze followed hers. Our main choreograph was standing at the farthest end of the stage, speaking to our manager and glancing at Ivan every now and again. Then a few minutes later, he approached us, his expression severe.

"How are you holding up, Ivan?" His voice was composed, as always. I'd never heard him raise his voice since I got here. His accent was funny: Russian and British and French, somehow at the same time.

Ivan's only reply was a miserable moan as he blew his nose again.

Vlad's forehead creased in a grimace. "Right. We'll try to cut today shorter. If you're feeling faint, just stay here and watch; will that be okay?"

"He'll do it," Jenna promised, and threw a glance at me. "We'll make sure he does."

Seemingly satisfied, he nodded to us and went back onstage. Ivan scowled at us. "I'm perfectly capable – "

"No, you're not. It's okay to step back sometimes, you know," I told him, gently pushing him back into his seat when he tried to stand up. Jenna and I got up, ready to go back onstage when we were being called. "Are you cold? Do you want me to get you your coat?"

"No. As if sitting aside is not humiliating enough."

"Ah, just come on, Bella," said Jenna, cutting his rant short. "He's just messing with us now." She meant it to sound dismissive, but I could read beyond the light, indifferent expression she'd attempted to put on. She was clearly worried.

Luckily, he didn't die by the time we finished this afternoon. Jenna and I went home with him just to make sure he was okay. He had to push us out of the door to send us away. I was grateful to finally get home. I really hoped I didn't catch that cold that Ivan had. I was so tired. I knew it was more likely to be sleep deprivation. It seemed to be finally catching up with me.

And so it happened that a little after six I was already back at my apartment in my most comfortable sweats, curled into a ball on the sofa in front of the TV. If I could just stay there like that for the next week, I wished, yawning. The commercials were too loud, so I reached for the remote to mute the sound, feeling my eyelids slowly drooping. I must have dozed off, because the next thing I knew, there was a loud knock on the door that nearly sent me off the sofa with fright. My hands were still shaking when I unlocked the door.

"Bugger, did I wake you?" Nathan was standing on my doorway, looking distressed as he had always done.

I stared at him wide-eyed for just a second, still a little disoriented. "It's okay, I wasn't sleeping. I think," I rasped, and sidled to let him through. "What are you doing here?"

There was this amused spark in his stare as he eyed my socks (green with small red strawberries) and choice of sleepwear. He shook his head before he answered. "I just dropped Emily at the House. I was looking for you, but Alexandra said she hasn't seen you."

"We moved into the theatre a few days ago. I came here straight from there," I replied, as I finger-combed my hair. I hoped it didn't look too messed up. "Why were you looking for me?"

"I was at the library this morning and got you these," he said, nodding at a stack of books he carried. "I wanted to give them to you, but you weren't there, so…"

It was sweet of him to remember. "Thank you." I eyed them sort of fretfully. They looked huge and intimidating. "I don't know if I'll actually have time to – "

"It's alright. They're deposited under my name. Lecturers are allowed to keep books through the school year. Perfect scheme for slow readers." I cracked a smile, but he saw right through it. He grimaced. "I hoped you would be better by now, but you're in no better shape than you were a few weeks ago."

"Hmph," I narrowed my eyes at his observation. Throughout the day I was distracted by rehearsals and Ivan's illness, but now it was all coming back. I couldn't believe it'd been weeks. "I just…" I sighed and began to pace the room. "I don't know what else to do. I feel so…"

"At least you have a number you know you can reach him in."

"But that's just it, I can't reach him there because he won't answer!"

"Give him time," he said, but his voice sort of wavered as if he knew how unconvincing it sounded.

"Sorry," I smiled sadly; "Time is just the thing I'm running out of." I shook my head. I really didn't mean that. I loved Edward. The fact I was angry with him could barely change that. The entire situation was extremely frustrating. "Do you need to be someplace?"

"No. I have about an hour before I have to pick up Emily. Why?"

"Join me for tea?"

He couldn't hide his grin. "Why, Miss Swan, you're getting more British than you realize," he taunted me as he followed me into the kitchen. Not wishing to linger on the issue that really bothered me, I asked him about one of the books he got me, knowing it would set him off speaking. Nathan loved talking about his favorite books. And today I was content to just listen.

Now, a few months into my stay, I knew exactly where was what in the apartment I began to think of as my own. I didn't use the old kettle Cecilia used the first time we had tea here. Doreen's friend had an electrical kettle, so I just used that one. I let Nathan choose between the various brands of tea she kept in her cupboard. He rolled his eyes and said I was boring for choosing a regular tea; I teased him back, saying no sane person would have milk with raspberry tea. I was on my way to the fridge when the phone rang, cutting Nathan off mid-sentence.

"Could you get that, please?" I asked from over my shoulder as I bent towards the milk carton.

"Of course," he smiled and darted towards the living room. A moment later, the ringing stopped. Nathan's murmur was unintelligible to me as I poured the water into mugs and added milk into his. My face creased into a disgusted frown as I observed the creamy pink liquid. It looked wrong. How could anyone drink that was beyond me. I raised my head at the sound of his returning footsteps, but the teasing comment I had prepared froze on the tip of my tongue at the sight of his expression.

"What?" I asked. He just handed me the phone, his face still grave. I gave him another quizzical look before I held it to my ear. "Hello?"

"Who's that man?"

I gasped, but whether it was from the effect of hearing his voice for the first time in weeks, or from his unusually icy tone, I couldn't say. "Edward?"

"Who answered the phone?" he pressed, his voice growing impossibly colder, and sort of impatient.

"Edward, what – "

"Is it the same one the coat belongs to?" He cut me off again. "Or is it a different one?"

I glanced over my shoulder. Nathan was standing on the doorway, eyeing me anxiously. His expression finally made sense to me. He guessed who it was.

I shook my head, dismissing his concern, and walked over to the window. I couldn't believe Edward was talking to me like that. First he disappeared for nearly five weeks, and now when he finally called, this was what he had to say to me? "What the hell are you thinking?" I hissed, horrified with the thought that Nathan was there, witnessing all that.

"What am I supposed to think, Bella?" he spattered, enraged. His tone was harsh, barely familiar to me. He sounded almost brutal.

"You're supposed to trust me!"

"You're not giving me any reason to!"

"Look, this is ridiculous – "

"Is it? I don't think so! You still haven't told me who was it!"

"I'm not telling you anything until you calm down!" I was taken aback by my own rising tone, but I didn't try to quiet it down. I was too furious to be sensible. There was so much bottled within me. I needed to let it out. "For the past six weeks you've been screening my calls, acting as if I don't exist, and now you expect me to answer your questions as if nothing happened? Well, forget it, Edward, I owe you nothing!"

"Bella – "

"No!" The intensity of my own aggression frightened me. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. "Call me when you calm down, or don't bother to call at all." And with that, I hung up on him. I lowered the phone to the counter, and released the breath I didn't even realize I was holding. I turned quite fretfully, expecting to see Nathan there with that look of disapproval across his face, but he wasn't there. Gentleman as he was, he probably wanted to give me some privacy.

I couldn't believe what had just happened. We'd never had a fight as nasty before. We'd never even had a fight, full stop. I couldn't believe I spoke to him like that. I couldn't believe he had the nerve to speak to me like that after all this time. I rubbed my temples. I could feel my blood sizzling in my veins, fury mixed with adrenaline. I wasn't proud of myself for losing my temper that way, because really, how different I was than him?

"Bella?"

I opened my eyes, not even realizing I shut them. Nathan was on the doorway again, concern reflecting in his dark gaze.

"Is everything alright?"

"Yes," I replied decisively, but he didn't seem too convinced. "I'm sorry you had to see that," I added a little hesitantly. I was more than sorry. I was ashamed. More than anything, I was grateful Emily wasn't here with him.

"That's alright," he said. "I guess I sort of understand him."

"Understand him?" I echoed incredulously. "Regardless of the fact that he's been ignoring me for the past six weeks, he acts as if he's the only one hurting, as if he's the only one who's lonely!"

"Try to see it from his perspective," he told me, his voice still calm. "You're the one who left. He didn't want this."

"I know," I whispered, lowering my head with sudden defeat, because in a way, I didn't want this either.

Neither of us said anything for a moment. Nathan sighed; I looked up at the sound. He meant to say something, when a loud ring pierced the silence. I started, but didn't pick up right away. Somehow I knew it was him again, but I wasn't sure I was strong enough to handle him. I didn't want to lose it again, and I didn't know if I had enough strength to hold myself together.

"Do you want me to get it?" asked Nathan, as if he could somehow sense my debate.

"No," I said, grabbing the phone. "It will probably make things worse." I took a deep breath, and accepted the call. "Hello."

"I'm calm." His voice, closer to the one I knew, softened me instantly. I closed my eyes, trying to resist its instant affect on me. "I'm sorry I yelled at you."

I glanced at Nathan. He still looked worried. I shook my head, hoping he could see the reassurance in my eyes, and stepped out of the kitchen. I headed for the bedroom and shut the door. "It's okay."

"No, it's not. I don't know what's wrong with me – well, I do know." He paused, and I heard a low sigh. There was desperation to the sound. "I miss you, Bella."

I shut out against the new tenderness in his voice. The way he said my name made my heart ache. "If that's true, where have you been in the past six weeks?" I wasn't yelling this time, but I couldn't help sounding bitter.

"I know I made you worried. I know I hurt you. I should never have done that. I hate myself for doing that."

"Why, then?" I whispered, my throat tight with tears.

"I'm… not completely sure. I don't even know how to begin to apologize. I'm just… it's just… tough."

"Do you think it's easy for me? Do you think I don't miss you every single day? Do you have any idea what I've been through those last few weeks, trying to guess what the hell is wrong with you?"

"Go on. I deserve it."

"I'm glad you think so, but it's not why I'm telling you this."

There was a pause, and for a moment I thought the line disconnected, but then he whispered, "I really messed up."

It wasn't a question. I nodded, even though he couldn't see me. There was true remorse in his voice. I closed my eyes, letting it wash through me. All I really wanted was him to be there, and slowly wrap his arms around me. I held on to the phone as if it was an actual part of him. "Don't ever do that to me again," I heard myself choke out.

"I won't. I promise." His voice was full of emotion, reflecting my own. There was another pause. "So who is this guy?" He must have caught my impatient huff, because he laughed softly. "I didn't mean it like that."

I wasn't completely sure it was true, but I answered him anyway. "His daughter dances at my studio. I coach her sometimes. It's nothing you should worry about. Really."

"I know." The gentleness in his voice, only a distant memory at this point, brought fresh tears to my eyes. "I'm sorry I lost it. You're right. I should have known better." He let out short, sardonic laugh. "It feels like everyone is mad at me."

"I'm not mad at you," I found myself whisper. For a moment, I wasn't even sure if I meant it.

"I love you."

"I love you, too," my voice broke. "But you have to understand that as long as I'm here, I have my own life. I'm not hiding anything from you. This is just how things are. This is how things have to be. If you don't trust me, we'll never get this year over with."

"You're right." There was another pause. "I don't want to, umm, interrupt, if you have company."

I looked at the door. I completely forgot Nathan was out there. "I'll call you later, okay?"

"I'll be here," he murmured, and slowly hung up.

I just sat there for a moment, calming down. Only when I placed the phone on the bed, I became aware of the constant thump of my heart. I washed my face and made sure the tears were all gone before I joined Nathan in the kitchen again. He looked up as soon as I walked in, and I managed a small reassuring smile.

"Is everything okay?"

"Yeah," I nodded. "Everything's okay now."

When Nathan was gone, for the first time in weeks, Edward answered when I called. And along with the tender words and soft whispers and sweet promises, I could feel the traces of anger dissolve. That night I drifted into blissful dreamless sleep, at last, feeling more reassured than I had been in days.

xoxox

The next few days had gone by in a haze. Things between Edward and me got better, Ivan got well (just in time to tease me about the first fact, of course), Cinderella opened. On my weekly round of calls I actually caught everyone at home, for the first time in weeks – my mom and Phil, Charlie, the Cullens, even Alice and Anya. I should have been dead on my feet, but I wasn't. I had never felt better.

About a week into the production, Nathan called to ask if I could come and watch Emily for a few hours. Only after pressing him long enough, he let it slip that he had a date. A guest researcher at his department, he said.

"I thought you weren't going on dates," I teased him when I got to their place straight from the theatre. It was unusually quiet at his place; Emily was spending the afternoon at a friend's house.

"Normally, I don't," he replied, laughing nervously, as he showed me in. "I'm not quite sure how it happened. She's very… interesting."

"Interesting?" I burst into laughter.

He grimaced. "Didn't anyone tell you it was impolite to make fun of people older than you?"

"Who asked whom out?" I asked, promptly ignoring his query.

"What does this have to do with anything?"

"You're avoiding my question."

"I am not. I'm trying to understand the reason behind…" His voice trailed off when I gave him a look. "She asked me," he confessed. "She is as persistent as she is interesting," he stressed the word to make me laugh. "I felt bad about constantly turning her down."

There was reluctance in his every word, every movement. He looked as if he was still undecided whether he should go out with her or not, even though he was supposed to meet up with her in less than two hours. I thought he needed some encouragement. "I think it's great you're trying," I smiled at him. "You shouldn't look so terrified. It's just a date."

"It's not so much the date that frightens me; it's my daughter. Actually I'm quite terrified for you, having to answer who knows which questions."

And then I figured it out. "Is that why you called me instead of your regular babysitter?"

"Pretty much," he admitted sheepishly. "Emily seems to feel more comfortable with you. And you seem to be more successful answering her questions than anyone else does." He grinned at me. "Are you sure you don't have any siblings?"

"Not that I know of," I laughed, then scrutinized his appearance, as unkempt as ever, but somehow more thought-of. He had on dark corduroy trousers, and a blue dress shirt that actually flattered him, but was wrinkled, of course. I gave him a look. "You're not wearing that, aren't you?"

"What's wrong with it?" He looked down at himself, then at me, as if he couldn't understand my question. His complete obliviousness was laughable, almost endearing. For one moment, I knew exactly how Alice must have felt all this time, having to handle hopeless people with little or no sense of fashion at all.

"Take it off."

I hadn't entirely grasped the hidden meaning my demand carried until I noticed the color drain from his face. "W-what?" he stammered.

It was too late to take the words back now, so I tried to let myself out of it with some dignity. "Take it off. It has to be ironed."

He stared at me for a second longer, not comprehending, until it sank in. He tried to hold back a sigh of relief, but I guessed it was there, by the way his body sort of went limp again.

Already mortified with myself for my unintentionally suggestive demand, I tried to laugh it off, and so I threw him a playful sneer. "You do have an iron, don't you?"

"I do," he grumbled. He barely glanced at me as he slowly began to unbutton his shirt. "I just rarely use it."

"So I noticed," I murmured, still a little flustered. I struggled not to let it show, though. I figured he would be twice as embarrassed. Damn, I couldn't believe I'd just done it. I risked a glance at him, and reached out my arm when he released the last button, avoiding eye contact. "Gimmi."

He smirked and shrugged out of the shirt. I thought I gasped, but I wasn't sure. I hoped I wasn't, because it couldn't possibly get more humiliating than this. For a second, I stood there motionless. My arm froze, forgetting what it meant to be doing. My breathing sounded embarrassingly loud in the suddenly silent room. He wasn't overly muscular or hairy or tanned. Just… manly. His chest was broad, his arms firm. His stomach was flat. I found myself idly wondering if he'd been working out.

In the middle of that somewhat lustful musing, I realized he was staring back at me, his expression half amused, half inquiring. I looked away instantly, mumbling an apology. I could feel my cheeks flare.

"I'll go and find the iron," he said quietly.

I dared to look up until I was sure he was out of the room. Then, slowly, I exhaled. Well done, Bella, I scorned myself. I paced across the room for a while, unable to get over my own stupidity. Then he was back, and handed me the iron. He placed a small ironing board on the dining table as I plugged in the iron. I tried to focus on the mission in hand, although I could sense his eyes on my back, the tension that was suddenly thick in the air between us. I was relieved to be left alone.

xoxox

Emily was quiet that evening, despite Nathan's intimidating forecast about her probing questions. I found myself asking most of the questions, on which she replied with short answers. I suggested we'd make pancakes again to lift her spirit, but it hardly helped anything. She just sat there and watched me with distant eyes. The inherent gleam in them seemed dimmer than usual. I thought I knew what it was all about, and I wanted to talk to her, but she seemed unwilling to.

"When is Daddy coming back?" she asked me later when I put her to bed. I was a bit startled to hear her voice after she'd been silent for nearly the entire evening.

"I'm not sure."

There was a long pause before she spoke again. "He has a date, you know."

It wasn't a question. There was a hint of resentment, accusation maybe, in her voice. "I know."

I thought of myself in her age, and tried to put myself in her position. I wondered how I would react under similar circumstances, if Charlie would have done the same.

But I wasn't her age. And that made all the difference in the world. "He still loves your mom, Emily. It doesn't mean he's trying to replace her or anything. And he still loves you."

"But what if Mommy comes back?"

What if she doesn't?

But I didn't dare to utter the question aloud. Instead I tucked the covers more tightly around her. "It's just one date, sweetie. You shouldn't let it bother you. Now close your eyes and try to sleep, okay? I'll tell Daddy to come and kiss you goodnight when he's back."

"Will you stay with me until I fall asleep?" she pleaded.

"If you want."

"Will you read me a story?" she asked, although her voice suggested she was close to falling asleep.

"Sure."

"The one Edward got you?"

She saw the book at my place a few weeks ago, and whenever we met ever since she asked we'd read it together. I had a feeling she'd want to read it today so I brought it with me. Now I wished I remembered it sooner, because it might have helped earlier in the evening. "It's in my bag," I said, getting up. "I'll go get it."

But the time I was back in the room, she was fast asleep. I leaned over to kiss her goodnight. She stirred and snuggled deeper into the covers. I stayed on her bedside a moment longer before I left her room and went downstairs.

I leafed through Edward's book absentmindedly, automatically reaching for his dedication at the beginning. I knew his words by heart by now, so I just stared at them, thinking of our most recent reconciliation and the conversations that followed. Things were back to perfect again, or very nearly so. So what was this feeling I couldn't shake off, as if I hadn't seen the end of it yet? Our fight suddenly felt like a turning point, but towards what I wasn't quite sure yet. A chill went through me, despite the constant heat sipping through the radiator. I wrapped my arms around myself to get warm, but it didn't help. I kept shaking. I sat there, suddenly terrified, and tried to tell myself it was all in my head.