Chapter Nineteen – Bella

This was simply not my month.

It wasn't just because it was Thanksgiving and I was missing out on so much at home. It wasn't because Edward was acting a little funny again, and I couldn't make sense of it. It was anxiety of a different sort, one I thought I'd been used to by now, but one which surprised me with its intensity every single time.

I used to think the rehearsal period during my final weeks in Juilliard had been the busiest time in my life, but it paled comparing to what I'd been going through since rehearsals began. I had never felt so drained, so exhausted; I thought I would never recover. And then, when I thought it couldn't possibly get worse, at the end of November we got the final schedule for our two upcoming productions. I felt my body goes limp, a little more each second, when I listened to our manager's explanations. I could almost feel my confidence leaking out of me, one drop at the time. Giselle and Cinderella were a walk in the park comparing to what was expecting us in this approaching holiday season.

Whereas most of my colleagues were used to do two shows a day, almost every day of the week, the news came as quite a blow for me. My reaction didn't make much sense, I guess. I should have probably expected it when I signed up for this. I wasn't sure what I'd expected, really. Maybe nothing; maybe I was just emotionally vulnerable because I was more stressed than I'd normally been. But looking at our schedule, despair washed over me. It was sudden, instant; it made my head spin and my heart beat faster. Luckily, we were just dismissed for an hour break. I really didn't want my colleagues to witness my falling apart.

By the time I reached the entrance of the park, I was half blind with tears. I collapsed on the nearest bench, pulled my legs up so I could lay my chin on my knees, and released a shaky breath. I wrapped my arms around my legs as if the position would prevent me from breaking into pieces. I just sat there with my eyes closed, and let the wind blow on my face as I tried to steady my breathing. You're okay, I told myself over and over again, but I couldn't even fool myself.

I'd never slipped into hysteria before. Exhaustion had always managed to numb the stress, and there was also Edward who made sure I wouldn't get there. But he wasn't here now, and despite the exhaustion, everything was so incredibly lucid. I'd been doing well so far, better than I'd expected to, and it had taken as little as that to make me fall apart. There was no way in the world I could do this. I'd been under some dumb illusion that I could, blinded by the exhilaration of a new beginning, but I knew better now. I should never have come here. I should have stayed home and pursue a teaching career, like some of my sensible friends had done.

"Bella?"

I looked up, startled. Ivan's face creased with concern, a response to my tears, I assumed. He sighed and sat beside me. Wordlessly, he wrapped one arm around me and pulled me closer. I lay my head against his shoulder and closed my eyes again, a final (and rather feeble) attempt to hold back tears.

He noticed them anyway. I thought it was because I was shaking so badly. "Oh, honey…" he cooed and turned so he could wrap both arms around me. That did it. I couldn't hold back anymore. My sobs were broken, as I was still trying to hold on to my crumpling poise, but to no avail. He just held me, gently rocking me against him, until I slowly calmed down.

"I'm… sorry…" I breathed when I found my way with words again. I fumbled in my bag blindly. How was it that you could never find a tissue just when you most needed one?

"There's nothing to be sorry about," he said, handing me a tissue. "I've expected it much sooner, really. You should have seen me during my first holiday season. I was a wreck – ask Stanislaw, he'll remember it well – I had to be hospitalized, and I didn't even have the excuse of being so far away from home." He searched in his bag a little before he took out something and handed it to me. It was a chocolate bar, my favorite brand since I'd got here. I looked up at him questionably, still too shaken to form a question. He just nodded. "Trust me. You'll feel better."

I cocked an eyebrow, unconvinced, but removed the wrapper anyway. "Sugar rush? Really?"

"Better than tranquilizers, and works like a charm," he promised when I bit into it. I let it melt on my tongue, hoping the sweetness would comfort me. "Now listen to me. Don't let the schedule scare you. From my experience, the rehearsals are much worse than the actual performances later. By then you'll be so numb you wouldn't notice how fast it goes. So instead of sitting here and phrasing your letter of resignation, take the advice of someone who's been doing this for four years. You'll be fine. We'll sit here at the end of January and laugh about it. I promise."

"If I survive the next month," I grumbled, mouth full with chocolate.

"I won't let you fall apart," he said seriously, and the simplicity in the statement brought new tears to my eyes. "You're a good dancer. You wouldn't be here if you weren't. Philippa would never have chosen you unless she thought you were capable of it. In the past four years, I've seen enough people she requited; they didn't last two months with us. You shouldn't be the one crying."

I dabbed my eyes with the tissue, but it was damp and useless. He handed me another one, and I blew my nose with it. I felt bad listening to him. I wasn't looking for compliments. I didn't need an ego boost. I was just so desperate, and incredibly homesick. I needed the one person who knew how to keep my steady, and he wasn't here with me.

And as if Ivan guessed it, he reached out to tuck my hair behind my ear. "I know it must be difficult, being alone here with those holidays coming. But you're not really alone, you know. I meant to tell you earlier, but I forgot. My Gran insisted you'd join us for lunch on Christmas day. I told her all about you, and she can't wait to meet you. And we can go and hunt for Christmas gifts on Sunday if you want. We'll get something for your hot boyfriend."

I laughed through tears. "As long as it's not an edible thong."

"Oooh, you know what I like," he squealed, waggling his eyebrows. We shared a smile, but his eyes were serious when they met mine again. "Okay?"

I nodded uncertainly. I wasn't completely okay yet, but with his help, I was slowly getting there.

xoxox

Ivan took me to dinner after the session ended that evening, and then walked me home, as if he didn't think I was capable of getting there by myself. I couldn't blame him. Outwardly, I was better. I forced myself to put up a good act for my colleagues, for my managers, to avoid questions at least, mainly because it was too embarrassing to admit the reason of my sudden distress. Inside I was still weeping.

It wasn't that I didn't believe Ivan that everything would be okay. I did. But letting it all out reminded me how lonely I'd truly been here, with everyone I knew and loved miles away from me. It didn't matter that it was my choice, that I should be grateful to have a steady job so soon after college, that there were people here who cared for me just as much as people at home, if not more so sometimes. For that one moment of misery, I had more to lose than to gain by being stuck here on my own.

That night I called home, but Edward wasn't in. I was really looking forward to speaking to him tonight. After what happened earlier, I needed his reassurance more than anything. If he wasn't here to hold me, I needed him to tell me it was okay, that he was still waiting, that he would wait until my contract here was over. Words were better than nothing. But he wasn't home.

I was determined not to sink back into this morning's desolation. My own breakdown scared the hell out of me, and I knew that if I didn't watch myself, it was a short way back there, because like an anesthesia, Ivan's consolations only managed to tone down the anxiety, not to take it away entirely. I'd call someone else, I decided, and Anya was the first person who popped into my head, probably because her postcard was still on the coffee table. I hadn't spoken to her in a while, and I was really glad to find this little piece of post from her when I got back. She was in, thankfully, and as we chatted, I felt slightly more comforted. I really missed those random, pointless conversations with her. From describing a blue dress she got from her grandmother in Russia for Christmas, she moved on to tell me about a date she had just the other night.

"Well, at least we have the same taste in movies. We went to see that new French comedy – you know, with the actress you hate."

The words were familiar – too familiar. I tensed, thinking of a different conversation, with a different person, barely a week earlier. "I thought you saw that one with Edward."

"With Edward?"

"He told me last week you guys were going to watch a movie together." I wasn't sure why I kept insisting. Her voice pretty much settled it that she had no idea what I was talking about. But he had said it, hadn't he…? Suddenly I wasn't sure.

"Were we? I don't – Oh! No, no, you're right. We meant to, but I ended up being too sick to go. We actually had tickets and everything – "

Was her voice quivering with panic, or was I beginning to hear things as well?

"I think he gave the extra ticket to your neighbor or something."

I clutched the phone so tight I nearly pulled a muscle in my palm. I winced in pain, slowly let go, and then questioned her statement. "A neighbor?"

"Yeah. That's what he said, anyway. I don't know her."

I felt my mouth go dry. We'd never been close to any of our neighbors, nor could I think of a particular one Edward would take sudden interest in. And Anya specifically said it was a woman. Unless it was a new neighbor I knew nothing about, I couldn't see how it was likely or possible he would ask one of our neighbors out, even as a friendly gesture. It could have meant nothing, just him being nice, but something within me told me that wasn't quite the case.

"Hey, at least he didn't throw away the extra ticket."

"Yeah," I murmured, my mind completely elsewhere, trying to place the pieces together. He had been acting funny recently. I sensed it, but I wasn't completely sure it wasn't all in my head. Those strange statements and weird questions I couldn't quite make sense of, the ones I brushed off because I thought I was too tired. Was this it, then? The crisis I'd felt looming closer, but couldn't explain it before?

"I thought he wouldn't miss a chance to rant at how I stood him up," Anya joked, putting an end to my frenzied thoughts.

I forced myself to laugh although something within me broke – I wasn't completely sure why. It could be nothing. It probably was nothing. "Oh, he must have said something. I'm so tired when I get home, I hardly remember my own name," I managed, hoping the tremor in my voice wasn't as strong as it sounded to me.

"I know how that feels," she giggled, indifferent to my distress, as she plunged into another tale.

I wasn't entirely sure how that conversation ended, or how I ended up on the floor, but there I was, with tears streaming uncontrollably down my face. It was stupid, but I was tired, and it was making me overly emotional – ridiculously so. My second breakdown in less than twenty four hours. This was definitely not normal. This one was worse, not because Ivan wasn't here to hold me through it, but because this wasn't about work. If my personal life was the only constant thing I had left, it was falling apart now as well.

It really didn't bother me if we had a new neighbor Edward was spending time with. I didn't care if it was a woman. He was spending a lot of time with Anya as well, and I had always thought it was great they'd become so close. Besides, I owed him the same amount of trust I'd expected him to have in me. That really wasn't the issue. What I couldn't figure out was why he kept it away from me.

Well, actually, I could. And that only made me cry harder.

The only reason he'd want to keep it away from me was if he actually had something to hide.

xoxox

I hadn't confronted Edward about my new suspicions. It might as well be nothing, all in my head, a result of my stress and nothing more. Besides, I wanted to give myself a chance to be sure before I attacked him for no reason. Since we'd spoken a lot recently, I told myself that if something was up, it was bound to come up at some point, in a way that would be a little more obvious than any other change I'd detected in him so far, but there was none. He sounded weary more often now, but he said school was getting busier and I believed him. It felt a little childish not to.

I told myself it didn't matter. Well, it did and it didn't. Of course I wanted to know if there was something he was keeping from me, but I was so busy I couldn't really afford vain distractions. I debated whether or not I should ask Emmett, but eventually decided against it. He'd just tell me we needed to grow up, right after he'd spend ten minutes straight laughing at me.

But there was something else I needed to tell Emmett – my idea for a Christmas gift for everyone at home. I came up with it a few days earlier, when Ivan suggested we'd go shopping together. I made a list of everyone I needed to get something for, and pretty soon the list became longer than I realized. Since the Cullens compiled the majority of this list, I decided I'd get everyone small things – things I could afford – and put it all in a box they could open together on Christmas Eve. Carlisle and Esme were traveling to New York again, to save Emmett and Rosalie the trouble of flying across the country with a two months old baby.

"It's like a twisted Secret Santa – sure, I'm game," Emmett laughed after I explained my plan to him. "But are you going to tell me what you got?"

"Of course not. You're just the messenger."

"In that case, add some extra candy in there, I'm working on commission here."

I'd actually thought about that long before he brought it up, but I didn't say anything. I'd let him think it was his own brilliant idea.

"Oh, and please make sure to keep Edward's gift G-rated since there are small children present!"

I laughed humorlessly, my previous gloom resurfacing. "I'll try."

"Has he spoken to you yet?"

"Edward? Was he supposed to?"

"There was something he wanted to ask you, I think – he made the mistake of trying to do it through me, but I said I wouldn't play. The kid has to toughen it up a little."

I cringed, because using Emmett as a mediator was exactly what I'd been tempted to do, but now I didn't dare to. But when Edward needed to tell me things, he had. Unless it was something he was hoping to find out without me knowing; or couldn't figure out the best way of breaking it to me. "Do you know what it was?"

"Nope, I told him I didn't want anything to do with this."

"Did he want to tell me something? Ask me something? What?"

But I doubted he even heard my question, because on his end, Jade started crying. "Oh no. Bella, I have to go – Rosalie's asleep and I don't want – talk later – okay?"

The last thing I heard was his soft comforts for his baby daughter before the line disconnected.

I thought about his words long after that. There was something Edward wanted to tell me, but didn't. Something that made Emmett upset with him. Could I possibly be right? Could there actually be something he was hiding about this neighbor of his? After all this time – five years next month – could he possibly mean to tell me it was over?

No. I wouldn't think about it. I couldn't; not without facts. I had too much faith in him to believe he could actually do something like that to me. We weren't officially engaged or anything, but I didn't need an engagement ring as a physical token of commitment. I thought it was something that couldn't be conquered by distance. I believed it would hold under any circumstances, no matter how desperate those circumstances were.

I hoped he wasn't going to prove me wrong.

xoxox

The loud shrill of the phone woke me up with a jolt. I was pretty sure I yelped as I started off the sofa, but I wasn't certain. The room swam about me for a second. My mind felt hazy, as if it was padded with cotton candy. I was on the sofa; I vaguely remembered speaking to Edward right before I fell asleep. The phone was on the carpet, as if I'd dropped it once I blacked out.

Suddenly my mind wrapped itself around the fact there was too much light, and the realization made me leap off the sofa with certain horror. Crap. Why hadn't my alarm gone off? I was going to be so late –

My caller was insistent. Or maybe that was the alarm? No, definitely the phone. I picked it, still somewhat dazed and kind of terrified as for who it could be. My manager, furious with me for not showing up for rehearsals on time. Or maybe Ivan, asking where the hell I was. Either way, it was lost. I'd undergone all this hectic period just to get my ass kicked now. I was going to get sacked. I just knew I would.

"Hello?"

"Oh, you're home. I meant to leave you a message."

Just Nathan. I dared to breathe again. "What time is it?" But I got my answer a second later when I caught sight of the digital clock above the TV. A little after twelve. "Oh, great," I moaned and made a run for the bedroom.

"Are you alright, Bella?"

"No. I'm going to get fired, and no ballet company will ever want to hire me again." My hands were shaking with sudden panic when I reached for a new pair of tights.

"What are you talking about? Who wants to fire you?"

"The company will, once I get to rehearsals – I'm so late – if you haven't called – "

My voice trailed off at the sound that came from the other end. From some reason, something I said made him laugh. "Bella, calm down."

"Didn't you hear a word of what I've just said? I can't calm down – "

"Do you know what day it is?"

It irritated me that he sounded so amused. Even more than it irritated me I really couldn't remember what day it was. "What does this have anything to do with it?"

He chuckled. "It has everything to do with it – it's Sunday."

I sat there, dumbfounded, and stared at the window. I scorned myself for my own stupidity. Sunday. Of course.

"Still there, Bella?"

"Yeah," I said, yawning, and lay back.

"I'm sorry I woke you. I seem to be doing that a lot recently," he laughed softly. "How are those rehearsals going?"

"We're moving to the theatre tomorrow, and we open on Thursday." Two shows a day. I shuddered in horror from just thinking about it. "How are you guys? How's Emily? I'm sorry I didn't get a chance to see you – or return your calls – I might be able to get you tickets for one of the – "

"Breathe, Bella," he laughed. "It's fine. We're fine. Things were quite busy for us as well. Emily misses you, but she understands you have a job to do."

"Is she there with you?"

"No, she's spending the day at a friend's house. I'm on my way out myself, but I was just wondering if you had plans for Christmas yet."

"We're doing an early matinee on Christmas Eve. We've got Christmas day off, but I'll be spending the day at my friend's house. If I could will myself to wake up. Why?"

"I was wondering if you'd want to spend Christmas Eve with Emily and me."

"I thought you'd be spending it with your parents."

"Normally we would have, but Emily got a part in the school play. They're performing on Christmas Eve, so we would be spending it at home. I was thinking… I mean if you want, you could come with me. To see her. I know it would make her happy. And then you could have dinner on us."

I could see why he had trouble going on dates. He was too awful in asking people out. Not that this was going to be a date of that sort, of course; but the principal was similar.

"So what do you say? A group of first year pupils is hardly the English National Ballet, and I'm not the best cook in Britain, but it's better than being alone on Christmas Eve."

I didn't even stop to consider. "I'd love that."

"Excellent." He was clearly smiling. "Can I tell Emily then?"

"On one condition."

"I know, no presents. I'll see what I can do."

"Oh, right, two conditions, then," I laughed.

"There was another?" He sounded surprised.

"Yes. That I'll be cooking too."

This amused him. "I didn't mean to imply I was that hopeless a cook."

"I didn't mean to insinuate it," I retorted. "It just feels unfair if it all falls on you, that's all."

"You're my guest, and therefore I should be the one – "

"You're quite the gentleman, Nathan, but it's unnecessary. It's been a while since I cooked for anyone but myself. I'm looking forward to it, in a pathetic sort of way."

"You've got enough on your plate as it is – "

"Stop it. It's fine. I'll be happy to do it."

"Fine, as long as you don't strain yourself," he mock-grumbled, but I could tell he was somewhat relieved by my suggestion. "Oh, and we'll be decorating our tree next weekend, I think, so if you want to come over…"

"Shoot, I still didn't get mine." And suddenly I realized I had no idea where I could get one. I told him as much.

"I'll tell you what. I really have to go now, but how about I stop by later and we could figure out the tree problem?"

"That'll be great," I said. "Thank you for thinking about me," I added a little more seriously.

"Not a problem. It would be a much happier Christmas for all of us that way."

And suddenly, after we hung up, I thought that maybe it would be.

xoxox

The day before we opened The Nutcracker, we were dismissed earlier than normally. I stopped at the post office on the way home to drop the package for Emmett. With all those endless rehearsal sessions, I didn't have a chance to send it earlier. Now, about two weeks before Christmas, I had to send it in Express to make sure he'd get it on time.

I received a package notification the day before, and I handed it to the clerk after I paid the shipping expenses for the package. He handed me back a box about half the size of a shoebox. My heart lifted when I recognized Edward's handwriting on one side of the box. And sure enough, there was his name and our address beneath the sender's details. I caught myself smiling like a fool on my way home. I hadn't expected any post from him. I'd just received a postcard from him a couple of days ago. I couldn't help but wonder what he could have possibly given me and remain so secretive about. In all our recent conversations, he hadn't let anything slip, not once.

I was glad I hadn't picked it up on my way to the theatre, but decided to wait. I wanted to be alone when I opened it. I hurried home, dropped my keys and bag on the sofa, and set the box on the coffee table in front of me. It took me a while to find my way through the endless amount of Sellotape he'd put it in, but eventually I got it open. It was filled almost entirely with bubble wrap. I parted them gently, now excited as for what they could possibly protect.

Eventually I found it, an ornament we bought on the first Christmas we spent together. We found it in a tiny shop in the Village while searching for gifts for our families. It was round and opaque white, and there was a miniature drawing on it, of a village in the middle of a snow storm. The drawing was handmade, and the ornament was about a century old. It had become our favorite ever since.

I looked at my small tree, the one Nathan had helped me bring up here. It was still bare – I promised Emily she could help me decorate it this weekend, after we would decorate theirs. It would be my first piece of decoration, I thought, but stopped myself from crossing the room and hanging it there. Not yet. I brought my attention back to the box. There was a glimpse of red on the bottom of it – an envelope. I reached for it, and carefully tore it open. I laughed when I first caught sight of the card, a cartoon snowman with a huge, unnatural grin. I opened it.

Dear Bella,

I thought you'd want to have this on your tree since you can't be here. I hope it gets there in one piece. I thought it was a legitimate gift because 1 – it's technically a hand-me-down; and 2 – I won't be there for you to throw any fits, and fits without audience are no fun.

There's something else I got for you, but you'll have to call home as soon as you read this card, and ask me what it is.

Merry Christmas, sweetheart.

Edward.

Considering I'd left him similar instructions on a card I'd dropped into the box I'd just sent Emmett, I couldn't help but wonder whether we had a similar plan in mind. I had the phone in my hand before I even calculated the time in New York. There was no answer, and I meant to leave him a message, when I suddenly heard his breathless voice.

"Hi. It's me."

"Bella!"

The surprise in his voice made me laugh; as if we hadn't spoken every two days or so, no matter how busy I'd been. It was a little after seven for me – only two for him, I suddenly realized. "What are you doing home?"

"My last class was cancelled," he replied. "What's up?"

"I got your card," I smiled.

"Did it get there safely? I put so much bubble wrap in – "

"It's perfect. Thank you."

"I'll miss it on my tree, but I thought you'd want a piece of home with you."

I wanted to tell him it was sweet of him to do that, but I found myself unable to speak. Although most of the tension was behind me now, I still feared emotional outbursts, and I wasn't willing to have one now. I forced myself to get a grip. "What – you said on the card there was something else?"

"Oh, right. Well, it's going to be a late Christmas gift and an early anniversary gift. And it's expensive, but I didn't think you'd mind this time."

A part of me wanted to protest he was spending so much money on nothing, but I thought I'd better just listen. "Are you going to tell me or do I need to guess?"

"Do you want to guess?"

"No," I giggled. "Tell me."

I was sure he was going to taunt me a little longer, but he didn't. "I'm coming to see you."

"What?" I gasped, nearly dropping the delicate ornament on the floor. "When?"

"On the fourth. I don't know how they even squeezed me in. It's a Christmas miracle." I heard a smile in his voice. It made me smile too. "You don't have to get me from the airport or anything. I know you're busy. I just wanted to let you know."

My heart swelled with emotion. There was so much I wanted to ask him, so much I wanted to say, but I couldn't let it out. "I love you," was all I managed, in a whisper.

"I love you, too."

Only when we hung up, it dawned on me that it was the most normal conversation we'd had in days. It was as if he forgot to act funny from whichever reason, as if I dropped my baseless suspicion. When I hung the ornament on my tree, I started thinking maybe it was baseless. Maybe I was too fast in judging him. He wouldn't have sounded so happy about coming here if he didn't mean well. He wouldn't go through all this trouble just to break up with me or something. And now when I thought of it, Emmett might as well refer to this. Maybe he decided not to wait for the package to get here. Maybe what he wanted so desperately to tell me was that he was coming over. There was nothing to worry about. Everything was fine.