A/N: Because this chapter wouldn't be here without several people, this be a long note, sorry. First off, I'm sorrier than I can say for the update fail. I've been dabbling with three contest entries - one of which is now posted, coughthat'smeself-pimpingcough - plus, I suck. (Which is what it says about me on the boys' bathroom wall. Ha, jk.)

To my darling iponeddyou, you're the Shopcob to my Shopella. :) (Except for, ya know, the whole male thing.) Go read her lovely story Some Kind of Wonderful (link on my profile), mmkay? Mmkay!

I still have trouble believing it, but Lemon Muffins rec'd this lil story of mine on The Little-Known Ficster. If you want to check out the site, the rec, or all her awesome stories, link to all is on my profile as well. Btw, Jake says he owes you a... favor, Grace. ;)

Infinite pic-spams and perveh fruits/veggies to the wonderful Hyacinthgirl18, who beta-ed this for me when the world was tryna stop it from getting beta-ed. She's completely awshum, as is her writing. Go read her stuff, most especially Peaches. You can find her in my fav authors and stories.

Disclaimer: Me's no nots un Twiyite, er da moofee Da Shup Arrand Da Kerner. Beet airthan eels beyongs ta meh, incloodin wahn durlin Twinkeh.

*** Bella's POV

It seemed my body had finally begun to accept working in the mornings rather than afternoons. Something for which I was grateful. I'd actually woken up on time today, finished my shower in a timely manner, didn't have any clothes to locate, remembered to put on everything I needed. It was a good day; a little presumptuous to say before noon, but whatever. I was on track to be leisurely on time for work.

Until my toast burned.

I hated burnt toast.

Might as well eat sheep eyeballs, I hated it so much.

Now, the smart thing would have been to just throw the burnt toast away and grab a breakfast bar so I could remain leisurely on time. But I'd been eating breakfast bars in a rush for nearly the past two weeks, and I'd gotten rightfully sick of them.

Plus, I was having one of those I'm-more-than-definitely-not-pregnant-or-PMS-ing-but-that-doesn't-mean-I-can't-have-cravings moments.

I wanted some toast, dammit!

Grabbing two more slices of honey wheat, I stuffed them in the toaster, being sure to set it far lower than I had before. Since watching toast cook was the equivalent of watching paint dry, I snatched up my glass of OJ and stared out the kitchen window. We didn't precisely live on Main Street, but there were enough goings-on to keep me entertained.

I smiled, observing the world move. Observing the lady directly across from my apartment vigorously sweeping the sidewalk in front of her place. Observing the little boy playing with chalk while his father read the newspaper on the steps. Observing the neighborhood's voyeur cat sitting on a windowsill watching a couple making out in their living room.

Jeez, learn the concept of curtains, people.

I forced myself to turn away from the window lest I become the human form of VC, as I affectionately referred to the orange-Creamsicle cat as.

Sniff. Sniff, sniff.

Aw, shit!

I rushed back to my toaster, which was emitting little tiny plumes of smoke. My bread popped up as I hit the button, not a complete black charcoal, but still way too burnt for my tastes.

Glancing to the clock, I noted in dismay that I didn't quite have enough time to chance it.

"Dammit!" I cursed aloud this time, my foot just itching to kick the stupid toaster. I'd set it on a low setting, for pete's sake! "Why, why me? Why do I have to be in possession of the demon toaster?"

I let out a groan, or roar, of frustration, suddenly glad Jake took extraordinarily long showers. A smug brother laughing at me as he proclaimed that toast always came out perfectly for him would so not help me at the moment.

I could now either resort to yet another breakfast bar, or try my hand at finding something else in the cabinets to eat.

Calculating for a moment, I instead headed, with angry strides, to the fridge.

Mustard, eggs, cucumber, Swiss cheese, opened can of Beefaroni, 'nother cucumber.

Maybe Jake was right about all the cucumbers... But where were all the yogurts and bananas?

Chicken base, half-eaten roll of store-bought cookie dough, mysterious leftover that is possibly a month old, package of hamburger, open container of chocolate frosting, what looked to be

SCORE!

I hastily grabbed the clear, square container of my find, stuffing the whole thing into the microwave once I'd removed the top.

Arms crossed, I tapped my foot impatiently as the seconds ticked down. Time never moved slower than when you were watching it on a microwave. When it got to five seconds left, I couldn't take it anymore and pulled the door open quickly, seizing my prize from within the magical contraption that was a microwave.

And almost dropping it on the floor because, damn! It was hot!

Luckily for my stomach, I had marginally good aim and the container landed on the counter rather than the floor. Grabbing the corner of it cautiously with only two fingers, I headed out of the kitchen.

"Spoon!" I did an about-face, snatching a spoon from the silverware drawer.

I'd barely bumped the drawer closed with a hip when Jake's voice, echoing from where I presumed he was prettying himself up for the day in his bedroom or bathroom, reached my ears.

"IS THAT CHILI I SMELL?"

Instinctually (and in paranoid guilt), I froze.

"NO!" I called back, turning around the kitchen in a vain attempt to find some way to hide my breakfast.

His bare feet slapped against the hardwood as he came closer and closer to where I now sat on the counter, ultra-weak spine braced up against a cabinet in hopes that I'd have the strength not to share.

"Liar!" he accused, standing in the entryway of the kitchen and pointing a finger at me.

"Umfa-nupta," I mumbled around a hasty swig of coffee, fighting to keep my eyes from darting around guiltily.

Narrowed eyes staring straight at me, Jake bent slightly to deposit his shoes on the floor so he could then put them on his pontoon-sized feet. Obviously, he was trying to get off the message 'I'm watching you.'

Mouth clear now, I wondered aloud, "How are you allowed to wear flip-flops to work? I thought you worked at a mechanic's garage, not the Tiki Torch on the beach."

"I keep my boots there, if you must know." I rolled my eyes at his clipped and snotty tone. "Are we going to leave?"

"Yeah." I hopped down from the counter and, cradling the chili in my arms and hunching over it, made my way past my brother to the front door. Still guarding my breakfast like it was a prized jewel, which it totally was, I slung my bag over my shoulder and carefully maneuvered the door open.

I met our mailman at the bottom of the stairs, trying in vain to keep every part of me from lighting up, literally or figuratively, at the prospect of a new letter.

"Hey, Marv!" I greeted the sour-looking man as I fought back a laugh. It was a struggle every time I saw him. The combination of perpetual grouchiness, likeness in looks to Wallace Shawn, outfit resembling Cliff's on Cheers, and the whole Marvin the Mailman thing amused me every. Damn. Time.

Jake considered it a testament to my childishness in some areas; I stuck my tongue out at him whenever he voiced that particular thought.

Mister Marvin the Mailman (I will not snicker, I will not snicker) grunted as his only response to my salutation.

"Is there a new letter for me?"

"If there is, you'll get it when it's delivered."

I rolled my eyes, hopefully without him seeing. "Come on, I'm out the door right now! If you have something for me, can't you just give it to me now?" Alright, I was whining. So what.

He studied me with narrowed eyes and pursed lips in an already-pursed face. Finally, with another grunt, this one sounding grudging, he dug around in his shoulder bag. He emerged from the worn bag with a plain white envelope and handed it to me.

I told myself bouncing forward and hugging him would only scare the dude and get me my electric bill conveniently misplaced.

Bouncing forward and kissing his cheek would also probably be a bad idea.

Any kind of bouncing as concerned Marv and thanking him was more than likely unwise.

So, I settled for a wide grin aimed at him and the letter in his oddly tiny hands.

The address on the front of the envelope was my P.O. box, but our post office was completely off its rocker and offered the service of P.O. box deliveries to your house. Honestly, it didn't make any sense to me. But who the hell was I to complain when it saved me a trip to the post office?

He handed me the letter with only a bit of reluctance, but I, being as excited as I was, snatched it from him with the wrong hand and almost dropped it right into my container of chili.

With eyes that I could feel were wide and probably terrified, I mumbled mostly to myself, "Yeah, we'll wait till after the food's gone."

Grunting again, Marv continued on past me.

I stared at the letter for a moment, debating how much damage I might do to it if I decided to eat, drive, and attempt to read it at the same time. Sighing, I carefully slipped it into my overstuffed bag.

Getting up into my truck, while protecting my food as though I hadn't eaten in weeks, was not the world's easiest task. I almost dropped it twice before my butt hit the seat. Once I'd closed the door behind me, I stuck the container of chili between my left thigh and said door. I wasn't exactly what one would describe as ambidextrous, but desperate times called for desperate measures.

"Why am I still chauffeuring you around?" I mused out loud to distract Jake from the smell of my breakfast, which was now wafting out all over everywhere in the truck cab.

I glanced away from the road in time to see him hunch a little in his seat, mumble-complaining something along the lines of, "Granny-ass shipping."

Hmm, curious. There's no reason sloth shipping should cause that color on his face...

I'd have to bug the crap out of him for answers later. There wasn't enough time at the moment to execute the procedures I'd need to.

Right hand balanced on the steering wheel, I grabbed the spoon with my other hand, lifting it from the container once it held a nice mouthful of chili.

Is there anything better than chili for breakfast? I think not!

Well, except maybe waffles. Waffles are good. Ooh, and bacon, can't forget bacon.

"Why are you eating that?" Jake asked when we'd come to a stoplight.

"Because it's food and it's good and I'm hungry. Dur-her."

"Well how did you find it?"

Wrinkling my nose at the interrogation, I swallowed another spoon of my breakfast before responding. "I looked in the fridge, Officer."

"But I'd stuffed it in the back of the fridge so I could have it laaaater!" he whined dramatically. "And what the hell are you doing digging around in the back of the fridge?"

I gasped around my current mouthful of chili as I tried to glare at him without taking my eyes off the bit of traffic in front of us. "You're hiding food in our refrigerator?"

He sniffed snootily and didn't answer, which was answer enough.

"When I stop this car, I am pinching you into oblivion, you little food-hiding weasel!"

Two minutes later, when I actually did stop my truck since we'd made it to the garage where Jake worked, he was out the door before I could even shift my hand from the steering wheel.

Moving my chili to the middle of the cab seats, I quickly opened my door and pulled myself up until I was staring out over the rusty top of my truck. "You'll get yours soon, buster!" I called to Jake's back.

Astounded, I could only watch as my normally-so-sure-of-himself brother tripped over absolutely nothing the moment a pretty (at least from my current distance), tanned and dark-haired girl with a scowl on her face walked out of the adjoined office.

My oh my, what have we here? Popeye yearning after Olive Oyl?

I snickered to myself at my brother's obvious entrancement with the girl, making a mental note to tease him about it later on and get the details.

Once Jake had disappeared into the large metal building, I plopped back into my seat and grabbed my chili again. It'd cooled quite a bit now, but what the hell. I shoved spoonfuls of it into my mouth as I waited for traffic to be clear enough that I could pull out from the fenced-in parking lot of the garage.

I downed the last mouthful of it as I put my truck in park across from the Shop. Calculating the extent of traffic on the road separating me from work, I decided it wasn't entirely a sufficient amount of time to properly fawn over Greenheart's letter. It would simply have to wait a little, that was all.

Just wait a little while longer. Not such a big deal.

Nevertheless, I hurried across the road and into the on-the-nippy-side building. Unfortunately for me, the first person I saw was Edward, and my curiosity and confusion combined to breed the accident that was me asking, "Are we entertaining some visiting Eskimos today or what?"

On anyone else, I was sure, my witty reference to the temperature would have cracked a smile, at least. But on Edward? All I got was an eye roll of the forcible-looking kind (Ya know, where you're worried it's going to strain the eye muscles and the person's eyes will be stuck in the rolled position until the muscles heal?) and the seemingly customary-no-matter-how-much-ground-I'd-thought-we'd-covered mutter.

"I hope that wasn't chili you just had for breakfast," he sneered the word, as if there were only certain foods acceptable for breakfast, "because we can't afford to have an employee in the lavatory all shift."

I narrowed my eyes at him, the only change in my manner I permitted myself. "I hope you've scheduled an appointment with your doctor to have that stick removed, because I don't think we can afford to have an employee scaring away all the customers."

We stared (cough-glared-cough) at each other for three steamboats. Yeah, I counted. When I heard footsteps on the linoleum approaching in our direction, I walked maturely away. Okay, I turned and fled. But only because just one inquisition about my breakfast habits was one too many.

I stuffed the incriminating evidence of my breakfast of eccentricity into my locker, wishing I had a black catsuit to make me feel more ninja-esque and stealthy.

A glance to my watch told me I didn't have the many minutes necessary to drool over Greenheart's words before customers started invading. Which had me sighing dejectedly.

Later, I will get to you later.

Stealing furtive peeks from side to side, I kissed the back of the white envelope. My lips left a faint and lightly pink smudge, but I didn't care.

"Bella?"

I jumped at the voice, accidentally slamming my locker closed. "Oh. Morning, Alice."

She laughed, eyeing me. "Were you just committing a crime?"

"What? No." Scoffing would be too obvious, right? I mean, come on! Kissing an envelope was not a crime. It was just... different.

"Riiight." Her mouth did this sideways-smirk à la Bewitched. "You committing a crime would be ludicrous, of course."

"Exactly. It's not like I'm some speed-ticket acquiring bandit."

Alice's eyes constricted, but the mirth lived on in the oft-changing hazel depths. She opened her mouth to say something, but the bell above the door to the Shop cut her off with its jingling. "Well, that's what I was coming in to tell you anyway."

"Huh?"

"Customers. The hand that feeds us," she pressed a palm to her chest, adding an element to her dramatic words, "yet the bane of our existence."

Amused, I played along with her theatrics. "Oh isn't that the truth."

She held out a hand I could only assume was to me since it was in my general direction and all. Plus, ya know, I was the only other person in the room besides herself. "Shall we?"

Was I supposed to take her hand? She'd made it quite clear before that she wasn't interested in me in... that way. So what harm could it do?

I slipped the letter, which I hadn't been able to stick in my locker due to its surprise closing, into my back pocket, hoping it wouldn't get wrinkled in there. After making my way across the shiny tiled floors, I took Alice's proffered hand. It was warm, girly-soft, and I belatedly realized I'd never held hands with someone in a non-oh-hi-I-daydream-about-you-sometimes-even-naughtily way. Well, that and someone other than family.

"You kind of look better than you have in the past couple weeks," Alice commented as we headed toward the front of the store.

Okay then? What was that supposed to mean?

Evidently she saw my look, because she hurried on to say, "Less haggard, I mean! Like... you didn't have to rush to get here and stuff."

Oh. "Yeah," I chuckled a little, "I didn't have to dash here like the President late for a televised speech."

"Well that's good." She smiled over at me. "It's nice to see you're getting adjusted and used to it here and stuff."

Why do I feel as though this conversation is just chock-full of awkward?

Umm. "Yeah, it's good."

"So..." she trailed off, and I'd be damned if I was going to pick up the prompt and run with it. She let out this tiny little—all I could think was the word cute—sigh before forging ahead. "So I heard through the Bavarian cream that you saw Edward first when you came in."

What is this? The gossip salon? Jeezing cheese, I saw him like five minutes ago.

I nodded slowly. "Yeah." Stop saying 'yeah', you imbecile! "Not by choice," I added a bit grouchily.

Alice cleared her throat dexterously. "And what—"

Enough! "Alice, if you have something to say, stop dancing hexagons around it. Please?"

"Well," the hemming and hawing tone seemed as though it struggled to reach my ears, "it just kind of felt like you two had reached an... agreement of sorts. The other day."

I had to give her credit for the genuine discomfort she was shooting off like shotgun shells. I would have pegged (and, to be honest, did) her as the type that pried. And thoroughly enjoyed doing such.

She still might though. How do I know if she's just awkward about it because she hasn't known me even a month?

In lieu of it all, I decided to go for vague. "Did it?"

She puffed out a breath in translucent annoyance. The chance to ask more was ripped away from her, though, by customers. Before I'd started working here, I'd have never believed so many people bought so much sporty, hunting, and outdoor stuff. And, it couldn't be overlooked due to its popularity, random crap. Groceries, yeah, I could easily understand why the masses flocked to those. Food was tasty and, ya know, needed and shit.

But softballs and fishing line and soccer balls and hockey sticks and ball caps? What was the draw?

I shook my head, clearing it of the questions to direct a mop-haired little boy to the baseball bat section. I got paid thanks to public's love of all the stuff the Shop sold, I shouldn't query it.


I will focus, I will focus, I will focus.

...

Greenheart, Greenheart, Greenheart.

Yeah, obviously focusing wasn't really working.

As much as I loathed them on most occasions, and barely tolerated them on better ones, I found myself wishing desperately for some customers. For all that they were frustrating or annoying, they were distracting. Far more distracting then sorting refrigerator magnets.

And I needed a distraction. I needed to stop obsessing over the letter burning in my pocket. It was only—wrist-watch check—another two hours until my lunch break.

I groaned, dropping my head and the handful of magnets I was holding into the wrong sorted pile. By the time I'd separated them again and looked up, a genie apparently as awesome as Robin William's version had granted my wish.

A customer had just walked in.

It was a dude, on the far side of middle-aged, and he had on an almost-crossing-over-the-borderline-into-straight-on ridiculous hunting costume. Including a slightly-poofy cap.

And I shall call ye: Elmer.

As in Fudd, not Glue.

If he hadn't looked so serious, I'd have bet the whole can of Reddi-wip in my fridge that Elmer had bought his clothing at a Halloween costume store.

"Excuse me, sir," I began politely, my sales face on, "can I help you with anything?"

Elmer gave me a brushing glance, which lingered in places it shouldn't have. "I don't think what I came in here to be helped with is up your alley, sugar."

The sting of his words didn't settle in right away. Neither did his ability to pronounce his R's. For the duration that it took his rudeness to sink in, I kept my saleswoman expression plastered on. And I wanted to kick myself for it.

By the time his sentence had sunk in, Elmer had spotted someone over my right shoulder, calling out to them and walking away from me without another word. Although, unfortunately, not without another loitering scan of my body.

I stood stationary in the middle of the store, taking stock of my feelings. Without warning, a hand descended on my shoulder, startling me so much I literally flinched. The hand disappeared quickly, but came slowly back as I registered the fact that Sue was standing beside me.

"Dearie?" she questioned quietly, her hand massaging gently, soothingly.

Still confused about my current state, I could only watch as a customer with a cheery gait exited the store. I was distracted from that view by a new one: Alice clipping toward me at a fast, annoyed-seeming pace. Her eyes flicked to Sue, still hovering like a mama bear beside me, then to somewhere behind us before finally landing on me.

"Don't let him bother you, Bella." Her instruction and tone were sweet, underlined with something bitter and harsh. Being able to detect that, I wasn't all that surprised when her eyes narrowed into almost-Chinese-looking slits, her words hissing out, pausing and filtering curses. "He's just a... backwoods idiot who still thinks women are only... good for... things like breeding, cleaning and cooking. And if he wasn't a... loud mouth in touch with a lot of other customers, we'd... ban him from the store."

She gusted out a breath when she'd finished, hands on her hips and fingers curled into fists around her shirt.

"You okay?"

I smiled, somehow knowing the words were for sheer politeness and she knew I was just fine. She nodded definitively in response, her own smile firm and just a little bit... proudly smug?

The realization that Elmer wasn't just a rude, jackass prick to solely me, made me feel a bit better. It was nice to know I hadn't been singled out for such treatment. I felt calmer, felt I had more of a grip on myself and my emotions.

I nodded again to Sue and Alice, telling them I was alright. And that I appreciated the solidarity they'd shown, despite the fact that they'd known me less than a month. There was something in that knowledge that warmed me, but I chose to ignore it (for now), as was probably best.

Normal customers continued to filter in as I hunkered down into the routine I was slowly getting used to. I went about everything with the gradual ease of familiarity, nervous and anxious undertones making my mind work faster than anything else.

My fingers may or may not have twitched toward my pocket on several occasions.

Thankfully, during such finger-itching instances, I had customers standing right next to me. It'd have been kind of difficult, even for me and my Greenheart cravings, to simply start ignoring customers for reading a letter pulled out of my jeans.

Separate halves of me brawled with each other over hoping to keep a steady stream of customers, and desperately wishing for a total lull in them.

Ultimately, the devil-half won the match, and the last customer in the store tromped out sullenly (we hadn't had Rudolph's—cause the guy's nose was grossly sunburned—egg-shaped sidewalk chalk). I was all alone. All alone with no customers on site or in sight. All alone with no shoppers and with a brand new letter searing my right buttcheek.

Burns in that location will be really uncomfortable, ya know...

Yeah, I didn't waste another second before the preciousness of my letter was no longer hidden, instead bare right in front of my greedy little eyes.

I turned it over carefully, ridiculously fragile as always; as though handling the paper too roughly would result in it crumbing between my very fingers. The smear on the back of the envelope made me smile. A lone finger slid, in the cautious way I only got when excitedly nervous, under the glued and sticky seams. Moving across, minute exposure, the tiniest bit of resistance, giving, opening, anticipation, oh such anticipation.

And then it was done. The flap open, everything and nothing revealed.

My breathing was deeper—heavier, eyes wide in expectation, bottom lip between incisors in a futile effort to diminish my grin.

With everything flooding over me in a way I'd never gotten used to, even after three months of it, I slid the thin—yet so very weighty to me—paper out of its encasement.

Gradually, savorily, I unfolded the parchment.

And read.

In an effort not to sound like a cocky idiot, I will simply say thank you, Belletrist, for not being fifty years older than I am. Which is just another way to say I'm under thirty as well. You are not, allow me to repeat that: NOT stupid. I know stupid people, and you are far from it.

But in regards to your point, yes, I have met people I instantly disliked for unapparent reasons. It's confusing when such a thing happens. As for what you should do... well, as much as I know this was not what you wanted to hear when you shared this problem with me, I can't tell you what to do. Situations like that are kind of simply ones you must take in stride and maneuver as you go along. At least, in my opinion, that's what they are. I'm truly sorry I could not be of more help, but I nevertheless hope the matter clears up soon for you. I know from experience that it's not precisely classified as fun when you have to persistently be around someone you dislike.

The postman I always use is never impatient, never has an attitudinal problem, and is always right there waiting for me whenever I need to use him. Right about now I'm guessing you're either laughing at me because I am a dweeb, or wondering "Where in the hell can I get a postman like that? Is he out for loan?" In which case I shall have to tell you that I always drop my mail in the funky, square on the body yet rounded on the top, and no-longer-sparkling navy blue mail box outside my apartment.

On another note, I hope you never spend precious moments of yourself worrying about the length of your letters to me. With you, Belletrist, I would be happy to get even the simplest "Hi. What's up?" Never worry about the length of your letters. If you do, that is. Though that's not to say you do. I didn't mean to imply that you do worry about the length of your letters. I'd never want to imply anything like that about you without first knowing some sort of semblance of fact, I hope you know.

Well, I'd intended to go and white out that bit of rambling mess I sort of spurted all over the page there, but apparently someone (better known as yours truly) used up all my whiteout and forgot to write it down on the grocery list. I'll probably forget again after this. Most likely that right there is the chief reason why I am the world's takes-the-longest, suckiest grocery shopper, and completely dread the act of going grocery shopping. It's too bad the delivery boy who used to deliver my groceries saw me in my place of employment once and promptly told his boss I was not an invalid as I'd let them think I was so I could spout off my list of groceries to them and they'd deliver them to my home.

Again with my rambling, spurting mess. I'd apologize, but I'm not really all that sorry so the apology would be false and fake, and I never want to be false or fake with you, dear Belletrist.

On yet even another note, because it appears I cannot shut up today, I'm actually rather jealous that you have a brother. I'm an only child, as you must well know by now, yet always wanted a little brother or sister, or older brother or sister even. Although, I think I've found much the same in my current close friendships, so I guess I shouldn't complain. No, I know I shouldn't. I'm going to shut up now, as I've probably already mentioned this nonsense to you before and this letter is getting scarily close to being way too ridiculously long.

It was lovely talking to you, as always, Belletrist.

Only slightly sad, because I am a greedy SOB like that, that a Fudgsicle won't mail well,
Greenheart

The obnoxious clearing of a throat brought me unforgivingly out of my Greenheart daze.

Blinking, I looked up, only to find Edward abruptly and suddenly standing in front of me. A nervous cast of my eyes around granted me the sight of a couple customers dangling bags and walking in the direction of away from the store. Customers I didn't remember at all.

Uh oh, not good.

How long has he been standing there? If those customers had to be rung up, he could have been-... while I was-... and I didn't even-... Oh shit.

I need to find a cork, cause I am quite possibly screwed.

Face devoid of any expression whatsoever—which in and of itself, if you thought about it, had to be an expression—Edward crooked a single, long index finger at me. Without saying anything or giving me the chance to, he walked away.

And, on top of it all, Grumpy McSmallDick (In actuality, I knew the odds lay in favor of the complete opposite, given the facets of his natural walk. But it would have made sense of his attitudes had it been truth.) didn't even look over his shoulder to check if I was following him. He just assumed I would be. Of course, in point of fact I would be because I was far too curious and intrigued at this point to not follow him, but that was so not the point. He should have been arrogant-less enough to confirm whether or not I was trailing behind him, rather than presuming.

Fucker.

I shadowed him all the way to the metal mess posing as the staircase that led to whatever was above the Shop. I'd never been up there, as I supposed I'd never really had a need to. Nosiness, unfortunately, is not classified as a need. And I couldn't sqush down the excitement over finally getting to see the second floor-slash-attic-slash-whatever-the-hell-it-really-was.

No matter what awaited me once I made it there—although, honestly, I wasn't thinking too much about that—I was pretty happy to have my curiosity quenched in regards to the Mysterious Staircase Leading to Mysteries Unknown.

Two or three feet in front of me, Edward didn't hesitate one iota before hopping onto the winding stairs and beginning to climb them. I, on the other hand, did. And it wasn't just because his ass and legs were on fine display in the black slacks he wore. Absolutely not. The metal steps looked, ya know, rickety and unsafe and... stuff.

Eyes still focused... elsewhere... as I neared the stairs, I lifted a foot sloppily, aiming for the first step. Of course I missed. Because where was the coordination, hey-let's-help-you-not -look-like-an-idiot-in-front-of-people fairy when you needed her? Unconscious instinct had my hands flying out as though imitating wings, catching on the banister. Saving me from having metal tread imprints all over my face.

I righted myself in time for my eyes to find Edward at the top, staring back down at me. His head was cocked to the side, like an animal (Down girl. Now is not an appropriate time for horny thoughts.) in curiosity.

He ruined it all when he raised an eyebrow at me—probably practiced that jackassery in the mirror in order to perfect it—a smirk not so well camouflaged on his face. Forcing out a deep breath, I stood straight again and scrambled up the steps in hurried annoyance.

Edward held out a hand when I neared the end, pretending to be a gentleman or something, it seemed. Who was I to know? I ignored his hand in favor of brushing past him to examine the room. Deliberately, I chose not to hear and/or see his reaction, being sure to stay fixed on taking in my surroundings.

It was... well, not at all what I'd been imagining. Like that's never happened before.

Basically, just... boxes. Yeah, lots and lots of boxes. Boxes everywhere. Box upon box. Boxes here, boxes there, boxes of every sized square in anywhere. All in all, the entire space seemed to be filled with, yup, that was it: boxes.

Well, boxes and dust bunnies. But those rarely counted unless given names.

Still, apparently, resolutely silent, Edward gestured a single hand to a box on the floor. I touched it with my foot before pressing on it with my own hand, testing its sturdiness. Satisfied, I shrugged and plopped down. My legs crossed out of sheer habit.

Shifting and sinking onto a box across from me, he made nothing more than a slight shuffling sound. Disconcerting and just a little bit creepy? Why yes, Edward.

He bent over until his elbows were on his thighs, aimlessly twirling the leather string tied about his wrist. Studying me. Mouth not moving or expressing anything.

I was coming to find out though that the window to Edward's soul really was in his eyes. No matter what his face was (or wasn't) saying, his eyes always seemed to be speaking.

Or my imagination was really bored and really vivid.

Both were plausibly possible probables.

Ceasing his fiddling, he leaned his entire torso back up, sitting straight once again, his legs spread in a gesture that was supposed to be comfortable, but came off as stern.

Why is he taking a stern tone with me? I'm sure I have no idea why he'd do such a thing.

Edward sighed overdramatically, at least that was the way it sounded, before licking his lips and parting them.

...What? It wasn't as if there was that much else to look at.

His eyes, which had flicked down to focus on the box visible between his open legs, rose back to mine. I tried to decipher the look in them, but his words made baby food of my attempts.

"I'm just going to come right out and say this: We can't have an employee ignoring potentially paying customers to extensively ponder her electric bill."

Annoyed, insulted, and just the teeniest bit ashamed, I sat up more fully on my box. "It's n—" I cut myself off before I could say anything else. It was my fucking personal life! It was none of his business to know anything about it.

"We're a pretty comfortable, easy workplace, wouldn't you say, Bella?" His voice was too sugary, too sweet.

Danger, Will Robinson. Danger!

"Mm-hm...?" I hedged uncertainly. I don't know where he's going with this, but I don't think I'mma like it.

"And would you like to maintain that easy workplace, Bella?"

Unable to stop myself, I rolled my eyes. "Where are you going with this, Edward?" I voiced my thoughts while simultaneously mocking the way he'd been asking me things.

I watched, swallowing just to swallow, as his jaw tightened, words gritting out. "Answer the question."

My lips pursed, debating; I forced my arms not to cross over my chest. In the end, I raised my eyebrows. "Answer mine."

"We like the lack of pressure and hierarchy and force that we've been able to manage here. But that only remains such because everyone agrees with it and does their job to the fullest extent." He'd avoided my rebuttal, and I had to convince myself to refrain from pouting at that. "Do you see where I'm going here, Bella?"

I could still see his jaw stretched taut, and it looked as though his teeth were biting at the inside of his lip as he stared at me in arrogant expectancy.

"And if I don't?"

"Well then I'll have to simply spell it out more fully for you."

"Please," I offered a palm out, "do so." I knew what he meant. Of course I did. I wasn't an idiot. But... something in me, something other than the always-thinks-before-she-speaks woman I'd thought of myself as, couldn't say no to the temptation of antagonizing him.

Edward's nostrils flared as his tongue poked at the side of his cheek. "If you enjoy the atmosphere of this workplace, as I'm going to assume you do, then you would do well to remember that it is in fact that. A workplace. Not a place for you to slack off and ignore customers in favor or reading a torn out page from People."

"That's not what I was doing!" It aggravated the hell out of me that he could say all that in the same exact tone of voice, whereas as soon as I opened my mouth, affronted sorta-yelling popped out.

It seemed I'd started the beginning of a trend, because his voice started to rise too. "I had to assist those customers when you were standing ten feet away from them! I know you've come to realize the employees here are all friends and get along surprisingly well, but—"

I couldn't fight it anymore. My arms crossed over one another across my chest. Classic move of petulance. Dammit! Directly following the motion though, Edward rose quickly from his box, swift strides carrying him over the solid floors and to the staircase.

Uh-uh, I don't think so, Sparky. You don't get to be the one that stalks off anymore.

Provoked and frustrated (and just a little bit confused as to why he'd walk away when he was in the middle of reprimanding me), I jumped up and followed in his wake. My own hurried march propelled me toward the stairs after him. I could hear the successive clomping of shoe-covered feet on metal as he hustled for the first floor, adding to it with mine as I copied his course.

Regrettably, myself, plus rushing, plus stairs, did not equal a happy outcome.

Three steps from the ground, my shoes and the steps had a vicious fight, one that resulted in me tripping.

My eyes, having previously been concentrating on the stairway flashing by beneath my feet, closed involuntarily, preparing for the meeting with tile on top of concrete that I knew was coming. But I'd have been waiting forever for it, because it never occurred. No, instead, my collision was with another warm someone.

Fucker and his speedy reflexes.

Edward, of course, had caught me. Maybe I'd made some sort of shit-I'm-about-to-fall-down-the-stairs sound, or he'd heard the altercation between my feet and those very stairs. I'd probably never know. But, I was in his arms.

And fuck me was it awkward.

One of his hands was between my shoulder blades, the other pretty much directly above my ass. For their part, my own hands clutched at his sides. His chin was a breath above my hair. My face was tucked above the space where his heart most likely beat. Our chests were squished together like ham and cheese on a sandwich.

This shirt is softer than it looks. And oh boy does it smell good! Well, technically, he smells good because it's, ya know, his shirt or whatever.

Our eyes never met, but we separated without words. Each of us turned on the spot and strode away in accidentally, yet gloriously, opposite directions.


"Um, Bella?" Jasper questioned from behind me.

I didn't look up from the oh-so-tedious task of stacking containers of tennis balls. "Yeah?"

He chuckled quietly, making me curious. "I, uh, think someone wants you."

"Huh?" I finally turned around to look at him, extremely curious now. But his gaze was fixed on the window. No, more correctly, his gaze was fixed on the epitome of class that was my brother, pressing his face up against that very window and waving his arms like a certified idiot. I could see the fading remnants of where he'd breathed on the glass and then written my name in the fog.

Not even sparing a second to explain to Jasper that unfortunately I was related to the ridiculous weirdo, I scurried outside.

"You dipshit!" I yelled at Jake as soon as I was out the door.

"What?" he questioned innocently, his grin betraying his evil intentions.

I tried to hit him, but he dodged. "I'm going to have to clean that now!"

"Whoops-a-daisy," he said with fake wide eyes, shrugging.

I eyed him, suddenly understanding what he was up to. "You jerk-wad!" I attempted to whack him again, but the asshole was surprisingly fast for his size. Not to say that he was chunky or anything, he'd just inherited height from both sides of the family and had a certain fondness for the word muscle.

Realizing I wasn't going to be able to smack him, I had to resort to putting my hands on my hips and glaring at him like the older sister I was.

"Do I come to your place of employment and intentionally wreak havoc?" I never had before, but now that I'd mentioned something, it didn't sound like such a bad idea...

He laughed. "'Place of employment'? You're such a dweeb, Baby Bell Cheese."

Had it been anyone else, I probably would have vehemently abhorred that nickname with the passion of a wine connoisseur in Napa Valley. But, as it were, I actually found Jake's preferred one rather sweet and undoubtedly near the top of the most creative I'd ever been given.

Grinning, he reached to ruffle my hair, but I ducked under his arm and took a step back. "Ooh," he mocked, "don't wanna mess up your 'do, right?" He laughed again before it abruptly broke off as his eyes narrowed at me. "You're not trying to snag one like that one," he nodded his head to the right, toward the windows and the store, "are you?"

I fought to keep from blushing at the insinuation, and then had to fight a smile when I didn't feel the familiar heat on my face. "What?"

Slightly exasperated now, Jake expelled a breath. "You know what I mean! That hot guy that was in there standing behind you!"

"You into dudes now, Jake?" I teased. "By all means, have at that one. His name's Jasper. Don't know how well you'll be received though."

"Oh ha ha. Bella made a funny." He rolled his eyes. "How many more of 'em work there?"

"How many more of what?"

"Attractive guys," he mocked in a unexpectedly girly voice.

"As many as work there."

His forehead creased in confusion. "That doesn't make any sense."

"Not my proooblem," I sang.

"It is too your problem because you," he pointed a finger at me, "said it!"

"Yes, but you," I returned the pointed finger, "didn't understand what I said."

Jake shook his head like a wet dog, and in my head I heard the sound cartoon characters made when they did that. "Why are you arguing with me about this?"

"I—"

"Miss Argue-pants."

I rolled my own eyes. "Very original."

"You," again with the finger and slit eyes, this time narrowed in suspicion, "like someone in there, don't you?"

"As a matter of fact, yes. I like them all. Well, almost."

"What?"

"Nothing. Point is, you like-like someone at your job."

He froze, and the color from earlier that morning returned to his face. "Do not," he mumbled halfheartedly.

"Lies, all lies!"

"Shut up, Bella!"

"She was preeetty," I teased, hoping to get more than just a confession-by-avoidance.

"I know." He tugged absently at his ear. "She's fucking gorgeous."

"Sssh!" I waved my hands erratically at him. "You can't say that in front of where I work!"

Jake looked puzzled. "Say what?"

"The f-bomb."

Now he laughed. "Are you trying to tell me of all the people in there, none of 'em cuss and shit?"

"Jake!" I managed to hit him that time because he was distracted by something over my shoulder inside the store. Unfortunately, my smack apparently didn't do enough damage since he all but ignored that I'd even done it.

"Who's she?"

"Stop cussing! Wait, who's who?" I twisted my head around without actually shifting my body.

Alice stood near the door, head partially titled to the left and obviously (and without chagrin) studying us. Or rather, studying my brother. Who she'd never seen before and who wasn't exactly what one would call ugly.

I started to push on his side, attempting to shove him away. "Alright, time for you to go!"

"Wait wait! She was gorgeous too! Who was she?"

"You like that other scowling girl, leave Alice alone."

He grinned. "Alice?"

I slapped a hand over my mouth, shaking my head back and forth. "Um-nuh."

"Uh huh," he nodded. "You let it slip. Alice, hm? That's nice."

"What's the name of your mechanic honey?"

"This isn't The Beverly Hillbillies, Bella." His eyes were contracted and on me again. "Don't call her my 'honey.'"

Since I was trying to get him to go, I reckoned another eye-roll wasn't the way to go. "Okay okay. Well how about you leave now, and I'll find out the scowling beauty's name when I get home, yeah?"

"Why do I get the feeling you're trying to get rid of me?" he chuckled.

"Bye, Jake."

"But I'm gonna have to waaaalk home."

Jeez, my brother was such a whiner. Ever since we were seven and he whined to the people I was still adjusting to viewing as my parents that I'd wet the bed and ruined his favorite sheets. Lies, of course. And the night after that, he'd whined to them that I stole his pillow. Not so much a lie, that one, but still. I firmly believed he'd been born whining about how long he'd had to stay in his mom's stomach and how sticky he was.

"It won't kill you to walk home, Mister Gym-addict."

"Look who's being original now."

"See you later, Jake."

He puffed out a breath, twisting away from my pushing hands and taking a step back. "Yeah yeah, fine. See you at home." I smiled, relieved he was leaving as I moved backward to the door. "Tell Alice I say hi!"

I hastened through the door before the girl in question could hear anything. Hopefully. I had no idea if she was one of those freaky people who had Spidey-ears. Like the dude in that Navy submarine movie.

"Who was that?" Alice asked the second I'd walked back into the store, her eyes wide.

I was so not in the mood to introduce my brother and his ridiculous behavior. Let alone have a part playing matchmaker to two people who I saw as every single thing but compatible for each other. "No one."

"Bullshit! That was someone, alright!"

I sighed, searching for words she'd find adequate. "Fine, no one important. There." I will not feel guilty for calling my, for all intents and purposes, best friend, someone not important. I will not. Nope. I won't.

She refused to give up and let it go. I shouldn't have been surprised by that. "Come on, Bella! You can tell me. I'm your friiiend," she whined, pouting.

Why I seem to know so many whiners is beyond me.

And how she, a grown woman, could whine and pout and still look completely adult was also beyond me. Not to mention annoyingly unfair. Luckily for me, Jake didn't possess the same talent. So at least the world wasn't completely screwed up.

"I'm your friend, Bella! Please tell me?"

Unable to help myself, I smiled at her. There wasn't really anything quite like realizing you had a new friend. Shit, I sounded like a kindergartner. "Yes, you are my friend. But that doesn't mean I have to tell you who in tarnation that unimportant person was."

And that was that.

Alice crossed her arms, staring straight at me.

"What?" I asked because... well, what else was there to say when someone was staring at you?

"Bella."

Why had that sounded like a warning? What in the world did she have to warn me about? Shouldn't I have been the one warning her to stay her lovely self away from my crazy-ass brother?

"First off, what is tarnation?"

"A... word?" Duh.

She looked so much like Edward when she rolled her eyes, I was forced to wonder about them possibly being related. Or maybe she'd just picked it up from him. "Okay, forget the other questions. I have a new one question."

When she didn't go on straightaway, I felt compelled to ask, "Which is...?"

"Was that 'unimportant person,'" she made air quotes with black-tipped fingers, "your boyfriend?"

A situation as this called for the breaking of the rule I'd just busted that same 'unimportant person' for. "Oh my fuck, nooo! Ew!" I seriously did not appreciate her putting even the hint of incest on my menu. And her doing such was through no fault of my own. Certainly not.

Alice grinned now, appearing smug for who-could-tell-what reason. "Good."


A/N: This chapter was for my darling favorite POLE, for just being who she is. Hope the long wait didn't end in disappointment, bb. And to all you reading, you each screw in a lightbulb in my lightbulb-less Lowes lights department. (I think that made a lot more sense in my head...)