A/N: This is written for the lovely Whatsmynomdeplume, who was sweet enough to buy me in the Fandom Gives Back auction. The prompts she gave me were three songs: Fortunate Fool by Jack Johnson, Silver Lining by Rilo Kiley and Hero/Heroine by Boys Like Girls. I also had to promise that Edward would be alright in the end. This is apparently what my mind comes up with when given these instructions.
Thank you to Goldenhair2 for pre-reading and watching me type, and to Maria for reading and encouraging.
Thank you to my wonderful beta Irritable Grizzzly.
I hope you like this Nom, thank you for giving me the chance to write for you!
Then and Now
Twelve, six, twenty-two and three. Those were the numbers that shaped my childhood. I couldn't envision my past without them, and in some ways, I didn't try to. It was easier at times to think in numbers and letters, than to recall emotions and images. I didn't try and pretend that my past was a living nightmare and that every day I hated myself and cursed the life I had. It wasn't perfect, but there are memories I will treasure forever. They mainly centered around her.
Twelve: the age I was when they died. I was watching horror movies and eating myself sick while their car was wrapped around a tree. I couldn't accept that they weren't coming to pick me up. I didn't cry at the funeral, and the neighbors thought they could keep me. It didn't last. My grandparents were long-gone, and both of my parents were only children. With a trail as blank as this, they had no choice but to put me into care.
At twelve, I was one of the oldest there, and one of the least-desired. I had a name and memories of a happy family, and stubbornly disliked anyone who attempted to play the role of parent. At the time, I didn't think anyone had the right to. I believed I could look after myself; that I could function alone and didn't need fixing.
Six was the number of homes I passed through between the ages of twelve and eighteen. It's no secret that children are moved around a lot in these situations, and I was hardly an exception. Some were houses with itchy sheets and cruel tricks, and others felt like a place I could almost call home. It was at the last one where I met her. I was sixteen and thought I owned the world I lived in. I was older, therefore wiser, and had been in the system longer.
I intimidated without saying a word. I controlled without lifting a finger. I wasn't friendly to those around me. I still felt the need to distance myself from everyone. You never knew when they would disappear. She was fifteen and watched my actions with a frown and an eye roll. I didn't impress her. I didn't intimidate her. I interested her, but not enough to cause her to do much more than watch and judge. Perhaps that was why I was drawn to her, but I can't remember if I'm right.
The rumors about her were many. Isabella-Marie, who hated her name and didn't belong here. She had an aunt in Alaska, a step-sister in Vienna, or a long-lost rich great-grandmother in Angelsea. It changed daily. She'd been here for a year, but no one was privy to her previous whereabouts. She was gangly and wild-looking, her hair messy and appearance slack. She wanted to leave an impression, but of what no one could tell.
It was a Wednesday afternoon when she sat down beside me on the grass. She said nothing, and did nothing but just sit there. I didn't know if I should speak or move, so I just sat still, trying not to analyze every second. After just less than an hour, she stood, dusted off her legs, and walked away. I stayed for a while, watching the sky grow a deeper blue until I knew I had to go inside. I didn't understand her reasons for sitting next to me, but apparently they were steadfast, because we continued in the same pattern for the rest of the week.
"I don't know where my mom is. You would think they would've stopped looking for her by now."
That broke our Monday evening silence, and for the first time I turned to face her. She didn't meet my stare, acting as if she'd never uttered a sound. I turned away before replying.
"Do you think they'll ever find her?"
She shifted, possibly wondering if she should say more. I had no idea how to interpret anything she did.
"Probably not. If you want to hide, you can always find ways to do it. If she was gonna turn up, she would've when dad died. She didn't come to the funeral. She left us when I was two, so why would she suddenly come and find me?"
I waited until I was sure she was done with her tirade before turning to her. She was sprawled on the grass, the stems mixing with her skin and clothes, crushed and killed under her weight. As if feeling my stare, she opened one eye and smiled.
"Your turn," she said, as if this were a natural continuation. I shook my head. This wasn't a session. It wasn't something where I had to make the appropriate response and tick the boxes before I could go home.
Bella shrugged. "Okay,"
We went back to silence, and I didn't look at her again. I stared ahead, and she did as she always did, including leaving first. I remember at the time feeling half-anxious and half-aggravated about the situation. It didn't feel right that I knew such a personal piece of information about someone who was barely an acquaintance. What was worse, she seemed to expect me to talk to her just because she'd spoken to me.
The next day, I didn't go back outside.
I can't remember how long I stayed away from her. It could have been days or weeks, but it had been so long now that it didn't seem to matter. I remember more about how she was; the person that was Bella. She was a girl who landed on her feet. She did well without working herself to the bone. When an opportunity came around, it seemed to fall on her, and while not everything worked out how it should, it seemed to always have a beneficial ending. Not that she was always lucky. She just walked through life with a little more of a chance than the rest of us. I don't know how I acquired this knowledge. It's hard to recall details like this.
She wasn't aware of it, and so there were times she let opportunities pass her by. Like a scholarship for a school most would jump at the chance to attend, because she didn't think she would do well on the exam, was the thing that stuck in my mind. Probably because I'd tried so hard and hadn't even been considered. It was sometimes difficult to be around her; she was so frustratingly unaware of her good fortune, and how easily she tossed it aside. Ultimately, she was given another scholarship to the school of her dreams, so once again, good fortune triumphed.
I didn't go back outside, but Bella did. She sat in the same position as always, just alone now. I felt guilty the first time I saw her, but tried to shrug it off. She had chosen to go out there, chosen to ask me questions that had been personal and out-of-bounds. I shouldn't feel anything for her. But every day she continued to go there as if she was waiting for me to return. Eventually it became too much. I stormed out one evening, more annoyed at myself because this bothered me so much, than I was at her for being so persistent.
She didn't move as I approached, but sat as still as if I'd been there the whole time. I didn't know where to start, so I simply stood there a mere foot away from her, thinking and raging.
"Are you going to sit down?"
I stared at the back of Bella's head, thinking up retort after retort that I could sling at her. Yet nothing came out of my mouth. Eventually I burned myself out and flopped onto the grass, not sure what I was doing anymore. She laughed and then spun around to face me. I was shocked, not ready for her to actually acknowledge my presence.
"It took you twenty-two days. I was beginning to think you didn't like me," she said, grinning all the while.
"I don't," I said before I realized what I'd said. "I mean, I don't know you...we aren't...friends or anything..." I trailed off, knowing that I'd already dug my hole.
"That's probably because you don't speak to me or acknowledge my presence in any way," she said.
"Because you're so friendly yourself," I grumbled, feeling embarrassed and defensive.
"My conversation starters suck."
I nodded, not disagreeing with her.
"So, you go," she said, leaning back on her hands and waiting for me to begin.
I'm sure that I fumbled with my words and talked about something inconsequential- music or books or something like that. I'll always remember that Bella counted the days until I came back, all twenty-two of them. Thinking about it still made me smile.
We began what I guess was a friendship that day. I wasn't known for socializing with anyone, and outside of our moments in the garden, I didn't. I wasn't outwardly social, but not an outcast. I don't recall the names or faces of the people I knew then, but I don't think that it bothered me. Bella was someone who I could relate to. She had the stigma of the foster kid, and didn't hold out hope that we would be magically rescued at any moment.
We were older, we thought we were wiser, and we didn't need anyone else.
Bella was the first person who listened to the stories I had to tell, and the first person who I wanted to know. We shared, but unlike the first time, not because it was expected. It became easy to recall sandcastles, picnics and slamming doors, just as it was to remember the black clothes and words of sorrow after their death. She'd lost a father to a heart attack, and a mother to disinterest. We talked, and it was simple just to "be."
"I hate it here," I remember her saying. "I can't wait until I'm eighteen. Just three more years to go. But I guess you make it better. As long as I'm stuck here, at least I have you."
I nodded, agreeing with her because I didn't want to say otherwise.
I didn't hate the group home, and I never had. Bella wasn't a sliver of light on a rainy day; she was just part of the brightness that existed. I liked what we shared, what was ours, but I hated it too. Sometimes I felt like I was a method she used to get her through the day. I was sought for something that I readily gave, but she couldn't see anything past that. I sometimes wanted to do something that would make her hate me, and make our strange relationship shatter to pieces. But I couldn't. I liked her company, and even though I didn't realize it then, I liked her far more than I dared risk. It was just an idle fantasy, and one that I didn't wish to be fulfilled.
Three years was her time limit, but two years was mine. For that last year, I still returned to see her and share woes, joys and idle conversation whenever I could. I helped her study for exams, even though I was almost certain that she could have done well without my notes and advice. Yet she always asked, and always liked to take a little more than she needed. Her lucky charm self always saw a way to make the best of what came naturally, and she had her future sorted without any worries. It would take me longer to get there, with finances being the first barrier in my way. I was envious, but proud, and also worried. Our time was running dry, and I didn't know how to ask what would happen.
In the end, it didn't matter. Three years was up before I had a chance to blink, and she was gone. Without a goodbye, without a warning, she left and didn't look back. Now she was no longer stuck somewhere she hated. She no longer needed me to be her bright spark. I was free now too, to be someone without the responsibility of another. I hated it, and I loved it. I had the numbers of my childhood, and all of that conjured images of her. But it was all I had, and for a long time, all I wanted.
I remember pain that I no longer felt when her leaving came to mind. It turned from a knife wound into an itching scar; a dull aching reminder until it closed and healed around me. A dream of a life becomes a goal, and then reality seeps into everything. People come and go, relationships start and end, and Isabella Marie became numbers encased in numbers in the back of my head. I meet people in my life, friends and others who become closer than that, but no one ever made me feel what she had. It was probably childhood desperation; a connection of need rather than want. I was safer without it.
I was twenty-five, in a bank in a City that I wasn't familiar with. Moving around had become my speciality, and even now I wasn't sure how long this current place would work out. Even so, moving money from one account to another needed to be done, and as per usual, I had to be referred to someone higher up. Alarm bells went off each time I rearranged my finances, so this was not a surprise. I was led to a private office, where a dark-haired woman asked me to sit down, her smile fake and then wavering as she looked at me. I sat, paid attention to the windows, and didn't concentrate on anything
"Edward Cullen. It's been a long time."
I stopped, stared, and fixed together numbers and memories from my childhood. I couldn't help but smile as I replied.
"Good to see you again, Bella."
It was good. It was familiar, but not overly so; a comfort rather than the shock of seeing someone you knew as a teen all grown up and set in their life. Then Bella was business-like, using her manger voice and explaining all the precautions, details and finally the new interest rates and privileges the account could offer. Once all was agreed-upon and signed, the manager faded away and Bella took her place.
"I really can't believe it's you. It seems so odd that we'd run into each other like this!" she said, laughing and smiling in a way that I never expected her to. It was infectious and refreshing, and I joined in.
"Yes, I have to admit, I never thought I would see you again," I said, without malice or aim. Bella's smile faded, and I realized what my words must have sounded like. I didn't correct myself though. We weren't friends; we weren't people who knew each other anymore. An awkward silence filled the room, and I wondered where to go from here.
"So, I would love to catch up sometime," Bella said, leaning forward excitedly.
I agreed, thankful that at least my first weeks in a new city wouldn't be as dull as I had presumed. She gave me her number, and encouraged me to call once more before I left her office. I couldn't help but wonder about her sudden excitement.
Of course, I was looking forward to hearing about what she'd been doing, but I had no idea that she would be so keen to meet up. I had locked Bella away with another part of my life, and although she was clearly not the same girl anymore, it still felt strange that she had suddenly appeared like this. I wasn't sure if I would be able to reconcile the two people, or if something in my past would prevent me from starting a friendship with her now.
All these thoughts floated around the back of my mind for the week and a half it took for me to call her. It was partly due to unwillingness, and partly due to lack of time. Since I was new in town, Bella automatically suggested a favorite coffee shop she knew. I arrived on time and she was there, waiting and ready. As I sat back down with my coffee in hand, she automatically asked what I'd been doing since I left the home. I noticed she said "left" as if I had been the one to break our connection. I shrugged it off, knowing that it was best to leave well enough alone.
"I worked for a few years until I was able to afford college. I studied history, and wound up with a degree and not much of an idea of what I wanted to do," I said with a laugh. "I did quite a few odd jobs before I moved into IT. I'm a systems architect, so I've been moving around a lot. But that's really one of the reasons why I love it, so it's not so bad," I explained as her face dropped.
"You never found a place to settle?" Bella asked, seeming shocked.
"No, I find it easier not to."
She contemplated what I'd said, sipping her tea and looking sad. I quickly diverted her thoughts, not wanting her to feel sorry for a life I enjoyed.
"How about you?"
Bella's face changed, and she looked far more content as she spoke about her past.
"I moved here right after I finished college. I luckily managed to get into a graduate program, and they hired me after the six months. I just worked my way up, I guess." Then her tone went from content to sad. "I didn't really feel the need to change or move; it seemed like a pretty good career..." she trailed off and looked down at her cup.
I really didn't know what to say or if she wanted to talk about it. Instead, I smiled to cover to cover up the awkwardness.
"It seems like you have."
She smiled and asked me about the other places I'd visited. I talked freely, and we exchanged information. She told me where she lived, the names or her closest friends, and her hatred of her boss. I told her about a trip to Alaska that ended in disaster, and we traded stories of co-workers and landlords from hell.
It wasn't too much. I wasn't giving up a part of myself to gain nothing in return, and I wasn't being used to get Bella through the day. It was equal and honest, and it was refreshing to be around her in this way. I left with a promise to meet again that I wasn't sure would happen, but I was content to let it be that way. There was no need to push something when there was no chance of it moving.
"So you've lived in this city for most of your adult life, yet you've never been to any of the tourist sites?" I laughed as Bella and I stood in line for the aquarium. We were surrounded by families, teenage couples, and tourists with cameras and backpacks. I hadn't lived in a big city for years, and now that I'd become settled and comfortable being around Bella, I had the sudden urge to see what the city had to offer.
We'd usually coordinated our days off so that we could spend time together. Although I knew Bella had friends in the city, she didn't seem to be particularly close to any of them. She had no other half, and actually liked having time to herself. She didn't need people to be happy, in much in the same way I didn't. I'd made a few acquaintances at work, been on a date of two with one co-worker, but we'd drifted apart after that. It was much the same as any other place I'd lived.
Except for Bella. At first, I'd been hesitant to see her so frequently, knowing that it wasn't how I usually interacted. But it worked this time. We called and talked, and spent time together. It was easier than I had expected, and the more time I spent with her, the more I could see how she had developed from the girl I'd once known.
She wasn't so hidden, or so content in making her life the center of all that passed between us. She'd call and ask me about a random word she couldn't remember, and more often than not, when she didn't understand something regarding her computer. She continuously had issues with various websites and systems that most fourteen-year-olds could figure out, but I had to hold her hand and guide her through it.
I could call her and moan about a co-worker who couldn't even assemble a motherboard correctly, and she would listen until I was sated. It didn't matter that she had no idea what I was talking about, she was there to listen. Bella had a habit of forgetting where her car was parked, and she'd call and I'd have to play the memory game with her. She could remember dates and events at the drop of a hat, even if I'd only mentioned it in passing. She was the one who reminded me of events and appointments that I would otherwise fail to keep.
We didn't speak of our past. We didn't reminisce of the group home, of our strange friendship and the people we'd known back then. Only once did a conversation about that time occur, on a day when the sun was bright enough to lay out on the grass in a park halfway between our homes.
"I keep waiting for you to ask me why I left. What I thinking back then. Anything really about that time," she said, her eyes trained on the clear sky. "But you're not going to, are you? You were never like that; you never pushed people, so they couldn't push you back."
I tried not to let it show how much her assessment bothered me, probably due to its accuracy. I She was right. Some things were best left alone and hidden.
"The past is where it is. I don't think it matters if you tell me or not. I can't go back and change anything. It's not like I could've stopped you from leaving," I replied.
"But you would've liked to?" she questioned, rolling onto her side, the grass flattening in her wake. It was too much like our old selves in this place, and I wished this conversation would finish and lock itself away again.
"You were my tether post. I hated living there, and hated school, but I would have stayed for you. You were the only connection I had to anything at that time, and I hated you for it. I didn't want friends, but I needed you. When I first started talking to you, it wasn't because I wanted to, but because I had to. At the time, I thought that would be what held me back," she said, moving closer as she spoke, but still not actually touching me. Distance was needed for this.
I continued to look up, hating that my mind was spiraling into what-ifs and maybes. I hadn't allowed myself to think like that since I was twelve and thought that nothing could break me.
"It didn't take me long to realize that I was wrong. I thought of you all the time. I wanted to look for you in the same way I did my mother, but I thought maybe you didn't want to be found. That you'd put that part of your life behind you and I would be a bad reminder."
Bella stayed on her side as her confession hung between us, before returning her interest to the sky and the brightness. I closed my eyes, allowed it to be dim and replied in kind.
"Your birthday is marked on my calendar. I do it without thinking, every year."
I waited a moment before opening my eyes again, the sun making them ache and protest. We stayed only a few moments longer before we sat up, and left the park.
I was brought back to the present by Bella looking down her nose at me.
"I'm a local. Things like this are beneath me. I'm only doing this for you," she replied sighing heavily.
"So, do I still count as a tourist?" I asked, not bothering to keep the amusement out of my voice.
"I'm afraid so," she said, patting my shoulder in consolation.
"I've lived here for over two months though. When do I get upgraded to local status?" I asked as we shuffled forward towards the entrance.
Bella spun around and smiled sweetly. "When's the team's next football game?"
I blinked, drawing a blank. I wasn't even sure what the team's name was.
"Tomorrow?" I asked with a hopeful shrug.
Bella laughed again before pointed her finger at me.
"Tourist," she announced proudly before marching up to the desk and paying for our entry.
"Your turn to pay for lunch," she said, and I nodded in response as we made our way through the entrance hall and into the first area.
We walked around, the strange blueish tint that covered the walls and floors casting an eerie glow on everything.
"So why the aquarium?" Bella asked, her voice hushed as we looked through the glass.
"I prefer it to museums or art galleries. It's more calming, and I don't feel rushed," I explained, tipping my head to the side and awaiting her reaction. I still seemed to need her validation to my responses, making sure I wasn't too dull or off-the-wall for her. But then again, I assumed that this was because our friendship was relatively new.
"I've never thought about it that way. It's nice here," she said, latching onto my arm as we weaved our way through the few people around us. I smiled. The contact was comfortable, but still freshly exhilarating. I wasn't sure if I was supposed to revel in such a simple gesture, but it was best not to over think these things. I didn't want this to stop, and wasn't sure if it should change. For now, I was content to let it be.
We stopped at various intervals, consulting the guide book occasionally and reading the information. Mostly we stared and commented, Bella laughing at a catfish that she swore looked exactly like a co-worker. I told her she was cruel and threatened to leave her there, and before we knew it, we'd seen everything the aquarium had to offer.
"Where to now?" I asked. Bella gave me a look that I knew meant I'd just said something ridiculous. Without a word, she pointed to the left of the exit and walked in that direction.
"The gift shop, where else?" I muttered to myself, walking swiftly to catch up with her.
Bella liked memories. Her apartment was full of trinkets and objects that had meaning surpassing their functions. She had photographs of lost family and a letter from her father. She had her mother's wedding ring, one that she found at the age of twenty when news of her death finally reached her daughter. She had died while Bella was in the foster home, under a new name and a new life. She had left everything to her daughter, but hadn't specified where she was, so her existence lay dormant until Bella herself investigated. I was shocked by Bella's wistful and understanding smile while telling me about this. The reverence with which she treated the ring reminded me that she wasn't the same girl.
She had kept mementos of ours too. I movie ticket, shells from the beach, and a rose she had found growing in my garden. I'd been completely surprised to see it growing there, and when Bella had commented on it, I'd snipped it off and given it to her. She'd blushed and smiled, while I'd shrugged and felt awkward. I realized belatedly that it could have been interpreted as something else. It had just been a natural reaction to give it to her.
I brought myself out of my musings as I noticed Bella browsing through the stuffed animals, her face as excited as a child's. I left her to rummage and wander aimlessly, preoccupied by the thoughts of the rest of the day. It was then I noticed the small, ugly-looking replica of a catfish. I grinned, and on instinct picked it up and took it to the cashier, paying for it while Bella was otherwise occupied. I waited for her to be done browsing, before I presented her with the bag.
"A catfish," she moaned, but her smile gave her away.
"Now you'll always remember our day. And your co-worker," I announced.
Bella rolled her eyes, but still reached her arms out to me. I met her, the two of us holding each other for a moment. This wasn't new, and it didn't mean more than what it always had, apart from the kiss she left on my cheek.
As I pulled away, Bella smiled and held out her hand. There was something in it. I frowned, taking the small light object wrapped in tissue paper.
"Open it," she instructed, and I did. She'd bought one of the key rings with a cartoon octopus, with "EDWARD" stamped across the top in white capital letters.
"So now you've got something to remember today by," she said.
I stared at the key ring, feeling touched for a reason that didn't seem to connect to anything.
"I haven't had one of these since I was little," I remarked, still staring fixedly at it.
"I know." Bella's voice was soft and light, breaking through my stupor. She smiled sadly, "I just wanted you to have something."
I looked back at it for a moment, before fishing in my pocket and pulling out my car keys and attaching it to the standard-issue ring.
"Thank you," I said, putting them away and turning back to Bella. She nodded, smiling and slightly flushed.
I hesitated, just for a moment, knowing that for us, to us, this exchange had made a difference. The question was what we were going to do with it. So, I stretched out my hand, offering it to her, giving her the choice this time of leaving or staying.
Unlike me, she didn't hesitate. She took my hand and drew into my side, clasping me to her. I smiled and drummed my fingers across her hand, testing out the new connection; our new beginning.
"Lunch?" I asked, swinging her hand to get her attention.
"Sure," she said, joining in with my motion. I looked down at our clasped hands, and then back up at her, before turning and walking toward the exit. I felt better than I had in a long time, just with her hand in mine, no words spoken and no explanations given. It was easy and it was how it should be. For now, that was all I needed to know.