A/N - This right here is a o/s I wrote to celebrate the Fourth of July with my fellow Ficsters. We do this on a regular basis, so if you want to get in on the fun as it happens, make sure you have "UncleSam'sLittleFicsters" on author alert.
Also, please note that I have finished the final outtake for "The Port Angeles Players". If the winner decides to let me post it (and I'm pretty sure she will), you should have it shortly. Finally, stay tuned, because I'm hard at work on the next chapter of "Breaking News"!
Happy Fourth of July, fellow American-types! In this one-shot, uptight Edward gains a bit of unexpected independence from his determination to keep pretty Bella out of his well-ordered life.
Be safe, and thank you all for all of your amazing support! Love, as always, to my fellow Ficsters, who make being here and writing so much fun.
xoxo Nina (WriteOnTime)
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Crossette and Chrysanthemum
She came to him on a Monday, and he said, "I'm not making you any promises, Bella. I don't make promises about a thing like this."
"I know," she nodded. "I haven't asked you for any, have I, Edward?" This last was added with an arch look, one meant to remind him that she was nobody's doormat. He didn't have to know that the insinuation stung in any way.
He had to admit that it was a fair thing to say. She hadn't asked, but he still felt the need to make himself clear, just in case she was even thinking about asking. He didn't want the fact that he found her so pretty to tempt him into lowering his guard. She was dangerous for him.
"All right, then. Just so we're clear. No promises. I'll go, and I'll stand around, but you know I'm not a 'small talk' kind of person." He scratched his forehead. Was this enough of a warning? Probably not, so he continued, and clarified. "Also, no couple-y stuff. No...kissing, or, or hugging, or... anything like that. You can hold my arm a few times, but only if you need to."
Bella calmly nodded again. This was no surprise, after all, because she knew he was an uncomfortable sort of person; a solitary sort of man, and one who'd managed to completely divorce his brain from the rest of his body without benefit of traditional surgery. If she hadn't been absolutely dead-desperate, she'd never have had the courage to approach him, but the Newtons were fairly clear that this was meant to be a "couples" affair as everyone else in the office had significant others, and Jacob, the only other person she could have asked, would have read far too much into the situation. She was sure that she could harness the persistent attraction she felt for Edward and just coast through the several hours of the party without worrying about the awkwardness of it all. He didn't want her. She knew this - she'd accepted it months ago, her only solace stemming from the fact that he didn't appear to want anyone else, either. He'd been in the office suite next door for almost a year, keeping himself largely to himself. So, she dreamed her little dreams about him, but reminded herself that they would never come true.
"At what time are we expected to arrive?"
She told him the party began at three o'clock, and that, since this was an important work function masquerading as a casual holiday get-together, she wanted to arrive in good time.
"We'll leave between two-thirty and two-thirty-five, then," he stated, and it took everything in her to keep from rolling her eyes to the ceiling. "I wish someone could explain to me why people feel the need to mark the anniversary of our nation's birth by eating grilled meat and lumpy potato salad in an outdoor setting."
"It's fun, Edward," she answered, even though she was pretty sure that the question was a rhetorical one.
"Fun? Fun? What's fun about it? There are flies, and allergens, and very few comfortable places to sit. The food is never very good, and it's always a little too cold by the time you get to eat it. Also, paper plates, and plastic cutlery that snaps in half if you dare ask it to do the job it's meant to do." He was being serious.
"You really don't get out much, do you?"
He sniffed and put up his chin. "There's nothing out there for me. I have my books, and my music. 'Out there' is a confusing mess. I'm very happy being alone."
"And a rock feels no pain; and an island never cries," she muttered very quietly, wondering whether Simon and Garfunkel had maybe met Edward's father or something. This mania for solitude had to come from somewhere, and what a pity it was, because when he chose to, Edward had a great sense of humor. God only knew he was attractive enough, too. Out loud, she said "All right, Edward. I'll do my best not to bother you too much, and I honestly appreciate your agreeing to come with me for this. You know how Mr. Newton is when it comes to employee bonding; he sponsors rolling chair races down the hallway every Friday, for Pete's sake. And Mrs. Newton just loves to throw a party."
Edward's eyes lost their focus for a moment. 'Bother me too much?' he thought. She already bothered him too much. It was such an effort not to smile at her all the time. He actually laughed - more than once, and not out of any desire to be polite - when she was around. He looked forward to seeing her every day, even if it was just a few pathetic moments while they waited for the elevator together, or when they bumped into each other at the small coffee place downstairs. Their conversations were never about inane things like television shows or the weather; instead, she'd mention an interesting article she'd read that morning about plans for the international space station, and he'd counter with the information that Richard Strauss' "Also Sprach Zarathustra" was much more than a score for Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey", as it was actually based on the hopelessly-complicated writings of Friedrich Nietzsche. Nobody knew that, but he did, and he shared it with her.
But getting any closer to a nice girl like Bella meant possibly caring about her, and possibly caring about her meant possibly really caring about her, and possibly really caring about her meant possibly getting really, really, really hurt, not to mention throwing everything in his life into hopeless disorder. The inherent uncertainty and attendant potential disaster of the thing made the wisest course of action to steer well clear of her. But she'd asked him for this favor, and she'd seemed so comfortable with the fact that he was only saying "yes" with severe restrictions. Surely that would be all right, he told himself. Surely he could do this favor for a nice person who'd been nice to him and not risk too much. They'd go, and he would stand a respectful three feet away from her, and then they'd leave, and continue on as they had been. Polite but distant acquaintances. Safely distant from the pretty girl with the understanding, happy brown eyes, and the creamy, smooth skin that...well. Yes. Enough of that.
True to his word, he collected her from her house at precisely two-thirty that Saturday afternoon, hoping that she would value promptness as much as he did. He was relieved to see that she was already on her porch and anticipating his arrival, but as she stood to make her way over to his car, he was considerably less relieved to note that she was wearing the loveliest summer dress in the loveliest shade of blue he'd ever seen, her long brown hair loosely tied with a ribbon of the same color, exposing the mysterious and delicate perfection of her slender neck to his suddenly eager eyes.
"Behave," he ordered his eyes, along with various other parts of himself.
"Hello, Edward," Bella smiled, and thanked him as he handed her into the passenger seat of his unnaturally-spotless car. He hurried over to the driver's side, lowered himself with remarkable grace into the seat, and engaged the correct gear to get them moving along to the party.
There was silence for a moment or two. "You look very nice," she finally said. And he did, in his clean, white shirt with carefully rolled-up sleeves, and his pressed, gray chinos. He'd chosen to advertise the casual intention of his wardrobe choices by foregoing a tie and unbuttoning the top two buttons of his shirt. It would have been too much to call the look "relaxed" for most men, but on Edward, it was almost revolutionary.
His cheeks colored faintly. "Thank you, Bella. You look - really very nice, too. Really. Very nice." 'Idiotic,' his inner voice ruled, then added 'Nice is a completely inadequate word for the way she looks today. You're such a tool, Edward.'
When they arrived at the party, a pimply youth in a red vest and black pants indicated where they should park their car. "This is a pretty big party," Edward commented, surprised.
"Yes it is," she agreed. "Mr. Newton invites a lot of the firm's clients. This is the biggest party he throws all year, because he doesn't want to compete with the Christmas parties all the other firms host. The fireworks show he ends the party with alone probably costs him somewhere in the neighborhood of $10,000."
"That's a lot of money for some lights and noise."
"They're so beautiful, though. It's my favorite part of the night," she murmured, and he felt guilty for scoffing at something that clearly brought her joy.
They entered a small marquee, under which sat a woman behind a table full of nametags. They gave their names and were each handed a badge to pin onto their chests. As they turned to leave, the woman called them back. "Wait," she said with a smile. "Not so fast. I still haven't given you your animals."
"You hand out pets at this party?" Edward wasn't at all sure he wanted a pet foisted upon him. Animals required care and feeding, and while he liked them, he would really have preferred to have some choice in the matter.
"Oh, no - that would be pretty silly," the woman laughed. "I put a sticker on your forehead that everyone but you can see. Over the course of the party, you have to ask people questions about what sort of animal you are, and when you guess correctly, you can remove the sticker. You can't ask them to make any animal noises to make it easier. It's a conversation-starter."
"Yes, it is. A ridiculous conversation-starter," Edward frowned, but he'd made a commitment to attend this party for Bella's sake, and so he submitted when the woman affixed a sticker to his forehead. She then put a sticker on Bella's forehead, and the two of them were finally free to enter the party.
"What does my sticker say?" Edward wanted to know.
"I'm not allowed to tell you that," Bella answered. "The rules clearly state that you're supposed to ask questions and guess." She tried not to smile, because she could see that not knowing was driving him crazy.
"A lemur? A hippo? A cuttlefish?" He fired random species at her, making her giggle.
"Try asking me a question about what you are," she suggested.
He thought for a moment. "Do I live in the air, under the water, or on land?"
Bella's brow furrowed, slightly wrinkling her sticker. "Two of the three. My turn: am I ferocious, or tame?"
Edward considered her sticker. "I'd say you were tame, but I'll bet you could give a person a hell of a bite if you chose to."
"This is clearly not getting us anywhere. Let's find the Newtons so that they can see I'm here."
Bella made the rounds, and Edward stayed near her side, reminding himself that a yard of distance between them was appropriate. He kept forgetting this, though, and found himself inching closer and closer as the time wore on, only to realize what was happening and retreat once more.
"Hello, gorgeous," a man's voice called from behind where they stood, talking to the Cheneys. Bella's head turned in the direction of the new voice, and Edward watched as her eyes lit up and her mouth formed what he could only fairly call the most beautiful smile he'd ever seen.
"Hey!" she cried, and promptly threw herself at the man. "I thought you were stuck in Spokane for another week!"
The man grinned fondly at her. "Nope. They sprang me yesterday, so I hauled ass back up here in record time. Looks as though I got here not a moment too soon, either, because this is one of the dullest shindigs in the history of shindigs."
She suddenly realized that she'd turned her back on Edward, and didn't want to be rude. "Oh - Edward, meet Emmett, my favorite client of all time. Emmett, this is Edward: he works in the office next to ours."
Emmett stuck out his hand for Edward to shake. "Hey, you need to cheer up a little. You're with the second-prettiest girl at this party," he grinned, making the sticker that read "Grizzly Bear" dance around on his forehead.
"Only second-prettiest?" Bella offered Emmett a playful pout. Edward was instantly offended by the comment, as it was quite clear that Bella had no competition here, or indeed, anywhere else he could think of.
"Heh. You know I brought Rose with me," Emmett said. An attractive blonde woman strolled up to join Emmett, sliding her hand into his and smiling at Bella.
"Hey, Bella," the blonde woman greeted her. "Who's your date? He looks like a stiff," she added, in the kind of whisper she obviously meant for Edward to overhear. The blonde woman was not going to be a favorite of his, he could tell. Moreover, he still thought Bella's sweet, fresh beauty trumped the woman's flashier style.
Bella winced a little, embarrassed that the woman had said something unkind about Edward. "Play nice, Rose," she begged her. "This is Edward; he works in the office next to ours, and he's terrific."
'Take that, you shrew,' Edward thought, and before he could control himself, he found that he'd looped his arm around Bella's waist. 'Oh my God, I'm touching her, I'm touching her,' was his next thought. His fingers found a happy home in the warm curve above her hips, and they weren't planning on leaving anytime soon. Bella had stiffened for a moment when his arm first landed, but she quickly relaxed and turned slightly in toward him, placing her arm lightly on Edward's back, her forearm resting along his spine and the palm of her hand between his shoulder blades. 'Oh my God, she's touching me, too,' was the thought which rounded out this unscheduled series of events. He didn't want her to stop, either.
Emmett's natural talent with people led him to conclude that it was time to create a little space between the genders. He liked Bella very much, and he loved his Rose more than anyone on earth; he didn't want to see them fall out with each other. Turning to Edward, he said, "Hey - let's let these two catch up properly while we case the joint." He grabbed Edward by the elbow and compelled him to detach himself from Bella, something which did not endear Emmett to him in the slightest. Edward tried to protest, but Emmett wouldn't let go, and then Rose was linking her arm through Bella's and hauling her off across the lawn, so his reason for standing there no longer really existed.
While Rose and Bella chatted, Emmett dragged Edward over to a small table, around which were gathered a group of the men who'd previously been milling about the party. Their spouses and significant others were nowhere in sight. In the center of the table stood a very large orange thermos. Emmett grabbed two plastic cups from a stack next to the thermos, putting a small amount in one cup and almost filling the other with whatever that thermos contained. He passed the almost-full cup to Edward.
"Drink some," Emmett commanded.
"I'm lactose-intolerant," Edward blurted, even though the liquid was transparent and purple, and he sounded like a moron.
"I'm bullshit-intolerant," Emmett promptly replied. "Drink up, Ed. You need some help removing the stick from your ass, and this is the kind of party where wine spritzers pass for hard stuff."
The other men around the table watched him, waiting to see what he'd do. Edward had never been particularly affected by peer pressure before, but the fact that Emmett clearly knew Bella well and might report back to her that he was a gutless wonder was enough to make him cave. He raised the cup to his lips and downed the purple mystery in six huge gulps.
"Holy shit, Ed," Emmett whistled. "Jesus Punch is about fifty-percent Everclear - American corn for an American holiday. Are you insane?"
Edward's eyes were watering, and his throat was on fire. "I didn't know," he choked. "You said 'drink', so I did."
"Someone hands you a cup of purple shit, and you just drink it without asking any questions? You look like such a square, but really, you're a wild man." He turned to the others gathered around the table. "Gentlemen, we have a new leader. Say 'hi' to Edward. Wait -" Emmett stopped to consider for a moment. "That name doesn't work for you. Let's just call you 'Freefall', because you totally operate without a net. How much do you weigh?"
"About a hundred-eighty pounds," Edward answered. His voice sounded strange to him: strange, and far away.
"Well, that's good news. You're probably not going to die, at any rate. But you might want to sit down before you fall down."
This was extremely timely advice, because Edward suddenly felt the lawn buckle slightly under his feet, rolling like a neatly-trimmed grass ocean. He collapsed into one of the chairs next to the table, his head fuzzy and his vision slightly blurred. The men around the table quickly hid the orange Thermos and the cups in the hydrangea bushes behind them, and pretended to be responsible adults once more. One by one, they drifted back to the party, swallowing breath mints and talking in low voices as they went. Emmett patted him on the shoulder and asked him if he was going to be okay, then promised to keep an eye on him from a distance before scooting off to find Rose.
Edward had managed to go his entire life up to this point without getting horribly drunk, but clearly, the streak stopped here, because he was forced to admit that he was about as drunk as a still-conscious person could get. The word "toes" became completely fascinating to him for no discernable reason, and he found himself composing a little song which included that word as the sole lyric. "Toes, toes, toes," Edward hummed softly, half-closing his eyes and smiling, because the song sounded so good to him, and he couldn't wait to get home to put the composition on paper.
Bella finally located him some time later, still sprawled in the chair and humming to himself. "Edward, there you are," she sighed. "I'm so sorry, but Mrs. Newton insists that we play some lawn games. You probably don't want to, but it would look strange to refuse her." He looked so calm and relaxed, and she wondered whether this was because he'd managed to find a corner away from any living thing. She wished that he'd go back to holding her by the waist, because his arm had felt so warm and nice around her, and allowed her to briefly fantasize that he was as marginally attracted to her as she was overwhelmingly attracted to him.
Edward blinked very slowly, then rolled his eyes up to study Bella's face. "Hullo," he smiled, although only half of his mouth cooperated. "God, you're so, so pretty. Pretty. Pretty little lamb. Hey! Mary had a whole bunch of you. Your fleece is white as snoooow."
"Oh!" Bella remembered that she hadn't yet taken her animal sticker off of her forehead. "Thanks for reminding me - I must look ridiculous." She blushed and peeled the sticker from her face, trying not to think too much about the fact that he'd just called her "pretty", because lambs were pretty, and she was sure that's what he was talking about. "You can probably take your sticker off too, Edward. You know what you are by now, right?"
"Hmmmm...huh? What? What'm I?" He knew he was drunk. Very drunk. She didn't hate him, did she? Was she going to tell him he was disgusting, and that she was disappointed and embarrassed by him? "I'm sorry," he said, suddenly very mournful. "I'm so sorry. I didn't mean to do it. Beautiful Bella, please don't be mad."
"Beautiful?" The word escaped her before she could control herself. Lambs might be pretty, but they weren't beautiful. He was acting so strangely. "Do you know what you are?"
"Oh, the sticker thing!" Edward's head cleared briefly, and he remembered that he had something written on his face. "I dunno. Tell me, okay? Just say it."
"Vampire bat," she answered.
For some reason, this made Edward laugh so hard that he almost fell out of his chair. "Ugh. Funny," he groaned, doubling over and grabbing his stomach. Then he stretched out his hand to her. "Oh, please, Beautiful Bella, can you help me up?"
She shook her head at him, but grabbed his hand and tried to hoist him into a standing position. He rose from the chair, then sort of just kept his forward-momentum going and leaned into her, grabbing her around her waist with his other hand and holding onto her for dear life. "Hey," he murmured, looking down into her eyes. "I like it here. You make my hands happy hands."
"Why do you smell like grape juice? Edward, what's going on?" As amazing as it felt to be this close to him, Bella was really starting to worry, because nothing he'd done or said since she found him in this corner was at all normal behavior for him. His eyes were glittering so strangely.
"Ummmm...shush. There was a thermos. It was orange. Emmett said 'drink', and I did, because there's a stick up my ass, he said. Ooops. Sorry. I said 'ass' to you," he apologized, remembering vaguely that "ass" was not a very nice word to be saying in front of a girl. Bella had a really great one, though. Had he just told her she had a great ass? That was hardly his fault. Wait - he was telling her about the thermos and Emmett. "And so, yeah, it was corn, but purple corn, and now I'm pretty sure I'm drunk. Emmett said I probably wouldn't die, though. Oh - also? I lied. I said I was allergic to milk. I'm really not. I love ice cream so much." He burped, and it was unexpected, but even drunk, he had the presence of mind to shift his face away from hers so that he didn't burp all over her.
Edward's confession made Bella erupt into surprised laughter, but then she narrowed her eyes and scanned the lawn. "Emmett's a dead man when I find him. Dead man walking."
"No, he's great!" Edward protested, almost certain that Emmett was only trying to be a good friend to him and help him out of an awkward social situation. "That blonde girl doesn't like me, though. What'd she say about me?"
"She said she thought you were very good-looking," Bella told him. Rose had also said that he was a total asshole loser if he didn't grab on to Bella and never let her go, but Bella didn't think she could repeat that part. Even drunk, Edward might remember it later.
"Oh," he said thoughtfully. "Do you?"
"Do I what?"
"Think I'm good? Looking? Good-looking?"
Bella couldn't look him in the eye, but she also didn't want to lie to him. "Yes, Edward. You're very good-looking. You must know that about yourself, though."
His hands gripped her tighter. "Hmmm," he hummed. It certainly wasn't the first time he'd heard that he was attractive, but it was the first time he'd ever actually desperately wanted to hear it from someone.
"Listen, I'm really, really sorry about this, but we're going to have to at least try to play one or two of these games, or I'll never hear the end of it. Should I tell them you're not feeling well?"
Acting on a sudden impulse, Edward leaned down and gently bit the side of Bella's neck, making her gasp and tingle. "Vampire bat," he grinned in explanation. "Let's go play something. I want to play with you."
Bella was afraid that she was going to have to drag an unstable Edward over to the game area, but despite his drunken state, he had remarkable balance. Rather than leaning heavily on her, he kind of half-curled himself around her and hug-walked over there with relative ease.
"You two look cozy," Rose remarked when they arrived at her side.
"Emmett got Edward drunk. I'm going to kill him when I see him," Bella answered, even though she was secretly more than a little thrilled by the results. Drunk Edward was pretty awesome. He called her "Beautiful", and he hugged her.
Mrs. Newton was handing out lengths of wide sateen ribbon. Rose explained that they'd arrived just in time for the three-legged race, and right away, Bella knew that this would only end in disaster, with bruises and broken bones and an anti-climactic trip to the emergency room. She tried to convince Edward to sit out the race, but he flatly refused. He was a pretty fast runner, and the race meant he could keep his arms around Bella, and that was all he really cared about anyway at the moment.
Bella's left leg was tied to Edward's right leg, and they hobbled over to the starting line. When Bella spied Emmett, she drew her lips together and squinted at him. He held his hands up in defense. "Hey, don't look at me. Your man Freefall over there might look like a chess nerd, but he's totally out of control."
"So dead. You are so very, very dead," Bella snapped at him, but Emmett only smiled and raised his eyebrows. Emmett was a lot smarter than anyone ever gave him credit for being.
Mrs. Newton blew a shiny silver whistle, and the race began. "Just hang on," Edward yelled, and practically held Bella in midair while he limped his longer legs in a shockingly rapid gait all the way from one side of the field to the other and back again. They were within feet of the finish line, one of only three couples still left standing, when Bella tripped over a small bump in the lawn and felt her always-tenuous grasp on gravity slip away from her. Edward 's left leg had been in mid-step at the time of the stumble, and before he could get some traction, Bella went face-first into the lawn. Edward realized what was happening, and managed somehow to roll his body under hers so that instead of eating a mouthful of lawn, Bella and her face ended up sprawled on top of Edward, her mouth somewhere in the vicinity of his right shoulder.
"You okay?' he laughed, and moved his left arm to meet his right one where it lay across her back, completely pinning her against him. That felt really fantastic, so he tightened his arms around her, and when she wiggled slightly in surprise, what had felt fantastic a moment before now felt dangerously fantastic.
"Oh," she breathed. "It's such a shame you're too drunk to remember any of this."
Edward tilted his head up and gently kissed the corner of her mouth. "I know I'm pretty drunk, but I'd have to be dead to forget any of this, Bella."
Their extremely interesting conversation was interrupted by Mrs. Newton, whose shrill voice was asking all race participants to clear the field so that she could set up a new game. Edward rolled over on his side, taking Bella with him. "Okay, let's get this ribbon off so we can stand," she blushed, pulling the ends of the double bow to loosen the ribbon and free their legs. They stood, but Edward's arms refused to leave Bella's body, and she didn't ask them to, either.
They spent the remainder of the afternoon participating in some of the truly ridiculous games Mrs. Newton devised for their entertainment, losing the egg-in-spoon battle and the obstacle course, but placing fourth in "Red Light, Green Light". Edward ate fried chicken with his bare hands...and liked it. As the sun set, everyone gathered along the gentle rise toward the rear of the Newton property to watch the fireworks display.
The first explosion startled Bella, and Edward pulled her closer so that her back was resting against his chest. "I'm having such a good time," he murmured into her ear. "Are you having a good time?"
Rockets and time-rains and chrysanthemums and crossettes and roman candles lit up the sky in a confusing and overwhelming display of colors and sparks. Bella shivered a little at the noise, but turned her head to the side and nodded it against his chest.
"I'm sorry Emmett got you drunk," she said, because she didn't want him to think that she was happy about what had happened, even though the resulting changes in his attitude toward her had made her the happiest she'd ever been. She also wanted to give him an excuse for his behavior that afternoon, in the event that he wanted to return to his previously-detached way of greeting and dealing with her. The thought made her want to cry, but she didn't want anything from Edward that he wouldn't willingly give. He owed her nothing, and it would break her heart even further if he started avoiding her or acting awkward during their brief, daily exchanges.
"Are you? I'm not," he murmured again. "I want to write him a check or something. Bella," he pressed against her with one arm so that she was forced to turn and look at him. "Do you think maybe we could this again - not the party, obviously, but...something? Next weekend, maybe? Without the Purple Drought of Living Death? Maybe something a little quieter, too?" He added that last request as a barrage of loud explosions overhead sent the resulting concussion through their bodies and down into their shoes.
"Okay," she nodded, trying to contain her joy. He wanted to see her again, and he wanted to be sober for it.
"Thank you," he said, and pulled his arms in even tighter against her. Letting Bella into his life was probably going to make it a little messier than it had previously been; she might hurt him, ,and she would definitely expect him to compromise. He couldn't imagine that anything she might do would make him regret opening himself up to her, though. Calm order was cold comfort, and this warm, smiling, beautiful girl in his arms made him realize that every risk he took on her was worth it.
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