Disclaimer: S. Meyer owns all recognizable characters, plots, etc. Only original content, characters, etc. belongs to author. No copyright infringement intended. Any errors contained herein, are expressly the fault of the author and not her betas.

A/N: Not sure what prompted this, honestly, but I decided to write a little something for Halloween. It was supposed to be a one-shot, but it turned into a three-shot instead. Turned out there was more to the story than I anticipated, but the entire thing is written and the next two chapters are with my beta. I will post the next chapter in a couple days, and the final on Halloween. Thanks to V for the beta and Yogacat, Redvelvetheaven, and Profitina for prereading for me. Enjoy, and let me know what you think. Thanks!


Le Casa Stregata

Chapter 1 – The Costume Store


Halloween. Yay, she thinks.

With a roll of her eyes, she steps off the bus and makes her way across the busy street to the costume store where she's meeting her friends. She was supposed to have been there nearly an hour ago, but a work emergency held her up…because there are so many emergencies in the coffee business; she's a barista, not a heart surgeon. She rolls her eyes again. The girls are no doubt going to be annoyed with her, but she couldn't refuse to stay; unlike them, she actually needs her job. After all, she has rent to pay. Not everyone has well-to-do fathers and richie-rich boyfriends to foot the bill.

She's not really jealous of them; Daddy Dearest number one is a raging alcoholic who likes them barely legal, Daddy Dearest number two ran off with his secretary, and both boyfriends are philandering jackasses, not to mention complete wastes of space. If that's what comes with having money, then she's happy to have none...mostly. A little more than what she currently has would be nice.

She finds her friends outside of the dressing rooms in the back of the store, and the moment she sees them she begins to issue apologies, but one annoyed glare from the brunette and she shuts right up; the bored looking blonde rolls her eyes. An armful of costumes are shoved at her before she's pushed into an empty dressing room, with the blonde ordering, "Hurry up, we don't have all night. Some of us have schedules to keep."

Hah! Bella scoffs internally, certain she can teach both of them a thing or two about schedules. Her entire life has become one big day planner, her days mapped out in hourly slots, color-coded by activity, and her weeks outlined with deadlines and bold-faced final due dates. Oh, yes, she knows about schedules. She practically has to pencil bathroom breaks in. However, to avoid the fight and ensuing conversation that will occur should she call them out on it – It's just so hard, y'know? Life…it's just so hard. – she does as she's told, and begins trying on the pile of costumes she's been handed, each one skimpier than the last.

More than thirty minutes and countless costumes later, she still hasn't found anything even remotely to her liking, and she's sitting half-naked in the dressing room waiting for the next armload of costumes to try on. The door flies open, and the brunette bursts in, hands behind her back, looking positively giddy.

"I found it!" she claims. "Now, close your eyes."

The fanfare is hardly necessary, but she once again does as told because it's the fastest way to cut through the bullshit. "Are they closed?" the girl asks.

"Yes," she sighs, failing to keep the exasperation out of her voice. Her friend ignores it.

"Ta-da!"

Opening her eyes hesitantly, Bella gapes at the costume being presented to her with a look of horror on her face that is mistaken for shock and awe. She got the shock part right.

"I know, right? It's so great!"

Great isn't the word Bella has in mind, and she tells her so.

"Jessica, you are out of your fucking mind. I am not wearing that," she declares adamantly, still staring with undisguised horror at the wisps of fabric masquerading as a costume. What the fuck is it supposed to be, anyway?

"It's a gypsy costume, and what's wrong with it? You'd look hot in it, and it's totally affordable." Jessica cocks her hip, rests her hand on it and glares at Bella, daring her to defame the costume, which Bella does; she's never liked to disappoint.

"What's wrong with it? Um, for one, how about it'll barely cover up my bits and pieces; and two – have you been outside recently? It's fucking cold out there! We don't live in the tropics, and I don't work at Scores." And three – had she asked that question out loud? "I'm not wearing it."

"But, Bella…" Jessica whines, "you're in college and going to a frat party – get into the spirit and live a little!"

"I'm not going to dress up like a whore exactly for that reason. I'm just not comfortable dressing that way at a party full of drunken frat boys. Now, find me something to wear that isn't going to make me look like a trollop, and doesn't scream, 'I'm drunk and easy, fuck me now, please,' or I'm not going…and that's final."

"Whatever, Granny Swan, but I want you to know that you're no fun," Jessica grudgingly concedes.

"Duly noted. I can live with that." She receives a scowl from her peeved friend, but she could care less.

"Come on, Lo," Jess, still scowling, demands of the bored blonde leaning against the wall across from Bella's dressing room, arms crossed with a smirk on her face. So happy to provide you with some amusement, Miss High-and-Mighty-I'm-Better-Than-You, Bella thinks in annoyance.

She isn't exactly fond of Lauren, but she hides her disdain better than Lauren does. Although, Lauren isn't the nicest person, so her behavior is only to be expected. The two girls only play nice for Jessica's benefit. Bella's never really understood why Jessica and Lauren are friends in the first place. All they have in common is that they went to the same private schools growing up and that they are members of the same socio-economic class, and maybe in their world that's enough reason to be friends, but not in Bella's.

"Let's go find a habit for the nun over there. I swear to God, some people are so difficult to please. I mean, it's Halloween for fuck's sake! What does she want to wear – a potato sack? Maybe some of that hideous face paint crap, and like that fake wound shit? I just don't…" Jess complains.

Listening to Jess's grumbling trail away from the dressing room the same way Lauren trails behind Jess, Bella rolls her eyes. Overdramatic much?

She hasn't been cooling her heels for long when a pile of dark crimson fabric cascades dramatically over the door, two hangers hook over the top, holding them in place to reveal a dress and matching coat. "Well, that was fast, especially for you, Jess," Bella teases – Jessica is a world-class dawdler – as she gets up from the stool to grab the dress, and she's overwhelmed for a moment at the seemingly overabundance of cloth. Then again, considering how little there was to almost everything she's tried on so far, anything with slightly more fabric than a bikini would seem like too much material.

A crease forms on her forehead when her hand makes contact with the gown. It's velvet, heavy and plush, and seems too sumptuous for anything one would find in a costume shop, but she shrugs and slips it off the hanger anyway. Leave it to Jessica to find the good stuff in a seasonal holiday store, she tells herself. Already down to her skivvies from the last round of sluttastic costumes Jess had brought her, she steps into the dress, pulling it up her body and slipping her arms through the holes.

Zipping it up, the quality of both the fabric and the construction surprises her once again. She's about to question it as she turns to see herself in the mirror, but immediately shushes the voice when she sees her reflection. She's never been one to toot her own horn – with her brown 'cow' eyes, as she thinks them to be, and brown wavy hair, she knows she's rather plain – but even she has to admit that she looks stunning. She turns in front of the mirror, viewing herself from every angle, looking for flaws, but is unable to find a single one. She gazes appreciatively at the beauty in the mirror, thinking she's a vision.

Her complexion is transformed from its normal pallor to cream and rose by the deep tone of the velvet combined with the delicate, antique-looking ivory lace that forms the barely-there cap sleeves, and trims both the hem and neckline, drawing the eye to her décolletage. It fits like a glove, too – molding to her body in the most flattering way, pushing her breasts up and nipping in smartly at the waist. The skirt swells over her hips before falling straight to the ground, while an overskirt drapes from hip to hip, dipping down over her thighs in front and wrapping around to the back where it gathers just above the rise of her derriere, and then cascades down, ending a few inches past the hem of the skirt.

A hand's width above the bustled train, a triangle of her back – from shoulder to shoulder and ending in a point a little more than halfway down – lays exposed, while in front, the neckline slashes straight across, revealing the entirety of her neck and chest down to the gentle curvature of the very tops of her pert breasts. She normally dresses somewhat modestly – she's a t-shirt and jeans kind of girl – preferring to not draw too much attention to herself, so although the majority of her body is covered, it still shows more skin than normal for her. However, rather than trashy, the look is somehow demurely sensual, if something can be called such a thing.

Removing the cape-like coat from its hanger, something about the collar instantly draws her eye – it's somehow wrong – but she can't explain why. It isn't until she shrugs it over her shoulders that she realizes what it is, and then she feels silly for not having thought to question what the costume was. The scalloped collar that had been laying flat against the coat while on the hanger, stands up stiffly around her neck once tied, a subtle version of the traditional collar found on most vampire costumes.

She continues to twirl in front of the mirror, enchanted by the image of a more perfect, beautiful her reflected there. She likes what she sees so much that she doesn't notice the additional costumes that have been flung over the dressing room door, Jessica's impatient huffing, or Lauren's snarky comment that, 'some people are so picky.'

What finally breaks her out of her self-indulgent rapture is the fist that bangs against the dressing room door – Bang! Bang! Bang! – followed by Lauren demanding, "Hey, Miss Priss – could you hurry it up in there? Time's a-wastin', and some of us have places to be."

"Oh, yeah! Um…coming," she blusters, discomposed by her distracting vanity.

Opening the dressing room door, she's smugly satisfied by the way Lauren's jaw hits the floor and stays there, her gaping maw more than confirming how great she looks. Who's plain-Jane and not attractive now, bitch? She'll probably feel guilty for the thought later, but she'll cross that bridge when she comes to it. Right now, she's going to enjoy her uncharacteristically uncharitable thoughts.

"W-wow, Bella! You look incredible! Doesn't she, Lo?" Jess enthuses.

"I guess," she reluctantly agrees, causing Jess to look at her incredulously. "I mean, she looks okay, but it's probably really expensive. Do you think you can afford it, Bella?"

Internally raging at the dig, and also at the fact that she hasn't even considered the cost, she barely manages to keep it together. She knows better than to show any weakness in front of Lauren; once she finds a chink in your armor, she worries away at it, trying to do as much damage as possible. Just as she opens her mouth to let Lauren have it, Jessica swoops in, keeping her from saying something she'll regret. Possibly.

"Who the hell cares if she can afford it?" she tells Lauren, and then turns back to Bella. "You pay whatever you can afford, and I'll make up the difference just so I can borrow it next year. That costume is fantastic, babe. You have to get it. Where in the world did you…" Jess starts, only to be cut off by Bella's need to rub salt in the small wound she's caused Lauren by looking so great.

"I know, right? It's absolutely perfect. I can't believe you…" she trails off, noticing that her friend is still holding the costume that was responsible for her earlier shit fit. "Why do you still have that gypsy costume? I told you I wasn't going to wear it."

Jess looks slightly uncomfortable and then sniffs defensively. "What? You didn't want it, so I'm buying it. I think it's cute," she adds, lifting her chin and setting her shoulders.

"Jess, don't you already have a costume?"

"Yes, but I like this one better…maybe. I don't know yet. I have to compare them."

"Is that…thing even legal to wear in public?"

"I don't know," she answers, a smile slowly spreading across her face, "but I'll have fun finding out. So where did…"

"Ladies," says a dark-haired fey-like girl who appears out of nowhere. "We are just about to lock up for the night. Can I get you to bring your purchases up to the counter so I can ring you up, please?"

"Oh, sorry! We're on our way," Jess answers cheerily.

"Thank God! If we don't get out of here, like, now, I'm going to be late for dinner with Tyler. And he made reservations. Let's go," Lauren declares, grabbing Jessica's arm.

"Lauren, Bella's not done yet. We can't just go without knowing…"

It's better to get them out of there now while Lauren is still being semi-civil. God forbid she be late to dinner with Tyler. He may occupy his time while waiting on her with a waitress, completely forgetting that he has a girlfriend, and then blame Lauren's lateness when she catches him at it; it wouldn't be the first time. Bella doesn't want this to turn into a showdown at the Halloween Costume Corral. Not because she's afraid of Lauren – Bella has no problem putting Lauren in her place – but because she hates putting Jessica in the middle…and maybe a little bit because she's worried if Jess ever has to choose between them, she'll come out on the losing end, so she cuts Jessica off.

"Oh, no… Um, it's okay. You guys go. I'll be fine."

"Bells…are you sure? It's not that big…"

"Jess, I appreciate the offer, but I would never…" she says, shaking her head. "I've got it. I'm sure. You girls just get out of here. I wouldn't want Lauren to keep Tyler waiting all by his lonesome."

Jessica gives her a sharp look, before shrugging her shoulders in acceptance. "Okay, babe, if you say so. Call me when you get home so I know you made it safe. I hate that you have to take the bus. I'd give you a ride, but I rode here with Lauren, and..."

Bella rolls her eyes. She appreciates the sentiment – it's not as if she enjoys riding the bus either – but Jessica acts as if public transportation is a smorgasbord of communicable diseases…well, it probably is, but whatever. The point is, Jessica wouldn't be caught dead on a bus, and she hates that Bella has had to resort to taking them since her truck broke down; she can't afford to have it fixed right now. She's been saving up for the repairs, but after paying her rent, utility and grocery bills, she isn't left with a lot to put aside, and buying the costume is sure to wipe out most if not all of her repair fund. Pride goeth before a fall, Bella thinks, but she isn't going to back down…not in front of Lauren, at least.

"I will, Jess."

"Okay, well, see you tomorrow. I'll pick you up around nine-ish. Mwah! Love ya!" Jess air kisses at her and turns to the sloe-eyed salesgirl whom Bella hadn't even realized was still present.

"Love you, too. Bye, Lauren. Have a great night with Tyler. Hope you're not late," she taunts, her voice saccharine with insincerity.

"Whatever," Bella hears her mutter lowly in a voice not intended for Bella's ears, adding in a conversational tone, "Bye to you, too, Isabella."

Lauren's goading her – everyone knows she hates her full name. She finds it hard to keep from wincing at its use, but the sadistic little smile on the other girl's face effectively prevents the memories of the only person who ever called her by her full name from surfacing, and the pain of losing them from crossing her face. Unable to get a reaction, Lauren scowls and walks off, following Jessica up to the register. Bella stands there for a moment, listening as Jessica's mindless chatter with the salesgirl fades…

"Love your shoes by the way."

"Oh, thanks. They're new, but I'm not sure if I really like them."

"Are you kidding me? They make your legs look great!"

"You think it's the heels and not the hours I spend at the gym?"

"Well, it's probably the gym, but those heels definitely highlight and enhance your hard work."

…before turning to the dressing room to change back into her clothes.

~∞Ѿ∞~

By the time Bella makes it up to the register, costume in hand, Jessica and Lauren are nowhere in sight. She hands her costume to the girl, and nervously waits, afraid to know what the damage is, while she rings her up. Without asking the total, she hands over her debit card and is relieved when the sale goes through. She still refuses to look at the price, and covers the total up with her hand when she signs the receipt. She'll look later, she vows, shoving both the sales slip and her card hastily into her purse.

"If you'll give me just a minute, Ms. Swan, I'll go get you a garment bag so the costume doesn't get damaged or dirty on your way home," the clerk offers, startling Bella.

"H-how did you know my name?" she inquires both warily and wearily.

"It was on your card, silly. I'm Alice, by the way." She holds her hand out for Bella to shake, and she takes it, noting as she pulls away how cold her hands are, but chalks it up to the temperature inside the store; it isn't exactly warm in there.

"Nice to meet you, Alice."

"You too, Bella. Lemme just go get that bag. Be right back."

She's gone and back, putting the dress inside the garment bag with practiced ease, and then slipping a large, dark, plastic bag over the hook at the top almost before Bella has time to register that she's gone. She's too busy trying to remember if she told Alice her first name or not. She knows she must have, but she just can't seem to remember doing so.

"What's in the bag?" she inquires, knowing she hasn't purchased anything else.

"Oh, just the accessories that come with it – you know, hat, necklace, gloves. We store them in the back so they don't get lost. Good thing I had to run to the back for the garment bag, otherwise I would have forgotten them. Couldn't have you going to that party without all the proper accoutrements, now could we?" she asks with a wink, using the French pronunciation of 'accoutrements.'

On to her little scheme, Bella smiles at her, grateful despite her pride and dislike of charity, replying, "I suppose not…as long as it's okay? I wouldn't want you to get into any trouble for me."

"Pish-posh," the girl – Alice, she reminds herself – dismisses with a wave of her hand. "At that price, you more than paid for them." She gives her a conspiratorial smirk, before adding with a shrug, "Trust me, it's fine. My parents own the place."

"Thanks, Alice." And she really means it. She had no clue what to do about accessories, and she really can't afford to spend more money that she doesn't have.

"Don't mention it. I'm deriving great satisfaction from being able to do something to put that stuck-up bitch in her place. There we go," she announces, smoothing out the now-zipped garment bag and straightening back up, "all set. Now, make sure to hang it up and unzip the bag when you get home, that way it'll eliminate and prevent wrinkling, and to let the fabric breathe. Oh, and make sure not to fold it over your arm while walking, or jostle it around too much in general."

Bella grimaces, knowing that it's going to be hard to do on the bus.

Catching it, Alice says, "Oh, damn! That's right, you're taking the bus. Well…" Bella can see the wheels turning in her head, "where do you live? If it's on my way, I can give you a ride!"

"Oh, I couldn't ask you to…"

"Nonsense, Bella! You're not asking, I'm offering, and I'm not doing it out of charity. I'm doing it because I can't stand Lauren's type and, as a former recipient of her style of bullying, it's my karmic duty to help a sister out. I live…"

Bella's place is totally on her way home, and after a little more cajoling, she finally-and much to Alice's delight-relents. Alice lives just past Bella in one of the nicest parts of the city. She has to be aware that Bella lives in one of the many less desirable neighborhoods, especially compared to her posh address, but if so, she doesn't say a word about it, making Bella feel a bit less like the pathetic charity case she knows she is.

"Well, can I help you finish closing up?" she offers, thinking it's the least she can do considering all Alice has done for her.

"Nope! Let me just run to the back to grab my purse and tell my brother I'm leaving."

Bella hadn't even been aware that anyone else was in the store. "Okay."

Alice returns a few minutes later with a large Louis Vuitton tote – gulp – and a set of keys jingling from one delicate finger, saying, "Let's go!"

~∞Ѿ∞~

Only one car remains in the deserted parking lot when Bella follows Alice out of the front door – a bright yellow, European sports car – and it can't possibly be Alice's…Bella hopes. But, of course, it is, making Bella even more intently aware of the divide between them than the pricey tote had. Alice is a whole different level of wealthy than anyone Bella knows, which is saying something. Not even Lauren or Jessica drive vehicles this pricey, and they're both come from pretty established families. Alice seems to notice Bella eyeballing her car with trepidation and shrugs, informing her with an apologetic grimace, "Old money."

"How old?" Bella retorts snappily, still looking a bit shell-shocked.

"Really old," Alice answers, and then rationalizes, "It's fun to drive, though."

Bella laughs, supposing that she's right – if you have to drive a pricey car, it might as well be one that's fun to drive.

Alice chatters away animatedly the entire way, putting Bella mostly at ease. She's a firecracker – a big bang in a small package – and Bella feels as if she's known her for years. She's so comfortable that she almost doesn't realize how close they are to Bella's neighborhood. Almost, but not quite. The closer they draw to her shitty apartment building, the more her apprehension grows, and by the time they actually arrive and park in front of her building, Alice hopping out of the car to help her carry her purchases in, she panics.

Bella used to have so much more than this empty, ramshackle existence. She used to have a life with a family, and was more than just barely getting by the way she is now. Maybe her things still weren't as fancy as Alice's, or even Jessica and Lauren's, but they were nicer than what she has now. It was only two years ago, but it's hard to remember when she didn't live in a neighborhood where she had to clutch a can of pepper spray in her hand, walk quickly, and keep her head down when she walked home from the bus stop after working the evening shift.

Life used to be comfortable, something she wasn't embarrassed to let people be a part of…but that was then and this is now, she reminds herself. She just hates this part, where she takes a risk, allowing someone new to know her, they take one look at how not like them she is, and she has to watch the shades come down over their eyes – 'No Vacancies', they say. In her third year of attending a prestigious private college, it's happened too many times to count, but it still hurts. She may have lost everything, she may no longer be the optimistic, confident girl she once was – not that you'd ever know; she's got bravado in spades – but she still has her pride, and it doesn't need to take any more hits than it already has.

"Alice, really, you don't need to help me in with this stuff. I can take it," she informs her new 'friend' as she frantically tries to snatch the garment bag away from her. "You've done enough for me tonight as is."

"Bella, you're going to wrinkle it!" she scolds, entering the vestibule, and heading straight down the hall toward the back of the building. "Would you just let me help you, if not for me, then do it for the dress. Honestly, I couldn't in all good conscience allow you to carry this thing on flat ground, let alone while traversing stairs…at least, I'm assuming you don't live on the first floor?"

Alice looks to her for confirmation, and Bella shakes her head, confirming that she does indeed not live on the first floor.

"See, I knew it. You didn't look like a first floor dweller to me. Anyway, I can hardly trust you to get this dress all the way to your apartment without tripping and tumbling down the stairs to your demise, or even worse…the gown's." Her free hand flies to her chest as she recoils in horror. Bella, in no frame of mind to process sarcasm or even humor, doesn't get the joke, and blanching, and her face becomes a mirror image of Alice's.

"Oh, relax! I'm just joshin' ya'. I'd totally be more worried about you…but, something happening to the dress would still suck." Bella cocks an eyebrow at her, and Alice feigns exasperation as she continues walking. "What? Don't look at me like that! I'm just sayin' it would suck."

Finding her voice just as they enter the stairwell, Bella juts her chin out and asks, "What makes you so sure I would fall?"

Coming to a sudden stop, Alice turns – free hand on her hip – to face her. "Bells, you tripped like three times in the short distance from the store to my car, and I don't know how many times you've already stumbled since we arrived here…and that's before we've even started up the stairs."

"Yeah, but that's – th-that's b-because," her bottom lip begins quivering, causing her to stutter and tears pool in her eyes, "you m-make me n-nervous," and then she bursts into tears.

"Bella! What's wrong, honey?" Alice begs, alarmed by her outburst. Her arms almost instantly come around Bella, wrapping her up tight in her embrace, and she awkwardly pats her back almost as if she were unfamiliar with the gesture of providing comfort.

Even in the midst of her distress, Bella notices how firm…no, hard Alice's chest is, and that her arms feel like steel bands around her. She really wasn't kidding about the working out, she thinks absently while sobbing pathetically against Alice's shoulder. She tries to answer, but can't manage to spit out anything comprehensible in the state she's in.

"There, there, honey. Shhh, now. It's okay," Alice speaks to her soothingly, gently rubbing circles against her back until Bella calms.

The longer she remains in Alice's embrace, the more Bella notices how frozen she is, the cold gradually seeping through the layers of their clothes, as if Alice were emitting the chill rather than retaining it. Utterly ridiculous, Bella, she scoffs at the thought, but it distracts her enough that she calms, and gently extricates herself from Alice's arms, thoroughly embarrassed over her breakdown.

Turning away for a moment to wipe the tears from her face, when she again faces Alice, she stares at the ground and begins to apologize. "I'm so sorry!" she whispers brokenly. "I'm so… God, I can't even imagine what you must think of me right now. I swear I'm not a basket case despite doing my best to prove to the opposite. If you want to run now before you get in too deep, feel free. Save yourself. I'll be fine."

Her rambling would have continued, were it not for Alice. "Bella, shut up." Not sure what to think, Bella's head snaps up, but she's only partially relieved when she finds a small smile on her face. "I'm not running away. I think we could become really good friends, and friends don't run out on each other over a few tears.

"You mind telling me what that was all about, though. I'm feeling adrift in the sea of tears you just cried, and could maybe use a push in the right direction. However, it'd be even better, and save us both a ton of confusion, if you just reeled me in."

"I just… You're so rich, and I'm obviously not, and after Lauren… I'm just feeling a little vulnerable, and worried, and embarrassed and whole slew of other things."

"Hey, don't prejudge me based on one snobby cunt, who is obviously cunty to you only because you intimidate her." Bella rolls her eyes. "Don't roll your eyes at me, young lady. She so obviously is. Girls like her only pick relentlessly on the girls who they feel are competition, but that's a conversation for another time. I gave you no reason to believe, or even consider, that I would act the same as her. In fact, I hoped that my actions would have proven to be quite opposite of that.

"You're not where you live, Bella, or the shoes you wear, or the car you drive, or the bus you ride. You're not your possessions or the situations around you that are out of your control – you're you and your own actions, nothing more, nothing less. That's what I'm going to judge you on. Not all of this," with a graceful sweeping gesture, she indicates the ramshackle building around them, "just you. You might not believe this, but I grew up in a place worse than this could ever be, before my parents adopted me, but that, too, is a story for another time.

"For now, let's get you upstairs to your apartment. It's getting late, and you –" she looks pointedly at Bella, "– need to be getting your beauty rest if you're going to knock 'em dead tomorrow night."

~∞Ѿ∞~

Putting her key in the lock, her door pushes open, the defective latch clicking softly, and Bella swears under her breath. "Sonofabitchmotherfucker."

"Nice language, Bella. You kiss your mother with that mouth?" Alice chirps. A shadow crosses Bella's face; she doesn't know if Alice sees it, but she's grateful all the same when she moves the conversation along without waiting for an answer. "What's got you cursing a blue streak, sailor?"

"Huh? Oh! Um, something's wrong with my doorknob, and it doesn't want to latch, so if I don't lock the deadbolt, my door doesn't actually lock. I was running late for class this morning, and in my haste, must have forgotten to lock it. It's not as if I have any valuables that anyone would be interested in stealing, but still…bad neighborhood, you know how it…" she cuts her comment off abruptly, because based on Alice's address, she obviously doesn't know. Anyway, it's just careless of me, and my da…it pisses me off when I do it. Well, after you," she finishes holding the door open for Alice.

Bella had holds her breath as Alice walks into her apartment and mimics the way she glances around, trying to see the place through her eyes After a moment, Alice remarks, "Seriously, you were worried about my reaction to this? Honey, this is like the Taj-Mahal compared to places I've been forced to live in."

She says it so offhandedly that, were it not for the haunted look in her eyes, assuring Bella of the truth, she would think Alice was just trying to make her feel less self-conscious of her humble abode-slash-tenement. She's suddenly unsure that, if the time ever comes that Alice wants to share her tragic past with her, she'll even want to know. They're eyes lock for a moment, the depth of their pain naked for the other to see, and then they both look away.

"Um, so this is it…Chez Swan. Welcome," Bella announces. She's known Alice for less than an hour, but something profound had just passed between them, leaving Bella feeling as if they've formed a meaningful bond in a world full of throw-away friends and casual acquaintances. It's a feeling she hasn't felt in years, and though it's not exactly pleasant, she welcomes it; it's nice to feel connected to someone, if even for a moment.

Alice only stays long enough to hang the garment bag and exchange numbers, and then Bella is walking her to the door to see her off. Surprising both of them, she throws her arms around Alice's neck just as the smaller girl is about step into the empty hall. At first, Alice freezes, but it's so brief that Bella wonders if she imagined it and, as Alice returns the hug, Bella tells her sincerely, "Thank you, Alice. For everything."

Though the words she wants to say – for not making me feel like trash, for offering understanding and acceptance instead of pity, for being so kind and genuine – remain unspoken she knows Alice understands. Alice doesn't say anything – doesn't need to, Bella gets it – as she cups her cheek, smiling softly, before she walks out, tossing over her shoulder, "Night, Bella. Have fun tomorrow night. Just so you know, I expect to hear about it in detail, and…make sure to lock your door. You can't be too safe, never know what kind of crazies are out there."

Seconds before she disappears into the stairwell and out of Bella's sight, Alice looks at Bella over her shoulder, a Cheshire grin stealing across her face and her eyes. "Ooh!" she says, her eyes glittering mischievously. "If you can, you should get pictures of Lauren's face when she first sees you." With a wink, she's gone.

~∞Ѿ∞~

Later, laying in bed thinking about her day, the whole experience with Alice leaves her exhausted and emotionally wrung out, so she lets her mind drift to the most pleasant moment of her day, lingering over the details of the gown and how she looked in it. For the first time in possibly…ever, she's excited about attending a party, but her excitement proves to be no match for weariness that's permeating all the way to her bones, and she begins to drift off. Caught in that transcendental plane between awake and asleep, little things come back to her.

How she had sworn Alice's eyes were a dark brown – almost black, really – when she had first seen her outside the dressing room, but later they had appeared to be a rich, tawny ochre. The way she'd appeared – seemingly out of thin air – just in time to interrupt as Jessica tried to ask her a question…and that. What in the world had Jessica kept trying to ask only to be repeatedly interrupted before she could spit it out? And why hadn't there been a single customer enter the story the entire time she was there? Come to think of it, why hadn't she seen any employees aside from Alice, or even signs of them?

Slipping further under the dark mantle of sleep, the oddities start to come to her faster, almost rapid cycling through her more than semi-unconscious mind. Alice's unnatural stillness, the way she'd tirelessly held the heavy garment bag up and off the ground for such a long time with such apparent ease, how cold she'd felt, her looks – surely no mere human could be that flawlessly good looking – and…had she or Alice led the way to her door? Finally, Bella thinks about the look in Alice's eyes when she'd mentioned her childhood, and the parting message she'd given Bella...the one about locking the door, not the one where she requested pictures of Lauren sulking. What had that meant? Was it a warning? Or was it just a friend's concern due to the bad neighborhood.

Whatever it was, Bella thinks there is something off about Alice, but she doesn't know what. Right Bella, she thinks, maybe she's a superhero. Yeah, she's Batgirl and you're the last daughter of Krypton. She rolls her eyes at herself. Not even the same movie, idiot, is her last thought before sleep finally claims her.

That night, she again dreams of the beautiful man that's been haunting her nights for months.

He wears the dark charcoal-almost black wool, evening jacket with the matching raw silk cravat tied around his neck, and white button-up shirt that worn several times before, but not as frequently as his other recurrent ensembles. Unlike the other clothes – all stylish, well tailored, and obviously designer, but ordinary guy clothes – this getup is reminiscent of the formal wear of a bygone era, and seeing him in it makes her yearn for things that she hasn't had an urge for in quite some time. Even his hair his matches his outfit, the usually disheveled mop is all slicked back in a not entirely successful attempt at containing it. The overall effect is mouthwatering; he's ridiculously handsome in a way that he isn't in his well-fitting jeans and t-shirts…although he looks amazing in those too.

Up to this point, the dream is identical to the countless others she's had with increasing frequency over the past few months. However, instead of sitting with him in the forest-surrounded meadow as she usually does, she's reclining on an old-fashioned, silk fainting couch in a strange room illuminated by candlelight. And rather than wearing the pajamas she went to bed in that night, she's dressed in the gown that's hanging in front of the window across from the foot of her bed. The final variance is that rather than maintaining a respectable distance and talking – well, really she talks while he asks questions, but answers none – he's hovering over her supine form, supporting his upper body with the arms he has wrapped around her waist, and from the looks of things they are doing anything but talking.

They've never touched before, and the feeling is indescribable – too much, yet not enough. She wants to beg for more, but also wants him to stop. It's heaven and hell, the agony and the ecstasy, everything and nothing, and all of it all at once. She flings one arm over her head as his arms tighten around her, causing her body to arch further into his and her head to fall back, revealing the smooth, creamy expanse of her neck. Breathing her in, his nose traces a line from the neckline of her dress all the way up to the hollow just behind her ear where he presses a soft kiss with trembling lips, and her eyes roll to the back of her head.

Her body embows to the point of breaking, every line of her taut as she tries to get as close to him as humanly possible – closer if possible – by making an offering of herself. When his mouth pulls away from her neck, she nearly weeps with despair. It's only the fear that he'll pull away altogether that helps her find the strength to remain silent. He's the one to finally break the silence, whispering a single word…strigoi…that, although she doesn't know the meaning, chills her to the bone. His mouth is on her neck in an instant as if it had never left, and she feels a sharp sting and then pleasure…only pleasure…a dizzying pleasure…

She looks up when he pulls away, gazing down on her with a look in his tawny, ochre-colored eyes that she can't place, she sees a single drop of blood trickle from the corner of his mouth. The chill is back, turning into icy dread that trickles down her spine until, like a flash fire, it consumes her whole being. She hears laughter from somewhere in the room and, turning her head, see's Alice laughing with her head thrown back, and then her eyes – tawny, ochre colored eyes – are on her.

Everything is swirling in a vortex of images and emotions and sensations: Alice, Edward – His name is Edward! – and all the strange, unexplained phenomena that she's noticed over the past few months. A misplaced book, a shadow of movement in the corner of her eye, her heart inexplicably racing, the sound of wind rushing past her and then, seconds later, a breeze and the feeling of a hand brushing over her hair…and Alice…and Edward…a trickle of blood…her blood…

She looks up at Edward, noticing just past him, a mirror that she swears wasn't there before, and sees her image…alone…reclining on a red sofa…she looks back at Edward…he's there…and back at the mirror…he's gone…at Edward…

It's all spiraling in on her…faster… and faster…tighter…and tighter…and then…her name on his lips, dripping like her blood…Isabella...

She awakes with a start, heart pounding in her ears, a tingling ache on the side of her neck, a cold sweat covering her body and her name still ghosting through her ears. Still dark out, she glances at the digital display of her clock – five in the morning – too early to get up, so she settles back to bed. The hairs on the back of her neck stand up with the prickly sensation that someone's watching her, and she frantically scans her room. She sees nothing, and there's nowhere for anyone to hide, so she writes it off as lingering apprehension from the dream that woke her…she thinks. That's when she notices the curtain hanging in front of her window gently fluttering. She gasps.

Her hand glides across her blankets, down over the side and, reaching between the mattress and boxspring, grasps one of the many cans of pepper spray her father used to press upon her every time she visited home. One of the perils of being the daughter of a police chief. She tentatively crawls out of bed, gripping the pepper spray with both hands and holding it to her chest as she approaches the window. As prepared as she's going to get, one hand darts out and snatches the curtain away from the window, revealing…nothing. Feeling a bit ridiculous, she chuckles mirthlessly at herself. After all, she lives on the fifth floor of her building, and has no balconies or fire escapes.

Still, she can't seem to shake the unease or the feeling that she should be worried, but…she can't quite remember why or about what. She knows it has to do with the dream she just had, and she tries to hold on to it, chasing the images as they fade, but she ends up grasping at vaporous remnants that disappear into nothing – smoke and mirrors and tricks of light – as her hand wraps around them. Disquietude falls over her like a shroud, and she finds herself unable to return to sleep, so she starts her day.

~∞Ѿ∞~

Despite doing her best to dismiss it, the feeling doesn't go away, it only increases throughout the day, and as she goes about her normal Friday routine – classes in the morning, work at the coffee shop in the early afternoon and on into the evening – she repeatedly experiences that same creepy feeling that she is being watched. Not in a casual, cursory sort of way, but in a predatory one…with her being the prey. When she finally arrives home for the day, she's overwhelmed with apprehension and dread and, for some reason, all of her concern centers on attending the party.

Jessica will kill her if she cancels, though. Not to mention she won't be able to wear the dress, nor outshine Lauren all night, she thinks, eyeing the dress still hanging in its open garment bag from the curtain rod in her room. With a devious smile, her dread is all but forgotten and, thankfully, it remains at bay as she goes about getting ready, allowing her to apply eyeliner and coat her lashes with mascara without losing an eye due to unsteady hands.

Shortly before nine, Jessica calls to let her know she'll be there in ten minutes, and Bella tells her that she'll be downstairs waiting. She grabs the 'accessories' Alice included with her gown – pretty, black ballet flats, miniature top hat with attached veil, elbow length gloves – and puts them on, making sure to place the hat at a jaunty, rakish angle before securing it to her hair with the attached clip. Donning her coat, grabbing her black drawstring wristlet – another 'accessory' courtesy of Alice – and with one final glance at herself in the mirror, she heads downstairs to meet Jessica. Lauren is already at the party since it's her boyfriend Tyler's fraternity hosting it.

~∞Ѿ∞~