"Baldrick, why has half the front page been cut out?"
"I don't know."
"You do know, don't you?"
"Yes."
"You've been cutting out the cuttings about the elusive 'Shadow' to put in your highwayman's scrapbook, haven't you?"
"Oh, I can't help it, Mr B.! His life is so dark and shadowy, and full of fear and trepidation!"
"So is going to the toilet in the middle of the night, but you don't keep a scrapbook on it!"
"I do."

— Blackadder The Third, Amy and Amiability

: :

Thursday, the 29th of July
3:45 PM. You're gone, Emmett, just like that. Now who am I going to walk in on masturbating?
(That was rhetorical, don't answer.)

It is not uncommon for me to walk in on dad and Sarah arguing after work, and it's not the angry, red version of dad that I face. It's calm, almost eerily so. It is filled with logic and quiet reasoning, neither of which assures us of the outcome. Emmett, Edward and I (try to) keep out of it, ignoring the closed door and hushed voices as we hang out, but we're not altogether successful during dinners—when Sarah stays, we witness the mother of all awkward conversations and forced politeness. She tries particularly hard to be polite to Edward. Whether or not she's been influenced by dad or Al to act like this, I neither know nor care—as long as it lessens Edward's self-blame (even a little).

And couples argue, I know. Edward and I do, too. You have to for the things you're uncomfortable with not to rot for years for you to explode at the tiniest thing. I don't know if I'd say it's nice to argue, but I think it's necessary. Yet when dad's arguments with Sarah reach a high-point, and all I ever see them doing, whether they're in the garage or making dinner or sitting on the porch, is rehashing the same shit over and over again… I don't know. Maybe there's a limit, you know? A quota of how much shit a relationship can take before you have to announce its death. And I'm trying to remain unbiased and treat it like an adult, but the problem is, one of them is my dad and the other one blamed my boyfriend of stealing hers. (Dad, not boyfriend.)

Not much groundwork for remaining unbiased.

I'm not familiar with their issues, not what Sarah wants or what dad's flaws are as boyfriend material. I've heard bits and pieces, and I'm pretty sure dad was pissed at Sarah for saying what she did to Edward. I know she regrets her words, she apologized, she's trying to make it work with dad. I know that. Regardless of what happens with their relationship, if she's going to be in Edward's life, Edward and I are going to get to know her. I only hope that when that time comes, she's… matured.

I can see what dad sees in her. She's intelligent, she's familiar with the dangers of dad's occupation, she cares (from what I can tell). But she's used to getting things her way, and while I know that not taking no for an answer is characteristic of successful people, I can imagine that it's incredibly difficult to be in a relationship with someone like that. Whatever they're trying to work out, dad stays his ground, and she doesn't like it.

She's spoiled in a different way than Edward. Whereas Edward's upbringing has made him used to washing and cooking being done for him (both of which he does himself at our place), Sarah's seems to have made her used to people bending to her will. I've never seen a person more uncomfortable admitting their mistakes, and I'm glad I don't know how long it took for Al or dad to convince her to apologize to Edward.

One Thursday, dad arrives home unusually quiet. He leans against the counter, arms crossed, watching me. The skin under his eyes is bluish, but as tired as he looks, there's peacefulness in them, too, like on the day he told us about going to Georgia.

"Did you make up with Sarah?"

He tilts his head on the side, takes out a bag of macaroni and starts boiling water.

"It's fine by me and Emmett if that's what you're worried about."

"I know," he replies as we start making dinner together. "That's not it."

"Is it mom?"

"Indirectly."

"Do you still love her?"

Staring at me, he sighs. "There'll always be a part of me that wishes we'd worked things out."

"Dad…"

"It's fine. She knows this."

Dad's tight-lipped answers don't encourage me to pry, so I stop asking. I wish dad felt he could talk to me with the kind of ease he expects from me, but just as I'm about to accept that there are things he doesn't want to share with me, he glances at the doorway.

"Sarah wants me to reverse my vasectomy," he mutters.

I gape a little.

"You've had a vasectomy," I repeat.

"Yeah."

"Please don't tell me you did it behind mom's back."

"No, no. She was allergic to most contraceptives and we agreed two was a handful. It was a mutual decision at the time. I never doubted… you know. I thought she was it for me."

I hate how much sense this makes. Hate it.

Dad keeps his eyes on his hands, a slight frown on his face. He rubs his upper lip out of habit from having a mustache, and when he looks at me and I see my own eyes stare back, I throw myself in his arms and squeeze like it's my last chance to hug him.

"I love you."

Dad's neck is red when he pulls back. "Love you too."

"It's okay if you want to reverse it."

"I don't," he replies. "That's the thing. Not only is it unlikely to work because it's been over thirteen years, kids shouldn't be a compromise. You guys are the best thing I've done in this world, but I don't need to go through this again and no kid should feel unwanted." He glances at the door and purses his lips. "Including Edward."

"You're a great guy, dad. I'm sure you'll work things out."

"We would if that was our only issue." His smile is sad. "But some things are not meant to be."

I think that's the night they finally break up. Sarah is nowhere to be seen that night or the three weeks that follow, and dad often gets this faraway look in his eyes. He brushes me off when I ask him about it, but I take care of him as well as I can. He'll be okay.

We're eager to take advantage of the weather and put windows on our house, which means that I lie on my stomach doodling in my diary while Edward, Emmett, Jasper, dad and the builders stand around half-naked lifting windows. I'm physically able to help them by now, but Dr. Heilbronner said I shouldn't lift anything for at least three weeks, so I'm lying around being lazy. Not that I have a choice.

Edward winks at me each time he catches me staring (it's half of July and already he looks like he secretly spray-tans), but then again, he pours water on his pants when I take off my pants and T-shirt. Emmett laughs his ass off because that's just how mature my brother is, but then my dad joins in, and Edward blushes to the roots of his hair. I give him a cheeky grin to which he throws his water bottle at me, the tips of his ears still red.

I love my boyfriend.

They spend their breaks sitting on my huge picnic cloth, eating pickle sandwiches, and soon I have the job of recalculating some measurements. I'm so happy to feel useful I don't even ask dad if he actually needs me to do this or if he just made up this task for me to feel less useless. I wouldn't be surprised.

Spending time building our home feels like the most wonderful thing in the world. Day by day, as I get stronger again, I'm allowed to actually help the guys out. They act like I'm an invalid not to be trusted with lifting so much as a hammer, but they're so caring about my health I can't even stay mad at them. Sometimes, my brother, Jasper, Edward and I forget ourselves and start a contest of throwing screws in an empty can (of pineapple slices), but then dad catches us and jokingly scolds us. Emmett, Jasper and I grin and apologize (because if dad were really mad, his face would change color), but dad's reprimanding always makes Edward start yessirring him. I don't think he realizes it, but it's silly and kind of cute.

It's Friday, the 23rd of July when Edward finally gets to follow dad and Al for a day, and I'm thrilled that dad and Al have agreed to let Edward tag along on a day when they don't need bullet-proof vests. He's like a little kid in the candy store, pulling me to sit on his lap in the morning as he questions dad. I hug them both because bullet-proof vest or not, this is not a job for the faint-hearted.

Edward returns, looking excited and overwhelmed, gushing about how much they let him do. It sounds like the job of a cop (95% of waiting, 5% of terror). Either way, dad and Al can't shut up about how proud they are of him, and Edward looks humbled but so pleased. As proud as Al is of him, I'm happy to see he's very open-minded and finds a way of paying compliments without the slightest mention of a future in his field. Either Edward's told him he already has a dad pushing him one way, or Al has picked up on it all on his own. Whatever the case, I'm happy to see Edward's talent acknowledged without any arrows.

Al comes around every other day and on weekends, and it's pretty amazing to watch his relationship with Edward change and grow. There is a way about him that is just so Edward (or vice versa) that during some dinners, dad and I make eye contact and shake our heads, baffled that we didn't pick up on these things before. And either Al has incredible emotional intelligence or he's reading a book about how to reconnect with a lost son, but he's being so great. He's supportive and encouraging, he's always talking to Edward when he comes over to help us build our home, he listens. Edward is just—so alive with him. Sometimes they jabber French for hours, and I just listen to how beautiful it sounds without understanding a single word.

The day before Edward follows Al and dad, Joseph and Esme get home from the hospital, and we go and throw them a tiny surprise party. Carlisle and Esme look so in love and happy it's giving me toothache, and Joseph is the tiniest creature I've ever held in my arms. Edward's hands are so large he can balance the little boy on his one arm, but soon, Joseph wakes and starts demanding food (as you do during your first circle around the sun). We have dinner in the evening with a few guests of the Cullens I've never met before, and despite Edward's politeness with Carlisle, there's uncharacteristic carefulness in their relationship. I can't imagine their reaction as they find out about Al and realize that it's not only possible but likely for them to lose Edward.

But maybe that's exactly the wake-up call they need.

I'm going to spend most of the money I've collected on a sports doctor. Physical therapist or not, I need to see a specialist; someone who would not only know what to look for as they do (pricey) tests, but who would have the experience of coaching athletes; someone who's able to give me an honest opinion about my back. As eager as I am to regain my shape and improve it, I'm not sure I'm willing to risk being able to walk in order to run.

The problem is, I might be. I catch myself eyeing joggers with no little envy, I exercise as much as I'm allowed (usually more rather than less), and I'm desperate to believe I can overcome my injury and regain my shape before that (stamina and flexibility, not weight). If I could achieve the time I did in one hundred meters after four months of practice, how amazing could I have been if I hadn't been injured? Could I achieve the same speed after being injured? Should I? If I do, how much would I be risking with my back? Do I want that risk?

A larger part of me does. A larger part of me is desperate to prove to myself I'm not only capable but I also have the willpower to run again. Do I want to compete? Would I be able to? I don't know. The thought nags at me, but I'm unsure enough to keep the hope mostly to myself, as if shouting it from the rooftops would stomp what little hope I have to regain that same quality of life and then some.

A smaller part of me is a skeptic bitch and I don't like her.

Unlike my gnawing hope/dread concerning my back and ability to run which I dare to share with Edward, my involvement with the campaign (dealing with equality and bullying and such) I keep to myself. I'm not even sure why. I've been given the opportunity to meet up with the team twice a week, I have a cameo in an advertisement explaining briefly what happened to (Eric and) me, I get the opportunity to talk to well-known women and get advice from them and… it's all pretty amazing. It's like entering another world twice a week, where—in spite of my student status—my opinion matters.

The campaign is insufferably vague at the moment, but it's going to launch on the first day of school and gain momentum from there. We hope.

On Wednesday, the 28th of July, when Emmett has thrown his (most random) belongings in a suitcase, we have fancy-pancy dinner (well, not really) because his plane to Newark leaves at around nine AM the next day. It's not until I hear dad's speech about how proud he is of his elder kid that I realize how much the last year has changed him. Not because of the speech itself or the fact that dad is proud of Emmett, but because of how comfortable he is showing it. Or maybe I've just learned to see it. Either way, I'm happy to see Emmett get the recognition he deserves.

I think I've slept for four hours when I wake up to hear two seconds of a song before I hear Emmett curse and turn it off. The window is open. It's dark.

"Bella?"

"Mmm?"

"You awake?"

"Nope. Sleep-talking."

I watch Emmett roll his eyes in the dim light of his iPad. His arms are off the bed, chin resting on mattress and face turned to me. Wiping hair (or sleep) off my eyes, I snuggle closer to my pillow as Emmett slides the iPad under his bed. He wrestles with the blanket, sighs, and crosses arms under his head. He stares at the ceiling in silence.

"Bella?"

I yawn.

"How're you doing?"

"Funny."

His pillow falls on the ground but he doesn't move to retreat it. Instead, he clears throat. "Seriously, though. You okay?"

"Do you have a fever or something?"

"Why?"

"I think you accidentally let it slip that you care. I'm afraid immediate medical attention is required."

He huffs a chuckle.

"What time is it?"

"Around two, I think."

Rubbing my eyes, I ask, "Can't sleep?"

He sighs but doesn't answer.

"How's your back? You scared us shitless when you pulled that muscle."

It's a strange world where my brother seeks to connect and doesn't shoot teasing remarks at me, so I make an effort to be awake.

"It's better. A lot better."

"Good," he replies, turns toward me and stares for a while. "Do you… do you sometimes wonder how different we'd be if mom were here?"

"Sure I do."

"You do?"

"Yeah. Sometimes… there are things I wish I'd talked about with her but never did. Sometimes I have stuff I wish I could ask. Or, like, I imagine her reaction in my mind to something I do. When dad told that story about how proud he was of you, I just felt like mom would've sat there, next to you, making you feel super embarrassed. Grinning and crying and kissing you at the same time."

He's breathing quietly and I think he's fallen asleep, but then he clears his throat. "I think she would have, too," he says quietly. "Do you… would you do anything differently if you could go back?"

"When she was with us? I don't know. I guess I'd tell my younger self not to take mom's interest in girly stuff so personally. It wasn't her fault that I wasn't the girl she wanted me to be, but it wasn't mine, either. We were just different."

"I don't know. If you caught dad watching you when you make a joke around the dinner table and everyone's snorting with laughter, that's… he really believes you're a spitting image of her. She would've been proud of you."

"You, too," I reply. "Would you do anything differently? If you could go back, I mean?"

"I guess I'd… hard to say. I'd try to be less of a hassle for them."

I smile. "We were only kids. Messing up to find boundaries is what kids do."

"Still. It's kind of weird, going off to college. I'm not even leaving home, literally just a house we're renting. Will you be okay?"

"Yeah," I reply. "I think so. You?"

He huffs a laugh. A car alarm goes off in the distance as I hug my pillow and listen to Emmett breathe. "I think I'm gonna try out for Law School after I've graduated. I mean, I don't have the best grades or anything, but I've never put much effort into it. And I think I can do it. The LSATs."

I've grown enough to recognize that he's postponed telling me, and that means my reaction might mean something to him, and if it does, I can't screw it up by demeaning his dreams. And so, I keep silent until he wrestles with his blanket and sighs.

"I'm… I've kind of kept an eye on you this spring, like, to see how you've coped and shit, and… I'm… you should probably know I've made fun of Eric, too. He was—an easy target, I guess, weak and kind of… different. Just, like, a different way of doing things. I was just goofing around, I never meant any harm, and I only did it, like, three times, but… it keeps haunting me. Like, if I knew what you both went through, I could've actually prevented shit like that, but instead, I was a part of it… not that I'm excused because I didn't know. I should've known better regardless. I know that. But… I just wanted you to know, now that you're a part of that equality project, if someone thinks they're digging dirt on your brother—you can at least be prepared.

"You're not mad, are you? Shit. I'm sorry. Believe me, I didn't mean any harm. And—I've kind of talked to Rose, too, about, you know. What she went through. You've said what you went through wasn't necessarily a gender thing, but rape and sexual abuse still seems to happen so much more to women, and so few of them actually say anything to anyone, it's crazy. I know it's more of a women's thing, but I'm going to major in Gender Studies. I always kind of hoped I'd get to go to law school to do something worthwhile, but you—what happened with you, kind of… gave me direction, I guess. So I… yeah. I'm sorry."

Silently I sit up and watch as Emmett throws his blanket on his legs, annoyed. "You're not even awake, are you? My fucking luck."

I tiptoe to his bed, sit on the edge and poke his shoulder. Confused, he sits, but I don't let him say anything before I hug him. My throat burns and my nose feels clogged, but I hug him with my forgiveness, I hug him for pretending to be such an asshole when he's a giant sweetheart inside, I hug him because nobody's ever dealt more delicately with finding out his best friend is gay, I hug him because he regrets his mistakes and I hug him because I love him. He returns it until he feels my hot tears and snotty nose against his shoulder.

"Shit, you're mad. I'm sorry, Bella. I swear I'll try to make up for the shit I've done. I know I've made mistakes. I know, I know. Please, uh—"

I slap his shoulder, grinning, tears streaming down my face. I want to tell him I love him, but he's not that kind of brother and I refuse to make him uncomfortable. I don't need to force those words out of him. What he just told me is as close as he gets to admitting that he cares, and I'm okay with that. I have finally learned to read between his lines.

"Let's play cards," I say, turn on my bedside lamp (he doesn't have one) and take cards from my drawer. He closes the window, throws his pillow in the middle of the room, and lies on his stomach on the carpet, eyes wide open and smiling.

"You okay?"

"Yeah," I reply, wiping my face with my sleeves. "Just a damn brother allergy, I'll get over it."

He snorts a laugh and starts shuffling cards as I wrap myself in my blanket. And so we spend the night before his leaving playing cards, acting silly and occasionally sharing things that matter too much to share them in a diary. The sun is up by the time I wake Edward up so that he could drive Emmett to the airport. I want to go with them, but pulling an all-nighter seems to have made my back ache, and I don't think Emmett is eager to see me cry (again), so I pull him into my blanket-hug and squeeze.

"Will you send your diary to me when it's done? Just, you know," he whispers, shrugging. "So I know you're okay and stuff."

"Sure," I reply. "Text me when you land, yeah?"

He nods and hugs dad before taking his suitcase. I stare at the closed door, and even though dad eyes me suspiciously when I explain I'm going back to sleep (I'm usually the first one up), I hug him goodbye and curl up on Edward's couch under his sheets. It smells like him. It feels like I've barely slept five seconds when I open my eyes to find him crouching beside me, running his fingers through my hair.

"We played cards until six AM," I explain, groggy-sounding. "You'd be proud."

"He told me," he replies, takes off his sweatshirt and breathes against my ear. "Do you mind if I join you?"

Smiling, I shake my head, and he throws himself on his blankets behind me, squeezing me to him. His face is prickly against my cheek, but his lips feel damp and soft. "Are you alright?"

I hum, hiding my face in his neck. "I'll miss him."

"He's worried about you."

"I know," I reply, turning around. He kisses my temple, squeezing me above the blanket, not saying anything. I cover his arm with mine, playing with his fingers. "But I'll be okay."

He hums and rubs his nose against my hair. I can feel his smile against my neck. "I know," he whispers.

: :

Thursday, the 19th of August
6:50 AM. It's drizzling! Hip hip hurray!

Telling Edward's parents about Al is a weekly (and sometimes daily) topic of conversation. It arises often and with a mixture of shame and fear, both from the father and the son, but the more the conversation is postponed, the likelier Edward's parents are to overreact, I think. The harder it will be to tell them. Knowing that, on Friday, the 6th of August, after Al has picked me up from the hospital (routine check-up with Dr. Heilbronner) and Edward from Children's Hospital (my dad borrowed his car today), they make the split-second decision to head over to Edward's parents' place instead of mine. And maybe it's for the best, doing this spontaneously.

"This will be awkward," I say as we walk up the porch.

"It'll be fine."

Al sways on his heels, hands in pockets, eyeing Edward. "She's right."

"Super-duper awkward."

"Why are you here again?" Edward asks.

"'cause I'm super-duper familiar with your needs. And, I was in the car. But I can wait outside if you want. I get it. It's cool."

He squeezes my hand. "Stay."

"Great. I was beginning to worry I'll miss this super-duper mega awkward king of awkward conversations."

Edward smiles, nervous but amused. "Shut up, Bella."

"Gladly."

Al starts to push the doorbell, but Edward stops him in time because if Joseph's asleep, Al is not going to gain any fans waking him up. We find Edward's parents immersed in a quiet discussion in the kitchen, hands flailing and dinner forgotten. They raise their eyes after Edward knocks on the doorframe. Al appears ill at ease.

"Can I talk to you for a moment?" Edward asks with an edge in his voice. Carlisle frowns and makes eye contact with Esme before they both stand.

"Sure thing, son," he replies, guiding us to the living room, shutting the door of the room that now belongs to Joseph as he curiously eyes Marshal Stephens. "Is everything alright? What's going on?"

They sit on their respective couches, Esme and Carlisle on one, Edward and Al on the other, while I twist my arms, feeling intensely out of place. They have no armchair, the only available seat is next to Carlisle on the bigger couch and I feel uncomfortable being here and knowing what's about to go down. I have no reason to be here.

"I'll wait for you guys on the porch, okay?"

Even without knowing what's up, Edward's parents argue, scooting over, offering to bring chairs and whatnot, but Edward, being the only one who doesn't say a word, simply tilts his head on the side and holds out a hand for me. I sit on an armrest, he squeezes my hand, and when our eyes lock, I think he knows that I know this will probably not end well. He scoots over, kissing the back of my hand before holding it on his lap as I lower myself to his side.

"So how's Joseph?"

Confused, Esme leans against the armrest and rubs her neck. She seems nervous as she smiles. "He's perfect. Gaining quite a bit of weight and making more noise than a gentleman his age should be capable of." Her eyes flicker between Edward and Al. "What's going on, Edward? You're scaring us."

Al leans forward to say something, but Edward looks at him, shakes his head and eyes his parents. He sighs. "I'm not really sure how to say this."

"What, exactly? Are you alright?" Carlisle asks.

"I'm fine," Edward replies, running fingers through his hair. "But I found my father. Well, he found me."

"What do you mean? I'm right here, son," Carlisle says, slightly impatient as Esme's eyes, wide with understanding, flicker between Edward and Al, the width of their shoulders, their posture and height and eyes. She doesn't gasp but slowly places a hand on her mouth, lowers her eyes and takes a slow, shaky breath.

"No," she says and presses her lips tightly together. "It can't be."

"It can," Marshal Stephens replies. His voice catches Carlisle's attention who now does what Esme did, just with more disbelief. "I met his mother twenty two years ago. Her name was Lizzie. We already did a DNA test."

"No," Carlisle repeats, blinking at us.

Edward sighs. Esme and Carlisle take an eternity to stare at each other before looking at me, expecting me to crack a joke, I guess, as I always do, waiting for me to say this isn't happening. But I can't.

"When? When did this happen?" Carlisle asks, voice shakier than I've ever heard. "And why? Why now? Why would a man in your position not take care of his own son? Why would you let him end up in an orphanage?"

"I didn't know he existed," Al replies in a low voice.

"Do you have any idea what state he was in before we adopted him?" Esme asks passionately. "How malnourished he was? Did you know it took us nearly a year to get him to properly talk to us and three for him to be even remotely comfortable around strangers? Did you know he saved two people from a burning car when he was only four?"

"Eight," Edward mutters to deaf ears.

"What are you trying to achieve, Mr. Stephens?" Carlisle asks. "Why are you doing this?"

"Dad—"

"No, Edward. He has a motive and I deserve to hear it. Do you expect to take him from us now that he's grown and has a future filled with opportunities ahead of him? Do you think you get to cherry pick the good times and not be there for him during the bad ones? We raised him. We've been doing it for thirteen years and we sure as hell will be there for him for the rest of his life. So why, Marshal? Why are you doing this?"

"I want to get to know him," he replies, voice even. "I want to be in his life. That's what I want."

"So you expect to walk away with our son just because we've had a little fall out?"

"Be reasonable, Carlisle, of course—"

"Having sex with a hooker makes no man a father."

Al grimaces and Edward face-palms. I squeeze his hand, and briefly, we make eye contact. He keeps shaking his head.

"I understand," Al continues. "That why I want—"

"You can't take him, we won't—"

"Dad, don't," Edward interrupts. "Please. You're better than this. I didn't bring Al here to rub him under your nose, I brought him here because you deserve to know. He's a good man, and he doesn't deserve your insecurities. You don't get to act protective of me in front of him but throw my adoption in my face when we fight. You do not get to do that."

Pain flashes in Carlisle's eyes. "Edward—"

"You regret it, you're sorry, I know. And maybe you are. But don't you think the fact that you're so fucking terrified of losing me right now because you think you might've done something wrong? Because you're not actually sure if going with him is what I want? If things were okay with us, you wouldn't behave like this. But they're not, and you look petrified, and that speaks more about your own insecurities in raising me than any flaws Al might or might not have."

Edward is right, it's not so much surprise as it is fear; but their terror is silent, it's in their silent conversation, it's in their eyes and their voice. It's in their words. Carlisle presses his lips together, but they're shaking. Esme's eyes are wide with apprehension, and her own lips, too, are fighting to remain motionless.

"We would like to have a few words with our son," Esme says, struggling with her emotions. "Please."

Carlisle nods, standing as we do. "I'm sorry," he says to Al, shaking his hand. The door shuts with a click behind us. The sun makes us squint; Al and I sit on the porch on top of the stairs. He usually appears quite young for a man over sixty, but not today.

"I can't blame them," he says, resting elbows on his knees, watching the wind bend alder tree branches.

"I know," I reply, not entirely sure how to console him because, if I were in Edward's parents shoes, having adopted a kid whose biological parent shows up, I'd be terrified, too.

We sit there in the silence, feeling the chilly breeze ruffle our hair, observing the edge of the forest. Ping Pong's cross catches my eye. I get up, break a branch with a white flower from a bush called gardenia (I think), and walk over to Ping Pong's grave. Sparse blades of grass cover his grave, but nothing else has changed. I set the fragrant white flower in the middle of his grave and crouch, absent-mindedly picking on the grass on his grave. I'm giving Al time to think, to analyze, whichever he prefers, but I also think of how many times I've reconsidered getting another dog. I've discussed it with Edward many times, but I feel like it's too early. Nobody compares yet, and nobody will until I can let go of the idea of Ping Pong.

When I return to the porch, Al is sitting with his head in his hands, and I'm wary of approaching him for fear that he's crying. But his eyes are completely dry when he raises his head. He does look tired, though.

"Are you hungry? We could go have pizza."

I smile. "I'll let them know."

I freeze in the doorway because they're all hunched together, Esme is feeding Joseph, and they're talking quietly; tears are evident in Carlisle's and Esme's voices.

I retreat.

Maybe this emotionally charged talk is what they need. Maybe fearing their son might actually leave is enough to make them appreciate Edward for the man he is; without arrows. Maybe. I send Edward a brief text on our ride to Pagliacci Pizza. It doesn't take long for our order to arrive, and when it does, we split it.

"Do you know when Edward's sister was born?"

"She got eighteen last December, so… December '95, I think. Why?"

"I'm not her father if that's what you mean," he replies. "No, I only met Lizzie once. But she tried to contact me," Al says, adding pepper to the already spicy food. "It was early summer of '99, I think. Edward was taken to the orphanage that fall. Maybe his sister, too, I don't know."

"How did she find you?"

"Through my work number. She was persistent and in desperate need of money. She offered to meet and to… help her earn it. She made up very elaborate lies, especially when high, and the third and last time she tried to contact me, she called me at home."

"No."

"She was smashed, drunk or high or both. Kept telling me about a house, someone's illness, about people I'd never met. But just before hanging up, she said, 'He has your eyes.'"

He continues eating as I stare at him.

"Why are you telling me this?"

"Guilt. Trust. Maybe both."

"So, you've suspected you had a son since '99?"

"No. I didn't take it seriously. She kept calling me Keith, Frank, Jackson, never Masen—or Al, even after she knew my full name. So maybe she was drunk or high all three times she called me, but I had no reason to suspect anything given her profession."

"But it mattered enough for you to remember it."

He eyes me, head tilted on one side, and nods. "True. But I owe you an apology for lying to you the time you asked me about it. By then, I already had suspicions. The first time I met you, you came from a run with your brother, remember? I'd spent enough time with Edward to notice… little things. It was in passing, but it was enough to stick. Like his voice. I'd never met anyone who spoke with my voice."

I laugh. "Yeah, that could be strange."

Smiling, he nods.

"So you're basically telling me that you only kept visiting dad to catch glimpse of Edward?"

"Sometimes."

"You sneaky little bastard."

He laughs, and it's still striking how similar it is to Edward's.

"And here I thought, man, what an unbelievable coincidence. So it wasn't that much of a coincidence after all, huh?"

"I wasn't sure. His parents look similar enough to actually be his biological parents, so it was only when you said you had a friend looking for his biological father that I started to take the things I'd noticed seriously."

"But what a story to tell your grandkids one day."

Al smiles; I order more juice.

"Life is strange," I say.

"What do you mean?"

"It just is, don't you think? You grow up believing there are good people and bad people, and that adults have all the answers. But then you start growing up yourself, and… it's not at all like that. Good people make bad decisions and villains are just victims trapped by their environment."

He stares at me silently for a while.

"You're quite perceptive for a lady your age."

"Please don't call me a lady." I wrinkle my nose. "Or I'll have to start wearing pink dresses and sparkly headbands."

He smiles, amiably, and not only because I just perfectly described what I'm wearing today. Because I'll wear a pink dress and a sparkly fucking headband if I want.

"Why did you try to stop him?"

"Who? Eric?"

"Yes."

"Because… he was trapped by his environment, and what he intended to do was not a solution to any of what happened to us."

"Did you ever think of doing what he did?"

"In middle school, yes. Not seriously, but I did think about it. The attention, the revenge, the power to make others feel the kind of fear and humiliation you've been made to feel for so many years… I understand the satisfaction he got from doing what he did, if that's what you mean. It disturbs me, but I do."

"Is that why you got involved with the Equality Project?"

"How do you know about it?"

"There's a poster of you at least five stories high right next to our office."

"Lovely. So much for being inconspicuous."

Al drops me off at home. Edward arrives a few hours later; he doesn't say much, but he seeks affection and I offer it to him. After a few days filled with phone conversations, Edward moves back to his place, and the first night he's gone, dad and I eat dinner on the back porch because the house feels too empty. Neither of us is used to silence. Emmett should be leaning on the doorway somewhere, pretending not to have a hangover, and Edward should be sleeping in on our couch. He should be sneaking up to me when I'm writing my diary and being all cuddles when he's reading another horror thriller.

"We should be able to move back into our home in October at the rate we're going," dad says, looking up from the newspaper.

"Are you serious?" I grin. "You're my favorite person ever, dad," I say, kissing his cheek before I take our plates to the kitchen. He enters the room after me, red and awkward-looking, but he seems pleased.

"We could go there now. There's nobody there, but you could help me with the window sills, if you want."

"Just the two of us?"

"Just the two of us," he repeats, smiling a bit shyly. After we're done balancing the window sills so that they're not tilting towards us or the windows, we end up sitting on the floor, leaning against the front door and throwing screws in an empty can of pineapples. When he has one last screw to throw out of ten, he does it with his toes and throws his hands in the air.

"I won!" He grins, ruffling my hair the way Emmett used to.

"You cheated!"

"I did no such thing," he replies, eyes filled with mirth, and offers me a hand as I get up.

"Cheated!"

"Did not." He laughs at my sour face when he locks the door, tucks me by his side (or maybe he's tucked by my side because we're the same height) and kisses my forehead when I'm almost downstairs.

"What was that for?" I ask. He shrugs.

"We could move in by your birthday if you're okay not having much furniture or wallpaper."

"How could you think that? I want a golden toilet and a plunger made of diamonds." I give him a cheeky grin. "Let's do it."

"Yeah?"

"Yeah."

"Emmett also told me what we could do for your birthday, but I need to talk this through with you so you wouldn't do it without us."

"What?"

"We want to pay for that sports doctor you want to see."

"Dr. Wright? Dad, it could cost hundreds of dollars and take—"

"Several visits, I know. But you're not selling your share in Phil's business just to see an expert. Emmett, Edward and I have agreed to do this for you."

Buckling my seatbelt, I blink at him. He seems so ready to argue I do anything but—even though I had no intention of selling anything to anyone (yet).

"Okay. If you're okay with this. I'm going to see him either way."

"Do you have an appointment?"

"The 20th of September."

The nights Edward is not over at my place and I'm not over at his, we talk on the phone. But the first time I do go over to his place, I witness Edward, red-eared, telling Esme that he can do his laundry himself; I don't think Edward even used to notice when and how his clothes got clean.

August is beautiful this year, though, and we take advantage of the weather; we pack lunches to the beach, join volleyball games, sunbathe, play badminton and fool around. Edward tries his hand (legs, really) at surfing, and more impressed than the fact that he's able to stand on the board on his third try—it's a minuscule wave, but still—am I by the fact they actually had a wetsuit that fit his twelve foot frame at Westport. He even convinces me to go in the water when he discovers I can't swim (yeah, I wasn't only talking metaphorically), but it's freezing without a wetsuit. I agree to take lessons from him in a pool; when your boyfriend is capable of charming your pants off with a smile, you do more to see him half-naked.

Well, that, and I've heard swimming should be one of the best ways to strengthen your muscles, and there's nothing I want more than to start running again. Properly.

Angela, Ben, Tanya and Jasper join us sometimes, and on the weekends, Edward's parents and dad do, too. Carlisle seems incapable of leaving his work at work, though, and I feel sorry for him, sitting in the sand with a laptop. But that's life.

Some of my favorite days are the ones where Edward and I go to the beach alone.

I can't deny there's a part of me that feels self-conscious in a bikini around Edward. I have an ugly scar on my upper stomach shaped like a tick mark (it goes through the actual bullet wound), and two large intertwined lines that form a tilted cross on my back. I don't like my scars, but since I've never been hit on or noticed, I don't mind being half naked around strangers. Nobody will be looking at me, I know that, I'm fine with that. So it's easy for me to talk to the friendly guy who forgot his sunscreen, the boy who used to go to Drama with me in middle school, and make friends with an off-duty lifeguard while having lunch. His friends call him JD and he's inviting me to a beach party at his friend's house as Edward appears, hair dripping wet and wearing swimming trunks.

"Edward," he says, holding out his hand for JD, who stands. "The boyfriend."

Even though he's perfectly polite to JD, asking about his job and the waves as he showers me with affection, his appearance makes the guy act all awkward, and when JD excuses himself because his shift is about to begin, Edward wraps his very cold arms around me.

"Are you done peeing on me?"

"Not yet." Laughing, he pulls me to sit on his lap. "Want to come surf with me?"

"Because it is so safe for my back to be falling on a surfboard all day."

"We could just sit on the same surfboard. It's fun, I'll take care of you. You in?" His stomach growls, and he sends me a sheepish grin. "Right after I've eaten."

Edward orders lunch. Resting his chin on my shoulder, he watches me take out a sweatshirt. "Don't tell me you're cold," he says, smiling. "It's like a hundred degrees today and you're covered in sweat."

Turning my head, I give him an uneasy smile.

"Did I do something?" he asks, arms tightening around me. "You're always putting clothes on when I arrive."

I put his index finger on my scar. "Does it bother you?"

"This?" he asks, trailing a line along my scar. "No. It doesn't bother me. It's like, if someone asks if that girl is hot, you say, obviously. There's a tick mark on her stomach."

"You're a cheesy bastard. I'm serious, though. I know it looks kind of disgusting. Does it gross you out?"

"Why is my opinion so important? You didn't seem the slightest bit nervous around JD."

"Because your opinion matters," I admit quietly. Edward turns my head to look at me. He's smiling.

"It's just a scar. Everyone on this beach who sees it will know you've gone through some serious shit and survived. You're beautiful. I'm clearly not the only guy on the beach who's noticed."

"So it really doesn't bother you?"

"It really doesn't bother me," he replies, grinning when I put away my sweatshirt. "So, join me later?"

"Sure thing," I answer, and relax into him as he starts eating. There's something else I've delayed that I want to discuss with him, but it's going to be a longer talk and I don't want to do it while he eats.

I spend the day with him, sitting on the board he's renting, laughing and falling off of it in shallow water. It's around six PM, I think, after we've both put on our clothes but are too lazy to leave, when I think I've gathered the courage to talk to him.

"I have to tell you something."

"Okay," he replies, pulls my legs on his lap and starts stroking my knees. Waiting, he blinks at me, eyes gentle and face patient. I nervously rub my hands together as he starts trailing patterns on my sweaty palm and sends me a questioning look.

"What's wrong?"

"I, uh, nothing."

"Bella?"

I rest my forehead against his shoulder, sighing, tapping his towel with my thumb. I'm restless and embarrassed and scared. Terrified, really. Awkwafied, if that were a word.

I squeeze his hand without looking at him.

"You know I love you, right?"

"You're…" He clears his throat and pales a little. "Pardon?"

"God," I mutter, close my eyes and grimace. "It's embarrassing, but you have to know, but I'm afraid you'll… you're a very physical guy, you know? I don't want to lose you."

His palm stops stroking my knee. "You feel pressured." He presses lips tight together, takes his hand from mine and crosses his arms, careful not to touch me; head lowered and voice small. "I'm sorry."

"No." I take his hand. Serious-looking and maybe a bit scared, he eyes my discomfort. "It's not that," I admit quietly. "Not at all."

His shoulders slump as he offers a small, encouraging smile. "God." I avoid his eyes, picking at the corner of a pillow. "It's embarrassing, and I don't know how important it is to you. But you have to know. In case, in case it's like a deal-breaker." I take a breath, eyeing his hairy legs like they're the most fascinating thing I've ever seen. "It's fair that you know before you're disappointed in me."

"Hey, hey," Edward says, leaning towards me so that our shoulders are pressed against each other. He tilts my head to look at me. "What are you talking about? It's so unlike you to beat around the bush."

"Uh, remember… what happened with Newton?"

Lips pressed together, he nods.

"Well, it's, you know, what he forced me to do? I don't—maybe it's not important to you or maybe it's crucial, I don't know, but I. For all I know, I will never be able to do that—to you. Not now, not in a few years, maybe never. And I want—"

Burst of laughter cuts me off, and I cringe. I'm surprised to feel my throat tighten and burn, as if I were about to cry, and I shy away from him. My face feels hot. It's uncomfortable and I'm embarrassed and I might cry because I'm nervous and terrified and it's so difficult for me to open myself up for ridicule like that. I thought it was important enough to talk to him about it, but, I don't know. I don't think I can face this reaction.

"I, uh," I stutter. "Never mind. I'll just—"

Feeling awkward, I stand. I don't want to show him how close to tears I am. I know he's not laughing out of menace, but knowing it and feeling it are not the same. For me, feeling ridiculed precedes knowledge of the reason or person behind it. I can't help it. If you teach a mouse to associate the ringing of a bell with bread, they will come to the sound of a bell when there is no food. I am that mouse.

Edward scoots closer to me, reaching out. His face swims in my vision because I'm biting back tears, but I can see he looks serious. Confused, but serious.

"It's—fine. I'll just—" I motion at the parking lot, pressing my lips together and hoping it will stop them from wavering. I cross my arms, ready to leave, but something stops me. Maybe it's the quiet, almost desperate way Edward repeats my name. Maybe it's the confusion in his tone. Maybe it's that he stands to stop me. But maybe I realize, it is not his job to pry the answers out of me, not now and not ever. He can support me and help me and encourage me to heal, but he can't heal me. And I can't expect him to. I can't expect him to know how I feel at any given moment without telling him, just like I can't expect him to magically know his actions hurt me, or why they hurt me.

I could run. It would be so easy. I'm used to it. All I ever did in middle school was avoidance and denial and running away. I'm good at it. And at the time, those things helped me cope. But I'm not in middle school. I'm not who I was. I can't afford to react the way I did then. I can't afford not to fight.

I know I've misunderstood, and the awkwardness of this subject would only increase every time we're intimate, even if it's hugging, and I might just create that self-fulfilling prophecy that way. I don't want that. I want ease. I want freedom to tell him things I think he should know, even if he disagrees. Especially if he disagrees. I want to trust him to understand what's important to me—but I have to tell him what those things are first.

He looks more remorseful than the situation requires when we stand there, staring at each other. He's still swimming a bit because I'm crying, but I sniff and continue.

"Do you know why I act like a goof all the time?"

"I'm… what?"

"Do you?"

"I…" He runs a hand over his face, looking like he's halfway to an apology and then some. "Haven't you always been like that?"

"True. But I learned to act sillier the more middle school progressed. You know what else progressed in middle school as the years went by?"

"Newton," he mutters, low.

"Close. Yes, him, but others, too. Abuse. Bullying. The worse it got, the sillier I got. The more I sought to be the class clown. Do you know why?"

He stares at me, not saying anything.

"I found that I couldn't control whether or not I got bullied. Being bullied by teens comes hand in hand with being ridiculed. Appearance and clothes and jokes about dad, whatever. Not a piece of me that wasn't a reason to laugh at me. It terrified me. So much so that I started to invite ridicule. Not for my appearance or family, but for the way I acted. I could control that. So I did, and it worked. I got laughed at for so long behind my back for the shit people could get away with that I figured, if I acted silly deliberately, I could always reason they were laughing at my antics and not my appearance.

"It's a slippery slope, though, because situations and conversations that don't come easily to me—like the one we just had, they make me feel like I'm back in middle school. Especially if your reaction is particularly important to me. Because it is, and I should've told you that. Maybe it's silly to you or whatever, or you've never thought of it, or you don't think we'll be together in a few years so it doesn't matter, but it matters to me."

"Bella—"

"Let me just, I need to get this out. It matters that you know this is a problem for me, and I might never overcome it, and that's a part of myself I'll probably never share with anyone, because Newton took that from me. I can't be casual about it. I just can't. You have no idea what it was like to throw up for days, trying to erase that memory. I don't want you to be under the illusion that I'll get over it. I probably won't. So if that's a thing you can't live without, I want to know now. Not a year from now. If you think it should be fair or whatever, you don't have to do any, you know, oral for me, either—not that, I mean, not that I assume you'd want to. But I don't want to find out in two years that this is a deal-breaker. So, if—if it is, then you can tell me now and we can—go our separate ways. It, I mean, I'd understand."

"I wouldn't," he replies passionately, running a hand over his face as he stares at me. He sighs. "You could've just said, 'I don't want to give blow jobs' and I would've never approached the topic again. What kind of a sex maniac have I made myself to be?"

"You haven't. God, you haven't. I just—I really needed this out in the open. It drove me nuts trying to find the right moment to tell you, and to know there's a possibility you'd leave me for this."

"What kind of an asshole leaves his girlfriend because she doesn't blow?"

I grimace, and Edward runs a hand over his face. "I'm sorry," he says. "I didn't mean to sound so crude. I don't know what's wrong with me."

"I do," I reply. "Emmett."

He chuckles, but soon, he slumps on the nearby chair, motioning for me to sit beside him. His face falls when instead I sit cross-legged on the sand.

"So now you know."

"I've known since the hospital," he replies. "I mean, I didn't know, but I figured being intimate might be an issue for you. Especially that part."

I hug my legs and rest my head on my knees. In silence, I watch him lean forward, resting elbows on his knees, blinking at me with his green eyes under those bushy, somewhat asymmetrical eyebrows. His hair is growing long enough for the ends to curl, and I feel like he's aged since I met him. Physically, too, of course, as do we all, but mostly just… I don't know. His gaze feels different.

"The old you would've apologized," he says.

"What happened to me wasn't my fault. So I'm not going to."

"I'm glad. But you don't know me at all, do you?" He gets the funniest kind of mature expression on his face, pressing lips together, sighing, probably annoyed. "Remember, at the hospital, when you yelled that you loved me and insisted that I shouldn't say it back before we knew what was going on with your back? Remember how I said it wasn't going to change anything? I meant it at the time. I mean it now. And yes, it is possible that I wouldn't have been able to face the reality. Absolutely. But how little faith do you have to have in me to be fully aware that I was ready to be by your side had you stayed in a wheelchair for months or years, yet leave you at the snap of a finger once I knew you had limits where intimacy is concerned?"

"I can't—I just… I'm sorry."

"Don't fucking apologize! Please, just—don't." Fire in his eyes, he lowers his voice. "I'm not them, okay?! I'm not them. I'm sorry this shit happened to you, I'm so fucking sorry. I'm sorry I can't make this right for you. Jesus, I wish I could, but I can't. But those insecurities, they are inside your head. Not mine. Not in our relationship. So next time, don't predict or fear my reaction based on the assholes you've met who've hurt you. Expect my reaction based on what I've done and who I am. Have I, in any way, implied that a request like that would make me mad? I'm not mad because you brought this up, I'm mad because you were afraid to. I am not them. So don't treat me like I am."

"I didn't. I don't. But when you laugh at me fully aware how difficult it is for me to talk about these things, it comes back."

"I'm sorry I laughed, Jesus. I'm sorry. But you started the conversation like you were about to break up with me and I was just…" He sighs, and a shy smile escapes. "So ridiculously relieved."

"I didn't know," I reply, embarrassed. "But you did laugh, and it's petrifying to feel like nothing's changed."

"Everything's changed! You've changed! You're not that girl anymore, and you know it. You're not her. You're funny and sassy and feisty. You don't hide from your problems, and unlike my parents, you face them head on. You know what you want and you work hard to get it. You could build an army with the amount of respect students and teachers have for you."

"Oh, don't exaggerate."

"I'm not! Did those four hundred and fifteen friend requests not tell you anything?"

I smile because this argument is getting funny. "Excuse me, Mr. One Thousand and Three Hundred Facebook Friends."

Unamused, Edward brushes me off. "We're not talking about me right now."

"I am. And those requests? That's just media horseshit. They just think I know something I don't. I don't even know most of them."

"Whatever," he replies, uncharacteristic but determined. "But do you get what I'm saying? Do you get it?"

I can't keep the sarcasm out of my voice. "I've changed."

He scoots to the edge of the chair, and when I'm inches from him, he encases my face in his hands. "Yes, fucking yes. You're just scared that you haven't. You know you have. I know you have."

I observe him in his passionate rant. Unblinking, he watches my face, so incredibly determined to help me see myself clearly it's all I can do not to kiss him silly. I wrap my fingers around one of his tanned forearms, close my eyes and rest my forehead against his lips.

"Bella?" he whispers.

He's warm. I squeeze his forearm, it's muscled and hairy and I don't think I've ever noticed how beautiful his arms are. When I open my eyes and tilt my head back, giving him a cheeky grin when I kiss his knuckles, Edward smiles. "You do know."

I grin. "I lost it when my boyfriend said I could build an army with respect."

Edward stifles a smile, but doesn't move. "Will you please sit next to me now?"

"Can't go a second without touching me, huh?"

"Blasphemy," he says, straight-faced, and starts to pull me to sit on his lap, but I land next to him with an oomph.

"Shit, I'm sorry. Are you okay? Is your back okay? Bella?"

I start laughing so hard no noise comes out while Edward looms above me, so frantic-looking and worried and adorable that I tickle the back of his knee with my toes and he falls on top of me with an oomph of his own. He rests his body weight on his elbows, ready to jump off, but when he understands that I'm laughing my ass off without noise, he stays put. He calmly eyes me, amused and so loving I stop laughing. I raise my hand to push back the hair on his forehead, and he hums as I do it.

"So, you're okay with what I told you?"

"Unsurprised and very okay," he replies softly.

"Will you miss it? I mean, like, if we're long term and stuff… and you can totally reciprocate the lack of any oral, uh, you know. Not that you'd want to, but, I mean, it's totally fine. And if—"

"Bella?"

"Yes?"

"Haven't I told you before? I want to."

He grins when he sees me blush, and can feel his smile widen when I get embarrassed enough not to look him in the eye.

"But will you miss it?"

"All those three times I've been given a blow-job?" he says, raising his eyebrows and throwing sarcasm in for good measure. "Immensely."

"Was it good?"

"Is this a trick question? Do you want me to lie?"

I trail a line along his jaw as we're now on our sides facing each other, and offer a sad smile.

"Hey, I'm sorry."

"Don't be. It's just that, if you like it that much, I wish I could… share that with you? That sounds crass, doesn't it. But maybe I can get over it? Over time, I could—"

"Bella?"

"Yes?"

"Don't let me sweet-talk you into doing something you're not comfortable with. I told you I'm okay with this, and I am."

I rejoice in his little smile when he wraps a hand around my waist and starts stroking my skin under the edge of my T-shirt. He grins when I copy him.

"Will you be okay waiting a bit more? I swear I'm not doing this to torture you, I only—I just want to be comfortable when we take that step. So if you, I mean, if you one day wake up and you can't wait any longer, don't just—cheat on me, okay? Please? If you feel that way and I'm still not ready, just tell me you want to—to break up, okay? Please."

Edward scoffs, and I can't understand if he's amused or annoyed. Probably both.

"What is this?"

He flails his hand in front of my face, and I frown.

"Excuse me?"

"What is it?"

"Er… your left hand?"

He slides it back around my waist. My head is resting on the bicep of his right arm, and even though he doesn't move it, he pokes my nose with his index finger. He's smiling.

"And this?"

"Your right hand?"

"That is correct. A plus, you may sit."

"I'm… not sure where you're getting at."

He raises both eyebrows, equal amounts surprised and amused. "Really? Did Emmett's sister just tell me that?"

"What? What's Emmett got to do with this?"

Edward starts snickering, and I'm embarrassed not to have a clue what he's talking about. He grins at me, wriggles his eyebrows and lifts his head closer to mine.

Breathing on my cheek, he whispers, "I can take care of myself."

"You masturbate?"

I don't mean to sound so surprised, but I do, and the next thing I know, Edward is laughing so hard he starts wheezing and shaking. I'm redder than a cherry, but I smack his shoulder to make him stop because I want to crawl into a hole and die.

"I'm sorry," he says, sobering but still grinning when he observes me. "You should've seen your face. Are you really that surprised? I'm a teenager with a beautiful girlfriend. Of course I jerk off to her."

"You masturbate to me?"

The tips of his ears redden, but his smile is permanent. "Bella," he says, softly, and I can tell he's struggling to be patient. "What did you think? I've admitted to it before."

"But I thought—I thought it was just that once."

He huffs a laugh, wiping hair from my forehead. "Did you really think I'm some saintly boyfriend with saintly thoughts and saintly patience? I love you silly and I love you mad. Of course I fantasize about you."

"I—I… but I'm not even—I've never seen you—"

"What? Do it? Would you like to witness it? 'cause that can be arranged."

I smack his shoulder, but he bursts into laughter again, and I facepalm. I can't believe how naïve I must seem to him.

"But we—we practically slept next to each other for—months."

"And that's why, love, God invented showers. Cold, cold showers."

"Emmett was right."

"What?"

"Men are disgusting."

I wait until Edward is capable of breathing because he's laughing so hard. "I feel bad," he says, not sounding regretful at all. "I've scarred you for life. So you don't masturbate to me?"

I blush and smack his shoulder, to which he continues to laugh. "What, you don't think it's seemly for a girl to talk about such things?"

"I will feel comfortable talking about that in exactly… say, three months."

"Okay." He opens the calendar on his phone. "Friday, the 12th of November, at exactly 6:34 PM, you'll tell me all about it. Or if you don't want to tell me, I'm comfortable watching, too."

Turning bright red, I grab the strap of my bag and take off running. Edward is still laughing when he catches me, drops his stuff on top of the car and places both hands on either side of me.

"Thank you for telling me," he says, smiling and observing my blush when he leans to kiss me. "Seriously, thank you. I love you."

"I love me, too," I reply, and Edward drops his head to my shoulder when he nuzzles my neck.

"I'm glad. Self-love is important," he says.

"Edward!"

Laughing, he unlocks the car. "C'mon, let's get going. It's gonna take three hours and we need to find a Walmart."

I wouldn't go so far as to say that the relationship between Edward and his parents is perfect, or even back to normal (however you measure normalcy), but it is clear that they're trying. Carlisle in particular treads carefully around Edward who keeps spending time with Al as they both help us build our home. I spend time at Edward's, too; I play the piano to soothe Joseph one night, and when it turns out he rather likes it, I do it often. Edward and I sometimes watch over the little guy when Esme needs a few hours to herself, and it's a bit nerve-wracking. But he's tiny and cute even when he vomits all over Edward.

Jacob is a certified personal trainer now, I hear, and he's agreed to be mine (personal trainer, that is) if Dr. Wright says intense exercising won't hurt my back long-term. If that's the case, I'm going to join Mrs. Haldane's track and field team as well. But let's take one thing at a time.

: :

Wednesday, the 15th of September
9:05 PM. It's bittersweet, isn't it? I bet you noticed I'm running out of pages, Emmett.

School, as always, arrives too soon. Sporting a light blonde pixie cut, I now dress like a careless hippie with no sense of style, and I might've given two fucks a year ago but they both flew away. I haven't changed much except for my hips, muscle tone and hair; I also sometimes wear a bright red lipstick just for the shits and giggles. I have never felt more like myself on a first day of school, a day as peculiar as my style. I'm in a yellow pleated dress, striped pantyhose, and a sparkly headband. My belt buckle is shaped like Freddie Mercury's head.

It is strange, being back at school. I feel like the summer holiday passed at the blink of an eye.

It's buzzing. Students talk about our three new teachers, about who did what where and why and if pants and alcohol were involved, who got fat or skinny or grew boobs (nothing to do with mine, I assure you). Students I don't know continue to greet me in the hallways and stop for small-talk, and while I return the favor, it continues to be odd. It's been months since I was even remotely relevant. Edward seems politely disinterested in high school gossip but thoroughly amused every time an unknown student talks to me. Unless it's a guy, in which case he gets even more touchy-feely. It's kind of hot.

Lunch brings me to Alice, who is immaculate and stylish; nothing new. Upon seeing me, she gives me a once-over, rolls her eyes and scoffs when she turns to her friends. I can't hear what they're whispering, but when Jane peeks at me, I smile, wide and unafraid. Taken aback, she lowers her voice.

"I think it's kinda cute," she mutters, shrugging.

"Whatever," Alice replies.

They all turn to look at me. Despite feeling like a mannequin, like I'm back in middle school, like I'm being belittled without my consent on matters that don't matter, I keep them on my peripheral vision as I talk to the lady behind the counter.

"I saw her on that poster," Jane continues, and all five of them hunch together and continue whispering like I'm not here. Finally, they stop and stare. I smile wider. It's like a bad cartoon with a predictable script, but it's petty and it's Alice. It's high school. But they can't hurt me. I've changed too much. I know now that it is one thing to belittle someone, it's is entirely different to let yourself belittled. I'm not responsible for their words, but I am responsible for the way they make me feel.

"What are you looking at?" Alice asks, with a level of self-righteousness only achieved by a professional.

I shrug and take my food.

"What?" she asks again, louder. "You think just because you're on a pretty poster with some famous people you're better than us? Pretending to be all goody-goody?"

Her chin is up, and it's written in the way her eyes narrow, the way her hand starts shaping her hairdo, the way she licks her lip-gloss covered lips. It's written in her eyes, and I can't believe I never realized how her attitude towards me could be explained by something so painfully simple.

"Did you just compliment me? Never thought I'd see the day. Thank you."

I find Edward sitting with Adam, Tanya, and a bunch of basketball players. The all greet me by my name and I feel bad because I know none of theirs.

Edward leans to kiss me. "Who's that megawatt smile for and should I kill him?"

"I just figured out what's wrong with Alice."

"Pardon?"

"She's jealous."

"You didn't know?"

"You did?"

"Are you kidding me?" Adam asks, stealing my fry. "That girl's been out to get you since she became all buddy-buddy with Newton."

"And you're tall," Tanya says. "She hates that."

"She hates me because I'm tall? That's good 'cause I totally grew tall to spite her," I reply. "So, Adam, since when do you sit here?"

"Since he decided to become the student body president this year, too," Tanya says.

"And you're gonna help me, drama girl." Adam takes another fry, but when I slide my plate out of his reach, he starts stealing some from Tanya.

"Why is that important?"

"Are you kidding me?" he asks. "It's all about the voice."

"Er, okay."

"C'mon, you're on a goddamn poster with some seriously influential people talking about changing the school system. If I get your vote, I win. Simple."

"Poster?" Edward leans closer. "What poster?"

"It's not just the school system, it's everything," I reply, ignoring Edward. "Bullying and equality and body image."

"What poster?" Edward repeats.

"It's the way we're taught and told to be tolerant but how most authority figures in our lives show none of that attitude. Or if they do, they do it to maintain an image. We're told to be kind but we see negligence everywhere and learn to think it's normal. We're told to stand up for others but nobody does because everyone's so fucking scared of becoming an outcast. We're told to be so many things and we have so few who set that example. And the problem is not that people don't know that bullying is bad, it's that people start to find excuses. They're scared shitless of standing up for someone, and they become bullies to avoid becoming the bullied. Attacking others to avoid being attacked. It's shitty and it needs changing."

Adam stares. "You're not running as well, are you?"

"Christ, no."

"Great! So can I count on you? 'cause you have no idea how many people have asked me if I have your vote."

"It's the first day of school," I reply. "People are hardly lining up to form the student body."

"You'd be surprised."

"So what do you want to do with your position?"

He smiles. "I knew I could count on you! There's a meeting on September 30th. You're welcome to join and find out."

"But that's in a month!"

"I know," he replies, pushing back his chair and smiling. "Not much time!"

"That wasn't strange at all or anything," I say after he's left. "So, guys, should I call you after the color of your hair? 'cause I'm totally okay with that."

"Oh, sorry," Edward says, motioning to his left. "This is Imbar—" an Indian-looking guy nods. "Neil, Ross, Leah, and Perry. Everyone, this is Bella."

"You don't say," Neil, the blonde one replies as Angela joins us. "So is it true you shot John Newton?"

"Totally true. Gossip's the best source of information."

"So you've actually killed a person? That's hot. If Edward screws up big time, you can totally come to me. I know of several ways to mend a broken heart."

Leah throws fries at him as Edward smacks the back of his head, looking embarrassed when he throws an arm around the back of my chair and leans closer. "They can be assholes."

"That's okay," I reply. "I've got one for a brother."

I said nothing funny but they laugh, and soon, they're sharing stories about last year, Emmett's almighty drunken dance at the prom after-party, Jessica's skinny dipping and Alice's public one-night stand with a college guy. I feel slightly bad for her to have her mistakes be the subject of discussion like this, but not enough not to listen. The girl hates me, I might as well learn to return the favor.

It's strange, spending lunch with people I've only seen in the hallways, but most of my friends graduated, so perhaps it's time to move on.

"So, what poster were they talking about?" Edward asks when we walk to AP U.S. History together.

"Do you have time after school? I'll show you."

I take Edward downtown after school. He parks his car close to Al's office and looks at me strangely when I take him to the back of the building. I feel a bit shy, showing it to him, and he frowns until he sees the building across the street, half of which is covered by my face.

Mouth agape, he stares. "Why are you—how did you—you look beautiful."

"Thank you," I say, pulling him to go back to the car, but he doesn't move.

"When did you do this?"

"Summer. Mondays and Wednesdays."

"I thought you were seeing Jammy."

"Uh, no. I do hope he's sitting in his office being smug about what I'm doing. There's lots of people involved, some well-known and others not as much, and we're going to give lectures every Friday in all middle and high schools in Seattle starting from October. I get to talk, too, about bullying and its consequences. I've already cleared everything with Mr. Kramer. I know it's going to be a challenge, but I really, really want to do this, and I'm sorry I didn't—"

Edward interrupts me, pressing me against a pillar when he encases my face in his hands and kisses me so thoroughly I'm panting when he pulls back. Seeing my face, he laughs and takes my hand.

"I thought you'd be mad," I say, surprised. "But you have my permission to always kiss me like that when I'm nervous."

He shakes his head, snickering and giving one last glance at the poster before we walk away. "I've seen the poster before. You're on it with other people, too, right? I just never recognized you. You know what this means, right?"

"What?"

"You're untouchable now," he says, smiling. "Nobody gets to act shitty toward you without ending up in the media. And if Alice does anything, you get to call her out on it in front of every high school student in Seattle."

I stare at him. "I never thought of it that way."

Grinning, he wraps an arm around my shoulder and unlocks the car, but he doesn't get in. Nervous, he shuffles his feet. "Well, now that you've come out with your stuff, I think you should know I'm not going to take any extra-curriculars this year other than basketball. No football, WWF, school paper, guitar lessons… or drama."

I pull his face toward mine and kiss him silly. "That is fuckawesome and I'm proud of you."

"Yeah?" he asks, looking uncharacteristically unsure of himself. "It's just… you're not disappointed about drama?"

"Disappointed? I'm heartbroken. I love having you there. But you should just… take time to figure out what you want, okay? I'll be double amazing in drama to make up for the fact you're not there."

Edward relaxes against me. He encases my face, and, hiding his nose in my hair, crushes me in a tight hug. "Thank you," he says after ten seconds of squishing me.

"The feeling is mutual," I reply, and he snickers when he ruffles my hair and opens the door for me. Buckling my seatbelt, I ask, "What about the hospital?"

"I still volunteer at the Children's Hospital, just… don't tell dad."

Smiling, I intertwine my fingers with his and hold his hand on my lap. We talk about seeing Dr. Wright, Juilliard and my Equality Project, about his volunteering, the tight situations he's been in and we talk about Rosalie, and I think it's sort of amazing how much we've both changed in so little time. Would we have had the guts to face the problems we've faced if we'd never met? How much of who he is, now, has been influenced by me, and how much has he influenced the girl I am today? I bet it's a lot.

Emmett, if you read this next section, I will kill you dead, and then I will bring you back to life you kill you dead again. So skip this one, okay?

Never mind, I tore off the pages. Good luck figuring out what was on them.

Moving into our home has to be postponed two weeks because of an electricity problem, and even though dad is disappointed when he tells me, it's fine. More than fine, actually, because Esme and Carlisle are planning to spend the weekend before my birthday at a cottage near Forks; they're taking Joseph, too, which means that Edward gets the house for himself, which, of course, means that he invites me to stay. Dad, naturally, is reluctant to let me go, but when I invite Edward over for dinner and he asks dad, dad is surprisingly lenient. He tilts his head on the side, eyeing me like he knows what might happen, but in the end, he hugs me like I'm about to go and die five horrible deaths. He agrees.

Edward and I spend Saturday, the 11th, at the beach. It's uncharacteristically hot and humid, and we eat pizza for lunch as well as dinner before heading back home. I don't even realize I'd fallen asleep on top of his covers before I wake up to a tapping noise on my pillow and open my eyes to a dark room with the bedside lamp on. There's a huge box covered by silver tape with a stick sticking out of the corner that is poking my elbow. Grinning, I sit up, and the moment I do, Edward's head pops up on top of the box.

He's grinning when he breaks into a birthday song, and I start laughing; not because he's the silliest, most adorable boyfriend ever (which he is) or even the fact that he's inside a giant box. No, because my amazing boyfriend, ladies and gentlemen, got the date wrong.

A cake appears, he sets it on top of his bed, lights eighteen candles, and observes me. He kneeling inside the box, but he has a dopey smile and the most tender eyes.

"Make a wish," he says, licking his lips when he watches mine, and I just know I can't tell him. I can't tell him it's not my birthday yet. Who cares, anyway? I don't. I can have a birthday whenever he wants.

I blow the candles and scoot closer to him. "This is plagiarism," I tease.

"Pretty unoriginal, I know," he replies, smiling cheekily. "But I wanted the statement to be there."

"So you're mine, huh?"

"Yup," he answers but frowns when I start opening the top of his box. "What are you doing?"

"Unwrapping my gift," I reply, wipe sleep from my eyes, straddle his thighs and sit on his lap. I can feel his wet lips against my neck as he wraps arms around me. I close the top of the box.

"Where did you get a box this big?" I whisper.

"I taped four of them together," he replies, voice equally low. "Do you like it?"

"It's the best birthday present ever," I answer, starting to touch his face. "So do I get kissing rights for the next twenty four hours?"

"And however long you want after that," he says, kissing my fingers when I finally find his lips.

"I like this birthday business."

"Me, too," he replies, running fingers through my hair as he breathes on my mouth. He lets out a sharp breath when I shift on his lap, and when we turn into a mess of panting breaths and wet pants, it's decided that dry-humping and getting each other off with our hands is much easier done in bed.

Thunder wakes me up, and as I come to, I realize the rain is beating mercilessly against the windows. I manage the impossible feat of untangling myself from Edward's limbs, walk upstairs, and open the front door. Lightning makes the entire garden light even though it's four AM in the morning. I feel the wind and rain against my face; I haven't slept much because we made out for so long, but I love thunderstorms, and this one's about to fade, so naturally, I want to wake up Edward and pretend it's my birthday.

Half asleep, he's wearing only a pair of his grey pajamas when I take him upstairs. I run into the rain, barefoot, enjoying the warmth of it as I watch Edward rub his eyes, leaning against the front door, smiling slightly.

"You have to feel this!" I tilt my head back and twirl in the rain. Clouds light up. It's a warm, beautiful morning, with the sky swirling above me like a kaleidoscope made of clouds and lightning. I'm soaking, but the rain is warm and soft. It feels magical. I think I feel Edward's eyes on me, and I stop to see Edward now lean against the railing, observing me with eyes so intense I laugh. "You have to join me! My birthday has never arrived with a thunderstorm. It's amazing."

I continue to twirl with open arms until Edward snatches one of them and stops me. He's barefoot in the mud, looking at me with the same wonder-filled eyes, and I feel naked in front of him. He doesn't move as he stares.

"Come closer," I say.

Edward smiles, and his whole face brightens, like he's glad I am on the same page with him, that I want him and that I am ready to admit it and express it. He runs his fingers through my wet hair, holds them there, and blinks at me, still wearing that amazed, stupefied grin. His eyes are alight with humor and affection when he leans to kiss me. Soaking wet, with a storm thundering above us, Edward holds on to me, leaning to kiss me with passion I've never experienced before. He lifts me.

"Does this—"

"I'll tell you when it hurts."

"Please," he whispers and carries me to the porch, covering my skin with kisses. He presses me against the wall, one hand under my butt and another holding my back. My butt rings the doorbell, and I huff-snicker against his neck. He pulls back, that wild wonder and desire in his eyes. Peppering hot kisses on my skin, he breathes against my ear.

"Tell me when you want to stop."

"I will."

He leaves a trail of muddy footprints behind, lets me slide down next to his bed, strokes my waist and doesn't let go. I don't let him. Our eyes are locked for the longest time before I lift my arms. He pulls my soaked shirt over my head, steps closer, still, and slides his flat palms up and down my back. I curl my toes around his pajama pants and start pulling them down, so he steps away, grinning, and motions for me to carry on. So I do. He pulls mine off, too, leaving our clothes in a messy, soaked pile.

And then I have fifty three orgasms and no gag reflex.

Oh, sorry. Thought I was writing porn for a moment there.

And so we stand in front of each other, naked, me slightly nervous but curious enough to continue, and Edward looking at me in awe, I think. His smile widens when I avoid looking down at his body. He says it's okay, stands with his arms on his sides, and so I look. He's got a very clear tan-line.

"It's sort of funny-looking."

He clears his throat.

"There's like a curve to it," I say. "Can I touch it?"

He nods, but his face scrunches up when I wrap my fingers around his cock.

"Does it hurt?"

He lets out a broken laugh, wraps me up in his arms and lets me fall on the bed with him. I snicker but he interrupts it with a hungry kiss, stroking and rubbing my skin like he couldn't bear to be apart from me. I roll us over, straddle his waist, and pepper his neck and chest with kisses. I don't know how seducing your boyfriend should work, but when I hover over his lips, he bites mine, just a little, and then smiles, silly and elated. I brush over his cheek with my thumb, my eyes holding his, so when his fingers graze my breasts, I huff a sharp laugh. He grins.

"Is it better for your back…" he whispers, gripping my waist, "…for you to be on top?"

I shake my head, and he rolls us over, looking giddy and dazed when he starts kissing across my chest, sliding over my scar with his lips and touching my skin with his tongue. He looks up, eyes hooded and twinkling, and even as he crawls lower, his hands don't move. His thumb grazes over my belly-button, looking at me, and I realize he's waiting. I nod, and he places a funny, slurpy kind of kiss on my lower stomach. I'm too embarrassed by what he's doing next to make much noise except for little whimpers (but no words), and when I'm done twitching, Edward crawls up my body, brushing maddening little circles on my waist with his thumb. The second we make eye contact I blush to the roots of my hair. He gets this little twinkle in his eye as he moves to kiss me, but I, being me, shove a pillow in his face.

In my defense, I only want to slide it across his chin because he has just, you know, but he throws it across the room and starts laughing. His chest shakes but he's quiet, and my blush deepens.

"You can't just—after you've just—" I stutter, redder than ever, but he starts tickling me and I'm writhing and panting and laughing in his arms, and when I'm unable to breathe from laughing so hard, he stops, leaning on his elbows as he eyes me like I'm the most precious thing in the world.

"You're some kind of wonderful, you know," he says, face hovering above mine. I brush hair away from his forehead, and smile, embarrassed.

"So are you," I reply, and we smile like two idiots. He brushes his fingers against my lips before kissing me, and I feel him shiver when I slide a hand across his back. I kiss his neck, but when he wants to do the same, our noses crash together. Edward groans as he observes my chest, so naturally, I start laughing, even though something as silly as blushing seems to be turning him on. He pays very close attention to my non-existent boobs before he lets his head fall on my shoulder.

"Shit," he says, and it's so low and grunt-like I pull back. He nuzzles the skin on my neck and his hot breath gives me goose bumps. "I don't have a condom."

"I do."

He raises his eyebrows but grins. Pressing his lips against the skin under my ear, he whispers, "Christ, I love you."

"There's something wrong with my boyfriend proclaiming love for another man before having sex with me."

Laughing, he pulls back, but the amusement dies in his eyes when he stares in mine, licking his lips, eyes hooded but serious-looking. Leaning closer, he whispers, "Are you sure?"

"I am." I smile and press my wet lips against his before I reach for my overnight bag and pour the contents on the bed. "I didn't know which ones you liked, so…"

Edward stares at the pile, at me, and back at the pile. "You come prepared."

I motion for him to choose because I don't know how to, and after he picks one, he kisses me and places it in my palm. "I think you should do it."

He groans, voice low, when I put on his condom, and he twitches as I wrap fingers around his cock. I lie down next to him, stroking his waist as he observes me, and he rolls over, hovering above me, making sure I'm ready for him with his hand and smiling when I blush at his touch.

"Like a band-aid," I whisper, and he distracts me with a kiss when he pushes in. It's sharp, the pain, but then drops of water land on my face from his wet hair, and I hear thunder. Rain beats against the windows as I stare at Edward, lips pursed and eyes half-lidded, staring back at me in wonder. I feel wildly uncomfortable.

"So… is this your poop–face?"

He huffs a laugh as he holds me, and if there are rules against acting silly while losing your virginity, I'm breaking them. His concern for me tears at my heartstrings (or something similarly sappy), and when he kisses me, unmoving and leaning on his elbows, and whispers, "Are you okay?" he's shaking from holding himself back, and I nod. Slowly, so slowly, he starts to move. I kiss him.

"Oh, shit."

He stops, rests his forehead against mine, eyes pressed together like he's in pain, and whispers, "What's wrong?"

"I forgot to shave my legs."

His chest vibrates as he laughs; I can feel it in weird places. He's even more touchy feely while having sex and I am straight-forward in my likes and dislikes.

"Wrap your legs around me," he says, and I do. I keep kissing him, I keep making him laugh, and he keeps looking at me like something incredible is going on, and I feel like something incredible is going on, even though having sex for the first time doesn't feel all that pleasant. I know he wants me to get there with him because he helps me with his hand, but even as I start to feel a bit pleasant, it doesn't stop being wildly uncomfortable.

"You're not…" he whispers, panting, looking disheveled and sexy above me. I press a wet kiss on his shoulder.

"It's okay," I say, and then his head falls against my neck as he thrusts faster, twitches with his entire body and, in a sharp inhale, whispers, "I love you."

It's personal, and I feel so cared for because it's Edward and that's the guy he is, and when he squeezes me, sweaty and not gross at all, I smile in his arms. He pants in my ear.

"That—I mean… Is it always like this?"

"You were a virgin, too? Why, Edward…"

Nuzzling my neck and still panting, he wipes hair from my forehead. "Are you okay?"

"I think I peed myself."

Discarding the condom, he laughs and holds me in his arms for a few minutes before we take a quick shower together, but when we come back, towels wrapped around us, I start tearing off the stained covers.

"I'm sorry," I mutter, pressing my lips together when I've thrown his covers on the floor, but Edward? Snickering, he finds another blanket, takes off his towel, and holds the edge open for me. So I join him, naked, and let him wrap me in his arms as I do the same to him.

Edward is groggy-sounding when he nuzzles my neck. "How do you feel?"

"Like I had sex for the first time."

"Mmm," he replies, dozing off just before I do.

The window is open and the sun is out when I wake up. Edward is peppering little kisses on my shoulder, and I feel goose bumps when he trails patterns along my arm. He's smiling like he has a secret, his gaze cherishing and unable to make me feel at all self-conscious, even though only my bottom is under the covers.

"You look at me like I'm beautiful."

He locks eyes with me. "I do," he replies, smile widening and eyes glinting.

I start tickling him, but he's much stronger and pins me under him in seconds. Tickling me back, he's watching me writhe and laugh before he stops. I'm panting and smiling and he's staring. I hope he never stops looking at me like that.

"So what now?" I whisper, brushing hair from his forehead.

"You're gonna have a bath," he says, kissing me. "I'll clean up the mass we made of the carpet," a kiss, "make breakfast," another kiss, "and then we go help your dad with the house. Deal?"

"Do I get to help you with the carpet?"

"Do you want to?"

I nod, and he huffs a laugh. "By all means."

In fifteen minutes, we're pouring some type of foam on the carpet to erase Edward's muddy footprints, but half of our time is spent throwing foam at each other, pinning him under me or being pinned under him, laughing and kissing each other silly. Nothing's changed, really.

That's silly. Lots of things have changed, of course, including me and Edward and how I see people. And that's okay.

: :

"I bet you thought I forgot, eh? I'm offended. I never forget birthdays and especially friends who share them with me. I brought you something."

Other than a couple about fifty feet away from me, the cemetery is empty, so I dig a hole in the sand, and set Eric's camera and its strap in it. I fill the hole with damp sand and smooth the surface with uncharacteristic carefulness.

"I bet you missed it. In about an hour, the water will vaporize and nobody will ever know." I rub my hands together to get rid of the remaining sand, take a few steps back and crouch. Turning my face towards the sun to soak in the warmth, I close my eyes and hum. "I owe you an apology. I think, looking back, maybe I could've done some things differently. Maybe you felt I drifted away in high school, and maybe you're right. I never meant to, I never realized how deeply what happened affected us both. Being in denial was easier.

"I still don't approve of what you did. I hated myself for a long time for understanding you as well as I do. There have been times when I wish I didn't. But I do, and sometimes it scares me shitless because maybe there are people like us out there. Someone like you. Someone like me. Desperate to get help but unable to admit what happened and get over the shame. Desperate for revenge. Desperate to let go and forget.

"I don't think I will. I don't think I ever will, Eric. That's the thing. I can't forget. But maybe it's supposed to be that way. Do you remember how you asked me if I'd star in a movie you directed? It's… you were asking for my permission, weren't you? I—I'm not mad. I wish I'd known, but I'm not mad. You made me star in that documentary, and that might—will, I hope—give me certain amount of power when addressing those issues. I will forever owe you for that.

"You see, I'm going to start a foundation. To help. Because I feel—maybe it's guilt. I feel guilty I couldn't stop you from doing what you did, and I feel—I don't know. I just need to get to them—or us, in middle school. I feel obliged to. If I never do anything else noteworthy in my life, I'm fine with that. But I'm going to start the best foundation for kids who are bullied and abused. The best fucking foundation, Eric. And I'm going to name it after you. You can't say no, you see.

"I'm going to blatantly exploit any kind of interest people might have in me and you and what we went through, and I will make them see. As many as I can. I will get to the next you, and I will help him. I will get to the next me, and I will help her. Before it's too late. Nobody understands you better than I did, and if anyone can change anything, it has to be me. I have to believe that."

: :

A/N: This is it, folks.

Super special thanks to my invisible beta Peter the Luggage Carrier for being a useless piece of shit and never fixing anything. I owe you. Asshole.

I wrote this story for my teenage self. This is the story that I needed to read that nobody had written. So I wrote it. Maybe there's a younger version of me, somewhere, smiling at the idiocy of my twenty three year old's words, and learns to let go a bit. Maybe it touches you, too, my readers, despite the wordiness and the amount of time it's taken for me to finish this.

Yes, it has taken me three and a half years to complete this. I can't apologise for that. I could, but I won't. I would've never been able to write about this subject matter the way I have had I written all of it when I was nineteen. I wouldn't have been able to do the subject matter justice, and maybe I still haven't, but I've poured my heart and soul into this story and did the best with what I've been given.

I never aimed to appeal to a wider audience, and I don't feel I owe it to anyone to shorten it to have more readers. I wanted to stay true to the story I was telling and I've done that. That's all that matters to me.

I'm not a fan of sequels. If a sequel is being written because the author cannot let go of their characters, it is unnecessary and doesn't hold much appeal for me.

Having said that.

From the very beginning, I knew what I wanted the characters to go through to be who they needed to be by the end of my story. I've had a specific ending in mind for so long I owe it to myself to let my characters grow into who they need to be by the end. I never thought I'd say this, but I have such a solid outline for a continuation I might write a sequel. I owe it to myself to get my characters where I want them to be, and I don't want to rush through their progress.

I stop this story here because what I'd wished and hoped for the last two chapters to be would be too plot-filled for me to do them justice. It might take another 100 K words, so I'd rather end it with hope in the air and start a sequel, but don't worry, if I write it, I won't force you to read it.

(I'll force my brothers to force you to read it instead.)

I've loved every minute of writing this silly fic. Thank you, thank you, each and every one of you who you've shared your thoughts, your joy and sorrow and anger and insight. Thank you, JavaMasta, for listening to me when I was stressed and hurt and needed a shoulder to cry on, thank you, moosals, for being willing to discuss the cranberry out of this story, thank you, those who've never said a word and never will, and thank you:

Marion, thepinktabby, stratocastic1969, Disneymom64, SoothemySoul, Gillian Aubrey, jansails, MDtwiwriter, Bella Louise, redviolet, lovepotionsbrewer, mani12191, Lish008, Guest (all of you), ReadiculousMe, Carrie-Ann, kagen-mo, muffinmom, Sarah, BelleBiter, Coppertop, Idroz, CullensTwiMistress, fuz, justlovefanfiction2901, WiltshireGlo, yogagirl1, Mooah, cloudiekp, FinnMac, whenthepenwrites, Tammygrrrl, Jillybeans122, TheMrsW, JessaCloud, Mercyrus, muserl0ser, Peace, Obsessed reader, k8ff, Kaush,

and those who've reviewed the previous chapters, thank you, I simply don't have the time to go through every chapter's reviews to name you all.

It's been a blast. Thank you.

– Mav