A/N: When we heard about the Fandom Against Domestic Violence taking place, both stolenxsanity and I (naelany) wanted to contribute. What started out as just a one-shot by one author quickly became a collab that we hope you'll appreciate (we won't say enjoy, given the subject).
We want to thank SorceressCirce for beta'ing and vi0lentserenity for prereading.
Thank you, also, to everyone who's donated to FADV. Your help is worth so much more than you'll ever know.
We don't own Twilight. We merely let the characters do the talking.
Warning: This story includes domestic violence, which may be a trigger to some. Please take that into consideration before reading and have tissues ready.
I could feel my phone vibrating against my thigh as I made my way through the grocery store. There was so much that needed to be done, so much that I needed to do before tonight. Somehow, despite the late night I'd had with Edward, I'd managed to get out of bed and on the road early enough. I was a little behind schedule, but it was nothing that couldn't be remedied by focusing on the tasks at hand. Right now, that task was getting the ingredients for the dinner Alice had helped me plan.
It was mine and Edward's anniversary, sort of. We didn't merely celebrate the things most couples did – monthly and yearly milestones, as it were; no, this was a celebration of another sort. It had been exactly two years since I'd gotten out of my last relationship and away from the abuse that had made up my life for the five years before that. It was the most important date to both of us, the day that marked the turning point in our own relationship, even if we hadn't started dating until almost a year later.
Slipping my free hand into the pocket of my jeans, I plucked out the tiny electronic device. I felt the smile flicker across my face at the sight of Edward's name accompanied by the tiny mail icon that signified a text message. It was all a part of our daily routine, one that had started long before we'd become romantically involved. It was also one of my favorite parts of the day. Even on days that were bad for whatever reason, it was these little notes of love and affection that brought a smile to my face and made me forget about everything else.
Flipping the screen open with my thumb, I maneuvered my way through the on-screen instructions that I had long since memorized. The action was rote, and I got to the message screen without once having to take my eyes off the long shelves in front of me. My eyes scanned the various cans, searching and only glancing down once to read what Edward had sent.
I miss you already. – E
Short, sweet and to the point. I felt a grin stretch across my face as I depressed the buttons and thumbed in a quick response.
I miss you, too. – J
With one last glance at the screen to make sure the message had been sent, I closed the phone and put it away before turning. Distracted as I'd been, I hadn't realized that anyone was standing beside me, let alone so close, until I'd slammed into them.
"Shit," I muttered as whatever it was they'd been holding fell to the ground. An apology was at the tip of my tongue as I retrieved the stray box and straightened up once more. The sight of the person that stood before me, though, rendered me completely speechless. My throat closed up, making the simple act of taking a breath difficult, and my entire body went rigid – frozen in place.
Here, that name was synonymous with three things: money, power, and women. No one, save for a handful of people, knew that his preference was for men. Royce flaunted his wealth and socioeconomic status openly, and he paraded around the city with a new woman on his arm almost daily. He was a master manipulator whose tactics I'd experienced, and lived, for far longer than I was comfortable admitting.
A shiver ran through my body as he smiled at me, though the look was anything but friendly. I could feel the way my heart sped up, pounding against my chest as I continued to stare, dumbfounded. It wasn't as if I'd thought I'd never see him again, but he'd disappeared after everything that had happened, and I'd held out hope that, maybe, he was gone. My breathing was shallow, even as I stepped back in an attempt to put some distance between him and me.
All I could see, though, was that feral look on his face. That look had been the prelude to more painful nights – days, weeks, months – than I cared to remember, that I avoided remembering as much as I possibly could.
Now that past was here, staring me in the face. Every nightmare that I'd suffered through during the time that we were together, and the ones that had haunted me even after I'd gotten away, flashed through my mind. The images were like a film reel, one after another, as I backed away slowly. I could feel my body shaking, my fist curling and uncurling at my side, as I swallowed. My eyes were fixed on him, widened in horror and panic. Even though I knew there were other people around, and that he wouldn't do anything to me in a public setting – if only because he had a reputation to protect – logic had all but flown out the window. All I could see was the man that had done nothing but hurt me in every way, shape, and form that he possibly could.
I could see his lips moving with every step that I took, could feel his gaze pinning me, but all I could hear was the rushing of blood and the rapid thud, thud, thud of my pulse. Nothing and no one else existed but him, and me, and we were no longer in a grocery store in broad daylight in the middle of Rochester, New York. Flinching as someone walked by me, the sleeve of their coat brushing against my arm, I finally tore my gaze away from him and took in my surroundings. A stuttered breath escaped my mouth and, without a second thought or a glance back in his direction, I turned and ran.
The cart that I'd been pushing around from aisle to aisle was left abandoned in its spot, half-full. My only thought was to get out, get away from him, and get back to where I was safe. The people that I passed by were no more than a blur of muted colors and varying facial expressions, some angry and others concerned, but I could only focus on putting as much distance between Royce and me as possible.
The car was unlocked before I reached it. Pulling the door open as quickly as possible, I slid inside and slammed it shut behind me. My fingers fumbled with the array of buttons on the console, pressing everything they came into contact with until I heard the reassuring click of the locks being activated. My hand shook as I tried, and failed, to get the key into the ignition. A string of curses fell from my mouth, each one more crude than the last, before I finally gave up. As I glanced in the mirror, I was shocked to see the trail of tears that fell from my eyes, streaking down my face. My attempts at staunching the flow were fruitless, and with every blink, flashes of an icy blue glare and slicked back hair and the cruel sneer that I had become so accustomed to appeared before my eyes.
I slumped forward, crossing my arms over the steering wheel as I rested my forehead against it and closed my eyes. My breaths came in shallow gasps that I couldn't seem to get under control as Royce's smile kept mocking me in my mind's eye.
It was too much. There were too many memories, and I shuddered as I recalled one of the last times I'd seen it. Royce had shown up at my condo – or rather, his condo. He allowed me to live there, but it was never mine, even though he seldom slept there and rarely stayed for more than one night. Things had been good again, if one could call it 'good', since my bruises had healed from the last time, and he'd seemed in a particularly good mood that night.
"Jasper," he hummed as he pulled me to him and kissed me. His kisses were always hard, always claiming. In the beginning, his fire had excited me but these days, I never knew what it would bring, and I was always wary. I never failed to return them, though – I knew better than to not respond.
"How would you like to go out to dinner tonight?"
The question seemed innocuous enough on the surface, but it wasn't one he often asked, and it usually had a catch. When I raised an eyebrow in question, he continued, "I thought it might be fun if we spent some time with Lonnie and John."
Translation: The focus of the media is elsewhere, so I can have some fun.
'Fun' was a term that was debatable, depending on how things might go at any given time, but the prospect of actually going out was too enticing, especially when he said he had tickets to see my favorite indie band.
"As a belated birthday present," he added, nipping and sucking at my skin, always just hard enough to mark, but God, did it feel good.
He continued to whisper and persuade, like he always did – and eventually I gave in, like I always did. I'd never really been able to say 'no' to him, and the few times I'd tried, I'd learned not to do it again.
Half an hour later, I was showered, shaved, and impeccably dressed in Royce's favorite charcoal slacks and navy button up, just the way he liked. He helped me into my matching blazer, a gesture I'd always appreciated and that made me feel cared for. He let his fingers brush along my neck as he murmured his approval, and I could feel my heart rate quicken. Perhaps the night would be fun, after all.
We met up with Lonnie and John at Royce's favorite out of the way restaurant. It was upscale enough for him to feel important, but not frequented by his peers, so he felt safer there. The few times he'd taken me out to eat had been here, and the food was something to look forward to.
The company we'd be keeping, not so much.
His friends were too much like Royce and, if possible, they were even worse in some ways. I never could feel completely comfortable around them, but they were Royce's friends, and he expected me to play my part.
Dinner out – or going anywhere with Royce, really – always came with rules. Very strict rules. Certain topics were off-limits at all times. I wasn't allowed to ask questions, and I had to be mindful of what I said at any given time. There was to be no public shows of affections, in case anyone saw us. And I wasn't allowed to be too close to him. Those were but a few of the rules, and it was difficult to remember them all the time, especially on the rare occasions where he was acting like the man I'd fallen I love with in the beginning.
To Royce, his reputation and the power it afforded him were everything and woe betide anyone who threatened it. The price of loving Royce was a high one. When we'd first gotten together, I'd thought it simply meant hiding away and keeping our relationship out of the public eye. If I'd only known then just how high of a price I'd end up paying…
Lonnie, John, and Royce all seemed to enjoy themselves as we had dinner, drink flowing freely as they talked. Royce was being particularly attentive and friendly to me, and some of the comments he made to his friends about me had me wondering whether he might possibly be ready to come out of the closet soon. He joked, laughed, and even stole a piece of shrimp off my plate – something he never did, at least not while we were out.
I was actually beginning to relax and enjoy myself, especially when Lonnie and John appeared to be behaving themselves better than I'd known them to do during previous encounters. By the time desserts arrived at our table, I'd joined in the conversation, which had turned to one of my favorite subjects: astronomy.
John turned out to be an enthusiast himself and claimed to have a telescope set up on the roof of his house. Royce had given me one for Christmas the year before, and we were talking about the sights we'd seen when several things happened almost at once.
In my enthusiasm in telling John about the telescope Royce had given me, I forgot myself and put my hand over Royce's, keeping it there for just a beat too long. It was a gesture that he welcomed at home, but we were in public, and by the time I'd realized my mistake, it was already too late.
I pulled my hand back, eyes widened as panic started to bubble in my chest That panic grew when I realized that Royce's eyes weren't on me, but focused slightly to the right of me – at the entrance to the dining room. Slowly, I turned my head just far enough to be able to follow his gaze, and I froze at the sight of Heidi and Felix van Buren.
Felix and Royce ran in the same circles, and his wife Heidi was a known lover of gossip, especially if it helped further Felix in his social standing. The speculative look Heidi gave our table had me swallowing hard. My eyes flickered to Royce, and my insides turned to ice from fear.
Fear that only increased at the smile Royce put on as he nodded to the van Burens – a smile that didn't reach his eyes. It hardly ever did. The look he gave me held promises, however, and none I looked forward to. If there was one thing I'd learned over the years, it was that Royce always kept those promises, even if he never held to others he'd made me.
Suppressing a shudder, I endeavored to do my best to salvage what I could in the hopes of appeasing him some. I schooled my expression to the best of my ability, acutely aware of the knowing – and eager – looks both John and Lonnie were giving me before they, too, turned their attention to Felix and Heidi.
They chatted idly for a few minutes, and though I tried to focus on what was talked about, I couldn't. My mind was in overdrive, taking in every look, gesture, and word that came from Royce, analyzing them, trying in vain to find a way out of the situation I knew I was in.
There would be no concert tonight, and I did not enjoy the prospect of going home. Before I was even aware of it, the van Burens were bidding us goodnight, and with one last, shrewd look from Heidi, they walked off to their table.
In the minutes it took for Royce to pay the bill and for us to get our jackets and get to his car, I was in a haze. My mind had gone completely blank with fear. I had no idea what had happened to John or Lonnie, nor did I care.
Royce didn't utter a word all the way home. He didn't need to. I sat, huddled as far away from him as I could manage, with my back mostly pressed against the car door, my arms tight around my chest as I tried to keep my breathing under control. I kept glancing at him, hoping I'd see some sign that things weren't as bad as I feared, but he kept his eyes on the road, and his features were cold.
When he parked in the garage, I raised my eyes to look at him and whispered, "Royce? I'm sorry... I-I didn't mean... I forgot. I-"
The way he turned in his seat and smiled at me sent shivers down my spine and set my heart racing. His eyes had a barely restrained, feral look to them as he said in a low, almost tender voice, "Baby, I know..." He raised his hand to my face like one would to a caged animal – slowly, deliberately, cautiously. "I know it was an accident, my Jasper."
His eyes seemed to soften the tiniest bit, and I held onto that brief moment of hope that maybe he wasn't going to do anything; maybe we would just go inside and watch TV or something equally quiet.
My hope was dashed when his hand slipped from my cheek and his fingers suddenly tangled in my hair. He tugged so sharply that he forced my head to snap back, and I let out a startled cry. He loomed closer, keeping me in place as he growled lowly into my ear, "Get inside."
He didn't let go of me even as he unbuckled and began to get out of the car on the driver's side, leaving me fumbling and scrambling to undo my seatbelt and crawl awkwardly over the console to follow him. He pulled me after him, keeping me at such an angle that I was forced to walk practically bent in half as he yanked my hair whenever I didn't walk fast enough for his liking.
I tried to pry his fingers loose, begging him to please let me go, but my words fell on deaf ears. He did let go, but only to fling me against the wall opposite the garage door. I felt some of the hairs get pulled out from the force he'd exerted, though I didn't get much time to think about the pain of it.
It was all I could do to try to keep the damage to a minimum as he assailed me with hands, feet, ugly words, and threats.
Once again, I felt the vibrations of my phone against my leg. With a shuddering breath, I pulled myself from the tumultuous thoughts that had assaulted me. My hand slipped into my pocket to grab it. Fumbling a little, my hands still shaking and sweaty, I flipped it open and watched the icon on the screen as it turned, lighting up a little bit more as it connected in order to retrieve the picture message that had been sent.
In the time that it took for everything to load, my eyes darted about, taking in my immediate surroundings. I felt exposed – literally and figuratively – and I couldn't shake the feeling that he was still out there watching, waiting for me. It was an eerie feeling. The thought alone made the hair at the back of my neck stand on end.
Tearing my gaze away from the automatic sliding doors and the other patrons going in and out, I looked down at the screen once more. The picture was grainy, as they usually were when taken with a three megapixel camera, but the image was clear enough: an antique brass telescope that looked to be in good condition.
Edward's affinity for antiqueing had played a large part in many of the odds and ends that appeared at the apartment we shared. Sometimes I couldn't help but roll my eyes at whatever discovery he'd made. Other times, though, I was very appreciative of his wares. I studied the telescope for a moment longer before scrolling down to read the message that accompanied it.
On my break. Saw this, and it made me think of you. – E
Returning to the attached image, I traced the edge of the screen with my thumbnail, and a small smile stole over my face. As quickly as it had come, though, it was gone. I knew Edward well enough to know that finding something like this, something that reminded him of me – and for good reason – meant that he'd also be buying it at the first chance he got. And as much as I loved that he did things like that, the significance of the day and the find combined with who I'd run into only moments prior would only taint the sentiment.
Closing the phone, my fingers ghosted over the outer keypad as I debated calling Edward. I wanted – no, needed – to talk to him, but I didn't like calling him in the middle of the day. It always made me feel too clingy, even though I knew he wouldn't mind. He'd often told me that his day consisted of sitting around and playing video games. I knew it wasn't quite as simple as that, but I also knew it felt like that to him because he loved his job. Who wouldn't, though, working for one of the leading video game production companies in the country?
My thoughts were at war with each other, going back and forth between the options even as I pressed the 2-key, watching as it dialed and then connected the call. Even though it wasn't to my ear, I could hear the faint sounds of it ringing – once, twice, three times – before it clicked over to voicemail. Edward's pre-recorded voice floated to my ears, instructing me to leave my name, number and a brief message, followed by the tell-tale beep signaling that I could speak.
My breath caught in my throat as I choked on a sob and disconnected the call. The phone fell from my hand, landing at my feet, and I leaned forward, my forehead resting on the steering wheel while my hands lay limp atop my thighs. My thoughts were cyclical, a menagerie of situations that I'd pushed to the back of my head in the intervening years since my split with Royce.
There was something too familiar about the unanswered calls, something that brought to mind the hiding and pretending I'd known for so long. At the time, I'd accepted the secrecy for what it was. I'd had no other choice. I loved him, or at least I thought I did, and he took care of me – most of the time. I'd understood that his position and reputation were important, so the excuses were always quick, exonerating him of any wrongdoing whenever Edward, or someone else, would ask.
The parade of women that he'd, presumably, taken to bed while we'd been together without so much as a thought toward my feelings about it were easily explained away. He wasn't out. No one could know of his affinity for men, especially not his father. It didn't matter that I didn't like it, or that it hurt me. Still, I was accepting of it to a fault, a fact that made me physically ill now.
For some reason, though, my mind was intent on comparing the two: Edward and Royce. Logically, I knew they were as different from each other as night was from day. Rationality had flown out the proverbial window, however, when the phone call had gone unanswered and sent straight to voicemail after only three rings. All I could think of were the hundreds, maybe even thousands, of similar phone calls that had been placed to Royce all those years ago.
They're all the same.
The thought slammed into me like a physical weight, infiltrating my mind. I clenched my eyes against it, denials spinning through me at the speed of light, unwilling to accept it. I knew it wasn't true. I knew that Edward was nothing like Royce and never would be.
I curled my previously limp hands into tight fists, blunt fingernails digging into my palms as I tried, with sheer willpower alone, to focus on what was important and what I knew to be true. What I had with Edward went far beyond that of a romantic relationship. He'd been my friend since we were in middle school, had been there for me when I finally came out in college, and had supported me through everything with Royce. Even when I'd tried to push him away, he was still there, a port in the storm that was my life for so goddamn long. I knew him better than I knew myself.
I shook my head, trying to dispel my thoughts as I fought to keep myself together. I was still trembling, still unable to breathe normally, even after having sat in my car for the past however long. I wasn't even sure how much time had gone by since my encounter with him. My hands clenched and unclenched as I put them around the steering wheel, the only real motion I was capable of at the moment.
No, Ed's not like that. He's nothing like Royce. He's been there for you for most of your life, Whitlock.
Resting my head back against the headrest, I closed my eyes and took a deep breath as I tried to focus. I needed to get it together enough to at least drive home. All the ways that Edward had been there for me over the years came back to me, one after another, unbidden. The one that stood out the most had me wrapping my arm around my waist reflexively.
That night after Royce and I had gone to dinner, he'd ended up beating me to a bloody pulp – in a far more literal sense than I cared to remember – forcing me to go to the hospital. To this day, I couldn't recall exactly what had happened or how I'd even made it to the hospital. I had no memories of an ambulance ride, though I knew I had to have been taken by one.
Royce had given me such a beating that I had drifted in and out of consciousness for a while before passing out altogether. I woke up sometime during the night to find Edward sitting by my bed, dozing.
I groaned quietly, wincing at the stabbing pain in my chest that let me know I had bruised ribs this time, if not worse. I couldn't feel very much of the rest of my body, and I prayed that this was due to whatever painkillers they had me on rather than any lasting damage.
Edward was awake at once and leaned forward, resting his elbows on the side of the bed as he gently tucked a stray lock of hair behind my ear. His eyes held concern, relief, and anger all at once, and I winced again. I turned my head away in embarrassment, my stomach churning at the knowledge that he was seeing me in a hospital bed again, because of Royce.
His voice was calm, tender, but with a slight undercurrent of tension as he said, "Hey, glad to see you're finally awake."
He sighed, taking my hand gingerly in his. When I looked at it, I understood why: my hand was in a cast . Broken hand, bruised – if not broken – ribs... God, what else, this time?
"The police report says your house was broken into and you were attacked, trying to fight off the burglars. No suspects."
It was both a statement and a question – one we both knew the answer to. Royce held several officers in his pocket and greased enough wheels to be able to get away with anything, as long as it wasn't too public or outrageous. Apparently, abusing one's partner didn't fall under that heading. This wasn't the first time he'd fabricated a story to cover for his actions, and there was nothing I could say or do to prove otherwise – even if I had dared to try.
"How bad?" My voice was raspy, my throat dry. I tried to clear it but couldn't even exert the energy to do so without causing myself more pain.
Edward disappeared for a moment before returning to my side with a small cup of ice chips. He carefully placed some to my lips, letting them melt against them. After he was satisfied that I'd had enough, he sat back down, placing the cup on the nightstand. Putting his elbows on the edge of the bed again, he clasped his hands together and rested his chin on them.
"A broken hand, several badly bruised ribs, a bruised kidney, a broken leg, a concussion, and lacerations and bruises littered over your body."
His voice was clinical, having gone through this process one too many times over the years. Closing his eyes briefly, he sighed and said, "You were lucky. The doc said that it could've been a lot worse, with the beating you took."
He opened his eyes slowly, sadness and concern apparent in them as he leveled his gaze with mine. I swallowed hard, turning my head away again as I felt the tears well up.
"Jasper..." He sounded exasperated, exhausted. "How long are you going to let him get away with this? You can't stay with him, please... I-"
I closed my eyes, swallowing hard. When I spoke, my voice was a lot harsher than I had intended it to be. "Why are you here, Edward?"
I could feel the bed shift as he sat up straighter and took my hand in his again. "I'm still listed as your emergency contact, Jazz. The hospital called me."
A small sob escaped me, and I winced at the stabbing pain. Edward sighed and ran his fingers gently through my hair. I flinched, causing him to pause and then resume his movement with even more tenderness than before. "Oh, Jazz…"
We sat in silence for a few minutes. After all this time, I couldn't comprehend why he was still here, but I was grateful that he was. Edward began to talk quietly about Alice stopping by before work, to make sure I was alright. How worried they had been for me, and that they'd talked about things, trying to figure out ways to help.
He smiled softly at me, his thumb brushing gently over my fingers. "We want you to know you're always welcome at our place, Jasper. You are not stuck with Royce. You do have a place to go. You have us. Please...consider it?"
I stared at him in disbelief. How could he possibly be serious? Move in with him and his sister? Edward rolled his eyes and gave a soft chuckle as he shrugged his shoulders. "I could tell you exactly what she said, but you know Alice as well as I do. I think you have a fair idea." He winked, though his eyes were strained, concern clear in them.
Silence reigned again for several minutes before he said, "Seriously, though. Jasper, please come stay with us? I promise you we'll help in any way we can. You won't be alone. You aren't alone. You deserve so much better than-" He paused abruptly, his eyes flashing with heat briefly. He shook his head and sighed. "I'm worried that the next call I get won't be from the hospital, but from a morgue, Jazz. I'm begging you; don't let it come to that."
This time, it was the sound of a blaring car horn that jarred me from my memories. My head snapped up quickly, checking my side mirrors. The parking lot appeared to be full, and I sighed, scrubbing my face roughly with my hand. I needed to get out of here anyway. I was sure that, if Royce had come out, I'd already missed him. In the event that I hadn't, though, I certainly didn't want to stick around to see him again – even if only from afar.
Retrieving my cell phone from beside my feet, I noted the missed calls that I'd been too out of it to realize were coming through, and I scrolled through the menus to view the call log. A soft sigh left my mouth at the sight of Edward's name, three times in a row and all less than a minute apart. Clearing the screen, I dropped the phone onto the passenger seat. My hand was still shaking, but not as badly as it had been, and I finally managed to get the key into the ignition.
We didn't live too far from the grocery store, a fact that I was thankful for as I started the car, put it into gear, and reversed from the stall. There was no way that I could have driven far in the state I was in, just barely managing to keep myself together. The memories were still on the periphery of my mind, lying in wait as I maneuvered my way through the midday traffic. My stomach was in knots all throughout the drive as I fought to stay in the present. Royce's face, with that predatory smile that had been the cause of many nightmares was there every time I blinked, every time I tried to center myself and think of the one thing – the one person – that I knew could get me through this.
By the time I reached the apartment complex, exited the vehicle, and made my way inside, I was moving on auto-pilot. It took every ounce of energy I possessed – which wasn't much after the earlier encounter – to keep myself from falling apart completely. The ride up the elevator felt longer than usual as I stared at my warped reflection in the doors, feeling more and more like what I was seeing than I had in a long time.
A broken sob escaped my throat as the last word flickered through my mind, and I reached out to brace myself on the wall. Thoughts and images played on a constant loop, constant reminders of the things that Royce had said to me – the things he'd drilled into my head until I could practically recite them from memory. My lips formed around the words, the sound falling from my mouth barely audible as I repeated the litany of insults that had been thrown at me time and time again.
I slid slowly to the floor, my legs unable to carry the weight of my emotions and memories anymore. Closing my eyes tightly, I pressed my cheek against the wooden panel of the elevator; my knees were drawn up to my chest, and my arms were wrapped around them in an effort to make myself as small as possible, needing to protect myself in some way.
Tears were falling freely, and part of me hated the fact that I couldn't seem to stop them. The rest of me, though, didn't have the energy left to even worry about it, let alone try to stop crying. The words Royce had repeated to me so often still silently spilling from my lips, I was taken back to the last time I'd heard them.
The night I left.
It had been a few weeks after I'd been released from hospital.
'Mr. & Mrs. E. Hale of Rochester, New York, announce the engagement of their daughter Rosalie Lillian Hale of Rochester, New York, to Royce King III of Rochester, New York, son of Royce King II...'
Bile rose in my throat as I read the first couple lines of the newspaper. It had become a habit to read the social pages, since there was usually one article regarding Royce. In part, I felt compelled to follow him because I couldn't be part of that life. Also, I knew that if anyone ever got wind of the relationship between Royce and me, this would be where I'd hear about it.
I'd been skimming through the pages as usual when his name caught my eye. Normally I would have read through the entire article, but this time I couldn't get past the first few lines. I felt as if the rug had been pulled out from under me.
It couldn't be. I knew he wasn't into women; they were just for show, a pretense that he to put up so people wouldn't find out about his being gay. He'd sworn up and down that he never actually slept with any of them, despite what the tabloids claimed.
After reading it again, I threw the paper on the table and hobbled to the kitchen as quickly as I could; the bathroom was too far away for me to make it in time, thanks to the cast I was still wearing. I made it to the sink and heaved, tears streaming down my face from the burning sense of betrayal I felt. Everything that I'd put up with, all that I had done…for him to do this to me… it was too much.
The phone started ringing, but I ignored it for the first time in years, too miserable and sick to move from my spot. Normally, as soon as it'd ring, I'd answer. The few time Royce had tried to reach me and it had kicked to voicemail, I had paid dearly. It was a lesson I learned quickly.
The ringing stopped, then started up again a few minutes later. And a third time after that. Figuring I'd better see who it was and praying it wasn't Royce, I hobbled back to the living room, answering the phone just as I heard the line go dead. With a heavy sigh, I sat down on the couch, phone in hand, and checked the caller ID.
Just as I was about to hit redial, the phone rang again, and I answered immediately; my voice sounded cracked, strained, and tired as I said, "Yeah?"
It wasn't my usual greeting, but at that point I didn't care. Edward's sigh of relief met my ears. "Jasper! Are you okay? I take it you saw it, too?"
I huffed, running my fingers through my hair as I stared aimlessly out the window. "Yeah. Yeah, I saw it."
"What are you going to do, Jazz?"
I thought about that for a moment. Thought about what this meant. Did Royce intend to keep me on the side? I couldn't do that. It was one thing to be put in the closet, but I'd still been sure that he was with me, only, despite the parade of women. If he was married, though, it would mean I would truly be his "dirty little secret." He'd be cheating on his wife with me. I couldn't live with that.
There had been many things I'd accepted from Royce – if you could call it that – but I couldn't take being put in the place of…what? An adulterer? A gigolo?
I snorted in disgust. A gigolo's right. God knows he's letting me stay here for free, paying for everything...
"Jasper?" Edward said, pulling me out of my thoughts.
"Yeah, I'm here," I said softly.
I rested my head on the back of the couch and closed my eyes. "I can't stay here," I mumbled, more to myself than anything.
"Oh, thank God!" Edward's relief was almost tangible. "You can stay with Alice and me. We can come over right now and help you pack if you want."
I smiled in spite of myself. "Yeah, that'd be great. Not exactly able to do much myself yet."
As I sat there on the floor of the elevator, I felt somehow numb and distant as I remembered those days. Edward and Alice had stood on my doorstep not half an hour later. Edward had borrowed their father's truck, and Alice was driving a friend's minivan, which had been relieved of its back seats. It'd been enough to hold all my belongings since most everything in the house was Royce's anyway.
Between the two of them, they'd made quick work of packing my things up and getting me moved out of Royce's place, and into theirs. I didn't feel right just leaving without any word, though, even after everything he had done to me. So I put the paper with the article announcing his engagement in the middle of the dining room table and wrote a note saying, "It's over. I can't do this anymore. J."
We had finished getting all my things inside their apartment, and Alice and Edward had both gone to take the cars back and pick up their own. I'd ordered pizza for us as a thank you for helping me out. It seemed inadequate, but it was all I could think to do. When the doorbell rang, I answered it without checking the peephole, thinking it was the delivery guy.
Royce stood with his hands resting on either side of the door frame; his entire countenance bespoke murder. I stood, frozen, unable to shut the door or even utter a word at the sight of him and the fury I could see in his eyes.
"You think you can just walk away?" he seethed.
I took a step back as he straightened up, my mouth opening and closing soundlessly even as my eyes darted around, looking for an escape. The thought to close the door on him didn't even occur to me.
Royce's gaze swept over the small apartment with disgust before fixing on me again. "I figured I'd find you here. Where else would you go?"
It wasn't a question, but more a stab to the gut – not an outright insult, but an insult nonetheless. My head was shaking back and forth automatically even as Royce took a step forward so he was standing right in the door frame, and my voice was hoarse when I finally found it again. "You need to leave, Royce. We're through."
I was backing away from the door, only stopping when my back hit the opposite wall. Royce advanced on me slowly until he stood inches away from me, his face leering at me as he said, "Do you think someone like you can tell someone like me when it's over? A filthy whore such as yourself?
Swallowing hard, I mustered what courage I could and stood straighter, trying to convey a confidence I didn't feel. My voice was shaking, betraying my intention. "Royce, you have to leave."
He sneered. "What are you going to do, Jasper? Stay here and be Edward's little bitch? That's all you know how to be, isn't it? You'll never amount to anything, Jasper. You aren't capable of being on your own. You'll always need someone to look after you. You couldn't take care of yourself properly when I met you, waiting tables for a living.
He gave a snort of disgust and continued, "What did he promise you, hmm? A place to stay? Help getting you back on your feet? And what does he want in return? A fuck-toy? That's all you are, anyway, and not a very good one at that. Rose is a better lay than you ever were. Your Edward will be quite disappointed."
I cringed, my stomach twisting and churning, and I had to fight to keep from throwing up then and there. His words cut deep, and he knew it.
The sound of a car door slamming shut reached me, followed by the thudding of footsteps running. "Jasper!" Edward called out, worry clear in his voice.
My knees shook with relief at the sound of Edward's voice, but Royce merely leaned closer, his tone as low and menacing as I'd ever heard it. "He doesn't love you, Jasper. No one in their right mind ever could. You're nothing but a piece of trash, a leech that latches on to the best catch he can find. And you couldn't even do that right; could you, Jasper?"
Edward's growl as he stepped up to us – his chest heaving from running – left me trembling. Never in my life had I heard him do that, and it struck me with renewed fear. "Get the hell out of my house, Royce, before I call the cops!"
Royce straightened, sneering disdainfully at Edward. "Go ahead. You can always try to file a complaint. But I'm not here; am I, Jasper?"
The icy glare Royce fixed me with took my breath away as I read the silent threat in his eyes. I shook my head, inching closer to Edward. I tried to speak, but I was unable to get my vocal chords to work. Edward reached his hand out and grabbed mine, squeezing it reassuringly. He glared at Royce and said in an even tone, "I told you to get out, Royce. Leave Jasper alone. It's over."
Royce's gaze slid to Edward, eying him speculatively. "Fine. I'll leave." He turned to look at me again and added, "You're not worth the trouble, anyway."
I wasn't sure how long it'd been since I'd arrived back at the complex and broken down in the elevator. Time had ceased to have any meaning as I'd battled with the demons that I knew would be a constant presence in my life, regardless of how far I thought I'd come. The reality of the situation was heavy, weighing on my shoulders. I pulled my knees closer to my chest, wrapping my arms even tighter around them as I rocked back and forth slightly. I couldn't move even if I wanted to. I felt weak, completely and utterly drained from the emotional roller coaster that the past few hours had been. It was overwhelming, and Royce's words continued to haunt me even as I tried to fight back.
"It's not true," I whispered to myself with as much vehemence as I could muster. Still, the words sounded wrong to my ears, and I sighed loudly, frustrated that he still had such a hold over my emotional well-being. Clenching my eyes closed again, I reached up to rub my temple. My head throbbed from the onslaught of everything that had happened. I felt nauseous. I did my best to swallow back the bile. Throwing up now would have been the cherry on top of the fucked up cake that had been my day.
"Dammit, Whitlock, get yourself together," I muttered as I opened my eyes. The doors sliding open at the same instant startled me, and I quickly braced my hands on the floor, shakily pushing myself back into a standing position before whatever resident standing on the outside saw me like this.
I wiped at my face with the back of my hand, even knowing the attempt at hiding the fact that I'd been crying was futile. I knew without having to look at myself that my eyes were swollen and rimmed red. Even with my years of practice at looking for all the world as if everything was fine, I simply didn't have the energy to try to keep up appearances – not right then, anyway. The mask of indifference I'd tried to wear crumbled as I looked up and was met with Edward's panicked gaze. He stepped inside slowly, eyes wide as they flickered over my face.
"I'll call you back, Ali," he murmured into his phone before ending the call and stepping closer still. I could see the wariness and concern in his expression, and I hated myself for being the reason it was there. I watched as his cheeks puffed out, noting the little ticks of uncertainty that flickered over his features: the way he released the breath he was holding slowly, the way he bit at the corner of his lip. He sighed softly before closing what little distance remained between us. "Jazzy…" His voice trailed off as he reached for me, palms resting on my forearms for a moment before sliding down to grip my hands with his own. The contact wasn't much, but it grounded me.
"Hey…" I cleared my throat, cringing at the way I sounded. "What are you doing home so early?"
His gaze continued to move over my face for a moment longer, the silence stretching between us, before he sighed, again, and lowered his head. "I was worried. You called while I was ordering, and I didn't want to be rude and answer when there was a long line behind me, and then when I called you back, you didn't answer. I just – I wanted to make sure you were okay. From the looks of it, though, I'd say that's a question you don't need to answer."
I dropped my gaze at his words, shrugging. He was right, of course, but I didn't know what to say – or how to say it. This wasn't at all how I'd expected today to go. I should have been upstairs cooking and getting everything else ready for the surprise that I'd had in store. It wasn't going to be much but, with the way that Edward took care of me – even before we were together – I wanted to return the favor and show him just how much I loved and appreciated him and all that he did.
"It's nothing," I finally responded as I looked away. "Let's just get upstairs…" Breaking the contact between us, I moved around him and pressed the button for our floor before leaning against the wall. My eyes closed once again, and I felt, rather than heard, as Edward moved to where I stood. His touch was soft, hesitant, as he maneuvered me away from the wall and slid in behind me. I could feel his chest rising and falling against my back with every breath he took as he pulled me closer, leaving me to my silence but showing me without words that he was there – that he would always be there, even when I made an attempt at pushing him away like I'd just done.
Despite everything, I couldn't help but relax into his hold, a sound of contentment falling from my lips. I knew that he wouldn't let it go, but he wasn't going to push me right now to tell him what had happened either, which made me fall even more in love with him than I already was – if that were even possible.
Once we were let off on our floor, I let Edward lead me down the hall, his fingers entwined with mine. It was almost as if he needed to touch me, even in the smallest of ways, and that thought brought a smile to my face because I understood the feeling. I waited patiently as he fumbled with the keys, cursing under his breath until he finally managed to unlock the door without having to disentangle our hands.
"Why don't you go wash up?" he suggested as the door clicked quietly into place behind us. "I'm going to call Alice and let her know I found you and get changed out of this." He gestured toward his work attire, a grimace crossing his face. I couldn't help but chuckle softly, the feeling of amusement a direct contrast to what I'd felt previously. Just being in Edward's presence had the ability to make me feel a hundred times lighter.
"Alright," I responded, reluctantly. The uncertainty that laced my voice was obvious and, even as I walked away, I couldn't miss the way Edward's eyebrows furrowed together. I closed the bathroom door behind me once I was safely inside and leaned back against it for a moment. Even in the dim light that filtered in through the window high above the shower, I could see my reflection in the mirror.
"You need to get it together," I stated softly, noting the blotchiness on my face and the puffiness of my eyes. I looked just as bad as I felt. Another sigh fell from my mouth as I moved the short distance to the sink and turned the water on. The slight chill felt good against my skin, and I splashed my face with it before quickly drying off. Bracing my hands on the counter, I stood there for a minute, trying to collect myself. I knew that Edward had questions, and he had every right to ask them, but telling him what had happened wouldn't be an easy task. I breathed in and out slowly, steadily, before pushing myself up and away from the sink.
The walk back to the living room felt longer than it was, especially since my steps slowed the closer I got. I could hear Edward on the phone, his voice no more than a low murmur, as he talked to who I presumed was Alice. That thought was confirmed not a moment later when I bumped into the corner of the wall, alerting him to my presence, and he ended the call with promises of a lunch date to let her know how things went.
Though his words confused me, I put them out of my head for the moment and focused on keeping my breathing even as I closed the distance between us. The smile that crossed his face once I reached his side made me smile in return. The action was reflexive, but it felt forced, and the flicker of pain and panic that crossed Edward's face told me that I wasn't fooling anyone, least of all him.
"Feeling better?" he asked as he brushed the stray strands of hair from my face, his thumb stroking my forehead softly – reverently, even. Before I had a chance to answer, though, he rushed on, "I ordered a couple of pizzas – pepperoni and mushrooms with extra cheese just like you like it – and bread sticks. It should be here soon." He paused, shrugging his shoulders before continuing, "I thought that, maybe, it was best to keep tonight low key. I hope you don't mind."
"That sounds good," I replied after a moment, attempting another smile and failing just as miserably. This was just another thing that I'd failed at. On a day that should have been a happy one, here he was walking on eggshells and, yet again, trying to make things easier on me. It wasn't that I didn't appreciate it, because I did. For once, though, I wanted to be the one that was there for him.
Edward nodded slowly, just a slight inclination of his head, and then gestured toward the couch. I hadn't noticed it when I'd first entered the room, but once he'd pointed it out, I felt my eyes burn with tears that threatened to fall again. To anyone else, it wouldn't have seemed like much of a grand gesture, but to me, it was everything. The television was muted, but the play screen for A Knight's Tale was queued up, and a bottle of Pinot noir sat chilling in a bucket with two wine glasses beside it. I blinked rapidly, desperately trying to keep the emotions at bay.
"It's not the most extravagant of meals but…" Another shrug lifted his shoulders as Edward took my hand and led me further into the room. "Get comfortable, and I'll collect some plates and cutlery, along with the ranch dressing for you." His signature crooked grin appeared on his face then, the indulgent one that told me he couldn't understand why I would taint the taste of pizza with this particular condiment.
"Don't start," I playfully chastised, feeling marginally better and much more like myself. "If you'd just try it, you'd know exactly how good it is. Until you do, though, you have no room to judge. I'm not the one that drowns everything I eat in ketchup."
He muttered something under his breath as he wandered off, and I chuckled softly to myself. While I wasn't feeling a hundred percent better, the fact that Edward was being as normal as he possibly could be, considering the state he'd found me in, was a relief. It also reaffirmed everything that I'd been trying to remind myself of all day: Edward was not Royce, not even by a far stretch of the imagination. I leaned back into the soft cushions, closing my eyes and breathing in deeply.
It couldn't have been that long, but I startled awake as I felt the seat beside me shift and heard the soft clink of glasses. Turning my face toward the sound, I opened my eyes and watched Edward for a moment, relishing in the near silence. My stomach growled as I inhaled and caught the scent of the pizza that had arrived at some point, and the realization that I'd been asleep for much longer than I'd thought hit me. Readjusting my position, I sat up and rubbed my hands roughly over my face, stifling a yawn with the palm of my hand.
"Sorry 'bout that," I muttered, my voice thick with sleep. "I didn't mean to fall asleep on you."
"You needed it," Edward replied promptly as he turned toward me and caressed the side of my face with one hand while the other held a plate of pizza for me. "Let's eat, and then we can … talk?"
Swallowing around the lump in my throat, I murmured my agreement and accepted the food. Instead of eating, though, I just stared at it. As much as my stomach grumbled and gurgled for sustenance, the thought of actually consuming anything made me feel sick. I hadn't noticed Edward watching me, or the fact that I'd begun to stab at the slice of pizza with the tip of the butter knife, until he carefully extracted it from my hands and set everything down on the coffee table. Averting my gaze, I huffed loudly and crossed my arms over my chest.
"Why are you so good to me?" The question rolled off my tongue without thought, and I clamped my lips together once it was out, ashamed at the way it sounded. "I mean," I started again, trying to find the right words to explain my sudden outburst. "I don't understand. I'm just … me, and you deserve better than this." My hands flailed as if to punctuate the words that were being spoken, gesturing toward myself. "I'm nobody special, Edward, and you've put up with all my shit for years." Returning my gaze to him, I flinched inwardly at the expression on his face. It was one of confusion laced with hurt and disbelief.
"I don't," he started, shaking his head and running a hand through his hair – a nervous habit that he'd had for almost as long as I'd known him. "I – where is this coming from? What happened today to make you like … this? To make you question me – question us?" Gesturing between the two of us, Edward huffed before turning his body toward mine completely and leaning forward.
As I opened my mouth to respond, Edward held his hand up, signaling for me to wait. I could almost see the gears turning in his head as he contemplated what to say next. In fact, I could probably recite it for him myself. This wasn't the first time we'd had a conversation of this nature, and it probably wouldn't be the last. Still, a large part of me needed the reassurance I knew his words would bring.
"First of all," he started, frustration clear in his tone, "I don't put up with you, whatever the hell that means. I'm with you because I want to be, and because I love you. Why is that so difficult for you to understand? Secondly, what I deserve is for me to decide. You haven't had an easy go of it as far as relationships are concerned; I get that, but I also knew that from the beginning. I knew what I was getting into when we decided to give us a chance, and despite all that, I will always choose you. I love you in spite of everything that has happened, everything that you've dealt with, and everything that you will continue to deal with. And I'll be right here through it all.
"The fact that you even have to ask that question – again – makes me …" Edward trailed off and shook his head, the hand that had been running through his hair repeatedly moving to brush roughly down his face before resting in his lap. "It makes me feel like you don't trust me. When have I ever lied to you, Jazzy, about anything?"
I shifted uncomfortably in my seat, crossing my legs Indian style as I leaned back on the arm of the couch. I could feel my cheeks heat with chagrin at making Edward feel that way. "I'm sorry," I breathed out after a moment, the sound little more than a gust of air passing through my lips. "It's just – I ran into Royce today, and everything came flooding back, and I started comparing the two of you. And then you didn't answer your phone, and I panicked. It was like, even though I knew how irrational I was being, I couldn't stop my mind from going there."
My fingers tangled themselves into the hem of my shirt, twisting the material around and around until it cut off the circulation. I couldn't bring myself to look at him, knowing how hurt he would be. I felt so tired ... as if I'd been swimming against the current and the undertow kept pulling me back beneath the waters no matter what I did. Closing my eyes against the onslaught of emotions I could feel rising again, I took a wavering breath – a vain effort to calm myself down.
The soft sound of fabric rustling against fabric pulled me from my quickly deteriorating mood, and the feel of Edward's fingers brushing along the side of my face made me open my eyes. His gaze was tender as he slid closer, drawing me into his arms. I shuddered in relief, wrapping myself around his body and burying my face in the crook of his neck. The tears that I'd been trying to hold back broke free as we sat there, completely consumed in each other in the most innocent of ways.
It was exactly what I'd needed. The words that had been spoken were ones that I'd heard time and again, and while they mattered – and helped – it was the physical confirmation that I'd been craving without even realizing it. We remained like that for some time, quiet save for the soft sound of air passing through our lips, before Edward released me and leaned back. A different type of uncertainty flickered over his expression, and I raised an eyebrow in question as I wiped the tear tracks from my face.
"Everything okay?" I asked, feeling the nerves settling in once more as he continued to fidget, one hand in his pocket and the other tapping the back of the couch in a disjointed rhythm. I wasn't used to seeing Edward so out of sorts, and this was disconcerting.
"Yeah," Edward responded distractedly after a beat, his gaze darting to mine and then away again. "I just – I had something – I wanted to …" He huffed, trailing off as he reached up to scratch the side of his head. The expression on his face grew even more frustrated over his inability to articulate whatever it was he was trying to say. Still, even though he looked adorably flustered, I felt my stomach twist itself into knots as he tripped over his words.
He took a deep breath, letting it out slowly as he closed his eyes briefly. When he opened them again, he gave me a small smile and took my hand in his, brushing his thumb over my knuckles. It struck me that I wasn't sure whether the action was meant to soothe me... or him. Edward lifted our hands to his lips, pressing them lightly on the back of my hand before lowering them between us.
I thought I heard him mutter under his breath, "This wasn't how I'd planned to do this," before he cleared his throat.
Instantly, my mind began to conjure up any and all possible scenarios of what he could mean by those words. I had to swallow several times, fighting down the nerves that felt like they were trying to crawl their way up my throat. My eyes flickered between his, and I could feel my breathing speed up as the one predominant thought started to ring in my ears, despite what he had only just told me about always being there: He's gonna leave; he's had enough... I'm not...
My thoughts stopped abruptly when Edward nudged my leg and squeezed my hand, his voice gentle, but firm. "Don't, Jasper."
He took another deep breath, gave a curt nod as if answering an unspoken thought, and then looked me in the eye with a certainty that hadn't been there moments before. "Jazz... I've loved you since we were in middle school and we were just two boys - best friends, getting into trouble like any teenage boys would. I loved you when I came out in our junior year in high school, and you didn't let anything change between us. You were still my best friend, and you helped me know that someone would always care about me - you."
He paused, smiling softly as he reached out with his free hand to brush my hair out of my face. I couldn't keep my eyes off of his, completely enthralled by his words, even if I only half-believed them to be true. It wasn't that I thought he was lying, but more that I didn't quite feel it was me he was talking about.
"I loved you when you were there for me when Mom got sick. You were the one who kept me going, and who got me through our senior year and helped me deal with watching her wither away from cancer in the span of a few months. You were there for me when she finally passed away, and you never let me, or Alice, feel like we were alone."
I blushed at that, remembering how hard those six months had been for both Edward and Alice, and how I hadn't left their sides if I could help it. Edward's smile widened as he went on, though his eyes held some sadness in them now - presumably as he, too, thought of Esme.
"I loved you, Jasper, when you came out in college and were learning what it meant to be you - to be in your own skin. I was so proud of you when you graduated with honors in Fine Arts and in Education. Two degrees, Jasper. Most people can't manage honors with one."
Edward lifted our hands to his lips again, kissing the back of my hand once more before lowering them. His eyes shimmered with emotion, and he had to blink a few times and clear his throat before he could go on.
"Even with... with everything that happened after... I still loved you. More so, when you picked your life back up and started living again. The way I've loved you might have changed over the years, but it's always grown, Jasper, and I know it will continue to grow and change in the years to come. There is nothing in this world that I want more than to see what our future brings us, Jazz. I know it won't always be easy, but no one ever claimed life was supposed to be. But I also know that you're the one I want to grow old with."
I blinked, my mind struggling to keep up with what he was saying. It almost seemed as if he was moving in slow motion as he shifted to reach into his pocket. He let out a soft sigh, a tender, if nervous, smile playing on his lips as he said, "Jasper Whitlock, will you marry me?"
Speechless, I continued to stare, blinking sporadically as I tried to process what Edward had just asked me. My mouth opened and closed soundlessly, even though my answer was on the tip of my tongue. Tears silently streaked down my face, dripping from my chin – happy tears, this time. I felt awe, disbelief, relief, and hope course through me as his words slowly sank in.
He's serious? He wants to marry me? Bind himself to me, like that?
My eyes flickered between his, hunting for anything that would refute his words, but I found nothing. Of course I didn't. This was Edward. The man who'd been my rock, my solace, for these many years. I took a wavering breath as I fought to get my vocal chords to work. There was only one answer for me. Edward meant everything to me – he was everything.
He wants to marry me.
The look on Edward's face was one of trepidation as he waited quietly, the hand that clutched the ring box shaking ever so slightly.
"Say something," he pleaded after a moment, voice wavering. "Anything … please?"
The anxiety he was feeling was increasingly visible on his face. I tried several times to form the words, but I couldn't. Instead, I nodded rapidly and launched myself across the short distance that separated us, his arms automatically slipping around my waist. My arms wrapped around his neck, clutching him to me as I finally managed to whisper hoarsely, "Yes! God, yes!" Swallowing around the lump in my throat, I held him tighter, unwilling and unable to let him go just yet.
"Yeah?" Edward questioned, though his voice was muffled against my shoulder, but I could hear the absolute joy in his tone as he squeezed me tighter. "You'll really marry me?"
Nodding against his neck, I briefly pressed my lips against his skin. Edward had already given me more than I felt I deserved. The fact that he was now offering to marry me – no, not offering… asking – was more than I would have ever dared hope for, especially after a day like today.
I pulled back just far enough so I could look at him and nodded again as I gently brushed my fingertips across his cheek. I wasn't sure whether I would ever fully be able to comprehend why he did it, or even how he was able to, but I hoped he knew how grateful I was to have him in my life. He'd always been there to pull the pieces of me back together again, reminding me that I was worthwhile, and I was capable. That I was his equal. His love. His life.
What the future would hold for us, I had no way of knowing, but of this one thing I was certain:
We would face it together.
Forever, if I could help it.