Fanfic My Fanfic Contest

Title: The Next Ten Minutes

Name of the fic you are fanfic'ing: Paper Heart by hezpixie. You can find a link to the story in my favorites.

To view other entries, go here: http:/www (.) fanfiction (.) net/~fanficmyfanfic

Disclaimer: All characters are the property of Stephanie Meyer and Jason Robert Brown. No copyright infringement is intended. The plot is the property of hezpixie.

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Many thanks to Happymelt for beta'ing.

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Retrospect- Edward

I've been sitting up all night lately reading Greek myths. No, not any Greek myths; just one— Icarus. I can't get the image out of my head: a beautiful, arrogant boy, given a precious gift, who looked too high, reached too far, and forgot where the ground was. In his quest to touch the sun, he destroyed the gift that got him there.

It's ironic, really. I sit up all night with the desktop on and a cursor blinking on a blank word document in front of me while I, the writer, the crafter of words, get lost inside someone else's story.

The fact of the matter is that I don't have any words anymore. Every day, every night, I sit down and stare at this fucking computer and… nothing happens. I research, I re-work my outlines, I revisit notes I jotted down earlier… you know, back when I was really busy and the ideas were bursting out of my brain. When dialogue or plotlines struck and wouldn't be denied, I'd write them everywhere. In my Blackberry, on cocktail napkins, ticket stubs, anything. Now I shift them around like they're fragments recovered from a lost civilization, trying to puzzle out what they all mean. They're like clues, and if I can piece them together correctly, they'll lead me back to the time when I could do this, when I had words and ideas, when I knew who I was… when I had her.

I was always so damned sure I knew the story— not just the ones I wrote. I saw story arcs in the lives around me and fatal character flaws in the people I loved. Like the arrogant asshole I was, I wrote their endings for them, like I could see how it would all play out. I thought I knew how we would play out. I convinced myself that I could see our inevitable end right from the start. I was a fool.

After I left her… left my wife… I went to the only place that I could. I went home.

My parents took me back in without question or comment. They knew what had happened, and they also knew I didn't want to talk about it, at least, not yet. So they let me be. My mother did what she does best; she cooked for me, like I had a cold and all I needed was some chicken noodle soup to get me back on my feet. Even then, just days after I fled New York, I knew there was nothing on this earth that would ever set me to rights again.

After so much fighting and struggle, I expected to feel relieved when I threw in the towel on our relationship. I expected to be able to breathe again, finally freed from the weight of failed expectations. But that didn't happen. All that freedom, all that space, just made me feel claustrophobic. Bella's absence was crushing in on me from all sides.

My parents might not have said anything, or offered any pithy advice, but I figured out a lot just watching them. I watched my parents navigate around each other day in and day out, and I learned something. It was a series of tiny negotiations and lessons learned that they started over every morning. Like all children, I thought of them as an inviolate pairing. They just were. Once the rice was thrown and the wedding gifts opened, their relationship settled into a stony surety… at least, in my mind. But standing on the far side of a broken marriage, I saw something very different. I saw two people who constantly re-discovered each other and never stopped working at their relationship. And I began to understand all the ways in which I hadn't worked at mine.

When was the last time I'd learned something new about Bella? The last time I'd been surprised by her? Of course, I had to be there to learn about her—and I hadn't been there at all.

I remembered every dinner I missed as I buried myself in my work. I remembered every one of her performances that I'd promised I'd see, only to bail when there was another reading to do or signing to go to. I remembered every time she begged me to stay, and I left anyway.

But some things you can't undo.

I betrayed her. I walked away. I quit first.

So I went back to New York and resolved to improve myself and at least learn from my failings. If and when I was ever lucky enough to fall in love again, I'd be ready, and I'd know quitting wasn't an option.

Until that far off, impossible day, I'd retreat to the one place that always brought me solace— the place, in fact, Bella accused me of choosing over her. I'd retreat to my mind. I would write. Hell, it might even be cathartic. All this pain had to be good for something. I'd write it out, unleash my anger and hurt on the page. Crank out another best-seller.

That's when I found out I couldn't do it. When I left Bella, it seemed I'd left the words with her. She was the one who'd brought them back to me the first time. It was meeting her that finally kicked me free to become the writer I am.

Or was.

Right.

*0*0*

Retrospect- Bella

Summer rolls still made me cry.

With the passage of time, I got better in so many ways, but the innocuous sight of someone's takeout lunch in the park would still reduce me to tears.

Two days after Edward walked out, I got up off the floor and took a shower. A week later, I left the apartment. Just lunch with Jessica, but it was progress. She took me to task and insisted that I start living again.

So I tried. I put all of Edward's stuff in storage and started packing up mine. He left me our apartment, but I just couldn't stay there. He was worn into every floorboard and corner. Everywhere I looked, I saw him, saw us. I moved into a crummy studio in Astoria. I hated it, but it was cheap, and I could live without a roommate. I didn't think I could bear to go back to living with some other twenty-something single actress, just like I had been before we got married, like he never existed. I wasn't the same and I needed my new life to reflect that, even if it wasn't pretty.

I had an audition coming up, scheduled for weeks, since before Edward left. Just some off-off-Broadway thing that had a ridiculous rehearsal schedule and paid next to nothing. Not even worth going to. But that's what I did with my life; I went to crappy auditions with dozens of other girls that looked just like me, where we all put ourselves on the line and tried our hardest to get cast in a small, shitty role in a play that no one would see, and we'd earn pennies for our troubles.

I think I'd become a little jaded.

Jessica suggested I take a little break from auditioning, just until I felt like myself again. That wasn't going to happen, of course. But she had a point. I had nowhere near the mental fortitude required to withstand the audition process, the scrutiny and constant rejection. I still had to earn some money, though, so when another actor asked if I'd consider doing some vocal coaching, I said yes.

It felt a little like caving in, but it was also a bit of a relief. Because I'd figured something out. Years of struggling and auditioning taught me that it was about so much more than me. I've shown up and laid it on the line and been perfect in every way, and I still didn't land the role. It might have been because they wanted someone two inches taller, or three years younger. Or it might have been that my smile reminded the director of his ex-girlfriend's. Yes, I had to show up and bring my A game, but at the end of the day, success was just plain luck as much as it was anything else. And I was just tired of being fate's bitch.

The vocal coaching went way better than I ever expected. At first, I worried that I'd feel like a fraud trying to teach people about something that I'd had so little success at myself. But I discovered that I did have some hard-won knowledge to impart; I had tricks and techniques that actually worked. And when a young actress I coached nailed the audition I'd been prepping her for and landed the part, I swear, it made me feel as good as if I'd gotten the role myself.

It felt good to be good at something. It felt good to succeed. But it was still hard to let go of the dream, and not for the reasons I expected. Yes, it was a little hard to concede defeat, and it bruised my ego a bit. But the hardest part of letting it go was that Edward had given it to me. It was my dream, but it was also his dream for me. He gave me the chance to pursue it full-time. How could I just give it up? Especially once I realized that, gift or not, it's what had cost me him.

As a month slipped by, and then another, and I stayed away from acting outside of my vocal coaching, I started to see what it had done to me. I could see how all those rejections, all of those harsh criticisms about every facet of myself had chipped away at the me I used to be, leaving nothing but an unhappy, insecure shell. And all the while, Edward's star was on the rise; Edward's dream was coming true. Part of me hated him for it. With a little distance, I became ashamed of my jealousy. How could I have been so selfish? I only wanted the best for him. I wanted whatever made him happy. So how could I have grown to resent his success so much?

I drove myself crazy replaying our fights towards the end. Yes, his career took him away from me more than it should have, and he should have said yes to me instead of them a few more times, but that didn't excuse my resentment. It didn't explain how angry I got every time he disappeared into his head and got lost in his stories. And when I thought about how I'd behaved at his public appearances, consumed with jealousy over the women who understandably wanted to be close to him, I felt terrible. Who was that angry, insecure woman? Not me. Except she was me—the me I'd become. No wonder he left.

By the time the date for our first meeting with our lawyers grew near, Jessica was worried enough about me to step in.

"Look, Bella, I know you're feeling really conflicted about him, but you can't forget that this is a legal proceeding. My cousin is a lawyer, and he says this can get uglier than you can imagine. There's real money involved. You need to protect yourself."

I sighed, "Jess, it's his money. And besides, I just can't bear to make this into a fight. I don't have the right to fight him on anything when I was the one that drove him away."

Jess snorted inelegantly. I turned away from the window that overlooked Astoria Boulevard. "It's true. I've been over it and over it and it's my fault."

Jessica groaned and leaned forward, bracing her elbows on her knees. "Fuck," she whispered.

"What, Jess?"

She exhaled heavily and reached for her bag. "Look, I wasn't ever going to show you this, but you're about to walk in there and apologize to him because he filed for divorce. You need to be in a different frame of mind. This is going to hurt, but you need to know. For your own good."

"You're scaring me now. Just spit it out."

"There's nothing to say," she said, standing up and moving to hand me the magazine she'd fished out of her bag. "Just look."

It was rolled up and creased, like she'd had it for a while. I pushed it out of its curl and flattened it so I could see the page. It was some glossy gossip magazine, opened to a page about half way through, the page where they put the little blurbs about celebrities: who's had a baby, who's going into rehab… who's been caught cheating on their wife.

There was a tiny blurry picture, like it was taken with a cell phone from a distance. It was from behind and to the side. He was wearing his tux, that much I could tell from the picture. And I'd know the back of her blonde hair anywhere. I'd stared at it enough as I trailed after the two of them at various functions over the years. They were just about to step into an elevator, in what looked like a hotel lobby. His hand was on the small of her back.

The caption below was short and to the point.

Best-selling author and heartthrob, Edward Cullen was spotted overnighting at the Sofitel with his personal assistant, Elise Coolidge, after the party celebrating the release of his new novel. Sources report that they left the next morning together. The sighting seems to confirm rumors that the author's marriage is on the rocks.

The world faded away. I sank down onto the couch, reading and re-reading the words, willing them to come together in some other way, to mean some other thing. But no matter how many times I read them, they still told me the same thing, something the divorce papers seemed to have failed to make entirely clear to me. He was gone.

Jessica's voice sounded a million miles away, and I could barely feel her hand on my shoulder.

"Bella? I didn't want to tell you. There didn't seem any point in hurting you that way. But now I think you should know. Divorce is serious business, and you need to be prepared."

Prepared? How on earth was a person ever supposed to be prepared for something like this? I stared at the tiny blurry photo in my lap, the picture of Edward walking away from me and into his future at someone else's side.

I was going to have to find a way.

*0*0*

Arbitration- Bella

The day of our first meeting with the lawyers, I dressed for battle. Jessica helped me buy the suit, a sleek black number by Calvin Klein. She'd stepped in, by default, to help me through this, since Alice was hopelessly tangled up in the middle, caught between me and Jasper's relationship with Edward. I didn't want to ask her to choose sides, so I mostly just left her out of it.

I ducked into a Starbuck's downstairs from the lawyer's offices and practiced a few breathing techniques, all the stuff I taught the people I coached: breathing routines to calm the heart rate, creative imagery to focus the mind, mental checklists to reduce anxiety. I prepared like it was the audition of a lifetime and my role was clear— go in there and don't fall apart.

When I felt like I had a handle on it, I moved briskly through the lobby and into the elevator. I focused on the click of my heels on the marble floor, the rasp of my hands against my skirt.

John, my lawyer, was already waiting in the inner lobby for me, thank God. The last thing I wanted was to walk in that room and face Edward on my own. We talked for a few minutes about the procedures and what I could expect, and then it was time to face him for the first time since he walked out of our apartment and never came home.

My lawyer went first, and I followed close in his wake. I kept my eyes on the back of his shoulder as he moved to the table and reached out to shake the hand of Edward's lawyer. They knew each other already. Cozy.

I listened to their brief polite comments and willed myself not to look for him. I could sense him, of course. There's no way I could ever be in a room with Edward and not know exactly where he was. He was just to my right, on the other side of the table, sitting down, facing me. Even though our lawyers were talking, I could hear the rustle of fabric as he shifted in his chair. I could hear him exhale. I could hear the leather of his chair squeak as he leaned forward.

Finally, I couldn't take it anymore. I needed to see him, to see if it showed on his face, his happy new life with… I couldn't even think her name. I ran through my focus exercises in my head one more time and took a slow deep breath through my nose. When I pictured the cool air infiltrating my whole body, bringing its calming strength to every muscle, I turned my head slightly to the right to look at him.

He was a wreck.

The collar of his chambray shirt was twisted and wrinkled. He needed a haircut desperately. It also looked like he hadn't shaved this morning, or slept last night. It annoyed me, his disregard for the circumstances. Both lawyers were crisply turned-out in suits, and I was as put-together as possible. It felt disrespectful, like he could hardly be bothered to pull himself away from whatever he'd been doing to roll into this meeting to begin ending our marriage.

He was looking straight at me, and my stomach fell to my feet when our eyes met. His face was stony when I first glanced over, but as he looked at me, and as I looked back at him, with my anger bubbling up, his features shifted and seemed to fall.

John turned and spoke to me. I closed my eyes and inhaled again. I couldn't do this now; I couldn't have this emotional reaction to him. When I had a handle on it again, I answered John. He pulled out my chair, and I settled in across from Edward. I kept my eyes on Edward's lawyer, Scott, as he started speaking.

The lawyers volleyed back and forth for a minute, dispensing with the preliminaries, and I zoned out, just focusing on holding it together. There was a lot of tedious discussion about papers to be filed and the steps to be gotten through. It took forever and I barely paid attention. Really, John just needed to tell me where and when to show up until I was through this nightmare. I started listening again when John began discussing the settlement of our joint assets.

"Next up to discuss is the property. Is Mr. Cullen interested in taking full ownership of the apartment, or should it be liquidated and the proceeds divided?"

The sound of Edward's voice sent a shockwave down my spine. "What do you mean, take it back? You're living there."

I didn't look. I opened my mouth to respond, but John beat me to it.

"Mrs. Cullen didn't feel she could maintain the apartment on her earnings from her vocal coaching, so she vacated the property."

"What?" Edward sputtered. Now I had to look. He was leaning forward on his elbows, staring at me intently. "You moved? And what does he mean, 'vocal coaching'? Why aren't you auditioning?"

"I'm taking a break from acting," I muttered. "This isn't the time to…"

"I left the apartment for you," he snapped.

"Well, I don't want it!" I snapped back. I couldn't tell him that there was no way I could ever live there without him. I didn't want him to see how he haunted me when I was there. It made me too vulnerable, so I got angry instead.

John cleared his throat and interrupted. "I think we've covered enough ground today. Let's table the discussion about the apartment until next time so both parties have some time to think about it."

Edward exhaled hard and fell back into his chair. I nodded tightly. John and Scott started discussing the scheduling of our next meeting. I could feel Edward glaring at me across the table. It was making my face flush and my blood pressure rise. If I stayed put, I was going to say something, probably something ugly. I needed out of this room.

"John, just email me the time and I'll be there. If you'll all excuse me, I have to go."

I was out of my chair and racing towards the elevator in a flash. I punched the button and closed my eyes, focusing on my breathing while I waited for it to come. This was so hard. Just being near him again was tearing me to pieces. How was I ever going to make it through this?

I heard a flurry of movement behind me and then the voice that always stopped my heart.

"Bella!"

I steeled myself against the sickening plunge of my stomach. I needed about a thousand years to get ready for this, but I didn't have them, so I just took a deep breath and turned to face him.

"What is it?" My voice sounded clipped and annoyed. Good. My only position of strength in all of this was anger, so I'd hold on tight to it.

Edward stopped a few feet short of me, looking uncomfortable, shifting from foot-to-foot.

"Why… why did you stop auditioning? What happened?"

I blinked in surprise, not really sure why he was asking or why he cared.

"It was just… I decided to explore some other options."

"Vocal coaching?" he asked, eyebrows raised.

"I'm good at it," I snapped.

He leaned back a little. "I'm sure you are."

"It feels good to be good at something. And it feels good to succeed. I'm sure you can understand that, Edward." I knew I sounded nasty and bitter, but I couldn't help it. I wasn't ready yet to be friends with him. I didn't know if I'd ever be able to do that— not when I still loved him so much. But since he wasn't and couldn't be mine anymore, for my own sanity, I needed as much distance from him as I could get.

He sighed in frustration. "Bella, don't be—"

The elevator door dinged behind me, saving me from the conversation. "I have to go. I'll see you next time."

He left off whatever he was about to say. "Yeah, fine. Next time."

Two days later, Riley called me. He'd moved to the city the month before to do some auditioning and see if anything panned out. At first, it was just some friendly catching up, exchanging news about our mutual friends. Then he asked after Edward, and I was forced to admit the truth, that we were separated. When Riley asked me out for coffee, I was silent for so long that he began backpedaling furiously, falling all over himself to apologize. I cut him off. Edward had moved on. Hell, he'd done it before the ink was even dried on the petition for divorce, if not before that. I needed to do it, too. At least, I needed to try. I owed it to myself to see if I could find happiness elsewhere. It was never going to happen if I kept hiding, licking my wounds.

Coffee led to a lunch date, which led to an afternoon movie date, and eventually to dinner. Riley was as easy and fun to hang out with as he ever was. He listened and seemed so happy just to be with me. He made me feel pretty and wanted, which I desperately needed. I didn't love him, not even close. But I liked him a lot, and I really liked that he could make me forget for a few hours. Several dinners later and I knew I needed to move one way or another. I couldn't keep using him to distract myself knowing he wanted more from me. I'd have to either try to be more for him, or I'd have to let him go. I wasn't ready to let go yet.

The night that I slept with him, I let my mind go blissfully blank as he kissed me and touched me. It had been so long, and I was so lonely. It was almost easy to forget who I was and who he was. But by the time he was over me, inside of me, moaning my name in my ear, whispering sweet words that should have made me happy, all I could do was stare at the ceiling and fight back the tears.

I waited until he fell asleep, his lips barely brushing my temple, before I slid myself carefully out from underneath his arm. In the bathroom, I climbed into the empty bathtub and cried silently into my hands for hours. By dawn, I could face him again with a forced smile.

*0*0*

Reckoning- Edward

"Come on back to the office, Edward. Alice is going to be tormenting the caterers for a while, so we'd best lay low."

I nodded in grateful agreement and followed him back to the peaceful sanctuary of his office. Tonight was going to be difficult enough, and I was eager to put it off for as long as possible.

Alice and Jasper were having a baby. But Alice couldn't do what normal women did to celebrate and just have a baby shower with all her girlfriends. She wanted to have a party for all their friends instead. It was the last thing I wanted to do, to celebrate this happy new chapter in their lives when my life was falling so spectacularly apart. But Jasper had done so much for me over the years, so I just had to suck it up and smile.

Jasper crossed back to me and handed me a glass with several fingers of scotch. He knew just what I needed. I tossed it back in just a few gulps and went to refill it myself. Whatever it took.

"You going to be alright tonight?" Jasper asked, watching me pour round two.

"Yeah, of course. Why?"

"You know she's coming, right?"

I swallowed hard and didn't look up. "I figured."

"And it's cool?"

"We're getting divorced, Jazz. It's not exactly 'cool'. But I'll be okay."

He stared at me for a long moment. "Okay."

I turned my glass in my hands for a minute as I thought about what I wanted to say. "How is she doing?" I finally managed to ask.

"Honestly, we haven't seen much of her. I think she's trying to avoid putting Alice on the spot. But Jessica said she's doing pretty well. Didn't you just see her at your meeting?"

"Yeah," I shrugged. "That's why I asked. She said she quit acting."

Jasper nodded slowly. "She did. At least for now."

"So how is she doing okay, then? What's going on?"

Jasper let out a tired sigh. "Jessica said it was her choice. She's tired of it. And now she's doing this vocal coaching thing and it seems to be really working out for her. She likes it. She's good at it."

I focused hard on my drink and tried to ignore the twisting in my gut. It felt all wrong getting an update on Bella from Jasper, via Jessica. All of these people knew so much more about her now than I did. She'd changed her whole life around, and I was the last to know about it. Giving up acting would be huge for her, and I hated that I couldn't even guess what was going on in her head. It was like she was transforming into someone new, someone I wouldn't know. I was missing it.

"That's what she said," I muttered into my glass.

"Be happy for her, man. She's doing good."

I nodded tightly. "I am."

"Um…" Jasper shifted awkwardly. "You should know, she's seeing someone."

I closed my eyes as I felt everything fall out from underneath me.

No.

When I finally managed to speak, my voice sounded a million miles away, like it belonged to someone else. But I sounded okay—not at all like I was breaking apart inside.

"She is?"

"Yeah, this guy she met doing summer stock a few years back. Riley?"

Motherfucker.

All I could do for a minute was focus on getting air in and out of my lungs.

"Is she bringing him here tonight?" Please say no, because I'd really hate to ruin Alice's party by murdering Bella's motherfucking boyfriend in the middle of it.

"I don't know. You gonna make it? Can you do this?"

I forced a smile even though my face felt completely frozen. "Of course. It's none of my business. We're separated."

Jasper just raised his eyebrows and blew out a breath. "If you say so."

*0*0*

She looked amazing.

She always did, but there was something different now. When she walked into the lawyer's office a few weeks back, I nearly dropped dead on the spot. I hadn't seen her in a few months, and then she swept in wearing that sleek black suit and those killer high heels with her hair down and glossy… it was like a fist to my chest.

Tonight she was dressed to torture me again. She was in black again, but this time it was some clingy little wrap dress. More insanely hot high heels. More dark, shiny hair everywhere.

Thank God she came alone. If that asshole had shown his face at her side, I can't speak to what I'd have done.

I knew I didn't have a right to any of these feelings. She was about to be my ex-wife. It was a choice I'd made. But I didn't care. It wasn't rational, but it was real. I wanted her just as much as I always had. I didn't have a plan or a purpose; I just wanted to get close to her, talk to her, try to solve the mystery of how we'd ended up here on opposite sides. Because right now, I was having a hard time seeing any good reason for it.

Bella seemed out to thwart me, though. All night long, she stayed carefully across the room from me. She talked to Jessica and her other friends. She hugged Alice and congratulated Jasper. She laughed and smiled and she looked happy. I slammed back too many glasses of scotch and lurked, barely maintaining conversations with other people while I kept one eye on her.

I wondered if this was hard for her the way it was for me. Were we thinking the same things tonight? Was she thinking about the baby we almost had? We'd be the parents of a toddler by now. Would it have changed anything? Would the baby have made us work harder and made our bond impossible to break? Or would it have made all of this infinitely more painful and complex? I guess we'd never know.

By ten, I was drunk, and I was sick of watching her cross the room to get away from me whenever I got close to her. I skulked in a corner until I saw her head towards the bathroom. I had no idea what the fuck I thought I was going to do. I had no plan. But a soon as I saw her disappear down the hallway, my feet were carrying me after her. I caught up with her in the dim hallway just past the kitchen.

"Hi."

She spun around to face me, her eyes going wide.

"How are you?" I asked, lacking anything better to say. It seemed she'd stolen my spoken words just the way she'd stolen the written ones. I was left making polite chit-chat with the person I was supposed to know best in the world.

"I'm good," she said, ducking her chin a little. "You?"

I shrugged one shoulder. "Good."

She nodded. Then we just stood there. What was there to say? Everything. But every word I could come up with seemed wrong, not enough, too much, entirely insufficient. So what did I do? I said the last thing on earth I probably should have.

"Your boyfriend couldn't come?"

Her head snapped up, and her wide dark eyes stared at me for a second.

"What?"

"Jasper told me. Riley, right?"

She didn't say anything; she just dropped her eyes to the floor. "I didn't ask him to come," she murmured. "It didn't seem right."

It made me irrationally angry. The least she could do was call me on that asshole move. But she didn't. She was graciously ignoring my obnoxiousness. She was taking the high ground, and I wanted to knock her off of it. I wanted her as torn up and confused as me, and I didn't care if that was unfair or selfish.

"That's too bad. I mean, he's earned it, right? How long has the poor bastard waited around to get his shot at you?"

Her eyes flashed up to me and then narrowed in anger. Finally. Yes, hit back at me. Just give me something. Crack, goddammit.

"Fuck you, Edward," she hissed. "You hypocritical asshole."

"What? How am I the hypocrite here?"

"I really fucking hope that it hadn't started yet that time I accused you of sleeping with her. Because if you were lying about it to my face for the past year, I'll never forgive you."

"What are you talking about?" I asked, even as the knot of dread formed in my stomach. Please, no. I never wanted her to find out.

"Elise," she snapped. "Your new girlfriend. Don't you dare play dumb. You have absolutely no right to give me a hard time about Riley when you moved on before your side of the bed was even cold."

"I never wanted you to know," I whispered, closing my eyes to shut out her furious face. The alcohol was catching up to me, making me sway on my feet.

"Is that supposed to make me feel better? Fuck you. Just go back home to her and leave me alone, Edward. I don't know what you're trying to accomplish here."

"We're not… she's not… I'm not—"

"You're not what?"

"I'm not with Elise. I was… just once… it was a mistake…" The broken, useless words were just falling out of me, and I felt powerless to fix anything with them. "She quit. I haven't seen her since that night. It was just one stupid night."

Bella just stood there, eyes narrowed, watching me flail. Her face was so hurt and angry, and I hated that I'd made her feel that way. I hated that she ever found out about my stupid, tragic mistake. I hated that she'd been thinking I'd replaced her. I hated Riley, the motherfucker that took her away from me. I hated myself for leaving her there to be taken. Mostly I hated this quagmire of pain and anger we'd both gotten trapped in and couldn't seem to get back out of.

It was the scotch. Too much of it. Too much Bella and anger and confusion and goddamn fucking Riley. There was no excuse for any of it, but the next thing I knew, I'd reached out and grabbed her by the hair and crushed my mouth down on hers. It wasn't right or fair, but I wanted to snuff him out, erase him from anywhere he'd touched her. I wanted to press myself into her skin so she could never get rid of me.

It was a hard, desperate kiss, with bruising lips and scraping teeth. I was gripping her hair too tight. I was probably hurting her. I didn't care. I pushed harder, and her back hit the wall with a thud. Her hands were on me, twisting into my collar. Pulling me in? Holding herself up? Shoving me off? I couldn't tell. All I knew is that I wanted. If I just went farther, held tighter, kissed deeper, I'd get lost in her and maybe this desperate ache would just stop.

When she moaned, I came to. What the fuck was I doing? This was so many levels of wrong. I pulled my mouth off hers and dropped my head. I was gasping for breath and so was she. Her face was pressed next to mine, her cheek brushing mine. I squeezed my eyes shut and willed my sanity to return through the fog of alcohol and anger. I heard her breath coming in ragged little gasps. Then I heard her whimper. Then I felt her tears. Fuck.

All I wanted to do was pull her in and hang on tight, but I made myself let go and step back. I couldn't raise my head to look at her. I was embarrassed, ashamed that I'd forced myself on her that way, and that she'd seen my abject desperation.

"I'm sorry," I muttered. "I shouldn't have… I'll go."

I heard her drag in a shuddering breath and let it back out in a sob. I couldn't look at her. I just backed away and spun towards the front door.

*0*0*

Reckoning- Bella

Edward released me, sputtering a string of barely coherent apologies. Then he turned and fled like he was on fire.

I did the only thing I could do. I slid down the wall to a heap on the floor and cried my eyes out. Jessica found me there a few minutes later and managed to get me out of there without completely ruining Alice's party.

I went home and lay in my bed, staring at the ceiling until the sun came up. Then I rolled to my side and stared at the wall as the sun moved higher and the shadows grew longer. When Riley called me mid-afternoon, I told him I couldn't see him anymore, and I hung up.

It wasn't kind, and he deserved better, but I couldn't help it. I was still hopelessly, desperately in love with my soon-to-be ex-husband. The sooner Riley got himself away from me, the better it would be for him.

I lay in my bed until it got dark again. I didn't know what to do. He wasn't with Elise. He had been, but only once. She was gone and had been for a long time. But if he wasn't with her now, then why wasn't he with me? The obvious answer was that I was no longer enough to make him happy, or that I'd hurt him and us beyond repair. Or maybe he just finally got tired of the battle between his success and me, and he picked the fame. God knows, I'd been difficult towards the end. Dealing with adoring fans was so much easier than dealing with a needy wife. Maybe it was just easier. They could give him all the adulation he needed without any of the responsibility or commitment.

So why last night? Why did he seem so unhappy? Why did he seek me out? Why was he so hateful and angry about Riley? And dear God, why did he kiss me?

It hurt to think about. It all hurt, inside and out. I missed him and wanted him. I'd cried myself dry for him. All I could do was curl into a ball and ache for him some more.

Jessica showed up with take-out when it got dark.

"I figured you hadn't eaten today after last night," she said, holding up a bag of Indian food.

I wasn't hungry, but I waved her in. I got forks and plates while she poured some wine.

"So how are you doing?" she asked, once we were settled on the couch.

"I broke up with Riley."

Jessica just hummed and nodded.

"I was mean," I said.

"He got caught in the crossfire," she returned. "What are you going to do?"

"What can I do, Jess? He's divorcing me."

"Yeah, but he kissed you."

I sighed. "I don't know what that was about. He was just drunk, I guess."

"Or he's changing his mind," Jess said slowly. "Last night, Alice told me they had to push back the release date of his next book."

"What?" I sat up and twisted on the couch to look at her.

"He's blocked. Hasn't written a word in months. He's a mess."

I groaned and flopped back on the couch. "So... what? He's sniffing around me again because he can't write?"

Jess shrugged and leaned back, too. "Or maybe he can't write because you're gone."

"He left me, not the other way around."

Jess held up a hand, "I know that. I'm just saying, you might want to relax a little out of that defensive crouch you're in. He might be trying to say something, if you're ready to listen."

"A month ago you were prepping me for battle in divorce court."

"And you needed to be ready. If you're really getting a divorce."

I rolled my head back and blinked at the ceiling. "I'm so confused."

"That's because it's confusing. Just… give it a little time. And if you still love him, be willing to listen. Even if you're afraid you might get hurt."

I sighed. "I'll try."

*0*0*

Edward

"You want to tell me where you disappeared to the other night?" Jasper barked in my ear as soon as I opened my phone.

"Uhhhh… I had a little too much to drink. I went home to sleep it off." I rolled over and looked at the clock. Noon. I guess I couldn't be surprised after I drank until dawn last night.

"Uh-huh. Did you taking off have anything to do with Bella running out of the party in tears?"

"Fuck. Really?"

"Yep. What's going on, Edward?"

I groaned. "I have no idea. I was drunk. I was an ass. I guess I upset her."

"Upset her enough that she broke up with Riley?"

The dull pounding in my head blew away like smoke. "She did?"

"That's what I hear. You need to do some thinking, Edward."

"Yeah, I do. I'll talk to you later, Jasper."

"Good luck. You'll need it."

*0*0*

Arbitration- Bella

I paced the perimeter of the lower lobby for ten minutes trying to summon up the guts to step into the elevator. There was another day of arbitration to get through. Today we were supposed to decide the fate of our apartment, the place we'd called home. That, plus a few financial odds and ends were all that still tied us together. After this, it would just be filing some paperwork, a few signatures, and everything would be over.

Edward was probably up there already. I hadn't seen him since the night of Alice's party a week before. My head was a mess. Jessica's words had planted all kinds of seeds in my head, leaving me anxious and scared, slightly hopeful and full of dread. She was right; if I still wanted him, I'd have to lower my defenses enough to let him know it. But then I'd be entirely vulnerable to the one person on earth with the power to destroy me completely. To stay safe, however, meant to continue on this path and let the events unfold to divide us permanently. That was going to destroy me, too.

Another five minutes of pacing got me no nearer an answer, so I just bolted into the next elevator to arrive. I forgot all of my centering techniques and calming breathing. None of it was of any use to me now anyway.

When I got to the small upstairs lobby of Scott's law firm, the receptionist pointed me back towards the conference room. I was late. No doubt, everyone was already inside.

Everyone except for Edward.

He was pacing the short hall in front of the conference room, head down, one hand raised and absently fisting into his hair. He was wearing decent pants and a suit jacket today, a step up from the hobo-chic he'd been sporting at the first round of arbitration.

I wasn't sure why he was out there by himself, but when he heard me coming, he looked up and froze in his tracks. I froze, too. I wasn't sure what we were supposed to do or say now. From the look on his face, he wasn't sure, either.

After a minute, he reached up and rubbed his palm across the back of his neck. "Bella, I want to apologize for the other night. I was drunk and way out of line."

Everything in me seemed to freeze solid. He was explaining it all away. "It's alright," I finally managed. I swallowed hard, trying to put myself together enough to face today's meeting, since that was clearly what was going to happen next. We were getting divorced today. "Let's just forget that it happened, okay?"

Edward took a step in my direction. "I said I was sorry. I didn't say I wanted to forget about it."

I looked up at him, slowly advancing towards me. His face was so familiar to me, but right now, he seemed almost brand new. All the same features, but reshaped with emotions I hardly recognized. His eyes were intent on my face, and sad. Now that I looked closer, I could see the signs of fatigue all over his face. He hadn't been sleeping.

A spark of hope flared in my chest, but I stayed still where I was, afraid to make a move. I remembered what Jessica said. I needed to let my defenses down enough to let him in, if that's what he wanted. Did he want that?

Edward stopped a foot away from me and sighed. It was like every molecule of air fled his body. He visibly deflated in front of me. Whatever nervous energy had been fueling him as he paced was all used up.

"I'm so sorry," he said softly.

My breath caught in my throat. "I said it was okay."

He closed his eyes momentarily in frustration. "Not the party. Everything. Elise, and…" He held his breath for a second and spoke again on an exhale. "You were right. Every time. Whenever I had to choose between you and my career, I picked my career. Every fucking time. And it was so wrong. I'm so sorry, Bella. I'm sorry for all the times I needed to be there and I wasn't. I'm sorry I didn't try harder, and work to really know you, every single day."

I tried to take a breath, and my throat closed up. It hurt and I could feel the tears starting. His voice was so soft and vulnerable. I'd never heard him sound like this. He'd never been like this. Open. I needed to let him in, too. I needed to reach out and meet him half way—no matter how scared I was, no matter how badly he could hurt me. I needed to take the chance. And I needed to say my own apologies.

"It was your dream, Edward. It was important to you. I was so… angry. I resented you because your dream happened and mine didn't. I didn't get it. We were supposed to be on the same side. Your dream was my dream, too. I let the business get to me, and I let it tear me down. I made you my competition instead of my partner. I'm sorry, too."

My breath was coming in little hitches as I fought to get it all out. Now was my chance. It was our chance. It was the last moment we had to put it all out there, to let it all be said. It was my last chance to reach out and grab him, if he would only be there to catch me.

I looked up from my feet, back to Edward. His eyes were glassy and red. His chest was heaving with each breath.

"Bella…"

He was cut off from whatever he was about to say by the conference room door opening behind him. Scott came out, with John just in his wake.

"Mr. Cullen… Mrs. Cullen… when you're ready. There's a lot to be decided today."

Edward closed his eyes and tipped his head back for a moment. When he opened them again and looked at me, there was only the two of us standing here. No one else mattered. His eyes met mine and didn't waver. His hand moved, reaching towards me. I felt his fingertips brush the side of my hand, tentative and questioning. My hand turned toward his on instinct, our fingers weaving together in a way that felt old and familiar and also like the first time.

"There is a lot to be decided today," he said slowly. He leaned in slightly, his face a question. I looked at our joined hands and then back at him and nodded in answer. "I think this conversation is one Bella and I need to have in private."

Scott cleared his throat and moved forward. "With all due respect, Mr. Cullen, I would advise you not to make any decisions about the dissolution of property without your attorney present."

Edward never looked away from me. His eyes were tired but hopeful. He was smiling just a little bit. I was smiling back. Our hands tightened around each other instinctively. "This isn't about property. This is about us."

"Mrs. Cullen?" John spoke up. "Are you sure about this?"

I kept my eyes on Edward, on the one person in this world that I never wanted to look away from, the one person I hoped would always be right here, always right by my side where he belonged. He smiled again, encouraging, comforting. "I'm not sure about anything yet. But I'm hopeful."

Edward's little smile turned into a full-blown grin as he tugged on my hand, urging me to follow him. And I would. If we could keep going and overcome our fear, if we could repair all the damage we'd done to each other and ourselves, we'd follow each other every day for the rest of our lives.

We turned together and walked away, hand-in-hand.