WhatsMyNomdePlume is my most excellent beta and friend. Endless thanks to her for coming along on this ride with me.
Back at home, after we've fed ourselves and a couple of beers have loosened my rigid nerves, I pull Bella down into the bed with me. She's stayed with me every night since my dad went into the hospital, but that was more for comfort. Even the morning after she came back, when we had sex was more about reassurance than lust. Every night that we've fallen into bed, I've just curled her into my chest and hold on tight so I can sleep in peace.
But tonight is different. She's here and we're together and I want to show her that it's different. Even though she hasn't left my side in days, I've missed her. She must have been missing me too because after just one little tug on her hand, she's pushing me back on the bed forcefully, crawling over me, pressing her body down on mine and kissing me hard.
I let her set the pace, her lips and her tongue all over mine. Her hands are gripping my shoulders, then sliding down over my chest, her fingertips skimming over my abdomen. Our kisses are slow and deep and endless. When she tugs the hem of my shirt up and lays her palm flat against my stomach, the slow coil of lust building inside of me suddenly snaps tight. I grab her hips and pull her down until she's pressed into me and I'm pushing up into her. She sighs into my mouth and grinds down on me.
I reach up and tangle my fingers in the long sweep of her hair, pushing it back off her face, gripping the back of her head. She rises up just enough to look at me. I rub my thumb down her temple.
"I love you." It's so easy now.
She smiles, slowly and wide, before leaning back in to press her mouth back on mine again. I roll us, settling down over her. She wraps herself fully around me, arms around my shoulders, legs around my hips. We're kissing and grinding and groping and there are so many clothes between us.
"Naked," I mutter, kissing the side of her neck.
"Yes, sir," she chuckles. I laugh before I rear up off her and strip off my shirt. By the time I've gotten out of my pants, Bella has sent all her clothes to the floor, too. I sit back on my heels and just look at her, laid out underneath me. She smiles up at me, but as I continue to just look, she starts to squirm. One arm comes up over her chest.
"What are you looking at?" she asks, her cheekbones lightly flushing.
"You. You're beautiful."
She gives an embarrassed little smile and rolls her eyes. I pull her arm away from her chest and pin both her wrists by her head.
"What? Isn't that what boyfriends do? They tell their girlfriends that they're beautiful? I told you I suck at this so you'll have to tell me if I'm doing it wrong."
She chuckles but when she replies, she's breathy and serious. "You're doing it perfectly. You're perfect, Edward."
And that's perfect. Of all the things she could say to me, she always seems to say just the right one—the thing that makes me feel like a hero.
We're done teasing and joking after that. I lower myself down to her and wrap myself around her. She's warm and soft and every desperate part of me fits just right against her. The frantic edge is gone, too. It's just a slow build-up, kissing and touching, until I slide inside her, as easy as breathing.
I will never get tired of this, of the feel of her slim body arching underneath me, her arms around my back, her long legs holding me against her. Being this tired, I'm not going to last long, but maybe that's okay. There's no timeline for us anymore. I have her for as long as I want her, and I want her for a long, long time. Maybe forever.
When we're both done, exhausted and sated, she pulls me back down on her, with my head on her chest, her heartbeat a steady, peaceful thump under my cheek. I want to stay awake and talk. I still feel like there's so much we should say. But I can't. I'm so tired and she's so soothing. I sink below the surface of her breath and her hands.
Hours later, I wake with a jolt. I wasn't dreaming, at least not that I can remember. But I'm shaky and unsettled. I can feel my father like a physical presence all around me. I'm tense all over, expecting to hear his voice in my ear any second. I feel like he just walked out of the room.
Bella sighs and shifts in her sleep next to me. I carefully slide away from her body to avoid waking her, easing myself out of bed. I find my boxers and t-shirt on the floor and I move to the living room. Sleep feels a long way off and I figure I'll read or something until I'm tired again.
The files from the lawyer's office are still spread across the coffee table where we left them earlier. I don't know why I do it, because it's certainly not going to help me sleep, but I pick up the top one and flip it open.
There are so many pages. Endless documents and statements, cataloguing every aspect of my father's life on paper. There are bank statements, lists of investments and accounts, deeds and titles, and a huge stack of stuff that is only related to his business. I need to hand that over to Marcus, maybe see if he wants to buy me out or something, because there's no way I'm keeping the business. That one's a no-brainer.
I flip idly through the paperwork and start to notice something. My name. Over and over. It was his name, too, but this is different. This is me. Edward Masen, Jr. On every document, I'm listed as the next of kin, the emergency contact, the "other authorized person" on the accounts. And when I get to the stack of documents about the business, there are whole pages written up, outlining how my father's half of the business is to be transferred to me. He wrote this. Months, maybe even years, ago.
"Hey, what are you doing out here?" Bella's leaning on the doorframe looking rumpled and sleepy, her body swallowed up by one of my t-shirts.
"Sorry I woke you up. I couldn't sleep."
"S'okay," she mumbles, crossing to settle next to me. She turns to face my side and wraps her whole body around me, her long, bare legs around my hips and her arms around my shoulders. "What are you looking at?"
"All this paperwork."
"Now? You really want to go over this stuff now?"
"No, not really. I was just looking at it and I kept noticing something."
"What do you mean?"
"I'm everywhere in this stuff, on every page. He put me everywhere."
"Of course. He was leaving it all to you."
I shake my head as the thoughts start to clarify for me, so I can say it to her. "No, it's not like that. It's like… I don't know… we were all fucked up and barely speaking. I was so angry at him and he was so disappointed in me. But he still put me in everything. He was thinking about me when he wrote every one of these."
Bella is quiet for a minute, just pressing her face against my shoulder. "Do you know why?"
I snort in a little humorless laugh. "That's what I'm sitting here trying to figure out."
"It's because he loved you, Edward. He's your father. You're his son. Whatever you guys were going through didn't change that. Nothing changed that, even if it seemed that way to you sometimes."
I'm stunned for a second. "I don't…"
"Did I ever tell you that my dad was really pissed about my major?" She changes the subject so quickly that I have to pause for a second before I answer.
"You didn't tell me much at all about your dad, if you remember."
She shoves my shoulder gently. "Hush, you. You're going to get more of my dad than you ever bargained for. But, listen. When I told him I wanted to get my PhD in Comparative Lit, he thought it was a waste of time."
"Bella, he's so proud of you. He told me so himself."
"He is now. But at first, he wasn't happy. He figured that if I was going to spend all that time and money becoming a doctor of something, it should be a doctor of medicine. You know… a real job. He actually said that to me once in the middle of a fight."
"I can't believe that."
She chuckles. "Believe it. He thought being an English major was pointless. We fought about it a lot. And even when we got past the fighting, it was still a touchy subject for a long time."
"Lots of things. Time passed. He saw how hard I worked in undergrad, and how much it meant to me. We got better at talking to each other like two adults. It doesn't really matter, that's not the point. The point is, eventually we got through it. And you would have, too. As bad as it seems now, you would have gotten through it. Maybe not perfectly and maybe you'd have never really seen eye-to-eye, but he loved you and under all your anger, you loved him, too."
Out of nowhere, my throat seizes up and my eyes burn. I can't breathe.
I curl forward, over my knees and squeeze my eyes shut.
He's dead and gone and he was my father and I loved him and he's gone. My shroud of numbness that's gotten me through the days since that first phone call falls away and all the sadness fucking swamps me. I press the heels of my hands into my eyes but I still see us, our faces from that photograph in his office, that day when we were happy.
Bella shifts and presses closer to me. I feel her hands in my hair and her lips against the side of my neck, shushing me and whispering comforting little words against my skin.
I'm gasping for breath and fighting back the hot sting of tears. "I can't fix it."
Bella sighs, such a sad sound. "No, you can't. Not now. And that's the really shitty part. You'll never get the chance to know what might have happened. So you're going to have to make peace with it all on your own."
"I don't know how," I whisper. I feel so small and weak right now, but it's okay. I know she's okay with it and it's not a bad thing to be weak in front of her. I'm asking for her help, and I'm letting her in to give it. That doesn't make me weak—it makes us stronger. I get that now.
"You don't have to know yet. It will probably take a long time, Edward. Stuff like this… stuff that never gets resolved… it's really hard to let go of. But I know you'll figure it out. You know why?"
I shake my head and sniff, swiping my palms across my eyes.
"You're smarter than he was."
I snort. "My father was a fucking genius, Bella."
"Yeah, at this stuff." She waves her hand at the stacks of papers all over the table. "But not at the important stuff. Remember all those guys at the funeral? You said they were just like your dad."
"So I think it's safe to say that your dad wasn't exactly in touch with his emotions."
I almost laugh out loud at that. "Uh, no. You'd be right about that."
"See? You're so much further along than him."
"How do you figure that?"
"Well, for starters, you're out here torturing yourself about this in the middle of the night. It matters to you. And then there's us. You could have given up. Run away. You didn't. You called me. You asked me to come. That took a lot of guts."
"I have been anything but brave when it comes to you. I was too chicken shit to even acknowledge that I wanted a relationship with you."
"Maybe at first. But now? Here we are, talking, dealing with stuff. That's kind of huge for you, Edward. I'm not saying if your dad was still here that it would have been easy. It would have been really hard. But you'd have managed for the same reason you're going to manage now. Because you're strong and loving and you're such a good person."
All the air leaves my lungs in a long tired sigh. "I'm such a mess, Bella. I don't know where I'm going or what the hell I'm doing with my life."
She presses her lips against my shoulder in a quick kiss. "Doesn't matter."
"How can you say that? You're going to Europe next year, and you're doing all this amazing stuff in school and I'm just—"
"You. You're you. I love you, not your life plan or your career. Just you."
I turn my face to look at her in the dark. We're just inches apart, our arms and legs still all tangled until I can hardly tell where I stop and she starts. And God, I love her. This amazing, sweet girl who loves me back against all better reasoning.
"I'll figure it out," I say quietly. "I will, I promise. Just…"
"Just be there for me when I do."
She smiles in the dim light. "I can't wait to see it."
"Now look, Tyler, either you can work your shifts this week or not. 'I'll see what I can do' just doesn't cut it. Are we clear here?"
Tyler doesn't look up at me, but he nods, albeit a little sullenly. I glare at him for another minute until he starts to squirm. The employees generally think of me as a nice guy, one of them, but I've found it pays to remind them now and then of who's boss. And that's me—at least it is until Carlisle and Esme get back from their month in Europe.
"So you'll be here at three on Thursday." I don't ask him, I tell him. I set the damned schedule. If he wants his job, he'll show up for his shift.
"Yeah, three on Thursday."
"Great. Now, there's a cart of books in back that need to be restocked. Can you take care of that?"
He nods and heads to the back without another word. I say thank you anyway. I'm still a nice guy after all.
Sometimes I hear myself talking to the employees and I can hardly believe it's me. I've been managing the store for five months now and all of this responsibility and authority has been easier to handle than I'd expected. I'm actually pretty damned good at it. Still, hearing myself order people around, sounding sure of myself, confident, responsible… it's a little surreal.
I stay a little longer to make sure Tyler's really restocking and not hiding behind a shelf texting his girlfriend, and I make sure Charlotte is cool on the register. Of course she is. Charlotte could run the register in her sleep. When I'm satisfied that everything is under control, I pack up my backpack. All my books and papers from Auditing Standards are spread out on the back counter from my earlier study session before the store opened. I have a test in the class this afternoon, but that's not until three and I'm feeling solid on the material, so I'm sneaking out a little early.
"Char, you got this?" I ask once more, just to be sure.
She smiles at me, knowing full well where I'm headed. "Absolutely. And don't worry, I'll kick Tyler's ass and keep him in line."
I smile at her. "I have no doubt that you will."
"I'll enjoy it, too. I promise, we'll be fine."
"I'll be back after my class for closing."
"See you then. Good luck on your test!"
After one last glance at Tyler to make sure he's still working, I feel relaxed enough to leave the store. If anybody can run the place in my absence, it's Charlotte, but I still get anxious whenever I leave it in someone else's hands, even for a few hours.
I walk fast across campus, wanting to maximize my little window of freedom before my class. Spring hit Seattle with a vengeance about two weeks ago and all around me, everything is aggressively green and blooming. It makes you feel renewed just being outside.
The winter was long and sometimes difficult. The grief over losing my father crept up on me slowly and even now hits me at odd, unexpected times. Bella was right; the lack of closure is really hard to deal with, but I'm trying. Esme talks with me about it sometimes and that's been helpful. It's easier to get perspective on it looking at it through someone else's eyes.
I'm still not okay with everything, but I know that eventually I will be, as long as I keep moving forward and working on it. Bella was right about that.
The winter has been painful in that respect, but it's been so good in others. Because Bella's been with me for all of it. She was there to help me with all of the unpleasant logistical shit—selling my half of the business to Marcus, selling my father's condo (after finding out that Jane disappeared, taking everything of value that wasn't nailed down), and learning my way around a morass of really complicated financial investments.
But she's also been there for the easiest part of all—us. What we started last fall has grown into something I never could have imagined for myself. She's become the most important thing in my life, my reason and my happiness. I have other things I care about—managing the store and finishing my degree—but she runs through everything, giving my life a purpose that it never had before.
I enrolled in a full course-load this quarter, which is a challenge along with managing the store, but I'm doing alright. I carried a full load last quarter, too, and I survived. As fate would have it, I've found myself back in the business department, but not as prep for earning my M.B.A, like before.
When I went in for academic advisement last fall and my advisor went over my transcript with me, we decided that since most of the credits I'd earned were in business-related courses, I'd be best off pursuing a degree in that department. After a lot of soul-searching, along with endless discussions with Bella, Carlisle and Esme, I decided: accounting. Sometimes if I say it out loud—Edward Masen, C.P.A.—I cringe a little. But only a little, because it turns out I'm really good at it and more surprising to me, I actually like it.
Since I've finally chosen a major and applied myself in earnest, I'm doing really well in school. It's amazing what you can accomplish when you're dedicated to something. I've met a couple of people through the mentoring program that have found interesting ways to use their degree, so I'm confident I can work out a job in the end that will make me happy.
Besides, the money my father left me hasn't set me up for life or anything, but it will give me a little freedom. I don't have to slave away for H & R Block or something. I can set up my own deal, and work with just a handful of clients if I want. Basically, I can craft my own future. I doubt it's the future my father was envisioning when he left me everything he'd worked so hard for, but it's the one I want, so I'm grateful for what he did for me nonetheless.
Bella talked through all the ins and outs of my choice of major with me, but I left her out of one important factor in my decision-making process because I didn't want her to feel pressured. Accountants can work all over the country in one form or another. I know enough about Bella's chosen field at this point to know she might not have much say about where she ends up. If she gets offered a teaching position, she needs to take it, no matter where it is. And I fully intend to follow her there, no matter where it is. And I need tell her that soon.
I'm smiling just thinking about her, and I pick up my pace across campus. I take the steps of the library two at a time and weave through the main floor, past circulation and the reference desk. At the back of the second floor, I find the long table that her study group favors. It's near enough to their grad student carrels but still tucked away enough to be out of the main flow of foot traffic in the stacks.
Books and laptops are spread out everywhere and I spot Bella's stuff next to a small stack of books I recognize from my apartment this morning. There are three people working at the table and they all look up when I come around the corner.
"Hey, Edward," Jess calls brightly when she sees me.
"Hi, Jess, how are you?"
She rolls her eyes and groans. "Buried."
It's the stock answer for all of Bella's classmates. They're always up to their eyes in some kind of work. I round the table and stop briefly behind Angela, leaning down to kiss her cheek. Angie and her boyfriend, Ben, have become good friends to Bella and me. We hang out a lot.
"How's it going, Ang?" I ask.
She reaches up and pats my hand where it rests on her shoulder and sighs. "This paper is due in a week, so I'm sure you can guess. Bella's back in the two-seventies. She'll be glad to see you. Make her take a break, will you? She's driving herself too hard, as usual."
"What do you think I'm here for?" I smile down at her. "I'm stealing her away for lunch."
"Good, she needs it."
Angela turns back to her laptop and I give a tight nod of acknowledgment to the third person at the table, Riley. He lifts his chin at me, no smile. That's right, asshole, I'm here for my girlfriend. I still irrationally hate the guy, even though I have no reason to. Whatever. He hates me, too, so we're even.
I head down the aisle, skimming call numbers, until I reach the row housing the one Angela rattled off to me. I see Bella as soon as I turn the corner. She's standing facing the shelves with her head bowed, a book open in her hand. There are two more books open and lying across the tops of the shelved ones, so she can reference them. At some point in the morning, she's twisted her hair up behind her head and shoved a pen through it to hold it. It's sagging and about to fall down completely. Long wisps have come loose and they're floating around the back of her pale, arched neck. Her eyebrows are slightly furrowed as she reads.
She does this all the time. She'll wander into the stacks to get a book, start reading right where she stands, and completely forget to bring things back to her table. She'll stand there reading for hours.
She's so lost that she doesn't even hear me slip up behind her. Quickly, quietly, I reach out on either side of her and grab the shelf, pressing myself up against her back at the same time. I duck down and kiss her exposed neck.
She gasps and lets out a choked little sound of surprise, twisting around against me.
"Jesus," she laughs, "You scared the crap out of me."
I just grin and push her into the shelf. "Maybe if you came up for air once in a while, I wouldn't have to resort to ambushing you in the stacks."
She grins back. "Maybe so."
"Mmm hmm." I lean in and kiss her quickly. Then I go in for another one, this one longer, deeper, hotter. I reach up and pull the pen out of her hair so it all falls down, and I dig my fingers into it. She moans into my mouth. I reach down for her hips, pulling her body into mine. She gropes out to the side and drops her book with a thud on an empty stretch of shelf before her hands go into my hair.
I was only intending to kiss her hello and this is rapidly escalating into a lot more than that, but I'm okay with that. Of course, there's the unfortunate reality that we're in the library stacks in the middle of the day and I have a test in two hours. With a disappointed sigh, I pull back from her mouth, moving to the side of her neck and the part of her shoulder exposed by the neckline of her skimpy little spring shirt.
"As much as I'm enjoying this," I mutter against her skin, "I really only came to drag you away to have lunch with me."
"Mmmm," she says as my teeth scrape over her collarbone, "Lunch?"
"Lunch. Although you're much tastier than food and I'd rather—"
"Don't promise things you can't deliver," she cuts me off, pushing my head away and straightening her shirt.
"Oh, I'll deliver, alright. But not until tonight."
She gives a groaning little sigh and burrows her face into the side of my neck, kissing me quickly. "Don't you have a test today?"
"Not till three."
"You're not studying?"
"Aren't you cocky?"
"Confident," I correct her. "You know this about me."
She laughs. "Yeah, when it comes to women, not Auditing Standards."
"You know, I might have been a slacker when you met me, but I'm not exactly dumb. And I happen to be very good at math."
"You forget I was here for your first two tests for this class, so I know how good you are at math. I'm making you do my taxes for me this year."
"Only if you come to lunch with me right this second."
She makes a face and glances at her books behind her. "I have so much to do…"
"And you'll do it better on a full stomach. Come on."
I snag her books off the shelf over her shoulder and start walking.
"Edward!" But she follows me, so mission accomplished. We pause at the table just long enough for her to pack up her laptop and grab her bag. She still leaves it open on the table when she goes into the stacks, no matter how many times I tell her not to. She swears that since Eric left, she trusts everyone in her group. I tell her she shouldn't trust Riley, but she just laughs and says I'm crazy. She's probably right, I just enjoy hating on the guy.
She blinks like a mole coming above ground when we step outside of the library.
"Wow, it turned out to be a beautiful day, huh?"
"See? Aren't you glad I came to get you?"
She smiles up at me. "I'd be glad you came to get me even if there were a monsoon outside."
We get sandwiches from a guy pushing a cart across campus and find a grassy spot under a tree. Students are sprawled on the ground everywhere around us, enjoying the sun and warm weather.
We chat about her paper and my test while we eat, and when she finishes, Bella stretches out with her head in my lap. I lean back on the tree and run my fingers through her hair. We're quiet for a while, just soaking up the weather and the day and each other.
"So…" Bella says at length.
I crack open an eye and look down at her, raising one eyebrow. I know that "so". She's got something to say.
She shakes her head. "Never mind. I'll tell you later. After your test."
"Oh, c'mon, you can't do that. It's out there now. If you don't tell me, I'll be worried about it during my test. You have to tell me."
She huffs. "Alright. I got an email from the University of Naples today."
I sit up straighter and look down at her with both eyes wide open. "And?"
She shrugs and looks down at her hands, fidgeting. I lay my hand over hers to still her and get her to look at me. She sighs. "I'm on the short list. Top five applicants."
"That's fantastic, Bella," I tell her, grinning widely.
"It's Naples, Edward," she says. "Italy."
"So? Do you not want to go now? I thought it was one of your top choices."
"It was. It is. But…"
I sigh and nudge her with my knee. "Sit up. Talk. What's wrong?"
She pulls herself upright, crossing her legs and facing me. I reach out and grab her hands, pulling them into my lap.
"We haven't really talked about this," she says hesistantly. "Me going to Europe next year. What—"
"What it means for us?" I finish for her, since she seems reluctant to do it. She nods. Her face is so anxious. I reach out and cup her cheek, rubbing her cheekbone with my thumb. "We haven't talked about it, but I've been thinking about it."
"Some. Look, you know you need to do this, right? If they offer you a spot, you're going. It's non-negotiable."
"No buts. Not about that, anyway."
"You're still in school."
"I know. And I'll keep going. Bella, we can do this. It's not that long. A few months in the fall and a few more in the spring. You'll come home for the break, or hell, maybe I'll go there. Me and you in Italy for Christmas. Doesn't sound so bad, huh?"
"You think so?" Her eyes abruptly fill with tears, which is crazy. Bella rarely cries. I've only seen her do it twice, in fact. I feel bad, wondering how long she's been torturing herself about this. We should have talked about it sooner so she wouldn't have worried. I'm still feeling my way through this relationship thing and I'm not always as aware as I should be.
"Absolutely," I say, as firmly as I can. "Did you think I was just going to call the whole thing off when you go?"
"I wasn't sure. I know we're good, but this is long-distance, Edward. Serious long-distance. It's a whole different thing."
I shake my head. "It's the same thing. I love you. That won't change. The rest is just logistics."
She smiles, but it looks a little pained when she's fighting back tears. "C'mere." I pull her forward into my lap and wrap my arms around her waist. I push my face into her hair and inhale deeply. Still one of my favorite places on earth.
"It'll be hard," she says, running her fingers into the short hair on the back of my neck.
"Hell yes, it will be. I can't even imagine how much I'll miss you."
"But… you'll stay busy and I'll stay busy and by the time you get back, I'll be nearly done with school."
"What do you mean? I thought you had a lot more to go."
I smile into her shoulder. "I talked to my advisor yesterday."
Now it's her turn to goad for information. "And?"
"And he says I'm doing really well. If I take a full load over the summer and keep it up through next year, I could be nearly done. Maybe a couple of classes next summer to wrap it up. We'll have to see."
"So another year and you're done?"
"Looks like it."
She reaches up and grabs my face with both hands. "Edward, I am so, so proud of you."
I don't blush, but I feel like I could under her scrutiny, with her watery eyes looking at me like this. "I haven't done it yet," I mutter.
"You will. You can do anything you set your mind to."
"So can you," I tell her, settling my arms around her hips. "We're going to be okay."
I look back into her watery brown eyes, and her face, flushed with emotion and a tentative smile. I think about the promises I've made Bella. The night I met her I promised simply that I'd make her feel good. I did that. Later, when we took the first cautious steps into a relationship, I promised her I'd figure out myself and my life. Now it looks like I've done that, too. I'm about to make her another promise, the most important one I've made in my life. I'm promising we'll stay together, we'll work out the hard stuff, and I'll be there for her no matter what. I will move heaven and earth to keep this promise to her, too.
I lean forward and press my lips to hers and I whisper, "I promise."
A/N: Thanks once again to every single one of you that left a review, tweeted about this story or recc'd it in a forum somewhere. After more than two years in this fandom, I'm still amazed at this wonderful community we've created, and I feel lucky to be a part of it.