Thanks so much to everyone who reads and reviews, either here or on Dru's account. It means so very much to us. Derdriu continues to be amazing. If you aren't reading Clockwork or haven't read And With Thee Fade Away, shame on you! (I mean, we still absolutely adore you for reading this, but seriously, go read those, they're both in my favorites on my profile.)
A Matter of Life and Death
She stared at the spot where the door had been, rattled by how quickly everything had turned dark and ordinary. Cars rushed by and Victoria's ambulance flew off into the darkness, siren blaring. Bella folded her arms around herself, suddenly cold.
"So that's what it's normally like for you, then?" she said bitterly when Edward had returned to her side. "You show up, drag some soul away from his loved ones, and shove him on his way? You think that's going to teach me about the importance of death? There really should be a serum meant to keep you away."
She expected some sort of wry retort, but instead, she only saw his shoulders sink infinitesimally. "This is not what it's usually like," he said softly, looking away. "Usually, I work alone."
Bella was caught off guard by these words, to the point that she found it difficult to form any of her own.
"And I see you still disagree with everything I stand for," he said, already walking back to his car. "You and the whole damned planet."
Edward found himself remarkably disappointed by her response to his first lesson. He did not often experience such a feeling of letdown, and it knocked him off his mental center for a few moments. But by the time he was behind the wheel of his car, and Bella was beside him, grumpy though she was, he was determined to show her the second act of his play.
"Are you going to take me back to my lab now?" asked Bella, using an indignant monotone.
"The night is young! Of course not."
She sighed. "Then where are you taking me? I thought you showed me your point."
"I showed you part of my point."
"I think you just have a problem accepting failure. You do realize you failed, right?"
Bella watched as Edward flung the car into gear and stomped on the gas pedal. The acceleration pressed her into the seat as if they were taking off in an airplane. "Best two out of three," he said with a wink.
It was not until the car skidded to a halt once more that Bella dared open her eyes. When she did, she realized that Edward had parked in front of a hospital.
"Welcome to my office," he announced, excitedly grabbing her hand and sending them straight to the front lobby. "This is where I go when I want to be lazy."
Bella was getting used to Edward's unannounced teleportation, but she hadn't stopped reacting. In lieu of staggering around and feeling generally nauseous, she settled for shrieking, then flailing away from his hands, then shouting, "You really need to stop doing that!"
Unexpectedly, her voice echoed through the chemical-smelling lobby as if she had yelled into a microphone. When the sound waves bounced off of every available surface and landed back in her eardrums, she finally fell silent. Slightly embarrassed, she clamped a hand over her mouth. But the receptionists only looked around with slight confusion, seemingly unsure if they had actually heard a noise.
"Thank God I've made you invisible," said Edward with an eye roll. "You really are embarrassingly unruly."
Bella had been saving up a particular gesture, and since she was invisible to everyone except for the man she intended as the recipient, she boldly displayed it for him. But when she showed off the elegant straightness of her middle finger, Edward only smiled, hooked his pinky around it with a girlish giggle, and zapped them straight to the third floor.
"I hate you," she declared.
"Everyone hates me." He paused to scratch his chin thoughtfully. "Except maybe the emos. But they only pretend to like me, so they don't count."
Bella looked around the corridor, which was lined with rooms for patients. "You're not going to show me sick children, are you? Because that would be really upsetting, and it wouldn't work at all."
"Do you really think I'm that insensitive?"
She gave him a pointed glare.
"Fine. Think what you will, but I'm actually not going to show you any dead people."
"Yes, really. Now come with me." He swept her hand away from her side, but surprisingly moved down the hallway the natural way—by walking. Why he needed to hold her hand while he did this, she couldn't be sure.
At last, they reached a hospital room, which Edward barged right into without any sort of warning or permission. Bella didn't have much choice but to follow suit, since his fingers had threaded through hers.
A middle-aged man was lying in the bed, his heart monitor beeping along slowly. "Death?" he rasped, almost as soon as they had entered.
"He knows you?" whispered Bella, so sharply that it hardly sounded like a whisper at all.
"People who are expecting me tend to recognize me when I show up. Of course, they never remember me after the fact." He scrolled through a page on his Blackberry. "And you, my friend," he said to the man in the bed, "are not on my list."
"I'm not? But my doctor said they couldn't find a good match…"
"Ah, Fortune," proclaimed Edward with an erudite lilt. "How she does spin her wheel."
Bella turned her head at the sound of shoes squeaking down the hall. Her instinct was to hide—she was, after all, an intruder. She intuitively tried to dive behind the curtain next to the man's bed, but Edward, still holding her hand, pulled her back to him. She lost her balance and fell against his body, which, in a moment of slight mental fogginess, she realized was rather lean and muscular.
"You're invisible, remember?" he whispered into her ear, smiling when her skin prickled into goose bumps.
"Oh, right." She set a hand against his chest, meaning to push herself off of him, and him away from her. Instead, she found herself a little stuck this way—her hand over the place his heart would be if he weren't a heartless bastard, and his arm looped tightly around her back.
Fortunately, before Edward could make any wisecracks about their position, a doctor and two nurses entered the room.
"Mr. Crowley," said the doctor. "I'm pleased to say that we finally have a heart for you." The nurses began busying about the room. "We'll need to prep you for surgery. Your family's already been called."
Bella saw tears shine in the man's eyes, and worried that a similar reaction was happening with her own eyes. She didn't fully understand the situation, but such tremendous relief emanated from this man, that she couldn't help but share his emotion.
"That's… that's great news," he said, obviously trying to stifle his smile. Were it not for the hours of major surgery that awaited him, Bella was sure he would be beaming.
"What's happening?" she asked, whispering even though she knew they wouldn't hear her.
"This is the lucky guy who gets James' heart. Even the dead have a lot to give, Bella. See? Look how happy this guy is."
"He's so happy because he doesn't have to deal with you."
Edward frowned. "Shall we go see the family?"
This wasn't really a question, since Edward utilized the fact that his arm was still around her. Before she could blink, they were sitting on a chair in the waiting room. Yes, they were both sitting on one chair, which Edward had undoubtedly planned. Once Bella realized that she was sitting in his lap, she leapt away from him and vigorously smoothed her shirt, as if trying to brush his terrible manners off her clothing.
Edward only snickered in his juvenile manner. As Bella took a seat—not the one beside his, but the next one over—she picked up a heavily abused fashion magazine and pretended to read it. In reality, she was contemplating ways to catch him off guard, or at least make him mad. She was getting too tired to think of anything clever, so she wondered if pulling his hair or throwing things at him would suffice.
She had begun rolling the magazine into a makeshift weapon, but she was stopped by the entrance of a woman and two children—one small girl and a boy who was a little older, maybe ten or twelve.
"Daddy's going to get all better," said the woman, stooping to pick up the girl before sitting down.
"He'll come home soon, right?" said the boy.
"Pretty soon, yes," said his mother. Bella saw the way she anxiously braided her fingers together—her face a mix of joy and nervousness. Here was a woman in love, waiting with her children for the return of their father.
A chill came over her. She knew the pain of losing a loved one to death. She would have given anything to be in the place of this family—to be given the profound gift of life.
Edward clearly had never lost someone. It seemed like he had never had anyone to lose. It was all business for him—numbers and names on his infernal Blackberry. He thought he was teaching her philosophical lessons. In reality, all he was doing was dredging up memories that were much safer buried in the back of her mind.
"So!" said Edward, standing up and folding his arms. "Have I convinced you?"
"I'm not going to destroy my serum."
"Now take me back to my lab." She rolled the magazine even more tightly, imagining how it might be used on the side of Edward's attractive face.
"Why, though?" He looked almost pouty. "This is a happy scene. Look! I'm showing you life! You like life!"
"That's true. What you've shown me here is uplifting. But you had to kill James to make it happen. If my anti-death serum works properly, then neither man has to die. Everyone gets a happy ending."
"Everyone but me," muttered Edward. "And I didn't kill James. I only collected his soul."
"By kissing his hand?" She recalled this aspect at the same time she said it. "What was that about? Are you into guys?"
Edward's face went from pouty to defensive. "I'm not into guys. It's just the mechanism that extracts the soul. You know, the kiss of death. I've got to kiss everyone sooner or later. Men, women, grandparents, babies. Someday I'll even get to kiss you."
Bella found herself imagining that scenario as soon as he had said it. For some reason, her mental image of this was a lot different than the kiss Edward had planted on James' hand. In fact, her mind seemed to think that Edward's hand would be on her ass when this happened, which wouldn't have seemed so strange, were it not for the fact that her own hands were in his hair.
"Strange…" she said, not realizing that she had temporarily zoned out. "I mean, it's pretty gross that you have to go around kissing everyone, though. Ew."
Edward actually looked wounded by this. For a while, he was silent and bitter. "I haven't lost yet, you know," he said at last, locking his fingers and stretching his arms out. "I'm just warming up."
He took her hand again almost angrily. Bella closed her eyes in preparation for the requisite thought-speed transport. When she opened them, she was standing in her living room.
"Oh my God!" she cried, throwing her hands over her mouth. "You know where I live!"
He rolled his eyes with such emphasis that he felt the need to roll his head around at the same time. "I'm Death. I know where everyone lives."
"Oh God, oh God. You don't stalk me, do you? Like… like watch me sleep or something freaky like that?"
Edward sighed—this time a true sigh. He suddenly seemed weary. If Bella didn't know better, she would have guessed that he was ready to admit defeat. But somehow, she knew he wouldn't give up his power so easily.
Nevertheless, when he slumped his shoulders a little and closed his eyes, she knew he was about to disappear.
"Don't go," she said, without thinking at all. Even after her brain had caught up, she couldn't quite figure out why she had said it. He irritated her so; she had no idea why she wanted him to stay. But she did.
He remained as still as a statue. "What?"
"Um…" She fiddled with a piece of her hair. "I mean, you could always stay and talk to me for a while… about stuff."
"You want me to stay and talk about stuff?"
A devious smile cut across his face. He dissolved and reappeared on her sofa, stretched out comfortably. "I do like your stuff." He glanced at her—not quite at her face—and patted the couch beside him.
For a few moments, they sat in awkward silence. Bella could hear the faint whine of her apartment's heating system as they both stared at the wall. She wondered if she should complete the picture by making cricket chirping noises.
Luckily, Edward made use of his impeccable social skills before they waded too deeply into awkwardness. "What sort of stuff would you like to talk about?" He smiled sarcastically. "Our likes and dislikes, maybe? I like long walks on the beach, especially after there's been a shipwreck."
Bella turned to him and folded her legs under her on the couch cushions. "You know, I don't believe you're nearly as insensitive as you act. I think you're just covering up your unhappiness."
He frowned and quickly removed his eyes from hers. "I didn't get to tell you my dislikes, did I? I dislike being analyzed by stubborn women."
"And I dislike being harassed by arrogant assholes."
Edward copied her pose by moving to sit cross-legged as well. "What is it that you do like, Bella?"
She was caught off-guard by this question, and it took her brain a while to even process what he had asked. The prompt seemed too straightforward for his style, so she spent a moment in circumspection, searching for ways he meant to mock her. When she found none, she folded her arms and said, "My work."
"Other than your work."
"Hold up, now, Edward," she said, "Don't be hypocritical. I doubt there's much you enjoy beyond your 'work'."
"I'd accuse you of dodging my question, but it's obvious that you're just eager to talk about me." He gave her a flash of white teeth. "Who wouldn't be? I'm pretty cool. Shall we discuss the natural beauty of my hair?"
"Fine," she muttered. "I'm a workaholic. There you go. I said it. Happy?"
Something eerily similar to concern flickered in his eyes as he watched her. "I wasn't looking for a self-diagnosis. I just want to know what you do for fun."
"I don't know!" he exclaimed. "You wanted to talk about stuff! That's stuff, right? Or is your definition of stuff different? It's not a euphemism for politics, is it? I hate talking about politics."
"No, I don't want to talk about politics. But I don't want to talk about myself either."
Edward stood up and started circling her living room, looking at the art on her walls and poking her cheap furniture. "Oh, come on. I may have just met you, but no boring workaholic develops a personality as fiery as yours. I bet you secretly tame lions on the weekends."
Bella pretended to look out the window. She wasn't sure if he meant to make her self-conscious about the structure of her life, but he was doing a pretty good job in any case. "No," she replied softly. "I'm pretty uninteresting beyond my research."
Edward paused his scrutiny of the room in order to examine her instead. For a moment, he narrowed his eyes at her, as if searching her face for a hidden puzzle piece. Seemingly drawing a blank, he turned back to look at the coffee table. He hummed absently as his fingers traveled first over a pretty inlaid box, and then to a worn picture frame.
He picked up this photograph and held it beneath the light. A man and woman were posing with smiles on their faces, and between them stood a pretty girl of about thirteen or fourteen. He instantly recognized her as a younger version of Bella. He remembered a similar picture on her lab desk. "This is something, then," he said, tapping the glass over the photograph. "You've got family outside of your job."
As Edward amusedly searched for a resemblance between Bella and her parents, Bella sat on the couch behind him, stiff and silent. When he noticed that she had said nothing in reply, he swung his gaze to her and immediately saw the distress he had somehow caused in her expression. He saw her fighting back against emotion, but he wasn't nearly experienced enough to know which emotion it was. She bit her lip and tipped her head back to restrain any sign of upset.
He looked back at the picture and was struck by a revelation. He realized that he had a memory of these people—Bella's parents. There was only one circumstance in which he could have met them.
"They're dead," he said, his voice unintentionally blunt. He had not meant to sound so callous, but this information revealed so many things to him that he couldn't help his own sense of wonder. "You hate me because they're dead."
The light glistened in her eyes a little more than normal. "No, I hate you because you're an asshole. I do my work because they're dead."
"Contrary to what you believe, I am not some silly little girl," Bella said icily.
Edward's smile was wry. "Trust me, you being a silly little girl is definitely contrary to what I believe."
Bella continued as if she hadn't heard him. "I don't think this serum will magically erase life's problems. In fact, I know it won't since it's going to elongate life. But I think in the right hands, with the proper infrastructure and resource distribution... this could save the world some sadness."
At this, Edward scoffed. "'Save the world some sadness'? That's why you're doing this? For a few measly tears?"
When she spoke, it was with a quiet strength of steel. "There's living, Edward, and then there's how you live. I've realized the latter may be more important than the former."
Edward suddenly found himself depressed. He knew how humans were. There was no way he would manage to get Bella to change her mind about her serum if her parents' death was her motivation. He had half a mind to give up right then and there—zap himself out of this emotional war zone and straight to his bosses' office. He would make them deal with this mess.
But for some reason, he couldn't bring himself to move. He watched Bella sit rigidly on her couch, which was markedly too big for just one person, and felt something strange come over him. He didn't quite know what it was, but it compelled him to sit down beside her.
Edward told himself that he was motivated by competitiveness. He never lost games, so he certainly was not about to let obstinate little Bella Swan enjoy victory that easily. He decided that if he spent a little more time with her that evening, he might learn something useful about her personality that would allow him to win.
"I'm sure your parents would be proud that you're making a science of giving Death a hard time. You'll put me out of work and destroy my ego at the same time."
She laughed quietly, which felt oddly like victory to Edward. He wasn't sure what he had won, since it certainly wasn't his competition with Bella.
"Well, death has sort of screwed me over," she said, sighing ruefully. "I was only sixteen when I lost them. I didn't have any brothers or sisters. Only one reclusive uncle who could barely deal with a teen girl."
It's how you live, she had said. And it was becoming increasingly apparent to him that how she had lived was down-to-the-marrow lonely. A feeling flooded Edward, akin to empathy, though he wasn't equipped to recognize it quite yet. He forced a smile, if only because he thought it would cancel the heaviness suddenly present in his mind. "It's amazing you didn't become a mopey corner-dweller."
She watched him silently before speaking again, seemingly struggling with a response. "I couldn't let them down that way."
Edward looked at the carpet and exhaled. It made sense that this conversation was difficult for Bella, but he couldn't work out why it was difficult for him too. "Does it feel good to fight me face-to-face, after all these years?"
The corners of her mouth hinted at lightness. "Yeah. Actually, it does."
"Good. Because I'm not going to stop bothering you about your serum until you destroy it."
"Then you'll just have to fight me until you give up."
"I'm not going to give up."
"Neither am I."
Strength and determination were etched in her face, but Edward saw the sorrow edging its way into her eyes. He had let something out of her mind that she would have preferred to keep to herself. She was very good at irritating him, but he felt strangely unsettled by the information he had uncovered. He had no clue what he should do about this feeling, so he made up his mind to continue sparring with her until his unfamiliar agitation subsided. But when Edward left Bella's apartment that night, he only felt more unnerved than he had before.
I think you should talk to me about... stuff.