Stephenie Meyer owns Twilight, no copyright infringement intended.
Fandom for Leukaemia and Lymphoma Society Submission.
Beta'd by pixiekat7. All mistakes are mine.
Warm, loving thanks to Caroline81 for her beautiful banner work.
Chapter song: Placebo – Sleeping With Ghosts.
Summary: EPOV outtake from A May to December Romance, (part of) chapter 14.
I would strongly advise that everyone reads this outtake fully before continuing on with AMtDR.
"How much has to be explored and discarded before reaching the naked flesh of feeling."
~ Claude Debussy
The Damaged Miss Swan
The words were lobbying against me, a collective decision being made to jump from the pages and crush the area of my chest surrounding my heart. I snapped the file closed, shoving it violently to the farthest corner of my desk. Still, the words taunted me, spilling and seeping through the manila folder and ingraining fresh black ink into its surface. I could still see them; hear them, mocking and demanding remembrance. All I wanted to do was forget. But they would not stand to be forgotten and sadly, I doubted my ability to bury them, hide them away and pretend that they didn't exist.
Informative though they had been, I felt ill. The queasiness rolling around in the pit of stomach was very nearly painful and I suspected there was no pill available to squash what I was currently feeling.
I was lost. The jigsaw puzzle suddenly had all of its pieces, I could see the patterns and determine where to place what, I could now distinguish which pieces needed to be connected to join the others up, but I was lost. So utterly, utterly lost.
I raked my hands over my face and back up to my hair, feeling the thump, thump, thump of my gradually building headache beating against the underside of my palms. Said palms felt sweaty, dampened from the guilt and shame of prying where I really had no business to pry. I'd vowed to myself to never look, to let her come to me with this when and if she ever felt ready. But having read what I'd just read, I now doubted that she would ever be ready. Isabella's denial had carried her through a lonely life for nearly nineteen years, why break the habit of a lifetime and suddenly decide to talk?
"I told you it wasn't pleasant reading," James said softly from across the room.
I startled upon hearing him, having forgotten his lingering presence in my large office. As I glanced toward him, I felt my stomach twist and knot, a pretzel of unease.
Apathy toward others.
Inability to connect.
"I didn't realise how… bad…" I shook my head, misery lashing at my insides and churning them into pulverised mush. "I didn't think it was so…" Words just failed me. I had none – there were none. Not for this.
"Edward, you couldn't have known."
"I should have," I countered swiftly. "The signs are all there."
A disturbing sense of familial denial.
"Sometimes, Edward." James stated calmly. "Sometimes they're there. Not always."
I closed my eyes, not wanting to hear it. I should've seen it, all of it. Instead, I'd observed the hints and lazily taken guesses. I'd been arrogant to assume that I had enough information, stupid to think that I could solve it all by simply removing her from a damaging environment.
Oh Edward, you damn fool!
It was so much worse than I could ever have imagined.
"Don't even go there," James stood up, stalking toward my desk with a sharp, knowing look in his eyes. "I have no problem pummelling your ass into seeing sense, Cullen. Bella's troubles aren't your fault; you're doing what you can to help her. That's what counts. Leave the guilt trip out of the equation, there's no room for it."
A determined will to be her own parent.
The image of her sound asleep in bed last night raced to the forefront of my mind. She was beauty personified, yet innocence incarnate. Her thick, richly scented locks had fanned out in stark contrast against the white, pillowed backdrop. Her delicate looking frame was curled in on itself, making her appear all the more younger, smaller and breakable. Her breaths had been slow and easy, the occasional sweet murmur leaving her full lips for the darkened room to greedily swallow whole. But I'd been there too. I'd heard and caught them all. She was just… lovely. There was no other way to describe the scene I'd come home to. It was serenely captivating and I'd done nothing but watch her closely all night. I'd found peace in the late evening's tranquil observation of an enchanting young woman, only to experience hell in the early hours of this morning as she roused from her slumber. And now, now I was struggling, because for the life of me I couldn't figure out who would ever, ever want to hurt her – the beautiful Swan with the ugly duckling complex.
Extremely detached, unloving to a degree.
"I don't know what to do," I whispered honestly, defeated. "I don't know what to do."
It was all right. Everything that file reported, every observation, every analysis, every documented instance, it was all Bella. Her life, her character, her deprivation, it was all there in a matter of pages. It sickened me but I couldn't deny the truth written on those papers. They captured the personality of a forgotten about, dispossessed little girl right through adolescence to early adulthood, perfectly.
Has a warped sense of right and wrong.
Refusal to discuss anything emotion centric.
Despair, I think, was the term I was looking for.
"Edward, she'll get better with-"
"She's not sick!" I snapped, cutting him off harshly. "Eighteen years of neglect and keeping everyone out does not an ailment make! This isn't the Goddamn flu, Jay; she isn't going to magically recover with chicken soup and plenty of bed rest!"
He held up his hands, palms turned toward me in a surrendering gesture. "I didn't mean to imply that Bella was sick. I just meant that, hopefully, things will improve now that she's here."
"And what if they don't?"
Loathe as I was to admit it, I had to be realistic. The file didn't paint a pretty picture. There was a good chance Bella would always be affected, somehow or other. Ridiculous as it seemed, I couldn't help but think of a chocolate bar that had been left out in the sun a little too long. You know that when you find it, it will have melted. The wrapper looks perfectly fine, but its insides have been damaged by a force much bigger and stronger. But you also know that the sweet goodness is still there. Inside, it may be a puddle of its former self, but your reasons for choosing it haven't changed. It will still bring you the same amount of joy to have it, to savour it. The only difference now is how you handle it. It's no longer as simple as you thought it would be to peel the wrapper away, it needs a little more thought now, a little more care before you can enjoy it to the fullest. Unfortunately, the end outcome will be a messy one… and you now know that going in. For better or worse, remains to be seen.
"Edward, you can't think like that."
I chuckled humourlessly, swiping a hand over my tired eyes.
Demonstrating early signs of Haphephobic tendencies.
'Burning' skin sensation when touched.
Avoids any and all physical contact.
If it wasn't for the fact that Rosalie had gone through a stage during her infancy where she'd screamed bloody murder each and every time a person touched her, I surely would've needed to Google the term. As it was, five years of observing my sister's torment and a multitude of intensive therapies later meant that I was more than a little acquainted with the word's meaning.
Incident report after incident report documented the hysterics that had followed every schoolyard bump, every classroom brush, every touch from the school nurse when cleaning a cut and every handling whenever she fell over and needed to be picked back up again. And they all ended the same way – 'Became calm and skipped off happily when physical contact ceased.'
The final report was dated just eight months previous, during a biology class presentation. The teacher had given her a 'well done' pat on the shoulder as she concluded her findings, but the shock from the innocent touch had been so intense that she'd jumped backward, tripped and landed on a front desk full of glass vials and petri dishes set out as part of an experiment. She'd declined a pass to the nurse's office, despite the bleeding lacerations to her arms. According to the account, a group of Bella's peers reportedly found her in the bathroom that lunchtime, plucking out the remnants of glass imbedded in her skin. She'd refused any treatment or aid. Bella didn't want to be touched, helped… noticed.
The weight of her desperate situation crashed down upon me like a heavy, unforgiving lead mass. Just how unhappy does a person have to be with their own lot in life to risk four years of perpetual burning, simply to fund their education and escape the confines of life as they'd always known it? I'd had a warped sense of admiration for Bella's decisions; she'd shown initiative in a highly unorthodox way and a stubborn determination to do what she had to do to succeed. It was baffling really, given how introverted and quiet she was. But now, now I wasn't so sure I could admire her choice. Instead, I found myself pitying it. Bella Swan had been prepared to endure four years of self-inflicted suffering, all for her education, all for her escape. Did she even see it that way? Was she even aware of the torment she'd set herself up for, or was she so far gone with twisted acceptance that she hadn't even factored it in?
"She could've ended up with some slime…" It didn't even bear thinking about. The thought of her in constant pain, being mauled by some sinister, much older man with disgusting 'needs' made my hands shake with revulsion. For all her intelligence, there was a childlike naivety to Bella. She needed to be protected, cherished. She was pure and precious where others were marred. The what if's were inconceivable. "Someone who would've hurt her."
"But she didn't."
"But she could have."
"But she didn't, Edward. She's here, in New York, with you, safe and happy."
"Is she?" I thought back on every conversation I'd ever had with her, every touch and kiss that we'd shared so far. Had I hurt Bella? Oh Christ, had I?
I turned my disgust in on myself, the mere thought of causing her any harm instantly nauseating. I'd given her a contract based on what I thought would benefit us both, but ultimately, it was more suited to my own needs. Had I sealed her into something that was damaging her further? Was I forcing Bella to… burn?
"What if I'm hurting her?"
I glared icily at James from across the desk, his almost bored sounding tone grating on my already frayed nerves. "How do you know that?"
"I have eyes."
"Meaning I have eyes, Edward. You think any of us would've simply stood back and watched you make her uncomfortable without saying a Goddamn word? There's a reason Emmett and I keep our distance around Bella, especially in a physical sense. We don't want to be yet another source of stress for her."
"Neither do I!"
He groaned, slumping into the chair opposite me. "You know, I didn't tell you to, 'Be careful' before you went to Seattle for no reason. You're not oblivious, Ed, you might not have had all the information, but you sensed something was off from the start. The minute you saw her profile, you started questioning how someone like Bella ended up where she did. You've always known the picture wasn't simply black and white." He sat forward, placing his elbows on his knees. "You've been good for her, don't doubt yourself."
"I don't want to hurt her."
"You're not hurting her."
"But the file says th-"
"The file shows just how much hurt she's had to deal with in the past and the mistrust that's stemmed from it." He cut in. "You haven't given Bella any reason not to trust you. You went in and swept her off her feet like the infuriating white knight you've always been, making the rest of the male population look like mere peasants in comparison. Thanks for that, by the way. Vicky's starting to question why I don't buy her Tiffany jewellery, 'that often!' You owe me a raise, asshole." He narrowed his eyes, scowling. "I digress. The bottom line is, while Bella's going to struggle with the new scenery, she trusts you enough to make it prettier than the bleak landscape she came from. Know what I'm saying?"
Yes. Yes, I knew. Though it didn't help. Nothing would help. I'd had a glimpse into Bella's life, from preschool all the way through to high school, and what I'd read hurt. I knew it hadn't been sunshine and rainbows; I wasn't so ignorant to the situation to believe that she'd had it easy, but I hadn't expected it to be so cutting.
Those written documents spoke of a little girl who went to school always hungry, who had no pre-packed lunch and no lunch money to sate a growling stomach. Her schools eventually set aside some emergency funds every year to ensure she could eat a hot meal come lunchtime. Teachers gave testimonies of a smaller Bella walking home all by herself, at ridiculously young ages and despite the distance, come wind, rain or snow. Librarians told of a slightly older Bella always hanging back after school to read or do homework, she wasn't 'allowed' to go straight home to her mother's house and disturb her while she had 'company'. She didn't ever go on any fieldtrips or school holidays, she didn't have any friends and she was often the target of bullying. She was an inexplicably clumsy child, on average needing to go to the emergency room at least once or twice a month. This only served as another source of teasing from her peers. Her parents never showed up for school events or parent teacher conferences, never came to hear just how extraordinarily bright their child was.
Child protective Services had stepped in twice, once while she was at her mother's and once at her father's. They'd determined that while her homes may not have been particularly loving, she was safe and well. There was no cause to remove her, despite her schools' fears. They'd described Bella as an overly capable child who took responsibility for herself, detailed that she was remarkably bright and evidently so, wrote that while quiet and shy, she was astute beyond her years and incredibly sharp, but perhaps most bizarrely of all, they'd documented that Bella seemed happy and somewhat content in her life.
At seven years old, a social worker had asked Bella if she liked living with her mommy. The response? 'You mean my mother?'
The seemingly small and insignificant formality was not lost on the social worker. It wasn't lost on me either. There was a level of detachment that positively screamed its way free of those four small words. At just seven years old, Bella had denied her parent any shred of caring familiarity, opting instead to remain aloof with acquaintance. And the worst thing about it seemed to be that Bella's Mom genuinely didn't concern herself with it.
Case workers had described Mrs. Swan as unfeeling. Her attitude toward Bella had been palpably cold, her attitude toward parenting bordering ennui. She made no effort to put on false pretences; she was unfailingly honest in regard to her apathy for her little girl. Reading through the reports' notes, it was now crystal clear to me where Bella's social attitudes and ineptness had originally stemmed from. She'd adopted certain traits from her parents, but implemented them not just against her own family, but against the entire world. She was not cared for and consequently, Bella now had a hard time knowing how to care for others at all.
CPS found themselves in a predicament. Did they remove her, unsettle and up root her life only to place her into a foster care system that realistically, would've been more damaging than not, all because her parents didn't hug and praise her enough? Or, did they leave her; allow her to stay in an environment that admittedly, wasn't a Suzie Homemaker ideal, but one that she seemed perfectly content in? Heartbreaking as it was to acknowledge, they'd made the right decision. Bella would never have survived in the system. She was too passive, too closed off. If there was a problem, she'd never have told anyone about it. But she was also smart, she did fantastically well at school. Would that have continued if they'd removed her?
No, I didn't think so. Why take the gamble and turn a Matild... into an Oliver?
I sighed, throwing my head back against my chair and enjoying the tight stretch in my neck that followed.
What the hell was I supposed to do?
I closed my eyes. "Yeah?"
"What's going on?"
"What do you mean?"
"Well, why the sudden need to look? You were adamant before about not wanting to know. What changed?"
I opened my eyes.
Where did I even begin?
My insides… shrivelled.
I'd heard that wrong.
I had to have heard that wrong.
But as the words continued to spiral and whisper and thrum within my mind, I knew that I had, in actual fact, heard correctly. And I realised then, that while the words had taken definite aim and punched me in the gut, it wasn't the statement that'd had the most profound effect on me. No, not the words.
"Well, my mother used to tell me that I was a mistake."
She could have sprouted off a shopping list for all the emotion she'd injected into such a heartbreaking revelation. There was just nothing. No sadness, no hurt, not even a trace of anger. There was merely bland acceptance and the hint of an eye roll. She was so devastatingly offhand about it and I was suddenly thrust into something much bigger than I felt capable of handling. I mean, how do you react to an admission like that?
"Pancakes now?" And there was her spark, her lively character. There was hope and a smile and optimism. Over pancakes. Goddamn pancakes!
I could feel my face morphing into an expressive, horror filled flipbook animation as second by second, blink by blink, the disgust rearing up inside of me became more and more pronounced. And I could see the effect it had on her. I could see her awkwardness beginning to bubble beneath the surface, though I was struggling to reel in my emotions and put a stop to it. I watched as she went somewhere I had no access, watched as she retreated into her own mind and struggled with whatever battle she'd begun internally waging war with.
Still, I could do nothing but whisper an appalled, "Bella…"
Odd. She'd said that her parents were, 'odd people'. Odd.
I wanted to laugh, though there was no hilarity in the situation. None what so ever.
There had been hints of a strained relationship, certain things that I'd managed to pick up myself, things that told me her childhood hadn't been your averagely happy one. I certainly hadn't imagined a doting Father teaching a younger Bella to ride her bike through a sea of crispy orange leaves on a warm, autumn afternoon. I didn't picture a loving Mother baking cookies with her toddler or cuddling up on the sofa with her teenage daughter the first time a boy broke her heart. Instead, I'd imagined a young girl who had perhaps spent a little too much time alone while growing up. I'd mentally envisioned a stubbornly focussed little girl teaching herself to ride her own bike despite the cuts and scrapes she kept inflicting upon her poor hands and knees. I saw a smaller Bella covered in flour and biting her lip as she taught herself how to bake cookies, without any help. I'd visualised a teenager who'd been much too shy and introverted to ever allow a boy to break her heart, instead settling to live through the romantic notions of the characters she loved to read about so much in books.
But never, and I mean never, had I thought that the level of depravation she'd experienced reached to such despicably low planes.
What kind of Mother would ever say such a thing?
"What?" She frowned, oblivious and nervous in her fidgeting. "Stop looking at me like that."
She pulled her towel tighter around her small frame, clearly uncomfortable as I tried to blink the astonishment from my eyes.
"How… what…" I shook my head, lost by her reaction. "How can you admit to something like that and be so calm?"
Why I asked, I wasn't sure. Bella's reactions were often unexpected, especially when it came to anything that warranted an emotional or personal response.
"Well, how should I be?" She shot at me, desperately trying to avoid my gaze.
I felt sick, queasy.
She didn't understand.
I opened my mouth to answer, to tell her that a 'normal' reaction would be one of anger, of hurt, hell; I'd even take some tears. I would hate to see them spill but I'd do my damndest to chase them away, to offer her some comfort, some compassion, tell her that I'd make it all alright – I would put it right for her.
But I snapped my mouth closed. I stayed quiet.
Bella wasn't angry or hurt; there were no tears to shed. She didn't want my comfort or my compassion; she wouldn't know what to do with either. Bella didn't have a 'normal' reaction to give because she wasn't a 'normal' woman who'd had a 'normal' upbringing.
Bella had grown up with her own version of normal.
Her version sickened me.
"Will you please stop looking at me like that? Jesus…" She made a point of staring at the wall, her gaze far removed from my own.
The silence in the room was deafening. The blood was pumping furiously in my ears as my outward stance became still and statue-like, though my internal ire scorched and ignited.
I saw her then, bruised from yesterday's events and yet still trying to put on a brave face. But beneath that mask was a vulnerability that called to me, dousing my emotions in gasoline scented sorrow and fuelling the burn around my heart all the more.
What had they done to this beautiful creature?
They were supposed to love her, cherish and protect her from all the misery in this world, not inflict it tenfold upon her themselves – not turn her into a person who reminisces about the cruel, callous behaviour bestowed upon her with such bored, insipid acceptance.
"Can I go now?"
I swallowed, rendered mute but for a whispered, "Yes."
She walked past me, cagey and timid in her actions, before closing the door to our bathroom behind her.
I must have stood there a full five minutes, staring, questioning, lost. I didn't know what to do. I didn't know how to fix this, how to fix her.
I had struggled my whole life with the questions I desperately wanted to ask my birth Mother. Why wasn't I good enough to keep? Was there something wrong with me? But the element of the unanswered suddenly felt like a gift. I was left ignorant in my unknowing, but Bella, she'd been given the ultimate answer to questions she'd likely never even asked – did you plan for me and was I wanted? The answer awarded to these unspoken questions seemed to be a very clear, highly damaging, 'no'. And she'd lived with that no, for how long, I wasn't sure. Regardless, Bella had carried that burden around.
Shaking my head in despair, I collected up my laptop and Blackberry and left her room, shutting the door silently. I dumped the items onto my undisturbed bed and sagged down onto the mattress, clawing my fingernails across my face. I didn't know what to do.
There had been so many signals, so many warning signs. Christ, I'd pretty much pegged Bella as a wounded soul type back in Seattle and while I hadn't ignored the silently buried injuries, I hadn't done very much about them either. I'd always understood to a degree, but I was only just feeling as though I was finally grasping 'it'. Her avoidance to discuss her family in any real capacity, their refusal to help her finance her studies in any way, her admission of not speaking with her mother for quite some time, the evident awkwardness that radiated off of Bella whenever a compliment was made or affection was shown. They were all alarm bells. Stupidly, I'd thought removing her from that environment would help, that it would make things better for her. And perhaps it had, a little. But now there was something infinitely more delicate to identify and I wasn't sure what steps to take from here. Was there any way of making it better for her? Would Bella ever be able to get over it? Emotional scars ran deep, but just how vast were the wounds that had initially inflicted them?
James and Vicky had been adamant about helping her, beyond adamant. They'd seen more of Bella's past documented on paper than I had and there was something there that had left them both reeling. I'd refused to go there, to look and pry like that. It wasn't for me to know. Bella would come to me if and when she felt ready, or so I'd thought. Now, I was beginning to doubt that. She was too closed off. James and Vicky had the answers that I didn't.
And suddenly there it was. My conflict.
I couldn't betray Bella's trust that way. For whatever reason, the young woman now living in my house had somehow found her way into my life, my heart. I wasn't about to shit on good fortune, was I? In such a short space of time, I'd come to feel so much for her. I wasn't a silly romantic; I'd viewed this predominantly from a logical point of view. We were both benefiting from the arrangement we'd set up. But so help me God, I cared for the beautifully damaged girl. I truly did. And I didn't want to hurt her. But it was suddenly looking like hurting her in this small way was the only way to try and, I don't know, save her? I'd taken the first step of rescue by moving her, but now that I had her here, how did I peel her out of her shell? How did I make her see that goldmine of worth locked away within herself?
Not by staying ignorant…
Lord, I couldn't believe I was actually considering it.
If I looked, I'd have to tell her. Of course I would. And she'd probably hate me for it. But if I didn't look, if I remained unaware of the finer details, I still risked hurting her. I couldn't and didn't understand Bella's core reactions to most things, yesterday being a prime example. But if the file James had put together could shed a little light, perhaps I could attune myself with Bella's way of thinking, maybe I'd understand better, rather than playing this blind leading the blind tug-of-war.
Was I willing to take the risk?
My hand snaking across the sheets and toward my cell told me that yes, I was. I had to know. I would deal with the consequences and I would do my utmost to make things right. I had to know.
My finger nervously punched in James' speed dial number and with a shaky breath, I brought the phone to my ear.
Please don't hate me, Bella.
It rang and rang and rang some more, and just as I was about to end the call and dial again, the ringing finally stopped. I mentally counted to twenty-nine seconds before any shred of human life on the other end of the line made itself known.
Exhaustedly, James answered, "Ma, I can't do shit about your damn shingles! Try another heating pad."
I frowned, holding the phone away from my face, only to mutter a silent, 'What?' into the empty space around me.
"It's Edward, you oaf."
The snore that followed pretty much had me convinced. Emmett, the grease smeared mechanic with the heavy Brooklyn accent, was definitely the more refined of the two.
"It's Edward," I enunciated slowly.
I was awarded a throaty phlegm rattle.
Pinching the bridge of my nose, and still not sure that this was a good idea, I responded, "I need to know what's in Isabella's file."
"You what now?"
I took a calming breath, my palms feeling sticky against the phone. "I need to know what's in the file, Jay. Is it with you?"
"Her school file? The file you didn't want to see?"
"No, her FBI file. I've just discovered she's on the top ten most wanted list and I'm nervous about harbouring a damn fugitive!"
"Witty," he snarked. "You're about as much fun to wake up to as Vicky's Mom. Insane woman thinks it's perfectly acceptable to barge in and make the Goddamn bed while you're still asleep in it."
"Wonderful, happy for you all. Sounds cosy. Do you have the file?"
He yawned, obnoxious and loud.
I was bumping him from my Christmas list after this.
"I've still got it, it's at the office. Why?"
I felt my heart sink, the answers I was desperately seeking waving a smug and sudden au revoir. I'd have to see Bella before she left, still none the wiser.
"Can you tell me anything without it?"
"I can give you the general gist. What's going on?"
I heard the water being cut off in the bathroom, signalling the end of Bella's shower. I didn't have long, not if I had any hope of clearing the air before we both set off for the day. "I'll fill you in later. Can I have the gist, quickly?"
"You know what time it is, right?"
I heard movement on the other end of the line as he rustled with his comforter. "Shit, I don't even know where to start. You know she was monitored at school. There were a lot of concerns raised about her home environment; Bella's teachers had a hard time trying to understand her. I think the general consensus was that she had a lot of emotional difficulties, she didn't connect with, well, anyone. She liked to be left alone. The schools had her teachers write up reports on her every month; she was a smart kid, but was incredibly detached and disconnected. Child Protective Services investigated twice, nothing came of it. She used to flip out if anyone ever touched her. As far I could tell there were never any signs of abuse, but they pretty much ignored her and she raised herself."
On and on and on he went, remembering sections of notes or documented circumstances that had taken place. Each and every sentence I heard and listened to felt like an ice-cold bucket of water being thrown over me. It was abuse. They may not have hit her, turned her skin black and blue, but it was abuse nonetheless. They had neglected her, ignored her, pushed her away and left her to fend for herself. An innocent little girl had been left all alone to grow up with nobody around and as a result, she now understood absolutely nothing about normal human attachment.
What the hell was wrong with these people? Did they think that by giving a loaded gun away, they couldn't be held accountable for the inevitable devastation when the trigger was finally pulled?
By the time James finished his retelling, my hands were shaking. But not from nerves, no, from rage. How could they?
"I want that file on my desk by lunchtime, I have to go." My tone was clipped as I pushed the end call button and threw my Blackberry… somewhere.
They'd made her feel like a nothing instead of showing her that she meant everything, and I couldn't comprehend that, couldn't deal with that.
I heard Bella's bedroom door open and close, followed by her light steps as she travelled downstairs. All I could do was pace. I paced and I thought and I tried to understand, all the while simmering over how much I wanted to hurt those people. But perhaps most poignant of all, was how worried I now found myself regarding mine and Bella's relationship. How would she ever trust me, open up and allow me to care for her, with a past history like that? Just… how? I hadn't even read the file yet; there was more to come, more to learn, more to want to forget.
Minutes ticked by and I was no closer to an answer. I felt as though I was standing precariously close to a cliff's edge, in danger of toppling over and falling down, down, down into murky, unknown waters where foreboding, ghoulish things lurked in wait, creeping and crawling and claiming.
Fight them off.
I didn't know if I could. I didn't know if this was just so much bigger than I was capable of managing or not. An agreement once thought of as easy had now become riddled with difficulties and hardship.
So make it better, make it right.
But how? I had spent years trying to understand my sister, not that there was cause to make a comparison between her and Bella, but Rosalie was hard to identify with, she had deeply buried issues and nobody could ever get through to her. Not ever. I didn't want that to happen with Bella. I couldn't go through that torment again; I couldn't not be able to help another recognised injured soul. I couldn't go through four years of trying, only to come to the end with no positive results. If Bella was hurting, I needed to reach out and heal the problems.
Damn her parents!
I had to try. Where they'd failed, I could at least attempt to succeed. I'd try for Bella. She deserved that much. What was I thinking, she deserved so much more.
Edgily, I walked toward my bedroom door and over the threshold, running through my newly stored arsenal of knowledge. I'd need to be careful, delicate, but firm too. She was stubborn, she wouldn't want to listen. I'd have to make her.
I descended the stairs slowly, one at a time, deciding on the best tactics to use. There was so much to cover, yesterday's royal fuck up included. The bathroom incident had left me bewildered. I'd known she was shy, but Bella was curious and ballsy too. I'd replayed her reaction relentlessly in my head, a young woman who'd taken the actions she had, flipping out in such an untamed manner over a mere naked body. But I think I understood it now. It wasn't just a naked body to Bella; I wasn't just some creep who'd picked her up on the internet. I'd treated her kindly; I hadn't pushed her or made any predatory advances toward her. I had treated Bella like an equal every step of the way and tried my hardest to begin laying the foundations of a relationship, instead of leaving things contractually detached. I'd made things more personal, more human. I'd made things intimate.
But that was the problem, wasn't it? Bella didn't know how to react to intimacy.
As I reached the ground floor and walked toward the final staircase, I became increasingly nervous and unsure of myself. There were so many possibilities of rejection from her, and I wanted none of them. I just wanted her to be happy and content in life. I wanted the same for myself. Now I had a real fear of not being able to make that possible for either of us.
I slowly and quietly made my way to the bottom of the stairs, watching from the doorway as her tiny frame darted around the kitchen like a Tasmanian Devil, mixing up a bowl full of pancake batter.
I'd never look at them the same.
I heard the pan spit in the background while she poured a mound of fresh, fleshy blueberries into the mix. It was hard seeing her like this. She looked… perfectly fine. With everything I'd just been told and knowing that more was to come, I found myself struggling with my comprehension. Bella functioned incredibly well. I didn't know how that was possible. To look at her, beautiful and bumbling as ever, nobody would ever guess at the home life she'd had to endure all these years.
It made me fume.
"Well, my mother used to tell me that I was a mistake."
My, how well you wear that mask, Miss Swan.
Make it right, Edward.
Silently, I padded my way over to her just as she began ladling some batter into the pan and wrapped my arms around her, tightly. So very, very tightly.
She jumped instantly, gasping out a startled, "Jeez, Edward!"
I tightened my arms even further, almost crushing her. She fit perfectly. Her scent was intoxicating, a mixture of freshness from her shower, my shampoo and a sweetness that belonged solely to her. I buried my nose into her throat, having to talk myself out of just keeping her this way forever and forgetting all about the other issues that needed addressing.
I was vaguely aware of the pancake batter splattering onto my feet as she made a maladroit attempt at setting the bowl down, but my instincts kicked in enough to shove the crackling pan away, wary of the melted butter spitting at her. I turned the gas off, my actions forceful, almost angry.
Not a mistake.
You could never be a mistake.
I wrapped my arm back around her slender waist and tried oh so hard to mentally channel my thoughts straight into her head. I needed her to understand. She had to understand.
"Edward, are you alright?" Her tiny hand found the top of mine, patting at it nervously, the way you would a stray dog you were unsure of.
My breath caught and trembled, fanning across her neck as my fingers clung to her firmly, almost desperately. I buried my nose within her luscious smelling locks and inhaled deeply, saving the scent and the soft, silky texture to memory.
Please understand, I begged mutely.
Not a mistake.
The airport scene began to play on loop within my head. The way she had hugged me, it wasn't normal. It hadn't been an average greeting or a gesture of sweet thanks. It had been oddly calm. Her body simply melted into mine, almost as though she'd given up and yet at the same time, needed to cling to something or someone for reassurance. I thought I'd understood then, thought I knew what that seemingly small surrender had symbolised. But like most things involving this enigmatic young woman, I was finding that I really didn't have a clue. I'd had a basic enough understanding back at Newark, but I'd only just managed to fully grasp it, to comprehend that that hug had meant so much more coming from Bella.
I almost wished for my ignorance to return. This was all so disheartening.
I allowed my fingers to turn, to link with hers and squeeze all the reassurance I could into the hold for what I was about to say.
"You're not a mistake," I whispered, the hint of a plea lacing my tone.
She tensed, just as I suspected she would. Stepping in or around personal territory made her uneasy, edgy. She wasn't a talker and I couldn't blame her for it, especially not now.
"I-I know that," she finally managed.
I'd never been less convinced of any spoken words before. Never.
I flattened my face into her neck and closed my eyes, feeling her shudder beneath me.
"No, Bella. I don't think you do," I said desolately. "I don't think anybody has ever let you know just how remarkable you truly are."
And she was. New York's twinkling night skyline couldn't touch her light. For all the neglect she'd had to put up with, she still shone bright. I just wished she could see what I saw, even if it was only this once.
She shifted then, awkwardly trying to shrug out of my arms. I wasn't having it, she needed to be told, she needed to realise that I understood. I wanted to make it better.
"I don't think you have any inkling of your own self-worth." My nose glided down her lovely long neck until it met the material of her white shirt. I nudged it aside gently and kissed the little slice of skin available. So soft, so delicate. "I think you see yourself as above average intelligence and that's about it." I kissed the base of her throat. "I don't think you see how blindingly exceptional you are, inside and out."
She huffed then. "Edward, the pancakes?"
Pancakes. Fucking pancakes – again!
"Fuck the pancakes!"
"I need you to understand, Bella." I implored quietly. "If I have to spend every second of the next four years re-conditioning the way you see yourself, I'll damn well do it. Do you know how much you've managed to tell me in just one sentence? Do you know how many puzzle pieces have just fallen right into place, because you finally let something slip out?"
James may have filled in a lot of gaps, solved a few of the riddles, but did she even understand what that one word, that one awful word, had told me this morning? What it had driven me to finally do?
"You've just told me that your parents aren't the 'odd' people you claimed them to be, they're cruel. You've just told me that your adorable awkwardness isn't a factor of mere shyness, it's a result of eighteen years spent alone. You've just told me why you have such a fondness for reading; it stems from needing to replace important people in your life with happily ever after fantasy. You replaced people with books."
I kissed the outside of her ear, overwhelmed with emotion for the beautiful, deprived creature caged within my arms. I hadn't even had her here two weeks yet and already the swell of hurt I felt on her behalf was enough to cripple even the strongest of men.
I took a deep breath. "You've just told me why it's practically impossible for you to answer a simple phone call."
"I need to finish breakfast." She hastily reached for the bowl full of batter, only for me to snatch her hand back.
Make her see!
"I'm not trying to parent you. I'm not trying to be your keeper. I call because I care. I call because I need to know that you are safe and well. I don't function properly if I'm worrying. But you, Miss Swan, you've learned to function knowing that nobody is worrying. And it's tragic."
"Edward, please just let it go." She begged, her voice full of melancholy. "I said I was sorry, it won't happen again, alright?"
She was breaking my heart.
"Yes it will." I kissed her cheek affectionately. "You can't help not answering when you don't expect the call, Bella. And sadly, I don't think you've ever expected it."
I turned her to face me, lifting her chin with my finger so that I could get lost in those big doe eyes, and brought her face closer to mine.
"I could quite easily choke her for damaging your heart, you know." It was honest, though it was an understatement. "I want to, so badly. People who don't appreciate the gemstones should never have access to the jewellers."
And she was as fine as they came, truly she was.
I placed a light kiss to her lips, feeling her breath catch and stutter.
"I'm here, Bella. I'm going nowhere and I will listen." I kissed her again. "You can always, always talk to me. Whether you choose to believe it or not, you have people here who care about you, sweetheart."
She blinked, confusion lighting up her eyes as she tried to process my words, seemingly with great difficulty. Everything inside me ached to watch her struggle this way.
"Sometimes I wish…" She started, but closed her mouth with an audible snap, looking almost fearful to continue.
My fingers deftly stroked her cheeks, her jaw, savouring the feel of the smooth skin beneath them. "What, Bella? What do you wish?"
Talk to me.
Her face flitted between decisions - to talk or not to talk. I could do nothing but wait, hoping and praying for an outcome that would move us past this and into more open territory.
Eventually, after much deliberation, "I wish you'd just be horrible to me sometimes!"
It was hurried, and the apparent horror that sprang onto her face immediately after told me that it was exactly what she'd be thinking, but hadn't meant to say. Her hand violently slapping across her mouth only served to confirm this thought.
My forehead creased as I pried finger by finger away from her lovely lips. "Why do you wish that?"
She closed her eyes, shutting me out. She hadn't meant to say it.
"Bella, why do you wish that sweetheart?"
She shook her head, her eyelids remaining tightly clamped together.
Just when I thought no answer would be awarded, she quietly responded, "Because it would be easier."
My God, she was talking.
"What would be easier?"
"Everything," she exhaled. "I wouldn't feel like I have to relearn what I've always known. I don't know how to be emotionally reliant on somebody, Edward. You're always so nice to me and it leaves me feeling torn between being obligated to feel grateful to you for everything you're doing for me and not knowing how to really feel it in the first place. If you were horrible to me, I could just stay detached."
I sincerely hoped in that moment, that I never, ever came into contact with either of her parents.
The only thing I could think to offer was a meek, "That doesn't sound like much of a way to live."
She smiled, a beautifully haunting, sad, sad smile, and opened her eyes to me once again. "But it's what I know."
And I plan on changing that.
"Sometimes change can be good."
"And sometimes it's frightening," she countered swiftly. "I'm trying to get used to you being the way you are and when you called yesterday you just sounded so mad at me."
My head tilted, my thoughts beginning to take shape and make some sense out of what she was trying to convey. "Is that what confused you, the switch in my demeanour? You didn't understand why I would be frustrated that you weren't picking up, because my worry for you is an alien concept?"
"Perhaps." She shrugged. "It's silly."
Silly my ass. To have her talking openly and honestly about how she felt, felt like a damn gift.
"How you feel isn't silly, Bella. Don't ever think that." I kissed her forehead, truly mesmerised by her.
Maybe there was some hope after all.
Had I really left the house this morning, a mere few hours ago, actually feeling that?
Yes. Yes, I had.
Because she'd opened up, she'd shared, she'd responded to me. I'd chipped away until a positive result was facing me.
I was struggling to understand how that was even possible now, having read that file.
I wanted to burn it.
James sighed. "Edward, you realise this is good, right? This morning, that was a step forward."
"Sure it was, until its two steps back."
"Again, you can't think like that."
"I have to, Jay. Bella's got an emotional blueprint the size of a skyscraper, but her awareness sees nothing but a blank sheet of paper. She won't wake up tomorrow to find her problems have all been solved. It's just not that simple."
"It never is. But it sounds like there was progress this morning. A little optimism wouldn't kill you."
I stared at my friend, stared long and hard.
Optimism. Eight letters disguising that little four letter word.
It was funny how you could desperately cling on to something while fearing the ever loving shit out of it, too, wasn't it?