Not pre-read or beta'd, so all mistakes and plot manglings are mine.
It was hard to believe it was already early October, only a month until the wedding, and several days since Bella had talked to Rose. Things between her and Edward had been strange, with an awkward tension replacing their previously easy-going relationship. They still ate dinner together every night, hanging out for a few hours before heading to their own, separate beds, but now there were things unsaid between them, questions unasked.
Bella knew what the problem stemmed from, but she felt unsure how to fix it. There was no simple way to tell him that her overprotective, Chief-of-Police father's couch was the only nearby option for accommodations. And that brought up the other problem: telling Charlie.
It was one thing when she just had to tell Charlie she was bringing a guest who would be staying at a hotel. But telling him she was bringing a guest, a male guest, and that he would have to be civil and allow him to sleep in his home? She may have been a grown woman, but still, that was not a conversation she relished having.
A loud knock on the door, followed by two smaller knocks lower down startled Bella from her thoughts. She checked the peephole, surprised to see Alice standing there. Opening the door for her, she was further surprised when two small, rambunctious boys barrelled their way into her apartment.
"Alec! Liam! I swear to god, if you don't get back here right now, you're going to get it!" an obviously frazzled Alice yelled after them.
The pair stopped in their tracks, looking back at their mother seemingly gauging the sincerity of the threat. Alice's raised eyebrow and narrowed eyes must have been just as menacing to them as it seemed to Bella because the boys both sighed in resignation and trudged back to stand by her side. "Sorry, Mommy," they spoke in unison, with matching pouts and big, sad blue eyes.
Alice smiled smugly at the boys, before leaning over to kiss their identical curly blond heads, all obviously forgiven. "Now, what did we talk about on the way over here," she prompted them.
The boys looked at one another, their confusion clear before one of them suddenly remembered. "Oh! Hello, Ms. Bella. I'm Liam. Do you wanna go for a walk with us and Mommy?" Liam stuck his pudgy hand out towards Bella, which she promptly shook, feeling quite shell-shocked at the whirlwind introduction. Though, truly, by now she was coming to expect the feeling when being introduced to members of Alice and Edward's family.
"Hello, Mr. Liam," she replied, crouching down to his eye level. "It's nice to meet you. And you, too, Mr. Alec." Alec merely blushed profusely when she took his hand to shake it, seemingly the more reticent of the two.
"So, do you wanna come for a walk? Mommy said we're gonna go the park with the big slide and maybe go get ice cream," Liam rambled on, bouncing in excitement, almost knocking Bella over from where she still sat crouched in front of him.
She glanced up at Alice, whose trained look of innocence made Bella immediately suspicious. Despite the work she knew she had piling up in her inbox, she shrugged her shoulders, deciding that maybe a short walk would help her clear her head so she could focus better later on.
"Sure, Liam! I'd love to come for a walk with you!"
The little boy started jumping up and down in excitement, his brother only giving her a satisfied nod, indicating his more reserved approval.
After locking up, the four of them set off. The adults were pulled along by the pair of eager boys, forcing them to walk at a brisk pace as they made idle conversation about nothing of consequence. Once they'd arrived at the park, they sat down on a bench with a good view of the playground while the boys ran headlong towards the slide, chattering happily.
They watched the kids in silence as Bella waited for Alice to explain her unexpected appearance. It wasn't long before she she turned toward Bella.
"So, I had an interesting conversation with Edward the other day," she said casually.
Immediately Bella felt her shoulders tense and her heart rate pick up, though she tried to appear unaffected. "Yeah?" she replied.
"It seems someone invited him to a wedding," Alice went on, her tone teasing, but with an edge.
"Well, um...yeah. I asked him to come with me back to Washington." Bella hoped she sounded sure of herself, though she had no idea where the conversation was headed.
Alice didn't elaborate any further, simply letting the silence between them build, leaving Bella to wonder just what she was getting at. It didn't take long before she couldn't stand the quiet anymore.
"Did he say anything else?" she asked.
"Well, just that he was waiting on the name of some hotels. I told him to just google it, but he said he thought he should wait."
Bella's stomach dropped and the feelings of guilt and apprehension surged through her. She truly hoped that Alice hadn't brought her out here to read her the riot act. She didn't strike Bella as being particularly meddlesome, maybe over-excitable, but not nosey. Bella chose not to comment. She didn't know what to say to Edward, so she really didn't know what to say to his sister.
"I'm not here to scold you like a naughty kid. You're both grownups and you'll have to work this out on your own. I just wanted to ask you to be straight with him. Whatever it is, he can take it."
Alice paused, looking off at her boys running around, though Bella could see her eyes grow glassy.
"The hardest part about the whole thing with Mekenna was that she kept it from him. I get that she was trying to protect him, but it was so much harder on him when she was gone so suddenly. He felt like she lied to him, and she wasn't there to talk to him about it."
Of all the things Bella had expected Alice to say, that was probably the furthest from her mind. And yet it made her heart ache in understanding. Edward was always so confident and self-assured. It had never occurred to her that she might actually be hurting him, that she had that kind of power.
"Alice, it's not like that," she said, feeling the need to explain herself, but was gently cut off when Alice laid her hand on top of Bella's and shook her head.
"You're a good person, Bella. I know that. Whatever it is, you aren't doing it to hurt him. But he's my brother, and I can't pretend to be impartial. I meant what I said about it being between the two of you; my opinion doesn't matter. I truly just wanted to ask you to talk to him."
Bella found her respect for her new friend grow exponentially. "I will. I promise," she quietly replied, hoping that Alice heard the sincerity.
Just then the boys ran up, sweaty and dirty, begging for ice cream, oblivious to the heavy air surrounding the two adults. Alice quickly switched back into "mom mode", letting go of the tension and grinned over at Bella.
"What do you think, Ms. Bella? Ice cream for the dirty, smelly monkeys?"
Bella quickly followed her lead and pretended to consider the suggestion. "Hmmm...I don't know. I guess as long as I can have some, too." She laughed as the boys began once again bouncing around and pulling on her and Alice's hands.
"Thanks, Bella," Alice said happily. And Bella was sure she didn't just mean for agreeing to ice cream.
Later that afternoon, Bella found herself knocking tentatively on Edward's door, her stomach twisting uncomfortably. She was still torn between wanting to hide from this conversation and knowing that Alice was right, Edward deserved the truth. And as much as the thought of him changing his mind about coming hurt, she knew she couldn't put it off any longer.
Suddenly the door swung open, and Edward greeted her in only a white towel wrapped low on his hips, a spattering of water droplets still sliding down the contours of his body. She stared for a moment, watching one drop in particular glide across his abdomen, until it hit the towel and was absorbed.
Edward softly clearing his throat brought her attention back upward and she blushed profusely. His familiar smirk was there, but there was something off in his eyes, a small shadow that she knew wasn't there just days before.
"Hey," she started. "I, um...wanted to talk to you. But it looks like you were busy, so I'll just..." she trailed off.
"No, no, it's fine. I'm not busy," he replied, sounding somewhat anxious. "Give me a minute to get dressed, and I'll come over, okay?"
She could only nod, her head still foggy from the competing emotions roiling inside her.
Several minutes later, they were seated on each end of her couch, an unfamiliar space between them.
"So, ah, you wanted to talk?" Edward prompted, after several awkward moments.
Bella took a deep, centering breath before starting. "Yeah. See, the thing is, I haven't been avoiding talking about the trip...I mean, I have, but not because of you or anything. I called to get a hotel room and there aren't any. It's a long story, but apparently the only place for you to stay is my dad's house.
"And you're welcome to! Don't get me wrong, you're more than welcome to, but it's just...it's going to be awkward and weird. And I kind of still haven't told him yet because well, frankly, I'm scared." She had studiously avoided looking at him while she rambled on, and even now that she was finished, she more looked towards him than at him, afraid of what she would see if she looked too closely.
Edwards laugh was almost startling, considering the tension she was experiencing over the conversation.
"Really? That's it? Here I thought you had changed your mind and were trying to find an easy way to let me down! Your dad's couch is fine. It's not like he'll actually shoot me, right?"
"Uh, yeah, no, I don't think he'll really shoot you. So, you're sure you don't mind?"
Sensing her need for reassurance, Edward moved closer, closing the gap between them, and taking her hand in his. At once the contact visibly eased the tension that each had been holding on to.
"Bella, I wouldn't care if we had to sleep in a tent! Going is important to you, and I want to be there for you. Whatever we have to do to make it happen, we will. And really, what exactly is your dad going to do? We're both adults. Worst case scenario, he says I can't sleep on his couch, in which case, we'll figure out something else."
"I don't think he'll say no, but I don't think he'll be happy about saying yes, either. The thing about Charlie is that he's a black and white kind of guy. There's no such thing as 'complicated' or 'undefined'. In his mind, things are what they are. He's going to assume that because you're coming with me that you're more than just a friend, and honestly I'm not sure how to present our relationship to him. I mean, it feels wrong to tell him that you are just a friend; you're so much more important than that."
Bella's eyes widened at the end of her rant, realizing just how much she had revealed, and although she was relatively sure that Edward was on the same page, it still felt like too much, too soon.
He reached out and held her cheek in his hand, caressing the soft skin with his thumb. "Hey, hey, calm down. It's okay. I know that it's complicated, and I'm not pushing you. If you want to tell him I'm your friend, I'm fine with that. If you want to tell him it's something more, I'm fine with that, too. The only thing that matters to me in all of this is that whatever we are, we figure it out together, and you let me be there for you."
The sincerity in his eyes and the feeling of him holding her in his hands, caused Bella's breath to hitch, suddenly aware of just how close they were. Her eyes flickered between his and his lips, pleading for him to make a move, to push just a little.
And, as he always did, Edward seemed to know exactly what she was asking for, closing the distance between them, pressing his lips to hers in a kiss that was nothing like their first. There was a slight bite of possessiveness in this kiss, his mouth claiming hers, and hers yielding, allowing him to show her what she wasn't ready to hear - that there was nothing ambivalent about the feelings between them, nothing undefined.
The heat of the kiss continued to burn between them, pulling them closer together, pressing them against one another, hands roaming, teeth nipping. The thrill of want that coursed through Bella's body wasn't like anything she'd ever experienced before. Not that she hadn't felt desire or hunger before, but the sheer ache of need to be closer to this man, to take up residence inside him and never leave was a sensation whose existence she had long since dismissed as fantasy.
There were so many things she wanted to say to him in that moment, so many words and wants that would be so easy to give into, but she knew that there would be no way back from them if she wasn't truly ready. So, instead she said the one thing she knew she wouldn't regret, the one thing that she could give him that would help ease the ache between them, if not fully slake the thirst.
"Stay." She whispered against his lips.
He pulled away in surprise, his eyes searching hers before leaning his forehead down to touch her own. "Always."
A/N: Thank you all for the welcome back! I'm working on Ch. 13 now, but it may be closer to 2 weeks before it's ready. I look forward to hearing from you all!