For the ADF Labor Day Free-For-All challenge. Word count is 997 by FFn's count, 988 by Word's.

"What are you thinking?"

For eleven full years, Bella had been repeatedly subjected to this question.

It wasn't that she didn't understand where Edward was coming from. For a full century now, he'd heard the thoughts of every other person he'd ever met, from murder plots to crossword puzzle confusion. Any secret, even an unintentional one, was a subject of interest by default.

And yet, Bella sometimes didn't understand her lover. He told her once that her unreadable mind was part of her charm… so why then was he never content to simply enjoy it? She knew she could never fully understand the burden of Edward's ability, but for someone who complained about the increasingly mundane and irritating inner workings of humanity's hive mind, he was ever restless, not taking full advantage of the quiet blessing the fates had delivered directly to his hand.

Privately, Bella wondered if Edward had ever really wanted anything he claimed to want.

Then again, perhaps she was looking at this entirely the wrong way. Shouldn't she be flattered that, after all these years, Edward was still interested in her musings, and the novelty of the puzzle hadn't worn off? He had yet to dismiss any of her responses as trivial, even when they were. It was anyone's guess whether that was because he was too polite to say so, or because he was genuinely pleased to hear about things like what color she wanted to paint the living room, or how her favorite modern novelist had disappointed her, or how kids these days had a bewildering taste in music. Seriously, even the "American Idol" spin-offs are edited with AutoTune. Doesn't anyone care about natural talent anymore?

One reason Bella and her father had gotten along so well was because they could enjoy each other's company without either of them feeling the need to speak. Charlie never demanded much from his teenage daughter in the way of conversation because he just didn't think a girl that age would have much to say that would be of interest to a middle-aged man. Renee had been quite talkative, but seldom required more than a nod of agreement in response. Put simply, Bella was not used to having to talk much at all the first seventeen years of her life, and she was happy that way.

Then along came Edward.

Bella shooed away a passing gnat, reflecting on her former self, the ideas she held back then, the trickery she let Edward get away with that just seemed wrong now, and her own foolishness. She sometimes wondered what Edward saw in her that would interest an old man. She'd been a mere 17-year-old girl then, convinced of her own intelligence and maturity simply by virtue of being able to write complete sentences, tolerate idiots, and cook edible meals. Those things weren't impressive traits in a 28-year-old woman; they were expectations of basic competence.

Looking back, she felt shame, embarrassment. The pain of her first breakup with Edward carried on far longer than was healthy; even now, long after it had ceased to matter, she wished she had done more to snap herself out of it instead of letting herself wallow for months. She never wanted to admit to anyone, especially not to herself, that she'd enjoyed the wallowing; it wasn't fun, but the drama kept her from feeling that life had become as mundane as it actually was.

Other things she'd said or felt or thought came back to haunt her at odd moments. She had suffered from what she now called a painful exaggeration of time; Alice called it relativity. The month before high school graduation, Bella and Edward had been more or less together for a grand total of fourteen months (if she included his six months away), but she told herself they'd been with each other for "almost two years." Ridiculous! Sometimes she remembered a fit she'd pitched, or taking off on the back of Jacob's motorcycle not three days after she'd once again pledged her undying love, if not her hand in marriage, to Edward. But other times, she remembered stunts or manipulations Edward had pulled, to varying degrees of success. These cringe-inducing memories always popped up at the most inconvenient times and, if mentioned, would inevitably lead to arguments.

What right did you have to sneak into my room while I was asleep? If we had a child, you'd happily murder any man who dared to do what you did every night.

Excuse me? Where did you get off sneaking off to a kegger while I was away hunting during our freshman year at Dartmouth?

I wasn't sneaking, I was attending a party, and I didn't require your permission. That's why we broke up for a month, remember?

But I require your permission every time I want to hunt in Alaska? How many married men have to get permission before they go on a hunting trip?

When the hunting grounds are within running distance of a world renowned seductress? All of them!

"What are you thinking?" had almost become a different question by now. Edward was more than capable of reading Bella's moods from her facial expression. If he asked when she looked sad, it meant, "Do you miss your mother?" If she looked angry, it translated as "Who pissed you off this time?" If her face flushed with heat, he meant, "Do you want to make love?" And just occasionally, he meant, "I'm in trouble, aren't I?" But all that was a series of pieces to the larger puzzle:

Are we still okay?

It wasn't quite the question Bella wanted him to ask, the question he had never asked: how do you feel? But it was close enough, and after all these years, wasn't close enough better than nothing? Wasn't that progress?

With a grim smile, Bella answered, "How would you feel if I stayed human for another six months?"