A/N: Beta'd by sweeneyanne and pre-read by AlexisDanaan and aerobee82. I love them to pieces.
Do not own Twilight.
May 16, 2011
The simple truth of the situation was that Edward did not understand. All of his frustration and confusion could be traced back to that one fact. He didn't get it, and he didn't think he ever would. It was driving him insane.
It was like every year he came home to a place that bore almost no resemblance to what he'd left. When he'd first packed his bags and drove out to Massachusetts he was able to say that Jasper and Emmett were the only friends he'd ever really need for the rest of his life. Emmett was the easy one; he was able to see just about anybody's side of any argument, and he was level-headed despite his fun-loving nature. Jasper was the wild-card; the guy Edward could live vicariously through and learn from the mistakes of. Looking back he wasn't so sure what his place was. Maybe he was the middle-ground. Maybe he was the sturdy friend who the rest could always rely on; the one to call if you needed bail money or to just talk something out.
It was a position Edward was comfortable in, and he didn't like the way everything continued to shift and change during his time away. It was almost as if the rest of the town had moved and grown to fill in the gap he'd left behind. His place hadn't been saved for him. It kind of pissed him off.
Standing firm in the center of it all was Bella Swan. A year ago she'd been just another girl. She was Emmett's sister and Jasper's friend, and Edward had been thrust into the equation through those factors. Now she was something else entirely. He couldn't believe how easy it had been to overlook her. One summer spent in each other's company was all it took for her to wrestle her way under his skin, and after more recent events Edward didn't think he'd ever be able to get her out―not that he wanted to.
It only took two hours to unpack the six boxes he'd driven across the country with. The process would have gone a lot faster if he hadn't stopped to examine every picture or take a few moments to recall his favorite parts of each book that made its way back to the shelves in his bedroom. Everything had an assigned place. It was strange, how once everything was unpacked his room looked as if nothing had ever been removed in the first place. The sensation was exactly the same as he remembered it from his first day home from Harvard last summer, and yet so different.
The thing about Bella was that she always managed to turn the world on its head, even though she never tried to.
He'd spent the past four months bombarded with news of her on all sides. There were e-mails from Emmett speculating as to why she'd suddenly dropped out of her first year at the University of Florida to come back to Forks and vague updates from Jasper colored in far too much innuendo—neither compared in the slightest to the sporadic phone calls from the girl standing firm in the center of all of it.
No one seemed to be sure what exactly had happened to Bella―but Edward knew. Or at least he thought he did.
In his more rational moments it was easy to see that it was ridiculous for him to assume that he knew her better than her own brother or the man who blurred and crossed the lines so many times that he'd practically created an entirely new relationship sub-genre all on his own―but the thing was that Emmett hadn't been there to see the look on her face when she shifted her truck into drive to leave for Florida. Jasper may have been the only one around during that first year, when Edward was in Massachusetts and Emmett in California, but Jasper hadn't laid in bed with her on her last night in Forks and listened to her whispered fears and uncertainties about the future. They hadn't seen it coming like Edward had. The night it all caught up with her and came crashing down it wasn't Jasper or Emmett she went searching for some form of validation from. She'd gone to him.
Edward was certain that he had just a little bit more perspective, because he got to see a piece of her that so few others did.
On the other side of the coin was the indisputable fact that when it had finally fallen apart, when Bella couldn't take the pressure and uncertainty any longer, Edward hadn't been the one waiting back home for her return. He'd only been a stop along the path of her regression.
He wished he could have seen it, the exact look on her face when she rolled back into town. For some reason he thought that if he'd been present for all of the scenes, then he would have been able to say he was the only one who fully understood her motives. The picture he did have was foggy at best.
So maybe it really was that no one completely understood what had happened to Bella, but he expected that he'd seen just a little bit more than the rest of them had. She'd always been so straight-laced, calm, focused. She was smart, which was what had intrigued him so much in the first place. In high school they had been friends through circumstance and their pre-existing ties. Really, they were only friends in the first place because of Emmett, and poor ones at that. They'd had a class together his senior year thanks to Forks' meager advanced placement curriculum, and if he thought back he could almost pinpoint the exact moment, the day that she became so suddenly unsure of herself.
It was in April, a Monday after a long weekend, he remembered. The event only stood out in his mind because, from his perspective, it had been so radical. She didn't take notes in class, and she nearly ran him over in her attempt to be the first out of the parking lot at the end of the day. Over a year later she had told him that it was the first time she realized that all her friends were Emmett's friends, and that they were all leaving for college at the end of the upcoming summer, and she'd be left in Forks, alone for another year. She'd said it was the first time she realized that her existence wasn't static, the first time she'd fully understood just how much her life could change in the span of a few short months. He couldn't imagine how relieved she must have been when Jasper decided to forgo the college route, and how guilty she must have felt for it.
Edward had known Bella just as long as anyone else, but the truth was that he didn't really get to know her until after he'd finished his first year at Harvard, and Emmett's presence became more limited. Up until then they were merely part of two social circles which happened to overlap through the influence of mutual friends and family. Now they were… well, he wasn't really sure. All he knew was that he felt like they could be something, and he wanted to know what. The problem was that Bella didn't want to talk about it, and he wasn't sure what he wanted to say anyway.
He wasn't delusional. He knew he had no claim to Bella, and more importantly, that it was a road he should not even be considering continuing down. Still, Edward couldn't convince himself that there was harm in idle daydreams of what might be. At least, he hoped not. Everything would be so much easier if he could figure out where in the hell she stood on all of this―but he hadn't talked to Bella since before his finals, and she was always so tight-lipped on anything that crept across the boundaries. Sometimes he wished she was more like a typical girl who always wanted to talk every little thing to death, but in truth, the fact that she wasn't was one of Edward's favorite things about her.
He liked to tell himself that he slept with her because she was pretty and she was there; that she'd needed some form of comfort―that was why she'd come to him after all―and who was he to refuse her. For that one night Bella wasn't completely off-limits, though that was the biggest lie of all. There was no doubt about it; sleeping with his friend's sister was a disaster. He wasn't sure if falling for her somewhere along the line made it better or worse.
Edward hadn't been able to figure out what to expect when he came home. Part of him was hoping there would be some measure of fanfare and celebration, some vague indication that his presence had been missed over the past ten months. There was a piece of him that hoped Bella had found out what day he was coming back and would be waiting for him. That after two solid weeks of not speaking a word to each other she'd figured out whatever it was that had her so ill at ease and guarded, and he'd be able to say that things between them had, at long last, settled.
The other side of him was intensely pleased to find that wasn't the case. Edward wasn't ready for long talks about his feelings and Bella's feelings and what they should or should not have done. He'd been putting off that conversation just as much as she had, and that, more than anything else, was their problem. Neither Edward nor Bella was ready to step up to the plate and declare themselves a friend, lover, or something in between. Until one of them shored up enough courage to break the tension they were going to be stuck at the same awkward intersection they'd been idling at for months.
After thinking it over far too much, Edward decided that being semi-pleased and wholly confused wasn't that bad of a deal. He'd been prepared for everything to be different, if only because he was. He just wished he knew exactly what all those alterations were instead of having to walk in blind.
His speculation was put to an abrupt end the moment Jasper Whitlock barged straight into the Cullen house, no knock, no doorbell, and proceeded to drag Edward right out of his bedroom and shove him in the front seat of his Camaro with all the subtlety of a freight train. It was good to be home.
Edward wasn't sure where they were going. Actually, he wasn't even sure Jasper had a destination in mind. The only answer he'd gotten when he asked was 'shit, boy, that's no way to say hello.'
Jasper made random turns taking them through the town before another found them heading north toward the highway, all the while ranting about what had to have been the eighth destruction of his relationship with Alice. Edward would never admit it out loud, but he had sincerely missed his friend this past year. School just wasn't the same without someone like Jasper running around and blowing shit up. Figuratively, of course―though there had been at least one incident where it had been literal.
"Dude, bitch is fucking nuts. She's crazy. We're done, for good this time. I'm not putting up with no more of that shit." Jasper wasn't exactly one for eloquence, or subtlety.
Edward didn't believe him for one second.
Every couple of months they had this same one-sided discussion. Jasper would rant and rage about something or another he'd done that Alice apparently considered the last straw. She would break up with him, he'd get drunk and call her names for a couple of days, and then, like clockwork, they'd be back together. Edward considered the frailty of Jasper and Alice's relationship one of the many side-effects Jasper experienced from growing up without a strong female presence in his life. No matter how many problems Edward had, he would always be thankful that wasn't one of them. He couldn't even imagine a world without his mother in it, and he would never put much effort into trying to.
"Maybe if you would stop hitting on everything with two legs then she'd stop breaking up with you." It was a concept that Jasper seemed to have trouble with, although, to be fair, Alice was prone to overreaction. It was a mystery that she managed to tolerate Jasper at all.
"What can I say? I like legs." It seemed that the more time went on, the more Jasper toed over the line dividing what his father had expected from him, no matter how unreasonable, and into what the town as a whole figured he'd turn out to be. Lechery and behaving like a douche-bag included. It wasn't so much that Jasper was a bad guy, more that he liked to cause trouble, and he didn't care very much about what he was rebelling against, so long as he was fighting something.
"Who had her freaking out this time?" Edward asked.
"Bella." He could almost hear Jasper rolling his eyes.
"Again?" Edward scowled. He absolutely despised that Alice might have actually have a legitimate reason to be upset. Last summer it had only taken a week for Edward to decide that it was nothing short of disturbing how close Bella and Jasper had become in the absence of everyone else. He could only imagine how much worse it was after another year. He was not looking forward to witnessing it again, but really, that was more his issue than anything else, and at least he knew it was petty and irrational. That had to count for something.
"No, not again. I told you, that's just how we are. There wasn't even a first time, why's everyone so hung up on a repeat?"
The only thing that made Edward feel even marginally better was the firm belief that if anything had actually happened between Bella and Jasper, one of them undoubtedly would have told him. There was also a quite immature and petulant voice singing in the back of his head that he'd gotten there first. That probably was not the best line of thought to stick to.
It wasn't the first time Edward was flooded with guilt for being thankful that Emmett had decided to take summer classes again. The last thing he needed was Bella's brother coming home to find that one of his friends had decided to pursue his sister. It didn't matter that they weren't related by blood, and it never had. Emmett was fiercely protective, and trust was not easily won from him. It wasn't just the typical reactions that worried Edward—the part that was going to send Emmett into a fury was the deception, and Edward, at the very least, wanted a clearer idea of how he felt about Bella before getting his ass kicked over her.
Edward pushed the thought from his mind and suggested, "Maybe if you'd stop hanging all over her, people would stop getting the wrong idea."
Jasper glanced at him with an expression that was a bit too knowing for Edward's taste. "Fair point. So tell me, college-boy, how was Harvard?"
What Edward really wanted to say was that it was boring, stagnant, but he couldn't quite get the ungrateful and bitter sentiment to roll off his tongue. The truth was that he wasn't sure what he was doing there anymore. His whole life he'd worked so hard to get accepted. He'd had plans and goals and roadmaps all written out and laminated that took him years into the future. He used to find comfort in the rigidity of it. Now there was an ever growing part of him that wanted to set it all on fire just to watch it burn.
He envied the free-flow of Jasper's life. He was jealous of Bella, because she could throw her education away and come back home like it was nothing―but he thought that what probably bothered him the most was that it almost felt like lines were being drawn. Jasper and Bella versus Edward and Emmett―college versus freedom―and he wanted Bella on his side, not Jasper's.
Mostly he was just pissed off because Bella was apparently able to act like nothing had ever happened between them, and he wasn't sure he could. It didn't matter that they'd agreed to let it go, to pretend; Edward wanted to know that his existence had some sort of effect on her beyond the realm of friendship and past the confines of three summer months a year and too few visits in between.
"Sounds lame," Jasper commented as he shifted gears and passed a car that was only going ten miles an hour over the speed limit compared to Jasper's fifteen. It was a wonder that Chief Swan hadn't thrown Jasper in jail yet. Actually, he wasn't so sure that he hadn't.
"What did she tell you? About why she came back?" It was a thinly veiled attempt to change the subject and an incredibly clumsy grab for additional information all rolled up into one―and Jasper saw right through it.
"Tsk, tsk. You know that's something you gotta ask her." It would be so much easier if that wasn't the case. Jasper always chose the most inopportune times to display loyalty.
"Where are we going?" It was the easiest question he could think of to ask next.
"Around. Why? You got somewhere you have to be?" Jasper laughed, and Edward rapped his knuckles against his friends shoulder.
"What if I do?"
"Then I would say that there's a first time for everything."
This was closer to normal. This was more what he'd been hoping to find back in Forks.
Jasper took the next right, faster than he should have, but that wasn't so unusual, and hit the accelerator to merge onto the highway. "How about anywhere but here? Is that too after school special? I can never tell."
"Yeah, that was pretty lame," Edward chuckled, resigned to being at the mercy of Jasper's whims. There was no telling where they might end up. It was kind of a nice feeling, and one that he'd never before learned to appreciate.
The scenery zoomed by accompanied by the harsh wind breezing through Jasper's open window, and Edward wondered if Bella had any of the thousand and one questions he'd been plagued by over the past few months thundering through her head, too.
Edward didn't expect Bella to seek him out, not right away, and he childishly wanted her to come to him. They hadn't had any time to navigate the things that had happened between them the last time he saw her. She'd made him promise that nothing would change. She made him swear up and down that when he came home from his second year of school he'd be the same Edward who came home from his first, and even then he'd known he was lying to her when he agreed. He never had been certain which part of it was deception and which was good old-fashioned denial. It was hard for him to form a hypothesis when he didn't know if things were going to be different because they hadn't ever known each other all that well before, and they did now; or if it was because some occurrences cause alterations that are simply unavoidable.
The first time he ran into her was entirely by chance, in the grocery store, and it was almost like a blow to the chest; if he hadn't turned his head at just the right time he would have missed her entirely. He hadn't realized she'd be so different, and yet still the same. Bella carried herself through the aisles like she had through the hallways of their high-school. She was set ever so slightly apart from everyone else.
Her hair looked longer, her body a little more curved. She tilted her head to the side by the slightest degree, just like she'd done countless times before, but there was a weariness present that he didn't think she'd ever displayed before. The only thing he was able to focus on was the small smile she had on her face as she scanned the shelves and dropped items into her shopping cart.
Edward hadn't realized how much he'd missed her. The frequency of communication between them ebbed and flowed along with factors like his exams and her work schedule, and every phone call was charged with tension. He wondered if it was something exclusive to the pair of them, or if it was a perfectly normal aftershock to sleeping with a girl when it was supposed to mean nothing.
Edward followed Bella to the next aisle, trying to figure out which of the hundred ways he could play this would work the best. He thought about sneaking up on her for a moment, but as soon as he decided to do it she turned toward him and startled. The smile on her face widened and shifted into something more meaningful than the soft smiles she gave to everyone else without consideration. It was as good as her telling him that she'd missed him, too; that late night phone calls that came far too infrequently hadn't been enough for her, either.
"Wow." Bella took a sharp breath and shook her head, as if to clear some errant thought away. "Hi."
It seemed distinctly to Edward's advantage to try to play it cool, so he took his time walking toward the center of the baking aisle and attempted to keep the smile on his face casual, befitting of a friendly reunion. "Not expecting to see me, huh?"
"No, no," Bella answered quickly, that same curious look on her face. He found it both disconcerting and beautiful. "I just… I knew you were coming home for break soon, but wasn't sure when."
"I probably should have called, huh?"
"Nah. I think that maybe this is one of those good surprises. Besides, you're not the only one who hasn't been calling as much as they probably should."
"Damn straight," Edward answered, finally cracking a smile of his own. He had no idea which of them had been worse at it. Conversation between them had always been inconsistent, but the past few months had been another story entirely. It was hard to get a handle on things when he couldn't even figure out if she was avoiding him.
"Sorry about that," Bella muttered, and she reached behind her to grab the handle of her shopping cart.
"How's Emmett been doing?" The question was awkward and filler, but he couldn't think of anything else to say that was even remotely appropriate for the setting. He didn't want her to brush him off so soon just because they opened a topic of conversation they obviously weren't ready for.
"He's good," Bella answered, sounding confused but more comfortable. "Don't you talk to him?"
"When did you get back?" she asked before the conversation could lull.
"Two days ago," he answered, and then promptly threw the reason for his innocent question straight out the window in favor of what he really wanted to talk about, whether it was the right time or not. "Look, I―"
"We don't have to talk about it," Bella interrupted. She pressed her lips together and took a noticeably deep breath. "You don't have to worry about me making a big deal or anything, okay?"
Of all the ways Edward had imagined she might behave after the luxury of time and space, complete and total indifference hadn't even crossed his mind. It was a good thing, in a way, because it made him realize that when he'd considered all those reactions she might have, he hadn't ever thought about himself. Watching her now, he knew this wasn't something he was going to be able to let go as easily as he'd thought. Sure, the situation wasn't ideal, and it wasn't going to be easy, but the welling of curiosity he experienced standing there in the grocery store as he failed to dissect her words and actions into something that made sense to him wasn't exactly new territory.
It was a feeling he distinctly remembered from hours spent flung into each other's company last summer. Once he'd gotten a glimpse of who she was, whole and apart from everything else, he hadn't been able to leash the curiosity that ran rampant. It seemed some things never changed, and it became apparent to Edward that he was the one they had to worry about making a big deal of their night together. He really wasn't handling this all that well. He also felt like an asshole for how easy it was to dismiss Emmett entirely.
"Alright," Edward agreed with a slight nod.
"I'm glad you're home," Bella said after a moment, the words reminiscent of some sort of peace offering between the two of them. He knew her well enough to know what she really meant by it.
"I missed you, too."
A/N: Chapter 2 on Thursday 12/1.