A/N: This was my entry for the anon angst contest. I'd like to thank my betas, jkane180, wmr1601, and Katmom, for wielding their Sparkly Reds. Profuse thanks to Keye, Sandy, Kat, Aleea, Heather, and Credoroza for all their support, assistance, and handholding—because we all know what a baby I am with angst.

Warnings and Disclaimer: Contains references to drug use, cutting, self harm, violence, and lemons. References to past (minor) character death. SM owns the names, I just like to use them to get under your skin.


Songs Edward's band performs throughout the story:

Man in the Box ~ Alice in Chains

Rooster ~ Alice in Chains

Would? ~ Alice in Chains

Them Bones ~ Alice in Chains

Lithium ~ Nirvana

Heart-shaped Box ~ Nirvana

Smells Like Teen Spirit ~ Nirvana

Black Hole Sun ~ Soundgarden

Black Hole Sun ~ Peter Frampton

Hotel California ~ The Eagles


~Face the Rain~

~*Edward*~

Leaning my hands on the cold porcelain of the sink in front of me, I stare at the stranger in the mirror. Aside from being extremely bloodshot, my green eyes appear dull and lifeless, which is exactly how I strive to feel these days.

Numb.

Distracted.

Uncaring.

Emotionless.

But tonight my bubble burst at the worst possible fucking moment—while Gianna's mouth was all over my junk. I close my eyes, hoping to erase the image of the fucked up man in the mirror, but he haunts me behind my lids, too. There is no escaping... only coping.

A knock sounds on the door.

"Edward?" Gianna's voice is soft and tentative. "Baby, what's wrong?"

Everything.

Nothing.

Dead man walking.

I let you suck my dick, and I use you for sex. It's sad that you don't have enough self worth to give a fuck and say no.

"Edward?" Her voice rises a few notches, real concern beginning to set in. She knocks harder. "Open the door. Say something!" The door takes a low hit—must be one of her boots, the black leather ones with the silver buckles I sometimes have her leave on when we fuck because it's hot.

Tonight, I'm hurting. Hurting because I opened my god damned eyes.

From a distance I hear Gianna's pleading voice, just not the words. It doesn't matter.

"Gianna... fuck. Shut up. I'm fucking fine. You need to leave now."

"Leave? I'm not leaving you like this!" Her voice is like a cheese grater raking over the last nerve in me that has any feeling.

"Get. The. Fuck. Out." My voice is hoarse and takes on a pleading tone. "Just call Alice for me. Please, Gi."

"O-okay. I'll call Alice." Her voice is small now, quiet.

"Shit, Gi... I'm fucking sorry. I didn't mean – I'm such a fuck up." I scrub my hand over my face, and it doesn't look any better after the third pass. I look like shit, like death warmed over—which is exactly what I am.

"Edward, maybe you should... maybe you should ease up on the drugs, huh?"

Fuck no, is what I think to myself, but to her, I say, "Yeah, maybe. Get Alice for me. Sorry. I just need you to go. Alice will know what to do."

"Take care of yourself, Edward. Call me," she says softly.

I don't answer as I hear her footfalls heading toward the living room, then her hushed voice on the phone talking to Alice. The conversation is short; Alice expects this to happen from time to time.

I wait until I hear the door shut before I open the medicine cabinet and slip a razor between my index and middle fingers. Raking my sleeve up, I make a small cut on the underside of my upper arm, and I hiss as the blood trickles. It's like a release valve, and my chest, which has been clenched tight, relaxes slightly. I'd need to cut myself from stem to stern in order to really get some relief, but a small cut helps diffuse the block of ice with the jagged edges that lives in the center of my chest 24/7.

I close my eyes as the relief washes over me, but I keep them closed for too long.

Soft brown eyes. Petal pink lips. Soft touches.

No, no, no. Don't go there.

"Edward..." her voice sighs.

NO! My fist connects with the mirror, but it merely splinters in its frame. I don't fucking think so. I slam my fist harder. Again. Again. Again. I'm only satisfied when the mirror truly reflects me—splinters and sharp slivers that can cut deep, that need to be cleaned up, that have no real place in this world any longer. Scattered pieces of what was once whole and maybe even beautiful.

My hand is dripping blood, but I barely notice. Wrapping a damp washcloth around it, I stumble out of the bathroom and head straight for the vial of white powder that lives in the drawer of my nightstand. I snort a line, flopping back on my bed and waiting for the pain to recede. It doesn't. Not really.

I lean over and yank on my buddy Jack, taking a long pull. I lie down and stare up at the ceiling which is made up of those little tin squares with punch out designs or whatever the fuck they're called.

My mind insists on drifting back to what happened earlier tonight. Stupid fucking masochistic brain.

I was at a club in Seattle, hoping to pick up some leggy blonde for a quick fuck or BJ. I had some promising prospects, but then I felt a familiar hand on my arm, talons digging into my skin lightly.

"Edward, I didn't know you were coming tonight." Gianna smiled when I turned her way.

"Yeah, decided at the last minute," I answered evasively, taking a hit off my cigarette.

"Come dance..." Gianna purred.

My eyes roamed her body from head to toe: tight little black halter dress paired with fuckhot black boots, chunky silver buckles going up the sides. Her jet black hair was swept back in jeweled barrettes, little ringlets hanging down to frame eyes that were such a dark brown they were nearly black. The rest of her hair cascaded down her back in waves, ending just at the top of her juicy ass. My mind immediately drifted off into fantasies of the many times I'd had her long hair wrapped tightly around my fist as I pumped into her, and I ran my tongue over my bottom lip.

Flicking my butt on the ground and crushing it beneath my boot, I grabbed her by the hips, whirling her around until her back was pressed against my chest. We started grinding together, her ass pressed up on my jock, and it was obvious pretty quickly that she was coming home with me. We'd been here before; we'd done this before.

I knew she had feelings for me that went beyond a quick fuck, but she was well aware my heart wasn't available—that I didn't do feelings. She turned to face me and licked her glossy hot pink lips. I tilted my head to the side, giving her a meaningful look, and she nodded, running a long, manicured, hot pink nail down the center of my chest, sending a shiver of pleasure through me. Without a word, I turned on my heel and headed for the exit, lighting up another cigarette. My pants were already tight with anticipation, my boner pressing hard against the seam of my jeans.

My apartment was only a few blocks from the club, so we walked it, Gianna falling into step next to me silently. That's one thing I really appreciated about her; she didn't feel the need to make pointless conversation. The night was cool and clear; I could say there was a blanket of stars dotting the sky, but that shit's for chicks. Gianna may have made such a comment, and I may have grunted some random sound that could have been mistaken for agreement. What the fuck ever.

I trudged up the three flights of stairs to my place with Gianna in tow. The sound of her boots clicking on the steps made my dick twitch, and I imagined her legs wrapped around my waist, heels digging into my ass as I pounded her. I loved fucking her with those hotties on. Unlocking the door and letting us in, I grabbed her, pressing her up against the wall just inside. Her eyes glittered in the light streaming through the kitchen window, and she licked her lips in anticipation. I kissed her hard, rocking my hips forward to grind against her hip. She let out a moan, and I took the opportunity to fill her mouth with my tongue. Gianna gave as good as she got, her tongue laving against mine, and her fingers gripped and tugged at my hair almost painfully. She made these mewling noises in the back of her throat that really turned me on. My hands roamed over her curvy hips and ass, enjoying the fact that there was nothing under that little dress. That shit was hot, and I tugged her over to the couch. No chicks ever made it to my bed, except... don't go there.

She pulled away, pushing me so I plopped onto the cushion, and then she fell to her knees, looking up at me wickedly. Seeing her kneeling at my feet, I groaned as she undid my belt.

"Yeah..." I tilted my head back against the couch, allowing my eyes to slip closed and just feel. Physical sensations were good; it was emotional attachments I avoided.

Her soft hands reached inside my boxer briefs: one to caress my throbbing balls while the other wrapped around my dick, pumping a few times.

"Give me better access, baby," she whispered, and I lifted my hips, tugging my pants and boxers down, allowing them to pool at my feet. "Oooh, that's my man. Look at you... it's been too long, Edward."

And then there was no more talking as she took me in her mouth. Gianna knew how to blow a guy; that was for certain. Lips that took control, moving up and down my shaft in long, sure strokes. I could tell when she hollowed her cheeks because it felt like she was going to suck my soul right out through my dick—that was if I still had one.

A deceptively soft tongue that found every... single... sensitive area and exploited it expertly.

Long nails that raked over my thighs and abdomen, causing little nerve spasms.

My fists were clenched tight on the cushion to either side of me, eyes scrunched closed as my breathing grew labored, and a hot wire ignited inside my belly, signaling that I was about to come. This wasn't a huge concern because I would only need a fifteen minute breather before Big Ed would be up for round two.

I started to relax a bit as I drew closer to orgasm. My fingers relaxed, one hand unconsciously reaching out to touch her bobbing head, helping her keep rhythm. It felt so good. It had been so long since I felt this free, and I opened my eyes to watch her taking me into her mouth over and over.

Big mistake.

Instead of Gianna's jet black hair and candied hot pink lips wrapped around my dick, I saw mahogany hair with reddish highlights and natural, petal pink lips with just a touch of gloss. Instead of Gianna's lively dark eyes, I saw her cinnamon and milk-chocolate-swirled eyes looking up at me with complete trust and adoration.

"No..." I shook my head, squeezing my eyes shut. Opening my eyes again, it was still the sight of her that greeted me, swallowing me whole. "Stop. Please stop," I begged.

I couldn't even bear to touch her head to push her away. My body—in complete disagreement with my horror—kept heading for climax like a runaway train. I didn't want to—not like this.

"STOP!" I cried out. But it was too late. "Ungh..." I came explosively—trying to hold it back simply increased the intensity—and I didn't dare to open my eyes to see whose warm, hot mouth continued its ministrations, milking me until I went soft.

I hated myself for allowing images of her to fuck with my good time. I hated my body for moving forward without my consent. Men really were vile creatures.

As my breathing slowed, I felt gentle hands caressing my balls and traveling up my abs. Forcing my eyes open, it was Gianna's dark eyes I was faced with. I didn't deserve the kind touch of her hands, and anger suddenly ripped through me like a tidal wave of acid.

"Get off me. I'm sorry... just get off!" I hissed.

Gianna drew back, startled, and I took the opportunity to stand quickly, yanking up my boxers and jeans as I lurched over to the bathroom and slammed the door.

"Aw, fuck me," I groan loudly. While I don't have romantic feelings for Gianna, she's a nice girl, and I'm truly sorry that I hurt her tonight.

Gianna Volturi is the niece of Aro Volturi—drug dealer, pimp, and peddler. One night, I saw her at the club, fascinated by the way she lost herself when she danced. It was as if there was nobody else in the world. She was fucking beautiful as she ran her hands over her own curves, eyes closed, a look of vague ecstasy on her face—and I decided in that moment that I wanted to be the cause of her looking that way. When I asked one of my buddies who she was, I was floored when they told me she was Aro's niece. Aro... the man I wanted nothing more than to destroy because he'd destroyed me. I smirked to myself. This would be perfect; I would reach out and touch that fuck through his niece.

My plan fell apart as I got to know her, though. Gianna was as sweet, sexy, and kind as Aro was a cruel, greedy bastard. I was soon under her spell, and we were sleeping together fairly regularly. Even though I didn't have the same feelings for her that she had for me, something about her triggered my protective side, and there was no way I would do anything to harm a hair on her head. One of my buds made a comment about 'getting a piece of that' once, suggested maybe even sharing her, and I decked his ass. We aren't friends any more.

Yeah, so it's no wonder that more guilt sluices through my already crowded veins as I think about how I unceremoniously blew Gi off tonight. I feel like such a shit.

Then her face floats through my mind again, bringing with it memories that I usually have in lockdown. The poison rolls through me, taunting me with vague tendrils of memories. When the huge, ornate cross floats behind my eyes, I curl into the fetal position, begging a God that I no longer believe in to take it all away.

"Fuck, fuck, fuck..." I chant as the tears start to fall, turning into full out sobs.

I'm so sucked in and distracted by my own horrid memories and the braying of my broken sobs that I don't notice Alice entering my apartment until her small cool hands touch my arm, my face.

"Oh, Edward..." she whispers, anguished. Then her petite little body curls around mine.

Alice is my lifeline. Always my lifeline, my rock. I don't even deserve to breathe the same air as her, but she always comes when I need her.

There's no need for words with Alice; there never is.

The pain inside me—stabbing deep like a thousand sharp knives—reduces to a dull throbbing now that Alice is holding me. I long ago stopped worrying about feeling like a fucking pansy because I need this little pixie to help keep all the pieces of me together, and I allow her comforting presence to envelop me.

My sobs subside to hiccups, and Alice coos to me, "I'm here, Edward. I've got you."

I'm not sure how long we lay there on my bed, rolled up into a ball of arms and legs, short and long. She may be smaller than me, but she's the only one than can hold me together, and she's infinitely stronger than I am. Alice's little hands comfort and caress, the pressure of her tiny body an anchor for my sanity as my body shakes and twitches. I don't even bother to ask for assistance from any substances, knowing that she would simply walk out on me if I did. Using in front of her is the only thing I can do that would cause her to abandon me in my time of need, and I need her far more than a fix right now.

Eventually, I see the early morning light begin to shine through the edges of the shades on my bedroom windows, and I realize Alice has been holding me for hours. Shifting slightly, I turn my head and meet her intense blue eyes, which look back at me with nothing but love and sympathy. Her eyes are a pale blue, ringed by the darkest navy, and they match another set of eyes that I'll never look into again, except in my nightmares. My body involuntarily tenses, and Alice shakes her dark head, her spiky hair tickling against my shoulder.

"Don't go there again, Edward."

"Why the fuck not?" I snap, looking away from eyes that I swear can read my soul.

"Feeling guilty won't bring him back. Killing yourself won't, either." Her voice holds no accusation.

"I'm not killing myself," I scoff.

"Aren't you? Edward, I've watched you deteriorate from a man who knew just what he wanted out of life and where he was headed, to a drugged up shell of who you used to be. You live with no direction, no hope. You fill yourself with drugs to dull the pain—you cut yourself! I can't stand to watch you die before my eyes."

"I'm already dead, Alice," I laugh shortly. "I died the night –"

"No! No you're not! Edward, if I lose you, too..." Alice's words are cut short by a keening sob.

"Alice, no. I'm sorry." I turn on my back, pulling her against me to hug her as tight as I can. I rest my chin in her deceptively soft hair—I always half expect those spikes to hurt. A surge of regret rolls through me as I notice my battered knuckles have been wrapped up, knowing the little pixie had to take care of me in so many ways. "Please don't cry, Ali."

"It's been almost..."

"Two years. Every fucking moment of every day I'm aware of the anniversary looming."

"I know that, Edward, but it's time to start living again. Nobody blames you."

"I blame me," I answer bitterly.

"He wouldn't want you to suffer this way."

"I let him down. I deserve it."

Alice grabs my face, waiting for me to turn her way. "You're letting him down now! Don't you see? Emmett would never want you to suffer like this. He'd be horrified to see you wasting your life this way."

"Just stop," I whisper because all the air went out of my lungs when she mentioned his name.

Emmett.

My brother.

Dead.

In my place.

Alice's little hands tighten their grip on my face, her eyes—his eyes—glaring into mine. "Emmett would never want this for you!" she seethes. "He loved you. He did what he did because he loved you, wanted a better life for you. The least you could do is give him his dying wish!"

Her words are like a kick in the balls, nausea and all. I'm trapped, looking into those intense blue eyes, and I have no answer.

Because she's right.

That was Emmett through and through.

He would never want me to suffer, to feel guilty. If only I could grant him his wish, grant Ali hers. But I can't. I just don't believe that I'm worth saving.

An hour later, Alice leaves, pressing a kiss to my stubbly cheek. "I love you, Edward," she says soberly.

"I love you, Ali."

Just before she shuts the door, she turns and says, "Come back to us."

I want to, Ali. Oh, how I want to.

~*FtR*~

For the next few weeks, I keep thinking about the things Alice said when she rescued me the night I freaked out on Gianna. Alice never asked questions—never expected an explanation as to the cause of my current episode—but she usually knew instinctively what to say and do to bring me back from the edge. This last time was different. Alice never tried to discuss Emmett with me or bring up the awful night that destroyed our family before. As many times as I've been told that 'nobody blames me,' I still have a hard time buying it.

I was the outsider to their close-knit family.

The Cullens took me in when I was ten. My birth parents, Edward and Elizabeth Masen, died in a car accident, leaving me an orphan. There was no other family, and I was put into the foster care system. A family I was staying with had older teenage boys who decided to use 'the foster freak' as target practice for their sling shots. I landed in the emergency room after being hit in the eye with a rock and was lucky enough to be examined by Dr. Carlisle Cullen. After seeing multiple bruises over my entire torso, he sent the nurse away and questioned me.

Carlisle harangued me until I admitted what the boys had done. With a huff, he told me to stay put, returning within the hour with a woman from Social Services. Don't ask me how he got one of them down to the hospital so quickly on a weekend, but he explained with a grim expression what the boys had done, showing her the evidence. When Mrs. Morris started to flounder, he led her from the exam room, tight lipped. When he returned twenty minutes later, he told me I'd be going home with him. I'd been a part of the Cullen clan ever since.

Carlisle's wife, Esme, welcomed me with open arms. Her embrace could never match that of my mother's, but it came damn close. She doted on me as if I was her own. Emmett and Alice were fraternal twins—the only resemblance they shared being their blue eyes—who happened to be a year older than me. They, too, welcomed me with open arms, so excited to have a 'new brother.'

We had the perfect, cookie-cutter family for years... until I fucked it all up. And still Carlisle and Esme thought of me as their son, Alice as her brother. I thought of myself as the selfish, lying douche that had amputated one of their fucking limbs. How could they not wish that Carlisle had never come across me in the ER all those years ago? I wish that every day.

Two more weeks until the anniversary of that night.

Alice's words wouldn't leave me alone, though. She said that Emmett wouldn't want me to waste my life away.

Isn't that why he did what he did? So you could have a good life?

I knew that was true. Emmett never judged me, just like Alice didn't. I'd stolen the life of her twin, and she still loved me, still showed up every time I had a meltdown. It was fucking ironic that the only one who could chase my demons was the twin of the brother whose life I'd destroyed.

My thoughts halt abruptly when I realize where I am. Fuck. I've driven back to Forks, back to the scene of the crime.

Pulling my Mustang to the side of the road, I open the door and retch, placing my head between my knees. When there's nothing left, and the dry heaves stop, I get up on shaking legs and walk to the edge of the field.

It's a big open field of green grass, edged by woods. In the center is a beautiful old tree whose umbrella of leaves used to be far reaching. In the spring, summer and fall, the foliage on this tree was so lush that you could picnic beneath it during a soft rain and never get wet. That is, until two years ago.

Now, although it's late spring, the tree stands tall and gnarled, conspicuously bare, as it would in the middle of winter. It's still tall and regal, limbs reaching out and up strongly, but it's naked as a jaybird. I don't remember much about that summer, but I do remember the pile of leaves beneath the tree when Jasper and I brought the cross out there. The sight of the tree, devoid of all cover, hundreds of leaves littering the ground, had such an impact on me that I was unable to speak.

We'd shown up in Jasper's pickup truck, the ornate cherry-wood cross laid carefully in the bed, wrapped in soft cargo blankets. Jasper let down the tailgate and helped me shoulder the big, heavy cross. He took the T section, and I grabbed the end. As we trudged over the grassy field, the bare tree and the hundreds of shed leaves caught my eye, and I dropped my end of the cross with a muffled thump!

"Fuck, Edward!" Jasper turned his head, eyes growing wide when he saw the look on my face. I must have been sight because he clammed up immediately.

I stood there gaping at the scene before me, and although I wasn't into superstitious bullshit by nature, I just knew the incident with the tree was related to Emmett.

Jasper's gaze followed mine, and he whistled. "Whoa. What the hell happened to the tree?"

"Emmett," I answered simply. Picking my end of the cross back up, we continued our journey across the field.

Once we had the cross placed beside the tree, we stood back to admire it. The cross stood seven feet tall and was carved with the Cullen family crest along with various other designs. Emmett and I had made the cross together. It was supposed to be a gift for Carlisle to keep or donate to the church if he wished. Emmett was into carving, and the cross ended up bigger than life, just like Emmett himself always had been.

"Wow. That's one beaut of a cross, Edward. It's fitting for it to be here."

I held up a hand. "Don't. Can I have a moment alone before we go back?"

"Sure thing." Jasper sauntered back to his truck to wait for me.

I faced the cross, falling to my knees. "For you, Emmett, my brother. You'll never know how fucking sorry I am."

Coming back to myself, I lean on the rustic split rail fence that edges the field alongside the road. When I got in my car today and decided to go for a drive, I never expected to end up here, although on some level I must have.

The day is gray and dreary, tendrils of mist hanging in the air. Within a minute, my face and hair are coated by a light sheen of moisture. The grass is so green it nearly glows, so out of place with the rest of this dreary scene which is made up of browns and grays. The tree, once beautiful, is now gnarled and dry looking, its bark nearly gray. I feel like the tree represents my life—once lush and beautiful, able to offer shelter to those in need, but now just a dying, twisted ghost of what it once was. My eyes light on the cross, its finish polished to a gleam. I can see the deep, rich brown even from here, popping against the rest of the backdrop which almost appears two dimensional.

"Fuck me," I mutter, my knees going weak as sweat drips down from my hairline in small rivulets, some of which trickle down the side of my face. When a few drops drip into my eyes, I use the edge of my t-shirt to soothe the resulting burn. I lean heavily on the fence, knowing if I let go, I'm going down. The pain is too much to bear, my chest constricting to the point that I can barely get air. There's a whistling sound nearby, and I realize it's my unsuccessful attempt to draw a full breath.

After a while, my ability to breathe returns, and I contemplate what led me here. This is where my life came to a crashing halt nearly two years ago. Four more days. Yes, in four days it will be the two year anniversary.

Of Emmett's death.

Of the end of my life as I knew it.

Of the last time I would see her.

Isabella Dwyer.

Just thinking her name cuts deep.

I want to stop myself; I know it's not a good idea, but my feet start moving, drawing me closer to the bare old tree, step by step. Inside I scream, but my legs never falter as they carry me across the field.

A few moments ago, I need a fucking fence to hold me up, but now I'm heading right into the danger zone. Maybe this is it for me? Perhaps the earth will open, taking me in and make me a part of the soil.

And the dust returns to the ground it came from, and the spirit returns to God who gave it.*

Will my spirit return to the God I no longer believe in? Does He believe in me? Forgive me for causing a beautiful soul to be taken so young?

I close my eyes, unable to bear the site of the tree and the cross as they loom closer.

One foot in front of the other, drawing inexorably closer to the scene of the crime.

I know when I'm close. The scent of the polished wood from the cross wafts up my nose. It's ridiculous to think it could still smell as heavenly as it did when it was freshly carved, when Emmett and I still had it in his woodshop, but it does. I smell the fresh pulp of the wood layered beneath the sealant we used to protect it from the elements.

I step closer.

Closer.

And when I know I'm right before it, I drop to my knees in the wet grass, the moisture quickly soaking through the heavy denim of my jeans.

I open my eyes to find myself directly in front of the cross, perfectly aligned, and only two feet away. This doesn't surprise me.

"Emmett... fuck." I grind the heels of my hands into my eyes which are burning with tears.

I pray that the ground will open and welcome me home.

It doesn't.

It seems I am the unwanted, not good enough for the likes of this place. Probably true.

There was a day I tried to end my life in this very spot. I was thwarted then and suspect I'd be thwarted now.

"Emmett, I'm so sorry. I'll never be able to tell you how sorry. It should have been me. It was supposed to be me."

What kind of God takes the innocent in place of the guilty?

"I don't believe in you anymore," I whisper. The irony of talking to Him if I don't believe is not lost on me, but I'm helpless, lost, and angry. Disillusioned.

When I'm done spewing words of sorrow and love to Emmett, I crawl on my hands and knees until my back can rest against the gnarled tree. I pat it with my hand, silently apologizing that it, too, was a victim of my stupidity.

One night.

One moment.

One decision that changed everything.

My head falls back against the trunk, and my eyes slip close as I'm transported back in time.

~*FtR*~

Peeking out from the wings of the stage, I take in the crowd gathering. It's still over an hour before show time, and the place is packed to the rafters.

"Dude, look at that crowd." Eric sidles up beside me and stage-whispers in my ear. He smells of beer and weed. "They're here for us. Did you ever think?"

I smile, keeping my eye on the continually morphing crowd, all the spots right up against the front of the stage and thirty or so feet back already staked out. Girls in skimpy clothing throw dirty looks at one another as they jostle around for the best position they can manage. The bouncers are constantly monitoring, and everyone knows the rule: any fights break out, and you're banned.

"This is big, Eric. I didn't expect so many."

"Told ya', man. You just gotta get the word out."

"You're high," I accuse with a laugh.

"So are you. You just hide it a little better, Masen."

"Whatever. Just don't fuck up on stage, huh?" I rib him, giving him an elbow.

"P'tchaw! You're talking to the master. Have some respect."

I met Eric Dixon in high school. We both love to play guitar and sing, so we decided to form our own band. We're the same height, similar build, have pale skin—where we differ is in hair and eye color: Eric has a shock of pin-straight black hair that perpetually falls over his forehead and silvery-blue eyes, and I have tousled reddish-brown hair and green eyes.

The typical band has one lead singer, but we've always shared the limelight. We write songs together; some Eric is lead, some I'm lead, and some we harmonize together. Jacob Black has been our laid-back drummer since senior year when he transferred to our high school. We were between drummers at the time, and he sauntered over while we were practicing in the music room one day and started drumming his hands on a desk, picking up the beat of the song we were singing right off. Jacob's friend, Seth Clearwater, became our bassist/keyboard player, and the rest is history.

Masen-Dixon was born—a play off our last names that was discovered while passing a bong back and forth after practice one night. We still don't remember whose idea it was.

Tonight, we're playing at House of Grunge which is a hugely popular venue in Seattle: home of the 90's grunge band. Only those with 'the sound' are invited to play, and word was there were groupies galore after a show. We're actually getting paid for this gig, too.

Eric and I both have an affinity for the grunge bands that started it all, and we make it a practice to honor our favorites whenever we do a set. That's how we came to the attention of the scouts that House of Grunge have scouring the local bars for talent.

Alice in Chains is my personal fave, Nirvana is Eric's, and we both love to play some Soundgarden and Pearl Jam.

"Hey, Masen. I had these made up for us." Eric hands me several bottle-cap necklaces with different colored satin ribbons.

"What the fuck are these?"

"Passport to pussy, my friend." Eric winks at me as my mouth falls open.

"Come again?"

"Exactly—you catch on quick. You get to come again and again."

"With these?"

Eric rolls his eyes. "Dude, look at what's on them."

Holding up one with a red ribbon, I see the center of the cap is emblazoned with an M. Eric holds his up, which has a D—I assume because both of our first names start with E. I shrug my shoulders, still confounded.

"God, do I have to spoon feed your ass? I'm not going to show you how to fuck, too, Masen—let's get that straight right now."

I punch him in the arm. "I know how to fuck, you douche," I mutter.

"You collar the babes with these. Do you see the crowd that's already out there? Those bitches are just dying to ride our jocks. You make eye contact with a chick that's to your liking, and you place one of these around her neck. Backstage pass, and our door to getting laid."

"Ah. Did I ever tell you that you're an evil genius?" I smirk at him, but I'm not as into it he is. Yes, I love to get laid—what guy doesn't?—but I prefer to choose my partners by criteria other than 'some hot chick flashing her tits by the front of the stage.' I prefer a little brains with my balling.

Jacob's voice comes from right behind us. "Hey! Where's my passport to pussy?"

"Fuck off, Black! You're just the drummer. You're on your own. I'm sure you can find some sloppy seconds around," Eric scoffs crassly.

I roll my eyes. Eric is an awesome band-mate, but his moral compass... not exactly aligned with mine.

Eric decides we should hand out our 'passports to pussy' during the tribute portion of our show. I could care less, really. Guess I'm not your typical rock star type, but I am a man, and I don't want my band-mates to think I'm a pussy.

We perform our original songs, which are met with enthusiasm. There are lots of guys around the edges enjoying the music and whistling loudly after each one, but front and center, the floor is bursting with girls screaming and pleading to come back stage. Holy shit.

These fucking lights are hotter than hell, and I've doused myself in water three times already—each shake of my tousled hair throwing off droplets is met with more screams. I don't mind the attention, really, but I don't crave it the way Eric does. He never beds the same girl twice. Jacob and I call him Dix-in-chix which he loathes. It just makes us call him that all the more.

Tonight we're starting with 'Man in the Box' by Alice, so I'm up first.

"How's everyone doing?" I ask rhetorically, but anything else I'm about to say is drowned in screams. I wait for the melee to die down a bit. "We are in the House of Grunge, so we're going to perform songs from some of the originals. First up is 'Man in the Box' in memory of Lane Staley."

The girls go absolutely wild, a few of them flashing their tits.

"And ladies..." Eric breaks in from behind me "...if you'd like one of these necklaces—which are also backstage passes—I want to hear you screeeeam!"

I turn to see one of the bottle-cap necklaces dangling from Eric's index finger as the crowd goes ballistic.

No pressure.

I have nothing to worry about because this is my favorite Chains song, and I kill that shit every time. The timbre of my voice has often been compared to Staley's, which is an incredible honor.

I'm in the zone as I become the song.

"I'm the man in the box... buried in my shit... Won't you come and save me... save me..."

I fall to my knees for the guitar riffs, leaning back with my eyes closed. I have no idea what the reaction of the crowd is because I'm so deep within—the only thing I'm aware of outside of myself is my fingers playing the shit out of the strings.

When I roll back up to my feet and grab the mike again, my attention is drawn to the left side of the crowd. A girl slips through the throngs like a hot knife through butter; even the wildest girls seem to part so she can take her place at the edge of the stage. She's given space in a sea of bodies that are pressed together like sardines and stands there quite comfortably.

She's not screaming like the others, but instead sways gently, enjoying the music. I'm intrigued, but she's in shadow, and it's her presence that grabs and holds my attention even though I haven't seen her face yet. I try to be patient, knowing that I'll be down that end of the stage when Eric moves up to sing 'Lithium' by Nirvana.

I sing 'Would?' and 'Rooster,' finishing up with 'Them Bones' before turning it over to Eric.

Eric steps up to the mike, looking out over the crowd silently. He waits long enough to make the girls squirm before a slow smile spreads across his face.

"How we doin', Seattle?" he yells out. He waits for the uproar to die down, eyes scanning the crowd, obviously far more prepared for the onslaught than I was. "I'm going to give you a taste of Lithium... 'cause you guys are just too wild for me!"

More screams ring out, and he waits about twenty seconds, nodding slowly as the first soft strums of the guitar ring out. Seth slipped off the stage just as I finished 'Them Bones' because Eric and I always play Nirvana together. I take my place to Eric's left, on bass.

During the quieter parts of the song, I finally have the opportunity to scope out the girl that caught my eye. It's easy to locate her since everyone is still allowing room for her at the front of the stage; her hands rest on the edge of it, and she's mouthing the words to 'Lithium' with her eyes closed. I take in what I can see of her. Long, straight brown hair spills over and hangs down past her well-endowed chest which is pushed up by a red and black corset. Her skin is pale and creamy, and she has the complexion of a porcelain doll.

When the song picks up, she bounces on her feet shaking her hair around, continuing to sing. Even though I haven't looked her in the eye yet, or been able to get a good look at her face, I'm hard as a rock, and my mouth waters. I already know I'm putting one of those coke-bottle necklaces on her. Only her.

As the song comes to a close, she shakes her hair back into place, sweeping a hand across her eyes. Everyone is going crazy but her. Composing herself, she looks up at me, and our eyes meet for the first time. It's hard to tell with the lighting, but I think her eyes are brown. I do know they are big and beautiful, framed by long lashes. They're outlined by black eyeliner that comes to a point at the corners—Cleopatra eyes. I know it's not 'manly,' but I'm always impressed by the things women manage to do to their eyes. I'm definitely an 'eye' man. Love intriguing eyes full of mystery, and this girl has it going on in spades.

The rest of her face has barely any makeup: a hint of pink to her cheeks that might be natural and pale, petal pink lips, shiny with gloss. And those tits! I can tell even without the corset that she's got the perfect handfuls just waiting to be fondled, but my God, the way they're on display, threatening to spill over the edge makes my dick twitch. I'm also a breast man.

Her eyes travel slowly up and down my body, and a lazy smile touches her pretty pink lips. It's almost as if she's checking me out to see if I measure up. That thought actually turns me on—it's Eric that thinks we're Gods and the women should just bend over and take what we give. But I see a beautiful girl who isn't like all the rest.

I wait for her eyes to reach mine again, and I raise an eyebrow, silently asking if I meet with her approval. She nods slowly before a tiny pink tongue peeks out to lick her lips.

I'm done.

It's a good thing my jeans are so tight; otherwise, she'd be able to see the massive hard-on I'm now sporting.

Eric moves on to 'Heart-shaped Box' and then 'Smells Like Teen Spirit.' Throughout both songs, Mystery Girl eye fucks me. She never once looks at Eric, who's the one in the limelight now. She sings the lyrics, dances a little, flings her hair around, and seems to really enjoy the music, but her eyes are on me the entire time.

When Eric is finished with his set, he waits until the screaming dies down before holding his arms up, his guitar bumping up against his stomach as it hangs free. "Okay, ladies. This is the moment you've been waiting for. We've got some necklaces to give out. The most beautiful girls are in Seattle!"

Internally, I roll my eyes, but the crowd goes ballistic, eating out of his hand. Even the guys out in the audience whistle and cat-call, cheering us on.

"We're going to hand these babies out, but don't leave just yet! We have one more song to do for you first."

Eric nods to me then begins handing out his necklaces. He has a huge handful of them, and he bends down to place them over the heads of the girls he chooses. Once, he points to a girl back a ways. "You in the Pearl Jam t-shirt with the long blond hair... you, yes... Let her through. Come on up, sweetheart."

I grab two necklaces from the container with my initial on it and look out over the sea of screaming, pleading, reaching girls. One stands out amongst them all—Mystery Girl. She eyes the screaming girls with interest. She doesn't appear judgmental, but it's clear she disapproves of the whole screaming-pleading thing.

Sauntering over to stand before her, I crouch down, looking her in the eyes up close for the first time. I was right... beautiful brown eyes, and her complexion rivals the finest porcelain. She's even more beautiful up close, and her tits threaten to spill over the corset in the most tantalizing way. I know we're in a crowded room with loads of screaming fans, but the world seems to collapse down to just the two of us. I idly wonder if she's experiencing the same effect.

"My eyes are up here." She speaks for the first time—amusement lacing her throaty voice—bringing both hands up and spreading her index and middle fingers out to frame her warm chocolate eyes.

I smile at her, reaching out to place a necklace on her, but she steps back, shaking her head.

"No? You're refusing me?" I ask, flabbergasted.

Shaking her head again, she curls a finger around the other necklace I'm holding. "I want the red one."

Surprised, I just smirk, looking into her eyes again. Her look is playful, but there's something else that lies beneath, and I'm dying to know what it is. So is Big Ed.

"What's your name, Mystery Girl?"

"Mystery Girl, huh? I think I like that." She bends her head down for me, and the satin ribbon slides easily over her silky hair. The bottle-cap falls just in the cleft of her luscious cleavage, and I feel an answering twitch in my pants.

"Eyes up, Masen." Mystery Girl seems amused.

"Sorry. Your name?"

"You'll have to earn that one."

"I'll try to be worthy then." I smirk at her and tap her nose playfully with my index finger. "We have to do our last song, but I'll see you backstage after."

Standing up, I start to walk away, but she tugs on the leg of my jeans. "I have a request."

"And what's that?"

"Can you do 'Black Hole Sun' for me?"

"Soundgarden. I'll ask Eric. We were planning to end with 'Down in a Hole.'"

"Not just Soundgarden's version; I want to hear Frampton's version, too."

"You don't ask for much, do you? What makes you think I know Frampton's version?"

"You do." She sounds sure of herself.

"If I fulfill your request, you give me your name."

"You will have earned it then." She winks at me.

Fuck me.

I return to Eric with her request, and when he hears she's the only one I 'collared'—as he puts it—he readily agrees, with a wiggle of his eyebrows and a lecherous smirk.

I do know Frampton's version quite well, although we've never performed it in public, so Mystery Girl really has no way of knowing even if she's seen us perform before.

Eric steps up to the mic. "We have a special treat for you. Our last song is by request." Eric looks over to where Mystery Girl is standing and winks, but her eyes are only on me.

I hold up a finger to stop Eric then saunter over to Mystery Girl, bending to take her hand and lead her along the front of the stage until she's dead center. Satisfied, I take my place beside Eric again.

As the first haunting notes of the song ring out, the crowd screams. Eric and I share the mic, taking turns with the verses, singing the chorus together. The timbre we produce is similar enough that we sound almost like one voice. When my eyes are open, they're on her. I'm singing directly to her, and her sexy mouth is forming the words as she sways, sometimes with her eyes slipping closed.

When we reach the driving beat at the end, we allow it to dissolve down to just the guitars playing the melody softly. We continue on while Seth brings over the mic with the talk box which is met with applause and whistles when the crowd realizes what we're about to do.

Peter Frampton's version of 'Black Hole Sun' is one of my favorites. I first heard it at one of his performances on a balmy summer night at an open air concert. I've always thought the man was fucking brilliant, but my mouth dropped open when he began playing that song, and I was in a daze for twenty minutes afterward. It does something to my insides, and I've practiced it a lot, although we've never added it to our lineup. I always felt it was more of an indulgence on my part, but I'm confident in my ability to pull it off.

Similar to the way I was earlier, I lose myself in the song, but the one difference is I'm not alone now. Mystery Girl is with me in my private bubble. I wonder if I hit the bong too hard before the show because I'm not the kind of guy that goes nuts over just any chick—especially one I know virtually nothing about except that Big Ed really digs her.

"Well, maybe she's not just any chick," my inner voice breaks into my musings.

The thought gives me pause, and I can't wait to meet her after the show.

It seems like hours until I can get backstage. We do a few more songs based on the screams of the crowd, and the manager of the club offers us a bi-weekly gig playing the stage. His eyes are fevered, his mind obviously working a mile a minute, when we tell him we don't have an agent yet. He says he has a guy he wants us to meet soon. I just nod, feeling like I'm underwater—my only coherent thought is to get to her.

I find her wandering around backstage, chatting with the sound guy about some of his equipment. He looks interested in her, but she's only interested in the panels that he works. I do use the opportunity to take her in fully, though. The black and red corset fits her like a second skin, pinching in her tiny waist which flows into a black skirt with ragged edges that hits just above the knees. The spiked heel, red leather boots she's wearing disappear beneath the skirt, causing me to wonder just how high they go... ungh.

"Hey," I call out. "You owe me a name."

Jason looks annoyed that I ruined his chance for a little action. The guy must be stupid if he thought she was an easy mark.

Sparkling brown eyes find me, looking me up and down. "There you are. I thought you stood me up."

"That would never happen..." I trail off, looking at her expectantly.

Moving in closer, she places her pouty lips up to my ear. "Isabella Dwyer. You can call me Bella."

"It's my pleasure, Bella," I answer smoothly, placing an arm over her bare shoulders as I lead her toward the dressing room.

I hold the door open, allowing her to enter first. Something inside causes her to snort softly. It should sound unladylike, but somehow, coming from Bella, it doesn't.

"What?" I ask, following her in.

I don't wait long for the answer. Eric is on a beanbag chair in the corner, surrounded by females wearing his necklaces. There's a rainbow of colored ribbons and a rainbow of girls to match—Eric doesn't have a 'type'; he's an equal opportunity pig. Some are by his feet, two are draped over his shoulders, and one redhead is bobbing up and down his pole.

"Jesus, Eric!" I hiss. "You're such a tool!" I turn to apologize to Bella, but she just watches Eric with an amused look. Taking her hand, I pull her from the room into the dim hallway.

"Shit. I'm sorry about him."

"That's okay. Nothing I haven't seen before," she says with a sense of irony, rolling her eyes.

"What do you mean?"

"I'm around musicians a lot. Shit like that happens... a lot." Bella laughs.

"Let's get out of here?"

"Where are we going?"

"My place, okay? I really need a shower."

By now we've gone through the door into the alley behind House of Grunge where my bike is parked. The cool night air immediately targets my damp hair and the sweat that still coats my skin, causing me to shiver.

"Listen, Masen..." she begins, but I interrupt her.

"Edward."

"Okay, Edward." Bella nods with a smile. "I'm sorry if you wasted your necklace on me, but—"

I stop her again. "No, definitely not wasted on you." I tuck her silky hair behind her ear so I can see her face better in the scant light of the alley.

"You're not getting laid tonight, Edward—at least not with me." Her forthrightness takes me aback, although I'm not sure why—she's been pretty forward with me all night.

"I never thought I was. Look, Bella, I'm not Eric. I'm hardly a saint, but I'm not into harems. In fact, I consider myself rather choosy about my partners."

She tilts her head, looking up into my eyes searchingly, as if trying to decide if I'm being honest. After a few seconds, she nods. "Wow. You're not the typical musician, are you? That's too bad..." Bella says wistfully.

"Why too bad?"

"I'm not free, Edward. I haven't been totally honest, either. I came here tonight to spy on you."

"Spy? For who?"

"My boyfriend. When he heard you guys were playing here, he wanted to know what the deal was, how good you were."

"Why?" I ask as disappointment sinks all the way to my feet, dragging my hope with it like a lead balloon. I could give a fuck that some rival wanted to spy on us—it's flattering, actually—but Bella is taken? That's some messed up shit. I know there's something between us, and unless she's the ultimate actress, she feels it, too.

"I don't ask the whys, I was just doing the favor. You're too nice, though. I can't play you."

"Play me? Haven't you already done that?"

"No. I was instructed to get more info... sleeping with the band if necessary."

"Excuse me?" I burst out incredulously. "Your boyfriend gave you permission to sleep with me?"

"Or Eric. Or both of you."

A sudden anger surges through me. "Who is this douche?"

"James Mackin."

"From Wicked Fang?" My eyes grow wide. The guy is the most egotistical asshat on the planet, and a ruthless rival.

"That's the one."

"Come back to my place, and we can talk. I really need that shower." I sigh, scrubbing a hand over my face.

"After what I just told you?"

"Yeah. I'm not going to hurt you or anything."

"I wasn't worried about that, Edward." For the first time, Bella looks down at her feet. I think she's ashamed of what she was up to. "For what it's worth, I'm really sorry." Her voice is so soft I barely catch her words.

Offering her my leather jacket and extra helmet, I strap my own helmet on and kick my bike to life. I can't lie: the feel of Bella's warmth wrapped around me feels good—too good—and I wonder what the fuck I'm thinking taking her to my apartment.

Once we're inside, I tell her to help herself to the fridge and feel at home. While I'm in the shower, I'm vividly aware that Bella is right outside, and I stroke myself quickly to relieve some of the tension that's been building all night. Hell, I've had a hard-on since the moment I laid eyes on her.

After my shower, I toss on a pair of sweats and a t-shirt, padding out to the living room barefoot. Bella is sitting on the couch watching TV, but she switches it off before I can see what was on. Two beers sit on the coffee table, and she offers me one. I take the frosty brown bottle from her and drain it in two long swallows.

"Bet you're good with a funnel," Bella remarks with a slight smile.

"Not my thing, but I'd probably do okay." I remain standing, looking down at her. The red boots are sitting beside my couch now—fucking thigh-highs, like I hoped—and I bite back a groan. Despite what I felt oozing from her all night, she's not available, and I won't do another guy's girlfriend—not even if it is fucking James. "So... what are you supposed to find out from me?"

Bella's face colors, and she shakes her head. "Forget it. I can't."

"Why not?"

"Because you're not what I was expecting, and I..." She flounders.

"You feel something." It's a statement, not a question, and I stare hard at her until she finally looks up at me, chastened.

"Yes?" she answers like a question.

"Do you love him?" I ask suddenly, and it's obvious she's surprised by the question.

"What does that have to do with anything?"

"Do you love James? Is he good to you?" I step in closer, crouching in front of her and place my hand over her rapidly beating heart, our eyes still connected. "Does he make your heart pound and your blood boil? Does he know how precious you are?"

Bella seems to stop breathing, but her heart continues its driving beat against my palm. And then she's up on her feet, pulling on her boots. I want to stop her, but I have no right to. Her face is scarlet, and she mutters to herself, breathing hard. When she reaches the door to my apartment, she turns back to look at me, one word falling from her lips before she runs.

"No."

~*FtR*~

Over the next several weeks, there's a lot going on. Eric and I play House of Grunge to a packed audience each time. Once, they fill to capacity and start turning people away. When our gig is over that night and the girls have gone, we're summoned to the back office.

I've been forced to collar girls at our gigs, but I never touch any of them. Bella hasn't been back, and Eric has tired of me 'pining over her' as he puts it. None of the overly made up, surfacy chicks do it for me, and Eric can dictate many things, but not who I bone. Let's just say I'm intimately acquainted with my palm.

To say that I'm shocked when I see the man sitting behind the desk in the office is an understatement. Aro Volturi, well known for his illicit activities: gambling, drugs, pimping.

Mr. Volturi smiles at us, offering us a seat. He goes into how he is the silent owner of the club and how impressed he is with the numbers on the nights we perform. He thinks we're going somewhere and feels we need to put more time into promoting the band.

Eric and I are both struggling along in menial jobs that pay the rent, and neither of us can afford to cut our hours. Aro Volturi has the solution: work for him. A little of this, a little of that, and he says he'll have Masen-Dixon up in lights sooner rather than later. The Devil himself dangling a canteen of water in front of a thirsty man in a desert, and we jump at the chance without asking the proper question: are the things he's asking us to do legal?

Aro—as he insists we call him—couches the tasks we're assigned in padded envelopes and sealed notes. He never uses the word 'drugs,' but it becomes clear to me when my deliveries are made to the underbelly of Seattle and Port Angeles that this is not above-board. Often I offer a well padded package in exchange for a sealed envelope that is clearly full of cash. After one of my deliveries, Aro slits one open and hands me five hundred dollar bills, telling me to 'take my girl out.' If only the girl I wanted was mine.

Eric and I don't discuss our situation, we just sink deeper in—like being sucked down in quicksand. It's obvious there are drugs floating around the club, and while I've seen clubs raided by the cops all over town, they never step foot in Aro's place. I know I should care, that I should put a stop to this, but the money is good, and I'm hoping that we'll be signed to a label soon. Once we have a record deal, we can leave all this covert shit behind us.

One night, as I'm lounging on the couch in a pocket of new-found spare time, there's a knock at my door. Peering through the peephole, I see a fall of dark silky hair, and I know it's her. My heart pounds in my chest, and I open the door slowly.

"Bella."

The odd thing is, she doesn't look at me; she's turned to the side, her hair covering most of her face, head hanging. I wonder if she's embarrassed to be at my door. I wonder why she's here.

"C-can I..." she begins in a hushed voice but falters. "I know I have no right to be here, but I... didn't know where else to go."

This is so far from what I expected to hear that I stand there gaping. She takes my silence as rejection and begins backing away from the door. "I'm sorry. I'll just go."

"No! Bella, come in. I'm just surprised is all. You dropped a bomb on me last time you were here, and then I never heard from you again." I step back, opening the door wider.

She finally lifts her head, and the sight I'm greeted with causes my blood to run cold. Without thinking, I reach out to touch her, and she flinches away.

"What the fuck?" I explode, knowing it's probably not the best course of action but unable to stop myself.

Hanging her head again, Bella steps into my apartment and leans against the wall just inside. I close and lock the door so she can't easily escape—although this time, I'll make chase if she tries.

I move in close to her but keep my hands to myself. "Bella, look at me," I request softly, afraid of spooking her.

Slowly, she raises her face, and I can't hold back a gasp. Her left eye is swollen shut—reds, blues, and purples mottling the skin around it. Her right eye looks back at me, and there is fear there.

"Baby, what happened to you?" I whisper, reaching out to touch her left arm, but she hisses, pulling away. It's obvious her eye isn't the only injury. Tears stream down her beautiful face, and I feel helpless. "Talk to me. Who did this to you? Were you... raped?"

"No. I... it was James. Please." Bella steps into me, her shaking hands grabbing at my t-shirt.

My hands go around her as gently as possible, but she flinches again when I touch her back. "Come with me." I take her by the hand, leading her into my bedroom. "Take your shirt off."

"What?" Bella's one good eye meets mine, startled.

"I need to see the damage. Turn around." She turns her back to me, and lifts her arms as I carefully remove her shirt. I can't hold back a groan when I see the bruising over the skin of her back wrapping around the left side of her ribs. "Holy fuck. Your ribs might be broken."

"They're not."

"How do you know?"

"Because... I know what it feels like when they are," she answers quietly.

"Shit. Lay on the bed." I lower her down carefully, ignoring the fact that she has no bra on—that's the last thing on my mind right now. I remove her shoes and jeans, leaving her in a pair of black lace panties, before pulling the blankets over her slight form. I lay down beside her, on top of the covers, reaching out to stroke my fingers over her cheek. "What do you need? What can I do?"

"Nothing. I don't even know why I came here. After he... hurt me, my feet just brought me to you... Maybe I shouldn't have come." Her eye closes, shutting me out.

"No, baby. You did right coming to me. I'm glad you did. I'll be right back."

Quickly I grab a few ice packs from the freezer and return with a glass of water and some Ibuprofen. I hold the glass for her while she drinks and then place one ice pack against her ribs and wrap another in a dishcloth to place over her swollen eye.

I watch her sleep for the rest of the night, never leaving her side. She mumbles incoherently much of the time, but she occasionally calls out to James in anger, later whispering my name on a soft sigh. At one point, her phone goes off in her purse, and I unzip it to check the caller ID. James' smarmy face is on the screen, so I turn the phone off. As I place it back in her purse, I see a piece of red satin peeking out. Unable to resist, I hook it with my finger and tug it out. It's the bottle-cap necklace I gave her, and I wonder if this could mean that she's been thinking about me all these weeks, too.

Bella sleeps through most of the next day, finally surfacing as the sun sets low in the sky. She's disoriented at first, then embarrassed, but I assure her once again that she did the right thing coming to me.

I make her some chicken broth, give her more Ibuprofen, and she slips back into a fitful slumber. The next few days are much of the same. The only deviation in the schedule is when I help her into a hot bath, averting my eyes from her nakedness. If I ever drink her in fully, it will be because it's what she wants. I suspend my desires in order to take care of her: the desire to make her mine, the desire to know everything about her, the desire to beat James to a bloody pulp for hurting her.

As it turns out, the job of pummeling James is taken care of for me. When I call Aro and explain that I can't 'work' for the next few days, he insists on knowing why. When I tell him the who and the what, he simply says, "Is that so? Go take care of your girl, Edward."

When Eric calls me the following day, he's giddy with excitement. "Did you hear about that fucktard from Wicked Fang, man? Somebody rearranged his face. Heard it's an improvement."

That should have been my first clue that I was in deep trouble.

Over the days that Bella's been with me, I haven't questioned her about what happened—wanting to give her time to heal and maybe get herself together. Once she realized I wasn't going to grill her, she relaxed visibly. At some point, I hope she'll trust me enough to talk.

I'm whisking some eggs when warm fingers trace over the muscles of my bare back. Startled, I nearly drop the glass bowl. Recovering quickly, I put the eggs down and place my hands flat on the counter. Bella's fingers continue exploring my back tentatively, and I close my eyes, trying to keep my breathing under control. Her fingers find their way to the tattoo on the back of my left shoulder.

"What's this?" she asks softly.

"The Cullen family crest. They adopted me when I was ten."

Warm lips brush against my tattoo. Turning her way, I see that she's only wearing one of my button-downs and the necklace. This appeals to the primal part of me. Stalking toward her slowly, I back her against the wall, placing one hand beside her head. I run my index finger along the satin ribbon until I reach the bottle-cap that lies between her tits.

"What's going on here, Bella?"

She looks at me, her left eye open now, but the discoloration around it will take a while to dissipate. Before she has a chance to form an answer, I run my finger along her jaw line, tipping her chin up. I can't wait any longer; I need to kiss her now.

Bringing my mouth down to hers, I kiss her softly, waiting to gauge her reaction. Bella raises no objection, so I tilt my head, pressing my lips to hers over and over. The plush sweetness of her lips under mine shoots straight to my groin.

She places her hands on my chest but doesn't push me away. Deepening the kiss, I lose myself inside her hot mouth, our tongues playing off one another. Tilting my pelvis forward, I rub my hard-on up against her stomach before pulling away. She whimpers as we lose contact, but I stay close, looking deeply into her eyes.

"I've wanted to do that since the moment I laid eyes on you, Bella. You're so beautiful." I cup her cheek in my palm, rubbing my thumb over her lower lip, and her breath catches. "Baby, you've got to talk to me. You have to tell me what the fuck is going on."

Bella's eyes slide to the side, avoiding mine. "Okay, Edward. I owe you an explanation."

Taking my hand, she leads me over to the couch, and we sit sideways facing each other. I'm distracted by the expanse of creamy skin peeking out of my shirt, the slope of one tit teasing me. Leaning over, I tug the shirt closed, and she smirks at me.

Bella reaches out to caress my cheek, her fingers running down the side of my neck to rest against my heart. "Edward... the first night I saw you it turned my world upside down. You were hot as hell, kind, understanding, and there was this... magnetism drawing me to you. I wasn't available, though. I was still seeing James, but after that night at your apartment, I couldn't force myself to sleep with him anymore. I made all kinds of excuses—even to myself—but after a while he wasn't buying it." She closes her eyes. "When James wanted to... share me with one of his friends... I told him it was over. He sneered at me, asking if this had something to do with you. I tried to deny it, but he saw the truth in my eyes, and he... had the necklace."

Bella pauses, tears leaking from her eyes, and I cradle her face in my hands, wiping her tears away. "Baby, I'm sorry. Then what?"

"He walked over to me with this strange glimmer in his eyes, and he put the necklace over my head, straightened it out, and told me it would look good on me while he... taught me a lesson. Th-then he beat me, Edward—punched me in the face and knocked me to the ground, kicking me in the back and ribs. He wanted to have sex... but I told him I'd see him dead first."

"That son of a bitch! God, Bella, I'm so sorry. He won't touch you again. I promise."

"How can you promise that?"

"Because James looks worse than you do right now, and he's been warned—that's why."

"What did you do?"

"Nothing. My boss wanted to know why I couldn't... work. When I told him, he took care of things."

"Oh." Bella looks up, an expression of understanding dawning. "You work for Aro, don't you?"

"Yeah."

"Oh, Edward, I know he promises the world, but he'll never let you go once he has a hold on you. Get out while you can."

I promise to try, but it's not until a few weeks later that I take Bella's warning seriously.

We've gotten to know each other, spending almost every free moment together. She's at every single performance of Masen-Dixon, and I make use of my necklaces by giving them all to her so she can match them to her outfits. Eric rolls his eyes at us and tells me I'm ruining the mystique of the band; I just point out that it's more pussy for him.

Bella shares that her father passed away when she was ten, and her stepdad, Phil, adopted her. Her parents live in Florida, and she has no family here—just her friend, Angela, whom she lives with. She can type ninety words a minute and has been doing transcription for dictation services. She proves to have a smoky, sultry singing voice, and I try to get her to sing with me on stage, but she's too shy.

I've taken things slow with Bella—there's been lots of making out and groping, but we haven't slept together yet. I've been trying to find a way to break away from Aro because I realize I'm in love with Bella, and I want to be a man she can be proud of. Most nights, she sleeps in my bed, and when she's not there, I talk to her on the phone until one of us drifts off. I never felt like this before, and it both scares and thrills me.

I take Bella home to Forks to meet my family, and they all adore her. She fits right in, and on a few nights when I have no choice but to leave Bella alone for a while, Emmett stays with her. She's still skittish about James after receiving some vaguely threatening texts.

I finally tell Aro that I can't deliver for him anymore. He stares at me across the desk calmly, hands folded, nodding his head before informing me that there's a job scheduled for Forks the next night. "I have nobody else I trust for this one, Edward. You do this, and then we'll talk."

Emmett arrives to watch over Bella, and he hugs me tight. "I'm proud of you, man. After tonight, you'll be free of this shit."

"Yeah, it's a weight off my shoulders."

Bella gasps, covering her mouth. We turn to see what has her so upset, and she holds up her cell phone.

You think it's over, but it's not. I'm coming for you, little whore.

"Bella, he's just blowing smoke."

"Let me come with you, Edward. Please."

"No way! Not going to happen."

Emmett grabs my arm. "Let me do this, bro. You stay here with Bella. This is it—tonight it's all over. I'm going back to Forks anyway."

"No, Em." I shake my head. "I can't ask you to do that."

"You're not asking; I'm offering. Stay with your girl."

A few hours later, Bella and I are making out on my bed. She kisses up the side of my neck and whispers, "You know, your last job is done now. I want you, Edward."

"Are you sure?"

She nods.

"I love you, Bella. I think I loved you that first night."

"I love you, too, Masen."

Slowly, I undress Bella. Once she's gloriously naked in the middle of my bed, I worship her body with my lips and tongue, taking my time. The flavor of her skin is burned onto my tongue, and I want to taste her pussy before we make love. When I finally make my way down past her navel, I place her legs over my shoulders and part her lips with my tongue. Her fingers are in my hair, my hands grip her hips, and I love her with my mouth until she screams out in pleasure. When she comes down, I lick my way up her body, but she stops me.

"I want you in my mouth first," she whispers, pulling me in for a long, deep kiss.

Pushing me down to the bed, she finishes undressing me and takes me in her mouth.

"Oh, yes..." I gasp.

My fingers tangle in her hair, and I glance down, taking in her plump, rosy lips wrapped around my cock. Her soft brown eyes look up at me adoringly as she pumps her hand in time with her mouth... sliding up and down my shaft. My balls tighten, ecstasy coiling rapidly in my abdomen.

"Stop, baby. Let me make love to you." Pulling out of her mouth, I roll us so she's under me, spreading her legs with my knee. "I love you, Bella," I whisper hoarsely, pressing the head of my cock against her clit and sliding it back and forth to coat it with her juices.

"Oh, God, Edward... please now."

Slowly, I push into her wet heat, her nails digging into my shoulders.

BANG! BANG! BANG!

"What the..."

"Edward Masen? Police. We need to speak with you."

"Stay here, baby. I'll be right back." I pull on some sweats.

When I open the door, there are two officers in full uniform standing shoulder to shoulder.

"I'm Edward Masen."

"May we come in, Mr. Masen?"

"What's this about?"

"There's been an... incident. You're Emmett Cullen's brother, correct?"

"Yeah."

"I'm sorry to inform you he was stabbed tonight."

"Holy fuck! Where is he? Can I see him?"

Both cops look at me sympathetically. "Mr. Masen..."

"No. NO!" I shake my head, backing away from the door.

Everything goes dark.

~*FtR*~

I jolt awake, my body stiff from being against the tree for so long. Dark has fallen, a swirling mist clinging to the ground. Rubbing my hand over my face, I find it wet with tears—I just relived my most treasured memories along with the moment that ended my life in one fell swoop. With shaking hands, I light a cigarette, pulling the strong menthol into my lungs.

I don't remember much of that time. I insisted on coming to the scene of the crime after the funeral—Emmett's life force could still be seen staining the ground. He bled out under this tree in my place. If only I made him stay with Bella, he would still be alive.

The funeral was on a sunny spring day with a faint breeze. It should have been cold, raining, and windy. I should have been the one lowered into the ground.

Bella showed up, and I destroyed everything. I was so scared that Aro would go after her—surely by now he realized that he killed my brother instead of me.

When she came up to me, I yanked her by the arm, pulling her behind a tree. "What the fuck are you doing here? It's because of you that my brother is dead. I never want to see you again."

Bella blanched as if struck. I don't think I could have hurt her more if I did hit her, but I wanted to keep her safe. I was most likely a dead man—no need for her to go down with me.

It wasn't until six months later that I found out the reason why I was still alive. When I confessed to Gianna about my original plan to use her to get to Aro, she told me she overheard her uncle talking about me one night. He was ranting and raving that he only wanted me to be taught a lesson, not murdered. Demetri—the henchman in charge of the violent act—was found hung from the same tree where Emmett was murdered as a message to all employees to follow Aro's instructions. I was now under his protection. How ironic.

Realizing there was no longer any danger to Bella, I tried to contact her, but her cell phone was disconnected. I found her friend, Angela, but she informed me with sad eyes that Bella had gone to Florida to bury her mother, who recently died of cancer, and never returned. I found eleven Phil Dwyers in Florida and contacted them one by one. The ninth was Bella's stepdad, but he said she took off after her mother's funeral and he hadn't heard from her since. He promised to give her a message if she called him, and I promised to have her contact him if I found her. It's been nearly eighteen months with no word.

Jasper shows up at the field, walks me to my car, and gets me home. Once I'm in bed, he leans down and looks me in the eye. "Edward, Ali is having a party on Thursday night to celebrate Emmett. You will be there or—so help me God—I'll beat the living shit out you. 'Kay, buddy?" He pats my cheek.

"Okay."

On Thursday, I show up at Ali's with a bottle of wine. The loft she shares with Jasper is cavernous with brick walls and highly polished hardwood floors. The unique thing about it is the bedroom suite they built for privacy.

Alice throws herself in my arms. "You came."

Jasper tips his beer in my direction.

I last about ten minutes before I bolt to Ali's bedroom. She follows me in, telling me it's okay if I want to spend time in there. In the corner, I see Glory—my acoustic guitar—and my eyes fly to hers. "What's Glory doing here?"

"I saved her for you—hoping you'd play again someday," she whispers backing out of the room.

My mind drifts to after. Eric stayed on with Aro despite what happened to Emmett. We're not friends anymore. Jacob and Seth stuck with him, but they never replaced me—no need to, really—and they were now called Broken Strings. I wish him the best, but I know I'll never perform professionally again.

Grabbing Glory, I step out Ali's bedroom window onto the fire escape. Sitting with my back against the bricks, I find my guitar has already been tuned, and I try a few test strums before breaking into Hotel California—one of Emmett's all time favorites. "For you, brother."

Closing my eyes, I'm drawn into the song, and I sing for the first time since Emmett died. Some of the words fill me with a sense of irony, and I allow my tears to flow freely.

"Mirrors on the ceiling...the pink champagne on ice...And she said, 'We are all just prisoners here, of our own device.'"

I hit discordant notes when a warm hand lands on my shoulder. My eyes fly open to see a familiar thigh-high red boot step onto the fire escape.

"Bella?"

Once she's fully outside, she treats me to a stinging slap across the face—which I totally deserve.

"Hit me again, so I know you're really here," I whisper hoarsely.

She obliges. Same old spunky Bella—the love of my existence.

She stands with her hands on her hips, glaring down at me. "What the fuck have you done to yourself, Masen?"

"I died." I shake my head slowly. "How...how are you here? Why?"

"Alice found me. She told me everything, Edward."

Placing my guitar against the railing, I stand, cupping her face. She's beautiful as always, but there are circles under her eyes. I trace one of my fingers over a dark shadow. "I love you. I miss you."

Bella slaps my hands away. "You don't get to say that, Edward! You hurt me. All this time...I thought you blamed me."

"No, it's all on me."

Tears fill her eyes, and she steps back through the window.

"Where are you going?"

"Leaving, Edward."

I lunge through the window, grabbing her arm. "No! Please don't."

"I need time to think. Meet me by the tree tomorrow at noon."

All the breath leaves me. "Not there."

"Yes. If you don't come, I'm leaving for good."

And then she's gone.

I try to chase her, but Jasper pins me against the wall until she's gone. Struggling, I yell in his face, "What the fuck, Jasper?"

"You tried things your way, Edward. Ali got Bella back here for you—don't fuck this up."

I spend the night curled up on the bed with Ali, and Jasper graciously sleeps on the couch.

It's nearly noon when I arrive at the edge of the field, apprehension filling me. I haven't taken any drugs—although I wanted to—the worst I did was chain smoke all morning. The day is foggy, and I see Bella through the mist. She's wearing a long, flowing white dress, and she's dancing around Emmett's cross like an apparition, arms flung wide as she twirls.

Bella's in her own world, and when I'm ten feet away, she continues dancing with her eyes closed. I watch her, fascinated.

"You came," she whispers, and I realize she did notice me. She stills, standing beside the cross with her hand out to me.

Slowly, I walk forward, taking her in. "You're so beautiful. I—"

"Shh..." she whispers as I take her offered hand. Turning to face the tree, she leads me beneath its gnarled old branches, and I follow willingly. I'd follow her into the fiery pits of Hell.

"Edward, I understand why you hurt me, and I know you searched for me once you realized the danger was over. I'll never love another man the way I loved you."

"Wait—loved?"

"You're not responsible for Emmett's death. I know you blame yourself—and I've blamed myself—but neither of us is responsible. Start living again, Edward. You have a family that loves you, which is the most precious gift."

"And you, Bella? Do you love me?"

"I'll always love you, but I can't be with you like this. You're fucked up, dead on your feet. I won't be dragged there with you."

Stepping forward, I grab her to me, wrapping my arms tightly around her. "Bella, I love you. I'll do anything you ask me to, but please tell me we have a chance."

"We have a chance, but you need to heal before we can try to be together."

"You won't go away again?"

"No. I'll be here every step of the way."

I look down into her beautiful face, caressing her soft skin. I move in slowly in case she wants to stop me, but I pray she won't. My lips ghost over hers, and I feel her arms snake around me, pressing our chests together. Bella's mouth opens under mine, and our tongues meet, sending a lightning bolt straight to my soul. I feel as if I'm coming back to life, and I know I'll do anything to be the man that deserves her love.

"I love you. I'll do anything."

"I love you, too. Look up." Bella smiles radiantly, her eyes focused on something above us. "Hope springs eternal, Edward."

Gazing up to where she's pointing, I see several tiny green leaves budding on the branches just over our heads. I swear I can hear the booming laugh of my brother and feel his hand on my back.


A/N: There is the possibility of a futuretake, so please put me on alert if you're interested. Thank you for taking this journey with me.

*Quote from Ecclesiastes 12:7, New International Version