Chapter 11: A Golden Ratio
As much as I try not to make trouble for Charlie, sometimes it's unavoidable. I miss curfews. I call him at the last minute to bail on family time for my "friends." He thinks I'm clumsy and a space cadet based on how often I bump and bruise myself "running into things." Other times, just fitting in at school means doing things I know will get me in trouble. Occasionally he flips out, and I get to see him have the chance to really be a dad.
Like right now. Here we are, Edward and I, fidgeting in molded plastic chairs in Principal Greene's office. Apparently, when two honors students get written up for truancy one week, then are caught skipping class in a bathroom the next week, it raises a red flag. Parents get called.
Charlie is not happy. He's standing here in his EMT uniform, trotting out all his best dad knowledge. He shakes his head at me and makes sad eyes, as if to show me he's disappointed, but I can see he's not really sure how big of a deal this is. I can guess how he got here so fast, and I feel a little guilty to have pulled him away. Probably put the sirens on and everything. His radio crackles with codes I'm not supposed to understand.
"What the hell kind of baloney is this? I'm getting called down here in the middle of a shift now, to deal with you two bozos skipping class and holing up in the ladies room together for . . . well, I don't know what for."
He puts a hand up. "And I don't want to know. Well, not this minute anyhow."
I glance at Edward, who is doing his best to look bored. Mr. Greene, who has never been much of a disciplinarian, leans against the windowsill and looks on with interest. His Tupperware of half-eaten lunch sits open on his desk. A hummus sandwich with sprouts.
"I'm just saying, we—"
"You know what? I've had about enough of 'we.' We is about to cool way down." Charlie waves his arms between Edward and me as if wiping away an invisible thread. "You . . . young lady . . . you speak for yourself. Let's leave him out of it."
"Dad! I mean . . . okay. Speaking for myself, it's no big deal. My grades are fine. The year's almost over, and I'm still at the bottom edge of the curve when it comes to cutting class, statistically speaking."
"Statist—what? You're not a statistic—you're my daughter." He stretches his arm toward the window, pointing at his ambulance out in the parking lot. "And in my experience, the road between 'no big deal' and a goddamn tragedy is . . . it's—it's about as wide as blinking your eyes. So you better believe this gets my attention."
I don't really know how to respond to this. Why is this the thing that gets your attention?, a voice inside me says, and I think of the stakeout last summer when he believed I was sleeping over at Alice's for a week—a week, Dad?—and want to split open and feel all my guts pour out like liquid onto the threadbare rug. I peek at Edward, and he gives me a tight smile that stands in for a shrug.
Charlie straightens up and turns to Mr. Greene. "Speaking of paying attention, why am I the only one here? Where are this one's parents?"
Mr. Greene, who has been sneaking glances at the indicator lights on his speakerphone this whole time, phrases his answer carefully. "We're still in the process of reaching his . . . guardians."
Edward is sullen now, staring at the ground. "I'm almost eighteen. I can take care—"
"Oh, right. The guardians." Charlie moves closer to Edward and speaks directly to him. "Mr. Cullen, I know your situation. Believe me when I tell you I looked into it as soon as my daughter so much as mentioned your name. Foster parents or no foster parents, I still expect you to know how to act. Don't think I'm about to give you the benefit of the doubt because you haven't had proper role models."
"Dad." I hiss. This is good, maybe. It gives me a channel for whatever I'm feeling.
Edward raises his head, the words sinking in. If he's mad, he's conditioned to mask it. It's in keeping with typical teenager.
I reach out and find Edward's forearm. His muscles are tensed, clenching the armrests. He might go with surly youth or suck-up boyfriend any minute now, but beneath it all is what's real: just Edward, alone in the world. Foster parents and no foster parents, both.
"Dad, seriously. I can't believe you just said that—as if not having parents is something he can control."
I glare. Saying that out loud makes me realize I'm mad about so much more than I can own up to right now. Tears sting my eyes, and I know it's out of proportion to what Charlie thinks is going on. Jeez. I can't deal with this. Not after the twenty-four hours I've had.
He scratches his jaw. "You never have a need for 'benefit of the doubt,' Bells. I've never seen that sort of excuse from you, growing up with only me. Why should your . . . friend be any different? You better believe I won't hold back if someone leads my only daughter astray." He says the words, but I can see he looks sheepish.
"I'm not that easily led. I think you know that." My voice wavers.
"Uh-huh," he says.
Edward flips his hand over and grasps for my palm without looking at me.
"I appreciate your concern, but it's unnecessary. I'm working with a pretty healthy margin, and I'm not going to jeopardize MIT or even next week's big meet, for that matter. Don't you think I know exactly how many classes I can skip and still get straight As?"
I raise my eyebrows at Mr. Greene, and he corroborates my claim with a nod.
"No one's questioning your grades, Miss Swan." Mr. Greene pauses to take his tea tree oil toothpick out of his mouth, then leans forward with his palms on his knees like a coach. "It's just that sometimes when students who have no history whatsoever of disciplinary problems start acting out, it's because they want us to notice something. And we're here noticing, you know. That's the general idea. Safe space to get it out and all that, if in fact there's anything going on."
For a split second, this makes sense. I feel Edward's pulse in my palm. Or my pulse, maybe. The room gets very quiet. Either my guard is down because of all that's been happening, or my feelers are on high alert—also because of all that's been happening—but it occurs to me that Mr. Greene might be in the same camp as Dr. Berty. Is he a sleeper agent for the resistance? Is Charlie? Are they both? Why do I want so badly to spill the beans all of a sudden?
No. Charlie doesn't know a thing, I decide. He'd never be capable of standing there baiting me, inviting me to ask for help, casual as can be. I'm certain of that much.
"Bella? Earth to Bella." Mr. Greene says.
I look at Edward. He looks at me, brow furrowed.
The office door opens, and in walks Carlisle, all blonde and muscled, not a hair out of place. He gives the room the patented two-second scan of a career agent—an inventory of persons, exits, anything out of place. I see him take in Charlie's uniform and radio. The way Edward clenches my hand.
Charlie sizes him up, skeptical. They shake hands.
"Carlisle Benefici. Sorry I couldn't be here sooner. I was scrubbed in on a procedure."
"Not quite. Federal prison hospital. I'm an anesthesiology nurse."
Charlie makes a humph noise, surprised, and I side-eye Edward. Did I know this about Carlisle's cover? He gives my hand a we'll-talk-later squeeze.
Mr. Greene starts giving Carlisle the play-by-play of our very out-of-character transgressions. Whatever window may have been open is closed now. It was probably far fetched, anyway.
Carlisle puts on a good show of being very parentally concerned. While they talk, I sink deep in my chair and stare at the ceiling. I let go of Edward's hand and press my fingertips to my eyelids, trying my breathing exercises. It's a technique intended to aid us in calming our minds before showtime in a hot zone, but I use it for other things, too—not just when I'm about to navigate death and mayhem. I like the peaceful feeling it gives me. It's like self-hypnosis. I've gotten pretty good at it and could probably put myself to sleep in this stiff plastic chair if I set my mind to it.
I don't get to hang out in my head space for long before Edward shakes my shoulder. I lift up from my slouch to find everybody is looking at me.
"Well, Miss Swan?" Mr. Greene seems to expect something.
"I'm sorry, what?"
"Your consequence. What do you think? You skipped class twice this month, and the goal is for you to stop and think about why it's not a good idea."
"Oh." I look at Edward, who is pressing both hands against his mouth, suppressing something. He won't make eye contact. Apparently he's been listening to whatever I've been tuning out. "I decide, huh?"
"That's right." Mr. Greene beams.
"You're asking me to . . . what, ground myself? For skipping class twice this month?" I blink at him. Charlie is watching me. Carlisle, too.
Mr. Greene shrugs. "Doesn't have to be grounding. You can do an extra assignment, for example. The point is you hold yourself accountable, and you define the punishment. And the same goes for Edward."
I can hear the cackle under Edward's cough. It bursts out of him like an air bubble from a leaky faucet.
I'm at a loss for how to answer. Truly drawing a blank. Is there an upper limit to the things I can be pardoned for this way? Because while we're at it, there are a few things I'd like to get off my conscience.
"Trust me, you'll feel better. Hah! I might write up a case study."
I look at Edward, knowing that this will make me lose it altogether. I take in his red face and the way he jiggles his leg, and I just open my mouth wide and laugh. There's some commotion from Mr. Greene and the various parents and guardians in the room at the sight of me quaking with laughter, tears flowing down my cheeks. They wonder if I'm on drugs, and I don't care. They figure out I'm probably emotionally exhausted due to losing Mrs. Cope, and I think this is probably true. A decision is made to get me home where I can just get some rest. I never stop laughing the entire time. I never stop wiping my hysterical tears on Edward's T-shirt, which is pressed against my cheek for some reason.
I wake up in my bed a few hours later, hot and squinting at the late afternoon sun. Edward is reading on the easy chair at the foot of my bed. I kick his foot.
"Hey. How did you get in?" I glance at the fire escape window, which is locked.
"Your dad decided he trusts me after all. He didn't want you to be alone, so he invited me to stay."
"Huh. Did he tell you to keep one foot on the floor at all times or something?"
"Then get in here, will you?"
He cracks a smile and flops onto the bed on his stomach. "Wasn't sure if you'd want me to."
I flip the blankets off myself and turn to face him, propping my head on my hand. "Did you nap? You were up as late as me."
"I dozed a little. Read more of this." He tosses the Hemingway book onto my bedside table.
"Are we suspended?"
"Nope. It counts as a sick day. Tomorrow, too, if we want."
I decide I like this idea. We can wait a day or two to follow up on our bank clues and our undead mark's medical chart. Oh, except for prepping the team. Our meet is Saturday.
He sees my gears turning and smiles at me. "Don't think about math team. Angela can handle prep, and you still have Friday." He shifts to block the sun's rays from my eyes.
"What time is it?"
"It's, I guess, time to think about the consequences of what you did, young lady."
"Shut up. Oh, ow. My stomach feels sore from laughing so hard."
"Hmm." I'm giggling, and the movement makes his eyes drift to the bottom edge of my sweater. His hand follows, stroking gently across the fabric as if testing the waters. Just like that, I've almost stopped breathing. He rolls the hem between his fingers and clears his throat. "Did you get enough rest?"
How does he make his voice so low and heavy like that? "Yes."
I tear my eyes away from his hand and force myself to look back at his face. Oh, Jesus. He's still gazing at my stomach where the tiniest sliver of skin must be showing, only now his eyebrows are bunched together, and his mouth hangs open. When I feel his knuckles graze my skin, it makes me suck in a breath, which makes him close his eyes. My stomach tightens, but in a new way. I see him notice. His tiny smile.
"Does it hurt now?"
"No. I don't know."
His whole hand fans out against my skin, his fingers warm and strong where I'm pale and peach-soft. I watch the muscles in his throat flex.
"I like it."
His eyes flash open, dart to mine, and lock me in place. "It. What it do you like?" He doesn't even really say this last word. He breathes it.
While waiting for me to answer, he bends his head to put his lips on my neck.
"I . . . you know." I clear my throat. "I like . . . you."
"Mmhmm." His fingers trace the lower edges of my rib cage, and his mouth moves against my collarbone. I wonder if he's hard, if I would feel it if I rolled on top of him right now. What would he think of me? He kisses my jaw and the skin behind my ear, avoiding my earlobe. So careful. "You like fooling around, or . . . um."
I can tell by the way he slows and goes still that he's listening for a real answer. "I like that you make me turn my brain off."
"Ungh. Bella." He rises up. His face is scrunched up, eyes closed. I guess I can imagine how that sounded.
I grasp his hand to keep it pressed against my skin. His fingers are tap, tapping against my ribs. "No, I mean . . . it's not anything bad. Really, it's not. I was thinking today that everybody else is a sort of question mark in my mind, like something I need to solve or I can't move forward. You know how I get in my zone when I'm working on problem sets, and the first thing I do is sort out the easy tricks from the threats?"
"The threats. Yes."
"I get like that with people, too. There's a sense of panic around everything I don't know or can't predict. Sometimes that's, like, everyone. Except when I'm with you."
He opens his eyes, but without really looking at me. He looks at the wall behind my head, at my pillow. He nods. "Ah. You know all my secrets. I'm like the one solid, non-variable thing in your world."
"No." I line up my fingers over his fingers inside my shirt. He's looking me in the eye now. "Not exactly. More like . . . I can stop churning so hard . . . I can get outside of my head when I'm with you, because I'm just never trying to solve you. I don't know what you might or might not do, and sometimes I think about it, but never in a way that's like, a worry. Because I trust you. You surprise me, and I like it. All the time."
"That's what you mean. That's what you like." He says it like a statement, confirming. A crease-dimple appears on the side of his mouth.
That must be a good enough answer for him, because I can feel the smile widen on his lips when he kisses me. I can feel it in my bones when he kisses me harder, then harder still, then looser and hotter. I take a chance then—I roll him so I can rest my weight on top of him and yes, I feel him underneath me, and I think he knows I want to feel him. I make sure of it, feeling a surge of confidence, straddling and grinding against him. He groans and curses, holding my face close to his, whispering into my mouth.
What am I to him, I wonder. A question mark? Does he try to read my mind? Or does he know? I think of how to make it easier for him, and this makes me pull away to sit up straight, and before he can manage to protest I lift my sweater up and off. My shirt goes with it.
I giggle to see his mouth make an "O" shape that matches what he says. "Oh."
His hands fall back to the pillow behind him, arms bent like goal posts. I move to lift his hands onto my body, and he weaves his fingers through mine, holding me still.
"Shh, hey. Not so fast." He laughs, hearing himself. "Let me look?"
He brings our joined hands down to my hips instead.
He curls his lips away from his teeth and narrows his flinty eyes. "I didn't picture a purple bra."
"You pictured some other color?"
I'm teasing him, but he nods gravely. "White. Black. I thought about this so many ways. You . . . Jesus Christ. So beautiful." He sits up, pulls me flush against him. So warm. Can best friends do this, I wonder? Does this change things too much? He bends his head down, trying to not stop looking at me.
He closes his eyes slowly, then opens them slowly.
"Are you actually . . . "
He does it again. Close, open, close. "For the vault. Yes. Oh, God, this is a good one." He opens his eyes, kisses my shoulder, wraps me close again. This time when he kisses my neck, breathes across my skin, pulls strands of hair from his mouth, it's slower, like he's holding himself back. I can feel him trembling. He cups me with both hands and bites my lip a little when he hears me whimper.
I think he can tell what he's doing to me because he keeps returning to the spots where I feel it the most—my nipples through the fabric, the curve below. I hear his ragged breath in my ear. "Take it off?"
"You take yours off."
"I'm not wearing a bra." There it is again—smiling while kissing me.
"Your shirt, then." My own breathing is starting to calm.
"I don't want to let go." He laughs like he's joking, but I think he's serious. His thumbs over the lace fabric are serious.
"Okay, fine." He whips his shirt off and is reaching for me again by the time I reach back to unhook. Before the fabric falls away, he clutches me close and whispers in my ear. "Don't get shy, okay? I know you, and I know it's broad daylight, and in about ten seconds it's going to cross your mind that you've never done this before, and I just want you to not get nervous about me. Okay? Not about me. Not about us."
I smile. I want to hear him say us again. But even as I nod, I pinch my lip between my teeth.
He holds my gaze with his while he crumples my bra and tosses it aside. The next thing I feel is his hand on me. Covering me. Both hands. His jaw flexes.
"Oh my God. Would it be weird to say thank you?"
"Okay, then. I'm definitely not saying it."
Yep. Still my best friend. I love his face so much right now, the way it changes a thousand times in a minute. I love the way he peeks at me and plays even while he's holding me and staring and moving his mouth all over me, making those not-messing-around noises. I might love everything. I might love him.
AN: Thank you for reading! Extra special thanks to happymelt, midsouthmama, and faireyfan who spent precious time beta'ing and prereading during a week when children were feverish and school activity commitments collided with long work hours. Love, love, love.