A/N: As many of you know, fundraisers for premature babies is something that is very close to my heart, as the mother of one myself. My 24-week, one and a half pound miracle is now sixteen years old and almost a whopping 6'2", and I am grateful every single day that he is still here to give me the flack that every sixteen year old boy gives his mother. And if it wasn't for fundraisers just like this one with the March of Dimes, the technology that saved his life would never have existed and he wouldn't have made it past the first few hours after his birth. So to all of you who donated and/or participated, thank you all so much from the bottom of my heart, and the millions of other parents and families just like me, for helping to save precious life.

Erica and I have been looking forward to sharing this particular Edward and Bella with you all, as they've taken hold of our hearts from nearly the first word we each penned of them, and their grips only grew on us, and have a special place inside both of us. Hope you all enjoy reading them as much as we enjoyed writing them!


Title: Tendrils of Life

Authors: kyla713 & ericastwilight

Rating: T

Summary: Our scars are more than skin deep. We just have to be willing to reach through them. Written with ericastwilight for Fandom for Preemies 2012.

Dreaming of beaches and warm sand, it's the heat burning my skin unbearably that alerts me. The thick, heavy air invades my nose, causing my throat to burn and jolting me from a sound sleep. Dizzily, I sit up and pull out my earphones, and suddenly, I'm struck with terror by the sight that meets my eyes.

Fire. Everywhere. Crawling along the floor, blocking the door, bright orange and red flames licking and melting the paint from my walls.

"Mom? Mom!" I scream as loud as I can manage as the smoke begins to infiltrate my lungs, scrambling toward the opposite wall and shaking uncontrollably as I look out the open window beside me. Sticking my head out, I try to draw deep breaths into my lungs, but only manage to cough and notice exactly how far down it is to the ground.

The increased sound of crackling behind me gains my attention, and I turn in time to see the flames catch my bed and engulf it in an inferno.

"Get out of my way! My baby is still in there!" I hear my mother scream as well from outside, and I look down again to find her fighting against two of our neighbors. "Honey, jump!"

I can only shake my head in fear as my wide eyes move to the blaze again, watching it creep closer to me, until I see the door swing open, causing the flames to shift and flicker with the gust of movement. I spot my mother, searching the room through squinted eyes and coughing. "Mom, what are you doing? Get out of here!"

"Not without you. Baby, I need to you jump, it's the only way," she calls out through the room.

"I can't. I can't do it, Mom," I cry, shaking my head and then scream again as the sleeve of my pajamas suddenly ignites. Shrieking as a beam falls overhead, I lose sight of Mom as the flames form a wall between us. I don't dare to call out; she'll try coming for me again.

I feel a rough push on my back and I topple out the window, landing on a few of the firefighters and immediately wrapped in a blanket, snuffing out the fire.

A loud rumble sounds, and though excruciating pain sears through my entire body, I shove the blanket off me and watch in horror as my house, my home, begins to cave in.

"Mom! Mom!" I shriek repeatedly as I'm dragged away toward the ambulance, until my voice goes hoarse, no longer able to be heard...


The first day of school was, on most occasions, fairly important one's life. Kindergarten, for some, meant a sort of freedom, something new and exciting, and above all, a small touch of nerves. There were, of course, those that downright dreaded such a drastic change, spending most of that first day in tears.

Over the school year, the excitement dulls, the nerves all but disappear, and many children feel the loss of summer when the next one begins and they step onto their campus and the bell tolls. Then, as the first day of high school approaches, it all seems to come full circle. There's the excitement, the nerves, and the tears—damn those senior jocks—as teenagers take that initial baby step toward their future.

But by far, the worst "first day" had to be when you're the new kid that comes in the middle of the school year. Add the aura of mystery behind your origins and nerves could turn into all-out panic. Everybody stares, even teachers.

Bella shook her head as Jessica continued to prattle about the new kid. There hadn't been one in ages in their tiny town of Forks. She usually ignored such inane chatter, but could admit reluctantly to herself that she was just as curious as the rest of them. It had been two years since she'd been the new kid herself and had only recently managed to shake off the stigma.

"Mike said the newbie is like a freak or something," Jessica said, preening under the attention of everyone at the lunch table. "That he won't say a word to anyone, even his teachers. He just gave Mrs. Williams this look when she asked where he was from, then he turned away and slumped in his chair instead. Who does that?"

About a third of the student body, Bella thought. Or at least the ones that believed they were better than everybody else. However, she didn't think Edward fit that description from what others had said all morning. He certainly didn't dress the part; simple hoodie, regular jeans and converse. Typical teenager, to her. There had to be another reason for the silent treatment he seemed to give to anyone he didn't know.

She had only seen him once, since she'd arrived late to school. He'd been walking out of the office along with a woman with auburn curls that closely resembled the color of his messy, too-long hair. She had assumed that it was his mother, but he seemed too detached. Hormones and the typical, rebellious attitude could easily attribute to that, however, the body language seemed off.

Bella had slowed when she passed them, overhearing the woman wish him "Good luck." She had tried to reach for him, but he quickly backed away with a "what the fuck" expression, mumbling something under his breath as he left.

For a few scant moments, as he passed Bella in the hall, their eyes had met. Under the weight of his stare, she nearly crumbled. She had rarely ever seen anyone's emotions so vividly present as his were in those beautiful green eyes.

Pain, grief, and horror. Survivor's guilt.

And in those short seconds, surprise sparked in his gaze. He had seen that her eyes reflected his own emotions. She couldn't look away and it seemed to be the same for him. It had been Mr. Banner's voice down the hall that forced his eyes downward and for Bella to start breathing again.

Since then, she had tried to glean any information she could about him. However, rumors seemed to have taken a life of their own. His name was Edward Masen, but was living with a Mr. and Mrs. Cullen, who had both just started working at the local hospital. That led to speculation about who they were to him, how his parents probably died and how he likely got kicked out of his last school.

Listening to Jessica's short experience with Edward, Bella brushed it off, once it was obvious that she'd tried to make a move on him and was ignored. That had to be a record or something, Bella thought, considering that Jessica had first period with him. Ignoring Jessica wasn't easy, but Bella had to give Edward credit for that capability. However, in doing so, since she didn't take rejection well, he was in for a tidal wave of gossip. The kind that either ruined reputations or created them.

Then again, Bella considered the fact that Edward probably wouldn't care.

She glanced around the cafeteria, searching for him as inconspicuously as possible. When her eyes found the familiar green ones, she was surprised to find him watching her. Entranced and unable to look away, her heartbeat sped as he grabbed an apple from the terrible lunch selections, noticing that he still wore the gloves that the bitter weather usually required. That probably meant he wasn't staying inside. Seconds later, he walked toward her table as he adjusted his jacket, tossing his hood in place. She hated that she could no longer look into those heartbroken eyes.

She wondered if he was still watching her from beneath the hood. Her brow furrowed in frustration as she felt a tingle of awareness course through her body. Her fingers itched to remove the barrier between them, reach out to him. Her body stilled when his gloved finger ran along the table's edge, inches from where she sat. He tapped the surface once, just beside her elbow, and as he walked away, she could see his hands ball up into fists before he stuffed them in his pockets.

Did he feel the same pull she did?


Biology was, as always, bound to be a bore, and Bella internally groaned as she left the cafeteria in a daze. Another damn movie day. Most of the students didn't mind, since they'd likely spend the entire class asleep. She preferred work over boredom and considered asking Mr. Banner if there was any more room in one of his AP classes.

When she stepped into the room, she took a seat in the back of the class. The uneven number of students left her alone, since she was proficient in the classwork without a lab partner for the past two semesters. Which also meant that she was left with twice the work. Not that she cared much. She actually preferred working alone for the most part, without having to rely on anyone.

Seconds before the bell rang, familiar black converse walked into the room. Her eyes automatically searched for his, but found only the back of his head as he handed something to Mr. Banner. Shifting from foot to foot, Edward only nodded at something the teacher said, before he pointed out where the young man would sit for the remainder of the school year. By her.

She didn't have much time to gather herself and had only just managed to put a small smile on her face when he turned. There was hope that he would recognize her, maybe even react to her presence. However, she did not expect shock to register in his eyes, followed by a downright scowl.

His gaze dropped to his feet as Bella gathered her books to make room for him. She berated herself for reading too much into the intense looks he'd given her earlier. If anyone like Jessica had mentioned that "connection," Bella would've snickered and rolled her eyes.

As he approached, she tried to ignore her racing heart and the way her hands still desired to touch him. There was a sliver of skin exposed where his hoodie parted slightly toward the top, his skin was pale there. His hand, still covered with a glove, immediately zipped up the jacket, forcing her eyes away.

"Edward," Mr. Banner said from behind his test. "While indoors in my classroom, hats and hoods are not allowed." Edward stilled halfway between his seat and the teacher's desk and the rest of the students had as well. Everyone waited to see what he would do.

Stupid rumors, Bella thought.

From where she sat, Bella could see his hand fist in the pocket of his jeans, the other around the strap of his backpack. For a few moments, he did nothing, until his anguished eyes met hers again. He blinked slowly as she brushed some of her dark hair behind her ear. His gaze once again seemed to register shock and Bella cursed herself.

Her fingers instinctively covered her scarred earlobe, blushing under his intense stare. A tiny lift of the corner of his sculpted mouth was the only reaction she could see as he ran a hand through his messy hair, pushing his hood off.

When he circled behind her and their table, she felt the feather light tap of his finger on the back of her chair as if on her very skin. She gasped softly, inhaling his decadent scent of chocolate, musk and just all male. The scrape of his seat caused her to sit up and made her even more acutely aware of her surroundings.

The "tap, tap" of Mike Newton's pencil drumming a beat on his table. The soft ticking of the wall clock. Jessica, as usual, snapped her compact mirror shut, adjusting her low cut sweater in her attempt to capture Mike's attention with her cleavage. The not-so-subtle glances toward Bella's table from the rest of the students.

From her right, she could feel his eyes on her. She'd never been so aware of anyone before and had no idea what to make of it. Sure, she had garnered a fair share of attention and even had a handful of dates over the last few years, but Edward's presence completely shook her foundations. And he hadn't even said a word.

"Pass these down," Mr. Banner said, placing a small stack of white papers in front Angela Weber at the head of the class. "The answers to all the questions can be found in the video." There was a collective groan from most of the students. "Before you start complaining, Mike," he continued. "Yes, there will be enough light for you to see what you're writing."

After she and her partner took a sheet, Angela turned and handed the stack to Lawrence, eventually reaching Edward. His hand, still covered, pushed the last sheet toward Bella. She removed one of her own gloves, trying to pull the paper out from under his palm. When it refused to budge, she looked up to see his raised eyebrow. She rolled her eyes and pulled a little harder, sliding her gaze down his arm. Where the cuff of his sweater met the hem of his glove, there was a half inch of skin, the area red, raised and appearing textured.

That urge to touch him overwhelmed her and as if her fingers had a will of their own, she brushed her pinkie closest to him against the rough scar. He immediately snapped his hand back, stuffing it into his jacket pocket. She cringed and winced when he moved his chair farther from her. Her breath exhaled harshly and seemed to match his own labored breathing. She chanced a look at him, to find his right hand fisted on the table, his jaw clenched tight and his eyes facing the front of the classroom.

The lights overhead dimmed as the movie started, causing the tension between her and Edward to increase tenfold. Pulling out her notebook and a pencil, she started to do what she could to keep from reaching out again, to keep her hands busy. The soothing sound of the lead scratching against the paper gradually calming her traitorous heart.

After she managed to catch her breath, she looked at the sheet of classwork and wrote the answers from what she knew of the curriculum, then returned her attention to her drawing. For several minutes, it seemed that Edward hadn't moved an inch and Bella questioned what could be the problem.

She'd gone too far, that much was obvious. Curiosity had her wondering why the beautiful boy seemed so broken and feared touch and companionship. She could almost hear her brother, Jasper's, voice in her head.

"You're obsessing again, Bella," he'd say with a smirk and roll of his eyes. "You can't save everyone."

He would be right about that. She couldn't save anyone, much less someone like Edward. There was too much pain inside him, enough to pull her under. From the corner of her eye, she could see him pulling her sheet toward him.

Well, that would be enough reason to not waste any time on him, she thought. A cheater! No one had ever cheated off her. She barely controlled the urge to call him out on it, but her heart told her mind to shut up.

She continued to work on her drawing, a self-portrait. For the past few days, as the anniversary neared, she'd been drawing herself amongst flames. A reminder of the burden and guilt she felt over her survival of that damn night consuming her.

The shift of paper had her looking up, surprised to find Edward watching her again. He looked back down at the table and her sheet, pointing at one of the questions. Raising an eyebrow, she realized the answer she'd written was wrong. She growled, taking the paper from him.

The chuckle from him lasted only a moment, but she knew she was forgiven.


The brightness of the lights coming back on after the movie, forced Bella's eyes closed. She stretched slightly, shaking out her drawing hand. From beside her, she could see Edward watching her as he had while the rest of the class watched the movie.

There were murmurs throughout the room, students looking for answers while Mr. Banner tried to turn off the video machine. Bella turned to find Edward's eyes on her notebook that she had covered with her arm. A part of her didn't want to expose herself so much to a complete stranger, but she also felt it was right to do so with Edward. Slowly, she pulled her arm away, watching him carefully as he studied her drawing.

His eyes snapped up to hers, glaring. "That's not funny," he growled under his breath. She started in her chair as he slammed his fist on the table, grabbing his backpack after. Without another word, he walked out the back door of the classroom. Before it could close completely, she could see him list to one side twice before he turned the corner.

She attempted to go after him, but Mr. Banner stopped her with a stern look. What surprised her was the fact that her teacher went to the classroom phone and placed a call. The question was why?


After that first day, their contact was much more minimal. However, her need to know and reach him had yet to diminish. For two weeks, he refused to look at her and never had lunch in the cafeteria. Even in their one mutual class, he avoided her eyes and somehow managed to never be called upon to answer a question. They worked on labs together in complete silence.

It was torture. She couldn't figure out what changed in those last few moments that first day. There were times she swore she felt the prickle of awareness while she walked from class to class. She'd look around, hoping to catch him, but had never succeeded.

Wishful thinking, that's what you're doing. He's not watching you.

"Did you hear what happened in English?" Jessica whispered as she took her seat by Bella at lunch. "Edward grabbed Mike's hand and almost broke it! He's in the office right now. I swear it looked like he was going to kill Mike."

"What the hell did Mike do?" Bella asked without thinking, finding it odd that Edward made physical contact with anyone at all. Something had to have set him off.

"Mike didn't do anything, Bella," Jessica snapped. "I'm telling you, that guy's a freak. Did you know he has some kind of medical condition that allows him to not have to wear our regular PE clothes. He gets to wear sweats and a fucking hoodie while the rest of us have to parade around in tiny shorts."

Bella wanted to shake her and find out more at the same time. "What was Mike doing when it happened?" she clarified in a soft voice.

Jessica visibly relaxed and shrugged. "You know he's always having to keep his fingers busy," she said almost wistfully. Bella did not want to know what Jessica was thinking about at that moment. "That annoying habit of his, tapping his pencil, drumming his fingers, playing with a quarter and tossing his lighter around."

Bella offered a small smile to Jessica, who immediately started to tell everyone else who joined them about what happened in English. She gave Jessica and Angela a lame excuse of needing to check out a book from the library, leaving the cafeteria quickly.

Once outside, Bella looked up to cloudy sky, breathing deeply. It had been months since she felt so stifled by the mindless discussions that usually took place during lunch. She was alone at least, it appeared that she was. However, that feeling of being watched alerted her to another's presence.

She turned left and right, finding nothing. Frustration had her hands fisting at her sides, hitting her thighs in an effort not to scream. "I know you're out there."

"Did you just stomp your foot?" The voice was soft, she wasn't sure it had been real for a moment until she felt him come closer. Turning on her heels, she nearly stumbled in her haste. Edward reached for her, but she caught her balance. They both looked at his hand stretched between them, poised in mid-air. She looked confused while he appeared shocked. She seemed to do that a lot to him.

"You know if you keep getting that look on your face whenever you see me, it will likely freeze that way," she said sweetly, batting her lashes but cocked an eyebrow in question. His hand clenched shut before he shoved it into his pants pocket.

"You didn't answer my question," he said, looking down at his feet.

"Yes, I did stomp my foot."


"I was frustrated," she replied simply, refusing to elaborate. How embarrassing would it be to actually confess, "Sorry, I can feel when you enter a room? Or when you're watching me?"

"I'm sorry," he whispered. "I just can't help it."

She nodded, not asking for an explanation since she understood. He couldn't help but watch her just as she couldn't help the desire to touch him. Tentatively, she reached out, giving him plenty of chances to stop her. He hadn't; instead, he went absolutely still and waited.

There was a part of her that was dancing internally, but the other part trembled with the slightest hint of fear. Weeks of the anticipation of such a moment might have hyped it up, and if it didn't live up to it, she'd be disappointed.

His hands were gloved, but she didn't let that stop her. Touching him on his face seemed too intimate and too soon—baby steps, she told herself. The tips of her fingers touched his, and for a few seconds, he did nothing until they curled around hers. He exhaled sharply, but then took a slow breath in. Her gaze remained on his face from beneath the dark blue hoodie he wore, his own eyes closing for several moments as if basking in her tentative touch.

When he opened them, she smiled and earned a small one in return. "Walk with me to class?"

Edward bit the corner of his lip, averting his eyes and nodding. She squeezed his hand gently and started toward their biology class. For a couple of minutes, his gait was stiff as if he was contemplating running from her.

"I see you walk every day after school," she said, trying to find something to talk about. "Do you want a ride today?"

He shook his head and mumbled, "I prefer walking, but thank you." She only nodded in reply, wondering if she should let go of his hand, but he squeezed her fingers. Once they reached the class, the bell rang, and she knew that soon, students would begin filing through the door. They only had a few more moments alone.

"Do you think we can, um..." she started to say but was interrupted when a few students stumbled into the class, laughing.

Edward smiled shyly at her, and whispered, "Later?" He released her hand as she settled in her chair. Bella nodded and thought the day had certainly turned up. Then, she realized she'd forgotten to ask Edward what happened with Mike and at the office. Had he gotten into trouble?

She would find a way to talk to him more about it, but it would have to wait until after class.

When he didn't sit down beside her right away like he usually did—even if only to hunch over to hide behind his hair that would fall over the side of his face—she lifted her gaze to him.

Edward's wide eyes were glazed, almost as if he was in a trance, and he appeared to be having difficulty in getting his breaths past his throat. She followed his line of vision to their work station and the only thing she could spot that was outside the usual was the presence of a Bunsen burner.

Bella rose from her stool again to stand next to him, approaching him slowly without startling him. "Edward? You okay?"

Edward fought to swallow several times before finally managing it, giving a shaky nod and taking his seat. "Yeah … I … I just … didn't …"

A choking gasp escaped him and his stool fell back with a loud, resounding clang that echoed through the entire classroom when the guy in front of them fired up his burner. Bella watched Edward's face go ashen and his body shake violently as he attempted to take steps back toward the exit, unable to move quickly enough or even to breathe. He finally reached the door and his hand repeatedly grasped and slipped from the door handle, his eyes never leaving the hissing flame, before he could grip it tight enough to wrench it open and stumble out of the room.

Without a thought, Bella grabbed her bag and followed after him quickly, half-expecting Mr. Banner to yell out after her, as the second bell had just rung, but he never did. She flew out into the hallway, watching Edward take staggering steps toward the doors at the end, audibly hyperventilating until his legs finally gave out beneath him and he fell into the lockers along the wall.

Bella rushed over to him as he collapsed onto the floor, skidding onto her knees beside him and digging into her bag. She pulled out her lunch and dumped the contents onto the floor, handing him the brown paper bag. "Here, take this and try to breathe. If you can, put your head between your knees."

Edward was shaking uncontrollably as he reached out for it, bunching it at the top and holding it over his mouth while he attempted to draw in as much as a single deep breath. His eyes pinched tightly closed while his free hand clutched his chest and he began moaning in pain. Bella coaxed him softly to try slowing his respirations, but he only shook his head. "Out. Need … to get … out."

Bella looked up as the mumbling voices in the hall began increasing and found most of their classmates gathered outside the room, staring at Edward. She glared intensely at them and shifted her body to place herself between him and their leering gazes. Mr. Banner squeezed his way through the group of students and began herding them back into the classroom and then met Bella's eyes. "I have to get him outside."

"Edward, you were supposed to be excused from class today," Mr. Banner said gently as he stood beside them. "I'm so sorry you didn't get the message."

Edward shook his head and continued to hold it down, his body tensing even more.

Mr. Banner returned his eyes to Bella and gave her a silent nod, urging her to get him outside for some fresh air. "It's okay."

Bella took a slow breath and turned back to Edward, her mind spinning with curiosity and worry. What's happened to this boy to cause that level of terror in his eyes and face, and would prompt Mr. Banner to feel the need to excuse him from class today? she wondered, but those were more questions that would have to wait. She needed to get him out. "You think you can stand?"

Edward nodded and pressed his back against the lockers, using them as leverage to slide himself up until he stood on shaky legs, still leaning on the cool metal door. He closed his eyes and his lips tensed, muttering incoherently under his breath.

"You can hold onto me if you need to," Bella said softly and he looked at her again with that same intense fear. "But you don't have to. I just want to make sure you're okay."

Edward gazed at her for a long moment, and then his hand reached out several times and quickly retracted, as it warring within himself. His fingertips eventually made contact with hers and she waited for him to make the move to fold them around hers before she returned the gesture. She could still feel him shaking in her hold as they began to walk and made their way beyond the doors, where he finally gasped in a deep breath. His features began to relax minutely the instant they were out of the confines of the closed in hallways, but then his forehead creased. "Oh God, I'm sorry, Bella."

"You have nothing to be sorry for. Come on, let's go sit down for a while," Bella replied in a reassuring voice and guided him around the corner of the school. She sat down on the sidewalk and waited for him to join her as she opened her bag again to retrieve a bottle of water and set it between them. Once he'd finally managed to settle beside her, he propped his elbows on his bent knees and held his head between his gloved hands with the bag still clenched in his right one.

"No one needs to see something like that. And you're the only person in this damn place that doesn't look at me like I'm some freak of nature or something, and now, that's ruined," he mumbled angrily, his voice still tight and raw from the attack as he fought to recover.

"I don't think you're a freak, Edward. Not at all," Bella replied with a shake of her head. "I don't know what's happened to you, and you don't have to tell me if you don't want to. But I'm here for you if you ever do."

Edward's hands lowered and he looked at her again, doubt lingering in his eyes. Did he not trust her enough yet? She wouldn't blame him at all if that were the case; they hardly knew each other and he hadn't had the best of experiences with the remainder of the student body. Was he waiting for her to become one of them? To start pointing and laughing at him as their classmates had done? She knew she never would, but it might also take more time for him to believe that as well. His watchful gaze never left her as he lifted the bag in gesture and swallowed hard, "How did you know?"

Bella tried to remain calm as her own thoughts began to run astray, but refused to allow her eyes to leave his. If she was going to gain his trust, she couldn't hide or put a barrier between them. "Well, aside from just paying attention in health class, it's not exactly the first one I've ever seen."

Edward's eyes widened, his gaze slightly disbelieving. "It's not?"

Bella bit her lip and shook her head, swallowing back the lump that formed in her throat as her fingers unconsciously rose to brush along her scarred ear. "My brother, Jasper, was in the Army. And when he came back from his second tour in Afghanistan, he was diagnosed with a severe case of PTSD. He'd seen too much while he was over there, and the last straw was when he saw a small child just shot and killed without a care in the middle of the street. He said that there's no training the Army could give that will prepare you for that."

Her brother's words ran through her mind, the anguish in his tone she'd never heard before then as fresh as if he were there at that moment speaking to her. She swiped her fingertips beneath her eyes and inhaled slowly to steady herself before continuing.

"He was on anxiety medication for his panic attacks, but when he'd forget to take them or it was just a really bad day, they would hit out of nowhere. You can't predict or plan for things like that, and sometimes, I was just a little too close. And one night, he was thrashing and gasping, screaming and pounding on the walls in his sleep, and I went to his room to wake him up and try to calm him down. But I scared him and before he could think about what he was doing, he grabbed me by the throat. It took a minute but he finally realized what he was doing and let go. And that's how I got this. When he pulled away, his finger caught my earring and ripped it right from my ear."

Edward watched her index finger and thumb close around her earlobe and tug it gently, and then lowered his head between his knees again and folded his hands at the back of his neck. "God, now I feel even worse. I'm sorry, Bella."

"Don't do that, Edward. You can't control it any more than he could. I didn't love my brother any less because of it, and I don't think any differently of you, either. Regardless of the cause," Bella said, hoping that when he looked back at her that he would see the sincerity in her eyes.

"I can't. I just can't yet," Edward answered with a sigh, his gaze still lowered.

"It's okay. I'll still be here when you're ready, however long that takes," Bella replied calmly and he turned his head to bring his gaze back to her, nodding with a silent thanks.


The weekend passed slowly and Bella felt anxious to see Edward again. Their eyes had met briefly across the school yard as she was getting into her truck to leave on Friday, and she was given a half smile when she waved goodbye before he turned to walk home. When Monday finally arrived, she came to that same spot beside the school that morning to wait for Edward. The moment he appeared, she watched that same hint of a smile tug at his lips and his head bowed a little.

"I was kinda hoping you'd be here," he said shyly, still not meeting her eyes again and shoving his hands into his jacket pockets. She was beginning to fear that he was retracting back into himself when he resumed speaking. "I wanted to ask if you'd like to join me out here for lunch today. I mean, I know you usually sit with your friends and all, and I understand if you'd rather be inside with them instead of out here with me. I was just wondering."

Bella sucked in a soft breath at his invitation, surprised that he was reaching out to her in such a way, despite their interaction on Friday. She watched as his hands balled inside his pockets and pulled his jacket more securely around him, opening his mouth to speak again, but she beat him to the punch. "I'll be there, Edward. I'd love to spend lunch with you."

Edward's eyes brightened infinitesimally and his face even began to color at her slightly enthusiastic response. "Okay, great. I guess I'll see you then?"

"Yeah, sure. Sounds good," Bella said in confusion to his hurried reply and stood for a moment in stunned silence as he moved past her to make his way to the school.

His moods were like a light switch, flipping on and off quickly and without warning. Relieved, shy, embarrassed, and then whatever that was as he walked away. Maybe afraid? Why would he be afraid of her? She was distracted all morning by that thought, trying to think of a delicate way to approach him about it at lunch. To assure him that he had nothing to be scared of with her.

When she stepped outside to meet with him, she was startled to find her father's cruiser and an ambulance parked out front. She scanned her surroundings in an attempt to decipher the cause and saw Tyler Crowley being wheeled on a stretcher by the paramedics.

Bella hurried over to a tearful Jessica the instant she spotted her and spoke with frantic breaths. "Jess, what happened to Tyler?"

"Oh God, it was horrible. That Edward freak flipped his shit on Tyler just now, like what he did to Mike wasn't bad enough. They think the asshole broke his jaw and knocked Tyler out cold. He's completely insane. He shouldn't be allowed in public school with normal people. He needs to be locked up somewhere," Jessica ranted, her jaw tensing more with each word she spoke.

"What happened before that?" Bella asked angrily, her nostrils flaring with each of her exhales.

"Why are you always defending him, Bella? It's like no matter what, he can do no wrong with you. Everyone else is always at fault," Jessica seethed, spinning on Bella with furious eyes. "Just because you pity the freak, don't expect the rest of us to."

"Don't you dare call him a freak again," Bella hissed through clenched teeth, stepping up to Jessica's face and glaring at her. "I know him. He wouldn't hurt anyone unless something provoked him into it. And Tyler Crowley is the biggest fucking bully I've ever met, so what did he do?"

Jessica turned her back to her in a huff, infuriating Bella even more and tempting her to shove the girl to the ground on her bought and paid for nose, but she stormed into the school instead. The hall outside the office was packed with a herd of onlookers and she began shoving her way through them amidst their grumbling and exclamations until she spotted Edward sitting inside with his head in his hands.

Bella attempted to enter the office but was stopped by a hand on her shoulder. Her head snapped up to meet the eyes of her father, who shook his head at her. "Dad, please, I need to go in there."

"I'm sorry, Bella, but I don't want you anywhere near that boy. He's unstable, so whatever you need to do in there can wait," Charlie said in a soft but firm voice.

"He is my need to be in there. He's not normally like this, I know him. Something had to have set him off. Please, I'm the only friend he's got," she pled with him, her eyes tearing with desperation.

"The answer is no. The school will deal with Mr. Crowley's part, but that doesn't excuse Mr. Masen's. I'm sorry, Bella. I'm telling you to stay far away from him," he replied in a no nonsense tone, securing his hold on her shoulder.

Bella looked back to the office and Edward's eyes locked with hers, mouthing "I'm sorry" before turning away again. She looked to her father and shook her head, her voice tense in her throat. "You've just made things a million times worse."

She shoved her way back through the crowd and out the front doors again, running out to her truck and slamming the door behind her. She screamed at the top of her lungs in anger, hurt, and frustration within the confined cab, before gripping her steering wheel tightly and resting her forehead on her hands. Sobs began to escape her, remembering when she'd been exactly where Edward was—stared and pointed at, made fun of and provoked through pain that none of her classmates could ever understand. She'd felt that alone and isolated through it all, to the point that she'd gotten so depressed, she couldn't see the light at the end of the tunnel and nearly gave up trying. Only once she'd moved with her father to Forks and went through intense therapy did anything start to get better. She'd made one friend who, while she couldn't understand exactly what Bella had experienced, never judged or laughed at her. Angela had helped her through it all, and that was the most important thing that Edward needed as well—a friend.

My father, of all people, should understand this, Bella growled internally and started her engine, pulling out the parking lot, consequences be damned.

Bella returned home for the rest of the day and was not surprised at all to hear her father's stern voice calling up the stairs for her when he got home that night. Surely, the school would have called him when she didn't show up for the rest of her classes that afternoon, but at that moment, she didn't care. She rose from her bed to head downstairs, her arms folded over her chest as she met Charlie's fierce eyes.

"Isabella, this behavior is inexcusable. You may be angry, but that's not a good enough reason to skip out on your classes," Charlie said in almost too calm anger and stepped toward her. "That boy is trouble and you don't need to be getting messed up in that."

"Really? Is that what you had to say about Jasper, too? He didn't deserve the caring or support of his family and friends, because he was 'trouble'?" Bella shot back tearfully, her fists clenched at her elbows. "Or me when I was having difficulty with everything?"

Charlie tensed and his breath froze in his throat. "That was different, Bella. You have no idea what's happened with that boy."

"No, you're right, I don't. Because he's scared. He has no one he can trust, Dad. That he can open up to. And that only means that he needs me that much more," Bella cried out with wet trails streaming down her face.

"He has his aunt and uncle, and Mr. and Mrs. Cullen are good people. You've been through enough without adding someone else's problems onto it," Charlie replied in a calmer voice, reaching out to touch her arm but she flinched back before he could make contact.

"I'm sorry, Dad. But I'm not going to leave him alone like I was. No one deserves that," Bella said softly, moving past her father to grab her coat from the rack and digging her keys out of her pocket.

"Bella, where do you think you're going at this hour?" Charlie asked.

"Ground me if you want when I get back, but I'm going to see Edward," she replied and hurried out the door before he could stop her, running for her truck that sputtered once but started on the second attempt.

Over the course of the afternoon, she'd searched the online directory for Carlisle and Esme Cullen, having stored the brief mentions of their names circulating through the school in her mind. She had scribbled their address on a sheet of paper and shoved it in her pocket, only waiting for her father to get home first so he wouldn't worry about her if he came home to an empty house.

Bella pulled the slip of paper from her jeans pocket once she hit the wet road, turned the cab light on to try to read her writing while still keeping most of her attention on the road. She knew around where the Peterson Road was located, as it was not too far from the police station, but she needed to commit the house number to memory while she drove.

Bella kept her speed slow as she finally turned onto the street, squinting her eyes to see through the rain and looking for the address. She had to turn around when she didn't see it at first and growled in frustration when she seemed to miss it again when she came back to where she started. Off the side of the road on her third trek down, she noticed a gravel path through a tower of trees on either side, and on a hunch, she turned onto it. At the end, she found a large house almost entirely consisting of floor to ceiling windows, and she pulled in beside the cars in the driveway when she spotted the numbers out front that she had run through her mind constantly all the way there.

This is where he lives, she thought as she stared at the house for a moment before shaking it off, focusing back on her goal—finding and talking to Edward.

Bella got out of her truck and ran through the rain to the front door, knocking sharply upon it and waiting for someone to answer. When it opened, it was not who she'd hoped for that stood in front of her. In place of Edward was the woman with caramel colored hair she remembered from the first day he'd come to school. "Mrs. Cullen?"

"Yes," she replied uncertainly with a creased brow, gazing at Bella warily.

"Hi, my name is Bella Swan, I'm a friend of Edward's. Is he home?" Bella asked and watched as the woman first looked at her in surprise, and then her eyes grew sad.

"It's nice to meet you, Bella. But I'm very sorry, Edward doesn't want to see anyone right now," she answered with a sigh.

Bella shivered against the wet cold surrounding her in the air and from the thin, damp jacket she wore. "Please, I just want to know that he's okay."

"He will be fine. He just needs some time. Again, I'm very sorry, but he wants to be alone," she said and began closing the door.

Bella stopped it with her hand, feeling slightly rude in doing so, but her worry for Edward allowed her to forget about it for a moment. "Can you please give him this for me? It's just my phone number, if he ever needs to talk."

Esme looked down at the folded sheet of paper that Bella had pulled from her back pocket and held out to her. She nodded in resignation and took it into her hand. "I will. Goodnight, Bella."

With that, the door closed on Bella and she fought back tears, turning slowly to make her way to her truck again. As she stood beside it, she looked up to the house again, wondering where in that massive structure Edward was at that moment. Which room was his? Was he really going to be okay as Mrs. Cullen had assured her, or was she under the same belief that Charlie had been at one time that just allowing her to work it out on her own would be best? She wished she could see him, even if only through a window, or talk to him somehow, but obviously, he wasn't ready.

"Bella?" she heard as she reached for the door handle of her truck and jumped in surprise toward the sound. Edward stood at the corner of the house and she could barely make out his face from within the hood he wore, but she'd know that voice anywhere. "What are you doing here?"

If his tone had been harsh or accusatory, she would have flinched, but it was curious and even a little confused. She began to walk toward him and the soft light from the windows of the house gave her a better view of him as she drew closer. "I wanted to see you and make sure you were doing okay. Why are you out here in the rain?"

Edward took a step back once she'd reached him and she swallowed hard as she felt him pulling away from her again. "Just didn't want to be inside. And I'm sorry, Bella, but you should go home. Your father was right, you shouldn't be around me. You don't want to be my friend."

"Edward, please, don't do this. You can trust me, and I trust you," Bella replied, shaking her head and resisting the urge to step closer to him again.

"How can you say that after today? I'm not safe to be around, Bella. I could hurt you without ever meaning to, you have to know that," Edward said defeatedly, his face lowering to hide from her view.

"I don't believe that. I don't know exactly what happened today, but I do know that's not the guy I saw on Friday, or this morning," Bella replied insistently and decided to take a step toward him. He tensed slightly but didn't back away again. "I meant what I said to you. I'm still going to be here for you, no matter what, however long it takes for you to trust me. I'm not leaving."

Edward's hands drove deeper into his pockets, still keeping his eyes lowered from hers. "It's not a matter of trusting you as much as it is myself. And I know I can't do that."

"Then let me do the trusting for now. Because I do know I can," she said and his head rose to look at her. "Can we talk?"

"Bella, it's pouring out," Edward answered with a heavy sigh.

"I don't care. If this is where you need to be, then this is where I want to be, too. It's just water, I'll dry," Bella said with a shrug and watched his shoulders fall, nodding toward the back of the house.

They walked together with a foot or so between them until they reached a lone bench in the middle of the large back yard. Edward's gloved hands ran along his thighs nervously as he sat down beside her, taking slow, labored breaths.

"So, can you tell me what happened today?" Bella asked gently and watched his jaw tense, turning his head away from her. "Edward, it's not going to make me think any different of you. You believe that, don't you?"

Edward nodded but still kept his eyes averted from her. "I do, but it's probably not the wisest decision you could make. You saw Tyler?"

"Yes," Bella answered honestly and his fists clenched.

"Then you know what I did," he said tensely.

"Yes, but why? I know there had to be a reason."

"Not a good enough one," he muttered through tight lips but then turned his head again so she could see the hint of his profile peeking out from beyond the hood. "This is high school, Bella. And I'm very aware of what people think of me, and after Biology on Friday, I knew something like that was coming. I tried to walk away, I really did, but he kept following me and flicking that damn lighter in my face, taunting me. 'It's just a little fire, Edward. You scared of a little fire?'"

As he mimicked Tyler's taunting voice, Bella's eyes widened with rage and she felt her heart pounding in her throat. "I knew it. I knew he did something to bring it on himself. But that is just—"

"Not a justification for what I did," Edward cut her off, facing her completely. "I felt cornered and trapped, and I wasn't even thinking when I swung my arm back. I wanted to get him away from me, but I hit him with all of my strength. I shouldn't have done that."

"It's a survival mechanism, Edward. We all have it, and it's subconscious," Bella said fiercely, shaking her head. "That's not an easy thing to control."

"Bella, you don't understand. I should be better than this," Edward growled, encasing his head in his hands again.

Bella tilted her face up, closing her eyes as the raindrops struck her face and she drew in a deep breath. The beads of moisture on her skin coated the inside of her nostrils with the inhalation, and she let it slowly. "Edward, you know better than anyone that I do understand. I've only told one other person here about my brother, but never what I told you on Friday. He didn't mean to hurt me any more than you intended to with Tyler. I could have ended up a lot worse off than I did, and he was my family, and I didn't provoke it. I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. What he went through in Afghanistan was horrible, something no one should have to experience. But it doesn't mean that it's any worse than whatever it is that you've been through."

Edward's hands fell again and he looked back at Bella. When their eyes finally met again, she saw the cautious look within his as they flickered between hers. He swallowed hard and began shaking his head minimally, and her heart felt as if it was plummeting into her stomach, thinking she'd said something terribly wrong. He finally took a breath, never breaking eye contact with her. "I need to show you something."

Bella was surprised by the statement, but relieved at the same time that he didn't seem to be closing down on her again. On the contrary, he was opening himself a little more, and she didn't care how small it could be. She would accept anything. "Okay."

She expected him to stand or take her somewhere, but he never moved. He lowered his eyes to his left hand resting on the bench between them, and with the trembling fingers of his right, began peeling the glove off. Bella's eyes squinted and then opened again, as even in the dim light surrounding them from the house, she viewed more of the same texture of skin she saw that day she touched him with her pinkie.

The back of his hand and as far up on his wrist as she could see where it met the sleeve of his jacket, was badly scarred. Suddenly, everything began to make sense—his reaction to the hissing flame of the Bunsen burner on Friday, and to the taunting with the lighter before lunch. Those were burn scars, and pretty severe ones at that.

After a moment of silence, he began pulling his hand back to hide it in the sleeve of the hoodie he wore beneath his jacket. "See, it's so disgusting that even you can't stand the sight of it."

Bella's eyes shot back up at Edward's words, the self-loathing heavy in his tone. She gently rested her hand on his arm and shifted a little toward him, and he stiffened his back, rising from the bench and moving away from her. "It's not, Edward. It's part of who you are. This is the last thing that would ever make me want to know or care about you less."

"Bella, if you knew who I really was, you'd see I'm not worth it," Edward said in a voice full of hatred so severe, it sent a shiver running through her body. Yet still, it was all aimed entirely on himself. "I killed my mother."

Bella gasped and froze as she looked up at him, unable to move with the shock from the conviction she heard in his voice. "That's … that's not possible. There's no way … you'd be in jail for that."

"There is more than one way to kill someone," Edward replied seriously. "The only difference is the sentence it carries."

Bella felt the tears welling in her eyes again, but despite his apparent determination to accomplish the opposite, the fear wouldn't come. "Edward, I'm sure you didn't."

"I'm a coward. The worst kind there is. If I wasn't, my mother would still be alive," he replied in sharp, direct statements, but the emotion behind them began to strangle his words. He turned his eyes away from her again and sat down on the bench, at the far end away from her, but she could see some of his walls slowly weakening. "There was a fire. Our whole house was burning. And I saw her, she was safe outside already. But I wasn't. She begged me to jump, but I was on the second floor, and 'brave' guy that I am, I'm terrified of heights."

Bella watched and listened as his voice grew tighter, and his body began shaking again with the memories of that night. She didn't dare move closer to him just yet, though she wished there was some way she could comfort him. "Everyone is afraid of something. That doesn't make you a coward."

"I was all she had, Bella. My dad left when I was four and it was just me and her. I meant everything to her. So when I wouldn't jump, she came in after me. All I saw before she pushed me out was my sleeve going up in flames, and no sooner was I on the ground that the whole second floor began collapsing. She never had a chance to get back out herself," Edward continued and then buried his face in his hands.

Bella couldn't hold back anymore and slowly slid across the wet surface of the bench between them to sit beside him. "She did what any mother would do, no matter what. It's not your fault."

"It is. It really is. And now, my aunt is stuck looking at me every single day, and seeing the spitting image of her sister looking back at her," Edward replied, shaking his head as his hands fell. With the raindrops striking his face, she couldn't tell if he was crying, and for that, she was grateful in that moment. It would only add embarrassment on top of everything else he was feeling, and may have caused him to close off again. "If I had jumped, or hadn't had those damn headphones on, or changed the batteries in the fucking smoke detectors upstairs like she'd been asking me to for weeks, none of this would have happened. My stupidity and laziness killed her, and that's my sentence. Living with that knowledge and without her."

"That doesn't make you a killer, Edward," Bella said more fiercely than she intended to, but the burden he was placing upon himself was unwarranted and more than any eighteen year old should ever have to bear. "I know how you feel, but it's far from the truth."

Edward's head shot up toward her with anger in his eyes, and his gaze seared through her like a razor blade. "How could you possibly know how this feels?"

"If you're a murderer, then so am I," Bella said firmly, a knot forming in her throat as his eyes narrowed at her. "You want to know why I always wear my hair down?"

Edward didn't reply with even so much as a nod, but his gaze never left her as she lifted the clumped strands of hair from her right ear and exposing the side of her neck. He squinted to see exactly what she was trying to show him and then sighed once he did.

Above the earlobe she'd shown him on the Friday before was a series of small, raised scars that continued down the side and back of her neck. He sucked in a breath and she dropped her hair, folding her hands in her lap.

"I knew that Jasper had stopped taking his medication, and I never said anything. I was scared that my mother wouldn't listen to me, because she wanted nothing more than to believe that everything would just go back to normal. And I knew my father would send him away for treatment, and I didn't want to lose my brother again. So I said nothing," Bella ground out through clenched teeth, her eyes burning and her own body shaking with cold and emotion.

"He never should have been behind the wheel of a car, no matter how much time had passed between attacks. But my mother was so happy and pushing for him to have a more normal life, and all it took was one car backfiring next to us at a stoplight to send him into an attack. His foot slammed on the gas and we crossed the intersection, but an oncoming car didn't have a chance to stop and smashed into the passenger side. I fell sideways onto the seat, in just a gut reaction, and windows shattered. Glass was everywhere—on the seat, on the floor, and in my skin, but my mother took the brunt and died on the scene. Jasper hit his head hard and began hemorrhaging, and he followed a few hours later at the hospital. I got away with some bruising and scars that will remind me of that day for the rest of my life, just like you."

Edward remained completely silent, not even audibly breathing, as Bella relayed the details of that day. She caught the sight of his fingers twitching from the corner of her eye and watched as his hand made hesitant movements along the bench toward her. His pinkie extended until it curled around hers, after another moment his hand finally settled gently over hers completely. She looked up to see him swallow hard, his gaze trained on where they touched. "I'm sorry, Bella. I had no idea."

"How could you have?" she asked gently, keeping her hands still beneath his, not wanting to startle him into pulling away. "But I do know what it's like. Blaming yourself because you're the one that survived, and feeling like a burden to anyone else left behind. Being tormented by everything you could have done that might have changed it. How long it takes to come to terms with it all when it never leaves you, and you can't forget it. And how alone it makes you feel, but you don't have to be alone, Edward."

Their eyes met again and another shiver ran through her body. "You should get out of this rain, Bella. I'd feel horrible if you got sick because of me, and I'm going to be out here for a while. I can't be inside right now. I just can't be closed in like that. Even the windows don't help."

Bella shook her head and shifted a little closer to him. "I'd like to stay a little longer, if that's okay with you?"

Edward nodded and pulled his hand away, only to shrug out of his jacket and drape it over both of their heads to shield them from more rain. "It's a little late, but better than nothing."

She smiled at him and leaned a little closer, slowly settling her head on his shoulder. He didn't move for a moment and then she felt his cheek eventually come to rest on her wet hair.

Bella was consumed with a sense of peace she hadn't experienced in a very long time. They were both broken and changed forever by their experiences, but she knew without a doubt that they were meant to find each other. They were two separate parts that needed the other to begin putting themselves back together again.


The week of Edward's suspension was the longest she'd gone through since coming to Forks. She was shunned from her table of friends because of Jessica's lingering bitterness and even Angela's pleading gaze for her to ignore it and sit with them couldn't entice Bella to want to, regardless. It seemed like the entire school had taken Tyler's side of things following his own suspension for three days for his part with the lighter, which hardly seemed fair to her.

Tyler was completely conscious of his actions in tormenting Edward with it, and hadn't gotten the equivalent because he was sent to the hospital, knocked out for not even a half an hour. Edward had reacted on reflex and in self-defense, but he was the villain.

Bella sat alone in what she had come to call "their spot," even though they'd only occupied that space together twice. It was where she felt close to him, texting with him each day to feel like he was there with her somehow, since he didn't like talking on the phone. And it was where she knew he would come looking for her when he returned to school the following Tuesday.

She was nervous when the day finally arrived, having not seen him since that night in his yard due to her own punishment of being grounded for the week when she got home. Would the closeness they'd achieved remain, or would things be awkward between them in the light of day? When she saw him approaching her with his hands in his pockets again, she stood quickly from the ground and brushed off the seat of her pants.

"Hi," Bella said softly with a small smile when he stopped in front of her.

"Hi," he replied nervously before his eyes began scanning their surroundings, sighing as he obviously noticed the same glares and whisperings she'd been witness to all week. "Look, Bella. If you don't want to be seen with me here, I wouldn't fault you for that. I'm not going to cause any more difficulties for you … Wait, you have your hair up."

Bella bit her lip as her smile grew—she was almost afraid he wouldn't notice. She ignored everything else around her but the boy standing there with guilt and pain still swimming in the depths of his eyes, and nodded her head. "Yeah, I do. Let them talk and stare, I really couldn't care less. I'm not one of them, Edward. I've never been a fair-weather friend, and I'm not about to start here with you. I'm not ashamed to be your friend, in any way."

A smile finally came to Edward's lips, albeit a slightly nervous one, but the relief on his face was unmistakable. "Thank you."

"You don't have to thank me for something that's so simple to do," Bella replied, her eyes brightening as she gazed up at him.

Edward pulled his right hand out of his jacket pocket and began holding it out to her, and she looked down and gasped when she saw that it was bare—no glove. She looked back up to him for a moment before reaching for his left elbow to retract the other one, finding it also uncovered. Another test of trust, she thought as she slid her fingers down the fabric covering his arm until they reached his palm, and he froze as they touched skin to skin again. They both watched as they slid between his and closed them around his hand. "Bella, you don't have anything to prove to me."

Bella rubbed her fingertips lightly over his scars and he trembled, and her eyes rose to his. "I just want to hold your hand. Is that all right?" She could see him visibly swallow hard and the look in his eyes took her breath away. The sorrow and need in them blended into a longing for the comfort of her touch that he craved, though he feared it, too.

"Yes," he gasped. "Please." The small plea was the merest of whispers as his fingers tightened around hers. Their intertwined hands drew his gaze, staring at them with a combination of awe and horror on his face. The contrast between their skins was vast, soft silk to textured leather.

She wanted to cry, to force his eyes away from their hands when he cringed. Her thumb passed over his knuckles instead, in an effort to soothe him. He breathed what seemed like a sigh of relief and Bella could see a smile emerging from beneath his hooded jacket.

They faced the long hallway together, hand in hand as the students gawked and spoke amongst their little groups. Jessica sneered, crossing her arms over her chest in a show of disgust with Bella's disloyalty from across the hall.

Bella only rolled her eyes and walked past some of the people she had once considered friends. Angela, however, offered them both a small smile and a wink. As Bella and Edward stepped closer to her locker, Angela started to walk beside her.

"Ben and I are heading out for lunch off campus," she said. "You two could join us?"

Bella offered a smile to Angela, she knew her friend was only lending a helping hand. "Maybe some other time," she said to Angela. "I think today, Edward and I are having lunch by ourselves."

Bella sensed that Edward wouldn't want to ride inside a car since he expressed his feelings about being closed in before. There was also a chance that it was too soon to be with other people when he still struggled in their own growing relationship.

Edward didn't say a word, but she felt the tip of his thumb rub along the sensitive skin of her wrist. She also heard him sigh softly, sounding like regret. Angela said something about shopping soon and would call Bella later before she went to find her boyfriend, Ben.

There were only a few minutes before the morning bell would ring, so she didn't want to waste a second of it. She led him to back out their spot, hoping that he'd talk to her. Taking both of his hands in hers, she asked, "What's wrong, Edward?"

At first, she didn't think he would answer, but after another moment, he looked up at her with his expressive eyes.

"I'm keeping you from your friends," he murmured. "I'm already affecting your life by being your friend." Bella's lips pursed, she really didn't like the word "friend" at the moment. "You should go to lunch with Angela. I'll be fine."

Bella shook her head, pulling on his hands to bring him a tad closer. He looked up at her curiously. "Angela was simply showing me and my other so-called friends that no matter who I choose to be with, it didn't matter to her."

"She wasn't really asking you to lunch?" he asked, confusion coloring his tone. "That makes no sense."

She laughed and rolled her eyes. "That's high school and girls."

"You sure you don't mind?" he asked nervously. His fingers twitched within her hands, surprising her by threading them together.

"I don't mind having lunch with my friend," she said with a smile. His fell for a moment, his eyes lowering to their intertwined hands again.

"Friend, friends," he said softly as if trying to sort something out. "Friends."

"Doesn't sound right, does it?" His eyes snapped to hers and he shook his head quickly. She smiled, lifted onto her toes and pressed a kiss to his cheek. "Come on, we're going to be late."

She didn't give him a chance to react to her gesture, knowing he probably would've pulled away if she had. She couldn't resist touching him further and settled for that small kiss instead of what she really wanted to do. Her arms itched to wrap around his neck and thread her fingers through his hair.

Slow, she reminded herself as they walked toward her class. Edward stood beside her as silent as ever, but with a small smirk on his face. She sighed in relief and offered him a, "See you later," before walking into her first period class.

Edward waited outside of the room, until she was seated at her desk. She smiled at him as he pulled his gloves from his jacket pocket. He may have been ready for her touch, but it seemed he wasn't for anyone else's.

Her heart broke a little as he walked away and from where she sat, she could see his hurried stride. He couldn't wait to get away from everyone's blatant stares and whispers. She hoped that he'd be all right, considering he had Jessica in his first class.


Edward was there at the end of her second period, offering to walk her to her next class. There was tightness around his eyes, his lips taut with tension.

"Will you tell me what happened?"

He sighed, shrugging once, their shoulders brushing against each other. "No one said anything directly to me," his voice was soft, not wanting to be overheard. "But they weren't whispering, either. Seems that Tyler had to have his jaw wired shut."

"Wow," she said. "How did you not hurt your own hand?"

Edward pulled out his right hand from his pocket, spreading out his fingers wide for her inspection. At the door of her classroom, which he had led her to, she took his hand. There were faint bruises over a few of his knuckles.

"Does it hurt?" she asked, looking up to see that his eyes were on her mouth. She blushed and bit her lip nervously. Edward shook his head, but his gaze still hadn't moved. Students rushed past them, it was almost time for class. "See you for lunch?"

"I'll be waiting outside of Mrs. Ryan's classroom," he said as he pulled his hand away reluctantly.

"Oh," she said, confusion coming over her features. It was then she realized he had met her after her second class, and led her to third period, Spanish, without any directions from her. "How did you know what class I have?"

From under the hood, she could see his face flush as his eyes dropped down to their feet. "I know your schedule."

She smiled. "See you there, then." Edward nodded and spun on his heels, walking away quickly. Over his shoulder, he gave her a sheepish smile, his cheeks still flushed from his embarrassment.


As promised, Edward was there outside her classroom, waiting for her. They walked side by side to her locker so she could grab her lunch. Taking his hand in hers, she led them back to their spot outside, allowing them some privacy.

She sat down with her back against the wall, while Edward sat in front of her with their legs crossed and their knees touching.

"I rather not look at their faces when they pass," he whispered when she looked at him in question.

"It's okay." She pulled her lunch bag onto her lap as Edward removed his from his backpack. They both laughed when they realized that they had both brought sandwiches.

"Turkey and tomato," Edward said, holding up one of his. "And peanut butter and fluff."

Bella giggled, holding up hers. "PB and fluff? That's what I got, too. I didn't have time to grab groceries this week."

Edward silently offered her half of his turkey sandwich, which she took happily. He smiled at her, taking a bite of his as some of the tightness around his eyes softened.

"Sorry, you got grounded," he said after swallowing a drink from his water bottle.

"I knew I would," she said with a shrug. "It was totally worth it."

Edward grumbled something under his breath that she couldn't catch, and then asked, "Are you still grounded?"

Bella shook her head. "We talked last night," she said softly. "We came to an understanding since grounding me seems to affect him pretty bad, too." Edward cocked an eyebrow. "He doesn't like the silent treatment. And I know he just wants me to be careful."

Mid-bite, Edward stopped and stated, "He's worried that I'll hurt you."

"Yes and no." Edward asked for her to elaborate. "He knows that I have a good head on my shoulders. He trusts my judgment that I won't put myself in harm's way. That doesn't mean he's ready to trust you." She waved off the fact with a hand and roll of her eyes. "It'll take time, Edward, but he'll come around."

"He's afraid I'll hurt you when I have an attack," he said firmly. "He has every right to be afraid. I can hurt you, look what happened to Tyler. If that had been you, who knows what kind of damage I would've done."

"First of all," she said, taking his hand in hers. "I'm not stupid or vicious enough to do something like that. Second, I know you don't want to hurt me. Third, as long I'm aware of your triggers, I can be careful."

"I can honestly say I don't ever want to hurt you, but the fact remains that I can, unintentionally."

"I've brought you out of one attack," she said softly. "You didn't try to hurt me then. Do they get worse than that?"

Edward shook his head, but then nodded after a moment. "When I wake up from a nightmare," he murmured.

"Like my brother," she said. "After that time he attacked me, I knew what to do if he had one during and after a nightmare. Besides, I don't think we have to worry about sleepovers."

Edward's eyes widened and he quickly took another drink. Bella watched as he wiped his mouth with the back of his hand that he pulled from her grasp.

They continued to eat silently for several minutes before Bella managed the courage she needed. "Can you tell me your triggers?" she asked.

Edward nodded after a couple of minutes of tense silence. He told her what usually brought about his panic attacks, an open flame bringing out the worst ones. How he hadn't been claustrophobic until the fire that claimed his mother's life.

"It was at the hospital, after they confirmed she was gone," he continued. "I felt everything closing in around me, like the flames had closed her off from me."

His head fell forward, his hands cradling his face. Bella slowly took them, pulling them off and resting her forehead against his. "Is this all right?" He whispered his approval and played with her fingers that rested between them. "Can you tell me about that first day? Why did you get so mad? I know I shouldn't have touched you."

"It wasn't that, really," he said softly. "After you did it, I think I was waiting for you to be disgusted or run away screaming. When you did neither of those things, I had to know what you were thinking."

"So you stole my class work?"

He laughed and Bella instantly loved the rich sound. "I thought it would get you to look at me, so that you'd see I wasn't mad at you."

"But the picture I drew –"

"I thought you heard rumors about me, that you were mocking me."

"I would never do that," she whispered, pulling back enough to see his eyes. "The guilt sometimes consumes me, burns me, the closer we get to the anniversary. Drawing helps me channel it, I guess."

The tips of his fingers traced the lines of her palms as if memorizing them. "Thank you," he said after several minutes.

"For what?"

"For not giving up on me." Edward averted his eyes, but murmured, "I won't give up on you, either. Not ever."


Edward had agreed to meet Bella after school, and she hoped he would agree to a ride with her. Standing beside her locker, Edward was waiting, nervously shifting his weight from foot to foot. He looked up and when his eyes met hers, his lips twitched into a smile.

She gave his hand a squeeze, noticing that he had his gloves on again. He had taken them off for her at lunch, but put them back on once he dropped her off in class. As she removed a book from her backpack, placing it inside her locker, Edward finally said something.

"Are you doing something today?" he asked. "You know, after school?"

Bella shook her head. "Did you want to do something?"

"I was hoping we could go for a walk," he said as they walked toward the school parking lot. "I know it's stupid, but I really don't like the coffee house here. I thought maybe we could find someplace quiet where we could talk, just you and me."

"I don't like it, either. It's a little too cramped and dark," she said with a shrug. "And there's like no windows."

"Yeah," he murmured. "Anyway, we could explore the grounds at my place."

"I'd like that," she said. "Do you walk all the way home?" It was almost eight miles from school, that was a lot of walking.

"Sometimes, but most days, my aunt or uncle picks up me halfway." She sighed. "What is it?"

"I was going to ask if you'd like a ride home."

"Oh," he said, looking at her truck. "It's hard for me to..." he swallowed and shook his head. "Pick me up at the corner in a few minutes?"

Confused, Bella agreed and watched as he ran down the road. Angela gave her a wave from across the parking lot, holding up pages of notes Bella needed from English for an upcoming test as she approached.

"We still on for shopping this weekend?" Angela asked, handing over her notes.

"Sure," Bella offered.

"I know you don't like shopping," Angela teased. "I promise, I have it down to three dresses. I just need your opinion on which one I should get."

"All right, I'll be there."

Angela grinned, hopping up and down. "Oh thank you, thank you! You never know maybe you'll have to shop for your own."

Bella only smiled and waved goodbye, already knowing that she would not be attending the prom. She didn't have the heart to tell Angela the reason why. She walked back to her truck, quickening her stride when she realized more than a few minutes had passed. She didn't want Edward to think she wasn't coming.

Her truck rumbled and shook as it started, vibrating as she shifted into gear. After only a minute of driving, she pulled to the side of the road, just shy of the four-way stop.

After putting her truck in gear, there was a tap on her passenger side window, she unlocked it and he pulled it open. "You coming in?" she asked when Edward had yet to climb inside.

He shook his head. "Not yet, please," he said softly, biting his thumbnail. "I can hop in the back?"

"You don't mind?" He offered her a smile that made her do it, too. "All right, hop in. I'll try not to go too fast."

Edward's nose scrunched along with his brow. "I highly doubt that's possible in this beast."

Bella smoothed her hand over the dashboard. "You'd be surprised. I can get a whole sixty-two miles per hour out of this baby." She laughed when the disgust was still evident on his face. "You coming or not?"

He sighed. "I suppose I should. I already called my aunt to let her know I'd be home soon." With another smile, he closed the passenger door and Bella watched as he hopped into the back of the truck bed easily. He sat near the back window on the passenger side, waving at her once he was settled.

The smile Bella had worn since seeing him didn't leave her face even as she pulled from the side of the road. She kept a respectable speed, very aware of his eyes on her. The rearview and side mirrors allowed her to take a peek at him often.

She turned once, to see that his head was tipped up to the sky, his hood had fallen back and the wind made a glorious mess out of his hair. She gasped softly, in awe of the beautiful boy who seemed to worship the feel of the cold air around him.

His eyes met hers when she pulled to a stop outside of his house and turned off her truck. Through the window, she could clearly see the longing she had witnessed before in his gaze. She held up her hand on the cool glass, smiling at him. His lips turned into a lopsided grin as he removed his glove and placed his palm on the glass, too, placing it neatly against hers on the other side.

His hand was much larger and she could see that the heel of his palm had the most damage. Bella blushed when his breath fogged up the glass and he drew the word, "Hi." She laughed, doing the same. A moment later, she hopped out of her truck.

As Edward climbed to the end of the bed, he asked, "Is there a reason someone as tiny as you would have a monster like this?"

Bella sighed and leaned against her truck. "It makes me feel safe, I guess." She looked down at her feet. "My mom was very into saving money and trees. So she had bought this little hybrid car that barely fit the three of us. She loved it, though. There was hardly anything left of it after the accident."

She was surprised when, in her line of vision, she could see Edward's hand take hers. "I'm sorry for making fun of the beast."

Bella giggled. "Is that what we're calling it?"

"Seems appropriate."

They both turned when they heard the sound of the front door closing, but saw no one out on the front porch. Edward sighed when his aunt passed one of the large windows. "I guess I should probably introduce you to her properly. Do you mind?"

Bella stiffened and her hand secured around his gently. "I don't know. She didn't seem to like me too much when I stopped by that night."

Edward sighed and his eyes fell to his feet, but never released his hold on her. "She's just very protective and worried about me. I think after everything that happened at school and seeing how everyone was treating me, she might have thought you were one of them. I don't have friends. At least, not before this."

After he gently squeezed her hand, Bella watched as his gaze rose to the windows of the house again before returning to hers in a nervous, but hopeful gesture. "Okay. If you're sure?"

Edward gave a small, grateful smile and began leading her toward the front door. "Aunt Esme?"

The woman who had greeted Bella at the door that evening over a week before appeared from around the corner and their eyes met, until Esme's lowered to their joined hands and then rose again to her nephew. "Edward?"

"Aunt Esme, this is my friend, Bella Swan," Edward said, securing his hold around Bella's hand.

Esme looked back to Bella and her lips tensed into a tight line, but held her hand out to her. "It's nice to see you again, Bella."

Bella shifted uncomfortably at the stiff greeting, but shook it anyway. "It's nice to see you again, too, Mrs. Cullen."

Esme breathed in deep through her nose as Bella released her hand and reclaimed Edward's. "It's good to see Edward finally has someone he can talk to. I hope you didn't fall ill after sitting out there so long in the rain that night."

"Auntie," Edward said with a sigh, his discomfort radiating off him in waves.

"No, ma'am. Thank you," Bella replied, offering her a smile that the woman didn't return.

"Bella and I are just going to walk around the grounds for a while," Edward said suddenly, giving Bella a gentle tug.

"Will she be joining us for dinner?" Esme asked cautiously, her eyes flickering between them.

"No, ma'am. Thank you, anyway, but I'll need to get home for dinner with my dad," Bella replied politely, but Esme cut her a look as if to say she was speaking to Edward, not her.

Edward rolled his eyes, seemingly annoyed by his aunt's behavior, and led Bella back outside before letting out a breath. "I'm sorry about that. It would have been worse if I waited until next time, or the time after that, or whenever, you know?"

"I knew she didn't like me. I just wish I knew what I did," Bella replied sadly, her eyes downcast as they walked.

"It's not you, Bella. It's me," Edward said with his gaze straight forward and shifted his hand to thread their fingers again. It was a nice feeling, but his statement worried her.

"Edward, it didn't seem like it was you she had a problem with," Bella answered with a sigh.

"No, I know she loves me, always has. My aunt and uncle were never able to have kids of their own, so she kinda showered me with the affection that she would have on her own kids," Edward replied, shoving his free hand in his jeans pocket. "But I don't talk to her now, about anything. They've had me in therapy since I came here, but I don't feel comfortable talking to him, either. But I did talk to you that night. She tries to hug me and get me to open up to her like I once did, but I'm just not ready for that. The fact that you can touch me, even this little bit, might have hurt her some."

Bella's hand loosened on his slightly. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean…"

Edward held her firmly and shook his head, looking over to her. "Please, don't."

Bella met his eyes and they said everything his words did not. Please don't let go. Please don't leave me. Please don't take this away. "I'm here. I'm not going anywhere."

Edward breathed out slowly and stopped, turning toward her and leaning his forehead down to touch hers. She wanted so much to brush her lips against his, to feel their softness as his breath ghosted over hers, but she knew she needed to refrain still. His trust was gradually building with her, more quickly than it seemed to with anyone else. She wasn't going to rush things with him and take the chance of severing that connection. They both needed and wanted it too much to risk. His eyes opened to meet hers, and as if he knew exactly what she was thinking, his features appeared to relax and his hands rested on her waist. "Thank you, Bella."

They walked through the dense forest that made up a third of the property of his home. "I'm surprised that you like it out here," she said with his hand still wrapped around hers.

Edward sighed softly, smiling at her. "I know it seems a little closed off," he said, looking up at the thick canopy overhead. "But I think it's the fresh air and the fact that I know I'm outside that allows me to be out here like this."

"It is nice out here," she replied and started to walk backward to look at him. "It's like your own fortress of solitude."

"I'm hardly a superhero, Bella."

She grinned cheekily. "I don't know, you kinda look like one." Edward's eyes dropped to their hands, blushing. "Come on, show me your favorite spot." She looked at his thoughtful gaze in question. "You have to have a favorite place."

He nodded, still flushed from her earlier compliment. "Stop for a moment," he murmured, his eyes on her. "This spot right here." Bella's confused look prompted him to continue. "And if you take a step to the right, that'll be my favorite spot."

It was Bella's turn to blush. Instead of saying anything, she squeezed his hand. They spent another hour walking through the grounds until it was time for her to go. At her truck, Bella noticed that Edward had remained silent ever since she'd said she had to leave. "What is it, Edward?"

"I don't know where to start," he said, taking a deep breath to calm himself. Bella gave him an encouraging smile. "I want to be your friend, but I –" She couldn't make out the rest since he dropped his gaze and mumbled it quickly.

"I'm sorry, I didn't catch that," she said, squeezing his hands gently. "Whatever you have to say, I'm here to listen."

"I want more," he whispered. "To be more than friends." She could see his face flush from under the protection of his hood. His eyes lifted after a second and met her gaze. "I really like you."

Bella's hands shook his and her smile must have been infectious because Edward was soon grinning brightly, reaching his eyes. She nearly swooned on the spot, the effect of his happiness spreading to her.

"I really like you, too," she replied, reaching for the sides of his jacket. She had to tiptoe as she brushed her lips along his jaw softly. "A lot, boyfriend."

His breath shuddered through him at her touch, but he stepped back when her hands tried to reach for his face. She internally berated herself, for moving too fast, keeping a smile on her face when she pulled away.

"I'll see you tomorrow," she said softly, taking his hand to keep him from retreating again. His fingers curled around hers and another smile graced his face.

"Until tomorrow," he said, helping her inside her truck and closing the door.

As she drove away, in her rearview mirror, she could see Edward still standing outside. His fingers raised to his cheek, touching where she had kissed him. Several minutes later, she received a text from him and couldn't stop from smiling.

I still feel your touch, your kiss


For Bella, time moved in two categories. Time with Edward usually felt like it passed too quickly, while the rest seemed to slow down. Three weeks after the day they had labeled their relationship, they had established a routine.

He walked or was dropped off at her house since it was on the way to school. She greeted him with a kiss on the cheek that usually left him blushing for minutes afterward. They either walked together, or when it was too cold for her, Edward would hop in the back of the truck.

They had worked on him becoming comfortable enough to ride with her in the front, but after two failed attempts, almost bringing on a full panic attack each time, he had refused to try again. He had told her it had taken a great deal of time for him to be comfortable enough to ride with his aunt and uncle, and only if the window was all the way down.

Bella knew they had to move slowly, and that the road that lay ahead for her and Edward wouldn't be easy. She refused to give up on him, but she started to have trouble keeping her emotions from showing.

"Since it's raining, I had to call my uncle," Edward said one day, his hands deep in his pockets. Bella only nodded in response, thankful that the parking lot was nearly empty since they stayed in the library for a while after class ended. "I'll text you later tonight?"

For weeks, they had alternated on whose house they would go to after school. If they had homework, it was her house since her father worked until seven most of the week. If they had very little, they would take a walk at his house.

"You're not coming over?" she asked softly.

"I don't think the rain is going to let up soon," he said, tipping his head to the dark clouds overhead. "I'd hate for him to drop me off only to pick me up right afterward, you know?"

"Yeah," she said, nodding. "I better go." She offered him a smile over her shoulder as she stepped out into the rain.

"Bella, I'm sorry," he said after a heart wrenching groan escaped him. The look in his eyes nearly brought tears to her own when she turned to look at him. "I'm sorry I can't be more normal for you."

"We knew this would be hard," she said, watching as he closed the distance between them. Her lips trembled as she looked up at him. They had only shared a handful of kisses, and even then, only hers on his cheek. She had yet to feel the brush of his lips on her. She never wanted something so badly, but she had to be patient. "You don't have anything to be sorry for, Edward."

"I do," he murmured, taking her face in his gloved hands. It was the most he'd ever initiated and she held her breath as he continued. "I can see I'm hurting you when I pull away, when you try to touch me somewhere besides what I'm used to—"

"I'm pushing and I'm sor–" Two of his fingers stilled her lips from continuing further.

"No, Bella," he whispered, leaning his forehead against hers. "You're not, because all you're really doing is going after something you want. You have the courage to try." He choked on a small groan, but failed to pull it back. "I don't. I want so much to kiss you, touch you, but I'm so scared."

"I don't understand," Bella said, placing her hands carefully on his chest. He immediately tensed and she whimpered, her hands dropping and wrapping around her waist.

"I'm sorry," he gasped as his breathing became labored. "I'm doing it again. And it's because you would have to touch me."

Bella looked up at him and could see the anguish in his green eyes. "Is it the scars?" He nodded, closing his eyes tightly, breathing deeply to gather himself. "But I touch your hand all the time, Edward. I'm trying to understand."

He swallowed deeply before he opened his eyes to look at her. "My hand isn't the only place I have scars, Bella."

She figured as much. When he explained about the fire, he had said that the sleeve of his shirt had gone up in flames.

"It doesn't matter to me," she said softly, her hands twitching at her sides as she looked up at him. She wanted desperately to reach for him, hold him to her. "They could cover your whole body and it wouldn't change how I feel about you."

He shuddered deeply, the rain running over his face, drops falling from the tip of his nose. His eyes seemed to examine every inch of her face, searching her own gaze for the truth of her words. She stayed absolutely still, allowing him to see all of her.

"I have nightmares the closer I get to the anniversary and rarely sleep," she said softly. "Every year for the last three, I've spent that day locked up in my room, unable to talk to anyone. I think it really hurts my dad that I can't even talk to him about it." He looked bemused as she continued to reveal her secrets.

His left hand rose to his mouth, pulling his glove off with his teeth, causing her to still once again. After repeating the process with the other hand, he returned to cradle her face. His thumbs brushed beneath her eyes, and she knew the area was darker than normal.

"Can I touch you?" When he nodded after a few moments, Bella gently placed her hands on his hips. His breath caught, his eyes closing again as she rubbed over his wet t-shirt and felt the texture of his skin beneath, along the top of his left hip. Similar to that of his hand. "I don't care about your scars, Edward. Someday, you'll see that I won't leave you because of them. Until then, we can go as slow as you need, okay?"

He nodded and touched her bottom lip with his thumb, as if testing the softness. His mouth lingered over hers, but before reaching it, he bypassed and pressed his lips over her lashes. His breath escaped him sharply as they fluttered against him. There was a soft sigh as he explored the curve of her cheek, causing Bella's heart to flip in her chest. Her grip tightened infinitesimally, enough for him to groan along the tip of her nose, "Bella."

Her heart had been broken for so long; seeing her brother fall apart, the loss of her mother and Jasper, and finally, the emotional detachment between her and Charlie. Slowly over time, she had learned to stitch the pieces together into something that resembled a heart that allowed her to open up again; to her father, to face her demons and to the boy before her.

And it was with the first, gentle touch of his lips that her heart became attuned to Edward's, and finally allowed her to hope. His lips were soft, still warm despite the rain that washed over them. The kiss was hesitant at first, careful, too. His mouth moved over hers slowly, only pressing more firmly when he pulled her closer. He tasted her bottom lip first, touching it gently with his teeth and tongue. She was breathless when he nibbled on the corner of her mouth, causing the shiver that moved through him.

Rain mingled with the taste of Edward, and Bella wanted more, but kept herself from gripping him tighter and wrapping her arms around him as she desperately wanted to. Breathless and feeling warm, even in the middle of the rain, he pulled away enough to catch his breath.

"I'll text you later," he said, both aware of a car approaching. She nodded, refusing to move away from him until he did. His hands moved slowly over her spine and before he stepped back, he nuzzled her neck, inhaling deeply.

Their hands remained interlocked as Carlisle, Edward's uncle, pulled up a minute later. Bella could see a curved plastic shield over the passenger side window, something to keep the water out. He helped Bella into her truck before he climbed into his uncle's SUV.

She gave him a wave as she watched the car drive away, and after checking something on her cell phone, she made her way into town, instead of home.

An hour later, she pulled into the garage at her house, surprised to find her dad's cruiser in the driveway. "Hey, Dad," she said as she stepped out with her purchase.

"What do you have there?" he asked as he wiped his hands dry, having just moved a load of clothes from the washer to the dryer.

She grimaced slightly, knowing her dad would have a lot to say about what she was doing. "I bought something for Edward."

He nodded slowly, watching as she moved around the garage, looking for some tools. "Bella," he said softly as she started to open the package. "Why don't you go in and do your homework, and I'll install the shield."

Bella gave her dad a smile and nodded, tiptoeing to brush a kiss on her cheek. "Thanks, Daddy."

She walked into the house, and before the door closed behind her, she heard her father say something that made her heart slam in her chest and her stomach plummet to her toes. "Why don't you invite Edward to dinner tomorrow?"

"Okay," she squeaked, turning quickly for the stairs. Once in her bedroom, she quickly pulled out her cell phone to send Edward a text. Instead of pressing send, though, she fell back on her bed.

Her thoughts were all over the place. She knew her dad and Edward would have to be properly introduced, but she feared her boyfriend's reaction. What if his anxiety over meeting someone new turns into a panic attack?

As she tried to find ways to make the situation easier for everyone, her cell phone chimed from an incoming text message from Edward.

I miss you

She sighed, thankful that Edward seemed to feel the same way. Bella often missed him when he left her house, but after their kiss, she felt that ache for him even more profoundly.

She took a few deep breaths, knowing it was now or never. If she wanted their relationship to move forward, her father had to get to know Edward. On her cell phone's screen, she highlighted his name and pressed call.

They had shared only a handful of calls, mostly because she needed to hear his voice after he would relapse or over a long weekend. Edward still had difficulty talking on the phone, stuttering half the time. However, she needed to hear his reaction about the dinner invitation.

"B-bella?" he answered. She could hear the panic in his voice. He knew she wouldn't call unless there was a good reason.

"I'm sorry for calling," she said immediately. "But I needed to talk to you." His breathing had become even more labored. "Edward, what's wrong?"

"You're b-break-king up with me," he said.

"No!" She internally cursed herself. Knowing that Edward was so self-conscious due to his scars, she should have realized that a call after getting an "I miss you" text, and after their first kiss, would alarm him. "No, Edward," she added, softening her voice. "It's nothing like that. I just needed to talk to you."

"Are you sure?"

"Yes, of course, I am. Nothing has changed from this afternoon. Okay?"

The relief was so very clear in his soft reply, "Okay."

She sighed, thankful that his breathing had returned to normal after a couple of silent moments. "I called because my dad asked if you could come to dinner tomorrow?"


"He knows you're a part of my life, Edward," she said softly. "And that you're not going anywhere."

"I'm not?"

"I don't want you to," she replied, smiling when she heard his matching response. "Anyway, he just wants you to come to dinner."


They only talked for a couple more minutes, both having homework and decided to chat online instead. Together they chatted with each other about their mutual assignments, finally returning to their usual comfort level.

Before logging off for the night Bella asked him in her open chat window.

Any allergies I should be aware of?

You're cooking?


I'm not allergic to anything. But Bella, I won't be able to stay in the kitchen while you cook.

I understand.

And she did. After their good nights, she went back down to the kitchen and decided that she had to visit the grocery store after school.


The following day passed like most of the others, except that prom seemed to be the main topic of every conversation. Bella had little to contribute, having only gone with Angela to help pick up her dress the previous weekend.

She'd been asked by the few remaining friends she had if she was attending, since she and Edward were dating. She told anyone that asked no, but later found out that her reply only fueled more rumors about Edward, making him sound like the bad guy. That he was the reason she wasn't going to her senior prom.

It was during their lunch that she found out what they were saying behind his back.

"Are you mad because I can't take you to the prom?" he asked, keeping his eyes on his lap instead of her.

"No," she asked confused by the sudden topic. Edward hadn't mentioned the prom once since they started dating. "Why do you ask?"

He shrugged, looking behind his shoulder at a couple of girls that walked by, staring as usual. "They all think I'm keeping you from going," he said, turning to look at her. "Is that true?"

Bella's eyes closed and bit her lip to keep tears from forming. "No," she said, her voice cracking. "This year, the prom falls on the anniversary of the accident." She felt the tips of his fingers in her palm, before he intertwined their hands together. "I don't want to go." Nervously, she bit her lip. "Did you?"

His eyes widened and he shook his head immediately. "I can't handle that kind of crowd and all the staring. Plus, a tuxedo wouldn't be able to hide some of my scars." Bella didn't ask any questions, knowing if she asked where he had scars, he wouldn't answer. He wasn't ready for that, yet.

They ate their lunch in relative silence until he spoke up. "I'm sorry we couldn't walk to school today." Bella offered him a small smile, nodding. "With it raining off and on all night, I thought it would be best to get a ride from my uncle."

She squeezed his hand and rolled her eyes. "I understand that, Edward." When his eyes wouldn't meet hers, she knew there was more to his apology. She sighed and realized what it could be. "You've seen my truck this morning, haven't you?" He nodded, his fingers tightening around hers. "I thought it would be best to be prepared. I'm not going to push you, either."

"But you're hoping," he murmured.

"I'm not going to lie to you, so yes, I'm hoping that one day, you'll trust me enough to ride in my truck with me."

He nodded. "When we came home from the hospital after the fire, I panicked and clawed at the door handle. I almost jumped out of the car, it was too closed up."

Bella nodded. "I had a similar reaction after the car accident."

He looked up at her, likely finding the sincerity in her eyes. "You did? And you can still drive and get in a vehicle?" When she replied with a yes, he leaned forward and brushed his lips over hers briefly. "You're so much braver than me." Before she could object and say that he was, too, he continued. "We can try tonight when you take me home."

She smiled and wrapped her arms high around his torso, where she knew it was safe to touch him. He nuzzled her neck softly with the tip of his nose, his breath and his lips. She desperately wanted to do the same, but held back. Every time she had tried before, he would pull away.

Baby steps, she reminded herself once again.


Since Bella had to make a quick stop at the grocery store, they decided that Edward would walk from school to her house. She left after giving Edward a quick hug and told him she'd be there in a few minutes.

After she paid for her items, she made her way home to find Edward sitting on her porch, tapping some tune on his knees. Seeing him look so carefree brought a smile to her face, even more surprising was the fact that his hood was down. He usually left it on when they were outside, where others could see him. It almost seemed that he was unaware of it.

The moment her truck rattled to stop, she hopped out and Edward quickly shot up to help her with her purchases. "Hi," she said softly, kissing his cheek and making him blush as he took two bags from her.

"Hi," he said under his breath. "I-I wanted to talk to you about something. What time will your dad be home?"

"He said about six-thirty," she replied, allowing him inside the house. He followed her into the kitchen, after carefully closing the door behind him. She looked over her shoulder to see him nervously bite his thumbnail. A habit he had whenever something heavy is on his mind.

They remained quiet as she unpacked the groceries, moving around the kitchen, feeling his eyes following her every move. On the kitchen table, he removed a few items from his backpack. Her gaze lingered on the college brochures.

Her mind jolted, zinging with pain. What if he went far away for school? Then her mind froze when she realized what it meant. That he was ready to branch out, and wasn't that the best thing for him?

"What do you have there?" she asked as nonchalantly as possible while her stomach churned. Opening the refrigerator, she placed some sodas inside.

"Bella," he whispered. "Please look at me." When she turned, she was surprised to find his hand extended, waiting for her to take it. She carefully placed hers within it, smiling warily. He sighed softly and pulled her down onto the chair beside him. "I saw you going through some of these a while back."

She nodded; there was no use denying it. "I can't go that far away," she murmured. "I can't leave him. I need to stay close."

His eyes wandered over her face slowly as he raised his hand to brush some of her hair behind her ear, his fingers lingering on her scarred skin.

"I-I want to go where you go," he said softly, nervously. Her heart somersaulted in her chest, trying her best to keep her tears of relief from her eyes. "My grades are very good and I've even been offered a scholarship from a charity for fire victims." She nodded. "I saw your acceptance letter the other day." She bit her lip. "Is that where you want to go?"

"Yes," she replied. "Like it said, it's not too far. I can come home on the weekends to see my dad."

"I applied there, too." With those words, she couldn't keep the smile from her face or the tears at bay. Hoping he didn't see them, she wrapped her arms around him tightly, laying her head on his chest.

He huffed against her neck, laughing gently. "I haven't gotten accepted yet."

"I know you will," she whispered. "I feel it."

She felt his lips press against her hair as he murmured, "I do, too."

Bella heard her father clear his throat from the hallway, making it seem as if he hadn't overheard their conversation. But she had heard the click of the front door moments before he made his presence known.

It was time to talk to him, she hadn't even told her father about her acceptance letter. Bella pulled away to see him walk into the kitchen. "You're home early," she said, smiling. "I got groceries, but we have to work on assignment before I can start."

Charlie nodded. "Sounds good," he replied, his eyes on Edward, who remained silent throughout their exchange. "It's nice to see you again, Edward, and under better circumstances." She glared at her father, but his gaze bore into Edward.

"Yes, sir," Edward said a little louder than usual. His voice was usually only a notch above a whisper. "Thank you for the invitation to dinner."

"No problem," Charlie said. Bella was surprised when Edward raised his eyes to meet her father's. The determination there overpowered the fear in his gaze. She felt a little proud of him at that moment, but she watched as Charlie's eyes narrowed for some unknown reason. It wasn't like Edward was disrespecting him.

"Why don't you two go on ahead with your homework in here," he said to them both. "I'm going to watch the game I recorded last night."

Bella smiled and nodded. "Okay, Dad," she said, watching him closely. "Um, I'll send Edward out there in a bit."

Charlie nodded, his lips twitched at each corner until it turned into a smirk. "Good, good."

Bella thought, that doesn't sound good.

After her father left, she returned her attention to Edward. "I think it might be a good idea to take a walk while I make dinner?"

He shook his head. "I'll be fine."

She hoped so.

They went through the brochure for the college they hoped to both attend, discussing classes they could take together. Unable to resist, Bella brushed her lips over Edward's, humming when he took her face in his hands. She had hoped he'd welcome her touch more over time, but was surprised when he deepened the kiss.

Exaggerated footsteps echoed just outside the kitchen, alerting Bella of her father, forcing her to pull away from Edward with a sigh. They both blushed under his scrutiny and the pinched look in her father's eyes told her that he'd likely seen what had happened.

"Just grabbing a drink," he said gruffly, making his way to the refrigerator. Before stepping out of the room, he looked over his shoulder at them both. "I think your studying techniques need some improvement. Get that homework done."

Bella's eyes widened as Edward sputtered out a reply, "Ok-ay." Once Charlie was gone, they both turned to look at each other and burst out laughing. Smiling, Edward shook his head a few moments later. "Maybe we should get to work."

She nodded in agreement, and despite the chance of her father walking in, he took her hand beneath the table.


It had been over twenty-five minutes since Edward left the kitchen as she prepped dinner and Bella was regretting making fried chicken.

That's what you get for trying to impress your boyfriend, and making Dad's favorite.

It had been too quiet in the living room, not even the constant commentary of one of Charlie's basketball games could be heard. She checked on them a few minutes prior, surprised to find them both on the porch, watching the light drizzle of rain, talking. It wasn't until the weather had become worse that they settled back in the living room.

Bella returned her attention to the task at hand, picked up a piece of coated chicken from a plate. She heard Charlie laugh in the living room, looking toward the kitchen entrance, she could see Edward smile at whatever her father was saying.

It happened so fast after that. The piece of chicken fell from between her fingers from several inches above the pan. She screamed as the oil hit her hand, searing her skin. She turned away, but not fast enough to avoid more of the splash. She gasped, crying out again when she felt the splatter hit her neck and jaw.

"Bella!" she heard her father and Edward call out before their running footsteps.

"I'm fine," her voice trembled as she reached the sink.

She felt Edward's arms weave around her from behind, her hand trembling as he took carefully it in his. "Let me see," he murmured softly. "We need to run it under cold water." From the corner of her eye, she could see her father turn off the stove and remove the pan from the burner. Her lip trembled and she tried to keep from wincing as the water fell on her hand.

It hurt so much.

"Are you all right?" her dad asked as he walked to their side. Bella nodded as she touched her neck, Edward and her father noticing the burns there.

"Mr. Swan," Edward said, watching her carefully. "Can you please grab me a couple wash cloths? And if you have any burn cream?"

"I grab the towels, but I've been meaning to replace some of the items in the first aid kit," he said, walking toward the laundry room.

"We'll to go my uncle," Edward replied. "See if it needs to be wrapped."

"I'm fine, really," she tried to say smoothly, failing miserably when her voice cracked.

Edward shook his head, pulling her back into the flow of water. "You need burn cream," he said soothingly. His wet fingers lightly rubbed at the small burns on her neck and jaw, his eyes darkening. "We wouldn't want these to scar."

He was so gentle as Charlie offered to drive them to Edward's house. After he made sure Bella kept a cold, wet cloth on her hand, Edward went to call his uncle. Once he walked out of the house, Bella sobbed gently, her father turning his eyes to her.

"He ran in the kitchen that had an open flame," he whispered. "Didn't even hesitate, his only thought was of you." She nodded as a few tears fell, quickly wiped away before Edward could return. "Before we go out there," her dad gently, squeezing her uninjured hand. "No one would ever be good enough for my baby girl," she tried to say something, but he continued, "But that boy right there, is pretty damn close."

She laughed and nodded again, wrapping her arms around her dad's waist. "He really is," she whispered, knowing it was close to approval she'd get at the moment. "Thank you, Daddy."

Her dad awkwardly returned her hug and grabbed Edward's things before helping her into her jacket to go out to the truck. They found Edward beside it, just ending his call. He immediately went to her side, taking her hand and checking her injured one.

"My uncle has just gotten home," he said. "He's expecting us." She gave him a wary smile as he opened her passenger door. Her dad climbed behind the wheel, waiting for them both.

Looking at her father, she could see some of the doubt in his eyes. She turned to glance at Edward, who stood bravely at the door. She raised her hand, wincing when the towel rubbed against the raw skin. Instantly, Edward took her uninjured one, climbing inside and closing the door behind him.

"Let's go," he said as he took a deep breath. With his eyes still on her, his free hand rolled down his window.

"Are you sure?" she asked.

"Yes, I want to make sure you're okay." The truck started and Bella felt his hand clutch tightly on hers, causing her to cry out. "I'm sorry." He released her, but she took his back with her good one.

"It's okay," she murmured. "Breathe, Edward." The wind started to blow incessantly from the window, and he breathed a sigh of relief. He brought her injured hand closer to his eyes for inspection, kissing a fingertip.

Her father cleared his throat again, making them blush furiously. They arrived at Edward's house without further incident. Though Bella was very proud of the hurdles Edward succeeded in overcoming, even if it might have been temporary, she felt foolish as he rushed her inside the house.

Edward's uncle, Carlisle, met them in the foyer, leading them into the kitchen. "Looks, like you were very careful," he said, spreading a cream over Bella's hand between her thumb and forefinger.

"It was Edward that took care of me," she replied. Carlisle's eyes widened, turning toward Edward. "He came in after I screamed, ran it under the water and put the damp towel on it until we got here."

Carlisle smiled, checking the burns on her neck. "Edward, can you please go upstairs and grab some gauze from the bathroom." Edward nodded, quickly making his way up the staircase.

When he was out of earshot, Carlisle asked, "Was the burner on?"

Bella looked around the kitchen, her eyes staring at the smooth, glass top cook top. Edward's aunt and uncle had made so many accommodations for him in their lives. They loved him, so when she answered with a "yes," Carlisle kissed her forehead softly.

"Thank you," he whispered. "Since you've become a fixture in his life, some of his personality has returned. He actually laughed the other day."

Her father walked in, having disappeared when they came into the house. "He's a good guy," Bella's dad said, introducing himself to Carlisle again. She knew they had met briefly at the school the day Edward hit Tyler. "Is she going to be all right?"

"She'll be fine," Carlisle replied. "She'll have to take something for the pain and the area will be sore for a few days, but it's nothing serious."

"I just got a call, and I have to go into the station, baby," her dad said, looking back to his daughter.

"She could stay for dinner," Carlisle offered. "And I'll be happy to drive her home."

Her father waited for her response and said, "It's up to you." Bella nodded even though a part of her needed a few minutes to herself. "Not too late." After kissing her cheek, he walked with Carlisle to the door.

Alone, Bella pressed a hand to her chest, willing the tears and ache away. She heard Edward return with his uncle. In his arms, he carried several boxes of gauze, tapes and bandages, dropping them on the counter.

"I wasn't sure what to bring," he said breathlessly. "So I brought everything."

"It's fine, Edward," he said, picking a couple of the boxes. "Would you like to help?"

Edward nodded eagerly, taking her hand gently. "Does it hurt?" She bit her lip, shaking her head. His brow furrowed, clearly seeing something in her eyes. She dropped her gaze to her hand. "It'll feel better soon."

She only nodded in response. As Carlisle quietly instructed Edward, she continued to control her emotions. It had been a roller coaster ride for the past thirty-six hours. From their first kiss, discussing the reasons why she wouldn't attend prom the following weekend, their talk about attending college together and everything that Edward had done—for her.

But most of all, the ache that knifed through her heart at the thought of the pain Edward had to have endured after the fire. A deep shiver ran through her, making Edward worry more.

"She's in pain, Carlisle," he muttered. "I'll take her upstairs to grab a couple ibuprofen."

"That's fine," Carlisle replied. "Your aunt should be here soon. She's picking up some take out on the way from the hospital. Bella's staying for dinner."

Edward only nodded and helped her out of the kitchen. "I really am okay, Edward," Bella said quietly. "I'll just take some when I get home."

"I don't think so," he said, shaking his head. "You need to take some now. It's hurting you." She nodded, hoping he couldn't see tears well in her eyes. He led her to his room, gasping when she could see that the entire back wall was made of glass.

Edward walked into his bathroom, after telling her to have a seat. Bella couldn't turn her eyes away from the view. There was a large balcony through a set of double doors that had stairs leading down to the backyard. She had seen them before, the few times they walked around, but it was the first time she'd been in his room.

Unthinkingly, she sat on the first suitable place, watching the dark clouds roll across the sky, high above the trees. It was beautiful and heartbreaking; Edward's sanctuary made of glass.

She heard him enter the room again and his muttered curse, which was unusual for him. Looking up, his eyes were wide, as was his mouth, and in his hands was a glass of water and a couple of orange pills.

"Are you a virgin?" he blurted out, his eyes widening further and his cheeks blotching with color. He looked utterly horrified. "Oh, God! Ignore me." Shaking his head, he averted his gaze and handed her the water and pills. "I can't believe I asked that."

After taking the pills, she placed the glass on the nightstand and stood up. She realized then what had made him so nervous. She was on his bed. "It's okay, Edward," she said, taking his hand and walking toward an extra-large leather chair near the glass wall. "And yes, I am a virgin."

His face reddened further, still unable to look at her as he answered, "I am, too." His weight shifted from foot to foot, as if waiting for her to make the next move. Neither of them were ready for that, but she needed something from him at that moment.

Her body shook again, the familiar ache making its presence known again. "Will you hold me?" she asked. His eyes snapped up to her face, undoubtedly reading the emotions she felt. He nodded quickly, sitting down and pulling her onto his lap.

He carefully positioned her, so that her head rested on his chest and not on his neck or shoulder. She reminded herself that it was still a step forward; since it was the closest and tightest he had ever held her.

She was unable to keep the tears back any longer as her hand rested over his heart. His fingers swept down her back and up again, soothing her trembling body.

"What is it, Bella?" he asked hoarsely after a few minutes, when the tears had yet to subside.

"The pain," she said softly, glad that her face was hidden from him. He stiffened beneath her, but his hand kept going. "I'm not in pain anymore, not really."

"Then tell me, please," he whispered. "I don't understand why you're crying."

She looked up, the back of her head resting against his arm. "That pain I felt at first, it hurt, but what hurts now is knowing that you felt that a hundred times over."

He shook his head, whispering, "Don't think about that. And please, don't feel sorry for me."

"It's not because of pity," she murmured, wrapping her arms around him. Against his ear, she whispered, "It's because I love you."

His body stilled before he breathed deeply, enclosing her tightly in his arms. "Oh, Bella," he said softly, "I've loved you from the moment you took my hand for the first time."

She sobbed gently, pressing her lips against his ear, hearing his startled gasp. When his hands smoothed down her back again, she continued until her mouth found his, kissing and exploring as his lips parted for her.

Her head fell back, their breaths ragged. His lips trailed down her jaw, gently kissing the small burns. "I love you," he murmured continually. "I do, I do, I do."

Lifting her head, she pressed her forehead against his. A familiar gesture that made him smile. "Love you, too."

After a several more minutes, staring out the window and holding each other close, they headed downstairs when Esme called them for dinner.

In the dining room, they found Edward's aunt and uncle. It was clear that Carlisle had informed Esme of what had happened, her confused gaze lingered on the bandage on Bella's hand. She looked up at her nephew, giving him a watery smile that matched her eyes.

"Sit down," Esme said, gesturing toward the table. "When your uncle said Bella was staying for dinner, I grabbed a little of everything." Her flushed cheeks indicated she was slightly embarrassed. "If I had known, I wouldn't have taken that extra shift at the hospital."

"It was a bit last minute, my dear. Don't worry," Carlisle said, attempting to soothe her.

"This is great," Bella offered quickly, taking the chair that Edward pulled out for her. "I haven't had Chinese food in ages." Edward sat beside her, passing over a box of egg rolls.

A few minutes into their meal, Esme asked, "Are you all right, dear?" Her eyes on Bella. The surprise of hearing the endearment must have shown on her face, because Edward's hand took hers under the table.

Bella cleared her throat and replied, "I'm fine, really. Edward wrapped it up and gave me something for the pain. I can barely feel it now."

"Edward wrapped it?" Esme asked and Bella nodded in response, watching as the woman smiled down at her food. Conversation soon flowed, discussing upcoming finals and their study schedule for the following week. "Wait?" Esme said, looking confused. "How will we able to accommodate that? It's supposed to rain most of the week." She shrugged. "We'll have to juggle our schedule a bit. I'm sure we can work something out."

"Bella can give me a ride," Edward said to her. "Her dad drove us here and I handled it okay."

Bella rolled her eyes. "He handled it very well."

"You didn't tell me that, Carlisle," Esme muttered. "Well, I'm happy for you, Edward." He smiled. "There's something that came in the mail for you today."

Bella felt his fingers tightened around hers. They both knew what it could be. Esme slipped an envelope from her purse that lay nearby.

"We had no idea you applied," Carlisle said. "We're glad you did."

He plucked the letter from his aunt's hand, biting his lip nervously. "If I got in, I can't stay in the dorms. I'm not ready for that."

"We can look for an apartment near the campus, walking distance, of course," Carlisle said. "Maybe we could all go to Seattle, check out the school and pick up some apartment applications. Make a day trip out of it."

"That would be fun," Bella said. "Mind if my dad tags along? He'll want to check out the co-ed dorms. I don't think he likes that idea."

Edward looked at her, eyes wide and pursed lips. "Co-ed dorms?"

Esme giggled, hiding behind her hand. "Seems like your dad might not be the only one that objects to that."

Carlisle chuckled. "That's settled. We'll make plans to go soon." Bella smiled, telling them she'd talk to her dad.

"Co-ed," Edward echoed again, making his aunt and Bella laugh.


Four months later

"I still can't get over how easy was to convince your dad it was okay for us to move in together," Edward said, packing away a few of his books.

Bella giggled as she applied tape to a box labeled, Edward's library. "One trip to the dorms sure did do the trick," she said, grinning. "That and the freshly showered, half-naked guy coming out of the bathroom."

Edward groaned, shaking his head. "Admit it. That was your plan all along."

She gasped, looking thoroughly surprised, batting her lashes. "Why, Edward? Would I do such a thing?"

His eyebrow arched, clearly seeing right through her. "Yes, you would." Laughing, Bella fell back on his bed. It had been a long day of packing up all his belongings. They were heading to their new apartment the following day and still had a lot to do before then.

She heard the front door slam, which meant that Edward's aunt and uncle left for their shifts at the hospital. They were finally alone.

Propping herself on her elbows, she watched her boyfriend move from his shelves to the box he was filling. Six and a half months they'd been together, and she felt as if she'd known him her whole life. She couldn't imagine a future without him. Though their families thought they were young, they all knew that it was in their best interest to start new chapter of their lives together.

For the moment, Edward had signed up for all the same classes she had. It was still unknown as to whether he would be able to make it through a huge college class filled with people on his own. His anxiety had gotten better, panic attacks were few and far in between. He had made it through orientation the previous week, though he practically ran out of the room when they were dismissed.

Eventually, they hoped he'd be able to sit though classes on his own. It would take time, but in the end, she believed he could do anything.

"I like hearing you laugh," Edward said from across the room. She sighed; he always said the sweetest things out of the blue.

"Feels good to laugh," she said, shrugging when he turned to look at her. "You know, I hadn't done it in a long time. At least, not real laughing."

How long had she faked a smile or a giggle, just to let everyone think she was okay? Three long years.

Edward snorted. "You mean that kind you do when Carlisle tries to make a joke?" He smirked when she stuck out her tongue. "Come give me a hand, please."

She grabbed the packing tape on the way over to him. He turned to take it from her; however, he pulled her against him instead. She sighed, keeping her hands on his chest as their lips brushed.

They'd gone slow in their intimacy, touching mostly over clothes. Edward still hadn't allowed her to see him without a shirt or for her to touch to him beneath them; though she knew he was desperate to get over the hurdle. He was ready for more, to move on, but fear kept him from doing so.

"Mm," he hummed, "I missed doing that." He pressed a kiss at the corner of her mouth. "We're moving in together, and yet, someone is always finding a way to make sure we're not alone for very long."

Bella rolled her eyes. "Yeah, we go quiet for a more than five minutes and they suddenly need a hand with something."

"Or help putting laundry away," Edward murmured, kissing a warm trail down her neck.

"Let's not forget your uncle's false heart attack."

"You know Charlie put him up to that," Edward mused as he returned to her mouth. All thought and conversation left her when she felt his hands run up her back, beneath her shirt. They'd gotten that far; her shirt had even come off before. He was getting braver and everything he did left her breathless.

August in Forks was unseasonably warm that year. She only had a tank top on, the type with a bra built in, so when his hands met nothing but skin beneath, he groaned loudly. "Bella," he gasped, resting his forehead on her shoulder. "I want...I...can I take it off?"

"Yes," she moaned softly. Her hands ran up his arms quickly, pausing around the curve of his shoulders. He usually stopped her before she reached his neck. When he didn't tense as he usually did, her hands quickly swept up his neck and her fingers curled in his hair. He gasped at her touch, his palms stilling beneath her breasts.

In her mind, she whispered, "Oh, please." She felt him tense that time, her words unknowingly spoken out loud. His hands slid further down her back, curving around her hips. She waited for him to pull away, but was surprised when he started to walk her backward toward the bed. His darkened gaze remained on her face as he toyed with her shirt, still unsure.

His breath fanned across her mouth for a moment, before he pressed his lips to hers. "I love you," he murmured.

As the backs of her thighs hit the side of his bed, his hands gently pushed her to sit and she whispered, "I love you." Her back arched to meet his lips again, and after a few seconds, he pulled away from her kiss, only to come back for more.

Breathless and warm, she looked up at him as he stepped back. Confused, she took his scarred hand in her own, but Edward shook his head.

"You need to see, love," he said, pulling his hand away. "All of me."

She gasped when his fingers pulled up the hem of his long sleeved t-shirt, but managed to bite back another when her eyes locked on the scarred, textured skin on one side of his torso as inch by inch became exposed. In some places, it was shiny, red and smooth. Edges were bumpy, and seemed to look tougher than the areas surrounding it.

The worst of the damage was his entire arm that was scarred from his hand to shoulder. However, some of it swept up his side, starting a few inches from the top of his jeans, under his arm pit, where it branched like fingers that reached for his heart. The curve of his shoulder was free from scarring but along his collarbone there was more scarred flesh that climbed up his neck, ending inches from his jaw.

Long sleeves and pulled up collars finally made sense to her.

She was unsure how long she stared, but the nerves had crept back into Edward's eyes. A tentative smile stretched across her face, making him exhale sharply. She hooked a finger around a belt loop of his jeans and pulled him closer.

His eyes widened and his body shivered when she slowly placed her hands on either side of his hips. Slowly, taking her time to explore every inch, her hands ran up, along his sides. He groaned, his eyes closing, his chest rising and falling rapidly.

Bella wondered if it was from pleasure or fear. "Are you okay?" she asked softly. He only nodded, his head falling back as she started to rise at the same time as her hands. Her lips pressed against a scarred rib, his fingers cupped her head gently.

"I love you," he gasped. Instead of replying, she continued upward, pressing another kiss over his heart. In the softest of whispers, he chanted, "Thank you, thank you."

When she stood up completely, she slowly allowed her hands to run along his shoulders before placing another kiss on his neck, over his thudding pulse.

Edward groaned, his arms instantly wrapping around her completely, tightly, his mouth pressing against hers for a few brief kisses. Bella felt his tears on her shoulder, as hers started to fall. His body quaked as hers shook. She felt his fingers fist her shirt before he pulled away long enough to rid her of it. And when her skin touched his, smooth to scarred, he didn't pull away or cringe.

He sighed.

For several minutes, they held each other close, both exploring with their hands and lips. There was no rush; they knew where it would lead.

To a future together, where scars, both on the surface and those hidden, no longer held them back.