. . . . .
As I prepared the final notes for my history presentation, I thought about the strange course of events that this assignment had kicked off. First, I found Edward's photo and was inexplicably drawn to it. Then, he showed up at Forks High. Now, he was my boyfriend and protector. In just a few short weeks, my entire world had been turned upside down—and I was quite happy with the shift, despite the unspoken anxieties Edward's reality had brought into my heart and mind.
I wondered if the trajectory of our relationship would have been the same if I hadn't already fallen hard for him—albeit, a two-dimensional version of him—before we'd even met. Sure, Edward was so gorgeous that he would have caught my attention even if I'd never found that photo. But perhaps I wouldn't have had the reaction to him that I did when I first saw him in the flesh; and without that, perhaps he wouldn't have noticed me at all.
I chuckled to myself as I remembered my fumbling and panicking during our early run-ins and conversations: all of the bumbling words, wide-eyed staring, accidental chair-overturning, running away and irrational confrontations that recognizing him led to. I recalled the shock of seeing him in front of me in the woods and falling backward over the log, only to have him lend me a hand to right myself.
Poor Edward, he must have thought I was some kind of special. I hoped that he'd truly been able to look past all of my awkwardness as well as it seemed he had. I wondered if he was equally grateful that I'd found it so easy to look past his differences. I knew my clumsy adoration and his undeadedness weren't exactly the same thing, but somehow I'd only been able to see his condition as another facet of him. Frankly, I still wasn't sure if I was still in shock, or was just good with weird.
I opened up the black folder I'd stashed under my bed and flipped back to the printed photos. I hadn't looked at them in a while, but the scene was as familiar as ever. Stunning, Victorian Edward reclined in an all-white bed while Dr. Cullen kept watch. My present-day Edward's face seemed paler and slightly more angular than the face I'd come to love so dearly in the photo, but it was clearly the same face. I grinned at the photo—even though it represented death and sadness, knowing the fate of the boy I'd grown to love thrilled me.
I still had hundreds of questions for him, and there was a looming sense of something I couldn't quite ignore, but I knew I'd never been happier. There would be time for questions and explanations; time for us to hash out the details and figure out what our differences meant for our present and our future. But I was falling in love for the first time. And for the moment, I intended to soak up every second of our blossoming relationship. I'd worry about tomorrow, tomorrow.
Just then, I heard Edward's car pull up into the driveway. I put aside the mementos of Edward's storied past, gathered my belongings and raced down the stairs to meet my real-life Edward.
. . . . .
"You ready?" He grinned at me with his crooked smile, and my heart melted for the thousandth time. This boy certainly had a powerful effect on me.
"Yeah, I think so. I'll be glad to get this over with; it's been hanging over my head for so long." I shook my notebook at him. "But I do have to say that this has been my favorite assignment ever."
Edward chortled slightly and bumped me with his elbow. I blushed a little, grateful to whatever it was that had brought us together—even if it was simply fate and the few black and white photograph printouts stashed under my bed.
Mr. Randall settled the class and took attendance, then he turned over the time to our presentation. Edward started by reading the story I'd come up with to accompany the photos of him and Dr. Cullen back in 1918—the photos that we'd decided not to show through unspoken agreement. Neither of us had brought them up again I didn't want to share them with the class. I wanted to keep them all to myself, and I was pretty sure Edward felt even more strongly about not sharing them than I did.
Instead, I'd deleted the digital copies from my computer and used the rest of the slide show of photos I'd compiled: a sobering reel of emptying streets, morgue wagons, gravestones and other ill patients. The class seemed absorbed by the story Edward was spinning with the help of his hypnotic voice and the powerful images. I followed up his reading with a short PowerPoint of statistics, explaining how the logistics of war and traveling soldiers had helped spread the disease, and how various countries tried to combat the illness and handle the number of sick and dying.
I was nearly to the question and answer time when Jessica almost derailed the entire thing.
I tried to pretend that I didn't see her eagerly waving hand, but Jessica Stanley would not be ignored. I already knew she was irritated with me for not dishing out details of my burgeoning relationship with Edward, and I was a little worried that she was going to take out her frustration on me in front of the entire class.
I knew her too well.
Without being called on, she announced: "Bella, these old, gross pictures are great and all, but aren't you going to show the photos you took?"
I did my best to remain calm, and simply smiled and lightly shook my head at her while I plunged on with the rest of my material. I told myself that Edward knew about the pictures now, so it wasn't a big deal. Besides, even if anyone else did see the photos, it would take them digging through online photo galleries of the Spanish Flu to discover that my photos were originals from 1918, not modern-day recreations. So we were safe—right?
Ever true to form, Jessica wouldn't let it go. "But they were really cool. I mean, they illustrate your story perfectly. It's like you wrote the story to go with them." She started to whine now, and I felt my heart beat speed up. "You went to all the trouble to take them—it seems dumb not to show them."
I didn't have an answer for her, and I was worried that any of the excuses I came up with would be transparent and make me sound guilty. I tried to move on with my statistics, but I couldn't focus.
When she objected again, Edward sensed my anxiety and stepped forward from his post at the blackboard. "Actually, Jessica, we realized that the photos weren't historically accurate, and I decided I didn't want my new classmates to see me looking so pale and sickly. I'm a little vain about things like that."
"But you weren't gross or anything, you still looked way hot..." Jessica started to argue with him in the most in appropriate and Jessica of ways, but he cut her off.
"Actually, I can't believe I let someone as gorgeous and amazing as Bella see me like that at all, let alone photograph me." I resisted the urge to snap my head in Edward's direction, and looked at my shes instead, my face growing redder by the moment. "It's a wonder she let me take her out after seeing me at my worst before she'd even met the real me."
The class started to ooh and aah, a couple of the girls squealed, Mike looked chagrined, and Angela slapped her hand over her mouth to hide the surprised smile her eyes couldn't contain. Edward grinned at Jessica, and the brilliance of his smile and his gutsy admission seemed to take the breath right out of her. Apparently he had her figured out already. I heaved a great sigh of relief that it seemed to be over, pretending Edward's comment and my classmates' reaction wasn't killing me with embarrassment.
I unilaterally decided to skip question and answer time, and flipped to the final PowerPoint slide: The End.
I could only hope it was the end of all of the drama and the start of a new beginning. Somehow, I knew that a clumsy girl like me could never be so lucky as to glide smoothly into the future.
The bell rang, startling me, and I closed my laptop. The rest of the class straggled out of the classroom, with Angela pausing a moment to give me a congratulatory hug and conspiratorial wink. I grinned at her, my cheeks flaming with recognition that everyone now knew without a doubt that Edward and I were a thing.
Jessica sauntered past me and clung onto Edward's arm, gushing over his "aaahhh-mazing" storytelling abilities. Edward simply smiled at me and thanked her, brushing off her praise and graciously giving me the credit as the author of the sad tale. Jess rolled her eyes at me and huffed out of the room, obviously still upset at the perceived slight of me not calling her and giving her all the details the very moment Edward and I first locked eyes.
He flashed that slightly crooked grin at me, and my knees felt like jello. He took two steps toward me before being sideswiped by Mr. Randall.
"Good job, kids! I knew putting you two together was a stroke of genius!" He laughed and snorted a little. I looked at Edward, pretending that I hadn't noticed that Mr. Randall was acting like a total goober. "That was the best presentation we've had all year—definitely worth the wait. Edward, it seems that you are the perfect partner for Bella here."
Edward smiled back at Mr. Randall, accepting his outstretched hand and not even blinking when the teacher too-vigorously pumped his hand in congratulations. "Thanks so much, Mr. Randall, I agree."
"That's a guaranteed A for both of you. Very, very good job!"
Mr. Randall wandered away, muttering under his breath about how he might pencil in more pairs presentations, and Edward and I locked eyes. I couldn't help letting loose a giggle, and he joined me with a chuckle.
"He certainly is passionate about student presentations, huh?" I giggled harder at Edward's mocking, and he wrapped his arm around my shoulders. "He wasn't wrong about us making a good pair, though. I think we were pretty great."
"Thanks for deflecting Jessica's questions, but you really didn't need to tell everyone that we were dating." I blushed furiously and ducked my head to hide my smile. As embarrassed as I was, I was also totally flattered that he'd be so bold as to make an announcement to our entire class.
"Well, I can't claim it was for wholly unselfish reasons—I knew it would shut her up. But I also wanted everyone to know that you are mine. Mike seemed pretty sad, though, so I was worried that maybe you'd see his disappointment and change your mind."
I jerked my head to the side to look at him, my mouth agape. But his cocky grin assured me that he was joking. I shoved him playfully, and he rewarded me with a soft kiss to my forehead. My cheeks burned and I relished the feeling. Despite the lingering questions, life had never been better.
. . . . .
I pretended I didn't see the sour look on Jessica's face as I passed up my usual lunch table to sit with the Cullens. Dear Angela waved at me and winked as I walked by, and Mike just glared. I could tell that my new relationship with Edward was going to change things a little more than I'd expected with my group of friends.
I guess I wasn't too surprised, though. Mike had always had a crush on me, and he wasn't afraid to let it show—on the days that he and Jess were off-again, at least. And Jessica, while being a good surface-friend, had always been extremely competitive with me, so her whispering and eye rolling in my direction with Lauren wasn't unexpected, either. I was glad that I could trust Angela to always have my back; even though our shy natures meant that we didn't always have a lot to say to each other, she was the loyal one I knew would be my friend forever.
I didn't want them to hate me for sitting at a different lunch table, and I didn't want them to think I didn't value their friendships or didn't want to be friends anymore. I wasn't cutting them out, I was just moving on to new things. Edward, in particular.
Alice was waving like a madwoman, her hand practically blurring as she flagged me down to sit next to her.
Edward shook his head and smiled at me. "I told you Alice was dying to hang out with you."
He slid my lunch tray in front of the empty seat next to Alice, and pulled the chair out for me. Jasper welcomed me with his usual tight-lipped smile before looking away; he didn't seem unfriendly, just shy. But Rosalie watched the display without even attempting to hide the annoyed look on her flawless face. I briefly wondered how beautiful she'd be if she smiled once in a while. Emmett looked pleased to see me, though, so I hoped he'd influence her to like me more over time.
Edward slipped his arm around the back of my chair, and Alice clapped with glee at the simple gesture, bringing a fresh blush to my face. Rosalie huffed at the display, and Emmett snorted at her.
"Aww, let it go, babe. I think they're cute." He wrapped his thick arm around her neck and pulled her toward him for a kiss, but she resisted with a sharp slap to Emmett's chest. He didn't look hurt, instead he struggled again to kiss her cheek. "Don't be such a brat, Rose. Be happy for Edward."
"Jasper, stop it." Rosalie's eyes rolled as she turned away from Emmett to face Jasper, as if he were the one who had addressed her. "It's not going to happen no matter how hard you try, and you know why."
I glanced in their direction, wondering what exchange between them I'd missed. Jasper just shrugged off Rosalie's harsh tone, though, and Alice started jabbering about how we just had to get together for a makeover-themed girls' night.
Edward found it increasingly humorous as I tried to fight off Alice's advances with every excuse I could think of. Finally, he stepped in to rescue me.
"Alice, I think Bella is perfect the way she is." I swooned on the inside and blushed on the outside. Edward's arm tightening around my shoulder didn't help the redness factor.
"Sure, she's pretty. But think how stunning she'd be with some soft layering around her face or a little brown eyeliner. Oooh! Purple! I have the most gorgeous shade of jeweled dark lavender eyeliner that will just make your eyes pop..." Alice may have been in danger of bantering on forever if Edward hadn't cut her off.
"I think they're popping already, Alice." he smirked at his sister, who shrugged coyly at my wide-eyed expression.
"Oh, she'll get used to me. Sooner rather than later, once she lets me get near her with a makeup brush. I bet she'll even like it." Alice laughed a tinkling, shrill giggle and patted me on the arm with her unnaturally cool hand.
It suddenly dawned on me that I was the only human at the table, a thought that momentarily stunned me and brought my hidden doubts and questions crashing into the front of my thoughts.
For the first time since we'd met in person, it occurred to me that Edward and his family were unchanging. They were going to stay as young and beautiful forever as they were right now. While all of my classmates and I were aging every day, slowing down, getting wrinkles and adding up sun damage on the few sunny days Forks had. While our minor daily injuries and the inevitable wear and tear on our bodies were accumulating and would eventually show up, the Cullens were unchangeable.
Edward would look like his 1918-self in six months, six years, six decades, six centuries, six millennia. I would get older, older, older and dead.
I stared blankly across the table at the flawless Rosalie without registering the rudeness until she slid her chair back from the table with a start and rose to her feet.
"Ok, so I'm going now. She's even creepier than you, Jasper. Congratulations, Edward." With a roll of her eyes and a flip of her perfect hair, she stalked out the cafeteria doors. Emmett waved goodbye with his trademark dopey grin and followed her out.
Edward shook his head and started to make an excuse for her, apparently mistaking my silence for being hurt by Rosalie's outburst, but Alice cut him off.
"She's a jerk, Bella. She just isn't very comfortable with you being so—close to our family."
"I'm pretty harmless, I promise," I commented, trying to make my voice sound more alive than I suddenly felt. Alice shrugged.
"Yes and no. You are harmless to us, at least physically. But what you know could be dangerous."
"Alice." Edward's tone was deadly serious.
"I know, Edward. I love Bella like a sister already, and I trust her and her intentions. I know she won't do anything to hurt us. But I understand why Rose is uneasy." Alice patted my arm again, but I took little comfort in it. The cold of her hand re-reminded me of my uneasy thoughts, and I sunk deeper into the crushing understanding of what the Cullens really were. And what I was—inferior in every way.
Edward and Alice exchanged less-than-friendly looks, and Alice and Jasper stood as one.
"We're going to head to class a little early, Bella. We'll see you later. Makeovers!" Alice squealed a little at the end of her statement, trying to lighten the mood, before Jasper finally dragged her off in the direction of their fifth period class.
I was definitely not feeling so great. I knew Alice held no negative feelings toward me, but Rosalie's cold reception and Alice's words were combining with my abrupt understanding of the uniqueness of Edward's and my situation, making me abruptly uneasy about the relationship I was so eager to build.
Edward seemed to sense my disquiet, and he placed his hand on the small of my back. I felt the tension melt away at his touch. He seemed to know I needed a little pick-me-up.
"Do you want to go for a drive? Maybe ditch classes this afternoon?" He quirked up one eyebrow and smiled his half-crooked grin. I still wasn't sure how I was feeling about the whole relationship conundrum, but the rest of my day was suddenly looking a whole lot better.
. . . . .
A/N: Thanks for all of the love, reviews and PMs! I'm so glad you guys are enjoying this story. I'd wanted to personally message each of you and thank you for your kind words, but I figured updating sooner was the best thanks I could give. :)