Disclaimer: All publicly recognizable characters, settings, etc. are the property of their respective owners. I am in no way associated with the owners, creators, or producers of any media franchise, I just use their creations to have my wicked way with them. No copyright infringement is intended.
Many thanks to Jadsmama and Ladysharkey1 for their amazing pre-reader- and beta-skills. Without the two of them, I would be nothing.
"Stories are the only enchantments possible, for when we begin to see our suffering as a story, we are saved."
"He's adorable, Leah." Bella's heart beat a little faster as she watched little Embry Clearwater toddle around the small grassy area at the back of the Lowe's yard.
"Yeah." Leah sighed, her hands wrapping around her coffee mug as her eyes followed her son. "Though a lot of that cuteness fades the first time your kid throws up all over the place!" She huffed, her nose scrunched up. "Or when you're trying to study and he's trying to make you play 'fetch' by throwing his pacifier out of his playpen and screaming bloody murder until you cave and go get the damned thing only to do it again as soon as you've parked your ass back behind your desk."
Bella chuckled. "Okay, I can see your point, I guess." Still, as much as she felt for Leah, the picture her friend had painted sounded kind of cute as well. Not that Bella had the guts to admit it out loud because, as friendly as the two of them had become, there were still times when the girl scared the living daylights out of her. "He looks like you," she remarked, changing the subject back to safer grounds. Smiling quietly, she couldn't help but wonder what her own baby would look like. Would it be a boy or a girl? Red-haired like its daddy or brown-haired like her? And what about their eyes?
"Thank God for that!" Leah sighed, interrupting her musings. "All I needed was for him to look like his dad and come out brandishing a gun in one hand and a stolen car radio in the other."
"Was it really that bad?" Bella shuddered. She'd been lucky enough to escape the worst of the gang violence during her days on the streets, but that didn't mean she hadn't seen her fair share of it over the years. It was one of the things she missed about being in Forks – one of the very, very few things. Back in the small town nestled in the woods, she had been so blissfully unaware of the big, bad world around her that it had been almost shocking to watch the news those first few times and be confronted with the darker side of human civilization yet again.
"I tried to keep out of it as much as I could." Leah shrugged, plucking at a loose thread on her hoodie. "But it's tough, you know? Growing up around all of that and having your mom, couple of stepdads, and all of your brothers knee deep in that kind of shit. It's like you can't hide from it, no matter what you do."
"But you got out of it, didn't you?" Bella encouraged her, feeling a strange sort of kinship to the brusque woman sitting next to her.
"Only because Jared practically yanked me out by my hair," Leah shrugged, calling her little boy back to them as the cold air slowly started to creep up on them. "As much as I wanted to get away, I didn't have the guts to actually open the door and walk out, and then when I got pregnant…" She exhaled, wrapping Embry up in her arms as they rose from the back porch steps. "I never wanted Embry to be a part of it but the prospect of having my baby under a bridge appealed even less."
"And Seth?" Bella asked. Somehow she couldn't imagine him wanting to bring a baby into the lifestyle he'd been living.
"He was still so wrapped up in his own little world back then." Leah's feet dragged as they walked back up the stairs to the bedroom she and Embry shared, the little boy pouting adorably as she deposited him back into his playpen before sitting on the bed next to Bella, a pile of discarded books between them. "Our mom kinda collects husbands and for number three she decided to think outside of the box and go for a blue-collar Native American who didn't have any idea of the shit he'd just landed himself in until after they were married." Another dark laugh escaped Leah's lips as she withdrew into herself further and further. "He got himself killed not long after Seth was born when he did something that royally pissed off my uncle."
"That's terrible, Lee!" Bella gasped, the jumbled memory of her own father losing his life pulling at her heart.
"It's what happens when you're caught up in that kind of lifestyle," Leah dismissed, portraying the toughness of a woman who had learned not to think too long and hard about the pain in her past. "And it's not like my mom was devastated or anything. She married husband number four – another bona fide Norteño Mexican this time – only six months after my dad got killed and then she popped out kids numbers seven and eight not long after. Like the world needed more deadbeat criminals!"
She huffed, shrugging deeper into her oversized hoodie as her eyes drifted back to her son, who'd settled in his playpen chewing on his toys. "Anyway, Seth idolized the shit out of the whole rotten gang of them and since he felt like he had to prove himself even more than others because he was only half Mexican, they had him running jobs as early as twelve years old. He didn't even see what they were doing to him - what he was doing to himself - until the first time they ordered him to rough a guy up."
Bella gasped, unable to imagine sweet, good-natured Seth doing such a thing. "Oh no!"
Leah chuckled. "Hard to imagine, huh? He was a different guy back then, though, all tough as nails and full of attitude. To this day I still think it's a blessing things went completely bad for him not so long after that and he got himself arrested for the third time, since they put him in this special program that time around, getting him as far away from his buddies as they could. Visiting him…it was the first time I saw him smile in ages and since I'd just found out I was pregnant around that same time…I knew we both had to get out of dodge while we still could; before they'd order him to kill someone or try to yank my baby into the fold."
"But Embry's father…" Bella frowned. Leah had always been very open about her kid's dad being a gang member, which was kind of strange since she seemed to hate the whole lifestyle so much.
"Turns out I'm about as smart as my mom when it comes to guys," Leah snorted self-deprecatingly, "and Jorge…he was some guy. Being around him was like being on drugs. You tended to forget everything around you, including the fact that he was a thug and I wasn't supposed to get caught up in Norteño shit."
"Does he know about the baby?" Bella asked since it seemed so unlikely that a father would just walk away form his own flesh and blood.
"He did," Leah smiled sadly, her voice faltering for the first time since she started to speak. "He took a bullet to the face when I was in my second trimester." She let out a long breath before she went on. "It's ironic, since I still miss him like hell but I know that if he'd have been alive right now, I would have never been able to walk away when I did. He wouldn't have let me even if there was no way we could have ever been together officially, since he was kind of already married." She shrugged apologetically. "As I was saying: I'm not that smart when it comes to guys."
"Fortunately for me, though, you're much better at math!" Bella chuckled, sensing that Leah was in desperate need for a change of subject.
"Yeah," Leah grinned, rolling her eyes at Bella's blatant attempt to lighten her spirits. "I suck at life but at least I kick ass at math!"
They settled back into their work again after that, with Leah doing her best to prepare Bella for their impending math and science tests as best as she could before switching up as Bella tried to get Leah to comprehend the intricacies of writing an essay.
After a while, Embry started to fuss a little, prompting Leah to lift him out of his play pen and lay him down on the bed next to her, the ease with which she kept her son entertained with one hand while writing down answers with the other making Bella forget what she was supposed to be doing – boring old math – and look on in awe. "You're a natural."
Leah snorted loudly. "Not really."
"Then how do you know what to do all the time?" It completely boggled Bella's mind, having seen Leah's interaction with her son all day, how her friend always seemed to know what Embry needed even if the little boy lacked the vocabulary to make it known.
"Most of it is just instinct," Leah explained, her voice making it seem like it was no big deal at all. "Even though they might sound the same to you, there are different ways a kid can scream, which basically boils down to being hungry, having a crappy diaper, being bored or in pain. So that kind of gives you an indication of what you're supposed to do to get him to stop. The rest of it is trial and error - if you do something and the kid stops screaming you remember it for next time, if he goes on you try something else."
"Right," Bella chuckled, fighting the urge to put her hand on her stomach – a nervous trait she'd picked up in the past week or so – as panic welled up inside her. What if her instinct didn't work? What if the baby kept on crying and she wouldn't know how to stop it? What if she did something wrong?
"You'll figure it out soon enough," Leah chuckled. "Look at me? I already had my appointment set up at an abortion clinic – paperwork filled out and everything – when I decided to keep this little monkey, and during my pregnancy half the time I was scared shitless and still not sure whether or not I'd done the right thing in going through with this." She giggled as Embry cooed, his high pitched voice mixing in with hers as she went on. "I'm not saying everything will magically work out as soon as they put the little crying, pooping bundle of joy into your arms but I am saying that it's not as bad or scary as you might think beforehand."
"H-how did you know?" Bella stammered, only now finding her voice again somewhere in the shock. She and Edward had decided to keep the pregnancy a secret for now, at least until they'd told his family; which wasn't something she was looking forward to, by the way. She could just imagine the look on Charlotte's face when she found out about their happy news.
Let alone the accusations that would fly from Ed's and Elizabeth's mouths.
"I don't know." Leah seemed quite pleased with herself for having guessed right. "I think it's a combination of things: the way you looked all freaked out that one day in class – you must have just found out around then – and have been drinking tea instead of coffee ever since kind of put me on the trail and I did notice you making a dash for the bathroom once or twice over the past couple of weeks. The thing that really sealed it for me, though, was the way you've been looking at Embry all morning." Embry let out the most adorable sound at the mention of his name, his hands grasping at his mom's chest as he wriggled as long as it took for him to be back in her arms. "You have that whole mom-to-be look about you: unable to wait until you have your own little monkey to take care of but scared to death at the same time."
"Sounds about right," Bella muttered.
"Don't worry, though, your secret's safe with me," Leah assured her, slowly nudging her son over to Bella's side of the bed so that her friend could get a first 'practice-round' at being a mom. "And you're welcome to babysit any time you want to get some experience in parenting, by the way."
"I'll keep that in mind!" Bella chuckled, her eyes and attention completely taken up by Embry as the little boy started to paw at her hair and yank it not so softly.
Later on as she drove home, going over the events of the day, she was surprised at the similarities between her life and Leah's. It was true that they had become friends over the weeks but deep down inside she'd still harbored some bitterness over their first meeting.
It was gone now, that much was for sure, as soon as Leah had started sharing the story of her past. She wondered…
Over the weeks Bella had debated telling her friends the truth about her past over and over again but each time decided against it as it was just too much. She was still trying so hard to fight her troubles and be strong. She couldn't bear the looks of pity she knew she was going to get when she told them the truth.
And yet, Leah had…
She envied Leah's guts most of all. She had the courage to tell her story and make herself vulnerable through it but also having the guts to walk away and drag her little brother along with her before he did something truly unforgivable. It couldn't have been an easy ride, that much had been as clear as day from Leah's story. As friendly as Jared's family had been, opening their home to them and helping them get settled, it had taken a while before they had been able to trust the two strangers that had come with their cousin. What also didn't help was the fact that Jared had still harbored feelings for Leah that she couldn't return, no matter how hard she'd tried over the years.
They were good now, though, with Leah helping out with the garage's paperwork and in the home, giving Jared's aunt a little more down time and Seth and Jared pitching in at the garage whenever they didn't have school work.
They had found a way to make shit work for them.
Bella smiled, feeling oddly optimistic as the roads and signs outside got more familiar as she neared the house. If they could make it work, then surely she would to find a way? She knew she was already halfway there, and was starting to adapt to her new life and even enjoying it as she'd dreamed she would. It was just that the other half was kind of tough to get around.
Which was why Bella needed help getting beyond her past, and was why she was scheduled for her first session with a Doctor Heidi Sorenson the following week.
Yeah. She still wasn't completely sure how she felt about that.
On the rational side, she knew she needed help to move past what had been done with her, and with a baby on the way, her need to move past all that and be a normal, balanced human being and parent had suddenly become acute. It was the irrational side of her, however, that was screaming out at her not to go; not to open up her soul – the only private place she'd had for so long – to a complete stranger and let her dig around in it.
There was no stopping it now, though, at least not if she didn't want to crush Edward and his happiness at her finally caving to his superior wisdom. That smile…it made it all worth it. If she could make him happy and know she would be taking all of the necessary steps to make sure her baby would have the happy childhood she had so sorely lacked, then it would all be worth it in the end.
She frowned, pulling up to the garage, as she noted a strange car sitting in front of the side Edward always used. The wheels of her Beetle crunched against the worn asphalt driveway as she made a sharp angle, turning into her usual spot before shutting down the engine, her frown still there as she watched the unknown sedan disappearing as the garage door rumbled down again.
Maybe one of the neighbors had guests?
As soon as she walked into the house, though, the multitude of voices told her it wasn't the neighbors that were visiting, a small frown creasing her forehead as she recognized one of the voices talking animatedly with Edward.
Bella's frown deepened as she tried to remember if there had been some sort of get-together she'd forgotten about. These days, if she didn't write stuff down as soon as they were decided, she was just as likely to forget it as she was to somehow remember.
Over the weeks, she and Tanya had spoken over the phone a few times and Bella knew she and Edward had met up for lunch on a few occasions. Therefore she knew Tanya was a good person and a great and very valuable friend to Edward, no matter what lay behind them. As much as she'd been wary of Tanya's presence in the beginning, she knew that she had nothing to fear from her.
It was still weird, though, Edward being so friendly with his ex and she even beginning to like the woman. With as little as Bella knew about relationships, she knew this wasn't the way people usually went about it and even though she actually thought of Tanya as a friend and knew any romantic feelings between the two had long ceased to exist, she still felt kind of threatened by the beautiful, educated woman she heard giggling over the sound of two men speaking.
"Bella!" Tanya's eyes lit up, her nimble frame hopping up from her spot at the dinner table as soon as Bella shuffled into view. "We were waiting for you!"
Right. Bella's frown deepened as she submitted to Tanya's hug. "What are you doing here?" She could hear Edward chuckled at her bluntness somewhere in the background, her eyes still on Tanya as she waited for an answer. "Did we set something up that I forgot about?"
"I ran into Edward at the hospital this afternoon and kind of strong-armed him into double-dating with me and Craig tonight," Tanya explained. "I hope you didn't make other plans?"
Nothing but a quiet night at home after a full day of mind-numbing math problems. Bella smirked, not really feeling like going out but lacking the guts to say so as she flashed Edward a stealthy glare. "Just let me go upstairs and change real quick," she acquiesced with a sigh, forcing her face into a smile.
"Nothing too fancy," Tanya urged, "and oh, you haven't met my husband Craig yet, have you?"
The man who rose to shake Bella's hand looked like a picture out of some gentleman's magazine, handsome and suave with his hair neatly combed back and his crisp suit and tie – though maybe a little too slick and suave for Bella's taste. "It's a pleasure to meet you," she spoke, shaking Tanya's husband's hand.
"Same here." Craig looked a little less slick when he smiled, his face opening up as he released Bella's hand again. "You've reached almost celebrity status in our house. Tanya's been talking about you almost non-stop since she met you."
Weird. "Right. Well, I'll be back as soon as I can. Does anyone need anything from the kitchen?"
She went upstairs after they'd all reassured her they were fine, keeping her promise and being back downstairs in little over fifteen minutes after a change of clothes, a splash of cold water to her face and a quick touch up of her hair and make-up.
Truth be told, their night was fun. Tanya took them to this odd little place that served Nigerian food – another first for Bella – that was as quant and cozy as the Lebanese restaurant she'd taken Bella to for lunch weeks ago. Conversation flowed easily, with Edward and Tanya sharing stories about their internship and some of the strange patients or maladies they'd consulted on, though they carefully avoided any mention of their former intimacy. Craig was a great guy, too, once you got to know him. He worked for this big accountancy firm – hence the outfit – and made a killing in cash each year but underneath all that, he was just a country boy at heart; his stories about growing up on his family's farm in Vermont making Bella laugh and want to hop on the next plane to rural America.
Still, there was something Bella couldn't put her finger on, some undercurrent of tension keeping their conversation from ever really being laidback.
She wondered what it was.
Back in the car on their way back home, she could see Edward tensing up as she voiced her suspicions, immediately confirming that whatever the tension was, Edward knew all about it.
"It's nothing," he tried to dismiss, his hands clenching around the wheel.
"Oh really?" Bella huffed. "Then why are you turning all constipated-looking on me right now?" Wow, spend one day with Leah and her abrasiveness will rub off! Bella blushed, immediately regretting her harsh words. "At least…Look, I know something's going on so you might as well tell me before my mind goes off and starts imagining all sort of things."
Edward sighed, his frustration manifesting itself in driving even faster than he usually did. "Okay."
"Okay," Bella repeated, waiting for him to start explaining.
"So you know Tanya came to see me at work today, right?" He waited for her to nod her affirmation before he went on. "She did have some business at St. Mary's but the real reason she came in was the anniversary of Claire's…accident coming up next month." Edward's knuckles turned white from gripping the wheel, his voice frail and hurting as he mentioned her name.
It broke her heart to hear how Edward's voice was preciously close to breaking as he forced the words out, her hand searching out for his as she waited patiently for him to continue. "Anyway, she was trying to get me to come to the memorial – just like she does every year." From the tone of his voice, Bella knew better than to argue with Edward's decision, even though she wondered if his avoidance of everything that had to do with Claire wasn't hurting him more than embracing it would. "Once I'd finally convinced her I wasn't going to go – again, just like every year – we got to talking and somehow the subject of babies came up."
"You told her?" It seemed strange to Bella how Tanya had never mentioned it throughout the night.
"I kind of planned to," Edward answered, the sadness in his voice telling her there was a 'but' coming up, "but then Tanya started talking…telling me how she and Craig have been trying to start a family but having no success so far and how Tanya's eating herself up with guilt because somehow she thinks it is all her fault; like she's being punished for moving on after Claire." If Bella's heart wasn't already breaking, Edward's sigh would have done the trick. "She's having a set-back at the moment which was why I went along with her suggestion to go out. She needed the distraction."
"Of course." Knowing this now, Bella was almost ashamed of her initial reluctance but most of all she felt so guilty. To know that Tanya was struggling so much and going through so much pain being unable to conceive when she didn't even want her baby at first. She wanted to help but she didn't know how.
Their evening went great, even though Bella could see the truth of Edward's words about Tanya reflected in the sad undertone of every look and gesture she caught from the other woman. That made her double her efforts to keep their conversation light and happy throughout dinner, something Edward and Craig both seemed to jump at, as they shared stories of their pasts and fun anecdotes about their work.
Craig, though a little stiff at first, turned out to be a great guy once he had a couple of beers in him, his stiff demeanor hiding a guy who was into extreme sports and could tell stories about water rafting that made Bella fear for her life even in the safety of the quirky little restaurant Tanya had selected for them.
"So how was your day?" Edward asked as they made their way back home. "Did you make progress?"
Bella nodded. "I'm finally starting to think that maybe this test isn't going to be the disaster I feared." She made a lot of leeway on some difficult areas in math she just didn't seem to be able to come to grips with. Of course that didn't mean she was in any way close to solving the whole mystery, but at least she was starting to feel she was getting closer.
"Who knows?" Edward joked. "You may even get good at it."
"I don't think so!" Bella giggled. "Just like I'm never going to like it. I just hope I'll be good enough in the end to pass that portion of the test, though I know I still have a hell of a long way to go." It was difficult, trying to cram years of schooling into months, especially when you didn't possess the aptitude to pick up new skills as fast as some of the other people in class did.
Right now, even though she'd already come a long way since she'd started, she knew she wasn't anywhere near ready to face any of the sections in her study books that where up to the level required for the final GED exam.
"And what about you?" Bella asked, not wanting to discuss math any more than she had to. "Were your bosses suitably impressed by you coming in on the weekend to catch up on things?"
"I might have scored some brownie points, yeah," Edward chuckled, "but in my line of work it's kind of expected of you to come in and check on your patient when they're this close to such a big procedure."
Bella nodded, knowing that Edward was scheduled to perform some big surgery on Monday which was going to take up his day and which had had most of his colleagues turning green with envy at the prospects of studies and articles that came along with it. She didn't understand much of what it was about but seeing the excitement in Edward as he tried to explain all about it was enough to make her excited for him.
Edward was a ball of nervous energy the next morning, rising bright and early and trying to be all stealthy about it (which, of course, meant that he made enough noise to wake up the entire street). She smiled, pretending to still be asleep since she knew he wouldn't be up to talking at that moment; his mind already focused on his job and needing no distractions.
She somehow managed to fall asleep after Edward had left, her body starting to get used to the different rhythm and needing more sleep now that it was growing a new life inside it.
It was why she loved Mondays and Fridays so much, since with no school and work she was allowed to indulge in a much slower pace, seeing as the only things she had to do all day were cleaning, grocery shopping and doing some homework; all of which were things that didn't really cause many problems.
Her dreams of an easy, stress less day only lasted as far as noon, though, when a knock on the door disturbed her halfway through cleaning out the kitchen cabinets, her hands still clad in yellow rubber gloves as she opened it to reveal the last person she would ever expect to be making a social call at her house.
"Alec…I mean…Mr. Harrison," she stammered, her hand clenching around the doorknob as she resisted the urge to slam the door shut in his face.
"Alec's fine," he chuckled, seeming to quite enjoy the shock his unexpected visit had caused. "I'm sure you're quite surprised to be seeing me here?"
Bella nodded, her throat closed up with nerves. What should she do? Call Edward? Peter? The cops?
If only she knew.
"May I come in?" he asked, completely undeterred by the reluctance in the woman standing across from him as he smiled, making Bella shudder with distrust.
Everything in her was screaming at her to tell him no but on the other hand, there was that damn curiosity of hers that was wondering what the hell he wanted so, after what seemed like hours, she stepped aside, giving him a wide berth as he walked into her home and sat on her couch, declining drinks but keeping a safe distance from her at all times.
Well, that's something at least.
"You're probably wondering why I'm here, are you not?" He smiled, still seeming quite pleased with himself, as he watched Bella fidget on the seat furthest away from him.
"I assume this is not a social call?" Bella, once again hiding behind that strength that seemed to come out whenever she needed it most, answered.
"Correct," Alec nodded. "With my father's final work coming out in only weeks and already proving to be a huge hit in pre-sales and publicity, we – the publishing house I work for – are looking to maximize the impact of his story."
He let that thought linger, though Bella wasn't sure why since she had no idea what the hell he was talking about. "You want me to do interviews or something?"
"I know you're not particularly fond of the idea of being in the public eye and coming out as the true writer of Aro Volturi's final novel, but it's what living in this world is about and what being a part of the publishing universe entails," Alec spoke, his tone almost teacher-like, as if it was a pre-prepared speech he was rattling off.
"But I never wanted to be part of that world," Bella answered, shaking her head vehemently. "I was never supposed to be part of it."
"You became part of it when you signed that contract and allowed us to put your name on the cover," Alec reminded her, finally revealing the trap she'd walked headlong into. She knew it. She knew there was something about him that screamed dishonesty. "You're part of this world now, Isabella, whether you want to or not but…" He paused, undoubtedly wanting the effect of his words to be as big as possible. "Personally I'm not convinced that having you do publicity will be the best way to utilize your talents and, fortunately for both of us, my boss seems to agree with me."
Again, Bella was lost in translation with her panic flaring as she scrambled to put two and two together. "What are you saying?"
"Through Cracked Concrete we have all learned about Daisy's life on the streets of Los Angeles," Alec mused, reminding her once again how Daisy – the protagonist of Aro's final novel – was really her. "I am sure that after reading all about her trials and fairytale ending-" Bella had to chuckle there, knowing how dissimilar the ending – Daisy falling in love with a rich and charming restaurateur who used to leave out food especially for her and escaped the streets by marrying him – was to her own escape from the streets. "They will want to read about what got her there and seeing as Daisy is you…"
Bella swallowed as Alec's voice trailed off, the prickles of nervous sweat tingling all over her body as Alec finally revealed his endgame. "You want me to write a book for you," she gasped.
"I know how big a share you had in my father's final novel so I have no doubt in my mind that you have it in you to write, especially since this book will stick relatively close to home for you. Besides, you will be well supported by our editing staff and I can assure you that the advance you will get for this novel will well-exceed what we are normally willing to pay for a first-time novelist," Alec pressed on, truly believing his words had any sway with her.
"I know you will probably need some time to think this over and discuss it with your partner and legal representation," Alec continued, really working hard to bring this on home, "which is why I'm leaving this folder with all the details as well as my personal contact information with you…" He put a folder on the table, reminding Bella of the previous time Alec had left her like that. "If you have any questions or anything else, don't hesitate to call."
Bella nodded, her mouth set hard as her mind mulled things over; the pros and cons screaming her into a killer migraine.
Alec, meanwhile, sat back, looking like the king of the castle as his beady little eyes peered at her from the sofa. "So what do you think, Isabella? Will you think about it? Will you give the people the story of Daisy's past?"