Bubble of Steel
by Anton M.
"There comes a time when you look into the mirror and you realize that what you see is all that you will ever be. And then you accept it. Or you kill yourself. Or you stop looking in mirrors." — Tennessee Williams
Unaware, the young red-haired man closed Khaled Hosseini's The Kite Runner, removed his Fossil watch from his right hand, and held the crystal forty five degrees toward the sun. The emerald background reflected from the rough but enamelled steel of the bench, and Edward slid his hand back and forth, letting the reflection trail his lifeline. Colours fascinated him, but nothing beat the joy of a reflection; playing with a lazer in the dark kitchen, smiling at the disfigured image on a spoon or watching ridiculously belated Christmas lights reflect from the water puddle.
"Guy in pink?"
Edward smiled faintly, his eyes lowered as he re-wrapped the watch around his wrist. He closed his eyes, enjoying the warmth on his black jeans and a neat button-down in a colour he used to avoid. It was pink, and not just any pink, not a vague light colour that often went unnoticed. His shirt was the brightest neon pink, the one that Leonor Fini used for a perfume Shocking in 1937. 'Bright' was an understatement.
Growing impatient, the girl huffed, "Are you deaf or something?"
It was an experiment he engrossed in after he saw — lip-read, really — a few guys discuss the subject of Edward's always tidy, matching clothes. Apparently, his style suggested that he was gay, and since he barely ever spoke to any of his fellow students in a lecture about Antique History, he decided an encouragement for such an achievement was in order. Appearances mattered, and he couldn't care less if they thought he was downright retarded. Prejudices encouraged unwarranted conclusions only if you chose to be upset, and Edward didn't. He chose not to care. He didn't mind if they thought he was gay.
Who cared, anyway?
"I always thought you were kind of cool," continued the girl, snapping a finger in front of Edward's lowered eyes. Her voice wavered. "But if you don't want me here, the least you could do is say it to my face."
Edward immediately snapped out of the stupor, locked eyes with the girl, and blinked slowly. He was horrified. He hadn't had the chance to lip-read her words, but he could see from the flush on her neck and a wrinkled eyebrow that he had angered her, even if he didn't know why. Edward had never been deliberately rude to anyone, but unfortunately, it became easy by accident. He had taught himself to always be semi-aware of the world around him, but his introvert nature prevented his intentions from becoming true.
He could blame the migraine that had reared its head after yesterday's track-and-field practice, but it was no excuse to ignore a girl.
"I'm so sorry," apologised Edward, not taking his eyes off her lips. "Truly. I didn't notice you."
"I could see that." The brunette rolled her eyes. "You must have been in a bubble of steel to ignore an irritating voice like mine."
"A bubble of steel," he repeated, still staring at her mouth. "That's one way to put it."
The girl who now had Edward's full attention (and more), shifted from one leg to the other and mentally berated herself for interrupting the childish amazement she had witnessed in his quirky exploration of sunbeams. It was obvious he had wanted to ignore her, and she felt a lump in her throat at the thought of being brushed off by the guy she hadn't had the guts to walk up to until she finally caught him sitting alone on a bench, an hour before their exam. What did she have to say to him?
Nothing. Absolutely nothing.
"I'm… I'm sorry I bothered you," back-tracked Bella, understanding that the undivided attention she received was completely useless. "I just… never mind. Sorry."
Edward knew he had many flaws, but deliberate rudeness was not one of them. "No, no, I don't mind. I'm sorry I didn't notice you. Feel free to sit." He stared back at the girl who looked almost as uncomfortable as he felt. "I mean, if you want to."
He didn't actually want to be forced into polite conversation with a headache. His migraines often caused tinnitus, and he hated tinnitus with a passion equal to space huggers.
He could not stand space huggers.
The girl uncrumpled her pleaded skirt and hesitated before sitting down. She set her shoulder bag on her lap and faced Edward, who awkwardly rubbed his watch, feeling embarrassed that she probably oversaw his childishness. He momentarily let his eyes linger on her frame, long enough to know who'd sat beside him but short enough not to draw attention. The girl wore a grey skirt and a coat with a colour just as bleak; she had dark hair tucked in her coat, wide brown eyes, and a curvaceous frame. One of her shoes was brown with a fluffy edge, the other one reached her knee. It was bright red.
"Nice shirt." With a timid smile, she offered her right hand. "I'm Bella, by the way. I think you're in my History."
Out of habit, he shove a hand through his unruly hair. "Not particularly."
He gazed at the girl, wondering how long it took for her to realise he couldn't actually hear her. It felt nice, being around someone who didn't immediately start to enunciate words as if he were deaf (even if that was the case).
A knowing smile tugged at the edge of her lips. "Oh, right. You're one of those people."
"Those people?" he repeated, feeling predictable.
"You know." She lifted a shoulder. "You know, the ones who sit in front, scribbling furiously throughout the class, asking questions no other student comprehends, preparing for every class… you know."
Edward felt ringing in his ears which he chose to ignore. "And you?"
"And I — what?"
"I'm fairly prepared. But this is Johnson we're talking about, so…"
Edward hummed in agreement. He started to feel cold and rewrapped the coat around his shoulders. Surrounding buildings had hidden the evening sunlight, and the edge of the sky had started to turn pinkish. It was a moment of the day he cherished most.
As he turned his head back toward the girl, he saw her looking at him as if expecting an answer.
"Never mind." The girl laughed. "You're pretty absent-minded, you know."
"You put a lot of you knows into a sentence, you know."
A hint of pink rose in her cheeks. "I blame the Australian in me."
"If my accent wasn't a hint enough already, yes." She blew into her palms. "Jesus, England's freezing." Her nose had turned bright pink.
Edward, feeling a little less down from the headache, found himself actually smiling at the girl. "But it's beautiful."
They both stared at the dark pink sky.
"It really is."
"So what brings you here?"
Edward could no longer tell if it was the cold or if she was blushing. "It's embarrassing."
"So, I have this New Year's resolution. It's pretty long, but the general outline is that I have to become bolder in social interactions. I have an older sister who keeps telling me to let people in and socialise and party and, you know, be a normal person. I'm really kind of…" she trailed off, taking a moment to press a button on her mobile phone to stop its blinking. "Well, kind of an introvert, and a bit of a perfectionist. I wrote down the things I wanted to do to become more courageous, and ended up with a list of eleven. One of them included talking to a male stranger… so here I am."
Amused, Edward decided not to point out that he didn't mean his question literally (in this corner of the street, sitting on this particular bench) but in England, generally. "What were the other ten?"
"Well," said Bella, pulling her mitten-clad hands in front of her. She scowled as her phone started blinking again, tucked it into her pocket, and continued as if nothing had interrupted her. "I have to knit a scarf for a homeless person and find out how they ended up on the streets. I have to dress weirdly and not pay attention if it bothers others. I have to sing karaoke in a local bar, volunteer in the soup kitchen, arrange an ice-cream party, inform a stranger I find hot that he's handsome and kiss him." She lowered her eyes in embarrassment. "I have to go to a blind date, become a tutor for a semester, give honest constructive criticism to a professor I find inefficient, and curse loudly in the middle of a shopping centre." She paused. "How many was that? Oh, and the one about male stranger you just helped me with."
Edward couldn't decide whether he found her openness incredibly attractive or just plain weird. "Why's it so important that it's a male stranger?"
Bella took a breath, feeling goose-bumps from the intensity of his gaze on her lips. She couldn't remember having talked so much to a stranger, much less without interruptions. "Because I'm not used to talking to the opposite sex. You all terrify me."
"You're doing perfectly." Edward, suddenly finding her shyness cute, offered an assuring smile. "Are you struggling with any of them?"
"I—I… I haven't so far, but I will. I don't think I'll ever find the courage to walk up to a man and just kiss him. I'm not one of the slim pretty girls, and men don't really find me attractive, you know? So that's a problem. If I were a bombshell like my sister? Absolutely. Kissing a stranger? No problem at all. But I'm not, and they're not interested, and whoever I choose, they won't be, like, 'hey, I just got kissed by that hot chick from that street.' More like, 'Some really messed up girl attacked me in the hallway!' You know?"
Edward, who finally understood that her you knows were more of the rhetorical kind, remained silent. They both watched the snowflakes flowing in the mild wind as they fell. It was beautiful. The sight felt almost ethereal until Bella, who apparently wasn't as cool and collected as she appeared, tore her phone from her pocket — the screen still blinked — and, frowning, removed her battery. The blinking stopped.
"Not a fan of phones?" Edward tried to joke.
"Not a fan of jerks."
Somewhere between her rambling, Edward had started to seriously like the girl, and he was surprised to admit he felt a bit jealous of her passion toward whoever was on the other end of the phone.
"Please, don't decline the call on my account."
The sudden face movement almost certainly signalled a snort, Edward decided.
"Oh, trust me, if you're an excuse to ignore him, we should go ahead and get married." Bella chuckled.
"Time and place, baby."
Bella snapped her head up, toward the source of the voice, and Edward (having seen that her attention was otherwise occupied) followed. As soon as he recognised the face, he panicked and started to shake his head in a desperate attempt to give his brother a silent hint. But Emmett, never declining the chance to show off his sign language skills, had already made the decision to ruin the longest conversation Edward had had with a girl. The girl who'd made his migraine go away and who thought she couldn't find a man willing to be kissed by her.
Emmett had tucked a book under his arms and signed, 'Sweet-talking with a cute girl? Why, Edward, I had no idea…'
Bella frowned, letting her eyes flicker from Edward to the giant of a man and back again. Edward sighed and lowered his shoulders.
'She didn't even suspect until you came to ruin my night.'
"Seriously?" Emmett said without thinking, staring at Bella. "You didn't know?!"
Edward hunched further, wondering how little tact a man had to own to beat Emmett's lack of tact. It probably had to be negative.
'Anyway, I came to give you this,' signed Emmett, taking the book from under his arm. 'Good luck with the hottie over here.' After recognising the disappointed look in Edward's eyes, he raised his arms. 'Hey, she had to find out sooner or later.'
Edward pursed his lips. "Thanks."
"No probs. See you later."
Emmett wiped his coat from snow, tucked his hands into his pockets and walked away. Bella watched him go, open-mouthed. Edward watched Bella.
"So now you know," he muttered, embarrassed.
"Jesus, Edward," started Bella, finally tearing her eyes from Edward's brother and locking them with Edward. "I'm so sorry! I didn't know. But how do you — you speak perfectly! You understand me."
"I used to hear," said Edward, taking a breath. "And now I… I can't."
Edward shrugged. "It's a long story." He swallowed, wiping snow from his hair but never taking his eyes from her mouth. The sun had set, but the streetlights provided enough light for him to read her lips.
Suddenly, Bella paled and lowered her own shoulders, defeated. "Jesus, I'm so sorry, I thought you were looking at me because you were interested in what I had to say, but you were lip-reading! I'm so sorry, I probably bored you to death." She ruffled with her bag, starting to get up. Bella lowered her eyes, wiped her nose, and when she turned her head just enough for Edward to see her eyes, he could see tears shimmering in them. "I'm such a moron. Jesus, I should never be let out into the public, no wonder I'm socially awkward, I'm an idiot. What a stupid girl. And you're so hot and I'm just… not." She raised her eyes despite tears. "I'm so sorry. Can we forget this ever happened? Just ignore me if you ever see me again."
"And I called you rude when you clearly couldn't hear what I'd just said! Jesus." A tear fell off her cheek as she put her bag on her shoulder. "Please excuse me. I'll just go and jump off a bridge."
Edward couldn't help but let out a chuckle. "Don't you think you're being a little melodramatic?"
Bella gulped back tears. From the corner of his eye, Edward could see other students starting to enter the building in which their exam was going to take place. Curious eyes fell on them.
Bella turned, ready to leave, but Edward leaped up and ran in front of her. "Wait!"
"Listen, I am so very sorry, but I can't get over my stupidity unless you let me go."
"Five, was it? Or was it six?"
Bella sniffed, wiping a tear from under her eye. "What are you talking about?"
"Can you say, 'handsome'?"
Edward smiled gently, using her surprise to take her bag and put it back on the bench. He'd never done anything as crazy as he was about to do, but he didn't really care. He stepped closer to Bella as she backed away, frowning.
"What are you doing?" She ended up against the steel of the lamp-post, searching for an answer from Edward's eyes. He tore off his gloves, gently wiped her cheek with his thumb and placed a hand on her waist. He leaned down, staring at Bella's closed eyes as their lips touched, tentatively. Bella stiffened for a moment before reaching for Edward's collar, kissing him back. He could feel the vibrations of her moans, responded with more vigor, and placed a hand behind her head to make sure she wasn't hurting it. They continued until Bella came out for a breath of much-needed air. She blushed.
"Six," she said shyly.
Edward, having understood that she'd talked, tilted her chin back with his hand. "Pardon? I can't understand you unless I see your lips."
"Sorry," apologised Bella. "I said, 'six'. Kissing a stranger was number six." She smiled. "Although one might argue whether or not we're strangers after that talk."
Edward mock-growled, keeping his face right before hers. "Oh, hell, no, Bella. You don't know my last name. We're strangers all right. You're not gonna chase a stranger down to kiss him."
"Because," he stole another kiss. "You have a blind date with me."
"But it won't be a blind date!"
"I'll blind-fold you. You'll be unable to see," explained Edward. "See? Blind date."
Bella laughed, pulling Edward close and hugging him. At this point, she didn't really care if he actually found her attractive or simply wanted to help. "That's some logic you have. Thanks for helping me out."
"No problem at all," said Edward, glancing at the watch on his wrist and backing away. "Oh, God, we're two minutes late!"
"Oh, shit!" yelled Bella, grabbing her bag as they started to run upstairs, hand in hand. "Fucking hell, this is bad!"
Edward let out a laugh. "I don't think cursing in public is going to be a problem."