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TwilightMomofTwo continues her awesome streak!
I'm grateful to BelleDean and StoryPainter from PTB for their time and attention.
Bella talked while she slept. They were never full sentences, just random mumbled words that seemed unconnected, and I wished I could eavesdrop on her dreams. The young woman downstairs finally stormed out of her apartment, ending the argument with her boyfriend. After their racket ended, it was a wonderfully uneventful night.
Close to morning, I eased out of bed and wandered her apartment for a bit. I knew my family was wondering how things were going, and I decided to initiate contact rather than have one of them call at a bad time, or worse yet, show up uninvited. I sent a simple text, letting them know everything was fine, but I didn't know when I'd be home. The first response came back seconds later.
Overnight! That's my boy!—Emmett
I heard Bella stirring in the bedroom, so I pocketed the phone while the rest of the responses buzzed in. It seemed my entire family had some sort of encouragement to send. I'd sort through them later.
When I walked back into the bedroom, Bella was sitting up, looking at me.
She cocked her head, obviously trying to decide what to make of the fact that I was still there. "How long were you in bed with me?"
I leaned against the dresser. "Most of the night, why?"
"It's just later than I normally wake up, even after work nights," she said, stretching.
"That's interesting, isn't it?" I crossed my arms over my chest. "Maybe I should sleep here more often?"
"Or, maybe I was really tired. God knows it was a rough couple of days." She threw back the covers and climbed out of bed. "But right now, I need to pee. I know you can't help hearing everything that goes on in there," she tilted her head, indicating the bathroom, "but I think it would be best for both of us if we pretend you can't. We'll just make believe you have normal human senses. It's been a long time since I lived with vampires, and I didn't care a whole lot about anything back then, especially offending their super-senses."
"And you don't want to be embarrassed?" For some reason, I found the whole thing amusing. She had to know I could hear everything, right down to the smallest gurgle as she digested her dinner.
"Whatever, Edward, just let me pee and pretend you can't hear it."
I couldn't help but smile as I moved out of the way. "Fair enough."
She pulled some clothes from the closet before going into the bathroom and closing the door.
She was right; I really didn't want to hear what was going on in there. Not because I was disgusted by bodily functions, but I knew my overhearing made her feel awkward. It really wasn't a bad compromise, though. I could pretend I didn't hear things I shouldn't be hearing—like living in a Japanese house with paper walls
I was contemplating trying to make Bella breakfast of some sort when the shower turned on. Her clothes hit the floor with a swooshing sound, and she stepped under the spray, interrupting the flow. Then I heard a faint humming start, so soft I might have missed it. She probably didn't even know she was doing it. In spite of what I'd just promised, I closed my eyes and allowed the melody to wash over me, committing it to memory. By the time the water turned off, I had more than enough to begin working on a new composition. I hadn't been inspired in a long time, and I felt lighter as creative inspiration washed over me.
As soon as the humming stopped, I purposely ignored what went on in the bathroom. Entering the kitchen, I opened the refrigerator door, but seeing what was inside, I knew I'd entered foreign territory. Perhaps I could make eggs? I'd once spent a morning in a diner waiting while Esme shopped. The cook had told someone 'over easy is the way to go', and it had seemed simple enough.
I had just found a pan when Bella walked into the kitchen. She was still pink from the hot water. The scent of her floral shampoo was stronger, and it mixed with the smell of mint toothpaste. She was back in jeans and T-shirt, but there was something different about the way she carried herself. There was a more relaxed air about her, and she actually seemed a bit unsure about something.
"Is everything okay?"
"I think so." She looked at me for a long moment, and I was starting to dread what was going to come out of her mouth when she finally nodded as though she'd made a difficult decision.
"I'm going to ditch work today. Austin will have a heart attack when I call."
"Based on his reaction yesterday, I'm sure you're right. If you've never skipped work before, what's changed?"
"Your tenacity and patience, I guess," she said with a smirk, obviously enjoying quoting me back to myself. Pointing to the pan in my hand, she made a slight grimace. "How about we go out? There's a place I used to go to on my days off. I know it doesn't matter to you, but they have coffee, lots of coffee."
She reached out, guiding my hand to put the pan down as though it were dangerous, and I couldn't do anything but laugh. It didn't take long for us to get ready to leave. Bella grabbed a duffle bag, rearmed the alarm, and we left the apartment. As we walked downstairs, she tried to call Austin, but ended up leaving a voicemail. It was short and to the point, telling him she was fine, but she had decided to take the night off. When she hung up, she muttered, "I'd tell him not to call Jacob, but he will anyway, so it would be a waste of breath."
The crowds on the street ebbed and flowed, and when it was too busy to walk side-by-side, I let her take the lead. After a block or so, Bella reached back to grab my hand. I happily followed as she used our entwined fingers to pull me along gently. Even if the contact was just to keep us from getting separated, I'd take it.
When the crush eased, we could talk again. "You said that you didn't understand why I liked this part of the city so much. Maybe I can show you."
We walked a few more blocks before stopping in front of a small Korean grocery store. An old man standing in front was obviously taking a break from sweeping the sidewalk. His sun-lined face and stooped shoulders told a story about years spent hard at work. He smiled as Bella approached, and she dropped my hand.
"Anyoung, Isabella," he said, breaking into a wide smile.
She bowed respectfully while wishing him a good morning. I stood behind, watching and waiting. He was too polite to ask who I was, but he was intensely curious. He'd never seen Bella with anyone before, and that surprised me. Was Jacob not allowed into this part of her life? As I pondered this new information, she stepped back and gestured me forward.
"Seong-ho, I'd like you to meet Edward Cullen. Edward, may I introduce you to my friend, Seong-ho?"
With a single glance up and down, the older man took in every aspect of my appearance. He looked back at Bella and replied in Korean, gesturing toward me. "Are you sure he's healthy? He is too pale. My sister's son has a shop two blocks up. Have him look at your boy. He can figure out what's wrong and mix him up some vitamin powder."
I started to laugh and tried to cover it with a cough, but it was too late. Smiling, I replied to Seong-ho in his native tongue. "Thank you for your concern. I was ill earlier this year. I'm feeling much better now."
Seong-ho was surprised I'd understood him, but Bella just rolled her eyes and shook her head. "So, when did you learn Korean?"
"Alice makes sure we learn all the languages when traveling. 'It's a richer experience if we can blend as locals'," I said, mimicking Alice in full tour-guide mode.
"Of course she does."
I leaned in close, intending to comment in her ear, when Seong-ho ran his broom into my leg with an enthusiastic motion that should have been painful. Hearing the thump of the wood hitting my leg, Bella laughed and pushed me away.
Bella and I bowed to Seong-ho as we said our goodbyes. When we stepped away, her hand was at her side, and I reached down to grasp it, thrilled when she didn't pull away.
We walked two more blocks, hand-in-hand, peering in windows and greeting a few more of Bella's friends in the neighborhood. I was starting to wonder if we'd ever reach the coffee she'd mentioned when she stopped in front of a small storefront. Honestly, it didn't look like much from the outside, but there were several people inside, enjoying the coffee and atmosphere.
"Bella! Where have you been, part-timer? You lost?" a young man called from behind the counter. When he saw me, his smile dropped. He'd been looking forward to Bella showing up, but she'd never brought anyone here before. Unfortunately, his reaction was very different than Seong-ho's. If looks could kill, I would be a purple smudge on the coffee house floor.
About half of the tables were empty, so I made my way to one far from the counter, seating myself so I could watch Bella. I smiled as she ordered coffee and pastry, wondering how much her French heritage still impacted her choices. As she waited, the barista flirted with her, but he kept looking over at me.
When he couldn't delay any longer, he served her breakfast. As she walked to join me, he watched her every step.
"You have an admirer." I tried not to sound jealous, but I wondered if she knew how attached he was.
"I suppose," she said, dropping into the chair across from me. "John's fine. His family owns the coffee shop, and he dropped out of school to run it when his uncle got sick. I used to spend more time here right after I moved in. He was an English student, and we'd talk about literature." She sighed and moved her plate slightly to the left. "It was obvious he was getting his hopes up, so I stopped coming in."
I decided to change the subject. "What is that you're drinking? Human food doesn't normally smell appetizing, but that seems worse than usual."
"Caramel mocha." She lifted it and saluted me with the mug. "You have no idea what you're missing, and I can guarantee it's better than anything you'll drink this week." She looked at me over the lip of the mug and blew gently on the foamy top.
Watching her lips, unfamiliar heat shot through me, and I shifted in my seat. "We can agree to disagree. I don't think that would keep me going very long. Besides, I think mountain lions smell better."
She laughed, popping a bite of croissant into her mouth.
"Okay, if your days away from the bar start with coffee and pastry, what comes next?" I asked, glancing at the counter. John was making coffee for a couple of older ladies, working hard to not look over at us. He was hoping a lightning bolt would strike me dead.
"If someone left a paper, I'd do the crossword, or I'd pull my book from by bag and read while I ate."
"At home, you eat standing up in the kitchen while you read. In the coffee shop, you eat alone while you read. I'm spotting a trend."
"I used to visit with John before he got the wrong idea." She sighed and set her plate aside. "I don't have to tell you that living a long time gets lonely. Yes, I have Jake, but that's only when he's actually here and not off trying to find her." Bella crossed her arms over her chest and leaned back.
I leaned closer, trying to bridge the gap she'd just made. Ever since Bella had told her story, I'd wanted to talk about it. I still had a hundred questions, but I didn't want to scare her off with an inquisition. "So that's where he goes. You don't think he'll find her?"
She shook her head. "Even if he does, what will it matter? Does he expect her to sit quietly while we explain that we had nothing to do with James' theft? That we were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Then he could respectfully request to have the spell reversed?" She snorted as if she were talking about landing on the moon. "And even if she agrees, what happens then? Do we shrivel and die immediately, or will we have a normal life-span from that point on?"
They were all questions my family had been considering.
"I've been through some horrible things over the years, but I've learned to enjoy the little things in life." She smiled at me, lifting the mug of mocha. "Even if Jake finally figured out a way to make it happen, I'm not ready to die. At least not the way things are right now."
I hoped I had something to do with that. "Maybe now isn't the time to tell you this, but my family did some research after you told us your story. There really isn't much history on people being cursed with eternal life. It's usually considered a blessing or goes along with another condition, like vampirism. It's almost unheard of to be immortal and human. The fact that you physically appear to die, but it doesn't … stick, for lack of a better term, is only seen in fiction."
"Edward, you're not telling me anything I don't already know. I've learned not to dwell on it, or I'll go crazy." She swirled the dregs of the mocha, watching it move. Grimacing in distaste, she set it aside and pulled out her phone, glancing at the time. When she looked up at me, I knew she was up to something. "I was going to ask if you were ready to go, but if you don't eat, you're probably always ready to go." She stood, quickly taking care of the dishes and grabbing her bag. "You wanted to see how I spend my days off. If we leave right now, we can make it to the early class."
She was practically to the door, and I had to remind myself to follow at a human pace. God, it was good to see her excited about something.
Ten minutes later, I was standing in the back of a martial arts studio, observing Bella preparing for a class. There was an observation area built at the back, and I sat with a few anxious parents, worried their precious little ones might get hurt. We must have been earlier than she thought, because even after changing into her uniform, she still had time to help the younger students tie their belts correctly. It wouldn't have been obvious to anyone else, but she was a bit stiff and her laugh looked forced when the younger ones kept trying to play with her black belt. Although I knew she was uncomfortable, her patient instructions took me back to that night at the bar, watching her giving self-defense tips. In spite of all her bluster, she was a great teacher.
I did my best to melt in the woodwork as the students walked barefoot onto the mat and bowed first to the flag, then to the instructor. The students knew to arrange themselves in rows, with higher-ranking belts at the front, middle grades in the center, and children at the back.
The master walked in and greeted Bella directly, happy to see her in class. She stood in the front far corner, acknowledging him with a smile but remaining in a position that looked much like a soldier at attention. As he called out warm-up instructions, each student began the motions, performing at their own level. After warm-up, the drills began. Over and over, the instructor called out a maneuver, and the class responded as a unit. The youngest ones sometimes looked as though they would fall over. It was like watching puppies trying to dance. Several times, the master walked back to help the young ones get the form just right, making sure they wouldn't hurt themselves.
Through this all, Bella executed perfect kicks and punching sequences until sweat ran down her face and soaked her shirt. Her determination and concentration were obvious. Actually, each member of the class was focused only on performing the drills, the physical and mental demands of class overwhelming other thoughts. I began to understand why this would appeal to her. It was military-like in its setup, building order and structure. Two things Bella seemed to crave in the chaos that had been her life.
When he finally called for a break, she bowed from the mat and pulled a bottle of water and a small white case from her bag. The younger students frantically pulled on protective padding for the sparring portion of class, covering precious bits with athletic cups and slipping mouth guards between growing teeth. A few of the little ones came to Bella again. They turned their backs so she could synch the rear Velcro straps tight. By the time they bowed back onto the mat, they resembled tiny crash test dummies.
When class resumed, the younger students went first, pairing off and fighting each other for a predetermined period of time. The rush of thoughts coming from the sparring groups were loud and frantic. Some of the students focused only on using the kicks they'd learned in class to move their opponent back. Others were simply trying to survive the next minute or so without being hit too hard. For a few, they hated every minute of it.
After all the other students had rotated through, only Bella and the instructor were left. He called her out, and they met on the floor. He was of average height, a bit bigger than Bella, and he was heavily muscled. He could hurt her horribly if he wanted.
She met him in the middle of the mat, her only concession to the upcoming fight was to slip a mouth guard between her teeth. With a show of deep respect they bowed to each other before the instructor jumped back into a fighting stance, giving a loud battle cry. Mentally, he cheered Bella when she showed no sign of being affected by his volume. It was purely an intimidation tactic.
Bouncing on the balls of their feet, the two circled each other, looking for a good opportunity to strike. The remainder of the students made a circle around the perimeter of the mat, cheering Bella on. When she attacked, he anticipated what she was about to do, blocking with his arm. Something splintered beneath my hand and I realized I'd been gripping the railing so hard, I'd crushed it. Making sure no one saw, I smoothed it a bit just as the instructor called, "You always bounce twice if you're going to lead with that leg. Don't show me what you're going to do." He moved forward, bringing up a roundhouse kick that landed in her side. Bella huffed out a breath at the impact but showed no other reaction.
The master approved of her control. He'd been trying for several class periods to make her angry, because angry people made mistakes.
Bella advanced again, using the fact that she was smaller and quicker. Considering the blows she was taking, I knew she'd be covered in bruises later. The entire time they fought, he called out instructions, looking for patterns in her technique, anything that an opponent could use against her. When he glanced at the clock, I saw Bella's eyes narrow just a bit as she recognized her opening.
Taking a single step back, she crouched and executed a spinning kick they hadn't performed in class. Based on the beauty of the maneuver, it was something she'd practiced many times. As her foot connected with the side of his head, the room erupted in cheers.
For an instant, I couldn't read anything from the Master's mind. Would he come after her for scoring that hit? I prepared to launch myself onto the mat, but there was no need. As though he'd done it a thousand times, he shook off the effects of the hit and congratulated her. There was no animosity in him, and I understood why she'd selected him as a teacher.
He announced the end of class, and everyone scrambled back into their rows. They bowed to him, showed their respect to the flag, and they were dismissed. As she walked off the mat, several of the older students patted her on the back, congratulating Bella on the last hit.
The instructor watched as she walked up to me. Again, my presence had surprised someone in Bella's life, but not in the same way. In the master's memory, I could see Bella and Jacob sparring on the mat. He'd assumed they were a couple, but now he was questioning that. He looked me up and down, assessing my worthiness. If I had known I was going to get this much evaluation today, I'd have dressed better.
"You don't want to go anywhere with me like this," Bella said, breathing heavily and grabbing her bag. "There are showers in the back. I'll be out in ten."
I waited and watched as the rest of the class packed up. The parents who had been observing chatted while the little ones dawdled. The entire time, the master watched me out of the corner of his eye. As soon as the last of the youngsters left, he sauntered over, and I worked to hide my smile. He wasn't approaching me as a would-be lover warning off another male. This was something else.
"I haven't seen you here before." The instructor held out his hand. "I'm Sam. You're here with Bella?"
I took his hand, working to make the shake short, knowing I would seem much too cold. "Yes. She invited me to observe."
He nodded, looking me over—sizing me up and not caring if I knew it.
"And what did you think about what you saw?" He moved a little closer, crowding my personal space to see how I'd react.
"Bella's fantastic. But you already knew that." It was time to do a little chest-thumping of my own. "We're still getting to know each other, but I'm sure I'll be back to see you soon."
He gave a false smile, and I saw myself through his eyes; young, lean, and pale. He had no doubt that he could hurt me if he tried, and if I were human, that would be true. In spite of all that, I couldn't blame him because he truly wanted what was best for her.
"Just make sure Bella doesn't regret that 'getting to know each other.' Everyone here likes her, and it would upset us if she got hurt."
The message was loud and clear, and it made me perversely happy. Bella had more people in her corner than she knew. "Understood. You don't need to worry about me."
The locker room door opened, and he turned away just as Bella stepped out. Again, she was freshly scrubbed and floral scented, back in jeans and T-shirt. The remaining flush on her cheeks was the only thing that indicated she'd been working out. She called a goodbye to the master as we walked out the door. He turned and gave a distracted wave as though he hadn't been focusing on us.
The clouds that had been threatening before had finally started drizzling. The weather had thinned the crowds, and we could walk side-by-side. Neither of us seemed to care that we were getting wet.
"What did Sam say to you just before I walked out?" Tiny beads of moisture gathered in her hair, making it appear even darker.
"Saw that, did you? He was warning me away if I didn't behave. He's very protective of you."
She nodded, smiling. "I think he's like that with all the students."
"It's more than that. He enjoys teaching and wants every student to succeed, but he's much more protective of you. It's almost fatherly." I slowed for a second to let someone pass because I didn't want them to hear. "I know you haven't told him your story, but he believes that something horrible happened to you in the past, and that's why you're in his class. He wants to protect you from whatever it is."
She ran a hand over her ponytail before nodding. "It makes sense. He takes more time with me than the others. I'd just figured it was because I didn't attend every class session, so he made up for it when I was there."
"You might not like this question, but if you've been studying for so long, why are you still going to class? Couldn't you teach this by now if you wanted?"
"Maybe, but I still learn something from attending. I like keeping my skills fresh, and it's a good reminder that I won't always be taking on sloppy drunks."
I took a deep breath, hoping to say this in a way that wouldn't offend her. "Bella, you've done a great job learning to take care of yourself, but in the long run, I'm not sure this is doing any good. If Felix came to find you, all the self-defense classes in the world won't help."
"I know that!" She stopped walking, turning to face me and held her hands out, palms up. "What exactly am I supposed to do, Edward? Sit alone in my apartment forever, hiding and hoping no one finds me? Jumping at every little noise? I can't think of a faster way to go bat shit crazy! This life is the best middle ground I can find."
I nodded, knowing she was right but not liking it.
"I'll do whatever I can to live a normal life," she said softly, the fight seeming to drain out of her. "I'll learn to defend myself as well as I can, and I'll live where I'm difficult to find. It's the best I can do. It's all I can do."
"What if it's not enough? What if they find you again?" The idea of her being pulled away just as I was getting to know her was too much to think about. I'd want to do anything and everything to get her back.
"Hey," she said, putting a hand on my shoulder, seeing my concern. "I said it before—I'll do everything I can. But I'm not going to stop living. I'll miss any good stuff that comes along." She reached out as though to touch me but pulled back and wiped the drizzle out of her eyes. Hesitating, she reached out again before taking hold of my hand. I could hear her barely audible sigh at the contact.
"Normally, on my day off, I'd stop at a little book shop a few blocks from here, but I don't think I feel like it today. I'd rather go home. Well, Mr. Tenacious, are you coming back upstairs with me?"
I didn't stop smiling all the way back to her building.
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