Acknowledgement: Thanks to HollettLA, who I adore for so many reasons, not the least of which being that she thinks I might actually have a "fancy French version or a Shakespearean spelling" of a word, and that I'm not just an idiot who ignores the spellchecker sometimes. xo
A/N: Thank you, as always, for reading and for the lovely reviews. They mean so very much to me.
The two weeks between the end of the semester and the end of the month fly by, and Bella tries desperately to soak up every second of Tyler's company before she has to board a plane and fly to the opposite side of the country. They spend their days orbiting each other and their nights wrapped around each other, and she tries not to picture her summer in Forks as a seemingly endless stretch of time in which he'll be here, without her, a piece of flotsam riding the current of this beautiful city she has come to love while she sits, stagnant, on the opposite coast, in a town in which she feels suffocated.
It isn't until the night before she's leaving, when she's waiting for Tyler's shift at the bookstore to end, that an entirely new and utterly distressing possibility occurs to her: that, in her absence, Tyler could move on. That distance could dim the bright flame of what they feel for each other – or, more frighteningly, what he feels for her – and that their fledgling love could be eclipsed by some other, brighter-burning blaze.
"Here it is," she hears the familiar voice say from a few aisles over, and she can't stop the sappy smile that takes over her face.
"Thanks so much," comes a feminine voice in response, and Bella slides the copy of Into the Wild that she'd been perusing back on the shelf. She walks softly to the end of the aisle, peeking around the shelving unit to see only the back of a girl with long blonde hair two aisles down. "My friend has been telling me for ages that I have to read this. Have you read it?"
"Yeah," Tyler's voice replies. "It's pretty good. Different. Are you into spiritual fiction?"
"Not particularly. I mean, my parents tried to push some Christian fiction on me when I was a teenager, so I think that turned me off."
Bella hears Tyler chuckle. "Yeah, that'll do it. No, this is more about…spiritual awakening, rather than adherence to doctrines. It's not bad, but it's definitely New Age-y. I mean…well, you've read Walden, right?"
"Seriously?" She can hear both the incredulity and the smile in his voice, and a wave of insecurity she hasn't felt in a while bubbles up in her chest. "Now that's worth checking out, if you're interested in reading about spiritual discovery. It's more of a personal declaration of independence, with the focus on solitude and personal introspection rather than divine intervention."
"That sounds more like my kind of thing. Do you have it?"
"I'm sure we do. It should be just over here." Bella steps back slightly, but watches as first Tyler and then the blonde girl emerge from amid the shelves, turning away from her and disappearing down another aisle a few rows away. "Here we go," she hears him say a moment later, his voice somewhat fainter. "Did you want a hardcover or a paperback?"
"Um, paperback," the girl replies. And then, "Thanks."
"Have you worked here long?" Bella hears, and she frowns, creeping into the next aisle in an attempt to hear the words more clearly.
"A while," Tyler replies.
"That's awesome," the girl says, and Bella rolls her eyes. "I love this store."
"Yeah, it's pretty unique," Tyler agrees. "Can I help you find anything else?"
"Um, no…I think I'm good."
"But some friends of mine are having a party tonight. They're all literary types; I'm sure you'd fit right in." There's a pause, and then Bella hears, "Are you interested?" The voice has dropped an octave, the tone slightly huskier, and she hears the intended meaning behind the question.
Is he interested?
With barely a pause, his voice answers. "Actually, I have plans with my girlfriend tonight. Thanks anyway. Enjoy the Thoreau."
Bella sees Tyler slip out of the aisle and head toward the opposite end of the store, and she lurches backward, snatching a book from the closest shelf and flipping through it for a moment before peeking around the bookcase again. The blonde girl is watching him go, and Bella watches her for a minute until she hikes her tiny purse higher on her shoulder and makes her way toward the front of the store.
"The Art of Happiness," she hears an hour later, when Tyler finds her sitting in a corner, using her messenger bag as a backrest between her spine and the bookshelf behind her. She looks up, cataloging his soft gray t-shirt, name tag, messy hair.
Glancing down, she shrugs. "I was in the mood for something…spiritual." Looking back up, she spies the look of knowing amusement in his blue-green eyes.
"Hm. And what, pray tell, put you in the mood for that?"
She shrugs as he lowers himself to the floor beside her. "Just something I overheard."
"Does that happen a lot?"
He stretches his legs out in front of him. "It happens."
He shrugs. "I don't know. Every so often, I guess."
"Have you ever accepted?"
"Yes. Way before you. When I was single and looking for that kind of thing."
"That kind of thing?"
"One-night stands. Meaningless flings." He leans toward her and plucks the book from her hands. "That kind of thing." She doesn't say anything, and the residual amusement bleeds from his face. "You're actually upset about this?"
"No." But it's a lie, and they both know it.
A faint spark of irritation clouds his eyes. "Bella, I'm in love with you. I'm not interested in anyone else."
"Even though I'm leaving?"
"You're leaving for the summer; you're not leaving for good."
"Still. Two months is a long time."
"Not really." She doesn't reply, and he sighs. "Bella, you don't have to worry. I'm not going to fall out of love with you just because you're out of town. I'm not that fickle." She likes the way he says "out of town" – as if she's going away for the weekend, and not for the entire summer. "I'm sort of pissed that you don't trust me."
She's instantly ashamed. "I'm sorry." She fidgets with the hem of her jeans until she feels his hand still hers.
"Look at me."
"It's not that I don't trust you," she says immediately.
"Then what is it?"
She presses her lips together, trying to find the words amid a sea of uncertainty. "I don't know."
"Bella, Jennifer Love Hewitt could walk through those doors and offer to blow me in the nonfiction section, and I'd still say thanks, but no thanks. I love you. You're the only one I want, whether you're in my bed or on the opposite side of the country. Okay?"
She raises her eyebrows in surprise. "Jennifer Love Hewitt?"
He meets her gaze. "What?"
"Nothing. I just…I guess I would have pegged you as more of a Cameron Diaz type."
He leans in. "I like brunettes. Petite ones. With pouty lips."
She bites back a smile. "Is this your way of hinting that you have a fantasy about a brunette blowing you in this store?"
"Maybe. But it's one brunette in particular, and she doesn't star in cheesy horror flicks."
Bella leans in, pressing her mouth to his. "Noted. Well in that case, maybe you should take me back to your apartment so that I can give you something to get you through the next two months."
But her words don't have the intended effect, and he draws back to look into her face, his blue-green eyes serious. "Bella, you believe me, right? I want you. No one else. I don't care about you leaving for the summer. I love you, and I'll wait. Okay?"
She smiles, missing him already, wrapping his reassurance around her like a cloak. "Okay."
He grins, rising from the floor and holding out his hand. "Now…I believe there's an offer on the table."
She accepts his hand and smiles as he pulls her to her feet. "There is."
Pleasure is still thrumming in her veins, thick and warm, and she sighs as she feels Tyler's body leave hers. "Shit," she hears him breathe, and her head comes up off the pillow.
"I think it broke," he mutters. "Shit," he says again.
"What? Why do you think it broke?"
He's squeezing the tip of the condom. "It just doesn't seem…like a lot," he says, and his cheeks are stained pink.
"Well, I mean…that's the second time, right? Maybe there's…not as much?"
"I can't tell," he says. "The outside is, uh, pretty wet, too."
She blushes. "Oh."
"I think it's okay," he says after a moment. "We're okay."
She exhales heavily, her head falling back onto the pillow behind her as she gazes up at his spackled eggshell ceiling. "Okay." He disappears momentarily to discard the condom before returning to the bed, curling up beside her and sliding his hand along her bare stomach and around her hip. "Maybe…maybe I should go on the pill," she says softly, bunching up the sheet between her fingers.
"Maybe," he says softly, his voice slurred slightly with sleep and post-coital relaxation. "Do you want to?"
"I'll, um, have to find a doctor. I don't really want to ask my pediatrician back in Forks for a prescription."
A low rumble of a laugh comes from the pillow beside her. "Yeah, that's probably not the best idea. I'd hate for the Forks Chief of Police to have to fly all the way out here just to shoot me."
"That would be a needless waste of plane fare," she agrees, finding his fingers beneath the sheet and tangling their fingers together. Then, turning serious, "I'm really going to miss you."
His ocean-colored eyes slide open. "I'm going to miss you, too."
"I'm going to miss New York."
"New York is going to miss you, too," he replies, and as silly as it is, she is warmed by the idea of the city she has come to love loving her right back. "If I could FedEx you a Gray's Papaya hot dog, I would."
She laughs. "Yeah, I'm going to need you to look into that."
"I'll get on it." He runs his thumb along her palm. "When do you want me to come visit?"
She half-rolls toward him, placing the hand he's not holding flat against his warm torso to feel his heart thumping in his chest. "You were serious?"
"Of course I was serious. I'm coming – you just have to tell me when."
"Whenever you want. I'll be there."
"Do you guys do anything big for July 4th?"
"Not in the traditional sense. My dad is usually on call to make sure no local idiots blow anything up trying to set off fireworks, and our best friends live on a Native American reservation, so we don't exactly do the traditional 'sparklers and burgers and beers' celebration. But we go down to the beach and have a big bonfire, and Billy – that's Jake's dad – tells stories about tribal ancestors who fought for their country and various other tales about how Native Americans are proud Americans, despite the fact that the holiday is more about freedom for some than liberty for all. It's pretty cool."
"I've never really thought about that."
Bella shrugs, feeling her nipples brush against the cotton of his top sheet. "Most people don't."
"Can I come then? For the Fourth?"
"You can come whenever."
"How much time do you think you can get off work?"
He shrugs, bringing their bodies flush together, and there's something incredibly intimate about feeling that part of him, soft and pliant, pressing against her, seeking nothing more than contact. She slides her feet between his. The room is humid, a hint at the coming heat of summer, and while she has mixed feelings about her return to Forks, she looks forward to the cool, crisp night air. "Probably a week or so."
"Okay," she says through a yawn, and he smiles softly, running his free hand over her ribs.
"You should sleep."
"I can sleep on the plane," she replies. "I'd rather stay awake with you."
His smile widens slightly. "I'm going to need a little time to recover." Her laugh is as soft as his smile, and they lie in the darkness, pressed together from chest to ankles. "Are you nervous?" he asks after a bit, his hand still skimming over her ribcage.
Her nose scrunches up as she frowns. "About flying?"
"About going home."
"Oh. Not really," she replies, surprising herself with the truth of it. At Christmas, she'd been anxious, unnerved, uncertain. She hadn't wanted to go back, to spend the holidays in Forks, and if it hadn't been for Charlie, she wouldn't have. Now, though, the only thing she feels is a faint sadness at the distance that she'll be putting between herself and Tyler.
"Good," he murmurs.
"Hey," she says, suddenly remembering. "You never told me what you meant when my mother was here. About my 'transformation.'"
She feels the rumble of his chuckle where their chests are pressed together. "You became the swan."
"You know, from the children's book."
"I'm naked in your bed, and you're comparing me to the Ugly Duckling?!"
His laugh is nearly a guffaw, and he strengthens his hold on her when she makes a move to slip free. "Stop. Come here. I just meant that you've flourished. New York can eat people up, or make them hard, or change them in ways that aren't for the better. You…since I met you, you've…bloomed." He half-buries his face in the pillow beneath him. "That sounded cheesy," comes the muffled voice.
"It's better than comparing me to an unattractive member of the fowl family."
"I was trying to be punny," explains the still-muffled voice. "Y'know…Swan."
"Unsuccessful pun," she replies, but the truth of his comparison is one she can feel. "Hey." He peeks out, one blue-green eye visible, eyebrow above it arched in cautious expectation. "You're right. I…feel that way. Like I…grew a lot. Here."
He nods, rolling to his back but keeping hold of her hand. "You have."
"You're part of that, you know."
He rolls back toward her. "It might seem that way, Bella, but it's all you. It would have happened even if I hadn't been around for it."
She presses their bodies back together, thrilling in the now-familiar heat of his skin. "Regardless, I'm glad you are."
"I can't believe I'm not going to see you for the whole summer," Kelsey moans around a mouthful of pancake, and Bella laughs, her mind briefly dancing back to her roommate uttering a similarly despairing thought when she went home for the winter break.
"You can always come to the West Coast," she offers, and Kelsey's nose wrinkles.
"Yeah, I don't think I really belong in lumberjack country."
"You really don't," Bella agrees and catches Aidan rolling his eyes. "What?"
He shrugs, the hair on the left side of his head still matted from his pillow. "Girls are so dramatic. I mean, it's what…not even two months?"
"Bite me," Kelsey snaps, elbowing him sharply, and he winces. "Besides, I can't help noticing your boy hasn't unwrapped his arm from around her shoulders once, so I don't think I'm the only one being 'dramatic.'" She punctuates the word with air-quotes, and Aidan rolls his eyes.
"I'm pretty sure he's getting benefits from her that she's not sharing with you, so his clinginess is entirely warranted."
Kelsey elbows him again. "You're such a pig. No wonder you're single."
"I'm single by choice, thank you very much."
Aidan holds a make-believe phone up to his ear. "Yeah, hello, pot? This is the kettle calling to ask when your last date was."
Kelsey is throwing him an absolutely murderous look, so Bella opts to intervene. "Thanks for having breakfast with us, you guys. I'm sorry it's so early."
"Shut up," Kelsey replies, pushing her pancake around her plate with her fork. "I would have bought you dinner last night, but I was assured that you had plans." Her eyebrows waggle on "plans," and she glances over to where Tyler is shoveling scrambled eggs into his mouth with the hand not wrapped around Bella. He simply raises an eyebrow, saying nothing, and Bella leans slightly into his side.
"Well, I'm going to miss all of you guys. We're going to Corner Bistro for burgers as soon as I get back in August."
"Hell yeah, we are," Kelsey exclaims, then raises her coffee mug. "To Bella, who leaveth us for rural pastures."
"Forests, actually. There's not really much farming in Forks."
Tyler laughs and shakes his head as he raises his own mug. "To Bella."
"What airline?" the cab driver asks through the clear plastic partition an hour later, and Bella leans forward, only to be beaten to the punch.
"Northwest," Tyler replies. "Terminal 2."
"Okay," the cabbie nods, returning his focus to the maze of lanes leading into the airport, and Bella leans back against the black leather seat, her carry-on propped on her knees. Tyler's fingers are warm in hers, and she tries not to succumb to the melancholy that has been looming since his alarm went off hours ago, and she realized that, despite their best intentions, sleep had robbed her of her last few hours in his bed.
"Got your ticket?"
She laughs, grateful, as ever, for his simple presence. He lifts her hand to his mouth and kisses the back of it as the cab lurches to a halt at the curbside drop-off area. She's rummaging in her backpack for her wallet when Tyler stills her hand, fishing his own out of his pocket. She opens her mouth to protest, but he silences her with a look, pulling money out of his billfold and sliding out of the car. She follows, watching as he and the cab driver lug her oversized suitcases out of the trunk and onto the curb; Tyler pays him and grabs her luggage, leading her inside the air-conditioned terminal.
Once she has checked in and unloaded her bags, they make their way past the security checkpoint and wander around the gate area, Bella buying a bottle of water and some snacks for the plane and Tyler trying to convince her to eat something before she boards. Finally, they settle in a pair of vacant seats, Bella's head on Tyler's shoulder as their hands trace shapes against each other's palms, the gate filling up around them.
"I should have made you a t-shirt," Bella muses, watching a woman trying to entertain two small kids in the row across from them.
"A t-shirt?" he echoes.
"To wear to work," she clarifies. "That says, 'My girlfriend bought me this.'"
He laughs, and she smiles at the sound. "I'll see if I can have one made." Then, his voice serious, he asks, "You're not still worried, are you?"
"No," she answers truthfully, tilting her head back to look up into his face. "I'm just going to miss you."
"Ditto." He lowers his mouth to kiss her, and she ignores the fact that they're at an airport gate, a swirl of travelers around them, and focuses instead on the heat of his mouth, the softness of his lips, the taste of his tongue. She relishes in the warmth of his hand curled around the side of her neck, the stubble grazing against her chin, his fingers tangling in her hair. When he pulls away, faintly breathless, his eyes are intense. "Thirty-two days between now and July 4th."
He laughs. "But doable."
She rests her head in the space between his neck and collarbone, and not nearly enough time passes before the gate agent's voice comes over the loudspeaker to announce that they're getting ready to board the flight. She stands, and Tyler hands her her backpack, and when she rummages around in it to fish out the Yankees cap he bought her and pull it on, he mock-groans. "Great. That's going to torture me for the next month."
She grins. "I'm counting on it."
"Now boarding rows thirty through thirty-seven," the voice says, and she shrugs into her backpack.
"What row are you?"
She glances at her ticket. "Twenty-one."
"I'll miss you," he says, banding his hands around her waist.
"I'll miss you, too."
"I love you."
Her chest suffuses with warmth. "I love you, too."
"Call me when you get home, okay?"
She nods, waging a valiant battle against tears. "I will."
"Rows twenty through thirty," the attendant says, and he presses a kiss to her lips, then another to her forehead.
"Safe flight," he says, releasing her.
"Thanks." She rises to her toes, kissing his lips before joining the small crowd of people moving toward the door. She peeks over her shoulder and he's still standing there, hands in his pockets, watching her go. When she hands her ticket over, she takes one last glance, and he raises and eyebrow and a hand in farewell.
And, when she finds her window seat in row twenty-one and looks back toward the terminal, the windows are slightly mirrored, leaving her unable to see inside, but she knows, somehow, that he's standing there, watching her go.
Once Tyler arrived in her life, essentially eclipsing everything else, Bella hadn't spent too much time thinking about whether or not Charlie was missing her from the other side of the country, so it isn't until she steps off the plane and into the gate area at SeaTac and his shoulders visibly relax that it occurs to her to feel guilty.
"Hi, Dad," she greets, and Charlie – undemonstrative, reserved, rough-around-the-edges Charlie – grabs her in a crushing bear hug.
"Hey, kid. Missed ya."
"Missed you, too." Her voice is muffled against the familiar dark cotton of his police uniform, and she lets herself relax into the hug.
He holds on to her for an uncharacteristic extra beat before releasing her, giving her a once-over and burying his hands in the pocket of his worn Levi's. "Good flight?"
He nods and they fall into step beside each other as they make their way toward baggage claim, exchanging the familiar small talk that had peppered her life in Washington. On the drive from Seattle to Forks, he catches her up on the local news: that the high school won the state football championship, that they're getting a new police station, that Jake has been maintaining her truck so that she could use it when she came home for the summer. Bella doesn't miss the hopeful note in her father's voice when he mentions Jake, but while it used to make her uncomfortable and irritable, now she just laughs.
The truth that her heart belongs to someone else is, for the first time, something she doesn't feel the need to apologize for, and for the hundredth time, she marvels at the freedom she has found in, as Charlie himself once put it, loving what's good for her.
Indeed, the morning after her arrival, she awakens to the familiar roar of her truck's engine, and when she peeks out through her bedroom window, she sees Jacob's form bent over the open hood of her rusted truck. After quickly brushing her hair and teeth, washing her face, and slipping into jeans and a t-shirt, she grabs a mug of coffee from the kitchen and slips out the front door.
Jake's head emerges from beneath the truck's hood, and he grins up at her. She feels a familiar affection settle in her chest, the comfortable warmth of old friendship that she had never really felt before Forks. Her mother's transient life meant she was never really in one school long enough to foster significant friendships, and she is instantly grateful for the genuine friendship she was able to find with Jake, despite their admittedly rocky beginning. "Hey there, city slicker." He pulls a grease-stained rag from the pocket of his jeans and swipes at his hands, taking a step away from the engine as Bella descends the stairs. "Welcome home."
"Thanks," she says, smiling, even as the word doesn't quite ring true. Home. She nods toward the truck. "How's she looking?"
"Good as new," he says, only half-kidding, and she grins as she perches herself on the small running board between the driver's door and the rear tire well. Taking a sip of her coffee, she peers up at him. If it's possible, he seems to have grown even more in the time since she last saw him, and she can't help wondering if he's phased recently, and what the pack's life has been like since the mass exodus of vampires from the immediate vicinity nearly two years earlier. "You might need some new…" He trails off, hitching a teasing eyebrow. "If I actually name the part, what are the odds you'll know what I'm talking about?"
She makes a show of squinting up at him, as if in deep consideration. "Probably nil," she admits finally, taking another sip from her mug.
"I figured," he says, returning the rag to his jeans pocket and lowering himself to sit on the concrete driveway, folding his ankles and propping himself up on his hands. "So."
He grins, white teeth nearly blinding in the dark skin of his face. "Tell me about New York."
She matches his grin. "What do you want to know?"
He shrugs. "You still like it?"
"I love it."
He smiles. "Good."
"Seriously, Jake, it's just…it's so…alive. I mean, there's always something going on, there's always something to do, or something to see, and everyone's different, you know? There's no mold to fit – it's just…people are who they are, and there are so many people that you can find someone who gets you, even if you might not be able to find that anywhere else." She remembers, fleetingly, how she'd felt so much like a misfit on her arrival in Forks, and so much more like one after Edward left. With the possible exception of her first few months in New York, when she was still learning the place, she has never felt like that in the city.
"Have I what?"
"Found people who get you?"
She smiles. "Yeah."
One dark eyebrow lifts. "Yeah?"
"I mean, my roommate, Kelsey…she's awesome. She's an artist, and she's really cool. We get along really well, which doesn't always happen with college roommates."
When she doesn't continue, his second eyebrow joins the first. "And?"
"Bella, I haven't seen you smile like that in two years. I hope you don't expect me to believe it's because you get along with your roommate."
She can feel the telltale color creeping up her neck, and she attempts to hide it behind another sip of coffee, but Jake's looking at her knowingly. Finally, she rolls her eyes. "And there's a guy."
"There it is." Jake's face relaxes back into his easy smile. "Jesus, you have no poker face."
"He's not a vampire, is he?"
"I like him already."
Bella laughs, and as she does so, is struck by a realization: it's the first time she has ever laughed with Jacob about her ill-advised romance with the undead, and she can see her own surprise mirrored in Jake's face when he grins. "You would like him. He's…great."
He shrugs. "Well, I already prefer him to your last boyfriend, so I'll take your word for it."
She smiles. "What about you?"
"Imprint on anyone yet?"
He looks away, and she can see a small muscle near the hinge of his jaw twitch. "Nah."
Bella feels fleetingly sorry for him and leans forward, propping her coffee mug on her knee. "Well, my roommate is single. Maybe you should reconsider visiting me in New York."
Jake chuckles. "I'll think about it." He tilts his chin in the direction of her mug. "Now, how about you finish that disgusting stuff and let me buy you breakfast at the diner? You can tell me all about your new human boyfriend and your big, bad city, and I'll catch you up on the five minutes' worth of news that have happened since you left."
She laughs as she rises. "Deal."
The simple act of slipping into the cab of her truck brings with it a cavalcade of nostalgia: damp hair and mittens, the windshield fogging up as the ancient defroster struggled to keep up, her orange-yellow backpack laying on the seat beside her. A pearl-skinned, ethereally beautiful boy in the passenger seat.
"Ready?" Jake's voice cuts through her reminiscing, and she nods as she slips the key into the ignition.
The trip down memory lane continues, however, the moment she sets foot inside the Forks Diner. Cora is pouring coffee into the mug of one of Charlie's deputies at the counter; the not-quite pink half-curtains still hang from brass rods at the windows; the wood-paneled walls are still adorned with black-and-white vintage photos of various local scenes. And, as the bell jingles on the closing door behind them, Bella spots a familiar face turning to spot her and Jacob standing just inside it.
"Bella?" Angela's eyebrows hike up behind the frames of her glasses, which have changed from their former pale pink to a sleek black.
"Angela. Hi." Bella sees her former classmate excuse herself from the table she's sharing with her parents and approach her, and she feels an unexpected swell of guilt for all of the messages she has ignored since her departure from Forks last September.
"Hey!" Angela replies, reaching out to pull Bella into a hug. "It's great to see you!"
"Thanks. It's great to see you, too." Bella feels awkward and uncomfortable, and she can feel herself slipping back into old-Bella: fidgeting, unable to make eye contact, entirely uncomfortable making small talk. She half-expects Jessica to appear beside Angela, tossing out barely-disguised bitter barbs at the Cullens, and Edward in particular. The thought of Edward immediately morphs into a thought of Tyler, and Bella can almost feel her spine straighten, her shoulders drop, her chin lift. "I'm really sorry I fell out of touch. This year was…kind of crazy for me."
Angela's eyes go soft, and she smiles. Bella had almost forgotten how genuinely kind Angela always was, how open-minded and friendly, and she feels a second swell of remorse at her unthinking willingness to discard her friendship entirely. "Hey, I totally understand. Freshman year was nuts. I just…wondered how things were going for you. How you were liking New York."
Bella is grateful for Angela's tact, for the fact that she doesn't put voice to the truth behind the concern swimming in her dark eyes: that her friend – perhaps her only true human friend in Forks – was worried that, beyond the watchful eye of her father and the concern of her small cluster of peers, that she'd fall down the post-Edward rabbit hole once and for all. "I really love it," she replies, and a smile she doesn't even have to reach for breaks across her face. "The city's amazing, and I've met some really cool people. You should totally come for a visit or something, if you're ever on the East Coast."
She surprises herself with the invitation, so it's no wonder that Angela's mouth pops open and her eyebrows rocket up her forehead. "Seriously?"
"Seriously. I mean, I know New York is a long way from UCLA, but…you know. Anytime."
"Awesome. Thanks, Bella." Angela grins, and Bella returns the smile easily. "Well, anyway, I'll let you guys get breakfast. It was great to see you."
"You too," Bella replies, following Jacob to an empty table in the far corner.
As they sit, Jake leans forward. "Yeah, see, I never understood why you wanted to hang out with bloodsuckers when you had perfectly nice human friends at that pale-face school of yours."
"Yeah, well, the pale-faces might have said the same about my tendency to hang out with a werewolf," she reminds him, and he grins as he relaxes back into his chair.
It's no wonder, with all of the nostalgia and the unintentional trips down memory lane, that the second night back in her bed, she dreams of Edward. For a change, though, there's no blood, no death, no terror. There's no fear, no panicking, no Charlie bursting into her room in the middle of the night to quiet her screams. There's just a hazy mirage, eerily reminiscent of the way he would appear to her in hallucinations after he left, and though she tries to decipher the reason for his sudden reappearance in her subconscious, tries to determine if he's actually trying to say anything to her, he simply hovers, watching her like a ghost. She wanders through her dream, through familiar landmarks – the Cullens' property, the forest, the meadow – and all the while, he floats nearby, saying nothing, doing nothing, just watching.
It isn't until she steps out of the dream meadow and onto the dream curb of a city street to find Tyler leaning against a lamppost waiting for her that Edward's specter disappears completely.
Four days after her return to Forks, the first package shows up. A padded manila envelope with her name handwritten on the front in black felt-tip ink, she frowns slightly until she sees the return address: T. Hawkins, 7371 E. 9th Street Apt. 4F, New York, NY 10014. Her heart flips in her chest as she tugs at the flap; what spills into her hands is a worn paperback with a sticky note attached to the cover. The book is Love in the Time of Cholera. The note reads, "I'm glad I didn't have to wait until old age to make you mine."
Two days later, a postcard arrives: on the front is a printed reproduction of a watercolor of the Strand; on the back, he has written simply, "New York misses you."
The next day, another package, another book; this time, The Bridges of Madison County. The note is typically Tyler: "Personally, I think this book is wildly overrated, but most women readers seem enamored. Anyway, I was told that every woman should read it, so here you go."
Three days later, a leather-bound journal. There's no note, but when she opens the cover, he has written on the first blank page.
I was reading over my recent letters to Michael the other day, and I realized something: since you came along, the tone of them has changed. It's hard to explain, except to say that, for the first time in a long time, it feels like I have something happy to tell him about. Anyway…there's freedom in putting thought to paper, as cheesy as it sounds. Fill this up with things to tell me when you get back. I miss you. New York misses you. My bed misses you.
I love you.
In the weeks that follow, Bella finds herself settling into a routine: hanging out with Jake during the day and making dinner for herself and Charlie at night. She talks to Tyler each night before bed, her cell phone growing warm against her ear as she curls up beneath her sheets, wishing that he were curled up beside her. Her days are eerily reminiscent of her time in Forks after the Cullens' departure, with one notable exception: her heart is whole.
She talks to Kelsey every so often, though their talks are relatively brief, and she calls Tyler whenever a package arrives. She can hear the pleasure in his voice when she admits that she agrees with him on the undeserved hype surrounding The Bridges of Madison County, and the smug timbre of his voice makes her miss him sharply, a sudden ache blooming in her chest.
"So," she breathes into the phone one night mid-month. "Tell me what you did today."
"Not much," he replies, and his voice is low and rough through the phone. She loves that she can tell just by listening to him that he's in bed, and she imagines his mismatched sheets, his pillow-flattened hair, his stubbled jaw. His words are ever so slightly slurred, and she imagines him out with Aidan, downing just enough beers to get giggly and pink-cheeked. "Had dinner with my family."
"Your mom and sister?"
"And my dad."
Bella feels her eyebrows hike. "Really? I thought you said they don't really see each other."
"They don't really," he replies. "Just for…milestones and stuff."
"Milestones?" She's momentarily panicked that today is the anniversary of his brother's suicide, but then she remembers that his brother died in May, that there was a morning at the end of the semester that she woke near 6 a.m. to find Tyler already gone, that he spent nearly four hours at the diner, that she'd been on the verge of setting out to find him herself when Aidan finally told her why he was gone.
She hears him sigh through the phone. "It was just…sort of…my birthday."
"WHAT?!" she screeches, then immediately freezes, listening for the sound of her father waking and coming to check on her. When the house stays silent, she hisses into her phone, "Today is your birthday?!"
"Well, technically, yesterday was my birthday," he reminds her, and she glances at her clock, realizing that it's nearly two in the morning in New York.
"Why didn't you tell me?" she demands, feeling guilt crash over her. "I can't believe I didn't know when your birthday was."
His voice goes faintly muffled, and she imagines that his mouth is half-hidden in his pillow. "I don't know. I don't really get off on birthdays." Suddenly, she remembers: Michael killed himself on his twenty-second birthday. Today – or, technically, yesterday – Tyler would have turned twenty-two. She still feels awful, but manages to restrain herself from pushing the issue. Instead, she tries to make her voice sound sultry.
"Well, what do you get off on?"
There's a brief pause, and she can just picture his faintly dilated pupils, the slightly befuddled look on his face as he attempts to decipher her meaning. "What?"
"Forgetting your birthday doesn't make me a very good girlfriend, and given the distance between us, there's not much I can do to make it up to you right now. Except…" She lets the word hang there, feeling vulnerable and bold and terrified and empowered and like a virgin all over again.
"Except what?" he asks, and he's slightly breathless.
"Except…whatever you want."
"Bella," he half-moans, and she smiles as she gets up and crosses her bedroom to lock her door.
"Tell me," she whispers, sliding back into bed.