Disclaimer: I don't own Twilight

Pre-read by Jonesn, my sweet bestie.

Betad by Franny, also my bestie. We're meeting

today in Nashville! *squeeeeees*.

Mistakes are my own because I tinker after they finish.


Chapter Twenty-Four: Familiar Strangers

The cords from his ear buds touch his shoulders before disappearing somewhere inside his hoodie. He pulls the hood over his head, shielding out the world with one last dark look. Disappearing behind the building housing the school nurse, he's alone, other than the trail of pale gray smoke from the smoldering butt of his cigarette. The smoke intermingles with the sky, soft and mottled. Winter is in the air, and it's too cold for a hoodie.

His mom probably sold his coat for a drink, or some crack.

I follow him, because damn, he's my brother. Not by birth, but by choice, and that means more to me than blood and all that other bullshit. The warning bell for my last class of the day rings in the distance. The fleeting thought of the stacks of tardies I've accrued means nothing, not when we're still doing this proverbial dance around each other, showing up for gigs, but not speaking, and at the end of the night, only exchanging narrowed eyes and greens that we've earned.

This shit ends here

I find him leaning against the back of the building facing the woods. He pulls one, ear bud out, and muffled music fills the space between us, dark and angry, just as dark and angry as his glare into the neighboring forest.

Standing between him and the tree line, I shove my hands in my pockets and tilt my head back, appraising him. Shadows dust the space between his eyes and cheeks. His skin is sallow, sickly looking and I'm worried about him. No matter how big of an asshole he's been, he's still Jasper, he's still my friend. "You look tired, man."

Jasper flicks the cigarette into the distance. Smoke billows out of his mouth as he speaks.

"Haven't been sleeping. Can't turn this off." He taps his forehead and doesn't meet my eyes.

Shifting on my feet, I lick my bottom lip, a million jumbled thoughts meshing around inside my head. Nothing I'm thinking seems like the right thing to say at this moment.

Why are you still hung up on Bella?

Because she reminds you of Maria?

Because you can't stand losing a game, I wasn't aware we were even playing?

Are you really so selfish that you're willing to sever a lifetime friendship over a girl who feels nothing for you?

"What Bella and I have is never gonna change," I say. "Like it or not, it's your choice. I hope you accept it and things can go back to normal. Not to sound like a pussy, but I miss my friend Jas."

Jasper still doesn't look at me, but I see a brief smile and my shoulders relax somewhat. The smile fades away and his lips purse. "You miss him, huh? I hear he's a real asshole."

I grin and shrug. "He usually is, but sometimes, and it's only on a rare occasion, he can be a pretty decent guy. There was a time, not long ago, that I thought getting high and drinking was the only way to cope with the shit going on inside my head. But my buddy Jasper … He saw what the drugs and drinking was doing to him, what it was doing to all of us. After that, he was always setting my shit straight, telling me I didn't want to end up like everyone else he loved. That guy, he cared about me, man. I miss that guy."

Jasper squints and blinks. Fishing around inside his hoodie, he pulls out another cigarette and a lighter. He lights his smoke and offers me one.

"Nah," I say. The urge is right there, on the back of my tongue and inside my cheeks. "Been spending a lot of time at home lately and Carlisle doesn't like me smoking.I didn't notice how bad I stunk until I got that cigarette smell all over Bella's bed."

Jasper snorts and glances at me for the first time, taking a deep drag of his cigarette. "You tainted her sheets, huh?"

"They smelled good before." I shrug. "Like her."

"She does smell good," he says, laughing at my narrowed eyes. "Hey, that was an innocent compliment."

I snort. "Right."

"No, really," Jasper's face loses its humor. He finishes his cigarette and snuffs it out under his boot. "I thought Bella was everything I wanted in a girl. She's hot; smells nice, she's funny and doesn't care about all that superficial shit other girls obsess over. And when I found out the two of you were messing around, I'll admit I was pissed. I was pissed for falling for another girl who wanted my friend, again. But mostly I was pissed that you didn't tell me you wanted her. You let me get caught-up in my feelings. And when I got in too deep, I find out the two of you are together. When did we start keeping shit from each other?"

Taking a deep breath, I reluctantly gesture for the pack of smokes poking out from his hoodie pocket. He fumbles for the pack, handing me the smokes and a lighter. Using the force of my lips on the filter, I suck the flame to the tip, releasing the metal prong as soon as the burn hits the back of my throat.

"When did we start keeping shit from each other—probably when we started calling dibs on unassuming girls."

Jasper chuckles, dropping his chin and staring at the ground. He shakes his head, still laughing to himself. "That was a dickhead thing to do, huh?"

"Spoiled and selfish," I say, "is what we were. Thinking we could pick and choose girls by calling dibs. I don't know about you, but I'm tired. I'm tired of being spoiled and selfish, tired of drowning in my worries and thoughts. And I'm tired of missing my friend Jasper, even if sometimes, he is an asshole."

Jasper rests the back of his head against the building,a half-smile on his face. "Sorry about everything."

"Yeah, well, it's gonna take a lot more than an apology for things to go back the way they were." Tossing the butt aside, I hear the bell ringing again in the distance, dismissing class.

"We better get out of here before Coach Jenkins finds us. You know he likes to sneak back here after gym with the school nurse."

Jasper pushes himself away from the building, walking beside me. He's quiet for a while, until we reach his van. Tucking a hand inside his pocket, I hear his keys jingle. "You're really in love with her aren't you?"

"Yeah." Something warms my face. Peering up, I notice the clouds parting and sunlight filtering down from the sky. "I really am."

~c00ch~

Freezing rain falls from the sky, the tiny drops of frozen water pelting against the balcony doors. Pressing my face against the cool glass, I close my eyes, attempting to slow the jumbled thoughts inside my head.

Why isn't she home yet?

For the umpteenth time, I glance at my cell. There's no new calls, no missed texts, just a photo of Bella's smiling face staring back at me from when I took the photo of her laying on my bed. Brown hair spills out around her face and her eyes are only half-open, probably still blurry from sleep. Even with wrinkled clothes and sleep lines on her face, she's beautiful.

Where is she?

Esme has been cooking more lately. The scent of tomatoes and garlic, Italian herbs and spices teases me from downstairs, but I can't move away from the balcony. Bella left for the grocery store over two hours ago and hasn't returned. Not wanting to be that guy, the clingy, crazy boyfriend, I've only texted her once. Unanswered, my text stares back at me as I open my texting app yet again.

Why are you so worried? She probably just ran into one of her friends from school.

The only girls she hangs out with are Angie and Alice Brandon. I scroll through my phone, wondering if I possibly have Angie's number from the times we've hung out as a group, but a flash of light in the distance causes me to snap my attention back to the glass, balcony doors. I toss my phone on my bed beside the almost-full moleskin book Bella bought me last Christmas.

Last Christmas? Has it been nearly a year? Seems like yesterday ...

The front door slams, practically rattling the house. Esme speaks and Bella responds, her voice soft. The tap, tap, tap of her shoes on the stairs echoes with the beat of my heart. She passes me in the hallway, her face pinched in preoccupation. Leaning on the door frame, I raise my eyebrows in surprise, as she doesn't notice me, so caught up in whatever is going on inside her head that I've become a ghost.

I won't lie, it kinda hurts.

Mattress springs moan, along with my girl. I follow the same path as she did; entering her bedroom with a hesitation I've never felt. She's lying on the bed, her face buried in her fat, fluffy pillows. The puffy coat she wears remains snug around her body. Droplets of water from her coat, dot the purple comforter on her bed.

"You okay?"

She jumps at the sound of my voice and sits up on the bed. For the first time, I notice the redness rimming her eyes, the glistening of unshed tears. Avoiding my gaze, she stands and shrugs off the thick coat. It lands on the bed, her cell falling from the inside of one silky pocket and burrowing inside the purple sheets.

"Yeah, I'm fine." Sniffing, she opens her closet and thumbs through the clothes hanging on her rack, pausing when she finds a black shirt. "Just cold." The plastic hanger swings around the rack and clatters to the ground as she snatches the shirt. Pulling it on, she doesn't turn back around for several seconds. When she does, her face is clearer, the redness of her eyes not as noticeable.

"You were gone a long time," I say. "I was worried. That's why I texted. What happened?"

"Mama sent me after the most impossible ingredients for her gravy." Bella glances behind me at the empty doorway, leaning forward with a forced smile on her face. "That's what she calls spaghetti sauce. She gets into character when she cooks, ya know. Tonight she's Italian."

Ignoring her obvious attempt to avoid my question, I ask another one. "Something happened while you were gone, but you're not telling me. You look like you've been crying."

"I'm fine, Edward. Really." She tugs the sleeves of her shirt over her hands. Standing on her toes, she drops a kiss on my unshaven cheek. "I gotta go help Mama with supper. See you downstairs in a few."

Without another word, she walks out of the room; her lips pressed together, her forehead puckered, as though she's lost in thought. Sighing, I sit on the bed, prop my elbows on my knees, and scrub my face, annoyed that she's closing herself off from me. I want to tell her about my talk with Jasper, I want to find out why a thirty-minute trip took her much longer and resulted in her returning with such a look of sadness, of discouragement. Instead, I'm left sitting on the edge of her bed with her phone dinging away with missed Facebook PM's.

Missed Facebook PM's.

A few months ago, I would've looked at Bella's phone without a fleeting moment of shame. But now, after all we've been through, I'm hesitant to pick it up, to read the messages flashing across the screen.

Something is wrong and she's not telling you.

You're entitled to look ...

"I'm not entitled to anything," I mutter, shaking my head. I'm talking to myself, losing my fucking mind over here.

Just this one time.

Chewing on the corner of my bottom lip, I turn, pick up the phone, and open her messenger app before I change my mind. Lauren Mallory's fake smile and ultra-white veneers shine back at me and I raise my eyebrows. Lauren has been quiet since Bella and I came out about our relationship. There's been no more throwing herself at me, no more unrequited flirtation from beside my locker. Things have been calm, just how I like it, other than the occasional stare from people I've known my entire life. Judgmental stares, but the bastards wouldn't ever say a word to me. All I've had to do is meet their curious looks straight on, unwavering. They always drop their eyes, shuffling away, whispering to one another, but they don't say shit to me.

That's been the worst of it.

Until now.

bella, jess and i r curious. is it 'cause ur from the south? - Lauren

Is what because I'm from the South? - Bella

u know, incest. banging ur stepbrother. - Lauren

Edward isn't my stepbrother and you know this. Even if he were my stepbrother, we are not blood related. Leave me alone, you wretched bitch. Stop harassing me at school and stop messaging me on Facebook. - Bella

"Edward, supper's ready," Esme calls from downstairs.

Nearly jumping out of my skin, I drop the phone. It falls to the floor and skids under Bella's desk and out of view. Dropping to my knees, I curse and crawl under the desk, banging my head in the process. The sound of feet thumping on the stairway brings my racing heart shooting from my chest to my throat. The cell phone screen lights up with another incoming text and I sigh in relief, grabbing the phone and crawling out from under the desk. I toss the phone on Bella's bed just in time. She enters the room, raising an eyebrow and putting her hands on her hips.

"What are you doing on the floor?"

"Dropped the cell," I say.

Can't fucking lie to my girl—not entirely.

You're still lying by omission, asshole.

"Did you find it?"

"Yeah." Standing, I run my fingers through my hair and shoot her a relaxed smile. "I found it."

~c00ch~

Lauren Mallory's mother is a local hairdresser and her father is a banker who spends more time away from his family than he does at home. They live in a modest size home in the main part of town. Two stories and painted light yellow, it stands out against the more subdued homes in town, with its white trim and wrap around porch. Sitting on the curb beside the house, I squint my eyes up at the bright yellow box of light on the second story. The clock inside my car reads five a.m. When most kids are asleep at this time on a Tuesday morning, Lauren Mallory is awake, doing what she does every morning at five a.m.

And doing it alone.

The front door slams behind her and she bounces down the steps. One she reaches the bottom step, she turns, plants one foot on the steps and bends, stretching for her morning run. Next, she props her other foot on the step, stretching, preparing her muscles for her five-mile run.

Although there are few people out this time of the morning and she's about to go for a long-ass run, she's wearing makeup. Her blonde hair is slicked back into a tight ponytail. I'm sure the workout clothes she's wearing cost her dad a pretty penny. Anything for his little princess.

Lauren must be caught up in her thoughts, or maybe in the monotony of her morning routine, because she doesn't notice me as she jogs down the walkway to the sidewalk, not until I'm leaning against my car, arms cross, facing her. She stops in her tracks, her mouth slightly ajar before it fades away, replaced with a smug smirk.

"Got tired of that weirdo, huh?" she asks. She saunters to the metal gate separating her property from the outside world. "I knew you'd come back around, Cullen."

The sound of my last name coming out of her mouth irritates me, for whatever reason. Maybe it's because I've gotten used to Bella calling me by my first name. Or maybe it's because I simply loathe this desperate, pathetic girl standing in front of me. Either way, my haunches are lifted; been raised since I read those Facebook PM's last night.

"I couldn't sleep all night thinking about you," I confess, once she's on my side of the gate.

Wariness spreads over her features, her shoulder stiffening at the sound of malice in my voice. I'm grasping at false friendliness, but my anger betrays me. I push myself away from my car.

Lauren takes a step back. Her ass hits the gate, rattling it on its hinges. Eyes widening as I close the distance between us. She fumbles with the latch, but her shaking fingers fail to grasp it with each grab. Conceding when I'm within touching distance, she drops her hands to her sides and purses her lips, staring at my chest instead of my face.

"Leave. Bella. Alone."

"God, she told you?" Crossing her arms, she huffs. "Overly sensitive little snit. I was just messing with her."

"She didn't tell me. I found out on my own."

Lauren glances up, realization dancing in her eyes. "Ah, you read her messages. There's already distrust in your relationship? Sounds like you two have more issues than the incest thing."

"It's not- you know what? I'm not even gonna waste my time defending the whole 'incest' thing you're conjured up inside your tiny little head." I tap the side of her head for emphasis and her smug smile disappears. "But I will defend my girl from you harassing her. Leave her alone. Got it?"

Lauren narrows her eyes and says nothing. I turn, walk away, and only stop when she speaks up.

"What if I don't leave her alone? Whatcha gonna do about it?" She laughs a vindictive, low sound that grates on my nerves and makes my skin crawl. "You gonna beat me up like you did Jasper not so long ago? I don't think so."

Smirking, she walks past me, her hair flopping from side to side with her casual stroll.

"Nah, I won't beat you up," I call out to her. "But I will tell your daddy the truth about his car."

Lauren's steps falter.

Stumbling, she struggles to right herself before she crashes to the sidewalk. Wiping her palms on her short-shorts, she turns, her face red even in the dim morning light. "You wouldn't dare."

"I would."

Chuckling, I return to my car, leaning and crossing my feet at the ankles. "He'd be interested to know that his then fifteen-year-old daughter stole it for a joyride, picked up her loser, druggie boyfriend, and then proceeded to crash daddy'scar into a tree. Then she called one of her low-life criminal friends to come dump it in the lake. It's still there. Cars don't just vanish into thin air. I wonder how much of the taxpayers money went into the time spent during the police investigation?"

"I was messed up. You were messed up," she says, wiping her forehead with the back of her hand. Sweating already and she hasn't even started her run. "We were dumb kids. Things have changed. We're not the same kids we once were."

"And I have Bella to thank for that. But what do I have you to thank for?" I blow out a long breath, one I don't realize I'm holding. Tension fuels my anger, anger I've kept embedded deep inside for so long. "You know, I've always blamed myself for the drugs, blamed myself for not being there when my mom died, blamed myself for disconnecting from my father."

"I never once blamed you or Jasper for introducing me to drinking or for getting me acquainted with your older brother and his friends, the ones who slung drugs. We all were caught up in the mix—me, you, him, all of the kids we hung out with back then. I blamed myself. I'm the one that bought the shit from them; I'm the one who drowned myself in alcohol. Me, no one else. But I'm telling you right now, if you don't leave Bella alone, I swear on my mother's grave I will tell Mr. Mallory all your dirty little secrets."

"The Cullen I know wouldn't rat out someone he's known his entire life," she says, her voice low, unbelieving. "Not over some girl who isn't even pretty."

Lauren's insecurities are blinding. I see them everywhere and it's staggering how I've never noticed it before. From the top of her processed hair, down to the tips of her expensive sneakers, she reeks of self-doubt.

"The Cullen you knew no longer exists." My anger smolders away with her crushed face. She looks twelve again, a younger, innocent version of the girl standing before me. Back then, she wore glasses and loved Pixie Stix. Braces had gleamed from her mouth with every shy smile she'd sent my way and my chest hurts because I realize I liked that version of Lauren, the one who cared nothing about the politics of high school or bullying her competition.

"We had fun when we were kids," I say. I smile as her downcast face brightens a little and her eyes go somewhere else, somewhere in the past, as my mind has. "You collected stickers."

"There was an album you carried around chock full of them. You read those Babysitter's books in class. You'd hide them behind your science book and read it during class."

"Babysitter's Club," she says, smiling the first sincere smile I've seen on her face in some time. "I loved those kids' books."

"Guess we're not kids anymore, huh?"

"Nah, guess not." Her smile turns into a frown and she shifts on her feet.

"Guess we should start acting like adults, don't you think?"

She laughs and it's dry, like kindling snapping in a fire. "I guess so. Look, Cul- um, Edward, I'm sorry, okay? It's just, she shows up out of nowhere, ruins what we had going, and I-"

I don't stop her from her own rant. Lauren stops herself. Closing her eyes, she inhales, holding her breath for a few beats before releasing it between her puckered lips. Opening her eyes, her face looks softer, or at least as soft as the face of one Lauren Mallory can look.

"Sorry," she says.

Nodding, I silently accept her apology, knowing that one word is the best I'll ever get out of her. Rolling her eyes, she turns, but not before I catch a hint of a smile on her face. I stand by my car, watching her retreating frame as she takes a bend in the road and disappears around the corner. Staring at that place where she no longer is, my eyes burn and I blink away the pain. I blink away the pain and the memories of an innocent kid, who may not be too lost in her own bullshit to be the girl she once was.

~c00ch~

The sun comes up as I head home. My eyes are still pained and my mouth is open with a deep yawn. The thought of skipping school is a tempting one, but I won't throw Bella to the wolves. Lauren acted sincere, but I know how vindictive girls sometimes are.

Almost always are.

Smiling to myself, I shove the thought aside. Lauren will back down because she'd rather concede to my threats than take the chance of her daddy finding out his expensive convertible he reported stolen is currently residing at the bottom of a lake less than twenty miles from his house, thanks to his lovely daughter.

The thickness of the clouds thin above me, I notice, shutting the door of my Volvo behind me. Stretching, I work the soreness from my neck and shoulders. Stiffness takes over my bones and muscles, the results of a sleepless night. Glancing up at the darkness of my bedroom window, I can't help but wonder if she's now awake, if she's notices her legs are no longer entangled with mine, and if she no longer feels the warmth of my body.

A puttering, chugging sound pulls me from my thoughts.

An older model Chevy pulls down the road, one almost identical to Bella's, but completely restored. Cornflower blue and trimmed in white, the truck pulls up near the end of the drive and the window rolls down, I walk to the street, noticing a dark-haired man staring back hesitantly from inside the cab.

"Lost?" I ask. Living in a small town, I know just about every make and model of vehicle of each individual who lives here and this guy—he doesn't live here.

"Probably," he says, laughing. "I'm looking for someone, someone named Esme Platt? Lady at the diner says she lives around here."

Narrowing my eyes, I give him a good once over. He's in his late forties, thick, but not overweight. No, he's thick with bands of muscles on his arms, poorly hidden under the long sleeved shirt he wears. The shadow of a beard and mustache darkness his face, telling me he hasn't shaved in a few days. Mud cakes the undercarriage of the car. Empty water bottles and bags of chips are shoved inside a Walmart bag resting on the floorboard of the passenger side. This guy has been traveling for days, maybe longer.

Shoving my hands in my pockets, attempting to look casual, even though a weird, crawling sensation has taken over my body, I ask, "Whatcha need with Esme Platt?"

The man raises an eyebrow. "That's between me and Ms. Platt. Are you Ms. Platt?" He eyeballs me from head to toe as intensely as I've eyeballed him.

"Nah, never heard of her." I shrug, irritated by his sarcastic tone. "Sorry, I couldn't help."

"That's okay. Hey," he says, shooting me a friendly smile, "if you happen to bump into her, let her know that I'm looking for her. I've come a long way, been a long journey."

"Sure," I reply. "Who should I tell her is looking for her?"

The man brings his arm through the open window and hands me a business card. I take it, reading the bold, black print against the white background.

"Charlie," I read, glancing up at his seemingly sincere smile. "Charlie Swan."


Oh, snap.

Thanks to everyone who has taken the time to read and review THWL. I can't wait to meet a few of you at the TFMU later today!

Peace and Love,

Hoodie