Foxymoron
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Joined 11-20-08, id: 1747744, Profile Updated: 02-18-09

Chapter Notes: The following is an alternate version of Chapter 27 of Innocent, Vigilant, Ordinary by Oxymoronic8 from Edward's POV. Keep in mind (1) it is a very rough draft written as an experiment to see how I would fare with his perspective, (2) it is only part of his story and character development and thus does not stand on its own as a one-shot (and doesn't tie up loose plot holes you may still be wondering about in IVO), (3) I am not expecting feedback or reviews, which is why I am posting it on a profile page rather than posting it as a one-shot, and (4) Bella's version of Ch. 27 takes place over a longer time span, but for Edward this is really his time to grow up, so if this were his version, the events of Ch. 27 would go down over several chapters instead of just one (as it did for Bella). This may someday be a part of another version of IVO, written entirely in EPOV, but for now, it's just an experiment.

Again, this hasn't been edited extensively. If you'd like to comment/discuss this alternate chapter, please head over to the Innocent, Vigilant, Ordinary thread on the Twilighted Alternate Universe forum.

Unspoken thoughts SHOULD be in itallics w/ quotation marks, but the formatting is totally screwed up, so who knows what you guys are actually seeing...sorry.

CHAPTER TWENTY-SEVEN: Sacrifice

The foyer was dark, with shadows of swaying branches from the elm trees outside streaming in through the windows and creating the room’s only semblance of movement. Rigid, I sat on the steps. Waiting.

I waited in silence; my pristine hearing was irrelevant tonight. Rosalie and Emmett were off in the woods doing God only knows what. Esme had retreated to the master bedroom, where she was re-reading her collection of Elizabeth Barrett Browning poems for the thousandth time. Alice and Jasper left under the ruse of hunting for the fourth consecutive evening this week. I knew better; Alice still barely spoke to me, even blocking me from her thoughts though there was no longer a reason to, and Jasper found me intolerable, often thinking that the combined pain of receiving all four hundrefd twenty-three bite marks on his body was more pleasurable than my company. As for Carlisle, he was at work. And I knew exactly what he was doing, or at least who he was treating. But that I was all I knew; so desperately, I craved details.

Carlisle’s shift ended at seven, but, of course, today would be the one day he was running late.

I rested my head against the wall and let the day rerun itself through my head, welcoming the pain and frustration that I more than deserved.

She’d fallen right after school. I’d watched her. I’d let it happen.

As if against her better judgment, Alice had informed me at lunch that Bella would stumble in the parking lot. Looking up from the Calculus text book she’d been reading ad nauseam for months to keep me out of her head, she let up momentarily to let me in, reluctantly assuring me, “She’s going to slip today, Edward. Just a sprain. I’m almost certain.”

“How certain?” I’d asked, my words rushed.

Alice noisily flipped the page in her book. Without glancing up, she had silently replied, “Very.”

I’d tapped my fingers a little too roughly against the leg of the table, causing the surface to wobble in rhythm with my jerking fingertips. “I wish you’d stop doing that.” I gestured to her text book shield.

Finally, Alice directed the full impact of her stare at me. In a cool, even voice, she’d asked aloud, “Is there something you’d like to say?”

I stared back. “I’m not going to gamble with fate, Alice.”

She closed the book quickly, and the pages met in a single, audible clap. “You choose your own fate, Edward.”

I leaned forward, my voice dropping to a near growl. “Don’t play games with me. Not when it comes to her. Has anything changed? She’s still going to be fine…and soon, correct?”

Alice moved to stand, but when she heard the pleading in my voice, she unwillingly remained in her seat across from me. Callously, she huffed, “Define ‘fine.’”

I narrowed my eyes at her, missing my carefree, jubilant sister who never missed an opportunity to bring a reluctant smile to my face. Now, we rarely exchanged glances, let alone pleasantries. “A pulse is ‘fine.’ A normal life is ‘fine.’”

Alice sighed and grudgingly responded, “She’ll start eating again in a few days. She’s going to start fighting soon, recovering so she can try and fit in and stop everyone from worrying about her. But she won’t be who she was when she was with you.” She winced at those final words.

I clenched my jaw. “And who was she then, Alice? A girl with a death wish? A girl you saw either dying at my hand or surrendering her soul because she foolishly thought her fleeting human emotions were capable of loving something like me?”

Alice, wounded as if I’d just slapped her across the face, stood finally, whispering her departing words. “She loved you. You made her happy.” Alice started for the door, continuing in a low voice indistinct to human ears, “She’ll be fine, with time, but she won’t be happy. At least, not as happy as she could have been.”

But she’d be alive, I’d thought to myself, knowing that was what really mattered.

After school, I’d stood in the distance, out of Bella’s sight, fighting the desire to catch her. As soon as she’d begun to loose her balance, I knew she’d land on her wrist, not her head. I still had time to stop her, to grab her and touch her after months of no contact. My arms twitched at the idea, but the costs were simply too high. Bella had to fall and pick herself back up. Even if I saved her, I’d only be hurting her in the end.

Now, from my perch on the steps, I glanced at the grandfather clock to the left of the door. Seven thirty-two. Bella fell just after three this afternoon; surely, she’d be home by now. I could go there and keep hidden in the woods that bordered her backyard, just to check—

No.

I’d denied my craving to look in on her since I’d cut ties with her, and I wouldn’t start now. Icy pavement and a few bruises were small prices to pay for a normal life. She’d be fine.

Nonetheless, just to be certain, I waited. In the distance, I heard the distinct purr of a Mercedes engine.

Five minutes later, headlights altered the shadows against the hardwood. Carlisle was standing in front of me within seconds.

“She sprained her wrist—”

I stood and nodded curtly, cutting off his unspoken, worried thoughts. He was merely confirming what I already knew; when she’d collapsed on the concrete, I hadn’t heard any of her bones snap. “So she’s fine, then.”

Carlisle’s face tightened, and he spoke aloud to drill his point home. “I certainly wouldn’t say that, Edward.” He paused and examined my hardened expression. “Would you?”

I turned my back to him but remained motionless on the staircase. “Teenagers often battle depression, especially after the end of a relationship. When she and that boy—”

“Edward.” He shot me a disbelieving look. “You don’t still honestly think this doesn’t involve you? Frankly, you are far too observant for such blatant denial.”

“We’ve been through this, Carlisle.” I gripped the banister, barely staving off the urge to crush it to sawdust. “Regardless, she’ll recover. Eventually. She’s stronger than she looks.” My mind flashed back to the crazed look in her eyes that night I’d tried so hard to break free from her and ultimately forced myself to break her instead. I kept her amazing persistence in the forefront of my mind as I watched her wither away day after day, knowing that someday, she’d move on past whatever it was that pained her to the life she was meant to lead. Humans are resilient that way.

I could feel Carlisle’s eyes boring into the back of my head. In his mind, I saw her fragile, avoidant face sitting on an examination table in the ER. Her legs, like denim-covered twigs, dangled lifelessly off the edge of the table. I pushed the image out of my head and thundered up the stairs to my bedroom.

I thrust the door open and slammed it behind me in a two swift, fluid motions. I turned on my stereo but was incapable of focusing on Tchaikovsky’s haunting concerto. Instead, when the smooth leather of the couch met with the back of my head, I closed my eyes, wishing I was capable of sleep, and let my mind drift, though I already knew exactly where it would end up.

Everyday Bella became thinner, but I wouldn’t entertain the idea that she also was growing weaker. I knew her. I knew she was capable of fighting the loneliness; the question was only a matter of when. Eventually, just as I’d told Carlisle, she would snap out of it and go back to a healthy, human life. Maybe, as Alice once foresaw months ago, she’d end up with the boy, her Jacob, who was nowhere near good enough for her but loved her selflessly. She’d go away to school…Seattle, maybe, or someplace farther. He’d follow. They’d marry, and he’d work at making her happy for the rest of their all-too-brief mortal lives. The idea made something in my chest ache, but I knew he was the better alternative. He couldn’t push her to take the risks necessary for her to get the most out of her future, but he certainly wouldn’t hurt her. He could hold her and kiss her without boundaries. He could grow old with her. In other words, he could do everything I could not.

In my head, I occasionally let myself loathe him. Yes, he was better for her than I was, but that didn’t make him the best option either. I wondered if he knew how much pain she was in, how alone she was. Did they still speak? Was he trying what any logical human being with a brain should be doing: trying to win her back? Was he the reason she’d forced herself into isolation and seemingly given up on interacting with her peers? My palms contracted into fists at the idea that this boy could fix her yet chose not to.

Beyond the walls of my bedroom, I heard Alice and Jasper rushing through the forest toward the house, laughing and reaching out for each other as they ran, the cool, hard flesh of their palms making and then breaking contact, over and over.

I thought of Bella then, not that I ever really stopped thinking about her. I missed the feeling of her soft, rosy skin, even though I had no right to miss her, to yearn for her as if she’d once belonged to me when our futures were clearly never meant to be linked. I’d stolen each and every brush my body made against hers, thieving seconds of contact that I didn’t deserve.

It was always the worst at night, when I could hear Carlisle and Esme laughing softly together at a private joke or Rosalie and Emmett enthusiastically running their hands over each other. The sounds of my family’s bliss tore at me more now than ever. The divide between myself and the rest of them, though nothing new, cut deeper these days, reminding me of just how alone I truly was and how alone I’d stay. Forever. Once the noises around me began, I always grew weaker, letting myself mentally trace over the delicate features of her face and remember the scent of her hair in the downpour and the way her lips curled up when she thought she was pulling something over on me. She could never be mine, but I would always be hers.

XXXXXXXXXXXX

I didn’t bother waiting for Alice the next morning. She’d been happier riding to school without me these days, so I knew she wouldn’t mind my early departure.

I traveled on foot through the forest, my feet sinking minutely into the soft earth along the banks of the Calawah River. The exercise was never enough of a distraction. Rather, the speed in which the tree branches passed by in my peripheral vision served as another reminder of my inhumanity. I used to pride myself on how much faster I was than everyone, even my siblings, but now I saw it as just another characteristic that marked me as deadly, a killer in remission on the brink of giving in to his own sick, twisted urges.

I arrived at the high school within minutes and found my place along the shadows of the outbuildings where I’d watch her.

As usual, anxiety coursed through my otherwise barren veins as I scanned the parking lot. It was mostly empty, but the single object of my search, an abomination of rusted metal and faded red paint, was already parked in its usual spot in the far corner, near the forest.

Though Bella’s mind was closed to my inexorable attempts to invade, I was fairly confident I knew her game plan. She parked in the most remote area of the student lot, so as to avoid run-ins with our classmates. She arrived early in the morning and left late in the afternoon, hiding either in the library or in the restroom so she could make her entrances and exits alone, likely knowing all too well that she stood a better chance of solitude if she waited out the rush of incoming and departing students. She relied on the same strategy during the lunch hour, which drove me especially mad because she needed to eat.

I saw what she was doing, but I still couldn’t verify the reason why. Of course, I had my theories, most of which revolved around a certain child who didn’t appreciate a good thing when it was staring him right in the face…staring with those wide, doe eyes, the color of dark chocolate…

I brushed off the thought and returned to my mental chastisement of Jacob Black. Judging by Bella’s reclusive, dejected behavior, I was almost positive Black wasn’t living up to the promise that I once saw in him. I’d saved her life twice, and both times, I’d encountered him shortly thereafter. On her porch the night she slipped on the dock, he’d waited for her, blaming himself for some lovers’ spat the two had hours earlier. In the hospital the night she was nearly crushed by that dreadful truck of hers, after she’d fallen asleep, he snuck into her room and mentally vowed to work harder at keeping her happy. For a split second, I’d wanted to snap him in half for having everything I wanted, but then I remembered he could make her happy, whereas I could only offer her a bottomless, repulsive fate worse than death. Though Jacob Black was naïve, just a boy, his thoughts had told me he would support and comfort her unconditionally. Now, seeing her bones protrude from under her ashen skin, I had second thoughts about entrusting something so precious to a careless child. I kept waiting for him to come in and mend her broken heart, but for the past three months, he still hadn’t met my expectations and she was suffering for his shortcomings.

I sucked in a gust of the heavy air and reminded myself that if it wasn’t Jacob Black, it would be someone else. Someone human, who likely wouldn’t deserve her but who would still prove to be a wiser choice than myself. That someone would fix her. Or maybe she’d fix herself. Either way, I couldn’t allow myself to take on that job.

I realized I must be scowling when a group of freshmen girls cowered away from where I leaned against the brick wall of the gymnasium.

“I see you’re trying extra hard today to keep up your human façade, Edward.”

I’d been so lost in thought that I’d neglected to see Alice pull up in my Volvo. She stood in front of me with a disapproving, almost-maternal grimace on her face. Continuing her criticism of my appearance, she added, “You’re covered in mud, and you look like an ogre.”

“I left you my car. I had to cut through the forest to get here. What did you expect?”

She only rolled her eyes in response. We walked in silence to our first classes of the morning.

In Calculus, I was present only in the physical sense; mentally, I spent the entire class period living in Alice’s mind as she sat through Spanish…where Bella slumped unresponsive and silent four rows behind Alice’s desk.

As a tribute to how much she adored Bella, and despite the fact it also meant she’d be following my own demands, Alice fought uncharacteristically hard to respect Bella’s wishes by keeping her distance. The downside of that meant she rarely turned around in her seat to allow me a vicarious view of Bella’s heartbreakingly lost face. Thus, seeing only what Alice saw, I rarely got a glimpse of Bella except for the moment she walked through the door at the top of the hour. In those brief seconds, she never looked up to meet Alice’s gaze, and I was grateful that at least my photographic memory could capture the resplendent depths of her eyes, since I hadn’t seen them in person since November. Even through the thoughts of others, I couldn’t get a recent reading of those eyes; apparently, I wasn’t the only one she refused to look at.

Today, a canvas sling encased her emaciated left forearm. To cope with her injury, she’d switched the weight of her knapsack to her right shoulder, forcing her to walk to her desk in a lopsided gait. I was annoyed no one was helping her, but then I realized she probably wouldn’t allow it even if someone was brave enough to offer their assistance; the expression she wore these days pulled off the impossible feat of being simultaneously pitiful and intimidating.

When first period ended, Alice left immediately, out of respect for Bella. The words she’d shouted at me months ago repeated themselves in my mind: “She doesn’t want to see me, Edward. Because she says I remind her of you.”

Alice’s heart was pure, but she was still a part of my world, so it was best for her friendship with Bella to cease. Still…I wanted someone to reach out to Bella, to be there for her when she was so clearly alone.

En route to Physics, I passed Angela Weber in the courtyard. Her mind currently fixated on an upcoming study date with Ben Cheney, but I hoped she’d be the one to finally break through to Bella; among the countless insipid minds wondering the halls of Forks High School, Angela’s genuine kindness was a breath of a fresh air. She hadn’t yet been able to capture Bella’s attention, but I was certain she’d be the catalyst for Bella’s recovery. Alice wouldn’t let me see exactly how it happened, and I wasn’t even sure she knew all the details, but in my head, I saw Bella sitting with a circle of her friends, laughing in the sunshine, living just as she should, as she would be this very second if not for my selfish, foolish intrusion in her life.

Mr. Banner blabbed on about inertia as his students daydreamed about graduation, prom, and other generic rites of passage they’d face in the upcoming months. Once, I’d found such events tedious and pointless, but now I envied the wide-eyed optimism my human classmates felt at the prospect of their futures. Jealousy and bitterness washed through me as I thought of their lack of boundaries; though their bodies were incredibly fragile, they had so many more capabilities than I did…at least, in the areas where it really counted. They could touch each other without shattering the other’s skull and enjoy the luscious scent of their bodies sans the overpowering urge to literally feast on their partner. For years, I’d found the hormonal lust of teenagers rather repulsive, but now I was envious of its simplicity.

From three rows over, Lauren Mallory’s disgusting fantasies of me shirtless and caressing her overly tanned face wove their way into my head and disrupted my thoughts. I turned my head ever so slightly so the blackness of my irises met with her shallow blue of hers. My nostrils flared, and I allowed disgust to color my entire face.

“Oh God, he must think I look like such a cow. It’s my hair—I should have never cut it. Mom was right, it does add ten pounds.” She drew her hands to her neck, mourning the loss of several inches of her limp, straw-colored mane. Seeing that I was still glaring at her, Lauren flushed, her face tingeing slightly purple, the shade of an over-ripe beet. Both the color and the pattern of the blood rising to her face were all wrong, and the sight of it increased my discontent.

The next two hours of the monotonous school day droned on, and then it was one o’clock and time for English, easily the best and worst part of my day rolled into fifty excruciating minutes.

I waited outside until I heard Bella enter through the squeaky metal door, then I waited a few more seconds for her to take cover in her seat before I followed suit. I practically ached at the idea of altering my routine a bit and timing my entrance within milliseconds of hers so I could savor the fresh trail of her scent or maneuvering down the aisle directly to her left so as to sneak a feather-light brush against her hair…but such indulgencies were where it started before, and they had lead to utter disaster. Once I started letting myself feel her, both physically and emotionally, I wouldn’t be able to stop; I couldn’t manage such a feat twice. I’d damned myself the first time but managed to stifle her affections and protect her from a similar fate. But if it happened again…it would end both of us.

From my seat, I spared her my merciless stare. Sometimes, though it was impossible in terms of human senses, I could have sworn she felt my eyes on her. Her back would stiffen and a tremble would tense and then release her muscles slightly before she’d hunch back down into the unforgiving metal of her chair.

Today, I pretended to study my cuticles as Mike Newton dared to sneak disgusted glares in my direction. Since Bella had requested a change in her seating assignment, English had become a new kind of hell for me, with Newton perched within a yard of me, heightening his already potent scent, a mix of the cheap, overpowering musk of his Axe deodorant and the Cheetos he inhaled at lunch.

Newton frequently spent the class period plotting laughably fruitless plans for my demise. My current favorite was the one where he clocked me in the jaw in front of the entire study body, with Bella dressed as a cheerleader, rooting him on with an overenthusiastic, un-Bella-like toothy grin on her face. With mediocre fantasies like that, I was amazed he could land any girl at all. The fact he held onto the delusion he stood a chance with Bella used to make me a smile, but now it made me detest him to his very core, as I had to accept the fact that even a commonplace, superficial joke of a human being like him was better for her than I was.

Out of my peripheral vision, I caught Newton watching me again, his thoughts declaring me “a walking asshat.” I fought the unbearable urge to roll my eyes and stole a glance at Bella’s slumping frame. The sight of her dissipated my annoyance. She was motionless, and I missed the way she used to unconsciously tap her long, slender fingers against the legs of her chair. The rhythms of her tapping always varied depending on her mood; slow and sporadic when she was deep in thought, quick and melodic when she was pleased with something, hard and fast when she was angry. Now her fingertips rested limply on her thighs, leaving me to contemplate her emotions without accompaniment.

Mr. Berty’s lecture wrapped up, and I collected myself, ready to sprint from the room in order to grant her a chance at solace, knowing the sight of me leaving was the last encounter she’d have of me for the rest of the day. I’d still suffer through two more class periods, but really, once I walked out of that classroom, my day was over.

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

My hopes Angela Weber would resurrect Bella from her sullen, robotic state became a reality a week later when I heard her stop Bella in the hallway. I was already at my table in the cafeteria with Alice when I heard their exchange. Angela was gentle and kind, spotting Bella looking lost and confused at the commencement of the lunch hour and telling her what so many had thought for months: “You look hungry.”

Through Angela’s mind, I saw Bella spot her own reflection in the glass trophy case that aligned the wall, her eyes widening slightly as if truly seeing herself for the first time…she always had been slow on the uptake when it came to self-awareness, a trait I’d once found baffling and frustrating. Now, I looked it at differently: Bella’s inability to see herself was draining her physically, sending me to the brink of my own sanity. Not only did Bella fail to recognize she needed to take better care of herself, but her father’s failure to do more to snap his own daughter out of her depressive funk also disgusted me. How could they not see she was wasting away, both physically and, mostly likely, emotionally?

When Angela stepped up, it seemed to jar Bella into the first awareness I’d seen from her in a long time. Even if Angela couldn’t dig any farther under Bella’s skin, based on Bella’s reaction to her own lifeless reflection, Angela had done more to wake her up than anyone else.

Just as I tried to placate myself with Bella’s slight progress, she spoke the two syllables that sent my cold, dead heart flying. “Okay.”

The word was in response to Angela’s request that Bella accompany her into the cafeteria. For food. Relief flooded through me, and I visibly relaxed in my chair.

Immediately, my eyes flashed to Alice, who just shook her head, apparently as surprised as I was. “Must have been a last-minute decision,” she marveled, more to herself than to me.

I braced myself for Bella’s entrance. Would she look at me? Would her eyes drift to our table, to the seat she’d once occupied, where she’d slowly ripped away my resolve and unknowingly forced me to attach myself to her for the remainder of my existence?

I froze in my seat as she pushed open the cafeteria doors, needing her to ignore me, but praying she’d allow me one brief, in-person glimpse of her eyes.

Her head bowed, she walked through the lunch line, grabbing only an apple and a bottle of that sickly sweet lemonade she’d always been so fond of, and passed our table. Her shoulders tensed and her breath hitched, but her gaze never left the linoleum. Alice’s face fell as Bella lurched on without acknowledging her. I wasn’t the least bit surprised, but Alice had always been the eternal optimist.

As soon as Newton spotted her heading toward his table, his lips curled up into a disgusting, desperate grin. I wanted to wipe it off of him with my fist; his overzealous pursuit of her would only make her more uncomfortable, which was obviously the last thing she needed right now.

The rest of Bella’s friends seemed greedily interested in her sudden return to their social circle, Lauren Mallory especially.

“Oh, this should be good,” Lauren thought as a disdainful sneer wrinkled the lower half of her face. “I guess she’s at the bottom of the barrel now…sick of hiding from Edward Cullen during lunch, so now she’s crawling back to us. Ugh.” She caught me staring then, alerting me that my eyes hadn’t left Bella since she’d entered the room a good five minutes earlier. “Look at him watch her. I guess he must be pretty proud of the mess he’s turned her into. Then again, she totally deserves it—how she thought she could land him is still beyond me.” Lauren’s memory drudged up the image of her coming onto me last fall at Newton’s party, right before she collapsed on a garden gnome. She swallowed then, her cheeks coloring a bit before she buried her humiliation in more vindictive thoughts. “He obviously doesn’t want anyone, even Miss Perfect over there.” Lauren eyed Bella hesitantly nibbling on her apple. “So I don’t get why she keeps acting like she’s better than the rest of us.”

Newton and Angela took turns babbling on about inane topics to protect Bella from an overdose of attention from the rest of the table, but Lauren’s jealousy raged on. “Why is everyone handling her like she’s made of glass? Jesus. I’m sick of centering every lunch of my life around her whenever she decides she’s willing bow down and grace us with her presence.” Refusing to play along with the others’ transparent game of distracting the conversation from Bella, Lauren cleared her throat and with a barely visible smirk, asked “So, Bella, how are you holding up?”

“Excuse me?” Bella asked, her voice dead, barely a whisper.

“Mike was totally wrong; she’s just the same as she’s always been: still too stuck-up to talk to me. God, what is her problem?” Oblivious to the wounds she was opening, Lauren pushed on. “The break-up? Are you okay?”

Alice caught me cringing. “Well, there you go, Edward. You want to know what happened, why they broke up. Here’s your chance.”

“I don’t care, Alice. What happened in the past is irrelevant.” I moved the inedible cafeteria food on my tray from one side to the other. Confidently, I continued, “You saw them together, years from now. Things will work out as they should.”

Alice’s expression twisted into disbelief. “That vision was months ago, Edward. Before—”

“Don’t.” I cut off her thought before I could feel the sting of what she was about to say.

Crinkling her eyebrows, Alice kept going. “She doesn’t love him. She still loves you.”

I gripped my fork, slowly mangling the stem until the metal broke in half. “She’s eighteen years old, still just a child, really. She doesn’t know what she feels.”

“You’re being such an idiot, wasting time like this. The longer you wait the less likely she’ll be able to forgive you.”

I scoffed. “Forgive me for what?”

Alice, exasperated, let her shoulders hunch and her eyes roll. “For breaking her heart. Stop pretending this is news to you.”

“She should be thanking me, Alice. And further, she had no claim to me. I don’t owe her anything.” A more accurate statement would be that Bella had no reason to think she had a claim on me; she had someone else to love her, and technically, we’d never shared anything beyond friendship. Logically, she shouldn’t have anything against me for walking away from her, other a little animosity for hurting her pride. Of course, what she didn’t know was that she owned me, but I’d never told her that.

This conversation was getting old; we’d shared it at least half a dozen times, but I almost preferred it over the silent treatment. Silence in Alice’s company was eerie and made me feel like some kind of monster, which, of course, I was. Still, I wasn’t used to feeling like one in the company of my own sister.

The feeling of someone watching me distracted me from continuing my self-defense against Alice’s incessant accusations. Lauren and Jessica Stanley, through blatant body language, were trying to insinuate some sort of connection between myself and Bella. Forcing Bella to discuss the boy who’d left her apparently wasn’t enough; now Lauren was dragging me into the mix. Usually, I wasn’t an advocate for violence against women, but for a spiteful shrew like Lauren Mallory, I considered making an exception.

Lauren locked eyes with Bella. Before I worry about her welfare, Bella choked out, “You are so wrong, Lauren.” Bella’s voice wavered slightly, but she sounded stronger. The thought brought an almost-smile to my face

“What are you talking about?” Lauren feigned ignorance and avoided looking Bella in the eye.

When Bella replied, my theory for the source of her depression was confirmed. “It has nothing to do. With…him.”

“With who?” Lauren asked. She had buried herself into a corner. She’d expected to get a few digs in without Bella actually saying anything in response. Instead, Bella pushed the issue, throwing everyone, including myself, for a loop.

“Edward Cullen.”

Had it been beating, my heart would have stopped at the sound of my name on her lips. It had been months since I’d last heard her say it, but now it sounded bitter and ugly coming out of her mouth. It was as it should be, but that didn’t quell the pain coming from somewhere inside my chest.

Bella kept going, her voice growing steadier. “I broke up with Jake because he and I weren’t right for each other. Edward Cullen is an arrogant, selfish jerk who can’t see past his own reflection to ever like anybody. We were just friends, if that. So no, it wasn’t about him.”

She broke up with him.

Immediately, I glared at Alice. Her face was expressionless, except for the tiniest bit of triumph in her eyes. “You could have told me.”

“I don’t see how that matters, Edward. The point was that she not be with you, right?”

I shrugged and focused on the water spots on the ceiling. Alice was right. It didn’t matter how things ended things between Bella and Jacob Black. She was obviously confused all those months ago when she’d confronted me; clearly, she needed space. Their relationship would right itself eventually, or else she’d move onto someone else. Humans found and then cast each other aside everyday; Bella would be no exception.

Jessica, in a meager attempt at sympathy, whispered, “It’s cool, Bella. He’s pretty nice to look at. I totally wouldn’t blame you.”

“Nothing happened,” Bella shot back, sending my heart plummeting into my stomach. She was lying; so much did happen between us, yet…Bella had never been very talented when it came to falsifying the truth, but now she spoke with conviction. Maybe she now finally believed the atrocious things I’d told her in the forest, and to her whatever it was we’d shared was nothing.

Lauren was still yammering on, trying to backpedal and save face in front of her friends, most of which now stared at her with antipathy. She moved her gaze back to me and said, “I get you, Bella. He’s out of a lot of people’s reach.” Turning back to Bella, allowing herself one last dig, she added, “You’d have to be an idiot to think you stood a chance with someone like him.”

I listed several foul nicknames for Lauren in my head before realizing that even though her words stemmed from spite and callousness, she was still right: Bella didn’t stand a chance with me. Lauren’s reasoning was incredibly off base, but I’d always maintained that Bella and I did not belong together. Bella clearly knew that as well, for she responded, “Yeah, you’d have to be.”

Good. She finally found me repulsive. The world was as it should be, so I couldn’t explain why I felt like the wind had been knocked out of me.

“See?” I practically barked at Alice, pushing away my unjustifiable anxiety. “Humans move on. They’re not like us. She’s on her way now.”

Alice narrowed her eyes and out loud replied, “Just watch.”

I could hear Bella’s heart hammering even though we sat yards apart. Suddenly, she shoved her chair back and stood, pausing for only a second before bolting from the cafeteria. I heard the bathroom doors open and close in brisk succession.

“Edward,” Alice pleaded. “She’s been so quiet lately. This isn’t like her. I need to go, to check on her—”

“Surely, you can see that she’ll be fine. You told me yourself last week”

“I-I’m not sure about that,” she frowned, pausing as she waited for a premonition that never came. “It gets muddled with her lately. Please, I think I should go. She needs me.”

“She needs to do this alone, Alice. You know we can’t go back to ensconcing ourselves into her life. She’s fine.”

“We were supposed to be friends, she and I. Best friends. And you’re—”

“Saving her life?” I snapped, sick of Alice doubting the obvious course of action I’d had to take to protect Bella. “You promised you’d listen to me. It’s not your place to chase after her.”

Alice took a long, deep breath. Had she been human, I knew she would have been holding back tears. “No, Edward, it’s your place. Go.”

After I returned to Forks from my brief stint in Denali last August, I’d vowed not to end Bella’s life. I hadn’t killed a human in eight decades, and I wasn’t about to start with a weak, defenseless teenage girl and force my family to uproot themselves after we’d only just arrived. I thought it’d be easier if I got to know her a little, to humanize, so to speak, the most enticing prey I’d ever encountered. I started talking to her that day in English class and was shocked to see the fight in her that lurked just beneath the surface. She was selfless, but more importantly, she had the potential to be incredibly strong, if she could only realize it. Seeing her the past few months, I sometimes thought I was wrong, that Bella was weak and submissive. If I followed her now, I wouldn’t be able to leave her. Not again. If Bella couldn’t be strong, then I could for the both of us. “Alice, I can’t.”

“No, you won’t. There’s a difference.”

“There’s nothing I can do for her. She’ll wake up and get on with her life. Even if she’s like this for the rest of her life,” I shuddered at the thought of Bella sleepwalking through life with no laughter or emotion, “it’s better than the alternative.”

“She loves you.” Alice was begging now, but it was easy resisting her pleas when I had truth on my side.

“She may have three months ago. But she’s past that now. Trust me, Alice. She’s just lonely. By choice, no less. She just needs more time, and she’ll go back to her life as it was before she ever met me.”

Alice stood up and picked up her lunch tray and text book. “You are tragically retarded, Edward. I can’t even look at you right now.” She tried to stomp away, but her movements still came across as graceful trotting.

I sighed, pretending to be oblivious to Newton’s death glares. He and the majority of everyone else at his table were thinking that not only was I behind Bella’s behavior but that I was somehow wrong in rejecting her. Really, they only had their uninspired speculations about what happed between Bella and myself, and they were right that I’d cast her aside, but I found myself annoyed at the prospect that they viewed me as the bad guy. While I wasn’t usually affected by the thoughts of school children, I was sick of getting derision everywhere I went, from the sanctity of my own home to the high school where I was forced to spend my week days. I was saving Bella, yet no one gave me credit for my immense sacrifice. Not that I needed it…but being loathed from nearly everyone I encountered was getting a bit old.

As I moved to head out of the cafeteria and toward my locker, I heard sniffling.

It was Bella. And she was crying.

Finally.

I settled into my seat in English, still hearing her muffled sobs coming from two hundred feet away. She never arrived in class. Instead, I listened to her unyielding weeping for over two hours, through English and then during the final class period of the day.

This was good for her. Humans cried to release tension, and God knows Bella certainly needed to let whatever it was that had been eating away at her go.

Still…

I didn’t think humans cried this long, for as hard as Bella was sobbing. Maybe Alice should have gone to check on her. This was becoming excessive. She was hurting. I’d wanted her to regain control of her emotions, but now she wept as if someone had died.

You did this. The thought was my own. Not Alice’s. Not Mike Newton’s. Mine.

But it couldn’t be true. Bella and I had been friends. She’d harbored a crush on me, likely due to my physical attributes that were designed to lure in prey. She thought she’d loved me, but that was months ago. Her friends switched their affections from boy to boy as often as they altered the color of their nail polish. Had someone else done this to her? Maybe it wasn’t Jacob Black, maybe it was someone I didn’t know…

Or maybe it was me.

I missed her like an amputee would long for a lost limb. I had phantom pains in my fingertips from the need to physically touch her. She took every second of my day and turned them from pure dreariness to absolute ecstasy. She was my life, all I ever thought about, all I ever wanted. But I was capable of feeling with an intensity she could never begin to fathom. She was nothing more than a simple human, with shallow, fleeting fascinations. It wasn’t the same.

Three months is forever to a teenage girl with raging hormones.

This was not about me.

The bell was about to ring. The crying ebbed, but only slightly.

When class ended, against every principled insistence in my brain, I stormed past the other students and walked toward the sniffling. The sound was on the move, heading toward Bella’s locker.

This was a mistake, but I didn’t care. I had to look at her, to know she was fine, that some naïve schoolboy had broken her heart and that she was now on the mend. I kept walking, struggling to do so at a human pace.

Newton’s nauseating scent manifested itself suddenly, and I heard him speak. To Bella. He was exactly what she did not need right now, but because he functioned on less than five brain cells, he would never comprehend that.

Newton was talking about me now, spouting out his typical brand of eloquence, with words like “douche” and “jerk.” I wanted to grind him into flecks of fleshy dust, but I bit my tongue and thrust open the double doors that lead to where they stood in the hallway.

He was hugging her. Touching her. Holding her in his pasty, slightly doughy arms. My hands twitched when I saw she was hugging him back.

Of its own volition, my body moved into sight.

She tensed up, as I knew she would. But I never would have predicted her eyes slowly moving up my body to meet me square in the eye.

I was slack-jawed at the sight of her, watching me without hesitation.

At once, she was a deer in the headlights and a predator moving in for the kill. She let tears run down her cheeks, not even blinking as she studied my face.

She was getting stronger, I could feel it. It amazed me, even though I’d predicted her recovery, because never before had I seen that she wasn’t just nursing a bruised ego or broken heart. She herself had been annihilated. I saw every ounce of pain in those watery, red-brown eyes of hers.

It took every bit of self-control I’d built up in the last century not to close the gap between us, rip Newton in half, and wrap my arms around her. The urge to apologize stung through me, and I knew at that moment who did this to her.

Not a random boy she’d met at school.

Not Jacob Black.

Me.

Somehow, looking at her gaunt, tortured face, I knew her pain was because of me.

Her jaw clenched. She was angry at me.

Good.

I deserved every ounce of hatred she could manage. I’d let her in and selfishly allowed her to love me. It was my fault this had happened. In the end, I’d done the right thing and pushed her away. But now…could it be possible that I’d waited too long? I’d convinced myself that Bella was just like her friends, capable of redirecting her attachments to other boys like the flip of a switch. Now I saw how appallingly ignorant I was. Bella was unlike anyone I’d ever met; she wasn’t just another self-involved, naïve teenager. I meant what I said in the forest, that she was exceptional. What I didn’t say was that she wasn’t just exceptional for a human being; she was extraordinary, compared to anyone or anything I’d ever encountered.

She tore her eyes from mine, and I didn’t bother feigning human slowness as I bolted from the building.

Despite my realization that her suffering was on my head, one thing hadn’t changed: she’d fix herself. It wasn’t too late. The anger that had just flashed in her eyes told me as much. All I had to do was keep my distance; the hard part was over—I’d already walked away.